Thursday, June 28, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

Harlan Ellison passed away today. A dynamic figure known for his writing in all mediums - Fiction, Criticism, Film, Television, and comic books. Known for his irascible personality, he proudly accepted the charge of being the most contentious man on the planet. He liked to say he was a combination of Jiminy Cricket and Zorro. 

I first remember seeing Ellison making TV appearances in the 1990s on Politically Incorrect and the Syfy Channel. On youtube his interviews from the 1970s with Tom Snyder are a treasure - one of the all time great raconteurs. He ran away from home several times and worked all sorts of manual labor jobs, later earned his writing credentials by starting with the Pulp Magazines, knowing all the legends of that period including L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, and many others. Later he went on to Hollywood and wrote for television, including the greatest Star Trek episode of all time "The City on the Edge of Forever."

Ellison mastered the short story form, the stories pack the punch of a Raymond Carver or Flannery O'Connor. Listing them would take too long, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is one of the all time great allegories on God and artificial intelligence; "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" on urban blight; "Paladin of the Lost Hour" is an unforgettable tale of friendship; "Jeffty is Five" on the loss of childhood innocence. Those just scratch the surface of the stories. Any understanding of modern pop culture must seek out the writings of Ellison.

At the legendary Daisy Club in Los Angeles Ellison played pool with Omar Sharif, Peter Falk, Paul Newman, and Telly Savales. He took part in the March on Selma; gave hundreds of speeches in support of the Equal Rights Amendment; once punched out a writing professor at Ohio State who said he had no talent; did the same to a TV producer; almost came to blows with Frank Sinatra; wrote stories as the public watched at bookstores; traveled with the Rolling Stones; got Carl Sagan out of a scrap; could keep up with Robin Williams; stood up for his beliefs; mentored many writers; and held court at his house The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars.

Harlan will be missed. He took on stupidity, cowardice, prejudice, sexism, racism, bullies, and ignorance. Most important of all - he inspired many to think and be a better human. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: Why Bob Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

In the new book Why Bob Dylan Matters Harvard classicist Richard F. Thomas places Dylan's writing firmly within the Greek-Roman tradition. Thomas argues Dylan is an artist of world historical importance, the poet of the English language during the second half of the 20th Century, taking up the mantle of T.S. Eliot. In 2016, Dylan earned the Nobel Prize for Literature placing his work within an elite group of American writers.* While the book may come off as a plea to skeptical academics to take Dylan's art seriously, it's also evident Dylan studies (Dylanology) will from this point on be in the hands of academics (for better or worse). Why Bob Dylan Matters illuminates how the music of Dylan connects to the wider scope of history.

Thomas draws connections between Dylan's work and the ancient world, a part of history that's fascinated Dylan since childhood. Thomas notes Dylan's membership in his High School's Latin Club back in Hibbing and his lifelong use of Rome for inspiration. He compares Dylan's love songs to those of the Roman poet Catullus. Roman imagery and ideas are specially present in Dylan's 21st Century albums, in particular the 2012 LP Tempest. Clues to Dylan's passion for Rome are all over his work, from passages in his memoir Chronicles Vol.1 and his radio show The Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2009). There's also the obvious parallel of 20th Century America being the new Rome. Dylan, born in 1941, the year America entered the Second World War, the conflict that ended with America emerging as a global superpower. Dylan's art has evolved along with America's rise and decline on the world stage. 

Thomas also puts to rest the notion that Dylan's a plagiarist. Going back to the early days in New York in the early 1960s, Dylan was accused of lifting melodies from other folk songs and recently of using lyrics from such diverse sources as Confederate poet Henry Timrod and the Japanese novelist Junichi Saga. Thomas explains the concept of intertextuality, "the creative use of existing texts" to produce new meanings. A plagiarist passes off another's work as their own. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: a good poet borrows, a great poet steals. 

Thomas spends little time on Dylan's long middle period that arguably lasted from 1967 and ended with Time Out of Mind in 1997, although he does discuss the 1974 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. The book also analyzes Dylan's ever changing stage persona. After winning the Nobel Prize, his concert repertoire remains unchanging, serving as a sort of overview of his career, including the Frank Sinatra covers that have enamored him over the past few years. 

Another strength of Why Bob Dylan Matters is that it opens the door for more discussion on Dylan. More studies are needed that view Dylan from a female perspective, by cultures outside of the West, his relationship with Jewish-American and African-American culture, and what his music says about the human condition itself. The humanities owe Dylan a great debt, he will help keep them in business. Whether Dylan will still be listened to in the next century is unknown. But we can conclude his work changed many during his own time. To quote a Dylan lyric, "I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me."

* The following Americans have also been awared the Nobel Prize for Literature: Sinclair Lewis (1930); Eugene O'Neill (1936); Pearl S. Buck (1939); T.S. Eliot (1948); William Faulkner (1949); Ernest Hemingway (1954): John Steinbeck (1962); Saul Bellow (1976); Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978); Joseph Brodsky (1987); Toni Morrison (1993); Bob Dylan (2016).

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book Review: The View From Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior

Why did all those swing states embrace donald trump? While there's no clear answer, but several, Sarah Kenzior's writing provides some historical context, especially aimed at those who live on the coasts and look at middle America as a foreign country. As Kenzior writes the red state/blue state is dichotomy is false, there's more variety and diversity in the middle of the country than anywhere else in America, as Kenzior writes "I live in the middle, and when you live in the middle, you see all sides." In the tradition of Ida Tarbell, Kenzior's sheds lights light on machinations of power. 

Kenzior's writing style is straight forward, direct, and poignant. Hard truths abound. Her topics include economics, race, media, and foreign policy. A recurring motif is the refusal of corporations to pay a decent wage and the stop gap measures to prevent upward mobility. This holds true in the media and academia. Often the gateways are unpaid internships or meager stipends, which typically only allow those with the means to enter those fields. Saying America is a meritocracy now strains credibility. 

The oppressive corporate culture of 21st Century America goes on full display on these pages; revealing a nation of bean counters who revel in testing the limits of how much people will allow themselves to be intimidated. Within these essays are the blueprint of the issues that need to be addressed - what the media and politicians should be discussing.  

To quote Bob Dylan's song "Dignity" the soul of the nation is under the knife. Kenzior laments how the Midwest is now caricatured as angry trump supporters at diners donning their MAGA hats espousing xenophobia. NY Times profiles of trump voters who feel marginalized and fear diversity, while ignoring the multiple points of view in all regions.

From a historical perspective America is trapped in a new Gilded Age, like the one that spanned the 1870s to the 1890s. The Progressive Era followed and carried America for most of the 20th Century, an era that produced vibrant unions, state and local leaders with a reformist approach, all the while demanding civic responsibility. That's not nostalgia, read the history. A new Progressive Era may be the only hope we have in saving ourselves. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films by Molly Haskell

Haskell, Molly. Steven Spielberg: A Life in Film. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Film critic Molly Haskell's lively commentary on Steven Spielberg's filmography treats her subject with the right amount of distance, allowing for a wealth of insight. As she confesses in the introduction:

I had never been an ardent fan . . .  He readily acknowledged that he had no feeling for European films. He always wanted his films to arrive someplace. But brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings, things left unsaid, and the erotic transactions of men and women are what drew me to movie in the first place. His great subjects - children, adolescents, - and genres -- science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure -- were stay away zones for me. Even his forays into history were inspirational rather ironic or fatalistic, the work of a man who favored moral clarity, was uncomfortable with "shades of grey." (x)

Free of a mostly male fandom that's enraptured with every shot in a Spielberg film, Haskell applies sharp analysis towards unlocking his films that reveal conscious and unconscious preoccupations. Like many critics who were taken aback at Spielberg's early films and his influence on film history, film historians consider him a regressive force who made entertaining movies with little substance. Haskell cited Spielberg mentioning her back in 1978 as one of his most persistent critics, yet through the course of the book Haskell comes to admire Spielberg as an artist who displayed maturity in his later work. The second half of his career seems to be a response to the first half. 

Haskell often notes Spielberg's avoidance of films that deal with adult relationships, specifically romantic ones. She attributes his preoccupations to his childhood, an outsider in post-war suburbia because he was Jewish and never one of the cool guys. Hence his movies were usually about the nerd who triumphs.

His parents, Arnold and Leah, were both college educated and benefited from the opportunities that arrived after the war. Arnold served in the Pacific Theatre, earned a college degree with the GI Bill, and became a pioneer at IBM as a computer technology expert. His Dad's war stories led to his lifelong obsession with the era. At the same time, Arnold was rarely home and gave first priority to his career, his long absences left Steve resentful at being stuck with a spirited mother and two younger sisters. His relationship with Leah, more like a cool older sister than parental figure, encouraged his creativity.

Stories of Steven sneaking into the Universal lot and watching old time directors in action are legendary. The films he made as a teenager reveal a budding talent, a prodigy of visual story telling. His 1969 short Amblin caught the eye of Universal Executives, an apolitical story about a cool hippy girl and a "square" guy on the road foreshadowed his crowd pleasing sensibilities. After gaining experience in episodic television, famously directed the first Columbo movie, he gained international fame with Duel, a stark tale of a man being chased by a monstrous truck on the back highways of California.

The early films were about the put upon male. Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are nerd fantasies about child like men who triumph against great odds, a shark and stultifying domesticity (at least that's how detractors saw it). By the 1980s, Spielberg was becoming more of a brand than filmmaker, producing films like a factory, franchises launched, but more serious movies. Spielberg married Amy Irving and they had a son Max, after their union ended he married Kate Capshaw and adopted more children. Being a father changed the tone of his films, most notably Empire of the Sun from 1987, which Haskell considers his best. The story of a spoiled child who becomes a refugee taps into the darkness of childhood and the dangers of holding on to its illusions. 

Haskell is especially complimentary towards his later work that begins with Schindler's List, a film brought Spielberg back in touch with his Judaism and led to the Shoah Project, a collection of hundreds of oral histories with holocaust survivors. Amistad dealt American slavery. After 9/11 his work took on a darker turn: post-humanism in A.I. (a project he inherited from Stanley Kubrick) surveillance culture in Minority Report, the psychological toll of the war on terror in War of the Worlds and Munich. Catch Me If You Can is his most autobiographical, a not so nostalgic period piece that explored family, loneliness, and identity. Haskell considers Lincoln and Bridge of Spies valuable works of civic responsibility, especially prescient films in the tainted age of Trump. 

Although Spielberg has spoken of wanting to make a "woman's picture," his protagonists remain mostly male. Unfortunately, plans to make a film about photojournalist Lynsey Addario starring Jennifer Lawrence fell through. Haskell doesn't consider Spielberg a misogynist, but argues he's more interested in masculinity as a subject. He's not alone, filmmakers of Spielberg's New Hollywood generation (Scorsese, DePalma, Lucas, Coppola) primarily made films about men (with a few exceptions.) Now in the #MeToo era, lingering male control of the film industry is all too apparent. Last year actress/director Elizabeth Banks called out Spielberg for not casting female leads, but later apologized when she got called out being inaccurate, The Color Purple deals directly with gender.

The takeaway from the book is that Spielberg's an artist aware of his shortcomings and has labored to address them, winning him more critical points than he received back in the 1980s. Haskell writes sharp prose and says more in 200 pages than what it would take another writer to do in 500. A modern and incisive study, a most read analysis of Spielberg and his told from a wise perspective. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One of the best reviewed (and despised) novels of the past decade, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch tells the tale of Theo Decker, a young man coming of age in New York City and Las Vegas during the early decades of the 21st Century. Many have compared The Goldfinch to a modern version of a Dickens novel in the tradition of David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Tartt creates vivid characters. Her writing style channels the suspense and excitement of life. Theo's not the most appealing character, more of a modern day Holden Caulfield, but he's a remarkable narrator. Like Homer, the epic story does what only the best books can do - resonate after reading them. The characters are real and their world blends with your own.

The novel begins with 13 year old Theo visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mom (they are very close) on a day he's been suspended from school. An explosion at the museum leaves Theo an orphan, forever separating him from his mom. The loss sets his life on an entirely different trajectory. Theo is taken in by a wealthy New York family, then moves to Las Vegas to live with his estranged father who left months earlier. Once in Vegas he meets Boris, a Russian who will become his best friend, easily the most memorable character in the novel. The son of a Russian miner, Boris seems to have been everywhere and done everything by the age of 15. Together, Theo and Boris have many misadventures often fueled by alcohol. Another tragedy brings Theo back to New York for the second half of the novel.

