Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Movie Journal: When We Were Kings

Both When We Were Kings and Ali climax with the same event: the Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight title bout that champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali fought in Zaire in 1974. But seeing When We Were Kings for the first time recently -- seven years after it was released -- has helped me articulate the biggest problem I had with Ali when I saw it a year or two ago.

It's a question of overkill. Kings is a lean, well-paced documentary about the Rumble that uses footage from training camps, press conferences, interviews, public appearances, and, finally, the big fight to let Ali speak -- and act -- for himself. When you're dealing with someone as charismatic, proud, handsome, and talented as Muhammad Ali, that seems like the best approach. The movie Ali, on the other hand, is a nearly three-hour-long biopic co-written and directed by Michael Mann. And, while it's anchored by a truly impressive performance by Will Smith that never once falls back on easy mimickry, Ali is overdone in almost every way, at least technically speaking. The editing is ponderous, the lighting is shadowy, and the musical score drones over and above the action at all times. It's a sensory-overload approach that recalls Oliver Stone, except that while Stone's movies are on speed, Ali is on heroin. Mann clearly wants to mythologize this man many call the Greatest -- the way Mann sought to elevate the never-ending war between cops and robbers to the level of myth in Heat -- but instead he's embalmed Ali; he's enshrined him in molasses.

But this is supposed to be about When We Were Kings. What this documentary makes clear is that Muhammad Ali doesn't need anyone to mythologize him, because he's been involved in the business of making his own myth since he first strapped on a pair of gloves. Kings splices in comments from a few observers to good effect -- George Plimpton and Normal Mailer are both appropriately arch and pugnacious, respectively -- but its real accomplishment is in granting Ali room to just riff. At a press conference, he's gracious and unbothered as he challenges sportswriters one by one to tell him if they think he has a chance of beating Foreman. (No one does, though they don't say that.) In the cockpit of the plane taking him to Zaire, he marvels at the two black pilots; back home, he says, we've been told blacks are too stupid to do something like this. During an interview, he says that people in America's inner cities need to take responsibility for their lives because no one else is going to. He rhymes and boasts, as only Ali can, and smiles enough to suggest he's in on the joke, and then trains and fights hard enough to let you know, in fact, there's no joke at all. When We Were Kings makes you wonder if Ali just might have been as great as he always knew he was.

Green Arrow #33

By day, my friend Glenn is a mild-mannered medical-journal editor. But by night, he's a masked avenger, shining his pitiless light of truth on comic books, which he reviews for Silver Bullet Comics. The latest title to feel his sting is Green Arrow #33. Glenn is a great big GA fan. Last year he convinced me to pick up both Quiver and The Longbow Hunters, and he's been championing the monthly series ever since DC asked Kevin Smith to bring it out of retirement. But #33 doesn't make the cut:

When the end of a good run comes it comes hard. While the premise of this issue is interesting enough and gives a lot to work with, the absolutely horrendous art and so-so script do it in. The issue opens with a flashback to GA and Speedy in the arrowcar nabbing some bad guys. It is towards the end of their working together and they have obviously had enough of each other. In a fit of anger with Roy, Ollie blows up the arrowcar which is inside an already burning warehouse. Switch to the present and Mia is showing Ollie that someone on an ebay like site auctioning the car. It must be a fake, but Ollie has to make sure and so goes the plot.

And where went the art?! Why does this book look like a Superman dailies strip from the 1950s? When Ollie beams up to the JLA watchtower (and how does he do this from his kitchen, I always thought you needed a transport tube at both ends!) we are given one of the truly worst renderings of Superman. Ever. And then we are treated to one of the truly worst jokes ever. Plastic Man lets Starro loose while giving it its feeding?! He decides to pet it? Puh-lease.

Interesting guy, Glenn. He knows more about not only Golden Age and Silver Age comics than anyone I know, but also baseball, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and history in general. As far as I know, his only weakness -- his Kryptonite, if you will -- is his devotion to the New York Yankees. That will be his undoing.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Dreiser Revisited

A few weeks ago I threatened to share a passage from An American Tragedy that would help explain why I like Theodore Dreiser. Well, my friends, the time has come. In the following scene, Clyde has just convinced Roberta to take an illegal prescription he's procured for her to induce an abortion:

He laughed genially, the while Roberta gazed at him, unable to associate his present casual attitude with his former passion and deep solicitude. His former passion! And now this! And yet, under the circumstance, being truly grateful, she now smiled cordially and he the same. Yet, seeing him go out, the door close, and no endearing demonstrations of any kind having been exchanged between them, she returned to her bed, shaking her head dubiously. For, supposing that this remedy did not work after all? And he continued in this same casual and remote attitude toward her? Then what? For unless this remedy prove effectual, he might still be so indifferent that he might not want to help her long -- or would he? Could he do that, really? He was the one who had brought her to this difficulty, and against her will, and he had so definitely assured her that nothing would happen. And now she must lie here alone and worry, not a single person to turn to, except him, and he was leaving her for others with the assurance that she would be all right. And he had caused it all! Was this quite right?

Ah, Dreiser. Why say something once when you can say, speak, state, utter, proclaim, and pronounce it six times? You can boil that entire paragraph down into one sentence: Woe is me! But it's like I said when I wrote about Dreiser's treatment of Hurstwood in Sister Carrie: He (Dreiser, that is) has a way of taking you inside a character's head, building up the pressure, squeezing, squeezing again, then popping the whole thing with a short, simple observation: "Was this quite right?" They don't write them like that anymore, and it's probably just as well they don't, but I'm glad these books are still around to be read.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Book Journal: Everything Is Illuminated

One of the big books of 2002 was Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. And what better time to start reading it than during the closing weeks of 2003, on a dreary Monday night, on the busride home? It didn't go well at first. Foer's novel is a fictionalized account of a trip he took to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his Jewish grandfather from the Nazis, and his approach -- alternating malopropism-laden letters from Alex, his Ukranian translator, with Alex's own account of their trip as well as a character named Jonathan Safran Foer's fanciful take on life in his grandfather's village from 1791 to 1942 -- struck me as excessively cute. But a few days later, cute didn't seem so bad, and then, as I kept reading, Everything Is Illuminated wasn't cute at all. The title is apt, because the more you read, the more that is revealed.

Jonathan the character (as opposed to Foer the author) wants to know more about his family and the forces that drove them to America. He never actually finds the woman who saved his grandfather, Safran, but he discovers what happened to Safran's village, a shtetl called Trachimbrod, when the Nazis arrived there in the spring of 1942. As it turns out, the terrible story resonates with Alex's grandfather, a Gentile from Kolki, a neighboring village, who serves as Jonathan and Alex's driver and guide.

This is a book about the invention of history, and the stories and lies we tell ourselves when we don't know or don't want to know the truth of something. Left with no real sense of what happened to Safran, but keenly aware of the horror visited upon Trachimbrod, Jonathan creates for his family a past that is frequently magical. He imagines that his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Trachim, was killed in 1791 when his wagon crashed into the Brod River, and that Trachim's daughter, Brod -- Jonathan's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother -- was born underwater during the accident and floated up to the surface, and that Brod was raised by the "disgraced usurer" Yankel D, a kindly and learned man, and that Brod captivated all of Trachimbrod with her beauty and intellect, and that one day she looked through a powerful telescope and glimpsed her own future, and that she married Shalom, from a nearby village, who then went to work in Trachimbrod's flour mill, where he was struck by a saw blade that remained embedded in his forehead for the rest of his life, and that when Shalom died, his body was bronzed and placed in the village square, where, thanks to the blade, it served as a sundial. And on and on, until 1941, when Jonathan's grandfather -- lover of many women, who find him irresistible because of his withered right arm -- is married, belatedly falls in love with his bride, and has a daughter, and then it's 1942, and here are the Nazis.

