Trumbo (2015)

Jay Roach

Such an amazingly mundane film and amazing because while assumedly isn’t hard to make a boring film it is surely difficult to make one so boring out of such interesting source material. The two-hour running time to this movie drags as an eternity as the film struggles with the formation of the red scare and McCarthyism in America in the wake of WW2 and the beginnings of the cold war.

I think most people are aware of the film because Bryan Cranston was nominated for best actor in the 2016 academy awards for his portrayal of the titular Dalton Trumbo. Knowing parts of the story of Trumbo and the Hollywood 10 from the You Must Remember This podcast and having also read about Trumbo in Steve Martins auto-biography Born Standing Up I’ve been eager to watch this film ever since I missed it in cinemas. Amidst the many amazing brushes with historical figures in Steve Martins book his interaction with Trumbo during the time Martin was dating his daughter stood out the most. Martin wrote that it was the first time he had been around such intellectual radicals and described Trumbo as an intense and passionate man despite the troubles he’d gone through with the Hollywood black lists and his time in prison.

On the screen, the film does many things well. It seamlessly interweaves original archival footage and recreates similar footage where necessary. The film is always well acted and the cast, one and all, do a great job of portraying some of the most influential players in Hollywood history.

But there is never a sense what it is to live in America at the time. Kong: Skull Island managed a better job in it’s opening credits with short introductory montage of news clippings and footage. Trumbo never seems confident enough to dive too far into history or examine closely why the cold war lasted for so long or why communism was pursued so vehemently domestically.

A particularly weak moment slowly passes by when the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper threatens to publish the real, Jewish names, of the studio heads and the aura of anti-Semitism which operates in tandem with McCarthyism is left to the audience to be interpreted as a general fear of foreignness. This lack of general political and national scope to the film is problem enough but the film is even less effective with its central subject. There is no indication of how Trumbo came to be where he is. The film introduces him in his thirties as the highest paid screenwriter to date. There is no explanation for his communism or stubbornness or exploration of his past as a war correspondent or even how he grew as a writer. He is birthed fully formed into the film and as such there is never any reason to like him.

Even as Trumbo is blacklisted and jailed there are no real stakes. On Trumbo’s release from prison he and his family move to a palatial house in the city whereas in real life, they moved to Mexico. It is these kind of disconnects which not only, biographically, make it difficult for the film to explain key moments (such as the inspiration for his second Oscar winning film The Brave One) it also is just one of many instances where an opportunity for crisis or real stakes for Trumbo and his family are side-stepped for convenience. Keeping the film in Hollywood allows the filmmakers to concentrate the cause and menace of McCarthyism into the single villain of the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as played by Helen Mirren.

The only real crisis the film bothers to present is that as a workaholic Trumbo might be at risk of losing his family and even this small stake is discarded as his drug and alcohol fuelled work is shown to not be the mission of a stubborn obsessive but the ultimate foil to his nemesis Hedda Hopper. The film portrays this outcome between these two individuals as the main cause of the end of the blacklists, the red scare, McCarthyism and the whole dark chapter of American history. Meanwhile the epilogue cards explain that the blacklist was still in partial operation for a further twenty years and negate even the flimsy premise of crisis and battle the filmmakers invented.

The film is a boring failure made by a director of bad comedy films (notably the Austin Powers sequels) and a tv writer. Though the acting within the film is good I’m not even sure that Cranston deserved to be nominated for work in a film weighed down by such an ironically bad script.

I know now why I’ve never really met anyone who’s seen this film. Very few did. Though I would say to anyone that was interested that they would better spend their time listening to Karina Longworth’s much more interesting, entertaining and accurate stories of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten on the You Must Remember This podcast.

trumbo three

 

 

 

 

We Chose to Speak of War and Strife (2016)

John Simpson

John Simpson is the world affairs editor at the BBC. He has worked at the BBC as a journalist for his entire career and much of his work was as a foreign correspondent. He was once hunted by Robert Mugabe, avoided bullets at the Tiananmen Square massacre, bore witness to the Kosovo War, the first Gulf War and countless other pivotal world events.

