Saturday, November 15, 2014

Appreciating Victor Fleming

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind
“It’s amazing: you ask people as a trivia question ‘Who directed Gone with the Wind?” and nobody knows; you give them a second clue – it’s the same guy who directed The Wizard of Oz – and they say Mervyn LeRoy. Victor Fleming was either a wonderful director or the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.”  – Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Among the big studio-era Hollywood filmmakers whose sturdy masculinity – an affinity for Westerns and other kinds of action pictures, a love of robust characters (both male and female), a comfortableness with the physical and the outdoors, a skill for shaping the distinctive qualities of all-American movie stars – Victor Fleming has traditionally been shortchanged. John Ford has been glorified, partly because he made the most consciously pictorial movies; he was always after art, and at his best he got it, in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Long Voyage Home, How Green Was My Valley. Howard Hawks, who worked in every genre, parlayed a love of raucousness and sass and tossed-off professionalism into a hard-boiled character ethic that infused all his work, whether he was making a gangster picture like Scarface or an aviator actioner like Only Angels Have Wings or a newspaper movie-cum-romantic comedy like His Girl Friday; his movies were companionable and often so speedy (the overlapping dialogue) that they felt wired. Fleming doesn’t get the same kind of respect. One reason may be that he did his best work in the thirties and very early forties and was dead by the end of the decade, whereas Hawks and Ford continued to make movies for another couple of decades; they were still around and working, if not at the height of their talents, when the film studies programs started operating in the sixties. Another reason, ironically, is that the two most famous projects Fleming was attached to, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, came out the same year, 1939, and because they were vastly different and he wasn’t the only director who worked on either – King Vidor directed the Kansas footage in the first after Fleming prepared it, and Fleming replaced George Cukor in the latter – Fleming has been saddled with a reputation as a hired gun.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. IX

A couple of years ago, I started included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with various critics, performers, writers and friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that sometimes others have posted and that I've commented on:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

William Bradford Huie: The Accursed American

Dedicated to Martha Hunt Robertson Huie (1931-2014).

In American English, to call someone a “cuss” was always to say they were stubborn, cranky, intransigent; that they wouldn’t go along. It was also an idiomatic alteration of “accursed,” a dated expression applied to one deemed ungodly and unsociable. Let the word be justly applied to William Bradford Huie, an American writer who risked ostracism and danger from the very communities that, had he gone along, would have most embraced him. A white Southerner, he reported the evils committed by white Southerners; a Cold War militarist, he hounded the military on questions the military didn’t want asked; an advocate of personal and public accountability, he placed blame and named names.

Absorbing, tenacious, eye-opening, Huie’s nonfictions are adventures in investigation, angry commentaries on democracy, rueful essays on post-war American culture, and affirmations of a beleaguered humanism. You feel not that he has caught every conceivable truth, but that he has put as many conflicting truths in play as any single searcher could; that he has shown each perspective straight, but from different angles; and that the force of his summation is earned by insight, work, and an interrogation of prejudice, his own as well as others’.

All but forgotten today, he was, in his time, something like a superstar. He emerged from the Deep South to distinguish himself as a war correspondent, television personality, pioneer of post-war intellectual conservatism, and chronicler of American injustice whose books and by-lines sold as fast as they could be printed. Hollywood bigwigs hot on “adult themes” scrambled to film his racy, tough-talking novels, while the more socially-conscious stars snapped up his nonfiction. He searched, dug, discovered, and submitted facts to a candid world. And inevitably, he was marked for death: his sallies in the race wars were damaging enough to necessitate his sleeping “with one eye open and one hand on my automatic shotgun.” 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Supermassive: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and David Gyasi in Interstellar

I might not be the best person to review Interstellar. I'm fascinated by our universe and deeply moved by its scope and mystery. I think most people, if they take the time to look up from their smartphones into the sky, also know this special feeling of humility and wonder – I simply tend to indulge in it more often. So I am sorely tempted to heap platitudes and justification upon Chris Nolan’s latest (and arguably greatest) effort, because – while hardly a perfect movie – I think its power to remind us of these feelings can be understood by anyone. So meet me halfway: check your cynicism at the door, and I'll do my best to abandon purple prose for sober consideration.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How War has Affected the Artist

Main Street (1979) by Alex Colville

“I have an inherently dark view of the world and human affairs.”

“I think if anything I am perhaps more inclined than most people are to be polite and considerate because I am aware that human relationships are innately fragile and kind of dangerous."
– Alex Colville
For centuries, artists have depicted the horrors and savagery of war. With his miniature engravings, Jacques Callot catalogued torture, execution and the destruction of buildings during the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. In his eighty etchings of the Disasters of War and iconic canvasses, May 2, 1808 and May 3, 1808, the acclaimed Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, portrayed with scorching realism the mutilations and terror during the Peninsular War (1808-1814) with France. In the twentieth century, the British government commissioned artists to provide a visual record of the Great War; among the most distinguished were Paul Nash and Christopher R. W. Nevinson. Of the German artists – Franz Marc, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – only Dix spent four years in the trenches serving up unflinching engravings of that terrible time. Subsequently, he, along with other German artists, evoked the war and its painful costs in vivid paintings and drawings.

What were personal repercussions for these artists? We know nothing about Callot, whose graphic works were executed near the end of his life. The hatred in Goya’s repulsiveness of war can be seen in his Black Paintings that he hung on the walls of his last house in Spain before going into exile in France. The despair and disillusionment in these paintings stem in part from the depression he experienced in 1792 when he suffered a serious physical illness and went deaf, so that it is unclear whether the bleakness of his final work was influenced by the gruesome war or more by his general state of mind. Some of the artists of the Great War suffered serious injuries; Beckmann, Grosz and Kirchner had suffered breakdowns. The evidence for their bitterness or misanthropic worldview can be found more in their visual artistry than in their biographies. Similarly, commissioned artists who served in World War Two were deeply affected, but the form it took can largely be found in their artistic expression not in obviously damaged psyches.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Speaking Silence to Power: Jean Guéhenno’s Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944

German soldiers enjoy ice creams in occupied Paris in 1940

Words matter. Words teach, extoll, blame and praise. At their very best and in the hands of those who know how to speak and write, they can open our minds to ideas and possibilities that we never dreamed of. Words are means by which we are alerted to the fact that the world can be other than it is, whether for better or for worse. And using words means assuming a formidable burden of responsibility. When we convince someone that things could be better, we are persuading them that how things are now is not right, or could be changed, encouraging our audience to think about how things could be better and by association what they might do to make that better world a reality. When we convince people that things could be worse, we encourage a certain satisfaction or acceptance of the way things are now, disinclining our audience to action by dangling before them the danger that any action they might take could have negative consequences.

This is not a new insight—philosophers and dramatists throughout the ages have been aware of the dangerous power of words. From Plato and Aristophanes to Leo Strauss and Salman Rushdie, novelists, poets, philosophers, and politicians have understood that words can catalyze and control. But what they have also known is that words are not just volatile for those who hear them—they can also be a danger to those who write them. Jean Guéhenno, the author of the diaries which make up Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 (Oxford University Press, 2014) was very well aware of this fact, and of the fact that his diaries would have warranted a death sentence if they had been uncovered. But he also knew that there were other ways to write—perhaps light comedies with traditional plots to make people laugh, or even serious essays that didn't address issues of the day. And yet, drawing on his own sensibilities and the works of the great French philosophers who influenced him, Guéhenno came to the conclusion that to write as though there was no Occupation would be like aiding in an infection of a hallucination. The Germans needed French authors to publish, to create the illusion that they were allowing France to be France. Every word made the Occupation more normal, "not so bad." And so, Guéhenno did not write.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Four Decades of the American Musical

Oklahoma! on Broadway in the 1940s.

Half a century ago The Modern Library published Six Plays by Rodgers & Hammerstein and the complete libretti of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; when I was in grade school, those two books were the earliest purchases I made for my own library of musical-theatre scripts. I recalled my excitement at having these musicals at my fingertips when I received my copy of The Library of America’s new two-volume collection American Musicals.  It’s expertly edited by Laurence Maslon (who was responsible for Kaufman and Co.: Broadway Comedies, their aggregate of George S. Kaufman collaborations) and handsomely packaged, with gorgeous production photos – most of which I’ve never seen before – and copies of show posters and sheet music. Each of the volumes contains the books and lyrics of eight musicals, arranged chronologically and divided roughly into decades, 1927-1949 and 1950-1969.