Friday, August 8, 2014

Repulsive Ads and Ridiculous Covers

We here at The Jade Sphinx are often … well …, shocked by what we see plastered on bus and train walls, and in our bookstalls.  Movie and television show ads are often much too grotesque to actually see the light of day, and I am unsure why we as a people need to be bombarded by ugliness.

Mind, this is not Mrs. Grundy speaking.  My objections are not moral; morals are out of the scope of our ongoing discussion.  We deal in aesthetics, and as aesthetes we must rebel against revolting images.

Take the ad above, which I photographed on the side of a bus traveling across Central Park South.  It is for a film or television show called The Strain – but the strain is entirely on any innocent confronted with this repellent and gruesome image.  I ask with candor – are the people responsible for this ad criminally insane?  Reprehensively irresponsible?  Morally bankrupt?  Knaves and fools?

Then, upon closer examination, we see that the ‘brains’ behind The Strain is “auteur” Guillermo Del Toro, who has made an entire career of ugly and unsettling images.  At least he has the charm of consistency.

Then, we are greeted by the new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Isn’t this something you want to buy for your child?

The cover has already created something of a furor, with many customers (and potential customers) wondering why a great children’s classic has been tarted up as a cheap publicity stunt.  Penguin has already been doing damage control, pointing out that this is the "adult" edition, and have released a statement on their blog:  the Modern Classics cover looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl's writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life.

We here at The Jade Sphinx have been in public relations long enough to detect the heady, sweet odor of bullshit when we smell it.  I’ve read Charlie both as a child and an adult, and I’m not sure that “dark” is the adjective I would use.  But “dark” has become a marketing buzzword, bandied about usually when marketers want adults to buy children’s material without feeling any guilt.  It is this ridiculous argument that has resulted in various frauds, illiterates and numbskulls wanting to call everything from The Wizard of Oz to Superman “dark.”  I am waiting for the “dark” version of Beatle Baily….

Do we really need to see these things?  To marketers really have to pander to our basest selves?  And isn’t it time that we ask, don’t we deserve better?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Alarms and Discursions, by G. K. Chesterton (1910)

Over the past many months we have been reading quite a bit of that brilliant author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 – 1936), creator of the delightful Father Brown detective stories.  Though little-remembered today, Chesterton was one of the outstanding critics and thinkers of his age.  There are many reasons to admire GKC, but perhaps the most sensible is that he had never lost his childlike sense of wonder.  It was his innocence and clarity, mixed with a prodigious erudition, that resulted in his gargantuan influence as a writer and thinker.  He is simply the finest critic of Dickens and Stevenson I have ever read, and his take on Shakespeare is enthralling.  To read Chesterton is to see these writers anew, as if some profound truth were staring us in the face and it took a little boy to point it out.

The Falstaffian figure of GKC was familiar to all literate people in the US and UK for decades.  Tall and fat, he wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat and cape, and often carried a sword cane.  Of such figures legends are made, and Chesterton, the man himself, influenced writers who converted the easily recognizable figure into a string of fictional characters.  (His influence on detective fiction is vast – and the man himself served as the model for the fictional Dr. Gideon Fell, who appeared in mysteries by John Dickson Carr.)  The most contemporary figure similar to GKC would be Orson Welles; but though brilliant, Welles did not have his deep and profound depth of learning, his purity of soul, nor his sense of fun.  Welles was old before his time; GKC was forever young.

Chesterton earned his bread and cheese as a journalist, writing for the London Daily News.  His 1910 book Alarms and Discursions features dozens of columns on a variety of different subjects.  Paging through this book, the reader would learn his thoughts on everything from democracy, to cheese to the failure of the English upper classes.   Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man should look at his newspaper columns while also reading his many novels and books of sustained criticism.

Here are some quotes:  When a man says that democracy is false because most people are stupid, there are several courses which the philosopher may pursue. The most obvious is to hit him smartly and with precision on the exact tip of the nose. But if you have scruples (moral or physical) about this course, you may proceed to employ Reason, which in this case has all the savage solidity of a blow with the fist. It is stupid to say that "most people" are stupid. It is like saying "most people are tall," when it is obvious that "tall" can only mean taller than most people. It is absurd to denounce the majority of mankind as below the average of mankind.

