Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Deadwood and the libel of George Hearst

Last night on Deadwood, Ellsworth proposed to Alma Garrett, Tom Nuttall rode his bone-shaker the whole way down the sidewalk, Al Swearengen spent too much time talking to a dead Indian in a box, and Seth Bullock, as he does in too many episodes, spent most of his time glowering, grinding his teeth, looking as though he would like nothing more than to find someone to beat bloody, and generally not getting anything accomplished.

That tendency of Bullock's to not get anything accomplished is one of the reasons my enjoyment of Deadwood isn't as unreserved as some people's.

Fans of the show recognized immediately that the episode I described up top, Childish Things, is from the middle of the second season. The third and final season has just ended on HBO, but the blonde and I don't subscribe so we've been watching on DVD.

That doesn't mean that I'm a season and a half behind in knowing what's going on. I've been keeping up through the website and Matt Zoller Seitz's reviews. (Look out: Plenty of plot spoilers at both places.) So I know what's in store for the main characters and apparently what's in store for Bullock is more glowering, teeth-gnashing, and lack of accomplishment.

I find this dramatically uninteresting and uninspired. I understand why the writers can't let Bullock get to work cleaning up Deadwood quite yet. But couldn't they have taken a page out of the King Arthur stories and let him leave town now and then on an adventure in which he gets to be the movie western hero we know he is and is going to be? Launcelot spent as much time as he could away from Camelot so that he wouldn't have to see Guenevere every day. Bullock should follow his example so that he doesn't have to keep exchanging longing glances with Alma Garrett.

But what is also bothering me about Bullock's inertia is that it is historically inaccurate.

There was a real Seth Bullock, just as there was a real Al Swearengen and a real Tom Nuttall and a real E.B. Farnum. In fact, at least half the main characters had historical counterparts whose careers pretty closely paralleled the characters'.

Series creator David Milch and his writers have taken more than a few liberties with their personalities. The real E.B. Farnum appears to have been a more respectable, intelligent, and self-reliant type than the unctuous, fawning, greedy, foolishly scheming coward and "born follower" portrayed so brilliantly by William Sanderson.

And the real Seth Bullock appears to have been too busy and too accomplished to have wasted a single moment grinding a single tooth.

Bullock, the real Bullock, was one of those fortunate people who are born older, possessed of a maturity and sagacity beyond their years, more than his their share of energy and talent, and a genius for being in the right place at the right time and knowing just what needs to be done when and how to do it.

There were good reasons he was made sheriff, Teddy Roosevelt became his lifelong friend, his business thrived, and he became over time one of the leading citizens of Deadwood. He was smart, hardworking, brave, honest, and, above all, preternaturally sensible.

And I understand why David Milch wouldn't have wanted him for his hero.

The real Seth Bullock wouldn't have wasted any time with the fictional Al Swearengen---the real Al Swearengen doesn't appear to have left any mark on history and was probably just what you'd expect the owner of a whorehouse to be, a petty thug---and the central dramatic tension of the series, which is based on how the thoroughly corrupt Al Swearengen longs for a world in which he is not only not necessary but an evil to be stamped out, so that his mission in life is to bring about his own self-destruction, requires a tortured, indecisive, and not at all level-headed Seth Bullock.

It's necessary to the plot that the "good" people Swearengen needs to make his dream of a civilized Deadwood come true be weaker and not as sharp as he is so that he can give them the benefit of his cynical wisdom and back them up when they prove incapable of committing the violence or dishonesty that a scheme requires to succeed.

And it's necessary because Milch's conception of the Wild West is essentially ahistorical.

In Milch's Deadwood, the West is a thoroughly lawless and savage place that has to be tamed through the most brutal means. Civilization has to be built from the ground up, one small step at a time, and against great odds. The West---the World---wants to be a hellhole. People are for the most part stupid and vicious and driven to self-destruction by their lusts and greed and appetites and no matter how often you demonstrate to them that it's better to walk down a wooden sidewalk than wade ankle-deep through mud and shit, they will not just keep stepping off the sidewalk, they will not just regularly trip and fall off it, they will jump off it, happily, after taking a running start, and break their necks landing head first in the mire, if they see a penny shining up at them from a puddle.

Heck, they don't even need to see the penny. They will drown themselves in the shit just because it's too hard to walk straight on the sidewalk or because the echoing clomp of their own boots on the boards drives them crazy.

Pretty much, then, they have to be forced at gunpoint or bribed or tricked into acting human and decent.

Honesty, compassion, mercy and other more refined virtues are often problematic in such a world.

In reality, civilization was imported all at once to the various Deadwoods that sprouted up all across the continent from Plymouth on out to San Francisco.

Civilization arrived as soon as the Seth Bullocks and Sol Stars opened up their hardware stores.

It arrived in the form of hardware stores.

And schools, and libraries, and lecture halls.

It arrived in the persons of people like George Hearst.

In the series, George Hearst is a rapacious monster, a dragon who comes along and despoils the village, and carries off all the gold the hardworking and honest citizens have earned through their sweat, blood, and courage.

He's an invincible dragon too.

Not only do bulletts fired at point blank range into his face magically swerve off course to merely nick his shoulder, but there is no political or economic power on earth that can resist him. He corrupts with a touch all that he can't destroy.

Even Al Swearengen is no match for the dragon. Al survives, and saves Deadwood, by strategically retreating at every step the dragon takes and letting him gobble up pretty much all he wants to gobble up. In the end, they win out simply by outlasting the dragon's appetites. His lust and greed and gluttony slaked, the dragon leaves on his own, although not before demanding and getting the villagers to sacrifice a virgin...

Well, she's hardly a virgin, but she's a young woman so completely innocent of any offense to any one, let alone the dragon, that her moral purity is practically that of a virgin's.

Very dramatic. But also a pure fairy tale.

The real George Hearst was not a dragon. He was someone dragons---little, mean-spirited, much less talented dragons---followed around in hopes of making a killing off his hardwork.

Like Seth Bullock, Hearst was born older. He matured young and he was a success in life almost from his first step out the door into the great wide world, and he succeeded by being harder working, smarter, more talented, more sensible, and less greedy than most young businessmen of his day.

I'm not saying that he was some kind of saint. I'm saying that he did not make his way in life as a parasite. He was a true entrepreneur. He started businesses, made them prosper, and then sold them off, probably sometimes to parasites of the type the fictional Hearst is a grotesque caricature of in Deadwood.

The real Hearst's supposed Indian name "Boy the Earth Talks To" appears to have as been as well-earned and deserved as Natty Bumpo's Indian names, Deerslayer and Hawkeye.

He was a true prospector and an accomplished mining engineer as well as a savvy businessman and investor.

As a person, he appears to have had far more in common with Deadwood's most decent and noble, and humble, character, Ellsworth than he'd have had with his fictional counterpart.

It's very possible that the real Seth Bullock was a far more tortured and tempted young man than he appears to be in the historical record. He might have succeeded in life because he was able to repress and tame his demons and resist the dark angels of his nature. That side of him might very well have not made it into the history books. So if Milch needs the character to be more flawed and conflicted than was apparently the case, he can do it without really doing a disservice to the real Seth Bullock's reputation.

If in the two movies that will finish off the series next year Milch makes Bullock a corrupt hypocrite undeserving of the respect and positon his historical counterpart earned in real life, I will be extremely disappointed, both as a student of history and as fan of the show, since it will mean that Bullock wasn't worth investing all the time and trouble it's taken to watch Timothy Olyphant glower and grind his teeth and stand around looking frustrated and impotent and incompetent.

I will also be disappointed in Milch for letting his ideas trump his art. He will have used Bullock to illustrate a non-dramatic point at the expense, not just of history, but of good storytelling.

I don't really expect that will happen. I think that in the end Bullock will step up and become the hero Milch has set him on the path to become.

Note, I didn't say that he will become the hero the real Seth Bullock was. The real Seth Bullock arrived in town as a hero. There would have been no drama in that. Not enough to sustain a TV series planned to last even longer than the three years Deadwood has unfortunately been limited to.

It is enough to sustain a pretty good movie western and is in fact pretty much the plot of Dodge City and Destry Rides Again, movies, by the way, I think David Milch must have had in the back of his mind as models, despite his cynical view of the West compared to those westerns' romanticism.

But I am already disappointed in that with George Hearst Milch has allowed a non-dramatic idea to give him permission to alter history to a far greater degree than he had in the first season and in effect libel the real George Hearst.

