Friday, August 30, 2002

Today's bizarro e-mail comes from someone I don't know about a class I'm not taking:

Just a Reminder about the second test on Tuesday, Sep 2. I am repeating what I said in class. The test will cover pages 96 through 203. It will NOT cover pages 204-216. IF you can, PLEASE tell the other students who were not there at the end of class about leaving out wssome of the pages. They do not have E-mail addresses. Thanks.

To any others out there still memorizing the salient facts from the wrong pages -- consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I was almost certain that The New Republic was going to slam Master of the Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro's on-going biography of Lyndon Johnson -- and slam it hard. It's one thing I trust the magazine to do, find some kind of vantage point that is just distant enough from conventional wisdom to sound like the real truth, or close to it. I forget what exactly the reviewer of The Path to Power said back in the early 1980s, except that he didn't like it much. Sidney Blumenthal famously debunked the second volume, Means of Ascent, with its ridiculously rosy portrait of Johnson's nemesis, Coke Stevenson. Now here comes Nicholas Lemann to tackle Vol. III, and he kinda likes it, though he tries hard not to.

Caro's writing is not post-ironic, it is pre-ironic (and definitely non-ironic), self-consciously "big," thunderingly moralistic, and dramatic verging on melodramatic. Caro's approach is neither intellectual, if that means interested in ideas, nor scholarly, if that means writing in the context of other work on the same subject. He is aiming instead for an epic, almost scriptural effect. Every chapter builds relentlessly to a climax and ends with a neat moral. The importance of everything is forcefully insisted upon and closely spelled out.

Yes, that's Caro -- the born dramatist. That's the thing about Caro's work -- the anti-Johnson bias is pretty clearly there, and you can scream at it all you want, but you just can't put the book down. The detail is so rich, the story is so carefully built and imagined, that you get swept away by the story.

To put it mildly, Master of the Senate could have been a lot shorter. There could have been two or three fewer examples to support each point. Great events of the 1950s in which Johnson played a minimal part--the Truman-MacArthur conflict, the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the early days of the civil rights movement in the South--might not have been awarded entire chapters.

Oh bullshit. The story may be overly familiar to Lemann, perhaps, but I can't think of anyone reading the story of the killing of Emmet Till and the effect it had in galvanizing the early days of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi who won't be mesmerized.

Lemann, at other times, is mesmerized too:

... Caro does amazingly well with his material.

Caro's general immersion in his subject and his unappeasable drive to chase down every detail have together brought the Senate to life. Its leading characters--Russell and Humphrey and Estes Kefauver and Paul Douglas and so on--feel, by the end, like people you know.

Caro, to his great credit, has managed to re-create not just the Senate in the 1950s, but Washington as a whole.

But Lemann gets it right at the end. As my own review indicated, the book is a little too much of a personal war between writer and subject to really be definitive, as Caro always sees people in purely good and evil terms. No one so far as I know has yet stepped forward to debunk Caro's saintly portrait of Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds -- maybe he was as good as Caro said he was -- but in reading it I sensed the ghost of Coke Stevenson; I wondered that if there was a down side to Olds, Caro might not be the man to notice it. He hardly seemed to know Coke Stevenson was a virulent racist.

Where he is simply in a different, and lesser, universe from Dickens and Tolstoy and their like, however, is in his attribution of godlike (or satanic) powers to individuals, especially his main character, as actors in history, and in his concomitant tendency to be morally simplistic. In great historical literature the times supersede the lives, without in any way diminishing them, and the consciousness of right and wrong does not transform all experience into parable. Caro is held back from the greatness for which he so palpably hungers by his evident lack of interest in rendering life not only as dramatic, but also as complicated and subtle.

He's right about that. Three volumes and Johnson still comes across as a fairly one-dimensional type -- or, as Lemann puts it, "a textbook manic-depressive ... with regular bipolar switches from extreme approval to extreme disapproval. Because Johnson at each moment of the narrative is defined by one entirely positive or entirely negative characteristic, `complexity' is conveyed by having him abruptly switch from one to the other."

It's a fault that runs through all three volumes, all of which are fascinating and have a plentitude of passages of sheer narrative brilliance. Yet I doubt anyone finishes these three volumes, and I read them back to back, without feeling there is something missing, and that the Johnson of these pages, the Texas devil gallivanting around in Robert Caro's rather bipolar head, isn't quite the same man who once walked among us.
"This storm will be magnificent. All the electrical secrets of Heaven. And this time we're ready, eh Fritz?" -- Colin Clive in Frankenstein

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Famous last words

"I went to call the cops but I knew she'd be dead before they got there, and I'd be free. Bannister's note to the D.A.'d fix it; I'd be innocent, officially, but that's a big word, `innocent.' Stupid's more like it. Well, everybody is somebody's fool. The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so I guess I'll concentrate on that. Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die, trying."

--Orson Welles, mourning Rita Hayworth, in The Lady from Shanghai

"You know, the next time you get an urge and I bust my ass getting back here and getting a cab, you think you could possibly add a little more movement, you know, just to get the whole Claymation feel?"

--Ben Stiller, post-coital, to Catherine Keener in Your Friends and Neighbors.

Addendum to below: it suddenly occurs to me that last year's In the Bedroom would make for an interesting comparison with Straw Dogs. Both deal, in different ways, with how anyone living in a seemingly safe environment (which includes most of us) reacts when their world is shattered by violence. The coming 9/11 anniversary makes it even more relevant.
Some slightly rewritten notes on Peckinpah from 1999:

Mere Anarchy: Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs

Things lived on each other -- that was it. Lobsters lived on squids and other things. What lived on lobsters? Men, of course! Sure, that was it! And what lived on men? he asked himself. Was it other men?
-- Theodore Dreiser, The Financier

I watched Straw Dogs this weekend for the first time in a decade, and I was stunned.

I don't know what I was thinking on that first viewing, and why it didn't leave my brain and blood as charged-up as this one did. The film reminded me of two things about Peckinpah. First, he is American cinema's purest modern equivalent of Hardy or Dreiser or Norris; a naturalist who views human society as little different from the world of animals and insects, where every species is prey for another.

Second, the sheer skill of this film shows how so many Peckinpah wannabes are just lazy hacks. John Woo may have learned how to angle a slo-mo shot of a body being blown away from shotgun fire, but could he have paced a film like this, where tension builds at such an unhurried and careful pace, before exploding in the last half-hour? Not bloody likely.

David Sumner (perfectly played by Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered mathmatician who, thanks to a research grant, has briefly retired to the hometown of his fetching wife, Amy (Susan George) in the English countryside. Their home, though not a castle, is as impenetrable as one, a fortress-like fixer-upper with walls of stone, which Amy decorates with medieval antiques.

David and Amy think themselves a happy young couple, but they're dreaming. They have nothing in common: he spends all day burrowed in his study, working some impossible numeric riddle on a blackboard, while she keeps trying to get his attention. All they have going for them is sex, which amounts to a nightcap for David and the only enjoyable part of the day for Amy. When David, at Amy's suggestion, hires her old flame Charlie Venner to fix a roof, the marital tension is stoked even higher.

David is out of his element in his wife's town, and he's trying to survive without demeaning himself. He wants to be a member of the community without being middle-class -- one of the boys without, God forbid, actually being one of the boys. He doesn't just avoid violence but confrontation of any kind. He later acknowledges that he took no role in the problems that -- in 1970, the year the film was made -- were rending apart American society and American universities, namely Kent State.

If David is abstract, Amy is concrete. She seems aware that her chief assets are her tits and ass; they got her married to a brilliant American mathmatician who offered her a chance to escape people like Charlie. She's silly and juvenile, and yet she knows and respects the provincial code of this community; the kind of code her husband views with contempt. She was bred in the values of a small-town world, where the mating traditions are marbleized, and passed on from generation to generation. In the first scene of the movie, the young village girl Jenny consciously tries to attract men's eyes by imitating Amy's sensual gait.

Amy is a somewhat dualistic character. She may represent Peckinpah's Neanderthal view of women -- horny, dumb, respecter of male dominance -- but she also seems like his representative: someone who understands and respects certain codes of honor, who knows that civility will only take you so far, and who can only respect people who act on real problems rather than pursue imaginary ones.Amy doesn't really respect a man who can't take control of her. Charlie and the boys on the roof -- huddled like vultures -- know this, and are anxious to swoop in. Amy recognizes the threat when the family cat winds up dead; David just blows it off.

While she is more aware of danger than her husband, she also brings it on, as if to urge on a battle which she knows, at some subconscious level, must be fought. When she starts casually flashing the roofers, things take a nasty turn. David is lured into an idiotic hunting expedition, a ruse for Charlie to visit Amy, whom he promptly rapes. She is not an exactly unwilling partner, as her face shows just how thin the line between love and hate can be. Her feelings are a bit less murky when Charlie's co-hort shows up, gun in hand, to take his turn.

