A Bad Century To Quit Smoking

Anne Roiphe’s essay that appeared in Tablet yesterday, about her late husband’s smoking habit, moved me deeply. Its complete title, “My Husband Quit Smoking, Then He Started Again: And that was fine with me: He was a 20th-century Jew,” says most of what you need to know to “get it,” but there’s so much more substance to it than that.

I’m a bit biased, perhaps, because Roiphe’s daughter Emily Carter was an indulgent mentor to me when I was a 20-something writer almost finding my way. Last year, when writing about my own father not long after his death, I tried accounting for some of his flaws. In any kind of writing it always makes the characterization rounder, and therefore more moving, to include the unflattering bits. It gives you the reader/viewer a deeper bond to sympathize with the flaws and not just the virtues.


U.S. Marines, 1944.

If only we were so generous in real life. So often we witness other people’s bad habits and see in them nothing but evidence of their weakness of character. The obese person just can’t control himself the way we svelte people can. The substance abuser needs to get his shit together.

Just yesterday – same day, coincidentally – I was switching to an express train at Union Square, and an angry-looking guy gets off it smoking a cigarette down to its butt and, for good measure, drops it on the platform. I know, we should all be on board the public health campaign to stop smoking, but people have been smoking tobacco for a long time, and there should be someplace in public you can still sit and do it – though I suppose not the Q Train.

The portrait Anne creates of her husband, ten years after his death, is of a man whose demons were of his time and place, but who, all told, bore them with grace. If the American Jew who, at 18 and 19, smoked cigarettes from Normandy Beach to Dachau, can’t sneak a few puffs here and there, then who can?

History and Its Story-Tellers

Knocked out with a stomach bug last week, I streamed a documentary about the Battle of Stalingrad, and watched every gory minute of it. I admit to a lot of hesitation when I saw, in the “Also Like This” panel at the bottom of the screen, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The War (2007)I knew this was a multi-part, hours-long series, and it could be addictive. It would surely last longer than my stomach bug, and I didn’t have enough Saltines to wait it out. Well, I went for it, and watched the whole thing.

Independent Film dudes disrespect Ken Burns for his sometimes milquetoast tone, but what the hell? He’s the Establishment voice. There’s nothing wrong with his story-telling that can’t be fixed if he streamlined the PBS-y habit of re-iterating his major points as if we’re letting weeks pass between episodes..and if he outgrew that piano sound. And, even if you can’t forgive these faults, Burns more than redeemed himself back in 2012 with The Central Park Five (co-written with Sarah Burns and David McMahon).

And you have to admit, The War‘s focussing on just a few dozen people, and just four home towns, was a master stroke. Judging by the omnipresence of World War II documentaries on Ye Olde History Channel for twenty years now, I’m not the only viewer who uses them as a macabre sort of comfort programming. The War is so distinct from any of the others by making a social history of America at that time. When you keep seeing one character, Babe Ciarlo, only in photographs, you know something’s wrong.

I guess the point of The War, in a sense, was that it was a last chance to get the veterans themselves to tell their stories. There were 3 million living American WWII vets in 2006 when Burns was polishing The War, and today there are less than a million.*

If you want to know how serious a difference this makes, watch the other series I watched last week – Don’t call me a sloth; I was not well! It was The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Where ISN'T that narrator?

Where ISN’T that narrator?

It was very informative, and full of great stories. The Tulsa Riot, Robert Smalls, Charles Hamilton Houston: American stories, I’m ashamed to admit, I did not know. But as Gates crossed the U.S. interviewing historians about the momentous events in Black history, I found myself Googling the historians, wanting to know more about them and their work.

It isn’t until the fourth episode, about the 1900-1940 era, that we first encounter someone whose own memory can be used to construct the narration, and still Gates insists on putting himself at the center of every scene, and often it feels cheap. Dressed like a Unitarian minister, he brandishes a cane the way Michael Moore wears a baseball cap. Moore is the working class narrator who dares you to turn your nose up at him. Gates is the great African-American popular intellectual. You never get the impression he resents his loneliness, only that it’s so much work to bear the burden of history the way he does. When he walks in the fields where Nat Turner worked, he not only struggles and contemplates, he is our surrogate struggler and contemplator. He is a case study in placing the narrator on camera so relentlessly.

In one of Davis Carr’s last columns before he died, he said of Brian Williams, “We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it.” I guess the same is true of our documentary narrative voices.

*According to the National WWII Museum, New Orleans.

Rome, Open City

The story behind Rome, Open City is about as heroic as screenwriting gets, but it’s so much more than a historical curiosity. I saw the restored version of it at Film Forum this week, familiar with its lore: Rossellini used extras who sometimes simply re-enacted what they experienced during the war, while it was still going on, north of the Alps anyway. The story goes that Sergio Amidei and Fellini wrote the script in Fellini’s apartment, because he was the only one who had heat. (A writer named Alberto Consiglio also got a “story by” credit.)

It’s astonishing how selective memory is, and revisiting old classics often gives me fresh surprises. I’d already seen it on video when I brought a friend to see it in a theater ten or so years ago, and left embarrassed that I hadn’t warned her how jarring the torture scenes near the climax were. With my memory fixated on that, I’d forgotten how shockingly early in the story one of its main characters gets killed, while another is being arrested – and the brilliant reversal when he escapes. I’d also completely forgotten the subplot about the network of escorts who double as informants in exchange for opiates.

The best film ever? No arguments here.

The best film ever? No arguments here.

Maybe because Pope Francis was making headlines that very morning by marrying twenty previously cohabitating couples – seventy years later, but who’s counting? – what struck me most this time around were the characters chosen to articulate the theme. Sure, they had a purity about them, but they were a pregnant couple planning their own shotgun wedding the following day, and this was in 1944.

They were good-looking and salt of the earth all at once, but Fellini, Amidei and Rossellini weren’t content with a mere anti-fascist message from a Jack London-esque proletarian hero. They went big, and chose an unmarried couple to express the highest ideals of Christianity itself: endurance, rebirth, and redemption at the end of suffering. Knowing that Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman became notorious a few years later for their extramarital relationship, it’s remarkable that this was already the kind of character he found most expressive. In a future century, when World War II is just “some war” and the secular-religious deck gets shuffled and dealt all over again, Rome, Open City will be remembered as a great Christian work as much as a political one.



Dying at Sea

One more post, before, I promise, my “Best Films of 2013” is done. What do you do on the coldest, windiest day of the year, when the city’s sleepy and you’re determined to take another week off from your writing projects for the sake of your own sanity?

Winter sunset on the harbor.

Winter sunset on the harbor.

Well, if your wife just bought you a ticket to see Benjamin Britten’s opera version of Billy Budd in February, you try cracking open your second Melville novel in a year – granted, this one a little shorter than the last. But it only takes me a few chapters to want to get close to that water. So I made sure, before sunset, to go back and see one of the most overlooked public memorials in the city, a place I’d stumbled on while reading Moby Dick and strolling around the waterfront trying to imagine where it started.

Two rows of giant slabs, the plaza between them framing the Statue of Liberty, listing 4,600 sailors who died crossing the Atlantic during World War II, “who sleep in the American coastal waters,” as the inscription eerily phrases it.

The thing that made sea stories so romantic was not just the imperialist impulse – to sit by our whale lamps in the northern hemisphere and read about white guys venturing to hot places. It was also the omnipresent deadliness of the ocean. Sailing was, and still is, the most dangerous occupation in America, and seawater is not your friend, especially when it’s cold and/or full of Nazis.

I suppose Gravity, of all the films of 2013, captured the feeling of “the void,” although, as my friend Steve Matuszak points out, it would have been better with less chatter and more void. I got about as close to it as I want to yesterday, with Battery Park all to myself in the single digits Fahrenheit, thinking about the people “sleeping” out there.