Jul 242007

The odor from the stinkbomb that Colby Cosh lobbed at The Sopranos has wafted hither. T.S. Eliot notoriously remarked that the only method of the critic is to be very intelligent. This doesn’t help the writer much, but it saves the reader all kinds of time, allowing him to skip, say, the critical efforts of Brian Williams, the noted newsreader. Williams, to be fair, is terrifically game about the whole business, and one must admire him, in the way Dr. Johnson admired a woman preaching.

By the same standard, we are obliged to treat Colby’s comments seriously:

I haven’t seen very many episodes of The Sopranos over the years — only just enough to know that it was a derivative show universally praised for its originality, and an amazingly slackly-written show universally praised for its tight writing.

David Chase is supposed to have had the whole thing pretty well sketched out in his godlike genius brain right from the get-go, and if you can believe that while fumbling with the loose ends of two dozen plot threads, you’ll believe it was incredibly inventive to have a mob boss living in a New Jersey suburban neighbourhood in the guise of a waste-management executive. (Did the producers ever just go ahead and actually put a “DARK UNDERBELLY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM LOCATED HERE–NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY” sign on the front lawn of Casa Soprano?)

Here Colby has forgotten the second, implied part of Eliot’s injunction: to be very intelligent while practicing criticism. Yes, the big theme of the show is unmissable, like many big themes. Their size makes them relatively easy to spot. Let’s try a few. Emma: people must discover their happiness for themselves. Lost Illusions: success and merit are weakly correlated. The Brothers Karamazov: Christianity or moral chaos, the choice is yours. The Man Without Qualities: I, Robert Musil, am the cleverest man in the world.

Two of these are obvious. Two are false. Yet the books are all very much worth reading. Such merit as they have must lie elsewhere.

The Sopranos‘s big theme markedly resembles that of The Great Gatsby, though I for one am thankful to be spared a shot of James Gandolfini floating face-down in his swimming pool. Yet anyone who leveled the “no flash photography” charge at Fitzgerald would be missing the point. You read The Great Gatsby for the beautiful shirts and the voice full of money, the cufflinks of Meyer Wolfsheim and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Jordan Baker cheating at golf and young Jimmy Gatz studying electricity from 7:15 to 8:15 every morning.

Details from The Sopranos adhere to your consciousness in the same way. A witness is gung-ho to testify in a murder case, until he finds out the perp is Tony Soprano. In the scene in which he changes his mind, the book he’s reading is Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Tony’s dreadful mother dies, and his dreadful sister conducts the wake by going around the room and insisting that each guest dredge up a pleasant memory. In the very top of the frame Uncle Junior enters the room, has no idea what’s going on except that he wants nothing to do with it, and bolts up the stairs. Or in the last season, we have Junior again, now confined to an asylum for the criminally insane, running a poker game for imaginary stakes in a parody of his mob life, itself a parody of legitimate business. Yet to Junior and his young MIT-educated Chinese underling, life in the asylum is the only life there is, and the parody gradually grows earnest. None of these bits advance the main plot threads in the slightest. You watch the show, in short, for what John Crowe Ransom used to call “texture.”

“Slackly written” is an epithet, and you can’t win a wrestling match with an epithet. Certainly for many episodes, and a couple entire seasons, like Five and Six, “slack” is a charitable term. Eighty hours of television, even some of the best television that has ever been, will have its slow spots. In this The Sopranos resembles every epic work of art ever produced by man. You don’t want to read the theory of history with which Tolstoy concludes War and Peace or Victor Hugo’s hymn to the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables either, believe me.

The Sopranos went on too long because most of its characters were not intelligent enough to trace story arcs — more like lazy circles. Christopher goes on drugs, goes off drugs, goes on drugs again, goes off the road while on drugs. Carmela threatens to leave Tony, doesn’t, finally does, returns, threatens to leave again, sticks this time. A.J. does stupid shit, grows older, does really stupid shit. Everyone ends up as he began, or dead. This is what makes it inferior to Deadwood and The Wire. And this is the criticism that Colby might have made and did not, because to make it requires watching more episodes than “not very many.”

