America as casino

Now we finally have a former casino operator as our President.  It was inevitable.  Gambling is really at the heart of America, IMO.  Even in the ancient myths of the desert Southwest we hear of The Gambler.  The thing is, this isn’t really a country, it’s a casino.  Anybody* can come here and take their chances.  Any immigrant to America was weighing the odds and taking a big chance.  If you win big, congratulations, if you crap out that’s on you.  Maybe that’s why we don’t have nationalized health insurance, and why we tolerate rule by billionaires.  It’s a feature, not a bug.  Social safety nets for societies.  Casinos don’t have a safety net.

Before Trump, Bill Clinton might have been our most casino-adjacent president.  He liked to describe himself as the man from Hope, but he was really from Hot Springs, a kind of local Arkansas Las Vegas from before the age of Southwest Airlines.  His mother spent her time at the race track and the house where young Bill spent his time had “a bar on which stood a rotating cage with two huge dice in it.”

I’m not saying I love that America is more of a casino than a country, but let’s accept that reality.  Maybe a winning political messaging could come out of something like “MAKE THE CASINO FAIR” or “A FAIR CASINO FOR ALL!”  It’s hard to look around and not think the casino is at least a little rigged, or at the very least that current management is crooked.

Or how about CLEAN UP THE CASINO! or EVEN THE ODDS!

 

 

 


Tom Wolfe

The people in the psychedelic world had been religious but had always covered it up.  There was such a bad odor about being frankly religious. I mean Kesey would refer to Cosmo, meaning God; someone in the group used the word manager.  Hugh Romney [a.k.a. Wavy Gravy] used to say, “I’m in the pudding and I’ve met the manager.”

On unusual style / carrying yourself as a reporter:

When I first started at Esquire, I made the mistake of trying to fit in.  And given the kind of things I was sent to cover – stock car racing, the Peppermint Lounge, topless restaurants in San Francisco – not only did I not fit in no matter how hard I tried, but I would deprive myself of the opportunity to ask very basic questions that the outsider can ask.  You just discover after awhile that people like to be asked questions they know the answers to.

Elsewhere:

be an odd, eccentric character… people will volunteer information to you

On American literature:

In France they discovered Faulkner – not as we would, as a very complex and somewhat arty writer, but as a primitive who had barely emerged from the ooze, somehow, to write.

At the same time they were admiring the energetic, classless and low-rent, rude, animal side of American art, our artists were striving like mad to shed all of that and to stop being hicks and rustics.

re: The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House

I want people to pay attention to what I think is my sole contribution in these areas – showing how certain fashions, certain styles, certain trends come about.  They’re not like the weather.  Most of our critics and historians seem to think that styles are like Bermuda highs.  That it’s the spirit of the age and so cosmic in nature that you don’t have to think about how it happened.  You just note that it happened, and if the weather is serious enough, you bow down.  What I keep saying is that styles are created by people.  And the task of a historian – which is all I picture myself as in these books – is to find out who these people are and what the competitions were that brought the styles out.

On advice to young journalists:

You should get up your courage and approach the biggest magazine you can think of that might be interested in the subject.  Approach a junior editor rather than the man at the top, because the junior editors are in competition with one another to discover new writers.  Even if you’ve already written it, present the story idea to the editor, because editors like to feel that they’re part of the creative process. Wait a decent interval of about two weeks and then send them a manuscript.  Magazines will be in a receptive mood if you have approached them ahead of time.  They’ll want it to be good, they’ll want to buy it, and they’ll want it to be a success.  There’s a continual shortage of good writers and good journalists.  It’s really not an overcrowded field because there’s not that much talent to go around.  A lot of it is having the determination and perseverance to do the reporting.

There are several references to an article I’m not sure I’d read before, about carrier pilots operating off the USS Coral Sea, dodging missiles over North Vietnam, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” which you can read here on Esquire’s website.

Status competition, that’s what interests Wolfe.

Making writing appear spontaneous:

I wanted the writing to appear buoyant, free and easy, spontaneous.  Creating the effect of spontaneity in writing is one of the most difficult and artificial things you can do.  I was much relieved to learn that Celine used to spend four or five years rewriting his novels in order to achieve the effect of someone just sitting down across the table from you, spouting up the story of his life.  Writing is an extremely artificial business: it’s artificial by its very nature – you’re taking sounds and converting them into symbols on a page.  To make that transference from one sense to another and reinvest the words with vigor and rhythm and spontaneity is quite a feat.

more:

my intention, my hope, was always to get inside of these people, inside their central nervous systems, and present their experience in print from the inside.