After charitably taking in Niles, a feebleminded outcast he accidentally hit with his car, David is faced with protecting his home against a howling mob. Niles accidentally killed Jenny, the local Lolita who tried to seduce him; her father, along with Charlie and his crew, all besiege David's house for a lynching party. Although the girl's father has an at least plausible motive, the crew see this as their own cruel and gleeful hour of triumph, when the strong will destroy the weak.

There's a King Lear-like quality to this last half-hour, of a world that seems to have gone completely out of balance because its codes have been violated: Jenny is dead, Amy has been raped, and David is a prisoner in a home that seems destined not to remain his. It's the melee from The Wild Bunch on a smaller, more intimate, and more affecting scale; mere anarchy loosed on the home. The hooligans throw rats in the window, shout obscenities, giggle like maniacs, ride tricycles around the house, and take great delight in destroying the greenhouse. With whatever tools are at his disposal, David is forced to act; to use the words of Marcellus Pierce in Pulp Fiction, he gets downright medieval on their ass.

Straw Dogs was strong medicine for its time, and still is. Pauline Kael, a longtime Peckinpah supporter, famously dubbed the film "fascist." Feminists hated its portrayal of a wife who seemed to want to be raped. Peckinpah -- as a director who had already pushed the envelope of violence with The Wild Bunch -- found himself inheriting the Norman Mailer Chair for the Advancement of Macho Piggishness; the old controversialist couldn't have been happier.

Granted, Peckinpah had a somewhat troglodyte sensibility in this film, but it served him well: the story gets to something basic in human life -- the question of whether a civilized man can survive outside of his neat little abstract world, whether he's lost some degree of will in his upward social climb. Peckinpah presents his answer with artistry that is provocative and merciless.
Top 5.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Our Quote of the Week comes from Milk Plus's Private Joker, my occasional (whenever he shows up anyway) nemesis on the New York Times Film Forums, in his review of One Hour Photo. Gotta give credit where it's due, as the following made me laugh out loud: Now I've seen everything. Around the time Bicentennial Man came out, I would have put money on the bet that I'd never see a movie containing a shot of Robin Williams sitting on the toilet taking a shit. I'd have lost the bet.
If you are an idealist, you'll see idealism in her films; if you are a classicist, you'll see in her films an ode to classicism; if you are a Nazi, you'll see in her films Nazism. -- Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice, October 31, 1974

There's an unavoidably smug contemptuousness in today's Times story on Leni Riefenstahl's 100th birthday, and I'll be the first to say the lady has only herself to blame. For most of her life, Riefenstahl has been parroting this idea that she was just a young naive girl, that she only wanted to get ahead, that she was an artist, not a politician -- and that's why she agreed to make Triumph of the Will,the record of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally that became the most famous propaganda film ever, and some kind of a very strange work of art. What kind is hard to say. Can art be evil? Can it be not just political but demagogic? Can you praise or condemn a film like this apart from its subject matter? Is it not somehow morally wrong to look at Riefenstahl's images and call them brilliant or masterful? It's the work of a cinematographic ace, but to defend it makes one feel like a moral idiot. This is the down side of Riefenstahl's bargan with the devil.

Okay, I am prepared to say, you were a stupid girl. The Nazis fed on stupidity. The Einsatzgruppen (more about them, later) were full of perfectly stupid people who were as talented at butchery as you were at film craft and salesmanship. You can say you weren't a Nazi until your last breath, old girl, but you stayed and prospered when peers like Lang and Sirk in your own country and Billy Wilder in Czechoslovakia were saying "Fuck this -- I'll just go to America and start over."

You were in it, Leni, and you were in it up to your eyeballs.

On the other hand...

... if Riefenstahl's film can never be seperated from its politics, it would be a shame to make the same assertion of her entire career. This is nowhere more true with Olympia her Nazi-financed account of the 1936 Olympics. What the Nazis saw in the Olympics was a chance to prove the superiority of the German master race; what Riefenstahl saw was the beauty of the athletic form, regardless of race. Quite against the designs of Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, for example, right near the beginning she zeroed in on Jesse Owens triumph.

With unlimited Third Reich funds at her disposal, Riefenstahl spared no production expense when it came to composing her images: scaffolds were built or pits were dug to keep these vaulters, divers and runners squarely within the frame as Riefenstahl's camera lingers lovingly on musculature in motion. It's a perfectly enthralling film to watch -- at times like the film equivalent of a sculpture by Michaelangelo or Rodin. It's a sports film like none you've ever seen, where the competition -- half the time, you don't even know who won -- takes second place to the glory of athletic form.

Politically-minded critics, however, reach for other reasons; starting with Susan Sontag's 1975 essay "Fascinating Fascism" -- whose p.o.v. is incorporated in the Times story -- Riefenstahl has been viewed almost entirely through the narrow lens of "fascist aesthetics."

Sontag, who calls Olympia "the richest visually of all [Riefenstahl's] films," finds that all the athletes seek "the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectsator, Hitler, whose presence, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort."

There are, actually, only a handful of shots of Hitler in the film, all near the beginning, but I think there she was just making a neccessary overture to her backer, along with the waving Nazi flag as the film opens.

It is a bit chilling to watch the film knowing its provenance, but just as there is a danger in failing to recognize the real intent of Triumph of the Will, there's a similar danger in looking at Riefenstahl's art in a wholly political way. The simple fact of the matter is that Riefenstahl was photographing athletes in top condition; she didn't make them beautiful, as she told Stephen Schiff in Vanity Fair some years ago -- they are beautiful.

The Nazis fetishized beauty, triumph, achievement, duty and it gave all those things a bad name; the Third Reich soiled everything it touched, and at some degree that goes for Olympia. What's remarkable is how the film soars beyond the ideology that gave it life.

It is a hymn to beauty -- sung by a stupid girl.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Some notes on Kafka's Metamorphosis

Part I --

* Gregor Samsa, as we all know, wakes one morning from "uneasy dreams" to discover that he is a giant insect -- he goes from "uneasy dreams" to a nightmare that is no dream at all.

* Gregor's metamorphosis is not, however, the only one. No sooner does the story begin than we see another one. On Gregor's wall is a picture he has cut out of a magazine and framed: a woman swathed in fur -- fur cap, fur stole and a fur muff "into which the whole of her forearm had vanished." In other words, she is becoming something else -- an animal, and Gregor's own bourgeois ideal. There will be other metamorphoses as well. In fact, although it is not announced until much later, Gregor's own transformation from man to insect happens during the Christmas season, the time when we celebrate God becoming man.

* Discovering you have been transformed into a dung beetle over night will ruin anyone's day, but it is not Gregor's main concern. His main concern is that he is late for work.

* Gregor Samsa entered the working world the way a lot of people do: necessity. His father had racked up a number of debts, and Gregor became a salesman with his father's firm to pay them off. He became quite the success; within a short time he is a commercial traveler -- part of an envied and hated lot within the firm whom are known for their huge expense accounts and lack of accountability. This is not, however, true of Gregor, who is nothing if not diligent. He has never missed a day of work; indeed, he is a workaholic. He gets up at 4 a.m. to catch the 5 a.m. train and usually knocks out a few sales by the time his competitors are sitting down to breakfast. When he has leisure time, he reads the paper or railway timetables -- everything about him spells "work." Today, as he lays in bed rolling about in his corrugated straitjacket, he is painfully aware that it is already 6:30 a.m., and that if he's lucky, if he can get this big ugly bug body up and dressed, maybe he'll make the 7 am train.

* Of course, it isn't long before his mom and dad are on him; his sister, Grete, sits alone in the room to his right, crying for no obvious reason to Gregor or the reader. The family lives off of Gregor -- he is their sole means of support and they have all gotten very, very used to the fact. They are naturally concerned about him missing work and they bang on the door to get him moving. Unfortunately, Gregor's voice has a "persistent horrible twittering squeak" that makes communication impossible. Also, quite as Gregor expected, the chief clerk at his firm shows up when Gregor fails to arrive at work.

* The incapacitated Gregor is, as we like to say, "in denial." He chalks up his aches and pains to overwork, his voice to an on-coming cold. Surely being a bug is nothing you can't overcome with a little elbow grease. Gregor of course has his work cut out for him as the family and chief clerk are outside the door pleading with him to open up. By refusing to talk to them, he seems quite obnoxious. He ultimately manages to get up, clasp the door key in his grinding bug jaws and open the door. The result is a horrific farce: everyone is stumbling over themselves to flee the very sight of Gregor, who with adroit workaday initiative is trailing after the chief clerk, helplessly pleading his case in his trademark cacophonous squeak.

* One of the many amusements of any great story on a second or third reading is that new levels open up. With Kafka's story, there are sexual elements that seem glaringly apparent with each new reading, particularly in Gregor's relationship with his mother and sister. We learn in Part II that Gregor is very close to his sister and that he planned to send her to a Conservatory to study the violin shortly after Christmas. What is particularly noteworthy is the sister's growing attractiveness; Gregor thinks that maybe she, in the room next to his, could have used her feminine wiles to keep the chief clerk from running off. There seems to be here an Oedipal triangle that has as much to do with incest as insects; an emotional menage a trois from which the father has been cut out and to which he will soon restore his place. It is the father who chases Gregor back into what will become his cell -- his lonely bedroom with his writing-desk, couch, and chest of drawers.

