Setlist for Tonight

So much to read, so little time. Welcome to the occasional newcritics linkfest (or blog-whoring as the estimable Shakespeare’s Sister would call it). It’s three-dot time, friends. Jim Wolcott pans Woody Allen’s Scoop (“There’s a lot that doesn’t seem to have reached Mr. Magoo.”), a flick that was panned here by Lance Mannion, who gives a long and sincere thumb’s up to a celluloid winter’s tale, The Big White. Maud Newton’s not a fan of winter’s epidemics, but being laid up gave her the chance to review The Mighty Boosh, via YouTube, by way of the BBC. She likes. And if you’re got the bug, use the wifi and the day off from work to read Grasshopper’s Diary of a Heretic, a work in progress. Michael Stickings blogs a winter painting. Blue Girl loved Nora Ephron’s latest, especially the black turtlenecks. Gotham Gal pans the International Center of Photography’s exhibits. Nancy Nall thought Dreamgirls was OK, but she didn’t find the real Detroit. And the Slacktivist has a CEO’s ode to Yertle the Turtle. Oh, and Hugh Hewitt apparently thinks the widely-loved fantasy series 24 is somehow real.

Jim Webb & Graham Greene: With a Vietnamese Baby on Your Mind

Senator James Webb invoked Andrew Jackson in his response to President Bush on Tuesday, he used a classic bit of the novelist’s art put the weight of Ole Hickory’s plain political talk at the service of criticism of modern corporate greed. It fit, but the edges were knocked off. Such is also the case with the landscape of the New Vietnam that the soldier-author chronicles in his 2002 novel Lost Soldiers, parts of which became briefly controversial during Webb’s contest with George Allen in Virginia.

Webb and GreeneWebb’s modern Vietnam is seen through the eyes of an old soldier who remains besotted with the land of his conflict, and newly enamored of a young girl who happens to be the American-influenced daughter of a communist official. The American’s job is to work with the government to repatriate the bones of dead soldiers. Suffice to say, a political complication arises. But that made-for-Hollywood plot (which ends in a Bangkok shoot ’em up) is far less interesting than the relationship between the American and the Vietnamese whose lives still revolve around the outcome of the war.

When it’s good – and at times it’s very good indeed – Lost Soldiers forms a worthy bookend to Graham Greene’s classic tale of French colonialism and American intrigue, The Quiet American.
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The Sorkin Spectacle

Lance Mannion, who graces newcritics with his presence, runs one of those wonderfully just-because online events that attracts the right crowd: I refer to his weekly live-blogging fest of Aaron Sorkin’s much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Lance’s commentpalooza has been on hiatus with the show, but it returns to tonight and we urge visitors here to repair over there around 9:30 EDT, 8:30 Central and log on in. The banter is mostly better than the show, whose main topic is, basically, banter.

From this couch, the problem with Studio 60 isn’t so much the over-stylized walk-and-talk tic that Sorkin has developed (and patented, apparently); it’s that the show is supposed to be about a show that’s funny, about people who are funny. But they’re not. (Except for erstwhile network “suit” Amanda Peet, who is occasionally hilarious in the classic wacky-beauty way that Sarah Paulsen is supposed to be, but isn’t). Ken Levine noted this and other factors in an LA Times piece, eliciting a thin-skinned attack from Sorkin (who took Levine’s considerable writing credits in vain),which in turn prompted this blog post from Levine. Ah, Hollywood. Thy charms are many. Ironywatch: the whole Levine-Sorking-Mannion episode is far more interesting than your typical week of Studio 60! Then again, I only watch it for the blogging.

Swedish Cop, Timeless Murder

Henning MankelThere’s a distinct darkness on the edge of the old towns along the coast of southern Sweden in the dangerous world created by Henning Mankell and inhabited by his brilliant and reluctant police inspector Kurt Wallander.

I’ve ploughed through nearly all of the ten or so Wallander books in translation over the past few months, set in Skane just across the water from Copenhagen, an area of ancient villages, flat and barren landscape, farms and beaches. They’re among the best detective books I’ve ever read, falling into the police procedural sub-genre; Mankel leads the reader matter-of-actly through the dogged, often mundane pursuit of criminals. But he has also created some of the most horrific killers ever to prowl a novelist’s page, monsters who terrorize the farmsteads and quiet flats of Skane. Continue reading

Executioner’s Songs

Televised executions are all the rage these days, but the long drops in Iraq brought to mind two made-for-television movies that I saw decades ago, but remain fairly vivid for their imagery and their unshaking lens. They were seen as anti-death penalty arguments on the small screen, but as I remember, both The Execution of Private Slovik and The Executioner’s Song were delivered straight up. And because we don’t televise our executions in America, they became stand-ins for what was then a raging discussion about the morality of capital punishment, as the death chamber came back into active use across the United States.
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Portraying Dr. King

KingMuch critical ink has been spilled, and deservedly so, on the merits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a writer. King was a master of the language, and indeed his use of the written and spoken word created the center of his power as a leader, and preserved his image as an icon. [I wrote about this last year on this day]. And of course, King’s image is manifest throughout the documentary arts – in spoken word recreation of his speeches, on television. But what of Dr. King as a character, as a figure worthy of potrayal?

Not much, at least that I know of. The main vehicle was Paul Winfield’s 1978 miniseries portrayal in King, which I saw in reruns on TBS a few years back. Cicely Tyson played Coretta Scott King, Ossie Davis was the senior Rev. King, veteran TV actor Cliff DeYoung was Bobby Kennedy, Heat of the Night‘s Howard Rollins portrayed Andrew Young, and Tony Bennett played himself. But I wonder, where are the other King docudramas and feature films? Has he grown too iconic to portray? Or too sainted of memory to be interesting to filmmakers? Nearly three decades after his death, is it time for a major project?

This Anomalous Experiment

New Criticism was a movement among early 20th century writers and critics of English that argued a strict adherence to a series of absolute truths, the most important of which was that everything that can be known about a work of literature can be found in its published text. Almost a century later, technology and media distribution have changed the mean of the most important word in that description – “text.” These days, the text is never finished and it goes far beyond the written word. Further, criticism, once the province of a few well-educated, semi-cloistered academics, is now the work of the masses. Critics today must either wade into the crowd, or be left on a remote shore.

In this WordPress-powered “anomalous experiment” – TS Eliot’s description – we do not adopt the principles of close reading so favored by the New Critics of old. But there is one element of the namesake school that is the key to this group blog – ambiguity. Different critics see different books, films, television shows, music, poetry, performances in vastly different ways. Further, the best works about human life are far from absolute, even the most moralistic of tales. Here, many different voices explore iconoclastic reactions to media – and the rest of us react to those reactions. That’s the goal; we’ll see how it works out.

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Richard Ford’s Jesus of Suburbia

A fortnight after I finished it, Richard Ford’s trilogy-ending novel The Lay of the Land was still with me. And yet, I cannot tell you what happens in the book, what plot developments drive the last chapter in the saga of Frank Bascombe, what the story really is. There are some bits about a funeral, cancer treatment, real estate sales, and broken marriages. A lot of driving around New Jersey. And there’s a violent ending that doesn’t fit at all. But like a good cover of an old blues song, the latest Ford does not get by on what happens in its 800-plus pages, but how it makes you feel. Here’s how: thoughtful. Even more mortal. A little sad. But ultimately less cynical. A strange combination, and that’s the book’s brilliance.

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In Our Time

James Wolcott beat me to a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while: praise for a wonderful BBC radio program that I’ve enjoyed as a podcast on many a train ride:

I also want to direct attention to the excellent trove of replayable broadcasts of Melvyn Bragg’s superb In Our Time series on BBC 4. Each weekly installment is devoted a historical theme hosted by Bragg, with frighteningly articulate guest experts, and provides an invaluable tutorial on a vast range of topics–everything from negative numbers to Catherine the Great to the Scottish Enlightenment to the evolution of pastoral poetry to (my most recent listen) Samuel Johnson & his circle.

I can’t recommend it enough (my last listen was the Alexander Pope segment). The range of topics is brilliant, the style straightforward and occasionally humorous, the total, enlightening.

Zoinks Scoob…

Shakespeare’s Sister writes a brief and heartfelt homage to Iwao Takamoto, who created Scooby Doo, and died at age 81:

I can’t begin to explain how much I adored Scooby-Doo as a kid. For my birthday one year, all I wanted was a Scooby-Doo record player. Never mind that they didn’t make Scooby-Doo record players. Mama Shakes bought a little blue record player and decorated it with Scooby-Doo stickers. When I opened it, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. Many an evening was spent in my room dancing to my single of Eddie Rabbit’s I Love a Rainy Night spinning away on that Scooby-Doo record player.

Shakes also notes that he also created the wonderful Muttley from the Penelope Pitstop oeuvre. And she puts some great faux final words in Takamoto’s mouth: “…would have made it to 82 if it weren’t for those meddling kids!”