Jun 212005

In ordinary discourse a “dated” work of art is old-fashioned, no longer pertinent, a back number. But this is imprecise. The truly dated work can be traced to the moment it was made.

The 40s: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

The 40s are remembered, cinematically, as the era of gangsters and gun molls, of crooked cops and desperate double-crossing dames, all pursued by gumshoes who dangle a cigarette out of one side of their mouths and deliver snappy patter out of the other. This is known as “realism.”

Whatever it was, the audience had a taste for something else. The top ten grossing movies of the decade were Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Duel in the Sun, Sergeant York, Mom and Dad (not quite so wholesome as it sounds), Meet Me In St. Louis, and Easter Parade.

Somewhere between the 30s and 40s journalists in the movies went from raffish ambulance chasers to plumed crusaders for truth. Maybe Ernie Pyle is to blame, maybe more journalists starting getting screenwriting jobs, I don’t know, but when Gregory Peck is cast as a journalist you know the party’s over. In Gentleman’s Agreement he plays his customary straight arrow with that deer-in-the-headlights look that he didn’t manage to lose until The Boys from Brazil. Anti-semitism is exposed with all the investigative grit of Eddie Murphy’s seminal “White Like Me” sketch on Saturday Night Live. Does this movie date? Well, let’s just say that 1947 was about the last year that even senile lounge lizards thought they could keep the money in the country club and the Jews out.

The 50s: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Here we have a case of overdetermined dating. Psychology: until the 1950s it did not occur to psychologists, not always the sharpest tools in the shed, that juvenile delinquents weren’t always from the slums. Mise-en-scène: teen angst without music, garish Technicolor, homoerotic subtext (did I really just write “subtext”?), pegged jeans, chicken runs. Acting style: James Dean slouches and shambles, stumbles and mumbles, shrieks and stammers, and generally Methods up a storm. Bonus: the climax takes place in a planetarium.

The 60s: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967)

Poitier glowers! Hepburn quavers! Tracy blusters! Miscegenation shocks white liberals!

Of course the movie was released in 1967, but when? It’d have to be after the summer (of Love); I estimate September 23rd, 4:33 EST. Give or take ten minutes.

The 70s: Carnal Knowledge (1971)

It would be cheating to draw any inference from the fact that this movie stars Art Garfunkel, though inferences from Garfunkel’s hair, not to mention Carol Kane’s, are admissible. It’s when Jack Nicholson sits himself down in one of those praying-mantis lounge chairs and treats Kane and Garfunkel to a slide show of his erotic life that we know we’re in that early 70s netherworld between Godspell and disco. Plus Garfunkel describes Kane as his “love teacher.”

The 80s: Wall Street (1987)

Oliver Stone is no accountant. Anacott Steel, according to the wise old broker, has “no fundamentals,” while according to the corporate raiders it has a breakup value of 80 a share when it’s selling at 45. So maybe you figure there are a few fundamentals in there somewhere.

Oliver Stone, God help us, is a screenwriter. Daryl Hannah says to Charlie Sheen, “I want to do for furniture what Laura Ashley did for fabric.” “And I’ll take you public,” Sheen says. “You will?” she squeals. (Her next line, “Oh goody!”, apparently survives only in the director’s cut.)

Charlie Sheen says to Daryl Hannah, “So what do you want?” “I want…a Turner. A perfect Canary diamond. World peace. The best of everything.” Not necessarily, one surmises, in that order. 1987’s on the phone. He says it’s OK, you can keep his dialogue.

Honorable mention: Flashdance (1983). What a feeling.

The 90s: Jerry Maguire (1996)

Writer/director Cameron Crowe is really, truly sorry about the 80s, and he promises they won’t happen again. This abject apology for the previous decade is, to my knowledge, the first, and one hopes the last, movie to feature a sports agent, which dates it with precision. Before 1995 nobody knew what a sports agent was; after 1996 nobody cared. Jerry Maguire is of course best known for bequeathing to subnormals that most 80s of all slogans, “Show me the money!” This bitter irony for Crowe was assuaged, in part, by a tall, cool stack of cash. The movie grossed over $150 million in the US alone.

The 00s:

Ask me in ten years.

Jun 092005

Now is the time on God of the Machine when I play nice with the other blogchildren, who must be exasperated by my philoso-scientific treatises. I have been tagged for a game by Agenda Bender, who sustains, practically single-handledly, my diminishing belief that homosexuals are, in fact, witty. I will indulge him.

1. Number of Books I’ve Owned: Lifetime, a few thousand, more than five and less than ten. Like Alfred Jay Nock in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man — which I own — I owe a great deal of my education to reading the spines of books. My apartment has room for only 1,500 or so, and henceforward each arrival necessitates a departure.

2. Last Book Bought: The Greeks and the Irrational, by E.R. Dodds. See last book read.

3. Last Book Read: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I picked this up a few years ago and brought it to work, intending it for subway reading. My boss spotted it and called me “a Julian Jaynes homosexual.” I had to put the book down so I could think about how to punctuate that.

Jaynes’s book is interesting, if a bit off the wall, and he cites Dodds favorably, which prompted me to buy it. The portion of my education not due to book spines I owe to my habit of reading the books that the authors I admire read. A book without footnotes and bibliography is like a day without sunshine.

4. Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: I just gave a reading list, and I hate reading lists. Instead you will get a reading history.

In my adolescence I had no mind to speak of. I read indiscriminately, remembered little and understood less. I assiduously studied Fowler’s Modern English Usage, utterly failed to discern its spirit, and became a pedant. The only books I thoroughly absorbed were about games: Bobby Fischer’s My 60 Greatest Games, Louis Watson’s The Play of the Hand, and The Baseball Encyclopedia.

At 20 my sneaking suspicion that I had been fed an awful lot of shit was confirmed by Ayn Rand, which helped to make me insufferable for the better part of a decade. Fortunately I was already a bit too old; Hazlitt and von Mises convinced me about economics before Rand made a dent. It usually begins with Ayn Rand, and usually ends there too.

At 25 I was browsing the back of the book in The New Republic and came across a reference to Yvor Winters as “being opposed to everything the 20th century stood for” or something like that. Not true — Winters believed that the 20th century is poetry’s greatest in English — but there, I thought, is the critic for me. After two years of immersion in Forms of Discovery and its accompanying anthology, Quest for Reality, I fancied myself a poet; after five, a poetry critic.

At 30 I took up computer programming. I learned how to think about programming problems from George Pólya’s various books about mathematical heuristic, especially How to Solve It; how to design complex systems from Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language; and how to develop reasonable coding habits from Code Complete by Steve McConnell and Refactoring by Martin Fowler. For any bugs in my current code these four men are entirely responsible.

Now I patch the holes in my defective education as best I can. Since I forget faster than I read, I keep falling further behind, in the manner of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, who needs half an hour to write fifteen minutes of his life. And there we are.

The culturati are going at it hot and heavy over the burden of consumer choice. So much food, so much art, so little time! Jon Hastings sympathizes; Virginia “Eternal Sunshine” Postrel is having none of it:

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesnt force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

True, sometimes, I guess, though one wonders in passing which supermarket Postrel bought her husband at. I will readily stipulate that there are markets, like mattresses or deodorants, in which people who “really care about” sleep or smelling fresh will not be any better served than the rest of us by the hundreds of indistinguishable products on offer. Point is, the mattresses and deodorants are all pretty good, for exactly the same reason that there are so many of them. Here our choices are limited: high quality and profusion, or neither.

