Friday, January 21, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Pictures at a Revolution" by Mark Harris

Choice bits:

[Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn] would argue daily: Beatty would tell his director that the movie [Mickey One]'s stew of symbolism, absurdism, and narrative ellipsis was "too fucking obscure," a point that Penn, years later, conceded. ("He now believes I was right?" says Beatty, laughing. "That's funny, because I now believe I was wrong.") (P. 39)


Poitier knew that all eyes were on him, that his win would provide a moment of genuine meaning for black Americans and an occasion for an avalanche of self-congratulation within the industry. He had been here before, five years earlier, when as the costar of "The Defiant Ones," he had become the first black man to be nominated for Best Actor. Now, he could be the first to win -- a moment that he knew would make history and yet change almost nothing. (p.52)


Poitier knew that this was nonsense. He was well aware that, as much as the sight of a black man holding an Oscar statuette for the first time might move many black and white Americans, his win would be used to sell a preposterous falsehood, the spurious notion that the movie industry had solved its own race problem and was now pointing the way for the rest of America. (p.53)


Hollywood needed an "Exceptional Negro" in the 1950s, and Poitier was perfect in the role. Aside from his talent and magnetism, he demonstrated a remarkable instinct for self-presentation; without anyone to emulate, he knew exactly how much he would say publicly without jeopardizing his status in either black or white America. In the press, he walked a fine line almost unerringly. He was humble but never servile, concerned but rarely intemperate, unwilling to pretend bigotry was anything other than an immense national problem, but optimistic that it would eventually give way. But as much as journalists liked to point out his unique status to him, Poitier didn't spend much time discussing the cost of that exceptionalism. He wouldn't let himself -- couldn't let himself -- play villains. Hollywood would never allow him to play a character with real sexual passion. And the possibility that he might one day be able to compete with white actors for roles in which race could be factored out wasn't even worth discussing. (pp. 54-55)


And with an Academy Award, Poitier was no longer just an actor, but himself a trophy, a successful progress report that the Academy had bestowed on the movie business and a name that Hollywood could invoke again and again as a way of telling itself that it had done enough, that a piece of unfinished business had finally been settled. Poitier had been in Hollywood long enough to know that the Oscar would be less useful to him than to the organization that handed it out. (pp. 58-59)


"What we were talking about, [David] Newman wrote later, "was what is now known as 'the Sixties.' But as we were in the midst of living through them at the time, we didn't have a chronological name for what was happening." (pp. 62-63)


{Mike Nichols] had less than three months to learn how to make a movie, outmaneuver a notoriously combative studio head and a cautious, passive producer, and figure out how to direct the world's most famous couple. And, he says, "I wasn't entirely sure how a camera worked." (p. 74)


Between August 1964 and March 1965, four new movies sold so many tickets and made so much money that, collectively, they pointed toward a dramatic shift in the tastes of American moviegoers and suggested an entirely new way for the studios to do business. Hollywood did not react well. Historically, the only event more disruptive to the industry's ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic. (p. 75) (The movies were: "Mary Poppins", "My Fair Lady", "The Sound of Music", and "Goldfinger". - GC)


(About Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's long-running affair)

It takes a remarkable degree of finesse and public relations savvy to earn respect for the discretion with which you conduct an affair that everyone seems to know all about. (p. 229)


As it turned out, Kramer's movie didn't run into trouble in the North, the South, the ghettos, or anywhere else; it was an immediate blockbuster, the highest-grossing movie Kramer, Hepburn, Tracy, or Poitier had ever made, and the biggest success in the history of Columbia Pictures. Where its critics received the film as a timid and neutered issue picture, audiences saw it as a benign, often very funny, and finally touching portrait of discomposure, a glimpse at every strained smile, awkward pause, and gentle groping toward humanity that would unfold if Sidney Poitier walked unannounced into the home of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Watching two of the most self-assured stars in screen history not know how to behave in front of a black man -- which was exactly how the two of them, particularly Hepburn, had chosen to play it -- may not have ignited any revolutions, but it made for a genuinely crowd-pleasing comedy. As Arthur Knight predicted correctly in "Saturday Review," "the very elements that prevent it from coming to grips with its potentially explosive material are probably also the ones that would commend it to a wide audience." (p.374)


As "The Graduate" grew at the box office, first becoming the number two movie in the country and then number one, where it stayed for months, its success shattered a long-standing Hollywood studio business model. Warner Brothers and United Artists both announced that they were rethinking their entire development slates and marketing tactics with an eye toward courting younger audiences and hiring younger filmmakers; and other studios quickly followed their example. (pp. 382-383)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Books Read in 2010: "The Mote in God's Eye" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Baen Webscriptions

This thing took forever to get through. And it wasn't because it was bad, or because it was particularly dense. It just took me a long, long time. It started to feel a little desperate in the second half. When I'm reading a book for pleasure, it shouldn't feel like work. Well, that's not quite right. I'm willing to work through a book if I think it's going to be rewarding in the end. It shouldn't feel like an OBLIGATION, like something I HAVE to do, and therefore contrive ways to postpone and avoid it.

My schedule being what it was through much of December, time would pass where I couldn't read much. And when I did, I very often fell asleep after just a few paragraphs. Reading hard SF at a time like that doesn't help, since there's a whole universe being built that I had to keep straight, and that proved difficult. "Jeez," I would think, "Can't this take place on Earth? Why does it have to be half in space, half on a planet inhabited by 3-armed mutant hermaphrodites with a genetically determined caste system and complex and, well, alien socio-political structure?" And then I'd fall asleep.

But what this book really marked for me was my seeming preference for electronic texts. Under certain conditions, anyway.

I started reading the novel in a mass market paperback that my wife found among her books. She'd forgotten that she'd bought it and wondered if I was interested. I started to flip through it and got sucked in. I carried the paper copy around for a couple of weeks, and even all the way to Chicago and back on a trip to visit my parents, when I decided that I was tired of doing that. Since I couldn't just sit down for a length of time and read, I wanted to be able to dip into the book whenever I had a few minutes. Easier to do on my phone, or even my Kindle. Plus, the cheap qualities of mass market paperbacks really shone through on this one. Tiny text, lousy ink, and a not-so-great binding that was slightly warped to boot. I was always afraid that if I bent the cover too far, the binding would break and snap in half. It wasn't a particularly pleasant "tactile experience," as the critics of ebooks would say in defense of the printed page.

Having enough of this, I checked Inkmesh to see if there were any electronic versions available, and found the link above to Baen's webscriptions, where I was able to purchase a DRM-free copy in multiple formats (.mobi for the Kindle, .epub for the iPhone, .rtf for archive purposes) for just $5.

And it worked out great, for the most part. I finally finished the book, didn't I?