Monthly Archives: July 2008

Now it can be told

Having been a dedicated reader of James Wolcott from his Village Voice days to his current position atop Parnassus — i.e., Vanity Fair — I’ve wondered why a man so smart and funny, and so reliably amusing in his talk-show appearances, hasn’t turned up as the host of his own show.

Wolcott himself has now disclosed the fate of “Word Up with James Wolcott,” a pilot show given a tryout by TCM before a live audience.  

My first guest was legendary director Mike Nichols, who owed somebody at TCM a favor. Rather than fawn over him every which way as Charlie Rose would have done, I decided to open with a wicked slider to throw Mr. Diane Sawyer off balance and provoke him to “open up.” Instead of blah-blah’ing about his endless string of directorial triumphs, I asked him about his acting role in the screen adaptation of Wally Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. I said:

“Pauline Kael hailed your performance in the film, claiming that the role allow your cold, clammy inner weaselly qualities to rise to the runny surface. Any response?”

Nichols fixed me with a gaze that was an odd mingling of contempt, bewilderment, and fury, and something whooshed past my ear that may have been a carefully concealed dagger. I then asked him which actress he thought possessed the best rack in Charlie Wilson’s War, and this too proved a fruitless route of inquiry.

That’s quite an arsenal of conversation-starters there, James. Can’t iagine why they didn’t go over.

As Dennis Miller can attest, this business of hosting your own TV show can be a lot tougher than it looks. Miller suffered the double burden of not having been all that amusing to start with, then allowing his meager reserve of funny to leak away in endless fawning over George W. Bush and his band of merry men. But Wolcott can make you laugh out loud while reading his columns, so the thought of him playing to dead air and an ossifying audience should be a caution to us all.

On the other hand, if TCM is looking for an eager talk show host, I am available.

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Just a bunch of words

What people call the slow death of the newspaper industry is actually more of an assisted suicide. Like the stranded surgeon in that Stephen King story who keeps himself alive through piecemeal self-cannibalism, newspapers have spent the better part of three decades cutting away the things that make people want to read newspapers, while changing their format to appeal to the kind of people who don’t or very seldom read newspapers. Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?

So the news that Sam Zell, the former real estate magnate who Peter Principled himself into a media mogul, is going to eliminate the Los Angeles Times Book Review as a stand-alone section and just stick some book reviews in back of one of the sections is hardly surprising.  

I was tempted to lead off with a variation on the old ethnic joke: “How do you set Sam Zell up with a small newspaper company? Let him buy a big newspaper company, and then wait.” But Zell’s no more or less stupid than any of the village idiots who’ve been running the newspaper business into the ground since the 1970s. The Record, formerly one of New Jersey’s best newspapers, just decided to vacate its old office building and force most of its reporting staff to work from their cars as “mojos,” which is dumbass management happy talk for “mobile journalists.” By that standard, Sam Zell is Charles Foster Kane, for the time being. 

With the exception of warhorses like the New York Times, newspapers are no longer a mass medium. They’re a boutique medium — one that rises and falls on the interest of people who like to read. Seems to me that an industry dependent on readers would want to cultivate people who buy lots of books — it’s that whole reading thing, you know? People who read a lot also tend to be people who value staying informed on current events. It seems like a no-brainer, but unfortunately, “no brainer” is a pretty good working description of the average newspaper executive.

So, away with the L.A. Times Book Review. It’s just a bunch of words, and what does a newspaper care about such things?

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The freelance literary life

Oh, the glamour of it all:

It is, unfortunately, not enough to be honest in this city. I will not give blowjobs for bylines. I will not laugh at peoples’ unfunny jokes because I want them to be impressed by me. I will not become someone else so that I can be absorbed into this elite, nefarious world where people trade intellect like currency. Ironically, it’s all bankrupt.

I am getting out of New York for awhile, from August-January. Perhaps the person who gave us this advice should heed it, too: Get out. New York is not a place for serious people.

Anybody know a good literary scene out there?

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All robots great and small

Watching the film Wall-E and its little robot scurrying through the wreckage of consumer civilization stirred memories of a series of cover paintings, from 1955 to 1971, done by Mel Hunter for F&SF, the awkward-sounding acronym for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a publication as great as its title was (and is) unwieldy. The covers, 15 in all, depicted a lone robot moving through the ruins of what, given the Cold War tenor of the time, suggested a post-nuclear holocaust landscape, acting out the rituals of the humans that once lived there.

