Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, UK, Hamer)
Twelve D’Ascoyne’s stand in line between Dennis Price and the dukedom he believes is his birthright. They’re all played by that asshole Alec Guinness, so that makes it okay when he starts bumping them off, one by one. Watched it all. Watching these early Guinness movies makes me wonder what Star Wars would have been like if he’d played Obi-Wan Kenobi as a really creepy, mean old man.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949, USA, Dwan)
Only four years after the war, and already there’s a streak of insincerity in the war movies. The characters are just a little bit less real, and more like stock characters. Basically, they’re less Robert Mitchum, and more John Wayne. Watched: 9 minutes.
On the Town (1949, USA)
Hey, lonely sailor! Come to New York, where you’ll meet girls in no time, even if you look like Frank Sinatra! Watched it all. It seems that Betty Comden and Adolph Green were involved with everything I think of as Real Musicals. They took the whole corny “hey let’s break out into song” trick and made it just the right amount of self-aware. But this isn’t one of my Comden&Green favorites.
The Bridge(?) (1949, China)
“Quickly rob to live, warm waters all grew a Chinese foot of half”? “The bridge shelf sees and then take not to live”??! I knew Communist Party rhetoric could be dense, but in this case I suspect the problem is the translation. Watched: 3 minutes.
There’s usually a government conspiracy at the bottom in Stephen Hunter’s novels. He’s that kind of thriller writer. The conspiracies sometimes stretch over generations, something Hunter can pull off because the two main characters in his universe are father and son Swagger, shooting it out with the powers that be in their respective eras: The post-war years and the 1990’s present. One novel had a timeline in Vietnam as well, making it three separate eras where the strings are pulled by the (same) men in black. Now that’s a powerful conspiracy.
And then these badass Swagger characters come in and shoot it all up. That’s so much fun. I’ve described Hunter’s novels earlier as trash, and they are, in the positive sense of easily readable palate cleansers. I don’t mean that they’re unimaginative. That doesn’t work for me. What I mean is that he’s found a sweet spot in the balance between being readable and being interesting.
So whenever I want to remind myself of why I love to read, I pick up a Stephen Hunter novel, and gobble it down like back when I had just discovered books and could think of nothing more wonderful than spending an evening in a chair reading some amazing adventure story. And then I forget the story and move on. But the experience – so much fun!
Oh, and the story: A 1950’s Mississippi penal colony for blacks is a modern heart of darkness. There’s a conspiracy. And lots of shooting and general badassery.
Out here in one of the American satellite cultures, the events that took place in the United States in the half-century between the 1930’s and the 1970’s are at least as much our history as those that actually took place in our own country. Some Norwegians feel ambivalent about this, but it would be hard to deny it.
William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream covers this period in American history. Published in 1975, it’s a subjective history, full of opinions – and the occasional historical myth. The book not only observes this period, but is a product of it. It’s a point of view. I find that kind of historical writing really refreshing. Later historians get more of the facts right, but there’s no substitute for the voices of the people who lived through it all. Manchester falls somewhere between these roles. This is not his personal story, but it is his personal history.
This is a massive book, 1400 pages, which is why I read it as a high-speed audiobook. “Slow readers” do so at their peril. (I guess there’s also a case to be made here for ebooks.)
But I’m not sure what could have been left out. Manchester zooms in and out, from broad strokes to detailed accounts of interesting events. He covers all the important events you can remember, putting them in perspective, which is what this sort of history is for.
And let me also remind you again of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, which covers some of the same period.
Now, I dislike Ayn Rand, her books, and her followers, and that includes you, all your friends, your children, and your children’s children to the seventh generation, etc. etc., (in a half-friendly family squabble sort of way), but it has to be said that this is the most intellectually interesting movie of the entire decade. And it is an inspiring fable. Rand’s insanities aside, her ideas here about the unshakable integrity of the individual, and what it means to take responsibility for your choices, are close to what I try to live by. Perhaps you need to be delusional to empathize with Roark. Perhaps I am. Watched it all.
Samson and Delilah (1949, USA, DeMille)
Behold – a new age of Biblical epics is upon us! As you may recall from Sunday school, Samson was the great warrior in the Book of Judges who introduced the principles of LIBERTY and FREEDOM to the DECADENT (ie. bikini-wearing) world of 1000 B.C. Watched: 12 minutes. I think these movies get better later. Right? And less campy? At least I remember seeing one or two good ones.
A legendary hidden gold mine in the mountain has attracted adventurers and murderers for generations. They usually meet bad ends. The plot here is unusually complex for a movie. It shifts between two different centuries, and manages to be just as interesting in both of them. Watched it all.
Subtype: Could all the nobles who are fighting over this shitty little kingdom please quiet down a bit, we’re trying to build something over here?
Primary audience: People who want to find out if folks in the dark ages talked, behaved and had sex just like we do. (They did.)
Tics: Witch hunts, Ian McShane and other anachronisms.
Worth watching: Yes.
There’s little to live for in England in the 12th century, unless you can take part in one of the four worthwhile pursuits of the age: Scheming, murdering, incest and witchcraft. And possibly cathedral building, if you’re up to it. It’ll take you a couple of lifetimes. And you’ll have to contend with a class of nobles to whom chivalry and the Peace and Truce of God movement are just some fancy schmancy continental innovations. But at least you’re not a peasant or cannon fodder like everyone else.
