Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses. If I'm scanning through the TCM schedule and I see that she happens to be in a film I've never heard of aJean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses. If I'm scanning through the TCM schedule and I see that she happens to be in a film I've never heard of and would otherwise have little or no interest in based on the summary, I'd still probably watch it just because of her presence. (Those of you who are into old movies realize that this isn't a very good strategy because stars were contracted to their studios back then and—unless they were uncommonly powerful in the industry—they generally had to appear in whatever movies they were assigned. At least today we can feel comfortable blaming Adam Sandler for his shitty career making shitty movies since he at least has some agency in picking and choosing and even producing his own movies.)
It's difficult to quantify Jean Arthur's onscreen presence. There's something ineffable that she brings to any role—no matter if she's playing a jaded newspaper reporter (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), a priggish Republican congresswoman (A Foreign Affair), or a down-to-earth homesteader (Shane). There's always an essential jeanarthurness behind scenes animating these characters, making them distinct yet familial. I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying that she was more of a 'personality' than an actress—as was the case with most film actors of her generation. (Nobody hired Cary Grant so that he could lose himself in some kind of immersive performance. They were hiring him to be Cary Grant.)
But what exactly was Jean Arthur's patented something-or-other that she brought to her performances? Well, it would be hard to imagine Arthur without her voice—which was at once high and low, hard and soft, girlish and croaklike... Whenever I read descriptions of her voice (including in this book) I think, 'No... that's not quite it.' I think you just have to hear it to know what it is. Descriptions tend to dance around it without ever quite arriving.
Beyond her purely physiological qualities—her longish face, her neutered prettiness, and her seeming agelessness—there was always an unmistakable vulnerability that Arthur brought to even her most cynical characters. You got the sense that her worldliness and hard edges were merely a facade she created as a protective instinct. Underneath the layers of pretense, perfected by years of habit, you always expected to find a dreamy girl looking—yearning even—to be proven wrong about the baseness of humanity.
Other than for her unique screen presence, Arthur was also known for her legendary reclusiveness. She was sometimes called the 'American Garbo'—not certainly as an aesthetic comparison, but because of their shared desire to be left alone. This of course only makes John Oller's biography of the publicity-shunning actress all the more needful. It certainly isn't easy to find information about Arthur—and if you simply follow the course of her film career you run into a dead end in 1953 with Shane, her final film before retirement—even though she would live nearly another forty years.
Oller helps to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, the long epilogue of Arthur's life (i.e., her post-film life and work) isn't a very happy story, at least from the vantage of the casual observer. Plagued by self-doubt and erratic behavior, characterized by a recurring cycle of moving toward and then fleeing from life, Arthur's mindset was all too relatable to me. She had so many passions and interests (which Oller details in the book), but her avoidant personality seemed intent upon sabotaging her efforts to pursue them in meaningful ways.
Her career highlight by her own estimation was her critically-acclaimed, highly successful lead character performance in Peter Pan on Broadway (when she was nearly fifty years old), but when the show started touring the country Arthur began suffering the psychosomatic illnesses that would precipitate her hasty exit from this and every other play she ever attempted during her career.
Peter Pan was, perhaps not very surprisingly, a very important character to Arthur. She was known among close friends (of whom there were not many) for her childlike mischief, and one could easily make the case that she was never quite comfortable with the empty customs and rituals of adulthood, preferring instead to find her own way by pure instinct. Unfortunately for Arthur, her 'own way' put her on a collision course with the way of the world. People could never seem to make heads or tails of Arthur's secretiveness, her wildly neurotic behavior, or her monomaniacal passions. (Again, this is completely relatable to me and made me like Arthur more, but only in the selfish way that you're inclined to like people more like yourself.)
Oller's book is a quick, enjoyable read which occasionally betrayed my trust with its grammatical errors ('teaming' for 'teeming'; 'peak' for 'peek'; and so on and so forth...). Sometimes I got the sense that Oller was relying too heavily on too few sources, but this may be more of a 'feeling' than an actuality. At any rate, it probably isn't Oller's fault even if it is true; the world is usually not well-populated with reliable sources about a recluse.
If you're an Arthur fan, I can't recommend this book enough. If you're not familiar with Arthur, I can't recommend her enough. My personal favorite is her 1937 screwball comedy Easy Living with Ray Milland and Edward Arnold. In it, a wealthy man throws his wife's expensive fur coat out the window and it lands on top of Jean Arthur who's riding an open-air bus on the street below. As they say, madcap hijinks then ensue......more
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth made me think about a lot of 'stuff'—so if you're one of those self-righteous hall monitor types who scolds revieweEdith Wharton's The House of Mirth made me think about a lot of 'stuff'—so if you're one of those self-righteous hall monitor types who scolds reviewers on Goodreads for not being relevant enough, then be on your way. There's nothing for you to see here except for some navel-gazing. Proceed at your own peril.
The House of Mirth centers on a privileged white female named Lily Bart who's navigating the precarious social landscape of New York City and its environs at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Although Lily is a woman—and this qualifies her for special consideration as a class of the variously marginalized of the period (i.e., she wasn't a wealthy white male)—I have a feeling (and it's only a feeling) that many modern readers will be put off by being placed in the position of sympathizing with this poor little rich girl. The liberal intelligentsia—of which I'd like to consider myself a constituent, however damning that admission might be—has become so preposterously righteous and (yes, at times) patronizing that it has somehow become unseemly to offer anything but snarky derision to the 'plight' of the white, wealthy, and otherwise advantaged.
You may think you see where this is going, but it's not that bad. Really. It's not as if I'm some white upper-middle class male who is 'standing up' for my own kind against the perceived persecution of political correctness. Quite the contrary, it's understandable (and perhaps morally healthy) for well-off white people to feel some guilt because of our surfeits—and not only material surfeits—in light of the history that has preceded us and the injustices which continue today. I'm not one of those nutjobs who offers up #alllivesmatter in response to #blacklivesmatters—because only a dunce would fail to understand the importance of white lives is already the underlying premise and vouchsafing principle of our society.
I'm getting away from myself a little here. As regards Lily Bart—our unfortunate protagonist in The House of Mirth—I can imagine countless readers' sighs greeting her predicaments—e.g., how to keep up appearances; how to marry well; how to insinuate herself, profitably, into the lives of the highest echelon of fashionable society... In other words, not only do Lily's problems scarcely deserve the name by modern standards, but the particulars are also pretty well estranged from our experience of the world today.
Lily Bart hasn't been prepared or instructed in any other course except to marry well. If that isn't clear enough, I'll be more blunt: in order to preserve her standard of living, she can only hope to marry a wealthy, socially well-positioned man, irrespective of romantic feelings or even basic affection. Her parents and her aunt hadn't conceived of any other alternatives for her, and if they had been more generous with possibilities, let's remember that nineteenth century society was not any more accommodating with other opportunities for women. It's hard to manage sometimes, but as readers we have to guard against imposing our values on persons of another era. While we often idealize self-sufficiency and self-determination as the greatest of social values, we must also remember that the prevailing attitudes and social infrastructure didn't always make these ideals attainable.
Toward the beginning of The House of Mirth, I was bothered a little by the novel's starchiness and wondered what Wharton wanted me to make of Lily (as if the author's intentions necessarily have anything to do with a reader's reactions). She seemed spoiled and flighty and less snobby than most of her social peers perhaps, but still jarringly snobby at times. But as the novel progressed, I realized that Wharton was showing me the differences (and strain) between Lily's outward social behavior and her ideas and values. Despite the fact that she knew what was required of her, it wasn't really what she wanted. It reminds me of my job, in a way. I've worked in this office for more years than I'd care to admit to because it's what I know how to do and someone will pay me a reasonable amount to do it... but does it reflect my taste or values? Only to extent that I'm lazy and unmotivated and willing to 'settle' for the things that are easily put in my way. Of course, I'm in a much different position from Lily Bart. If I wanted to, if I were motivated, I could leave this job and adapt myself to some other, more preferable life. I'm not sure the Lily Bart of this rarefied social milieu had so many options, and if she did, it would have required much more bravery to have pursued them.
What I'm getting at is that even though Lily's position is peculiar to most readers today, it's still forcefully human and relatable. I think the last fifty pages of this book were some of the saddest and most affecting I've ever encountered in a novel. Once we get past all the particular trappings of Lily's life, her story speaks of something universal and essential to being human. None of us are gods who create our fates entirely from scratch. Conservative types love to beatify the poor immigrant who worked hard against all adversity to become a success in the New World, but it's not as easy as that. Who taught the immigrant the value of work hard? Who instilled him with his values and ambitions? Didn't luck or happenstance help him along the way? Did his race or gender open any doors for him that would have been closed to others? The self-made man is a myth—because we only bother to notice the parts of the story that reinforce the message that we've decided on ahead of time.
Likewise, Lily Bart's failings weren't only her own; they were society's at the time too. Lily Barts don't materialize into the world, pre-formed, with limitless agency to optimize themselves. Society hems them in in certain ways, not only materially, but ideologically. That's why The House of Mirth is a tragedy that admits itself to all readers who can see beyond the instance and recognize the shadow of limitation that darkens everyone's life to some extent. ...more
First of all, I have some disclaiming to do. I do not believe in God, not even in the most hazy, nondenominational sense of an impersonal 'force' thatFirst of all, I have some disclaiming to do. I do not believe in God, not even in the most hazy, nondenominational sense of an impersonal 'force' that vouchsafes existence. I was raised Catholic (halfheartedly)—by which I mean that I was sent to Catholic school, but my parents were never demonstratively or actively Catholic. They only rarely attended church (precipitated, I think, by a sense of lapsed duty), they never prayed, to my knowledge, and they mostly refrained from any mention of gods or spirits or the afterlife. I guess you could say I grew up in an atmosphere of profound religious ambiguity, which gave me the impression, rightly or not, that we were obliged to bow our heads in deference to the religious arts but we surely weren't supposed to take it all too seriously. Religion, in other words, was a palliative ritual—working in much the same way a fairy tale does for a child—to distract us from more austere truths about life and death.