[after he wrote an attack on The New Yorker, and everybody came after him]

I suddenly found myself denounced by the likes of Joseph Alsop, Walter Lippman (he called me an ass in print), Murray Kempton, a distinguished columnist for the New York Post.  Richard Goodwin called up from the White House to denounce me; E. B. White; even J. D. Salinger, whom the press hadn’t heard from for years, sent in a telegram denouncing me as a yellow journalist.  I really felt that perhaps the world was coming to an end. All these eminent people descended upon me, and I felt the sky was falling in.  Then a few days later I woke up, and nothing had happened.  It dawned on m that it’s very difficult to get hurt in a literary fight. In a strange way, all the shouting and shooting and the explosion were part of the literary excitement.

(funny that one of the criticisms, J.D. Salinger’s term, was that Wolfe’s attack was “gleeful.”

The next two are from an interview with Ron Reagan in “GEO, 1983.  The prompt here is about Pol Pot and the then rampant Khmer Rouge:

So much of the political thought and fashion among writers and other commentators in the United States is based on the idea that liberty has always existed in a kind of mist over the left.  In this country there have been very few ideologues, but there has often been a Marxist mist, the idea that there is something wonderful about socialism that if pursued correctly will lead to liberty, peace, harmony and the betterment of man in a way that nothing going on in modern industrial nation can.  In the past ten years it’s been discovered that socialism, when put into effect by experts, leads only to extermination camps.  This has been a terrible blow to a very fashionable idea.  That’s why it’s embarrassing to dwell on Pol Pot.  Pol Pot is not a maniac.  He’s a man who studied the future for his country for years starting in France, and the whole Khmer Rouge movement was probably as rational an undertaking under a Marxist ruler as has ever occurred.  Everywhere the experts have put socialism into effect, the result has been the gulag.  Now to point this out is to be regarded as right wing.  I regard it only as obvious – so obvious, in fact, that you have to be crazy to avert your eyes from it.

On why writers like Hemingway and Mailer are interested in fighters and “people who got their hands dirty”:

For this analysis, I go to Sigmund Freud.  He said that writers and artists are people who discovered as youngsters that they lost out in the hurly-burly of the playground.  They discovered, however, that they had the power to fantasize about such things, about the fruits of power, such as money, glory and beautiful lovers.  In a way, that resonated with the fantasies and dreams of other people who were not so talented.  When they are successful in presenting these fantasies to the public, they end up achieving through fantasy that which they were previously able to achieve only in fantasy.  But somehow it’s not enough to be known as someone who is a skilled fantasist.  That is second best; it would have been much better to have ruled the playground.  So they constantly try to prove to themselves that they can rule the playground if they really try.  But only rarely do you run into an obsession like that.

Wolfe later mentions he things handguns should be banned:

I think if manufacture and sale stopped, the price of the ones remaining would go up on the black market.  If it became a felony nationally to possess a handgun and there was a public call to turn them in , I think you’d be surprised at how many would be turned in.

Wolfe had really done his homework to develop his styles.

I really made a concentrated effort to get in the game.  I adapted a lot of things I had run across in graduate school.  For example, there were these early experimental Soviet writers like Aleksei Remizov, Boris Pilniak, Andrei Sobel and the Serapion Brothers.  One of them, Yevegeni Zamyatin, was best known for We, the book that Orwell’s 1984 was based on.  From Zamyatin, I got the idea of oddly punctuated inner thoughts.  I began using a lot of exclamation points and dashes and multiple colons.  The idea was, that’s the way people think.

The four basic techniques of novels Wolfe tried to introduce to nonfiction:

The first is scene-by-scene construction.  In other words, telling the entire story through a sequence of scenes rather than simple historical narration.  Second is the use of real dialogue – the more the better.  The third, which is the least understood of the techniques, is the use of status details.  That is, noting articles of clothing, manners, the way people treat children, the way they treat servants.  All the things that indicate where a person thinks he fits in society and where he hopes to go socially.  The fourth is the use of point of view, which is depicting the scenes through a particular pair of eyes.

Re: psychedelia and mus:

Without that world, without Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, there would have been no serious music by the Beatles.  They take off from the Grateful Dead, starting with that album Revolver.  Everything from Revolver on comes out of the American psychedelic world, to which they were turned on by Bob Dylan – in person, in private.  Not by listening to his records, but by getting involved with him personally.

One more:

Here’s another thing that’s now like a foreign notion.  The seven deadly sins are all sins against the self.  And this is an idea that’s vanished pretty much.  Lust for example.  The reason that lust in Christian religion was – particularly in the form of Catholicism that originated the seven deadly sins – was considered a sin was not that some man would be leading some nice girl from Akron into white slavery, or the pages of pornographic magazines, but that he would be hurting himself by wasting his spirit on this shallow and pointless, base passion.

I hope editor Dorothy Scura doesn’t mind me quoting so extensively from her book, which is itself a roundup of other interviews.  My goal is simply to share some of these wonderful insights with likeminded readers.

True Wolfeheads can find more content here.

 


Cats (2019)

A tribe of cats must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life

Somebody who saw the movie before me said “it helps if you know that the Cats are competing in a contest of singing about their lives to see who gets to go up in a hot air balloon and die and then get reborn with a new life.”  That does help.

A critical failure can be kind of fun, even a badge of honor, but a colossal financial failure is bad.  That makes everyone uncomfortable.

I kind of enjoyed my experience of the movie, I wasn’t bored.  Several people in my theater (at The Grove) were straight up bawling crying with real emotion, both during “Memory” and during the song Dame Judi Dench sings about growing old (“Finale: The Ad-Dressing of Cats”).  I myself was quite moved.  I’d never seen Cats the musical and didn’t know much about it.  I was struck that this was really kind of a veiled story about city lowlifes and pimps and shady customers and dramatic sad sacks, and theater kids.  It’s about finding redemption for a squandered or spent life?  The setting appeared to be something like London’s West End and Trafalgar Square.

It’s almost silly to talk about what went wrong with this movie.  When Idris Elba is dancing and his genitals are either tucked into a suit or disguised with some kind of CGI, so he doesn’t even have normal cat genitals, that’s a jarring image, certainly, and takes one out of the film.

Francesca Hayward, the Kenyan-born dancer who plays White Cat, the star or at least our guide through this thing, is an amazingly gifted dancer and performer.  Probably.  It sounds like it, I can’t really say, because this movie hits at level of fakiness where I can’t really tell what’s her, and what’s faked.  I can see how that might sound “cool” in conception but in reality it just robs me of seeing human talent.

Why didn’t they just assemble this amazing cast of talented actors for about thirty days and then have them put on a simple production of Cats in a big empty warehouse?  It would’ve been much more engaging to see what these performers can really do, to see what they might bring out in each other, to see what kind of magic they can make just with their bodies and voices.  I suspect the answer to why they didn’t do that is:

1) they didn’t trust an audience would consider that spectacular, new, unique enough for a movie

and

2) it would’ve been too hard.

The makers of this movie didn’t trust an audience, they assumed we could be easily fooled by manipulated computer-designed imagery that’s not “cheap” in terms of money but is cheap in terms of artistry.  That, to me, explains some of the reaction this movie.  These people think we’re fools.  Whoever (and I guess we have to say “director Tom Hooper”) made this movie didn’t go forward to make something they themselves would find really cool and impressive and special, just the way they’d like to see the story told, and then struggle to achieve that vision, and then share it with us.  Instead, the makers set out to fake us out with tricks that we know are tricks, and they know are tricks.  It’s disrespectful, and that’s shameful.

How great would it have been to actually stage Cats with Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson and James Corden and Ian McKellan and Dame Judi Dench, stripped down if necessary, and just show us the results?  But that’s too hard, they never could’ve convinced those actors, they never could’ve gotten the scheduling right, to do that would’ve been an act of absurd daring and ambition.  So instead they just threw money at it and made something cheap and gaudy and unconvincing.  The result is kind of like being a kid and being taken to Disneyland and your divorced dad is buying everything but he’s on his phone the whole time.  You know you aren’t being given anything of real value.

Money is cheap in movies.  It’s not impressive.  Making an expensive movie is easy, Hollywood does it all the time.  Talent and vision and effort and energy and collaboration are what’s rare.  That’s what’s impressive.  Some of that actually shines through the movie of Cats, despite everything.

I thought James Corden did a heroic job, a true showman.  And Laurie Davidson as Mir. Mistoffelees was great.

I compared a few of the songs to the Broadway versions and preferred the movie versions. (Compare, for instance, Corden’s Bustopher Jones).

No, the reason why people will hunger to see ”Cats” is far more simple and primal than that: it’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does.

That’s what Frank Rich said back in 1982.  These days movie audiences are REGULARLY transported to complete fantasy worlds that could only exist in the movies.  Why mess around with trying to translate a magical theater experience to that?  (Deadline highlights the obvious reasons: good track record of musicals for Universal, incredible cast, huge hit IP, etc).

Maybe that was the mistake of the movie, to try and duplicate the massive transformation the show did to a theater to something a movie could do.  To do that, while also showing you the faces of these beloved actors, was maybe just a mismatch?

And also the plot is very strange.  It’s funny, almost one of the lessons of Cats the Broadway sensation is that people can go along with a pretty dense internal logic without a lot of handholding provided there’s a lot of intense longing, empathy, nostalgia, vivid expressions of where characters are coming from.  However many million people who enjoyed Cats the show just accepted the many uses of the word “jellicle” and went along.  People will do that, if the vision is coherent!  Fairy tales are full of that kind of buy-in.  Maybe the filmmaking team just lost their confidence somewhere along the way.  I’m made to understand they actually added more of a plot, for the movie.

The Financial Times liked the film!  I give it a B+.  I’m not here to poo on things, it was a fun early afternoon.

Reader Dan G comments:

To me it seems likely “they” made the choices they made in good faith, with high hopes and something just didn’t quite work. Happens all the time.

I agree!


The only UNESCO World Heritage site in French Polynesia

is the Marae at Taputapuātea on Ra’iātea Island.  It doesn’t really look like much now to be honest.  The only other people there on a visit last spring were a few white tourists getting what sounded like a pretty tedious lecture in French.  Two guards were chilling under a tree.  When I sort of tentatively started to walk on the marae’s volcanic rock base, one of the guards gave me a whistle and like a don’t do that gesture, but didn’t bother getting up.

But that’s 2019.  We have to picture the marae as it was, when it was at its most magnificent.  Covered with vines, when the great drums sounded:

Marae became fearful places.  They were dark, shaded by groves of sacred trees… People spoke of these places as the jawbones of the gods, biting the spirits who passed into the dark underworld where they were consumed by the gods while the stone uprights on their pavements were called their niho or teeth

High priests told the early missionary John Osmond:

Terrible were the marae of the royal line, their ancestral and national mare!  They were places of stupendous silence, terrifying and awe-inspiring places of pain to the priest, to the owners, and to all the people.  It was dark and shadowy among the great trees of those marae.

After raids:

canoes beached by the marae, wailing conch trumpets sounded, and the heads and genitals of their most high-ranking victims were tightly bound with the multi-coloured plait sennit of the god, destroying the mana (ancestral power) and fertility of their lineages and districts.  Some of these corpses were hung up in the sacred trees, while others were used as canoe rollers

So tells Dame Professor Anne Salmond in her book:

I looked forward to reading the rest of Dame Professor Salmond’s book, it’s incredible.  She makes the point that when Europeans first made contact with Tahiti, they tended to think of it as like this unspoiled paradise.  But Polynesia was in the midst of its own turbulent history, the Europeans arrived at a particular moment in Polynesia’s development.  There’d just been a violent takeover by islanders from Bora Bora.

They weren’t waiting around for guys in ships to show up.  There was a whole scene!


John Major

stolen and cropped from Major’s wikipedia page, credit Chatham House I guess.

For whatever reason around May 2, 1997 I happened to see John Major on TV after the UK election.  Maybe it was on the nightly news.  At that time John Major was the Prime Minister, but he and his Conservative Party had just been handed a crushing defeat.

Major appeared outside the Conservative Campaign Office at 32 Smith Square the morning after the election.

via Google. The building is now, ironically, Europe House.

I couldn’t find video of his statement, but at Johnmajorarchive.com I did find text of it.  Here’s the part that struck me as a teen:

Tonight we have suffered a very bad defeat, let us not pretend to ourselves that it was anything other than what it was. Unless we accept it for what it was, and look at it, we will be less able to put it right.

We’ve lost some very good servants of the party, people who have devoted a huge amount of their life to the service of this country and to the service of this party.

We have lost, temporarily I hope, some colleagues, both senior and not so senior, who still have a lot of service to give this country and this party, and will I hope be back where they should be in the House of Commons, serving us all.

[applause]

And they lost, from what I saw of it, with a dignity which made me proud of this party.

We now have a job to do, all of us.

[phone rings in background]

They told me the technological age was a good thing

Now, John Major may not be an especially healthy figure to admire, especially for a then-17 year old American boy, I’m not saying I wasn’t unusual.  But in this particular moment, there was a dignity and something admirable in Major’s ability and willingness to not round down the magnitude of the defeat.  In his (seeming) preparedness to look what had happened in the face, and state it clearly.

Just a performance, perhaps, but sometimes the performance counts.  Maybe John Major’s a complete turd, I don’t know enough about UK politics to weigh in on his character.  All I know is I remembered the moment, maybe because being blunt about how bad things are is pretty rare from a politician.  It felt refreshing.

 


Charlie Rose Memories

 

There was a period when I was working on a novel, not working a steady job, and I figured, “I should make sure I at least hear an hour of human conversation a day.”  That was the time in my life when I watched the most Charlie Rose.

The Charlie Rose Show website used to be elegantly organized.  It’s still good, but there was a neat way it used to be indexed, there was section called like “writers on writing” I appreciated.

Charlie Rose has now been banished for his crimes which sound bad enough.  Sometimes in the wake of what’s (perhaps unfortunately) called “the MeToo movement” I hear like “well what about due process?!” or arguments along those lines.  But shouldn’t our public media gatekeeper/narrative shapers be not just merely not sex pests, but in fact above reproach?  Couldn’t we have higher standards for our public broadcasters?

This got me riled about about Brett Kavanaugh as well — like, can’t we find someone for the Supreme Court who can’t be credibly accused of anything?  I believe it is possible!

Anyway.  Here are some memories of moments on Charlie Rose that stuck in my craw:

  • The Franzen/DFW/Mark Leyner “Future of Fiction” episode
  • When John Grisham was on, and Charlie asked him “what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?”  Grisham said, “figure out where you’re going to get your paycheck from.”
  • Charlie needling David McCullough about selling the rights to John Adams to Tom Hanks.  McCullough was going on about how Hanks came to him with the book all marked up and noted, and how THAT was what convinced him.  Charlie: “But surely some money changed hands, David.”
  • Charlie would often say to a guest, who was just back from Iraq or whatever, “take me there.”  (In fact, I think Charlie himself even called attention to this technique.
  • Charlie referencing his “girlfriend”
  • In a Remembering John Updike episode, David Remnick (or maybe Updike’s editor, or both) noting that Updike wanted to “get it all down.”  Like, all of life, his every thought.  Is this a good instinct?
  • Charlie saying “c’mon, Toby” to Tobias Scheeman’s bullshit justification about why he had sex with a Papua New Guinean tribesman in Keep The River On Your Right

Annoying

I had a thought about human nature.  It has to do with people who are “annoying.”

When a person perceives they are failing to win someone over, or not connecting, often their reaction is to double down on trying to ingratiate.

They become desperate to find connection, shared humor, to offer something of value, anything, to try and repair this.

But this, to the annoyed party, only makes them more annoying.

In their fear and insecurity, the annoyer make the problem worse.

If you think you’re annoying to someone, you should back off.  This is what the annoyed wants, and it offers the best hope of eventual repair.

There might be a larger meaning here, that our frantic solutions to problems often make them worse.  When we perceive we’re causing a problem, maybe our first move should be to stop doing anything.  Withdraw, pull back, cool out, consider.  It takes great discipline to do this though, it’s very rare.

This perception comes from being on both sides, both finding someone annoying and feeling they kinda knew it and watching them overreact, and feeling more annoyed.  And from cases where I suspected I myself was found annoying, and how my urge was to “turn on the charm”!

I used Fran Drescher as a gif here because I feel like “annoying” was kind of part of her brand, but let me be clear, I don’t find Fran Drescher annoying, I think she’s cool, and one of the most gifable stars out there.