Image search serendipity

Often, when you text search a movie title for images from a movie, you see a few iconic images, images from a 70s remake, images of the actors in other movies, images from lists of similar movies, etc.  And then there are always the oddballs, images that have some matching text associated with them, but that don't have anything to do with the topic of the original search.

When I wrote my little piece on "The Narrow Margin", I of course searched on the movie title.  And, among all the various images that came up, the one below always did.

It's probably because of the margin of victory in 1916, or something, but I prefer to think that search is giving me a clue about the roots of noir, and the kind of overconfident men who think they can handle a situation that is completely beyond them.

"But I just wanted to make the world safe for democracy!"Of course, look at him enough, and he seems a lot more sinister than just the poor schnook who gets his lunch eaten by Henry Cabot Lodge. This is the man behind the guys behind the guys you think are the problem. The star of a new genre: Progressive Noir.

This week's arrogant rewrite: "The Narrow Margin"

Many lists of great minor noir movies includes the 1952 train-centered The Narrow Margin, where a tough cop from LA is sent to Chicago to secretly escort a mob moll, Mrs. Frankie Neal, back by train so she can testify against her husband's gang. Gangsters get on the train to find her and kill her. The movie is usually described as tight and suspenseful, and, at 71 minutes, goes by fast.

Still, I think it is overrated, for reasons I will go into.  People really like it for one thing: the performance of Marie Windsor as the moll.

"You don't like me--but you aren't going to look anywhere else."

You may remember her as the disastrously sexy Sherry Peatty, the unfaithful wife of the Elisha Cook, Jr. character in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 noir, The Killing:

A classic noir marriageWhat happens in The Killing is mostly her fault (as expected). But what is with the "noir bad girl" wig thing?  I mentioned this in my discussion of Too Late for Tears a while ago. Fortunately, the actresses compelled to wear these things were hot enough to overcome their disadvantages.

Fortunately, if Windsor's wearing a wig in The Narrow Margin, it is a good one.

Windsor does her wise-ass sparring with Walter Brown, who is as bricklike as his name, and not much of a sparring partner. He is played by Charles McGraw, who has a voice like a cement mixer. He looks and acts a bit like a slowed-down Kirk Douglas, and, what do you know, he played Douglas's gladiatorial trainer in one of my favorite boyhood movies, Spartacus.

Brown comes to Chicago with his older, wiser, more cynical partner, Gus Forbes, to to pick up Mrs. Neil. En route, Forbes asks Brown what he thinks Neil looks like. "A dish," Brown answers. "What kind of dish?" And then we get this classic description:

Translation: "girls are icky."Because who else would marry a hood? But there is a twist in the plot that brings this whole assumption into question. But that twist is not the one that is interesting.

Here at the Chicago apartment, someone is lying is wait, and as Forbes and Brown escort Mrs. Neal out, someone tries to kill her, and kills Forbes instead. Brown gets her safely to the train station, and aboard the train. There she is resentful, and he is angry, sad about his partner, but dedicated to his job. They never do learn to get along:

"I still think you're icky."After this, it's a bunch of hugger mugger, with an innocent woman with one of those annoying 50s children whom Brown befriends, and several overlapping baddies. In fact, one smooth baddy who tries to bribe Brown is then whisked off the train at a station stop and is replaced by another one who flies from Chicago by plane to totally disrupt the "we're all stuck on this narrow train" concept.  And, at one point, a car drives parallel to the train on a totally straight road for miles and miles, also messing up the isolation scenario.

The story is really about institutional corruption, not about Mrs. Neal. Everyone is compromised, particularly Forbes. If this was an actual noir, the events of Forbes's death in that Chicago apartment building would be returned to, a couple of times, as it is reinterpreted.

And Mrs. Neal should actually do manipulative, maybe even nasty things in her desperate attempt to survive. There is actually an explanation in the movie for why she doesn't, but it comes late and is just a routine movie reversal rather than something that makes you reexamine all of your assumptions about what's going on. I do like that Brown never warms to her, never likes her, and never even seems to find her hot, which shows something about him, given the fact that they have to live in such close proximity:

A mysterious man on the wall is standing between them: part of the hidden movie.Forbes was clearly on the take. Someone took him out, or he got taken out by accident. And all the playing around in the train has a deeper purpose. I actually think a lot of this was in the story originally, but was removed during rewrites, or edited out to keep the focus on Windsor, and the running around on the train. Fine, I guess, but it leaves a perfectly good noir plot just sitting around, ready to be reused.

Speaking of "running around", at several points Brown is blocked in the narrow corridor by a self-deprecating fat man, Sam Jennings:

"No one likes a fat man except his grocer and his tailor"

There's something to him, but not enough. Potentially another interesting and expanding character.

Good stuff:

Aside from some credits music, there is only ambient sound in this movie, including the portable record player Mrs. Neal plays her jazz records on.

Brown never falls for Mrs. Neil.

Given the limitations of the big cameras they had then, this has amazingly flexible camera work.

