I'd always imagined his good-humored style to have originated in his early years as a football commentator, following in the witty tradition of Howard Cosell and John Madden. But I was pleasantly surprised, upon attending an event at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan and chatting with a curator named Ron Simon, to learn that Keith Olbermann cites early-television personalities Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding as his formative influences, and that Olbermann will be appearing at the Paley Center with Bob Elliot and his comedian son Chris Elliot to celebrate the Bob and Ray legacy on March 31.
This is bound to be something special, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. Ron Simon explains more, and offers a good video sample, on the Paley Center's blog. Literary content? Well, hmm, Chris Elliot is a writer. The Paley Center, formerly the Museum of Broadcasting, has great literary material in its media archives (at the event I mentioned above, we screened the classic Dick Cavett/Gore Vidal/Norman Mailer television dust-up). And whenever I think of Bob and Ray, I think of the first time I encountered them -- it was inside a book.
2. Other New York stuff I'm going to? I'm not sure but I'll try to catch Tom Wolfe at Barnes and Noble "Upstairs in the Square" Thursday night. And the Happy Ending show on March 26 features Tod Wodicka, Fiona Maazel and Samantha Hunt.
3. My verdict is finally in on Jennifer 8 Lee's cultural history of chinese food. Here's a typical sentence from this book:
General Tso's Chicken is probably the most popular chinese chef's special in America. What's there not to like? Succulent, crispy fried chicken is drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce and sauteed with garlic, ginger and chili peppers until it bursts with flavor.
This is utterly conventional writing. And the book's beginning sequence, which goes into way too much detail about a lottery won by a large number of people who'd taken the numbers from a fortune cookie, will similarly turn off anybody looking for in-depth coverage of this interesting topic. There are good ideas in this book, but the level of cuteness is fatal. Too bad.
Something good has come from this exercise, though. I mention in the blog post above that I first heard of this book while chatting with a Psychology Today writer on a train a year ago, and since posting that last week I heard from this writer, Jay Dixit, who recently wrote about his friend's book himself on the Psychology Today blog. Naturally Jay likes the book more than I do, but that's besides the point. I'm happy to learn that a Psychology Today blog exists (as my mother is a psychologist, I grew up reading Psychology Today magazine), and it's now in my RSS reader.
4. Some have asked me: when am I going to complain about dysfunctional book pricing and promote alternative publishing/packaging ideas again? Soon, soon. Till then, here's Evan Schnittman on a real-life success model, and here's an argument that books should cost more, not less.
5. The Filthy Habits Human Smoke roundtable continues, and you'll notice I managed to shoot my mouth off in every installment of this conversation so far. Meanwhile, the book has been harshly slammed by William Grimes in the New York Times and referred to as "bad", "delusive" and "stupid" by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. Both adopt a condescending tone towards Baker, who they depict as a playful postmodernist out of his depth in the fields of war. William Grimes dismisses Baker's sense of history entirely, citing the Holocaust as the clearest reason World War II had to be fought.
Did the war "help anyone who needed help?" Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.
This doesn't hold up, since Baker is clearly not trying to explain how millions of starving concentration camp prisoners might have been liberated, but rather how they might never have been put there in the first place. Grimes takes comfort in the idea that the Allies fought to liberate persecuted minorities, even though this cozy bedtime story has never corresponded with historical fact. USA and Great Britain never made it their policy to combat Hitler's openly racist domestic regime, instead standing by as Germany established and enforced horrifying racial laws several years before World War II began. Both nations refused frantic pleas to allow Hitler's victims refuge. Once World War II began, the Allies did not make liberation or protection of oppressed minorities any part of their strategic agenda, and in fact Allied starvation blockades designed to frustrate German citizens unfortunately claimed oppressed minorities as unintended victims. When an enemy government is already intent on oppressing its minorities, are long-term starvation blockades really the best way to fight this enemy? Think about it.
I don't usually quote myself, but I'd like to refer to a post I wrote a few months ago on a similar subject:
The hyperbole that surrounds America's glory in World War II was really made clear to me when I was recently arguing with a friend about why I should love the American military unquestioningly. "The American military saved your ass in World War II!" he said. "The Jews would have been slaughtered if it wasn’t for us!"
I had to remind him that actually the Jews were slaughtered.
6. How do you segue from that? You don't. Here's a Moby sighting. Okay, it's an orca, not a sperm whale. But it is an albino sea mammal, and that's rare enough.
7. Speaking of white whales ... Melville House is publishing a third Tao Lin book! Tthis time it's a poetry textbook, whatever exactly that might mean. We'll find out soon.
I've just seen a wonderful movie, The History Boys, based on a hit play by British comedian Alan Bennett about a likeable gang of characters in a British prep school. The smartest students in this idealistic working-class school yearn to be accepted at Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge University) rather than the more proletarian schools (Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Hull) that are their lot by class selection. This film follows their quest for one year.
The students' hero is an inspired History teacher, Hector. Hector is a marvel to look at and listen to, an obese, aging, bumbling apparition with a bowtie and an outlandish drooping belly, played by Richard Griffiths in a performance so good you may want to rewind the movie and watch it again as soon as it's finished, just to enjoy him some more.
History Boys is a performance-driven movie, but the storyline is rather sophisticated and complex. Hector is the best teacher any student ever had -- the excitement his charges feel for Latin and the Classics attest to this -- but he is also a serial pedophile with a known habit of gently touching his students while giving them rides on his motorcycle. The fact that his "crime" is a public secret among the faculty and student body adds richness to this story. Is it a crime, they wonder? He never takes his molestations far, and he only approaches students who expect and agree to it (they allow him this liberty, apparently out of appreciation for his teaching, even though most are not gay). Hector seems to have constructed an entire Platonic society, in all senses of the word, a modern agora. It takes an actor with the charm of Richard Griffiths (whose other roles have included Falstaff, as well as Harry Potter cameos) to make this fully believable, and he does.
While I am clearly comfortable critiquing other newspaper book critics, I'd never imagined until recently that I'd ever see my own byline in print. I met editor Frank Wilson at a panel on book reviewing in 2006, and it's due to his generosity (as well as the encouragement of some blogging colleagues) that I was given this chance. I was nervous writing the review, and I sure was nervous as hell this morning reading it back. But I guess I sound like I know what I'm talking about, and I see I managed to name-check Wittgenstein and Descartes in an article about comedy, so it must be me.
LitKicks is still on hiatus (until Thursday or so) as I try to get our new poetry software to work. Happy New Year, people!
Mark Twain is so well known for his successes that it's refreshing to learn that he wrote several mediocre plays, mostly commercial-minded light comedies, to help pay bills in his later years. Some of these plays were better than others, and it was only five years ago that Stanford University Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered one diamond in the rough, a crazy send-up of the French art scene called Is He Dead? that Twain wrote in 1898 (it was almost produced, but the plans fell through).
Fishkin published a book version of the play that caught the attention of a top Broadway team headed by Michael Blakemore, and Is He Dead? is finally opening on Broadway this Friday night. I caught a preview last weekend.
Twain's comic sendup of the pre-Impressionist art scene in Paris and Barbizon, France is hardly sophisticated; it resembles a Three Stooges comedy more than a Whit Stillman film, and there's nothing wrong with that. A great real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, is the hero of this comedy, although the character based on Millet is played mainly for laughs and would certainly have horrified the real life Millet, who was the creator of many touching scenes of French peasant life, including The Sower:
... which also happens to be the source of the Simon and Schuster logo:
Millet was a revolutionary artist of his time (Vincent Van Gogh admired him), but he gets no respect at all from Mark Twain, who simply employs him as a standard character type, the starving Bohemian artist. Desparate for money, Millet and his rakish friends decide to drive up the prices of his paintings by faking his death, and for some reason they end up dressing Millet as his long-lost sister, turning Is He Dead? into a staple cross-dressing comedy (in the tradition that stretches from Twelfth Night to Tootsie).
And that's where the evening's best talent comes in: skilled comic actor Norbert Leo Butz makes little impression on stage as Millet until he puts on a fancy dress, and then the actor becomes suddenly possessed by an inexplicable strangeness. Butz's performance completely dominates the play at this point, particularly whenever he speaks in a hilarious plaintive bray that evokes Harvey Fierstein or possibly Joan Rivers. The good news is, Butz is so funny that anybody who showed up at the Lyceum Theatre to laugh will be satisfied with Is He Dead?.
The surprising news is that Butz's performance thoroughly eclipses not only every other performer on stage (they are barely noticed), but also eclipses both Mark Twain's script and Jean-Francois Millet's presence as a character. Millet's paintings are well displayed within the clever sets, and Mark Twain's comedy is polished enough. But the remarkable thing about Is He Dead? is Norbert Leo Butz roaming the stage like a madman for an hour and a half, and Norbert Leo Butz doesn't even need a script by Mark Twain or a character like Jean-Francois Millet to do that.
Is He Dead? is good literary history and good laughs. Find out more about the play at the Is He Dead? site.
2. Chekhov's Mistress looks at the ecological cost of book publishing and a company called Eco-Libris that's raising awareness about the topic. The Eco-Libris website includes some basic statistics and names Random House as "the biggest publisher to go green" (today's news brings an announcement that Simon and Schuster is also "going green").
But printing on recycled paper is hardly the only way a book publisher can cease to be wasteful. Two avenues are unexplored here: how much more can be saved by printing smaller paperbacks instead of larger hardcovers, and how much can be saved if publishers and store chains pledge to work together to avoid the ridiculous practice of shipping massive print overruns of hopeful bestsellers, which in most cases are then shipped back unsold to the publishers and pulped. That's the question Eco-Libris should be asking.
3. NewCritics.com is running a series of articles on the art of comedy, inspired by M. A. Peel's question: What is the purest comedic moment you have ever experienced? I've contributed an article with my own answer, which I'll link to here once it runs. Hint: I wanted to cite something impressive and slightly highbrow, perhaps a wicked moment from a Preston Sturges classic or a subtle line from a recent Mike Leigh masterpiece. But I am truthful above all, and ended up writing about a dumb (but great!) comedy film from 1988 that I bet you laughed at too, even though it earns neither of us any street cred to admit as much. I'll update this post to link to my piece once it's up. (UPDATE: here's my article).
4. Via Syntax, a new movie called Obscene will tell the story of publisher Barney Rosset (Grove Press, Evergreen Review). More info here.
Allen's follow-up Without Feathers was every bit as good, though a third volume called Side Effects began to show the unintended side effects of Allen's increasing overexposure (which would peak about two decades later). But even Side Effects had a few killer pieces, and you can rediscover all three books inside a new and very welcome volume, Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose.
Insanity Defense is a handsome and understated collection, smartly packaged as a $15 paperback. I don't like the title phrase as much as the Emily Dickinson-inspired "Without Feathers", and I'm sorry the excellent one-act plays that were included in that book don't make the "prose" cut here. But why complain? Here are just a couple of short samples of Allen's manic style, which will hopefully inspire you to buy the book like you should. First, from "A Twenties Memory":
Picasso's studio was so unlike Matisse's in that, while Picasso's was sloppy, Matisse kept everything in perfect order. Oddly enough, just the reverse was true. In September of that year, Matisse was commissioned to paint an allegory, but with his wife's illness, it remained unpainted and was wallpapered instead. I recall these events so perfectly because it was just before the winter that we all lived in that cheap flat in the north of Switzerland where it will occasionally rain and then just as suddenly stop. Juan Gris, the spanish cubist, had convinced Alice Tolkas to pose for a still life and, with his typical conception of objects, began to break her face and body down to its basic geometrical forms until the police came and pulled him off. Gris was predominantly Spanish, and Gertrude Stein used to say that only a true Spaniard could behave as he did, that is, he would speak Spanish and sometimes return to his family in Spain. It was really quite marvelous to see.
Or, from "The Irish Genius":
Liam Beamish went to Jesuit school with O'Shawn but was thrown out for dressing like a beaver. Quincy Beamish was the more introverted of the two and kept a furniture pad on his head till he was forty-one.
The Beamish Brothers used to pick on O'Shawn and usually ate his lunch just before he did. Still, O'Shawn remembers them fondly and in his best sonnet: "My love is like a great, great yak" they appear symbolically as end tables.
There's also a new volume of recent Woody pieces out, Mere Anarchy, but I'm sorry to say it doesn't fully capture that old 70's magic. I've already read several of the pieces in The New Yorker, but much has changed since Getting Even. Our psychotic sophomore has become an eccentric (at best) elder statesman, which isn't nearly as funny. Mere Anarchy is a fine volume, and you should really get both of these books as a set, but if you're only getting one, I suggest you reach for the classic.
And if you like what you find in either volume, dig up the comic writer who inspires Woody Allen's prose style more than any other, S. J. Perelman. Allen has never made a secret of the fact that his manic literary style is an homage to this older humorist, who wielded a massive vocabulary and regularly originated scattershot lines like the following, describing himself:
Denied every advantage, beset and plagued by ill fortune and a disposition so crabbed as to make Alexander Pope and Doctor Johnson seem sunny by contrast, he has nevertheless managed to belt out a series of books each less distinguished than its predecessor, each a milestone of bombast, conceit, pedantry, and stunning pomposity. In his pages proliferate all the weird grammatical flora tabulated by H. W. Fowler in his "Modern English Usage" -- the Elegant Variation, the Facetious Zeugma, the Cast-Iron Idion, the Battered Ornament, the Bower's Bird Phrase, the Sturdy Indefensible, the Side-Slip and the Unequal Yokefellow. His work is a museum of mediocrity, a monument to the truly banal.
This is comedy writing from the masters, and the stuff still scans.
Woody won't mind if we use this space to say goodbye to another one of his role models, the great director Ingmar Bergman, who has died. Allen referenced Bergman constantly in his career -- A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy was a direct spin on Bergman's Smiles of A Summer Night, for instance (Smiles of A Summer Night, itself a Shakespeare fantasia, also became A Little Night Music in the hands of Stephen Sondheim). My favorite Bergman film is his most classic, the stark Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death to save the life of a baby.
Woody Allen also famously parodied The Seventh Seal in one of the plays that appears in Without Feathers but not in the upcoming collection, "Death Knocks", which features a grumpy old Jew who challenges Death to a game of gin rummy.
Farewell also to Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49'ers, who I enjoyed watching through several Super Bowls, and finally to TV journalist Tom Snyder. When I was a teenager, Tom Snyder was something like a Jon Stewart to me. I particularly remember his Charlie Manson interview ("off the space shuttle, Charlie"), and the John Lydon confrontations, and I also remember a hilariously painful silent conversation with the folksinging Roches, who he just didn't get and couldn't think of anything to say to.
The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
You may have noticed a mild obsession with cartoons here on LitKicks, though not so much with the elaborately drawn comix and graphic novels that are the hip thing today. I'm mainly interested in a few classics, which I reference constantly: Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Mad Magazine, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman. I'm sure this is due to the influence of my father, Eli Stein, who has been a professional cartoonist since 1957.
Under Milk Wood
I'm not sure if I can fairly describe a 1972 film starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole as a humble unknown, but then I did not know this film existed until Sundance Channel aired it last month, and I have a feeling many others who care about the poetry of Dylan Thomas don't know it exists either. The Welsh poet wrote Under Milk Wood as a late-career playscript in 1953. It's a gentle, poignant look at the busy but solitary souls who live in a small village called Llareggub (the name is famously a dirty joke, which will reveal itself if you spell it backwards). The beautiful setting, quaint humor and deft ensemble storytelling may remind you of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, James Joyce's Ulysses or anything by Chekhov.
