Dust Bowl farm, June 1938, by Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress)
Seventy-five years ago this month, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. The anniversary is as good an excuse as any to go back and crack open this gorgeous, painful, Biblical epic.
I wrote about The Grapes of Wrath and its continuing power and relevance for the The Barnes & Noble Review:
Freedom in America has always been entwined with freedom of movement. The freedom to immigrate, the freedom to relocate from one state to the next, the freedom to wander without being hassled. That’s one of the reasons John Steinbeck’s coruscating epic of exodus, The Grapes of Wrath, hit bestseller lists like a bomb when it was published in 1939. It wasn’t a novel about people taking wing and transforming themselves in new settings. Steinbeck showed Americans heading west to better themselves like waves of people before them, only to be blocked, harried, fenced in, run off, denied.
Seventy-five years later, the novel still speaks to us for this same reason…
Pundits who want examples of how America’s school system is failing can easily point to any number of metrics: How the kids are faring in math versus Singapore, or how few of them can locate their own country on a map. One other way might just be to listen to our politicians.
The right honorable Representative Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) went on the teevee over the weekend to talk politics. According to the Dumbest Man on the Internet (Missouri’s own!), Gowdy “hit it out of the park.” Judge for yourself:
Well, how would you like to run for reelection if you were in the House and the Senate based on Obamacare with its rising premiums, worse coverage and now we’re trying to convince you that you’re better off writing poetry than you working and getting money?
For those in need of translation from this garbled blather from an elected official, Gowdy thinks that Democrats are telling Americans that it’s better to go write poetry than look for a job. His mangling of the language is bad enough, but his gratuitous slandering of poets is just plain wrong.
As the great Charles Pierce (who memorably identified Gowdy as “a congresscritter from down in the home office of American sedition”) points out, the House of Representatives isn’t precisely known for working these days, unlike poets:
Trey Gowdy, who gets a base salary of $174,000, will work a total of 113 days in formal session this year, in which he will do very little. I happen to know several poets, and I can say with authority that every one of them works harder than does Trey Gowdy, that Philistine meathead, largely because most of them are working two or more jobs, none of which provide benefits.
From James Carroll’s thoughtful profile of Pope Francis in the end-of-year New Yorker, discussing his coming of age politically in Argentina during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s and ’80s:
The anti-Soviet paranoia of the era made it easy to see [liberation theology] as influenced more by Karl Marx than by Jesus Christ. Archbishop Hélder Câmara, of Brazil, famously captured the tension, saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
Alice Englert and Elle Fanning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’
The newest film from Sally Potter (Orlando) is something of a departure for her. Straightforward stylistically, it’s a beautifully-shot story about two girls growing up in fractured families and learning how to navigate the stresses that the outside world and inexplicable, irresponsible adults put on their friendship.
My review ran at PopMatters:
In Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, two girls are linked by disaster at birth and have a hard time dodging it during their lives. As the film begins, the 17-year-olds are wrapped around each other like young kittens looking for a warm place to sleep. But soon enough, even joyful experiences (political activism, young love) lead to frustration and rage.
The setting is 1962, London. It’s a grey place, barely rebuilt after the Second World War: people keep their coats on indoors because the heating is no good. Here Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) find solace in one another and in jazz records. These bohemians have been best friends since childhood. Their mothers gave birth in adjoining hospital beds just as an atomic bomb was blasting Hiroshima off the planet’s surface. As the film juxtaposes the mushroom cloud and its aftermath with the mothers screaming in childbirth, we get the idea that the girls are born into a world of destruction…
It’s available today on DVD and Blu-ray.
Here’s the trailer:
Rooney Mara in Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’
Steven Soderbergh’s pharma-thriller Side Effects —out today on DVD and Blu-ray—appears to be the polymath filmmaker’s last feature film. (His apparently truly last film, the Liberace biopic, Beyond the Candelabra, premieres on HBO this weekend, since no studio had the imagination or spine to release it even to a few theaters.)