In addition to that lacy thing, Mrs. Neal shows why giving up on dresses has made our lives poorer:

No need for a negligee with a dress like this.Oh, look, her hair does look like a terrible wig here. I think I have uncovered the dark truth of noir.

Fat Boy's Folly

In college I wrote a story called "Fat Boy's Folly" to entertain my friend Bill. I don't actually remember what the story was about, but Bill later put that title on the weight track sheet he had on the wall above his scale. Somehow, though, I don't think I could have competed with Weight Watchers with that title for a business. Tough Love for the Tubby. Nah, that wouldn't work either.

A couple of nights ago, Marilyn, Sherri and saw a more recent version of Fat Boy's Folly, this time called The Whale, at the SpeakEasy in Boston. As it starts, an immensely fat man (actually a normal man in an impressive fat suit) sits in the middle of disgusting piles of old takeout containers, running what sounds like a fairly typical and boring online class where students write meaningless essays about great literary works. Who these people are, why they take this class, and how it works never quite becomes clear.

Class over, the fat man puts on some gay porn, masturbates, and almost has a heart attack. This lets you know you're in a modern work of art.

Then, various people pop in an out of his house: a Mormon missionary with a hidden agenda, a nurse who has a weird affection for this carcase, and a wittily obnoxious long-lost daughter. Later on, ex-wife and mom shows up.

There is a kind of plot, but it's more an actor's play, with some nice scenes, and a bit of a sitcom pace. Mormonism comes in for some whacks (is it really the easiest religion to make fun of?), particularly about its intolerant spirituality. As usual, a gay relationship has some extra oomph that a regular heterosexual relationship wouldn't have, at least to the kind fo audience that goes to a play like The Whale.

There is a cute essay about Moby-Dick that gets read over and over until you realize where it came from at the end. That is cute too, but is paced to seem like some kind of deep revelation.

Overall, not a wasted evening at the theater (Boston has a lot of those, as we know), but not so great either. But the fat suit is pretty amazing.

 

Tom Perrotta's "The Leftovers", and the question of genre

Last night one of the book groups I belong to discussed Tom Perrotta's most recent novel, The Leftovers. One of the things I wanted to talk about how you can tell a science fiction writer did not write this book.

Now, I did stay away from a point like "it's too well written".  But it is really wonderful to read, sharply observed but not show-offy, and focused on really daily events. Which is part of the point, because the book takes place a couple of years after a large number of people disappeared in what the remaining people are reluctant to call The Rapture. The leftovers need to deal with the vast irrational absence, the disappearance of people they loved, or even didn't care for all that much, but who in retrospect mattered a great deal.

There are cults and obsessions, and that is definitely something a science fiction writer would focus on. But one thing that pretty much any science fiction writer would be interested in is whether the people who vanished had anything in common with each other. Was there any feature they had in common? Does anyone run the numbers? Aside for a toss-off comment about the seemingly unusually large number of TV chefs who were taken, no one seems particularly interested in the question. Aliens are never suspected.

And that's a good choice. Perrotta is interested in the Leftovers, not the Absconded. How do you live your life in the new world? That's the important question.

I just know, if I was writing this, I would start to focus too much on those who left, why, what happened, what we can learn about it, what it says about God and physics. And while that would interest the science fictional mind, it would not be the crystalline work that it is.

And I did have a Rapture-related story in mind, and it did focus on those who left, in fact about the very mechanism of their leaving. Seems silly now. But I am, after all, a science fiction writer, so I might end up writing it after all.

Meanwhile, I need to read some of his earlier books, which I know only through movies. Fun stuff. CHeck it out.

Vonnegut's new play: the peril of looting a dead writer's desk drawer

Last night I went with my friend Marilyn to a new play being premiered by the SpeakEasy Theater: Kurt Vonnegut's Make Up Your Mind (for marketing purposes, his name is in the actual title of the play, even though he also listed as author). Vonnegut had certainly shown his ability to write plays in the past, like Happy Birthday, Wanda June, though I have no idea whether it was any good.

According to the Playbill at the performance, Vonnegut's Make Up Your Mind is self-referential, because he left 11 different drafts of the play at his death. Playwright Nicky Silver was asked to assemble them into one play, adding some other pieces from Vonnegut's essays and other writings (Vonnegut appears as a character).

It's terrible. Truly terrible. It's like a set of skits by a overindulged high school student who might show some promise if trained and disciplined. Scenes ramble on, looking for a punchline, characters wander on and off. But it isn't bad in an interesting or appalling way. It's just unsuccessful.

You can read about the plot elsewhere, such as it is. The actors seem skilled, but have so little to work with, they all seem gloomy and indecisive. It's not like the SpeakEasy to disappoint me in this way. This is a cruel thing to do to a dead writer. Vonnegut never finished. He was never satisfied with it. Writers write a lot. Some writers need to a write a lot of dreck to find the stuff that's good. Sometimes they neglect to burn the dreck before they die.

