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Bronx Banter Interview: Sanford Schwartz

“The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” edited by Sanford Schwartz is a new release from the Library of America and it’s been getting a lot of press along with Brian Kellow’s Kael biography. I’m going to blog about P. Kael, who is one of my favorite writers, all week and will include all the links fit to click.

For starters, here’s a recent conversation I had with Sanford Schwartz.

Check it out:

Bronx Banter: What was your approach in selecting the material for this book? My first impression was that it seemed thin, but then I checked and it is almost 800 pages, anything but thin. Then again, I grew up reading Kael and have all of her books. Is the ideal reader for this book someone who is unfamiliar with her work?

Sanford Schwartz: My first aim in selecting Pauline Kael pieces was to give the range of her thinking and sensibility. As a kid of shadow story, I wanted the selections to give a rough sense of movie history during the years she wrote. I wanted there to be representative pieces on the actors and directors who meant most to her. So there are a number of reviews on Altman, Godard, Scorsese, and so forth. I hoped that the anthology would engage people who already knew her—but unlike you didn’t collect all her books over the years—and also people who, in their twenties and thirties, don’t know who she is. It is always a surprise to run into people who have never heard of her, and I have found that most young people haven’t.

BB. Kael was close to fifty when she started reviewing movies for the New Yorker though she’d been writing for some time. How do you think this influenced her voice as a writer, as opposed to other critics who get their start much earlier?

SS: I’m not sure that it meant a lot. Her having waited so long and absorbed so many movies along the way obviously couldn’t have hurt when it came to writing with authority and conviction. But that certainty was evident in her letters from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when she was in her early twenties—except that her subject was still unclear to her. And it was fortuitous, her coming into the field when she did—an art form was being revitalized.

BB: What did Kael bring to movie criticism in the 1960s and ’70s that set her apart from her contemporaries?

SS: Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.

BB: One of the quirks that Kael was famous for was only watching a movie once. She’s been criticized for that over the years, that it suggests a lack of reflection or the possibility that a work of art can change for you. What is it about watching a movie only one time that informed the way she wrote about it?

SS: First off, it should be noted that there were times when she saw a movie more than once. I saw a number of movies with her when it was her second time. But then it was usually because she was checking something. I think she joked about falling asleep during Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” both times she saw it. How many times she saw a movie was conditioned, actually, by her generally tight writing schedule; she usually didn’t have the time to see a movie twice. But the deeper point with this issue concerns the importance of instinct for her. She believed our truest response to a movie (or any art) was our first one, and she wanted to catch that. It was also a matter of temperament. She had on-the-spot judgments about many things. That was how she operated. Movies for her, even the great, complex ones, were about the senses in a way that books were not, and in seeing a movie once and trying to recapture its immediate impact she was, in her thinking, being true to the experience it offered.

BB. Did you re-watch any of the movies whose reviews you included in the collection?

SS: I saw some again, and initially I thought it would be good to re-see many of them. But my sense if that going back to films I loved years ago is hazardous. You re-see Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, or “The Leopard” and part of you must confront ways that the movie, and you, have changed—and altogether the event is more about time than the movie. How movies age is an interesting topic. Kael talked about it in “Movies and Television.”

BB: You’ve included her most famous reviews, ones she was chided about for over-praising like “The Last Tango in Paris,” “Nashville,” and to a lesser extent, “Casualties of War.” How do you think her takes on those movies stand up?

SS: I can’t say how her reviews of those movies hold up because I haven’t seen them recently. My hunch is that she did go overboard on them. I probably felt that then. But of course the reviews had to be in any anthology of her work. They were major pieces for her. They are statements of her belief.

BB: Kael has been ridiculed for her enthusiasm for those movies, but her take on other “classics” of that time period, particularly two “Godfather” movies or “Mean Streets” or “Shampoo” seem spot on. Are there any particular movies that she loved where you feel that her writing is especially sharp?

SS: I wasn’t that interested in whether she was, as you say about some of her reviews, “spot on.” In reviewing an art, reasoning and descriptions count for much more than opinion. As to what I think she was especially sharp on, I hope “The Age of Movies” provides an answer. Are there many more pieces that might have gone in? For sure.

BB: I like that you’ve included her major essays like “Trash, Art and the Movies,” “Why Are Movies So Bad? or The Numbers,” and the long one on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City.” And especially an early on, “Movies, the Desperate Art.” But you did not include her celebrated essay on “Citizen Kane.” Is that because it was just too long or because you feel it doesn’t hold up as representative of her talent?

SS: No, the Kane article, as I say in the Introduction, is too long to be included.

BB: One of Kael’s first memorable articles was “Circles and Squares,” a harsh take on fellow critic Andrew Sarris’ ideas about the auteur theory. Why did you not include that one?

