Posting the usual reader warning for blog visitors: before you read Worthy of This Great City, should you be so inclined, see the reader alert on the Home Page, then read the full Prologue on the Excerpts Page. Otherwise don’t blame me. And as always, I humbly request a two-word Amazon review, for example: perfectly awful!
October 21, 2018
Yesterday I celebrated a culmination of sorts: I saw Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Festival. I’m one of those people who’s been anticipating this film for years, and I’ve read pretty much everything written about it. Lately that means I’ve been monitoring wellesnet.com for reviews and updates and conversations that sometimes border on the vituperative.
Thank God for that. And kudos to Peter Bogdanovich, Filip Jan Rymsza, and Bob Murawski for completing the film without getting in its way: I’m awestruck at their brilliant restraint. The movie is a confounding barrage of questions and fury and accusations, a scramble of profundity tossed to posterity interspersed with witty, deadly party conversation. It’s all about the business of creation and the fate of the creator, the artist compelled to transmute terror into beauty and so extinguish it. Artists, the movie tells us, are machines destined to use up more than they can ever produce. Shot between 1970 and 1976, Wind is also an extraordinarily prescient essay on intrusive media, with cameras illuminating every unwary expression, and phallic microphones brutally thrust into any private corner. It’s truly a vicious satire on pretension, and an open attack on that insatiable consumer of everything palliative and trite.
Speaking of whom, on leaving the theatre, the first comment I heard (it was loud) was: “There’s two hours out of my life I won’t get back.”
I’m not going to repeat the history of calamity that dogged Welles production; see Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead for that incredible story of despair and near-miraculous recovery. And I’m not sure I can offer a rational review at this point: I empathize with the commentators who came out of the theater ‘gobsmacked.’ This one demands multiple viewings, and even at that, I suspect it’ll remain elusive but beckoning. Not that it matters: it obviously doesn’t care what you think.
Anyway, some initial thoughts:
Despite warnings out of Venice and Telluride, I had no problem with the shifts from black-and-white to color. The cobbled-together nature of the ‘documentary’ was, I thought, clearly explained, and that explanation was appropriate. The sound was fine. The film-within-a-film segments provided a welcome relief from the intensity of the party scenes and were neither too long nor at all tedious.
I thought it noteworthy that Hannaford shot John Dale, his leading man, absolutely gorgeous. As to Hannaford’s comeback film, Welles’ parody of new cinema (Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriski Point is universally cited as a target) is a deliberately terrible movie, visuals without meaning bridging on camp. Hannaford doesn’t do symbolism, and it shows. Then, he insisted on using Dale, his supposed discovery, instead of a name star: no wonder he can’t get funding. Everything he does conspires to his own destruction.
Again against expectations, I found the plot well-paced and involving, building naturally as Dale is revealed as a trained if merely adequate actor, as the money runs out, as the reporters, led by Susan Strasberg’s Juliette Riche, ruthlessly unearth Hannaford’s personal history (nothing in this visceral film is more of a gut-punch than his explosive disgust of homosexuals), as the power goes off and the alcohol flows. Welles does do symbolism, and the finale at the drive-in is magnificent.
But – and I realize Oja Kodar co-wrote the script and had major creative input into the film – there is just too much of her. It alters the whole tone, again towards parody, but this time skewering Welles own movie. And why? Dale’s probable homosexuality and Hannaford’s presumed repression make her secondary; a presence at the birthday party, the enigmatic beauty of the film-within-a-film, but no more. Yes, she’s a woman and she’s been used, it’s a valid point but it’s not sufficient justification for her mysterious, observant omnipresence, and her being there gets in the way of the story. If I were going to reedit this film, she’d be relegated to background at the party.
I find it interesting that Welles altered his ending to incorporate footage of Dale (played by Bob Random) filmed when the actor turned up unexpectedly at a party shoot years after his original scenes were filmed. Perfect for this movie, that’s kept reshaping itself for forty years. The new material brings Hannaford face-to-face with Dale, and so ultimately with himself. How like both Welles and his avatar to use whatever or whoever comes to hand for their own purposes, destroying as they go, destroying themselves.
Now that’s a tidy ending to an essay, don’t you think? Rather cheap, rather marketable, suitable for a blog. I have a pretty good idea how The Other Side of the Wind will be reviewed by Netflix viewers, but what I think is: you go, Orson. Confound ‘em. Leave it what it is with all the omissions and emotions, don’t explain it into some neat narrative box. Chaos is always the beginning, and there were never any answers to this tragedy anyway, so let all the beautiful, terrible nonsense loose.
Photo credits: Orson Welles by Chris Weige CC BY-SA 2.0 / Nicolas Sanguinetti, Oooh, Orson Welles, CC BY-SA 2.0
October 14, 2018
I was going to write about the big conversation – you know, the one we’re all part of, the one about movies and books and everything else that matters, that keeps you buying that book or seeing that film because you have to join in. That’s important, and it drives me. I had that thought out walking on Market Street last week, passing this shouting guy and thinking, yeah, I get it. Thinking about the pull of the Internet and how we all want to get its attention, like we want to get God’s attention. But that’s foolish, because if it’s going anywhere it’s going in the other direction, where everyone is heard all the time and no one is more important, and we can rid ourselves of celebrity culture. And then I got irritated with the concept because it was barely a start.
To put it in Internet speak: We still don’t get the picture – here’s why.
Because it’s unimaginably immense, that’s why.
Take the news. Take that alleged Liberal bias. Take all those silly pretty news anchors; I mean, it wasn’t always like this. When competition makes a person’s physical appearance a job requirement, professional ethics get a little questionable. First TV, then CABLE TV, and now news is everywhere all the time. I’ve loved the romance of reportage since I met Richard Harding Davis’ Gallagher, since The Front Page. What fun! And what responsibility. Journalism is about truth, and journalists, or anyway some of them, are among my heroes. Only news by definition concerns what’s new; it feeds on horrors, of course, but always on change, and change naturally tends to lean left. In Worthy I floated the idea of assuming an equal negative result for every positive action, just as a kind of moral precaution. Even in-depth investigative journalism seldom makes that attempt; that’s not what the news is about. Today the Internet is right there lurking, starting to figure this out. And what moral revolution will follow?
Or yes, take God. Mass communications are hitting religion hard; that’s been ongoing since we could actually see the other half of the world. There’s no more validity to: “God is on our side,” and no more “us” and “them,” either. This puts a strain on the partisan nature of religion, and the cracks have certainly been showing. Ditto nationalism; we’re past it, bar some all=too-possible catastrophic moral regression.
Then take education, and employment, and all the traditional foundations of human value, including even child bearing and rearing. Knowledge is already everywhere but the jobs are going, and so are the professions, and we’ll all have to find a different basis of personal identity, other ways to plain get through each day of a potentially incredibly long life. Never mind obtaining the financing.
This is all so trite and rambling, but as I say, I’m annoyed. And I’m excited, and I’m frustrated with people repeatedly saying something else is out of the ordinary when obviously everything is out of the ordinary. And I prefer it that way; this is beyond argument the most fun we’ve ever had on this planet.
Photos: Imad HADDAD, Super Fast Internet, CC by 2.0 / Vin Crosbie, Uncle Walter, CC BY-ND 2.0
Last week I was browsing in that bored-at-work way when I stumbled on the topic of Holocaust films, specifically Sidney Bernstein’s lost documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The project was shelved because its recorded horrors clashed with Britain’s post-war policy regarding Germany, and perhaps also due to a fear of further inciting Zionist fervor. One article led to another until I found myself deep into a consideration of Hollywood’s near-obsession with prestige Holocaust movies, despite the arguable obscenity of creating something beautiful out of a topic that should, by all that’s decent, remain irrefutably ugly.
That intricate dilemma caught my attention.
I know there are libraries of literature on this topic, but this is just a blog, and anyway I’m about talking popular culture here, the moral and aesthetic impulses that rule the entertainment business. Easy enough to understand why these movies exist: Hollywood is Hollywood is the rest of the film industry, and these are important movies, right? They force us to remember, and we have to remember, so a well-deserved pat on the back to the filmmakers and the filmgoers, too. No need to rudely dismiss such noble efforts as self-serving and pretentious Oscar bait.
Take my own introduction to the genre, the film version of Anne Frank’s fairly typical teenage journal, and the sublimity of its final expression of faith in the essential goodness of man. How beautiful is that declaration, repeated as it is at the finale against that poignant score, and that shot of seagulls soaring free above the deserted secret annex? Or how about a little girl in a bright red coat? It’s a beautiful shot. Life is Beautiful!