I'm not at all a fan of magic realism -- not even One Hundred Years of Solitude, believe it or not -- but to me the story of Trachimbrod is a dizzying performance, and heartbreaking, too, because Foer the author seems even more desperate than his characters are to remain entranced by this little Ukranian village and to ignore the footfalls of war that are thudding ever closer. But reality intrudes, even into the fantasy, and that's what keeps the fantastical elements of Everything Is Illuminated from being swallowed by the wink-nudge cleverness of magic realism; they're like a fairy tale written in blood. As Alex points out in one of his letters to Jonathan, none of the people Jonathan writes about is allowed to fall truly in love. Not Brod with Shalom, not Jonathan's grandfather with the Gypsy girl with whom he carries on an affair right up until his wedding. Alex writes:

Of course, I understand, in some manners, what you are attempting to perform. There is such a thing as love that cannot be, for certain. If I were to inform Father, for example, about how I comprehend love, and who I desire to love, he would kill me, and this is no idiom. We all choose things, and we also all choose against things. I want to be the kind of person who chooses for more than chooses against, but like Safran, and like you, I discover myself choosing this time and the next time against what I am certain is good and correct, and against what I am certain is worthy. I choose that I will not, instead of that I will. None of this is effortless to say.

Until this moment, Alex has had as overly embellished a view of himself as Jonathan does of his family tree. Alex's father is cold and domineering for reasons that are eventually revealed, and as a result Alex has retreated into a fantasy of himself as a club-hopping ladies' man. But as he learns more about his grandfather's past, his pitifully inept yet charming bravado ("I have a girl who dubs me Currency, because I dispense so much currency around her. She licks my chops for it") bleeds away. He no longer dreams of going to America and becoming an accountant; instead, he wants to be rid of his father and protect his younger brother, Igor, and learn what he can from his grandfather.

Because, it seems, Everything Is Illuminated is the grandfather's story. His life binds Jonathan to Alex, because the history of Trachimbrod is the history of Kolki, and the history of Ukraine and the world, too. And Alex's grandfather ignores it. What he has seen and done does not exist for him, until the end of the book and the end of their trip to Trachimbrod, when he tells Jonathan and Alex of Kolki's final days. Everything is in fact illuminated, and the truth is blinding.

Foer's book isn't without problems, but I found it to be so powerful it would be nitpicking to spend too much time on the few things I didn't like. I'll just say quickly that Foer ladles the schtick on a bit heavy when he writes about Trachimbrod's past; that initial cutesiness recedes but never quite disappears. Then again, it's pretty funny: The Trachimbrod of yore has an Upright congregation, which meets in a proper synagogue, and a Sloucher congregation, which meets in a different member's living room each Shabbos. That detail captures Foer's daredevil approach throughout the entire book. He's both irreverent and respectful, to the point where you can't separate the comedy from the tragedy. Nor would you want to.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The Discreet Charm of Alec Baldwin

For those who find Alec Baldwin irritating and lovable in approximately equal parts -- and I would include myself in this group -- Hank Steuver turns in a finely honed profile of the actor in yesterday's Post.

Baldwin is a frustrating case. Anyone who remembers his work in Miami Blues or Glengarry Glen Ross, or his "I am God" speech from Malice, knows he can be a great, uncompromising talent. He's not afraid to play a jerk or take a supporting role -- he did both, to good effect, in The Edge and, according to the reviews, in his most recent movie, The Cooler, as well -- and he's not afraid to send himself up, either, a la Notting Hill and State and Main. He's been pretty damn funny on his numerous hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live because he's a gifted impressionist and a bit of a ham, and he's willing to throw himself into the show completely. But -- and I hate to sound like a schoolteacher here -- he doesn't apply himself consistently. There's The Shadow, Ghosts of Mississippi, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, Pearl Harbor, and a lot of other empty preening. Then there's his politics, about which Baldwin seems fired up. Sort of. But he still wants you to like him.

In the end, I wonder if Baldwin is the Bill Clinton of actors -- undeniable natural ability, easy charm, and more than a few weaknesses. Steuver's take on Baldwin is gently mocking but also astute:

Having missed out on celebrity superstardom as an action hero or romantic leading man in the 1990s, he has instead aged gracefully -- and a bit thickly -- into utterly appreciable Alec Baldwinness. People no longer talk about him running for political office, not as much. He is swimming his way through the mid-list of fame, treading closer into territory occupied by the world's last gentleman actors; a kind of status afforded Clooney, say, or even Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino....

Certainly the conclusion of Steuver's piece, which finds Baldwin taping a guest shot on NBC's Las Vegas, suggests the Clinton comparison:

In the middle of another harangue on the Bush administration vis-a-vis the environment, and while his tattoo is still drying, and while his hot dog is half-eaten, Baldwin's eyeballs suddenly trace the path of Molly Sims, the leggy blond actress who plays Caan's slut-a-riffic daughter on the show. She is wearing tight jeans and a soft creamy sweater and knee-high leather boots. "Why don't I get to have a scene with her?" Baldwin wants to know, and one of the show's writers, hearing this, actually has an explanation, a long one, that Baldwin isn't listening to.

Instead he needs a piece of paper and a pen.

He takes a page out of this reporter's notebook, and writes down "ALEC" and a phone number and smoothly saunters over and gives it to her, and they speak quietly and he giggles, and she giggles. Busfield, who has seen all this, rolls his eyes and starts barking commands for everyone to put down their Schweddy wieners and get back to work.

Caan and Baldwin, in the next scene, will drink Scotch and smolder the smoldering dialogue of tough men who smolder for a living, and hold their forearms up to each other to evince their tattoo camaraderie. Remember this is a boys' show.

In between takes, Baldwin gushes about how "great" everyone is on the set, how "lovely" a director Busfield is and how "incredibly nice" it is for a reporter to spend the day talking to him, and how, if you need anything from Alec Baldwin, anything at all, here is a phone number where you can always, always reach him, through his assistant:

"310 . . . " he begins, but, in the jotting, it seems this might not be the same number he gave the blonde.

What are you gonna do? He is God, after all.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Good Company

I wondered if I was the only one who thought Mystic River was less than a masterpiece. But Listen Missy had some problems with it, too. Among her observations:

Kevin Bacon is the true standout of the cast, and not, I might add, the capital-P Perfomance! of Sean Penn.

We'll call it a tie. You read it here first. But Missy said it much better (and much more succinctly).

Stop the Presses

In an odd twist, it turns out that Tina Brown recently attended a "media-heavy" dinner party in Manhattan. It was the night before Saddam Hussein was captured, and, as Brown tells us in her latest column in the Post:

The guests -- mostly Democrats, with a smattering of moderate Republicans -- were unanimously kissing off Bush. It had been a particularly obnoxious week for a crowd that favors a more metrosexual approach to foreign relations: The Pentagon had displayed its upraised middle finger to France, Germany and Russia just as James Baker was due to leave for the Continent to romance the Euros into forgiving Iraq's debt. From appetizer to espresso, the guests bemoaned the administration's crudeness, incompetence and dangerous lack of diplomatic finesse.

Brown springboards from that to series of sub-Maureen Dowd ruminations about Democrats and Republicans, including this one:

In his interview with Diane Sawyer, Bush was like a guy in a sports bar, not much inclined to big-think. Dirty Harry doesn't talk much, and always in words of one syllable, but while the police commissioner is still fretting about getting a proper search warrant Harry has already offed the bad guy with his great big pistol.

