Saturday, April 29, 2023

Forget it, Jake.

 A friend of mine is screenwriting these days. I can't say much about his work except to say that I think it's very good and pays very conscious homage to its inspirations, among them the classic movie Chinatown. Reading Jon's work, inspired me to go read Robert Towne's script for the movie. I've dabbled in screenwriting, but I don't think you have to to appreciate the brilliance of the work. There's a reason people call it "the greatest screenplay of all time," and a good summary of it (and the screenplay itself) is here. Spoilers may follow, reader, so proceed at your own risk.

I'll have to re-watch the movie, too. Some people will think this is crazy, but I think I like the screenplay more than the movie, which i acknowledge is among the Greatest American Films. What strikes me about the screenplay, reading it all the way through for the first time, is how it does so much with so little; part of the art, as I understand it, is to not just move the story along with brief scenes and only a few lines of dialogue, but to see if you can pack the dialogue with the weight of the enormity of what's happening in the life of the character. Too, Towne uses every ingredient to its fullest. For example, the opening scene with the cuckolded husband, Curly, not only establishes the kind of dirty work protagonist detective Jake Gittes does for a living, it establishes Jake's character, his cynicism, and sets up his relationship with Curly, which will be used much later in the film to make a much needed getaway - well, two getaways, one that succeeds and one that fatally doesn't. 

The other thing that strikes me about the screenplay is how dazzlingly complex it is. Count the crimes being committed that Jake uncovers, layer by layer - adultery, murder, theft on an enormous scale, graft, fraud and, well, you know if you've seen the movie. This rot and corruption, and the paranoia it creates, was so much a part of the American 70s zeitgeist, created in part by this movie, which mirrored what was happening in the lives of the nation, and it's rarely been so perfectly expressed. 

Last point: I love that the movie creates personal symbolism with its title and references to Jake's earlier work in Chinatown. Because it is personal symbolism, the movie might have been called "Beverly Hills" or "Venice Beach." Maybe those locations don't suggest, as Chinatown does, the experiences in Jake's background that cause Chinatown to become a symbol of corruption, of a place or situation where an investigator, a crime stopper, cannot do his work, a place where things get turned upside down and where someone trying to help instead harms, but I love anew how vaguely this is demonstrated. Chinatown is Jake's - what - his Vietnam, his Marathon, his private hell, and now we, and all of America, are in there with him.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Dispatches from Pluto

What guy hasn't thought about ditching the urban life for a country estate where he at least partially subsists on the birds and deer he took with his own hand? Richard Grant, a British dude living in a 400 square foot apartment in NYC, pulled the trigger on that dream, and his book answers the question, what happens when a British guy and his girlfriend, both living in NYC, buy a 2 acre spread with an aging but otherwise gorgeous home in the Delta backwater of Mississippi? 

The book covers his first year there trying to understand the accents, and the culture. He learns to shoot, hunt, fish, and be friends with completely nice people that are otherwise at least mildly racist. A good chunk of the book is him navigating being friends with people that will drop everything to help a neighbor, spend a day with a chain saw helping him deal with a dead tree, never shows up without food and booze, then casually drops the N word in conversation. 

He also gets familiar with systemic poverty that exists alongside the plantation homes owned by himself and his friends. He hangs out in majority black dive bars, where the conversations sometimes don't sound that different from what you would expect in the trailer across the street with a confederate flag hanging on the front porch. 

Overall, an excellent book with a lot of insight into cultures in my own country that I'm not that familiar with.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Swede Levov. Rhymes with "the Love."

Let's remember the energy. Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan. The war-crimes trials were cleansing the earth of its devils once and for all. Atomic power was ours alone. Rationing was ending, price controls were being lifted; in an explosion of self-assertion, auto workers, coal workers, transit workers, maritime workers, steel workers - laborers by the millions demanded more and went on strike for it. And playing Sunday morning softball on the Chancellor Avenue field and pickup basketball on the asphalt courts behind the school were all the boys who had come back alive, neighbors, cousins, older brothers, their pockets full of separation pay, the GI Bill inviting them to break out in ways they could not have imagined possible before the war. Our class started high school six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral is my first Philip Roth, and what a doozy. I am left feeling its brutal themes long after having turned its last page, in part because of the way the narrative unfolds - with some of the ending up front - and in part because I am trying to absorb what the author has to say. American Pastoral is about the destruction of a man, about the collateral damage done to Seymour "Swede" Levov in the battle between the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer offspring during the turbulent 1960s. And that is a vein mined deep by Roth, who, from the viewpoint of the so-called Silent Generation, takes in not just the Greatest and the Boomers but the Depression-era adults and comes squarely down in favor of the older, squarely incriminates and condemns the Boomers and their enablers for selfishness and nihilism.

The plot is simple: an American Jewish guy from New Jersey grows up excelling at life and fathers a daughter that turns on him in horrific ways. But for Roth the plot runs into the internal mechanisms of not just the Swede, whose emotions run deeper than expected, whose thoughts and intentions are so admirable, but the grandfather, up from his bootstraps, Swede's wife, a reluctant beauty pageant queen, and into post-war American New Jersey itself. And of course the narrator, who is obviously fascinated with his characters but not afraid to reveal his alliances, his story is told, and its twofold in its themes: the post-modern condition of not being sure what you really know about anyone, the barriers to knowing, and the narrative of American history from immigrant to post-immigrant to post-post immigrant. Great stuff. A little self referential and redundant - maybe because the Swede in his anguishes recrosses so much of the same ground. What next for me and Roth?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Eye on Updike

I've avoided reading Updike for years. My only impression of him was "A&P" in high school. But I kept coming across him in my reading as one of the great male American novelists, a Christian writer, a master with language, and, after asking advice, took the plunge. Rabbit, Run. Delightful! Couples - amazing.

As a reader and writer, I love stylists. I love prose. And Updike has that in spades. That's one third of the reason we read Updike, from what I can tell, the other two-thirds being his subject matter and the depths of wisdom, the literary artistry, his work contains. But that prose. Sometimes I can identify in the writers whose work I fall in love with at least one paragraph or turn of phrase that I can point to and say, "That's it, that's where he got me, right there." I think this might be the Updike, from Couples:

The couple Foxy's parents had been had vanished. The narrow shuttered frame house on Rosedale Street. The unused front porch. The tan shades always drawn against the heat. The electric fan in the kitchen swinging its slow head back and forth like an imbecile scolding in monotone. The staticky Philco conveying Lowell Thomas. The V-mail spurting through the thrilled slot. The once-a-week Negro woman, called Gracelyn, whose apron pockets smelled of orange peels and Tootsie Rolls. Veronica their jittery spayed terrier who was succeeded by Merle, a slavering black tongued Chow. The parched flowerless shrubbery where Elizabeth would grub for bottlecaps and "clues," the long newspaper-colored ice-cream evenings, the red-checked oilcloth on the kitchen table worn bare at two settings, the way her mother would sit nights at this table, after the news, before putting her daughter to bed, smoking a Chesterfield and smoothing with a jerky, automatic motion the skin beneath her staring eyes: these images vanished everywhere but in Foxy's heart. She went to church to salvage something. Episcopalianism - its rolling baritone hymns to the sea, its pews sparkling with the officers' shoulder-braid - had belonged to the gallant club of Daddy's friends, headed by caped Mr. Roosevelt, that fought and won the war.

I like to joke with my wife and the librarians - anyone that will listen, really - that I read "dirty books," and Couples is as dirty a book as any I have ever read, but with great purpose; probably the best thing written about it is this 1968 review by Wilfrid Sheed. And now I have to find and read Wilfrid Sheed. That's how it works.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strip Away

This quote from a Sports Illustrated piece on Dustin Pedroia by Tom Verducci reminds us why sports writing is some of the best writing:

Strip away the television ratings, the attendance figures, the merchandise sales, the gambling, the beer ads and the rest of the variables that measure the import of professional sports in our culture. Think about what's left: how we connect emotionally with the games. On that level baseball, perhaps not in popularity but in esteem, occupies a unique place. It remains for many children the portal to organized sports, and if they're lucky, when they grow up they never stop seeing baseball through 10-year-old eyes. It is an uncomplicated, unchanged kid's game that does not require tremendous height or weight.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Gracious and Dignified Lie and the World's Secret Nobility

I finally got around to checking out the "historical espionage novels" of Alan Furst, starting with the one that usually comes most recommended, The Polish Officer. I was not disappointed and will be reading more Furst. In a nutshell, he covers the clandestine aspects of the Second World War with great depth and accuracy, which naturally unfolds intellectual and emotional aspects of the war that would otherwise have been unexplored. In the case of The Polish Officer I am struck not so much by what Furst explicitly details but by what he implies, by what he reveals; through the actions of his protagonist he describes the heart of a nation constantly besieged by stronger neighbors, a stalwart, fatalistic strain of subversion and resistance. Alexander de Milja begins the novel as a cartographer. He ends it as a survivor, a man who has escaped death so many times through luck or happenstance that it no longer bears meaning. What does bear meaning, however, is the struggle -

"I have to keep fighting," he said. "The Germans, the Russians. Perhaps both. Perhaps for years and years. But I might live through it, you never know. Somebody always seems to survive, no matter what happens. Perhaps it will be me."

Along the way, Furst also reveals adeptly the emotional states that accompany espionage in times of desperate struggle, the individual and sexual longing that comes out of the intense anxiety and boredom of waiting for cataclysm, the shame and pride, the pain and discomfort. He touches gracefully areas of the spy's life normally summarized. This is accomplished in part not only by the actions of the main characters but the minor characters that exemplify the WW II theme of "ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances." "Strange, he thought, how you stumble on the world's secret nobility when you're not even looking for them."

For me, personally, there are always small moments in the course of the prose in which an author cements his or her work to my heart. Here is one:

The waiter came with coffee, real coffee, very hard to get in Paris these days unless you bought on the black markets.

"We're not serving sugar tonight," the waiter explained.

"Oh, but we don't take sugar," Genya said.

The waiter nodded appreciatively - a gracious and dignified lie, well told, was a work of art to a man who understood life.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I read Tom Sawyer last week. The last time I read the book was at least 30 years ago. I think we can make an argument that Twain's classic is the original "guy" book. Just think about what Twain covers in a relatively short book.

  • Rebellion and disobedience

  • Adventure travel

  • A girl you can't live without

  • Pirates!

  • Murder

  • Friendship

I could continue, but I've made my point. Twain essentially provided the blueprint for every "guy" book that would follow.