A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Finding Baum

The following review appeared today in the Washington Post:

FINDING OZ: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

By Evan I. Schwartz

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pp., $27.

Everybody loves the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz, but for some aficionados of L. Frank Baum's works, the film that better captures the essence of Baum's vision is the 1985 Disney-produced Return to Oz. Directed by Oscar-winning sound and film editor Walter Murch, it was a critical and commercial flop, perhaps because it doesn't stint on the dark and scary. Any kid who was freaked out by the witch and the flying monkeys of the MGM movie will be traumatized by the genuine weirdness of the Disney version, which begins with Dorothy consigned to a mental hospital because she can't stop talking about this place she calls Oz.

The truth is, Baum's Oz was always a weird and scary place, but what Murch's film gets particularly right is the author's very American ambivalence toward technology. Production designer Norman Reynolds nails it brilliantly with some steampunk-inspired creations: on the one hand such late-Victorian horrors as the gruesome electroshock machine with which Dorothy is threatened in the hospital, and on the other the lovable mechanical man Tik-Tok. The film underscores what Evan I. Schwartz suggests in his new book on the life and times of L. Frank Baum, that the road to the Emerald City began in the White City: the lathe-and-plaster facades of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, behind which such technological innovations as electric light, the phonograph and motion pictures mingled with carnival humbug. And that among the prototypes for Baum's Wizard of Oz were both the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison, and the master of conning the suckers, P.T. Barnum.

Baum was 44 when he published the story that made him rich and famous. He had been a chicken farmer, an actor and playwright, a marketer of petroleum products, a shopkeeper, a newspaperman and a traveling salesman. He restlessly moved his family from Syracuse, New York, to the Dakota Territory, to Chicago and – after the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – to the place where restless Americans usually wind up: California. And in all of these places he encountered things that would work their way out of his memories and into his fiction. As Schwartz says, “Things he had seen in his life and had filed away for some later use were now rushing back and coming out on scraps of paper,” from the yellow brick road that led to the military school he attended (and hated) as a boy, to the fragile porcelain dishes and figurines he lugged about in his suitcase as a salesman, the inspiration for the first Oz book's Dainty China Country.

Schwartz does a fine job of unearthing the origins of Oz, and of portraying Baum as very much a man of his times – the era of the vanishing frontier and the uneasy transition from Victorianism into modernity. Among the major influences Schwartz singles out is Baum's mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, an ardent proponent of women's rights. Although Baum fathered four sons and no daughters, he gave his first Oz book a heroine, and the hero of his second Oz book, the boy Tip, turns out to be the princess Ozma, the victim of a sex-change spell. Matilda Gage was also a devotee of Theosophy, the belief system that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky synthesized out of elements of neo-Platonism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Baum was intrigued by Theosophy and by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, who made a sensational appearance at the Columbian Exposition.

Schwartz observes that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “is less a coming-of-age story ... and more a transformation-of-consciousness story. Like the Buddha, Dorothy attains enlightenment.” Still, he maybe lays it on a bit thick by describing Dorothy's travels as “a journey guided by Eastern philosophy” or suggesting that Oz exists on Theosophy's “Astral Plane”: “To embark on her journey, the girl would have her own samadhi moment, projecting herself through the eye of the cyclone into the mystical realm.” Schwartz is better at dealing with the physical world than the spiritual one, as was Baum: “Frank understood from the start that the entire premise was absurd, which is why he presented the goal of his main character with humor, the real lessons of the journey to be learned from encounters with comedic characters.”

Finding Oz is underpinned by solid research, although there are times when Schwartz's sleuthing into the things Baum “had filed away for some later use” leads him into some strained conclusions. For example, he posits some kind of imaginative link between the field of lethal red poppies Dorothy encounters on the way to the Emerald City and the killing fields of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. And perhaps his assessment of Baum's achievement is a shade on the hyperbolic side: “Certainly no one on any list of American luminaries has ignited the imagination of the world quite like L. Frank Baum.”

If we put Baum in the company of such “luminaries” as Washington and Lincoln, Edison and the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford, Mark Twain and Walt Disney, he may not seem like as much a standout as Schwartz thinks. But the fact remains that, 109 years later, Oz continues to inspire sequels and prequels on page and stage, and the traces of Baum's fantasy can be discerned in everything from the Star Wars movies to the Harry Potter books. As Schwartz's book informs us, Baum's strange and essential gift was to see the outlines of myth within the machinery of the modern world.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How I Spent My Retirement, Part I

As further proof that there's nothing that you can't learn something about from the Internet, I just spent an unconscionable amount of time reading an essay about the origins of Jughead's hat.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunnyside Up

The following review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:


By Glen David Gold

Knopf, 560 pp., $26.95

Sunnyside pops and crackles with cleverness. Which probably won't surprise anyone who read Glen David Gold's debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil. Like that novel, Sunnyside is rooted in the popular culture of the American past – the earlier book in the heyday of vaudeville, the new one in the formative days of the American film industry.

The central character in Sunnyside is Charlie Chaplin, whom we first see (or think we see) on November 12, 1916, in a boat off the Northern California coast, being carried to his death on the rocks near the St. George Reef lighthouse. At the same instant, Chaplin is being sighted – or rumored to be present or arriving – in communities across the United States.

Obviously, Chaplin didn't die in 1916, nor was he everywhere at once on that day when, Gold asserts in an end note to his book, such an instance of “mass hysteria” actually occurred. But whether this was a parapsychological phenomenon or just an ingenious publicity stunt doesn't concern Gold. It serves in the novel only to set several stories in motion – that of Chaplin's emergence as a cultural phenomenon, but also that of Leland Wheeler, the lighthouse keeper's son, and that of Hugo Black, who gets caught up by accident in a Chaplin-inspired melee in Beaumont, Texas. Eventually, the tall, handsome Leland, who wants to be a movie star, will wind up in the trenches of France during World War I. And solitary, bookish Hugo will go to Russia as part of the abortive Allied expedition against the Bolsheviks after the revolution of 1917. By accident, Leland finds a kind of vicarious stardom. Hugo's fate is sadder and stranger.

Sunnyside is a rich concoction of a novel, a melange of historical fact, biographical speculation and outright fantasy, teeming with so many characters that a reader welcomes the list of them in the front of the book. But for all that popping and crackling cleverness – or perhaps because of it – it's also a bit ramshackle. The saga of Hugo, for example, sits rather oddly in the narrative, partly because Hugo himself is not very interesting as a character; during the Russian campaign, Gold devotes more attention to the general in charge, Edmund Ironside, than to Hugo.

To the novel's credit, Gold skillfully sets historical figures – of which Ironside is one – amid fictional ones, reinforcing the comparison to writers such as E.L. Doctorow that his first novel elicited. Gold excels at evoking place and milieu. He lives in San Francisco, where much of the past jostles with the present, so it's not surprising that he gets the city's geography right. But he also takes the reader to places like silent-era Hollywood, the front in France, Berlin in the time of the Kaiser, and, in the frozen north of Russia, Arkhangelsk. At the same time, his dialogue often seems anachronistic, perhaps intentionally so, with locutions that sound more like 2006 than 1916. Example: “'What does that mean?' Andy cried. 'What does that even mean?'”

The strongest aspect of his novel is a persuasive take on Chaplin, a man as complicated as his persona, the little tramp, was simple. Gold's Chaplin is an artist with “the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack.” He would launch into a motion picture with only a situation in mind, not a script, and through trial and error – lots and lots of error and miles and miles of film – arrive at a coherent story. “On every movie, his creative spirit followed the same arc: absolute certainty, doubt, dread, horror, despair, new certainty (sending him into a new compass heading that was 45, 90, or even 270 degrees from where his first certainty had sent him), and then the Sargasso. Then something saved him. Then he was home.” Unfortunately for Chaplin, real life, such things as business and family and marriage and politics, can't be fixed in the editing room.

Gold is a wizard at making things up and mixing them in with things not made up. But sometimes the mixture is unstable. There are whole chunks of the novel – the Russian campaign and indeed almost everything involving Hugo Black, and the extended section dealing with the wild West show produced by Leland's father – that seem as if they had thrust themselves irresistibly on Gold's imagination and demanded to be written into the book. But novels can be fixed in the editing room. And Sunnyside, for all its undeniably entertaining flash and dazzle, might have been a better book if it had been.

Unfortunately, some things also get unfixed in the editing room. In the printed version of my review, the following sentence lost its quotation marks:

Gold's Chaplin is an artist with “the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack.”

Much as I'd love to claim Gold's prose as my own, especially that nice "sand in a sack" simile, it's not fair. Apologies all round.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Little Less Mossy

We music lovers mostly know what some of those notations like piano and fortissimo mean. Even things like Un poco meno mosso. But the Germans (of course) like to do it their own way, with things like sehr lebhaftig. Fortunately, David Pesetsky, a linguistics prof at MIT, has compiled a list of translations of the composer's markings in the score of Mahler's First. It certainly clears up a lot of things about Mahler. I mean, who knew it was all about spit valves?