Look. I'm not one of those people who think Brown ruined The New Yorker or flew too close to the sun with Talk. I just think this column of hers is nonsense, and not because it's filled with little more than dropped names and pointless conventional wisdom, both picked up exclusively at cocktail parties attended by other media elites, or whatever you want to call Brown these days. No, the real problem is that the Post has decided to give a piece of real estate in its legendary Style section to someone who lives in, writes from, and writes about Manhattan. Washington will never be New York City, but does the Post have to wear its (and our) inferiority complex on its sleeve like this? There are plenty of great writers -- and plenty of cultural, political, media, and other happenings with national and international implications -- right here in DC. What does it say about the imagination and inclination of the Post's editors that they'd ignore all that and give a column to Tina Brown? I guess Stephen King wasn't available.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Troubled Waters

I always thought that Simon and Garfunkel hated each other equally, but according to the Post's David Segal, that aspect of their relationship is as lopsided as, well, their musical talents. (Sorry, Artie.) Reviewing Monday night's S&G show, Segal writes:

On their first tour in two decades, Simon and Garfunkel aren't merely reminding fans that together, in a collaboration that recorded for a mere six years, they produced dozens of transcendently beautiful songs, a canon of lyrical wit and sensuous melody that stands with the greats of the last half-century. For more than two jubilant and wistful hours on Sunday night, the duo also re-created a psychodrama. There was Garfunkel, heaving great bales of gratitude on Simon, deflecting whatever glory fell on his bushy head to the stoical man to his left. And there was Simon, impassive to the point of mummification, all but indifferent to the valentines of his former partner.

We love Simon and Garfunkel, and we want them to love each other. We can't help it. We know that "The Boxer" isn't any more or less magnificent if the guy who wrote the words and the music dislikes the guy on high harmony, nor does it matter to "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that its creators didn't speak to each other for years. But we want them to get along anyway. What made this stop on the "Old Friends" tour such a triumph, of course, was the music -- a retrospective, sometimes acoustic, often with a band, that was sweet, unadulterated nostalgia. But it was riveting, also, to wait for and spot signs of warmth emanating from Simon. There weren't many.

Given that I'm something of a student of critics, it's funny that I'm not at all a fan of music writing. Maybe music simply isn't as important to me as books and movies, or maybe music itself is less accessible, less tangible, less able to be captured in writing than those other media. Whatever the reason, even Lester Bangs, the critics' critic, doesn't do it for me, mostly because I can never shake the feeling you need to jack the exact same meth as him to follow his writing.

But I like David Segal quite a bit. I'm not saying he's better than Lester Bangs or anyone else. I'm saying I like his engaging, self-mocking style, and the fact that he brings more than a note-by-note dissection to his album and concert reviews and artist profiles. He brings some sense of the world outside the music -- nuggets of history, morsels of gossip, bits of psychology and anthropology. And, God forbid, he seems to be having a good time. He can review a Britney Spears album seriously, critiquing lyrics, singing, arrangements, production, etc., but also comment on the absurdity of Britney Inc. -- without sneering dismissively at any of that. And he can write things like this, again from the S&G concert review:

Garfunkel did a bit more talking than Simon, introducing "Kathy's Song" by identifying the song's inspiration, a young lady who collected change for the duo in a sailor's hat when they were busking in Europe. But Simon's introduction to "The Only Living Boy in New York" was the most touching moment of the show.

The song was written, he explained, in 1969, when Garfunkel left for Mexico to begin filming "Catch-22." Left alone, Simon wrote a song about trying to cope with life after a buddy catches a plane to Mexico. To realize that this song was about Garfunkel was to appreciate that Simon, at some moment, actually liked the man who now bestows upon him so much worshipful affection.

Behind the music, indeed.

First in Flight

It's correct and proper to honor the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. But let's not forget my hometown and its unique contribution to North American aviation. More than 200 years ago, Jean Pierre Blanchard landed there in a hot-air balloon that took off from Philadelphia; local farmers greeted Blanchard with fear and suspicion (and, presumably, pitchforks) until he flashed a letter he was carrying from U.S. President George Washington. That makes Deptford, New Jersey -- before Kitty Hawk -- the rightful claimant to the mantle "First Flight in America" (as the township motto goes). Go, Spartans!

Kurt Gerron

The things you learn and wish you hadn't. In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffman reviews the documentary Prisoner of Paradise, which details a queasy, fascinating historical footnote about which I knew nothing: In 1944, Kurt Gerron, a well-known German-Jewish actor and director, was interred in a concentration camp and forced to make a propaganda film called The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews that glorified life in the camp. The results sound sickening. As Kauffman writes:

Besides the clips from his own films that contrast with Gerron's fate, clips from his camp film are included in Prisoner of Paradise. Children smile, people sit together, eating and talking, all of them, as we know now, under threat of death if they behaved otherwise. For us today, this is nothing like acting: it is concealed agony. (Most of those people were transported to death camps soon afterward.) I do not know how to look at those clips, especially when I remember that the director...was himself only a step away from being a wraith himself.

And, of course, right after Gerron finished The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews, he and his wife were sent to Auschwitz, where they were gassed. It seems to me that Kauffman, a very precise writer, finds the exact right tone for this obscenity. He doesn't bother with rage, shame, guilt, or disgust, but instead goes with a kind of numb confusion. What other response is possible?

Monday, December 15, 2003

Movie Journal: The Hours

My daughter was born 13 months ago, right before the holiday movie season, meaning I was otherwise occupied when most of 2002's Oscar bait came and went. I've been playing catch-up ever since; only recently, for example, did I finally see The Hours, last year's ultra-prestige picture.

And, well.... Hmmmm. Maybe I heard too much about it, but if I had to put my reaction in one word, it would be "eh."

I was interested enough in The Hours while I was watching it. The acting is conscientious, the writing is literary, if mannered, and the plot is deftly structured, skipping between 1920s England, where Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, in that famous prosthetic nose) works on Mrs. Dalloway; 1950s Los Angeles, where housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), pregnant with her second child, bakes a cake for her husband's birthday and fights off a breakdown; and 2001 New York City, where Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) plans a party in honor of her friend Richard (Ed Harris), an award-winning writer dying of AIDS. The Hours is pretty, too, gorgeously designed and photographed.

But the overall effect is more unnerving than moving, and even that emotional impact dissipates quickly, I think because the thematic parallels and symbolic echoes that seem to exist between the three plot strands don't hold up to scrutiny. Most obviously, while Virginia Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway, Laura is reading it, and Richard calls Clarissa "Mrs. Dalloway." There are deliberately repetitive minor notes, too. All three characters arrange flowers at the same time, and crack eggs. (There's a metaphor for you.) And certain words are repeated -- Richard tells Clarissa, "But I still have to face the hours, don't I? I mean, the hours after the party, and the hours after that...," and later, Virginia Woolf writes to her husband, "Leonard, always the years between us, always the years, always the love, always...the hours...." At the time, I thought these reflective devices, or whatever you want to call them, were rather profound, but thinking about them now, they feel forced and superficial. I wonder if they worked better in Michael Cunningham's novel, where they wouldn't have been so visual and obvious.

Not that these are the only things that hit you over the head. The score, by Philip Glass, while quite beautiful, is relentlessly deployed, its humming strings and plinking keys a portent of dread no matter what the characters are doing -- driving, walking, baking, writing. As Moore's character struggled with her cake and the music kept creeping and creeping, for example, I wondered if the movie was headed toward Diary of a Mad Housewife or even Snake Pit territory.

