Monday, April 10, 2023

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Think of yourself as a producer. A maker of things.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

At it's limit freedom is the ability to reimagine and reprogram yourself in any way you choose.

The most important problem facing the world economy is how to divide work between people and machines. I'm not sure we're headed in the right direction.

The Studio System Redux

I’m thinking about defending the studio system against promiscuous auteurism. I suspect the studio system may be our best chance to maintain some semblance of quality in film by acting as a gatekeeper, a bestower of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, an imprimatur that narrows our viewing options to an almost manageable way too many now that streaming has kicked into high gear. That’s a role critics have played in the past and the auteur theory was the perfect instrument for separating the wheat from the chaff, the quality art from the kitsch. But in a streaming world of tens of thousands of directors, concentrating on the work of a handful of auteurs seems, well, limited. And the number of true auteurs may be even smaller than some critics believe. Many of the auteurs only made the list because we stretched the definition of authorship. I still believe there have been, are and will be auteurs, but my take now is that only makers like Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, John Cassavetes and others who write their own screenplays as well as realize them should be considered authors of films. That reduces the candidates for the exalted status of auteur considerably. “Pantheon” directors like John Ford who primarily realized scripts written by other makers, would be immediately demoted, directors like Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Malik, young Greta Gerwig, Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola, Kubrick, and Oliver Stone would be promoted and directors like Scorsese, Cameron, Bigelow and Scott would become questionable auteurs. Certainly someone like Antoine Fuqua would never make the cut. But wait.
About eighteen years ago I missed King Arthur (2004) when it was first released. There are probably a number of reasons I wasn’t interested in seeing it, primarily, I think, because I had no great interest in Fuqua the director. I had seen Training Day (2001) but wasn’t particularly impressed, and I probably counted Fuqua’s music videos against him. But why I dismissed Fuqua’s film doesn’t matter really, because if I had seen King Arthur in 2004 I would have seen an entirely different film from the one I saw one evening when I was bored, clicked through the movies on Cinemax, and decided to give King Arthur a look. Back in 2004, I hadn’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and tried to imagine ways Ishiguro’s foggy Arthurian England could be rendered on film. And although it was first published in 1956, I hadn’t read Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples yet either. When I read the first volume I realized the history of the Saxon conquest of England was as vague as the memories of Ishiguro’s characters in The Buried Giant. The Fifth Century generally is a murky, empty space, lost in time and waiting to be filled.
This was on my mind when I had my first look at Fuqua’s King Arthur. I’ve watched it four times now and I still can’t explain why I am so intrigued and, yes, moved by the film. I understand some of it. I was struck by how much King Arthur resembles a John Ford Western set in the darkness, grime and poverty of Fuqua’s 5th Century England, not just because of the similarities between King Arthur’s knights and Ford’s cavalry officers and cowboys, but also because Fuqua uses portrait shots of his characters to freeze them in time and in our memories the way Ford did, and even goes John Ford one better by using portrait-like close-ups of King Arthur’s knights to transform them from Romans to Sarmatians and to restore them to the Middle East at the end of his film. And King Arthur is a striking example of the way the confluence, the synthesis, of film and literature creates a rich experience for viewers who can bring something of their own to a film. Fuqua’s portrayal of the Romans, Britons and Saxons fits my picture of the Britons, Arthur, his knights and the Saxons in The Buried Giant and in Churchill’s history better than the Medieval rendition of those characters in typical Arthurian films. Fuqua’s mise-en-scène is, for me, powerful and poignant. Like all great myths, the legend of Arthur never fails to entertain. And Fuqua’s King Arthur is a dark and fascinating retelling of that myth. But was it Fuqua the director who did all that, and if it was, how did he get to that place?
King Arthur is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, based on a screenplay by David Franzoni. Without interviewing them it’s impossible to know if the King Arthur project originated with Bruckheimer or Franzoni, but almost certainly it did not originate with Fuqua. And that’s the point. In the case of King Arthur, the track records of the producer and the screenwriter are better guides to the quality of the film than the oeuvre of the director. And that’s very neat, because it is going to be easier to keep track of and predict the quality of the work of production studios than it is to get a handle on the talent of individual makers of streaming film and video. If we get lucky, the studios will step up to the job of making sure that the quality goes in before their names go on. The best bets right now? HBO and Netflix.
For the would-be makers of screenplays and films, information about how the studio system works, how projects are conceived and realized in the real world, will become an increasingly essential part of their education. Surprisingly, just when an explosion of bandwidth makes it easier than ever to make and distribute independent films, studios may become more important to filmmakers and audiences than they were in the heyday of Hollywood.
Everything old is new again. (Hat tip to Peter Allen.)

