Tag Archives: Robert Redford

Fly Over Zone Stories

27 Oct

Kent Haruf (copyright Robert Birnbaum)

Kent Haruf tells stories of charming simplicity with characters who cope with real-world problems. Plainsong, his third novel, for which he won great praise and big awards, is his much-loved story set in the fictional town, Holt, Colorado and concentrated on a handful of townspeople trying to work out basic problems of abandonment, teen pregnancy, alcoholism. adultery and such. This group includes two endearing bachelor brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron who end up being the mainstays of Plainsong’s sequel Eventide.   The National Book Award nomination  for Plainsong observes: “From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace—a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround transport and lift the reader off the ground.”

 

 

 

I talked to Haruf in 2004:*

RB: I think about the novels that are written on the East coast, close to New York City and the ones that are written in the rest of the country— the novels on the East Coast have certain predictable, banal problems. They fall into a type that makes them hard to take seriously. Your characters, and in Jim Harrison‘s True North, these were characters I wanted to know more about and how they resolve their lives.
KH: Well that’s an interesting generalization. I don’t know how far you can go with that. There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out. You are not really trying to talk about the human condition, which is what I am after. I am trying to talk about, to write about the kind of universal problems that people have everywhere. And I am not interested in being hip or paying any attention to technology or any of that stuff. None of these characters ever talk about cell phones or computers or any of that.
RB: No brand names appear in these novels.
KH: No, there aren’t any. And that’s quite deliberate. So what I am after is something different, and if you care about these characters, then I am pleased. Because I hope that’s going to happen. And that’s how I feel about them. I do care for them. I don’t think I am blind to their foibles or their flaws. I am quite clear about that, but nevertheless I have some sympathy and compassion about them, I think.

RB:… I’m still working with the notions that there is a polarity —the stuff that is written in and around NY and what’s written in the rest of the country.
KH: It may well be. I don’t want to think of myself as a regional writer.
RB: The rest of the country isn’t ‘regional.’ [laughs]
KH: That’s right. But there is a kind of—maybe this has been so for a long time—I don’t know if you saw the review in the Sunday New York Times by Jonathan Miles—it was a smart-ass review. A quintessential hip cynical eastern view of things. The following Tuesday Kakutani wrote her review, which for her, was a rave. A very positive review. So I figured her review cancelled his out.
RB: Aren’t you review proof, at some point?
KH: Well at some point, I guess. I don’t know whether I am or not.
RB: I don’t mean personally.
KH: They still cut you.
RB: I am thinking more of the sales of your books would not be dependendt on such reviews or that they have a marginal effect.
KH: I would think so. Besides that if you get away from New York City, away from the small literary pond, who reads those reviews any way? People out where I come from, they don’t read the Sunday book reviews.

 

And

RB: I have read that you wrote Eventide and weren’t happy with it and then you rewrote it. What was the form of the original that you found it so totally wrong?

KH: I had done what I thought was a finished draft. My method of writing is that I write each sentence endlessly until I get them done, and then move on. So when I get done with the final chapter, I believe I am done with the whole book. And that there is no real compelling reason to go back to it. My wife and I were going to California and I was doing a reading out there or something, and this was back last fall. And I had her read it [the manuscript] aloud on the way out there.

RB: Is she a good reader?

KH: She’s good reader [laughs]. And that’s one of the things I thought about. The more she read, the more discouraged and distressed I was with that book.

RB: It must have killed the trip.

KH: It did. I hated it. I was in despair about how far I had missed the book. It wasn’t the story line—it had to do with the quality of the prose. And I could have said, “Oh, Cathy is just not a good reader.” But it wasn’t that, clearly. And she and I both recognized it. I did, intensely. So as soon as we got to California, rather than do the things I had intended to do—her kids live out there, and I was going to spend time with them. I didn’t do that. I went into a motel and began to rewrite, right away. I think what had happened was that I had begun to read some things while I was writing and I am usually more careful about that. I had read, in particular, Cormac McCarthy. I admire him, and I think he is probably one of the very best living writers at work in America today. But I was sort of under the influence of his prose. I suppose I made some attempt to write in a more lyrical way. And it wasn’t my writing. I saw that as soon as I heard Cathy read it. And I began to go back and prune and sharpen and clarify what I had done, in terms of each sentence.

 

Haruf’s last novel Our Souls at Night in 2015 was published a few months after his death in 2014. It’s story of two of Holt Colorado’s elders navigating the solitude of old age and negotiating a thoughful and charming approach to their needs: Addie Moore shows up at Louis Waters’s house and asks if he will sleep (sex not being point) with her. Addie is moved by recognizing her loneliness and inquiring if Louis might also feel that way—Louis surprised asks to think about it…

A.O Scott has  opines,

He and Addie are solid, respectable people of a kind who usually show up in movies to be mocked or sentimentalized. The disappointments and satisfactions they have lived through are etched on their faces, which are also the faces of two very famous movie stars — Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Viewers with long memories or heavy TCM habits will recall that 50 years ago they starred as New York newlyweds in “Barefoot in the Park.”In 1979, they reunited, with a touch more denim, in “The Electric Horseman.” The intervening decades have hardly diminished their charm or their skill, and part of the pleasure of this film, directed by Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), lies in the rediscovery of what wonderful actors they can be, and how good they are together.

 

Our Souls at Night is a bittersweet story and given the age of its protagonists I wonder if anyone under the age of 60 will understand the dynamic at play here. It certainly worked as a novel and its the coupling of two fine actors that hold this iteration together…

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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)

What You Missed

18 Nov

It had to happen—for years I have been railing against the lazy journalism that relies on lists to provide serviceable information and now I am about to offer a list of my own. In the spirit of the devil quoting scripture for his own purpose, I recall that poet Paul Zimmer’s reading of his “Zimmer Imagines Heaven” legitimizes lists. And, of course, garrulous Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists exhibits the possibility of something original attaching to list making. But I digress…

Netflix is, of course, a boon to cinema lovers, procrastinators and agoraphobics. Not to mention the ostensive evidence of how many wonderful films apparently are not (so it is alleged) sufficiently commercially viable to make it to the limited number of screens in the USA. And thus go unheeded by film audiences. Needless to say (but it must be repeated)the juncture of art and commerce is a tough enterprise and in the show business commerce regularly trumps everything.

Blackthorn

A great vehicle for the non-pareil Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy who survived the ambush portrayed in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fine performances by Eduardo Noriega and Stephen Rea and additionally vivid Bolivian locations make a eye catching background

Perfect Sense

A chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green) meet against the backdrop of a worldwide epidemic of the loss of the sense of taste. And more.

Night Catches Us

1976, Philadelphia. A former Black Panther (Anthony Mackie) returns to his boyhood home and takes up with his martyred dead brother’s widow (Kerry Washington). He’s been labeled a snitch and additionally his hood is still a volatile battleground policed by racist honkie pigs.Great newsreel footage of real Panther activities. Images of murdered Chicago Panther Fred Hampton may bring tears to those who remember him.

United States of Amnesia

The inimitable Gore Vidal shines in an informative survey of his accomplished life—his famous tiffs with crypto fascist William Buckley and pugnacious Norman Mailer, his political campaigns and clear eyed commentary from both friends and foes.

The Conspirator

Robert Redford film depicts the woman Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) tried by a military kangaroo court in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.The film is a plausible depiction of the state of the union in the tense post assassination period that feels much like the post 9/11 period.

Killing Emmett Young

A young Philadelphia homicide detective(Scott Wolf)is in pursuit of a serial murderer—when he learns that he is terminally ill. He arranges to have himself killed at a time unknown to him. He then finds out that there has been a medical test mixup and he is not dying. He plods on working the murder cases His problem: how does he call off his imminent assassination? And can he solve his big case? Gabriel Byrne and Tim Roth are the bad guys and smooth-as-silk Khandi Alexander is Wolf’s partner.

Night Train To Lisbon

A professorial type finds an odd clue in an old Portuguese memoir and leaves his responsibilities and takes a train to Lisbon to track down the mysterious circumstances of people depicted in their lives under the dictator Salazar. Jeremy Irons’s restrained portrayal makes solving the mystery both a historical and personal triumph.

Unfinished Sky

A widowed Australian farmer finds a distressed vagabond woman who speaks no English on his land. He discovers she is a Afghan refugee employed as a sex slave by the local thugs. She has come to Australia to find her child. Does she avoid recapture by the thugs from whom she has escaped? Does she find her child? I won’t tell.

Berlin Job

Also entitled St George’s Day. Who doesn’t love a good criminal enterprise? Two highly successful London gangsters lose a $50 million shipment of a ruthless Russian Mafioso’s cocaine— he once shot a man to see if his gun worked.Needless to say, mayhem and foxfire ensue. Smart, funny and honest thieves— they scheme a job in Berlin to earn the money to honor their debt to the Rusky.

Just a Sigh

A British man (Gabriel Byrne) takes a train to Paris for a funeral; Emmanuelle Devos plays an actress also on the train to Paris. An improbable love story (maybe they all are) follows.Well nuanced with hearty rending performances by fine actors.You’ll cry and you may laugh.

Layer Cake

Perhaps every smart crook understands their criminality has a shelf life and thus they ruminate on an exit plan. Coke dealer Daniel Craig (who sees himself as a businessman) is looking for that last deal to take him out of the game. But he has to answer to the volatile and hinky Jimmy Price. And then the even more ruthless Eddie Temple (Micheal Gambon).On the other end he has to deal with some really stupid crooks and an intractable Serbian assassin. Colm Meaney is turning into an Irish Robert Duval and some unknowns (at the time)— Sienna Miller, Tom Hardy Ben Whishaw show their thespian chops.

David Thomson circa 2004 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

David Thomson circa 2004 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Though I rarely read reviews of anything (unless I enjoy a writer’s style and point of view expressed in other genre—essays, poems, novels) but obviously many people do. David Thomson, who happens to be an astute film scholar and historian,
(and shares my appreciation for Nicole Kidman) is the kind of writer I refer to above and amongst his prolific output are 3 editions of the quintessential A Biographical Dictionary of Film ,his illuminating The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and his very useful and insight laden “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films . I am pleased to have spoken to David a number of times. Here and here.

Currently reading Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books)