Should such horrors be transmuted into beauty? Is it simply a matter of degree? And what exactly does it mean, anyway, to make something beautiful? What, if anything, is objectively accomplished? Does beauty by definition make the terrible more acceptable? Does it somehow encompass and make manageable its subject? Does it reveal truths we never realized before? The below from Ruth Askew in my own novel Worthy of This Great City:
“Whatever the medium, a statement is just that – a statement. Art requires more.” The taunting was mitigated by obvious fondness but still uncomfortably acerbic. She might be furious.
There followed a lengthy pause, but Thom must have tacitly, graciously encouraged a renewed assault, because she resumed her argument with that same condescending, outsized patience. She was wearing a very unfortunate shade of bright blue. “Art has a purpose: it’s about making things beautiful so they can be grasped, incorporated, and left behind. That’s what beauty means. You can’t just appoint something art if it doesn’t work. You do not have that prerogative.”
Well, a questionable opinion from a questionable character.
Holocaust movies often invite us to identify with a victim; after experiencing one, we dutifully struggle to multiply our empathy by many millions, but the fact is we can’t, our minds refuse such alien numbers. Fictionalized accounts humanize the inhumane solely on an individual basis; documentaries that study the whole speak only in the tolerable abstract.
We’re told these films serve as a necessary reminder – but of what, exactly? Not of the events leading up to the main action: the significant political ploys and poisonous resentments that no one understood or anyway checked. And they rarely if ever visit the minds of the perpetrators, because who would pay to see that, who would dare to identify, and yet what other information is more urgently required? Movies are all about the dramatic culmination, the visual horror, the ovens and the careless piles of emaciated bodies and the extracted teeth. The possibilities, I suppose. Valid enough.
But here’s what I think: If everyone in the world were legally required to watch every Holocaust film ever made on a regular basis it would not in the least mitigate the global recurrence of genocide. Granted, probably not everyone in Rwanda caught Sophie’s Choice, but even so I feel pretty confident here. As promulgators of tolerance, as cautionary tales, these movies are utterly useless.
And I suspect that’s because it’s impossible to make the Holocaust itself beautiful. I can’t imagine what it would mean for humankind if we could: would it signify our salvation, or instead lead to the extermination I sometimes think we seek? Maybe it would it make no difference whatsoever. I wish I could claim that history offers hope, but an optimistic example eludes me right this minute.
Not that it matters: artists have a job to do, and they’re relentless. I know; I am one.
Based on which admittedly shallow analysis, supported by natural inclination, I don’t think it’s at all unforgivable to pull a work of art from a Holocaust story. For one thing, history demands constant verification these days. And movies show that this terrible thing really happened, and that it was really terrible: Anne Frank, that’s the Holocaust; that was awful, she died, but she thought people were basically good, so that makes it all very sad.
It’s only Anne’s story, you see. And it’s inadvertently, tragically beautiful, which is why we remember it.
Photos: Anne Frank; Auschwitz TSAI Project CC by 2.0
September 30, 2018
Bill Cosby is in prison, Gwyneth Paltrow is married, and I’ve read way too much about both of these life passages. But it’s not just timing that connects Cosby’s incredible fall from glory and Paltrow’s Hampton’s nuptials in my mind. Cosby’s criminality and Paltrow’s ridiculous Goop site present me with the same maddening question, the question I always have, the one that drives me crazy: what are they telling themselves? How did the family-oriented comedian explain his criminal activity to himself all those years? How does the pretty, entitled entrepreneur justify profiting from meretricious junk? What words comprise their private narratives?
I don’t want psychology here; I don’t want to understand them from the outside. Of course I think Cosby entitled and Paltrow willfully vacuous, that ‘s not the point. And since we’re talking about influential people here, my question matters. It matters quite a lot because these people and their ilk strive to remake the world in their own image, and they’re reasonably successful at it. They impose their faulty justifications on the rest of us.
Cosby’s case is easier to plumb; there are clear clues in the firm if lovable parent he portrayed on his eponymous sitcom that evolved into the uncomprehending morality he preached to a largely unappreciative black audience. All that’s simple enough: I did it, so you can too. Therefore I deserve my good fortune.
But how does that translate to his abuse of women? Part of it is surely the narcissist’s automatic impulse to view every interaction as a transaction, a deal. Cosby probably figured all those women were looking to exchange themselves for his power and patronage. After all, what else did they have to offer? Anyway all the coolest stars did the same; these things were just understood, it was the way things worked. And he, Bill Cosby, was smarter than all of them. He got the better deal.
Then people so and accuse him of criminal activity? No wonder he’s outraged – and he is outraged, to go by the video I’ve seen. He’s the clear victim of a transitioning culture.
Now Paltrow presents something more of a conundrum. She’s intelligent and certainly business savvy. Notably, she turned her back on Conde Nast to avoid undue fact checking. The more you look at her, the more you realize she has to know better than to trust the kind of wellness crap she nonetheless endorses. If I had to guess, I’d say Gwyneth’s private rationale follows along these broken lines: the products are interesting, the ideas are new and exciting, and it’s healthy to push the envelope. It’s all about style and entertainment, so what’s the harm?
For the record, the harm is in an increased suspicion of science, facts, and the medical profession, all in the service of an already wealthy, genetically-blessed celebrity, albeit a sweet one. I’m sure she’s sweet. Why not? Really, nothing seems to disturb her marvelous complacence.
Speaking of influential people, how’s your spirit doing? As Oprah keeps reminding us, we all influence the universe, the world is nothing but the creation of our thoughts and intentions. Remember, she came from abuse and poverty and she did it, so that means you can, too. Just take some responsibility for living your best life, okay?
I know, I’m being a little unfair there, but just a little, and she’s never going to read my fiction anyway.
Below, an excerpt from Worthy of This Great City I’ve posted before: a local politician revisits his grammar school to urge on some unenthusiastic students.
“Inside your own head you can dream wonderful secret fantasies but unless you obtain an education you will not achieve those things no matter what they are, no matter if those dreams are of computers and outer space or sports or music. But you see it’s a kind of a test. Are you smart enough to want to be smart?”
However much they truly understood of this effort at indoctrination, an unmistakable fog of resentment was drifting up from those tiny desks now, a thick security blanket of rebellious disinterest. Their impossibly small backs were still, their posture resigned, their faces uniformly expressing a boredom nearly surpassing human endurance. No doubt twenty years from now they’ll value his message, having forgotten how it was literally impossible to stop the inchoate hurt for an whole endless day without recourse to the usual methods of distraction or oblivion, to instantly acquire sufficient souls. How their particular deficiencies were as much beyond their control as cancer and equally tragic but unfortunately outside the current fashion in victims. Because if they could, then they were already somebody else, receiving another congratulatory pat on the back. But yes, eventually they’ll blame themselves. That morning they simply glared back at the mockery of this enemy come to further diminish their fragile self-respect, promising rewards to the lucky, using the truth against them.
David stood then, gazing benevolently down at them. Not saying to them: “Love wisdom for its own sake. Read for joy. Learning is the greatest adventure imaginable. It will make you value humanity.” Instead he said, “Let me repeat this so that you always remember: your time in school is where you decide your entire life.”
Speaking with such urgency while the children mostly ignored this tedious demand to become a more convenient problem, amenable to current solutions. And all this ridiculous effort because David truly hoped, even expected mere words to shift their precarious lives that critical bit towards alignment with his truth, so that finally they would be able to hear him. It was a matter of wearing them down, accomplishing a few precious millimeters of progress with each repetition.
“I want you to watch carefully. Is everyone watching? Well then, here is what the world owes you.” And he turned over both empty palms. “And this is what you can have.” And he expanded both arms to embrace the universe. “And this is how you can win in this world.” And he reached out and embraced the classroom, pointing to the posters and bookshelf and computer in turn, pointing finally at Mrs. DuBois who smiled back at him. And then he was waving in farewell and cleanly finding his way out.
September 23, 2018
Here’s an undated photograph of Florence Sally Horner of Camden, NJ. As an adolescent, she tried to shoplift a notebook, and a fifty-year-old man caught her at it and misrepresented himself as an FBI agent. Abducting her, he traveled the country with her for just under two years, until she managed to call home, Rescued in 1950, she returned to her home and school, where as I understand it she was covertly judged the vixen of the piece, a predatory and sluttish young woman. She died, unbelievably, in an unrelated auto accident in 1952, and thereafter forgotten but for a brief mention in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”
All this was brought to my attention courtesy of a new book by Sarah Weinman, The Real Lolita, out now. I read Lolita years ago, because it was salacious and therefore brave. Now I’ve ordered a new copy so that I can see that horrible relationship for what it was, discover the self-serving tricks of its narcissistic narrator, and ultimately reach toward Nabokov himself. And because I owe it to that little girl who found a way to survive and was blamed for it by everyone, including me.