Nov 30, 2009

Film Adaptations - Fight Club

Car recalls always remind me of Fight Club, in which Jack outlines the basic formula for issuing a recall:

"You take the number of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."

This is the reduction of death and suffering to a dollar equation. By a corporation. It is a basic theme, the dehumanizing effects of Corporate America, of the book Fight Club (by Chuck Palahniuk - tough name to spell from memory) and the excellent film adapation by Jim Uhls (screenwriter) and David Fincher (director). I am a big fan of Fincher, who combines the medium, the message and a story so very well.

The Toyota Recall reminded me not only of the Fight Club equation but the gruesome car inspection scene where a group is inspecting a fire-gutted car, the result of a differential locking up at 60 mph. One of the technicians says,"The father must've been obese. See how the fat burned into the driver's seat, mixed with the dye of his shirt? Kind like modern art."

Here's a similar bit from the Toyota story:

"On August 28, near San Diego, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer couldn't stop the car. His wife called 911. There was a call that lasted less than a minute. They said they were going 120 miles an hour. They started to pray. The car went off an embankment, burst into flames, and four people were killed, including a young child."

If you want a more technical view of how Corporate America chips away at our souls, check out Joel Bakan's The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.

But Fight Club explores the subject extremely well, along with various other subjects, including men's reactions (or lack of) to feminism, the curious phenomenon of Corporate orphans (specifically men who grow up with an absent father), and the early search for meaning.

Fincher (along with The Dust Brothers) captures the rhythm of corporate travel madness. "You wake up at O'Hare." At SeaTac. "Pacific, Mountain, Central. You lose an hour, you gain an hour. This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." Or the Tom Waits Go'in Out West intro to the first organized fight. There is the brilliant consumerism-in-us-all Ikea scene. "What kind of dining room set *defines* me as a person?"

It is all so brilliantly done. Fight Club is one of my favorite films.

Nov 21, 2009

Describing Around Plimpton

I've just finished an oral history of George Plimpton (George, Being George edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.). I had always wondered why Plimpton was so famous, believing that literary magazines make no one famous, a belief which I still hold.

His distinguishing traits were his great gifts as a host, an apparently endless and varied store of stories, and an ability to make anything into an adventure.

This is the second such oral history I've read. The other was Val Ross's Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. It is a strange and curiously enlightening way to see a person. The books are composed of bite-sized quotes from numerous interviews of people around the subject. The quotes are arranged by theme and chronology.

Here's an example from the section BASIC EXPECTATIONS (a.k.a. parental baggage) from Remar Sutton:

"George loved to tell the story about how his mother once saved his life. It was the time he and Freddy went rafting with Bobby Kennedy on the Colorado River, and he fell overboard. The water was rough and running fast, and George seemed to be making no headway swimming toward shore. In fact he went under - twice, as he told it - but then, as he was going under for the third time, he had this vision of his mother collecting his things after his death, poking around the apartment, and finding a few reels of a movie called The Nun's Delight that he'd stashed away in a wooden box. Instantly he found the strength to struggle to the surface and swim to shore."

It is a strange way for Plimpton to declare his overiding problem. He apparently never shared his personal issues with anyone. But there it is, the idea that his mother would find his porn gave him the strength to save himself.

He had to be browbeaten into both of his marriages, once by Bobby Kennedy and once by A. E. Hotchner (partner with Paul Newman for Newman's Own). Both of his wives said that they were the only people in George's life - and there were a lot of people in his life - whom he didn't support. His first wife, Freddy, said that he was wonderful as long as there was no legal obligation to her.

He was an eternal youth, one of those men who delighted everyone and who was impossible to harness.

Nov 18, 2009

Following Every Impulse

Monica Hess wrote an article in the Washington Post last week on how people are watching porn in public places. I checked my Emily Post. And my Debrett's. No mention of porn in public places.

That's because people know better. Or at least they did when those etiquette books were written.

Who is raising these people? And if they are being raised correctly, why are they still behaving so badly?

Yesterday Douglas Quenqua wrote a piece in the New York Times about how badly behaved people are and the reaction from those who are not. In his words, "the scolds have gotten scoldier."

This is a very old question. Is it appropriate to be rude to someone who is being rude? Or can you sail with dignity above rudeness?

One of my favorite books about this and other etiquette questions is Mark Caldwell's A Short History of Rudeness. Caldwell introduces us to the rudest man of the 20th century: Colonel William d'Alton Mann. He tried to blackmail Emily Post's husband for having a mistress and it backfired on him very badly.

I tried one of the hypothetical questions on a psychologist. If a young man wants all of McDonald's customers to hear Body Count at top volume, is it right? It seems obvious that the answer is no, but in this world gone strange, I've actually read opinions say, well, maybe. The psychologist cut to the crux. "Behavior that enrages will not be tolerated by society for very long."

This is an active version of what Miss Manners wrote:

"In civilization there have to be some restraints. If we followed every impulse, we'd be killing each other." (Quoted at the beginning of Greg Stump's Groove Requiem in the Key of Ski, where Stump juxtaposes Operation Desert Storm with a winter of killer skiing).

I think if these questions are being raised in the Washington Post and the New York Times, maybe people are getting really tired of hearing morons shout down their mobile phones, running into people who are heads down on their iPhones, and having to watch other people's porn.

One of my favorite short stories is Jack Ritchie's For All The Rude People. In it a man walks out of his doctor's office with a fatal prognosis. In his shock, his knowing that he is about to lose his life and his love of that life, he begins to notice the rudeness of other people. In one case, a father and son are denied admittance at a circus because their discount coupon has expired. The man kills the circus ticket taker and leaves a note explaining that the man was killed because he was rude. The good samaritan/killer does this time and time again and by the end a taxicab driver, about to be rude, straightens himself out to be polite, saying you never know to whom you're talking.

Nov 17, 2009

Packed London

This is St Bride's church just off Fleet Street in London as I saw it last Wednesday evening, maybe not as blurry around the edges. What struck me was how everything has been built all around the church.

That building to the left is really that close to the church. There are buildings like that on three sides. On the fourth side is a road so small that an American would never think it serviceable and then more buildings, giving the impression that the church is hemmed in on all four sides.

Here's the satellite view, although it does not give nearly as good an impression of the crammed-in nature of London.

Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: The Biography, gives the definitive account of how packed London is and how every two feet you can find something of historical importance if you are looking.

He is also the author of the novel Chatterton, which contains the funniest depiction of an elderly novelist, Harriet Scrope. Her opening line, spoken to her cat Mr. Gaskell, is, "Mother would like to piss on all this and then she would like to burn it." She is speaking of her life.

Nov 4, 2009

Slurpee du Jour

Yesterday Marketplace used some Depeche Mode after an interview with smart guy Andrew Ross, who wrote a book (Too Big to Fail) about the gory mess that was The Great Recession.

(Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have recently placed our mess into historical context, like 800 years of context).

The Depeche Mode song was Never Let Me Down Again. (It sounded so good that I had a morning of Depeche Mode). Someone at Marketplace has both excellent music recall and wit to follow up a story about those at the helm of a crisis with the imperative to not let us down.

Now here's the Slurpee bit because there's a kind of chain reaction that swirls in Nanney Land and when I pull the handle, splat onto the blog it goes.

The song's lyrics include:

We're flying high
We're watching the world pass us by
Never want to come down
Never want to put my feet back down


Which, I believe, is a narrative about either tripping with his friend or the emotional arc of some friendships, especially young ones. Still relevant to the dim witted response of the regulators when The Mighty Bear went down? Maybe not.

I love the description of flying high. Because I am on my way to a Jung event tonight, I found myself mulling over the lyrics and especially a passage by Marie Louise von Franz about youth's search for euphoria, the flying high:

"What children are offered today in the way of religion is often insufficient and does not reach the emotional depths any longer. So, naturally, they have a longing to be ecstatically gripped and to experience moments in life where one is lifted out of one's miserable existence. Because they do not get the wine of the Holy Ghost, they drink the dirty water of the street instead." (from von Franz's The Golden Ass of Apuleius)

She goes on to catalogue the dirty water (e.g. drugs). But I have to wonder if those who financially engineered our way into the global mess are the same people who in college maybe found ecstasy in Depeche Mode. Probably not.

Nov 3, 2009

Writers & Booze, again

I tweeted awhile ago about Writers & Booze, what an old story it is. Think of Faulkner and Dashiell Hammet appearing at a black tie party in tweeds and eventually sliding off onto each other from a sofa to pass out.

William Styron is a writer who openly spoke and wrote about his forty years of boozing. I've been re-reading his excellent book on his own depression, Darkness Visible, and came across his explanation for why he and quite possibly so many other writers have adored booze so much:

"The storm [his depression] which swept me into a hospital in December began as a cloud no bigger than a wine goblet the previous June. And the cloud - the manifest crisis - involved alcohol, a substance I had been abusing for forty years. Like a great many American writers, whose sometimes lethal addiction to alcohol has become so legendary as to provide in itself a stream of studies and books, I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing; although I never set down a line while under its influence, I did use it - often in conjunction with music - as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to. Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily - sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit."

Styron called his daily booze sessions Mood Baths. I read Darkness Visible during a prolonged visit of the Black Dog, but I kept meaning to go back to it because of Styron's exquisite use of language (just as I'm about to revisit Bill Buford's Heat for the exact same reason). But I've never heard of writers getting together to shoot heroin or shroom. They just want to drink.

Nov 2, 2009

Back to the City

Stewart Brand was the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue and was recently interviewed on Marketplace about his new book. Here’s the bit that jumped out at me:

“I was part of the back to the land thing. In fact, I guess I encouraged a fair amount of it with the Whole Earth Catalogue in the '60s and '70s. And most of us went back to the land then and bounced pretty hard, and came back to town within two or three years having learned all sorts of important things.”

This is Walden again.

A girl once howled at me that Walden was a beautiful ode to the naturalist’s life, an environmental manifesto ahead of its time, a call for people to move back into the woods! She was one of those girls who was extremely attractive when she was angry.

My position was (and still is, 19 years later) that Thoreau only wrote about one of his two years on Walden Pond for a reason. The second year was the same as the first. It is his way of saying he learned the lesson easily.

What was the lesson, that raving gorgeous girl demanded. She was practically demented with anger and the party was avoiding us. I was getting stares from friends as if to say whatever I was doing was not going well.

Thoreau kept a journal, which you can buy from Princeton University Press in a handy sixteen volume set. Reading the journals of his Walden period will reveal that Thoreau would often sneak off to have tea and other things with friends in the city. Very often. He liked the woods and solitude, but he liked the city and friends a lot more. Walden is an admission of a failed experiment.

(That girl never left my side that night and we eventually closed down the argument - it was a draw - but that winter whenever she saw me, she clenched her teeth at me, like I had ruined the 60s for her.)