Today: the presidential campaign reaches the front door of Jasperwood; the tiresomeness of the Marx Brothers; weedy evil

I’m listening to Bossa Nova these days, as if it will somehow bring back the summer we’ve lost so far. Most of what I’m listening to is ersatz Bossa Nova, I fear. The Americanized version. but a friend of my wife gave her some real Brazilian BN the other day, and it was some of the most narcoleptic music I’d ever heard. The singers all sounded as though they could barely keep their chins off their sternums, and they couldn’t sing very well, either. They sounded out of breath, like beautiful hungover waify fashion models propped up in front of a microphone after a night of dancing and smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

Good weekend. Accomplished nothing. That’s the spirit! Well, we weeded. All three of us, with Jasper standing guard on the hill. Sample conversation:

Me to wife: Are these weeds?

Wife, hunched over up the hill: YES.

Me: But they have flowers.

Wife: Doesn’t matter. They’re weeds, that’s how they trick you.

Me: So they’re evil.

Gnat: Daddy, look at this weed. It’s evil too.

So I started pulling up the tall blue-flowered evil weed things. They came up without resistance; you could almost sense that they knew they shouldn’t be here. It’s a fair cop, guv. As I waded through the hostas and bushes, pulling up ugly spiky things, swatting mosquitos, I had that reaction I get once or twice a summer: man, nature sucks. Left to its own, anyway. Left to its own it’ll kill you and wrap your bones with kudzu tendrils. There’s one way to deal with nature, and that’s with a machete and a flame thrower. And as the weed breathes its last, that’s when you lean over real close and hiss “and we’re gonna drill in ANWAR too, pal.” Just so it dies in complete disgrace.

I watched a David Mamet film Friday.

You watched a David Mamet film.

Yes. And –


It – it was on a disc. A DVD.

They’re the latest thing.



The movie intrigued me. It made me want to watch it.

Movies will do that.

But – it – no. I shouldn’t.

Shouldn’t what?

Write the review like this. For once the dialogue flowed in such a way that you almost missed the start-stop stuttering rhythms of Mamet’s peculiar style. It’s always jarring at first, contrived and annoying, and the only point seems to be to remind you who wrote it. But like a Shakespeare play, you become acclimated to the style, and you find yourself getting inside the story about the same time the lingo feels right. (See also, “A Clockwork Orange.”) I don’t know why this one felt different; the dialogue was certainly oblique and elliptical in spots, but it felt right for the settings – a military base and a police station. It had that same pared-down feel of latter Ellroy. It had actors who already gave off the characteristics of reserve and observation, so we didn’t expect them to say much. It had Val Kilmer acting once more with his eyelids and the corners of his mouth; it had Ed O’Neill, whose face age has turned into a bulldog mask made out of Play-Doh; it had William H. Macy, whose ubiquity in these sorts of roles is turning him to the Steve Buscemi of decent-but-desperate-middle-aged men. But this being a good Mamet script – and it is pretty good, some implausibilities aside - it has the twists and turns and double-triple crosses that keep you watching. But it does make you wonder when a Mamet script stops being a Mamet script. If anyone could write that dialogue, does it matter that Mamet did?

So you’re saying I’m not in this movie.

If you’re Rebecca Pidgeon, standard female interlocutor in most of the movies, no. No you’re not. I’m sorry –

You’re sorry.

I am.

Alright then.

Insty’s assertions to the contrary ("Lost in Space"? Oh the pain, the pain!) I don’t get to watch movies right off the bat. They pile up. Friday I started on the MGM Marx Brother set, and started from the end with “The Big Store.” I knew it was lame, but there’s something fascinating about stars past their prime still cranking it out, especially if those stars are Groucho, Chico and Harpo. It has a few moments of amusement – you can’t get the Marx brothers together without something amusing happening. It’s like Liquor, Shiners and hotel rooms. But it’s not just the visual flatness of the film, the labored FX-heavy slapstick (with obvious doubles), the usual big lumbering love-interest galoot. There’s an unbelievably bad musical number called “Tenement Symphony.” The name tells you we’re in Barton Finkville here – the grafting of the High Arts to the subject matter of the low peoples, with the intent of finding Beauty and Poetry in the teeming masses so beloved, and avoided, by high-minded socially conscious artists. The music is bad Gershwin. The production consists of an orchestra performing in the department store’s cafeteria (which has a two-tiered stage with a huge curtain; don’t they all?) while the “composer,” belts out a roll-call of the ethnicities that inhabit the Lower East Side. I think the awfulness of it all can be summed up here.

Watching the movie, I was reminded how much I don’t get the humor of the 40s. It just isn’t funny to me - at least the radio and movie humor. Aside from Fred Allen, who appears to have teleported in from another era, little from the 40s sounds funny to me. But the audiences thought it was. It’s almost as if they thought it was funny because it was supposed to be. So it was. Either they had all agreed to find certain styles, conventions, gags and set-ups as funny, regardless of whether they were funny, or these things truly were funny – but not any more.

A little of both, maybe. Styles change. We move on. Some things are funny forever - the pratfall of a king will always be funny. Keaton doesn’t date, or at least will take longer to date than others. (As much as it pains me, the durability of silent films may suggest that Mime is the only humorous skill capable of transcending the passage of time.) But most styles of humor are particular to the times. Some eras prize clever arid wordplay; others wallow in puns. Some humorists are lashed to the mast of their time, and when the wind goes out of the sail their reputations drift, becalmed. “Airplane,” a very funny movie, would have completely baffled people in 1917. it’s all so subjective that it’s hard to believe anything can be established empirically as FUNNY, in the sense that it’s amusing to most people in most places in most times. Some day, eventually, the Marx Brothers will be NOT FUNNY, just a strange manic artifact full of allusions to conventions we’ve lost and forgotten.

Harpo is the most insufferable the lot. I didn’t used to think so. O gentle clown! Why art thou so oddly yclept, so whimsically named – oh, got it, you play the HARP. I like Chico – he’s a bluff and hearty soul, and when he sits down to play you know you’re going to get a happy tinkly tune with the same gestures he’s been using for decades. No matter how many times you've seen it, you still enjoy watching him point-and-shoot a key at the end of a glissando. It’s not necessarily funny, but it’s apt. Why not make that gesture? It’s perfectly sensible. No reason you shouldn’t. (I much prefer Chico’s piano sketches to Harpo’s plucking; the former usually fits in the comic tone of the movie, but the latter is like a drum solo in a rock concert. Everything grinds to a halt for the obligatory act. You wonder if they put the harp solos in so half the audience could take a leak and get some popcorn.) Groucho – well, even when the movie is bad and the lines are lame and the performance just more of the same, at least it’s the same Groucho. Venal, lazy, irascible, horny, prickly – he’s always living by his wits in situations that require anything but. He’s a series of contradictory characteristics – valor / cowardice, nobility / cravenness, promiscuity / uxoriousness, selfishness / camaraderie, and every one of them is genuine, as the situation demands. An utterly unique American comic archetype; remove him from the troupe and you have nothing.
But take the other two away and you have this tiresome fellow who can’t stand up straight. But in the end I think he’ll be doomed by the way they paced his jokes. Couldn’t be helped – to the audiences of the day he was so hilarious that his routines brought guaranteed laughter, so they had to hold the scene for a few seconds to accommodate the laughter. Stage pacing translated to film - poorly. When you see the movies alone, at home, it seems peculiar to watch Groucho deliver a zinger then look up and hold the pose, waiting for the laughter to crest and fall. You were meant to experience these movies communally. They counted on it. They required it. In the theater, we laugh when others laugh. At home, we laugh to ourselves, which takes half a second. Disorganized group laughter takes a while to disband. Groucho is always waiting for the laughter to die down, and nowadays when these movies are seen in different circumstances, there’s no laughter to evaporate. Which makes them somehow seem less funny than they think they are.

And when they really are less funny than they think they are, well, you have “The Big Store.”

Harpo / Little Steven: separated at birth?

A minor political note, if you’re interested in such things. The other day a young girl came to the door to solicit my support for her presidential candidate. I asked her why I should vote for this man. She was very nice and earnest, but if you got her off the talking points she was utterly unprepared to argue anything, because she didn’t know what she was talking about. She had bullet points, and she believed that any reasonable person would see the importance of these issues and naturally fall in line. But she could not support any of her assertions. Her final selling point: Kerry would roll back the tax cuts.

Then came the Parable of the Stairs, of course. My tiresome, shopworn, oft-told tale, a piece of unsupportable meaningless anecdotal drivel about how I turned my tax cut into a nice staircase that replaced a crumbling eyesore, hired a few people and injected money far and wide - from the guys who demolished the old stairs, the guys who built the new one, the family firm that sold the stone, the other firm that rented the Bobcats, the entrepreneur who fabricated the railings in his garage, and the guy who did the landscaping. Also the company that sold him the plants. And the light fixtures. It’s called economic activity. What’s more, home improvements added to the value of this pile, which mean that my assessment would increase, bumping up my property taxes. To say nothing of the general beautification of the neighborhood. Next year, if my taxes didn’t shoot up, I had another project planned. Raise my taxes, and it won’t happen – I won’t hire anyone, and they won’t hire anyone, rent anything, buy anything. You see?

“Well, it’s a philosophical difference,” she sniffed. She had pegged me as a form of life last seen clilcking the leash off a dog at Abu Ghraib. “I think the money should have gone straight to those people instead of trickling down.” Those last two words were said with an edge.

“But then I wouldn’t have hired them,” I said. “I wouldn’t have new steps. And they wouldn’t have done anything to get the money.”

“Well, what did you do?” she snapped.

“What do you mean?”

“Why should the government have given you the money in the first place?”

“They didn’t give it to me. They just took less of my money.”

That was the last straw. Now she was angry. And the truth came out:

“Well, why is it your money? I think it should be their money.”

Then she left.

And walked down the stairs. I let her go without charging a toll. It’s the philanthropist in me.


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c. 1995-2004 j. lileks