Book Learnin’: COUSIN BETTE

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A noble family is foredoomed to disintegration. It is not the fatalism of chance or divine misfortune, but the fatalism of money and social circumstance, the ample vicissitudes of which assemble under General Balzac’s prosaic command. Naturally, Baron de Hulot has a fatal character flaw that initiates his family’s downfall (a womanizing cad, this one), but this flaw seeps into the economic circuitry of Paris – detailed via intermittent disquisitions on the nature of the arts trade, the bankruptcy of the city government, gentrification – until he and his family are swallowed whole by its manifold repercussions. There is a relish in studiously observing the gradations of this social decline, but the tragedy sharply stings – for while the Baron surely deserves his fate, his family shares heavily in the suffering. He is guilty and justly sentenced; his wife, Adeline, is martyrdom incarnate.

Cousin Bette is literary realism at its zenith. This is no plodding accumulation of irrelevant details designed to test the reader’s stamina and desperately court his admiration. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, whom I have been reading rather obsessively for the past few months, a meticulously rendered backdrop with no foregrounded action is merely ornamental and to no purpose at all. Balzac’s portraiture reaches for great ideas, and while he is clearly reactionary – nostalgia abounds for Church and monarchy – there is a reason he earned the esteem of Marx and Engels. The author harbors a tremendous respect for material reality, even if his moral takeaways are at times dispiriting (albeit, magnificently written).

Edification and creative sprawl are the names of the game, here. Read Cousin Bette, savor it, and say a prayer of thanksgiving that Balzac was uniquely prolific – there is so much more of the feast to unfurl!

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Book Learnin’: THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS

capra.

At the forefront of Film but forever forlorn,

Of formidable secrets, full disclosure forborne.

In his Columbia fortress, he foraged for fame

 His finesse to inform and his fears to inflame.

His foreskin foregone, so his fortune foretold

Though he forefended disfavor, was forced out of the fold.

So no more Forbiddens, just formula fraud

And forsaking his friendships, he forged a façade.

Foregrounded in fiction, fortified by the flag,

His memoirs foreclosed on his license to brag:

Former glory to forfeit, former friends to foray

Even foreign forefathers forced into the fray.

And as Longfellow Deeds might forebodingly say,

“Ol’ fork-tongued Frank: Phony for a Day”

~ Wordsworth

I bet you fiendish readers of mine assumed that in this months-long break from Bravado I was whittling away my precious time on frivolous pursuits like videogames or online dating…. Well nay, dear readers, nay! Unbeknownst to you rascals, I have been in monastic study of ‘Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success,’ Joseph McBride’s definitive biography of the man who brought out the best in Barbara Stanwyck, the worst in Cary Grant, and the dipshit dopiest in Gary Cooper! The Name Above the Title himself.

It’s essential reading for cinephiles. Firstly because most cinephiles haven’t risen above the “I’m too cool for this Capracorn bullshit” stage and discovered the buried treasures of Ladies of Leisure, Platinum Blonde, and American Madness. Secondly because it is a case study of retrospective auteurism gone wildly off the rails. Here’s a guy who sprinkled his memoirs with just enough self-deprecation to sell his artistic purity and independence as a bill of goods to blinkered ‘film historians’ willing to forego all methodological rigor and inquiry to lap it up. And when film historians and first-generation auteurists are gathered around the same contaminated well, you just know that the record is blemished forever. All so that face-saving Frank could reclaim some tiny fragment of his long-eroded glory before departing this life hand-in-hand with the little man of his dreams (who, let’s be honest, probably looked a lot more like Harry Cohn than Henry Travers).

McBride pretty much has to contort the extant wisdom on Capra into a lot of unrecognizable bio-historical origami to return some semblance of balance to the lunatic lore that pervades just about everyone’s understanding of the man, fans and detractors alike. On top of all this, there’s just so much damn information, not just about Capra’s childhood but about the political climate that shaped him and all but destroyed him as his career fell deeper and deeper into a tepidity wrought by paralytic paranoia.

It’s just a compelling story. I implore you to read it. And if not, then phooey! I have more content in the damn pipeline for you to maybe engage with. Shitheads!

FILM BOOK BAILIN’ + REDEMPTION

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!!!!!

remains

Book Learnin’: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X

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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.

Happy reading!

Book Learnin’: SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD

 

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Unless you’re a loser, you know that John Ford is the greatest American filmmaker. And since no reader of Rio Bravado is foolish enough to believe otherwise, I entreat all of you to read Joseph McBride’s definitive mammoth biography sometime. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about this crazed sadist with an eye (literally, in his later eye-patched years) for grandeur. And not just any grandeur, but the kind of scenic mythopoeia that fortifies the soul and limns the contours of history with needlepoint delicacy and big breathtaking brushstrokes. The kind that investigates its own desperate nostalgia, whose supercharged emotions billow from the chimneys of distant hovels and tumbleweed-scrawl the barren landscape where hallowed anachronisms go to die.

Anyway, here are ten things I learned from McBride’s book that utterly fascinated me. Enjoy!

1) Ford’s brother Francis Ford beat him to Hollywood and collaborated on Universal serials with his girlfriend, together with whom he lived a life of reckless ambition that ultimately sunk him come the silent era’s wistful twilight. Out of his ashes John Ford rose to stature and cast his big bro in such poignant roles as Slim Pickens’ backwoods buddy in The Sun Shines Bright.

2) I enjoyed reading about Ford’s friendship with Hepburn. It’s so weird that they only made that one film but remained friends for decades. What I didn’t know so much about, on the other hand, was Ford’s weird relationship with Spencer Tracy, who after starring for Ford in Up the River (his first feature film to boot!) was petitioned many times to become a member of Ford’s stock company. Tracy, of course, never succumbed to these invitations and went off to become one of MGM’s golden boys. And it was Hepburn who helped them rebuild their relationship in time for The Last Hurrah in 1958.

3) Ward Bond is seemingly the ultimate lunkhead, the most pea-brained right-winger ever to be set on fire by John Wayne. I never imagined that his relationship with Ford was so imbalanced, less gruff roughhousing buddies on equal footing than the toxic parasitism of a groveling sycophant and his cacklingly abusive boss. Hilarious stuff.

4) Ford’s relationship with his son is so painful to read about. Emotional neglect, halfhearted string-pulling that didn’t even really pay off, and — most shockingly — cutting Pat out of his will entirely. Ford had big problems folks!!!

5) Ford was so vain about his military career. He’d already snagged plenty of medals but kept on lobbying for more until the end of his life. Thankfully Richard Nixon was there in ’73 to give the old guy a Presidential Medal of Freedom!

6) Ford’s daughter Barbara got married to Robert Walker after his divorce from Jennifer Jones. A whirlwind courtship followed by harrowing abuse. I never knew this bit of trivia and it reads like the weirdest, most misguided, most terrifying development in the life of this poor girl and this hypersensitive nutjob of an actor who achieved more in death (sabotaging Leo McCarey’s My Son John) than most people do in life.

7) Virulent racist extraordinaire James Warner Bellah was responsible for writing many short stories that formed the basis of mid-to-late period Ford classics — even those deemed by many of his admirers to be progressive, such as Fort Apache and Sergeant Rutledge. While the former is a masterpiece, thanks in large part to the screenplay wizardry of Frank S. Nugent, the latter remains weird and flawed in a hundred different ways.

8) The catalogue of embarrassments that beset Ford during the sinking ship that was his stint on Mister Roberts. It’s not just the blowout with Fonda — no matter whose account of which you happen to believe is just a goddamn embarrassment — but also a poolside encounter with Betsy Palmer that paints dear old Pappy as the ultimate perv (and he went on to crush hard on just about every young actress he cast in a movie from then on out).

9) John Wayne gave Ford some work on The Alamo as a pity gesture. Ford was such a lonely guy in his old age, and he always resented that Wayne skyrocketed to popularity while he floundered about in relative obscurity. I can’t wait to watch the Ford-fawning docs released in a momentary spurt at the start of the seventies. Bogdanovich to the rescue!

10) John Ford’s Araner adventures seem legendary. I wish I coulda hopped aboard 😦

Book Learnin’: THE GOLDEN BOWL

goldbowl

Alternate Title: THE RETURN OF HANK JAMES!

This is as stressful a novel as any I’ve ever read. Marriage exists on terms both superficially social and torridly intimate, but the amassed anxieties of the latter find no outlet of expression except by way of the former. That is to say, this is a novel of suffocating micro-analysis and wormhole-recursive psycho-strategizing in a state of gaseous expanse,  dilating into voluminous, circuitous hot-air balloon passages the aggregated nuance and complexity of which must eventually find approximation in the lightweight volleys of aristocratic social discourse. Six-hundred pages of spidery Hank James spinning the same labyrinthine web of precarious tabletop diplomacy, a conserved equilibrium ever in redistributive flux. Try as I might, I could not always nail down the antecedents/subjects/diagrammatic structures of his frayed-rope sentences – a lot of balletic tiptoe over and around and adjacent to the deep-seated mental horrors that no one seems capable of ever quite articulating. But James is such a master of floating throat-slitting epiphanies delicately to the surface of his circumlocutory verbal foliage that I doubt even the most confused, disinterested reader could make it through without a few psychological ruptures. For anyone who is even slightly prone to neurosis, this novel might be the death of you.

Book Learnin’: FAT CITY

fatcity

Fat City | Leonard Gardner | 1969

For a forthcoming podcast with my buddy Tom. Unlike most folks, I haven’t seen the Huston film yet (I’m so stoked to though), so I had the privilege of pure virginal contact with the original novel.

The experience is like careening down sludgy waterfalls of ambient unattributed slang-strewn dialogue only to crash against hulking concrete slabs of terse, blistery, scrap-metal prose. A pile of cast-off bricks with no mortar for construction, a sprawling junkyard of pawnable goods that no one’s gonna bother to dig out, a meditation on dead-end-ness without anything prepositional about it, not the ‘fall from’ or the ‘descent into’ or anything like that, just the plodding limbo of anti-aspiration. Taking a lap around ground zero.

Will the movie live up (or down?) to this experience? Stay tuned to Rio Bravado and our forthcoming podcast (someday, someday) for more!

Book Learnin’ – THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

didion

“….we were equally incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other. This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that (a point typically introduced in such accounts by the precocious child of the bereaved) “you can love more than one person.” Of course you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time. ‘She didn’t know the songs,’ I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience.” ~ Joan Didion

I can’t even begin to try to empathize with this. But that’s okay: a lot of this book, for me, functioned as a preparatory guide to understanding the nuts and bolts of grief so that, maybe, way off in the distance when it happens to me, I can have some way of even attempting to navigate or cope with or reckon with it. Among my favorite passages where those addressing  the composure with which it is expected to be met in this here modern Western world.

I wonder if Joan Didion ever saw Tokyo Story….

Well, anyway, I’m onto some Henry James next! Peace out, folks!