Archive | July, 2013

National Book Award winners, part 1: 1961’s The Moviegoer.

31 Jul

(I’ve set myself a reading project; I’m going to read each National Book Award winner. Preferably in order, but The Man with the Golden Arm, the first winner, defeated me some years ago so I’m putting it off. I’ve started, instead, with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Walker Percy owns a peculiar stretch of literary territory. He’s highly regarded, but receding from memory. He’s southern, urban and urbane. You won’t find any of the cornpone dialect, the love affair with the fecund land. His characters live in cities. They are (often over-) educated. They flounce around manicured backyards. They drink sophisticated cocktails. They ruminate. They meditate. They look at trees. Occasionally they fuck.

The Moviegoer, his first novel, won the 1961 National Book Award. It’s considered his best.

The 1961 National Book Award winner.

The 1961 National Book Award winner.

The novel is about ennui and malaise, the discontent of privilege, the loose disaffection that comes from middle class money. The narrator, a stockbroker living in New Orleans, floats through life seeing the world as a reflection of movies and not the other way around. Too rich to be a social climber or a schemer, and too poor to be an aristocrat or a gentleman, stuck somewhere in-between, mediocre, drifting, smart enough to see the obstacles of the world but not clever enough to find a way around them, he goes to movies. He observes the strange and often beautiful world around him. He spars with his family. He reveals little tidbits about his past. He ruminates on Southern gentility, subtle racism, New Orleans culture. There are references to heroism, the specter of the Korean War, a few jokes. There isn’t much plot. There isn’t much story. Strangely, there aren’t that many movies.

There is some beautiful descriptive writing: “The children are skiing with Roy. They blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the black water like a knife. The gear piled at the end of the dock, yellow nylon rope and crimson lifebelt, makes aching phosphor colors in the sunlight.”

Big things happen—people die, get married, go crazy—but it all unfolds in a glancing manner, parsed through the narrator’s disaffection. He’s bad company, but worse, sort of boring. I kept hoping for some crime, some gusto, some passion. But that would run counter to the novel of moneyed soul-sickness. Action, urgency, ambition—these don’t exist in the bourgeois novel of manners.

It’s a very fine Louisiana novel of parishes and swamps, but a disappointing New Orleans novel. The city’s sadistic, seething decadence is invisible.

The author, in his dotage.

The author, in his dotage.

Percy’s reputation is as a humorist with a dash of fatalism, but the jokes have faded with the passage of time. What’s left is a melancholy little book with a few dashes of humor. The narrator exists as a shade, opting instead for the artificial glory of the silver screen. Here he describes William Holden walking down the street: “An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.”

Percy’s genteel, educated, but also kind of soft. There’s no wildness. There’s little danger. Because he deals with internalized psychological issues, he’s held as a better writer than the glut of southern wildmen who came just a bit later. He isn’t. I’d take Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor or Charles Portis any day. Percy is humane, but perhaps to a fault.

I read Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb[1] recently, and the two novels are eerily similar. Roth’s novel follows the disassociative decline of a nobleman as the world wars ruin his family name, destroy his empire, and pulverize his lifestyle to dust. He’s left with no skills, few social connections, a mound of debts, and no future, just twilight and the coming end. The Moviegoer contains a similar gray spirit in the pages. Here’s the first line: “This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch.”

The Moviegoer came out in 1961. That same year, Borges’s Ficciones was published. Joseph Heller published his fantastic and unforgettable Catch-22. Richard Hughes published his odd The Fox in the Attic. Norton Juster released The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the finest children’s books every written. J.D. Salinger published Franny and Zooey, the beloved, if slightly overrated follow-up to The Catcher in the Rye. Richard Yates released Revolutionary Road. Murial Spark published The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Robert Heinlein published (the also overrated) Stranger in a Strange Land. Harold Robbins, Evelyn Waugh, Irving Stone, Iris Murdoch and John Steinbeck also published novels this year.

In this crowded list the National Book Award folks picked Percy’s slim and slender novel and bestowed upon it the top literary award of the day. It made his career. With hindsight, Percy shouldn’t have won. Heller, then perhaps Borges, if you have to make a list of it, and then Yates or Spark. The Moviegoer rests as a kind of elegant historical oddity. Heller’s novel is richer, stranger, more relevant with each passing year. Borges gathers more and more acolytes with the passage of time. Yates has his die-hard fans, as does Spark and Murdoch. Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, and Evelyn Waugh, although not to my tastes, has legions of adherents.

