All posts filed under “1950s

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

foundation-trilogy-by-isaac-asimovThis semester I’m teaching a class called “The Uses of History,” where students read works of literature that in some way are informed by specific historical events, and produce such texts themselves. (The secret of the class is that there aren’t any works of literature that aren’t informed by specific historical events. This secret generally becomes an open secret around week two or three, if all goes according to plan.)

When I teach this class, I find I think surprisingly often of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I first came across the Foundation Trilogy when I was, I think, in junior high or maybe high school, and I found it the same way I found most everything I read before I left home from college, by picking through my father’s inexhaustible book shelves. Most of those books came from a book distribution warehouse where my father worked summers as a college student. Unsold books were sent back to the warehouse and their covers were torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I’ve never really understood how the system was supposed to work, but I guess the basic idea was that it was easier and more economical to render the books unsellable than it was to ship them back to wherever they’d come from. So most of my father’s library consisted of coverless classic paperbacks, from Augustine to Xenophon. But I remember that the Asimov had a cover. My dad must have paid for that one.

When I think of The Foundation Trilogy, it’s usually because of the narrative and thematic significance of a single character, known as “the Mule.” In the novels, a great galactic empire comprising thousands of worlds and billions of people is slowly collapsing. A team of talented social scientists known as “psycho-historians,” led by a man named Hari Seldon, can see this end coming, and can mathematically predict that millennia of bedlam, ignorance, and despair will follow it. Through unfathomably sophisticated sociological calculations, they devise a plan – the Seldon Plan – which will limit this dark age to a mere handful of centuries, after which a fresh civilization – the Second Empire – will rise. Asimov’s is an Enlightened technocratic fantasy of the purest type. The Seldon Plan represents the idea that science and rationality can – will! must!– solve the problems of chaos and pain. The drama of the novels resides in the unfolding of the Seldon Plan, and the frequent threats to its success. The greatest of these threats is the appearance of the Mule.

The Mule doesn’t look like much. When we first meet him, he’s presented as a disfigured and simpering clown. But he has a slight mutation which enables him to subtly bend the mental processes of others, and this capability permits him to conquer worlds, amass a great deal of power, and build casinos. (OK, the “build casinos” part was a joke, but it should be noted that the Mule chooses Kalgan, a vacationer’s planet with a strong resemblance to Atlantic City, as his capital.) Now to be sure, a petty warlord taking over a few planets is generally no big deal; such contingencies are well within the capacious and complex calculations of the Seldon Plan. But the psycho-historians soon come to realize, to their horror, that the Plan has not factored in the kind of mutant disruption the Mule represents. His appearance was wholly unpredictable and unpredicted, and the entire Plan is thus at risk of unraveling.

We humans have a compulsive habit of trying to impose narrative coherence on sequences of historical events, but such rationalizations, as the historiographer Hayden White has argued with such eloquence, are untrustworthy at best, and dangerously seductive at worst. They are inevitably influenced by (or even determined by) underlying ideological or moral assumptions and values, and are engineered to reassure us that the progress of history is orderly and tends toward coherence. It’s common, for example, for people to say that the Allies defeated the Axis powers in World War II because in the end, good must triumph over evil. Or that the Roman Empire fell because its people became lazy, decadent, and complacent. Those are satisfying stories. But history isn’t a story. The Mule represents for me, and reminds me, that any narrativization of history (or rationalization, or Seldonization, if you like), is always imminently and immanently subject to a jolt of the unpredictable, irrational, or perverse. This is such an important reminder that the character of the Mule has become a rather important totem for me, despite the fact that I haven’t read these books since I was a kid.

Last month I decided to finally re-read the novels, and I’m glad to report that The Foundation Trilogy has held up wonderfully both as an entertainment and as a fertile ground for historiographical musings. I highly recommend it. Remember, though, that it is itself a story, not a history. Don’t let the fate Asimov assigns the Mule lead you into intellectual temptation. The good guys aren’t necessarily fated to win. The most intelligent and rational choices don’t always prevail. Against all reason, people are very frequently willing, even eager, to act against all reason. “The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” Adorno and Horkheimer. My favorite Modernist catch-22. The better we get at rationalism, the better we get at madness.

On election night, Wendy had a bunch of women over to the house to watch the returns. Several of them brought their daughters. Someone made cookies with Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo embossed in frosting on them. The scene in the living room was noisy and chaotic, and I went upstairs to read the last few chapters of The Foundation Trilogy in my room, thinking I’d come down around the time polls closed in the Midwest, to share the champagne and – I was really looking forward to this, more than I’d even admitted to myself – to watch those mothers be with their daughters and those daughters be with their mothers. Instead, the Mule. I’m only surprised that I was surprised.

 

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01For a movie that’s ostensibly a comedy, there’s a surprising rip current of anxiety and fear just beneath the surface of this story that seems constantly about to suck everyone under. So much is at stake for all the main characters; even as they try to act playful about the games they’re playing, they’re all very evidently terrified. To have no money, to lose your reputation, to be alone, to be cast out, to be cheated, to be stolen from — everyone scrambles to avoid these catastrophes, pressing for advantage, using whatever leverage fate has lent them. If you’re beautiful, you use that to get over; if you’re rich, you use that; if you’re clever, you use that. It’s all coated in sequins and soaked in champagne, but it’s a lot closer to Mother Courage than it looks. I see on Wikipedia that Fassbinder called it one of the best ten films ever, which seems insane until you think about it — isn’t Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee just as determined, wily, brilliant, desperate, and calculating as Hanna Schygulla’s Maria Braun? We know the story (thanks in large part to Fassbinder) of people doing whatever they had to do in postwar Germany to survive; maybe this movie proposes an analogous situation for single American women in the same period, with fewer weevils in the bread and more singing and dancing. Or maybe it was and is always thus. Anyway I found it depressing. Featuring matrimony in its usual role of deus ex machina.

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A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan (1951)

This movie’s become such a touchstone, I think many people, myself included, assume they’ve seen it even if they haven’t. If I have seen this before, it was prior to my taking up residence in the South, and also, in some respects, prior to my ascension/descension to adulthood. It is, as you know even if you haven’t seen it, a hugely histrionic and overheated movie, but it’s also fully genuine and fascinatingly weird. I hit this on a whim and am a bit flustered now; I’m afraid of what my dreams will bring tonight.

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The Rack, Arnold Laven (1956)

One of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. It has the awkwardness and claustrophobia of a funeral from the very first frame. Paul Newman spends two years in a North Korean prison camp. When he gets home, he’s charged with collaborating with the enemy. It becomes clear that if he did provide aid and comfort to his captors, he did it to protect his comrades and/or because he’d been driven insane by torture. The tragic logic of the prosecution is eerily reminiscent of so many contemporary stories. Why was Muhammad Ismail Agha, fourteen, sent to Guantanamo? Because he’s a terrorist. How do you know he’s a terrorist? Because he was sent to Guantanamo.

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Ketchup

Sometimes the rate of my consumption of culture outpaces my capacity to reflect upon it. Here’s what’s passed through my head of late:

The Wire, David Simon et. al. (2002-2008). I believe this displaces The Sopranos as the best television I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen it you already know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t seen it, you should. There were of course some passages that were more successful than others–I for one found the invented serial killer idea too clever by half–but on the whole this is a masterpiece. I was very sorry when I ran out of episodes, but then I realized that this story is of course far from over; all you need to do is read the Sun paper now and then and imagine the episode Simon would have wrought from the day’s news. Here, this one took me about forty seconds to start scripting in my head.

Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison (1999). What a pleasure to read Harrison’s collected nonfiction about Leelanau by a lake just northeast of Muskegon on a July afternoon.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, Joan Didion (2006). What a pleasure to read Didion’s collected nonfiction in the air over California’s central valley. Old and new favorites. Too bad this edition’s pages are so thin.

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1942). Oh my stars. I’m only on page 500 or so of the some 1200, and I’m going to have to put this away now that school’s started, but I feel like it’s OK not to read this straight through, and I also, frankly, feel like I’ve mostly gotten what’s on offer here, namely deliciously incisive diagnoses of a grand society striding confidently toward the edge of a cliff. I can’t think of any other novel that so decisively nails the 20th century’s disastrous obsession with progress. “With a little attention, one can probably always detect in the latest Future signs of the coming Old Times. The new ideas will then be a mere thirty years older but contented and with a little extra fat on their bones, or past their prime, much as one glimpses alongside a girl’s shining features the extinguished face of the mother; or they have had no success, and are down to skin and bones, shrunken to a reform proposed by some old fool who is called the Great So-and-so by his fifty admirers.” Paging Ross Perot.

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polankski (2010). Whew, Polanski’s just oozing decadence these days. This is supposedly a thriller about a CIA plot to, you know, take control of everything, but Roman can barely be bothered to flesh out any of the absurd plot points; he’s too busy setting up beautifully lit shots of fog and sad adulterers. Beautiful photography, but not really a movie. The amazing house on the beach at Sylt receives more attention from the director than do any of his stars.

The Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (2010). Essentially a continuation of Greengrass’s Bourne movies, in that Matt Damon takes on the entire corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex and wins. This one is purportedly set in the “real world,” though, namely Baghdad’s green zone. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the takeaway for the action movie crowd at the mall is that their government lied to them about Iraq, and that’s a truth I’m delighted to see promulgated as widely and effectively as possible.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine (2006). Muddily structured but useful. I really had no idea this was going on when it was going on.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009) does for 20c European history what Bergman’s so-called “trilogy of faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) did for God. Namely, shows it to be incomprehensible and cruel, but absolutely beautiful to look at in luminous black and white. Go back and look at those Bergman films, though, and then look at this again, and see if you don’t feel, as I did, how creepily clean Haneke’s images are. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Lightroom, but The White Ribbon feels like a masterpiece of post-production as much as anything.

Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh (1949). Walsh remakes High Sierra as a western, with Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. Nice enough for a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you like Virginia Mayo, which I do, but a minor Walsh by any measure. I like the hideout in the ruined village of Todos Santos.

Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges (1955). Sturges also directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others. Notice a theme? Manly men in conflict with other manly men. This one fits. A strange and small picture, in which Integrity (played by Spencer Tracy) squares off with Deceit (Robert Ryan) and comes out ahead. Atmospheric and nice to look at for a while, but finally the claustrophobia that Sturges is trying to engender just turns into tedium.

A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009) has its affecting moments, but is mostly, probably predictably, an exercise in style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the style brings pleasure. Some here does–lots of beautiful California summer light, lots of fantastic bric a brac to ogle–but someone really should have steadied Ford’s hand on the post-production dials; the gimmick where he keeps making people pale when they’re sad and rosy when their faith in humanity (and/or libido) is restored is tacky and emberrassing.

Band of Brothers, various authors (2001). The Pacific is way better, and do you know why? Because this is pre-9/11 triumphalism, and that is post 9/11 realism. That’s oversimplifying, but really, the difference is amazing. In Band of Brothers, PTSD is represented as tough luck that befalls the weak. In The Pacific, it’s clearly shown that those who appear not to have PTSD are the truly weird ones. Like I said, The Pacific‘s a great example of how our understanding of historical realities is shaped by our present historical circumstances. So is Band of Brothers, unfortunately.

Music in rotation: Tosca, Up Bustle & Out, Jazzanova, Cal Tjader

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The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston (1950)

Some noirs excite and energize; others depress and enervate. I tend to prefer the former films, but I make an exception for this beauty, one of the most laconic and unforgiving heist films I know of. It’s nearly classical, the way you can see the disaster coming from the very beginning, and know there’s no way to avoid it. Poor Doll Conovan, poor Angela Phinlay, poor Dix Handley, poor us all.

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On Dangerous Ground, Nicholas Ray (1952)

A formulaic, even hackneyed noir in terms of its plot and script, but the mise-en-scène, even in this muddy crap copy on TCM, is exquisite. In the gritty city, space is terrifyingly claustrophobic and dark; in the wintry countryside, space is terrifyingly desolate and blinding. As complex and pure as a glass of water or a Freudian case study. Ida Lupino!

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Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville (1956)

Not an American gangster movie, and not a Godard-like parody of American gangster movies, and not exactly an homage to American gangster movies, either. I guess I’d have to call it a kind of translation of American gangster movies into French, since Bob and his compatriots are so utterly French in the way they conduct their affairs, and make and carry out their plans. Can you imagine an American movie gangster sitting around chatting over coffee this much? No way. Here guns are afterthoughts rather than the stars, your style matters more than your actions, and the talking! These guys love talking so much, it’s a miracle they ever remember they’re supposed to be out doing crime.

Tons of fun, great to look at. Isabelle Corey is a fox.

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Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman (1955)

Say “Bergman” and most folks will think of Death leading his charges to the underworld in The Seventh Seal, or maybe Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann driving each other insane in Persona. Here, though, we have one of the warmest, sexiest, cleverest, earthiest romantic comedies of all time; it’s a Bergman too often overlooked. It was this, not Shakespeare, that Woody Allen paid homage to in his Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Beautifully shot and packed with delights. If possible, see it in a hayloft with your sugar dumpling, with a bottle of schnapps to split.