Being a tortured rock star is tough in any century. Case in point: Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the brilliant, brooding, bad boy of the 16th-century art world, whose rise to fame in his early 20s seemed propelled as much by sheer force of will as it was talent, and whose fall before the age of 40 makes for a spectacularly self-destructive tragedy worthy of Shakespeare — or at least of Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon and countless other hard-living rock-and-rollers.
In his scholarly but surprisingly spunky biography, Graham-Dixon follows Caravaggio on the roller coaster ride that was the artist’s life, starting with his rise from obscurity in Milan, to his early success in Rome, where his eye for stark realism and creative use of light and shadows brought him admiration and fame, though he would still, to his annoyance, be regarded as something of a novelty act. From those heights, it’s an equally rapid race through the downward spiral of the murder rap that sends the painter on the run through Malta (where he’s arrested and jailed), then Naples (where an ambush leaves him severely wounded) and finally to Porto Ercole, where he dies under mysterious circumstances. These are the basics — but given that the paper trail left by the painter as he slouched and swashbuckled his way across Italy is either nonexistent or invisible, Graham-Dixon, at times, has to adopt the tones of a detective novelist as he scours one obscure document after another, uncovering criminal depositions, buried letters and coroner reports to bring the painter and his world to vivid life.
Graham-Dixon carefully lays down Caravaggio’s upbringing and background, placing the painter in the context of late 16th-century Milan where the humorless, stridently devout archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, was determined to enforce good and pious behavior. Borromeo believed in a Christ incarnate, insisting that his subjects visualize a living, breathing Christ in the hope that doing so would make his suffering and sacrifices that much more graphic and glorious. Further, the archbishop was also a fan of the sacro monte — literally the “sacred mountain,” a string of small chapels featuring three-dimensional scenes from the Bible that visitors strolled through and gawked at like a Disney attraction. These displays were often intentionally shocking — the floor of one chapel appeared to have dismembered babies strewn across it — but such religious showcases were unavoidable in Caravaggio’s formative years, which goes a long way toward explaining how the almost defiantly non-religious Caravaggio could be so familiar with religious imagery and Biblical allusions.
As a young man, Caravaggio was apprenticed to the “dull and cautious” painter Simone Peterzano, who provided the artist not so much with instruction on how to paint, but more of an example of how not to do it. In 1592, Caravaggio headed for Rome where he began producing increasingly sophisticated and highly realistic paintings, even as he continued to behave badly, falling in with a crowd of shady young men who encouraged his fighting, whoring and skulking about. Yet, his undeniable talent ensured him admirers, benefactors and protectors happy to look the other way — or bribe an official or two — to keep the young man painting.
Even in his earliest works, Caravaggio had a showman’s knack for storytelling. His paintings of coy fortune tellers stealing rings off the finger of a mark, or of crooked card players fleecing unsuspecting well-to-do young men are almost like snapshots of singular moments in time, telling a complete story in a single image and catching the particular event at its most dramatic moment. The buzz generated from these slice-of-life paintings led to commissions for chamber pieces and, eventually, altarpieces and other religious paintings — a genre at which the swaggering, profane Caravaggio would excel.
For Caravaggio — raised on Borreomeo’s steady diet of a visualized Christ and the vivid sacro monte — Christ, his disciples and the Virgin Mary had weight and heft. There would be no Christ or Mary ascending to heaven on feathery clouds; instead, Christ plods along on dirty, bare feet, gesturing for St. Matthew as he leans over a counting table. A real prostitute poses for a dying Virgin Mary as balding disciples sob around her. The dead Christ in “The Entombment of Christ” lolls heavily in the arms of St. John, whose fingers inadvertently tear open the savior’s wounds. And in each, Caravaggio lights his figures dramatically against nearly pitch black backgrounds, almost literally highlighting the moment and forcing the viewer to pause and reflect — and, perhaps, move them to penance, as Borromeo might have hoped of viewers of the sacro monte.
And yet, the realism and sophistication of Caravaggio’s paintings proved too much for many tastes at the time. Like a painterly Mozart surrounded by a sea of dabbling Salieris, Caravaggio saw many of the more prestigious commissions go to lesser artists who worked in the safer, more traditional styles. Graham-Dixon, an art critic and historian, is dexterous in his discussion of Caravaggio’s art, reading neither too much nor too little into the paintings. While he studies their dramatic composition, he won’t usually bother you with heavy-handed symbolism — apart from explaining how he thinks the loutish Caravaggio may have been aware of such highbrow symbolism in the first place.
