A Book for the Times: World Made by Hand

For many years now, curmudgeon-blogger-painter-author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the downfall of America’s vast consumer society in stark terms, in his non-fiction books (like his 2006 The Long Emergency) and on his iconic blog, Clusterfuck Nation. Read Kunstler for a couple of weeks, and he will piss you off. Read him for a few months, and you’ll question the financial underpinnings of the western world – some of the verities slowly begin to fray. Two months ago, for example, Kunstler posted a typical essay called “The Coming Re-Becoming” that factored the assumptions we Americans make for our strength and general well-being in the alleys and by-ways of sheer luck:

Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don’t mean that we are a better people than any other society — these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts — but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle “time out” from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we’re sailing into now.

Fortunate, indeed – and now that the entire financial system is shaking, I’d like to recommend Kunstler’s 10th novel, World Made by Hand, a sharp cinematic imagining on everyday American life after the failure of the energy grid.

I read the book between trips upstate this summer, which was perfectly appropriate, as World Made by Hand unfolds in the sleepy town of Union Grove, New York along the Hudson River north of Albany – a region down on its economic luck even before the apocalyptic events hinted at in Kunstler’s tale. But as Robert Earle, a former software engineer, attempts to balance his base own survival with more human pursuits in a town edging toward violence and anarchy, we glimpse that world through his eyes.

The New York State Thruway as a walking trail. Abandoned strip malls, gas stations, and shopping outlets. The absence of mass media, except for the occasional Bible-thumping when the power cranks the radio back on. The real meaning of horsepower. In short, it’s like a field trip to an Amish village or a 19th century agrarian recreation – but littered with carcasses of automobiles, commerce, mass production and media. The Hudson is again the super-highway it was when the French and British fought for it. All food is produced locally. Drugs are scarce to non-existent, and contagion sweeps away whole generations. Recycling isn’t a feel-good fad – it’s survival. And violence in the absence of real law threatens the last of civilization.

The people in World Made by Hand are thin; they’re hungry, sure – but there’s not too much meat to their characters, either. Women fare the worst: feminism has not survived, and they are reduced either to a means of production or sad, wandering specters. The men aren’t much better, because life has become cheapened and introspection has as much validity as 50-inch Trinitron.

The most affecting character is the cultish preacher Brother Jobe who comes to town to build a new community of believers, only to find personal tragedy. Jobe has seen trouble all over the east coast, and knows that his chances in upstate New York are his last; although things are bad, they’re not as bad as elsewhere – there are terrorist bombs and lynch mobs across the land. The failed nation is rarely addressed directly, but unfolds in conversation – like this one between Earle and his new live-in lover, a young widow of Union Grove’s increasing violence:

“The world has become such a wicked place,” she said quietly, just a statement of fact

“There’s goodness here too.”

“Where is it?”

“In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.”

“I’m afraid sometimes that we drove those things out of existence.”

“No, we carry them in our hearts. They’re always with us.”

“I don’t know what’s in my heart anymore. It’s too dark to see.”

“Light follows darkness.”

To a writer and soap-box shouter like Kunstler, World Made by Hand is not so much of a warning as a promise. Yet, you can also sense a yearning from the author – who lives, after all, in Sarasota Springs – for a return to that earlier time. Indeed, there are portions of the new life in Union Grove that are admirable; the reliance on a communitarian movement for survival is one. A closer tie to the means of food production is another. You get the feeling the author himself thinks he might do well in the reinvention years he hints at in economic/political blog posts circa 2008.

This economic spasm is a result of the credit explosion in all its variety and complexity and derivation. Kunstler’s bleak future stems from energy policy. Yet the events of these last two weeks can be tucked neatly into the back story for World Made by Hand. It’s a good read. And it sure as hell beats watching the Dow or sorting through the bailout paperwork.

The World According to Bert Cooper

As I mentioned in our last outing, the life in the edges in Mad Men is often more entertaining than the faux suburban turmoil that makes up the lives of Don and Betty Draper. The world of Sterling Cooper is really coming into its own in season two, even as the cardboard angst of Ossining (a bizarre choice to begin with) begins to fade. One of the great characters from those edges is the firm’s founder and senior partner, Bert Cooper, played with (sound)stage presence by the veteran Robert Morse. Almost all of the Morse scenes are good ones, and his character is the moral center of life at the firm – his square seniority balanced by the picaresque ways of his junior, Roger Sterling.

Over at AMC’s Mad Men site, there’s a short interview with Morse and i think it captures some of the enthusiasm around creating the Sterling Cooper atmosphere. Live-blogging starts at 10 tonights, so in lieu of a longer post, here’s an excerpt:

Q: Do you feel like you’re stepping back in time with Mad Men?

