William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.

 

1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie


Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

 Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.

 

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Review of “The Lady of Situations”, Stephen Dedman, SF Site 2011

Original here. Another of my SF Site reviews of Ticonderoga Publications books after this and this.  As with “Ghost Seas”, I recall greatly enjoying the book at the time, yet have forgotten most about it. So my enthusiasm here is a sort of archival one, as well as one redolent of the pleasure of getting books for free, a pleasure which to some degree deforms a reviewer’s art. Phrases likely “hugely accomplished” hint at this….

lady of sit

The Lady of Situations is a hugely accomplished short story collection from one of Australia’s premier science fiction writers. Originally published in 2009, this beautifully produced edition from Ticonderoga Press, illustrates the range of his work.

The stories remind me of the story collections of other authors published by Ticonderoga and reviewed by myself on this site, Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain and Steven Utley’s Ghost Seas. There is the same range and sense of controlled exuberance. There is the same disregard for easy genre categorisations. For instance, the title story is pretty much a mainstream literary piece about a lady with an eidetic memory, while the immediately following “Ever Seen By Waking Eyes” is a vampiric twist on Lewis Carroll’s much-analysed and much-debated interest in young girls. Two very different “genres,” yet both have the same tone and emotional impact, and share a concern with the horrific realities of child sexual abuse.

“The Lady of Situations” is a good example of Dedman’s story telling technique. Essentially it is a narrative told by a character within a fictional framing vignette. This kind of technique reminds me of the Marlow of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, and allows the writer in an unforced, even rather traditionalistic way, to allow a character to show their revealing elisions and hesitancies, with a group of listeners whose reactions and preoccupations reflect on and deepen the story itself. It is a technique which can have radical narrative implications; done badly it can just seem arbitrary and pointless, done well it profoundly alters our reading. “The Lady of Situations” will reward study by writers themselves as rich example of the type.

Dedman’s spins on the alternate history format — “Amendment,” with Lee Harvey Oswald working at a Texan sci-fi convention, and “The Godfather Paradox,” which brings together Alan Turing, the Mafia, and time travel — are particularly well done. Too many alternate history stories simply have a twist on history as we know it, and that’s all. The secret of any story is that through embodied action, some kind of reaction — usually emotionally, but it can be intellectual or even visceral — is evoked in the reader that is stronger than the explicit content of the words themselves.

The book has a witty introduction-in-dialogue by Sean Williams and Mark Radium, which manages to say many acute things about Dedman’s prose along with various gross out jokes. There are various themes and tropes that recur, and Williams and Radium identify many — but the real strength of Dedman’s work is a power far beyond didacticism. Dedman’s stories have an evocative life beyond what is simply written. His style — engaging, lucid, never obscure but nevertheless allusive and richly evocative — is perfectly suited to a range of themes, genre tropes and structures. All these stories insinuate themselves into your consciousness slyly and irrevocably. Someone once wrote that the cinema of Stanley Kubrick “is not about things, it is things,” and something similar could be said about The Lady of Situations.

Review of “Love in Vain”, Lewis Shiner, SF Site 2010

Another Ticonderoga Publications review, following the review of “Ghost Seas” by Steven Utley of the prior post, here is a review of Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain. Lewis Shiner  is an interesting writer – I will post my review of his “Dark Tangos” here also at some point. As you can see, a slight tendency to tendentious and unsubtle “allegory” marred one story, but that is pretty reasonable odds.

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Ticonderoga Publications have produced a beautiful limited edition paperback of Lewis Shiner’s 1997 collection. These are great stories, ranging over genres and locations with admirable disdain for the artificial boundaries that disfigure literature. To use one of the great clichés, there is something for everyone. More accurately, there are multiple stories to suit multiple tastes.

