Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Onward and Upward with the Arts
I wonder, a lot, if I spend too much time online, to the detriment of filling my mind, such as it is, with better things.
For example, for someone who thinks and reads about movies as much as I do, I'm sometimes surprised I don't see more of them. And as I've migrated mostly from paper to electronic books, it feels like I'm not reading nearly as much. Living in Our Nation's Capital makes it a lot easier to meet one's minimum yearly requirement of museum-going, so I'm not as worried on that front, but we're definitely not taking enough advantage of the city's musical and theatrical bounty.
This year, I tried to track at least part of my mental diet, and so as the old year winds down, I'm contemplating the totals: 28 movies (including feature documentaries) and 33 books. Not as bad as I feared, but not quite the omnivore's delight I might have hoped for.
Part of that is I'm fussy about pictures not seen at the theatre. I don't like having them on in the background - when I'm watching a movie, that's what I'm doing, not reading or surfing or doing anything distracting except possibly scratching a recalcitrant terrier - and I have to see them from first frame to last (which I do at the movies, too - I like to watch all the credits unfurl, although these days they've gotten so long that sometimes even I give up). Mr. Muscato is a casual movie-watcher, so we often have things on, especially Arabic films, that I can't count toward the total. Also, I'm not counting the comparatively large number of movies I saw while in the hospital, as for the first few days I was pretty non compos (I do remember seeing Johnny Eager and thinking even then how little time I have for Van Heflin, as well as how much I wished we saw more of Glenda Farrell), and there's no such thing, at least in a cardiac ICU, as two hours of uninterrupted time, day or night. I was once just this side of unpardonably rude to a poor night-nurse who came to give me some unspeakable injection at about 3:00 a.m., just because she was making me miss the big number from a Gold Diggers picture.
Still, 28's not all that bad, and at least they do cover a wide swath of territory - from Poverty Row bizarerie like The Seventh Victim to Lily Tomlin's marvelous turn in Grandma, and including femmes as fatale as Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution, Dunaway in Chinatown, and the immortal Beverly Michaels in Wicked Woman. Not to mention ZaSu Pitts in the less-than-immortal So's Your Aunt Emma!, a movie that seems to have been created just to prove that you could write a 60-minute programmer with that title and get away with it.
Still, I have too many true cinephile friends and acquaintances not to feel vaguely ashamed of the vast gulfs in my experience. I'm trying to develop a list of 2016 must-sees, movies that it's simply ridiculous I've made it to my advanced age and not yet seen. It's still a list very much in development - and for which suggestions are highly welcome - but to date it includes Madame X (the Turner/Bennett version), Old Acquaintance (only ever seen the shaking scene), and The Big Lebowski (just because mention of it seems continually to turn up in the oddest places).
As for books, I'm actually rather pleased it's as many as it is. Given all the hours I waste roving around the Interwebs, it's nice to know that I'm still plowing through 2.75 books a month, and that at least a few of them are at least moderately substantial and (harder for me, a dedicated re-reader), first-timers. I'm lighter on fiction than I might hoped (and, shamefully, not a single piece of contemporary fiction on the list), and I can't say that my range on that front is too wide - from Mrs. Gaskell to Miss Pym, essentially, with stops at the occasional Mitford bagatelle or Muriel Spark bibelot. In the non-fiction realm, the spectrum is wider but distinctly quirkier. I have, for example, an abiding fascination with all things North Korean, and so this year took in both North Korea Confidential, a wide-ranging survey of recent discoveries about daily life in the Hermit Kingdom, and A Kim Jong Il Production, a remarkable tale of skulduggery and the late dictator's own extreme form of cinephilia (involving kidnappings, harrowing escapes, and a homegrown Godzilla movie - it's basically Cecil B. Demented set in a Stalinist dystopia). Biographies loom large, with special highlights this year including Aretha Franklin, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Lord Berners (and his eccentric circle), and - my current read - Tennessee Williams, as brought to us by the wonderful John Lahr.
If there were a common theme among the subjects, I suppose it would be their determined, in most cases lifelong, attempts at self-definition - whether as Queen of Soul, Austro-Hungarian imperial heir, British aristocrat, or American genius - and the incredible toll that such efforts can have, not least on all the long-suffering people at the edge of a starry orbit. I don't know which I would least rather be, but you'd have to have paid me a lot to be, say, the Archduchess Sophie (and not just for that unpleasantness at Sarajevo) or anyone within ten feet of Tennessee in the last 25 years of his life.
As for 2016 on the literary front, well, I'm expecting very likely more of the same: literary, royal, and artistic biographies, solid accounts of various aspects of history and culture, and, if I'm very good, more novels, with perhaps even one or two written within the last decade or so. I don't generally trade in New Year's resolutions, but here's a challenge: I'll commit to reading any work of fiction independently suggested (in good faith, and airport thrillers, apocalyptic young-adult novels, and intergalactic sagas don't count) by two different Gentle Readers.
As long as it's not one of those goddam 50 Shades abortions, that is...