I’m not remotely suggesting plagiarism on the part of the Wall-E team: their janitor-robot evokes E.T. rather than Hunter’s spindly machine, and the film’s message is ultimately hopeful. Hunter may have imagined his robot in the spirit of whimsy, but the cumulative effect of his images — e.g., the robot trying to figure out a useless rowboat, or staring up at a traffic light, waiting to cross a street that no longer exists — is rather bleak and lonely.

The chief similarity is that Hunter, like Wall-E’s creators at Pixar, knew how to tell a story in purely visual terms, and used his character to convey a great deal without words. You can cruise for thumbnails of his work and some other superb F&SF artists right here.

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Two realizations

Nothing like a blast-furnace weekend to make you appreciate the cool spaces of a movie matinee. So off we went to the Loews to see Wall-E and that’s where I had my first of two movie-related realizations of the weekend.

Wall-E itself is wonderful, not only for the quality of its animation — in this, Pixar continues to set the standard — but also for the wit and economy of its storytelling. Roughly the first third of the film is devoid of dialogue as the eponymous robot scuttles about a deserted, garbage-suffocated Earth, and yet the film conveys a great deal of information through purely visual means. I’m always annoyed when a reputed masterpiece pf “pure cinema” like Blade Runner needs to open with a blurt of text exposition — “It is the year blah-blah. Mankind has created artificial humans . . .” — when all that information could be conveyed more gracefully through character and visual clues. It’s not simply a failing for science fiction films, either: plenty of mainstream or historical films open with dopey mini-lectures (“It is the time of the Gang Lords. It is the time of Al Capone.”) instead of turning images and story into tools of discovery.

Stanley Kubrick manages to convey some rather sophisticated concepts through the wordless opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood tells us everything we need to know about Daniel Plainview without a scrap of dialogue. The first words are spoken roughly a half-hour into the film, when Plainview starts to con his victims, but by then the essence of the man has been conveyed. Wall-E uses the detritus of consumer society as a vehicle of exposition, and it does so beautifully.

I also like the way Pixar films build their emotional peaks through generosity and big-heartedness instead of ham-handed pounding at people’s sentimental buttons. It would have been easy for Wall-E to score cheap satirical points by having the bloated, mechanically pampered humans cling to their infantile existence; instead, given a chance to experience life directly, they leap for it and Wall-E becomes genuinely inspiring. There are plenty of scenes exploiting the little robot’s E.T.-like cuteness, but when the story requires something more, the film rises to the occasion. Think of the way Ratatouille gives its villain, the cadaverous food critic Anton Ego, the chance to sum up its story: “Not anyone can be a great artist, but great art can come from anywhere.” I don’t know about you, but to me that delivers a bigger, better punch than umpteen listenings of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” And when the creatures in Monsters, Inc. learn it’s more powerful to engage people’s imaginations instead of just relentlessly exploiting their fears, I wonder if the Pixar crew didn’t have a crystal ball that let them warn us about the incoming Bush administration.

I also saw The Dark Knight, and can confirm that everything you’ve heard about Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is true. I though Batman Begins was a decent enough relaunch, though frankly I have trouble remembering all the arcane training stuff that took up so much of the running time. The Dark Knight stands head and shoulders above its predecessor, by virtue of its script and its acting. I like the way Ledger played the initial meeting with the mobsters, nervous and somewhat uncertain, yet so crazy he soldiers on with his plan. (The “magic trick” with the pencil nicely punctuates the scene, so to speak.) “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger,” the line that introduces the Joker, could serve as the omnibus title of this whole series. Christopher Nolan is still learning his way around big action sequences, but when the script (co-written by Nolan and his brother) and performances are this good, who cares? I’ve already seen plenty of car chases.

The film opens well, but at first I thought I was watching another case of a film generating pre-release expectations beyond all possibility of fulfillment. But about halfway through, as the stakes and emotions continued to mount, I realized that comic book movies are the grand opera of the 21st century, and Chris Nolan is their Verdi. (I guess that makes The Dark Knight the modern equivalent of La Forza del Destino.) The outsized emotions, the larger-than-life characters and costumes, the broad and often quite memorable music, the plots that are too ridiculous to take seriously unless you’re completely caught up in them — it’s all grand opera, folks, only the women in the winged helmets aren’t built like tanks and the men don’t look like they had to be pried loose from the concession cart before the overture. Instead of Tosca jumping off the battlement, you get Two-Face and Batman hurtling from a construction site. (Handy things, those half-completed office buildings — where would action movies be without them?) You get the music and the emotions without the long recitatives. As someone who was never much of an opera buff to begin with, I find that a good tradeoff.

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Still more Library of America contenders

The list so far: Chester Himes, Charles Portis, Iceberg Slim, Walter Tevis and Robert Silverberg. Charles Bukowski, John D. MacDonald, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert E. Howard and Susan Sontag. Upton Sinclair, Patricia Highsmith and Frederick Manfred. All of them great American writers worthy of the Library of America. And now . . .

HARLAN ELLISON (1934) A unique American voice, half Borscht Belt and half Borges, and a writer who straddles genres and storytelling modes without letting them define him, often pushing their boundaries beyond recognition in the process. Though often classified as a science fiction writer, Ellison has grown from his start in the SF and crime genres to develop an instantly recognizable, inimitable form he calls “dark, twisted fantasy,” one that parallels (without imitating) the best of Carlos Fuentes and other magic realists even while boiling with Ellison’s idiosyncratic, combative manner. Though he was feverishly productive as a writer, essayist, scriptwriter and editor from the mid-1950s onward, Ellison’s defining work began in the mid-1970s with “The Deathbird,” a tour de force novella that took off from later Mark Twain works like “The Mysterious Stranger,” mixing autobiographical and fictional elements to create a tragic, wrathful vision of man’s place in the universe. Subsequent stories like “Coatoan” and “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” have continued in this vein, and while Ellison has gained a measure of critical approval over the years, it’s pretty clear that a writer of similar accomplishments, but not burdened with the SF association, would have long ago been hailed as a literary giant. There have been several attempts to bring Ellison’s unwieldy, hugely varied body of work back into print, but the LoA is in a position to bring scholarly precision and credibility to the project.

An initial volume would combine his early novels Web of the City and Spider Kiss — the latter a scathing, knowledgeable look at the early years of rock and roll — with the numerous short stories from the decade when Ellison’s work mingled pulpy crime tales with increasingly outre fantasies such as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The latter stories, starting with “The Deathbird,” could easily support a second volume. Ellison’s combative essays and reviews also merit a volume: Ellison’s abrasive shtick can overwhelm individual essay collections like The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, Harlan Ellison’s Watching and Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, but they could be boiled down to a single, gem-studded collection, rounded out by Memos From Purgatory, his account of a brief sojourn in a teen gang. A fourth volume of screenplays for The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek, all of them classics of the form, combined with unrealized but published scripts for films such as I, Robot and The Starlost would be a stretch, but an appropriate one: no other writer has accumulated so many honors for work that ended up distorted or sidelined. As an anthologist and editor — notably on the landmark Dangerous Visions (1967) and its successor, Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) — Ellison served as a kind of literary tummler, giving each story a brief introduction that spotlighted its author while suffusing the collection with Ellison’s inimitable voice: a sampling of these distinctive pieces belongs in the nonfiction volume. Ellison’s combativeness with publishers and film studios has produced a body of litigation equal to his other work, but I doubt LoA would spring for a collection of legal briefs. More’s the pity. Surely the story of how he brought James Cameron to heel over The Terminator should be preserved for future generations.

