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I enjoy a good read; a good Scotch; and a good friend (virtual or literal)I'm a retired journalist;
In another century, I would have been A Trappist Monk.
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries (The Maltese Falcon / The Big Sleep / Dial M for Murder / The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946)
The Maltese Falcon: "The Stuff that Dreams are made of"
Even after all these years, John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" remains one of Hollywood's most durable classics.
A perfect ensemble cast, a fast-moving and witty script, and well developed characters make it a delight to see time and again
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the only surviving partner of the Archer and Spade Detective Agency, gets involved up to his ears in a complex plan to recover a priceless artifact.
Along the way, he encounters Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and "The Fat Man" (Sidney Greenstreet). Mary Astor is the "femme Fatale" who keeps Bogart guessing. The movie was Huston's directorial debut and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Lorre, a German-speaking Austrian who starred in Fritz Lang's sensational "M" about a serial child killer, is superb as the scheming Joel Cairo. Greenstreet greets Bogart in his apartment, offering him a drink and saying "I don't trust a man who doesn't drink" and "I like to talk to a man who likes to talk."
One recurring theme in Huston's work is the ephemeral quality of the treasures people covet. In "The Maltese Falcon" the statue turns out to be a worthless piece of lead; in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" the gold that people have been killed over, blows away in the wind.
The version of the movie I reviewed is one of four on a two-disc TMC collection. The print has been cleaned up and the black and white contrasts were clear, The others in the set are "Dial M for Murder," "The Big Sleep" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
As I get to see them, I'll add to this review in the future.
At $12.00, it's a great bargain for four classic film noir pictures.
The Scottish Enlightenment
There are periods associated with great intellectual achievement; the Golden Age of Pericles; the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance; the literary and philosophical genius of fin-de-siecle Vienna; the Dutch Grand Masters and the Golden Age of Holland; Victorian England and the St. Petersburg of Peter the Great who brought the culture of the West to the previously isolated Russia.
Then there is the lesser known Scottish Enlightenment, which brought together some of the finest minds in intellectual history. Pure and applied science flourished at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Scientists developed new approaches to physics, chemistry, optics, mathematics and medicine. William Thompson (Later Lord Kelvin) developed major principles of thermodynamics; James Watt developed the steam engine, and William Cullen, a physician and chemist explored new frontiers, James Clerk Maxwell explained the mysteries of Saturn's rings and developed the principle of electromagnetism. James Hutton founded the modern science of geology which was expanded upon by James Playfair. The botanist Robert Brown discovered the important principle of Brownian Motion which was later to turn up in Einstein's theory of relativity. Visitors to Edinburgh were astonished that so much brilliance was to be encountered in this intellectual incubator in the cold, inhospitable climate of the Hebrides.
In recent years, there has been an outpouring of scholarly studies of the Scottish Enlightenment, among them Alexander Broadie's "The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation" and "Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment - Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind" by James Buchan.Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind Most studies of the Scottish Enlightenment begin with David Hume and Francis Hutcheson , the most important moral philosophers of the movement, and Adam Smith, the first modern economist. A key element of their thought was skepticism - a refusal to accept on their face the arguments of ecclesiastic authority.
Within a relatively short time, the independent work of these various intellectuals began to circulate among the others, resulting in a synergistic effect. Broadie argues that enlighten-ment is more than freedom of thought, it is freedom of expression, without fear of reprisals from authorities.
How a grimy, overcrowded, heavily fortified Medieval city like Edinburgh became a vibrant, social intellectual center is the story of this book. Broadie occupies the same professorial seat at Glasgow University as Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics. The University has had, since its founding in 1451 prominent Enlightenment figures including Smith, Hucheson, physicist Lord Kelvin, James Watt, and numerous politicians including two British prime ministers and missionary=explorer David Livingston.
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Burmese Days by George Orwell
The End of Empire
As a young man, George Orwell was sent to Burma, then part of India, as one of the British India Police. He was posted in various parts of the country, learned the language, and befriended several Burmese. He also saw the underside of the decaying British Empire; how a few thousand Englishmen could rule a country of millions through fear and intimidation.
"A dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets. " He saw firsthand the racism and elitism of the occupying civil service....how they tried to replicate England in their clubs and homes. Many became callous and cynical; some drank themselves into oblivion; some took Burmese women as concubines; others went half-mad from the heat, isolation, and boredom. Some retired to England on small pensions; others died from disease, alcoholism and suicide.
