Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Favorite Movies Post

The ranking of movies is like the ranking of any media form. We live in a competitive society, in which the drive to succeed, to exceed, plays a crucial role in the democratic playground of the pursuit of happiness--wealth, notoriety and esteem.

Movies are first a form of entertainment, but they are also a vehicle for social criticism, propaganda, or public information. Cinema is a new medium, invented at the end of the 19th Century, with the added domain of sound in the late 1920's. The technological advancements in visual, sound and special effects have occurred with some regularity over the decades, leading to the sophistication of a medium which had begun as little more than a kind of static theatre-like, two-dimensional projection process. While the mature craft of acting has changed little over the last century, movies have developed a host of processes and techniques, making them the dominant art form of the present age. Movies have been, and continue to be, the art of the future.

While the technical side of moving pictures has progressed dramatically, it's become clear that narrative construction, and the development and portrayal of character, are still at the heart of meaningful, effective action, and that successful cinematic entertainment can't be built exclusively upon special visual or aural effects. "Action" movies may have little or no inherent, intrinsic dramatic content, if they rely on nothing but ingenious technical tricks or audacious visual surprises. A good story is still a good story, with or without cinematic sleights of hand.

I'm not sure just why, but none of the following productions was released before 1931. So-called "silent movies" (movies without coordinated sound) which could only represent dialogue by interspersing printed screens of quotation, had many things to recommend them, within the limitations of the new medium. The slapstick comics built their tradition on clownish antics and cliff-hanging dare-devil stunts, talents which have not been improved-upon in the decades since, simply because there has not been a need to do so. "They had faces," says Gloria Swanson in the nostalgic Sunset Boulevard [1950]--one of the titles on my list--but they didn't have voices (in the silent era). When talkies came in, some players who had built their careers on visuals, suddenly became obsolete, unable to project the same dramatic quality with their voices, that they'd been able to do with their faces and bodies. For me, the Silent era exists in a kind of pre-cinematic precinct, neither theatre nor pure cinema, perhaps more of a curiosity than a fully-developed form. I can appreciate Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Lillian Gish, but their silent era work seems somehow stifled, and limited, being neither as rich as legitimate theatre, nor as streamlined as cinema with sound. Silents were a transitional curiosity; sound movies were the complete package.

Like theatre, the first successful (sound) movies were celebrations of the emancipation of the human voice. For me, the first legitimate (sound) movie is The Front Page, released in 1931, based on the successful stage play of the same name, co-authored by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It's basically a film of a play, with almost no purely cinematic effects at all, but with plenty of crackling, witty dialogue, and dramatic tension. It's pure American energy and humor and chutzpah, and captures the brash, percolating spirit of the 1920's.

Movies made great strides, both technically and financially, throughout the 1930's, as major production companies consolidated their organizations, becoming efficient factories turning out as many releases as they could, to meet the rapidly growing demand. Musicals, dance movies, and stagy extravaganzas blossomed quickly. Movies got longer, and with the arrival of color, more visually realistic. As a child of the 1950's, when television came into wide use, I grew up seeing countless pre-war movies from the 1930's. I can remember little of them, though they are of course very familiar when I see them now. One would think that the movies one had seen as a child would leave a lasting impression, as indeed they may have, unconsciously. But thinking about them today, I can find little to recommend them. They were mostly a kind of escapist medium from the economic hardships of the time, designed not to remind people of the truths of their lives, but to transport them to an alternative universe where reality didn't intervene.

 Hollywood's star system produced countless familiar faces, but the films they made were, by today's standards, stilted and timid efforts. The medium would have to wait until after World War II, in my view, to begin to produce films that were fully integrated cinematic works, incorporating action, acting, writing, editing, sound and cinematography together to make a whole experience. I have only six movies from the 1930's, not because there weren't countless interesting efforts in that decade, but because they didn't leave a lasting impression on me.

The Front Page 1931
A Day at the Races 1937
Dead End 1937
Ninotchka 1939
Wizard of Oz 1939
Gone With the Wind 1939
Wuthering Heights 1939

It's no surprise that Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind end up on the list, since they expanded the medium to epic proportions, and established new benchmarks for technical realism on the one hand, and magical fantasy on the other. Both were breakthroughs in creating a complete visual world. Wuthering Heights followed the romantic plot-line of the novel, going against the grain of the happy ending boy-gets-girl formula. It's also cinematically effective, using black and white to create emotional sturm und drang--a quality that would soon become preeminent during the Noir era. Ninotchka is a sentimental favorite, Garbo's last important effort, and a very entertaining comedy with political overtones that would never again be viewed in such an innocent way. Dead End combines a number of aspects--gangsterism, juvenile delinquency, economic disparity among potential mates--played out in a gritty urban setting. It was, typically, a stage play first, adapted by Lillian Hellman, but the material was already familiar to movie audiences. Plus, we get Bogart and Joel McCrea and Claire Trevor. Bogart was already a star, and this movie would propel his persona further along the "disreputable"tough-guy track. After Wizard and Gone, movies would seldom again just be filmed plays, but the war would intervene, delaying some of the fulfillment that awaited it. 

