Hornby’s Mumbles

I reread Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch recently, and a moment that probably barely registered when I first read it five or six years ago has this time stuck with me.  The book, Hornby’s first, is almost as much a memoir of disaffected youth as it is a chronicle of obsessive fandom.  The best example of Hornby’s youthful fecklessness comes from his time at Cambridge: he recounts that when pressed about his plans for the future, he would mumble noncommittally about publishing and journalism, the stock answer for “aimless arts undergraduates” everywhere.  This was in 1979, when publishing and journalism represented viable options for young people pondering their career prospects.  Asked about his future in 2010, the aimless arts undergraduate (or graduate) instead mumbles about founding a blog, or maybe a tech start-up (provided he doesn’t have to do any of the coding).  Hornby’s situation in 1979 is one I both can and cannot relate to: there is a timeless, touching quality to his uncertainty, but at the same time, he would’ve been paid to do the jobs he was so ambivalent about pursuing.

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The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

The official Holocaust memorial in Berlin takes up an entire city block.  It consists of 2,711 large gray steles, arrayed in a grid so that there is walking space among them.  The steles vary in height, and they rise and fall together, giving the memorial the look of a perfect square of sea.  The ground beneath the steles slopes towards the middle of the memorial, and at this deepest point the steles rise higher than anywhere else; they are much taller than any person.  They are meant to be overwhelming.  But that was not the effect the tallest steles, and the memorial as a whole, had on me.  Rather, I found it abstracted to the point of meaninglessness.  Whether the steles are meant to represent graves or a large city—a city of the dead, of the murdered, a necropolis—or something else altogether, is unclear.  The memorial is a case of the art of architecture—form, symbolism, beauty—taking precedence over the event and the people being memorialized.  The fact that a Jew could visit the memorial in 2010 and leave unmoved points to the memorial’s inadequacy.

There are different kinds of memorials.  Memorials to fallen soldiers in a victorious cause tend to be simple and direct, exactly what one would expect.  There is a memorial near St. James’s Park in London to those who fought and died in the First World War that consists of bronze statues of soldiers, backed by a stele upon which are engraved explanations and benedictions.  The Soviet Army memorial in what was East Berlin consists of a plaza, flanked by stone sarcophagi covered with relief carvings that depict the heroism of Soviet civilians and soldiers.  The sarcophagi are also garlanded with quotations from Stalin emphasizing that the victory over Hitler was the victory of Communism over Nazism.  At the head of the plaza, sitting on a small, man-made hill, is a stone chamber.  The chamber is maybe fifty steps up, and is itself not very high, but on top of it stands an immense, magnificent statue of a Soviet soldier, cradling a babe in one arm and clutching a sword in the other, and crushing a swastika under his boot.  This bronze giant wears a flowing bronze cape, which makes him seem all the more imposing and implacable.  The plaza he commands was built as a site for Communist rallies in addition to being a permanent memorial to the dead.  The memorial—the plaza, the sarcophagi, the statue of the soldier—more than adequately communicates the power and grandiosity of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet War Memorial in former East Berlin

Memorials to national defeat or to national atrocity are in theory more complicated, vexed endeavors, but there are existing memorials that prove otherwise.  A memorial done right, no matter what its subject, is perhaps a simple thing: its impact on a visitor should be immediate, visceral, and inevitable.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is as simple as one could imagine—an angle of marble cut into the earth, upon which is engraved the name of every American soldier killed in the war.  It is always a crowded place, probably in part because the Vietnam War is more recent, and occupies a more significant place in the American psyche, than other wars, but the power of the memorial itself might be its main attraction.  After all, we go to memorials to remember, lament, and be sad.  Seeing the names of the dead men at the same time as seeing their numbers—almost 60,000—is jarring.  Stalin’s (possibly apocryphal) maxim about individual versus mass death—”The death of one man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic”—comes to mind.  The Vietnam memorial collapses the space between the individual tragedy and the collective tragedy, and the full horror of war comes into focus.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin houses a memorial to the Holocaust dead that is smaller yet more effective than the official memorial.  You enter a long, concrete room two or three stories high, but your eyes are immediately drawn to the floor, which is not really a floor but a vast number of round, oblong faces, each uniquely distorted by agony, terror, and insanity.  You walk on the faces to the far end of the room and back.  They’re made of a dark metal and you can sense their weight.  When you step on them, they clank noisily.  There are maybe 10,000 of these metal faces and you cannot see the ground beneath them; each one rests on top of many more.  The effect of the memorial is unavoidable.

The official Berlin memorial does not offend its neighbors: ice cream and souvenir shops, as well as what appear to be commercial buildings.  The Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, itself now partly a memorial, are close by.  Both are more prominent.  The Holocaust memorial is low and unassuming.  It may appear comely to passing drivers and pedestrians, a nice break from the usual office buildings.  At the very least, it does not jolt them out of their daily routine.  Young children play hide and seek among the steles, and visitors to the memorial disobey the unenforced rules regarding climbing on top of them.  The outer steles are low enough to sit on, and many people do so.  You cannot blame either the children or the adults; the memorial does not command your attention, and its effect is not visceral.  You have to know what you’re looking at and you have to ponder its meaning, otherwise it’s just an interesting piece of modern urban sculpture, a stone jungle gym.  And you have to bring as well some knowledge of the Holocaust; there is a museum below the memorial, which may be an acknowledgment by the memorial’s creators that the memorial cannot even stand for itself.  But beware if you come armed with too much knowledge or baggage: the memorial, so majestic and unspecific, can feel more like a memorial to the contrition of the German nation than to the Jews it murdered.

Something similar to the Vietnam memorial or the Libeskind/Kadishman memorial, built to fill the same city block, would be a more appropriate Holocaust memorial.  Imagine six million names (if they are retrievable) engraved upon a massive one block by one block stele, five or ten or however many stories high.  Or imagine a one block by one block death pit, filled with hundreds of thousands of Kadishman’s howling faces.  Walking from one end to the other would be treacherous.  But memorials like this are probably impossible.  Giving such prominence to national failures and crimes is not done; the Vietnam memorial does not occupy a prime position on the Mall, but sits off to the side of the line linking the Lincoln memorial, the National World War Two memorial, the Washington memorial, and the Capitol building.  This arrangement communicates that the Vietnam War is to be remembered as an aberration in the triumphant narrative of America.

Maybe asking Berliners to walk past and live near a horrifying and outsize Holocaust memorial was unthinkable.  (It’s difficult to imagine a city voluntarily installing anything that could conceivably be called a “death pit” in its center.)  Maybe such a memorial was viewed as detrimental to the civic future of Berlin and Germany.  Nations build memorials to support the very idea of nationhood—the idea that all Germans, or all Americans, are brothers—and an adequate Holocaust memorial would do the opposite; it would be disturbing, and anti-German.  A nation must move on, I guess.  It must remember the past, but not too lucidly.  So we are left with a pretty memorial that relies on symbolism and the interpretive abilities of its visitors, a memorial that offends the past but not the present.

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Clive James and “The Pacific”

In the July 9th Times Literary Supplement, the cultural critic Clive James reviewed the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” and his tone was one of what might have been.  “The first casualty of this Pacific War was the script” is the sub-title of the piece, and James takes the writers of the miniseries to task for numerous sins of omission, and for misreading history.  James is Australian, and is particularly vexed by both the careful treatment of the Japanese and the portrait of his homeland.  He writes that Japanese racism “went beyond language and custom and far into sadism, with the torture of helpless victims as standard practice.”  The “moral equivalence” on display in “The Pacific” is a liberal concoction, and one that must be combated.  There is one sadist on the American side, the private from New Orleans called Snafu, and what the “The Pacific” fails to make clear is that the Japanese side was comprised entirely of Snafus, their barbarism institutionalized by Japanese society.  When it comes to the episode set in Melbourne, James homes in on the little things: there is no acknowledgment that Australian men of fighting age were absent, and there is not attempt to deal with the complicated relations between Australians and their American visitors.

But these are secondary complaints.  James’s main thrust is against the dialogue and structure of “The Pacific.”  The dialogue demonstrates that its writers’ “mentalities are saturated by the movies and by nothing else,” and James adduces a moment when a marine says the Japanese are “either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.”  It’s a silly line, and one I don’t remember, but the dialogue in “The Pacific” is not its notable attribute.  When James faults the writers for failing to have the characters note the concurrence of American victory on Guadalcanal and Soviet victory in Stalingrad, he’s not simply asking too much of the writers.  He’s asking them to violate one of the themes of “The Pacific”: that the marines, fighting and dying in terrible conditions, thousands of miles from home, were not able to think about much beyond their immediate survival.  James’s structural laments are more extensive:

What is true for the movies goes double for a mini-series, where no matter how lavish the spectacle, the focus is tighter on the narrative.  But whole episodes of “The Pacific” go by in which almost nothing happens that might keep your brain alive, even when hundreds of stuntmen pretending to be Japanese are running out of the jungle in order to fall down in heaps.

And:

The storylines for the episodes turn around the real-life vicissitudes of three or four individual ex-marines, and you aren’t very far into the overall narrative, partly compiled from the books two of those marines write afterwards, before you realize that a mistake has been made.  In “Band of Brothers” the focus of the story was Easy Company, whose personnel were almost all replaced as time went on.  The appearances and disappearances happened within a tight framework.  Here the framework is too big: a whole division of marines.

“The Pacific” is a fragmented experience, one that moves along in fits and starts, at its own pace, not beholden to any conventional dramatic structure.  The fighting is a loud, confusing mess, and for the viewer it can be difficult to piece together the physical space of the battlefields (the notable exception being the early battle saved by Basilone, for which he is awarded the Medal of Honor).  The middle episodes are devoted to the fighting on the island Peleliu, a place few viewers would have heard of beforehand.  The main characters fade in and out of the show—the early episodes belong to Basilone and the colorful Leckie, and then Leckie vanishes, replaced by Sledge.  But where James sees these as faults, I would argue just the opposite—they are “The Pacific’s” primary virtues.

“The Pacific” is not “Band of Brothers,” nor could it have been.  The geographical difference between the European and Pacific theaters, the difference between a continent and an archipelago, has unavoidable ramifications.  Instead of a penetrating advance through northern European fields, forests, and hamlets, the war in the Pacific was an endless island-hop, and a battle to exterminate an entrenched, crazed enemy.  I’m thinking of one of the most impressive and harrowing sequences in “Band of Brothers,” when Easy Company is pinned down in the Ardennes and commanded to hold against an interminable artillery barrage.  It’s a horrific demonstration of modern mechanized warfare, but also endemic to the European theater.  There was no place for massed artillery in the Pacific war—shipping around quantities of large guns wasn’t practicable.  The best sequence in “Band of Brothers” is unimaginable in “The Pacific.”  Instead we get, James says, “hundreds of stuntmen pretending to be Japanese…running out of the jungle in order to fall down in heaps.”

This gets at a larger issue, which James uncomfortably acknowledges: what if the war in the Pacific was “just too big a mess, too shapeless, too widespread, and, above all, too horrible” to evoke within the limits of a TV miniseries?  His curious answer is that, even if the viewer subscribes to this view, he still has “the duty of registering” how the miniseries “fails even to fulfill the elementary requirements of a good adventure story.”  Maybe it’s more senseless than curious.  “The Pacific,” in intention and execution, is not an adventure story.  It’s a first-person war story.  Its fealty is not to the viewer, but to the documents upon which it’s based, and to the marines who fought and died in the war against the Japanese.

“The Pacific” came to be in no small part because of the clamoring of veterans who wanted their story told on the same scale as “Band of Brothers.”  Spielberg and Hanks have, since “Saving Private Ryan,” exhibited an uncommon devotion to telling World War II stories and honoring veterans, and “The Pacific” may be more a result of their feelings of civic duty than of a desire to fashion a big hit.  The nature of “The Pacific”—the transient characters, the incoherent and repetitive battles, the waiting for the next fight, the big mess of it all—owes everything to their clout.  Absent the blind faith HBO executives put in them and their creative team, “The Pacific” doesn’t get made.  At first glance it’s amazing that Spielberg and Hanks, both devotees of dramatic convention, were attracted to such an unconventional story.  But also consider their literalism, and their desire to honor veterans of the Pacific war through the accuracy of the miniseries, convention be damned.  In some ways the nature of “The Pacific” was inevitable.  By prefacing every episode with interviews with veterans (as they did in “Band of Brothers”), Spielberg and Hanks signaled that what follows is history transcribed to the TV screen.

Sifting through his complaints I sensed James found “The Pacific” boring, which is, of course, his prerogative.  At times, it show is boring.  But boredom is surely a big part of being a soldier.  The show recreates what it felt like to be a marine fighting the Japanese, and when it’s not boring, it is by turns moving, engrossing, exciting, disturbing, and exhausting.  To judge “The Pacific,” then, by a conventional rubric, when its provenance and purpose are so unique, is to badly miss the point.

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“Entourage”

Maybe the writers behind “Entourage” sensed change was necessary, because at the very end of this past week’s episode, something new happened: Ari and E find Vince naked and unconscious after a night of drinking and cavorting with the porn star Sasha Grey (playing herself, and badly).  Ingeniously, the episode ends right there (a few beats after a haunting song begins to play).  It seems that the show may have for the first time taken a step in a different direction; a step towards drama.  Will Vince become one of those true Hollywood stories, a promising star laid low by drugs, alcohol, temptation?  More important, will “Entourage” reach for seriousness, maybe even darkness, or will it revert back to its customary weightlessness, which in the past was so fresh and invigorating?

“Entourage” is an unusual show.  It’s primarily about movement; the characters are always going somewhere.  The actors read their lines while walking, running, gesturing.  The show’s signature shot is of Vince and the boys strutting around LA, shooting the shit as passing women gawk, all of it filmed by a retreating steadicam.  That the characters are in constant motion has a lot to do with the show being perhaps the most accurate fictional representation of Hollywood ever dreamed up.  Most movies and books about Hollywood are governed by big themes—madness, greed, vanity, vapidity, desperation, exploitation, and so on—and are less concerned with nailing down the particular reality of the people who work in the movies.  “Sunset Boulevard” is good entertainment but is unconvincing satire (it’s too preposterous, or maybe just too self-conscious); the same applies to “The Player,” which relies on the rather dull-witted notion that Hollywood is peopled by greedy sociopaths.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” gets many things right (Fitzgerald’s last act was as a screenwriter), but it’s suffused with the romance and gloom present in all of his work, which in turn might say more about Fitzgerald than the movie business.  By contrast, “Entourage” zeroes in on the daily activity that is Hollywood, and what comes through is that it’s all about The Deal.  Once a deal—for a movie, with a director, with an agent—is struck, it’s on to the next.  The characters are always moving because they have meetings and lunches with directors, writers, producers, agents, and publicists.  It’s instructive that the movies Vince makes are of so little consequence to the show (in the show’s chronology, they are often “filmed” between seasons).  “Entourage” is about the movie business, but it’s not really about movies.

In 1973 Joan Didion wrote that Hollywood “makes everyone a gambler.  Its spirit is speedy, obsessive, immaterial.  The action itself is an art form.”  At the end of the third season, Vince sells his house to buy the script for “Medellin.”  Vince is somewhat of a cipher, but what often appears to be nonchalance can alternatively be viewed as a gambler’s self-confidence, a willingness to risk it all (in contrast to the conservative E).  Ari shares this quality: in season two he butts heads with Terrance, his boss, and, instead of acquiescing to the older man’s unfair encroachments, he sets in motion an audacious plan to form a new agency with a trusted number of Terrance’s employees.  He’s found out and fired, but his confidence survives; he starts his own agency, an agency of one, in effect betting on himself.  That bet and many others like it pay off, and in the current season, he’s one the most powerful men in Hollywood.  Didion, like Fitzgerald, worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but the eye she brought to bear on the place was more a reporter’s than a novelist’s.  When she wrote that “the action is everything [and is] the true point of the exercise,” she was communicating an axiom about Hollywood, one that “Entourage” demonstrates weekly.

Certainly, the show owes much of its accuracy to the fact that it’s based on the careers and experiences of Mark Wahlberg and Ari Emmanuel.  But that only explains so much; after all, “Sunset Boulevard’s” Norma Desmond was based on a silent film star named Norma Talmadge, the writer of “The Player” is the son of a studio executive and a director of movies himself, and Fitzgerald’s Monroe Star is a thinly-fictionalized portrait of Irving Thalberg.  Or to be blunter: Billy Wilder and Robert Altman were Hollywood insiders to a far greater degree than “Entourage” creators Wahlberg and Doug Ellin (who has, unusually, written or co-written the vast majority of episodes) could ever dream of becoming.  But Wilder and Altman and Fitzgerald could not escape the traditional Hollywood themes, or were entranced by them.  Wahlberg and Ellin, in creating a show free of heavy themes, have, probably by design, created the most faithful Hollywood story yet.  Vince may or may not be entirely healthy in the next episode, but the show will undoubtedly forgo any thematic darkness, and remain weightless.  Vince will not end up a lonely addict, and he won’t hurt himself or anyone else in a fit of drunkenness and self-loathing.  The worst he has to fear is a short stint in rehab.  And if on the whole “Entourage” feels well past its sell-by date, maybe that’s because Hollywood becomes boring to those who tire of the meetings and lunches and deal-making, the action that never ends.

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The Margin

Welcome to The Margin.  I plan to fill this space with cultural reflections, on books, movies, and TV in particular.  My style will be annotative—commentary in the margin of our culture—hence the name.  With many if not most blogs, initial purposes are surpassed or abandoned or forgotten, and posts become longer and more frequent—the blog takes over, wagging the blogger.  To say anything more of my plans for this blog would likely be futile, so I won’t do it.  I will say that I hope its quality justifies its existence.  We’ll see.

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