Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Moviedom Roundup

Been reading a book by Peter Bogdanovich called Who the Hell's In It? About his meetings with and musings on various movie stars. Great book. Unlike Bogdanovich, my kid brother Small Man or my wonderful brother-in-law Brian Ellis, I haven't been too scrupulous about keeping a movie-notation book even though my mom gave me a looseleaf for that purpose in 1986 or 87. But I did write down the names of all the movies I watched this summer, when I wasn't working as much as a teacher or film critic as I would have liked to, and I here (self-)publish the notations on the first several movies I watched in July and some of the recent November ones too (the ones in between have yet to be annotated, except some which were already mentioned here in the blog):

Movie Roundup

Nixon—Still just as powerful, funny and exciting, still significantly less annoying in its shorthand, keyword history (although the repetition of “the Hiss case” without any attempt to show what N. did that was so underhanded or unfair does begin to grate after a while) than almost any other biopic I can think of. Hopkins colossal and the rest of the cast all delightful as well (though Joan Allen is not prim enough).

Suspicion— Did he or didn’t he? I think you can argue either way. I actually like the ambiguous ending because I like ambiguity and ambivalence, and Cary Grant could never be a bad guy, though it’s a sign of Hitchcock’s greatness that he wanted to make him one. Great performances, always good to see Nigel Bruce, great nervous neurotic fun all around, brilliant paranoid-fantasy mindscreen.

Lifeboat—Some great moments, when Hodiak and the millionaire talk about food, for example, and the songs.

East of Eden—Tremendous, not just Dean but the whole film. One of the all-time greats.

Sunday—Regrettably grubby, unysmpathetic characters. Concept sounded promising, but alas, muddled and depressing in execution.

The Warriors—A modern classic, gripping and poignant.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde 1932— Surprisingly frank in its sexual themes (Pre-Code), embarrassingly bad in some parts, mostly the Hyde parts, the apelike makeup is laughable. But somehow feels alive, despite silliness.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde 1941—Initially intriguing but finally too stuffy, weighed down by Selznick-esque faux-Victorian respectability. Ingrid Bergman’s strong performance underrated. Tracy wonderful as Jekyll, weak as Hyde.

Czeski Sen-- One of the best documentaries ever, absolutely delightful, also heartbreakingly sad.

The Wicker Man—Stupidly-cut shorter version, missing important exposition such as Woodward with his colleagues, not fitting in, at the very beginning, and Lee’s first appearance playing the pimp, this bad edit highlighting the goofiness of the failed-seduction and other kitschy songs. Woodward and Lee still very engaging and impressive.

The Aviator-- Blanchett’s Hepburn, the main reason I wanted to see the film, was impressive but too reptilian, caricaturish and British—Lisa Kudrow or even possibly Martin Short (dare I say Anthony Hopkins?) would have done a better job. DiCaprio not bad, repeating the Clintonian shtik from Catch Me If You Can, but that’s what he does best. His spirited defense of mammaries is a great scene, and in its way very cutting and timely. Other than that the most effective scene is probably the fatal plane crash, an f/x triumph (though it seems sad to find oneself praising a Scorsese film for its f/x), quite moving in the end. Jude Law wasted in a tantalizing cameo as Flynn. Doesn’t hold a candle to The Rat Pack as movie-people biopics go.

The Omen (new 2006 version). Nice remake but not as good as the original. Can’t remember how exactly the mother died in the 76 version but the way they changed it is definitely crap, shlock, stupid, bad judgment. I also don’t quite understand the role of the writer who in the DVD documentary talks of how he and other writers spend over 6 months of a year in complete seclusion, typing away; according to my calculation there are about 5 lines that have been revised from the 76 script, making his solitary typing somewhat redundant; Liev Schreiber however is amazing. He really channels Peck, capturing the cadences of the much older actor (already in 76) beautifully. He must be a movie fan and know that that’s what movie fans want when they go see a remake: an elegant, fastidious recreation of the original by other people. (I know most people are bitter when they hear of a “shot-by-shot remake” because to them it sounds boring; I get bitter because I know it isn’t literally shot-by-shot, isn’t that faithful.) And he’s right to say in the documentary that although he at first reacted to the idea of the remake as “just another remake,” the director sold him on how the original is “a great story.” It is actually, no matter how much we scoff and snicker at the obviousness and literalness of its biblical tropes and so on, it moves me still, because of Peck (one of his best performances, truly truly underrated again) and Schreiber. Julia Stiles, whom I’ve always liked, is pretty much wasted, she doesn’t get any great moments like Lee Remick’s signature stare and feels like another star wasted in a badly-written bit part. We once were in the same class at Columbia—a class on Dante, appropriately enough—and she dropped her pen and I reached down to get it for her but she got it first. So we never got to know each other. But I admire her for studying in the midst of a wildly active career.

Carrie—William Wyler, not Brian de Palma although that is also a wonderful film. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen—great Olivier, great Jennifer Jones, Eddie Albert is also great, a couple flat or overacted moments by Olivier and Jones but overall brilliant. There is a misogynistic strain in Wyler, as seen in his The Best Years of Our Lives (another all-time favorite) and in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (another great, at first, but then towards the end somewhat pedestrian performance by Olivier), but always balanced out by an incredible sympathy and love for women; as Robin Wood said, From Reverence to Rape (great book by Molly Haskell) should be understood as not that far of a journey, as far as Classic Hollywood goes that is, not in real life.

Happy Families Are All Alike

Riding the tram back from work the other day (it's always a question: bike, train or tram? but always some sort of commute to the Hindenburg, now called Zabrze) I noticed a wedding-dress shop called Medea. Almost laughed. I must say I've seen more wedding-dress shops here than anywhere else in the world.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Unending Search for the Non-Fascist Ramen

We all know that the typical ramen package is misleading, because it shows a picture with instructions for boiling the noodles with the flavoring and eating it as a kind of soup, when in fact many of us since childhood have enjoyed draining the noodles and then adding the "spice" or MSG. In fact some versions now offer a more "pluralistic" juxtaposition of the two possibilities. But once here in Poland I saw a package with a third picture, of just the package being opened, with the caption, "If you like, you can also just eat the noodles dry," or words to that effect. Ever since then, I've been looking for that package, with no success.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Innocents and not so innocents abroad

I recently finished two books that I'd been reading sporadically over a period of months-- one a work of nonfiction, Heat by Bill Buford, whose Among the Thugs I enjoyed tremendously, the other, fiction, The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, not one of her best (obviously, as her best work is frightfully compelling, almost unputdownable) but Highsmith is like pizza, etc. even when it's bad, it's good. As I was finishing up the Buford (which was a little too cute for me in its New York / New Yorker earthiness at first, but paradoxically became electrifying in its Tuscan finale, which is of course even cutesier, but not in a vulgar and pretentious way), I started thinking about the similarities and differences between the two protagonists, Ripley and Buford-- both are Americans (although I had been convinced Buford was a Brit, dunno why) fascinated with Europe, who go to Europe (Ripley is already long-settled in Europe by the opening of The Boy, but I refer to the series as a whole) to find some kind of authentic experience that's not available back home. Might as well get the inevitable irony out of the way now: Buford becomes an apprentice to an Italian butcher, while Ripley, starting in Italy and moving on through France and Germany, becomes a butcher of men; but his butchery is not an end in itself, rather a means toward the acquisition and then maintenance of something like what Buford finds—an existence more in harmony with Nature, with the soil, the changing of the seasons, making wine in tune with the phase of the moon, working with one’s hands (again, in Ripley’s case sometimes that means strangling, garroting, or bludgeoning people, but more often it means gardening on his estate in France). My point here is not to taint sweet, likeable Buford with the odiousness of Ripley’s crimes, but rather to ask, why? Why do people like Buford and Ripley-- in fact, let’s just say Highsmith, since she herself was an expatriate gardening fiend and more than once admitted that Ripley was a sort of surrogate self—and though she may have been disagreeable in the extreme , no-one accuses her of murder— why do such people have to go to Europe to “become more human” as Buford puts it? (In fact his stay in Italy was only temporary, but he plans to go back every year “until I have no one to return to.”) In Buford’s case the answer seems fairly obvious—Italy is, as an Italian friend declared, “everything connected with the verb ‘to eat,’” and Buford wanted to become a real cook. But reading the book, in particular the Italian section, one senses a kind of metonymy in this desire. It has more to do, perhaps, with a sense of community. As I wrote in this space about two years ago, I feel drawn to stay here (in, admittedly, a part of Europe not much praised for its beauty) partly for similar reasons—the way you know that it’s Easter time when you see everyone carrying pussy willows around, for example. But that sounds as fuzzy-headed as a pussy willow itself.

In other food-related matters, Bush’s monomaniacal obsession with the roast pig to come at his recent joint press conference with Merkel was truly remarkable, in the sense of cringe-makingly idiotic, but at the same time I could sort of identify with his excitement, as I made a point of getting in on some roast piglet action at a local restaurant a couple weeks ago and was quite excited about it—- imagining a jolly mob gathering round the pig, the animal turning on its spit, each carnivore practically ready to fight for his succulent portion. Succulent it was, and served with an excellent couscous-like blend of black and white grains, but served from a tray, with the outline of the body and face visible but barely distinguishable, and the demand was not nearly as frantic as I had imagined. I was particularly eager to check it out after having 1) read Buford’s description of picking up a pig (special-ordered) from his local organic market in the West Village, transporting it home with his scooter, then up the elevator to his apartment (a nearly Hitchcockian sequence) , where he had his way with it over a period of some days; and 2) visited a farm co-op here in Silesia, sort of a re-integration project for recovering and homeless people, where they happen to raise pigs, and where the pigs had struck me with their physical hugeness and psychic acuteness, their anguished eyes and panicked squeals. I wanted to try to practice the wisdom of Alan W. Watts, who in his book Does It Matter? recommended that we meat meat, but always with the mentality that “I love you so much I could eat you!” I wonder how often Bush got to eat roast pig back in Texas, or how often he savors it now at the White House. My guess would be, not that often. I'd wager more synthetic hog fare like rinds and dogs would grace his table much more frequently. But I could be wrong. What about blood sausage? Bush recently read Camus’s The Stranger and there was concern, misplaced in my view, about this sending an anti-Arab message. (The arguments against the term “Islamo-fascism” I consider somewhat more serious and worthwhile.) “The novel that inspired the song ‘Killing An Arab’” (I love that, reminds me, obliquely, of the kind of DVD-box blather that e.g. identifies Ray Milland’s noteworthiness as issuing chiefly from his having appeared in “Battlestar Galactica,” or Noel Coward’s as resting on his participation in "The Italian Job, 1969”)—why couldn’t they have just done a song cribbed from Man’s Fate? Reading the hemming and hawing over Bush’s ninth-period study hall, I couldn’t help remembering the first time I read The Stranger, when I lived with a French family in Rennes and studied at an American school with some French teachers. One Sunday, when I was halfway through the book, my host mother served, instead of the usual bland, starchy fare (often fresh from the freezer), blood sausage. I was squeamish but managed to swallow some, without pleasure. Meursault eats some blood sausage, quite casually, in the book, and I remember tacking on an embarrassing aside about this in a letter to my parents: “I can see how you would want to kill somebody after having to eat something like that!” In June of this year I ate it again at a barbecue here in Poland and, after an initial recurrence of Puritan squeamishness, had to admit that it tasted damned good, in fact better than most other kinds of Polish sausage I’ve had. And now, having cooked it at home a few times, I’m held back from eating it on a daily basis only by health considerations. As Buford notes in his book, we meat-eaters tend not to think about how what we’re eating was once a living creature. But if we must eat meat, I think seeing a little blood can only make us more human.

Couldn't agree more

"It's intimidating, especially at a time like this, to think of how many books you should read and never will. Because of this, I try to avoid any systematic approach to reading, pursuing instead a random method, one which depends as much on luck and accident as on design. I find this is also the only way to deal with the newspapers and magazines which proliferate in great piles around the house-- some of the most interesting articles turn up on the reverse side of pages I've torn out for something else."
-- Stanley Kubrick

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mass destruction, with a pedigree

I wanted to post a comment in response to this but they don't allow comments so I post it here:

Podhoretz's pussyfooting-with-mass-slaughter comes with a fine pedigree, as cf. this December 20, 1969 column from William F. Buckley, Jr. re Vietnam:

"...More bad news. Although the enemy, as we shall see, is reeling from successive disasters, he retains the technical capacity to regenerate himself at about the rate at which we have been killing him. An estimated 100,000 healthy males not designated for specialized training turn 18 every year. That is about how many soldiers, on an average, have been killed per year over the course of the war. The bright side of it, in the macabre figuring of the military statisticians, is that something like an entire generation of North Vietnamese males has been killed in the past seven or eight years. The sobering side is that they grow 'em as fast as we can kill 'em..."

Hmmm. Sobering perhaps, macabre definitely...

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Sigmund Freud

Just finished Civilization and its Discontents, the probably deservedly maligned (by Bruno Bettelheim) translation of Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (according to Bettelheim a better translation of the title would be “The Uneasiness Inherent in Culture;” but in fact the problems in translation, given Bettelheim’s claims for Dr. Freud’s easygoing prose style, seem to extend far beyond the title; unfortunately my tattered paperback is one of those classic editions which ignore entirely the question of translatorhood), but nonetheless revelatory. Years ago Telly Savalas was supposed to star in a biopic of Freud (mercifully this came to nought, though I highly recommend John Huston’s Freud [Freud! The Movie!] starring the post-accident Montgomery Clift, a beautiful monument to the miraculous genesis of the not-unproblematic project of psychoanalysis) and told an interviewer that he was preparing to portray “a man worse than Hitler or Stalin.” Hmmm. An argument can be made for certain unintended malign effects in the culture, something I would like to explore in later posts, but in any case, as we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I was struck by the following:

Thus we recognize that a country has attained a high level of civilization when we find that everything in it that can be helpful in exploiting the earth for man’s benefit and in protecting him against nature—everything, in short, that is useful to him—is cultivated and effectively protected. In such a country the course of rivers which threaten to overflow their banks is regulated, their waters guided through canals to places where they are needed...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Silly Rabbit

A few days ago I rented Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and tonight I finally got around to watching it. I had heard from generally reputable sources (the great Small Man himself, and Alec Guinness in his diary-memoir My Name Escapes Me, among others) that W&G were wonderful, but after about ten minutes of The Curse I was about ready to turn it off, unable to stomach the repulsive faces (of the humans; the animals are all right, and the vegetables highly attractive), the insistently perky mock-heroic music, and the fact that the dog doesn’t talk— where’s the fun in that? But something made me change my mind and decide to stick it out—perhaps the philosophical conceit of the mind manipulation machine (was unaware that it would figure as the locus of another riff on the beloved Theme of The Double—it’s introduced more as a Clockwork Orange Ludovico Treatment / Chinese Stop Smoking Tea type thing). It turned out to be watchable, if not so lovable, though I came to savour the wise dog’s sad silence—a sort of tragic Jeeves, and anyway the least ugly of the bunch.
It was good to watch a week after watching the Fredric March / Rouben Mamoulian (1932, Pre-Code porno-comic bizarro) and Spencer Tracy / Victor Fleming (1941, respectably disappointing) Jekyll & Hyde films, and especially the wonderful Bugs Bunny short "Hyde and Hare" (included on the same DVD), for me funnier and better-made than the Were-Rabbit.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Broad beans and blueberries

Blueberries are just about the only food, or thing in general, I can think of that I still love just as much and in the same way as I did when I was a small child. Maybe spaghetti, or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, but I’ve acquired more sophisticated (though not snobbish, at least compared to Continental friends’) ideas about how spaghetti sauce should be made, and even about preparing the noodles themselves; and though I’m capable of enjoying NxNW perhaps even more than in boyhood, because more richly, provided I take my time and space the screenings out properly, it will never again make me tremble or laugh like the first time. So blueberries, as the enduring popularity of the bland anti-dramatic children’s book Blueberries for Sal testifies, are the only pleasure that maintain the same intensity and purity, whether eaten by themselves or with milk in a bowl of corn flakes.

Broad beans, on the other hand, constitute a new pleasure for me. I tasted them for the first time about a week ago. Broad beans look a bit like lima beans and for a while last year, when I first began to hear and learn about broad beans (called bob in Polish, with a slash over the o, which means you pronounce it “boob,” in the nominative case that is, fortunately in the other six cases the slash disappears and the o becomes a long o as in rodeo), I thought they were lima beans, but broad beans, or boobs, are in fact thicker and rounder, and have a little protrusion at one end, almost comparable to a nipple in fact, that I don’t think lima beans do. (Here any parallel with mammary glands ends and would best be swiftly forgotten in order to avoid a Peebee Shelley type nightmare.) They also have a skin that loosens when boiled; you bite the skin to open it and then suck the inner bean out and eat it, tossing the skin in the bin-- unless you want to eat it, but many people derive an addictive satisfaction from the ritual just described. Either way broad beans are delicious, though unfortunately the flavor is not as rich as the aroma from the boiling pot.

Two great gifts of Mother Nature, one tart, dark and explosive, the other light, tantalizing and tightly packed, both in season just now in Poland—when you’re surrounded by little Mom&Pop vegetable stands as I am, you can’t help following the seasons in a way I never did before. I guess technically my enjoyment of blueberries has changed since the great big bulbous blueberries I grew up with, lighter in color on the outside, are hard to find in Poland—they call them “American blueberries,” and their size is of course popularly attributed to laboratory skullduggery … I’ve actually come to prefer the smaller, darker ones myself. But that’s a mere detail. As Shakey said, the ripeness is all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It Ain't Necessarily So

I'm deeply annoyed with whoever it is at Slate magazine who keeps changing the presentation mode back and forth, but more troubling still is the relative paucity in recent months of interesting political articles (particularly depressing is Hitchens's tight-leash attack-dog triviality). On the cultural front, however, I was charmed by this review of a new book on the prescriptive vs. descriptive debate in language. As I mellow with age and continue teaching English in Poland I tend increasingly toward a more descriptive stance, and I found this article embracing my old bete noir(linked to at the bottom of the other) quite persuasive in its way. There is something about this kind of unblinking confrontation with contradiction (explored in a different context in Slate's ongoing series of non-cynical, open-minded interrogations of scripture) that I find very refreshing-- it reminds me in a way of the psychoanalytic notion, which I first encountered in this book, that in Freudian/Kohutian terms, a statement such as "I don't like" means the same thing as "I like," a notion easily scoffed at, to be sure, as nihilistic egghead tomfoolery, but one which I nonetheless consider to be often true. The elasticity of language is not to be underestimated. For example, a friend and former co-worker of mine, an internationally renowned guest speaker in the world of recovery fellowships, made a speech wherein he asked, with his inimitable delivery, why his audience found him in good health and spirits, looking twenty years his junior, and not paralyzed/dead/bed-ridden/decrepit after decades of abusing alcohol and intravenous drugs? "Because," he pauses, "if justice was just, then that should be so." When I first listened to the tape I heard this as a mistake and thought... "Well, with his charisma he can get away with it, after all, his point is understandable." The point being that God tempers justice with mercy. But when I thought about it some more, I realized that it not only makes perfect sense but belongs to a venerable tradition in English literature, from Shakespeare to Swinburne, in which writers (and speakers) problematize the tension between nouns and adjectives. More importantly, as the government was forced to acknowledge a few years back after having rashly christened the Afghan campaign Operation Infinite Justice, divine justice, which monotheist believers describe as infinite, is not something that humanity can fathom, let alone enforce, hence If divine justice was, or were, just, i.e. comprehensible in the narrow human sense, then perhaps my friend would have been laid low years ago by the arithmetic of self-destruction. But as God's justice is tempered (sometimes) with mercy and grace, he lives on to spread his message of temperance.

In any case, it is good to part with absolutism, in whatever sphere, and always healing, as we can hear in Dylan's "My Back Pages" and see in the later writings of Calvino.
P.S. In the article on "literally," when he used "scan" to mean "skim" as an example of multivalence, I was reminded of those old Two-Minute Mysteries (by Don Sobol of Encylopedia Brown fame), in one of which Dr. Haledjian based a charge of murder on his absolutist prescriptivist interpretation of "scan." Sobol was never one for ambiguity.