What I've Been Doing: Favorite Books and Movies of 2021
From American history to Wes Anderson and The Muppets....and everything in-between
Happy 2022 to all! Below is another little entry to our “Print the Legend” blog!
Well, I suppose you’ve had a long night of celebrating the New Year 2022. But we cannot really close out 2021 without a look back at a few of the books and movies we have enjoyed this past year - and so I have provided my list below!
From the outset, I would like to underline that I’m not listing just recent releases from the past year. This is only a listing of content that I’ve consumed and that I think other people would also benefit from reading or watching. Nothing is listed in any order, and I have not performed some kind of calculus to determine which books or films I would write about. This is simply a journal of some of what I’ve enjoyed. Cheers!
Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution
This is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read on American history. It’s no wonder Wood won a Pulitzer for his densely written but illuminating scholarship. Although written in the 1990s, Wood’s findings and takeaways remain clarifying and relevant today. In Radicalism, Wood pulls back the curtain on the social changes that preceded from and followed the political revolution. He details the ways in which social hierarchies inherited from Europe were broken down in the decades preceding the revolution, including the rise of a new wealthy merchant class whose dedication to industry and money making stood in direct opposition to the attitudes and lifestyle of the old aristocracy. In addition to changes in attitudes about more dynamic forms of money making on the part of wealthy classes, Wood charts the influences of the Enlightenment on American colonists, the rise of Republicanism, and an interest in disinterested government. In the end, Wood finds that these endeavors failed with the advent of moneyed interests and partisan politics. His conclusions ring hauntingly relevant even today.
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: Or How the World Became Modern
Greenblatt is a Shakespeare scholar who wrote the other Pulitzer Prize Winner on my list. Greenblatt zeroes in on how a learned but otherwise unremarkable monk and book collector discovered Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things, a discovery that helped to set off the humanist movement of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Greenblatt shows how Lucretius pronounced in beautiful poetic form how tiny atoms formed the basis of everything in the universe and how reason is the key to unlocking its secrets. With the agility and driving force of a mystery story, Greenblatt has written a fascinating history of the humanities as we have come to know it. Greenblatt’s volume is an instruction on good historical writing and detection, but what struck me most was how something that turns out to be one of the most important texts in western civilization almost never made it out of Ancient Greece, not to mention the medieval monasteries. Knowledge is a precious thing!
George Orwell’s 1984.
Thought-crime, “new speak,” the erasing of history to suit partisan objectives…can’t imagine how this couldn’t be relevant today. Enough said, I think.
Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book
Turning now to entertainment - Croce’s book was written in the 1970s but the seriousness with which it treats its subjects still remains worthy of attention, as do her numerous perceptions, observations and thoughts. Croce charts the making of each film Astaire and Rogers made together, with in-depth critical analysis of their dance sequences and plots. Of the former, Croce is especially perceptive, as a choreographer and dance critic herself. What struck me was how she revealed Astaire to be a serious artistic force and how she treated dance sequences to be entities or even mini-films unto themselves. I’ve been watching these movies since I was little and thought I knew a lot about their making. I once knew a professor who snidely remarked that Astaire was nowhere near the Nicholas Brothers in his dancing ability. No disrespect to the Nicholas Brothers and their abilities, but I’d recommend this book to her.
Peter Bogdanovich’s John Ford
I would recommend Joseph McBride’s biography Searching for John Ford or Tag Gallagher’s John Ford: The Man and His Films for anyone looking for a definitive treatment on Ford’s work and films. Dan Ford’s biography Pappy is much shorter and will suit anyone looking for a breezy biography. However, if you’re simply looking for a taste of who Ford was as a man and a director, Bogdanovich paints an admiring portrait, centered around interviews that he conducted with Ford. It's short and digestible (I read it backstage between my stage time during a tech rehearsal) but you come away with a sense of Ford’s scope as both a filmmaker and a poet.
Madeline Miller’s Circe
I know that this is a popular book. I enjoyed it, but I found that I couldn’t digest too much at once. I sort of sipped it like wine. It was much sweeter that way.
Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels
Tremendous in scope and detail, Homans charts the history of ballet from the Renaissance onwards with tremendous editorial skill. I know that her conclusion triggered a lot of people, especially those who worship the work of Forsythe, Peck and others who are considered modern day geniuses, when she predicted that ballet was on the decline. However, I certainly do not see why that should take away from the rest of the book, which is extraordinary. As a former dancer herself, she seems able to inhabit the minds and attitudes of choreographers going back even to Louis XIV’s day. In doing so, she helps dancers of today appreciate the scientific ingenuity and spiritual depths that have layered and built the art form over the centuries. While she notes frequently that ballet is inherently conservative and slow to adapt, she reveals just how dynamic and varied the art form has been over its five or so centuries and many cultures.
The Red Shoes
This 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film isn’t as well known as An American in Paris, but it's also probably the best dance film ever made. Like Black Swan, another brilliant ballet-centered film, The Red Shoes is anchored by the fable that the ballet within the film suggests. It draws from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale about a girl obsessed over a pair of mephistophelian red shoes and against her guardian’s better judgment. The red shoes take over her feet, forcing her to dance non-stop throughout the land until she has to have her feet cut off. The film version takes the fairy tale and turns it into a layered fable about the price an artist pays for his or her devotion to their craft. A dancer with the Royal Ballet, Moira Shearer plays Vicky Page and lights up the screen with her fiery technique and equally fiery red hair. Shown in technicolor, the 20 minute ballet scene is pure monumental cinema. Like any good piece of cinedance, it takes you beyond where the stage would ever go without constantly reminding you of the camera’s presence. It also takes you inside Vicky’s mind, substituting characters in the film with characters in the ballet. The film is a brilliant piece of surrealism and a morality tale.
A Matter of Life and Death
Another Powell and Pressburger film. I hadn’t heard of them before but each film I’ve seen over the holidays intrigues me. It’s no wonder that the likes of Martin Scorsese have cited them as influences on his filmmaking. They are inherently fascinating, sharing credit for writing, producing and directing. This particular film was supposed to address the growing tension between the Americans and British after the war. I had bought it on a Criterion Collection sale (the catnip of a cinephile) without even knowing that Sight and Sound named it one of the best British films of all time. After seeing it, I couldn’t agree more! The plot follows a WW2 airline pilot, played by David Niven, who should have died when he jumped out of a burning plane but was missed by the angel in charge due to the blasted English fog. Having since fallen in love with an American girl, the pilot seeks to argue for his right to stay on earth. It’s a bravely droll film for such heavy subject matter, but it’s also profoundly life affirming. Much of the film's beauty emanates from Jack Cardiff’s lush, almost dreamlike technicolor cinematography, which contrasts to the black and white cinematography used to play heaven. Whereas earth is filled with full colors, heaven is a cleanly bureaucratic haven. As Conductor 71, the angel who missed Niven’s character remarks, “one is starved for technicolor up there.” That line sums up the movie for me. On the DVD, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorses’s longtime collaborator and the late wife of Michael Powell notes how the filmmaker labored for scientific realism. Niven’s character is discovered to suffer from a form of epilepsy (a bold plot point for the time) and the medical discussions contained herein and the unique dissolves from color to black and white make one question whether Niven’s frequent visits to heaven are in fact hallucinations brought on by illness. This question is never answered. Also, ahead of the time is the pool of jury members who judge Niven’s case in heaven. Upon his lawyers request, the jury becomes a pool of immigrant and minority Americans, including Asians and Blacks. Niven’s defense is filled with pleas for individual autonomy. The real offender though is time: “after all, what is time? A mere tyranny.” A truly humanist and liberal film.
There have been a number of good releases this year. I haven’t seen them all but I’ve seen enough for my preferences to begin to emerge. Paul Thomas Anderson made a film very much in the American Graffiti style. Shot on nostalgic 35 mm, nothing about this film seems contrived, including newcomer Alana Haim’s performance as a 25 year old woman drawn into an odd relationship with a 15 year old has-been child actor. The relationship is never creepy however, and leads to a number of funny and touching situations. Granted the plot meanders, but that’s because it's episodic by nature and because the state of mind of the characters is similarly directionless. Another thing I like is that it doesn’t contain any of the anachronisms present in other recent historical dramas. With all due respect to Aaron Sorkin, his rather heavy handed revisionism in Being the Ricardos comes to mind. One caveat to Licorice Pizza: stray activist organizations have called for it to be boycotted at awards ceremonies because it depicted a racially insensitive restaurant owner who spoke in mocking ways to his many Asian wives. While one can easily see how some would find this so insensitive, I find this criticism attention-seeking and contrived. One shouldn’t have to spell out that the butt of the joke is the utter fool trying to make a profit off Asian culture. Still too risky, some might charge. So you mean restaurateurs didn’t undergo racial sensitivity training during the Nixon years? You don’t say.
The French Dispatch
I guess I like episodic storytelling. Wes Anderson’s new movie is a visual feast. His stories are whimsical and poignant, like a children’s picture book, the best of which have a layer of melancholy lurking beneath. The first vignette was my favorite.
The Muppets (series)
I could mention any number of great series I watched for the first time this year. From the throwback Cobra Kai to the witty The Kominsky Method or the mystery farce that Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez teamed up for, Only Murders in the Building. But no; the blog post I started with Gordon Wood, I’m choosing to end with The Muppets. I just think that someone should sing the praises of this continuation of the batch of Muppet revival movies we got in the early 2010s. Picture this: The Office and The Muppet Show went on vacation together, got drunk one night in Vegas and wound up with an offspring. That’s this show. How can it possibly work, you ask? Well, if you’re looking for something off-beat to binge and you can stand The Muppets because you like backstage plots, it does. It’s basically The Muppet Show, except that Kermit is executive producing a talk show, Up Late with Miss Piggy, and all the plots revolve around the characters personal life backstage. It didn’t catch on with audiences back in 2015 because viewers found the adult humor and themes a little jarring for these weird furry puppets. I thought it was a clever update and now I’m miffed because it only ran one season and I really want to know what Miss Piggy’s answer is!
Well, that’s all for now folks.
If I write anymore, I’ll have to cover every new movie I’ve seen. At some point I have to ring in the new year though, and given opportunity costs, I’ll save that for the new year.