I know theater companies need premieres to show that they are not just museums of a dying art.  The acerbic Thomas Garvey, at Hub Review, has a bit of a rant on the state of new play productions in Boston, which matches my experience. I have not seen the other plays he mentions, but have had the experience in the past of wondering, at a new play, either "wow, what a disaster" (like Noah Haidle's Persephone), or "this play could have been pretty good, if it had been workshopped, edited, and taken on the road and then reworked again" (any number of recent productions). I've bitched about this before. You'd think, given the tiny number of slots for new play productions, the ones we see would be really good, or at least meretricious crowd-pleasers. They are never either.

This play is in the "disaster" category. And it's not even like Vonnegut's name will bring in a younger audience. It will be the usual cottontops who know what a granfalloon is.

 

 

12 Years a Slave, and the Capitol building

Last night, my daughter Faith and I went to see the movie 12 Years a Slave. It is a movie specifically about the experience of slavery before the Civil War. Though at least one character makes a remark on how this will all have to change someday, no one mentions the President, any bill in Congress, or any news of any kind. There are no scenes that follow the lives of non-slave characters. The focus is on the day-to-day experience of slavery.

That's what makes the movie powerful and almost intolerable. There is no escape, no opportunity for vengeance, not even any sign the system could ever possibly change. And, in fact, it didn't, until invading armies destroyed it.

It is even realistic in that we see privileged slaves: household slaves, and slave mistresses who have learned to take advantage of their position. And we do see one slave mistress who was finally sold off by her previous master's daughter, and is now a field hand like the rest, because a position that is only granted by someone else can just as easily be taken away.

There is actually one small opening out to imply the larger political situation, in a really brief image. After the freeborn Solomon Northup is kidnapped into slavery and chained in a cell, the camera pans up and reveals that his location is Washington DC. We know this because we see the Capitol Building on its hill.

And even here, the movie shows its quality, and its daring, because it shows the Capitol as it looked in the 1840s, with its low copper dome, not the 1863 building we all know.  I can't find a screenshot from the film, but this shows the dome so you can see how low it was then:

The original Capitol, with a coffle of slaves

This is daring because the image lasts only a second or two, and most people will not instantly recognize that version of the building. Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), a movie about slaves and slave trading set in 1839 that focused mostly on the white characters,  lacked that courage.  There is a scene with John Quincy Adams where what looks like the post-1863 Capitol looms behind him.

In fact, what it shows is the c1900 Rhode Island State House:

A great building by McKim, Mead and White, but not the U.S. CapitolWhen I saw the movie, though, I did not think we had moved to Providence. I saw it as the Capitol building.

Filmakers and writers setting scenes in the past are always torn between being true to the situation, attitudes, look, language, and relationships as they really were, and making sure that those are comprehensible and sympathetic to a modern audience. I think this movie takes at least one step toward accuracy and away from comfort. I'm sure people will point out inaccuracies, and places it could have gone even farther. That's inevitable. It goes incredibly far.

This makes a great pairing with last year's Lincoln, white people arguing about slavery, because it shows what they were arguing about. And I will say, as I said about Lincoln, that every American should see it.

 

Jane Austen and Film Noir

I recently read Jane Austen's Emma for a book group I belong to. A few days later, I watched an interesting minor noir, Too Late for Tears. And I got to thinking about the connections between Jane Austen and film noir.

Short answer for the impatient: film noir is what happens when a Jane Austen heroine discovers that the man she's married has way less money than she thought.

In Too Late for Tears, from 1949, Jane and Alan Palmer are a couple who unexpectedly end up with a bag of obviously illegally obtained cash. Jane sees the windfall as a way of escaping their life of installment payments, Alan isn't so sure. That's not a good stance for Alan. Jane maneuvers around everyone who threatens her hold on the cash, and is eventually brought low only by a narrative contrivance.

Emma is actually not a good example for my thesis, since Emma Woodhouse actually has a fair amount of money of her own. But Jane Austen heroines are compelled to make sure their passions match their interests, and fall in love with men able to support them.

Sometime later, I also watched the biopic Miss Austen Regrets, which deals with a slightly fictionalized version of Austen's later years, when she has to face the consequences of choices she made earlier in her life, and struggle to support her family through her writing. Olivia Williams is great as Jane Austen, BTW.

Immediately postwar America was on the verge of a boom, but it must not have felt that way after a decade of Depression and half a decade of war. Early 19th century Britain's Industrial Revolution had not yet had significant economic effects, and it was still a static economy. In such economies, if one person has more, someone else has to have less. The pie isn't growing. There is only so much productive land. Thus, it's easy to lose out, and live the entire rest of your life in penury. There are few second chances, particularly for women.

The women of noir also feel that the pie isn't getting any bigger. As with Austen women, their physical attractiveness is their only real asset in the search for secure wealth, while their cleverness is the hidden asset that allows them to leverage that attractiveness to get what they need to survive.

Too Late for Tears actually stimulated a lot of interesting thoughts. Lizabeth Scott as Jane is an oddly compelling high-cheekboned ice queen, though handicapped by a stiffly waved do almost as ridiculous as the one imposed on Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity five years earlier. The trusting and slow-witted Alan Palmer is played by Arthur Kennedy, who would have much more fun as the roguish and sly Emerson Cole in the superb Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Western Bend of the River, a few years later.

And the somewhat pathetic baddy, blackmailer Danny Fuller, is played by Dan Duryea, specialist at the half sniveling/half snarling villain. He is a few notches below his best here, and handicapped by a big suit that can't hide that he's a skinny little weasel. He would do much better as Waco Johnny Dean in the Mann/Stewart Winchester 73, the next year. Some people think of those Mann Westerns as Western Noir, which would explain the commonality of actors, but that's not the genre-slip I'm concerned about here. Worth thinking about, though.

If you add some Emerson Cole to the somewhat dull-witted Alan, more Waco to Danny, and make Jane, well, Jane, I think you'd really have something. The once-flirtatious witty repartee has turned deadly, the home economics are grim, the wife is ready to use her quick wits to figure a way out of this situation. But Darcy...I mean, Allan, has a few more tricks up his sleeve than he was allowed to use in the current version.

A static economy leads to existential despair. A static economy that was once a growing economy leads to rage and murder. We'll see if the current impasse in our political system returns us to noir as a way of life, rather than just a style.

On losing a Kindle

I never thought I would like an e-reader. Actually, I'm still not sure I like it, but I sure need it.

As I mentioned, I lost my Kindle on a business trip to Toronto  Everyone I contacted was very helpful, including the Toronto Police Department, but it has not turned up.  Next week I am flying to Las Vegas and then driving up past Jacob's Lake to do a one-week hike down the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

I like to read in the evening when I hike.  And, at this time of year, there is not only evening but a lot of night that I can't really sleep through.  But books are heavy.  Sometimes I've hauled pretty heavy books, which is great for when I'm not moving, but made moving painful and slow. Pretty dumb, in retrospect.

A Kindle, or similar e-reader, is a great solution. Doesn't weigh much, and carries a lot, including maps and trail information.  I often PDF notes and other information to put on it.

My Kindle stores a lot of classic literature, obtained for free or for really cheap.  And, believe it or not, sometimes I read it.  I've done Barchester Towers, which I keep meaning to blog about. Actually, there's a lot I keep meaning to blog about, but I usually only blog when I'm avoiding writing...like right now.

It also has a distressing amount of self-help literature on it, the main thing I am missing right now. I don't like getting too intimate here, but there have been several big problems in my life recently and among the vast mass of self-help books are some that are...well, extremely helpful. Call them "moral philosophy" if it makes you feel better about them. Most of the great books of philosopy from the Roman period, whether Epicurean, Stoic, Skeptic, or Cynic are really self-help books.

A Kindle is also perfect for insomnia. It won't wake anyone else up, and the light level is really low, so I'm convinced it doesn't reset my internal clock. Because of those stresses, I wake up a lot in the middle of the night.

So I need to get a new one, and, as it happens, a new model of Paperwhite is ready just before I go. So I ordered it.  And I thought these things were supposed to save you money.

Book Groups, and the Literary Blind Date

Years ago I belonged to a book group. It was a group of biology researchers of various kinds at Harvard, as well as friends and hangers on, who liked taking a break from lab work to discuss literature. It went on for a few years, and I had a great time, made friends, and read some works I would not have found otherwise.

I haven't done anything like that since. Recently, however, I've started checking out various Meetup groups in my area, including a couple of book groups.  Last night I attended one that discussed Nabokov's fantasia on his early life, Speak, Memory.

A first session with a new book group is very much like a blind date. Will they like me? Will I like them? Will we have anything to talk about?

In the event, I had a great time. Smart people, great discussion, and we got to meet outside at Radcliffe Yard until it got too dark to see each other, and it got cold, and a guard showed up to tell us we weren't supposed to be where we were.

I'm also trying out another book group, one that meets in bars associated with the topic of the book being read. I liked the first meeting of that one too.

Reading books for book groups risks being yet another assignment in a life overfull of them, and another way of getting behind on other reading, but meeting interesting new people makes it worth it. It got done writing my book at the same time as a number of other things are changing in my life. It's time for a change of mental scenery.

 

 

Genre and non-neurotypicality

Last week I discussed genre, as, in part, a contract between writer and reader, reader presenting an itch, writer agreeing the scratch it. Writers who then refuse to scratch, but instead provide something they claim is vastly better, often fail dramatically.

Believe me, the sales figures for Brain Thief, a humorous cultural critique disguised as a science fiction novel, demonstrate what happens when readers expect one thing and get something else. Remember, if you click that link, you have been warned.

But, taking a step back, think about readers. Think about fans. Think about science fiction fans. A curve showing SF fan personalities, in terms of rationality, sociableness, intelligence, ability to read inner mental states from outwards signs of expression and posture, whatever you want, will show a skew in a certain direction. We are not as others are.

Well, our mean is not as other means are, at least.  Clearly there's a huge overlap, now matter how you try to sort. But that's enough of a skew to establish an audience that tends to have a certain itch. Science fiction, the genre, evolved, as a set of conventions, tropes, and customer types that works to scratch it. And those SF fans talk to each other, form communities, write back and forth, and define their itches in ever more detail.

I doubt any other genre has a fan base that skews this far from the mean.  Of all genres, SF is the most genre-y. Violate its dictates at your peril.

As I said, I know whereof I speak.

Me and Readercon

A couple of months ago, my wife Mary scheduled me for a family reunion in Indiana--the same weekend as Readercon. I notified Readercon that I could not attend.

Then a family health problem cancelled the reunion.  So I will be at Readercon after all, but as a paying guest, not a program participant.  If you want to find me, I will have no cool ribbons or anything and will have no fun quote for Meet the Prose on Friday night.

I hope to see you there.

The plight of the secret teacher's pet

SF has a lot of tropes, that is, standard plot devices, character types, or backgrounds that are used to move stories forward.

A genre is itself just a trope writ large, so it should come as no surprise to find that SF is completely trope-ridden. It's not a bug, its an exoskeletal alien.

I've been trying to read more SF, particularly in its short forms, than I usually do. The result is a kind of queasy feeling of getting overstuffed with tropes.

One I've encountered a couple of times recently is what I call the "secret teacher's pet". You can read that as the pet of the secret teacher, or the teacher's pet who is a secret. It works either way, or, rather, both are true simultaneously.

This is how it works. The protagonist is in a school or other training situation. Since the vast majority of the readership is still in school, this is a background with some emotional heft. The protagonist is too smart, too mercurial, too virtuous, or too dedicated to fit into the normal training program. After various dramatic failures, protagonist is going to wash out and have to leave in disgrace.

Only, guess what? The protagonist's very failure to master the approved curriculum of the school is what marks him or her as someone appropriate for a higher level of training. The ugly duckling becomes a swan.The class clown becomes the teacher's pet.

To me there is something unsastisfying in the idea that the point is to appeal to a level of administration above the one you normally encounter. But appealing to the administration is still the point of the exercise. As in Gnostic sects of Late Antiquity, outer practices delude the untrained, and only initiates understand the inner truth. Gnostics were a lot more like cliques of high school mean girls than most people who idealize them as an alternative to Christianity are willing to admit.

The story gets extra points if the protagonist is young, and manages to get the crusty old instructor to throw her head back and laugh at the protagonist's impudence, just as the protagonist is sure he is going to be thrown out of school. Just getting her to laugh isn't enough. Head back, or no points. I'm a tough grader.

I suppose now that I've gone off on it, I'm going to have to write a story using this particular trope. That's a way of learning where it gets its power, and maybe putting a bit of a spin on it. But I'm not making any promises.

 

Waterworks

Thanks to a suggestion from reader John Redford, this weekend I took a bike ride over to the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum in Chestnut Hill, Boston, for a look at some heroic public works.

If you like Richardsonian Romanesque public buildings containing some behemoth steam engines, all spruced up and ready to go, this is the place for you.

Quite the popular style, until suddenly it wasn'tBut it's what inside that makes this place great.  Three multistory steam engines, two of them triple expansion, which means they have three cylinders, each one larger than the previous one, since it works on the lower-pressure exhaust of the first. At the far end is the newest engine, the Allis:

This is just the bottom of the thing.Another viewDid people spend a lot of time protesting "Big Steam"? Yeah, they did.View from the balconyI went by myself--not a lot of people like hanging out in places like this. And I had it almost entirely to myself.  It also has some thoughtfully designed display screens with animated cutaway diagrams of the various engines. Great fun.  Thanks for the suggestion, John.

Some long ago reading: House of Rain, by Craig Childs

When I was in Moab a few months ago, after my hike through the Maze, my friend Paul and I stopped by the wonderful Back of Beyond Books on Main Street and I picked up a copy of House of Rain, by Craig Childs. It is about the Anasazi, whose territory we had been hiking through. I meant to write about it then, but it has been sitting on my desk since, and it's about time it moved from there to the shelf where it belongs.

Ah, that term, "Anasazi". Paul was immediately suspicious. It's an obsolete term, no longer used by the up-to-date.  It refers to the inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau before about the thirteenth century. The more correct term nowadays is "Ancestral Puebloans".

This change is more than political correctness, by the way, though one is always suspicious of rectification of the names. The name Anasazi was given to the ruins by Navaho pothunters, and means something like "enemy ancestors": Navaho are relatively recent on the plateau, and part of a complex system of alliance and hostility.

Childs has a nuanced defense of his use of the term. I won't go into it, because I know the real reason he used it: marketing. It's a totally cool name, and nothing else even comes close. Technical correctness, if you can achieve such a thing, has to run a distant second to that.

The books is half history and half Childs' strenuous and, to be frank, intimidating travels through the plateau, riding cloudbursts, climbing cliffs, enduring bitter cold and brutal heat.