Isn’t that grand?  And here is GKC writing in 1910 something that is even more pertinent to 2014:  In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold. I always notice with pain, however, a curious absence of the portraits of living millionaires from such galleries of awful examples; most of the portraits in which we are called upon to remark the line of the nose or the curve of the forehead appear to be the portraits of ordinary sad men, who stole because they were hungry or killed because they were in a rage. The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head; sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development, sometimes to the striking deficiency of the back of the head. I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists in being poor.

GKC had a remarkably Christian point of view – and by that, I don’t necessarily mean he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve.  He was a Christian humanist – someone who, seemingly against all odds, genuinely loved people.  This is a rare quality among those who live in the mind, but GKC was a rare man. 

The charm of a book like Alarms and Discursions is that it can be read through in one sitting, or can be dipped into almost indiscriminately.  There is not a page without gold of some kind, and, in addition, even his most interesting observations are presented with a puckish insouciance.  Read this, and savor, especially, the last line:  Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves. The second class may be called for convenience the Poets; they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking, a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind. Of course, the classification sometimes overlaps, like all classification. Some good people are almost poets and some bad poets are almost professors. But the division follows lines of real psychological cleavage. I do not offer it lightly. It has been the fruit of more than eighteen minutes of earnest reflection and research.

Alarms and Discursions is available at Project Gutenberg, and the invaluable  It makes for wonderful reading.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, Edited and With an Introduction by Peter Biskind

The outsized genius of Orson Welles (1915-1985) has become the stuff of legend.  Child prodigy, stage star and radio star and Oscar-winning film-maker at a stage in life when most young men are just learning to navigate the subway system on their own, Welles was both lionized and victimized by his designation as a “Boy Genius.”  The tragedy of most any prodigy is a suitable second act, and that was a dilemma beyond even Welles’ capabilities.  For what is a prodigy but someone who simply gets there first? 

And got there first, he did.  Welles went from star and celebrated director to television huckster and buffoon in record time.  It is hard for the generation who grew up watching Welles as pitchman for Paul Masson wines to realize that here was one of the most celebrated artists and intellects of his generation.  From Hamlet to Falstaff in just a few short years, Welles started isolating himself from the disappointments in life with layers of fat the way grit acquires layers of calcium carbonate to become pearls.

Later in life, Welles became the darling of the independent filmmaker set, who saw a kindred spirit in the maverick who so often bit the Hollywood hand that fed him.  And in this orbit of satellites was director Henry Jaglom (born 1938), who enticed a truculent Welles to appear in his film, A Safe Place (1971).  It was the start of a long friendship that would find Jaglom acting as friend, benefactor, baby-sitter and sometime agent to the fading genius.

Welles and Jaglom would meet regularly for lunch at Ma Maison, where the older auteur would hold court and entertain Jaglom with bits of wisdom gained in the artistic trenches, and with anecdotes from his amazing career.  Also in attendance was Welles’ toy poodle Kiki, who Welles used as another prop.

Jaglom taped their conversations from 1983 to 1985, when Welles died of a heart attack with a typewriter on his lap while writing a script.  He kept the tapes in a shoe box for years, until film historian Peter Biskind asked to have them transcribed.  The result is the book My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, and a tasty tidbit it is, too.

The array of interests displayed here by Welles is captivating – it would be hard indeed to find better table talk.  Gifted with an actor’s memory, he could quote long passages from the classics; look at art in a new and refreshing way; and think through aesthetic problems with a speed and lucidity that was simply amazing.

He was also full of balloon juice.  That no one seemed to question Welles on many of his anecdotes is, frankly, a demonstration that hero worship is a very dangerous thing indeed.  For example, Welles tells Jaglom how he and Lionel and Ethel Barrymore once scoured town, looking for missing brother John Barrymore.  They would, Welles says, eventually find him in a whorehouse.  Great story, but, somehow… I’m not quite sure that Lionel and Ethel, both in their 60s at that time, would engage a 20-something youth in the search, no matter what a wunderkind he was.  Also amusing (though not included in this book), is Welles’ story that he understood the novel Dracula so well because he had tea with Bram Stoker as a boy – no small feat, considering Stoker died three years before Welles was born.

