Sunday, December 14, 2008

The End Of Time

As I near the end of my own time, Updike's Toward The End Of Time provides a kind of reference point for me. I've outlived Harry Angstrom. Ben Turnbull, 66-year-old ex-financier, failing in body and mind, is my benchmark now.

Ben lives in an alternate future that features Al Gore as a former President, nuclear war with China, the collapse of the federal government and security services from FedEx. The latter makes sense. They have the trucks and people, and they know the neighborhoods. I've often thought FedEx or UPS should deliver our bombs for us. Problem is, I suppose, that, as international corporations, they might take contracts from other countries, too, maybe even contracts to turn around in mid-flight and drop our bombs on us.

One of the permissions Updike gives us is to treat fiction as fiction. After all, centaurs and witches are no more or less believable than FedEx providing security in the absence of police or rich, old Ben Turnbull, consorting with teenage whores as he works through a dying marriage and approaches his inevitable confrontation with impotence and incontinence, unless death intervenes first.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I'm On My Own

John Updike is dead. Who'll keep me company over the next 20 years or so?

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Summer Of '67

The Summer of 1967, an army buddy and I took over the 2nd floor of an old duplex in Galveston and spent a lot of time arguing politics versus culture. He was a Marcusian and argued that politics shaped culture. I argued culture shaped politics.

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 one afternoon, I suddenly understood what a function was and lost my fear of mathematics forever.

My friend hung out at the beach all day while I programmed computers at an insurance company. 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 for me on the IBM 7080. The models always blew up. I never got the accelerator and the multiplier right.

My friend relieved me of the burden of paying the note on my '65 Barracuda by totaling it 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 some banker's wife, probably as a joke.

My friend ended up inheriting a department store in Basel and slowly disappearing, like that big cat. I wonder what he's doing sometimes, but never enough to try to find out.

The banker'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. She hated roaches.

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 real book, don't know what a function is, never read any history, how can I believe I know enough to pick the people who are going to run my country?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Hat Tip To Quentin Tarantino)

I’m thinking about turning my attention to the Hollywood studio system. I’m even thinking of 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 when streaming kicks 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 is that only makers like Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, John Cassavettes 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 Scorcese, Cameron, Bigelow and Scott would become questionable auteurs. Certainly someone like Antoine Fuqua would never make the cut. But wait.

About fifteen 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 last month when I was bored, clicking 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 in my mind when I had my first look at Fuqua’s King Arthur. I’ve watched it three 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.

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.)