I can’t help but wonder if Percy’s greatest contribution to American letters was helping the lonely mother of John Kennedy Toole publish her dead son’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

 


[1] A loose, unofficial sequel to The Radetsky March, one of the great novels of the 20th century.

Pray to the British nobles, holy, wise and clean. (My thoughts on Downton Abbey, late as usual.)

30 Jul

1.

I’ve watched all three seasons of Downton Abbey. And I’m convinced that what started out as a historical melodrama has evolved into a modulated assault on democratic values. This British import is the most serious threat to our democracy since Shay’s Rebellion. Or New Coke.

Downton has, over three successful seasons, moved into more and more disturbing territory, while on the surface becoming nicer, gentler, softer. The first season is unaccountably strong, with bickering sisters and a family crisis, good screenwriting and a very fine visual style. The look of the show was close to other BBC productions, only tighter, brighter, more beautiful. The first season seemed like a great British modern novel, a la Evelyn Waugh, focusing on a way of life in decline. The first World War was around the corner, and the values of the nobles seems static, outdated and close to ruin.

Then the war comes. The second season, weaker than the first, engages in a type of historical re-enactment, attempting to show the effects of the war on the various British classes. The plotting took a hit, and the writing took on a whiff of odious melodrama and there were some lame twists and manufactured crises. And, most heinous of all, the nobles emerged as the heroic figures.

The third season, although entertaining, has plunged into a putrid celebration of the British ruling class. The servants bicker, scheme, or in many cases, love their masters. The nobles are pure of heart, and take care of their servants out of a deep sense of noblesse oblige.

The working people who are happy with their station are the show’s heroes: Mr. Carson, Bates and Sara. The working people who strive to move up in the economic ladder—the American characters, if you will—are seen as scheming, untrustworthy and distasteful.

The emphasis on distaste cannot be overstated. The show has split its cast into two types: couth and uncouth. Having bad manners is the worst of all sins. So when a distant cousin is introduced as a pleasure-seeking party girl flapper, she is shown as tawdry and cheap. Nevermind that she’s the one character that most 21st century people should empathize with: she wants to be who she wants to be, not who the family dictates. We should be rooting for her—live life on your own rules!—but we don’t. We applaud when she’s forcibly brought back under her family’s control.

The British nobles have been whitewashed, starched, pressed and folded. They’re portrayed as wise, generous, empathetic and even concerned with the dispensation of their largesse.

2.

The first season appeared to be a sort of satire on the landed gentry by maintaining an insular world. This moral relativity is what makes The Godfather such a fantastic film. But The Godfather undercuts the romanticism of the gangster lifestyle with extreme violence and heart-breaking betrayals, revealing Michael Corleone’s allegiance to the idea of fealty, loyalty and honor over his actual family in the second movie. The Godfather isn’t an affirmation of the gangsters; it’s a repudiation of a vile and pernicious system. (Coppola wanted the films to demonize capitalism.)

But appearances in this case are deceiving. Downton isn’t satire, it’s a 21-gun salute. The insulated point of view isn’t in service of anything; the show’s creators actually believe the drivel they are selling. Worse, they are trying to recast an oppressive system of control into a pretty nifty time. The servants are lucky to be wage-slaves to Downton. They should be grateful for low wages and one day off a month.

Lord Grantham, the patriarch of the estate, serves as the show’s main hero. He’s the one character who sees the sweep of history and, after some bombastic speech-making, evolves to the new era. Which is preposterous when history tells us that he would be the least adaptable. He strides through the various scenes, a touch testy but big-hearted and attuned to the feelings of others. His main character flaw seems to be that he cares too much for people. If only he were tougher on the rabble.

Lord Grantham, the gracious, sweet-smelling lord over the foul rabble.

Lord Grantham, the gracious, sweet-smelling lord over the foul rabble.

The always-excellent Maggie Smith plays the grand dame of the family. She’s caustic, conservative, and has never worked a day in her life. She’s also the wisest, most insightful character in the show. She’s fun to watch and she has all the best lines, but in real life she would have been a miserable leech, siphoning off money she didn’t earn to live a lifestyle she doesn’t deserve.

The two bitchy, snobby daughters aren’t punished for their cushy lives or haughty cruelty. They have drama, of course, and the show keeps them in agitated states. But it’s the youngest daughter—who tries to learn some basic cooking skills and runs away with an Irishman named Bransen—who the show punishes, by killing her off on the day her daughter was born.

3.

