And here are reviews of the other cultural things I've ingested recently: three books, a movie and a couple of TV series.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010) – At its best, Smith’s beautifully-titled memoir of her life with idiosyncratic, doomed artist Robert Mapplethorpe is uncommonly insightful, raw and moving, as a trio of fateful encounters blossom into romance, which in time becomes an epic love that endures even as their lives begin to diverge: Smith graduating from artist to poet to pioneering rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman, Mapplethorpe admitting his homosexuality to himself as he turns from a collagist and painter into one of the era’s defining photographers. The passages detailing his death and then flashing back to their early acquaintanceship and their construction and then abandonment of a self-contained world are extraordinarily powerful, shining a light into the corners of Smith’s soul and revealing the importance that her upbringing, her faith and her commitment to creativity and visionary artistry have played in dictating her life’s course.
And yet the book becomes decreasingly revelatory and compelling as it progresses, Smith traversing into pretension with increasing frequency and intensity, as well as boringly listing which thrift shops she visited, which trinkets people gave one another, which outfits she wore every day and what she had to eat. As a fashion icon, it seems obvious in retrospect that she must have spent time and energy crafting her visual identities, but it doesn’t make for great reading, that blissful middle-ground of relatability, frank emotion and economic but literate prose vacated entirely for long stretches, as we oscillate between posturing and pointlessness.
Even then, though, Smith has a way of snapping back to a truthfulness and precision that's immediately and startlingly effective, and while reading between the lines we can deduce that perhaps Robert wasn’t the saintly, selfless figure that his great defender contends, you would have to be a psychopath not to be moved by the pair’s deep, mutual and unstinting dependence, at times breathtakingly evoked by this flawed but distinctive and heartbreaking elegy – not just for an artist, but for a man, and for the heyday of the grungy, bohemian, dangerous, filthy, accepting, unforgiving and enrapturing New York City that was his. (3)
Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Peterson (2014) – I don’t want you to develop any preconceptions about this book’s contents, based on this image: if only there were a saying that succinctly crystallised this thought.
Anne Helen Petersen’s book isn’t the tawdry, sensationalist rehashing of age-old scandals it appears from the cover, rather it seems that this is the only way you can get a book like hers published. Instead, it’s a collection of blogs from this ‘doctor of gossip’ (she has a PhD in the history of the industry, from the University of Texas) which examines Hollywood scandals or tragedies, how they were managed (or not) by the studios, and what the events, their handling and the fall-out tell us about American society. Each chapter is around 13 pages long (a couple are much longer), beginning with Mary Pickford’s affair with Douglas Fairbanks, closing with the hysteria around James Dean’s death, and in between looking at everything from the tragic lives of screen sex sirens Clara Bow and Jean Harlow to Bogie and Bacall’s romance, and Montgomery Clift’s ‘long suicide’.
The quoted sources are almost all gossip and fan magazines, a fascinating prism through which to view this history, but also somewhat limiting, if the sections on Bow and Harlow are representative of the whole. Though Petersen alludes to David Stenn’s book on Harlow, she either misinterprets or deviates from his impeccably well-sourced, well-argued narratives of both lives, with an alternate vision that seems myopic and incomplete, with no understanding of (or even reference to) Bow’s tortured upbringing. The contrary assertions it does make aren’t attributed to any sources and so seem more like supposition. Though most of the other essays crackle with energy, as we get a witty, accessible and cleverly contextualised whistle-stop tour of a star’s life, usually zoning in on a controversial, widely-covered scandal (Fatty Arbuckle) or tragedy (Carole Lombard), or – more often than not – the ongoing ‘scandal’ that was their self-destruction (in the case of Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando), or their side-lining by censorship (Mae West) or racism (Dorothy Dandridge), as a result I began to question their veracity of completeness. Doubtless some elements are difficult to fact-check through the fog of time and the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood publicity, but her constant get-out of “the accuracy of this claim matters less than…” is frustrating, and there are quite a few typos and errors (Carole Lombard dies in 1941, then signs up to do war work in 1942). That’s a shame, as the Arbuckle section is spot on, the Clift one is a decent effort, and the chapters on West, Dandridge and heroin-addicted silent star Wallace Reid are – at least on the surface – gripping and eye-opening pieces about stars I’ve seen a bit of, but knew little about beyond the headlines.
