Monthly Archives: January 2008

So it goes, again

This stage version of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five sounds pretty good, but I worry when the reviewer says the play “gradually raises the sentiment slightly higher than the book does. So it goes. But then, this is the theater, which is supposed to awaken our emotions. Here it goes well.” I worry because more sentiment is not what the story needs. What is needs is understatement and a reserved exterior that lets us feel the emotions rather than getting batted over the head with them. In short, it needs exactly the kind of treatment it received in the 1972 film version directed by George Roy Hill and scripted by Stephen Geller, which is one of those instances in which a film adaptation significantly improves upon the source material. Vonnegut said he loved the film so much that he cackled to himself all through the screening.

Hill was able to use the commercial clout gained from his previous film, the blockbuster Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to make and enforce some pretty bold creative decisions: no big-name actors, a deliberately colorless and passive lead performance, and an all-Bach soundtrack (courtesy of Glenn Gould) that conveyed Vonnegut’s theme of philosophical resignation just about perfectly. The film was not a hit, to put it mildly, and Hill immediately made another crowd-pleaser, The Sting, to restore his commercial cred. He was an old school director who followed Burt Lancaster’s career formula: “One film for the bank, then one film for me, then one for the bank.” Hill continued to indulge his taste for difficult literary adaptations with The World According to Garp and The Little Drummer Girl, but neither film posed the sort of challenges he set himself in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The film’s greatest strength is the way Vonnegut’s central conceit — that its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time” and caroms helplessly around the events of his life — is put across with masterful editing by Dede Allen. The clip above offers one example: the older Billy, cradling his dog, walking up the stairs of his house, intercut with the younger Billy, a prisoner of war during World War II, climbing the stairs of a bomb shelter the morning after the firebombing of Dresden. At the top of each climb is a door that will open onto loss: in one case, a bed left empty by the death of a wife; in the other, a lunar landscape that was once a beautiful city. There is equally brilliant cross-cutting between Billy’s election to head a local Chamber of Commerce and the wartime election of his friend Edgar Derby to be the leader of his fellow POWs behind German lines. One man steps forward to a thundering ovation; the other steps up to a single man’s sarcastic hand-clapping. The book’s argument that all events exist simultaneously, impossible to change, is put across by the very structure of the film. As a bonus, most of Vonnegut’s twee conceits and all of his coyly ironic prose are drained away.

The film version of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t just an example of how to do right by an author’s intentions, it’s a lesson in how to improve upon them.

Even the evil

Three subjects close to my heart — Iceland, chess and bookstores — come together in this article about the Reykjavik bookstore where chess expert Bobby Fischer spent much of his time during his last years:

Bókin, or The Book, is essentially a 1950s version of New York’s Strand Bookstore. Besides the books stacked head-high, under card tables, and on plywood shelves, the first thing you notice about Bókin is its smell, decayed and airless. Walking inside the 35-year-old establishment is like entering a Parisian flea market without the noise: overwhelming, a paralysis of the senses. But it was here, between narrow aisles lined with thousands of fraying biographies and history books, sitting in an ordinary chair whose varnish had worn thin, where Bobby Fischer could be alone in his thoughts. It was here where he could contemplate his place in history by [poring] through books on outlaws and rebels from Russia, Britain, Libya, and the Soviet Union with whom he could relate. And it was here, beneath the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights above, where Bobby Fischer could, for at least a few hours a day, seem to live a normal life.

“Bobby said he liked this kind of bookshop because it reminded him of his younger New York years. The mess everywhere, the stacks of books, the smell,” says owner Bragi Kristjónsson. “He was often sitting here so long, reading from these shelves, that he fell asleep.”

My first thought on reading this was a jolt of sympathy for the innocent Icelanders who, looking for a book, must have rounded a shelf and come face to face with this glaring troll. My next thought was that Fischer had found his own version of Drangey, the towering island off northern Iceland where the outlaw Grettir Asmundarson, hounded by the many enemies acquired during a lifetime of conflict, found shelter during the last years of his life.

Drangey is a huge table of volcanic rock rising sheer from the ocean. It’s not a place to visit unless you are in good physical condition: many of the slopes are so steep that even experienced hikers need to use the chain railings set into the ground, and the summit of the island can only be reached by using a chain ladder. It is spectacularly beautiful, but also demanding and unforgiving. The cliffs are pocked with bird nests that draw hunters and egg-pickers — a pretty dangerous way to get yourself some omlette fixings.

The place is reputed to be inhabited by trolls and other unsavory creatures that used to amuse themselves by cutting the ropes of hunters and letting them tumble down the cliffs. Finally, a bishop ventured out to the island and began methodically blessing the rocky terrain with holy water. He had covered most of the island when an unseen creature, which had been trying vainly to stop the bishop, called out: “Stop your blessing. Even the evil need a place to live.”

Grettir was not necessarily evil, just immensely strong and violently opposed to any sort of compromise. He craved human company, but was pretty much impossible to live with, so that he ended up on a lonely spur of rock, battling with wraiths and monsters as his enemies closed in. Bobby Fischer had an evil mouth on him but unlike that earlier outlaw he was essentially harmless. He, too, ended up alone, grappling with monsters of a more personal nature, given shelter by the country where he was still remembered with affection because of the crowning moment of his life — the 1972 chess match with Boris Spassky.

Even the pathetic need a place to live.

Feets don’t fail me now

How about that — a reading I can walk to from work.

Come by the Symposia Bookstore in Hoboken tonight and I’ll tell you all about political bosses, murder and traffic engineering. And if you want to buy my book, I can probably help out there as well.

Tear down this firewall!

The Atlantic has opened its site (and its archive) to non-subscribers. Time to play. And time to add it to my Reading Around blogroll.

What’s Neu?

A while back I talked about alternate history stories, such as Pavane by Keith Roberts. Now here’s Neu-York, described by its creator as “an obsessively detailed alternate-history map, imagining how Manhattan might have looked had the Nazis conquered it in World War II.” Highly recommended for long periods of staring and musing.

Put the clock on ’em

The death of Bobby Fischer gives me the perfect excuse to talk about Fresh, one of the great lost movies of the 1990s. The hero, Michael (Sean Nelson), is a young drug courier whose calm attitude and watchful intelligence are appreciated by the local drug lords, who want to bring him into their operations. What he does instead is start playing them off against each other, applying a gift for strategy honed through games of Blitz with his father, Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), a hustler who makes money playing speed chess on the street. One of the few times Sam attempts to be fatherly toward Michael leads to the monologue shown above.

The title refers to the hero’s street name, but it also describes writer-director Boaz Yakin’s approach, which upended the Boyz N the Hood formula (already stale after only three years) by dispensing with the obligatory hip hop soundtrack for a fully orchestrated score. Yakin, a screenwriter making his debut as a director, is equally at home with action and with quiet, character revealing moments. The performances are flawless: Sean Nelson’s turn as Michael is almost frighteningly assured, and the film also showcases stellar work from Giancarlo Esposito, Ron Brice and N’Bushe Wright.

The film watches Michael as closely as he watches the rest of the world, and Yakin lets us hear the gears quietly humming inside his head as he plots to get revenge and spring himself and his sister from the ghetto. Chess strategies are used in subtle ways, but Michael’s chief advantage is that none of the bad guys believe a mere kid could pose a threat. And just as the viewer starts to balk at the thought of a boy working with such icy control, Yakin — and Nelson — give us a glimpse of the damaged soul behind the impassive face, in a closing scene that will break your heart.

Today’s readings

First, check out Jill Lepore’s piece on Benjamin Franklin and the creation of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which is full of gems of information. Then read Jeff Sypeck’s critique of the new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he finds rather lacking. 

Blue Monday

The American Folk Blues Festival tours through Europe in the early 1960s were an amazing cultural watershed. American blues musicians who were pretty well washed up in the States found themselves being treated like kings on the other side of the Atlantic. Artists who’d spent their careers playing nightclubs and juke joints, routinely humiliated and degraded by Jim Crow, were suddenly playing in concert halls and television studios before polite, attentive audiences. Some of them never went back.

One of the biggest beneficiaries was Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson (II), who stayed on in England for a few years, enjoying the adulation of scores of young Brit musicians who diffidently sought to play with him, hoping some of that authentic blues life would rub off. There are recordings of the early Yardbirds backing up Sonny Boy; the R&B era Moody Blues toured with him and covered one of his tunes on their first album, before they reinvented themselves as the sons of Sergeant Pepper.

Since Eric Clapton led Sonny Boy’s backup players back in his scuffling days, I looked forward to reading Clapton’s autobiography for some tales of life on the road with the legendarily irascible bluesman. We should be so lucky — Clapton tosses off his Sonny Boy residency in a couple of sentences. Very disappointing.

Though he was having a great time in the U.K., Sonny Boy finally went home — literally — to die. While in Arkansas he crossed paths with the musicians who would later become The Band, which makes for one of the most extraordinary anecodotes in Levon Helm’s memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. That story deserves a post of its own, one of these days.

The Fischer King

Celebrity is a deeply weird condition, but one of its strangest aspects is that a given celebrity oftens ends up being remembered the least for the very thing that made him famous in the first place. So in many of the various writeups on the recent death of Bobby Fischer, less space is devoted to his brilliance as a chess player than to the long pathetic endgame that was his life following his 1972 faceoff against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik.

One of the reasons I like this Will Buckley piece in the Guardian is that it focuses on Fischer’s remarkable power as a player, which swept away (at least initially) any thoughts of his off-putting personal behavior. I grew up in a chess-mad household, and for us the 1972 match was an event comparable to a Beatles reunion. I still have my paperback copy of the New York Times team coverage of the match (which was also the first time I’d read anything about that strange, magical place called Iceland). At the time, it seemed that Fischer was on the brink of an astonishing career full of achievements and glory — one that would also elevate the game in the public eye. Fischer was on television, bantering with Johnny Carson. Chess was cool.

We all know what happened afterward. The phase of the Cold War in which it had been vitally important to beat the Soviet Union at everything, be it chess or space launches, sputtered to a close, and suddenly nobody had any more pateience for Fischer’s grandstanding eccentricity. In the 1980s, it was a very hip thing among chess buffs to have a copy of I Was Tortured In the Pasadena Jail, the bizarre pamphlet that served notice to the world that Fischer’s freak show phase had begun in earnest. But Fischer still had good ideas about how to transform tournament chess into a more exciting game, rather than an agonizingly long sessions in which players pore over the board and riffle through the formulaic moves they memorized. That those ideas are now apt to be written off as the notions of an anti-semitic crank is the saddest part of Fischer’s legacy to the game he loved above all other things.

When he was seated at a chessboard, Bobby Fischer was a blazing genius. When the chessboard was taken away, Bobby Fischer was a high school dropout whose brain was a slag heap of fundamentalist nuttery and Jew-hater ravings. I don’t expect sports figures to be role models or anything except what they are — people who are exceptionally good at something I admire. There are plenty of baseball, football and basketball players whose minds leave one with the urge to take a long hot shower, but all is forgiven as long as they play well.

Chess was the only reason Bobby Fischer became famous in the first place, and chess is the only thing he should be remembered for. There are people in positions of power whose worldviews are every bit as creepy as Fischer’s, and those are the ones we shold worry about. In the end, Fischer was a threat to nobody, except himself.

Waxing poetic

We all know the story about how Thomas Edison sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his first recording device in 1877, but he decided to upgrade after that. In 1890, Edison sent some technicians to record Alfred, Lord Tennyson reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in his home. Listen to it here. The sound quality is primitive, to say the least, but that’s the man himself reciting those lines.