• Early on, Pete cuts off wife Trudy's questions by snapping, "Trudy, stop it with the Ellery Queen."
Ellery Queen was, of course, the fictional detective and pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, author/star of over 20 novels and at the time of Pete's remark, probably the most well-known American detective character this side of Nero Wolfe. Two Queen mystery titles could serve as alternative-titles for this Mad Men episode: Calamity Town and The Devil To Pay.
• It was nice to see news footage other than the usual Walter Cronkite-voice-breaking moment on CBS in reporting JFK's assassination. Chet Huntley was shown leading NBC's coverage with as assist from Frank McGee and a man caught in the middle: Bill Ryan, a local WNBC news anchor in New York who would have been doing the local news at the time the news broke. Look again and you’ll see McGee on this phone with a "Robert" who’s on the scene in Dallas: That’s Robert MacNeill, who’d later co-host The MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS.
• Finally, the episode’s closing-credits music was Skeeter Davis's shattering 1963 hit "The End of the World." Davis was a Kentucky-born country singer who achieved cross-over pop stardom with this song, produced by Chet Atkins. While the title of the song was appropriate for the plot of this week’s Mad Men – so many characters feeling that the world was ending with the death of a young, inspiring President – the lyrics Davis sings after the music faded out last night, unheard by the TV audience, are particularly apt for stark moment when Betty told Don she didn't love him anymore:
"Why do the birds go on singing/Why do the stars shine above/Don’t they know it’s the end of the world/It ended when I lost your love."
Congratulations to Ken Tucker, whose blog post Pure Country was chosen by guest editor Greil Marcus for The Best Music Writing 2009 (De Capo). Marcus also picked writing by David Remnick, Jody Rosen, Roseanne Cash, Wendy Lesser, and many others. Scholar and journalist Daphne Carr is series editor. Get your copy here.
Join series editor David Lehman as he introduces an all-star line up of the following contributors to this year's volume, chosen by guest editor David Wagoner: John Ashbery, Mark Bibbins, Suzanne Cleary, Billy Collins, Jim Cummins, Mark Doty, Margaret Gibson, Douglas Goetsch, Michael Grabell, Dolores Hayden, Jennifer Michael Hecht readingSarah Hannah's "The Safe House," Richard Howard, Tina Kelley, Philip Levine, Phillis Levin, Susan Blackwell Ramsay, James Richardson, Martha Silano, Mitch Sisskind, Craig Morgan Teicher, and Matthew Zapruder.
Here's what Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker has to say: Lehman’s particular theme this year is the state of poetry criticism, and he doesn’t hold back: “Poetry criticism at its worst today,” Lehman asserts, “is mean in spirit and spiteful in intent,” and he goes on from there to apply an especially vigorous flogging to the critic William Logan . . . Read all of Tucker's review here.
This from Publishers Weekly (starred review): * From the moment series editor David Lehman invokes the myth of Jacob wrestling the Angel in his introduction, the gloves are off in this year's installment of this popular annual anthology. Lehman devotes much of his introduction to throwing jabs at longtime sparring partner and professional poetry grump William Logan,whom Lehman calls “wounded” and “thin skinned.” Guest editor Wagoner chooses to abstain from the scuffle, but there's no denying the
It won't be published for another week or so, but may I enthusiastically recommend Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, a new novel about a poet who has writer's block composing the introduction to a poetry anthology.
There are marvelous Bakerite meditations on W.H. Auden, the state of poetry reviewing, and the flaw of iambic pentameter in English. I think it may be his best novel since The Mezzanine, which is really saying something.
Full confession: This is, essentially, the blog post I put up this morning on Entertainment Weekly's website, where I write a daily blog. But knowing how many BAP readers are Mad Men fans, I wanted to share it and hope it sparks some discussion. Best, Ken Tucker:
I’m referring to the sex scene between Sal Romano (the superb Bryan Batt) and the bellhop. I’m not saying this was the most important subplot in the premiere – certainly seeing Don Draper in his bare feet in this night’s opening shot, a symbol of the naked soul within, was the hour’s crucial hint of what’s to come in season three.
