Sunday, September 28, 2008

recent reading

David Hajdu The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (2008) - Though basically about the comic book censorship controversy (well "assassination" might be more accurate) during the late 40s and early 50s, The Ten-Cent Plague really should have been a biography of Bill Gaines. That’s the person Hajdu focuses on most often and who seems to be the almost-secret protagonist. A Gaines bio would certainly have been far more welcome considering that the overall subject was handled much more effectively in Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation. (And who decided--incorrectly--that “comic book” in the title of Hajdu’s book should be hyphenated?) Hajdu has done the research but didn’t really synthesize it. We don’t need to know where anybody buys their business suits or the architectural style of a publisher headquarters, at least not when this comes across so blatantly as “color”. The connections Hajdu draws to the broader culture are obvious, perhaps even so much that they’re not completely reliable. Wright by contrast didn’t produce a more sustained and perceptive narrative because he’s a historian but that’s probably why he was better able to absorb and sort the material then fit it into broader patterns. (Though Comic Book Nation has some severe flaws - why is there still not a decent history of comic books?) After a while Hajdu’s names and dates all blur even for a reader like myself who’s familiar with this material. He did uncover interesting interviews with participants in book burning events that as far as I know have been rarely researched in this detail. But apart from emphasizing that many of the children involved didn’t really believe comic books were that bad (or at least when they’re speaking from several decades of hindsight) Hajdu doesn’t really get into what motivated the anti-comic people. Today this looks a little silly but that’s not the point. Even though Wertham wrote a shoddy book (I read most of it in high school but haven’t been able to find a copy since) and did seek some of the limelight I also find it impossible to believe that he wasn’t primarily motivated by a genuine desire to help teenagers.

Ted Morgan My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir (2005) - I’d read two other Morgan books. His biography of William Burroughs, Literary Outlaw, is absorbing but it would be hard to write something dull on that subject. By contrast, A Shovel of Stars dumped so many stories and events and people into its “making of the American West” (which in this case runs from Alabama to Hawaii) that it all blurs together. So it was a bit of a surprise to discover that Morgan is actually French (though the title of a later book suggests he’s now a naturalized American citizen). Calling this book “my” Battle of Algiers is exactly accurate but doesn’t reveal that his battle was pretty much on the sidelines. Morgan (at the time Sanche de Gramont) was a journalist for the French military paper and though he knew and spoke with many of the participants he seems to have witnessed almost no combat other than a couple of bombings. Which could still make for an interesting story except that he’s such a plodding writer. At times he is aiming for a novelist’s touch - for instance on p224 he quotes somebody as saying “’Okay, but make it fissa’ (‘quick’)” apparently oblivious that this bit of linguistic specificity comes across as completely arbritrary rather than insightful. Nothing was gained by not using “quick”. Don’t even ask about the severely misjudged and embarassing description of his sexual encounter with a married woman. It’s the same kind of mistake in not realizing this is irrelevant (and perhaps worse is so bland). But then most of his dialogue is pretty stilted even though we realize it’s being recollected after some 40+ years. The problem is that his memories seem a bit dubious. On p119 he describes discovering Marvel comics in the summer of 1939 which is dead wrong. Not only did Marvel proper not exist for another couple of decades but even its predecessor company Timely didn’t exist until that Fall (and since Morgan is discussing a summertime vacation there shouldn’t be any slipping of the timeline). That such an easily discovered error made it past both Morgan and the publisher’s fact checking doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the material that’s not so familiar (at least for Americans) just as his overview of French-Algerian history quotes no sources. What the book does provide is some sense of life in the city during this time, that even though it was basically a war zone much continued as before, and that there’s more complexity to the war than a simple French vs Algerian distinction might make.

Kent Jones Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism (2007) - Jones is a programmer for the Film Society of Lincoln Center but more importantly a sharp and open-minded film critic. Most of his work appears in Film Comment and similar publications, removing him from the grind of weekly film coverage. Much of what’s collected in the book comes from the early 2000s and is, consequently or not, a tad uneven. His early appreciation of Assayas (pre-Irma Vep) is useful for historical purposes but feels tentative at this remove. A defense of John Carpenter is welcome but even for another fan like myself seems overstated. And even though I don’t share his high estimation of In the Mood for Love and A Perfect World I still found those pieces to be a bit unbending - shouldn’t he make them sound more interesting? Still, I have to quibble about something but otherwise how could anybody resist a book with an essay called “Allan Dwan’s Comedies”? Elsewhere Jones carefully engages with The Wind Will Carry Us and Magnolia then later exactly pegs the strengths and weaknesses of David Gordon Green. His piece on A History of Violence is the only one I’ve read (including the Dargis review that Lopate saw fit to include in that Library of America anthology) that really has anything to say on that film. Most pieces about it take what they consider an Important Theme (look it’s right there in the title!) and then unleash the hosannahs. Jones, though, points out how the cliched parts that others dimiss (the misty shots of Americana, for instance) actually work in Cronenberg’s patterns. Still, after all his focus on the director I wish he’d read the book to see how much came from there or is it too much to ask that anybody read a comic? Two closing pieces on Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber get at those writers' importance without merely repeating superlatives or saying how innovative they were (innovations alone are of little interest).

By the way, there’s a good interview with Jones at Senses of Cinema (and interviewer Steve Erickson is also worth checking out at though he also contributes to online boards).