Every once in a while I find myself wondering why I run a blog series called Philosophy Weekend that doesn't necessarily resemble anybody else's idea of what philosophy is, and maybe also doesn't necessarily resemble anyone's idea of what a weekend is.
I was in one of these questioning moods a few days ago when I watched an excellent film on late-night cable TV that gave me the insight I needed at the moment: Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh.
I love Mike Leigh's humble, amusing movies, which are almost always about ordinary British people dealing with ordinary problems. In Secrets and Lies, an adult woman finds the mother who gave her up for adoption. Nuts in May takes place in a nature camp where a boisterous partier sets up a tent next to two stern hippies. Vera Drake is about a woman who secretly performs illegal abortions. Leigh's masterwork Topsy-Turvy imagines the backstage action behind Gilbert and Sullivan's premiere of "The Mikado".
A Mike Leigh movie doesn't look or feel like anybody else's movie. The sets and performances aim to be completely natural, and his sensitive performers don't overact for the cameras but rather move and speak like real people do: polite, hesitant, often unsure of themselves. In a typical schlocky Hollywood movie, a married couple having an argument will often yell at the tops of their lungs, even when they're standing face-to-face only inches away from each other. In a Mike Leigh movie, a married couple having an argument looks like a real married couple having an argument. When a Mike Leigh film suddenly explodes into a sneaky emotional climax (as they tend to do) we are reminded of the communicative power of a quiet speaking voice.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a classic Mike Leigh setup. Poppy, a London schoolteacher played by Sally Hawkins, has a strange quirk: she's relentlessly cheerful, gabby, upbeat. Everywhere she goes, she compulsively cracks jokes, breaks rules, calls attention to herself. She knows that people find her energy level odd amd annoying, and she also knows that her manic style amounts to one of many life choices she's implicitly made that have not worked out particularly well.
She finds her opposite when she signs up for driving lessons with a tense driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. He objects to her chattiness, asks her to wear proper footwear, makes racist remarks about other drivers. The confrontation that finally erupts between this dour man and this ebullient woman is the transformative event in this film, as Poppy learns the full impact of her behavior on others, and comes to realize what her quirky commitment to joyful living is grounded in.
It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.
Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
It's probably the best tween book of the modern era; at least it's the best one I can think of. Well, hell, everybody loves Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which was published fifty years ago this year.
The anniversary is already getting so much attention -- an event on March 15 at the 92nd Street Y on Harriet's own beloved Manhattan island featuring Gregory Maguire, Leonard Marcus and Rebecca Stead, a Booktrib appreciation featuring crime writers like Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke and Sarah Weinman -- that I almost want to skip mentioning it on Litkicks. Except for one thing: I love the book as much as everyone else. I can't not say so.
Harriet is about a churlish, opinionated 11-year-old who tears bravely through New York City's varied neighborhoods looking for trouble, and finally finds worse trouble than she ever wanted in the trivial atmosphere of her own schoolyard. I value the story for its emotional sophistication, its appreciation for the delicacy of a kid's emotional stability, and for the drama of the devastation that occurs when it breaks. The break in Harriet M. Welsch's swirling life of urban adventure occurs, of course, when her private notebook falls into someone else's hands. All the kids in her school read what she's written about them. The revelations hurt Harriet's own closest friends the worst, and Harriet is shocked to discover that even the dull kids in school that she never bothered to care about suddenly have the power to hurt her back, and badly.
We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.
A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.
Dave Van Ronk's The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a constructed autobiography, pieced together by the singer's friend and admirer Elijah Wald after Van Ronk died of cancer in 2002. Elijah Wald is a roots-music scholar who has also written books like How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Eleven years later, the book he produced from interview recordings and memoir fragments would have given Van Ronk the pleasure of seeing his name pop up in lights as a primary source for the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
Dave Van Ronk would have relished the irony, because his failed flirtations with fame became legendary by the time he died. Flirtation with fame provides the primary plotline for Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie I got excited about when I first heard of its Dave Van Ronk connection, and enjoyed very much when I finally got to see it.
I don't always love a Coen Brothers movie (especially, for instance, when it's a Coen Brothers movie of a Cormac McCarthy novel), but I do always love the music in a Coen Brothers movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is a bonanza of great folk tunes, and the soundtrack is especially rewarding for displaying the wide variety of musical styles of the early 1960s folk boom: Irish brother groups, sea shanty singers, "early music" experts, Appalachian authentics, Beat poets, corny comedians, harmony crewcut groups. Despite the great music, Inside LLewyn Davis isn't quite as spectacular a snapshot of 1960s Greenwich Village culture as their previous O Brother Where Art Thou? was of 1930s Mississippi Delta blues and bluegrass culture. It's a sadder and smaller movie than O Brother, but the film's connection to Van Ronk's Mayor of MacDougal Street amounts to a surprising honor for this little-known but important musician.
I hope my pick for the most significant book of 2013 will surprise you. It surprises me. For one thing, it's not a book. It wasn't published in 2013. And I've never mentioned it on Litkicks before.
Before I explain, here's a quick wrap-up of my year of reading and blogging. There was a lot of philosophy, history and politics. Early in 2013, I got into Jacques Derrida. This was for me a belated discovery (isn't Derrida supposed to be sophomoric? I'm no sophomore) but a happy one. In July I took a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of that amazing Civil War battle, and then went back home to begin obsessively reading a whole lot of books about the American Civil War. I'm planning to write more about the literary legacy of the Civil War as the battlefield sesquicentennials of Wilderness and Spotsylvania loom. Continuing my weird march through what may seem to my readers to be randomly assorted moments (ahh, but they're not!) in American history, I also read and blogged extensively about disgraced Vice-President Spiro Agnew this year.
I wrote a lot about music and film in 2013. The death of Lou Reed, one of my all time favorite singer-songwriters, inspired in me a vast blast of sudden blogging, which was exhausting. As I mentioned in a comment to one of the above posts, I sure hope Bob Dylan has a good doctor, because I don't want to blog that much again anytime soon. I also continued my series of articles about musical memoirs, because it pleases me to do so, and I hope it pleases some of you too. The next installment in the "Great Lost Rock Memoir" series drops in January.
There are two great cinematic jokes in the new film Kill Your Darlings, two sly references to the dilemma of self-consciousness that this movie about the Beat Generation struggles to overcome. First, it must overcome the suffocating celebrity of Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the movie smartly tackles the "hey, there's Harry Potter" problem right away. The movie opens with teenage Allen cleaning up his parents' house, jamming to a song on the Victrola, and dancing merrily with a broom.
Kill Your Darlings toys with its literary legacy as well. As several people pitch in to help a mischievous and manipulative Columbia University student named Lucien Carr write a paper about the historian Oswald Spengler, we see a typewriter tapping out immortal words that remind us of another recent Hollywood film: "On … the …". But then instead of "On The Road", the words turn out to be "On the Decline of the West".
Directed by John Krokidas and written by Austin Bunn, Kill Your Darlings is a clever, knowing film about the early exploits of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. It's lively in the same way that Baz Lurhmann's Great Gatsby was (though, of course, it's nowhere near as bombastic), and it whips up a cinematic frenzy of literary inspiration that goes even deeper than Walter Salles's On The Road or James Franco's Howl into the ecstatic and Dionsyian mission of the early Beats. The movie has frustrating flaws, but perhaps succeeds mainly through the dedication of the excellent cast, which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg's schizophrenic mother, Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr and Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs. Daniel Radcliffe's Allen Ginsberg also works very well, which goes to show that Daniel Radcliffe is good at playing divinely inspired fervent innocents.
Last weekend I mentioned two keys to appreciating Slavoj Zizek, the popular but controversial Marxist philosopher. First, I said that his philosophical stance if one of defensive advocacy rather than constructive theorizing, that he is best understood as a self-appointed "lawyer for Marxism". Second, I said that Slavoj Zizek can best be understood within the context of the startling history of the country he is from -- by which I refer to both Slovenia, the country he is from now, and Yugoslavia, the nation in which he was born.
I'd like to discuss both points in more depth, and explain why I think these approaches to Zizek's work help in understanding the fervency of his ethical mission.
This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I'm forced to admit two things that you'll very rarely ever hear me say.
First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.
I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.
Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.
I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.