Friday, October 2, 2009

Receding Out Of Sight

Funny how the background/foreground thing works.  I know that things that suddenly grab my attention are there in the background all the time and I don't notice them until something snaps them into focus, but I swear it seems like somebody sneaks them into the world when I'm not looking. 

I've been re-reading Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, and the other day my wife was in the office, listening to Terry Gross interview Tim Weiner, the author of Enemies: A History of the FBI.   As I listened to the interview in the background, what struck me right off was that Ms. Gross, who I think may be the best interviewer who ever lived and is at the top of my list of people I'd like to interview, seemed to be having a hard time getting her head around the fact that J. Edgar Hoover may have done some things that needed to be done, and may have done them in the only way they could have been done.  (The way she closes the interview with a conversation between Hoover and L.B.J. makes me think she was actually giving me time to get my head around that possibility.)

I flipped to the index of Sherwood's book and found that Hoover was only mentioned twice: once in relation to a report the FBI sent Roosevelt about a dinner Hopkins attended in England, and again in relation to the fact that Hoover was decorated by the British after WWII "for exploits which could hardly be advertised at the time."

I've become convinced lately that I was born and grew up during America's very best years, between 1939, when America was finally coming out of the Great Depression and about to enter WWII, and the Seventies, when America began to fall apart.  I'm sure other generations have felt and will feel the same way about their time in the sun; even my daughter, as she commutes in an armored SUV between her fortified apartment complex and her office in the secure zone -- whatever color it is that year -- may have the feeling that her America is the best America that ever was.  But I think of the war years, the post-war boom of the Fifties and Sixties, and the rise and fall of the Counter Culture as a rush to the top of the world, followed by a slow decline, a breaking up and drifting apart that has literally torn holes in the fabric of our society.

And I'm glad the generation that came before mine and included flawed men like J. Edgar Hoover held America together as long as they did, and sad that my own generation let go of her hand.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Crab Gumbo

I've seen crabs try to climb out of just about every container imaginable: sinks, buckets, baskets, boxes, even out of a pot of boiling water at a crab boil on the Potomac -- I was shocked to see people throwing live crabs into the pot; we always pulled their shells off and cleaned them first -- but what I remember best is the way the blue crabs crawled over one another, trying to get out of galvanized wash tubs, when we used to go crabbing along the Texas Gulf Coast. Sundown when the tide was coming in was the best time. We used soup bones for bait. You can hear the crabs' claws clicking and scraping on the metal as they climb on each other's backs, trying to make it up to the rim of the tub. Sometimes a crab makes it to the rim, and it looks like the other crabs pull it down on purpose. I used to feel sorriest for the ones made it all the way out. How do they know to scuttle for the water instead of heading for higher ground? It doesn't matter. The god of the caught crabs always grabbed them and threw them back into the tub anyway.

My mama worked 8 to 5 and cooked supper for three kids when she got home. There are probably a lot of gumbo recipes better than the one I'm about to give you, but I doubt any this good are as quick.

You need those crabs, the ones were climbing over each other and pulling each other down and desperately trying to get on top. You pull their backs off. It's funny how the crabs that make it to the top get their backs pulled off first, isn't it? Not that it does the other crabs any good to lay low. They end up just as dead. Their fates were predestined as soon as they took the bait.

You probably know not to eat the grey gills, so I won't go into that, except to say pull their backs off and clean the crabs under cool, fresh water, break their claws off and break their bodies in half. You can use shrimp instead of the crabs or with the crabs if you want.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil in a heavy, stainless steel or enameled pot. You don't want to be putting okra in a cast iron pot.

Chop up a medium onion and a couple of cloves of garlic and sauté them until the onions are glassy. You probably know to smash the garlic with the flat of a heavy knife before you peel it. I didn't know that until a couple of years ago. I used to pick at my cloves of garlic with a little paring knife. Nobody showed me how much easier it was to peel garlic if you smash it first.

Wash a pound-and-a-half of frozen cut okra. You can use cut fresh okra if you want, but my mama never did. Throw the okra in the pot and stir it over medium heat until most of the slime disappears. Then you add 2 8-oz cans of tomato sauce and 2 cans of water. That's the basic amount of sauce for 4 or 5 crabs or a pound of shrimp. I always increase the recipe by doubling everything. 8 or 10 crabs, use 4 cans of tomato sauce and 4 cans of water. Double the oil, onions, garlic and okra, too. Throw in some salt and plenty of pepper.

Boil the sauce until the water is boiled off. You'll be back about where you were before you added the water. Add the crabs or shrimp. They'll give up some water. Boil it off and you're done.

The only spices my mama used were salt and pepper. But you can use bay leaves and cayenne pepper, too. And you can use basil, fennel and thyme to tip the gumbo toward Asia or Louisiana. Basil and fennel move the recipe in the direction of the fine bouillabaisse you get in Vietnamese restaurants that cook in the French tradition. Used to be one in Washington, D.C., around Dupont Circle. Thyme and maybe some celery or celery salt pushes it toward Louisiana gumbo.

Nobody will stop you if you want to peel and seed fresh tomatoes instead of using tomato sauce, but, if you do that, you may as well get Emeril's recipe and spend a couple of hours making gumbo. I've been experimenting with adding some San Marzano cherry tomatoes lately. Another can to open.

Serve over rice. You know how to make rice. Bring 2 cups of salted water to a boil. Dump in a cup of rice and stir. Cover and reduce the heat to low simmer for 20 minutes. Do not touch the lid until 20 minutes is up and you turn the heat off. If you peek, somebody has to yell at you and you have to start over. The greatest trick you'll ever turn in life is finding the right person to yell at you.

French bread is good. Dry white wine or beer go best for me. Champagne is good, too.

If you figure out why it is gumbo and rice takes forever to get cool enough to eat, please let me know.

If you figure out where those crabs think they're going, pulling each other down and crawling over each other's backs to get there, you can let me know that, too.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Turner Classic Movies has Bergman on all night, beginning at 9:00 PM Eastern with The Seventh Seal, followed by Wild Strawberries and Persona.

The Criterion Collection is releasing The Seventh Seal on DVD in a couple of weeks.

The Seventh Seal is the first Bergman film I saw. I saw it at a foreign film theater just off-campus when I was a college freshman in Lubbock. They ran And God Created Woman a week later, and I was hooked on foreign films until the '80s when, for reasons I can't explain, except for the films of Tarkovsky and a couple of other directors, I lost interest in them. Maybe it was because my directors had died off or petered out.

I think of Persona and Cries and Whispers as Bergman's masterpieces, but The Seventh Seal was my first encounter with the collision of idealism and naturalism in film. To my romantic 18-year-old mind, the knight, Antonius Block, and Death were fascinating allegorical figures. They were in the natural world, but not of it. As I grew older, I was drawn more and more to the rich natural world of Bergman's films, but, in the beginning, like Block, I imagined a life of the intellect was superior to a life of the flesh.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Middle Way

Mainly, we're all McLuhans now. We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the web, television, film, photography, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its contents.

It seems to me the web has, up to now, functioned mainly as a mass distribution medium. The content of the web, a photograph for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it is available to so many people so fast and collides with so much other information, but it is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic." On the way to becoming a film, a book is broken down, then put together again as a screenplay and a film.

There are several ways to use a book to produce a screenplay. The easiest way, probably, is to ignore the book's characters and plot and recreate the "essence" of the book in film. Warhol's Vinyl, for example, captures the essence of A Clockwork Orange, without burdening the film with Burgess's characters and plot. That's probably not the most commercially successful way to turn a book into a film.

The commercially successful way, the Hollywood way, is to respect the narrative and characters of the novel and to recreate those elements with acting, cinematography, sound and editing in a way that "brings the novel to life." The quality of the novel, of its characters and plot, matter. If necessary, the film may deviate from the novel, but changes to the original are made in the spirit of improvement. Kubrick was faithful to Burgess's plot in his film version of A Clockwork Orange. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, probably intended Blade Runner to be an improved version of Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. His departures from Dick's narrative and characters were intended to produce a better, more successful story.

The third way, the auteur way, is to use the novel's characters and plot simply as a place to start. French New Wave directors bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Almost any plot would do, because the films they made weren't about the narrative. The story was beside the point. Just something to hang the film on. Art is synthesized experience. For film makers like Goddard, the story was just an occasion for that synthesis.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It Was Hemingway, I Think

I've always been fascinated by what writers have to say about writing, actors about acting, directors about directing. But I can think of only one good piece of advice I ever gleaned from all those interviews. It was Hemingway, I think, who said something like: The trick is to stop writing while you know what's going to happen next.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Foreclosed Spaces

All spaces retain the imprints of the people who once occupied them long after the people have moved on.
This is true of rooms and ruins above and under the ground, of large and small spaces.
You just have to know how to photograph them.
Copyright 2009 Billy Glad

Friday, March 13, 2009

Culture And Politics

Yesterday, I was listening to some kind of NPR afternoon concert on the car radio while I waited for my daughter to get out of school, and I had the satisfying experience of realizing I knew the opera I had tuned in on was by Wagner. The long, melodic baritone solo in German, joined by a chorus at the end, had to be Wagner. Did he ever compose voices singing in harmony? Maybe he did, but all I remember are conversations. When the piece ended, I found out I had been listening to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and it struck me that there are people who would have immediately recognized the opera, the baritone and the conductor as well, maybe even remembered the exact date of the performance. But I don't need to know that much to enjoy, at some level anyway, a few minutes of Wagner on a bright Thursday afternoon while I wait for my daughter to come out of school. I just have to have a radio of some kind and tune it to my public radio station, or some other station that broadcasts classical music. As long as those stations exist. As long as nobody comes along and decides classical music is a waste of time. A waste of money. The same goes for Public Television, doesn't it? Anyway, I think it does.

I've been trying to remember the programs I saw in Austin the night PBS programming came on the air in 1969. No luck so far. There was something about Joplin and Hendrix about that time, but I don't know if I saw it that first night.

I saw some good things on PBS. Sometimes, I wonder why they don't pull out all that tape and put together a week-long best of PBS. I remember Orson Bean in Star Wagon, singing Jerusalem, telling his side-kick as long as I've got a dollar, you've got fifty cents. Krishnamurti. Alan Watts in the afternoon. Documentaries like High School.

I was at Arden House in New York at a Corporation For Public Broadcasting bash for documentary film makers the night Richard Nixon cracked down on PBS and the CPB. Rumor had it the disaster had something to do with Frederick Wiseman's Basic Training. I never found out. But, after that week, it seems to me the story of PBS has been the saga of a long, slow climb back into the light.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You've Come A Long Way, Baby

Yesterday afternoon, I spent 15 minutes watching Fred Zinneman's 1977 film: Julia. The film is based on a book by Lillian Hellman, author of The Children's Hour, which was noted briefly here the other day. Ms. Hellman's relationship with Dashiell Hammet, the detective story writer, is pretty well known, as is the fact that she was a prominent and controversial, maybe a fascinating, figure in the McCarthy saga. There are people around who know a lot more about that than I do.

I'm interested in the relationship between Hellman and Hammet, Lilly and Dash, as portrayed by Fonda and Robards, that I caught a little of yesterday.

I started watching at about the time Hellman is finishing her first play. Hammet sends her back to rewrite it. The second try meets his approval. It's a success on Broadway. She gets royalty checks, he gives her the benefit of his wisdom on the subject of money, fame and writing.

"Free me glazies!" Little Alex cried.

I can't explain why, but that piece of film literally made me sick to my stomach.

I won't inflict the needy, cloying Fonda and the smug, condescending Robards on you here. Be grateful for small favors.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm On My Own

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

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


What's fascinating about an academic like Stanley Fish deigning to share his views on the best American films with us is not so much his arrogance as it is his ignorance. But there are clues here about Fish and about the Obama world to come, so it's worth taking a minute to explore how far out of touch with reality selective perception can put us.

Here's Fish on The Best Years Of Our Lives, a William Wyler film that Fish considers the best American film ever made.
The three intertwined stories are resolved with a measure of optimism, but with more than a residue of disappointment and bitterness. Al Stephenson is still a drunk. Fred Derry is still poor and without skills. Homer Parrish still has no hands.
Still. As in stasis. As in nothing has changed.

I think not.

Al may be a drunk, but he's a drunk making loans to GIs, based on their character and his own judgment. Fred may be poor and without skills, but he's not a soda jerk anymore. He's just landed a job beating swords into plowshares and building post-war America. And Homer Parrish may still have no hands, but, by the end of the film, it's Homer's girlfriend helping him into his PJs instead of his dad.

That's narrative. That's character development. And if it's not great film, it is solid literature.

Flip it on its head. If a guy like Fish can't see that the characters in a film he thinks is the best American movie ever made are changing in front of his eyes, can we expect him to see that Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, people he thinks are a couple of the solidist citizens around, haven't changed at all? They're still the over-privileged white kids who couldn't make it in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements and set out on their own, starting a two-bit, terrorist organization that ended up making zero difference, except to the people who got hurt and killed by the Weathermen. Just a couple of saps with a dumb idea who've never owned up to their sappiness or the dumbness of their idea.

Cut to Europe, where Government officials and Jewish leaders are concerned that the conflict in Gaza may spill over into violence in Europe as attacks are reported against Jews and synagogues in France, Sweden and Britain.

But, what the hell? Those people, according to Mr. Ayers' and Ms. Dohrn's sappy code, are honor bound to attack those Jews, aren't they?

Years from now, they might even wish they had done more.

But don't get me wrong. I could care less about the Weathermen. I thought they were entertaining. I wasn't political in the '60s. By 1967, I had tuned in, turned on and dropped out. I wasn't looking for a street fight, I was looking for sex, drugs and rock and roll. I was looking for long hair, long legs and conical breasts that year. It was much later that I realized, stoned and watching Nixon on TV, that even the President Of The United States could go insane. Then panic set in until Tim Leary told me a few years later not to worry about the government, the people who were stealing hub caps at the Atlanta film festival a couple of years ago were now running it. I decided to join them.

So you tell me. Should I worry about the Obama administration or not?