Yes, I know, you can't libel the dead. And Hearst was a public figure anyway, so I can only use libel figuratively here. But I mean it, doggone it. The Hearst in the series an insult to the real man.

And don't try to tell me about what Shakespeare did to Richard III. There's some disagreement about just how much of a tyrant the real Richard was and how much blood was on his hands, but besides that there's reason to think Shakespeare believed he was being true to the historical record. He was working from what passed for it.

Milch knows he's making it all up. And I can't help being disappointed that while he was making up his character George Hearst he didn't take the extra step of making up a name for him too.

The show is more of an allegory than it is a historical drama, which is, of course, one of the justifications for all the ahistorical profanity, which is itself a disguise for the far more ahistorical habits of the characters to speak in blank verse.

The blank verse, the very Shakespearean scene structures, plus the outrageously exaggerated violence, are signals of the show's artificiality. Depsite its realistic looking surface, Deadwood is theater. It isn't meant to be taken as a documdrama. It's meant to be taken as pure Drama.

Which is why I think calling the George Hearst character George Hearst was an artistic mistake, on top of everything else.

The character is an allegorical monster of corporate capitalism. It is neither true to history, true to life, nor true to the art of the show---to keep Hearst alive and thriving the other characters have had to act in ways artistically inconsistent with their behavior. Swearengen has cut the throat of a goverment agent. Would he really have hesitated to have had Hearst killed? Faced with the choice of having to kill Trixie or killing Hearst himself, would he have hesitated?

Giving the dragon the name of a real human being, I think, highlights the character's artistic implausibility by calling attention to the fact that no real human being could have acted like this and gotten away with it.

But it's a failure too in that by not caring if the fake George Hearst gets mistaken for the real one, Milch allowed his politics to get the better of his art.

Those capitalists, they're all the same, aren't they?

At which question, the allegory shrinks into a tract.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sharpe's Integrity

Sharpe's pretty but vain and silly young wife Jane has been tempted into leaving France, where Sharpe is busy battling Napoleon's troops, and running off to London with all of Sharpe's money by her new friend, a war widow who has been supporting herself as kept woman since her husband died. The widow has presented the trip as a kind of vacation, an extended shopping spree, meant to teach Sharpe a lesson for breaking a promsie to Jane.

Once back in England, the widow contrives to push Jane into the arms, and then into the bed, of another officer of her acquaintance, a man who is as down on his luck as the widow and needs to find a rich woman to keep him. Together the officer and the widow manage to spend all of Jane's money.

Pretty soon, as happens to all pretty but silly and vain wives who betray their hero husbands, Jane finds herself broke, friendless, alone, full of remorse, and facing the choice between death and a life as a prostitute.

Trapped inside by the rain yesterday, the teenager and I watched a couple episodes of the Sharpe TV series starring Sean Bean, including the one I'm describing here, Sharpe's Revenge.

The TV movies, like the Bernard Cornwell novels they're based on, are gritty but thrilling high-adventure yarns with enough realistic touches and historical details to hide the tale tale and soap opera absurdities at their core. As stories they have more in common with Arthurian romances than with their other nearest model, Alexander Dumas' historical adventures. Which is why it isn't surprising that Cornwell has been working on a series of novels about Camelot when he's not been writing about Sharpe.

Dumas was far more of cynic than Cornwell is and, I think, his cynicism gave him a far more sympathetic insight into human nature. In scenes between his greatest hero, D'Artagnan, and his ostensible villains, Richelieu or his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, you understand why either cardinal is a great man running a whole nation and why D'Artagnan is a nobody, stuck in the lower rank of officers, and not likely to go higher on his own. You also understand why D'Artagnan is still a hero and the Cardinal still a villain.

In any meeting between Sharpe and a historical figure like Wellington, understanding what makes Wellington Wellington depends on the real Wellington's reputation being carried into the novel by the reader.

I've been reading Twenty Years After, Dumas' first sequel to The Three Musketeers, and, while I know I have Terry Pratchett on the brain these days, the first scene between D'Artagnan and Mazarin reminded me so much of encounters between Sam Vimes and the Patrician that I'm convinced that Pratchett is a better student of Dumas than Cornwell. Vimes is a bit smarter than D'Artagnan---and it's to Dumas' credit that he deliberately makes D'Artagnan a little dense---and the Patrician is much more of a benign despot than Mazarin, but in both Dumas and Pratchett you understand why the hero is just a good soldier or a good cop and the tyrant is a great politician.

Cornwell's heroes and villains (except for Obadiah Hakeswill) aren't all good or all bad, but their range of thought is limited and their motivations are fairly simple and confined to the moment, plot-necessitated desires to get from here to there in as straight a line as possible.

I enjoy the novels, even more than Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series (Sorry Tom, sorry Mr Shakes), and the movies are lots of fun, mainly because of Sean Bean, I think, but I don't read the one or watch the other to learn very much about human nature. They don't usually bear reading or watching in that way, while with Dumas and O'Brian you can take your eyes off the duels and the battles, intrigues, plots and counterplots, and look at the characters as people and see people busy being people, being human.

But there's a moment in Sharpe's Revenge...

Jane has just realized the desperate nature of her situation and she pleads with her friend the widow for help and advice. The widow simply laughs at her and suggests that if all else fails Jane can set up shop as high priced whore.

The scene is one of the most true to life in the whole series.

In the movie it's probably all due to the work of the two actresses and the director; I'll have to go back to the book to see if it's there too, although the books and the movies don't always match up scene for scene, plot point for plot point. But what's true to life here is that the widow is not simply being cruel, nor is she, as a similar character in a similar situation in a soap opera or hack romance would be doing, throwing aside her mask and revealing her real evil self.

The widow has in fact been Jane's friend up until that point. She's been Jane's friend only because of Jane's money and she's enjoyed ruining Jane because it makes her feel better about her own life as essentially a prostitute to bring another woman down to her level, but she hasn't known that's what she's been up to. In her mind she has been Jane's friend.

And now that Jane is not worth being friends with anymore she rejects her as if she, the widow, would never have had anything to do with such a weak and foolish and immoral character as Jane.

She has completely forgotten herself.

And Jane, terrified, frantic, begging for help from help from a woman she knows can't help her and wouldn't be likely to help if she could, insulted and outraged at the widow's suggestion that she sell her body to stay alive, has completely forgotten herself too.

In her mind, she is not the runaway wife, and thief, who has spent the last few months sleeping with a man who is not her husband---and, it's implied, having other kinds of sexual adventures on the side---she is the same little girl lost Sharpe rescued and married several episdoes ago.

And the widow, who after she sweeps out of the room in self-righteous triumph, congratulating herself on her own superior virtue and character, is going to throw herself into the bed of the first half-way presentable rich man she finds, is thinking of herself as a respectable middle class woman true to the memory of her war hero husband.

And that's exactly how the actresses play their characters in the scene, as two "good" women, each suddenly discovering that her friend has led her astray.

I think this is true to life because it fits with my own theory that people are guided mainly by their appetites and their vanities and what looks like virtue in them is usually just the luck of their circumstances---they are good because there's no reason for them not to be, and not many temptations either. They have fallen into a moral life the way a twig falls into a stream and they are carried along with the current. When they climb out of that life and find their way into another they usually get themselves into trouble because they have no experience guiding their own behavior.

I also think that most people move from one stream to another and then back without even knowing it. They don't "know" what they are doing, they "know" only what they are telling themselves they are doing.

Quoting myself here:

People feel themselves to be virtuous. They don’t need to be good to believe they are. They just need to sound good to themselves and to their friends and fellow hypocrites. They are very adept at thinking good thoughts about themselves. This is becoming a regular theme of mine. I've used the example several times of adulterers who can, without a twinge from their consciences, sniff scornfully at other people cheating on their spouses. These hypocrites are able to do it without a blush because they have very carefully arranged their thinking about what they are doing in bed with someone they're not married to so that the words adultery, sin, right and wrong, and possibly even sex never cross their minds.

But all kinds of sinners, cheats, frauds, hypocrites, and thieves feel morally superior to other sinners, cheats, frauds, hypocrites, and thieves simply because they've managed to talk themselves out of thinking of their own misbehaviors and crimes as what they are. They've carefully selected vocabularies that allow them to talk past what they're actually doing and even describe it in terms that turn it into, if not virtue, then not vice.

Neither Jane nor the widow know themselves for what they are or what they've been. It wasn't the case that either was deluded or psychotic while they were busy in bed with men they weren't married to. It was the case that while they were, they found words to describe to themselves what they were doing in a way that made it feel right. And because the words didn't match their actions, neither the words nor the actions were real to them. They themselves weren't real to themselves. All that was real was their appetites and their vanities. Which is why it's so easy for both of them to drop the old words, forget what they've been, who they've been, and adopt new vocabularies and new selves on the spot.

Scenes of this kind of psychological complexity aren't rarities in the Sharpe novels---the TV movies don't have as much time to explore character---but they aren't high on Cornwell's list of priorities. I don't think they were high on Dumas' list either, he just seems to have been able to work them as a matter of course, possibly because he was writing at a time when readers were more patient and didn't mind lulls in the action and digressions from the main plot, but more likely becauce it was temperamentally congenial to him to work that way.

Still, one of the strengths of the Sharpe novels is that Sharpe is a reflective character. He isn't an intellectual character, so his moments of reflection are often coarse, simplistic, and incoherent. But he is always thinking about what and who he wants to be. The novels chart his moral progress from street rat and thief to officer and gentleman.

Sharpe has decided, half-consciously at first, that he wants to be a certain kind of man, a different kind of man, and he figures out quickly that becoming that man isn't just a matter of changing his circumstances. He isn't an officer and a gentleman just because he gets promoted. (Another of Cornwell's themes is the virtue of egalitarianism, and there are plenty of characters who don't practice it and are therefore quick to remind Sharpe that his rank is just a penny stamp to them.) And he figures out that being a hero isn't the same as being good. He wants to be both.

And this is something Cornwell shares with Dumas and Pratchett, an understanding that character, as the word is used to describe the habits of decency and virtue, is an artificial thing. You have to construct it. You make it up, you make yourself up, and you do it with words. The right words. The exact words. You have to be always telling yourself the truth about yourself.

Which is not at all easy.

Vimes and the Patrician are better men than D'Artagnan and Cardinal Mazarin because they are more honest with themselves. They are better able to describe themselves to themselves. They have set their minds to being specific kinds of men and they work at it partly through constantly comparing what they are to what they want to be.

This is not to say that Pratchett is a better writer than Dumas (not being able to read Dumas in French, I'm not in any position to make that judgment), because Dumas deliberately and expertly shows D'Artagnan and Mazarin failing in the act of self-reflection.

D'Artagnan is just not a sophisticated enough thinker, possibly not a smart enough person, to understand himself in the way Vimes understands himself.

And Mazarin is too vain and too greedy and too afraid and too insecure and too crazy with lust for the Queen to think straight, let alone honestly enough to understand himself.

In his comment on Robin's Last Arrow, Mike Schilling reminded me that by the end of The Man in the Iron Mask Aramis isn't much of a hero anymore. But as it turns out none of the Musketeers, including D'Artagnan, is the hero he once was.

They are all overwhelmed by history and overmatched by the doings of the unheroic but "great" men whose tools and dupes and opponents and obstacles they've more or less accidentally become.

In short, their story is a tragedy.

Bernard Cornwell seems to have completed Sharpe's story. All the Sharpe novels he's turned out since Sharpe's Devil have been set in Sharpe's youth, "before" the series began, or they've been placed in gaps in the timeline of the original set of novels. He's been filling in rather than advancing the story.

Perhaps someday he will get around to writing the story of Sharpe's death and maybe it will be a tragic story. For now though Sharpe's tale is one of triumph.

Nothing had changed despite the banging of guns and clangor of swords, but even that did not matter, for [Sharpe] was full of happiness, and he was at peace, and he was going home. For good and forever, he was going home.

Sharpe wins in the end by becoming what he set out to be, a good man and a hero.

This is fine. Some stories should end happily. It just seems to me that Sharpe gets there through some cheating on Cornwell's part.

Sharpe really isn't smart enough to manage it on his own. It's not simply the case that Cornwell has to make him impossibly lucky. It's that Sharpe doesn't seem to have the intellectual wherewithall to have made the leap from street urchin and thief to an aspiring officer and gentleman.

Cornwell has shown that it's the change in Sharpe's circumstances that begin the change in him, which is true enough in life. But it does seem more a case that the change in his circumstances have allowed his innate superior virtue to shine forth rather than a case of Sharpe deciding to take advantage of the changes.

Which is all just to say that I prefer Dumas the cynic to Cornwell the romantic.

I think Dumas is more true to life.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The genesis and progress of genius or Orson Welles on the road to Xanadu

Genius has a shelf life.

In the arts, at any rate, geniuses blossom and thrive for a set number of years and then their powers begin to decline, gradually and over decades for the lucky, sharply and precipitously for the unlucky or those, like Hemingway, who wasted their energies and gifts.

For some, that period of genius in bloom lasts for a short time, ten years at most. Others are granted twenty years or more. The greatest geniuses seem to last longest, producing masterpiece upon masterpiece up until the brink of old age. A few, mostly composers and painters, have managed even in their old age to turn out work every bit as good and even better than things they did in their prime.

Artistic genius seems to come into its own later than scientific genius. Artists tend to find their way in their late twenties or early thirties, with a few not hitting their stride until their forties. If you were to graph the periods of artistic fecundity of the "average" genius, you'd get a parabola that begins climbing somewhere around the age of twenty-five and rises up to forty or fifty before beginning its downward arc.

Orson Welles' period of genius seems to have lasted about thirty years. Unfortunately for him, it began when he was ten.

If he'd begun to blossom in his mid to late twenties, he'd have been done when he was closing on sixty and would have had less time to turn himself into a joke and a self-parody.

Instead he was finished at about the time most great geniuses are just beginning to produce their best work.

It didn't help that Welles lost his ability to discipline himself at exactly the moment he most needed to focus, during the production of The Magnificent Ambersons.

Reviewing Orson Welles: Hello Americans, the second volume of Simon Callow's ambitious biography of Welles, in this month's Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz writes that Welles' tragic error was his "fateful decision to leave Ambersons without finishing the film’s all-important postproduction work, in order to fly to Rio to film the Carnival for a wartime documentary the government had asked him to direct in support of inter-American unity."

For Welles, the South America trip was equal parts patriotic gesture, serious attempt to make something like an anthropological art film, and sybaritic boondoggle. Indisputably, though, his adventure there destroyed his already-fragile relationship with RKO (the company was footing the bill) and led to the studio’s evisceration of Ambersons—RKO cut nearly an hour from the film, diminishing it from 131 minutes to eighty-eight, and the studio inserted new material that was neither written nor directed by Welles.

At the time, the “giant boy,” as Welles was often called, seems to have been too absorbed in his pleasures and projects to apprehend fully the ramifications of the destruction of Ambersons—and his own role in that destruction. Four decades later he would recognize, as his film archivist recounted, that it “was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

(Sorry to report that the whole article appears to be available only to subsribers. I'll look for a way around that.)

The Magnificent Ambersons as Welles filmed it is thought to be the greatest film never seen.

A superhuman ability to focus and maintain self-discipline, at least while working, are as important qualities to genius as actual talent. Once they go the talent is practically useless.

Welles' talent continued to flicker and flare for many years---Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, not a bad tail-off---but after The Magnificent Ambersons he could never get the right people to take him seriously again, and one of those people was, apparently, himself.

Geniuses often seem to spring out of nowhere. They appear in the most average families like changelings. Welles, however, was born into a family of, if not geniuses, then exceptional and idiosyncratic talent. His father was an exceptionally talented accountant and business executive (althought not a particularly good man of business; his uncle, that is, Orson's great-uncle had that distinction, having founded two successful companies) who was also something of an inventor. His intellectual mother was a musician, a brilliant public speaker, a political activist, and a champion shot with a rifle.

But he was also born into a family of "characters." Selfish and self-indulgent characters, at that.

His father led a double-life, going back and forth between his respectable, upper-middle class life and the Chicago demimonde where he was a regular at the best whorehouses and "theaters" and notorious for his way with chorus girls and actresses.

His mother, Orson's grandmother, was smart, talented, and self-willed. In deifiance of her father, the local District Attorney, she left her home in Kenosha, Wisconsin one day, made her way to Missouri, apparently with the intention of finding a husband for herself, which she did, choosing a fellow best suited to give her father the most heartburn and herself the least trouble.

She was fourteen at the time.

