Jan 25 2009
For baseball fans it is hot stove season, the interregnum between the World Series and the call up of pitchers and catchers to spring training. I’ve got my wood stove roaring and my bookshelf groaning with winter reading. Here’s a quick list of what’s in the backpack, on the nightstand, and on the Kindle these days; and then what I’m watching on the DVD player.
What We Had: A brief memoir by James Chace of life growing up in the southeastern Massachusetts city of Fall River — once the largest cotton spinning city in the world — now a sad hulk and husk of its former self. This is where Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her father forty whacks, but Chace writes an amazingly poignant story of the decline of a Yankee family from privilege to irrelevance. From his grandfather, the former president of the Massachusetts State Senate to his brother, a crazed World War II war hero, Chace tells a elegant story of a family, a city, and a society in decline.
Not on the par of “Goodbye to All That” — but nevertheless a good book about the slide of a Yankee family and one man’s determination to make sense of it.
Going to See the Elephant: Rodes Fishburne’s first novel. He worked at Forbes ASAP when I was at Forbes.com but I didn’t know him. He edited the annual “Big Issue” — a compendium of essays by big thinkers and celebs — and that most shows in his brilliant portrayal of the mad scientist/big thinker that seems like an amalgamation of Dean Kamen, Nathan Myhrvold, Esther and Freeman Dyson, and every other digital visionary to draw breath and haunt a podium the last twenty years. This is a good San Francisco novel — worthy of the canon that includes McTeague and rolls through the ages — but being a comical effort, it may irritate on occasion as it reaches for laughs that are not always (but occasionally) there.
I decided to dig through my son’s amazing 50 DVD collection — Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films, and have been toting around some discs as I travel. This past week I viewed:
Brief Encounter: 1945 David Lean directed this Noel Coward weepie starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. Listed among the best efforts of all time in British cinema. Amazingly effective, melodrama aside, in terms of Lean camera work and impeccable editing, but mostly in the pre-WWII depiction of adultry and morals in suburban England. I wasn’t boo-hooing in my hankie, but it’s interesting to see how to do a weepie right.
Ballad of a Soldier: directed by Grigory Chukhraj. 19-year old Russian soldier in World War II destroys two tanks, is hailed a hero, asks for a leave to go home to fix his mother’s leaking roof. Makes his way through peril and travail, falling in love along the way with the awesome Zhanna Prokhorenko (with whom I have a crush now). Interesting flick released in 1959 during the post-Stalin thaw, so not a lot of propaganda weirdness. Apparently a major sentimental favorite in Russia to this day.
Richard III: Laurence Olivier as the deformed evil tyrant and usurper Richard in Shakespeare’s masterpiece of treachery and lust for power. All I can say, is whoa, I mean I know Olivier had the reputation, but for some reason I had never full appreciated why (and it isn’t for his role as the Nazi dentist Dr. Zell in Marathon Man). This confirms why. The dude can act. Directed by him, this is considered his cinematic Shakespearean masterpiece. Technicolor makes the sets and costumes bizarrely gorgeous.
I wish I could memorize his “Now is the winter of our discontent …” soliloqy for my next staff meeting. Watch this piece of acting:
M. Hulot’s Holiday: Faithful French readers will doubtlessly say, “Duh, where have you been?” — but this is the funniest movie I have seen in a very long, long time. Jacque Tati, director and star, has to be one of the greatest physical comedians ever — up there with Chaplin and Keaton. The tennis scene made me pee my pants. See this.