Friday, April 7, 2023

I Remember

I like accidents, ephemeral events, things you catch out of the corner of your eye. Melancholy moods, dark streets, the rain. Redemption. Seeing the old order brought down and chaos reign. Reluctant heroes. Magic and the supernatural. Women who work retail.

Everything is memory, even those recent memories we think of as the present. If you can’t buy that, nothing I say will make sense. My recollections of my own life are exactly like my memories of films. And of my dreams.

A long time ago, I had a recurring dream that lasted for months, the kind of dream you can wake up from, go back to sleep and pick up where you left off. I was a prince in exile on another planet. There was not a trace of the modern world. Everything was medieval, 10th Century maybe. We fought with swords, spears and bows and arrows. With axes. Mostly in the dark. I had a wife and a couple of kids and a band of loyal followers. Sometimes I feel like I just fell to earth.

I was a kid who could read words he couldn't pronounce. And I misunderstood and mixed up half of the things I heard. I thought Pound said "hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but one bordello" and Dylan Thomas said "in my craft of celluloid."

I was born in a Texas Gulf Coast town during the Depression, right before the war. My grandmother was Italian and my grandfather was an Irish cop. My father was a tall bohunk from Pittsburg who was in the Army when he met my mother. He got out of the Army, cut grass and delivered ice until my grandfather got him a job on the police force. He went back into the Army after Pearl Harbor and ended up occupying Japan. My mother had a half-brother, my uncle Bill, who was in the Army Air Corps when the war started. He was the toughest man I ever knew.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents in their house down by the docks. During the Depression, my mother said, my grandfather used to bring home groceries and meat he got from the grocers and butchers on his beat. We'd share the food with my grandmother's sisters and brothers and their families sometimes. My mother emptied bed pans at the hospital down the street until she got a job with the Corps of Engineers.

