Sunday, March 21, 2010

(Book #11) Kenneth Anger - Hollywood Babylon

The book 'Hollywood Babylon', by Kenneth Anger is a sort-of non-fiction collections of early Hollywood scandals, gossip and rumors. Originally released in France in 1959 (ooh, those catty French!), it was later released stateside in the mid-60's, at which time it was banned and did not get republished for another ten years. Since that time, the book acquired somewhat of a cult status in its recollection of sordid tales of some of the most notable and notorious names in the Hollywood film industry from its early beginnings in the 1900's through the 50's.

Anger opens with anecdotes surrounding the epic film 'Intolerance' and its enormous iconic sets, one of which, the Babylon sequence, became the inspiration for the modernly gaudy Hollywood & Highland complex. He continues by taking the reader through the early development of this filmmaking colony before it even received the name that it now bears. We move into the "Golden Age" of Hollywood in the 20's which was filled with a growing number of stars, many of whom were revered through the country as royalty. Even in these early days, the public latched onto any and all gossip surrounding these high-profile personalities in the original city of sins. The exploitation of celebrities' personal lives became commonplace, effectively planting the seeds for a budding industry of its own, where no one was safe from the public eye. Personal relationships, drug use, and sexual preference were often scrutinized to the point of detriment of an actor's professional career and mental sanity. Many times, these stories ended in suicide, violence and murder. Anger writes about these incidents in harrowing detail and accompanies the text with a plethora of explicit photographs.

As I read the graphic and notorious tales that have become the stuff of legend in Hollywood, I couldn't help but wonder why stories like these are appealing to people. Why do people care so much about the lives of people they don't even know? The book offers one possible response to this: "Americans like to read about things which they are afraid to do themselves."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

(Book #10) Flannery O'Conner - Everything That Rises Must Converge

The book 'Everything that Rises Must Converge' is a collection of short stories by Flannery O'Connor. The stories were published in this volume after she died in the mid-60's. The stories all took place in the South, and were written in the late 50's-early 60's era, and portrayed a wide range of colorful characters, while depicting brief but very realistic emotions and encounters between them. Having never read any of her writing before, I wasn't sure what to expect with these stories. What I got was reminiscent of Raymond Carver, dark yet compellingly human perspectives of morally chilling moments.

Before the actual content of the book began there was a lengthy introduction written by O'Conner's friend and boarder, giving a deeply personal perspective of her life, work and some context of her stories. Oft times I may skim through the introduction or skip it altogether to get to the real meat of the book, particularly when it isn't directly related to the narratives. In this cases, having a little background gave a depth of understanding to some of the subjects, language and references.

The first story is the book's namesake, and was probably one of my favorites of the batch. In the end I wondered if it was my first exposure to O'Connor that struck me, or if the structure and many dualities within the story were just that compelling. In this as in her other stories the characters and their individual emotions and grudges are pitted against each other. The stories are told from the perspective of one of the characters, but none of them are really protagonists. Rather, they perceive themselves as protagonists in their own stories with every other character an antagonist to them, inhibiting them from their own views or agenda. There is an ugliness that is embodied in her stories, tapping into aspects of the human condition that we dare not admit, but recognize and relate to as soon as we see them. Repressed hostility, bitterness, spite, jealousy, condescension, and hypocrisy are all prevalent in her characters. Though they are seldom aware of their own flaws, they are quick to point them out in others.

In several books I have been reading this year, there has been a common theme--the climax of life. In two very different books, there was a moment in a character's life when the act of living reaches a symbolic crescendo that embodies all that the character is, has, and ever will be. This moment can be pin-pointed time and time again in all of O'Conner's stories. It is a literary surety that after this culmination the most drastic of circumstances befalls the character. This peak is followed by the steepest of declines resulting in a pivotal change in the character and those around them.

As many of the stories dealt with death itself, we are left to wonder if the subject weighed heavy on O'Connor through her final years, while dealing with her lasting battle with Lupus. In grappling with the mortality of her characters, she may have in fact been reflecting on the end her own life.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

(Book #9) Architecture and Film

As I am already a couple days late in putting together a write-up for this past book, I feel that I should try to keep it on the shorter side. Alas, I'm afraid that it might not be possible, given the amount of content that was in the book 'Architecture and Film'. At the risk of sounding obvious, I will say that the book was a compilation of essays on the various aspects of Architecture and how it relates to or is depicted in films and movies. Having been trained in design and currently working in the architectural profession, I felt like this subject and a book exploring it has the potential to be a great blend between one of the great passions and one of the great joys in my life. I had read a few of these pieces before, but it was interesting to revisit them, having new experiences and perceptions about these subjects.

I had initially picked up this book a few years ago to provide some insight and get some varied takes on the depiction of architecture and architects in movies. This has been a subject that has long interested, amused and baffled me. As it turned out the first essay was on this very subject, touching on some obvious architect films like The Fountainhead and the Brian Dennehy "classic" The Belly of an Architect. It also reflected on movies where the role of the architect played a more secondary role to other actions in the movie, such as The Towering Inferno (Paul Newman as hot-shot 70's architect), Indecent Proposal (Woody Harrelson as desperate for cash architect), and Three Men and a Baby (Tom Selleck as architect with a moustache). The essay gave a brief description of each architect movie, then discussed the various themes and how each was depicted and related to each other. It also gave me a little context and further movies to watch in my own Architects in Film project.

Another essay talked about architecture and film in the World War 2 era (before, during and after) and how the two subjects engaged what was happening in the world historically and culturally through the lens of the Cary Grant film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home. Like these, some of the essays were more successful at exploring the unification of these two notions, while others fell flat. For instance, one piece about "The Beatles and Architecture" couldn't have been less about architecture. Just because the Fab Four filmed their iconic final performance together on the roof of a building, doesn't make it about architecture! Another writer felt compelled to crap on George Lucas for ten pages while making inaccurate Star Wars references. If you are going to write a compelling essay about some of the most widely popular movies ever made, you best know your source material.

I actually don't have too many complaints about the book, there were an abundance of fascinating pieces on classic modernist heavy films, such as Jacques Tati's Playtime, which made up for the lackluster pieces (or ones heavily based on films I hadn't seen!). There were also a few on the architectural design behind and influencing the making of some great movies. I particularly liked one on art director/set designer Ken Adams, who worked on an abundance of highly visual, modern and architectural films, such as many of the earlier James Bond movies and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

A book like this acts as a good resource for me, pointing in the direction of other architecturally related films either directly about architects or even secondarily about the spaces a film's character may inhabit. As I have long contemplated writing on some of these subjects myself, it provides some reference on ways of presenting ideas that are similar in vain, but also how not to write about them! It also offers a variety of perspectives on how to watch these genres and on some of the underlying themes of similar films. The best way of grasping a lot of these themes, however, is not by merely reading about them, but by experiencing the films as they were meant to be experienced… by watching them.