1000 Times Good Night

13 Mar

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I can’t explain it—just one of those things— but I am always confusing Juliette Binoche with/and Julia Ormond. Not a consequential difficulty as both are talented actors and much loved by the camera. As of late, I am given to skimming through the vast videographies of Netflix and Amazon Prime and more often than not, finding a gem here or there that I had overlooked. Or simply had never known about. As an ambient part of this activity, I wonder if my delicate brain chemistry has changed— as I am more habitually looking for quicker payoffs from narratives — which is to say I am not reading as many novels. And I am watching more multi episode series (from House of Cards,past seasons of Justified and my new favorite , 2 seasons of Peaky Blinders)

And so, I am pleased to have come across a brilliant and subtle (if that’s a possible recipe) film 1000 Times Good Night

Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is one of the world’s top five (as proclaimed by her editor)war photojournalists, braving life endangerment to photograph horrific and tragic images in various zones of belligerence. Fueling her efforts are a deep seated anger at the extent of man’s cruelty and inhumanity which impels to her to fight for a somnambulant world’s attention via horrendous and nightmarish images. At the out set of the story Rebecca is in Kabul, recording the rituals surrounding the preparations of a female suicide bomber. She is seriously wounded and returns to Ireland and her marine biologist husband and her two young daughters— all of whom evidence some degree of trauma from Rebecca’s dangerous calling. Her husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who at one point screams at her that she smells of death, presents her with a choice— give up working in war zones or separate herself from their family. With great and understandable ambivalence she opts for her family. Although at first she turns down an offer to photograph a [safe]refugee camp in Kenya— her daughter expresses a desire to go for her to accept this assignment for a school project. With some effort Marcus is convinced that such a trip would be a beneficial bonding experience. Naturally havoc ensues.

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At any give time, on this diminishing planet,there are hostilities wherein one tribe, faction or piece of terra firma is battling another.Apparently, it has always been so and in our great beneficent modernity we are frequently given the opportunity to witness some or all of the subsequent killing fields and broken survivors.Bringing this bad news to people privileged to encounter it in the comfort of their homes or on mobile devices requires that there be people who risk life and limb to add various harrowing goings-on to the human record, sometimes called history

I have spoken with such people—brave and perhaps foolish— who travel and work in the war zones of the world—Jon Lee Anderson,* Sebastian Junger,** Anne Garrels***— I always ask them,almost as an accusation(though it is a perfectly understandable impulse), if they are thrill or adrenaline junkies. All deny it but it is hard for me to accept that is not part of the allure of far flung places.There is certainly enough evidence of the risks involved. The death of photographer Tim Hetherington.The suicide of Kevin Carter, who in 1993 brought the world the indelible image of a vulture on the ground waiting for the death of a young child.

Reportedly,Carter was , the remainder of his short life, troubled by his
‘failure’ to give aid to the subject of his photo

Vulture watching Starving Child

Vulture watching Starving Child

And yet for some people, a life away from concrete jungles and seas of transmission wires, is a life well lived.

I recall a time when a(dubious)condition, disaster fatigue, was offered as some kind of mitigation for the comfortable to pay little of no attention to suffering and depravity in some distant place (not to mention in their own back yards) Author Maaza Mengiste has written about the dilemma of getting attention for various suppurating wounds that dot the terrain of this planet

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is expected to declare that it is once again in a state of famine. The crisis has been caused by conflict between government forces and various opposition groups… The situation has been called the most rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis today, but without an image startling enough to make the headlines, it has remained invisible. The world’s gaze is being directed elsewhere, towards the devastating news emerging daily from Gaza and the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17….South Sudan is not the only African nation in crisis. There is also the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The three cases share one striking similarity: not enough attention is being paid to what’s going on…. It could also be that we have simply tired of African tragedies. If an image must grab our attention before we read an article, then perhaps we have seen enough…Photographs of violence ask us to bear witness to atrocity. Bearing witness begs us to respond. When there is nothing left to do, it is easy to fall prey to numbing helplessness and confusion…But maybe confusion and uncertainty are what we should be feeling. … capacity to bear witness and our need to protect our capacity for compassion. Perhaps there is something to be done even when the appropriate reaction feels unclear.

The war zone journalist, as represented in 1000 Times Good Night,vividly portrays the range of issues entailed in undertaking this danger filled work. Its a world any person with a moral imagination needs to be familiar with.

Jon Lee Anderson*
Sebastian Junger**
Anne Garrels***

Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts..

13 Mar
Newton North #58 [photo:RB]

Newton North #58 [photo:RB]

As a 9 year old living in Chicago Robert Birnbaum came under the sway of the triumphant Cuban Revolution. He attended Mather High School in Chicago’s 50th Ward graduating 451st of a class of 551 in 1964. After university worked briefly in the Chicago Public Schools and The Kinetic Playground. His draft lottery number was 311. He left Chicago in 1971. He currently lives in Newton MA where his son Cuba is a captain of the Newton North High School Football team

Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts

12 Mar

12 March 2015

Cuba & Beny [photo: RB]

Cuba & Beny [photo: RB]

Rober Birnbaum grew up in Chicago and attended Chicago Public Schools and a number of mediocre universities. His weekly visits to the library encouraged by his mother has lead to a life long attachment to reading. Among his favorite and influential writers are Nelson Algren, Herman Hesse, John Barth, Howard Zinn and Hannah Arendt.He lives with his hound Beny, in a suburb west of Boston where his son Cuba is a captain of the high school football team.

Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts.

11 Mar

11 March 2015

Robert Birnbaum was born in a displaced persons camp in Europe in 1947 and landed in Chicago in 1952. He briefly resided near Wrigley Field before his family decamped for Chicago’s Golden Ghetto. Despite a subpar college education, he has made a reading lifelong. His two guiding principles are, “Is it good for the Jews?” and “The sports team from my locale is superior to the sports team from your locale.” He resides in 02465 with his pooch Beny.

