Monthly Archives: August 2010

The eleventh commandment

For an illustration of the dangers of violating the eleventh commandment — the one that goes “Thou shalt not believe thine own bullshit” — one need go no further than Terry Teachout’s trills of praise for David Mamet’s new collection of pieces, Theatre.

I have no interest in reading the book, not because David Mamet has declaimed that he is “no longer a brain-dead liberal” — he’s certainly no longer a liberal —  but because I’ve read his other nonfiction collections, and found that where Mamet’s scripts are terse and economical, his prose is glib and unconvincing. But Teachout is delivering an ideological tongue-bath, not a book review, and the piece is mostly a standard-issue compendium of self-contradictory wingnut shibboleths. You know the drill: Something (in this case, the American theater) is overrun by PC liberals marching in lockstep, only a few brave souls dare to defy left-wing orthodoxy, blah blah blah.

What’s amusing about this piece is that Mamet’s profanity-drenched plays, which normally would be denounced as anti-American and anti-family, must now be retrofitted as works of conservative thought. Thrill to the sight of Terry Teachout turning his spine into a mile-long Slinky as he stretches to make Mamet an avatar of libertarianism:

The only difference between Mamet then and Mamet now is that he has decided that government intervention can do little or nothing to ameliorate the effects of these struggles, and that men do better to work out their differences through the operation of free markets.

Does Terry Teachout go to movies and plays fitted out with blinders and earplugs? One would have to have spent the last two decades smoking crack through rolled-up copies of the American Spectator to see Mamet’s red-in-tooth-and-claw masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross, as an endorsement of the laissez-faire philosophy. The real-estate agents are conning their customers and conning themselves with go-getter talk. The only major character in the play (and film) who doesn’t belong in jail is Ricky Roma’s mark, whose only hope of escaping Roma-induced financial disaster is the law giving him three days to rescind a real-estate transaction — the kind of law Mamet’s newfound friends in wingnuttia would decry as an unnecessary shackling of the invisible hand of the marketplace.

Play after play, Mamet shows us small-time crooks and supposedly respectable people acting in ways that are virtually indistinguishable, and — excuse me? — this is supposed to make me want to deregulate everything in sight? As much as I love jazz and the music of Louis Armstrong, I’ve resisted getting Teachout’s new Pops bio — not because Teachout is conservative, but because I wonder if anybody who writes such nonsense is worth my dollars. Just reading him for free on the Intertubes leaves me feeling cheated.

It all goes back to that cornerstone of conservative self-congratulation, “the tragic view of history.” The idea is that conservatives, unlike blinkered liberals, are tough customers who understand that people are not good at heart, that they are usually unreliable bordering on evil, and somehow this view translates into endless tax cuts and corporate giveaways. Mamet and Teachout would no doubt rank me among the brain-dead liberals, since I believe to my last drop of heart’s blood that corporations (like politicians) cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. They need to be watched, and if they make a ka-ka in our nests, they need to be punished through the rule of law. My view has been out of favor this past quarter-century or so, with results that include global economic chaos, devastating climate change, and the toxic contamination of the Gulf of Mexico with oil and chemical dispersants, with the looting of Social Security just over the horizon.

In short, my brain-dead liberal belief is that a great many lessons about the value of government intervention — lessons learned at great cost in social turmoil and personal calamity — have been forgotten and/or willfully pushed out of sight by ideologues, some of them sincere and some of them bought and paid for by Daddy Wingbucks sponsors. How’s that for a tragic view of history, my little winger popinjays?

If  Terry Teachout is confused about the difference between “Mamet then and Mamet now,” I’ll explain it to him in simple terms. Mamet then wrote piercingly observant plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, and directed intellectually challenging films like House of Games. Mamet now writes glib screeds like Race and directs dumbass Rocky remakes like Redbelt. I won’t say the decline in the quality of Mamet’s work dovetails with his self-proclaimed conversion to wingerdom — signs of decay were cropping up as early as 1997 and Wag the Dog — but now they are of a piece, along with his coarse neocon war-whore posturing.

If Mamet sincerely believes that Thomas Sowell is one of the towering intellectuals of our era, he needs to get back in touch with the old neighborhood called reality. He might want to look up some of his old brain-dead liberal friends to draw him a map, because Terry Teachout sure ain’t gonna show him the way.

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A bookstore dream

Some people came into the bookstore to ask about “a mountain-climbing book” that involved assassins. “You mean The Eiger Sanction?” I asked, and they practically jumped up and down. “Yes! That’s it!”

As it turned out, I didn’t have The Eiger Sanction in the fiction room, but we ended up talking about Shibumi, Trevanian’s farewell to the superspy genre, and the utter lameness of the news that somebody had been hired to write either a prequel or a sequel. (Since Nicholai Hel isn’t in the happiest of situations at the end of the book, I assume Satori will be a prequel. That title doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence, I must say.) I managed to interest them in checking out Trevanian’s fifth novel, The Summer of Katya, a pre-WWI love story with a macabre final act that would have done Daphne du Maurier proud, and his last one, The Crazyladies of Pearl Street, a collection of vignettes about Depression-era life in an upstate New York town. I was on my way to the back room when the alarm went off.

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Friday finds

Obviously! The folks at Hammer Films sure knew how to blow the dust off those old horror movie tropes, and Titan Books is gearing up to release a collection of the best examples in The Art of Hammer, due out in October. Along with eye-catching posters, Hammer produced some memorable taglines: e.g., “Frankenstein spills it! Dracula drinks it!” I wouldn’t mind getting the book, but where Hammer is concerned, what I’m really jonesing for is The Icons of Suspense Collection, if only for the chance to catch up with These Are the Damned, a 1963 Joseph Losey film that starts as an eccentric drama about Teddy Boys in a seaside town, then veers into memorable science-fiction terrain. I saw a butchered version decades ago on late-night television, and those voices crying along the cliff struck a deep chord.

I like Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf a lot more than Jeff does, but Jeff’s right when he tries to bring other, possibly even better translations out from under Heaney’s shadow.

The five weariest cliches of negative book reviews.

One of “the world’s most endearingly odd publishing houses.”

The story of Mad Dog and the Pilgrim, and the best place in Wyoming to find old books and fresh eggs.

For sheer sustained pop dementia, this Rajinikanth number is hard to beat. If the hero from Inception had been assigned to infiltrate Michael Jackson’s dreams and plant the idea of doing a Bollywood musical, this would have been the result.

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Calling Oliver Sacks

Here’s a question for all you musicians out there: is there something about playing the piano that encourages vocalizing by the pianist? I’ve gone through several of my favorite piano records — Errol Garner’s Concert By the Sea, Ellington at Newport, Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert and Dark Intervals — and noticed weird mumbling sounds that I presume are the pianists themselves muttering along with the music.

Jarrett has long been infamous for grunting and moaning in cosmic ecstasy at his own playing, but this mumbling sound is different. It’s almost as though Duke and Errol are keeping themselves sorted out with this kind of low-level semi-singing, like the subject of Oliver Sacks’ essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Either that, or they’re praying to Cthulhu and muttering passages from The Necronomicon. It isn’t just jazz, either: Glenn Gould drove his producers crazy by tweetling along with himself as he played. So what gives?

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With his new film Inception, Christopher Nolan proves once and for all that he is the only mainstream filmmaker qualified to adapt Philip K. Dick’s fiction, despite the fact that he has never actually tried to do so.

Nolan’s second feature, Memento, is Exhibit A in my argument that he and not Richard Linklater should have been the one to film A Scanner Darkly (more on that subject here). The bipartite structure of Memento, with one storyline running in reverse chronology to merge with the second in real time, would be an excellent way to make Bob Arctor’s schizoid breakdown visceral and frightening.

Meanwhile, the dreams-within-dreams setup of Inception proves Nolan should take over the pending remake of the vapid Total Recall and wrench it back in the direction of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Though, given how thoroughly he works out his themes in this demanding film, Nolan might well look over Ubik or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and think, Been there, done that.

So, what has Nolan done with Inception? For one thing, he’s broken the curse of The Director’s Pet Project That Follows a Big Success. Inception is no Heaven’s Gate or 1941 or Last Temptation of Christ. If the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight made Inception possible, we can only be thankful that Nolan spent the better part of a decade working on his script before he cashed in his chips.

For another, Nolan has made an intellectually challenging movie that packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch. Nolan’s fondness for intricate plots and puzzle-box structures has led some critics to brand him as chilly and distant, but Leonard’s monologue in Memento about the impossibility of healing without being able to experience the passage of time is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in a film.

In fact, Inception plays as a companion piece to Memento in that its hero, who practices corporate espionage by literally infiltrating the dreams of his targets, is also a deeply wounded man frozen by grief over a lost wife. Like Leonard Shelby, he also finds a way to transcend his handicap and attain a kind of peace. After a single viewing, I’m still not sure about the steps that bring the hero to that resolution, but never once while watching Inception did I get the feeling that the director was simply jerking me around. In expect all will become clear after a few spins in the DVD player, just as Memento revealed its elegant setup and oddly satisfying conclusion after a little extra quality time.

Meanwhile, the nice thing about Blade Runner is that it departed so drastically from its source material that a new take on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might very well fly. If Christopher Nolan wanted to take it on, you wouldn’t hear any complaints from me. After all, the man’s qualified.

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