Graham-Dixon also puts Caravaggio’s art in context of other paintings at the time, showing how other artists interpreted similar themes — and when you see Caravaggio’s version of “The Death of the Virgin” jammed up against the mundane altarpiece that replaced it, you’ll understand why its rejection may have ignited Caravaggio’s already notorious temper (and prompted him to aim a horse’s ass in one of his own pieces directly at the replacement painting). Seething, Caravaggio eventually ends up taking part in a duel in which a hotheaded pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni is critically wounded — and Graham-Dixon has uncovered new evidence which he believes suggests a far more salacious motivation for the fight, which prior biographers have attributed to a spontaneous dust-up over a tennis match. Graham-Dixon argues convincingly that the fight was likely provoked by a slur aimed at Tomassoni’s wife, who may or may not have been one of Tomassoni’s prostitutes.
From here, it’s all sadly and inescapably downhill for Caravaggio for the last four years of his life — though he continues, miraculously, to keep right on painting. With a price on his head, he hustles to Malta, where he becomes one of the favored Knights of Malta and tries to sweet talk his way into forgiveness by producing portraits of some of the leading members of the court. Later, he sends a potential benefactor a painting of David with the head of Goliath, substituting his own head for the slain giant — a final plea for a clemency that never arrives. Sadly, his temper again gets the best of him: Caravaggio kills another man, lands in prison, then, tantalizingly, somehow pulls off a daring escape of which no details are known. Hiding out in Naples in 1609, he’s ambushed, perhaps in revenge for his most recent murder, yet shakily completes two more paintings before dying under mysterious — or at least confusing — circumstances at the age of 38. And here again, Graham-Dixon carefully dissects conflicting stories of the painter’s death, assessing motivations, weather and the speed of messengers to determine what may have really happened.
In his perhaps too-brief aftermath and epilogue, Graham-Dixon traces the inevitable rise of Caravaggio’s reputation, finding his influence in remarkable places — including the films of Martin Scorsese, who admits he aspired “to do Jesus like Caravaggio” in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Not a bad legacy for the hard-living, self-destructive genius who did so much more than just live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.(less)
If you're a Brady Bunch junkie, you're not going to be able to resist this one, regardless of whatever you might read here. And a book written by the...moreIf you're a Brady Bunch junkie, you're not going to be able to resist this one, regardless of whatever you might read here. And a book written by the man who created the series probably seems like it should be filled with lots of juicy gossip and inside information not available anywhere else, right?
There actually isn't much that's new here, unless you're a Brady novice. You probably know the stories of the Bradys being rejected by every major network, of Robert Reed's annoying work habits, of Barry Williams' horniness for both his TV mom and TV sister, and the demise of Tiger. In fact, much of what you'll read here you've likely seen in lots other places, and sometimes told a bit better. The Schwartz's mutual dislike of Robert Reed is a common theme in here, for instance, but Barry Williams makes the stories funnier and more interesting in his book GROWING UP BRADY. Lloyd Schwartz is careful to remind you that just because Williams says something in HIS book doesn't make it true, but on the other hand, just because Schwartz says so doesn't make it that way, either.
That said, both Schwartzes seem to want to use this book as an opportunity to set the record straight -- whatever that means -- but it mostly becomes an opportunity to take credit for pretty much anything about the series that you may have liked, while disavowing (and saying they had NOTHING to do with) anything you didn't. Peter's "pork chops and applesauce" Bogart impression? Lloyd taught him that. "Oh my nose!"? Lloyd threw the football. The horrible variety show? They had nothing to do with that. All those funny moments in the Brady Bunch movie? All Sherwood and Lloyd's ideas from the opening draft of their first script, don'tchaknow.
I don't think I've ever heard it said that the Schwartzes weren't creative, thoughtful writers or producers, so I'm not sure why they're trying to stop anyone from grinding an axe with all this pre-emptive braggadacio. It makes what should be a entertaining memoir a real eyeroller.
If you're a Brady fan like me, you've probably already got this. In that case, read it and enjoy it for what it is -- and consider it merely another point of view in the familiar stories. (less)
Yeah, you'll learn his morning bathroom habits, his tendency to fall asleep to TiVo'd episodes of The Simpsons or Law & Order, and pretty much any...moreYeah, you'll learn his morning bathroom habits, his tendency to fall asleep to TiVo'd episodes of The Simpsons or Law & Order, and pretty much any time he runs off to have relations with the wife . . . but that's the kind of thing that makes Kevin Smith so . . . well, Kevin Smith. Smith has always been about brutal honesty, but he's also one of the funniest, most interesting cats around. And in that regard, My Boring Ass Life never disappoints. It's also far from boring, even when Smith gives you every detail of what he ate or purchased on a given day. You'll learn how movies get made, financed, cast and promoted -- including movies that Smith makes, like Clerks 2, as well as those he only acts in, like Catch and Release. You'll shake your head as you watch Smith eat gobs of food then berate himself for being overweight (eventually clocking in at 319 pounds). And in one of the most dramatic parts of the book, you'll cringe then cheer as Smith tries (then fails then finally succeeds) at getting Jason Mewes to kick the drug habit. Through it all, Smith deals with fans, friends, critics, producers, hair dressers, and his fellow nerds with his usual self-deprecating anarchic brand of humor. If you're a fan, I don't need to convince you to read this. If you're not a fan . . . well, it's not exactly Sam Pepys, but it's still full of the kinds of mundane yet compelling bits of minutiae that make for fun reading. (less)
A solid biography of a sad, often pathetic, literary life. I was only peripherally familiar with some of Poe's story and, like many readers, had been...moreA solid biography of a sad, often pathetic, literary life. I was only peripherally familiar with some of Poe's story and, like many readers, had been suckered by some of the stories that had been maliciously spread as fact over the last 200 years (i.e. Poe's expulsion from West Point, his drug use) -- most of which, as it turns out, were completely false and part of a concerted effort by a rival to slur his reputation.
Silverman cuts through the gauze of slanderous or puffed biographies, missing or burned letters, and lost newspaper articles and reviews to paint a warts-and-all portrait of Poe, who comes across as a sort of pathetic, unappreciated scoundrel of a genius. Poe feuded with magazine editors, challenged rivals to fist fights, wrote sock puppet reviews of his own work, accused fellow writers of plagiarism (even as he liberally borrowed from others himself), wooed multiple women at once -- and yet, his fiction and poetry are so clearly brilliant that you can't help loving the poet, even as you wish he would pull himself together. You may not come away from Silverman's book liking Poe as a person, but you'll definitely appreciate his commitment to his craft.
My only real complaint lies with Silverman's over-reading of Poe's work in search of what he is convinced are deep-seated mom and dad issues. Any time Poe creates a character whose name has two Ls and an A in it, Silverman is convinced Poe is taking a slap at his foster fother, John ALLan. To Silverman, every dying woman represents Poe's mother, and any remotely heroic character calls up Poe's brother, William Henry Leonard Poe. It can get to be a bit much, and by the time Silverman starts in on his analysis of the 1847 "Ulalume," you may find yourself groaning and thumbing for the end of the chapter.
Still, Silverman's biography brings much-needed clear-eyed scholarship to Poe's story, making Poe the most memorable character in his own rocky life story. Highly recommended.(less)
Not bad. While I'm an enormous admirer of his music -- especially of his commitment to old school blues -- I didn't know much about Clapton going into...moreNot bad. While I'm an enormous admirer of his music -- especially of his commitment to old school blues -- I didn't know much about Clapton going into this. So if there were stories that have been rehashed time and time again, they were all new to me.
That said, my complaint echoes that of several other reviewers: Clapton moves so quickly through some major events that you hardly realize they've passed without some more explanation. The demise of the Yardbirds? Clapton was an admitted elitist/purist. The demise of Cream? They didn't get along. The Dominos? Ego. It gets right to the point, I admit, but not always enlightening. Other times, he seems to contradict himself (one of his times in rehab, he says, was incredibly useful, but then he admits he did little more than the bare minimum of what was required of him -- a sort of huh, wha? moment), when what was likely needed was simply a bit more explanation. (Arriving at the last chapter, however -- titled "A Year on the Road" -- you'll be presented with an almost mind-numbing amount of information on what Clapton watched on television, shot during hunting trips, gave as Christmas gifts, and so on.)
I was also hoping to learn a bit more about his relationships with some of the icons of rock and roll, especially his hot-somewhat warm friendship with George Harrison. Clapton, however, was more interested in exploring his own inner demons, and the shrapnel he often splattered on friends and family as he worked to overcome his addictions (the saddest story is, perhaps, that of Alice Ormsby-Gore, who seemed to gamble her future and happiness on Clapton). Still, it's admirable when a major star can write such a warts-and-all portrayal of himself. While Clapton eventually becomes the hero of his own story, it's a long time -- and large body count -- in the coming.
To Clapton's credit, it's definitely not ghostwritten, as it jumps around a bit, loses track of "characters" and resorts to some clunky phrasing -- just as one would telling their story aloud. As a result, Clapton comes across as an honest storyteller, if not an entertaining one.
Recommended for its honest story, though not necessarily the complete one.(less)