Tuesday 30 September 2014

Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s first and best novel makes an escape to 1920s Spain to explore courage, cowardice and manly authenticity

Robert McCrum
The Observer
Sunday 21 September 2014

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Corey Stoll makes a scene-stealing appearance as the young Ernest Hemingway, tough-guy modernist and friend of Gertrude Stein. It’s a cameo grounded in the truth that, for one of America’s 20th-century greats, Paris in the 20s was a source of artistic liberation. It was also the setting for the first section of Hemingway’s first, and best, novel (published in the UK as Fiesta).

The novel, a roman à clef describing an anguished love affair between the expatriate American war veteran Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, a femme fatale representative in the writer’s mind of 1920s womanhood, is mostly located in Spain, Hemingway’s favourite country. For some critics, the heart of the novel is the bullfight, and how each character responds to the experience of the corrida. At the same time, the escape into the wild is a great American theme that recurs in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain (Nos 16, 17 and 23 in this series). In addition, The Sun Also Rises, like most novels of the 1920s, is a response to the author’s recent wartime service.

The key to Hemingway, the thing that unlocks the most important doors to his creative life, was a deeper, more personal darkness, his complicated experience of the first world war. There are two versions. Either he was rejected for poor eyesight; or he failed to enlist and instead joined up as an ambulance driver. Each way, in the short-term, he was wounded by the shame of rejection and cowardice.

However, once with the Red Cross, Hemingway got as badly injured as if he’d been in combat. Thereafter, throughout his life, he craved the company of risk-takers – bullfighters or big-game hunters – and longed to be accepted by them. Courage, cowardice and manly authenticity in extremis became his themes.

Perhaps this is also the inspiration for his famously hard-boiled prose. The best of Hemingway’s fiction, at its purest and most influential, is found in his stories, but this first novel is also a literary landmark that earns its reputation as a modern classic.
A note on the text

Hemingway began writing the novel with the working title of Fiesta on his birthday, 21 July, in 1925. He completed the draft manuscript about eight weeks later, in September, and went on to revise it further during the winter of 1926.

The novel is based on a trip he made from Paris to Pamplona, Spain in 1924 with his wife, Hadley Richardson, and the American writer John Dos Passos. Hemingway returned again in June 1925 with another group of American and British expats. Their experiences and complex romantic entanglements became absorbed into the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises.

In the US, Scribner’s published the novel on 22 October 1926. Its first edition, just over 5,000 copies, sold well. The Hellenistic-style cover illustration by Cleonike Damianakes showed a seated, robed woman, head bent, eyes closed, shoulders and thigh exposed. Hemingway’s editor, the celebrated Maxwell Perkins, wrote that “Cleon’s respectably sexy” artwork was designed to attract “the feminine readers who control the destinies of so many novels”. Within two months, The Sun Also Riseswas in a second printing, with many subsequent printings to follow. In 1927 the novel was published in the UK by Cape under the title Fiesta. In fact, The Sun Also Rises has been in print continuously since its publication in 1926, and is said to be one of the most translated titles in the world.


Monday 29 September 2014

Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan lyrics and Swedish scientists...

Scientists sneak Bob Dylan lyrics into articles as part of long-running bet

Group of Swedish academics - and authors of papers such as Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind - reveal 17 year bet: whichever has written most articles including Dylan quotes before going into retirement wins a lunch at a local restaurant 

Sean Michaels
Monday 29 September 2014

Five Swedish-based scientists have been inserting Bob Dylan lyrics into research articles as part of a long-running bet. After 17 years, the researchers revealed their race to quote Dylan as many times as possible before retirement.
The bet began in 1997, following Nature’s publication of a paper by Jon Lundberg and Eddie Weitzberg, Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind. “We both really like Bob Dylan so when we set about writing an article concerning the measurement of nitric oxide gas in both the respiratory tracts and the intestine ... the title came up and it fitted there perfectly,” Weitzberg recently explained.

That was as far as it went until several years later, when a librarian pointed out that two of the scientists’ colleagues, Jonas Frisén and Konstantinos Meletis, had used a different Dylan reference in a paper about the ability of non-neural cells to generate neurons: 2003’s Blood On The Tracks: A Simple Twist of Fate?. Soon the bet was struck: “The one who has written most articles with Dylan quotes, before going into retirement, wins a lunch at the [local] restaurant Jöns Jacob,” Lundberg said.

Word spread quickly through Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, where all four men work, and before long there was a fifth competitor: Kenneth Chien, a professor of cardiovascular research, who is also keen to win a free lunch. By the time he met the others, he already had one Dylan paper to his name - Tangled Up In Blue: Molecular Cardiology in the Postmolecular Era, published in 1998.

With five competing rivals, the pace of Dylan references accelerated. Lundberg and Weitzberg’s The Biological Role of Nitrate and Nitrite: The Times They Are A-changin’, in 2009; Eph Receptors Tangled Up In Two in 2010; Dietary Nitrate – A Slow Train Coming, in 2011. The bet is not for strict scientific papers, Weitzberg said. “We could have got in trouble for that,” he said. “[This is for] articles we have written about research by others, book introductions, editorials and things like that.”
All the scientists are great fans of Dylan - he ought to win the Nobel prize for literature, suggests Weitzberg - but they are also realistic about his role in their careers. As Weitzberg told The Local: “I would much rather become famous for my scientific work than for my Bob Dylan quotes.


Saturday 27 September 2014

John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953): Chaos and Carousing

Beat the Devil: 'It was a hell of a lark doing it'
Truman Capote wrote it on the hoof, Humphrey Bogart lost his teeth in a car crash during production, and director John Huston fell off a cliff … the chaos and carousing on set made 1953’s Beat the Devil a delirious cult classic

Thirza Wakefield
Wednesday 24 September 2014

“By some mysterious alchemy, the mood of a movie set is often reflected on the theater screen,” wrote Truman Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke in 1988, referring to Beat the Devil (1953), which was scripted by Capote and directed by John Huston. “One of the reasons Beat The Devil is such a lark to see is that, as Huston recalled, ‘It was a hell of a lark doing it.’” That it screens next week at the BFI bears out Clarke’s estimation that the film would keep on delighting “for a long time to come”. Where behind-the-scenes stories tend to be garnish on a film, Beat the Devil is different: what’s most enjoyable about the film has everything to do with the congenially chaotic nature of its production.

Aged 28, Truman Capote had just completed his novella The Grass Harp and left his home of two years in Taormina for Rome. Huston, meanwhile, was en route to Ravello, a coastal village near Naples, to shoot his latest film. Deeply dissatisfied with the script he was carrying, he sought out the gifted writer during a stopover in Rome, and asked would he bring it up to speed? Adapted from the novel by Claud Cockburn (using pseudonym James Helvick), the screenplay’s authors – experienced screenwriters Peter Viertel and Tony Veiller – had given it up for hooey, and with the cast already hired and Capote whisked without another word to Naples, the novelist was aware that his first film script would be written day-by-day during the shoot. He knew, but the company didn’t, and keeping the secret were associate producer Jack Clayton, and the film’s star and joint financier Humphrey Bogart.

The decision to hide the fact that there was no film to be filmed set in motion a masquerade that doesn’t sit well with surviving impressions of these venerated movie makers. Stalling for time, Clayton fibbed when he told the cast that their director wanted them not to read their lines until the last minute. The deception went further, with Huston deliberately delaying the crew with complicated camera setups to give him and Capote an hour’s grace here and there to catch up with the schedule: “It was that close,” he recalled.

The film’s story centres on four felons waiting in a port town to board a ship to Africa to make their fortunes from the continent’s uranium deposits. Their associate, the married Dannreuther (Bogart), has other things on his mind, namely the wife of an Englishman tourist, the distrait Mrs Chelm (Jennifer Jones), who contrives her husband’s participation in the underhanded scheme. One marvels at how Capote kept in his mind the development of this knotty plot when writing the script.
Truth be told, he didn’t much. It was an unusual situation in that the film had already been cast, giving Capote the rare good fortune to write prescriptively (and playfully) straight into the mouths of Hollywood stars with established reputations.

This extended to bit-parts, such as the ship’s purser, for which they’d poached a restaurant pianist in Rome (it was only on his arrival in Ravello that they realised he could barely speak a word of English). To know Capote is to know it’s no accident that the purser has a grandiose manner of speaking: “I bring you the captain’s compliments along with the sad news that the sailing of the SS Nyanga has been postponed,” is his opening line.

The purser wasn’t alone in peculiar figures of speech. Capote put the entire cast at the mercy of eccentric epithets and mock-Wildean dialogue with a surfeit of clauses and overstatement. “My feet are on the ground, both of them,” says gang leader Peterson (Robert Morley) emphatically, and later exalts the fresh sea air with the inventive “Neptune’s mixture!” Dannreuther charms Mrs Chelm with: “Well, if you must know, I’m a typical rare spirit,” and has a sotto voce “Shut up, sugar” for his wife. A fantasist in the vein of Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mrs Chelm has a habit of prefacing a fib with her pet expression, “In point of fact …” Her claiming she’s a witch and “could have been a professional” was a funny too far for Bogart, who corpses in their scene at the lowering of the gangplank.

Silly it all may be, but Capote’s dialogue had a democratising effect on the cast – a levelling of stars and supporting performers that’s unusual to see in a film of the 1950s. There’s only so much of the finished film that can be attributed to the urgency of Capote’s task, but it took a man with his sense of irreverent humour to seize the opportunity as he did.

The main question is, did the actors know or care where the picture was going? Apart from Jones, who expressed concern for the continuity of her character, it seems everyone was having far too good a time to give it a moment’s thought. There was nightly revelling, arm wrestling and a recklessly high-stakes poker school, presided over by Bogart and Huston, which all but rescinded Capote’s writing fee with pots of $2,000 minimum. News of their frolics travelled wide, bringing Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman to Huston’s veranda. One night, Huston stepped outside to take the air. Wandering in the dark with glass in hand, he fell 40 feet off a cliff edge, though, remarkably, remained unharmed.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Beat the Devil was a singularly accident-prone production. In 10 weeks there were two cases of hospitalisation on account of teeth: Capote’s impacted wisdom tooth and Bogie’s bridge, which was shattered in a car crash on the road from Rome to Naples and required a replica set of front teeth to be sent from his dentist in California. On a separate occasion, Capote fled the set for Rome to check on the health of his pet crow Lola, whom he talked to daily on the telephone and who had fallen enigmatically silent.

Whether or not one is aware of the trials and hi-jinks of its making, Beat the Devil remains to this day a highly entertaining film, dateless but for it being filmed in black and white. On its release it bemused the public but won the approval of some critics, who thought it a fine curiosity. Bogart regretted it seeing the light of day, but Huston, who felt fondly toward the film – it was his offbeat baby – wished his actor friend had lived long enough to hear it hailed a masterpiece, albeit of a cult variety.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
Good Year For The Roses
No Expectations
Wild Horses

Da Elderly: -
In The Morning Light (New Song)
I Am A Child
Laurel Canyon Home

The Elderly Brothers: -
Love Hurts
Walk Right Back
If Not For You
I've Just Seen A Face

A quiet start to the evening soon changed into a raucous night of beer and music. I let heart rule head and attempted a new song without the words - and ground to a halt during the second verse! Despite this setback, the song, a counrty waltz, was well received.

The Elderly's started at about 11:30 and despite several scoops of Old Nutty Hen (not to mention the Guzzlers in the Last Drop Inn earlier) put in a tight (!!!) set. Lots of positive comments. So, after the open mic night closed, an unplugged jam followed - until late!

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Paul Buchanan on The Blue Nile's A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats

Tinseltown In The Rain: The Blue Nile
Paul Buchanan speaks to ClashMusic...

Robin Murray
20 November 2012

It's a voice which is older, for sure, but - to fans, at least - near instantly recognisable.

In the three decades since The Blue Nile first stepped into a studio, Paul Buchanan has enjoyed overwhelming acclaim. The Glasgow band's output is slim but nigh on immaculate, engendering a reputation for being awkward audiophiles, stubborn aesthetes and quite, quite brilliant.

With the band's first two studio albums ('A Walk Across The Rooftops' and 'Hats' respectively) set to be re-issued, Clash was granted time with the singer. He's a little husky, with the encroaching Scottish Autumn leaving traces on his voice, but Paul Buchanan remains an articulate, passionate frontman.

Modest about his own achievements, the artist is forceful when he needs to be and occasionally a little bemused by the continuing halo which surrounds his work.

To go back to the beginning, The Blue Nile formed just after university - when did you meet?
We were all at the same university at roughly the same time but we didn’t know each other at uni. It was just a coincidence.

Glasgow has changed hugely, what it was like back then?
It probably wasn’t a healthy environment, in terms of lifestyle and so on and so forth. I think, in a way, to me there wasn’t a whole lot going on but at the same time that reputation that Glasgow had – that the streets were getting roamed by razor gangs – had stuck long after the event. We had no money, of course you don’t at that point in life. It’s very small anyway. It wasn’t very cosmopolitan, I would say. It was small, you would wander into town and bump into everybody you knew basically. It wasn’t the Jimmy Boyle story!

How much freedom did the Linn Records deal give you?
It gave us a lot of freedom. It’s only when you look back that you think – how did that happen? What would we have done if it hadn’t have happened. I suppose, you’re so engaged in what you’re doing you don’t really think, “well this might not work, that might not work”. We were just genuinely involved in what we were up to, whatever it was. The back story to that really was that we had made a single which was what you did in those days. Self-funded, working with a record label called RSO picked it up and they put it out and immediately it went bankrupt which sort of set the pattern for our career, really. They went bankrupt but in the very brief spell that we were with them we popped back into the studio because they had asked for another track. We popped back into the studio to do a couple of demos and Linn Products – who produced hi fi’s – they’d been testing speakers out at the studio and it was that simple, really. They said to the engineer “oh, who’s been in recently?” So he played them the demo and they wanted to make a record to sell in their shops, the hi fi shops to demonstrate the product. Actually, it was just at the beginning of the analogue / digital battle and they wanted to make a very pure sounding record to demonstrate the qualities of analogue. It was great because they left us to it. There was no producer, there was no A&R person – there was nothing. They trusted the engineer and they trusted us so they said, go off and make a record. It was great. Unusual, you know, to get that freedom at that point in your career.. I can’t imagine what would have happened otherwise.

Did you feel as a band that you had enough experience to take the project on?
No. Absolutely not. Callum, the engineer, said to me a couple of years ago.. He was being modest because he’s a very good engineer but he said: a lot of the time I didn’t really know what we were doing when we made ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ to which I said “well, we didn’t either!” I suppose you learned as you went along.

Did the Linn Records project affect the sound of the band, or were you already pulling off into one direction?
Totally. We were – as you would imagine – you’re so fervent about what you’re doing that nothing would dissuade you from it and nothing would persuade you to do otherwise. So no, it wasn’t anything to do with anything to be honest. We didn’t have a phone for it took us nine months to phone Linn back and say, yeah we want to do that. I remember them saying, it was nine months ago that we left a message for you. I think that just about sums it up. There have been points in our career where – if we’re being honest – you think, I wish we could shake that audiophile thing off. For us, it was always about the pictures and the emotion. We would have tried to do the same thing. As I said, we’d already demo’d some of the things before we’d even met Linn so.. na it was nothing to do with that.

Where did that cinematic sense of glamour come from?
I think it’s the romance of youth, in some way. You know the world feels fairly limitless, and without wanting to sound too fancy about it.. if you see a car brakelight reflected in a puddle it’s pretty much the same in Glasgow or New York. That was an aspect of it for us. I think, like everybody, we liked the movies and to some extent that’s why the album is called what it’s called – because it was imagined. We were just imagining what it would be like. It’s like the mythical feelings that you have when you fall in love with someone. It immediately becomes this epic ‘Romeo And Juliet’ story for everybody, for all of us as individuals. I think that sense of glamour comes from the individual and so I think that’s what informed it. That’s not a very good answer! (laughs) I don’t honestly know, it’s just what we felt. I suppose you are intense at that point. Maybe you’re intense throughout life but certainly at that point. We were very intense and idealistic.

How old were you at that point?
We’d been through uni and then life everybody we had that desert period where you’re trying.. we’d tried to put a couple of bands together without success. Eventually you reach a stage where people don’t stick and you’d be better just doing it yourselves. Then the panic sets in and you think: oh my God, what am I doing? You’re out of university five years and you suddenly think: what am I doing? So no, we were all in our mid to late 20s by then.

The album had this sleeper affect, did you notice a change after its release?
You notice the change in your life insofar as life up to that point had been pretty much the three of us trying to scrape together enough money to get a couple of coffee. It wasn’t that our lives change financially particularly, but all of a sudden we had to go places we had to interact with new people. Linn obviously licensed the record on so it would have been impossible not to feel some sort of different because up to that point our days consisted of practising for ten or twelve hours a day. Each as cheaply as possible.. sleep and then practise. We weren’t dreadfully aware of any success, it was a sleeper insofar as it sold what it sold, but it kept selling what it was selling, if you know what I mean. That’s what we wanted, I mean we didn’t do any posters, for example, for the first record. Or the second one, actually, because we knew from our own lives and our own experiences that word of mouth was the best thing. We were very pure about everything and we just wanted the record to find our own way. There were demands on your time but that was all.

‘Hats’ followed five years afterwards, why was this?
I don’t know what would have happened if things had been different. Honestly? I just think you got – or we did – and I admire bands that don’t but I think we somehow or other got nudged away, nudged off just our normal process. To write the songs, practise them, do this and do that. We pretty much put the record out, promoted it and then the next thing we knew we were back in the studio. That whole gestation period had gone missing. I think getting put into the studio like that meant that.. it was like pre-season, you just didn’t have it. We didn’t really have the songs. We laboured away in the studio trying to generate the material there, which just didn’t work. We recorded but we just didn’t believe in what we’d recorded. We also – it’s been lost in the mists of time – but actually, eventually our own record company – not Linn but Virgin – put another band in. Then they got into the same sort of thing and we couldn’t get back in. I think people perceived it as it was all to do with us sort of being in the studio for five years but of course you couldn’t be in the studio for five years you’d lose your mind. There was a two year period where we would have gone back in but we couldn’t get back in! So when we got back we actually finished ‘Hats’ quickly. The period when we got bumped out the studio we had nothing else to do, so we packed up and went home. Which is what we should have done in the first place, because when we went back home we reverted to our old routines – practise, play and sit about each other’s little flats and talk things through. We should have done that to begin with, really.

Is that a recurring factor in your career?
Yeah I think that was always the way of it, for us. It’s finding the target was illusive. Once we got it, a lot of the time we were able to go straight to it. As I said, I admire bands who can maintain having a foot in both camps. I don’t think we ever adjusted terribly well to the outer world.

How heavily involved were you with the re-issue process?
Aye we re-mastered them and we sort of collated the B-discs. Again, the B-discs you’re not trying to make any vast statement. The records, as far as we were concerned, were the records. We had distilled what we had to get to that point and that was what we decided to release as the records. But you know what it’s like these days – you have to have a salad with your dinner. We just tried to do something which was of interest rather than a total hotch potch. I thought, Robert thought – oh I’d be interested in hearing x, y and z if I was outside the band.

Was that an emotional experience?
It was funny being back in the studio. I think going back in and listening to them with a re-issue in mind I just was struck by the amount of love which had gone into the recordings.

What have you been up to in the mean time?
I’ve actually been working on a little piano record. I put it out earlier this year, so I’ve been working very hard with that. It’s been good, actually – I’ve been lucky, very grateful to be at the point where from a standing start.. I’d forgotten what it was like spending so much time waiting for my bags to come out. It’s been good. I’ve been grateful for it, so that’s what I’ve been doing – I’ve been promoting the other record.

You’ve had a sore throat...
Yeah I’ve just got a bit of a sore throat. I mean, the weather up here doesn’t help. But I’m not alone. This whole thing went round, you’d go in somewhere to order a couple of coffee and the waitress would have no voice. It affected lots and lots of people. As you travel it gets on top of your voice and you just wear it out. I’m fine, though, I’m sure that over Christmas I’ll be back to my best. I’m just sounding a bit like Tom Waits at the moment! (laughs)

Can you envisage the Blue Nile working together again?
I mean, I can. I don’t know where things stand with the other two guys. Robert I tend to see fairly often as well live in the same city. In a way, I think it would be the right and proper thing to do but I’ll just need to wait and see. If the others say let’s do this... Certainly, if I bump into them on a corner my hope would be that we could say: so what are you doing tomorrow?


Tuesday 23 September 2014

Mark Ford - Selected Poems reviewed by Terry Kelly

A Postcard From Somewhere 
Selected Poems by Mark Ford (Coffee House Press, Pbk., £11.80)

Review by Terry Kelly

In a cartoonish literary sense, poet and critic Mark Ford could easily be portrayed as a displaced, Americanized Englishman, a kind of literary hybrid - one third Larkin, supplemented by two large equal shots of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Certainly, Ford's debut collection, Landlocked (1992) bore many of the hallmarks of the New York School. From the start, the poetry was distinguished by stylistic insouciance and a fluid narrative sense. USA critical numero uno, Helen Vendler, an early fan, looking back at his first book, picked up on Ford's poetic heterogeneity in a recent rave review of Ford's Selected Poems in the New York Review of Books (June 19, 2014): 'The poems in Landlocked were neither decorous (in conventional lyric ways), nor tightly tacit (Philip Larkin), nor historical (Geoffrey Hill), nor demotic (Tony Harrison), nor sensual (Seamus Heaney). They were idiosyncratic and wildly imaginative, and - to use Ford's own words - 'funny peculiar.' ' While this suggests Ford was in danger of lacking a distinctive poetic identity, he has managed to carve out his own niche in transatlantic verse over the last twenty years. Early Ford was clearly influenced by the long-lined, effervescent, deliciously flippant work of both O'Hara, Kenneth Koch or Ashbery at his most camp, as in 'Stocking Up':

No one lives in the imagination, or if they do
they probably stink of garlic. What a thought!
Five o'clock. Everyone's pushing off to the country for the weekend.
What a jamboree the streets enjoy, sticky
traffic jams, spouting hydrants, and roofs that catch the red and dying sun.

In a PBS Bulletin note for his 2001 collection Soft Sift, Ford said many of his early poems were composed in America and were marked by what he termed 'a sort of paranoid-cum-freewheeling attitude to life.' Appropriately, his new and ample Selected Poems, blessed with a cover painting by Joe Brainard, is published in the USA by Coffee House Press. Reviewing Ford's debut collection in the TLS, Michael Hofmann quirkily identified the poetry as drawn from 'plunder, cultural junk, white verbiage from a celestial radiogram.' Ian Gregson, meanwhile, praised the poems in Landlocked in the London Review of Books for their 'excitable, exuberant surface,' while also highlighting their Anglo-American provenance: 'It never seems to be precisely the poet who is speaking, the kind and extent of subjectivity involved is uncertain, and the setting is riddled with doubt by Ford's tendency to mingle English and American idioms and cultural references.' The early work also evinces the fairly heavy footprint of Ashbery (a literary friend, who Ford has edited). 'Winter Underwear' - an echt Ashberian title, if there ever was one - betrays the American's typical juggling with kooky narratives and conjoining of disparate realities:

... a fresh snow covers the plains
Above which newfangled aircraft constantly
Maneuver, their vapor trails soft
And brilliant as the white
Winter underwear she is even now pulling on.

But despite the literariness of much of his work, Ford's poetry does offer immediate pleasures to the reader in the itemizing of local detail - 'Pot plants unwatered on the sun deck/ like moaning minnies lie down and die' ('Unpicking the Knot') - while he's also a keen pop culture archivist, from the Velvet Underground - 'And White Light/White Heat blared/From bank upon bank of shuddering loudspeakers' ('Affirmative Action') to the rock reference litany that is 'They Drove': 'Once they discussed/ the pros and cons of having sex/with Bob Dylan - or a Bob Dylan look-alike - in a Buick/while listening to 'From a Buick Six.' ' Bob Dylan, in fact, is referenced several times in Ford's work, from early to late. One poem sadly missing from Selected Poems is 'The Nightingale's Code,' the title alluding to an early outtake version of Dylan's 1966 masterpiece 'Visions of Johanna,' while Ford's last collection, Six Children (2011), contains a famous line from the singer's 'Like a Rolling Stone' within a moving elegy for the poet Mick Imlah, of which more later. Clearly, readers have to keep on their (cultural) toes.

Geographical displacement and literary cosmopolitanism, of course, can often work against a poet's reputation. The example of Thom Gunn is an object example of how an English writer's standing can be undermined by a move to another country and the embracing of such non-English 'exotic' raw material as the USA and its West Coast gay community. But Ford was poetically displaced from birth. The son of a BOAC executive, he was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and only came to England as an eight-year-old, due to his father's itinerant working life. The poet explores this sense of geographical isolation in 'After Africa':

After Africa, Surbiton:
An unheated house, and flagstone pavements;
No colobus monkeys, no cheetahs scouring the plains.
Veruccas and weeping blisters ravaged our feet.

Apart from producing work marked by a sense of physical displacement, Ford is also a poetic sponge, being highly susceptible to his locale, even when the effects are almost imperceptible. He taught for 10 years in Kyoto, Japan, and analysed that experience in his PBS Bulletin note for Soft Sift, commenting that 'though I only managed 10 lines during the 10 years I lived there - the first 10 lines of this book's opening poem - I feel my experiences of Japanese landscapes and cities, culture and poetry, sift softly through the entire collection.' The opening poem in question, 'Looping the Loop,' is indeed almost impossible to identify as being 'influenced' by Japan, other than in a perhaps slowing down of the dizzy, vertiginous mode of his first book, despite the poems' narrative sense remaining prone to sudden twists and turns:

Eventually one hears the cuckoo's call, while friends
Recline in armchairs. Let's off then, backwards through
The fish-eye lens, bone by bone, clean shirts
Soon streaked and torn...

Soft Sift is also informed by the work of the French writer Raymond Roussel, who influenced everyone from the Surrealists to the New York Poets, several of whom briefly edited a magazine named after one of his works. Ford freely admitted the influence of Roussel in his PBS Bulletin note: 'I think of the extreme formal rigour - or, rather, varieties of rigour - of the poems in Soft Sift as analogous to Roussel's eccentric compositional methods. It came to seem to me as if words, experiences, could only ever hope to enter the looking glass realm of art by first passing through some narrow, predetermined aperture...' Significantly, considering he was a poet noted for 'sifting' his emotional and spiritual experiences within complex, innovatory verse forms, Ford's second collection draws its title from Hopkins, specifically 'The Wreck of the Deutschland': 'I am soft sift/In an hourglass...' The anonymous selectors' statement in the PBS Bulletin - which I suspect was composed by poet and Ford fan Hugo Williams - comments more directly on the book's title: 'It is a good title for Ford's new book, whose poems attempt to follow, not lead the thinking processes, lightly scrambling our brains as they do so...It makes for an unfamiliar but agreeable adventure.' Certainly, Ford's poems eschew ironic closure or neat summations of the human mind. Like Klee, he enjoys taking his lines for a walk, trusting the reader's ability to follow without the aid of a comprehensive road map, as in 'Twenty Twenty Vision,' which incorporates a virtual poetic auto-critique:

Unwinding in a cavernous bodega he suddenly
Burst out: - Barman, these tumblers empty themselves
And yet I persist; I am wedged in the giant eye
Of an invisible needle. Walking through doors
Or into them, listening to anecdotes or myself spinning
A yarn, I realize my doom is never to forget
My lost bearings. In medias res we begin
And end...

None of this, of course, adds up to an exactly easy time for the reader. Ford is a highly sophisticated, referential, almost European poet (John Lanchester called him 'one of Britain's least insular...writers'), and there are times when even the most attentive reader of contemporary verse will struggle. Helen Vendler, no less, occasionally admitted defeat in her otherwise adulatory review of Soft Sift in the London Review of Books (November 29, 2001): 'It's not always easy to read Soft Sift, precisely because of its mobility of reference and its condensation of feeling...Ford almost always prefers intimation...to declaration...His poems will in time attract extensive inquisitive comment, precisely because their method is one of intimation, suggestion, hint, fable.' However, despite Vendler's prediction of more than a dozen years ago, and the imprimatur of Faber and Faber, it's arguable that Ford remains better known as a critic-cum-reviewer, editor (he recently produced a well-received anthology about London), and university lecturer, than as a poet.

This fact is regrettable, given that Ford's most recent work remains both highly ambitious but also often grounded in clearer, more easily graspable human narratives. (Vendler believes that 'Ford's poems are almost all undergirded by a narrative (however surreal),' and this certainly helps the novice reader). Although the literary baggage remains heavy in Ford's most recent individual collection, Six Children (2011) - even the title being inspired by Whitman's questionable suggestion that 'Though unmarried, I have had six children' - the book also bears traces of a more pressing mid-life brooding on mortality, as though Kenneth Koch had been reading Hardy'sPoems of 1912-13. For example, the aforementioned elegy for Mick Imlah, 'Ravished,' strikes me as one of Ford's strongest and most powerful poems to date. Set in Bloomsbury, the ambience of the poem is appropriately Eliotian:

Is the night
Chilly and dark? The night is chilly
But not dark. An all but full
April moon
Slides above barely visible clouds, and is greeted
By a burst of hooting from an urban
Tawny owl.

Ford, who edited Imlah's Selected Poems (2010), describes a last orders moment with his poet-friend at the Museum Tavern, in Great Russell Street. As they down their drinks, a youthful crowd of revellers passes by - 'one wearing a/traffic cone/On her head' - while another drunkenly slurs a famous line from Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone. A remembered iconic line of rock poetry - 'like/A complete unknooown' - dovetails into a tender, haunting evocation of his late friend, unmediated by cultural detritus:

... I was picturing the shiny black
Cab he so imperiously
Hailed whisking him west, revving, cruising, braking, gliding
Across junctions, the driver
At length twisting around, awaiting payment, as I veered
And tacked through the eerily silent
Squares of Bloomsbury, towards Euston.

This has something of the elevated, visionary closure of Larkin's 'The Whitsun Weddings' about it, suggesting Ford's poetic instincts are equally attuned to the English lyrical tradition as that of the New York School. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Ford has abandoned his taste for baroque poetic excursions or allusive literary riffing and is about to turn into a mainstream English ironist anytime soon. Six Children is variously inspired by Whitman, Hart Crane, Tacitus, Lucretius, Boethius, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Sappho, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and P.G. Wodehouse. John Ashbery, selecting Six Children as a TLS Book of the Year, called such literary sources 'stepping stones towards fantastic, dreamlike atmospheres,' but the volume also feels rather top-heavy with versions from the classics, which sit rather uneasily with Ford's more jazzy flights of fancy - or maybe that's just this writer's natural antipathy to the 'myth-kitty' poetic tendency. But while it's clear that Ford's freewheeling lyrical spirit remains highly tuned, the poems written since Six Children do feel different; perhaps darker and more informed by an awareness that 'Tempus fugit,' as one later poem begins. The ten new lyrics in Selected Poems explore everything from dark, oppressive childhood memories ('In Loco Parentis'), to the international scourge of email scamming ('Adrift'), to a mugging in Boston ('Show Time'). This generous Selected Poems is the ideal introduction to the work of Mark Ford, a British poet who is, thankfully, no respecter of literary or geographical boundaries. New readers should start here.

From The Next Review (Sept/Oct. 2014) 

Monday 22 September 2014

J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist by Thomas Beller - review

Mr. Salinger’s Neighborhood
‘J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist,’ by Thomas Beller

Cathleen Schine
31 July 2014

“J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist,” by Thomas Beller, is a story of echoes. In this short, sensitive and irresistible biography, echoes ricochet from Salinger to Beller and back, bouncing off a word, a phrase, an accent, a memory, a chat with an acquaintance. Beller grew up in Salinger’s far-reaching shadow, that cool, shady place so many kids have discovered in “The Catcher in the Rye”: the overwhelming relief of shared anxiety. He also grew up in New York. The sidewalks, the gravel paths of Central Park, the elevators and white-tiled bathrooms that figure so prominently in Salinger’s work are part of Beller’s vocabulary, too. He writes about New York in both his fiction and nonfiction with intimacy and patience and wonder. New York City is a unifying theme in “J. D. Salinger,” almost as much as Salinger’s life itself, almost as much as Salinger’s work. It is in New York, the fictional, literary city and the actual city, where the two writers truly meet.

Salinger, Beller notes, writes about New York landmarks like Grand Central Terminal or the Museum of Natural History in an “offhanded way. . . . They are not monuments to be ogled, they are part of the landscape through which his characters move.” Beller writes about New York in the same easy, familiar way. He has also found a way to write about J. D. Salinger, surely a literary monument if ever there was one, without ogling. Salinger, like New York, becomes inevitable, a landscape.

Being the biographer of an icon (this series of biographies is, in fact, called “Icons”) is usually a partisan affair. But in the case of Salinger, simply to contemplate a biography is a provocative act. This is a famous recluse whose iconic status rests to some degree on his severe privacy and litigious rage against biographers. Even a sycophantist hagiography is seen as an assault by many Salinger fans. As for the other camp, there is plenty of ammunition already, firsthand. Salinger’s disturbing icon-sullying behavior has appeared in memoirs by his daughter (describing a selfish urine-drinking monomaniac) and by Joyce Maynard (revealing an unsavory penchant for women so young we really do have to call them girls). So what is Beller trying to do here, anyway?

He’s trying to understand. His treatment of Salinger’s obsession with secrecy as well as the media’s obsession with Salinger’s obsession with secrecy is a marvel of calm and clarity. Beller has no interest in shooting down his iconic prey or placing him, stuffed, on a shelf to worship and defend. Instead, he is listening. And looking. And thinking. The result is both lyrical and precise, a writer’s experience of another writer’s letters and stories, handwriting, hallways and editors, women and girls, family, finances, trauma and enduring legacy.

He begins with an anecdote of the 4-year-old Salinger. Sonny, as he was then called, dresses in full Indian regalia, complete with feathered headdress, packs his suitcase with toy soldiers, and runs away — then waits in the lobby of his apartment building until his mother gets home. “Mother, I’m running away,” he said. “But I stayed to say goodbye to you.”

From that faint but resonant echo of Salinger’s story “Down at the Dinghy,” Beller moves on to Camp Wigwam in Maine, where Sonny spent the summer of 1930 when he was 11. Beller heads straight to a cabin called Comanches, an echo from another story, “The Laughing Man,” and feels himself caught up in a “lovely circuit” of the camp’s happiness as it flowed to Salinger, then to his work, then to his young reader, now biographer.

His search through the landscape called J. D. Salinger is modest and intense, like all of Beller’s work. What could have been just the old literary biography game of matching Salinger’s life with his fiction is, instead, a walk through a vibrant, historical, contemporary world. Beller has long run a website called Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, filled with stories of New York. This biography is a kind of Mr. Salinger’s Neighborhood. It examines what surrounds its subject as much as, sometimes more than, the man himself — as a book of echoes must.

One of the many endearing qualities of the book is Beller’s obvious enjoyment at including the perfect, irrelevant anecdote. In the chapter about Whit Burnett, Salinger’s writing teacher and the publisher of his first stories, Beller relates the moment Burnett met the woman who would become his wife and collaborator, Martha Foley. Arriving at his new job at the San Francisco newspaper where Foley worked, he told her he’d had to work his way out on the train from New York. “His job was to ride standing in the cattle car and pick up the cows when they fell over.”

Because Beller gets New York with all its nuances of class and money, he understands the Salinger family’s triumphant rise from Upper Broadway to Park Avenue and what it must have meant not just to the proud parents, but also to a boy leaving the familiar Jewish West Side for the WASPy Upper East Side. Beller bestows on his insights an invigorating physicality. As he stands in Central Park one cold, blustery day facing the now defunct private school Salinger entered in 1932 (and was expelled from in 1934), he says, “A lot can happen in the interval between school and home, especially when school and home are two points at opposite corners of Central Park.” With that simple observation — that Salinger made his way across the park twice a day, five days a week, often getting home just in time for dinner — the park’s prominence in “The Catcher in the Rye” and other Salinger works takes on a new poignancy. But the park and the city are there, Beller says, “in all kinds of ways that are less quantifiable.” A writer’s influences can be “nonliterary and often unconscious. The street lamps in Central Park at dusk, or the gray hexagonal-block sidewalks that line the perimeter of the park, which look the same today as they did when J. D. Salinger was a kid, are present in his writing without ever being mentioned. The city is itself a worn and used thing, the stones smoothed by a million heels pounding on them like tidal waves on rocks, its landscape unforgiving but also a refuge to which one can adapt, and within which one can, at least for an afternoon, disappear.”

One reason Beller’s book is so engaging (and it is, even for a Salinger agnostic like me) is that Thomas Beller is himself so engaged. There he is examining the layout of the walls in the apartment where Salinger spent his teens, or scrutinizing the typeface of the stationery and the salutations of the letters Salinger wrote over a span of decades. His book is so alive that even something as cerebral as the act of editing has its own particular smell: “the smell of omissions, of brush having been cleared.” He sniffs this especially once Salinger begins publishing in The New Yorker, where he was edited by Gustave Lobrano from 1948 until Lobrano’s death in 1956. “The more I researched,” Beller writes, “the more I realized that the leap in Salinger’s work that occurs in 1948 is attributable to Lobrano’s editing.”

Beller’s amused account of his “nearly hysterical” urgency as he pursues Lobrano’s skeptical daughter for an interview is typical of the tenor of the book and the enterprise as a whole. He is not scrounging for scraps of gossip somehow overlooked by previous biographers. He is celebrating an insufficiently recognized editor! He simply wants to, needs to, let people know: “Here was this enormously important figure who had not gotten his due.” “J. D. Salinger” is the story of the resonance of its subject, but it is also the story of a generous, humorous, sensitive writer, which is to say, Thomas Beller. Not much escapes him.

J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
By Thomas Beller
181 pp. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.


‘The Escape Artist’: Thomas Beller Talks About J. D. Salinger
John Williams
11 July 2014

Thomas Beller’s “J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist” is partly a look at Salinger’s early life and career, and partly a memoir about the New York that Beller grew up in and sees reflected in his subject’s work. In a recent email interview, Mr. Beller discussed Salinger’s reclusion, the development of his style, how “The Catcher in the Rye” holds up today and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you recall about your first experiences reading Salinger’s work?

I read him in eighth grade, and recall more about the teacher, Mr. Colan, and the atmosphere he created, than the book. He had this fateful charisma about him. He treated literature like it was some kind of explosive device that needed to be handled carefully.

You write that there’s been a “long and undistinguished history of people getting excited about investigating Salinger — they always sound like self-aggrandizing burglars.” How did you set out to avoid that problem?

The paradox of writing a biography about J.D. Salinger is that to have any affinity with his work, and by extension any interest in the man who wrote it, is to know that Salinger was vehemently opposed to a biography. My approach was to make this paradox, which itself has a Salinger-like sense of koan, central to the writing process.

That is why Ian Hamilton and his ill-fated biography feature so prominently. Hamilton wrote to Salinger informing him of the project. Salinger wrote back attempting to dissuade him from his biography. The letter serves as Salinger’s manifesto against the whole biographical industrial complex, which he saw stretching from the tabloids to academia. To say this sentiment of his gave me pause is an understatement. It paralyzed me. Then I realized that this emphasis on burglary, this obsession with privacy and purloined objects had been present in Salinger’s work from the very beginning. His first published story, “The Young Folks,” ends with an unseen theft that the reader is left to imagine. The obstacle became a portal.

Is there any evidence that Salinger realized at some point that his chosen mode of escaping media attention may have actually exacerbated the problem?

“Realized” suggests that he might have regretted the way he conducted himself in his relations with the press. And while I hesitate to presume, I strongly doubt he had any regrets along those lines, or any doubt of the correctness of his position. His desire to avoid publicity was not a reaction to publicity; its roots predate “The Catcher in the Rye”’s publication. After it came out, when it first started to sell, he lobbied for the removal of his author photo. By the third edition it was gone. I think his demand for the right to have a private life was valorous, utterly justified and prescient, given our era’s headlines. As for its effectiveness — I call my chapter on the subject “The Miscalculation.”

You say that “callow youth” was the “age for which he seems to have the most effortless empathy and whose music he hears most clearly.” Why do you think that was?

The rhythm in his writing, his dialogue, is like that of a good dancer — light on their feet, able to lead with a light touch, receptive to cues. He heard that youthful sound, was able to get it on the page. What is interesting is that his ability to get it on the page commenced around the time he stopped being a callow youth. His first published story was written in the last months of his teenage years. He was particularly good at a certain brassiness I associate with conversation of the forties, when everyone spoke as if everyone else was hard of hearing. But then I have this impression, in large part, from reading J. D. Salinger.

Why didn’t Salinger address World War II in his writing?

He did address it. But the stories that deal with the war most directly were not collected into a book and are therefore outside the four books that comprise the Salinger canon. Most of the work he wrote during the forties circles the war — most pointedly by evoking mothers who are scared to death about their sons’ prospects. “A Boy in France” unfolds in a foxhole, but after some vivid scene-setting the action narrows, the soldier pulls out a letter from home, and the foxhole may as well be the bathtub containing Zooey Glass. And then there is “For Esme — With Love and Squalor,” probably his most famous work outside of “Catcher,” and very much about the effects of the war.
In one chapter, you emphasize the importance of the New Yorker editor Gustave Lobrano, who “helped shape” Salinger’s writing voice. How did he change the work?

Lobrano’s sensibility was incredibly in sync with Salinger’s, but in one key respect it was at odds: Lobrano had minimal patience with obscurity. This seemed to apply both on the page and in life. He developed friendships with his writers, took them to lunch, played tennis with them, organized softball games.

Roger Angell gets his own chapter in my book, partly because he grew up a few blocks away from Salinger and could talk about the landscape at the time, partly because he was present at the New Yorker throughout Salinger’s career as a contributor, and partly because he himself was edited by Lobrano. Roger wrote to me at one point that “ ‘Always think of the reader’ is the best advice for a young writer.” I can’t help but think that this echoes Lobrano’s point of view, as well. That Lobrano has not been recognized for his contribution to Salinger’s work is due in part to the fact that he died young. His daughter, Dorothy Lobrano Guth, who had worked at the New Yorker herself, was a major source for my book. She shared letters that Salinger wrote her father, never before seen, that give an excellent sense of that relationship. The whole book is, in a way, preoccupied with fathers, and Lobrano and his relationship to Salinger is central to that theme.

How do you think “The Catcher in the Rye” holds up? Jennifer Schuessler wrote a piece in The Times five years ago, with evidence that young readers “just don’t like Holden as much as they used to.”

The key to understanding a decline is understanding the point from which it is declining. “Catcher” was an anthem for several generations of readers, and there’s no shame if its audience narrows a bit. It has certainly not vanished.

When I read the book in my twenties I was pretty down on it, perhaps disappointed by how it compared to my memory of it, or to the hype around it, and maybe impatient with a time of life I was eager to move beyond. But reading it again more recently I thought it was great, especially as a guide to the experience of an individual moving through the city, the parallel movements of the inner and outer landscape. Since so many people read “The Catcher in the Rye” when they are young, it becomes the occasion for this revisiting, which deepens the experience of reading him. At least it did for me.

Did you finish writing the book feeling significantly different about any particular aspect of Salinger’s personal life or work?

Yes! The part of Salinger’s life that I was most excited to learn about and contemplate was his family life — the relationships with his mother, father, and especially his sister, Doris. I found the details of his movement from being a child to being a writer fascinating. The locus of that transition was the period of time when he awoke, almost literally, in Whit Burnett’s classroom at Columbia in 1939, and started producing writing whose voice and style was immediately recognizable as that of J. D. Salinger. What led up to that transition and the almost immediate ascent into the realm of being a promising, well-published short story writer?

I came to feel, in the course of this project, that too much time and energy has been devoted to the least interesting, least productive part of his life, those years of silence up in Cornish, N.H., while the most interesting and productive part of his life, which includes the period in which he wrote all the books for which is famous, has been underserved. My book seeks to redress that imbalance.


Sunday 21 September 2014

Separate Cinema: African Americans in Film Posters

A history of black cinema in film posters – in pictures

Sunday 21 September 2014

A fascinating new book charts not only the increasing presence and importance of African Americans in film, but also how they have been portrayed on posters by artists in Hollywood and beyond. John Duke Kisch, who compiled the book from his personal collection of posters, explains the significance of some of the key images:

Carmen Jones (1954) Polish
There was a golden era of film poster design in Poland in the 1950s and some of the country’s foremost artists provided their visual perspectives on America’s black culture.
Carmen Jones (Poland, 1954) There was a golden era of film poster design in Poland in the 1950s and some of the country’s foremost artists provided their visual perspectives on America’s black culture.

Cabin in the Sky (1943) This is one of the few American posters where the identity of the artist is known. ‘Al Herschfield was a highly regarded artist in advertising’ says Kisch ‘this poster is simple but exciting.’
Cabin in the Sky (1943) This is one of the few American posters where the identity of the artist is known. ‘Al Herschfield was a highly regarded artist in advertising,’ says Kisch. ‘This poster is simple but exciting.’

My Baby is Black! (1961) In the 50s and 60s a slew of black indie production companies were producing B movies that offered titillating treatments of taboo topics like sex, violence and, in this film, interracial love.
My Baby is Black! (1961) In the 1950s and 60s a slew of black indie production companies were producing B-movies that offered titillating treatments of taboo topics such as sex, violence and, in this film, interracial love.

Black Orpheus (1959) Polish Made in Brazil by French director Marcel Camus, this film helped introduce the world to bossa nova and the role of music in the film is highlighted in this Polish poster.
Black Orpheus (Poland, 1959) Made in Brazil by French director Marcel Camus, this film helped introduce the world to bossa nova and the role of music in the film is highlighted in this Polish poster.

The Green Pastures (1936) Swedish / American
This was an all black cast musical that told the story of The Bible. The Swedish poster is a graphic illustration of a man and a woman in the Garden of Eden’ says Kisch ‘contrast that with the American poster (below) which was neutered.’
The Green Pastures (Sweden, 1936) This was an all-black-cast musical that told the story of the Bible. ‘The Swedish poster here is a graphic illustration of a man and a woman in the Garden of Eden,’ says Kisch. ‘Contrast that with the American poster [below] which was neutered.’

The Green Pastures (1936) Swedish / American This was an all black cast musical that told the story of The Bible. The Swedish poster is a graphic illustration of a man and a woman in the Garden of Eden’ says Kisch ‘contrast that with the American poster (below) which was neutered.’
The Green Pastures (USA, 1936)

The Butler (2013) The bow-tied butler in this poster holds the White House in a tray in his left hand, his right hand outstretched in a black power salute: defiance and deference in one image.
The Butler (2013) The bow-tied butler in this poster holds the White House on a tray in his left hand, his right hand outstretched in a black power salute: defiance and deference in one image.

The Exile (1931) The film’s plot concerned an apparently interracial love affair, a subject considered so controversial that some posters did not feature a printer’s logo as if those responsible did not want to be associated with the film.
The Exile (1931) The film’s plot concerned an apparently interracial love affair, a subject considered so controversial that some posters did not feature a printer’s logo as if those responsible did not want to be associated with the film.

Emperor Jones (1933)
The poster for the film would, Kisch says ‘have cost a lot of time and money to produce.’ It featured a painterly style - by contrast the posters for independent films would often use only two colours and be made in a few hours.
Emperor Jones (1933) The poster for the film would, Kisch says, ‘have cost a lot of time and money to produce’. It featured a painterly style. By contrast, the posters for independent films would often use only two colours and be made in a few hours.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967) Japanese
In the year that this film was released Sidney Poitier also released In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love making him the biggest movie star of 1967.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Japan, 1967) In the year that this film was released, Sidney Poitier also released In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love making him the biggest movie star of 1967.

Slaughter (1972)
The posters for blaxploitation films like this one depicted the stars in hyper-heroic poses - wielding huge guns, girls in tow - a filmic fantasy version of the black power movement.
Slaughter (1972) The posters for blaxploitation films such as this one depicted the stars in hyper-heroic poses – wielding huge guns, girls in tow – a filmic fantasy version of the black power movement.

La Revue Des Revues (1927) Swedish ‘Josephine Baker is usually known for being in feathers’ says Kisch ‘but this is a very different side to her. It is racist - the band members with their big red lips - but it is also very stylised.’
La Revue des Revues (Sweden, 1927) Despite originating from Sweden – black film posters by designers from outside the US usually showed more sophisticated attitudes to race than their American counterparts – Kisch points out that: ‘It is racist – the band members with their big red lips – but it is also very stylised.’

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee’s groundbreaking first feature was pioneering in its representation of black people in American cinema, as reflected by the relaxed, naturalistic look of its stars on the poster.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) Spike Lee’s groundbreaking first feature was pioneering in its representation of black people in American cinema, as reflected by the relaxed, naturalistic look of its stars on the poster.

Caldonia (1945) This poster, given to John Duke Kisch in 1973, first ignited his interest in black cinema poster art. ‘I was an aspiring photographer at the time,’ Kisch says ‘and the graphics really spoke to me.’
Caldonia (1945) This poster, given to John Duke Kisch in 1973, first ignited his interest in black cinema poster art. ‘I was an aspiring photographer at the time,’ Kisch says ‘and the graphics really spoke to me.’


The slow rise of black cinema
A fascinating new book charts not only the increasing presence and importance of African Americans in film, but also how they have been portrayed on posters by artists in Hollywood and beyond

Sarfraz Manzoor
The Observer
Sunday 21 September 2014

In 1973, John Duke Kisch was an art student in New York when a friend gave him a poster for an old black film called Caldonia. A musical from 1945, it featured singer and musician Louis Jordan who stands centre stage, his arms open wide as if in welcome. Kisch was immediately taken with the liveliness of the graphic design and spent the rest of the decade travelling around the country visiting comic-book stores looking for posters. “Nobody wanted them then,” he tells me on the phone from his home in upstate New York. “I could pick them up for a dollar.” Today, Kisch’s collection, which he maintains full time, includes more than 38,000 posters by designers from across the globe and is the world’s largest privately owned archive of black film memorabilia. “I knew nothing about black cinema before I started collecting,” he says, “but these posters have been like looking through a window into history.”

The best posters in Kisch’s collection have now been brought together in a book, Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art. While showcasing the evolution of poster art style – from simple two-colour silkscreens and lavish paintings to abstract imagery – it also provides a fascinating insight into the broader journey of African Americans in society. As film professor and author of Contemporary Black American Cinema Mia Mask tells me: “African American cinema is a metaphor for black experience because it is a history of the struggle for inclusion.”

In the early days of silent cinema, – the first decades of the last century – black characters would be played by white people in black-face and when African Americans were cast they were also expected to wear black make-up. It was against this backdrop that a parallel black cinema industry arose. The most significant figure in this era was Oscar Micheaux. The son of a Kentucky slave, Micheaux worked as a railway porter and homesteader before he went on to write, direct and produce more than 40 films, beginning in 1918. Micheaux was also a novelist and the poster art for his films such as The Exile and Murder in Harlem resembled the covers of schlocky paperback novels.

As Kisch’s collection highlights, early black film stars such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson found success by playing up to sexualised caricatures. In the poster art for films such as La sirène des tropiquesand La revue des revues, both from 1927, Baker is either near-naked or accompanied by black figures with cartoonish red lips, while in the poster for 1933’s The Emperor Jones Robeson is shirtless. It was the arrival of Sidney Poitier in the 1950s, with films such as 1958’s The Defiant Ones, that marked a new stage in the representation of black people on film; the Japanese poster for 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for example, sees a smiling, tuxedo-clad Poitier embodying what Mask describes as “a very urbane, controlled and sophisticated black masculinity”.

Featuring work by designers from more than 30 countries, Kisch’s archive is also revealing about attitudes towards race in different continents over the decades. The posters that designers from Sweden, Japan and Poland created for films such as 1936’s The Green Pastures and 1949’s Intruder in the Dust, for example, are more subtle and stylish than the American versions, perhaps because they could find creative distance from the bruising reality of racism in the US. That reality would be challenged by the likes of Poitier and Harry Belafonte in films such as 1967’s In the Heat of the Night and 1957’s Island in the Sun; it was also being exploited by black indie film companies that were producing B-movies with lurid titles such as 1966’s I Crossed the Color Line, which exploited white fears of miscegenation.

In time, Poitier would be criticised, as Josephine Baker was, for pandering to white fantasies, as the civil rights era gave way in the mid to late 1960s to the black power movement, which rejected integration and argued for a purely black society. By the early 1970s, this social movement had spawned the blaxploitation genre and films such as 1971’s Shaft and 1972’s Super Fly. The posters, like the films themselves, perpetuated some of the very stereotypes about black people that earlier generations of African American film-makers had sought to challenge. They were a way to “stand up to The Man,” says Kisch, “but by the mid-1970s audiences were tired of the drug dealers and the pimps. After that there was a big lull until the arrival of Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee, who proved that it still took an independent film-maker to go places Hollywood would not.”

Most recently, black cinema has seen the rise of mainstream black film-makers and actors such as Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Halle Berry, as well as auteurs such as Spike Lee, Tyler Perry and Steve McQueen. Meanwhile Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino have made acclaimed films about black subjects. The success of last year’s 12 Years a Slave was not only an indication of how mainstream African American stories are now becoming – it also suggested that, as with the foreign designers who created some of the finest poster art, sometimes the outsider can better tell an American tale. “If that film had been put in the hands of an American they would have butchered that story,” says Kisch.

Kisch’s collection reflects both how much black cinema has progressed but also how African Americans are still facing many of the same institutional challenges to have the full range of their voices heard. “We have African American film stars but what percentage of films are directed or written or produced by someone who is African American?” asks Mask. “There is still a paucity of representation.” Singular success at the Oscars, like singular success at the White House, does not mean the struggle for representation is over on screen or in real life.

Separate Cinema by John Duke Kisch (Reel Art Press, £45) is published on 6 October. 


Saturday 20 September 2014

Stephen King on writing...

How Stephen King Teaches Writing

By Jessica Lahey
9 September 2014

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has been a fixture in my English classroom for years, but it wasn’t until this summer, when I began teaching in a residential drug and alcohol rehab, that I discovered the full measure of its worth. For weeks, I struggled to engage my detoxing, frustrated, and reluctant teenage students. I trotted out all my best lessons and performed all my best tricks, but save for one rousing read-aloud of Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart,” I failed to engage their attention or imagination.

Until the day I handed out copies of On Writing. Stephen King’s memoir of the craft is more than an inventory of the writer’s toolbox or a voyeuristic peek into his prolific and successful writing life. King recounts his years as a high school English teacher, his own recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and his love for his students (“even the Beavis and Butt-Head types”). Most importantly, he captivates the reader with his honest account of the challenges he’s faced, and promises redemption to anyone willing to come to the blank page with a sense of purpose.

I asked King to expound on the parts of On Writing I love most: the nuts and bolts of teaching, the geekiest details of grammar, and his ideas about how to encourage a love of language in all of our students.

Jessica Lahey: You write that you taught grammar “successfully.” How did you define “success” when you were teaching?

Stephen King: Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of On Writing, but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?

King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like “Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but The Elements of Style is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.

Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?

King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?

King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.

Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?

King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?

King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.

Lahey: In On Writing, you identified some phrases that should be excised from every writer’s toolbox: “At this point in time” and “at the end of the day.” Any new irksome phrases you’d be willing to share? (Mine’s “on accident.”)

King: “Some people say,” or “Many believe,” or “The consensus is.” That kind of lazy attribution makes me want to kick something. Also, IMHO, YOLO, and LOL.

Lahey: You write that “it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer.” If so, how should writing teachers proceed when it comes to our least talented students?

King: Ask yourself what they need to get on in life, the bare minimum (like filling in a job application), and concentrate on that. Sometimes it can be as simple as writing—as a class exercise—instructions on how to get from Point A in town to Point B. They tie themselves in knots, at least to start with. It can be pretty hilarious. My kids used to end up shouting at each other, “No, no, you go left at the water tower!” Stuff like that.

Lahey: Great writing often resides in the sweet spot between grammatical mastery and the careful bending of rules. How do you know when students are ready to start bending? When should a teacher put away his red pen and let those modifiers dangle?

King: I think you have to make sure they know what they’re doing with those danglers, those fragmentary and run-on sentences, those sudden digressions. If you can get a satisfactory answer to “Why did you write it this way?” they’re fine. And—come on, Teach—you know when it’s on purpose, don’t you? Fess up to your Uncle Stevie!

Lahey: Oxford comma: yea or nay?

King: It can go either way. For instance, I like “Jane bought eggs, milk, bread, and a candy bar for her brother.” But I also like “Jane raced home and slammed the door,” because I want to feel that whole thing as a single breath.

Lahey: You extol the benefits of writing first drafts with the door closed, but students are often so focused on giving teachers what they want and afraid of making mistakes that they become paralyzed. How can teachers encourage kids to close the door and write without fear?

King: In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing—maybe the only thing—is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar. I would say, “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”

Lahey: Of course, once they have something down on paper, they are going to have to open the door and invite the world to read what they have written. How did you cope with the editing process early in your writing career, and how did you teach your students to handle feedback?

King: A lot of them didn’t care; they were just hacking out assignments. For those that are sensitive and insecure, you have to combine gentleness with firmness. It’s a tightrope, particularly with teenagers. Did I have students actually bust out crying? I did. I’d say, “This is just a step to get you to the next step.”

Lahey: You warn writers not to “come lightly to the blank page.” How can teachers encourage kids to come the blank page with both gravity and enthusiasm?

King: It went best for me when I could communicate my own enthusiasm. I can remember teaching Dracula to sophomores and practically screaming, “Look at all the different voices in this book! Stoker’s a ventriloquist! I love that!” I don’t have much use for teachers who “perform,” like they’re onstage, but kids respond to enthusiasm. You can’t command a kid to have fun, but you can make the classroom a place that feels safe, where interesting things happen. I wanted every 50-minute class to feel like half an hour.

Lahey: You have called informal essays “silly and unsubstantial things,” not at all useful for teaching good writing. What kinds of essay assignments are useful?

King: I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

Lahey: I do a lot of reading out loud in my classroom because I think it’s the best way to ease students into challenging language and rhetoric. Do you have any favorite read-alouds, either from your classroom, or from reading to your own kids?

King: I used to read my lit kids “August Heat,” by W.F. Harvey. By the time I reached the last line—“The heat is enough to drive a man mad”—you could hear a pin drop. Wilfred Owen was also a hit: “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” My kids wanted comic books when they were small. Later it was The Hobbit, and from The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings. On long trips, we all listened to audio books. A good reader digging into a good book is wonderful. Musical.

Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?

King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.

Lahey: You paint a pretty bleak picture of teachers as professional writers. Teaching is, after all, a “consumptive profession,” as a friend of mine puts it, and it can be a real challenge to find the juice for our own creative endeavors after a day at school. Do you still feel that teaching full time while pursuing the writing life is a doomed proposition?

King: Many writers have to teach in order to put bread on the table. But I have no doubt teaching sucks away the creative juices and slows production. “Doomed proposition” is too strong, but it’s hard, Jessica. Even when you have the time, it’s hard to find the old N-R-G.

Lahey: If your writing had not panned out, do you think you would have continued teaching?

King: Yes, but I would have gotten a degree in elementary ed. I was discussing that with my wife just before I broke through with Carrie. Here’s the flat, sad truth: By the time they get to high school, a lot of these kids have already closed their minds to what we love. I wanted to get to them while they were still wide open. Teenagers are wonderful, beautiful freethinkers at the best of times. At the worst, it’s like beating your fists on a brick wall. Also, they’re so preoccupied with their hormones it’s often hard to get their attention.

Lahey: Do you think great teachers are born or do you think they can be trained?

King: Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn (some are pretty lazy). Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.

Lahey: You refer to writing as a craft rather than an art. What about teaching? Craft, or art?

King: It’s both. The best teachers are artists.