. . . benchley

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"


Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

In an attempt to wrap our recent unplanned series of extremely morbid entries up in shiny black ribbon, I confess that yesterday's Robert-Benchley-lies-bleeding vignette was drawn from one of the many nightmares in which I've passed on due to car crash, plane crash, interpersonal violence, or atomic warfare. And when I say "passed on," I mean on: at the end of the dream I'm resting in peace and remain resting in peace for an indeterminate time after. Most people apparently wake up at such climaxes, but the CTO of my dream factory decided long ago that death makes a dandy cover for the transition from REM to deep sleep.

One thing about dying a thousand deaths is that you start to get used to the idea, and, although total extinction leaves me with an unpleasantly disoriented hangover, for waking up screaming and morning-long malaise it doesn't begin to compare with nightmares in which lovers walk out, my family falls into some disaster, or friends tell me what they really think.

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Fatal Glass of Beer

  It is a sad song
"It is a sad song...."

Nonsense is what closes before the theater gets rented. I've read folks who claim that's because nonsense is an anarchistic blow against the rigid patriarachy, but they usually have such poor taste that I can't trust them. More likely, not that many people enjoy nonsense. Even to achieve decent cult status, it has to hide beneath a pretense of parody: Andy Kaufman's and Steven Wright's contrasting parodies of stand-up comics, Robert Benchley's parodies of inarticulate bureaucrats, Marcel Duchamp's parodies of gallery art, Ulysses's parodies of all kinds prose, The Simpsons' parodies of The Simpsons....

And once that small degree of success is attained, the pressure to eliminate all irrational thought really starts to build. Nonsense is not anti-form (good nonsense has beautifully controlled tone and structure), but it is in some ways anti-narrative, particularly the sort of transparent identification-friendly narrative that publishing and other entertainment industries are set up to provide. Sense holds together and makes "natural" what nonsense interrupts, distracts, and makes an arbitrary mess of. For the crafters of transparent narrative, nonsense's disruptions are most easily explained as toothless villainy: a generator of conflict and a delayer of the inevitably sensible resolution.

"In the theatre, he was a make-believe character playing in a make-believe world. In films, he was a real character acting in real stories.... If he must play a nasty old drunk and be publicized as a nasty old drunk in order to work on the Edgar Bergen radio show, then so be it.... it was after Fields escaped realism and returned to his world of make-believe that he made his best films."
-- Louise Brooks, "The Other Face of W. C. Fields"

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a return from exile, all right, but it's the return of a very tired 61-year-old in more dire need of Mrs. Hemoglobin than he might realize. And so my own favored glimpse of the ancient Fieldsian kingdom comes from the 1933 short, The Fatal Glass of Beer, a relatively straightforward filming of a well-honed stage parody of Yukon melodramas: there's little room for him to show off his physical grace, but the deadpan purity of his nonsense is all the more bracing.

"Long shot, medium shot, two-shot, or closeup, Bill performed as if he were standing whole before an audience that could appreciate every detail of his costume and follow the dainty disposition of his hands and feet.... As he ignored camera setups, he ignored the cutting room."
-- Louise Brooks

"It's certainly a bright moonlit night tonight."
  Although most of the attempts at "opening out" the sketch are typically Sennett -- the over-literal illustrations of Mr. Snavely's ballad and the close-ups of his dogsled's team plop in about as amusingly as a cowpie in the face -- one segment suggests what Fields might've achieved if he'd been (or been allowed to become) as engaged with the mechanics of film as he was with the mechanics of performance.

After Mr. Snavely goes out to milk the elk, we're treated to typical stock footage of a herd. Which then turns into badly done rear projection. And then (as the herd begins to gallop and the camera moves closer to them and Fields reproaches the loss of any possible suspension of disbelief with his usual mildness) goes on to turn into utterly absurd rear projection -- a cinematic approach to the legendarily polished ineptitude of his juggling act.

"The Fatal Glass of Beer" by Charlie Case, as adapted by W. C. Fields

MR. SNAVELY: You won't consider me rude if I play with my mitts on, will you?

OFFICER POSTLEWHISTLE: Not at all, Mr. Snavely. Not at all.

MR. SNAVELY: There was once a poor boy,
And he left his country home
And he came to the city to look for work.

He promised his ma and pa
He would lead a civilized life
And always shun the fatal curse of drink.

Once in the city,
He got a situation in a quarry
And there he made the acquaintance of some college students.

He little thought they were demons,
For they wore the best of clothes,
But the clothes do not always make the gentleman.

They tempted him to drink
And they said he was a cow'rd
And at last he took the fatal glass of beer.

  When he'd found what he'd done,
He dashed the glass upon the floor
And he staggered through the door with delerium tremens.

Once upon the sidewalk,
He met a Salvation Army girl,
And wickedly he broke her tambourine.

All she said was "Heav'n --" [RAISES HAND] "-- Heaven bless you,"
And placed a mark upon his brow
With a kick she'd learned before she had been saved.

Now, as a moral to young men
Who come down to the city:
Don't go 'round breaking people's tambourines.

OFFICER POSTLEWHISTLE: That certainly is a sad song.

MR. SNAVELY: Don't cry, constable. It is a sad song... My Uncle Ichabod said, speaking of the city: "It ain't no place for women, gal, but pretty men go thar."

. . .

The Weeds of Crime:
The Harrington Gambit Baby Face Harrington

Butterworth in party hat
"Watch me. I'm going to be dynamic. Hey hey!"
Baby Face Harrington was also based on a play -- but that play had died under another name after four performances ten years earlier, happily freeing the adaptation of filial obligations. A bare hour of film doesn't require a professional three-act structure; it can manage very well on a few gag sequences -- even fewer when taken at Charles Butterworth's molto adagio tempo.

I've never particularly welcomed Butterworth's appearance in a film. He seemed to hobble progress: the camera positioned itself, eager for amusement, waited, faltered, and finally, baffled, moved on. Now I understand the deadlock: Butterworth is as out of place in someone else's movie as a Larry Eigner lyric would be in a paragraph of a techno-thriller, as out of place as an inventor in a Restoration court.

Like his friend Robert Benchley, Butterworth didn't offer a collection of jokes but a critique of consciousness. Where Benchley is driven and betrayed by articulation's social component, Butterworth drifts and dogpaddles into wistfully meditative isolation. Refusing to let go of anything and unable to maintain focus to any conclusion, he clings to blooming buzzing confusion, the material world looming in and out of the fog as idealized promise and as incomprehensible threat. He's certain that a speeding train will let him pass once he's signaled a left turn, and yet he's possibly the only man ever to be physically menaced by Donald Meek.

BROAD FOREHEAD: The Cunning of a Wolf
"This fella says I got a split personality."
"Oh, you mean a sissy."
"No; it's a term used by psychiatrists."
As you might imagine, this approach to comedy requires a bit of patience. The first set piece of Baby Face Harrington -- a tediously botched "trick with eggs" -- is a static and unamusing nothing by its bare self. The leisurely, seemingly improvised, lead in and build up and reaction are the good stuff, although if this was anyone else's vehicle they would've had to be trimmed. What captivates isn't the painfully executed performance but the forever unfulfilled promise:
"I also imitate birds. Purposefully."
Similarly, any movie might take pleasure in the sight of Una Merkel with a gun; the scene only becomes Butterworthy as she dreamily begins to use it to smooth her beloved's hair.

Although director Raoul Walsh didn't find this assignment worth mentioning in memoirs or interviews, he soldiers manfully through slow parts good and bad, and although cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh may have thought it a bit of a let-down compared to his other MGM jobs that year (A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Lubitsch's The Merry Widow), he provides an appropriately dim look, especially striking in the movie's most extended sequence, a suicide attempt:

Trying the rope Philosophy

Suicide is always good for a laugh, but the best way to end a comedy is with a sex joke; ending in marriage is merely a special case. (Heck, the only funny moment in Some Like It Hot is its final sex joke, and that was apparently enough to make it the best comedy ever.) And Baby Face Harrington won my heart with a last smut as peculiarly satisfying as Sherlock Jr.'s or The Sin of Harold Diddlebock's: Butterworth's reward is to be permitted an honorable (rather than shameful) retreat from frighteningly unreliable community into the cozily shared confusion of eros. Something to remember on New Year's Eve....

"Would you care to dance?"
"If you do."
"Well, I do if you do."
"Well, I do if you -- Willie, do you know you haven't kissed me yet?"
"... In front of all these people?"
"I will if you will."
"....... Let's go home."
+ + +

A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters....

Public-minded citizens may wonder at the effect of such a message. Who knows how many crimes were incited and souls degraded before Hollywood finally got around to acknowledging a possible downside to that formula, twenty years later?

. . .

Two Political Allegories

-- dedicated to all the pediphiles down at Candidia Cruikshanks
"If the feet knew their strength as we know their oppression, they would not bear as they do."
- Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, speaks to Parliament in the 1590s

"And the brave little blood cells tumble down, down, down on the long journey to the feet -- where they take one look at those feet, turn around, and rush right back."
- Robert Benchley explains the circulatory system in the 1930s

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

The Sport Parade (1932)

Leonard Maltin mentions the lame story, the flashy direction, and Robert Benchley's brilliant screen debut, not looking as puffy-fishlike-thing-on-the-beach as he would a few years later but already blatantly inserted, as America's worst color commentator ("And it should be a great Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth game today at Yale Stadium, here in Cambridge, Massachusetts...").

True, true, all true. But it says something probably not worth saying about heterosexual hegemony and the all-male capsule review business that unmentioned goes the most eyeboggling aspect of the movie, young pre-Code Joel McCrea. I always accepted on faith that this sullen, stubborn, humorless, not-too-bright character was sexually attractive, but I never really understood why till I saw him with no clothes on.

OK, he's not completely nude on screen. But I gotta say if Jean Harlow or Myrna Loy had spent a sizable portion of a movie greased up and wearing only tighty-whities, Leonard Maltin sure as hell would've found it fit to mention.

Plus: "Skeets" Gallagher!


Ray Davis writes:
Speaking of het. heg., last night I dreamt I visited Patricia Highsmith's home around dinnertime. She threatened to turn testy at times, but her adoring husband and son maintained a sort of stoic cheer through the distraction of baseball. Whether pitching, batting, or fielding, Highsmith was an astonishingly graceful player, and seemed to derive comfort from her own easy precision on the field.

Others dream differently:

All kidding aside, being Patricia Highsmith's son, the Patricia Highsmith of literature as opposed to of earth, and they are different, would be I think, less like The Natural and more than a little like being Betty Topper of Norco.

. . .

The Road to Son of Paleface, 2

This writer, not knowing Hope, can only conjecture what goes on inside the man. He has seen horrible things and has survived them with good humor and made them more bearable, but that doesn't happen without putting a wound on a man. He is cut off from rest, and even from admitting weariness. Having become a symbol, he must lead a symbol life.
- John Steinbeck

Bob Hope starred on radio before starring in movies.

Radio popularity is based on voice. It's an authorial role, and enjoys some of the same freedom. On the blank face of it, Edgar Bergen's radio stardom made no sense. The comic lead of the team, however, was Charlie McCarthy: a little wooden boy who'd somehow acquired the clothing, impulses, and experiences of an Edwardian roué, and was somehow always accepted in all particulars by those around him. Radio was the creature's home; filmed, he became only a ventriloquist's dummy.

Writers are drawn to radio as a medium, and purportedly Bob Hope was the first stand-up comic to openly acknowledge his stable of gag-writers. When he wanted a more spontaneous feel, he'd phone them to rush the gags. Hope's "live" performances were as anti-improvistatory as Mel Blanc's: reliably identifiable no matter how extreme the setting or guise.

Which, in turn, gave them both liberty to step away from setting and guise entirely. Tex Avery's one-shot "Screwy Squirrel" short gets special attention from theorists because the unestablished and unappealing lead doesn't ground the experiment. His self-awareness attracts the eye, whereas audience asides like Bugs Bunny's "He don't know me very well, do he?" are close to invisible.

For radio stars, there's no question about breaking the fourth wall. You've already invited 'em right into your living room. (That's what made radio horror so spooky. When I was seven years old, the prefatory whistle of "The Whistler" and the basso profondo molto legato announcement of "Suspense" provended sufficient nightmare fodder in themselves. No need to wait for the plotline.) Advertisers made the turn to the audience a routine running gag.

Hollywood's openness varied. Relieved from the need to position Hope as a romantic lead, able to give his bloat and stubble free rein, the best "Road" pictures were especially relaxed in their anti-realism, incorporating such absurdities as talking camels and Robert Benchley without strain. You couldn't manage that with Crosby alone, but Hope loosened the reins. Even in his stiffer vehicles, moments of nonsense sometimes tear through the conventional surface. The Princess and the Pirate's highlight comes before the action even begins (which is why I don't feel terribly guilty about spoiling it):

Many, many years ago there sailed the Seven Seas the most bloodthirsty buccaneer in history. Ruthless and daring he was, and, though his soul was black with foul deeds, he feared no creature, living or dead.
Ingratiating Bob Hope inset
"That's not me, folks, I come on later, I play a coward."

Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields drift mildly upwards into their personal unreal, tethered by rude tugs of slapstick and abuse. The Marx and Ritz Brothers drive reality squealing like a moneylender from the temple. Approaching sometimes the misanthropic babble of Groucho and sometimes the nightmarish openness of Fields, Hope is the first movie comedian to attain enlightenment by the road of skepticism: an absolute distrust that undercuts narrative drive, filmic convention, and his own part. On the other hand, he's not a delicate instrument; like a cartoon star, you know that if a bomb dropped on Hope, he'd be nervously wise-cracking in Hell next scene.

Only two things keep Hope's character among the earthly. First, a sensuality which distinguishes him from his colder and more self-conscious (if more consistent) disciples. I can't imagine Bill Murray or Woody Allen matching the delirious canine abandon of Hope as he applied Dorothy Lamour's hand against his face in Road to Morocco. (Allen needed a multiple-orgasm stimulator to come close.) Older burleykyoo types like Chico, Harpo, and Jimmy Durante were too goal-oriented to even notice the species of their objects of desire, much less such particulars as touch, scent, and taste.

And foremost, lack of motivating force. As blatantly untrustworthy as his surroundings and roles are, he sees no alternative.

Lacking other convictions, Hope staked his soul on glibness. If he wasn't "on", he'd vanish completely. No wonder he looks anxious.

... to be continued ...


Is that signpost at the end pointing to a detour into writing about blogging again?

I'd say you just covered that angle.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.