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Agenda Bender
 
Saturday, November 29, 2003  

Books That Move and Movies That Don't


I almost didn't take the new tombstone from the Diane Arbus estate down from the library shelf. First there was the fear of dropping it and killing the woman standing next to me. And then there was the bigger concern, did Diane have anything to say that she hadn't already told me a hundred times before. Her spell is everywhere afterall, and has been since the day she died over 30 years ago. I took the dangerous weapon down anyway. No one was hurt and something was learned.

She's better and more likable than I even remembered. There were plenty of pictures I'd never seen before, and contact sheets for some of her most famous shots. Fascinating to see the 20 or so rejected images of the boy who starred in the Child with a Toy Hand Grenade picture and of the ceiling scraping giant posed in his living room with his normal altitude folks. But it was the new pics that really renewed my admiration. Especially some of the pictures devoid of her trademark human faces. The shot of an empty funhouse with the car track snaking off into the darkness, the Hollywood prop house facade on a hill, the shots from Disneyland of the rocks on wheels, the prefab rockface, and the witching hour castle and swan.

The middle section of the book is made up of smaller format pictures and memorabilia interspersed with journals and letter excerpts. What impresses you here is the sheer effort involved. Diane worked for these pictures, went anywhere that seemed promising in search of her subjects. And when she found them she approached them first as human beings and only secondarily as photographic objects. She says at one point that she has releases on file from people she never got around to actually taking pictures of. She kept in touch with many of the people whose pictures she took. It's this humanity that shines through in all her work. Her great eye is undeniable but without the great soul attached she wouldn't have taken pictures of such power. And yes, charm. Arbus saw herself more as an archaeologist (or alternately, a butterfly collector) than an artist. She was right about that, and that's no shame at all.

Other things I learned, or relearned having forgotten them: Diane's brother is the poet Howard Nemerov. Her husband, Allan Arbus, left for California to become an actor shortly before her suicide (they'd been separated but had remained the closest friends for many years). He was working on the Robert Downey (senior) movie Greaser's Palace, in which he starred, at the time of her suicide. Diane photographed Borges in Central park. And Mae West in bed with her pet monkey-- IN COLOR.

Another excellent picture book: The Universe 365 Days. It collects the best pictures with facing page explanation from the astronomy image of the day website. Seems to me just about the perfect format for a popular science book.

An excellent recording: If He Swing By the String on a Marlene Dietrich compilation. Black Market is good too, but I'm partial to that phrase, and that concept, so perhaps I'm too generous there.

An horrific film: Kevin Smith's Dogma. I wasn't watching it, but it was on and every glance up was rewarded with a miserably framed, poorly acted and ill-written moment. Chris Rock really needs to be prevented form appearing in movies, and Mr. Smith from making them.

3:47 PM

Thursday, November 27, 2003
 

The Reader Unmasked: A True Tale of Thanksgiving


I was past due for a new sensation and yesterday delivered one. I followed a link to Cathy Seipp's UPI story about the micro-scandal of NYT's correspondent Bernie Weinraub's purloined pargraph. Weinraub lifted some copy from Hollywood blogger Luke Ford's page. The Weinraub story is only interesting to me because it revolves around Ford. I don't think Weinraub's crime amounts to much, cutting and pasting a perfunctory backgrounder graf from Ford, who had in turn had copied it straight from someone else. But Ford interests me, and I was happy to see him get a co-starring role in Weinraub's embarrassment.

I read Seipp's take on this knowing that she was a part of Ford's L.A. coterie, I have my own half-formed thoughts about Ford, so I was looking for sharper insights form someone who actually knows the curious guy. Seip gives me a little something to build my further impressions of Ford on, but she stumbles badly towards the end when she writes:

"It's to his credit that Weinraub is smart enough to read him," a reader commented about Luke last week on the media junkie site Gawker.com. "Anyone getting an actual paycheck to cover Hollywood would be a fool not to. He's the real thing, an obsessive chronicler of the town ... [although] you feel like your own mind is being hijacked when you read him."

The reader she's quoting is me. It took me a few seconds to realize this. My own vagueries got quoted back to me when I was looking for more particulars from Cathy. It felt great.

I had written a letter to Choire Sicha whose rude stare powers Gawker.com. Choire had posted that Ford's page seemed an "unusual" source for Weinraub, which meant to me that Choire wasn't aware of what an intriguing character Ford is. So I sent him this (I'll keep the email's erratic glory intact):

choire,

Is it really so "unusual" that luke ford was a source for weintraub? The circle enclosing ford's fame is small, but weintraub is tied in enough to be aware of it. It's to his credit that weintraub is smart enough to read him. Anyone getting an actual paycheck to cover hollywood would be a fool not to . He's the real thing, an obsessive chronicler of the town. And every -thing, -body, -place else that touches his life. Let him get the leads, and fill in the background for you. Sure, you need to be smart enough to wipe his fingerprints off your own prose when, uh, reconfiguring his stuff, but everybody knows that rule. Bernard W. fucked up. And not majorly.

