Monday, January 30, 2012

'Hours' of 'Adaptation'

In 2002, Streep embarked on a stretch of remarkable creativity and productivity with a pair of innovative projects

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Though Dancing and Lughnasa and Music of the Heart represent important statements in the evolution of Streep’s cinematic feminism, both were small independent films with miniscule grosses compared with big-budget behemoths of the time like Armageddon (1998) or the The Matrix (1999). Moreover, Music of the Heart was followed by the longest interregnum in Streep’s career: it would be three full years before she appeared in a starring role. (She did have a voice cameo as a blue fairy in Steven Spielberg’s completion of the posthumous Stanley Kubric project A.I. [Articifical Intelligence] in 2001.) Streep’s youngest children were nine and thirteen in 2000, which may have played a role in this slowed output. They probably also played a role in her subsequent decisions to appear in small roles as the comically hapless Aunt Josephine in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and to provide the imperious voice of the Ant Queen in The Ant Bully (2006). She also had a very funny cameo as herself—as a not very good actress—in the sublimely silly Farrelly Brothers film Stuck on You (2003).
But what might be termed the Meryl Streep renaissance—one defined not in talent but in terms of her artistic profile—began at the end of 2002 with her appearance in two other movies, both involving the portrayal of literary figures. The first of these, Adaptation, is a singular work in Streep’s corpus. Adaptation represented a collaboration between two of the most inventive figures in modern Hollywood: screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. The two teamed up in 1999 for the weirdly brilliant Being John Malkovich, in which a series of characters manage to enter a portal in the famed actor’s brain and experience reality through his eyes. Adaptation, which is about Kauffman’s difficulty in trying to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief for the big screen, actually begins with scenes on the set of Being John Malkovich. It also involves Kaufman’s relationship with his socially tone deaf twin brother Donald, who decides he, too, wants to write a screenplay—and does so successfully even as Charlie struggles. Ultimately the two brothers would get the writing credit for Adaptation, and be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. But Donald Kaufman is not actually a real person; for the first time in history, a wholly fictional, as opposed to pseudonymous, character was nominated for an Oscar (the award went to Richard Harwood for The Pianist).
Adaptation has a wonderful star-studded cast that includes Nicolas Cage as both Kaufmans; Chris Cooper, who won a supporting actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the actual Orchid Thief; and Brian Cox as the real life Robert McKee, the famed screenwriting teacher to whom both Kaufman brothers turn for help with their respective projects. Streep plays Orlean—or some facsimile of the actual person. Actually, it becomes increasingly clear as the story proceeds that Charlie Kaufman’s obsession with Orlean makes the portrayal of her that we see on screen increasingly suspect. For much of the movie, she’s a consummate professional, an intimidatingly competent member of the New York literati. Which is entirely credible. But Kaufman starts playing with her, incongruously scripting a sexual relationship with the repellent, if amusing, thief. (There’s a hilarious sequence of her getting high crushed orchid dust.) Indeed, her murderous behavior toward the end of the movie seems to come out of nowhere, its jarring character very much the point of the film’s postmodern sensibility. The meta-textual zaniness of Adaptation, the desire on a viewer’s part to see just how this crazy story will play out, gives it a freshness that’s extremely rare in mainstream Hollywood moviemaking (another Sony Pictures production, it was distributed by Columbia). And it’s especially refreshing to see Streep, a true blue-chip figure in the industry, lend her talents to such a project and take them to an entirely new level.
The same month Adaptation was appeared, Streep’s other film of 2002, The Hours, was also released. Though less so than Adaptation, The Hours, which David Hare adapted from Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, has a literary/experimental air, which takes the form of a tripartite structure of single days in the lives of three women whose stories only converge at the end of the movie. One narrative involves Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, wearing a now legendary prosthetic nose), struggling with depression as she begins to conceive her 1925 masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway (originally titled “The Hours”). Another involves Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a 1950s housewife and mother of a young son in Los Angeles who is fighting off suicidal impulses, in part by reading Mrs. Dalloway. The third involves Clarissa Vaughn (Streep) a bisexual New York book editor in 2001 nursing a beloved old gay poet/novelist friend (Ed Harris) through the ravages of AIDS on the day in which she plans to throw him a party—plot elements that allude to Mrs. Dalloway, which is his nickname for Clarissa. He’s written a famous novel that features a thinly fictionalized version of his friend.
I regard Clarissa Vaughn as Streep’s most fully realized creation. She’s a devoted friend of Harris’s character; lover of a woman played Allison Janney; mother of a college-age daughter played by Claire Danes; and a literary professional who midwives writing into publication. This last role is more hinted at by devices like manuscripts on her desk than actually depicted. But love and work, art and life, are so thoroughly fused that it seems misguided to insist on isolating the strands.
Which is not to say that Clarissa is a flawless person. She tends to live in the past, haunted by a romance with the poet that foundered on the vine of their youth. This is more than a strictly interior foible; it leads her to subtly neglect her relationship with Janney’s character, with whom Streep does some marvelously nuanced acting. Their alienation is subtle but palpable, conveyed most vividly in a scene in which they talk to each other from different rooms. Streep’s eyes betray impatience, and her voice is ever-so clipped in responding to Janney, who manages to inflect a slight air of aggrievement that seems justified, at least on the basis of the errands she’s running on behalf of a man she rightly senses is a rival with whom she cannot compete. Clarissa’s daughter is also impatient her mother’s lingering obsession with her former flame.  
Streep’s Clarissa is the only major character of The Hours who can be said to achieve anything resembling a happy ending, though it takes a suicide, one of two in the movie, for her to finally come to her senses, signaled by the great tenderness with which she gazes into Janney’s eyes at the end of the story. In large measure, that happiness can be viewed as a matter of historical circumstance: as a woman of the 21st century, Clarissa has the capacity to achieve an integrated life of the kind that Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown can only dream of (albeit as very privileged people in terms of their class status). But having such a capacity is not synonymous with achieving it, and for Clarissa it’s a near thing. Michael Cunningham and David Hare created this character; Stephen Daldry, most of whose prior work was for the stage, directed it. But Meryl Streep is the figure who brings this Clarissa most fully to life, with a voice and gestures that are experienced as a gift.

