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!!!!!