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Saturday, April 10, 2004

American Religious History--Who Knew?
Michael: I’ve been working on a posting about the art history of the Gilded Age. In doing so, however, I wandered into the history of American 19th Century religion, which is chiefly the history of the Second Great Awakening. I don't recall any of my U.S. history classes really coming to grips with this (maybe it was mentioned, in passing) but it was obviously a huge deal for American culture—and it clearly remains a major influence on our culture to this day. As Ian Frederick Finseth (whose essay you can read here) remarks: Where traditional Calvinism had taught that divine grace, or election into heaven, depended on the arbitrary will of a severe God, the evangelical Protestants preached that the regeneration and salvation of the soul depended on one's inner faith. As the belief in unalterable reprobation faded, the notion of free will was correspondingly elevated. Reconciliation with God still required the continued practice of moral living -- free will was understood to mean the freedom to do good -- but salvation had been effectively democratized…It is not surprising that this religious philosophy found such a receptive audience in the United States, where the Calvinist doctrine of "inability" seemed out of touch with a culture steeped in the ideology of universal equality and political and economic mobility. It also corresponded nicely with many Americans' self-image as creators of a new Eden; just as the individual soul could be redeemed through the exercise of free will, a national redemption could also follow from collective efforts toward social improvement….In its social aspects, the Awakening had as profound an impact on American culture as the Constitution on American government and the Hamiltonian system on American economics. Or, as Terry Matthews mentions in his analysis of the movement (which you can read here), the movement emphasized that: Faith is to be expressed in action, and a growing stress on perfectionism comes to mark the preaching of the Second Great Awakening. Again, the Revival is seen in terms of the end of time. God is remaking society in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. As a result, voluntary organizations form to bring about the necessary reform, among them being the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, and the American Anti-Slavery society. This is a period when countless numbers of educational institutions are established (including Wake Forest) and overseas missions are launched. The goal is to purify American society and make it ready for the coming Kingdom. In addition to hugely boosting church attendance across the country and virtually remaking the American experience of religion, the Second Great Awakening threw off numerous social reforms, including feminism, abolitionism, the temperance movement and more. In addition, a whole series of new religious movements came out of all this that had a significant impact on American society: the Latter Day Saints, the Shakers, the Disciples of Christ, the Transcendentalists, etc., etc. Obviously, the Second Great Awakening was among other things, a (successful) attempt to use religion to deal with... posted by Friedrich at April 10, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Women and Jobs
Dear Friedrich -- As long as I'm in thinking-over-past-decades mode ... Were you as taken aback by the vehemence and absolutism of '70s feminism as I was? Feminism hit when we were in college and it hit hard, god knows. All the protests, the obsession with rape and oppression, the unshaven armpits, the accusing looks, the professorial fury and theories ... Not a great time to be (ahem) starting a sex life, for one thing. But the arguments seemed to make a kind of intellectual sense -- at least when I was at college. Back home was another matter altogether. For one obvious thing, my mom worked. (And, like nearly every other woman in the neighborhood, she was also clearly the boss around the house.) My mom had worked before marrying my dad, and she went back to work as soon as the kids were in grammar school. The lady across from us worked, and so did one of the wives down the street. Not a big deal. For another thing: where was all the hostility between the sexes that the feminists claimed was fundamental to American life? To my eye, most of the couples in the town where I grew up consisted of a guy and a gal who respected and liked each other, and who were helping each other make it through this challenging thing we call life. I tried, I really did -- but for the life of me, I couldn't find the seething underbelly of thwarted ambition, resentment and anger that the feminists back at school were insisting was the raw, plain truth of it all. So I hope I can be excused for having spent a few decades wondering about two things. The first is whether '70s feminism wasn't largely a movement of upper-middle-class gals. I'm not sure how many of the women from my small-town, middle-class background ever got enthusiastic about the movement. Besides, the ambitions the moneyed gals at our absurd Ivy college talked about didn't seem to have anything to do with jobs in any sense I found comprehensible. People where I grew up had jobs, dammit; they sold gasoline, were schoolteachers, drove buses, fixed things, worked in insurance offices. In my mind, a bigshot was someone with a white-collar job at Kodak. But the gals at school, profs and students both, seemed to be talking about another universe entirely, one where people naturally, and to my mind magically, went about "fulfilling themselves" by "pursuing careers." Ya mean, like bein' a lawyer, is that what you're sayin'? The other thing I hope to be forgiven for wondering about was whether the town I came from was the only place in America where A) the sexes got along and appreciated each other pretty well, and B) where it wasn't a big, stop-the-presses thing for a woman to have a job. I suppose I'm committing Ultimate Heresy in saying this, but -- gasp -- as far as I could tell, the women in my... posted by Michael at April 10, 2004 | perma-link | (33) comments

Boomers and the '70s
Dear Friedrich -- Technically speaking, you and I are Boomers. Yet have you ever really felt like a Boomer? I haven't. We may have watched the TV shows, listened to the music, and grown the hair. But we came along five to ten years after the kids who established the standard Boomer image. The media-cartoon Boomer, of course, got high at Woodstock; occupied the Dean's office; spent a few years on a commune while using Mom and Dad's credit card to pay the bills; snagged a fabulous job -- and ever since, he/she has been waxing nostalgic about the great old days while bleeding the country dry. According to the conventional wisdom of young people today, it's thanks to the Boomers that the country has a huge debt burden; that Social Security and health care are looming disasters; that AIDS occurred and families disintegrated; that the country is saddled with identity politics, and with a tangle of social programs that continue to backfire ... OK, sure: there's a lot of truth to that image. My complaint is simply that you and I (and our friends and classmates) weren't those Boomers. We might have been -- god knows we were idiots in our own right. But we were different Boomers; we simply didn't have the chance to be that kind of idiot. Even at the time, we were aware of being the younger siblings of a bunch of grandstanding showoffs. I remember that cracking irreverent jokes about puffed-up older Boomers was one of our Boomer crowd's standard pasttimes. By the time you and I got to college, the party was already over. We'd arrived!!! -- only to be stuck cleaning up the debris that had been left behind. The older Boomers had had the fun of setting off bombs. They'd destroyed, among other things, education -- and we had to make what we could out of the rubble. When we arrived at college, the last of the hippies were seniors; when we left college, the first of the Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez "Wall Street" crowd were freshmen. And when we emerged into the work world -- I was about to type "were spat out into the work world" -- the American economy was in the worst shape it had been in since the Great Depression. (It was in far worse shape than it is today.) Our cohort may have had its own little pop-cult glory moment with punk, but we quickly receded back into the shadows, never to be heard from again. No one will pay attention to my complaint -- and why should they? The media image of the self-satisfied, ponytailed Boomer is too satisfying. A few times, when I've been among young people who were bitching about what a hash the Boomers have made of the country, I've pointed out that you and I were making those very same complaints back in '74 -- and that what the older Boomers had wrought wasn't a big mystery even then. Needless to... posted by Michael at April 10, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Friday, April 9, 2004

TV Alert
Dear Friedrich -- As you may remember from our college film-buddy days, I've got only the tiniest of appetites for the "spectacle" element of movies. Happy to acknowledge the pleasure lots get from spectacle ("LOTR," anyone?), and happy to doff my hat to the historical importance of it. But my own system, for some no doubt oddball reason, doesn't crave pageantry. Give me comedy, character, eroticism, satire, sociology, mood, and suspense any day. Well, almost any day. I do adore the films of Cecil B. DeMille. Are you a fan? They throw me into a state few other movies do. I'm giggly, yet I'm also in a trance; they're camp pleasures, yet at the same time they reach me on some genuine plane. The absurd historical and religious superproductions DeMille's best known for (early on he also made a fair number of intimately-scaled things, believe it or not) hit me like primitive epic poetry. They're fabulous combos of earnestness, hypocrisy, exploitation, beauty, sex and moralizing ... What many people take as reasons to dismiss DeMille's films is exactly what puts a spell on me. DeMille by Karsh Hard to pull it all apart, if great fun to try. I had a wonderful time last week catching