Orwell wrote "Burmese Days" upon his resignation from the India Police service. His protagonist, Flory, who has lived in Burma so long it has almost becomes his native land, rejects the racism and hypocrisy of the British Raj, but faces a moral dilemma: whether to allow a native doctor into the European club. He befriends the doctor, expressing un-English sentiments:
"He had grasped the truth about the English and their empire.
The Indian Empire is a despotism - benevolent, no doubt - but still a despotism with theft as its final object."
But a corrupt local magistrate begins a whispering campaign about the doctor in an effort to sabotage his membership in the prestigious European club.
Flory also develops a relationship with an Englishwoman who doesn't share his positive feelings about Burman people.
Although a fictional account, "Burmese Days" accurately sums up the status of the British Empire toward its end. Burma would stay with Orwell for the rest of his life... both physically and intellectually.
As Emma Larkin points out in "Finding George Orwell in Burma," Orwell accurately forecast some of the changes in store for the South Asian Nation. Today, Burma (or Myanmar) is one of the most repressive nations in the world, run by a military junta which imprisons, kills, or intimidates its opponents.
Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens
Why Orwell Matters
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
Finding George Orwell in Burma
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography
Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) and E.M. Forster (1879-1970) share some common traits. Both were born toward the end of the long reign of Victoria, and the British Empire figures prominently in their work. Both lost parents early (Maugham orphaned early) and Forster's father dying of consumption when "Morgan" was two years old... but Forster's domineering mother, with whom he lived, survived until old age). Both achieved critical and commercial success during their lifetimes. Both lived to the advanced age of 91.
Both were products of the stringent British class system which, like its counterpart the Indian Caste system, dictated where one was educated, with whom one socialized, and what one did for a living. Their lives spanned cultural periods from Gilbert and Sullivan to the Beatles; from the Boer War till Vietnam.
Most importantly, they both lived according to the conventions of society at the time, while actively engaging in sexual activity which was viewed as both deviant and criminal. Oscar Wilde's public and legal humiliation was still in the news, and men of his persuasion didn't advertise their orientation.
Two recent biographies attempt to put that element of their lives into perspective. ("The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" by Selina Hastings, and "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster" by Wendy Moffat.
A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster
Maugham was the highest-paid author in the world in the nineteen thirties. His novels, short stories, movies and plays had made him wealthy... affording him the luxury of travel, usually accompanied by one or another of his "secretaries" cum lovers, in exotic locations around the world. But they served another function... as his social assistants, since he was afflicted with an embarrassing stutter.
His principal escort, companion, and sometimes sexual procurer was Gerald Haxton, a handsome young man with voracious appetites for sex, gambling, and liquor. He was with Maugham on most of their travels through the Orient. His death at the age of 52 left Maugham distraught. Maugham maintained a conventional heterosexual marriage to an ambitious woman who attempted to present a veneer of normality to the world.
He lived an incredible life: prolific writer of plays, short stories, and novels, many of which were made into motion pictures; world traveler and collector; journalist; diplomat and spy during the turbulent years of the Russian Revolution; and aesthete.
Selina Hastings weaves these elements into an engaging biography, drawing liberally on Maugham's own works.
It is also a biography of a time that has passed, when literature, the arts, and conversation were still valued...and people like Maugham wrote copious letters to friends around the world instead of texting the person sitting next to them.
"You Furnish the Pictures; I'll Furnish the War!"
Attributed to William Randolph Hearst to Frederick Remington
Apocryphal or not, the brusque order from the press magnate to the Western artist-turned Spanish American War correspondent sounds like something out of Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop." It's a witty satire of Yellow Journalism - in this case William Boot, a mild-mannered nature correspondent who is mistakenly sent to a fictional African kingdom instead of his brother to cover a civil war.
Lord Copper, publisher of The Beast, tells his Foreign Editor:
"The `Beast' stands for strong mutually antagonistic governments everywhere. Self-sufficiency at home; self-assertion abroad." Later he counsels Boot: "With regard to Policy, I expect you already have your own views. I never hamper my correspondents in any way. What the British public wants first, last and all the time is News. ..The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colorful entry into the capital. That is The Beast policy for the war." Lord Copper could have been a dead ringer for Rupert Murdock instructing a society reporter on how to cover the war in Afghanistan.
No one is spared Waugh's vitriol - the British upper class, imperialists, colonials, revolutionaries. In one hilarious scene, a correspondent is deposited in the wrong Balkan city where he files a vivid, but spurious, account of rioting in the streets from his hotel room,,, which is reprinted by his newspaper, thereby sparking the civil unrest the newspaper wanted in the first place.
