Sunday, December 30, 2007

adventures in architecture

Sandro loves Anna but Anna is unhappy and causes herself to disappear. Claudia is Anna's friend and joins Sandro in what often seems an unfocused effort to find Anna. Now Sandro makes love to Anna and Anna mostly accepts this but feels guilty about Anna and is often languid in her responses. The women can talk about feelings to each other, but since Anna leaves the film so early we don't see much of this quality; the men can't talk feelingfully to each other, nor to the women. In one scene, Claudia and Sandro are in a small village; while Sandro goes looking for Anna is a (literally) hole-in-the-wall hotel, Claudia waits for him outside that wall, as the men of the town slowly circle around her, wordlessly staring.

This is Antonioni's L'Aventura of 1960. Any extraneous plot or info-providing dialogue has been cut, or, rather, was never there. The easiest thing to say about this film is that it is about ineffability.

But Sandro is an architect and the father of the unhappy Anna is what we'd today call a developer. The landscape of the film is covered with architectural forms. Very few scenes are not framed by the shapes of the built environment. Sandro and Claudia, wandering around what I suppose is Sicily, move in and out of soft- and off-white lines and shadows cast by buildings. They are caught between the old forms and the new. Since Sandro's apartment (which we see briefly at the beginning) is gorgeously modern, in a southern clime kind of way, we assume that Sandro is in favor of the New. But Anna has been lost into the Old. They are in different universes but it doesn't seem to bother Sandro at all. That's perhaps the oddest of the many odd feelings one has watching this film.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

modernism in Pittsburgh

G. David Thompson, a Pittsburgh millionaire, 61 years old in 1960, had been collecting modern art for twenty-five years by then. Klees and Giacomettis were all around the house. He owned Leger's Composition with Three Sisters. And a Juan Gris still-life: "A friend of mine owned this," he said of the Gris. "He was dying to buy a Braque but didn't have the ready cash so I bought this to help him out. No great favor--I liked the painting." At least one Mondrian. And so on.

In '59 he offered the entire collection to the city of Pittsburgh, and he threw in the house too - which the city, he said, could use as a ready-made museum.

Pittsburgh said no. Not interested. Thanks, but no thanks.

Angry and lovin' a deal, Thompson promptly sold 97 - that's 97, yes - of his Klees to a dealer for more than $1 million, and then began to buy little-known moderns. After selling the Klees, he said: "I want to enjoy once more the pleasure of bare walls waiting for new pictures."

(In '61 the Guggenheim put up a show called "One Hundred Paintings from the G. David Thompson Collection." It's easy, especially now, to gloat about the wisdom of the Guggenheim people or of the New York museum-going public: they, after all, wanted what Thompson was doing. This entry isn't meant to speak one way or the other to that. Rather, I'm thinking about what happens when a philanthropic gesture is undervalued or misunderstood. What does the philanthropist do in response? After all, he or she is typically - let's admit it - someone who is used to getting his or her way. Is pique the right reaction? Was Thompson perhaps in the wrong place? Or is it apt for him to stick it out, hoping for a better day?)

Above: Leger's "The Compass" (1926). Thompson bought this Leger from Buchholz Gallery in New York in 1953. He owned it for the rest of his life. It was sold by Parke-Bernet in '66 after Thompson's death in '65. It is now at the Art Institute of Chicago.

sources: Life May 16, 1960, with a great spread of photos from the collection; an article in Time, Jan 13, 1961.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

founded after lunch

"Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art."

That's Frank O'Hara, of course, in his partly ironic and party straightforward "Personism" manifesto. It's personal and impersonal, chatty and abstract. It creates its own I-do-this-I-do-that history. "It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone...."

How much mock manifesto is personism? Could it be merely the aesthetic ideology of the artist who was a "coterie" of people being...well...human beings - being the sort who found (that grandiose term) movements (more grandiosity) after lunch (a key O'Hara I-am-just-a-person moment) on a day in which he is in love (another set-piece O'Hara mood)?

O'Hara dated it September 5, 1959, and it was published as "Personism: A Manifesto" in Yugen #7, 1961. EXCERPT>>>

Thanks to David Slarskey.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Berkeley Review, late 1950s

The folks who launched in the Berkeley Review did so with a bold new moderation, proudly calling themselves one-eyed poets. MORE>>>

many memorials but no memory

Geoffrey Hill's For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 is published by Dufour Editions, a volume of 59 pages. Our library here has two copies, both stored away in Rare Books: first, the copy that Tom Lask, then the poetry editor at NYTBR, was sent by the press.

(The very fact that Penn's Lask collection has the book means that it was never assigned by Tom; it's a tellingly interesting collection for this very fact--it's a huge archive of poetry that NYTBR chose not to review, a kind of negative collection. And yet it's full of fantastic and important books! Valuable as an archive precisely because - at least in some cases - the Times didn't thing its contents, at the time of publication, were valuable.)

The other copy Penn has is signed by Hill.

Hill was born in Worcestershire in 1932. He taught at Leeds from 1954 until 1980. After that, some years at Cambridge. In '88 he moved to the U.S., to Boston University as a professor of literature and religion. In '06 he moved back to Cambridge.

Hill was not part of the "Movement" writers of the '50s and seems uninfluenced by his contemporaries down the years. Oddly parallel and un-part. In the later work especially his poems sometimes transcribe the idioms of public life - TV lingo, political slogans, what passes for wisdom in the media.

Three of his poems are among the most powerful responses to the Holocaust: "Two Formal Elegies for the Jews in Europe," "September Song," and "Ovid in the Third Reich."

He has defended poetic difficulty on grounds of political philosophy: what's difficut is democratic (a reversal of the charge often made against "difficult" verse).

In 1959-60 Hill taught on secondment in the U.S. - at the University of Michigan. At Leeds he and Jon Silken became friends (around this time) and a little later, in '64, Silken's Northern House press issued a pamphlet of eight Hill poems under the title Preghiere. Christopher Ricks, our Dylan critic-fan, championed Hill and is in large measure responsible for Hill's fame in England.

Hill is historical, formal (often rhyming), rhetorical, "difficult" (in the sense of dense) poet. Above all, for him, historical memory is crucial:

Still gets to me, the unfairness
and waste of survival; a nation
with so many memorials but no memory.

An online poetry book review site says of For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958: "Too formal, he only rarely breaks free here, and his language is also not as sledge-hammer precise as in his later work." Baffling phrase, sledge-hammer precise. But maybe it's apt after all. Here are a few lines of the finel section of "Genesis," a poem written in 1952 and published in The Unfallen in '60:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Oppen and Zukofsky, together again

From Mark Scroggins' new biography of Louis Zukofsky, The Poem of a Life, I read aloud a passage about 1958 reunion of Zukofsky and George Oppen. Oppen had been in Mexico for years and the once-intense friendship had dissipated. But now they threw themselves back together in a serious way. Have a listen:

Monday, December 17, 2007

the language is ours

Beat Girl, 1960. It is dated ’60 and was released in England that year – but in the U.S. in October ’61.