Ford wears me out and I can't read him as much as I'd like to. There doesn't appear to be any quiet in the guy's head. You feel like your own mind is being hijacked when you read him. But he's clearly got something (haha, a most definite je ne sais quoi, in other words)

Be great if this media bubble was a little bigger than it's going to be. Ford deserves wider notice.


Gawker isn't a daily stop of mine, my mediacentrism is already dire enough without importing more of it from Manhattan, so I hadn't realized Choire had published my letter. He printed it as from an unnamed "reader", which robbed me of a gawker link, but that disappointment was more than counterbalanced by the favor he did me by correcting the misspelling of Weinraub's name in my letter. Oh the misery if he'd published the letter over my name with my misspelling intact, a [sic] after my Weintraub solecism would have cut like a trans tunnel bunny high on straight razor vengenance. Not exactly deft to misspell the name of the key player in an email that pretends to blasé all-knowingness.

So I give thanks for the previoulsy untasted sweetness of anonymous citation in a wire service story (even if it is on that brand name moonshadow of its former self, UPI) and my close call escape from poseur humiliation.

Life is good.


2:04 AM

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
 

Ashamed, But Not Enough To Stop


Memo to Michael Jackson's heirs, aka his defense team: If settlement negotiations break down and courtroom hardball fails, there is always this possible witness relocation technique.

Bonus mugshot smackdown karma crack-up:

The Wichita Lineman Vs Ben

The Wichita Lineman appears to be still on the lines. Ben appears to have misunderstood the command and torn himself up by mistake.

We kid because we love.

And yes, I am ashamed. A Michael mugshot link 5 days after everyone else, and after the tragic thing has been disseminated by every extant hot and cool medium, anyway. Here I am piling on with Greta and Larry and Geraldo and O'Reilly, not a pile I even want to look at, let alone join. So very deeply ashamed. It's just with the Glen Campbell pic staring at me this morning....

You realize of course that these two pretty much divided up the pop charts between themselves, circa 1970. Thirty-three years. Always has been an unlucky timespan.

Glen was peaking in 1970 with several good gliding years left, while Michael had just blasted off. In their moments of darkness, let us recall the summer sun: Galveston, Rock With Me, Dreams of the Everyday Housewife, Human Nature, Where's the Playground Susie?, P Y T (Pretty Young Thing).

Like that.

4:29 PM

Monday, November 24, 2003
 

Dawn of the Dude


Ron Rosenbaum's New York Observer column is always worth reading. Rosenbaum is easily one of the best journalists alive (all the dead ones are good). His big fat book of three decades worth of collected investigations, The Secret Parts of Fortune, is on my short list of the best long books. Mr. Rosenbaum did some important work on an important subject recently, the etymology and later life of that decisively important word, Dude. A word that appears dozens of times on this self-same page.

I believe I have something to add to his thoughtful consideration of the matter. It is my conviction that there is a single source for the re-emergence of the word dude, first as a surfer/skateboarder honorific, and later as an all purpose term of adolescent deference/affection/solidarity, in the 1960's. The fountainhead, the mountain pool that fed the mighty river of Dude as it roared through the subsequent decades was Lee Marvin in the form of Liberty Valence. The man Jimmy Stewart appeared to have shot, when all the while it was the Duke (so very close to Dude, that) shooting from the shadows (the dusty knoll) who really done him in. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence was released in 1962 and had certainly begun its TV broadcast career within a few years of that. Marvin plays one of the most despicably attractive characters ever to drive a horse across a movie screen. Stewart is his foil, his patsy, his bitch. An eastern lawyer with dreams of a civilized, legalized west. The first time they meet Marvin beats Stewart almost to death. Whips him almost to death, to be exact (told you he was a bad hombre). This sets the tone for their subsequent encounters, Marvin tortures and torments, Stewart bears up, but always from the ground. Until the Duke saves his ass once and for all with that off-screen sucker shot.

What you need to know is that Liberty Valence, that wildly evil and world historically self-assured rogue, addresses Jimmy Stewart as "Dude" throughout the movie. Stewart is of course a dude in the classic sense, a pretend westerner, horse and gun shy. But this is where the word makes the blood/brain jump, this is the punctured equilibrium of dude's evolution. There is no derogation in Lee Marvin's pronunciation of it. It's a matter of fact that Stewart is a Dude, so that's how he is addressed. But even more important than this subtle transformation is that Marvin says the word beautifully, powerfully. A character that appeals mightily to the boy mind (well, a certain kind of boy) recontextualizes the word with his badass grace. The certain kind of boy on Lee/Liberty's wavelength, shortly begins to impersonate this thrilling monster of suave domination. It is dude zero hour, the dawn of the dude has commenced.

1:43 PM