Friday, July 25, 2014

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

     The Philadelphia Story (1940) [D: George Cukor. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart et al] Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is about to remarry, this time to George Kittredge (John Howard), a stuffy up-from-the-ranks mid-level executive. Her ex C. K Haven (Grant)  arranges for Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussy) of Spy magazine to pose as friends of Junior Lord and so get the story and the photos that will boost Spy’s circulation. The perfect mix of characters and situation for a successful rom-com, with elements of coming-of-age, social comedy, and satire of the tabloid business, which was beginning to morph into the rapacious sludge-dwellers that we love to detest.
     The movie is beautifully photographed (Joseph Ruttenberg). The editing is well done (Frank Sullivan), but the pace seems slow compared to current practice. The acting is near-perfect, a lovely mix of stereotype and playing against type. Stars have a difficult task: to provide what the audience expects without become mere cartoons. Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart deliver. The script is based on a play, which accounts for the throw-away one-liners, and the complex dialogue. This is one of the few movies that you have to listen to as well as watch.
     The character actors show why Hollywood could churn out well-crafted movies week after week: they supply the base on which the stars are built. A director who knows how to use them will make a better movie. Cukor knows how to use all his cast. The movie is usually classed as comedy of manners, but it’s more than that. Cukor is sometimes under-rated because he specialised in these movies designed for a primarily female audience. I like them, perhaps because I read a lot of women’s fiction in my mother’s magazines, so I can recognise an above average example when I see it. This is definitely above average. Recommended. ***½

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace (2013)

     Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace (2013) Wow! A massive book, yet it reads easily, and at the end I felt I had both a good overview of how the First World War happened, and why. Individual choices and decisions, or refusal to make decisions, were a major factor in triggering the slide into war. And it was slide: a few key decisions changed circumstances so that it became nearly impossible to stop.
     My take-aways:
     The Tsar, Wilhelm II, and Franz-Josef were unfit to govern. They were weak men, who because of the autocratic, absolutist governance perforce had to rely on their advisers. None of them had much of sense of how the world works. All three allowed petulance and vanity to interfere with their appointments of those advisers and their acceptance of the advice. The governance of their states meant that they had the final word, which guaranteed that rivalries between advisers could and did result in a choice of extremes. Hence the impossible ultimatum sent to Serbia, which essentially demanded that a sovereign state give up its independence and become a mere province of another state.
     Worse, these men’s sense of their own life’s purpose appears to have amounted to little more than to maintain their roles, roles that were defined in terms of their socio-political status and the honour and glory of their realms. They were playing a game of status as boys do, as street gangs do, with their desperate focus on reputation. Reputation is what you think other people think of you, so it’s always more or less of a delusion. To someone who values reputation over-much, appearance is more important than reality.  One consequence is that these men tended to see compromise as a diminution of their cred. Diplomacy became more and more a game of bluff and counterbluff.
     The British were no better. George V was a constitutional monarch, so he could not decide. But all that meant was that the decisions devolved on the members of the Cabinet, which in practice meant that the strongest personalities carried the day. These men also saw their role as maintaining the status of Great Britain, of upholding the glory and honour of the Empire. They shied away from direct involvement in Europe, and so did not urge the kind of conference that might have let everyone come out of the mess with their “honour” more or less intact.
     Another factor was mutual suspicion. It seems crazy, but the rulers and governors of the European powers thought in terms of stealing each others resources. That’s not the language they used of course, but theft is what demands for “compensation”, threats of acquiring chunks of border lands, and the deal-making around “spheres of influence” and colonies amounted to. The sense of entitlement behind this attitude is gobsmackingly awful. The arms race of the time reflected this suspicion: if you couldn’t defend yourself, you might lose land, people, resources, colonies.
     Public opinion, which had been mobilised to support government aims in the 1800s (most notably in the Franco-Prussian war), became ever more important. Notions of national prestige mattered even more to ordinary folk than to their masters, who were members of a highly intermarried, culturally integrated, and international class. Governments discovered that once they had used national prestige as a means of unifying their realms, they could not turn it off.
      If a general conclusion is possible, it comes to this: Human beings are rarely capable of transcending their times. All the players made the same assumptions about politics and power, about international relations, about status, rank, and entitlement. Their language shows that few of the players ever questioned or analysed those assumptions; most were not even aware of them. Personal ambitions and vanities floated on these implicit ideas like froth on the sea. Very few had sufficient imagination to grasp what a catastrophe a modern war would be, and they were minor figures with little influence, precisely because they had the sense and sensibility to reflect on the consequences of their actions. Most of the planners simply took for granted that war was a natural condition of humankind (some preachers even thought of it as imposed by God), and therefore that their work of planning for it and using it to back up diplomacy was merely their duty. Then as now, lack of imagination was a recommendation for promotion.
      A very good book. Highly recommended. ****

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Taming of the Shrew. At Freewill Shakespeare, Edmonton.