Of course, I was a child then. I never formulated these ideas succinctly, and now I'm only trying to translate an eroding childhood impression that I can still recall from time to time.
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is told from the perspective of a dying (Protestant) preacher named John Ames who lives in a small town in Iowa named Gilead. He is writing a testament of sorts to his young son, who is six years old and is the product of a marriage to a considerably younger woman. Both Ames' grandfather and father were preachers, but their relationship was fraught with conflicts both personal and ideological. His grandfather was a stern, fire-and-brimstone preacher who viewed war as the most effective means to achieve greater social justice, while his father was a pacifist and a quieter, more restrained man.
Ames and his family live near his lifelong friend, a Presbyterian minister named Boughton, who is also quite old and suffering from poor health. (The book described Ames as a Congregationalist. I'm not very familiar with the various Protestant denominations, but the text led to me to understand that his religion is Calvinist in orientation. I should note here—as further disclaimer—that the Calvinist concept of predestination was greatly disturbing to this impressionable young Catholic boy when he was learning about competing doctrines in school.) Boughton has quite a few grown children, but none of them live in Gilead; his daughter Glory has returned temporarily to care for him as his health falters and—near the beginning of the book—Boughton's prodigal son Jack returns, with his perpetual smirk and his unknown motives.
Ostensibly, Ames is writing this testament—the book Gilead itself—because he expects that he will die long before his son reaches maturity; he intends to explain his past and his views and instill an impression of himself in a boy who will never really know him in any profound sense. Somewhere along the way, however, he gets distracted by Jack's return to Gilead and the all feelings it stirs up in him. Reckoning with Jack Boughton almost becomes a final test for the old man; on the one hand, he recognizes his duties toward Jack, not only as the son of a good friend but also as a child of God, but on the other hand, he's dogged by what he considers his unfair and antagonistic feelings for the young man, which stem from a sordid incident in past.
Although Ames, at the time of his writing, is occasionally troubled by feelings of inadequacy, I think he's what I'd call an exemplary Christian, and I certainly don't mean that it in an ironic or smug way. I could list any number of adjectives that would explain to you what I mean, incidentally speaking—such as that he's calm, patient, well-meaning, learned, questioning, caring, thinking, etc.—but I think all these many qualities and more are the product of one essential striving in John Ames: he is always working at refining, improving, and reconsidering himself. He hasn't become petrified in a state of self-satisfaction or righteousness. Of course, this isn't only a Christian ideal; it's a human ideal. But I think many Christians get confused when it comes to matters of faith. They mistakenly believe that their faith should not entertain doubts—that it should be steadfast and unbending. On the contrary, I think faith only gains value because it endures in the face of doubt. Belief isn't a fixed destination at the end of a spiritual journey; it's a continuous striving—and it's very hard work.
Marilynne Robinson elegantly and tenderly brings John Ames' thoughts—and even more profoundly—his feelings to life in this miraculous little book. I say that it's miraculous because it fosters understanding across seemingly unbridgeable ideological divides and shows us that many of our most essential ideals are often quite similar, regardless of the trappings of dogmatism or sect. And that's all well and good, of course, but Robinson's success here is so unequivocal because John Ames is real and true and resoundingly alive for all of the book's two-hundred-fifty pages... ...more
If any skeptics require further evidence of the elasticity of time, please give The Indian by Jón Gnarr a try. It's a mere two hundred eighteen pages—If any skeptics require further evidence of the elasticity of time, please give The Indian by Jón Gnarr a try. It's a mere two hundred eighteen pages—many of which are (mercifully) filled with white space—and yet somehow this plainspoken childhood memoir made time feel as if it were being worked over by a taffy pull.
There is a point in the The Wild World of Batwoman episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 at which Tom Servo has become so worn down the interminable badness of the film that he simply yells at it, 'End!!' That's a nice paraphrase of how I felt about this book, which drones on and on, compiling episodes from the narrative's childhood that illustrate his 'dysfunction' (for a lack of a more precise word). This little brat sets fires, jumps off buildings, beats farm animals, and generally makes a sociopathic nuisance of himself wherever he goes. Neither his parents nor the psychiatric profession seems to know what to do with him... and for than matter, neither does the reader. What exactly are we supposed to glean from all these flatly-recounted incidents of the narrator's bad behavior?
In fairness, I should point out that The Indian is the first in a trilogy of autobiographical books by Gnarr, who is not only a comedian but also the former mayor of Reykjavík. Maybe in conjunction with the other two installments, The Indian serves some purpose, but stranded on its own, it definitely feels monotonous and utterly pointless.
I mean... So what? You were a problem child who was misdiagnosed by the psychological establishment and misinterpreted by your peers and parents. (Welcome to the club.) This factoid in and of itself doesn't make for a compelling novel; it's more like a PSA. We need some glimmers of introspection to get anything out of this catalog of adolescent acting-out. Since the novel's events are reported flatly and simplistically, from the perspective of a child who has little understanding of why his behavior is aberrant, there's not much here but a grocery list of dysfunction.
