Pistols at Down: on Touché: The Duel in Literature

My review in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

FEW SOCIAL PRACTICES now seem more antiquated than the formal duel by swords or pistols. The so-called “judicial duel” became widely practiced in Europe in the early Middle Ages, influenced by Homeric and other Classical accounts of single combat, and survived more or less intact for centuries. Over the same span, duels appeared endlessly in stories, paintings, poems, and novels. Duels seem “particularly hospitable to literature,” John Leigh proposes in his lucid and thorough new study, because they are “self-contained dramas”; “the most deliberate, self-conscious of acts,” the “ritualized combat” of a duel stipulates a consistent pattern of word and deed….

Smashing things up in John Boorman’s 1987 *Hope and Glory*

We watched John Boorman’s wonderful 1987 Hope and Glory, which I somehow had never managed to see. Based on Boorman’s experiences as a kid during the Blitz in London, it’s about 8 y.o Bill Rowan and his family, mostly told from Bill’s POV. Dad goes off to war in 1939, leaving mom at home with Bill and his younger and older sister, dodging bombs & shrapnel, constantly having to wake up in the middle of the night to cower in the bomb shelter, but managing to have quite a lot of fun.

Pauline Kael commented of the film, “It’s hard to believe that a great comedy could be made of the Blitz but John Boorman has done it.” It’s filled with amazingly vivid, funny depictions of the young kids running riot amid the rubble of their neighborhood. A group of the younger boys, unsupervised, form a gang dedicated to smashing whatever has been left undestroyed. This scene shows Bill’s induction (he has to utter the phrase, “Bugger off you bloody sod”).  At 3:10 in this clip the cherubic gang leader tells Bill, “OK, you’re in… Let’s smash things up!” Cut to joyful jazz music as they go nuts in the incredibly dangerous-looking ruins of a house they’ve adopted as headquarters. Talk about free-range kids. (Kael observes of the film, “the war has its horrors, but it also destroys much of what the genteel poor like Grace Rowan (Sarah Miles) have barely been able to acknowledge they wanted destroyed.”)

In its representation of anarchic kids’ exuberant destruction, this reminds me of the incredible Holloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Also of Deputy and the other rock-throwing “hideous small boys,” who “don’t have an object,” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Durdles and Jasper …are also addressed by some half-dozen other hideous small boys—whether twopenny lodgers or followers or hangers-on of such, who knows!—who, as if attracted by some carrion-scent of Deputy in the air, start into the moonlight, as vultures might gather in the desert, and instantly fall to stoning him and one another.

‘Stop, you young brutes,’ cries Jasper angrily, ‘and let us go by!’

This remonstrance being received with yells and flying stones, according to a custom of late years comfortably established among the police regulations of our English communities, where Christians are stoned on all sides, as if the days of Saint Stephen were revived, Durdles remarks of the young savages, with some point, that ‘they haven’t got an object,’ and leads the way down the lane.

Maggie Nelson on the Pleasure of Walking Out

I’m enjoying Maggie Nelson’s smart, probing The Art of Cruelty. Here’s one passage:

[I]n my own life, I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out on something. After all, you walk out when you realize that whatever it is you’re watching, for whatever reason, simply isn’t working. Walking out reminds you that while submission can at times be a pleasure, a risk worth taking, you don’t have to manufacture consent whenever or wherever it is nominally in demand…. The fact that the exit door isn’t barred, the feel of the fresh air on your face when you open it — all this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet, and to practice aversion towards that which does not. These are freedoms that life does not always grant…

This brings to mind a trip with friends years ago to see a play, a student production almost an hour out of town. I thought I might be the only one hating it, and certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone else to leave at intermission, but thought I owed it to myself at least to hint vaguely at the possibility of cutting our losses and leaving. Seconds later we were all on our way out. Yes, “the feel of the fresh air on your face” when you walk out of that theater– she really captures it.

This also reminds me why I found so silly the premise of this recent piece– here it is, “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through—and so does literature.” Nope, completely wrong, the freedom to toss a book aside — even if capriciously, even if for no good reason — is basic to the pleasure of reading.

The Robot Unicorn

We recently came across this almost-forgotten testament to my wife’s awesomely resourceful & creative parenting.

When our kids were approaching their fourth birthday, over seven years ago, one of them (I forget which) announced that what she most wanted for her birthday was a “robot unicorn.”

We puzzled over this for a while and I planned to move on to other, more possible gifts.

But Sarah got hold of this small plush unicorn, and sewed on green and red “Go” and “Stop” buttons. (She may have asked what would make a unicorn a “robot unicorn,” and gotten “buttons” as an answer.)

The gift was a hit and became a beloved object.

Sometimes kids can be easier to please than you expect…

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The Penises of Southdowns Drive

I decided I wanted to document the penises of Southdowns Drive.

These graffiti appeared sometime maybe last summer. I found them amusing and somewhat charming, at least as far as penis graffiti go, and imagined they’d be removed or covered up pretty quickly, considering how many parents walk this route with young kids on the way to and from the park.

But nope, still there. Not sure if this should be attributed more to apathy and a lack of city responsiveness, or to a high degree of liberal tolerance on the community’s part.

Check ’em out next time you’re on Southdowns, just East of Bryan Park.

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The 10 Saddest Sentences in Donald Antrim’s *The Emerald Light in the Air*

(Although I could have chosen alternatives.) I liked this book, a collection of stories, quite a bit but did find it somewhat devastating in overall effect.  It is also sometimes quite funny, however.  “Another Manhattan,” which I also remember reading in The New Yorker at the Western Skateland roller rink a year or two ago as my kids skated, is probably my favorite.

“Christopher… confided in a whisper that he had never been anything but a goddamn disappointment to his family, and that no matter how hard he tried, he’d never escaped or really ever understood his role as a clown, as a fool, but that he’d finally made up his mind that it didn’t matter, that their opinion of him wasn’t going to bother him forever.”  (“Solace.”)

“They had lied to each other so many times, over so many years, that deceptions between them had become commonplace, practically repetitive” (“Another Manhattan”).

“Back when he was in the hospital — in the past six months, there had been three emergency-room visits and two locked-ward admissions — he had spent day after day lying on a mattress, crying.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“On the mattress, shattered and sobbing over Kate and their messed-up love, he’d lain crushed.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“Margaret, one of the night nurses, met him on the ward.  She said, ‘Hello, Mr. Davis. You’re back with us again, I see.’ Then she showed him to a room of his own.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“She’d be afraid of him pulling her back, afraid of going childless all her life and winding up a widow, like her mother, running from place to place and never stopping.” (“He Knew.”)

“He’d felt it in his temple.  It was, somehow, both imaginary and real, a beckoning, an itch, a need for a bullet.” (“The Emerald Light in the Air.”)

“He remembered how the misery had bowed him over: He’d gone everywhere, in those days, with his head down, barreling rigidly forward, compounding the pain by moving at all; but when he touched himself to find where the pain was coming from he couldn’t find the spot.” (“The Emerald Light in the Air.”)

p.s. Here’s a beautiful profile of Antrim in the NYT Magazine by the great John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Traumatizing the Kids w/ Late Hitchcock

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from Morenoirposters.com

I may have traumatized the kids with my Family Movie Night selection, Hitchcock’s 1964 Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery film, Marnie.  This was made a year after The Birds (also with Hedren, of course) and contains some elements recognizable from that, as well as from Psycho (twisted secret related to mommy) and Vertigo (ice-cool blond in uncanny duplicate).

It seems that some make claims for Marnie as a late, under-recognized German-Expressionist-styled minor Hitch masterpiece but I would not go that far; for the first 45 minutes or so I loved it but by the end I found it too long and very creepy– partly but not only in the right ways. Hedren plays Marnie, a cool blond kleptomaniac (Grace Kelly turned down the role) who ends up more or less blackmailed into marriage by Connery’s character. There’s something wrong with Marnie; she can’t stop compulsively stealing, and she can’t bear to be touched by a man (not that Hitchcock allows her to stay celibate).

Finally we get a return to/ reenactment of her primal scene, involving her creepy mother (shades of Psycho here), and an exorcism of her demons that reveals the source of her phobic reaction to certain stimuli, including the color red (gee what could that be about?) and the sound of knocking on the door.

Slight spoilers from here on: in the big reveal, as I sat there with my 10-year-olds, it was seeming conceivable that it would turn out that the movie’s repressed secret was that the 6-year old Marnie had been forced to prostitute herself to her mother’s clients.  Now that would have been maybe a 2000s David Lynch movie, not a 1960s Hitchcock movie… But you could tell that Hitchcock would’ve loved to do it that way if he felt he could have gotten away with it.

Re: Marnie’s line in the poster, “I’m just some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped,” Connery’s character alludes early on to a jaguarundi he captured and raised as a pet, but disappointingly, this is last we hear about it; I was hoping for a noir Bringing Up Baby angle there.

Trigger warnings for jaguarundi, horseback accidents, fireplace pokers, wet phallic tree branches crashing through windows, marital rape, and childhood quasi-molestation scenes.

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