Waugh had some experience as a foreign correspondent, covering the fighting in Abyssinia. To confuse censors, he filed his dispatches in Latin...which made no difference because the editors wrote their version despite his contributions.
Like all satire, "Scoop" is reality, exaggerated. As a former journalist, I can attest to the kind of verbal jousting that goes on between journalists and their editors... especially if they are thousands of miles apart.
The Ghost and the Darkness
The Ghost and the Darkness
If I had read Roger Ebert's scathing review first, I probably wouldn't have bought this movie. Another reviewer wrote that the first ten minutes of the film are so dark (visually) that it's impossible to tell who is who. The acting is sub-par; Val Kilmer won a "Razzie" for worst supporting actor and Michael Douglas just doesn't work as the Great White Hunter. He is dressed in a ridiculous Crocodile Dundee outfit and looks terribly out of place - like a guy in a Tuxedo accidently walking into a dive bar.
The only saving grace are the performances of John Kani as the trusted, knowing native Samuel and Om Puri as Abdullah.
The movie did win an Oscar - for sound editing (presumably the roaring of the two lions)
The cinematography is excellent...although not on a par with "Zulu" or "Mountains of the Moon," both of which are far superior movies. I give "The Ghost and the Darkness" three stars for effort and not much else.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Two-Disc Special Edition)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
John Huston's 1948 classic "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is my favorite of Huston's many films. The story, by the elusive B. Traven, is simple and has been well summarized by other reviewers. The film's most notable achievements are the great supporting role by Huston's father, Walter, as the grizzled old prospector, and the character development of Bogart's character "Fred C. Dobbs."
He goes from a shiftless drifter at the start of the film to an entrepreneur as the movie develops. But his increasing paranoia takes over. (Remember the scene where he accuses of partner of trying to steal his share of the gold, which he has hidden under a rock. He is about to retrieve it when his partner points out the hiding place is also occupied by a deadly Gila Monster, which would gladly bite off Dobbs' hand.)
In addition to great acting, directing and cinematography, the film also features a fine cast of anonymous local extras.
One interesting note is the appearance of a young Robert Blake as the Mexican boy who sells Bogart his winning lottery ticket.
The movie won three Academy Awards (best supporting actor for Walter Huston, best direction by John Huston, and best screenplay by John Huston.
This two-disk version also contains extras including appearances by Paul Newman and others reflecting on John Huston's accomplishments.
Little Man, What Now?
I had never heard of Hans Fallada until some better-read Amazon Friends recommended him to me.
Born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen in 1893 to a bourgouise family, he took the name Hans Fallada from Grimm's Fairy Tales. Fallada's life was tragic and short: he was tormented by drug and alcohol addiction and struggled with mental illness.
An adolescent suicide pact with a friend resulted in the friend's death and Fallada's failed suicide attempt. He found menial work as a farmer and legitimate employment as a journalist. But his literary career was marked with repeated censure by the nascent Nazi Party.
A critical and popular success was "Little Man, What Now?," which was made into a Hollywood movie and brought some acclaim. But the fact that the film was made by Jewish producers also brought him under scrutiny by the Nazi censors. Fallada's drug and alcohol addictions and the petty crimes he committed to finance them put him in mental institutions and jail. Despite opportunities to leave Germany, he chose to stay, causing others to criticize him for not getting out of Germany. One reason for Fallada's current popularity is the Melville House, which has published translations of "Little Man, What Now?", "Every Man Dies Alone," and "The Drinker." For those like me who do not read German, these are the best introductions to his work.
On its face, "Little Man, What Now?" is the story of a young couple's search for a stable life in an uncertain, post- WWI world.
They face a critical housing shortage, hyperinflation (thousands of worthless marks for simple food stuffs), and the prospect of a baby ("Shrimp") on the way. But it is also a roadmap to the totalitarianism that would follow the morally and economically bankrupt Weimar Republic. The humiliations brought on by Germany's defeat in the war included the hated "reparations," and people were looking for scapegoats - anybody - to blame for Germany's defeat. That, of course, included Jews, Catholics, immigrants, intellectuals and generally anyone better off than themselves. Pinneberg, the young protagonist, works at a grain dealer's. One of his co-workers, Lauterbach, is a thug who wears the dreaded SA insignia. "He was a real German, trustworthy, and the sworn enemy of Jews, wogs, reparations, Social Democrats and Commies. And that made up for everything. Lauterbach had only joined the Nazis out of boredom." Fallada's story of Pinneberg's love for his "Lammchen" is touching and tender, and darkly humorous. In one poignant scene, "Lammchen" goes to the store for some salmon for dinner. But the pregnant woman has an irresistable craving, and eats all the fish on the way home. She breaks into tears when Pinneberg arrives home, and he consoles her. "Pinneberg now realized that nothing mattered but keeping Lammchen out of hardship and making the Shrimp happy." At another point (after having been promised a non-existant job by Pinneberg's mother) they find themselves living with their in-laws in Berlin. "Lammechen" desperately wants a dressing-table with a mirror that they can't afford. Pinneberg buys it... not out of extravagance or frivolity...but out of love, so he can see his pregnant wife reflected in the glass. Pinneberg is one of millions of underemployed, or unemployed, white collar workers who have no say in their lives. He is not so much apolitical as politically naïve ---what one writer calls "intellectually homeless."
By reading between the lines we get a sense of the imminent threat hanging over the struggling young couple.
There Will Be Blood
There Will be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 classic "There Will be Blood" is a searing portrayal of ambition, greed, and betrayal set in Southern California in the early 20th century. It is the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a silver miner-turned oil wildcatter and his climb from poverty to great wealth. Along the way it examines the cult of evangelism, the strength of family relationships, and the emotional toll exacted by gaining success at any price.
Thematically, the movie is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's
Novel "Oil!, which in turn is based partly on the life of Edward L. Doheny, of Teapot Dome infamy. In the movie, Plainview's son H.W. becomes deaf when the big gusher comes in. In real life, Doheny's son Ned was killed in a murder-suicide involving his male secretary and purported lover. The killings took place at Greystone Mansion, the enormous house the elder Doheny built for his son. The mansion is the setting for the final scene of the movie, which I won't divulge.
The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Paul Dano as Eli Sunday who also plays his brother Paul. Eli is an ambitious evangelist, intent on growing his church with Plainview's money, which comes from the oil from the Sunday family's ranch.
One element of the movie that didn't work for me was the introduction of a drifter, who shows up one day claiming to be Plainview's half-brother. Inconsistencies show up in his story, and in a fit of rage Plainview takes his revenge.
I've purposely held off discussing Daniel Day- Lewis's performance until last. There is no disputing the intensity of Day-Lewis's acting, but for me, it was too over-the-top.
Day-Lewis is notoriously avoidant of interviews and self-explanation, so we are dependent on the performance alone to determine his character's motivation.
I give the movie four and a half stars... taking off one star for the poor packaging the CD comes in. It's a cheap piece of cardboard like you find in supermarket discount "dollar DVD's" and a lousy way to market a product.
A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age
A Bright and Guilty Place
Greystone Mansion still stands in Beverly Hills, occasionally used as a location for movie filming. Built in 1926 for $3 million in 1920's dollars by oil magnate Edward L. Doheny as a gift for his son "Ned," it was there that Ned and his male secretary and purported lover died in a murder-suicide in 1929. That's one of the elements in Richard Rayner's "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and LA's Scandalous Coming of Age."
Photos of Los Angeles in the `20's show forests of oil derricks which followed the senior Doheny's discovery of oil in the tar pits of LA.
During the Roaring Twenties, LA grew at a frantic pace, fueled by oil money, movies, and prohibition. It was the fastest growing city in the world. New public and private buildings went up almost overnight - the impressive City Hall and the fortress-like Hall of Justice where much of the legal drama transpired. With the explosive population growth, the city desperately needed water, which Department of Water and Power Engineer William Mulholland provided when he allegedly stole water from farmers in the Owens Valley. When the St. Francis Dam collapsed, killing hundreds, Mulholland's career ended. With the Depression, displaced Midwestern farmers and `Okies" flooded the state in the misguided hopes of finding their fortune.
Rayner's book is populated by dozens of colorful characters: Charlie Crawford, "The Gray Fox," who had a hand in much of the city's underworld; Dave Clark, the former prosecutor charged with Crawford's murder; Albert Fall, the first Cabinet Secretary convicted of taking a bribe (from E.L. Doheny); the "it" Girl, Clara Bow, and The Reverend Robert ("Fighting Bob") Shuler (not the Chrystal Cathedral Robert Schuller), who used his radio station to thunder against the city's corruption and vice.
Rayner, an English journalist, has done his homework and does a good job capturing the feel of 20's and 30's Los Angeles, but the story jumps around and leaves the reader confused. I had to go back to the "Cast of Characters" at the beginning of the book to recall who was who.