A Bend in the River: Naipaul’s “masterpiece”? If so, scratch him from the list of “masters”!

I read in several obituaries that Bend in the River (1979) was V. S. Naipaul’s  (1932-2018) masterpiece. It has been gathering dust on a bookcase of unread books for nearly three decades. I was not engaged by the beginning, and was never very interested in the narrator, an unobservant Muslim of South Asian ancestry who grew up on the east coast of Africa and settled as a storekeeper in the middle (not Uganda, seemingly Mobutu’s Congo/Zaire). Salim has opinions about many matters, but the book seems more a set of mini-essays than a novel. It has Naipaul’s misogyny and cruelty to women, his contempt for Africans, though not developing his hatred for Islam and contempt for South Asians.

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I don’t think the book idealizes European colonialism, though painting a gloomy picture of a post-independence cult of a ruler who can only be toppled by violent civil war (that is likely to wear a tribalist mask). The corruption of the 1970s is not counterpoised to a golden age of Belgian colonialism, though invidiously contrasted to urbane London. (He does note that East African slavery both predated and postdates the colonial era, which is true.)

Naipaul was not much of a storyteller and none of the characters with the partial exception of the academic sycophant of the Big Man, Raymond, strikes me as a somewhat developed (hardly rounded) character. I was mildly amused by the burger franchise, imported lock, stock, and barrel from the West (though the beef is local), but did not believe in Yvette (Raymond’s wife who has a protracted affair with Salim) or the other characters, including the other alien (non-African) merchants.

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(Naipual in 2016, photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury)

I think I’ve read eight Naipaul novels, though none during this millennium, plus The Search for Eldorado and various pieces published in the New York Review of Books. He is loathed by the Afro-Caribbeans I know, but if this was his best, I don’t think he was a great writer. I don’t want to risk rereading his early books set in Trinidad and finding that I no longer like them either,

Bend in the River was a Booker Prize finalist (he’d won for In a Free State in 1971) was on the Guardian’s (Robert McCrum’s) 2015 list of 100 best novels in English, on the Guardian’s best novels of all times, and Naipaul was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Kill (at least the career of) the messenger: Fair Game

[Rating:4.5/5]

Pros: Watts and Penn

Cons: what really happened to a dedicated agent

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Directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), based on Joseph C. Wilson’s memoir, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir, “Fair Game” is particularly timely with the  attacks of the illegitimate president on the professionals of the security agency.

“Fair Game” (2010) focuses on his office’s attempt to discredit former ambassador (to Gabon) Joseph Wilson’s New York Times revelation that the supposed Saddam Hussein Iraq’s purchase of yellowcake enhanced uranium , which was one of the rationales for invading Iraq (included in the 2003 Bush State of the Union address), not only did not happen but was preposterous. Karl Rove and Cheney’s chief-of-staff (and it is impossible to believe with Cheney’s knowledge and approval; indeed Scooter Libby later said that it was Cheney who told him that Plame worked for the CIA) sought to make the story not the administration’s knowing lies but nepotism, specifically, that Wilson was sent by his wife, Valerie Plame, who had been asked about her husband’s connections to Niger officials. Plame did not make the decision to send him to Niger, but the Cheney disinformation machine cast doubt on his challenge to the lie by Bush (and Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, et al.) while avoiding the substance of Wilson’s charge that the Cheney-Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in general, and the Niger yellowcake uranimum in particular.

I knew that the Bush administration recklessly exposed that Plame was a CIA covert operative (which is a felony under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act), but the movie showed some of the consequences: one can fairly say the blood of various people (70+) who had been cooperating with her is on the hands of Cheney, Libby, and Dick Armitage (who told Robert Novak that Plame was a CIA agent, which Rove confirmed, hence Novak’s report from “two senior administration officials”). Wilson contradicting Bush administration lies should not have made Plame “fair game,” and destroying her career was done without any consideration of fatally compromising those in the Middle East who could be linked to her. I know that the movie title is a criticism of what was done to Plame and her contacts. “Reckless Mendacity” would be an apt title for the whole run-up to the otherwise catastrophically underplanned conquest of Iraq.