Next: Streep as villain.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enlightening bitch

In the last decade, Streep has played some marvelously unpleasant women

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.
With Eleanor Prentiss Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Streep launched the first of a string of politicians she would play. This remake of the 1962 classic, directed by Jonathan Demme, was updated in a series of ways, among them giving the famous Frank Sinatra role to an African American (Denzel Washington); moving the key war scene in the movie from Korea to Kuwait; and making the source of the conspiracy not international Marxism, but rather an ominous weapons manufacturer by the name of Manchurian Global. One key renovation, though, is in the role originated by Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Iselin, the manipulative wife of the buffoonish, McCarthyesque Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory). This character is also the mother, from a previous marriage, of war hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who she wants to be a vice-presidential nominee. The 2004 version of the movie drops the husband and makes Streep the senator, with her son Raymond (Liev Shreiber) as a member of the House of Representatives.

Lansbury, who seems as genial in real life as she does vicious in the movie, did a fine job in the 1962 version. But Streep’s Mrs. Shaw is a dazzling embodiment of evil incarnate. She makes a stemwinding speech on behalf of her son’s reluctant candidacy with a group of party insiders that alternates charm, sarcasm, and motivational brimstone. The studied polish of Streep’s delivery subtly calls attention to itself, cueing the viewer that Shaw is truly dangerous. She describes her son’s rival (Jon Voigt, who’s usually the one to play bad guys) as “a one-worlder who believes that human beings are essentially goooood and that our power is somehow, I don’t know, SHAMEFUL, or evil, or never to be used” (the sarcastic “good” and shouted “shameful” are everything here). Her coquettish interactions with her son early in the movie alternate with bullying throughout, culminating in a scene with decidedly incestuous overtones. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is no sane person’s idea of a role model, female or otherwise. But the raw power she demonstrates in public and private should give pause to anyone who might question the potential of women in politics, a potential that must be for harm if it ever can be for good.
Streep offered an even richer portrait of a powerful, unpleasant woman in what will surely go down as one of her signature roles as Miranda Priestley, the boss-from-hell magazine editor of The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Devil is based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. A roman a clef about her days working for the legendarily impossible Anna Wintour of Vogue, Weisberger’s book is a chronicle of the way Baby Boomers, in particular female professional Baby Boomers, oppress their successors. (“I hoped, as I usually did when she cut me off midsentence, that one day the cell phone would simply clamp down on her perfectly manicured fingers and swallow them whole, taking special time to shred those flawless red nails,” she fantasizes at one point.) We certainly see plenty of situations where Streep’s Miranda exercises a casual brutality, evident nowhere so arrogantly in a rapid-fire sequence of her repeatedly tossing her fur coat on the desk of her assistant Andrea (Anne Hathaway). Her icily delivered “That’s all,” which does come from the novel, becomes a signature line of the movie.
But the film version differs crucially from the novel in the locus of its (generational) sympathy. To a great degree, this is the result of Aline Brush McKenna’s screenplay, which renders a much more three-dimensional portrait of Miranda, including glimpses of a marriage where she certainly does not rule the roost, and a power struggle over control of the magazine. “I thought it was written out of anger,” Streep said of the novel, “and from a point of view that seemed to me very apparent. The girl seemed not to have an understanding of the larger machine to which she had apprenticed. So she was whining about getting coffee for people. If you keep your eyes open, you'll learn a lot.” Thus there’s a memorable moment when Hathaway’s character cannot stifle a giggle over the seeming inanity over a decision between belts in two shades of blue, whereupon Miranda delivers an impromptu lecture demonstrating the way the leaders of a multibillion dollar industry make decisions about such colors—“cerulean,” she clarifies—shape the behavior of her assistant in ways she’s completely oblivious.
Streep herself adds a lot to this role. Her expertly modulated voice—which, unlike the Miranda of the novel, she never raises—is key. There’s also a fine scene where she appears without makeup in a hotel room, her vulnerability as apparent as her defiance. We find ourselves rooting for Miranda despite her evident excesses. Which makes the movie a feminist triumph, in that we recognize, as we’ve always done in the case of men, that a leader need not be perfect or fair to nevertheless attract respect and even admiration.
Streep gave yet another portrait of a powerful, morally ambiguous figure in Rendition (2007), in which she plays a shadowy intelligence official with decidedly Dick Cheneyesque politics. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Egypt, she decides to abduct and secretly send an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen (Omar Metwally) back to his native country for interrogation, where he can be tortured without regard to the U.S. Constitution. His wife (Reese Witherspoon) desperately turns to an old Washington-based friend (Peter Sarsgaard) for help, who in turn pursues Streep’s character on the matter. But he’s out of her league. “Honey, this is a nasty business,” she tells him, her condescension wrapped in a smooth Southern accent. (Note the sexist gender reversal.) She proceeds to describe a situation where thousands of Londoners are alive because of intelligence work prevented the deaths of thousands of people. “I got grandkids in London,” she tells him, so I’m glad I’m doing this job—and you’re not.” He persists, but gets nowhere. “You sleep well now,” she says, walking away. The politics of Rendition are clearly left-wing; the man’s detention is based on suspicions that are both inaccurate and morally repugnant. But the portrait of Streep’s character is no caricature. Nor, conversely, is her character in the otherwise forgettable Robert Redford stilted gabfest Lions for Lambs (2007), in which she plays a broadcast journalist questioning the military strategy of a glib but charismatic senator played by Tom Cruise (who does approach caricature).