The “beat girl” is played by Gillian Hills, a pouty, pale blonde born in Cairo in 1944. Her father was Denis Hills, an Englishman born in 1913 and a writer: "My travels in Turkey" (1964), "The Man with a Lobelia Flute" (1969), "The white pumpkin" (1976), "Rebel people" (1978), "The Last Days of White Rhodesia" (1981). Ms. Hills was in “Lana: Queen of the Amazons” (1964), “Cabaret” on TV in ’62, and played Sonietta in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and was Glenda Kelly on TV’s Dallas in the mid-70s. And to think – she started out as a beat girl.

Now back to our movie. Dad’s been away for 3 months, picking up a young French wife (she’s 24) who is now, back home in London, a step-mother to Jennifer, the angry daughter. Angry about the divorce, angrier still to have this young step-mother around.

Dad’s house is modern and he – Paul – is explicitly a modernist. He’s an architect, talks incessantly about the "modern way we live." In the living room, otherwise appointed with modern furniture and cubistic paintings and a cool-looking recessed TV, is a large model of “City 2000,” which he keeps under a cover – perhaps only to keep himself from obsessively talking about it.

He and his daughter both say that he loves one thing unconditionally, and that's City 2000.

Step-mom – her name is Nichole - feels it’s time for someone to go upstairs and say goodnight to Jennifer; Modern Dad says “Oh, she’s used to taking care of herself” and would rather his new wife hear all about City 2000. His speech about the city includes statements such as these:

“It’s a city, lots of residents, and yet it’s easy for anyone to feel utterly alone in it.”

"None of this cluttered, hodge podge sort of design. This city is clean, clear lines, totally organized.”

Get the picture? Yes, the modernist is inhuman and committed to social theories to the exclusion of his own kin. His ideas about how people live have caused his daughter to "rebel." She embraces...a more human aesthetic which she finds in London spaces that are the opposite of City 2000, cafes (literally) in caves under the city.

At home Jennifer is cold, and she is cruel in responding to her new mom. She’s not much warmer to dad. The three, this new family, retire for the night - their first night together under one roof. But in an hour or so… Jennifer puts on her beatnik clothes and sneaks out to a cave club with loud lazy but strongly percussive jazz and at least one guy wearing Jack Kerouac’s plaid flannel shirt.

What are Jennifer’s politics? Well, the movies’ version of Beat politics. Here’s Jennifer on cold-war atomic one-ups-manship: “Next week - boom! - the world goes up in smoke. And what's the score? Zero!”

When Nichole comes to Jennifer’s art school to pick her up for lunch, she can’t find her. Another student, when asked, knows her as “that crazy girl who’s gone in for those beatniks.” Nichole doesn’t understand the term “beatnik” and asks. “Oh it’s an awful thing that’s come over here from America” and tells Nichole that Jenny can probably be found at “a café in SoHo called ‘The Off Beat’ – she’s always there.” Nichole finds Jenny and her friends at the cafe. The beat guys thing step-mom is pretty sexy, though uncool, but Nichole is mortified that dad's new wife has entered her separate scene.

One night, after Jenny has returned home late, she and Paul have a 3 AM argument. Jenny calls him a “square” and he’s incensed: “This language! These words! What do they mean?!” Jenny exclaims that such a language “is ours.” “It comes from us. We didn’t get it from our parents. We can express ourselves and they don’t know what we’re talking about.”

Paul: “Why do you need to feel so different?”

Jennifer: “It’s all we’ve got. People like you build cities, but you don’t know the first thing about us – we who have to live in them.”

Later the kids are in another cave club, apparently some reclaimed spot in the underground, a WW2-era bomb shelter. The London beat scene has set up their pads in the very places where their parents once cowered from nightly attacks by the Luftwaffe. They get to talking and one of the guys tells his story: he was literally born in an underground shelter during the war. “My old lady was bombed out, we had no place to live, so I was born here and we lived here.” He knows it’s an irony that England has come so far from those dark wartime days and yet here they are, choosing to be back down there. “Like a bunch of scared rats underground.” Does he mean their parents’ generation – scared of wartime enemies? It’s not clear. Then another beat boy muses. His mother was killed in the bombing of London; his father was an army general and now the boy feels somehow that his father was responsible for all this militarism even as he acknowledges he was in Italy fighting the Nazis. Then Jenny says, “I like it here. This is my home.”

One of the posters for this film, showing Jenny as a doped-up sexpot, reads, "Hop-Head UK School Girl Gets in Trouble." But Jenny's not hopped on anything (or if she is "hopped" it's caffeine, since at the Off Beat they drink coffee). Far from wanting to wander, she only wants a long as it's not the home of her cold modernist father dreaming of the city of the year 2000. That city is the one that he hopes will sweep away London as it really was. Jenny feels more at "home" in the underground, back at the scene of the society's moment of greatest realness and vulnerability--and, psychologically, at the point just prior to the fragmentation of the family.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

colorless green ideas sleep furiously

Noam Chomsky and his wife Carol parented three children. The first two were born during the period that interests me. Aviva (b 1957) later became an academic, like dad, but her specialty was Central American history and politics. Diane was born in 1960 and later, among other things, worked for a development agency along with her Nicaraguan companion in Managua.

Dad was made a tenured professor at MIT at the young age (for a full prof) of 33 in 1961.

B.F. Skinner, at the time of Chomsky's emergence, was the dominant theorist of language as behavior. Chomsky's repudiation of Skinner's theory came (famously) in his review of Skinner's work in 1959. (This was: "A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior" in the widely read linguistics journal Language.)

Readers of this blog – you're perhaps more than casually interested in what happened in 1960, at least I'm hoping – will know at least the gist of the above, particularly, I suppose, the news of Chomsky's hit on Skinner. You might not know, though, that Chomsky's father was a noted Hebrew scholar. Most people who have thought about Noam Chomsky's life and work do believe that the father's work on Hebrew as a language had a great impact on Chomsky's youthful interests. The elder Chomsky didn't just study Hebrew as a language, and of course language study and linguistics are by no means the same thing. But the old man did scholarly work on medieval and historical Hebrew grammar and young Noam knew Hebrew grammar as a child, long before he even knew that linguistics was a discipline.

Chomsky grew up with English and Hebrew. He also learned classical Arabic and some French and German a little later.

1959, at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton: Noam stood in front of a blackboard with the following two line poetic bit of didacticism behind him scrawled in his handwriting in chalk:

Colorless green ideas
sleep furiously.

There it is: syntax versus semantics, in a nutshell, in a bit of poetic synaesthesia.

The kind of linguistics Chomsky conceived in this period concerned itself with matters so utterly different from those studied by his colleagues that one could say that Chomsky invented a completely new field or that he was from the start working in a separate one. But Chomsky insisted on showing the links between what he was now saying and the ideas of others over hundreds of years. This – the effort to link his radical approach to the past – made it all the more revolutionary and disconcerting.

Skinner's 1957 book, which Chomsky reviewed in 1959, was the first large-scale effort to incorporate major aspects of linguistic behavior into the realm of behavioral psychology. The field of linguistics had to respond. That Chomsky did so clearly and dramatically – and negatively – made him instantly famous in the two fields.

What surprised Chomsky was how limited and how simplistic was the nature of the "function" producing behavior. You had to rely on knowing inputs from outside (such as they could be controlled for the purpose of study – such as reinforcements) and you had then to rely on outputs (or behaviors) and to believe you could know what the outputs are or mean or indicate. The limitation was necessary because Skinner had no access to "the internal structure of the organism" (27); he had to remain outside. His confidence was undue in general, but when he moved to linguistic behavior, the dependency on observing inputs and outputs really becomes deficient. Skinner compensates for arguing ever more adamantly (and repeatedly) that "external factors consisting of present stimulation and the history of reinforcement…are of overwhelming importance" in understanding human behavior (27-28). "The magnitude of the failure of this attempt to account for verbal behavior serves as a kind of measure of the importance of the factors omitted from consideration, and an indication of how little is really known about this remarkably complex phenomenon" (28).

Linguistic behavior – what we write, what we say, what we mean to mean – cannot be predicted by inputs, nor understood as behavior by recording outputs, especially if the latter is assumed to be understandable/translatable through conventional means (denotatively, lexicographically, etc.). Even efforts (not Skinner's – he didn't or couldn't do this, but efforts by real linguists) to create a unifying theory of language behavior from the inside, "conceal complexities" (56). Since the behavior of the speaker, listener, or learner of language constitutes the actual data for any study of language, that's where we need to go, but we also need to be skeptical of empiricist confidence of the sort Skinner evinces. "The construction of a grammar which enumerates sentences in such a way that a meaningful structural description can be determined for each sentence does not in itself provide an account of this actual behavior. It merely characterizes abstractly the ability of [a person, a regular user of the language] who has mastered the language to distinguish sentences from nonsentences, to understand new sentences (in part), to note certain ambiguities, etc. These are very remarkable abilities."

"Does not in itself provide an account…" "Very remarkable…" Grammars inevitably "conceal complexities…." Perhaps this is why Chomsky in this period so intriguingly and frustratingly chalked gnomic poems on chalkboards:

Colorless green ideas
sleep furiously.

Sources: Wolfgag Sperlich's Noam Chomsky; Robert Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent; Chomsky's review of Skinner, Language 35, 1 (1959).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

too much like Lichtenstein

Summer of '60, breakthrough time for Andy Warhol. One night the filmmaker Emile De Antonio went over to Andy's studio and they had some drinks and Warhol began showing him two large paintings, side to side, on the wall - showing them to his friend more seriously than usual. Two pictures of Coke bottles about six feet tall. One was a "pristine" black-and-white Coke bottle. The other "had a lot of abstract expressionist marks on it." De Antonio described for Andy his preference for the "absolutely beautiful and naked" b&w canvas and told him to destroy the other.

Warhol at this point had a strong interest in American folk art and wanted to paint 20th-century folk objects like Coke bottles just the way they looked. Yet he worried that people would reject the work as that of a commercial artist. It was at this time that he began to overcome that fear.

Around '60 he began also to alter the way he spoke, now mumbling monosyllabic replies to questions. And he walked with a limp-wristed dancer's walk, what a biographer calls "a bizarre takeoff of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe."

Ivan Karp, who was an assistant to Leo Castelli, began coming by and taking an interest in what Warhol was doing. Karp wore dark Kennedy-style suits, sunglasses, smoked cigars and called everyone "baby." He spent '60 in and out of W's studio. It wasn't until January '61 that Karp finally persuaded Castelli to come to Warhol's house. The first visit: Castelli comes to the door and Andy opens the door wearing one of his 18th-century masks.

Castelli didn't bite quite yet, though. Karp recalls: "Leo said, if we were interested in Roy [Lichtenstein], could we really be legitimately interested in Warhol?" Andy came to Leo's office a few days later and said, "You're mistaken. What I'm doing will be very different from what anybody else is doing. I really belong in your gallery." Leo said no again and Andy cried out: "Well, where should I go?" and also: "You will take me. I'll be back."

Leonard Kessler also ran into Warhol in 1960. Warhol was coming out of an art-supply store carrying paint and canvas. "Andy! What are you doing?" Without skipping a beat, Warhol said, "I'm starting pop art."

Kessler asked why. "Becauase I hate abstract expressionism. I hate it!"

A few weeks later Ted Carey praised a Rauschenberg collage at MoMA and Andy's rejoinder was: "That's nothing. That's a piece of shit!"

The term "pop art" had been around since 1958, but everyone seems to agree that Warhol began pop art for real in 1960. To do it he applied what he had learned from television and advertising. Subliminal message: sexuality without gratification. Content: dollar sign, gun, supersweet drink, fizz, etc. Do what artists are supposed to not want to do: make ads.

1960 was the year he invented pop art but it's also (perhaps not coincidentally) a time when he spent perhaps half the year having a nervous breakdown. At least that's what he called it.

Victor Bokris, in his bibliographical biography, presents this chapter title: "The Birth of Andy Warhol, 1969-61." Pop art, Bokris writes, came with it an "up attitude" and was a "tough celebration" of American culture, and he contends that its products record the early 1960s "more accurately than movies and television."

Among the sources here: Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, 1989.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

flick overview

Here's a web page that provides an overview of movies released in 1960. The image here is from The Magnificent Seven, adapted by screenwriter Walter Bernstein from the great Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai.

Back in March of 2003, Walter Bernstein was a Writers House Fellow and I had the honor of hosting him and interviewing him. Here is the mp3 recording of that interview.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

thinking small

An announcement that something for American consumers will not change is praised as an innovation. Read on...

You know how the American auto companies announce their new year's model cars a year in advance? Well, in August of 1959 American Motors president George W. Romney--yes, that Romney, candidate for US prez in '68 and father of Mitt--announced the 1961 models. But what he had to say surprised everyone: there would be no new American Motors models. Time's issue, dated August 26, called it an "innovation"--"an innovation that rattled the U.S. auto industry." The good-selling Rambler would stay the same. (The "Rambler American" would be restyled for '61 but Romney promised no changes at all on the Rambler and no "abrupt or whimsical" changes in other models.)

"Refreshing change is one thing, but incessant change has a touch of idiocy," said Romney.

He was called "the prophet of the compact car." The shift toward smaller cars and keeping model designs "meant not only a turn to function instead of frills, but a sign that the national psychology is leaning toward 'reason and realism'."

Meantime in Germany Volkswagen made 27 changes to the VW beetle but all of them were internal and invisible--and all for improved efficiency. VW made changes every year, and even during the year, but hadn't made a "model-styling change" since...1938.

The big change that Volkwagen made was in advertising. They took us by storm with their campaign, launched in '59 with the first ads running in '60, produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach and famously called "Think Small." On a list of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century, "Think Small" is number 1. Here's a (somewhat later) video of a TV ad in the campaign: LINK.

In '62 this TV ad [YouTube video] satirized the glamorous stagey announcements of new car designs, with a drumroll as the score and portentous announcer's voice chiming: "And now, the 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962 Volkswagen!" Spotlights shimmering around this ugly little rounded-off crate of a car and then: "We never change the Volkswagen to make it look different, only to make it work better."

But Time? For them George Romney was the innovator-by-not-innovating. After all, his innovation was that his was an American automaker thinking small.

Thanks to Tim Carmody for his suggestions here.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

goodbye finally to Apollinaire

The story goes that when Manet was by the Seine near Argenteuil one day, he noticed some ladies bathing and said: "It seems I must do a nude. All right, I'll do one for the transparent air, with people like those we can see over there. They'll slay me for it but let them say what they like." The result was The Picnic or Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe) of 1862-1863.

Between 1959 and 1961 Pablo Picasso did a series of sketches and paintings based on this alluring painting by Manet, and one other (Le Viex Musicien). Despite the originary tale of the painting retold above, Manet's composition of this landscape with figures had already been borrowed from Giorgione's painting (in the Louvre), La Fete champetre.

Pastoral landscape is rare for Picasso. We don't have much evidence to explain this burst of affection for Manet, nor for this obsession, which struck him at around 80 years of age, for these figures. We do know Picasso had always admired Manet, and he had even parodied Manet in his Olympia way back in 1901.

Here are three of Picasso's versions of the scene (the second I know to have been painted in '60; the third is from '61):

Much of the 1959-61 period he spent at Vauvenargues--as he was in February 1960 when he worked on this series with an energy that surprised even him. In these sketches, some of which are very large (51 x 76 inches), Manet comes and goes. In '62 an exhibit of this series was mounted in Paris, and the catalogue--stunning--is this: Peintures Vavenargues, 1959-61, Galerie Leiris, Paris.

At this time there were actually five major exhibitions. One was a show of vigor and gaiety, "Forty-five engravings on linoleum," the result of experiments and discoveries that Picasso had made in the simple process of lino-cuts.

In the fall of '60 there was a show of drawings made in the previous two years. The main themes were the "gallant picadors, favorites of the great ladies," the latter included flemenco dancers, witchy peasant women in towering mantillas, wearing flying whirling skirts, etc. Biographers talk of a new nostalgia for Spain emerging in him.

The big event at this time was a huge show honoring Picasso in London, also in '60. This was to date the largest Picasso exhibit ever. The Tate Gallery gave up more space for it than it had. Some 280 paintings by a single artist, including early pieces such as Demoiselles d'Avignon and ten canvases dating from 1900 to 1909 lent by the Russian Government. Almost half a million people visited the show in London, with the press now acclaiming Picasso unanimously as the great genis and even the Queen herself, during a private visit to the show, said Picasso was the greatest artist of the century. Picasso himself refused to go: "Why should I go? I know them all, those paintings, I did them myself." Above: the Picasso show at the Tate, 1960.

And then there was the monument for Apollinaire, who had died of the Spanish flu way back in 1918. The poet's friends and the French authorities had been haggling about this for years and years (the original commission dates to the 1920s). (Perhaps the continuing official ban on A's well-known erotic novel, The Eleven Thousand Rods [Les Onze Mille Verges], which was not lifted in France until 1970, had something to do with the delay?) The question for friends and officials both to answer was: What was the most appropriate monument to Apollinaire's memory and where should it go? Finally it was decided to accept Picasso's offer of the large bronze head of a girl, inspired by Dora Maar in 1941. Permits and formalities were complete in 1959, and with due ceremony and a great deal of emotion, the poet's old friends, Andre Salmon, Jean Cocteau, and others, including Picasso himself--and A's widow--the sculpture was unveiled at the corner of the churchyard of St. Germain de Pres on one of the shortest streets in Paris, which had been named "rue Guillaume Apollinaire." (See the map below.) One Picasso biographer puts it: "At last Picasso's tribute to the most eloquent and revolutionary friend of his youth stood modestly shaded by chestnut trees, backed by the walls of the old monastery and surrounded by children at play."*

* Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, 440-41.
The lines quoted above are from the poem "Zone," translated by Donald Revell.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

counting the day's writing in feet

For a good part of 1960, Lew Welch lived with his mother in Reno. He spent most of his days writing, somewhat in the manner of Kerouac: typing on a teletype roll and counting his day's work in feet. On February 8 he wrote a letter to Kerouac himself: "I can't write as fast as you--maybe cause I can't type that fast. So if I get 5 feet on a good day it is about the limit."

His poem Wobbly Rock was just then being published in San Francisco, and here he was in Reno, writing a novel with the tentative title, "I, Leo" (the title was his mother's idea).

And he was reading: Sons and Lovers, Nausea, The Sun Also Rises, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, and, for the first time, all of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He also read Ti Jean's Dharma Bums, a couple of Zen books, and a biography of Hart Crane ("sad").

He and Kerouac, in March, were to take "our huge trip in the woods." But later, in a letter of early April, Welch explains to Kerouac why he wasn't able to go. He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and "stopped drinking altogether" and went to a doctor who told him to "eat and eat and eat."

In mid-May, still in Reno, he wrote to "reintroduce" himself to William Carlos Williams. Back in 1950, when Welch was just a kid, he met WCW at Reed College in Oregon, and spent an afternoon with the poet and Flossie. After WCW's westward trip was done, the two traded letters for several years, until Welch "cracked up in Chicago." "From then on it's the same story: learning, in America, how to crack out not up." He'd been reading WCW's autobiography and sensing how tough it was for WCW in the "bleak 30s and 40s--when the poem was the only food for the new hyenas of criticism."

By the end of May he's pleased to hear from Philip Whalen that Charles Olson had told Dave Haselwood that he (Olson) admired Wobbly Rock. By the end of July, still living with his mother, he sends a copy of his book to Marianne Moore, whom he has happily read for years.

