THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

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For a while, watching this movie, I had the idea that it was going to be a profound and important evisceration of the moral depravity of the Wall Street institutions that crashed the world economy in 2008 — a moral depravity at the heart of the American system.

It’s nothing of the sort.  It posits the idea that there are elements within the American system determined to bring the morally depraved criminals on Wall Street to justice, and capable of doing so.  In short, don’t worry too much about Wall Street criminality — the    F. B. I. is on the case.

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Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Martin Scorsese, once a fiercely independent filmmaker, has become an apologist for the plutocracy.  Fuck him.

Click on the images to enlarge.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

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One shouldn’t get too fancy about the meaning of this play by Shakespeare.  It is not a subtle philosophical meditation on human existence.  It is, instead, a rather simple and brutal drama based on the idea that human existence is a preposterous puppet play, that pomp and glory are strictly theatrical phenomena, and that sex is the only thing that matters.

The tragedy of the play is cheap melodrama, the philosophy is dime-store nihilism — but the poetry . . . the sublime poetry of the play is pure eroticism.  It creates its friction, it achieves its climax . . . and it echoes forever through the ages.

BOYHOOD

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This is a little masterpiece of a film, astonishing as much for what it’s not as for what it is.

You probably know about the unique logistics of the production — it follows the lives of a divorced couple and their two kids over the course of twelve years, and it was filmed over the course of twelve years, so you see the actors age in real time as their characters age in narrative time.

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This is not actually what’s amazing about the film — what’s amazing is the way the process informs the narrative, disciplines the narrative.  The wages of time, visible on screen in the aging of the actors, free director-writer Richard Linklater from the temptation to create synthetic dramatic milestones for the story.

The world simply moves on, and the characters move with it, coping as best they can with the changes time dictates.  Their coping mechanisms are heartbreakingly inadequate.  The catastrophe of an absent father and the heroism of an absent father trying to make amends, the instincts of children to feign indifference to their parents inadequacies and their desperate need to believe in their parents in spite of everything — the paradoxes in these situations are presented without judgement or resolution or hope of resolution.

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There is a hopeful coda, an affirmation of the miracle of life itself, all the more powerful for not insisting that this affirmation answers any questions, heals any wounds.  The film is about accepting a life without answers, without healing.  You can read it as an endorsement of grace — or not.  But in your heart of hearts you will receive it as an endorsement of grace.

HOLOCAUST DENIAL

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For many years historian David Irving (above) has been called a holocaust denier.  In 1996 he brought a libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt for calling him that — and lost.  So he is now officially a holocaust denier, at least in England.

It’s a fair verdict, depending on how you define holocaust denial.  Irving accepts that atrocities were perpetrated against Jews by the Nazi regime on a mass scale, but not on the sale accepted by most historians.  He also denies that the mass extermination of Jews was an official policy dictated by Hitler.

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Irving contends that most deaths in concentration camps like Auschwitz  (about 90% of them by his reckoning) were from “natural causes” — overwork, hunger and epidemics, especially towards the end of the war when all of Germany was suffering from shortages of food and medicines.  He holds the Nazis criminally responsible for such deaths, given the conditions in the camps and the injustice of imprisoning people in them, but insists that only about 10% of those in the camps were deliberately executed by their captors.

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He accepts that perhaps as many as one million Jews were deliberately executed in the conquered eastern territories by the Nazis, mostly by being lined up beside trenches and shot, but insists that these were ad hoc murders by local commanders overwhelmed by the number of Jewish refugees sent to them from Germany and other parts of the Greater Reich — not done on direct orders from Berlin.

Irving also argues for a kind of rough moral equivalence between Nazi atrocities and Allied atrocities.  He believes that about 10,000 prisoners were deliberately murdered at Auschwitz, for example — which most historians consider a preposterously low figure — and points out that many times that number of German civilians were incinerated in single fire-bombing raids on German cities like Dresden (below).

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There’s a good deal of sophistry in Irving’s arguments.  The idea that a million people could be murdered and their bodies disposed of by Nazi functionaries, even in distant territories, without this being known in the highest circles in Berlin, without Hitler’s knowledge and at least tacit approval, violates common sense.

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Irving’s contentions about the number of people who died in the camps, including the percentage of them that were deliberately murdered, have been vigorously contested by other historians.  The facts on which the debate hinges are arcane and exceedingly unpleasant, involving such issues as the amount of fuel needed to cremate a corpse versus the amount of fuel available to the camps for the purpose.

I have read more on this subject than I should have and confess that I find the technical details involved beyond my competence to evaluate and beyond my spirit to contemplate further.

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Whatever you think of Irving’s arguments, it’s clear that there’s an ominous agenda behind his views of the holocaust — a desire to minimize the evil of the Nazis and emphasize the evil of the Allies — which is distasteful, to say the least.  But there’s an irony at the heart of Irving’s work.  Even the Nazi murders and atrocities Irving does accept based on his archival research add up to . . . a holocaust, one of the greatest collective crimes ever perpetrated by a “civilized” nation, one that’s hardly mitigated by any atrocities that may have been perpetrated by those at war with Nazi Germany.

It’s an irony that seems to be totally lost on Irving as he goes about his smug revisionism, and speaks to his moral failings as a man.  Only one or two million Jewish deaths can be attributed to the Nazis, he argues, not six.  Only one or two million?  You have to wonder how a man who thinks in terms like that can sleep at night.

HOW THE WEST WAS WRITTEN

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We tend to think that the modern genre of Western fiction began with Owen Wister’s The Virginian, from 1902 — and there’s some truth in the idea.  The book was tremendously popular, a publishing phenomenon, and almost single-handedly created a market for novels cast in the same mold.  It was a market that, within ten years, the prolific Zane Grey would exploit and expand dramatically.

The Virginian distinguished itself from the dime-novel and lurid stage-play Westerns that had preceded it by its literary qualities — it was a Western that respectable grown-ups could read without embarrassment.  Hemingway was a fan of Wister’s work, Wister a fan of Hemingway’s — and they eventually became friends.

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The story of The Virginian was skillfully told — the book is still a pretty good read today — and it introduced themes, incidents and character-types that have echoed down through Western fiction ever since, right up to Lonesome Dove.  It placed the cowboy or lone gunman at the heart of the Western genre and established his conflict with or taming by civilized society as enduring subjects.

But The Virginian didn’t come out of nowhere, and its lone-hand protagonist wasn’t the only defining element of Western frontier fiction.  Clarence King had previously published a popular series of novels about life on frontier Army posts, which would establish its own tradition within Western fiction, and in the Western films of John Ford and other Hollywood directors.

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Romances like the popular Ramona, appealing strongly to female readers, had used Western settings before The Virginian — but such novels never established a distinct genre.  They were romances first and Westerns only secondarily.  There were many other kinds of novels set in the West, dealing with a variety of subjects, which didn’t lead directly into the Western genre.

In How the West Was Written, Vol. 1, which covers the years from 1880 to 1906, Ron Scheer offers a lucid and useful survey of American frontier fiction of all types, giving a panoramic view of how the West was treated in novels of the time, in romances, adventures and ultimately in the archetypal, mythic narratives that came to constitute the Western genre as we think of it today.

Scheer’s book is extremely well written, perceptive, illuminating and important.  A second volume covering the years 1907 to 1915, has just been published, and I’m really looking forward to it.  You can find both books here.

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING

This version of the song was recorded for Columbia Records in 1949, before Sinatra had his amazing breakthrough as an expressive artist at Capitol Records, where he began his legendary collaboration with arranger Nelson Riddle.

At Columbia he was still using his longtime arranger Axel Stordahl, whose backing of Sinatra could be a little syrupy at times.

Still, you can sense here the beginnings of the almost conversational phrasing and emotional directness Sinatra brought to his great work in the Fifties.

Sinatra recorded the song twice more in the Sixties for his own label Reprise after he left Capitol.  One was a decent but uninspired duet with Rosemary Clooney, the other a dreadful, punched-up hipster version which doesn’t convey even a trace of genuine emotion.

Dylan has recorded “Some Enchanted Evening” for his new album of songs associated with Sinatra, due out next month.  Something tells me he’ll have taken his inspiration from Sinatra’s original version on Columbia.

JOSEPH GOEBBELS

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I’ve just finished reading David Irving’s 600-page biography of Joseph Goebbels.  It’s riveting and sickening in equal measures.  Personally, Goebbels was a peculiar little fellow.  As a man, he was a loser — a mediocre dabbler in literature, an unattractive and insecure suitor of women — and he knew it . . . but he also had a kind of genius, and he knew that, too.  The genius allowed him to enact a colossal revenge on the world for his shortcomings — it also led him to spend his last days in Hitler’s Berlin bunker like a rat in a hole and die grotesquely with his wife just outside the bunker after they had murdered their children.

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Irving’s book doesn’t mitigate Goebbels’s vileness in any way — you get a sense that he may even have exaggerated it in places for the purpose of making Hitler look good by comparison.  (Irving has a scurrilous tendency to want to show that Hitler wasn’t as bad as history has painted him.)

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A corrective to Irving’s bias is his prodigious research into the WWII archives and his disposition to show off the results in epic detail.  It’s the accumulation of facts, minor and major, that makes the book so fascinating — you get a real sense of what the Nazi movement was like as seen from inside it.  It’s almost suffocating to spend so much time with that aggregation of scoundrels and psychopaths, but it’s undeniably illuminating.

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The foundation for any Goebbels biography are the man’s diaries, which are extensive and detailed.  (Irving was the first outside researcher to have access to numerous volumes of them once thought lost which were discovered in Soviet archives.)  Keeping diaries is not always a sign of self-knowledge or self-awareness — Irving is shrewd enough to realize that Goebbels’s diaries are full of exaggerations, lacunae and misconstructions designed to indulge his ego and self-pity, and also to realize that this private dishonesty is in itself one key to Goebbels’s twisted psyche.

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I can’t really recommend the book to anyone who doesn’t have a consuming interest in WWII — it’s far too unpleasant for recreational reading — but for those who do, it’s essential.