2016年12月23日 星期五

"North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

"'In our infancy we require a wise despotism to govern us.  Indeed, long past infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority.  I agree with Miss Hale so far as to consider our people in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with the making or keeping of them so.'"

North and South was originally serialized in Household Words, a publication edited by Charles Dickens.  Dickens was writing Hard Times at the same time that Elizabeth Gaskell was writing this novel, and the interplay between the two authors' personalities and works of fiction provides some interesting background for this book.

In North and South, Margaret Hale moves to a factory town after her father, a minister, parts ways with the Church of England.  She later forms a strained relationship with Mr. Thornton, one of the factory owners in the town, and comes to understand the wide gulf which separates her social standing from those beneath her.

Dickens himself criticized the novel for lacking "conciseness," and I would heartily agree.  At over 500 pages this book sprawls, and given its actual content it could have easily been half as long.  Instead of what might have been a harrowing look at how the Industrial Revolution impacted the north of England (as in Hard Times), we are instead witness to Margaret's endless fits of crying, fainting, and pointless introspection.  Her relationship to Mr. Thornton also lacks the dramatic import it might have had in other, more skillful hands, and the role of women in Margaret's society could have been explored in much greater depth.  At times this book flirts with being good, but never quite gets there.

I wouldn't say that it's bad, exactly.  It's not unreadable.  But given both its history and subject matter, it's hard not to think about how much better Dickens treated similar themes, and how much more powerful North and South might have been if the author had been more "concise."

2016年12月16日 星期五

"The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1970s": Reflections on a List

If you go here, you can see a list of the "100 Greatest Movies of the 1970s."  There are of course other such lists.  I picked this one because it seemed more varied, and also contained more movies that I hadn't seen.  It also leans more towards the critically acclaimed movies, with less attention paid to the blockbusters.

About a month after first seeing this list, I can now say that I've seen 97 of the 100 movies listed.  The ones I haven't seen are movies I couldn't find.  Of the 16,186 people that took this quiz, 97 puts me in the top 1%.

I thought I'd compliment this list/quiz with a list of my own.  Here is what I came up with.

A. The Movies on this List that are Unquestionably Great, and Which Should be Seen by Everyone, Everywhere

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
5. Jaws (1975)
6. Taxi Driver (1976)
7. Rocky (1976)
8. Patton (1970)
9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
10. The Exorcist (1973)
11. The French Connection (1971)
12. Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972)
13. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
14. Deliverance (1972)
15. Barry Lyndon (1975)
16. Alien (1979)
17. The Conversation (1974)
18. The Last Picture Show (1971)
19. All the President's Men (1976)
20. Dirty Harry (1971)
21. Coming Home (1978)
22. Carrie (1976)
23. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
24. All That Jazz (1979)
25. Amarcord (1973)
26. Shampoo (1975)
27. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
28. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
29. The Towering Inferno (1974)
30. Klute (1971)
31. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
32. Save the Tiger (1973)
33. Lenny (1974)
34. Norma Rae (1979)
35. Superman (1978)
36. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Notes: Many of the above movies would qualify as "greatest of all time" - not just greatest of the 70s.  The Godfather Parts I and II, Apocalypse Now, and every other movie up until #24 is, in my opinion, classic.

Around #25 or so is where I'd start describing movies as just "greatest of the 70s."  They're excellent movies, but they belong more to the decade that produced them.  Shampoo and The Towering Inferno in particular, but even movies like Superman and Amarcord have a charm half traceable to their quality, half traceable to the sense of nostalgia they're apt to engender.

Of all these movies, All That Jazz is the one that really blew my mind.  It is dismissed by some critics as pretentious and unwatchable, but I loved it.  If you're looking for a movie where the director went all-in, All That Jazz is the movie for you.

B. The Movies On This List That Are Watchable, but Definitely Not Great

37. Chinatown (1974)
38. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
39. Star Wars (1977)
40. The Deer Hunter (1978)
41. Network (1976)
42. American Graffiti (1973)
43. Mean Streets (1973)
44. Serpico (1973)
45. Blazing Saddles (1974)
46. Young Frankenstein (1974)
47. Animal House (1978)
48. The Sting (1973)
49. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
50. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
51. Nashville (1975)
52. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
53. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
54. Badlands (1973)
55. The Conformist (1970)
56. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
57. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
58. Life of Brian (1979)
59. Days of Heaven (1978)
60. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
61. Bound for Glory (1976)
62. The Hospital (1971)
63. The Last Detail (1973)
64. The Sunshine Boys (1975)
65. Cabaret (1972)
66. Breaking Away (1979)
67. The Candidate (1972)
68. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
69. The Goodbye Girl (1977)
70. Midnight Express (1978)
71. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
72. Sounder (1972)

Notes: I wanted to put Chinatown in the "Massively Overrated" category, but it's definitely more watchable than the other films there.  Not great, but good.  Ditto for Clockwork Orange and the Deer Hunter.  Yeah, they're "great" movies, but have you tried to sit through them lately?

Despite my undying love for Network, I couldn't bring myself to place it in the "Unquestionably Great" category.  It has definite flaws, though these flaws make it - in my eyes at least - more endearing.

Nashville is a movie that critics love, and while I liked it I can't say that it bowled me over.  It seems more like an interesting experiment than an actual movie.  Some great scenes there, but I can't say that they add up to a satisfying whole.

The Conformist is a wonderful looking film, but what about the story?  What about the characters?  Certainly worth a look on artistic grounds, but it lacks the dramatic weight that a truly classic movie ought to have.

C. The Movies on this List That Are Weird Enough to be Somewhat Interesting

73. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
74. Tommy (1975)
75. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
76. The Last Wave (1977)
77. Macbeth (1971)
78. Julia (1977)
79. Being There (1979)

Notes: None of these movies are especially entertaining, but if you're in the mood for something weird you might like them.  

The stories of how these movies were made are also interesting in and of themselves.  The Man Who Fell to Earth?  Bowie was snorting his weight in cocaine - on a daily basis.  Last Tango in Paris?  A beautiful female lead, and decades of rape allegations.  Macbeth?  Made just after Polanski's pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson Family.  

And on, and on, and on...

D. The Movies on this List That Are Massively Overrated

80. Annie Hall (1977)
81. M*A*S*H (1970)
82. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
83. Halloween (1978)
84. Grease (1978)
85. Manhattan (1979)
86. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
87. Bananas (1971)
88. Sleeper (1973)
89. Marathon Man (1976)
90. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie (1972)
91. Don't Look Now (1973)
92. A Touch of Class (1973)
93. Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Notes: I fucking hate Woody Allen.  It has nothing to do with any crimes he may or may not have committed.  I just hate every single film he's ever directed, starred in, or had anything to do with.

Halloween is a lot like A Clockwork Orange.  People gush over it, but the people doing the gushing probably haven't seen it in a while.  Even during the 70s there were much better horror movies.

E. The Movies on This List That are Just BAD

93. The Ruling Class (1972)
94. The Way We Were (1973)

Notes: I can't figure out why someone put The Ruling Class on this list.  It never won any awards, it was never particularly favored by critics, and it is CRUSHINGLY BORING.  I made it about halfway through and gave up.

The Way We Were was a calculated attempt to make Barbara Streisand into (more of) a star.  In this regard it could be considered an inferior version of A Star is Born, which at least featured a male lead that Streisand had some kind of chemistry with.  The Way We Were just makes you feel sorry for Robert Redford.

F. The Movies on This List That Were So Depressing I'm Sorry I Watched Them

95. Cries and Whispers (1972)
96. Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Notes: Ingmar Bergman... are Swedish people really like that?  I certainly hope not.  I found Scenes from a Marriage slightly easier to sit through, but Cries and Whispers, which features a woman slowly dying of an agonizing disease, might have been more agonizing than the disease featured in the movie.

G. The Three Movies on this List I Couldn't Find

98.  Il Giardino del Finzi-Contini ("The Garden of the Finzi-Continis") (1970)
99. Seven Beauties (1975)
100. Day for Night  ("La Nuit Americaine") (1973)

Notes: The first two of these movies, like The Conformist and Amarcord, are Italian films about fascism.  Day for Night is a film by Truffaut.  All won or were nominated for foreign-language Academy Awards.

H. Movies That Should Have Been on this List, But Weren't

101. Diamonds are Forever (1971)
102. THX 1138 (1971)
103. The Omega Man (1971)
104. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
105. Pink Flamingos (1972)
106. Fist of Fury (1972)
107. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972)
108. Fantastic Planet (1973)
109. High Plains Drifter (1973)
110. Female Trouble (1974)
111. Zardoz (1974)
112. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
113. Shivers (a.k.a. "They Came From Within") (1975)
114. Logan's Run (1976)
115. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
116. Oh, God! (1977)
117. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
118. Desperate Living (1977)
119. Suspiria (1977)
120. Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
121. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
122. Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979)
123. The Brood (1979)

Notes: I've already discussed the above movies in other entries about the 70s.  I hereby refer you to Bond: the 1970s, Movies of the Early 70s, Movies of the Late 70s, and The 1970s: A Few More Films.