Cheney (via Libby) seeking to make something of the aluminum tubes that the CIA was convinced were not part of a nuclear bomb-making program in Iraq and generally to cherry-pick and leak raw data to justify invading Iraq are also prominent in the movie. (In his testimony to the special prosecutor Cheney claimed not to recall information sought 72 times, a piece of the historical record not posed to him in his current press initiative.)

Having said that everyone knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in an Oscar acceptance speech, Penn was a natural to be cast as Wilson and Naomi Watts was convincingly dedicated to her job playing Plame. And David Andrews was convincing as the bullying Libby (Cheney and Bush played themselves; that is, appeared in archival footage).

Alas, the movie ends with Bush commuting Libby’s sentence rather than being jailed along with Cheney for their multiple crimes. (And, during the movie’s credit, the real Plame testifying to a congressional committee appears alongside closing records, showing how much Watts looks like her).

 

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Colin Farrell in Triage/Shellshock

Rating:4/5]

Pros: Farrell, Lee, Dura, Reilly; Deasy’s cinematography

Cons: second half feels slow

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Colin Farrell (born in Dublin in 1976) has been very good in a succession of movies few people have seen, including “Phone Booth” (2002), “A Home at the End of the World” (2004, the performance that made me a fan of his), “Ask the Dust” (2006), “Triage” (2009), “Ondine” (2009), (IMO, a minority one) “Alexander (2004, and Seven Psychopaths,” (2012). (I have not seen “Cassandra’s Dream”, and don’t remember much about his performance as Captain John Smith in Terrence Malick’s wretched “New World”; thought he was fine in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) and excellent in “In Bruges” (2008), two movies seen by more viewers than these others.)

“Triage,” also released as “Shell Shock” has some problems, though not in the acting of its lead (Farrell) or others. As Elena, the wife of Mark Walsh, the war photojournalist Farrell plays, I think Paz Vega is pretty good. As her octogenarian Spanish psychiatrist grandfather Christopher Lee is outstanding, as is Bronco Dura (No Man’s Land) as a Kurdish field hospital physician (the one doing the triage). Jamie Saves does not make much impression as Mark’s buddy, David, who wants to get home to his very pregnant wife. Though she has, I think, less screen time than David, Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) delivers a profound and nuanced performance.

Irish cinematographer Samus Deasy (The General) contributes different looks for Dublin and for Kurdistan (shot in Spain, btw). What I am dubious about must be attributed to Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land), who adapted Scott Anderson’s novel set in 1988 (just before Saddam Hussein’s biggest chemical attack (gassing) of his nominal subjects Iraqi Kurds) March 16, 1988, part of the genocidal policy of Saddam Hussein that was exculpated by the Reagan administration (de facto supporting Hussein against Iran).

The first third (or so) of the movie shows a gung-ho Mark and a very reluctant David accompanying Kurdish rebels against Saddam Hussein’s misrule. With no consideration for the severely wounded, Mark in particular presses in to take gritty photographs, including Dr. Talzani (Djuric) shooting in the head those whom he judges cannot be saved. His triage places blue tags on the hopeless cases, and yellow on the potentially salvageable.

Very familiar with this triage, the wounded Mark is relieved to be yellow-tagged. Back in Dublin, he improves physically and gets worse psychologically (PTSD) despite the love of his wife.

Her question and Diane’s is “What happened to David?” who left the battlefield first. Elena brings in the grandfather whom she considers a Fascist who salvaged various underlings of Francisco Franco (second-hand crimes against humanity). Dr. Morales has a major speech explaining himself and goes to work in breaking through (which means breaking down) Mark. Everyone (including the viewer) eventually learn the tragic answer to that question (by way of a particular concern of Mark’s that Dr. Morales picks up on).

Mark’s agent Amy (Juliet Stevenson) thinks the field hospital/physician execution photos are more interesting and marketable than the combat ones, and that part of the movie seems more powerful to me than the eventual revelation (well played and well photographed as it is). Tanovic had plenty of experience of the war on civilians living in Sarajevo, and is perhaps better at gritty, bitter war movies than at rehabilitation ones? Or is the editing to blame for the slow feel of the second half (plus) of the movie? Or that the payoff doesn’t pay enough? Would it have been better not to hide from the audience what happened to David? Maybe, maybe not.

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The movie did not have a US theatrical release (went straight to video). The DVD has multiple interviews, which are also drawn on for a good making-of feature that runs 20 minutes. The DVD presentation lifts my 3.5 judgment of the movie itself. It is a shame that the excellent acting was not seen by American audiences. Though not a “popcorn movie,” surely there are enough stimuli for adrenaline in it!

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Interactions of four men deluded about their godhood

[Rating: 4/5]

Pros: analysis of identity maintenance

Cons: “experiment” went on too long, so does its report

“Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.” —Bertrand Russell, Power

“If it hurts too much, man is wise to turn away from it.” —Joseph, one of the three Christs of Ypsilanti

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I don’t see why Milton Rokeach (1918-88) kept the three paranoid schizophrenics, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ, whom he had brought together in 1959 in the Ypsilanti State (Michigan) Hospital together for 25 months. The experimental cure failed at once, yet Rokeach chronicled the details of their delusions after confronting them with others claiming to the same identity had failed to dislodge their identities, as he expected (hypothesized) it would. There is no reference in his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, first published in 1964, to When Prophecy Fails, which would have led me to expect people to manage to hold onto their beliefs when they have been empirically disconfirmed. There is a mention of Leon Festinger’s book Cognitive Dissonance, but no recognition that falsification of beliefs (predictions of the end of the world by the doomsday cult Festinger infiltrated) leads to fiercer commitment rather than to abandoning them. I can’t remember what, if anything of Festinger’s findings, Rockeach taught of that when I took the introductory Social Psychology course from him in 1970 at Michigan State University.

Rokeach’s 1981 afterword is abashed about his playing god and inflicting pain (though the ability to rationalize away cognitive dissonance is considerable). Having not shaken their beliefs in their divinity by confronting each of them with two others claiming to be Jesus, Rokeach went beyond the pale in concocting letters from characters invented by Rokeach (derived from the delusions of the patients). His manipulations also failed to obliterate their identities, though the youngest of them, Leon, made slight accommodations of his belief system to account for the others (crazy men in a mental hospital). The older (and longer incarcerated) two “defended their delusional system of belief mainly by denial… itself the result of the loss of ego functioning and of the need for consistency.”

The fourth messiah (Rokeach) was sufficiently familiar with Freud to recognize the import of a “slip” saying “the four Christs of Ypsalanti”), he looked back an judged “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Though in retrospect he realized that he “had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine—of my godlike delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives with the framework of a ‘total institution.’” Based on his belief of the great efficacy of engineering self-confrontation through a single “experimental session”, I think that Rokeach continued to overestimate his clout in changing attitudes, although I liked him as a teacher (lecturer).

BTW, the large Ypsilanti state hospital was closed in 1991, part of the “deinstitutionalization” (dumping patients on the streets) that Ron Moody discusses in his introduction to the 2011 New York Review Books reprinting of Rokeach’s book.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

The Go Master

[Rating:3/5]

Pros: cinematography of Wang Yu

Cons: both the history and the game are opaque to most people

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I was impressed by director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1996 movie “Blue Kite,” but primarily watched “The Go Master” (Go Seigen, originally the master’s name, played by Wu Qingyuan) because its title character was played by me second-favorite (second to Takeshi Kaneshiro) Taiwanese actor, Chang Chen (who was Chang in “Happy Together”, the Mongol prince, Dark Cloud, in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Sun Quan in “Red Cliff”, Razor in “The Grand Master” ). I would not have recognized him as Wu Qingyuan, either young or old (he looks exactly the same throughout this movie, except that with age he stops wearing glasses, which is a puzzlement).

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Even with voiceovers from Wu’s diary (also shown in Chinese characters and English subtitles), the viewer has no idea what Wu thinks or feels about anything, including the physical for the draft into the Imperial Japanese Army, which was at war with his native China. Wu was very Japanized even before the Japanese invasion of China and his “sport” is one venerated in Japan.

Wu survives tuberculosis, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, food shortages, and realizing he is following a false god (a megalomaniacal prophetess of a Buddhist sect, Jikou Son (Minami Kaho) without showing any emotion whatsoever. He is good at bowing and at sitting motionless on his legs (something few Japanese, let alone Taiwanese now can do).

The jumps in time and lack of character development (/motivation) make the movie pretty confusing (dare I say “evidence narrative incompetence”?), but it definitely looks great (like Wong Kar-Wai’s “Grand Master” with even less action). Credit cinematographer Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City). The movie was mostly shot in Japan (specifically, Odawara in the Kanagawa Prefecture in the southeast of Honshu, the target of US bombers August 15, 1945) and the dialogue is mostly in Japanese.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Marcia Gay Harden as Lear (and more): If I Were You

Pros: Harden is great

Cons: a bit too long with foils not up to Harden’s fury or pain

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I’m a major fan of Marcia Gay Harden (born in La Jolla, CA in 1959, won a best supporting actress Oscar for the 2000 “Pollock” playing Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife)), and have just enjoyed her turn as the news network’s lead legal counsel on the second season of “The Newsroom” (which I thought was better than the first with less focus on the romantic entanglements of the younger staff members than on the first). In “If I Were You” (2012), written and directed by Canadian Joan Carr-Wiggin (“A Previous Engagement.’’), I thought she was very entertaining as the wife (Madelyn) whose husband, Paul (Joseph Kell) is cheating on her with a younger woman, a wannabe actress named Lucy (Leonor Watling) whom Madelyn keeps from killing herself.

The movie has its screwball elements, but is not really a comedy. Madelyn gets cast in an offbeat, semi-professional production of “King Lear” with her new pal/advisee Lucy playing the Fool. She went along with Lucy to an open-call audition and the director Rainer (Michael Therriault) thinks that Madelyn’s ranting on her cellphone behind him is a bid to be cast in the title role. It looks like Harden would make an interesting Lear, quite up to Shakespeare’s lines if still a bit young for the part

Madelyn hits the bottle hard, which I don’t find funny. I don’t think the liaison with a stranger (Aidan Quinn) encountered in the nursing home where both he and Madelyn are visiting dying Alzheimer-plagued parents is intended to be funny (romantic, sí; charming, sí!) Madelyn has another suitor a married co-worker  (Gary Piquer).

IMHO Kell is the weakest link, deserving of neither Madelyn or Lucy. And I think the 115-minute running length is a bit longer than it needs to be, but Harden is great and the movie deserves a larger audience than it had with barely a US theatrical release.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“Echo’s bones were turned to stone”

Pros: some wordplay

Cons: plot, etc.

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In 1933 Samuel Beckett (1906-89) wrote an additional (13,500-word) story for his 1934 collection of short fictions, More Kicks than Pricks. though he had killed off his alter ego and the protagonist/observer of the other stories, the Dublin slacker Belacqua Shuah (lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio Canto IV) in “Yellow,” the penultimate story of More Kicks than Pricks.

Eighty years later the 59-page piece was published by Grove Press “Echo’s Bones.” It runs only slightly more pages than that of apparatus, which includes 57 pages of annotations by Mark Nixon and Beckett’s correspondence with the book’s Chatto & Windus editor, Charles Prentice, who judged the story/novella a “nightmare” and predicted that any readers would “shudder and be puzzled and confused.” Prentice said it gave him “the jim-jams.”

Like Gaul, “Echo’s Bones” is comprised of three parts. In the first Belacqua is reborn and cavorts with a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet.. Next he meets Haemo Lord Gall of Wormwood, a giant whose aids in impregnating his giantess wife the giant seeks from Belacqua. (Without male issue, Wormwood would be inherited by the villainous Baron Extravas.)

In the final part, Belacqua watches his own grave being robbed in a “long night of knock-about”. “Echo’s Bones” goes nowhere, the three parts failing to cohere, let alone lead from one step to another. Dwight Garner in the Irish Times likened the story to an “anthology of death rattles” (an apt characterization of “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape”). The novella now a sort-of stand-alone book is literally “snotty.”

Echo, post-Narcissus, had a voice as well as bones. The voices in Beckett (here as elsewhere) are mostly male one.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Having quickly bogged down trying to reread Molloy, I have bumped Beckett down to the maybe clump in my second-guessing Nobel Prizes for literature.

Early Beckett

More Pricks Than Kicks, a 1932 collection of interrelated stories by future Nobel Prize laurete Samuel Beckett (1906-89) about a slacker cad named Belacqua Shuah, “descendant of the grand old Huguenot guts” (that is of a Protestant family as Beckett was) who is learning Italian working through Dante with a tutor (Vera Esposito). Belacqua no sense of obligation to anyone (least of all the three women he marries (sequentially), and has an exaggerated intolerance for being interrupted in anything, whether it is trying to write or in making toast.

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1971 caricature by Edmund Valtman

Belacqua wants to move around to evade the Furies, but “being by nature sinfully indolent, bogged in indolence, [he] ask[ed] nothing better than to stay put.” There are many specific places in and around Dublin mentioned (none of which mean anything to me). The ten stories appear in chronological order, but are not tied together into a novel. They differ considerably in voice, though all but one tend to show off obscure vocabulary (ponderous pedantic pomposity is characterization of the style made by his biographer, Deidre Blair).

Belacqua is not an interesting (or a sympathetic) character and his opinions are desperately flippant. It is in this and in many characters being crippled that they most obviously connect to the pared-down dialogue of Beckett’s post-World War II plays. Both narrator and protagonist are sarcastic to and beyond the point of viciousness. In the first story, Belacqua expresses concern and sympathy for a lobster about to be boiled alive, but in later ones he is indifferent to the deaths of wives and a little girl who is run down… and fairly indifferent to his own prospective death.

 

The book was banned in Ireland on the basis of its title, which is especially ironic in that it is biblical, alluding to Acts 9:5 (“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”). The high-falutin’ diction insured against any popular success. The dialect (or at least phonetic spelling) in the brief “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux” made that story unreadable to me. The longer “A Wet Night” is barely readable. From Blair, I learned that these are the two “stories” that are most directly autobiographical recall. Apparently, Belacqua’s meeting a woman in a pub who is attempting to sell seats in heaven (“Ding Dong”) is also more memoir than fiction—and strikingly odd rather than just peculiar. It and “Dante and the Lobster” are the two stories that I find almost appealing. They are more bemused than bitter.

A comic intent is often obvious, but the touch is never light, and such heavy lifting makes the puns and jokes seem more pathetic than funny. (In “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett would later manage both simultaneously, but not in More Pricks Than Kicks. Some of the characters other than Belacqua are less enervated. (I’m tempted to say he is a “dead center” that other lives pass near and that he thinks orbit around him.) His main interest is as self-loathing portrait of Beckett as a young cad, reveling in his caddishness and playing with language. There is certainly no plot (with a partial exception in “Fingal”), and I would not say the vignettes are really “character-driven” either. I’d say they are driven by toying with language and a loathing for the self (author and protagonist), for his associates, and for Ireland in general.

If the 25-year-old Beckett was following the advice of James Joyce (whom he had served as a secretary) to “write what is in your blood and not what is in your brain,” his veins were running with venom and contempt. But I would say he was spewing what was in his brain.

 

More Pricks Than Kicks is in effect Beckett’s Dubliners and Beckett’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rolled into one inferior stew. Whereas both of the Joyce books are read for their own merits, not as earlier works by the author of Ulysses, More Pricks Than Kicks would be forgotten and long out-of-print on its own merits, and is in-print as the point of departure (from the specific location of Dublin) of Beckett’s oeuvre.