But for Sal’s repressed sexuality, something we’ve known about since the first Mad Men season, to be brought to the fore on premiere night suggests how important this element is to series creator Matthew Weiner. On one level, leaving Sal in the closet for so long (and he remains so even after last night, to everyone except Don) was merely a necessary period detail for Mad Men. Given the era, there was probably no way an out gay man could have risen to the position Sal has within the ad agency. And marrying him off to a woman who doesn’t demand much beyond his smile, his kindness, and his paycheck is also in keeping with the times.
Choosing to have Sal cruised by a horny bellhop, and to have Sal enjoy his romp while on a business trip, is one of those neat (sometimes too-neat) symmetries that Weiner regularly employs. In this case, it made dramatic sense for Sal to engage in illicit sex as much as it did (and has) for Don Draper to do so on previous business jaunts. These away-from-the-office excursions are Mad Men excuses for men to behave madly – more freely and more true to themselves than they are at work or at home. And certainly the scene was staged beautifully: We could share the anguished joy and release Sal felt. By the time this episode occurred in 1963, Allen Ginsberg may have “Howl”'ed and Frank O’Hara (the poet whose work Don read last season) had enjoyed trysts and steady relationships with a variety of male companions, but these were bohemian artists, not the buttoned-up businessmen of Mad Men.
Weiner wrote this episode, and I treasured his usual small-but-significent period details. In these scenes I'm talking about, for instance, it was great to be reminded that, once upon a time, a fire escape was actually something people used to escape from a possible fire, as we saw here. (Does anyone in a big city hotel ever think about using these rickety, rusty things in case of an emergency anymore?)
But I do think Weiner took one easy way out: In the scene near the end, on the plane ride home, Don made it clear by implication that Sal's secret is safe with him, and that he's not upset with Sal. I would hazard, however, that a guy like Don, all steely self-discipline, furtive secrets himself, and raging straight hormones, would have been (in the realism of this series) more hypocritical, and thus repelled by what he glimpsed in Sal's room. It would have freaked out Don's very (straight) soul. He may read poetry out of curiosity and despair, but Don is ultimately a social and artistic conservative: He wants Betty home waiting for him with a home-cooked meal, and remember, he dismissed the famous DDB Volkswagen "Lemon" ad campaign by saying, "I don't know what I hate about it the most."
But even for a daring drama like Mad Men, accommodations must be made: Don must remain our sympathetic hero, and a homophobe -- the "-phobe" here meaning someone frightened, not hating -- cannot be a hero.
The second season of Mad Men is released on DVD today. I'm assuming that if you read this blog and you own a TV, you watch this show, to judge from the enthusiasm BAP has shown the 1960s ad-agency series. The DVD set offers a lot of episode commentaries, the most interesting emanating from series creator Matthew Weiner, who's such a stickler for detail (kind phrase for: so obviously a control-freak), you get used to him pointing out a shot in a scene and saying things like, "I won't let the directors [of other episodes] do that, but I was directing this one, so... " (I wouldn't be surprised if Weiner not only told the actors how to say their lines, but also wiped down the water-stains left by the martini glasses on Roger Sterling's desk.
Of note to readers of this blog is Weiner's commentary remarks about the use of Frank O'Hara's Meditations In An Emergency, which Don Draper reads in the season premiere and which serves as the title for the season finale. Weiner reveals he really wanted to use Lunch Poems in the first scene (Don was, after all, drinking his lunch in a bar, as you'll recall), but, meticulous researcher that he is, Weiner learned that Lunch Poems hadn't yet been published at the time that particular episode was set.
The new season of Mad Men starts Aug. 16.
Tonight, HBO will premiere Hung, its latest attempt at a half-hour sitcom since it forgot Eastbound & Down was as good as Sex and the City. Hung is about Ray, a high-school athletics coach, a middle-aged divorced dad, most of whose house has recently burned down. He's strapped for cash, his kids and ex-wife more or less hate him. Desperate, Ray attends a make-your-dreams-come-true motivational speech in which he's urged to find his essential talent to achieve success. Or in the words of the speaker, to "identify your own tool." If you take that phrase and the show's title, are you surprised when I say the show is about Ray and his gigantic penis?
The Hollywood Reporter has a story saying not one, but two, films of Paradise Lost are in, as they say, development. The first adaptation of John Milton was done by the writer John Collier (yes, the late author of "His Monkey Wife" and other fine short stories). What's that, you say? Collier died in 1980? Ah, the magic of Hollywood: producer Martin Poll has maintained the option on that script lo these many years, and has now found financial backing from a group of Philadelphia-based investors who usually make Bollywood extravaganzas. ("I tell ya, Marty, we keep the poetry but re-title it Slumdog Satan!")
The second Paradise Lost (not to be confused with Paradise Regained) is being planned by an even bigger outfit: Warner Bros. Yes, the studio that brought you the Batman movies. Personally, I'm hoping Tim Burton is tapped to direct. Few living souls can "justify the ways of God to men" than the fellow who directed both the first Batman film, Beetle Juice, Mars Attacks!, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
Casting suggestions are now open to the floor.
Been meaning to ask: Do you use Hulu.com, the online TV website? It's terrific for a couple of reasons. You can catch up on recent episodes of shows you missed/forgot to DVR (Friday Night Lights, Family Guy, Fringe, name-your-poison and those are just under "F"). It also has delightfully random store of old TV shows. Currently I am on an Alfred Hitchcock Presents jag; it's exhilarating to watch crisply acted, tightly-plotted half-hours that remain clever and suspenseful (I highly recommend "Arthur," starring Laurence Harvey as a chicken farmer [!] who murders his girlfriend.)
Hulu offers movies, too, but I find its television library to be far more diverse and enticing. It is the place to go to remind yourself how funny the puns were on Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends, how simultaneously cool and un-cool James Garner was in The Rockford Files, how luminous Elizabeth Montgomery was on Bewitched. You can decide whether you have fond memories of St. Elsewhere or Square Pegs because of lingering nostalgia, or because they were actually good. It's also a site to experience the unknown, and by the unknown, I mean Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, which truly must be seen to be (dis)believed. And may I recommend The Tick? (The live-action version, not the cartoon.)
Hulu has Arrested Development. Even if you're pleased as punch that you don't own a TV, you owe it to yourself to watch that.
Word (in every sense) comes from The Guardian that Russell Crowe composed a poem to read at Sunday night's Empire Film Awards ceremony. After receiving an "actor of our lifetime" award (!) (wouldn't that describe any actor during our, ah, lifetime?), Crowe whipped out this bit of verse:
I am celebrating my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo.
Imagine there's no heaven.
I don't know if you're loving somebody. To be a poet and not know the trade, to be a lover and repel all women. Twin ironies by which great saints are made, the agonising pincer-jaws of heaven.
If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue, walk with kings but not lose the common touch, if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much;
yours is the earth and everything that's in it and what's more, you'll be a man.
It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your breath away.
Hmm... (This is me back again, not Russell Crowe.) John Lennon, Kipling, and the Bee Gees as quotations; the you/tattoo rhyme, those "pincer-jaws" of heaven... It's only words, and The Guardian wasn't letting on whether they took the audience's collective breath away.
Colleague Viggo Mortensen made reference to Crowe's "unfathomable literay aspirations." But hey, if Michael Madsen can publish a book of poetry, who's going to tell Ye Bearded Phone-Thrower he can't write verse?
Last night's appearance by Idris Elba on The Office -- the first of a half-dozen or so appearances by the man some of us cherish as the pensive drug dealer Stringer Bell on The Wire -- brought a crisp crackle of energy to the sitcom. The British-born Elba's new character, Charles Minor, is a middle-management-type brought in to tamp down the craziness as well as excess spending in Michael Scott's Dunder Mifflin branch.
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We can be pretty sure Minor makes less than Bell did slinging whatever illegal substances Baltimore got its rocks of on in The Wire. But It's very good to see that, while Steve Carrell's Michael cannot help but make gauche references to Minor's race, the show itself seems to be positioning Minor as a mildly uptight company-man who will countenance no jive from anyone, including himself. Add Charles Minor to the list of businessman-characters -- yes, including those on your beloved Mad Men -- who bear continued watching so that we can see what makes them tick, or, perhaps, crack. -- Ken Tucker
Reading my friend Logan Hill's excellent New York Magazine movie coverage led me to think about the friend of his he introduced me to a few years ago, the fine critic-editor Ada Calhoun, and her terrific website about kids, Babble (I read it enthusiastically even though my kids are grown), which made me think about the surprise it was to learn that Ada is the daughter of one of my heroes, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who is appreciated so eloquently by another of my heroes, the critic Sanford Schwartz, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, which made me pull down Schjeldahl’s 1978 collection Since 1964: New & Selected Poems from my shelf and reproduce this poem of his for you this day:
The sun goes down
The moon rises
It's night again
Alas, the stars
Shine with frigid
The world, wildly
Worse all the time
We get sadder
Though more refined
And joy, don't we?