Part II

* Despite his initial resistance, Gregor comes to grips with his own buginess. Milk, once his favorite drink, now repulses him. He wants rotting food. He also likes crawling under the couch, and he's generally given up on the two-legged life.

* The family is also adapting to their own metamorphosis, from a fat and sassy family to a tight-fisted and closed one. They are left alone as the household help departs. Even the cook leaves, which is just as well -- everyone has lost their appetite.

* Grete cares for her brother a good deal more than the parents -- it is she who brings him slop and tries to keep the room the way he wants it, even though she never stays long and cannot bear the sight of him. Although the family has long thought of her as useless, she becomes the conduit between Gregor and the parents. She, too, is metamorphosing -- into the creature that will ultimately save the family unit.

* As Gregor can no longer communicate, all he can do is hear what the family says about him, which he does by listening at the door of his bedroom, which opens out into the living room. He learns that the family still has a small number of investments which have earned dividends, although hardly enough to live on. The family's thriftiness makes Gregor happy. Still, the family is going to have to forge its own way. The father, who hasn't worked in five years, becomes a bank messenger; the asthmatic mother sews underwear, the sister becomes a salesgirl who takes night classes in French and shorthand.

* Gregor takes to crawling all over the walls, and Grete has the idea of moving out his furniture to give him the run of the place. The mother thinks maybe this isn't best, maybe it indicates they are giving up hope of their boy ever getting "better." There is a struggle between mother and daughter with the latter winning; Gregor himself is divided between them. Physically, he would love to have the room emptied, but mentally, he still clings to his human past, and he has a sentimental attachment to his furniture.

* The close of the second part is one of the mot interesting sections of the story, as it very neatly weaves together the incest angle. First, Gregor scares his mother and sister from the room. He is on the wall, crawling on his beloved picture in order to save it, so that mother and daughter re-enter to walk in on a sort of reverse primal scene, mother watching her son coupling with another beast: Gregor "pressed himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly." The father arrives and Gregor, quite cowardly, shrinks from him; his father can kill him and he knows it, and he wants his father to know he is obedient, "to let his father see as soon as he came in from the hall that his son had the good intention of getting back into his room immediately and that it was not necessary to drive him there." The father pelts Gregor with apples, one of which lands deep in his soft back. The mother rushes toward the father, her loosened petticoats falling to the floor, embracing her husband "in complete union with him." The father has restored his place as the head of the household. Where the father was once slow and lazy, now it is Gregor who, thanks to the apple injury, will be the invalid.

Part III

* With the apple stuck in his body -- soon to rot and cause an infection -- Gregor can no longer crawl on the wall. The family, too, feels trapped by Gregor ; they are overworked, tired-out, poor. They want Gregor to become a thing of the past. The family feels utterly hopeless, chained to this thing, this beast, not unlike a family may feel chained by an elderly or disabled family member. All Gregor can do is dream of what was and what can never be again. He is trapped physically but also psychologically.

* Although Grete pays less attention to Gregor, she still jealously guards him from the mother. When the mother cleans Gregor's room, Grete gets upset. This is played out in very Freudian terms, it seems to me, with the father standing to the side getting frustrated.

* New people enter the house. A charwoman takes an interest in Gregor and does not find him intimidating -- if anything, it's the other way around. The family takes in three boarders, to whom they become toadies. The boarders eat in the dining room while the family eats in the kitchen. The boarders are real neatniks, and the family starts using Gregor's room for trash or storage. The father has Grete play her violin for the gentlemen, as if she exists only for their amusement; the father is clearly interested in Grete's marriage potential. But while they are indifferent to the strains of Grete's violin, Gregor is like Odysseus charmed by the sirens -- he is irresistibly drawn to it. "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" Gregor's desire for his sister is equally strong -- he dreams of keeping her in his room as his loving companion; he imagines telling her that he had plans to send her to the conservatory, and seeing her burst into tears, and kissing her neck.

* It is difficult, at this point, not to come up with a comically profane image: Grete being ravished by this gigantic insect. There are any number of reasons as to "why" Gregor becomes a bug: the insect is a manifestation of one becoming what he is not, of living like an faceless insect and so turning into one; and there is the fact, too, that the Samsas are themselves an insect-like race, feeding on this or that host, devoted to the solidarity of their little hive. There seems to me, too, a possibility that Gregor feels like a beast in the way he desires his sister.

* The three lodgers, who notice his appearance and immediately make a fuss, interrupt Gregor's reverie. They don't seem revolted, exactly -- more likely, they see a good chance for a shakedown, as surely no one can be expected to pay money to live in the same house as a giant bug.

* Grete takes charge; the "creature" in Gregor's room must be gotten rid of. The father holds out some hope that Gregor, the Gregor they knew, would understand the family's predicament. Gregor returns to his room; Grete bolts it. He dies peacefully, feeling love for his family. The charwoman discovers his body the following morning. The Samsas are relieved. Grete notices how thin the corpse is -- did Gregor starve himself to death? Mom, Dad, and Grete retire to the parents' bedroom. The lodgers come into Gregor's bedroom, and Mr. Samsa throws them all out.

* And so, the Samsa family troubles are over. The three take the day off from their crummy jobs. The charwoman lets everyone know she has got rid of Gregor; just bringing up this most unpleasant of subjects earns her dismissal. Mrs. Samsa and Grete hold each other -- when Mr. Samsa feels left out, they bring him in to their little circle. He isn't odd man out anymore -- he's an object of affection, replacing the son who replaced him. The group takes a trip to the country on this sunny day. As they ponder their prospects, Ma and Pa Samsa see how their remaining child has "bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure." Will that ripe young body attract a husband? Can they feed off him they way they fed off Gregor? Yes, the future looks bright indeed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Once, as a grown man, I was under ether during appendectomy, and with the vividness of a decalcomania picture I saw my own self in a sailor suit mounting a freshly emerged Emperor moth under the guidance of a Chinese lady who I knew was my mother. It was all there, brilliantly reproduced in my dream, while my own vitals were being exposed: the soaking, ice-cold absorbent cotton pressed to the insect's lemurian head; the subsiding spasms of its body; the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating the hard crust of its thorax; the careful insertion of the point of the pin in the cork-bottomed groove of the spreading board; the symmetrical adjustmrnt of the thick, strong-veined wings under neatly affixed strips of semi-transparent paper.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

-- Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues"

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Next time you sit down to listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico, pay attention to the clothes, the appearance. They're important. There's the dope dealer dressed in black, the femme fatale with false-colored eyes, the whip wielding dominatrix in ermine and shiny leather boots, Seasick Sara in her hobnail boots, and that sad girl in a "hand-me-down dress from who knows where," heading out to all tomorrow's parties -- probably her last party. The dress will become a shroud. On a record where death oozes from every groove, everyone wears the clothes they'll be buried in. Welcome to a pageant for losers who are anything but beautiful.

As most of its fans know, one of the most influential records in rock history did not exactly have success written all over it. Comprised of writer and (mostly) lead singer Lou Reed, his co-founder John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker, the Velvets hoped to make a name for themselves by becoming the house band for Andy Warhol's psychedelic road show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol "produced" the band's first record, although his main impact appears to have been in adding Nico, a stunningly beautiful German model who had been part of the eye-candy in Fellini's La Dolce Vita a few years earlier. Call it bad singing, call it haunting beauty, but Nico's breathy vocals and imperfect grasp of English phrasing added a certain worldly dimension to several of the group's songs, which were already unique in both perspective and their varyingly sparing and daring execution.

But who cared? They were a gang of Lower East exiles trying to make a dent in a California world. As soon as it was released in March of 1967, the record tanked. As The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll points out, 1967 was "the heyday of Haight-Ashbury" and the number of psychedelic bands in the San Francisco Bay Area alone ranged anywhere between 500 and 1,500. Record buyers, also known as young people, were far too absorbed in the kind of life-is-a-druggy-blissful-wonder aesthetic typified by the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Love and -- of course -- the Beatles, whose Sgt, Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just come out. (This may account for Reed's animosity toward the Beatles' classic, as well as his opinion that it wasn't nearly as good as the Velvets' debut.) Only a comparative handful bothered to listen to this incredible downer, but as Brian Eno has said -- and every article about the band has quoted since -- everyone who did started a band. The band that was, arguably, the first "alternative" band, was an alternative to the prevailing festive mood. Rather than joining the party, their first album announced the party's over. It's the La Dolce Vita of rock.

