Where reading is concerned, I'm more LOTI than LOL. That's right. I'm admittedly frugal with my outwardly expressed laughter—unlike the normative soci...moreWhere reading is concerned, I'm more LOTI than LOL. That's right. I'm admittedly frugal with my outwardly expressed laughter—unlike the normative social behavior these days wherein giggling becomes a nervous tic to punctuate every banal and unfunny comment. Maybe we want life to be funny so we laugh at it whether it is or not. We inflict an impoverished semblance of humor upon the world. And if we don't happen to mirror the laughter of our neighbors when they read one of those dumb jokey chain emails or recount a gag they found positively uproarious in Wild Hogs, then we're convicted of sourpussery rather than credited with possessing a refined or discriminating sense of humor. TomAYto, tomAHto, I guess. What I'm claiming, somewhat facetiously, is that mindless and incessant giggling is the preoccupation (most commonly) of morons and manchildren who devalue the currency of laughter with their spendthrift ways. When everything is funny, then nothing is. Or maybe more accurately, when everything is funny, you're probably a total nutjob and should be stashed away in a cozy booby hatch somewhere. But you know what? The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes by the clever and mischievous Spanish author Anonymous is actually really funny! So sayeth I. Not funny in an unfunny Geico commercial, Modern Family, or Jimmy Fallon kind of way, but funny in an honest-to-goshness 'Oh, my fucking god, did I just chortle?' kind of way. I literally laughed aloud several times—not that I would ever use that pernicious LOL as a matter of course because of how every dingbat on the planet is LOLing at everything nowadays: cirrhosis of the liver (LOL!), thermonuclear war (lmao!!), talking baby videos (rotflmao!!!)... This slim book (only 118 pages in the NYRB edition) was written in 1553. Did you digest that? 1553! Before William Shakespeare was even born! Now that's fuckin' old school. It's the story of a put-upon boy, mothered by a whore, who is sent off into the world to find a master to work for and earn his keep from. The first master is an extremely mean-spirited blind man. But don't worry—Lazaro finds ways (equally cruel and ingenious) of getting back at the old bastard. (And since everyone around Goodreads knows that I apparently hate blind people's guts, this was a particularly amusing segment for me. At the end, we're not quite sure whether Lazaro's trickery might not have actually inflicted a mortal injury on the sighltess creep. In the modern era, Lazaro could just refrain from alt-tagging his pictures. I hear it really honks those blindies off.) Anyway, Lazaro goes through a series of different masters, almost all of them either cruel or stupid (or both). The funniest segment involves a miserly priest who only feeds Lazaro onions, keeping the bread and the good food locked away in chest (for himself). This portrait of religious hypocrisy will give you an idea why this novella had to be published by 'Anonymous.' (And by the way, in case you were wondering, LOTI is laughing on the inside.)(less)
In Richard Stark's The Jugger, everybody's favorite sociopath Parker (AKA Charles Willis) has to beat cheeks to Green Acres when his osteoporotic midd...moreIn Richard Stark's The Jugger, everybody's favorite sociopath Parker (AKA Charles Willis) has to beat cheeks to Green Acres when his osteoporotic middle man Joe Sheer sends out a distress signals, and Parker, looking out for Numero Uno, is worried that Sheer's goose is cooked and that there might be a lot of bread crumbs lying around the joint leading straight back to him. And—as we all know—Parker doesn't do criminal celebrity. This leads to successive run-ins: first with a shady crook from Parker's past dolled up like Liberace on crack, and then with the local heat—a dim-witted hay-chawer with a mind for one thing—loot. He's sniffed out a quick payday, but Parker is in the dark as to why the vultures are circling. Well, Sheer, natch, is toast by the time Parker rolls in and nobody can seem to keep their sticky fingers out of the stiff's pockets. Parker needs to act-wise to get to the bottom of it all before he misses out on the score and has his cover blown sky-high.
This one's better than The Score (the only other Stark I've read as of this writing), but the plot (at times) bends in such implausible ways that it's enough to make a contortionist's neck snap. Gritty realism, it ain't. But Stark isn't in short supply of small-town grotesques to liven up the show, including a nosy neighbor kid who's tapping out the plot in Morse code from one house over. As a way to kill a few hours, you could do worse than The Jugger. It hums along real nice and the ending is a doozy because of how it goes down—which is to say rotten...(less)
Well, let's see here. There's been a lot of Richard Stark hoopla around our little corner of Goodreads lately, and I am proud to offer this review as...moreWell, let's see here. There's been a lot of Richard Stark hoopla around our little corner of Goodreads lately, and I am proud to offer this review as minor corrective to the unbridled enthusiasms unleashed herein. Despite whatever I may say in the course of this review that might lead you to believe otherwise, I did actually enjoy this book. But it is slight, insubstantial, and clunky at times. I'd like to say, with some slippage in the analogy, that it's the equivalent of watching one of those women-in-peril television movies that Lifetime rebroadcasts. They're kind of dumb and pointless and obvious, but the fact of the matter is that at the end of the two hours you've somehow sat on your ass and watched the whole damn thing, so it must have been successful in some important sense. (This is an especially noteworthy success—for me, at least—since not even the big-budget, much-loved Inception achieved it.) Despite the fact that the TV movies are often poorly-executed and have all their plot points transmitted via smoke signals from miles off, I stick around to see if psychotic stalker Jack Wagner manages to rape Judith Light in an empty hockey arena or to find out if the vindictive blonde sex-kitten in Shannen Doherty's college rock band murders her in retaliation for Doherty beating her in a talent contest when they were kids.
