By Kyle | April 30, 2010
Considering why, after seven hours, “The Pacific” still hasn’t really made its mark. An essay in the Post.
By Kyle | April 25, 2010
I don’t think Philip Hensher’s considered and surprising examination of English life from the 1970s to the 1990s has gotten its fair share of attention. Hensher’s “The Northern Clemency” is a worthy companion to Jonathan Coe’s brilliant two-book series, “The Rotters’ Club” and “The Closed Circle.”
The two writers cover some of the same territory and use some of the same tactics. One thing that can be unnerving about “The Northern Clemency” (a nominee for the Booker Prize) is how it builds to perfectly observed tiny cliffhangers of the soul — episodes that may have considerable, though not quite predictable, effects on character — only to skip over many years and to dispense with the character in question, sometimes for hundreds of pages, before the upshot starts to come into focus.
The book is simply and precisely the story of two families (local natives the Glovers and the London transplants the Sellerses) living across the street from each other in the coal town of Sheffield beginning in the 1970s and into the 1990s. The two families are somewhat mirror images: each has a hard-working upper-middle-class patriarch, each contains a housewife, a weird younger boy and a more confident teen girl. The Glover family’s oldest child, a teen boy in the full voltage of his later teens, is the handsome Daniel, who has no opposite number across the street and will later stumble his way to a surprise success as a restaurateur.
Hensher’s book isn’t assertively political, but in its Victorian expansiveness (it goes on for 700 pages that are fully engaging, in an oddly mild way) it completely understands its dramatis personae — especially Tim Glover, Daniel’s oddball little brother, and Francis, the tall, shy kid who is the same age. Tim is of mid-grammar-school age as the book begins, and his obsession with snakes culminates in the book’s most shattering (early) set piece, when his mother Katherine (who is devastated by her husband’s Malcolm’s wordless two-day disappearance after Malcolm comes to suspect she is having an affair) discovers that Tim has sneaked a snake into his bedroom and is keeping the unauthorized creature under his bed. Katherine, in full view of the neighbors, takes the snake into the street and stomps on its head, leaving Tim with an equally mangled soul. Later he will emerge as a full-throated Marxist, in the “Billy Elliott” era when the Sheffield miners went on a suicidal strike from the state-owned industry, sealing their fate when the Iron Lady dismissed their demands. Another equally fraught incident from Tim’s youth is his first sexual encounter, when the slutty teen girl across the street, Sandra, opens her shirt for him and invites him to bury his face in her cleavage. Twenty years later, Sandra will have restyled herself Alex and will be living a life of sex and sunshine in Australia, seemingly because it’s as far from dour, judgmental Sheffield as it is possible to go. Tim will never quite be cured of her breasts.
You might read the book principally for Hensher’s mordant observations and the snippets of unassuming dialogue that reveal so much about the English way: “Let’s just shut up about it,” says Alice Sellers, the unambitious but kindly hausfrau, about a subpar hotel. “I don’t know why we’ve always got to discuss everything.” A shady flower-shop-owner who is laundering money for a drugs gang experiences a coup de foudre when he first spots his gangster partner’s daughter at the dealer’s nouveau-riche nightmare country house: “It had never happened before to him in such a way, such an infliction of a moment as it not happened, dazed in a hot Devon garden of ugly elaboration.”
In addition to conjuring up characters of startling vividness, Hensher is a satirist of an amusingly reserved kind. In a group of hardcore leftists protesting in solidarity with the striking miners, there is “one girl, shabbily but decisively dressed” who “tried to embrace the chief mining wife. They sort of submitted to it, but you could see what they thought about Trudy, who, with her views on the systems that made deodorant, both vaginal and armpit, and shampoo seem necessary, wasn’t all that nice to be embraced by or even come very near to.” Fellow protester Tim (who will become Trudy’s life-comrade — we will learn in a sad and alarming passage that she is the only person he has ever had sex with) is spotted studying his way toward an advanced degree — “and, to be honest, he footled with Marx for an hour or two, his head bent over the rumpled book with its stains and deliberate coffee-mug rings, not taking much in, just enjoying the thought of himself reading Marx and how he must look to everyone else.” Funny — but unfair? I think not. Nor is Hensher ever bitter, which I suppose is a condition the satiric-minded must be ever vigilant of. No, Hensher is a wise one but not a wise-ass. There is deep humanity in this gently rolling, quietly penetrating, highly pleasurable book.
By Kyle | March 18, 2010
I watched the first episode of “The Pacific” and was primarily struck by how, in the first big motivational speech about defeating the tyrannical racist empire that had sneak-attacked American possessions all over the Pacific, the motivation for defeating Japan is primarily expressed in terms of racism. This seems to be the Big Idea of the series: That it was a racist war, on both sides. Victor Davis Hanson, at the Corner, goes on:
Tom Hanks said this to Douglas Brinkley in a Time interview: “Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”
Some of us dissected this nonsense point by point. In subsequent remarks Hanks did not back away from his theses that the Pacific war was predicated on racism (I wonder whether our WWII alliances with China and the Philippines, or our prior alliance in WWI with Japan, were as well?), and thus similar to our attitudes in the current war on terror. (Racism apparently explains the American effort to foster democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and save Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Somalia.)
What was strange is the media’s reaction to the reaction. Why is being appalled by Hanks’s infantile philosophizing a “right-wing” or “conservative” reaction? Would not liberals as well be angry that in blanket fashion, Hanks had reduced veterans’ efforts in the Pacific after the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor (and to be followed by a magnanimous peace that fostered autonomous Japanese democracy) into largely a racist rage to annihilate?
Hanson takes apart Hanks’ argument here. You might say that Hanks and Hollywood are now in the post-“Letters from Iwo Jima,” moral equivalence phase of reading WW II — in which racist remarks on one side are equivalent to barbarian slaughter on the other side. Tell me, Tom: If Japan had won the war, would they (after a brief occupation) then have carefully re-established American independence and democracy? And done the same for all of the other countries they wished to vanquish? It’s even more bizarre that Hanks leaps from this reading of WW II to a similar reading of the war against Islamofascism — as if hatred of Muslims is the reason we have made such sacrifices to bring democracy to Iraq.
Now I sit back and wait for Patrick Goldstein to characterize the above reasoning as frothing-at-the-mouth nuttiness.
By Kyle | March 12, 2010
Tom Hanks says the war against Japan was one of “racism and terror.” True, the Japanese were racists and terrorists. I have no problem with that. They were in many ways even more inhuman than the Nazis. The Kamikazees were classic suicide terrorists. And the entire island nation appeared willing to commit suicide by continuing to fight — up until the second Bomb dropped and saved an immense number of Japanese and American lives. Absent the Bomb, we of course would have been forced to blockade Honshu until it starved. Who knows how long surrender would have taken under such slow-drip circumstances?
Hanks loses me when he disparages the US mission during the island-hopping campaign as simply being to “kill them all” and ties that to today’s war on terror — “is there anything new under the sun?” Er, what? Does Hanks think the War on Terror is about killing all Muslims? Or is he saying the Muslims want to kill all Christians, as indeed the Koran invites them to do? Could it be that Hanks thinks it is the US that deployed “racism and terror” in the cause of defeating an enemy that attacked us? Hanks, it seems to me, is having a very hard time of it. He is genuinely interested in US history and yet when he reads about the heroism, the moral authority and the sacrifice something shorts out in his soggy liberal mind.
By Kyle | March 3, 2010
I can’t believe what I just saw, so I’ll think about it some more before I go into detail. But if I were the kind of excitable guy who believes in boycotts, I’d say “Boycott NBC-Universal” for its appalling new anti-American flick “Green Zone,” an absurdly awful would-be actioner that stars Matt Damon as a US warrant officer in 2003 Baghdad.
I would never have accused director Paul Greengrass, who made the astonishingly powerful “United 93,” of being simplistic. But he has made a $100 million war film in which American troops are the bad guys. There are moments that we’re supposed to cheer because our soldiers are getting shot down- but it’s okay because they’re evildoers at worst or stooges at best who are trying to kill the one guy in the country who can prevent an insurgency from taking root. The movie also makes it look as though the flawed intelligence about the war was traceable to a single smarmy jackass (played by Greg Kinnear) working in Pentagon intel who fabricated WMD intelligence, said it came from a mysterious source (a general in Saddam’s army code-named “Magellan”), planted that intel with a Judith Miller-like reporter (Amy Ryan — who, hilariously, is shown working for The Wall Street Journal rather than The New York Times because Hollywood liberals can’t accept that The Times ever gets anything wrong) and then, when his ruse began to be suspected, sent his henchmen out to kill the general, who was willing to deal with the Americans but who vowed to launch an insurgency campaign if the Americans didn’t live up to their promises. In other words, the U.S. wasn’t merely incompetent — it caused the insurgency to occur.
By Kyle | February 19, 2010
A review of the Civil Rights drama “Blood Done Sign My Name” is up.
By Kyle | January 24, 2010
In the Sunday Post, I admire the fast-moving narrative of Britain in World War II, and the Yanks such as Edward R. Murrow and Averell Harriman who helped out, “Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Finest, Darkest Hour.”
By Kyle | January 8, 2010
Together with Steven Lomazow, my Post colleague Eric Fettmann has written a revisionist history of Franklin Roosevelt’s health that is winning a lot of acclaim. (See the Wall Street Journal review.) “FDR’s Deadly Secret” pores over the evidence that the president, who had a very noticeable and growing mark over his left eyebrow that mysteriously disappeared in 1940 (presumably a surgeon removed it), suffered from melanoma that metastasized — to his bowels and brain, ultimating contributing to the fatal stroke FDR suffered at age 63. The book’s findings are going to result in a lot of discussion.
By Kyle | January 4, 2010
My colleague and film historian Lou Lumenick was the motivating force behind “Shadows of Russia,” a series of films about the movies’ depiction of the USSR (including the notorious and little-shown FDR-commissioned Stalinist propaganda piece “Mission to Moscow,” which was aimed at making Americans swallow hard and welcome Uncle Joe as an ally) that will air every Wednesday night in January on TCM. The way “Mission to Moscow” treats FDR — as an unseen, lordly presence dispensing wisdom — is so astonishing in its suck-uppery that it makes the media’s treatment of the current president look like a full-on attack. More from Lou, a proud grandpa.
By Kyle | December 30, 2009
Michael Haneke’s grim “The White Ribbon” is a beautiful film with an ugly message. I found it deeply disturbing, and I have to give it credit for that. My three-and-a-half-star review is up. Spoiler alert and Movie twist of the week: Read the rest of this entry »