SS: I didn’t include the Sarris essay because it is too long for the points it makes. It would have hogged space from livelier writing—writing that meant more to Kael. There are good words in it on what criticism meant for her. If I had excerpts in the anthology I probably would have excerpted those passages. I felt also that readers for whom “auteur” issues mater would already know Kael’s piece, whereas for the wider audience that she wrote for at The New Yorker, and for whom “The Age of Movies” is intended, her deflating this theory—it is really a set of opinions—is not a very engaging issue. And while I think she nails Sarris and the whole approach, she doesn’t do it in a way that opens up the topic to the general reader. Unless you are already familiar with the auteur line, her essay is rather confusing, especially at the beginning. It isn’t an essay that had much long-term meaning for her; she never could take that stuff seriously.

BB: Kael’s review of the documentary, “Shoah,” was famous because she panned it but it’s not here.

SS: I didn’t have a powerful reason to skip the “Shoah” review. Probably, it was a matter of space and also the sense that the reasoning and attitude on display there was already clear from other articles. It is certainly a strong one, though.

BB: During the ’70s, Kael shared her position writing “The Current Cinema” at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt. As a result, there are some classics from that time that she never reviewed properly like “Annie Hall,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (though she does mention this one in a notes column), and maybe especially, “Apocalypse Now.” Were there any movies that you missed her reviewing?

SS: Even with her half-year schedule in the beginning, I believe she managed to encompass the major films of her era (but a movie historian might have another view of this). If a movie was taken seriously or touched hot issues for people—and it came out when she was off—she generally managed to find a way to her her verdict in somewhere. The long articles she periodically wrote during the time she was off let her do just that. She used a piece ostensibly about actors to acknowledge “Jaws” and she let people know where she stood on “2001” in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

BB: Kael had her favorites—Peckinpah and DePalma, to name just two—and those who she was famous for blasting, like Kubrick and Woody Allen. But she actually took each movie as it came, and I like that you’ve included “Lolita,” which she adored and as well as “A Clockwork Orange,” which she hated. Same goes for the early Scorsese hits, “Mean Streets,” and “Taxi Driver,” again, which she loved, and “Raging Bull,” which was the first in a long line of his movies that turned her off. Even though she was famous for her prejudices do you feel that she always gave a new movie an equal chance?

SS: Oh, yes. That is one reason I included her review of Bergman’s “Shame.” The piece shows her wrestling with the fact that a director with whom she was often at odds made a movie she had to call a masterpiece. She could always say when someone she admired—Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Huston, even Renoir—came out flat. Her subject was the film at hand, not someone’s reputation or the credit they might have built up. She didn’t much like Robert Duvall, but after she saw “The Apostle,” which he directed and wrote as well as starred in, she said something like, “You’ve got to hand it to the bastard.”

BB: Kael once said that she never wrote a memoir because, “I think I have” in her reviews. She brought her life’s experience to her reviews, from what she knew about music and books and the theater, but also from what she knew about being a mother, having her heart broken in relationships, everything. Do you think you the story of her life can be found in her work?

SS: Yes, if the story of her life is constituted by her awareness and judgments. I don’t think she was the kind of artist whose life experience mirror or can be seen as a counterpoint to their work. For Agee and Farber, yes; their movie reviews tell us things about each man’s total contribution that we might not know otherwise. Kael, though, put most of what counted in her life in her reviews.

BB: She also once said “In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.” She was very tuned in to the reaction movies had on audiences, especially during her heyday in the early ’70s. Was there any other critic during that time, or any other time, that was as invested in how movies were received by popular culture and what it all meant?

SS: I believe you need a movie historian to answer this one. My feeling is that she got more of the ramifications of movies—their relation to the wider culture and society in general—than most film writers.

BB: This collection is spare toward the last 10 years of her career. Is that because the cultural moment of the movies had passed by the mid ’80s or because you were running out of room? Even though the pieces in her final two collections, “Hooked,” and particularly, “Movie Love,” are terse compared with her earlier writing, I think they had a lovely, compact quality. Were there any reviews that were hard for you not to include?

SS: Kael herself said that her strongest collections were those that covered the films of the 1970s. The movies were richer then. They brought out more of her. And she was first luxuriating in all the space The New Yorker gave her. It is possible that if she had first started reviewing in 1980 her pieces might have been longer and more nuances—even considering the quality of the movies. As it was, by the mid-1980s she had already put forth in some detail her aesthetic and social positions. I agree with you, though, about the “lovely, compact quality” of her reviews of the eighties.

BB: I recall Kael once writing with admiration for the discipline it took Altman to achieve a style that appeared casual and loose. I often think about that when I consider her writing—it is conversational but don’t you think it must have taken a lot of discipline to achieve that effect?

SS: Kael was almost always writing with a deadline, so the words had to come fast, and by nature she was suited to spilling her feelings. But she had to do a lot of work to get the reviews in shape. She could be making substantive changes right to the last minute.

“The Age of Movies” is out now and you can order it here.

 

As a follow-up to my conversation with Schwartz, I dipped into my library for more Kael and found this in “Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael,” by Francis Davis:

Well, the auteur theory originally meant something quite different from what people understand it be mean now. What it originally said was that a director conferred value upon a film—that if a director was an auteur, all of his films were great. I think the public never understood that, and neither did most of the press. It was an untenable theory, and it fell from sight. It’s now taken to mean that we should pay attention to who directed a movie, because a director is vital to a film, and of course this is true. But it’s something that everybody has always known. I mean, everybody knew that Howard Hawks was terrific. We went to see “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” the day they opened, and there was an excitement in the theater, because we all knew that these movies were special. They were smart, and we loved the work of smart directors, because lots of movies were so dumb…But the auteurists considered all of his movies to be wonderful by definition, because he was an auteur. It reached a point where they were acclaiming the later movies of directors who had ceased doing good work years earlier. Hitchcock’s later movies were acclaimed, and they were stinkers—terrible movies. And many routine action movies were praised because they were the work of certain directors.

It’s sometimes discouraging to see of a director’s movies, because there’s so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director’s artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But for all of a director’s movies to be alike in some essential way can also be a sign that he’s a hack.

And this on Andrew Sarris:

We both loved movies. We had that in common, and I enjoy reading him as I enjoy reading very few critics. He has genuine reactions to movies, and many critics don’t. He picks things up and points things out…The big difference between us is that our taste in movies is so radically different. He really likes romantic, classically structured movies. He had very conservative tastes in movies; he didn’t love the farout stuff that I loved. He’s a man who likes movies like “Waterloo Bridge,” movies that drive me crazy with impatience. It’s funny that he should have been at the Voice, and the voice of an underground paper. I think I would have been much more suitable to the Voice, yet for years I got dumped on brutally by the paper. That always amazed me, because I thought, I’m praising movies you should love, so what’s going on here? He and I were at the wrong places—it’s one of those flukes of movie history.

Also this on eroticism in movies and not being able to review “Deep Throat” for the New Yorker:

It wasn’t a good movie. But I very badly wanted to write about it, because for all that was being written about it, nobody was really dealing with what was on the screen. I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that in its most naked form was to shirk part of what’s involved in being a movie critic.

I’d love to have written about more eroticism in the movies. I think it’s a great subject, and I dealt with it a little bit in my reviews of “Last Tango in Paris,” “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” and a few other movies. Bertrand Blier I loved writing about, because he dealt so much in sexual areas. But it was tough to write about it all with [New Yorker editor, William] Shawn. I had a real tough time with him when I wrote about “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” The Marco Ferreri version of Charles Bukowski, about a girl who’s virtually a mermaid, with Ben Gazzara as the Bukowski, more or less. It’s an amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldn’t be our standard for what we covered at The New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that I wasn’t pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine that he felt didn’t belong there. He felt he was holding the line against barbarians, and to some degree I was a barbarian.

He made it very hard to write about certain aspects of movies. Nobody, really, has done a very good job of writing on a sustained level about the way movies affect people erotically, and about the fact that they became popular because they’re a dating game. People love movies that reason, because they excite them sexually. They go to them on dates, and they go to learn more about how to behave. I never got a real crack at writing about that.

Another terrific volume for Kael nerds is “Conversations with Pauline Kael”.

From an interview with Sam Staggs in Mandate (May 1983):

Mandate: Why do you hit so many nerves among the common readers? Why do you stir up such antagonism as well as such passionate devotion?

Kael: In my writing, I was trying to get at what I actually responded to at the movies, and I couldn’t do in formal, scholarly language. I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice. I began, for example, to interject remarks—interrupting a train of thought, just as we do when we talk, and then picking it up again. And when I began to feel the freedom to write as easily as I spoke, the writing itself became pleasurable.

Maybe part of the resentment I stir up among critics who suffer when they write is that they can tell I’m having a good time. My guess is that just as my slangy colloquial style appeals to some readers because it is sometimes enables me to get right at what I think the emotional substance of a movie is, it turns off other readers, who prefer more literary, distanced criticism. For example, I’m frequently disparaged as ‘opinionated’—I think what this comes down to is that often I don’t share in the consensus that builds up on certain movies. Sometimes, it builds up even before the critics have seen a picture, as it did on “Sophie’s Choice”—I suspect that a lot of readers are snowed by big themes and advance articles in the New York Times. And then, if they read me making fun of the picture, they’re outraged and think I’m irresponsible, and especially so because I don’t couch my review in the language that has come to be equated with ‘objectivity.’

photo by Chris Carroll

And from a Q&A by Marc Smirnoff in the Oxford American (Spring 1992) after Kael had retired from the New Yorker:

Q: Is a person lucky to be a movie critic?