A: Not really stepping back in time, but there are many values and things in the script that are reminiscent — secretaries and typewriters, etc. — of my days when How to Succeed [in Business Without Really Trying] was on Broadway. So it is a reminder of things past, a little Proustian. Otherwise, it’s fun wearing a goatee and a mustache and having my hair plastered down. It’s fun to look completely different than you are. They write Bert Cooper very cleverly. He’s an oddball. He walks around with no shoes, his office is completely decorated in early Japanese stuff. He has these fun, odd quirks.

Q: Is it true you visit the set, even on days when you’re not filming?

A: That’s right. Exactly. I love to go into the studio on days when I’m not even doing anything. It’s like my senior club. Some people go to senior centers, well I go to my senior center. I think I’m the oldest of the group — the only one who has lived through this period. I just love this show: I show up and hit the marks and say the lines and go home. And then show up the next day with the paper and visit with everybody and have a free lunch.

Languor in the Land of Plenty

Is boredom of interest? The affliction troubling the two main characters of AMC’s wildly popular Mad Men seems to be some type of low-grade non-fever, the after effects of a suburban existentialist bomb that exploded far off camera leaving viewers wandering the frozen landscape of Draperville without the pleasure of fire. Don and Betty Draper are the ice-cold post-apocalyptic center of what is actually a nifty office drama whirling around them, but they move in the slow motion zombie dance of dead-eyed survivors – oh, so weary with life on Madison Avenue and Ossining and the country club. Maybe they’ll figure in Cormac McCarthy’s next descent to the depths – or George Romero’s, anyway.

Don Draper sucks the life out of the tasty little agency storyline slowly unfolding at Sterling Cooper; in truth, the man simply doesn’t have a real job. He shows up, sucks down nicotine, beds a client, tosses back a few drinks, and turns his thumb up or down on creative ideas like some early 60s Madison Avenue caesar. He never works. Not like Darren Stevens. Not like Jim Blandings. Hell, not even like partner Roger Sterling or sales director Duck Phillips, two far more authentic characters who you can genuinely sense have an eye on the agency’s bottom line.

And not like the band of ambitious junior people: Peggy, Sal, Paul and Pete. These people have plans. They have schemes. They have principles they’re willing to compromise in order to satisfy ambition. They’re interesting.

Betty Draper is a pouty mannequin; Don a brooding extra. They’re bored with their lives, having imagined more, but nothing seems to drive any real crisis. Moreover, they’re not likable, in the way that draws an audience to follow them. Sure they’re bad people. So were Tony and Carmela Soprano. But in The Sopranos, Tony and Carm dominated the center – the vast and fascinating ensemble moved around them. Don and Betty…no. Maybe they’re too pretty. Or maybe the writing isn’t up to scratch. And nor are they the literary successors to Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, either. Yates told a suburban horror story in the guise of everyday life – he meant to horrify, and he did. (I’ll be curious to compare Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers in the upcoming Sam Mendes flick to the cardboard Drapers).

So I’m watching Mad Men in the edges, and enjoying it more. Peggy’s ambition is growing and she’s willing to play by the boys’ rules to succeed. Pete’s feeling needed beyond his family’s wealth. And Duck’s dealing with the make-or-break midlife in the killing fields of midtown. These people feel real and their dialogue works; further, they wear their period outfits and settings well. Last week, Peggy’s move on the men’s club turned on her break room conversation with Joan – she got tough advice and she took it. Pete renewed his partnership with Peggy. Roger brokered a deal between the feuding Duck and Don. Paul took a chance on a big creative idea.

Take out the Drapers’ boring boredom, and you had movement – you had drama, in the collision of ambition and opportunity.

He is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind

With a crowd of family in tow in a sea of bustling fine art tourism, I took in the astounding Joseph Mallord William Turner retrospective at the Met last week, jostling through the headphone-wearers to gaze at a few of the finer works at some small length. Turner was an artist of empire, a prolific careerist who grew up as the son of a barber and wigmaker in London and set his sites on becoming the acknowledged heir to Europe’s great classicists. Yet his toil over a very long career spanned the tail end of the enlightenment, ignited as war swept the western world, and lasted long after, well into the industrial spread of the 19th century. And although Turner aimed for classical landscape fame, his later worked presaged expressionism in their layering of color and homage to light.

What a talent, and what range as well. There are the great historic paintings, of course – the Trafalgar images, The Field of Waterloo, and his near-journalistic work covering the great fire that destroyed the parliamentary campus in London in 1834. There are classical landscapes in strict diagrammatic patterns, and classical scenes. But there were two groups that stood out as favorites. One comprised everyday scenes of life in Turner’s times – times that also inspired the writing of a range of my favorite writers, from Austen and Dickens to the brilliant maritime series of Patrick O’Brian. The other was the later work, painted when Turner’s eyes were failing him, works that critics of the day dismissed as “the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand.”