Richard Stark—at least in The Score—is not really what I would call a very good writer. And Richard Stark's editor is not what I would call a very good editor. Witness this passage:
The prowl car was a Ford, two years old, painted light green and white, with Police written in large letters on the doors and hood and trunk. The dashboard lights were green, and there was a small red dot of light, like a ruby, on the radio.
I don't know about you, but I am kind of disappointed that Stark didn't tell us whether the upholstery was contrast stitched or whether the heater vents were set to floor or bi-level. (Before you start second-guessing, none of the details Stark reports RE: the police car is relevant to anything in the book. For instance, the small red dot of light does not later blind a would-be assassin—or some other comparable hijinks. These used car ads are just written up by Stark, inserted into the text, and never referred to again.)
There is really no psychological depth in this book whatsoever. People merely do things and say things. Occasionally things they say allude to a hypothetical human emotion or a living, breathing subjectivity, but more often than not these allusions are of the explicitly useless varieties. (In one scene, for example, two accomplished safe 'juggers' argue about whether to blow up the safes or drill them. The fact that preferences exist seems to indicate that they are not wholly automatons. This is encouraging.) There is one character—named Grofield—who likes to quote Shakespeare and has a lot more personality than the rest, but still... it's only a relative difference and wouldn't count for much in any other book.
Another problem with Stark's writing style (at least in this outing) is that he doesn't have much sense of pacing and narrative momentum. In the first half of the novel, we hear the characters discuss their plans for a heist in specific detail. And in the second half of the novel, we see the characters actually execute this same plan, for the most part successfully and in keeping with the plan (until near the end). This redundancy seems to violate a commandment of Writing 101 to me. If I were Stark's teacher, I would have told him merely to explain the big picture of the heist at the beginning and then allow us to see the plan as it unfolds. (Again, a good editor probably should have edified him. But I keep forgetting that this is genre fiction; devoted fans probably find these tropes and weaknesses essential to the 'comfort food' quality of the books.)
Anyway... would you believe I still kind of enjoyed the book? It was pretty dumb, but I enjoyed it. It would be ideal for a short plane ride or a long wait in the doctor's office where the other reading options are Parenting and Golf Digest magazines.(less)
Of course, anybody with even the most rudimentary talent for sniffing these things out will surmise that Vice Dos and Don'ts falls well within the oft...moreOf course, anybody with even the most rudimentary talent for sniffing these things out will surmise that Vice Dos and Don'ts falls well within the often nebulous boundaries of Hipster Culture. As such, it is expected to walk a wobbly, boing-boing tightrope, simultaneously embracing this status (via its snark and in-the-know elitism) and deprecating it too, because an objet de hipsteur must ipso facto shrug off conspicuity lest it become the target of a more willfully deprecated, inconspicuous, and therefore ultra-super-duper-elite hipster culture (not to mention a punchline for mainstream culture).
The politics of hipsterism are thorny and labyrinthine, if I may mix my metaphors into a hearty, nourishing stew.
In principle, I have no problem with a twentysomething NYU undergrad wearing a vintage t-shirt ironically, listening to Arcade Fire or Of Montreal or whatever, and trying generally to look like an emaciated nerd on crack. In fact, I think most of that is pretty neato compared to some of the alternatives, like being a gun-toting racist ignoramus in teal Wal-Mart sweatpants listening to Tim McGraw or an oily-haired business goon in an ultra-WASPy Ralph Lauren Purple Label suit. (Everything I hate about upper class, aspirational America is writ large in Ralph Lauren magazine ads. Oh, these Aryan McMansion types who want to play croquet and watch polo matches and wear seersucker jackets and burgundy cravats, like it's fuckin' Edwardian England...! But I must pull back the reins before this digression gets too far afield.)
Where I have serious problems with Hipster Culture is when (like other countercultures) it gradually, almost imperceptibly, becomes a miniature reproduction of the mainstream culture it purports to counter, just with different uniforms and cultural reference points.
Then, I pick up a book like Vice Dos and Don'ts, and I suddenly don't care about these quibbles, qualms, and sociological conundrums. This is just fucking funny stuff, no matter who you are -- or, more pointedly, what you are.
It epitomizes the nth-degree decadence of hipster culture, in which anything and everything sacred is fair game for caustic, pitiless insults. Even the Fashion Dos are often liberally maligned here. Infants, the homeless, and the obviously mentally ill are all fodder for excoriating put-downs, so if you're scrupulously sensitive to propriety (i.e., terminally P.C.), you'll probably wanna scoot on over to some feel-bad literature of oppressed minorities post-haste, to salve your conscience 'n all. Maya Angelou may be the anti-this-book -- spiritually speaking. (If we must speak spiritually.)
What is the book? It's a compilation of 'street fashion' 'critiques' from the previous ten years of Vice magazine. But 'street fashion' and 'critiques' are misleading -- in that they lead you to believe this is, like, the edgy (but serious) stepchild of Vogue. Not at all! These are mainly just snapshots of people (mainly total freaks) on the street in various cities being ridiculed -- or occasionally praised -- by Gavin McInnes, the author of the column.
Some of my favorites to follow. (Please know that these lose a lot without the benefit of the accompanying photos! So mitigate your judgment!)
