Here is a link to what I hope is a series of reviews of movie biographies at the Portland Mercury blog. The debut review is a new bio of Warren Beatty.
A Robin Wood Bibliography
A descriptive, illustrated bibliography of the work of noted film critic Robin Wood
Books With Original Contributions by Robin Wood
The Films of Jean-Luc Godard [Edited, presumably, by Ian Cameron]
For details, see the citation for the second edition below.
The first version of this popular anthology of essays on Godard's films. Like almost all of the books in the series its dimensions are six inches wide and 6.5 inches high.
Second Wave [Edited, presumably, by Ian Cameron]
"Dusan Makavejev," pages 7 - 33; Praeger, New York, 1970, 144 pages.
An anthology of nine essays on filmmakers from around the world, with an intro by Cameron. Other contributions include Cameron on Oshima, three essays by Michel Ciment, and Andi Engel on Jean-Marie Straub (query to the universe: was Engel's book The Serials of Louis Feuillade ever published?). Like almost all of the books in the series its dimensions are six inches wide and 6.5 inches high.
The Films of Jean-Luc Godard [Edited, presumably, by Ian Cameron]
"Band A Part," pages 61 - 71; "Alphaville," pages 83 - 93; "Weekend," pages 162 - 171; Praeger, New York, 1970, 192 pages.
An anthology of 23 essays on Godard's films, in chronological order, by 16 contributors, including Raymond Durgnat, V. F. Perkins, Cameron, and Charles Barr. This is the second edition of the book, with the addition of seven new essays and four new contributors, including Wood on Weekend, and Durgnat on One Plus One. Like almost all of the books in the series its dimensions are six inches wide and 6.5 inches high.
Favorite Movies: Critic's Choice, edited by Philip Nobile
"The Seaweed-gatherer," pages 160 - 171, Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1973, 301 pages.
An anthology of essays by prominent reviewers discussing the one film they esteem the most. Other contributors include Peter Bogdanovich, Stuart Byron, Richard Corliss, Dwight Macdonald, Joseph McBride, William Pechter, Andrew Sarris, John Simon, and Parker Tyler. The contents page makes up a sort of who's who of "in" critics for the early 1970s. Wood's essay is ostensibly about Sansho Dayu, but his remarks range all across cinema and at, and the essay ends famously with the simple remark, "It is the greatest movie I have ever seen."
Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, The Major Filmmakers, edited by Richard Roud
The Viking Press, two volumes, New York, 1980, 2000 pages.
An anthology of essays by prominent critics discussing about 250 filmmakers and issues in cinema. Other contributors include Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and numerous others. The contents page makes up a sort of who's who of "in" critics for the 1980s. One peculiarity of the book is that editor Roud demands the last word. At the end of each essay, Roud adds his thoughts about the topic, in bold face. This is apparently a consequence of the long delay in publication, necessitating Roud's updates, the original authors being unavailable. Wood's contributions to the set are listed below.
"Robert Altman" pages 25 - 27.
"Bernardo Bertolucci" pages 125 - 131.
"Budd Boetticher" pages 133 - 135.
"John Ford" pages 371 - 386.
"John Huston" pages 513 - 516.
"Stanley Kubrick" pages 560 - 564.
"Fritz Lang: 1936 - 1960" pages 599 - 608.
"Charles Laughton" pages 610 - 611.
"Leo McCarey" pages 652 - 654.
"Dusan Makavejev" pages 655 - 657.
"Anthony Mann" pages 664 - 661.
"Alan J. Pakula and Robert Mulligan" pages 763 - 764.
"Sam Peckinpah" pages 771 - 774.
"Arthur Penn" pages 775 - 778.
"Robert Rossellini" pages 887 - 900.
"Ken Russell" pages 909 - 910.
"Don Siegel" pages 921 - 923.
"Jacques Tourneur" pages 1006 - 1008.
Don Siegel – American Cinema, edited by Alan Lovell, BFI, 1968, page 58. A response to a questionaire from the editor.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, edited by Christopher Lyon; second, third, and fourth editions edited by Tom and Sara Pendergast
Perigee Books, Putnam, two volumes, New York, 1985, 622 pages and 550 . Subsequent editions were published by St. James Press (a part of the Gale Group), through at least the year 2000, in four volumes, Volume 1, Films; Volume 2, Directors; volume 3, Actors and Actresses; and Volume 4, Writers and Production Artists.
An ambitious undertaking, this anthology of essays by prominent scholars evolved into a massive contribution to film studies. Though horribly expensive at the time, the contents of the books have now been put on line at the Film Reference website, where Wood's numerous contributions can be unearthed. They will be linked from this page as they are discovered. Some Wood essays that appear in the Perigee edition, such as an article on John Carpenter, and replace in the St. James editions.
"LA GRANDE Illusion"
"Heaven's Gate [deleted after first edition] "
"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [deleted after first edition] "
"Tabu [deleted after first edition] "
"To Have and Have Not [deleted after first edition] "
"Tout va bien [deleted after first edition] "
"John Carpenter [deleted after first edition] "
"Georges Franju [deleted after first edition] "
Actors and Actresses
Writers and Production Artists
The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin.
Ungar, New York, 1978
"Charles Laughton in Grub St.," pages 204 - 214. [A reprint from On Film 1:1, 1970, pages 68 - 71, and focusing on Night of the Hunter and its adaptation history. Wood also wrote on this film in his Laughton entry in Critical Dictionary; see above]
The Book of Westerns, edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, Continuum, New York, 1994, 320 pages, ISBN 0 8264 0818 4
"Drums Along the Mohawk," pages 174 - 180.
"Duel in the Sun," pages 189 - 195.
An anthology of essays on the genre by former and current contributors to both Movie and CineACTION!, including Deborah Thomas, Michael Walker, Charles Barr, V. F. Perkins, Andrew Britton, Richard Lippe, Brad Stevens, Florence Jacobowitz, and Edward Gallafent. Wood's essay on Drums is reprinted from CineACTION!.
The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, edited by Andrew Sarris, Visible Ink, Detroit-New York-Toronto-London, 1998, 692 pages, ISBN 1 57859 028 0
"Tim Burton," pages 86 - 70.
"Jacques Demy," pages 133 - 135. [Updated by Rob Edelman.]
"Georges Franju," pages 181 - 183.
"Jean-Luc Godard," pages 192 - 197. [Updated by Rob Edelman.]
"Alfred Hitchcock," pages 218 - 223.
"Antony Mann," pages 319 - 320.
"Leo McCarey," pages 328 - 330.
"Max Ophuls," pages 364 - 366.
"Scorsese," pages 453 - 457.
"Oliver Stone," pages 494 - 498. [Updated by R. Barton Palmer.]
"Bertrand Tavernier," pages 512 - 514. [Updated by Rob Edelman.]
An anthology of 200 essays and filmographies by some 75 contributors on the then-considered top directors. Other contributors include David Bordwell, Dave Kehr, Raymond Durgnat, Audie Bock, and Ginette Vincendeau. It's interesting to see who was considered important in 1998, or slightly earlier given the book's gestation time: Then-fashionable directors or club favorites such as Bill Forsyth, Nanni Moretti, James Ivory, and Hal Hartley are given much more space than their current status seems to warrant. This volume offers the only extended treatment that Wood gave to Burton, Franju, or Stone.
Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist, by Andrew Britton
"Foreword," page 6, Columbia University Press, New York, 2003, 264 pages.
This third iteration of Britton's important book contains a foreword by Wood. The volume was originally published in 1984. It was reprinted in 1994, as a Movie book under the stewardship of Ian Cameron. This edition reprints the 1994 version, with all the Movie apparatus and design, plus Wood's foreword, and Britton's programe notes for a Hepburn retrospective in 1984 (pages 253 - 260)
The Film Comedy Reader, edited by Gregg Rickman
Limelight, New York, 2001
"'I Just Went Gay All of a Sudden': Gays and '90s Comedies," pages 409 - 421. [This item may also have been printed in a different language in Filmhäftet; seen magazine bibliography.]
The Hitchcock Annual Anthology: Selected Essays from Volumes 10 - 15, edited by Sidney Gottlieb and Richard Allen
Wallflower Press, London and New York, 2009 (published in the USA by Columbia University Press)
"Hitchcock and Fascism," pages 97 - 122. [A treatment of Hitchcock's Lifeboat; this may be Wood's last published essay before his death.]
