catch-22

Earlier, I wrote about Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I re-read the novel as I watched the new, six-part mini-series of the book.

Heller's novel, like the Nichols movie, holds up well (and, as was true at the time, the book is better than the movie). Heller combines the horrors of war with tongue-twisting word play designed to demonstrate the circular illogic of the military. Heller's Catch-22 is absurd, violent, and hilarious, often at the same time. While The Military is the ultimate villain, two characters in particular stand out for their essentially evil nature. Aarfy is a privileged social climber who doesn't care about anyone who can't help him get higher up the ladder. He commits the novel's most repugnant action (and gets away with it). Milo is a schemer who turns a job as mess officer into a huge capitalist enterprise. Milo bombs his own base, trades with the enemy, and acts in an amoral way while claiming he is just following the philosophy of capital.

In the mini-series, Milo does the same things that occur in the book, but somehow he comes across more as an innocent savant than a representative of capitalism run amok. Jon Voight's interpretation in the 1970 movie is better ... by the film's end, Milo is as much fascist as capitalist. As for Aarfy, he is creepy, but not really important enough to stand as the worst that men can do.

Women are treated with more respect in the mini-series than in either the novel or the earlier film. The sexism of Heller's book is fairly ordinary for its time, but it's hard to take now, when we should know better. The mini-series mostly solves this problem by making the marginal women characters of the novel even less important. There is less overt sexism, but the women aren't really given anything useful in its place.

Christopher Abbott is a fine Yossarian, but the better-known actors are a mixed bag. Giancarlo Giannini is OK as a jaded survivor, but George Clooney overplays his role and Hugh Laurie is barely there. Kyle Chandler comes off the best ... other than Abbott, he gives the best performance in the show.

Catch-22 is an acknowledged classic novel. If you have never read it, you should. If you read it long ago and liked it, a re-reading will be rewarding, although ultimately I'm not sure it is THE major novel of its era. Meanwhile, the mini-series is more good than bad, but it lacks the lunacy of the novel.


small world: sipowicz, sha na na, and me

I once wrote an essay for a book titled What Would Sipowicz Do? Race, Rights and Redemption in NYPD Blue. A couple of days ago, the publisher sent a group email to all of the authors, letting us know that the book, which came out in 2004, will be going out of print. As I often do when I get included in an anthology, I check out my fellow contributors, looking for names I recognize. This doesn't always make me happy ... Alan Dershowitz turned up in one of those books ... but it's fun, especially in retrospect, to see the company I once hung out with. In the case of the NYPD Blue book, there was Joyce Millman, one of the founders of Salon, and David Gerrold, writer of numerous books and perhaps best-known for his association with Star Trek (he wrote the Tribbles episode, among others).

One of the writers in that book responded to the email, copying all of us, thanking the publisher for letting us know. I thought that was a nice gesture, and looked him up online, just to see what else he had done. His name was Robert A. Leonard, and the piece he wrote for the book was "Forensic Linguistics in NYPD Blue". Leonard himself is a distinguished linguist ... among other things, he is the director of the graduate program in Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra.

Looking at his Wikipedia page and elsewhere, I found that I actually had an experience with Leonard many years ago, June of 1970 to be exact. I had just turned 17, and a friend and I went to Fillmore West. The opening acts were Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and Pacific Gas & Electric, who had a decent-sized hit that year with "Are You Ready?"

My friend and I had never heard of the headliners. They had made their mark, though, in a movie which had been released a couple of months earlier that we hadn't yet seen: Woodstock. The band was Sha Na Na:

When we saw them, they were fun and energetic and very entertaining. Later I would learn that the original members of the band were students at Columbia.

I can still remember one song they played that night. Here it is at Woodstock (check out Jimi Hendrix taking in the act around the 1:15 moment):

The singer was "Rob" Leonard. According to Wikipedia, "Leonard spent two years with the band, until he stopped at the age of twenty-one. He left the band because he was offered a fellowship at Columbia Graduate School and wanted to further his education in linguistics."