Photo: A child, maybe three, viewed from behind, in tiny purple sweat pants, a silver puffer jacket, and a red knit hat; each of her hands is being held by a (presumed) parent. Critique: 'Nice fucking purple track pants, you fat bitch. What are you, the fucking Michelin Man? Nice gay hat, too, you fucking little loser bitch.'
Photo: Fat man with long curly black hair (and bald spot) wearing a denim shirt which reads, 'Banging Is My Passion.' He's holding hands with a jean-jacketed suburban mom type. Critique: 'Right on! You know what my passion is? Being forced to picture a gigantic, sweaty Greek man in black socks bouncing his hairy brown balls against this poor woman's ass for hours and hours and hours. On behalf of everyone fortunate enough to walk behind you, thanks!'
Photo: Really fat guy wearing super-tight khaki shorts with a white shirt and suspenders and what looks like a bad at-home haircut. (A FloBee malfunction perhaps.) Critique: 'And the winner is... this chief. Up until he was 29, his mum was his best friend. Then she died of ovarian cancer and now Nigel turns to her dogs Noddy and Big Ears for camaraderie. Don't worry about him, though -- he gets to fuck them.'
Photo: Random photo of overprocessed nightclub douche and douchette in messenger caps. She's wearing a strategically torn-up t-shirt that says 'Tits' and a studded belt. He's wearing a gold jacket with no shirt underneath. Critique:'Look at these turds. Could they be bigger pieces of human waste please? Look at them! They're just two big pieces of genitalia with ridiculous hats on. They're not even worth diarrhea-ing on.'
Photo: White, uptight postcollegiate couple on the dance floor -- in Polo oxfords. Critique: 'Normal people just keep getting weirder and weirder to me. Sure the guys are hairy, obtuse mama's boys that read sports, piss on the lid and dance with an overbite, but the women are just as shitty. She doesn't even know what a fucking butt plug is.'
And so on...
Clearly, this book is not for the easily offended (a.k.a. the hopeless, humorless dullards). But everyone else should order a copy as soon as possible. Or if you go to a bookstore -- a real, live bookstore -- to purchase it, make sure you look good and aren't dressed like an elderly gay Italian retard because, mark my words, someone will take a picture of your patchwork-jacket-and-pegrolled-stonewashed-jeans-wearin' ass and send it in to Vice. And then we'll be laughing at what a total fucking jackass you are and paying $17.95 plus state sales tax to do it. (A bargain, I might add.)(less)
Those four stars should have an asterisk beside them. In the ungenerous, critical light of the morning after, The Strangers in the House is probably j...moreThose four stars should have an asterisk beside them. In the ungenerous, critical light of the morning after, The Strangers in the House is probably just a three star book, but because I read a good chunk of it in the middle of the night, with the rain listlessly tapping on the roof and myself burrowed under a blanket to escape the pre-autumn chill, I awarded it an additional associative star. It was a perfect book, in my appraisal, for nestling; it contributed to such a totalizing feeling of security and relaxation that literary merit almost becomes irrelevant. But we're here (I suppose) to discuss the books themselves, so I'll get on with it. Simenon's The Strangers in the House is, in essence, a novel of detection—which is to say there is a murder mystery and it needs solving. Hector Loursat, the accidental protagonist, is a past-his-prime defense attorney who's steadily gone to seed since his wife left him eighteen years earlier. He lives with his independent daughter Nicole and a few servants in a rambling house in provincial France, but he rarely engages with them. He leaves his study and adjoining bedroom only to get more wine from the cellar or to eat a silent, regimented dinner with Nicole. But fate has a way of interrupting routines. One night: a gunshot! Inside his house, even. A man scurries down the stairs. A dead man (previously unknown to Loursat) is discovered in the attic. It's almost as if a strange underworld were domiciled in the nooks and crannies of his own home—and he never bothered to notice! Not that it really interests him in the slightest what transpires in the far-flung corners of the house so long as it doesn't intrude upon his carefully managed solitude. But a dead body? Well, that's certainly an intrusion. What's more, Nicole and her 'gang' of young male roustabouts seem to be tied up in the crime. Who knew the world was so busy while Loursat was locked in his room, chugging wine and browsing his book collection? But a disclaimer is in order... If you intend on reading The Strangers in the House because you like mysteries or detective novels, you're in for a big disappointment. The story itself is lightweight, and the murder is solved in an infuriatingly haphazard way. But The Strangers in the House isn't really a detective novel for fans of detective novels. It's more of a detective novel for fans of character studies. Simenon is a master at developing rich and familiar characters from minimal evocative details. He is a curator of literary personality. Loursat—a variant on the sad sack—undergoes a transformation as a result of his peripheral involvement with the crime. But ever the pessimist, Simenon knows that real-life transformations are usually rare and insignificant. Loursat is ultimately just Loursat. But it's enjoyable spending time with him, nevertheless. Even if the rain isn't tapping on your roof.(less)
HEY, KIDS AND SHEL SILVERSTEIN FANS! COME OVER HERE AND READ THIS!
Okay, this some motherfuckin' fucked-up shit right here. The Giving Tree is the stra...moreHEY, KIDS AND SHEL SILVERSTEIN FANS! COME OVER HERE AND READ THIS!
Okay, this some motherfuckin' fucked-up shit right here. The Giving Tree is the straight-up wack story of how this selfish little ass-faced prick kicks it with this full-on saintly tree. Ever'thin' fine for a while, y'all, with the lil' prick all gettin' up in there an' sayin' to the tree, "Yeah, you know you mah bitch," but then all of a sudden, this jumped-up prick go through puberty, get his chia on or some such shit, and so he's off screwin' the skank-ass bitches on the block all damn day and can't spare one motherfuckin' minute for this poor old tree who waitin' for him and lookin' all motherfuckin' sad an' droopy an' shit. So this little punk-ass bitch come up on the tree -- this is a motherfuckin' tree, hear? -- and ask her ['cuz she a sexy-ass lady-tree] fo' some g's. Well, the tree is all, like, "I ain't got no cash, bitch. What part o' me say ATM on it? Mmm-hmmm. I thought so..." And she shoulda held up there, but -- no -- this tree gets all fuckin' benevolent and be, like, "Well, I got mad apples you can go hustle on the streets." So this ass-faced prick just, like, boosts all these goddamn apples an' leaves this tree with, like, its weave all out an' shit. So next, after workin' the streets wit his crew, little bitch boy come back, lookin' all older an' jacked-up, and ask the motherfuckin' tree for a goddamn crib. So the tree like, "Hol' up. Do you even fuckin' see Coldwell Banker all up an' down in here? I think not." But then, being all kindly an' shit, the tree is, like, "But I got mad branches..." And what? She motherfuckin' takes it up back again fo' this fool. Later, another goddamn time, punk-ass bitch come back, lookin' all old an' saggy and wack now, and he like, "Bitch, what you got fo' me now?" "Awww, hell naw," tree says, but then she start gettin' all soft an' shit again an' say, "Why don' you cut down my trunk or some such shit and go 'head and whittle a pimped-out yacht, full-on Hamptons-style?" He, like, "Yeah, I thought so, bitch." And then -- guess the fuck what? -- little shriveled-up, played-out mack come on back wit his ass all hemorrhoided-up an' shit. He look straight-up nasty and old. Tree is, like, "I know you ain't come t'ask me. All's I got is a motherfuckin' stump, you ass-faced motherfucker. How you gon' come back at me like that?" This punk-ass bitch is all drooling and jacked-up and just wanna sit the hell down. What do the motherfuckin' tree do? She say, "Hell no! You motherfuckin' fucked-up fucker, get yo' motherfuckin' ass face out o' here fo' I cut you up good: give you some stank-ass mad tree fungus, motherfucker!" The motherfuckin' end, motherfuckers.
Okay, so that's not really the way The Giving Tree ends, but maybe it's the way it should. Some time ago, my ex-girlfriend and, afterward, long-time co-dependent friend gave me The Giving Tree as part of my birthday gift. I loved it, but I hated it, too, because I felt so bad for the tree who is endlessly shat upon by this worthless "Boy"--as he is always known, regardless of age; I longed to console the tree and, maybe a little, to condemn this book as yet another emotionally-scarring "children's" entertainment in the manner of Old Yeller. Don't give me any shit about learning valuable lessons. The only lesson I learned was that human beings are nothing but steaming piles of corn-freckled feces, and that I wanted to found a not-for-profit shelter for unloved trees and rabid dogs and any other nonhuman thing, living or not, which was either unwanted or despised.
Having said all this -- and although I don't approve of the treatment of the giving tree -- this book is very moving and very delicate. The delicacy is somewhat counteracted when the reader turns over the book and sees the author photograph of a thoroughly evil-looking Shel Silverstein. He looks like the sort of person who would burn down whole forests of rare giving trees just for kicks. Picture Othello just before he strangles Desdemona.
If you -- and, yes, I'm talking to you personally -- are not moved by the plight of the tree after reading this book, then perhaps it's time to go an' check yo'self: are you the givin' tree or are you the motherfuckin' takin' tree? Or are you the sneak-out-in-the-middle-of-the-night-an'-steal-all-my-shit tree?(less)
I'm currently obsessed with the Marx Brothers, which is somewhat significant because only a month ago they kind of terrified me. Well, actually... it...moreI'm currently obsessed with the Marx Brothers, which is somewhat significant because only a month ago they kind of terrified me. Well, actually... it was mostly Harpo Marx, the mute, curly-wigged, trenchcoated one who tapped into my deep-seated fear of clowns.
Fear of clowns isn't itself very remarkable. It's pretty common, from what I can tell, but my phobia really got turbo-charged in my early adolescence from watching WGN of Chicago's The Bozo Show, which was a weekday morning nightmare-a-thon featuring skits, cartoons, games, music, and three clowns: Bozo was the most responsible, least terrifying one of the trio; he had weird male pattern baldness, meaning he was bald on top but had really long, teased-out cherry-red hair. Cookie also suffered from similar hair loss, but his remaining hair was orange and he had a penchant for picnic blanket gingham shirts. Cookie was borderline creepy at times, but most of the time I could deal with him because he wasn't the antagonist; he was usually the recipient of the pies in the face and the banana peel pratfalls.
No, the real ground zero of my ensuing mental illness was (buckle yourself in for trauma) Wizzo the allegedly 'Wacky' Wizard. He was the villain of the three. Aside from looking like Satan's apprentice, Wizzo continually plotted and schemed against Bozo and Cookie. (As you can see, Wizzo also happens to be an 'Arab'-styled clown, which may be the original cause of the East-West cultural divide. This clown is so demonic that I don't blame any Arab who might be offended.)
