Culture Notes

by Bruce Anderson, February 20, 2008

A reader writes: "I was enjoying my weekly hit but what to my amazement my wandering eyes should appear — 'I drove off to where I was, well past Printing Xpress, deep into an audio version of Moby Dick, when...' As it happens, I am also listening to an audio version of Moby Dick, and the heavenly conjunction was too great to let pass without note. So you are hereby noted. Frank Muller is narrating mine, and at first I thought that he went just a trifle too fast but then I realized it was just a matter of me wanting more time to let it sink in. So I started reading it too, going back and forth. I am now close to the end, but slowing down because I don't want to leave Melville's world. What I notice this time around is how much Melville is enjoying himself..."

I read Moby Dick every few years, and I'm also listening to it now in a very good rendition by an actor named Norman Deitz, and, like my friend Reader Writes, not wanting it to end. At home, I always get the book out to make sure I heard right. Some books on tape are good, some very bad. The bad ones tend to be those read by movie stars who mispronounce words and read like they've never seen the material before, which they probably haven't. I guess the producers figure that with the star doing the reading the star struck will buy it, neither reader nor listener knowing or caring that it's no good.

I've tried to listen to a bunch of British actors read War and Peace but I was immediately lost because, I think, they were over-acting, making their diction indistinct. Of course the problem might have been with my failing audio receptors, but some of these recordings are terrible, very carelessly done or simply weirdly done like Debra Winger rushing through a flat-affect performance of the Brothers K. If the listener didn't know the story there's no way he could decipher Deb's sprint through it. I do know the story and I lost interest in following it after about ten minutes because of the uninflected, disinterested way the actress read it. I warn you about a lugubrious reading of Ulysses by a guy who doesn't seem to know the book is often funny as hell.

Not long ago I listened to an excellent reading of Babbitt with Ed Asner as Babbitt. But the very best book-on-tape I've ever heard was Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man read by Joe Morton. Morton performs all the parts (including the women), and is so good I knew every sentence of the way that I'd missed most of the book when I'd first read it. It's almost as if Ellison wrote it to be acted, and Morton's rendition was definitely the kind performance that reminds us that in the beginning was the word.

Jeremy Irons' recent rendition of Lolita is also read well. But these books are internal monologues which are perfect vehicles for a good reader.

There isn't much contemporary fiction that holds my interest, and I've pretty much given up trying unless it's pegged to an area of history I'm interested in, although I highly recommend Edward P. Jones' fiction, the only contemporary fiction I've read lately that I really, really liked. I am interested, though, in the political-cultural history of California as depicted in fictional form, as I'm sure you are. There's a terrific book by Eddie Muller called The Distance, a murder mystery set against boxing in San Francisco in the 1930's. Muller's dad was the boxing writer for the old Examiner, and the only boxing writer in the country to predict Cassius Clay's victory over Sonny Liston, by the way. But what's most interesting about Muller's book is his faithful reproduction of the old tough-guy slang, and how people dressed and how they talked to each other and what the city looked like then.

For the past five years or so, and being basically Amer-centric in my literature preferences, I've been reading Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Edmund Wilson, and even some Proust via Remembrance of Things Past. Who needs furriners when we've got most of the best ones right here? Anyway, most of us read these books in college or when we're too young to understand a lot of it, not that there's anything particularly inaccessible about Steinbeck or Dreiser. I plowed through Proust when I was maybe 25, emerging from the experience with a total memory forty years later, "Well, he was a real sensitive French guy who didn't miss a thing. Funny too." But I think fiction was better, generally speaking, when there weren't so many writers.

Movies are so bad now I stick to documentary films these days, and it's a lot easier to get in arguments with young people over movies than it is to get them all het up about books. I've cleared the room of young people a couple of times by arguing that I thought Leaving Las Vegas and LA Confidential were completely bogus, which they are, and I haven't seen many movies since except for Zodiac and No Country For Old Men, which were pretty good although No Country was much better in conveying the kind of existential dread the author, Cormac McCarthy, deduces from contemporary life and gets unmistakably across in the book. The movie is basically a lone homicidal maniac doing his thing in picturesque country with a few grotesques thrown in for comic effect. McCarthy's latest and maybe last novel, The Road, set in the aftermath of ultimate catastrophe is just about the bleakest book ever written. It was so depressing I read it standing up in a book store because I thought if I sat down with it I might not see any point in getting back up on my feet. But I feel the same way as McCarthy does about our prospects partly because I'm an old man who has lived long enough to experience first hand the great slide, and partly because, as a matter of objective, verifiable living fact, it's evident that the accumulating disasters, economic, social and environmental, unaddressed by what passes for leadership these days, seem to be reaching critical mass, events overtaking the feeble efforts, mostly rhetorical, to hold them off. We're headed for The Road, alright.

The Zodiac movie, and the man himself is, in its way, a lot scarier than McCarthy's free-range fictional psychopath in No Country for Old Men because Zodiac, a genius of murderous depravity, and a native son of Vallejo where he was a champion high diver, which just goes to show you that the sports world is never so wholesome as we tell the kids it is, was so far off his nut in so many ways you marvel that the guy functioned more or less normally in between his kills and letters to Herb Caen.