up with a couple of DeMille's films on Turner Classic Movies, and watching a new documentary about DeMille by the great film historian Kevin Brownlow. It turns out that DeMille's life was as interesting as his films -- vulgar, showy, screwy, even a little touching. In fact, his life story is in many ways a good metaphor for the story of Hollywood itself. "The Squaw Man," DeMille's very first movie, was the first feature to be made in Hollywood, and his last film, a version of "The Ten Commandments," was released in 1956. Now that was a career. And, hurrah, I notice that TCM is running the documentary again, super-early Sunday morning. * Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic (TCM; 4/11, 2-4 a.m.). One of DeMille's favorites from among his own films, his silent King of Kings, precedes the documentary, and will start at midnight. God bless TCM, eh? Gentleguys (and Gentlegals), set your Tivos. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 9, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, April 8, 2004

Book Publishing
Dear Friedrich -- When it comes to the views about books and book publishing that I've presented at the blog, I've gotten the impression that some visitors think I'm a bit ... well, eccentric. Morbidly defeatist and pessimistic. Sick and twisted, perhaps. In my mind, of course, I've simply been having a good time telling people what I've observed. In fact, I'm one of the cheerier people you'll ever meet; I may even someday publish a book of my own. I just see no reason to fool myself about what the process is likely to entail. Still, it's fun to find backup. (Don't girls call this "validation"?) I recently ran across a couple of items that visitors interested in writing and publishing may find interesting. Not so coincidentally, these two pieces confirm every damn thing I've ever written here about book publishing. Ahem. Doubt a Blowhard at your peril. Here's a piece by the distinguished journalist Anne Applebaum about the mutual hostility between high-cult people and pop-cult people. "Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it," she writes. "High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it. As for the rest of us -- we're inundated with the former, often alienated from the latter." (Link thanks to Terry Teachout, here.) Here's a pseudonymously-written Salon piece about what it's like to try to make a go of it as a writer of midlist books. (You'll have to accept a Salon "day pass" to read the piece, but all that means is clicking through some ads.) Moral: why not shoot yourself now instead? And a couple of bonus tracks: Here's a super-amusing q&a that Craig McDonald did with the wonderful English mystery writer Peter Lovesey. Here's a decently-done animated BBC history of books. You now know virtually everything about book publishing that it took me 15 on-the-job years to figure out. Ain't the web great? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Happiness? Evolution Don't Need No Stinkin' Happiness
Michael: What’s the deal with happiness, anyway? ‘Happiness’ science seems to keep popping up wherever I go these days. I checked out the link you provided to the talk/essay by Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert (which can be read here) on why people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy. It contained the following remarks: If you actually looked at the correlates of happiness across the human population, you learn a few important things. First of all, wealth is a poor predictor of happiness. It's not a useless predictor, but it is quite limited. The first $40,000 or so buys you almost all of the happiness you can get from wealth. The difference between earning nothing and earning $20,000 is enormous—that's the difference between having shelter and food and being homeless and hungry… On the [one] hand, once basic needs are met, further wealth doesn't seem to predict further happiness. So the relationship between money and happiness is complicated, and definitely not linear. If it were linear, then billionaires would be a thousand times happier than millionaires, who would be a hundred times happier than professors. That clearly isn't the case. On the other hand, social relationships are a powerful predictor of happiness—much more so than money is. Happy people have extensive social networks and good relationships with the people in those networks. What's interesting to me is that while money is weakly and complexly correlated with happiness, and social relationships are strongly and simply correlated with happiness, most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why? Why indeed? Well, one way of interpreting that apparently irrational behavior is to assume, as Professor Gilbert does, that people are happiness maximizers, but they are pretty inefficient at it: "Most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why?" He suggests that people are either ignorant about what makes them happy or are unfortunately susceptible to deceptive stimuli (like advertising) that persuades them to make questionable lifestyle choices. Hence they waste their lives overworking and