The World’s In a Bad Situation

heard this one on King Biscuit Time. I like that the song is not just a lament but also contains a call to action.

Grave

My in-laws took us on a special trip to see this grave, one county away.


Shantyboat life

After the devastating Panic of 1893, thousands of abruptly unemployed and now homeless industrial workers, in river towns from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, found that they could cobble together a livable house on top of an abandoned commercial barge down on the waterfront, or build a shantyboat from scratch from the broad selection of cast-off timbers and driftwood lining virtually every mile of riverbank. Each year, hundreds of shanytboat families imply cast off from Memphis or Cincinnati and spent the warm months drifting down river, camping on remote islands, planting gardens or harvesting wild berries… During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration estimated that as many as fifty thousand Americans lived on shantyboats.

A version of this lifestyle on the river in Knoxville described in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.

Rinker Buck manages to get his shantyboat from Elizabeth, Pennsylvania on the Ohio River all the way to New Orleans. He’s warned that he’s going to die, but in fact he has a mostly peaceful cruise. One problem he notes is that long stretches of the Mississippi are fuel deserts: there are no marinas or places to gas up your boat. He attributes this to a combination of factors, including a decline in recreational boating post the 2008 recession, and the record flooding of 2011.

He’s warned that the Coast Guard will remove his boat if he gets caught on a sandbar and has to leave it for awhile, but after some experience he scoffs at that. No one is bothering to clean up the river or remove obstacles to navigation, gas cans float by, it’s full of trash, old refrigerators, sunken cars, etc.

The Ohio and the Mississippi are nothing but Superfund sites with water running through them.

Really good chapter about Natchez, MS and the new national park project there to commemorate the Forks In the Road slave market. Bleak!

I’m giving this book away if anyone wants it!


Existential problem

On Meet The Press this week, Chuck and the gang were talking about the Ron DeSantis stunt of sending Venezuelan refugees to Martha’s Vineyard. Chuck pointed out that they were in kind of a bind. This was an obvious stunt, and the point of it was to get people like Chuck Todd to talk about it, instead of say Lindsay Graham’s very unpopular plan for a federal abortion ban. And yet, Chuck said, here we are talking about it. It was as if there were no option: Chuck knew it was a distraction, said it was a distraction, and yet there he was talking about it, lamenting that it was a distraction.

How do we escape this trap? Most people seem to have no problem: they are just not distracted by distractions. They don’t expend energy on this stuff. But that does not appear to be an option for Chuck Todd. One move might be for him (CT) to be a serious enough and strong enough figure to just say (or not say, but show) we’re not paying attention to this. But maybe such a figure could not host Meet The Press. And I shouldn’t be too hard on CT, that’s tough to do. I wouldn’t watch MTP if I didn’t have some affection for Chuck Todd.

Maybe I should just stop watching Meet The Press. But I do find it compelling television: even this absurd dilemma proved thought-provoking. I could conclude that the harm I do by feeding the MtP machine with my attention is worse than the gain from pleasurable feelings of studying its drama and contortions. I’m not there yet. As for the distraction, here I am talking about it.


On Operations by B. A. Friedman

During the American Civil War, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign is frequently pointed to as an example of expert maneuver. In fact, Jackson’s success was due more to excellent information. His small Confederate army was weak in everything except information. Jackson had lived in the Shenandoah Valley before the war and knew the ground. He also employed on his staff a local civilian mapmaker, Jedediah Hotchkiss. Finally, he had an excellent, if undisciplined cavalry commander who understood reconnaissance. Jackson’s ability to rapidly outmaneuver Union forces was grounded in his more accurate understanding of his opponent and the environment.

B. A. Friedman’s book On Operations is sort of sequel to his book On Tactics, which we reviewed here (a surprisingly popular post, actually). The subject is operations: planning, preparing, conducting and sustaining campaigns to accomplish strategic objectives. This lies somewhere in between tactics and strategy. Friedman’s book comes out of Clausewitz’s On War. For Clausewitz,

the logic of tactics is to gain battlefield victory; the logic of strategy is to use those victories for the purpose of the war.

Operations then lies somewhere in between:

operational art comprises the disciplines requires to place military forces in an advantageous position to employ tactics to achieve strategic effect

Some excerpts from the table of contents provide some sub-topics: Administration, Information, Operations, Fire Support, Logistics, Command and Control. Within a pretty technical discussion of these topics are interesting insights. Friedman says that the study of

operational art became the safe space in which Soviet officers could discuss their trade.

You couldn’t talk “strategy,” that was Stalin’s job. However, even operations turned out not to be quite safe:

By the 1930s, Svechin and Tukhachevsky were rivals. Tukhachevsky’s ideas won out in part because he denounced Svechin as a traitor to the Marxist-Leninist cause, whereupon Svechin was arrested. As adept as he was at playing Stalin’s games, Tukhachevsky was not adept enough. Neither he nor Svechin would live to see either the outbreak of the war they were preparing for the Red Army’s eventual victory, as Stalin had both men executed.