She did not grow less independent or idiosyncratic, or self-centered, as she aged.

That husband, Orson's grandfather, did his bit and did not cause her trouble, drifting quietly out of her life after a few years of marriage. She had him declared legally dead and married again, this time choosing a steadier but just as self-effacing a husband.

In case you're wondering, I've been reading the first volume of Callow's biography, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. I started it last night and ate it up with a spoon. I read late into the night. I was furious with myself when I grew too tired to keep reading. I can't remember the last book I read that I just didn't want to put down.

Maud Newton can. It was Rupert Thomson's Air & Fire and Maud got so caught up while reading it at a bus stop that she let buses go by in order to finish: God, is it a page-turner. You suspect early-on that a Frenchman’s efforts to build a metal church in the tropics will lead to disaster for everyone, but the characters and their desires are so fully-realized that you’re desperate to see exactly what form their tragedies will take. Or I was, anyway.

I had about fifty pages left to go when I met a friend for drinks on Thursday night. She and I parted ways at midnight, and I rushed over to the bus stop near Greenpoint Ave. It’s at most a ten-minute walk to my house from there. I couldn’t wait. I leaned against a pole, let the buses pass, and read until I finished.

Alone at a bus stop. At midnight. In New York City. Lost in a book.

That must be some book.

Ok, your turn again. What was the last book you read that you'd have kept reading alone at a bus stop at midnight while letting the buses go by?

Also, name some geniuses who were productive into their old age and others who burned out early.

Cross-posted at the Anecdotal Antidote.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Robin's last arrow

"Why do all these heroes have to die?"

The ten year old was looking through an illustrated re-telling of the legend of Robin Hood and had skipped to the end. He was staring dismayed at a drawing of a mortally wounded Robin on his deathbed and the evil nun who had knifed him rather than tend to his wounds slipping away with a malicious grin on her face.

The ten year old knew most of the story of Robin Hood from the Erroll Flynn movie but this was the first he learned the tale of how Robin dies.

It varies, of course, as legends do. The tale as I heard it when I was his age was that Robin, having lived a long and happy life with Marian after good King Richard restored his lands and his former estate, drifted back into his outlaw ways after Marian and Richard died and the crown passed once more into the hands of Richard's evil brother, John. One day he was was hurt in a fight with the sheriff's men. He found his way to a convent and asked the nuns for help.

One of the nuns was loyal to King John and under the pretense of treating him, sliced open a major vein.

The ten year old said, "Why do they all die? King Arthur dies. Robin Hood. I mean, I know why Davy Crockett has to die. He was a real person. But why does Robin Hood die?"

"That's what happens to all of us, eventually," the elderly librarian said with, I thought, more of a sense of self-reminder than a desire to help the kid understand.

"Does Ivanhoe die?" the ten year old asked. He's thinking of reading the book.

The librarian didn't know. I wasn't sure I remembered. "I don't think he does," I said.

"Maybe he dies in another book," he said. "That's what happens to the Three Musketeers, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said, "at the end of The Man in the Iron Mask."

He knows all about it. Athos dies of a broken heart when he gets the news of his son's death. D'Artagnan is killed in battle. Porthos is crushed to death in a cave-in after fighting off dozens of enemy soldiers.

The ten year old thinks that Sir Walter Scott must have written a sequel in which his fair Saxon knight dies. The novel Ivanhoe does end abruptly with the report of Richard the Lion Heart's death and the implication that life was not easy or happy for Ivanhoe after that.

"Why do they all die?"

"Maybe, " I said slowly, wondering if it was time for this lesson, "Maybe it's to explain to us why after all the good the heroes did life still stinks. They couldn't stay around long enough to finish the job."

"Three steps forward," the librarian said, "Four steps back."

The ten year old thought this over. He nodded and closed the book.

"But," I said, "You didn't read the rest of the story."

He asked me to tell it.

Here's more or less what I said.

Yes, the heroes die, but there is always someone left to tell the story. Athos and Porthos and D'Artagnan die. But Aramis lives on past the end of the book. And Bedevere is there watching when the three queens take Arthur away to Avalon. And Little John comes to find Robin and is there for the most important part.

Robin is still alive when Little John arrives. He's weak and past hope. But he has strength enough to ask Little John for a favor.

Take me to the window and hand me my bow, he says to his old friend. Let me fire one last arrow. Bury me where that arrow lands.

And that's where the story ends, I said, with that arrow in flight high over the trees, carrying with it Robin's spirit, and ours, deep, deep, back into Sherwood where the story is always still at its beginning.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Making it up at the movies

Nicey raised an interesting point in a comment on Sunday's post, which was about, among other things, the relevency to Angelina Jolie's looks to the part she is playing and the story being told in the movie she's making about Mariane Pearl and the murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Nicey wrote:

I really liked the section of this essay dealing with our ability, or more often, our inability to separate what is real from hype. Marianne Pearl's "story" has nothing to do with the real tragedy which transformed her life. We can, I hope, empathize with her grief and shock, but we will always be outside looking in. It is a self-absorbed delusion for any of us to think we know anything about her "story" or that we have a right to say how that "story" is to be told.

From what I've read, it appears that up to this point in production, Mariane Pearl has had a good deal of say in how her story is going to be told in the movie. The movie's being based on her memoir, A Mighty Heart, so the screenwriters, one of whom, unfortunately, isn't the actor playing Daniel Pearl, Dan Futterman, who wrote the script for Capote, know how Mariane Pearl has told her story and will probably do their best to respect that.

But telling a story in a book and telling a story in a movie are very different arts with very different artistic demands. The old writing teacher's first lesson is Show don't tell. This isn't always the best advice to give writers.

There are times when you have to tell.

Those times are called exposition.

And the art of the telling is why we pay attention to stories.

Readers of hack work, the potboilers and romances and thrillers that make multi-millionaires out of their authors, will when recommending their favorite say, "It's got a great story." They mean it's got a great plot with lots of chills and spills and thrills and action and sex and mush to keep you excited while you read.

They don't mean a true story. They don't want a story. Stories have to be told and they can only be told with words. Readers of hack work don't want to open a book and see a lot of words---although they like to see a lot of pages, which is different.

Lots of pages means there will be lots of chills and spills and the book and the fun will last for a while.

Lots of words means that you have to pay attention.

The best of the writers of popular fiction appear not to use many words. Actually, they use as few words as possible. Writers like Elmore Leonard, and, granted, there are few like Elmore Leonard, and Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald work in a way that has more in common with poets than with their fellow fiction writers, they are that careful and that economic about choosing their words.

The fewest and best possible words in the best possible order, is how old Prof Mannion used to define poetry to his students.

This turns out to be a pretty apt definition of good prose too.

Once you start picking and choosing your words, once you start caring how you tell a story, you have started being artistic, which is another way of saying artificial.

Your story is an artifact. You are an artisan. You are making something. What you are making is it up.

If they're any good at it, all storytellers make it up. They pick and choose their words carefully. They pick and choose what facts and details they are going to include and in what order. It doesn't matter that the story they set out to tell "really happened," that it is "based on a true story." By they time they are done with it the best you can say about it is that their story is not truthful but truth-full.

Some stories are more true to life than others. Some stories that are complete fantasies can tell us more truth about what it is to be human and stuck in this universe than some stories that purport to be real. Good fiction is often more true to life than the best journalism just because journalism is limited to facts, leaving journalists less material to work with.

This is a long way around ot saying that when she set out to tell her own story Mariane Pearl made it up.

She picked and she chose, she was careful. Because she could not include every fact, she used this fact but not that fact. There are things about her own story she doesn't know. She wasn't there to witness everything that affected her story, shaped it, and decided its ultimate, tragic ending. She had to rely on the testimony of others, which required her to pick and choose again.

She had to make it up.

I'm sure she told her story in the most truth-full way she could. But I'm not sure that just because she is the one who told it she told it in the best and most truth-full way that story could be told.

And because she couldn't have told the whole story---the whole truth---and because she very well might not have told it as well as it could be told, there is in fact a limit to how much respect the screenwriters have to show to her story. I mean the story she told, not the real story of Mariane and Daniel Pearl.

Again, from what I've read, it sounds as though she knows this. She understands the difference between writing a book and living a life and she understands the difference between telling a story on a page and telling it on film.

Show don't tell, young writers remind themselves, but they are always telling. Young filmmakers need to remind themselves the same thing and admit they are always telling too. When they pick and choose between camera angles, when they pick and choose where to put their lights, what colors they will let dominate their pallettes, when they decide to cut this scene or expand that one, drop that line but keep this one and follow it up with a new line improvised on the spot. When they decide Angelina Jolie should play their lead character instead of Jennifer Aniston.

They have to tell by showing, but they are telling. They are storytellers. They are making it up.

Mariane Pearl seems prepared for the inevitable, that when the movie is finished it's going to tell a different a story from the one she told in her book.

She seems confident that the story the movie tells will be like the one she told in that it will be true to life.

And she has a good reason to be confident. Hollywood has a good track record of late when it comes to telling stories that are "based on a true story."

Like I said, it's too bad Dan Futterman will only be acting in A Mighty Heart and not writing it too. In his script for Capote, Futterman did an excellent job of picking and choosing among facts to tell a story that was truth-full. Finally, though, Capote's truth-full-ness depended on the picking and choosing done by the director, Benett Miller, and by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role.

Storytelling in the movies is complicated by the fact that a movie is the work of many storytellers who, besides the screenwriter and director, include the actors, the cinematographer, and the designers. It's the director's job to get everybody telling stories that fit with the story he's trying to tell.

Capote is a very truth-full story, but it is a story, more story-like than a lot of movies, and still made up.

We had a very good discussion here at the Mannion Film Fest about Good Night, and Good Luck and just how good and how truth-full it was, and Mannion Family Movie Night this summer has featured showings of two movies "based on a true story" were very truth-full. They were both sports stories, Glory Road and The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Glory Road is a good movie and one that was very carefully made to be as true to life as possible. If you rent the DVD make sure you watch the interviews with the men who played on that basketball team. You'll be impressed by how how true to life the movie was.

If you want to be a good post-modernist about it you can argue later that the players' memories of their glory year have probably been reshaped by their experience with the making of the movie and then by watching it. The stories they tell about that year are now different stories than the ones they used to tell.

But before the movie was even made, another story probably got in the way of their memories---I'm assuming that some of them or all of them read their coach Don Haskins' memoir.

The Greatest Game Ever Played is an even better movie, and this is coming from someone who loves basketball but just does not get golf, no way, no how---although having watched The Greatest Game Ever Played I think I have a better appreciation for the game.

The movie is good, so good that while I was watching it I thought, This is too good to be true.

But when I read Mark Frost's book, conveneintly also titled The Greatest Game Ever Played, I was happily shocked by how much that I thought was too good to be true was true. Things I thought couldn't have happened did happen. Scenes I thought were there for symbolic reasons were there for symbolic reasons but I forgot that much of what happens to us in real life is symbolic.

Of course because something happened in real life doesn't mean it happened exactly as it happens in the movie, even when the moviemakers are trying as hard as they can to duplicate the real event.

Just putting the camera here instead of there changes things, makes them artificial. The scene may be factual, but that doesn't make it truth-full.

Glory Road the movie and Glory Road the book, the movie The Greatest Game Ever Played and Mark Frost's book The Greatest Game Ever Played are all truth-full and true to life. And they are all stories told. They are made up.

Capote was made up just as Truman Capote made up In Cold Blood.

Mariane Pearl made up A Mighty Heart and the movie based on it will be made up.

They are all truth-full, but none of them are the truth. Not the whole truth. There will always be more truth to be found. There will always be something left out that deserves attention. There will always be more story to tell.

Which is why, as good as Capote was, another movie about the same events isn't necessarily redundant and why I'm looking forward to seeing Infamous.

Mariane Pearl owns her story, the one she told in her book. But she doesn't own the story. There's too much of the story for any one person to claim, let alone tell by herself.

The job is still open to other storytellers.

And as it happens, other storytellers are already at work. There's another movie about Daniel Pearl's murder on the way.

Your turn again.

What's your favorite movie "based on a true story"?

Capote may be mine. I have to watch it again. Before I saw it, though, my answer would have been All The President's Men in a shot.

Missing's another good one.


The other movie about Daniel Pearl will be based on Bernard-Henri Levy's Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Levy's pretty up front about making it up in order to tell a truth-full story.

Nancy Nall has a post about a high school student who watched All The President's Men and wasn't impressed by its truth-full-ness as she was shocked to hear newspaper reporters and editors cussing.

The student wrote a letter to the Washington Post's editors about it and the Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, replied in a totally condescending and fatuous way. Read Nance's post, Pottymouths.

And in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber wrote about some of the truth-full-ness that he feels was left out of Glory Road. Read Sheiber's essay Basektball Diaries.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

No accounting for taste

Ideals of male and female beauty vary from culture to culture and era to era, although since the Greeks the Western ideal of male beauty has remained fairly consistent---square-jaw, broad shoulders, narrow waist, flat stomach, nice buns, freakishly juvenile genetalia.

For most of the last 500 years or so the ideal for the perfect female form was a bit fleshier than we tend to go for now, which is our loss, as the present ideal body shape, that of a particularly slender but amazingly well-endowed 16 year old, besides being unachievable for most women, even those who are 16, is ridiculously specialized to the point of fetishistic.

Being able to respond to only one particular body type is like being able to respond only to leather, Catholic school girl uniforms, French maid outfits, complete Brazilians or hairy legs.

It's not the woman herself that interests you. It's your own kink.

But I can't think of a time or a place when or where the particular mix of body parts and personality that appears on movie screens under the name of Angelina Jolie wouldn't be considered an acceptable and welcome variation on the cultural ideal.

Seems to me that with her peculiar mix of smoldering sensuality, striking features, perfect figure, and I can take you or leave you but if I decide to take you you'd better be prepared for one hell of a good time air of careless sexual abandonment she'd have men, and women, throwing themselves at her from ancient China to Paris in the 1950s. The Incas, the Egyptians, and the Celts would have worshipped her. Homer could have had her in mind for his Helen, his Penelope, or his Circe. If the Elizabethans had allowed women on their stages, Shakespeare would have jumped from his seat at the audtions and shouted, "Send everybody else home. We've found our Cleopatra!" And while Botticelli might have wished her a blonde, and Titian might have thought her hair perhaps a shade too dark, and Rubens might have shrugged and said, "Too skinny," Caravaggio would have gone right to work. Reynolds and Goya and Delacroix, then Whistler, Manet, Renoir, Klimt, and Matisse would never have been able to get enough of her.

But that's just me.

I mean it. That's just me. That's how she strikes me. You might not think she's at all attractive. These things are a matter of taste.

Attractive and beautiful are not the same quality, however, and even if she leaves you cold I think it would be pretty hard to deny she's incredibly good-looking.

Unless you happent to be a commenter on a certain Right Wing blog.

Regular reader Jill Bryant followed the links from Friday's post, as all good and dilligent blog readers should, to the post Scott Lemieux found, in which a Feetie Pajamas Media movie critic objected to the idea of Jolie being cast as Daniel Pearl's wife.

Based on the fact that the blogger posted a picture of Jolie in a sexy outfit with the sarcastic caption "Demure wife," Scott thinks that the guy doesn't understand the point of acting.

Without getting into the problems any woman who is married to or marries the blogger is going to have with a guy who thinks that sexy and demure are mutually exclusive or who uses the phrase demure wife as a tautology, you have to wonder if this guy thinks that any actress who plays a prostitute must be prostitute and any woman who plays a scientist must have a Ph.D.

But Jill, going above and beyond the call, has delved into the comment thread on the post and discovered that a lot of the commenters don't think Angelina Jolie is pretty enough to play Mariane Pearl.

The subject here is beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but I have to go off on a tangent here.

Why does it matter that the actress playing Mariane Pearl be pretty? Considering all that Pearl's gone through, the question of her looks would seem to be one of the most trivial considerations you could raise about her.

Since she's a real person who's main claim to fame is her suffering, whose story is only known to us because of her husband's murder, shouldn't your interest in her story be her story not her looks? And if you're looking forward to seeing her story told in a movie then shouldn't your main concern be whether or not the actress cast to play her be talented enough to portray the depth of her suffering and the strength of her character?

You could make the case that Jolie doesn't have the chops, but you'd better do it after you've rewatched Girl, Interrupted and Pushing Tin, after which you'll have your work cut out for you, and not after your one hundredth replay of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Let's not think about Alexander.

Hollywood has done to Jolie what it does to most of its stars after they've proven they can act, put them in movie after movie in which they aren't expected to act.

Seems to me a little odd that while you're sitting around waiting for the Pearls' story to come to the multiplex you've developed a rooting interest in what the actress playing Mariane Pearl looks like, as if her look is her character and as if she's known for her look, as if instead of being a real person, she's a comic book character.

You might argue that Jolie is all wrong for Wonder Woman---go ahead, I dare you---but to say she's not pretty enough to play Mariane Pearl reveals things about your attitudes about Pearl that you probably don't want people to know, the main one being that you don't think of her as a real person.

Which means to you her story is just a story.

I don't want to make too much of this, although I'm sure I could. I could write a whole post on how this inabiltity to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Mariane Pearl may shed light on the Right Wing bloggers' attitudes towards George Bush, the war in Iraq, and the "war" on terror. But probably all that's going on in those comments is just the all too usual reflexive, and thoughtless, Me-too-ism that characterizes a lot of blog commentarty on the left as well as the right, although, thankfully, not the commentary here.

(It's not just my own opinion that my commenters are among the best and most eloquent around. I've heard from plenty of other bloggers that you're all hot stuff. They're jealous!)

But I think it's a very common and very human tendency to respond to someone else's declaration of personal taste with a contrary one of our own as if our taste is the standard and trumps theirs.

Lance: Angelina's a goddess.

Intelligent and discerning reader: Are you out of your mind! She looks like a Barbie doll with a face designed by a cross-eyed Cubist who's terrified of real women!

As it happens, I've never been particularly attracted to movie stars. I won't hear a word against Gwyneth, but that's because she's my fantasy girlfriend---I mean that when I see her on screen I feel as if I did in fact go out with her at one time, which I take to mean that either we knew each other in a former life or, more likely, and much less crazily, she reminds me very much of the kind of girl I used to date back when dating actresses pretty much defined my social life.

My love for Uma is true and real, and pure, and totally irrational except that it is based almost entirely upon what I know about her as a person. She's not even my usual type. Anne Hathaway is more my type, and I am a little bit smitten with her. But then she reminds me of the young Mary Tyler Moore.

Mary Tyler Moore was a movie star, of course, but she was a much bigger TV star and TV stars have been the objects of my imaginary desires far more often than movie stars.


Because I am far more familiar with them.

Mary Tyler Moore, Dawn Wells, Stephanie Zimbalist, Shelley Long and Kirstie Alley, Carey Lowell, and lately all three female leads on Smallville---Kristin Kreuk, Erica Durance, and, especially, Allison Mack---and Molly Parker.

You will note the preponderance of pale, willowy brunettes.

There was a short period of time when Loretta Swit got under my skin and I'm convinced that she was still there when I met the blonde and that's how I ended up asking her out instead of the willowy, pale brunette who sat next to her in class.

Growing up I watched far more TV than I saw movies, of course, and when I became a serious movie buff in high school it was due to all the old movies I watched late at night on cable.

Which explains why I am far more fascinated by the stars of the 30s and 40s than I've ever been by any actresses who were actually alive and young when I was alive and young.

But when I think about it, there are really even only two actresses from those days I find attractive in the way I find real women attractive, Ingrid Bergman and Myrna Loy.

I know that Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, and Rita Hayworth were beautiful, but I don't feel the force of their beauty as I do with Bergman and Loy or any of the TV stars I mentioned.

The reason for this, I think, is that my ideal of female beauty was formed before I ever watched a movie, possibly before I began watching TV.

Almost certainly it began with my mother's face.

Which is where it almost certainly begins for most people.

We are all much more the products of the circumstances into which we are born than we like to admit. To the degree that our likes and dislikes, our tastes, our opinions, our habits of thought are shaped by the Media, it's because the shows we watch, the movies we go to, the magazines we read, the pictures we look at are part of those circumstances.

To say "I think so and so is beautiful" is to say more about the structures of our own brains than about so and so's bone structure.

Objective discussions of beauty are possible, but only after the subjective element is acknowledged and put aside. The personally subjective, as it is possible to analyze a culturally subjective ideal and see why a particular group of people responded to what is to us unattractive or rejected what is to us stunningly beautiful.

So it is possible to argue that when critics of Ann Coulter attack her looks---which I wish they wouldn't do---they are just revealing the fact that their political opinion is controlling their aesthetic judgment.

But it's just as possible to show that in fact Ann Coulter does not meet any ideal of beauty and that people who insist that she is beautiful are allowing their political opinions to control their judgments, although why bother with either, as her looks are irrelevent, or ought to be, even though she does trade on them. She's not my cup of tea, but I've never met her in person either. One of the sexiest and most attractive girls I ever knew was objectively fairly homely. But she had a way about her that drove men, and more than a few women, mad with desire.

Still, it's possible to argue, objectively and convincingly, all four ways---that Liberals deny Coulter's attractiveness because of her politics, that Right Wingers are attracted to her by her politics, that she is not by objective standards beautiful at all, that she is beautiful in person because of she has a way.

And it is possible, and reasonable, to conclude that Right Wingers who insist that Angelina Jolie isn't attractive enough to play Mariane Pearl are revealing attitudes towards sexuality, the proper role of women (demure wife), and the war on terror---they own it and therefore they should have say over who gets to play one of their heroines, they even get to decide what their heroine looks like and what her character is, no matter what the real Mariane Pearl is like. And God help her if she ever shows herself to be a critic of George Bush. They'll strip her of her right to grieve for her own husband the way they've tried to take away Cindy Sheehan's and Michael Berg's sons.

But I think it's more the case that what they're revealing, since so many of them are twenty and thirtysomethings, is that they were all big fans of Friends and as a result naturally prefer Jennifer Aniston to Angelina Jolie and they've been rooting for Jen against Brad.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

A fun game for liberals and conservatives alike

While you're all waiting anxiously for Part Two of my post below...

Honestly, people, don't you have anything better to do?

While you're all waiting anxiously for Part Two of my post below, here's a game for us all to play.

Over where the shit has hit the fan, Scott Lemieux has found a conservative movie (cough cough) critic who isn't looking forward to a new movie about the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl because Angelina Jolie's been cast as Pearl's wife.

Scott thinks the guy doesn't have a grasp on the concept of acting.

But it seemed to me that he also can't stand Jolie. He doesn't say why, if he does. Might be he's just miffed that she threw him over to chase after Brad, I don't know. But it gave me the idea.

What movie starring an actor or actress whose politics or personality you can't stand do you still enjoy anyway?

For a conservative, this question could be phrased as What movie starring George Clooney or Tom Hanks do you watch over and over again?

A liberal might answer it with one or all of the Die Hard movies.

But both liberals and conservatives can treat it non-politically and admit to liking something starring Gary Busey.

Mel Gibson is another possible answer for anybody regardless of their political leanings.

This being my game and my blog I get to set a few ground rules.

First, for liberals, no John Wayne movies, unless it's The Green Berets. Too easy. But, I will allow Wayne as the answer if it's his personality or personal life you despise. It's your job to make the distinction clear.

Second, again for liberals, no movie Clint Eastwood directed after he made The Bridges of Madison County. Besides the fact that Eastwood's politics are apparently complicated, idiosyncratic, and evolving, he's been growing remarkably as an artist and to say you like Unforgiven or Mystic River despite Eastwood's politics or personality is to be fatuous.

Also answering a variation of the question---What actor or actress whose personality or politics you dislike do you stil enjoy watching whatever they do?---is encouraged.

Another variation: What movie whose politics or social attitudes you find retrograde or otherwise objectionable did you enjoy anyway? For this one, Gone With the Wind is out of bounds for being too obvious.

Any of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies would be good answers. If you think the ending of Woman of the Year is hard to stomach, think of how hard it must have been for Hepburn to play it with a straight face.

I'd answer this one with The Philadelphia Story. Great dialogue---"Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven, either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me!"---and what a cast! But its attitudes towards the rich, the working class, women and their roles in society and marriage, journalists, and, well, just about everything except sailing are appalling if you think about them. Fortunately, the movie doesn't give you a chance to.

My answers:

The Year of Living Dangerously depsite what Mel's devolved into.

Major Dundee and Ben Hur and when I'm watching I don't care what Charlton Heston ever had to say on behalf of the NRA.

I'd answer the original Rocky, but I can't stand to watch it anymore, not because of Stallone the man, but Stallone the writer and director---all those godawful sequels have ruined it for me.

And he's making another one!

