Reread: Slaughterhouse Five

It’s true, Bookbub, that you can reliably derail my reading plans by offering me Kurt Vonnegut novels from any era of his career for any price under $3. Were I to stumble upon a remainder bin of Vonnegut paperbacks, I’d probably buy the whole lot. In recent years I’ve revisited Galapagos, Bluebeard, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus and now Slaughterhouse. I’m tempted to give Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Halfshell another whirl, though I just learned while linking that it was written by Phillip Jose Farmer and not Vonnegut.

So it goes!

Last winter I read this essay about men on dating sites like Tinder citing Vonnegut as proof of worldliness and wordiness. As has happened with David Foster Wallace, the bros who professsor to love the writer have done the writer few favors in this day and age. Slaughterhouse Five emerges from this essay as the only Vonnegut a person “needs” to read, if any of us “need” to read Vonnegut at all.

That’s unfortunate. I doubt Vonnegut would have written so many books unnecessarily. He was a funny, intelligent and compassionate man. Had he nothing to say, I’m confident he wouldn’t have put so much down on paper.

from vonnegutdocumentary.com

Rather than regale you with my thoughts about poor Billy Pilgrim, send unwillingly to war, bouncing around time in the hopes of finding more moments of pleasure than trauma, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from Vonnegut overall:

  • The indifference of the universe should not be mistaken for hostility.
  • The absence of the universe’s hostility should not make you think the universe likes you.
  • Time is sometimes linear but that doesn’t mean that it should be understood that way.
  • Stories are sometimes linear, but that doesn’t mean they should be told that way.
  • There’s a Vonnegut-a-verse and all his books and stories share it.
  • Vonnegut is more like Mark Twain and more like Tom Robbins than he is like his pure contemporaries: John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth and the like.
  • His books are full of big ideas but they read easily. This is partly because of the jokes and line drawings, but largeky because the storytelling voice is conversational. It’s like Kurt has sat you down to tell you something and he wants you to understand.

He’s really among out very best. I’m also delighted to have learned that Robert M. Weide, one of the creators if HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night and that he befriended the writer and made this documentary about him, which will be in theatres this summer, when it will be safe for us to go and see it.

Slouchers: The 90s Movie Parody Novel We Need at the End of 2020

I was still in high school in New Mexico at the time, but we all know that Seattle in the early 1990s was the most magical, exciting place to be. This is the ethos of Slouchers, the new film-inspired comedy novel from Mike Sacks, who oreviously delighted with Stinker Lets Loose!, a send-up of 70s road movies, and Passable in Pink, his homage to John Hughes. Slouchers takes on films like Singles, Dazed and Confused, Slacker, Reality Bites and the early Kevin Smith films. It’s all about people in their early 20s (and also late 20s and also Kurt Loder) pitting grunge authenti city against yuppie Boomerisms in a short-lived, pre-internet era.

The latest from Mike Sacks

Willow is our hero. She’s moved to Seattle from “back east” and is making a documentary about her generation, embodied by the “Lost Boys,” a group of slackers and stoners. The crew includes: Toodie, her sometime boyfriend who is going to be the next Nirvana; Skip, her boss at a record store who brandishes weapons at people who buy commercial rock albums; Vicky, her best friend who is just kind of average looking but a slut, Wake and Bake (two guys, no explanation needed) and a host of others, including the requisite recently out gay characters whose parents are still coming to terms with what they should have realized anyway. Also, there’s “Mr. Straight,” who is a business man from out of town who is into “commerce” and would as clearly be played by Ben Stiller as Winona Ryder would be Willow. His purchase of the failing record store incites the plot.

Willow, by the way, has been in Seattle all of two weeks, but it was before the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, so her roots burrow deep. Her documentary’s goal are comically amporphous:

“But her documentary isn’t about her sex life. Who would be interested in that anyway? It’s really more about her friends and how they are changing the universe.”

Meanwhile her foil, Mr. Straight, is no better grounded. When asked to explain his line of work he answers: “Business,” says Mr. Straight. “Finance. Commerce.”

Everyone is earnest and right on ths surface. It sets up a showdown between grunge authenticity and corporate capitalism, all set to be exploited by MTV. We’re reminded with a laugh and poke in the ribs that any nostalgia we have from that era is nostalgia for something that was created and mass marketed by the same multinational conglomerates we worry about today.