Bransen is the essential character in trying to understand the show. He is obnoxious, prone to speechifying, an extremist. (The show’s treatment of the Irish is enough to undue the Good Friday peace accords. ) His brother is something straight out of Shakespeare, a pasty-faced hunchback with no social graces. His appearance mirrors his slovenly moral laxness. Unlike the coifed and always dignified Lord Grantham, the Irish brother is crooked of tooth and short of stature. Bransen is shown as unreasonable, difficult, and annoyingly set against the ruling classes. He is, like the other Irish characters on the show, revealed as an ill-mannered firebrand who want change to happen too quickly. Nevermind the casual destruction of his country—including a manufactured Potato famine that starved a third of the population—and the English arrogance and the vicious treatment of the Irish people. He needs to relax! Bransen just needs to eat a crumpet, sip some tea, and chill!

Bransen, the hero of the show, if he could just let go of all that Irish nonsense.

Bransen, the hero of the show, if he could just let go of all that Irish nonsense.

It’s only when he begins dressing and acting like the English nobles does he become heroic. He’s the Irish equivalent of an Uncle Tom, and the show fawns over his transformation. In episode six of the third season, he catches a fly ball in cricket, a moment that is supposed to be exultant and telling. Telling indeed; once Bransen embraces the colonialist game, he is thus embraced by his oppressors. And now he can be happy.

Ugh.

4.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

The show’s central villain is Barrow, an attractive schemer who always has some intrigue in the fire. Barrow’s intrigues are almost always aimed at increasing his station. He attempts to buy up extra supplies, for example, during the Great War so that he can sell them on the black market. He also sabotages his fellow footmen so that he can move up to Grantham’s valet. He is a good character, but there’s a problem. The show has inextricably linked his villainy to his sexuality. He’s gay, and his nastiness is seen as symptomatic, not incidental, to his homosexuality.

The show's main villain, a dandified homo out to punish the hetero world.

The show’s main villain, a dandified homo out to punish the hetero world.

So we have the uppity women who don’t know their place; the angling servants who refuse to accept their station; the sexual pervert who punishes others for their happiness; and those radical Irish who won’t just accept the beauty of being subjugated by the wealthy English. Juxtapose this working class motley crew with those sterling, beautiful and wise-cracking nobles, who keep everyone employed in a stunningly beautiful estate.

Does the show’s only villain have to be gay? Does his gayness have to play such a large role in his evildoing? Do the nobles have to be, well, so fucking noble?

5.

Contrast all of this with 2001’s Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes’s collaboration with director Robert Altman and arguably Altman’s third or fourth best film. In Gosford, the high born drive much of the intrigue. They are snobby, dismissive, entitled and vile. The servants scheme, too, but the movie reveals the amount of damage the rich scheming can do. The servants are petty and spiteful. The masters are vengeful and vain, self-centered and immensely destructive. They abuse, dismiss and discard the working people. They are the sharks in a fishtank, and they control the food supply. There’s a reason the kings and queens of old were fat while the farmers and peasants were thin. Gosford understands an essential fact of this vile system: the working people had to wear two faces; the royals were always their miserly and vicious selves.

The aristocratic model involved bloodlines, lineages, primogeniture, and often absurd rules of inheritance. The system is by design a way of keeping land and resources under strict familial control. Americans are supposed to be sickened by this societal model. It’s the foundational building block of our country, that everyone is the same.

And yet, the show—which mocks our whole system of governance—is immensely popular. And the critical response seems to focus on the show as a guilty pleasure, instead as an insidious and false celebration of an evil way of life. A pox on those soft-derriered posh Brits and their knock-kneed American cousins. Give me the Molly Macguires.

6.

King Leopold committed genocide in the Congo. Queen Victoria oversaw genocidal practices in India. France strip-mined the Ivory Coast, Portugal gutted Brazil, Spain brutally subjugated the native peoples of Central America.

The royals were rich because others were poor. The royals remained in power by subjugating those who wanted equality instead of (a horrid and stultifying) stability. Behind Downton’s gentle glowing veneer is a vicious propaganda of the worst kind. I keep hoping the show will come to its senses and have some of the wide-eyed rabble rise up and rid themselves of their oppressors. Pitchforks and molotovs and guillotines, dear servants; the future can be yours.

Five lines from Simone.

30 Jul

1. Beth: Why did you say that?

Simone: To make you angry and sad.

 

2. Jason: Simone, what would be a good name for our new baby?

Simone: Butts.