There’s also certainly no doubt that Peterson is an expert on fan magazines and studio publicity, and it’s a fascinating angle from which to approach these stories. Now and then she'll even turn something you thought you knew about – like Kazan's On the Waterfront, one of the first films I ever loved – so you see it as if for the first time, appreciating how Eva Marie Saint's transformation in the film is fundamentally achieved through Brando's reactions to her. On the other hand, Petersen is writing for an audience with little to no knowledge of these stars and their work, which means that if you’ve read Patricia Bosworth’s book on Clift, Stenn’s definitive works on Bow and Harlow, or even seen – say – Paul Merton’s documentary on Arbuckle, you’re having to sit through an awful lot of familiar (but simplified) material in order to get a little more insight. She’s also somewhat curbed the waspish, sweary tone of her earlier Hairpin articles, which is understandable (I sometimes soften my own writing depending on the audience), but a little disappointing.
It's not that I didn’t enjoy the book. It’s a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit, but it left me a little unsatisfied. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by Karina Longworth’s superb You Must Remember This podcast, which covers these sorts of stories with such skill, insight and journalistic rigour – and at such length – that she leaves most other film historians trailing in her wake. (2.5)
With enduring thanks (and sincere apologies for my usual ungratefulness) to my friend Soph for sending me this one.
Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote (1980) – A book of extraordinary grace, incisiveness and honesty which further bolsters my impression that Capote remains one of the most important, original and underestimated writers of his era. Fuck his artificial image as a catty, trivial, morbid starfucker, and study the work: dark, devastating, morally decent work shot through with his actual character, the shadows of an encroaching darkness creeping across the sun-dappled idyll of his New Orleans childhood. Even fans tend to lean on a popular narrative – pushed in last decade’s cinematic biopics – that sees him in terminal decline after the trial of In Cold Blood, but while it’s true that he degenerated into substance abuse (an affliction dealt with in breathtaking fashion in the last of these 14 pieces), and that with it his work-rate slowed, this book may well be his creative zenith.
In Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, he explains (entirely preposterously) that in the late ‘80s he found a new way to sing: a mathematical formula that has enabled his voice to endure his Never Ending Tour (please post your punchlines below). Here, Capote does much the same, denigrating his entire back catalogue as he seeks to articulate exactly why, and how, he’s developed the new style premiered in this book. Unlike Dylan, who is talking through his silly cowboy hat, Capote is sincere. His style here is so clean, precise and economical, yet to formally inventive, that it takes the breath away. Every decision he makes, from delayed gratification, to leading with dialogue, to drifting into remembrance and reminiscence, seems right, and his evocation of emotion, of nature, and of character is remarkably specific and so uniquely powerful.
There are six short stories and seven conversational portraits, alongside a non-fiction (?) centrepiece about a serial killer, and each is remarkable in one way or another. Perhaps my favourite piece is Dazzle, a multi-layered story with a time-shifting perspective that’s about love, fear and guilt, as Capote relives the story of his paternal grandfather, a fortune teller and two terrible secrets: one comic, the other tragic. It is flecked with wonder, touched by horror, and redolent with an unstudied compassion for his younger self, before a climactic sucker-punch that knocked me sideways. But it’s just one masterpiece among many. The other short stories are rich in irony, but unwaveringly sincere, as they deal with self-loathing, denial and the secrets (or unspoken truths) that dominate the book, while his egalitarian ‘portraits’ take in a weed-smoking cleaner, Marilyn Monroe, pastoral novelist Willa Cather and amoral Manson acolyte Bobby Beausoleil: though you could class the first of those as ‘hilarious’ and the last as ‘chilling’, that’s to reduce them from the multi-faceted, playful, probing, touching, humane and sad works that they are. The only piece that doesn't quite work for me, at least not unequivocally, is Handcarved Coffins, the lengthy true crime chapter at the book's centre. It has passages of great insight – on sexuality, obsession, delusion – but at times its language is oddly forced, and ultimately I'm not sure exactly what the point is that Capote is constantly circling and yet never quite landing upon.
It makes sense, perhaps, that when the book does malfunction, it's in both style and content, for it's the balancing of form, viewpoint and revelation, both overt and within the reader, that is the book's great strength. Music for Chameleons is beautifully-written, but even Capote’s admirers often stop right there, and it’s much more than that. His swaggering, elegant, stylistic brilliance – even as a supposed has-been, with a pickled liver and a nose stuffed with coke – is really a way of packing as much wit, pathos and meaning into each line as possible. His style is not an end in itself, it's the way he carries truth to the reader. (4)
See also: I wrote about In Cold Blood here, and some earlier Capote works here.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) – It only took me 16 years to see Spirited Away, and what a wondrous, spectacularly odd film it is: Ghibli on an epic yet intimate scale, as a little girl named Chihiro gets waylaid while moving house, and Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination goes into overdrive.