And he travels with eccentrics and obsessives, people who think the Anasazi (let's stick with that, understanding its limitations) did everything in pairs, or people who think they extended far outside of the territory usually assigned to them, or laid out travel routes across hundreds of miles.  Even as he goes on trips with these guys, and ably explains their theories, its pretty clear that Childs thinks they are cracked.

And Childs tries to boost the Anasazi as some transcendent notion, some way of living and perceiving that remained as a constant through the centuries.

Maybe. I tend not to be romantic about these things. Anasazi are interesting because they left picturesque stone ruins in some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet. They make great photographs, and a great thing to come upon during a hike. And they did this in what is now the United States, so they get a lot of push from the National Park Service.

Does that make them interesting in some deeper sense? Well...no. Childs does his impressive best, and the book is a fun read, but if you think it will tell you something significant, you're wrong. There are many peoples in the world, and many interesting ways of living, and the Anasazi, finally, are just one of them.

But this is one of those situational books. Hanging out having a beer in Moab? Hiking through Grand Gulch, visiting Mesa Verde or Chaco, climbing down from Maze Overlook? Thent his is the book you want. It will make you feel you are doing something other than just being a tourist or a hiker. It may not have the same resonance at home.

The rise of the obsessive redhead

Mary and I have been watching the the AMC series The Killing. We tend to have different viewing habits, but we're both enjoying it a lot.

One thing struck me with the first episode, though: the uptight, withholding, driven, duty-focused redheaded homicide cop Sarah Linden (played by Mireille Enos) seems like exactly the same character as the uptight, driven, etc. redheaded CIA agent Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty. Is this some kind of "leaning in" cultural stereotype in the making? And who is going to direct Legally Blunt?

Sarah Linden does have a son, and seems to occasionally have relationships, sexual and otherwise, unlike Maya. She also has a last name.  But there is a more important difference between the two.

Sarah Linden is sometimes wrong. She'll even admit it. Maya is never wrong. Sarah may destroy herself. but Maya will someday be responsible for an incredible disaster--and that story is one I think I will try to write, because Maya was one of the most annoying and dishonest and potentially fascinating characters I have seen in a while. She deserves to be freed of the frame she had to fit for the movie.

But two redheads don't make a trend.  If we spot a third one, I can say you heard it here first.

 

Back from Rome

Well, for a couple of weeks already, not all of it recovering from jet lag.

We had a great time.  We (me, wife, two teenagers) rented an apartment in Trastevere, on the other side of the Tiber from the center of Rome. It was relatively quiet and relaxed, with a couple of restaurants that became favorites (Ai Marmi, a pizza place with marble tables, was a regular hangout), and our apartment was a few minutes below San Pietro in Montorio, one of the spots where St. Peter was supposedly martyred, and the site of Bramante's elegant little Tempietto, which I would visit in the mornings.

In Classical times, Trastevere was the place where immigrants lived, and where foreigners and slaves convicted of murder were crucified, and their bodies left for the crows. That's why it kind of makes sense that St. Peter was crucified here, though it might have been up closer to the Vatican, where Caligula had built a racetrack.  Who knows?

A few favorite experiences:

Simon and I spent a day riding bicycles along the Appian Way, and then out to the Parco degli Acquedotti, a big park full of ruined aqueducts. There was almost no one around.

Our tour got into the Sistine Chapel early, so that for about half an hour there were only about a dozen people in the big space. It's weirder and more handmade looking than I had expected, but all the famous images are easy to see. The Conclave is meeting there right now.

After wandering around the various structures built into the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, we got to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a conversion of the baths' frigidarium by Michelangelo, later somewhat modified. The size of the place was astounding, and the marble and gold gave an impression of what the entire place must have looked like in its heyday. But the pattern of the whole neighborhood is based on the extensive structures, most now gone.

The Castel Sant'Angelo has a huge spiral passage inside, once used for the funeral processions of Hadrian's successors. The building has a lot of interesting apartments, some used for a large collection of art about St. Peter, including some striking Russian icons.  And the view from the top is great.

The old curia, the Senate house, rebuilt during the reign of Diocletian, is a surprisingly large interior space. Trained by Dad, the kids were able to identify a statue of that quirkiest of Emperors, Claudius. We also did the usual Palatine, Colosseum, Forum thing.  The ruins on the Palatine, ranging from Iron Age postholes to massive structures, are hard to figure out, but easy to be impressed by.

Caravaggios, the Via Julia, Santa Maria Maggiore (Big Mary's, as we called it)...a week barely scratches the surface. We didn't overtour or overeat, though the temptation to do both was everpresent. We were lucky in the weather, sunny most days, in the fifties F, with only a brief sprinkle of rain one day. No fights, only a pleasant time with a group of people I like very much, one that I will not always have so close to me.

You can see my architectural bias in what I listed. Parents have not only the right, but the duty to visit their obsessions on their children. What good is a parent without some intense focus? Doesn't matter if the kids never really share it. Someday it will pop up in the least-expected of contexts, and I will live again.

 

And a bit more on "Cities": get rid of the writers.

