a word before our word. peter bogdanovich, the doyen of film historian directors (does he get paid for all his appearances, or does he simply do it for the love of the game? i imagine he spends 3 hours a day sleeping, 14 hours a day watching movies, 30 minutes filming his scenes for the soprano’s, and the rest of his time he goes from studio to studio offering to provide dvd commentaries and introductions in exchange for access to their archives so he can sit and watch stock film), suggests in his introduction to Sturges’ The Lady Eve that Americans won’t go see a movie advertised as a farce, but they love screwball comedies. bogdanovich even offers up this OED quote as the origin of the adjective’s association with film:
1938 N.Y. Times 2 Sept. 21/2 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer..has popped up with another of those screwball comedies{em}this one called ‘Three Loves Has Nancy’.

 

Perhaps i need to emend my imagined schedule for mr. bogdanovich to include 2 hours of researching film words and diligently sending quotes to the OED. the OED has an earlier quote for screw-ball as an adjective, but mr. bogdanovich is correct that the times’ quote is the first applied to the cinema. bogdanovich also posits that 1941 was one of the best years for movies in american history. while he does cite some pretty convincing evidence, could you really disagree with peter bogdanovich, or martin scorcese for that matter? they could claim that 1890 was the best year in cinema history and i’d have to agree. anyway, an interesting diversion before we look at today’s word, crepuscular.

 

i found crepuscular in the book, Mr. Arkadin, that came in the criterion collection, “the complete mr. arkadin, aka confidential report.” like all welles movies arkadin, was re-cut by the studio–but that isn’t the half of it. there are at least 8 versions: 3 radio plays, several long-lost cuts, and a european version called confidential report that may not have anything to do with anything. criterion decided to release absolutely everything arkadin related on one dvd, much like they did with “brazil,” and interviewed, you guessed it, peter bogdanovich and others for a documentary explaining it all. at some point, a french novel was made of the movie and translated into english. the book’s history is just as problematic as the movie.

 

at some point an english screenplay was turned into a serial in a french feuilleton. the serial was then credited as a book by welles, translated into french by Maurice Bessy. the serial is then illegally published as a book in france. that book is then retranslated into english with an uncredited english translator and attributed to welles. welles claims to have neither written nor read mr. arkadin. and yet somehow the book exists. it’s translation-of-a-translation status leads to some weird moments. here’s a choice passage: “neither of them was able to suppress an ejaculation. with the father it was one of indignation. but the daughter called out my name, stupidly right enough, but with an almost childlike joy.”

the introduction describes harry lime, the basis for the arkadin character, as mischievous and crepuscular, while arkadin is austere and calculating. the OED renders crepuscular, “1. Of or pertaining to twilight, and, 2. fig. Resembling or likened to twilight; dim, indistinct.” crepuscular is a beautiful word, but none of the OED’s quotes refer to people. the definition that best fits a person is the zoological. “2.Zoology. appearing or active in the twilight, as certain bats and insects.” i don’t want to spoil the Third Man for anyone, one of the best noir films ever, but this definition certainly fits the Lime character.

 

unfortunately, someone wrote the introduction to Mr. Arkadin (the criterion version of the book) and its author is only dead in barthes sense and not literally absent as in the book itself. still, the fact that there is an author allows me to give him credit when i send the quote into the OED–if peter bogdanovich hasn’t beaten me to it.

shake down to 1989

January 17, 2007

greatness never occurs in isolation. pulp fiction, red, quiz show, and the shawshank redemption were all released the same year, as were the french connection, a clockwork orange, and fiddler on the roof; crystal pepsi had tab clear; dash hammerskjold, l.p. mandrake, notwithabang…, destroyer, and allegedly designedlateral, leading luminaries of the late-capitalist phenomenon known as the internet , all joined together on the same website; and in 1989, two of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time were released in quick succession: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and The Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique. The Beastie Boys, by the way, were the answer to the word tease from a couple of days ago. Congratulations to Rueven Upright of Newark, DE for being the first contestant to call in his answer over Ham Radio.

not only were the two albums released in tandem, they also bear a superficial resemblance to each other. both albums take sampling to the level of an artform , and both inject levity into a genre that was in danger of being over-saturated with violence. that isn’t to say that the artists avoid discussing serious social ills. quite the contrary: the Beastie Boys tackle racism on “Eggman,” and De La Soul explore the perpetuation of urban poverty and the reification of the “ghetto” in “Ghetto Thang.” indeed, these exceptions become even more notable and powerful because of the overall context of the albums.

at the time, 3 Feet High and Rising was the better received album, although some would argue that this is the result of its earlier release date. many of the things that make Paul’s Boutique so outstanding an album also featured on 3 Feet High and Rising (this is especially true of the collage-like production; amazingly, both albums make use of johnny cash samples and lyrics, a rarity in the hip-hop world of 1989), and though they were innovating in tandem, the earlier release of 3 Feet had already guaranteed that it would be credited with many of the accomplishments. as time has passed, the Beastie Boys have rightly received their share of accolades and the two albums are now both considered hip-hop classics.

each album is steeped in mythos. the beastie boys, fresh off their best-selling debut album, got into a bitter contract dispute with def jam (see this couplet from 1993’s lll Communication: ‘Cause Yauch’s on the upright, the shit just ain’t funny/ Got fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money ), and fled to los angeles where they began actually living the image they’d created for themselves on licence and entered a life true of decadence and debauchery. the lead single, “hey ladies,” convinced their fans that they’d become a disco group, and their label abandoned promotion after disappointing early sales. 3 Feet, on the other hand, inaugurated the “Jazz rap” and “hippy rap” genres, and De La Soul had trouble being taken as a “serious” group. it’s no surprise that both groups’ next albums were significant departures. thebeasties retreated from the world of sampling and went back to playing their own instruments. without any label interference, they recorded hundreds of hours of tape, eventually whittling it down to make check your head, a low-key album that marked a rather unlikely return to prominence. their next album, lll Communication, was made in a similar process, and is a very logical follow-up to check. it wasn’t until 1998’s hello nasty that they once again explored some of the elements that made paul’s so successful. likewise, De La Soul, weary of being pigeon-holed as a light, jazz inspired group, released De La Soul is Dead as their next album, a much rougher album with little connection to 3 Feet, and a near betrayal of many of their fans, mitigated only by the fact that the album is terrific. it’s also a logical precursor to princepaul’s classic, a prince among thieves.

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Free Books, Free Reviews.

January 17, 2007

Loyal Readers,

Welcome to the first instance of a new column, which will offer reviews of books that have been conveniently left outside of Powell’s Used Books, located in Chicago’s friendly Hyde Park neighborhood. These books, which have been more or less disavowed by the staff at Powell’s (I’ve often seen the otherwise friendly clerks neglect to take the box of said books out of the rain), simply didn’t make the store’s draconian buying policy. Accordingly, most of the books are dross, but on rare occasion, you’ll find a book that changes your life… or so goes the underlying conceit of today’s free book, Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer.

Chasing Vermeer follows Petra and Calder, two students at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, who are drawn to the sensational theft of a Vermeer painting after they find a book of mysterious coincidences, Charles Fort’s Lo!, in the free book box at Powell’s. Mentored by an idealistic teacher, the two pint-sized detectives begin to investigate the theft, while looking for similarities between the coincidences happening in their lives and those enumerated in Lo!. However, as the two begin to link the events of their lives with Vermeer’s, the thief, who had claimed that the theft was only intended to provoke a public discussion, is revealed to have more sinister intentions, and Calder and Petra must hurry to save both the painting and themselves. As one might hope for in a children’s mystery novel, there are plenty of red herrings and cryptic clues along the way.

For all of its resemblance to a Harry Potter adventure or Lemony Snicket tale, Chasing Vermeer is not a simple children’s novel, full of whimsy and imagination. For starters, Balliett, herself a teacher at the Laboratory School, isn’t just following the old adage of “write what you know” by setting the book in scenic Hyde Park. Almost every location mentioned in the book, from Powell’s to the cleverly renamed University Coffee Shop, is described as a place of magic, wonder, and mystery. This fabrication is so blatant that one cannot help but suspect that Ms. Balliet is in the pay of the noted scandal-rag, the Hyde Park Herald. In truth, these locations are entirely lacking in wonder and unlikely to fascinate pre-adolescents. Instead, they are full of University of Chicago students: wild-eyed hunchbacks who are obsessed with critical theory and liable to scare small children.

If the only danger of the book was that it might spoil Hyde Park for its natives, who would be forced to endure countless tourists searching for a walking tour of Petra and Calder’s hang-outs, it would not merit mention. However, the real danger of the book is that it is not a simple children’s novel so much as it is a skillful and dangerous piece of agitprop. While investigating the mystery surrounding the missing painting, whenever the children find a new clue, they analyze it and form hypotheses about how it fits into the larger picture, which they later test. In the process, they learn much about Vermeer, pentominoes, the suspicious lives of grown-ups, and pragmatism, all without the aid of a textbook. Sound familiar?