This, his latest of several books which have detailed his life as a journalist, is more of a history of the evolution and role of the foreign correspondent. I first heard of the book in an interview between Simpson and Phillip Adams on Radio National’s Late Night Live. The segment was titled ‘The End of the Foreign Correspondent’ and in the interview Simpson posited that the role of foreign correspondent has all but been replaced by news services and freelance local journalists and implied his book was a sort of response.

This idea of an obituary to the profession is perhaps an angle which Simpson used to promote the book. Meanwhile, the back-cover blurb uses a different angle by name-dropping Hemingway (who only appears in the book tangentially in an anecdote), and also portrays the book as a series of hair-raising adventures.

In actuality, the book is neither an obituary to foreign correspondence or an auto-biographical tale of adventure though there are elements of each. Rather, Simpson has compiled an anthological history of the foreign correspondent. He has culled from history books, foreign correspondents auto-biographies, his own life, and his own auto-biographies.

I’ve a certain immediate and unfounded suspicion of Simpson based around generational difference and Australian/English colonial histories. I was interested in the subject but wary of both him and his book. As the structure of the book revealed itself to be neither searing indictment of modern corporate journalism or personal tales of adventure I was even more willing, perhaps even eager, to decry the book as little more than a lazy cash-grab copy-and-paste exploitative compilation of other journalist’s lives.

I do have small criticisms of the book but they do not relate to Simpson’s use of other writings. If anything, I applaud him for having curated such a diverse, interesting, and at times obtuse collection of writings on foreign correspondence. He is also humbly adept at backgrounding himself as a segue device between the various journalists.

In terms of criticisms the book does almost collapse under its own ambitions in the opening chapters. Simpson begins with a history of the origins of the foreign correspondent. He seems to be aware of the concentration required to keep track of the unfamiliar names, wars and monarchs involved in the first instances of foreign reporting. To keep the reader interested he intersplices elements of his own autobiography and the effect is that initially the book seems messy and self-absorbed.

Simpson also uses a wry, almost arch, tone of voice which is seemingly common to journalist biographies (including Edward Behr in the 60’s and Kim Barker in the 2000’s). I think the idea in using this tone is to avoid sensation but it often leads to anti-climax, detachment, boredom or even smugness.

Simpson also often misses the irony in romanticising the early decades of foreign correspondence and laughing at the many examples of its excess and drunken follies. After detailing the history of a profession that was often unnecessarily lavish Simpson ends the book decrying the extinction of the foreign correspondent. He posits that the living expenses of the foreign correspondent are seen as too expensive in the modern age.

I’m can’t speak to the veracity of Simpson’s assessment of the current state of foreign correspondence. In Kim Barker’s book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which details her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in the 2000’s, there is an underlying theme of budgetary constraints. That said she is often stubbornly reporting on Afghanistan while her editors are asking her to look for different subject matter or report within different countries.

Thirty fives years earlier Edward Behr in his autobiography (entitled ‘Bearings: A Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines or, alternatively, ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’) which was published in the early 70’s, also ends his book with the budgetary worries and concerns as both Simpson and Barker.

I don’t think it’s necessary new or surprising that there is an effort to curtail spending on foreign correspondents. In the wake of the global financial crisis many industries have had to scale back from past excesses and autobiographies of the music, movie and tv stars similarly lament the contemporary states of their respective industries while also yearning for the golden era of endless expense accounts.

Ultimately, it’s hard to truly know how objective Simpson and his views on the modern state of journalism are. He continues to occupy one of the top spots at the BBC after having lived through the golden era of foreign correspondence. Is the foreign correspondent really dying out? Will the news industry learn to adapt? Or will it copy its entertainment cousins of music and movies and adapt cry poor while still living rich?

Thankfully these questions are not the real aim of this book. I do wish that Simpson had been more willing to predict the future of journalism or provide some sort of guidance to up and coming journalists. Instead he provides a loving curation of the many chapters of the profession as lived and written by past heroes of foreign journalism such as Don McMullin, Martha Gellhorn, and Marie Colvin. The book cherishes and values the lives of these and many other individuals. Simpson celebrates their passion and work and grieves for those who were lost along the way. It is an invaluable resource as it acts as aa stepping stone towards dozens of other amazing journalist auto-biographies. A fatalist could call it the book an obituary to the profession. An optimist would view it as a sort of celebratory honour roll and call to arms.

 

*Edit 16/7 Kim Barker’s book was actually titled The Taliban Shuffle and adapted into a film with the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

 

 

 

 

HHhH (2010)

Laurent Binet

Heralded as one of the greatest works of historical fiction HHhH takes on the simple and yet immensely complicated task of detailing the assassination attempt of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi SS.

The book is many things under the one banner including a biography of the Reinhard Heydrich, a biography of the paratrooper assassins, a historical analysis of the development of the final solution, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and an exploration of the act of writing historical fiction. Amongst all this content Laurent Binet also writes himself into the book as he muses on his role as researcher and author.

The books strength is in conveying large amounts of information and research in a smooth and continually interesting manner. Binet, in examining a different theatre of war than usual, goes to great lengths to detail the history of the German occupation of Moravia. He writes of the government in exile and the public figures who stayed and collaborated with the Germans. As part of his biography of Heydrich Binet also provides many insights into the inner workings of the upper Nazi echelon and the nature of their interactions.

The weakness of the book is it often feels too worried about itself. Binet constantly signposts what will happen next and why. That Binet as author includes himself in the book should and could serve as some sort of narrative to the reader but even this potential device is not allowed to exist independently or work properly as Binet feels the need to justify including himself. This level of self-awareness could still allow for the narrative of the researcher and the vast amount of time and effort spent gradually letting go of the story in writing but within the short length of the book it is biographical details about Binet himself which are lacking.

In the climax, when the climax is finally allowed to happen Binet is both too self-aware and intent upon sign-posting his intentions, his motivations and the motivations of his intentions. This leads from very early on to a feeling of anti-climax that, as I reader, I kept expecting would somehow be overcome. Instead the anti-climax is underlined and examined in the same clever way Binet examines much of his writing throughout the book and, I found, this led to a feeling of suffocation under the repeated waves of analysis, self-awareness and concern for the direction of the story.

Binet writes in the closing passages of the emotional investment and near trauma that he has taken on in researching and writing the book. I found this glimpse into his psyche promised so much of what seemed to be missing. I wish he had been allowed to write more about himself, even if it was indulgent perhaps even especially if it was indulgent.

I feel too that if Binet had been allowed another hundred pages to fully illustrate who he is and to also indulge in the personal and his own process of parsing and then writing on these atrocities then this book could have been more than a great work of historical research in the form of a novel. It could have shown how encompassing and dark was the cloud of the Nazi regime and how, even still, so many decades on it is so often impossible for us to comprehend this part of history. I would have happily read more of the guilt and trauma of Binet as he struggled to convey all of this.

But, too, perhaps this is my own worry that I’ll never be able to fully complete my comprehension of these events or the guilt I carry, as I think many of us do, that the fascination with the war and Hitler and the atrocities he committed is voyeuristic rather than academic.

And, so, ultimately undecided as I am this is another book that will remain in limbo on a shelf with few others that I want to read again soon and see how time and myself find it different on a second pass.

 

*The featured image above is the edition I have. To date this is the most edition variants I have found of a book online.

 

hhhh7

Born Standing Up (2007)

Steve Martin

An impressingly well-crafted autobiography which, though brief, is an almost perfect splicing of Martin’s upbringing, pivotal biographical moments, evolution as an artist, encounters with fledgling and established celebrities, and struggle with the heights of his fame.

Martin is modest throughout the book but even within his humble recollections it becomes evident just how formative and influential he has been on modern comedy. It is this evolution of his distinct style which is the most interesting aspect of the book. Much of his stand-up and movies seem dated now, I think, but given the context of this book it is possible to understand just how truly unique Martin’s comedy was in its time. Iyoung steve martinf his comedy seems dated now it is because his inventions have since been so often copied and built upon.

I am always interested in reading about the evolution of an artist but have never read anything which provides such a clear understanding of how the evolution occurred. From a young age Martin is interested in performing and this book meticulously plots the twists and turns of his interest in comedy, development of style, interest in ‘doing it new’ and the subsequent struggle and then rise to mega-stardom. Along the way he performs with member of The Eagles before they are The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac before they are Fleetwood Mac, and even meets and is complemented by Elvis.

I would say that a failing of the book is that at times it is too modest, too glib and refuses to ever truly revel in the achievements or success of its author. I could have read much more on Martin’s film work and encounters with the SNL cast. When he does write about the peak of his fame, performing stand-up to arena’s full of tens of thousands of fans, he is still analytical of his act rather than congratulatory of his success. I would have welcomed more detail but will settle for a book that is, like the author, continually entertaining.

stevemartin

Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)

Ray Carney

What’s my take on Cassavetes?

Well I first heard properly of the man not as director or from realising who he was in Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby but from the Le Tigre song (lyrics below).

I picked up this book almost as a joke. 500 densely packed pages would surely help inform me properly as to what my take on Cassavetes would, could or should be. This was around the same time I started my ill-fated non-fiction, guilty-pleasure and punishing literature simultaneous reading plan. The basic idea of this plan was that I would read 10 pages of each book each night and so slowly work through varied readings. It was a fine enough plan that was perhaps the only reason I was able to finish Infinite Jest. Cassavetes on Cassavetes was the non-fiction, James Joyce’s Ulysses the punishing literature and Phil Klay’s Redeployment the guilty pleasure. But there’s nothing guilty about redeployment. It’s brilliant! And made me want to read more contemporary brilliance which I did in reading Holly Child’s No Limits before I was snowed under by work and school. In the meantime, Ulysses languished (it still does) under a pile of comics and Cassavetes on Cassavetes was picked up and read reluctantly over the course of eight months of being both busy and quiet but also joyful and bored in the reading.

This is a textbook rather than a biography and as such all credit should go to Ray Carney for the sheer depth of research. Carney is a fan which, like in the Updike, acts as a double-edged blade. He revels in every detail of Cassavetes’ life but sometimes this goes too deep and for too long, though, again, this is a textbook.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the book is the choice Carney has made in its construction. Rather than a straight biography with quotations Carney has stitched together what feels like (and could be) every interview Cassavetes ever gave. His own input is used more to provide a chronological and subjective flow to these excerpts of interview. As such, and as the title implies, this is a book which details the life and work of Cassavetes in his own words. From a scholarly perspective, it is very effective. Cassavetes was very articulate and philosophical in his interviews. His voice is clear and consistent throughout. The problem is that Carney is often repeating or pre-empting what Cassavetes says and so at times the text feels repetitive.

Carney’s other choice in construction was to divide the book into sections based around each of Cassavetes’ directorial features. There is a section for his early life at the start and his later life at the end. In between each chapter doesn’t so much cover his life as the film or films he was working on. This is an effective move considering the book is a textbook designed for arts students. It would be valuable to study the intricacies of a film in a sectionalised manner like this. In terms of reading the book as biography it isn’t too bad as so much of Cassavetes’ time, energy and passion was poured into each film and often, always, also included much of his friendship group and family.

I would love to have read a more conventional biography of the life of Cassavetes but having now read Carney’s book I can’t imagine what any other author could possibly hope to contribute that I haven’t already learnt. The duel voices of Carney and Cassavetes himself effectively portray the passion and belief Cassavetes had in his art. There are the stories of self-sabotage, sabotage and extreme manipulation. Carney avoids, in part, too deeply examining the ramifications of Cassavetes characteristic anger and passion early in the book even as the actor and budding director buts heads with studio heads as a director and, as an actor, various directors, including Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the book much of this passion and anger has worked hand in hand with lifelong alcoholism and a perhaps unhealthy compulsion to his art.

There is too a marked lack of perspective from Cassavetes wife Gena Rowland or his family. In this way, Carney almost seems to be enabling Cassavetes and his acolytes into still placing his art above all else in his life even when it is to his, or this books, detriment. But, like Carney’s other choice, maybe this is the most accurate representation of the man.

Truth be told I’m no more sure of what Cassavetes was now than I was before reading this. Confusing, interesting, self-destructive, inherently creative and artistic, joyous, spiteful generous and yet also mean, counter-productive and almost oddly possessive of his various creations.

What’s my take? Messiah? Yes, apparently for a lot of people. Misogynist? Maybe, maybe not. Genius, yup. Alcoholic, definitely.

 

 

Le Tigre – What’s Yr. Take on Cassavetes

 

We talked about it… in letters. And we talked about it on the phone

But how you really… feel… about it… I don’t really know

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Genius, misogynist, alcoholic – Hey, where’s Gena?

Genius!

Misogynist!

Messiah!

Alcoholic!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on…

CASSAVETES?!?

 

[Dogs barking]

Updike (2014)

Adam Begley

I was drawn to read Updike during a spat of exploring the work of Pulitzer winners. He seemed particularly intriguing as he is one of only three to have won the Pulitzer more than once, for two of his Rabbit novels. What I’ve found weird is that no one else that I know has read him. The impression I have is that his halo has dulled and his writing is less revered than some of his contemporaries. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps because Updike is unflinching in his exploration of gender dynamics and has been accused of misogyny in detailing what, I would argue, was an attempt to paint a true character and representation of gender dynamics in middle class America. Meanwhile the works of Hemingway, Miller et al remain popular with no such defence. Perhaps it is because Updike lived longer and was so prolific in his output? Perhaps he simply occupies an uneasy intersection of realism and high literature?

I was eager to read Adam Begley’s book to try and find the answers to these questions and know more about the Updike himself. On the latter matter, at least this book succeeds. It is a straight-ahead birth to death biography of a man who wasn’t particularly interesting even while all of his adult life was spent crafting stories and articles for the New Yorker. But even if the behind the scenes of this career was a little dull Begley still details all of Updike’s not particularly interesting life with the true enthusiasm of both a scholar and fan and it is this perspective which makes this book of value.

Begley manages to capture the sheer passion which Updike poured into his craft.  He conveys just how much of a genius Updike was and what went into his creating such a prolific output. Begley deftly covers Updike’s personal life and doesn’t appear to whitewash the many affairs which Updike embarked upon. In this respect, too there is a certain kind of second act in the book which is reminiscent of the Mad Men and shows how John Updike the man was as affected by the changing nature of sixties America as his main protagonist Rabbit Angstrom.

Unfortunately, this work doesn’t delve into how the perception of Updike may have changed with time. As if there is some great fact about him that could explain what he did and how he did it from such a young age. Because… while his books are great. They are just so mundane. And that’s what he wanted?!? How was he able to create such a style? To sell it. To somehow craft such gentle slow writing into such momentous and important works? Unfortunately, again, Begley like me, is a fan and if this book lacks anything it is a critical eye. Begley is even closer than me to the subject. He has no hope of being able to explain how Updike’s books do not seem to have prospered within the modern canon or how his ideas about honesty and diving deep into the mundane have become blasé. Or how his deep love of the written word and the luxury or revelling in it is not quite as in vogue as it once was. This book covers everything about a man whose life was lived in his writing. It just fails to address why this writing seems to be fading out of fashion.

Don’t panic: Douglas Adams and the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy

Neil Gaiman

Perhaps the most disappointing book I read last year. As a biography of a person this book is dull. It is full of information and would be valuable for completest fans of Douglas Adams and his work. There are detailed break downs of all the Hitchhiker radio and tv episodes as well as a behind the scenes insights into the making of Dr Who episodes Adams worked on and, of course, a comprehensive list of the various incarnations of The Hitch-hikers Guide in the many varied forms it has taken

As for the author, well, according to this book there isn’t much of a story to Douglas Adams. He seemed to have been blessed with a genius sense of humour, sense of invention and imagination. The most interesting sections relate to how Adams worked within the BBC in the eighties. He was chaotic, often very late and always unorganised. Unfortunately, Gaiman seems to try to stretch these sections and, at times, the writing begins to resemble the cheap unauthorised biographies of celebrities which themselves are often extended Wikipedia entries.

Its as if this book needed to be combined with something else like, for instance, the history of the BB or radio serials or perhaps the nature of adaptation. Gaiman suggest that the creation of Hitchhikers Guide was a result of impulse, spontaneous wit and the pressure of a deadline. In turn to try and summate that spark in the flowery elaborate style of Gaiman’s feels anachronistic.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to say if this book might have been better if it had been written by someone other than Gaiman, who, is not at fault per se but is perhaps too close to the subject and unwilling to allow that large parts of Adam’s life were boring or uneventful. But, again, this book is invaluable as a source of information on the history of the Hitchhikers guide. It’s simply does not or cannot provide an interesting story about the man behind the work.