December 21, 2011

The best picture I ever made in my life.
—Ernst Lubitsch
I don’t like any holiday movies.
—various people

I walked into a silent movie at a loud and lively holiday party the other night. It wasn’t like what happens when Buster Keaton walks out of the audience right into the screen to save a damsel in distress in Sherlock Jr. Buster wanted to be in the picture. Not me. I’d just hung up my coat and was on my way into a new downtown office space I’d never been in before and straight ahead of me filling an entire wall was an enormous image of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile the people at the party were talking, drinking, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres, and nobody seemed to be aware that looming on the wall behind them a larger-than-life George Bailey was having words with a monstrously enlarged version of the ruthless banker Mr. Potter, and no wonder, since you couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s odd, but when you turn off the soundtrack, it drains the meaning from the film, cuts it loose, so that it becomes another element, a sort of fluid filmic wallpaper where it no longer really matters that Mr. Potter is evil and George Bailey is good, or that the good man is so deep in despair that he’s about to kill himself, all because of some missing moneyDVD rev. Without sound, without the ballast of an audience’s attention to it, even if you know the movie by heart, as I know this one, it turns into a ghostly dream from 1946 floating meaninglessly around in the background of real-life party circa 2011.

Sorry, I forgot, this is supposed to be a cheery Christmas column about films of the season where good conquers or simply ignores evil, Scrooge is transformed, George Bailey is saved by an angel in need of wings, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” and Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak, the feuding employees of Matuschek & Company known in real life as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, discover true love on Christmas Eve.

This week’s Town Talk question elicited the usual answers, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the happy exception being the person who simply said, “I don’t like holiday movies.” The truth is, most of the best films from any period in the past 100 years have not been conceived of or even promoted as holiday movies. The whole notion suggests warm and fuzzy, bright and sane films to feel good about. So what are the movies getting serious play in the December 20 New York Times? The David Fincher-Rooney Mara version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and that September 11 Christmas Carol, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

A City Lights Ending

If you put the climactic moment of recognition from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) on the wall at a Christmas party, the meaning might remain intact even if the sound were off. Except of course that you’d be missing two of the most appealing voices ever to come out of Hollywood. Margaret Sullavan’s is rare enough to justify all by itself the advent of motion picture sound (“strange, fey, mysterious,” in the words of another rare star, Louise Brooks “like a voice singing in the snow”). In the denouement of this Budapest fairy tale, Sullavan’s stunned expression behind one word (“You?”) says it all. Jimmy Stewart has finally gently revealed that the person she’s fallen in love with through the eloquent anonymous letters he’s been writing her (with some help from Victor Hugo) is he, Kralik, the quarrelsome fellow worker she’s insulted (he’s bow-legged, has a “hand-bag” instead of a heart, “a suitcase instead of a soul,” and “an intellect like a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work”). It’s not as overwhelming a moment as the one it somewhat resembles, the shattering ending of Chaplin’s City Lights when the flower girl realizes that the silly little tramp (“You?”) is the rich handsome savior who paid for the operation that restored her sight. When Sullavan makes the adjustment from misery to doubt to luminous joy, it’s as if the bow-legged jerk has turned into a handsome prince and who else but Ernst Lubitsch would end a romance with the handsome prince hiking up his trousers to show that he’s not bow-legged?

Behind the Scenes

The back story to The Shop Around the Corner is worth telling. For one thing, Margaret Sullavan was by all accounts the love of Jimmy Stewart’s life (even his wife, Gloria, has admitted knowing that he was “always madly in love” with Sullavan “and she with him”). A year ago, I described a scene between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) in which Stewart’s passionately delivered speech about “the tiny engine” in a blade of grass shows “a true American idol coming into his own.” In fact, it was Margaret Sullavan who, more than any other person, helped Stewart develop his unique style as an actor. Only two years earlier, he’d been going nowhere in minor roles at M-G-M. According to Lawrence J. Quirk’s 1986 biography Margaret Sullavan Child of Fate, when she was a top star at Universal, she insisted on having Stewart play the lead opposite her in Next Time We Love (1936), and when he struggled under the direction of Edward H. Griffith, who complained that the gangly young actor was “wet behind the ears” and “going to make a mess of things,” Sullavan spent the evenings “coaching him and helping him scale down his awkward mannerisms and hesitant speech,” the very qualities that were destined to be central to his appeal. Later, Griffith himself was among those who gave Sullavan credit for making Stewart a star.

