Month: August 2018

Lonely Are the Eighteen Material Witnesses

Stacy Danielle Stephens, author and editor and frequent Classically Educated contributor returns this week with a second review of a film dealing with the JFK assassination (for last week’s review of JFK, see here).  

Executive Action (1973) Film Poster

When the DVD sleeve liner says, “written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo,” you’re hoping for something like Spartacus, or at least Exodus, but when you watch Executive Action, you’ll remember that most of Trumbo’s screenwriting was done for the sort of studio Termite Terrace parodied by having Porky Pig crank a sausage grinder in place of a camera. This is not to say Executive Action is a bad movie, only that it is the sort of movie most people watched for the first time on television, after the local news, in the days before cable. It can hold your interest, although you might check out pro wresting at the commercial break. It’s the sort of movie you’d expect to find in a four-movie TCM collection featuring Burt Lancaster.

David Miller had directed popular hits like Captain Newman, M. D. and Flying Tigers, and following on the heels of The Day of the Jackal, Executive Action, the first cinematic treatment of the JFK assassination as a conspiracy, should have been a blockbuster, and even more so for being not only controversial, but introducing that very controversy to the American movie audience. Yet somehow, Miller and Trumbo went very wrong in how they presented what they presented.

Executive Action 1973 Robert Ryan Burt Lancaster

Anyone who has seen JFK will recognize several scenes in Executive Action, particularly scenes involving Oswald. This apparent plagiarism is permissible because these depicted events are documented occurrences, with only some of the speeches in each film being invented by an author. It is in these scenes that both the failure and the reason for it become clear. James MacColl, impersonating Oswald, isn’t convincing to anyone but the used car dealer, target shooter, and gunsmith he’s been hired to deceive in order to frame Oswald as the patsy. Ironically, MacColl, who is technically playing himself rather than Oswald, gives the only impassioned performances of the film, other than the car dealer and target shooter whom he angers. Theirs are the only convincing performances, but even their dialogue is not compelling. They convey feeling, but cannot effectively draw anyone into that feeling.

So why would anyone give up ninety-one minutes to watch a failed effort which became Late Show fodder and ended as an also ran in a lesser collection of alleged classics? Well, throughout the history of television, there have been beer commercials, and a recurring trope in these is the empty glass being filled with beer. Anyone who enjoys beer will visualize just how refreshing the brand being advertised really is. And that is the main reason for watching Executive Action; it reveals how well Oliver Stone filled the aching emptiness of November 22, 1963.

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Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).

A Perfect Big Dipper

 

1001 Days that Shaped the World - Peter Furtado

Those of you who have been following along (bonus points if you were here during the LJ days), know that I have a thing for list books.  I’ve been watching the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die (latest installment here) in order, and then someone gifted me the book 1001 Days that Shaped the World.

Now, I can’t really take the same approach as with the movies until my time machine gets back out of the shop.  They say it will be ready next week, but they’ve been saying that since November of the year 2472, so not sure whether to believe them anymore*.

So instead of living each of the days listed, I had to settle for another unorthodox way of enjoying this book: reading each entry in the order they printed it–which is to say reading the book cover to cover.

Now these aren’t really books that are best enjoyed by reading it that way.  These books are probably the ultimate bucket-list creators and dippers.  By dippers, I am referring to those books you dip into (hence the name) whenever you need to recall a particular fact or event.

What I particularly enjoy about this one is that the author, Peter Furtado, doesn’t let his politics shape the book.  A real risk in this kind of volume is to make evident one’s own leanings by removing events that don’t align with your political bent.  In reading this one, it’s impossible to know whether the author leans left, right or believes that unicorns are evil.  And that is wonderful in this day and age, especially in a book that would have been utterly ruined and rendered meaningless if someone’s politics had been involved. His professionalism as a curator is hugely beneficial (protip: if you’re running a book, an event or anything else that isn’t specifically political–or which doesn’t have big yellow disclaimers about the content–and your politics show, that is unprofessional).

So I enjoyed this one, learned a huge amount, and recommend to all of you on either side of the spectrum.

I like these books a lot.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer. His novel Outside tells of really important events that happened a few hundred years from today. If you don’t have a time machine, you may want to buy it here.

 

*Did you see what I did there?

Because Reading the Warren Commission Report Is Like Drowning

Our star contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens is back.  Today, she brings us her look at Oliver Stone’s JFK.  As always, her eye for history and analysis brings the subject to life.

JFK Assassination

On November 22nd, 1963, that bright shining moment which was Camelot abruptly faded to black.  In an amazingly similar way, when we look back at December 20th, 1991, we see that this big blue ball we know as the earth, after several centuries of spinning and moving just as Galileo insisted it did, began to go flat.  With the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an adroit concatenation of details became more convincing than a rational evaluation of what those details added up to, because it succeeded where David Miller’s Executive Action (1973) failed.  As Roger Ebert concluded, in JFK, Oliver Stone was able to “marshal the anger… gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

It should be noted in passing that contrary to what has been said for more than fifty years, more than one hunter using the same model rifle and same ammunition attributed to Oswald has managed to replicate the allegedly impossible, putting three shots, and not just two, into a moving target at the same angle and distance; experienced crime scene investigators using precise laser measurements have digitally reconstructed the details of Dealey Plaza and recreated the events of that historic day; without resorting to magic, ballistics experts using a bullet identical to the one found on the gurney have replicated its assumed performance in simulated human bodies placed in the position of the president and Governor Connally; and experienced forensic pathologists have evaluated the skull fragments, concluding that those grisly moments revealed in the Zapruder film are the consequences of two bullets, both fired from behind, with the first shattering the skull in a manner familiar to pathologists who conduct examinations of fatal gunshots to the human head.  None of this, or even all of it taken together, gives any indication of any shooter other than Oswald, but of course, it doesn’t prove that Oswald was the shooter, or that one shooter acted alone.  If one believes there was a conspiracy, one cannot be convinced by the available evidence that there was no conspiracy, yet if one wishes to dismiss any possibility of a conspiracy, one is hard pressed to ignore the myriad coincidences surrounding this assassination.  And this is the strength of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

JFK movie poster 1992

Stone does not fail to marshal facts, but he uses them for emotional impact rather than for their factual value, just as one collecting bricks need not build a wall with them, but might choose instead to hurl them for impact.  “The film hurtles,” (Ebert again) “for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters…”  This is not to say his collection of facts is complete, or that the facts themselves have all been, or even could be, verified beyond question.  Stone himself conceded, perhaps disingenuously, that JFK was an “alternative myth”.

The impact of his impeccably crafted myth is all the greater for its cast of mythic proportions.  Donald Sutherland, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy are all cast in minor roles.  Joe Pesci is cast in one of his best supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Clay Shaw, plays one of his most unusual roles impeccably well, effectively giving the devil his understated due as a foil to Costner’s equally impeccable presentation of a District Attorney caught up in something surely beyond his jurisdiction, and yet falling somehow squarely within it.

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

Paradise Lost by John Milton - Airmont Edition

You’re reading a blog called Classically Educated.  I suppose that an appearance by Milton shouldn’t be much of a surprise…  Also, we’ve done poetry before, too…

Of course, even those of us who’ve never read John Milton’s epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, know about Milton’s Satan.  He is often pointed at as one of the great characters in the history of literature, and used as the prime example of how villains are so much more interesting than the good guys.

And it’s true, he is.  Not particularly sympathetic, perhaps, but definitely interesting.

But I often wonder how much of the character’s sympathetic nature has been created by modern readings of the poem.  Would a 17th century reader have been captivated by Satan’s cleverness or perseverance or have seen it as a warning and a danger, kind of the way modern people might see the industrial might of a military rival?

Most readers of that time, I believe, would have read the poem as a cautionary tale, and heeded the implied warnings against pride and arrogance contained within.

