Above is a picture of Paul Zahl, the dean of a prominent
Episcopalian divinity school.  He's my oldest friend.  We met
when we were 12 years-old and he introduced me to
Famous Monsters Of Filmland
— and the rest is history.  We were both somewhat nerdy bookworms
who shared a (for me anyway) life-changing realization — that we could
apply our intellectual powers to the stuff we really loved, like movies
and monster movies in particular . . . that we could take them
seriously.  That gave me, among other things, a vocation in life
— filmmaking — as well as a source of never-ending intellectual
joy.  It meant, for example, reversing the dynamic, that I could
find as much fun in Shakespeare as I did in
The Bride Of Frankenstein
that I didn't have to make the sort of value judgments between forms
that official high culture uses to diminish the prestige (and disguise
the power) of the popular arts and to turn the classics into dust.

Paul and I quickly discovered another classmate, Bill Bowman, who
shared our love of horror films, and like so many other children of Famous Monsters
in our generation we immediately started making our own versions of the
classics in 8mm, and these little epics survive as testaments to our

Paul and I
hadn't seen each other for more than two decades but when he showed up
for a visit last weekend we started jabbering away at each other with
all the excitement we shared as teenagers — talking about
The Searchers, The Bride
(as we always called the mother of all Universal horror films), Blake, Dylan and theology in a continuum of appreciation that
crackled with the action of genuine intellectual adventure.

The eclectic
craziness of Las Vegas helps encourage this way of thinking about
things, in which disparate visions illuminate and deepen each
other.  We sat on the terrace of Mon Ami Gabi at the edge of a
recreation of Paris, within sight of a recreation of ancient Rome and
an evocation of Lake Como and discussed the plastic eloquence of John
Ford, the precise relationship of incarnation and atonement in the
Gospels, the sly wisdom of Bob Dylan and the best images in
The Creature From the Black Lagoon . . . as though all in the same breath.

It was the sort
of thing we had given each other permission to do in our youth and I
realized again what a blessing that permission truly was.

Paul brought with him a gift — the February 1963 issue of
Famous Monsters, the legendary double issue on The Bride Of Frankenstein
with the stunning cover by Basil Gogos.  When we saw this cover
for the first time at a newsstand, when we were 13 years-old, our pulses quickened.  Looking at
it now, my blood still runs high.  It's just cool.  Always
was, always will be.


Artists have created a complex view of Mary Magdalene through the ages.

She was the first person to see the resurrected Christ (as depicted by Rembrandt above.)  She went and told the apostles about it and they didn’t believe her, which is why she is sometimes called the apostle to the apostles.  You would think this would be enough to settle once and for all the question of women in the Christian priesthood, but church tradition weighs more than the plain lessons of Jesus in many (if not most) cases.

Her extraordinary position at the center of the miracle of the resurrection was further undermined by the later church legend that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute, identified with one of the prostitutes Jesus encounters in the Gospels.  There is no Biblical justification whatsoever for this identification, but it served the church fathers in subtly undermining the position of the Magdalene and it was a Godsend to artists through the ages, allowing them to bring some raw sex into New Testament imagery. Jules-Joseph Lefebvre has a go at it in the painting at the beginning of this post, Antonio Canova in the statue below, both works of the 19th Century.  Cecil B. DeMille milked the legend for all it was worth in his his silent epic King Of Kings.

Giotto (probably supervising two students working more or less in his style) takes us back to the source in his powerful fresco of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with her risen Lord, at the church of St. Francis in Assisi.  Bold, severe, painted with simplicity and awe, it shows us the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels — a woman at the center of a majestic mystery:


If you care about culture — what it is, where it is right now and where it's going — you
must read this essay by Jonathan Lethem from a recent issue of Harper's magazine, which deals with corporate efforts to commodify,
control and own the conversation of culture that has always been at the heart of artistic enterprise.  You can find the article here:

The Ecstasy Of Influence

An interview with Lethem about the piece can be heard here:

Jonathan Lethem on Open Source

Lethem's essay will very likely become a seminal document in the great fight to reclaim culture in our time.

As an addendum, I offer this quote from Igor Stravinsky:

“I love Mozart, and I steal from Mozart, and I feel I have right to steal from Mozart, because I love him.”


The Mexican Revolution coincided with new developments in photography,
smaller cameras with faster lenses, and became the first major military
conflict in which action was convincingly captured.  Below is a picture of
the Kodak Graflex camera, introduced in 1902 and constantly improved,
which had shutter speeds up to 1/1000th of a second — it was
considered the best small professional camera on the market and was
often used to record incidents of the Revolution:

Border incursions by Mexican revolutionaries and intervention by the American military made the Revolution hot news in the U. S. and motivated a number of photographers to record images of the fighting for commercial exploitation, mostly through the sale of picture postcards.  They weren’t above staging scenes for their cameras, but they made astonishing images of actual events as well, like the image above of Pancho Villa riding at the side of his troops.  Photographs of the dead were big sellers, and one photographer even caught some shocking images of executions by firing squad, in which we can see the bullets kicking up dust in the wall behind the victims, who are still on their feet after being shot.  Here’s one of them:

The Mexican revolution marked a major development in the depiction of violence in photographic images, adding a new element of action to long-established practices of recording only the aftermath of war’s horror.

Click here to learn how to operate a Graphex camera . . .


saw this film when it first came out, in July of 1963, when I was
thirteen. It was showing at a theater a couple of miles from my home in
Washington, D. C. I took a bus to the theater but afterwards I had an
urge to walk home, which I did, in a kind of dreamy state. The film is
not a great one but it has a kind of sweetness you don't find in
movies anymore, and a kind of modesty — it wasn't meant to be an
event, just a pleasing way of passing the time on a summer's afternoon
or evening. If you were a kid in 1963 you'd go see any Disney film that
came out, knowing you'd like it, more or less.

I was
on the cusp of puberty then and Hayley Mills was a person of deep
fascination to me. I might not have identified my interest in her as
sexual, consciously, but she was a sexy girl — not just cute but
self-possessed in an alluring way. Her good-natured charm allowed one
access to her female power, made it approachable.

A few
months after this film came out Kennedy would be assassinated and a
few months after that the Beatles exploded on the scene, and the
Sixties officially got going. It's tempting to think that the dream
state this film induced in me, and the long walk home I took in order
to prolong it, arose from a presentiment that this summer would be the
last innocent one of my life — that sex and tragedy and cultural
derangement would soon transform me and transform America.

I was taking a deep breath, perhaps, knowing that the slow climb of the rollercoaster had reached its zenith and that the
delirious fall was about to begin.


When Erich Von Stroheim was supervising the construction of the Monte
Carlo sets (pictured above) for Foolish Wives on the Universal lot in 1921, he insisted that a series of real and very large plate-glass windows be installed in the Cafe de Paris facade so that he could film in them the reflection of the facade of the building opposite.

The windows cost $12,000 — an enormous sum at the time.  But as Von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski points out, the effect of the reflections remains startling, if subtle — it creates the illusion of a whole real world, including buildings behind the audience.  It is an effect beyond the means of any theater, and purely cinematic.

It is also emblematic of Von Stroheim's vision of cinema — radical for its time.  Koszarski supplies us with a quote from Jean Renoir which sums up this vision eloquently.  Renoir said he saw Foolish Wives at least ten times, and that it was this film which inspired him to dedicate his life to filmmaking.  Renoir said that the film impressed him with “the possibility of creating within a film a world that might differ greatly from reality but still would be experienced as having a wholeness and coherence like that of the world we live in.”

All great directors from Griffith onwards have at least intuited this fundamental and unique potential of the film medium, but Von Stroheim was the first to use it consciously as the basic organizing principle of his style.

It's almost impossible to overestimate the importance of Von Stroheim's creative insight to the art and subsequent history of film.  Without it, just for starters, Jean Renoir might have decided to go into some other line of work.


is a cool French poster for the film
Cherry 2000. It's a vision from
the 1980s (cast in a sort of sci-fi version of
Coppelia) of sexual
relations in the 21st Century — and it wasn't far off. It tested
horribly with audiences back when it was made and was never released
theatrically in America, but it's now available on DVD. I don't know if
it's a cult classic yet but it will be, sooner or later. The direction
is not up to the level of the story and script but it's definitely worth
checking out. You can buy it here:

Cherry 2000


Shelby Foote's massive three-volume narrative history of the Civil War is one of the glories of American letters.

You can buy the paperback edition here:

The Civil War: A Narrative

The set is also available in hardback but recent printings are no longer bound in sewn signatures — for a definitive version,
it's worth tracking down one of the earlier hardback editions.

also recorded two sections of the work as audiobooks, and it's wonderful to
hear him read this great prose in his classic Mississippi storyteller's
The Beleaguered City, covering the Vicksburg campaign, and The Stars In Their Courses, covering the Gettysburg campaign, are both out of print but can sometimes be found through online sellers.


is an almost perfect movie, of the sort a Hollywood studio could
produce when all its departments were firing on all cylinders on a
given project. The director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was great with
actors and with literary material but not a great visual artist, is
here taken into a new realm by the ravishing and atmospheric
cinematography of Charles Lang, himself liberated from the flatter
lighting style Paramount normally expected of him by the demands of
this particular show, which he did on loan-out to 20th Century Fox. Rex
Harrison is brilliantly cast as the virile ghost who haunts the widow
Muir's psyche, and Gene Tierney, not an actress of great range, grounds
the film in a kind of sweet commonplace yearning that skews its
comic/romantic tone towards the romantic. The script is sentimental but
leavened with wit, the design and costuming are first-rate and the
truly haunting score by the incomparable Bernard Herrmann is one of his
very finest. The result is a superb fantasy, charged with subtle
eroticism, mystery and emotion. It is a civilized entertainment for
grown-ups and wise children of all ages.


thing about the Mar de Cortés, about any other part of the ocean you could name, really,
is that it's connected to every other part of the ocean. So theoretically you could
launch a rubber raft into the water at the La Paz marina
and, by a combination of luck with the currents and furious paddling,
end up at the Piazza San Marco in Venice . . . or the Battery in New
York . . . or more likely Espíritu
Santo Island.

that reason, all seaside places have a common air about them, the feel
of being open directly to all other seaside places. So when I look out
from any one of them I have sense memories of other times
by the ocean:

first memory of the sea, when I was two or three, and a wave shoved me
down to the bottom (possibly six inches underwater at that point) and would not let me up. It did let me up eventually, of course, in a matter of
seconds, but it conveyed an intention in those seconds which seemed
inflexible and eternal. I have never learned more about the ocean than
I did then, though I have sometimes forgotten the lesson.

Cherbourg at night for an Atlantic crossing, standing at the rail of a
freighter with two ballet dancers, connecting suddenly with the romance
and grave seriousness and joy and terror of every long ocean voyage
ever made by a mariner in the whole history of seafaring.

in a dhow, as Sinbad once did, in a choppy sea on the Indian Ocean, as
jet-black Kenyan sailors demonstrated with exhilaration how they
shifted the big stones in the bottom of their keel-less craft to keep
the boat steady in the water.

When I
dip my toes into any ocean I disturb currents that run through every
ocean, even the ones I've never seen, and especially the ones I've set
out on, or under, or crossed, or seen from a window in a beach house,
cleaning fish, or boiling shrimp, or just looking.


This film is a wondrous curiosity.

It was made 12 years after The Birth Of A Nation
and is on many levels a far more sophisticated piece of filmmaking —
and yet it also seems far more old-fashioned than Griffith's

In the 1927 film, proscenium staging and histrionic
acting clash with elegant studio lighting and bold camera movement,
throwing the antiquated methods into stark contrast with the modern. 
Every frame of Griffith's film is tense and alive with the impulse of
while Harry Pollard's film shifts back and forth deliriously between
styles, as though trying to improvise something respectable out
of a grab-bag of conventions learned by rote.

The most emblematic shot in the film occurs at the
death of little Eva.  From a close shot on the child the camera hurtles
backwards on a track and then holds on a theatrical tableau in which
angels appear by the magic of double-exposure to waft the soul of Eva
to heaven.  A bold and expressive camera movement takes us into a shot that
harks back to the stodgiest effects of an early Edison potboiler.

The whole film reels maddeningly between such
extremes.  It's filled with some of the boldest and most beautiful
images of the silent era, such as the lyrical passages on the riverboat
and the banks of the Mississippi, and yet is drawn back relentlessly
into visual
mediocrity by a director who clearly had no vision of the medium as a
coherent form.  His wife Margarita Fischer, who plays Eliza in the
film (pictured in the still above,) said that Pollard, a product of the stage, always looked down on
movies, even as he was cranking out hit after hit for Universal in the
Twenties.  This movie was not one of them, though it did eventually
make its money back in a series of re-releases — one of them as late
as 1958 (!) in a narrated sound version that eliminated the intertitles.

The fact that a film this disjointed could break even,
and still be in theaters 30 years after its initial release, is a kind
of confirmation of the old theatrical saw that Uncle
Tom's Cabin
is actor-proof and production-proof.  It's such an
effective piece of melodrama that audiences are inclined to go with it
no matter what.  I certainly found that to be true with this version,
discombobulated as it is.  I could be gritting my teeth one moment over
the black-face mugging of the actress playing Topsy, and fighting back
a tear the next as stony Aunt Ophelia clasps her to her breast and says she'll love her.

Melodrama is a highly abstracted form whose stark
dynamics work as a catalyst for emotions we may not have ready access
to on a conscious level.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, by contstructing a
finely calculated conduit for the often unconscious racial tensions of
American society
— ferocious in her time and still potent in ours — created a
masterpice of the genre.

[The Kino DVD of this title has a superb piece on the
film by David Pierce, included as a textual supplement.  It's a model
of clear, informative writing and meticulous research.]