Monthly Archives: May 2012

The long and the short of it

Movie writers in need of a space-filling trend piece or analytical thumbsucker have one topic they return to again and gain: movies are getting too long. Type the question Are movies getting too long? into Google and you’ll score plenty of hits from every year of the past decade. The recurrence of this topic led Roger Ebert to opine that “no good movie can be too long, and no bad movie can be too short.” Since two of this year’s biggest hits — The Avengers and The Hunger Games — are nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and other blockbusters waiting in the wings — Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit — will probably be in the same range, I expect we’ll see the topic trotted out again before too long.

Funny thing is, when you look at this inflation-adjusted list of all-time box office champions, only one Top 10 film clocks in under two hours: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was Walt Disney’s first attempt at the labor-intensive field of feature length animation. The rest are comfortably above the two-hour mark, except for E.T., which falls two minutes short. And two of the most enduringly popular flicks, Gone With the Wind and Titanic, are very long indeed, as are Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, and The Ten Commandments. The next ten titles tell the same story: except for animated films, which are aimed at a young audience with a limited attention span, the majority of the flicks are over two hours long, and sometimes quite a bit longer.

Since film is the most immersive art form, it follows that the most successful films take the time to make the viewing experience as detailed and absorbing as possible. So while I have my own list of movies I would be happy to see shortened — some of which I’d be delighted to edit myself, with a chainsaw and acetylene torch if possible — it appears that audiences tend to agree with Ebert. If the length of movies is indeed a problem, it’s mainly a problem for movie critics. If I hear of anyone shedding tears for that tribe, I’ll be sure to write it up here.  

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Paul Fussell

It’s appropriate that scholar-author-professional curmudgeon Paul Fussell would die just before Memorial Day weekend. He credited his World War II service with hammering his character into shape, even as he rained scorn on patriotic cant and the romanticization of war. His celebrated 1975 study The Great War and Modern Memory examined the way the carnage of World War I shaped a more skeptical and disillusioned generation, and he returned to the subject of warfare repeatedly in later studies and anthologies. Even his memoir was called Doing Battle, and his last book was The Boys’ Crusade, rooted in his experience of fighting in northwestern Europe.

Once out of uniform, Fussell carried his infantryman’s hatred of arbitrary authority into academe, and throughout his career as a public intellectual he made an art form out of getting up people’s noses. In the era of Jonathan Schell and the nuclear freeze movement, Fussell published an essay called “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” in which he described how he and fellow infantrymen wept with gratitude and relief at the news that Japan had surrendered. Fussell was among the troops being readied for the Pacific war — this after enduring countless horrors in Europe — and he had no doubt he would have died but for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though one of his early books was a fine study of Samuel Johnson, Fussell was sometimes so bitterly misanthropic that his true role model could have been Ambrose Bierce. “If I didn’t have my writing, I’d probably be running down the street throwing grenades in people’s faces,” he once remarked.

One of those grenades detonated in New Brunswick in 1982, via the unlikely agency of People magazine, which profiled Fussell after the publication of his essay collection The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. Fussell had won the National Book Award for The Great War and Modern Memory; that and the acclaim for Abroad, his 1980 book about British literary travelers in the early 20th century, had turned him into something of a celebrity. After years of coaxing signs of life from flatlined college students, Fussell was suddenly faced with people actually willing to listen to him, and the shock seemed to have knocked him off his rails. At that time he was living in Princeton and teaching at Rutgers, and in his People interview he let it drop that he considered his students “items out of a cookie cutter.” As you can imagine, this caused a bit of an uproar at Magoo U. I was doing a weekly column about Rutgers for the local daily The Home News, and when I mentioned the People brouhaha, my editor asked for an interview with Fussell. I put on my one brown suit, batted the straw out of my hair, and descended through the academic dungeons of Murray Hall to confront the not-quite-aged lion in his den.

The lion was on his best behavior that morning, though his frame of mind seemed less contrite than rueful, as befitted a man who had just learned that letting a journo into your house was only slightly less risky than carrying a scorpion in your pants pocket. The initial talk was actually rather bland. He complained a bit about the “cookie cutter” quote, saying it had been part of an unrelated conversation during the interview. I needled him a bit: “You mean you were quoted out of context?” He bridled a bit — Fussell was a man who would sooner committed seppuku than commit a cliche — and responded: “It was an error in emphasis.” At one point he glanced at my shoes and said, “Real history involves the study of shoelaces as well as statesmen.” I positively glowed with gratitude — at last, I had my good quote! — and for the next hour he loosened up considerably. He let drop the fact that his next book would be an examination of class in America, and he was positively gleeful at the thought of how many hackles it would raise.

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System came out the next year, and I read it with a bit of unease: he’d been scanning my duds during the interview, and I was sure my jacket went into his memory bank as evidence of the dreaded “prole collar gape.” It was a fun, bitchy book that covered “top out-of-sight” (the super-rich), “bottom out-of-sight” (prison inmates) and everything in between. Unfortunately, Fussell gave readers (and himself) an escape hatch by designating “Class X” for those free spirits who ignored class distinctions and did truly hip things, such as read books by Paul Fussell. The followup, BAD, or The Dumbing of America, read like the idiot stepchild of Class, and at the time Fussell seemed on track to become a wind-up contrarian — a P.J. O’Rourke who didn’t have to pretend he’d read Evelyn Waugh.

But he righted himself before too long, and resumed publishing work of real value. My first encounter with Fussell’s writing was the title essay of The Boy Scout Handbook, in which he acknowledged the dubious fixations of scouting’s founder, Anthony Baden-Powell, while praising the old handbook’s insistence on the need to build character by making demands on oneself in everything from sports to reading. That insistence on high standards, and his inclination toward snobbery, expressed as pissy contempt for much of modern life, marked Fussell as a conservative with some readers, but I don’t think the label was accurate. I would have loved to hear his thoughts about the religious cranks, ideological grifters, and pseudo-scholars infesting the ranks of conservatism, and the Medicare mobility-scooter crusaders of the Tea Party would have given him material for a whole second volume of Class. Asked for his opinion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Fussell snarled: “If you don’t get angry about this war, you don’t deserve to be alive.”

So let’s just say Paul Fussell was his own man, one who could infuriate and illuminate at the same time. There aren’t many writers who can do that, and Fussell’s passing leaves a big gap in their ranks.

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The egg cream challenge

Lou Reed sings the praises of the most perfect summer drink that doesn’t contain alcohol. (The one with alcohol would be a Dark’N’Stormy, or a gin and tonic.) Unfortunately, the only place in my immediate area that still knows how to make a real egg cream is Magnifico’s, on Route 18 North in East Brunswick, N.J. They understand that an egg cream starts with seltzer and syrup. If the workers at an ice cream joint ask you what kind of soda you want, change your order, because an egg cream made with Coke or root beer ain’t an egg cream.

So, what happens when people want an egg cream in some other part of the country? Feel free to list your egg cream connection in the comments field. Next time I’m traveling, I want to know if there are any options if I’m suddenly stricken with the unquenchable thirst for an egg cream.


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I link, therefore I am

All eight episodes of The Shock of the New, the magisterial 1980 series about modern art, narrated by the great art critic and historian Robert Hughes, is now available on YouTube. Up above is Episode One, “The Mechanical Paradise.” The other episodes are “The Powers That Be,” “The Landscape of Pleasure,” “Trouble in Utopia,” “The Threshold of Liberty,” “The View from the Edge,” “Culture As Nature,” and “The Future That Was.”

Slavery as the midwife of American freedom.

Poetry as a game of chess.

In 1995, Disney did something quite unusual, for Disney at least — it told a veteran animator, Steve Moore, to make a short cartoon in the fractured fairy-tale mode, all with complete stylistic freedom. The result, Redux Riding Hood, mingled the Big Bad Wolf, time travel, and a jazz soundtrack inspired by Charles Mingus. Watch it here

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Why did he chuckle?

“I have a friend, Big Bill Broonzy the great blues singer. And Big Bill and many elderly black men of a certain age were jacks of all trades. They were the grandsons of slaves and they could be masons and carpenters and electricians. Big Bill was a welder, and a very good one. And he taught this young white kid how to weld. The day the kid learned how to weld correctly is when they fired Bill. And he chuckles. Now why did he chuckle? It’s a safety valve.”

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He gives good thriller

J.D. Rhoades read my first novel in manuscript and gave it a blurb so sweet I wanted to have his adopted children. But the only reason I approached him for the blurb was that I already liked his stuff. Simply put, the man gives good thriller. So when I just happen to mention that his novel Lawyers, Guns and Money is available for a few days as a Kindle freebie, I’m doing both of you a favor. Just saying. 

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Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn

Aside from Motown maestro James Jamerson, it would be hard to name an electric bass player who had more impact on rock, soul, and R&B than Donald “Duck” Dunn, who just died at the age of 70 after playing two shows in Tokyo.

That’s Dunn playing the unstoppable bass line on “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” When he re-teamed with Steve Cropper for the Blues Brothers backup band, John Belushi and Dan Akroyd made it the opening theme of their concerts.

I always thought the sound effects at the beginning of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” were unnecessary: Dunn’s tidal bass line conveys the setting perfectly. Not that it keeps the song from being an all-timer:

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Meet me at the museum

The Hoboken Historical Museum, that is. That’s where I’ll be giving a talk on Sunday, June 24, as part of the museum’s program Driving Under the Hudson: A History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. The event is keyed to the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Holland Tunnel, which in turn leads to the Pulaski Skyway and the Route One Extension — the subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. (The book, incidentally, now has its own Facebook page.) The entire project — recognized as America’s first superhighway — was built to carry Holland Tunel traffic out of Jersey City and across the Meadowlands as expeditiously as possible. As the book reveals, things didn’t go quite so smoothly as planned. There was a nasty labor war during the construction of the final stretch through Hudson County, now known as the Pulaski Skyway, that resulted in a murder trial, and the entire design of the Skyway was compromised by political interference and inexperience with the new field of traffic engineering. If you want to know why driving the Skyway offers all the scares of a rollercoaster ride with none of the pleasures, The Last Three Miles will give you the answers. If you want a look into a previously little-known chapter of the career of political boss Frank Hague, The Last Three Miles will open a panoramic view. And if you want a chance to say hellp and talk about the book some more, come to the Hoboken Historical Museum on Sunday, June 24, at 4 p.m.

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Killing them what?

George V. Higgins wrote over two dozen novels (as well as several nonfiction works) before his untimely death in 1999, yet to date only one has been made into a film: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in 1973.  So it’s big news in my neck of the woods that the man’s third novel, Cogan’s Trade, has been adapted with a cast at least as good as the earlier film: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, James Gandolfini (surrendering again to the pull of gangster roles), and Slaine, who made such a hulking impression in Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Apparently it’s due out this fall, so that’s another flick to look forward to. I only hope the worst thing about the movie is its title, Killing Them Softly, which is plenty bad enough. The only bad thing about The Friends of Eddie Coyle was Dave Grusin’s score, which sounded like it was written to demonstrate just how dickless the electric piano can sound. A little ways back I argued for Higgins as a worthy addition to the Library of America pantheon, and I’m even more convinced about it now.

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Friday finds

Duke University has a digital archive of over 100 travel diaries written by British and American women.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing.

Not to be outdone, Ray Bradbury has 12.

George Orwell’s rules for making a perfect cup of tea.

The creator of Dracula died broke. There is also some dispute over what killed him.

Here’s an original way to reduce cognitive biases. And don’t we all want to reduce cognitive biases?

“I visited the Jenolon Caves in Australia, and in some of the caves they have self-guided tours where you pick up a headset and get descriptions of what you’re looking at. Since this is a big tourist destination they offer these in many languages. One of which is Klingon. I was startled when I saw that – I do wonder how many people choose to take the Klingon tour. But that has now become my ambition, to have the Dothraki language added to that, so we have equality with the damn Klingons.”

John Peel’s record collection, digitized. Starting with “A,” appropriately enough.

Behind the scenes at the auditions to find Sean Connery’s replacement as James Bond.

Now that a remake of Total Recall is about to open, look at some concept art from the time when David Cronenberg was set to direct the original film, before it ended up in Paul Verhoeven’s hands.

So — what would happen if you stuck your hand into the Large Hadron Collider? Well, you wouldn’t turn into Dr. Manhattan, that’s for sure.

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