Clearly, Mrs. Dalloway is the Rosetta Stone by which The Hours will be explained. I haven't read Mrs. D., but in the movie Laura conveniently describes it thusly: "Oh, it's about this woman who's incredibly -- well, she's a hostess and she's incredibly confident and she's going to give a party. And, maybe because she's confident, everyone thinks she's fine...but she isn't."

Maybe that's why the final impression I was left with was of a precisely worded, beautifully illustrated lecture on what it means to be Woman. And, really, what would I know about that?

Thursday, December 11, 2003

A Prayer for Sister Carrie

The latest fine issue of Bookslut is out, and one of the titles reviewed as part of its 100 Books Project caught my eye: Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. Reviewer Michael Schaub didn't like Sister Carrie at all. He spends most of his piece sputtering about how he can't believe it's so firmly embedded in the canon, then concludes:

Look, I'm not saying that no one will like this book. It has proven appeal to students of naturalism; people easily swayed by H. L. Mencken's recommendations; readers who are stranded on a remote island with nothing except a copy of Sister Carrie; and aspiring historians who are interested in late-nineteenth-century industrial Chicago, but who find the prospect of reading books of statistics to be just a little too exciting. The rest of us should feel no need to wade through Dreiser's clunky, uninspired prose.

I'm not sure this is as much of a minority opinion as Schaub seems to think. It's been a long time since Sister Carrie was banned for its raciness and immorality and celebrated for its realism, and a long time since any of the naturalists -- particularly Dreiser -- were in fashion. Five or six years ago, for example, Garrison Keillor moderated a Salon Classics Book Group discussion of Sister Carrie. In his introductory essay, he wrote:

"Sister Carrie," a cause celebre in American letters, is not that great a book, it must be said. Even if you pass over Dreiser's clunky Darwinian lectures, his schoolmarmish asides about psychology and morals, you have to conclude that this is no "Anna Karenina." Nobody would confuse this with Dickens. It isn't even James T. Farrell. It is a work of historical interest, like "Winesburg, Ohio," but I'd find it hard to assign these works to students -- there simply are so few moments when these dreary figures show flickers of life.

As it happens, not long ago I had my own relatively late introduction to Dreiser. Last year, I read An American Tragedy, which had haunted my bookshelf for nearly a decade, and this past spring I read Sister Carrie. That led me to pick up still another naturalist tome, McTeague, by Frank Norris. I don't suppose I'd call any of these books a masterpiece, but something in each of them spoke to me. And, while I wouldn't disagree with the specifics of Schaub's and Keillor's criticisms -- on a line-by-line basis, Dreiser's writing is humorless, charmless, and thuddingly bad, and deployed in service to a heavyhanded moral outrage -- I would say, and do say, that both Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy manage to transcend the nuts and bolts of their crudely overwrought construction. In places at least, their narrative flow, thematic force, and sheer, desperate aspiration carry you along; both books are such obvious attempts at the Great American Novel, they're imbued with a creaky, old-fashioned charm.

But I don't think either novel works in quite the way Dreiser intended. Sister Carrie is ostensibly about its title character, an Illinois country girl named Carrie Meeben who is seduced, compromised, and nearly left destitute in the big city before she begins sleeping and clawing her way to the top; clearly, Dreiser's targets are industrial capitalism, social injustice, and moral hypocrisy. But the emotional weight of his clanking, piledriver of a plot lands full on Hurstwood, the married Chicago gentleman who takes Carrie as his mistress and runs off with her to New York City, and whose gradual disintegration gives the book whatever soul it possesses. In describing Hurstwood's implosion, Dreiser's tedious style works to his advantage; he piles hour atop hour, day atop day, week atop week, methodically, ominously, and at some point you realize, with a shock, that Hurstwood isn't going to find a job, isn't going to be happy, isn't going to satisfy Carrie, and perhaps isn't even going to survive:

One day in the middle of the winter, the sharpest spell of the season set in. It broke gray and cold on the first day and on the second snowed. Poor luck pursuing him, he had secured but ten cents by nightfall, and this he had spent for food. At evening he found himself at the Boulevard and 67th Street, where he finally turned his face Bowary-ward. Especially fatigued because of the wandering propensity which had seized him in the morning, he now half dragged his wet feet, slopping the soles upon the sidewalk. An old, thin coat was turned up about his red ears -- his cracked derby hat was pulled down until it turned the same hearing organs outward. His hands were in his pockets.

"I'll just go down Broadway," he said to himself.

When he reached 42nd Street, the fire signs were already blazing bright. Crowds were hastening to dine. Through bright windows at every corner might be seen gay companies in luxurious restaurants. There were coaches, and crowded cable cars.

In his weary and hungry state he should never have come here. The contrast was too sharp. Even he was recalled keenly to better things.

"What's the use," he thought. "It's all up with me. I'll quit this."

Ignore (if you can) the two or three ill-chosen turns of phrase that drop like anvils among those sentences -- "turned his face Bowary-ward," "turned the same hearing organs outward," etc. -- and concentrate on their overall sweep, their momentum. It carries you above and away from the dull hammering of Dreiser's prose, into Hurstwood's numbed body and dwindling spirit, and then, with Hurstwood, crashes you suddenly into a hard, immovable realization: "Even he was recalled keenly to better things." It's a powerful effect.

I have a similiar experience recalling An American Tragedy. I think not of the nearly translucent main character, Clyde Griffiths, but rather of Roberta Alden, the pitiful factory girl whom Clyde courts, impregnates, and tries to leave for a richer, prettier girl. Again, Dreiser is taking aim at society, at the culture that would nurture such mindless, poisonous ambition. But An American Tragedy comes to life only when it goes inside Roberta's head, detailing the arc of her feelings for Clyde -- affection, love, passion, panic, desperation, and, finally, resignation.

I have a few specific passages in mind, but I can't find my copy of An American Tragedy right now, so another bruising excerpt will have to wait. My point is, I realize there's no getting around the awkwardness of Dreiser's novels. It's just that, right before I read Dreiser, I had been getting frustrated with the detached, mannered aspects of contemporary fiction, which I think helps explain why I responded to him, and, to a lesser extent, to Frank Norris. There's also the fact that I'm more sentimental than even I realize sometimes, that I have a soft spot for melodrama, and that I like just about anything that evokes the general turn-of-the-century milieu, not to mention the 1920s and '30s. Put it all together and you have a soul that finds itself sporadically susceptible to the earnest, straining ambition of Sister Carrie and her naturalist brethren -- a good 15 years after freshman comp, when I should have gotten that kind of thing out of my system.

UPDATE (12/30, 3:30 p.m.): I finally tracked down a copy of An American Tragedy and found one of the passages I liked. I gave it its own post here. To find it, I had to skip through 850 pages of Dreiser at his leaden best. And I still like him. Go figure.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

'The Lynchiad'

Reason magazine's Tim Cavanaugh checks in with a review of Rick Bragg's I Am a Soldier, Too (and, by extension, the entire affaire d'Jessica Lynch) that, per usual, is sober, nonpartisan, and unsentimental. As a hopeless centrist, I appreciate Cavanaugh's attempt to find the apolitical truth of this depressing story, which he dubs "the Lynchiad."

