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August 24, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....


Al Franken is NOT Laurence Sterne...

Last week in the book section I wrote about Fox News' lawsuit against Al Franken.  Fox News had requested an injunction to block the Al Franken from using the words "fair and balanced" on the cover of his book, Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Friday, August 22, Fox News lost and Al Franken won.  Calling the motion "wholly without merit, both factually and legally," the judge, Denny Chin of United States District Court, said that a person would have to be "completely dense" not to realize the cover was a joke, and that trademark protection for the phrase "Fair and Balanced" was unrealistic because the words are so commonly used.

The Fox court papers had referred to Mr. Franken, a former Saturday Night Live writer and performer and an unabashed liberal, as a "parasite" who appeared shrill, unstable and "increasingly unfunny."

The network filed for the injunction on August 11th.   Fox News Network trademarked the phrase "Fair and Balanced" in 1998 to describe its news coverage, and network lawyers claimed that Mr. Franken's use of the phrase in his book would "blur and tarnish" it. ]

Fox also objected to the use of a picture of Bill O'Reilly, one of its prominent news personalities, on the cover, claiming that it could be mistaken as an endorsement of the book.

These arguments caused a good deal of laughter in the courtroom, as Fox tried to defend its position.  Part of the network's burden was to prove that Mr. Franken's use of the phrase "fair and balanced" would lead to consumer confusion.

One round of laughter was prompted when Judge Chin asked, "Do you think that the reasonable consumer, seeing the word 'lies' over Mr. O'Reilly's face would believe Mr. O'Reilly is endorsing this book?"

The giggling continued as Dori Ann Hanswirth, a lawyer for Fox, replied, "To me, it's quite ambiguous as to what the message is here."  She continued, "It does not say parody or satire."

Judge Chin said, "The president and the vice president are also on the cover. Is someone going to consider that they are affiliated with Fox?"  The courtroom broke into laughter again.

"Parody is a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment. The keystone to parody is imitation. In using the mark, Mr. Franken is clearly mocking Fox."  He said Mr. Franken's work was "fair criticism."

Judge Chin said the case was an easy one, and chided Fox for bringing its complaint to court. The judge said, "Of course, it is ironic that a media company that should be fighting for the First Amendment is trying to undermine it."

Oh well.  My conservative friends are very angry. 
But I have read parts of Franken's new book available on the net in little sections.  It's quite bad.  Sophomoric and rather stupid.

But it's his right to be sophomoric and rather stupid.  Forgive me.  Fox News was being silly.  Lighten up, Bill.  Folks still love you.

For something really funny, try the eighteenth century.  Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  The nine volumes appeared between 1759 and 1767 and they're all in the Houghton-Mifflin edition edited by Ian Watt.

This is a bit hard to explain, even if it was the most fashionable book of its time.

Tristram Shandy did not conform to the narrative conventions of the telling of a biographical "life," since it started at the unhappy point of conception and took many pages for the main character to be born.

The figure of Parson Yorick, the double of its author, an Irish Church of England minister (whose popular collection of sermons would be published under this pseudonym), dies in Volume One - his demise marked by a black page - only to reappear for the rest of the tale.

The author's preface appears in volume three, chapters are jumbled and missing, a dedication is hawked to the highest bidder, and at one point the reader is offered a blank page with the invitation to draw his or her own version of the sexually frustrated Widow Wadman: "as like your mistress as you can - as unlike your wife as conscience will let you."

I like that.

The narrative is fragmented by numerous digressions and stories. Punctuation is loose, real loose, with an odd use of dashes, asterisks and squiggly lines.  It seemed both dizzyingly tied to the present moment, the narrator noting that he was living "364 times faster than I should write", and at the same time anachronistic in its nostalgia for the time of an earlier generation, the Shandy family household of forty years before.

Horace Walpole was intrigued, deciding that its strategy involved "the whole narration always going backwards".

"I can conceive of a man saying it would be droll to write a book in that manner," he continued, "but have no notion of his persevering in executing it."

Samuel Johnson was dismissive.  It was "...not English, Sir.'
"Nothing odd will do for long," he later reflected. "Tristram Shandy did not last."

But it did.  And it is far better than Franken.


The essential adolescent art form ...


    Directed by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle; written by Erica Beeney; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Richard Nord; music by Richard Marvin; production designer, Lisa K. Sessions; produced by Chris Moore and Jeff Balis; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 90 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

    This film is the latest result of that HBO series, in which competitors win a chance to make a low-budget movie, financed by Miramax, on the condition that their behind-the-scenes agonies be filmed for a making-of series detailing the squabbling and posing and bullshit going on.

    I did not watch the HBO series beyond a few minutes.  These are the kind of earnest and rather dim, but very self-important, young folks that live in the apartments around me here on Laurel, just above Sunset.  They are tiresome.  Or maybe I'm just an old grump.  My next-door neighbor is forever traveling out to Pasadena to audition for American Idol, and when he's not I hear him singing scales and catches of pop tunes.  Harriet-the-Cat hides under the bed. 

    Of course I do have normal neighbors - a woman in her eighties who speaks to me in Yiddish, the Russian resident manager and her husband, the ninety-four-year retired MGM historian who speaks six languages fluently and plays scrabble by the pool in French with Claudine, my neighbor who grew up in Toulouse.  Just folks.

    Back to the topic....  This HBO series was unwatchable for me.  Watching young folks make dumb decisions and get upset and treat each other really badly is something I left behind when I got out of teaching twenty years ago.

    The movie from the HBO series, The Battle Of Shaker Heights, premiered down the street at the Arclight last week.  I saw the searchlights from my study window.  All the folks mentioned above were there giving interviews.  I skipped it.

    By all accounts it is not a very good movie.  Not awful.  Not compelling, according to the reviews.

    Someone once said to me that movies were essentially an adolescent art form.  Yep, that seems right.

    Perhaps when it goes to cable television I'll watch it.

    But given where I live perhaps I should take the industry more seriously.


    Bugs Bunny and Vivaldi...  
    Really!  This does all fit together.

    This last Tuesday evening, the 19th, I went with a friend to the Hollywood Bowl for a concert.  We went to see, under the stars in that canyon, a performance of Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons).  Pleasant stuff from eighteen-century Venice.  And the cloudless evening was sweet - in the seventies.

    The details?  The Los Angeles Philharmonic or really, the Los Angeles Philharmonic strings with a harpsichord.  The conductor?  JoAnn Falletta late of the Long Beach Symphony and quite good.  The solo violins?  Soloists from the Philharmonic, one per "season,"  - Michele Bovyer, Akiko Tarumoto, Jonathan Wei and Stacy Wetzel.  All pretty astounding, with Bovyer the best.

    But concerts at the Bowl are odd.  The crickets are nice, but the LAPD helicopters passing over now and then can be disconcerting (pun) as they whack their way across the sky to check out another Escalade being carjacked or this or that gang shooting.  

    And the acoustics are always a problem.  First is the usual outdoor-distance problem.  You see the conductor give a decisive downbeat, but you don't hear the result for a half-second or more.  Your ears and eyes don't agree.  So you look away from the stage after a bit.  Well, light and sound travel at vastly different rates.

    Then there is the amplification.  This is chamber music and not meant for large outdoor amphitheaters.  So everything was sent through probably the best outdoor sound system in the world.  You could hear the attack of the bow on the strings, the spatial separation was extraordinary, and the sound was detailed and full.   Great realism.

    But it was so good that if you closed your eyes it sounded as if the ensemble was twenty feet way, and slightly above you.  Open your eyes and they're more than a hundred feet away and well below you. 

    The Bowl has, over the last decades, added giant absorbing and deflecting spheres that hang, big and white, over the stage.  The sound was improved, but one thinks of the spheres that chased Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, that surreal television series from the late sixties.   And now there are two large white speaker towers flanking the stage, each three or four stories high.  Great speakers.  Odd architecture.

    Well, they will tear down the Bowl in the next year and rebuild it once again.  We will see how that comes out.

    But every time I go to the Hollywood Bowl I think of Bugs Bunny there, doing the imitation of Leopold Stokowski and driving that fat tenor crazy - do you know that cartoon?  Actually that cartoon is Warner Brothers' reaction to Disney's Fantasia, where Leopold Stokowski actually conducts at the Bowl, with Mickey Mouse involved somehow.  Mel Blanc and the guys at Warner Brothers are making fun of the pretentious Disney folks. 

    But the Hollywood Bowl?  It's a silly place.

    Here is the odd thing.  Vivaldi is popular today, Vivaldi is known today, only because of Hollywood.

    Who is the most recorded violinist in history?  Louis Kaufman. 

    This man was the concertmaster, the principal violist, for almost every Hollywood film from 1934 to 1973.    Gone With the Wind.  Casablanca. Wuthering Heights.  Ben-Hur.  Laura.  When the strings swell, he's leading them.

    Kaufman died in 1984 and his widow, Annette, completed and edited his memoirs, which are being published this month under the title A Fiddler's Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me (University of Wisconsin Press).

    As she says, "When Louis recorded 'The Four Seasons,' Vivaldi's name wasn't even in most musical histories."   The Vivaldi connection came about "by happenstance." 

    "It wasn't that he looked for it.  Eighteenth century Venice was far from our thoughts."  The Vivaldi was a last-minute substitution, suggested by CBS conductor Alfredo Antonini, for a Lev Knipper concerto that Kaufman had been scheduled to record.  His December 1947 version won France's Grand Prix du Disque in 1950 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. (Naxos is scheduled to re-release the Kaufman Four Seasons on CD early next year.)

    So if you are sitting in the St-Chapelle cathedral in Paris listening to one of the free concerts, which are almost always Vivaldi, you are listening to music that would have remained lost but for this guy out here in Hollywood.

    Annette Kaufman is 88 and still lives in a two-story house in Westwood, over by UCLA, where she and Louis Kaufman lived for most of their 62-year marriage.  Lloyd Wright, whose father was Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the house for them in 1934.  

    A bit of history.

    Click here for large high-resolution version....