By college, my favorite Tolkien tale was not The Lord of the Rings but "Leaf by Niggle," a short story he published first in 1947 and then, paired with the essay "On Fairy-Stories," as the slim volume Tree and Leaf in 1964. Both the story and the essay are defenses of fantasy, and it is the essay that includes Tolkien's famous response to those who deride fairy tales as escapist: "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"
As a self-contained argument, the essay is engaging but not really complete. As a companion-piece to the short story, it serves quite well. Faerie, it declares, "holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the Earth, and all the things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, when we are enchanted." It is this realm that the title character creates in "Leaf by Niggle," devoting his spare hours to a vast picture he's painting in a tall shed in his garden. Like Faerie -- or, more broadly, Fantasy -- Niggle's art serves as an escape, a fantastic diversion from a bland and bureaucratized life. While the world around him seems obsessed with trite legalities and matters of state, Niggle passes his time in the act of creation, inventing a new reality that not only is preferable to the world of a "serviceable cog" (Tolkien's phrase), but at story's end is truer than that world as well.
"On Fairy-Stories" declares the chief purposes of fantasy to be recovery, escape, and consolation, and Niggle's painting serves as each. It is a recovery of a clear view, the work of an artist "who can paint leaves better than trees" in a country where the individual leaf is sacrificed to the higher collective order. It is an escape from the "nuisance" of one's "duties" to that order. And it is a consolation, not only for Niggle but, later, for all those who use the world he has created "for convalescence." A theme of the essay reverberates in the story: that the fantasist, at his best, creates something more real than can ever be fashioned by the world's jailers, and that long after all the jails have decayed, Faerie will remain.
For a monarchist, Tolkien was quite the anti-authoritarian. His hobbits lived in a Chestertonian sort of anarchy; and Niggle is, in his ground-down way, an individualist hero -- smaller, realer, and altogether more interesting than the boring supermen favored by another sort of libertarian.
1. The Exterminating Angel Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Bunuel and Luis Alcoriza, from a play by Jose Bergamin
This was the first Bunuel film I ever saw. A dozen or so later, it's still my favorite.
2. The Music Man Directed by Morton DaCosta
Written by Marion Hargrove, from a play by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
A real movie musical, completely liberated from its stage origins, with a sophisticated score and an enjoyable anti-bluenose streak.
3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Lukas Heller, from a novel by Henry Farrell
"You mean, all this time we could've been friends?"
4. Knife in the Water Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Jakub Goldberg, and Jerzy Skolimowski
Polanski's first feature. Very tense.
5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Unravels one legend, helps invent another.
6. The Manchurian Candidate Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by George Axelrod, from a novel by Richard Condon
My memory's a little hazy and I might be getting the chronology confused, but I'm pretty sure I went to a revival screening of this hyper-paranoid thriller on my first date, back in high school. Make of that what you will.
7. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Directed by Robert Enrico
Written by Enrico, from a story by Ambrose Bierce
One of two templates for Siesta, Jacob's Ladder, Lulu on the Bridge, Abre Los Ojos, The Sixth Sense, Vanilla Sky, and Donnie Darko.
8. Carnival of Souls Directed by Herk Harvey
Written by John Clifford
The other template.
9. Lawrence of Arabia Directed by David Lean
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
After Woman of the Dunes, this is probably the best movie ever made about sand.
10. Lolita Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick, from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Officially, the screenplay is by Nabokov, but the shooting script bore little resemblance to the novelist's self-adaptation. It is, at any rate, a fine black comedy, with especially amusing performances by Peter Sellers, James Mason, and Shelley Winters.
1. The books are also toys. Tactile tomes like Pat the Bunny used to be rare; now they're everywhere. The familiar pop-up book continues to thrive, along with more radical artifacts that do not pop up so much as they unpack. A children's book might include a mirror or two, a series of strategically placed holes, or some detachable creatures that can be played with separately; it might come in a special waterproof edition, printed on material that bears no resemblance to paper or even to cardboard; it might owe more to its designer than to either its author or its illustrator.
There is as much experimentation in these books, as much willingness to move beyond traditional ideas of narrative and of text itself, as in the most avant-garde postmodern novel. I'm especially enamored with the brief but endlessly fascinating Hello Bee, Hello Me, to the point where I may have to buy my own copy.
2. The toys, meanwhile, are also texts: they speak, sing, or are covered with writing. If there are books that are more interactive than ordinary toys, then there are toys that contain more actual words than some of the books. There may be a direct line between installation art and these mass-produced playthings, the chief difference being that the latter tend to be more concerned with delighting their audience.
Whatever this strange in-between medium may be, I found some more examples of it at the Walters art museum today. Searching the building for some hint of modernism, R. and I stumbled on its manuscript room, which contained handcrafted books both from medieval times and from the last few years. The second group turned pop-ups and the like toward more mature and eccentric themes, transforming the toy-book into an avenue of adult expression.
Meanwhile, yet another plaything -- the video game -- is converging with the movies, creating what looks to me like a mass art in its Nickelodeon stage. Toys, games, books, art: there's a hundred culture-studies papers to be written about all this, I tell you. (Ninety-nine of which were probably published long ago. Chances are pretty good that I'm late to this party. Oh, well: it's nice to be here, nonetheless. Hello, bee. Hello, me.)
4. The Candidate Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Jeremy Larner
Every time I flip by this on TV, I wind up watching it to the end.
5. Frenzy Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Anthony Shaffer, from a novel by Arthur La Bern
Hitch's most modern movie -- this is the second-to-last film he made, and the first with any nudity or genuinely graphic violence -- is also remarkably traditional, a straightforward thriller starring one of his most familiar characters: the innocent man wrongly accused.
6. Sleuth Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by Anthony Shaffer, from his play
Witty, suspenseful, perfectly crafted.
7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Cinema's greatest surrealist having fun.
8. Cries and Whispers Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman
One of the most painful and depressing films I've ever seen. Part of me thinks it should be much higher in this list. Another part doesn't want to include it at all.
9. Play it Again, Sam Directed by Herbert Ross
Written by Woody Allen, from his play
Remember when Woody was young enough that you could hope he gets the girl without creeping yourself out?
10. The Heartbreak Kid Directed by Elaine May
Written by Neil Simon, from a story by Bruce Jay Friedman
For once in his mostly regrettable career, Neil Simon shows some fangs -- or maybe I should credit Elaine May for refusing to soften the story's edges. Either way, this comedy is exquisitely cruel.
1. Sans Soleil Written and Directed by Chris Marker
A bizarre and wonderful essay-film about Africa, Japan, festivals, robots, Hitchcock, and much, much more. There is no movie in the world that is remotely like this one.
2. Danton Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Written by Wajda, Jean-Claude Carrière, Jacek Gasiorowski, Agnieszka Holland, and Boleslaw Michalek, from a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska
The best film ever made about the French Revolution, salted with pointed parallels to events in the director's native Poland.
3. Blade Runner Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, from a novel by Philip K. Dick
There are those who say the director is the true author of a movie. That theory doesn't fit this film, which owes its greatness to Dick's story and Lawrence G. Paull's production design. That said: if you haven't seen Blade Runner before, it's the director's cut that you should rent, not the studio's somewhat blandified original release.
4. Fitzcarraldo Written and Directed by Werner Herzog
Herzog's best picture, about a mad scheme to build an opera house deep in the Brazilian jungle.
5. Dimensions of Dialogue Written and Directed by Jan Svankmejer
As with most of Svankmejer's short films, this is rather difficult to describe. Suffice to say that you might never be satisfied with ordinary animation again.
6. The Draughtsman's Contract Written and Directed by Peter Greenaway
Greenaway is one of those moviemakers whose shorts tend to be better than his features, perhaps because there isn't enough time for the picture's conceit to get tiresome. Despite that, this feature-length puzzle-box about sex, sketches, and secret societies is my favorite of his films.
7. Burden of Dreams Directed by Les Blank
A documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo (see above), in which Werner Herzog seems at least as mad as his title character.
8. Moonlighting Written and Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
No, not the TV series. This one's a rather depressing picture about Polish workers in London during the Solidarity uprising.
9. The Return of Martin Guerre Directed by Daniel Vigne
Written by Vigne, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Natalie Zemon Davis, from a novel by Janet Lewis
A middlebrow historical picture. Sometimes they're actually good, you know?
10. America Is Waiting Written and Directed by Bruce Conner
A music video of sorts, though I doubt it ever aired on MTV.
SELF-PROMOTION: Behold, my latest Reason Onlinecolumn. It is, basically, the product of a man who faced a deadline, and wanted to write something about the late Joe Strummer, and realized he didn't have it in him. How do you get a whole article out of the observation that "Career Opportunities" is about as close to perfect as a rock song can get? You can't; or I can't, anyway; I just put on the record, pause to enjoy it, and write about Time's silly Persons of the Year award instead. Rest in peace, Joe.
I have no position on whether Lott should step down. I merely have a position on whether he is a turd, and whether he makes the rest of the Republican Party look like turds. He is, and he does. Removing him from his post won't address the first problem, but it might help with the second. Then again, by this point it might be too late.
But you know who really looks like a turd? Anyone incapable of responding to this story without bringing up the bigotries, real and alleged, of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Robert Byrd, or any other Democrat. It's the right-wing version of the Bill Clinton defense: "Everybody does it! So let's move on." Haizeus Foogin Christ, man, are you even capable of looking at the world without counting up partisan chits?
1. Referring to a certain variety of singer: "When did emotion get conflated with trying to cough up a lung?"
Amen. The ability to hold a very loud note is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it's nothing compared to the ability to put nuance and emotion into a song. Bob Dylan is a better singer than Barbra Streisand, and Willie Nelson is a better singer than Celine Dion.
2. Referring to Christina Aguilera: "How do we even know she's a chick? When did pulchritude get conflated with looking like a drag queen?"
A second amen, and perhaps a hallelujah. Aguilara is so frightening-looking, she makes Britney Spears seem human. And Britney's a wax robot.
Twelve years ago, in the leadup to another war against Saddam and his country, one of my hobbies was being a burr in the side of that same student government. Having spent much of the previous two years arguing with its leaders about free speech, equal treatment under the law, and other civil liberties that they had found "progressive" reasons to abuse, I was suddenly working side by side with them, attempting, in various pathetically inadequate ways, to avert Operation Desert Storm.
"Side by side" may be stretching it: it wasn't a happy partnership, and I wasn't an equal partner. With the student left in the driver's seat, the antiwar movement had a knack for alienating people otherwise opposed to military action. It seemed, for example, as though every single speech at our rallies had to include a condemnation of Israel's behavior in the West Bank and Gaza. I agreed with the sentiment, but a lot of antiwar Jews did not, and I didn't see why the organizers had to take every opportunity they could to stress such a significant point of disagreement. The speakers seemed to see the marches as an opportunity to recruit bodies for their other causes, not a chance to build a coalition with people who didn't share their other concerns.
The posturing reached a low point at a big rally on the eve of the war, where a speaker felt the need to list all the people suffering from oppression around the globe -- or, at least, from oppression by the U.S. and its allies. By the time she'd reeled off a dozen or more victims of official violence in South Africa, Central America, and the Levant, the crowd was getting restless. Usually when I heckle someone, I make an ass of myself, but this time, for once, I yelled the right thing:
"And the 14 Lithuanians!" (Soviet troops had just killed 14 Lithuanians, sullying Papa Gorbachev's international image.)
The speaker look startled. "Um -- yes," she said. "And the 14 Lithuanians."
"And the Chinese!" yelled someone else. (Tiananmen Square was still a recent memory.)
"Um," said the speaker, and chuckled nervously. "Yes, there's lots of problems in the world."
The crowd laughed. The speaker got the point. And the coalition lasted a little while longer, though we never did stop the war.
More significant, perhaps, was that the entity that invented Greenbelt was less and less comfortable with its creation. In Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal (2001), the historian Cathy Knepper notes that the town "suffered repeated attacks from its creator, the federal government" in the decade following World War II, starting with a congressional investigation of cooperatives in 1947 and concluding with a McCarthy-era witch-hunt in which several naval employees who lived in Greenbelt were fired as security risks. (Rumors of subversives in the suburb actually predated the red scare. Many pacifists who had refused to fight in World War II had moved to Greenbelt, a town tolerant of political dissent if not of those who used their clotheslines after 4 p.m.) The biggest change, though, came when the feds decided to disentangle themselves from the town. "Federal officials originally described Greenbelt as a great social experiment," writes Knepper. "By the end of the war...officials regarded Greenbelt as a collection of houses that the government no longer wished to own."
In 1952, Congress sold off most of Greenbelt's public housing. A resident-owned co-op bought the bulk of it, along with 708 acres of the undeveloped land that surrounded the town and gave it its name. It was a privatization that even socialists could love: the transformation of a government town into a co-op community, with affordable housing and a liberal political culture. But if the feds were changing with the times, the cooperatives were too. Gradually, the city was going capitalist.
Even as one co-op was buying up government houses and holding them in common, a second co-op was buying homes from the first and re-selling them to individual owners. More important: Unable to pay the taxes on the vacant land it owned, the Greenbelt housing cooperative sold it to a private developer. The ultimate result was a building boom that the Greenbelt faithful could not control.
Meanwhile, Greenbelt Consumer Services was evolving from an idealistic venture into a big business, expanding its operations into Takoma Park, Wheaton, and Washington. "Continuous expansion is a basic principle of cooperatives," the company's president wrote in 1952, "and of any business that wants to remain healthy." Power was centralized in the hands of management, which was regularly accused of making decisions without consulting the co-op's members. The company eventually moved its headquarters to Savage, Maryland, leaving Greenbelt behind in everything but name.
There is still a strong co-op movement in the town, but the phone book is filled with conventional businesses as well; and, as the history of Greenbelt Consumer Services shows, cooperatives can respond to market signals the same way other businesses do. Old Greenbelt still has a small-town flavor, but the city's outskirts have more in common with the rest of the region's sprawl. Federal money, too, still plays a role in Greenbelt, as it does in virtually every corner of America. But D.C. doesn't run the place anymore. With Washington just a short drive or subway ride away, the feds' chief role in the town is to sleep there.
American history is filled with tales like these. One crank or genius dreams up a new way of living, and suddenly a brand new village or compound or crash pad is attempting to realize his ideals. Decades later, the dream has either died or, more intriguingly, evolved, adjusting itself to changes both inside and outside the community. These experiments are not utopian in the sense of being perfect societies, or even necessarily of aspiring to perfection. But they fit Robert Nozick's idea of different social visions competing within a larger framework of freedom. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick proposed "a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes; a society in which utopian experimentation can be tried, different styles of life can be lived, and alternative visions of the good can be individually or jointly pursued." Evidently, such parallel worlds are not just the stuff of philosophers' thought-experiments. They are scattered throughout the American past and present, constantly being born and dying, evolving in different directions and influencing the society around them.
Greenbelt, granted, is an unusual case. It would be excluded from Nozick's libertarian "framework for utopia," at least before 1952, because it was built and initially owned by the state. On the other hand, it is a part of a specific tradition of suburban experiments, not all of which were federally funded. One of its original inspirations, launched in 1928, was Radburn, a privately backed effort to build a self-sufficient garden city within two square miles of New Jersey. (The colony is still there, but it stopped trying to be a utopia long ago.) After Greenbelt there came the corporate-run new towns of the '60s and '70s -- i.e., the places I write about in my Reason article. Reston, Virginia; Columbia, Maryland; Irvine, California.
Utopia, Nozick writes, "is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long time." Not everyone shares this flexible and patient concept of utopia; to most, the word implies a perfect, static society that need never improve or change. Besides, in our present cultural context it's hard to square the idea of utopia with that of Gulf Oil (which owned Reston for a spell), or the CIA (Langley is a 12-mile drive from Reston, and many agency employees live there) or the NSA (Columbia is adjacent to Fort Meade, headquarters of the National Security Agency). Paradoxes can be fun, you may complain, but come on.
Very well: You can shed the notion of utopia, and the significance of these little experiments will remain. "Reston is not utopia," one citizen of that suburb told me while I was researching my Reason piece. "It's not Nirvana. Not everything we've started here has worked. I don't need to be in a place that's perfect. But at least, in Reston, we try." And, outside Reston, the rest of us try other things. That is freedom, in all its banality and splendor.
HOLLYWOOD ARCHIVES: A few weeks ago, as I dropped by my favorite Baltimore video store, the clerks were watching Can't Stop the Music, an infamous 1980 vehicle for the Village People. The movie has a reputation as an unwatchable piece of Hollywood detritus, and I suppose that, taken in full, that may be true. But the part I saw amazed me: a transcendently bizarre "YMCA" that felt like something Busby Berkeley might shoot, if he were (a) tripping on a double dose of peyote while (b) getting fisted.
If your local video shop doesn't carry that tape, the second-best alternative might be to watch Matt Round's tribute to the stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. It offers neither the cinematic skill nor the psychedelic spirit of the Village People's effort, but the two clips do have ... heh heh ... something in common.
CONVIVIAL GURU: Ivan Illich is dead. I'd like to write more about this sad development sometime soon, and perhaps I will, though it's not a project I'd take up lightly. A radical with a reactionary streak -- or was it the other way around? -- Illich married a brilliant critique of bureaucracy and the professions to a disturbingly static view of the world. This outlook was a closely woven whole, which in many ways made things worse. If, like me, you found yourself profoundly influenced by his work yet just as profoundly alienated from some of his most basic assumptions, it was no simple matter to say you bought into this much Illich and left the rest aside: figuring out exactly where you parted company with the man required a very careful parsing of a very dense analysis. In retrospect, this parsing was one of the most rewarding intellectual experiences of my life.
One common critique of Illich held that his ideas were too abstract to be useful in practice. But at their best, they opened the door to thinking much more practically about social problems than before. The evidence lies in the hands-on work of Illichians ranging from Gustavo Esteva to John F.C. Turner to John McKnight, men whose ideas and accomplishments are a welcome contrast to the dead hand of the development bureaucracies.
The first Illich book I read was Deschooling Society, and to me, it's the best of the lot. Its opening paragraph is still one of my favorite passages in modern political literature:
"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is 'schooled' to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve those ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."
Now, with another Gulf War on the horizon, HBO is reviving the incubator story in its docudrama Live from Baghdad, as though the debunking had never happened. When an antiwar outlet does something this dishonest, you can be sure the axis of warbloggery will be all over it. Where are you, guys?
ANOTHER REMAKE: RiShawn Biddle writes to remind me that Steven Soderbergh's Traffic was also a remake -- in its case, of a British miniseries. I had forgotten this. I've been told that the original series is better than the Soderbergh movie but, not having seen the original, I can't say whether I agree.