Thursday, March 30, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt eleven)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

Finally his eyes descend. He’s done thinking. “I’m not so sure I see the parallels,” he says. “You don’t see the parallels?” Already I’m sure he will not write my recommendation. “Well, she was kidnapped, but it wasn’t in the Scottish Highlands,” he says. “And the Robert Louis Stevenson book was published a hundred years ago.”

How this man is teaching literature is a miracle, a debacle.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt ten)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

The party is at the home of Arabella Gschwind, Maria Fabiola’s godmother, a woman I haven’t met but who my dad says is a well-known interior decorator. “She did the living room of the Decorator Showcase house this year,” my dad told me, clearly impressed. Arabella lives in the Marina. Correction: she lives on the Marina. She lives on the street that borders the water where boats are docked and where everyone runs on the weekend, looking fit and pretending to live in Southern California. Marina Boulevard is the street in San Francisco known for its Christmas decorations. Just last month, in December, my family took a special trip to drive by the houses with all their lights and reindeer and Santas. “Pick your favorite one,” my father said, as though whatever house we chose would be ours.

“Too much,” my mother said. “Too much . . . America.” But her posture revealed the truth—she was tilting forward in the front seat to get a better view.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt nine)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

My dad is no stranger to concerts. He went to see Little Richard across the bay in Richmond when he was in his twenties—he was one of two white men in the audience, he said. But there are noticeable gaps in his career as a music lover. One time I asked him who his favorite Beatle was. “I kind of missed that trend,” he said. Missed that trend, I thought. The Beatles trend. So I don’t know what he’ll think of the Psychedelic Furs. The record’s already on the turntable and I place the needle carefully on “Pretty in Pink.” I figure the title of that song is innocuous, and makes the band seem most appropriate for someone my age.

Monday, March 27, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt eight)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

We go home and sit in the front room next to all the straw goats that Swedes put out at Christmastime. I don’t really understand this tradition, or the fact that in my opinion the traditional straw figures more closely resemble horses than goats. But now is not the time to ask questions—I’m eager to open the presents under the tree. This takes four minutes because not only do we celebrate Christmas the Swedish way, we celebrate it the stingy way. The gifts are soft so I know before opening them that I’ve gotten socks and underwear. From the fireplace hangs my Christmas stocking, with my name misspelled as “Ulabee.” A family friend gave me the stocking years ago and despite the misspelling, which makes me disappointed in the American educational system, we still use it. The stockings are mostly decorative anyway; tomorrow my stocking will be filled with pencils.

“I have a surprise,” my father says. “It was too big to wrap.” From behind the piano, he slides out a rectangular-shaped object, the size of a painting. He carefully removes the protective cloth and reveals it is a painting. It depicts kids playing at the beach.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt seven)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

Mr. London turns to the shelves behind him. There’s a space where a book used to be—its absence from the shelf is like a missing tooth. I try to think what book it could be. Mr. London runs his fingers over the books’ spines.

“Here,” he says. “This is a new novel by a Czech writer. I haven’t read it yet.”

He hands me the hardcover book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. The cover is just the title and the author’s name in capital letters, no illustration. I read the inside flap to see what it’s about. I try not to let my eyes widen because I don’t think Mr. London has read the book description. It seems a little racy. “Great,” I say before he can change his mind. “I’ll read it over break.”

Saturday, March 25, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt six)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

When they leave, I stare up at my tilting canopy, contemplating the fact that Maria Fabiola is the heir to a sugar fortune. I picture her kitchen pantry, which we used to raid after school and on sleepovers. The pantry did have sugar, but I don’t remember her parents using it more than anyone else.

Friday, March 24, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt five)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

I have stopped walking by Julia’s and Faith’s houses—instead I take a different route, with Svea and her dour friend, who is dourer today because we are late. The Santa Lucia ritual has set us back several minutes. We walk past the castle, past the house that once belonged to Carter the Great, past the pink house that belongs to the woman who went to Palm Springs for the weekend and impulsively got a tummy tuck. “Who gets a tummy tuck on a whim?” I’ve heard other women comment, as though it was the last-minute nature of her procedure that was most shocking. In the distance, foghorns sound, and near us, leaf blowers make their loud leaf-blowing sound. The streets are empty as usual. But at the entrance to the school, there’s a commotion, and causing the commotion are three police cars.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt four)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

On Halloween Maria Fabiola, Julia, Faith, and Lotta come to school dressed like the Go-Go’s on the cover of “Beauty and the Beat.” They’re dressed in white bathrobes (on the album cover, the Go-Go’s wear towels, tucked precariously over their breasts, but this was probably deemed too risqué by my friends’ parents). To their faces they’ve applied masks of a white substance that has hardened and cracked on their cheeks. Their teeth look yellow in comparison. The group outfit was my idea; I shared it with them in September, a century ago. Lotta, the Dutch girl, didn’t know who the Go-Go’s were before she came to America. There are five members of the band, but on Halloween at Spragg there are only four.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt three)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

Friday is officially hot—San Francisco’s summer has finally arrived in the fall. My mother gets off early from work and bikes home and washes and styles her hair and paints her nails. She dresses in all white and I have to admit she looks glamorous, and my father says so, too. “Wow,” he says when she comes downstairs. He stands at a distance, appraising her like art.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt two)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

We meet in the Male Teacher’s Lounge, which is basically his private office because there are no other male teachers except for the P.E. teacher, Mr. Robinson, who uses the Sports Staff office as his lair. He even put an Australian flag on the door to mark his territory. The Female Teacher’s Lounge is crowded and smells like the shallow vase water of dying flowers. The Male Teacher’s Lounge always smells of burnt coffee—the scent of testosterone, I assume.

Today Mr. London and I are meeting to discuss Franny and Zooey. He sits back in his desk chair and strokes his clean-shaven chin. Behind him, on three shelves, are books by Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast), Fitzgerald (Tender Is the Night), and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped). There’s also an entire shelf devoted to the work of Jack London, which I personally believe he’s included in his “library” to subliminally propel the myth that he’s related to Jack London without having to prove it.

Monday, March 20, 2023

the last book I ever read (Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides, excerpt one)

from We Run the Tides: A Novel by Vendela Vida:

We return to Faith’s house after dinner and a sad slice of cake. Faith gives us a tour because Maria Fabiola hasn’t been inside before. “Never?” Julia asks. “I have a lot of after-school activities,” Maria Fabiola replies. She and I have the same number of after-school activities. We started taking ballet together at the Olenska School of Ballet when puberty began to take over our bodies, making us clumsy and laminating our curves with fat. Not that our instructor, Madame Sonya, thinks there’s much hope for us—she often quotes Isadora Duncan, who said that American bodies aren’t made for ballet. Still, while the dance classes haven’t done much for me, they have helped define Maria Fabiola’s figure. In addition to ballet, we go to dancing school every other Wednesday. All of us at Spragg go to ballroom dancing school because that’s where you meet the boys who go to the all-boys’ schools.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt fifteen)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

The only time Samuel Beckett ever came to the United States was to make a film with Buster Keaton. It wasn’t originally planned that way. The untitled short was to be one of three gathered into a portmanteau feature titled Project One, the other two authors being Harold Pinter and Eugène Ionesco. The entire project had been in the works for more than a year, and a company called Evergreen Theatre, Inc., an unlikely partnership between Grove Press and Four Star Television, had been formed to produce it. Beckett had conceived his portion of the feature as possessing “a stylized comic reality akin to that of a silent movie” and thought in terms of Chaplin or Zero Mostel for it. Chaplin, however, was inaccessible and Mostel was unavailable. Then the preference became actor Jack MacGowran, who had appeared in no fewer than nine Beckett works, including the first English-language production of Endgame. Small and elfin, with a face as distinctive—though certainly not as well known—as Keaton’s, MacGowran was on Beckett’s wavelength in a way Keaton could never be, and it was the loss of MacGowran to a stage commitment that occasioned a last-minute appeal to Keaton and, in England, to Alec Guinness.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt fourteen)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

Keaton’s vow to give up touring lasted all of two years. Eleanor, who said she had her fingers crossed, knew the lure of live audiences was more than he could resist. In May 1963, he committed to the Barnes-Carruthers State Fair Tour, which was booked into a circuit of seven midwestern and southern fairs over the months of August and September. With him consistently would be bandleader Warren Covington, with whom he would perform the dueling sketch he last did with Paul Whiteman, and variously, at the larger grandstand venues, Rosemary Clooney, the Smothers Brothers, big band vocalist Johnny Desmond, and country star Molly Bee. “This,” said Keaton, “is the first time I’ve ever done this type of entertainment…. But I love it, and it’s easy work. I’m on fifteen minutes a night and it’s all over until the next night. I never had it so good.”

The tour came to a somber conclusion at the Alabama State Fair in Birmingham just days following the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four children and injured seventeen others. A member of the company, Don Logay, remembered “an armed military escort to our hotel in Birmingham.” The company was advised to remain in place other than for actual performances. “We would be picked up promptly at 6 p.m. and driven to do our show,” said Logay. “We would be returned to the hotel the same way.” It was under such tense circumstances that Keaton observed his sixty-eighth birthday on October 4 by cutting into a seven-layer cake, colored red, white, and blue, with a penknife. Instead of making a little speech in the tent that served as his backstage dressing quarters, he simply looked from one guest to the next with his hands outstretched in a gesture of appreciation.

Friday, March 17, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt thirteen)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

While in Germany, Keaton was so focused on business he was caught unprepared when asked to make a public appearance. “They wanted me on a television show there,” he related, “and I sez, ‘Well, the first thing I gotta do is have a hat. Where’s a hat store?’ They point to one across the street. I went over there. Nobody in the place speaks English. I don’t speak German. So I went down and found the type of fedora I wanted, start tryin’ them on until finally they came to my aid and they found one that fit me. When I found one that fit me, [I] took the price tag off, then took the money out of my pocket and held it out and let them take the money. Well, it was kind of an expensive hat—it amounted to about ten dollars. So now I ask ’em for a pair of scissors, [miming the scissors with his fingers]. They don’t know what the hell I want scissors for, but they go get me a pair of scissors. I immediately started to cut down the brim. Then I reached in and pulled out all the insides of the hat—threw it away, tore it out. Then started to break it down. Well, these people look at me as if I’m absolutely going out of my mind. I pay ten dollars for a hat, an expensive hat, then cut it to pieces, tear out the insides. But when I finally get it down like that, where I wanted it, and put it on, looked in the mirror, all three in the store threw their hands up and said: ‘BOOSTER!’ ”

Thursday, March 16, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt twelve)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

It was producer Mervyn LeRoy’s idea to hire Keaton as a writer on At the Circus, the new Marx Brothers picture at M-G-M. Keaton began work on May 3, drawing $300 a week, but found it a frustrating experience. “The Marx Brothers—it was an event when you could get all three of ’em on the set at the same time. The minute you started a picture with the Marx Brothers, you hired three assistant directors, one for each Marx Brother. Get two of ’em, while you went to look for the third one and the first two would disappear…. They never worried what the next setup was going to be or what the routine… or anything else. ‘We’ll ad lib it when we get there.’ Chico always had his bookie on the phone. Groucho had some other excuse to be missing. Harpo was visiting the other sets to see who was workin’.”

Since Groucho and Chico were essentially verbal comedians, Keaton spent more of his time devising business for Harpo, the silent one, which may have aroused Groucho’s ire. “You think that’s funny?” he demanded after Keaton described a particularly inventive gag in which a single straw causes a camel’s knees to buckle. Another idea had Harpo selling helium-filled balloons with the assistance of a midget who found himself airborne whenever he took charge of the inventory. Keaton’s stretch on At the Circus lasted ten days.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt eleven)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

Keaton resolved to do the best he could with Her Cardboard Lover because an infinitely better picture was in the offing, one that could help him break out of the rut of progressively worse comedies. Thalberg and producer Paul Bern were assembling an all-star cast for the movie version of Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, and director Edmund Goulding thought Keaton would make inspired casting for the role of Otto Kringelein, an aging German bookkeeper with only weeks to live.

“In almost every picture I’ve made,” Keaton told Goulding, “I make it a rule to become very serious about the fourth reel or so. That is to make absolutely sure that the audience will really care about what happens to me in the rest of the picture.” Thalberg, especially, knew what a good actor Keaton could be, and multiple tests were made that stretched into the early days of Her Cardboard Lover. Keaton was so pleased he drove home one night in his costume and makeup, bedeviling Jimmy and Bobby, neither of whom could tell it was him. With his heart set on playing the role, he nonetheless knew there was very real concern that audiences conditioned to laugh at him might wreck the picture, something that had happened the previous year to comedienne ZaSu Pitts, who had to be replaced as Paul Bäumer’s dying mother in All Quiet on the Western Front after an unruly preview in San Bernardino.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt ten)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

In September, columnist Frank Scully noted that Keaton was about the only celebrity who passed up Antibes that summer in favor of Biarritz in the French Basque Country, Buster and Natalie having met up with Nat’s sister Norma in Paris. As they were settling in, Gilbert Roland came up from Antibes to join them, and as a foursome they ate, drank, and took in the sights. Roland, who was born in Mexico, wanted to see Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père Lachaise. “It was abandoned, forgotten,” he wrote, “lizards crawled all over it, it depressed me, and at the Castiglione Bar with Buster Keaton we got drunk. Buster because he was having trouble with Natalie, and I because lizards crawled on Oscar Wilde’s tomb.”

Norma, Roland recorded, was in bed with the curse, and Natalie stayed with her as the two men crossed into Spain at San Sebastian to attend a bullfight, Keaton’s first. “The standing ovation he received brought tears to his eyes. Then Marquez [the matador] dedicated the bull to him, flung up [his hat], the montera. ‘Great honor, Keaton,’ I said.” Not knowing what to do, Keaton was advised to offer a gift. Cash, he was told, would be considered an insult. Stuffing a wad of bills back into his pocket, Keaton took out a gold cigarette case purchased at Cartier, placed it inside the montera, and threw it back down to Marquez. “Everyone in San Sebastian was happy about Buster Keaton’s gesture except Natalie. She had given him the expensive cigarette case, and he in turn had given it to some ‘lousy bullfighter.’ Buster laughed. It was wonderful to see him laugh; deadpan on the screen, in real life, a happy, humorous, generous man. Natalie at times made his life miserable, was extremely jealous, often unreasonable. I loved them both, refused to interfere with their personal problems, but [it] made me uneasy when she quarreled and cried.”

Monday, March 13, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt nine)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

There are no accounts of Buster’s final day on the Keaton studio grounds, the place where he made eighteen two-reelers and ten features over a period of seven years. If he walked around the compact lot, he would have seen standing sets dating back five years or more, buildings and storefronts and the variegated fence surrounding it all. The great stage where Joe Roberts so affectingly played his final scenes. The laboratory where all the exposed negative was processed, the chemical smells still lingering in the air. The old studio barn, the administration building where Lou Anger had his office and where payroll was made and extras and day workers were processed. Gabe Gabourie’s workshop, where seemingly anything could be fabricated on a moment’s notice. He may even have paused at the plot of land where Captain was buried. And if he walked past the studio’s row of dressing rooms he would have remembered that none of the doors were numbered but rather that each was named for one of the extraordinary comedies he made as an independent. Reading down the line were The Blacksmith, Convict 13, The Scarecrow, The Haunted House, The High Sign, Hard Luck, The Play House, The Goat, The Paleface, and The Boat.

Friday, March 10, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt eight)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

Toward the end of their three-week stay, the company lost another two days to weather but were able to finish the morning of September 18, allowing them to leave for Los Angeles the same day. In all, The General had been on location in Oregon nearly thirteen weeks, with scarcely a week of filming left to be done in Los Angeles. Exhilarated, Keaton had the train stopped on the way home so that he and the crew could get off and play baseball.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt seven)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

One of the strongest responses to Go West came from the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Carl Sandburg, who was moonlighting as movie critic for the Chicago Daily News. “It seems rather silly to say that any screen comedy will leave unforgettable impressions on you,” Sandburg wrote, “but that seems exactly what Buster Keaton’s Go West is likely to do at McVickers Theater this week. Although the theater at times is explosive with hearty guffaws, Go West may not be the funniest thing that sour-faced Buster has ever done, but it is by far the most enjoyable bit of humor this writer has seen from the Keaton fun factory. This comedian comes close to the Chaplinesque in his serious comedy. Buster is one of the few comedians of the screen at whom you can laugh without feeling a bit ridiculous yourself.”

Keaton always struggled with Go West, and in later years tended to distance himself from it. “Some parts I like,” he allowed in 1958, “but as a picture, in general, I didn’t care for it.” He always looked upon the roundup with disappointment, but the picture may also have struck too personal a note with him, something very private in his character that he didn’t want revealed. In the end, Go West played to $50,300 during an off week on Broadway, a bit less than Seven Chances. In comparison, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman was in its seventh week at the much smaller Colony, where it took in $30,500 and looked certain to last a full ten weeks. Where Keaton represented an abstraction to American audiences, Lloyd was the real deal, an energetic boy from the Midwest always eager to make good. However popular Chaplin and Keaton were internationally, it was Lloyd who topped the box office polls in the United States and who would remain a big star until talkies and middle age took their inevitable toll.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt six)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

With Go West completed, Keaton loaned Ray Cannon to Universal for a Reginald Denny comedy and left for New York with Nat, her sister Dutch, and their mother, ostensibly to confer with Joe Schenck and see to release plans for the new picture, but more directly to shuttle between Washington and Pittsburgh for the World Series. Baseball had assumed an increasingly important role in Keaton’s life, and the studio team, known widely as the Buster Keaton Nine, had captured three state championships. The Nine were frequently in the papers, playing municipal teams and athletic clubs as far north as Oxnard and highlighting the standout work of their captain as well as first baseman Ernie Orsatti, who did prop and doubling work around the lot and was trusted with such critical tasks as pumping Buster’s air during the underwater scenes for The Navigator. Other studios had teams as well: Douglas MacLean’s business staff, his writers and visitors, played daily on the FBO lot, and Harold Lloyd had not only a baseball team but a handball crew as well. Yet no Hollywood team seemed to inspire the attention that naturally accrued to the Keaton organization.

Ernie Orsatti was so good that one day in 1925 he arrived at work and found a new set of luggage and a check waiting for him… and he was told that he was fired. Keaton handed him a contract to play for the Vernon Tigers, in which he retained an interest, but Orsatti played just six games with the Tigers before he was sent to Cedar Rapids as part of the Mississippi Valley League. By 1926, he would be fielding in the minor leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals, on his way to the majors, where he would enjoy a career lasting into the mid-1930s.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt five)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

Roscoe Arbuckle’s three trials for manslaughter left him owing more than $100,000, including a $50,000 payment reportedly due to lead attorney Gavin McNab. Having lived on cash flow for so long, Arbuckle had little in reserve to meet these obligations and began the dispiriting task of dismantling his former life, selling anything of value for as much as he could get. In May 1922, he was said to be flat broke, having sold his Cadillac touring car to Keaton and his Cadillac speedster to Eddie Cline. He deeded his house on West Adams, which he purchased in 1920, to Joe Schenck as security on loans Schenck had made to cover his legal expenses.

In a statement to Lanning Warren of United Press, Arbuckle said he was so heavily in debt that he had no hope of coming back in any line of work until he could once again make pictures. “I’m not sobbing, however. Hays has said my pictures are banned pending an investigation, and I’m sure he’ll find I’m the victim of persecution. But until he makes his decision, I’m making no plans for the future.” Keaton’s first impulse after the Hays edict was to give Arbuckle work behind the camera, and that, it appeared, couldn’t happen soon enough. A forlorn, almost ghostlike figure, Roscoe had taken to hanging around the United Studios where he had made his Paramount features. “He has nothing to do,” Warren’s article reported, “and walks around the studios watching the people who used to work for him. Since his arrest last fall he has had no income whatever, except a check recently received from the Buster Keaton company for a scenario Fatty wrote.”

Monday, March 6, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt four)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

The first film reflecting Gray’s participation, My Wife’s Relations, was firmly set in “the foreign section of a big city,” possibly Greenpoint, the portion of Brooklyn known as Little Poland. Said Keaton, “My Wife’s Relations—that is, the hazy idea of it—was born when Eddie Cline and I saw a postman in the East, unable to read the inscription on a letter in a foreign settlement, compare it to the lettering on a sign board.” With Buster, for once, was no ingénue but a substantial character actress named Kate Price, who was twenty-three years his senior and nothing at all like the wispy Virginia Fox. In the film’s opening, he gets framed for breaking a window, then, due to the language barrier—the judge doesn’t speak a word of English—finds himself married to the daughter of a family of Irish roughnecks. Buster has a hard time fitting in until they mistakenly think he’s due for a big inheritance and decide to put on the dog. His escape from the liveried digs they’ve all moved to has him climbing out a top-floor window and descending four flights by swinging from awning to awning, a breathtaking stunt he performs in a single shot, typically refusing to cut or cheat the effect in any way.

Friday, March 3, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt three)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

“Personally,” he said in a 1930 interview, “I’ve never had the slightest fear of jumping off into a net from a great height, or doing a dive into water, and the only kick I got out of a net jump was during the filming of The Paleface when I had to drop eighty-five feet from a suspension bridge into a net. The day before we shot the scene, the technician who set up the net—and who claimed to be a former fireman—offered to prove the net was safe by making the jump himself. I told him to go ahead. He jumped and, failing to hit the net properly, broke a leg and a shoulder. When I stood in the same spot the next day with the cameras grinding, I couldn’t think of a thing save that man who was in the hospital. I came darn near not doing that scene, but because I didn’t want to show yellow before my own gang, I did the jump and it was successful.”

Thursday, March 2, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt two)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

Following the completion of Love, Arbuckle, bound for New York, converged with Joe Schenck and Adolph Zukor in Kansas City to sign contracts that had been in the works for eight weeks. The new agreement was valued at $3 million over thirty-six months, a figure Zukor confirmed in a wire to Famous Players-Lasky, which would continue to distribute the Fatty Arbuckle comedies under the Paramount name. Two months later, with some of that money burning a hole in his pocket, Arbuckle closed a deal to buy the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League, something he admitted he did just to please Lou Anger, a baseball bug who would act as the team’s general manager. When Buster reappeared in May, having turned down offers from both William Fox and Warner Bros., he was put to work clowning with Roscoe and Al St. John at the season opener, suiting up in team colors and wielding a bat and ball made of plaster. Arbuckle’s replacement for Alice Lake, an actress named Molly Malone, served as the team’s mascot, and those in the stands included stage and screen star Bessie Barriscale, actors Jack Pickford and Lew Cody, and Fox cowboy hero Tom Mix.

Keaton later said he was offered $1,000 a week to jump ship, but his loyalty to Schenck and Arbuckle trumped money, and he stuck with the $150 a week he was getting when he left for Camp Kearny. He knew that big changes were afoot, because Arbuckle was keen to move into features and play more sophisticated roles. Al St. John was also getting restless, and it would be only a matter of time before he went out on his own.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

the last book I ever read (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life, excerpt one)

from Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life by James Curtis:

Buster was hurtling toward adulthood. He bought his first automobile at the age of thirteen, a lightweight contraption with a one-cylinder engine called a Browniekar, and upgraded to a secondhand Peerless Phaeton—a seven-seater—the year he turned fifteen. He also began to grow, and was taller than his mother by the time he legitimately turned sixteen in October 1911. Sixteen or not, he was still a missile as far as Joe was concerned, although hefting him was becoming more of a strain. Just after Buster’s birthday, Joe famously pitched him for just about the last time. The scene was Poli’s in New Haven, a theater the Keatons knew well. New Haven was notorious in vaudeville for the rowdy Yale students who made great sport of heckling performers, but the place couldn’t be avoided if acts expected to play the lucrative Poli time in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

Monday, February 27, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt nine)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

Eigen followed me back down to the first floor and into the kitchen. An old Black man was arranging hors d’oeuvres on a platter. He looked at us with surprise, but without panic. He continued to work with the food while he talked. “Are you the ones they had tied up in the basement?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I see you got loose.”

“We did.”

“You ain’t got to worry. They never come into the kitchen. Heaven forbid one of them should come into the kitchen.”

Friday, February 24, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt eight)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

“Is that a dog in that bag?” the preacher asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Jesus had a dog. Very few people know that.”

Thursday, February 23, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt seven)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

“What does he want?”

“He wants to make America nothing again.” I looked up at the Metro system map. “We’ll get off here at L’Enfant Plaza and take the yellow line up to the red line to Union Station.”

“You’re very capable,” Eigen said.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt six)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

Sill, Eigen, and Gloria were already seated topside at an elegant table. Eigen was dressed in a red bikini, looking like a mathematician in a bikini. Gloria was dressed in white, as she had been in Corsica. Sill was comfortable in jeans and a Parliament (the band) T-shirt. That was when I realized that I was dressed very similarly to Sill and I didn’t know how that had happened. I pulled my shirt away and stared at it upside down. Jethro Tull. I didn’t know who he was, but he looked like an old man.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt five)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

“I don’t think you understand, Wala. That money came out of my portfolio and as soon as it did it stopped earning. You would actually have to pay me back close to five million dollars.”

“That’s quite an increase,” I said.

“What can I say, crime is a high-yield investment.” He rubbed Eigen’s thigh. “Right, my dear? I’m investing in you two. I do hope I’ve invested wisely. I sincerely hope that.” He punctuated his words with a look into my eyes that might have been read as threatening or menacing by anyone who was not on the spectrum. But I am on the spectrum, and so I stared back at him.

Monday, February 20, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt four)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

I grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her, remembering hearing that you’re not supposed to shake babies and wondering if it was also true for mathematicians. I also found myself thinking in ways I had never imagined, wondering, for instance, how an adversarial relationship with Sill might affect my returning to the US and, more importantly, to Trigo. Perhaps bringing Eigen out of her catalepsy was not such a good idea, at least not a timely one. I was concerned about her state, but if there were a change, might we go the way of Agostinho Aguedo, down a chute into the shark pool, so named because it was a pool filled with sharks?

“Wala,” she said, sleepy seeming.

Friday, February 17, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt three)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

A better, more pressing question was how was I going to locate Eigen? I did the only thing I could think of. I wandered the halls calling out, “Eigen, Eigen,” like an idiot. Perhaps not even like, but as an idiot. Soon I was hopelessly, despairingly lost and puzzled all the more because none of the corridors led to anything that might have taken me out of the building. After coming to believe that I had covered the same hallways several times, never seeing a person or a color, I found myself standing in front of a vending machine. In it was nothing but bag after bag of barbecue potato chips. I had no change, no bills, no cards, as my clothes had no pockets. Though not hungry, I really wanted those chips, if only for the color. I shook the machine and startled myself with the noise and my own aggression. Then I shook it again, more vigorously, with equal success.

A door opened a couple of meters away.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt two)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

Infinity means nothing to me. How could it? Nothing is neither finite nor infinite. Nothing is neither a null set nor a member of that set that contains all things that are not something. Things are matter, some things matter, nothing is never matter, nothing matters. Nothing walked into a tavern. What did the barkeep say? Nothing. Why would he? Nothing walked in. Trigo told me that one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

the last book I ever read (Percival Everett's Dr. No: A Novel, excerpt one)

from Dr. No:A Novel by Percival Everett:

I am serious about my study. I am a distinguished professor of mathematics at Brown University, though I have not for decades concerned myself with arithmetic, calculus, matrices, theorems, Hausdorff spaces, finite lattice representations, or anything else that involves values or numbers or representations of values or numbers or any such somethings, whether they have substance or not. I have spent my career in my little office on George Street in Providence contemplating and searching for nothing. I have not found it. It is sad for me that the mere introduction to my subject of interest necessarily ruins my study. I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt thirteen)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

My first job at the hip healthcare start-up was to take calls and chats from doctors and medical professionals who had questions about the healthcare software the start-up invented—a software that makes the tricky process of obtaining prior authorizations easier. On the phone, doctors asked me to spell my name twice, or sometimes three times. Upon the second or third spelling, some exclaimed, “I’m not even gonna try to say that one.” These are people who, I imagine, went through several years of school. During product demos, where I talked to a group of doctors or nurses, there were days where we spent more time on my name and where I’m from than we did talking about the product itself. If you have a name like my name and you get asked its origins enough, you can tell when the line between eager curiosity and skepticism is being blurred, mostly because the people who imagine themselves good at hiding the tonal difference between the two are not actually that good at hiding the tonal difference between the two. When I told people that I’m from Ohio, they wanted to know where my parents are from, or where their parents are from. It is amazing, the weapons people disguise in small talk.

Monday, February 13, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt twelve)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

“Gimme Shelter” is one of those songs that churns and churns, invites you in and then shakes you up. It’s the perfect entry point for an album, because it is an ominous point of entry. A song that lets you know something bad is maybe coming, and it is maybe coming for you, or someone you love. It’s in the scenes where young kids get dropped into some war they don’t want to be fighting, just in time to see their best friend killed. The biggest mistake some people make about songs that open albums is that they imagine those songs should be welcoming or warm. Set a tone of comfort before jarring the foundation. An album’s opening song should be a loud and all-consuming stretch of madness. The thing that drags a listener to the edge of a cliff, holds them over, and asks them to choose what they think is safer: the unknown of floating to the bottom of some endless height, or the known chaos of solid ground. I like my albums to start by asking me what I think I can stand.

The record store dudes who put on Let It Bleed would play “Gimme Shelter” countless times before skipping to the next track. There was something about the way the drums sounded when they were beat out on a table or a steering wheel. Let It Bleed is a damn good record—particularly its side two—but there was nothing else on it that matched the sheer immersion and exhaustion of “Gimme Shelter,” for me. When these record store dudes homed in on the vocal performance of “Gimme Shelter,” they would never talk about Merry Clayton by name, only by the mercy she could offer to the music.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt eleven)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

To insist that violence and any form of bigotry isn’t American is to continue feeding into the machinery of falsehoods and readjustments that keep this country spinning its wheels and making the same mistakes when it comes to confronting the way its past has burdened its present and future. There are people who talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., as if he lived a long and healthy life and then chose to die peacefully at the end of it. There are those who treat the political landscape as if it has only local ramifications rather than the global ones it has had for the majority of my lifetime. The very concept of “choosing love” is privilege, based on an ability to have the idea that there are only two options: love and hate, as Radio Raheem had emblazoned in gold across his knuckles in Spike’s Do the Right Thing. But the very concept resting at the heart of Do the Right Thing is that all this love ain’t created equally. The love I have to give is malleable, but it has its limits. All of our love has its limits, and it should. I choose to love my people, and their people. And sometimes I might also choose love with your people. But other times, I choose whatever keeps me safe, and that isn’t necessarily hate, but it might be if it gives me a comfortable enough distance.

Friday, February 10, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt ten)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

In a standard game of spades, played with the fifty-two standard cards in a deck, the ace of spades is the most fortunate of cards. The one that promises at least one way out for you and your team. If you have the ace of spades and nothing else, you can be confident that you will bring at least one trick home. There will be some glory at the end of it all, no matter what other useless weeds may sprout out of a hand, how many red fours and sixes bloom from the interior. After a hand is dealt out in a game of spades, there are few feelings like sifting through the bouquet of unspectacular pasteboards until the ace of spades appears. And so, sometime during the Second World War, the soldiers of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the American 101st Airborne Division began painting the sides of their helmets with spades symbols, or fastening the cards to their heads for good luck. Playing cards more generally began to play a role in identification during World War II. Regiments would paint varying suits on their helmets to differentiate airborne divisions during combat. But those who stuck the ace of spades to themselves were considered lucky. Promised to survive and at least bring themselves home to a team counting on them.

Another side of this was brought out nearly twenty years later, during the Vietnam War. American troops believed that the Vietnamese feared the symbolism of the spade, that they thought it signaled death and ill fortune. So the military had the United States Playing Card Company send them crates of just aces of spades and nothing else, so that soldiers could scatter them throughout the jungles and villages of Vietnam before and after raids. The dead bodies of Vietnamese were covered in aces of spades. Lands—entire fields pillaged and burned down to the dirt—were littered with the card.

Power, as always, misused in the wrong hands.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt nine)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

At the height of World War I in Paris, Black soldiers would spend some of their downtime playing instruments they’d carried over with them. Mostly horns and guitars. Tables became drums. Eventually, casual collectives formed among the soldiers, groups that would go out to the Parisian music halls and play blues, jazz, and ragtime music. Jazz had begun to reach a heightened popularity in the States but had yet to break big in Paris. Once the locals got a taste of the sound, it carried through and beyond the war. Even after many of the Black soldiers went home to America, back to a country where they were not the heroes they were in France. Back to a country where they quickly remembered that being willing to bleed for a land doesn’t mean the people of that land will require or desire your presence outside of that willingness.

Still, the impact of that brief burst of Black creation in Paris struck new chords. Paris became obsessed with American Black artistic culture, right as the Harlem Renaissance started to kick off in the States. Parisians were mimicking American Black culture, but also, after World War I, word got back to the States that Paris was a place where Black folks were treated well. Because the Black soldiers who fought in Paris were deemed heroes, the city revered its visiting Black artists as well. Black jazz musicians who couldn’t play in all parts of America traveled to Paris to do a stretch of shows. Many didn’t stay, however, which meant that Paris was left to try its best to merely mirror the experiences these artists gave to the city. Paris was ripe and eager for a Black artist to come and commit to its small artistic flourishing. Someone who could, perhaps, put their own stamp on what the city was attempting to offer.

And then, on a boat, arrived nineteen-year-old Josephine Baker.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt eight)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

Sun Ra said it was a halo of light that appeared around him in 1936. Or maybe it was 1937. He was living in Chicago, or maybe he wasn’t. There are no tactile details to the story that remain consistent. Just that there was certainly a light that consumed the body of Herman Poole Blount, who was from Birmingham, Alabama, and who was named after a vaudeville stage magician his mother loved named Black Herman. Black Herman died onstage in 1934 of a heart attack, but because one of his main acts was a “buried alive” trick, no one in the audience believed he was dead. His assistant, wanting to cash in on the act, charged admission for people to view Black Herman’s corpse in the funeral home. The world is not done with you even when you are done with it. And Herman Poole Blount was not yet Sun Ra in 1937, but he was so done with the world that he embraced the strange light that drank him in and flew on up to a whole other planet. It was one he identified as Saturn. He was granted an audience with aliens who had one antenna over each eye and one on each ear. The aliens told him that he should drop out of college. That the world was dissolving into complete chaos, and they needed him to speak through music.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt seven)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

Michael Anderson died a hero. No one insisted that he deserved what he got. No pictures circulated on the Internet of Black men who were not him. It dawns on me every time I see it that the Trayvon Martin Experience Aviation photo is so cherished because it offers him an adjacency to that dignity. It shows him in the replica of a suit heroes wore when risking their lives for the sake of curiosity. On Martin’s birthday, people circulate the photo year after year. There is an idea that if Martin were still alive, he could have been a person who watched the skies and sought to climb into them. A person who looked down on the earth from somewhere above it and pointed to the state where he grew up. Or he might have done none of that. He might have gone to college and dropped out, or he might never have gone to college at all. He might have smoked and played videogames well into his twenties, working some job he hated. But he would have been alive to do it all, or not do it all. The whole thing with the Trayvon Martin Experience Aviation photo is that to see him like this, in contrast with seeing him as only a dead problem child, was to see that he was once perhaps someone who saw some promise and possibility in a world that would kill him and insist that he deserved to die.

The fundamental flaw, of course, is in this: proving to the public that someone did not deserve to die, or did not deserve the violence that chased them down. It is the worst instinct, and one that I fight against often, when I want to clear the name of someone dead who lived a life that was undoubtedly sometimes good and sometimes bad but always a life nonetheless.

Monday, February 6, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt six)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

And since we’re talking about it anyway: Look, I am certainly not one to project Blackness onto the fictional or cartoonishly ambiguous, and lord knows I don’t want to upset the teeming masses of loud and affectionate Star Wars devotees, but it must be said that as a kid I had a sneaking suspicion that Chewbacca might have been Black, what with all the brown that hung from his body. Also the way my pal’s dad would shout at the screen when Star Wars was on, about how those white folks who made the movie were trying to put one over, making the tall and incoherent beast obviously Black. And I don’t know if I bought that as much as I bought the idea that so many of the Black people I knew would shout about all of their woes but no one would seem to understand what they were saying.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt five)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

But friends, it was not Michael who first slid backward across a slick floor on the tips of his toes. The first Black man to drift on some imaginary cratered surface was Bill Bailey, who probably invented the dance in the 1920s, but no one saw it on camera until 1943. Cabin in the Sky was one of the first films with a primarily Black cast. A film that attempted to veer away from many of the stereotypes and tropes that plagued Black actors of the era. An adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, it featured Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Despite its best intentions, the film was met with mixed reviews, with Black reviewers stating that it still relied too much on Southern folklore, which meant that it trod too close to the racism it was trying to avoid.

But what did stand out was a brief dance interlude, performed by Bill Bailey, who had then garnered a strong reputation as a show-stealing tap dancer. Bailey had perfected both Bill Robinson’s upright style of tap and also the paddle and roll tap style of King Rastus Brown. At the intersection of these movements, Bailey came up with something he called the “backslide,” a move he’d utilize as a way to exit the stage. When his tap set wore down, he would slide smoothly on the tips of his toes, waving his hat as he slowly vanished behind a curtain. When he does it in Cabin in the Sky, it is the first time the move is captured on film. It happens fast but is impossible not to notice. Like Michael when he broke it out at the Motown 25 special in ’83, the whole trick of pulling off the moonwalk is to spend all other parts of a dance routine training an audience to watch your feet. Before they can ask what is happening, the move is done.

Bill Bailey performed the move for years onstage, always at the end of his set. The way he saw it, the move was untouchable. Nothing could top it, so it had to be an exit. It seems this is where he and Jackson differ, as Mike would sometimes drop it into the middle of choreography, to drive people into a frenzy before bouncing on to something else. But I like Bailey’s idea more. Providing a glimpse of something unbelievable and letting it rattle in the hearts and minds of people trembling in disbelief.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt four)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

I tell you this to tell you that I might come to you at a time when you are eager for the night to erase the memory of a conversation, friends. And I will tell you what I know, and what I know is that Whitney Houston could not dance. I have made my peace with this and I beg of you to do the same. You may not know that Whitney Houston could not dance, but I am telling you that she could not dance to save her life.

Friday, February 3, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt three)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

I have had the dream where I hold Al Jolson wearing a dark coat of blackface under the water of an old bathtub. I do not know how I arrive in the scene, but I arrive with my hands on his shoulders, pushing him down below the water, which seems endless from my angle. In the dream, he’s wearing the brown suit he wears while playing piano in The Jazz Singer. That movie was in black-and-white, as is this dream, but I know the suit is brown. I know the suit is brown because I have, in my waking hours, stared at the poster from the film, which is painted in color. I know the suit is brown because on the poster, Jolson’s face is not brown. The suit is the only interruption of white on his whole body. In the dream, Jolson does not struggle when I hold his head under the water. His eyes stay open. I scrub at his face with my hands until the scrubbing becomes clawing, trying to remove the layer of caked-on dark skin, to address the man underneath. In the dream, I don’t know what I would say to Al Jolson if I could peel the mask from his face, but I keep peeling, and Jolson does not fight, even as I swipe fingers across his eyes. Eyes that, surrounded by the darkness of his makeup, gleam from underneath the water. When I push him down far enough, his face vanishes entirely, or at least I think it does. In a dream, nothing is tangible, even in a dream that arrives and arrives again. Only the smallest details remain: I know the tub is old—it’s one of those with massive claws as feet. In the background, a version of “Blue Skies” is probably playing, but in this dream, I have convinced myself that it isn’t Jolson’s version because it is being sung by a woman. Which means I tell myself it is Ella Fitzgerald. Who, I imagine, would also want me to scrub the black makeup off this white man’s face. In the dream, I think I hold Al Jolson down because if I can’t detach him from skin that looks like my skin, I at least want his eyes to stop glowing from beneath it. But the further I push his face down into the deepest parts of the water, I am left only to search the water for my own reflection, which looks dark, darker than I’ve ever been. So dark that it creeps along the water’s surface like a shadow’s dancing limbs. And then, as I lean closer to the water, I feel Al Jolson’s suit snap itself empty, and I am not holding a body anymore, and then I wake up and in the darkness of my real life bedroom, I can’t even see my own hands.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt two)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

It took Elliott two years to synchronize the film, and he had designs to release it in 2011, but Aretha, by that point in her late sixties, did not want the film released unless she was guaranteed proper compensation. When Elliott attempted to screen the film at festivals, she sued repeatedly. (Aretha wanted a large share of the profits that the film was slated to gain, and that seems fair: she was the basis for whatever success the film might have and therefore had a legitimate stake in trying to control how it appeared and got distributed.) After a final lawsuit in 2016 kept the film shelved, Aretha said: “Justice, respect, and what is right prevailed, and one’s right to own their own self-image.”

After Aretha died in 2018, Elliott was summoned to Detroit by a friend of Aretha’s surviving family members. He was asked to show her family the film, which none of them had ever seen. And just like that, the clouds that had obscured this magic for forty-six years slowly began to break.