Nick (Nixon) & Jock (Sturges)

6 Mar

Some years back I saw a film entitled Smoke with Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. I don’ t remember much about it except that Keitel portrays a smoke shop owner. Every day, he crosses the street, sets up a camera on a tripod, at the intersection adjacent to his shop and photographs his store front. For fifteen years.

Now this project raised some questions — mainly around the notion of the value of Keitel’s effort and the valence of what was created. Viewing Keitel’s subject (the store front) did not immediately spark the thought that, ‘wow, that would make an interesting photograph.” In any case, photographer Nicholas Nixon, has every year for the past forty photographed his wife Bebe and her three sisters. The results have been made public in a number of iterations. There was the exhibition of the photos at the Museum of Modern Art (November 22, 2014-January 2, 2015)

The Brown Sisters: Forty Years by Nicholas Nixon

The Brown Sisters: Forty Years by Nicholas Nixon

And then there was the New York Times Magazine which featured a a full gallery of the black and white images. And, of course, there is the hard cover monograph Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters. Forty Years(The Museum of Modern Art, New York ) with an afterword by exhibition curator Sarah Hermanson Meister. The publisher’s notes are clear

In August 1974, the photographer Nicholas Nixon made a group portrait of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters, Heather, Mimi and Laurie–the Brown sisters. He did not keep that image, but in 1975 he made another portrait of the four, who then ranged in age from 15 to 25. Working with an 8 x 10-inch view camera, whose large negatives capture a wealth of detail and a luscious continuity of tone, Nixon did the same in 1976, and this second successful photograph prompted him to suggest to the sisters that they assemble for a portrait every year. The women agreed and have gathered for an annual portrait ever since. Nicholas Nixon: 40 Years of the Brown Sisters celebrates the 40th anniversary of the series with luminous tritone reproductions of all 40 portraits and a new afterword which examines the series’ public exhibitions, critical reception, and cult following. Like the previous editions of the series, published in 1999 and 2008 for its 25th and 33rd anniversaries (both out of print),Nicholas Nixon: 40 Years of the Brown Sisters is a milestone in an ongoing project that we hope will continue for many years to come.

The Brown Sisters (courtesy of the Fraenkel Gallery)

The Brown Sisters (courtesy of the Fraenkel Gallery)

Here Nicholas Nixon says some smart things about taking pictures

Some number of years ago (circa 1990), when I was in the publishing game, I came across news that San Francisco photographer Jock Sturges was being prosecuted (one is tempted to write ‘persecuted) by the Feds.His studio was raided by San Francisco police officers and FBI officers, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer–everything relating to his occupation as an internationally recognized fine-art photographer. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors denounced the raid and a grand jury subsequently declined to bring an indictment against him. In 1998, unsuccessful attempts were made to have his books The Last Day of Summer and Radiant Identities classed as child pornography in Alabama and Tennessee describing them as “obscene material containing visual reproduction of persons under 17 years of age involved in obscene acts. Sturges responded:

This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all. They are living in contexts that are naturist, which is to say that when it’s warm and people feel like it, they don’t wear clothes. It’s laughable, and we’ll win these cases, however far it has to go. If it gets to the Supreme Court, I’ll have the directors of every museum in the country as expert testimony that my work is legitimate art. If obscenity is simply a matter of somebody being without clothes, then there are so many other things that would be inherently obscene–medical books, the National Geographic. People need to realize that a cultural war has been declared here.A virulent, aggressive minority has decided that Americans don’t know themselves what it is they should see, and need to be protected by people who are wiser than they are, even if they are only a tiny sliver of the population. This represents a whole new level of attention to the arts by repressive forces. It’s very scary, and it has to be withstood.

Fanny by Jock Sturgis

Fanny by Jock Sturges

Like Nick Nixon’s project that has endured over forty years,Jock Sturges has been photographing a young French girl,Fanny, over a twenty three year period, which is well documented (with sepia toned and full color prints) and reproduced in Fanny by Jock Sturges(Steidl)Here’s the publisher’s description:

Fanny is an extended portrait of a young girl’s transition from child to woman. Made over a period of 23 years, the images are at once beautiful in their detail of light and identity, as well as frankly anthropological in their descriptive effect. A naturist since birth, Fanny’s comfort with nudity and her natural self has allowed Sturgis to draw an engaging portrait of the evolution of a human being with few social distractions. His access to the girl’s and woman’s character is direct and fascinating. Long known for his extended portraits of children and adolescents, this book is strong evidence of Sturges’ permanent commitment to the people in his work.

Fanny, Montalivet, France 1990 by Jock Sturges

Fanny, Montalivet, France 1990 by Jock Sturges

Here’s a excerpt from an interview with Jock Sturges

As we record this interview, you’re in New Mexico and I am in France in a naturist resort with a summer population of 29,000 people on the Atlantic Coast. There are many other such resorts up and down this coast and elsewhere in Europe. I’ve been coming here for thirty years. Nudity means nothing to anybody here. People come here to exist wearing whatever they want. When the weather is cool, people wear something. If women have their period, they usually wear bottoms. People wear whatever’s relevant or nothing – as they please. Children, especially, are rarely clothed here, because they enjoy so much not having clothes on. If you exist in that context for a while, it gives you an artificial notion of what’s reasonable behavior as regards the rest of the world. This is such a comfortable place to be.

Fanny, Montalivet, France, 2011 by Jock Sturges

Fanny, Montalivet, France, 2011 by Jock Sturges

Here’s an online gallery of the book

And here is Jock Sturges talking about his view of photography

Currently reading The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Putnam)

Just Talking: How to Do Things with Words

26 Feb

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In the last three decades I have undertaken an open-ended independent post-graduate course of study. Included in my syllabus has been nearly a thousand conversations with people I place under the broad rubric of story tellers. And here I have provided public access to an incomplete list of my notes from my chats, from all across the Internet:

From A (mis) to Z (inn)

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis

Andre Dubus III

Ben Katchor

Tony Earley

W.D.Wetherell

Amy Bloom

Ron Rash

Arthur Bradford

William Giraldi

John Summers

Josh Ritter

Julian Barnes

Adam Gopnik

Ruben Martinez

Chip Kidd

Paul Lussier

Edith Pearlman

Attica Locke

Charles Yu

Jo Nesbo

Alan Gurganus

George Saunders

George Sciallaba

Alan Lightman

Darin Strauss

Manil Suri

Joan Wickersham

Ann Enright

John Sayles

Tony Horwitz

Thisbee Nissen

Jim Harrison

Ben Fountain

Benjamin Anastas

David Shields

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]


Howard Zinn

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In Memoriam Rosie (The Dalai Labrador) 1997-2007

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

War Crimes 101/Tortured Reports

20 Feb

Before she became an apparatchik of the Obama administration Samantha Power wrote a useful book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. which among other things discussed the relatively recent origin of the concept. Raphael Lemkin, coined the term “genocide” in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin

Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin

The Nuremberg Trials relied on that definition and in 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted it— defining the crime of genocide for the first time.

The question of war criminality and genocide has arisen in recent times with the horrible slaughters in Chile, Rwanda and the Balkans (how the murderous ghouls in EL Salvador, Guatemala and Argentina have not been called to account is inexplicable). And based on what what is now known and continues to be revealed here in the USA, there is gathering momentum if not a movement, to hold the Bushist regime accountable as war criminals. Now, as for example the Henry Kissinger has avoided prosecution ( though subpoenaed in British and Spanish courts), the likelihood that George Bush,Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfield and Condaleeza Rice will be brought to justice is,well, nil. However, it is, in a small way, hopeful (“the voice of reason is small but persistent”)that the conversation is being joined.

The Troika Of Evil

The Troika Of Evil

THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE REPORT ON TORTURE COMMITTEE STUDY OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY'S DETENTION AND INTERROGATION PROGRAM

THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE REPORT ON TORTURE
COMMITTEE STUDY OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY’S DETENTION AND INTERROGATION PROGRAM

I would have been skeptical that there was much interest in the unholy practices of the US security apparatus but when the The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program was published by Melville House, its 50,000 initial press run was reportedly sold out in short order. Heres the publisher’s description

This is the complete official summary report of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation and detention programs launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Based on over six million internal CIA documents, the report details secret prisons, prisoner deaths, interrogation practices, and cooperation with other foreign and domestic agencies. It also examines charges that the CIA deceived elected officials and governmental overseers about the extent and legality of its operations.Over five years in the making, and withheld from public view since its declassification in April, 2014, this is the full summary report—fully searchable in digital format—as finally released by the United States government on December 9th, 2014.

The Torture Report: What the Documents say about America's Post 9/11 Torture Program-by Larry Siems

The Torture Report: What the Documents say about America’s Post 9/11 Torture Program-by Larry Siems

Larry Siems (co-wrote the America’s Watch Report  Brutally Unchecked: Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S.-Mexico Border) who is Director of Freedom to Write Programs for both PEN USA in Los Angeles, and PEN American Center in New York authored The Torture Report: What the Documents say about America’s Post 9/11 Torture Program The Torture Report(OR Books) which is his explication of the official report

‘The Torture Report is a definitive and often stirring rebuke to those who are still publishing books and touring the country claiming their ‘enhanced interrogations’ worked and were not torture. Reconstructing, directly from the documentary record, scenes from Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, and foreign dungeons, Siems manages both to prove the torture apologists wrong and to give voice to the two groups of people they don’t want us to hear: those who were tortured, and those in the military and intelligence services who said no to torture from the start…

GUANTÁNAMO DIARY  by Mohamedou Slahi

GUANTÁNAMO DIARY by
Mohamedou Slahi and edited Larry Siems

Since 2002,

Mohamedou Slahi

Mohamedou Slahi

Mohamedou Slahi who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo since 2002 has written the first and only diary written by a still-imprisoned detainee. Three years into his captivity Slahi began a diary, recounting his life before he disappeared into U.S. custody, “his endless world tour” of imprisonment and interrogation, and his daily life as a Guantánamo prisoner. Its an amazing document and a memoir of falling down an endless rabbit hole. The United States has never charged him with a crime and a federal judge ordered his release in March 2010, but the U.S. government appealed that decision, and there is no sign that the United States plans to let him go.Why is Slahi still in Guantánamo? Five years on, there are no signs the US plans to release him. Slahi speculates the government realized that it had gathered a load of non-combatants and “is [now]stuck with the problem, but it is not willing to… disclose the truth about the whole operation”.

Larry Siems has sensitively edited this diary using litigation and reports to fill in redactions whenever possible. He has never met or communicated with Slahi. When he requested a meeting to ensure Slahi approved of his edits, a Pentagon response quoted the Geneva conventions: “Prisoners must at all times be protected… against public curiosity” (the same article forbids inhumane treatment, violence and intimidation).Astounding.

Murder at Camp Delta by Joe Hickman

Murder at Camp Delta by Joe Hickman

Staff Sergeant Joe Hickman who spent twenty years in the military—after 9/11 he served as a team leader and Sergeant of the Guard in Guantánamo Naval Base. Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantanamo Bay(Simon & Schuster) is his eyewitness account about Guantánamo Bay—detainees murdered, a secret CIA facility for torture, and the US government cover

I recall receiving a book catalogue in the spring of 2002 with the photo below as its cover. Now, as then, I found this image very distressing

Prisoners at Guantanamo

Prisoners at Guantanamo

Pennies from the Land of Lincoln

13 Feb

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I grew up in Chicago, which, being located in a state called Illinois, celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. I have always found it curious that it is Illinois and not Kentucky(his actual birthplace) that claims for itself the rubric “Land of Lincoln”. And I have been told, though it may be apocryphal, that the only reason for the penny’s existence is the State of Illinois’s insistence.

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Be that as it may, apparently in other parts of the country regard for the Great Emancipator has diminished —so that he must now share a car sales holiday with the father of our country,George Washington—Presidents’s Day. So it goes. In any case , I believe I have learned about as much as I need to know about Lincoln, having availed myself of Gore Vidal’s novel of the same name.In fact, let me venture (to the sure fire opprobrium of some of my more judicious friends) to opine that reading Vidal’s fictional history of of the USA offers a better insight into the real story than the usual academic texts.

Angels and Apes by Adam Gopnik

Angels and Apes by Adam Gopnik

Recently Adam Gopnik fabricated Angels and Apes, a clever book based on the coincidence of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin’s birthdays.What I recall from my reading  of that tome is that books on Lincoln rival in number those of Jesus Christ. (the popularity of Lincoln books obviously an easy path to publication, I considered marshaling my considerable historical research skills to create a book about Lincoln’s dog.)

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

Lincoln A novel by Gore Vidal ( Random House/ 1984)

Lincoln's Body by Richard Wightman Fox

Lincoln’s Body by Richard Wightman Fox

Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox ( W. W. Norton )

“Lincoln’s Body explores how a president ungainly in body and downright “ugly” of aspect came to mean so much to us.”

President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, by Harold Holzer

President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, by Harold Holzer

President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, by Harold Holzer (A Special Publication of The Library of America)

This enormous story is told in more than eighty original documents—eyewitness reports, medical records, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, diary entries, and poems—by more than seventy-five participants and observers, including the assassin John Wilkes Booth and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot him. Also included eulogies by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, and Benjamin Disraeli and poetry by Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Julia Ward Howe two speeches by Frederick Douglass—one of them never before published—reveal

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes(Yale University Press)

“Hodes brings to life a key moment of national uncertainty and confusion, when competing visions of America’s future proved irreconcilable and hopes for racial justice in the aftermath of the Civil War slipped from the nation’s grasp. Hodes masterfully brings the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination alive in human terms—terms that continue to stagger and rivet us one hundred and fifty years after the event they so strikingly describe.”

 Lincoln for Beginners by Paul Buhle

Lincoln for Beginners by Paul Buhle

Lincoln For Beginners by Paul Buhle and Sharon Rudahl (For Beginners)

Looking at Paul Buhle’s bibliography reveals a rich assortment of picture history books—FDR and the New Deal For Beginners, A People’s History of American Empire with Howard Zinn, Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Beats: A Graphic History, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. And my favorite Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form In this tome, Buhle attempts to simplify the who Lincoln was out of a morass of historiography

Lincoln's Greatest Case by Brian McGinnty

Lincoln’s Greatest Case by Brian McGinnty

Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America by Brian McGinty( Liveright)

In May 6, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton barreled into a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge—the first railroad bridge ever to span the Mississippi River. Soon after, the newly constructed vessel erupted into flames and sank in the river below, taking much of the bridge with it.This case, Hurd et al. v. The Railroad Bridge Company,as  presented by Lincoln scholarBrian McGinty is viewed as the most consequential trial in Lincoln’s career as a lawyer.

What I did not know anything about in Lincoln’s history

The Conspirator by Robert Redford

The Conspirator by Robert Redford

was the tragic case of Mary Surratt who was the lone female charged, found guilty and hung as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. Robert Redford’s 2010 film,The Conspirator,makes Secretary of War Edward Stanton the villain as he pressures for a conviction. Fine performance by Robin Penn.

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Currently reading Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Larry Siems (Little Brown)

Talking Cuba and Che with Jon Lee Anderson

8 Feb
John Lee Anderson [photo Robert Birnbaum]

John Lee Anderson [photo Robert Birnbaum]

There is, for a multitude of reasons, a journalistic endangered species —namely the war correspondent. Happily Jon Lee Anderson, who currently files his stories under the New Yorker banner is still working and is about as authentic a journalist as practices that once honored profession. He’s been to every hot zone of the our times— Central America, Iran /Iraq, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Ireland,Israel and Uganda and written a number of enlightening books The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, and The Fall of Baghdad.

I first met Jon Lee Anderson in the summer of 1997 on the occasion of the publication of his well-regarded biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara —which was especially poignant for me as I had recently visited Cuba. Talking with Jon Lee was quite easy, as if we were resuming an unfinished chat. For this and other reasons (that will be obvious from our talk), it’s clear that the affability he brings to his calling is a skill (for lack of a better word) that stands him in excellent stead. With all manner of babble flowing and flying around us in the ether, one ought never underestimate the value of a journalist who can talk and listen—and can do it almost anywhere in the world.

The recent news that Anderson is working on a biography of Fidel Castro and the big shift in US/Cuban relations reminded me that I had spoken with Jon Lee years ago, about his definitive Che biography. And later when he published a book about Iraq. The subject of Che also crept into that chat

RB: Have you seen Paul Berman’s [2004] piece on the Motorcycle Diaries film?

JA: I thought he got a little hot and bothered. [chuckles] He felt a little strongly, a little too strongly. After all, Che in rhetoric—Che was fire and brimstone—the apocalypse cometh. But it didn’t happen. And in retrospect with Osama bin Laden—if you think about it. This man who wants to declare war on the great power. There are some odd and uncanny resonations. Che was no terrorist. He was a totalitarian, yes. But Paul has forgotten that there was a time, a crack in time in the ‘60s when almost anything seemed possible and a kind of utopian totalitarianism is somehow a logical outgrowth of the apocalypse of WWII and nuclear bombs and the threat that we all lived under that possibility of imminent elimination. And I am not trying to excuse Che.
 

Robert Birnbaum: Was this a difficult book to write?

John Lee Anderson: It was a hard book to do. You never know how long a book is going to take you. I had guestimated that it would take three years, and I was prepared — fully prepared — to give that much of my life to it, and it ended up being five, of course. And I think the thing that made it most difficult was the fact — and the reason that it took as long as it did — that Che was, after all, a mythologized figure, and Cuba, where I went to try and fill the gaps and clear up some of the theories and conjecture about key periods in his life, was a place where there was a deterministic cordon around his figure. Because, after all, he is that island’s revolutionary patron saint, its apostle, and so people are very protective of his public image. And I had to wade through a lot of euphemism, earn a lot of trust, and overcome a lot of skepticism in order to gain the kind of access that I needed. That took time. And I needed to obtain a level of discourse that was sincere, and that took a hell of a lot of time. But it did happen.

RB: Could you have written this without his widow’s help?

JLA: No.

RB: Would you have written it without his widow’s help?

JLA: No. No, and her expression of willingness to collaborate with me was fairly tentative at best, but I seized it. It was on my second trip to Havana, after I was aware that I hadn’t quite cracked the inner circle, [that] I desperately felt I needed to find his widow. I managed to on my second trip. This is back in ‘92, when I was still kind of trying to figure out how to go about the research. I had been to Moscow, I was making exploratory trips. And at the end of my spiel, when I laid out for her what I hoped to do, I seized the bull by the horns and asked her, would she help me, and she said, in a tentative voice, yes she would. And I said, enough for me to move here with my family? And she said yes. So that’s why I did. I realized by then that I couldn’t come and go and get the kind of trust that was essential to getting as close as possible to the truth about Che.

RB: Why?

JLA: Because. . . . Well, to be honest, at that time, I didn’t fully know why, except that Cuba was an island, it had something of a siege mentality, and certainly then, in ’92, it was right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was really bottoming out. It had lost virtually all of its subsidies, and the abyss seemed to be yawning in the immediate future for Cuba, and so there was a kind of [siege mentality]. They’ve always had the siege mentality because of the embargo, and because of the past, and the ongoing confrontation with the United States. But now, suddenly, nobody really had any answers about what was going to happen, and so I think they were especially sensitive to anything that might be antagonistic, or damage them or their external image and their knowledge of themselves, I guess. But all I knew was that as a reporter and as a person that’s been around, I just knew I wasn’t getting people talking to me from the gut. I felt as though I was getting the kind of thing that a visiting reporter would get.

RB: Stock answers?

JLA: Yeah, a bit better than that. But it all depended on how I synched with people. Yet I knew that it wasn’t going to be enough, and that anybody else could do that. And that what I absolutely had to do was get in there and get close to the people who knew him best. And who knew him better than his wife?

RB: Was it an ordeal by residency or something like that?

JLA: [Laughs] Yeah, actually. . . .

RB: Where’d you move to?

JLA: Well, initially to a flat overlooking, well, just up from the Karl Marx theater. It was a third floor walk-up — beautiful — overlooking the sea, but impractical, as our flat was flooded with sewage, and our water was intermittent. The lights you can put up with, but we had a three-month-old baby, a two-year-old child, and a four-year-old child, and we had to move eventually. I had to restore a house to do so. We moved to an old seaside enclave at the eastern edge of Havana on the way to Marina Hemingway, and it had been one of the Soviet enclaves that had been left derelict when they left. And it took seven months to fix up the house. And we finally did. I moved the family in, and by then we were almost a year into our time in Cuba. And I felt it was necessary to go off to Argentina, so I did — I left my wife and my kids and I took off. And I have a stoic wife, she kept saying, “Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.” We were having the 18-hour blackouts, but no big deal. When I came back, though, I found out that three days after I left that the water had stopped running — literally — and never returned. And it was mysterious, you could never find out why the water had, in our house, disappeared. And so after that we would have to scramble to make arrangements with black-market state cistern trucks. Our favorite supplier was with the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission [laughs]. That was very good, I never thought of that line, what was it, “Ordeal by. . . ?”

Che by Jon Lee Anderson

Che by Jon Lee Anderson

RB: Ordeal by residency —

JLA: — Ordeal by residency, yeah. But it paid off, I became conscious, because people commented on it, and they seemed very pleased that we were willing to come there. Not only that, with the kids, at a time when everybody’s lives were really uncertain. And they were entering definitely their darkest period. The man who was to have been my minder committed suicide shortly after I got there. There were plenty of others I found out about. One day a woman tried to kill herself by leaping in front of my car. I nearly got killed trying to avoid her, and she had been going down the highway doing it to other cars. I was the last one. And so it was a dark and depressing time, and I think people took it, without me ever saying anything, as an expression of human solidarity.

And when my eldest daughter went into Cuban school, we had the help of the nanny who had raised Che’s kids. [She] came and became the nanny for our kids. She was also a trusted daughter of the revolution, and the implication was obviously that since there were no direct lines of control of me, that if I were anything other than who I said I was, we would eventually be known, but there was never any suggestion of that. We developed a good relationship. But as a result, it was a highly pressurized existence. I was under a lot of scrutiny. They were aware of the high-profile nature, the eventual high-profile nature of the book, that there were a lot of foreign publishers as well, that it would be seen everywhere. And at different times, I was dealt with accordingly and given a fairly high degree of access.

RB: When I was in Cuba in ’91, I didn’t see a lot of Che iconography, and on my last trip I saw some but not a lot. . . . So as it came closer to the 30th anniversary has there been more. . . ?

JLA: — Yeah, yeah, certainly. When I went there it was already beginning. Fidel had, in ’87, when Glasnost and Perestroika liberalization were on the horizon in the Soviet Union, Fidel began the rectification process and also revived the spirit and some of the sentiments of Che Guevara. And a few of the other old communists who’d once been his opponents, like Carlos Raphael Rodriguez and others, came out and once again began talking about Che after a long sort of 17-year hiatus, during what I would call the “Soviet period.” And the alarm bells, obviously, were ringing for Fidel, and he was trying to pull in the wagons a bit and saying, “Well, we have made some errors, and Che may have been right,” and so he began to be revived emblematically in Cuba. There was the usual phenomena by the time I was there, something that had been ongoing — the kids in school, the young communist pioneers of the future, “We will be like Che,” the aphorism, the refrain they all say every day at the beginning of school. And intellectuals of the nomenclatura began writing—suddenly there were little books out, late ’80s, early ’90s, on the political thought of Che Guevara, the philosophical thought of Che. My understanding is that they began reinculcating this into the course curricula of the communist-party cadre school, the military officers’ academy, and so forth. And this idea of the study of Che’s thought became much more apparent. However, Aleida, Che’s widow, who was helping me about the same time, she had reopened their old home as a study center of Che Guevara. But really she had the key, and it was her and whoever she decided to see, and she’s a shy woman, and gruff, and somewhat in the margin of things today.

RB: Why did you want to write this book?

Guerillas by Jon Lee Anderson

Guerillas by Jon Lee Anderson

JLA: I think Che was the synthesis, the end of the road for me, of a long period in which I was compelled to know and explore the physical, emotional, and psychological landscape of guerrilla insurgency. I really went into reporting in Central America because I had this notion that to complete my own personal education I needed to see conflict firsthand and my perception of the world in the early 1980s — and it intensified the more I lived in places that were engulfed in civil war — was that this was an almost artificial oasis, this society of Western Europe, and that most of the world was inhabited by people who really could not reckon on a more stable, more peaceful tomorrow. And that the whole question of sanctity or legality of the nation state in many places was open to question, and that there was a whole insurgent world out there with very disparate ideologies and cultures, but nonetheless that the political map of the world did not reflect its reality. In Burma, I found insurgents that were in their fourth generation, they’d been fighting 45 years. There were grandfathers and grandchildren that had been born and raised in the world of insurgency with their own creations, myths, folklore, mythologies, heroes, and martyrs. So it was also exploration of the world of ideology and how it forms, and of mythology, in a way. That was what I really explored in crystallizing guerrillas. And it was in the course of that book, which I did in the late ’80s and very early ’90s, which took me all over, that I kept finding Che as a symbol of veneration, or practical mentor in the form of them studying his manual on guerrilla warfare in very disparate places around the world. It transcended ideology; Afghan {mujahideen, Burmese separatists, Marxists, Salvadoran guerrillas), and it occurred to me, as you mentioned, that in ’91, in Cuba, you didn’t see much of him. Well you remember in the world at that time, he was nowhere on the posters on the wall. He had ceased to be. But he was very alive in this world, in that clandestine landscape.

RB: I think I saw more images of Che in Nicaragua than I did in Cuba the first time I went there.

JLA: Yeah. Well, so it occurred to me — what happened to Che? And that began my quest. And I realized then that Che as an individual assembled all of the aspects that I had been trying to understand and finding in a variety of guerrillas around the world, but here they were in one individual. And, of course, he seemed to exemplify the breed, the person who crosses the invisible line and decides to hold up a weapon, take life, and offer his own for an ideal. It was a great challenge as a reporter, because there were so many gaps in the record, he was a myth, and also it seemed that world, because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was an illusion of a new openness, and that perhaps what had been military intelligence secrets might now be justifiably journalistic domain. That was only partially true. For example in Moscow, I didn’t get, at the time I tried, virtually anything out of the KGB archives, which were less open than they were supposed to be at the time. I did get access to men who had been high-ranking KGB officers and others now willing to talk in the eve and the twilight of their lives. And willing to talk. Cuba was more open, but I had to put the effort in, for example. So, I don’t think I probably could have done it before the end of the Soviet Union, I don’t think. Because it was all still a kind of iron-clad juggernaut, historical juggernaut, which never laundered its clothes in public.

RB: It seems to me to be the case that as Che faded in the Cuban popular culture, he also faded in this country except for aging lefties like me.

Museo Che Guevera

Museo Che Guevera

JLA: In New York last month, I went into Shakespeare & Company, and they had a good pile of my books, and they said I should go down and sign them and they had a poster, a big poster of the cover of the book in the window. When I went in and identified myself, the guy said, “Oh, man, you’ve cost us so much trouble.” It’s right across from New York University. Now these are educated, smart kids — what, 18, 19, 20 to 22? He said, “We’ve got at least 20 kids here every day asking to buy the poster.” They don’t want to buy the book, they want to buy the poster. And many of them, he said, didn’t even know who he was. And they didn’t even know how to say his name, they’d say, “You know, that guy in the window, C-H-E.” They just thought he looked cool. But that’s kind of interesting, too. Superficial as it is, there’s something about his face which resonates, and people understand what it means. And it seems to mean, you know, it’s the uncompromising idealism of youth. It’s defiant. It challenges the unchanging status quo. And I think his face itself and his name are almost registered trademarks in that sense, representing that. Representing the challenge of revolt, and in a sense, I suppose, of youthful idealism. This idea of uncompromising pursuit of ideals that may be doomed, but which can upset the apple cart and rock the status quo.

RB: My younger colleagues question his willingness, as a doctor who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, to take lives [political trials and executions]. How do you feel about Che Guevara?

JLA: It was a different era. And I don’t know, maybe it’s that a 20- or 25-year-old today can’t understand that in the 60s this was a very different world. We’ve still got many problems. It’s a very problematic country. But the people who were raised in the 70s and 80s have grown up in an incredibly privileged and affluent country. In Latin America, the issues of the 60s are still prevalent; why are there still guerrillas? It’s not because they’re all narco-guerrillas. It’s because the generals might have left office and their so-called elected democrats in their stead, but far too many of them have tarnished the name of so-called Democracy with their corruption, scandals, and abuse of human rights without addressing the basic problems — the endemic poverty. . . . The population’s tripled since Che’s time, and so has the poverty. There’s more guns, and now there’s drugs, as well, to complicate things.

The 60s, when I came back here, I was 11. The first time that I lived in this country, my opening glimpse of the United States was 1967. In that 10-month period, Martin Luther King was killed, Robert F. Kennedy was killed, a lot of American cities went up in flames. You had every right to disbelieve in the sacrosanct nature of the state. With a president in the White House who was generally perceived to be waging an inhumane and illegitimate war in a foreign country, in which — as we now know, three million Vietnamese were killed, we usually only remember the 50 thousand Americans. He had a corrupt vice-president, the police were racist, they killed students on our own campuses, and you did not have suffrage for black people. So you could grow up with a sense that the established forces of law and order were impeachable. And I guess a kid growing up today just wouldn’t know that, wouldn’t understand that, wouldn’t feel it, and would feel that these things were all long ago. But I think Che was a man of his time, and when he came of age in the ’50s, Latin America was ossified, the Latifundia, the inheritance of the Colonial era was still visible. I mean, my God, I’ve seen it, too, in the years since Che. You do have oligarchs and serfs — I mean, it’s as simple as that. It’s not a Marxist notion. They’re there, and they were there, very much there. And the United States was at its most unfeeling and imperial in the ’50s, and Che happened to be on the ground and witnessed the first successful CIA-backed overthrow of a Latin American regime [Guatemala], which is generally regarded, historically, to be a fatal mistake. It set off 30, 35, 40 years of insurgency in that country, devastated it, caused that country to be plagued by death and phantoms for all of these years. And why shouldn’t he have become angry, and why shouldn’t he who, yes, after all he got a doctor’s degree, but he was really a medical researcher, he hoped to cure one of mankind’s maladies, he had a kind of Schweitzerian notion of working with lepers. But the more he traveled, the more he began to perceive that many of the endemic illnesses in his world, Latin America, were induced by poverty. And thus by political repression. Guatemala only seemed to confirm that cause and effect.

Che [photographer unknown]

Che [photo by Korda]

But like the medical researcher he never became, he searched for an antidote. The antidote to him, in his anger and in his idealism, was socialism, and the means to bring it about was armed revolutionary warfare. Because it was clear that anything short of that would only bring compromise and perpetuate the state of things. And thus the Cuban revolution which he assisted, and helped radicalize. And tried to replicate around the hemisphere. In terms of taking life, if you’re 17 men, fighting against an entire government, as shaky and inept as that government might be, in which you’d been bombed and chased over the hills, and then you find out that one of your number, one of your newest civilian collaborators is actually a traitor. He admits his crime, he has already caused you to be pursued all through the hills in preceding weeks, being bombed from the air, and has caused one of your members killed. What do you do with him? You kill him. It’s war. And Che was the one who stepped forward to execute him.

And I think, in a way, I don’t judge that action. Because it was an act of — sure, he took a moral leap. He walked out there on that moral quicksand, which is taking another person’s life, but I think he did so fully consciously, and to test himself to see if he had the courage of his convictions. After all, that was what it was about — taking lives, and offering his own for this ideal. So I think it’s difficult for people who’ve never been in an area of conflict or had their own way of life suddenly rent asunder to judge people who have. It’s a situation that much of the world lives under. And Americans have the peculiar luxury of never having had to do it, and having the kind of — to my mind — gall, I suppose, of judging others. . . . That really gets me going, that whole thing.

RB: What comes after you complete a book like this?

Jon Lee Anderson[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Jon Lee Anderson[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

JLA: [Laughs] I feel like writing haiku from now on.

[Shared laughter]

You know, I feel like doing some very slim volume of prose, I don’t know. Some people have suggested that I should write a memoir of living in Cuba. And I have thought about it, because in a way, it too would cap this long inquiry of mine into the nature of the political outlaw or the revolutionary which ended up personified by Che. But in a way, living in Cuba gave me a glimpse into what institutionalized revolutionary power is, and how they deal with it. How do you maintain an ideal in power over four decades? And I saw it pretty intimately. I don’t know that I’ll do that, I don’t know. I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure. . . .

RB: Do you find that people are just unqualifiably fascinated with things Cuban —

JLA: Things Cuban? Yeah, I think Cuba inhabits, for Americans, a very special realm in our imagination. And part of it is its peculiar time-warp quality, that somehow by going to Cuba or glimpsing it, you are seeing the span of the last four decades. Because it’s still there. It’s the one place that’s not changed, in a way. Of course, it has, but I mean right down to the kind of, you know, ’50s Chevys, and the lack of urban sprawl, and the old buildings, and all the appealing qualities like the music, the people, the culture itself, which are so alluring to people. Sexy. And, I think that people feel transported to the past, and I think for Americans of a certain age, or anybody who’s been to college, even if they are in their 20s, knows that Cuba has been this lightning rod in our history. After all, one time we nearly went to nuclear war was of our history. Cuba, Castro, the CIA, the mafia, all of those things are somehow also attached to what we don’t know or believe we know about the JFK assassination, all of these things are part of our collective psyche. Castro is still there. He’s there from the age of black and white, and he’s still there. He’s still got the beard. He’s still shaking his fist. And I think there’s a kind of a sense of grudging admiration for him, for doing it. By even his opponents, his old foes. And a recognition that he’s maintained certain principles, right or wrong. When pretty much everywhere else has fallen under our sway. And you know, after all, this is an island which until I think the early decades of this century still had a strong Senate lobby that openly called for its annexation. Its always been a coveted piece of real estate by the United States. And you’ve got the business interest. I mean, where else can you find a 700-mile-long Caribbean island that’s not developed? The developers must just be salivating over Cuba. Not to mention —

RB: — Well, now you’ve got the healthiest, best-educated workforce in the Caribbean. That’s pretty attractive to the businesses looking to come to Cuba.

JLA: But, you know, the return of the popularity of the Cuban cigar, the Afro-Caribbean music — all of these things appear to be happening simultaneously. It’s, I think — it resonates with people on different levels. It’s a place to go. It’s got an edge,

RB: Do you miss Cuba?

JLA: Every so often I do. Quite often. I mean, I’m in Spain because I needed to be somewhere else to finish the writing, just to be in a place where I didn’t have to worry about the day-to-day, and to be in a neutral place where I can think on my own, and have a clean day to work in. But Spain doesn’t do it for me. It’s not the same as Latin America, it’s not the same as Cuba. Cuba gets into your blood. . . .

Widely circulated photo of dead Che Guevara

Widely circulated photo of dead Che Guevara

His Eyes Have It / David Thomson’s Ouevre

5 Feb

David Thomson [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

David Thomson [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

I assume David Thomson is most noted for his delightful and idiosyncratic (‘idiosyncratic’ standing for remarkable originality, not some perverse opaque criticism) Biographical Dictionary of Film and its five revised iterations—the most recent of which, the 6th edition was published last year. And his intelligent and buoyant film ‘reviews’, currently to be found in the benighted New Republic (until he was unceremoniously relieved of duties).

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

I am confident you get full value out of an acquaintance with Thomson even if you only have familiarity with the above mentioned tomes— I am here to tell you his bibliography is packed with a variety of gems worth your time.

Moments That Made the Movies

Moments That Made the Movies

Moments That Made the Movies

Silver Light

Silver Light

Silverlight

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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies

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The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance

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The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood

 

 

"Have You Seen . . . ?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

“Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

“Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films

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Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles

 

 Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick

 

 

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts

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America in the dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality

The  Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition,

The Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition,

The Biographical Dictionary of Film: First Edition Completely Updated and Expanded

Why Acting Matters

Why Acting Matters

Thomson’s new book Why Acting Matters(part of the Yale University Press series, Why ——Matters) may not seem like a book for none but the film /theater scholar and devotee but as is the case with David’s journalism his digressive manner of cogitating/meditating, produces not a narrow slice of film lore but a generous helping, fitting art into life. As the publisher asserts, “he argues that acting not only “matters” but is essential and inescapable, as well as dangerous, chronic, transformative, and exhilarating, be it on the theatrical stage, on the movie screen, or as part of our everyday lives.” Here’s a sample from Why Acting Matters:

…a mirror image of he regular dilemma in life between freshness and habit.

The long run. A Steetcar Named Desire ran for 855 performances on Broadway. Eight hundred fifty-five times to smash the tableware or scoop up the ruined Blanche as if you have just thought of it.Eight hundred fifty-five times to step forward for the ovation. Eight hundred fifty-five living in a drab, drab place in Elysian Fields. Brando had his own routine for getting through the grind:$550 dollars a week and several girls in the dressing room every evening> That was a life of abandon such as Stanley would never have dared> The actor missed a few performances when his face got battered in a fight and Anthony Quinn stepped in.Yet there are some actors who become as desperate as Barrymore with the repetition.They see the playmaking process as an arc: months of preparation, a few weeks of playing at their peak and then the long decline of hating yourself for doing the same thing every night until it seems stupid. Life knows that dismay. There are wives who come home after work and find the man waiting for dinner. They cook it and the men consume it in silence. And the one day, the wife never comes home. In his lifetime Yul Brenner played the King and I 4,625 times. He did other plays and movies. He was married four times. But if he ever walked into a room, the people there saw the King and they were dismayed if he had hair.

I’ve spoken with David Thomson a couple of times

RB: I have forgotten what it’s like to be in a large theater with an excited audience. Sometimes I see a movie where in the movie people are watching a movie with a large audience and it seems very strange…

DT: I know. It’s very difficult to convey to people, kids particularly nowadays, that feeling that I grew up with and I am sure you did that you really had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital. If I am teaching a subject, in film, you can’t teach now a days without using video, but if you wanted to say to people, “Look, this is a film where the sensory experience, the possibility for beauty should be there from the outset, in your mind, you’ve got to make them go and sit in front of a big screen.” They may be alone…this film, Far From Heaven, that is playing now. It’s made like a big-screen film. It’s as big as an oil tanker, if you know what I mean. It’s got these wonderful camera movements and color composition, all of which look a little overwrought on a small screen. See ‘em on a big screen and they look more natural. They are natural in terms of the big screen. It’s like big, epic painting. You can do things in big painting that you wouldn’t think of in a little water color landscape. But the young generation clearly thinks that the TV screen is the primary screen in their existence.

And later on for the publication of his seminal work The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood :

RB: You see the impulse to make money as being as legitimate and strong and intertwined with the need to tell stories and make art. You don’t take the stance, “Oh, those short-fingered vulgarians, they just want to make money!”

DT: Well, you’re dead right. This is a fascinating subject. There is another book here, which is—it would be something like, The Redemption of the Ethic of Making Money. We live in a society where so many of the worst and so many of the best things come out of that urge to build things, to make things, and to make fortunes is part of it. And you can’t build things without making a fortune. We’re talking in a city that is undergoing an urban transformation. You may not like every last detail of it, but great cities go through those great surges. And there’s got to be money. We know enough about local politics to know that not every dollar is achieved in the cleanest ways possible. One of the reasons I talk about Chinatown in the book is that the more I watch that film the more I like Noah Cross. You know there is that great moment when Gittes—and Gittes, he’s the hero but he is a rather sort of small-minded guy—and he says, “How much money do you have?” to Cross. And Cross says, “ Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” And Gittes says something like, “Well, why do you do it?” And Cross says, “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future.” That’s an intensely American ideal. And I don’t see any reason to disparage people because they are in business. Our world is impossible to conceive without business.

RB: A qualifier here is—my sense is that much of the moneyed classes don’t have a sense of the future. That their visions have become shortened.

DT: Fair enough.

RB: We don’t have robber barons. We just have robbers. [laughs]

DT: All too true. Obviously that aspect of business is appalling and deserves our criticism but all I’m really saying is that I think that it’s very difficult for America to disassociate freedom from enterprise. It may be that this country is now on a path toward illness—fatal illness, even.

RB: Maybe? Here’s the money graf for me from The Whole Equation [page 370 in the book]:

“I regret the way America has elected to make films for its bluntest section of society and in ways that flatter them, and we have to recognize how much of that is being done for money. We have to find another way of measuring ourselves. And film is one of the few ways that might be done. Here and now, a twenty four hour period in which people of the Middle East and the people of the United States simply watched a television record of that day in another place—call it unmediated documentary—could be the most radical jolt to malice and political idiocy that we possess. So much in our films—American films now—supports the worst views held of us in other parts of the world: that we are combat-ready, aggressive, adolescent, greedy, sensationalist without humor, depth or imagination, rampant devotees of technology (as opposed to enlightenment).”
DT: I believe that totally. And I think it remains—that kind of possibility for film is more interesting that any fictional possibilities that you can think of for film.

In 2014 David Thomson received the Mel Novikoff Award (a beloved San Francisco film exhibitor) at the 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival.The festivities included a congenial and enlightening onstage conversation with Geoff Dyer— one hopes the video of which will be made publicly available.

Currently reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegal & Grau)

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