Among Zodiac's victims was a casual friend of mine, Paul Stine, a graduate student at SF State, married, two little girls, cab driver. Whenever I read or hear some A-List hippie — Wavy Gravy and the rest of them — rhapsodizing about the Summer of Love I think of Paul Stine, and I remember how terribly violent the San Francisco Bay Area was at the time, and how sordid the Summer of Syphilis and Hep C really was. My friend Paul Stine was shot to death by Zodiac on Cherry between Washington and Clay and then Zodiac walked casually off into the Presidio with a piece of Stine's bloody shirt so he could mail it to Herb Caen to prove he'd done it. The first cops on the scene asked Zodiac if he'd seen a black man waving a gun around, the dispatcher having assumed the murder had been committed by a black man although witnesses said the shooter was a stocky white man with a crew cut and unfashionable glasses.

An anonymous poet called Ares, circa 1968, posted a summarizing ode in the Bay Area neighborhoods where it had all gone the wrongest:

ruling guru graybeard bards
having new fun in yr. rolling rock renaissance
have you passed thru the Haight
have you seen yr. turned-on kids?
u promised them Visions & Love & Sharing
clap, hepatitis, fleas, begging and the gang bang
sure, you didn't want to see the scene go that way
but that's how the shit went down
& i do not hear yr howl
i do not hear exorcising demons
u told the congress that yr. acid
had taught us how to love
even that blood-soaked thieving swine of a cowboy
The Others call their president.
is there nothing left over for the kids
sleeping on the sidewalks
waiting to be carried off by the bikers
of yr. children's crusade?
yr. disciples are dying in the streets, gurus,
u have been among the philistines too long
u have become their Spectacle.
heal the sores upon thine own bodies, prophets
yr. word has brought them as far as the Haight
can you not carry them to the seashore?
or is it your power and not theirs which has failed?
can it be we warrior poets were right all along?
can it be all the buddhas r hollow & like the Dalai Lama
u have been sipping butter tea upon a peacock throne
as Tibetans perished in the snow?
is it not time to admit that hate as well as love redeems the world?
there is no outside w/out inside
no revolution w/out blood

'67 was a good year for book and movie reviews, though, much better than now. The movies had Pauline Kael and Dwight MacDonald writing about them, and the book reviewers for the intellectual papers didn't do all the log rolling they do now. You knew if Pauline and Dwight said a movie was bad it was bad, but then MacDonald gave up movie reviewing because he said movies had gotten so generally bad he couldn't force himself to sit through them anymore, and then Pauline retired when there were still a couple of movies a year that were pretty good, and now you have "critics" raving about movies made by and for morons. Contemporary reviewers are like Little League banquets: everyone gets a trophy for trying.

Some reviewers, like M. LaSalle, of the SF Chronicle, are so unreliable you wonder if he's on the take. Here's what LaSalle says about 3:10 to Yuma (a terrible movie with a terrible script to go with a narrative so implausible it's like the whole show is the work of a bunch of ten-year-olds): "This remake of the Glenn Ford film stars Russell Crowe as an outlaw being taken to a train that will bring him to justice. Christian Bale is a farmer who is hired to help transport him, and that's all the movie is about, the journey to the train, and the obstacles (Indians, the outlaw's gang, etc.) along the way. The movie and the situation have the simplicity of both a parable and a classic. The picture is compelling, and the acting is first-rate."

So, like a sap, I went to see it and walked out about 45 minutes after it started, wondering why I'd waited that long because after about ten minutes I was hoping everyone I'd seen so far on the screen, including the children, would all just shoot each other and I'd have at least a couple of bucks worth of filmic gratification. The acting is not first-rate, it's merely stupid, which isn't necessarily the fault of the actors who only have a dumb script and a cretinous director to work with. But whenever you have a bunch of pretty boys pretending to be tough guys, which the original didn't have because the story is a simple one of frontier life as more or less lived by regular-looking violent people like Glenn Ford, a lot of 2008 men are sitting in the audience saying to themselves, "What does this candy ass think he's doing?" The remake of 3:10 to Yuma is not compelling because its story line is incoherent and it's replete with implausible violence of the type put on film by people with no experience of the real thing, and nobody in his right mind wants to see the real thing.

Movies, like books, are tricky, though. Saying you don't like this or that one can be construed as a critique of the intelligence of the person who says he likes it. I said, in mixed company, once, that I thought The Color Purple wasn't a very good book because after about fifty pages it becomes an argument about the superiority of women over men, more of a polemic than a work of art. I followed that one up with the statement that the movie version of Purple was, in its way, even more insidious than Birth of a Nation because there's not a man in it who's not a fool or a thug. Those opinions got me a local rep as an oinker because, I think, public opinion had been so thoroughly stampeded by then about the virtues of both the artist and her art that my views were considered way beyond acceptable and clear over into inappropriate, which is where a lot of art is these days because the people who are supposed to be able to tell the difference are about as discerning as the guy who says 3:10 to Yuma is compelling. It compelled me right out of the theater and onto Van Ness Avenue where the entertainment is round the clock and always compelling. Free, too.

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