31 March 2010

Brain Droppings: Bored at Work Edition

Another installment of everyone's favorite series! There's a gimmick this time around, though: these particular fragments are taken from notes I have scribbled down while bored at work (I keep a notebook in my cubicle specifically for this purpose. As you might have imagined, it sees some fairly heavy use). Here's a few choice cuts:

  • I've read that writing must be a job rather than a hobby if one is to truly succeed at it. It's nice work -- if you can get it. But even if you try, can you get it at all?
  • Related: why is it that I find it easier to write with a pen than with a word processor? Something about a pen and paper just seems more personal, more honest. The permanence of it also makes it more difficult (and therefore much less tempting) to second-guess myself. Yet, at the same time, it also seems less official, less concrete, less likely to ever be read by anyone.
  • Still no good ideas as to what my next subject ought to be. It would be best, I think, if it didn't involve me -- I spend entirely too much time talking about myself. Unfortunately, myself is really the only thing I can discuss with any expertise. Far too many of my posts revolve around why I like this album (excellent guitar work!) or why I like that actress (she has a hot ass!).
  • Bohemianism is a perfectly reasonable and respectable manner of living, just so long as one remembers to bathe regularly. The pursuit of material wealth is not the purpose of human existence -- despite what some would have you believe -- nor is it the most admirable manner of living (far from it, in fact).
  • One of my life goals is to someday be the kind of disaffected old curmudgeon that disaffected young curmudgeons aspire to someday be like. Similar, I will admit to George Carlin, but ideally with a touch of Gore Vidal mixed in (if only to balance out the venom and griping with a bit of profundity).
Congratulations, you've made it to the end.

21 March 2010

Relevant to My Interests, Ep. 22

Although she began her Hollywood career as a dance instructor and extra at MGM, Ann Dvorak -- born Anna McKim in New York City -- is perhaps best remembered today for her roles at Warner Bros. between 1932 and 1935, including such pre-code pictures as Scarface (1932) and Three on a Match (1932). Despite a series of successful films, squabbles with the studio execs and an almost year-long hiatus dampened Ann's career prospects, and the quality and number of her roles tapered off.

In every role I've seen her play, Ann demonstrates a great talent for making her characters believable -- from the cocaine addled mother in Three on a Match to the restless younger sister in Heat Lightning (1934) to the titular role in Housewife (1934), Ann's character is always sympathetic and and always feels genuine (she makes a particularly great onscreen drunk, as well!). She's a greatly under-appreciated member of the Warner Bros. roster.

A nifty tribute site to Ann exists, and is worth a visit for old movie aficionados.

15 March 2010

Detritus, Michigan

I find Detroit somehow alluring. It's a strange thing to say about a city in such hopeless disrepair, a city that is the butt of so many jokes about urban decay, a city that has become symbolic of dysfunction and disrepair. Yet in spite of all the harsh realities of Detroit, I cannot help but be drawn to it. So much of what wrong with Detroit -- its broken down buildings, its urban prairie -- seems strangely familiar to me. I cannot help but see in that careworn city a reflection of myself.

In the first half the last century, Detroit must have seemed symbolic of all that was right with America -- between 1900 and 1930, Detroit proliferated from a city of a quarter-million people to a metropolis of one and a half million, thanks in no small part to its remarkable industrial boom. It was once known as the "Paris of the West" for its magnificent architecture, and during World War II Detroit's industrial might garnered it the honorific moniker of the Arsenal of Democracy. By mid-century, Detroit stood as the nation's fourth largest city, and certainly one of its most important.

Yet Detroit was never perfect -- even in its glory days the city was beset by organized crime and racial tensions. The latter, in particular, was a recurring problem that would prove a crucial factor in the city's downfall. Race riots -- the most notorious of which must be the Twelfth Street Riot -- were just as destructive to the fiber of Detroit as were the decline of the auto industry and the proliferation of drugs in the 1970s. Between 1950 and 2000, worsening social and economic conditions caused the city's population to plummet from more than 1.8 million to just over 900,000. If the first half of the century saw Detroit's meteoric rise, the second half of the century was witness to its calamitous decline.

The woeful dilapidation in which the city now languishes is well documented -- its myriad abandoned and decaying structures have been the subjects of numerous photographic surveys, and its continuous struggles are frequently fodder for journalistic investigation (Time magazine, in fact, has devoted a blog to chronicle a year in the life of Detroit). Even Detroit's sports teams seem to be afflicted by the malady -- despite the Tigers' surprising run to the World Series in 2006, only two years later the Lions secured their ignoble spot in the record books by losing every game they played that season. Detroit's future, it seems, is none too bright.

The obituary, however, has not yet been written. In spite of pandemic unemployment, in spite of bargain-basement property values and in spite of the fact that most of the rest of the country seems perfectly willing to leave its eleventh largest city for dead, Detroit still lives. It may be a life of blood, tears, toil and sweat for its citizens, but nevertheless the city still lives, and it strives to rise from its ashes. In this gritty and grinding perseverance, Detroit still represents, in a peculiar yet strangely profound way, what is right with America.

I cannot help but admire the spirit of Detroit, and to hope and cheer for its renaissance. After all, if an entire city can revivify itself, there is reason to believe that I, having fallen from my own glory days, can achieve a similar recovery. How insignificant my troubles must seem when juxtaposed with the troubles of 900,000 citizens! Nevertheless, they are my troubles. Yet if I could face whatever troubles I have with the same grim determination as the city of Detroit, perhaps I might be able to hope that there are better days ahead for me, as well.

Of course, let's have no delusions -- for Detroit, the road to recovery will be a long and arduous one, indeed. In many ways, the city will need not only to simply revitalize itself, but to reinvent itself. Yet if Detroit has made it this far without collapsing, there is ample reason to believe that it can make it the rest of the way. I'll certainly be rooting for it -- after all, a reborn Detroit would be an heroic achievement, and a beacon of hope to all those of us who have fallen upon our own hard times.

[Image Sauce]

13 March 2010

Throne of Blood (1957)

No doubt Throne of Blood has been praised and analyzed so much that it is hardly necessary -- or possible, for that matter -- for me to add anything to the conversation that hasn't already been said (and said more eloquently, most likely). Instead of putting forth any of my redundant and inexpert opinions, I'll simply say that every good thing you've ever heard about Akira Kurosawa (and Toshiro Mifune, for that matter) is absolutely true. Do yourself a favor and watch this film if you get a chance. You won't be disappointed.

07 March 2010

Elmer Gantry

Aside from Dante Alighieri, Sinclair Lewis might well be my favorite author. Born and raised in the American Midwest -- specifically, Minnesota -- Lewis is quite familiar with the society and culture of Middle America, and is thus well-poised to take note of various neuroses that seem to be hereditary within it. Among these neuroses may be counted jingoism, anti-intellectualism and -- in the case of his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry -- religious and moral hypocrisy.

As Lewis envisions him, Elmer is a out-and-out cad -- pick any vice or iniquity at random, and the odds are that Elmer engages in it at some point in the novel -- and yet he finds no fault in any of his actions (unless, that is, they come back to haunt him in some way). The far-from-subtle irony in this is that Elmer is minister who harps mercilessly on the immorality of contemporary society. This might seem like old hat in an age where the pastor-cum-pedophile is a frequent hobbyhorse for many a hackneyed satirist, but the novel caused quite the stir at the time of its original publication. Elmer's hypocrisy -- combined with his unwavering cocksureness -- makes for one of those unusual circumstances wherein the primary character of the novel is one whom the reader more than likely detests, and whose comeuppance the reader impatiently anticipates.

Equally as detestable as Elmer himself -- if not more so -- is the wide-ranging influence he is able to wield over his parishioners and fellow clergymen, thanks in no small part to his limitless charisma and imposing stature. At one point in the novel, Elmer organizes a Committee on Public Morals, and leads several raids on various dens of iniquity (while having an extramarital affair with an old lover). Towards the end of the novel, Elmer plots to organize organize various religious and moral groups to lobby en masse in Washington, an effort which is nearly derailed by his being caught in a scandalous affair with his married secretary (nearly, but apparently not quite).

Elmer Gantry is a sobering reminder of the sort of influence that Christian Fundamentalism has had on American society and government, and one that -- in the epoch of such titans of televangelism as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson -- continues to be quite relevant to modern times.

As a personal note, it is quite interesting that Sinclair Lewis performed much of his research for Elmer Gantry here in Kansas City. Why is it, I have to wonder, that Missouri is so often a case study for America's innumerable cultural neuroses?