Back in New York, Theo becomes an antique dealer under the tutelage of Hobie who becomes his mentor and surrogate father. They share a connection to event that started the book. More secrets are revealed as Theo comes of age, mostly surrounding a stolen painting that connects all the characters. The second half loses some momentum as themes of addiction, fate, friendship, and fate vs chance are all explored. Is everything connected? Or is everything random? Or both? The final section moves to Amsterdam and briefly loses focus, but lands on its feet over the last 100 pages.

Great novels illuminate life; opens up new possibilities. Moments, imagery, and characters feel hauntingly real thanks to Tartt's immersive writing style. A novel about art, specifically the question of beauty and whether art makes us better people. Art is a positive force in the life of Theo, his mom, and Hobie, yet all see it differently.  What gives us meaning seems to be the question Tartt's attempting to answer in this 800+ page book.

Tartt's novel created a stir among critics who dismissed it as too popular and not literary enough. One may call it a potboiler, but the themes are heavy and the characters are complex. Even in our period of hyper technology and political instability, aspects of modern life Tartt wisely avoids, although I think it's possible to get a political subtext out of the story.  Human emotion and experience remains the same, questions that occupied Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens still hover over everything else. Tartt gets this and harnesses the power of the written word in the best way possible. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: Horror Films of the 1980s by John Kenneth Muir

John Kenneth Muir’s exhaustive history of 1980s horror is fascinating trip through the decade that gave us slashers, retro obsessive cinema, and horrifying allegories. Muir views the genre as a response to the social and political climates that shaped them, and horror at its best sheds a light on reality. The real life horrors of the 1980s were manifold: nuclear warfare, the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent sexual panic, out of control consumption, and the oldest fear of all: the monsters within all of us.
Muir often returns to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” mantra as the defining characteristic of the 1980s. President Reagan made grand promises and waxed eloquently on the majesty of the American experiment, while at the same decimated the working class through tax cuts and Union busting, presided over the selling of arms for hostages, and talked a tad too freely about nuclear holocaust being God’s Will. Wes Craven’s unforgettable creation Freddy Kruger (played with gusto by Robert Englund) attacked teenagers in their dreams, just as Reagan infiltrated the subconscious of America with bright visions of city’s on the hill. The decade’s aversion to reality manifested itself in a shabby pop culture of MTV stars and fake moralistic/successful people on television (Bill Cosby being a prime example). But horror movies at their best shined a light through the facade of a schizoid culture.
The ironic element is how tame the 1980s look now in comparison to today. I was born in 1979 so those years were my childhood. Memories of He-Man guys, Diff’rent Strokes, The Muppet Show, Return of the Jedi, Hulk-a-Mania, Late Night With David Letterman, foment waves of nostalgia. Hell, even thoughts of Reagan taking the podium conjure images of continuity and dare I say statesmanship. Elitists wrote screeds against the new gilded age culture that grew trashier with each year, yet at the same time there’s self-assurance to the decade that resonates. 
Video stores and video arcades were meccas of pop culture bliss outs, a far different experience from doing an Amazon Prime search. One of the decades best genre films from 1984 Night of the Comet celebrated consumerism and apocalyptic culture with a subtle irony, honesty, and a distinct irreverence that leapfrogged over the rest. Nightmares are always around the corner, but why not try to have a good time anyway?
Reading over the 300+ reviews, there's sense of diminishing returns as the decade unfolds. The early years were riding the wave of the explosive 1970s. The horror genre reached an apogee during the early years of the decade, an indicator of a changing culture. Slashers became the most popular subgenre, one where the tropes became a kabuki play. May autuers emerged, the trend setters of the 1970s like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper continued to raise the standards of the genre. New comers Sam Raimi, Tom Holland, and James Cameron expanded the possibilities of horror. One hit wonders are legion.
Muir applies the closest analysis to even to the most oppressive of clunkers, usually finding some element to praise. Even for the mediocre movies, and most of these are average, John gives you a reason to check them out. Some of these films are widely available and are regularly aired on cable television or are available to stream. But many of them are not. There are many hidden diamonds in this book that deserve a wider audience: Obscurities such as Alone in the Dark, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, The Entity, and many others. 
Horror fans will have much to savor with these volumes. For those looking for an iconoclastic look at the 1980s without the tired genre of Reagan hagiography, Horror Films of the 1980s will illuminate how movies are not only entertaining and an invaluable source of escapism, but an educational journey into the subconscious

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michel Wolff

Media hype aside, Fire and Fury is a compulsive read of the early days of the Trump White House. For most of 2017 Wolff had "fly on the wall" access to daily goings on of one of the most disorganized, mostly incompetent administrations in American history. Limitations of the book aside, it's uneven and repetitive, what emerges is a study in power that's illuminating, comical, and disturbing.

At its best, Fire and Fury provides a vivid portrait of Trump and the people around him. Steve Bannon, former chief strategist, is the Iago like protagonist. Others include Trump's Son-In-Law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, usually referred to as Jarvanka. Other figures come and go, but the book is framed as a sort of Shakespearean tragedy with elements of King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar. But only a writer with a true sense of the absurd will be able to make sense of this West Wing.

The book begins with a meeting between disgraced Fox News creator Roger Ailes and Bannon after Trump's improbable electoral victory over Hillary Clinton. Ailes expressed concern over the rumblings about Trump's Russia connections, which Bannon dismissed outright. Bannon ranted about China being the longer term threat, offering his usual reply when confronted about the peccadilloes of his man, "Trump is Trump."

The story of the first year of the Trump administration, according to Wolff, was the power struggle between Bannon and Jarvanka. Trump enjoys the infighting, the Darwinian struggle to win his favor, even tolerating Bannon's frequent vulgar language towards his Ivanka, telling her "it's a tough town." To note, some Presidents have taken such an approach, Nixon and FDR among them.

Bannon's backstory is one of disappointments - and resentment against the establishment. A working class Catholic, he overachieved as a student and was a naval officer in the 1970s, mid-level Goldman Sachs banker, and a frustrated screenwriter. A voracious reader of history, Bannon fancies himself a master historian who speaks in grandiose terms. He found a niche at Breitbart, a right wing media outlet, that views itself as the vanguard of the alt-right. Bannon's own ideas come across as incoherent, viewing globalization as a vast conspiracy to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization. Many on the left are also critical of globalization, but Bannon and his co-horts at Breitbart like to dabble with racist ideas under the guise of being politically incorrect. Bannon and his allies glean most of their pleasure by driving liberals up the wall. 

Bannon came into the Trump campaign at its lowest point in August 2016 and advised him to focus on Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida as the pathway to victory. During "Billy Bush weekend", a point when even Trump's closest allies were suggesting he end his candidacy, Bannon called for a scorched earth strategy, to double down and fight fire with fire. Trump's victory gave Bannon an almost mystical aura within the media. Yet, when given a position of power, Bannon proved to be a lackluster Machiavellian. All bluster. 

Jarvanka are the moderate influences on Trump, Kushner is viewed as an Establishment Republican, the last remnant of the liberal Rockefeller wing. Kushner often takes advice from Henry Kissinger (now 94) as his foreign policy protege. Wolff describes Kushner of taking Zen approach towards his boss/father-in-law, the key is getting to him at just the right time since Trump usually adopts the views of the last person he talked to. Needless to say, Jarvanka come off as out of their depth. They were behind the firing of FBI Director James Comey last May, an almost fatal mistake that led to the special counsel of Robert Mueller (Trump thought the media would love the dismissal of Comey).

As for Trump himself, I think he's got ADD. Wolff reports him getting always bored during briefings, talk of history and foreign policy bores him, especially power point presentations. He'll just get up and leave a meeting when he gets bored. Much of his time is consumed with watching TV and tracking what the media says about him, often driving his Twitter feed. Like Nixon, he feels the whole world is against him. He's described as an "old fashioned misogynist", who prefers working with women (he believes men are scheming and dishonest by nature). Working with him makes everyone depressed and crazy. 

Past presidents including Obama, Bush 41 and 43, and Clinton took the job seriously and appreciated the history behind it. Trump sees the Presidency as something to endure, he only cares about the prestige that comes with it. Wolff describes election night as an existential shock to the Trump's camp, most in his circle were planning for lucrative media careers. Trump envisioned a TV network to rival the power of Fox News. Long story short; everyone associated with the man is miserable.

Nothing in the book should be shocking to anyone who follows the news up close. Whether Trump will survive the term is anyone's guess. Vice President Mike Pence keeps a safe distance from the Trump camp, possibly prepping for his big moment. While most traditional Republicans pay lip service to him, deep down, they know they deserve better. Where will all this end up? All one can do is throw up one's hands and hope for the best - and vote!