 

3. Simone (busting into the kitchen while Beth and I were talking): Did someone say chocolate milk?

 

4. Simone: Daddy, for breakfast could you make a soup of hotdogs and butts?

 

5. Simone: Mommy, are we going to trade Pearl in?

Simone calls Newsies, “Susies.”

23 Jul

And it’s hilarious. “I just love this movie so much,” she said to me a couple of minutes ago. Now’s she watching it.

She’s onto something. Newsies is one of the great, underrated musicals (it’s a better musical than Chicago, although not a better film, and a better film than Moulin Rouge, although not a better musical), and my contender for one of the most overlooked films of the 1990s. It’s got a crackerjack cast—including Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman, Michael Lerner and Ann Margret—and a dynamite storyline. It’s one of the few pro-labor films of the last 50 years. The newsies are hardluck, hard-working boys, up against the wall by greedy corporate managers. The film has evocative cityscapes of old New York and great period costumes, matched only by Godfather II and Once Upon a Time in America. The script is punchy, ripped right from Damon Runyon; the characters speak in a tough guy, slangy, bowery boy patois.

The cast is rounded out with topnotch singers and dancers. Great songs, too. And a young Christian Bale. The fact that it flopped when it was released doesn’t speak to its quality at all. It’s Simone’s new favorite film.

The best song is probably “Carrying the Banner,” but here’s “The King of New York.” Check it out:

Zimmerman. Johns. Jones.

14 Jul

(I mostly stay away from topical writing. But the Zimmerman case is percolating in my thoughts. I can’t shake it, the various photos and incongruous facts, the sickening injustice of his walking free, and the vague sense that as a white dude in America I’m somehow partially culpable. This is an inadequate response by any measure, but at the moment it’s all I have. Here’s my one and only post on the issue.)

1.

I’m digesting the George Zimmerman verdict. It’s heart-breaking, unnerving, predictable. I’m not surprised. I’m angry I’m not surprised. I’m deeply unsettled by the pre-ordained feeling of the trial; we’ve been here so many times before. I feel culpable somehow.

I don’t know how to respond to it; I don’t know how to process it; I don’t know how to write about it. So I’ll write about a forgotten speech instead, by way of “black[1]” cinema.

2.

There aren’t many great—or even good—films about the black experience in America. The reason for this is simple economics and institutionalized racism. I can name a handful off the top of my head: Do The Right Thing; Uptight! (and amazing little movie about a group of black youths shifting from accommodation to black separatism); Anna Lucasta; Killer of Sheep; Boyz in the Hood; and Malcolm X.

And plenty of pretty good films—The Best Man; Cabin in the Sky; Separate But Equal (a square but well made movie about Thurgood Marshall); The Great White Hope (James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxer, interesting but uneven); Devil in a Blue Dress (a good movie that somehow doesn’t quite make it); Cooley High (I suppose, although I haven’t seen it in years); Clockers (a very fine movie although a pale shade to the magnificent novel it’s adapted from); School Daze, Hoodlum, Strictly Business, Roll Bounce, Love Jones and maybe half a dozen others.

And some horribly misguided films, which often do brisk business, like Glory (which seeks to glorify the pointless death of a black battalion of soldiers, even making the argument that their deaths served some high moral purpose); Menace II Society (ostensibly about the corrupt systems that drive young black males to murder, but in application a vicious piece of exploitation, although entertaining in a grisly sort of way); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (an incredibly square chamber room comedy drama that misuses everyone’s talent, excepting an exceptional performance from Katherine Hepburn); American Gangster (seeks to celebrate a criminal empire because it’s a black criminal empire, employing a horrid moral parity with no scrutiny); Ali (well made and well acted and yet somehow still bad and missing some crucial component) and the crown jewel, Mississippi Burning, which turns the mostly apathetic agents during Mississippi Freedom Summer into hardline, uncompromising heroes, leaving the true heroes, the black and Jewish activists, as a sidebar).

And, of course, the entire Tyler Perry catalog, which manages to misinterpret the entirety of Jesus’s teachings, portraying black women as either virgins or whores, and saturated with false-note melodrama to boot.

But there are these little oddball movies, some of them made for television, that pop up all the time. Some are fantastic, such at The Temptations, one of my favorite films.

And one of these, The Vernon Johns Story, is the perfect response for the Zimmerman verdict.

3.

Vernon Johns was a black Baptist minister and a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the 1940s. He was a passionate and uncompromising dude—along with Fred Shuttlesworth and Bayard Rustin, one of my personal heroes—and after a black man was murdered in the streets of Montgomery, with no repercussions to the murderer, he gave a sermon now known as: “It’s safe to kill negroes.”[2] You should read the full text of it, as it’s as damning a document of violence and white privilege as I’ve ever read.

Here James Earl Jones, always in superb form, delivers a portion of the speech. It’s an astonishing scene, and somehow just as relevant now as it was then. I don’t need to write anything else about it. Here’s the clip. Preach on, Pastor Johns. I wish you were still with us.


[1] A troubling and problematic name given to a varied subset of movies, but the label for the moment we’re stuck with.

[2] Also known as “It’s okay to kill Negroes.”

Simone meets Al Jolson.

6 Jul

1.

We’re in Pensacola for a stint, it won’t stop raining, and Simone keeps watching The Al Jolson Story with my dad.

She loves it. She can’t quite follow the story, so she’s been making up her own, narrating the movie into a bizarre quest where Jolson is looking for his sister, I think? And trying to stop the jealousy of his brothers by singing really well. It changes each time she watches it.

The movie is fascinating, very fine if eccentric and hard to define. It has a lengthy sequence where Jolson is cutting his teeth in the entertainment business as a minstrel singer. The minstrel scenes are unsettling to watch, but they are a faithful record of a major strand of entertainment, and the movie documents them well. Jolson isn’t racist—or, being Jewish, he’s less racist than the other people in the movie—and he wants to move the minstrel show out of its narrow confines, bring in Jazz and more modern ideas. For this, he’s bounced.

The movie then follows his ascendancy as a stage actor. His ego balloons. His need for validation and praise become a millstone around his neck, destroying his marriage and leaving him a dancing body and singing face with little heart or soul. He becomes a huge star on Broadway, at the expense of anything resembling a close friend.

The songs are great, if a touch dated, and the movie is fascinating, almost thrilling, despite its length and (relatively) slow pace. It’s a time capsule. And one of the best entertainment biographies ever made. Jolson’s voice is one in a million, deep and sonorous, kind of throaty, kind of scratchy, kind of bronchial and chesty, often booming. He’s one of the greatest of crooners, with a voice that rips and roars through the speakers.

Jolson wanted to play himself in the movie, as a young upstart making his way through the business. He was 59 when the movie was made.

2.

Simone’s diet has changed. She doesn’t eat much, subsisting mostly on purple yogurt (yogurt with frozen blueberries) and Bebel cheese. She also loves chicken sausage, which pales my vegetarian heart. The trip has exaggerated these tendencies. Today, she ate two purple popsicles, a few bites of eggs, a few bites of noodles, and five kilos of cheese.

Pearl is the opposite. She eats constantly, like some medieval knight after a long day’s slaughter. Her favorite food is blueberries, which is also one of her first words. She also loves peaches, nectarines, eggs, avocado, noodles, and, yes, sausage. Also, scraps of paper on the floor, chess pieces, magnets, my shoulders and nose, and, when she’s angry, Simone’s arms.

She can run and climb, which is wild. It isn’t uncommon for us to find her sitting on a table or standing on a chair. She remains an impish presence. She loves to raise both hands in the air and scream, “Yeah!”

3.

I’m slowly, with Beth’s help, working my way through the novellas for a third pass. More to come.

I’ve been reading a ton. I read James Salter’s All That Is. It’s superb, elegant, melancholy, and laced with exquisite sex scenes. Here’s one: “. . . . She wanted to be liked. Later they came into the kitchen and drank some wine. Eddins was sitting sideways to the table. Without a word she knelt in front of him and began, a little awkwardly because she was near-sighted, to unfasten his clothing. The zipper of his pants melted, tooth by tooth. She was a little nervous, but it was almost as she had pictured it, the Apis bull. Smooth and just swelling his cock almost fell into her mouth and gaining confidence she began. It was the act of a believer. She had never done it before, not with her husband, not with anyone. This was what it was like, to do things you had never done before, only imagined. The light was soft, late in the day. It just sort of flopped out, she later wrote in her diary. He must of been thinking about it. It was ready.” I’ve liked Salter for years, and his latest novel doesn’t disappoint.

Among other things, I also read Frye Galliard’s The Books That Mattered. It’s his personal evolution with literature and writers. I’m a sucker for book’s like this; David Denby’s The Great Books is one of the best books I read last year—he’s a film critic who decides to take the Great Books courses at NYU, when he was in his late forties—and probably the best book on the culture wars of the 1990s. Gailliard’s book is simpler, but very, very good. His picks are often predictable—who doesn’t love Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird?—but he manages to situate them in his own reading life in a way that makes them seem new.