Anyway, Wizzo regularly sought the aid of magical forces, summoned by a purple amulet around his neck called the Stone of Zanzibar. He would touch the stone to a given object which he desired to work magic upon and say, 'Doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee.' That's an exact quote, by the way. Of course, Wizzo never won out in the end, but there was something so grotesquely malevolent, mischievous, and satyric about him that he symbolized to me (the innocent naif) all that was unpredictable and dangerous about the world.
(Yes, of course I'm glorifying my simple childhood fears into grandiose psychological complexes touching on the very nature of life/death themselves. It's what we do. We don't want to believe we're any old schmoe with any old schmoe's two-bit hang-ups.)
Early movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx recalled that untamed, clownlike mischief that so occupied my early dreamlife. (Speaking of Charlie Chaplin... did anybody but Chaplin and Hitler ever have that mustache?) In the early Paramount films, Harpo certainly lives up to this reputation. First of all, mutes are inherently frightening. (Sorry, mutes!) Since they cannot speak, we reflexively presume there is something hidden or secretive about them. -- something that mere physical expression can't satisfactorily mediate. Next, Harpo is always trying to fuck with everybody all the time. It doesn't matter (in the early films) whether you're a 'good guy' or a 'bad guy,' Harpo will kick you in the ass (literally) and do his utmost to humiliate or anger you. Lastly, he's costumed (another allusion to hiddenness or subterfuge).
So basically, over the past month, I overcame my fear of Harpo Marx -- although I still have to say that he is probably my least favorite of Three Marx Brothers. Yes, that's right... Nobody's favorite Chico himself noses Harpo out of second place. (If we expand the pool to the Four Marx Brothers, Zeppo takes last place. Zeppo barely registers at all.)
I have watched all five films in which The Four Marx Brothers starred (The Cocoanuts,Animal Crackers,Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup) and the eight films in which The Three Marx Brothers starred (A Night at the Opera,A Day at the Races,Room Service,At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca, and Love Happy). Now I accept Harpo. He is almost -- I said ALMOST! -- a comforting cinematic presence to me. Actually, I only outright dislike two of their films (Room Service and Love Happy), and since Harpo is a major part of them all, he certainly deserves a lot of credit.
Now for this book... It's apparent from reading this book that Harpo (in real life, beyond the film persona, a.k.a. Adolph Marx) is the kindest, least fucked-up of the three 'main' brothers. (I don't know about Zeppo.) Groucho -- who is needless to say my favorite -- could be cruel and aloof, and Chico was a womanizing gambling addict, apparently also with a temper. Harpo (as far as one can tell) was a family man... mostly self-deprecating and timid about his shortcomings. Harpo only attended school through the SECOND grade! Therefore, you can pretty much be sure that Rowland Barber, his collaborator on this autobiography, did all or most of the writing. Harpo likely just provided the raw material.
Harpo's stories about the hardships of working in vaudeville with his brothers at the turn of the century under the dictatorial but well-meaning control of his mother Minnie are fascinating. This is a world that is all but forgotten anymore, as most of the people who experienced vaudeville have died away. It was a rough life... traveling across the country to smaller, second-rate vaudeville houses, the familial troupe not sure if they would get to perform (or if they would be paid for their performance). Sometimes the audiences were cruel and -- true to cliche -- threw fruit. In Boston, an audience member spat chewing tobacco on Harpo during the performance. This is especially upsetting when you remember that Harpo was only a child at the time.
Also very interesting are the stories about living in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s... horsedrawn carriages, seedy speakeasies, Tammany Hall... It's all chronicled quite excitingly in this book.
Less interesting are Harpo's adventures with the intellectual hoi-polloi of the time, including Alexander Woollcott, a pompous buffoon (in my less than humble opinion) who was the theater reviewer for The New York Times and a member of the Algonquin Round Table, with such luminaries as Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman. Harpo holds Woollcott in much higher esteem than I do, and I can't help faulting him for dwelling on the peculiarities of Woollcott's character instead of telling the readers stuff they really want to know... but obviously Harpo isn't going to divulge too many negative details about his brothers, whom he obviously loves dearly -- despite their foibles.
* * * Postscript * * *
As an avid movie list-maker, I was apparently remiss in not including the official (i.e., my) rankings of all thirteen of the Marx Brothers films! I know you were thinking to yourself, 'I was really hoping to watch or re-watch some Marx Brothers films, but David didn't offer me any spiritual guidance.' Well, although you didn't really ask, ye shall receive anyhow:
1. A Night at the Opera (1935)
Their first film for MGM (under the supervision of 'The Boy Wonder' Irving Thalberg) and their first film sans Zeppo, who generally filled the role of the dull, superfluous romantic lead in the preceding films. Most (I said most) Marx Brothers films conform to a strict formula: Chico and Harpo are usually associates, friends, acquaintances who 'meet' Groucho during the course of the film; there is a bland romantic story (involving Zeppo or a Zeppo surrogate) punctuated by a few sappy ditties; at one point in the film, Chico will usually have a piano solo, and Harpo will have a harp solo. (Be sure to watch Harpo during his harp solos. You can see his face change out of the Harpo persona during most of them. He admits as much in Harpo Speaks!; he tells the reading audience that they've seen the true man behind Harpo if they've seen his harp playing performances.) In the MGM films, there is a relatively straightforward plot involving a villain pitted against the romantic leads; the Marx Brothers are then enlisted to help foil the plot of the villain. This latter point was at the insistance of Irving Thalberg. He believed that one problem with the five anarchic Paramount films (1929 - 1933) was that the audience didn't have a rooting interest in the Marx Brothers, in that they caused problems for everybody in the film, good and bad, and they were largely amoral. A Night at the Opera is the first film to place the brothers firmly and devotedly on the side of moral good, as coded by conventional Hollywood standards. In addition to George S. Kaufman, Buster Keaton assisted in writing the screenplay (although without credit). Keaton and the Marxes would suffer creative differences in their collaborations because the Marxes believed the kind of humor Keaton was writing was not appropriate for them. Nevertheless, Groucho repeatedly said that A Night at the Opera was the greatest film they ever made, and I agree -- which only goes to show what a master Irving Thalberg was. Their MGM films after the death of Thalberg in 1936 (during preproduction on Opera's follow-up A Day at the Races) would pale in comparison to their earlier efforts.