Philadelphia Story 1940
Rebecca 1940
Citizen Caine 1941
Casablanca 1942
Double Indemnity 1944
Gaslight 1944
Arsenic and Old Lace 1944
Spellbound 1945
Notorious 1946
Great Expectations 1946
Beauty and the Beast 1946
Red River 1948
Oliver Twist 1948
Key Largo 1948
The Red Shoes 1948
Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
Adam's Rib 1949
On the Town 1949
Twelve O'Clock High 1949
Kind Hearts and Coronets 1949

The Forties was a quirky decade, and the films reflected the eclectic expansion of themes and opportunities afforded by the increasing sophistication of the medium, while looking back towards classic narratives. It begins with Citizen Caine, which had begun production long before its release, and which is widely considered the first true finished cinematic experience, and the last of the important black and white epics. Two historical recreations--Great Expectations, Oliver Twist--are the work of David Lean, whose career would flower into the great epic adaptations of Lawrence, Zhivago, River Kwai, etc. Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib are Hepburn at her height. Hitchcock's first great triumphs in America--Rebecca, Spellbound, and Notorious--belong here. The reaction to the terrors of world war would begin to find vehicles, in Twelve O'Clock High. Casablanca may seem more sentimental now than it did at the time, as does Gaslight, but they had Ingrid Bergman in her prime, as well as Bogart and Charles Boyer.  Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite movie of all time, a tight, perfectly constructed action involving three characters, facing hardship and temptation in the Mexican outback, with unforgettable character portrayals in a realistic setting. Red River is John Wayne in his best cowboy role; was there ever a better Western? On the Town and The Red Shoes are song and dance movies with irresistible contexts, and both are so much better than the musical and dance movies of the Thirties, there's just no comparison. I'm not much for foreign flicks, but Cocteau's slightly surreal imagination made a masterpiece in Beauty and the Beast. Double Indemnity is better to my mind than The Maltese Falcon or any of the Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney hardboiled efforts, and we get gorgeous Barbara Stanwyck to boot. I've never been much into comedy, but Arsenic and Old Lace is so completely weird in its combination of spookiness, silliness, romance and madcap hijinks it belongs on everyone's list, and we get Cary Grant besides. 

Sunset Boulevard 1950
Asphalt Jungle 1950
Orpheus 1950
The Lavender Hill Mob 1951
The Man in the White Suit 1951
Strangers on a Train 1951
Singin' in the Rain 1952
Viva Zapata 1952
High Noon 1952
The Quiet Man 1952
Julius Caesar 1953
Roman Holiday 1953
From Here to Eternity 1953
Stalag 17 1953
Captain's Paradise 1953
The Wild One 1953
Beat the Devil 1953
Shane 1953
Hobson's Choice 1954
Rear Window 1954
Sabrina 1954
On the Waterfront 1954
The Caine Mutiny 1954
Dial M For Murder 1954
La Strada 1954
Night of the Hunter 1955
Mister Roberts 1955
East of Eden 1955
Summertime 1955
To Catch a Thief 1955
The Lady Killers 1955
Guys and Dolls 1955
The Friendly Persuasion 1956
The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
High Society 1956
Giant 1956
The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957
Auntie Mame 1958
Vertigo 1958
Our Man in Havana 1959
The Nun's Story 1959
Some Like it Hot 1959

The 1950's list is the longest list here. I may be dating myself, if you believe that what people like tends to mark their taste chronologically. The media environment of the 1950's was rich. There was still radio, and newspapers and magazines were thriving. When I was a boy in the Fifties, you could see two double features on a weekend afternoon for just a quarter, and the snack-bar didn't cost much either. These were Hitchcock's glory days, and I have no less than six of his efforts on my list--Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. Hitchock's movies aren't mysteries, or thrillers, or straight dramas; they're about suspicion, foreboding that verges on dread, the unexpected, betrayal, manipulation, and class conflict. The Fifties may have seemed quiet, but rumblings of social change were in the air. The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, about a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town, actually scared people. The war was still very much on people's minds, with From Here to Eternity, Stalag 17, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and dozens of others too forgettable to name. The best ones, like these, were more about human character than shooting and battle. But war movies would continue to hold their audiences for many more years. Sunset Boulevard, Asphalt Jungle, and Night of the Hunter may technically belong to the "Noir" period, but each is so uniquely conceived and executed that the moniker hardly seems to matter. We mightn't have known it, but the Western (High Noon, Shane) was on its last legs. The small, witty comedies turned out by Britain's Ealing Studios (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers, Our Man in Havana [with the magnificent Alec Guinness]) seemed like throwbacks, again, to an earlier, stagier, era. Small, isolated masterpieces were popping up, like John Wayne's only real "straight" movie, The Quiet Man, set in an idyllic Ireland. La Strada, one of my few foreign films, almost seemed not to need dialogue. The Nun's Story, for my money the best movie Audrey Hepburn ever made, or Summertime (a Katherine Hepburn vehicle), seemed designed for their respective stars. A new young actor named James Dean--harbinger of the new teen idol craze--would flash across the sky (in East of Eden and Giant) and then suddenly burn out. The musical was also on its last legs, but High Society, Guys and Dolls, and Singin' in the Rain each is a classic of its kind. The cross-dressing comedy Some Like it Hot is a fitting end to the staid, conservative Fifties, which would give way to the promiscuous, liberated Sixties.   

The Apartment 1960  
Two Women 1960
The Sundowners 1960
The Misfits 1961
The Hustler 1961
One-Eyed Jacks 1961
The Guns of Navarone 1961
The Music Man 1962
Lawrence of Arabia 1962
Jules et Jim 1962
Lolita 1962
The Days of Wine and Roses 1962
The Knife in the Water 1962
Lonely Are the Brave 1962
Tom Jones 1963
The Servant 1963
The List of Adrian Messenger 1963
Hud 1963
The Ugly American 1963
Becket 1964
Zorba the Greek 1964
Topkapi 1964
Darling 1965
Doctor Zhivago 1965
The Loved One 1965
Blow-Up 1966
The Group 1966
The Graduate 1967
The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
Rosemary's Baby 1968
2001 A Space Odyssey 1968
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1969

The Sixties was a time of change in America, when the assumptions and traditions by which Americans had lived and dreamed during the Depression years, the war years, and the immediate post-war years, came into question. The anti-hero finally came into his own. In The Sundowners, The Misfits, The Hustler, One-Eyed Jacks, Lawrence of Arabia, Lolita, Lonely Are the Brave, Tom Jones, The Servant, Hud, Becket, The Graduate, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, offbeat protagonists pursue strange destinies that lead us far astray of the straight-and-narrow-path of typical middle class existence. These are complex characters, often repellent in their nature, who nevertheless draw us in, seduce us into their world. The Western morphed into weird new versions (One-Eyed Jacks, Lonely Are the Brave, Hud). These films explored America's corrupt foreign policy (The Ugly American), the exploitation of women (The Apartment), alcoholism (The Days of Wind and Roses), pedophilia (Lolita), vicarious curiosity (Blow-Up), serial murder (The List of Adrian Messenger), and psychotic co-dependency (The Servant); and there were other films, not on this list, that explored drug addiction, mental illness, and counterculture rebellion. Very few of these movies are feel-good experiences, and they often left you with a sense that the world was neither a very nice place, nor likely to get better soon. 2001 A Space Odyssey proposed a science fiction future that was not ideal at all. 