2016年12月8日 星期四

"The Clockwork Universe" by Edward Dolnick (2011)

"Sometime between those two events, at some point in the course of the 1600s, the modern world was born.  Even with hindsight, pinning down the birth date is next to impossible.  Still, if we who live in the new world somehow found ourselves transported to Newton's London, we would have a chance of navigating our way.  In Bruno's Rome we would founder and drown.  And since these earliest days, the pace of change has only accelerated.  The world has raced ahead, permanently in fast-forward, with science and technology taking an ever more conspicuous spot in the foreground."

Edward Dolnick served as a science writer for the Boston Globe.  He went on to author several books, all of them non-fiction.  He currently lives with his family in Washington D.C.

The title refers to the emergence of the scientific worldview in the late 1600s, and of the idea that we inhabit a world bound by natural laws, in which God, the original clockmaker, assumes an increasingly distant role.  

The subtitle of this book, "Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World," is a bit misleading.  The Royal Society plays a very minor role in The Clockwork Universe, and many of the details relating to it could have been removed without doing any harm to the book.

Instead of a dialectic between Newton and his English peers, The Clockwork Universe instead presents a battle of wills between the old ways of thinking and the new, between the two inventors of calculus (Newton and Leibniz), and between the scientific and theological sides of Newton's personality.  At the end of all these struggles lies Newton's discoveries regarding gravity and the motions of celestial bodies, revelations largely misunderstood during his lifetime.

Despite the misleading subtitle, it's an entertaining book and an easy read.  It's engaging from beginning to end, and the reader will come away from it with an appreciation for the magnitude of Newton's achievement.  The chapters are short, the times in which Newton lived are well described, and the author's personal observations add a lot to the historical facts presented.

Oh, and don't worry.  No understanding of calculus required.

2016年12月5日 星期一

"The Street" by Ann Petry (1946)

"It was a cold, cheerless night.  But in spite of the cold, the street was full of people.  They stood on the corners talking, lounged half in and half out of hallways and on the stoops of the houses, looking at the street and talking.  Some of them were coming home from work, from church meetings, from lodge meetings, and some of them were not coming from anywhere or going anywhere, they were merely deferring the moment when they would have to enter their small crowded rooms for the night."

Ann Petry was an American novelist active from 1938 to 1953.  The Street was her first novel, and remains her most famous work.

In the novel, Lutie Johnson struggles to make ends meet while raising Bub, her young son.  Along the way she crosses paths with various street characters, all inhabitants of Harlem on the eve of World War II.  The Street is also the story of Lutie's attempt to rise above her environment, and how this environment shapes the choices that all of the characters in the story make.

When I first came across this novel, my first thought was of Toni Morrison's novel Jazz.  The New York setting was familiar, the characters struggling against the alienation engendered by the city... but The Street is a much more focused novel, and it's almost as if the characters in it have no histories beyond the street they all inhabit.  This isn't in itself a bad thing, but I think that where Morrison's novel soars this novel flounders.  It also fails to make the kind of defining statement a book like Invisible Man would have made regarding similar themes.

Taken all in all, it's not a bad book.  It's only that the shifts between different characters can be a bit jarring, and there is also Lutie's disappearance for a long stretch of the narrative near the end.  This disappearance lessens the impact that the ending might have had.  

There is also the fact that Lutie goes out of her way NOT to make friends.  This, in my opinion, makes her a less-than-sympathetic character.  If this reluctance to form relationships with her neighbors was explained it wouldn't have been a problem, but as it is it draws her motivations into question, to the point where I wondered whether she had really been "painted into a corner" by her environment, or if she hadn't been the one doing the painting.

If you liked Jazz or Invisible Man, you'll probably like this book.  It starts off great, and doesn't lose steam until the last fourth or so.  Just the same, I can't say that it's a home run.  Its characters could have been fleshed out a lot better, their motivations could have been described in greater detail, and Lutie could have been given a lot more reason for her life-changing decision at the book's conclusion.