Next: Streep lite -- and Streep in a habit.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Class acts

Streep's comic approach to middle-aged womanhood

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Teachers. The next turning point in Meryl Streep’s career—the point when she began offering fully realized visions of a feminist life in which public pursuits matter at least as much as private ones—arrived with her portrayal of a pair of teachers. In a way, that’s not surprising: teaching has long been considered a job for women, in part because it’s work women have long done at home. So it was an apt fulcrum for her to tip away from women whose lives were defined more by the gender identities and into ones whose professions were central to their conception of themselves.
It’s a bit ironic, though, how this point was first illustrated: in the 1998 Dancing at Lughnasa. That’s because the film is set in the culturally hidebound rural Ireland of 1936. Based on a play by Brian Friel, directed by veteran Irish director Pat O’Connor, and released through Sony Pictures Classics, this is one of those small-scale, actor-driven ensembles pieces that characterized Streep’s work at the turn of the century. Lughnana is at heart a coming of age story, told from the point of view of a child (Darrell Johnston), who recounts a memorable summer on the family farm when his errant father (Rhys Ifans) returns to the family from a long sojourn, as does his missionary uncle (Michael Gambon), who is only intermittently lucid. Streep plays Kate, an aging spinster who rules over her four unmarried sisters and elder brother with an iron hand. She strongly disapproves of the boy’s father, her brother’s candid observations about pagan African culture, and any other deviation from orthodoxy. The mere sight of Streep’s pursed lips captures Kate’s pinched, anxious persona. (Family and townspeople call her “gander” behind her back.)
But this is not her whole story. For Kate is also a teacher at a local Catholic school—or is until the priest who runs it tells her she is likely to be redundant come fall. This represents a serious potential economic setback for the family. It’s also a personal disaster for her, not only because her job is clearly close to the center of her identity, but also the source of the authority that allows her to boss her siblings around. Without it, she will be a husk of herself. Such knowledge tempers our distaste for Kate, who is not wholly lacking in a sense of humor or personal empathy (there’s a nice scene where she gives her nephew a gift before his birthday, regarding him with sad affection, and another of her dancing with her sisters in the final scene of the movie). It’s also a strong statement that the lack of a career can be a tragedy for women, even for women we may not particularly like.
 Conversely, having a career can right a life that is otherwise going off the rails. This is the story of Music of the Heart, the 1999 Miramax feature about the real-life Roberta Guaspari, a violin teacher who won national acclaim (and some controversy from back-to-basics camp in the school reform wars) for her work at a public school in East Harlem. We meet a despairing Guaspari when she has returned home to New York with her two sons after her husband had left her, needing a job. A genial old classmate (Aiden Quinn) directs her to principal-friend (Angela Bassett) who hires her as a music teacher on a fill-in basis. Music of the Heart, a rare foray outside the horror genre for director Wes Craven, fits squarely in its charismatic-teacher-changes-lives tradition that has long been a Hollywood fixture, but is better than most in that there are sustained scenes of Streep’s character in the classroom, interacting with students. The movie also avoids the cliché that a good teacher can somehow transcend any other factor in a child’s life such as the broader school environment or a home life, as we see multiple examples of such adversity. It also avoids unduly idealizing star teacher with infallible pedagogic instincts. Streep’s Roberta can sound surprisingly harsh to her students, criticizing one for having sounding worse than anyone else and demanding to know why, only to learn that the student’s grandmother was mugged and killed. To be sure, it’s stuffed with its fair share of feel-good moments, culminating in the big funding-raising concert at Carnegie Hall. That concert comes about because Quinn’s character refuses to commit to a long-term relationship, and boyfriend #2 (Jay O. Sanders) helps catalyze it with his connections. But in Music of the Heart, men are secondary to the imperatives of a working woman and mother whose life makes a palpable difference in the lives of whose for whom she labors. 
 Next: Streep's Adaptation to a new century.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Casting about

Streep, adrift in the nineties

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Meryl Streep’s interests in the mid-nineties involved deepening her gender inquiry on another front by making a foray into a typically male enclave: the action-adventure film. Her 1994 movie The River Wild is set on the Salmon River in Idaho, where a Boston-based couple with marital problems (Streep and the always excellent David Strathairn) take their tween son (Joseph Mazzello) on a whitewater rafting trip. By coincidence, they depart at the same time as violent criminals (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly), who are fleeing a robbery. Streep’s character, Gail, is an expert oarswoman with experience navigating dangerous rapids. Bacon’s character, Wade, wants her help but bides his time with a friendly demeanor that fools her and her son but not her husband. Eventually the family realizes who they’re dealing with, but not before Strathairn’s character is forced to flee after an abortive attempt to steal the robbers’ gun. Gail now has two challenges: dealing the dangerous criminals who have her and her son hostage in a raft, as well executing their demand that she navigate rapids that are so dangerous it’s illegal to traverse them. Her husband (and the family dog) continue to track the raft from the shore, hoping to rescue his wife and son. In a carefully calibrated exercise in equality feminism, the family is saved both by Gail’s bravery and expertise, along with crucial contributions from a husband who improvises successfully in the climactic scene. Gail, though, is the central player in this novel, and the one who pulls the trigger for its resolution. Directed by Hollywood veteran Curtis Hanson, The River Wild is a beautifully photographed film shot on location, made under arduous circumstances (more arduous than Streep realized when she signed on).  But it’s both predictable and forced, especially in Strathairn’s implausible abilities to keep up with the rafters from the shore. In the context of Streep’s career, however, it represents an interesting experiment with genre.
It was an experiment all the more notable because by mid-decade there were signs Streep’s career was losing steam, not only commercially, but artistically as well. One critic described her box office appeal as “waning,” though Streep attributed this perception to a shift in moviegoing attitudes, in that most of her (female) audience was seeing her films on video. In terms of aesthetics, the problem was not so much that Streep’s performances were less convincing than the material she was choosing seemed thinner, at least in gender terms. Her 1993 movie House of the Spirits, based on the 1982 multigenerational saga by Chilean writer Isabelle Allende, was novel in a number of respects, among them its Latin American setting, magical realism, and a stellar cast that included Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas. But Streep is a relatively bland, saintly matriarch.  The same problem afflicts Before and After (1996), in which she plays a New England wife, mother and doctor whose life is plunged into turmoil when her adolescent son (Edward Furlong) is accused of murder. Though her husband (Liam Neeson) has all kinds of ideas about how to protect him, and a sharp lawyer (Alfred Molina) has a clever strategy for getting an acquittal, Mother Knows Best that Honesty is the Best Policy.
Somewhat more interesting is Streep’s performance as Francesca Johnson, the expatriate Midwestern housewife and mother who savors a brief interlude of infidelity in The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Directed by Clint Eastwood, this is one of those movies—The Devil Wears Prada, to be described below, is another—that is vastly better than the treacly (1992) book on which it is based. A major reason is Streep’s minutely observed performance, and good chemistry with Eastwood. The core point of the movie—housewives are far more complicated than many people, particularly their children, imagine—is a worthwhile one.
It’s made in a somewhat different form in One True Thing (1998), based on the Anna Quindlen novel, in which Streep plays Kate Gulden, a Martha Stewartesque housewife whose conventionality and fidelity to her inconstant professor husband (William Hurt), appalls her ambitious journalist daughter (Renee Zellweger), particularly after Kate is diagnosed with terminal cancer. But it’s Kate whose appalled by her daughter’s suggestion that she turn her domestic pursuits into commercial opportunities, and she must ultimately explain to her that the work of nurturing people, whether friends, family, or charity work in her community, is more than a career: it’s a vocation. Again, a point well taken. But you sorta wish Kate was a little less spotless than her kitchen; it might have been nice, for example, if she was obsessed with a slovenly next-door neighbor had a spat with a close friend somewhere along the way. Her perfection ultimately compromises the power of the message.
One character who’s certainly not spotless is Lee, the aspiring Ohio cosmetologist of Marvin’s Room (1996), based on the 1990 play by Scott McPherson. Lee is the mother two sons, the eldest of whom is a troubled youth (Leonardo DiCaprio) who burns down their house. Lee is also the sister of Bessie (Diane Keaton), who has remained home in Florida for many years to care for her ailing father. The problem now is that Bessie has cancer. Perhaps Lee or her sons may be a match for a bone marrow transplant; perhaps Lee will have to take care of her family and aging aunt now that Bessie is sick (like hell she will, she says). Marvin’s Room is a nicely acted ensemble piece—Robert De Niro plays Bessie’s doctor, and has a scene with his old partner Streep—and is ongoing testimony both to her willingness to play complicated people and to give us women with multiple identities. Perhaps it’s a matter of mental typecasting, but she’s not quite as convincing to me as a working-class woman as she is in other capacities. In any case, Marvin’s Room is a curio in Streep’s career, likely to be overlooked (Keaton got an Oscar nomination out of it) but testimony to her ongoing versatility.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Marvin’s Room is not that Streep made made it, but rather the studio that released it: Miramax. Founded as a small independent by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein in 1979, Miramax was acquired by Disney in 1993. But for the next dozen years, until they went off on their own again, the Weinsteins exercised considerable artistic independence within the Disney empire, and used it to make smaller-scale, but artistically ambitious movies that routinely won awards (in part because of the company’s relentless politicking within the industry). This approach to filmmaking comported well with Streep’s, and she would make a series of films with Miramax over the next decade, as well as other small independents. They would provide her with a haven, and the big studios became increasingly obsessed with big-budget extravaganzas built around comic book characters, sequels, or both.
By decade’s end, then, Streep’s career was in flux: active, varied, but lower-profile. She had drifted away from with the clear sense of direction that characterized the private feminism that dominated her work from the late seventies to the late eighties, or the gender critiques/experiments of the early nineties. But with the coming of a new century, Streep’s work took another turn, suggesting a real shift in the way women worked, in the broadest sense of the term, in contemporary society. The line would thus bend, but remain traceable.

Next: Streep's turn toward public feminism.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jim is observing the MLK holiday weekend. He's spent it at a pair of movies: The Iron Lady and Carnage. The former is a wonderful starring vehicle for Meryl Streep, one that should get her a long overdue third Oscar (the others were for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice). Much has been said about this avowed feminist liberal playing Margaret Thatcher, the alternately beloved and hated former Prime Minister of England, in a part that's both candid about Thatcher's limitations but on balance sympathetic. More than anything else, though, The Iron Lady is a meditation on personal power, political and otherwise, and its limitations. Like J. Edgar another movie that portrays a notorious character but humanizes him in his long-term (gay) relationship, The Iron Lady shows that Thatcher's implacable enemy is time itself, which robs her of power, her beloved husband, and her sanity. (A note of praise here for Jim Broadbent, who plays Denis Thatcher, and Alexandra Roach as the young Margaret.) Streep cannot have failed to consider that her own vast artistic powers are no less perishable. So it is that she, and we, must cherish them while we have them.

Carnage, by contrast, is a bad movie. This is not just because the two middle-aged bourgeois couples (Kate Winslet/Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster/John C. Reilly) who meet in the aftermath of their sons' scuffle on a playground are repellent people. Rather it's because the scenario we're given just seems implausible. Given the emerging frictions that emerge in their discussions at the Brooklyn apartment of Foster/Reilly, there's no way these people would remain in each other's company for the interminable 80 or so minutes that they do. Nor are Foster and Reilly believable as a married couple (she's writes about antiquities and genocide; he owns a cookware supply company). The actors are all terrific; Foster in particular combines sanctimony, rage, and self-pity all too plausibly. In recent years she's spent a good deal of time playing unpleasant and/or weak people, demonstrating a sense of reach that's admirable, even though it's paid poor box office dividends (The Rabbit, anyone?). But here her work is in the service of a script (based on the Broadway play) and a director (Roman Polanski) whose determination to undermine elite pretensions is itself undermined by such thoroughgoing misanthropy -- and, perhaps, misogyny -- that one is less repelled by the critique of social convention than the commentary itself.

Best at a time like this to remember another child of a different (black) elite who marshalled his gifts in the name of compassion. Happy 83rd, MLK.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Daft Taft

In Taft, first-time novelist Jason Heller tells an old-fashioned time traveling tale

The following review was posted today the Books page of the History News Network site.  