     The Taming of the Shrew. At Freewill Shakespeare, Edmonton. [D: Marianne Copithorne. With Mary Hulbert, James MacDonald et al] Ah, TTotS, a play that will annoy some part of the audience no matter how it’s done. The Freewill Shakespeare Company opted for farce, irony, modernising the mise en scene, and a hefty reminder of the Commedia dell’Arte heritage of the play. This worked quite well, although the visuals were sometimes overdone.
     The crucial question about this play is how to imagine Katherine the Shrew and Petruchio the fortune hunter. It’s clear enough that she behaves as she does because she thinks she’s unlovable. Her sister, who could a keep a pound of butter cooling in her mouth, is Daddy’s Darling, and a manipulative little bitch. How can Katherine compete with that? She can’t, so she overacts the reputation imposed on her.
     Petruchio, who decides that the rich dowry that comes with Katherine is worth working for, discovers almost immediately that Katherine’s unwillingness to conform to social expectations matches his own. All he has to do is to tame her, and convince her that he loves her despite her rage. There are enough hints in the text for an imaginative director to emphasise these aspects of character and plot, and Copithorne IMO succeeds. She has a clear vision of what she wants, both in the staging of the play as a farce, and in the subtext about courtship, love and marriage that informs the rather silly plot.
     The actors bring out the subtext nicely. We see from the first kiss that Katherine and Petruchio are attracted to each other almost despite themselves. By the time we see Katherine address the old man on the road as a fair young damsel, we intuit that she is playing a game, and furthermore that Petruchio knows it. In the final speech, where she describes the proper relationship between husband and wife, we see that she understands her own words doubly. On the one hand, given the social and economic realities of the time, a wife was utterly dependent on her husband. On the other hand, she has come to respect Petruchio as her equal, which he acknowledges by kneeling before her. We know that the practicalities of household and estate management will not interfere with their enjoyment of each other.
     Set changes were nicely done, music was well chosen, incidental business was both suitable and well-done, the company displayed excellent ensemble acting, all in all a very pleasant evening at the theatre. Recommended. ***½

Saturday, July 19, 2014

P. D. James. Original Sin (1994)

     P. D. James. Original Sin (1994) I’d seen the video version of this novel, but never read it, in fact, it wasn’t on my shelves. Fay gave it to me when we visited in July, and I started reading it in Camrose. It lasted all our visit, and the flight home, and a couple of days after that. A big, fat book, with lots of digressions and back stories. The plot is simple: an ancient grudge results in murders that the perpetrator sees as doing justice. Dalgleish, Miskin, and Aaron assemble the clues, but they don’t have a case until the very end. However, the murderer spares them the inconvenience of a difficult trial.
     James was a very good writer. Her narrator  engages one’s sympathies for all the characters, and can convey the ambience of a place or a room. By the time she wrote this book, her publishers and her fans were willing to accept whatever she gave them, no matter how irrelevant or tangential to the plot. She created a world that the reader feels at home in, even when horror and evil stalk through it. Like Austen (whom she admired), James focussed on what she knew. The landscapes and cityscapes feel real. Her characters have the same mystery as real people; no matter how much we know of their thoughts and feelings, there is an unreachable core. The effect is that despite the detail James provides, there is a distancing from the story: we observe it, we don’t live it. Paradoxically perhaps, this deepens understanding. ***

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tanith Lee. Delusion’s Master (1981)

     Tanith Lee. Delusion’s Master (1981) Well written ‘adult’ fantasy, b ut it palls after a while. The Gods are indifferent to humans, the Demons care about them, but are offended when humans reject them. Lee riffs on Babel and holy cities and priests etc. All very visual, in a graphic novel sort of way. The book would probably have worked better as graphic novel, actually. The language is lush, it echoes the quasi-archaic styles that seem to be de rigeur for these efforts. Problem is, after the Prologue there are no characters. Humans are unnamed, but despite being given names, Chuz and other demons are mere figures in a landscape. The landscape and figures shapeshift, everything is described as occurring on an epic scale, and eventually I surfeited. Rich language, dream-like plotting, fantastic imagery aren’t enough. I want to care about the characters one way or another. In this book, only the Prologue, a terrifying story of lust and love and murder and vengeance and lethal ambition, does this. In later books, Lee does give us characters we care about, we want them to succeed or fail, but not here. I stopped reading about halfway through. Those who like this genre will no doubt rate the book much higher than I do. *½

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Peter Robinson. A Necessary End (1989)

     Peter Robinson. A Necessary End (1989) During a demonstration against nuclear power, a policeman is murdered. Because of possible political motives, Burgess, a superintendent, is dispatched from the Met to take over the case. This puts Banks at a disadvantage, especially when he suggests that the murder may have been targeted. Burgess, a nicely drawn bigot and bully, refuses to take up this line of inquiry. Banks has a lucky break: one of the dead coppers work mates passes on information about his sadistic behaviour towards demonstrators of all kinds. Banks’s hunch proves accurate, but much unnecessary harm is done before the perpetrator suicides, and Banks discovers that it was indeed a targeted killing, and the pain will continue even after the case is officially closed.
    This is the second Inspector Banks novel. I’ll be looking for more, although I doubt I’ll be able to read them in order of writing. We care about his characters one way or another, and if we ever needed a lesson on the differences between law and justice, his books will provide them. Recommended. **½

Monday, July 07, 2014

Keith DiSantis. Sax in the Sand

     Keith DiSantis. Sax in the Sand With Dean Schneider (piano), Andy Lalasis (bass) and Clarissa Joy (vocals). Self-published CD ca. 2012. I first heard DiSantis at Niobe’s renewal of vows celebration, then a few days later on New Year’s Eve at a restaurant in Port Isabella, Texas. DiSantis is a skilled sax player, who knows how to make his instrument do exactly what he wants it to do. He and his sidesmen have played together many times, they know each other’s styles, and listen to each other. The result is a disk of standards that’s a pleasure to listen to. DiSantis doesn’t mark out any new ground, he just gives you lovely renditions of music you already know. A few of the eleven titles:  Lullaby of Birdland, the Girl From Ipanema, Misty, All the Things You Are. The cuts are longer than the 3-minute radio standard, you get about an hour of music. Recommended, if you can find it. Hang around Brownsville and Padre island, or look him up. He teaches at Los Fresnos High School. ***

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Jane Johnson et al. Toasts & Quotes (2009)

     Jane Johnson et al. Toasts & Quotes (2009) Over 2,000 quotes and proverbs about all manner of subjects. Some of the attributions are suspect, but as far as I can tell, at least 99% are accurate. Reading such a compilation over several days leaves one with a funny buzz in the brain: most of the epigrams are witty, but the wit is often dark. Humour is not the aim, insight is.
     A few quotes at random:
Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. (Robert Frost)
The White House is the finest jail in the world. (Harry Truman)
It is only when they are wrong that machines remind you how powerful they can be. (Clive James)
Sex is like pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. (Helen Childress)
     An excellent reference work, and fun to read. ***

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Louis L’Amour. The Iron Marshal (1979)

     Louis L’Amour. The Iron Marshal (1979) Tom Shanaghy grows up in the criminal section of New York City. A rumble prompts him to flee, and he ends up in a small collection of shacks and barns in the middle of Kansas. The people living there think of it as a town, and they need a marshal, since the current one is more of a crook than a protector. Tom takes on the job despite his desire to take the first train back to east. A cattle rancher who wants to revenge himself for the murder of his brother, a gang of thieves planning to steal the cash and gold coming into town in anticipation of the cattle drive, a wife who wants to double cross them, the family of the previous marshal, and the gear and guns of the marshal that the town was expecting, are the complicating elements of a typical L’Amour plot. All’s well that ends well: the bad guys are caught and/or killed, Tom falls for the cutest girl and decides to stay. Average for L’Amour, in other words, a pretty good entertainment. **½

Uh-oh, NSA is watching me. (Link)

Cory Doctorow did some digging, and found out tht if you read Boing-Boing, NSA considers you a "target" for surveillance. Shades of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI! More here.

Proof, if one was needed, that the spooks have no sense of irony, humour, the absurd, or anything other than their absurd paranoid fantasies. Follow the link at your peril.