The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, edited by Piers Handling
General Publishing Co, Toronto, 1983 (published in USA by New York Zoetrope)
"Cronenberg: A Dissenting View," pages 115 - 135.
The Film Noir Encyclopedia
Edited by Alain Silver, James Ursini, Elizabeth Ward, and Robert Porfirio
Overlook, New York City, 2010, 426 pages.
This is the fourth edition of the popular guide to the genre. Robin Wood is one of the numerous contributors, and his specific articles will be enumerated in due time.
DVD Audio Commentary Tracks and Liner Notes
The Furies, Anthony Mann, The Criterion Collection, spine number 435, ISBN: 978-1-60465-044-0, street date, June 24, 2008, region 1, $39.95.
Wood provided an essay to the booklet for this Criterion release.
Le Plaisir, Max Ophuls, The Criterion Collection, spine number 444, ISBN: 978-1-60465-060-0, street date, September 16, 2008, region 1, $39.95.
Wood provided an essay to the booklet for this Criterion release.
In the annals of popular culture there are many times when a reading public has been drawn to subject matter that for a long time escapes the attention of the pundits and intellectuals. Penny dreadfuls were mostly ignored by the cultural commentators, as were pulp magazines until decades later, where the contents were often reevaluated as "art." In Britain, George Orwell brought to light in a famous essay the crude sex comic books that entertained the working class. In the 1970s and 1980s women readers in America consumed romance novels outside the scrutiny of media watchdogs.
Comics on the other hand were always high profile. Descendent from newspaper comic strips, which were already a national mania, comic books quickly became kids stuff, the source of concern from parents and societal watchdogs even as movie studios, especially Disney, and other businesses, hijacked them as a marketing adjunct. Yet within the comic book industry there were pockets of bizarre novelty and obsession.
One of these pockets as home of Wonder Woman, one of the many DC comic book superheroes introduced in the wake of Superman and Batman. It's difficult to evaluate true popularity, but Wonder Woman never seemed to be as popular as her elder siblings, nor of the other DC line of characters, such as the Flash, the Green Arrow and Aqua-Man. As late the 1960s, Wonder Woman's comic books maintained an archaic style that harked back to the 1940s, and worse, to young pimply-faced comic maniacs, Woman Woman was probably only for girls.
If she was, what on earth were those girls thinking? In Whit Stillman's film The Last Days of Disco, one of the characters goes into an impassioned Tarantinoesque diatribe against the implications of Lady and the Tramp, arguing that Tramp is in reality a "self-confessed chicken thief and all-around sleaze ball" and that the film constitutes a "primer on love and marriage directed at very young people" philosophizing that "smooth talking delinquents are a good catch for nice girls," while the "only sympathetic character," the Scottie, is "mocked as old-fashioned and irrelevant and shunted off to the side." Casting an equally gimlet eye on Wonder Woman, you wonder what lessons the heroine was teaching her readers.
Like a lot of women, Wonder Woman sent mixed messages. Resembling Superman, Diana Prince, A.K.A. Wonder Woman, was a super-powerful person first, but only disguised as a mere mortal in everyday life. A resident of an island of Amazons, she came to the regular world after Steve Trevor, a fighter pilot, crash-landed there at the start of World War II. Following him back to the United States, Diana - Wonder Woman fights Nazis, mad scientists, and common criminals, and often finds herself tied up in highly detailed ropes and chains drawings that rival Betty Page for variety.
Dr. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, and she made her debut in All Star Comics No. 8, published in December 1941 (becoming a DC figure when that company was formed in 1944). Marston was an evangelist for the educational benefits of comic books and wanted Wonder Woman to be a role model for female readers. To that end, Wonder Woman was mechanically competent (she flies an invisible plane), a good fighter (she has a golden lariat and wrist bracelets that look like bondage attire to help her out by repelling bullets), and is at times a scientist and military strategist.
Wonder Woman's mixed message seems to be that not only is it fun to triumph over male egregiousness, but it is also fun to be tied up for awhile before you get there. In its first period, the comic was famous for contriving some way to have Wonder Woman hog-tied, chained to a wall in a dungeon, or strapped to a St. Andrews Cross. Many kids seem to have a natural affinity for bondage, but is the attraction really inborn or does it come from media such as Wonder Woman comics? If so, does Marston and his cartoonists bear the responsibility? Moreover, what's wrong with a little playacting bondage in the first place?
For the most part the new book Wonder Woman: Amazon, Hero, Icon (by Robert Greenberger, Universe Books, 208 pages, $35 dollars, ISBN 978 0 7893 2034 6) avoids dwelling on the bondage theme, preferring to celebrate the character in straightforward prose that recounts the background to, history of, and permutations in the comic book. The bondage theme comes up only on pages 112 and 115, where the reader learns that Marston insisted on the bondage postures as an "educational" alternative to scenes of violence. On the other hand, he also insisted that various slave girls in chains also decorate the bondage theater, so who knows what he was really thinking? Was the well-meaning educator also a libertine with Sadean leanings? The book then chastises feminist Gloria Steinem for avoiding the issue in an anthology of WW stories, even though Icon doesn't do much better.
Icon is divided into 12 brief chapters. The reader is presented with background history on the creation of the character, background on her Amazon roots and influence by Greek mythology, is given a survey of her weaponry, a list of her friends and her opponents, is followed into the swinging '60s where changes in the WW persona were finally implemented, and then shown how the character has evolved since then. The prose is informative if brief, but the book's main function is to show how numerous artists have interpreted the character over the decades, giving gravity to both the pulpy origins of Wonder Woman and the glossy "graphic novel" treatment of recent years.
The knowing comic book buff wants a little more sleaze, however. For a detailed treatment, the reader can turn to Michael Fleisher's Wonder Woman volume in the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes series, published in a less prudish 1976. Not only does Mr. Fleisher detail every episode of bondage and humiliation from issue to issue, such as on pages 87 - 88, where we learn how a Baroness Paula von Gunther used operant conditioning and a photograph of her holding a bullwhip to transform her victim into a "mindless, obedient slave, powerless to resist the baroness's commands," but there is also a four to five page section at the end of the book that goes into detail about the images of bondage, humiliation, and slavery in the series and their implications in terms of the comic's "philosophy" ("Nowhere in the comic book literature is the practice of slavery so prevalent as in the Wonder Woman chronicles"). Despite his almost comically sober prose, Mr. Fleisher has written one of the hottest accounts of a comic book ever put to paper.
In an age when bondage images are readily available, readers don't have to turn to a comic book for fleeting images of women hogtied. But at the time, Wonder Woman's giving and receiving bondage may have been part of a coded language between disciplinarians on both sides of the drawing pen. But because the portraits of Wonder Woman tied up are embedded in longer (dull) action stories, the physical charge is evanescent at best, and it doesn't help that the early illustrators for Marston's vision aren't particularly good.
It is also confusing that her name is Diana Prince, the word for a male role in royal hierarchy, especially given that Wonder Woman is a princess back on her home island. Aside from the name, however, there is little gender bending in the comics outside of WW's toughness and greater command of a male associated tools and machines. Yet given her competence it is confusing that she finds herself tied up all the time. A psychologist might hint that there are no accidents, and that Wonder Woman's propensity for finding herself in bindings betrays a secret hankering, in line with her "girlish" emotionalism toward Steve Trevor. What is clear, though, is that Wonder Woman's bondage is only a transitional stage, and that once through it, she triumphs against maledom, not unlike, one imagines, a woman who starts out as a masochist or bottom in the BDSM world and evolves to become a top or Dominatrix. In that regard, Wonder Woman may actually have something accurate to say about human psychology, however coded it might be. Some readers will yet wish, however, that Wonder Woman had been better drawn.
In 1966, George Lucas saw Jean-Luc Godard in person when the New Wave director made an appearance at USC, where Lucas was a grad student. Godard's approach to film influenced Lucas as the New Wave in general had inspired so many others. Lucas liked the spontaneity of the films and chumminess of the characters in them, the dirtiness and authenticity of the world. Godard's Alphaville was to have a significant impact on Lucas's short film THX 1138: 4EB and its later regeneration as a feature film. But shortly thereafter Lucas drifted away from the sorts of movies that Godard made, Lucas himself evolving from short films dissecting and anatomizing such objects as racing cars and cinema verite accounts of events in his life such as working on Coppola's The Rain People, to Hollywood style films of nostalgia and traditional narrative.
Will Brooker alludes to this Godardian moment in his terrific monograph on Star Wars (BFI Film Classics, Palgrave Macmillan, 96 pages, $14.95, ISBN-13: 978-1844572779) enough to set the mind pondering the future of cinema if Lucas hadn't disengaged from his interest in Godard. But as Mr. Brooker makes clear, Lucas was already set in his ways, and the apparent contradiction between his early short and "experimental" films and the "slick" Hollywood product is a myth. Mr. Brooker is excellent at illustrating the continuity between the early student and the later mature films, while illustrating the real contradiction of the films. As Mr. Brooker puts it, in the "supposedly clear-cut conflict between good and evil, Lucas is rooting for both sides."
There have been hundreds of books, magazine articles, blog entries, and fan speculations about Star Wars and its series successors/predecessors. But as Mr. Brooker points out, there are few attempts to treat the film as a work of art, to analyze content, trace themes, and scrutinize philosophy. Mr. Brooker salutes Robin Wood, who, in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, has a critical account of the film and its impact on cinema. Yet Mr. Brooker still manages to find a nugget of helpful critical insight into the film from the late critic's essay on Star Wars, that totalitarianism can arise from within the forces of good, an insight that unlocks, at least for the generous Mr. Brooker, access to the aesthetic and thematic concerns of the film. Aside from Wood's essay (and a highly critical account of the film's fascism that appeared in Jump Cut, but which I don't think Mr. Brooker cites), Mr. Brooker's book is the first attempt to address the film as a film, rather than a symptom of Hollywood's decline.
Anyone who lived through the "great '70s" can well remember the excitement over the emergence of American filmmakers as diverse as Coppola, Scorsese, Jon Jost, and Bob Rafelson, among many others, filmmakers who brought an independent or film school sensibility to motion pictures, and some of whom stormed the citadel and began making their own films within the system, changing it, it seemed, forever. Yet by 1977, the year of Star Wars's release, there was a significant change in the mood of common cinephelia. Film buffs were no longer advocates of independent cinema, but apologists for the studios. They thought like studio chiefs, they followed the box office in Variety like studio chiefs, and they gravitated toward filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg who harked back to old fashioned, non-modernist, non-alienated modes of storytelling.
One of Mr. Brooker's ambitions is to see through the obfuscation of that shift and find the real art and coherence underlying Star Wars, one of the most popular films ever made. His short book is divided into four chapters. After the introduction – an overture to his themes and approach, with a good point about how Lucas constructed his fantasy world to have a life, so to speak, outside the limits of the frame – the chapters are "Before Star Wars," "Dirt," "Order," and "Border Crossing."
The first chapter, "Before Star Wars", traces Lucas's entry into filmmaking, his attempts to position himself in the press as a guy always yearning to get back to small filmmaking just as soon as he is done with his Star Wars saga (a complaint similar to those made by his mentor and competitor Coppola), and how Star Wars is both similar to and yet also something new in his oeuvre. He distinguishes between Death Star World (cold, clean, orderly, ruthless) and Rebel World (spontaneous, improvisational, scrappy, jokey).
"Dirt" tracks Lucas's various strategies and also his foibles as he mounted Star Wars. Mr. Brooker is good here on Lucas's desire to "dirty up" the movie. Even though it was a fantasy, he wanted realistic elements. He is also good on emphasizing sound production as a key, if not revolutionary, element of the film's design and success. Lucas apparently doesn't work well with others, and Mr. Brooker also delineates among the approaches of the various actors to their roles, and offers up some on-set gossip. The author points out that in the making of the film, he created a Rebel World but only by acting like an emissary from Death Star World.
In Chapter Three, "Order," Mr. Brooker uses Lucas's special interest in and talent for editing as an entry point in talking both about his technique and his thematic ambivalence. In other words, the Empire is evil, but Lucas admires aspects of it, such as its orderliness and shiny implacability. Here, Mr. Brooker also touches on some of the influences on the film, such as Kurosawa, especially The Hidden Fortress, with helpful frame comparisons between similar moments in The Searchers and 633 Squadron. In his joint biography of Kurosawa and Mifuni (Lucas's first choice for Obiwan), Stuart Galbraith mentions an obscure Japanese action film, The Magic Serpent, that is apparently very close in plot and tone to Star Wars, but this title seems to have eluded Mr. Brooker's expansive attention (Galbraith indicates that the similarities are probably a genre coincidence).
Finally, in Chapter Four, "Border Crossing," Mr. Brooker gets to the aesthetic and interpretive – and evaluative – heart of the film. Essentially, he concentrates on Death Star World versus Rebel World, while also noting the underlying and generally unrecognized complex nuances of the political history of the Star Wars universe, i.e., that the evil Empire actually has its roots in the old Republic, setting up a Hegelian thesis to the Empire's antithesis, resulting in the Rebellion's synthesis.
Will Brooker's short book on Star Wars makes for fascinating reading that expands and deepens one's appreciation for the film, and it is a welcome addition to a library of books on the film that are mostly tilted toward the Empire of business and box office rather than the Rebellion of '70s cinema's spirit of adventure and aesthetic exploration.
In my bookcase are four shelves of books on Alfred Hitchcock and his films. They take up three times as much space as the books on Orson Welles or any other director, and rivals only my film noir book collection, which also takes up four shelves, but on the other hand is about a diffuse genre with over 100 filmmakers making contributions. And my collection of Hitchcock books is but a fraction of the titles that are available, as any visit to a good library will reveal.
My fanatically inspired collection is only one measure of the explosion of Hitchcock studies, at least since the publication in English of Francois Truffaut's interview book with the director, and Robin Wood's pioneering critical survey, Hitchcock's Films, both in the early 1960s. Yet explosion is not quite the right word. It's been more of a steady yet increasing flow, particularly after Hitchcock's death in 1980, and the release of DVDs of the director's films since the late 1990s in a series of successive special editions.
The cynical or non-academic or even non-movie-loving person's reaction might be, Do we really need more books about Hitchcock? But what's amazing about many of the books on Hitchcock, especially since the 1980s, is how creatively critics and scholars have addressed Hitchcock's themes and visual style and how the works comment of society. For an example of how diverse the approaches to Hitchcock can be right now there is probably no better place to turn than to the new collection, The Hitchcock Annual Anthology: Selected Essays from Volumes 10 -15 (Wallflower Press, 224 pages, $26, ISBN-13: 978-1905674954), compiled by Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews and Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews) and Richard Allen (Hitchcock's Romantic Irony), both of whom are also editors of The Hitchcock Annual, the 18-year-old scholarly journal that is one of the handful of crucial clearing houses for ideas and theories about Hitchcock's work.
The Hitchcock Annual Anthology gathers 15 essays and pieces from the most recent six issues of the annual, published in the second half of the publication's life, or since 2001. The book is divided into five sections, covering collaborators of Hitchcock's, biographical investigations, general themes, individual films, and finally the director and critical theory.
In the first section there is a fascinating transcript of a panel featuring three Hitchcock screenwriters, Joe Stefano (Psycho), Arthur Laurents (Rope), and Evan Hunter (The Birds). They have differing views of both Hitchcock and the nature of his work, with Stefano being the most enthusiastic about his collaboration. The second group of essays exploring the career of Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville, and her later influence on his work, reprints articles by and about her from the 1920s, and includes an essay about the influence of D. W. Griffith on Hitchcock, accompanied by an essay credited to Hitchcock about Griffith on the occasion of the film Abraham Lincoln in 1931. Of special interest is an essay by Charles Barr on the reaction within Britain to Hitchcock's leaving just before the start of World War II, which unveils many complex issues associated with the matter than haven't been aired much since that time.
The third section is the strongest. It kicks off with a terrific essay by Robin Wood, who died just before Christmas of 2009, titled "Hitchcock and Fascism," and which may be the critic's last statement on the director, who engaged his interest throughout his life. Ostensibly about Lifeboat, the essay turns into a defense of Hitchcock as an artist who eschewed mere propaganda in favor of a nuanced exploration of how fascism invades our daily lives and interactions. Mark Hennelly's article about the carnival spirit in Hitchcock follows, and though it is densely and allusively written, it is one of the most exciting takes on Hitchcock that I've read in years, linking Hitchcock's childhood in the markets of London to his interest in circuses and carnivals, cross linked to the writings of Rebelais who also had a interest in carnivals as a way of looking at life, and finally to the explicit presence of carnivals in Hitchcock's films, such as The Ring and Strangers on a Train, and to a carnivalesque spirit found in later films, such as Frenzy. This one is followed by an equally fine and interesting essay by Thomas Elsaesser on the parallel careers of Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, the latter not having a career that is as embedded in film discourse as Hitchcock's came to be. In the process, Professor Elsaesser offers a short history of changing fashions in film criticism. His essay is as dense as Mr. Hennelly's, but just as rewarding (for example, it takes Mr. Elsaesser several paragraphs to get to the simple observation that Lang's reputation is less than Hitchcock's among both viewers and critics because Hitchcock is more viewer-friendly) . My feeling is that Lang is not quite as ignored as Mr. Elsaesser argues, though it has always struck me as odd that Lang, who had as many clunkers as Carol Reed did later in his career, yet still never suffered the kind of ridicule and disparagement that Reed endured.
The next section has detailed and helpful appraisals of the generally ignored Hitchcock films Murder and Under Capricorn, and the popular theorist Slavoj Zizek on Vertigo. Deborah Thomas's essay on Marnie is excellent and manages to say something new about this movie despite the looming legacy of Robin Wood, who heretofore wrote the definitive account of the film's strategies. The final section of the book has a fascinating and informative account of Hitchcock's importance to biographers and critical theory.
What the section on individual films shows, especially Deborah Thomas's essay, is that there is no more Hitchcock. Yes, there will continue to be biographies of the director and more critical studies, but Hitchcock the man has now fully become Hitchcock the label for a collection of stylistic flourishes and thematic concerns. In other words, it doesn't matter if Hitchcock intended Marnie, for example, to utilize doorways with such intense consistency has Ms. Thomas finds in the film. The consistency is there, and that means that the film is even more interesting and fruitful to discuss and think about. In his diaries for the 1960s, the great literary writer Edmund Wilson complained that with old age he felt that he himself were disappearing, with only the shelf of books he had authored remaining: "My appearance and personality have almost entirely disappeared and that this is little but my books marching through me." This may have been bad for Wilson's state of mine, but it is good for Hitchcock studies, where the writers need not really concern themselves with intentionality, but rather with how the films work internally and interact with other Hitchcock films and with contemporaneous pictures and also with films before and after. We don't "need" the real, biological, and historical Hitchcock for that, though it is also helpful to learn about his real life, views, and activities. The Hitchcock Annual Anthology is an exemplary example of work that occurs in both aspects of Hitchcock studies, the biographical, with the director front and center as a human being, and of Hitchcock criticism, where he is by now an aesthetic construct hovering over the work. I am happy to add this marvelous anthology to my already burgeoning shelves of Hitchcock volumes.
The Beauty Killer serial killer series is an international phenomenon by a hometown writer with a lot of Washington State in her background. Chelsea Cain was raised on an Iowa commune but eventually moved with her mother to Bellingham, Washington. After a peripatetic college career, Cain ended up in Portland, where, after careers in public relations and in journalism, she has settled down to write bestselling serial killer thrillers that are in part informed by her Washington experience – when she was a schoolgirl the Green River Killer was a daily presence in the media.
In Heartsick, Sweetheart, and now Evil at Heart (Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $24.99, ISBN 978-0312368487), published on September 1, Cain has explored the tense and obsessional relations between a serial killer, one of her surviving victims who also happened to be the head of the police task force hunting her, his wife and children, his partner, and a young female crime reporter. It is rich, very human material, and one can see why the stories are popular with readers. What probably goes under-appreciated is how difficult it is to pull off such novels successfully.
For a shining example of how the American thriller can work superbly one can turn to no better writer than John D. MacDonald. His "color title" series of mysteries featuring Florida P.I. Travis McGee are good tales but the prose also evinces MacDonald's remarkable ability to tell a brisk story while keeping the morality of the piece at the forefront of the prose through the careful use of adjectives and metaphors. It's a form of indirection. He doesn't want to distract the reader from the pace of the tale but he also wants to get across his attitude to what is happening. So he does it subliminally. Here's an example.
In one of MacDonald's first person mysteries his narrator is on some kind of stake out. MacDonald writes, "I stood and waited. It was a long afternoon. I moved with the shade. The long gray of the Spanish moss hung from the oaks in the windless stillness. Chickens scratched at the baked yards of the cabins, and made the throaty sounds of heat, blurred and querulous. One of the women came out and slapped the soapy gray phlegm of dishwater into the yard and stood for a moment with the pan in her hand, looking toward me, telling me that I was out of time and place. She went back in and the door spring made a tiny musical note before it slapped the screen back into place. I stood in an alien place, our of focus to myself as though I had lost some part of my own identity and meaning. And I thought of other places and other times of waiting. The afternoon was long. And very hot." Writing about the passage, MacDonald notes that the woman with the dishwater is more vivid than the narrator. This was intentional. He was using her to tell the reader more about him. MacDonald goes on to note that a writer has to "tell 'em, but tell 'em as indirectly as possible, achieving your effect through a feeling of mood rather than being too explicit."
In another remarkable example that MacDonald offered up to aspiring mystery writers, he presented a particular passage as it appeared in a book, then rewrote it in "too explicit" mode. The difference is striking. The published passage is a suite of movements, objects, mood, sounds. The "re-write" is flat, informative, declarative prose that doesn't stick in the aspic of the mind, doesn't make the presentation of information live. As MacDonald puts it, there is more empathy in the descriptive, indirect passage. Most genre fiction is declarative. The best is descriptive.
I don't think I could offer higher praise than to say that Chelsea Cain writes as well as John D. MacDonald. You can find very similar effects in her novels. Take the beginning of the second in the series, Sweetheart. The hero of the books, troubled police detective Archie Sheridan, is inspecting the corpse of a woman found in Forest Park. The opening paragraph is a selection of scene setting details. A skeptical reader might say, Yeah, she's got to include all this stuff just to get to the corpse, just to get the story going, but it's all really irrelevant, like most of that kind of writing is.
But scene setting details are exactly the kind of elements that MacDonald would use to portray his moral universe as well as the physical world. The ferns and the chirping birds of the opening paragraph are essential not only to set up the twist at the end of the paragraph, but also to form a contrast with the unnatural stillness and whiteness of the corpse. Amid life there is death. The mindless animal and plant life of the park seems to mock the dead body, but also to emphasize its lifelessness. To stay alive means to fight for life itself. The lush greenery and the bucolic animal kingdom is apart of the life one fights for, yet it is also the source of hazards, "red in tooth and claw". Throughout the rest of this second novel, forests will be the sites of life and death struggles, nature out of control surrounding human beings struggling for control and fighting death. It's a lot to pack into a few opening paragraphs and Cain does it with admirable effortlessness. This passage – indeed the whole series – emphasizes with compassion the human cost of serial killing – while at the same time evincing elsewhere a sneaking helpless admiration for "evil" as a transgressive society-rattling act. A few chapters later there is another perfect "MacDonald moment" when Cain uses the absence of a previously overpowering spell of popcorn as a sad indice of a now-lost friend.
American genre fiction continues to be undervalued by everyone except the millions of readers who buy it. Crime fiction is in reality harder to do than mainstream fiction (although genre fiction really is the mainstream fiction) because it has to look easier. And then there is that wonderful flowing tone of voice that speaks with such confidence. "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard two men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better." Frankly, I would rather read a fine thriller – any random title in the Hard Case Crime series – over "literary" fiction, typical examples of which years later almost always embarrass the memory in some way (think back on that ridiculous speculative novel that was so popular with book reading groups about the missing aviatrix, I Am Amelia Earhart with its Blue Lagoon style sexual shenanigans). Meanwhile, the crime novel does what the boys in the quarterlies say all fiction is supposed to do: explore relationships, detail the socioeconomic strata of society, critique life.
Cain's books work in the same way. Like MacDonald in his novels Cain works her effects, so to speak, invisibly in plain sight ... just like Gretchen Lowell, her anti-heroine. It's true that like his spiritual predecessors, Hammett, Chandler, and Ross McDonald, James Ellroy has changed detective fiction for all time, "elevating" it to the realm of literary fiction, but it is good to know that the old skills as John D. MacDonald preached them are still effective.
Gretchen Lowell is the heart of the series. And hearts are her trademark. She carves their design into flesh, and apparently draws them at her crime scenes. In the first novel, Heartsick, she is already incarcerated, and Sheridan, as part of a legal deal, visits her weekly to wheedle from her the name of yet another of her proclaimed 200-plus victims, so the police can close the books. Sheridan is hypnotically drawn to her, loving and hating her at the same time, or perhaps only hating her power over him, given that he sees her weekly despite the fact that she tortured him for 10 days, removed spleen, fed him spoonfuls of cleaning fluid, and carved a heart on his chest. Sheridan is her "last victim." His obsession with Lowell is destroying his family, but also intriguing the young riot grrl reporter Susan Ward, who writes for the Herald, a barely disguised version of the Oregonian. When another serial killer emerges, the After School Killer, Sheridan investigates and finds unexpected links to Gretchen Lowell. In the second novel, Sheridan is torn between two or three fronts: a new series of discovered bodies, the death of a senator accused of having sex with his 14-year-old babysitter, and the shocking escape of Gretchen Lowell from prison. There are two bravura sequences in the second book, a race to the school that Sheridan's kids attend, and a climactic face off among Lowell, Sheridan, his partner, and Susan Ward in a cabin surrounded by a forest fire. I don't think I am spoiling anything when I note that Sheridan and Gretchen also have sex. Certainly the reader by now wants them to. Each of them has sex with each other not only for pleasure but as part of conflicting master plans. It is important to point out that the sex scenes are both "tasteful" and erotic at the same time. Most writers stumble when it comes to sex scenes, especially those humorless uptight literary fiction guys like John Updike. But your mother could read the sex scenes in Sweetheart – and probably has.
Not only are these novels set in her home town, but one gets the feeling that there are all sorts of personal elements scattered throughout them (because Portland's writing community is so small, it's inevitable that this reviewer would be acquainted with Chelsea Cain, but I don't think that hampers my ability to evaluate the books convincingly). Lowell is possibly named after Cain's Bellingham elementary school. Like Cain, Susan Ward is a journalism school grad. Susan's mother, Bliss, is a ditzy aging hippie of a type the authoress must have know well from childhood on. Life in a big city newsroom feels observed as well as felt, although it is probably a lot busier in the book than in real life.
The third novel, Evil at Heart, begins 76 days after Gretchen's escape from prison in the second novel. By now Gretchen has become a media sensation, like Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers. In some quarters she is a heroine to emulate. Meanwhile, Sheridan is voluntarily checked into the psycho ward of a local hospital, where he is recovering both physically and emotionally from his last encounter with Gretchen. The book opens with another gruesome discovery: a bloody massacre in one of the ubiquitous, uniform bathroom rest stops in Oregon's state park system, a gory aftermath that includes a small collection of eyeballs hidden in the tank of a toilet. Hearts are drawn on the ceiling, but is this the work of Gretchen Lowell?
Then bits of bodies and full corpses start appearing in various locales Gretchen used during her 10-year spree. Sheridan checks himself out of the psyche ward and investigates on his own, with Susan Ward in Nancy Drew mode tagging along. Without going into too much detail, detective and reporter soon learn that a pro-active cult has arisen around Gretchen, forming a website, meeting and plotting in chat rooms, and getting together for self-cutting sessions and more. Gretchen is off stage for most of the book, the subject of an international manhunt. But until she shows up – and you known that she will – her beautiful presence is evoked in three or four periodic flashbacks that trace Sheridan's early and late meetings with her, scenes that both round out the relationship and provide clues to the case at hand. Meanwhile, as the hunt goes on, a major character ends up in a Man Called Horse type situation, and Sheridan learns the depths of the evil at the heart of Gretchen Lowell.
It's a good read whose story invites you to read it too fast. The prose merits careful attention, for the reasons mentioned above. Still, the books get better and better. The dialogue has improved in the new one almost imperceptibly (which is praise, by the way). And the mouthy, neurotic Susan Ward is funnier in this book. She is still has the multi-colored hair, and the vaguely inappropriate garb of a working reporter – bright t-shirts shirts and lace-up knee boots. As part of preparation for a book on Lowell and the case that she is working on, Susan is collecting statistics on causes of death, which she spouts to whomever will listen when she gets nervous. She's like a walking copy of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, or a screenwriter auditioning new Rube Goldberg devices for the Final Destination series. In general, Cain inhabits the heads of the characters adroitly; no scene is told from an "objective" viewpoint. There is always someone looking at it or experiencing it, which expands the human tragedy of the events. And the book's ending punchline is worthy of Mickey Spillane; it makes you smile jsut as broadly.
There is an underlying sensibility that makes the Beauty Killer series resonate with the current culture and gives it a richness that other books of like kind lack. It's not easy to label but you could call it an S&M sensibility. Intentionally or not, Cain has created over the course of three novels the highs and lows, the anguish and ambivalence, the details and the general arc, of an S&M relationship. Or at least the fantasy of such a relationship. The reality, at least as portrayed in such movies as Going Under, is disappointing, as it perhaps almost always is to an aspiring fantasist. In any case, the relationship between Gretchen and Sheridan shares many of the components of the relations between a dominatrix and her lover-client-slave. On the surface the book is "normal" in that the nature of their alliance is buttressed by important plot points, but beneath that veneer the two characters' interactions trace a simulacrum of the sort of fantasies a sexual masochist has about a controlling, dominant woman.
Gretchen is, of course, the dominatrix in the situation. She is supremely confident in her ability to manipulate others, she is physically alluring to the point that she inspires obsession and even submission in men, she is enigmatic and impenetrable, and she takes pleasure, as Susan points out with admirable simplicity, in being mean. She tends to know what people are thinking several moves in advance, like a chess player. For example, in a confrontation between Sheridan and Gretchen in the new book, she knows what he is thinking before he does, such as when he is ruminating on the location of a gun he knows is in the vicinity. There are always surprises in her behavior, ever lower depths to her manipulation and cruelty. Gretchen is a thriller anti-heroine not the star of a pornographic novel so she goes in for mutilation, murder, and mayhem rather then bullwhipping and bondage and bootlicking, but mutatis mutandis, her behavior is on a similar continuum.
Sheridan, as the masochist, evinces the clinically and culturally recorded behavior of such obsessions. He thinks about Gretchen continually, he jeopardizes his marriage and family under the sway of the obsession, he is helpless against submitting to her control and in fact he likes it, he is turned on by her higher imperious indifference to him, at least in the early books, and in spite of his self-hatred over the matter. By the end of the third book there are suggestions that the cloud of obsession has lifted. But there is also the idea that he deserves his slavery to her imperious control; Gretchen, in the guise of a helpful counselor volunteering to help the Beauty Killer task force, takes a mere two weeks to seduce Sheridan into betraying his family to the point that he has decided to leave his wife for her. So in his mind, he deserves the torture she inflicts on him. His hunger for her pain only consolidates her power over him. Also conditioning him is his obsessive masturbating while thinking of her (he quips that he has ejaculated a bathtub of semen to the idea of her).
It is easy to see the allure of a masochistic swoon. In this state of mind, its "victim" willingly gives up control, immobilized by emotion and awe, willing to do anything for a few seconds with the love object. Masochistic love is the equivalent of a high school crush, or is it vice versa? Yet the passivity of the masochist is the trade's ugly secret, for in reality the dominatrix does all the work (and in a commercial context, at the behest of the client) for the pleasure of the masochist, even if the pleasure is a form of psychological conditioning that binds him to her more. She's performing an emotional lap dance for the passive recipient of her largesse.
Gretchen's evil spiderwebs out like cracks in an ice shelf. A major character in Evil at Heart has internalized the trauma of his experience with Gretchen into a masochistic life style of genital self-torture. In the masochistic world view, at least at its most feverish, suffering the pain is a way of getting to know the dominatrix, of honoring her, because all she wants out of you is to suffer pain at her hands. There is something exquisitely cruel and imaginative about Gretchen's secret manipulations – the "experiment" – behind the misleading surface of this story. It's moral repugnance wakes up Sheridan to the depths of her evil, but is sure to excite Gretchen's true fans. In Gretchen's world, we are all lab rats.
The new book is self-reflexive, in acknowledging an outside world where there is a fan base growing up around Gretchen, just as the literary character Gretchen has her fans in the real world, the way Hannibal Lecter has his real life admirers (I've met a few – disturbing! But also strangely exciting). Susan Ward demurs, and is shocked at a culture that would love a mass murderer and a media that would cash in on her celebrity, and the reader nods in agreement and then turns the page looking for Gretchen's next shocking act. It is part of the point of the book that there is ambivalence about these things, the book is about the ambivalence of this attitude, the allure of cruelty and its real cost.
Reluctantly, one must admit that Ms. Cain has her eccentricities or tics, though they are understandable in a writer who is striving to meet a pressing annual deadline (the first book had the luxury of a four-year gestation). For example, she is always careful to describe the art or slogans on a character's t-shirt. She calls Lake Oswego by its longtime euphemism, but as a lifetime Portland resident, I've heard it as Lake NoNegros, not Lake NoNegro, plural instead of the singular. She has a character wonder why hospitals are kept 10 degrees colder than anywhere else, but doesn't supply the answer (to curb bacteria). But these are minor quibbles and I could be wrong. In any case, if these are the only complaints one can come up with in a complicated 300-plus page book, then Chelsea Cain must be doing something right.
It took R. Crumb to get me to read the Bible.
As a typical American youth raised in a secular suburban household in the late 20th century, I read comic books, not the Bible. There was a copy on the premises (I still have the flaking, musty thing), and my parents had some vague religious backgrounds, but the family never went to church or demanded any fealty to God or Jesus or Church. School, for whatever reason, never mentioned the Bible, or the culture's background in the Judeo-Christian ethos. Obviously, the Bible is important as a text in order to understand certain subsequent literary works and ideas and to get jokes in Tom Lehrer songs, but for the most part I didn't care. I've been indifferent to religion my whole life.
Crumb, on the other hand, was raised as a Catholic but dropped the faith, according to his published letters and some of his stories, in his high school years. Now, here in his 66th year – his birthday was on August 30 – Crumb has turned to the sacred roots of our culture to comicize the first book of the Bible in The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (W. W. Norton, 224 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978.0.393.06102.4, to be published officially in October, 2009, though as per industry standard that means late September). Crumb's Genesis is made up of an introduction, the 50 chapters themselves illustrated by Crumb, and commentary on the chapters at the end of the book. There's just one lingering question about the genesis of this project, however.
Why did he do it?
Since the invention of the mass marketed comic book, religious organizations have tried to harness that hedonistic, violent format for its own ends. The flip-book-sized religious allegories by Chick, themselves subverting the lurid Tijuana comics the way that early Christian interlopers took over and renamed pagan holidays, are one extreme example, but conventional companies, such as the Spire Christian Comics line of publications, took aspects of the New Testament or Jesus's life and relayed it conventionally, in flat prose and stale art, even going so far, as Crumb complains, to rewriting the dialogue and altering the stories. Perhaps part of Crumb's motivation was to right an old wrong, and he announces at the outset that he is going to be utterly faithful to the text, primarily the King James version, with variations from Robert Alter's translation.
Crumb may also have had an educational motivation. Though Crumb writes that he believes the Bible to be the work of men not the word of God, he has also written, in an introductory passage in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book that "I believe in everything ... UFOs, Bigfoot, channeling, ESP ... I believe it all!." He doesn't believe the Bible as a religious text, but maybe he buys it as some kind of mystical or sublime text, and wants to convey its plausible contents to people such as me, who usually could care less about it. A noble endeavor, if nothing else.
The book may also be a technical exercise. Genesis is the longest comic book story Crumb has ever done, and it demands much more technical skill than any of his previous tales. As he mentions in the introduction, he had to study the garb, artifacts, landscape, and facial characteristics of the times – and with all the begets, Crumb has probably drawn more faces in this book that in all his other cartoons combined.
There is also the Jewish factor. Crumb has noted about himself in interviews that he has married two Jewish women and dated numerous others, and many of his business associates and friends are Jewish. Genesis may also be inspired by his interest in Jewish life, practice, customs, and history. What's funny is that the book, at least as Crumb portrays it, doesn't feel particularly Jewish, if all one knows of Judaism is what movies and sit-coms convey of the personalties and problems of the tribe. It's much more universal.
More important, though, is that R. Crumb's Book of Genesis is also the culmination of a trend that began to appear in his work in the 1980s. That's when, as editor of the Harvey Kurtzman-influenced, Help-like Weirdo he began to branch out, creating works such as his erotic fumetti stories starring himself and various callipygian women, but also a series of varied literary adaptations. Weirdo ran 28 issues, with Crumb officially editing the first nine, and Crumb also publicized the art of rising young cartoonists whose highly personal work appealed to him. Prominent among the newfound interest in other voices, other lives, was his version of passages from the diaries of James Boswell, an account of the last years of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and the excerpts from Kraft-Ebbing's sexual taxonomy. In addition, elsewhere he illustrated a book on Kafka. Though on the surface he seemed to have forsaken the confessional comics of the '60s with their explicit sexual fantasies, Crumb also wrote parallel stories of domestic comedy about life with his wife Aline.
If in these adaptations Crumb appeared to drop the confessional impulse that had defined his career before, they were still, in a weird way, just as confessional as all his previous early stories. Crumb's Boswell was very much a Crumb character – or at least a lot like the Crumb figure of the confessional comics – in his artistic and sexual appetites, his tireless pursuit of sex alternating with intense discussions about art with equally talented colleagues. The Kraft-Ebbing excerpts allowed Crumb to recontextualize and explore from a bit of a distance his "perverse" sexual inclinations (he would be an interesting case for Kraft-Ebbing himself, or some modern equivalent, in that he appears to be a shoe and boot fetishist but with domineering tendencies rather then the typical masochist streak such connoisseurs share). More relevant to Genesis is the Philip K. Dick story, which explores the writer's mounting religious delusions. Like those earlier stories, Genesis also proves to be surprisingly personal. As Adam Gopnick writes in High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, "The connection to Boswell, however improbable, was touched with genius, for Boswell's artistic problem and Crumb's are alike: how to convert self-absorption into a comedy of egoism that will seem universal. Crumb's answer was to present his own story as folk tale, popular narrative, burlesque humor – as a comic strip."
But does it matter why Crumb initiated this project? Well, for one thing, if Crumb is approaching the material from a particular slant it will inform how to choses to edit, frame, or emphasize parts of the book. Though in the introduction he affirms that he didn't have a bias, he sincerely attempted to lay out Genesis accurately, as "a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes," the auteur theory about movie directors states that a great artist can't help but tilt the work toward his own personality, and the concept surely can apply to comic book artists in situations such as this.
What's ostensibly missing from the book? Many of the elements of Crumb's work that have been so memorable seem to be absent from this endeavor, among them the crowded street life, the funny animals, hallucinogens, the anguish of sexual loneliness, the gurus, the critique of middle class life and its hypocrisies, the earthy girls in their big boots giving men piggy back rides. Thin strappy toe-exposing sandals are such a poor substitute for thick leather encased legs!!!
Also missing are two key components of the Crumb aesthetic: music, one of Crumb's first loves; and his own writing voice. Crumb is proof, if proof is needed, that a great cartoonist also needs to be a great writer. His greatest stories, among them "It's Really Too Bad," "Dirty Dog," and the one page "Cradle to Grave" which is one of the funniest and saddest precis of what most of our lived lives are like, are writerly as well as illustrated texts. By taking on the voice of God, so to speak, he has silenced a part of himself that is distinctive.
Yet a moment's thought reveals that several Crumbian elements are still present, mutatis mutandis, in Crumb's Bible. The desert wandering Mr. Natural is transformed into the book's super-serious religious and community leaders. The street nomads of Crumb's comics become the wandering tribes, always under threat of relocations. There are orgies, and even passages of sexual competition between men, a standard Crumb fear or trope. For Crumb fanatics, these are pleasing linkages to his past iconic images.
Another recurrent Crumb theme is family life. The biblical Genesis, which seemingly is about little else, offers a rich vein of material to mine. Fallings outs between fathers and sons, competition between brothers, incestuous feelings (after Lot's wife turns into salt, Lot's daughters need to keep the tribe thriving and so get their dad drunk and seduce him in order to sire children. Crumb notes that there was no proscription against incest in Genesis itself, but later books, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, lay down the law). Crumb had two brothers and two sisters, most of them with unorthodox sexual inclinations, and with whom he was competitive, along with a somewhat cold, Don Draperish dad, and a '50s pill popping mother right out of Hubert Selby, Jr. These family concerns are mirrored in this book. Take the tale of Jacob and Esau, which occupies a lot of the middle of Genesis, and might be its primary tale. Isaac is old and going blind. He summons the elder son, Esau, whom he orders to bring back some savory game after which he will bestow a significant blessing on Esau. Unfortunately, Isaac's wife Rebekah overhears this conversation and tells the younger brother Jacob to circumvent the plan by bringing back some game before Esau and receive the blessing from the blind old man instead. It is not entirely clear why this blessing is so important within family or tribal tradition, but such a blessing apparently results in prosperous farms and people bowing down to you. It can only be given once. The trick works, and the situation leads to years of struggle and hostility, until the brothers are reconciled in old age. But interestingly, Genesis follows the subsequent exploits of Jacob, the "evil" or at least troubled brother, not Esau. Genesis – and Crumb – wants to follow the sinners, not the saints, to chronicle redemption not simply celebrate good.
Because Crumb's Genesis is such a faithful adaptation, it can't enter the realm of "masterpiece," but it is certainly a masterful endeavor. It's amazing how Crumb's thick line and crosshatching, which tends to create a dark world, works so well with desert and sunlight bound material. But there is a lot of "tension" in the Bible, and crosshatching and stress rays are a perfect way to underline that, like a musical score.
Thinking about how Crumb has managed to wrest Genesis from its role as religious tract to become another catalog of Crumb obsessions, it occurs to me that there is another massive book with a near-religious following that would make a perfect marriage with Crumb's style and sensibility. Crumb could do a marvelous comic book version of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Joyce's novel would benefit from many of the motivations that may have led Crumb to do Genesis. His version would make for a better adaptation than most of the other pseudo-Ulysses that exist in play or movie form. The book would also certainly be "educational" at least in making the complex text accessible to many new readers. The novel offers a sympathetic view of Jewish life, which might appeal to Crumb. And it would offer numerous technical challenges such as the beginning of the 11th chapter, called "Sirens," which begins with a music-style "overture."
Ulysses shares many of the features of Crumb's work. As in Crumb's comics, a lot of the book's social life takes place on the street. The avenue is also the arena in which Leopold Bloom scopes out alluring women as potential recipients of his erotic letters, or tries (and fails) to catch a glimpse of a comely ankle. Flakey Foont and Mr. Natural are, to stretch the imagination, similar to Stephen Dedalus and Bloom in their irascible guru-straying supplicant relationship. Other relationships in the book mirror Crumbian concerns, and there is a great deal of competition between fathers and sons, between family members, and between men for the attentions of women, mostly between Bloom and all the guys who are hot for Molly Bloom. And in the Nausicaä chapter, when Bloom masturbates on the beach to the vision of the lame Gerty MacDowell, and the famous Nighttown sequence set in Dublin's red light district, with its images of sexual shame and humiliation and horn-doggedness and domination and bootlicking, Crumb could exercise his curious sexual predilections. The only impediment to Crumb's implementing this concept is the unpredictability and inevitable resistance of the Joyce heirs and copyright holders to such things.
Mr. Crumb does not use computers or visit the World Wide Web so it is unlikely that he will ever read this suggestion, but on the off chance that he does encounter it, I offer it up gladly with no strings attached.
There is nothing quite so bracing of a winter morning as a carefully reasoned, hilariously written diatribe. I'm not talking about writers getting off on their anger: crotchety old geezers unable to keep up with changing technology, or dinosaurs grasping at one last glimmer of fame by decrying some obvious inequity with their brazenly middlebrow sensibility. I'm talking about the kind of essay that actually changes the way you view the world. I'm talking about Frederick Crews on Freud, Renata Adler on Pauline Kael, Stanton Coblentz on modern poetry, Nabokov on Wilson, Wilson on the MLA, Dwight Macdonald on Webster's Third, Gore Vidal on John Updike, David Hockney on 15th Century painters. Now, one of the best of all recent literary diatribes finds itself in book form.
In fact, "diatribe" may be a pejorative word for such a carefully reasoned, clearly argued case. But when the July-August issue of the Atlantic Monthly came out in mid-2001 featuring B. R. Myers's article "A Reader's Manifesto," book reviewers across the land snorted in contempt, while many others – people in reading groups, those who buy many books but who have no "voice" in the national literary dialogue – joined in the acclaim. An ordinary fellow, someone just like them, intelligent and skeptical and interested, had said what was on their mind about the state of contemporary American fiction, but he had done the hard work – thoroughly reading the books –they couldn't stomach.
Now Melville House, the independent firm co-founded by MobyLives.com's Dennis Loy Johnson, has gathered together a new, improved version of the essay as A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (Melville House, 149 pages, $9.95, ISBN 0 9718659 0 6), adding to it Myers's reply to his critics and a final "Ten Rules for 'Serious' Writers."
Myers's thesis is simple. So simple, numerous credentialed literary critics across the land couldn't grasp it, if the book's epilogue is an accurate barometer. Myers's point is that contemporary literary fiction is dominated by a group of poor writers who hide their poverty of ideas and perception behind ungrammatical, repetitious, list-making prose ("Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens"), while their "esteem" is validated by said critics (Lee Abbott, Walter Kendrick, Richard Eder, et. al.) and award-giving bodies. The contemporary literature most touted by these critics and reviewers is bunkum, and it's the critics' fault that these thin literary talents have such high esteem. You can't blame the reviewers for recoiling from Myers's point, if those prissy Charons bothered to read it at all (some claimed they didn't), since in many ways they are the true targets of Myers's ire.
Reviewers used to talk about stories, prose style, and a book's ideas. Now they talk about sentences. Myers quotes with delicious scorn Oprah Winfrey's account of telephoning Toni Morrison (she can do that) about her difficulty in navigating some of the sentences in Morrison's books, and receiving the imperious reply, "That, my dear, is called 'reading.'" Myers's view seems to be: well, we ordinary readers do know how to read, but it benefits mediocre authors of prestigious reputation if we function at a deficit. We are expected to buy the books but not complain.
And who are the authors Myers singles out for scrutiny? E. Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Gutterson, and Paul Auster. Myers, then a teacher living in New Mexico who now works in South Korea, writes about them with such wit, vitriol, and insight that the temptation is to quote the entire article, defeating the purpose of a 500 word review. One example will have to suffice. In his discussion of the supposed "spare" prose of Auster, Myers quotes an annoying word list on page 35 of Timbukto: "Still and all Mr. Bones was a dog. From the tip of his tail to the end of his snout, he was a pure example of Canis familiaris, and whatever divine presence he might have harbored within his skin, he was first and foremost the thing he appeared to be. Mr. Bow Wow, Monsieur Woof Woof, Sir Cur." Myers notes that the "the relative shortness of [Auster's] sentences has always fooled critics into believing that he never wastes a word." In defending himself against an L.A. Times attack by Lee Siegel, who said that the passage is not an instance of "repetition" because the lists "are poetic variations that amplify meaning," Myers annotates, "I realize that there are no two words that mean exactly the same thing, but how does … 'Monsieur Woof Woof' amplify 'Mr. Bow Wow'? It seems cruel to takes this seriously."
Myers is himself a fine writer, a paragon of the very clarity that he seeks to re-establish (this reviewer found only two minor solecisms, a redundancy on page 65 and a word order mix up on page 106). Braced by his razor sharp rage the reader feels emboldened. Bring on the rest of winter – I've got something to keep me warm.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb, in 2003.
With his fingers in fiction, journalism, hit TV shows, audio books, his own website, even games, Michael Crichton is another king of all media. Yet, shocking as it may be to say, artistic success in the movies has only eluded him. I've liked some of the films he has directed himself, especially Looker, but the last six or more films based on his books, from Rising Sun on, are at best unmemorable. Jurassic Park may be fair Crichton, but it is lesser Spielberg. And it's telling that for The Lost World they more or less threw out the book, while plans to film Airframe possibly with Sigourney Weaver under the direction of John McTiernan, have, as of this writing, been canceled. At some point there will be a Jurassic Park 3, apparently based on a book called Embryo.
Scribes attempting to adapt his latest novel, Timeline will face pitfalls similar to those posed by Airframe and the others. As with the air disaster book, Timeline purports on the surface to be one thing, but once you get into it, the book turns out to be entirely something else.
At first exposure, Airframe was an unnerving exploration of the technology that keeps airplanes in the air. But gradually you realized that Crichton had really mounted that embarrassing hobby horse of critic-hatred, one that superstars from Frank Sinatra to George Clooney have mounted, decrying the inaccuracy, mendacity, unprofessionalism, and sheer sloppiness of journalists. That's not a particularly cinematic premise, and sure to raise the hackles of hacks everywhere. Even worse, as far as an adapter is concerned, the air disaster investigator at the heart of the book, once to be played by Weaver, all too often finds herself in passive situations, at the mercy of weather and wind, of planes and pilots.
Timeline imposes similar impediments to smooth cinematic translation. On the plain of mega-publicity, the book is officially about time travel (or space travel, as characters in the book insist that it really is). But in reality it is a brief against Bill Gates, and the exploitation of modern technology for amusement. If the reader feels as if he has been there before, he has, in that the character Robert Doniger /Bill Gates is another stand in for John Hammond in Jurassic Park, which was itself a reconsideration of ideas that Crichton had already put forward in Westworld. The book's loathing for Doniger is intense; he has few if any redeeming characteristics, and most of his traits are based on what we have learned about Gates from two biographies and numerous profiles, such as his impatience with others and ridiculing of any outside idea as the stupidest thing he's ever heard of. It is a measure of the book's hatred of Doniger that he is accorded one of the worst revenges suffered by any character in the whole Crichton canon—he is teleported back to the middle ages and is coughed on by a victim of the Black Plague. As long as the potential adapter of this book keeps its real priorities in mind, though, he may make sense of a text that is in fact three separate books in one.
The novel begins (after prefatory material meant to convince us that time travel is plausible) with a grumpy tourist husband and his wife driving through the Arizona desert looking for Indian crafts. Amid the swirling dust, they think they hit an Indian or an old geezer who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Rushing him to the hospital, the man's body provides clues right out of a Sherlock Holmes story (and Crichton admits that Doyle, whom he still reads for pleasure, is the main inspiration for his work). This is a top notch Crichton opener, and in setting and tone reminiscent of The Andromeda Strain (hospitals, desert). Several characters are introduced, however, including an Indian policeman, who fail to figure in the rest of the book. There are several of these red herrings in the novel, and they must be deemphasized by the adapter or the viewer will be confused.
Then we meet the book's real main characters, Doniger and his assistants (whom he continually brutalizes), and then Professor Edward Johnston, a Harvard historian, and his team. They are in someplace called Dordogne, in France, engaged in an archeological dig, resurrecting a series of castles, monasteries, and attendant towns, all financed, for a reason that actually is never really explained, by Doniger. Johnston's assistants are the real heroes of the book. One is a past-obsessed historian, Andre Marek; another is a cliff-face climbing token female, Kate Ericson; and finally there is Johnston's protege, Chris Hughes, the Everyman of the book, whose reactions to things more or less represent what the dense reader would think if he were experiencing the past first hand, too. The only problem with this guy is that he's not funny, and he needs to be to ofset the dour tone of most of the book—the whole project needs a really big dose of humor to fly.
We learn that Doniger is manufacturing some kind of time / space travel device. We then learn that the dig has some connection to it. The guy at the start of the book, who dies and is unimportant except as an intro to the whole plot, was a renegade figure in Doniger's company, and he seems to have messed up some stuff. Anyway, Doniger wants Johnston to go back to the past and fix things. So Johnston disappears for a while (actually the bulk of the book. For audiences to remember his character he will need to be played by someone very vivid and likable, so that the tension of the team's travel back has weight).
One of the best parts of the novel is when the characters unearth a document that is 600 years old, but written in Johnston's handwriting, pleading for help. The only problem with this sequence is that the reader, and of course the viewer, already guess what is going on, so this is one of those classic sequences, so prevalent in TV cop shows, in which the viewer knows more than the characters, and sits there twiddling their thumbs waiting for the fictional people to catch up as they talk out loud and mull over stuff that we already know. If at all possible, this must be eliminated from the film.
At this point, because the team has a spy in its midst (again, a thread that is left hanging by Crichton), Doniger comes after them, both to shut them up, but also to ask them to go back into the past and rescue Johnston, who is trapped in medieval France, caught between two warring factions in the very town they are excavating.
Thus we come to the only part of the novel that Crichton's fans are interested in—the explanation of time travel. This scene unfolds much like they always do in Crichton. One guy does the explaining. His auditors ask questions. The flow isn't particularly good, and in a movie, with all the visual distractions, the audience may not grasp key points in an explanatory sequence that in a sense is irrelevant (so they go back in time, who cares how? just do it). On the other hand, there will always be those viewers (like me) who can't get their mind around the whole concept of time travel fantasies (vide the latest Austin Powers vehicle). Like prison films, it is one of my least favorite genres. But there are some enjoyable nuggets here. For example, Crichton discounts the belief that if you go back into the "past" you will change the present. For one thing, his puppet explains, you are not important enough. Second, it is all happening in a parallel universe with no contiguous relationship with this one.
Crichton does write page turners. We sail through his books, eager to find out what happens next. He lures us on because we associate him with brainy and informative discussions that are at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. He taps into that same hunger that James Michener fed, the pop novelist as tutorial leader. Unfortunately, the one overall attitude one takes away from Crichton, at least the later books, is boredom. He is impatient: with the necessity to construct a plot; with language (Crichton, unlike most novelists, evinces absolutely no love of the English language), with readers and their desire for such mundane things as adventure and thrills.
The whole time travel technique seems plausible when it is explained in the book (there are parallel universes breaking off of ours all the time; people can get to one via a "wormhole"; the person has to be "faxed," or broken down and reconstituted in the other place) despite the fact that Crichton avoids just explaining how it is really done, that is, the technical aspects of the actual transporting process. But then, since it is currently impossible, even almost unimaginable, he can't be blamed for failing to imagine it. In the movie, with steam and gizmos and rising music and things shaking, viewers will believe that several people have been transported "back" to April 7th 1357.
Frankly, the whole "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" middle of the novel is the most boring part of the book. Conveniently, the Marek character speaks the local lingo, and has been practicing jousting and court behavior for years. But the situation is also hard to follow. There seems to be two castles, a secret underground passage, a stand-off of some kind between two competing factions, blah blah blah. Dull. It's all an excuse to provide cinematic fodder, and there to exploit the briefly the various skills of the characters that Crichton introduced pro forma when we first met them, such as Ericson's wall climbing skill. There is a big hall sequence, there is a joust, there is an escape from a dungeon, and then a whole lot of chases, all against the deadline that the characters have to get back. George McDonald Fraser does all this stuff much better. There is the "surprise" that one of Marek's enemies is another renegade from the "present" who has turned into a villain and likes it better back in the 14th century. There is also the "surprise" that Marek, who knows so much about that time, would prefer to stay there himself. Appropriate poignant farewell scene follows.
One miscue that Crichton obeys is to alternate between the present and the past. While the kids are all forced to joust in France, Doniger and his aides are trying to figure out how to rescue them (the machines all blew up). Crichton follows around Daniel Stern, one of Johnston's team who chickened out and decided to stay behind. He also happens to come up with all the ideas for getting them back. However, in the movie itself, it would be much more suspenseful to stay in the past, and explain how they are rescued later. The adaptor needs to create a real sense of isolation in a strange world, of people trapped, otherwise it is tedious period costumery. Crichton violates that, but as happens all too often, his screenwriters can fix his mistakes. If anyone ever gets hired to do it.
For already, Timeline The Movie is in trouble. According to the Publisher's Weekly of November 1, quoting Salon , there is some confusion as to whether any of Hollywood's studios actually want to make a movie of the film. Supposedly, the cost of recreating medieval 14th century France, even in this age of CGI, and despite the fact that there have been several films about Saint Joan lately, was viewed as prohibitive by Disney, Fox, Warners, Paramount, Sony, and Universal, but Crichton's new agent, the friendless Michael Ovitz, is viewed as a deterrent to a happy contract. The movie, if ever made, wouldn't hit the screens until of summer of 2001 or 2002 anyway, and who knows if anyone at in that timeline will still be interested in time travel and jousting.