With it's tinkling opening refrain, "Sunday Morning" sounds as if it could be playing on a music box in a little girl's room and, despite the fact that it is sung by Reed, the song's first-person perspective seems to be that of a little girl who grew up way too soon -- grown up, moved out, moved in and got trashed. She's waking up, probably after a party, probably hung over, and not at all hopeful about her prospects:

Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It's just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind

This is not a Sunday morning in which she'll be connecting with God or faith or peace. She approaches it with a sense of dread, dread for the fact that life is exhausted, played out, that there isn't a whole lot more living to do. In some sense, and whether this was on Lou Reed's mind or not, I don't know, but the song brings to mind Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning," in which a woman finds herself contrasting the reality of earth and (for Stevens) the imaginary world of Christianity. Stevens' poem is full of death, too; but in death, in the fact that nothing is permanent, that what lives, dies, Stevens finds the essence of beauty, that part of what makes a thing beautiful is that it won't last forever, that it's here today and gone tomorrow, just like human existence, and if there is no hope of heaven, there is the joy of earthly existence:

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

Reed seems to be taking that same woman and yanking from her even that much hope. Reed returns to this theme a few songs later, with the brilliant "All Tomorrow's Parties" (a classic recording as well as a great song). Under the Teutonic spell of Nico's voice, the song is about a habituŽ of the party circuit with nothing to wear to her next appearance. The song takes a social dilemma and turns it into a question of eternity. All she has are the "silks and linens of yesterday's gowns." She has whored herself out, and she's no longer amusing, no longer of any interest to anyone. Her party days are up, and so is her life. The song frames her life in the course of a weekend bender: she starts out beautiful on Thursday and by Sunday she's a figure of ridicule, "for whom none will go mourning." By the final chorus, we finally know that by the next party she'll be a corpse. This may or may not be the same girl who shows up as the "little tease" in "Femme Fatale" or "There She Goes Again" or the "whiplash girl-child" -- kitten with a whip, perhaps? -- of "Venus in Furs." Women, weak and strong, play a role in a good half of the album's songs, but everyone on the record is vulnerable.

(Who is that girl? My guess is Edie Sedgwick. And if those songs, as well as "Femme Fatale" and "There She Goes Again" weren't directly about her, they absolutely were her prophecy. Of course, they were Nico's prophecy too.)


The songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico typify Reed's career somewhat: character sketches that find whatever eloquence is to be had in denizens of both street-life and high-life, on their way down. Sometimes, as in "I'm Waiting for the Man" the two mix: a white kid heads to the bad side of town to score some dope. The locals think he's there for cheap pussy: "Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?/ Hey white boy, chasing our women around?" He's there for another kind of thrill, and the song -- against a jabbing guitar riff and pounding piano -- focuses on both his anticipation and release. The songs that follow echo a similarly desperate desire for death by orgasm.

"I am tired, I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years," says the flagellant in "Venus in Furs." "I wish that/I was born a thousand years ago," says the junkie in "Heroin." Both want something just pleasantly lethal enough to push them over the edge for good.

"Venus in Furs" is a somewhat seedy song that's full of cliched S&M regalia (though they certainly weren't rock cliches in 1967). But the song goes beyond the familiar scenery: the flagellant, not unlike the party girl, is a victim of his own excess. Sex has turned into little more than a series of degradations; now he's at the final one, begging a dominarix for the pain that will remind him he is alive. The junkie in "Heroin" also wants to feel alive, to "feel like a man," but he also wants to "nullify my life." Getting high makes him feel not only madly heroic ("I feel just like Jesus' son") but also like he's flying off on some great adventure on a clipper ship. As he sings, the guitar races wildly ahead, mimicking the poison soaring through his veins and emptying out the pleasure centers of his brain.

Is there a salvation that lasts, beyond the usual tired forms? Reed suggests there is, in what I prefer to think of as the album's real closer. (I always skip the final two cuts, "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son," noisy, free-form experiments that serve to do little more than show where the band was headed, with the double-barrel sonic assault of White Light/White Heat.)
"I'll Be Your Mirror" is one of the tenderest songs in Reed's career and the sole hopeful note on a pretty sad record. Against a lilting melody, the voice here is one of reassurance; one lover to another promising to reflect what's best rather than what's worst -- the one person in life that not only sees through your pretense, but likes what she sees:

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you

Granted, this may be one junkie talking to another, or maybe one recovering junkie talking to another. Maybe they met at a clinic. What's important is that one will be there when the other awakes, a reminder that there's some kind of genuine life beyond all tomorrow's parties.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

My favorite scene of romantic anguish:

Claude Sautet's Un Couer En Hiver is about the unconsummated love affair between two people.

One is Stephane, who works with a partner, Maxime, in the business of making and repairing violins. Stephane is emotionally distant from everything; he looks at the world logically, squarely, morally. The other is Camille, who is also Maxime's violinist girlfriend. She is everything Stephane is not; an emotional creature, an artist who lives only to reveal.

Stephane falls in love with her, but can't act; he can't backstab Maxime. More than that, he can't step out of the small little world he has made for himself. As well as he can, he restrains his feelings. But Camille sees through Stephane's bullshit, and -- in the following scene -- boldly confronts him. The scene that follows is nothing more than two people facing each other at a restaurant, but it is shattering. The script alone doesn't do it justice; you'll need the tape or DVD to see Emmanuelle Beart's Camille as she tries to melt the icy resolve of Daniel Auteil's Stephane. If you haven't seen the film, try to read the following imaginatively. Think pauses, think serious, think desire, think heartbreak.

Camille: We can't leave it at this. I can't accept that. Say something.

Stephane: I told you the truth.'
Camille: You know you haven't. That rainy day when you came to the recording studio ... I didn't dream it. You listened.

Stephane: It was my job.

Camille: Don't pretend I'm like any musician with a broken string!

Stephane: Of course not.

Camille: All those things we said.

Stephane: We didn't say anything, Camille.

Camille: We did! Or else it's me. No, that's impossible. Impossible. But why?

Stephane: I told you why.

Camille: If it was a game you should have played it to the end! You should have fucked me. You'd have been a rat but that's life.

Stephane: Camille stop it.

Camille: (angrily) This is nothing! You're nothing!

[Stephane shifts uncomfortably, noticing the stares of other patrons.]

Camille: Don't you like them staring? Let them enjoy it. Watch him squirm in his seat, wishing he could go. He says he likes music. Because "music is dreams." It's unconnected with life. Poor jerk, you know nothing about dreams. You've got no imagination, no heart, no balls! [Grabs his crotch.] There's nothing in there. Nothing!

You'd have been a rat but that's life. One of those lines, simple and direct, that stick with me as few others. Yes, this love affair might end in my own destruction -- but to not engage in it, to play it safe, is not living. The temptation is strong to inoculate myself against it by saying "It's so French, isn't it?" but that's not really it. It's the truth of the scene that has such dynamic appeal.

Cinema is always at its most effective when it is at its simplest, its clearest, its most basic -- to me, that's the lesson of Bunuel's great films. And you see it in others, too, like that remarkable mother-daughter scene near the end of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet.

Friday, August 16, 2002 Anthony Burgess' commentary regarding his A Clockwork Orange, quoted here by Eve Tushnet, remind me once again of why that book is a truer reflection of life than Stanley Kubrick's film -- an argument I've made countless times, to no avail, to fans of that brilliant but giddily nihilistic film. Burgess further says in his intro to Clockwork that in his original novel, which had 21 chapters -- to signify the age of adulthood -- Alex develops from destroyer to creator, coming to the realization that one is more indicative of a mature and intelligent creature than the other.
DVDs for the weekend: Autumn Sonata, Andrei Rublev, Pygmalion, Le Million, Le Bonheur, Character, Kanal, Taste of Cherry, 8 1/2, A Generation.
What I'm listening to: my daughter's Tori Amos CD, Strange Little Girls, which I'm sure I appreciate more than she does. (I certainly listen to it more, and she doesn't seem to be missing it.) A CD of interesting cover versions, in which Amos turns in haunting interpretations of the Velvet Underground's "New Age," Joe Jackson's "Real Men," Tom Waits "Time" and the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun," among others.
No blog is complete without a list of favorite movies. The last time I sat down to compose one of these things, this is what I came up with and it mostly still holds.

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
3. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Nashville (Robert Altman)
5. Seven Beauties (Lena Wertmuller)
6. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
7. Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May)
8. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini)
9. Viridiana (Luis Bunuel)
10. L'Avventura (Michaelngelo Antonioni)
11. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
12. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette)
13. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
14. The Godfather, Part I and II (Francis Ford Coppola)
15. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne)
16. To Live (Zhang Yimou)
17. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa)
18. Olympia (Leni Riefenstahl)
19. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
20. In the Course of Time (Wim Wenders)
21. Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch)
22. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
23. Manhattan (Woody Allen)
24. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan)
25. WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev)
Hear it once, and you won't be able to unhear it for weeks afterwards.

I linked this site, with reference to my Faulkner piece, and sent it to Jodi Kantor at along with a bitchy little note where I said it was shitty on their part to start a contest and then just say "Fuck it." He responds:

Rodney, the winners were picked a few weeks ago, and their club is starting on Monday! (I'm writing up an announcement, but their names are Andrew Rosenblum, Andrew Chignell, and David Goldberg). We had anticipated a couple dozen entries, but we got over 600-- that is, 600 long, articulate ones that deserved careful reading, which took months and months to do.