You can see Next Time We Love in all its disappointing entirety on YouTube. Like so many films from the period, it begins charmingly enough with Margaret Sullavan as a college girl who goes to “junior proms with little boys from Princeton.” She and Stewart are at Penn Station, where she’s returning to school  via a 1936 version of Jersey Transit (“Princeton Junction” the third stop called out) until a goodbye embrace with Stewart convinces them to get married instead; she’s a budding actress, he’s a foreign correspondent whose job will put a fatal strain on their marriage. The love scenes, which are mostly centered on close-ups of her face, reveal the real-life emotional bond between the two actors.

Sullavan and Stewart co-starred again two years after Next Time We Love in Shopworn Angel, but it’s not until The Shop Around the Corner that they share a film as true equals, both major stars. Only ten years before, Stewart had been a sophomore at Princeton and Sullavan was working at the Harvard Coop.


I’ve seen neither The Shop Around the Corner’s 1949 turn-of-the-century musical remake, In the Good Old Summertime, with Van Johnson and Judy Garland, nor Nora Ephron’s 1998 version, You’ve Got Mail, which takes the medium of communication from snail mail to email and moves the story to the Upper West Side with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I can’t say that I’ve avoided either film out of any particular devotion to the original, but after a YouTube tour of each of the concluding recognition scenes, I think my instincts were right. The 1949 version of the last scene follows the script almost word for word and move for move, but Van Johnson’s charm is a long, long way from Jimmy Stewart’s. When she’s singing, Judy Garland can light up the dimmest of movies, but she has no song to sing in the last scene and even if she had, it couldn’t have given the moment the magic it has in The Shop Around the Corner. In fact, Garland’s signature song is used to provide some emotional heft to the conclusion of You’ve Got Mail, with Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack to help Meg Ryan suffer the touching revelation as Tom Hanks approaches amid the flowers of Riverside Park with his dog, Brinkley.

A Bergman Holiday

Imagine a Woody Allen scene where for an upbeat holiday date, he takes a warm-and-fuzzy type girl to an Ingmar Bergman double feature of The Seventh Seal and Through a Glass Darkly. The idea started me wondering what the great European directors have done with the holiday. Fellini for Christmas? Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol? Can you think of a French Christmas movie this side of Desplechin’s not very joyous Christmas Tale? How about Germany? Christmas with Pabst and Murnau? A Fassbinder noel? Herzog for the holidays?

Strangely enough, that gloomy Swede, Ingmar Bergman has made not one but two great holiday films, The Magic Flute and Fanny and Alexander, which I just revisited on YouTube. As fine a Christmas scene as you’ll ever see begins with a gift exchanged between the grandparents followed by a kiss with a newly wed glow to it. Then, when they open the window and the sounds of the street come in, the grandmother peers out smiling at the children cavorting in the snow, and says, “Here comes my family.” True, things do get very bleakly Bergman before his autobiographical epic comes to a close, a possibility introduced in the title sequence, which is set to some of the most beautiful and funereal music ever written (the second movement of Schumann’s piano quintet in E flat major), life and death and love, as Alexander wanders through empty rooms that will soon be filled with festive life, calling the names of family members who are no longer there.

December 14, 2011

On Conan DoyleMy father was easy to shop for at this time of year. “Anything to do with Sherlock Holmes” was the Christmas mantra. As December came around, some publisher always had a book to offer, although nothing could top William S. Baring-Gould’s boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes published in 1970 by Clarkson Potter. Any time I want to commune with my taciturn father, who died in 1986, all I have to do is browse in either volume, looking for his pencilled notes. Another way of getting in touch with him is to take out the bound typescript of his dissertation, an editing of the first three books (“which treat of Incorporeal Substances”) from the medieval encyclopedia that I cannot, to this day, pronounce without a hitch (De Proprietatibus Rerum), every word of it typed by my mother on a Royal portable.

My father’s scholarly fondness for Sherlock Holmes is not atypical. Michael Dirda, for one, pursued medieval studies, among other subjects, as a graduate student at Cornell before becoming a book critic for the Washington Post, a bibliophile, and a member of The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI). That society of true believers spearheads the complex Sherlock Holmes subculture described in Dirda’s contribution to Princeton’s Writers On Writers series, On Conan Doyle: The Whole Art of Storytelling (Princeton University Press $19.95). In the realm of the BSI, fiction is truth and truth fiction, and if this playfully serious merging of reality and make-believe resembles a child’s game for adults, what else would you expect of a group named for the street urchins Holmes enlisted at a shilling a day in his quest for clues?

Salinger and Sir Arthur

There are moments in Dirda’s account of the inner workings of the Irregulars when the tone verges on becoming too “clubby,” as in his reference to the “absolutely wonderful time” he had at his first BSI weekend (an evening “for fraternal refreshment and for harmony”), where he felt “connected to an otherwise vanished era of literary bonhomie and frivolity.” While language like “literary bonhomie” rouses my inner Holden Caulfield, the fact is that Holden’s creator, the late great enemy of all things phoney, J.D. Salinger, had a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes.

Consider Conan Doyle’s place on the daunting list of books for summer reading at Camp Haworth that five-year-old Seymour Glass requests of his librarian, “the incomparable Miss Overman,” in Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. After requesting that he be sent the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and Proust “in their entirety,” among many others, Seymour asks for “the complete works, quite in full, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the exception of any books that are not utterly concerned with Sherlock Holmes.” (By the way, Dirda celebrates some of the books Seymour takes exception to.) At this point in the prodigious letter Seymour recalls how, while he was swimming in the lake, “It was suddenly borne in upon me, utterly beyond dispute, that I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but do not love the great Goethe!” The essence of Seymour’s revelation is not only what “Hapworth 16, 1924” is all about, it’s what Dirda and groups like the Baker Street Irregulars are all about; it’s the difference between admiration and adoration. Says Seymour: “As I darted through the water, it became crystal clear that it is far from an established fact that I am even demonstrably fond of the great Goethe, in my heart, while my love for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, via his contributions, is an absolute certainty!”

The equally buoyant enthusiasm at the heart of Michael Dirda’s appeal as a writer demonstrably in love with reading is underscored by the quotes on the back cover of his book, one of which declares that Dirda’s “life’s work” is to “declare his adoration for some literary gem” (“On Conan Doyle traces the arc of one such love affair”) while another uses the word “love” three times to explain why Dirda makes you feel “as if you’ve been inaugurated into a secret society of people who love what can be done with words.”

Living the Book

Although “love” may be the word of choice, it’s not really Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers adore, it’s the act of reading itself, the moment of complete submission as you settle into the motion of the narrative and can feel the creaking of the horse-drawn coach, taste the fog, or, the ultimate reward, when you actually for the first time in your life experience the names, Charing Cross Station, Victoria, Marylebone Road, and Baker Street, and all those places you’ve known in the company of Holmes and Watson. It’s as if until that moment London had been a wonderful fantasy, something in a storybook co-authored by Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. In James Joyce’s Dublin, another fictional character with a devoted following in the real world, Leopold Bloom, guided me on the night walk I described in a June 16 Bloomsday column last year. Whether it’s London or Dublin or Balzac’s Paris, the authors of the books you love seem to hover watchfully over the cities you’re exploring.

