Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: Philip Kerr's A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION


BOOKS TO DIE FOR, which I reviewed a week ago, will be available in the United States October 2nd.  According to co-editor Declan Burke's website, (link), there will be an American launch of the book at Bouchercon in Cleveland (link).  Mysteries, thrillers, and Halloween--always among my favorite things in October.

This week's selection for Forgotten Book Friday is Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation (which was nicely reviewed by Paul Johnston in Books to Die For).  It was Kerr's fourth novel, an SF crime thriller bristling with ideas, just bristling.

It was ahead of its time, written some thirty years ago and first published in 1992.  It is set in 2013, and it predicts many things that have come to pass or soon will.  It is witty and stylish and Kerr's killer will take you by surprise with his intelligence and the ideas at play--of gender politics, moral ambiguity, technology, and the power struggles inherent in corporate bureaucracy.

There are literary allusions aplenty, to George Orwell and T. S. Eliot and many others, but you needn't have read any of them in order to enjoy this tour de force.  It's a shame that this novel did not get produced by Hollywood back in the 1990s.  It could have been bigger than Blade Runner.

The prolific Kerr is now famous for his international best-selling series involving Chandleresque Bernie Gunther, set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany and the post-Nazi world.

Although a reclusive kind of a guy, Kerr has several good interviews across the web.  Start with J. Kingston Pierce's interview here.  Then go to the Crime Scraps five-part interview beginning here.  Marissa Chen asks him about his desert island books here.  Robert Birnbaum has a marvelous casual conversation with Kerr here.   

He can be an entertaining interview, as shown by these composite excerpts from above linked websites:

Kerr:  "My favorite novel was and always has been 1984. But it’s hard to see this has anything to do with what I do now.

[A Philosophical Investigation] was the best crime novel I’ve ever written and was probably way ahead of its time. As someone who had read philosophy as a post-graduate, I wanted to deal with the crime novel from a philosophical POV. I wanted to understand the reading public’s obsession with crime-writing and murder. I also wanted to pay homage to [George] Orwell, I guess, by inhabiting similar territory for a while. . .

Q: Best book about trips or journeys.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence; Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Q: Which book are you mostly likely to pick as your ultimate survival manual?

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchins

Q: Which author would you most like to go on a vacation with, and what would you be doing?

I should like to go on vacation with J.K. Rowling. We would be spending her money, of course...

Q: If there was one book you had to burn for firewood, which would it be?
The Bible.

Q: Which paragraph or line from a novel would you choose for your final 'message in a bottle'?

Wendy,' Peter Pan continued in a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist, 'Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys.'" [J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan]

Gibbon had an ironic sense of humor: he giveth in the text and taketh away in the footnotes.
 Q: If you could only take one book onto a desert island which would it be?
Kerr:  Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I like Gibbon. He hated Christians for their religious intolerance, you know. I am somewhat to the left of Julian the Apostate here. We should have a pantheon where all gods are welcome, but monotheism is forbidden on pain of death. I like the Romana. We should get back to throwing a few people to the lions I think. And not just Christians. Law and Order Roman style in Britannicus for ten years would suit very well. . .
[Kerr's father died in 1978] "He was 46. Religion didn’t do him any favors. God wasn’t listening to him. He doesn’t listen to me, either. But then I don’t listen to him. We’re not on speaking terms. Too much water under the bridge, I suppose. Anyway, who wants to go to Heaven when all the bad girls are in Hell?"

Q: Field Gray is less a novel about murders and their solving, and more about Bernie Gunther's association with the Third Reich's military force, the Waffen-SS. Were you merely hoping to shake up the Gunther series by exploring some of the atrocities Gunther has committed, or had you a more complicated agenda?

A:  I like shaking up the series every time. I don't like writing the same book again and again. I believe that it's important to take risks, and to that end I like to challenge people's expectations. I don't know how long I can keep re-inventing things though. And the minute I think I am repeating myself--which, after all, is the basis of so much modern publishing--I will drop Bernie and try something different. However, I did have an agenda with Field Gray, and it is complicated. I wanted to make some modern political points as well as some historical ones. I will leave readers to work out what these might be. That's the fun of reading after all.

Q: We see Gunther coming to terms here with the choices and mistakes he's made in life, about his collusion with a corrupt society. But is he a better man for understanding his mistakes, or just a more cynical one for being OK with having made them?

