Unrequired Reading: 2008 Year-End Edition

A little while ago, my RSS reader went kablooey and zapped a bunch of posts and articles that I was saving for a year-end Unrequired Reading entry, like the one I put up last year. I realized that I could only remember two of them, and took that as a sign.

I first read The Architecture of Self-Measurement on BLDG BLOG in a Philadelphia hotel room in March. I was haunted by the initial image chosen by blogger Geoff Manaugh:


(From the Coasts of Britain series (2006), by Jacob Carter)

The post begins by exploring how we use books as touchstones, occasioned by Mr. Manaugh’s eighth reading of a certain novel (he reveals it in the post’s comments section, if you’re curious). He writes:

It occurred to me, then, that everyone should pick a book — a novel, a work of theory, poetry, biography, whatever — and re-read it every few years, but they should do this for the rest of their lives. It becomes an indirect kind of literary self-measurement: understanding where you are in life based upon how you react to a certain text.

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, of course. This morning, a commenter asked, “I wonder what yr take is on The Great Gatsby the second time through.” It’s actually my sixth time through (at least).

I don’t consider Gatsby to be my favorite novel, but it’s certainly one to which I return every few years in order to measure myself, along with Homer, Tropic of Cancer, Arcadia, Eddie Campbell’s Alec comics, and someday-I-hope, Proust and Montaigne.

(This time around, at the age of 37, I found myself thinking that the gap between Daisy & Gatsby’s reunion should have been longer than 5 years. At first, I felt that half a decade is hardly enough time to build such wealth, but then I concluded that it simply wasn’t enough time for Gatsby to be obsessed with her. I felt as if his passion should have taken 10 years or more to bloom and rot. I’m not sure what that impression says about me. Probably that I’d have been boring as crap in the Jazz Age.)

Mr. Manaugh, apropos of the subject of his blog, turns the issue of touchstones to architecture. Are there buildings or places we can visit and revisit to measure who we are? He asks:

Is there a way to time ourselves across whole lifetimes through buildings? Is that what religious pilgrimages have always been about? And is that what architecture critics should be forced to do?

Or is this nothing but distracting nostalgia?

Could you somehow test yourself against the built environment, regularly, over the course of a lifetime, and do so deliberately, with purpose, the way people once wrote philosophy or read poems or traveled the world?

I grew up and live in a place that’s sort of nowhere — a ruralish bedroom community in suburban NJ — and my geographic/spatial touchstones tend be retail: malls, diners, video arcades, movie theaters, comic shops. It sounds banal, but those shopping landscapes are part of the map of my life. I’ve gone on to visit wonderful places and see beautiful architecture and gorgeous terrain, but there’s always going to be a piece of me that is driving endlessly along Rt. 23, Rt. 4, Rt. 17, Rt. 208, etc. (but not in a Camaro).

Unlike Mr. Manaugh’s architecture of self-measurement, so many of my places are built for impermanence. New highways shift traffic away from a mall, so it converts into a supermarket and offices; a new movie theater necessitates closing down the one where I saw Star Wars in 1977; an onerous lease leaves a Lord & Taylor in the middle of a decrepit shell; the bowling alley is torn down for a Bed, Bath & Beyond and a Borders; and somehow, Taco Maker survives, between the old Bandwagon/Cloth World and Wayne Hills Mall.

Still, it’s a fascinating idea that Mr. Manaugh proposes, and I found his post and its comments fascinating. I hope you do, too.

* * *

This brings me to the other post that I held on to for a while. It’s much more recent, published around Labor Day, but it helped crystallize something I wanted to write about almost all year: the reverse touchstone.

Last February, I returned to two other works of art and discovered that my appreciation for both of them had changed 180 degrees. One of these was a novel that I’d read and loved back in college: A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley. I didn’t know what to expect when I reread this semiautobiographical tale of an alcoholic who measured himself in terms of the American ideal of fame (and in particular Giants running back Frank Gifford). I’m pretty sure I didn’t expect to find it quite so immature in its indictment of middle-class life, its facile use of impotence-as-metaphor, or its self-pity. But there it was. I read page after page wondering what it was that I once found so engaging and illuminating. The early sections still contained some electricity, but as the narrator went on, his worldview became increasingly pathetic.

As opposed to The Dude.

The other touchstone was The Big Lebowski. The Coen Bros. made my favorite movie, Miller’s Crossing, so they have a lot of credit in the Bank of Gil Roth (does that qualify me for TARP funding?). That said, I hated Lebowski when I first saw it shortly after it came out on video (1999). For years, my friends tried to convince me that I just wasn’t getting it and needed to give the movie another chance. On my flight to Belfast last February, I did just that.