But, don’t worry, there’s no semornizing, except for comic effective and there are multiple laughs per page. Another triumph for Mike Sacks. By the way, I think I read that Sacks didn’t love the 90s grunge era films or the aesthetic, and yet he’s built a following for his novel movie parodies in a totally 90s, DIY, indie way. That’s not the technical definition of irony that I learned studying theatre history back in those days, but it’s close enough for the Hollywood take.

Why The Undoing’s Ending Didn’t Resonate (or maybe it did?)

Fascinating essay from author Jane Dykema in Electric Literature today about how Grace’s dissasociated behaviors throughout the murder mystery/court drama made her a murder suspect in the eyes of viewers who have internalized dangerous tropes about “unstable” women. There’s a lot to consider here.

A good portion of HBO’s The Undoing was a murder mystery. A young and exoticized mother has an affair with her son’s oncologist and she turns up dead. The oncologist, who had lost his position at the hospital over the affair and lied to his family about it, then flees the city, only to turn up later to enlist his wife’s help in his criminal defense. The series at that point changes from murder mystery to court room drama and actually seems a bit like its last episodes could have been condensed and slotted into any run of Law and Order.

From what I can tell, folks did not seem universalkly impressed with the series finale, where we learn that, yes, the oncologist is guilty. Dykema’s critique, that Grace (the oncologist’s wife, played by Nicole Kidman) should never have been consideredd much of a suspect by viewers is compelling. She never seemed a murderer, though that might have been an interesting angle.

Another critique I’ve seen is that the victim, Elena, is a seductive latina outsider to the upper west side community that dominates the show’s focus. While you can see the writers trying to turn the series into a critiue of upper crust morality, they wind up turning the crime victim into an after thought and the whole thing becomes Grace’s story. Can Grace, a successful Manhattan therapist also born into fantastic wealth accept that her husband Jonathan is a sociopath and a killer? The practical struggle here is that if she does not, if she decides to persist in the illusion of a perfect marriage to a wonderful man who has devoted his life to curing pediatric cancer patients, that he will get away with the crime. But the justic narrative winds up secondary to her personal journey and we’re really presented with “can Grace find peace with all of this?” This seems a minor issue given that another character has been bludgeoned to death with her sculptor’s hammer.

While I agree with both of these takes, my problem with how the show played out is more fundamental — it seemed like Jonathan was the murderer from episode one. Almost none of the twists and turns thrown in to direct suspicion at any other character can overcome the obvious narrative that Jonathan, after developing a close relationship with the mother of one of his patients, had an affair with Elena. The affair cost him a prestigious and irreplaceable job, so he decided to end it and try to reclaim his old life. Elena, of course, would refuse to be casually discarded and insinuate herself further into his life and at a moment of maximum tension, he kills her.

Seven episodes to get to “he did it,” seemed excessive in retrospect. I craved something more interesting like Grace’s father hated Jonathan and framed him for the crime. But maybe that’s the test of the series — how much do we crave an ending that absolves the otherwise successful white man? Maybe the ending worked out better than I’d thought.

Why Do America’s Most Vile Companies Associate Themselves With Tolkien?

J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.

A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.

In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.

Nerds name their businesses after it.

The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”

But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)

In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.

Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.

Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:

“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”

Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.

A Kid Posts About Kubrick

“Why is Kubrick trending?” I wonder, and fall right into one of Twitter’s traps, despite having watched The Social Dilemma just two short days ago. I click, thinking maybe some undiscovered work has emerged or somebody has found yet another clever way to link Dr. Strangelove to current events. Instead I get this:

The Twitter takes were harsh and cutting. There are the jokes about Kubrick somehow not living up to his potential, there are the screen grabs that prove that most of Kubrick’s output was an outright criticism of toxic masculinity, there are screen grabs of other headlines by Mendelsohn that reveal, to put it kindly, immature tastes.

Which got me thinking, he must be young. I found his bio on ScreenRant and for sure he is new at this and developing his style there and at CBR.com, putting out a mix of serviceable listicles and criticism. He seems to be enjoying himself.

“Jon Mendelsohn is a graduate of Ithaca College with a degree in film. Currently a writer for both CBR and Screen Rant, Jon is also a filmmaker and lover of anything and everything pop culture. When not writing or binge-watching Netflix, Jon loves to travel and find all the hottest foodie spots.”

He’s just out of school. He’s making films, thinking about films, talking about films and writing about them. He’s also coming up in an age where living wages for writing is rare, where the internet demands quantity over quality and where the traditional and vital relationships between editors and young writers is hard to come by.

