In the early morning, before anyone else is awake, the orange-yellow glow of the shaded lamp cuts the gray semi-darkness. Beside the lamp, on the sofa, you half-sit, half-lie among the cushions, reading a book with the help of glasses you have needed only recently; with a small device and earphones you listen to wordless music. The early hour, the dullness of the book, the rise and fall of the notes weaken your concentration, and without your knowing it, your eyes close. For moments you hang between this world and that, with the music as the link, but slowly the music carries you deeper, the gentle, woody, thoughtful clarinet line following a labyrinthine path, your path, through the terrain of piano notes long and short, tall and short, rising like buildings, stretching like streets.
On this gray street, between buildings of large, evenly cut stone, structures that run the gamut from gray-white to deepest black, all beneath a cloudy colorless sky, you walk, no one else in sight. To a rhythm you dimly perceive, you step, step, step in wingtipped shoes and elegant, straight-legged, vaguely striped trousers — that is what you call them here, “trousers” . . . To your right, among all the sharply cut stone, you see a plate-glass window, with fanned letters reading “CAFÉ,” and you enter to find that it, too, has many variants of gray, the inside stretching back far, neither empty nor full, some of the many booths taken by lone people, others by groups of three or four. You sit in a booth. The waitress comes. Black hair falling to her shoulders frames black eyes that look at you knowingly as she hands you a cardboard menu and asks, “Do you know what you want?”
“I think I do, but I need a minute.” She turns and leaves quickly, almost as if offended. You hold the menu in both hands, the patched elbows of your tweed jacket on the table, but your eyes slide over the words like feet on a newly waxed floor. Anyway, it’s not here, the thing you want.
She is back, notepad in hand. “Do you know,” she says, conveying sympathy, “what you’d like?”
“I thought I did,” you tell her in a pained voice.
“Concentrate,” she says, the hand holding the notepad falling slowly to her side.
You stare at the columns and rows of booths. The men in ties, their fedoras hanging from gleaming hat racks beside the tables, the women holding cigarettes between dark-nailed fingers — all their faces nowhere near old and yet no age you’ve ever been or ever will be, as if they have progressed through their years via an alternate route — it’s all right, and yet there’s something else you seek, something, something —
“Quintessential,” you say.
The beginnings of a smile are on her face; she is pleased and surprised, as if you have come through after she had given up. Putting her pad and pencil in the pocket of her apron, she says, “Let me show you,” and walks away.
You follow. She stops at a narrow wooden door between two booths; you might have thought it was a broom closet, if you had noticed it at all. She opens the door, and in the dimness you can just make out a set of wooden stairs. She goes up ahead of you, quickly, noiselessly, but when you try to keep up, you find the steps so short — half the length of your feet, if that — that the toes of your wingtips slam into wood each time; over and over, you stumble, catch yourself on the thin metal banister you can barely see, and start up again. She has disappeared by the time you reach the partly open door at the top. Just as your hand touches the knob, you smell something pleasant, a mustiness, one that you know from —
Yes, you think as you step through the door onto the old, dark wood of the floor, with 1/8 inch of black space between some of the planks —
Books. They are piled high on many tables, they fill shelves that stretch to a high ceiling shrouded in darkness above cymbal-shaped hanging lamps. You wander among the tables, here and there dragging a finger across the surface of a book, then hear a gentle male voice: “May we assist you?”
You look to your right. Behind a counter that might once have been a bar in an Old West saloon, a bald and bespectacled man stands smiling, and beside him, also wearing glasses, also smiling, clutching a clipboard to her mohair sweater, is — the waitress.
“I think you already have,” you say, winking at her, trying to cover your confusion. She winks back, seeming to laugh, seeing through your façade.
The hanging lamps give the room a yellow-sepia cast. You pass rows of shelves, see single people perusing volumes, before choosing a shelf at random. The book you pull down has poetry, its imagery conjuring colors and pictures, its rhythms like a flute solo or a dance. Reveling in this verse, you sit on the floor and recline, a pile of books conforming to the shape of your back. You let go of the book of poems, pick up another book from where your hand has fallen, read its passages of memoir about dressed-up important men and women holding drinks and talking quickly about what’s interesting and vital as music plays, and you think, Yes, very close to the quintessence, and yet —
“I’m not there,” you say aloud. “I’m not doing it.”
Your words seem to bring her to you. “Well then let’s go,” she says, stretching her hands down toward you, and you grab them, surprised at their firmness and her strength as she pulls you to your feet. You follow her through a maze of shelves to a door leading to a metal staircase; these take you down to any alley. Ten feet wide, made of cobblestone, this alley seems to have no end in either direction. The same is true of the building on the other side of it, its once-red bricks black from decades of industrial grime and soot, its walls so tall that its top is a silhouette against the sky. A fire escape hangs low, and she jumps, grabs on, pulls herself up. You follow. She disappears through a window above you. You follow. You climb through the window, from whose wooden frame white paint is peeling, and the first thing you see is her sitting behind an oak desk, wearing a jacket, tie, and fedora and pounding away at a manual typewriter. Others do the same around her at desks arranged in rows over a vast floor with large black-and-white checkerboard tiles; still others walk between the desks, wearing suspenders, shouting.
She sees you and says, “Find a desk. Start writing.”
“The art show.”
“Shouldn’t I see it first?”
Without looking up she points to your left. You go to where she has pointed, down a gray-painted hallway with open doors on either side, some to classrooms, some to offices, some to film screenings. At the end of the hall is the art gallery — paintings with simple, representational figures and bright, bold colors, work you find so exciting that you hurry back to the newsroom, find a desk, roll a fresh sheet of paper into the shiny black and silver manual, make the clack clack clack of those first keystrokes — as satisfying as the first swallow of cold beer or good coffee — each letter carved clean in black into the gleaming virgin white, clack clack clack about the paintings, their forms, their bright reds and yellows and blues, and then . . . you stop, bewildered.
“It’s not me,” you say aloud. But now you know what to do: you pull that sheet from the typewriter, put in another, and start to write, not giving thoughts about someone else’s art but making your own. You go deep into your story, your experiences, your inventions, some of it is real, some made up, you’re cooking now, and yet . . .
“Well,” she says, standing in front of your desk, smiling, “what’s wrong now?”
You point down the hall, where light from a film screening flickers on the walls. “Down there,” you say, “outside, all around, there’s a big world to appreciate, so many things to take in.”
“And you were doing that.”
“Yes, but it came to feel empty, it didn’t feel like mine.”
“And so you started to make something that was yours.”
“But that just closed me off from what was around me.”
“What is it,” she says, “that you want?”
“All of it,” you say.
You hesitate a moment, nod sheepishly.
She says, eyebrows raised in sympathy, “It can’t be done.”
You stop because you hear music. You know it from somewhere, and now you remember: the clarinet lines that brought you here. But now their intensity suggests a summing-up, an approaching end, which means —
“I’ve got to get out of here,” you say.
She follows you this time as you head the only way you know — the way you came: down the fire escape, across the alley, up the stairs, past the books, down the stairs, through the café, and out to the still-empty street, thinking the whole time: even here, where you had only to think of something in order to do it, you couldn’t get it right. In the street the music is louder, moving toward its climax. You stop, turn to face her. She takes your hands, looks into your eyes. Neither of you can find the words. You give her hands a last squeeze, turn, and run.
Your eyes open. The book is still in your hands, the earphones still in your ears, the song fading out. It is still morning, one however far along in the course of your life — but still a morning, with a whole day ahead.
For years, as an African-American, I sought to figure out my cultural identity. My manner and lifestyle went against what many think of as the way a “real” black person acts and lives: I did not speak so-called Black English, and my interests often placed me in mostly white circles. I internalized many people’s idea that I was not “really” black. While I did not consider myself to be – or want to be – white, I was unable to find a definition of blackness that included me. Though I was fairly knowledgeable about black history and proud of my heritage, I was confused about what, beyond skin color, constituted the basis for a black identity.
A fan of jazz, I eventually realized that this music I loved was both a product of, and metaphor for, the black American story – and represented the tradition for which I had searched. Created by black Americans, this music, with its basis in improvisation, paralleled the improvisation at the root of America. Improvising, after all, means making a way where there wasn’t one before, which is how the U.S. Constitution, how America itself, was born. By exploring jazz, I was celebrating both my black heritage and my Americanness.
More secure in my identity, I was able to explore the arts of other cultures, American and foreign. I was also able to draw parallels between jazz and other art forms. I have written in one published essay, for example, that the spare style of the jazz tenor saxophonist Lester Young has much in common with the prose style of the great writer Ernest Hemingway: whereas Young would construct a melody that suggested chords without playing every note in them, Hemingway often alluded to events in stories without spelling them out; both artists, in Hemingway’s words, left the reader or listener “feeling more than he understood.” Such connections, for me, underscore the commonalities across all cultures and the essential oneness of all humanity.
I feel it is vital to keep sight of this oneness at all times, even – especially – in challenging times like these. As we consider how to respond to events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, the idea of oneness should inform our efforts. The best kind of black struggle also includes a gender-equality struggle and a gay rights struggle; to fight against anti-Semitism should also be to oppose anti-black violence — because it should all be part of striving for human dignity. There is strength in numbers.
“I won’t kill for it, and I won’t marry for it,” the private eye Jim Rockford sometimes said about money. “Other than that, I’m open.” That credo suggested a man with one foot on the solid ground of decency and the other submerged in slime, a good man with no illusions, a wry, slick navigator of a crazy, hard world whose humanity, bruised and bandaged though it might be, remained intact. That was Rockford, given life by the recently deceased and sorely missed James Garner.
As a kid watching The Rockford Files in the 1970s, I often wondered why its hero stayed friends with the lowlife Angel (played by Stuart Margolin), but now I see that just as decency was essential to Rockford, so was the world that the ironically named Angel represented: a place long on danger and short on scruples. Rockford needed to stay in touch with the world of kind-hearted folks so he wouldn’t lose the best part of himself; he needed Angel and others like him so he wouldn’t be bored.
Rockford also straddled other worlds, or, perhaps more accurately, different eras. He was part John Wayne but part Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H, too; he was brave and handy with his fists, but he didn’t win every fight, and when honor and brawn didn’t carry the day, he had no problem with trickery. But mostly, Rockford was . . . there, a magnet for some of the craziest shit the world could dream up, a hole in the balloon toward which so much rushed and, in rushing, dispelled itself.
Recently I persuaded my wife to watch one of my favorite movies, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. At the end she said — among other things — that there was a lot of The Rockford Files in it. And she had a point. The Dude of The Big Lebowski might be said to be Jim Rockford reduced to his essence: divested of Rockford’s fighting and driving skills, missing even the twisted satisfaction Rockford got from keeping company with the scum of the earth, and yet the one sought out by the hidden evil of the world around him, the one toward whom those forces gravitate, as if desperate to find something better than themselves.
There have been quite a few books, articles, and blog posts on ways to nurture one’s creativity, and many of those focus on writing. And yet there are already so many good writers—published and unpublished—in addition to so-so writers, just-plain-bad writers, and people who would write if only they could find the time or the energy or the confidence, that a more useful book/article/post might be one that nipped the writing itch in the bud. Flannery O’Connor, asked if she thought university creative writing programs discouraged too many writers, famously replied, “In my opinion they don’t discourage enough of them!” Perhaps a wiser and more humane take came from Richard Ford, who, in a line that could apply to all forms of literary endeavor, compared writing a novel to getting married: “If you can talk yourself out of it, you should. If you can’t, there’s no advice to give you.”
For those of us for whom there is no advice, there is the model of the great Virginia Woolf. Her 1929 nonfiction work A Room of One’s Own is concerned chiefly, of course, with what is required for women to write (enough money to be independent and the room of the title), but the book contains advice that applies to all writers—none more eloquent than this:
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to . . . some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery. . . .”
Sometimes, like a kid who turns to his parents for help, a creative type has to look to past masters. During a recent visit to Paris, I had a refresher course in the art of simplicity. One of the books I took with me to read there was my wife’s old copy of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast — an obvious choice, with its Paris setting. I had read the book before but was struck by how much I’d forgotten. I remembered the cool descriptions of the twenty-something Hemingway writing in cafes, trying to begin a story with “one true sentence,” and stopping while knowing the next thing he would write. One thing I had forgotten was Papa’s hand-to-mouth, sometimes desperate existence as he struggled to support his wife and young son after giving up journalism in favor of full-time short-story writing. I had also forgotten, among other things, the horserace-betting he took up in his attempt to stay afloat, a pastime that became a fascination and threatened to develop into something else.
I had forgotten these things perhaps because of Hemingway’s simple style, a flatness — I do not mean that disparagingly — that seems to lend equal weight to, and thus de-emphasize, everything; the reader takes that at face value at her peril. And that style was part of the approach Hemingway took to his art: leaving out the thing he was actually writing about, so that the reader would “feel more than he understood.” My forgetting parts of the book, I think now, was a result of not having read closely enough before. I am now eager to re-read stories including “The Big Two-hearted River,” which struck me as uneventful the first time, long ago; I want to see what I was missing.
Also in Paris I went to the Centre Georges Pompidou, whose art collection includes paintings from the first decades of the twentieth century — my favorite period. There are works by Matisse and others there that made my heart pound (well, nearly). Take Matisse’s Portrait de Greta Prozor (below), from 1916. Check out the eyes and eyebrows, the shading — so simple, yet so evocative. The same with the bags under the subject’s eyes in Auguste Pelerin II, from the same year, also below. Simple — masterful — great.
A while back I posted “Cliff’s 10 Best Movies of All Time.” Lists like this, whether about movies, books, or music, are fun but also fundamentally fraudulent, since no one who puts them together has read, seen, or heard every film, novel, or record out there. The longer we live, and the more we encounter, the more our experience broadens, and the more we reflect on what we have already experienced. It is with that in mind that I offer an alternate Top 10. This list does not supersede the first one — I stand by the films on that list — nor does it exactly combine with the first to form a Top 20, since part of my rationale for the original choices was that each one represented a particular idea or quality, which is not necessarily the case with the new list. Best to call it, as jazz musicians do, an alternate take. So, in no special order:
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). Fascinating beyond all reason, and, if you think about it — and you don’t have to think too long — horrifying in its implications. I’m not sure David Lynch completely worked through the logic of this story; it’s more as if he glimpsed something he himself didn’t understand and merely reported back, which is scarier still. This movie knocked my socks off.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943). Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s moving epic about a career soldier (Roger Livesey, a sort of British Cary Grant) whose weakness is his belief that the world is as honorable as he is.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975). In this film by Chantal Akerman, we watch single parent Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) as she makes meatloaf, washes dishes, has quiet dinners with her teenage son . . . oh, and takes in male sex clients. The sympathy we develop for Jeanne during what ought to be unwatchably dull sequences is a miracle, and the ending is a heartbreaker.
NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964). Michael Roemer’s film, starring Ivan Dixon and Abbie Lincoln, was made during the civil rights era but is not about civil rights, exactly. It is simply a deeply human story about one couple’s struggle to stay together in the face of societal conditions that would be funny if they weren’t so horrible. Completely unsentimental and very affecting.
GOODFELLAS (1990). You like mob movies or you don’t. I do. This is one of the best.
THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY II (1989). I admit this doesn’t sound like much. Most sequels are created solely to make suckers of people who liked the original stories, and it’s a rare sequel that comes close to equaling, let alone surpasses, its predecessor. But here is one of those rare films. As cliché as this sounds, you will laugh all the way through The Gods Must Be Crazy II, and when it’s over you may have a tear in your eye. (And it’s not necessary at all to have seen the original.)
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). Ingmar Bergman’s TV miniseries, condensed for theatrical release. An amazingly written and acted portrait of a marriage that fails but refuses to die. (Only one thing didn’t make sense: Who could leave Liv Ullmann?)
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Capra’s masterpiece has become just another part of Christmas, which makes it easy to forget just what a great film it is. It’s a Wonderful Life is novelistic in its accumulation of detail and its treatment of the passage of time, with its attendant disappointments. I cry every year.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). The Dude! Macabre fun, the Coen brothers’ way. Inspired.
UNFORGIVEN (1992). “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” This is Clint Eastwood, after making more shoot-em-ups than you could shake a stick at, reflecting on the real cost of violence.
What’s on your list?
At this writing, I have called New York City home for nearly three decades — several years longer than I’d been alive when I moved here. I have lived in Harlem though mostly in my current home of Brooklyn, and I’ve worked in Manhattan and the Bronx. I got married in Prospect Park and sent my children to public schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I have served on two juries, voted in seven mayoral elections, and watched the progression from one-dollar subway token to two-and-a-quarter MetroCard. I am a New Yorker.
Or am I? I ask this because I wonder whether, if I were truly convinced of and secure in my New Yorkerness, I would still feel the urge that comes over me once a week — on Sundays. I have not seen all of the United States, but I’ve seen enough to know that much of it shuts down on that day. Not my town, though. That, to me, is the mark of a vibrant city, and there is no better time to be in one than Sunday. You can appreciate what’s around you in a way that isn’t possible when you’re rushing to get to work on time or hurrying to lunch with a client. Gone by Sunday, too, is Saturday’s frenzy of celebration. Still at leisure, but with our feet back on the ground, we can take in a city that has slowed down just enough to be seen. This balance of our awareness, the city’s magnificence, and its — and our — unhurried pace is a magic formula, making it possible to revel in our New Yorkerness, to do that quintessential thing that lets us feel a part of this place. The urge I have on Sundays is to do that thing, my only question being —and I’ve been here twenty-eight years—What is it? A classic movie at Film Forum, or a Yankees game, or a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, or brunch at Sylvia’s, or lunch at Katz’s Delicatessen, or a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, or a tour of Louis Armstrong’s house? I have enjoyed all these things, but the problem with doing anything at all, in any place at any time, is that that thing precludes everything else, which won’t cut it if the point is to feel of a piece with a city whose essence is unlimited possibility.
On a recent Sunday, in search of an answer, I turned to a movie from the early 1960s. As with many other movies, I had seen part of it on TV when I was a boy; I had retained very little beyond its title, but this particular title alone had led me to search for it online over the years, always finding it unavailable — until recently. Finally, I had in my hands the work that would yield, if anything could, the secret to capturing the feeling I was after. What better way, after all, than to spend part of a Sunday in New York watching a movie called Sunday in New York? When it was over I felt, if I may be permitted a comparison to another film, a bit like Dorothy after she’d been to see the wizard. Sunday in New York is a very enjoyable sex farce that is nonetheless dated by the very thing that must have once made it seem so fresh: the burning question of whether a “girl” should or is expected to bed the guy she’s out with. Unlike many works whose day has passed, this one gave me the brief, sad feeling that mine had, too, and not just because the movie was released in the year of my birth. When the twenty-two-year-old Jane Fonda character referred to her parents back in Albany, I realized that those obviously settled folks, not important enough in the movie even to appear on screen, were probably younger than me. More pertinently, this sweet love story, while set in New York on a Sunday, is not about Sunday in New York; shots of rowing in Central Park aside, the setting could be Chicago or San Francisco. I liked the movie, but it didn’t have much to tell me.
I was on my own, back to my original question. It might help, as they used to say where I’m from, to break it down. What are the elements of this quintessential New York feeling or experience? What are the things that say “New York” to me? Literature — elegant sentences or verse by the writers, so many writers, who have come here; music — strains from the meeting place of jazz and symphony, grand but playful and unpredictable like the city, works by Duke Ellington, say, or another transplanted New Yorker, Charles Mingus; people — seeing so many walking this way and that. On another recent Sunday, I tried for some of this. At home I had The Symphonic Ellington playing while I read Auden poems, works that are themselves like the city, beautiful and elusive; from time to time I looked out my living room window at bare tree limbs silhouetted against the gray-blue winter sky. After a while I took the Auden collection with me to a diner down the street, where I read while sipping black coffee and watching strangers go by the window. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though eventually something occurred to me about this afternoon of experiencing New York: I had barely left home.
But maybe, if this quintessential New York experience can be even partly achieved in one’s living room, it is largely a state of mind. And maybe any New York activity, incomplete though it may be, is the real deal for that very reason: its incompleteness proves you’re in the right place. You can take in all of Hudson, New York, in an afternoon. Not so New York City. You get there only a piece at a time, and you never get there. And if you did, what then? Better to think of each little piece as a DNA sample, making do for the whole. Maybe you live here; may you visited once; either way, you’ve had part of the experience. I will try to remember this on some Sunday while looking down the long, long stretch of Park Avenue as I walk along in the East 80s, on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art . . .
What do you do on Sundays?
Welcome to the 100th tellcliff.com blog post! I write that somewhat sheepishly, since this is not what you’d call a major event. I don’t know who, if anyone, reads this lovingly prepared blog with any regularity; I feel a little like Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, embarrassed that he has broken the minor-league home-run record—except this ain’t even the minors. But as my family likes to say: Oh, well. I write tellcliff.com because I enjoy it. Maybe somebody else finds something to enjoy here, too. If so, here’s to you.
Looking back over my more recent posts, I realize I’ve been doing more telling than being told, which is my fault. Some of the posts don’t leave much room for response, particularly when I go on about fairly obscure subjects (the silent films of Louise Brooks or Louis Feuillade, say). So with this post, tellcliff.com returns to its roots. I will offer a few lines each on recent, wonderful discoveries in my usual areas—books, film, jazz—and then ask what YOU have discovered lately. Away we go:
FILM. Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Very, very early (1967) Martin Scorsese, starring a very, very young Harvey Keitel. In the current phase of Scorsese’s career, when he seems to have decided that more is more—witness the excess and sheer length of The Wolf of Wall Street—this black-and-white film is a surprise and a delight. Not all of its subject matter is delightful. Keitel, un- or ambiguously employed, spends a lot of time hanging out with the borderline-shady guys in his working-class Manhattan neighborhood. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a young woman (Zina Bethune) he meets on the Staten Island ferry. The subject of their first, faltering conversation, the John Wayne movie The Searchers, turns out not to be a random choice on Scorsese’s part: Keitel’s beliefs, we come to find out, bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Wayne character’s. The standout parts of Who’s That Knocking—three montages, two of them using still photos—convey more, despite their brevity, than the three hours of The Wolf of Wall Street. As I like to say, anything’s new if you haven’t seen/heard/read it before, and Who’s That Knocking, from 47 years ago, is one of the best things I’ve let in lately.
MUSIC: Friday Night in San Francisco. Three acoustic guitars, live concert, 1981. John McLaughlin of Miles Davis jazz-fusion fame joins Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia. The music is by turns moving and exciting, and you just can’t believe human fingers can play that fast. Is this jazz? I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s fantastic.
BOOKS. If on a winter’s night a traveler. This 1979 novel by Italo Calvino sat on my shelf from 2002 until last week, when I finally picked it up. The main character, known as the Reader and referred to by the narrator as “you,” buys a novel and reads the first chapter—as do we—only to discover that the book then turns to blank pages. Obviously in possession of a faulty copy, “you” return to the bookstore for a good one, which turns out to contain a different first chapter altogether (we read that one, too). “Your” search for the real novel brings “you” in contact with a long-suffering publisher, a shady translator, an angst-ridden Irish novelist, foreign revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, a second Reader, and the second Reader’s sometimes-disguised sister—in between many first chapters of seemingly unrelated books. It sounds annoying—actually, it is a little annoying—but it’s also brilliant, with laugh-out-loud send-ups of publishing and academia and transcendent passages about the nature of writing.
And now for the important part: what great things have YOU discovered lately?
The Coen brothers are celebrated for their quirky aesthetic, located at the border of the hilarious and the horrifying. What I personally love about them in their ability to capture a given sensibility, one you recognize even if you can’t put a name to it, one you may have thought no one else knew about (think of, say, Sam Elliot’s gentleman cowboy-narrator in The Big Lebowski).
Following is an attempt to identify levels of quality in the brothers’ work, and to rank films within each level — a pointless exercise, probably, and, like many pointless things, a lot of fun. So:
1. The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges as The Dude, maybe the brothers’ most inspired creation. Transcendent.
2. Fargo. A great concept, summed up by the image of a hugely pregnant officer of the law (Frances McDormand) holding a gun on a sociopath.
3. Raising Arizona. My vote for the funniest movie ever made.
4. Miller’s Crossing. It’s irresistible, all of it — from the guys in black fedoras and long dark coats to the made-up lingo (“What’s the rumpus?”) to the theme of one guy, in this case Gabriel Byrne, taking on everybody.
6. No Country for Old Men. A movie remarkable for subverting every expectation formed during a lifetime of movie watching. With Javier Bardem as the stuff of nightmares.
7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? The first scene of George Clooney improvising country blues in a recording studio is worth the price of the rental.
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Mostly this black-and-white film looks terrific, and Billy Bob Thornton is great as the enigmatic, doomed man who longs for the land of “things they don’t have words for down here.”
9. True Grit. It loses energy after a while, but Jeff Bridges is great in the John Wayne role, and so is Hailee Steinfeld, playing one very determined teenaged girl.
10. Burn After Reading. The brothers’ funniest film, after Raising Arizona.
11. Blood Simple. Their first work, a taut film noir — in which, as someone once pointed out, every human fluid gets spilled.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis. The main character is a jerk, and the story goes exactly nowhere, and yet it works. A wonderful evocation of a fondly remembered time — early ’60s New York — one that wasn’t always great for the people living in it.
13. A Serious Man. A little too serious, but not bad.
14. The Ladykillers. Really, guys? Ironically, the brothers updated the 1955 film by bringing in two of the oldest black stereotypes in existence. On the other hand, Tom Hanks is brilliant as an extremely erudite criminal — my favorite thing I’ve seen him do — which is what saves this movie from being . . .
15. Intolerable Cruelty. Substandard Coen, which still makes it better than a lot of other movies. And it has one great line, from Cedric the Entertainer: “You want tact, call a tactician.”
16. The Hudsucker Proxy. The only boring movie the Coens have made.
Years ago I had a date with a stunningly beautiful woman. As we sat down to dinner together in a restaurant, we had an unspoken but obvious attraction to each other, and the evening seemed full of promise. Then we started talking. The more we talked, the more uneasy I felt, and the more the light in her eyes appeared to dim. Politics, religion, art, movies, books — you name it, and we not only disagreed about it, we were like soldiers in trenches on opposite sides of a battle line; it was as if we’d been matched by some sort of anti-dating service. When we left the restaurant, there was no need to discuss the one thing we agreed on: that we would never see each other again.
Actually, I made all of that up. It never happened. But if it had, I think I would have felt the way I do now, having read my first book by Joseph Epstein, the essay collection In a Cardboard Belt!
Belt was published in 2007, around the time that Epstein — whose nineteenth book this is — was turning seventy. It starts out with charming reflections on reaching that milestone, which is “an odd thing to happen to a five-year-old boy who only the other day sang ‘Any Bonds for Sale,’” seventy being a time when “middle age is definitely — and definitively — done,” when “not recogniz[ing] that one is no longer living (as if one ever were) on an unlimited temporal budget is beyond allowable stupidity.” From there we’re off to a section of personal essays, including a thoughtful and evocative piece on his father and on fatherhood. Many passages in the section called “Literary” are gems of clarity and power, like this one, in which Epstein paraphrases the poet and critic Karl Shapiro: “The Pound-Eliot Axis has succeeded, with the aid of the academic New Critics, in creating a poetry in which ideas and symbols replace feeling and pure love of language. . . . Looking back on the history of twentieth-century poetry, one realizes that what Pound and Eliot accomplished, along with the building up of their own reputations, was removing poetry ‘from the people’ and delivering it ‘to the classroom.’” The five pieces in “Attacks” are just that — hilarious balloon-puncturing takes on such intellectual blowhards are George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Bloom began his career as “quite a good” critic, Epstein writes, “but his ambition grew and he soon became the intellectual equivalent of the character in P. G. Wodehouse who looked as if he were poured into his clothes and forgot to say when.” Similarly, “what George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world’s most learned man.”
But amidst all this humor and insight, all these impressive dispatches from “that unending work in progress called [Epstein’s] education,” are flashes of other things that made me more and more wary as I read. Epstein is, I don’t think he would mind my saying, a conservative. At its best, a modicum of conservatism lets one choose common sense over the worst excesses of politicized thinking; for example, I cheered the following passage about Epstein’s teaching career: “One year, at the opening of my Conrad course, a student asked ‘how’ we were going to read Joseph Conrad, by which she meant what suppositions we were going to bring to the task: Marxist, structuralist, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, and so forth. I said that we were going to try to discover what Joseph Conrad himself meant to convey in his novels and stories, and that this ought to keep us sufficiently occupied to fill out a quarter.”
And so I am not one who equates conservatism with sexism and racism. (For what it’s worth, Epstein praises Ralph Ellison’s work to the skies.) But there are passages here that beg the question of where one ends and the other two begin. “Even though all the world’s famous chefs seem to have been men . . .,” Epstein writes in a piece about dining out, “my sense is that in general women seem to taste food with greater sensory refinement than do men. (Perhaps women don’t have the first-sergeant, kick-ass personality that is required to run a large kitchen staff).” Or perhaps I should introduce Mr. Epstein to some of the women I’ve met. The book’s concluding essay, “I’m History,” performs the dubious service of validating my suspicions. “In my twenty-three years as editor of The American Scholar,” he informs us, “the title ‘Ms.’ never appeared in its pages. ‘Chair’ or ‘chairperson’ didn’t make it, either. I thought the first unpronounceable, the second patently silly.” There, at least, he gives explanations for editorial policies, as benighted as they are. But he apparently considers the wisdom of a later statement to be self-evident, since he doesn’t bother to explain it. Mentioning “feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies,” Epstein writes, “I . . . mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.” Is that, in the case of black history, because it’s not part of American history? Are blacks not Americans?
I found most of Epstein’s essays to be funny, illuminating, a joy to read. What a pity that I’ll probably never pick up another one. What did I expect, taking a reading tip from David Brooks . . .