At the risk of writing one of the more pretentious sentences in the blogworld today, I’m rereading Boswell’s Diaries. Let’s just examine that, shall we? Not reading, which is snooty enough, but rereading, which of course implies I’ve already read them – haven’t we all? And not just Boswell’s bio of Dr. Johnson, which would be obvious, but Boswell’s diaries.

I apologize. But I was cleaning out the bookshelf yesterday, deciding who stayed and who left, and found my copy of Boswell’s diaries, complete with the date of acquisition: 1978. It had a few scraps of paper from the summer of 1978, when I was working in the office of the Northrup King Seed company after I’d come off the road as a seed salesman in the South. Signs I’d had on my desk. SIRC IS FOUR LETTER WORD said one. I have no idea what that means; an acronym lost forever, since the company has left our town and been reorged a dozen times. Seed Information Reorder Certificate? Then there’s my Three Laws of Folders, which hint at the office hell I have spent my life trying to avoid:

If you want a folder, it has probably already been pulled
If it is there, it will be missing the form you need
If the form is there, it will contradict the form that made you pull the folder in the first place

They’re written on the back of slips used to mark the TOTAL VEG, TOTAL FLO, and PROJECTED NEEDS for each order. It was all hands and pen and paper in those days, and somehow the tiny seeds made their way to the merest of hamlets in the backwater counties. Not that I helped, though; I was bad. I still wonder if I managed somehow to screw up so badly that the entire state of Tennessee got only Kale for the ’79 season.

There’s also this, which I must have swiped:

An order blank from Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown.  Best breakfasts in the world. Strange coffee, though. It had chicory in it. You’d ask why it tasted strange, and they’d say “it has chicory in it.” You’d bring a friend, and the friend would note the odd taste, and you’d say, wise in the ways of the city and its haunts, “it has chicory in it.” Eventually you would decide that you didn’t want any chicory in your coffee, but you kept it to yourself.

Hey, it has a wiki page. And I’m cited. I still think there should be a name for that: you google something and find yourself cited as a source.

Anyway. Boswell’s Diaries. They’re a good read, and you can’t flip it open at random without finding reference to a fierce hangover or the previous night’s doxy-fiddling, both of which caused him great grief and shame, and would be repeated soon enough. I love this, from Sunday 13 February:

“This was a most terrible day. None of my friends could come abroad to see me. I was really a good deal low-spirited all the forenoon. In the evening my mind cleared up. I was pleased and lively, and my genius was in fine humour for composition. I wrote several fanciful little essays, which pleased me highly.”

There’s a footnote from the editor: “Several years ago Dr. Joseph L. Walsh found one of those among the Wilkes papers in the British Museum. Boswell had sent it for publication in ‘The North Briton,’ where, however, it never appeared. It is a rather feeble comparison of the contemporary maneuvers in British politics to a ulgar Scots game called hop-romp.”

Oh, I love that. Not just because Boswell was 22, full of vim and pretense and hungry for fame, but because it’s obvious he poured himself a tall glass of port and set to writing and was highly pleased with his own genius – unaware, of course, that 200 years later his work would be held up, examined, and dismissed in a footnote. A footnote in his own book.

It’s all a caution for young writers. Your chances of being another Dr. Johnson are microscopic. Your chances of even being Boswell to a Johnson are remote. But keep at it.

I was introduced to Boswell – and the rest of pre-Romantic English lit – by a marvelous old hunchback at the U of M. Professor McClure. I’d like to go back to the building where I took those classes, and marvell at the upgrades and renovations. Back then it felt like something from the 20s – old paint, scarred benches, windows that would not open, clanking radiators. Must and dust and the smell of dead paper. I loved it. Professor McClure liked to slip in a naughty line now and then; once, while discussing clichés in poetry, he recited a poem that consisted entirely of shopworn lines, concluding with “and on the isle of Lesbos / rosy-fingered Dawn.” He also informed us of the double-entendre in “To His Coy Mistress,” that classic that yielded some deathless chestnuts: had we but world enough and time, or Time’s winged chariot. All that carpe-diem stuff. It was this verse he explained in detail that changed forever the meaning of one particular word:

 But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.

“Quaint.” It had two meanings, he said. The second has changed its sound, reshaped by vulgar tongues over the century, until it came to be, well – and here he stammered and blushed and said it, and I expect he would be brought up on charges for saying it today. But he had to make the point about the double-entendre. Worms deflowering her quaint was a meaning everyone would have known at the time.

The word was forever changed for me. A good teacher can do that. Like I said, a hunchback – short, ugly, with a potato nose and long face and black glasses and a general sense of being a doddering don, but kind and smart and funny. Another worthy who never had his Boswell.

Finally saw “The Dark Knight.” Eh. Overrated, mostly. Kept looking at my watch. Okay, you’re dark already. Morality’s all bifurcated ‘n’ stuff. Made me miss the Burton movies, where at least you’d be assured of a striped circus-tent motif SOMEWHERE and some oompah Elfman music.

Kidding.  It lived up to the billing. I’m not sure I liked it more than the first, but I really, really liked the first one.  In my head I know it’s a better movie; in my heart I somehow see it as equal because it met every single elevated expectation. My God, we’re spoiled. It did pass the all-important post-movie test: afterwards, I drove like an idiot. Occasionally the thought would cross my mind that the Element is not a Batmobile but it seemed irrelevant.

If you read the reviews or saw the movie, you know the basic line: great script, fine action set-pieces that actually seem like they could happen, solid performances all around and a crazy-brilliant job by Heath Ledger. (He underplayed the Joker, that’s the key. Crazy is old; Crazy is obvious. Crazy is so Jack.) All true. I’ve nothing to add to that, but I will anyway.

Since it didn’t have to tell an origin story, critics noted, it was free to go anywhere. Agreed – but I like origin stories if done right, and Batman Begins (and Iron Man) did them well. The niggling pragmatist in me wants to know how he got the car, the uniform, the underground lair. The lairs always bother me the most, especially the underwater ones. Was that union labor? If not, was it up to code? How did they keep it secret? You hire 200 guys to wire up an underwater lair, and they’re going to ask themselves what it’s for. Well, a few will. They’ll get talking at the bar. So then I had to rig the chairs in the conference room so they tilt back and the guy in the chair falls down a chute that’s connected right to the boilers. So I don’t think it’s a hotel. Hotels don’t have self-destruct charges everywhere.

Since Stately Wayne Manor is being rebuilt – possibly by SPECTRE Contracting, which was set up to handle lair construction after the Japanese crater fiasco was blamed on outsourcing -  the batcave consisted of a concrete room with a suspended ceiling like you’d find in a mid-60s office building; it looked like Purgatory for Don Draper. Gotham looked different, too; it was more explicitly Chicago, right down to Harvey Dent’s fundraiser party at the top of the old Executive Hotel. It didn’t feel like a mythic city cobbled together from the real thing and a CGI dream. Felt like an American place. Felt like Chicago. Not to belabor the point – on the Bleat? Points, belabored? No! – but here’s a grab from the trailer.

The circular item is Helmut Jahn’s Illinois Center. The thin black building is the Carbide and Carbon Building. The lighter building on the right is the Jewelers building. So don’t give me the Gotham = New York thing. Let it go.

I’m not saying the movie’s perfect; Batman’s fighting style often seems to consist of bending over very quickly, and foes obliging came in single file for easy dispatching. In an early scene he’s just standing there being Batman in broad daylight, talking to Jim Gordon, he looks a little silly. You want to say “relax, Bats. Ypou got a Batpole up the Batbutt, or what? Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” And please: before he gets on the motorcycle with his cape flapping behind him again, someone read him the last chapter of a biography of Isadora Duncan. But those moments are few. As much as it pains me to cite Aint It Cool News, Harry is correct: Batman is not a superhero, but a SpecOps guy with a  quasi-official liaison position. I mean, he has a hard time with dogs. Superman never had to worry about dogs.

Notable: no music during the chase scene in the subterranean roadway. The soundtrack held its breath and so did you. The Joker didn’t have a theme; he had a droning discordant sound that rose in pitch and bored through the dark chugging strings. Nice. The music was less impressive than the first one, now that I’ve heard it all in context, but that’s because the themes are familiar now, and they weren’t used as they were in the previous movie. No long sweeps across the steppes, or shots of the bats surrounding Wayne in the cavern.  The music was used to establish the character in the first movie, and in the second it shows up like a sidekick. 

The film never really stops to spread out to epic breadth, as the first one did. It has too much to do. But it doesn’t feel rushed or incomplete, and doesn’t have any moments of high stupidity like “Batman Returns,” when the Penguin abandons whatever it was he was working on and does something else for the last third.  (I hope the Penguin doesn’t come back.  What a fearsome villain. I’m terrified, it’s the PENGUIN. Run, he’s waddling in our direction! Perhaps today people would be terrified of his most fearsome weapon, second-hand smoke.)  It has the focus of its protagonist and the chaos of its malefactor. Hours later, I’m still chewing it over. It’s the darkest movie about hope I’ve seen in years. Yes, it's a comic-book movie. So?

File it under “Noir” and move it to the top of the list.

(Note: it will be the subject of this week's Diner.)

This week the Minneapolis site starts to overhaul the Theater Section. This is a detail from a photo - it contains no theaters, but it is theatrical as most good cityscapes are. The Kresge buildling in the foreground, Donaldson's behind, the Northwestern bank in the distance. Everything here is gone.

You can see the rest here. See you at Two days to the big . . . something or other.