Sunday, November 30, 2003

'Half-Truths' and Politics

In the lead review in today's Washington Post Book World, of Ted Morgan's Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, Ronald Radosh writes:

From the time of the infamous 1919 Palmer raids rounding up alien radical immigrants in a series of mass arrests, which Morgan dubs an effort "to rid the country of a genuine radical danger," the debate pitted those who saw the sole issue as the need to save our civil liberties versus those who saw it as saving the nation from "treacherous radicals." Morgan's point is that both views were based on half-truths. Civil liberties were easily abused in the hunt for radicals; at the same time, many on the left avoided dealing with the reality of serious espionage coming from the Soviet Union, and saw any attempts to do so as wrongheaded red-baiting.

Radosh is talking about things that happened 50 years ago, and his point here is merely tangential to his overall review. But it stuck with me, because it captures the political climate today, or rather the climate in which political discussions take place today. If you support the war on terror, you're a Bush-backer and a Republican and a Nazi. If you're against the war, you're a liberal and a Democrat and a communist. And that's it. The shouters are carrying the day, and they don't want to believe that people can in good faith hold an opposing viewpoint, or that someone's opinion might be more complicated than pro-war or anti-war, or pro-life or pro-choice, or whatever. For a chronic middle-of-the-roader like me, who draws his ever-shifting political beliefs from all over the maze, it's enough to make me give up on civic involvement completely.

Of course, I'm not alone. Matt Welch addressed this issue a few weeks ago in a typically excellent post. You should read the whole thing, but here's a signature excerpt:

This type of argumentation strikes me as pernicious, inaccurate, and ultimately boring. I could take any right-of-center column -- say, this idiotic Weekly Standard cover story about "the risks for the United States inherent in a united Europe" (including such memorable lines as "the federalists strenuously deny that they are building a European uber-nation") -- and I could immediately declare that Gerard Baker's "gaffe" is "revealing about certain strands in some conservatives' thought these days," and then go off and ascribe to these imagined conservatives beliefs that I know Baker himself does not have. Tempting as that might seem, it's ultimately an exercise in extrapolative partisan fantasy, and more often than not a poor substitute for actually debating a column on its merits. And this, obviously, is a tendency found all over the political spectrum.

I'm looking in your direction, Bill O'Reilly. Yours, too, Noam Chomsky.

Book Journal: Ross Macdonald

Sometimes I wonder about all the great stuff in the world I'll never discover because I never blundered into it. Like Ross Macdonald. I happened to hear about him by reading The Antic Muse, who until recently listed Macdonald's Archer in Hollywood collection in her "On the Nightstand" section. The Muse has some taste, so the next time I was at the library I checked out two random Macdonald titles: The Chill and The Moving Target, both of which feature Lew Archer, Macdonald's cynical, weary, idiosyncratically big-hearted California private eye. I read them back to back, and when I was done I carefully placed one book on top of the other, rolled them up to the extent their formidable trade-paperback dimensions would allow, and beat myself about the head with them. How had I never heard of Ross Macdonald, let alone read him?

Well, the damage is done, and I'm taking steps to repair it. Subsequent research has shown that Macdonald is often mentioned in the same breath as Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He's considered the inheritor of their tradition -- that being the hardboiled-first-person-detective-novel genre, I suppose -- and he's also given credit for adding something of his own to it. It's been a while since I read Hammett or Chandler, and so far I've only read these two Macdonald books, so I can't do much comparing and contrasting without embarrassing myself. But why should that stop anyone from generaliziing? I remember Hammett being very caustic, almost corrosive, and Chandler being softer and more romantic. I'd say Macdonald synthesizes these two (oversimplified) extremes. His Lew Archer is hard, all right, but maybe not Continental Operative hard, and he's a poetically inclined do-gooder, but not as obvious or self-regarding about it as Phillip Marlowe.

That last part is what struck me most. Tracing the tight corkscrews of Macdonald's plots, savoring his spare, occasionally lyrical prose, I realized how hard it is to do the hardboiled-first-person detective novel without a protagonist who is extremely self-conscious and self-congratulatory. Another favorite PI series of mine is Robert B. Parker's Spenser books. They're entertaining Chandler knockoffs, sometimes really very good, but stood next to Macdonald, they reek of a self-satisfaction that makes you squirm.

About Macdonald's occasionally lyrical prose -- parts of The Chill and The Moving Target have stuck with me far longer than any recent short stories from The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Macdonald's writing is a cannon shot at the wall some people continue to build between "literature" and "genre fiction." (I know I tweaked Stephen King about his behavior at the National Book Awards in my last post, but I agree with a lot of what he said. He was just kind of annoying in how he said it.) When you pick up a book, what are you looking for besides memorable characters, believable dialogue, evocative settings, vivid imagery, and emotional depth? Proving a book is good by sharing choice sentences is a bit like talking about a great baseball game by discussing balls and strikes, but, man, there are a few I really want to share.

From the first page of The Moving Target, in which Archer is driving through a rich part of California on his way to meet a prospective client:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon's mouth, bright blue and polished like stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.

