The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Dec. 23 2000 12:30 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Note: The next update of this page will be Jan. 2, 2001. Meantime, a Happy New Year to all readers.

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OF BLOCKBUSTERS AND BLOCKHEADS
The New York Times editorial writers weigh in on the Hillary Clinton book deal. Generally, they chastise the first lady for accepting an advance rather than royalties, i.e., money up front rather than a share of future book sales. The editorial writers are concerned that such a large payment—$8 million—will compromise Clinton, though it's unclear why they believe this should be so. Do they think that Sumner Redstone, head of Viacom, the company that owns publisher Simon & Schuster, will edit the Clinton memoir himself? I don't think so. Do they believe the Clinton advance is a favor? That in return for a down payment, Clinton will treat Viacom favorably in Senate hearings on copyright and communication law? Hmmm … that would be smart, though surely we can (and should) depend on the Times' indefatigable congressional correspondents to inform us if this happened. The serious point, which the Times ignores, is why Hillary Clinton has chosen to write a memoir at all. Surely, the new senator from New York should be known as the author of legislation rather than the "author" of a book we all know will be written by well-paid ghosts—hence the need for a hefty advance. For Inside.com's report on the auction of the book, click here.

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FEAR AND LOATHING
Raymond Chandler was one of the best crime writers of the 20th century—some would say the best. To visit a well-informed Chandler appreciation site, click here. He was also a writer of bilious letters, as Will Cohu explains. "Describing himself as 'by tradition and long study a complete snob,' Chandler was not, by his own admission, much good at telling a raw story, and when it came to writers who were, his instinct was to lash out. 'Everything he touches smells like a billygoat,' he wrote of James M Cain. 'He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls.' He was similarly acerbic about Hemingway: 'I suppose the man's epitaph, if he had the choosing of it, would be: Here Lies a Man Who Was Bloody Good In Bed: Too Bad He's Alone Here.' "

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FRIENDS AND ENEMIES The first volume of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s memoirs, A Life in the Twentieth Century, appeared last month. In an interview conducted by Alexander Star —an article that accompanied a peculiarly chippy review by Max Frankel in the New York Times Book Review—Schlesinger talked about President Clinton. "He's not a fighter. He lacks self-discipline. He is sometimes too clever by half, and he dislikes making enemies. F.D.R. said, 'Judge me by the enemies I have.' Bill Clinton, for all his intellectual and magnetic qualities, hates making enemies." Schlesinger has always been good at making friends and enemies. As Sean Wilentz writes, he "knows too much of his century's miserable history not to understand, and to admire, the tempestuous careers of some of its intellectuals. And yet there is a foundation in reality also for his impatience with his era of intellectual lurchings. Here is a man who teaches by example that foolish in consistency, too, is a hobgoblin of the mind."

A STRANGER TO THE CITY
Richard Sennett, formerly a professor at New York University and now a professor at the London School of Economics, has written about city life for years. Recently, he returned to New York to visit old friends—most of whom lamented the soaring price of property in Manhattan but took gleeful pleasure in the recent downturn of the Nasdaq. "They took this as a good sign. Bertelsmann might return to Germany, Nomura to Japan. The prices of flats would therefore fall. Young people would return to the center. Restaurants without a 'theme' would return to Times Square. Politicians would run on family-friendly rather than Gucci-friendly policies; government would return to its old welfare-state ways. The end of the boom would signal a rebirth of the city. It was a cheering thought." Is Sennett so sure a depression would bring about such wonderfully good times? The last time I looked, there where lots of young people in the center, but if I'm wrong and there are too few, then obviously a city ordinance should be passed—hundreds of thousands of old people should be packed off to teach at the LSE. Housing crisis solved.

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A QUESTION OF PATIENCE
Movie editor Anne Coates began her career working on Michael Powell's Red Shoes 48 years ago. Her most recent film was Stephen Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. In between, Coates has edited 46 other movies, including The Horse's Mouth, The Elephant Man, Ragtime, and Lawrence of Arabia—for which she was awarded an Oscar. In an interview with Editor's Net, a Web magazine for moviemakers, Coates says, "When I first came into the industry in England, there were quite a lot of women editors. And then slowly they fell by the wayside. They didn't seem to have the ambition, which I always thought was strange. When I left in 1986, I think there was only one other woman doing big features in England. There were quite a few doing television and commercials and things, but I can't put my finger on why that was. But I have a … theory about the beginning [of women in the cutting room]. As you rightly say, most of the editors were women, and they started by cutting negative. And I think that women were considered more patient and careful and all those sorts of things."

DRUG WARS
Meantime, Steven Soderbergh has a new movie out, Traffic, which is about the drug trade. In a talk with Stephen Lemons, Soderbergh expresses his pessimism about any sensible reform of the nation's drug laws. "Legalization's not going to happen—not in our lifetime—for a whole variety of practical reasons. It would be a violation of every international trade agreement that we have. The U.S. would turn into an enormous drug lab. There'd be people pouring in from all over the world to buy drugs here to take to their countries to sell illegally, so we'd be ostracized by every other country in the world. That's not going to work. You might say, 'What if everyone in the world legalized all at once?' But what are the chances of that happening?"

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AT AN ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT NEW YORKER
The mark of a successful magazine these days has less to do with what appears in its pages than with who does. Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, would be revolted by this convention, as Alistair Cooke's portrait of Ross reveals. First published in the early 1950s and reprinted by the Idler, the article shows that Ross was indifferent to the power of a name. "For Ross," Cooke writes, "there was no such thing as an 'established' writer. Whether you were famous or a first contributor, your piece was subjected to the same disinterested, ruthless scrutiny, and every piece was accepted or rejected on what Ross alone decided were its merits, a procedure that in the later years outraged some authors presumed by the rest of the world to be the most treasured of The New Yorker's writers. John O'Hara and even James Thurber frequently went into apoplexy at this brutal treatment. Such was Ross's writhing perfectionism that none of the permanent staff could remember a time when he ever wrote the comment 'good' or 'what we want.' The best he was ever known to concede was 'in the direction of what we want.' 'Comes the revolution,' said Dorothy Parker, 'and it will be everybody against Ross.' "

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THE GRINCH
Michael Holroyd has been writing about the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw for more than 30 years. In a seasonal piece for the Guardian, he recalls Shaw's hatred for Christmas. "[He] represent[ed] himself as an admirer of Scrooge and the enemy of Santa Claus. The running battle between Shaw and Christmas lasted some 60 years, GBS having declared war on this 'orgy' and 'nuisance' in the 1880s. 'Christmas is best spent in some heathen country where the festival is unknown,' he wrote. He urged people to forget it, and when asked by a newspaper how he liked to spend it, replied that he preferred not to spend it at all, since it was 'only something unpleasant that happens once a year.' "

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BEST IN SCOTLAND
CNN casts some rather dim light on the longstanding relationship between humans and dogs. Stephen Budiansky tells the network: "We think a dog is smart when it does what we want it to—when you see the dog do something that we characterize as smart from our point of view. But things they do that are smart for them are not credited." Meantime, the DailyTelegraph reports on the death of Anastasia Noble a champion breeder of Scottish deerhounds, the judge of many a dog show around the world, and the sort of person lampooned in Christopher Guest's movie Best in Show. As the obituary writer explains: "Tessa, her first champion … was the winner of 20 club championships. Forty years later she produced Ardkinglas Val, the first winner of the Top Show Dog in Scotland award, and Ardkinglas Azalea, the reserve in the Hounds Group at Crufts in 1990. Of her hounds she sold 150 for export. Besides being a breeder, Anastasia was renowned as a judge, and was asked to shows in Australia, North America and Scandinavia."

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ALL TOO REAL The movie director Robert Altman is 75. He made his first movies in his 40s, and now he has been awarded an honor that's usually bestowed on the dead. Slow to start, slow to fade, you could say. In an interview with the Guardian, Altman spoke, briefly, about the presidential election. "[Altman] talks about how television has become an alternative reality or an alternative to reality. Perhaps the US election would have made a good Altman movie. 'No, no, no, no,' he says. 'It doesn't mean enough, in terms of human relationships, it's too complicated, too big a thing for me to handle.' "

MEET ME IN PALM BEACH, AL
Carl Hiaasen
, writer of crime fiction and columnist for the Miami Herald, marvels at how Florida didn't succumb to its infamous bad habits during the election. "For avid Florida-watchers, what was missing in all the legal wrangling was that one half-cocked, lunatic judge who would have commanded Al Gore and George W. Bush to appear personally in his courtroom to hand-count every last dangling chad themselves."

SPYING AND PROFIT
It is sometimes said that you can make a distinction between mercenary spies, such as CIA officer Aldrich Ames, and spies who act out of conscience, such as the art historian and curator Anthony Blunt, a British double agent who worked for the Soviet Union. According to this argument, ideological espionage, though equally traitorous, is less evil than spying for personal gain. But did Blunt always act from conscience? The National Post   reports that in the 1950s Blunt drew a $1,000 a year stipend from the Canadian National Gallery in exchange for advice on which pictures the gallery should acquire. Nothing wrong with that, but archivists at the gallery now believe that some of the works acquired by Blunt were stolen from Spain during the country's civil war—by fellow spies.

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THE CHECK IS IN THE MAIL
Notting Hill was made famous in the novels of Martin Amis, especially Money and London Fields. Many scenes in these books take place on or close to the once sordid Portobello Road. That President Clinton chose to do some Christmas shopping on Portobello is symbolic of just how far this part of London has changed. When it came to settling his check at a local pub, however, the president couldn't pay. The owner told the BBC: "The total bill has yet to be tallied because a power cut struck the area just before the visit and the electronic till was not working. They bloody well did not pay. I do not know what the total bill is because the computer went down and the electricity was off. But I have got an address of someone in America I can send the bill to."

STUDIED DIRECTION
So that Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce might better understand the mood and gestures of 1950s Los Angeles—the setting for his movie L.A. ConfidentialCurtis Hanson took the two men to see Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. "When I first saw In a Lonely Place as a teenager," Hanson tells the New York Times, "it frightened me and yet attracted me with an almost hypnotic power. Later, I came to understand why. Occasionally, very rarely, a movie feels so heartfelt, so emotional, so revealing that it seems as though both the actor and the director are standing naked before the audience."

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EATING AWAY AT THE HEAD AND THE STATE
Both Bovine Spongiform Encephelopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease destroy brain tissue; the former in cattle, the latter in humans. Both diseases have wreaked havoc across Europe, though since BSE and CJD were originally detected in the United Kingdom they are commonly thought to be "English" diseases. In an examination of the British government's massive anatomy of the origins and course of the BSE-CJD crisis, Hugh Pennington explains how the outbreak of the diseases has highlighted fundamental weaknesses in British institutions. To read the report, click here. Meantime, a British scientist suggests that far more French cattle have been infected with BSE than the French government cares to admit.

NEW YEAR PREDICTIONS
Now that the election is close at hand (though calculating AlGoreithms may continue into the distant future—as a helpful reader writes, "n: Al-gore-ith-m: Any method of calculation performed repeatedly until a prior desired result is produced"), perhaps it's time to return to that other great question of 2000: the future of the Internet. In a cautiously optimistic appraisal of the year's proceedings, Saul Hansell says: "If anything is unarguable amid all the dashed hopes and wagging fingers, it is that it takes longer to change the world, or even build a business, than it does to make a pretty Web site. The real effect of the Internet remains to be seen. But the simple truth seen by the Web pioneers remains: this medium can connect more people to information and to one another faster and cheaper than any before it. And amid the prominent failures, there have been remarkable successes. So now it's possible to start asking what has been learned from this experience." Inside.com's co-founder Kurt Andersen writes about his year on the Web—"Of course, during the second and third quarters, as I have recently come to call spring and summer, this man's genius reputation evaporated"—and offers some calm advice about how the medium can move forward in 2001. "Is it too much to hope that, after a year of hysterical stampedes in two opposite directions, we have learned some lessons, that we can settle down and begin to walk calmly (OK, trot) in the directions we choose to go?"

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WORD PLAY
In a review of Mark Ford's biography of the Frenchman Raymond Russell, David Bellos writes: "Try this. Your first sentence is 'Time is money' and your last sentence is 'Thyme is funny.' Write the story—long or short—that joins the two. Be imaginative, but please stick to plausible leaps and bounds. And while you're at it, make it a novel, and—why not?—a novel in verse. Use rhyming couplets. Done it? Then you've got the hang of the strange 'procedure' of Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), a millionaire, an outrageous dandy, a homosexual who liked to stay tightly shut up in the closet and a sincere believer in his own genius."

CODE WARS
The uneasy truce between competing genome research laboratories has collapsed. As the Los Angeles Times explains, "the move revives one of the fiercest rivalries of modern science, which pits the publicly led Human Genome Project against biotech upstart Celera Genomics." The two teams resumed hostilities after HGP "refused to submit [a] research paper describing their findings to the same scientific journal as their private-sector rivals." Celera's research will appear in Science, while HGP's will appear in Nature, another influential scientific publication. Scientific rivalry is the least of it. As the L.A. Times puts it: "Science's readiness to accept some limits on use of published research results has fueled the latest skirmish in a long-running war for the soul of American science. At stake, according to some scientific leaders, is whether science remains fundamentally an untrammeled search for knowledge or becomes a commercial race for profits."

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EXPLAINING POOH
Frederick Crews, a professor of English and a prominent anti-Freudian, parodied various theoretically-inclined interpretations of literature in The Pooh Perplex. Four contributors to the current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal probably didn't consult Crews' work while researching their paper, "Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne.""We have done an exhaustive review of the works of A.A. Milne," the authors write, "and offer our conclusions about the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood in hopes that our observations will help the medical community understand that there is a Dark Underside to this world." According to the National Post, Dr. Sarah Shea, the lead author, explains that the paper was meant to be semi-satirical, though the conclusions are entirely serious: "These characters do have some pretty significant disorder patterns." Thus, Winnie the Pooh is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and might have Tourette's syndrome; Eeyore has chronic depression; and Christopher Robin is very uncertain about who he really is.

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THE MARQUEZ HOAX
Gabriel García Márquez is not well. "More than a year ago I was put under treatment for three months for a lymphoma, and today I am surprised at the enormous stroke of luck this stumbling block has been in my life," Marquez informed readers of El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper. Not that the cancer has defeated the novelist's desire to write. As AP reports: "For fear of not having time to finish the three volumes of my memoirs and two books of short stories, I reduced to a minimum relations with my friends, disconnected the telephone, canceled my trips ... and locked myself up to write every day without interruption from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon." Marquez also dismisses a poem allegedly written by him as a hoax. "The only thing that worries me is that I'll die with the shame that people believe I wrote something so tasteless. I read it not long ago and what surprises me most is that my readers could believe that it was written by me."

SURVEYOR OF THE AMERICAN CITY
According to Philip Lopate   and many others "the American city has had no greater friend, nor more articulate defender, than William H. Whyte. He … is a very American kind of saint, rooted in material facts and the democratic quotidian, with affinities to Walt Whitman, John Dewey, William James, and Dorothy Day. Whyte, whose 1956 book The Organization Man has become a classic, "clearly was no revolutionary—had no interest in Marxism or any other radical transformations—and seemed drawn temperamentally to conciliating and problem solving. … Looking around him at American society, only city life still held the messiness, friction, brilliance, and randomness that eluded Big Brother's corporate planning." Whyte died in 1999; to read an obituary, click here.