At right: Dave Haselwood, in a 1951 photograph; in '60 he published Welch's first book of poems.

real conservatives hate Freud

Russell Kirk, a true conservative intellectual, hated Freud and in mid-'59 hailed the publication of The Freudian Ethic, an Analysis of the Subversion of American Character by Richard LaPiere, then professor of sociology at Stanford and editor of the McGraw-Hill series in sociology and anthropology. Kirk writes, in part:
The Protestant ethic (a term borrowed from Max Weber), Dr. LaPiere writes, is being supplanted by the Freudian ethic -- that is, a coddling of the human person in the delusion that man is happiest when he is almost back in the womb.

This study contains the keenest demolition of Freudian psychology that I have seen anywhere, particularly the two chapters about Freudian theory and practice in education: "The Progressive School" and "The Adjustment Motif." Going straight to the heart of the matter, Mr. LaPiere finds in a vague and vulgarized Freudian notion of man the principal cause of the failure of modern American education.
My 1950s web site includes the full text of the review. Above: that's Kirk on the left, and William F. Buckley on the right.

Monday, November 26, 2007

rat pack heist flick

More people saw Ocean's Eleven in '60 than any other film. Yes, the allure of the "Rat Pack." But more, I think: it puts a finger on a generational attitude, a certain specific emotional distance from World War 2. These guys care too little about what they had to do then; they also care too much. They're all balled up and they're also much too cool.

Sinatra is Danny Ocean and Sinatra's good buddies are Danny's good buddies - among them Dean Martin, Peter Lawford (months later he's related by marriage to the Presidency), Sammy Davis, and Joey Bishop. Danny's crew was in the 82nd Airborne division, paratroopers dropping against the odds into Germany. Fifteen years later, the end of that era: they're a bit rusty but ready to apply the skills Uncle Sam taught them against the casinos of Vegas. The style of the film is mod: bright 1960's colors (oranges and browns), lots of biomorphic horizontals, a quasi-early-pop-art typopgraphy in the titles. It's WW2 content set in sleek modern mode. We don't mind their grand theft because it's cool, because they're cool (Sinatra is the coolest, with Dean Martin a close second, and Lawford spins cool with a serious rich-boy neurosis, and Sammy's super-cool has a major race problem), but also because we are persuaded that since they risked their lives for the country and have wandered at the edges of society since then (in jail, in trouble, not monogamous, utterly alcoholic), they should be entitled to a portion of the profits made by these homefront casino owners.

It's just a heist movie, albeit with pedigree ensemble and tons of style, and thus one is tempted to read no more into it. But there's history happening here and the screenplay at certain moments acknowledges that. Just enough time has passed since the war so that a belated Coming Home narrative can both assume we know many vets have become asocial and diffident about earning money the honest, old-fashioned way and make playful yet accurate-seeming analogies between military skills we taught Americans in order to achieve international ascendancy on the one hand and American lives of major crime on the other. The irony is that this is the enemy's content (yes, fascism) even if it's hidden in the slick victorious style of the victors. They do the job against Vegas as if it's a war. Which it is.

Here's a scene: the wealthy mother of one of the 82nd (Peter Lawford's Jimmy Foster) is to marry a sporty, well-dressed prominent with connections to organized crime, Duke Santos (Cesar Romero). After Danny's boys rob all the casinos, Santos figures out that his fiance's ne'er-do-well son is involved (that's Lawford), and he tells Mrs. Foster what he suspects. She's indignant:

Mrs. Foster: That’s ridiculous. Jimmy has always had all the money he could spend. Why would he rob anyone?

Duke Santos: Hitler had Europe. Why did he want Russia too?

Mrs. Foster: Oh, you can’t compare my Jimmy with that monster. Why, he actually fought Hitler. He and his paratroopers over-ran Germany.

Duke (laughing): Yeah, well him and his paratrooper buddies last night over-ran a hunk of Las Vegas!

I'm afraid that in the context of this film, Santos is right. They've once again been dropped in behind enemy lines, but it's no longer clear whether these soldiers behave like or unlike the enemy, nor who the enemy is. Is it Santos himself - so totally connected to criminality as to be utterly in control and above the law (such as it is in Vegas)? Wait, but...he's marrying your mother! What's that going to do to a vet's psyche? Is Vegas itself the enemy? Is it Danny Ocean's Uncle Sam-taught casual ruthlessness in applying martial concepts to peacetime? Is it Sinatra himself (not Danny, but Frank Sinatra - the only person in the U.S. - sorry, Mr. Clooney - who could pull off the role completely)? It's almost as if the Sinatra character is fighting the brainwashing that would almost get the better of him two years later in that classic of postwar confusion, The Manchurian Candidate. Only the war there will be Korea, already a much less well defined war than the great anti-fascist crusade, where good and bad were clear, and about which, even by 1960, one would think the lines of distinction were still as bright as a day in the lawless Nevada sun.

the virus of modernism

I've been reading all of the letters readers sent to the editor of the New York Times Book Review after Karl Shapiro's "What's the Matter with Poetry?" appeared. (I wrote recently about Shapiro's scattershot jeremiad.)

Among the letters was this one from Ethel Tolbach of New York:

TO THE EDITOR: After adolescence, this is no time when modern poetry cannot be seen for the fraud it is. Recently a friend told me that William Carlos Williams was an exception. To my horror I found his poetry full of anti-democratic ideas, anti-Semitism, anti-Negro sentiments--the very symptoms of the virus of "modernism" which Mr. Shapiro discusses.*

Actually this is about the one thing Shapiro did not discuss (nothing Shapiro said could have led directly to this woman's complaint). Poor WCW. In this period he was often attacked for being pink, radical, commie--too democratic, too inclusive (think Paterson)...and here, also, of the opposite.

I'm guessing that the charge of anti-Semitism is guilt by association with Pound, an infection spread by the "disease" (Shapiro's word) of modernism.

The odd double negative of the first sentence of this letter is of interest. It befits the antimodernist laments of the period 1945-60: concerns raised about modernism's pernicious influence are said to be urgent, but no alternative (except typically a return to what poetically there was before) is offered. So we don't say that 1960 is a time when we should do such-and-such new or different in poetry. We say it's not a time when we should not disclose failures and betrayals.

* NYT, Jan 10, 1960, p. 32.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

after saving earth, guys bond over little black book

My son and I watched one of the top pop 30 films of 1960 tonight, Atomic Submarine. It was actually released in 1959 but made the '60 charts.

The director Spencer Gordon Bennet later noted that the film was influenced by the news of the voyage of Nautilus sub under the North Pole but that doesn't begin to account for this strange yet simple sci fi flick with political - or, more accurately, anti-political - overtones.