Kael: It is really a wonderfully exciting field to write about when the movies are good. When they’re not good, it’s to despair. The really bad movies you can write about with some passion and anger. It’s the mediocre ones that wear you down. They’re disgusting to write about because you can feel yourself slipping into the same mediocrity and stupidity. And you feel you’re boring the readers and yourself. When you starting falling asleep while you’re writing a review, you know how dull the movie is. The danger for criticism is that people will want to become critics in order to become television celebrities, rather than enjoying the pleasure of writing and the excitement of trying to define and describe what you’ve seen.

Q: Do you miss writing reviews?

Kael: Yes, but I know I’ve got to adjust to it. That’s part of adapting to getting older. You’ve got to recognize that the time for certain things has passed and, I’m not an idiot, I know I would not write at my best if I went on. You know, you start repeating yourself—you write the same phrase, you write the same descriptions. I’ve already had the problem of working on a paragraph that I thought was pretty good and looking up what I said about that director’s work the last time I wrote about him and finding out it was almost exactly the same paragraph. Well, you know, it’s time to quit.

 

Inner Visions

Dig this wonderful piece by Jhumpa Lahiri from last week’s issue of The New Yorker:

Books, and the stories they contained, were the only things I felt I was able to possess as a child. Even then, the possession was not literal; my father is a librarian, and perhaps because he believed in collective property, or perhaps because my parents considered buying books for me an extravagance, or perhaps because people generally acquired less then than they do now, I had almost no books to call my own. I remember coveting and eventually being permitted to own a book for the first time. I was five or six. The book was diminutive, about four inches square, and was called “You’ll Never Have to Look for Friends.” It lived among the penny candy and the Wacky Packs at the old-fashioned general store across the street from our first house in Rhode Island. The plot was trite, more an extended greeting card than a story. But I remember the excitement of watching my mother purchase it for me and of bringing it home. Inside the front cover, beneath the declaration “This book is especially for,” was a line on which to write my name. My mother did so, and also wrote the word “mother” to indicate that the book had been given to me by her, though I did not call her Mother but Ma. “Mother” was an alternate guardian. But she had given me a book that, nearly forty years later, still dwells on a bookcase in my childhood room.

Our house was not devoid of things to read, but the offerings felt scant, and were of little interest to me. There were books about China and Russia that my father read for his graduate studies in political science, and issues of Time that he read to relax. My mother owned novels and short stories and stacks of a literary magazine called Desh, but they were in Bengali, even the titles illegible to me. She kept her reading material on metal shelves in the basement, or off limits by her bedside. I remember a yellow volume of lyrics by the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, which seemed to be a holy text to her, and a thick, fraying English dictionary with a maroon cover that was pulled out for Scrabble games. At one point, we bought the first few volumes of a set of encyclopedias that the supermarket where we shopped was promoting, but we never got them all. There was an arbitrary, haphazard quality to the books in our house, as there was to certain other aspects of our material lives. I craved the opposite: a house where books were a solid presence, piled on every surface and cheerfully lining the walls. At times, my family’s effort to fill our house with books seemed thwarted; this was the case when my father mounted rods and brackets to hold a set of olive-green shelves. Within a few days the shelves collapsed, the Sheetrocked walls of our seventies-era Colonial unable to support them.

What I really sought was a better-marked trail of my parents’ intellectual lives: bound and printed evidence of what they’d read, what had inspired and shaped their minds. A connection, via books, between them and me. But my parents did not read to me or tell me stories; my father did not read any fiction, and the stories my mother may have loved as a young girl in Calcutta were not passed down. My first experience of hearing stories aloud occurred the only time I met my maternal grandfather, when I was two, during my first visit to India. He would lie back on a bed and prop me up on his chest and invent things to tell me. I am told that the two of us stayed up long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and that my grandfather kept extending these stories, because I insisted that they not end.

Brother From Another Planet

From Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent Fred Wilpon profile in the current issue of The New Yorker:

Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz were in their conference room, in Rockefeller Center, talking baseball, continuing a conversation that has gone on for about fifty years. The subject was Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ great closer, who owes his success to a single pitch, the cut fastball.

“One pitch,” Wilpon said.

“I don’t get that,” Katz replied.

“What do you mean?” Wilpon answered. “You can’t hit that pitch.”

“But they know it’s coming.”

“Still can’t hit it.”

“I don’t get it.”

Wilpon took out a baseball—there is often one within reach—and demonstrated how Rivera grips the ball. (“I don’t claim to know everything about baseball,” Wilpon said to me at one point. “But I do know pitching.”) Wilpon demonstrated how the ball rolled off Rivera’s fingers. “It can break either way,” he said.

“Still don’t get it,” Katz replied.

The beauty part is that it doesn’t make any practical sense. It’s a beautiful mystery, another reminder that sports are closer to art than science.

Thanks to RI Yank, we were hipped to a piece of analysis by David Pinto the other day:

Mariano uses one pitch, a cut fastball thrown between 90 and 94 miles per hour. There’s nothing soft, no off speed pitch to fool the batters. The cutter does it well all by itself.

Rivera induces swings. Batters swung at 49.4 percent of his pitches, which puts him in the 94th percentile among all pitchers in the majors in that time. Look at what they are swinging at, however. Batters swing at 38% of the pitches that should be called balls. That is the 100th percentile, the best in the majors. Rivera gets batters to see balls as strikes, and swing at them. In general, batters tend to get worse results when they swing at balls.

That’s not the only effect of the cutter, however. Of the pitches batters take, 36.1% of them are strikes. That may not seem like much, but the major league average is 31.8%, and Rivera’s number ranks in the 95th percentile. Not only is Mariano great at getting batters to swing at balls, he’s almost as good at getting them to take strikes.

And he does it all with one pitch.

Rivera’s one pitch is a daydream fantasy about sustained pleasure. There will never be another one like him. Not only because of the results but because how he gets them.

Got it, Got it, Need it, Got it…

Our good pal Josh Wilker is interviewed in the New Yorker’s book blog:

At one point in the book, you write, “I have spent most of my adult life imagining and reimagining the past and now I never know beyond a shadow of a doubt what actually happened.” Could you elaborate a little on that? Did that make it easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods”?

I’ve written incessantly about the past for over two decades in any form I could manage—in notebook rantings, in poems, in letters, in essays, most recently in blog posts, and most extensively in fictional form. I am trying to get at certain emotional truths, I guess, and after a while any certainty I once had about how things actually occurred eroded. One thing I do remember for sure is that when I was a kid, I made a vow to myself to remember everything. But in trying to keep this vow I actually broke it, going over the same ground again and again until the ground had changed. It didn’t make it any easier or harder to write “Cardboard Gods.” The challenge of the writing of the book was the same challenge I’d always faced, which was to try to get the thing to feel true. I wanted the details to be honest, as honest as I could manage, and I certainly didn’t fabricate anything that I know didn’t happen, if that makes any sense, but I know my memory is faulty and that it long ago became subservient to my ruinous and sustaining need to narrate.

Hot dog.

If you haven’t read Josh’s book, Cardboard Gods, well, it is now available in paperback. Get goin’, now, git.

La Veda Loca

The original “Mildred Pierce” is one of my wife’s favorite movies. If she’s ever feeling blue, that’s a go-to flick of cherce. I have to admit, it’s so stylish-looking and so juicy and melodramatic that it is hard to resist. Now, there is a new HBO mini-series based on James M. Cain’s novel. In the New Yorker, Hilton Als, breaks it all down:

By the late thirties, when Cain began to think about writing “Mildred Pierce,” his fourth novel—his third, the underappreciated “Serenade” (1937), was another first-person account of male alienation—life was dictating a new reality. (A five-part miniseries adapted from the book, and directed by Todd Haynes, will première on HBO on March 27th.) Cain had recently befriended a woman named Kate Cummings, who did perhaps more than anyone else to urge him toward a more sympathetic and complex view of women’s need for both conventionality and freedom. Cummings, the single mother of the actress Constance Cummings, had sacrificed her own prospects as a singer to get her daughter the training and the exposure she needed to become a star. What Cain saw of Kate’s life—and the nearly selfless love with which she made Constance’s career happen—may have jump-started his imagination. After creating two antiheroines, probably inspired by Hemingway’s view of woman-as-death, Cain paid homage to his friend’s indomitable spirit. He set out to explore what one of his characters would call “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support.” As he was writing, employing the third person and creating a female protagonist for the first time, Cummings stood over him, prodding him to revise whenever she felt that his perceptions of a working mother did not ring true. When “Mildred Pierce” was finally published, in 1941, Cain’s alternately stilted and full-bodied portrait of a striving woman was well received, but few reviewers noted the fact that the novel was also a study of a woman who, time after time, subjugates her own needs to those of her child.

I’m curious to see the HBO show but it’s not likely to replace the original in my heart.

Is it Something I Said?

Good looking to Long Form Reads for linking to Hilton Als’ 1999 New Yorker profile of Richard Pyror:

Pryor’s art defies the very definition of the word “order.” He based his style on digressions and riffs—the monologue as jam session. He reinvented standup, which until he developed his signature style, in 1971, had consisted largely of borscht-belt-style male comedians telling tales in the Jewish vernacular, regardless of their own religion or background. Pryor managed to make blacks interesting to audiences that were used to responding to a liberal Jewish sensibility—and, unlike some of his colored colleagues, he did so without “becoming” Jewish himself. (Dick Gregory, for example, was a political comedian in the tradition of Mort Sahl; Bill Cosby was a droll Jack Benny.) At the height of his career, Pryor never spoke purely in the complaint mode. He was often baffled by life’s complexities, but he rarely told my-wife-made-me-sleep-on-the-sofa jokes or did “bits” whose sole purpose was to “kill” an audience with a boffo punch line. Instead, he talked about characters—black street people, mostly. Because the life rhythm of a black junkie, say, implies a certain drift, Pryor’s stories did not have badda-bing conclusions. Instead, they were encapsulated in a physical attitude: each character was represented in Pryor’s walk, in his gestures—which always contained a kind of vicarious wonder at the lives he was enacting. Take, for instance, his sketch of a wino in Peoria, Illinois—Pryor’s hometown and the land of his imagination—as he encounters Dracula. In the voice of a Southern black man, down on his luck:

Hey man, say, nigger—you with the cape. . . . What’s your name, boy? Dracula? What kind of name is that for a nigger? Where you from, fool? Transylvania? I know where it is, nigger! You ain’t the smartest motherfucker in the world, even though you is the ugliest. Oh yeah, you a ugly motherfucker. Why you don’t get your teeth fixed, nigger? That shit hanging all out your mouth. Why you don’t get you an orthodontist? . . . This is 1975, boy. Get your shit together. What’s wrong with your natural? Got that dirt all in the back of your neck. You’s a filthy little motherfucker, too. You got to be home ’fore the sun come up? You ain’t lyin’, motherfucker. See your ass during the day, you liable to get arrested. You want to suck what? You some kind of freak, boy? . . . You ain’t suckin’ nothing here, junior.

Als contends that Pryor’s two greatest albums are “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and “Bicentennial Nigger.” I love the former but think the later is not nearly as good as “Is it Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert.” But I do think that Pryor at his peak reached a place that no comic has ever approached, before or since.

[Picture by Ken Taylor]

In Brief: Angell Blogs

Used to be that no baseball season felt complete until Roger Angell’s piece appeared in the New Yorker. Mr. Angell just turned 90 but he’s still writing. However, I don’t know if we’ll get the usual piece, as Angell was blogging for the New Yorker during the post-season. My favorite bit came his final post–because he dug up a quote from one of his old pieces that I’ve been looking for, unsuccessfully, for years now:

Players have little awareness of fan angst, but I’ve not forgotten an amazing late-summer conversation I had with the iconic, forty-year-old Willie McCovey at Candlestick Park, in 1978, at a time when his contending Giants had just dropped five out of six games and were beginning a customary September slide toward oblivion.

“The fans sitting up there are helpless,” he said. “They can’t pick up a bat and come down and do something. Their only involvement is in how well you do. If you strike out or mess up out there, they feel they’ve done something wrong. You’re all they’ve got. The professional athlete knows there’s always another game or another year coming up. If he loses he swallows that bitter pill and comes back. It’s much harder for the fans.”

Million Dollar Movie

“The Social Network” is getting rave reviews. Check out this gusher from David Denby in The New Yorker:

“The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, rushes through a coruscating series of exhilarations and desolations, triumphs and betrayals, and ends with what feels like darkness closing in on an isolated soul. This brilliantly entertaining and emotionally wrenching movie is built around a melancholy paradox: in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore, invents Facebook and eventually creates a five-hundred-million-strong network of “friends,” but Zuckerberg is so egotistical, work-obsessed, and withdrawn that he can’t stay close to anyone; he blows off his only real pal, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a fellow Jewish student at Harvard, who helps him launch the site. The movie is not a conventionally priggish tale of youthful innocence corrupted by riches; nor is it merely a sarcastic arrow shot into the heart of a poor little rich boy. Both themes are there, but the dramatic development of the material pushes beyond simplicities, and the portrait of Zuckerberg is many-sided and ambiguous; no two viewers will see him in quite the same way. The debate about the movie’s accuracy has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue. In this extraordinary collaboration, the portrait of Zuckerberg, I would guess, was produced by a happy tension, even an opposition, between the two men—a tug-of-war between Fincher’s gleeful appreciation of an outsider who overturns the social order and Sorkin’s old-fashioned, humanist distaste for electronic friend-making and a world of virtual emotions. The result is a movie that is absolutely emblematic of its time and place. “The Social Network” is shrewdly perceptive about such things as class, manners, ethics, and the emptying out of self that accompanies a genius’s absorption in his work. It has the hard-charging excitement of a very recent revolution, the surge and sweep of big money moving fast and chewing people up in its wake.

Around the World in 140 Characters or Less

Malcolm Gladwell on “The Twitter Revolution”:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”

These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?

Naked in New York

I don’t know too much about Susan Orlean though I really enjoyed  a profile she once wrote on Felipe Lopez. She appears to be a gifted, dedicated writer. I do know that she has a blog at the New Yorker and it’s worth checking out.

From a recent post:

There is nothing at all novel about the peculiar, ambient intimacy of social media if you have spent any time living in New York City. Life in Manhattan is like living inside a gigantic Twitter stream. What you get to know about people you don’t know simply by accidental adjacency is astonishing. For a few years, a guy who lived in the building across the street from me practiced piano every day in the nude. He had double-height windows in his apartment and had positioned the piano to take advantage of the nice western exposure, and would plop himself down every afternoon and begin his etudes wearing not one stitch of clothes. I had an unobstructed view of him from my living room. I wouldn’t have recognized him on the street and I didn’t know his name, but I knew him, or at least knew his body, and knew this odd habit of his. To put it in social-media terms, it was as if @weirdneighbor were tweeting, “I like playing piano in the nude. Whatever.” Because of the slant of the sun and the size of my windows, I don’t think he could see me, so our relationship, as it were, was less like Facebook, where the exchange is mutual, and more like Twitter: in other words, I was “following” him, but he wasn’t following me.

[Night Windows, By Edward Hopper (1928)]

F*** Facebook

Jose Antonio Vargas profiles Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker:

Zuckerberg may seem like an over-sharer in the age of over-sharing. But that’s kind of the point. Zuckerberg’s business model depends on our shifting notions of privacy, revelation, and sheer self-display. The more that people are willing to put online, the more money his site can make from advertisers. Happily for him, and the prospects of his eventual fortune, his business interests align perfectly with his personal philosophy. In the bio section of his page, Zuckerberg writes simply, “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”

The world, it seems, is responding. The site is now the biggest social network in countries ranging from Indonesia to Colombia. Today, at least one out of every fourteen people in the world has a Facebook account. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, is becoming the boy king of Silicon Valley. If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires. In the October issue of Vanity Fair, Zuckerberg is named No. 1 in the magazine’s power ranking of the New Establishment, just ahead of Steve Jobs, the leadership of Google, and Rupert Murdoch. The magazine declared him “our new Caesar.”

Despite his goal of global openness, however, Zuckerberg remains a wary and private person. He doesn’t like to speak to the press, and he does so rarely. He also doesn’t seem to enjoy the public appearances that are increasingly requested of him. Backstage at an event at the Computer History Museum, in Silicon Valley, this summer, one of his interlocutors turned to Zuckerberg, minutes before they were to appear onstage, and said, “You don’t like doing these kinds of events very much, do you?” Zuckerberg replied with a terse “No,” then took a sip from his water bottle and looked off into the distance.

Get the Picture?

The New Yorker has a series of good, interesting blogs, none better than Photo Booth, which covers the world of Photography.

What’s a matter with you, boy?

High and Mighty

I missed this when it was first posted  but it’s still worth noting–Roger Angell on Bob Sheppard:

Up in the pressbox, every night ends the same way. Herb Steier, a retired Times sports copy editor, comes to every game and sits motionless in the third row, his hands in front of him on the long table. He doesn’t keep score but watches the action intently, with bright, dark eyes. When the ninth inning comes, he gets up and stands by the railing behind the last row of writers, near the exit, and after the potential final batter of the game has been announced, Bob Sheppard, the ancient and elegant Hall of Fame announcer, comes out of his booth and stands next to him, with a book under his arm. (He reads novels or works of history between announcements.) Eddie Layton, the Stadium organist, is there, too, wearing a little skipper’s cap. Eddie has a private yacht—well, it’s a mini-tug, called Impulse—that he keeps on the Hudson, up near Tarrytown. He gets a limo ride to the Stadium most days from his apartment in Queens—it’s in his contract—and a nice lift home with Bob Sheppard and Herb Steier at night. Eddie and Bob Sheppard make a bet on every single Yankee game—the time of the game, the total number of base runners, number of pitches by bullpen pitchers, whatever—but won’t tell you which one of them is ahead. The stakes are steady: a penny a game.

Steier is Sheppard’s neighbor, out in Baldwin, Long Island, and he drives him to work every day and home again at its end; they’re old friends. Sheppard, a stylish fellow, is wearing an Argyle sweater and espadrilles tonight. This is his fiftieth year on the job at Yankee Stadium, and once in a while I ask him to enunciate a player’s name for me, just for the thrill of it. “ ‘Shi-ge-to-shi Ha-se-ga-wa,’ ” he’ll respond, ringing the vowels. It sounds like an airport.