A: I think any man is a better man for understanding his mistakes. For example, I think I am a better writer for having written several duds along the way. Failure is helpful and instructive. And, personally, I wouldn't be without the odd failure to stand in the back of my chariot and remind me that I am but mortal, so to speak. The point of the character is that he is an Everyman figure designed to highlight the moral dilemmas that might have confronted any one of us in the situation he finds himself in, which is of his country, run by a bunch of racist gangsters. That's the question I am always asking myself in these books. What would I have done?"

I write within the tradition of the European political novel, yes. That's what the novels are about. Politics and morals. It's disingenuous of me, of course, to say they're not crime novels when they are that, too. But I'm aiming a little higher here. I'm ambitious to do more, that's all. I think it's always fascinating to write about a boring little murder when there's mass murder being planned or executed in the wings. Besides, I don't care for being pigeonholed at all. All I mean is for the crime novel to achieve something more than just a conventional solution to a grubby crime. I'm not turning my nose up at crime. I just want to do more with it than just have some poor woman sliced open on an autopsy table.

Sadly I am not at all sure that anyone is going to be read in fifty years time except by a small elite. Who would have thought that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 might come true for the reason that nobody is going to be interested in buying a book? People want to watch crap on TV- The Thick Factor and Strictly Come Fucking Dumb. The book's days are numbered I fear.
We are moving into an era of great stupidity and ignorance. I don't read much fiction at all, I'm afraid.
Q: Who are your five favorite living writers and why?

I'm not sure I can think of five. John Le Carre is our best living writer in my opinion. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is perhaps the defining novel of the Cold War. But he seems to have reinvented himself rather successfully as a writer of ethical thrillers. I am very fond of Howard Jacobson's novels: he's Britain's answer to Philip Roth, but much much funnier. William Boyd, I like. My wife Jane Thynne is a fine writer. Irvine Welsh is very funny. Well there you are. I managed to get five after all. . ."
Kerr's humorous allusions are both sly and dead serious.  For instance, he says he wants "the crime novel to achieve something more than just a conventional solution to a grubby crime. I'm not turning my nose up at crime.  I just want to do more with it than just have some poor woman sliced open on an autopsy table."

A reference to whodunits in general but more tellingly to the many NCIS and Bones clones?  Well, certainly.  It  also seems a sly turnabout reference to T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" which begins "Let us go, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table."

Listen.  Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation opens with the graphic autopsy of a woman named Mary Woolnoth, that name famous because St. Mary Woolnoth is an Anglican church in the City of London, designed by legendary Nicholas Hawksmoor.  T. S. Eliot refers to the church in The Waste Land.

Near the end of the first chapter, we get this:  "No murder was ever quite as brutal as what took place on the autopsy slab.  A clear cut, from chin to pelvis, the skeleton and the organs hauled out of the flesh, like a suitcase ransacked by customs at the airport."
Such Chandleresque similies abound in Philip Kerr's style.  They provide a lot of the dark humor in serious situations.  The novel's epigraphs are from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

An overlooked gem.
The links to the other Friday's Forgotten Books, by many other authors and bloggers, are at Todd Mason's site at this link.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Our yellow/orange cat is named Number One.  Back in the 1990s when she was born, Star Trek was still popular, and folks assumed we named her after the executive officer of the starship Enterprise, who was always called Number One by Captain Jean Luc Picard.

Number One: Early Edition cat

The truth is, back then someone left a cardboard box on the wide front porch of our farmhouse when we were away.  It contained three yellow kittens with their eyes matted shut.  We suspected feline leukemia and did not expect them to live.  Rather than give them names, my wife referred to them as Number One, Number Two, and Number Three.  The last two shortly died, but Number One survived.

We had her checked out by our vet, given shots, and at the appropriate time, she was neutered.  In our experience, yellow/orange cats can be quirky, but Number One charmed us with her loving personality.  A couple of months later, she disappeared.

We assumed the worst.  Farm life can be dangerous.  A couple of weeks later we began to spot her out in the pasture, stalking mice.  She wasn't very friendly any more; nay, she had become super wary--the same cat with a much different personality.  You could tell she wanted to be loved on, but she was too skittish to get near enough, caught in a J. Alfred Prufrock type of paralysis.