Chasing Vermeer might as well be an offering at the unholy altar of John Dewey and his vision of a new world order. The only real surprise contained within the book is that the childrens’ mentor, Ms. Hussey (no doubt the result of a telling Freudian slip), does not demand that her class rip pages out of their J. Evans-Pritchard readings. Thus, as a public service, this reviewer will be happy to rewrite select portions from readers’ copies of Chasing Vermeer, providing a new ending wherein the children manage to solve the mystery only with the aid of the complete Grove Dictionary of Art, and Ms. Hussey suffers a fate similar to that of Remarque’s Schoolmaster Kantorek.

For those who do not wish to see their children turn into little Gramscis and Althussers, make sure to keep them away from the book’s sequel, The Wright 3The Wright 3 follows the same thought-controlling mould, as Petra and Calder save the nearby eyesore Robie House from demolition, while learning about the “organic architecture” theories of noted degenerate Frank Lloyd Wright.  Given that Warner Brothers has already optioned the first book for a film (one hopes that the change in medium will innoculate moviegoers from the thought that one may learn from a novel), a third book is surely in the works.   If it will involve the children overcoming the menacing Whomping Willow tree in the Lab School’s Scammons Garden playground, only to find that the scary old man across the street is none other than John Paul Stevens (Lab ’37) who will teach them the value of rejecting constitutional originalism, is a question that only time and the Trotskyist poppinjays over at Scholastic Press, Inc. will tell.

jerrybrown.jpgUnlike many of the other members of the Hall, Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown was a long shot of his own making. Elected governor of California in 1974 (replacing the outgoing Ronald Reagan), Brown was known for his eclectic and eccentric policies. After proposing to have the state launch a communications satellite, Brown was tagged by Chicago columnist and professional everyman Mike Royko as “Governor Moonbeam,” a name that has stuck ever since. While often ridiculed, (Brown is the subject of the Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles” after all), history has largely vindicated his policy choices. Even so, for most of the 1970’s, Brown was an exceptionally popular, intelligent, and charismatic governor of a very large state. By all accounts, he should not only been a very serious contender for the presidency, but the odds on favorite.

So what does Jerry Brown do? He runs in 1976, but doesn’t actually run in a primary until May that year, missing important early contests. Maybe he thought he was too strong and needed to handicap himself to be a good sport. While that may have been chivalrous, it was also incredibly stupid. By the time Brown really got into the race, another governor by the name of Jimmy Carter was already too well established.

Undeterred by his loss, Brown decides to make another unspectacular run… in 1980, despite the fact that there was a sitting incumbent president of his own party. Generally speaking, a primary challenge against an incumbent president is one of the dumber things you can do as a candidate. To be fair, however, Carter did look very weak (until the hostage crisis gave him a big boost) and how was Brown to know that Ted Kennedy was going to make his muddled play.

Rather than do the smart thing and run for reelection as governor and make another bid in 1984 (when he would probably be the front runner), Brown made a failed bid for the senate. After losing that race, Brown disappeared for the remainder of the Reagan administration, choosing to spend his time in Asia.

Were this the end of Brown’s presidential career, he would have the political equivalent of Harold Baines’s credentials; respectable, but not worthy of the hall of fame. Luckily, Brown made one more run for president in 1992, long past his national prime. He started out by running primarily on a campaign-finance reform platform. Pledging to refuse any contributions over $100, Brown’s campaign was severely hamstrung by lack of cash until he set up his innovative 1-800 number. To make things harder, Brown just had to try and win the Democratic nomination while hocking a tax plan written for him by, no joke, Arthur Laffer. That’s right, the Arthur Laffer of Reaganomics fame. In 1992, Brown ran while supporting a flat tax and value added tax (VAT), the very same tax policies enthusiastically supported by fellow-HoFer Alan Keyes.

Despite these decisions (or perhaps because of), Brown somehow actually turned out to be a credible opponent to Bill Clinton in the primaries, winning a few states. Brown’s say-anything self-destructive nature won out in the end, though. With the New York primary shaping up as a decisive contest, Brown mentioned to a Jewish audience that he would consider picking Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson to be his running mate. He might as well have said he was considering David Duke to be his VP.

Needless to say, Brown went on to lose New York by a wide margin, effectively ending his campaign. While Brown may have lost of each of his presidential bids, he has won our hearts–and our votes to be enshrined in the Presidential Long Shot Hall of Fame. Who needs the White House when you’ve won internet accolades like that?

Thanks for the memories, Jerry.