There are some wonderful fragments (or, if you prefer, “short shorts”) such as “Oz,” in which the lives of two villains, a pantomime pop culture villain and a real one (or, possibly, history’s greatest patsy), intersect. Similarly, “Mystery Train” takes an icon of rock and roll and puts a strangely horrific slipstream spin on him. For my money, the worst problem that writing about popular music faces is taking itself too seriously, putting a portentous spin on every aspect of itself, and forgetting the excitement, menace and atmosphere of the best popular music. Shiner’s prose — in a mysterious, ineffable way — captures the sinuous shimmering strangeness of rock at its most expressive and evocative. Reading these stories, I couldn’t get a remix of the Swiss band Young Gods’ song “Child in the Tree” out of my mind.

The “straight” stories are as well-observed, and as thought-provoking as anything else here. For instance, “Dirty Work,” the story of a down-on-his-luck man who is forced to take a job for a former high school classmate which involves tailing a rape victim, is a searing and sad account of male brutality and a decent man who tries, ineptly, to make amends. “Castles in The Sand” is a sweet snapshot of a mismatched couple at the beach — if it was a song, it would be The Mamas And Papas juddering version of “Dream a Little Dream.” There are also two pictures of father-son relationships — the intergenerational rivalry of “Match” and the casually poignant “Flagstaff.”

Then there are the historical stories, some of which are overtly science fiction, such as the portrayal of Nicola Tesla as Promethean magus in “White City,” and some of which are less so, such as the proto-Marxism of the pirate Jean Laffite in “Gold.” The most haunting stories are “Dirty Work,” again a straight story in which a down-on-his-luck family man takes a job from a former high school friend, now a successful-seeming lawyer, tailing a rape victim. The lawyer is defending the alleged rapist, and the narrator — a decent man trying to make a living — is immersed in a world of moral dilemmas. “Love In Vain,” a precursor of the Hannibal Lector/Dexter meme of a serial killer who “helps” the authorities, except this time the killer tells the police where to find the remains of victims he couldn’t possibly have killed — because the cases are entirely made up.

Shiner is able to create an atmosphere and to evoke a tone of voice that suits each of the disparate settings of his stories. This is a masterful collection, with hardly a bum note (Ok, I’ll admit it, there was one story that left me cold — the parable “The Tale of Mark the Bunny” which by my reckoning is trite and facile, but there you go) and one which I highly recommend.

Review of “Ghost Seas”, Steven Utley, SF Site, 2010

Original here

I reviewed a slew of books from Australia’s Ticonderoga publications around the early 2010s, for the SF Site. All were at the very least interesting, beautifully produced books. Re-reading this review now, it does convey that I enjoyed the read although I must also confess I didn’t recall much of Ghost Seas until prompted by the review.

ghostseas

 

Ghost Seas

Steve Utley

 

A review by Seamus Sweeney

 

 

 

Steven Utley has been described (by Gardner Dozois) as possibly “the most under-rated science fiction writer alive.” With Bruce Sterling, Howard Waldrop and Lisa Tuttle, he helped form the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop in Austin in the 70s. The prolific contributions between these authors lead to, amongst other things, the first stirrings of steampunk. Utley took something of a hiatus from science fiction as the 70s ended, pursuing other interests, only to resume in the later 80s. Perhaps this hiatus helped secure his status as a self-described “internationally unknown author.” On the one hand, it is richly undeserved — Steven Utley should be as famous (and rich) as anyone else. On the other, there is a certain pleasure in discovering an author unknown to one who induces the literary version of love at first sight.

 

The eponymous opening story of this brilliant collection is a haunting tale of the West Texas sands, a strange triangle between a dementing (but rich) old man, his apparently guileless nephew, and the nephew’s young wife. This story was reminiscent of all those J.G. Ballard stories and novels set in imagined landscapes that powerfully reflect mindscapes. The exotic and the eerie is a mirror of ourselves. For me, reading this entire collection was an exhilarating experience that brought me back to the excitement of discovering Ballard’s short story collections in Dublin Central Library as a young teenager.

 

There is not a weak, forgettable story among these tales. Even more impressive is the range of Utley’s prose — we have outright sci-fi, slipstream, alternate history, “straight” history, outer space, inner space, a dream Texas, a real Texas. All these worlds are created and explored in an utterly absorbing manner. From the hilarious slice of space opera “Upstart” to the alternate historical fragment “Look Away” to the time travel glitch “Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael,” each story describes a world perfectly.

