Monday, July 31, 2017

All The Way (With LBJ)


All The Way (with LBJ):

Finally, finally we, I and Mrs Basman, watched Brian Cranston in All The Way, about LBJ's first year as President after Kennedy's death.

I think he and it are just terrific.

His acting led me to forget I was watching an actor and made me think I was watching LBJ in all his passion, earthiness, personal political brilliance, distresses and successes given the problems he faced and. the solutions he devised and generally how he balanced ideals with the art of the possible.

In a phase, Cranston's acting got me to suspend disbelief. 

I learned new things too. I simply wasn't aware of the potential problem LBJ faced with Southern states walking out on him and the Democratic Party at the Democratic convention over the demand that the Mississippi delegation be integrated. 

I thought I detected one brilliant dark touch in the movie. In the short scene that included McNamara, Humphrey and Johnson himself and involves Johnson, over Humphrey's impassioned position otherwise, on the spur of the moment okaying a retaliatory strike for what, as the scene has it, may or may not have been an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. 

In that decision, as I saw it in the movie, is the beginning of the end of Johnson politically as the combination of Vietnam and his bad health led him out of the 68 race. And, as I further saw it, that dark moment is implicit in what qualifies Johnson's exuberance at thrashing Goldwater, that as sure as the sun rises in the morning, as he says, the knives will come out in the morning.

There are a few nits I suppose I can pick, but why: it's overall so excellent.

I'd give it 5 out of 5. Just great.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Second Note On Nolan's Dunkirk


In rebuttal, I think the absence of personal backstories was intentional and meant not to detract from the real objective - to immerse the viewer into the middle of the horror and feel it without the comfort of a movie gloss. If you see war movies evolving from post WW2 good guy-bad guy/American heroes to Vietnam-era war is hell and one side is not better than another to Spielberg/Hanks resurrecting the greatest generation with moving backstories, this is another evolution - using cinema to make you feel the fear, desperation, panic,commitment and then heroism without being side-tracked by any other agenda. It's true that he focused more on the horror than the rescue but in a way that made the audience finally feel that they were being rescued as wel.

Not as much fun as Hollywood's other war genres, but a more meaningful experience.


I wouldn't take on anyone's view of this movie different from mine. It's in the end a subjective call. The best thing to do more than argue and say "You're wrong" is to share perspectives and offer reasons for the different view. 

I didn't worry too much about the absence of back stories as I think part of the point was to show the leading figures of each of three stories in relation to what aspect of Dunkirk each was microcosm for. The confusion I have over one line of thinking about the movie, not yours as I read your note, is the complaint, even Podhoretz makes it in his good review, of the lack or absence of story telling. 

I can't see that point as a factual matter about the film: there are three distinct story lines which form the spine of the film and they come together at the end. I think Nolan apart from wanting to give an immersive sense of what Hell comprised Dunkirk wanted to give an immediately personal sense of it all by having each story line operate, as I say, as a microcosm for different aspects of it: the rescue by modest civilian boats; the air battles, since aerial bombing was the prime means of the Germans trying to kill the hundreds of thousands of stranded allies; and the story of the one surviving soldier who runs the gamut of most of what Dunkirk involved. 

For me the constant cross cutting among narratives, the intrusively loud climax-signaling music, the difficulty understanding a lot of what was being said and some other things blunted the dramatic impact of the stories. But stories involving specific individuals, albeit without back stories, there were. 

Nolan was effective in his desire to immerse the audience in his recreation of the carnage of Dunkirk--I didn't see the IMAX version--but after a point I found it arbitrarily repetitive, one more dog fight, one more ship blown up, one more bomb falling near the soldiers on the pier, one more scene with soldiers trying to swim for dear life, some making it, some not. I started to get fidgety with it all and that too blunted the impact of the three stories, I thought. 

I think the strongest point Podhoretz makes is the ahistoricalness of the movie. We didn't need a history lesson to be sure, but there had to be a way of dramatically showing what was at stake, what led up to Dunkirk other than a few words from the unfazed, spic and span clean and laconic Branagh character. That to my mind doesn't involve rooting for good guys in the white hats and booing the bad guys in the black hats. It rather involves the dramatization of more context including what the Axis powers were about, what the Allies were fighting against and what decisions high command was making and why. I mean to put it baldly there actually were good guys and bad guys, but in my admittedly weird take on the movie, Germany wasn't the enemy--war itself was (and is) the enemy. 

Semi-finally, it struck me, and I read Podhoretz to say it struck him too, that the amazing feat of the Dunkirk rescue was understated and that that understatement is in disaccord with with how history and culture understand what a monumental thing the Dunkirk rescue was. The addition of some context would have helped illuminate that. Of course the bravery and fact of the rescue is present. But I  think there's some tendentious distortion in understating it. 

So, finally, my own theory, probably idiosyncratic, as to the why of that distortion is that, as I noted in my own note about the film, in fact Nolan had an agenda, which was to show the carnage as outstripping the importance of the rescue in order to give, at bottom, his own version of the war is Hell theme, and that no part of war is to be overly-valorized. The numbers, given the situation, to my mind, belie that outstripping: about 40,000 casualties against 340,000 saved in the most perilously near to impossible circumstances; about 750 small civilian boats with about 220 sunk by the Luftwaffe. 

Anyway that's me on it. I don't know enough about the history of war films to say how Dunkirk relates to the traditions of them. 

On Benjamin Black's Holy Orders


Holy Orders: No spoilers, 


In Benjamin Black's (real name John Banville) Holy Orders, set in Dublin, an out and about couple discover a brutally murdered young  journalist in a canal. The chief cop, Hackett, gets his pathologist friend Quirke, the protagonist, involved in the investigation. 

It turns out that at part of the heart of the case is the Catholic Church. Trouble for Quirke is that his own childhood was spent in an orphanage run by priests who beat, abused and terrified him. The investigation leads Quirke to relive his past trauma. It torments him psychologically and sickens him physically. He desperately needs release from his torment. Solving the murder may hold some promise of that.

In the story, Quirke's family ties get implicated within the outer perimeter of the crime as Quirke recognizes the murder victim to be Jimmy Minor, a friend of his daughter Phoebe, with whom he has a tenuous, complicated relationship. Tying the ties tighter, Jimmy Minor's sister, Susan, comes back from London to Dublin and befriends Phoebe, lives with her for a while and thereby tracks Quirke's progress in the investigation. Eventually she becomes an actor in what might be thought of as the crime's resolution. The family ties become tightest when Phoebe becomes the subject of certain efforts by the Church to ward off Quirke's investigation.  

Black's prose  is vivid and sure as the story slowly and surely unfolds. Quirke, known only by his surname,  is a complicated, suffering, fallible and falling apart character. He's an alcoholic and a loner even as women are drawn to him. His personal life including such family life as he has and had is steeped in illegitimacy, adultery, mystery of parental origins and cruel mistreatment. 

He's not an anti hero but rather a counter hero and stands against the typical crime novel protagonist. Typically, the hero cop or the PI thrives on being an outsider and stands taller, is more compelling  and more authentic than the people and their conventional ways that he (usually he's a he, not always) thinks, works and fights his way through and past to solve the crime. There is in that by the way some of the tradition of picaresque. 

As he joins Hackett in investigating the murder, Quirke as counter hero begins to hallucinate and experience strange feelings out of the pressure created by his reliving the misery of his past. When the investigation takes Quirke and Hackett to Trinity Manor, that triggers his memories of his terrible orphanage bound childhood of beating, abuse and terrifying fear. In these memories and in the story itself Blacks's pillorying of the Church's horrible misdeeds is savage, unremitting and unforgiving. 

Quirke basically stumbles through the investigation and virtually by happenstance gets finally to understand what all occurred. In my way of seeing it, the solving of the crime is secondary to what Quirke suffers from and tries to work through personally as he deals with his own falling apart. 

Just to give a small taste of the flow, easiness and vivid lyricism  of Black's prose:

Page 32:

...The mother was a wisp of a thing, with hardly a pick on her...She wore old fashion spectacles with circular wire frames and thick lenses through which she peered about her frowningly, making constant tiny movements of her head, nervous and birdIke. She seemed more preoccupied than grief stricken, and kept sighing and murmuring in a vaguely distracted way. Her husband, a spry little fellow with rusty hair growing gray, was the dead spit of his murdered son...

Page 80:

He fetched a tumbler from the kitchen and poured a measure of whiskey and handed it to her, his fingers brushing hers; her skin felt cold and slightly moist. He had an urge to take her by the arm and drag her behind him into the bedroom and strip her of her clothes and clasp her against him, the chill long length of her, and smell her hair and her perfumed throat, and put his lips to hers and forget, forget everything, if only for s few minutes....

Page 145:

...Quirke stood up and went to the bar and asked for two more whiskeys. There was a constriction in his chest and his heart was doing its muffled, trapped bird thrashings. Was this, he wondered in alarm, the preliminary to another bout of alienation and fantasy, like the one he had undergone at Trinity Manor? He had been in the presence of a priest on that occasion too. Maybe he was developing an allergy to the men of the cloth. Or maybe he was just angry at the thought of Costigan and his endless machinations...

Page 251:

...Cinnamon, that was what he had been smelling: cinnamon, a soft brown fragrance. For a moment in his mind he saw a desert under moonlight, the clifflike dunes glimmering their edges sharp as scimitars, and in the distance, at the head of a long plume of dust, a line of camels and their drivers, and mounted on the camels swarthy sharp-faced  men in turbans and behind them their women, veiled, bejeweled, plump as pigeons...

I recommend this novel as a crime story that is more about personal suffering and the onset of failure than crime, that is psychologically penetrating about a complex man and is savagely indicting in its description of priestly depredation. It's wonderful in its giving the feel of Dublin and it's fluidly lyrical in its prose. In a word, it's literary. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Some Back And Forth On Popular Culture: Movies And Music: Mimickry And iteration


Department Of We Need The Real Thing:


....Finally saw La La Land last night.

Either I saw a different film with the same name, plot and cast as that film that won all those Oscars, or that’s gotta be one of the most overhyped pieces of tripe I’ve seen in a long while.  The leads can certainly act, but they can’t sing, and they can’t dance.  Supposed to be a nod/tribute to the great MGM musicals of the 40s and early 50s and the RKO musicals of the 30s?  More like a nod off - in those films the leads could act, but also sing and dance – the kind of thing you expect from leads in a musical.  Ryan ‘n Emma, you ain’t no Fred ‘n  Ginger.  Fred  and Ginger awed George Balanchine.  Ryan ‘n Emma wouldn’t awe a high school dance.  

The music?  Why bother - unlike the forgettable guy that wrote the forgettable numbers for this forgettable film, the classic musicals had unforgettable guys like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Yip Harberg, Richard Rogers, Johnny Mercer, etc. - writing unforgettable music for unforgettable films.

The choreography? Hermes Pan, Stanley Donen, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly did the choreography.  Mandy Moore, you ain’t no Hermes Pan...


....Honestly it was a piece of shit.

Irrational at it core. Let singers and dancers sing and dance.

The question is: what lies at the root of a culture that goes nuts for such mediocrity?

Moonlight was ok but wasn't Oscar worthy. Still, I was glad it bumped La La Land out of the best picture limelight....


....Very much agree – I was also left cold by The Artist, a silent film nod to silent films, which only reminded me of how much better they made silent films back when they made silent films.  I think tribute films are Elvis impersonators – why settle for an imitation when you can enjoy the real thing?


...You are so right. 

Truth to tell I never saw The Artist, could have but just didn't want to. For precisely the reason you say. 

Same thing btw with tribute records and shows. They can be fun in a campy way, Elvis impersonators, but that's not their typical premise, campy fun. It's rather homage. But the performances are usually second tier, if that high. Why not just hear the real thing? 

My wife once took me to the play based on the music of Leiber and Stoller. It was ok but couldn't touch the real thing, those songs sung by the artists who recorded them. They're invariably better. I am going to see the Carole King play Beautiful. Maybe it'll be an exception and do justice to the original, the way Jersey Boys does. (Only saw the movie.) 

The odd time a cover or tribute surpasses the original. It's like finding a diamond in a pile of detritus. 

Go to You Tube.

Listen to ZZ Top's original version of Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell then listen to Alan Jackson's version, which is on a ZZ Top tribute record but you can hear it on You Tube. AJ out ZZs ZZ. 

Cassandra Wilson does that too. She can take so so pop hits and make real evocative art out of them. Like with Last Train To Clarksville or Harvest Moon. Ray Charles too. He turns anything he sings into gold. I use the present tense for because he's an eternal presence.


....I think you’ve identified the difference between mimicry and creativity.  No one listening to Alan Jackson would think he’s trying to imitate ZZ Top.  It’s Alan Jackson’s version of the same song.  It’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s performance of “Little Wing”.  It ain’t Stevie Ray Vaughan imitating Hendrix.  It’s not a tribute.  It’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing”.

Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This A Lovely Day?” was written for and first appeared in “Top Hat” (1935), one of the finest Fred and Ginger RKO musicals (my all-time favourite is 1936’s “Swing Time”).  In “Top Hat:, the song was sung by Fred Astaire.  Aside from movie junkies, few people would know that the song comes from the 1935 film, and no one would know that it was originally sung by Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers.  That’s because “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” doesn’t belong to any one performer.  As part of the “Great American songbook”, it belongs to everyone who has the ego or chops (sometimes both) to perform it and be held to account against all the greats who have recorded it (and I’d certainly include Fred Astaire among them). 

Along with Fred’s original, I’ve got five versions of that song in my music collection, by Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett and Diana Krall.   No one remotely sounds like Fred Astaire, and none of the arrangements are remotely like the film’s.   Every artist makes the song their own.  No one sounds like anyone else, because no one is imitating anyone else.

I think maybe that’s the key.  If you don’t have anything new or different to say, why bother?  You’re always going to suffer by comparison to the real thing.


Interesting point distinguishing between imitation and mimicry.

All I can say to it is that mimicry would be to singing as is mimicry/impersonation to comedy, which is to say, mimicry can be a unique mode of comic entertainment, Rich Little, Frank Gorshin or whomever. No singer worthy of their salt tries in tributes or in covers to mimic the original nor would they admit to it. They try and would say they try to impart themselves, their own voice, their own sensibility, into what they cover. It's just that in my listening experience they rarely do the original justice. It's a rare pleasure when they do. 

Btw, here's a hilarious attempt to impart a unique group sensibility to a great song, best sung, imo, by Bobby Hatfield:


P.S. On this theme, isn't Janis Joplin's version of Little Girl Blue magnificently the best one?


I’ve got multiple versions of Little Girl Blue – by Janis Joplin, Nina Simone (who does a achingly beautiful version to the arrangement of Good King Wenceslas?(!)), Frank Sinatra, Coleman Hawkins, and Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall.   Janis’ version is nothing like any of the others.  I’d say I think it’s certainly the best blues version, but they’re all so different, I’d rather just say it’s  a great performance by a great artist that ranks right up there with the great performance of other great artists (except for Krall, who I think is derivative, syrupy and boring).


......That's fairly enough said.

I may be too eager to turn my enthusiasms into "objective", as if, rankings. But I've spent some time listening to many, many different versions of Little Girl Blue and can't find anything that, at least for me, touches what Janis Joplin does with it. You mentioned Stevie Ray Vaughan before. A thing that's amazing about him, for all the guitar slinger he can be, is how delicately fine his touch becomes when need be. Same with Janis Joplin and markedly so on Little Girl Blue, how she ranges from pathos to empathy and sympathy to the strength of hope in what she conveys is so good. I can't think of anyone who imparts such drama and feeling to the song. For me hers transcends just being a blues version.

By the way, if you haven't ever, check out Radio Deluxe, a two hour weekly radio show hosted by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, his wife. It's dedicated essentially to jazz and popular singers with a lot of pleasant and musically competent chatter. Wonderful show. I think you'd love it. You can find it online too...

And me:

....Also, further on this theme and its tributaries, I got into an argument with someone about Joni Mitchell. Two points I made only the first is a source of contention:

She cannot sing ballads and songs that call for big emotion. I said this with specific reference to her album Both Sides Now and I used At Last as a case in point. I think Etta James wins the gold on that one and our country woman doesn't make the cut to the finals.

Non contentious is the point that when she sings her own material and, too, songs that suit the way she sings, she's uniquely at her best and no one come close to what she does so uniquely well. In fact the same said Jessica Molaskey is putting out a tribute record to her and the show has played a few tracks. They're ok but here for me it's as you say, why bother?

Collateral issue: we also fell out over Little Green on Blue. The subject matter, her giving up her kid for various reasons including being able to travel and sing unencumbered put me away. I formed such a dislike for her from that song. Something a tad precious, self satisfied and self indulgent about our feted fellow citizen. 

It never came up with the guy I was arguing with but I just heard a version of her singing Summertime, maybe recorded 15 years ago or so. At first I thought it was Diana Krall, who I generally like but find tending to being vocally one dimensional, and I thought this is a pretty but still a stiff version that suffers from a certain flatness. Then I thought maybe it's not Diana Krall, the voice has a different quality. It turned out not to be Elvis's wife but rather Joni Mitchell. The singing was unimpressive. 

Finally, I think it was Kurt Elling I heard doing The Lady Is A Tramp. Again I came to it already underway and thought for a while it was Sinatra till I thought maybe it wasn't. It wasn't. On your distinction between mimicry and iteration this may veer close to the former. But I didn't care. He sounded glorious.


.....Thanks for the tip – that indeed sounds like something I’d love.  Re: versions, I know what you mean - the cleanest example for me is a classical music solo piano work.  The composer tells the performer not only what notes to play, but usually also the tempo in which he wants them played.  Every performer plays the same notes (unless they’re making a mistake).  But they don’t sound the same.  They don’t play the same notes the same way.   Great pianists perform not only in how they play the notes, but in how they play the silences between them.  That’s what separates the plunkers from the Paderewskis....

Me: (final note)

...Bob (Robert Palmer) is best known as the author of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, which was published in 1981 and is still in print. It remains essential reading for anyone interested in the indelible music that, drawing on its African roots, originated in the Delta, moved to Chicago, and made an inestimable contribution to the creation of rock & roll. In his conclusion to that book, Bob writes of the blues, "A literary and musical form...a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature...these are different ways of describing the same thing. A gigantic field of feeling...that's a way of describing something enduring, something that could be limitless. How much thought...can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who's ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain."

The notion that "pressure on a guitar string," the singular tone of a musician's playing, could convey all that is important in human history lies at the center of Bob's thinking, writing, and playing — at the center of his being, really. He was not a religious person in any traditional sense; he was probably closer to a pagan. But music was one of the means through which he sought transcendence. "For Bob, music was a religion," says Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and main songwriter in the Band, who knew Palmer for many years. "It would stream out of him in the same way that somebody would be trying to impress you with their knowledge of God."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Third Of Three Quarrels With Harold Bloom On Hamlet

On the ending of the play:

....Harold Bloom argues that “Hamlet’s fear of a ‘wounded name’ is one more enigma,” and that the play’s enigmas are its impenetrable mysteriousness and fascination (Bloom 1998, 428). But part of the argument in this essay is that the play’s progression is the progression in Hamlet’s mind. His consciousness is of a piece with his utter self- absorption, proved by his heedless taking of life—that murderousness vitiating his nobility. 

The play’s drama is largely the contest between him and the world in all its futility, the consequence of the relentless workings of evil. Cynicism, a philosophy of nothing, founded on death’s mockery of life, is reaction as much as it is philosophy, resignation as much as it is reflection, stance as much as it is reasoned conclusion. Hamlet’s expending of so much energy trying to come to terms with the world, finally a hopeless cause, is the drive of a self-preoccupied man to know himself. 

As the world is unconquerable in the depths and imperatives of its own malignancy, it is an unfair fight. Hamlet never stands a chance. His burden as reconceived in his mind is as oppressive to him as his consciousness is large and as his intellect is probing. More, he is exquisitely sensitive. As such, his very being, manifest in his unrelenting search for himself, is the stakes in this contest. In his sensitivity, what afflicts him shatters the glass of his own thin skin and drives him to hyperbole, outrage and death-longing despair. What he inflicts falls like water off his duck’s back, thick skin. 

Desperate for relief, he longs for death. Desperate for a ground on which he can realize himself in action, that is to say, desperate for a satisfactory relation between himself and the world, he reasons. He reasons instrumentally. He rehearses modes of being in the world. He tries to turn off thought. He commits himself to morally oblivious action. He incorporates impulse. He incorporates futility and makes choices regardless. He finds comfort in death and seeks peace of soul in resignation. And finally, he tries to succumb to the ways of the world, willing to repudiate what he has been and immerse himself in honour. 

In his death, affliction and infliction merge. As a dead man living, Hamlet’s longing for death as relief—“felicity[...]in this harsh world” (5.2.347-348)—is near at hand. Being what he is, he need not ceaselessly struggle now to know himself. His life as being in the world—his self—is no longer at stake His resignation was also a kind of experiment in the science of himself, more clothing for his soul. Death-in-life releases the energy of his last, self-absorbed imperative—reputation, “my cause aright,” “my story.” 

Therefore, Hamlet’s last concern as he dies is more the complexity of his ever-imperial self, ever overweening in its self-concern, than “enigma”. Subversion dances on. To enhance his own glorification, he courts what is worst in his world. He would seduce and make love to what he ought to revile, the canker that causes men’s deaths for eggshells and straw, the blank, terrible inverse of honour, which claims it as its mantle and breeds death in its name: 

OSRIC: Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland, To th’ ambassadors of England gives 
This warlike volley. 
HAMLET: O, I die Horatio! 
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit. I cannot live to hear the news from England, But I do prophesy th’ election lights on Fortinbras. He has my dying voice. 
So tell him with th’ occurrents, more and less, 
Which have solicited—the rest is silence. (5.2.350-359) 

Horatio’s stolid constancy is a balm to Hamlet’s imperial self. And Horatio in service to Hamlet’s bidding, ever doggedly faithful, knowingly carries on fictions of misunderstanding which belie the real meaning of events: 

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince. / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (5.2.360-361). 

Heaven’s irrelevance is proportionate to Hamlet’s ignobility. In preservation of the memory of his murderous prince, Horatio lies, in memoriam, the lie merging with the growing fiction born of what he does not comprehend. To those who seek thanks for killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio says, speaking of Hamlet, “He never gave commandment for their death” (5.2.375). 

The argument of this essay returns to where it began. If history is, in one formulation, the lives and times of great individuals, for Shakespeare, in Hamlet, it is their lies. Bitterly indicting these liars, Shakespeare has the prince of straw, the embodiment of power, fresh from “The imminent deaths of twenty thousand men” (4.4.60), “th’imposthume of much wealth and peace” (4.4.27), new to rule Denmark where tooth and claw continue their reign, give the final orders with a self-righteous solemnity ensuring honour: 

Let four captains Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, 
For he was likely, had he been put on to have proved most royal; and for his passage The soldiers’ music and the rite of war speak loudly for him. Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this Becomes the field, but here shows much 
amiss. Go, bid the soldiers shoot. (5.2.396-404) 

So ends Shakespeare’s drama of futility as tragedy.

Second Of Three Quarrels With Harold Bloom On Hamlet

On The "To be or not to be" soliloquy: 

Harold Bloom argues that "Hamlet is primarily is brooding upon the will [...] Does one have the will to act, or does one only sicken unto action, and what are the limits of the will?" (Bloom 2000, 216). While what immediately follows is a variation on Bloom's argument, it accepts that argument only to a point. That point is that while Bloom puts the question within the frame of the possibility of action itself, the better view, it is respectfully argued, sees Hamlet’s question grounded in his own partially understood, intuitive and implicit struggle to define action that makes moral sense. It is the impossibility of reaching this definition that breeds futility. 

But going beyond Bloom's analysis, in addition to seeing Hamlet's great soliloquy as a meditation on whether to act, it ought to be seen further as an ironic, somewhat self-aware piece of reasoning. A fusion of moral probing and amoral self- regard resides in Hamlet's proposition that “conscience does make cowards of us all" (3.1.83). 

This self-regarding cowardice, the product of sheer intellectuality and a superior apprehension of the world, results from the impossibility of moral action. 

Thought, within the constraints of what is actually possible in this world, is not really thought, but, is, rather, in the metaphors and imagery of shadows and diminishment, a "pale cast," a pallid lack of colour, a shadow of thought. (3.1.85) As a brother's murder of a brother is primal evil disjointing the time, so too the contemplation of its rectification within the boundaries for action that the world sets—in short, the contemplation of revenge— corrupts the healthiness of natural will, “the native hue of resolution" (3.1.84-85). 

Hamlet glimpses this. For, in the last analysis, the native hue of resolution is the colour of the revenger’s impulse, the colour of action unfettered by thought. Therefore, the "native hue" reddens quickly into the red of bloodlust. Such action is a moral impossibility. With no relieving middle-ground, Hamlet is torn between blind, stupid action, which is immediately appealing because of its false promise of resolution, and thought's impotence, thought’s thwarting of "enterprises of great pitch and moment." 

By his brooding nature, by virtue of what he is, a self most manifest in thought, Hamlet’s thinking defangs action; by thought he diverts himself from his course and his great enterprise—revenge—fades and drifts awry. "Moment" here refers to a significance enhancing time itself. But, more derisively, "moment" also implies instantaneous action, the impulse of revenge. The imagery of "currents" turning "awry," in the connotation of immediacy in "current," reinforces this derisive implication. There is double-mindedness in Hamlet's analysis of his dilemma, a sad ironic undertow. He voices his intuition that his "great enterprise" is, at bottom, sullied impulse. There seems no answer to the extremes of rash immorality or impotent thought.

First Of Three Quarrels With Harold Bloom On Hamlet


So is this why Harold Bloom won't talk to me, return my emails, won't come to the door when my emissaries knock on it every day at high tea? 

A few years ago I wrote a long interpretive essay on Hamlet, 135 pages, titled Futility As Tragedy...., which I self published at

I purposely avoided reading much secondary material for a few reasons, mostly I didn't want to risk drowning in the ocean of it.

I read a few bits here and there: I have 4 footnotes in the whole thing. I thought through an insight I had as a grad student about the play that I carried in my head for decades determined one fine day to set fingertips to keyboard. 

I did read a couple of essays by the histrionic Harold Bloom and in three specific places quarrelled with him.

Here's one of the disagreements. I'll put the second third and ones in two comments below. 

I'd love it if one of the billions who hang on my every word wade in, for or agin':

...Harold Bloom has argued, commenting on Hamlet's thinking:

....Hamlet's malaise, as Nietzsche recognized, is not that he thinks too much but that he thinks too well. He will perish of the truth, unless he turns to art, but he is royal as well as noble, and a nostalgia for action haunts him, though his intellect is profoundly skeptical of action...

It may be that in the ways of utter self-recognition and clear moral discernment Hamlet does not think as well as Claudius, who knows himself and does not flinch in 
self-delusion from what he knows. Knowing what he is and what he has done—while also sickened by it and seeking absolution—Claudius is single-minded and for a time effective in protecting his power. 

His intellect is for a while a match for his appetite and they are attuned. In contrast, Hamlet struggles with the burden imposed on him and cannot see past it or around it. His inclination to think and question clashes sharply with the bloodletting inherent in the revenge assigned to him, and he cannot by thought accommodate their conflict. 

Hamlet, therefore, thinks "much too well" in the sense of trying—without success—to think normatively; and so he thinks better than Claudius in the sense of attempting to think morally. But while Claudius thinks and plans effectively for a while, with his intellect and will attuned, Hamlet lacks will, and his intellect is therefore discordant with itself. He will "perish of the truth,” but the truth is evil ways that will finally destroy him morally and kill him. Hamlet does not turn to art, as might an artist, to translate burning sentiment into a large, imaginative tableau of reality. 

Rather, he turns to art instrumentally; he exploits it in trying to assuage the hesitancies of his will. The Mousetrap, he rationalizes, will catch the conscience of a king and therefore give him a firm ground for action. But that ground is nothing he really needs. He dances around his burden, utilizing pretexts not to act, while he tries to align his will with his mind. 

For will can be seen as determination in the coincidence of two meanings of “determination”: a judgment singling out something (that is to say, a determination); and the unrelenting insistence in acting on that judgment so as to implement it. Therefore, “a nostalgia for action" does not haunt Hamlet, as Bloom argues. Rather, Hamlet craves desperately the capacity for action; and his inability to step to it is what "haunts" him. 

The limits of his world bound the limits of his mind. The play’s bottomless tragedy is the sheer impossibility of attaining the good. In this, Hamlet’s mind—however widely and deeply it ranges in the expanses of his consciousness and the probing of his intellect—is helpless in its confrontation with evil...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Small Afterthought On Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces


A quick note on finishing Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces about a week ago.

Some of the stories' resolutions as to "who done it" were anticlimactic. The last story, I think it's called Grim Death, not sure, especially.

But the strength or weakness of the resolutions didn't matter to me. 

The portrayal of black life in LA at that time, late fifties to early sixties, is so rich and full and alive, especially with Mouse returned from the grave, so to say, that the stories seem more like good sturdy pegs to on which hang all that fabulous social tapestry. 

I loved the book for that.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Contrarian View Of Nolan's Dunkirk


Dunkirk my contrarian take. 

2.8 out out of 5 aka 56%

I went in expecting to be bowled over by Dunkirk but wound up feeling sort of meh about this critically feted film. So I speak here as a member of a beleaguered contrarian group, smaller than a tiny thimble, which is less than enthusiastic about it. 

I'm not sure if there's a spoiler alert in this. There may be. I'm trying to avoid them. So govern yourself accordingly, as lawyers like to say. 

I can see what's good in Dunkirk, a film I'd label (neologism alert) a "dramumentary." (About that notion in a while.) Nolan conveys the carnage and human wreckage-filled horror of war through the prism of the Dunkirk rescue. The effects are masterfully done. Dead bodies are askew everywhere and keeping piling up blast after blast from intermittent but constant air bombing. Bombing and explosions and dogfights and killing and drowning are everywhere and ceaseless.

In the midst of all the pervading horrible sights and sounds of war and its mounting carnage arises a focus on a few individuals in multifaceted story lines that operate as microcosms: one soldier's struggle to survive through an unending series of disasters; all that happens on one boat gone out to rescue; the sequence of air battles as mostly manifest in the dogfighting of one particular pilot. Beyond this concentration on a certain small number of individuals is the overarching macrorocosmic story of Dunkirk itself: the entrapment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers; the determined German effort, mostly by air power, to kill as many of them as possible; the efforts such as they were to fend off the German attacks by limited British aerial counter power; the call for civilian help; the help arriving and the massive rescue. 

As a kind of transition between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, Nolan has a few sequences involving the officer in charge on the ground, Kenneth Branagh, liaising with British high command and with his immediate subordinates. He's where the action is, is quite proximate to where all the German slaughtering is going on, but seem to be in some invisible protective cone, looking sharp and clean, his uniform crisp and immaculate, totally untouched. I don't quite get that. 

A big problem for me is that after the set up and the delineation of the different narratives, I kept waiting for whatever it was that was going to emerge to compel and sustain my interest. It never came. The quick and constant cross cutting from narrative to narrative, all against the backdrop of the unceasing German onslaught, blunted the dramatic impact of all of them for as interesting as they were. I became increasingly detached and distanced from all of it. 

It all held my attention but I wasn't riveted and my feelings got increasingly numb. I wanted some intimate connection with something to solder me emotionally to the stories. But the constancy of the effects, the repetitiousness of so much, the insufficiency of anything "inner" coming from the film got me not bored but approaching it, more like impatient, not impatient for something to happen, to be sure things were happening including the same kinds of things over and over--one more ship blasted, one more sequence of dead bodies, of dogfights, of soldiers either drowning or swimming desperately to be rescued, one more scene with Branagh calm, cool, understand and collected, with his stiff upper lip and all--but impatient for something personal and concrete and intimate to move me. (Apples and oranges sure, but Life Is Beautiful with no effects, really with essentially a heartbreakingly tragic premise has, so to say, for me at least, more emotional power in its little cinematic finger than this movie has in its whole spectacular effects drenched body.) 

Enhancing the numbness created by the spectacle is the irritating contrived and crashingly loud music that means to juice up the moments of grave occurrence, the moments of particular suspenseful climaxes and moments of narrative drama but rather gets in the way of all of them by not letting them be. And maybe the loud music indicates a certain lack of cinematic self confidence in Nolan, that he has to pound it into our heads that this is climatic or excitingly suspenseful or particularly dramatic. As a negative complement to the head pounding music is our difficulty much of the time making out what people are saying to each other, particularly the pilots. 

This guy, linked to below, a professional film critic, puts some of this well: 

....In devoting so much time to the dull, counterproductive construction of its action sequences, Dunkirk dispenses with nearly all other elements of drama. At first, this is to the film's credit; the characters don't waste time offering backstory or personality quirks, as they're too focused on the immediacy of survival. In fact, most of the characters have names you can only glean from the credits, with the men becoming too preoccupied with their own skins to give a damn what the fellow next to them is called. After a time, however, the blurred lines between characters only exacerbate the editing's cold, distancing effect. This inadvertently stunts the power of a few instances of interpersonal contact that do materialize, such as the traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) who's picked up by Dawson from a torpedoed ship—a subplot that's so quickly sidelined that it barely gathers emotional force...

In the end,  in my reading of the movie, Nolan tends to subvert Dunkirk as the exemplification of the glory of British pluck. He clearly recognizes the bravery of the civilian rescue and he appreciates the demonstration of felt obedience to duty. But, as I see it, he is more outraged by the unthinkable human wreckage this war has taken. So outraged in fact, that I have the sense that he isn't overly celebratory of the heroic achievement of the rescue. His appreciation for it as the film reveals it is muted by the transcending horror in human wreckage of the war. As one example, the Germans aren't vilified as the enemy. For Nolan, war itself, not Germany, is the enemy. 

This shows in the last scene where the soldier who makes it is riding home in a train through the English countryside with stops along the way to cheering crowds. One civilian hands up to him and a fellow surviving soldier a couple of bottles of beer and keeps intoning "Well done." The "Well done" sounds fatuous and ludicrous, the absurdity of "Pip, pip" with its black hole human-vacuuming-up hollowness adjacent to the hellish horror these soldiers have survived. I'm reminded of the townspeople's absurd enthusiasm for the war, World War I to be sure, in All Quiet On The Western Front in stark juxtaposition to what Paul Bäumer experiences. The surviving soldier, a mainstay character, can only close his eyes and retreat in to himself to try to escape the hollow cheering and force away his vivid memory of all he's survived. 

I'll come close to ending of these doubtless too many words with a note on  the idea of "dramumentary." My sense is that Nolan wants to give a true account of what went on at Dunkirk, wants to record what happened there dispassionately, relentlessly and remorselessly, but also wants to tell particular stories about, show the drama and excitement of, what went on. He wants to tell an overall story about an amazing, virtually miraculous, civilian rescue but he does not want the heroic glory of that rescue to displace his insistent larger theme of the despised-by-him useless waste, maiming and death, the toll of wreckage war wreaks. 

In my judgment in his merging of these two approaches, drama and documentary, he loses artistic control. They obtrude on each other such that for all that is undeniably good in the film, some of it spectacular, the good and the spectacular become spectacle. Spectacle overwhelms the drama and the human; and the audience, or at least this audience of one, gets numbed, detached, distanced and impatient. 

I'll almost finally, finally say, there is something ahistoric in Nolan's larger theme. His subsuming of World War II, what the allies were fighting against, by the theme of war as Hell is to me simple minded to the point of moral infantilism. 

Finally, finally, I can well think that my reading of this movie is highly idiosyncratic and off the mark. So many smart people have gone on with so many superlatives about Dunkirk. If I'm off base, slightly, somewhat or wildly, then I'd love to be shown the error of my ways and judgment.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Note On Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces


I'm reading Six Easy Pieces, six Easy Rawlins stories by Walter Mosley. They are undertied by Easy's personal situation, his job, kids, relationship with his girl friend Bonny, his business interests, the question of and his deep, deep feelings about his best friend Mouse's death  and his central inner conflict. He is conflicted  between his shot at serious, responsible, domestic bourgeois life, and the call of the streets, the wildness, the life and death dangers, and excitement of them. 

The Los Angeles black social history, the concreteness of a class of people in a certain time and place, including fraught black white relations, on top of the actual story telling is illuminating.

One very short part of it all keeps knocking around in my head. 

At one point Easy, who is comprehensively well read, musing on that conflict within himself thinks about that very excitement generating danger, which is the streets' siren call to him. He meditates on the mortal danger to everyone  simmering just below the surface of his now dead best friend Mouse. He places Mouse at one ferocious bookend of kind of a spectrum of the ways black men respond to white men. Mouse never backs down from any man, regardless of his colour. If any man (or woman for that matter) messes with him, then that sets off an explosion in Mouse that burns that man alive. 

Mouse is the worst of the streets, giving back ten fold for whatever they take. He is the embodiment of the darkest, most violent danger of the streets, but a few ticks below wanton. He is loyal unto his own death to his best friend Easy who is loyal to him. He dies trying to help Easy out a life threatening jam with some very bad men. 

In the description of Mouse standing violently up to any man regardless of colour, I thought in way that he prefigured the Black Panthers.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Few Notes On Dickens's Style In Oliver Twist


I'm rounding the club house turn reading Oliver Twist.

One question that continually occurs to me is: what is the essence of Dickens's totally singular style? 

One thing I'm noting is the narrator's high and inapposite rhetoric when talking about the various lowlifes and pompous phonies. He may refer to Bill Sykes's sleeping as his "slumber" or Fagin's declarations or assertions as "asservations" or Mr. Bumble's self importance as his "state of high elevation." The examples are so endless as to be a key pattern in the fabric of the novel's prose. 

The inapposite high language is of course purposefully high burlesque, meant, in a playfully, whimsically arch way, to demean and puncture the objects of its description. 

So, for example, Mr. Bumble's self importance gets underlined, mimicked and parodied by the high rhetoric

And Fagin and Sykes get diminished by the whimsy that undercuts them by bracketing them even as the portrayal of their leeching, parasitic viciousness is shown full bore, Sykes soaked in his violent predatory nature, moving violently forward like a shark, and Fagin in his predation, in his insidiously malignant false sympathy and false affection,  "Ma Dear," mere cover for his manipulative exploitation and destruction of young lives to feed his own maliciously obsessive acquisitiveness . The destruction they both wreak is perhaps most pathetically evident in Nancy, whose few shreds of dignity, sympathy and pride shine out from and make seem worse the otherwise hapless, destroyed creature that Sykes and Fagin have reduced her to. 

In contrast to the tension in the narrator's paradoxical high falutin descriptions of the lowlifes and pompous fools, some malign and some benign, is the constancy of suitably approbative language, even to the point of sentimental idealization verging on caricature, in the descriptions of the exemplary characters like delicately sensitive Oliver himself or saintly Rose Maylee or the goodly Mr. Brownlow. In these descriptions there is very little, if any, irony or playfulness or anything arch, although the narrator does poke fun at the self important but ultimately harmless Mr. Grimwig, who repeatedly threatens to eat his own head and who his great friend Mr. Brownlow doesn't usually take too seriously.  

