Monthly Archives: March 2014

March 22, 2014

Aesop’s Fables

“Aesop” (c.620—564 BCE?)
Fables (dates of origin various and unknown)
Translated and edited by Lloyd W. Daly as Aesop Without Morals (1961)


Roll 35: 93, which is the row for “Aesop,” who of course only has the one work listed: Fables.

If you’ll remember how we left off, our hero had just worked through a selection of La Fontaine’s fables and, finding them to have been a somewhat unsatisfying reading experience, decided not to press onward to greater heights of obsessive completism but declare that assignment done and roll again…

… so, yes. Fate cracked its whip. Or at least cracked its knuckles. “You think you can escape me? You think you can just pick up and leave whenever you want? If it’s fables you fear, then it is FABLES YOU SHALL HAVE!”

It’s like Jonah and the Whale. Or Job. Or something. For sure it’s like something, something with a big fat moral. If you see what I’m saying.

Actually, the moral, I think, is “spare the rod and spoil the child.” The child here being Fate. It got petulant and acted out when I took a stand, because I’ve been letting it walk all over me for all these years. But if I back down in the face of this tantrum I would just encourage it. Now that I’ve started to turn the tables, I need to carry through and be firm. So. I got this book out of the library. I kept it by my bed for two months and read a little bit most nights. It has 579 fables in it. I read 105 of them. I now declare I am done.


Incidentally, above, when I wrote out the scornful speech of Fate, I recognized that correctly it should end with an evil genie laugh of “mwah ha ha ha!” … but I simply could not bring myself to type that, because I despise on principle the institutionalization of “mwah” as the official first syllable of transcribed evil laughter, that being a noxious pseudo-playful development of the late 90s and a leading indicator of the LOLCATaclysm to come.

And yet I did feel the contextual temptation to type it, which pains and disturbs me to admit. Good god: might I have already typed “mwah ha ha ha” on this site at some point in the past 8 years? Sometimes I forget who I am and do terrible things. As Dr. Jekyll might say. Right before letting out Mr. Hyde’s terrifying cackle: “gfurahr harrh harrh harrh!”

(“Bwah ha ha ha” for explosive earthy laughter is just as grotesque a token of emotional counterfeit. Maybe moreso, since at least “mwah ha ha ha” is explicitly roleplay.)


If you have to read Aesop’s fables in a non-kiddie context, I endorse this edition, sadly out of print. The title is Aesop Without Morals because the morals, which date from long after the stories themselves and are generally asinine or inapt, have been relegated by the editor to an appendix, leaving the fables alone, to be read in their clearest, barest prose forms, which seems the correct way to encounter this fundamentally skeletal material. Rather than putting clothes and a hat on the skeleton in a vain attempt to make it more than it is. Daly knows what these things are and what they’re not and presents them appropriately.

What they are not is narratives. They are scenarios. In Daly’s introductory words:

If these fables were not intended to serve a moral and instructional purpose, were they brought together to serve any other purpose? The answer to this question is not, perhaps, too difficult to divine, for we know something of the place the fables occupy in our own consciousness. Pointed stories capable of a wide variety of applications have always been in demand. We have only to recall fishing in muddy waters, out of the frying pan into the fire, the goose that laid the golden eggs, the dog in the manger, the boy who cried wolf, the ant and the grasshopper, the hare and the tortoise, and the wolf in sheep’s clothing to realize the proverbial and paradigmatic function the stories serve with us. We depend on the very mention of a fable to say, “Oh, yes, everyone recognizes that kind of behavior; it’s just like that of the animal in the fable.”

Having had it put to me this way I couldn’t imagine seeing it any other way. Despite Fate’s efforts to provide a sequel to La Fontaine, whose insinuating snark made me uneasy, I found nothing like that here. This is definitely not a book of chiding moral lessons; it’s not even really a book of stories. It’s a book of ethical archetypes. It’s like a list of all possible situations. Someone will definitely want to use some of this stuff for stories. But these aren’t stories.

I felt like I was reading a dictionary of idioms.

And I liked that! My one real thought that I wanted to bring with me to this entry was that it is actually quite heartening to spend time appreciating creations of language art that are not yet literature. It made me feel good about humanity for exactly the same reason that they put a picture of bountiful raw oats tumbling out of a burlap sack on the back of your cereal box. This isn’t the thing you eat; it’s the building block of the thing you eat, and all the more stirring for it. These are beautifully artful building blocks, and I’m glad that they’re classics.

A dictionary of idioms could be genuinely inspiring and heartwarming in the same way. Isn’t the expression “it’s a piece of cake” a thing of beauty? Absolutely it is, in its category, and if Harold Bloom figured out a way to get “it’s a piece of cake” its own place on his canon, I’d endorse that. It makes me happy that we come up with these thoughts, images, groupings of words for each other and then trade in them and build our days out of them. And it’s wonderful to think that the ancient Greeks and Romans were coming up with such sturdy archetypes that we still like to think of them now. There will always be something richly marvelous about the image of those unreachable grapes and the disappointed fox slinking away. Glowing, like a stained-glass window. It all starts with thick and hearty 100% whole grain oats.

But only a horse could eat this book raw. Have you ever eaten dry raw oatmeal as a snack? I know I have. It’s good! But it doesn’t work. That’s how this was. Eventually you stop because, seriously, what are you doing?

Your excerpt:

85 The Pig and the Sheep
A pig got into a flock of sheep and fed with them. But once the shephered got hold of him, and he began to squeal and struggle. When the sheep found fault with him for making so much noise and said, “Doesn’t he catch us all the time? And we don’t cry,” he replied, “Yes, but it isn’t the same thing when he catches me. He’s after you for your wool or your milk, but it’s my meat he wants.”

86 The Thrush in the Myrtle Thicket
A thrush fed in a myrtle thicket and wouldn’t leave it because the berries were so sweet. But a fowler who observed her fondness for the spot spread his lime and caught her. As she was about to be killed, she said, “Alas! Because the food was so sweet I am to lose my life.”

87 The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs
Hermes was worshiped with unusual devotion by a man, and as a reward he gave the man a goose that laid golden eggs. The man couldn’t wait to reap the benefits gradually but, without any delay, he killed the goose on the supposition that it would be solid gold inside. He found out that it was all flesh inside, and so the result was that he was not only disappointed in his expectation but he also lost the eggs.

And so on and so on up to number 579. Perhaps there is a fable in here about some animal that foolishly prides itself on its singlemindedness, but I wouldn’t know because I stopped.

Here, if you want there to be a rule, I can make a rule: if my selection is not a single work but a body of work, I’m free to move on, if I like, after I’ve given it a month.

The book also includes a fictional “Life of Aesop” written in late antiquity, which undoubtedly has nothing to do with any historical Aesop, if there was one, and certainly sheds no light on the actual origin of these fables. I didn’t read it.

As a book of raw materials for creative play this probably can’t be topped. Any single one of these could provide the kernel for a work of any form, flavor or scope. And if you need to thicken your stew, just throw in another one.

The quick and desultory character of this entry is just another form of revenge on old man Fate. I can do what I like!

Gfurahr harrh harrh harrh!

March 22, 2014


 ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( )
[1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0]

The exclamation point (punctus exclamativus) was invented in the mid-14th century by scholars of the ars dictandi (art of document creation), a movement centered around Bologna. Around 1360 one Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia listed it as one of eight signs of his own invention. The author of an earlier Ars punctandi, in which the sign is first proposed, is unknown. (This work is often attributed to Petrarch, apparently erroneously.) The first known appearance of the sign in actual use dates from 1399 in the work of Coluccio Salutati, to whom some modern scholars have attributed its invention.

Some sources assert that the symbol is a condensed version of the interjection io (a Latin equivalent to “huzzah”), but this is almost certainly apocryphal, considering that most of the other punctuation marks invented within the ars dictandi were, like the exclamation point, variations on the simple point or period.

Neither the historical nor the graphical origin of the at sign (or “commercial at”) is known. Competing theories have it that the symbol is, among other things, a condensation of the Latin ad, or a shorthand version of the French à. All such theories are apparently pure speculation. Around 2000 a scholar claimed in the press that he had discovered the “earliest known” appearance of the symbol in a 1536 Italian commercial letter (with a tallying function similar to its modern use), and this claim is still widespread online. But the symbol has since been shown to have been used in a similar commercial function in Spain at least a century earlier. And it appears in Byzantine manuscripts well before that, but purely as a scribal adornment of the Greek alpha, with no special signification. In 2012 scholars brought such an appearance of the symbol, in a Byzantine-influenced Bulgarian manuscript of c. 1345, to the attention of the press. These same scholars nonetheless still asserted that the Byzantine scribes had in turn surely borrowed the form from the Latin, where it was derived from ad.

It has been claimed by at least one scholar (and thereafter reported by many others) that the number sign (or “pound sign”) originates with the abbrevation “lb.” for “pound” (derived from the first word in the term libra pondo, meaning essentially “a weighed pound”). This abbreviation, often written by hand in an uninterrupted movement and thus linked by a horizontal stroke, was afforded a special symbol by printers, ℔, with a bar connecting the two letters. Supposedly this symbol was eventually subjected to further abstraction to produce the modern “pound sign.” This history, however, does not seem to be at all well documented (at least not online!), nor is the purported chronology clear.

In my minimal internet searching, the earliest documented appearances of the symbol in its modern form seem to be from the late 19th century, and it seems to come into regular typographical use only in the early 20th century.

There are many apocryphal claims about the origin of the dollar sign, but there does seem to be a respectable consensus that its actual origin is as a condensation of a P with superscript S, PS, an abbreviation for peso in colonial America, where the Spanish dollar was the standard currency. When written by hand in an uninterrupted movement, the upward stroke toward the S creates the vertical bar; in the variant with 2 bars, the second bar is a vestigial form of the P. These two forms are contemporaneous alternatives, of equal authenticity: the earliest documented appearances of both versions are apparently in documents from the 1770s. The symbol was first rendered into type some time after 1800.

The percent sign originated in the abbreviation of per cento as p co, traced back to 15th century Italian manuscripts. Gradually the superscript o began to be written directly over the c. By the 17th century, the p had been stylized into a horizontal bar and otherwise eliminated; the symbol had a horizontal form, similar to the division symbol ÷ but with circles rather than points. The oblique form is “of modern origin”; exactly how modern is not clear.

The circumflex originates in Ancient Greek orthography, where the acute and grave accents marked vowels with rising and falling pitch respectively; the circumflex symbol, which combined the two visually, was used for single syllables containing vowels of rising and falling tone successively.

The caret, indicating editorial insertion (Latin caret: “it lacks”) is a distinct symbol, presumably with its own history, about which I can unfortunately find almost no information, apart from the claim that its current editorial use is identical with its historical use. I do not know whether the caret sign bears any genetic relationship to the circumflex or whether it is simply a form of arrow, which is a symbol of prehistoric origin.

The ampersand symbol derives from a ligature for the Latin et, “and.” Early forms of the handwritten ligature are of Roman origin and date back to the first century AD. The ligature very gradually became more stylized and medieval scribal forms resembling modern ampersands had developed by the 6th century.

The representation of a star as a radially pointed shape is apparently of prehistoric origin, and the use of such a symbol as a logogram goes back at least to ancient Sumerian writing. I have had difficulty finding any more specific information about the evolution of the “modern asterisk,” perhaps because there is in fact nothing in particular to distinguish this star symbol from any other.

( and )
Brackets were invented by the same 14th-century humanists cited above in connection with the exclamation point. Exactly as with the exclamation point, the first known appearance of brackets in print comes from a 1399 work by Coluccio Salutati, in which the brackets are asymmetrical and angled. A 1428 manuscript has examples of symmetrically paired angled brackets. The rounded form was recommended by Gasparino Barzizza, and appears in print by 1470.

Readers, please correct all errors and supply all missing information in the comments. Thanks.

March 20, 2014

51. Brazil (1985)

directed by Terry Gilliam
screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown


Criterion #51.

This is an old favorite that I’ve seen many times and endorse. I am mostly going to muse about the ending. Spoilers.

Gilliam says it’s a happy ending, which on the face of it is passive-aggressive sophistry. (“That’s right, if you felt as put-upon as I do, you’d think this is happy! Think of that! Just imagine how bad I must feel!”) On the other hand, he’s not wrong that Sam’s escape is legitimate on the movie’s terms. The movie’s two dreams — left (bureaucratic cog) and right (winged hero) — are equal and parallel. Forget the logistics of “Sam going to sleep and dreaming,” which the audience knows is just a mechanical device. Brazil is a diptych, a tapestry with two panels. The tension throughout is: how will these two dreams coexist? The ending is simply that Sam chooses the right and the camera chooses the left.

But cameras are privileged, in movies, so the slap-in-the-face punchline feels like a decisive vote for self-pity on Gilliam’s part, after 2 hours of a movie that sure seemed to be voting for exuberant creativity. His Munchhausen ends the same way… except then it doesn’t. Brazil really does end this way, but that’s not where its heart lives. Gilliam’s bitterness is always ambivalent, which can make it all the less sympathetic. If you know better, why don’t you know better? Underneath his giggling victim act, he’s actually an extrovert Romantic. He’s no shrinking Emily Dickinson, holed up with his notebooks and worry. Look at this big crazy movie! How can the guy who made this end by telling me that real life consists of being shackled and tortured in the 9th circle of hell? The answer is that he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just venting. Which is a frustrating place to end.

It’s the same as what I said about The Lord of the Flies — we can get a kick out of defeatism because we don’t actually believe it. It’s just spookhouse make-believe, Halloween. But Lord of the Flies is very single-mindedly Halloween, whereas Brazil taken as a whole is a full Mad Magazine’s worth of cranky glee, a wild grabbag. The final needle-jab of sarcasm is delightful as a single beat, but it isn’t necessarily the ending, and it’s claiming to be necessary. It’s supposed to be hard and angry and poignant. But couldn’t this all just as well have ended with the fold-in?

Maybe I’m giving the ending too much weight. But I’m not alone, since this is what Gilliam and the studio execs came to grief over. The bonus material relating to the fights with Universal fascinated me this time around, because I was shocked to find that the executives now sound pretty sympathetic to me. Wrong, but sympathetic. Underneath the battle of business is a battle of psychologies: Gilliam identifying fiercely with his ending of ghoulish self-pity, addicted to his own petty resentments; the executives unable to conceive of ghoulish self-pity as entertainment because their resentments are not petty: because for them this isn’t Halloween, it’s real. Brazil is a nightmare they cannot afford to have; it’s truly too close to home. For Gilliam it’s a nightmare he can afford to entertain, but that his bitterness refuses to allow anyone else to avoid. Both positions are defensive and nobody benefits from either of them. But Gilliam at least made a movie.

The 3rd disc of this 3-disc set is the outlandishly choppy “happy ending” studio edit. Gilliam’s movie of good faith hope that ends in bad faith defeatism is grotesquely forced to conform to Sid Sheinberg’s emotional outlook of unchallenged bad faith hope. This is the function of the standard Hollywood narrative: selling ourselves something we don’t actually believe deep down but are pleased to imagine that we believe because it seems to fit the bill. The real Brazil is something Gilliam really believes, topped off with something he is pleased to imagine he believes, perversely, because it’s such a downer.

But the good faith resolution — the real moral of the story — is, I think, there under the surface already. Sam’s escape would be a happy ending, if only the camera could be gotten to agree about its validity, or at least be agnostic. The studio’s request that Gilliam bring in clouds behind Sam in the final shot, which can be seen in the Universal version, is philosophically apt. But on the Criterion director’s cut, Gilliam reverted to the original shot: the credits roll over the torture chamber, unrelieved. Gilliam’s commentary track musings at this point exactly capture the knife-edge of his ambivalence. He seems to find himself saying, to his own surprise, that he thinks the clouds are great, that they are the correct ending… and then, apparently feeling self-conscious about contradicting his own choice, rationalizes by saying that he didn’t include them in this cut because one doesn’t need to see them: one feels what they signify even when they aren’t there. But in the very act of needing to talk this out, he seems to recognize that one doesn’t necessarily feel them. Only his ideal viewer will feel them.

Like all self-pity, his functions as a test: Are you the right kind of person? Will you be able to feel my real vulnerable emotion that I am expressing as its spiteful opposite? Can you tell that when I’m hopeless I’m actually hopeful? Gilliam doesn’t trust anyone who can’t tell. Except when he does.

Anyway, the passive-aggressive ending could very easily be purified if after the nasty reveal, we returned to Sam’s reality, with him triumphant and free. Why not?

The two dreams of the movie are one dream, to us. The movie tells us to embrace illusions and also to reject illusions. It loves fantasy and fears it. Is it good or bad to be lost in a hall of mirrors? Is it good or bad that life is an illusion? The correct dream answer is: both, always. In this respect, most of Brazil is right on the money: irreconcilably ambivalent. Like all the best movies, its narrative impulses eat each other and cancel out and meld and run wild, while its feelings roll ever onward. That’s art I can get inside. It’s only when this movie tries to get specific and say something that I resist it.

This was Criterion’s first really mega-super-deluxe-o set, with three discs, a fancy slipcase, a new director’s cut, and lots and lots of bonus stuff. It is, not coincidentally, also the very first DVD I ever bought. (I believe). At Tower Records in 1998. It marks the end of Criterion’s first phase of DVDs, design-wise, about which an entire tedious post to come — and thus it marks the end of my first phase of this project. I’ve watched 51 of these babies! Time to celebrate; stay tuned. It feels fitting that this last one is the one that’s been on my shelf, wherever I’ve lived, for the past 16 years.

Because the image on the old 1998 disc is “non-anamorphic” and Criterion’s later releases of the same set were much higher resolution, I figured I’d get the Blu-ray from Netflix to watch the main feature. But when it arrived it turned out not to be the Criterion edition but the Universal edition, with the original theatrical cut. So I watched that first, and then the director’s cut right after. No offense to Terry or to Criterion but the Universal version is a better movie. It’s tighter and flows better. The colors of the transfer are nicer, too, I think. But the Criterion bonus stuff is top-class. Nowadays they probably wouldn’t lean on “press forward to advance through these screens of text” quite so heavily, but for 1998 it’s excellent. Gilliam’s commentary is solid, the commentary on the crazy studio version is pretty astute, the two little documentaries are both good.

I particularly enjoy the relaxed video interview with the late Michael Kamen, the composer. This is a rewarding score that I admire. It’s thrillingly shameless — after all, how would restraint possibly serve this movie? It’s a big orchestra slopping all over the place and wrapping all the oversaturated fantasy in oversaturated musical fantasy to match. Much of the score is derived from squeezing the title song through Richard Strauss, but it’s really gloriously all over the map. Kamen is ready to savor every little thing, just like Gilliam, and it’s that willingness to really pursue self-amusement all the way to its limits that I find magnetic. I used to listen to this soundtrack album a lot in high school. It’s bizarrely put together and doesn’t make a lot of sense as a listening experience; yet at the same time, maybe for that reason, it is even more transporting than most soundtracks. It is another world, a weirdly two-dimensional one, on its own terms.

There is no real main title to speak of, and the end title is, of all things, a kind of nod to Black Orpheus, completely uncharacteristic of the rest of the score. So our selection is the signature cue, the one everyone remembers, the one you probably know as “Wall-E preview”: “The Office,” which Kamen says was inspired by Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter,” but obviously there’s a lot more going on here.

I don’t know if the marimba + electric guitar combo is original to Kamen or is lifted from some Esquivel arrangement or something, but it’s a stroke of orchestrational brilliance. More fundamentally, it is film-composerly brilliance to have recognized that in the vamp of “Brazil” was the potential to tease out this rising tide that would convey yearning and irony and hopelessness and inanity. The subtle poignancy of this cue encapsulates everything that Terry Gilliam is saying in the movie, and Kamen figured out how to say it efficiently and simply, all within the pre-existing song he was obligated to use. I spent many an hour as a teenager contemplating this cue and considering what it would feel like to have the aesthetic and emotional insight to realize that you could write this cue and it would work. That’s composing. I aspired to that and still do. Your track 51.

March 17, 2014

Best Original Screenplay 1940: The Great McGinty


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 13th Academy Awards, presented February 27, 1941 at the Biltmore Bowl, Biltmore Hotel.

The other nominees were:
Angels over Broadway — Ben Hecht
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet — John Huston, Heinz Herald, Norman Burnside
Foreign Correspondent — Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison
The Great Dictator — Charles Chaplin

Opening of screenplay:


During the Main Titles we see a succession of shots of the harbor and waterfront of a banana republic. The last title is imposed over a NIGHT SHOT of a drinking establishment. Now we HEAR some rumba music and we TRUCK FORWARD SLOWLY TOWARD THE CAFE. At this point the following is imposed over the shot:

This story has no moral,
This story has no end,
This story only goes to show
There is no good in men.



We see a few customers IN THE FOREGROUND but they are not particularly interested. In other words, they give one look then turn away. Noticing the lack of interest she bends over and grabs her skirt.

First lines in film:

This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them was honest all his life except one crazy minute. The other was dishonest all his life except one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.

— Tommy?
— Mm?
— You buy me a drink, Tommy?
— Okay… Sure…

[During the original run, several newspapers around the country ran this unattributed pseudo-review, which makes reference to the original “This story has no moral” text (a quote from “Frankie and Johnny“). At first I thought this meant the opening titles had been changed some time after the original release, but on reflection, since this “review” seems to be studio promotional copy, we can deduce that either the PR department worked from the screenplay rather than the finished film, or that the titles were changed late in the game.]

ADAM Welcome all! To the next ten years of your life. What an odd movie.

BROOM Regarding the next ten years of my life: I found this exciting. It was certainly very odd but also very stimulating. Following the Best Original Screenplay and taking a writing-oriented approach to movies feels like a very exciting field of stuff to explore. I like dipping into this world. It’s interesting to watch an “interesting” screenplay!

ADAM I don’t mean to be down on the concept. But eternity is very heavy. You’re much more accustomed to taking on big projects than I am.

BROOM We’re allowed to quit in the middle. We’re not actually locked into something where it’s important to contemplate the extent of it. But to the degree that I was contemplating the extent of it, I felt excited. This feels like an alternate history of movies. Because this is certainly not an essential on anyone’s canonical history of movies. And yet it’s interesting to imagine that it could have been, could be.

BETH Did you both find yourself thinking more about writing than about other aspects of the movie? I think I did.

ADAM Yeah, because it was unexceptional in all other aspects.

BROOM I think it was written to be that way. And I think that’s what we’ll find, that the “Best Screenplay” winners are often screenplay-centric movies. It wasn’t “unexceptional” in any bad way; it generally had nice fluent direction.

ADAM No no, it was a perfectly… craftsmanlike movie in its cinematography and its look and those sorts of things. But it was an interesting script.

BROOM Actually I don’t know in the history of film whether that’s true; it used some distinctive devices visually and I don’t know where we are in the history of those devices.

BETH That’s one of the things that I was thinking: I wish that we could all call on a vast knowledge of filmmaking and screenwriting so that we could compare and mark where we are in the progress of the art. Like, was he the first person to use… certain turns of phrase or ways of speaking? I don’t think so. I noticed a lot of people saying, “da da da da da, see?” But that was clearly part of movies before this.

BROOM I think see? was just idiomatic at the time.

BETH Just a way of speaking. But I don’t know how movies have influenced cultural speech patterns.

ADAM Right. I’ve never met a gangster. I think we’ll probably see some more gangsters later on in this series.

BROOM Wasn’t this boss sort of like the boss in The Great Gatsby?

ADAM Meyer Wolfsheim.

BROOM Yeah. But this guy was Russian.

ADAM He was Italian I thought.

BROOM He was speaking Russian on the phone. [ed.: The character and performance was reportedly a model for Boris Badenov]

ADAM Oh, I thought he was meant to seem like a fat Italian guy.

BROOM He was also like the Italian boss in Miller’s Crossing. I sensed that the Coen brothers have studied Preston Sturges and this movie.

ADAM Why do you say that?

BROOM The strange rhythms. The charm of weird comic details intruding on the flow of the story.

BETH It was the most cartoonish serious movie I’ve ever seen. The Three Stooges have elements like this, like crazy fights in the back seat of a car, but no serious movie I’ve ever seen has stuff like that.

ADAM Yeah, no prestige drama from the 2000s has that kind of thing in it.

BETH Legs flying everywhere.

ADAM Or the totally gratuitous scene where he falls on the dishware.

BROOM In that scene with the legs flying around the back seat of the car, the foreground cuts to the front seat of the car where the driver is having a hilariously contentless conversation about “so I says so then she says…” Which is like a Simpsons joke. In the Preston Sturges Wikipedia entry there’s reference to Simpsons writers who claim him as an influence. It also seems like a Coen brothers gag, to inject something stupidly mundane.

ADAM I liked when he inadvertently opened the door to the linen closet.

BROOM For no particular reason in that particular scene. That’s what made the movie so charming: this playful attitude toward itself.

ADAM It seemed like it was going to be a crime/Casablanca caper, and then it turned into this serious women’s picture melodrama by the second half.

BETH Kind of… except I didn’t think any of the melodrama elements worked. They all fell flat. Her sadness felt fake to me.

BROOM I felt neither way. I didn’t think it was trying to be a women’s picture…

ADAM “Women’s picture” is not the right term. It turned into sort of a political melodrama about good government…

BETH It turned moralistic.

BROOM Over the course of the movie we went to a lot of different places. I’m not sure it was turning from one thing into another so much as just being extremely heterogeneous the whole time.

ADAM I didn’t get the framing device at all.

BETH It was: “You’re gonna kill yourself, pal? Let me tell you how I completely shat on my life and am still around to tell it.”

ADAM But what was the deal with that guy? Just that he was a cashier and he stole something?


ADAM Okay.

BROOM The opening text said it was about two people who meet: one who was honest his whole life except for one crazy minute and one who was dishonest except for one crazy minute. In retrospect we see that the movie isn’t really about the honest guy. The text is just supposed to clue us in to seeing the overall concept of this movie as being an inversion of a standard movie plot, where a person who is moral is eventually tempted to immorality and then experiences a downfall. Whereas the big picture of this movie is that it’s a fable about someone who is a crook his whole career and then experiences a downfall when he decides to try to be moral.

ADAM I guess I misunderstood that intro text, because I thought the “banana republic” they were referring to was Chicago. So I kept waiting for the other guy to appear in the story. I was confused when he didn’t. I assume this was supposed to take place in Chicago.

BROOM It seemed like it, but I don’t think they said where it was.

ADAM Didn’t we read that Preston Sturges was from Chicago?

BROOM Oh yeah. That makes sense.

ADAM And they had aldermen. That’s why I thought that.

BROOM I see. Yeah, I think the concept that was supposed to unite the many different elements was that it was a satirical inversion of a moralist rise and fall story.

ADAM At the beginning it was like it was winking: “There are no good guys here!” and it was sort of fun. And then suddenly it grew a conscience halfway through, and it was awkward.

BROOM But if you think about the ultimate “moral” of it, he accomplished absolutely no actual good, in the end. It was just about his downfall.

ADAM But it was all in good fun, in the first half, and then all of a sudden it got serious.

BROOM Did it?

BETH I don’t know that it did. It seemed like it needed to because the story required it.

BROOM I thought it was playing at seriousness, but with the same kind of distance. I thought there was something charming about the romance, not because they themselves embodied romantic charm but because they were being thrust through these absurdist circumstances. It was like the romance of falling in love while being in a cartoon, alone together. “We seem to be in a cartoon, and it’s just you and me here, honey.” And I thought that was the charm of the whole movie, that it was craziness but distanced. And then there was sort of a genuinely absurdist approach to these moral issues. “I guess you should clean up the tenements and the sweatshops or something!” He doesn’t actually do that; no-one in the movie does anything like that.

ADAM But she was kind of an operator too, at the beginning. Then all of a sudden she got all serious. It was strange to me. And she had a boyfriend on the side? Her character was more interesting than anyone else’s, but she got kind of preachy by the end in a way that I thought was… ill-worn.

BROOM But don’t you think I’m right that the basic way that the movie wanted us to understand it was as the negative image of a normal moralistic movie? And that’s why it ended that way: “here they go again!”

BETH I do think that’s right.

ADAM But it kept making stabs at having a serious human love interest between them, and a serious human interest in his children, and then all of a sudden — [(wonk) sound]!: dishes crashing on the floor as they’re wrestling! She and the kids disappear and are never seen again!

BROOM At the very end.

ADAM Yes, at the very end, but… are we supposed to go back to winking and guffawing? I guess so. But then what was all the seriousness about if the movie didn’t really mean it?

BROOM It does definitely leave you with a puzzle as to how much you’re supposed to feel.

BETH How much to care. Yeah.

BROOM But then I think about how as a kid, I knew that the answer was that you’re not really supposed to care about anything. “As much as you want!” is how much. And I felt well-treated, in terms of the movie saying: “Here, have some fun. Have whatever kind of fun you want.” I had whatever kind of fun I wanted.

ADAM It definitely had a sort of lumpiness to it that was appealing. Not only was it not formulaic, but even being unformulaic, it wasn’t perfectly well reasoned in a way that was satisfying. Like why was there the little digression at the end where he gets upset about how child labor is actually fine and he worked in a factory and it kept him off the street?

BROOM And then she says, “Oh, you’re impossible!”

ADAM That didn’t really make any sense in terms of the plot. I mean, it was sort of interesting and human, sort of appealing, but it didn’t actually make any sense.

BROOM Yes, it wasn’t very schematic — except for this big scheme of being upside-down. Every time I got worried that it was going to turn genuinely political — “Uh-oh, is this gonna be anti-government? Is it going to be anti-this or that?” — he would just screw it up so that it didn’t add up to a position. So there was no way for me to stay worried.

BETH I think that story about working in the factory is supposed to show you that he’s not taking sides here.

ADAM He Preston Sturges.

BETH Yeah: “I don’t actually care about this political stuff.”

BROOM Well, I think he cared insofar as for his purposes “cleaning up tenements” and “ending child labor” was supposed to immediately register as “good” and the audience was supposed instantly recognize that stuff as real morality.

ADAM Right. This movie was basically Dave but with a sad ending.

BETH Interesting. Yeah, a little bit.

BROOM I don’t remember how Dave worked.

BETH Dave looks like the president…

BROOM Kevin Kline?

ADAM Yeah. They sub him in to be the president because the president has had a heart attack while having sex with his mistress. And Kevin Kline is supposed to be the tool of this political operator, but then he says, “What are you talking about? Everyone thinks I’m the president!” and stiffs him and goes on to actually do good.

BROOM And Frank Langella is the vice president? Or is that a different movie?

ADAM I don’t remember.

BETH I don’t remember either.

ADAM And he courts the first lady, who realizes that he’s not the president, but they fall in love anyway.

BETH Sigourney Weaver, right?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM Wow, that’s a long time. I only vaguely remember that movie. I’m surprised that you remember the premise being specifically that he’s had a heart attack while having sex with his mistress.

ADAM Well, it’s the source of the immortal line “the money’s on the dresser, chocolate.” Which my friends quote all the time.

BROOM I see! All right, you have a special exemption.

ADAM I believe that is from the movie Dave. I could be mistaken.

BROOM I’ll check it out.

ADAM Anyway, the point is, that movie has a light cynicism at the beginning that gets converted into optimism about the political process, because this rube who really had no business being in politics is able to clean house by virtue of his normal-guyness. Whereas here, this rube who has no business being in politics is unable to do any good by virtue of his normal-guyness, and just ends up in a cell next to the gangster.

BROOM Well, he’s unable to do any good because he’s completely and only a functionary of the gangster world. Not because he’s an ordinary guy. For a bum he’s pretty savvy: he’s able to play all these different people in different ways. But yes, he’s an ordinary guy as opposed to a career do-gooder.

ADAM He leaves Catherine so callously at the end!


ADAM What are we supposed to…? It doesn’t all hang together emotionally for me, but it was interesting.

BROOM Yeah. It was some kind of wacky fable.

ADAM Now that I’m thinking about little setpieces that didn’t really make sense in the context of the whole thing, there were a lot of them that I liked. I liked his interaction with the fortune-teller lady. And I liked the fey little partner of the interior decorator. It didn’t make any sense, but it was fun. Or like the guy who’s collecting the vote tickets. He had a lot more personality than was really required for that role.

BROOM Yeah. Everything had a lot more personality than was required. “You can’t put a black king on a black queen.”

ADAM Right. There was a lot of surplusage that was satisfying. Which made the whole thing watchable even though…

BROOM Even though “why was it this story?”

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM I feel that there’s a kind of art to a thing that you cannot explain away in terms of some standard objective. I did not feel that this movie had a standard objective, and in that weirdness, it gave me the freedom to kinda just grin and wonder what I was watching. And I enjoyed that.

ADAM It also reminds me of The American President. Where the president is cynically proposing a gun-control bill…

BROOM Michael Douglas.

ADAM … that he knows is not gonna really make any difference, and then he meets this lobbyist and dates her, and she convinces him to go after the much more…

BROOM Annette Bening.

ADAM Thank you. Convinces him to pursue the climate change bill that is actually going to be much more influential even though he will have to give up the votes of these three congressmen from Michigan.

BROOM Moral MacGuffins.

ADAM Whatever. Just that she’s this virtuous unexpected lady influence who convinces him to reach for the gold, politically and morally. But that movie had a clear happy ending, an ordinary payoff, in a way that this didn’t. What’d you guys think of the acting?

BETH I thought it was fine.

ADAM I thought it was interesting that they were all really good even though I had never heard of them and will probably never see any of them ever again.

BROOM Apparently the main guy, Brian Donlevy, was a regular tough in film noir. Now that you’ve seen this, you may recognize him.

BETH I have seen his face.

BROOM In connection to what you’re saying: as I was getting over my worrying that it was going to have a clear political agenda, I thought it was refreshing to see a movie that dared to go toward these political ideas just for the hell of it, just for playful writerly fun. Because that’s exactly what The American President or Dave or whatever would not be given the leeway to do. A movie like that generally has to clearly pick who its friends and enemies were. Watching a movie that’s technically about the morality of politicians but is not political, is not a flag-waving movie, felt very freeing. It was fun!

BETH It was fun.

ADAM Yeah. It didn’t lose my attention, though I found it puzzling.

BROOM We’ve just started this project and we don’t have a deep historical knowledge to draw on about this, but imagining 1940…

BETH Written in 1936.

BROOM That’s right, written earlier, but when it was awarded the Oscar in 1941, when people voted for it…

ADAM This was a 1940 movie given its award in 1941?

BROOM That’s correct. So, at the time, do you imagine that what puzzled us about it did not puzzle them because their attitudes were different? Do you feel that the writing carries in it some of the premises of that moment?

BETH I think it probably echoes tone that was being used in other movies of the time. I think it didn’t feel out of the ordinary to people.

ADAM What year was The Bells of St. Mary’s for example? I feel like the 1940s had all these earnest morality-play movies, but full of well-drawn characters. They probably just saw this as an amusing cynical inversion, as you said. But the weird lumpinesses that we’re identifying? I don’t think that’s of the time. I think that’s just sort of idiosyncratic to this writing.

BETH Do you think that’s why it won?

ADAM Well, it makes the writing seem a little thicker than a sort of standard stock puppetry sketch. Yeah, probably.

BROOM It was very writerly, all of that dialogue. Watching this in any era, even now, you can’t help but think about the guy with the typewriter. Of course I don’t know what it competed against.

[we look it up]

BETH Could this script be filmed today?

BROOM This isn’t a direct answer to that, but it does occur to me now that — in connection with the Coen brother influence I talked about before — the plot of The Hudsucker Proxy is sort of built on this absurd rise-and-fall structure. He rises for absurd reasons, and then at his peak when he’s been given all this phony power, he uses it, and then is brought down. But it doesn’t have quite as cynical a shrugging attitude as this. Anyway. Could this screenplay be used now?

BETH I think it could, but it would feel like they were doing something. Like they were doing something retro.

BROOM It sort of felt like they were doing something here.

BETH It’s weird enough that it can exist a little out of time.

ADAM It would have to be updated. She’s a little too much of the angel blonde.

BETH It has to do with acting. Her voice had so much to do with how she came across, and nobody speaks like that anymore.

BROOM It’s like you said: she’s a little of an operator at the beginning. It’s just a question of where those domestic scenes ended up going. The fact that there was any domestic component to this movie at all was strange. It was all very strange. Because the whole scenario is so two-dimensional, and then the character goes home and looks around and goes, “I guess this is where I live.” There was a sense of the two-dimensionality of it being in constant tension with the fact that anything could happen. It felt writerly in that way, in that it reminded me of when I’m writing and I go, “uh, I guess they’ll… go home now? So, uh… what does the house look like? I can make up anything!” It felt flat and limited in that way, and then all of these weird little details made it feel unlimited at the same time. That’s an interesting kind of space to be in.

ADAM Are we gonna read the New York Times review?

BROOM Do we think the name “McGinty” is supposed to sound like the least classy or distinguished possible person? Is the title itself already a joke? No? Not necessarily?

[we read the New York Times review]

BROOM All right, he made a case for it. He helped me understand what I’m watching. Ribaldry!

ADAM And satire. Fair enough.

BROOM Well, I enjoyed it. I find it interesting to think about “American writing” while watching a movie.

ADAM I agree. It reminded me a little bit of… what’s the most contemporaneous Disney picture? Dumbo? They both had that [nasal Edward G. Robinson “yeeeah, seeee?” sounds]. I don’t know how to describe that.

BROOM It’s like a hardboiled worldly attitude, but one that takes all that worldliness for granted and then is able to be quite innocent because that’s the context, not the lived spirit.

ADAM I just meant that the speech patterns sound the same. “I’m Jiminy Cricket, see?”

BETH It’ll be interesting to see when that dies out.

ADAM It’ll be like the Irish drunk face in the Disney staples.

BROOM Well, every movie is different.

BETH I know, but it was a thing for a while, and at some point it will stop.

BROOM During the Disney series I for one repeatedly said stuff like “it’ll be interesting to note when this or that characteristic comes or goes, historically,” as though we were seeing one complete storyline of American history. But Disney movies didn’t really add up to that; they were quite diverse. And this is just going to be even more extreme. What constitutes “interesting writing” in each given year is not going to seem like a traceable throughline. In some ways, I think, the most interesting writing is probably the least historical.

BETH Kind of on the outside.

BROOM Yeah, stands outside its time.

Last line in film:

— Time out, gents: here we go again.


[We finish our conversation by looking for footage of the Academy Awards ceremony. We find this newsreel footage. I believe Preston Sturges to be the uneasy-looking man with moustache center frame at 0:07.]

[I have since found this site where you can preview the complete original unedited takes for that newsreel, at higher resolution. Here is the audience pan: Sturges is at 0:31, and again, dutifully clapping, at 2:05. Many many other fun things to see in there too (including, at the end, a little bit of how the actual ceremony looked). And do check out all the other bits of footage as well, the awkward restagings for the sound camera: behind-the-scenes authenticity peeks through around the edges.]