Monday, May 20, 2019

George Sand: Indiana

The colorful life of George Sand (1804-1876) is perhaps better known than her writing. Her name conjures the image of the pants-wearing, tobacco-smoking gender nonconformist who counted among her lovers Chopin, the author Alfred de Musset, and the actress Marie Dorval. She was the friend of Liszt, opera singer Pauline Viardot and the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, and corresponded with Balzac, Alexandre Dumas fils, and Flaubert.

She was also, of course, an astonishingly prolific writer who produced five dozen novels, two dozen plays, hundreds of pages of essays and at least 20,000 letters (Flaubert began each of his letters to her with the salutation Chère Maître (Dear Master)). For some time I had been curious about her work and what had made her such a popular writer, but the sheer volume of her output was daunting: where to begin? Then I serendipitously came across her late novel Marianne (1876) in a used bookstore, and thought the time was right to begin exploring. I wound up reading backwards through her work, starting with Marianne, continuing with the mid-period novels Consuelo (1842) and Lucrezia Floriani (1846) and then ending (at least for now) with the first novel she wrote as sole author, Indiana (1832).

The birth of George Sand

In January 1831 the 26-year-old Aurore Dudevant, unhappy wife and mother, negotiated a partial separation from her incompatible husband and travelled to Paris to be with her much younger lover, Jules Sandeau. This was the Paris of Henri Murger's memoir-novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème, which later became the basis of Puccini's opera La Bohème. There was political ferment in the air and unrest in the streets of the bohemian quarter; the July Revolution that had overthrown Charles X had taken place only six months earlier. Authority—of all kinds—was being questioned.

Aurore Dudevant; portrait by Candide Blaize, 1830 (detail). Image: Musée Carnavelet

Aurore needed to find a means of supplementing the meagre allowance her husband provided her, and together with Sandeau began writing anonymous columns for the newspaper Le Figaro. But Aurore had literary ambitions beyond journalism. Writing articles covered her daily expenses, but she wanted to write fiction (which was also better-paid). She began to dress in men's clothes; they were much more practical, in particular, for theater-going. Wearing a suit and metal-heeled boots she could buy a ticket for the parterre (main floor) where the audience stood or sat on benches; women, with their voluminous dresses, had to sit in the roomier boxes, which were much more expensive. Dressed as a man Aurore was able to fully indulge her love of theatre and opera. She wrote a friend, "When one wants to write, one must see everything, know everything, laugh at everything. Ah, believe me, vive la vie d'artiste! Our motto is liberty!" [1]

George Sand in men's clothes; portrait by Eugene Delacroix, November 1834. Image: Musée Delacroix

Among the performers she witnessed was Maria Malibran as Desdemona in Rossini's Otello: "She made me weep, shudder, and suffer as though I had been watching a scene from real life. This woman is the foremost genius of Europe, as lovely as a Raphael Madonna, simple, energetic, naïve, she's the foremost singer and the foremost tragedian. I'm mad about her." [2]

Maria Malibran as Desdemona; portrait by François Bouchot (1834). Image:

Malibran inspired Aurore and Sandeau to write La Prima Donna, a short story which was published in April 1831 in La Revue de Paris under the joint pseudonym Jules Sand, although it was probably primarily Aurore's work.

Image from; original from Princeton University

It is the tragic tale of a star opera singer who is forced to retire from the stage after her marriage. She is languishing away when her husband finally relents. Her return to the stage in a performance of Romeo and Juliet is greeted rapturously by the public, but at the conclusion of the opera she collapses and dies. (It's an eerie coincidence that Malibran herself would collapse onstage at the end of a concert in September 1836 and die a week later; at the time of her death she was only 28.)

Aurore's fascination with Malibran is also apparent in Rose et Blanche, a full-length novel about two convent girls, one of whom becomes an opera singer and the other of whom becomes a nun.

Image from the Internet Archive (

Although written collaboratively with Sandeau, the narrative obviously drew heavily on Aurore's experiences of attending a convent school between the ages of 13 and 16 and also on her love of opera. Published in five volumes in December 1931, it appeared under the name J. Sand.

Aurore was under no illusions about the literary quality of Rose et Blanche—she called it "a wretched novel of no consequence" [3]—but she had another novel in mind that would be more personal. This one she wrote entirely on her own, and although she offered to issue it under the name J. Sand, Sandeau refused to be associated with it because of its scandalous themes. So Aurore devised a new pseudonym for herself: G. Sand.

Image from French Wikipedia (

No one has failed to point out that Indiana was about me and my life. That is absolutely untrue.
—George Sand [4]
Sand's claim is scarcely credible. Many of the characters and incidents in Indiana seem drawn directly from her life; she wrote autofiction before the word was invented.

Indiana is a young woman (19 when the novel opens) trapped in a loveless—and probably sexless—marriage with the much older Colonel Delmare. She falls in love, passionately but chastely, with her dashing neighbor Raymon de Ramière. She and Raymon meet when she tends to him after he is wounded by Delmare while climbing the wall into their garden late at night for an assignation with Indiana's creole servant Noun. Meanwhile, Indiana's reserved, taciturn cousin Sir Ralph Brown immediately perceives what is going on between Indiana and Raymon, and goes to extraordinary lengths to try to protect her from Raymon's selfish desires, her husband's jealous anger, and her own self-destructive impulses.

The unconsummated love affair between Indiana and Raymon seems to combine two situations from Sand's past. At age 17 Sand had emerged into social life after several years in a convent school. She quickly fell in love with a new acquaintance, the 30-year-old infantry lieutenant Prosper Tessier. But she was shocked when one day he suggested that their relationship should move beyond the platonic to the carnal. For him, meaningful glances, billets-doux and long horseback rides together evidently weren't sufficient manifestations of her love. An outraged Aurore rejected his proposal. As Indiana tells Raymon when he tries to seduce her, "'The insensitivity of your romantic and guilty plan wounded me very deeply. I believed then that you loved me—and you did not even respect me!'" (Ch. XII)

Perhaps, then, Aurore was on the rebound when, a few weeks later, she accepted the marriage proposal of another man. Ex-officer Casimir Dudevant was unprepossessing in appearance and almost a decade older than Aurore. He didn't offer Aurore love, but rather "eternal friendship"; he thought she would be a good match for him because of her "good and reasonable air." After their marriage in September 1822—she was 18, he was 27—it quickly became apparent that they were not well suited. As Sand describes Casimir Dudevant's fictional counterpart Colonel Delmare, "He treated all delicacies of the heart as feminine puerilities and sentimental subtleties. [He was] a man devoid of wit, tact, and education. . .His was thus the most antipathetic nature, the heart least made to comprehend, the mind the least capable of understanding his wife." (Ch. X)

Increasingly frustrated in her marriage, Aurore embarked after a few years on another platonic romance. Aurélien de Sèze was engaged to another woman, but he and Aurore exchanged murmured endearments, clandestine embraces, semi-chaste kisses and impassioned letters, all with Casimir's unhappy awareness and reluctant acquiescence. The meetings of Indiana and Raymon, where he is all impetuous desire while she, with ever-weakening resistance, insists on remaining physically faithful to her husband, probably draw heavily on these experiences.

Indiana is ultimately disappointed in both her lover and her husband.  Neither of them treats her as anything more than a means of gratifying his own needs; neither takes Indiana's thoughts and feelings into consideration, or thinks of her as his equal. Indiana writes to Raymon, "You [men] think yourselves masters of the world; I think you are only its tyrants" (Ch. XXIII). And when one day on her return from Raymon's her husband demands to know where she spent the previous night, she refuses to tell him: "You have no right to ask me that question. . .I know that I am the slave and you are the master. The law of the land has made you my master. You can bind my body, tie my hands, govern my acts. You have the right of the stronger, and society confirms you in it; but you cannot command my will, monsieur." (Ch. XXI)

Only the quiet, dependable Sir Ralph (who providentially turns up to rescue her in every moment of crisis) treats Indiana with respect.  He has loved her silently since they grew up together on Île Bourbon. Ultimately, in retreat from the crushing sorrows occasioned by her husband's cruelty and her lover's betrayal, Indiana returns there with Sir Ralph to try to find some residual traces of happiness from their bucolic childhood together.

The novel originally ended with Sir Ralph's confession of his love, followed by a double suicide. In the final version the two are discovered years later living together, sequestered from the world in a remote hut. Either version seems to point to the impossibility of woman's happiness and fulfillment within conventional marriage, a theme that Sand would return to repeatedly in her later novels.

Indiana was widely praised and became a huge success. Sand's literary future, at least in the near term, was assured. But as she embarked on her new novel Valentine over the summer of 1832, "working like a horse," it was becoming clear that Jules Sandeau lacked both her drive and her talent. [5] He had provided a reason for separation from her husband and had been a useful entrée into the Paris literary world, but he had become a financial and artistic burden rather than a collaborative partner. While Sand retained affection for him, she no longer needed him and did not lack for other admirers. Her next great love would be a man who was more her equal in literary talent: Alfred de Musset. In the meantime she would enjoy her fame and her sexual freedom. Henceforth her motto would indeed be "liberté!"

For further reading: George Burnham Ives' serviceable translation of Indiana.

  1. Quoted in Curtis Cate, George Sand: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 177. 
  2. Quoted in Cate, p. 178.
  3. Quoted in Cate, p. 191. 
  4. Quoted in Elizabeth Harlan, George Sand. Yale University Press, 2004, p. 143. 
  5. Quoted in Cate, p. 208.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Suggested reading: Things are not what they seem edition

April Fools' Day has passed, but it's always useful to be reminded that things are not always what they seem, and what we think we know isn't always true.

1. Want a longer life? Contact your Congressional representatives

As Pagan Kennedy notes in The Secret to a Longer Life? Don’t Ask These Dead Longevity Researchers (New York Times), anti-aging research has been going on for, well, ages. And someday a substance may be discovered that protects our telomeres, removes arterial and brain plaque, strengthens our bones, repairs sun-damaged skin, and helps keep us youthful and vigorous to 100 and beyond. (A wild guess: it's not likely to be Rainier Beer.)

But we've already discovered a way to vastly increase average life expectancy: it's called public health. Kennedy quotes Dr. Thomas R. Frieden's Shattuck Lecture published in The New England Journal of Medicine: "Since 1900, the average life span in the United States has increased by more than 30 years; 25 years of this gain have been attributed to public health advances" such as immunization mandates, clean air and water regulations, and restrictions on the places where people can exhale cigarette smoke into other people's faces. (Frieden notes that "Tobacco use is still the leading underlying cause of death in the United States and worldwide.") So as Kennedy writes, "Today, the greatest threat to your life span may be the Trump administration’s assault on public health and medical research. . .When it comes to staying alive, we’re all in it together."

A group of friends notifying insurance companies about their cultivation of  healthful habits. 

2. And when it comes to staying insured. . .

The New York State Department of Financial Services has found in a recent investigation that insurance companies are mining your Instagram feed to glean information about your habits. As Nathan Heller writes in Why the Life-Insurance Industry Wants to Creep on Your Instagram (New Yorker), insurers use this information to create models and algorithms that "purport to make predictions about a consumer’s health status based on the consumer’s retail purchase history; social media, internet or mobile activity; geographic location tracking; the condition or type of an applicant’s electronic devices (and any systems or applications operating thereon); or based on how the consumer appears in a photograph." Think twice before posting those Coachella or Burning Man pix. . .

3. Private in public

Speaking of oversharing, we've all heard highly personal conversations held in public. But there's more at stake than embarrassment. Kate Klonick, a law professor at St. John's University, gave her students A 'Creepy' Assignment: Pay Attention to What Strangers Reveal in Public (New York Times). She tasked her students with identifying someone in public using only clues from what they said loudly enough to be heard by lots of people, logos and monograms visible on their clothes and belongings, and Google searches.

It's shockingly easy: one student was able to find a stranger’s full name, college major, minor and year of graduation based only on someone addressing him by his first name and the college logo on his shirt. And some folks are just oblivious. A student reported overhearing someone recite "their entire credit card number while on a full train over the phone." And a reply to Klonick's Twitter thread about the assignment recalled a time at a Starbucks where "this dude was having like a fight with his accountant or something [more likely his bank or credit-card company]. Kept, loudly, repeating his SSN and full name on the phone. After the third time I wrote it down, and handed it to him."

We reveal private information to the strangers surrounding us because of two expectations. First, we assume anonymity in public, and paradoxically the more crowded a place is the more anonymous we feel. Second, we think we're protected by our own obscurity. But neither expectation holds when public spaces are being increasingly monitored and everyone is carrying around a powerful recording and searching device. For those of you who think, like some of the students in Klonick's class, "I don't care if anyone's watching, I have nothing to hide," you may be surprised at what you can inadvertently enable someone to discover.

Hans Asperger at the Curative Education Clinic of the University of Vienna Hospital c.1940. Photo: The Spectator

4. A touch of Nazi psychiatry

Instagram (now owned by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg), Google, and other culture-changing tech companies like Apple and Amazon have been founded and sustained by entrepreneurs with "limited social skills, a willingness to obsess and an interest in systems." As Matt McFarland's Washington Post article Why shades of Asperger’s Syndrome are the secret to building a great tech company notes, these traits are often considered essential to their success.

Asperger's Syndrome is named for Hans Asperger, a pediatric psychiatrist in the Curative Education Clinic at the University of Vienna Children's Hospital. He developed the diagnosis of high-functioning autism in his 1944 doctoral dissertation. Asperger himself coined the phrase "autism spectrum," and identified those at the higher-functioning end as having "special abilities." (Prior to Asperger, autism was a binary diagnosis: a child was autistic, or not.)

After Asperger's doctoral thesis was rediscovered and translated into English in 1991, he was hailed in some quarters as a pioneer of neurodiversity. But as Michele Pridmore-Brown writes in Unfeeling Malice (London Review of Books), her review of Edith Sheffer's book Asperger's Children (Norton, 2018), "whether autism is one condition or several, it remains steeped in the cultural values of its Nazi origins, and in the idea of the model personality: obedient, animated by collective bonds, socially competent, robust in mind and body." Those who were autistic did not fit in with the group-oriented ideal.

When the Jewish and liberal doctors were purged from the Children's Hospital after the Anschluss, the psychiatrists who remained knowingly participated in the Nazi eugenics program. While eugenic ideas did not originate with the Nazis, after the Anschluss they took on a lethal significance. Those children who were diagnosed with a failure to conform to normative neurological standards and who were deemed to lack compensating "special abilities" were sterilized, became the subject of gruesome medical experiments, or were sent to Spiegelgrund, "the children's killing centre" that was part of the Steinhof mental hospital. Asperger used his "autism spectrum" to separate children into "favorable cases" and the "ineducable." He sent the latter—many of them adolescent girls he found unruly, rebellious or precociously sexual—to Spiegelgrund, with the full awareness that they would be murdered by the injection of a fatal overdose of barbituates.

Those with Asperger's Syndrome (no longer recognized in the American DSM) are said to experience little pleasure from social interactions. At the least it's ironic that "limited social skills" are now considered a desirable condition for those who are creating the online platforms through which we increasingly conduct our social lives.

Fountain, 1917. Photo: Alfred Stieglitz

5. The unruly Baroness

Irrepressible, rebellious, and precociously (omni-) sexual: the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was Hans Asperger's worst nightmare. She was a performer, poet and artist, who approached her own life as a work of art. (Her title was real: the Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven was her third husband.)

After helping to stage her second husband's suicide and fleeing to America to escape creditors, Elsa made her way to New York in 1913. This was the year of the Armory Show, which introduced American audiences to modern art, and where Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was one of the artworks on display. Elsa joined the New York art scene, modelling for painters and photographers such as Duchamp's friend Man Ray. She wore extravagant costumes of her own design and produced assemblages of found and readymade objects, such as God (1917, co-created with Morton Schamberg, who was given sole credit for the work for many years):

Of course, the most famous work of readymade art is Fountain, a urinal set on its back and signed "R. Mutt 1917." Submitted to the American Society of Independent Artists exhibition, it later wound up on display at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291, where it was photographed by Stieglitz. The original disappeared at some point, and in the 1950s and 60s Duchamp created and sold sixteen "replicas" (the model of the urinal was different). In 2004 a poll of 500 British art professionals named Fountain as the most influential work of modern art.

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, 1919. 
Photo by Charles Sheeler, ca. 1920, from Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.

But what if Fountain wasn't by Duchamp? As novelist Siri Hustvedt notes in her article A woman in the men's room (The Guardian), in 1917 Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister in which he stated, "One of my female friends who had adopted the masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent [in] a porcelain urinal as a sculpture." The woman who had adopted the name Richard Mutt was Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. In early 1917 she was in Philadelphia; as Dr. Glyn Thompson has discovered, the plumber's trap used in God was sold by the Haines, Jones and Cadbury plumbing supply company of that city.

Plate H-3274 of the Hajoca Pocket Price List, 1910, cropped, rotated and inverted. 
Photo: Fig. 90(a) from Dr. Glyn Thompson, "Only in Philadelphia,"

And the urinal that was used in Fountain was manufactured by the Trenton (New Jersey) Potteries Company Ltd. (and not, as Duchamp would later claim, by the J. L. Mott Ironworks). The same triangular pattern of the drain holes is visible in the company's 1915 catalog (see Plate 3765-N and imagine it rotated on its back):

Plates 3755-N and 3765-N from the Blue Book Catalogue of the Trenton Potteries Company, 1915. 
Photo: Fig. 3 from Dr. Glyn Thompson, "Only in Philadelphia,"

Trenton, N.J., is approximately 30 miles from Philadelphia, and surely Philadelphia plumbing supply houses would get their stock from conveniently located local manufacturers. Thompson, in his post "Only in Philadelphia" on the site, adduces additional evidence that the creator of Fountain was Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

By the time Duchamp started authorizing Fountain "replicas" in 1950, Elsa had been dead for more than two decades. In December 1927 the gas in her Paris apartment was left on overnight, whether deliberately or by accident. She was only 53. Perhaps someday she will receive the credit she deserves for her pioneering art—including the single most influential work of the 20th century.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Betrayal takes one: Richard Hell

Time and time again I knew what I was doing and
Time and time again I just made things worse.
—Richard Hell, "Time"
For a lot of people in who have been in a band, it's because there came a moment when they realized "Hey—I could do that!" For Richard Meyers that moment came in 1972 when he went to see Patti Smith open for the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village.

Meyers had come to New York at the end of 1966. At that time he was a high school student with dreams of being a poet. He had taken a bus to New York with $100 in his pocket to join a group of classmates who were visiting the city for the holidays; when they left to go back to school, Meyers stayed. He took odd jobs as a shelf stocker, mail sorter, office temp, and laborer to scrape together a few weeks' rent. In his autobiography I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp (Ecco, 2014), he writes,
I quit jobs and changed apartments continuously. Both were so plentiful there was no reason to keep a job if I'd saved enough to go for two weeks without working. (p. 52)
From the perspective of the present this seems incredible. But between 1950 and 1980 Manhattan's population declined by more than half a million, or by nearly 30%. [1] The emptying out of Manhattan was a boon to artists, writers, performers, and misfits of all kinds. Rents were cheap: Meyers reports paying $16 a week for a room in an SRO hotel on "the most genteel block in the East Village." Vast abandoned industrial lofts and under-attended churches were transformed into art, music and performance spaces. It was possible to eke out a living on the margins as you pursued your chosen art.

For Meyers that art was initially writing, and he started printing his own poetry magazine. He was soon joined by his school friend and fellow writer Tom Miller, who hung out with him in the Lower East Side poetry scene. Miller was with Meyers that night in 1972 at the Mercer Arts Center. They had both gone to see Patti Smith perform (she didn't yet have a band); they already knew that she was "frighteningly new and good. . .electrifying, rock-and-roll level poetry" (p. 109).

But for Meyers the revelation that night was the Dolls: "Their music, though simple and sloppy, was physically thrilling. Their gigs were unlike any I'd ever experienced. They were parties, they were physical orgies, without much distinction between the crowd and the band" (p. 110).

The available New York Dolls footage seems either to have smudgy images and sludgy sound, or to show them performing in front of bemused, uncomprehending audiences. An example of the latter: their performance of "Personality Crisis" for the German TV show Musikladen (Music Shop) on 4 December 1973:

After seeing the Dolls, Meyers and Miller decided to form a group, even though Meyers had never played an instrument before. But for the kind of band he wanted to be in, technical proficiency was almost beside the point. As he writes, "Mere competence is always boring" (p. 248).

Another problem: their names were "hopelessly banal." So they adopted new ones: Meyers dubbed himself Richard Hell, possibly in homage to Arthur Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer, while Miller chose Rimbaud's partner in crime Verlaine.

Finally, one of the compelling things about the Dolls was their style: gutter glam and drag. Hell decided that his new group needed their own signature look. He hacked off his shoulder-length curls leaving jagged, spiky clumps. He wore thrift-store suits, straight-leg black jeans, and T-shirts torn to pieces and then put back together with safety pins. And the style that would later be called punk was born:

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell ca. 1974. 

Some possible models for Hell's haircut:

Left: Arthur Rimbaud; right: Antonin Artaud

Verlaine found Hell a cheap bass guitar and taught him how to play. Their band's first, short-lived incarnation was as the Neon Boys, with drummer Billy Ficca (who had been in a band with Verlaine in high school). They recorded a handful of songs, some of which you can find on YouTube:

The Neon Boys wore their early Kinks, Count Five, and electric Dylan influences on their sleeves. And Verlaine's trebly guitar tone made them sound thin. They needed a second guitarist to fill out the sound, but no one they auditioned seemed right (Doug Colvin, later Dee Dee Ramone, and Chris Stein, later of Blondie, were among those who didn't make the cut).

A few months later, having found guitarist Richard Lloyd, they tried again, this time calling themselves Television. The name was suggested by Hell, and he says he only noticed much later that Tom Verlaine's initials were TV. It was symbolic: Verlaine saw the band as his vehicle, and as the charismatic Hell began to capture more attention and write more songs the tensions between them would mount.

But for the time being there was the exhilaration of playing in a band:
It was like being born. It was everything one wants from so-called God. . .It was like making emotions and thought physical. . .it was fresh and every moment had that surging astonishment and pleasure—even if in the service of anger and disgust, as it often was—of anything being possible to make happen. It was like creating the world, and the feeling could never quite happen that way again, or be sustained, anyway, because familiarity and habit take the edge off. (pp. 128-129)
The desire to maintain the edge, that sense of "surging astonishment and pleasure," would soon lead Hell into some very dark places.

The band decided that they needed to find a place where they could play regularly, the way the Dolls had played Tuesday nights at the Mercer Arts Center. They found a club on the Bowery call CBGB (for "Country, Bluegrass and Blues") which was beginning to book rock bands. The owner, Hilly Kristal, agreed to let them play on Sundays for whatever they could take in at the door. Television was followed a few months later by the Ramones, Blondie, and (once she had formed a full backing band) Patti Smith. Soon CBGB became a scene:
We had conjured into existence, out of imagination, this reality. . .Where we were the positive standards of being, rather than examples of failure, depravity, criminality, and ugliness. . .The traits and signs of what came to be called punk were the ways that we'd systematically invented or discovered as means for displaying on the outside what was inside us. That's the origin of the funny, lyrical, angry music styles, the haircuts, the clothes, the names, and everything else that identified us. What defined the club was that it was where we were completely ourselves. And what could be better than that? (p. 150)
Television live at CBGB performing Hell's "Blank Generation":

But as the scene they had created was flourishing, Television was coming apart. Hell's more spontaneous approach frequently clashed with Verlaine's vision of highly composed songs that showcased his guitar lines. Hell preferred a sound that was rawer, less polished, more visceral.
It's true that the band sounded ragged. But this was something that had also been said of the early gigs (and often the later ones) of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. It was something that I positively liked in a band. . .But that's not what Tom was interested in anymore. (p. 135)
The tensions came to a head in the spring of 1975. After a series of shows in early March where Television opened for the Dolls, the group that had inspired them, Hell left the band. The Dolls were also fragmenting due to lack of commercial success and disagreements with the ideas of their new manager, expatriate Brit Malcolm McLaren (in an attempt to generate outrage he had them dress in red patent leather and perform in front of a giant hammer and sickle banner). The Dolls' lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan split off to form their own group, the Heartbreakers. They invited Hell to play bass and write songs with them, later adding Walter Lure as a second guitarist. [2]

By this time Hell had become a regular heroin user. Although he claims not to have (yet) become addicted, it's a distinction without a difference. Thunders and Nolan were already full-blown junkies. Hell added some lyrics to a Dee Dee Ramone song about scoring heroin and the Heartbreakers had their anthem, "Chinese Rocks": ("Chinese Rocks" ends at 11:00)

Some of the lyrics:
Somebody calls me on the phone
They say, 'Hey, is Dee Dee home?
Well you wanna take a walk? You wanna go cop?
You wanna go get some Chinese Rocks?'

I'm living on a Chinese Rock
All my best things are in hock
I'm living on a Chinese Rock
Everything is in the pawn shop (it is!)
Given the rampant drug use and the presence of two strong personalities in the band, it's not surprising that this version of the Heartbreakers lasted less than a year. There are varying accounts of why the band split up, but ultimately, as with Television, it came down to incompatible visions of what the band should be:
My leaving the band was really about ambition level. For them the band was basically a party, or, when not, it was the ride to the party. I loved the way they played, and I loved Johnny's song-making instincts and rock and roll style altogether, and I liked the party, but I wanted the songs to talk about things other than "going steady" and "pirate love" [two Thunders-written songs]. I also wanted to try some new ways of playing. . .If I was going to do those things it would have to be in a band with which I shared certain other aims and one that I led unequivocally.  (pp. 180-181)
That band was the Voidoids, which featured Robert Quine on guitar. Hell had met Quine through Cinemabilia, a movie-memorabilia bookstore where they had both worked. Quine was not your average guitar hero: he was already in his thirties, bald, and dressed like an accountant. But his appearance was deceptive. Despite his buttoned-down facade Quine could wrest splintered shards of sound from his guitar; Hell calls his playing "violently sublime" (p. 177). Comparing the Voidoids' version of "Blank Generation" to Television's, it's clear that Quine's intensity brings the song to a different level:

Unfortunately Hell (like many musicians) didn't get legal advice before signing an exploitative management deal that he didn't fully understand. While it provided him and his bandmates with regular salaries and paid for the recording of a demo, everything they received was an advance against their share of future royalties—of which the management company was taking nearly half off the top. Hell suspected that the deal was one-sided, but didn't really care. The contracts "covered only the first few records and I figured I'd bring out a new record every year indefinitely. The important thing was to get started" (p. 193). You have to wonder if his heroin habit was doing the thinking for him.

Relations with their record company, Sire, were also very strained. After delays in the release of the Blank Generation album, the band scored an ironic coup by being asked to join the fall 1977 tour of The Clash. The originator of punk style was now opening for a band that (like most of the UK punk bands) had borrowed elements of his look. But conditions on the tour were spartan and the album wasn't released in England until the tour was over. Disgusted by Sire's treatment, Hell was able to get out of his contract a few months later, but that meant that the label had no incentive to continue to promote his record.

Richard Hell ca. 1977. Photo: Kate Simon

The Voidoids wound up in a limbo that was partly due to their lack of a recording contract, partly due to Hell's involvement in several movies (Rachid Kerdouche's Final Reward (1978), Ulli Lommel's Blank Generation (1980) and Susan Seidelman's Smithereens (1982)), and partly due to his drug dependencies.
Addiction is lonely. It starts as pure pleasure, and the degeneration, in a few quick years, into a form of monumental compulsive-obsessive condition is actually more psychological than physical. Once the drug use has replaced everything else, life becomes purely a lie, since in order to keep any self-respect, the junkie has to delude himself that use is by choice. That's the worst loneliness—the isolation, even from oneself, in that lie. In the meantime the original physical pleasure becomes merely dull relief from the threat of withdrawal, from the horror of real life. (pp. 251-252)
Over the next few years Hell brought the Voidoids together to play live only when he needed drug money. He wasn't writing many songs or testing out much new material; it was, in multiple senses, wasted time.

Finally, at the urging of his manager Hell went back into the studio with a revamped version of the Voidoids to record their second album Destiny Street. But he only had seven original songs, and even they weren't all fully finished. Hell writes that "I did then and do now consider the material on Destiny Street to be superior to the set on Blank Generation" (p. 272). That's not an opinion shared by many, but it's also clear that (in a nicely circular feedback loop) his exposure to The Clash and UK punk was influencing his approach. "Lowest Common Dominator" from Destiny Street:

I saw Richard Hell and the Voidoids in Chicago in July 1982, about a month before Destiny Street was finally released, in a venue that used to be a church. I don't think Robert Quine was with them. The opening band was Ivan Julian and the Outsets; when Richard Hell came out, the Outsets became the Voidoids. Hell writes that at this time he had a full-blown heroin habit, and that "I hawked in music clubs my distracted imitation of my original self" (p. 275).

I remember being able to tell that he was pretty stoned; his eyes seemed quite bloodshot. But the concert was great. The songs I recognized were better live than on record, the band was loose but not sloppy, and Hell's "I really don't give a fuck" attitude just added to the charged anarchic energy. The personal toll that drugs were taking on him wasn't evident, and I had no idea that our enjoyment was a product of his pain.

But Destiny Street failed to redeem the Voidoids' fortunes, and a year or so later Hell attended his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Shortly afterwards, he writes, "I stopped playing music and stopped using drugs," although that wasn't quite true in either case (p. 282).

Like his music, Hell's I Dreamed offers mixed pleasures. It is not always polished, but it is vivid and immediate. If you had, or have, bohemian dreams, Hell's story is both inspiring and cautionary. And if punk rock (especially in its New York varieties) is or was at all important to you, he played a formative role in its creation.

But he stops writing just when things are about to get really difficult. Sex and drugs and rock and roll is a compelling story—to a point; what happens when you want, need, or have to move past that point? After 1984 Hell married, became a father, divorced, turned forty and more, published novels and wrote a lot of essays and reviews. What did it feel like to go from the King of CBGB to someone who was once sort of famous? Perhaps we'll have to wait for the sequel to know.

One of the liberating things about punk was its utter willingness to speak impolite truths. As Hell writes of The Sex Pistols, "Johnny Rotten said and did things the kids hadn't even known they'd felt, much less that it was possible to say" (p. 228). But when Hell's disdain is turned on others it can feel like he's still smarting from some old wounds. When he writes of Patti Smith that "she was more charismatic than me and a better performer and drew bigger crowds, but she was also full of shit in many ways, and a hypocritical, pandering diva, and her band was generic and mediocre" (p. 203), whatever the degree of truth in his remarks he just sounds jealous of her success.

In fairness, he can also be unsparing with himself. During coke binges, "in emergencies I would crawl around the floor, spastically, my nervous system jerking back and forth in the scary gap between one and zero, trying to identify any little white specks as stray flecks of coke" (p. 270). The image of Hell snorting carpet fluff in desperate bid to satisfy his craving is one I won't soon forget. So much for junkie glamour.

Some of the best writing in the book is about his complicated relationship with Tom Verlaine, the way they pushed and supported one another creatively, but ultimately frustrated and blocked one another as well. Early in the book Hell writes, perhaps thinking of the first years of their friendship, "You needed someone to conspire with, someone to help you maintain the nerve to carry out your ideas. Someone to know what you were thinking (otherwise your thinking didn't really exist). Someone who had qualities you wanted, maybe, too, and that you could acquire to some degree by association" (p. 9). It's fitting that the book ends with a chance encounter between the two in 2011. As one of Hell's songs from Blank Generation puts it, betrayal takes two; perhaps they were not only too different to be able to work together, but too alike.

Hell, of course, not only betrayed (and was betrayed by) others, but in the years of wasted time and squandered talent, himself. Betrayal takes two, except when it only takes one.

The greatest-looking thing in the room, apart from my shoes

This is already a long post, but there's another aspect of Hell's I Dreamed that's unavoidable: his descriptions of the bodies of the women he slept with, or wanted to sleep with, are not only reductive and diminishing, they feature his most impoverished vocabulary and worst writing. Dismaying examples follow, so if you don't want to read them, skip to the final paragraph.

Of Patty Oldenburg, the older woman who introduced the 19-year-old Hell to the New York art and poetry worlds: "She was a firecracker. . .with a pretty little hard ass" (p. 78). Of Roberta Bayley, the photographer who documented the CBGB scene, shot album covers for the Heartbreakers, Voidoids and Ramones, and was crucial in promoting Hell's image: "She had the prettiest breasts I'd ever seen" (p. 152). Of a girlfriend named Carol: "breasts that lifted as if they were scenting the air, an athlete's high butt. . .soft lush see-through blond pubic hair" (p. 154).  ("Breasts that lifted as if scenting the air"?)

Of Paula Yates, encountered on the Clash tour: "the greatest-looking thing in the room, apart from my shoes. She had. . .quite large breasts, fully worthy of their braless, near-full visibility through her wispy blouse" (p. 236). Of actress, model, and writer Cookie Mueller: "the most muscular ass of any woman I'd ever known" (p. 255). Of Patti Smith: "a natural-born sex waif and a pretty-assed comedienne. . .begging to be fucked, skinny as a rod, massive tits deceptively draped in her threadbare overlarge Triumph T-shirt" (p. 109). (Odd that if she was begging to be fucked she never wound up in bed with Hell, to his evident chagrin.)

Yes, it goes on. A Dutch girlfriend named Livia had "a mental age of about nine" and was "temporarily working as a call girl. She had. . .luscious luscious large snow-white tits and blond pubic hair" (again with the blond pubic hair?). One of the most wrenching moments in the book occurs when Livia returns from an encounter with a john, weeping and with a bruised face. She'd been beaten: "We lay in bed together and it was like breathing sadness, like being cut open. On the other hand, we had some money now and I could get drugs for another day" (pp. 274-276).

His girlfriend around the time of Destiny Street "was a coke dealer. . .She'd recently come to New York from San Francisco, where she'd been working as an escort. . .She was stick-skinny, though she had a perfectly ample ass, and her breasts were minuscule and she was embarrassed and self-conscious about that" (pp. 269-270). Hell includes enough information in his description of this woman to make her readily identifiable; I wonder how she feels about being named as a former escort and coke dealer. He also includes a topless photo of another girlfriend, the singer Lizzy Mercier, who died in 2004; obviously, we can't know how she would have felt about that.

It's creepy for a man in his mid-60s (at the time I Dreamed was published) to be gloating over the women who were generous enough to share their bodies with him forty years ago. It also reveals how limited and self-centered his view of them still is. It deeply mars what's otherwise an often thoughtful, and at times harrowing, reckoning with his past.

  1. Table 33. New York - Race and Hispanic Origin for Selected Large Cities and Other Places: Earliest Census to 1990. Retrieved March 8, 2019, from
  2. After the disintegration of the Dolls, Malcolm McLaren would return to England and become the manager of The Sex Pistols. Similarities between the Pistols' spiky hair, torn T-shirts and safety pins and the look that Hell pioneered at CBGB are probably not coincidental.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

It's not okay: Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite

Watching the recent films Mary Queen of Scots (2018, screenplay by Beau Willimon, directed by Josie Rourke) and The Favourite (2018, screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos) we noticed something odd.

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) speaking to her infant son James in Mary Queen of Scots:

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, speaking to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in The Favourite:

To quote one of our favorite lines from Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003): "It's not okay. It. Is. Not. O. K."

Mary Queen of Scots portrays the deadly struggle for the Scottish throne in the 1560s; The Favourite is about the no-holds-barred contest between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) for political and personal influence in the court of Queen Anne in the early 1700s. "Okay" is American slang that first appeared in the mid-19th century, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Why single out this particular blunder? After all, both films are filled with historical inaccuracies, fanciful scenes, and (often deliberate) anachronisms.

In Mary Queen of Scots there is a final confrontation between Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary, when in reality the royal cousins never met. (The Elizabeth-Mary scene is also the dramatic climax of Donizetti's 1835 opera Maria Stuarda, which was based on Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play Maria Stuart.) Mary Queen of Scots also takes a highly indulgent view of Mary's ruthlessness, plus in Lord Darnley it features the kind of despicable gay villain that I thought had been banished from movies around 1980.

In The Favourite, Sarah dances provocatively with Masham (Joe Alwyn) in front of the queen, and as the scene progresses their moves grow more and more outrageous.

The idea is to make their breaches of decorum as shocking to us as they might have been in the 18th century, without having to provide a lot of exposition about the permissible bounds of behavior at court in 1705. But such deliberate anachronisms put invisible quotation marks around the action, and the consequent irony distances us from the characters' dilemmas rather than making them more vivid. I think it's more powerful to try to draw us into the world of the characters, rather than to bring them so obviously into ours, but for some reason the filmmakers neglected to consult me.

But the use of "okay" in both films is something different. It's not intended to shock or surprise us, or make the characters seem our contemporaries, or provide a shorthand explanation of antiquated social conventions. It's simply a mistake. In both films the characters could have said "It's all right" with no loss of meaning and a much higher degree of historical verisimilitude. Perhaps next time the filmmakers should ask a librarian.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Typing isn't writing: Eduardo Halfon

Eduardo Halfon (photo: Adriana Bianchedi)

In discussing his beginnings as a writer, Eduardo Halfon has stated,
I wanted to write a story before I could write one good sentence. I didn’t yet understand that typing isn’t writing. . . [1]
Halfon may or may not have recognized that he was echoing a famous remark by Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac and other Beat authors: "They're not writers. They're typists." Capote was being dismissive of writers that he thought of as "nonstylists." But as Capote himself recognized, non-style is actually a highly self-conscious style. [2]

Non-stylists write books that commonly feature:
  • narrators or other characters who share biographical details, and sometimes a name, with the writer 
  • action that often takes place in cafés, bars, all-night diners, and other writers' hangouts
  • road trips, travel to unfamiliar places, voluntary or involuntary exile—situations which highlight the main character's sense of alienation, rootlessness, difference or nonconformity
  • A succession of quotidian details intended to provide a sense of gritty, unfiltered realism
  • prose that imitates the rhythms and diction of speech, which is intended to give the impression of being spontaneous and unrevised.
It's a style that is in international literary vogue at the moment. Its contemporary resurgence may be credited in part to the rise to prominence two decades ago of Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño. Other recent non-stylists include Augustín Fernández Mallo, César Aira, and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Despite (perhaps unintentionally) aligning himself with Capote's attack on non-stylists, Eduardo Halfon belongs in their company. His collection of interlinked short stories El boxeador polaco (The Polish Boxer, Bellevue Literary Press, 2012) has an epigram from non-stylist Henry Miller, and features a narrator named Eduardo Halfon who, like his creator, is a professor of literature.

In The Polish Boxer Halfon has a characteristic move: his narrator will assert something, then immediately undercut or contradict the assertion. A paradigmatic instance occurs in the opening of the fourth story, "White Smoke," which is worth quoting because it is so typical of Halfon's style:
When I met her in a Scottish bar, after I don't know how many beers and almost an entire pack of unfiltered Camels, she told me that she liked it when men bit her nipples, and hard.

It wasn't actually a Scottish bar, just some old bar in Antigua, Guatemala, that only served beer and was called (or was referred to as) the Scottish bar. [3]
Within a few paragraphs the uncertainties multiply:
Her hair was dark brown and she had emerald blue eyes, if emerald blue even exists.
I greeted her [friend] while they spoke in Hebrew, laughing, and I thought I heard them mention the number seven at one point, but I'm not sure why.
Without knowing why, I felt a bit guilty.
I hugged her tightly, feeling something that couldn't be named. . . [4]
If you're feeling generous, you can accept that the narrator's recurring uncertainties reflect the way the stories we tell ourselves shift over time, and the ultimate impossibility of knowing the truth about ourselves and others. And this is, indeed, one of the explicit subjects of The Polish Boxer. In "White Smoke" the narrator finds himself thinking about his Polish grandfather, "about the five green digits tattooed on his forearm, which for all my childhood I thought were there, as he used to tell me himself, so that he could remember his telephone number." Our understanding changes, and so pinning down a perception or a feeling in precise language (in this view) falsifies our experience.

As Halfon writes in "A Speech at Póvoa,"
Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. . .Or perhaps literature, as my old friend from Brooklyn used to argue, is no more than the precipitate, zigzagging, rambling discourse of a stutterer. . .As we write, we know that there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn't forget it. But we always do. [5]
If you're feeling less generous, you may think that it's precisely the writer's task to create the evocative image, to bring out the telling detail, to examine and articulate inchoate feelings, to observe and remember. When Halfon presents an image—"emerald blue eyes"—he immediately forestalls our imaginative engagement by adding the dismissive "if emerald blue even exists." Doesn't the act of writing the phrase bring the idea of "emerald blue" into existence? But this is the kind of writerliness that Halfon refuses, or (since he does offer us the phrase before undercutting it) half-refuses.

Like other non-stylists, Halfon's primary goal is not to write well-crafted sentences. Instead his focus is on identity, and how it is commixed, unrooted and changeable—even for those of us for whom it seems settled. The first story in the collection, "Distant," tells of a gifted student in one of the narrator's literature classes who, when his father dies, must leave school and return to the altiplano to work his family's farm. By the final story, "Sunsets," the former student may have left the farm to become a tour guide at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and an artist. Several stories in The Polish Boxer recount the narrator's fruitless pursuit of a restlessly wandering pianist who may (or may not) be a Serbian Gypsy. Both the pianist himself and his identity are elusive.

Identity may be Halfon's central concern because his own is extraordinarily multifarious. He has Lebanese and Polish ancestry, was born in Guatemala, lived in the United States between the age of 10 and his graduation with a degree in industrial engineering from NC State, returned to Guatemala as an adult, and now lives once again in the United States. However, in The Polish Boxer it is not national but religious identity that is the most troubling. The narrator of "White Smoke" outrages the Israeli tourist he's just met: "I'm not Jewish anymore, I said, smiling at her, I retired." [6] The book ends with the narrator fleeing the bedroom of his deceased grandfather and throwing his white skullcap into a trash can. We wonder if this extreme gesture may indicate the narrator's dawning recognition that perhaps some aspects of our identities are not so easily discarded.

Two more books by Halfon have been translated into English: Monasterio (Monastery, Bellevue Literary Press, 2014) and Signor Hoffman (Mourning, Bellevue Literary Press, 2018). For more information, see: Bellevue Literary Press: Eduardo Halfon

  1. Eduardo Halfon, "Better not say too much: Eduardo Halfon on literature, paranoia and leaving Guatemala." The Guardian, 4 November 2015.
  2. Pati Hill. "The Art of Fiction XVII: Truman Capote." Paris Review. Issue 16, Spring/Summer 1957, pp. 35-51.  
  3. Eduardo Halfon, "White Smoke," The Polish Boxer, Bellevue Press, 2012, p. 72.
  4. Halfon, pp. 73, 76, 77.
  5. Halfon, pp. 176-177.
  6. Halfon, p. 72.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Best Picture? I don't think so

The 91st Academy Awards will be broadcast on February 24, 2019, and I doubt that I'll be watching. Not only is the whole self-congratulatory exercise overlong, tacky and often boring (except when it's a train wreck), but the influence on the awards of campaigning and of box office success or failure has meant that the Academy has a pretty terrible track record when it comes to honoring cinematic achievement picking winners.

Best Picture has been a category where particularly poor choices have been made. Inspired by this Guardian article, for each of the nine decades of sound films I've chosen a single year (generally among several) in which the Best Picture winner was clearly the wrong film.

Best Picture winner of 1938: You Can't Take It With You, written by Robert Riskin and directed by Frank Capra, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

You Can't Take It With You has a great cast, including Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore. But as I wrote in The Films of Jean Arthur, "A major mistake made by Capra and Riskin is to marginalize the winsome Arthur and Stewart, who disappear for long stretches while screen time is taken up by the 'zany' (i.e. gratingly irritating) antics of the other family members."

The film that should have won: Grand Illusion, written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak, directed by Renoir.*

Perhaps the greatest anti-war film ever made, Renoir's La Grande Illusion is set during World War I but is clearly intended to sound the alarm about the conflagration about to engulf the world. A group of French prisoners is held in a German camp; while confined there, the aristocratic French officer Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) discovers that he has more in common with the German commandant von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) than he does with his own enlisted men. And both men come to recognize that their code of military honor has become outdated in an age of mass slaughter.

Best Picture winner of 1944: Going My Way, written by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, directed by Leo McCarey.

I'm not an enemy of sentiment—I think either The Bishop's Wife or Miracle on 34th Street would have been a better Best Picture of 1947 than Gentleman's Agreement—so I can't be too curmudgeonly about Going My Way. After all, it's got opera star Risë Stevens playing, well, an opera star, and Bing Crosby playing a priest whose laid-back fatherliness is just what his new parish's dead-end kids need. Jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddins calls it "funny and resonant." And, no doubt, immensely comforting for home-front audiences. But it wasn't the best picture of 1944.

The film that should have won: Double Indemnity, written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, directed by Wilder, based on the novel by James M. Cain.

Double Indemnity features the doubly indelible performances of Fred MacMurray as an unscrupulous insurance salesman and Barbara Stanwyck as a seductive siren; together they plot to murder her inconvenient husband and, of course, collect the insurance. It's also formally inventive, narrated in flashback over the course of a single night by MacMurray's character. Infidelity, murder, betrayal: far from offering comfort, Wilder's ink-black noir is distinctly unsettling.

Double Indemnity was hardly the only film noir overlooked by the Academy in the 1940s. If you were putting together a noir festival you'd undoubtedly also include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gilda (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Out of the Past (1947), and Gun Crazy (1949). You can count on one finger the number of those films that were nominated for Best Picture (The Maltese Falcon, which, together with Citizen Kane, lost to How Green Was My Valley). 

Best Picture winner of 1958: Gigi, written by Alan Lerner with music by Frederick Loewe, directed by Vincent Minnelli, based on the novel by Colette.

Even for someone who is generally a fan of movie musicals, Gigi can be hard to watch, particularly when Maurice Chevalier's smarmy Honoré is onscreen (yes, this is the film with "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"). The plot, such as it is, turns on whether innocent young Gigi (Leslie Caron) will agree to become the mistress of Honoré's nephew Gaston (Louis Jourdan). The sexual politics of the movie must have been jarringly anachronistic even in 1958. Like Chevalier, this film hasn't aged well.

The film that should have won: Vertigo, written by Samuel Taylor, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the novel D'Entre les Morts by Boileau-Narcejac.

In the first post on this blog I wrote that Vertigo, Hitchcock's masterpiece of obsession, is a film that "becomes richer with every viewing." It features Hitchcock's swirling, disorienting camera; Bernard Herrmann's sweeping, powerful score; James Stewart's tormented detective Scotty Ferguson; and Kim Novak's brilliant double role as the coolly erotic Madeline Elster and the pleading, insecure Judy Barton. On its release a box office failure, in 2012 it was chosen in the Sight and Sound Critics' Poll as the greatest film ever made.

As is well known, Hitchcock was regularly snubbed by the Academy. Among his other films from the 1950s are Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North By Northwest (1959). Remarkably, none of these films (including Vertigo) was nominated for Best Picture.

Best Picture winner of 1968: Oliver!, written by Vernon Harris with music by Lionel Bart and John Green, directed by Carol Reed, based on the stage musical by Bart and the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

Yes, it's tuneful and has charming urchins, but that doesn't make it the best film released in 1968.

The film that should have won: 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, directed by Kubrick.

A small team of astronauts is sent on an expedition to the outer planets. Because the trip will take years, most of the crew has been placed in suspended animation. But the HAL-9000 computer running the ship has been given secret instructions to alter the ship's mission, and cannot let mere human lives interfere. . .Kubrick's film was the first to depict the possibilities of space exploration with scientific accuracy. He captured both the wonder and the fear occasioned by the vastness of the cosmos, and our anxieties about the destructive potential of our technologies. 2001 was ranked #2 in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll of the greatest films of all time.

Best Picture winner of 1979: Kramer vs. Kramer, written and directed by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Avery Corman.

Misogyny masquerading as male feminist enlightenment. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) abandons her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and their son Billy (Justin Henry) to "find herself." Over the course of the next year Ted gradually learns how to be a nurturing dad, and even has to take a lower-paying job so that he can have the time to provide care for Billy. (This is not presented as a dilemma that women are routinely compelled to face, but rather as a sign of Ted's moral superiority.) Joanna returns after a year to sue her former husband for custody of Billy, and in court reveals that (although she's been out of the workforce for a decade) she's now earning a higher salary than he is. Awarded custody, Joanna comes to the realization that Ted is a better parent than she can ever be.

The film that should have won: Apocalypse Now, written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Coppola, based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

This film is a famous mess: Marlon Brando (Colonel Kurtz) arrived on set obese and unprepared, Martin Sheen (Captain Willard) suffered a heart attack on location, and the sets were destroyed by a typhoon. Coppola took years to edit the mountains of footage and produced multiple versions of the film. In the version I saw in a repertory theater in the 1980s, Kurtz's compound is obliterated by a massive airstrike as the closing credits roll, one of the most astonishingly violent film sequences I've ever seen. (Apparently Coppola removed this footage from subsequent versions.) The French theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote that Apocalypse Now is "the extension of the war through other means, the pinnacle of this failed war, and its apotheosis." The film was ranked #6 in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll of the greatest films of all time.

Best Picture winner of 1989: Driving Miss Daisy, written by Alfred Uhry, directed by Bruce Beresford, based on the play by Uhry.

In 1989 a powerful film about racism and its continuing legacies featuring revered veteran actors was released. Only it wasn't Driving Miss Daisy.

The film that should have won: Do The Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee.

An urgent film that grips you from the first moment of the Public-Enemy-fueled title sequence and never lets go, Do The Right Thing addresses racism (of all kinds), tensions in changing communities, and police violence against black men and women. A great cast includes Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn (above), John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Roger Guenveur Smith, Martin Lawrence, Samuel Jackson, Rosie Perez and Lee himself. Unfortunately still as relevant as the day it was released, Do The Right Thing is one of the greatest American films of the past 30 years.

Best Picture winner of 1990: Dances with Wolves, written by Michael Blake, directed by Kevin Costner, based on the book by Blake.

A film that attempts to honor Native Americans, but indulges in discredited white savior and noble savage narratives.

The film that should have won: Goodfellas, written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, directed by Scorsese, based on the book Wiseguy by Pileggi.

The story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a mob hanger-on who turns informer, Goodfellas is one of Scorsese's best films. The "Do you think I'm funny?" scene, in which a seemingly offhand comment Hill makes to psychotic gangster Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) suddenly becomes a matter of deadly seriousness, is one of several brilliant set pieces in the film. Another is the sequence just before Hill's arrest, as, high on cocaine, he tries to instruct his wife in the making of a Bolognese sauce, manage a collapsing drug deal, and control his paranoia about FBI surveillance (which turns out to be justified). In the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll, Goodfellas is tied at #48 with Hitchcock's Psycho (1961) and Rear Window (1954), Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), and Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Best Picture of 1975), among others.

Best Picture winner of 2001: A Beautiful Mind, written by Akiva Goldsman, directed by Ron Howard, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar.

Aussie action hero Russell Crowe as a schizophrenic genius? As you might guess, A Beautiful Mind glamorizes, simplifies and falsifies mathematician John Nash's life story, omitting his bisexuality, his violence towards his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), and their 1963 divorce (they remarried in 2001). As usual for Hollywood biopics, the film goes for uplift over the actual complexity of the subject's life.

The film that should have won: Mulholland Drive, written and directed by David Lynch.

Set on the fringes of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive is a dreamlike neo-noir that turns nightmarish. Lynch masterfully creates an atmosphere of suspense and dread. Characters are doubled and may exist in each other's dreams or fantasies. As with any David Lynch film the narrative is non-linear and open to multiple interpretations. Mulholland Drive was ranked #28 in the 2012 Sight and Sound Critics' Poll of the greatest films of all time.

Best Picture winner of 2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), written by Alejandro Iñárritu and others (did it really take four people to produce this script?), directed by Iñárritu.

An utterly insufferable actors' and director's exercise, Birdman is an attempt to remake John Cassavetes' semi-improvisatory Opening Night (1977) using the pseudo-continuous-take technique of Hitchcock's Rope (1948). Neither the director nor the actors seem to be aware of how annoying narcissistic self-regard, inflated self-importance, and rampant self-pity can be. I defy anyone to sit through this turkey more than once.

The film that should have won: The Grand Budapest Hotel, written and directed by Wes Anderson.

Perhaps based in part on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal's novel I Served the King of England, Anderson's film features an old hotel, a priceless painting, and a murder mystery set against the violent history of Central Europe in the 20th century. In my list of favorite films seen in 2014, I wrote that the movie, a "matrushka doll of a fairy tale, with its stories within stories, is a visual and narrative delight."

* Because there was no Best Foreign Language Film award in 1938, Grand Illusion was eligible for Best Picture (and was nominated in that category).