You don’t get a sense that religion matters much to these people. Everyone feels like secular people who have occasional flashes of religious feeling. But nobody watches this for the history, right? And it’s actually those few religious moments that separate this from Rome-me-too’s like The Tudors: The work on the cathedral. The fake relic. Or that brilliant scene where the monks intimidate the workers of a quarry to give them the stones they are entitled to.
And then all the enjoyable-annoying Ian McShane Deadwood shenanigans fade away, and reveal something beautiful: A story about the joy of building.
I’ve been on a Bad Religion binge recently. I’ve never heard them before. It pisses me off a little, because this is fantastic. I’m getting all sorts of “recommendations” from the music software I use, iTunes and last.fm, but they are never any good. Never. They’re more like “hey, you just listened to something from subgenre X, here’s some more recent music from that genre, which is all derivative of that one good band you like, but don’t blame us, you’re the one who apparently likes this crap”. What I want is: “OMG you’ve missed out on Bad Religion?! There’s a hole in your mind!”
Bad Religion – Portrait of Authority, from the 1993 album Recipe for Hate
Bad Religion – The Answer, from the 1992 album Generator
Bad Religion – 21st Century Digital Boy, from the 1990 album Against the Grain
Bad Religion – I Want to Conquer the World, from the 1989 album No Control
Gategutter / Boys from the Streets (1949, Norway, Skouen)
There are no easy paths through life for working class kids in 1920’s Oslo. Crime is fun but dangerous. Honest labor feels better, but you’re exploited by the middle class. And Communism is appealing but also a bit scary. What’s the point of revolution when all you want is a steady job? Perhaps the answer is some sort of non-Communist Labor movement? Watched it all. I didn’t know there were Norwegian neo-realist movies, but this one fits right in with what the Italians were doing at the time.
Tight Little Island (1949, UK, Mackendrick)
Whiskey runs out on a Scottish island, oh no! War is hell! But maybe they could think of some desperate plan to get hold of some! Watched: 17 minutes. An entire community ravaged by alcoholism is no longer one of those inherently mirthful concepts, I guess.
Burt Lancaster doesn’t care about recovering the diamonds he has hidden in the desert. He just wants to get revenge on the cop who once tortured him for no reason. Watched it all. I think this marks the point when South Africa takes over from Nazi Germany the role as the world’s creepy Aryan assholes.
Peggy Olson gets pregnant with some loser from work, and has to give the baby away. It’s the madhouse next for her! Watched: 19 minutes.
Like with many books, there’s a great essay hiding within the 200 pages of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. You can read it here, or watch it as a presentation. It’s about how television was the gin of the post-war decades, a way to make life with an abundance of spare time more endurable, but now the internet allows us to spend that time in ways that are much more useful and/or fun.
Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr are sort of mini-nemesises. They throw little darts at each other in their books. I love that, because I’m a fan of both. This new conversation on what the internet is doing to us is the most interesting one going on at the moment. Shirky says the internet is liberating our spare time. Carr responds that we’re actually watching more TV than ever. Well, but Shirky is really talking about a potential, which is amazing even if still unrealized. And so on.
So much for the essay, which is more or less the first chapter of the book. The rest is .. the usual feel-good stuff about what nice thing some people did with social media once, and look at this Open Source thing, is that amazing or what? It’s not wrong, it’s just old, and hastily thrown together. Shirky is showing signs of being stuck in the 00’s. I say we should take the decade’s good ideas with us, and move on.
But read the essay, definitely. Go read it right now, there’s nothing more to see here.
Nobody does predictions any more, they do “scenarios”, but I suspect that trying to guess anything at all about the future may be worthless.
Imagine that in the world 20 years from now, there is a new and important factor. Perhaps a technological factor, or something cultural or political. Anything. And that this is a factor that doesn’t exist today. It should be easy to think of such factors in our own world that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
What can you possibly hope to say about that future world without understanding that factor? Very little.
What we should be looking for today instead is things that already have happened, or are happening right now, that we haven’t discovered or fully understood yet.
Think of the financial crisis, back before anyone knew about it. There was a big crisis in the future, but if enough people had discovered it earlier, there would have been a smaller crisis in the present. A 2007 “scenario” about the future of the world economy would have been worthless. What we needed was someone to say “there’s something going on here that we all need to pay attention to.”
Even correct statement about the future are probably more useful when rephrased as statements about the present. “Future workers will behave like this!” vs “today’s children have such and such characteristics”.
What is happening right now that we need to be aware of, but aren’t? Stop trying to extrapolate from your current knowledge. Open your eyes. Pay attention. Tell us what you see.
It pains me to report that eventually my mother’s dabblings led her into a little bout with black magic. I wish I could deny this and prevent many of her descendants from being burned at the stake, but unfortunately she not only wrote and signed a small treatise on the subject under the influence of a sinister buffoon called Aleister Crowley, but she is also mentioned either under her true name or under an alias in all books about this rancid character.
At just about the time I was becoming acclimated to the Ecoles des Roches in Normandy, quite unaware, as usual, of what Mother was up to, Mother was in London acclimating herself to Aleister Crowley.
The practitioner and staunch defender of every form of vice historically known to man, generally accepted as one of the most depraved, vicious, and revolting humbugs who ever escaped from a nightmare or a lunatic asylum, universally despised and enthusiastically expelled from every country he ever tried to live in, Mr. Crowley nevertheless was considered by my mother to be not only the epitome of charm and good manners, but also the possessor of one of the very few genius-bathed brains she had been privileged to observe at work during her entire lifetime. Ask me not why! Much as I revered her, my mother was still a woman, one of that wondrous gender whose thought processes are not for male understanding.
- Preston Sturges, Preston Sturges