It's 1968 or so - anyway, 1960's version of 1968 - and by this point (in the future, I mean) the path under the pole has become a main thoroughfare (for reasons not explained--was there a demand for weeks-long passenger travel to Lapland and Siberia?) but this commerce has been disrupted by strange occurrences: ships of all kinds have been destroyed and disappeared. The attacks leave high levels of radiation. Back in Washington, scientists and the president's men are concerned. The best sub and the best captain are to be sent to the North Pole to seek out this unknown enemy and destroy it. The commander is "Reef" Holloway, a surprisingly relaxed fellow. The captain is Dan Wendover (played by Dick Foran, whose acting is truly wooden); Dan is enjoying a liaison in his apartment with a blonde bombshell when a note is slipped under the door, telling him to drop everything and go immediately to his beloved sub. On board, Dan is told that he must share his cabin with Dr. Neilson; he doesn't mind, as Neilson is a distinguished WW2 hero whom Dan admires. But when he steps into the cabin, there's instead a young, swarthy, handsome and skeptical-looking man there. We know instantly that there's trouble: for one thing, the music swells disharmoniously; for another, Dan (whose love of blonde bombshells and instant responses to his commander's call are both signs that he's a normative voice) obviously loathes the young man.

The young man turns out to be the hero Neilson's son. The father and son work together on an experimental mini-submersible capsule that apparently is needed on this adventure; the elder Neilson was felled by a minor heart attack and the son, played by Brett Halsey, must take his place (as the only other person on the planet who can operate the capsule).

Between Dan's conversations with other buddies, and the awkward voiceover narrator, we learn that the son is peacenik: he has opposed all war and apparently calls for negotiation with the Soviets (although that enemy is not mentioned explicitly--as it often is not in cold-war-era sci fi when other alien enemies stand in as analogies). The career of the war-hero father, we learn, has been cut short by the PR fiasco associated with the son's radical views. This is bad, bad, bad, and Dan cannot understand (thus neither can we) why a person with such views would be on this voyage. There are plenty of 50s-era sci fi films in which such a character - almost always dark-haired and swarthy - would turn out to be a "alien symp," a dupe who does the bidding of the little green men (in this case a furry tentacled super-intelligent cyclops who travels in an organic flying saucer) who want to take over the earth. But not here. There are a few moments when the camera focuses on the Brett Halsey's face, just when we are being asked to wonder who the real enemy is. But this never adds up to anything. In a way that's a relief, but what, then, is the purpose of this character?

Halsey's Dr. Neilson argues ideology with Dan ("We must give peace a chance"; "You fool, these enemies only know force"), but then the young dove reminds the captain that someone of his views can still be strong and principled and brave. Dan doesn't believe it, but when Dr. Neilson and Dan are the two mainly responsible for holding off the cyclops-like creature from outerspace it becomes clear that bravery trumps ideology any day. The evil creature is destroyed by an ICBM missile launched from the submarine and the world is saved. (It's a darned good thing America permitted itself to arm its subs with ICBM's. These are long-range missles and the cyclops was 100 feet away, but never mind.)

So in the final scene we're back in the U.S. of A., and Neilson and Dan are leaving the ship together. Shake hands; one last quick conversation. They like each other now, despite their opposing world views (as it were). Dan makes a wisecrack about having left his "little black book" on the alien's flying saucer, and Neilson very much appreciates this tragedy, so he's come a long way over to Dan's side. Maybe both of them will have blondes awaiting them ashore.

A conservative sci fi film would, as I say, have found Dr. Neilson guilty (the doctorate is almost always a bad sign) of sympathy or even collaboration with the enemy Other, or have him killed by said enemy after naively trying to deal with it. Liberal-centrist cold-war sci fi almost always enables us to see a Neilson type as redeemable - able to set his political ideas aside and see the value of use of force and the true beautiful humanity in each and every hawk (such as Don here).

Brett Halsey was an interesting choice for this role, for two reasons. First, he was known just then for roles in cheapjack James Dean-style motorcycle deliquent flicks (Hot Rod Rumble, High School Hellcats, Speed Crazy), so here on the submarine, with his pacifist ideas, he had an aura of irrelevant adolescence about him. Second, this young handsome actor was in real life the son of a great WW2-era military hero, William F. Halsey ("Bull" Halsey), commander of the Pacific Allied naval forces in the war. I don't suppose there's a real biographical parallel, but the symbolism is good enough to interest me, for in one sense the film enacts Hollywood's sense of these two generations, that of the Good War warrior and that of the beatnik whose eccentric notions of America's role in the world arose in the affluence made possible by the way the Good War had been fought by the fathers. Fathers and sons. All the fathers and some of the sons. A tale of two generations, perfect for telling from the p.o.v. of 1960: from military-hero father to beefcake bit-part hotrod movie type; from the real man of the Greatest Generation to the Beat-era know-nothing Teen; from martial honor to peacenik. No wonder we are losing the war against the Russians. Hawks and doves bond over little black books but will not try to come together on political philosophy.

The movie doesn't deal with political difference so much as sets it aside in the natural course of staving off real enemies. The sons are not our real enemies; they've deluded themselves into thinking they disagree. Political difference is not relevant in a world being attacked by the Ultimate Enemy. And finally, natural commerce--to restore which was the reason for the rescue mission--in this new enterprise zone can bustle once again: that presumably profitable traffic going back and forth under the North Pole. All is well.

Friday, November 23, 2007

the brutal new anti-modernist poetry

Every art in the 20th century is a flourishing art, Karl Shapiro writes in the New York Times Book Review on December 13, 1959. Except poetry. Except poetry.

Poetry, he says, is "diseased" and the reason is....modernism. Modernism, that "minor intellectual program which took the stage more than a full generation ago...with standards [that] are enforced rigorously by literary constables ready to haul away any dissenters."

Alas, he laments, our poetry today is "the only poetry in history that has had to be taught in its own time."

Our poetry is a poetry compounded by verse and criticism. He calls it "criticism-poetry."

T. E. Hulme's "Speculations" is "like the 'Mein Kampf' of modern criticism."

And "the revolt against modernism seems to be gaining ground as long last." And thank the lord these people are "beginning to use subjective judgment in place of the critical dictum."

And this "new anti-modernist poetry is brutal, illiterate and hysterical," but that's "the price we have to pay for the generation-old suppression of poetry by criticism."

It's a wild and no doubt for many readers an exciting attack, seeming to augur a great awakening. But if you press just a little at its salacious generalizations it falls apart in confusion. The chief problem is that it's not clear who, overall, Shapiro is attacking.

