Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

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First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

Dracula disappointed me

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Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

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Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

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We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

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The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

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Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.

When a much-lauded classic disappoints you

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the-public-enemy-1931

Since finally reaching my long-anticipated goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve (and now at 1,113), I decided to focus more on early sound films. A lot of the classic era sound films I’d seen were comedies, not so many dramas and normal films. I knew that was a gap in most dire need of filling. I also had the idea to spend the year getting acquainted with James Cagney’s films. (He’s the one in the middle, with the kind of feline features, if you don’t know.) As it turned out, this is his 30th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so it was really hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) at work yet again.

The Public Enemy, released 23 April 1931, was Cagney’s breakthrough role, and first starring role. Originally, he was cast as secondary lead Matt Doyle instead of anti-hero Tom Powers, but director William Wellman thought Cagney would be better in the lead, and thus switched the two actors. However, the scenes of the characters’ childhoods weren’t reshot, so the child actors still resemble the opposite characters.

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The film is based upon the unpublished novel Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, and based upon Al Capone’s real-life gang rivalries in Chicago. The film too is set in Chicago, and spans the years 1909 to the Prohibition era.

The legendary Louise Brooks was offered the role of Gwen Allen, but turned it down. This was a period when she was turning down a lot of choice projects, for reasons no one could understand. Her film career was pretty much over after this. The role instead went to Jean Harlow, who wasn’t yet 20 years old when the film was being shot.

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This is an episodic story, without much of a real plot I could discern. Tom Powers and his best friend Matt Doyle are scalawags and petty thieves from childhood, while Tom’s older brother Mike is a bit of a goody-two-shoes who wants no part of their delinquent lifestyle. All the while, Tom manages to keep his overindulgent mother in the dark about their seedy goings-on.

During WWI, Mike enlists in the Marines, and Tom and Matt become even deeper enmeshed in a life of crime. When Prohibition hits, they become very successful bootleggers. Mike is really upset to discover their wealth doesn’t come from politics after all, but utterly fails in his attempts to force them to give up their bootlegging.

While all this is going on, Tom and Matt run afoul of a rival gang, and also acquire girlfriends. Matt’s girlfriend is Mamie, whom he eventually marries. One of Tom’s girlfriends is the abovementioned Gwen Allen. He also dates Kitty, the victim of the famous grapefruit in the face scene.

I’d rate this film a 3 out of 5. It’s not great or awful, but I just didn’t see anything special about it. It was paced very slowly, and didn’t have a very structured plot. As much as I love episodic stories, I have to know when the real meat of the story has begun, instead of seeing a lot of stops and starts. There also needs to be some kind of arc and structure for the storyline to be hung on, and it must be paced well. To boot, the characters never really came alive for me.

It’s also not a particularly memorable film. Other than the famous grapefruit scene and the shocking finale (which I won’t spoil), nothing really stands out. I far prefer Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar as an early gangster film. That film has a more compelling storyline, better-developed characters, and better pacing. In The Public Enemy, a lot of scenes seemed to just end in media res, and didn’t add anything to either the overall storyline or character development.

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I’d recommend this film only for its reputation value, and an example of one of Warner Brothers’ classic gangster films. It’s one of those films which you’re kind of expected to see if you care about film history, but not necessarily one you’re going to love. And even in a mediocre, overrated film like this, Cagney still has incredible charisma. The viewer is compelled to pay attention to him no matter what. (He was also a fellow shorty!)

I get the feeling a lot of folks gush all over films, books, and albums which have historically received a lot of praise because they feel like they’re expected to love it too. Anyone who doesn’t give an automatic 5 stars and recite the same mindless laudatory phrases is shouted down as a hater, and accused of having immature and pedestrian tastes. Sometimes the crowd is wrong.

The most overrated album of all time

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Just because you like an album doesn’t mean you’re immune from looking at it with critical eyes. Sgt. Pepper is hands-down the singularly most overrated album of all time, bar absolute none. I’m glad more people have come to see it as more hype than substance. The review I gave it at my old Angelfire site was a generous 4 stars, but if I’m being perfectly honest about its faults, I’d downgrade it to 3.5 stars.

There’s FAR too much filler on this album for it to seriously be considered “the greatest album of all time.” Be honest. Are songs like “Fixing a Hole,” “Lovely Rita” (after which I named my fourth journal), “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in the same league as songs like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Come Together,” “In My Life,” “Something,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” and “Eleanor Rigby”? “Mr. Kite” and “Good Morning” in particular are throwaways, which John called out as garbage.

You cannot say this is their strongest, best, most classic album. Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Abbey Road are all way stronger and more substantial than this. Some people criticise AR for how most of Side Two consists of song snippets instead of complete songs, but it wouldn’t be the same album without all those mini-songs blending into one another. It just works for that album. Pepper is extremely disjointed, no cohesive style. Again, some people have leveled that same criticism at The White Album, but that also fits that particular album. Each Beatle has songs in his own style, and it sounds like a solo showcase for each instead of a unified band effort.

People seem to mindlessly heap praises on Pepper for superficial reasons, not because the music is awesome and stands up well to the test of time. It’s got one of the greatest, most iconic album covers of all time, and really helped along the shift from generic band pictures to real artwork. It was also the first widely-known album to include lyrics, and it also came with paper dolls of The Beatles in their psychedelic outfits. All of which are awesome, but have nothing to do with the actual musical content.

There’s an undeniably trippy, psychedelic sound, and perhaps it sounds even better on acid. (Not that I’m going to try psychedelic drugs!) There are layers of sound, new types of sounds, and innovative use of instruments. Again, that has more to do with surface things, NOT the actual musical substance. Coating dross with layers of gold doesn’t change the fact that there’s still dross lurking underneath. As much as I love Sixties music, some songs of this era do sound dated now, because of the overly psychedelic, experimental sounds. They can certainly be enjoyed as period pieces, but let’s not kid ourselves that they’re timeless classics.

The “concept” is laughably simplistic and unoriginal, a band giving a concert. How long did it take to come up with that one, Paul? This “concept” only lasts two songs anyway, and then comes back in the brief “Reprise” near the end. There are far superior concept albums from this era, like The Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake and The Who Sell Out. (Seriously, if you love Sixties music, I highly recommend The Small Faces. Don’t let U.S. oldies stations fool you into believing their only song was “Itchycoo Park.”)

These songs just don’t beg to be listened to over and over again, aren’t the types of songs you particularly need to listen to to understand The Beatles. Looking at it honestly, the strongest tracks are “She’s Leaving Home,” “A Day in the Life” (a timeless classic), “Getting Better,” and “Within You Without You.” A lot of people like to crap all over George’s contribution, but I’ve always adored it. When I first heard it at age 14, it were like an invisible door to another world opened up and expanded my mind, showed me all these possibilities, introduced me to Indian music. “With a Little Help from My Friends” is also fun, obviously one of Ringo’s most famous Beatles’ songs.

Ultimately, it smacks of drug-induced overindulgence, elevating the art aspect of music over the actual music aspect. Granted, I’d rather listen to The Beatles’ filler songs than the filler songs of most modern artists, but it’s still more filler than substance. I’d recommend Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, The White Album, Magical Mystery Tour, and even A Hard Day’s Night (my favourite album from their early period) over this bloated exercise in excess.

Why I disliked The Great Gatsby

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(This review was originally written for my old Angelfire site, probably sometime in 2004. I stand by my less than glowing opinion of this overrated “classic.”)

3 stars

Even though I’m giving this one the exact same rating as Tender Is the Night, overall I enjoyed Tender better and found it more convincing. (It doesn’t take away my issues with how it didn’t delve really deeply into the characters’ motivations, but at least we had a better idea in that book.)

I did like this book, though it was one of those books that you consider good and enjoyable, but not great (no pun intended). I’m far beyond the point I was in the past, where I automatically considered a book a classic just because a bunch of English teachers and some literary critics with more brains than sense have drilled it into the masses’ heads that it’s a classic.

After choking down A Farewell to Arms and hearing that most of his other books aren’t much better, if not just as boring and undeveloped, I’ve come to the conclusion that that “literary giant” too is overrated. What, some bigwigs proclaim it a classic and it takes away your critical thinking skills as well as the fact that it’s still badly-written, leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and lacks credible motivation for the actions of the cardboard characters? Though certainly I can see that Fitzgerald was a far superior writer to that misogynistic suicide Hemingway.

I really loved the descriptions of life and high society in the Twenties, though it didn’t delve as deeply into them as I’d hoped. I guess I need to read a longer book on this era to get all the great details about bootlegging, flappers, movies, fashion, social movements, etc. Though what was there was very good, and the prose is lovely. That’s not what I have a problem with in this book, this so-called “classic.”

First of all, who the hell is this bland Nick Carraway who’s narrating the piece? Why was he chosen? He doesn’t even do anything really important! Sure, he’s Daisy’s second-cousin once-removed and a college buddy of her husband’s, but other than that, why is he even there? It would’ve been better with third-person narration.

The title character didn’t seem all that great to me, and his role wasn’t as big as I’d expected. Just some self-made tycoon who throws lavish nightly parties due to his obsession with Nick’s cousin, hoping against hope she’ll attend one of his many parties despite the fact that they were involved five years ago and she married another man because she didn’t want to wait for him to come home from the Great War. And his beautiful house is right across the way from hers.

Can we say obsessed? She jilted you, and if she really didn’t love her husband, she never would’ve walked down the aisle, or she would’ve left him as soon as her real love came home. Gatsby made all this money in the hopes that Daisy would want him again if he were a rich man, since she rejected him because he didn’t have enough money.

Oh yes, and it’s perfectly understandable that as soon as they finally meet again, they become instantly just as close and loving as they were five years ago. I’d believe it if they’d been separated and been thinking of nothing but one another, but come on, Daisy got married! It’s not like they’re Penelope and Odysseus, apart for years yet stayed faithful despite the lengthy separation. (And yes, I know Odysseus was off banging other women after the Trojan War ended, such as Circe, but supposedly he was always true to her in his heart and not his phallus.)

Daisy’s husband is incredibly stupid when he takes Nick to meet his mistress, the wife of their friend George Wilson. And of course, before long everyone has found out about these seedy affairs, and things get really really messy. Too messy too quickly.

It would’ve been so more dramatic and believable had the events that follow taken place over a longer period of time. It would’ve made for some great whodunnits, but unfortunately, they’re all resolved way too quickly, and we don’t get any depth nor prolonged mystery. There should’ve been like another hundred pages to try to figure out whodunnit in each of these mysterious tragedies.

Who wants everything handed to him or her on a neat little platter instead of trying to figure the answers out on one’s own? The conclusion leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth and doesn’t really resolve anything, like the ending of Doctor Zhivágo or Tender Is the Night, for example.

There are also some anti-Semitic and quite racist overtones, like in the description of Meyer Wolfshiem and Tom Buchanan’s racist diatribe, about how Nordic types are the “master” race, which never goes unchallenged. It’s also interesting to note that there’s a woman named Jordan in this book, years before it was trendy to give girls very masculine names. Of course, she comes from high society, and it was probably done because it was a family name, not because it was trendy or because the parents thought it was a girls’ name simply because the name had been so taken over by girls that people didn’t know it was originally only for boys. But I digress.

It has its moments, but the ending sucks and ultimately we’re left with too many unanswered questions and implausible motivations. And who would guess that the eyes of the mysterious Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are actually the large eyes on a billboard? I had no idea until I’d finished the book and saw it pointed out. And these eyes are supposed to symbolise…?