overspending, when they should be hanging out with their friends. I really have to question this conclusion for several reasons. First, the methodology of ‘happiness’ science seems more than a bit spotty. (Professor Gilbert doesn’t discuss the whole topic of methodology, but I assume for the following discussion that his approach is similar to that of other workers in the field—to wit, he’s measuring happiness by the extremely sophisticated approach of asking people how happy they are.) How accurate is self-reported happiness as a measure of well, anything? How much credibility would you give to self-reported data on the quality of people’s sex lives? (Especially if the question were phrased this way: “Do you think your sex life is (1) poorer than that of an average member of your high school graduating class, (2) equal to that of an average member of your high school graduating class, or (3) better than... posted by Friedrich at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

Book Sales/Audiobook Sales
Dear Friedrich -- Audiobooks, whose virtues and pleasures I've been touting on this blog for a while, continue to gain. Although sales of adult hardcover books dropped 2.4% in 2003 -- and I've been told that the figure would be close to 4% if you left out the "Harry Potter" books -- audiobook sales rose 12.4% in the same period, a rate of growth that has held steady since 1997. I got these figures from the excellent inside-publishing newsletter Publishing Trends, whose website is here. Some more interesting facts and passages from the piece: "The average audiobook listener remains middle-aged to older, well educated, and relatively affluent. According to APA stats, audiobook listeners are 76% female, with an average age of 45 (the average male is 47). And, more telling than any other trait, the average listener does so while driving." "Publishers report that the sale of [books on] CDs has shifted into overdrive, and many say it's only a matter of time before cassettes go the way of the Edsel." Digital downloading of audiobooks is now possible -- more than 5000 audiobooks can now be downloaded via Apple's Itunes site, for instance. Digitification means that audiobooks will soon be popping up in all kinds of venues. "Daniel Waters, chair of the Public Library Association's Tech in Libraries Committee ... said it's only a matter of time -- say, 18-24 months -- before most libraries offer digital downloads of books." It's expected that audiobooks will soon be offered on airplanes, as one of the audio channels. Already, a digital-radio channel offers audiobooks 24/7. Although I'll miss books-on-cassettes, I can't see any other downsides to these developments, can you? IMHO, audiobooks are a bandwagon well worth jumping on. Thanks to 'em, commuting time, exercise time, even time spent on housework can all go from being tedium-time to book-reading time. Best, Michael UPDATE: Here's a link to Telltale Weekly, an interesting attempt to create a public-domain audiobook library.... posted by Michael at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Elizabeth George
Dear Friedrich -- Have you ever run across the crime novelist Elizabeth George? To my shame, I've only read one of her novels, this one here. But I thought it was terrific, and I'll be reading more of them. I suppose the dismissive view of her work might be that it's nothing but PBS "Mystery!" fodder. And that's not inaccurate; in fact, some of her books have been made into "Mystery!"-ish TV series. But at the same time such a judgment misses the point of what's to be valued, admired and enjoyed in her books. Like PD James and Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George uses the crime-novel form to explore the traditional material of fiction -- psychology and character, sociology and politics. Readers looking for full-bodied novel-reading experiences from contemporary fiction would be well-advised, IMHO, to avoid most lit-fiction (especially the buzzed-about stuff) and pick up a crime novel by James, Rendell or George instead. All three are expert storytelling craftspeople; all three are also shrewd, observant and insightful, and have a lot on their minds. Of the three, Rendell is the strangest, the most malicious and the most perverse. Many of her books (especially her non-series books) are wonderfully freaky reading experiences, and of the three she's my personal fave. James and George satisfy in more traditional ways. Their books are as much like old carved-from-oak, made-for-the-generations 19th-century novels as you can find (or at least as I've found) these days. Attention, attention, attention: all of these writers are working in what today passes for non-"literary" modes. The central thing they're selling, so to speak, is story, sociology, and character; don't bother with them if what you're in the market for is pinwheeling, attitudinizing literary hijinks. All three are terrific writers in the (sigh) hyper-limited sense of being able to use words and sentences fluently, and of structuring a reading experience effectively. But they're a lot more interested in the human content of their subjects than they are in linguistic, let alone writing-school, games. This is non-egocentric writing, the equivalent in fiction of what Christopher Alexander, Leon Krier, and the New Urbanists fight for in architecture -- art that isn't about the the caperings of an artist-genius, but that puts technique at the service of subject matter, and that serves traditional human interests and needs. Needless to say, I think that's great, and I think the self-conscious "literary" world should bow down before these prolific and brilliant giants. But I vowed early this morning to not let myself get too worked up about these things today. As a person, George is an interesting figure too, famous mainly because, although she's an American (born in the midwest; lived for ages in California; recently moved to Washington state), she writes novels set convincingly in Britain, and featuring British characters. When asked why she does this, she tends to say, Why not? And then that she does it because she likes England. (Good answer!) She has done a lot of teaching, and recently... posted by Michael at April 8, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Architects and Glass
Dear Friedrich -- It's important (IMHO, of course) to learn to defend ourselves against architects, many of whom share a taste-set that civilians find bizarre, even repulsive. High-toned architects like flat (or warped) planes, acute angles, razor-sharp lines, and things that glare and gleam; they like buildings that twist, swoop, torque, and fold in on themselves -- that stand out rather than fit in. My usual response to these whirling abstract structures is, "Hey, when I wanna look at TV graphics, I'll turn on the TV." But most of all, architects like glass. In fact, many architects are such fanatics about shimmeriness and reflectiveness, openness and transparency that you'd almost think they don't like buildings at all, given the fact that the rest of us tend to look to buildings for such qualities as permanence, shelter, coziness, and security. Glass is something a building can definitely have too much of. Randy Minor, a Chicago Magazine writer who lives in a Mies van der Rohe-designed apartment building, once wrote this about what it's like to live surrounded by acres of Miesian glass: My own living habits, however dull, are calculated and self-conscious the minute I walk into my modernist marvel. The only privacy I have is in a couple of corners in my tiny bathroom and kitchen, where I retreat when I want to be "alone." I wrote here about a couple of new Richard Meier-designed glass-and-steel perfume bottles, er, towers in Greenwich Village that have atttracted a lot of media interest. Flashy geometrical cages -- what a considerate and lovely way to enhance rambly old bricks-and-cobblestones Greenwich Village, eh? So it was fun to find out in this article here by Deborah Schoeneman for New York magazine that some real-estate shoppers, now that they've had a look at Meier's wraparound, floor-to-ceiling glass, are having second thoughts. Schoeneman writes: The Rear Window effect already has some buyers backing out of the building."It's not very private," complains one uptown socialite whose new husband bought a Meier loft before they were engaged and has since put it on the market for $2.75 million. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 7, 2004 | perma-link | (10) comments

Dear Friedrich -- * I've been enjoying catching up with the newish blog Beatus Est, here, written by Eric. He's an anti-modernist architect, and although he claims to be a lousy writer, at regular intervals he turns a nifty phrase: "The academics of architecture would have people believe that it is complex and that they are the only ones able and fit to judge what is good and what is not," Eric writes. "It's time for the public to tell the emperor he has no clothes and call for more traditional views of art and architecture, time for the public to quit accepting what they're simply told." Hear, hear, bro'. * James Howard Kunstler's short address to A Vision of Europe (here) is, characteristically, a scorcher. "We need an everyday world that is worthy of our affection," says Kunstler, and it's hard to put it better than that. Link thanks to John Massengale, whose posting here isn't to be missed either. "Modernism has done a terrible job of providing us with a usable past: it's produced a small number of great buildings, but few great places, and an overwhelming amount of crap. Over 80% of America has been built since World War II, and on the whole, it ain't pretty," writes John. * Some treats for mystery fans: Sarah Weinman blogs about crime fiction here. (Link thanks to Terry Teachout, here.) Fenster Moop has written a fine posting about the brilliant Patricia Highsmith, here. And Sarah points out this nice Mystery Ink tribute by Fiona Walker to the great Ruth Rendell, here. * Arts and Letters Daily's Denis Dutton is an entrepreneur, a web visionary, and a philosopher. He turns out to be a sharp film critic too -- which is to say, natch, that I agree with how he reacted to the "Lord of the Rings" (ie., with fatigue and without enthusiasm), and admire and enjoy how he's said it. Dutton also has some provocative and helpful thoughts in his piece (here) about what digital tech is doing to movies. * Here's a NYTimes article by Erin Arvedlund about an innovative way the American film industry is fighting DVD piracy in Russia: by actually cutting prices. Imagine that. * More on economics and happiness -- an Edge talk with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, here. (Link thanks to Arnold Kling, here.) Gilbert -- sensibly, to my mind -- asks if we'd really want people to be rational in the economic sense, even if such a thing were possible. * The Marginal Revolution duo have been as busy and brainy as ever. Here's Alex Taborrok's article for the Library of Economics and Liberty about how to cope with the organ shortage -- the shortage of human organs, that is. And here's Tyler Cowen on a question that's puzzled me for years: why can't I subscribe only to those cable-TV channels that I really want? Why do I have to buy the whole damn bundle? * DesignObserver's Rick Poynor writes a posting... posted by Michael at April 7, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

The Future of the Past
Michael: I spent last weekend in what we Angelenos call ‘the Desert’ with my in-laws celebrating Passover. At breakfast one day I stumbled across a mind-blowing story in the local paper, the Desert Sun. Apparently Cheeta, the chimpanzee star of the Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan “Tarzan” movies is still alive and hanging out in retirement somewhere in the Palm Springs area. Of course, I wouldn't swear that there was only one Cheeta, but apparently this chimp is one of those who graced the silver screen with the King of the Jungle. (Although I couldn’t find that story on the Desert Sun’s website, you can read a 2003 story about Cheeta’s retirement here. You can also see Cheeta’s own website, here.) World's Oldest Living Chimp and His Sidekick, Dan Westfall Certified by Guinness as the oldest chimp in the world, at 72 Cheeta has nearly doubled the typical chimpanzee life-span. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet reached the duration of his co-stars (Weissmuller died in 1984 at the age of 80 and O’Sullivan died in 1998 at the age of 89) but the notion of a chimp being the last surviving actor of the series seems weirdly appropriate and poignant somehow. (A web-search on O’Sullivan revealed, somewhat amusingly, that she hated Cheeta because he apparently bit her on several occasions. Well, I guess he had the last laugh, so to speak.) Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan: Primordial Jungle Ancestors, 1930s-Style As will probably come as no surprise, I watch a lot of kid-oriented fare with my nearly three-year-old son. I guess the news of Cheeta’s survival into the present hit me because at my son’s age I was watching scratchy black & white Tarzan movies on the tube. In contrast to modern products aimed primarily at children, the very decrepitude of the images, the struggle you had to engage in to decode what was going on—as well as the strikingly ugly-handsome face of Weissmuller himself and the not-quite-contemporary allure of O’Sullivan—all seemed part of the primordial atmosphere of those films. The Tarzan movies that flickered across my television seemed terribly foreign and moss encrusted, sort of a message from another continent, which was exactly appropriate for the subject matter. (Whenever I see a jungle setting obviously recreated on a sound stage it puts me into a dream-like state to this day. Check out "The Little Princess" sometime.) One reason I liked Tarzan movies was that my dad told me he had seen them as a child in theaters, so I guess I was trying to penetrate the mystery of what his life had been like as a kid, if even only in a small way. I wonder if my son or children of his generation will have any veneration for old things just because they are old? Maybe there is a downside to what promises to be the ever-clear immortality of digital imagery. Cheers, Friedrich P.S. I came across a great Johnny Weissmuller anecdote from a website you can check out here: Many stories... posted by Friedrich at April 7, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

From Gina to Kate
Dear Friedrich -- 1. I rent Borderline at the DVD store partly because I sometimes enjoy checking out thrillers that go straight-to-video, but mostly because it stars Gina Gershon, who I often love watching. That bad-girl chic and effrontery of hers amuses me no end. And I do love looking at her mouth. 2. The movie's credits go by, and I notice that the film was directed by Evelyn Purcell, who I remember was once married to Jonathan Demme. In the mid-'80s, Purcell had a filmworld reputation as an impressive woman, so people were expecting great things when she made her own first movie. It turned out to be "Nobody's Fool," an inconsequential piece of hippie whimsy, and people lost interest in her. How has Purcell spent her life since, I wonder. 3. The picture is OK -- an intelligently laid-out and executed ultra-low-budget cross between a neo-noir and a yuppie-under-siege thriller (like "Unlawful Entry"). Unfortunately, it's got no flair or wildness -- almost nothing to rescue it from something basically dull and worthy at its heart. Grumpy thoughts about women directing thrillers circulate in my brain. 4. But Gershon is terrific and fresh, if in a modest way. She and Purcell seem to have wanted to use the movie to show the multisidedness of women -- not just the familiar sexiness and competence, but the way a woman moves between a whole variety of roles and personas: anxious mother, tender lover, tough professional, fearful child, mischievous imp, doomed heroine ... As a thriller, the movie's a semi-anonymous snooze; as a vehicle for putting onscreen some observations about women, it's pretty enjoyable. Nonetheless, The Wife falls asleep halfway through the film. 5. Why isn't Gina Gershon a big star? She seems to have everything a star needs -- looks, talent, charisma, sexiness, distinctiveness ... Plus, she was so wonderful in "Bound" and "Showgirls" ... But both were cult pictures, not big hits ... Is Gershon not a big star just because she hasn't had the luck to be in a big hit? 6. I muse about actresses and stardom ... All those beautiful, talented actresses who are plausible star material yet who never do become stars ... Among fairly recent names, there's Kelly Lynch ... Madeleine Stowe ... Minnie Driver ... Annette O'Toole ... Diane Lane would be on this list if she hadn't gotten lucky and achieved stardom with "Unfaithful" ... 7. I'm still thinking about this when I watch the Ron Shelton cop-buddy picture Hollywood Homicide the next evening. The movie is slick, energized, and even kinda brilliant, but almost nothing about it clicks, IMHO. It's got a glittering, party-hearty mood, but watching it I felt like the guy down the hall who isn't in the mood for such a lot of loud carrying-on. 8. Stories that have an actual jock-like quality, though -- what a good idea for a list. Not literary stuff like Roger Angell or Malamud. Who needs more of that? But a list of... posted by Michael at April 6, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, April 5, 2004

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I just finished watching the DVD of the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." Have you seen the film? I think you'd love it. I certainly did. Go now and rent. The film's about the house musicians at Motown Records during its Detroit (ie., Hitsville, USA) heyday, from the late 1950s until the early 1970s, when the label moved to L.A. These guys, who called themselves The Funk Brothers, were the instrumentalists on such songs as "My Girl," "Mickey's Monkey," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," "Do You Love Me?," "Heat Wave," and "Ain't too Proud to Beg" -- as far as I'm concerned, a good percentage of the happiest music ever made. In fact, the documentary claims that The Funk Brothers played on more #1 hits than Elvis, the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and the Beatles put together. Yet as individuals they're barely known. Making them known, of course, is the documentary's purpose. As a movie, it's merely OK-to-pretty-good. It's organized around a reunion concert, and it includes interviews, a handful of staged recreations, some archival footage, and the usual collection of stills and knickknacks. Some quibbles: the film gets a little dreary as it moves into the late 1960s -- but, heck, the late '60s were pretty dreary. The narration, co-written by (sigh) Ntozake Shange, is almost childishly overripe; I could have used a lot less rhetoric and lot more information. And while some of the singers who perform in front of the band in the reunion concert bring their own joy onto the stage (Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne), a couple of the performers are earnest drags. (Speaking of which, can anyone explain the appeal of Meshell N'Dego-what's-her-name? I do my best to be generous to artists and performers, but for the life of me I can't find a single good thing to say about Meshell. Well, OK: she's got a better voice than I do. But aside from that, sheesh: her performing style is masked, introverted, superior -- it seems intended to deflate the material she's performing. I can't see how anything she does could appeal to anyone who isn't a card-carrying member of the Women's Studies division of the Rainbow Coalition.) But why quibble when the material is as sweet and fascinating as it is here? I remember Camille Paglia once writing something like, the French and the academics can theorize away, but all you need to do to smash their intellectualizing to smithereens is walk past a gospel church on Sunday. That's what watching this movie was like for me -- like walking past a gospel church on Sunday. If your heart doesn't feel like bursting with gratitude, amazement and pleasure a half a dozen times while watching this movie, well, forget being my friend. Whatever my reservations about the filmmaking, hats off to Paul Justman (the director) and Allan Slutsky (the producer, as well as the writer on whose book the movie is... posted by Michael at April 5, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments