Thursday, April 25, 2013

Samuel Johnson was not an easy man to like

            London, 1763. My imagination had transported me to Doctor Johnson’s lair – a Fleet Street Coffeehouse. The Great Man fingered his cheap non-powdered wig, better to descant on the Americans whom he called “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
            Johnson’s table manners were squalid to the point of splattering those adjacent. He now elected to twit the hapless Goldsmith on the failing of Goldie’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” and then to twit his biographer Boswell on the failings of being Scottish. But the Doctor’s smug magnanimity was for the colonies: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.”
            This was, safe to say, insufferable to me, an American in London. Were it not for Boswell’s adulation, Johnson would be dismissed as a quaint lexicographer. If you ask me, the book might better have been Johnson’s Life of Boswell, rather than Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But now Doctor Johnson’s animadversion on Americans set me afire.
            David Garrick, the acting profession’s contribution to Johnson’s Literary Club, was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, offering only a sharp intake of breath.
            As I rose to respond, the coffeehouse quieted.
            “Sir, I rise above your taut. Moreover, looking to the future, should any foreign power ever menace England – let’s say the Germans, hypothetically – we Americans hope you’ll call on us for help.”
            “Indeed,” scoffed someone from the back. “Yankee Doodle to the rescue.”
            Doctor Johnson’s bemusement seemed more muted. There was a sense that I had given him pause, on which note I exited, tripping over his gout-ridden foot on the way and prompting a Johnsonian bellow.
            The Doodle strikes again.
            Postscript: Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” endures today as a comedy of manners. It is regarded as a classic.
            England did solicit American assistance in two world wars, both involving Germans.
            Dr. Johnson is today best remembered as a conversationalist, which was his true métier. He never in his long and dramatic life lost his disdain for Americans.

How to make your politics more satisfying

           Face it, there’s little you and I can do to improve the US political culture which has gone bipartisanly rancid. It’s time for each of us to protect our political sanity. A few suggestions:
            1. Don’t let the TV pundits tell you what to think. Especially don’t let Rachel Maddow of MSNBC tell you what to think. Or Karl Rove with his insufferable chalkboard thing. These people see themselves as molders of opinion. My opinions are moldy enough.
            2. Pollsters would have you believe that an American shopping for a political home must choose between liberalism and conservatism, the one excluding the other. In fact, one can admix elements of each. The two philosophies exist in symbiosis or they do not exist.
            3. Or, disdain these labels altogether. Ask not what is liberal or conservative. Ask what is true, and let the answer fall where it may on the political spectrum. Franklin Roosevelt was a fiscal conservative who became a Keynesian when he saw the need. And Dwight Eisenhower found truth everywhere. “I think most Americans are both liberal and conservative,” he said.
            4. Because a few politicians err or are corrupt, it is possible to adopt a general cynicism about the entire class. Resist the temptation. And keep it civil. There is no governing idea that cannot be undermined by meanness of spirit.
            5. “Kum Bah Yah” is a perfectly good song and not, as some would have it, an anthem of false conciliation.
            6. Will panelists on news shows ever realize that five people talking at once is not discourse? Ideas profit when we allow one another the dignity of a completed thought. Being loud is not the same thing as being bold.
            7. It is possible to believe that most politicians (and most lawyers and most bureaucrats) are men and women of rectitude. Most want to help, despite the backbreaking burden of regulations under which they work.
            8. Goes the cynic’s plaint, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” You don’t have to get a dog. There is still honor. There’s still kindness, and you and I may rely on it.
            9. If “Kum Bah Yah” is discredited, have Congress belt out a bipartisan rendering of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
            10. If a pundit invites you to lunch, let him pick up the check. Most of them have expense accounts.

What if someone went on Wheel of Fortune while slightly inebriated? A fantasy

            Early in the show is the contestant chat wherein Pat Sajak ritually belittles each participant using his smug grin to subtly mock the goings-on. I was in no mood for it.
            PAT: Alan, your life sounds like a total cliché. But I’m betting you have some kind of interesting hobby.
            ALAN: No, nothing like that. I’m here for the money. Now if that young lady could bring me a martini….
            PAT: That’s Vanna White and she is not a cocktail waitress.
            ALAN: Oh. I’m sorry. I guess it was the slutty outfit. By the way, I’ll skip the half-car and the trip to the Turks and Caicos. Just cash! (spinning the wheel) Uh oh, my hand slipped.
            PAT: $300.
            ALAN: Can I spin again? (Vanna shakes her head no). Aw shut up Vanna. Gimme an X. Naw, just kidding. Gimme a T.
            PAT: Sorry, we have to go with your first response and there are no X’s. But I think we’ve discovered your hobby (makes tippling gesture). OK Madeline, our dairy farmer from Wisconsin, it’s your turn to spin (wheel stops on $900).
            MADELINE: May I have a T please.
            ALAN: She heard me call a T. That’s not fair.
            PAT: There are three T’s. Madeline that’s $2700. Not bad.
            ALAN: Can I spin now?
            PAT: Not your turn, you incredible oaf. Go ahead Ralph, our fireman from Santa Fe, New Mexico (wheel stops on the million dollar space).
            ALAN: Lissen Ralph, I hope you win the million. Pat doesn’t like me so I don’t have a chance. Let’s all go for drinks later.
            RALPH: (to Alan) Why don’t you put a sock in it? You’re gassed.
            ALAN: Oh yeah? Prove it! (Ralph grabs Alan and tosses him onto the wheel. Pat spins the wheel and Alan goes round and round to the audience’s delight.) Hey Pat, look – I’m on the half-car space. I’ll take half a Mercedes.
            PAT: Forget it Alan. It’s all over.
            ALAN: I’ll take the thousand-dollar consolation.
            PAT: No you won’t.
            ALAN: OK, OK, I’ll take the Turks and Caicos… Turks and Caicos… Turks and Caicos… (Alan awakens and finds himself at home in his easy chair, sweating copiously.) It was all a dream! Pat and Vanna! The wheel! Actually I’ve never liked spinning. I couldn’t even sit through Vertigo despite the reassuring presence of Jimmy Stewart. So anyway, that’s how a stupid game show taught me to stop drinking.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hemingway and his movies

When they took his stories to Hollywood, even Ernest Hemingway didn’t have the clout to get everything he wanted – but he got most of it. For example, they shot Old Man and the Sea in Peru, not Cuba, I think because Hemingway wanted a 1,000-pound Pacific marlin as Spencer Tracy’s co-star.
Consider this: Of the seven big budget Hemingway stories-cum-movies, not one was set in the U.S. although all were about Americans. Hemingway appears to find Americans more interesting in Pamplona than in Kansas City and we probably are, the expatriate experience being what it is.
So here are the seven major movies from Hemingway books with some carping by me. Generally I think Hemingway worked well on the screen because he didn’t like to write physical description and movies didn’t require it:

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Nobody understood the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) then or now but they trundled the cameras up to northern California in 1943 and got stoicism from Gary Cooper (Hemingway’s personal friend and ideal movie star) and legitimacy from Ingrid Bergman who had just finished Casablanca.

To Have and Have Not (1944) – This is remembered as the Bogart/Bacall picture and actually it’s a pretty good story about chasing Vichyite Nazis in Martinique. Some called it Casablanca in the Caribbean and there’s truth in that.

Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) – The original was a short story, not a novel. I find it tough to summon rooting interest in a protagonist who is a) unpleasantly self-indulgent and b) terminally ill. Gregory Peck tries but is miscast as a cynic.

The Sun Also Rises (1957) – Written in 1925, it is (my opinion) Hemingway’s best. Couple it with Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast and you’ve got Hemingway in précis. Ty Power and Ava Gardner are fine, but Errol Flynn, as a roué, swipes the picture while enhancing it. I think TSAR stands with Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as the best American novel. And both made splendid movies.

A Farewell to Arms – It was filmed twice, in 1932 with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper and in 1957 with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. That was back when they gave actors lapidary names like Rock and accepted performances in kind. As a New York Times book reviewer declared in 1929, “The part which will sit least comfortably with the reader is Lt. Henry’s desertion.” This is a much-admired story, although not by me. Desertion in wartime (yes, even from the Italian Army in World War I) is not justified by a lyrical romance.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958) – Hemingway admitted, in the 1930s, that marlin were being “depopulated” in the Cuba/Key West/Bimini fishing grounds. And Hemingway worked to preserve the game fish even as he caught far more than his share and more than anyone could ever eat. For sharks, the bogiemen of the sea, to attack an injured game fish was just a day’s work. Hemingway used to shoot sharks with a tommy gun, so his character, the old man, could hardly have been surprised by a shark attack.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wise guy responses to classic quotes

One way to keep your intellectual appetite whetted is to duel with famous wise guys from history. Each attributed quote is followed by my response. The plan is to prove that classic wisdom isn’t always classic. OK, so it’s a pugnacious little premise. I don’t care. It’s fun.

“My definition of a philosopher is of a man up in a balloon, with his family and friends holding the ropes which confine him to earth and trying to haul him down.” – Louisa May Alcott
“My definition of a drudge is one perpetually hauled to earth,” I told her. We’d clashed before. I deeply resented her habit of pouring tea onto my trousers.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” – Profirio Diaz
I asked Diaz, “Would Mexico’s lot be improved by adjacency to, say China?” The plain truth startled him. In tequila veritas, I shrugged.
“There is a Northwest Passage to the intellectual world.” – Laurence Stern
“And an exit that’s like one of those flume rides at a theme park,” I observed.
“The public be damned.” – William Henry Vanderbilt
Now look, Mr. V, I’m guessing that you don’t mean it … that you’re in a mood, that you’ll retract immediately, right? … What? ... Oh. Well same to you!
“The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” – Albert Camus
Camus was spouting nonsense. “That which makes no sense is almost impossible to refute,” I told him, illustrating with plot nuances from the Three Stooges whom Camus dismissed as irrelevant.
“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” – William Tecumseh Sherman
And, to make it more Shermanesque, if dragooned to the Inaugural Ball, I will not dance.
“What a horrible invention, the bourgeois, don’t you think?” Gustavo Flaubert
“What would you propose, Gustave – a nation of boulevardiers?” He was shocked at my prescience, having thought me a dolt, and hurried away surely to write Maupassant in whom he confided his intellectual crises.”
“I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” – Samuel Johnson (1778)
That’s an insult, right? Because seriously Dr. Johnson, a lot of us Americans would pay to come and be insulted by the Great Dr. Johnson in a real London coffeehouse. Oh, and if the Germans ever give you guys any trouble, who you gonna call?
“I love creditable acquaintance; I love to be the worst of the company.” – Jonathan Swift
As do I. It becomes tedious: I smash a flagon of ale; Swift smashes two. I comport myself as a jester; Swift becomes a blithering idiot. Let it end.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Escaping conventional wisdom

You know those opinions you hold but no one else shares? The ones at which people gasp and say, ‘You can’t possibly believe that!’ Well it is - precisely those - opinions that help define you. Covet them, for they are you.
            Herewith a dozen of my opinions with which most people disagree:

            • The best-ever host of The Tonight Show was Jack Paar. Carson had longevity but Paar was electric.

            • Today’s America is as polarized as it’s been at any time since the Civil War.

            • We should still have tented circuses. The indoor kind just aren’t the same.

            • In baseball, 3 balls should be a walk. Watching pitcher and catcher toss the ball back and forth is tedious.

            • Two gentlemen who would man well the office of U.S. President: Jeb Bush, Evan Bayh.

            • Jonathan Winters was the funniest man ever.

            • Want to rebel against something? How about the necktie. What earthly good do they do? They’re not even decorative since most are absurdly mismatched.

            • People should have more arguments. Used as a cordial learning tool, arguing is how ideas get examined. Granted arguments can turn toxic, but they needn’t, given civilized ground rules.

            • The best American movie ever was 1953s From Here to Eternity based on James Jones’ novel. Ironically, it was made by a minor league studio – Columbia – but rarely does a picture so honestly capture a story’s ethos.

            • The all-time silliest American fad was the Twist. It was grotesquely awkward and unappealing to watch or perform.

            • Whatever happened to music? You know – pleasant songs with lyrics like I’m in the Mood for Love.’

            Sean Connery is the definitive James Bond. Connery’s secret: Have fun with the character who is, at essence, comedic.

            So, when that moment comes in which you deliver a thoughtful opinion that’s greeted with derision, you may be taken as a naysayer or an eccentric. Maybe so. But you also have intellectual courage.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Some Christmas traditions you may never have heard of – and for good reason

Here they are, just for the sheer enjoyment. At least I hope so:
1. Send a card to someone with whom you’re on the outs. (If you’re on the outs with more than, say, 30 people, just ignore this.)
2. Arrange an equine cultural exchange. Send the Lipizzaner Stallions to St. Louis to pull a beer wagon, while the Budweiser Clydesdales clomp around Vienna. This will work; no room for neigh-sayers (please note pun).
3. Forgive yourself for one egregiously dumb mistake you’ve made earlier in life. Never think of it again. In fact, make it two mistakes. A Christmas special.
4. You know those guys who jump into an icy lake to show how hardy they are? Let them not do it this year. For one Christmas let sanity trump vanity.
5. The country is politically polarized this Christmas. Let’s do something about it. Maybe hoist a toast to George Washington who didn’t want political parties at all.
6. Keep in mind that those Christmas movies and TV specials are mostly filmed in mid-summer – a testimony to the enduring spirit.
7. If I’m on your gift list, please don’t give me a scarf. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the scarves of Christmas past. In fact, I’ll give you a scarf. A really nice one, only slightly used.
8. Have a contest to see who can do the best impression of Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. Incidentally, the Irving Berlin classic is actually an Angeleno’s lament. The rarely sung prelude: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it’s December the 24th and I am longing to be up north.” And we all know how it goes from there.
9. When it’s time to have someone play Santa, pick the biggest grump in the group. The role is transformative. By feigning jollity, Santa may actually acquire it. I’ve seen it happen.
10. If for some reason you can’t get into the holiday mood this year, go ahead and fake it. You won’t be sorry. I’m not sure how that works but it does. Seriously.