The wacky premise of this novel merits a look. On March 4, 1913, on the final day of a presidency wedged between the more commanding Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the outgoing president William Howard Taft -- all 300+ pounds of him -- somehow slips through a time portal and reappears on the White House grounds in late 2011. Shot by a secret service agent terrified by the muddy beast, Taft, he of stuck-in-the-bathtub lore, is nursed back to health and introduced to the 21st century, where there's a lot more affection for the 27th president than there ever was a century ago.

There's some entertainment to be had in this fish-out-of-water story. "Good God, man. Is this all truly necessary? I must look like a cut-rate Manila harlot," the one-time administrator of the Philippines says. He wonders what ever happened to good old tap water, and expresses surprise that cell phones didn't come along sooner.

First-time novelist Heller, a journalist and writer of genre fiction, renders Taft as colorful cartoon, which is mildly amusing, though all the attention to his gargantuan appetite and handlebar mustache becomes tiresome after a while. (Other characters are a good deal less compelling.) We watch Taft as he visits familiar places, gets drunk, gets laid, and passively finds himself drawn into presidential politics (just as he was the first time around).  Heller augments his traditional storyline with a series of mock documents -- television talk show transcripts; Secret Service memos; twitter feeds, polling data -- that contextualize the story.

In this fictional world, Barack Obama is still president, running against an unnamed Republican. Taft's politics are a bit of a cipher, which is at least partially Heller's point. One of the great ironies here, of course, is that the trust-busting, good-government policies of a man who was perceived as a conservative Republican then puts him far to the left of anyone in the GOP now, and indeed far to the left of many Democrats. But libertarians are quick to note that his tax rates were lower than any today, and a dissatisfied general electorate rallies to anyone who seems authentic. So it is that we witness the birth of the Taft Party, an apparent satire of the Tea Party in all it incoherence (we get a particularly wrong-headed discussion about immigration from a surveillance tape of two men discussing Taft while standing in front of their respective urinals).

Heller weaves in a subplot involving Big Agriculture that figures in the climax of the story. But having seized on an arresting premise, he has a little trouble maintaining control of his material, which takes a bit long to develop and which fizzles a bit. But it's nevertheless a fast, light read.

Taft is revealing in the way it taps a longstanding American nostalgia that goes back at least as far as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We want straight shooters, until they start telling us things we don't want to hear. The difference now is that we literally can't (as opposed to won't) afford the pretty promises of a military that will always remain powerful, services that will always be adequate, and taxes that will always be low. I suspect that the longings Heller describes are real enough and available to be exploited by those whose with less scruples than Taft, one of the few good men to be president, and, not coincidentally, like other good men -- a pair of Adams, an elder Bush, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter -- were also one-term presidents. Maybe we need an Iron Lady (with Meryl Streep's wit) instead.

Note: There is an accompanying website for Taft 2012, and a Facebook page worth a connection. It's fun to see updates like, "Time lauded Mitt Romney for using "clear, concise, declarative sentences" in this week's debates. We don't expect much today, do we?" Sound like he might be a good commentator to have around for the presidential campaign.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mystery Brain

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years is vintage Greil Marcus -- for better and worse

The following review was posted last week on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Greil Marcus is the Ernest Hemingway of cultural criticism. I don't mean that in terms of style -- Hemingway's laconic prose is light years away from that of the effusive, endlessly analogizing Marcus -- but rather that Marcus, in a manner perhaps only paralleled by Pauline Kael, has inspired a generation of bad imitators. Myself among them.

I discovered Marcus somewhat belatedly, at the time of the second (1982) edition of his classic 1975 study Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Roll Music. I read the book multiple times in ensuing iterations, enchanted by its intoxicating prose, despite the fact that it would be years before I heard much of the music on which it was based. I was thrilled by the idea that popular music could be a subject of serious fun. It's hard to imagine that I would have ever received a Ph.D. in American Civilization, specializing in the history of popular culture, had I not encountered that book at a formative period in my life.

Though he has been a consistently productive magazine journalist, Marcus's output as a writer of books was relatively modest in the twenty years following Mystery Train, notwithstanding that his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century has had the heft and durability of a major study. But in the last two decades -- and in the last five years or so in particular -- his pace as a writer, editor and collaborator has picked up. He's taken to writing quick, impressionistic books on subjects like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years represents relatively fresh territory, not only because the band has not really been a long-term fixture of his writing, but also because the group has always had a mixed critical reputation. Conventional critical wisdom holds that while the Doors produced a few deeply suggestive songs that have had a remarkably durable life on FM radio, lead singer Jim Morrison in particular was, in the main, undisciplined at best and boorishly pretentious at worst. Though his overall stance toward the band is positive, Marcus does not fundamentally challenge this view, instead focusing on what he considers the band's best work in its brief life in the second half of the 1960s.

I use the word "focusing" loosely; Marcus has never been an especially tight writer. Indeed, as a number of impatient readers have complained, the Doors are less the subject of this book than a point of departure for a series of riffs on subjects that seem loosely connected at best. A chapter whose locus is generally on the 1991 Oliver Stone biopic The Doors jumps (or perhaps lurches) from there into an extended analysis of the now obscure 1990 Christian Slater film Pump Up the Volume for reasons that are never entirely clear. If you look up Slater in the index of the book, you'll find him sandwiched between The Situationists, Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" and Josef Svorecky on one side, and Grace Slick, Bessie Smith and Peter Smithson on the other. As one who considers himself about as well read as anyone in 20th century cultural history, I find myself wondering if Marcus could possibly expect anyone to keep up with him as he leaps from pop music to architecture to crime fiction and back again.

He can exasperate at the level of individual sentences as well. He writes of "The End," one of the better-known songs in the Doors canon, that "The furious, impossibly sustained assault that will steer the song to its end, a syncopation that swirls on its own momentum, each musician called upon not just to match the pace of the others but to draw his own pictures inside the maelstrom -- in its way this is a relief, because that syncopation gives the music a grounding you can count on, that you can count off yourself." To which I say: Huh? He describes "Roadhouse Blues" "not as an autobiography, not as confession, not as a cry for help or a fuck you to whomever asked, but as Louise Brooks liked to quote, she said, from an old dictionary, 'a subjective epic composition in which the author begs leave to treat the world according to his own point of view." Marcus has long been lionized as a founding father of rock criticism, and one can't help but wonder whether he and others regard him as beyond the quotidian vagaries of line editing.

But there's a reason Marcus is lionized. At his best he opens cultural windows that can only be jimmied open with unconventional prose. Of the long shadow cast by his generation, he writes, "This is what is terrifying: the notion that the Sixties was no grand, simple, romantic time to sell to others as a nice place to visit, but a place, even as it is created, people know they can never really inhabit, and never escape." (Coming of age in the seventies, I certainly had that oppressive feeling.) He describes the prescient dark mood of the Doors by noting that "After Charles Manson, people could look back at 'The End,' 'Strange Days,' 'People are Strange,' and 'End of the Night' and hear what Manson had done as if it had yet to happen, as if they should have known, as if, in the deep textures of the music, they had." Yes: the Doors did ride a curdling cultural wave as the promise of the early sixties gave way to the kind of mindless violence of the Manson murders. Marcus distills the essence of the band better than they ever had themselves: "They didn't promise happy endings. Their best songs said happy endings weren't interesting, and they weren't deserved."

Marcus is like a stand-up comedian who only speaks in punch lines, refusing to set up the payoff (in this case, brief biographical sketches, career overviews, and something resembling a systematically offered sense of context). Such omissions appear to be an avowed (Beat) aesthetic, even a moral principle: You don't get to the old weird America by traveling down familiar highways. The problem, for him no less than the pop artists he writes about -- Jim Morrison in particular -- is that in the negotiation between reader and writer there's a thin line between bracing challenge and alienating self-indulgence, and it's hard to avoid concluding, as much as I hate to, that there are times when I feel Marcus crosses it.

I find myself thinking about Marcus the way he felt about Elvis Presley: awed by his talent but dismayed by his lack of constancy. I've got this idea that asking him to be different would be ungrateful at best and stupid at worst, failing to value the very devil-may-care quality that made him special in the first place. And I'm not sure how much in the way of evolution I should expect of any person old enough to have earned social security benefits, among other benchmarks. But I also feel not to ask would also be a betrayal of sorts, a willingness to settle that Marcus taught me long ago is a seductively dangerous temptation in American life. So I'll say: thank you, Greil Marcus. You changed my life. And I'll ask: Should we go somewhere else now?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Box office balloting

In Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, Steven J. Ross traces the political arc of figures from Chaplin to Schwartzenegger

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

I didn't really want to read this book. I'm finishing one on a related topic, and have reached that point in the process where I just want to be done with it already. But my editor sent Hollywood Left and Right along to me, as good editors do, as a way of nudging me a little bit farther. I'm glad he did. It's a good piece of scholarship. And, I'm happy to report, an entertaining one.

A seasoned film historian, what Steven J. Ross offers here is a set of ten biographies that function as case studies in the way movies stars and impresarios -- sometimes the same person -- have used their cinematic careers for the purposes of political activism. With a sense of judiciousness and empathy toward all his subjects, he renders  five careers on the left (Charlie Chaplin, Edmund G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty) and five on the right (Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwartzenegger). That said, Ross gently suggests that while we tend to think of Hollywood as a liberal bastion, it has had a series of prominent conservative champions, who on balance have been more successful than liberals in actually realizing their political goals. To that extent, at least, the book has a revisionist air.