Five Easy Pieces 1970
The Go-Between 1970
Little Big Man 1970
Patton 1970
The Last Picture Show 1971
Deliverance 1972
The Godfather I & II 1972-4
Klute 1973
The Long Goodbye 1973
Paper Moon 1973
The Sting 1973
Papillon 1973
Steelyard Blues 1973
The Way We Were 1973
Chinatown 1974
Barry Lyndon 1975
The Missouri Breaks 1976
All the President's Men 1976
Network 1976
Carrie 1976
Alien 1979
Kramer versus Kramer 1979
The Great Santini 1979
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 1979 [BBC Miniseries]

The Seventies was also a time of general cultural confusion. The movies continued to question our values and assumptions about religion (Carrie), our political life (All the President's Men, Chinatown), our frontier myths (Little Big Man, Deliverance, The Missouri Breaks), the purpose and dangers of media (Network), even the ultimate meaning of life in the universe. The Noir paradigm continued to intrigue us (The Long Goodbye, Klute, Chinatown). But the big story of the 1970's was undoubtedly the Godfather saga, which eventually would fill out three complete installments, though the third panel of the tryptic would be pretty disappointing. In its big tapestry documenting the progress of an Italian mafia clan across two generations, American cinema returned to the ambitious dream that had not really been realized on this scale since Citizen Caine (1941). McMurtry's The Last Picture Show seemed to turn the nostalgia of the Old West into an involuted decadence. Again, it was the anti-hero who seemed to fascinate us (Little Big Man, Five Easy Pieces, The Long Goodbye, The Sting, Papillon, Barry Lyndon). Audiences can't summon movies into being, but there must be some kind of collective unconscious force that brings certain kinds of art into focus. Our identification with unlikely protagonists must have inspired the creation of stories that showed us the flip-side of the myth of success, of the frontier hero who rides into the sunset with the pretty girl and the new fortune in a land of plenty. Prostitutes and gamblers and con men; rustlers, hoodlums, seedy private eyes and investigative reporters, spies and monsters and convicts. What a ragtag group of people this bunch is.     

Raging Bull 1980
Ordinary People 1980
Body Heat 1981
My Dinner with Andre 1981
The French Lieutenant's Woman 1981
Brideshead Revisited 1981 [BBC Miniseries]
The Grey Fox 1982
Victor Victoria 1982
Under the Volcano 1984
Prizzi's Honor 1985
Top Gun 1986
Down by Law 1986
Jean de Florette/Manon of the Springs 1986 
Wall Street 1987
The Untouchables 1987
Moonstruck 1987
The Last Emperor 1987
Dangerous Liaisons 1988
Dead Poets Society 1989

In choosing which movies to put on the list, I tried to avoid putting in choices that I might have a personal obsession with, but which I can't defend as art or cinematic innovation. The 'Eighties continued to demonstrate that individual movies no longer belonged to generic traditional continuities, but tended (especially the best ones) to be isolated conceptual visions that implied no set of predictable components, like a western, or a mystery or love story. Though the Noir style persevered (Body Heat, The Untouchables), the clichés had become so self-conscious they'd been re-absorbed into the integral plots. The old studio system had its faults, but it provided a continuity of expectation which its audience was comfortable with. Small production companies come and go, some exist only to facilitate a single project. The risks are probably ten times greater for a small production, independently funded with private investment capital, than they were for the big studios. Which is why star power is still a factor, whereas the other parts of the recipe may seem less so. Small miracles like Ordinary People, or My Dinner With Andre, or The Grey Fox, or Down by Law seem very much more entertaining to me, than big over-produced blockbusters. Could a one-shot movie ever do justice to a story like Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which British television did in 11 installments?  

Goodfellas 1990
Henry & June 1990
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge 1990
Silence of the Lambs 1991
Dracula 1992
Glengarry Glen Ross 1992
A River Runs Through It 1992
Forrest Gump 1994
The Shawshank Redemption 1994
Sling Blade 1996
L.A. Confidential 1997
Wings of the Dove 1997
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997
Saving Private Ryan 1998
The Talented Mr. Ripley 1999
The Ninth Gate 1999

Ranking films decade by decade may seem an artificial segmentation of time. It's a convenient way to segregate a batch of efforts in any medium. We typically refer to periods of time as signifying a kind of spirit or preoccupation which is characteristic. Large events may assume an even steeper altitude on the horizon of our perspective. 2001 will always define our sense of the first few years of the new century, the 21st. The movie 2001 A Space Odyssey (in 1968) imagined the advance of science to have occurred at a much more rapid pace. Our technology hasn't kept pace with our dreams, at least in this instance. Orwell's predictions about the insidious penetration of the public and private space by technological surveillance, however, look to be coming true. Who could have imagined that it would be private industry, and the recreational interconnectivity of the Web, which would facilitate this invasiveness? 

The death of the studio system probably led to the creation of more unique movies than would otherwise have been possible. Rather than being straight-jacketed by studios looking to repeat proven formulas, individual producers and directors were free to conceive of particular projects that interested them, and of pursuing these visions with unconventional methods. Of course, it also meant that, without the backing of a large studio, the odds were greater, and failure could sink your reputation and your opportunities for future work, though success at the box office has always been an issue for everyone in the business, especially for those in a position of authority. Despite this, excellent movies within specific genres--such as crime dramas (Goodfellas), historical costume pieces (Wings of the Dove), war movies (Saving Private Ryan), horror flicks (Dracula, Silence of the Lambs)--continued to be made. It's difficult, though, to imagine a film like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ever having been contemplated by a major studio. 

Readers may remark the dearth of foreign titles on this list. It seems to me that cinema is so quintessentially an American medium, that it completely overshadows foreign film efforts. No doubt the language barrier is a serious issue, here, which I will readily admit. But even great foreign directors such as Fellini, tend to see film as a non-cinematic vehicle. I can see many things to admire in French and Italian cinema, but they rarely speak to me at the level of my deepest sensibilities.  
Given the opportunity, how many of the films I never saw over the years, would I have found to like? Usually, I can tell from a brief two-sentence résumé whether or not I'm likely to enjoy a film. Only occasionally, are my expectations thwarted, and then I end up either being completely bored, or, as with the case of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, pleasantly surprised (the only movie by Clint Eastwood that I've ever admired!). 

Castaway 2000
Gladiator 2000
Frida 2002
The Pianist 2002
The Door in the Floor 2004
Life of Pi 2012
American Hustle 2013

What is it that makes American movies great? Maybe it's ambition, the desire to make something so large that it's undeniable. Cinerama was an attempt to make such a wide picture that it would literally surround the viewer. Surround-sound was an attempt to surround the audience in sound, coming from all directions at once. 3-D movies, which made a small comeback in the 'oughts, were an attempt to put the viewing audience inside the moving picture. But the point all along has been to make an action compelling enough to hold our attention, consistently, and powerfully. Telling stories has always been the first priority. A movie like Titanic [1997] needed desperately to make a story out of a big tragic calamity, and probably barely succeeded. Events need to have a personal dimension to make them interesting to audiences, we need to feel something specific about an experience. Just showing cars crashing, or buildings crumbling, or planets colliding isn't enough. All the new technical manipulations which have come to us via the computer revolution, are as nothing compared to the effect a powerful story can have. I loved watching with pity and terror, the sinking of the Titanic in the movie version, but special effects must be properly integrated into a believable, or diverting, story-line. The modern cartoon movies are not half as effective as the early Disney cartoon movies. I have been surprised to see how pitifully the recent sci-fi movie attempts have been, despite the new technical wizardry, proving how extraneous such factors are. I'm clearly susceptible, given the listed choices, to the big blockbusting feature, but it must say something about history, or the human dilemma. 

I'm also partial to stories which seem in some sense to be about my own personal story, which is why I respond to specific movies like Great Expectations, East of Eden, The Sundowners, Blow-Up, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, The Way We Were, My Dinner With Andre, Dead Poets Society, Glengarry Glen Ross, A River Runs Through It, The Ninth Gate--each of which addresses some personal event in my life, or speaks through an intimate relationship of something that has formed my character. 

In order to be thorough with this survey, I tasked myself to go through the whole list of movies on Wikipedia, decade by decade, from 1920 all the way through 2014. Try it sometime, it's an exhausting procedure! There are so many more movies than you might expect. Today, I can barely expect to see more than a handful of new releases in any given year. Usually, I end up seeing them a year or two later on Netflix, a subscription service that allows one to have three movies in your possession at one time, in a round-robbin of circulating discs. This is much the most efficient way to see movies on a regular basis, and has permitted me to see a lot of older movies that I'd not have had the chance to view.  Movies are rarely shown on commercial television anymore, and since I don't subscribe to Cable, I don't have access to the movie channels. 

Media is changing rapidly now. What will happen when people simply stop going to see movies at movie theaters--or will they continue to do so? Movie projection halls are under pressure in the same way that physical books ("material texts") are these days. But the representation of an action, on a live stage, in a movie or a book, will continue to divert people's attention. The shared experience of viewing a movie, in public, in a dark projection room, may give way to a universal privacy. Will that alter the way we feel about, or respond to, movies? Millions of books are produced each year. Far fewer movies are made, and even fewer plays are premiered, or revived. Has technology made making movies easier, or less expensive? 

Movies are the expression of a nation's culture. As such, the history of American cinema is a record of our likes and dislikes, our prejudices and honorable sentiments, our pride and shame, our curiosity and morbid fascination. It is our way of telling ourselves who we are, and what we think, or should think and feel, about the world. Movies have been important touchstones for my sense of the world, rehearsals of how I like to cycle and recycle my persistent interests. I have probably watched Patton, and Hobson's Choice, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, a dozen times. There are some movies, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Vertigo, which I have literally memorized. People before the 20th Century had no experience of movies. I'm sure Charles Dickens would have produced wonderful screenplays, had he lived in our time. Would Samuel Richardson have been a purveyor of porn? I'm sure the Medieval scholars would have been shocked, shocked to see such mischief. 

My top ten list (the films in boldface print in the columns) could easily be extended to 20, but beyond that, I think it would become too watered down. On the other hand, a top hundred list would be very possible. 

As we bid adieu to the public world of movie attendance, let's say a little prayer to the gods of culture, that movies will continue to be made, and to be made ambitiously, with big dreams, and big budgets. We would be much poorer without them.    

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring Reading List

Let's begin at the beginning. 

Is reading a good thing for people? Our distant ancestors, who created language, must have been delighted when writing took on this novel, symbolic, signified value (as the material text), which it still has for us today. 

