Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Because You’re Mine

Alan and I went to see Walk the Line Saturday night. Joaquin Phoenix did a good, brooding acting job as Cash, and Reese Witherspoon was extraordinary as June Carter: strong, perky, principled, and loving, and a damned fine performer. I wouldn’t be surprised (or affronted) if she won the Oscar for Best Actress. I haven’t seen all the nominated films, but I can say with assurance with David Strathairn’s subtle brilliance as Ed Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” deserves an Academy Award.

The symbolism (falling down, slamming doors) was a thought heavy-handed, but the film was well-made and authentic in feeling if not always in look. With some movies that cover my early days, I feel the almost physical shock of recognition of the world I knew then. I never felt that in this film, but I may be getting jaded.

WARNING: spoilers ahead for Ray and Walk the Line Altogether, it was a good film, emotionally moving and powerful, even if it did in some ways resemble a paler version (in several senses) of Ray.

The resemblances were extraordinary—the sharecropper background and blood guilt for a brother’s sudden death, as well as the usual rock-star trilogy of groupies, drug abuse, and redemption—but the differences are also telling. Ray had to deal with race issues and going blind at the age of seven, but he had the very great advantage of a strong and loving mother who taught her son pride and independence. Johnny Cash was not so lucky.

Although Johnny Cash’s mother was a hardworking woman with a sweet singing voice, she does not come across as a strong character. Her drunken, judgmental husband never forgave Johnny for surviving when his older, smarter brother died. Later on, she sat silent while her husband gibed at his successful son. Despite the horrors of racism, Ray Charles was at least loved. Johnny Cash had to put up with a lifetime of rejection and verbal abuse from his father and passivity from his mother.

Johnny Cash comes across as a man of grit, honesty, and persistence, capable of both compassion and great love, but also as a bastard with a mean streak a mile wide. The film left me wondering about the stereotype of the artist as a selfish jerk. How accurate is it, generally? Does it have to be that way? What role does the nastiness and short temper play for the artist? I could see it as a smokescreen generated by a hypersensitive individual to keep people distant or just as a reaction to the intolerable stress of fame. I can also see it as arising from a sense of privilege—acting badly because they deserve better than others, or simply because their fame and money let them get away with it.

Not every great singer comes from hardscrabble poverty—Bob Dylan was the son of a dentist who bought him a pink convertible—but Martin Scorsese’s four-hour documentary about him, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, is high on my Netflix queue. I understand he was—is—a sarcastic jerk who has alienated a great many friends.

I don’t fall for the idea that the Arteeeeeste is a higher life form who can be forgiven anything. But I wonder how much art has been lost because the potential artist is too damned nice to create emotional space for the work. And that's an issue that has personal significance for me, not just cinematic.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Mystery of the Author's Decline

After finishing The Murder Room by P.D. James, I have one question: Who’s been putting Xanax in the Baroness's coffee?

Warning: spoilers for Murder Room, Unnatural Death, Death of an Expert Witness, A Taste for Death, Cover Her Face, Shroud for a Nightingale

Much of The Murder Room reads as though James is just too tired to flesh out the plot, the interviews, and the characters. Too much is told in summary, rather than scene. Even the obligatory horror story embedded in the middle is given short shrift, and I still haven’t figured out the relevance or the details of the betrayal in the anti-Nazi underground group.

But it’s more than just the weary, phoned-in quality that bothers me. It’s the drawing back from the painful consequences of murder. PD James has never been afraid of hurting (or killing off) sympathetic characters. Indeed, much of her appeal for me has always lain in her ability to show the humanity in all her characters, even the killers, while she nevertheless treats them with the ruthlessness the book demands. The lesbian novelist trying desperately to save her home and the life she’s made with her lover? Dies while attempting the gentlest form of blackmail. The over-driven, emotionally exhausted single father who wants to keep his family together? Murders to save them, but loses them when he’s caught. The devout old lady who befriends a street waif? Loses her faith, loses the waif she’s grown to love as a son, although he survives.

The Murder Room is different. The decent, humane older woman who has finally made herself a home doesn’t get killed or lose her home. The museum (for the sake of which the murder is done) does indeed stay open. Dalgliesh doesn’t lose a lover to the exigencies of his job. In fact, he gets engaged.

I do not insist that Adam Dalgleish stay celibate for his job; he's had lovers before. But now he has proposed to some woman he's never even fucked. There is very little indication in this book that he even knows the woman. I certainly don't know much about her, except that she teaches at Cambridge and has never been to his flat. I missed the previous book (Murder in Holy Orders), in which Emma and Dalgleish apparently fell in love.

Isn't it a bit tacky to be cruising murder scenes for pickups? Although that at least is in character. He became involved with Deborah Whatshername, whose mother he arrested for murder, and nearly married her. But she dumped him and went off to America while he was on vacation—where, of course, he stumbled over several interesting corpses. (That book, Unnatural Death, is in many ways a critique of the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries; she even swiped the title from Sayers. Must write about that at some point.) He was also strongly attracted to a suspect in Shroud for a Nightingale, who turned out not to be guilty of various other crimes, including the original murders, but took justice into her own hands by killing the murderess.

I'm also a bit troubled by the age difference; Dalgleish has always, as far as I could tell, aged naturally—that is, as calendar time passed in the world, it also passed in the books. His wife and child died during the 1950s. Thirty years ago he was in his early 40s. Now he’s got to be in his 70s—well past retirement age. Has he ceased to age at all? I don't know how old Emma is—she could be anything from mid-twenties to forty-something, I suppose. The age parameters are that she has a PhD in English but is still fertile, since Dalgleish was even mooning over the possibility of their having a child together. Somehow I can’t see that obsessively fastidious man dealing well with the daily chaos, noise, and mess of child-rearing.

Baroness James is 85 now. Perhaps she is mellowing with age, or she may want to leave her detective—and her readers—on a hopeful note. I salute her very great achievement over all these decades, and I hope she can bring us a few more good murders before she follows so many of her characters into death.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Techno Updates from the Past Few Days

As of Wednesday night:
The technological chaos of the past three weeks is ending at last. Michele found her cell phone, missing since January 19. My laptop is on its way back from Apple repair (got wet January 26); it should be at the Apple store Thursday. Our DSL, out for a week, has been repaired.

The laptop is not fixed, but at least we know what’s wrong with it—and why it didn’t bounce back from the wetting, as so many iBooks do. Apparently the plastic frame holding the LCD screen is cracked. Thus the tiny trickle of dampness got into the LCD itself—creating the most expensive possible repair. Sigh. They offered to fix the plastic for the original $300 estimate, but what would be the point of that? There was no way I could spring for the nearly $800 to replace the screen.

However, now that we know what the problem is, we may be able to find another way to fix the screen. Several trustworthy sources replace screens for $350 or so, including labor. The question is whether it’s worth the money, given that I can use the iBook as a desktop machine simply by hooking it to the monitor (plus wireless keyboard and mouse) I already own. But I will need a laptop for the trip east.

I’m amused that our high-tech problems are correlated with ancient astrological systems. There’s a T-square of outer planets in fixed signs that’s making 2006 memorable already. Occasionally some hapless planet will transit the empty spot and make a Grand Cross—a brief one every month, when the Moon crosses that sensitive spot, but several longer-lasting ones. Mars was just there, making combative aspects with Neptune in Aquarius, Jupiter in Scorpio, and Saturn in Leo.

As of Friday:

The iBook arrived in Emeryville yesterday. This morning I got email informing me that it was going back to be fixed, with a new repair number. Damn—clearly they'd received it, tested it, and sent it back as unrepaired. I could foresee months or years of this circuit, my iBook becoming a high-tech Flying Dutchman. So I called Apple this morning, and they promised to look into it.

I sat on hold for a while, listening first to some good hot jazz, then to a dreadful song by Barbra Streisand and the BeeGees named "Stranger in a Strange Land." Then the customer-service rep came back and explained that the iBook was being fixed for free. Apple will pay for the repair, since it was only a few months out of warranty.

They have my undying loyalty.

To be honest, they had it already. Apple products consistently work well, because they are elegantly designed, inside and out. The user interface standards are superb; for example, you never have to guess what will happen when you click OK, because the buttons are labeled with the action, not with generic consent.

Some people complain that Apple products may be a bit more expensive, but when I researched the issue, looking for a new laptop, I discovered that the iBook was actually competitively priced. Unlike many cheaper Windows laptops, it already included the wireless card, the sound card, all the things I wanted. Also, they hold their value; this iBook is fifteen months old, and I could sell it for very close to what I paid for it.

Every customer-service person I've ever dealt with at Apple has been courteous, competent, and thoughtful. Their corporate policy seems to be kindness. Or maybe they're just lonely. This is only the third time I've had a repair. After I'd had it for five or six years, the Apple IIe broke down; I've forgotten now what had to be replaced, but it cost $300. After eight years, it died completely; that was my second repair. And now this.

In more than twenty years of consistent, heavy usage, I've never found an Apple product that was a lemon. Think about it: since January 1984 I've spent almost every workday, most evenings, and many weekend days using an Apple computer. That's a minimum of eight or ten hours a day, and sometimes far more. I've written manuscripts and grad school papers, generated horoscope charts, run online forums, edited documents, designed and typeset books, created graphics, played games, and surfed the Internet. I've fallen in love. And despite that extremely heavy usage, the constant work, and the occasional cat strolling on the keyboard, I've had three problems. Three.

I can't think of any other product I've used so consistently and heavily that's given so little trouble. I've had refrigerators that were more demanding. And they don't play me music, or let me talk to people on the other side of the world, or offer me a nice game of chess.

Apple. They have my heart. And when the current book sells, I've got my eye on a 20-inch iMac.