Sometimes the rate of my consumption of culture outpaces my capacity to reflect upon it. Here’s what’s passed through my head of late:

The Wire, David Simon et. al. (2002-2008). I believe this displaces The Sopranos as the best television I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen it you already know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t seen it, you should. There were of course some passages that were more successful than others–I for one found the invented serial killer idea too clever by half–but on the whole this is a masterpiece. I was very sorry when I ran out of episodes, but then I realized that this story is of course far from over; all you need to do is read the Sun paper now and then and imagine the episode Simon would have wrought from the day’s news. Here, this one took me about forty seconds to start scripting in my head.

Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison (1999). What a pleasure to read Harrison’s collected nonfiction about Leelanau by a lake just northeast of Muskegon on a July afternoon.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, Joan Didion (2006). What a pleasure to read Didion’s collected nonfiction in the air over California’s central valley. Old and new favorites. Too bad this edition’s pages are so thin.

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1942). Oh my stars. I’m only on page 500 or so of the some 1200, and I’m going to have to put this away now that school’s started, but I feel like it’s OK not to read this straight through, and I also, frankly, feel like I’ve mostly gotten what’s on offer here, namely deliciously incisive diagnoses of a grand society striding confidently toward the edge of a cliff. I can’t think of any other novel that so decisively nails the 20th century’s disastrous obsession with progress. “With a little attention, one can probably always detect in the latest Future signs of the coming Old Times. The new ideas will then be a mere thirty years older but contented and with a little extra fat on their bones, or past their prime, much as one glimpses alongside a girl’s shining features the extinguished face of the mother; or they have had no success, and are down to skin and bones, shrunken to a reform proposed by some old fool who is called the Great So-and-so by his fifty admirers.” Paging Ross Perot.

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polankski (2010). Whew, Polanski’s just oozing decadence these days. This is supposedly a thriller about a CIA plot to, you know, take control of everything, but Roman can barely be bothered to flesh out any of the absurd plot points; he’s too busy setting up beautifully lit shots of fog and sad adulterers. Beautiful photography, but not really a movie. The amazing house on the beach at Sylt receives more attention from the director than do any of his stars.

The Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (2010). Essentially a continuation of Greengrass’s Bourne movies, in that Matt Damon takes on the entire corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex and wins. This one is purportedly set in the “real world,” though, namely Baghdad’s green zone. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the takeaway for the action movie crowd at the mall is that their government lied to them about Iraq, and that’s a truth I’m delighted to see promulgated as widely and effectively as possible.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine (2006). Muddily structured but useful. I really had no idea this was going on when it was going on.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009) does for 20c European history what Bergman’s so-called “trilogy of faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) did for God. Namely, shows it to be incomprehensible and cruel, but absolutely beautiful to look at in luminous black and white. Go back and look at those Bergman films, though, and then look at this again, and see if you don’t feel, as I did, how creepily clean Haneke’s images are. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Lightroom, but The White Ribbon feels like a masterpiece of post-production as much as anything.

Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh (1949). Walsh remakes High Sierra as a western, with Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. Nice enough for a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you like Virginia Mayo, which I do, but a minor Walsh by any measure. I like the hideout in the ruined village of Todos Santos.

Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges (1955). Sturges also directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others. Notice a theme? Manly men in conflict with other manly men. This one fits. A strange and small picture, in which Integrity (played by Spencer Tracy) squares off with Deceit (Robert Ryan) and comes out ahead. Atmospheric and nice to look at for a while, but finally the claustrophobia that Sturges is trying to engender just turns into tedium.

A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009) has its affecting moments, but is mostly, probably predictably, an exercise in style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the style brings pleasure. Some here does–lots of beautiful California summer light, lots of fantastic bric a brac to ogle–but someone really should have steadied Ford’s hand on the post-production dials; the gimmick where he keeps making people pale when they’re sad and rosy when their faith in humanity (and/or libido) is restored is tacky and emberrassing.

Band of Brothers, various authors (2001). The Pacific is way better, and do you know why? Because this is pre-9/11 triumphalism, and that is post 9/11 realism. That’s oversimplifying, but really, the difference is amazing. In Band of Brothers, PTSD is represented as tough luck that befalls the weak. In The Pacific, it’s clearly shown that those who appear not to have PTSD are the truly weird ones. Like I said, The Pacific‘s a great example of how our understanding of historical realities is shaped by our present historical circumstances. So is Band of Brothers, unfortunately.

Music in rotation: Tosca, Up Bustle & Out, Jazzanova, Cal Tjader


Road House, Jean Negulesco (1948)

If I were a programmer at Film Forum or something, I might put together a group of noirs that take place in the sticks, as opposed to the city. Out of the Past, for sure, and also this one. I know there are others; I just can’t think of them right now.

This is a pretty straightforward story of two guys after the same girl. It’s distinguished by its unusual setting, as mentioned, and by Lupino’s gorgeously ravaged voice.

All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen (1949)

It must be a lot of fun to do the programming at Turner Classic Movies. Someone, clearly, thought that the week of the apotheosis of the Obama health care reform journey called for a showing of this powerful accounting of the costs incurred by the practice of retail politics. Had you forgotten, as I had, that the central plank of Willie Stark’s platform is universal health care? And do you recall how he meets his end? I won’t spoil it for you; let’s just say the medical profession doesn’t exactly rush to his aid in his moment of need.

It’s a politics story, but it’s also a Southern story, in ways which I probably wouldn’t have understood ten years ago, before moving to Alabama. Issues of dilapidated family pride and post-Reconstruction sullenness, which of course also animated Faulkner, Walker Percy, Welty, and Tennessee Williams are central here, too.

It’s a big book, and even a movie more than two hours long can’t begin to get its arms around all the novel’s moving parts, so some passages here feel stunted and lacking context. Still, it’s a lively piece and worth watching. After you call your representative and tell him or her to vote yes on the Senate bill this week.

Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang (1945)

Jeepers, Johnny. Probably, perversely, my favorite Lang movie of them all. Edward G. Robinson perfects his macho/emasculated persona, and Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea click arhythmically as Vronsky atop Frou-Frou as they ride poor Chris Cross down to his doom. Add in the jacked-up pathos of the artist struggling to maintain two faces–one facing the real, the other the truer truth of the imaginary–and this sucker’s sold. I would like to have seen this movie with Wallace Stevens. I would have held his hand.

Paging my digital petit voleur: Any chance you could locate Renoir’s La chienne (1931)? I haven’t seen it in more than a decade. It’s not as hard-boiled as this, but it contains the full germ of evil which herein blossoms.

Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa (1949)

Ostensibly a procedural about a rookie cop (Mifune, so young I didn’t recognize him at first!) whose gun is stolen, the movie’s as much or more about Japan’s effort to regain its self-respect. Terrific, near-genius cinematography; the camera itself behaves like an investigator. Featuring many wonderful sequences, including one at a baseball game and another at a cabaret on an unbearably hot summer night. The chorus girls run off stage and into their dressing room, where they all collapse on the floor, fanning themselves. Really top notch Kurosawa; I’m surprised I’ve never seen this before.


American Gangster, Ridley Scott (2007). Better than everyone said it was. Narratively a mess but mythologically deeply astute.

The Interrogators, Chris Mackey and Greg Miller (2005). As with all the memoirs of interrogators I’ve read, this is useful both with regard to what it thinks it’s saying and what it’s saying without realizing it.

Need for the Bike
, Paul Fournel (2001). Oulipian on cycling. Charming/irritating in that utterly French way.

The Third Man
, Carol Reed (1949). Genius. A perfect pairing with Civilization and Its Discontents. I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to look at, and how perfect the music.

Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud (1929). CANDY. The intelligence is stupendous, the style is wholly beguiling.

The Man Outside
, Wolfgang Borchert (1949). Wanted to like this but it’s a bit too manic for my purposes. That’s saying something, considering how useful I find Buchner.

Travels with Herodotus
, Ryzard Kapuscinski (2007). Almost makes me cry. The final, supremely elegant work by one of my favorite writers ever, who died in 2007. A perfect conclusion to his oeuvre.

Monstering, Tara McKelvey (2007). McKelvey makes a bit too much effort to make a narrative of her journalism, and is a bit too proud of her scoops, which are not in fact that deep. Not without merit, but not necessary if you’ve read Mayer and Gourevitch.

Manpower, Raoul Walsh (1941)

A year after They Drive By Night, Walsh reassembles much of the team from that picture to make Manpower. It’s a terrific movie. The script is maybe a little hokey, and Alan Hale’s maybe given a bit too much comic leash, but for crying out loud: George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and Marlene Dietrich in a Raoul Walsh movie? What more could you want?

The movie would probably have a much higher profile if its setup wasn’t so weird. Raft and Robinson are electrical linemen. It’s hard to imagine what went on in that pitch meeting; maybe a lot of Martinis were involved. The picture works very hard to make the profession seem dangerous (which it is), heroic (which it may well be), and glamorous (which it isn’t).

But you don’t watch this one for the plot. You watch it to see Raft as the heavy-lidded charmer half-angel half-snake, Robinson as — as always — the tough-as-nails sap, and Dietrich. Dietrich. Dietrich who probably doesn’t have to work too hard at her acting to convey her exquisite Weltschmerz here in the summer of 1941. It’s probably coming quite naturally.