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Freak City

August 26, 2014 | by

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Film still from Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando.

Would it be frivolous to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Emmys? I can’t be the only one who slept poorly and, when she did drop off, slid into nightmare. One assumes productivity suffered. Wages and jobs may even have been lost.

It’s not just the contrast to the state of the world and the country that rankles. This is the nature of the beast. Opening monologues based on racial tensions and international crises have never been calculated to keep network viewers glued to the screen. It's not merely the crumminess of the writing, which was stale and dull, full of hoary, tone-deaf jokes and bits that would have felt démodé on The Benny Hill Show. Or even the monotony of the awards themselves, which overwhelmingly favored a couple of programs; a rout is never very entertaining.

People looked creepy. I know we all realize this, but it bears repeating. We are as physically grotesque right now as at any time and place in human history. The face-lifts, the fillers, the wasted, sinewy limbs are now the rule, not the exception. We all know why; the fetishization of youth—and its spiritual implications—are recognized by everyone. And yet, our cultural tolerance for true unnaturalness is unbelievably high. This is horrifying, but it is also fascinating. And this has got to be a unique moment: within five years, plastic surgery techniques will have evolved. Makeup artists and chemists will have better adapted to the harshness of HD. In a decade, we’ll look back with shock at what we accepted as normal and desirable. Never before, and never again, will things be as bad. Relish it. Read More »

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Charmed Objects

August 25, 2014 | by

Phantom-Shelf

An example of a Phantom Shelf. Credit: EM Photography

People talk about a “Keeper Shelf” for those books they love more than any others. Those which, I suppose, are worth owning in this time when owning a physical book means something more than it once did. (Or, as much as it once did.) For my money, though, there is no better proof of love for a title than not owning it—that is to say, having given it away. Call it the Phantom Shelf.

When my coffers are in a particularly robust state, I will sometimes indulge in the extravagance of replenishing those favorite books I am most inclined to give away. It is always the same few—titles that I need to share with someone like-minded, right now!—and by the same token, those which I always miss when they are gone. Read More »

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Fresh Hell

August 22, 2014 | by

dorothy-parker-poet

Dorothy Parker

If you wish to celebrate Dorothy Parker’s birthday with a small gift to yourself, you have many options. An Etsy search of the writer’s name will give you letterpress prints and pillows and pins; a locket; earrings, several flasks; a bracelet; a range of portraits, including a cat in a cloche; a sampler; and a choice of two dolls. And the tote bags! Ah, the tote bags. Need I even mention the tote bags? I am not immune; yesterday, I treated myself to a Dorothy Parker cocktail, made with Dorothy Parker gin. At the Algonquin, no less. (There is also a certain charm to “what fresh hell” spelled out in Morse Code.)

Dorothy Parker’s Art of Fiction interview, from 1956, has always been among my favorites. She has no interest in glamorizing her reputation. She has scant regard for her much-vaunted wit. From the interview’s introduction: “Readers of this interview ... will find that Mrs. Parker had only contempt for the eager reception accorded her wit.” “Why, it got so bad,” she had said bitterly, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” I can’t think of an interview more honest, or more generous. She refuses to call herself a serious writer, saying:

There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me—and then they got the shaggy dogs.

And on the vaunted Round Table: “I wasn’t there very often—it cost too much. Others went. Kaufman was there. I guess he was sort of funny.”

Say what she will, no one can take away from the body of her quotables—or, for that matter, an easy cultural shorthand that reduces her to bons mots. But for my money, there’s no quote that sticks with you quite so much as the final lines of that interview:

It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. I can’t stand messes. I’m not being a smartcracker. You know I’m not when you meet me—don’t you, honey?

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Presented (Almost) Without Comment

August 21, 2014 | by

resolver

While browsing the New York Public Library’s menu archives—a fine way to pass a few hours—a friend of mine ran across this document, from a 1919 insurance pamphlet called “Why Read?”, and rightly supposed it would be of interest to me.

It feels like something out of Sinclair Lewis, but it’s both touching and instructive. I feel about it the way I do those signs in restaurant bathrooms. “All Employees Must Wash Hands,” they say. And I always want to add, “But really, everyone should.” Especially Lectures on Fire Insurance.

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Paranormal Activity

August 20, 2014 | by

Washington_Square,_New_York_1897

Fernand Lungren, Washington Square, 1897

James’s writings about New York disclose, more than anything, an anger, quite unlike any other anger in James, at what has been lost to him, what has been done, in the name of commerce and material progress, to a place he once knew. It is not an ordinary anger at the destruction of beauty and familiarity; it is much stranger and more complex than that, and it deserves a great deal of attention.

That’s from Colm Tóibín’s introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James. It’s a great primer on the writer’s hometown ambivalence—a quite explicable turn of events when one considers that any visit to the Village would have brought James face to face with the death of childhood, with constant overhaul, Mammon, and rampant sexuality on nearly every block. And with bad food, to boot. 

On a constitutional in Washington Square Park today, my thoughts turned to James—they generally do, when I see the intact row houses fronting the park. (Well, James and NYU.) The man titled a novella after it—even if, as a friend recently pointed out, Washington Square gives less sense of the neighborhood than of interiority. (He’s said to have modeled the Sloper residence on memories of his grandmother’s. And if you want to see that brought to life, take a tour of the Merchant’s House Museum, one of the small treasures of the city, listed on any compendium of NYC’s haunted spaces.) 

Perhaps my favorite of James’s New York stories is “The Jolly Corner.” Like The Turn of the Screw, it is a ghost story and more than that. It concerns a man returning to his empty childhood home, which is about to be subdivided into apartments. Read More »

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Frozen Peas

August 19, 2014 | by

F-for-Fake

Orson Welles in F for Fake, 1973, three years after the Frozen Peas recording.

I watched two biopics this weekend. Both had been well reviewed, and both featured bravura lead performances from actors who played, in both cases, bona fide geniuses. You walked out of the movie knowing more about these geniuses’ careers, their achievements, their impact on the world. But both movies were a mess: filled with pacing issues and downward-spiral clichés. Which, I guess, makes a certain kind of sense. Most real lives have third-act problems. 

There are exceptions, of course, both in life and in art—you don’t need me to enumerate the pleasures of Lawrence of Arabia. And I am all for a long life well lived. A cradle-to-grave biopic presents certain inevitable challenges, especially if your subject’s death is a peaceful one. And the clumsiness in such films is no crime; most of them don’t do much more than fall into well-trodden, safe paths; after the inevitable narcissistic degradation—the drug-fueled rages, the alienation of faithful retainers—we see the hero, more or less well aged by makeup, making amends, embracing, basking in former glories and the comforts of old age. Sometimes he sings. 

But what would happen if, instead of the triumphant reunion, the bygones being bygones, we ended with something along the lines of a Frozen Peas commercial? I’m thinking of the infamous recording of an old, diminished Orson Welles caviling over the script for a 1970 British peas commercial by a company called Findus. It’s a short clip—a mere four or five minutes. But there’s more rage, tragedy, and pathos packed into it—more truth about a life—than in most of the baggy biopics of the last ten years combined. 

DIRECTOR: Can you emphasize a bit “in”? “In July.”

WELLES: Why? That doesn’t make any sense. Sorry. There’s no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with “in” and emphasize it. Get me a jury and show me how you can say “in July” and I’ll go down on you. That’s just idiotic, if you’ll forgive me by saying so … That’s just stupid. “In July”? I’d love to know how you emphasize “in” in “in July” ... Impossible! Meaningless!

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