Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Supreme Court Decision in the Michigan Race-Based Preference Ban

We presently have a divided Supreme Court, with the balance tipping towards conservative. So it was not much of a surprise to hear that they had upheld the State of Michigan's voter initiative that struck down race-based college-level admissions. The court didn't consider the constitutionality of race-based admissions, but only upheld the right of states to decide for themselves if they wanted to have race-based admissions, opening the gate for future state-by-state challenges to preferential discrimination. At some point in the future, however, it seems very likely that the issue will again rise to the federal level of appeal, and race-based admissions policies will eventually have to be measured against a constitutional standard, applicable through the land. 

I have always been against the idea of race-based initiatives, having seen their effects directly when I was a college student at UC Berkeley in the 1960's, and later when I worked for 27 years in a Federal Agency. In both instances, I could see plain evidence of the corruption and immorality of using race as a factor in determining qualifications for enrollment, and criteria for advancement in promotion. Blind justice requires that we don't discriminate for or against individuals solely on the basis of the color of their skin (genetic inheritance), sex or ethnic background.  

In institutions of higher learning, the only factors that should be considered are demonstrated academic performance and potential, and associated "extra-curricular" factors such as participation in sports, music, media, etc. If we rely, however well-intentioned, upon factors such as race or ethnic background or sex to rate and measure individual applicants, we will end up diluting the quality and value of our academic standards, and of the qualifications of those who graduate. Lowering standards to measure qualification, by substituting racial preferences for academic ones, is a form of corruption which encourages and realizes inequality in a way that is clearly against the intent and principle of our democratic institutions. 

In the past, de-facto discrimination allowed institutions to discriminate against minorities. But making public, deliberately preferential policies intended to facilitate discrimination--in order to artificially create racial "balance" or "diversity"--is even more corrupt. 

Over the past half-century, academic institutions have been influenced to believe that an idealized concept of "diversity" enrollment is a desirable goal. Defenders of "diversity" will argue that a racially "mixed" student body is a healthier, more balanced expression of the "diversity" of the society as a whole, and that it behooves society to "right the wrongs" of centuries of past racial discrimination by facilitating "diversity" through preferences and quotas. 

The message, however, that such selective discrimination sends to society as a whole isn't fairness, but a debasement of standards. What is a young black man or an hispanic woman to feel about him- or herself, if it is clear that their racial and ethnic backgrounds are the basis for their achieving an advantage over an "other" (i.e., white) individual? How is one kind of paternalistic (i.e., bigoted) discrimination somehow "better" than the older version? 

Presently, the undergraduate admissions totals for UC Berkeley for the current academic year, by ethnicity, show the following:

American Indian8780
African American392417
Asian American5,4275,566
Not Given492576
Subtotal-Citizens and Immigrants11,90012,465
Subtotal-American Indian, African American, Chicano, Latino2,2982,335

It's clear from this chart that Asians far outnumber any other single group (including caucasian whites). Since Asians art not, insofar as I know, a target group for affirmative preferences, it's clear that they have been able to overcome whatever deficits and/or deficiencies they may have experienced in their lives, to surmount the hierarchy of the bell-curve to achieve success in greater numbers than the competition. I suppose that if I were anti-Asian, I might find this development troubling. But since I understand that the Asian achievement is based on actual academic superiority, I find it a confirmation of the principles of equality our nation is supposed to stand for. In other words, if I were Asian, I would feel justifiably proud of my achievement, and of my inheritance. And if I were African American, and had managed to overcome whatever obstacles which I had had to confront, my success in qualifying for admission would be an untainted achievement, since California outlawed race-based admissions preferences in 1996.

Which is better?--to succeed through an artificial preference designed to privilege one through racial preference--or to succeed through one's native ability and effort?

Race-based admissions policies are a debased form of deliberate, discriminatory racism. They harm most those they are designed to assist, and spread corruption throughout the institutions where they are employed. They have no place in America, and should be outlawed. It will be interesting in the coming decades, to see whether we have the courage and decency to admit that, and take the necessary steps to eradicate them.    

The Cocktail Lounge - Delayed

In the world of blogging, you can't choose your readers. At least, unless you create a restricted list of "permitted" readers, you're out here naked for anyone with an internet connection and the wherewithal to dial you up via Google with a handy URL. 

I think most of the potential readers of this blog have no interest whatsoever in alcoholic beverages, beyond an occasional glass of wine with dinner, or a beer once in a while in a tavern. I've never been an habitual bar-fly, and have no notion of the social scene that entails. My interest in mixing cocktails is purely self-indulgent. My parents weren't big drinkers, and I've never gone in for binge drinking, or social drinking. I have tasted thousands of wines, and hundreds of scotch single malts over the years, so my palette is educated more than most people's to the pleasures and complexities of spirits and vintages. 

But, again, I've wondered about whether to create an entirely separate blog page for these entries, in order not to scare away teetotalers, or those who simply have no interest in the subject. I'm thinking about it. In the meantime, here are five concoctions which I've not gotten around to posting until now--a backlog of sorts. All mixed by proportion, naturally. 

French West Indies

2 parts white rum
2 parts coq d'Or calvados
1 part drambuie
1 part biscotti liqueur
1 part lemon

Shaken and served up.  

Viva Cuba 

3 parts white rum
1 part tequila silver
1 part key lime liqueur
1 part coconut syrup
1 part lemon
3/4 part lime

Shaken and served up. 

The Augmented Sazerac

4 parts Jack Daniels bourbon
1 part Sloe Gin
1 part fresh lemon juice
1/3 part Pernod
3 shakes Angustura bitters
1/2 part sweet syrup

This one can be made in the manner of the classic Sazerac, or swirled in ice and served up. It wants to be fairly smooth on the palate. The brand of bourbon can alter the effect of the Sazerac, obviously, but I've not felt obliged to get into the range of limiteds that line the liquor store shelves.    

Pure Funk

4 parts Buffalo Trace bourbon
1 part cherry liqueur
1 part parfait d'amour
1 part fresh lemon juice
Garnish with cherry if desired

This cold be another Sazerac variation, but it's sweeter (because of the parfait d'amour). A drink with a "serious" quality that suggests female elegance. 

Key West Wind

4 parts white anejo tequila
1 part blood orange liqueur
1 part key lime liqueuer
1 part mezcal
1/2 part lemon juice
1/2 part lime juice

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Favorite Movies Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring Reading List

Let's begin at the beginning. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Gopnik

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

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

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

Norman Douglas in later life

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

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