He attacks the modernist poetics enabled by the likes of Hulme - so Pound, H.D., at least the early Williams, early Eliot. And people like Wallace Stevens who were athiests and made modern art a kind of god (supreme fiction). But he's also attacking the New Critics, and it's they he means when he excoriates poetry-criticism--them (Tate, Ransom, et alia), and Eliot and perhaps I. A. Richards and his ilk. And what new poetry is he, in the end, hoping for? "[B]rutal, illiterate and hysterical," non-academic, anti-intellectual: he doubtless means the Beats, the new Whitmanians. Toward the end he refers to these rough types as emerging from the restored lineage of Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Yet Williams is of course very much in the modernist line Shapiro spends most of the essay damning. And the fact that the Beats embraced WCW should have signalled that there's a connection between them and modernism (in Burroughs and Ginsberg). In a few months, of course, Donald Allen's collection will signal that a new avant-garde shares both the anti-academicism and anti-formalism Shapiro feels is necessary now and the direct links to modernist elders (Pound, Williams again, Stevens to some degree, Stein, H.D.) that Shapiro believes is anathema to any new development in poetry.

One thing is certain: anti-modernism is alive and well as the decade turns.

I've read the letters to the editor that followed Shapiro's article - in the January 10, 1960 issue of the Book Review. A young Robert Scholes writes from Charlottesville that Shapiro's claim that the anti-romantic modernists hated Blake is wrong, since, for one thing, Yeats was a great admirer of Blake. Responding to Shapiro's disgust at New Critical pedagogy (where biography and history are eschewed in favor of attention to the poem itself), one couple from Narbeth, Pennsylvania, wrote in to ask Mr. Shapiro to list colleges where such a method is used--since they, having been dully trained with biographical info irrelevant to poetic understanding, are hoping to sign on and learn a little about poetics. Chester Page from Brooklyn wrote in to say that Eliot and Marianne Moore seem to be doing just fine and that American poetry seems in good shape. The then-young poet Theodore Enslin noted an obvious problem with Shapiro's complaint against academic critics - namely that Shapiro is one. Charles Martell wrote from Durham to remind readers that this "sophomoric diatribe" should remind everyone of the scattershot half-logical attacks against all of modernism (he means by Robert Hillyer) at the time of the Bollingen controversy in 1949, ten years earlier. A man from Haverford, PA, reminds readers that Shapiro himself "has not only written criticism but rimed criticism" and yet "counts himself on the good side" in the good-vs.-evil scenario he lays out.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

college marriage courses, fun or fraud?

Betty Friedan's remarkable book of narrative feminist sociology and mass-market fiction lit crit, The Feminine Mystique was published as excerpts in '62 and finally as a book in 1963. But she was gathering the materials for it thoughout the second half of the 50s, and was doing a lot of the writing and final research in '60 and '61.

Here are just a few of the many books and articles published in 1960 that she consulted:

1. the 75th anniversary issue of Good Housekeeping, May
2. "Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped," Redbook of September
3. Noel Clad, "Men Against Women," Good Housekeeping, January
4. Mary Ann Guitar, "College Marriage Courses--Fun or Fraud?" Mademoiselle's February issue
5. Margaret Mead's "New Look at Early Marriages," interview given to US News & World Report, June 6
6. "The Woman and Brains (continued)" in the New York Times Magazine of January 17, outraged responses written to the magazine in response to an article by Marya Mannes called "Female Intelligence--Who Wants It?" that had been published in the January 1 issue
7. Benjamin Spock, "Russian Children Don't Whine, Squabble, or Break Things--Why?" in Ladies Home Journal's October issue
8. April's transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, which featured Nanette Scofield's study of the changing roles of women in suburbia
9. Richard and Katherine Gordon's The Split Level Trap, written with Max Gunther
10. an article on the social psychiatry of the mobile suburb, also by the Gordons, published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry vol 6, number 1

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

nuke-age accessories no less in demand


No first-class war can now be fought
Till all that can be sold is bought.
So do get going helter-skelter
And sell each citizen a shelter
Wherein, while being bombed and strafed, he
Can reek and retch and rot in safety.

A ditty penned by Kenneth Burke and published in the September 24 issue of the Nation. Let's not think for a moment that the duck-and-cover civil defense anxieties of the 1950s had very much abated by 1960. The Cuban Missile Crisis of a year later certainly re-intensified these concerns, but they hadn't lessened greatly in the months immediately preceding. Of course Burke's complaint isn't merely about atomic hysteria. He's also here satirizing the commercializing and literal capitalization of nuke-age accessories.

cold-blooded definition of poetry

Alan Swallow brought out J. V. Cunningham's Tradition and Poetic Structure. JVC says that he attempted in this book to be "cold-blooded," but it's never quite clear why. Perhaps because, as we'll see in a moment, he didn't want to be perceived as belonging to the club of people who put poetry in general on a pedastal. Anyway, he implies that cold-bloodedness is an attitude opposite of that felt by others who "practiced...the highest and easier art of literary criticism." So we are to suppose that this analysis not itself a form of literary criticism. (Then what is it?)

It's possible that the term "cold-blooded" was a nod, or bow, to Cunningham's teacher-mentor, Yvor Winters, who had successfully raised cold-blooded poetry criticism to a new level. (By the way, Cunningham never formally studied with Winters, although he did spent some 15 years at Stanford, soaking in the master's contrarian blend of modernism and anti-modernism.)

In "Poetry, Structure and Tradition," he attempts to define poetry--no easy matter, for in this case "the object of definition is not constant."

The difficulty of definition "springs from the need to defend and praise poetry." "It is felt that one has not only to define poetry but also in so doing to put it in a place of honor." Yet, he contends, such claims for poetry "have in fact weakened it." On one hand poetry's puffers have "erected pretensions that no linguistic construction, no poem, could ever hope to satisfy."

Among such pretensions (and now we're really getting to it - to, for one thing, the connotation of the word "tradition" in the book's title) is that poets can lead the life of the nation. Silly for poets or poets' "nice" commenders to pretend that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world--"and a good thing it is that they aren't." This political pretension has "limited," he believes, the kind of poetry that can be written.

So moving away from the poet's power to say something for and to the polity is a move toward, not a retreat from, poetry's capaciousness. And from here making a definition is apparently a simple matter. "Poetry is what looks like poetry, what sounds like poetry. It is metrical composition."

So there you have it.

modern commerical religion not ready for prime time

Watched Elmer Gantry also this past weekend, another of the top 30 from '60. Burt Lancaster contorted his face into lit-up hucksterish glee, an expression he never ever for a moment loses in the otherwise unendurable 147 minutes of this melodrama about contending American values. Well, when Shirley Jones shows up as his floozy lover, one does attend closely (she's radiant--although, tellingly, a low-life). But even the good moment of seeing Jones before The Brady Bunch quickly fades.

The film is based, of course, on the bad novel by Sinclair Lewis.

