A Holiday Message from Charles Dickens

Scrooge's Third Visitor, By John Leech 1843

Scrooge’s Third Visitor, By John Leech 1843

My grandfather read “A Christmas Carol” every year at Christmas, and I’ve inherited his love for it. The following scene is one of my favorite parts of the story. To me, it sums up what Christmas is all about. Or what it should be about. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas! And may everyone, regardless of creed or belief, experience some peace, joy, and happiness.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Paths of Glory – The Insanity of World War I

Paths Of Glory 1

Kirk Douglas as Col. Dax

Libraries of books have been written about World War I. Historians still debate why the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie resulted in a global war between countries that didn’t have any interests in the Balkans. They argue over why the generals of Great Britain, France, and Germany made the same mistakes over and over again between 1914 and 1918. Others argues that, actually, the generals didn’t perform that badly at all given the circumstances of the time.

There is no way to answer these questions in a simple blog post. Rather, I want to briefly describe how Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) portrays The Great War, and to answer the question asked of every movie that portrays historical events, is it accurate? I’ll be honest. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in graduate school (while my main focus was medieval Europe, my secondary area of study was 20th-Century Europe). It is a great film full of excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, and gripping drama. But for me, Paths of Glory is also the movie that most accurately capture the horrors of World War I.*

No movie is perfect. As with many historical movies, writers and directors take an event from here and an event from there, and put them together for dramatic effect. The result is something that is not literally true. However, it can be true to the spirit of the time. Indeed, it is not uncommon for historians to use pieces of historical evidence separated by small distances and small amounts of time to create an overall picture of a historical period. They just don’t present it as a cohesive narrative as filmmakers do. So, in Paths of Glory, we see a French commander ordering his own artillery to fire on his own troops, and we see privates randomly (and not so randomly) chosen for execution as punishment for an entire unit. Events like these did occur. They were rare (or perhaps even unique), but they are definitely within the realm of historical fact. That is, while the events portrayed in the movie are not “exactly what actually happened”, they are not affronts to the truth either.

This brings me to what Paths of Glory does very well from the perspective of portraying historical events. Kubrick and the cinematographer Georg Krause, accurately captured the visual look of the trenches, of no man’s land, and of the palaces where the generals lived. And most importantly, the movie accurately captures the behavior of the officers. We see an officer berate a soldier suffering from shell-shock. The officer claims that no such thing exists and that the soldier is merely a coward. We see suicidal attacks ordered by officers who dispassionately spout statistics and time-tables to show how logical the attack is and how certain it is to succeed. And we see officers oblivious to the realities of front lines. They have no real idea what is going on. Whether this ignorance is willful or a sign of their lack of competence depends on the individual officer. However, to the soldiers who lived in the trenches and were ordered to attack, it didn’t matter – in the movie or in real life. By 1917 (about the time the events of the movie take place), one million French men had been killed. At the time, the entire male population of France was only 20 million. It is no wonder the novel the film is based on was unpopular in some quarters when it came out in 1935.

Paths of Glory is not a happy movie. It does not have a happy ending. But in addition to being a well-crafted tragedy, I think it accurately and powerfully captures the insanity of World War I. A lesson we should always remember.

*Please note, I didn’t footnote anything. Indeed, I wrote this mostly from memory. I take full responsibility for any factual errors. However, even if I’ve gotten a detail or two wrong, I’m very confident in my overall conclusions. For those who’d like to know more, or to see my sources as it were, here are two books that were very influential in shaping my view of WWI. I highly recommend them.

Barnett, Correlli. The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle

Reflections on Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth

20130820-190430.jpgSince it’s H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday, I wanted to write about one of my favorite Lovecraft stories “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I remember reading – but I can’t remember where – that Lovecraft didn’t like the story. Now, I’ve written a few things that I don’t like myself, and moreover, who I am to disagree with an artist’s opinion of their own work? But, I’m going to do it anyway.

True, it does have its problems. One of the story’s underpinnings is a fear of miscegenation. This mixed with Lovecraft’s common use of non-Europeans as suspicious and/or villainous characters makes me feel that there’s more than a little racism and xenophobia at the story’s core. We will never know if Lovecraft had some agenda in mind beyond a desire to write a good weird tale when he sat down to write the story. So I’m going set this aside for the moment. The topic of whether we should avoid Lovecraft’s stories because of their racism and xenophobia deserves its own post (and many others who know Lovecraft’s work better than me have already addressed it before).

So let me talk about why “Shadow” is a wonderful example of an effective horror story. It starts out with a government cover-up, and quickly moves to a first-person confession promising the truth behind the cover-up. The reader is then treated to slowly built tension, as the narrator enters the decaying city of Innsmouth, and meets an old drunk who becomes an unreliable narrator to the story’s unreliable narrator (now that’s a nice trick). The tale climaxes with a chase where the narrator never sees his pursuers. Lovecraft shows real talent here, only hinting at the horrifying appearance of the horde that pursues the narrator through the streets of Innsmouth.  We never see the monsters. We only hear them. This, to my mind, is key for once we see a monster it loses some of its ability to induce fear. It was Lovecraft himself who said that the greatest fear was fear of the unknown.

The best part of the story is the ending. I think it’s fair to say that most of Lovecraft’s endings induce a shudder. As readers, we find ourselves seeing the horror that is coming, even though the protagonist does not. And he rarely disappoints. Now in “Shadow,” Lovecraft does…well, I can’t say more without giving away important details. All I will say is that of all of the  Lovecraft stories I’ve read, I like the ending of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the best.

My Uncle Charles

Hello everyone. I think some of you may already know, but others may not so I wanted to make a post so that everyone will know…

This past Monday my uncle Charles died unexpectedly. He was only 63. He collapsed in his apartment and my parents found him the next day when they couldn’t get a hold of him. Yesterday, we had a family viewing. It helped a lot because, honestly, a large part of my brain refused to believe it.

I was lucky to have had him as an uncle. He was the definition of the cool uncle. In the 1980s, he moved into Detroit – decades before it was the cool thing to do. I remember going to his apartment reading his copy of Rolling Stone magazine, looking at his newest book on 20th Century art and architecture, and listening to him talk about his latest trip to New York or L.A. to work on his latest ad campaign for Chrysler. He gave me a window into this vibrant world that was so very different than the staid suburban world I was growing up in. And I’m a lot better for it.

You always want more time. It still sucks. But I’m lucky to have had him as my uncle.

Thank you Charles. I hope I can be as cool an uncle to my nephews as you were to me.

Charles

The Great Gatsby – A Near-perfect Adaptation

To begin with, I love Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I taught the novel for many years but I never grew tired of reading it. So, as I sat down to watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I expected to like the movie – his Romeo + Juliet is one of my favorite movies – but I wasn’t sure how anyone could capture the novel on film. It’s too poetic, too tragic, and too challenging (Is Jay Gatsby really a hero? Is the American Dream really an illusion, a carrot to make us good little worker bees?). I was happily mistaken. I think Luhrmann has created what might be the most faithful adaptation that could ever be made. I’m not sure how it could be closer.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised as Luhrmann is known for his stylized movies and Gatsby is a very stylized novel. It’s full of long descriptive passages that perch on the line between prose and poetry. For example, here’s the description of one of Gatsby’s parties:

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath

Let me geek-out for a moment. This description is in the present tense while the novel is generally in the past tense. The party is happening right now (even though it is long since over). It is fresh and vibrant in the narrator’s mind unlike other memories which are fading. It is like a painting. The events captured on the canvas are always happening for the first time whenever someone looks at it. Let’s just pause a minute and marvel at Fitzgerald’s genius…

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Besides the use of figurative language, Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in the first person and thus the novel is a record of the jumbled, dream-like memories of the narrator Nick Carroway. The events of chapter two actually take place after the events described in chapter three, and the novel continues to jump back and forth in time chapter by chapter. Even within chapters time can be an unstable thing. Here Nick describes leaving a drunken party:

Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.

“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.

“Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”

“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

“Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . . Brook’n Bridge . . . .”

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

Just to be clear, those ellipses are not mine. They’re Fitzgerald’s. Then what just happened? How did Nick get from the party to Mr. McKee’s bedroom, and then to the station? Fitzgerald simple used the literary version of the jump cut or montage to represent what it’s like to be very, very drunk.

Ok, Fitzgerald’s novel is lyrical and dreamy. What does that have to do with the movie? Simply this: Many reviews have criticized the film for being all flash, over-whelming visuals, and little substance. Well, yes that might be true, but that’s actually how it should be. Indeed, that’s one of the points of the novel. Underneath its flash and spectacle, the Jazz Age was hollow. And thus Luhrmann’s jumpy, music-video style actually mirrors the prose and theme of the novel.

I will admit, Luhrmann’s Gatsby won’t be to everyone’s taste. It does not have a clear narrative, there are many showy set pieces that don’t seem to move the movie forward in any way, the characters are at best shallow or flawed, and it lacks a Hollywood ending. While I might criticize other movies for having these qualities, for Gatsby they are perfect. Luhrmann has given us a beautiful and faithful cinematic version of the novel.

And the Oscar goes to…William Shakespeare

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday I wrote this little piece on how the Bard can save Hollywood. You can find more Shakespeare birthday posts at Happy Birthday Shakespeare.

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I’m not the first person to suggest that if he lived today William Shakespeare would be one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Shakespeare acted, he wrote scripts, and the company he co-founded owned two theaters and had a royal patent – in other words, he was a studio head/producer. He was also adept at politics. His company went from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men as the Tutor dynasty ended and the Stewart dynasty began. Shakespeare was The Man. And by that I mean, he was at the center of both the cultural and political establishment of his day.

Shakespeare didn’t just do these things. He did them very well. His dialogue is beautifully crafted. His characters are a mess of emotions and contradictions. I vacillate from feeling sorry for Hamlet to wanting to tell him to “man up” and kill Claudius already. His plays are filled with – I can’t help but use the phrase – cinematic action. It’s really not surprising that I like Shakespeare and action movies.

Moreover, he wasn’t above pandering to the crowd with crude and sophomoric humor, or portraying Queen Elizabeth’s father and grandfather in a complementary light. He played to his audience and endeavored to bring them along with him. He did not expect his audience to come to him high atop the mountain of pure art – wherever that is.

This raises the question, does the fact that Richard III ends with Henry Tutor saving the day and bringing peace and prosperity to England reduce the art of the play? Let me put it another way. If Shakespeare was that Hollywood heavy weight I described above, would his plays be popcorn movies, released as potential summer blockbusters? Or would they be given a limited art house released? This is a trick question, of course, because Shakespeare was both popular and high brow. Today we divide movies into Hollywood/mainstream/commercial on the one hand and art on the other.

But why do we divide movies in this way? This is actually a big question that deserves its own post. For the moment, let me merely say this division is a shame because it is possible for a movie to be both. One of the best recent examples is Gladiator which was an art movie disguised as an action movie. Or an action movie disguised as art movie depending on your perspective.

In the past few years there has been a lot of hand wringing in the film industry about declining and/or stagnant movie ticket sales. But today, on his birthday, William Shakespeare can provide the solution. All filmmakers have to do is this: Go watch some of Shakespeare’s plays, learn from them, and start making action movies that are also art movies, or art movies that are also action movies. Then the multi-plexes would be as full today as the Globe was in its day.

Movies: John Carter

I saw John Carter yesterday, and in short, I really enjoyed the movie. The movie, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), balances action and world building better than most sci-fi/fantasy movies. With its sweeping vistas of Mars, this is one of those movies that must be seen on the big screen. It will lose a lot if viewed on even a large TV.

The best part of the movie, however, was the characters. John Carter is one of the rare movies in which the heroes are more interesting than the villains (this is a topic that deserves its own post). The title character is a haunted veteran of the Civil War who goes West seeking gold, and who has little use for other people or their causes. He fought for a cause, and in doing so, he lost everything. As the movie opens, it is clear he does not want to make that mistake again. Dejah Thoris, the Princess of the book’s title, is a scholar and warrior who flees her besieged city to escape a political marriage with an enemy ruler. Very quickly their paths cross, and it is their crossed purposes – his desire to get back to his gold in the Arizona Hills, and hers to find a way to save her city – that provides most the conflict and drama of the story.

As for the film’s villains, they could be best described as personifications of greed, violence, and entropy. In a way, they are the perfect 21st-Century villains. They are shadowy, faceless parasites, slowly sucking the life out of Mars, not unlike the evils Earth faces today: Climate change, terrorism, and the financial meltdown (with its arcane credit-default swaps and “securitization” of sub-prime mortgages). John Carter smartly, I think, leaves the villains as forces of nature (like the shark in Jaws), and focuses on the heroes, and how they face challenges that are bigger than any one person. This is a refreshing change from the revenge-motivated, I-can-kill-everything hero and the all-too-interesting villain so often found in recent action movies.

See John Carter in the theater. It is well worth the time and money.

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The studio released several trailers and clips for the movie. Below is my favorite. It was the first trailer released, and, ironically, I think it captures the film best. Especially nice is the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of “My Body is a Cage.” If you are unfamiliar with the story, I won’t say any more – I don’t want to spoil anything. Just, watch (or watch again) this trailer after you’ve seen the movie. I think you’ll see what I mean.