Mark Twain, Lewis Lapham and Scrooge
I finished Ron Powers' biography Mark Twain on Christmas Eve, then watched Lewis Lapham's film The American Ruling Class before dissolving into the midnight showing of Scrooge on CBC. A more enjoyable mix of media I could not imagine.
First Twain. I'd read Justin Kaplan's biography of Twain in 72, when I was under deadline to produce a radio play before exiting my brief sojourn to LA for real life in Vancouver that fall. If there were ever going to be a better bio of Twain, I couldn't imagine it until this one. Powers doesn't write like a contemporary of Twain, or even someone who knows what it's like to have lived in the 19th century. He constantly refers to present events and people to bring Twain to life for our century, the 21st. Having lovingly read Twain as a child, unfortunately I hadn't reread anything of his since the bio in 72, except The Innocents Abroad which I read during my first trip to Europe in 80. Having Twain as a companion, even if only one that fits in your pocket on a long voyage, is guaranteed to make that voyage shorter and far more enjoyable. I never wanted Powers' bio to end. Thankfully when I turned the last page, there was a DVD I'd rented the previous day, knowing nothing about it. I thought it was a Quebec flick. I was wrong.
Lewis Lapham, the editor of Twain's old income source Harper's, and American's 2nd best essayist (after Gore Vidal) just sounds like someone whose company Twain,would have enjoyed. I don't know if Lapham had mentioned his flick in his mag. I have no idea why this immensely enjoyable film hasn't been a topic on Air America Radio, Salon or any of my other usual web sources. You would think a flick that gets James Baker on film explaining why America avoided rescuing the victims of genocide in Rwanda, and now Darfur would be at the top of any American leftist's list of things to talk about. Much like Twain, Lapham can hang out with the ruling class as an equal, then mock them in his prose, and finally, in images. As an apprentice film maker, I think Howard Zinn's explication of American History on a Boston bus is the single filmic moment, the best use of technique I've seen, and the one I'd most like to emulate. "Anyone" can theoretically do "anything" with realatively cheap software on film nowadays. But not quite.
Although the film's plot, Lapham as mentor to two Yale grads, works better on paper than with real actors, there are moments, such as Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich and lastly Pete Seeger that give one hope for the future of film as teaching tool (see Farenheit 911), and the future of our species.
My parents got thier first TV in 1956 after we moved to LA from Yorkton, Saskatchewan. I don't remember any particular programme from that year, except Scrooge, which we watched on Chrsitmas Eve of that year. This time (the 50th?) I was more intrigued by the cinematography, the lighting of the stair cases and the hagiographical lighting of Tiny Tim and Scrooge's nephew's wife than any other factor of a film I've seen more than any other and expect to watch more than any other film made in the rest of my life. When the film ended, I thought back on the 3 stories, Twain, Lapham's and Dickens as interpreted by Alistair Sim and the best and brightest of the British film industry circa the year I was born, and found one story as told by 3 story tellers. Wealth corrupts. You can grow rich telling that story, but that doesnt make it false. Scrooge remains watchable after 50 times, unlike any other film I've seen or am likely to, watchable in the same sense that opening your eyes for the first time brings forth the idea of sight. Scrooge isn't just reborn from his encounter with death (his own, etc), so is the viewer, and that's where great acting and lighting come in. Is it easier to tell a great story or to act or work the lights so the audience is enlightened by its greatness? I'll never know. But I live in a cinemized world, not the world of my grandfather, a contemporary of Dickens. Lapham went from the dominant essayist of his time, acknowledged as such by friends and enemies alike, to a foreign milieu, the Film, a place where words are peripheral, at best. That ain't easy to do, trust me. Although I disliked most of the music of The American Ruling Class (except for the Nickel n' Dimed musical set piece that accompany's Ehrenreich's gloomy epiphany), it never interfered with my enjoyment of the flick. Perhaps I spent too many decades as a teacher, but I think presenting a message in one's "art," if it's a necessary message, is at least as important in the art's acceptance as the skill of a good cinematographer at one's service. Yes, Scrooge is a better flick than Lapham's. It'a a better flick than ANYBODY'S. Great as he was in The Avengers, Patrick Macnee never did a better tale. One should bathe lengthily and luxuriously in the words of Twain before reading About him, but Powers book is a great place to begin that afterjourney. And if you finish Powers' bio, then watch Lapham: The Flick, then watch Scrooge, well, how much sheer pleasure can you withstand in one day? It's worth finding out.