Now I think Jeff Bridges’ performance as The Dude is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen, John Goodman is absolutely hysterical, and the Coens were utter geniuses to make this movie. I’m only troubled by one thing:

I don’t get what I didn’t get.

Why did I not think this was a terrific movie the first time I saw it? Was it because I had yet to visit southern California? Because I had never smoked weed? Was my sense of humor utterly stunted? Was I having a bad day when I first saw it? Was I expecting more of a coherent plot from the guys who made Barton Fink?

I’ve thought about this all year, and I still don’t know. This passage from The Decade of the Dude keeps me from feeling too bad about it:

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s argument over the movie perfectly encapsulated the debate. Ebert: “Few movies could equal [Fargo], and this one doesn’t — though it is weirdly engaging.” Siskel was much harsher. “I just think that the humor is uninspired,” he said. “Isn’t kidnapping for ransom a tired plot these days? Kingpin was a much funnier movie set in the world of bowling. The Jeff Bridges character wasn’t worth my time. There’s no heart to him. The Big Lebowski? A big disappointment.”

[. . .] The rise of The Big Lebowski from bomb to late-blooming cult sensation was gradual. Many of its biggest fans had the same initial reaction as Gene Siskel. “I was indifferent to it [at first],” says Lebowski Fest co-founder Will Russell, 32, who runs a T-shirt shop in Louisville. “It’s very convoluted. I think everyone comes to it the same way they come to any other movie — expecting the plot to carry the [film]. What you find is that the plot is ultimately unsatisfying. [The plot] is just the framework they used to build these great characters and this amazing experience.” Russell says he’s watched Lebowski more than 100 times: “It’s just two hours of bliss.”

I’ve seen it 4 or 5 times since February, and remain utterly in awe of this movie. I still don’t plan on revisiting Intolerable Cruelty, but I’m glad to find out that touchstones work both ways.

I hope you all had a wonderful 2008, dear readers, and that you keep learning from your touchstones and yourselves.

I’ll sit facing the corner in a funny hat

This weekend, I read Benjamin Schwarz’s review in the Atlantic of “Have You Seen . . . ?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, David Thomson’s follow-up to his Biographical Dictionary of Film. I’ve never read that earlier book, but I’ve seen enough references to it to figure that it’s kinda canonical in film criticism and bathroom reading. The new book sounded like an entertaining read, with its one-page writeups of a thousand movies (including a couple of TV shows like The Singing Detective and The Sopranos). Wrote Schwarz:

It’s impossible to read this book from cover to cover without being convinced that Hollywood’s greatest achievements are not the monotonously important dramas that so often sucker in Academy voters but the stylish, highly polished entertainments, largely comedies, that endure even though they weren’t made to be lasting. Above all, Thomson prizes wit, charm, and good-natured ease. He’s reached an age, he notes in his appraisal of North by Northwest, when he’d “rather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.”

On Tuesday, I meandered around the nearby Borders during my lunch-hour, and noticed Mr. Thomson’s book on the new non-fiction table. It’s organized alphabetically by movie title, so I turned to Miller’s Crossing to see what he thought of it. I couldn’t help it, Tom! It’s my nature!

I was gratified to find that he loves the movie, and that several of his comments were in sync with mine. I began skimming through the book to see if he commented on any other of my idiosyncratic faves and fascinators. Sadly, no entries for Another Woman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shallow Grave, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Three Kings. Still, I thought, this would be a great book to have on hand, one to dip into every so often and read his ideas on movies I liked, didn’t like, or never saw. Exactly the sort of thing I would pick up occasionally and read for an hour at a time.

Of course, we live in the future, so I couldn’t just buy it there. After all, its list price is $40, and I figured Amazon would have it for 30-40% cheaper. I looked it up that evening and saw that Amazon was selling it for $26.37 (34% off). I was about to add it to my wishlist when I noticed two things:

  1. it weighs 3.4 lbs. and is almost 2.5″ thick, and
  2. it’s also available for the Kindle.

Sure, I was a little irked that the Kindle edition sells for $23 — most Kindle books are $10 or cheaper — but it’s got criticism of a thousand flicks, the e-book is searchable by word, and I’ll have it with me wherever I travel. Frankly, that’s worth $23 in my world. It looks like the twin forces of new technology and my desire not to carry lots of stuff around sure has messed with my book-buying habits.

(I just wish Cultural Amnesia — Clive James’ 800-page collection of short biographical essays on 20th century literary, political and artistic personae — had gotten en-Kindle-ized. It would’ve been a good fit for the exact reasons as “Have You Seen . . . ?”, but I gave up waiting last week and bought the paperback for $10.77. Grr.)

Anyway, here’s Mr. Thomson’s review of Miller’s Crossing (I figured out how to copy-and-paste off the Kindle, sorta):

I am not a steadfast enthusiast of the Coen Brothers, and I have given up trying to explain the haphazard movements of their career. But the thing that nags me about their record is Miller’s Crossing, a superb, languid fantasia on the theme of the gangster film that repays endless viewing. It is derived quite plainly from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, although the script was done by the Coens themselves.

At the heart of the film’s assurance are the dour, glum rhythms of Gabriel Byrne as the “hero” figure who happens to be fucking his friend’s girl. The girl is Marcia Gay Harden, never better and so sexy that you understand why Byrne did not bother to debate the temptation. The friend is Albert Finney, charged with energy and booze in equal parts as the thick-headed crime boss who can’t see a con if it’s a cat curled up on his lap. This broken bond between Byrne and Finney is a good version of the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig in Hammett’s novel. And it’s a shared virtue of both works that they convey the disgust and disbelief in tough men that sees how they can betray each other over a piece of ass. Of course, it is a testament to Harden’s ass that we never question the imperative of the ruinous equation.

The next thing to remark on is the way Canadian studios and locations give such a rich, satisfying air of period and place. We never know, or need to know, the city, but there is nothing shabby or secondhand in the décor, and there’s an eagerness in the look of the film that speaks to a real love of space, furniture, light, and mood. The same pleasure vibrates in the very intricate story structure. There are some who find Miller’s Crossing too clever by half, but I think that misses how far the Gabriel Byrne character recognizes the curse of intelligence that hangs over him and the duty it imposes — of always being driven to nose out the cons of others, while hoping that his own subterfuges are going unnoticed. It’s kill or be killed and the air of life is smartness. Take it or leave it.

There’s more, much more, and I think it centers on the “Schmatta” as played by John Turturro — queer as a coot, a dandy, a coward, and as brave as any coward who takes terrible risks. This could be the finest work of one of our best supporting actors. And don’t forget that he stands out in a movie that includes the adorable Jon Polito and the very frightening Eddie the Dane (J. E. Freeman), not to forget a passing secretary, who is Frances McDormand flashing the camera a quick greedy eye as she minces by.

All of that said, after learning to love the crammed texture and its nearly constant inventiveness, it is the more baffling and disconcerting that the Coens seem so often prepared to deliver films that are enervated and without a single good reason for being made. Do they wake up at night wondering if they were ever really this good, or do they refuse to look at the film again?

Now I wonder if he thought any better of Casino than I did . . . ?

UPDATE: I do have a significant complaint about the Kindle edition of this book. There should be a table of contents with hyperlinks to each movie. Grr.

Miller Bear

Bear Stearns’ sale to JP Morgan was approved by shareholders yesterday. As a buildup to the vote, the Wall Street Journal ran an epic three-part article (1, 2, 3) chronicling the sudden collapse of BS. I know most of you aren’t as interested in the machinations of business and finance as I am, but I think Kate Kelly tells a pretty amazing story, not least because it supports my thesis that Miller’s Crossing can be used to explain almost anything.

In this case, I’d like to contrast this passage from Ms. Kelly’s series of articles —

The brokerage’s sudden fall was a stark reminder of the fragility and ferocity of a financial system built to a remarkable degree on trust. Billions of dollars in securities are traded each day with nothing more than an implicit agreement that trading partners will pay up when asked. When investors became concerned that Bear Stearns wouldn’t be able to settle its trades with clients, that confidence evaporated in a flash.

— with this moment when Tom Regan confronts crime-boss Leo with the precariousness of his position after the great Danny Boy scene:

Last night made you look vulnerable. You don’t hold elected office in this town. You run it because people think you run it. Once they stop thinking it, you stop running it.

I make light of it, but it’s truly frightening, how huge a role perception plays in finance. Once the loss of confidence is even a rumor, an 85-year-old company can collapse within days.

(You could argue that BS’s collapse was actually an internal rot that took several years to manifest itself, like an elderly cancer patient who puts of going to the doctor until it’s far too late. I don’t think there’s a Miller’s Crossing analog for that, but I can go check.)

Then there’s the great passage when JPM is negotiating to buy BS. JPM originally offered $8-$12 per share, then came back with an offer of $2 per share — the final price turned out to be $10/share, down from $131.58 last October — reminding me of Tom’s negotiations on the phone with Bernie Bernbaum, the shmatte kid:

I figure a thousand bucks is reasonable. So I want two thousand.

Seriously, I think these articles are pretty important, if you’re looking for perspective on how the seize-up in credit markets is impacting, um, everything in our day-to-day. If they’re registration-required, lemme know and I can e-mail them over to you.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3