Wednesday, September 27, 2006

SWEET: Jumpers are back. My mom used to love to dress me in these. I don't know if I own a single one now.
A MOVING TARGET: KC Johnson chronicles some of the most startling vacillations of Durham DA Mike Nifong in the Duke case.
Movie Quote of the Day:
"The next words out of your mouth better be guilty or not guilty. I don't want to hear commentary, argument, or opinion. If I hear anything other than guilty or not guilty, you'll be in contempt. I don't even want to hear you clear your throat. Now how do your clients plead?"
"I think I get the point."
"No, I don't think you do."
~ My Cousin Vinny

Song of the Day:
Remy Zero, "Fair"

Happy Birthday:
Samuel Adams
Wilford Brimley
William Conrad
Avril Lavigne
Meat Loaf
GOOD NEWS for Washington teachers: The Supreme Court will hear a case brought by nonmembers of the Washington Education Association who don't want the mandatory bargaining fees they pay to the union used to support political causes.

The Washington Supreme Court held that such "forced speech" for nonmembers was necessary to protect the free-speech rights of WEA members, who apparently are incapable of expressing themselves without garnishing the paychecks of people who disagree with them. We'll see if the Supreme Court embraces that logic.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

JONAH GOLDBERG says Aaron Sorkin's writing is "designed for viewers who want to feel good about themselves for getting it.... It's ego-balm for BoBos."

I will not be partaking of this season's Sorkin offering. Goldberg's right that Sports Night was good, but even though I liked those characters, the cutesy-tedious dialogue that seems to be Sorkin's trademark got stale very quickly and did not improve on The West Wing.

"They're having a Cabinet meeting this afternoon."
"A Cabinet meeting?"
"A Cabinet meeting."
"They're having a Cabinet meeting."
"This afternoon."
"They're having a Cabinet meeting."
"This afternoon."
Cut to commercial.
I'll stick with Monday Night Football.
SPEAKING at Harvard in June, NYT Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse "told an audience of 800 she had wept at a Simon and Garfunkel concert when she was struck by the unfulfilled promise of her own generation."

Greenhouse went on to charge that since then, the U.S. government had "turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world -- [such as] the U.S. Congress."

She also observed a "sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last few years have been dispiriting is an understatement."
Daniel Okrent, the NYT's former in-house critic, said he was "amazed" by the remarks.

John Podhoretz says Greenhouse "basically said, 'Hello. My name is Linda, and I make The Nation look like the John Birch Society.'"
ADD John In Carolina to the list of outstanding blogs covering the Duke Lacrosse story.
Movie Quote of the Day:
"You know, like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, computer hacking skills... Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills."
~ Napoleon Dynamite

Song of the Day:
Iron & Wine, "Such Great Heights"

Happy Birthday:
T.S. Eliot
George Gershwin
Olivia Newton-John
Ivan Pavlov
AS GEORGE ALLEN fights to keep his Senate seat, Mitt Romney is the new '08 hope for social conservatives, writes John Fund.

That's not to say Mr. Romney doesn't have critics back home. ... Larry Cirignano, the head of the Boston-based group Catholic Citizenship, faults Mr. Romney for not allowing local officials to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Would there be any legal basis for such a denial?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Quote of the Day:
"Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. "
~ Cary Grant

Song of the Day:
Nick Drake, "One Of These Things First"

Happy Birthday:
Michael Douglas
Heather Locklear
Scottie Pippen
Christopher Reeve
Shel Silverstein
Will Smith
Barbara Walters
Catherine Zeta-Jones

Sunday, September 24, 2006

BILL CLINTON has been out of the spotlight for so long I'd half-forgotten his worst qualities. They're all coming back to me now.

If I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops [in Afghanistan] trying to kill [Bin Laden]. Now, I've never criticized President Bush, and I don't think this is useful. But you know we do have a government that thinks that Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq.
What is that paragraph if not criticism by a former president of the sitting president? But no, he's never criticized President Bush.

Byron York has more on what Clinton's tirade boils down to: "Bill Clinton, the head of the executive branch, could not find the will to order the CIA and FBI to act."
Movie Quote of the Day:
"Could they be the miners?"
"Sure, they're like three years old."
"You lost me."
~ Galaxy Quest

Song of the Day:
The Shins, "New Slang"

Happy Birthday:
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Phil Hartman
Jim Henson
John Marshall
Linda McCartney
SPOTTED in a Birmingham, Alabama grocery store this evening: a Rosh Hashana display, featuring matzoh, gelfite fish, and Shabbos candles.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

THE WEEKLY STANDARD looks at the George Allen's political prospects, and trends in Virginia: "Virginia is growing, and it is growing into the sort of state--with high numbers of professionals, immigrants, and singles--that tends to vote Democratic."
I WONDER if the New York Giants appreciate the NYT putting this article on its website the night before they play the Seattle Seahawks at Seattle. The article talks about how crowd noise at notoriously cacophonous Quest Stadium contributed to 11 false-start penalties for the Giants when they played there last year.
Quote of the Day:
"Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well."
~ Voltaire

Song of the Day:
The Lightning Seeds, "Change"

Happy Birthday:
Augustus Ceasar
Bruce Springsteen
Ray Charles
Julio Iglesias
THE NEW REPUBLIC recommends TV shows to buy on DVD.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A POST by InstaPundit reminds me to recommend the Durham-In-Wonderland blog run by Brooklyn College professor KC Johnson. Johnson's site is a must-see for those of you who are following the Duke Lacrosse case. I found his blog from this Slate article back in August.

Incidentally, the story of Johnson's fight to win tenure is quite an interesting read. More on that here.
I'VE GOTTEN used to having on as background noise lately. Having run out of diavlogs last week, I checked out -- bloggingheads' sister veture -- and found a conversation featuring my uncle. The Steven Pinker episode is also interesting.
Quote of the Day:
"If you have a job without aggravations, you don't have a job."
~ Malcolm Forbes

Song of the Day:
Suede, “Stay Together”

Happy Birthday:
Tommy Lasorda
Yang Chen Ning
Joan Jett
David Stern

Thursday, September 21, 2006

ANGELINA JOLIE has signed on to play Dagney Taggart in a movie version of Atlas Shrugged. (More here.)

Somewhere, a bunch of people I summer-interned with are having earnest discussions about this.
Quote of the Day:
"Your love is comfort in sadness, quietness in tumult, rest in weariness, hope in despair."
~ Marion Garretty

Song of the Day:
Prince, "Little Red Corvette"

Happy Birthday:
Larry Hagman
Hamilton Jordan
Stephen King
Bill Murray
H.G. Wells
TEN QUESTIONS for people hungry for a Subway Series (that's World Series, not some kind of sandwich -- although come to think of it, there's a marketing idea for Subway).

Question marks include Pedro Martinez ("you still have to wonder about his mental health") and the delicate A-Rod.
CHECK OUT Anos Caraday and his collection of dog photos.
MORE GOOD STUFF from Eugene Volokh on freedom of speech.
PEGGY NOONAN "like[s] Democrats," but she doesn't predict big gains for them in November:

The Democrats' mistake--ironically, in a year all about Mr. Bush--is obsessing on Mr. Bush. They've been sucker-punched by their own animosity. "The Democrats now are incapable of answering a question on policy without mentioning Bush six times," says pollster Kellyanne Conway. " 'What is your vision on Iraq?' 'Bush lied us into war.' 'Health care? 'Bush hasn't a clue.' They're so obsessed with Bush it impedes them from crafting and communicating a vision all their own." They heighten Bush by hating him.
She also says "Autumn is the true American New Year. This is when we make our real resolutions." How true. September always feels like new-school-year time, no matter how far removed we are from that scene.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

OUTCRY at UNC-Wilmington as a popular (conservative) professor is denied tenure.
MARIO LOYOLA on today's sulfurous remarks by Hugo Chavez:

A latter-day Mussolini just referred to the President of the United States as "the devil" — to general applause, laughter, and merriment in the General Assembly of the United Nations — an organization we created to make the defeat of fascism permanent in our world. By insisting on the universality of the Organization, and not insisting on any standards for membership, President Harry Truman bequeathed a pulpit of "unique legitimacy" to our worst enemies, to mock us and incite the world against us, from right in the middle of our greatest city. Pretending like this is not worth responding to smacks of submissiveness. In Latin America, being dignified and soft-spoken only makes you look like a pushover.
The U.S. government's position seems to be "no comment." And really, I can't imagine what an appropriate response would be. Can the State Department ask Jon Stewart to come up with something?
Quote of the Day:
“They say fish are good for the brain. Have a go at the sardines and come back and report.”
~ P.G. Wodehouse

Song of the Day:
Diana King, "Shy Guy"

Happy Birthday:
Red Auerbach
Sophia Loren
Upton Sinclair

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

LOTS OF TALK on how to interpret the latest George Allen race/ethnicity incident, in which he lashed out at a reporter who asked whether his mother was of Jewish descent. On the one hand, Allen's defensiveness could indicate that he's trying desperately not to be linked to the Children of Israel because such an association would cost him votes in Jew-hating Virginia (?). That's the interpretation the Democrats are pushing. The other interpretation -- the one more favorable to Allen -- is that he was righteously offended by the reporter's intrusive and irrelevant question and was sticking up for separation of church and state, etc.

I've seen the clip once, and to me it looked like Allen was unsure how to respond to the question until people the audience started hissing at the reporter, and then he took his cue from them and went into indignant, how-dare-you, Jefferson-quoting mode. So I'm not sure the incident tells us much about Allen, other than that he knows how to pander to a crowd.

UPDATE: Now Allen clarifies that he's proud of his Jewish roots.
ANNE APPLEBAUM says the West needs to rally 'round the Pope:

I don't mean that we all need to rush to defend or to analyze this particular sermon: I leave that to experts on Byzantine theology (and to my colleague Christopher Hitchens). But we can all unite in our support for freedom of speech—surely the pope is allowed to quote medieval texts—and of the press. And we can also unite—loudly—in our condemnation of violent, unprovoked attacks on churches, embassies, and elderly nuns. By "we" I mean here the White House, the Vatican, the German Greens, the French Foreign Ministry, NATO, Greenpeace, Le Monde, and Fox News.
Whether or not apologizing was the right thing to do, I agree there's been too much emphasis on it in the coverage of this.
DAVID BERNSTEIN notes more signs of a cooling housing market in Northern Virginia, particularly in the 22201 zip code.
DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS speculates that a rash of recent "false-alarms" in the skies may actually be terrorist test-runs.
NOW THAT I'm in a position to do something with my copies of The New Yorker other than pile them in large unread stacks on my bedside table, I'm relieved to hear that the publication isn't about to go under. It's got the highest subscription renewal rate of any magazine in the country.
Quote of the Day:
“Nothing spoils the taste of peanut butter like unrequited love.”
~ Charlie Brown

Song of the Day:
Van Halen, “Right Now”

Happy Birthday:
Jimmy Fallon
William Golding
Jeremy Irons
Leon Jaworski
Trisha Yearwood

Sunday, September 17, 2006

CONTROVERSY RAGES over breasts in the blogosphere. More here. And here's the picture at issue.
Quote of the Day:
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Song of the Day:
Billy Ray Cyrus, "Words By Heart"

Happy Birthday:
Anne Bancroft
James Brady
Mark Brunell
Warren Burger
Phil Jackson
John Ritter
David Souter
Hank Williams

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Quote of the Day:
"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee."
~ Abraham Lincoln

Song of the Day:
Sheriff, "When I'm With You"

Happy Birthday:
Lauren Bacall
David Copperfield
Peter Falk
Jennifer Tilly

Friday, September 15, 2006

Book Review: Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One: The Artist's Load

We must … educate the people in sterility. We might have a little pageant in its honour….

Black Mischief (108)

In 1947 MGM wanted to make a movie of Brideshead Revisited; its author Evelyn Waugh had no interest but played along and got an expenses-paid trip for himself and his second wife to Los Angeles. He brought his violent prejudice against the U.S. with him (Stannard 186) and quickly figured out the movie would never be made: "The trick was to keep the Americans on the wrong foot while he imbibed Hollywood's extraordinary atmosphere" (Stannard 189). The focus of his amazement was Forest Lawn Memorial Park, the cemetery in Glendale that managed to offend his aesthetic and religious sensibilities at one go.

In a magazine article about Forest Lawn published later that year Waugh begins amusingly by viewing Los Angeles as an archaeologist of 2947 decrypting his findings—e.g., "the idol Oscar—sexless image of infertility," "a temple designed in the shape of a Derby hat" (Essays 331-2). It becomes clear, however, that Waugh feels Forest Lawn is only a symbol of all he found amiss in Southern California and America. Sadly, the writing that resulted is not his freshest. As Edmund Wilson wrote of The Loved One, the padded-out fictional version of the Forest Lawn article, "[It] suffers a little, for an American, from being full of familiar American jokes which Evelyn Waugh has just discovered" (304).

Thus, Waugh's description in the article of the "flimsy multitude of architectural styles" comes a decade or so behind similar descriptions in Dodsworth and The Day of the Locust. At points this material descends to the downright rubbishy, his complaints, for instance, about "the pathological sloth of the hotel servants," and about sun-seeking retirees who "warm their old bodies and believe themselves alive, opening their scaly eyes two or three times a day to browse on salads and fruits" (Essays 335).

In the article, Waugh is on firmer ground on the topic of religious expression as evidenced by the design of Forest Law and yet still manages to be wrongheaded. After noting the purposeful absence of deciduous trees, Waugh quotes from the Art Guide of Forest Lawn With Interpretations to the effect, "The cemeteries of the world cry out man's utter hopelessness in the face of death…. Here [in contrast] sorrow sees no ghastly monuments, but only life and hope," to which he snorts in reply, "The Christian visitor might here remark that by far the commonest feature of other grave-yards is still the Cross, a symbol in which previous generations have found more Life and Hope than in the most elaborately watered evergreen shrub" (Essays 332). Here Waugh considerably underestimates the importance of the tree in Christian semiology. As Simon Schama has written, "Why should Christianity have denied itself the irresistible analogy between the vegetable cycle and the theology of sacrifice and immortality? Had it been adamantly ascetic, Christianity would have been unique among the religions of the world in its rejection of arboreal symbolism" (218).

Finally, almost at the end of the article, Waugh describes the memento mori of the European tradition of funerary sculpture—"the corpse half decayed with marble worms writhing in the marble adipocere"—in such a way that he seems to be speaking of his own artistic project: "These macabre achievements were done with a simple moral purpose—to remind a highly civilized people that beauty was skin deep and pomp was mortal"(Essays 336-7).

This felicitous phrase is a late save for a sophisticated yet mulish and rancid article, the most presumptuous kind of travel writing. When the Forest Lawn article became The Loved One, however, the insights got lost in a cruder form of expostulation—for the first and only time in Waugh's longer fiction the satire is mostly topical. Thus, it falls within literary scholar Leon Guilhamet's category of "demonstrative satire," which "encompasses direct attack in the present tense against individuals or specific groups," is "the most vituperative of satiric expressions," and takes "quite naturally the shape of demonstrative rhetoric" (27).


In other words, The Loved One is a travel-writer's withering editorial fitted out with a narrative, which leads to another peculiarity. Although the protagonist Dennis Barlow is a rogue on the order of the Basil Seal of Waugh's Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags, and although Waugh contemporaneously wrote in a letter of the "ineradicable caddishness" of all his heroes (Stannard 200), by comparison to the Southern Californian scene and populace Dennis ends up with a hero's pull.

Dennis is a 28-year-old English poet whose screenwriting contract with Megalopolitan Pictures has lapsed and who takes a job at the Happier Hunting Grounds, a pet cemetery, where his bosses like him because his melancholy and his accent give him a "reverent" air. The Happier Hunting Grounds patterns itself after Whispering Glades (itself modeled on Forest Lawn), where Dennis goes to arrange the funeral of Sir Francis Hinsley, an English artist who kills himself when his studio contract is not renewed. (Sir Francis had said to Dennis over drinks, "I am your memento mori. I am in deep thrall to the Dragon King. Hollywood is my life" (14).)

Dennis, "a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment" (37), is himself "held … in thrall" (79) by the mystique of Whispering Glades and is particularly drawn to Aimée Thanatogenos, an apprentice cosmetician there. Aimée must decide between mother-loving Mr. Joyboy, Senior Mortician at Whispering Glades, and Dennis, who passes off classic English poetry as original compositions and plans to be ordained as a non-sectarian minister in order to impress her (but who must hide his job at the Happier Hunting Grounds from her). Aimée confides her romantic confusions to the Guru Brahmin, a newspaper advice columnist, who, eventually, tells her to jump off a building; instead she kills herself with a lethal injection in Mr. Joyboy's work-room. A desperate Mr. Joyboy asks Dennis to help him dispose of the corpse at the Happier Hunting Grounds; Dennis bargains for Mr. Joyboy's savings and returns to England, "carrying back … a great, shapeless chunk of experience, the artist's load" (163).

Dennis is the ironic protagonist who outfoxes the other characters (and merges at the end with the writer of the book we've just read) but the keystone figure of The Loved One is the Dreamer, the visionary who established Whispering Glades and whom Waugh modeled on Hubert Eaton, the sales agent who was hired by a run-down boneyard to market "before-need" plots and who transformed the enterprise into Forest Lawn, with its insipidly comforting commercial-religious creed. We never see Waugh's Dreamer, but we read inscriptions based on his beliefs ("Behold I dreamed a dream and I saw a New Earth sacred to HAPPINESS" (39)), and "hear" his recorded voice from various speakers in the vast burial ground.

Waugh's Dreamer bathetically ties The Loved One to the medieval literary tradition of the dream vision, which includes the Consolation of Philosophy, the Dream of the Rood, the Romance of the Rose, the Pèlerinage de la vie humaine, and Piers Plowman, a tradition which, as John Fleming has written, typically "leads an at first uncomprehending narrator from ignorance to understanding or from despair to consolation" (52). These are visionary works but may be thoroughly compatible with satire. As Fleming writes of the Romance of the Rose, for instance, "Jean de Meun follows the typical course of the dream-vision in that he exposes his dreamer-narrator to the doctrines of various allegorical abstractions, but, atypically, he makes the hero seem increasingly stupid in his perverse rejection of good counsel for bad" (52).

There's no question about what Waugh, a convert to Roman Catholicism, thinks of the Dreamer, as he makes clear in the Forest Lawn article, e.g., "Dr. Eaton is the first man to offer eternal salvation at an inclusive charge as part of his undertaking service" (Essays 336). The question is what we are to think of Dennis, who neither achieves a higher understanding nor stupidly rejects it. Furthermore, although Dennis is a scoundrel, he is an outsider in both Hollywood and Whispering Glades and so doesn't represent what's wrong with them. Rather, he's impervious to the spiritual values that Southern Californian culture (presumably) gets wrong but not above exploiting those values, chiefly to seduce Aimée (much like the protagonist of the Romance of the Rose (Fleming 50)).

Waugh creates character here on the expedient principle that the enemy of an enemy is friend enough. Thus, unlike Basil Seal, whom Waugh always views dispassionately as a virulent symptom of a rampant condition, Waugh seems glad as not to have Dennis get away with Mr. Joyboy's savings. That is, Waugh suffers the embarrassment of identifying unironically with the scoundrel protagonist of The Loved One, who becomes a hero by default.

Here the victim is Aimée, but unlike Tony Last in A Handful of Dust she's not appealing or plausibly drawn so there's no urge to object when punishment is meted out to her far more severely than conventional romantic or naturalistic storytelling could justify. With Aimée, Waugh seems to be compacting a number of views on American culture—she was named for the (Canadian) Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson but became "progressive" in college (102) but is devoted to the Whispering Glades "dream" and takes to her work "like a nun" (69).

She quickly becomes a pretext for a number of sublunary jibes at American women. For instance, we read of Aimée embalming herself for a date: "With a steady hand [she] fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover—dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweatglands, gargled another to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle labeled: 'Jungle Venom'—'From the depth of the fever-ridden swamp,' the advertisement had stated" (111). Later Waugh goes on, repeating himself in part: "Aimée Thanatogenos spoke the tongue of Los Angeles; the sparse furniture of her mind … had been acquired at the local High School and University; she presented herself to the world dressed and scented in obedience to the advertisements; brain and body were scarcely distinguishable from the standard product … " (134).

After Aimée loses confidence in both Mr. Joyboy and Dennis, we read, "Her heart was broken perhaps, but it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture" (135). Despite her name and her faith in the Dreamer, Aimée is not an allegorical figure having to do with spirituality but Waugh's proof that if you've seen one mass-produced American girl, you've seen them all, and he seems to mean it literally. He's so insistent about it that he forgets what he wrote when Dennis first sees her—"the girl who now entered was unique" (54; emphasis added).

Waugh constructs the composite Aimée out of crap-sociological "observations"—is any of this material on topic, assuming we can discern one? Waugh wrote of the ideas he had in mind in writing The Loved One, working up from the specific to the general: "1st … and quite predominantly overexcitement with the scene of Forest Lawn," "3rd there is no such thing as an American. They are all exiles uprooted, transplanted & doomed to sterility," and "5th Memento mori, old style, not specifically Californian" (Letters 265-6). Waugh tries to bring it all together by writing as Aimée kills herself, "[S]he had communed perhaps with the spirits of her ancestors, the impious and haunted race who had deserted the altars of the old Gods, had taken ship and wandered, driven by what pursuing furies through what mean streets and among what barbarous tongues!" (149).

This only leads to a further objection: it's one thing to suggest that Anglicans have put themselves out of the way of salvation, as Waugh does in A Handful of Dust, a jeremiadic claim with a basis in the rejection of the true church, in Waugh's view, by the Church of England. By contrast, saying that Americans are damned makes no sense because "American," as depicted here in Los Angeles circa 1947, doesn't represent a spiritual tradition. And if you specify American low-church Protestants like Aimée, as this last passage about her suggests, you're not describing The Loved One as Waugh wrote it, what with all the nonsense about deodorants and mouthwash and public schools, etc.

Worse, Waugh's intense dislike of America drives away the necessary qualities of wit—indirection and understatement. He has so little respect for his subject he doesn't hold himself to a very high standard and ends up making misogynistic comments about American culture that are downright stupid (e.g., "American mothers, Dennis reflected, presumably knew their daughters apart, as the Chinese were said subtly to distinguish one from another of their seemingly uniform race, but to the European eye the Mortuary Hostess was one with all her sisters of the air-liners and reception-desks…. She was the standard product" (53-4)).

Waugh spent six weeks in the U.S.; he doesn't know his subject well enough to hate it accurately or distinctively. (What Mrs. Joyboy says about finding cheaper and better lettuce in Vermont than in Los Angeles, and having "a coloured girl" there who "came in regular," will puzzle anyone who has spent five minutes in that state (115).) The Loved One can't begin to compete with Philip Wylie's execratory blasts in Generation of Vipers, an insider's catalogue of the worthlessness of the various American estates in the early 1940s. While you can tell that The Loved One is intended as caustic drollery, it has the feel of Nathanael West (as noted by Edmund Wilson (304) and Waugh's biographer (Stannard 208)). The Loved One is Waugh's "Burning of Los Angeles," fueled by just enough hellfire to make the arson recognizably his handiwork.


Almost twenty years after Waugh's junket to Hollywood, the same studio that saw Brideshead Revisited "purely as a love story" without "theological implication" (Diaries 673) was ready for The Loved One, the religious points of which are just part of a choppy attack on American "sterility." The Loved One is coarse enough that it doesn't matter that the moviemakers, inevitably, get it wrong, and make it even coarser. It's the least conventionally unified and yet in some ways the most entertaining of the movies made from Waugh's books.

The American producers did hire an English director, Tony Richardson, and commissioned a script by Christopher Isherwood. The decision was then made, however, to update the story, and the topical satire, to the 1960s. So the American writer Terry Southern, hot off his collaboration on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, was hired to hipsterize the material. According to Southern's "journal" of the film's production, his script included such things as a one-shot scene in which Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, the book's humorless defender of the respectability of the English colony in Hollywood, appears in drag at a gay leather bar. (Robert Morley refused to shoot the scene, proof to Richardson that he was behaving like "a boorish prima donna" (195)).

This is enough to indicate that Southern's writing has the juvenile impertinence of an undergraduate revue, and though one commentator noted the "imprint of an unadult mind" on Waugh's book (Ward 83), it's puerile in a very different way from the movie that resulted. (Southern's Journal includes a "transcript" of a prank phone call he made to a pet cemetery asking how much a funeral would cost for an 11-foot python that died swallowing a pig.)

In addition, Richardson shot the film "almost wholly in sequence" to preserve "the improvisational potential of the film in creation" (Journal); Southern was considered an expert in ad hockery on the set. This is how the silent slapstick stars worked with their teams of gag men, but Richardson, with his "distinguished" background directing Shakespeare and John Osborne, doesn't have the craft to select and shape knockabout material. A scene in which a wedding ceremony has to be accelerated so that the chapel can quickly be converted into a funeral parlor is about as snappy as it gets.

Richardson can't think in either Waugh's or Southern's terms, as is shown by the casting: as Dennis, the American Robert Morse, with his boyishly impudent air, isn't brazen enough for Southern or Waugh (and doesn't seem to come "of an earlier civilization with sharper needs" (54)), and as Aimée, the conventionally whiny ingénue Anjanette Comer lacks the skill to make something of that wobbly character, sententious yet diffident, and "doomed to sterility." (Among young actors of that era Terence Stamp and Barbara Harris, for instance, would have been better choices.) And while Richardson later wrote that the all-star supporting cast (apart from Morley) got into the spirit (195; the cast includes John Gielgud, Jonathan Winters in two roles, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, Margaret Leighton, Roddy McDowall, Dana Andrews, James Coburn, Liberace, Tab Hunter, Lionel Stander, and, in roles cut to "whittle" the movie from five hours down to two, Ruth Gordon and Jayne Mansfield), the actors seem to have been assembled for a variety of reasons having little to do with appropriate comic talent. Anarchy is not that hard to achieve if you don't pay attention to what you're doing. The result inverts Waugh—irreverence is the only thing holding the picture together.

In his Forest Lawn article, Waugh contrasted the cemetery of the future with the right-thinking traditions of the past; Richardson's movie goes futuristic. To clear Whispering Glades of economically unproductive dead bodies and turn it into a retirement home (with the attendant advantage of higher turnover), the Dreamer collaborates with the Air Force to re-"bury" the dead in outer space. Although the movie deals with the empyrean, it deals with it literally. There is no spiritual dimension to the picture at all, and what the satire of the military adds is on a par with Southern's belabored work on Dr. Strangelove (less deft in the execution, however, because there's no comedy specialist of Peter Sellers's caliber at the center).

The movie also contains fleshpottery absent from the book—an orgy with go-go girls in the casket showroom; an Air Force hero's lascivious stripper wife who demands Dennis's services in return for endorsing Whispering Glade's space program; living statuary that gyrates, simulating copulation. The movie is so broad that it readily accommodates the kind of burlesque that functions as satire at the same time that it turns the audience on, without self-awareness and so without irony.

Although Richardson desecrates Waugh's work, the funhouse approach isn't as much of a violation as Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry's recent adaptation of Vile Bodies was. Anarchy is generally the target of Waugh's satire rather than its goal, but messing The Loved One up is perhaps just what the book needs, seeing as Waugh runs off course and bores us with his cranky travel skimmings. In any event, because of the split between text and performance, a movie that one rejects for almost every conceivable reason can still be roughly entertaining.

Rod Steiger, for instance, is able to give Mr. Joyboy more power than this kind of doughy American eunuch ever had onscreen. (He's like a carnivorous Grady Sutton.) Steiger was always the most fearlessly stylized actor of his generation, as anyone who has seen him in Clifford Odets's The Big Knife knows, and he's the one performer in The Loved One who stays ahead of the curve no matter how bent. He confects an insane blend of prissy blandness and queeny bizarreness as the Mom-obsessed kitsch craftsman, the embalmer who is all the creepier because, in his antiseptic American way, he remains oblivious to the macabre side of what he does. (Steiger is so blandly creepy he makes the presence of Liberace as the casket salesman superfluous.)

Mr. Joyboy invites Aimée over to meet his "Mom," an obese, bed-ridden hag who moans in ecstasy over food commercials on TV while her aproned son cooks for her and tells Aimée that he plans to buy a big tub to give Mom her sponge baths in. (This outdoes even Philip Wylie's spewings on the subject of the American mother (194-217).) When Steiger's Mr. Joyboy shows Aimée his bedroom he says with breathy maidenliness, "I wanted you to see it—I don't know why," and effectively sends up the curdled euphemistic propriety that has been the bane of American popular culture since forever and is the one target Waugh hits dead on with his book (and gives it its title).

The movie's best sequence, however—involving Milton Berle and Margaret Leighton as a wealthy couple whose beloved pooch Arthur has died—is an invention. When Dennis arrives to collect the corpse and arrange for its disposal, Mr. Kenton is in the midst of managing his wife's hysterical accusations that he killed Arthur by not loving him enough. (He refused therapy.) It's a nightmare situation, as if Mr. Kenton (rather than Berle) has been miscast as a supporting player in his wife's histrionics and yet he can't refuse to play his part. He tries to reason with her, her voice ripe and yodelly with grief, but whenever he turns to Dennis, Berle's show-biz vet's weariness shows right through and he's instantly nothing but business.

After his wife slaps him and then asks why he must always hurt her (Leighton gives a towering parody of grande-dame theatrics), Mr. Kenton pours himself a drink (once he gets the glass upright) and sits down to work out the details with Dennis as quickly as possible. Dennis asks him in the ornate euphemisms of the trade how he wants the dog's body disposed of—entombment, empyrement, dissemination, or eternalization—to which Mr. Kenton replies, "I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about." When Dennis explains, Mr. Kenton thinks that burning sounds good. Dennis then asks, "Will you require a niche in our sanctum sanctorum or would you prefer to keep the ashes at home?" at which Mr. Kenton almost chokes on his scotch and mutters, "Not at home, pal, not at home, no."

Berle's gulp and no-nonsense answer suggest more than the rest of the movie in its entirety how far from common feeling the funeral biz has strayed. That one reaction is actually more expressive than Waugh's book as well, because Waugh, as was his style, condemns by implication rather than overt statement, which is fine, until his wit deserts him as it did in The Loved One. Berle may not be subtle but he is concise and pungent, and that moment is a pearl.

The rest of the movie is considerably less precious. It comes within sight of a rousing thematic variety show, like The Big Broadcast of 1938 with a raft of comedy stars and specialists (including Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, Lynne Overman, Ben Blue, as well as the incongruous musical guest Kirsten Flagstad), but Richardson and Southern aren't qualified for such proceedings. Instead they turn The Loved One into mere perversity, somehow intended as punitive yet seemingly served as both a delicacy and an intoxicant. Perhaps the only way to enjoy it is to accept that saying something offensive is better than saying nothing at all. The Evelyn Waugh who wrote The Loved One might have agreed with that, at any rate.

Works Cited

Fleming, John V. The Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Guilhamet, Leon. Satire and the Transformation of Genre. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Richardson, Tony. The Long-Distance Runner. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Southern, Terry. The Journal of The Loved One: The Production Log of a Motion Picture. New York: Random House, 1965.

Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Ward, A.C. Twentieth-Century English Literature: 1901-1960. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1964.

Waugh, Evelyn. Black Mischief, Scoop, The Loved One, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. 1932, 1938, 1948, 1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

-----. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh. Ed. Michael Davie. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.

-----. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. Ed. Donat Gallagher. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

-----. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. Ed. Mark Amory. New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1980.

-----. The Loved One. 1948. New York: Little, Brown, 1999.

Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1958.

Wylie, Philip. Generation of Vipers. 20th Ed. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1955.
Quote of the Day:
"It shows you, Madame, the dangers of conversation. It is a profound belief of mine that if you can induce a person to talk to you for long enough, on any subject whatever, sooner or later they will give themselves away."
~ Hercule Poirot

Song of the Day:
Coldplay, "The Scientist"

Happy Birthday:
Agatha Christie
Dan Marino
Tommy Lee Jones
Oliver Stone
William H. Taft

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Quote of the Day:
"Nature magically suits a man to his fortunes, by making them the fruit of his character."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Song of the Day:
Ben Folds, "The Luckiest"

Happy Birthday:
Hugh Grant
Michael Keaton
Adam Sandler
Michelle Williams

Friday, September 01, 2006

Movie Review

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center: Knights in Distress

I was so grateful that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center wasn't overheated to the point of derangement, in the manner of his "political" hallucinations JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995), that I feel a little guilty for not responding to it more. Stone should be encouraged to stay off whatever he used to smoke, but he tones it down so much that World Trade Center is like a yawnily uplifting TV movie. There are many states of mind between delirium and coma, but whatever else it may be, Stone's talent is not a moderate one.

World Trade Center is the story of two members of the Port Authority Police Department who were among the last, few people to be pulled alive from the rubble of the collapsed towers on September 11th. Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) is an unsmilingly earnest 21-year veteran who knows the building complex intimately. When he hears news of the first plane, he heads downtown and leads a troop of volunteers into the burning buildings to rescue people on the floors above. Willy Jimeno (Michael Peña) is a rookie under McLoughlin, who knows he's following the best leader. But no one could have achieved what these men attempted; they're still in the Concourse when the South Tower collapses. Both McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned under slabs of concrete twenty feet below ground level.

Structurally, the screenplay by Andrea Berloff is an oddity. McLoughlin and Jimeno are two fearless knights who are alert but helpless during the battle of their lives—they're heroes almost entirely in intention. For most of the picture they're pretty much immobile (except for one arm apiece), unaware of what has happened, unsure if anyone will find them before they fatally hemorrhage or are crushed. All they can do is fight off sleep, in the belief they'll live longer if they do, though McLoughlin thinks they have only 14 hours.

The entire action thus covers what would be a single episode in an epic narrative; it's as if the Odyssey, for instance, featured only the adventure in Polyphemus's cave (and ended with an unfraught reunion with Penelope). In other words, World Trade Center reduces narrative entirely to a single ordeal (albeit part of a larger ordeal that will be a bold heading in future history books, as one character points out). It's a trial in which the knights remain nearly motionless, their great struggle simply to stay awake.

The movie doesn't stay below ground with the trapped knights, however, but opens the situation up by showing what McLoughlin and Jimeno remember about their wives, and what their distraught wives remember about them. McLoughlin's wife Donna (Maria Bello), mother of his four kids, is a relatively stoic woman who believes all she can do is wait for word. Her younger son, who mistakes her stoicism for indifference, prods her into going to Manhattan to find John. Jimeno's wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), pregnant with their second daughter, is more impatient than Donna, but her energy is mostly wasted. She can't sit still, but of course she can't accomplish anything, either. (Her restless trip to the drug store is a highlight because it makes its point without undue emphasis—Allison is dizzy in anticipation of grief.)

Both damsels help their imperiled husbands more than they know, however, by giving them something to hang on for. That becomes the rationale for the movie's back-and-forth between the men losing strength in the bowels of the ruins and the women fretting and hoping. Currently there are no actresses I'd rather watch than Bello and Gyllenhaal, and they're never trite here (though neither is quite convincing as a working-class woman, in part because of the formulaic way the script has them interact with their children), but this structure is a mistake, and not only because Stone imposes no discernible moviemaking rhythm on it. The movie's real mistake is to take as its focus the single least unusual aspect of September 11—the fact that the murdered and wounded loved their families and were loved back. Though the script is fact-based, it inevitably smacks of old-fashioned Hollywood idealization: would the men's ordeal be less moving if they had been on the verge of divorces, or lousy fathers?

The handling is nonetheless slightly eccentric, in that the memories of the alternately numb and pain-wracked men merge with phantasms. The parched Jimeno can see lights above through a parting in the wreckage and it becomes a vision of Jesus with a burning heart coming to him with a plastic water bottle; an apparitional Donna tells McLoughlin to get off his ass and come home to finish the cabinets he started. The latter would play better if we hadn't already been cued by dialogue that Donna was upset about her unfinished kitchen. The script's generally kinkless, unideological approach could use more of this kind of particularity, and a subtler, even comic touch. The only detail with the right kind of incidental charm is when Jimeno reminisces about wanting to be a cop since watching Starsky and Hutch as a kid: as soon as he heard the theme song he'd chase his sister around the house and arrest her.

The men are rescued through the efforts of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a senior accountant with Deloitte & Touche in Connecticut, and a devout ex-marine, who feels called by the attacks to defend his country. He confides in his minister, gets a high-and-tight haircut, and walks into Ground Zero, identifying himself as an active marine. He'd rather give up his name than his rank; when asked for a shorter handle than "Staff Sergeant Karnes," he says, "You can call me Staff Sergeant." Stone doesn't get the full nutty flavor of this exchange (Karnes's eccentricity may itself explain why he undertook this mission at all), but the director doesn't seem very committed to the religioso aspect introduced by Karnes, either. Karnes's actions are based in fact, but there's something ectoplasmic about the character that Stone doesn't quite know how to integrate into the straightforward power-of-familial-love context. Shannon starts giving off a psycho-killer buzz and Stone drops him after he's served his purpose.

It's as if Stone anticipated being accused of making an Oliver Stone movie, of exploiting this sensitive material that we fiercely feel belongs to all of us. The script might have worked if it were more complex, an epic of all the survivors and their families, or, alternately, if it were more stripped-down. (And it wouldn't necessarily be offensive if it were broken up more imaginatively as the two men's minds inevitably wander.)

In fact, the best thing in the movie is a stretch in which burning matter starts raining down on the trapped officers; it heats the space up so much that the service revolver of one of their fallen comrades starts spontaneously firing. Jimeno screams because he's getting burned, but McLoughlin is so purely terrified he's screaming, too. This is the one moment when you feel that Stone has recreated what it must actually have been like to be down there—at the center of the débacle and yet almost entirely in the dark. (When Jimeno is pulled out on a stretcher we find out he didn't even realize that the towers had collapsed.) Cage, that most physical of talkity actors, and Peña play most of the movie with only their faces visible, covered with dust and lost in shadows. In those few horrifying minutes, Stone reduces the movie to sheer experience, and it's probably the most powerful filmmaking of his career, because you don't have to discount it for his usual bombast and coarse expressionism.

Overall, however, World Trade Center is as square, and minimally satisfying, as a standard-grade World War II movie. In the most positive sense, Peña's baby-face reminds you of the precociously responsible boys and girls who saved the free world in the 1940s. In a more ironic sense, the brave wives remind you of phony-sententious home-front fare like Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944), which were, of course, hugely popular in their day.

World Trade Center probably doesn't have enough action or humor to capture audiences as those two movies did. It does have sensational special effects, which are never meretriciously "thrilling," but Stone handles the action so poorly that at one point he gives the mistaken impression that one of the Port Authority officers has killed himself. Not to mention, in conventional romance-narrative terms it's a problem that the heroes are prostrated while Karnes, the effective hero, is only peripheral. If the events depicted hadn't actually happened and hadn't been part of an historic act of aggression, the narrative's peculiarities, as well as the movie's haphazard rhythms and bland emotionality, would be more apparent. Still, Stone's movie is bland enough to make people think it's a good thing, a healing experience. And since this seems to be the kind of thing many, probably most, American moviegoers appreciate, who knows, maybe it is.