Yes, my fellow author in the NYPD Blue anthology was the same man I saw sing "Teen Angel" at Fillmore West in 1970.


abstract

Recovering files from my old computer and transferring them to the new one, I came across my dissertation. Here is the abstract:

Substituting action for the logical deduction that had become standard for the detective genre in the wake of Edgar Allan Poe, hard-boiled fiction offered a world where heroes acted with a fury that mirrored the chaos they were opposing. Early works validated the usefulness of individual chaotic fury in opposing social chaos, but Dashiell Hammett attempted to use the genre to critique notions of chaotic heroism, while Raymond Chandler steps back from the more radical claims of Hammett’s work, which implicates the detective as well as society as a whole. Chandler’s heroes are always disillusioned not by something as grand as “society” but rather by something quite specific: women, who are desired as damsels in distress but who are eventually exposed as representatives of chaos. In the post-war era, the massively popular Mickey Spillane reduces the art of his forebears to a stripped-down, violent neo-fascism that largely ignores Chandler’s romanticism and completely overturns Hammett’s critique in a celebration of the chaotic fury which Hammett condemned. Even more than in Chandler’s work, Spillane places women at the center of society’s corruptions; unlike Hammett, Spillane allows his hero mostly unqualified success. Robert B. Parker gives his hero a regular and significant love interest, refuses to accept the demonization of women, and attempts to recognize women as partners, if not full-fledged heroines, in his adventures. The novels of Sara Paretsky extend these changes in the genre’s attitudes towards women, merging a feminist vision of women in the late twentieth century, working communally towards common goals, with a vision of the individual on whom society calls when chaos threatens. Rather than rejecting the entire tradition out of hand, Paretsky synthesizes the notion of empowered women in a community, with the individualist notions of the heroes in the genre’s past, attempting to extract the power that comes to those who harness chaos without losing sight of the needs of the oppressed.


books catchup

I never write about books anymore. Only two posts in all of 2018 were tagged "Books", and only one of those was really a post about a book ("perhaps i need to go out tonight", about Heather Havrilesky's What If This Were Enough?) I read books all the time, I'm usually in the middle of one or more. Open right now: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister. Unopened right now, meaning I have them but haven't started them: a memoir by Jorma Kaukonen, a biography of Francis Marion, and Joan Didion's White Album, which I have read before.

But here are some of the ones I've read since Havrilesky's book, all of them deserving of a post of their own:

  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
  • Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins
  • I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff by Abbi Jacobson
  • Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
  • Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood by Karina Longworth
  • Just a Shot Away: Peace. Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont by Saul Austerlitz

Perhaps I need to write about these in the aftermath of the reading, where they are still fresh in my mind. Because right now, Traister's book is the only fresh one. In my mind.

So I'll write about it when I finish it. According to my Kindle, I'm 59% of my way through it.


perhaps i need to go out tonight

Quiet around here.

Partly that's because I had written a post about the movie The Look of Silence, only to have the draft disappear (user error, but still frustrating). I was already struggling to write about it, and lost all inspiration when I had to start over. Short take: definitely see it if you've seen The Act of Killing. Don't see it if you haven't seen the other film ... you need to watch that first.

I'm sure I'll have a post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, I've already written a bit in a Facebook thread, but that's doesn't fill space here, at least not yet.

I'm finished Heather Havrilesky's new book of essays, What If This Were Enough? Again, I wrote elsewhere, in this case in an email to a friend. I'll cut-and-paste ... this is incomplete, but better than nothing:

Her title bothered me at first ... was this going to be an ode to accepting the world as it is (which turned out to be partly true) without questioning the parts of that world that are destructive and dangerous? But she isn't interested in sticking her head in the ground and ignoring injustice. Nor is she promoting navel-gazing. She's arguing against the ever-present idea in our culture that we must always strive for more, that the best is just around the corner. She doesn't only mean consumer culture, but rather, the ways in which our acquisitive culture never allows us to stop and ask if what we have and where we are is enough.

At the end of the book, she writes:

We are called to resist viewing ourselves as consumers or as commodities. We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. We are called to plant these seeds in our world: to dare to tell every living soul that they already matter, that their seemingly mundane lives are a slowly unfolding mystery, that their small choices and acts of generosity are vitally important.

Finally, I just listened to this, which made me feel good for some reason:

 


international women's day

Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:

Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to the nervous system."

Sleater-Kinney. All of them, in all of their projects. Special shout-out to Carrie Brownstein for her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.

Dee Rees, Director, Mudbound.

Lana Wachowski, Director/Writer/Producer. Along with Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, created Sense8.

Hall of Fame: Pauline Kael. "In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."


joel selvin, altamont: the rolling stones, the hells angels, and the inside story of rock's darkest day, and gimme shelter (albert maysles, david maysles, charlotte zwerin, 1970)

I just finished Joel Selvin's book on Altamont, and then watched Gimme Shelter again. The concluding section of the book discusses Gimme Shelter. Selvin is less interested in assigning blame than in getting to the details behind the legend ... by the time we get to the movie, we've come to know many of the people who turn up in that movie, and have a better understanding of where they were coming from.

First, a few words about Selvin’s book, since I’ve written a lot about Gimme Shelter in the past. The book is long, detailed, and seems to be well-researched. Selvin was well-placed to write the book, being a Bay Area native who has had a long career as a music critic, and is an author of several books on music. In his afterword, he notes that “I knew better than to go to Altamont”, then offers the observations of friends who did attend (“[M]y friends knew nothing about what had really gone on. They had a good time ...”). This mirrors my own experience ... I had friends who went, and they returned speaking joyfully about “Woodstock West”. (In later years, they talked about how awful it was ... the vagaries of memory.) The book works in part as a warm-up for the movie, filling in what was largely left unreported in the film. But the movie is never far from Selvin’s mind:

That movie became the accepted account of the day, the official record of history, despite the fact that the Rolling Stones themselves were partners in the film’s production.... The story needed to be told, as fully and completely as possible. The tangled threads of the movie and the concert needed to be unbraided.

Selvin may be up to more than handing out blame, but he does make himself clear. “[W]hen all the facts are presented, it’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones.” And he connects this to Gimme Shelter:

[W]hy did the Rolling Stones go through with the concert? That crucial decision – and the underlying determination that went into it – made the difference in everything that happened at Altamont. There is only one plausible reason: the final scene to the concert movie. There is no other good explanation for why Jagger and company proceeded with this concert in the days before the show as it unraveled in front of their eyes.... It is simply not true that this free concert was some magnanimous, beneficent gesture. The Stones wanted something out of the deal, and what they wanted was a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.

What the book Altamont does is place the above in context. He doesn’t absolve everyone other than the Stones, but “The Hells Angels needed to be portrayed as they were – real people with names who were placed in a treacherous, untenable situation – not cardboard cutout villains. The role of the Grateful Dead and their ultimate betrayal by the Stones needed to be detailed.... The massive use of toxic drugs was not examined.”

So, Gimme Shelter. I have huge emotional reactions to the film every time I see it. Over the years, I have a more solid appreciation for the techniques and vision of the Maysles. But maybe "appreciation" is the wrong word, as is my reference to "Maysles". For on this watching, I decided the true artist was editor Charlotte Zwerin.

My friend Charlie Bertsch wrote a strong piece on the movie a few years ago. A big portion of that essay is devoted to refuting Pauline Kael’s take. She resisted the pull of “direct cinema”, emphasizing the “manipulative possibilities of filmmaking”. Charlie responds, “[T]he Maysles’ approach ... demands witnessing events without knowing how they will turn out”, as if this precludes the possibility of manipulation.

But Charlie also points us in the direction of what is really happening in Gimme Shelter when he rightfully praises the work of editor Charlotte Zwerin, “who earned co-director billing for the brilliant editing she did after filming was complete” [emphasis added]. He singles out scenes of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts looking at footage from the film, which he calls “a brilliant idea for which Charlotte Zwerin gets the credit”. But if the Maysles want to fall back on "we don't stage stuff", those scenes would seem to contradict that idea. Jagger and Watts were invited, and filmed, by the filmmakers to watch the footage, which didn’t happen “naturally”.

Ultimately, the truest statement in Charlie’s piece is this: "The finished product’s success depends entirely on how the raw footage is edited together." No matter what the circumstances under which the Maysles worked, the film is made when Zwerin gets her talented hands on it. And film editing is as crucial, and as vulnerable to manipulation, as the shooting of the original footage. The Maysles may not have had a preformed idea of what they wanted the events to show, but Gimme Shelter requires that someone edit the footage. Charlotte Zwerin, whether working on her own or with the direction of the Maysles, manipulates the raw footage into the movie we see today. We can argue what Gimme Shelter is saying, but we can’t argue about the role the filmmakers had in making that statement. Michael Sragow, who Charlie quotes, is half right when he says “Gimme Shelter is not about manipulating events – it’s about letting events get away from you.” The latter part is true, which is one reason I find the movie so disturbing. But the first part is false.


rob sheffield, dreaming the beatles

Rob Sheffield writes about love. Look at the titles of his books: Love Is a Mix Tape, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke, and now Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World. Even On Bowie, the one book without the word love in the title, got right down to it in the introduction: “This book is a love letter to Bowie, a celebration of his life and his music.”

When asking yourself, “Do we really need another book about The Beatles?”, the answer should be “Yes, when it’s written by Rob Sheffield.” I can’t say I came to his books about Duran Duran, karaoke, and Bowie because I was a fan of any of those topics. But I’m a fan of Sheffield, and he has never let me down, to the point where now I care about Duran Duran et al.

Another thing I like about Sheffield is his age. He was born in 1966. The first batch of writers about rock music were of a different generation: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis. (In terms of personal influence, I’d include Ralph J. Gleason, born in 1917.) Many of them came to our attention in the 70s ... “rock criticism” didn’t quite exist until then. But they were people who had lived when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan for the first time. Thankfully, there are many great writers about music from Sheffield’s generation: Ann Powers and dream hampton come to mind. But their perspective is drawn from the times in which they live, and with pop music, the teenage years are especially important. As an example, Sheffield was 15 when Duran Duran’s first album was released. When I was 15, the White Album was released.

So Sheffield wasn’t “there” during Beatlemania. But to the extent this distances him from the subject, he is able to offer a new look. And he makes a great case in Dreaming the Beatles that the time of The Beatles has never left us. He has lived with The Beatles for most of his life ... in the book, he describes seeing Help! when he was five (“They entered my life”), and the enthusiasm with which he writes about The Beatles to this day demonstrates how they have never left his life.

Sheffield’s books all merge with memoir, and I guess if that bothers you, you might want to look elsewhere. In this case, though, it’s even more appropriate than usual, for the reasons I’ve already stated: He was only 4 years old when The Beatles broke up, so unless he’s doing some straightforward “and then they recorded this” type of book, his personal relationship with the band is crucial. Having said that, he takes the subtitle seriously. He tells the story, not just of his own relationship to The Beatles, but to the whole world’s love affair with the group.

While he writes a lot about the relationships between the band and their fans, he also talks about the relationships within the band, and not always by simply citing biographical trivia, as when he discusses a favorite of mine, “There’s a Place”:

You can hear John woke up with a stuffy nose; you can also hear how nervous he and Paul are, their voices quavering as they stretch out the vowels, “plaaaace” and “looow” and “goooo,” Ringo urging them on with his drum crashes. It’s another Buddy Holly homage, one they wrote on their guitars in the front room of Paul’s dad’s house on Forthlin Road. John and Paul sing about escaping to the place you go when you feel low – in your mind, where you hear the voice of the girl who tells you things you want to know, the place you go to remember the things she said that swim around your head, the place you talk yourself out of the fears you wouldn’t confess to your closest male friends. Except here are John and Paul, trading off the confession out loud. It’s done and dusted in under two minutes – no time for waffling or kidding around, the voices say, this is it, this is how I feel, let’s go, let’s tell it.

It’s a close reading that doesn’t depend solely on the lyrics, it’s a close reading that encompasses the performance. This happens throughout the book ... every time he points out something going on in a particular track, you instantly want to hear it. And when someone can help you hear a Beatles’ song with a fresh ear, well, that’s a lot harder than it seems.

Sheffield spends much of the second half of the book talking about the post-Beatles years of the four lads. This makes sense, since his own relationship with the band began after they’d broken up. But it also reflects the ways The Beatles as a band are still in our dreams ... just because they weren’t together after 1970 didn’t mean they no longer mattered.

Love Is a Mix Tape may always be my favorite of his books. But Dreaming the Beatles is right up there with the others.


phil dellio & scott woods, unshackled: the dustbin of donald trump

Maybe it takes two Canadians to place Donald Trump in perspective. Phil Dellio and Scott Woods worked on this book for more than a year, never expecting that by the time it was published, Trump would have actually won the election. The book works just as well with that surprise element, though, because they are trying to figure out Trump, not just as a person/politician, but as someone who is part of our cultural landscape.

Thus, the “chapters” examine cultural landmarks that connect to Trump, in order to understand all of us. They go from Sarah Palin to Elvis Presley, which all by itself makes a nice instant description of the parameters of President Donald Trump. There is a section with, in turn, Pat Buchanan, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Joe McCarthy. The middle of the book is devoted to “early sightings in the movies, on TV, and between the covers”, which goes from Nashville (the movie) to Howard Beale, from Citizen Kane to the Manchurian Candidate, from Gordon Gekko to The Joker. These selections make sense the second you see the connections.

None of this would matter if the writing wasn’t up to the concept. So it is important how good that writing is. There is no attempt to identify who wrote what, but there is a smoothness to the style that keeps any seams from showing. Combine the pleasure of reading this writing with the seductive nature of the book’s structure (short chapters), and Unshackled becomes very hard to put down. You can’t resist the pull of “just one more chapter”.

In some ways, this book is very much of the moment. You might even think it’s a bit too late to be reading about the emergence of Trump as President. But it’s still soon enough to the election that everything seems fresh. And it works as an excellent snapshot of how this all seems to us as we prepare for Trump’s inauguration. For this reason, I think this book will make for interesting reading ten years from now, as a reminder of where we were in 2017. I not only recommend Unshackled, I suggest you read it ASAP.

(I suppose a disclosure is in order. I know both Phil and Scott, and am very kindly included in the acknowledgements.  It made my day to see my name in the same sentence as Rob Sheffield’s).


shawn levy, dolce vita confidential: fellini, loren, pucci, paparazzi, and the swinging high life of 1950s rome

I’ve read several of Shawn Levy’s books, and I like every one I’ve gotten to, especially his first, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis. He has written about the Rat Pack ... he did one book on the Swinging Sixties in London. He doesn’t always choose topics I am passionate about, but he makes me interested, so I’ll start one of his books no matter the subject, knowing it will be worth it. Thus, I happily pre-ordered his latest, on Rome in the 1950s.

I expected to find good stories about the big film names of the period, placed in a larger cultural context, and that is exactly what Levy delivers. Once again, he burrows into areas I hadn’t cared much about ... I should have been warned when Pucci’s name appeared in the subtitle. But you can trust Levy to make that larger context something you want to learn about, and so I read more than I ever thought I would about post-war fashion, in Italy and in Europe as a whole. And it was indeed educational, since I knew so little about the fashion world. The book convinces us that the big fashion names were integral to the creation of Italian culture after World War II.

As for the dolce vita, it’s all here. Fellini and Loren make the subtitle, but Anita Ekberg deserves special mention. She comes across as much more interesting than her public image ... in fact, we learn that she was more than her image, which seems like a small point until you realize that image is pretty much all we ever knew, or cared about.

Levy devotes a lot of time to Fellini, and rightly so ... La Dolce Vita is his movie, after all. I don’t think I needed convincing about the importance of Fellini to Italian film and culture. I’m not his biggest fan, and I would have enjoyed a more detailed description of the making of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, my favorite Italian film of all time. But the truth is, Antonioni’s film speaks to a general malaise ... it isn’t specific to its time, which is why the story of upper-middle class people speaks to us, no matter our own class position. Fellini, though, in films like La Dolce Vita, managed to make movies that were intensely personal yet also very much of their moment. If you want to see a great film, L’Avventura is the choice. But if you want to see Rome in the 50s, filtered through the lens of Fellini the showman, La Dolce Vita is where you’d look. Which is why it’s a great place for Levy to spend time.

(I suppose this is where I admit to a fondness for “Toby Dammit”, Fellini’s contribution to the Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead. I’m not sure it’s representative of its time, but the title character feels like he would belong in the dolce vita, Fellini is at his most Fellini-esque, and it is over in 37 minutes.)

Levy’s writing is easy to read. You think you’re just taking in a history of the scandals. But when you finish the book, you realize you’ve actually gotten a clear vision of a specific time and place. By blending movies and fashion and celebrity and paparazzi, Levy makes all of the aspects of that life more interesting. Dolce Vita Confidential is another success for Shawn Levy.