Also, Anne Bancroft died. I exempt myself from my recent strictures on the grounds that I often talked about her but never got around to writing, and besides, I feel like it. She triumphed as Annie Sullivan and equally, in a completely different way, as Mrs. Robinson, in a dated and overrated movie that lives only when she is on screen (excepting Buck Henry’s neat turn as the hotel desk clerk). She also managed to stay married to Mel Brooks for forty years and keep her mouth shut in public. A working definition of adulthood is the day you watch The Graduate and not only find Anne Bancroft more alluring than Katharine Ross but wonder how you could have ever thought otherwise.

(Update: Colby Cosh comments. Alan Sullivan comments.)

Apr 182004

On most days I believe the world is essentially rational. Not that God’s in his Heaven or whatever is is right, but for the most part well-directed effort is rewarded, virtue triumphs and talent will out. Then there are other days, like when a new Quentin Tarantino movie opens.

“In a world of impossible things that could not happen,” says David Carradine to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 2, “who would have imagined that I would cap your crown?” Yes, he really says “cap your crown.” In a world of impossible things that could not happen, who would have imagined that Quentin Tarantino would acquire a reputation for being able to write dialogue? I blush to admit that I once toyed with the thought myself.

On NPR this morning Terry Teachout counseled critics to devote their best efforts to plot summaries, and I’d like to, I really would. Let’s see…Uma Thurman joins a crack team of freelance assassins, for no reason, who botch every job you see them do. Impregnated by David Carradine, the team’s mastermind, she succumbs to the maternal instinct and quits, moving to El Paso, for no reason, to get married. Carradine hunts her down and has his team kill the entire wedding party, for no reason. Despite having it in for Uma in particular, for no reason, they somehow manage not to snuff her, putting her in a coma for four years instead. Uma awakens, journeys to Japan where she is provided, for no reason, with a magic samurai sword, with which she proceeds to annihilate her former employer and colleagues. KB2, to its credit, does answer the most pressing question posed by the prequel, which is what happened to Daryl Hannah’s right eye.

KB2 fails to distinguish itself even in awfulness. Unspeakable, metaphysical badness, at the level of, say, My Own Private Idaho, requires pretention, to which Tarantino, being innocent of civilization, cannot rise. To be nauseating is the most that he can muster. Sometimes he induces it unintentionally, as in the scene in which Thurman insists that a female assasin sent to kill her first inspect the results of her pregnancy test.

Review the famous Tarantino set-pieces, the ones he didn’t steal: the ear-severing in Reservoir Dogs, the homosexual rape in Pulp Fiction. KB2 adds Uma Thurman plucking out Daryl Hannah’s remaining eye and stepping on it, at which last night’s audience squealed deliriously. What do you remember? Not the characters, all crooks and scumbags. People, in a Tarantino movie, can scarcely be said to exist at all. He cares only for the act; he dwells on it tenderly, in every grisly detail. The violence is always for its own sake.

Tarantino is no nihilist in the sense in which Turgenev’s Bazarov, for instance, is a nihilist. For Tarantino himself, and for his legions of male adolescent fans, his movies are mere pornographic revenge fantasies, wide-screen versions of the journal of a high-school spree killer. Nihilism presupposes a certain familiarity with the beliefs and ideas you’re rejecting. Tarantino’s lint-trap mind fastens entirely on movies and TV, and his nihilism is no nihilism at all. In fact KB2 evinces his belief in motherhood, of all things, like the jailbirds with the “MOM” tattoos.

His intellectual admirers have more to answer for. The 20th was the century of violence, violence as an end in itself. It opened with a ghastly war about nothing in particular, closed with a group of religious fanatics flying planes into office buildings, and remade, in between, the complete Top Ten List of the bloodiest regimes in world history. And 20th century intellectuals worshipped violence, apotheosized it. They served as lickspittles to Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, and Arafat. They made cults of thug writers like Jim Thompson and William Burroughs. And now degenerate intellectuals, newspaper movie critics, praise a thug director like Tarantino in terms that turn out, upon inspection, to be suspiciously elliptical. After all the “deliciously perverse” and “voluptuous,” “uniquely twisted,” “sumptuous” and “operatic,” the question remains: what is it about Tarantino that these people really like?

(Update: Nate Bruinooge agrees with me, pretty much. What’s up with that? Rick Coencas is holding out, but weakening. David Fiore and J.W. Hastings comment. Marc Singer comments.)

Mar 202004

For once I’m with Teachout; Chaplin gets on my nerves too. For reasons I will defer to the 20th century’s best hater, the old Enemy, Wyndham Lewis:

The childish, puny stature of Chaplin — enabling him always to be the little David to the Goliath of some man chosen for his statuesque proportions — served him well. He was always the little-fellow-put-upon — the naif, child-like individual, bullied by the massive brutes by whom he was surrounded, yet whom he invariably vanquished. The fact that the giants were always vanquished; that, like the heroes of Ossian, they rode forth to battle (against the Chaplins of this world), but that, like those distant celtic heroes, they always fell, never, of course, struck the Public as pathetic, too. For the pathos of the Public is of a sentimental and naively selfish order. It is its own pathos and triumphs that it wishes to hear about. It seldom rises to an understanding of other forms of pathos than that of the kind represented by Chaplin, and the indirect reference to “greatness” in a more general sense, conveyed by mere physical size, repels it.

In this pathos of the small — so magnificently exploited by Charlie Chaplin — the ordinary “revolutionary” motif for crowd-consumption is not far to seek. The Keystone giants by whom, in his early films, he was always confronted, who oppressed, misunderstood and hunted him, but whom he invariably overcame, were the symbols of authority and power. Chaplin is a great revolutionary propagandist. On the political side, the pity he awakens, and his peculiar appeal to the public, is that reserved for the small man.

But no one can have seen a Chaplin film without being conscious also of something else, quite different from mere smallness. There was something much more positive than scale alone, or absence of scale, being put across, you would feel. First, of course, was the feeling that you were in the presence of an unbounded optimism (for one so small, poor and lonely). The combination of light-heartedness and a sort of scurrilous cunning, that his irresponsible epileptic shuffle gives, is overpowering. It is Pippa that is passing. God’s in His Heaven; all’s well with the world (of Chaplins at all events). And, secondly, you would experience the utmost confidence in your little hero’s winning all his battles. The happy-ending (for the militant child-man) was foreshadowed in the awkward and stupid, lurching bulk of the Keystone giants; in the flea-like adroitness of their terrible little antagonist. It was the little skiff of Drake against the Armada over again. In brief, your hero was not only small, but very capable and very confident. Throughout he bore a charmed life.

To the smallness, and to the charmed life, you now have to add the child-factor… His little doll-like face, his stuck-on toy moustache, his tiny wrists, his small body, are those of a child as much as is the “four-foot something” body of Miss [Anita] Loos. And without the public being conscious of it, no doubt, it was as a child that he went to its heart, which, as far as the popular audience is concerned, is maternal.

Besides, he isn’t funny.

(Update: Colby Cosh, Rick Coencas, and David Fiore agree with me. George Hunka and Ed Kemmick don’t.)

Dec 262003

Another bulletin from the Dept. of Almost Right: Larry Ribstein, blogging on the Forbes list of top ten business movies:

Forbes story on the Ten Greatest Business Movies and related stories on Forbes.com, says a lot about films attitude toward business. The top ten were: Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Network, The Insider, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tin Men, Modern Times… This film list provides new fodder for my theory. My thesis, again, is that, while films usually portray business in a bad light, they do not really say that business is bad. After all, the films most of us see are produced by big businesses. More precisely, films are made by people working in these businesses. Filmmakers see themselves as artists, the latest in a long line from cave painters through Michelangelo. Yet, unlike many artists, filmmakers art is so costly that films cannot get made without lots of money. Filmmakers must get this money from capitalists, who, in turn, must sell tickets. Because film artists resent their shackles, they often show struggling workers, greedy capitalists, and heroic artists. “Good” businesses are those where the artistic types have the upper hand, and bad businesses are those where the artists have lost. In other words, films see firms from the cramped perspective of the assembly line or the cubicle. From way out in Hollywood, firms often seem like beehives or rabbit warrens, unfit for human habitation.

Larry’s point needs to be sharpened up a bit. All things being equal, people prefer good merchandise to bad, and they make exceptionally fine discriminations. Gillette mightily outsells Schick because its razor blades are better, not a lot, just enough. There are a few exceptions to this rule, mostly in aesthetic products, notably Hollywood itself. Bad art makes more money than good art, in general because bad taste is more prevalent than good taste, and in the specific case of movies because the audience for them is overwhelmingly young, and the taste of the average adolescent is even worse than that of the average adult. These are depressing facts if you work in the taste business. “From way out in Hollywood” it is Hollywood that looks “unfit for human habitation.” A screenwriter might rashly conclude that schlock always trumps quality; and in fact, as a survey of Hollywood movies about business shows, he usually does.

The anti-business movies deal overwhelmingly with schlock purveyors: yellow journalists (Citizen Kane), swampland peddlers (Glengarry Glen Ross), penny stock hustlers (Boiler Room), shady aluminum siding salesmen (Tin Men), and out-and-out gangsters (The Godfather). It’s a Wonderful Life gestures half-heartedly toward the notion of quality as good business, as in the scene where Mr. Potter’s rental agent lectures him on how all the nice houses in Bailey Park are killing his real estate business. But mostly it’s more people vs. profits hoo-rah.

In a “pro-business” movie like Executive Suite, our hero, William Holden, is the research chief for the furniture company, and in his big speech, as he ascends to the chairmanship, he tells the board that the company will never sacrifice quality, profits be damned. That it might actually be more profitable to manufacture good furniture does not cross the screenwriter’s mind. (Holden figures prominently in several famous business movies, Network of course and also the most authentically pro-business movie out of Hollywood that I know, Sabrina, which is disguised as a love story. He was, perhaps coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s best man.)

Or consider Tucker, a garish and tasteless but ostensibly pro-business movie. Jeff Bridges plays the real-life car designer Preston Tucker, who sets out to build a revolutionary automobile, and succeeds, only to be squelched by a conspiracy of the government with the Big Three. This happens to be pretty much true; but out of this pregnant material the director, Francis Ford Coppola, fashions only another morality tale of how, as Larry would say, the good company, in which the artist, Tucker, is in charge, goes down to defeat, or, as I would say, the evil capitalists foist off shoddy merchandise on an unsuspecting public. Hollywood doesn’t hate business. It just hates businesses that act all businesslike.

(Update: Larry Ribstein replies. Michael Williams comments.)

Nov 192003

There was a discussion about Henry James and the movies a while back (here and here) at Terry Teachout’s blog, and I shall join the James Gang, fashionably late as usual. (Terry’s blog is called “About Last Night”; mine should be called “About The Week Before Last,” or “About Last Century.”)

It seems paradoxical that James should be so popular in the movies, because he is known as such a literary sort of writer. In fact he is not literary at all, in the sense that, say, Joyce or Borges is literary. There is no self-reference in James, no Joycean polylingual puns, no Borgesian labyrinths, nothing really but incident. His characters marry, cheat on their wives, win and lose fortunes, and on occasion, as in The Princess Casamassima, resort to violence. James had a taste for melodrama — true crime accounts were among his favorite leisure reading — and a talent for it too: Isabel Archer’s “kiss like summer lightning” with Goodwood that ends Portrait of a Lady, Strether’s exhortation to Chad Newsome to “live! only live!” in The Ambassadors, the entire plot of The Wings of the Dove. The last scene in The Heiress, Montgomery Clift pounding on Olivia de Havilland’s door as it dawns on him that he will never again be let in, may not be true to the text of Washington Square but is certainly true to its spirit.

James only seems literary because, especially in the late novels, he is constantly trying to catch the precise attitudes of his characters toward each other, reflected not just in their conversation but their gestures and thoughts and tiny inflections. This results in the legendary clotted prose that gives the impression, as H.G. Wells described it, of an elephant trying to pick up a pea in the corner. Examples are everywhere; one from The Awkward Age will serve:

Mr. Longdon stared; but even in his surprise seemed to take from the swiftness with which she made him move over the ground a certain agreeable glow. “Does ‘Aggie’ like him?”

“She likes every one. As I say, she’s an angel — but a real, real, real one. The kindest man in the world is therefore the proper husband for her. If Mitchy wants to do something thoroughly nice,” she declared with the same high competence, “he’ll take her out of her situation, which is awful.”

Mr. Longdon looked graver. “In what way awful?”

“Why, don’t you know?” His eye was now cold enough to give her, in her chill, a flurried sense that she might displease him least by a graceful lightness. “The Duchess and Lord Petherton are like you and me.”

“Is it a conundrum?” He was serious indeed.

“They’re one of the couples who are invited together.” But his face reflected so little success for her levity that it was in another tone she presently added: “Mitchy really oughtn’t.” Her friend, in silence, fixed his eyes on the ground; an attitude in which there was something to make her strike rather wild. “But, of course, kind as he is, he can scarcely be called particular. He has his ideas — he thinks nothing matters. He says we’ve all come to a pass that’s the end of everything.”

Mr. Longdon remained mute awhile, and when he at last raised his eyes it was without meeting Nanda’s and with some dryness of manner. “The end of everything? One might easily receive that impression.”

He again became mute, and there was a pause between them of some length, accepted by Nanda with an anxious stillness that it might have touched a spectator to observe. She sat there as if waiting for some further sign, only wanting not to displease her friend, yet unable to pretend, to play any part, and with something in her really that she couldn’t take back now, something involved in her original assumption that there was to be a kind of intelligence in their relation. “I dare say,” she said at last, “that I make allusions you don’t like. But I keep forgetting.”

The passage is lovely in its way, but James is attempting something to which what James Baldwin called the “disastrously explicit” medium of prose is completely ill-suited. Half of it is stage directions, and it could be done better, and more compactly, with movie actors who can follow such directions — which admittedly is asking a lot. James tried, unsuccesfully, to write plays, but the stage, where the actors have to project to the back row, is still too histrionic for what he has in mind. What he needed was the talkies. If James had been born a century later I’m guessing he would have done most of his writing for film, and maybe tossed off a few novels in his spare time.

(Update: Michael Blowhard, while not commenting exactly, jumps off from here to an amusing game of his own. Our Girl in Chicago comments.)

Oct 192003

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

A group of American fourth-graders, led by perky Scarlett Johansson, travels to Tokyo to participate in an international karaoke contest. Jack Black turns in a feral performance as their coach, exhorting them to “stick it to Japan.” Bill Murray plays a wealthy ex-karaoke star who has lost all interest in karaoke and has been prevailed on, for an enormous fee, to serve as a judge. Murray, in a stunning departure from his last eighteen movies, is care-worn and worldly-wise. He encounters Black in the hotel bar and finds his infectious enthusiasm for karaoke grating at first. Eventually he completely fails to be won over.

The children, meanwhile, are left to explore Tokyo on their own. Johansson, in her schoool uniform, encounters a sarariman who proposes a little enjo-kosai, leading to a series of amusing misadventures and panty shots. Joey Gaydos, as gloomy but talented Zack, wanders down to the hotel bar and runs into Murray, who gets him drunk on sake and prevails on him to lead the patrons in a stirring rendition of “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” Other children are bowed to by the hotel’s staff, and bow back, giggling.

Black does his best with Murray, but the children still lose the contest to the reigning Japanese karaoke champions. They return to America sadder but wiser, having learned from Murray that there are more important things in life than winning, such as raking in huge appearance fees.

Jack Black and Bill Murray, despite the smoldering sexual tension between them, do not actually have sex.