Monthly Archives: July 2009

Famous Seamus

The Guardian has a wonderful article about Seamus Heaney on the occasion of his 70th year of livin’ la vida literary. If you want to learn something about savoir faire, read his account of what it was like to suffer a stroke while visiting playwright Brian Friel and his wife:

Heaney reports his instinctive Ulster sang froid, saying: “My sense of humour was intact as they were carrying me down.” Almost everyone involved in getting the bulky, 6ft figure of Heaney down the stairs had been involved with the Field Day theatre company, and many of the group had recently suffered minor illnesses. So now, with his natural detachment, Heaney made a joke. “It’s the curse of Field Day, I said. But within an hour I was in the ambulance.”

“The trip in the ambulance I always remember,” he says, “because Marie was in the back with me. I just wrote about it three weeks ago. To me, that was one of the actual beauties of the stroke, that renewal of love in the ambulance. One of the strongest, sweetest memories I have. We went through Glendorn on a very beautiful, long, bumpy ride to Letterkenny hospital.” There, they did a scan, he continues. “And the woman who was doing the scan – this is Ireland for you – the nurse said, ‘I believe you were at Friel’s last night.’ Her uncle had been at the party. So this is Ireland,” he repeats, with satisfaction. It’s certainly Heaney’s Ireland.

I have all of Heaney’s books of poetry, read aloud by the man himself, loaded into my iPod. I know what I’m listening to on the commute to work.

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The Wednesday Westie

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Early-morning-ready-to-bark-at-joggers-and-dog-walkers edition.

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Potter’s field

DumbledoreWhile watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in a packed theater, I was repeatedly reminded of a line from Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap: “This script is so good, not even a gifted director can ruin it!” Only in this case, replace the word “script” with “J.K. Rowling’s novel.”

That’s not to say Half-Blood Prince is a bad movie — far from it. This is a very watchable, cleverly made picture, second only to Prisoner of Azkaban among the films to date. Two and a half hours never passed so quickly in a theater.

But unlike the blowsy, overwritten Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which cried out for filmic streamlining, the Half-Blood Prince novel earned its page count with storytelling muscle. Of the four behemoths looming at the end of the Potter series, Half-Blood Prince was the most tightly written and carefully plotted. It was also the book in which the mountain of seemingly random details Rowling scattered through the first five novels started to snap into place to reveal a coherent design. Any cuts were bound to do serious damage. The interesting thing is that while director Daniel Yates and Steve Kloves so often chose the wrong things to cut, the strength of Rowling’s conception — and the quality of what remained after the cutting — still puts the film over the top.

I come to praise Half-Blood Prince, not to bury it, so let me say that the film showcases some excellent choices along with the mistakes. The masterstroke was casting Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the errant magician who may have unintentionally given nasty young Tom Riddle the means to become monstrous Lord Voldemort. Broadbent doesn’t match Rowling’s description, but he perfectly captures the character’s blend of appealing and exasperating qualities: the heedless snobbery that underlies the outward cheer, the generosity that redeems the instinct for social climbing, the guilt that spurs the evasiveness. Slughorn is the emotional center of Half-Blood Prince, just as Severus Snape is the tragic hero of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Broadbent — who has contributed expert supporting work in everything from Time Bandits to The Crying Game — brings him off superbly.

Yates also gives the film an artful, highly distinctive look, full of desaturated colors and unexpected camera angles that had me wishing, not for the first time, that the first two movies had been directed by an artist instead of a hack. Instead of making every scene groan under the weight of special effects, Yates has an instinct for backing off and giving us palette-cleansing moments, such as a seemingly blank screen that turns out to be an immense snow-covered field with Harry and his friends reduced to black specks. Yates is currently filming the two-part adaptation of Deathly Hallows, and I’m eager to see what he does with a story that spends long stretches outside the visual confines of Hogwarts.

So what are the mistakes? Chiefly the decision to cut back the long investigation into Voldemort’s background, conducted by Harry and Albus Dumbledore with the aid of captured memories, and amp up the various teen romances, which provide some good laughs but also distract from the whole point of the series: how a troubled young man turned himself into the embodiment of evil, and how his actions in turn shaped another troubled young man into his own nemesis. The few flashbacks remaining are handled with enough creepy flair to make us wish there had been more, a lot more.

Watching Half-Blood Prince, not only did I miss the climactic battle when the death-eaters invade Hogwarts, I really missed Rowling’s grace notes and character detailing: the satiric wit of the opening chapter and Rufus Scrimgeour’s hilarious exit line; Fleur Delacor and the wonderful moment when the woman everyone has dismissed as a beautiful twit reveals her inner steel; the disturbing secrets hinted at in the cavern scene, while Dumbledore is under the influence of Voldemort’s potion. I would have gladly traded any one of them for the long, pointless action sequence in which a band of Voldemort’s Death-Eaters attack the Weasley family abode.

But the two biggest mistakes, aside from the shift of emphasis to young love instead of old evil, are the fumbled climax between Dumbledore and Snape, and the disastrous ending, which is so disorganized and scattershot that I hesitate to say the film even has a proper conclusion. Rowling’s book shows Harry coming to grips with the utter grimness of his situation and, while not completely shaking it off, at least finding the determination to go on. Yates and Kloves give us some decorative images, an appallingly out-of-place joke from Hermione, and a sense that filmmakers who can march so confidently through passages of humor and action are unqualified to handle the deeper emotional currents Rowling created for her maturing characters.

What Half-Blood Prince needs is a Sam Gamgee moment, the equivalent of the moving speech Peter Jackson and his collaborators used to knit together the plot strands of The Two Towers and point the way to the conclusion in The Return of the King. That Yates and his collaborators felt no such need goes to the heart of why the Potter movies, for all their charm and imagination, are works of high-level craftsmanship instead of genuine artistry, like The Lord of the Rings.

There’s plenty of wizardry shown on the screen in Half-Blood Prince, but the real magic of Harry Potter remains on the printed page.

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Moonhead

“Moonhead” is an instrumental track from Pink Floyd, commissioned by the BBC for use in its coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The unreleased 1969 track has cropped up on a couple of Floyd bootlegs.

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Livin’ la vida Luna

Reading the Apollo 11 anniversary pieces yesterday, it occurred to me that my particular late-Fifties reverberation of the baby boom is quite intimately bound up in the entire lunar landing program. I mean, we literally grew up with the Apollo launches.

One of my earliest memories is walking past the corner news stand on the Boulevard in Hasbrouck Heights and seeing the photos of the scorched space capsule on the front of the Daily News. (I remember at least one relative opining that the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee proved the whole moon-launch program was ridiculously dangerous and ought to be abandoned.) Life magazine was still a going concern back then, so when I read the Apollo items in the Bergen Record and Time magazine, it was with the knowledge that soon there would be bedsheet-sized color photographs to savor.

I’ve already noted the fixed position Apollo 11 has in my mind. And the living-room television was always set on whatever network broadcast had the latest stuff on the highest-wire act that brought Apollo 13 safely home. I also remember the third-run movie theaters, stuck with showing a dreary Gregory Peck vehicle called Marooned, trying to pump up interest in their newspaper ads: IT ALMOST HAPPENED LAST WEEK IN SPACE! And since back then no pop-culture  experience was complete until it had been ridiculed in Mad magazine, I’ll always think of the magazine’s parody, Moroned, before I think of the actual movie.

Pop culture also tracked the rapid loss of interest in the program, when the wonder of space exploration seemed to dwindle into gimmicks. Golf on the moon! Cars on the moon! By the early Seventies, Gahan Wilson could score a point by showing astronauts shooting craps on the moon. Talk about a dying fall.

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At the zoo

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Someone told me it’s all happening . . .

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. . . at the zoo . . .

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. . . I do believe it . . .

. . . I do believe it’s true . . .

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Men on the moon

Forty years ago today. I remember like it was yesterday. There I was in a living room in northern New Jersey, watching men walk on the moon. For a fleeting moment, human beings were on two worlds instead of just one.

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Blue Monday

Duke Robillard, co-founder of the band Roomful of Blues and session man of choice for everyone from Elvis Costello to Bob Dylan, shows us what he’s made of.

Here’s Robillard taking up a Strat to play his tribute to T-Bone Walker.

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Friday finds

Sweet ThursdayCaustic Cover Critic interviews Mick Wiggins, whose lovely cover designs for the Penguin Classics editions of John Steinbeck could almost induce me to re-read Sweet Thursday, probably Steinbeck’s single worst novel (made all the worse by the fact that it’s a sequel to Cannery Row, his single best). Wiggins started out painting with oils, but in the Eighties he embraced digital techniques and gradually evolved a style that starts with scanned-in pencil sketches and proceeds from there with Photoshop. And here are some other examples of the man’s work, along with his Website.

A book that’s a study in ordinariness, in which little or nothing happens, and yet it’s fascinating. (Via Christian Bauman.)

What Richard Nixon couldn’t do, the Washington Post does to itself. And so, au revoir.

J.D. Lapidos reads the bogus Catcher in the Rye sequel and offers some advice.

Prep for the upcoming film version of Where the Wild Things Are by reading this excellent Bill Moyers interview with the author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak.

Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lectures series, delivered in 1964 at Cornell FeynmanUniversity, presented for you on video with annotations, all courtesy of Bill Gates, who thinks he may have gone into physics instead of software if he’d seen these lectures. The talks are delivered by Feynman in his characteristically humorous style and engaging style. (You’ll need to download Microsoft Silverlight to watch them, but it’s no biggie — even I managed it without trouble.) The name of the venture, Project Tuva, is pretty amusing if you know about Feynman’s interest in that country. It also gives you an impetus to add the charming film Genghis Blues to your Netflix queue.

This is going to be the Jack Vance summer, for me and a lot of other people. Songs of The Dying Earth, a collection of stories from other writers based on Vance’s seminal book The Dying Earth and its sequels, is coming out along with his memoir, This Is Me, Jack Vance. Even the New York Times has taken notice and given Vance a long, very knowledgeable profile.

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You can leave your Hatter on

Depp HatterTim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, due out in March, should be a visual feast, if nothing else. That said, I don’t much like this image of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, which brings to mind a background player in the Cirque du Soleil, or the result of some genetic experiment involving the DNA of Bozo the Clown and Quentin Crisp. It’s fine that Burton is amping up the menace that always coiled beneath the surface of the book, but the Mad Hatter is one of the dark stars of the Lewis Carroll universe, and I’m afraid this concept doesn’t do him justice.

To me, the most perfectly monstrous realization of the Mad Hatter is in the 1985 film Dreamchild, based on Dennis Potter’s script about the Mad Hatterrelationship between Rev. Charles Dodgson, who would become known to the world as Lewis Carroll, and Alice Lidell, whom the world remembers as the Alice who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Potter’s story uses the older Alice’s visit to the United States in 1932 as the springboard for a blend of fantasy and fact, in which the aged woman’s memories of Dodgson and his characters are tainted by the suspicion that Dodgson’s love for her was pedophile. There are several memorable sequences involving the Wonderland characters (realized by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) only now the critters created for a young girl’s Tenniel hatterdelight have become vulpine and threatening — embodiments of the older woman’s darkest fears. The scariest of the bunch is the Mad Hatter, crafted to resemble someone afflicted with mercury poisoning. Many readers assume the behavior of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter reflects the fact that mercury poisoning was an occupational hazard for hat-makers in the Victorian era — hot mercuric nitrate was the key to shaping animal pelts into felt, and workmen couldn’t help inhaling the toxic fumes — but the Hatter as described by Carroll (and drawn by John Tenniel) exhibits none of the classic symptoms. It’s pretty well accepted that Carroll’s creation was based on Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer and inventor who lived near Oxford and was known to locals as the mad hatter for his eccentric behavior and favorite headgear. Still, the Henson version of the Hatter is the only one that can stand alongside the Tenniel original for boldness and artistic daring.

I recently watched an old VHS copy of Dreamchild and it’s still a wonderful film: the closing scenes, in which the elderly Alice comes to terms with the past and realizes the depth of Dodgson’s love for her, is guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. For reasons I’m still not clear on, Dreamchild was destined for oblivion — apparently the production studio collapsed, leaving several orphaned properties of which Dreamchild was one — when it caught the attention of  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, whose praise led to a  limited theatrical release at the Public Theater, which is where I first saw it. Here’s hoping the hoopla around Burton’s vision of Wonderland leads some enterprising firm to issue a proper DVD and Blu-Ray edition of Dreamchild, a film that deserves to be far better known.

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