Your turn.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Politics and popcorn

To my few but loyal and much appreciated conservative readers:

Some of your fellow conservatives don't like you and want to put a serious crimp in your ability to relax and enjoy life.

They want you to watch a lot of bad movies.

I don't know just who these people are. They call their website to Misty who posted the heads up at Shakespeare's Sister---and they've come up with a list of the Top 100 Conservative Movies that they want you to show your financial support for. Since none of these movies is in the theaters at the moment, they must want you to go out and buy the DVDs.

I'd caution you not to do it, but once you look at the list I'm sure you won't be tempted, unless you're looking for a steady diet of Sylvester Stallone movies and you've been thinking to yourself, Gosh darn it, it's just been too darn long since I last watched Turner and Hootch.

There is one, count them, one, great movie on the list. It's A Wonderful Life. And it's not there because it's a great movie or because it's a particularly conservative movie, as I'll explain in a mintue.

There are a few pretty good movies. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Dave. Tombstone. And, believe it or not, Woody Allen's Bananas.

But I'm not kidding when I tell you that The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is representative of the quality of three quarters of the movies on the list.

They've made a list of the Top 100 Liberal Movies too, and these you're supposed to boycott.

Fortunately, they're not asking many great sacrifices of you. This list contains a whole lot of must-skips, enjoyed it the first time but have no real desire to see it agains, and maybe I'll catch it if I'm up late with insomnia or a sick kid and it happens to be on cable-s.

They do want you to give up The Princess Bride, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Starman, This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally, Traffic, Stand By Me, and pretty much everything starring Paul Newman, which, if they could be taken seriously, is a very good argument right there for switching your political allegiance and becoming a Liberal.

They don't want your kids watching Shrek or Chicken Run either.

Maybe that's a good thing.

Both lists were compiled on the crassest, and dumbest, of political grounds---a Liberal movie is a movie that stars an actor who's given a lot of money to Liberal causes and a Conservative movie is one that stars etc etc etc etc.

I have a question though. Back when he made Kings Row and Knute Rockne---All American, Ronald Reagan was an ardent New Deal Democrat. He probably contributed to Franklin Roosevelt's campaigns. Should conservatives boycott those movies and confine themselves to re-watching Bedtime for Bonzo and The Killers?

The answer to that, I'd guess, is that it doesn't matter, because the listmakers are only concerned with where the money is going right now.

This would explain why there are no great movies from Hollywood's Golden Ages on either list, except for It's A Wonderful Life, which must be there because Jimmy Stewart left some money to the Republican Party in his will or the now-old lady who played Zuzu is active in the Club For Growth.

Who knows?

The listmakers don't explain themselves well. They don't appear to have done a lot of homework. It doesn't look like they've come up with an algorithm that would help them decide if a movie that stars a known activist conservative and a known activist liberal whether the movie is conservative or liberal.

It just sounds as if they don't like the idea of your hard-earned conservative bucks going to pay for Barbara Streisand's lunch at Chason's.

It's a stupid and trivial exercise and isn't worth bothering with.

So why are you writing a long, two-part post about it, Lance, you ask?

New here, aren't you?

Regular readers know that the stupid and trivial are house specialities at Le Maison de Mannion.

But besides that, the lists just give me an excuse to take out of his stall a favorite hobby-horse of mine I don't ride often enough here.

The foolishness of judging art by how well it conforms to and flatters our own political opinions.

It's fine to acknowledge that works of art have politics, that they either push or support a political agenda, and even judge them by how well or how badly they express those politics---badly usually being synonymous with baldly; artists who let their political opinions guide their artistic judgment usually produce propaganda, not art. It's even ok to object to a work of art because of its politics.

Roy Edroso routinely slaps his forehead over conservative bloggers who condemn movies for their perceived lefty-ish agendas.

But mostly what drives Roy to the medicine chest to empty another bottle of Advil is these writers' inability to tell the difference between a political statement and an artistic decision.

To them, what a character does or says is always an act of political activism and always indistinguishable from the political views of the artist.

To put it bluntly, if they could make themselves sit through a production of Hamlet, they would condemn it as another example of the Liberal Culture of Death because Shakespeare advocates suicide.

From the medicine chest Roy is sent reeling to the liquour cabinet when these same writers go on to argue that it is up to the "liberal" moviemakers to make more movies that conservatives like them can go to without having their political feathers ruffled.

At this point I expect conservatives to object that Liberals do this too. Even to say that Liberals started it.

And I agree. Some Liberals do, although in my experience it's more often Leftists who do it, not Liberals, but since conservatives refuse to make the distinction and I don't want to go off on a tangent explaining it to them yet again, I'll just let it pass as a given. Some Liberals do.

I have written before of a former colleague who refused to read Moby Dick and Billy Budd because in his judgment Melville was a racist. He told his students that too.

And listen to all the apologizing and rationalizing that goes on whenever some theater company puts on a production of Taming of the Shrew.

And, from the point of view of the mostly Gen X crowd who type up Karl Rove's press releases on the Right side of the bandwidth, Liberals did start it---at least, it was Liberals who introduced them to the idea that works of art should be analyzed, criticized, liked, admired, condemned, or rejected on the basis of the works' political agendas, that works of art---"texts"---should in fact be "read" as political tracts. Those Liberals being their college English professors.

In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, all the fashionable -ist and -ism approaches to literature, art, and film were political at bottom. They looked at art as expressions of the dominant culture, which was always seen as bad, and judged them on the basis of how well the work---the text---accepted or challenged that dominant culture.

Good teachers tended to make a nod at a fashion, touch lightly on the -ists and -isms, and move on to the works of art as works of art.

Bad teachers put together their reading lists in ways that would allow them to turn their classes into forums for political conscious raising. They called this teaching critical teaching, but it was usually a way for the professors to sneer at the frat boys and athletes in their classrooms.

Why the conservative kids who grew up to be Right Wing bloggers and culture warriors chose to pay more attention to their bad teachers than to their good ones is beyond me, but apparently they did.

They learned the lesson of political correctness.

They learned to ignore what was most important in a work of art---its artistry.

Since they hadn't read all the works of criticism and literary theory, history and sociology and political philosophy that their professors had, it looked to them as though their professors were pulling a lot of what they taught out of their hats, which plenty of cases was the truth, and they learned that analyzing a work of art was a matter of imposing your own political prejudices upon a book or a movie or a song or a poem or a painting.

All of this is unfortunate. It's too bad there are conservatives who can't watch Million Dollar Baby or Brokeback Mountain without becoming outraged, just as it's too bad there are liberals who can't enjoy a a staight-forward production of Taming of the Shrew.

But just as unfortunate, I think, is that, right and left, people have learned a way of looking at art that doesn't only cut them off from enjoying the whole of that work of art, it cuts them off from understanding and appreciating the whole of their own natures.

Simply put, none of us is wholly liberal or wholly conservative.

In fact, most of who and what we are cannot be described or defined by our politics.

We are like works of art in that way.

End of Part One.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The saddest story I know

From Paper and Dust, a short story by Lance Mannion:

On Saturdays Gogarty's wife helped out in the store. Customers liked Margaret. Not that they did a booming walk-in trade, but those customers who did wander in to buy a pen or a pad of paper would hang around after making their purchases to talk. Men especially. Leaning on the glass countertop, fogging it, smudging it with their fingerprints, they would stand there forever, flirting with Margaret.

They sold from the highest and lowest shelves on Saturdays. The silver and gold-plated pen and pencil sets in the bottom of the glass cabinet were as popular on any Saturday as they were at Christmas and graduation time. The red ink stamp pads on the top of the tall shelves behind the counter became essential in a way they never were during the week when they accumulated the dust that Margaret blew off their lids when she climbed the step ladder to reach them.

"Anything else for you this morning?"

"How much for the White-out, Margaret?"

Margaret would squat down behind the counter, giving the customer a clean view through the glass down her freckled cleavage.

"I could use some butterfly clips, Maggie, the number two size."

And up she'd go on the ladder again. To reach the highest shelves she had to stand on tip-toe, coming out of her shoes, her legs on display.

Gogarty didn't like this only because it reminded him that the bloom was not yet off his wife. She had begun to use a rinse on her hair and the stylish oversized frames of her glasses hid the lines around her eyes, but she still had her figure and those fine slender legs. Gogarty told her that he didn't like to have strangers keeping her from her work.