In Person

Imagine for a moment what Sherlock Holmes could do online. Out of all the scholar geniuses of fiction, he’s the one easiest to imagine conceiving the internet, or at least dreaming it up during a cocaine high. In fact, we can all scan the internet the way Holmes scanned the agony columns in The Times. Search for clues in this Byzantine universe and, if you like, you can spend ten and a half minutes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his dog. You don’t need a seance. Forget the ectoplasmic mist. Here he is in the flesh, for real, looking and sounding at age 68 pretty much as you’d expect Dr, Watson would. It’s clear that he dotes on his dog — a sprightly, happy, loving little terrier he calls “good old boy” as he walks toward us with a book in his hand. The year is 1927 and the author is being filmed for Fox Movietone News. After setting down his book and putting his hat on top of it, Conan Doyle explains his conception of Sherlock Holmes and celebrates the veracity of his psychic explorations. His voice is pleasant and throaty, with that Scots burr, becoming most assertive on the subject of the spirit world: “I am not talking about what I believe. I am not talking about what I think. I am talking about what I know. There’s an enormous difference, believe me, between believing a thing and knowing a thing.”

So saying, Conan Doyle expresses the determined act of sympathetic imagination that gives an almost spiritual force to groups like The Baker Street Irregulars. But that’s not all. When he utters his last words to us, about all the people his psychic views have comforted — “how they have once more heard the sound of a vanished voice and felt the touch of a vanished hand” — I find myself having a Sherlock Holmes moment. The guise of the aging writer begins to dissolve around another, most unlikely image but one that makes sense and can be captured with a few taps on the keyboard, yes, here he is, Shri Lahiri Mahasaya, disciple of Babaji, teacher of Shri Yukteswar, who was Parmahansa Yogananda’s guru. As I foresaw, there is a definite resemblance between the avuncular, white-mustached Scotsman petting his dog and the bare-chested, dhoti-clad, white-mustached sadhu who revived the science of Kriya Yoga while marrying, raising a family, and working as an accountant for the Military Engineering Department of the British Indian government. How did I get from Sir Arthur to Shri Mahasaya? Elementary, my dear Watson!

When I open my eyes and return to reality, Sir Arthur puts on his hat, picks up his book, bids us goodbye, and softly tells the dog to “come on,” as he goes back into the house.

In the Margin: Yes

My reclusive father’s copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes occupied the place of honor in his study. Reading “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” in his copy of the second volume just now, I found a “Yes” lightly written in the margin next to the following paragraph:

“It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-colored houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet. Sherlock Holmes had been silent all the morning, dipping continuously into the advertisement columns of a succession of papers until at last, having apparently given up his search, he had emerged in no very sweet temper to lecture me upon my literary shortcomings.”

As far as I can tell, that’s the only “Yes” my father permitted himself in the whole 1500-plus pages of the two-volume tome. This is someone whose highest compliment was “That’s fine,” and whose marginalia consists primarily of technical signals such as “false lead” or “plant” or “hint” for passages pertaining to the solution of a case. So why this “Yes” for a paragraph where nothing remarkable appears to happen? I deduce that this is, in fact, a clue — my father’s way of signaling that here is the essence of what he loved about these stories, though he would never have been so forthcoming “in real life.” It’s all there, the cheery morning, the thick fog, the ominous presence of “dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths,” the gaslight, Holmes’s silence, and his scouring of the papers. That’s what it’s all about, the mood, the ambient essence, or what Henry James would call “the real thing.”


Michael Dirda will be in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library tonight, Wednesday, December 14, at 7 p.m. On December 15, also at 7 p.m. in the Community Room, there will be a showing of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

December 8, 2011

William Makepeace ThackerayA big, fierce, weeping, hungry man, not a strong one.

— Thomas Carlyle,
in a letter to Emerson

Carlyle was attempting to describe William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), whose bicentenary has received little notice while the celebratory drums are already beating for Dickens 2012. The shelves of the Princeton Public Library are teeming with Dickens while Thackeray is represented by two paperback copies of Vanity Fair (1848) with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp on the cover, one battered, yellowed Penguin paperback of The History of Pendennis (1850), and a two-volume Everyman edition of The Virginians (1859); one copy of The Rose and the Ring (1855) is available in the children’s collection. As for biographical or critical works, I had to order Ann Monsarrat’s An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man (Dodd, Mead 1980) through interlibrary loan.

By now we should have had a BBC dramatization of the triumphs and travails of the author of one of the world’s great novels and the creator of one of literature’s great characters, Becky Sharp. Why don’t we know him better? Why isn’t he regularly taught and quoted? Surely his face deserves to hang in the Barnes and Noble-Starbucks cafe life pantheon next to Dickens and George Eliot, who thought him “on the whole the most powerful of living novelists.”

Thackeray’s first biographer was his colleague Anthony Trollope, who clearly shared George Eliot’s opinion of a writer who, in Trollope’s words, “sees his characters, both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s” and who “dissects with a knife and also with a needle.” Contemplating Dickens, on the other hand, Trollope found “the sale of his books … so great as almost to induce a belief that Pickwicks and Oliver Twists are consumed in families like legs of mutton.” While Dickens was “a literary hero bound to be worshipped by all literary grades of men, down to the ‘devils’ of the printing-office,” Thackeray, “the older man [by a year], was still doubting, still hesitating, still struggling.”

Thackeray and Brontë

Writing under the cover of her pen name Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray, giving him the lion’s share of a long, lavish preface, “a man whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears,” who “comes before the great ones of society” speaking “truth” with “a power … prophet-like,” the “satirist of Vanity Fair” hurling “the Greek fire of his sarcasm.” She “sees in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised.” After dismissing the commentaries comparing him to Fielding” (“he resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture”), she writes: “His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summer cloud, does to the electric death-spark hidden in its womb.”

Best to step back from that one. Give it space. No wonder Brontë was let down when she met the eagle in person. Instead of the prophet’s “Greek fire” and “sheet-lightning,” she found “an unwilling idol.” According to a witness in Monsarrat’s biography, “The more intense she became, the more mundane were his responses.” Still recuperating from a near-fatal illness, Thackeray saw “the trembling little frame, the great honest eyes” of “a little austere Joan of Arc marching in upon us and rebuking our easy lives and morals.” Brontë was looking for the man possessed of the audacity to conceive the heroine of Vanity Fair, whose first act is to toss the gift of Johnson’s Dictionary out the window of a coach at the feet of a Dickensian caricature of sentimental goodheartedness. In the words of the same observer of the Brontë-Thackeray conversation, Thackeray, “with characteristic contrarity of nature … insisted on discussing his books very much as a clerk in a bank would discuss the ledgers he had to keep for a salary.” Brontë was looking for a man with a mission while Thackeray, “with many wicked jests refused to recognize the mission.”

Had the big man (he was 6’4) assumed the Promethean dimensions of his “serious genius,” however, Brontë might have faulted him for arrogance, which seems to have been the case on another occasion, described by the same witness, when she treated him to a face-to-a-face litany of his shortcomings, against which he defended himself, as she puts it, “like a great Turk and heathen — that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself.”

You don’t have to read far in any account of Thackeray’s life before you once again wonder why Andrew Davies or some other BBC mainstay hasn’t written it up for a miniseries. The Brontë episode alone would make for fascinating theater, as would young William’s embattled school days, his adventures in Paris, and the poignance of his marriage to a woman who descended into madness after bearing their third child. (The coincidental resemblance of Thackeray’s doomed marriage to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre led to spurious gossip about a Bronte-Thackeray affair.)

Thackeray’s Doubts

In his preface to Pendennis (1850), the novel that followed Vanity Fair, Thackeray celebrated Brontë’s “vulture,” Henry Fielding: “Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our art. Many ladies have remonstrated and subscribers left me because, in the course of the story [Pendennis having appeared first in monthly parts] I described a young man resisting and affected by temptation.” The curious thing about Thackeray’s preface is that it anticipates opposition at the outset, alerting the reader, “I tell you how a man really does act, — as did Fielding with Tom Jones, — but it does not satisfy you. You will not sympathise with this young man of mine, this Pendennis, because he is neither angel nor imp. If it be so, let it be so. I will not paint for you angels or imps, because I do not see them. The young man of the day, whom I do see, and of whom I know the inside and the out thoroughly, him I have painted for you; and here he is, whether you like the picture or not.”

If Dickens was everyman’s idea of the forthcoming, ever-agreeable novelist, Thackeray would seem to have been a more demanding alternative, if not strictly speaking an anti-novelist. Trollope’s biography begins by discussing Thackeray’s indeterminate relation to his work and his audience: “He doubted the appreciation of the world; he doubted his fitness for turning his intellect to valuable account; he doubted his physical capacity, — dreading his own lack of industry; he doubted his luck; he doubted the continual absence of some of those misfortunes on which the works of literary men are shipwrecked. Though he was aware of his own power, he always, to the last, was afraid that his own deficiencies should be too strong against him.”

Like Becky Sharp, Pendennis is an anti-hero, but without Becky’s wicked allure. As Trollope observes, he is “weak, and selfish, and untrustworthy,” and Pendennis, along with Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-59), among others, has been ignored both by contemporary readers and the producers of programs like Masterpiece Theatre. Meanwhile adaptations of Vanity Fair have been staged numerous times in London and New York over the years (we may yet see Bad Becky, the musical), filmed seven times since 1911, most recently in 2004 when Mira Nair directed a heavily Indian flavored version starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky. The 1935 version, titled Becky Sharp and starring Miriam Hopkins, was the first Hollywood film shot in technicolor. The BBC has produced various miniseries, beginning in 1956 (with Joyce Redman as Becky) 1967, 1987, and 1998. In 1975 Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the adventures of another anti-hero, a sort of male Becky Sharp, and one of Kubrick’s most admired films.

Neither the 1998 nor the 2004 versions of Vanity Fair, which I watched this past week, explore the source as satisfactorily as numerous recent adaptations of Dickens, Austen, and Trollope, not to mention the BBC presentations of works by lesser authors like Mrs. Gaskell and Laura Riding. One day perhaps some digital magician will follow Thackeray’s lead by making an animated film based on his witty illustrations, which would at least produce something closer in scale and spirit to the puppet show cited in the Vanity Fair’s closing sentence, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

A Game of Authors

Speaking of children, I first encountered William Makepeace Thackeray while playing the card game called Authors. My early fondness for him had little to do with the stern image of his face on the cards. It was his name. Of all the three-part names of authors the rules said had to be pronounced in full when you were asking for cards from your opponent’s hand — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott — none felt as nice to say as William Makepeace Thackeray, who was, all the better, the author of what I felt to be the most intriguing and thus coveted card in the deck. Besides having a title I found fascinating in itself without really having any idea why, the Vanity Fair card sported the oddest image. Most of the small title illustrations in the upper left hand corner of the cards made sense — a knight on horseback for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulder for A Christmas Carol — but what was the point of the Vanity Fair card’s image of a woman and three air-borne books? Was she dropping them? Recoiling from them? Or had they just fallen upon her out of nowhere?

My parents never explained the “flying books” to my satisfaction, though they must have known the famous opening chapter of Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp unceremoniously disposes of the kindly meant gift of Johnson’s Dictionary. But why three books? You have to give the creators of the game credit. The extra books put a special spin on what was a defining moment for the character, and gave a touch of residual mystery to the stern looking author in the granny glasses — “a stout, healthful broad-shouldered specimen of a man,” according to someone present at one of Thackeray’s wildly successful American readings, “with cropped greyish hair and bluish grey eyes, peering very strongly through a pair of spectacles that have a very satiric focus.”

December 1, 2011

DVD Review: "Homicide"I have never been a fan of cop shows. At the time Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue were first aired on network television (NBC and ABC, respectively), I was busy watching Turner Classic Movies, which was launched in April 1994. I doubt that anyone back then could have convinced me to tune in to a couple of shows about detectives doing their job on the mean streets of Baltimore and New York. So why go back there now? Because those two programs were the antecedents of two of television’s greatest accomplishments, David Simon’s The Wire and David Milch’s Deadwood.

In Princeton this past September to deliver the Belknap lecture, David Simon, the dominant creative force behind The Wire, described his transition from journalism to television, a medium for which he’d had little respect (“It was a paycheck”). Even though he was writing for a highly acclaimed program based on his own book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991), he felt constricted by the sponsor-mandated reality of network television. Then, in Simon’s words, “Something happened. Suddenly television changed.” The “something” was HBO and the emerging reality of pay-for-view cable channels. The “economic model” that had prevailed from the medium’s inception was transformed. No longer was everything subsidized by advertising. No longer was the programming “what they wrapped around the ads to keep you watching the ads.” No longer did a writer have to think of the objective in terms of devising “a teaser followed by four or five acts,” depending on whether the commercials came at 14 or 12 minute intervals.

Liberating the Writer

In his Princeton talk, which eventually addressed the larger issues suggested by the title (“The End of the American Century and What’s In It For You?”), Simon imagined the producers at HBO saying “What if we let the writers loose?” That, along with a relative indifference to the show’s audience share — “It’s a cute little number,” said Simon’s boss at HBO in reference to The Wire’s modest Sunday night rating — represented “a Magna Carta for writing on TV.” Simon was thrilled to find that he could say things about the war on Baltimore’s underclass he’d been unable to say as a journalist covering the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun.

The equivalent moment for David Milch came when HBO turned him loose on the muddy paths and alleys of Deadwood. He’d already been testing the limits of profanity, sex, and violence on NYPD Blue (1993-2005), which he created with Stephen Bochco. In a 2005 interview on Salon, Milch compares the limitations endemic to network television to those imposed on Hollywood by the sanitizing dictates of the production code: “You can spend your time … moaning about the strictures within which you’re forced to work, or you can try and find ways to neutralize the distorting effect of those strictures.” Milch’s way of doing this was to incorporate the conflict between authority and free will, repression and creative force into the program by developing characters who are struggling against adversaries comparable to the censors and the sponsors. In NYPD Blue, which was challenged by the American Family Association for its infusions of “soft-core porn,” Milch “tried to engage the theme that in order to administer the law, you have to break the law,” an idea he takes to the limit in Deadwood, where the Gem saloon’s foul-mouthed evil genius Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is “indissolubly associated” with sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a “murderous personality who embraced the idea of law as the only way he could control himself.”DVD Review: "NYPD Blue"

Fans of Deadwood will see a potent preview of Al Swearengen in NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who also has qualities in common with Seth Bullock regarding the use of law enforcement as a way to control his own inner violence. Like McShane’s cut-throat rogue Swearengen, Franz’s Sipowicz is the life-force driving the show. He’s explosive, funny, repellent, impossible, lovable, and immensely human, and he shares Swearengen’s mastery of colorful invective. In the Salon interview, after proclaiming Swearengen a “lineal” descendent of Sipowicz, Milch offers an aside on his inventively profane art: “You know, as they say, the devil always gets the best lines.”

There are no giants like Sipowicz or Swearengen in Homicide or The Wire unless you count Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gay stick-up man I compared to a psychopathic Robin Hood in my September 10, 2010 column on The Wire and its main character “an African American immensity called Baltimore.” It should be noted that an early version of Omar appears in the one episode Simon contributed to NYPD Blue (“Hollie and the Blowfish), where the gay title character, like Omar, holds up drug dealers, cooperates with the police, and wins their respect.

Quirky Relationships

Watching Homicide, with its divertingly varied ensemble of characters, you can see the prototype for the Baltimore police unit and municipal administration that will be more elaborately and provocatively developed in The Wire. The rapport or lack of it characterizing the different teams the unit is divided into is one of the most appealing aspects of Homicide, at least in the first three seasons, which are all that I’ve seen so far. Midway through the third season, the glow began to fade a bit after NBC’s concern about the ratings (the sort of thing Simon looks unfondly back on from the promised land of HBO) led the network to begin demanding action and sensation at the expense of character. Up to that point, the show had sustained a nice balance between the quirky relationships and the morbid, violent world the detectives work in without indulging in any of the strained sit-com clowning that sometimes mars Hill Street Blues, the landmark series that Milch began writing for in 1982.

Although Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio, and Barry Levinson are generally credited with sharing the primary creative responsibility for Homicide, Fontana suggests in the audio commentary for the show’s first episode that “by the end of six years, we had pretty much sucked every comma and question mark out of the book.” In fact, Simon, who didn’t actually begin writing for the program until Season Four, found a disconnect between the real detectives in his book and the television counterparts, with their tendency to discuss moral, emotional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual issues in relation to their work, something the detectives Simon wrote about had never done.

Among the great saving graces of Homicide are its humanity and sense of humor, which come to life in the interplay between characters like the appealingly eccentric and relentlessly irritating John Munch (Richard Belzer) and the partner he calls “big man” (Stanley Bolander as played by Ned Beatty). Melissa Leo’s detective Kay Howard, with her lovely smile and charming movements (she elevates swaggering to a fine feminine art) is especially memorable (she surfaces 16 years later as a middle-aged lawyer in Simon’s Treme, another HBO wonder), and no less memorable is Andre Braugher as the show’s most complex and troubled character, Frank Pembleton.

As his Princeton talk suggests, Simon’s commitment to the depiction of the lives of poor blacks in Baltimore’s inner city was such that such that when HBO “set him loose,” he could create a program like The Wire, which actually thrives by taking itself seriously, although the intensity is offset by the quality that works so well in Homicide: the interplay between the detectives.

Theme Music

A key component of the addictive pleasure we’ve been finding in NYPD Blue is Mike Post’s Emmy-winning theme music, which sweeps you into the excitement of the show with rock em sock em kettle drum dynamics behind the imagery of the elevated train pounding right at you, the swift sharp flashes of city scenes, then the human theme, a sudden, tender, beautifully timed interlude as the main characters are introduced, the music slowing, expressing something quiet, poignant, and subtly emotional, before the drums and city imagery come pounding back again and drive you headlong down the track to the big NYPD shield. The way we actually look forward to this credit sequence, which may have influenced the “woke up this morning, got myself a gun” Tony-at-the-steering-wheel dynamics of the opening credits for The Sopranos, has me thinking about the way theme music became the emotional signature of the radio and television shows that were like old friends whose company you looked forward to every week, the media equivalent of comfort food.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the viewing experience I’ve been describing was made possible by the absence of commercials. DVDs offer you a semblance of what you pay for on cable — in this case, decades after the fact. Between the Princeton Public Library, Netflix, and streaming online, no one needs to endure those “commercial interruptions” and the related constraints David Simon and David Milch had to put up with in the days before cable TV “turned the writers loose.”

If you want to read an in-depth study of these shows, I recommend Jason P. Vest’s The Wire, Deadwood, Homicide, and NYPD Blue: Violence is Power (Greenwood 2011); it can be sampled at length online. David Simon’s Sept. 20 Belknap lecture can also be viewed online. David Milch’s Salon interview is from March 5, 2005, and if you want to see him truly and fascinatingly holding forth, up close and personal, check out the MIT World interview (