We meet Chihiro just minutes after an emotional farewell to her old friends: she’s sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car, as they trail a moving van to their new home. The family stop to investigate what seems to be an abandoned theme park, and soon the parents have been turned into pigs, Chihiro’s life has been saved by a boy who it turns out is a dragon and also a god, and she’s been forced to find employment in a fully-functioning bathhouse populated by ghosts, assisted by a multi-armed man who lives by a furnace with his friends – sentient bits of soot – and under the cosh of giant-headed Thatcher-a-like Yubaba, whose beloved germaphobe baby is bigger than she is. That’s the first 20 minutes. It carries on in a similar vein from there, as you can see from this short paragraph lifted from Wikipedia:
While visiting her parents' pigpen, Sen finds a goodbye card addressed to Chihiro and realizes that she has already forgotten her name. Haku warns her that Yubaba controls people by taking their names and that if she forgets hers like he has forgotten his, she will not be able to leave the spirit world. While working, Sen invites a silent masked creature named No-Face inside, believing him to be a customer. A 'stink spirit' arrives as Sen's first customer. She discovers he is the spirit of a polluted river. In gratitude for cleaning him, he gives Sen a magic emetic dumpling. Meanwhile, No-Face tempts a worker with gold, then swallows him. He demands food and begins tipping extensively. As the workers swarm him hoping to be tipped, he swallows yet another two greedy workers.The film takes a little while to begin to weave its magic, but without warning you find yourself enraptured, lost in its peerlessly weird universe, spellbound by its animation – by turns serene, frenetic, opulent, disorientating, immersive and repulsive – and touched by its understated but profound emotional core. Its characters are notable for their complexity, duality and depth – often achieved with minimal exertion – as well as for their malleability. Whether by witchcraft or kindness, they can be corrupted or reformed – these are not the one-trait ciphers often fed to animation audiences – and yet there’s a simplicity in the emotional exchanges that’s completely beguiling, and surprising for a film with such a complicated story, and such a wealth of subtext. Miyazaki’s nostalgic vision acts as a commentary on a modern Japan that has lost its way, betraying its national identity and its environmental responsibility with a greed that’s evoked with both subtlety and a crude, in-your-face literalism. This, it says, it what happens when you only have a yen for yen. On a surface level, it's also great to have this coming-of-age tale led by such a brave, forthright, decent, ass-kicking girl. There should be one in every story.
The film isn’t perfect: while transfixed and impressed by its balls-out, apparently authentic weirdness, I found it initially distancing, and there were times when the movie’s proliferation of oddball supporting characters, the scenes necessary to accommodate them and its general noisiness (compared to my favourites thus far, Totoro and Porco Rosso) began to tire. It always, though, came back to itself: to Miyazaki’s singular if somewhat unregulated imagination, to the sincerity and simplicity of the Chihiro-Haku relationship, and to the aesthetic analogue that is Spirited Away’s exquisite animation. (3.5)
The music's lovely too.
The Nazis: A Warning from History (1997) – A topical rerun of this seminal series, 20 years on. It’s history as investigative journalism, shorn of all sensationalism and ghoulishness, which changes much of what you thought you knew about the Nazis, such as their bizarre, deeply dangerous power structure – competing, antagonistic department heads seeking to turn Hitler’s psychopathic monologues into policy – the role of voluntary, informal informants in making the Gestapo appear omniscient, and the self-justification of ‘ordinary’ Germans who enabled them to commit unprecedented horrors. From its striking credits to Samuel West’s crisp, authoritative voiceover, its unearthing (and understanding) of revelatory documents to its astonishing interviews with perpetrators and victims alike, it’s a class act, which manages to answer (or at least posit a compelling answer) to that eternal, chilling question: how could it happen? (4)
Spiral: Season 5 (2014) – For five episodes, this erratic but often exquisite French crime series appears to have given up the ghost. It’s tired, disjointed and – yes – even boring, as Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), Gilou (Thierry Godard) and the rest return to solve a slow-moving murder case, a series of ATM ram raids and the mystery of what the hell’s happened to Spiral. Then suddenly, and almost without warning, it explodes into brilliance, its stories dovetailing – and then artfully unfolding – its human subplots becoming uncommonly compelling, and Proust, Godard and Audrey Fleurot (as complex, flamehaired, bad-ass shyster Josephine Karlsson) hitting devastating peak form. It turns out that it’s all about mothers and daughters, and that neither we nor Laure are allowed to have anything nice happen to us ever. It’s back later this year, apparently. I’m going to record them all and then binge. (3)
Thanks for reading.