Out and about (August 2009)

A few years back, Penguin re-issued several classic novels, with covers designed by contemporary cartoonists. I considered collecting them all but decided that Mr. Wallet (thanks, PrettyFakes) would protest too much. I ended up with The Portable Dorothy Parker as designed by Seth, and Art Spiegelman’s meta-pulp design for Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. I didn’t know there was a site where all of the designs could be viewed, but apparently there is. Frankly, the pairings are uneven. Some of the cartoonists’ sensibilities just don’t match up to the work—as much as I love Julie Doucet, she doesn’t fit Little Women at all. I get the arch tone that Chris Ware’s going for with the equally arch Candide, but it’s a whole lotta Ware at the expense of any sense of Voltaire. Some, however, are perfect. The macabre, flesh-crazed Charles Burns (Black Hole) doing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle? Perfect. Some are terrific because they’re counterintuitive—indie comics god Sammy Harkham’s design for Kafka’s Metamorphosis, especially that bone-chilling front cover, is dynamite. Anyway, go see ‘em all.

Terry Teachout’s causing trouble again, with “Can Jazz Be Saved?” Using stats from an NEA/U.S. Census survey, he argues that the audience for live jazz has dropped like flies from 1982 to 2008, and does so in alarmist tones that have gotten people riled up.

• In 2002, the year of the last survey, 10.8% of adult Americans attended at least one jazz performance. In 2008, that figure fell to 7.8%.
• Not only is the audience for jazz shrinking, but it’s growing older—fast. The median age of adults in America who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 46. In 1982 it was 29.
• Older people are also much less likely to attend jazz performances today than they were a few years ago. The percentage of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 9.8%. In 2002, it was 13.9%. That’s a 30% drop in attendance.

As a 32-year-old jazz listener—the genre comprises probably 60% of what I buy and download each year—I’m mildly interested but not overly concerned. The best reaction has come from JazzWax, and the post’s comments section.

The Self-Styled Siren has been posting on ten film-related books that have shaped her cinephilia, and they are all terrific reads. Clearly, I’ve got some library sales to scope out.

Kim Morgan and Matt Zoller Seitz craft a lovely video essay on Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place, adapted from Morgan’s original piece from January 2008. Once again, Seitz is pointing the way toward the future of movie criticism, and it’s great that Morgan’s along for the ride.

Sheilla O’Malley goes loooong on Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, and the whole essay is well worth your attention. A key quote:

The best thing about it (and the thing that may frustrate other viewers) is that it does not attempt to explain John Dillinger, and it also seems perfectly willing to hover between multiple theories, letting all of them be true, in one way or another, so that you still are left with the essential mystery of what it is that creates such a hardened canny criminal. The film sticks to the facts, which means there is a certain lack of tension in the film, since we all know how it ends. Public Enemies is effective despite this. It doesn’t purport to show “the softer side” of Dillinger (yuk), and it doesn’t go for a Freudian analysis. “My daddy beat me, and that’s why I’m so bad!” Michael Mann stays far far away from such simplistic thinking and the film is so much stronger for it. It could have been insufferable. John Dillinger, just the facts of him, is fascinating enough. You don’t need to make anything up, you don’t need to have a “take” on the man—which would, necessarily, end up being rather clichéd: He was a celebrity, that’s our take! He was a damaged little boy, that’s our take! He yearned for a mother figure, that’s our take. No. Michael Mann is right to stay away from such A to B storytelling. There is no “take.” At least I didn’t get one from the film. This doesn’t appear to be “Michael Mann’s Dillinger,” although, of course it is. But Mann stays in the background. Just the facts, ma’am. He does not presume to up-end the man’s psychology, he does not presume to say, “You know what? HERE’S what I think was going on with him.” He is smart to know that our guesses would be the LEAST interesting thing about the actual phenomenon of John Dillinger.

I have, ahem, brought up Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding before as one of my favorite romantic comedies. Guess what’s been released in a deluxe Criterion Collection edition this October, on a date that is, ahem, two days before my birthday? Not that I’ve offering any hints to anyone.

Who knew that film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was a closet Thomas Pynchon fan? Over the years, he’s written some of the most astute and in-depth commentary on Pynchon’s novels that are out there, so God bless Rosenbaum for using his site as a clearinghouse for all of his old pieces. Here he is on Mason & Dixon, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Against the Day. (A sidebar: he recently reviewed Inherent Vice for Slate. He didn’t much care for it.)

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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