I stood longest before Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, exhibited by Turner in 1835 and on loan from the National Gallery, where I’d seen it before. It is a media-sized oil painting of the waterfront at Newcastle, a portrait of every day toil in small boats and small ships. The sky is moonlit, almost like day, and the light and clouds form a sort of visual tunnel toward open water. The ships have that classic Turner lyric of beauty discovered in hull and sail, but it’s no longer the age of Napoleon – or the age of pure sail, either. Coal feeds steamship boilers, ships move under power, and the factories are open. There is work to be done even at midnight. Smoke sends its industrial signal into that brilliant sky, obscuring some masts.

You think: it would be the 1960s before England’s skies grew cleaner again. The coal-powered London fog of Sherlock Holmes was a wisp in Turner’s painting, but it was beginning to swirl. Jane Austen is dead, Charles Dickens had just started his journalistic career, and Wellington was his dotage. Victoria was a princess yet to ascend, Darwin was in the Galapagos, and on these shores, Texas won its independence and Mark Twain was born. I love images like this that blend a “wonderful range of mind” like Turner’s – as famously described by his rival John Constable – with a clear turn of history. Sometimes you can see so much, and come away the better for it.

Highly recommended: J.M.W. Turner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through September 21, 2008.

February, 1962

It is particularly tempting for me to relish the details of style and fact embedded in the non-drama that unfolds Sunday evenings as Mad Men, particularly in this new second season launch tonight. The ad boys return on Valentine’s Day, 1962 – exactly a week before my arrival in the New York suburbs of that period. Details are worthy. Stylish costumes and sets can hold the eye for a bit. But I do think this series – so praised by critics and prize committees – needs to introduce a narrative that goes beyond middle class self-loathing, drinking, philandering, and bad copywriting.

But indulge me for a moment in my 1962 worship. That particular week is fertile territory that I’m sure the writers will explore. On the 14th, Jackie Kennedy gave a television tour of the White House that has become an iconic piece of black and white footage. On the 20th, John Glenn made his historic flight in orbit of the earth. The next day, the first New York Mets reported for training camp – and I reported for duty at Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. It snowed buckets, as it did that Valentine’s Day (see how obsessed Matthew Weiner really is by checking the weather on tonight’s episode). There were a bunch of ’62 babies with names you may know: Darryl Strawberry and Jodie Foster, Roger Clemens and Axl Rose, Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise, Jon Stewart and Sheryl Crow, Ralph Fiennes and Jon Bon Jovi.

Lance Mannion suggests that Mad Men is not about the time it’s set in, that “all the attention to period detail is a trick.” But I’m afraid Weiner and his crew – portrayed as accuracy-obsessed in the Times magazineare trying too say something about the mythical Camelot years in New York, and failing. As Lance suggests, the inclusion of all the “fads of the time are meant to place us in an alien world.” And to this New Yorker, it is alien; that is to say, outside of the costumes, Mad Men doesn’t look like the New York of the 60s. They’re trying a bit more this year: promotional pictures have Don Draper in the real Grand Central Terminal (not Station, as so many Hollywood writers mistakenly describe it – Grand Central Station is the subway stop below the grand and glorious terminal). I found myself on the Times Square shuttle this morning, and it’s all decked out in Mad Men promotional decals: ersatz 1962 Grand Central in the subway in Grand Central – makes the marketing mind spin. Robert Morse’s Bert Cooper would never have greenlighted the campaign.

Over at Basket of Kisses, the best of the obsessive Mad Men blogs, the tea leaves for Season Two have sprawled naked in the bottom of the cup for months. And the proprietors don’t like our house theory of Mad Men, either. “Deb and I are a little sick of hearing how this is a show where nothing happens,” wrote Roberta Lipp. And may be she’s right – stuff does happen. Accounts are won and lost. Affairs stir, fire, and fizzle. Health erodes. The elevators run up and down. Here’s the complete list, a real service for those who need reminding.

Still, as my Mad Men blogging partner M.A. Peel argues, “it’s still the perfect summer fare, and the sixties are the place to be.” That’s why we’re here! We may think it’s a plot-starved train wreck of a drama – but it’s a damned good-looking plot-starved train wreck of a drama, and we enjoy the critical company. “How many times can you watch the show’s star, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), furrow his brow, smoke an herbal cigarette while pretending to smoke a real one, and take a long, pensive pull on a fake alcoholic drink, and convince yourself that this is real drama as opposed to a televised version of an interior decoration magazine?” asks Brendan Bernhard in the Sun [via Jim Wolcott].

Here at newcritics, the answer is clear: all season long.

So let’s get back to February, 1962. The Beatles have signed with Brian Epstein three weeks earlier and are playing the Cavern. Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson have just been elected to the Hall of Fame. There are 500 military advisers in Vietnam. Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl is the big single. And there’s trouble – of some sort – at Sterling Cooper.

Paying the Piper

We’ve just closed a fantastic five-part film series hosted by Lance Mannion here at newcritics, some of the best live-blogging we’ve had since our launch 18 months ago – but it was also interrupted by a hacker-induced breakdown of the site’s infrastructure. And that reminded me that we needed to improve or perish, so we did. And now I’m asking for all good newcritics to come aid of our group blog with a small contribution against the costs of keeping the doors open. I won’t wear you out, but we occasionally need to fix the plumbing and we’ve moved to a much better server. And can you imagine life without Project Runway blogging, Mad Men blogging, Oscar blogging, two dozen Rolling Stones posts, assorted cultural festivals, theater reviews, and literary gabfests? I cannot! So please click on the sponsor link and do what you can to keep newcritics flying. Do it for culture!

And We’re Back…

Bonnie and Clyde

After an attack by “malware” hackers last week, newcritics looked more like Bonnie & Clyde’s bullet-sliced sedan than the functioning cultural colossus that it is has been over the past year and half. Well, the site’s back up, folks, and it seems like most of the data is intact. Finger crossed, of course. A huge note of thanks to a (thus far) silent newcritics supporter, WordPress expert Larry Aronson – a great man indeed who helped us with the scarred and riddled chassis, and got this thing running again (with an assist from Howard Greenstein). Let’s all thank Larry. And speaking of a hail of bullets, this thing’s running just in time for Lance’s cimematic shin-dig tomorrow night. Fingers crossed, of course.

Earle Hagen, 1919-2008

If it had only been the whistle, Earle Hagen would have qualified for major send-off from TV Land. That’s his own windy pursed lips at the beginning of The Andy Griffith Show as Andy and Opie head to the fishing hole, and it’s his tune as well. But Hagen, who died this week at 88, was a prolific television themesman. He also wrote the opening riffs to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Gomer Pyle USMC, That Girl, I Spy, Eight Is Enough, and The Mod Squad.

Quite the line-up. His Mayberry theme and Dick Van Dyke work open two of the great sitcoms, instantly recognizable. But Hagen also scored Call Me Madam and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, played trombone with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble, and wrote Harlem Nocturne as a tribute to Duke Ellington.

So in Earl’s whistling honor, a list of sorts – please add to it. My favorite television theme songs, in no particular order:

– The Rockford Files (Mike Post)
– Sanford and Son (Quincy Jones)
– The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason)
– The Dick Van Dyke Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Bob Newhart Show (Patrick Williams)
– The Odd Couple (Neal Hefti)
– The Andy Griffith Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Sopranos (Rob Spragg)
– The Office (Jay Ferguson)
– Underdog (Ortala le Clerc Germaine)
– Dragnet (Miklos Rozsa)
– Chico and the Man (Jose Feliciano)
– Miami Vice (Jan Hammer)
– Fat Albert (Herbie Hancock)

Shine a Light – Any Light

James Wolcott’s right: “it’s wealth that’s required, not scrappy resilience.” So we won’t be reviewing Shine a Light here, because I haven’t yet seen it. In lieu of the requisite Scorcese-mauling, how about a brief Tattoo YouTube for a Friday night, a shambling mess of videos that just percolated up from the series of tubes.


Classic 1974 Keith Richards interview.
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The Adams Chronicles

John AdamsWhat to make of John Adams, the highly-promoted mini-series now unwinding through the late 18th century on HBO? The formula of the weekly episode is well-set and sadly telegraphed: Adams unsure and agitated as portrayed by a bewigged Paul Giamatti, some heinous medical procedure filmed in gruesome detail, tension in the long-suffering but strong Adams marriage, and lush and gorgeous locations and set design.

The medical tic particularly detracts. Yes, we know all about smallpox and the gory separation of limbs from wounded bodies in naval settings – we learned at the literary knee of Stephen Maturin, after all. What made John Adams a great man, always my favorite Founding Father, wasn’t his exposure to nasty colonial doctoring. His greatness originated in the rare combination of political philosophy with political tactics, wrapped into a sturdy bulldog temperament. Giamatti’s Adams occasionally captures this quality, most memorably during the too-short portrayal of negotiations of the Second Continental Congress. But too often, this Adams looks like a second-tier player, a utility infielder among revolutionaries like Washington, Franklin, and even Jefferson.

In reality, Adams was the indispensable political engine; Washington regarded him as the Revolution’s most able political actor and for good reason. The latest episode portrays virtually his entire European diplomatic forays (there were two in the 1770s, the series conflates them) as personal failures, massive wastes of time. In fact, as David McCullough’s fine biography – upon the which the HBO series is based – conveyed, Adams provided a valuable counterbalance to Franklin’s more easy-going diplomacy. While Franklin undoubtedly knew the French, Adams pushed for the fledgling republic’s immediate needs; without Adams’ urgency, Franklin’s success was hardly guaranteed. Continue reading