Who knew that George Plimpton's classic work of participatory journalism (in which he somehow convinced the Detroit Lions to allow him to train with the team as a backup quarterback "from Harvard") was once made into a film starring Alan Alda? I sure didn't. The 1968 movie is a breezy pleasure to watch. Alan Alda -- the then-unknown son of Broadway musical comedy star Robert Alda, with M*A*S*H still in his future -- transforms himself into young Plimpton with a light touch and a relaxed smile. The Peanut-esque jazz score helps, and there are great exterior scenes of Alda and co-star Lauren Hutton cavorting in the beatific New York City of the 1960's, along with charming cameos by the actual members of the Detroit Lions football team, including Alax Karras at the height of his athletic career, years before his own TV career skyrocketed with the unfortunate Webster. Karras and the other Lions provide the main drama in the film when they discover the ruse Plimpton/Alda is playing on them and decide to teach the writer some lessons -- first rudely, then affectionately -- about the importance of trust on a football team.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
This is a wonderful old black-and-white about a beautiful but flinty widow (Gene Tierney) who moves into a haunted cabin on the British cliffside and forms a quasi-romantic bond with a charming but bitter dead sea captain, played by a bearded Rex Harrison. This becomes a literary film halfway through, when Mrs. Muir runs out of money and the ghost offers to help by narrating his bawdy life story (it becomes a bestseller). There are amusing scenes in the office of a publisher, where a slimy children's book author attempts to divert Mrs. Muir's interests away from her spectral lover. The funniest moment comes earlier as Harrison dictates the manuscript to Tierney (as a ghost, he can't type). They argue over a word that greatly offends Tierney, but Harrison insists it belongs in the book. She finally gives in, punching in the unknown word with four staccato taps.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was released in 1947, and two decades it became the basis of a television series starring Hope Lange. I've never seen an episode, but I trust that it was better than Webster.
The hype about this play, which got rave reviews but no Tony Awards in last night's ceremony, is that it's the most violent thing to hit midtown Manhattan since Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen checked into the Chelsea Hotel. It's definitely got a harder-hitting attitude than most Broadway shows, which some people think is great while others fear the Quentin Tarantino-ization of Broadway.
At the beginning of the evening I did not have a strong position on this matter, and I entered the theater ready to be swayed one way or the other.
The lights fall, the audience ruffles its jewelry, and the spotlight shines on two very scared Irish men, a father and a son. The son seems to have just smashed into the family's beloved cat, Wee Thomas, with his bicycle. The cat is dead, and this is bad news because the family's eldest son is a famous (and famously deranged) terrorist who loves the cat more than anybody else, and will surely kill his brother for killing his cat.
As James Kirkwood once proved in a novel called P. S. Your Cat Is Dead, an expired feline is sometimes all the material required for an entertaining evening. The father and son desperately try to scheme a way out of their impending doom as the terrorist returns home, having interrupted an important act of torture (which is apparently his day job) to rush back as soon as he'd heard his cat was in trouble.
We soon learn that this terrorist exists without a coherent cause. He has splintered off from his I.R.A. splinter group, and is now left in a ragtag gathering of tired friends who mouth bored cliches about Irish freedom. He's in love with guns, though, and so is a neighborhood girl who adores him and has a habit of shooting the eyes out of cows. The strange thing about all of these people is that they seem addicted to violence the way people can be addicted to television or junk food. It's all anybody talks about in Inishmore, the only language anybody understands.
More gun-toting people show up on stage, and most of them end up killing the rest of them, after which the stage of the Lyceum theater turns into the grisliest tableau I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, featuring enough fake-blood and bleeding limbs to power a Korn video.
Let's just say that the stage crew must have a hell of a clean-up job every night. The play starts moving fast as it moves towards the end; secrets are revealed, more cats are killed, more people are killed, and we discover which character will truly emerge as the Lieutenant of Inishmore by the end (hint: it's not the tough guy).
The play does suggest Tarantino (which is not, in my opinion, a bad thing), but it also suggests Harold Pinter and David Mamet, and I recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind watching a human body get jointed with saws and drills while enjoying a relaxing evening of theater. In other words, it's a good play but it's not a date play (and I think I personally lucked out that my girlfriend was busy that night).
More than any work of drama, though, what this play suggests is the newspaper I'm going to read tomorrow morning. As shockingly violent as this play is, it's really only just violent enough, just cartoonish enough, just Absurdist enough to equal the real crap that's going on around the world today. Aggresion speaks. From Ireland to Israel to Palestine to Iraq to Iran to Chechnya to Moscow to Darfur to Texas, the warlords shout their slogans and hold us all at gunpoint, and we cower in fear instead of standing up and fighting back. The characters in this play are almost ridiculous enough to be real.
If you're interested in catching The Lieutenant of Inishmore the next time you're in New York City, the theater is offering a discount code to readers of LitKicks: just go to www.broadwayoffers.com and enter code INHDS28, call the box office via the website above, or show up in person with the code at the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan.