1. This is a movie about Ludwig II of Bavaria. Even if you haven't heard of Ludwig, you've certainly been influenced by him: his castle Neuschwanstein provided the model for Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom and he was a patron of Richard Wagner. I had almost certainly heard of him before, but I was most recently interested in him because I played Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, an FMV adventure game from Sierra.
2. Gabriel Knight is a series of supernatural mysteries. The first one has to do with voodoo and is...problematic, even though the game itself is solid. The Beast Within is less problematic, unless you regard gay-metaphor lycanthropy as problematic.
3. Ludwig is obliquely alluded to in The Waste Land:
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Lake Starnberg is the location where Ludwig died by drowning (possibly? suicide?)--the first of Eliot's deaths by water.
4. Ludwig was also gay--and this, too, ties into The Waste Land in some way that I've not totally unpacked. A few lines later and Eliot introduces hyacinths, named for the male lover of Apollo, and much later Mr. Eugenides will proposition a (male?) narrator with an offer of a weekend at the Metropole. Thus, Ludwig unites three factors (Wagner, drowning, and homosexuality) that are woven throughout Eliot's poem.
5. Visconti's previous movie was Death in Venice, which I've been meaning to watch but haven't quite yet. My understanding is that it also deals with homoerotic desire of some sort and also features a lead who visibly decays onscreen, as Ludwig does here.
6. At any rate, Visconti plays it slow with the revelation of Ludwig's sexual orientation, teasing us at first with the possibility of an unrequited romance with his cousin Elisabeth. However, she notes (with a nice, subtle bit of psychology) that what he really wants is an impossible love; the implication is that he is looking for a woman he can be in love with without needing to go beyond a chaste kiss. Finally, though, Ludwig makes a move on one of his servants and from then on there's no question from him or anyone else (in fact, once we know for certain that he is gay, it seems like everyone in the movie remembers that they always knew).
7. Eventually, Ludwig does try to marry but winds up cancelling and spending his time isolated in his castle[s] with a band of young, handsome male servants. Meanwhile, he slowly decays--his teeth go black, his hair goes wild--while everyone around him stays noticeably the same age (including his younger brother Otto, who never looks much older than nineteen). I could try to make something out of this, like an observation about how we never see people immediately around us getting older, but I think it's more likely that Visconti just didn't care about aging his cast.
8. This movie is long at almost exactly four hours. The Irishman is only 3 1/3. Like The Irishman, the time--once invested--does not seem wasted; the length lulls the viewer into this decadent story about a fairytale prince and his tragic end (does he commit suicide? Or is there something else going on?).
9. Wagner shows up, but he seems often more like a cunning fraud than a genius. I do feel a bit cheated on this score; Ludwig's reputation now rests almost entirely on his castles and his patronage of Wagner, and while neither of these are given a lot of attention, I do rather feel like we should be allowed to experience some of Wagner's genius instead of taking it for granted. Or maybe I just wanted to see some Wagner (I'm going to be watching some Wagner soonish).
10. Ludwig never attempts to solve the mystery of Ludwig's life. Was he mad? Was he a dreamer crushed by a cruel world? Was he a decadent aristocrat? All three? None of the above? You could make a case for each of these based on the evidence in the film. As Ludwig himself observes, he desires to be an enigma even to himself. Ludwig honors that wish.
This past week has been devoted to grading, which is why my 2021 resolution to actually use this website went by the wayside. But I'm back. 2020 was wild, right? I went back to America for a three week vacation and wound up cooling my heels for nine months, which means I got a bit of reading done, some writing (hopefully I'll have more to say about that some time this year), and a whole lot of television watching. I finally saw Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at long last, and yeah, I kind of love that small-town space soap. But today I want to list and comment on some new television I saw this year. Yes, there are spoilers.
Five Shows I Loved
The Plot Against America
HBO had a very good year, with many new shows ranging from very good to excellent. This is on the "excellent" end. Based on Philip Roth's novel, Plot is set in an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president, with disastrous results for American Jews. Since circa-WWII America is kind of my beat (give or take twenty years), I was obviously part of the show's target audience. The show ends more ambiguously than the Roth novel, as befits a show released in an election year that seemed to replicate some of the tensions at work in pre-WWII America.
The New Pope
Technically a second season of The Young Pope (or maybe a sequel series). This show is strange, as might be expected. I loved The Young Pope back when it first landed, and the news of a sequel series featuring John Malkovich excited me more than I can say. And I wasn't disappointed: this show is as weird, disturbing, and hilarious as the original show:
We Are Who We Are
Ok, this is admittedly a mild cheat since I've not seen the last episode, but what I've seen is enough to convince me this show belongs here. Directed by Call Me By Your Name's Luca Guadagnino, We Are Who We Are replicates several of the themes explored in the movie: adolescent sexuality, queer coming-of-age, problematic age gaps.... But where Call Me By Your Name focused sharply on a single narrative, this show spins out four or so different stories--thematically related, but often working independently of each other. The show's centerpiece, however, is Jack Dylan Grazer--previously best known from It and Shazam! Grazer is remarkable: his performance is twitchy and annoying and real. He certainly isn't entirely likeable, but no teenage boy is. It's an extraordinary performance and I'm interested to see what Grazer does next.
Not the 2003 James Brolin tv movie. This is a documentary miniseries from Matt Tyrnauer, the director of Where's My Roy Cohn, which I've not seen, and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, which I have. If you've followed Rick Perlstein's quadrilogy on the rise of right-wing Republicanism in the Twentieth Century, you probably know most of this, since Reagan is a constant presence from nearly the beginning. But the documentary offers the perspective of friends and foes (and offspring) of Ronald Reagan, painting the picture of a tremendously complicated man--which is not to say that it's a friendly portrait. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to come away from this documentary with any conclusion other than that Reagan was a disaster with good PR, making his inclusion in top ten lists of "best presidents" incredibly bemusing.
The Good Lord Bird
This is actually cheating, since it's a 2020 show that I only finished recently, but it has to be on this list because it is very probably the greatest (in the strongest sense of that word) show of last year. It follows the story of John Brown, climaxing in his disastrous raid on Harper's Ferry--a story that hasn't been dramatized on film since, apparently, the 1940 movie Santa Fe Trail, a movie I remember watching as a child chiefly because of Raymond Massey's depiction of Brown:
(Rewatching this clip just now I noticed that Ronald Reagan is George Armstrong Custer in this movie)
The Good Lord Bird is not so pious about Brown as Santa Fe Trail (neither is Santa Fe Trail, frankly, which I vaguely remember as being fairly mixed on the subject), and Ethan Hawke's Brown is not nearly so put-together as Massey's. But in Hawke's portrayal, Brown becomes a sort of divinely-inspired Captain Ahab. It's a powerful performance--and overwhelming one--one that very nearly throws the whole show out of balance (it's also a kind of coming-of-age for the young Henry "Onion" Shackleford--his experience is the one we follow exclusively, so that when he's not around we aren't either--but perhaps we are overwhelmed by Brown because he is overwhelmed by Brown). There are cameos from Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) and Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah), but these figures--no less giants, historically, than Brown--come across as diminished; they are not played with the insane fervor that Hawke pours into his performance. This is unfortunate, because Douglass no less than Brown--and Tubman no less than either--was a towering figure. They will, I suppose, have to wait a little longer before they're given their due onscreen.
(I have not see Harriet yet, so perhaps?)
One Show that Surprised Me
I did not expect much of Perry Mason. Everything I had heard about it--it was a prequel, Mason would be a detective, etc--gave me pause. And some of the interviews with the screenwriters depicted them as perplexed by, or even contemptuous of, the character. So I watched out of a sense of duty, not particularly caring for anything I saw (what's the point of changing Mason's job if the central dynamic of the show is going to stay lawyer-secretary-detective?). And then, halfway through the show, everything clicked. Mason--yes, I admit it, enriched by what we saw before--stepped into his traditional role; his core group coalesced around him, subtly updated (Della is a lesbian, Paul is Black, Hamilton Burger is Della's gay best friend who is angling for the job of DA, of course). Where earlier alterations seemed ham-fisted, these changes worked--mostly because they open up possibilities for storytelling within the traditional framework rather than scrapping the framework altogether. By the last episode I was openly cheering their not-subtle nods toward the first Mason novel. I've rarely been so thoroughly won over by a tv series.
Two Shows that Disappointed Me
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
This is a strange case because I actually was onboard for nearly the entire run of the show. I liked the style, I liked the setting, I liked the characters--all of it. And then the final episode dropped and delivered more or less nothing. I'm disappointed it was canceled, because there's really some potential here. But I'm not surprised.
This one actually hurts a bit. Call it the reverse Perry Mason. I was enthusiastically touting this show for half its run. After all, a Lovecraft-inspired period piece that deals with the Black experience in America (or, let us not be too determinative, one version of the Black experience)--this is not something that comes along every day. And that early run of episodes demonstrated a flexibility and a sense of humor and, yes, a sexiness that made it very appealing viewing. And then--
Look, I'm not insistent that protagonists be likeable or even good people. Making Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) a war criminal was certainly a choice that could work; giving him encounters with the supernatural that predate the show might make nonsense of the first episode, but even that is workable, maybe. The problem is that none of this is even remotely dealt with; it's not like these revelations about Atticus are supposed to change our perception of him. If anything, the episode wants us to forget almost immediately that he's a war criminal because reasons. And it just soured me on the show.
After that episode things get cluttered, anyway. The finale is an incoherent mess that--again--doesn't seem to know exactly what it wants us to feel at a given moment. I really wanted to love this show--and did, for the first half--but it let me down badly.
One Show I Hated
Holy cow, was this show garbage.
The end of the year is typically the point at which I do a quick count of books read for the year and make a kind of pie chart for myself showing how my reading was spread out. That fell through this year, because what was supposed to be a three week visit back to Alabama was 2020ed into a nine month separation from my home base, including my computer and the file on which I keep records of my reading; by the time I thought to make a new file, too much time had passed and so I contented myself with posting (sometimes) brief reviews and star-rankings on Goodreads (Incidentally, the lack of a half-star ranking is one of many reasons Goodreads is infinitely inferior to its movie-oriented counterpart Letterboxd).
Anyway, I'm basically without a convenient way to do much of anything in terms of a summary, so instead I'm going to try and name a few books I read this year that I liked, in no particular order. These aren't all 2020 releases; I think I read maybe three books released in 2020, and only two of them are on this first list. But they're all worth your time.
1. Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
One book from 2020 that I did read was Garth Greenwell's Cleanness. Greenwell is also the author of What Belongs to You, which sits unread on my Kindle. I'll get to it. Anyway, Cleanness is special; Greenwell's prose has been discussed at length here, so I'll let just leave the link there.
Perhaps it's because I read the novel while in America, desperate to get back to my job overseas, but Cleanness really hit home for me. There's all the shmaltzy stuff I could say about humans desperately seeking connection, but more than that I think Greenwell conveys the sense of in-betweenness that I, at least, feel as an American abroad: not quite home in the adopted country, but not not home, if that makes sense. Anyway, Greenwell writes beautifully and that's as good a reason as any to check this one out.
2. Reaganland by Rick Perlstein
Perlstein's whole quadrilogy of books about the evolution of the Right in America should be mandatory reading for anyone who even thinks about opining on contemporary politics. This final (?) book in the set charts the rise and, um, rise of Ronald Reagan--a figure who as recently as the Obama era was popularly thought of as a "great" president, but who was (as Perlstein shows) more or less the preliminary tremors of what would be the Trump era. Pair this with Matt Tyrnauer's The Reagans.
3. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
One of the tasks I set myself this year was to finally read some of James Baldwin's fiction, having long been a fan of his in other capacities and especially of his famous debate with William F. Buckley I wound up reading three: If Beale Street Could Talk, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and this one. Of the three, this was my favorite--in part for some of the reasons Greenwell's book also struck home (this is another novel about queer expatriates, which seems to be a genre unto itself). I'm also taken by how lifelike Baldwin's scenes are. Now, this is going to need some unpacking.
You know how, occasionally, you watch a movie and realize with a shock that the actors are doing something different? You expect actors to be lifelike in a certain way and when they're lifelike in another way there's a delightful kind of thrill (the last couple times I experienced this was watching Twelve Angry Men and then, much later, Jack Dylan Grazer's performance in We Are Who We Are). It's not that you've never seen a good performance, but it's been a while since you've seen one this good in this particular way.
Well. That's Baldwin for me. I think I can modestly say that I read a decent amount of fiction and that some of it is actually good. But very little of it feels natural in the way that, for instance, the first meeting with Giovanni is natural. This is a very special book.
4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Up to now, my experience with Wharton has been limited to a handful of short stories and Ethan Frome, which I read (but didn't particularly enjoy) as part of my prep for writing my dissertation (which became my book). After the upteenth Martin Scorsese Twitter outrage, I decided that, first, I should watch his adaptation of The Age of Innocence but that, second, I should probably read the novel first.
It's good, y'all. The preliminary stuff I heard about it made me think it would be one of those swoony stories of adulterous love--which, kinda?--but it's more than that. It's savagely funny, for one thing (we forget too often, I think, that 19th-and-early-20th C people had sense of humor). It's also meticulously observed and wise.
5. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
I could have put any of the Vidal novels I've read this year; I started out in January with Washington, D.C. and have been working through the Narratives of Empire in order of publication. Vidal is more praised as an essayist than as a novelist, but I think his novels (even his less-successful ones like Myron or Live from Golgotha) more than repay attention. This one is an early effort and one that made him notorious as opposed to merely famous. He revised it substantially later in his career, so the version we have today isn't the one the New York Times refused to review, but it's still very good. To be read in conjunction with Baldwin and Greenwell.
Five more that deserve paragraphs of their own
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany
Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s by George Hutchinson
The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, and the Debate over Race in America by Nicholas Buccola
Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Five that would probably one of these lists except I haven't finished them
The Gallery by John Horne Burns
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941-1942 by William K. Klingaman
The Bright Book of Life by Harold Bloom
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed
Five authors I've neglected but plan to read in the coming year:
One book I may never finish but still keep dipping into and loving:
Hónglóumèng [The Dream of the Red Chamber] by Cao Xueqin
In translation, naturally. I'm picking up the Penguin edition translated by David Hawkes--the plan is to finish a volume and buy the next one until I've done all five. I've worked at it for two years and just finished volume one. This isn't because the book is particularly difficult to read, at least in this translation; Hawkes' prose is deft and funny and keeps things moving at a decent pace. My tardiness is more down to distractions professional and personal (i.e. working on another book/writing articles/reading more in my field, etc and sometimes wanting to have a private life as well). So my pattern has become to lay the book aside for a while and then pick it up and read a couple of chapters. Since the plot proceeds in a fairly loose manner, this isn't an obstacle to understanding what's going on at a given time.
"It was indeed like a medieval plague, transmitted from person to person, but precisely why some were susceptible and others not was no more understood than why at this particular time in history the plague should occur. The Judgement of God was suspected by some; the German high command by others. Many believed that German scientists had poisoned the reservoirs of the western world. The fact that the influenza had surfaced most virulently in Germany was put down either to carelessness or, again, to God's inscrutable judgement. Alarmists declared that many millions would die before the plague had run its course. Even greater alarmists suggested that the plague would end when the last of the human race had expired, burned first by fever, then drowned in pneumonia's tidal wave. All this, and a world war--and in an election year."
I have been--for pleasure and also potentially for scholarship--reading through Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire series. I hope at some point to have enough thoughts to make an essay out of, but for now here's some assorted thoughts:
1. Reading these books in conjunction with finally seeing Veep is an interesting experience; I suspect that there is not so much of a distance between the view of politicians in either work, in spite of one being a [purportedly] serious series of novels and the other being a television comedy. It takes little imagination, for instance, to see Vidal's pudgy, jumpy Theodore Roosevelt interacting with Selina Meyer.
2. I bracketed "purportedly" up there because I'm not convinced these novels are altogether serious. Hollywood opens with William Randolph Hearst breaking a chair and falling to the ground. Empire has Theodore Roosevelt as a comic relief character. Burr suggests that George Washington was somewhat dim. And so on.
3. I liked Lincoln less than most people seem to and I'm liking Hollywood somewhat more than ditto.
4. I like none of them as much as Myra Breckinridge, which I read twice in a row and wrote a [forthcoming] article about.
5. I won't bother trying to rank them right now, but Burr and 1876 are probably going to wind up in my numbers 1 and 2 spots. I also really liked Washington, D.C., which is a weird fit for the series. That said, I've really enjoyed all of them so far (we'll see how The Golden Age goes).
6. It's funny that some people seem to think this series is showing the slow fall away from the ideals of the Republic and the development of American Imperialism (I don't have citations to hand, so perhaps I'm mistaken but it's my impression). If anything, I think the series shows that the purported ideals of the Republic were never very deep to begin with and the leaders were planning empire even from the days of the founders.
Over at Rise Up Daily, I have a new piece on Riverdale. I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on the show since the first season premiered, and finally managed to get them down. So head over there if you’re interested in American mythology, small-town fiction, and trash television.
Well, the cover, at least. My forthcoming ramble around the (literary) American small town has a page on the McFarland website--and a cover! Which I really like, actually. As soon as I have a high-def file, I'll put it up here. Meanwhile, head over to the site for a look. Here's the write-up:
In literature and popular culture, small town America is often idealized as distilling the national spirit. Does the myth of the small town conceal deep-seated reactionary tendencies or does it contain the basis of a national re-imagining?
During the period 1940–1960, America underwent a great shift in self-mythologizing that can be charted through representations of small towns. Authors like Henry Bellamann and Grace Metalious continued the tradition of Sherwood Anderson in showing the small town—by extension, America itself—profoundly warping the souls of its citizens. Meanwhile, Ray Bradbury, Toshio Mori and Ross Lockridge, Jr., sought to identify the small town’s potential for growth, away from the shadows cast by World War II toward a more inclusive, democratic future.
Examined together, these works are key to understanding how mid–20th century America refashioned itself in light of a new postwar order, and how the literary small town both obscures and reveals contradictions at the heart of the American experience.
This is just a quick update to let you know that I have a book in the works at McFarland. The final draft has been submitted and I will post updates here as I get more information.
The topic is representations of small towns in post-WWII fiction. I’ve been working on this project for a while—it grew out of my PhD dissertation—and I’m excited to share it with readers at long last.
In th coming months I will post more and put up some supplemental stuff (mostly movie reviews and discussions of angles that didn’t make it into the book). So stay tuned.
Now that my own book is mostly done (and I will have updates on that eventually, don’t worry), I’m trying to take a breather and actually read some new fiction. This is a challenge for me—has always been, because my interests tend to be past-oriented. The reasons here are multiple, including genre (no one writes the kinds of things I like to read anymore) and residual-snobbery (I still, in the recesses of my brain, wonder why I should read new fiction instead of older stuff—after all, the new won’t last, will it?). So this year I determined to make an effort. I tracked down several coming-in-2018 lists and preordered what amounts to a book a month for the next five months. I had a couple of requirements here:
1] The book has to be new, of course.
2] It has to be a novel; I do fiction professionally and should probably keep abreast of developments here.
3] The novel has to be outside my wheelhouse. So, very little detective fiction, nothing or almost nothing to do with American small towns, etc.
4] I privileged novelists writing from a minority perspective or dealing with settings and themes I don’t normally cover. There are two reasons for this: first, because I need to read some diverse voices after the long string of mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-straight authors I covered for the book. I was beginning to feel constrained and needed to break out of the mold. Second, because if the book is outside my wheelhouse  and covering topics or characters I haven’t done scholarship on , I’ll feel less pressed to make the reading “matter” by writing some piece of academic work on it.
5] The novel should by an American author, because I do American fiction and I want to see what it looks like these days.
6] I plan to log my reactions to the books I read in this project here. Don't expect anything deep. These are almost-totally-off-the-cuff ruminations, and sometimes I'll be speaking more from a place of ignorance than knowledge.
Now, rules are made to be broken—at least [Bette Davis voice] mine are, by me. So, for instance, when David Peace’s new novel hits Kindle, that’s my book for the month, and I don’t care if he doesn’t fulfill  and  and  because Peace is, for my money, among the authentically great living novelists of the day. One day, perhaps, I’ll do some writing on him. He’s certainly in my list of distant-dream-projects, along with Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys (or, at least, the TV series based on it—which you really should watch because it’s excellent).
Speaking of Crystal Boys, the second novel in this project reminded me of Pai’s novel in a number of key respects. (The first novel, James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux, is quite good, of course, but it was part of the project before there was a project, so it barely counts). Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties follows a group of young LGBTQ characters from 1976 through 1993. These are characters who have been rejected by their families. They find themselves hustling on the streets and eventually form the House of Xtravaganza. Which is real.
I won’t repeat the Wikipedia page. I know nothing of the ball scene and won’t pretend to know any more after reading the novel. We’re talking Paris is Burning, here. The characters are, we are told, fictional (except when they’re not) but they do seem to map roughly onto the real-life persons of the House of Xtravaganza. Venus is Venus, for instance, and Angel is Angie. Dorian is Dorian, and is also the only character to narrate her own sections in first person.
This isn’t a happy book. Most of the real-life persons involved died from AIDS (or, in the case of Venus, violence), and the book doesn’t hide that fact (it is dedicated to the people lost to AIDS as well as those killed in the Pulse shooting of 2016). It could be argued to be a joyful book, in that it celebrates the community formed by these outcasts and bears witness to their triumphs as well as their tragedies. In this sense, the novel can be thought of as a tribute to the House of Xtravaganza and to the ball culture in general.
Which is fair, of course, but the question to ask of any novel is whether it works. And I’m honestly not certain. It did make me feel things, which is, from one perspective, the point of fiction. The prose is racy and energetic, musical without falling into that hoary old critical cliché “lyrical” (whenever I see a novel’s prose described as “lyrical,” I tend to run the other direction). The characters are defined and their struggles nobly portrayed (Cassara pointedly refuses to show either actual deaths or the aftermath of deaths, which I assume is the contemporary version of “drawing the veil” over scenes too delicate to be shown).
But, really, I can’t say right now what I think about the novel. It left me with a melancholy that’s characteristic of much good fiction—more than that, it left me with a sadness for these people who lost so much. In that, I suppose, we can say it is good in the same way that all good fiction is good—it succeeded in its task, and it lingers after the last page has been read. And it’s got me finally curious about watching Paris is Burning, so on that level, too, it succeeds.
For a television series that covers similar-though-not-identical ground, watch Crystal Boys.