Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Other Stuff (not mine)

  • Liza Kurwin, who everyone knows as the curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, has a new book out of lists made by famous artists. For Flavorwire she has compiled her top-ten favorite lists, all of which are much cooler than the to-do lists I make on post-its that generally still have older lists still on them. I think my favorite is the list Picasso made for Walt Kuhn of artists to see at the 1912 Armory Show. 

  • In 1963, William Zantzinger killed Hattie Caroll at Baltimore's Emerson Hotel. Zantzinger died in 2009, at the age of 69, and this is his obituary. I'm struck by the fact that Zantzinger is a year older than Bob Dylan who immortalized him as a villain in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." Zantzinger, who for some reason was not a fan of being the bad guy in one of the most famous protest songs of the century, had a colorful life after his six-month jail sentence. Zantzinger came from a wealthy tobacco family, used to own a nightclub, belonged to a country club, went into real estate and was a slum lord for a few years.

  • Fritz Lang's Metropolis is being re-released into theaters. This epic film is an incredible achievement and the new version contains 25 minutes of footage discovered two years ago in a basement in South America (really). When the film was originally released it was repeatedly chopped down in order to make it more "marketable," and even the current version is not complete. Even in its butchered form it became one of the most influential films ever made and still has powerful statements to make about class, gender and technology. Much of the philosophical and physical conflict of the rest of the 20th century was explored in Lang's 1927 film, which was ahead of it's time both technically and artistically. The trailer for the restored Metropolis is hypnotizing and shows off the visual effects, which are still impressive. 

  • The Obscure, The Forgotten and the Unloved has polled a bunch of movie bloggers to create a list of the Top 40 films that are critically acclaimed but that few people have seen. Check it out if you want to feel insecure about your film knowledge. (The picture above is taken from a famous movie, anyone recognize it?)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Michael Caine and Harry Brown

Michael Caine, at 76 years old, is in the midst of a career renaissance that should completely cement his role as one of the most important British actors since the 1960s, and in Harry Brown he has delivered a classic performance that is evocative of previous roles yet doesn't resort to self-imitation or parody. Next to Laurence Olivier, who he more than held his own with in Sleuth (1972), Caine could be the most important British film actor ever.  Watching just a few minutes of Caine at his prime in the late 1960s explains everything that his current disciples, especially Jude Law and Ewen McGregor, have been trying (and failing) to do ever since. Jude Law hasn't even been subtle about following Michael Caine's career path and has stared in two (and counting) Caine remakes.

Since hitting British film like a shotgun blast in the mid-60s, Caine has, to name just a very few, played one of the cruelest protagonists in film history in Get Carter (1971), became one of the suavest of ladies men in Alfie (1966) and effortlessly became a cloistered intellectual in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The reason why Michael Caine has been able to cover this range lies in his unique ability to convey a blend of tough-guy grit and intelligent cool; he's like Sean Connery but with a greater range of emotion (a.k.a. the ability to act). Much of it lies in Caine's voice. He has a strong cockney accent, which is instantly recognizable and can stop a train in its tracks when his anger gets up to full speed. But Caine has never used his distinctive voice as an acting crutch (like, say, Al "Let's Yell Every Fifth Line" Pacino over the past fifteen years) instead, he takes full advantage of silence, and some of his most powerful lines are whispered or delivered extremely slowly. Harry Brown, his first truly starring role since the underrated The Statement (2003), allows Caine to revel in anger, and also gives him some of the quietest and most poignant scenes of his career. The film is carried by Caine's performance, but it's also a complicated story of revenge and justice, that poses important questions while not preaching to the audience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Man Said to Be Author Is Found Dead in Hotel," Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham

I reviewed Nightmare Alley  as part of The Spotlight Series on NYRB Classics. The goal of The Spotlight Series is to draw attention to independent presses and raise the profile of their catalog. The full list of other reviews can be found here.

Nearly relentlessly pessimistic and with an overwhelmingly negative view of human nature, Nightmare Alley doesn't compromise, and Gresham's brilliant novel stands as a great testament to a writer's life cut tragically short. Thankfully, New York Review of Books Classics has just republished a restored edition of Gresham's only novel with a new introduction by Nick Tosches.

By all accounts Gresham was a seeker. In Tosches introduction we learn that Gresham repeatedly attached himself to different "cures" including psychoanalysis, Christianity, alcohol, Alcoholics Anonymous, Marxism, Buddhism and the occult. Gresham seems to have been constantly striving for a place he could feel whole. He never found it. Nightmare Alley seems to be his attempt to work through his pain, and the different vices and fake salvations he fell victim to. 

The novel opens in a traveling carnival where Stan Carlisle, a charming young man, handsome and blond, is trying to earn his keep doing cheap sleight of hand tricks and helping in other routines. But Stan is gripped by ambition, and he's not only learning how to control a crowd, but why they want to be controlled: "Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live....They're all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They're afraid."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Other Stuff (not mine): Lost Classics

I wasn't trying to unify this week's collection of links around any particular theme or idea. Or, at least I didn't think I was until I realized each entry involves work that has been lost in some way. Culture moves on quickly, and for every artist or creation we choose to venerate and enshrine into our collective culture, there are dozens of other major works by important artists  that fade into the dust. Maybe it's inevitable, not everything can be a classic obviously, and some work just doesn't stand the test of time. However, today's links examine a series of objects that should be re-evaluated.
  • Hulu has full-length episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." The teleplay for this episode, "An Out for Oscar," was written by the great David Goodis. Goodis is best known for writing the books that "Dark Passage" and "Shoot the Piano Player" were based on, and I think he was one of the great American novelists. Goodis wrote more than 15 novels and worked in TV and the movies for a few years, but it's rare to find full episodes of his shows, and this is definitely worth checking out. A spoiler-heavy review of "An Out for Oscar can be found on Mystery File

  • Penguin Books is 75 years old, and this article lists the first ten books they published. Some familiar titles, but most of these have basically been forgotten. It's an interesting view into the beginning of one of the best publishers in the world, and a sort of sad look at how easily the major works of today are lost to the past  
  • Later this week I will be participating in the Spotlight Series tour on New York Review of Books Classics. My blog will join a couple dozen other book blogs in posting reviews of a book from the NYRB catalog. It's a great series and I hope it draws attention to the great (and beautiful) NYRB series, which re-issues really important books from around the world. The tour started today and here's the list of blogs to check out. I think Hard Rain Calling by Don Carpenter sounds like a great read. . 
  • And finally, there's a new biography of Jack London, Wolf,  by James Haley, reviewed in The Wall Street Journal. London is criminally overlooked and has been relegated to the "literature for boys" section of modern literature. Perhaps not as dismissed as Horatio Alger, more on him soon, but still not nearly as respected now as at the turn of the last century. Haley's book seems determined to remedy this, and while it appears to have some problems, it sounds like a riveting read that I can't wait to get my hands on.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Million Writers Award

My story that made the Million Writers Award Notable Story list was not chosen as one of the top ten stories of 2009, which is okay because ten really good stories were. Here's the list of the top ten stories, and you can vote for the story you think is the best of the best here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection wears its influences on its sleeve--or maybe on every inch of its black suit and fedora. There are labyrinthine archives, a confused man in an unrelentingly mysterious city and people who have a lot more of the answers than us or the main character. To call the book Kafkaesque or Borgesian would be painfully obvious, but it's also true. There's also strains of Saramago (especially All the Names), a bit of Dash Hammett and in the acknowledgments Berry gives a shout out to William Weaver--the main translator of Calvino and Eco . Berry combines the noir aesthetic and the confused loneliness of someone like Joseph K. into a mystery novel that's addictively mysterious and thoroughly satisfying.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Caribou and Toro y Moi

Last night I saw Caribou and Toro y Moi in concert at The Rock and Roll Hotel. But, I'll admit it, I really did not want to. For reasons involving birthdays, West Virginia and a river, I was not ready to rock it out. Of course once Caribou took the stage my exhaustion disappeared in loud loops of synthy goodness.

NPR was there recording the show, and were lovely enough to share it with us here

Monday, May 3, 2010

"What Would Horatio Alger Do?"

I'm taking part in Gallery Cat's "World's Longest Literary Remix Contest." The project is taking "Joe's Luck: Always Wide Awake" by Horatio Alger and "remixing" it into a variety of different literary styles. The rules are simple: 1. Those who signed up (there are about 150 of us) are given a page of the Alger novel. 2. We re-write it in a new style (pulp fiction, soap opera, western, Petrarchan Sonnet, etc.). 3. In the end we will have created a "new" work that has the same plot but presents it in a bizarre and likely hilarious new way. This "Star Wars" remix was the inspiration for this all (the trailer looks amazing).

Participating in this project got me thinking about the myth of the self-made American and what that looks like today.