August 31, 2004

Poof

Chadwick Hansen chose an interesting epigraph for his work Witchcraft at Salem, which I last mentioned here:

He who believes in the devil, already belongs to him.

The line comes from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, a book I read (and loved) in college, but haven't glanced at since. My recollection is that Mann wrote it during his period of American exile from Nazi Germany; the novel is a meditation on Germany's descent into the barbarism of Naziism. I wish I remembered it better, but suffice to say that in telling his tale, Mann evokes a number of German cultural tropes, from Nietsche's one visit to a brothel to modern German music to Goethe.

Of course, in the novel, the devil does exist, which leads me for some reason to reflections about Andre Gide, who came from a rather austere Protestant theological background, one that he never abandoned, and was a homosexual, two things he tried to reconcile though I'm not sure he ever quite managed to. In one of his novellas -- I think it was the Pastorale Symphony, but it may have been Strait is the Gait (it's years also since I last read Gide) he ruminates over the distinction between Christ and Paul, with the latter cast in the role of the killjoy who make all the rules. When I read it, I was rather taken by it, but lately I've been thinking it was Paul, after all, who declared the Old Testament to be superceded; Paul couldn't be bothered with whether or not you should eat pork, there's more important things to be thinking about, like your eternal soul.

I'm not sure if he coined the phrase -- perhaps it's just that I encountered it first in Gide -- but somewhere in his works one can find a line to the effect of "the smartest thing the devil ever did was to convince people he didn't exist," a line echoed many places, including in one of my favorite films of recent years -- The Usual Suspects. For all the implications of the line, Gide seemed far more interested in God than the devil...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:41 PM | Comments (1)

August 30, 2004

Fox and Friend, 2

A while back, I noted the oddity of muckraker Upton Sinclair taking up his pen in the service of William Fox, who from 1915 to 1930 ran what was arguably the most influential motion picture company, the Fox Film Corporation (which survives to this day as Twentieth Century Fox). William Fox was an ardent Republican, supported Herbert Hoover's 1928 election campaign through his Fox Movietone Films and -- wait for it -- his Fox News division, produced patriotic films during World War One, and ran a company worth (Sinclair tells us) some $300 million. From Alibris I ordered a copy of Sinclair's book, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox shortly thereafter; the book arrived last week. In the interim, I fished around for information on the book, and came across, via Nexis, an August 31, 2003, column by Tim Rutten that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Rutten wrote:

THERE is no better evidence of that -- and no stronger refutation of the liberal Hollywood myth -- than the movie industry's most decisive intervention ever into California politics.

In 1934, the muckraking novelist, socialist tract writer and dietary crank Upton Sinclair stunned the state by winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. His platform called for adopting a modest universal old-age pension and seizing idle factories and farmlands so that they could be handed over to cooperatives of the unemployed. Sinclair was favored to win the general election, and that prospect rattled the California establishment to its marrow.

Among those most alarmed were the mostly Republican, mostly Jewish founding fathers of the film industry.

The year before he won the nomination, Sinclair had published a book, "Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox," based on a series of interviews he had conducted with the recently deposed Fox Studios founder. The book, as historian Kevin Starr points out, was "an anti-Semitic document in which Jewish villains were everywhere. Ostensibly, an expose of Hollywood and Wall Street, the Fox memoir had a strong secondary theme as well: Hollywood as the Cosa Nostra of American Jewry."

I was rather surprised to read this -- Sinclair may have been many things (he was a bit of a crank when it came to diet, and it was rather disturbing to read in the Fox book that only the Soviet Union enjoyed freedom from "wage slavery"), but he was no anti-Semite (his books were among those burnt by the Nazis). So when the Fox book arrived last week, I read it with interest, and can say that Kevin Starr's characterization is wildly inaccurate.

Hollywood is hardly mentioned in the book. Instead, Sinclair focuses on Fox's dealing with the New York and Chicago financiers who, Fox and Sinclair believed, tried to ruin the producer and his companies. The only time Sinclair raises Fox's Judaism (and that of a few other Hollywood moguls) is to ask whether Fox thought that anti-Semitism played any role in the shabby treatment Fox alleged he received from his bankers. (Fox says the thought had crossed his mind, but doubted it). The villains are largely Anglo-Saxons, but Sinclair couldn't care less -- his enemy is capital, and that's where he trains his fire, and had the heads of Chase and Chemical and other banks been Zulus, Sinclair wouldn't have had any less ire for them.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (4)

August 29, 2004

Miscellany

I'm a little more scatterbrained than usual. So here's some nonsensical notes strung together:

Thanks to Ghost of a Flea for pointing out the new animated Batman series -- it made the five year old's day (and yes, the theme music really does sound like the Cure...)

Among the pile of books to get through is Anthony Burgess' But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? Homage to QWERT YUIOP and other writings, a collection of his journalism, reviews, essays, and what not. I've been paging through it, and came across an interesting piece on a book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, one of many works which argues that the Merovingian kings were descendants of the offspring of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Burgess is fairly dismissive of the work -- the three believe that among the many grand masters of the secret society Prieure de Sion, which aims to restore the Merovingian line to power, was none other than Jean Cocteau, whom Burgess dismisses as a "Drugtaker pederast, minor poet, collaborator -- what has he to do with the blood Christ?" I think that's a little harsh on Cocteau, who was certainly gay but not, to the best of my knowledge, a pederast or, for that matter, a collaborator with the Nazis, but still -- Cocteau's inclusion among the grand masters strikes me as being utterly absurd.

Brian Ulrich has been watching Fox News with mixed results.

Stygius has thoughts on the psychology of Jihad that remind me of something I read in Political Islam by Nazih N. Ayubi. Ayubi gives us some statistics resulting from the consequences of urbanization: just as in the West, the age at which Arabs marry in urban environments (where one needs additional schooling, where the cost of living is higher, and so on and so forth) has increased steadily -- in some cases approaching the age of 30 for men. In the West, we've compensated more or less for this by allowing a loosening of sexual mores, but the same has not occurred in the Arab world. Add to this the Muslim view of sex -- while Christianity has generally branded it as something shameful, in Islam it's one of the pleasures of Heaven (I'm actually paraphrasing Ayubi here) -- and combine that with that hint of "late-adolescent narcissism that makes violent jihad appeal to both the young man's need for an affirmation (of potency) while having this symbolic, transcendent altruism-through-expressive act at the same time; self-destructiveness as the height of self-obsession" that Stygius speaks of, and I think one can begin to get a sense of the psychological drive behind this.

In another essay on Christography, Burgess mentions a name I must have missed -- Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera -- allegedly the father of Jesus (Burgess adds, parenthetically, that this was a belief the Nazis held, since it half-Aryanized the savior).

Kesher Talk has lots of links on the mise en scene in New York -- should be fun to follow for the rest of the week.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

August 26, 2004

Covers

I've got to start taking the five year old with me on my Borders excursions more often. Today he plucked from the shelves a book I'd been interested in for some time but never run across -- Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem, which, contra Amazon, is back in print, issued by George Braziller in a handsome little volume that retails for $12.95. The five year old was attracted by the cover illustration, showing a trio of witches receiving images from the devil, but I was more interested in its contents. Hansen's interesting thesis, which I outlined in that earlier post, runs as follows:

The traditional interpretation of what happened at Salem is as much the product of casual journalism and imaginative literature as it is of historical scholarship. It might be summarized as follows: (1) no witchcraft was practiced in Massachusetts; (2) the behavior of the "afflicted" persons, including their convulsive fits, was fraudulent and designed chiefly to call attention to themselves; (3) the afflicted persons were inspired, stimulated, and encouraged by the clergy (especially Cotton Mather), who used the fear of witchcraft as a means of bolstering their flagging power in the community; (4) the clergy whipped the general populace into a state of "mass hysteria" with their sermons and writings on witchcraft; (5) the only significant opposition to the proceedings at Salem came from the merchant class, specifically from Thomas Brattle and Robert Calef; and (6) the executions were unique in Western civilization, and therefore monstrous, and attributable to some narrowness or fanaticism or repressiveness peculiar to Puritans.

Yet the facts are quite contrary to these common assumptions. To begin with, witchcraft actually did exist and was widely practiced in seventeenth-century New England, as it was in Europe at that time (and still is, for that matter, among the unlearned majority of mankind). It worked then as it works now in witchcraft societies like those of the West Indies, through psychogenic rather than occult means, commonly producing hysterical symptoms as a result of the victim's fear, and sometimes, when fear was succeeded by a profound sense of hopelessness, even producing death.

The behavior of the afflicted persons was not fraudulent but pathological. They were hysterics, and in the clinical rather than the popular sense of that term. These people were not merely overexcited; they were mentally ill. Furthermore, they were ill long before any clergyman got to them.

The general populace did reach that state of public excitement inaccurately called "mass hysteria," but this was due to the popular fear of witchcraft rather than to the preachings of the clergy. The public excitement continued well after the leadership, both clerical and secular, had called a halt to the witchcraft proceedings. In fact the clergy were, from beginning to end, the chief opponents of the events at Salem. In particular, Cotton Mather was anything but the wild-eyed fanatic of tradition. Throughout most of the proceedings he was a model of restraint and caution, and at one point he went further than any of his colleagues dared to go in proposing a method to protect the innocent.

The writings of Brattle and Calef came too late to have any significant influence on the course of events in Massachusetts.

Finally, the executions at Salem were by no means unique. Belief in witchcraft was quite as common among seventeenth-century Anglicans, Quakers, Lutherans, and Catholics as it was among Puritans. Executions for witchcraft reached their height in Western civilization during the seventeenth century and continued in Europe until the end of the following century, more than a hundred years after the outbreak of Salem.

I'm looking forward to reading it the rest.

I also picked up an incredibly cool album that my dad had when I was a kid -- it always seemed that the songs and the mysterious world of adulthood were somehow inextricably entwined -- The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Red Hot and Cool. Cool, sophisticated, understated -- it's sort of the perfect music to have on in the background as you discuss the tax advantages of merging, through matrimony, with a going concern in a bright red dress. Somehow, the record cover, which I also remember well, was another thing altogether:

Disturb.jpg

The photo always seemed to be the antithesis of the record. The woman in red -- who the liner notes explains is Suzy Parker, at the time one of the "most photographed women in the world" -- is supposedly "offering a come-hither look to the smiling leader at the piano while an out-of-focus Desmond soloed." I don't know -- the come hither look is hard to project from behind closed eyelids, which may either be a result of the smoke from the cigarette she's holding in her right hand or the too many vodka gimlets she's drunk that also led her to trip over the piano on her way to the bathroom. Then there's Brubeck, whose goofy smile makes him look like he's happy to have any female collapse on his piano in the off chance she might be drunk enough to like him but not too drunk to be able stay awake until his set is over.

The music, of course, is as great as I remember it -- don't judge the album by its cover.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:28 PM | Comments (2)

August 25, 2004

Juxtaposed

In response to this old post on Elaine Pagels, Eusebius, Athanasius and other matters, reader Michael Rae sent me a long response, which I'll produce below (the comments on that old post are closed, which is just as well, because Mr. Rae's comments are of interest, and might not be noticed had he just left them there. The only changes I have made to them is to format the quotes with blockquotes, and to incorporate the URLs he provides as links.

Before quoting his email, I think I should point out that my specific problem with Pagels had to do with her citations. If I write a history of, say, the Chicago Cubs, and as part of my thesis mention that baseball's commissioner and other owners had conspired over the years to prevent the Cubs from winning the World Series ever since 1908, and in support of my allegation I direct the reader to a book showing that over the years the baseball commissioner and other owners had conspired to prevent the Red Sox from winning the World Series, I haven't exactly proven my case. The Cubs might also be victims of conspiracy, or they might be victims of their own ineptitude. Citing the book on the Red Sox doesn't prove anything one way or the other about the Cubs. In the same way, Pagels cites several works to support her contention that the Council of Nicea and Athanasius were instrumental in suppressing Gnostic Gospels like Thomas. Yet Nicea and Athanasius were far more concerned with the Arian heresy, which nearly prevailed over Athanasius and the orthodoxy he represented in that contentious fourth century. Athanasius left voluminous writings about the Arians, yet, so far as I am able to tell, uttered hardly a word about the Gnostic Gospels, suggesting to me at least they were not a preoccupation of his, or a serious threat to orthodoxy in the period in which he lived. And now, without further ado, the email:

Ideofact asks,

Was Athanasius' list [of books to be considered canonical] the earliest? In his Ecclesiastical History, in a passage completed most likely before 303 A.D., Eusebius ... does spell out a canon that doesn't differ all that much (it would be nice if Eusebius would have listed the individual Pauline epistles rather than lump them together, for example).

But if the issue is one of a divinely-inspired, infalliable Canon of scripture, no amount of disagreement can be brooked. What is interesting is how much diversity there was in views on this subject even as late as the end of the second century, and even amongst the proto-orthodox camp within Christianity: see the proto-orthodox authors amongst those given here.

Note the apparent acceptance of the canonicity of works such as the Epistle to the Laodiceans, I Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter by proto-orthodox writers such as Clement of Alexandria, Didymus the blind, likely Origen, and even (ironically) Irenaeus; and their inclusion in the Moriturian Canon and Codex Sinaticus. Meanwhile, neither the Gospel of John nor the Revelation enjoyed universal acceptance, even among the proto-orthodox.

Ideofact continues:

 Juxtaposing Nag Hammadi, where a large cache of gnostic gospels were found, with Athanasius' setting forth of the canon creates something of a misleading impression -- that until Athanasius' letter, those works were part of mainstream belief, and that, in order to fortify Athanasius' newly formed Canon, they were suppressed. I'm not sure that's quite the way it happened...

[commenter] steve h chimes in:

Intriguing...

Somehow, the image of some early church authority clamping down on (and burning?) 'unauthorized gospels' seems to haunt modern re-tellings of church history.

This may be another instance of that idea. Is there any direct evidence that book-bannings (or book-burnings) ever happened? Especially against the wishes of the common believer? Posted by: steve h

Probably the most famous -- and unfortunately exaggerated -- bookburnings by the emerging State-sponsored Church from around the time of Athanasius and the Nag Hammadi burial was the destruction of the Serapeum ordered by Theophilus bishop of Alexandria: because a significant amount of the Liibrary of Alexandria was housed there and in other temples ordered razed, much of the Library's collection was destroyed gleefully along with the icons. Paulus Orosius' History Against the Pagans says that  "there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement."

This event has been exaggerated into a wholesale destruction of the Library, which isn't accurate; it has also been confounded with the later murder of Hypatia by a Christian mob under the goading of Cyril, Theophilus' nehphew and successor as bishop.

Other contemporaneous examples of book-burning by the ascendant Roman state Christianity, of clearly heresiological motivation, are given in Clarence A. Forbes CA. Books for the Burning. Transactions of the American Philological Society. 1936; 67:114-25.

Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, heresies and opposition to Christianity frequently led to the burning of books. The following definite instances exhaust the information of the present author, but could probably be supplemented by a theologian thoroughly versed in early Christian literature. Before the middle of the fourth century Bishop Paulinus of Dacia, accused of trafficking in magic, was expelled from the Church, and his books of enchantments were burned by Macedonius, another bishop.34 In 398 Arcadius consigned the writings of Eunomius and his adherents to the flames.35 In 435 and again in 448 Theodosius and Valentinian commanded the public burning of unorthodox books, and particularly those of Nestorius, in order to curb the Nestorian heresy and to support the decisions of the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus.36

The decree of 448 also singled out for condemnation a powerful attack upon Christianity by the neo-Platonist Porphyry. Taylor describes Porphyry as the "founder of Biblical higher criticism."37 The relentless destruction of his work Kata_ Xristianw~n and any other books of a similar nature was decreed in the following words: "We order to be committed to the fire all the writings that Porphyry, impelled by his own madness, or any one else, has composed against the holy Christian religion, no matter in whose possession the books are found. For all the books that move God to wrath and that harm the soul we do not want to have come even to men's hearing." 38

In 455 Marcian, the successor of Theodosius on the throne, fulminated with a decree for the burning of any books or writings which supported the dogmas of Apollinarius, the fourth century heretic of Laodicea, and of Eutyches, another heretic of similar views.39"

Thanks to Mr. Rae for the fine summation -- although I'm still not sure it does much to back up Pagels' claims regarding the Nag Hammadi gospels in the fourth century, which was what I was getting at in my original post.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:51 PM | Comments (1)

August 24, 2004

Newark, N.J., July 1937

I spent most of the day at the Library of Congress, and while I had a few humiliating moments (it's been years since I last had to load a microfilm reader, and I managed to screw it up pretty badly the first time I tried today), it made me pine for the days when I spent a good portion of my days doing research. I was looking for information on something that happened in New Jersey in July 1937 (don't mean to be vague, but to explain it, I'd have to write a whole lot more than I want to just now) when I came across this tidbit, from the Newark Evening News of July 12, 1937:

Campaign Book Sale May Not Be Probed

WASHINGTON (U.P.) -- House Democratic leaders indicated today that Republican Leader Snell's resolution for a special investigation into alleged sales of the Democratic campaign book to corporations would be pigeonholded.

Snell charged that the corrupt practices act had been violated in the sale at $250 a copy of books autographed by President Roosevelt.

I think corporate contributions to political campaigns (if that's what we're talking about here; it's unclear whether the $250 ended up in Roosevelt's campaign chest -- unlikely since he wasn't running until 1940 -- or was going to congressional campaigns) would violate the Tillman Act of 1907, which banned corporate contributions, and not the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 (amended in 1925), which set expenditure and disclosure requirements for congressional campaigns. Interesting to see how at least some things are consistent...

In other news from July 1937, the Navy had all but abandoned hope of finding aviatrix Amelia Aerhart, and Newark was shocked when a 15 year old boy and his 16 year old sweetheart sneaked off to New York City to get married. Intercepted by New York police at the train, the couple was returned to Newark.

I wish I'd printed out more pages, but one of the things that struck me was how much international news there was, how it was prominently played, and how little of it -- as far as we knew at the time -- affected America. Plenty of page one stories on the Japanese in Nanking; analyses asking whether Hitler's advisers were driving him to seek the annexation of Austria, or the other way around; tensions over the British plan to partition Palestine, and so on. And remember, these were Newark, New Jersey, papers -- not exactly the elite press of the day.

The business pages were jarring to read. The stories dealt almost solely with what we would call commodities -- coal production up; copper hits an all time high; Japan is the largest importer of U.S. steel. Labor matters ended up in the A sections, for the most part.

The sports pages seemed not much different than those of today -- particularly the futility of the Phillies...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (1)

August 23, 2004

Back

I'm back -- tan, fit and rested, as it were (well -- pale, out-of-shape and exhausted -- let's not quibble over adjectives), and blessed with a skull that's utterly empty of the usual preoccupations, betes noir (or is that bete noirs?) and other assorted effluvia. Comments for August 2004 are open again (the rest will remained closed until I upgrade MT -- had a nasty bout a few weeks back of some spam linking to the kind of site I don't want to see anywhere, least of all linked from my page), so if my musings over Jonny Quest offend, if you find Don Messick's voice characterization of Bandit far too minimalist compared to his more robust and baroque work as Scooby Doo -- feel free to let fly.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:47 PM | Comments (1)

August 17, 2004

O.K. This is the Pops

Skads of uninteresting trivia and assorted nonsense before I take the rest of the week off from the blog to do actual work. See you next week!

Quests with Guns.jpg

Over the weekend, I picked up Jonny Quest: The Complete First Season (1964) for the five year old and, if truth be told, for his father as well. I loved the show as a kid, but aside from certain impressions, could hardly remember it -- unlike, say, Scooby Doo, many of whose plots I remembered quite vividly. One element of Jonny Quest I did recall was the end theme -- there's a sequence in which some people (more on that here) -- presumably Dr. Quest (Jonny's father) and Race Bannon (an agent assigned to act as Jonny's bodyguard) flee into their sleek airplane, the door sliding shut behind them just as spears rain down on the plane's skin. I always half expected the door to just as quickly slide open, and for Race to stand there with a machine gun, mowing down the natives. That didn't happen, but the episodes are far more violent than today's watered down cartoons.

The show was produced in 1964, but it definitely has a pre-Peace Corps feel, to say the least. In an episode involving South American aborigines, Race refers to them as "savages" several times (and not in the antiquated anthropoligical sense of the word -- a savage being someone dependent upon a hunter/gatherer economy as opposed to barbarians who had some agriculture or husbandry, right on up to civilized man living in cities) and "devils" at other points. So why would I expose the five year old to it?

It's one of the few action cartoons I know of that doesn't patronize children, making them either helpless buffoons or comic relief of lesser intelligence than the animal sidekicks. Jonny and his Indian pal Hadji are smart, resourceful, brave and tough. They respect adults, different cultures (Race's remarks notwithstanding), and are curious about the world around them (okay, their world includes volcanoes, living dinosaurs, gargoyles, World War I fighter planes, cavemen and Egyptian temples, but the point stands).

I could probably go on and on about the Dr. Benton Quest character -- a scientist who speaks obscure Amazonian languages and designs ray guns, the nearly all purpose expert not seen since the days of Athanasius Kircher, but instead I'll turn to the plot of one of the episodes, The Curse of Anubis, which was the five year old's favorite (it has a mummy in it!), the first one we watched. In it, Dr. Ahmed Karim, an Egyptian archaeologist plots a crime -- the theft of an idol of Anubis -- which he will pin on the Americans Benton Quest and Race Bannon. Here's a synopsis:

An Egyptian national who wanted to blame the theft of valuable archaeological finds on an infidel outsider to unite the Arab nations. Unwisely, he chose Dr. Quest to be that outsider. You think we would have known better, acquainted as he was with Dr. Quest (he even considered him an "old friend"!)

So let's see -- we have a man of totalitarian ideas using trumped up charges against outsiders to further his political agenda, while being fully aware that he himself is the true criminal. Hm. Can't imagine that happening anywhere in the world.

NOTE: Because I really don't have time this week for upkeep of the blog, I'm closing comments -- I've had a fair number of spammers lately, and dealing with them is a pain in the ass. I'll reopen ideofact for discussion when I start posting again...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:30 AM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz -- RIP

From The Witness of Poetry:

On the borderline of Rome and Byzantium, Polish poetry became a home for incorrigible hope, immune to historical disasters. Only in appearance does that hope date either from the time when Mozart wrote The Magic Flute or from the Age of Raptures. In reality its roots reach a few centuries further back. It seems to draw its strength from a belief in the basic goodness of the world sustained by the hand of God and by the poetry of country people.

Though he saw more than his fair share of historical disasters, though his prose writings occasionally expressed the desperation of one who can see the shadow of the monster but cannot find the words to warn his fellows of its coming, though he could be a poet of despair -- in the end, Milosz was faithful to his definition of Polish poetry. RIP.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

August 13, 2004

In defense of murder

I found these paragraphs, from a story on a much remarked upon murder case in the Washington Post -- well, worthy of remark:

The story of the substitute teacher who vanished from her middle-class Modesto neighborhood captured the public's attention. The Petersons were college sweethearts who were anticipating their first child. Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant. The nursery was ready; they had already picked the name Conner.

Scott Peterson and Laci's family told authorities on Christmas Eve 2002 that she was missing. Thousands of Modesto citizens rallied around the family, combing nearby neighborhoods, searching empty warehouses, drainage ditches and alleys. Officers in helicopters, on horseback and in boats canvassed the area for months.

As suspicion surrounding Scott Peterson intensified, satellite trucks and news vans crammed the sidewalks in front of the Petersons' home. Rows of cameras were pointed at the front door, recording Peterson's every move. Two radio disc jockeys arrived from Los Angeles with a bullhorn and screamed at Peterson from the sidewalk to admit to the murders.

Such media activity is based on a desire for ratings, not a desire to report on newsworthy events, said Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication.

"Whether Scott Peterson is ultimately found guilty or innocent has very little impact on our lives," Saltzman said. "We now live in a global community. Because of the media, everybody is now our neighbor, and we've always been interested in finding out about our neighbor's dirty laundry. It's human nature to be curious." (emphasis added)

If I am not mistaken, newspapers still refer to the blocks of text that line their columns as "stories." Stories are either worth reading or not worth reading, and most reporters try (though many do not succeed) to make the stories they write worth the reader's time to wade through them. Because these stories are based on fact, the facts themselves dictate the interest the reader will have in the story. A township meeting in which the discussion is focused on a raise of 2 percent plus the cost of living for all garbage collectors may have wide impact (to the garbage collectors and those who pay the taxes that pay their salaries), but it's rather hard to make such a story as compelling as that of a sensational murder.

Generally when newspapers write about things that affect wide numbers of people -- auto insurance rates, the inadequacies of health care coverage, abusive police departments -- they begin by humanizing the story with an anecdote:

Joe Smith gazed grimly at the refrigerator that was once full of food. The 25-year-old camera store employee is one of many Americans who have given up necessities -- in Smith's case, eating -- in order to pay off their credit card debt.

The average credit card holder owes $14 million, according to new figures released by the prestigious Center for Releasing Wildly Exaggerated Statistics to the Press...

Okay, I probably oversold my point; still, when a reporter wants to explain, say, the ups or downs of the labor market, she doesn't begin with figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, she begins either with the small businessman who is struggling to find help in a tight job market, or the incredibly qualified CPA who lost his job in the downturn and is grateful to have a job flipping burgers. In other words, they tell stories which put human faces on the cold, hard statistics.

So what are we to make of the tale of murder in Modesto. Is it a newsworthy event? Is the trial worth our attention?

Of course. First, the operation of the criminal justice system in any state is of great importance to citizens. To discover that, perhaps, the state withheld evidence while preparing a witness to testify, or any other irregularities, is disturbing, to say the least.

But my point (if I have one) is much broader than that. Such stories do have an impact on our lives, just as novels and fictions do, but I would argue that the impact of tales of real monsters (and the term applies whether Peterson is found innocent or guilty -- because somebody killed that woman) is greater than that of the fictional ones. Who, after all, can not look at this sad case and not feel his own humanity a little more keenly.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:09 PM | Comments (0)

August 10, 2004

Miscellany

Stygius says my Qutb posts remind him of a "wry Thomas Aquinas", which is high praise indeed, although I think of myself more as an Augustine, lacking only his fun-filled youth, his religious conversion, his intelligence, and his philosophical and theological profundity.

Reason Online had a nice piece by Jesse Walker on Fay Wray and King Kong:

The surrealist critic (and later screenwriter) Jean Ferry offered an admirably concise summary of the film in 1934. "King Kong," he wrote, "is the grandiloquent story of an enormously tall ape who seizes a white woman; he is recaptured and, taken to New York, escapes from the theater where he is on exhibition. He makes off, carrying the woman to the very top of the world's highest building, where he is vanquished by a squadron of planes." Needless to say, it wasn't this story that gave the movie its iconic power—and it certainly wasn't the acting or the script. It was that dreamlike series of fantastic images, most of them featuring Kong, Wray, or both.

The modern viewer watching King Kong might be put off by the holes in the plot and the gaps in the special effects; or, worse, he might accept them, condescendingly, as problems that are only obvious to us sophisticated cineastes of today. In fact, many moviegoers noticed them in the '30s as well. Ferry complained that he had seen the film (which he loved) with an audience that had greeted it with "howls of derision and contempt." He himself conceded that the picture was filled with "flagrant...absurdity"—indeed, that was part of what he admired about it. He offered a list of eight such insults to logic, of which my favorite is the last: "King Kong perpetually changes size; one minute his hand is big enough to seize an underground train, the next it only goes round the torso of a woman we see waving her arms and legs about." The result, he argued, was a movie with the logic of "the dream in which, pursued by too pressing a danger, we create the elements of our salvation...without being able to escape." It crossbred those childhood terrors with something more mature but no less primal: the monster's lust for Fay Wray.

One contemporary viewer who saw only flaws was Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote,

A monkey forty feet tall (some fans say forty-five) may have obvious charms, but those charms have not convinced this viewer. King Kong is no full-blooded ape but rather a rusty, desiccated machine whose movements are downright clumsy. His only virtue, his height, did not impress the cinematographer, who persisted in photographing him from above rather than from below -- the wrong angle, as it neutralizes and even diminishes the ape's oversized stature. He is actually hunchbacked and bowlegged, attributes that serve only to reduce him in the spectator's eye. To keep him from looking the least bit extraordinary, they make him do battle with far more unusual monsters and have him reside in caves of false cathedral splendor, where his infamous size again loses all proportion. But what finally demolishes both the gorilla and the film is his romantic love -- or lust -- for Fay Wray.

Ouch. For the record, I'm with Ferry on this one.

Speaking of Borges, I was reminded of him when I came across a disturbing story about religious fanatics burning Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and that country's government deciding to illegalize all forms of religious proselytization and efforts at conversion. The religious fanatics are Buddhists.

Borges noted that Buddhism was the only religion he had encountered in which one could be a Christian or Muslim or animist, and still be faithful to the tenets of Buddhism. Apparently, not in Sri Lanka.

Urban Empire writes that we're in a war of ideas, western pluralism vs. Islamist totalitarianism. I agree by and large, but still, I can't help remembering what Orwell wrote (and wrote about) in Homage to Catalonia, his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I'm paraphrasing, because I don't have the book in front of me, but Orwell wrote about his reasons to fight something to the effect that he had never killed a man, but he figured if every decent man would shoot just one fascist, we'd be rid of the problem, and he intended to do his part. The Clash, incidentally, had a nice line about that on their song Spanish Bombs off of the London Calling album -- "The trenches full of poets, a ragged army, fixing bayonets to fight to the other line." In any case, ideas are nice, but I can't help feeling it's a bit more important to get down to the Orwellian business of killing the (Islamo)-fascists.

Last night, I stayed up way too late finishing Anthony Burgess' spy novel, Tremor of Intent. It's an amazing book, but what struck me, as I rode the Metro to work today, is that a sequel is on order. I can't quite explain what it would be without giving away too much of the book (something I don't want to do, because if you haven't read it you should -- it's a wonderful novel of ideas), but it would involve Burgess' protagonist, the spy Dennis Hillier, going to Poland in the 1980s at the behest of the Pope to fight one last Cold War. In any case, I screwed up -- that was my beach book, and I finished it well ahead of schedule. Think I'll wander over to Borders tomorrow on my lunch break and see if I can find a substitute -- always a pleasant task.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:18 PM | Comments (11)

August 09, 2004

Fay Wray -- RIP

Fay Wray died yesterday, something that seems terribly sad to me. She's probably best remembered for her famous co-star:

Fay1.jpg

I have in front of me The King Kong Story -- "US & Canada $1.95" -- published in 1976 by something called Phoebus Publishing Co. to hype the vastly inferior Dino di Laurentis remake of the 1933 classic. As a kid, I remember looking forward to the remake with such anticipation, and how disappointed I was -- the original, with its balky stop-motion animation, seemed far more "real" than the newer version. But I see I've already slipped into talking about Kong, rather than Fay Wray.

My little book informs us,

Fay Wray was forever to receive scripts that called for her to swoon in the face of danger, be dismissed in encyclopedias as "a great screamer" and remembered only as the girl whose clothes were peeled off by a monster ape.

That's a rather harsh epitaph; the Post notes that she was known for other films as well:

A major break came in 1928, with the release of Erich von Stroheim's hit epic "The Wedding March." The famed director said he did not even bother to test Ms. Wray for the part, citing her enormous sex appeal. He cast himself as a prince and her as a peasant girl.

She then worked with some of the most-renowned directors of the period, usually on fast-paced, action-oriented fare. Among them were Josef von Sternberg ("Thunderbolt," 1929), George Abbott ("The Sea God," 1930) and Frank Capra ("Dirigible," 1931).

The wonderful site Silent Ladies and Gents lists Fay Wray among the Vamps, and has a too small gallery of her photos there, from which I've lifted the following image.

Fay2.jpg

I haven't seen any of Wray's silent films, but I've added The Wedding March to my list of things to get around to -- it seems only fitting to see how a woman derided as being nothing more than a good screamer carried herself in a silent film.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:33 PM | Comments (0)

August 08, 2004

2 Qutb 12

This non sequitur is brought to you by the 12th and final chapter of Milestones, by radical Islamist Sayyid Qutb, sometimes described as the "brain of Osama":

Let me appear, for a moment, in my true guise -- as Qutb would have it -- and begin where Qutb ends, by echoing any number of Medieval Christian polemicists by calling Qutb nothing more than a Christian heretic, a follower of that arch heretic Mahomet, who surely will be consigned (I'm switching metiers to poetry now) to the eighth circle of Hell for sowing discord. I am normally unwilling to write such a thing because were I to do so as openly as I have done so here, I would clarify the great struggle in which my home team, the democratic, pluralistic West (make that, the Crusader West), is engaged in with the Ummah, and had always been engaged in with the Ummah. I am no less a crusader than Richard the Lionheart, the Templars, King Louis VII, Pope Urban II, or Peter the Hermit.

This is where Qutb ends the twelth chapter -- and it comes as something of a non sequitur. The previous paragraphs, beginning with a tale of martyrdom at the very outset that has much in common with Christian tales of martyrdom (the faithful going helplessly to their deaths defiant in their beliefs), extols the virtues of death:

Life's pleasures and pains, achievements and frustrations, do not have any great weight in the scale, and do not determine the profit or loss. Triumph is not limited to immediate victory, which is but one of the many forms of triumph.

In the scale of God, the true weight is the weight of faith; in God's market the only commodity in demand is the commodity of faith. The highest form of triumph is the victory of soul over matter, the victory of belief over pain, and the victory of faith over persecution. ...

All men die, and of various causes; but not all gain such victory, nor reach such heights, nor taste such freedom, nor soar to such limits of the horizon. It is God's choosing and honoring a group of people who share death with the rest of mankind but who are singled out from other people for honor -honor among the noblest angels, nay, even among all mankind, if we measure them by the standards of the total history of generations of men.

This rather contradicts much of the point of Qutb's earlier work Social Justice in Islam, in which he argued that, contrary to the Christian demand for martyrs, Islam was concerned with the hear and now, with the practical affairs of life. Yet the practical affairs of life often require settling for half a loaf -- ask any politician or businessman -- something that Qutb here explicitly rejects.

What's interesting is that appears that most of the twelth chapter is devoted not to conjuring up jihad against the West, but rather, jihad against the rulers of, well, most likely Egypt and other Arab states. I'm basing this conclusion in part on my impressions from the 11th chapter, and in part on the way Qutb ends the effort:

The enemies of the Believers may wish to change this struggle into an economic or political or racial struggle, so that the Believers become confused concerning the true nature of the struggle and the flame of belief in their hearts becomes extinguished. The Believers must not be deceived, and must understand that this is a trick. The enemy, by changing the nature of the struggle, intends to deprive them of their weapon of true victory, the victory which can take any form, be It the victory of the freedom of spirit as was case of the Believers in the story of the Maker of the Pit, or dominance in the world -as a consequence of the freedom of spirit-as happened in the case of the first generation of Muslims.

We see an example of this today in the attempts of Christendom to try to deceive us by distorting history and saying that the Crusades were a form of imperialism. The truth of the matter is that the latter-day imperialism is but a mask for the crusading spirit, since it is not possible for it to appear in its true form, as it was possible in the Middle Ages. The unveiled crusading spirit was smashed against the rock of the faith of Muslim leadership which came from various elements, including Salahuddin the Kurd and Turan Shah the Mamiuk, who forgot the differences of nationalities and remembered their belief, and were victorious under the banner of Islam.

"Christendom" is brought in as the decisive trump against fellow Muslims who might not share Qutb's emphasis on death, rather than the focal point of his ire.

Note: This post may be renamed "12a" at my discretion -- I might want to say more about this strange chapter.

Note: There were a couple of comments on this post which I haven't gotten around to reading in full, but both seem to be a bit nastier than the standard fare here. I'll make a decision on whether to restore them soon...(8/11)

Update: After reading the comments, I've decided to restore them. I'll join the discussion soon...


Posted by Ideofact at 11:21 PM | Comments (5)

August 07, 2004

Better now

It's cold outside -- though the paint isn't peeling off of the walls of stately ideofact manor -- which is strange for early August in the Washington metro area. I wish I could say what precisely was wrong with me -- a kind of nervous exhaustion, I think, although yesterday I did about a week's worth of work in one day, which stretched long into the night. Then collapsed in front of the television around midnight, at which point I realized that I was simply unable to follow the complicated dialog of one of ESPN's sports highlight shows, then closed my eyes, and awoke at five a.m. feeling quite refreshed, the TV still on, myself nearly whole again (a few more hours of sleep in bed was all that was required for the convalescence to be completed). But I do need more rest than I've been getting, and entries may be even more erratic than usual on ideofact in the coming weeks -- or not, as the spirit moves me.

The soon-to-be six year old's bunkbed arrived today, which was the cause for much rejoicing for him and much agony for my wife, who simply cannot understand the appeal of sleeping at the altitude of nearly six feet. Perhaps it's a male thing -- I had a bunkbed when I was a kid, and hence his doesn't seem at all scary to me (I never fell out of the top bunk, after all...). I bring this up because while I was waiting for the delivery (anytime between 4 and 8 p.m.), I started rereading a novel I first read in high school, and haven't picked up since: Anthony Burgess' spy novel Tremor of Intent.

Tremor.jpg

I read the first hundred pages, and would have gone on were it not for the arrival of the much anticipated bunkbeds. I was surprised to find expressed in it an attitude I've more or less internalized over the years -- perhaps it came from Burgess' spy Denis Hillier rather than myself:

To me she said: 'Are you a member of the party?'

'Oh, I'm progressive. I believe in soaking the rich. But I also believe in Original Sin.'

'Poor old Hillier,' smirked Roper. 'Still not emancipated.'

'My belief,' I said, 'has nothing to do with Father Byrne. People tend to choose the worse way rather than the better. That's something experience has taught me. I use the theological term for want of a better one.'

As, fairly often in my thoughts, do I...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)

August 04, 2004

Under the weather

I know I promised something on Qutb last night, but I'm feeling a bit under the weather (I think the weather is actually partially to blame -- though it's a 75 degrees outside, according to the thermometer outside the kitchen window, the air feels like a warm, wet blanket, and today was really miserable).

I'm just about done reading William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923, in which I found this interesting tidbit:

Naively, [Sol Wurzel] had produced a modernized version of "Oliver Twist" under the title of Oliver Twist Jr. Fox was justly horrified that his company should be releasing a picture with a character like Fagin just at the time when Henry Ford was waging an anti-Semitic campaign through the pages of the Dearborn Independent. He was determined to stop these attacks against his people and threatened Ford that he would have the bi-weekly Fox newsreels show the results of every accident involving a Ford car.

The correspondence is fascinating, and the editors' notes give just enough background, without being intrusive, to make the obscure bits comprehensible. For those interested in the history of American silent film, I highly recommend.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (2)

August 03, 2004

Updates & Qutbdate & Odds & Ends

Some minor housekeeping first -- I've added a link to riting on the wall, and a deleted a few long inactive sites, from the favorites page. I've also begun closing comments on earlier posts; in the near future, comments will be open for about a month on ideofact posts. Last night I get hit by another spammer, and yes, I know I could install MT blacklist, but I don't really feel like fooling around with that right now, and this seemed like an easier solution.

I'll get back to Qutb tomorrow, with the last post in the Milestones series. I was going to write it tonight, but I think I need to think about it a little more. I haven't made any decision on whether to blog In the Shade of the Qur'an, but I'm sort of leaning against it for the time being. I'll have to read it first and figure out whether there's anything of worth I can say.

I'm still reading William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923. Today I came across this passage, from a telegram sent by William Fox in March 1920:

Fox Film Corp. feels reasonably sure that [Clyde] Cook will ultimately take Chaplin's place.

The breathless telegram goes on to instruct preparations be made with due haste to arrange for a director, crew and -- oh yes, a scenario -- to be made ready at once for Cook. I'd never heard of him before -- but you can view some quicktime samples of his work here. He had quite a long film career (although not of Chaplinesque significance, obviously).

A while back, I wrote something about the reconstructed version of London After Midnight, the 1927 Lon Chaney film. So I quite enjoyed reading this hoax, which includes numerous clues of its bogusness throughout. One problem with the hoax though -- at then end, the author writes,

The most persistent rumor about [London After Midnight] is that some collector has the film and has been waiting for the copyright to expire in 2002. The legend probably dates back to the early 70's, when a New England rental source named Cecil Miller listed LAM among his upcoming titles, presumably as a gag. (Later versions of the same gag have included reviews of the film on the Internet Movie Database and April Fool's discussions of showings on Turner Classic Movies in alt.movies.silent.) This mythical collector is in for a longer wait now -- copyright law has been changed, making the date LAM would become public domain 2022. For that reason, it is likely that any such collector who wanted to cash in during his own lifetime would have already come forward to make a deal with the current copyright holders (Time Warner).

While the collector is most likely mythical, if he existed, copyright laws would provide a powerful incentive for not releasing the film, as it would for a host of perhaps not-lost-after-all silent films in the possession of collectors. Consider the case of the owner of the sole surviving print of Edison's Frankenstein:

Since the Edison film company had disbanded, "Frankenstein" had fallen into the public domain. Although he was solely responsible for the film's preservation, Mr. Detlaff could not claim the copyright on the film. In fact, the snippets which appeared in the BBC production later wound up in several video compilations of silent cinema, without providing credit or payment to Mr. Detlaff. Although he provided two public theatrical screenings of the film in Milwaukee, the film has not been screened in its entirety.

A poor compromise later arose in a special video version designed to be shown at horror film conventions. The video, which was actually a film of the projected film, was disfigured with a distracting and annoying copyright protection scroll that crawled through the middle of the picture. This video version has earned unanimous condemnation for being nearly unwatchable, yet to date it was the only chance to actually see the entire 15-minute film.

Requests by museums and archives for the donation of the print have been refused by Mr. Detlaff, who has requested (but has yet to receive) a financial agreement to his satisfaction, and inquiries by film distributors to show the film have not been successful. In 1997, Mr. Detlaff announced plans to release "Frankenstein" along with an original 35mm nitrate print of "Nosferatu" on a single home video, thus providing a double-feature line-up of the first Frankenstein and Dracula films together. Unfortunately, plans for this release stalled due to problems with the production of the video and Mr. Detlaff's poor health. This video, which was to have been distributed via LRS Marketing, has yet to be made available.

For what it's worth, Detlaff eventually released the Edison's Frankenstein/Nosferatu package on DVD -- the "copyright protection" was put in the corner and was relatively unobtrusive. Still, if you had, say, a copy of Theda Bara's Cleopatra sitting around in your basement, and wanted to make a little money off the sale of the video, you'd be high and dry -- like the 1910 Edison's Frankenstein, Cleopatra is in the public domain, and anyone could produce a knock off version without paying you a dime.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:22 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2004

Arts and Commerce

I found (and ordered) a not terribly pricey copy of the Upton Sinclair book on William Fox that I mentioned immediately below. Probably not ideal beach reading, but I'm looking forward to getting it. Sinclair, I hope, may well provide the macro-economic picture that's somewhat lacking in William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923, which gives a decidedly micro view of the nascent film industry. Wurtzel, who managed the Fox Film Corporation's Los Angeles studios, wrote his boss about all sorts of fascinating details, from the cost of renting props to the salaries of directors, stars and bit players, to what the company paid for scenarios, to the cost of wood and paint for building sets. "We have two grips and one electrician with each company," Wurtzel writes in one lenghty 1919 letter, "and we estimate that the labor of the electrician and grips amounts to about 15 percent of the total technical cost of each picture." No matter how detailed the expenditures, Fox was often unsatisfied. In one particularly noteworthy letter, he wrote to his L.A. studio head,

It is enough to break a man's heart to think that he is working day and night in the hopes of trying to earn a fair profit or return on his investment, only to be confronted with costs, as above stated, which rob me of the possibilities of not only making a profit but guaranteeing a loss before I start.

The "above stated" costs were for a pair of films with price tags of, respectively, $69,346.67 and $36,377.79 -- within four years, Cecil B. DeMille would spent $1.4 million to make The Ten Commandments (and no doubt breaking the hearts of his Paramount bosses in the process). The tension between art and commerce in Hollywood is not a new revelation of course, nor has it by any means disappeared:

"The rest of the world appreciates our movies as art," says [screenwriter and documentary film-maker Peter] Brosnan. "We look at it as business. When Hollywood sees a way of making money out of this, then they'll have some interest."

Brosnan wanted to raise money to excavate the "Lost City of DeMille -- the massive Egyptian set that DeMille built in the California desert, then demolished once he was done shooting -- in order to keep rival companies from poaching his set.

lost city.jpg

The demolished site is still there in the California desert, complete with five ton sphinxes, statues of Ramses, and what not. I googled around a bit, but couldn't find any updates beyond 2002, at which point it seemed that not enough money had been raised to either excavate and preserve the site or to make Brosnan's documentary of the process (I may, however, be wrong).

And then again, I wonder. In Diamonds Are Forever, James Bond -- or Sean Connery -- reminds Felix Leiter that the fictional Howard Hughes character, Willard Whyte, isn't the president, and that his hotel, the Whyte House, isn't the real White House. DeMille's lost city isn't the real Egypt, but rather plaster casts made to look like Egypt. Yet, nevertheless, preserving what's left of it -- or even restoring it to its original grandeur (a no-no for serious archaeologists, but something in this case that seems warranted) seems a worthwhile endeavor.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:22 PM | Comments (0)

August 01, 2004

Fox and friend

So, imagine, for a moment, that Rupert Murdoch of NewsCorp and, more familiarly, the Fox network, was forced out of his company after a market downturn exposed some of his shakier investments, and that his fate was bemoaned by, say, Michael Moore, who suggests that Murdoch, honest entrepreneur, was done in by the evil machinations of the capitalist powers-that-be. Far-fetched? Read on.

The mails last week brought a slim volume to ideofact headquarters, William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923. Back in the long ago silent era, Wurtzel ran Fox's California studio operations (William Fox, the corporation's head, refused to move out west, preferring Gotham to Hollywood), and regularly wrote his boss about the studio's operations. It's a fascinating read, and includes tales of uncompromising directors, tempermantal actresses, starlets on benders and the neverending battles of commercial men struggling with an artistic enterprise. (In my youth, my sympathies would have been with the former; now, I find the latter's arguments to be far more compelling). There's Fox himself, for example, who wrote to Wurzel in one letter,

The final judgment with reference to any picture made by the Fox Film Corporation, you ought to know, is left with me and not with you or Mr. Franklin [one of the directers--ideofact]. I am awfully sorry you saw fit to wire me or write me a letter or discuss it with Mr. Franklin, which cause[d] him to send the wire he did. You know my practice here in New York. You know that there never was a scene that I ever cut out of a picture that met with the director's approval. Each director thinks the scenes he photographs are the most wonderful in the world, and I never followed the policy of consulting a director when I thought a scene should be eliminated. If I had done that, the Fox Film Corporation would have been on the rocks long ago. The only reason the Fox Film Corporation has made progress is because the power as to what will or will not remain in the film, has been entirely left with me, and I have used it in such a way as to make possible the progress of the Fox Film Corporation.

That progress was fantastic -- Theda Bara and the cowboy Tom Mix were among Fox's stars, and, as for business, let's let the book's introduction explain:

The dimes and quarters that kept rolling into Fox box-offices made it possible for William Fox to build an empire worth $300 million. By 1929, he was the most powerful and threatening figure in the entire motion picture industry. He owned fifteen hundred theaters in the United States, three hundred in Great Britain, three major studios and the basic patents for sound on film.

And how did Fox use that power? Throughout the First World War, he made films -- now lost -- with titles like The Prussian Cur and Why America Will Win the War -- his only regret, about the latter two, was that the war ended too soon for his corporation to make much of a profit off them. Fox quite openly refers to them, in his correspondence with Wurtzel, as propaganda films. (Note: I certainly think it was propaganda in a worthy cause; the allies had to win the First World War, because the alternative was unthinkable; and the Americans had to enter it, to guarantee same.)

As with many of the silent stars that Fox developed into blockbuster talents, the talkies proved to be his undoing. His company spent a small fortune -- going deeply into debt -- converting those 1,500 theaters to sound, and the timing couldn't have been worse -- there followed the Great Depression. By 1930, Fox's financial backers and investors forced him out of the company; by 1936, as bills mounted for an antitrust lawsuit he was still fighting, he declared personal bankruptcy; in 1942, he ended up being sentenced to jail for trying to bribe a judge in the case. A typical, Fitzgerald-esque Last Tycoon story, a life as unfinished as the novel. What's unusual, though, is that the novelist (best known for The Jungle), socialist social critic, rabble rouser and muckraker Upton Sinclair came to Fox's defense in a 1933 work called, appropiately enough, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox. In the prologue, Sinclair wrote,

For thirty years I have been "presenting" to the public the princes, dukes and barons of our industrial feudalism. As a rule I have "presented" them under the guise of fiction. Sometimes my critics have said "Good melodrama" and sometimes "Bad melodrama," but always they have agreed that "Sinclair exaggerates." Learned book reviewers in Siam and Tasmania declare: "Such things are impossible." Living as far away as it is possible to get on this earth, they still feel safe in asserting: "America cannot be like that."

So this time I am presenting a living man. This time I am telling a story which happened in New York City less than three years ago. This time there are names, places, recent dates and an appendix full of documents and court records. This time even Siam and Tasmania will have to admit that "America is like that"; for no melodrama that I have been able to invent in my thirty years of inventing has been more packed with crimes and betrayals, perils and escapes, than the story of William Fox. No thriller among the 750 feature pictures which Fox himself produced during twenty-five years as a producer was ever so perfectly constructed, with its humble hero battling his way to power, its polished villains, conspirators of high estate, each with a carnation in his buttonhole; its complications of intrigue, its mysteries, some of them never solved to this day, its cruel suffering and its grand climax--the hero escaping with the greater part of his fortune, and the villains dragged down to ruin by the judgment of an implacable Providence.

Regrettably, the Sinclair book is out of print -- and I don't think I could read the whole thing online (even if I had time for it). Still, it's an interesting tale -- and perhaps one day some worthy will make the documentary about how poor Rupert Murdoch was done in by Octopi and Vultures and that most insidious of all creatures, the banker who has made a loan and expects the borrower to make good.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:45 PM | Comments (0)