At night it's the truth
Paul Harvey died on Saturday at age 90. He was a remarkably original radio personality. My parents used to listen to his mixture of news and anecdote every day, and, as a child, I became transfixed by Harvey's rumbling-deep voice and strikingly unique phrasing.
Slam poets could have learned a tip or two from Harvey. He'd pause in the middle of sentences for dramatic effect. He'd rush words to get to the end of a story, to convey urgency where none might exist if the copy were read in a more conventional broadcaster's usual, measured manner. Harvey's baritone frequently galloped to the punchline of an anecdote, only to be brought up short, reined in abruptly. He'd wait for so long you thought the radio had gone dead, and then he'd issue his final words in a confidential murmur or a crow of triumph. Then it was on to the next item: "Page two!" he'd bark, his term for changing the subject, and off he was, onto another story, or to a commercial whose copy he read himself and promoted personally. His politics tended toward an innocent reactionaryism, if such a category exists. I tended to listen past the content to the style.
Harvey belonged to the pre-TV generation, but lasted well into the internet age. In recent years, I would hear him only on car trips, around noon wherever I was, on the AM radio dial. He had the gift of making it seem as though he was talking only to you. "Hello, Americans!" he'd greet his listeners with merriment: patriotism never sounded so much fun.
I was searching YouTube for footage of Ernie Kovacs' character Percy Dovetonsils; I thought the comedian's portrayal of an effete poet might make for an amusing entry here. Turns out there's not much Dovetonsils material available, but what I did find was a small mind-blower: Footage from Kovacs'game show, Take A Good Look, which aired from 1959-61, a year before his death in an auto accident.
Now, I knew Kovacs' work from his startlingly surreal sketch show, but this gimpse of Take A Good Look shows Kovacs in fine, deconstructive form working in the game-show genre:
At the top of the show, Kovacs plays around with the audio in a disorienting, technologically sophisticated way for the era, playfully confusing the home viewer about who's talking. The opening credits verge on abstract art, fracturing famous faces by showing close-ups of only parts of them: noses, chins, ears. Ever genial, ever-puffing on a long cigar, Kovacs greets his panel of celebrity guests, Ceser Romero, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Jim Backus, doing so in such a blithe, chipper manner, who almost don't catch Kovacs' throwaway insult: "We're going to explain the game to you at home, and to the panel, who aren't particularly bright." He nods to the era's game-show scandals by noting that the prize money is "three hundred dollars--not enough to be crooked."
You get the feeling the game was less important than the way in which the game was presented, a signature of Kovacs' delightfully self-conscious style.
Please note the largely negative response to Elizabeth Alexander's poem among the readers of the Entertainment Weekly blog. It surprises me primarily because most posts of this sort at EW--that is, non-pop-cult entries--don't usually provoke as many boldly-stated opinions. Not your typical assortment of literary critics, and interesting for just that reason...
Entertainment Weekly's (and our) Ken Tucker weighs in here.
Leon Kagarise, who died in 2008 at age 71, was a Baltimore audio engineer who was also a pure amateur—an amateur photographer, amateur record-collector, and most of all a fan—who followed country musicians he admired when they performed at rural amusement parks, at a little outdoor open stage in Maryland, and a farm in Pennsylvania Amish country. The names are big—Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Hank Snow—but the events are small.
The color photographs that Kagarise snapped with his Zeiss Ikon camera are candid, casual, and artless, yet they capture the artistry and image-creation of these musicians with serious, sometimes stunning, precision. There aren't any pictures in the new book that collects his work--Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives 1961-1971 (Process Media)--that will haunt or frighten you the way any number of photo collections of early rock and rollers such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others can. Pure Country is like leafing through a family scrapbook, if your family included June Carter standing in the woods late at night, glowing in a white shirtwaist dress with ruffles, red high heels and perfectly bobbed hair, looking at the camera as though she was ready to kiss it. You know that famous photo of a sneering, hopped-up Johnny Cash giving the camera the finger? Leon Kagarise didn't take that picture, or anything like it; in fact, Kagarise probably would have burned such a photo as soon as he developed it, abashed at its vulgarity. Yet his photo of Cash on page 53 of Pure Country—a Cash in right profile, onstage at the New River Ranch in Maryland, leaning into the audience strumming his guitar, his hair combed in a short, neat pompadour, his trademark black clothing on this evening a simple black business suit—captures Cash's smolder as well as any song he recorded.
