Thursday, October 19, 2017

McTeague: A novel by Frank Norris

McTeague by Frank Norris

I come to this through the classic movie Greed by Erich von Stroheim. This is a silent movie that is notorious as one of the movies cut into a shorter version by it’s production company.  We don’t have the whole vision of the director and much of the footage was discarded. Nevertheless it’s a great movie and I have watched it more than once, but this novel that the movie was adapted from is so much more and beyond the film in greatness.

This supports my notion that film is a step back as an art form compared to novels. Film is rather good with action of any sort, with it’s old standbys, sex and violence. But it is terribly clumsy when it comes to the subte in human life, like our rich lives of thought. Fiction writing can easily present thought while film often must revert to writing to show thought in the form of narration. Of course text is not thought, but another representation. What is thought? I’m not exactly, sure but text seems best at expressing it.
If one wants to read this fine novel and are interested in the movie Greed too, I would suggest first seeing Greed and then reading the book. I think there is less disappointment with that mode of consumption since movies are most always less than, a sort of graphic comic of the original.

Greed was not a bad name for the movie. The novel is all about greed, the love and lust for money. It is a very American story set in San Francisco, about as far as one can get in the westward stomp across the conquested continent. California had a big push of white settlement after the gold strikes there 50 years before the publication of this 1899 novel. It’s characters are the typical immigrants and their heirs still at it, still wanting to add gold, money, status and meaning to empty lives and hurting one another in the process.
I looked into the biography of Frank Norris. He died very young, at 32 of appendicitis. McTeague is the product of a man in his 20s. It is also a landmark in Naturalism in USA literature.
I am drawn to Naturalism. I have read all of Theodore Dreiser’s fiction and love his work. I probably ought to look into Zola.
With McTeague the social realism of the piece is never overtly political, he is not pitching a particular political point of view, such as, say, Upton Sinclair with Socialism. Frank Norris just lays it all out there and let’s the reader come to their own conclusions with hints of conditioning and life setting having driven the characters to be what they are.
It is a brilliantly involving and pleasurable read even with all the misery. The tale he tells is a worthy one and remains relevant into the 21st Century almost 120 years since publication. That is because the issues remain and people are as they were and maybe even worse now.  Anyone who has been in a relationship with unequal economic assets might find something to relate to here. The major plot line involves one partner having money but afraid, or for whatever other reason, will not or cannot share with her husband McTeague who is a big not so smart uneducated man who had a good income before a change that ruins his life. This can be deadly in a relationship which the novel illustrates in no uncertain terms. The novel contains serious and violent marital conflict. McTeague abuses his wife who cannot share her money. She is driven to live in poverty to “save” more.  

This is a product of the 1890s and does contain some of the stereotypes of the era. There is a greedy “Jew” rag merchant, but everyone else is greedy too and he is not rich or controlling anyone. Just another victim of a systematic insanity.

It’s my first reading of Norris and I loved it. I will return to him later for sure.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

John Bunny - Film's 1st King of Comedy

John Bunny - Film's 1st King of Comedy
A video documentary written and directed by Tony Susnick

Who was John Bunny?
Well, he was an actor who became a very early cinema star. By early, I mean from 1910 to 1915.


I very much enjoy silent movies and have for years, but most of my attention has been to post-1920 product. My notion being that people didn’t really get to making fine quality movies until around then. I know that is just unsupportable laziness. I've never even watched Tillie’s Punctured Romance and I adore Chaplin’s work.


The scenes from Bunny films in the documentary indicate that he shot in a different style. To show his main performance tool, his face, the scenes were all shot in ¾ body, basically their legs are off and we see their upper bodies and faces. This isn’t the Keystone Cops running around with the model Ts doing Hollywood donuts, not that there is anything wrong with that, but this is more chamber work with only up to four people in the frame, tight like that, talking.


The documentary tells us that Bunny was a rather successful stage actor when he went to Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn and offered himself. He ended up making many films there and achieved the type of fame only accessible through early movies, our first moving picture mass medium.


The film gives us an informative vignette, the story of Vitagraph Studios.


The documentary production is enlivened by some tasteful animation of old stills all done by Tony Susnick himself which besides the content is another indicator that this video is a labor of love.


We hear the words of John Bunny in voiceover. Particularly of interest is the final reading of Bunny’s writing in which he expresses in no uncertain terms an awareness of what he was doing in working in a medium that has the power for the first time ever to transcend time. That was a “Wow” moment for this viewer sitting here 100 years beyond Bunny’s life span watching his mugging shadow. We are the first people to see moving images of our ancestors from over 100 year ago.


The film is narrated by Mark 'Big Poppa' Stampley who does an excellent job with the big voice professional narrator role. Until I checked I kind of thought it was one of the big names who commonly land this sort of gig.
The DVD of the film comes with 4 of Bunny’s films accompanied by Ben Model who has been very active in silent preservation and presentation for years. I don’t have the DVD. I saw the movie on a FACEBOOK video presentation of the movie in celebration of Bunny’s birthday.

Nicely done, with a brisk pace and coming in and less than an hour, this sweet documentary is worth a look for those interested in film history.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

This novel has characters that extend from Ellen Meeropol’s first novel House Arrest.
They are both under 300 pages and I would recommend reading

House Arrest first although Kinship of Clover can probably stand on it’s own if House Arrest is not available. On the other hand even House Arrest only refers to certain traumatic event as happening in the past, these events are more re-enacted here.

The story is set 12 years after twin boys have a traumatic event occur in the cult they were born into. The novel tells the story of Jeremy, now in college, experiencing unexplained psychological emotions that cause him to feel and see plant vines growing around him and through him until he gets lost in them.

  It also tells a story of someone on the other side of life with dementia getting worse. Here Flo is losing herself. She had a strong individual identity but is losing it.
Does Jeremy want to get lost, become part of the plants, and Flo want to hold to what she was, not ready to drop ego and become one with nature? She’s an activist, about The People.
I liked that about the atmosphere of the novel. A multi-generational activism is assumed, or at least a natural part of life.
Both of these stories affect the people connected to Flo and Jeremy. Meeropol creates characters with convincing real family connections so the feelings connected to the human difficulties of the main characters reverberate through the others. The emotions of human connection are familiar to this writer, she knows how to work with them, present them convincingly. The difficulties, the dementia and the hallucinations, are drawn with detailed composition and regarded as the mysteries they are. She creates families that are believable and like that found in the world:”OK, we are no longer married but I'll live in the upstairs apartment and help out with the kid.”


It is not all about family stuff. There are big issues out there and committed activists struggling in one way or another, for change. It is hard for the young and innocent Jeremy to properly read the intentions and tactics of the people he is getting involved with.

Jeremy's hallucinations are told in a way that shows them as interesting and scary at equal proportions. This seems realistic. Does the patient wish to drop this fantastic part of himself for the sake of some normality standard?


Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

This novel is a snapshot of current affairs, the emotional environment of USA, and we who inhabit it.
The USA is not really a easy place to find a feeling of home and community. Some of us feel that is made worse by clever marketing strategies of international corporate interests that have learned that divide and sell is a profitable business model. I don’t mean to suggest that there was necessarily a conspiracy meeting of big business cabals that came up with this, but rather it is a result of mass media run as for-profit business by for-profit businesses and supported by the backing of for-profit business, naturally supporting its interest. We are set against one another to sell things. The buying choice of children is not understandable to parents, this aids in moving product and causes more alienation from one another since we have little to identify ourselves with other than our product purchase choices.

This novel is not about business and mass media, but this has set the mood.
It is simply a story of teens in Los Angeles area, Southern California and blowback of US imperialism. The man figure of the novel is Raz, the USA born son of middle aged Iranian immigrants. In a way it parallels the stories of early 20th Century European immigrant children whose parents have made the very bold and radical move to an attempted a new better life in America, once A Good Country, only to find their children groundless, between worlds, subject to abuse by the children of the those who came here a generation or so before them, looking for a place to belong and susceptible to conscription in street gangs.

Here the setting is not the tenements of the Lower East Side with its poverty, but the children of very successful immigrants in fine houses with swimming pools in Laguna Beach, yet still lost, abused by religious intolerance made far worse by religious fundamentalism global terrorism that is a result of USA’s and The West’s century of manipulations in the mid-east. And what does popular USA
corporate secular culture offer? It is apparently void of a spiritual center, or even basic community. This environment is ripe for the fundamentalist fringes, of whatever origin, religious, or political, to come to the rescue.

The novel is really a very simple story, lucidly and believably told, of a bright sweet teen boy’s final high school years and his yearning for a place to belong with loving partners, friends.
The novel is written by a woman who is very good at creating the world of a young man including his sexuality and the casual marijuana use of him and his young friends.

In the news terrorist attacks cause the plot to shift toward tragedy in this engaging yet simply plotted novel.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

This was Bellow’s first novel.
It is set in Chicago during WWII.
The character, Joseph, writes about his life in first person journal entries. He is in his 30s. He is dangling because he might get drafted into the army soon. Since he might be drafted he is not working. He is married and his wife is working. He is basically just hanging out. They are living in a rooming house.They lost their apartment because of a dispute he had with the landlord.

It is a short novel of one of those extended times between things, before something big might happen. In this case being called up into a war that one might get killed in. The novel is mostly internal dialogue of someone in one of these in between times, and a very stressful one. It is also a portrait of a man without an exterior structure to control his time and actions. It is a place that many find difficult to find comfort. It is easier to just let someone else tell one what to do, show up here, at this time, do this job for this long, eat at this time, etc. He is dangling outside of that structure for a time, that place where one has to be self motivated, or self contained enough to be at peace when the order of the day is to run with the crowd. The novel shows that this can be a difficult place where one needs to be very strong, assured of oneself enough to go on.

There is not much mention of the war.  A war, that at the time of the novel’s composition no one knows  what is going to happen, how long the war will go on, how many will die, or who will win. The book contains that tension that hangs right there alongside that dangling man. It is an extreme time of “we are all together” which can be harder than usual on the temperamentally alienated.
Joseph visits family. His prosperous brother tries to give him money which creates tension. He visits his wife’s family, more tension. There is conflict in the rooming house, and between him and his wife, in the role reversal of the man being the breadwinner.

Aren't we all dangling on the edge of life on the mysterious precipice of death?
What does one do while dangling?

Good novel from a man who was later awarded The Nobel Prize (The Dynamite Prize).

Saturday, July 1, 2017

American Anarchist (2016)

American Anarchist (2016)
“Written” and directed by Charlie Siskel

This documentary is a portrait of William Powell who in 1970, at age 19, wrote a book called The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
The Anarchist’s Cookbook is an manual of revolution, how to make bombs and stuff like that. I’m not exactly sure what is all in it having never read or owned a copy.

The movie is made by Charlie Siskel. Documentaries are funny. If a filmmaker points a camera at someone and asks them questions, and edits all that together, the filmmaker gets to take credit as having written the movie. That seems pretty strange to me, especially in a situation like this where the subject, Powell, does most all the talking, yet he doesn’t even share the writing credit. Who came up with these rules? Powell’s wife also appears some in the movie.

William Powell is a very good talker. The delight of the film is getting to hear what he has to say. He handles Siskel’s interrogations with patient brilliance. Siskel keeps trying to corner him, to rattle him, to get some doc cinema gold with some kind of outrageous or angry reaction. He fails with the cool, thoughtful, and articulate Powell. Where Siskel keeps attempting to give Powell enough rope to get whatever he is looking for, he ends up defeated, hanging himself, as a hack documentary maker thinking he is on some scoop with a ruthless outlaw.
Yet Siskel was more or less fair in the way he edited most of the movie. We do get to see what a wonderful man Powell became, whatever one thinks of his writing 48 years ago.

William Powell, who died on July 11, 2016 at the age of 66 three months before the movie was released, spent his life as an educator of children with special needs. He spent his life working outside the USA. Siskel does spend some screen time telling us about this aspect of Powell’s life.

Even though Powell, as far back at 1976, regretted writing the book and stated that it should be put out of print, Siskel interrogates him bringing up that the book was in possession of the Columbine High School kid killers and others headline sensational killers. This gets to be a bit much with the implication that somehow Powell is responsible in association for the actions to these lost killers. Powells is very good at handling this stating that he was not aware that these people had the book. He says how could he be? He was living out of the USA and not one to investigate on the internet mass shootings. Siskel keeps up with this kind of stuff taking it to a ridiculous extreme at the very end when he attempts to compare Powell to Gavrilo Princip the man who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 which somehow started WWI. Apparently Siskel is very proud of this moment. After he asks this he gives us the movie’s final shot with Powell sitting there a bit stunned at this silly implication and trying to think of a measured response. But what I saw at that moment was how a documentary maker can manipulate footage via editing to make his point, except this time it just doesn’t work because by that time we have looked into the eyes and heard the measured responses for 2 hours of a very good and decent man who clearly spent his entire life helping people, children, less fortunate than he.
Did Powell pay for his sins of free speech other than this interrogation by Siskel? He and his wife say that he did. Although very qualified in his teaching field of labor, when the employer institutions found out about the book, sometimes though anonymous sources, he was not hired at job after job. This is regrettable, most likely the children he could have worked with are the ones who suffered most from this.

But there is an association between Powell, the Columbine killers and other kid killers who may have had the book. Powell was bullied in schools as a child and sexually abused by an administrator. By the time he was 19 and inspired by the righteous and popular rebelliousness of youth at the time, he channeled his rage into that movement and produced the book.
So Powell did not create himself any more than school killers do? They are all a result of the bullying and injustice of school systems and the abuse of children that often happens there either institutionally or peer bullying, or both in the situation of young Powell. Powell was a bright boy and not a violent person. His reaction to the abuse, coupled with governmental injustice and the Vietnam war, was to call for revolution and write a book not act out violently.

The movie also implies that the Anarchist Cookbook is the only source of this type of information. It has never been so. Powell got some of his stuff from government pamphlets.  And although we see brief footage of Abbie Hoffman from Vietnam protest, the revolution is imminent days, there is no mention of his book that covers a lot of the same material and more and was released at the same time, Steal This Book. Meanwhile this type of bomb building information and everything else in these books has been available on the internet for a least 20 years.

American Anarchist is worth watching.
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It is currently playing on Netflix

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant (2013)
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Richard Manello

Set in the same time, this is not Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant in his great short subject which was more or less a contemporary story then.

In this there are two young women sisters who have come to Ellis Island from Poland. One sister is obviously ill so they are not going to let her in. The story centers around the other sister Ewa (Marion Cotillard). They are not going to let her in either, but I guy pays off the powers that be in the island and she is allowed in.

She goes into NYC with this man Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). He is a sort of showman/pimp and puts Ewa, against her will into a tawdry burlesque show in a seedy little theater.

The movie in interesting enough with decent performances and well staged and art directed atmospheric scenes. It also shows the USA to be a lot less welcoming, even back then, contrary to what we are sometimes lead to believe.

Ultimately I’m not really sold on the pimp with a heart of gold theme of the movie which was written by two men.

I watched it on Netflix. There is the thumb up or down rating system on Netflix now. I preferred the old 5 star system because with movies like this that are OK, at least not terrible, I don’t react in such a binary way.  
So I didn’t rate this movie at all up or down in the Netflix software. It’s not really good or really terrible but somewhere floating in between.
There is a lot of stuff like that.

McTeague: A novel by Frank Norris

McTeague by Frank Norris I come to this through the classic movie Greed by Erich von Stroheim. This is a silent movie that is notorious as ...