Ace in the Hole (Criterion Collection). Now available on home video for the first time ever, Billy Wilder’s scaldingly cynical film about a washed-up newspaper reporter (Kirk Douglas) who gets hold of a Floyd Collins-like exclusive, blows it up into a media event avant la lettre, and loses what’s left of his soul along the way. Rarely has Hollywood made such films, and this one, not surprisingly, was the box-office flop of 1951. Fifty-six years later, it looks more like a cold-eyed peep into the future of electronic journalism (TT).
Archives for July 23, 2007
There really is no shame quite like being 36 and having to confess as part of Monday morning status, “Sorry, that project isn’t complete, I was reading the new Harry Potter.”
All day yesterday I kept thinking, “One more chapter and then I will go to the desk and work.” Afternoon came and went, then dusk, nightfall, and finally the book was read, just around the time a party at my neighbor’s was breaking up.
Now I feel like a drunk having to account for time lost on a bender.
My posting about the death of Jerry Hadley made a lot of people angry, as did the unsentimental obituary I wrote for The Wall Street Journal when Arthur Miller died. One of Hadley’s fans went so far as to call me “disgusting” twice in the same e-mail, which I believe is a personal record. In both cases, the reason for much of the anger can be summed up by a Latin tag: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. The wise man is slow to quarrel with proverbs, but I’m afraid I must trump that one with a snippet of Shakespeare. He that dies pays all debts–including the debt of discretion that is owed to him, insofar as it’s ever owed to a public figure who voluntarily chooses his status.
My own view of the matter is to be found in the published sayings of Nero Wolfe:
“Marko was himself headstrong, gullible, oversanguine, and naïve. He had–”
“For shame! He’s dead, and you insult–”
“That will do!” he roared. It stopped her. He went down a few decibels. “You share the common fallacy, but I don’t. I do not insult Marko. I pay him the tribute of speaking of him and feeling about him precisely as I did when he lived; the insult would be to smear his corpse with the honey excreted by my fear of death.”
If anyone should see fit to write anything about me after I die, I hope they’ll keep that in mind.
As for the people who’ve been writing to say that I can’t possibly know anything about depression…well, what I know about it is nobody’s business. But I’ll say this much: Hadley was a talented, once-successful artist whose career had collapsed and who was on the verge of bankruptcy when he shot himself in the head. I’m sorry he did it–I wish he hadn’t–but somehow I doubt that psychotherapy would have stopped him from doing so, much less the kindness of strangers. The world is a hard place, and the opera business is, or can be, one of its toughest neighborhoods. Those who think otherwise know nothing about it. Those who pretend otherwise are kidding themselves.
* * *
For additional thoughts on the subject of obituary writing, go here.
CultureGrrl seems to think that critics (presumably meaning, among others, me) were partly responsible for Hadley’s suicide. She may well have a larger point, but in this particular case I can assure her that the critics who wrote of his vocal difficulties in 1999 were only reporting well after the fact what was common knowledge in the opera world. The damage had already been done, and I’m sure he knew it.
This is the most interesting reaction I’ve seen to what I wrote.
• The most incongruous day of my cultural life took place in 1999, when Time sent me to Milwaukee, a city I’d never before visited, to see Florentine Opera give the American premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s operatic verison of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Milwaukee isn’t far from Chicago, so I persuaded Our Girl to meet me there. I flew out at midday and spent the afternoon walking around the Milwaukee Art Museum, then met OGIC at the train station and took her to the theater. After the opera–which was a knockout and a wow–we went back to our hotel and turned on the TV to look for a chaser with which to clear our spinning heads. There’s Something About Mary was playing on the pay-per-view channel. I hadn’t yet seen it, but OGIC assured me that it was drop-dead funny, so we proceeded to watch it, and I laughed so hard at the first scene that I came close to throwing up.
I recently quoted Greg Sandow in this space:
The [fine] arts–as an enterprise separate from our wider culture, and somehow standing above it–are over….any attempt to revive them (this includes classical music, of course) will have to mean that they engage popular culture, and everything else going on in the outside world.
Somehow I doubt that was quite what Greg had in mind. But maybe not!
• One of my closest friends regularly sends me handwritten letters and postcards, to which I generally respond via e-mail. It’s not that she’s a technophobe. In fact, she’s a blogger of long standing. But as she once explained to me:
Isn’t it nice to open letters, too? In a funny way, I think all the email/blogging returns an almost romantic, Victorian specialness to pen & paper correspondence.
I know exactly what my friend means, and I’ve tried to reciprocate. Yet I still find it all but impossible to sit down and write a full-length letter by hand, in part because I’m left-handed and so have always found penmanship (as they used to call it once upon a time) awkward and ungratifying. I started using a typewriter at the age of ten and learned how to touch-type six years later, and since then I’ve mostly restricted my handwritten communication with the outside world to postcards and very brief notes. Despite my advancing age and old-fashioned inclinations, e-mail and blogging somehow seem to suit me better. I guess I’m just a post-postmodern man in a hurry, juggling too many balls for my own good.
I wish it were otherwise. I love the letters I get from my friend. I love the way her handwriting reflects her quirky, slightly fey personality. Would that I could give as good as I get.
Mr. Artblog, who visited the Teachout Museum the other day, is himself an artist of no mean accomplishment. To my amazement and delight, he brought me a present, a lovely little ink-on-paper sketch called “Reading on the Subway.” I’ll hang it with pride as soon as I get back to New York.
If you’d like to see it, go here.
“Eulogy is nice, but one does not learn anything from it.”
Ellen Terry, Ellen Terry’s Memoirs