I don't really know anything about Gnarr as a politician or a comedian, but he apparently has his fans. Inside the cover, there's complimentary blurbage from the likes of Lady Gaga (who embarrassingly refers to him as 'the mayor of Iceland') and Noam Chomsky—but if you pick up this book and look it over, pay attention. These are blurbs for Gnarr the PERSON, not his book The Indian, which I doubt either Gaga or Chomsky read.
I'm also not sure of where the original publication of The Indian figures on a timeline in relationship to Karl Ove Knausgård's six-part semi-autobiographical work My Struggle, but I'd be lying if I said this didn't seem like a shallow knockoff of Knausgård's opus. All of the mundane detail that Knausgård shared with (or inflicted upon) the reader generally had some (emotional, psychological) point to it further down the road. The Indian, however, ends as listlessly as it begins and arrives nowhere in particular....more
First, allow me to disclaim my prejudice: I am not, generally speaking, a fan of the coming-of-age of novel. There are only so many times that a readeFirst, allow me to disclaim my prejudice: I am not, generally speaking, a fan of the coming-of-age of novel. There are only so many times that a reader can be reasonably expected to suffer through the (often universal) discoveries that occasion childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I wasn't a huge fan of weathering these experiences first hand ("Bullying, wet dreams, and death! Oh my!"), so I'm not exactly jonesing for a revisit.
I alluded to one of the major problems of the coming-of-age novel just now: many of these milestones are universal, and as such we all have some experience with them. Sure, a given author may put his or her own psychological spin on the horrors of adolescence, but the terrain is pretty well-trodden by now. A girl's first period, for example, and the complex emotions which attend it have seemingly been exhaustively chronicled. As a male, I have obviously never had a first period, but the accumulation of so many books, television shows, and movies (and—no—not just Carrie) have brought me as close to the experience as I think I will ever get.
You might well argue that there are plenty of aspects of life that are returned to again and again in literature and yet will never be entirely "used up." And you're right. But the thing about coming-of-age novels is that they focus on children, whose limited experience of the world ensure a certain similarity of response. Children are generally not "worldly" or "sophisticated," so they react to the newness of experience in a fairly predictable fashion. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but as "they" say, these only reinforce the rule.
Based on what I've just told you, I probably shouldn't like Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. It's the story of two girls (Elena, the narrator, and Lila, her wild and beautiful friend) who live in the slums of Naples, Italy, and navigate the unremittingly steep ascent of young adulthood. Much of the standard coming-of-age fodder is represented here, of course, but Ferrante does something with it that I can't quite quantify. Her prose is neither overtly poetic nor deeply introspective; at first glance, it appears inconspicuous, casual, loose. There's nothing about it (at least in translation) that strikes one immediately as the work of a great stylist.
But this is one of those novels which doesn't offer itself to readers in pages or paragraphs or individual moments. My Brilliant Friend seduces its audience cumulatively: the details and drama accrue gradually, like the construction of a great building, until one day you can finally discern the prospective shape of it and understand its beauty. Ferrante is cobbling together a world of such vivacity that it almost doesn't even matter what happens in this world. It's true and real and tangible and it's just like watching life in all its lived-in splendor.
I'm not saying that the world Ferrante offers us is a place of beauty—because it's not—but any writer who understands how to translate life—any instance of life—to the page with such force and persuasiveness has created beauty through her work. And as I glance back over some of the pages, which are hardly miraculous in and of themselves, I wonder how she did it. You can easily tell what's exceptional about some writers—Pynchon, Delillo, DFW—but Ferrante's talents seem almost metaphysical. Where do they come from? How do they work?
So to return to the beginning of this review for a moment—you know, where I disclaimed my prejudice... It's important to remind myself that it is a prejudice. Any topic, any story, any worldview in the hands of a great writer (or even a pretty good writer) can be worthwhile, and I'd have to say that Ferrante is a pretty damn good writer—maybe even a great one, but I'll have to read more to know for sure. Making me want to read more is definitely a good sign though. ...more
In the 1980s BBC production of Ibsen's Ghosts, Judi Dench plays Mrs. Alving—that stiff-upper-lipped endurer of endless misfortune—as a sniping, oftenIn the 1980s BBC production of Ibsen's Ghosts, Judi Dench plays Mrs. Alving—that stiff-upper-lipped endurer of endless misfortune—as a sniping, often sarcastic adversary to self-righteous, simple-minded Pastor Manders (Michael Gambon), who arrives at her home to conduct business but also to needle her about her moral failings. I read the play immediately before watching the film, and I have to confess that wasn't at all how I pictured Mrs. Alving. Either because of my faltering skills of inference or the many interpretive possibilities, I imagined Mrs. Alving combating Pastor Manders' authority with a sort of equanimity. There's no contesting the fact that Manders is (in the common parlance) a jerk and somewhat of an idiot (to the extent that he can't decipher Engstrand's motives), and there's nothing a jerk hates more than being unable to 'reach' a victim with his or her insults or judgments. (From this knowledge is derived the contemporary admonition not to feed internet trolls—because they 'win' only if they get a reaction.) To that end, I pictured Mrs. Alving responding to Pastor Manders' admonishments in a seemingly pleasant and even voice, with a pretense to acquiescence, while all the while she develops an implicit case against the religious and moral authority that the pastor represents.
I bring this up to highlight the uniqueness of reading plays. These are texts that are intended to be acted out and are often skeletal in design to allow directors, actors, set designers, and so on to add flesh to the story. (Admittedly, Henrik Ibsen attempts to control the set designers to an often ridiculous degree with detailed descriptions, but the dialogue in his plays is generally presented neutrally.)
When you read a play, you are compelled to direct it yourself (in your mind). You might argue that that's true of novels and short stories as well—and that's of course true, but to a lesser extent. There is usually a lot more exposition and description in a story to make the narrative more specific in the reader's mind (unless you're reading, say, Hemingway). In most plays, many literalized cues are absent, and this is a good thing—in that it accommodates the creativity of those who put on the play.
I think this is especially relevant to Ibsen because I have watched a filmed adaptation of each one of these plays since I finished them, and all of them—except Hedda Gabler (which I think is the weakest of the four included in this volume)—'felt' very different from what I imagined.
Symptomatic of their era, the four plays rely heavily on (sometimes pained) narrative contrivances. These are harder to 'reconcile' when you only read the naked lines on the page, but when an actor or actress effectively embodies the psychology that results from these contrivances, they're so much easier to swallow.
I have previously reviewed another edition of A Doll's House on this website. I referred to Nora as a 'twit' in that review. But that's of course because of how I was predisposed to direct her in my mind—which surely isn't to discount the fact that Nora is intended to seem flighty and childlike early on in the play. But when Nora is rendered 'human' in a production (in this case, by Claire Bloom in the 1970s version), her traits become less conceptual than an actual iteration of very real human idiosyncrasy.
I enjoyed reading all of these plays and forming ideas of them in my mind, but Hedda Gabler doesn't feel sufficiently nuanced to me. The text doesn't allow enough room for an actress to make the title character anything but one-note. I wish there were a little more evidence of vulnerability in her, but she comes across as mainly villainous because her predicament (her indolence, her desire to wield psychological power) isn't explored. In the 1960s version, Ingrid Bergman played the role pretty much exactly as I imagined—and as the dialogue seems to demand.
The most puzzling play in the group is The Master Builder, which is filled with ambiguities I haven't fully reckoned with yet. It will take another reading and (I hope) a few more productions of the play to wrap my mind around it. It seems to take place almost in a quasi-reality, embedded with symbolism I haven't really unraveled yet. The play's message, at first glance, seems contradictory, quarreling with itself... but this might be one of its strengths. ...more
Disclaimer: It has been quite a while since I've attempted a book review—not that anyone might have noticed—but if you should happen to stumble upon tDisclaimer: It has been quite a while since I've attempted a book review—not that anyone might have noticed—but if you should happen to stumble upon this particular review in the middle of the night or during one of your drunken internet adventures, please know that my critical faculties are rusty and not to be trusted by serious readers—that is to say, those persons who sit down to read books seriously, with stern faces and pious intentions. My reading disposition has changed over the years and may not be in sync with yours. It's nothing to get in a knot about, of course, but I want the conscientious reader to be wary: I am a heathen.
Muriel Spark's Memento Mori was a 'So What?' book for me. (Let me explain what that means before you fly into a rage; you may still wish to fly into a rage later, but you should at least be sure where your rage is directed.) A 'So What?' book is a book that is pleasant enough to read (by which I don't mean that the subject matter is necessarily pleasant, but only that the reading experience is itself pleasant) but whose point somehow eludes me.
I should add here—in this review that's already chockfull of caveats, disclaimers, and asides—that I am not a fan of seeking a 'point' in art, be it painting or music or film or books or whatever. I'm using the word 'point' here as a unfortunately misleading abbreviation for what I actually mean: After I was finished reading Memento Mori, I was left wondering why Muriel Spark had bothered to the tell this story to us (i.e., me). I didn't 'get' anything out of it. It was (approximately) like drinking a very, very, very dry wine: it was enjoyable enough in the moment of consumption, but it didn't leave any taste (or taste memory) with me after it was gone. It was consumed and it disappeared. I suppose the idiom 'water off a duck's back' comes to mind—but that's often used for insults and the like. Spark's book was far from insulting; it was, rather, unaffecting.
Correction: It was unaffecting for me.
Yes, I realize that's implied with any opinion (right?), but I'll add it anyway as a gesture of good will to those who were affected by this novel about a group of elderly friends, relations, and mere acquaintances who begin to receive phone calls warning them to 'remember you will die.' Each of them reacts to the calls differently: some are terrorized by them; some are curious; and other are simply annoyed. None of them seems to take the caller's advice, however. While they do in fact remember that death will inevitably befall them, they are concerned with it more so as a practical matter. Wills must be drafted, and professional care must be sought for the infirm and mentally incapacitated.