"What's there to do, Vin?" she'd ask, not sniping, not intending to remind him of the store's meager business, but actually asking him to assign her a task. She'd always been the busy one. As soon as Vince, Jr. was old enough for school, she'd gone to work in the Cambridge City Hall as a secretary to her sister's husband's brother, the city planner. She had asked to come to work in the store and was hurt that Gogarty hadn't wanted her to. "Don't I have enough people sitting around on their thumbs all day?" he'd said, but in those days he hadn't been able to hire help fast enough to keep up with all the orders and an extra pair of hands should have been welcome.

So she'd started coming in on Saturdays to do the typing and handle the correspondence. She typed up the invoices, sent off the orders to distributors and suppliers, and when she finished that she gave herself little chores to do, even when Gogarty said she was in the way, so that on Monday mornings Gogarty would find some trivial attempt by Margaret to brighten up the place---geometric stacks of pencil leads on the counter; rainbow fans of pocket folders in the window; flowers on his desk. Gogarty felt as though Margaret was going behind his back, doing these things. Of course, anything she did these days had to be behind his back, since that was the part of him he most often showed her. He avoided her, routinely spending all day in the stockroom where she was too dainty to follow. Still, he told her to ask before she put up her cheery little signs advertising The PERFECT Graduation Gift!!! and The Finest in Leather-bound Date Books.

"She just wants to feel needed, Dad," his son would say when he complained.

"Chowdah-head," Gogarty would mutter, taking care not to be overheard, although not really caring if he was.

Gogarty's Stationery and Office Supply. On Causeway Street, under the elevated tracks of the Green Line. Dust on the window. Dust on the shelves. Dust on the stock in back. Old orange pasteboard account books stacked up to the ceiling, the record of thirty years of business, twenty-seven at the same location. Stanbart Stationers. Bart and Vin's Office Supply. Tighe and Gogarty Co. Gogarty, solus. Fat times and lean times and leaner recently. All of it gathering dust.

From his desk Gogarty could survey the whole store, a long high-ceilinged shoebox of a place, and the view was like peering down a long trough of shadow and dust. The office was separated from the shop floor by a wooden rail and a flight of three stairs. Over the narrow aisles long fluorescent lamps of insufficient wattage quivered and shivered suspended from shaky pipes that carried and magnified the vibrations of trains clattering down the tracks. When a trolley rolled by, the lamps cried dust.

Join Lance Mannion's Tall Tale of the Month Club today.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The king is a fink!

Ann Coulter is not the Lone Haranguer riding bravely through the night to yell up at the castle, "The king is a fink!"

She works for the fink.

Coulter is a wholly-owned subsidy of the Republican Right, stamped with the Karl Rove seal of approval. Her job isn't to humble the king; it's to help the king keep the peasants in line.

One of the ways she does that is the same way that Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and the rest of the Right Wing bully boys and blowhards in the media on the blogs do it---she stirs up their anger and resentment at the wrong targets.

She encourages them to hate people like the 9/11 widows for their truth-telling so that they don't listen to the widows and start saying things like, "Hey, you know what, Bush did sit there like a lox that day. And he did have a memo a month before warning him that Al Qaeda was planning attacks that involved hijacking airplanes. And he really hasn't done anything since to protect us except start an unnecessary war and use and manipulate our fear for his own political gain!"

Ann Coulter gets them to say instead, "Yeah, those women are glad their husbands are dead!"

Following up on my post below: Elspeth Reeve defended Coulter in the New Republic using Coulter's own defense---Coulter's just a shock jock type of comic speaking truth to power.

The outrageous lies, vulgarity, and plain, open hatred that define Coulter's schtick are ok in Reeve's book because everything Coulter says is "kind of true."

That's why Liberals can't stand her, Reeve thinks, because we're uncomfortable with that little bit she says that's "kind of" true.

Reeve is accepting a definition of humor and satire that would have it that a joke is funny because it's kind of true.

But the mark of great humor and satire and a good joke is that they are wholly true, true through and through. Swift, and Hogarth, Dickens, Mark Twain, Walt Kelly, and company didn't draw and write stuff that's "kind of" true.

It's "kind of true" that some Jews are cheap, that some Irishmen drink and fight too much, that some Poles are dumb, that some black people and Mexicans are lazy, that some women are castrating shrews and battleax fishwives.

But ethnic jokes don't attack cheapness, drinking and fighting, stupidity, laziness, or castration. They attack Jews, the Irish, Poles, blacks, Hispanics, and women.

The object is to define "the other," make them objects of derision and contempt, in order to justify treating them as others and excluding them from any definition of "fellow human being."

Coulter tells the political equivalent of ethnic jokes.

When the subject is Muslims, she tells the ethnic joke equivalent of ethnic jokes.

Defending Coulter's attacks on the 9/11 widows, Reeve writes, that what Coulter says is again "kind of true."

It is a little absurd to hold up a person as an expert judge of the 9/11 Commission Report, for example, just because she lost a loved one.

Yes, it would be absurd, if those women had not made themselves experts on the 9/11 Commission Report, if they had not in fact been the ones who pushed and pushed and pushed until there was a 9/11 Commission to issue a report, if it had not been the case that if those women hadn't worked as hard and as intelligently and expertly as they did, then George Bush and Company would have gotten their way and there'd have been no Commission, no report, no investigation at all, even the half-baked one that we had.

That's why the Bush Leaguers hate the widows. That's why Coulter attacked them. To discredit them, to distract the peasants from the widows' expertise and the truth---not the "kind of" truth, the real whole truth---they were speaking to power.

Reeve accepts Coulter's explanation that she wasn't criticizing the widows themselves, just the way Liberals use sympathy for the widows to try exempt them from criticism and stifle debate.

Reeve says it's "kind of" true that Liberals do this. But what's more than "kind of true" is that not just Liberals but lots of Americans aren't trying to talk about the widows, they're trying to talk about the 9/11 Commission's report and the many and various failures of George W. Bush, which the Bush Leaguers don't want us to do, and so they've sent out their propagandists, like Ann Coulter, to change the subject in order to deflect the criticism and shut down the debate.

What's not "kind of" true but all true is that it has been the Bush Administration and its flunkys and apologists in Congress and in the Media who have been using emotional responses to 9/11 to shut down debate.

Criticize the President and you're a traitor giving aid and comfort to terrorists.

Object to the Radical Christian Right's attempts to outlaw freedom of choice and women's autonomy, replace science in school with superstitious twaddle, deny gay people status as citizens, and generally force a backwards cult of male authoritarianism they call Christianity on the whole country, and you're Godless.

Suggest in any way that the Republican Right wing agenda's not a boon and a gift to the nation and you're a liar, a malicious slanderer, who can only be properly argued with while holding a baseball bat.

All of this seems to have escaped Elspeth Reeve's notice.

Because what Elspeth Reeve likes about Ann Coulter is that Ann Coulter reminds her of Elspeth Reeve.

For six months, I was the only liberal on Line Three. It was in an assembly line in a small town in a dark red state, and I worked the second shift with mandatory overtime, which meant the only humans I ever saw were my fellow button-pushers and sticker-application specialists. The choice between soul-searching monotony and political shouting matches was not a hard one to make, especially after September 11. And, to avoid being trampled by the majority, I had to play dirty, to use the kinds of lines that kill political careers: about coat hangers, say, or about how Jesus was a liberal. It always helped to have a few seconds of stunned silence to let my point sink in.

I love Ann Coulter because, in her, I see a loudmouth on the assembly line, fighting not to be squished and whittled and boxed into the shape Washington seems to think fits a girl just right.

Ok, how a fawned over and flattered multimillionare TV star who apparently can't say anything outrageous enough to lose herself a gig or a book contract is like a young assembly line worker being harrassed (sexually as well as politically, it turns out) by a gang of angry male co-workers needs to be better explained to me.

Doesn't seem even "kind of" true.

But what hasn't dawned on Reeve is that those angry male co-workers of hers were almost certainly getting their arguments, their "facts," and their style of "debate"---yelling punctuated by snorts of derision and angry, dismissive laughter---from the Right Wing blowhards and bully boys in the media. And they were doing what they'd learned to do from the blowhards and bully boys, shout down your critics instead of engaging with them in rational debate, insult and humiliate them as a way of keeping uppity little snots like Reeve in their place.

In short, the men Reeve was "arguing" with were parroting what they'd heard on TV and talk radio.

Which means that Reeve, defender of her heroine Ann Coulter, was in a way being attacked and put in her place by...

Ann Coulter.