We don't know what brought about this sudden change, but we suspected brain damage.  Possibly she had been hit by a car or kicked by one of our horses.

Number One remained a semi-feral cat for many years.  She always seemed to have a scowl on her face, what I called the Calvin scowl after the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.  One day, just a few years ago, she suddenly decided to become our full-time number-one house cat again.  She still has the scowl and she can be quirky, but her personality reverted back to the loving, domesticated self she had displayed as a kitten.

Perhaps, over time, her brain developed new circuitry to get around the damage, but we just don't know.

Which brings me to the yellow cat fog in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," part of which is used as an epigraph to the book I'm now reading, Philip Kerr's edgy crime novel, A Philosophical Investigation.

In the Eliot poem, the yellow cat is a symbol of the protagonist's semi-feral alienation.  He is an outside cat longing to be inside.  He is skittish, half-paranoid, lacking good social skills.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,       
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

"Let us go, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky..."

It is a fall poem, halloweenish, with an indefinite menace behind its intelligence.  On youtube, you can hear it recited by many different voices, even by the long dead author himself.  But by far the best reading of this is that of Anthony Hopkins, who has just the right amount of spooky ambiguous menace/humanist nuance.  The youtube link is here.

This poem has influenced a great many novels, of course, both genre and literary.  Here's Cormac McCarthy's opening line from Suttree:

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.

Hemingway's opening in To Have And Have Not:

You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were the three of them waiting for us.

And the cat-scowl from Nelson Algren's A Walk On The Wild Side:

For what had embittered him Fitz had no name.  Yet he felt that every daybreak duped him into waking and every evening conned him into sleep. The feeling of having been
cheated--of having been cheated, that was it.  Nobody knew why or by whom.

But only that all was lost.  Lost long ago, in some colder country.  Lost anew by the generations since. He kept trying to wind his fingers about this feeling, at times like
an ancestral hunger; again like some secret wound. It was
there, if a man could get it out into the light, as palpable as the blood in his veins.  Someone just behind him kept turning him against himself till his very strength was a weakness...

When opening time was closing time...where hungry young hustlers hustle
dissatisfied old cats and ancient glass-eyed satyrs make pass at bandrats..."

And the remarkable cat opening sequence of the movie made from A Walk on the Wild Sideat this link.

Tuesday's Forgotten or Overlooked Film (or A/V): MEMENTO

Memento is a splendid piece of noir, a puzzle to be figured out.   The clues are there, but the movie-goer as detective, like the protagonist, has to sort them out, put them in order, and come up with a synthesis.

Everything might be important or it might be a lie, just another red herring swimming in a sea of propaganda.  The protagonist is a man carrying an injury.  That part of his brain that retains short term memory has been damaged.  So every day, he wakes up knowing the past, he knows who he is, but he can't remember what happened yesterday.

If this happened to you or me, it might not be such a bad thing.  Today is what's important, not yesterday.  That's where the propaganda comes in, incessantly driving otherwise peaceful people toward hysteria.  The protagonist is constantly being told things about his life.  He has to sort out the truth for himself.

And there's a puzzle within the puzzle.

The way the movie unfolds will test your own short term memory.  You have to pay attention, remember what you have seen and put it in context with the greater puzzle.  Noir?  Yes.  You can't trust someone just because they are attractive or because they have a knack for persuasion.  Think of Condoleezza Rice arguing weapons of mass destruction.  The powerful lead you to fear and violence all the time.

But this is a noir parable, and in the end, you've been dragged down into the circle of vengeance and violence.  At least that's the way it all appears.  A cautionary tale, and a marvelous ride.

This is an adjunct to Todd Mason's Friday's Forgotten (or overlooked) Film or A/V.  You can read today's other selections by a bevy of authors and bloggers at this link.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books: BOOKS TO DIE FOR, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke

Books to Die For is a sumptuous feast.  It is not an overlooked book but rather a means of discovering overlooked books.  A large new handsome volume in easy-to-read print, an anthology of writers on writers, each discussing a work of crime fiction which they found particularly inspiring or thrilling or brilliantly crafted--or by some other alchemy worthy of shouting about.

The book was put together by two Irish mystery/thriller author/editors, Dr. John Connolly and Declan Burke.  I've blogged about Burke here before (link), giving links to his blog a number of times and praising his award-winning novel, Absolute Zero Cool.  Burke is also the editor of Down These Green Streets, another wonderful anthology (link) that belongs on the same bookshelf as those in the picture above.