I don't remember any of that. I remember card games in the dining room, listening to people talking and laughing while I fell asleep, a paper jack-o-lantern that caught fire, and falling off the back porch. Later, I remember the lights were off at night along the beach because of the German submarines in the Gulf. When my dad came home from Japan, he brought me a sword.
My first motion picture theater was the State Theater on 21st Street in downtown Galveston. The ticket window was on the street and there was a lobby with a concessions stand. The “colored section” was a small balcony upstairs. Admission was 20 cents and I got a feature, a cartoon, the news and a Western serial for my money. I’m sure I started out on Disney films, Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Cisco Kid but when I was old enough to take the bus downtown by myself I moved on to films like Storm Warning (1951). I was eleven years old. The movie frightened me, of course, but I sat through it twice. There were other theaters down the street that showed steamy adult movies like The Story of Bob and Sally (1948) and I heard people talking about those movies, but I was too young to get in to see them, so Ginger Rogers getting dressed, Ginger Rogers in a slip, Ginger Rogers’ white shoulders, her stockinged legs, muscular arms and a glimpse of her breasts were probably my first exposure to sex in the cinema. Doris Day, Ronald Reagan, murder, rape, a whipping, burning crosses and white hoods were part of the Storm Warning mise-en-scène, too, although that term wouldn’t have meant anything to me then even if it had been invented.
The Martini Theater down the street from The State was a more toney venue. I went to grade school with the manager’s daughter. They had a color television, the first I had seen. The first television of any kind that I saw, a black-and-white RCA, was owned by the Salinas family down the block. The neighbors gathered over there to watch boxing matches on TV. That was in the late Forties and early Fifties. In Galveston, Texas. Peter Pan (1953) was the last Disney film I saw before high school. The stage version with Mary Martin, televised by NBC a couple of years later, was more impressive.
I handled 16mm film at an early age, threading Barney Google and Snuffy Smith cartoons and short Westerns into a little, grey Keystone projector I had gotten as a present. I don’t remember how old I was, the occasion, or who gave it to me. Thinking back, it seems strange to me now that I should have had a projector like that. I projected the films on the wall in my long, narrow bedroom. I staged plays with prop characters I cut out of comic books and pasted on cardboard. I built a platform in the backyard and talked my friends into improvising scenes on stage. I drew comic strips, mostly about flyers and air battles, because the airplanes were easy to draw. Saturdays, I listened to Let’s Pretend on the radio in the living room and football games in the kitchen. I read Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book more than once. My favorite character was the Yellow Dwarf in East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Looking back, and how much clearer things seem looking back, I see all of that as work that was more important than church, school or family.
When I had measles as a child, my grandmother and her sisters took turns reading to me. I don’t remember the title of a single book. Outside of the books we read aloud in class and comic books of all kinds, I only remember reading Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane detective stories, a few Reader’s Digest books and Peyton Place before I graduated from high school. I vividly remember the Peyton Place scene of a man giving his pregnant wife head. Somehow, though, young Phaethon, plummeting to earth from the Sun God’s chariot, slipped in and nudged the Yellow Dwarf and his Spanish Cat off of the beaten path.
The summer before I went away to college for the first time I set out to get ready for college by reading “everything” but I don’t think I got very far. I enrolled in an American Literature seminar and was laughed at when I named James Michener as an important American writer. I was mortified. But in another seminar I heard Chaucer read in Middle English and snapped to what college and college professors were about. I cut classes to read Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Teilhard de Chardin, Mailer, Algren, Jones, Shaw and Ginsberg. I saw films by Vadim, Truffaut, Godard and Bergman. I moved into a boarding house full of vets going to school on the GI Bill. I made drunken road trips to Mexican border towns. 
I witnessed the advent of color, wide screens, surround sound and Dolby, 3D, theater complexes with tiny theaters, naked women and almost naked men on the big screen in living color and in black-and-white. By the time I had graduated from high school, dropped out of college a couple of times, been drafted into the Army, lived in Germany where I wrote for an American tabloid, and got back to the states, I had been watching movies for over 20 years, but I don’t remember commenting on a single one of them to anyone until, watching Scorpio Rising (1963) sometime late in the summer of 1967, I turned to a friend and whispered: “Did he just say that Jesus was a queer?” And my friend, turning his leering, acid-distorted face my way, replied: “I don’t know. But I like the way he said it.”
That was my first brush with metonymy, a concept that, like mise-en-scène, I experienced long before I had a name for it. Years later, over dinner one night, I tried to sell the importance of metonymy in film to the Greek wife of a museum director. She cut me off. “Man lives by metaphor,” she said.
In was in 1967 that I discovered Antonioni and Fellini. I saw Blow-Up (1966), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Persona (1966), The Loved One (1965), and Andy Warhol’s Vinyl (1965). I watched Godzilla (1954) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) on late night TV. I read a Wonder Wart-Hog comic book. I saw a drunk sleeping on the stoop of Carnegie Hall.
It was the summer an Army buddy and I took over the second floor of an old duplex in Galveston and put in some time arguing politics versus culture. He was a Swiss Marcusian and argued that politics shapes culture. I argued the opposite.
It was the summer of the Six-Day War and our favorite cartoon showed the aftermath of a collision between an Arab and an Israeli tank, the Arabs holding their hands in the air, the Jews holding their necks.
I read the Koran that summer and I was impressed by the idea of houris.
I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Sitting by the pool at The Galvez, a grand, beach hotel one afternoon, I suddenly understood what a function was and lost my fear of mathematics forever.
My friend loafed on the beach while I programmed computers at an insurance company downtown. After work every day, I'd drop a deck of punch cards off at the computer room and the operators would run my latest Keynesian model on the company’s IBM 7080 mainframe. The models always blew up. I never got the accelerator and the multiplier right.
My friend totaled my red '65 Barracuda Fastback on the Boulevard one afternoon. He had just come back from the Monterey Jazz festival. The richest man in town sent him out there with somebody's wife, probably as a joke. He ended up inheriting a department store in Basel and slowly disappearing, like that big cat.
Somebody’s wife ended up finding Jesus under the sink in the bathroom of a cheap motel in Laredo one night. She was crouched in the corner, desperate for help, and it was Jesus or the big cockroach that had just crawled out from under the sink.
I still think it's about culture. About education in all its forms. If I don't know what a credit default swap is, never saw a play or an opera, never read a serious book or saw a serious film, don't know what a function is, never read any history, how can I believe I know anything worth knowing at all? What does “serious” mean? I think it’s about the intention to do more than pass time. 
Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture. Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea. It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that valued people and the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests that followed outside the Counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership, to political office, you see, have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment, read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate, idea will work its way into the political process. The culture of dissent just isn't there to sustain it.
It’s not my intention to create a culture of dissent. I wouldn’t know where to start. My intention is less ambitious and less serious than some. Norman Mailer felt “imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." I just want to raise sensibilities a notch. I freely admit that my intention is highbrow, though I fear I am too lowbrow myself to produce anything of real highbrow value. I will settle for building a little raft by lashing together, in homage to a brilliant scene in the HBO series Rome (2005 - 2007), the bloated bodies of a few old thoughts.
I read John Simon and Pauline Kael before I went to film school. In film school I read Andrew Sarris, Robert Warshow, Claude Levi-Strauss and Hannah Arendt. After film school I read Bazin, Wollen and Tarkovsky. I believe it was Simon who said the difference between critics and reviewers is that critics assume you’ve seen the film.
I could find out if it was John Simon who said that, but I’m determined to resist the urge to “google it." I’ve had too many dinners and friendships ruined by people reaching for their cell phones to resolve a doubt, nail and ambiguity, or dispute a fact. No one vaguely recalls, imagines or speculates in the face of a cell phone and Google. No one makes up a more pleasing reality at dinner anymore.