Pre-Code Movies Worth Watching

Notes on the golden age of naughty Hollywood — the interlude in the late 1920s and early 1930s after sound and before consistent enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, which banned profanity, nudity, and sex in general from the screen. Sample pre-code classic: The Public Enemy, 1931. “Jimmy Cagney shoves a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face. There is nothing else you need know about this movie” (2,900 words)

How To Write John Updike’s Deathbed

Interview with Adam Begley, who talks about what he learned from researching and writing his biography of John Updike. “Ron Chernow gave me a little avuncular advice. He said: There are three kinds of biographies. There are two-year biographies, five-year biographies and ten-year biographies. He and I agreed that I should be writing a two-year biography. OK, it took me five years to write a two-year biography” (2,540 words)

When Hitler Was Curator

Reflections on the Neue Galerie’s exhibition of “degenerate art” banned by the Nazis. “The terrifying but necessary thing to do is to look into Hitler’s thoughts on art and to realise that there are places where we agree with him. Hitler’s abhorrence of Modernist art was a common reaction in his day. It takes much training to appreciate the work of the Expressionists, let alone see beauty in it” (1,900 words)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art Of Fiction

In memory of Marquez, who died on April 17th, a classic interview from 1981, which begins with a discussion of the differences between literary writing and journalism. The main one, says Marquez, is the productivity: “On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day” (8,725 words)

Is Poetry Work?

And if it is, how much work should poets do? “Wallace Stevens only wrote five poems, and every one was insured for a million dollars, like a famous pair of legs. The greatest living poet, Nicolas Cage, continues to amaze us by never having written a poem at all. Is a poet who writes short poems working less than a poet who writes long ones? No. The average Rae Armantrout poem is three words long — cut from four thousand” (780 words)

My Carcass And Myself

Somewhat elliptical review of Marcel Theroux’s “wondrous, uncanny” novel, Strange Bodies, which takes as its theme the interplay between mind, body and identity. “The reader learns in the opening sentence that a man named Nicky Slopen has come back from death … What if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? It no longer seems so farfetched, and it might not be pretty” (1,547 words)

It’s Adventure Time Pick of the day

In praise of Adventure Time, a “smash hit cartoon” for children aged six to eleven, and also “a serious work of moral philosophy, a rip-roaring comic masterpiece, and a meditation on gender politics and love in the modern world.” The heroes, a boy called Finn and a dog called Jake, “possess a blind optimism that is as clueless as it is comforting”. This is not merely great television, it is great art, and not only for kids (11,340 words)

The Dickens Of Detroit

That’s Elmore Leonard, and no exaggeration. A tribute to his mighty five early Detroit novels, 52 Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man #8, The Switch, and City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, which stake out Leonard’s lifelong territory of armed robbery, blackmail, kidnapping, alcoholism. “Nobody ever used airport lockers with as much verve and creativity as Elmore Leonard did. The man was the Miles Davis of the airport locker” (4,925 words)

Interview: Teju Cole

Interesting throughout. Topics include writing, Sebald, cities, social media, God. “I find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. We don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter?” (4,460 words)

A Radical’s Emancipation Of Color

Appreciation of Henri Matisse’s “exuberant painted-paper cutout”, The Snail. Matisse began using paper cutouts to test colour combinations when working on murals in the 1930s. He returned to them as his main medium when old age and surgery left him bedridden and scarcely able to paint. “Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it — the one modifying the other — I draw straight into the colour” (1,020 words)

How Kafka Actually Lived

Another biography of Franz Kafka. But an exceptional one. Reiner Stachs does an “honest and honorable” job of telling the story without trying to impose his own meaning on it. He “offers no key, no code, no single-minded interpretive precept. The ‘Kafkaesque’ is mercifully missing … The biographer excavates, he does not transcend; and through this robustly determined unearthing he rescues Kafka from the unearthliness of his repute” (7,100 words)

Michelangelo Made David A Giant

Michelangelo’s David was commissioned for the roofline of Florence cathedral. But it was far too heavy to be lifted there by the means available at the turn of the 16th century. Michelangelo must have known exactly what would happen, even if the church elders didn’t. He never intended to create a cathedral decoration. He meant to create a free-standing masterpiece. Where it went was a secondary question (760 words)

How I Wrote The Luminaries

“I knew I wanted to write an adventure mystery. I knew I wanted to write a book set in New Zealand. The west coast gold rush of the 1860s presented itself quite naturally: a gold rush seemed a fine theatre in which to play out an adventure story. I started reading, beginning with gold-rush history, which led me to the nature of wealth, which led me to confidence tricks and scams, which led me to fortune telling, which led me to the stars” (830 words)

Shakespeare’s Scholar Tramp

The greatest-ever collector of Shakespeariana was a 19C recluse called James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps who kept “a cornucopia of manuscript papers and parchments, early quarto editions, play-bills, portraits, maps and curios” in a cluster of sheds near Brighton. He bought, sold, and allegedly sometimes pilfered. Most of his trove has ended up in Washington, DC, at the Folger Shakespeare Library (2,140 words)

Irrational Treasure

In genuine appreciation of Nicholas Cage: “There are moments in which Cage seems to be gunning for some as-yet-nonexistent Academy Award presented to ‘Most Actor’ … He’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours”. (The first quarter of this piece, the introduction, is great; for the rest, your mileage may vary) (5,409 words)

The Life And Times Of Kiss Pick of the day

“There’s never been a band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose output has been critically contemplated less than the music of Kiss. Part of what makes the band so culturally durable is the assumption that you can know everything about their aesthetic without consuming any of it”. As for the music: “A few of these records are great, most are OK, several are bad, and some should be buried in sulphur” (10,400 words)

Dark Joys Of Bengalcore

Exploring the extreme-metal scene in Bangladesh with Adnan, a Dhaka lawyer who performs as Loki Nihilluminatus. The name of his band, Jahiliyyah, means “the state of religious ignorance before the Qur’anic revelation in the Arab world”. Epitaph of Plassey, a concept album from Severe Dementia, “retraces the 1757 defeat of the last independent Nawab of Bengal at the hands of the British East India Company” (1,500 words)

Accidents In Architecture

Shigeru Ban, winner of the 2014 Pritzker prize for architecture, creates “emergency structures from improbable materials in crisis zones”. For disaster victims in Japan he has designed shelters made from beer crates and shipping containers. His “masterpiece to date” is a cardboard cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, built after an earthquake. “Whereas most buildings start on paper, many of Ban’s end in it” (860 words)

The Keys To His Heart

British pianist Stephen Hough talks about the difference between playing and composing, and why composing is more satisfying: “It’s the difference, I suppose, between being a foster parent and having your own flesh and blood child. There is no less love — some foster parents are the most heroic and wonderful possible. But I imagine it is different for a woman to see the actual child coming out of her body. You can’t match that” (1,140 words)

The Greatest Ex-Nazi Writer

Who has heard of the German poet Gottfried Benn? Where is he in the anthologies? Nowhere. Yet Benn was “one of the great German poets of the twentieth century”, and the “equal of Eliot or Montale”. The problem is “not the work but the life”. He was a Nazi — if not for long. He writes “from a cancelled perspective”. A new selection of his writing translated by Michael Hofmann transmits his genius (4,580 words)

Where Storytelling Does Not Reach

Chatty essay about the relationship of writer and editor. The editor’s main job is “to support the writer, which very often means to trick him, to tell him that his work is really good, just carry on”. The writer needs support, because “to fail on your own is all right for a while but only up to a point, since it is not like failing at a game, but a serious failure. It grows more and more difficult to defend your writing” (12,100 words)

Junot Diáz, Freedom Writer

Interview with novelist, McArthur fellow, MIT Professor, Pulitzer prize-winner. Interesting on literature: “Honestly short stories are too much work. Short stories require constant omission; novels require constant hope”. And on politics: “I’m a Dominican immigrant. But one of the reasons there are so many Dominicans in, say, New York City, is because the US invaded the Dominican Republic” (1,230 words)

The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Of The Future

The induction of Pearl Jam is almost a foregone conclusion: They were “the last archetypal rock band that was insanely popular”. Radiohead is the next sure bet, as “the last archetypal rock band that was insanely popular and then consciously decided to become less popular”. Eminem? Probably. Beyoncé too. But Coldplay isn’t quite cold yet. LCD Soundsystem is a “long shot”. And The Strokes have pretty much lost it (3,050 words)

How Will The Wolf Survive?

Music streaming is great fun for fans, but tough on musicians. The percentages are tiny, the accounting is opaque, and most of the streams are free anyway. The iTunes era is already looking good by comparison. Perhaps this is progress, and musicians will adapt, but it doesn’t feel that way. Here’s three suggestions to improve the balance: abolish free streaming, split revenues 50/50, and share the data (4,830 words)

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