In the first line quoted below we catch Welles in another howler: that he spoke with Katherine Hepburn while in make-up for the film Bill of Divorcement while he was in makeup for Citizen Kane – the films were made nine years apart. 

Somehow, though, none of it seems to matter; I am reminded of what James Russell Lowell wrote of author Edgar Allan Poe:

There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,

The genius is real, but so is the fudge.  Here is a sample of Wellesian table-talk from My Lunches With Orson:

H.J.: By the way, I was just reading ­Garson Kanin’s book on Tracy and Hepburn.

O.W.: Hoo boy! I sat in makeup during Kane, and she was next to me, being made up for A Bill of Divorcement. And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then. Except Carole Lombard. It came naturally to her. She couldn’t talk any other way. With Katie, though, who spoke in this high-class, girl’s-finishing-school accent, you thought that she had made a decision to talk that way. Grace Kelly also slept around, in the dressing room when nobody was looking, but she never said anything. Katie was different. She was a free woman when she was young. Very much what the girls are now. I was never a fan of Tracy.

H.J.: You didn’t find him charming as hell?

O.W.: No, no charm. To me, he was just a hateful, hateful man. I think Katie just doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like the way I look. Don’t you know there’s such a thing as physical dislike? Europeans know that about other Europeans. If I don’t like somebody’s looks, I don’t like them. See, I believe that it is not true that different races and nations are alike. I’m ­profoundly convinced that that’s a total lie. I think people are different. Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. ­Bosnians have short necks.

H.J.: Orson, that’s ridiculous.

O.W.: Measure them. Measure them! I never could stand looking at Bette Davis, so I don’t want to see her act, you see. I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man.

H.J.: I’ve never understood why. Have you met him?

O.W.: Oh, yes. I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.

H.J.: He’s not arrogant; he’s shy.

O.W.: He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is ­unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably ­arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest. To me, it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic.

Waiter: Gentlemen, bon appétit. How is everything?

O.W.: We’re talking, thank you. [Waiter leaves.] I wish they wouldn’t do that. If I ever own a restaurant, I will never allow the waiters to ask if the diners like their dishes. Particularly when they’re talking.

H.J.: What is wrong with your food?

O.W.: It’s not what I had yesterday.

H.J.: You want to try to explain this to the waiter?

O.W.: No, no, no. One complaint per table is all, unless you want them to spit in the food. Let me tell you a story about George Jean Nathan, America’s great drama critic. Nathan was the tightest man who ever lived, even tighter than Charles Chaplin. And he lived for 40 years in the Hotel Royalton, which is across from the Algonquin. He never tipped anybody in the Royalton, not even when they brought the breakfast, and not at Christmastime. After about ten years of never getting tipped, the room-service waiter peed slightly in his tea. Everybody in New York knew it but him. The waiters hurried across the street and told the waiters at Algonquin, who were waiting to see when it would finally dawn on him what he was drinking! And as the years went by, there got to be more and more urine and less and less tea. And it was a great pleasure for us in the theater to look at a leading critic and know that he was full of piss. And I, with my own ears, heard him at the ‘21’ complaining, saying, “Why can’t I get tea here as good as it is at the Royalton?” That’s when I fell on the floor, you know.

H.J.: They keep writing in the papers that, ever since Wolfgang Puck left, this place has gone downhill.

O.W.: I don’t like Wolfgang. He’s a little shit. I think he’s a terrible little man.

H.J.: Warren Beatty was just saying that TV has changed movies, because for most of us, once you’re in a movie theater, you commit, whether you like it or not. You want to see what they’ve done, while at home …

O.W.: I’m the opposite. It’s a question of age. In my real movie-going days, which were the thirties, you didn’t stand in line. You strolled down the street and sallied into the theater at any hour of the day or night. Like you’d go in to have a drink at a bar. Every movie theater was partially empty. We never asked what time the movie began. We used to go after we went to the theater.

H.J.: You didn’t feel you had to see a movie from the start?

O.W.: No. We’d leave when we’d realize, “This is where we came in.” Everybody said that. I loved movies for that reason. They didn’t cost that much, so if you didn’t like one, it was, “Let’s do something else. Go to another movie.” And that’s what made it habitual to such an extent that walking out of a movie was what for people now is like turning off the television set.

H.J.: Were things really better in the old days?

O.W.: It’s terrible for older people to say that, because they always say things were better, but they really were. What was so good about it was just the quantity of movies that were made. If you were Darryl Zanuck, and you were producing 80 moving pictures under your direct supervision, how much attention could you pay to any one picture? Somebody was gonna slip something in that’s good.

I got along well with even the worst of the old moguls. They were all easier to deal with than these college-­educated, market-conscious people. I never really suffered from the “bad old boys.” I’ve only suffered from lawyers and agents. Wasn’t it Norman Mailer who said that the great new art form in ­Hollywood is the deal? Everybody’s energy goes into the deal. Forty-five years I have been doing business with agents, as a performer and a director. As a producer, sitting on the other side of the desk, I have never once had an agent go out on a limb for his client and fight for him. I’ve never heard one say, “No, just a minute! This is the actor you should use.” They will always say, “You don’t like him? I’ve got somebody else.” They’re totally spineless.

H.J.: In the old days, all those big deals were made on a handshake. With no contract. And they were all honored.

O.W.: In common with all Protestant or Jewish cultures, America was developed on the idea that your word is your bond. Otherwise, the frontier could never have been opened, ’cause it was lawless. A man’s word had to mean something. My theory is that everything went to hell with Prohibition, because it was a law nobody could obey. So the whole concept of the rule of law was corrupted at that moment. Then came Vietnam, and marijuana, which clearly shouldn’t be illegal, but is. If you go to jail for ten years in Texas when you light up a joint, who are you? You’re a lawbreaker. It’s just like Prohibition was. When people accept breaking the law as normal, something happens to the whole society. You see?

Richard Burton comes to the table.

Richard Burton: Orson, how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?

O.W.: No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.

Burton exits.

H.J.: Orson, you’re behaving like an asshole. That was so rude.

O.W.: Do not kick me under the table. I hate that. I don’t need you as my ­conscience, my Jewish Jiminy Cricket. Especially do not kick my boots. You know they protect my ankles. Richard Burton had great talent. He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit. And I wasn’t rude. To quote Carl Laemmle, “I gave him an evasive answer. I told him, ‘Go fuck yourself.’

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, By Frank Dello Stritto

We had so much fun reading books by Baby Boomers Bill Bryson and Stephen King that we decided to have one more summer lark, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It: Growing Up in the 1950s and 1960s With Television Reruns and Old Movies, the new book by film historian Frank Dello Stritto. 

Dello Stritto has written two excellent books of film history, Vampire Over London and A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.  The first was the only in-depth examination of actor Bela Lugosi’s time in the UK and was essential reading for Lugosi completists; the second was a series of essays on the mythology of classic horror films.  Forgotten Lore was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking tomes on the meanings behind many of the classic horror films I had ever read, and it comes highly recommended.

So clearly, Dello Stritto has a deep affection for the classic monster films that were such an integral part of the Baby Boomer experience.  Fortunately, he takes a different track in I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, writing, instead, about how a member of the first television generation learned about the world around him by watching television, and how those images became the template by which he judged everything else.  For anyone with an interest in Pop Culture and the influence of television, this book is a must.

Talking about television viewing is always, to one degree or another, an exercise in self-flagellation, and Dello Stritto spares himself nothing.  It seems that every Pop touchstone of the 1950s is here, from Howdy Doody and The Twilight Zone, to his love of Abbott and Costello.  (The title is a line from one of Dello Stritto’s formative experiences, viewing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  His lengthy dissection of this film, which could be dismissed as a simple comedy from two clowns at the beginning of their decline, is nothing short of masterful.)

And while he manages to put a great deal of the era’s television into historical context, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It is a surprisingly personal and appealing narrative.  We cannot understand or appreciate what television meant to young Dello Stritto unless we understand the boy himself, and the author provides an in-depth look at his growing up, his family, and his friends.  It is all curiously affecting because any Baby Boomer, interested in television or not, can pick up this book and nod, yes, this was me, too.

Here is a brief excerpt from the Preface:

This book is about growing up in America—in New Jersey to be exact—in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a personal history, but one which, with some variations, is shared by many Americans of my age. It is a marginal history, and might be a trivial history but for a coincidence of timing. The postwar baby-boom generation and television—two of the pivotal components of 20th-century American culture—came of age together, and each helped shape the other. Watching television, and later going to the movies, certainly shaped me.

Much of a young person’s life is … an ongoing struggle simply trying to figure things out. We tend to imitate what we see, by watching our parents, family and friends, or by watching television.

Imitation starts early, and we have no memory of learning the most basic skills. I have vague recollections of learning to read and write, none at all of learning to talk or walk. I have no memory of first crawling to our old television set and turning its channel dial. On most 1950s televisions, the dials and knobs stand maybe two feet above the floor and pose some challenge to a very small child. Perhaps the need to reach up accelerates my ability to stand erect.

Among the early tasks that I have no memory of first learning is reciting the Lord’s Prayer. At the start of every school day, I and my classmates, like millions of children across America, struggle through the King James phrases. We learn the prayer long before we can read, and never think much about what we are saying. Only years later do I come to understand “hallowed be thy name,” or “forgive us our trespasses.” Reciting the phrases is a daily ritual, something that I do each day. The prayer always ends with a phrase I do not understand, “lead us not into temptation.”

There once was a boy—maybe an urban legend, but I believe in him—who like the rest of us recited The Lord’s Prayer every day. He always said “lead us not into Penn Station.” He never knew his daily error. I believe in him because asking protection from such places makes more sense to a child than fending off whatever “temptation” is. When I am a very young boy, my parents take me through the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Awesome and scary place; huge beyond belief; alternately chaotic and hauntingly empty; noisy, then silent. Strange sounds echo from far off. I think of that day whenever I see the 1931 Dracula. Doomed Renfield, looking like a beleaguered commuter who has missed the last train home, enters the cavernous halls of Castle Dracula, wondering what to do next.

I believe in the Penn Station boy because I see someone like him every day. He takes various forms. The two most common incarnations through most of my early years are Stan Laurel in airings of his 1930s comedy shorts and Lou Costello in reruns of his television series. They try to imitate the world as best they can, never really figuring it out, never quite getting it right. In every show, they do something akin to confusing “temptation” with “Penn Station.” Hilarious but spot on. As a child, and now often enough as an adult, I have exactly the same experience every day.

The Lord’s Prayer, via a Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools, and the old Penn Station, via relentless urban development, disappear from my life at about the same time. By then, both had done their job, exposing me to old world eloquence and elegance, to the power of words and image, of sight and sound. I may not have appreciated what I was saying or what I was seeing, but the memories are still with me.

One of the many fascinating things, to this reader, is Dello Stritto’s tacit recognition that pop cultural currency was a very fluid thing to the Baby Boomers.  Thanks to television’s new-found need for content, classic movies were broadcast almost incessantly.  To many of us, Laurel and Hardy, for example, were as famous in the 1960s as they were in the 1930s.  That kind of pop catholicism is missing in contemporary culture, and it saddens me to see generations share so few cultural touchstones.  A child of the 1970s myself, we were as interested in the Marx Brothers as we were in the television show Happy Days.  I’m no longer sure that such a thing would be possible in these days of Balkanized cultural consumption.

To be sure, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It is not without some piddling problems: it is, perhaps, just a hair too long, and Dello Stritto may linger a little too long on the origin of his obsession with actor Bela Lugosi.  But these are quibbles.  I Saw is a book of tremendous resonance and sweetness, and it does something no other book of film history has done:  it made me feel young again. 

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It can be ordered directly from the publisher, Cult Movies Press, at:  You will not regret it.