And Cavanaugh is particularly clear-eyed on Bragg, the disgraced ex-Timesman whose specialty is waxing lyrical on the good simple people of the American South:

For a book that must have been written in about 15 minutes, Soldier is surprisingly competent. It won't bowl you over with the depth of its sourcing, and the combination of Bragg's haste and his compulsive phrase-turning occasionally mangles the sense. ("Jessi is glad that the army never backed away from its portrayal of the commandos as anything less than heroes.") It reads a bit like a 200-page New York Times story -- or more precisely, like a 100-page Times story padded out with text warmers, one-sentence paragraphs, one- and two-page chapters, etc. In the tradition of Times national reporting, the book attempts to translate an exotic locale for urban middlebrows, so be prepared for frequent, corncobby reminders that Lynch is a daughter of the West Virginia mountains, where folks do things a little different. (C'mon, Rick! It's hard enough being a rootless cosmopolitan these days without all the scolding.) Still, the book charges efficiently through the story, gives credible details about the firefight that ended in Lynch's hospitalization, and even broke the news that Lynch seems to have been raped during her capture. (Inevitably, even this detail is now disputed.)

"Corncobby reminders." What a great distillation of the Bragg style. I've heard Bragg's books, especially All Over but the Shoutin', are very good, but I had a hard enough time with his moonshine-soaked prose in its relatively concise newspaper form. Probably just the Yankee in me. Back when Bragg left/was asked to leave the Times, the Antic Muse dissected what it was about him that got her spleen (hint: it wasn't Bragg's "dateline toe-touch," about which many other journalists wrung their hands):

I stopped reading him long ago, about the time I realized that any article carrying his byline would, more likely than not, be the Platonic ideal of Timesian condescension. More specifically, they would be about people who lived in trailer parks (or some such lower-class milieu) but had the kind of stubborn dignity -- or precocious skill -- that middle-class folks find so quaint.

What she said.

(Reason link via the Advice Goddess, Amy Alkon.)

Monday, December 08, 2003

Breaking the Code

During Thanksgiving vacation, Listen Missy read The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's juggernaut of a bestseller. Missy was not impressed. In fact, she whittles the book away in a half-dozen sentences:

This book is painfully written, a reminder of why I steer clear of most bestsellers. And I can see why it's a bestseller: it makes the reader feel like he's in on something secretive and smart, except that everything's spelled out without any real burden of thought on the part of the reader. Any math coolness I had imagined is actually quite pedestrian. It's got formula-thriller written all over it. When the film version comes out, it will probably star Ashley Judd. Stay away, people!

Interestingly, having also read The Da Vinci Code, I agree with Missy's entire review except for the last sentence. The writing is indeed clumsy, the plot revelations telegraphed and underlined, the cryptography unsophisticated. Yet I enjoyed the book. I think a few things explain this: (1) I'm not a smart, numerically inclined economist-type like Missy, so the "pedestrian" nature of the math stuff didn't bother me. (2) I'm terrible at figuring out plot twists and such, even when they're heavily foreshadowed and/or stupidly obvious, making me the ideal audience (read: sucker) for a basic thriller of this type. (3) As an irrevocably lasped Catholic who has real problems with the Church's politics and teachings, I was sympathetic to the book's point of view, such as it is, regarding Mary Magdalene and the elimination of the feminine from Church life. (4) Brown's entire crackpot theory about Magdalene and Jesus was fun, and interesting, too; I kept asking, "Is this true?" as I turned the pages. (5) I blew through most of The Da Vinci Code during Hurricane Isabel, at times by candlelight, which made for a relaxing, atmospheric reading experience.

But, yes, overall Missy is correct -- especially that line about Ashley Judd. Though, the female lead is a Parisian cryptologist, so, given the way Hollywood works, they'll probably go with one of the two studio-approved French actresses: Juliette Binoche or Sophie Marceau. To be, 'ow you zay, "authentic."

Saturday, December 06, 2003

David Hemmings, 1941-2003

I knew that David Hemmings, who died on Wednesday, had made his name as the lead in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup. I did not know that, in the 1980s, he spent some time in Hollywood directing vintage '80s TV shows like Magnum, PI, The A-Team, and Airwolf. Whatever pays the bills, I suppose. But who am I to even say something like that? I haven't even seen Blowup, though it is toward the top of my list of Movies I'm Ashamed to Admit I Haven't Seen. And, while I mostly know only what I've read in his obits, I somehow have the sense of Mr. Hemmings as a man who followed his career wherever it took him, had few regrets, and made no apologies.

I'm writing about him here because he was in one of my favorite movies of recent memory: Last Orders, Fred Schepisi's adaption of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel that was filmed in 2001 and released here last year. Set in London, it's about four men, longtime friends, getting on in years, who drive to Margate to scatter into the sea the ashes of a fifth friend who's just died. Mr. Hemmings played Lenny, a onetime boxer, and, with his voice loose and rumbling like a rockslide, his body thick and settling, his eyebrows flaring like wings, the role fit him. The way he walked, legs first, pulling along that ballooning torso, and the way he looked at his costars, peering out and away from under those magnificent eyebrows, suggested the guarded belligerence of a man who'd taken a lot of punches. He seemed to draw on everything about himself to do that -- including his long-ago stint, during the Blowup years, as the glamorous It boy of swinging London. It helped that Mr. Hemmings was joined in Last Orders by some fellow Britsh icons. His friends were played by Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, and, appearing in flashbacks as the dead man, Michael Caine -- the fourth friend on the trip to Margate is Caine's son, played by Ray Winstone -- and together they were quite believable as a bunch of East End lads awash in the tide of years, bound by a shared history that will always transcend their fights and heartbreaks and disappointments.

Suffice to say, Swift's novel is wistful and lovely, and so is the movie, for which director Schepisi also wrote the screenplay. While Lenny the boxer wasn't Mr. Hemmings last role, it's the one I thought of when I heard he'd died. Given Last Orders' themes -- old friendship, the shadows of history, etc. -- it seems a perfect elegy for a gifted actor who burned bright at a young age.

Friday, December 05, 2003

The Critic Who Couldn't Love

One more post about bilious critics, and then I'm done. (For this week, anyway.) The Literary Saloon surveys the latest ink spilled over the Grim Reaper himself, Dale Peck. In the process, they supply a link to Peck's recent "I trash, therefore I am" apologia in The New Republic. This is one of those bloggy halls of mirrors; in its post, the Literary Saloon excerpts quotes from a Peck interview with Robert Birnbaum in The Morning News, in which Peck comments on James Atlas' recent profile of him in the New York Times Magazine.

Whew. Where to begin? The Literary Saloon points out that Peck's own book, a novelistic autobiography/memoir about his father called What We Lost, has just been published, and highlights this quote from Peck to Birnbaum: "Obviously in the vast scheme of publicity, one needs five pages in the magazine more than one needs the op-ed page. The op-ed page was my opportunity to say something substantive."

The Saloon is disappointed:

And here we thought it was about literature. Instead, even onetime critic Peck is more concerned with "the vast scheme of publicity" -- empty superficiality over content. He apparently wrote a book which just came out or is coming out sometime soon, and apparently common wisdom is that publicity helps sell something like that (though we can't imagine that anyone reading any of these profiles and interviews could be moved to say: 'Now that's something I gotta get'). But it makes it a bit more difficult to take him seriously as a critic (or, indeed, as a person interested in conveying anything to an audience).

That's an excellent point, and a conclusion that becomes even harder to escape when you read Peck's New Republic essay, called "Hatchet Jobs," in which he claims to be overwhelmed with feelings of despair and disgust about the state of contemporary literature, traces the beginning of the end to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and, oddly, outs the valedictorian of his high-school class as having regularly cheated off Peck and his friends. That last bit is the strangest. I'm assuming it's Peck trying to be funny, if such an endeavor is feasible, but it helps cement the impression of emotion gone wild, erasing all borders between past and present, between Peck's life and the life for which he is searching in the books he reads.

As you might have guessed, "Hatchet Jobs" slushes all over the place, so it's hard to get your hands around a solid excerpt. Here's one chosen more or less at random:

My hatred of contemporary literature has reached such a fever pitch that I am willing to be clownish in my depiction of it--to spew obscenities in ostensibly literary contexts or to chop books to bits with a hatchet in the pages of respectable journals. I am less and less capable of intellectual engagement with contemporary fiction because I feel like I've been had when I do so: the very process of literary analysis legitimizes a body of work that I feel is unworthy of such attention. My generation has inherited a tradition that has grown increasingly esoteric and exclusionary, falsely intellectual and alienating to the mass of readers, and just as falsely comforting to those in the club.

To add a few more mirrors to the hall, last week the Saloon conducted its own measured analysis of "Hatchet Jobs." They gave Peck props for caring enough about literature to get so upset, but in end don't find him very convincing, especially because that New York Times Magazine piece was illustrated with a photo of Peck swinging an axe at a pile of book that included "tomes by Don DeLillo and John Barth (fair enough) but also Charles Dickens and William Faulkner (hardly contemporary, and, while they are certainly assailable, they surely can't be brought down by the same swing of the axe)."

As for me, I think a lot of "Hatchet Jobs" is an expansion on Peck's obituary-worthy review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil in The New Republic last year, in the same way that a flamethrower is an expansion on a Zippo lighter. So, mostly, I wonder what the point is of heaping fire atop fire. Also, it's hard to take Peck seriously as the self-appointed "mother hen" of literature (yes, that's what he calls himself) when he's so chuffed at his own daring for crying foul over A Portrait of the Artist. Critics and freshman-comp students have been arguing over that for years, and certainly Peck isn't the first one to suggest that it's a big fraud. But, more than once, "Hatchet Jobs" is marred by this sense he has of himself as the Omega Man in an apocalyptic landscape of literary mutants.

And, finally, Peck spends all of his essay wailing about how everyone is doing everything wrong without listing one writer or one book that gets (or got) it right. Don't like any of your contemporaries? Okay, go back as far as you like. What was the last great book you read? Peck sort of covers himself by writing, "My feeling is that the last thing readers need is a writer telling them what to read (besides his or her own books, of course)," but I don't really buy that. At this point, I have ample evidence as to what Dale Peck stands againt. Now I'd like to know what he stands for.

The Crack-Up

Ever wonder why David Denby seems to write once every harvest moon? Perhaps it's due to The New Yorker's Paul Masson-esque publication strategy; they will sell no article before its time. Or, perhaps it's because, as the New York Daily News' Paul Colford reveals, Denby has had other things on his mind (scroll down to the third item):

The New Yorker's film critic admits in his upcoming memoir, "American Sucker," that he lost hundreds of thousands in greedy pursuit of dot-com riches - and that's not all.

His wife of 18 years left; he came close to a nervous breakdown; and he had "a six-month obsession with Internet porn -- harrowing stuff for a New Yorker staff writer," Publishers Weekly says in a positive review.

Denby, we hardly knew ye. His memoir might be interesting. When he's on, and when he's not preaching from his movies-have-never-been-worse pulpit, he writes some of the best magazine-length reviews in the country. His most recent piece, on The Last Samurai, is a good example:

Now, some people may be dismayed by the cultural vanity implicit in the idea of a white guy's becoming a superb Eastern warrior, but no one can deny that Cruise is a scrapper. Could one imagine John Wayne or Gary Cooper, at a comparable stage in his career, hitting the dirt again and again? And Cruise has taken a step forward in "The Last Samurai." The egotistical, shallow young hot shot who grew up under pressure in "Top Gun" and "A Few Good Men" and "Jerry Maguire" has, in this movie, become something more interesting -- a disillusioned, rapidly aging hot shot whose ideals of honor and service need to be rekindled.

Now that I think about it, Denby can be good in short form, too. It's going back a few years, all the way to his tenure at New York, but, for example, he captured the promise and peril of Vincent Gallo in a few hundred words about the funny, strangely fascinating Buffalo '66. Excerpt:

From there on, it's strictly touch-and-go -- some good scenes, some things that don't work at all, and a rushed, unsatisfactory ending. If Gallo is going to have a teenage girl fall for scary Billy, the movie needs more psychological realism than it has. Who, and what, is she? Gallo may be too self-obsessed to care. Buffalo '66 has an authentic rotgut flavor, but here's the question for the future: Will Gallo learn to criticize his own ideas or continue to pride himself on screwing up?

The reactions to Gallo's last movie, The Brown Bunny, suggest that last question is, as ever, up in the air. But look at the serious consideration that Denby affords Gallo, as alienating a potential talent as there is. He ignores Gallo's obnoxious gossip-column posturings and concentrates on the movie, and he gets in some great, accurate observations, like "authentic rotgut flavor" and "Will Gallo...continue to pride himself on screwing up?" Likewise, Tom Cruise as a humbled, born-again samurai is a fish in a barrel, but Denby goes all the way back to Top Gun to find the root of his appeal in this role. He touches on Cruise's great strength and failing: his determined worth ethic. I often find Cruise unconvincing because he's seems to be trying too hard and he ends up just preening on screen. But I also respect him as a "scrapper," as a high-wattage actor who has tried different things like Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, and, from what I can tell, Collateral, which is in production.

Wait, who was I talking about? Oh, right, Denby. Maybe you've noticed from my previous posts about book and TV reviewing that I like critics who like the medium they're writing about. Denby, and David Edelstein in Slate, and Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, and Desson Thomson (nee Howe) in the Post, and Theo Panayides of Theo's Century of Movies, and even, after all these years, Roger Ebert (whose reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times are much insightful than his thumbs-up-thumbs-down TV persona would suggest), all share a quality I'd call "generous honesty"; they want to like the movies they're watching, but they don't give them a free pass, and they don't lard their negative reviews with cheap wisecracks. They come off as fans. Not fans in the gushing, incoherent Harry Knowles sense, but fans in the best way -- tough, open-minded, exceptionally discriminating (except maybe for Thomson, who a little too often isn't as hard as he could be). They make me want to read their reviews, and to see the movies they think are good.

To sum up, then, I like Denby, and I wonder if American Sucker will be any good. I enjoyed his last book, Great Books, quite a bit; it has a great premise -- Denby goes back to college to re-learn and re-evaluate the classics -- and is well done, though, as Jen Crispin at Bookslut suggests, Great Books is on shakier ground when Denby veers into "all kinds of theories about how whole classes of people live and what they believe." You probably could say that about his movie reviews, too. But then, the guy writes for The New Yorker, where self-indulgent tangents are a way of life.

(The Daily News link that started this mess is from The Minor Fall, The Major Lift, who, true to form, flogs a strange notion into absurdity at the expense of Adam Gopnik, New York magazine, and, in a hilariously gratuitous aside, Eric Schaeffer.)

Thursday, December 04, 2003

The Other MacDonald

The aforementioned Shallow Center sends Boats Against the Current its first e-mail, in reply to a previous post about Ross Macdonald:

You should absolutely read John D. MacDonald, as you indicated you might. He's been unfairly tagged as a genre writer, but his books are as well written and insightful as any literary fiction published today. He's that good. Travis McGee is the anti-Spenser in many ways -- often unsure of himself and his place in a changing world. MacDonald must have been a great observer, as his descriptions of people and places and emotions and weather and traffic and the South Florida coast and anything else are brilliantly rendered and ring true every time. And he had a gift for effortlessly weaving in social commentary into his books; it never feels out of place or forced, and in the middle of an engrossing story with a muscular plot and interesting, well-developed characters, you find yourself learning something. MacDonald was the real deal.