 

I really don’t understand why I persisted in reading all ten stories, when I am surrounded by some many books I want to read and expect to enjoy more! An ingrained valuing of finishing whatever I start, I think. I could only recommend the collection to those interested in analyzing self-hatred in a particularly Irish style or intent to trace the evolution of Beckett’s writing from polysyllabic overkill to nothingness (by way of what strikes me as his only masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” written first in French; I long ago read the trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable), or at least the first two volumes of it, but suspect that that, too, was an exercise in masochism rather than rapport or enjoyment.

 

©2006, Stephen O. Murray

 

Rural Writers Plugging Away with Intermittent Notice

Pros: interesting characters and situation as writers, photos

Cons: too many repetitions, too little of Susan Eisele’s writing

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(Aurora Borealis over an Estonian lake rather than one of the 15,000 Minnestoa ones; shot by Kristian Pikner)

Like Albert E. Eisele, my father was transported as a baby from rural Illinois to Faribault County in southern Minnesota. Like Albert A. Eisele (sixteen years my elder), I graduated from Blue Earth High School, and shared the same family doctor as the Eiseles. I remember Susan Frawley Eisele, wife of Albert E. and mother of Albert A., seeming to wrestle with a bulky camera taking pictures (including some that I was in) at Blue Earth High School for the Blue Earth Post, the weekly newspaper for which she also wrote a homespun miscellany of a column for decades.

I’m not sure whether those close parallels and glancing intersections makes me more or less sympathetic to Albert A’s joint biography of his parents, Northern Lights, Southern Nights: A Memoir of Writing Parents (2015). I never met him, don’t remember ever talking to his mother, and was born in the same year his father died. I read the book with some familiarity with the setting and a few persons mentioned in passing, but was probably more disappointed at the failure of the book to be what its subtitle advertises — a memoir — than readers from elsewhere are likely to be. (I hoped to learn something of what it was like to grow up in/near Blue Earth a decade and a half before I did.)

There is exceedingly little of memories from Albert A. in the book. Almost everything in it derives from manuscripts and clippings from newspapers and magazines by or about his parents. Their careers as writers for rural newspapers (syndicated columns) and in the case of Albert E. as a contributor of close-to-the-earth stories published in American Catholic periodicals while farming and raising children (three boys of whom Albert A. was the youngest survived childhood).

Susan wrote fast, her husband slowly. Alas there is not the slightest indication of how Albert A. or his older brothers felt about the time their parents’ writing took — or how they felt about their parents’ minor fame in rural northern Iowa and southern Minnesota and in national Catholic periodicals, along with something of a fifteen minutes of national celebrity Susan had, being named the country’s outstanding rural journalist for 1936 and invited to New York City and D.C. with the newly born Albert A.

The book needed a copyeditor to point out (and/or cut!) repetitions. Albert A. runs through statistics on Albert E’s publications five or six times and says that Susan never traveled to the East Coast again after 1936, though there is not only discussion but a photo of her with Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1977 (Albert A. was press secretary for then-Vice President Walter Mondale). An editor might have suggested changing “’The Brother Who Came’ was described by literary magazine editor as ‘one of the finest short stories ever written” from passive to active as well as supplying an article before “literary.” This is quite aside from the unsupportability of the estimation by David Marshall (founder of something called A.D.): there are two or three better Eisele stories included as an appendix to the dual biography, and “Brother” exemplifies the superfluous dialog for which a critic quoted in the text faulted Albert E’s fiction.

The six stories by Albert E. Eisele are Chekhovian, though didactic and more sentimental than Chekhov’s were , with occasional odd (or mistaken) word choices and sometimes awkward syntax. Unfortunately, Albert A. includes only two of his mother’s thousands of columns, including both an image of the original appearance and the text. I wish he had included the one (or the whole set of five submissions) that won her the best rural journalist of 1936 recognition.

It seems that both of his parents chose to ignore the censorious backbiting of busybodies in rural communities, including the one in which both Albert A. Eisele and I grew up —in contrast the earlier representation of Sauk Centre, MN in Main Street, which Susan told a NYC interviewer in 1936 (after publication of Babbit, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, The Man who Knew Coolidge, and Elmer Gantry) was the last good book Sinclair Lewis wrote… or the bitterness of the Spoon River Anthology and the despair of Giants in the Earth.

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(neo-Romanesque edifice built in 1870, now on the National Historic Registry)

Despite the disappointments I have mentioned, I found the story of writers from Faribault County, Minnesota struggling for attention interesting. Susan, who was born on the coast of South Carolina and moved to Tennessee observed some of the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 and remarked about some other Tennesseans that “they are fundamentalists because they have not the courage to look beyond their own narrow horizons and see that the other fellow has the same protection under the laws of this country as they have,” an observation that is particularly apposite to the fundamentalist reaction to same-sex marriage and to Minnesotan as well as Tennessean fundamentalists (and not a few Catholic priests, as well).

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(The Etta C. Ross Memorial Library in Blue Earth, Minnesota, which is no longer the Blue Earth Library. It is now an adjunct of the local historical society and the library has moved to the former site of the Red Owl groucery store)

BTW, Albert Eisele wrote a much longer dual biography of Minnesota senators Eugene J. McCarthy and Hubert H. Humphrey who vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, Almost to the Presidency).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murrau

 

“The sun is God.”: Mike Leigh’s 2014 “Mr. Turner”

Pros:look, performance

Cons: throws viewers into the artist’s midlife without establishing context/background

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I learned a lot about the life of  painter “Mr. [J.M.W.] Turner” from Mike Leigh’s 2014 film. In the title role Timothy Spall won best actor awards at Cannes and from the New York Film Critics, but not even a BAFTA nomination.

I found the film difficult to get into and for perhaps the first (of two and a half) hour thought that Turner was autistic. Although undeniably gnomic, he was too successful with patrons and within the Royal Academy of Arts (where his staccato pieces of advice were appreciated and acted upon) to have been autistic, for all his grunts and mistreatment of his two daughters, their mother (Ruth Sheen), and his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) —though he provided for her to have life tenancy in the house in which she served him—… even as he maintained another household with the twice-widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, Leigh’s life partner, who has acted in many of his films), starting renting a room from her using one of his middle names (Mr. Mallard)  in Margate overlooking the harbor.

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The film looks great with recreations of the Royal Academy’s annual shows, landscapes, seascapes, etc. Dick Pope’s cinematography did get BAFTA and Oscar nominations (Pope was earlier nominated for an Oscar and for an ASC award for the 2007 “The Illusionist”; he shot “Topsy Turvy,” Vera Drake,” and “Secrets and Lies” for Leigh earlier). I think that Pope shows something of what Turner saw as beautiful (indeed, many of the shots are, to me, more beautiful than Turner’s paintings, a major exhibition of which are currently at the De Young Museum in San Francisco; Tate Britain owns 20,000 Turner works, so always has a room of Turners on display). Turner’s last words (in the movie and reputedly on his deathbed) were “The sun is god,” and differences of light were his focus before the Impressionists (who had some “anxiety of influence” in regard to Turner; in the movie he has none for Claude Lorraine, whose work he defends from a young John Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire).

I found Leigh’s 1999 “Topsy Turvy” more entertaining, but “Mr. Turner” is often gorgeous and has a superb performance by Timothy Spall, who shows the artist as more than a cold brute, and who is ably supported by cast and crew.

The DVD also includes a scene of less than two minutes, “Billiards,” that was deleted (and, indeed, serves no purpose in terms of characterization or plot). There is a feature-length commentary track laid down by Mike Leigh that is probably interesting, but which I have not (yet?) heard).

I found the half-hour making-of featurette (The Many Colors of Mr. Turner) very informative, especially about location, use of images of paintings from Turner and his time, the manufacture of paintings for Spall to work on (and his 2.5-years learning to paint) and a useful series of paired images the other Academy painters who appear briefly and their paintings. The Blu-Ray edition includes another featurette, “The Cinematic Palette” that is not on the DVD.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray