Thursday, June 18, 2015

Elvis and Nixon

The legendry surrounding this photo says that Elvis sought this meeting with Pres. Nixon to volunteer to be a drug enforcement agent, even though he was supposedly high on drugs at the time.  Nixon, on the other hand, had no idea who Elvis was, which is somewhat incredible.

70 historic moments from the 1970s - CNN.com

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Welcome to Me

Welcome to Me (2015; dir. Shira Piven) totters between being a comedy that explores the problems of a woman with “borderline personality disorder” and comedy that ridicules and makes fun of that woman.  Kristen Wiig’s acting is superb.  She excels in playing characters who border on, or are well past, the line of dysfunctionality—consider the SNL skits about the check-out woman at Target, or the genetic mutant (or whatever she is) in the parody of the Lennon Sisters on Lawrence Welk.  Yet there is not much empathy in such parodies—they show little awareness that whatever their social and genetic malformations may be, these people are human beings who in the real world undoubtedly suffer for their disabilities and for the way other people react to them.  Welcome to Me doesn’t offer much empathy for its character either. After the first half hour or so it begins to seem like a Saturday Night Live skit that ran too long, and the film becomes exploitationist comedy.  It is never consistently any one thing.  It’s sympathetic to Alice Klieg, the central character, even as it invites us to snicker at her desire to have a talk show just like Oprah’s.  When she wins the lottery, she decides to use her winnings to have her own talk show.  She calls it Welcome to Me.  Do we feel sorry for her when she decides to use her $86 million to pay for the talk show, do we laugh at her for her total lack of self-awareness, do we condemn her narcissistic self-obsessions?  Alice is a demanding self-centered woman.  She needs friends, but mainly she needs them only because they support her and reassure her about the paths she takes.  She deeply resents those who have wronged her and uses her TV show to attack them.  Her show, produced by a cheesy cable channel on the verge of bankruptcy, documents her eccentric interests and resentments.  At one point she spends a week of episodes neutering cats and dogs.  Eventually she breaks down and is committed to a hospital after wandering naked through a casino.

With therapy and medication, Alice recovers, to an extent, and uses the last episode of her talk show to apologize to her best friend, whom she has especially taken advantage of.  She gives her all that is left of her lottery winnings, $7 million, and is back to where she started—no money and still emotionally broken. 

What does this film accomplish?  Despite moments of promise, it’s unfocused and meandering and self-indulgent and though superficially it might invite us to feel sympathetic towards Alice instead at heart what it wants is for us to laugh at her.

Top Five

Halfway through Top Five (2014, dir. Chris Rock) I began to recognize echoes of an earlier film, Stardust Memories (1980; dir. Woody Allen).  The echoes were both of what the films are about—comic artists who want to make serious films—as well as in style.  Both Rock and Allen employ self-deprecating humor and satire in their comic routines and films, and in Top Five Rock’s willingness to make fun of the character he plays is especially evident. I don’t mean that Top Five borrows directly from Allen’s film, but the earlier film was clearly an influence.  I thought this insight, when I had it, was a good one, but soon after discovered that a number of reviewers had pointed it out as well.  It’s made expressly clear in a 2014 New Yorker profile of Rock which focused on the film:  “One of Rock’s inspirations was ‘Stardust Memories,’ the 1980 Woody Allen movie, in which Allen played Sandy Bates, a comic director who was sick of comedy. Early on, Rock has Andre repurpose Sandy Bates’s best-known line. ‘I don’t feel funny,’ he moans, and he spends the rest of the movie—which unfolds in New York, in the course of a day—explaining himself to a Times reporter, played by Rosario Dawson, while simultaneously coming to his senses, or trying to.”[1]

Oh well, so much for an original insight.

Rock is a wild and fierce comedian with an independent streak.  He speaks his mind, and sometimes runs into trouble as a result.  In this film, he aims at the entertainment industry, the American obsession with celebrity, and the typical arc of a famous actor’s career.  In the film he plays a comic actor named Andre Allen, who got his start as a stand-up comic.  He becomes most famous for playing a cop in a bear suit (“Hammy the Bear”) in three wildly popular films.  Now he is more interested in serious work and is about to premier a new film about a slave rebellion in Haiti.  Rock quickly disabuses us of the notion that Andre might be a great filmmaker.  The short scene we see from his slave rebellion film seems pretty bad.  The real focus of Top Five is on Andre and where the course of his life will go.  His great days as a comic actor may be over, and he’s no longer willing to wear bear suits.  His career, in fact, may be on the wane.  Maybe as a result his agent has scripted a marriage for him with a celebrity housewife that will keep him in the spotlight.  This is a step in Andre’s transformation from a star with talent to a celebrity.  His agent tells him that given the current state of his career he may soon find himself on “Dancing with the Stars,”  where actors with faded careers go before fading away entirely.

The real dilemma for Andre is whether he allows the celebrity vortex to suck him up or whether he can regain control of himself and retain some vestige of his own identity.  The fact that he is a recovering alcoholic complicates matters.  A reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who wants to interview him follows him around through much of the film, asking questions, gradually attracting his interest.  Then he learns that she has been writing fiercely negative reviews of his films for the New York Times under a pseudonym.  Part of the interest for me in this film is Andre’s hazy awareness that the films he has made aren’t really very good and that he has to choose between the arc of celebrity that his agent has crafted for him and his own personal satisfaction.

I liked this film.  I identified with the concerns that Rock’s character is grappling with.  Top Five harkens back to a much earlier film, the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941), in which a director famous for his comic films decides he wants to be a “serious” director.[2] 


[2] The New York Times review of this film by Manohla Dargis also linked it to Sullivan’s Travels.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/12/arts/in-top-five-chris-rock-is-a-comic-getting-serious.html?_r=0. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

The strange property of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is its atmospheric numbingness.  It does a good enough job of narrating a series of rapes that occur at the University of Montana.  The victims are young women students of the University.  The rapists are, or are purported to be, football players for the most part.  Krakauer obviously means the example of Missoula to stand as the symbol of a much broader problem in the United States, that of the prevalence of rape not only in college campuses but in general society as well.  He focuses especially on the inability or unwillingness of the justice system—police, district attorneys, defense attorneys, court proceedings--to handle crimes of rape.

Krakauer shows how rape victims, as soon as they report their crimes, become figures of suspicion to the law enforcement system that should be defending them.  One of the first questions many police officers ask rape victims is whether they have boyfriends.  They ask this question because they suspect the victims have invented the rape as a way of getting revenge on boyfriends who have been unfaithful or who have broken up with them.  The true incidence of false rape accusations, Krakauer shows, is less than 20%.  Rape victims are never able to escape the suspicions of society at large that they somehow invented or invited their rape or could have avoided it.

Also disturbing is the sympathy that automatically seems to well up around the accused rapists, especially if they are popular athletes.

Krakauer’s descriptions of the rapes, based on interviews, testimony and first-hand accounts by the victims, are graphic, perhaps unnecessarily so.  But it is, perhaps, the graphic fact of rape—the forcible penetration of one person’s body into another’s—that accounts for the damage it does, not merely the physical damage, which in most cases heals soon enough, but the psychological damage, which can persist for years.  All of this said, Krakauer’s accounts of the rapes have a faintly prurient value.

Krakauer made his reputation writing narratives about men in confrontation with nature and their inner selves—Into the Wild (1996), Into Thin Air (1997).  In Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) he investigated many of the more extreme and scandalous aspects of the Mormon Church.  The subject matter of Missoula is significantly different.  Not that he doesn’t give it due effort, nor that he doesn’t make clear in any number of ways that his sympathies lie with the victims and that he regards rape as a horrendous crime.  But his reliance on first-person accounts, newspaper articles, courtroom transcripts, and interviews in some sense strips the author from the story.  He arranges and edits and introduces and glosses the sources he presents, but he doesn’t explore them very deeply.  Although we come to understand the damage suffered by the young women who were the victims of rape in Missoula, what we don’t understand is the nature of that particular masculine mind that commits rape, especially the athletic mind.  That aspect of the story remains a disturbing mystery.

 

 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, by Mark Edmundson

My responses to Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, 2013),  are mixed.  I appreciate Edmundson’s dedication to teaching, but not his narrow sense of what it can be.  He misjudges and underestimates contemporary students.  He is glib, flippant, and prone to jerking his knee.  Although some of his objections to the impact of technology on students and learning are apt, he doesn’t acknowledge the advantages it offers.  Finally, we can all groan and moan about the good old days when universities weren’t sprawling corporate structures, but those days are never coming back.  Those of us who might feel marginalized by the changes that continue to take place in modern universities really need to take stock and decide how to preserve and nurture what is valuable about what we do.  Only in this way can we effectively oppose the dark forces that threaten to transform universities into technocratic mind-control job creation factories.  Humanists, in particular, need to abandon their self-marginalizing defensiveness and enter aggressively into the fray and demonstrate their value to the larger university mission.

Edmundson is in a sense locked within the frame of his own life and teaching style.  It limits almost everything he says.  He assumes that teachers who make references to popular culture, who use group exercises, who encourage discussion, who flip the classroom are pandering.  I think he is right to caution about such practices, but he fails to recognize that they can actually have value.  He needs to accept that there are more teaching styles than one, and that different bodies of knowledge may require different methods of presentation in the classroom.  Change and evolution are natural, inevitable.

Yet Edmundson’s time frame is my own, and I can therefore appreciate and sometimes share his point of view, his concerns about how important advantages of teaching and of universities are being lost, about the disappearance of standards.  I believe in drawing distinctions between great ideas and works of art and shoddy, transient ephemera.  I believe it is wrong to allow students to think that all opinions (including their own) are equally worthy.

Where Edmundson really resonates with me is in his sense of teaching as a way of helping students discover themselves and the paths they will take in their lives.  He refers to this as helping students “learn how to live.”  He uses the word “transformation.”  He is specifically referring to the teaching of literature and to the notion that through literature one can discover one’s own deepest self.  I agree and fully embrace that position although I think the teaching of any subject can lead towards the same end.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Comments for May 8, 2015, Theatre and Film Studies Graduation

On behalf of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, I welcome all of you—parents, students, family members, friends, faculty, and staff--to this graduation celebration for the students of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies. This is an important moment for all of us.  If you think about it in a literal sense, graduation is a strange word.  It suggests chemical or physical measurement.  It also suggests advancement, but towards what?  Graduation is certainly a milestone (another interesting term that suggests we measure our lives with road markers, one mile, two miles, and so on).  Because of its association with education, we also know that graduation means the conferring of academic degrees.  Graduation is therefore an ending, a culmination, and a commemoration of what you’ve learned and achieved during the last four or five years of your time here at the University of Georgia. 

I don’t like this term, graduation.  I prefer a better word.  It’s the term commencement.  It also means the granting of academic degrees.  It derives from an Old French word commencier, that itself derives from Latin.  It means beginnings.  Today you begin.  You are marking the end of your studies at UGA, and the beginning of a new and exciting, challenging, frightening, inspiring and hopeful period in your existence. I wish you good fortune and satisfying, impactful lives that leave beneficial marks on our world.  So as you come to this ending, and stand on the verge of this beginning, I congratulate all of you. 

 Thank you.

Comments for May 7, 2015, Hugh Hodgson School of Music Graduation

I am here to welcome graduates of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, their parents and other family members, their friends and colleagues.  This is an important time and a chance to pause and reflect on all you’ve achieved and of the lives you have ahead of you.  I congratulate all of you, and I congratulate and thank the staff and faculty of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music for helping you to arrive at this point.

Over the past few months I’ve been reading about the lives of many of the great composers.  Foremost among them, for me, is Beethoven, whose monumental achievement changed western music and influenced every composer who followed him. Beethoven once made a statement that in many ways sums up the importance of music and of what all of you as teachers, scholars, and performers of music, have to offer to our world.  Beethoven is reported to have said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”  I think that is a wonderful declaration.

I have to add, however, that my favorite statement by Beethoven is one he reportedly made after dismissing a housekeeper who was I assume his cook: “Only the pure of heart can make a good soup.” 

Once again, I extend my best wishes to all of you.  Enjoy the music, and enjoy the soup.

 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Selected Stories, 1968-1994, by Alice Munroe

Rarely in Alice Munroe’s stories does she ever seem to lose the pace of the narrative.  Her focus may wander back and forth in time and place, or from one character to another, but she is always in control.  That is to say, her stories command the reader’s attention.  Place figures prominently in her work, mostly Canada as a place, especially outlying towns and areas.  She doesn’t celebrate place, or long for it nostalgically, but it’s frequently there, in the background, occasionally the foreground.  Munroe’s stories tend to be long ones—not verging on short novel length, but long.  She develops characters at length.  We learn much about them.  We inhabit their minds and sensibilities and come to know them.  Even so, they can surprise us.  In a sequence of stories taken from Munroe’s collection Who Do You Think You Are (1978) centered on a woman named Rose, the character gradually changes from a sympathetic and innocent young girl someone who wins our sympathy and interest to an unlikeable, self-absorbed, damaged soul. 

Munroe’s main characters are almost always women—young women, mothers, single women in middle age or older.  There’s not an overtly feminist ethos at work, but constraint—the restraints of a women’s life, whether imposed by geography or money or marriage or motherhood or age—is almost always an issue.  Few writers have surprised me more than Munroe.  Often in a single sentence, she turns the reader’s perception of a character or a situation or a motive or of the overall narrative on its head, and the story opens up.  These may be epiphanies, but not in the Joycean sense.  Munroe reinvents the epiphany.  More subtle, less dramatic, than Edith Wharton or Henry James or Joyce, her epiphanies still shake the earth.

As different from them as she in fact is, Munroe invokes for me the stories of Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, if only because her practice of the short story, like theirs, is distinctive, individual, and absolutely deft.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Star Wars films

I recently watched the first two Star Wars films, Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  In their time, these films and their special effects laden representations of cosmic star battles and the American Dream of a would-be Jedi knight on a lonely planet may have been groundbreaking and entertaining.  I probably saw the first Star Wars film eight or nine times in the first year of its release (I was old enough at the time to know better).  These films were great fun.  They were exciting. But viewing them some 35 years later, they seem corny, awkward, badly managed, and dead.  They seem about as real as the portrayals of space on the old Lost in Space television series.  Watching these films, I remember the initial rush of discovery and surprise they gave the first time I saw them.  But today there is no rush.  The notion of an intergalactic empire is patently unbelievable. Moreover, and most importantly, people don’t talk to one another as the characters in these films do.  The supposed flirtatious banter between Hans Solo and Leia is excruciating.  And why exactly do people on distant planets walk around clothed in the garb of ancient Rome? 

I can overlook the costumes, but not the dialogue, and not the patently absurd premise that underlies these films.  Not to mention “the Force.” Most of all I can’t overlook how badly the films are made.  The pacing is flat, the editing poor. Lucas made things worse by adding in digital effects that often seem superfluous when these films went to DVD.  He added scenes and dialogue intended to create unity with the larger narrative he would later embellish in the films released in 1999, 2002, and 2005, and which the Disney Studios will continue to develop in its own production of the last three films of the nine Lucas originally envisioned.  They don’t work anymore.  Have I grown too old?  Am I just a complaining human version of C-3PO?

Monday, April 20, 2015

St. Vincent

St. VincentSt. Vincent (2014; dir. Theodore Melfi) is amusing and entertaining.  It’s also formula driven, the old story of an embittered and aging curmudgeon whose heart is softened by (in this case) a child.  Sometimes these stories are told with subtlety.  This one is not so subtle.  The key performers are Bill Murray as the curmudgeon, Vincent, and Melissa McCarthy as the boy’s mother.  I’ve not cared much for McCarthy’s work—she has dedicated herself to portraying overweight female buffoons.  Here she is subdued and more effective.  Most of the comedy is focused on Murray’s crabby responses to practically everything that confronts him.  He’s a gambling chain-smoking alcoholic.  He is good in this role, but he’s really enacting a character he’s played on and off since his Saturday Night Live years). I still think Lost in Translation (2003) is his best film.  This one hints (as these films often do) that there are reasons for Vincent’s crabbiness.  He’s a Vietnam war veteran. Several scenes show him talking to a woman who lives in a nursing home.  He wheels her around in a wheelchair, does her laundry, and gradually we come to realize who she is.  (She seems so placid and sweet that it’s difficult to imagine how she and Vincent could ever have gotten along.  Maybe they didn’t.) Vincent suffers a stroke after two crooks try to force him to pay his gambling debts, and in the end he is more a victim than anything else. St. Vincent basically suggests to us that a sweet and needy child, along with a caring prostitute, can solve just about any problem. I wish life were so easy.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley, by Kim Cross

What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley, by Kim  Cross (Atria Books, 2015), is most effective in its descriptions of the moments just before the tornadoes strike, and the immediate aftermath.  In one scene an ambulance full of EMTs arrives in a public housing development just after the tornado has passed and is immediately greeted by three different men carrying dead babies.  The moment is gruesome, awful.  Cross efficiently portrays the destructive power of tornadoes both in their impact on buildings and on human victims, those that survive the storms and those that don’t.

My objections to this book fall into two categories: moral and narrative.  What Stands in a Storm is virtual voyeurism.  It focuses on, highlights, and exploits the suffering and death the storms caused.  It provides journalistic disaster footage, in essence, and to the extent that we enjoy the spectacle of airplane crashes and burning buildings and auto wrecks, we relish the onslaught of the tornadoes—because we survived, because Cross in her book allows us to experience the storms in a virtual and safe way.  The value of learning about the April 2011 storms is significant, but In terms of the narrative, Cross uses a tried and true way of telling the story: she introduces an array of sympathetic characters, college students, parents, meteorologists, and policemen.  She introduces the developing storms.  She moves methodically from one description of the oncoming storms to another description of worried students watching the weather on television to a scene of a weather broadcaster worrying about whether people will heed warnings about the storms.  Moving back and forth from storms to people, Cross builds tension, engages pathos and fear, pushes us towards the moment the storms strike.  The choice of three college students hiding in the basement of a house in the storm’s path seems calculated in my opinion to evoke sentiment.  It’s even more exaggerated by the phone calls and text messages that the students make to friends and parents.  A hysterical mother describes the oncoming storms to her hysterical daughter.  Cross makes clear by how she sets the story up that the students are going to die, well before the storms approach Tuscaloosa.  We’re taunted and tantalized and tempted with their fates, and then trees fall, crushing the house where the students hide, killing them. Then we’re treated to the search for their bodies, the reactions of the distraught families, the funerals (and wedding) that follow.

Several hundred people died in these storms.  Cross’ decision to focus mainly on young college students seems a cheesy ploy that ignores the extent of the deaths and destruction the storms caused.

 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (2014; dir. James Marsh) is a good film, not a great one.  Its virtue is the acting of Eddie Redmayne, who portrays Stephen Hawking.  The title is misleading—the film is not about Hawking’s work as a physicist.  We learn a bit about his work, but not much.  Nor do we learn, or are we given hints, about the roots of Hawking’s genius.  It’s there when we first meet him.

The film clearly suggests that Hawking’s first wife Jane (Felicity Jones) was a primary factor in his success and fame.  It is based on her book about their marriage, and the book like the film doesn’t have much to say about Hawking the scientist, only Hawking the husband.

When they marry, Jane believes Stephen will live at most two years.  He has just been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis(ALS).  Instead he lives into his 70s (he is alive today), and the focus of her existence becomes increasingly focused on taking care of him and his physical needs, in addition to their three children.  As the disease progresses he loses his ability to walk, is confined to a wheel chair, and ultimately can’t feed himself or even talk without mechanical assistance.  The film makes clear that although Jane loves him this life for her is deadening.  She is attracted to a younger man, Jonathan, a widower and the choir leader for a local church who becomes friends with both Hawking and Jane.  Eventually Hawking in effect gives Jane his approval for her to have a relationship with Jonathan.  He in turn becomes involved with a nurse hired to care for him.

The Theory of Everything is about the arc of a marriage, its beginnings, middle, and end.  The two main characters are wonderfully portrayed--Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking deserved the Academy Award nomination for best actor it received. The film, charming and entertaining, was well made and commonplace.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

William Styron goes further in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Random House, 1990William Styron) in conveying the nature of depression than most writers I have encountered.  His own experience with depression made him an authoritative informer.  His abilities as a highly descriptive writer should have enabled him to give an effective account.  And although I‘m not going to say that he isn’t effective, nonetheless there is a distinctive separation between the depression he describes and our ability as reader to know what he is talking about.  What does it mean for the mind to dissolve?  What kind of emotional pain would leave one completely debilitated?  What does it mean to find in one’s life that circumstances have become so hopeless that the only solution is to end life?  (He notes that in his four novels, three main characters commit suicide).  Styron is convincing in his affirmation of his suffering.  He is not self-pitying.  He does not feel sorry for himself.  He seems to have some awareness of the effects of his suffering on the people around him.  But mostly he describes depression as a lonely, isolating, solipsistic darkness.

A depressed individual might well recognize himself in Styron’s account, though he insists that every episode of depression is different.  He offers no consolation for the depressed person, other than to report the fact that most episodes of depression run their course, the sufferer eventually recovering to go on with life, except for the 20% of the most severely depressed, who choose suicide.  It is unhappy to know that, at least in Styron’s experience, medication did not relieve his pain.  It is disheartening to read that psychoanalysis does not often move one towards recovery.  (One psychiatrist told Styron not to talk about his illness because of the social stigma).  Styron sees depression as the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, but he also connects it to childhood trauma of some type, in his case the early death of his mother.

Haruki Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) gives a wrenching account of depression in its opening pages—similar to Styron’s account but more powerfully convincing.

Friday, March 20, 2015

An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNellie

An Irish friend recommended this book to me, the memoir by a Welsh writer and editor Andrew McNellie of his yearlong stay in Inishmore, of the isles of Aran in the late 1960s.  I have yet to figure out the odd and not particularly pertinent title of the memoir--An Aran Keening (2001, Liliput Press).  There’s no real mourning in the book, no deep preoccupation with anything lost, even though the final pages make clear that loss and deep change have occurred.

As a young man the author wants to immerse himself in the Aran culture, to be isolated and cut off from his own life.  Romantic difficulties might be part of the reason.  So he goes to live on Inishmore.  He tells the people he rents a cottage from there that his wife was unable to come with him, when in fact he is not married at all.  I found it interesting and frustrating to read this book.  The author describes the landscape and the small town and most of all the people of the island where he lives.  But for the most part we never get anywhere.  The author’s self-absorption prevents him from engaging more with the islanders around him.  There’s always a sense of distance between the author and the islanders, and even though he says it is ultimately bridged and removed, we never feel that.  The author is immersed in the culture of Aran, and then after a year with little fanfare he abandons it and returns to the mainland and continues his life.  Is there no after-effect?  No point? No significance to it all?  In the epilogue, he returns to visit Inishmore after 30 years to find how things have changed, how the island has lost its isolation and become something of a tourist spot.

The memoir gives a glimpse, incomplete and scattered, of what life for centuries would have been like in the Aran islands—windswept, isolated, under the constant barrage of winter storms, tales of fishermen lost at sea, nights at the pub. The book is too short and superficial.  We’re tantalized but not satisfied when it’s over with the possibility of what a deeper account might provide.  In some ways the epilogue is the best part of the book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

In The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Summit Books, 1985), Oliver Sacks makes clear how flimsy our hold on reality, on our sense of reality, really is.  Most of us accept the necessity of living with the risk of events that will injure or kill us—automobile accidents, fires, assaults, sudden illness.  I don’t think we are nearly as conscious of the possibility that physical events—stroke, brain infection—will sever or significantly alter our ability to live in and understand the world.

CoverMost of the case studies in this book are of people who were born with brain deficits, or who at an early age suffered a disease such as encephalitis that left their brains damaged.  One man cannot remember events after 1945—he has no short-term memory; a pair of twins are mathematical savants who can calculate 10 digit prime numbers in their heads even though they have IQs of 60; a severely damaged man can draw images with skill; a woman dying from brain cancer is overwhelmed with visions of serenity as the disease slowly eats away at her personality; a woman loses her ability to understand the concept of “left”—she cannot process what she sees with her left eye, she cannot use her left hand, she cannot even turn to the left—the left doesn’t exist for her; another women loses her sense of connection to her own body—to move her limbs, she has to look at and think about moving them—her body becomes in essence a machine that she can control but to which she feels no connection.  The list of afflictions goes on.

Sacks’ book makes clear that our connection to reality, our sense of it, and even, in effect, reality itself, is a physiological function, a brain function.  I thought of the James Dickey poem "Pursuit from Under" in which the poet imagines himself walking on the arctic ice, looking down to see the killer whale that is stalking him beneath the ice.  This is a metaphor for the constant presence of the possibility of death, of non-existence.  In Sack’s book it is the brain whose malfunction can dissolve reality, our world, our identity, entirely.

Sacks writes in a style that is somewhat aimed towards the layperson but that is also clearly the prose style of a doctor.  He makes frequent reference to other neurologists and to studies of the brain and employs terms that are specific to the discipline of neurology.  Oddly, he uses terms such as retardate, moron, simpleton, dullard.  I suppose in the field of neurology they have specific meaning while in common parlance they are unacceptable 

Sacks writes with great compassion for his patients even while he regards them in the most clinical and detached way.  In each of his patients, he looks for humanity, and he seems to feel that the health industry and society’s tendency to institutionalize people with extreme brain deficits, or to assume they are incapable of living a normal life, overlooks what they are capable of in many cases—personal fulfillment and satisfaction, even of use to the human community.

The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand

Many portions of this book were interesting.  The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand (Flamingo, 2001), traces the development of key ideas in American intellectual life from just before the Civil War to the first several decades of the 20th century.  I was especially interested in his account of the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on American thinkers, the abolitionist movement, the development of pragmatism (to an extent), and the philosophy of John Dewey.  I found the book most fascinating in its account of the (mostly) men behind these ideas.  Several figures especially emerged—Louis Agassiz, who played a major role in the development of the fields of geology and anthropology and whose ideas on race (he was obsessed with proving African Americans as biologically inferior) were deplorable, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce (more interesting for his lifestyle than for his thought—he is portrayed as brilliant but never quite able to get his ideas down into essays and books in finished and cohesive form).

The Metaphysical Club is well written, wide ranging, willing to wander off on rewarding tangents, and, too often boring, especially in the latter half where we encounter dense discussions of competing philosophical ideas.  (I spent too much time eager to reach the final page).  I credit Menand for not beginning with preconceptions or received wisdom.  Contrary to popular opinion, many abolitionists did not believe in racial equality (a few did; many did not).  He portrays the leading figures in his narrative three dimensionally, not as icons but as thinking men whose ideas develop over time and who could sometimes be wholly wrong headed.  Menand treats these figures as participants in an evolving and developing American intellectual culture, men who gradually moved away from venerated traditions towards a more modern view of the world, of ideas, of philosophy which is contingent and ungrounded in absolutes.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Whiplash

I don’t enjoy stories or films about abusive teachers.  Maybe the fact that I am a teacher makes this a sensitive topic for me.  But I don’t think there is any excuse for tyranny in the teacher-student relationship.  The film Whiplash might be seen to condone such abuse for the cause of higher art.  A despotic teacher tyrannizes an aspiring percussionist—he yells, throws objects, shames, humiliates, and physically abuses.  Members of the band he conducts are terrified by him, yet they put up with him in hopes of being discovered—of getting the big break that will give them entry into the music industry—and their teacher constantly holds up this possibility in front of them.

Fletcher is the teacher—J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for this portrayal.  His student is Andrew, played by Miles Teller.  Fletcher’s abusive nature is equaled, perhaps, by Andrew’s ambition to be a great drummer.  He practices until his hands are bloody.  He breaks up with his girlfriend because, he tells her, she will get in the way of his ambitions.  He does nothing but practice and as Fletcher goads and shames and tempts him with the first position among percussionists in his band, he drives himself towards a breakdown.  When he oversleeps on the day of an important competition, he drives recklessly towards the rehearsal room where he is supposed to be, wrecks the car, arrives injured and bleeding, only to be ejected by Fletcher for his tardiness.  A fight ensues.  It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Andrew, who is headed towards becoming some a version of Fletcher.

This film’s conclusion tempts us to believe that, after all, abusive tyrannizing and hyperactive ambitions are justified in the name of art.  Abuse your students.  Isolate and deny yourself.  Nothing else matters.  Art justifies all.  Not so.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Nightcrawler

Louis Bloom, the main character in Nightcrawler (2014; dir Dan Gilroy), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has the classic traits that I associate with psychopaths. He absolutely lacks in empathy. He's singleminded in pursuit of his ambition to become known, wealthy, and successful. He walks with a curiously stiff gait, in short steps, holding his arms flat against the sides of his body. His state is focused and without emotion. He exploits people without guilt or even awareness that he is exploiting them.  He shows personal interest in one person, the news team leader Nina Romina played by Rene Russo, and part of the reason is that she is much like him.  Another part of the reason is that she is his avenue to success—she can buy the footage he takes of accident scenes throughout the city. Gyllenhaal’s character was not merely unlikeable.  It made me deeply uncomfortable to watch him and his treatment of other human beings.

Louis is entirely self-created.  After watching two videographers film the scene of a car wreck and learning that tv stations will buy video footage for money, he buys equipment with the proceeds of stolen goods and starts filming.  He is fearless and puts himself and his assistant at risk.  To rid himself of a competing team of videographers, he cuts cables in their car so that they have a wreck.  He reaches the point of arranging crime scenes so that he can film them.  In the end, he sets his own assistant up to be shot dead, all so that he can film the event.

Such verminous figures prowl the landscape of our nation in numerous guises and forms.  The idea that they can, as they often do, go free is not encouraging.  It doesn’t make for a rewarding film either.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid

Well written, with a three-dimensional and richly detailed exposition, embedded in the historical milieu of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s, concerned with issues of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, sectional hostilities, with an interesting parallel between Scotland and Serbia, by all reckoning The Skeleton Road (2014; Val McDermid) should be a successful novel.  It left me cold.  A few of the characters, the professor of geography and the Croatian war hero Mitja Petrovic, were larger than life.  The intentionally diminished characters, especially the British detective Macanespie and primarily the Scottish detective Jane Pirie, were the most interesting.  If the novel had centered on Pirie more than it did, it might have been more of a success.  But it lacked something.

The first ominous sign is the fact that all the primary characters have distinctive two word names—Jane Pirie, Maggie Blake, Phil Parhatka, Tessa Minoque, etc.  For whatever reason, this immediately established for me an artificial and contrived narrative.  Then there are the parallel competing plots.  Then there is the opening scene, in which occurs a murder the solution to which becomes the justification for practically all the characters and events in the novel. There is the character who emerges late in the story as the mole and the murderer whom everyone is tracking.  There’s the final confrontation—predictable and formulaic—between the murderer and her adversary.  It’s formula.  Well executed, but formula. 

McDermid has a knack for developing minor characters.  Her most compelling characters are the ones who do not immediately fall into a glamorous mold.  Jane Pirie is interesting precisely because she doesn’t immediately seem to have the physical beauty, wealth, and brilliance that such characters as Maggie Blake or Tessa possess.  McDermid’s ability to develop an interesting and finally compelling character from a commonplace background is impressive.  For me, one of the most impressive characters in the novel was Pirie’s sidekick, the “Mint,” whom Pirie at first loathes as dimwitted, but who gradually develops into a figure who, if not brilliant, feels deeply and shows his loyalty to Pirie in various significant if unremarkable ways.  Both these characters seem real, far more so than do Maggie or Tessa or Mitja Petrovic.

As I advance in years (I suppose this could be called gaining in wisdom or deteriorating in mental capacity—the reader may choose) I have less tolerance for shallow or sloppy or half-ass or self-indulgent writing.  The novel Glow, mentioned in an earlier post, was not a bad book.  It was well written and in some ways creative, but in the end I couldn’t see the point.  It was just an exercise in good writing and technique, not literature.  I thought Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch was, at times, entertaining, and at other times impressive, but in the end it left me empty—it substituted the pyrotechnics of Tartt’s undeniably interesting and wide-ranging mind and her ability to write endless pages of narrative for art.  I’m sure she thought her book was art.  I certainly couldn’t have written it.  I couldn’t have written The Skeleton Road.  I appreciate what both Tartt and McDermid accomplish in their novels.  But they seem more an ordeal than a literary experience.

One major subplot is dropped, unresolved at the end of the novel.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Glow, by Neil Beaumann

Glow (2015), by Ned Beauman, is about the entanglement of the industry that designs and manufactures illegal drugs with freedom fighters and multinational corporations.  By standard definitions, those who manufacture illegal drugs are criminals.  In this novel, we deal not only with those criminals but with criminals who go to any lengths to promote and protect the interests of international corporations.  This interesting novel did not at first grab me, but eventually I found myself engaged.  I stayed up late reading, and then, at some point, my interest waned. 

Several of the leading characters in Glow are experts not only in the manufacture of drugs but also in the anatomy of the brain and of the chemicals and neurological processes affected by drugs meant to excite the brain for purposes of producing pleasure.  We’re much exposed in this novel to the chatter of these characters about the brain’s anatomy, and after a time the chatter becomes as tiresome as discussions about sports or about how to build a deck.  It doesn’t sustain the novel.

There are many mysteries here involving the nature of the white vans that cruise throughout London, kidnapping Burmese citizens, and about strangely behaving foxes.  There’s a beautiful young woman named Cherish with whom the main character Raf falls in love.  There’s a missing friend.  The plot rapidly thickens.  I found it increasingly difficult to follow the thickening tangle of events.  Is this my fault or the novel’s? 

One interesting device the writer employs is that of introducing a secondary character who then proceeds to tell a long story about himself or about someone he knows, and this provides information of importance to the general plot of the novel.  Such a device should seem artificial or contrived, but for the most part it works.  Glow is well written and intelligent, and every few pages the writer manages to trot out a new word—a word so unfamiliar that I had to look it up—and this should have been more of a distraction than it was.  There’s a cleverness in how this novel interweaves competing concepts and ideas—sometimes excessive cleverness.

Friday, February 20, 2015

John Wick

In The Equalizer (2014; dir. Antoine Fuqua) a former highly skilled assassin emerges from retirement partially induced by the death of the woman he loved to combat Russian mobsters.  In John Wick (2014; dir. Chad Stahelski) a former highly skilled assassin in mourning over his lover’s death emerges from retirement to combat Russian mobsters.  It is not that one film has copied the other.  The idea of a retired assassin lured from retirement by personal affront or moral outage is an attractive plotline.  Even more so when the assassin is so skilled that there is little reason to doubt that he will succeed in defeating adversaries.  One difference between these two films is production values.  John Wick is competently made and tightly executed, but The Equalizer is a more artful film, with better acting (Denzel Washington), cinematography, and a more compelling backstory.  When the head Russian crime lord learns that his son has stupidly stolen John Wick’s car, killed his dog, and beaten him up, he groans because he knows from past experience that if John Wick decides to seek revenge, nothing will stop him.  In effect, that moment strips the film of dramatic tension—John Wick will win.  The film thus proceeds to show how John Wick does what he does.  There is much shooting and mayhem. Russian mobsters die left and right.  Even though the film begins with a scene in which John Wick, badly wounded in a deserted parking lot, passes out, thereby suggesting his death, as the film makes its way forward we come to suspect that even this scene will be followed by another in which John gets back up and moves on.  We are not disappointed.  John Wick depends for whatever success it achieves on two factors: one is that we in the audience enjoy watching evildoers destroyed; the other is that we relish violence of every sort, especially when we can delude ourselves into believing that violence that serves moral retribution is somehow violence justified. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Shadows in the Night, by Bob Dylan

After a long career of highly creative music that had a major impact on American popular culture and that as artistic expression will likely last for centuries, Bob Dylan has earned the privilege of his eccentricities.  We should be willing to indulge them, occasionally.  I knew of his fondness for Sinatra from his memoir Chronicles, volume 1, and in a number of recent albums he has written songs in the Tin Pan Alley style.  I think especially of “Beyond the Horizon” on Modern Times, which sounds like a Bing Crosby Hawaiian tune, and of the entirety of Christmas in the Heart, a part-serious, part tongue-in-cheek tribute to the American popular Christmas music tradition.  No one could have grown up when Dylan did and escaped the influence of the music that people listened to in those years.

The songs on Shadows in the Night (2015) are well performed, and it is interesting to hear Dylan put his imprint on works that Sinatra sang but that we don’t normally associate with him.  I’ve read commentaries about how Dylan comes across in these songs as emotional and vulnerable, about how the album really works and is fun and listenable.  The reviews, in fact, have been strongly positive.  There’s no doubt that in performing these songs Dylan seriously puts his heart into them.

From my standpoint, these songs weren’t written for Dylan’s voice.  The Dylan I respect and admire is a writer of songs, an interpreter of his own music.  He’s the masterful creator of Highway 61 Revisited, “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Cold Irons Bound,” Love and Theft, “I'm Not There,” and so many others.  If I recorded an album like this one, no one would listen to it, except perhaps my embarrassed family.  I couldn’t convince anyone to record it, unless I paid to have it made.  Dylan has a band, he has the financial resources, he has the reputation to persuade people to listen to whatever he records and produces.  (I will listen to anything he records.)  Now he has produced Shadows in the Night.  I have listened to it repeatedly, attempting to “get” what he is doing. But I can’t. I hope he’s got it out of his system.

The Children, by David Halberstam

The Children, by David Halberstam (Random House, 1998) is organized in chapters focused on the important participants in the sit-ins that began in Nashville in 1960.  The important participants in these events, such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, went on to become leading figures in the civil rights actions of the early 1960s.  Halberstam tends to devote one chapter at a time to these individuals, moving back and forth among them, so that we come to understand and appreciate them as participants in as well as leaders of the movement.

The account of young college students who came from various backgrounds, some of them privileged, some not, is a tremendous story.  In ways that few people their age today can imagine, they put their lives at risk, opposing a deeply engrained way of life that others were willing to fiercely, even violently, protect.  Their persistence and courage, their deep belief in nonviolence, changed America.

For many of these students, the high point of their lives was their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.  Afterwards many of them discovered they had suffered trauma, the equivalent of traumatic stress syndrome, from which it took years to recover.  Some went on to productive lives in politics, medicine, education, while others drifted.  Halberstam traces the arc of their lives and careers in detail.

Diane Nash, whom previously I knew little about, was a beautiful, intelligent young women who dropped out of college to work in the movement.  She held important leadership and administrative positions, playing as important a role as many of the males.  Unfortunately, as was typical of the times, she did not always receive full credit for her contributions.

James Bevel, who for a short time was married to Nash, was a fiercely independent and iconoclastic figure.  Unlike many members in the Movement, who were willing to discuss their plans and negotiate and compromise before reaching consensus, Bevel believed his way was always the right one.  He was difficult to work with as a result.  Martin Luther King was particularly wary of him.  However, his fierce courage in the face of the worst forms of adversity made a major contribution.  He became an anti-war activist later in the 60s and drifted away from many other members of the Movement. Late in life he allied himself with the Unification Church and Reverend Sun Myung-Moon.

Above all others, the figure who stands out is John Lewis.  Although I knew of his participation in the Selma march, I was unaware of the important role he played in the Nashville sit-ins, and in the formulation of the nonviolent tactics of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  He comes across as the most devoted and deeply invested member of the group.  He is a genuinely heroic American figure.

Marion Barry, like Lewis, came out of difficult surroundings in Alabama to participate in the Nashville civil rights actions. He held leadership positions during college on the NAACP and later for SNCC.  When he enters politics in Washington, DC, gradually rising to the position of mayor, he suffers gradual personal deterioration and becomes the center of political corruption.  Drug abuse, alcohol, sex, and money all brought him down.  His second term as mayor ended in a jail sentence.  He was soon after elected again to the city council and then again to the mayor’s position.

The book is too long and should have been compressed.  There are too many instances of repetitious information, of accounts being repeated.  This is by no means a fatal flaw, but it does make for slow going at points.  Especially in the final chapters, Halberstam spends too much time spinning out the lives of the various participants after the Civil Rights years are over.