Friedman goes through some history of military administration, noting that the Prussian army had a system where a commander would have an Ia, whose job was running the general’s staff, handling communications, and serving as a principal advisor. Sometimes the Ia and the commander would rise in the ranks as a team. There’s some discussion of Boyd’s OODA loop idea. Throughout the book there are some case studies of operational success and failure, and a section of five detailed case studies as a sort of appendix. These were all pretty interesting, but into that stuff. I liked learning, for instance, that Carlson organized his Raiders using ideas he learned as an observer with Chinese Communist guerrillas.

This quote jumped out at me:

British general Nick Carter, who has had extensive experience in command in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan has observed, “As a commander you now live in a fish bowl; war is a theater and you are a producer of a spectacle that must appeal to a range of audiences. For success is invariably defined by the triumph of the narrative.

Anyone aspiring to manage complex operations or human organizations could probably benefit from examples in this book. And in the US, where we have civilian control of the military, good for all of us to think about some of these topics.

Too often, the US officer corps uses the operational level as a shield behind which it deploys “best military advice. But no military advice can be beneficial if stripped of its inherent political nature.

If I can get in touch with B. A. Friedman I’m gonna see if he’ll endure an interview with Helytimes on how deep military thinking can be applied in civilian life. It’s a pleasure to take advantage of the work of someone who’s studied deeply on such a topic.

Here’s a Hotchkiss map:


David McCullough

The two most popular movies of all time, while not historically accurate, are about core historic events: Gone With The Wind and Titanic.  [And now Avatar, which draws heavily from the historical story of Pocahontas.]  There is a human longing to go back to other times.  We all know how when we were children we asked out parents, ‘What was it like when you were a kid?”  I think it probably has something to do with our survival as a species.  For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story.

from an interview for the National Endowment of Humanities.


Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Here are some notes from the sequel to Last Train To Memphis.

Elvis seems like he was basically a twelve year old all his life. He was really into fireworks, guns, karate (a LOT of this book is about karate), slot cars, policemen, cowboys, horses. He was constantly buying cars for people. One day he bought fourteen cars for people, including one for a random woman he met on the car lot. When he got a camera, he “quickly figured out the possibilities. Sometimes he used Priscilla alone, sometimes in Priscilla’s absence he got girls to wrestle for him wearing only white bras and panties, and occasionally he included Priscilla, too, in an expanded scenario.” He had no idea what anything cost and spent wild sums on weird jewelry he designed.

He had to be surrounded by people constantly. Assorted people he met around Memphis came onto his payroll and spent years as his professional pals. At one point one of them drew up a list of duties for everyone:

it was up to Marty to “call Mrs. Pepper for Movie Times (As Early As Possible); Transact Business and Correspondence with the Colonel’s office for Elvis,” and maintain a purchase order system for all charges in Elvis’ name. Alan Fortas got the assignment to, “along with Marty, be responsible for Organization both in good and bad situations,” maintain Elvis’ scrapbook, and “be in den with Elvis as much as possible.”

The scene at Graceland was pretty nuts:

In the short time that the Lackers had been living at Graceland, Elvis’ uncle Johnny Smith had threatened Marty’s wife and come at Marty himself with a knife, while Clettes Presley (Vester’s wife, and Johnny and Gladys’ sister), who drank as heavily as her brother, had made it clear that she had little use for him, too. Marty didn’t think much of Elvis’ retarded uncle, Tracy, who went around saying, “I got my nerves in the dirt” and made noises “like he was getting ready to explode”

At the end of the last book Elvis was 23 and his mother had died, just after he went into the Army. He was already about as famous as anybody, but he was considered kind of a joke by New York critics.

After the funeral he was sent to Germany, where he lived off-base in a weird household with his dad and a German secretary and some friends. His dad took up with the still-married wife of a fellow soldier of Elvis’ – the fellow soldier was drunk all the time and didn’t seem to notice. This twisted situation made Elvis angry, he had loved his mother dearly and this seemed too soon. If there’s a turning point in this book that set Elvis on the desperate and sad path that would pretty much be the rest of his life, I guess it’s this.

Elvis met Priscilla when her military dad was sent to Germany. She was 14, but for some reason her parents let them date. Elvis had strange ideas about feminine purity – he would sleep with other girls but wouldn’t want to sleep with ones he was seriously dating.

Once Elvis gets back to America his story and this book turns pretty repetitive and tragic. He was contracted to make a bunch of movies, and he seems to have been aware that these were terrible. He was ashamed of a lot of his recordings. After a few years of nutty partying, constantly on speed, he had a kind of breakdown. A new hairdresser, Larry Geller, showed up. Elvis started asking him probing spiritual questions. “There has to be a purpose… there’s got to be a reason… why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley.” Larry started bringing Elvis spiritual books, and Elvis started going to the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades.

But mostly he just kept doing crazy amounts of speed and massively powerful prescription painkillers given to him by “Dr. Nick.” There was a brief period in ’68 where he kinda pulled it together and had a huge TV special, and he played to huge crowds in Vegas, but he’s kind of a mess throughout this book.

Elvis had a weird thing about not liking ladies who’d had babies. He sort of turned on Priscilla after she had a baby (although he was cheating on her pretty thoroughly before, too). There’s a sad story of a woman who got pregnant by Elvis, tried to tell him, and then heard him say something about how once someone was a mother they were sacred and shouldn’t be interested in sex. She went and got an abortion alone.

The absolute low point might have been the day he flew to Washington, more or less on a whim, had a crazy letter he’d written on the plane delivered to the White House, where he brought a gun to his impromptu meeting with Nixon. In their meeting Elvis talked about how he felt the Beatles were really behind a lot of anti-American feeling. Then he gave Nixon a hug and took off.

Three years later some beauty pageant winner was sleeping in his bed when he died while sitting on the toilet. That day he’d thrown a raquetball racket at somebody, played Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on the piano, and been delivered a packet of “Seconal, Placidyl, Valmid, Tuinal, Demerol, and an assortment of other depressants and placebos which generally allowed Elvis to get several hours of sleep at a time.” Also he’d taken a bunch of codeine to which he was mildly allergic.

Anyway, this is a really sad book. I pretty much skimmed it. It seemed like a lot of the tragedies of Elvis’ life were a lot like those in Michael Jackson’s life. I guess it’s pretty near impossible to get super-famous when you’re a teenager and not implode. Elvis seemed to have a vague sense inside himself that he’d missed his potential, somehow. One of the band guys he played with in the first book said that he felt that Elvis was a kind of idiot savant – he knew hundreds of songs, but was strange and sensitive and had no idea how to handle being as famous as he was. Maybe nobody does!

He’s really likable all through Last Train to Memphis, I’ll prefer to remember him that way!


Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

A few years ago I read this book and took a few notes on it, which we present here in case they can be of benefit to the Helytimes reader:

Elvis’ parents were real country folk. His father had done time in Mississippi’s dreaded Parchman Farm prison for writing a bad check. It all seems pretty Dickensian: his boss was “making an example of him.” Elvis’ twin brother was born dead, and Elvis’ mom told him he’d acquired the power of the dead twin.

Then the Presleys moved to Memphis and lived in public housing until they made too much money to qualify (still not much money). Even in Memphis they were seen as kinda bumpkins. Elvis was completely devoted to his mother.

In Memphis Sam Phillips was running Sun Records, trying to record “real Negro music,” and the unrelated Dewey Phillips had a radio show that broadcast to a mostly black audience. Elvis listened mostly to gospel music and sometimes sang at an Assembly of God church.

As a boy Elvis used to turn on lights on Saturdays for his Orthodox Jewish neighbors.

Elvis was driving a truck for an electrical company and trying to be an electrician, even though he felt he was too easily distracted to be good at wiring – he was a little afraid of blowing himself up. He was dating a girl named Dixie who was really in love with him. They were committed to remaining “pure” until marriage.

Elvis used to hang around Sun Records, and he recorded a demo of himself. Sam Phillips had him on a list of maybe promising singers. Months later he found what he thought was a good song for him. It turned out to not sound so good, but Elvis and the musicians Sam had recruited kept screwing around for hours until Elvis started singing an old blues song.

When Elvis’ record of That’s Alright Mama first got huge on Dewey Phillips’ radio show. The first time it was played on the radio Elvis was too nervous to listen and went to the movies. Dewey Phillips kept calling his parents and demanded Elvis come down to the station. When he got out of the movies he went down there. Dewey tricked Elvis into being interviewed on air. He asked Elvis where he went to high school so everyone would know Elvis was white.

Elvis wore “crazy” clothes, like a pink shirt. But he was also incredibly sensitive. He was always afraid people were laughing at him. Sam Phillips wouldn’t let him play at a bunch of rougher bars because he thought Elvis would get beaten up.

[Roy] Orbison later said of his first encounter with Elvis: “his energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing… Actually it affected me exactly the same way as when I first saw that David Lynch film [Blue Velvet]. I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.'”

One thing I took from this book was that musicians in those days died on the road like all the time. Cars caught on fire. And of course we all know the fate of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. At some point Elvis’ mother made him promise not to fly anymore, so he would take the train to Hollywood and New York.

(says a bandmate of an early tour): “he would run the women, he’d run two or three of them in one night – whether or not he was actually making love to all three, I don’t know, because he was kind of private in that sense and if I thought he was going to run some women in the room with him, I didn’t stay. But I just think he wanted them around, it was a sense of insecurity, I guess, because I don’t think he was a user. He just loved women, and I think they knew that.”

By 1955 when Elvis was 20 girls would tear his clothes to pieces. “Of course the police started getting them out, and I will never forget Faron Young – this one little girl had kind of a little hump at the back, and he kicked at her, and these little boots fell out.” (???) Sometime after this Elvis took Dixie to her junior prom.

Manufacturing a hit record back then could actually put a small record company out of business, because there were high upfront costs of making the record, so Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ contract, seemingly without rancor.

“Popular music has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley,” wrote the Daily News. OH REALLY!

In between having his clothes ripped off Elvis seemed to “date” relatively pure-heartedly. There’s a weird account on p. 315 of Elvis and his girlfriend sort of dry-humping and tickling each other and almost doing it but then not doing it: “‘we almost did it, didn’t we baby?’ And I said, ‘We almost did.’ He said, ‘That was close, wasn’t it?'”

Later, in Hollywood, “more experienced girls” were surprised to find that “what he liked to do was to lie in bed and watch television and eat and talk all night – the companionship seemed as important for him as the sex – and then in the early-morning hours they would make love.”

This book had a good amount about what food everybody ate. Elvis liked eggs cooked rock hard and burnt bacon. At age 23 he’s conducting an interview “while lunching alone in his dressing room on a bowl of gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, nine slices of well-done bacon, two pints of milk, a large glass of tomato juice, lettuce salad, six slices of bread, and four pats of butter.”

In Hollywood he seems to have fallen in with some real lame characters and professional best friends. He stayed at the Knickerbocker Hotel until that got too nuts and he stayed at the Beverly Wilshire. His movies were shot on the Paramount lot. Sometimes he would call his mother and talk to her all day.

This book ends with Elvis getting drafted into the Army. He agreed with his weird hypnotizing carnival-guy manager Colonel Tom Parker that he should turn down all special offers and just be a regular soldier. He joined the Army and then his mother died. He was totally shattered.

After his mother died, he invited his dentist over and showed him around the recently purchased Graceland.

He said, ‘the newspapers have made my house so laughable’ – that was the word. He said, ‘They have made it sound so laughable, I would love to have your opinion of my home.’ He took us all through the house, my taste is not so marvelous, but it was very attractive, it all fit – there was a modern sculpture on the chimney over the fireplace, and I had the same sculpture in my office, it was called ‘Rhythm.’ Anyway, when we got back to the living room, he said, ‘What do you think? and Sterling said, ‘If you give me the key, I’ll swap you.”


Betty Perske

It’s a famous and apparently true story that Howard Hawks cast Lauren Bacall (birth name Betty Perske) in To Have and Have Not opposite Humphrey Bogart, after his wife Slim saw her on the cover of the March 1943 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The cover was shot in Kodachrome under the eye of Diana Vreeland.

Wikipedia, in the article on photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, editorializes:

The young woman looks either waiting to go inside to donate or about to leave the Red Cross blood donor room. The expression on her face is nonchalant with a suggestion that she does not attend the blood donation clinic regularly. Her eyes are empty. She may be disappointed or sad or helpless just as any other American woman knowing the reality is no one can escape. The audience can sense the uncertainty in the air of the time from her expression.

[Bacall’s] final role was in 2014 as a guest voice appearance in the Family Guy episode “Mom’s the Word.”[73]

source:


Didion on Reagan’s day

source

The aides gave us the details, retold now like runes. Promptly at nine o’clock on most mornings of the eight years he spent as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan arrived in the Oval Office to find on his desk his personal schedule, printed on green stationery and embossed in gold with the presidential seal. Between nine and ten he was briefed, first by his chief of staff and the vice president and then by his national security adviser. At ten, in the absence of a pressing conflict, he was scheduled for downtime, an hour in which he answered selected letters from citizens and clipped items that caught his eye in Human Events and National Review. Other meetings followed, for example with the congressional leadership. “I soon learned that those meetings lasted just one hour, no more, no less,” Tony Coelho, at the time majority whip in the House, tells us in Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan. “If the agenda—which he had written out on cards—wasn’t completed at the end of the hour, he would excuse himself and leave. If it was finished short of an hour, he would fill the rest of the time with jokes (and he tells a good one).” During some meetings, according to his press secretary, Larry Speakes, the President filled the time by reciting Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

source. Martin Anderson, who was there, had a different perspective.


The patience of the pursuer

The subject is Warren Beatty:

“You’d go up to his penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire two to three hours a day and go through a whole argument,” recalled writer and director Paul Schrader.  “You’d go back the next day and start at zero until, finally, you realized we will have the same argument over and over until he wins, and that’s when I realized why he was such a successful lothario. [He had] the infinite patience of the pursuer.”

from Rock Me On The Water: 1974 The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics by Ronald Brownstein. I bought it over at Chevalier Books in Larchmont.

The patience of the pursuer reminded me of this, from The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:


Pari-Mutuel

Saratoga and Del Mar seasons are underway, a worthy time to consider pari-mutuel wagering.

While some might think that pari-mutuel wagering has been around ever since organized horse racing started, this is hardly the case. There is a clear history to pari-mutuel wagering, and there is one actual and acknowledged inventor in Joseph Oller. The invention of pari-mutuels was not even Oller’s major contribution to cultural history. He was probably better known as the founder and manager of Moulin Rouge, probably the most famous nightclub of all time.

The pari-mutuel story dates from Paris in 1862. Oller pioneered a sweepstakes game based on horse racing results. This was a system based on total chance. The bettor paid for a chance and was randomly assigned a horse on a given race.

This was however illegal in France. Betting wasn’t illegal, but lotteries were. So:

In place of the system under which the bettors were assigned their designated horse by pure chance, Oller devised a system under which the bettors selected the horses themselves. “By this scheme each investor selected the horse he desired to bet on, and if his favorite proved successful, he became entitled to all the money in the pool, less the commission exacted by Mr. Oller.

Meanwhile, in the US:

Before 1870, the main form of wagering at the American tracks – which were reopening after the Civil War – was the auction pool, also known as the Calcutta pool. Under this system, bettors bid on the right to choose horses in a race. The highest bidder got to pick the horse of his choice, usually the favorite.

In time, an engineer named Harry Straus devised a machine that would issue a printed ticket, and update bettors on the odds.

Straus developed the totalizer – a system of rotary switches and relays based on the principles of automatic dial telephone.

Straus founded a company, American Totalisator, which is now owned by Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, Pimlico, Gulfstream, and few other racetracks.

All that from an illuminating article, “Pari-Mutuels: What Do They Mean and What is at Stake in the 21st Century?” by Bennett Liebman in Marquette Sports Law Review, Vol. 27 Issue 1, Fall 2016.

It’s illuminating to know that bettors were once assigned a horse at random. Liebman’s writing on the legal meanings of “pari mutuel” is thrilling intellectual history.

Many state constitutions exempt or have unusual rules for different kinds of wagering like lotteries and “pari mutuel betting.” Struggles over the definitions have meaningful consequences.

Take the case of “historical racing machines.” These are pretty much just slot machines but technically (maybe) their outcomes are generated on the results of horse races, and the betting is arguably “pari mutuel.” Liebman’s article offers good examples of the law being whatever convinces the judge.

Choosing a horse at random may not be a terrible method, especially given that the pari mutuel market as a whole tends to be pretty sharp. Many a study has looked for inefficiencies, and though they exist, I do not know of a study that’s found an enduring profitable angle. Bill Benter’s work took advantage of inefficiencies in Hong Kong racing, combined with sophisticated modeling developed over painful trial and error. Dr. Z might be onto something but who wants to do all that math?

Horse handicapping is more art than science. I’ve found Brad Free’s book to be the most readable and clear-eyed. Steven Crist (whose own memoir Betting On Myself is fantastic) recommends Davidowitz, which is indeed full of insight. My copy of James Quinn’s Complete Handicapper is thoroughly marked up. Tom Ainslie writes with a style that makes the whole game seem amusing, for example his choice use of the word “animal”:

These books I bought at the Gambler’s Book Shop in Las Vegas all brought me some delight and in a limited way insight.

Andy Beyer’s books are all quite fun. Even the heroes of the great 1970s era of horse race betting, when Beyer discovered his E=mc^2 (“six furlongs in 1:13 equals seven furlongs in 1:26 and a fifth”) tell that it’s near impossible to make money these days. Certain trainer patterns can be exploited from time to time. The dominance of Bob Baffert in southern California can’t be ignored as an example.

Remember that the takeout is sometimes as high as 25%, even higher once you factor in rebates given to high rollers. Something like 40% of the money in competition might be from syndicates working with advanced computer modeling. And note, in the case of the Stronach Group, the track owners are themselves invested in one of the syndicates! Should be illegal but isn’t.

Liebman quotes the UK’s Chief Justice Cockburn, making a ruling in 1871:

experience shews that there is nothing about which there is so much uncertainty as the event of a horse race.

But when that rainbow shines over the racetrack, and you’ve got the Form open, and you think Forbidden Kingdom might be for real? Nothing better.


The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

It’s 1953, Aldous Huxley’s in California.  He’s close to sixty, a literary man who’s also made a good living as a screenwriter.  A friend, one of the “sleuths – biochemists, psychiatrists, psychologists” – has got some mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote.  He gives four-tenths of a gram to Aldous and we’re off.

What if you could “know, from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about?”  That’s what he’s after.

The mescaline kicks in.  Aldous looks at flowers, and the furniture.  He looks at a book of Van Gogh paintings, and then a book of Botticelli.  He ponders, in particular, the folds of drapery in the pictures.

I knew that Botticelli – and not Botticelli alone, but many others too – had looked at draperies with the same transfigured and transfiguring eyes as had been mine that morning.  They had seen the Istigkeit, the Allness and Infinity of folded cloth and had done their best to render it in paint and stone.

Cool.  He lies down and his friend hands him a color reproduction of a Cezanne self-portrait.

For the consummate painter, with his little pipeline to Mind at Large by-passing the brain valve and ego-filter, was also just as genuinely this whiskered goblin with the unfriendly eye.

Huxley feels an experience of connecting to “a divine essential Not-self.”  Vermeer, Chinese landscape painting, the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, all pass through his mind.  William Blake comes up, from him Huxley took his title.  Huxley listens to Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Concerto but it leaves him feeling cold.  He does appreciate some madrigals of Gesauldo.  He finds Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite kind of funny.  He’s offered a lunch he’s not interested in, he’s taken for a drive where he “sees what Guardi had seen.”

he comes down.

OK, says Huxley, ideally we’d have some kind of better mescaline that doesn’t last this long and doesn’t cause a small percentage of takers to really spin out.  But: we’ve got something here.  A possible help on the road to salvation.  A substance which allows you to perceive the Mind at Large, to feel the connection to the divine superpower, what he calls in the next essay “out there.”

However, once you go through the Door In The Wall (Huxley credits this phrase to H. G. Wells) you’re not gonna come back the same.  You’ll come back “wiser but less cocksure, happier by less self-satisfied,” humbler in the face of the “unfathomable Mystery.”

My friend Audrey who works at the bookstore tells me she sells a lot of copies of this book, mostly to young dudes.  The edition I have comes with an additional essay, “Heaven and Hell,” which considers visionary experiences both blissful and appalling, and tries to sort out what we can from them.  There’s also an appendix:

Two other, less effective aids to visionary experience deserve mention – carbon dioxide and the stroboscopic lamp.

Huxley finds these less promising.


Who runs Bartertown?

When he gets to Bartertown, Max is taken up in the tower to meet Aunty (Tina Turner). She tells him she wants him to kill somebody. Who? Master Blaster.

Master is a little gnome who rides around on the giant Blaster. Aunty explains that the energy to run the lights and electricity of Bartertown comes from the underworld, a horrible factory-like place where pig shit generates methane.

Max goes down to the underworld under the guise of a pig-shit shoveler. While there, he meets Master Blaster, who is determined to show him who really runs Bartertown. Master Blaster turns off the methane to Bartertown. Everything goes dark. Master Blaster calls up to Aunty. His demand to turn the methane back on is that she answer the question: Who run Bartertown? Reluctantly, she answers: Master Blaster. He makes her say it publicly, over the PA system. Who run Bartertown? Master Blaster. Once she’s said this he smiles and turns the methane back on.

That’s all pretty early in the movie, we haven’t even gotten inside the Thunderdome yet. And since the movie is called Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, we know we’re barely getting started.


I Am Alive and You Are Dead

You don’t need to have read a single book by Philip K. Dick – there are 44+ – to feel his influence. Ridley Scott told Dick he never read his source material (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) before making the adaptation Blade Runner. Total Recall, Minority Report, Man In The High Castle, The Adjustment Bureau, these are a few of the filmed versions. In Slacker Richard Linklater films himself telling stories of Dick’s life and beliefs; later he made a version of A Scanner Darkly. PKD was picking up a signal and asking qs that pretty soon everybody would have to think about:

what if there were a robot so good that you didn’t know it was a robot?

what if there was a robot so good it didn’t know it was a robot?

what if we’re living in a simulation? what if our art and dreams and visions are what’s real and the rest is… what? A trick?

what does it mean if we can invent worlds the feel realer than world world?

what if we were all on so many powerful drugs we lost the thread of reality?

what if we were all on so many powerful drugs we found the thread of reality?

what if surveillance became so elaborate that we ended up surveilling ourselves?

It’s one leap to come up with ideas like this, but another to make them as vivid and lived in as PKD did. (Take even the term “blade runner” – what??)

Despite (because?) of this profound, influential imaginative work, PKD led a marginal existence, almost all in second-tier California towns, ending when he was found unconscious in his apartment in Santa Ana in 1982 and was “disconnected from life support” (an idea he would’ve invented if it hadn’t already existed) days later.

Wrapping your head around this guy isn’t easy, especially since he spent about eight years writing a million plus word “exegesis” that got launched when the fish symbol around the neck of a pharmacy delivery girl convinced him VALIS (vast active living intelligence system) was communicating with him while we were all living in an unending Roman empire.

Imagine what it was like for PKD:

The drugs he had taken during the 1960s, he was convinced formed a chemical soup in which his brain now stewed.

Mostly prescription stuff; he took LSD once and had a real bad time. His place got broken into, and at first he thought the FBI might’ve done it, but then he wondered if he’d done it himself. He was somewhat plausibly worried government agents were monitoring everything he did, but then he wondered why, or if it was even possible he was monitoring himself. Imagine how he felt, then, when the President of the United States (also an Orange County bro) was investigated (on TV) in regard to a mysterious break-in, caught by his own hidden surveillance system that he’d apparently installed to try and remember what he himself had been saying, and thus all his paranoid obsessions became the national, still-unraveled narrative?

Tough challenge for the biographer.

The book you hold in your hands is a very peculiar book. In it I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside, in other words, with the same freedom and empathy – indeed with the same truth – with which he depicted his own characters. It’s a trip into the brain of a man who regarded even his craziest books not as works of imagination but as factual reports.

Mission accomplished. This is one of the best bios of a writer I’ve ever read. It passes one of the key tests, telling us what Philip K. Dick ate (frozen meals, stuff he got at the local convenience store). It functions as useful psychic history of California from 1950-1980, from the Communist scene in Berkeley to the turn from druggy hippie near utopia to speedfreak nightmare to a semi-religious recovery. Towards the end, PKD was half-convinced he might be living in the Book of Acts (which he hadn’t read), but also thought it possible he was just losing it.

Terry Car, the Ace paperback editor, used to joke that if the Bible had been published as science fiction, it would have had to be cut down to two volumes of twenty thousand words each; the Old Testament would have been retitled “Master of Chaos,” and the New Testament “The Thing with Three Souls.”

How about this?:

[PKD] told the doctor what John Collier, the British writer of fantastic fiction, had said – that the universe was a pint of beer and the galaxies nothing but the rising bubbles. A few people living in one of the bubbles happen to see the guy pouring the beer, and for them nothing will ever be the same again. That, said Phil, is what had happened to him.

In a way PKD was sort of an anti-Joan Didion, who took a deadeyed look at the results of the nightmare, while he himself wondered if the nightmare might be the fruit of his own imagination. Where did one end and the other begin? A wild ride.

The first story PKD sold, “Roog,” kinda hints at it all, here is the summary:

“Roog” is a story told from the point of view of a dog named Boris, who observes his masters carefully storing food in containers outside of their house day after day. Unbeknownst to the dog, these are the human’s trash cans for garbage. The dog is later horrified to witness some food being ‘stolen’ by garbagemen who the dog believes are predatory carnivores from another planet. The dog comes to know these beings as ‘Roogs’, and tries to warn his master of each ‘theft’ with cries of ‘Roog!’ ‘Roog!’. The humans, unable to comprehend the hound’s message, think the dog is just being rowdy. Thus they attribute the sound the dog makes to be the sound that all dogs make when they are excited: ‘Roog!’ ‘Roog!’ The tale concludes with the animal being somewhat distraught, barking “ROOG!” very loudly at the garbagemen before they make off once more with trash in their garbage truck.

Poor PKD was kinda like Boris. You can’t help but like him.

Roog is apparently also “the Supreme God and creator of the Serer religion of the Senegambia region.” That’s the kind of thing that would’ve sent PKD spinning for weeks in his apartment in Santa Ana.


Genius of the system

The sheer number of movies Hollywood cranked out during the peak of the studio system is wild. In 1936, for example, Paramount released 69 movies, RKO had 39, Fox had 50 movies, MGM put out 48 movies, Warner 56, Universal 34.

This was the factory-like story production processes Faulkner was working under.

Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System is of daunting thickness, but it’s very readable, and I like the thesis: despite the factory nature and control by the money guys rather than the directors, real style and art was achieved.

Auterism itself would not be worth bothering with if it hadn’t been so influential, effectively stalling film history and criticism in a prolonged stage of adolescent romanticism. But the closer we look at Hollywood’s relations of power and hierarchy of authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director – or any individual, for that matter.

Should we look at the old studio system trying to find cases where a rare director snuck art past the suits? Or should we look at it and see a miraculous time, when thousands of artists and craftspeople came together for a brief period to create the collective dreams of a nation?

Schatz gives a good short summary of his work and the rise and fall of the studio system in this 1989 Fresh Air interview.

In The Offer, Paramount +’s show about the making of Paramount Pictures’ The Godfather, you can see dramatized some of the problems from the end of the true studio system days. The show was shot on the Paramount lot, doubling as the Paramount lot from 1971. There’s a studio, but when they start a movie, they start from scratch. Casting, finding the right people for technical roles, chain of command, getting a workflow going, dealing with the unions, the mob: all these are begun anew for each production. Poor Al Ruddy has to solve each problem fresh. Robert Evans is there, but he’s no Thalberg, with central command over all the gears in the machine. When the movie’s, it’s over. Everything resets. In the year The Godfather came out, Paramount put out sixteen pictures.

Sometimes companies manage to recreate the cohesion of the studio system. Take Pixar, for example, or the Marvel movies. How about Hallmark movies? Individual directors and producers can have runs like this too: Selznick was doing it by 1935. But at nowhere like the studio scale.

Studios had specialties, flavors: MGM had musicals, Universal had monster movies, Warner Brothers had gangster pictures. In 2022, do the streamers have anything like this? I know what BritBox is.

Even on our startup model, plenty of dreams get produced. Movies might be uncountable, how many are there? 403? How many scripted TV shows are there? 532?

Gracenote, a Nielsen company, listed more than 817,000 unique program titles across U.S. traditional TV and streaming services, with many of those titles featuring hundreds of individual episodes and chapters. Back in December 2019, there were just over 646,000 unique program titles.

So says Nielsen’s State of Play report. I found this Hollywood Reporter piece citing an FX report from 2016 that lists all 1,400 primetime shows, starting with Big Bang Theory and ending with:

The Paramount decree in 1948 stopped the studios from owning the theaters. One of many blows, along with TV, shifting lifestyles, etc that forced change on the system. But we’ve re-evolved back around on vertical integration. Disney, for example, is a studio yet owns its own distribution: Disney +. Is that a violation of the Paramount decree? Let’s look into it:

As part of a 2019 review of its ongoing decrees, the Department of Justice issued a two-year sunsetting notice for the Paramount Decree in August 2020, believing the antitrust restriction was no longer necessary as the old model could never be recreated in contemporary settings.

Oh!


slop

from The Nation’s review of Dana Brown’s DILETTANTE: TRUE TALES OF EXCESS, TRIUMPH, AND DISASTER, a memoir of life as Graydon Carter’s assistant at Vanity Fair and the decline of magazine high life in NYC.


How to get through a meeting (Faulkner’s version)

This book is very illuminating if you’re interested in studio screenwriting methods of the late 1930s and early ’40s, although at some point the effort to pick apart Faulkner’s contributions to particular screenplays becomes an unknowable bit of textual archaeology. Faulkner would often be one of 5-7 writers working simultaneously or overlapping on the same property. Faulkner didn’t take Hollywood personally. He managed his Hollywood career better than Fitzgerald did, and later benefited from his collaboration with Howard Hawks, who seems to have both liked Faulkner as a guy and liked having the legend around. Faulkner was fast and hard working. If I have the timeline right, he worked on Gunga Din (his version not used) while also revising Absalom, Absalom.


LRB on Roe

Deborah Friedell in London Review of Books has a wild review of The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager. Jane Roe’s real name was Norma McCorvey:

She blames her religious parents (Pentecostals turned Jehovah’s Witnesses) for neglecting to tell her how babies were made. When she became pregnant at seventeen, she was ‘shocked’ – ‘somehow what Woody and I had been doing together didn’t seem to be what was needed to create a whole new life.’

An important player in how the case evolved was Judge Sarah Hughes, who swore in LBJ on Air Force One, November 22, 1963.

Coffee would probably have continued to work on the case by herself if she hadn’t received a phone call from her old law school classmate Sarah Weddington. They weren’t friends, but Weddington had a question about federal procedure, and knew that Coffee had clerked for a federal judge – Sarah Hughes, who was instrumental in securing Texan women the right to serve on juries, though she’ll always be most famous for swearing in Lyndon Johnson as president on Air Force One after Kennedy’s assassination. … Coffee … said it would be smarter to file in Dallas, not Austin, so there would be a chance of arguing in front of Judge Hughes.

Judge Hughes in the spotted dress. She had an incredible life’s journey:

She attended classes at night and during the day worked as a police officer. As a police officer, Hughes did not carry a gun or wear a police uniform because she worked to prevent crimes among women and girls, patrolling areas where female runaways and prostitutes were normally found. Her job was an expression of the progressive idea of rehabilitation instead of punishment. Hughes later credited this job with instilling in her a sense of commitment and responsibility to women and children. At that time she lived in a tent home near the Potomac River and commuted to the campus by canoe each evening.

The lawyer representing Texas in the case opened his Supreme Court oral argument with a “joke”:

The lawyer representing Texas began his argument by saying: ‘It’s an old joke, but when a man argues against two beautiful ladies like this, they’re going to have the last word.’ When no one laughed, Weddington thought he became ‘unnerved’.

I had to look this up to confirm. But there it is!

At the end of everything, this is how Norma McCorvey came to feel:

Maybe America will resolve this issue with voting, as was done in Ireland.

Often when LRB writes about USA stuff, it’s great, just a new perspective. David Runciman’s piece on Colin Kaepernick was really good, addressed to readers who have to have American football explained to them, and in so doing brings beginner’s mind to one of those controversies that’s become locked-in.


Keep an eye out for this man

From a journey that took me to the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Most Wanted Fugitives site.