Archive | Books RSS feed for this section

We the Living in 2014

Ayn Rand was asked to adapt her first novel, We the Living, which was published 78 years ago this week and has sold 3 million copies since, for the theatre and I recently learned that two never-before published versions of her stage play will be published this fall.

UncconqueredPalMacmillanAccording to Amazon’s book page for The Unconquered: With Another, Earlier Adaptation of We the Living, the hardcover volume by Rand will feature “the first and last versions (the latter entitled The Unconquered)…[w]ith a preface that places the work in its historical and political context, an essay on the history of the theatrical adaptation … and two alternative endings…” The new work is edited by philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed five years ago about the novel. He also teaches at OCON.

WetheLivingWe the Living is a bitter tale of a triangle in Soviet Russia and an epic story of ideas, love and life. The 1936 novel, which I wrote about for an article distributed by Scripps Howard and again in a review of the movie adaptation, is haunting, unforgettable and helpful to living everyday life.

Book Review: I Never Knew That About New York

I-Never-Knew-That-About-NY-1The first cafe to serve cappuccino in America, Cafe Reggio, established in 1927 and featured in 1970s movies such as Shaft, Serpico and The Godfather Part II, is among the scads of trivia in the always enjoyable if not comprehensive I Never Knew That About New York by Christopher Winn, whose I Never Knew That… series is also nicely illustrated by his wife, Mai Osawa. The book goes on sale today.

For first-time visitors, longtime residents or those like me in between who have had an on-again, off-again relationship with America’s greatest city, this $16 paperback packs facts, stories and information into its pages. Lord & Taylor was the first store to introduce Christmas window displays, for instance, which one learns in an entry on Fifth Avenue. Most bits are included as stand alone paragraphs, though the book is separated by geography and includes essays, sidebars and longer but still short histories such as the bit on the New York Public Library.

I Never Knew That About New York contains morsels that may inform even the lifelong New Yorker. Did you know, for instance, that the Statue of Liberty’s real name is “Liberty Enlightening the World” and that Statue of Liberty is a nickname? You may know that Columbus Circle is the point from which all official distances to and from New York are measured, as Winn writes here, but do you know that the world’s first cinema opened in New York inside a converted shoe store? Among my favorites is a listing with online and physical addresses of places that are open to the public, from the J.P. Morgan Library and Columbia University to the New York Federal Reserve Bank and the Empire State Building. Neither encyclopedia nor travel guide, this hybrid of condensed histories is useful and interesting to everyone who loves New York

Movie Review: Catching Fire

CF posterLionsgate’s second installment in the series based on the young adult fiction literary series by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, is not as satisfying as the first movie, which I reviewed here. The film, a two and a half hour episode titled Catching Fire, is too static. There are fine moments, scenes and themes – how could there not be with the West being on track toward dictatorship and the studio bringing on top talent to create this movie? – but the story is promised more than it is delivered.

Catching Fire is transitional, given the planned and hyped four-picture deal, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t stand on its own. Here, writers Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), directed by Francis Lawrence (the atrocious I Am Legend), whom I suspect is partly the cause of the problems, take too long and convey too little. It’s not a bad movie. Fans will want to see it and should. But it is lacking in key parts.

Catching Fire fails to depict the full grip, scope and magnitude of totalitarianism. This pervaded the first picture in the capable hands of director Gary Ross. The death cannon lingered. Gray skies closed in. Every part of every person’s existence reeked of control by the state. By shifting focus to the personal after-story of heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence again), who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological damage, the feeling of the dystopia’s chronic, constant control is dissipated. All the players return and they’re in fine form as Katniss is threatened and ordered back to the death hunt in an all-star, prior victor “Quell”. But a subtle approach by Gary Ross is replaced with more generic, overstuffed direction. This film is less cohesive.

Without a strong, integrated theme of oppression, the story’s rising demand for revolt feels unearned, episodic and tacked on. Action happens too fast. Relationships are abbreviated. Too much is stuffed. The need for revolt is taken for granted.

With so much going on, as hunting partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who is very good) steps up again, too, one gets a sense that society should be moving toward revolution in an organic, grass-roots movement to quell – a term which originates with kill – the totalitarian state. And there are signs of rising opposition, such as when an old man defiantly whistles a tune or the people of District 12 unite to voice support for the good. These moments, and counterbalancing scenes of brutality, such as slave-whipping and black-bagging people’s heads, are well done. They drive Catching Fire in the first hour. The power of ignition is even in the government’s torching of people’s private property.

So we should see sparks. Beyond the deepening bond between the leads, we don’t.

Katniss is too caught up in PTSD, despite tender moments with her true love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her sister Prim, who has observed her sister’s acts of bravery and chooses to act on what she’s learned. The government’s monopoly on the use of force and constant threat to use it is spoken more than depicted, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) personally confronting Katniss. In spite of missing elements, by the time the Quell gets underway, with predictable developments and usual Capitol freaks in tow, we’re ready to witness an unwinnable game and hungry for the rise of the resistance.

The game comes with a new batch of misfits. Here, too, there are good scenes. Director Lawrence is more comfortable expressing the script in action sequences than in depicting the cause of the action – rule by brute force – in all its insidiousness. Giant waves and lightning strikes are more interesting to the director than the forces behind both – statism – which diminishes the power of the writing. In one crucial scene, an old woman demonstrates without words how love of life is what matters – more than life itself – and the theme that the old and young are interlinked in camaraderie against the omnipotent state, as both persecuted groups are in reality under the fascist ObamaCare, filters through Catching Fire. The best aspects are muted by excessive, nonessential material.

Jeffrey Wright portrays an intelligent character in the jungle-set game. His character figures out a key point that could alter the course of history and power the revolution. It’s a metaphysical fact that he abstracts and, as played in the picture, it’s brilliant and original. Even better is his character’s insight that the state-sponsored “Quell was written into law by men – and, certainly, it can be unwritten.” This goes to the core of what satiates about this series: the individual transforming government-dictated hunger into hunger for rebellion, revolt and resurgence for life. However, the revolutionary theme is treated as a twist, not as a logical swell of the Wright character’s radical philosophy.

What might have been another work of art comes off as synthetic, like the artificial arena where people are pitted against one another – another metaphor for the deathtrap ObamaCare – and forced to fight for life. The story of one woman’s revolt against tyranny advances in Catching Fire. This time, it is less powerful.

Book Review: Johnny Carson

johnny-carson-book-cover

A new biography of Johnny Carson by the lawyer he fired, Henry Bushkin, is ultimately too shallow and calculated to be credible.

The book, simply titled Johnny Carson, is a major publishing event. There’s not much that’s known about the talented Midwestern comedian and host of the Oscars, President Reagan’s inauguration and, of course, The Tonight Show (1962-1992). He was famously private. He lost a child to addiction and married several times and he pioneered both television and the entertainment industry, with highly profitable deals – apparently made after learning lessons from some bad deals – in media, real estate and men’s fashion. The reader learns about the business of Johnny Carson’s show business.

But something’s off. Author Bushkin, whom Johnny hired through a referral early in his career for no apparent reason, as reported here, delivers a crisp, curt narrative. In fact, it’s too clipped. Sentences feel overly edited, as if important information is deliberately left out, and in every chapter it seems like there must be more to each story. For example, Bushkin writes that he lets Johnny win at tennis because he says he’s afraid of being fired, but Johnny hasn’t fired a single person without cause in the past. By Bushkin’s telling, which comes early in the telling of this tell-all, he fears for his job when he says he has no reason to worry. So, one already has reason to suspect his motives. Something doesn’t add up.

As I read on, the sense of omission increased. A minor error, the misspelling of boxer Joe Frazier’s name, made me wonder if there were other errors as well as omissions, which may have escaped notice or scrutiny by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Johnny Carson was a powerful, intensely entertaining host and humorist. His nightly monologue was, like Carson, groundbreaking in wit, depth and relevance. Decades later, the format he perfected dominates late night television. At times, he was silly. Other times, he was serious. He interviewed the nation’s top stars and intellectuals, bringing both a touch of lightness and a graceful dignity to everything he discussed. And he did discuss. Unlike today’s smarmy TV cynics masquerading as comedians, such as Jon Stewart, Greg Gutfeld and Stephen Colbert, Johnny Carson took ideas seriously.

Some of that sensibility can’t help but come through. More than a few of Johnny’s jokes, which are best described as witty observations, are retold. They’re still spot on. I laughed out loud at several of them. His ability to grasp the irony and humor in a given topic was extraordinary, a fact which is ignored in these pages, and his timing and delivery were perfect. Johnny Carson had both a twinkle and a reality-driven, Midwestern accessibility that made his knowing look and distinctly controlled lack of expression communicate a response to something in an instantaneously universal way. After Johnny visited London for Wimbledon and found himself in a hotel without air conditioning during a prolonged and sweltering heatwave, Bushkin came with his wife to pick him up and found him in a tub filled with ice and water. The author writes that Johnny Carson looked up at them and said: “I don’t care what you have to do but get us the hell out of here tomorrow. Charter a 747 if you must, but get us out of Dodge.”

Bushkin speculates with some degree of plausibility that the Tonight Show host was driven in some fundamental way by his inaccessible, unloving mother’s lack of approval.“Ruth Carson was a person who was impossible to impress and impossible to please,” he observes. “She seemed to take no pride or pleasure in her son’s accomplishments.” He suggests that Carson, who he says could be biting and cruel, became like his mother: “There came to be too many moments when Ruth Carson’s chilly influence abruptly took over his disposition.”

There are too many instances to the contrary to count. According to Bushkin’s version, Johnny Carson, who died in 2005, was also meticulously kind and generous. Of course, Johnny was fastidious about his work and reputation, the responsibility for which appears to have been lost on Bushkin, who as Carson’s attorney was the recipient of the barbs, kindness and attention to detail. When Johnny Carson sued a manufacturer of “Here’s Johnny” toilets for trademark violation of his individual rights, the lawyer accuses Carson of being petty. Never mind that the signature phrase powered Bushkin’s countless escapades and indulgences. Among these include the author’s extramarital affairs – he writes about Johnny’s infidelity in more detail – and trips around the world. But constantly and insidiously Henry Bushkin drops the context that he, unlike Johnny Carson, was not the king of late night television and a brand unto himself for over 30 years.

Never mind, too, that, as Bushkin reports, his boss was singled out for attack time and again. For instance, Carson, a father of three boys, was threatened with a grenade by a German couple demanding money at a time when the children of Sinatra, Hearst and Getty had been kidnapped. When Los Angeles Police advised Carson to defy the criminals’ demands and let police deliver a bag to a location on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood near NBC’s Tonight Show studios in Burbank, Johnny Carson said No, insisting that he personally deliver a decoy bag of money rather than risk harm and injury to his wife and her child. Whether being targeted in bars or being the second name on John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman’s list, “Here’s Johnny” carried with its instant association of good humor and an upright posture a huge target for pure post-New Left envy and hatred of ability, achievement and success.

Bushkin himself seems to realize this, though he doesn’t grant Johnny much understanding, which reinforces the impression that he sought to profit from his association with Johnny Carson without regard to what made Johnny great. It’s a common flaw in today’s celebrity biographies and in Johnny Carson it’s less obvious, which makes the omission worse. Without any interest in Johnny Carson the artist, we are left with a cold and calculated assessment of Johnny Carson the brand that seeks to cash in on Johnny Carson without earning it. So the narrative reads like a bean-counter passing judgment on an artist. In the scope of the entire book, there is not a single sentence or thought describing Johnny Carson at work on his monologue, for example, or preparing for an interview with one of his guests, so we’re left empty of any examination of his ability to create humor and induce laughter, which is a tremendous skill. Johnny Carson’s talent and ability are taken for granted.

All that’s left is celebrity and that’s the appeal of this book. Writing about a cultural icon of late 20th century America does have an upside and it’s fun to read about someone who was a titan of comedy and television. When Johnny and his third wife, Joanna, decided to spontaneously marry in private at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel on a day he was being honored with some other award for achievement, Bushkin writes that Johnny informed the gathered guests: “A lot of columnists have been asking why me and my gal haven’t set a date for the wedding, so I think I will tell you that we were married at one-thirty this afternoon.” Bushkin continues: “Johnny then leaned down and kissed Joanna. Flip Wilson, wearing his Geraldine drag, kissed Johnny. Noting that all three of Johnny’s wives had names that started with the same letter, Bob Newhart concluded, “Obviously Johnny didn’t want to have to change the monograms on the towels after every marriage.” The secret had been kept, romance had triumphed, the laughs were plentiful, and the party rocked. No marriage ever had a more promising beginning. In time, when the marriage ended and the divorce was settled, this romantic gesture would cost Johnny $35 million.”

How Johnny earned the money is left essentially unsaid, probably because Bushkin doesn’t know or care to know the source of Johnny’s wealth. The deals are one thing and Bushkin may have arranged, papered and closed them as he says. But the talent that made the deals – and profits – possible is something else. Instead, we get glimpses of glimpses of Bushkin in Vegas with women. Bushkin in the south of France with Mary Hart (Entertainment Tonight). Bushkin in Hawaii with Joyce DeWitt (Three’s Company). The story of Carson Productions, the business failures and success, the Hart, Schaffner and Marx company’s Carson suit designs are left untold, listed in dollars, cents and snippets. Again, there’s next to nothing about how Johnny worked, studied and made choices – did he watch clips of comedy routines, listen to songs or albums or read book excerpts before guests appeared on The Tonight Show and was he involved in creative meetings? – let alone deeper insights. Only in the last chapters does Bushkin disclose that “the man smoked four packs a day or more.” Why? Did he try to quit? Blank out. The death of Johnny Carson’s alcoholic son, Rick, is barely mentioned let alone explored.

Politically, Bushkin writes that Johnny Carson – who interviewed everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Ayn Rand on The Tonight Show – was “strong on integration and civil rights, skeptical of the military and war, big on personal responsibility. Overall, you’d have to say he was anti-big: anti–big government, anti–big money, anti–big bullies, anti–big blowhards.” Carson’s politics sound interesting. So does his friendship with flamboyant gay writer Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’sIn Cold Blood). So does the fact that Johnny chose not to attend either of his parents’ funerals. Bushkin never goes into any of that.

The man, the artist, the host, the master of ceremonies – all remain elusive to the man who was Carson’s longtime lawyer and it isn’t hard to see why. Bushkin reports that his then-romantic partner, actress Joyce DeWitt, once suggested to Johnny that he should play Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bushkin writes that Carson responded by lecturing DeWitt in why his audience would never want to see him in that. It’s probably one of the most interesting untold stories in this biography. But again, we never get to read a word of Carson’s lecture, which might have contained his philosophy of humor or at least his approach to doing comedy or at minimum understanding his appeal.

At the end of one chapter, Bushkin says that Mary Hart called Johnny Carson insane. We are expected to take her word for it via the author, but in the very next chapter Johnny Carson is angling to get a job for his alcoholic son in order to help him recover. He doesn’t sound remotely irrational let alone insane.

This sense of there being more to the story and huge gaping holes in Bushkin’s account is especially true when it comes to Joan Rivers. The comedienne was once Carson’s handpicked substitute host and presumed heiress to The Tonight Show‘s hosting. But she went behind Johnny’s back and took a late-night show gig with then-fledgling Fox. Why she did do what she did, which led to a ratings disaster and may have contributed to her husband Edgar’s suicide, is another untold story here. Elsewhere, Bushkin describes himself as the middleman between Johnny Carson and Carson Productions chief Ed Weinberger, then admits that he asked Ed to be the one to tell Johnny that his son Rick had been fired. Bushkin clearly expects the tale to reflect poorly upon Johnny. Instead it reflects poorly on Henry Bushkin. Did Bushkin forget that he was the middleman? Or just that he’d told us he was?

Tellingly, when speaking of Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson, Bushkin intersperses the terms envied and admired.

In the end, the lawyer who waited until Johnny Carson – and his TV sidekick Ed McMahon, who hardly rates a mention here and there – died to write his superficial Johnny Carson confesses that he went behind Johnny’s back and tried to undersell Carson Productions by $30 million. He says he did it because he thought he was suited to run Carson Productions and therefore didn’t think it was “that big of a crime”. But he didn’t object when Carson found out about the double-cross and called him into his Malibu beach house to fire Henry Bushkin. The author describes Johnny Carson as “the most interesting man I had ever known.” He doesn’t come close to exploring or explaining why.

(Read my 2005 obituary for Johnny Carson here.)

Studies in Storytelling

This summer, I studied both Aristotle’s Poetics and short stories by O. Henry at the annual Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and earlier this week I finished attending the first Story Expo writers’ conference here in Los Angeles, where I had the privilege of studying with film scholars, published authors and agents and managers.

One of them is Cal State Northridge graduate studies screenwriting professor Eric Edson, author of The Story Solution, which he was kind enough to sign for me, who has made unique formulations about cinematic heroism that amazingly do not preclude the hero acting in his own self-interest. Something about him reminded me of Roark’s mentor in The Fountainhead, Henry Cameron.

The Fountainhead brings me to the fact that September 11 has a new, happier meaning for me after learning yesterday that my application for admission to Leonard Peikoff’s new writing course, predicated on an entrance essay assignment on ‘Why I Like The Fountainhead’, was accepted. Class starts this week with a new lecture on writing by Dr. Peikoff, who studied with Ayn Rand for 30 years, is Objectivism’s foremost authority and has written three books.

By now, I know what I know and don’t know about storytelling and, as I finish another manuscript and continue works in progress, I am thrilled to be studying again with a true master of the art of thinking.

the-fountainheadHere’s the entrance essay I wrote for my application.

Why I Like The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead makes me think—about art, work and life. The story of an orange-haired architect named Howard Roark, who builds because he wants to build, is an intense, complex and epic tale about the glory of the rational man’s life. It is the type of life I want to live.

The Fountainhead helps me to live it. That Roark achieves success based on reason, individualism and egoism, against the entire world, including those he loves, makes Ayn Rand’s novel a deeper, more radical work of art, which provides an example of the ideal man.

Though I know it’s a novel, not propaganda, and I’ve noticed that some people try to use The Fountainhead as if it’s the latter, missing Rand’s whole point, I find a wealth of such examples. Even in the smallest characters. In fact, few of the less appealing characters are irredeemable—Katie, Peter and other mixed characters come to mind—which makes it easier to realize that, despite the similarities, I can make better choices in the future and that’s more important than having made mistakes in the past. It helps me realize that perfection is possible.

I like The Fountainhead for its expression of an intransigent mind, an unconquerable hero who makes mistakes, delays short-term gratification, sticks to his principles—and lives happily thereafter. I like The Fountainhead for its contrasts among an intricate cast of characters and for the seriousness of purpose with which it tells Roark’s towering story. And how rare it is to find books about people like me, who struggle, fail and feel pain while trying in a troubled world to accomplish goals and achieve happiness. But the truth is that I love The Fountainhead for giving me, in sum total and to borrow Ayn Rand’s phrase describing what Roark gives to a child who’s seen what he’s made, the courage to face a lifetime.