And, from the beginning of the end of The Chill, in which Archer starts unraveling a college dean's tangled past:

"He used to be a professor at the college." He added with a kind of mournful pride: "Now he's the Dean out there."

He wouldn't be for long, I thought; his sky was black with chickens coming home to roost.


Lovely, isn't it? Tough and sad, but not in a way that makes you think that Macdonald knows you're looking over his -- or Archer's -- shoulder. I can't wait to read more. And, while I'm at it, I should probably check out the other MacDonald who wrote well-regarded detective stories that I've never read. Though at least I've heard of him, so when I'm done maybe I won't have to abuse myself with a rolled-up Travis McGee book.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Riiiiiing! 'Hi, Steve King here, phoning in another column.'

So, Stephen King is worried that his latest book, Wolves of the Calla, might only sell 600,000 copies in hardback, compared to the salad days of 1986 when It moved a cool million. He thinks this means that those damn baby boomers have given up on life or something:

At a time when we should be approaching our mental peak, the baby boomers are settling for laugh tracks instead of literature, and supermarket Muzak instead of something by the Strokes or the Hives. The boomers no longer need a babysitter if they want to go out stepping, but they still don't go out. It's so much easier to sit home in front of the TV with the remote in one hand and a can of Bud in the other. We baby boomers may be the richest and most powerful generation in American history, but we are, by and large, too lazy to use our clout. Our waistlines get bigger, our capacity for mental adventurousness gets smaller, and our idea of high tragedy is Jerry Garcia dying of a heart attack while in rehab.

God knows I love slapping around the baby boomers whenever possible, but what the hell is King talking about? His book selling more than half a million copies in hardback means the most influential chunk of our population is no longer seeking out new life and new civilizations? And, what the hell is with the big chip on King's shoulder that keeps poking me in the eye whenever I try to read his embarrassing Entertainment Weekly column? The chip even reared its, uh, chippy head at the National Board Awards last week. And, on a related note, what's with EW paying a writer of Godzilla-like stature to churn out this dreck when there are buckets of funny, passionate, unknown writers dying to spill themselves across the pages of a national magazine? Jesus, throw a copy of The Stand (complete unabridged version) 10 feet in any direction and you'll fracture the skull of someone who knows someone who knows someone who runs a website that's more interesting than "The Pop of King."

Full disclosure: No, I don't have any problems with King as a novelist. In fact, I've read six or seven of his books, I think, and they're variously scary, smart, and psychologically complex. I only have a problem with King as a columnist -- as long as he keeps writing sentences like this:

And the ''Jeopardy!'' answer is ''Just about the saddest thing Steve King can think of.'' The question is ''What do you call a whole generation going to sleep?''

Maybe it's time to bury something else in the Pet Sematary....

Alex Ross in Style

Good article in yesterday's Washington Post about Alex Ross, who's just published a beautiful collection called Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross. Ross is super-hot now, so I'm not scoring any hipster points by saying I'm a fan. (In fact, even discussing comics in this way probably chokes the final breath or two out of my gasping hipster credibility.) Whatever. To me, graphic novels -- superhero or otherwise -- don't get much better than Marvels and Kingdom Come, for which Ross collaborated with equally studly writers Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid, respectively. Ross' signature mix of dazzling light and deep shadows, expressive and stylized and epic and intimate, all together, has never been more complementary than it is to these stories of modern gods and the mortals who love/fear them. Of course, that same description could apply to another Ross project, the overblown Universe X, but somehow, it doesn't; however, Ross only painted the covers, which are very pretty, so I like to think that the extent of his responsibility for that particular disaster is minimal.

Right, so, the Post article is by Hank Stuever, a frequently funny writer who, like a lot of kids on the famed Style page, often doesn't know when to turn off the reflexive snideness. But here his approach is surprisingly straightforward, even thoughtful, as he discusses Ross and the iconic characters he draws, and the result is an article that's neither embarrassingly reverent nor cheaply ironic:

In Ross's gouache technique -- a mix of watercolor and gum arabic -- the Justice League of America heroes are frequently posing, arms crossed, stern and warrior-like, either as a rock band or a firefighting company, as if for a magazine cover or a commemorative stamp.

These are not the happiest people. In their faces, they for once let on about who and what they really are: interstellar orphans, expatriate Amazons, aquatic interlopers, post-traumatic vigilantes, victims of radioactive happenstance. They look like they'd bump into things a lot. Their love lives never work out, you can just tell. Ross's superheroes seem self-conscious about their celebrityhood -- somehow aware that someone is drawing them, and so they puff out their chests a little. (As when an old movie star realizes there's a flashbulb going off in the room.)

Life has been hard on them. In an iconic Ross lineup of the Justice League of America, some are coping by way of wryness (the Flash looks like a wiseass, standing next to a humorless Aquaman; the Hawkman seems like a lovably lunky foreign-exchange student). There are rivalries, too -- bitter Batman loathes Superman's moral, well,
superiority.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Happy Thanksgiving

It's about 10 o'clock on Thanksgiving night. Since about 4 p.m., I seem to have been holding in my hand a wine glass with either a pinot noir from Monterey County or a pinot gris from Oregon, and using that to encourage along various cheeses (manchego + chevre + port salut), followed by turkey with cranberry sauce, apple-and-walnut stuffing, rosemary-and-garlic mashed potatoes, green beans with onion vinegarette, and creamed pearl onions, followed by cream puffs with chocolate ganache, ginger-spiced pumpin pie, and apple crisp with Breyer's vanilla ice cream. What I'm saying is, I feel particularly warm and full and contented and sentinmental. I just finished washing all the dishes my gorgeous, hard-cooking wife dirtied in the course of her day-long efforts. My dad was on drying detail. We spent an hour or an hour and a half in the kitchen together, during which time a few things became clear:

(1) My dad and I don't agree on anything politically.
(2) The Philadelphia Phillies might be able to pull something together this upcoming season.
(3) My dad is about the best man I know. Even though I can't agree with a lot of his politics, I respect the fact that his beliefs stem from his deep sense of right and wrong. My dad is one of the few people to whom I feel comfortable applying the word "honor." He's an honorable man.

I guess that's all. Time to find more of that pinot gris.

UPDATE: My older brother seems to have been tipping a few back, too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Movie Journal: Mystic River

Just as the law of diminished expectations (briefly) saved The Phantom Menace for me -- shut up, I thought the lightsaber battle at the end was cool -- the law of heightened expectations spoiled Mystic River. No, I didn't hate it or even think it was bad. In fact, a lot of it was pretty good. But I'd read a few reviews in advance that led me to believe it was a masterpiece, a perfect convergence of writing, acting, and directing, and it was far from that. After the fact, I found a much more accurate take from the always delightful David Edelstein as well as -- SPOILER WARNING! -- some interesting remarks from About Last Night's Our Girl in Chicago, who is right about a lot but wrong, I think, about the ending.

Anyway, without bothering to summarize the plot or in any other way clear my throat, here are some things I think:

Writing: too poetically working-class or self-consciously literary or however you want to describe the experience of a bunch of blue-collar joes (and janes) saying things like "Sometimes I think all three of us got in that car when we were 11 and never came back" and "Everyone else is weak, and we are strong" and "Dave became a werewolf and chased the fireflies." (I'm quoting from memory here, so none of that should be taken as verbatim. In fact, I'm probably exaggerating some of it to prove my point.) I get the feeling a lot of this worked better in interior-monologue form in Dennis Lehane's novel, which I haven't read. The plot is solid, sturdy, building slowly, wringing the anxiety and emotion out of you drop by drop, but the final dramatic revelation nearly blew the whole thing for me. It completely changes the meaning of everything that comes before it, and not in a good way. It feels cheap, cashing out the deep emotional reserves the movie has established among Penn, Robbins, and Bacon.

Acting: two-thirds of the three male leads are too broad. The exception is Kevin Bacon, a generally underrated actor (I'm thinking of his dramatic supporting turns in JFK and A Few Good Men and his comedic lead work in The Big Picture and Tremors) who gives a masterfully controlled, grounded performance; of the three guys, his character has pulled together the most superficially "normal" life, but Bacon manages to suggest the scars and shadows beneath his easy smile and matter-of-fact, cop-style confidence. On the other hand, Sean Penn, as a grieving father and possibly reformed hood, spends the whole movie bubbling over, which works well at the beginning, when he first learns of his 19-year-old daughter's death -- most parents will have a hard time with that scene, which almost derailed the whole thing for me -- but then he keeps twitching and groaning, and you wonder how this cracked-up guy has generated such fierce loyalty among his underlings. And Tim Robbins, whose character was kidnapped and abused when the three guys were 11 years old and playing outside, lurches and clumps around like a sad Frankenstein. He's a dazed, amiable zombie. And, bizarrely, no one else in the movie seems to notice it until Penn's daughter is killed and the plot needs some distractions. The two prominent female roles don't have enough meat to fill out a performance, and both are one-noters: jittery from Marcia Gay Harden (as Robbins' wife) and steely from Laura Linney (as Penn's wife).

Direction: appropriately subdued save for a few heavyhanded blows. To the extent that I'm familiar with it, Clint Eastwood's direction has always felt a little unwieldy to me; even his Oscar-winning (and sort of overpraised) Unforgiven and his too-often-forgotten A Perfect World are baggy in places, and don't even bother with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crime, and most of Absolute Power after that opening break-in sequence. (I'm not sorry to say I can't vouch for Space Cowboys or Blood Work.) But here he's mostly surefooted, except for (a) some jackhammer flashbacks that are really unnecessary given the fact that nothing about the movie ever lets you forget about what the flashbacks are there to remind you of, and (b) an overly long conclusion. A particularly nice touch is Eastwood's pulling of the camera up and away from the action, into the trees that garnish a street of rowhouses or toward the deep-blue night sky, at the end of certain big powerful scenes; the sense is of uncertain punctuation, an elliptical nod to the characters' fuzzily overlapping lives and also to the ragged bleeding together of past and present.

Again, there was a lot I liked. It's a powerful, impressive movie in many ways. But, maybe thanks to the hype, I was disappointed. Damn marketing.