In Books to Die For, more than 120 authors from twenty countries contribute to name the best in crime fiction.  A must-have for readers searching for that peak reading experience, for another voice in the mode of their own favorites.  The many authors reveal their own tastes and writing styles as they tell about what books they find especially appealing and why.
BOOKS TO DIE FOR with just a few of the many, many titles lauded inside the book.

Relatively new readers to the genre will be enticed; the longtime crime fiction affectionados will find new insights into books they have heard of but have for some reason passed by.  The book is balanced.  The history of the genre is well represented--many of the classic crime novels are here--but there are also many surprises including some very literary crime novels, and some truly little known gems.

My copy came from as the book will not be available in the United States until sometime in October.   It is a handsome large hardcover, 734 pages of luxuriously easy-to-read print.


I'll be blogging about individual essays in here as time goes by.  Of course, not every book is for me.  I know already that I'll never be a Mickey Spillane fan, despite Max Allan Collins' eloquent defense of him in here.  Not my cuppa java.

But the next essay I read was Paul Johnston's contribution on Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation, written thirty years ago but first published in 1992.  I'd forgotten about this one, since the author has gone on to win awards with his Bernard Gunther series.  Johnston's sharp descriptions and explanations have inspired me to read it again, and I am sending for it tonight.

Also, the biographical info at the end of the essay reveals that Paul Johnston, of whom I had never heard, is an award-winning author himself, with a backlist of several intelligent-looking books.   Now I'll also have to check those out.

Books To Die For was not meant to be read end-to-end, straight through, but rather to be dipped into from time to time.  The next time you're seeking a significant read.

This is an extension of the Friday's Forgotten Book series, one of many, and you can read the other authors and bloggers at this link. .

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: THE DESCENDANTS

I reviewed The Descendants last year at this link.  It struck us then as a very good movie.  Now we think it is a great movie.

On the surface, it is a character study in which a man must examine his inner feelings and seek to transform his outer self to reflect his true inner self once he looks inward and discovers what it is. Shakespeare had it right:  Love does not alter when alteration finds, even if that alteration is that the loved one no longer loves us back.

The film is nicely shot, understated, sincere. No preview clip can do it justice. It says what it says without putting it into soundbites. It goes beyond the best words spoken for it, even by George Clooney when interviewed by Charlie Rose.

Immature materialistic viewers who haven’t learned how to love except in the juvenile, possessive sense, see it but don’t get it. They’re liable to like the story of the daughters but completely gag on the love story at the heart of the film. It’s like Anna Karenina, where the emotionally immature think the true love story is between Anna and Vronsky, rather than Levin’s love for Kitty.

What passes for love in this juvenile and materialist society is usually only the possessive kind of love, which is more akin to property rights.
The Descendants was well liked, but it didn't garner the kind of praise heaped on Tree of Life.  Some said it lacked ambition, a cute chick flick that didn't say much.  Since then, my wife and I have discussed it and now we see even more in it--much more.  In fact, on the level of parable, it was the best movie of its year.

The other day, I posted a quote from Wendell Berry, who said that the country is divided by boomers and stickers.  The boomer types are the laissez-faire capitalists who want to make a buck any way they can.  Drain the fish from the oceans until they are gone, sell the national parks, drill baby drill.  The stickers are the real conservatives.  The boomers are motivated by greed, but the stickers are motivated by genuine affection for Creation.

It is easy to see this as another rendition of the Adam and Eve Myth, which is itself a parable of the evolutionary fall of consciousness into animal man.  The snake who tempts Eve in here says that he never returned her affection, that he just wanted sex.  This same man wants to rake commercially for reasons of ego and personal wealth, while selling out paradise.

We watched the Tree of Life and The Descendants in succession, and my wife pointed out how much things had changed for the better since the 1950s, and I pointed out the scene where George Clooney’s character says to his young daughter and her boyfriend, “Stop touching each other in front of me; it’s as if you have no respect for authority.”

George Clooney as Matt King is Adam, the Gardener, the caretaker of a part of Paradise.  The boyfriend thinks he is smart, and says so, but the father knows that he is far from smart, because he sees himself in the young. The young have no such insight into the old.

At first, Clooney is a bad husband, an indifferent father, and a sell-out to the greedy snakes in suits.  But as the movie progresses, there is a change over what went before. George Clooney’s character wakes up and comes alive as his wife dies. There is a new covenant based upon love that brings forgiveness along with a sense of responsibility. He at last steps out of the duality of possessive love and loves his wife unconditionally–-or recognizes that he has all along, though it takes him a while. The decision to do what in the long run is best for Paradise, Creation, the land-–in spite of the opinions of a majority of its Trust members–-that decision too is fitting, right and loving and responsible.

As the patriarch protecting the land, the Clooney/King character may eventually fall to the lawyers of the capitalist interests, but meanwhile, at the end of the film, we see him covered by the same sunny quilt that covered the mother in the hospital.

There is a terrific article by Elbert Ventura at this link comparing the The Descendants with Tree of Life:  The Palm Tree of Life.

Shailene Woodley as Alex
From Ventura's Slate Magazine review linked above:

Nominated for five Academy Awards, boasting an 89 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and tallying a healthy $75 million (and counting) at the box office, The Descendants is hardly in need of a defense—but it is in need of further discussion. For all its success, Alexander Payne’s film has been less unappreciated than unexamined. Skeptics have dismissed it as mezzobrow indiewood, undeserving of scrutiny; yet even supporters have undersold its virtues, fixating on its (considerable) surface pleasures without noticing that Payne has made a layered and searching piece of work. Don’t let the soothing uke and sun-dappled sadness fool you—The Descendants is no less interested in the cosmic than that exegete’s delight The Tree of Life.

Perhaps Payne’s insistence on making human-scaled drama obscures his reach. Allergic to grandiosity, his movies depict losers, schlubs, and schmos dealing with domestic turmoil and personal crises in a nondescript, lived-in America. Across those movies, Payne has carved out an authorial identity defined by career-making performances (Reese Witherspoon in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways), adroit tone shifts, and the pitch-perfect rendering of life in these United States.

The Descendants shares many of those qualities, which might explain why the critical conversation surrounding the movie has seemed stunted, with most reviews amounting to little more than pronouncements of what “worked” and what didn’t. What such assessments overlook is a major American director working on his largest canvas yet and confronting some pretty fundamental questions. If Payne’s previous movies cast a sidelong glance at How We Live Now, this one emerges as an affecting inquiry into How We Live, period.

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a real-estate lawyer whose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), plunges into a permanent coma after a boating accident. But the grieving is interrupted when his teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), reveals that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Meanwhile, another crisis looms as Matt, trustee of a large parcel of beachfront property on Kauai, presides over the dissolution of the trust—and finds himself having second thoughts about selling paradise despite the windfall awaiting him and his cousins.

The title alludes to both plotlines. The Descendants spends most of its time with Matt and his descendants, Alex and Scottie (Amara Miller), the inattentive father explicitly wondering how to raise two daughters he has barely parented. But the movie also reminds us of Matt the descendant, privileged recipient of a lavish patrimony. At a couple of points, Payne interrupts the action to ruminate on ghostly photographs of Matt’s ancestors, staring back from the past as he ponders their bequest’s future. These haunting interludes give resonance to Matt’s earthly thrashings, anchoring his experience in something bigger than himself.

The setting only enlarges the film’s scope. Much has been made of The Descendants’ focus on quotidian Hawaii, but such praise always seemed overblown. As J. Hoberman notes, “Despite a gesture or two toward Honolulu’s downside, Hawaii still feels like heaven on earth.” He meant that as a putdown, but it misses what Payne’s up to. The Descendants’ Hawaii is Edenic all right—intentionally so. Montages of the lush landscape not only offer rhythmic punctuation to the narrative, but gather cumulative power as emblems of eternity itself. Reminiscent of Ozu, these pillow shots—of sea against sky, mountains over beaches—encase the movie’s human drama in an elemental frame. The cutting between Matt’s grief and the indifferent beauty and humbling grandeur of the natural world suggests a transcendental perspective—as does Matt’s about-face on selling the land to developers. The Malickian outlook reaches its apotheosis in a climactic montage that transports us from a deathbed to clouds, cliffs, and shoreline, telescoping us from the earthbound to the timeless. It’s a diaphanous flourish all the more powerful for capping a resolutely naturalistic movie.

The title is something of a giveaway. Dripping with biblical freight, it all but asks us to think of the story as metaphor. Finely observed family portraiture becomes something else: By the time Matt finally confronts his dilemma, it’s clear that the inheritance he’s brooding over isn’t just his—it’s ours as well. Payne suggests that we too came into an astounding bequest—our time in this world—and yet, as Matt admits of his birthright, we haven’t quite earned it. The Descendants implicitly asks: How do we justify this gift? What can supply meaning to an existence that’s but a blip in time?

The Thinker

It’s in that context that Matt makes his choices. To his wife’s lover, he grants permission to make one last visit to Elizabeth; to his resentful father-in-law, he hides news of Elizabeth’s infidelity; to the land itself, he chooses preservation over profit. There’s something to Bilge Ebiri’s dismissal that The Descendants is the latest in a genre he calls “George Clooney Does the Right Thing.” Peer beyond the feel-good veneer, however, and you see a director interrogating, with something approaching grace, why we end up doing the right thing.

Perhaps the movie’s most celebrated scene, the coda of Matt and the girls vegging on the couch and watching TV, offers something of a summa. On one level, the long-take scene is simplicity itself: A family restored, harmony achieved. But Payne packs the frame with suggestion. We see Scottie, curled up under a yellow quilt, the same one we saw over her mother when she breathed her last breath. It’s a lovely touch—the dead remembered and death reclaimed for the living. On the TV, we hear a familiar voice: Morgan Freeman narrating March of the Penguins. “It wasn’t always like this,” he intones, “Antarctica used to be a tropical paradise.” The snippet isn’t a throwaway gesture or a random choice, but a shrewd stroke. Juxtaposing real time with geological timelessness, Payne underscores his theme, even as gives his characters and the audience a gentle sendoff.

Except for the fleet stylishness of Election—a movie made under the spell of Casino—Payne has never been a showy filmmaker. The director himself admits that he makes movies “within the commercial American narrative cinema”— movies that are legible to a mass audience. That may be why The Descendants hasn’t been subjected to the critical unpacking it merits. Indeed, in its obsession with the past, with ancestors, with transience, eternity, and our raison d’être, The Descendants emerges as an unlikely diptych partner to The Tree of Life. Both are fixated on grief and the human response: If The Tree of Life is about the invention of God, The Descendants is about the invention of morality.

But while Malick’s movie inspired reams of engaged criticism, Payne’s has been a victim of critical complacency, damned (at best) as merely a good movie with good performances by a good director. It’s more than that. The Descendants is a sneakily profound film made by an artist in peak form. Pillow shots and inserts glimmer with meaning; the loveliest dissolves in recent cinema unlock reserves of emotion. The marketing tells us The Descendants is a vehicle for Clooney’s lifetime performance. Look closer, though, and it’s Payne’s breakthrough that you’ll see.

This is an adjunct of Todd Mason's Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/or Other A/V Series. You can see the entire list from several authors and bloggers at this link.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Early Autumn, A. Alvarez, The Savage God , and Night

As readers of this blog are aware, if there still are any, I like to read novels in season.  In September, as the leaves turn to gold, I turn to autumn mode, reading tales of harvest time, novels set in the early fall, the autumn woods, campus murder mysteries and such.

Last year's blogs for this month can be found at this link.
Deep in September, it's nice to remember when I was a tender and callow fellow, the wonderful zest of campus life, new romance or at least the potential for it, and the stimulation of learning new ideas.  Some of them later turned out to be old ideas and bogus, but they were new to me then and exciting at the time.

Since then I've read a lot of books, always looking for new knowledge, for a better perspective,  and occasionally for the exhilarating discovery--which some call the ah ha experience.  Sometimes I read simply to be entertained vicariously, for escape, comfort reads that reassure me yet again that there are other civilized minds out there, kindred spirits with the same sense of humanity.

Books are sometimes mirrors in which we find ourselves revealed.

Way back when, I might not have considered a book like A. Alvarez's The Biggest Game in Town, which is a memoir of Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker, published in 1983.  I discovered Alvarez when he was discussed by James McManus in his memoir, Positively Fifth Street.  Books naturally lead us to other books.

A. Alvarez (link), it turns out, is an acclaimed British author of novels, memoirs, poetry, and works of literary criticism.  He wrote a study of Samuel Beckett.  He was a friend to poet Sylvia Plath and wrote about her eloquently in The Savage God: A Study in Suicide.

Among the professional poker players Alvarez profiles in his Las Vegas memoir is Betty Carey, who also appears in Garry Wallace's essay on Cormac McCarthy.  Carey finished third in the World Series of Poker.  At the time, she was a fierce competitor and a laissez-faire libertarian.  She spoke out in favor of a winner-take-all stakes, without any other division of funds among the top finishers.

Listen to a sample observation from Alvarez:

"Glitter Gulch is for transients, most of them elderly and dressed to kill: old women in lime green or banana yellow or Florida orange pants suits, clutching Dixie cups of small change in one hand, the lever of one of Las Vegas's fifty thousand slot machines in the other; old men with plastic teeth and sky blue plastic suits shooting craps for a dollar, playing fifty-cent blackjack and three-dollar limit stud poker; wrecks in wheelchairs or with walking frames, the humped, the bent, the skeleton thin, and the obese, cashing in their Social Security checks, disability allowances, and pensions, waiting out their time in the hope of a miracle jackpot to transform their last pinched days.'

"All of them are animated by a terrible Walpurgisnacht jollity, gambler's optimism compounded by nostalgia.  THE GOOD OLD DAYS, say the neon signs, and 50 CENT BAR DRINKS...For the Snopses of this world, Glitter Gulch is the absurd last stop on the slow train to the grave.'

"The young are fewer and not much more presentable.  The trim straight-backed young people who roam with such grace and confidence around the rest of the United States and seem to be America's most triumphant export to Europe have mostly bypassed downtown Vegas.  Instead, the rule for both sexes is big bottoms, beer bellies, and skin muddied by Big Macs and french fries.  The boys have tattoos on their arms, and the girls' heads are permed and dyed so relentlessly that a natural head of hair seems like a visitation; you stare after it, thinking, who is that?"

Alvarez wrote that thirty years ago.  Now he is eighty-three, a year older than Clint Eastwood.  One wonders how much his outlook has changed.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Corporate Thriller, Arbitrage, Richard Gere, and Wendell Berry

In case you missed it, there was an interesting article in last Sunday's USA WEEKEND.  Its subject was actor Richard Gere, entitled "The Thinker," by Elysa Gardner.  They had the actor pose on a stool for a photo, in the mode of Rodin's "The Thinker."

The actor discusses Arbitrage, his current movie in which he stars opposite Susan Sarandon.  A thinker's thriller in the mode of Unlimited and Paranoia.

Gere says it would not be interesting if he were to play his character as one of the typical corporate sociopaths like Bernie Madoff.  Instead, he plays the corporate criminal as a man who is capable of feeling, who is morally conflicted.

Reading this, I wished that Gere had read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test.  Do a web search to find the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath.  There's not much difference.  Authorities agree that both lack a conscience.  Some say that psychopaths are hardwired this way, while sociopaths get to that point because of envoiromental influences.

Stuart Margolin as Angel Martin

Arbitrage has an interesting cast, including Stuart Margolin who played Angel on The Rockford Files.  I thought we might be able to see it this weekend, but the local theaters opted instead to retain the popular propaganda flick, 2016 Barak Obama's America.

You can read the article on Arbitrage and Gere at this link.  In the printed version, there is a sidebar on the five books that Richard Gere is reading now:  Elie Wiesel's Night, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King, Steve Roden's I Listen to the Wind, and Jonathan Cott's Days That I'll Remember.

Gere says of Moby Dick, "I swear I'm going to get through it this time."  Back in 2003, when Gere was saying that we were rushing into war too fast, Republican Party media guru Ann Coulter wrote a column (link) taking him to task for using Moby Dick as a metaphor and asked him if he had actually read the book.  Interesting reading, for we can now see where that expensive war based on lies has led us.

I recall when Richard Gere spoke for compassion rather than knee-jerk revenge at ground zero of the World Trade Center and was drowned out by boos.

We would have been much better off had we listened to Gere and Wendell Berry (link) and the others who argued for temperance.  Instead we dove into wars we could not afford, a price tag capped by the Bush bail-outs, the sum of which is now blamed entirely on President Obama.
Wendell Berry at home in Port Royal, Kentucky

Journalist Tom Eblen, (link), in a story on Wendell Berry:

"Quoting his former teacher, the late writer Wallace Stegner, Berry said Americans have always tended to fall into two camps: boomers and stickers. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power,” Berry said. “Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”
Boomer ideals dominate America’s economy and culture now, he said. Almost everything has been reduced to statistics. Like corporate ownership, as compared to individual ownership, big numbers distance us from the consequences of our actions.
“Now the two great aims of industrialism — replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth in the hands of a small plutocracy — seem close to fulfillment,” Berry said. “At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny.”

Even the term economy has lost its original meaning, which had to do with household management and husbandry, he said. Most economists now “never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage ‘to strengthen the economy.’”

Corporate industrialism, he said, “has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature.”
We can't control the world.  We can only control how we individually respond to it.  We can choose kindness, love, and compassion.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce

If you're old, you might think of the movie, Cool Hand Luke, which starred the late Paul Newman, as a classic.  As noir as Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  But have you ever read the novel by Donn Pearce on which Cool Hand Luke is based?

I doubt it.

And if you're young, you probably couldn't sit through the entire movie or maybe you have seen it and just didn't much like it.  This is from an informal pole I took among younger, educated people.  It is certainly not a classic in their estimation.

The kind of rebellious, progressive existentialism embraced widely by youth fifty years ago has been replaced with a kind of Ayn Rand materialism.  Blue collar individualism marked only by anti-establishmentarianism has turned into an idealism of money, status, and material wealth.  Union is a bad word in the mouths of the young.  Half of them think that they will one day be CEOs, or at least the upper executives of major corporations.  Just ask them.
Cool Hand Luke was a nothing, simply another loser, they say.  A cog in the endless stream of human debris.  He belonged in prison.

They don't really think of themselves as individualists--they don't use that word.  They think of themselves as winners who simply haven't won yet, temporarily disinherited knights of the free enterprise system.  Losers and the lazy philosophies of losers have been holding them back, but a change is in the wind.  They have high expectations.

The humanitarian aspects of Cool Hand Luke do not interest them.  Their sense of entitlement is coupled with a hatred of losers.  I can quote that passage in Dickens' Christmas Carol that begins with "Are there no prisons?" but they don't see any relevant irony.  When asked, most say that they are Christians but imply that their religious life and their careers are separate, the way you old liberals think of Church and State.

Donn Pearce was serving two years at the Florida State Farm for burglary when he first began serious reading and writing.  According to an article in Esquire, Pearce first read William Faulkner after another prisoner angrily abandoned a copy of Faulkner's Sanctuary, for not being pornographic enough.

Pearce wrote and rewrote Cool Hand Luke for years.  After many rejections, the book was finally published as a Fawcett paperback original.  Scribners later picked it up and put it out in hardcover, but only about eleven hundred copies were sold.  Today a dejected Pearce, now in his eighties, says that he is the author of four books, counting Cool Hand Luke, "none of which people want to read."

Donn Pearce submitted a first draft script for the movie and was given a cameo role, but the other screen writer was the late Frank Pierson.  The word "late" appears before the names of more and more of the baby boom generation, as those who hold Cool Hand Luke high in their estimation die off.

The last scene of Cool Hand Luke finds him in a church, holding a one-sided conversation with God.  He tries to talk with God, but receives no answer--which gives a double irony to his last words, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

That oft-repeated line, as well as "Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand" did not come directly from Donn Pearce but was drawn from a scene in the novel.  The television drama, NCIS, parodied the church scene with Denozzo talking to God in the same way, but it seems that few people got the reference (link).  If they did, they were old.

Classics have lasting power.  It remains to be seen if Cool Hand Luke, novel and movie, will be remembered decades from now.  It doesn't look good.

You can read Benjamin Alsup's comprehensive 2005 Esquire article on Donn Pearce at this link.

Robin H. Smiley, who edits Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine, wrote a feature on Cool Hand Luke which appears in the current edition (September, 2012), available at this link.

James Pepper's quality first edition store has been trying to sell a first Scribner's hardcover edition of Cool Hand Luke for some time now and has been marking it down.  This copy was signed by George Kennedy, picture laid in.  Link.

The Wikipedia link for Donn Pearce is at this link.  Pearce's early adventures are similar to those of the protagonist in B. Traven's The Death Ship.

This is an extension of the Friday's Forgotten Book series, one of many, and you can read the other authors and bloggers at this link.