2. Duck Soup (1933)
The final film for Paramount, Duck Soup is usually the only film mentioned in competition with A Night at the Opera for the Marxes' best. It is often recalled as a box office flop, but this isn't entirely the case; it was successful to a limited extent but failed to meet the financial expectations set up by their previous films. The plot, thin as it is, focuses on Rufus T. Firefly, a wiseacre buffoon, who is instated as the leader of the fictional nation Fredonia under the patronage of wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (played by wonderful Marx film regular Margaret Dumont). Chico and Harpo are 'spies' sent in by the neighboring country of Sylvania to dig up dirt on Firefly in order to start war. This is the film which contains perhaps the most famous scene in the Marx canon: Harpo happens to be dressed up like Groucho (greasepaint mustache, eyebrows, and all) and tries to mimic Groucho through a doorway so that Groucho believes he's looking in a mirror. (An homage was paid to this gag during Harpo's visit to the I Love Lucy show in the 1950s.) But let's discuss Margaret Dumont for a second, please! Dumont starred in seven of the thirteen Marx brothers films, essentially playing the same character: a priggish, proper, upper crust type of woman who is alternately being wooed and insulted by Groucho. Some of her characters don't notice (or understand) the insults, and some of them notice the insults but forget about them in a matter of seconds... She is such a great comic foil in these films that it's a little disappointing when you realize you're watching one of the films without her.
3. Animal Crackers (1930)
Animal Crackers was the second stage play written for the Marx Brothers which was adapted (mostly literally) to screen. (The other play was their film debut The Cocoanuts.) In this one, Groucho plays a (dubious) African explorer named Captain Spaulding, who is being feted by a New York society grand dame (played by Margaret Dumont). The plot is forgettable and involves the theft of an expensive painting during the party and the attempts to figure out whodunnit. All in all, this skeletal plot is merely there to prop up the jokes, the skits, the banter, the sight gags... and the brothers are mostly at the top of their game here, including a scene where Groucho dictates a ridiculous letter in meaningless legalese to his secretary (Zeppo). One of the drawbacks of this one, however, is that it's very stagey. It seems that Groucho is even leaving breathing room after his one-liners for audience laughs, which works in the theater, but on film, not so much. So there is a tonal clunkiness, but all is forgiven because the writing is sharp and the humor is brisk.
4. The Cocoanuts (1929)
First Marx Brothers film. Early talkie with poor sound, little camera movement, and poor picture quality. Songs written by Irving Berlin. Based on the Marx Brothers' second stage play. Harpo wears a red wig in this one, but it is changed to blonde in his later films because the red reads too dark. Plot concerns the Florida real estate boom, with Groucho managing a hard-luck local hotel.
5. A Day at the Races (1937)
Thalberg died during pre-production of pneumonia, but it still bears the stamp of quality assurance. Contains the famous 'tootsie-fruitsie ice cream' routine. Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's mother, stars as the romantic lead. Groucho is a horse doctor mistaken for a human doctor by a wealthy hypochondriac (Margaret Dumont) at a clinic near a race track.
6. Horse Feathers (1932)
Very good, but not as funny as I expected given its reputation. The football game at the end drags on and on and on (in my opinion). But there's still a lot of good stuff here in this satire on higher education. Groucho plays the new dean of a university, charged with the task of recruiting two star football players. He ends up with Chico and Harpo instead. The only surviving print of this film is damaged in parts and skips over several lines of dialogue.
7. Monkey Business (1931)
The Marx Brothers as stowaways on a cruise ship. This for me was the least of the Paramount films. But there is hilarious scene in which all three of the brothers try to get off the ship by impersonating Maurice Chevalier (because they find his passport on board).
8. At the Circus (1939)
This third film for MGM is where the decline begins. There's a lot to love in At the Circus, but you sense the film isn't quite as sharp as it used to be -- and the romantic leads in this film may be blandest, least interesting of any Marx Brothers film. Eve Arden costars as a woman who walks upside down for the circus -- leading to a scene in which Groucho walks upside down as well, trying to get some money out of Arden's cleavage while, he remarks to the camera, not violating the Hayes Production Code, which established guidelines for what might and might not be shown in films in America before the MPAA rating system came about. Also famous for a scene in which a orchestra stage on the beach is unmoored and the orchestra is cast off to sea... still playing. Margaret Dumont also stars.
9. Go West (1940)
This one's infamous for some Indian stereotypes, which I suppose is to be expected from a 'western' of this time period. The film starts fairly strongly, but inevitably gets bogged down with uninteresting plot towards the end, in a train scene somewhat reminiscent of Buster Keaton's The General.
10. A Night in Casablanca (1946)
The first Marx Brothers 'comeback film' marking a return to the screen after a five year absence during WWII. Appropriately enough, this so-so film, originally intended as a Casablanca parody, ended up featuring Nazis as the villains. Recalling The Cocoanuts, Groucho is the inept manager of a hotel -- this time in Casablanca -- where some shenanigans involving hidden Nazi loot transpire. This one's much too long for its own good. The airplane scene at the end is incredible but strangely unfunny. You really notice the brothers looking older in this one. The story is that they only agreed to make it to help Chico pay off his out-of-sight gambling debts.
11. The Big Store (1941)
Eleven, twelve, and thirteen on my list are probably not films I would recommend to anyone. The Big Store, for instance, is an overblown, ridiculous, mostly unfunny affair in which nearly every ethnic stereotype is employed at some point (to no comic effect). I couldn't even really latch on to the plot of this thing because it was too convoluted for a light Marx Brothers film. It involved Groucho working as a private detective at a large department store. That much I can say. The romantic leads were just awful in this one, and the woman who works in the infants department in the store is so bizarre, I had to watch her performance in one of the big production numbers three times in a row. Harpo has an interesting harp-playing scene here where he dons an Amadeus-era wig and outfit and has some fun with his rebellious reflections in two mirrors.
12. Love Happy (1950)
The second 'comeback film' and the final Marx Brothers film. The only film in which Groucho doesn't have greasepaint eyebrows and mustache. The DVD case shouts at me that this thing stars THE MARX BROTHERS and MARILYN MONROE! Marilyn Monroe was in it for less than one minute! No exaggeration. She was unknown at the time and is only a glorified extra. Also interesting about Love Happy: It's considered Harpo's film because he came up with the story idea and wanted to make it, but Groucho wasn't into it... as such Groucho role in this film is very diminished. Additionally, the three brothers don't appear on-screen together much in this film. A mostly pathetic farewell. (You really can never go home again.)
13. Room Service (1938)
I really, really hated this one. Really. It's the only Marx Brothers film that wasn't written specifically for the Marx Brothers, and it shows. It costars Lucille Ball and Ann Miller, and is the story of a play director (Groucho) holed up in a hotel suite, with no money, until he finds a way to get his funding. Chico and Harpo show up (I forget the details of how or why) and encamp with him, along with a thoroughly irritating doofus (also the romantic lead opposite Ann Miller) who is the author of the play (within the play). Not one laugh here for me. Not one...
Simenon's ecstatically bleak Dirty Snow teeters on the fulcrum between four and five starness and only just barely comes to rest on the four star side...moreSimenon's ecstatically bleak Dirty Snow teeters on the fulcrum between four and five starness and only just barely comes to rest on the four star side. A lot of hand wringing and soul searching went into this rating (or at least two minutes' worth), but in the end I concluded that the only quality Dirty Snow lacks is that ineffable something-or-other that makes a novel grab you by the balls and shout, 'I'm a five star book, damn it! Hearken to my greatness!' The first thing I want to say about Dirty Snow is actually something about two other books—namely Sartre's Nausea and Camus' The Stranger, both of which you can safely chuck on the book burning pyre because Dirty Snow is the definitive fictional rendering of existentialism. Unlike its more celebrated forebears, Simenon's work is actually alive—not just some nakedly abstract concept onto which character and plot are clumsily affixed. The protagonist Frank is a nineteen-year-old asshole in a presumably German-occupied country during World War II. (The location is appropriately indistinct. Like everything else, it's pointless.) Frank has no real friends and doesn't give a shit about anybody—not his fretful mother Lotte who runs a brothel out of their apartment, not Sissy the girl next door who's infatuated with him, and not Kromer his partner in crime. Not even himself. Entirely lacking in purpose, Frank thieves and murders without moral compunction; but his crimes are less profit-motivated or purely sadistic than they are strange, floundering assertions of self in an arbitrary and morally convoluted world. The last fifty to seventy-five pages of the book are a total downer, to the extent that the whole fucked-up punitive system of the occupation forces is basically a stand-in for life in general. We try to make sense of it all or to feel important or relevant in some small, stupid way, but hey... guess what? [Spoiler!] We're all a big ol' steamin' pile of nothin'. Good night. You've been a lovely audience!(less)
When I say something is funny and you say something is funny, I'm usually not sure if our funnies are congruous—or even related, really. For instance,...moreWhen I say something is funny and you say something is funny, I'm usually not sure if our funnies are congruous—or even related, really. For instance, I've been told (by 'them') that The Hangover was a great American comedy, but I'll be honest with you... there were more honest-to-goshness laughs in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata for me. Like in that ripsnorting scene where Liv Ullmann's crippled daughter crawls out of her bedroom in a crime of melodrama so egregious that even drag queens would roll their sparkly-shadowed eyes. Bitch, please. All it needed was a kazoo soundtrack, and then abracadabra: sublimity, pure sublimity! But The Hangover had about as many yuks-per-minute as a holocaust museum. Let me get this straight... some doofuses party and can't remember anything the next day! Wow, that's fantastic! And there's a tiger! And a naked Asian! Ha ha ha ha! I've already signed up to pre-order The Hangover 2 on Amazon!
Anyway, this is all in the way of a disclaimer. When I say that The Dog of the South might just be the funniest novel I've ever read, you should not jump to any conclusions. It might be like reading an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross book for you. My sense of humor is particular. I [generally] don't go in for outright silliness or slipping-on-banana peels or pies-in-faces or Will Ferrell. Poor Will. I want to give him points for trying so damn hard all the time. You can see that he really, really, really wants to be funny, and it's his dream in the same way that other boys want to be astronauts, firemen, or high-stakes drug dealers. But wow. Effort only goes so far.
The Dog of the South is the exact kind of humor I like. It's the story of this twentysomething loser named Ray Midge (it's okay—this is the 1970s, well before the slacker and hipster eras) whose wife Norma leaves him for her first husband Dupree, a wannabe leftist radical who is really just an Arkansas redneck with authority issues. Not only that. Dupree steals Midge’s car and credit card and takes off with Norma through Texas and Mexico—eventually arriving in British Honduras. Ray follows their trail via credit card charges in a car with a hole in the floor accompanied by the eccentric and criminal Dr. Symes who hitches a ride to Honduras where he plans to persuade his missionary mother to turn over her island real estate to him so that he can build a luxury nursing home on it. Ray, needless to say, is hapless and bewildered. Dr. Symes is irritable and elliptical. They make for a strange pairing.
The novel is told from the idiosyncratic perspective of Midge who spends much of the novel taking in the strange world he lives in. He is something of a hick—likely by his own admission—who knows about cars and guns, as a matter of course, but he is, at the same time, self-deprecating, half-assed-worldly, and very, very smart. He has a talent for feeling people out and reacting accordingly. But his isn’t the reactive humor of, say, Bob Newhart who deadpans his exasperation at the inscrutable and intractable world in which he lives; no, Midge takes everything in stride—each and every peculiarity and catastrophe. The world, odd as it is, is something to marvel at, sure, but not for long. When all the marveling’s done, a crooked doctor, a deranged, gun-wielding radical, and a sudden hurricane are just more things-on-top-of-things to contend with.
Also, Midge has no idea that he’s funny. Not one clue. And that’s what magnifies the humor. There are no spaces kept clear for a laugh track. And none of those needy inflections reserved for the delivery of one-liners. It’s the totality of Midge’s addled but persevering perspective that frames a comedy he can’t quite recognize because he’s standing nose-to-nose with it. (less)
Gringos isn’t exactly what I wanted from Charles Portis at this time. Yes, I realize Portis probably had his own literary agenda, but naturally I pref...moreGringos isn’t exactly what I wanted from Charles Portis at this time. Yes, I realize Portis probably had his own literary agenda, but naturally I prefer mine: i.e., that he continue to write short, funny, meandering books about semi-enlightened rednecks. Gringos fits several of these bills if you want to quibble—and, as I’ve said before, you usually do—but its humor is a little more serious-minded than I wanted. I have the suspicion that all this rigmarole about crazy Americans trying to work out their neuroses and hang-ups in Mexico and Guatemala is intended to tell me something profoundly insightful about Americans—and perhaps about their childish devotion to myth, hocus-pocus, and the otherworldly because the world they’ve fashioned for themselves is so underwhelming and prosaic. But this feels too obvious, and Portis’s characters are a little too grotesque in this outing to serve as persuasive stand-ins.
This is all wild speculation, of course, because I’m not really sure what Portis’s point was. But I am strongly convinced that he had one. The story is too garrulous, overpopulated, and ornamented with recurring themes to be arbitrary or haphazard. Or is it? Maybe Portis is—just as I said in a previous review—a natural-born yarnspinner, and we literarily-minded saps are always still looking for a grand, metaphysical narrative behind the scenes. This is the kind of scrupulousness that makes dullards out of us. Let the novel stand there, on its own, and speak for itself. Was it enjoyable? Maybe that should be the main question. Enjoyability captures so many qualities under its umbrella that I should be content with saying, Yes, the novel Gringos by Charles Portis is mostly enjoyable. That is enough.
And yet it’s somehow not. It’s enjoyable but somewhat unsatisfying. Like if you sat down and spooned half a container of fat-free Cool Whip into your gaping maw. It lacks a substantiality that I craved right now. Gringos is, after all, Portis’s last novel—a statement implying that he’s dead, which he’s not, in the rigorous sense of the word anyway, but this novel was published in 1990, I believe. The juxtaposed evidence of his advanced age and the twenty-ones year since the publication of Gringos leads me to conclude that he’s thrown in the towel with this novel-writing business. Just call me Angela Lansbury. Writer’s Block, She Wrote. Or, worse, apathy. Discouragement. Plain old-fashioned tiredness.
I wanted Gringos, Portis’s swan song, to show him at the height of his powers. But no. Of the four (of five) Portis novels I’ve read, this is probably the depth of his powers. And yet it’s good. Just not good enough. It’s the story of Jimmy Burns, an American expatriate, who used to do archaeological things (I say ‘archaeological things’ because I’m not sure if he was a genuine archaeologist or merely a ruins scavenger) but now mainly does odd jobs for people. The story focuses on an American expatriate community in Mexico predominantly comprised of wackos, UFO enthusiasts, violent cult members, hippies, and general, non-categorizable eccentrics. There are about twenty thousand characters in this three-hundred-twenty page novel, and I had a hell of a time keeping them all straight—which resulted in several anguished searches through the early pages of the book searching for characters’ names. Late in the book, Jimmy tells us that a certain character has died, and given the attention devoted to this death, it seemed to be a somewhat significant event, yet I had no recollection of who he was. The name sounded familiar though. Either this book needs an index or my mind is progressing at a brisk clip toward its grand enfeeblement. (less)