Language, and the system of signs and symbols which represent it in material (and abstract) space, is mankind's chief invention, which has enabled the development of communication, thought, calculation--all the things which a systematic medium can provide. A written language is the first distinct plateau which separates civilized man from a primitive nomadic oral society, for whom all cultural memory and accreted accomplishments were fragile artifacts, always in danger of being forgotten or lost. Recorded history is a benchmark in time, before which we have little first-hand account. 

My parents, who had grown up in the Midwest in the first half of the 20th Century, believed that the act of reading was a hygienic pastime, not merely a tool in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, or the indulgence of a pleasurable diversion. They wanted me to acquire a comfort and familiarity with the text, that would develop into a habitual pastime. I suppose if you had asked them whether the simple act of reading, sans any connection to the nature of the text itself, was somehow a beneficial, healthy thing, they would have been puzzled; but I think, deep down, they probably believed that it was, though this would have seemed an ethically ambiguous position. Reading something wrong, to them, would probably have caused them some consternation in the formula. 

I don't recall when reading first became a habit for me. I remember reading a book called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox Jr. [1903] when I was perhaps 7 or 8. I can distinctly remember a sensation of cozy containment, curled up in a chair in our small living room, in which the unfolding narrative created its own mental pathway through suspended time and imaginative space. Earlier, my parents had sat me down and made me read books to them, as a kind of training or practice. The fact of being tested and drilled in this way prevented me from getting "lost" inside the text, so it would have to wait until I was solitary and at ease, before the magic of reading finally captured me.

Later, when I went to college, I lost this sense of reading as a recreation, having to pore over texts for meaning, regurgitation and interpretation. As early as the 11th grade in high school, I had picked up the idea of analyzing texts, and my critical sense was precocious. By the 12th grade, I was able to manipulate the meaning and significance of novels and poems and essays with ease, but this skill came with a price-tag. The more objectively I could read and interpret, the less unconscious my experience of reading became. As a young writer of poetry, I understood that the place it came from in my mind was irrational, generative, and mysterious. As I grew older, I understood that the imagination is like a muscle. But simply exercising that muscle didn't insure that what you imagined, or created, necessarily was good. The muse, unpredictable and capricious, might not smile on you, despite how hard you labored to keep it alive and in condition.  

People who read mostly for pleasure, have the luxury of experiencing it at a level that may be denied those who must work with texts as a profession, or out of necessity. My wife almost never reads serious books, but she routinely consumes a full-length mystery or romance, at an astounding rate of 4 or 5 a week. She's able to read as naturally as breathing; it's truly second nature to her. People read at different rates, and in different ways. 

When I read, I'm not just following a sequence of event. Reading is a savoring of the language, the grammar and word choice and turn of phrase a particular writer employs. I will often read a sentence or a paragraph over again, to completely comprehend it, or to study how it was done, or simply to ride it again. For me, the love of reading is composed of a number of different possible ways of apprehension, no one of which is useful in all texts, each of which may apply to a specific occasion. When I read a thriller, I'm looking to be swept up in a pursuit of intriguing details. When I read a critical book, I'm weighing the writer's point of view, his argument. When I'm reading poetry, I'm trying to appreciate the relationship between the sense of the words, the music and the ingenious wit, all in combination. 

Lately, in the last decade, I've become interested in biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. I've become convinced that autobiography is a fascinating form, in large measure because of the tension which exists between what people would like others to believe about them, and what they believe in their secret hearts is the actual truth of their lives. People may think they are better than they were, or less good than they've been regarded. It's interesting to see how people deal with this dilemma--the excuses or dismissals or emphases they may place on certain key events that happened to them, or acts which they committed.

This spring I've been reading several books at once, as usual. I happened to find a nice reading copy of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol [1985]. Forsyth fits the profile of a typical British spy thriller author of the Cold War period. He also published The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, among other well-known examples. His books are carefully researched, and have an air of authority, and of almost slavish attention to correct detail, which tends to detract a little from the narrative pace of the story. The Fourth Protocol revolves around a Soviet plot to set off a limited (small) nuclear device at an American air base in England, as a way of manipulating the British elections (during the Thatcher years) towards a Left victory, pitting the respective British and Russian intelligence services against each other in a race to apprehend the perpetrator before doomsday. The book was published just before the "fall" of the Soviet Union, in 1991, so it may seem quite dated now in its assumption of the static East-West Bloc stand-off, which more or less was officially ended then. This status is now undergoing a reappraisal, as Russia's President Putin appears to be attempting to reassert the Russian bear's hegemony over its far-flung recent satellite republics (in the Ukraine). Forsyth employs a familiar plot technique, beginning with a series of several seemingly random events occurring simultaneously in different places, gradually drawing these distinct threads into connected alignment until the two phalanxes join in the end with the apprehension of the Soviet Spy in a small English cottage town, barely preventing the detonation of the home-made nuclear device. 

The Fourth Protocol is interesting too as a kind of precursor of the age of terrorism which has developed over the succeeding decades. Pre-"9/11", events like this might have seemed improbable. The "fourth protocol" is the mutual agreement, contained in the Nuclear Arms Treaty of 1969-70, not to employ nuclear arms on a limited, secret basis. This protocol is violated, in the story, by a renegade Soviet Premier, who sees it as an irresistible weapon to manipulate public opinion, to weaken the Western democracies against the East. In 1985, people weren't thinking much about Arab terrorists, though the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) had just occurred, and young Osama bin-Laden had made his way into Afghanistan, where he was using his money to fund the mujahideen movement there, first against Russia, and later against the U.S. As America's focus shifted from the threat posed by the Soviet Union, to the Middle-Eastern Muslim extremists, many in our intelligence community continue to be concerned about the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack very much like the one sketched out by Forsyth. As the career of Forsyth's contemporary Le Carré shows, espionage genre authors have had to do some fancy foot-work to keep up with the changing complexion of world alliances and oppositions. Forsyth's novel is like a snapshot frozen in (recent) time, but with a surprisingly relevant theme.

Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First [2011] is a collection of linked gastronomical essays which first appeared in The New Yorker. Gopnik's been a foodie all his life, from his childhood, surprisingly. His first book, Paris to the Moon (based on his Paris Journal columns for the same magazine) didn't appear until he was 43. Though covering a range of different cooking issues and styles, Gopnik's primary theme is the dialectic between high and low cooking styles--characterized by the European (primarily French) tradition of the restaurant versus the bistro. as divergent customary styles of cuisine. This dilemma becomes ambiguous in European and American fine cuisine, in the post-War period, as new styles of preparation and presentation compete for ascendancy. Gopnik reviews the food traditions which channeled these respective approaches, taking nothing for granted, letting his personal eclectic American curiosity lead him here and there. He imagines a correspondence between himself and a turn-of-the-century cook-book writer, in which he looks through her eyes and his, at their separate respective attitudes towards food, trying to find congruences and distinctions that resolve.  

Adam Gopnik

Gopnik has a fine way with a phrase, and is not above waxing poetic about a taste combination that really turns him on. In the end, he seems to come down on the side of those who put pure pleasure at the center of superior cooking (and eating), rejecting both "healthy" alternatives and super-chic finery, in favor of "what works." Though he doesn't say so in as many words, he seems to be advocating an approach to gastronomy that puts the food at the center of a mandala, in which expense is only one possible attribute of the ideal. It's possible to make fabulous dishes in the privacy of one's own kitchen, if you will take the trouble to find out what's good, and go to some little trouble to obtain it. His gastronomic writing is certainly as elegant and sophisticated as any by Elizabeth David or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, though considerably less "practical." It's not a cookbook. 

Norman Douglas [1868-1952] is an enigma, though you would never have that impression if you only read his works, which show a side of him that would not lead you to imagine the sort of fellow he probably was in the flesh, in private. I've been reading his Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion [1933]. During his long life, Douglas kept a card file of people he knew or had encountered over the years, and his autobiography consists of his review of these names, one after the other, in no particular chronological order. 

Douglas is mostly known today as the author of South Wind [1917], a fantasy novel with some frisky moral and sexual innuendos, set in Southern Italy. His other books are mostly forgotten, though holding the interest of connoisseurs of disreputable indulgence. Douglas was a bi-sexual, and a deviant one, eventually preferring young boys, and even children, as partners. His escapades led him into difficulties along the way, and he eventually found haven in Italy, with periods in England and France. For me, his chief interest is in his prose style, which is an odd combination of simplicity, casualness and elegance combined. He is interested in people, but more as types, or eccentric specimens, than as full three dimensional characters. 

Norman Douglas in later life

Douglas is first and foremost devoted to the good life, good food, good landscape, good houses, good travel, nice things, etc. In this book you will find passages about D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke, Frank Harris, etc., but these are less important to the overall effect than as a procession of types which parade across his memory. The point seems to be that a life devoted to notoriety, or accomplishment, for its own sake, is transparent and pointless, whereas a cultivated life accepts each individual moment, and each  incarnation of the race as an integral segment of the tapestry, none more meaningful than another, except as we choose to make it. Douglas presents an enigma of a modern man who grew up in late Victorian England (but with one foot in Germany), whose tastes and daring attitudes informed his life with a frisson of alertness. 

Douglas came to maturity while Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Algernon Charles Swinburne were still literary news, and by the time he died there were atom bombs, televisions, jet planes, and The Catcher in the Rye had been published.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Trojan Drones

Back in 2009, I discussed the issue of censorship in the blogosphere ["Thoughts on Blogging" -- April 8th, 2009]; and in 2010, I talked about the issue of information control, secrecy and the public media ["Assange & The Assault on Internet Exchange" -- December 14, 2010].

In the last three years, the public's attention has been altered, largely as a result of the augmentation of scale of the computer device, towards devices that are portable, instead of tied down by weight and size to a desk. The personal computer has been transformed from a machine in situ, to a kind of advanced cell phone device--a computer on wheels. 

The new phones are as powerful and facile in some respects as full-sized computers used to be. They can send and receive written messages (like e.mail), take pictures, surf the internet, record financial transactions with credit cards. Like the older cell phones, however, they must still be periodically re-charged.

New so-called "social media" sites have grown up around this new technology--such as Facebook, Twitter etc.--which have capitalized on the easy interconnectivity, linking up users anywhere in the world, to sequences of text-threads  

One major drawback of the new devices is that they aren't large enough to provide a classic QUERTY keyboard, though most have a tiny version of this which can be used in the traditional "hunt and peck" manner which people who had never memorized the typing keyboard were forced to employ. Hunting and pecking, or thumbing, is now the new mode for millions of people around the world. 

Like any new gadget, the new cell-cum-computer phones are popular toys. Kids and grown-ups can both appreciate the novelty of making quick, efficient communications from any location, not tied down to a heavy wired device. 

People have begun to speculate about the effects of this new revolutionary device, and how it may influence our culture. And they've begun to wonder about the implications of being constantly "connected" to vast, intricate webs of users, as well as the potential for loss of privacy and confidentiality these new gadgets create.

Since January 2009 I've become a committed blogger, posting over 750 pieces, or essays, on a wide variety of subjects. I have no idea how many bloggers there are in the world. Two years ago, estimates were as high as 173 million, worldwide. I suppose that number much have increased since that time. I'm not sure anyone cares to know the number. 

Blogging bears comparison to earlier kinds of written communication. You type your entries on a typewriter keyboard, and they're read on screens big enough to accommodate a "page" that can be read easily. They're then "loaded" onto the internet, where they are "received" or accessible, like a kind of permanent telegram, complete with pictures and bells & whistles (links, videos etc.). 

Blogging programs are a kind of application. New applications, or apps, as they are now called, can be loaded on to any computer and used to connect to new spheres of access. You can do personal banking, play games and see a live-feed video of a Paris street. 

The first thing to remember about new social media gadgets is that they are proprietary mechanical devices (machines) which are produced to make money. They aren't made available as a public service, but must be purchased by the user. In order to connect to any other entity on the world wide web, one must forfeit some personal privacy in exchange for access. 

Cell phones are not just symbols, but invasive trojan drones of the media industry, designed to hook us up, track our behavior and movements, and analyze our habits and likes and dislikes, the more easily to target us for yet more advertising. The gathering of this data for other purposes has become a hot topic now. Do companies that service these devices, suck up data from users, store and sort and trade it (at a profit), with or without our permission, need to be regulated? Do companies have our best interests at heart? Will the government, which has now begun to spy on the vast internet network of exchange, gathering and storing up messaging data, be responsible enough not to misuse it, for political or other purposes (such as law enforcement)? 

Back in 2010, I spoke out against the use of cell phones ["The New Generation of Inter-Com Devices -- Why They're Bad" -- June 30k, 2010], objecting to the pernicious affects upon users (and others) in public, and in private. 

Since then, the new apps have moved the live voice off to one side, further compressing the window through which the oceanic exchange touches individual devices. In my last foray into this grey area of media ["Death of the Twinkie - Birth of the Hand-Held" -- August 11, 2013], I speculated about the possible death of the hand-held, using the impending death of the Twinkie Snack Treat as a metaphor. 

In spite of its enormous reach, I suspect that the new Social Media sphere may be a short-lived phenomenon. Blogging was the new kid on the block, and it's still with us. A lot of people, probably mostly kids and teens and young adults, have wandered away to fritter their lives on Twitter and Facebook, but I suspect that, given the severe restraints on communications those apps impose, they may endure only as resorts to necessity. 

Once the novelty has worn off, people will easily tire of the triviality and pointlessness of setting down a dozen or so words, and expecting friends, or strangers, to appreciate or understand the meaning of our speech. Already, communication/media wonks have begun predicting the death of Twitter and Facebook. They're already old hat. 

People may tire of being persuaded to to constantly communicating--mostly for no purpose--but the companies and corporations who produce these devices, and the companies which run the apps which live on them, have other things in mind. What will they think of next?  

I joined the blogging party, but I refused to titillate myself with Twitter. I figure that the kind of people who "tweet" to and "face" each other, probably aren't interested in discussing anything seriously, and so I have no regrets about not being a part of their game. Never having wanted to be a joiner, or a clubby type, I ignore their buzz as much as I can.  Every so often, someone I once blogged with, or exchanged an e.mail message with, will send me a Tweet alert, that there's a message waiting for me. 

Anything important enough to communicate with another person deserves to be heard privately, If you need to tell the world, or your close circle of "friends" what's on your mind, I would think that limiting it to a sentence or two would be a pretty sad commentary on the state of your consciousness, and of the low esteem you hold your readers. 

The new social media is a dumbing down of communication. People may be stupid--they usually are--but even naive, unimaginative people will quickly tire of something once the fun of discovery has passed. The very qualities which the new media demands, insures that they won't be loyal customers for long. The attention span of an ape is probably longer than someone who habitually uses Facebook or Twitter. And that is what will kill it, eventually.

It won't be a nano-second too soon for me.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Collector's Corner - Nostalgia Reigns

Everything in America eventually turns into a corporate stock fight, for the rights to exploit something that kids once got an innocent kick out of.  

When I was a boy, it seemed that there were endless things that you could collect. There were marbles, silver dollars, steel pennies, hub caps, indian arrowheads, rocks, toy cars, shells, postage stamps, Pez dispensers, records, medals. You name it, we collected it. 

In 1958, I was 10, in the fifth grade, and before I knew it, I was walking down to the local drugstore to buy packages of Topps Bubblegum packs each of which contained 5 current baseball "trading cards"--with real pictures of major league players, with their stats on the reverse side. The cards were numbered, issued in "series"--successively through the Summer season. 

According to the Wikipedia entry, the hardest cards to acquire over time, were those issued at the end of the "trading" season, since interest would wain and fewer sets of the final series each year were published (or sold). That sounds logical, but during the Season, that wasn't how it worked at all.

The first series in 1958 included many of the most desirable cards (players) in the set, and because they were the first to go off market, they were the toughest to find. By the fourth series of the Season, everyone had multiples of those, but because they were so common, they were nearly worthless. 

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," Yogi was quoted as saying, among his collection of homely chestnuts. "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." 

Among the early cards issued, were Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle. Important players issued later might become just as sought after, but because they were on the market later, they always seemed easier to find. 

Mickey always looked like a hayseed, but his Oakie bluff was good enough for Yankee pride

I don't know how far I got with my collection by the end of the collecting year (in 1958), but by the end I probably had all but about a dozen of the toughest numbers. The San Francisco Giants came west in 1958, so though the cards all showed the statistics from the previous year (in New York), the team cards showed them as the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers came west the same year to Los Angeles, so though their stats had been made in Brooklyn, their cards said Los Angeles Dodgers. 

For baseball fans, there was no magic quite like Willie's special charisma and physical grace

There was keen interest in all the Dodger cards that year, as much as for the Yankees, with their loaded line-up of stars. No one knew it at the time, of course, but a little-noticed young Southpaw named Sandy Koufax would, in a few short years, ascend into the limelight as perhaps the greatest pitcher in major league history, so his card wasn't worth much despite being a low #187. A young Puerto Rican outfielder named Orlando Cepeda hadn't yet played a game in the bigs by 1957, but he soon would become the Giants proud Rookie of the Year for 1958. 

In 1958, Hank Aaron was the most complete ballplayer in the game--power, speed, average, great in the clutch; he'd go on to play another 18 years, fulfilling the promise of his youth 

In 1958, the major leagues consisted of two divisions, the National and the American. There were eight teams in each league. The Pennant winners in each league played against each other in the World Series. There were no "play-offs" and no wild cards or also rans. With only 16 teams in the country, there was a lot of room in other places for minor league clubs. The talent was concentrated in these 16 franchises, not spread out and diluted as it is today. Any player who hoped to ascend to the majors, would have to be among the top 5 players in his minor league, or he wouldn't be noticed.    

National League

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Dodgers
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
Cincinnati Redlegs
Philadelphia Phillies
Milwaukee Braves
San Francisco Giants

American League

New York Yankees
Kansas City Athletics
Detroit Tigers
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Boston Red Sox
Washington Senators
Baltimore Orioles

I remember that the players I most wanted, aside from the whole Giants team members, were the Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra cards. They were first, or early second series cards, and I'd missed  my chance to get them early, because I hadn't caught the bug until late June or early July of the year, well after they had gone out of print. The only way you could get those cards was by trading cards with other collectors. Once you had a tough card, you generally didn't try to acquire another one, so prying loose a card from someone who had one was nearly impossible. You had to give up something that the other collector didn't have, or a card he coveted which you didn't. I don't think I ever owned the Mantle card, but I did manage to wangle a Hank Aaron (the so-called "white lettered" version, which was easier to find than the "yellow lettered" one). 

For a long time, I looked in vain for the Ed Bouchee card, which had been numbered #145. A kid I knew on my paper route claimed to own this card, and used to tease me about it. But I read now, that Ed Bouchee was charged and convicted on exposing himself to young girls, and his card was withdrawn before it was ever published, and so #145 never appeared, a permanent missing link. Poor Ed Bouchee--what a thing to be famous for.

Collecting can become an obsession, even a kind of mental disease. Stamp companies trying to lure kids into the collecting game often mentioned that FDR had been an avid stamp collector, not mentioning that it was a sedentary pastime he'd adopted after being stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair--not something he would naturally have chosen, since he'd been an active, physical man prior to the disease. Serious collectors are occasionally described as addicts. Our obsession with physical objects, imbued with almost magical qualities that make them seem priceless possessions, is an uniquely human phenomenon, though there are apparently some birds which will "feather their nests" with bits of tin foil or colored ribbon, as if it were decoration. Blogging, of course, can become a bad habit. 

The collecting bug had bitten me, in 1958, and I was hooked. Reefer Madness. I longed to have a complete run of the whole set. Then one day in the early Fall of the year, my mom and I were downtown on an errand, and she had to buy some cigarettes at a dimestore counter. What should be resting on the counter by the cash register, but a box of Topps Baseball Card packs! And not only that--these were in the waxy black wrappers, the color of the first series cartons! I begged my mom to buy me a couple packs, which she did, reluctantly. Once outside the store, I tore open the packs and was overjoyed to find the new first series cards of players I'd never been able to get in stores before. This was a stash that had lain dormant for weeks behind the counter. Realizing that this was an opportunity not to be missed, I begged and begged my mother, who eventually ended up buying the whole box for me. I don't recall now what the per-pack price was--could it have been 5 cents a pack, or as much as a quarter?--almost certainly not--else she wouldn't have popped for all of them. It was a little like finding a $50 bill on the sidewalk. You just knew that chance had favored you and that it was folly to question your luck. 

As the years passed, the card collection ended up in the basement with my other childhood effects, and I would notice it whenever I went down there. After 1974, I stopped visiting home, and I have always supposed that my brother Clark, who was 13 years younger than I, must have discovered them at some point. He eventually became an avid vintage rock music record collector, so I assume he must have realized their potential, and sold them. I still have my old world stamp album--a behemoth of about 6 inches thick--which I retrieved from home in 1973. Stamps are harder to sell on the wholesale market, so I doubt they'd have any interesting value today.

In the 1970's and 1980's, the sports card memorabilia industry really got cranked up, with complete runs of sets like this going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The sports memorabilia auction scene has fed off the internet, evoking both rising and falling price spirals to all kinds of collectibles. The sports card market crashed in the '90's, but it may have come back up by now. It's not something I watch.     

When I worked for the government, back in the early 1980's, I knew a fellow who collected baseball cards seriously. He acquired special plastic envelopes for the cards, and could quote values for all the important numbers. Later, I met a Chinese gentleman in San Francisco, who had gotten seriously into the card business, investing over $200,000 in his own edition of sports cards; but he'd gotten in just a bit too late, and had lost his shirt. Once, years later, I was at a used book sale, and someone had donated several complete boxed sets of later Topps series cards, but someone said that they were so late in the game, even complete sets weren't worth the trouble of storing or listing them for sale.

In the 1990's, I became interested in collecting rare copies of modern (post 1900) first editions. As my interested intensified, I found myself spending the kind of money you usually reserve for big necessities, like engine overhauls or a new dress suit. It didn't take long to realize that if I wanted to collect seriously, really seriously, the best way was to become a trader, instead of just a collector. The rare book dealer I knew then, told me "collecting is for dummies, Curtis, you should become a dealer. You'll see books you never imagined you'd ever see, much less own, and you'll actually have the experience of holding and studying and appreciating them, albeit temporarily." I've never had better advice in my life.

It wasn't long before I had become a serious used rare book dealer, a profession I pursue now more or less full-time (since 1991, when I retired after 27 years with the Federal Government). No matter how long you live, or how much you love what you own, you can't take it with you. I like to tell my customers that we're all "custodians" of our stuff; we're just taking care of it until the next generation(s) arrive(s) to relieve us of our abandoned dreams and burdens. 

Harry "Suitcase" Simpson--so nicknamed because he was traded so often among various teams that he never needed to unpack his suitcase 

Here's to you, Don Mossi, still alive at 85, who'd win 17 games with Detroit in 1959, eventually retiring in 1965 at age 36. What a face!