JOHN O’HARA (1905-1970) In the American novel of manners, John O’Hara is Henry James with a highball in one hand and a set of brass knuckles in the other; Edith Wharton with an attitude and a haymaker; F. Scott Fitzgerald drained of sentimentality and fortified with a talent for dialogue. Starting in 1934, O’Hara wrote a core of novels — Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Hope of Heaven, Pal Joey, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace — that studied Depression- and World War II-era America with a piercing eye. His blunt language and frank sexuality scared Hollywood away from his work for a couple of decades; when film versions were finally produced, the results were often unwatchably campy — Hollywood has ever been comically incapable of dealing with class and caste. Nevertheless, the 1960 film version of BUtterfield 8 bagged Elizabeth Taylor her first Oscar and led O’Hara to joke that in writing Gloria Wandrous he “created Elizabeth Taylor before there was an Elizabeth Taylor.” (One could say O’Hara did the same favor for Frank Sinatra by writing Pal Joey, the film of which is the definitive Sinatra vehicle.) O’Hara called one of his nonfiction collections Sweet and Sour, but there was never much sweetness in him and the little that was there curdled with age. Even as his novels dimmed, O’Hara continued to produce short stories, and many admirers maintain that the shorter works allowed O’Hara’s gifts their proper scope. O’Hara was an aggressive social-climber and career snob, with a mile-wide nasty streak, a habit of getting into brawls and a penchant for harboring slights that existed only in his mind. By the Sixties his conservative politics had turned acrid and nasty, and he brought sulfurous rancor and a long memory to a series of literary feuds. But rather than let this nonsense overshadow O’Hara’s body of work, go read the virtuoso opening chapter of his 1934 debut novel Appointment in Samarra, which carries the reader through several viewpoints from every social level of a small Pennsylvania town, from a Cadillac-dealer’s employee to country-clubbers at a Christmas Eve party to a gangster’s flunky making a late-night liquor delivery, telling us everything we need to know about the mores of this inbred coalfield burg while following the ripples from an impulsive act that seals the doom of the main character. The act itself is never shown directly, but refracted through different eyes and viewpoints, it shows us a man sabotaging himself even as he struggles to survive. Separate volumes for the early novels and the short stories belong in the LoA catalogue. Brought up in the Pennsylvania coal country, O’Hara remained a small-town snob at heart, but he was a mercilessly observant one, and he had a knack for arranging small, mean truths into big, revealing murals. 

GEORGE V. HIGGINS (1939-1999) Often cited as the successor of John O’Hara for the artful realism of his dialogue, Higgins quickly mapped out his own artistic terrain as a keen observer of lowlifes, crooks, politicians and police (usually Irish-American) in and around Boston and New England. Drawing on his background as a former newspaperman, district attorney and defense lawyer (he numbered Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy among his clients), Higgins wrote what could be called drawing-room dramas about unredeemed scumbags. “Dialogue is character and character is plot” was one of his maxims, and he demonstrated it in his work. Early Higgins novels such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Cogan’s Trade include brief interludes of action, described with cinematic precision, but the mature and later works subordinate action and plot to load-bearing dialogue, which remains salty and flavorful — so much so that crucial events can slip past the reader and force him to backtrack. This is not a problem in the early novels, with their straightforward crime plots, but in the later books, which widen to include political skullduggery and complex relationships, it makes considerable demands on the reader, and it’s not surprising that Higgins’ audience shrank to a hard core of admirers by the early 1980s. Higgins was relentlessly productive, publishing 27 novels and countless nonfiction pieces from 1972, when The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a critical and commercial success, to his sudden death from cancer in 1999. Not all of it was brilliant, but a lot of it came close. In a perfect world, I would mandate a volume for the best early novels (Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game, Cogan’s Trade, The Judgment of Deke Hunter, Dreamland) and another for the later standouts: A Choice of Enemies, Imposters, Trust, Bomber’s Law and At End of Day.

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Good golly, Mr. Brolly

It keeps the rain off your head, you can stand on it, use it to split watermelons and employ it to whack somebody senseless. I’m still trying to decide if this video makes me think more of James Bond or Monty Python.

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Al fresco authors

You’ve heard of him — winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction does tend to raise one’s profile a bit — and if you hoof out to the Central Park Summerstage this Thursday you can hear from him: Junot Diaz, author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the short-story collection Drown, will be reading his work, which I’ve been raving about here.

Bite-size reading

Here is a good idea that needs to be emulated elsewhere: Bit o’ Lit, a booklet-sized freebie given out to commuters on the D.C. Metro, containing excerpts from new fiction and nonfiction titles. Please refer the link to your local AINOP (Author in Need of Publicity). Bird-dogged by Buzz, Balls & Hype.

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Dark Twain

The Stranger had seen everything, he had been everywhere, he knew everything, and he forgot nothing. What another must study, he learned at a glance; there were no difficulties for him. And he made things live before you when he told about them. He saw the world made; he saw Adam created; he saw Samson surge against the pillars and bring the temple down in ruins about him; he saw Caesar’s death; he told of the daily life in heaven; he had seen the damned writhing in the red waves of hell; and he made us see all these things, and it was as if we were on the spot and looking at them with our own eyes. And we felt them, too, but there was no sign that they were anything to him beyond mere entertainments. Those visions of hell, those poor babes and women and girls and lads and men shrieking and supplicating in anguish – why, we could hardly bear it, but he was as bland about it as if it had been so many imitation rats in an artificial fire.

And always when he was talking about men and women here on the earth and their doings – even their grandest and sublimest – we were secretly ashamed, for his manner showed that to him they and their doings were of paltry poor consequence; often you would think he was talking about flies, if you didn’t know. Once he even said, in so many words, that our people down here were quite interesting to him, notwithstanding they were so dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited, and so diseased and rickety, and such a shabby, poor, worthless lot all around. He said it in a quite matter-of-course way and without bitterness, just as a person might talk about bricks or manure or any other thing that was of no consequence and hadn’t feelings. I could see he meant no offense, but in my thoughts I set it down as not very good manners.

“Manners!” he said. “Why, it is merely the truth, and truth is good manners; manners are a fiction. The castle is done. Do you like it?”

Any one would have been obliged to like it. It was lovely to look at, it was so shapely and fine, and so cunningly perfect in all its particulars, even to the little Flags waving from the turrets. Satan said we must put the artillery in place now, and station the halberdiers and display the cavalry. Our men and horses were a spectacle to see, they were so little like what they were intended for; for, of course, we had no art in making such things. Satan said they were the worst he had seen; and when he touched them and made them alive, it was just ridiculous the way they acted, on account of their legs not being of uniform lengths. They reeled and sprawled around as if they were drunk, and endangered everybody’s lives around them, and finally fell over and lay helpless and kicking. It made us all laugh, though it was a shameful thing to see. The guns were charged with dirt, to fire a salute, but they were so crooked and so badly made that they all burst when they went off, and killed some of the gunners and crippled the others. Satan said we would have a storm now, and an earthquake, if we liked, but we must stand off a piece, out of danger. We wanted to call the people away, too, but he said never mind them; they were of no consequence, and we could make more, some time or other, if we needed them.

When it comes to Mark Twain, darker is usually better. What’s striking is how few people realize just how dark Twain could get — check out A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and tell me if it feels like a jolly medieval romp to you. The video clip above, which takes off from Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger,” is a good example of how spooky Twain could get in his bleaker moods.

The clip is from The Adventures of Mark Twain, a 1985 folly directed by Claymation impresario Will Vinton, better known as the man who brought you the California Raisins and the Oscar-winning short “Closing Time.” The bizarre plot has Twain piloting an airship in search of Halley’s Comet so he can be rid of the tedious human race; Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher come aboard and try to convince Twain to keep sharing his talents with the rest of mankind. The journey incorporates scenes and dialogue from various Twain stories, in ways that frequently reminded me of Between Time and Timbuktu, a made-for-TV movie from the early 1970s (long overdue for revival) that strung together elements from Kurt Vonnegut’s work.              

Come to think of it, a better comparison would probably be Baron Prasil, a 1961 epic from Karel Zeman that is one of the strangest, most ambitious and borderline incomprehensible films ever made. It was briefly distributed in this country as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and saw a fleeting video release to capitalize on Terry Gilliam’s film. You’ll get some idea of the flavor from the opening, in which an astronaut arrives on the moon to be greeted by Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne and . . . well, take a look:

Zeman was hugely ambitious, and his films constantly strained against the limits of early 1960s filmmaking techniques. The Fantastic World of Jules Verne, a predecessor to Baron Prasil, was designed to look like a series of Victorian engravings, and damned if Zeman didn’t pull it off most of the time.

Terry Gilliam is reportedly a fan of Zeman’s work; you can certainly see a stylistic debt in this other clip from Baron Prasil:

Zeman’s work has that slightly nightmarish texture that seems to be the house style for Czech stop-motion films, such as Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 take on Alice in Wonderland:

Zeman and Vinton shared a problem: their films didn’t slot neatly into any particular category, but because they used animation, they were tagged as children’s movies. I saw The Adventures of Mark Twain at an afternoon screening in a theater packed with kids, who quickly lost interest and spent the film talking and running up and down the aisle. The “Mysterious Stranger” scene was literally above their heads.

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