I got distracted, and didn't finish up my "different ways Jon Robin Baitz could have written Other Desert Cities so that it was not an unmitigated disaster." I'm sure you've been upset.

 A couple of weeks ago I examined the writers in the play, and how that particular déformation professionnelle might have played out, if Baitz had been interested in the characters he had set up.

But another way to go at it is to ditch the "writer" thing altogether, because, as I pointed out, writers and other professional observers are typically cheats in plays, because their motivation for looking at events is external to the conflict.

In the "non-writer" version, Brooke has long felt that her life is out of joint because of the events that led to her brother's death, events she has always though she understood, but now is beginning to see make no real sense as she remembers them. She digs into letters, talks to people who knew her parents, friends of her brother's, police reports. She begins to see that something is wrong. Perhaps she has suffered needlessly. Perhaps it is time for someone else to suffer.

So she comes home. She does not announce that she is blowing the lid off this conspiracy. Instead, she plays fragile dove, raising everyone's concerns, and asks innocent-seeming questions that lure people into contradictions in their memories. As a result Mom and Aunt Silda fight. Mom and Dad fight. Brooke has developed a theory. She knows what went down, and how everyone has been lying to her.

But Silda lied when Brooke interviewed her, because Silda wanted Brooke to adopt her view of things, a view determined by her hostility to her sister, a hostility growing out of still earlier events. Her younger brother, Trip, has a shard of memory, something completely out of place, of an event out by the pool, someone shouting something. He offers it tentatively. And everyone, Brooke included, rejects it. It fits no one's view of what happened. Possibly the audience can see the possible story, while none of the characters do.

I like this, because in the current version, all the characters are right on board with the "true" version of events. That's not going to happen, not with this crowd. Each will leave with his or her own vision of what went down. And that's cool, because we, the savvy audience, know what probably happened, who's alive and who's dead.

Maybe we do and maybe we don't. At the end, the child of the vet who died in brother Henry's bombing, shows up for vengeance, showing that this is not the only family's pain worth considering. But they're sure that only their pain is significant, so they circle the wagons, humiliate and dominate the poor stuttering youngster, deprived of everything.

Well, that denouement was actually a surprise to me. Has some resonance though.

Well enough. Maybe I'll get to to "Cities as a political play" at some point, but I figure everyone's pretty tired of it by this time.

 

But what would *you* do, if you're so smart? Further thoughts on "Cities"

A couple of days ago I went off on Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, which I recently saw at the SpeakEasy theater in Boston. Despite some good dialogue, I found the play superficial and more than a little absurd. I spent a bit of time discussing how much I didn't like it.

But, usual, the failures of other writers, while pleasing, should also serve as an exercise for this particular writer. Smacking around a play most of my readers are unlikely to see seems to verge on the self-indulgent.

If I had been given the same idea as Baitz, what would I have done?  And what can I learn from the exercise of playing with it?

To refresh your memory, the play concerns a fragile writer, Brooke, who returns home to her Reaganesque power-couple parents' house in Palm Springs to reveal that she's written a book about the tragic suicide of her antiwar activist older brother, who was involved in a bombing that accidentally killed someone. In addition to her parents Polly and Lyman, the characters are Trip, a brother who is producer of a Judge-Judy-like reality show and Polly's alcoholic sister Silda, Polly's former screenwriting partner.

Two divergent paths come to me immediately. The first is to play with the writer as writer, and dig more deeply into Brooke's writerly self. The second is to dump the writer persona as irrelevant, because, while having your secrets revealed in The New Yorker may be more painful than just having your neighbors know, that's a kind of measurement that's not relevant to a play about intra-family relations.

Though I have to point out, there are no secrets revealed in Brooke's book, as described. All of this painful stuff came out in the news, was talked about, chewed over, had its effects on Polly and Lyman's relations with their buddies the Reagans, everything. Her blame of her parents for those events can't be particularly new either.

There may be other ways to take this too, but I'll go for "writer" first.  Brooke is a writer, a depressive who had a breakdown after the success of her first novel, which everyone in the play insists is brilliant, even at moments when they are angry enough to strangle her. Polly and Silda are both writers, who collaborated on a series of popular movies, until Silda quit. Trip seems to be a writer too. Actually the only non-writer is Lyman, a popular actor in Westerns and other popular films.

All of these writers are competitive, perceptive, and self-dramatizing. Or, at least, they should be. Brooke is blocked and will do anything become unblocked, including exploiting a private and painful tragedy. But instead of admitting this, she claims it is going to help everyone by clearing the air. Just because a writer is perceptive about others doesn't mean she is perceptive about herself.

But that's kind of where it ends. But she's facing, not a passive bunch of middle-aged theatergoers, but her writing mother, aunt, and brother. And, it turns out, her Aunt Silda served as Deep Throat for events that Brooke could not otherwise know anything about. In a sense, Brooke is Silda's cats paw here.

But to what end? First of all, everything in what we hear of Brooke's book was events she personally witnessed. It seems that Silda's intervention is purely stylistic.

Of course not! First off, she does play Brooke. Against Polly--because Polly did something that caused the breakup of their writing team, many years before. It might well have been Polly's drift to self-righteous Reaganism, which makes Silda want to puke.

As Brooke reveals what is in the book, Trip notes that she never talked to him, and he witnessed at least one scene that seems divergent from her story.  But he was young. Does Polly then point out that the scene he says he is remembering is actually from one of those movies that she and Silda scripted? Memory is a tricky thing.

In Baitz's play, it is revealed that, aside from having bad faith, Brooke can't do elementary research, and completely misses the real story. But the "real story" is that her parents are even more vicious than she thinks they are: they let her spiral into suicidal depression as a consequence of a false version of reality. They are much worse than Brooke thought. Baitz seems to miss this inevitable conclusion of his scenario.

Instead, Brooke is a better writer than she is portrayed. She can see where there are gaps in the story, even if she can't figure out what is hidden in them. She reveals her conclusions. They are wrong, but so is the surface story. It is the cause of her brother's suicide that she can't understand.

In Hamlet and his Problems, T. S. Eliot said "Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear." So, too, Brooke's older brother. But we're not Shakespeare, so we are going to dig out the invisible facts, to express his unexpressed emotion for him.

Polly and Silda have to fight over their writing breakup, which had to do with the effects their divergent politics had on their work. Trip has to work out why he remembers something the others claim is fiction, and Brooke has to face that she is a writer who will destroy her family rather than be blocked.

And Lyman? Lyman has stopped playing roles. Actors always seem smarter than they actually are, because they have access to all those great words. He has given up on great words. He loved his dead son, he loves his living son and daughter, and his wife, and he's willing to give Silda a pass because she used to write stuff that made him laugh. The actor will serve as the one still point in this scrum of wordsmiths.

Enough. Next time let's check out what happens if Brooke is not a writer.

 

 

The perils of "politics": Baitz's "Other Desert Cities"

When you see a play about "politics" in a Boston or Cambridge theater, you're pretty sure what you're going to get: an image of Republicans (or, more generally, well-off white people, who can, to be fair, also be clueless liberals) as oppressive hypocrites. On that score, Jon Robin Baitz, in his play "Other Desert Cities", currently at the Music Box in Boston, does not disappoint.

The story of the play is pretty simple.  Lyman and Polly Wyeth are Hollywood Reagan Republicans, with extensive film credits, he for acting, she for writing, and now live in busy retirement in Palm Springs. Their unstable daughter Brooke comes to visit, to tell them that she has written a book about them and her older brother, Henry, who got involved in radical antiwar activities and committed suicide.

A play involving a writer already has a problem. Instead of having a need to examine the past that grows out the unwelcome compulsion of someone who has other things to do, Brooke is a professional witness and rememberer, and so digs things up because it is consistent with her job.  Brooke had a breakdown, and an early book that everyone insists was brilliant. She hasn't been able to write for a long time. Grabbing her family's tragedy is an easy out for her. A blocked writer will do anything to get words on the page.

But that's subtext, and if it's anything Baitz hates, it's subtext. Every underlying stress is laid out by the characters in articulate, verbose speeches. Everyone talks about what they are talking about. No one says one thing while meaning another, no one is after anything that is not right in front of them, no one slyly changes the subject while seeming to be candid.

Two other characters are Trip, the youngest brother, who produces a cheesy reality TV show and seems like he should be funnier than he is, and Polly's truth-telling alcoholic sister Silda, who gets some unearned laughs by condemning Republicans for being Republicans. Truth-telling alcoholics are almost as dangerous to plays as writers.

Polly and Silda used to write movies together, then had a falling out, a story that seems much more interesting than this one.

The first act was actually not bad, with some snappy patter. When he relaxes, Baitz can write. The second is endless, and involves the revelation of a secret so freaking stupid that you can't believe it.  The secret is so big and lumpish that in order to have missed it, Brooke's search for truth turns out to be so lame and pathetic it's lucky she can remember where her parents live.

What might have saved this absurd revelation is for each of the characters to reveal something else that makes the previous version false, but Baitz hates ambiguity as much as he hates subtext, so there is a true story, damn it, and he's going to tell it to you, no matter how dumb it is.

If you search for reviews of this play online, you will see a lot of raves. That makes no sense to me at all. Even if you liked the play (and my friend Marilyn did, and was a bit hurt that Sherri and I thought it was total dreck), I don't think you can make much of a claim for quality. But I've had this trouble before with earnest productions aimed at our waning demographic. We went to the SpeakEasy to avoid these things, but it seems they have followed us from the Huntington.

In the Playbill, it twice mentions that Baitz was fired from the show he created, Brothers and Sisters, because, he says, he wanted to do "...an entertaining meditation on class and position in America" and the producers wanted a night-time soap opera.

Maybe.

No one boos at plays anymore, and I didn't either. I just put my coat on and left in silence.  Like many other talented modern playwrights, Baitz needed to be challenged, edited, forced to rewrite and rewrite again. Instead he was overpraised, and the result is Other Desert Cities.