Leaving me to wonder, as I commonly do on these occasions, whether my little piece on Faulkner was too out of it, or too conciliatory, or uninteresting, or bone-headed, or if, to recall Dorothy Parker's phrase, it was set aside lightly or thrown with great force.

Every year I judge a short story contest for the Free-Times and every year it's a pain because most the entries are terrible. I make up three piles: "Shitty," "Not as Shitty as It Could Be," and "Maybe." I'm usually happy if there's even one in the "Maybe" pile.

Well, whatever. My little article at least has a home here and can stay forever or until he finds work elsewhere.
What I'm reading now:

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes

I just started this fascinating book and will be reviewing it for the Free-Times. Interesting and enlightening, among other things, on the use and abuse of group psychology, and the way the Third Reich could "socialize" ordinary men into butchers. The book describes ethnic cleansing at its absolute worst, as this special "task force" of Hitler fans out into Eastern Europe, routinely shooting, bludgeoning, raping and burning every Jewish family in site. All Holocaust literature raises the question of how one can possibly begin to grasp the depths of such evil, and this book is no different. You become inundated with numbers and it begins to numb you almost: a hundred Jews shot here, hundreds more bludgeoned to death by villagers, thousands of men and women led to mass graves.

More to say later, but I'm taking copious notes.
A small unpublished essay on re-reading Absalom, Absalom!

(Written over the weekend of Oct.28, 2001 to meet the Oct. 31 deadline for a book-reviewing contest that announced and proceeded to completely forget about.)

Why would I re-read William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! -- a book I have long dismissed as the most overblown classic in modern American literature? Maybe I thought I missed something. Turns out I did.

We've had a rocky relationship, Faulkner and I, ever since the day I sailed this book across a dorm room in frustration. I eventually came round to the majority opinion that it was the kind of unique masterpiece to which all young writers should aspire, but subsequent readings were painful. I found it impossible to follow, and could no longer see just why the story had to be so agonizingly confusing, so pretentiously opaque, or why characters talked so weirdly. Take it up one more time, I counselled myself with cool, book-nerd masochism. Go slow. be mindful.

Well, the dialogue still sucks. I mean, even if you grant that people speak in run-on sentences, shift subjects at will, and go off on lengthy parenthetical tangents, the talk in Absalom! simply defies human speech of any kind. Faulkner isn't Joyce, and stream of chatter isn't stream of consciousness. We don't believe it when a nutty old woman says "I became all polymath love's androgynous advocate," or an irate gentleman asks: "[D]idn't the dread and fear of females which you must have drawn in with the primary mammalian milk teach you better?" We don't believe it when a father, by way of asking his son if he has enough reading light, launches into a lecture on the relation of the sun to the the evolution of mankind. The credibility worsens in the last third of the book, when big chunks of narrative are forced into the mouths of unwilling characters. (What in the world was B.N. Myers thinking, in that ridiculous broadside in the Atlantic last summer, when he ridiculed the conversational patter of DeLillo and McCarthy, and said that sentences that have to be re-read amount to "bad writing," and yearned for the good old days of Faulkner?)

And yet, I am here to report that when I turned the last page I felt exhilarated. The book's accumulating force got to me. Its momentum overcomes its flaws, and when you stand back from its confounding structure you see a turbulent and powerful book where direct evidence, secondhand testimony, and the purely imagined have been pulled together in one magesterial drift. A story, like history itself, that is a mass of what we know, what we've heard, and what we can only guess at. Follow the book closely, scrutinize every impossible line until your patience wears thin, and see if it doesn't start blossoming in your head.

The story flies at us in pieces. Its about a family dynasty that goes bad, told by people who only know part of the story and are surveying the damage years after the central events. The year is 1909. Quentin Compson -- the death-obsessed Harvard student whose suicide is covered in Faulkner's earlier The Sound and the Fury
-- visits the town recluse, Miss Rosa Coldfield, at her request. She sees him as the key to posterity, the young man who might someday put facts to paper, and she wants him to get the facts straight about her long-dead brother-in-law, the "demon" Thomas Sutpen.

What are the facts? Her story jumps around wildly: how Sutpen came out of nowhere to establish a plantation in 1833, how he staged fights with his non-English-speaking black slaves, how he married Rosa's much-older sister Ellen, and how his son Henry killed Charles Bon, his best friend and the would-be suitor of Sutpen's daughter Judith. The motive? At first, it looks like a story of of incest by proxy and miscegenation, with Bon taking Henry's imaginary role as Judith's lover, only to be killed when he refuses to renounce the octoroon mistress from his past. Then Quentin learns new information; Bon is actually Sutpen's first child by his first wife, also an octoroon. Did Henry kill Bon to save his sister from incest or from black blood? Is he acting on his own behalf or his fatherÕs? Was it murder or suicide? The mystery keeps getting rewritten, retold, recast, and reimagined. In concert with the fate of SutpenÕs brood is the story of Sutpen himself, the poor white boy whose consuming lifelong desire is to somehow get even with the black servant who snubbed him as a child, and whose answer is to establish, despite one obstacle after the next, a vast white dynasty that not only goes against his wishes but which winds up destroying everyone it touches. Faulkner takes a family history, smashes it to bits, and reconstructs it like a Cubist tower of Babel, and babble. People do nothing but talk all the way through; they talk to fill the void of history, and to give a voice to people who never spoke, who lived with too many secrets to leave a record.

There's no way a book like this could be published today. It's too strange, albeit in the good way, the great way: it demands more attention than you have and repays all the attention you give it. I was wrong about this book. It's no longer hard to imagine re-reading it, or talking about it, forever.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks Jane Smiley has dropped the ball when it comes to Dickens. Philip Hensher of The Spectator thinks rather more of Smiley than I do, but he, too, suggested that Smiley was too overwhelmed by her topic to put it in any perspective:

"The very strong impression the book gives is that it has been written by someone conscious that they ought to be on their best behaviour, and rather nervous about the prospect. It feels very much like someone who is trying her best to write in an uncongenial mode, and saying the sorts of things which she thinks she ought to be saying. In this case, a novelist of the first order is trying to write orthodox literary criticism and biography. One feels — one hopes —that she has suppressed her real interest and insights into Dickens in favour of the sort of things a literary critic would say, and in many cases already has said. We get a great deal, therefore, about Dickens’s ideas about society, which no one since Orwell has really thought a fruitful subject for inquiry — they are ridiculously flimsy variations on ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if’, and only interesting because they are effective, simple assertions on which great novels can be based. There is an amazing amount about whether characters are lovable or memorable or delightful, a line of inquiry which may have been at the cutting edge of criticism in the reign of Edward VII, but is distinctly embarrassing now. And there is a nervous feeling that she ought to be giving the novels marks out of ten and summing them up. What we want is what intrigues her, the moments which have struck her, and not whether Barnaby Rudge is inferior overall to Martin Chuzzlewit."

Lest anyone think I wholly dislike Smiley, here is a draft of a review of Moo from some years back:

Mooby Jane Smiley. Knopf, 414 pages. $24.00.

The late 1980s are closing in on Moo U., the Clemsonesque backdrop for this deft comic poke at the grovelers of academia -- where there's nothing like a budget cut to heat up the race for rank and privilege.

The faculty and staff of this ag-based institution, known only by its nickname, have spent the Reagan years in considerable ease. The grant money came in, the perks were plentiful, and everyone got comfortable. They've learned how to suck up to corporations, pad expense accounts, gouge academic conferences, and play personal and sexual politics for all they're worth. No less than their students, who arrive courtesy of Mom and Dad's savings, Moo's faculty and staff are children of an academic welfare state. Even the Writer in Residence has learned that the Art of Fiction has nothing on the Art of the Schmooze.

But dark days are looming. The good old boy governor -- who never did like all those "pinheads" and "deconstructionists" teaching the state's youth -- announces a potentially fatal $7 million cutback.

What to do? When in doubt, jump into bed with the private sector. Ready and waiting is Arlen Martin, a jug-eared Texas billionaire (sound familiar?) best known for his rather toxic forays into the feed industry. (His last concoction formed holes in the brains of cattle.) Martin thinks he can save a little R&D money by taking on the school as a research partner in strip-mining a Costa Rican forest. This is just fine by Lionel Gift, the school's ranking economist, a sanctimonious free-marketeer for whom "all goods are good" and God Himself is the ultimate capitalist.

While Gift's enemies work to scuttle his plans, others take bioengineering to new heights. Dean Jellinek, the animal science professor, has seen his plans to clone cattle go awry; now he's looking into "calf-free lactation" -- false pregnancy inducement to make Bessie a perpetual cash cow.

Amidst these plans is one almost no one knows about: a highly covert project involving a 600-pound Landrace boar named Earl Butz. Earl, the subject of a study on the bovine lifespan, lives considerably better than the average hog. He roots around in a "profoundly well-ventilated Ritz-Carlton of a room" in the school's old slaughterhouse, basking in the loving attention of a work-study student who stints on neither hay, corn nor back-scratches.

Earl, like the rest of the faculty, doesn't know the difference between enough and too much. As one character ponders late in the book, "everyone around the university had given free rein to his or her desires, and the institution had, with a fine, trembling responsiveness, answered, `Why not?'"

Ideas don't prosper in this atmosphere; indeed, Smiley suggests, real ingenuity might best be found outside the system.

I could have done without most of the student characters or the author's overly pronounced moral edge, but Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State University, clearly knows her turf. Moo is a bold comic thrust at a culture where money, fame and the upper hand will always be the leading family values.

Maybe it's just me, but this classic American painting certainly puts thoughts in one's head on closer inspection.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Selected Book Reviews: New and Old


* Paul Schrader's Screenplays

* Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro

* Hotel World by Ali Smith

* The Scarlet Professor by Barry Werth

* A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford

* Rapture by Susan Minot

* Dawn Powell's Novels

* The Times of Their Lives by by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz


* The Elusive Tolkien

* The 2001 O. Henry Awards

* Mona and Other Tales by Reinaldo Arenas

* Lost Classics edited by Michael Ondaatjie

* Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul

* The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

* Chaon, Schickler, Iribarne

* The New Sins by David Byrne


* The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

* Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey

* When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

* Schmidt Delivered by Louis Begley

* The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson

* The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve

* Licks of Love by John Updike

* Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

* Nabokov: Butterflies, Blues, and Boyd

* The Verificationist by Donald Antrim

* James Dickey: The World as a Lie by Henry Hart

* The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

* Bellow by James Atlas

* Joan of Arc by Mary Gordon


* Burr and Hamilton: The Feud Continues
The following was written for The Point sometime in the mid-1990s, in concert with a week-long Bunuel festival at the Nickleodeon Theatre in Columbia, SC. The article does not cover the full range of Bunuel's career, for reasons of space limitation, and because I wanted to focus on the films shown during the festival.

The week was quite a success. Un Chien Andalou was packed. No one seemed to care that all they were looking at was a second-generation tape.

Luis Bunuel and the Eye of the Marvelous


We ask of cinema what life and love deny us, that is mystery, miracles.
-- Robert Desnos, Surrealist

Paris, June of 1929. Word is out about a new film, the debut work of a pair of unknowns, premiering tonight as the second feature at the Studio des Ursulines. It is supposed to be new and different and shocking, and at least one group attending smells blood.

The Surrealists, a band of aesthetic terrorists led by the charismatic dictator Andre Breton, pride themselves on being the last true revolutionaries of French culture: devotees of the wild, the forbidden, the unimagined, and the unbridled Romantic tradition. They despise the bourgeoisie, thumb their noses at the toothless avant-garde, roll their eyes at anything claiming to be hipper than they are, and cause a scene wherever they go.

This so-called new film could well get their royal treatment, complete with catcalls and hurled fruit.It starts harmlessly enough. A title card reads: Il était une fois . . .
Once upon a time.

A man, cigarette dangling from the right side of his mouth, strops a razor with clean diagonal strokes. He slides the razor along his thumbnail, cuts himself, grimaces. He steps out on a balcony and watches the night sky, where a thin strip of cloud is about to glide past the moon. He is, perhaps, inspired.

Cut to: a woman's face, passive, with a beguiling Mona Lisa smile. A hand stretches open her left eye and raises a straight razor to it.

The cloud slices the moon.

The razor, close up, slices the unflinching eye, which oozes a bubble of gelatinous fluid before the scene fades.

The audience is aghast. They weren't expecting a slashed eye. Or ants swarming from the hole in a man's hand. Or a woman in a suit poking a severed hand with a stick. Hands squeezing breasts that turn into buttocks. A bloody dead jackass on a grand piano. Hair vanishing from a woman's armpit and sprouting Chia Pet-style where a man's mouth used to be.

No one has ever seen anything like it, and no one knows what to make of it. It fits no category. Maybe it's an insane erotic nightmare about sexual identity, desire and loss. Maybe it's pretentious crap. Maybe it's the end of Western Civilization as we know it, and maybe the highest compliment you can pay to it is to start a riot.

The man with the razor thinks so, and he ought to know; he co-wrote and directed it. He stands backstage playing records for the soundtrack. He has rocks in his pockets, just in case someone tries to hand his ass to him. Neither he nor co-scenarist Salvador Dali, who also appears in the film as a priest dragged by a rope, know what their little freak show means. But they do know it provokes a violent response.

Or does it? The film is over, and the haute couture audience gives it a standing ovation.

Outside the theater, Breton gives his official verdict: "This is a Surrealist film."

It was also, arguably, the first such film, and sixty-five years later Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) remains unique as ever. It has more impact in its sixteen minutes than any ten movies at the multiplex, all the disintegrating coherence of a dream, and the absolute courage of its irrational convictions. It influenced scores of filmmakers -- including Jean Vigo and Alfred Hitchcock -- and MTV may well be it's third-generation bastard stepchild. It still opens eyes. So does the man with the razor.

Luis Bunuel (pronounced boon-yoo-el) has been dead since 1983, yet he still casts an enormous shadow over modern cinema. He forged the path for absurdity, perversity, sadism, dreams and black humor, and made them his signature. It is hard to imagine Polanski, Almodovar, Kubrick, Lynch, or Greenaway without him.

The first scene of Bunuel's first film set the tone for a career. The razor opens a passage between the order of reality and the chaos of imagination and, in Bunuel's world, the two become indistinguishable:

There's the paranoid husband in El, who attempts to cure the imaginary unfaithfulness of his wife by sewing up her vagina.

The title character of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, who dreams up fantastic murders which proceed to happen entirely without his help.

The prostitute in Nazarin, who seeks solace from a laughing portrait of Christ.

The hungry, neglected waif in Los Olvidados who dreams of his slatternly mother taunting him with a dripping slab of meat.

And then there is Buñuel's favorite bourgeois rite: the dinner party. People arrive at them and can't leave (The Exterminating Angel), can't get served (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), or turn the whole idea on its head: the group in The Phantom of Liberty defecate together and dine in private.

"The camera is the eye of the marvelous," Bunuel once said. "When the eye of the cinema really sees, the whole world goes up in flames."

It often threatened to do just that. Bunuel's second film, L'Age d'Or, sparked a religious riot. His third, the documentary Land Without Bread, brought the ire of Spain's Franco government. Another, Viridiana, was condemned by both the Vatican and the Franco government.

The antipathy, of course, was mutual. Bunuel's films fault religion, government and bourgeois culture for a great deal and he can be violently explosive in making a point. More often, he is a diabolically subtle artist who never has to force his pessimism. He has a talent for making it look like the cold, hard truth.

"Cinema is easy to do," he maintained, "and has no secrets ... To be a good director in the cinema is the same as being a good writer -- to have clear ideas, to know what you want to say and to say it as directly as possible."

Calanda and Beyond

Luis Bunuel was born in Calanda, Spain in the year 1900 -- a child of the new century. Buñuel and the six siblings to come were raised in a world of privilege and Catholicism. His father had made a fortune in the hardware business, and retired early to a life of ease. His mother saw to it the children were steeped in the national religion. Buñuel ultimately broke with the faith in his mid-teens.

"I began to have my doubts about this warm, protective religion," he later said, doubts confirmed by reading Charles Darwin. Years later, he would famously tell an interviewer: "I have always been an atheist, thank God."

Buñuel was intent on studying entomology or engineering, but his course changed when he attended the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, a school modeled very much on the English university system. His friends included Federico Garcia Lorca, the great poet and playwright, and Dali, who was already nurturing his lifelong upstart reputation.

After graduation, Bunuel variously worked as a teacher and theater director. He moved to Paris, became a government secretary, and fell in love with movies. The spark was Fritz Lang's Les Trois Luminaires.

"I came out of the theater completely transformed," he later said. "Images could and did become for me the true means of expression."

He immersed himself in film. He reviewed movies for a small journal and -- thanks to a theater pass -- watched them almost around the clock. Typically, he'd attend private showings of American films in the morning, local theaters that afternoon, and art theaters at night.

He entered film school, and briefly interned to film director Jean Epstein. The two didn't get along, and Buñuel was fired when he refused to help with an audition.

"I learned very little from Epstein," he said later. "When I began Un Chien Andalou I knew very little about the cinema. You can only learn with practice. The work that can help you most is that of script-girl: that way you learn all the secrets of filming, and you see the creation of the work."

Buñuel kept in touch with Dali, and the two met at Dali's home in Figueras, Spain, to discuss collaborating on a screenplay.

At the time, the two shared similar ideas about the future of film. Neither had much patience for the avant-garde, which seemed preoccupied with trickery and animation for its own sake. As they saw it, the challenge was to manipulate this larger-than-life medium to realize images beyond the scope of painting.

They were also inspired by something else going on around them -- a Paris-based art movement that had succeeded Dada several years before.

Like the Dadaists, the Surrealists disrupted plays, flouted social mores, published single-issue magazines with run-amok layout design, wrote blasphemous poems and painted shocking pictures. But where Dada arrived like a hurricane and spent itself just as quickly, Surrealism found direction in Freud's theories of the subconscious. It embraced not only revolt but the whole Romantic idea of l'amour fou -- the kind of "mad love" that challenges a repressive society.

André Breton, the movement's founder and leading theorist, envisioned a revolt of the imagination, a liberation "which will overthrow one or two worlds." The goal, he wrote in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, is "the future resolution of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, surreality, so to speak."

Buñuel and Dali had similar goals for their script.

"When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali's house in Figueras," Buñuel later recalled, "I told him about a dream I'd had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he'd seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he'd had the previous night."

From that abstract premise, the two put together a series of strange images. They discarded anything "that might lend itself to rational explanation," and only kept ideas both liked. The script was completed in six days.

Buñuel bore no illusions about anyone financing what must have seemed like a self-indulgent curiosity. Thankfully, his mother came through with the money.

"Only she would have financed an idea that seemed ridiculous to everyone else," he later wrote. "My mother gave me the money more out of love than understanding of my venture, which I was careful not to explain to her."

After spending about half the money partying with friends, Buñuel settled down to make the film. Dali didn't show up until the last day, which he spent preparing a donkey's carcass for one of the film's more grotesque scenes.

"Once the film was edited, we had no idea what to do with it," Buñuel said. Luckily, he met the great photographer Man Ray and the poet Louis Aragon, both part of Breton's group. Ray, who was looking for another short film to show with his own new documentary, thought Un Chien Andalou fit the bill. Buñuel and Dali were introduced to other Surrealists, who promised to attend the premiere.

The film was an immediate success, and both Buñuel and (briefly) Dali were accepted into the Surrealist fold. Un Chien Andalou moved from the Studio des Ursulines to Studio 28, where it played for eight straight months.

Buñuel was ambivalent about the success of a film that, he later said, was supposed to revolt people. What had been intended as an anti-art film was hailed as a work of art. Buñuel made clear his disgust when he published the script in the journal of the Surrealists.

"A successful film," he wrote, "is what the majority of people who saw it thought. But what can I do about people who pray for anything new, even if the novelty outrages their inmost convictions, or about a venal or insincere press, or about the pack of imbeciles who found beauty or poetry in what is, in essence, nothing less than a desperate, passionate appeal to murder?"

With his next film, no one would mistake his intentions.

"The L'Age d'Or incident"

For Buñuel, "there was "no going back after Un Chien Andalou; making a commercial film was totally out of the question. No matter what the cost, I wanted to stay a Surrealist."

Friends introduced him to a pair of wealthy art patrons, Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who offered to fund Buñuel's next film. He again joined Dali in Figueras to write the script.

Lightning didn't strike twice. Dali was too busy chasing his future wife, Gala, at the time wed to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. Buñuel and Dali couldn't agree on anything, and Buñuel finished the script alone, incorporating only a handful of Dali's ideas.

Besides being a talkie, the resulting film was longer, more straightforward, and far more scandalous than its predecessor. The basic story of L'Age d'Or (Age of Gold) follows an unnamed couple whose attempts at consummating their l'amour fou are constantly thwarted by society. It begins with a crude mini-documentary on the scorpion, and the film sought nothing more than to sting like one. The images -- skeletons in papal garb, suggestive masturbation, dead flies plastered to a man's face, a father murdering his son -- were a lacerating indictment of a modern "golden age" ruled by herd morality. The ending, an homage to the Marquis de Sade, depicts Jesus Christ as a sadistic lecher.

Few noticed at the time that L'Age d'Or also represented a considerable technical leap. Buñuel shot it as a silent film and added sound later, allowing him to toy with the possibilities of the talking film. L'Age d'Or was the first film to have spoken thoughts, and it randomly used extraneous sounds to underscore states of mind.

The film was a scandal from day one. When the de Noailles' proudly screened the bold new production in their ballroom, their wealthy friends sat in embarrassed silence. "The bomb burst forth in our poor friend's faces," one guest reported. "As they watched bishops being thrown out of windows and [the depiction of Christ] the shocked, terrified, and revolted guests drifted out."

De Noailles was summarily expelled from the Jockey Club, and his mother had to personally go to Rome and beg the Pope not to excommunicate her son. The worst was yet to come when the film opened at Studio 28, where Un Chien Andalou ran for the better part of a year. L'Age d'Or wouldn't last a week, but what a week it was.

The left wing, and Buñuel's Surrealist brethren, hailed it as a classic. The right-wing press was mortified. Figaro called it a string of "the most obscene, repellent, and paltry episodes. Country, family, and religion are dragged through the mud." Ami du Peuple urged people to miss it out of sheer patriotic duty. "Low and dismal pornography," said Echo de Paris.

A few readers got the hint. Not a week after the premiere, the theater went nuts. Thugs from the right-wing League of Patriots and Anti-Semitic League threw ink and rotten eggs at the screen. They set off smoke bombs, tore up books and magazines, slashed Surrealist paintings on exhibition in the lobby, smashed chairs, and cut telephone wires. They clubbed audience members, while yelling `Death to the Jews!' and `You'll see that there are still Christians in France!'" The event is still known as "the L'Age d'Or incident," and one of the great art riots in history.

Within a week, the film was closed down -- for good, it long appeared. The state, and then the de Noailles estate, kept the film from public view for fifty years. It didn't officially debut in this country until its 1980 premiere in New York. (Other prints had already surfaced, but usually in private theatres or film libraries.)

In the long run, L'Age d'Or was more an ideological bombshell than a lasting work of art. It has some level of fascination, but the shock has worn off. Parts of it look silly now, and not a little tedious. Still, for many it remains the central Buñuel film, as it did for Buñuel himself. It is freely absurd, and it staked out targets -- church and state -- he would never tire of attacking.

Thirty years later, with Viridiana, he was engaged in a full-scale battle with both.

Innocence and Experience

After Land Without Bread, Buñuel's post-L'Age d'Or follow-up, Buñuel didn't make another film for 15 years. He dubbed movies for Warner Brothers, narrated Spanish versions of U.S. Army technical films, designed an uncredited sequence for the horror film The Beast With Five Fingers, and took a job at the Museum of Modern Art. The job ended when Dali (by now a convert to the church, Franco, and the quick buck) revealed in his memoirs that his old collaborator was an atheist and, incorrectly, a Communist. The Archbishop of New York, the future Cardinal Spellman, had not forgotten L'Age d'Or from a decade earlier. He personally prevailed upon the museum to fire the Antichrist they had working in their translations department. The museum capitulated. Buñuel met Dali, called him a bastard, and never spoke to him again.

Eventually, Buñuel was finally given the chance to direct a couple of routine pieces of Mexican hackwork, which led to his sentimental and savage masterwork Los Olvidados. It knocked everyone out at Cannes. Buñuel was back.

For the next ten years, he churned out a spotty series of pictures for the Mexican film industry. He had little control of subjects, but often managed to leave his own distinct stamp. A few of these films -- El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, and a flawed but extraordinary version of Wuthering Heights -- are Buñuel classics.

By 1961, after 25 years away from his homeland, he had an idea for a new film to be shot in Spain. He had bolted in protest after the country's Civil War, swearing he would never live under the Franco dictatorship. Other world-class artists, such as Picasso and the cellist Pablo Casals, left as well.

Anxious to overcome its philistine image, the Franco government welcomed Bu–uel. Already in the midst of a film renaissance, the country was ripe for the return of its greatest director, whom they gave every assurance of artistic freedom.

The script for the new film, Viridiana, was approved with only one objection -- the ending, where the heroine enters a single man's bedroom and closes the door. Bu–uel wrote a new ending, where she enters the bedroom of the man and another woman. What the censors didn't see (what censors usually are too stupid to see) was that the scene now suggested a menage a trois. This would be only one of the profound scandals in Bu–uel's greatest film: a brilliant, often moving journey from innocence to experience.

The title character is a saintly novice living in the tight, closed world of the convent. Just before taking her vows, she reluctantly accepts an invitation to visit her uncle, whom she has never met. The uncle, a widower living in a Gothic mansion on a rundown farm, is a kindly, harmless, mild-mannered pervert. He enjoys watching the legs of his maid's daughter as she jump-ropes; the foot fetish being the standard Bu–uel motif for repressed desire. He also likes wearing the wedding gown of his wife, who died years ago on their wedding night.

The uncle is immediately struck by Viridiana's resemblance to his wife. He gets her to wear the wedding gown, drugs her, takes her to his bed, and caresses her with necrophilic ardor -- all but consummating the wedding he never had.

Viridiana, virginity intact, wakes and quickly flees to the comfort of the convent. The uncle casually hangs himself with a jumprope, leaving the estate to Viridiana and Jorge, his estranged illegitimate son.

Viridiana now sees a chance to put her abused faith in mankind to the test. She leaves the convent, and invites the lowliest local beggars to come live with her in a kind of socialist collective. While she saves the world, Jorge, a playboy and practical realist, restores the property.

Bu–uel rarely relied on stereotypes, and the beggars are anything but noble victims. They know an easy meal ticket when they see one, and they take full advantage of their hostess's goodwill. On an afternoon when they have the place to themselves, they break into the dining room and have a riotous feast, presented as a mocking tableau of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." As Handel's "Messiah" plays on the soundtrack, this beggar's banquet turns into an orgy; when these meek inherit the earth, they stage a riot.