But the importance of the calls as an existential reminder is entirely lost on them all, as they carry on with their deceptions, grudge-holding, and overall pettiness. Their agedness and failing health doesn't appear to give their lives any additional weight. (I guess the question we should ask at this point is whether it should. The existentialists would surely say yes, but we are not beholden to their answer. Many people seem to live their lives both practically and superficially, and they don't seem to regret it on the deathbed.)
But to the point: I don't understand what Spark wanted me to get out of this. Am I the reader supposed to be reminded that I will die? If so, this book is preaching to the choir—which doesn't of course mean it's not a viable theme for novel, but only that the way it is expressed left me looking around the room and asking, 'Okay... What's next?' When the last word on the page was gone, the book itself was gone. I had to make an effort to re-think about it for this review because it didn't really leave me with any lasting impressions, feelings, or ideas....more
Optimal mental health—if such a thing there be—probably lies somewhere roundabout midway on the self-awareness continuum, but often without thinking,Optimal mental health—if such a thing there be—probably lies somewhere roundabout midway on the self-awareness continuum, but often without thinking, people assume that 'not giving a fuck what other people think' is a sort of modern virtue, suggesting confidence, strength of character, and (if nothing else) the sheer convenience of living only for oneself. If we stop and scrutinize the concept, however, we soon realize that it's an ideal sorely in conflict with the fundamental nature of our lives: we are social beings, enmeshed in countless relationships with others, whether they are close friends and family members or strangers we find ourselves driving 75 MPH beside on the highway—both of us trusting that the other won't suddenly veer into our lane. We don't even consider these kinds of relationships because they are usually automatic; except maybe once in a while we marvel at the fact that we've survived however many years without some asshole harboring a death wish driving head-on into our car, killing us instantly. In the end there are just so many tacit (and fragile) rules holding this thing called society together.
What does this have to do with anything, you wonder. Well, The Disaster Artist by actor Greg Sestero and writer Tom Bissell happens to be about a self-styled actor-director named Tommy Wiseau, who, if the particulars of this book are accurate, may be the most un-self-aware person I have ever heard of (who is not a diagnosed psychotic). Wiseau's magnum opus (and only opus) The Room from 2003 provides more than enough evidence to support the case that the man has absolutely no understanding of how the world works and how he fits into it. (If you are unfamiliar with the film, I recommend it to you. It is without a doubt one of the worst films ever made—which of course makes it more entertaining than many, many films that are objectively speaking better than it. This 'highlight' reel will give you some indication what the film's like.)
I'm not implying that anyone should be limited by social conventions—but neither should one perhaps flout these conventions without understanding them... or at least being aware of them. It's as if Wiseau were dropped on the planet earth by an alien spacecraft and his only preparation for life on this planet was reading the Cliff's Notes on human civilization. What else can you say about a strange-looking man of indeterminate age and origin who imagines that suddenly he can decide to be an actor, a screenwriter, and a film director without any of the necessary skills or qualifications? This is a man who is unable to assimilate normal casual human behavior in his day-to-day life; how can he hope to emulate other behaviors? Lacking much empathy in his real life, how will he empathize with the characters he will play? Can such a level of narcissism even crawl out from under the weight of its own immediacy?
Well, one logical solution is for the narcissist to write the role for himself—and to make that role as approximate to his own peculiar personality as is possible. He can go even one step further: he can position that self-characterization in a world that is entirely contrived to express his own childishly narcissistic agenda. As Sestero/Bissell points out in the book, one commentator said that The Room was essential a $6 million daydream in which an adolescent mentality (i.e., Wiseau's) gets to act out his suicide and watch his friends mourn him and regret how poorly they've treated him. Was there any petulant teenager who didn't have this fantasy at some time? But not all of us had millions of dollars to pour into a vanity project that would literalize the fantasy.
The Disaster Artist is told from the perspective of Wiseau's co-actor in The Room and erstwhile friend Greg Sestero, a pretty-boy actor and former model who is (I believe) the only actor in the film that had a professional credit to his name. Sestero and Wiseau made for an odd couple. Sestero was young, tall, blond, and handsome while Wiseau was an eccentric raven-haired European, trollish in appearance and significantly older—although he would never reveal his actual age. The two met in acting class in San Francisco. Sestero was fascinated by the oddball Wiseau, whose acting was so bad that it beggared belief. After all, it's not easy to be that ostentatiously awful. But Wiseau was, and Sestero was intrigued.
Gradually, as Sestero gets to know him better, Wiseau becomes all the more mysterious. He won't discuss his past—or what he does for a living—or where he gets all his money—or where he was born—or how old he is. Sestero, whose mother is French, is convinced he is not French, based on his accent, but his accent is strangely indeterminate—a mongrel accent that's impossible to pinpoint. Naturally, Sestero's girlfriend, his mother, and his friends are all leery of Wiseau and advise him to steer clear.
As Sestero enjoys some limited measure of success in his career, their relationship becomes strained. Wiseau grows increasingly jealous of Sestero's auditions and his new friends. At one point when Sestero is dozing off on the sofa one night, Wiseau makes an ambiguous comment about sharing a bed. Is Wiseau in love with Sestero? Does he want to be Sestero? Suddenly Wiseau decides he's going to be an actor too—despite the fact that he's too old, too unattractive, and too untalented to embark upon a career. When he grows despondent from his lack of success in the acting biz, Wiseau elects to write, direct, and star in his own (self-financed) movie The Room, which is not only the self-aggrandizing vanity project to end all vanity projects; it's also a sort of revenge on everyone who rejected him—and even on Sestero himself.
The Disaster Artist surprised me. I expected it to have a lot of interesting gossip, but I didn't actually expect it to be a good book. And it is. If you need any more convincing, I stayed up until 3 AM last night finishing it, and I was so tired this morning that I took a vacation day at work. It's more than a behind-the-scenes tell-all, it's also an engrossing character study. I don't know to what extent this book is Sestero's and to what extent it's Bissell's, but Sestero's first-person persona is likable and generous to a fault, as he navigates the unforgiving and unending road to stardom and exposes this odd little man named Tommy Wiseau, who took a shortcut. Ironically, The Room did make Wiseau a 'star' of sorts, in the sense that infamy is a parallel route to celebrity....more
Hey, everyone! I finished a book! I realize that this is approximately the equivalent of crying out, 'I got laid!' at a brothel, but there you have itHey, everyone! I finished a book! I realize that this is approximately the equivalent of crying out, 'I got laid!' at a brothel, but there you have it. I've been reduced to this. For the past eighteen months or so I've been a non-reader—a demographic I'm not generally comfortable consorting with—or, at best, a half-assed reader; I'll read forty pages of this and set it down—and then thirty pages of that and set it down. My home is a ruins of literary misadventures. I hate to be the philanderer who blames his serial infidelities on his humdrum spouse for reasons of her humdrumness, but none of the books I've trysted with have given me the (metaphorical) blowjob that rocked my moribund world. So I've looked elsewhere for gratification. Instead of reading, I found myself doing bizarre things, like watching The Call starring Halle Berry in a fright wig as a renegade 911 operator. For a while, I blogged—as we all must, sooner or later—but there are only so many screeds you can write about petty annoyances before you start sounding like Seinfeld's standup routine.
But then... (Speaking of screeds!) I decided to revisit my old buddy Tommy 'The Parade Rainer' Bernhard—he of the obsessive, misanthropic tirade fame. With his despondent novella Yes, Bernhard once again satisfies my narcissism by creating a literary figure I can relate to. (I should actually say 'a literary figure I can relate to to some extent' so that nobody calls the people with the straitjackets.) The Unnamed Narrator (hereafter, UN) of Yes is a thoroughly miserable and fucked-in-the-head scientist who, in my amateur diagnosis, suffers the combined effects of obsessive thinking, social isolation, and chronic negativity, mainly directed outward as a handy excuse for his own dysfunction. On the verge of a total and perhaps irreparable breakdown he visits his acquaintance Moritz, the town real estate agent, in order to spill his guts and thereby to purge his accumulated craziness. (Anyone who—in the midst of some personal trauma or drunken state—has revealed too much about himself, at great length, to another person knows how humiliating such a fit of exhibitionism can be. Desperation makes fools of us.)
UN does find some relief in vomiting up all his masticated neuroses for Moritz, but there is a far greater consequence of his visit: He meets the Swiss couple, or more specifically the Persian Woman. The Swiss couple—actually a Swiss power plant mogul and his Persian companion—has recently purchased an otherwise unsaleable land parcel from Moritz on which to build their new home. The UN becomes fixated on the Persian woman, who says nothing at the meeting and appears sullen. The meat of the novella concerns the unusual and ephemeral 'friendship' (if that's the right word) between the Persian woman and UN. They take walks mainly. Sometimes in silence. They both like Schumann and Schopenhauer. They both hate the backwoods Austrian town that fate has delivered them to.
I think Yes is maybe Bernhard's bleakest work that I've yet encountered. The title itself—that little affirmation—is wonderfully ironic because in the context of the novella, it's anything but affirmative in the absolute sense. As usual, Bernhard gives voice to pessimism—a hopelessness so dire and maddened that it can't help but be humorous. Bernhard's narrators may reject society at large; they may feel persecuted or misunderstood; they may even resort to morbid self-pity at times. But Bernhard, distinct from his narrators, appreciates the absurdity of these kinds of outlooks. The human psyche—repetitious, obsessed, self-perpetuating—reveals its grimly comic aspect when it's literalized into plain language. And that's exactly what Bernhard's novels do: they translate the dysfunctional mind into (yes) screeds that at once sympathize with the human condition and riff on its follies. ...more
Last night's demoralizing Oscar ceremony—like many stillborn ceremonies before it—makes me wonder why people continue to give a damn at all. Yes, I knLast night's demoralizing Oscar ceremony—like many stillborn ceremonies before it—makes me wonder why people continue to give a damn at all. Yes, I know there are a bunch of you cranks out there who (loudly) disavow an interest in showbiz spectacle, and you're only too anxious to take a steaming piss on the red carpet to assert some kind of hazy moral superiority. We thank you very kindly for your tsk-tsking, but everybody already knows full well that the frivolous ostentation and shameful self-love that these award shows entail don't look so good juxtaposed next to starving kids in Africa or the victims of drone strikes in Iraq. We get it. But I could say something roughly similar for Super Bowls, World Cups, amusement parks, and sprawling shopping malls. In short, there are all varieties of poisons—and if you're pious enough never to have tasted any of them, then please go scale the self-actualization triangle and leave us to wallow in the muck and the mire.
I bring up the Oscars because the book Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris culminates at the 1968 Oscar ceremony. Admittedly there isn't much suspense. Anyone with a modicum of curiosity and energy can google the particulars and quickly discover that Norman Jewison's high-minded film In the Heat of the Night won the Best Picture award that year. Harris suggests that the film was a sort of compromise victory—splitting the difference between the nascent adventurism of New Hollywood, exemplified by co-nominees Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, and the musty traditionalism of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolitte. (The latter film, which was both critically and commercially unsuccessful, is alleged to have 'bought' its nomination. Its creators were the unscrupulous forebears of Harvey Weinstein, whose handjobs are proverbial but apparently still pleasurable in Hollywood today.)
Harris has selected 1967—the year in film—as emblematic of the fundamental change Hollywood was forced to undergo to remain culturally and artistically relevant. He does an admirable job of weaving together the backstories of all five Best Picture nominees in a surprisingly coherent (and fascinating) narrative; he probably overstates the significance of this particular moment in cinematic history to add a little drama and consequence, but we can forgive him his indulgences in the interest of a more succinct overview.
Harris doesn't scrimp on the dish either. If you're a Rex Harrison detractor (as I am) and you've just been jonesing for some fuel for your fire, this is the book for you. What an insufferable jackass he was. He lorded it over the production of Doctor Doolittle as if he were god's gift, motivated by professional jealousy and an inflated sense of his own importance. Occasionally, however, Harris touches on rumors better left on Page Six. (Were Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn bisexual? He brings it up but fails to really address it, so you'll end up remembering the rumor without any idea if it's plausible or even where it originated.)
Despite its minor failings—the author worked for Entertainment Weekly (sniff) so what can you expect?—I can't recommend Pictures at a Revolution strongly enough for readers interested in film history. Even if you aren't interested in these specific films, the book is valuable as an excavation of the shrine to New Hollywood. And it's also a surfeit of riches with its tangential anecdotes, like the story of the death throes of the Hollywood Production Code.
Sure, none of this is very important in an absolute way, but I pity the poor souls who are immune to thrills of celebrity tattle. A life that's purely necessary is anything but a life, if you ask me. (Yes, that's my rationalization.)...more
I'm an irritable person. More and more in my daily life I find myself at the mercy of blinding fits of spleen. Whether it's people who drive too slowI'm an irritable person. More and more in my daily life I find myself at the mercy of blinding fits of spleen. Whether it's people who drive too slow or order iced tea in restaurants or sniff deodorant in the store or watch NBC's The Voice, there's always some irritant ready-at-hand to set me at odds with the world. You see, I'm the kind of perpetually grousing curmudgeon that you pity or avoid—because if you're optimistic or excited about something, I'll inevitably try to take a piss all over it. Now don't imagine that my piss-taking is an intentional offense against you personally—because it's not. It's true that there's something about dunderheaded optimists that makes you (meaning me) want to cut their brake line, but it's only because they are incarnations of the delusions and ignorance which shape the fate of humankind.
I feel safe in claiming to you that I've found a kindred spirit in Thomas Bernhard. I've read most of his novels and a few of his plays, and generally speaking his oeuvre is a private celebration of gripe and gloom—hidden away from the pitying tsks of the Pollyannas of the world. Society—particularly American society—teaches us to be ashamed of our negativity. It is a defect, an error, a direful mutation of the prudence which should guide our thoughts and actions.
For as long as it takes to read a Thomas Bernhard book, I can be as spiteful and pessimistic as I want to be. I can savor the comfort of like-minded company without fear of being censured by the amused smiles of those persons who resist reality and then call this resistance reality itself.
Gathering Evidence is not a novel; it's a five-volume autobiographical work. Despite its genre, it hews close to Bernhard's tried and true formula of choleric ramblings. The substance of most of his works has the appearance of digression, almost anarchism, but there's a rhythmic wholeness to them that couldn't feel more precise.
One of Bernhard's particular targets in Gathering Evidence is the city of Salzburg. To say that he hates Salzburg is a lot like saying that I hate planets without oxygen. There is something fundamentally untenable about the city of Salzburg to Bernhard, at least in retrospect. It isn't even a case of simple preference; it's a totalized rebellion against an environment that is unliveable. It verges on a matter of survival.
I suspect that Bernhard's antipathies are caricatured, to whatever extent, but that's only because there's no proper language to articulate his alienation to his audience. Instead he wears them down—beats them over the head. If you ever feel the ecstasy of that kind of pain, then this is the autobiography for you. If not, you're probably one of them...
(My review of My Prizes, also included in this edition, can be found here.)...more