My full review of Side Effects originally ran at Film Journal International, here’s part of it:
The film’s ad campaign hinted at something vaguely related to Contagion, playing up the fact that both movies share a director (Soderbergh) and screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns), and that they are structured around a specific modern-day fear. While that pandemic film was more a fully realized, flesh-and-blood fictional story than it was a docudrama, Side Effects is really a sleekly constructed noir where the pharmaceutical topicality is mostly backdrop…
You can watch the trailer here:
One of the only films that almost everybody (from cinephiles to more well-balanced individuals) was talking about last fall besides Lincoln was the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. It was an interesting take on the mythology, with vigorous direction from Sam Mendes, and an unprecedented look at Bond’s bleak, aristocratic origins.
I wrote about Skyfall as a fight for the continued notion of British imperial relevance for PopMatters:
Whatever romanticism was left in the hoary old Bond franchise, in Skyfall Judi Dench’s M does her best to put a bullet in it. The standard opening chase sequence sends James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a motorbike over the roofs of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul before putting him onto the top of a speeding train to do battle with an assassin. First, M instructs Bond to leave his wounded cohort behind. Then, since agent Eve (Naomie Harris) can’t get a clear shot to take out the assassin without also risking hitting Bond, M tells her to fire away anyway. Result: one big bloody hole in Bond’s trim suit coat and one escaped assassin…
Skyfall comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray.
You can watch the trailer here:
Stan Musial, the greatest St. Louis Cardinal that ever put on the red, and one of the greatest pro athletes of the 20th century, died Saturday at the age of 92. Born in Donora, Pennsylvania (where he played ball with Buddy Griffey, father to both Ken Griffey and Ken Jr.), Musial spent his entire professional career with the Cardinals, a legacy that would be nearly unthinkable today, particularly when you consider he played 22 seasons in the majors.
According to his New York Times obituary, Musial actually received his nickname in Brooklyn:
Musial thrived at the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, plastering the right-field scoreboard and hitting home runs over it, and winning the grudging admiration of the notoriously tough Brooklyn fans.
“I did some phenomenal hitting there,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The ballpark was small, so the seats were close to the field and you could hear just about anything anybody said. Then I’d come to the plate and the fans would say, ‘Here comes that man again.’ And a sportswriter picked it up and it became Stan the Man.”
Earlier this year, Sarah Polley’s heartsick love triangle melodrama Take This Waltz came out and was summarily and quite unfairly ignored by audiences. It’s out today on DVD, make sure not to miss it. My review is at PopMatters:
Somewhere inside this full-tilt lovesick blur is the kernel of a wildly uninteresting story. Woman in cozy relationship sans fireworks becomes attracted to new fella, with whom she has fireworks galore, but a dubious future. What to do: stay with husband or fly off with fling? Play the good wife or bad mistress? There’s a spinning galaxy of clichés for writer/director Polley to choose from here, but somehow she skips past them (well, almost all) and delivers a shimmering and raw ode to the ferocity of desire and the heartbreak that so often follows it…
You can see the trailer here:
My review of Bruce Wagner’s novel Dead Stars is up now at PopMatters:
It’s actually possible to think, upon finishing Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars — his first novel since 2006’s majestic Memorial — that things have somehow managed to get worse in Hollywood over the past few years, vis a vis the human soul. Wagner’s writing has always worked that seam of grandiosely disaffected Tinseltown ennui pioneered so darkly by Nathaniel West.
But as crepuscular as Wagner’s view of humanity and the modern world had been in the past, little compares to his new novel’s phantasmagoria of pain and desire, where if it isn’t Tweeted, isn’t YouTubed, isn’t continually riding the wave of the eternally cresting Now, then it isn’t worth a damn…
Dead Stars is on sale now.
You can see Wagner talking to the Los Angeles Review of Books (yes, there does seem to be some inherent contradictions in that publication’s name) about his novel here: