Monthly Archives: May 2008

I had NO idea!

NRO’s John J. Miller reminds us why Prince Caspian is the best in the Chronicles of Narnia series: 

It certainly promises to be a movie for our times. Of the seven Narnia books, Prince Caspian is the most militaristic. There’s a big battle scene in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, of course. Yet it’s a relatively small part of the book—it takes up roughly a single paragraph. Prince Caspian is different. One of its major themes is just warfare, and there’s plenty of fighting—Narnia scholar Michael Ward has made this point.

Listen to his lips smack. He goes on to say that Americans would flock to a Black Hawk Down-type film about Marines in Fallujah. Miller may be right, but with Americans as confident about the way things are as George W. Bush’s approval ratings, producers may need to replace soldiers with talking badgers and centaurs. 

Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment notwithstanding, Billy Wilder wrote his best scripts as an indentured servant for Paramount, well before the rancidness he flashed like a badge made him a perennial nominee at the Academy Awards: Hollywood loves a cynic it can understand and package. Of these, Midnight is the best (Ninotchka is another), given deluxe treatment by the excellent hack Mitchell Leisen, and it’s finally out on DVD. Like Leisen’s earlier adaptation of the Preston Sturges script Easy Living, Midnight takes place in a parquet-and-Park-Avenue world encased in Art Deco with no real-life referents, and it’s all the better for it; this and Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise may be the closest that American film has come to the pure verbal-velour world of Congreve. Claudette Colbert’s work in It Happened One Night was the dress rehearsal for her performance here (as Mary Astor’s dame on the make is a sober variant on the pure zaniness of her acting in 1942’s The Palm Beach Story, in which she also squared off against Colbert). She shows an uncommon mix of daffiness and common sense. Feminism may have made these roles extinct, but the tension caused by Colbert’s expansion of a stereotype for comic purposes should give Leslie Mann something to study at home for months to come. A bearable Dom Ameche (overdoing the oafishness towards at the end) leads a cast of eccentrics that includes Francis Lederer, Hedda Hopper, and John Barrymore, the latter inhabiting such a sozzled state of grace that he can fling one-liners with nary a facial muscle exertion. If you never watched Midnight on tape, here’s your chance.

Reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, it’s impossible not to think that Winston Churchill’s gotten off rather easily in histories of the twentieth century; or that FDR’s relentless prosecution of the war had had years of rehearsal, in which December 7, 1941 served merely as the blinking of the theater lights. The nasty reviews the book’s gotten reinforce the impression that World War II will be the only cause around which liberals and conservatives will rally in that low, grim, dishonest century – A Just War. Judging from the unceasing thrust of Stefan Kanfer’s subject-verb constructions (“Baker despises Churchill too”) and decidedly non-pacifistic phrase weaving (“perhaps the worst parts of the author’s cut-and-paste job are his attacks on Roosevelt and Churchill,” as if they were Hawaiian island chain), Baker’s book should resemble one of Gore Vidal’s latter-day screeds – the ones collected in 2000’s The Last Empire – in which his insider unctuousness finally blunted legitimate criticism of crafty FDR and flinty Harry Truman’s creation of America regnant. But Baker’s assemblage – paraphrases of newspaper clips and declassified intelligence, and letters, essays, and cables by the participants – creates a narrative bleaker than any dreamed of by Kanfer and Vidal. My conclusion: that Churchill was a butcher and devourer of men, that FDR was a sly old puss maneuvering to get the U.S. involved doesn’t mitigate the horror of what Nazi Germany was doing to Jews, not to mention the deracination of European cultural life, as letters from exiles like Thomas Mann show. Churchill and FDR were bad, but Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering were worse.

Baker’s book is subtler than his written remarks endorsing pacifism. War is an inevitability; as 1938 becomes 1939, peaceful co-existence with Germany was an impossibility no matter how many pacifists went on hunger strikes. The moral clarity to which Churchill aspired in his writings and public appearances had its counterpart in the floor speeches by Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana (who also made news in 1917 by opposing WWI). Both seem equally deluded: Churchill genuinely believed in the edifying nature of war and Rankin in the nihilism of blood. That both forces were unofficial, uneasy, but essential partners is one of the ironies Baker and his critics miss. Pacifism may have been futile, but its adherents were the only ones who understood the nature of the Nazi threat: while FDR was sending shipfuls of Jewish refugees back to Europe and Neville Chamberlain venting silly social hostilities, pacifists, James Wolcott reminds us, risked their lives to help the endangered race. In an experience as devastating as WWII, no one emerged with clean hands, nor should we expect them to. This is why Orwell’s writings constitute the best example of how a man of reasonable intelligence thinks through the problem of evil, without delusion.

a-ha are one of those bands about whom intelligent people have written intelligent things. Ned, one of their biggest advocates over the years, re-examines Scoundrel Days, which I bet you didn’t know was their followup to their only U.S. gold album Hunting High and Low. His essay made me do the Wikipedia thing in place of real research, but you uncover strange bits of trivia: Keane isn’t the only one to noice that U2’s “Beautiful Day” bears more than a passing resemblance to a-ha’s second and last Top 20 single “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.”

As for me, every time I’ve heard “Take On Me” in the last eight years I’ve been very drunk in a club, and it sounds like bliss, like ten thousand seraphim chanting the name of the Lord — and it’s got nothing to do with the video. The fadeout — in which singer Morten Harket’s unearthly alto competes with doubletracked harmonies trying to quelch him — is exactly what I mean.

A thought

INTERVIEWER: What would be “immoral” literature?

JOHN GARDNER: Mainly, fiction goes immoral when it stops being fair, when it stops trusting the laboratory experiment…I would agree with people who get nervous around the world morality, because usually the people who shout “immoral” are those who want to censor things, or think that all bathroom scenes or bedroom scenes or whatever are wicked. That kind of morality is life-denying, evil. But I do think morality is a real thing that’s worth talking about…It means what it means, and the fact that it’s out of style doesn’t matter very much. It’s like patriotism, which as got a very bad name because devils keep yelling for it. Ultimately patriotism ought not to mean that you hate all other countries. It ought to mean that you love certain things about your country; you don’t want them to change. Unfortunately, when you say “patriotism,” everybody goes “aargh.” Same thing with morality.

The Paris Review Interview, 1979.