 

Another highlight is the palaeontologist versus creationist murder mystery “The Dinosaur Season.” With humour and sympathy, Utley captures the cultural clash between the scientists and the local law enforcement very well. The long historical story “The Electricity of Heaven,” in which a venal, pompous newspaper editor experiences the last days of Confederate Richmond, was for me the collection’s centrepiece. “The Electricity of Heaven” is a straight historical fiction, and yet one does not notice the distinctions in this collection.

 

Writing an unreservedly enthusiastic review that is both interesting and avoids repetitive use of superlatives is actually quite difficult. So at this point I will bow out and simply encourage those who have not yet encountered these stories to acquire this fine edition from Ticonderoga Press.

Review of Fugitive Minds, Antonio Melechi, Nthposition 2005

This review, unlike that of“Old Friends”, now seems rather dated. Not because of the book (which I would like to re-read) but the tone, simultneously bombastically magisterial in the opening paragraphs and tellingly naive (I have now heard of the normalisation of hearing voices – indeed it is more or less mainstream)

fugitive minds

 

There are two tendencies in popular science, particularly popular psychology and neuroscience. One could be called reductionistic. We are assailed by books claiming that “we” are “just” collections of neurons, or idiot machines to reproduce our DNA, or somesuch. Books touted to “explain”, finally and definitively, why we are the way we are. The other is the perpetually chippy and confrontational, content not merely to propound a sweeping explanation for everything but to dismiss as absurd, stupid or downright evil all alternatives.

The regrettable proliferation of inverted commas in the last above paragraph perhaps indicate how these books rub off my own taste and temperament rather than objective critical opinion, but it is a pity that popular science writers seem less and less keen simply to explain and illustrate, rather than hector and hold forth.

The fly jacket tries to set this up as Antonio Melechi versus the monstrous regiment of materialist biological psychologist and psychiatrists: he “argues that this materialist vision of the human mind and behaviour promises more than it can deliver.” This is true, but on one level misrepresents the book. Melechi is refreshingly undogmatic, and while his inclination is obviously to champion the importance of cultural factors in twilight states, this is no aggressive polemic. The emphasis is on the interplay of cultural and biological factors, and Melechi’s stress on the cultural side is not just a reflection of his own background but a corrective to the prevalent tendency to champion the biological side. But he is no blind foe of any application of biochemistry and neuroscience to psychology.

For instance, in the essay on Near Death Experiences, Melechi concludes that “many of the elements that are ‘universally’ characteristic of the NDE, from geometric forms to the ‘life review’, do not require metaphysical explanation; they are best explained in terms of a secret heritage called ‘the body.'” William James, far more than Freud, is the presiding spirit of these essays. In the introduction Melechi writes of James’ scorn for the 19th century materialists who eagerly diagnosed saints and mystics as epileptics and hysterics. This is Melechi’s attitude too, one that is properly sceptical of wild claims but never outright dismissive.

He writes, for instance, on the possible relationship between Lewis Carroll’s history of migraines and the genesis of Alice in Wonderland. The shrinking and expanding, the “curiouser and curiouser” phenomena that Alice encounters, all echo descriptions of a migraine aura. Yet Melechi is aware of the limits of this approach; writing on the temptation to see Jabberwocky as influenced by the migrainous jumbling of words, he deflates the idea by observing that the poem was intended as a parody of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on hearing voices. I was unfamiliar with the work of Marcus Romme, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maastricht (what would Europhobes make of that, I wonder), who campaigns for the normalisation of hearing voices, and the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the “bicameral mind” is purported to underly the guidance by voices of the Old Testament Prophets, the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey and other ancient texts. The later discussion of the work of John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist of whom Melechi writes “of late, [he] has been increasingly impervious to criticism and debate. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which has been less than even-handed in its criticisms of Mack, should take some responsibility for his exile” should warn one of the dangers of accepting authorities whether they be tenured professor at Harvard or self-appointed police of the borders of science.

The book is not just concerned with psychopathology (or perceived psychopathology) There is much on the twilight states that we all experience – sleep, dreaming – as well as ones which, while not universal, are very common – such as sonambulism and déjà vu. There is much on psychiatric exotica like latah, koro and arctic hysteria, and obsolete psychiatric diagnoses like nostalgia, once a dread disease of migrant workers. It functions best as a collection of essays, very well written and filled with literary and historical references, about various aspects of psychology rather than as some kind of argumentative tract. Even the most rigid biological determinist would surely be able to read these for profit and entertainment.

 

Review of Greatest Uncommon Denominator #6, Summer 2010, SF Site

Following reposting my review of GUD#5 here is my review of GUD#6. Following this I had interesting correspondence with Lou Antonelli and Jim Pascual Agustin

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Following my review of GUD Issue 5, it was a pleasure to receive the next volume to review. This edition of the high-quality, book-sized journal features Dave Migman’s “Flat Worm” on the cover, a darker image than MichaelO’s cover for GUD #5. “Flat Worm” shows what could best be described as a bronze skeleton of what looks like a trilobite with vertebrae (I am very very open to correction on this), on a stony background.

This cover image sets the tone for a somewhat darker collection this time. There seems to be a lot more poems (of higher quality generally, I especially liked Jim Pascual Agustin’s “Sand Clings To Me Toes, Daddy” with its capturing of one of those moments in childhood that are both magical and sad, presaging the inevitable passage of time), the stories seem to be longer, and there are none of the short comics of the previous volume. As well as being longer, I detected a darker tone to these stories.

One, Lavie Tidhar’s “The Last Butterfly,” deals with the darkest subject it is possible to tackle in fiction — the holocaust. In the last weeks of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a young girl already forced into premature disillusionment with the world (interesting how anthologies provide counterpoints, in this case with the girl of Agustin’s poem) encounters a mysterious artist amidst the horror.

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “What Happens in Vegas” gives us a succession of points of view of a love quadrangle (of sorts) in a world in which a drug called munin, which induces a sort of Korsakoff syndrome in which memories cannot be laid down, and is used to facilitate orgies. This story is a portrait of a marriage in decline, under the stress of disease and disillusion, as well as an ironically entertaining portrait of the pursuit of controlled irresponsibility.

Lydia Ondrusek’s “Hateful” is another depiction of family life; this time a woman who dreams that those she hates will never die, while those she loves will. This is a touching vignette really of a self-sacrificing mother and her world.

The longest story here is Lou Antonelli’s “Dispatches From the Troubles,” which takes the form of a series of newspaper stories from an alternate history universe in which an American Irish Republic was established in 1850, between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. New York born Eamon de Valera did not return to Ireland as a child but remained in America (as Edward de Valera) and became the universally beloved President of the AIR in the early to mid-twentieth century. There was no partition of Ireland into Free State and Northern Ireland in 1921, but the victorious IRA gave the Loyalist and Unionist communities in Ireland the choice of “the suitcase or the coffin,” leading to mass emigration to the AIR. The mock news stories discuss the descent of the AIR, which has a sizeable Loyalist (or “Orange”) minority, into sectarian strife that in some ways mirrors what happened in Northern Ireland from the late 60s.

It is interesting, as an Irish reader, to encounter this alternate history universe. There are lots of entertainingly tweaked versions of real life figures, from William F. Buckley (a sectarian Catholic rabble rouser here, with his loquacious use of language intact) to “John” Paisley (an Americanised Ian Paisley) and a lot of clever references to real events. I must say however that something about the whole conceit did not ring true; an odd thing to say about an alternate history, but after all one of the tests of good alt history is whether it feels like “this could have happened.” Certainly the ultimate outcome of the story (which I won’t reveal) does not reflect anything that happened in Northern Ireland. There were also some odd references to the Orange community being enthusiasts of “Irish football,” which if it is meant to be Gaelic Football seems unlikely. Perhaps it is some kind of AIR version of gridiron. Antonelli’s correspondents (who include R.W. Apple, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson) make a few solecisms with the real historical record; for instance Apple describes the Battle of the Boyne as “a famous victory over Catholic forces.” As William Of Orange’s supporters included the Pope, and you can’t get more Catholic than that, “Jacobite” would have been more accurate.

In any case, the story is diverting and, as with the previous GUD issue, this is a collection worth reading.

Review of “Blockbuster”, Tom Shone, SAU Blog, February 2005

 

Here is the original. Tom Shone’s big idea seemed more radical in 2005 than it does now –  indeed now it is pretty much mainstream. The triumph of what is still sometimes called pop culture in taking over the commanding heights of cultural discourse has been remarkable. And yet, it has been at the cost of how genuinely popular it is.

Twelve years later, as a father of three, the point about children making their own toys inspired by, for instance, Star Wars – rather than being in thrall to whatever Official Product emerges  – still stands!

 

blockbuster

Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

by Tom Shone

Pp352. Simon and Schuster, 2004

Hardback, £18.99

 

There’s what must be a deep-rooted human need to frame history in terms of easily digestible narratives. For instance, the benighted Dark Ages gave way to the glories of the Renaissance and the freethinking inquiry of the Age of Enlightenment. Subtleties, nuances, inconvenient facts and interpretations – all discarded as we form a smooth narrative of the light overcoming the darkness.

 

Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has become a bestseller by articulating what has become the dominant narrative, to use a post-modernist-sounding phrase, of recent cinematic history. In this account the venal capitalist illusion factory that is Hollywood, was, for a brief glorious sunlit spell in the early seventies, taken over by visionaries who made individual, witty, personal films. Then Jaws and Star Wars happened, and the golden era ended. Vapid blockbusters and movies aimed at adolescents of all ages were churned out by the studios.

 

The book Blockbuster could be called Shone Contra Biskind – indeed the subtitle refers not only to Dr Strangelove but also to Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the 50s. For Tom Shone the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars was not the end of cinema, but the beginning. He is bracingly irreverent of the pretensions of the early Seventies, quoting with evident approval the young Robert Zemeckis’ appraisal of Death in Venice as “one of the most boring movies ever made” and filling his work with sideswipes at poseurs suffering through retrospectives of post war Hungarian cinema to achieve some kind of “cool” kudos. For those for whom the words “arthouse” and “independent” threaten boredom and promise pretension rather than any guarantee of quality, this will be an enjoyable read.

 

Shone begins with the young Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis and Cameron, growing up in the suburban sprawl that would be derided by any good Biskindite, beguiled not by films but by TV. Films had become pompous and ponderous, with studio executives believing that treacly, worthy spectacle was the only response to the growth of television. The future prophets of Blockbusterdom all made their own fun, with elaborate science experiments and inventions generally attracting the attention of the local fire department.

 

Shone’s own childhood also features in these early stages. He recalls the shattering impact of Star Wars, and pace the sundry bores who thought the merchandising of the film was the work of wicked manipulative capitalists, shows how it was simply a response to a massive public demand. Shone and his friends made their own Star Wars memorabilia while waiting for slow-footed toy companies to actually make the official toys. So often children are portrayed as passive consumers, tabulae rasae pliable to the suggestions of advertisers and therefore requiring protection from this noxious breed. Shone’s experience would suggest that children are more in control of the market than the market is in control of them.

 

Writing in a witty, conversational style, Shone is nevertheless a shrewd critic whose insights never fail to provoke some thought, some reconsideration of one’s own lazy pseudo-high brow prejudices. He writes on something I’ve often noticed – how there are no positive portrayals of capitalism in Hollywood movies, despite the fact that the studios are all owned by capitalist conglomerates. Here he is on why “quality” critics and academics are usually clueless in writing about genuinely popular movies:

 

It is a congenital defect of critics at the higher end of the brow when faced with appraising popular movies, whose very smoothly oiled efficiency can seem suspect, hence the perennial appearance of Vertigo on Sight and Sound’s list of best ever films: Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.

