God knows why i read a combined 500 pages of David Thomson’s ‘The Big Screen’ and Paul Buhle & David Wagner’s ‘Radical Hollywood.’ One (D. Thom) is well written; the other is not. One (Buhle’s Rules) is edifying; the other is not. Both are lopsided, one a sharply written survey of shit I already know about film history and the other a blight of gangrenous prose that accidentally dropped some interesting information in my lap. Neither strength nor shortcoming can mask the fact that each of these volumes is essentially a book-length list. And lists are no-no’s except when lowly bloggers such as myself do them!
So Thomson’s book is a condensation of reams of film history into a round-robin of lightly pleasurable sketches in the life and art of this or that famous filmmaker, all playing hot potato with Thomson’s big ol’ theme of The Importance of Movies. Think of it as Max Ophüls’ La Rhonde but with Anton Walbrook traded in for your local community college film prof as the master of ceremonies. I made it 300 pages in, realized there was to be no forthcoming synthesis of what I was reading, and tossed it in the book return chute. Couldn’t you have written another biography, dude?
But Buhle & Wagner don’t get off any easier. I thought I was gonna read a damn saga of leftism in Hollywood, get charged on a real radical undercurrent through Tinsel Town’s power grid. But no! It’s a glorified playbill slogging through introductions for an endless ensemble of leftist screenwriters before getting on to what the actual show is about. There is no discrimination. If some rando leftist was able to finagle his way into scripting some Z-grade Republic serial about something covertly leftist, well it gets just as much of a spotlight as the work of Lillian Hellman! The mark of Donald Ogden Stewart means that The Philadelphia Story just has to be slyly subversive, never mind that no one notices or cares or is gonna go Red based on the peripheral half-nuances of a Major League Oscar Winner. The best part is when it talks about the history of the Communist Party in Hollywood, but as soon as it gets to jabbering on about the actual work of these Red Carpet Reds, well, forget about it! Also learn to write, fuckheads! Academia is no excuse (though I guess it is the clear explanation) for such cumbersome writing.
BUT there’s good news! I read a novel, a big celebrated novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day.’ And guess what? It was great! Rainwater prose — just enough, just right, fluid and clearsighted and ideal literary mouthwash for my two prior attempted reads. It’s a book about a butler. A butler! Who else but a butler could serve (ha!) as the ideal cross-section of pre-war British anachronisms, whereby comedy (how is one to banter in the American-style?) and despair (polishing the silver appraised by Nazi guests while conflating one’s servant-class ignorance of global affairs with ‘dignity’) and self-doubt-ridden pathos (if one’s master’s reputation crumbles to dust, then what of his most devoted servant’s??) and a smattering of other little modes and moods and motifs align with clarity and force, until lapsing into the bitterest sweet of a melancholy coda. I can see Terence Davies adapting this to perfection. Thanks to my wonderful girlfriend for buying this for me for my birthday. Love ya sweets!!!!!
I can feel it now folks, videogames are leaving my system and I can just taste the nectar of the finer things in the back of my throat, on the tip of my tongue, and all over my flabby body. Next weekend I’m taking five days off for rest and relaxation, and I am going to go ahead and shoot myself in the foot by promising a brand new entry EVERY SINGLE DAY of that five-day span. Talk about content creation! Buzzfeed eat your heart out!
During this dismal time, I’ve had the pleasure of acquainting myself with one Roy Andersson, antiseptic Swede of misanthrilling dollhouse vignettes, mishmashed mannequin-ized men milling about mellowly monochromatic mise-en-scene, catty-cornered compositions that take tableaux to terrifically tortuous heights of haggardness! Acclamation of spiritual emaciation! Gray and beige and seashell pink, sad and soulless but also faintly comforting, an aesthetic cradle wherein desolation turns comically affectionate…it’s migratory Tati, and it rules!!!!!!!!! We even did a podcast about it!
I’m currently having the slighter pleasure of alternating between two books on film, 1) The Big Screen, David Thomson’s light gloss on canonical film history suffused with pseudo-Sontagian ruminations on Film in all its figurative iterations, and 2) Radical Hollywood, a wealth of more interesting information written from an opposite approach to style and wit. This is sinkhole prose, folks, too prickly and unpleasant to be called ‘dryly academic’ or some such descriptive. Thomson, by contrast, manages to say all the usual stuff with an impeccable flow and instinct for detour and digression that makes his text more ideal for movie neophytes than the usual Bordwell prescriptions. I dunno if I would recommend it to my enlightened readership, but it gives me faith in his more specialized writings, which I have yet to consume.
So here’s to the good life, fellas! And sorry for the inactivity. As Harry Nilsson once implored,
These are dark times, brethren. Times in which conking out slack-jawed to the opiate high of playing videogames beats scaling the perilous cliffs of Mt. Cinema (I always have my local climbing gym do some real climbing!). So you may notice that Rio Bravado has been empty this past week, and for this I apologize. But fortunately I still manage to do a lot of reading, and on today’s edition of Book Learnin’ I have a real treat.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X!
History has worked against Malcolm X, whitewashing, softening, sounding alarm, carving in stone, but betraying little hint of the amorphousness of the guy’s identity, the neural rivulets of his magma-fluid intelligence. The ideological orbit around the issue of White Supremacy is circumferentially massive, but white folks have no room for telescopes. We’re allergic to the discourse, so we classify Malcolm X and MLK according to a fork-in-the-road binary. We blather on about the pendulum’s resting extremities while ignoring the downswing of its crescent razor into our collective white psyche. And believe you me, The Autobiography is psychic surgery, demanding radical empathy at the expense of a complacency that we like ruffled from time to time but never mutilated. Hey white people! Yeah you! Read this book! If black America has to read white people’s self-serving contortions of slavery as part of some state-sponsored Historical Erasure Initiative while Tamir Rices are getting slaughtered by the day, then the least you can do is get rattled by a black insurgent’s account of your own toxicity.