Anyway, these are some immediate thoughts. It would be interesting to take a passage or two and closely analyze them to try to get more particularly text based in showing what Dickens is doing.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Charles Diickens and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Can You Dig It


I'm at the part of Oliver Twist when Nancy gets Oliver from Fagin to deliver him with Fagin's say so to Bill Sikes. Sikes wants him because he's small enough to help Sikes and crew complete a promising robbery.

It's in Chapter 18.

I mention it only because, maybe, Dickens can be said to write the way Stevie Ray Vaughan, may he continue to rest in the rockin' Blues peace, plays. Strong, large genius strokes both of them that are so compelling that you may be tempted to wonder about delicacy and nuance.

Resist the temptation for at least two reasons:

one, even, for both, amidst their strong broad art, their seeming "broad strokes" so to say,  is subtlety, playfulness, tasty placement, and layered complexity; and

two, then, there are forays into the sheer delicacy of their art,

as when, in  this scene, Oliver, who's pure victim here, in his lovely innocent goodness is solicitous of Nancy,

as what arouses his sympathy is Nancy shown desperately torn among her acute sympathy for Oliver, her fear of Sikes, and her also, fear aside, wanting to please him,

as when Oliver for all his innocence is shown beginning to calculate and have cunning, agreeing to go peaceably with Nancy on his reckoning he might be able to get away given crowded streets and possibly sympathetic bystanders,

and as when he's brought eagerly by Nancy to Sikes who's, again, shown as shark like in his single minded predation, the personification of virtually unmitigated maleficent functionality in which almost nothing else registers with him.

And such delicacy for Stevie Ray Vaughan, well, better to listen than for me ineptly try to convey it in words:

Sunday, July 2, 2017

On Joni Mitchell's Mediocre Version Of Last

Listening to Joni Mitchell's At Last, track 2, from Both Sides Now. The song was written in 1941, as a movie song and performed since as a standard. 

Musical Intro: perfect.

First few lines, compare to Etta James's definitive version. JM doesn't bring out the Etta's full throated, full bodied joy. She's pallid and ordinary in comparison. She has no life in her singing. Compared to Etta James, she sounds small. 

Now getting into it, her phrasing isn't terrible but it's nothing special. 

"My heart... that line, nothing interpretive in it. At this point she's basically mouthing the words, singing without feeling.

The music is great.  

"A dream to call my own... Here again her voice is flat, not as flat as in sharps and flats, but flat as in undramatic, and her voice tends to drag lifelessly even as the musical accompaniment is wonderfully rich and comes to her partial rescue. 

"I found a thrill to press ....Same comment. Not thrilling. Nothing thrilling conveyed.

Then she goes on a bit till "I found my love at last..." and a pattern emerges as I hear it with some flat lifeless singing then her taking a shot at some dramatic emphasis that is ok but a shadow of Etta James. 

"I found a dream that I could speak to..." an incompetently sung line as her voice just drags lifelessly. When Etta James does it, you hear and feel her emergence from weariness. Something, a bit like,  but not exactly, the way you do when Aretha Franklin's soul is rescued from the "lost and found." Or at least I do. 

"A dream to call my own..." same criticism as just above. I have never known... what I'm hearing hear is effortful singing to try to get at an effect, not natural or organic emotion in the singing. So different from how marvellously she sings her own songs.

So it's a serviceable version. She's too good a singer to sink below that.

If you look at the lyrics, they're quite trite and sentimental. But Etta James, who can sing great in most styles, takes them and makes something urgent and passionate out of them. Joni Mitchell much less so, to my ears. She can't do with this song, that holds the possibility of a great version if the singer can get past the corny images in the lyrics--say the way Cassandra Wilson does with so many pop songs, like the Monkees' Last Train To Clarksville--what Etta James does with it. 


Which is my thesis relative to this record, that JM is only so so with the ballads and standards on it. 

I'll agree that it's unlikely that Etta James could do Mitchellian justice to JM's hallmark songs, but that's irrelevant to my thesis.


On Reading Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist In Fact


Happy to announce I'm reading or rereading, I honestly  can't remember which, Oliver Twist.

Dickens,  it's trite to say, is a miraculous miracle of a writer.

I remember being taught second year English by the inestimable Warren Tallman, an Ichabod Crane looking guy, tall, gangly, bespectacled, with wisps of hair, a friend of Robert Creeley, and his fellow Black Mountaineers,  champion of the poetics that theorized following the rhythms of natural breath, as argued for, as I remember, by Karl Shapiro, and who championed the irascible Mordecai Richler, and who gave me, unexposed to so much, my first taste of intellectual Bohemia, especially on inviting a few of us to parties at his house, the likes of which at 19, grown up lower middle class, and knowing only little of the world, I couldn't begin to imagine, and who set me on my path to majoring in English and then on to graduate studies.

We read Great Expectations. I remember we were talking about some scene where an ultra obsequious merchant, not His Oiliness, Uriah Heep, was selling Pip something or trying to. And Warren Tallman was turning himself pedagogically and almost bodily inside out just to try to convey that factor X that makes Dickens's prose fiction so indescribably miraculous. I can't remember whether he was able to do it to his or our satisfaction. But I do remember his asking us with, what can I call it, maybe desperate enthusiasm, paraphrase, "Can you see what he's doing there? Can you see it?" 

So that's one thing about Dickens, the miraculously oddness of his writing, his playful archness, his ironic exaggeration, his savaging of the objects of his scorn with the most delicate but piercing tropes and verbal touches, and his sheer sentimentality, fat tears running down so-sad faces on a black velvet background sentimentality, but making incomparable art out of it, and bringing me near to tears with it too. 

His anti semitism notwithstanding.