It turns out that Shone is as nostalgic as Biskind, but his nostalgia is for the early days of the blockbuster boom. Today Variety can blithely refer to a “failed blockbuster”, a phrase that would have been oxymoronic thirty years before. Once, a blockbuster was defined by its box office success. Now a blockbuster is a certain type of spectacle-driven, “event” movie.

 

An interesting feature of Easy Riders, Raging Bull was how little of it was about the films themselves, and how much about deals, about producers, about the business and politics of moviemaking rather than anything about them. This is a continuing strain in highbrow (or rather would-be highbrow) writing about Hollywood. Witness Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood, an initially very enjoyable anthology of writing about Tinseltown that gradually wears thin. There are only so many appalled anecdotes recounted by rather precious writers making mock of the philistinism of Hollywood folk that one can take. And any book ostensibly about Hollywood that contains one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain and pages and pages on Ishtar and the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra is certainly more interested in the attendant tittle-tattle than the films produced by the philistine studio executives et al.

 

Shone, unlike Biskind, actually discusses the movies he adores as movies. Or rather he does at the start of his tome. After E.T. there is a noticeable change in tone. We read more and more about the producers and their deals, and less about the end product of all this effort. Shone is as appalled as any Biskindite at a world in which widely hated films like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix Reloaded, disliked even by fanatics of the “franchise” they are part of, take enormous sums at the box office and ascend the ranks of all-time highest grossing movies.

 

For a place always portrayed as in thrall to profit at all costs, money doesn’t matter in Hollywood, or rather it matters hugely but not in the way one expects. Rob Long, one of the writing team of Cheers who later documented his absurd adventures in Tinseltown in Conversations With My Agent, wrote of the “Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics”, the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.

 

Following from that point, one can discern a more general point about artistic creation of any kind from this book. George Lucas griped that the original Star Wars featured only 50% of what he wanted to achieve, and was proud that his vastly increased clout allowed him The Phantom Menace to meet 90% this target.

 

Faced with the amazingly insipid films that were the recent instalments in the Star Wars “franchise”, who could claim that advances in technology or in the power of directors have improved filmmaking? Computers have made special effects so ubiquitous that there’s nothing special about them anymore. The Matrix sequels also support the contention that, contrary to the widespread prejudice against “the suits” cramping the creative vision of directors, directors need to have something or someone to rein in their extravagances.

 

Spielberg, too, later admitted that Jaws would have been far inferior with the technology of fifteen years later – the frankly ludicrous-looking shark was kept until the right dramatic moment. Shone contrasts this with the first sight of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – a resounding anti-climax as the wonderful technology allows Spielberg to show the creatures in their glory, munching passively in a field. Again and again, bigger does not mean better. Jaws – sprightly, irreverent, even gritty at times – seems closer to Taxi Driver than Jurassic Park, more successful at the box office but much less a part of any collective cultural consciousness (think of the theme from Jaws, and now try to think of the one from Jurassic Park).

 

Jurassic Park’s release coincided with the round of GATT talks that considered European quotas limiting the release of American movies. Shone is strong on the irony of all this, as Hollywood itself was increasingly a trans-national identity. “American movies” were never less American than in the 1990s, as German and Dutch directors, Canadian locations, and money from all over the globe combined to produce the potent blockbusters.

 

The subtitle of the book should perhaps have been something like “The Rise and Fall of the Blockbuster”. Anthony Powell once said of Kingsley Amis that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension”. Anti-pretension for its own sake becomes limiting and confining, just as eccentricity for its own sake is just irritating, and non-conformism for its own sake the worst form of conformism.

 

Tom Shone’s argument is anti-pretension through and through, yet he cannot bring himself to the ultimate pretentious anti-pretension stance and learn to love the Hollywood of Godzilla and The Matrix Reloaded. Blockbuster is an enjoyable, witty guide to the Hollywood mainstream of the last thirty years, and how it has been the most prominent victim of its own extraordinary success