A vanished world is summoned up in these photographs; a world in which men and women who sang about heartbreak, dissolute despair, unhappy marriages, and shameful affairs offered up hard lives as the norm and as no excuse to not say thank you to the fans and sign autographs for hours after a performance. Hank Snow's country-industry image was that of the genial Singing Ranger, the smiling Canadian who half-crooned, half-yodelled his melancholy as upbeat inspiration. But take a look at Kagarise's photo of Snow caught offstage in Sunset Park, PA, in 1964—his face uncharacteristically masked by big brown Ray-Ban sunglasses, his face a blank mask, his hairpiece looking like hard molded plastic atop an endless forehead—and you see Snow for the first time as a tough little sonofabitch who was struggling to keep racking up hits while Nashville was starting to ignore his hard-twang music in favor of "countrypolitan" string sections, even as he and the rest of the industry tried to comprehend what the Beatles and "All My Loving" and "I Saw Her Standing There" meant for the future, and Kagarise's photo suggested that that future required dark brown shades.
The washed-out colors of Kagarise’s pictures of lesser-known acts like the Stonemen—a raucously funny, tremendously passionate family talent-show act--or the mountain-music boys Jim and Jesse, or the pious, curvy sex-angel Connie Smith… all of these images contain quiet explosions of contradictory messages: intricate harmonies about messy lives; formally-dressed artists taking pains to assure their audiences that they're no different from them. To look at Hank Snow in Pure Country is to hear him sing "I Don’t Hurt Anymore" and know that the title sentiment is an artful lie: that he can still feel great hurt, and see that he knows the people listening to him has that hurt in them as well. Leon Kagarise seems to have been exhilarated every time he captured the complexity of the relationship between artist and audience, music and image, hurt and joy.
National Public Radio’s "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" recently aired my annual best-pop-music year-end round-up; you can listen to it here. I'd like to call attention to a couple of entries I think you might enjoy if you haven't already heard them. The first is Girl Talk's album Feed The Animals. Girl Talk is the stage name for the D.J. Greg Gillis, and Feed The Animals, which consists of literally hundreds of snippets of songs, from those of Metallica to the Carpenters, to create a densely layered slab of pleasure. I hear Feed The Animals in my head the same way I do when I read Kenneth Koch's "When The Sun Tries To Go On": its juxtapositions are at first startling and funny, sometimes exhausting, but ultimately thrilling and exhilarating.
I'd also call your attention to Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It album. Every year now for the past decade, since the "neo-soul" movement became a marketing term, a few musicians have put out albums that attempt to salute, evoke, imitate, or reinvent the soul-music era of the late 60s and early 70s. Too often, they are merely well-intentioned items of nostalgia. Finally, this year, Saadiq figured out how to do it right. His album uses soul music as a genre, as a technique, the way a visual artist might use collage or a poet might use the sonnet—not as an end in itself but as a framework, a set of tools to build a strong new structure. At first I thought this album would be considered baby-boomer retro-music, but I'm heartened to find many younger listeners responding to these passionately fresh, lively songs.
Finally, one of my favorite pieces of music all year is a novelty song—remember novelty songs? This one, from the country-rocker Hayes Carll, "She Left Me For Jesus," is just about perfect, as befits a song about the Son of God as a competitor for one’s object of desire.
Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow (Pantheon)
The man who directed both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (along with Red Dust, Captains Courageous, and 40-some other films) has, unaccountably, never been given his due as an auteur or as a biographical subject. This new, rich, critical-historical work offers a vivid portrait of Fleming as a shrewd, sensitive daredevil.
Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie by Ken Tucker (St. Martin’s Press)
Okay, it’s my own book, but it makes for very nice counterintuitive-to-holiday-spirit gift-giving. Not merely the behind-the-scenes making of the 1983 De Palma/Pacino film (and the 1932 Howard Hawks/Paul Muni version), but also a critical analysis of how Scarface has influenced pop music, TV shows, YouTube videos, and political culture (see the chapter “President Scarface,” starring Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney, among others).
Today a book of mine is published: Scarface Nation, which my publisher has subtitled "The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America." You can buy it here. Yes, it's primarily about the 1983 Al Pacino-Brian De Palma film (publication coincides with its 25th anniversary), but it's also about Howard Hawks’ 1932 Scarface starring Paul Muni, and about the fascinating 1930 pulp novel that inspired the character, Armitage Trail’s Scarface, and about all things Scarface, from its effect on hiphop music to its pervasiveness in YouTube political videos. (One that didn’t make my book’s deadline: check out McCain-as-Scarface here.)
I have been invited to write here about what it’s like to send a book out into the world, and as the many writers who read this blog know, it is at once exhilarating and undewhelming. On the one hand: Yay! It's done and can be found in Barnes & Noble. On the other: Oy! B&N is only stocking two copies of it at my local suburban store?
But today I had a nice experience. After asking at the information desk where the devil I might find Scarface Nation (not on the New Books table—that’s the kind of placement a publisher has to pay for, and mine is thrifty), the cheerful B&N employee insists on escorting me to the movie-books section and we discover it together. We talk a bit, I show him my picture on the back to prove my authorship, he returns to his post, I move the two copies to the New Books table. Then I go poke around at the magazines (a new issue of Black Belt featuring “Reality-Based Fighting”! a new issue Poetry with a section on “visual poems”! I snap up both to purchase).
As I'm walking to the cash register, the helpful employee brings along his manager, a smiling woman who says she'd be glad to have her store host a book-signing for me as a local author. She gives me her card; I tell her the name of the publisher's p.r. person. She promises me I'll sell "a lot of books." This is very kind and optimistic. I remember the last time I published a book and did a reading at a Philadelphia Borders. Five people showed up: my wife, two friends, and two people who looked as though they needed to get in from the cold outside. Purchases that night: 0.
Did you know that Al Pacino went through nine suits to shoot the final, copiously bloody, "Say hello to my little friend!" machine-gun shoot-out in Scarface? Oh, this book is just full of fun facts like that…
John Leonard, who died Nov. 5 at age 69, was a dizzyingly inspirational critic. Lots of people are going to write appreciations of his extraordinary body of literary criticism, and although I am here to speak for his television criticism, I will inevitably include some of Leonard's observations about books, because for him, one informed the other.
When he began simultaneously reviewing books and TV in the early 1970s, he wasn't someone who wanted to make you feel it was okay to like pop culture (and he was then writing at a time when his readership often wanted such reassurance). No, Leonard's writing stood as proof that high and low culture could and should spark off each other, yield up fresh juxtapositions and ideas. He didn't merely write about watching TV, he Leonard-ized the experience, noting that we tuned in "wishing merely for a chortle or a pipe dream, suspecting our cable box is just another bad-faith credit card enabling us to multiply our disappointments, we are ambushed into sentience."
Leonard’s crammed prose was a series of cultural references packed into sentences so densely that they exploded in your head. Lots of critics write year-end summation pieces; only Leonard could summarize 1971's TV-year thus: "The mind is a vacuum tube. The memory is artificial turf, videotape, consisting of images of George Plimpton and Archie Bunker; beneath it lies the bodies of four thousand lobotomized network vice-presidents, sewn together at their pineal glands and Achilles' heels… FCC commissioners and the bureaucrats of public television scrimmage with cleated prose and padded brains."
Twenty-six years later, showing not a trace of abated energy, he praised an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street that focussed on a long interrogation scene by saying, "for a single hour in March, for which Tom Fontana won the Emmy he deserved, I learned more about the behavior of fearful men in small rooms than I had from any number of better-known movies and serious plays and modern highbrow novels by the likes of Don DeLillo, Mary McCarthy, Alberto Moravia, Nadine Gordimer, Heinrich Boll, and Doris Lessing." With Leonard, this wasn't idle cultural name-dropping—he had read and written about all of those novelists. That comparison was not idly made; he had also spent the year watching Northern Exposure and Roseanne ("about joblessness and lesbianism as well as bowling") and Picket Fences and the TV-movie "Roe V. Wade, with Holly Hunter as a Supreme Court case." He had his blind spots (he couldn’t get past Archie Bunker's bigotry to appreciate All In The Family's craft and sociological impact), and he had his TV crushes (Blair Brown and Veronica Hamel felt his prose caress many times). But he remained not merely sensible and passionate but revelatory. No one else could review a travel documentary with a sentence like this, a glorious example of one of Leonard’s signature devices—the list-sentence that becomes in itself a form of criticism: "We wandered with a shopping list—Greek light, German sausage, Russian soul, French sauce, Spanish bull, Zen koans, hearts of darkness, the blood of the lamb, and a double-knuckled antelope humerus from Oolduvai Gorge. We'd rub our fuzzy heads against the strange, and see if something kindled." We’d rub our fuzzy heads against the strange—that is poetry as much as it is criticism, and Leonard spun it out without warning, without ostentation, but like a newspaperman on deadline delivering a staggering gift.
Over the years I have often repeated to writers who bitch about lack of recognition the story Leonard told in his first collection of criticism, 1973's This Pen For Hire, that he started writing TV reviews for Life magazine. But when he became the editor of the New York Times Book Review, he was told "it was considered inappropriate" for a Times-man to write about that lowly medium, and so he continued writing about TV, but under a pen name, Cyclops. "Life still receives letters thanking the magazine for getting rid of me in favor of Cyclops," Leonard wrote, "or demanding my return and the firing of Cyclops. So much for a distinctive prose style."
But it is precisely his prose style that made anything Leonard wrote immediately identifiable. He was the first great TV critic. Of those who followed, James Wolcott, Tom Carson, Mim Udovich, and Clive James are the only other ones who can touch him. But none of them—and few of us—can rub our fuzzy heads against the strange and come up with thoughts as clear and complex as those of John Leonard.
The salutes to Paul Newman's eyes have ranged from 20/20 (Manohla Dargis' sharp squint in the Times) to blurry-teary (Bob Mondello's drippy evaluation on NPR). As far as filmographies go, no one will best my colleague and friend Mark Harris’ remarkably concise yet complete look at Newman’s work on EW.com.
My only disagreement with Mark is that he doesn't give greater credit to Newmans Slap Shot, the ferociously funny, profane 1977 hockey film that has been given a typically impassioned yet meticulously observed appreciation by Kim Morgan here.
When I was a teenager, my Favorite Film Of All Time (you can have those when you're an adolescent) was Cool Hand Luke, the martyrdom of whose title character suited my teen self-pity so perfectly I saw it 16 times the year it was released including once in Copenhagen when I snuck off from a church-group trip to see it once again (from the silence in the audience, I could only deduce the Danish subtitles didn't do justice to Newman's witty line-readings).
If I had to pick one Newman film to gaze upon over and over these days, however, it would be The Verdict (1982), his last great role and by some accounts his favorite. As the rhuemy-eyed rummy lawyer Frank Galvin, Newman did what he loved doing in the second half of his career—which was to do his best to demolish the first half. By which I mean, this least narcissistic of beautiful men seemed to enjoy suggesting what the ultimate fates of characters such as Hud, John Harper in Hombre, and the Lew Archer surrogate in Harper would have been had they lived to late-middle-age.
Working with co-conspirator director Sidney Lumet, Newman turned himself into a shambling wreck held up by an expensive-turning-threadbare lawyer's suit. The early scenes in which Newman leans over a pinball machine for drunken support as much for the purpose of playing the game, and—even more chillingly, repulsively, movingly—attends the funeral wakes of people he doesn't know to press his dog-eared business cards into the hands of the bereaved are marvels of actorly control. Newman played cynicism and dissipation with even more of the commitment he brought to his lovely light comic turns in bigger hits such as The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Lesser actors would be content merely to have sketched a portrait of an alchoholic making one last stand for dignity; Newman let you know that, in the end, this was no mere proto-episode of Law & Order, ending with the attorney pulling himself together for redemption. After the credits rolled, you knew that Frank Galvin would probably, eventually, end up looking closely at a bottle for the rest of his short life.
There's another whole piece to be written about Newman's other life as a public personality—I expect David Letterman, his fellow race-car buff, will summon his usual humble grace to salute the numerous appearances Newman made on Letterman’s show over the years, content to sit in the studio audience and wave silently, humorously, once again subverting his celebrity with bright-eyed enthusiasm.
And some time I'll have to tell about the day my construction-worker dad shared a beer with Newman and confirmed everything you may have thought about the man when he was off-camera…
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.