Monthly Archives: June 2012

Friday finds

New York City a century ago, as chronicled in photos from the city Department of Records. The images range from disturbing (two would-be robbers who met their end at the bottom of an elevator shaft) to beautiful (an unidentified man looking at Manhattan from the George Washington Bridge). Most have never before been publicly available.

The hidden rooftops of New York City. One in the Financial District sports a model of a World War I fighter plane.

What do women want? Author Beverly Akerman reads 50 Shades of Grey to find out.

Lock Neil Young into a listening booth with an ocelot? I am so there!

How to make medieval illuminated letter cookies.

Because it had to happen — The Wire: The Musical. With some of the original cast members, yo. So much awesome in one place.

While you’re waiting for next April and the start of the Game of Thrones third season, cool your heels on this replica of the Iron Throne. While you’re at it, you can ponder these scientifically plausible explanations for those highly variable seasons.

Planning to visit Germany? Be sure to spend some quality time at Ferropolis.

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Master Po outdrinks Master Yoda

It’s not like the New York Times is asking for my opinion on this burning question, but should the Grey Goose ever ask, my response would be: “Fiction, like all art, has no purpose — just an infinity of uses.” And then the gong would sound and I would go back to my chugging contest with Master Yoda and Master Po.

Ray Bradbury

If you could study the mind of any lifelong, dedicated reader, I bet you would find an early encounter with the stories of Ray Bradbury way back there in the intellectual DNA. Mention his name to a member of that happy clan and you’ll see a little spark in the eyes that suggests memories of winter landscapes briefly turned to summer by a rocket launch, stained glass windows with colors that reveal alternate universes, mechanized houses kept spotlessly clean for occupants who will never return, and foghorns visited by lonely dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury, who just died at 91, was a magician, and anyone who encountered him at the right age was forever marked.

I couldn’t imagine my crucial reading years without him. Talk about happy accidents! I came to his work by way of Francois Truffaut’s bungled film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was shown on television quite often while I was a boy obsessed with monsters and science fiction. (I can only imagine what Bradbury, a lifelong technophobe who despised TV, would have made of that connection.) After reading the novel I came across the story collection The October Country, and fell into Bradbury’s alternate universe, an idealized but not entirely benign small-town Midwest where the colors were a little brighter and the shadows a little darker. I snapped up other titles in short order: The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, S Is For Space. Though the novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes have their admirers, I always  thought Bradbury (like Hemingway, a key influence) worked best in short forms. The magic was most effective in concentrated doses.

Bradbury lived a long happy life, with no shortage of admirers (some of whom probably startled him a bit), and he kept writing up to the end. Thanks to early praise from literary heavyweights, he spent his career outside the “Sci-Fi Guy” corral that penned in so many other writers. Bradbury himself preferred to call his work fantasy, but that didn’t keep him out of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he was one of the first writers honored by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in its series of tribute issues.   

Appropriately for a writer, Bradbury penned his own best epitaph, in the 2005 collection Bradbury Speaks:

In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.

ADDENDUM: President Obama pays tribute to Ray Bradbury.

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The old man and the flea

HBO has a pretty high batting average with its original programming, but Hemingway & Gellhorn still has me shaking my head a week after viewing. It’s the kind of Did I really see that? jaw dropper that only comes around once every decade or so.

Conceived as the chronicle of Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (the penultimate Mrs. Hemingway) fighting and fucking their way through history, the film shows director Philip Kaufman reclaiming his Nineties title as the king of high-minded softcore, literary division. His initial entry (so to speak) into this field, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had enough going on to make it worth another look, but Henry and June (the literary passion of Henry Miller and Anais Nin) kept me snickering into my Raisinets the whole way through. Hemingway & Gellhorn is the further detumesence of Kaufman’s ambitions. When the two writers consummate their simmering passion in the Hotel Florida during a Fascist bombing raid, Kaufman shows them rutting atop a desk as shells explode and plaster dust blankets their bodies. I dunno — drizzles of grit and debris never really worked as turn-ons for me, even with Nicole Kidman, but Kaufman is just getting started. Later on, the scene shifts to Havana and we see the two getting it on in a nightclub dressing room as Cuban hotties twirl their feather boas and get their g-strings nestled properly. James Wolcott likens Hemingway & Gellhorn to one of Joe Eszterhas’ heavy-breathing schlock epics — “the Showgirls of the Lost Generation.” Kaufman goes Eszterhas one better (or worse) by using Forrest Gump trickery to splice his lovers into the Spanish Civil War, with each transition telegraphed by the color draining from the image. “Look Papa, we’re turning black and white! We’re entering history again!”

When people say they don’t like Hemingway, they usually don’t mean the work as much as his image. That’s understandable: It’s an unattractive image, easily ridiculed, and Kaufman (along with his screenwriters) never skips a chance to hammer us with it. Though lip service is paid to Hemingway’s talent and dedication, Hemingway & Gellhorn paints him as a mechanical bull, a capon pretending to be a rooster. The endless dick-measuring with other men, the readiness to cock a leg over any writer who might threaten his top-dog status, the pompous self-mythologizing — all of it gets trotted out here, emphasized by Clive Owen’s blustery performance.  (With his bushy moustache and dorky beret, Owen alternately resembles a buffed-up Groucho Marx and Kevin Kline’s moronic assassin from A Fish Called Wanda.) All of it will be old news to anyone familiar with its source: the 1950 profile Lillian Ross wrote for The New Yorker. What’s more interesting is the fact that the New Yorker piece, widely remembered as a stake through the heart of Hemingway’s reputation, caused barely a ripple in his friendship with Ross:

As a friend, Hemingway was stalwart. He had told me to feel free to write whatever I chose to write about him, and he never reneged. “I thought your piece was a good, straight OK piece,” he said about the Profile initially. A week later, he said: “Don’t ever worry about loseing” — it was his habit to keep the “e” in his participles — “me friends nor anything about piece.” He added, “I take the wind like an old tree; have felt the wind before; north south east and west.” Another time he said that he lost about a friend a day over the Profile. “But what the hell; any friend you can lose you might as well lose them early and anyway it is too late.” Once he said: “Please don’t think you ever have to answer any jerks or ever defend me. I am self-propelled and self-defendable.” And again: “Actually good old Profile made me about as many enemies as we have in North Korea. But who gives a s—-? A man should be known by the enemies he keeps.” Several years later, he told me that people continued to talk to him about the Profile: “All are very astonished because I don’t hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say. I always tell them how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?”

That Hemingway is absent from Hemingway & Gellhorn, as is any hint of the talent that led Gellhorn to hitch her wagon to his star. Ironically, Kaufman and his writers let Hemingway off the hook too easily with their chaotic depiction of the Spanish Civil War episode, though they at least take the trouble to put the key figures into place. Among the writers staying in Madrid at the Hotel Florida was John Dos Passos, who had just completed his U.S.A. trilogy, a kaleidoscopic view of America during and after the Great War that made him Hemingway’s creative equal, if not superior. (To Have and Have Not, completed and published during this period, was certainly bad enough to threaten the reputation earned with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.) Hemingway, a romantic without much interest in politics, admired the Republican side for its underdog status, but his loyalty to La Causa was an accident — if he hadn’t wanted to fuck Martha Gellhorn, he could just as easily have ended up sharing drinks with Franco’s men. Dos Passos was losing his enthusiasm for Communism; the murder of his friend and translator Jose Robles by Stalinist agents would tip his politics heavily rightward. Hemingway, cultivated by the Communists on the Republican side (who abandoned Dos Passos as soon as they landed their bigger fish), blackguarded Dos Passos as a coward and turncoat — something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. (In A Moveable Feast, he famously dismissed Dos Passos as “the pilot fish.”) A viewer who doesn’t know any of this background will only be confused by what little is shown in Hemingway & Gellhorn.     

It’s easy and fun to despise Hemingway for his bad behavior, but it’s foolish to apply that judgment to his work: the brilliant short stories, The Sun Also Rises, and scattered portions of the later novels will always tip the scales to favor the writer over the man. Hemingway & Gellhorn would have us believe that once Gellhorn walked out on him, Hemingway turned into a dazed head case out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with his fourth wife playing a chirpy Nurse Ratched. While the man did come to a dark end, I seem to recall a few other things happening along the way: worldwide acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, a Nobel Prize for Literature, stuff like that. The Old Man and the Sea may not be the greatest book evah, but its hero managed to land a pretty impressive fish. Hemingway & Gellhorn ventures onto even stormier waters, but comes back with something much smaller.

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Gawd save yer mad pah-raaaayyyyyyddd

A little obvious, I suppose, but the vapid Disney Princess tone of the television coverage of the Diamond Jubilee is bringing out my inner Johnny Rotten.

Of course, it’s also one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever recorded. Considering the economic state of England at the time of its release, I’d say it’s as timely as ever. And then there’s this. How do you like that for austerity?

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Run like hell

Too bad about those cheesy White Walkers at the end, but otherwise the second season of Game of Thrones ended on a pretty high note. I always wondered what the St. Crispian’s Day speech would have been like if Henry V’s inspiration hadn’t been firing on all ten cylinders, and now I know — as does Theon Greyjoy, whose future is going to be extremely grey with very little joy. Like Sansa Stark, he’s about to learn that in George R.R. Martin’s universe, the only sensible response to a reversal of fortune is to run like hell.

One of the side benefits of the HBO series is that its quality inspired me to return to Martin’s novels. I’d enjoyed the hell out of the first three books, but  A Feast for Crows taxed my patience well past the breaking point, so when A Dance with Dragons came out last year I shrugged and figured I’d get around to it. I jumped with both feet a couple of weeks ago found Dance to be pretty much a return to form, though the title verges on false advertising. The Winds of Winter better have some pretty hot dragon action to make up for this latest tease.

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United Scatinos of America

I wrote this for my now-defunct political blog in July 2005. Seven years on, I think it’s still pretty apt about the Republican program.

One of the things that redeemed the second season of “The Sopranos,” which had gone all wobbly after a good start, was the unblinkingly cruel subplot about David Scatino, a boyhood friend of mobster Tony Soprano, who talks his way into one of Tony’s high-stakes poker games and almost instantly buries himself under an unpayable mountain of debts. It quickly turns out that Tony knew about Scatino’s compulsive gambling problem, but let him into the game anyway because Scatino and his wife own a successful sporting-goods store. What follows is more frightening than any monster movie. After siphoning out Scatino’s bank account (including his son’s college fund), Tony and his cronies gorge themselves on the store’s credit lines, buying up easily resold big-ticket merchandise and leaving the store awash in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills. The business dissolves into bankruptcy, taking with it Scatino’s marriage (his wife divorces him), his family (his son, cheated out of an Ivy League future, hates him) and a good portion of his sanity. In the end, as he prepares to embark on his new life as a drifter and day-laborer, Scatino asks Tony why he let him destroy himself. After all, haven’t they known each other since childhood? Tony replies with the story of the frog and the scorpion. “This is what I am,” Tony says. “This is what I do.”

What we’ve just seen is a variation on an old con called a bust-out. Usually it involves con men offering to buy a business, making a partial payment to gain access to the firm’s credit and name, and then hollowing out the company’s finances by running up the existing credit lines and opening new ones, all of which are maxed out to buy electronic gear and anything else that can be resold quickly at a fraction of its value. For the con men involved in the bust-out, it’s all gravy. The phony buyer — usually a shell company with no discernible assets — defaults and the business reverts to its original owner, by which time the once-thriving firm has been turned into a rotting hulk ready to have its bones picked clean by creditors.

The Bush family has often been referred to as the WASP version of the Corleones, but the Soprano clan makes for a much better comparison. At its best, “The Sopranos” is an acid mockery of the phony gravitas of the three “Godfather” movies. Where Michael Corleone is heroically evil, an international player who consorts with statesmen and the Vatican before succumbing to his tragic flaw, Tony Soprano is a sewer rat engaged in the grubby business of preying on human weakness and fear — when his fall comes, it will be tragic only to himself. Until then, however, he’s going to make as much money as he can for himself and his buddies, and leave the rest of the world holding the bill. I’m not just using hyperbole here. I do think that when honest historians assess the Bush administration, they will find it more useful to treat George II and his Republican cronies as a criminal organization rather than a political party.

The best tool for analyzing Bush’s policies is not historiography, but the procedures used by federal agents as they pursue a RICO investigation into a mobbed-up business. Take the money and run. As long as Republicans are in power, that phrase should replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the national seal. It’s the natural outcome of a quarter-century of rhetoric about how government is the problem, not the solution; how government doesn’t work; how deregulation is the only way to build the economy. If government is nothing but a taxpayer-funded scam, then why not use it to enrich yourself and your buddies? If the very idea of public service as an idealistic calling has been turned into a mealymouthed joke, then where’s the shame in abusing power and running the country into the ground? As long as you can convince just over 50 percent of the suckers to vote your way, you can throw yourself a party and leave the world holding the bill.

This is what they are. This is what they do. Didn’t they tell you?

The recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is all of a piece with this scenario. Even many Republicans find this loudmouthed dolt hard to take; certainly no foreign leader will be able to take him seriously as a player on the world stage. Bolton will face a building full of career diplomats who know his nomination was dead in the Senate, that he had to be smuggled into office under cover of darkness, that the best they can expect is three years of low-down entertainment until the Bushies pack up their swag and head for the hills. If you despise the very idea of the United Nations — and if your core voting bloc cherishes Satanic conspiracy fantasies about the UN being the Antichrist’s method for achieving one-world government — then an ambassador capable of effective diplomacy is unnecessary. The important thing is that a plum job went to a crony. Sure, he may very well be implicated in the Valerie Plame case, but after a couple of years on the government sugar tit he’ll be able to lawyer himself up and hold the prosecutors at bay for a long time.

Insane tax cuts for the wealthy. Delusional military ventures abroad. From the minute the Bushies took power, their biggest concern has been to break open the cash registers, empty the shelves and open the bank vaults. Stewardship is a joke to them. What we are witnessing may very well be the biggest bust-out in human history. And if you, good citizen, are wondering where you fit into this picture, just cast your mind back to the last episode of the second season of “The Sopranos.” One of the closing shots shows us David Scatino in an empty parking lot, tying some gear to the top of his car as he prepares to leave his ruined life behind him. He wanted to play poker with the big boys, so you can say he brought his troubles on himself. A majority of Americans voted for Bush in at least one of the last two elections, so you can say we brought this on ourselves. In Scatino’s case, human weakness created a business opportunity for Tony Soprano. America’s weakness created a business opportunity for the Republicans. With the national press at a historic low ebb, the Democratic Party flat on its back and the airwaves humming with wingnut propaganda, the pickings couldn’t be any richer.

They saw their chance and they took it. That’s what they are. That’s what they do.

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