Out and about (March 2008)


From here on out, if you see a random splash of art used as graphic design on this site, you’ve got a 85% chance of knowing exactly where it came from: matchbox labels from around the world. Most of these are Eastern European, Cold War era. I can’t decide if I should be alarmed that the U.S.S.R. used even matchbox covers as propaganda or impressed that it did it so effectively. In any case, here are over 600 masterpieces of modernist design, inch by little inch. (If there are similar collections from Africa or from India, you folks will let me know immediately, right? Right?!)

Nicholson Baker has also packed a lot into small spaces himself—hell, he even wrote a novella called A Box of Matches. (Check out the paperback’s cover to see a perfect fusion of subject and form.) As he’s gotten older, his books have gotten larger and more unwieldy—his new Human Smoke sounds like it’s taken on five subjects too many—and here he traces the development of ultimate informational sprawl: Wikipedia. With his love of obsessive attention to minute details and his zeal about libraries and archival preservation, Baker’s found his perfect subject:

But the sources and the altruism don’t fully explain why Wikipedia became such a boom town. The real reason it grew so fast was noticed by co-founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales in its first year of life. “The main thing about Wikipedia is that it is fun and addictive,” Wales wrote. Addictive, yes. All big Internet successes—e-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcraft—have a more or less addictive component—they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you’re trying to sleep.

Brion Vibber, who was for a while Wikipedia’s only full-time employee, explained the attraction of the encyclopedia at a talk he gave to Google employees in 2006. For researchers it’s a place to look stuff up, Vibber said, but for editors “it’s almost more like an online game, in that it’s a community where you hang out a bit, and do something that’s a little bit of fun: you whack some trolls, you build some material, etcetera.” Whacking trolls is, for some Wikipedia editors, a big part of why they keep coming back.

In examining the latest round of memoir scandals, Daniel Mendelsohn takes a somewhat less sanguine view of the Internet’s reliability as a fountain of truth:

Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it “published,” and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy.

That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, “redemptive” experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel—er, memoir.

Then again, that pesky World Wide Web can be a boon to real journalists. The mighty Nancy Nall explains how she caught a plagiarist by doing some basic followup—you know, what journalists are supposed to do as a matter of course.

Another journalist trying to speak truth to power is the obscure Bob Herbert. Bob who? Don’t feel bad—I hadn’t heard of him, either, which is more surprising given that he’s a weekly columnist for one of the most widely read editorial pages in the world. How can a regular columnist for the New York Times be essentially unknown to the media sphere and readers? T.A. Frank asks that question because, apparently, Bob Herbert has done it. Frank’s article is a good mix of profile, media studies, and deep thinking about how and why we read the news. Plus, it turns out that Herbert is worth reading. (Go here for an archive of his columns, and then complain that I’m a liberal softy. Fine—it’s true.)

The Self-Styled Siren writes a looooong analysis of William Wyler’s The Letter, starring Bette Davis. I admit that I admire Davis’s resolve more than her acting, and that I’ve never quite understood the sexual aura she supposedly radiates, but this is a fine appreciation. (Be warned: It contains spoilers galore, so you might not want to read it if you haven’t seen the movie.) In the law of (relative) simultaneity, Terry Teachout gives a long, process-oriented update on the opera he’s writing with composer Paul Moravec—a musical adaptation of The Letter. Both film and opera are based on a 1924 Somerset Maugham short story, which was turned into a play three years later, and then a movie two years after that. (And then a movie again—it’s the 1940 film, not the 1929 one, that’s under discussion by the Siren.) That little piece of prose has gone through a lot of versions; I wonder why it’s so supple.

“Supple but sharp” is an apt description of Sarah Kerr’s criticism, which I’ve been missing since she left Vogue a few years ago, and I lost track of her. Slate urges her out into the light to review Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a movie book that’s immediately going on my wish list.

“Sharp and sassy” fits His Girl Friday to a T, along with “pee-your-pants funny.” Still, it’s worth wondering how it became regarded as a classic American movie? It deserves its reputation, but it flopped at the box office, and even when Howard Hawks’s career was re-assessed a couple of decades later, HGF wasn’t among the works initially thought of as masterpieces. David Bordwell is on the case, with one of the strongest pieces of film criticism and analyses of cinema history—from production to promotion to entrenchment in the academy—that you’ll read in the blogosphere.

Bordwell’s colleague Kristin Thompson pays tribute to Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett. It’s a close reading with lots of still animation cels to make her argument about the weirdness of Clampett’s vision of Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the gang.

Anyone interested in African Americans in cinema—in front of and behind the camera—should catch Odienator’s monthly series on Black History Month. They’re spirited, foul-mouthed, funny, sometimes scatterbrained, but always entertaining and provocative. Here are links to every post in the “Black History Mumf” series.

Michael S. Smith writes thoughtfully on Miles Davis’s seminal and still-controversial Bitches Brew, which popularized the jazz fusion movement. A characteristic passage:

Occasionally, I read or hear critics state that Miles’ late-60s albums, including Miles in the Sky, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and In a Silent Way, are more transitional than complete. But in most cases art seems transitional only in retrospect. Bitches Brew might represent a point on a long, arching trajectory from the acoustic Miles of previous years to the later electric Miles, the one who played over heavy back-beats with his trumpet siphoned through a wah-wah pedal. Yet Bitches Brew is nevertheless a destination, a work that had its own present. Those who, in 1969, stared, wide-eyed, at Mati Klarwein’s surrealistic cover while listening to Miles and his crew drift loudly and energetically through modes and wildly loose structures were not aware of what Miles would do in the future because the future had not happened yet. Bitches Brew, for them, was the immediate, revolutionary present: cacophonous, free, entirely cauterizing. I suspect that, for Miles, it was too; in light of his development in the mid to late 1960s, this was perhaps the natural place to stop and explore, not only as part of a larger ensemble, but also as a soloist.

Finally, Armond White loves Bruce Springsteen’s Magic much more than I did, but we’re both black men looking with love at a white musician’s attempts to capture us all in our humanity. I still think White’s writing about the album I wish Springsteen had made rather than the record he actually did make, but it’s a brilliant essay all the same:

The basis for all this in Magic is Springsteen’s regard for humanity—the sense of respect, value, love that is found in the way individuals treat each other. The amazing open-heartedness of the songs’ many characterizations comes down to Springsteen digging the depth and weight of their beings—their souls. These characters are from the same world as Born to Run, but worn ragged by 9/11, the Iraq War and by life as mankind has always endured it. Young Springsteen’s beautiful pop-records-based mythology has given way to something more mature, just as these world-weary people (veterans, waitresses, bikers, tired parents, doubt-filled spouses and frustrated lovers) reach for something deeper than romanticism. The only way he can account for their struggles is through religious analogy—the best source we in the West have for measuring qualities of soul.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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