. . . Buster Keaton

. . .

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The scary thing is they were able to figure out that I wear a 42D....

. . .

Fragments of Buster Keaton's vaudeville memories are buried under the talking-heads of a typically frustrating NPR program. The original tape -- of great scholarly and minimal commercial interest -- is a perfect example of the sort of thing that should be compressed and made available for downloading. (Courtesy of Looka!)

. . .

Movie Comment: Prix de Beauté

Miss Europe   Louise Brooks's international career was effectively washed and summed up at age 22 by Prix de Beauté: exhilarating innocent and amoral vamp and tragic Typhoid Mary of lust ("The Girl Can't Help It so we'd better kill her") all in one variably bouncing package. Even the title manages to do some summing up: as world traveller Juliet Clark points out, it can be translated as either "Beauty Prize" or "Price of Beauty."

No long black limousine door ever swung shut more solid than the final shot of Prix de Beauté, the eternally radiant Brooks trilling above her thrownaway husk in as definitively cinematic a moment as Maggie Cheung's resurrection in Actress or Buster Keaton's simiantographer in The Cameraman....

And, while laying Brooks to rest, Prix de Beauté premonitioned the decade to come: Miss Europe dreams of glitter, is shoved into grinding poverty, and is finally blown apart by resentment.

These reflections are occasioned by the recent restoration of the silent version of Prix de Beauté. Like in the early 1960s recording industry's mono-stereo transition, the late 1920s saw the movie industry making both silent and sound mixes, and like in the early 1960s, the old-style mix was almost always better.

Well, plus any restoration is gonna have hindsight and research and new prints on their side.

The point is you shouldn't run right out and look at the crummy semi-bootleg videotapes of the sound version, you should wait and support your local fancy-shmancy moviehouse when they show the silent version or wait till the silent version comes out on home video. Here's me to tell you why!

Thanks, me. Here's why:

  1. Like with a lot of "Continental style" silents, the characters are meant to be annoying and abrasive. OK, but having already pushed that envelope as far as it could stretch, the envelope busts like an overheated can of beans when annoying abrasive voices are added.

  2. In particular, Louise Brooks couldn't possibly play Miss Europe (née Miss France) with a Kansan accent ("New York Herald Tribune!"), so it's probably not her voice in the sound version, and she's the biggest star, so I feel ripped off.

  3. Like with a lot of "Continental style" silents, Prix de Beauté relies on clear crisp photography for much of its impact -- can't really appreciate all that grime and glimmer without clear crisp photography. Restorations tend to be clearer and crisper than crummy semi-bootleg videotapes.

  4. Most of all, the sound version blunders structurally in a big way. The second oomphiest sequence of the movie takes place in an urban carnival: crowded, obnoxious, irredeemably ugly, a fun time for Brooks's awful boyfriend but a headache for Brooks. I hate carnivals, I hate fairs, I hate parades, and I like this sequence.

    In the sound version, it's positioned before Brooks gets her crack at fame and fortune and seems pretty much inexplicable, although it's powerful enough that viewers are willing to work hard to explicate it.

    In the silent version, it's positioned after Brooks is dragged away from fame and fortune by "true love," and after "true love" proves so insanely insecure as to insist that she even stop fantasizing about fame and fortune. There, the sequence makes perfect sense: this is the reward that "true love" is willing to return her for her sacrifices: the honor of watching frantic clowns make assholes of themselves around a bunch of other frantic clowns.

    The old organization makes the movie front-heavy (where the front's the weakest part) and leaves Brooks unmotivated in the second half, where the new (and presumably older than old) organization builds logically and satisfyingly.

Close-ups of mute loudspeakers are a small price to pay.

. . .

Everything Is True; Nothing Is Permitted

I first encountered the attempt to pit the dim light of quantum mechanics against the deepest fogs of cognitive neuroscience in a paper sponsored by the Vatican and authored by soul-searcher Sir John C. Eccles. What mostly struck me was the incongruous disproportion between the two-thousand-years-tall edifice of Catholic theology and the subparticular results on which Sir John had wasted such strenuous ingenuity. It all seemed as fascinating, hilarious, and sad as a Buster Keaton routine.

I was reminded of Sir John when I read Henry Adams's 1882 response to William James on receipt of some early essays on religious psychology and societal evolution:

  Fiend Without a Face

As I understand your Faith, your x, your reaction of the individual on the cosmos, it is the old question of Free Will over again. You choose to assume that the will is free. Good! Reason proves that the Will cannot be free. Equally good! Free or not, the mere fact that a doubt can exist, proves that x must be a very microscopic quantity. If the orthodox are grateful to you for such gifts, the world has indeed changed, and we have much to thank God for, if there is a God, that he should have left us unable to decide whether our thoughts, if we have thoughts, are our own or his'n.

Although your gift to the church seems to me a pretty darned mean one, I admire very much your manner of giving it, which magnifies the crumb into at least forty loaves and fishes. My wife is quite converted by it. She enjoyed the paper extremely. Since she read it she has talked of giving five dollars to Russell Sturgis's church for napkins. As the impression fades, she says less of the napkins.

With hero worship, I have little patience. In history heroes have neutralized each other, and the result is no more than would have been reached without them. Indeed in military heroes I suspect that the ultimate result has been retardation. Nevertheless you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men. So far I am with you. A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred million. What then? They drag us up the cork-screw stair of thought, but they can no more get their brains to run out of their especial convolutions than a railway train (with a free will of half an inch on three thousand miles) can run free up Mount Shasta. Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can't even prove that we are.

Alas, James seems to have chosen not to pursue the correspondence at that time, although thirty years later he wrote, "I ask you whether an old man soon about to meet his Maker can hope to save himself from the consequences of his life by pointing to the wit and learning he has shown in treating a tragic subject."

. . .

'Eddie McTier's' grave

History doesn't go out of its way to support ease, subtlety, and grace. Elizabethan lyric is discarded for Augustan rhetoric; Gene Kelly is preferred to Fred Astaire, Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jet Li, Seka to Georgina Spelvin....

Maybe it just has to do with what reproduces easiest -- what's easiest to follow in a coarse copy -- and that's why Jim Davis outsells George Herriman and why Bob Dylan's elder-statesman cover of "Little Delia," which moves like he's jammed his boot in the slop bucket, has gotten more college airplay than McTell's recording ever will.

Maybe it's as commercially inevitable as Buster Keaton getting paired with Jimmy Durante, but that don't mean I gotta like it.

Guralnick grew up to prefer the "hardcore" sounds of Skip James and Howlin Wolf. It's true, McTell isn't hardcore; his irony is so supple as to be almost boneless.

But why always go for the crunchy center? Humanity is surface and depth at least as much as it's a hard core.

There's what's easy to reproduce and what forces one's attention. Then again there's what's caught by the reproduction and what rewards one's attention. "The distinguished thing."

Willie McTell never had a hit; his work was neither an easy sell nor a quick study. But he kept being recorded; he made something that people wanted to capture -- and they succeeded, occasionally anyway, to the profit of their immortal souls if not of their record companies: the communicable pleasure of the attentive listener.

Consumer Guide

Blind Willie McTell's recordings were made over three decades, and each block has its champions. My conception of McTell as pop-musician rests on the mid-career commercial sessions of 1949, the mid-1930s, and 1950.

Many guitar scholars prefer his earlier recordings, though I find most of them a bit rushed and uncomfortable.

Sociological types might be most taken by the noncommercial documentations of 1940 and 1956, whose talks interest me more than their music.

The "Definitive" in The Definitive Blind Willie McTell refers to the biographical booklet rather than to the CD itself.

Update: Some years later, Joseph Duemer responded.

And some years later still, Patrick Costello.

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My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .

A comment on "Some Versions of Mock-Pastoral, Part I"

2) It turns out there are fairies, men and women can't be friends, one big speech can save the nation and win your love, a guy in tights will protect us from a guy in tights, Republican retards do make the best philosophers, love does conquer all, Charlie Kaufmann must throw in the car chase, chivalry is not dead, Jesus loves screwball nuns, the highest corn stalk successfully blinds the rogue elephant, the right team always wins the big game, Ed Wood did produce a hit....

Yes, we knew it already; we tell it that way ourselves. Fools are almost always vindicated. Even before the pressures of the producer's pitch and the ad campaign, it's so much the fastest way home. Narrative closure is where any fiction, no matter how ostentatiously naturalistic in other ways, stops mimicking reality: where we more-or-less forcefully, more-or-less idiotically, shut our eyes to make the world go away. Intelligence complicates plots; only stupidity can end them.

That fraudulence stings less when there's more to it. Buster Keaton didn't just play a holy fool: he played a holy fool who performed phenomenally graceful and painful stunts.

Even so the formula does get tiresome. (They save the world and next month the world needs saving! They die tragically and then they come back! Oh, fermez la porte, s'il vous plait!) And so does living with the results of all this fool-flattery.

One way to de-simplify is to display those results: Don Quixote riding the bomb that'll trigger the Doomsday Device, hee-yah!; or Troilus and Cressida, even: A Trojan Ending. That's intellectually respectable, but there's something unlovably smug and stand-offish about it, with a whiff of titillation-and-punishment hypocrisy. Despite its manifest inferiority as a script, I find the ending of Elektra: Assassin far more satisfying than that of Watchmen (and the happy endings of The Sentimental Education and The Temptation of Saint Anthony far more satisfying than Madame Bovary's catastrophe).

Another way is to allow the dolts their rightness while still rewarding the clever, who, after all, only need to get stupid while negotiating the finale. Most of my favorite romantic comedies might be described that way; see also the aplomb with which Bill Murray redirects his cynicism from gullible students to the gods themselves in Ghostbusters.


Other possibilities include stepping in to remove the sophisticate before the third act, either by train (Metropolitan) or suicide (Primary Colors).

Postscript: See also the finale of Prince Prigio.

. . .

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.

. . .

Four Freedoms by John Crowley

Historical fiction with no magical props (and no lack of unlikelihood). Like Buster Keaton entering the Civil War, like Abbott & Costello meeting Frankenstein, the John Crowley Novel transplants to a new setting and thrives.

There's a feckless horndog protagonist, of course, under the entirely characteristic name of Prosper Olander, but here his fecklessness carries an objective correlative: crippled legs in a world without ramps or lifts. The home front compensates him with the sexual access American heterosexuals later came to associate with college, and Prosper may be the least embittered disabled hero ever to visit high-mainstream fiction.

Four Freedoms is a rare bird, a war-industry pastoral, and the task of raising Arcadia from the dry and Dry state of Oklahoma lies far beyond the means of a John Crowley Hero. Playing Prospero is an airplane manufacturer who combines the benign shrewdness of George Arliss, the bulk of Eugene Pallette, and the ideals of Charles Fourier. (I suppose it reflects the prejudices of my own notoriously not-so-great generation that I find this throwback more acceptable than the Superhippie who killed Ægypt's buzz.)

And to end all, an All-American Tempest.... The John Crowley Novel intends (and this time achieves) the effect produced in some by Shakespeare's romances, the effect Pericles had on Louis Zukofsky and The Winter's Tale had on Eric Rohmer. (I'm left untouched by both plays, but not by Rohmer and not by Crowley.) A comic cast in a tragic set-up with a comic resolution, unpleasantries drowned in mellow amber, a happy ending from a lost world. Opened, close, closer, and closed.


Addendum for Joyceans: the fabulous company town is named "Henryville".

The other romance (implicitly stated) that is a huge influence on Crowley: Orlando. It's helpful to me to think of Crowley as an author of "romances" in general, because it's a framework in which he can have emotion be trumped by "magic" in one form or another, a theme which seems universal across his work.


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.