When Viridiana and Jorge return from town, they are overtaken by the drunken partiers. Jorge is beaten, and Viridiana very narrowly escapes gang-rape.

The experience effectively crushes Viridiana's faith. She banishes the beggars, burns her religious relics, exchanges her nun's habit for an attractive outfit, and goes to Jorge's room.

But just when our heroine is forsaking heaven for earth -- and the movie seems to be turning into some a humanist parable -- Bu–uel puts the knife in: Jorge, it turns out, is already entertaining the maid, and welcomes the chance to deflower his cousin as well. Viridiana, clearly wounded, resignedly joins the pair for cards -- a suggestive three-handed game that will undoubtedly give way to other games. Viridiana's soft, beautiful features harden, and we know they will harden more; naivete will give way to cynicism. As the camera tracks out of the room, you can almost hear Bu–uel: "Look, I said life without God was more honest. I never said it was better."

Bu–uel was under pressure to complete his new film for entry in the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. He took a copy with separate sound tracks to Paris to do the sound mix, finishing just five days before the festival ended. The selection committee in Madrid, which officially nominated films for the Cannes, were only able to see a print without sound -- without, that is, the provocative use of the Hallelujah chorus. They agreed to enter the film, which picked up the French critics' prize and the prestigious Palme d'Or.

Only later did anyone notice the film's subversive content. Viridiana was not an especially persuasive rebuke of Christianity -- no Bu–uel film ever was -- but the level of blasphemy was more than enough for the Catholic Church. It was officially condemned by the Vatican, and Bu–uel's deeply Catholic homeland followed suit. Spanish journalists and critics were forbidden to mention the film; newspapers could not even report that the first Spanish film ever had picked up the Grand Prize at Cannes. It was forbidden from public view and copies were kept from leaving the country. The Director of Cinema and Theater was dismissed, twenty members of the Spanish delegation to the Cannes Festival were punished, the Minister of Information died of a heart attack, the film's production company disappeared and Viridiana was declared non-existent. (It wasn't shown in Spain until the early 1980s.) It was also banned in England and Italy.

Bu–uel, disingenuous as ever, professed not to understand what all the criticism was about.

"I was not trying to be blasphemous," he said, "but then Pope John knows more about blasphemy than I. It was chance that led me to project the impious. If I had any pious ideas, perhaps I would express them, too." At sixty-one, he said, "you don't indulge in childish behavior."

No Way Out

The Exterminating Angel, Bu–uel's first film after Viridiana, marked his most radical style since the early Surrealist days.

Here's the setup: a group of wealthy friends meet for dinner and cannot leave. There isn't any logical reason they can't -- they are simply welded to a social class where no one is an individual. Group members blame each other for their imprisonment; others slowly starve (except the waiter, who dines on crumpled paper), have affairs, and delirious visions.

When the group finally emerges from their room, they hold a special service at the local church. Once again, they are trapped. Not just bourgeois society, but Christian culture is imprisoned, bound by ties of culture and morality.

Bu–uel learned from his years in Mexico to make the best of a minuscule budget. In 1964, he put the lesson to use again, while shooting Simon of the Desert. When the film ran out of money, Bu–uel shaped it into a brilliant 40-minute parable.

St. Simon of Stylites was an actual second-century saint who spent some 37 years on a tower. In Bu–uel's film, he spends his life praying, performing miracles for the folks below, and fending off the temptations of a curvaceous Satan (Silvia Pi–al, from Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel), who tries, so to speak, to bring him back down to earth. She finally yanks him from his medieval roost and takes him to the end of the world: a 20th Century New York discotheque, where teenagers dance away as the world hurls into a nuclear holocaust.

In the world according to Bu–uel, a self-destructive society only makes saintliness insignificant.

Luis Bu–uel started as a Surrealist, and remained one long after Breton's movement evaporated. In his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, he resolved yet another tale of l'amour fou with perfect finality: a random explosion, killing the would-be lovers and engulfing the screen with flames.

It was the director's perfect epitaph. Luis Bu–uel never stopped playing with fire.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

A large part of the interest in having a blog was as a ready reference of sorts to store my things scattered hither and yon on the web.

For example, during the mid to late 1990s, I wrote book reviews for a perpetually broke leftist sheet in Columbia, SC known as The Point. The paper never made a dime and was distributed free, as leftist rags often are; presumably because no one wanted to soil themselves with making a profit. They assumed I'd write for free and I never let them down. The Point has long since shut down and not a few of us miss seeing it on the street; particularly those wonderfully vicious cover images of whatever lowlife bastard happened to be in power. Curiously, the the entire run of the last years of its existence is still on-line. (Doesn't web-space cost money? Is there a liberal sugar daddy out there I don't know about?)

Anyway, The Point let me write about whatever I chose, never once asked me to tow this or that party line, and for that I'm grateful. Here, then, while they last, are my perhaps overly-kind thoughts on Everclear and my adoring hymn to Love -- the acid band, not the emotion. At the tip-top of the literary scale is the man I can't stop quoting, his most famous student, his latest pretender, and a guy whose connection with any of the above is only tangential but still kinda, you know, there. Here is my last article for The Point, on Stanley Kubrick's last movie. I was too kind.

Oh, and here's a book I read for reasons that weren't real, real literary.
Historical Fiction, Fictional History

Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks by Peter Gay. W.W. Norton. 192 pages. $24.95.

In William Faulkner's great novel Absalom, Absalom! Quentin Compson and his college roommate Shreve McCannon spend a long winter evening trying to make sense of a pivotal event in QuentinÕs family history: a murder that occurred fifty years ago, when one Henry Sutpen gunned down Charles Bon. Was it over learning that Bon, who had black blood, was his half-brother? Was it because Bon was in love with Henry's, and therefore his own, sister Judith? Was it because Henry loved Judith and saw Bon as an interloper? Was it even murder -- or suicide? Many motives, but all Quentin and Shreve have to go on are a few scraps of paper and a lot of hearsay. To find the truth of the past, or something like it, requires a leap of imagination. It means assembling a chronology of events between the real and the plausible. Quentin and Shreve, in other words, have to make themselves novelists.

As Peter Gay points out in this new study, novelists and historians work a lot of the same ground: both take events and try to weave them into a narrative. The problem for Gay is that they're becoming indistinguishable. Are historians merely novelists? And do novels have anything to offer the student of history? Gay answers the former by tackling the latter, by administering a polygraph tests of sorts to three classics of literary realism. What he discovers is that they are less reflections of their times than acts of revenge.

Charles Dickens' Bleak House has the most evocative symbol of government bureaucracy in literature: the Court of Chancery, where the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been toiling so long that heirs have born and died without ever seeing it reach an end. According to Gay, Dickens, who had a bone to pick with the court system over copyright laws, used the novel not only to get back at the judicial system but everything he couldnÕt stand about English society: snobs, lawyers, evangelicals, social reformers and the government itself. Dickens was an anarchist who "set out to offend as many constituencies as he could manage," Gay writes. The novel is a "lovingly cultivated display of hatred."

Gustave Flaubert, similarly, in Madame Bovary launched an artful assault on bourgeois French society under the reign of Louis Philipe, "a weapon in his arsenal for a lifelong campaign against stupidity, greed, philistinism."

The Weimar-era middle class of Thomas Mann's youth was pilloried in his first novel, Buddenbrooks, but this attack was more personal. Mann's novel of a decaying family (which I have not read) was the revenge of an author with tormented homosexual leanings both on his father and a "reputable, upright society that expected him to be more infallibly masculine than he turned out to be."

A novel is "a mirror held up to its world," Gay writes, that "provides a very imperfect reflection." Writers are true to their feelings, not the facts.

This is no revelation, and Gay's approach comes off as a tad literal-minded. It's neither interesting nor surprising to learn that Dickens steadfastly ignored the court reforms made within his lifetime, or that Flaubert's provincials weren't complete idiots, or that Mann's fatalistic account of the Buddenbrooks family doesn't jibe with others living in the same era. We don't turn to Shakespeare for a rigorous history of the House of Bolingbroke, either. Fact-checking has never ranked all that high among the novelist's arts.

So what's Gay's point? Gay spends most of the book shooting at one target in hopes of hitting another: the postmodernist influence on history, which has been to deny "the claims of both historians and novelists to veracity on the simple ground that there is no such thing as truth to begin with." Because every historian is biased in at least some regard, this view holds, "writing history is just another form of writing fiction." Bunk, says Gay, the existence of bias does not rule out the existence of truth; biases are "handicaps to be overcome rather than laws of nature to be humbly obeyed." Novelists and historians shouldn't be trusted to do the other's job. "To put it bluntly: there may be history in fiction, but there should be no fiction in history."

If neither point evolves very smoothly from the other, Gay does seem, at least to me, to be on the track of common sense. The book, based on a series of Norton lectures, could have stood some more space to make its case. It's a lively little read as it stands, but neither as feisty nor effective as it could have been.