The instant the last batter strikes out or pops up or grounds out Sheppard and Steier and Layton do an about-face and depart at a slow sprint. Out the door they go and turn right in the level corridor, still running. A few kids out there are already rocketing down the tilted runways. “Start spreadin’ the noooss…” comes blaring out from everywhere (the Yanks have won again), but Bob and Herb and Eddie have turned right again, into the quiet elevator lobby, where the nearer car awaits them, its door open. Down they go and out at street level, still at a careful run. Herb’s car, a beige 1995 Maxima, is in its regular slot in the team parking lot, just across the alley—the second car on the right. They’re in, they’re out, a left turn up the street, where they grab a right, jumping onto the Deegan, heading home. The cops there have the eastbound traffic stopped dead, waiting for Bob Sheppard: no one else in New York is allowed to make this turn. Two minutes, maybe two-twenty, after the game has ended and they’re gone, home free, the first of fifty thousand out of the building, every night.

I sat in the lobby of Yankee Stadium on the night of the final game back in September of 2008. Next to me was Herb Steier. I’d seen him before. He was always easy with a smile and a story. Sat through a game a year earlier talking to him, Richard Ben Cramer and Angell. When Rodriguez hit two home runs that day, Cramer was smiling and Steier had a twinkle in his eye (Cramer is writing a book about Alex Rodriguez).

Now, those eyes were sad. He was hunched over slightly as he told me how the Yankees were giving him a hard time about sitting in the pressbox now that Sheppard wasn’t working regularly anymore. I don’t know what he’s up to these days but Steier is good people. I hope he is well.

Black and Tan Fantasy

An American Master…

Interesting piece on Duke Ellington’s music and race in America by Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker:

What did he feel about—what did he contribute to—the mire of American race relations during the last century? Harvey G. Cohen’s “Duke Ellington’s America” (Chicago; $40) attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. One of Ellington’s few confidantes, his sister, Ruth, believed that he concealed himself under “veil upon veil upon veil,” and Cohen is not the first Ellingtonian to treasure the smallest telltale sign of his subject’s human susceptibilities. There is, for example, an uncharacteristically angry letter to a white business associate with whom Ellington wished to break (which is nevertheless signed “with great respect,” and turns out not to have been sent). Cohen’s extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington—is not a standard biography; Ellington’s personal life and sexual mores are officially beyond its scope. Nor is it a critical work, since it contains no musical analysis and not a great deal of musical description. Cohen’s long hours in the Smithsonian’s huge trove of Ellington papers were devoted to the business records and the scrapbooks, and, as his title suggests, he has broad social issues on his mind. Even Ellington’s professional life is examined in circumscribed areas, almost all of which touch at some point upon race. The question is whether, sooner or later, everything did.

Early in the book, Cohen quotes Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn objecting to a movie project about Ellington that Strayhorn was told would have a racial theme. “I don’t think it should be racial because I don’t think he’s racial,” Strayhorn protested. “He is an individual.” But Strayhorn concluded, in a line of thinking that seems emblematic of the era and of the personalities involved, “You don’t have to say the darn thing.” Cohen keeps Ellington’s individuality firmly in sight, while detailing such targeted subjects as his relationship with Mills, the white man who has been lauded for launching Ellington’s career and—both before and after they split, in 1939—accused of exploitation; Ellington’s travels with his band in the harshly segregated South of the nineteen-thirties and forties; the overt, if often forgotten, racial programs of much of his music; and his sometimes contentious relationship with the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-fifties and sixties.

A different set of subjects—Ellington’s musical development, his band members, even his women—might have yielded something closer to the post-racial portrait for which Strayhorn argued, a portrait more in accord with the high personal horizon on which Ellington’s sights were set. But “the darn thing” will not go away, and race remains unsurprisingly essential to the story of America’s first widely recognized black artist, and of what he had to say.

You can order “Duke Ellington’s America“, here.

Look Sharp

I haven’t seen the big Henri-Cartier Bresson show at the Modern yet but I did catch this review in The New Yorker:

Cartier-Bresson has the weakness of his strength: an Apollonian elevation that subjugates life to an order of things already known, if never so well seen. He said that the essence of his art was “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Too often, the “significance” feels platitudinous, even as its expression dazzles. Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans” (1958) treated subjects akin to many in the older photographer’s work, put it harshly but justly: “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” The problem of Cartier-Bresson’s art is the conjunction of aesthetic classicism and journalistic protocol: timeless truth and breaking news. He rendered a world that, set forth at MOMA by the museum’s chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, richly satisfies the eye and the mind, while numbing the heart.

…The hallmark of Cartier-Bresson’s genius is less in what he photographed than in where he placed himself to photograph it, incorporating peculiarly eloquent backgrounds and surroundings.

I’m looking forward to seeing this one…

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver