Books about Early 20th Century Paris

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's memoirs from the time he spent living in Paris in the 1920s. Mostly focuses on struggles with money, and meeting the right people to help his burgeoning career as a novelist. Juicy bits about other Lost Generation writers like Stein and Fitzgerald.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.

A book that is is more about the other side of the années folles in France: rather than Hemingway's bohemian lifestyle of, this is the perspective of a guy working in a kitchen. Describes the hot and frantic life as a lowly employee in the bowels of the grand hotels.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

A contender for most definitive Lost Generation novels set in Paris. It's another one about being an American living in Paris in the 20's, and it's essentially a memoir thinly disguised as a novel. Compared to the straightforward memoirs above, it's more about sex than money.

See for comparison The Sun Also Rises, which isn't on this list because it's not about Paris, but shares the qualities of being a roman à clef that's concerned with sex. Maybe it's okay to make memoirs about money, but sexual matters must be attended to with at least a little obfuscation?

The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy Hoobler

It opens with the most wistful and romantic depiction of the world of belle époque Paris that I've read. It's about art theft, specifically the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (haven't finished)

Not strictly about Paris, and taking place mostly before the turn of the century. Still, it's a good'un.

Exile's Return by Malcolm Cowley (haven't read)

To me, Cowley is a lost Lost Generation memoirist. All I know is that this book is highly regarded as a memoir of the American expat scene in the 1920s, and that Cowley was disliked by many of his peers, though in secret, because of his position in the literary world. 

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, III

Vol. III, November 2018

Wind River (2017)

Watched Wind River (2017), a crime movie by director Taylor Sheridan, part of a thematic trilogy including Sicario (2015), and Hell or High Water_ (2016). It’s called the Hey Wait A Minute, There’s Crimes Going On In Rural Areas trilogy. In this leg of the stool, Jeremy Renner is a Bureau of Wildlife hunter, and Elizabeth Olsen is an out-of-her-depth FBI agent, and they’re both trying to track down the killer of an Arapaho girl on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Lots of second unit snowmobile footage. The big twist at the end is that, even though Jon Bernthal is in this movie, he didn’t do it! They laid on the symbolism a little thick, and the Native American connection is tenuous, bordering on perfunctory. A good movie, but probably the least good of the trilogy. Jon Bernthal probably did do it after all, otherwise why would they cast him? I give it 3 cans of bear mace out of a possible 5 cans of bear mace.

Harakiri (1962)

Watched Harakiri (1962). An impoverished ronin shows up at the house of a feudal lord, asking to be allowed to commit harakiri in the lord’s courtyard. His request is granted. A year later, another ronin shows up, with the exact same request. A mystery and a lot of flashbacks ensue, and by the end of the movie the entire samurai class is symbolically destroyed. Tatsuya Nakadai is very good in this role. I give it 4 bamboo swords out of a possible 5 bamboo swords.

Prime Cut (1972)

Watched Prime Cut (1972). What a strange, disturbing movie. Enforcer Lee Marvin goes to Kansas City to collect a debt from meat processing plant owner Gene Hackman. Movie begins with a six minute sequence of an actual slaughterhouse, from stockyard to hotdog. Whole movie is less than 90 minutes, including credits. Pervasive, surely unintended 1970s creepiness in every scene of this film. Home to the North by Northwest (1959) chase scene, but with a combine harvester (just run sideways dummy). Surprisingly satisfying stunt sequence of a tractor trailer driving through a greenhouse. Sunflowers are apparently hard cover in a shotgun fight. Lee Marvin’s most badass line was: “too bad Weenie, that’s yer hotdog hand.” I give it 2.5 Lees Marvin out of a possible 5 Lees Marvin.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Watched Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy as a one-armed visitor to a menacing desert town with a secret its residents want to keep hidden. Pre-famous Lee Marvin plays a heavy. Pretty good movie. It’s High Noon meets Dashiell Hammett. I liked that the town’s paranoia about being found out was the only evidence they did anything wrong. Terrible choreography in the bar fight scene, but rightfully famous for its tension. They couldn’t shoot a close-up of an oncoming train with a helicopter, so they had the train go in reverse and played the footage backwards! I give it 3.5 lemonades out of a possible 5 lemonades.


Perspective

I have told you of the Spaniard who always put on his spectacles when about to eat cherries, that they might look bigger and more tempting. In like manner I made the most of my enjoyments, and though I do not cast my cares away, I pack them in as little compass as I can, and carry them as conveniently as I can for myself, and never let them annoy others.

— Robert Southey

The arc of history

Another bit from Kagan: 

The authors of the Declaration of Independence were indeed Anglo-Protestants, most of whom did not believe that Catholics were fit for democracy (nor were women, much less blacks or Asians or Muslims). However, they consciously and explicitly rejected the idea that the rights they claimed derived from their status as Englishmen, nor did they claim that only Anglo-Protestants could be trusted to protect and advance those rights. They even recognized that the slavery they wrote into the Constitution contradicted their universalist claims and anticipated the day when slavery would wither and the contradiction would be resolved. The universal principles they enshrined in the Declaration had more lasting power than the Anglo-Protestant culture from which they sprang. These continued to be the driving force in American life — the ‘apple of gold’, as Lincoln put it — superseding even the Constitution, ultimately leading to the abolition of slavery, the promise of rights for former slaves and for every group that followed, regardless of religion or cultural background. The continual expansion of rights to protected minorities is the one constant in American history. That is the essence of America as it was established by the founders, and though Americans often stray from it, eventually they are tugged back.

Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back

Kagan squares this comparatively optimistic view of Americans with his generally pessimistic view of foreign policy’s tendencies, identifying the danger that catastrophic problems may arise before Americans return to their ground state. In a way, this is related to the skewness issue.

I hadn’t read the ‘apples of gold’ thing, but it’s from a fragment of a note Lincoln wrote in the midst of the secession crisis.

All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all” — the principle that clears the path for all — gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.

Abraham Lincoln, Fragment on the Constitution and the Union 

Good explication of that here

Both are referring to Proverbs 25:11

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given.

(NIV)

There is No Essential Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Everybody knows that H. G. Wells is one of the pioneers of science fiction. He wrote The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and so on. Here's what he had to say about the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

“Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic… but by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted… I simply brought the fetish up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.” [1]

In other words, he took fantasy tropes, and replaced the magic with science. Otherwise, the stories were the same. So the difference between SF and Fantasy, in its modern incarnation anyway, was that one uses chemistry and the other uses little magic devils to produce a counterfactual scenario that the story can explore.

Fantasy and SF are in essence the same thing, but with different decorations. They share the same bones, but have different skin.

According to the best physics we have, it's not possible to travel faster than the speed of light. Not today, or ever, at least until the laws of physics change. Yet, many SF stories include spaceships with drives that move the ship faster than the speed of light. Star Trek style warp drives, Star Wars style hyperdrives, etc.

There is no practical distinction between doing the impossible by traveling faster than light, and doing the impossible by shooting lightning from your fingertips. It's magic in either case. SF merely couches this magic in pseudo-scientific terms and decorations (see the Wells quote, above) as part of what amounts to a fashion choice.

Personally, I think of fantasy as a broad category that includes any type of story that posits a counterfactual world in order to explore what the world would be like it it were true. Under that broad category are things like medieval fantasy, horror, and science fiction, among many others. These subgenres are mainly distinguished by having their own set of recognizable tropes, styles, themes, and so on, but are not fundamentally distinct from each other.

[1] (From an interview quoted in Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss)

Stripped down

Striptease has become less interesting since they did away with the costumes. It’s become Newtonian. The movement of bodies through space, period. It can get boring.

— Margaret Atwood

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, II

Vol. II, October, 2018

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

I rewatched The Day of the Jackal (1973). The good one, not the bad one with Bruce Willis and Jack Black. The gendarmes have to hunt down an assassin before he kills Charles de Gaulle (!). It’s great ‘procedure porn’ because it shows you every step from both the police side, tracking down the Jackal, and from the assassin’s point of view as he prepares. Edward Fox is good at being creepy and charming by turns. I might have to read a Frederik Forsyth book now. I give it 3.75 dropped lobsters out of a possible 5 dropped lobsters.

Withnail and I (1987)

Last night I rewatched Withnail and I (1987). The biggest change from when I watched it 15 years ago is that it definitely reads as having a lot of (literal) homophobia today, due to the pervasive running paranoia that everyone they meet is out to sodomize them. BUT the writing is still great, and Richard E. Grant’s performance is still amazing. There aren’t too many movies like it — Absolutely Fabulous meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Evelyn Waugh. Maybe a little slow by today’s standards as well. I give it 3 Camberwell Carrots out of a possible 5 Camberwell Carrots.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Watched Atomic Blonde (2017), a cold war spy film set in Berlin. I also recently read a book called Declare, a cold war spy novel set in Berlin, except it has genies in it. In that book. there is a scene at the Brandenburg Gate, where the Soviets are anchoring a djinn to the newly-constructed Berlin Wall, and even during that scene, where the elemental spirit makes a face out of paving stones and talks, it is 1000000000x times more realistic and believable than Atomic Blonde is. This movie effing sucks. It does have a 10 minute single-take fight scene that is very good (good job Ms. Theron, and good job camera operator). I give Atomic Blonde (2017) 1 luftballon out of a possible 99 luftballons. (edited)

I do give the fight sequence between approx. 1:10:40 and 1:20:00 a special score of 4 hot plates out of a possible 5 hot plates.

Further Discussion:

“You sent me into a nest of hornets. They knew who I was the second my feet hit the ground.”

No shit Charlize Theron, you’re a supermodel with white hair who is 6’1 in stiletto heels walking through the Berlin airport in designer clothes. “Hmm, comrade, I think something is different about this one.”

And she was told part of her mission was to identify a double agent, so yeah, good chance they’re going to know who she is when she gets there.

“7.62 Tokarev round. Soviet.”

You’re sitting with the head of MI-6 and a highly-placed CIA operative. They both know who makes the Tokarev. The audience JUST saw a scene where a KGB agent fired the gun. For whose benefit are you identifying the nationality?

To some extent it was nice to be treated like a dummy, because it meant I didn’t have to pay too much attention.

They definitely did something I haven’t seen before, which was show historical footage at the beginning of the movie to establish the context, but then (basically) do a record scratch and then say “But this isn’t that timeline!”

Which would be fine if it established it as an alternate history, which it seems to be trying to do. Like, maybe this is set in 2017 East Berlin, with a robot gestapo. That could be cool. But then, throughout the entire movie, historical events unfold exactly as they did in the real world. The only difference is that the characters are unrealistic, and the dialog is stuff nobody would ever say.

It’s like they claimed to be in an alternate timeline to excuse any mistakes due to their incompetence. It’s the movie equivalent of a driver who stops in the middle of the street, then runs into a drug store, but they put on their hazard lights because they think “well, I can’t get a ticket if my hazard lights are on.”

“The key fight sequence that unfolds in a real Berlin building lasts for almost 10 minutes in what appears to be an unbroken take when, in fact, the sequence comprises almost 40 separate shots seamlessly stitched together. ”

IMDB trivia page for Atomic Blonde

Fight scene still looks cool, but not a single take, so not nearly as impressive.

Mean Streets (1973)

Watched Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese’s autobiographical small stakes crime movie. Tons of texture and details. Boy the 70s was sleazy. Hey Harvey Keitel, you can’t be nice and be a gangster, don’t you know that? That’s why they call them mean streets: you gotta be mean! I give it 3.5 red lightbulbs out of a possible 5 red lightbulbs.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Watched Isle of Dogs (2018), thus S-Ranking the movies of Wes Anderson. Like The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), using stop motion allows Anderson to finally have the complete directorial control he wants. Plot was a little scattered: too many plot jumparounds, and things kinda fell in place too easily (no reason for Chief to change his position so fast). Visually really cool. I like stop motion animation, and I love dogs! I give it 3.75 Hacker’s Corners out of a possible 5 Hacker’s Corners.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Making this part of the Cloverfield universe undermined it. John Goodman is now essentially right in everything we see him do. Most of the things that make him look crazy are shown to be the work of an imperfect but basically good person, and you have to just assume that the last bit of incriminating evidence will not also have a similar explanation. The last ten minutes sucked and were tacked on from another, worse movie. The parts that seemed like the original story were great. Cool bunker! I give it 3 Molotov cocktails out of a possible 5 Molotov cocktails.

Addendum:

Another issue with 10 Cloverfield Lane is that he is shown to have a good stock of Mountain Home brand freeze-dried meals. I happen to know that your more opinionated preppers do not care for Mountain Home, as the quality and shelf-stability are lower than some other competitors.

I feel that Howard Stambler, who had taken great pains to do everything the ‘right’ way, would not have cheaped out on his food supply.

Upon consideration of this, I lower my score to 2.75 Molotov cocktails out of a possible 5 Molotov cocktails.

Misery (1990)

I watched Misery (1990) with James Caan and Kathy Bates. Kathy Bates is the monster in the monster movie. Her performance was uneven. It’s funny that James Caan’s character basically writes historical romance novels, and everybody celebrates him as a literary genius. I don’t think that actually ever happens! It’s also a good example of when movies contain the text of fictional novels in them that are supposedly brilliant, they can’t be written any better than the talent of the movie screenwriter, which means they’re usually pretty bad. Richard Farnsworth as Buster. Kathy Bates’ pet pig gets introduced but never really paid off. I give it 3 porcelain penguins out of a possible 5 porcelain penguins.

Paper Moon (1973)

Watched Paper Moon (1973). Starring Ryan O’Neal as a dead-eyed small-time conman traveling across the midwest with his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, who is was both the youngest person ever to win an Oscar, and a better actor than her dad, whose acting is wooden and whose eyes are like a doll’s eyes. The script to this movie is really great: every scene has something special. The dialog (unlike Ryan O’Neal) is charming and memorable. Johnathan Hillerman (Higgins from Magnum, P.I.) is in this movie! No British accent! I give it 4 Nehis out of a possible 5 Nehis.

Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)

Watched Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). I’m probably the last person to see this movie. It was great! Kept it street-level, struck a good balance of being quippy but not stepping on the important scenes (like other Marvel movies often do). Great cameos from Captain America. I give it 4 Lego Death Stars out of a possible 5 Lego Death Stars.

High and Low (1963)

Watched High & Low (1963). What a great movie! Kurosawa channels a mannered Hitchcock thriller at the beginning, but by the end it’s like a tough, gritty William Friedkin police procedural. The transition is perfect. Original title was Heaven and Hell, but High and Low is so much more fitting, in English anyway. Very odd choice to include exactly one colored image in a black and white movie, but now I know where Spielberg got the idea. The obligatory night club scene was actually so visually interesting that, like the cops, I lost track of the guy they were tailing. A cannonball-shaped inspector nicknamed Bos’n was the best character. I give it 5 Caloric Punch out of a possible 5 Caloric Punch.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

I watched Murder on the Orient Express (2017). Someone on this train murdered Johnny Depp: was it you? Compared to the 1974 adaptation of the same novel, this version is prettier, but somehow even cheesier. The mustache is crazier, the Belgian accent is terrible. The cinematography (photography?) is gorgeous, even seeing it on my monitor rather than in 70mm. They pretty much used every conceivable way to shoot inside a train car without it getting repetitive. However, the CG was unnecessary, as were the pointless action sequences (Poirot chases someone on a train bridge? Poirot is in a gun battle?). Daisy Ridley is probably the best actor in the bunch, to my surprise (since she was not especially good in Star Wars, though come to think of it none of the good actors in that movie were any good in that movie, hmm must be because the movie sucked). Pretty sure the worst parts of this movie were added in by Branagh to make it more appealing to modern palettes, but it didn’t really work for me. I give it 3 red kimonos out of a possible 5 red kimonos.

Speed Racer (2008)

Watched Speed Racer (2008), a hallucination with a theme: keeping your integrity in the film racing industry. Reminded me of Dick Tracy (1990) for some reason, and even more so of Tim Burton. I was not surprised to see Joel Silver’s name come up in the credits either. Visually it is incredible and worth watching. I just kept thinking how could they film so many scenes with the chimpanzee and that little kid when everybody knows chimps attack little kids on sight. Was that all green-screened? The story was odd: how many acts did it have? They really liked to tease you with the Speed Racer (1967) theme, just playing a few notes of it here and there. Hey, gimme that whole theme song! I give it 3 Bernoulli Convergenators out of a possible 5 Bernoulli Convergenators

Futurism

“When we think of information technology we forget about postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television […] When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.”


To read, for instance, that the film The Net boldly anticipated online pizza delivery decades ahead of its arrival ignores the question of how much of an advance it is: Using an electronic communication medium to order a real-time, customizable pizza has been going on since the 1960s. And when I took a subway to a café to write this article and electronically transmit it to a distant editor, I was doing something I could have done in New York City in the 1920s, using that same subway, the Roosevelt Brothers coffee shop, and the telegram, albeit less efficiently. (Whether all that efficiency has helped me personally, or just made me work more for declining wages, is an open question). We expect more change than actually happens in the future because we imagine our lives have changed more than they actually have.

[…]

One futurist noted that a 1960s film of the “office of the future” made on-par technological predictions (fax machines and the like), but had a glaring omission: The office had no women.9 Self-driving car images of the 1950s showed families playing board games as their tail-finned cars whisked down the highways. Now, 70 years later, we suspect the automated car will simply allow for the expansion of productive time, and hence working hours. The self-driving car has, in a sense, always been a given. But modern culture hasn’t.

Tom Vanderbilt, Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blind Spot