Sunday, April 02, 2006


Screen gems, John McGahern, I hate books

My review of American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Until Now has been posted on the Newsday site. As my brief exchange with Phillip Lopate probably made clear, I found the book great fun, and it made want to run out and read everything by Manny Farber and Otis Ferguson. Here's how I began:
In a 1963 radio broadcast, the late Pauline Kael responded to her detractors with a peppery bit of rhetoric: "If you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or painter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, and so many poets." She was, of course, correct. Critics of her own fiercely perceptive stature are a rare breed. A handful is the norm; a double handful constitutes a Golden Age. Yet movie criticism, a field over which Kael still hovers as a tutelary spirit, has been flourishing in this country for nearly a century. And in the introduction to this fat and fascinating volume, Phillip Lopate argues that the best of it deserves an honored spot in "the canon of American nonfiction prose."
You can read the rest here. The same issue of Newsday includes Kerry Fried's excellent interview with the late John McGahern, surely one of the last the Irish novelist and short-story master conducted prior to his death on March 30. For his final book, a memoir called All Will Be Well, McGahern drew on on a treasure trove of family letters found in his father's attic. In the interview, he's refreshingly frank about the peculiar challenges of such a project:
My father had a very good prose style, though you can still see the hateful bullying. Also, it was very interesting to see what a treacherous place memory is: I had dovetailed certain scenes that the letters contradicted. And I was able to talk to my sisters when I was writing it as well. I think you can get away with certain things with wives or sweethearts or whatever, but you can never get away with anything with four sisters.
On another note entirely: one evening about two weeks ago, I had one of those I-hate-books moments. I couldn't stand to see all the reading material I'd piled up by my side of the bed, so I began scooping up petulant handfuls and carrying them out to the hallway where the shelves are. The usual problem ensued. As I deposited the hateful objects in the hallway, I noticed other books that I felt like reading. I carried those back into the bedroom. One of them was Patrick Humphries's Richard Thompson: The Biography, with its alarming photos of the callow young artist and a wealth of fabulous info, including this touching anecdote by Linda Thompson:
Richard was madly eccentric when he was young. He only at cheese sandwiches, nothing else. He used to do interviews with an alarm clock on the table, and when it went off, the interview was over. Because he never ate anything but cheese sandwiches, you could see his veins through his face, which was pure white.
Normally the alarm clock bit would turn me off--possibly the cheese fixation, too--but I make special allowances because Thompson is a bonafide genius. Evidently he's fortified his diet since then, too, since I caught a show of his last year and his skin was opaque. (Here, by the way, is a live WNYC segment with the man, recorded on June 28, 2005.)

Another book that made the ill-tempered shortlist was Joanna Demers's Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. The author touches on some familiar bases--the Grey Album, Mike Batt's silent-but-deadly homage to John Cage, even Walter Murphy's goofy "Fifth of Beethoven"--and basically argues that IP litigation is killing off contemporary music in its cradle. Point taken. She does acknowledge that the line between borrowing and plundering can be hard to pin down at times. Meanwhile, Elvis gets a spanking, which would seem to fly in the face of the author's enthusiasm for appropriation. Bad boy! Not only did he rob Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup at (figurative) gunpoint, but "his many covers and tributes to black music usually gloss over the less desirable sides of African American life such as poverty and racism." Sigh. This is a silly moment in an otherwise concise and intelligent book. Which reminds me: I borrowed part of the current musical offering, "Camp Holler," from a Son House sample I found on the Internet. Just the vocal. The rest, including the crude Garth Hudson homage, I added via electronic applique. If Moby can do it, why can't I?

A fine review too, by the way. My own copy of the book in question should arrive this week!
Yeah, 'Steal this Music'...if Ms. Demers's book argues that artistic creativity would somehow (paradoxically) be fostered by a more permissive attitude toward's the appropriation of material currently protected under copyright law (with the only-brilliant-for-a-few-moments 'Grey Album' as an argument? And BTW would it have seemed so 'hip' if it HADN'T been an unauthorized work?)...I have to say, as a guy who earns ALL of his money from the copyrights in his name: B*llsh*t. Rather, I would argue the converse: that the culture of re-make, re-mix, sample and steal is KILLING artistic creativity by contributing to the atrophy of the imaginations of generations of consumers. The beauty of composing a ballad or writing a short story is very much in the fact that the notes and chords one has to work with are EXACTLY the ones Sir Paul McCartney may use...the alphabet at hand is PRECISELY the one that Phillip Roth fiddles with. What makes the resulting creation one's own, for better or worse, is the unique application of one's OWN imagination. When a record producer (after getting permission) samples James Brown, for example, the decision to do so is driven by a COMMERCIAL rather than creative imperative that I myself would be a hypocrite to sneer at...but that's another discussion entirely.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?