Milton's Satan by Gustav Doré

Nevertheless, the more interesting question of what Milton intended still persists.  We need to remember that, before composing his opus, John Milton was an official of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, as such, the Christian paradise he refers to might be a symbol of the political one he feels was destroyed by Oliver’s death–although it would be really, really hard to place Cromwell in Satan’s role in this case.

Viewed in a different light, the poems (Lost and Regained) might have been written more in the way of a Shakespearian tragedy: the virtuous, albeit flawed protagonist struggles to the best of his ability, only to be crushed in the end.

Contemporary critics appeared to take the poems in the same light as his readers.  They were much more astonished at his skill than offended at the positive portrayal of some of the devil’s characteristics…  so no light got shed there.

I suppose the truth went to the grave with the author.  That hasn’t stopped seas of ink flowing into analysis later… but I can’t give the answer.  What I will say is that, unlike Chapman’s Homer, this one is an easy, often riveting read that holds up well in modern times.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts about what old Mr. Milton intended.

If you haven’t, don’t do what I did.

I made the mistake of taking this one along as reading material on an international trip…  Not a good idea.  When you’re on a trip, you want something that can immediately, effortlessly, whisk you away into a plot.  This one requires concentration and effort.  Not airport reading material.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short-story writer.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, has one major advantage compared to Paradise Lost: it is not in blank verse.  You can check it out here.

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.

 

 

Advancing the Middle-Earth Story

The War of the Ring - JRR Tolkien - Christopher Tolkien

I’ve been reading the History of Middle-Earth series for a few years now – and have recently read The War of the Ring.  As I mentioned before, it’s a fascinating look into the thinking and process that went into the most influential modern fantasy work.

Today, everyone in the fantasy genre is defined by Tolkien.  Most obvious are books like the Wheel of Time or the Shannara series which in greater or lesser measure build on the Tolkien formula (the Brooks books do so more transparently, but almost every quest-based, journey-of-the-hero fantasy series does so in greater or lesser measure).

The rest of the genre, of course, is desperately trying to break away from the Tolkien tradition.  They hate high fantasy with a passion, either for silly “political” reasons (it is western-based and non-inclusive) or for more understandable artistic reasons; when a writer says they dislike the subgenre because the characters, far from acting like real people, fit into the roles that legend assigns them, makes a valid point.  But even those who break with the tradition do so self-consciously, always trying to define the exact limits of the shadow of the colossus they’re trying to escape.

And for people outside the genre, fantasy is essentially synonymous with Tolkien.

Yeah, I think understanding what went into creating this giant is worthwhile.  But more than just an academic pursuit for writers, it’s also a fascinating one.

As I mentioned earlier, the true, grinding world-building went into the Silmarillion.  This project was Tolkien’s passion, a labor of love that he knew would likely never see the light of day.  Dismayed as he was by the lack of an English mythology (Romans and 1066 saw to its destruction), he set out to create one from scratch.

From short texts and poems set in this mythology grew the story and world that we love today… but it grew in layers that would make an onion feel inadequate.  A lot of the fun of the History of ME books comes precisely from reading Christopher Tolkien’s descriptions of the scraps of paper his father used to compose the original drafts.  One comes to have a great admiration for the editor’s work in this case.  Actually it became the world we met in The Silmarillion.

So when he decided to write a children’s book, The Hobbit, he simply (what a deceptive word, that “simply”) layered it over what he’d already spent decades building.

And LotR built on that, another layer to the cake.

This particular installment deals with the destruction of Isengard, and comes, as should be evident, at a time when many of the bones of the mythology were already in place.  It is in near-final form, and reads very smoothly, unlike some of the early texts which were intentionally written in an archaic style.  As always, the true fanatics will love mining the text for differences with the final version while less-obsessed readers will enjoy revisiting the world and reading about how Tolkien built his masterpiece, as revealed by Christopher.

I can’t really recommend this series to everyone, of course.  But I will happily do so to writers who enjoy a window into another writer’s craft and also to OCD fanatics.  It is an effort, but it does have its rewards.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His novel The Malakiad, far from trying to escape Tolkien’s shadow, would likely make Tolkien attempt to disavow the fantasy genre.  Also, it’s a very funny book.  You can check it out here.

Art History for Traditionalists

Mona Lisa - LeonArdo Da Vinci

I have no formal education in art, and my knowledge of Art History boils down to what I’ve gleaned over years of visiting museums, watching documentaries and taking free online Art History courses.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about the online courses is that they focus a huge percentage of their resources to teaching us about art that, to put it delicately, is not the kind of art people queue up to see.  So we get to learn about modern Caribbean art, feminist political art or the art of under-appreciated Latin American communists.

Meanwhile, in the real world, anyone who’s wandered the Louvre knows that it consists of huge, empty halls where you can spend hours admiring some of the lesser-known pieces (the last time I was there, a marvelous exhibition of traditional African art was on display…  I spent forty minutes there, and saw only four other people… on a Saturday) while a chainsaw is required to cut through the crowds to view old Leo’s Gioconda – which is reached from a corridor full of Italian renaissance masters which is almost as crowded as the Mona Lisa room.

Clearly, modern academia, as usual, seems to have lost touch with what’s important and is focusing on its political preoccupations.  Nothing new there, nothing particularly objectionable, either–we all know that academics are not tastemakers, they just record what they think is important during their own little slice of time while wearing blinders–but it does put us in a quandary: what to do if one desires an overview of Art History without wasting time on nonessentials?

An easy answer appears to be to pick up any Art History book from before the dawn of political correctness.  Those will focus on Western art and ignore everything else except for those traditions that fed directly into the canon.

But those books have a problem.  They can be stuffy as hell.  What is the layman who wishes to become an educated layman to do?

The Arts by Hendrik Willem Van Loon

Four words: Hendrick Willem Van Loon.  As the name implies (can we call it an implication if it’s such a dead giveaway?  Let’s) he is a Dutchman, who, for professional purposes was based in the US.  He led an interesting life (banned from entering Germany by the Nazis, for example), but most importantly for our purposes, he wrote a book entitled, quite simply, The Arts.

My own copy, of course, does not have the dust jacket and is the 1946 edition (the book is from 1937), which I bought at the jamboree at my local anglican church (a veritable cornucopia of unexpected books) for a small price.

It was worth every penny.  Van Loon is what, today, we’d call a popular historian, and he makes the history of art both accessible and interesting.  He doesn’t just tell us about the works, but goes into the society around the artist and into the artist’s foibles deeply enough to give us an idea of why things were produced.

Better still, the book is heavily illustrated, by Van Loon himself, mostly.  So, despite there being zero photographs of paintings, the book never becomes a dull read.  I found myself intrigued by his descriptions and googling artwork continuously as I read, a luxury the original readers didn’t have, which makes this book even better for today than it was for its own age.

The volume doesn’t limit itself to the more traditional study of painting, sculpture and architecture, but also includes quite a number of chapters on music, which was both a surprise and a treat.  Van Loon clearly felt very strongly that music, in addition to those other forms of expression was central to cultural life.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this book hasn’t been reprinted since 1974.  That’s not surprising.  Entire art movements have sprung up in hope and died in obscurity (with a few exceptions) since it was written.  Newer thinking has superseded it.  But that newer thinking was precisely what brought us to this book in the first place, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, as it were.  We don’t want the newer thinking.

What we want is to see the art that has given countless generations past and present pleasure with more education.  If you truly want to catch up on significant posterior trends, you could always complement the Van Loon with this volume.  We wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but you could.

But the Van Loon will do more to teach you about art people actually care about than any Art History course I know of for the same price.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  The title story of his collection Virtuoso is about an artist, which means that he has to read up sometimes.  You can buy the collection here.