Put another way, how many editors saved me from my own piss-poor, just out of school takes? Mendelsohn is trying to make his way through the world with some productive grit and creativity. The temptation to earn internet clout by citing Kubrick’s “toxic masculinity” as his artistic Achilles’ heel may be intense.

At my feet sits a bin of notebooks, written mostly between 1997-2000. Some of those thoughts went into columns and reviews I wrote for Lies Magazine. I had column one devoted to politics and one to jazz and blues music. That I considered myself an authority on jazz and blues is now embarrassing to admit. Politics is for everybody, but jazz and blues? That takes deeper understanding and I didn’t have it then and don’t have it now. Really liking Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is not enough.

I’m always tempted to look in those notebooks but I know there’s embarrassment on top of embarrassment in there. Fortunately, they’re at my feet and not online. Even the stuff I put online, for publications or my old blog, seem not to have survived outside of the Wayback Machine, if they’re even there.

Young writers and critics and artists today are really operating without a net. They can publish on impulse and so their impulses have to be perfect. Hopefully, the day that a young John Mendelsohn tried to get a dead Stanley Kubrick to get over his hang-ups and realize his potential won’t be long remembered. If it is, let’s remember it for the risks young writers, thinkers and artists face these days. Mendelsohn has plenty of time to realize his potential and I’m sure he will, if he’s encouraged with care.

Huge Anniversary for Theatre, Film and Literature

Much thanks to LitHub for celebrating this today:

A major step forward for storytelling in any form.

A Czech refugee working in theater in England, Stoppard had been playing with language and writing metatexts for years, but without intellectual pretense — he came up in a theater full of demanding audiences who needed to be entertained, not lectured to. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead realized the best of this, with a fun riff on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot and mathematics and probability that’s genuinely touching and funny. It’s a rare achievement in art.

A low budget film version, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman helped usher in a vital 90s independent film movement and put Stoppard in a good position to write Shakespeare in Love another classic from the time.

Meanwhile, Stoppard became ever more ambitious in theater, perhaps topping R&G with the expansive Coast of Utopia trilogy and the fantastic Rock’n’Roll.

Happy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern day to you all!

Jaws!

Last night we saw Jaws at the Saco Drive-In, just outside of Portland. It’s a fun, kitschy movie that’s eerily prescient these days, as the Mayor of Amity grasps at every wish and hope to save his economy as a 25-foot Great White Shark has moved into local waters, intent on consuming swimmers.

It’s a well told story by now that keeping the mechanical shark operating was both difficult and expensive but that direct Stephen Spielberg turned this into an advantage — you don’t see much shark in the movie. The John Williams score does a lot of the work, or you see the shark pulling a dock off of its base when some village idiots try to catch it with a pot roast, or pulling barrels around the water when Quint, the professional shark hunter harpoons the beast. Restrained footage of the shark creates mystery and tension and saves the movie from looking hokey.

Jaws holds up well as a disaster/horror film and from the distance of a drive-in, the effects are just fine and even refreshing in an era where the shark would probably be CGI’d into a dinner scene on the boat, sitting in the chair with a top hat and smoking a cigarette.

Jaws at 45: Joe Alves designed Bruce the shark — and kept Jaws ...
I swear Quint said the sharks have dead black eyes, not these gray ones…

The one thing that really shows, though, is how few parts for women there are in the movie. Police Chief Brody has a wife, but her only job is to worry about him and their kids. Her curiosity about sharks and suddenly fearful reactions to what fierce predators they are serves the movie’s exposition. There’s one angry mother of a boy who the shark eats. She gets her moment.

Every other woman is background — girls in swimsuits screaming or nagging wives. This movie is about three guys who don’t much like each other at first taking a boat into the ocean to do battle with sharks. They also compare scars and sing drinking songs. I love how willing they are to get blind drunk while battling a dangerous, prehistoric predator.

Another thing I noticed is that Quint is clearly the prototype for big game hunter Roland Tembo in Jurassic Park. This makes sense not just because the two films share Spielberg as a director but because Michael Crichton and Peter Benchley were contemporaries as novelists, working in a thriller genre that borrowed heavily from both horror and science fiction.

I can’t believe the “looks like you’re going to need a bigger boat” line is actually repeated. But I guess you don’t know you’ve written an iconic line until you do. I can barely listen to the “Man goes into water, shark in the water, our shark…” bit because to me it’s the salsa shark routine from Clerks.

Was nice to see Roy Scheider at work. Though All That Jazz will always be his master performance in my book.

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