Ross does a lot of things well. Each of his chapters offer skillfully limned portraits (Murphy and Reagan, whose careers coincided and interests overlapped, are treated as a pair). In some cases their stories are familiar, but Ross is able to season them with an eye for relevant, sometimes first-hand, observations. He managed to get on interviews with many of his principals, among them reclusive subjects like Beatty, as well as their associates like George McGovern and Gary Hart.

Ross is also a deft analyst. He weaves in close readings of particular films, contextualizing them in their immediate sociopolitical environments. There's very good stuff, for example, on the complexities of anticommunism and Hollywood unions at mid-century and its impact on the careers of Robinson and Reagan. He's also able to stitch together his subjects by periodically comparing and contrasting them with each other, allowing their nuances to come into focus.

Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of Hollywood Left and Right are the varied ways stars have actually exploited their star power. Some, like Chaplin and Fonda, formed their political consciousness only after they became celebrities, and channeled that celebrity into potent fundraising machines. Others, like Belafonte and Schwartzenegger, had already formed their convictions before entering show business and then applied their personal skills to political activism. Still others, like Reagan and Heston, underwent political transformations (which always seem to go from left to right). Murphy, Reagan, and Schwartzenegger, of course, eventually won elective office. Yet many of these people -- Fonda in particular -- had a surprisingly durable impact in their behind-the-scenes organizations. These and other permutations give the book a kaleidoscopic quality.

At the end of this study, Ross poses the necessary question of whether it's all that healthy for the democratic process to have such outsized figures exercising their influence on the body politic. He notes the reasons why the answer might actually be no, but makes the important point that many of these stars serve an important purpose in mobilizing otherwise indifferent segments of the electorate. In a perfect Hollywood world, such people might be undesirable. But in the sometimes benighted political world in which we live, we may need the stars to see.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ideas whose time came -- again

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt takes his reader on a thrilling journey of time travel

The following review was yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

It's always a surprising pleasure to find an English professor able to write about literature in comprehensible English. It's even more surprising when that professor can write narrative history better than most historians do. What's stunning is an English professor who writes good history that spans about 1800 years and who manages to ground his story in a set of richly contextualized moments that he stitches together with notable deftness. But then, this shouldn't really be all that surprising: we're talking about Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt here. This New Historicist extraordinaire -- author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare -- has just won the National Book Award for his latest book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The point of departure for The Swerve is the year 1417, when an obscure former papal scribe named Poggio Bracchiolini enters a German monastery.  Greenblatt manages to capture both the way in which Poggio is a figure of his time even as he explains the novelty, even strangeness, of this bibliophile's quest to discover ancient works and the practical difficulties involved for a man of his station to do so. He then describes how Poggio encounters On the Nature of Things, a poem by the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius, written in the first century BCE. Lucretius was deeply influenced by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). In the context of its pre-Renaissance recovery, the poem represented a radical challenge to the common sense of its time in its emphasis on pleasure as an end unto itself, as well as its de-emphasis on the role of the divine in human aspiration and fate.

Greenblatt's analysis leads to some deeply satisfying digressions, among them an explanation of Epicurean philosophy and the place of Greek thought in the Roman republic and empire. It also includes an explanation of the ongoing scholarly significance of Pompeii as a source of understanding ancient life in the 250 years since its discovery under the mountain of ash spewed by Mt. Vesivius in 79 CE. (On the Nature of Things was discovered in an impressive library in a house there.) And, most hauntingly, it includes an explanation of the process whereby the classical legacy was gradually erased from the human record by a combination of disasters, neglect, and active forgetting by an ascendant Christianity determined to eliminate epistemological rivals. It's difficult to finish reading this segment of The Swerve without having one's confidence shaken that our current state/memory of civilization is destined for permanence, especially when one considers the utter fragility of electronic information when compared with the strength, never mind beauty, of vellum.

From here, Greenblatt resumes telling the story of what happened when On the Nature of Things was re-injected into the bloodstream of western civilization. This was by no means a straightforward process. Ever a man of the world even amid his classical studies, Poggio skillfully navigated papal politics even as he grew exasperated by a friend's unwillingness to return the book. Eventually, however, On the Nature of Things was re-copied and distributed all over Europe, where its Epicurean vision laid the foundations for the Renaissance in Italy and beyond. Greenblatt traces its influence across sources that include Montaigne, Shakespeare (of course), and Thomas Jefferson.

Readers with intimate familiarity with these subjects will no doubt quibble with aspects of Greenblatt's account, among them the centrality of Lucretius or Epicurus in kick-starting modernity. Whether or not they're correct, The Swerve is simply marvelous -- emphasis here on simply -- in illustrating cultural disruption and transmission as a deeply historical process even as ideas partially transcend the circumstances of their articulation. In some sense, Greenblatt is playing the role of popularizer here, but he could never mesh his subjects and analyze them as well as he does without a lifetime of immersion and first-hand observation. One can only hope that this book will be among those that survive fires, floods, microbes and sheer human cupidity so that others will know what the finest flower of our academy could produce.