There you go. Vis-a-vis John MacDonald, Jonathan Yardley wrote a lengthy review of The Dreadful Lemon Sky -- and surveyed MacDonald's entire career as well -- as part of the Post's excellent "Second Reading" series a few weeks ago. It seems that Yardley and SC are on the same page (pun most likely unintended). After quoting a passage from The Dreadful Lemon Sky, Yardley concludes:

There you have it: sharp, seamless prose, bull's-eye aim, romanticism and cynicism playing subtly off each other. The writer is MacDonald but the speaker is McGee, who is the narrator of all the novels in the series. The relationship between McGee and his creator is intimate, fascinating and a bit difficult to unravel. MacDonald doesn't seem to be projecting when he makes McGee a tender, accomplished Casanova, or when he gets McGee out of big trouble with astonishing feats of physical strength and resourcefulness; MacDonald himself seems to have been a one-woman man, happily married for nearly a half-century, and much of the violence in his novels is depicted with tongue in cheek, stylized and exaggerated.

If I wasn't sold before -- and I was -- then I am now, which means I guess I still am. You know what I mean. But this doesn't let anyone off the hook for reading little-D Macdonald.

Paris Is Burning

Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie's new show, The Simple Life, did boffo box office when it debuted the other night. And I missed it. The most important pop-culture moment in centuries, possibly millenia, and I was otherwise occupied. Hell, I don't even remember what I was doing -- but I know what I should have been doing. I'm fairly sure Fox will rerun the first episode, and rerun it some more, but until then, let's go to the reviews.

The Post's professional lemonsucker, Tom Shales, doesn't disappoint:

Is television, like America, losing its middle class? Everything seems to aim either very high or very low, with little in between. Fox, a specialist in the latter, dallies in the depths yet again with its reality series "The Simple Life," premiering at 8:30 tonight on Channel 5 and attempting to answer the question "Can one TV show insult the overprivileged and the underprivileged at the same time?"

Yes, Mr. Shales, Fox bad. Fox very very bad. Civilization ending. Civilization very very ending. Sigh.

Over in Slate, Dennis Cass also goes negative, but he sounds genuinely disappointed that The Simple Life is "neither as good-good nor as bad-good as you'd like it to be." That is, Cass' review makes him seem like someone who actually enjoys not only TV but reality TV. Good lord, man:

Or perhaps I'm all wrong and the problem is not with the show, but with me. I have to confess to coming to The Simple Life with an inordinate amount of pop cultural baggage. Typically the scandal surrounding a reality show breaks during its run, not several weeks before, and if anything, the disgrace helps round out what are often tragically flat characters. The original Joe Millionaire was much improved by the revelation that Evan Marriott was as an aspiring professional wrestler and part-time underwear model and that co-star Sarah Kozer had had a brief career in bondage videos. But between Richie's heroin bust and Hilton's tabloid life, I am drowning in subtext before the opening credits have rolled. Furthermore, when it comes to television, Hilton has already been prominently featured in an E! True Hollywood Story; a VH1 Fabulous Life Of; an E! It's Good To Be; as well as a brief turn in VH1's All Access: Awesomely Bad Girls. The end result is The Simple Life has the dubious distinction of being the first new show that you feel is already in repeats.

I like the fact that Cass doesn't bother with cheap shots, because he realizes that Paris and Nicole cheap-shot themselves all the time; they're sort of walking cheap shots. Instead, he tries to figure out why the show doesn't do it for him, and he ties other pieces of TV and pop culture to his argument. Again -- good lord, man.

I'll post more reviews as I find them. I wish I could get to Carina Chocano's take in the Los Angeles Times, but the Times has a pretty draconian online-access policy -- Chocano's review is gated off a whole two days after it ran -- and I'm not what the kids call a "hacker."

UPDATE: Television Without Pity takes a matter-of-fact approach that manages to suggest both the love and the hate:

Spoiled rich kids Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are dumped with a family in Arkansas, where they prove that they aren't that smart and have little in the way of survival skills. They have trouble driving a pick-up truck, refuse to help the poor grandmother pluck chickens because they have issues with dead animals, and can't believe the grocery-store cashier won't just let them take food when they don't have enough money to pay the bill. It's enough to make you want to smack someone.

And that's just the recap. Be sure to check back for the full-blown review.

UPDATE 2 (12/9, 2:44 p.m.): Cathy Seipp likes The Simple Life, and speculates about why it's better than E!'s flesh-crawling The Anna Nicole Show:

Part of what redeems Paris and Nicole is their constant politeness. “Nice to meet you!” they enthuse to their amazed country-mouse hosts. "Thank you so much for having us." They don’t drop the act under stress, either. "Thanks, Braxton," Paris says wearily, as the farm family’s four-year-old son, armed with a flyswatter, rescues them from ticks invading the bedroom. "My family always taught me to thank everyone and be humble," she explained later at the press conference. "My dad was really, really strict to always be polite, and please and thank-yous and all that jazz," said Richie. Part of what makes [Anna Nicole] Smith hard to take is that she seems skanky to the bone. "I like to think that Kimmy is one of those bouncy rides," she says on The Anna Nicole Show, while jiggling up and down on her assistant’s lap. "'Cause I drop a quarter down her shirt, and she bounces me."

The Phils Get a Twin

After a week-long hiatus, Shallow Center -- who in his free time moonlights as my brother -- returns with a judicious post on the Phillies' ongoing efforts to not have a sucky bullpen. The real question is what will happen to the Phils' sort-of-ace starter, Kevin Millwood, but, in the meantime, SC is fairly pleased with the team's acquisition of lefthander Eric Milton from the Twins:

Milton brings a recent history of injuries to the Phils, but when healthy, he was a solid double-digit winner for Minnesota. He gives up a lot of dingers, and his ERA -- 4.76 in six years with the Twins -- isn't grand, but he can bring a decent fastball, a good curve, a hard slider, and a changeup.

NOTE: No, I'm not a huge baseball fan, but it is the sport I like most, and I'm enough of a Phillies fan -- and a loyal enough brother -- to follow SC's excellent coverage. Got a problem with that?

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

A Whole New Review

Writing in Slate, Meghan O'Rourke ponders the fate of the New York Times Book Review, which is searching for a new editor. O'Rourke makes a convincing case that this is an opportunity for the Book Review to wake up and make some noise. She suggests that the decision makers at the Times take their lead from the Book Review's last golden age, the 1971-75 reign of John Leonard:

What was so special about Leonard's Book Review? From the very start -- his first issue was January 10, 1971 -- it stood out for its editorial brazenness and its engagement with current affairs. The reviews of Horace translations and the histories of Modernist little magazines slimmed down or shuffled to the back; in their place came a riotous thicket of pieces on film, the black arts movement, the Vietnam War, E. M. Cioran, B. F. Skinner, Michel Foucault. (Remember, it was 1971.) Women began to review political books. Feminist novelists were evaluated thoughtfully but not forgivingly. In 1972, Don DeLillo's second novel, End Zone, was given the lead review -- which in those days meant it began on the cover. DeLillo was a relative unknown. When I spoke to Leonard by phone last week, he told me he'd made the unusual decision to put him on the cover because he liked the review enough to read the novel -- and when he did he saw something new in it.

I gather that the rap on the current Book Review is that it's bogged down in on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand scorekeeping. That's a valid point, but my real problem with the Times' reviews, and with those in other papers as well, is that too many of them read like book reports -- 500 or 600 words of plot summary, with a final-judgment paragraph that begins with "Overall," "In the end," or "Of course." Not only does this approach give away scores of plot points it would be more fun for readers to discover on their own, it makes for dutiful and uninspiring reviews. I like it when reviewers respond to books with their own ideas, arguments, and counterarguments. I'll have to take O'Rourke's word for it that that's the way the Book Review was during the Leonard era; I was ages 1 to 4 at the time. But my mom tells me I read a lot even then.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

New Parenthood

Being a relatively new parent -- my daughter just turned 1 -- I'm still pretty hard on my fellow new parents. Mothers and fathers who publicly wrap themselves in their children and deliver spontaneous odes to the sanctity of childhood are the ones who give all of us a bad name. Really, kids are so obviously miraculous, and also so obviously nervewracking and life-altering, it seems pointless to talk too much about it. So I give Katy Read extra-special credit for taking a whack in Salon at the inspirational "paeans to motherhood" that get e-mailed to her all the time:

Mommy mails may read like propaganda for motherhood, a type of motherhood dimly recalled from some not-quite-real past. But deconstruct these woeful tales, and you notice they make motherhood sound like hell, while suggesting that mothers like it that way -- or should. Whatever the senders think they're doing, I don't believe these messages are pro-motherhood at all.

Amen, sister. When my wife and I were expecting our little girl last year, I'm sure my friends got tired of hearing me complain about all the new parents we knew who felt they had to prepare us for the long slog ahead by saying "Don't get used to that" whenever we mentioned that we'd slept in, gone out to dinner, seen a movie, read a book, or driven anywhere that wasn't the doctor's office. They didn't make me not want to be a parent; they made me not want to be a new parent. I'm sure I've failed at that -- but it's just because children are so precious.

Snarking Across the Atlantic

Kate Kellaway uses an interview with novelist Dale Peck (he of the infamous Rick Moody review) as a jumping-off point for an examination of London's book-reviewing culture:

If Peck were British, according to the American commentary, his punishing excesses would be greeted with a shrug. The received wisdom on the other side of the Atlantic is that we live tolerantly in a critical snakepit. But is this true? Who are the English Dale Pecks? Is there anyone with his chutzpah? And if we can identify our hatchet men, do we admire them? How much are hatchet men victims of their own temperaments (think of Dale Peck's rage)? And the ultimate question -- what are the ethics of criticism in this country?

It's a pretty good piece, provided you ignore Peck's sense of Peckness ("He has even gone so far as to say that critics who maintain an 'ironic, impotent distance' are 'teaching people not to read books like mine'"). Kellaway interviews a number of British literary critics and gets all sorts of opinions about whether book reviewing over there is a "snakepit." There are no definite conclusions, but I think Kellaway is on to something when she writes:

I told the axeman that I find negative criticism a chore to write -- I'm bored by work I have not enjoyed and find it hard to persevere with it. And I seldom find negative reviews a pleasure to read, either. Worse even than what I call "professional enthusiasm" (the gush of PR) are pieces written with contempt. The pleasure evident in demolition work is alien and unsavoury, too.

I think maybe this is a better way to approach this question than Heidi Julevits' plea for nicer -- i.e., less "snarky" -- reviews in the inaugural issue of The Believer, which, while more nuanced than people tend to remember, still seemed like...whining, I guess.

(Link to Kellaway's Guardian article via Arts & Letters Daily.)

Movie Journal: Master and Commander

About a half-hour into Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I was swept by an unexpected emotion: relief. I realized, quite suddenly, that they hadn't screwed it up. I was in good hands, I decided, and I relaxed and dropped lower in my seat and enjoyed the show. This is a good movie. It's intelligent, moving, and exciting -- a thinking person's action movie, I might call it, except I'd sound terribly self-impressed, so let's leave it at "old-fashioned adventure on the high seas" or some such blurb-worthy turn of phrase.

The great appeal of Master and Commander is its pacing. Minutes into the movie, the HMS Surprise is sneak-attacked by a faster, stronger French privateer. The Surprise manages to escape, and for another hour-and-half, you watch as the crew repairs the ship, tends to the wounded, stalks the privateer around Cape Horn, and stops at the Galapagos Islands for a nature expedition. You get to know the crew -- Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), his surgeon and confidante Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), and a full compliment of seamen, some leathery and scowling, others hale and lusty, still others prepubescent, and all highly loyal to Aubrey, a natural leader of men in battle. You learn something of Aubrey and Maturin's keen friendship, which seems to pivot on the twin axes of their similarities and their differences. They both place a premium on honor and civilization, discharging their duties and then retiring to the captain's quarters to play duets on the violin and cello; they are modern men, men of their time, but in quite distinct ways -- Aubrey with a broad-shouldered taste for action, Maturin with a quieter love of science and nature.

Director Peter Weir, who with John Collee adapted Patrick O'Brian's much-beloved novels (the movie combines elements of two books, hence the two-pronged title), invests so much time and so much craft in explaining these men and their ship, you begin to fear for their safety, because you know where things are headed: right back to that privateer. Weir and Collee handle the French ship marvelously. In their hands, it's almost like an off-stage villain; it lurks in the fog and cannon smoke, or hovers at the horizon, a threat and a temptation, always chasing or being chased.

After all that, I should probably confess that I haven't read any of O'Brian's books. Maybe that's why it's so easy for me to say Crowe and Bettany, who were memorable together in A Beautiful Mind, are quite good here as well -- Crowe seemingly born to command, Bettany born to complement the man born to command. For another point of view, try Christopher Hitchens -- O'Brian reader, British Navy brat, and guy who thinks Weir and Co. really screwed things up, especially by getting Maturin so wrong:

As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history. At one point he is made to say in an English accent that he is Irish -- but that's the only hint we get. In the books, for example, he quarrels badly with Aubrey about Lord Nelson's support for slavery. But here a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.

As I said, I was blessed to go into Master and Commander without preconceived notions, which probably means I'm looking forward to the next installment in the cinematic adventures of Aubrey and Maturin a bit more than Hitch is.

UPDATE: Terry Teachout has bad news for Master and Commander. Or, rather, it's bad news for what Teachout calls "big-budget adult movies." Hmmm. I didn't know they still made them.

Monday, December 01, 2003

J.M. Coetzee x 2

I don't know anything about this J.M. Coetzee guy except that he just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and now he has a new book out called Elizabeth Costello. And two people I read regularly have completely split opinions about it.

In this corner, Washington Post curmudgeon (but still sharp, that is, he's not a curmudeon who's just sleepwalking through it, like, say, Andy Rooney) Jonathan Yardley, who did not like Elizabeth Costello at all:

Described on its dust jacket not as a novel but as "Fiction," it is an exercise in the higher self-indulgence: a succession of almost unimaginably tiresome ruminations, cast in the form of formal academic addresses, about big-ticket issues in which Coetzee himself is interested, ranging from storytelling to cruelty to animals (this one gets two full chapters all to itself) to the mystery of artistic genius to evil pure and simple.

And, in this corner, mysterious blogger The Minor Fall, The Major Lift, who, in a rare (mostly) unironic post, raves:

We were initially dubious about Elizabeth Costello. We’ve read Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace, both of which we rather enjoyed, but there seemed something a bit didactic about this new one, which is essentially a series of lectures tricked out with fictional aspects at either end. We could not have been more wrong. What Coetzee has fashioned from these short story-cum-lectures (referred to, a touch ponderously, as lessons) is a novel of ideas (a phrase with which, no doubt, the author would have his own issues). What we found most surprising about the book was not how well the fiction aspects meshed with the lesson aspects (although they did) but how appealing the lesson aspects actually were.

Usually it's more fun to distill an opinion from everyone else's reviews -- I have a friend who calls this "meta-reading" -- but it seems in this case that might land me in a coma. So I might have to actually read the book for myself and make up my own mind. Dammit.