It's a battle between the reasonable side of tent-pitching town-to-town wandering evangelical Christianity in the rural midwest and the ecstatic side with its tactics gleaned from sensational journalism, commercialism and the circus. Of course Jean Simmons (Sister Sharon Falconer) represents the reasonable side, and we root for her, for a while. Lancaster's Elmer Gantry is so alluring and exciting that even Sharon is willing to bring ecstasy into the show, and, predictably, the whole theological house of cards comes tumbling (or burns to the ground, to mix the metaphor and yet be more exact).

The key moment in this battle between ideologies of religious style is when Elmer suggests to Sharon and the other sober promoters of evangelical things-as-they-are that, with him and the new more modern approach, they are ready for the big city. Sharon's eyes light up. Is such a thing possible? But our place is the small rural town (American places with no other entertainment, although she won't say it that way). Elmer wins and they go to the city. (A bad sign, of course, since this is essentially a conservative film, and in conservative films cities are always scenes of demise.)

But what city? It's Zenith, Ohio. In the world of Sinclair Lewis's ficton, I know from reading and teaching the novel Babbitt, Zenith is not the zenith of anything. It's still at heart a small town, only the town prominents put on airs of sophistication. And George Babbitt himself, who actually gave the name to false middle-class modernity, becomes a somewhat major character in the story. Yikes. What a mess.

Feelings and attitudes toward Elmer's modern American theology are so confused by the end that it's no wonder we had to light absolutely everything on fire, stand up from the ashes, and walk out of town in the final scene. This, I suppose, is 1960 trying to rewrite 1935 in such a way as to show the flaws in the wandering, dislocated way of American life while at the same time expressing the hope that the worst hucksters (but only the worst) wander away from our town when things go too far.

Burt won Best Actor at the Oscars. Why? Sheer acting will. They must have used a crowbar to pry loose his normal face from the maniacal up-by-bootstraps American expression he had to wear for weeks while filming this thing.

Stevens was "second rate"...but what about Delmore Schwartz?

Delmore Schwartz, a poet who is rarely read today or mentioned in discussions of American poetry, won the Bollingen Prize for 1959. It was announced on January 10, 1960, in New Haven, where the prize had settled (at Yale, that is) since the Pound controversy in 1949. Hard to believe DS was just 47 when he won, and indeed he was then the youngest Bollingen winner. He won it for his book Summer Knowledge (1959), which was an edition of selected poems. At the time he lived at 725 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, which is just across the street from my Jane.

Later, in a 1979 review, a poet named Timothy Jahns, reviewing Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz, wrote that for Schwartz "it was all downhill from 1938, though his contemporaries kept on praising him." The editor of that posthumous volume noted that he (the editor) had "rescued" the work in that book, a tacit admission that DS had already long ago faded from poetic view.

In a journal entry dated August 15, 1959, Schwartz pondered the poetic value of Wallace Stevens: "Stevens's incomparable discoveries--S. has some fine things of his own to say--grace & honesty & courage--a good second-rate poet--". In the same entry, he wrote: "It's time to cultivate resignation." (Was it a non-sequitur?)

After the Bollingen was announced, DS gave a reading at Yale, where he reunited with Cleanth Brooks. And back in New York, he lunched with Robert Penn Warren.

In a review of Summer Knowledge published in the Nation on June 11, 1960, M. L. Rosenthal put his finger on it: "It is easy to say what has always been wrong with Delmore Schwartz' poetry. Briefly, he has rarely been able to sustain a whole poem at the level of its beginning. No one else but Auden in this century has so many wonderful first lines." Examples he gives: "In the naked bed, in Plato's cave," "The beautiful American word, Sure," "A dog named Ego, the snowflakes as kisses." And could there be a more enticing title than In Dreams Begin Responsibilities with its surrealist hint? "Unfortunately," MLR continues, "it is hard to remember any larger movement" after such openings. Once in a while there is more in Schwartz's poems "than unrelieved confessional or cosmic blarneying," but not often enough.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Liz is simply wandrous

Liz Taylor is Gloria Wandrous, the stylish call girl yearning to go straight. Somehow she thinks Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) is her Real Guy, but this is surely hard for anyone seeing the film, then or now, to believe, since Liggett hates himself so much, seethes with anger, has become an alcoholic, and could snap at any moment. Gloria hates herself too. She misses her dead father, and her mother's then-new husband raped her when she was 13, a story she tells her lifelong best friend, played by Eddie Fisher (then married to Taylor).

It's BUtterfield 8, based on the 1935 novel by John O'Hara. I haven't read the novel (but will): I hear that in the novel Gloria is an out-and-out escort. In the 1960 film about half the time you know a stylish prostitute is what you get when you dial the famous number. The other half the time it seems that she's a clothing model, somewhat on the up and up. There's denial all around: Liggett's wife tries not to react to her husband's sprees of infidelity; Gloria's mother can't see that her daughter is a tramp, for perhaps it would be a key to the fraught scene of the girl's weeklong deflowering at the hands of the mom's husband; the Eddie Fisher best friend can't seem to sort out his feelings for Gloria, although in the end gets it right (decides to marry his straight-good girlfriend while continuing to be decently helpful to Gloria).

In the end, after an almost utterly expected car crash, we have to hear Liggett, of all people, say how good a heart Gloria had inside, in spite of it all - a contender for the most unconvincing speech in any film I've seen. (Not because we have no sympathy for Gloria, but because the film chooses Liggett to express it. Where did that come from?)

Freudian possibilities are dragged across the plot, and these are wandrous too. Therapy gets a satiric knock, which hints at the film's use of the sexualized parental relationship as a creaky stage prop and little more. In a truly comic scene, Gloria goes to her shrink, played by George Voskovic (he was the Swiss watchmaker juror in Twelve Angry Men), and announces that she no longer needs therapy, since she has finally found the man who will send her straight. She marches happily out of the doc's office and we get to see his startled facial response as that quick scene ends.

Gloria and Liggett have huge psychological problems, perfectly matched. He wants someone to abuse him. She wants to give some abuse as a way of keeping herself from obtaining yet another sex partner. At one point, when she wants some distance from him (although she's already fallen in love with him), she digs her sharp stiletto heel into his shoe - for a long time. The camera lingers on the heel stuck into the leather for so long, and on his impervious face (feeling pain but not showing it, wanting to be different from the other guys who wince at this old trick of hers), that one wonders where the Catholic League of Decency was when this film came out. I nearly called them myself when watching this film the other night. Yet the only number in my head was the oft-repeated "BUtterfield 8." Well, some wise guy putting clips up on YouTube has reproduced this scene and dubbed it "The Heel Trick." Have a look if you dare.

Reportedly, Taylor and Fisher hated this film and referred to it as "Butterball 4." A turkey? Well, maybe, but are movies we call turkeys typically as complicated as this?

This film was one of the 30 most popular movies of 1960.