11/26/21

Highly Irregular: For Those Who Love Words

HIGHLY IRREGULAR: WHY TOUGH, TROUGH, AND DOUGH DON’T RHYME

            AND OTHER ODDITIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (2021)

By Arika Okrent, Illustrated by Sean O’Neill

Oxford, 244 pages (+ back matter)

★★★★★

 


 

 

If someone on your holiday list is a words person, have I got a book for you! The title says it all. English is a top contender for the globe’s quirkiest tongue. Most languages turn to “mutts” over time, but English might be the mangiest pooch in the lingo kennel.

 

Perhaps the author’s surname seems familiar. Arika Okrent is the niece of writer, editor, and media personality Daniel Okrent. (He also invented Rotisserie Baseball.) Arika has something “Uncle Danny” (her handle) doesn’t: a Ph.D. in linguistics. At a glance, Highly Irregular is a shrunken coffee table book, but Okrent knows her stuff. Her special gift is to take expertise and spin it in cheeky tones that make her book a delight.

 

She divides her work into seven sections, beginning with a reoccurring exclamatory question: “What the Hell, English.” She explores silent letters in words such as colonel, should, surprise, and those with y vowels (like gym). She also analyzes head-scratchers such as why we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway. And what about the weird ways we use big and large? (No one is ever a “large” spender.)

 

How did English get to be such a literary Jello salad? In Section II, Okrent tells us to “Blame the Barbarians,” the Germanic tribes who got the English ball rolling. We don’t pronounce the g in gnat, gist has a j sound, it’s a gh in give, but the one in girl is a hard sound. In most cases, the original Germanic peoples sounded words differently, or our current words derived from completely different ones no longer used. I won’t even get into words ending in ing or ly, but Okrent does.

 

The Germans don’t bear all the blame. In Section III Okrent tells us to “Blame the French.” They gave us a bunch of synonyms the likes of which confuse those seeking to learn English. Why does veal come from a calf, and pork from a pig? There are words whose context determines how we stress them–insult, transform, protest–and phrases that need prepositions and those that don’t. Do we really need to say “without a doubt” when we already have doubtless? Why is love pronounced as if it is “l-of?”

 

We can also “Blame the Printing Press,” which Okrent does in Section IV. Standardized spelling led to the “Great Vowel Shift,” which left us with ghost sounds–like the very h in ghost. It also left us with aspirated sounds that don’t appear on the page, like that same h sound in girl. The printing press helps explain why grew and sew don’t rhyme, nor do steak and freak. I was surprised (or sup-prised if you must) that Ed Sullivan got it right when he promised a really big “shew” (show). If you want to know why Worcester is pronounced in ways unlike how it looks, or why the Brits make Cholmondeley sound like “Chumley,” this chapter explains.

 

In Section VI we “Blame the Snobs” who add extra letters, use Latin plurals, show off by pronouncing letters no one else does, set the rules on homophones (words that sound alike), and lay down the law on how to say and spell foreign words. They are the sort who pronounce the p in receipt and the l in salmon, cough up phlegm, and insist that more than one octopus or rhinoceros are octopi and rhinoceri. They tell us when we are here and when we hear, and exhort us to be discreet when we are discussing discrete data–and I don’t mean datum. Noah Webster gets either credit or a kick in the pajamas (foreign word) for dumping the u in colour and sending people off to jail instead of gaol.

 

In the end, we also have to “Blame Ourselves.” Why on earth would we keep words that now usually exist only in the negative, like uncouth, unkempt, and disgruntled? It makes no sense that we “clean” things that are dirty but never “undirty” them, or raise "up" a window. (You can’t raise it down!)  Why is the plural of goose, geese but an extra moose or two isn’t meese? We have weird negative phrases such as “I didn’t sleep a wink.” (Presumably there must be people who go to bed, sleep one wink, and arise.) We retain abbreviations that are outdated. You might not wish to tell a woman who introduces herself as Mrs. Smith that her abbreviation is short for “mistress.” Most of the time when someone says literally, they mean figuratively.

 

What a fun book. Give it someone in your family but save it for the last gift, as you’ll spend the rest of the day laughing at the absurdity of your native tongue. Because, what the hell, English?

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

11/22/21

The Paris Library: Half of a Superb Novel

 

THE PARIS LIBRARY (2020)

By Janet Skeslien Charles

Simon and Schuster, 368 pages.

★★★

 


 

 

The Paris Library was the best seller, but is it a great novel? In my estimation, it is half of a very good one.

 

I mean this literally. Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel takes place in two different time periods: Paris in 1939–40, and Montana in 1983. You perhaps associate the first dates as the outbreak of World War II and the year of France fell to the Nazis. You probably don't associate 1983 in Montana with anything at all, though that's not necessarily a problem. It does, however, make for a force fit when Charles attempts to link the two periods.

 

The action revolves around Odile Souchet, a young French woman with a head for numbers and a good command of English–good qualifications for working at the American Library in Paris at a time in which shelf classification was done by the Dewey Decimal System. One of the first questions many readers wish to know is whether such a thing as the American Library actually existed. Yes, and it still does, though 1939 wasn't the best time to begin a career there. Odile, though, yearns for independence and experience, and her job at the library is arguably safer than that of her twin brother Rémy who joins the French army, or those of her boyfriend Paul or her father. Paul is a policeman and Odile’s father is the chief of his police prefect. We meet the library’s fascinating and eccentric staff and clientele, including directress Dorothy Reeder; Boris Netchaff, a Russian who works at the circulation desk; Helen, a reference librarian; Peter, a bookshelver; and researchers the likes of Professor Cohen, Mr. Pryce-Jones, an Englishmen; and several women of noble or upper bourgeois standing. All will be in jeopardy when the Nazis capture Paris in June 1940.

 

Much about the library is "based on a true story," a phrase that means the broad strokes occurred but most of the details are imagined. American libraries existed across Europe and tried to stay open when hostilities broke out, a situation easier to manage until late 1941, as the United States was not yet at war with Germany. It was also the case that, in some instances, Nazi commanders of a literary bent sought to protect American libraries and their collections–until they no longer could.

 

The travails of Odile and her colleagues are by far the most engaging part of the novel. War changes those like or Odile who managed to survive. She will not be a librarian when the war ends and, through various circumstances, she loses her social mentor Margaret, an ambassador's wife; her boyfriend Paul; and several family members. She will also gain an American husband, Buck.

 

Buck is the Montana connection, though Odile is a widow in 1983. She is living in Froid, Montana, a real place that had a population of around 300 people in 1983. You might also recognize its name as French for “cold,” which it certainly is for Odile. She's the resident oddball, a sophisticate among the hayseeds. Montana advances Charles’ attempt at a circular tale, as Odile will act as a mentor to teenaged Lily Jacobsen, a banker's daughter whose mother has died. Lily is as much at sea on the ranch as Odile was in her own family, plus Lily is at the awkward age in which she has a school* tormentor who also happens to be her rival for the boy she likes. Among the ways Lily seeks to become different is through an interest in French language and culture. Odile will be her guide, until that role abruptly ends.

 

There are various acts of betrayal in The Paris Library, each of which is plausible, though they sometimes smack of contrivance. I was left wondering why Charles bothered with the Montana part of the novel at all, aside from wishing to show older women mentoring younger ones. I am an advocate of mentoring, but The Paris Library suffers from trying to do too much and gives short shrift to Lilly's development. This necessitates a few illogical leaps. As many do when writing love letters to libraries, Charles also occasionally ascribes too much power to the written word.

 

More seriously, to make the two halves meld, Charles resorts to unconvincing histrionics that cheapen Odile’s saga, which would have been a gripping and compelling on its own. The Paris Library is a good read, but were I the editor, I would have advised centering the book on Odile and would have left Lily in Montana to grow up on her own.

 

Rob Weir

 

* Lily’s school days might be an inside joke on Charles’ part. The only time Froid made the news was in 2007, when it had a graduating class of one!

11/19/21

See Quilts and Ekua Holmes at the MFA

FABRIC OF A NATION: AMERICAN QUILT STORIES

            Through January 17, 2022

PAPER STORIES, LAYERED DREAMS: THE ART OF EKUA HOLMES

            Through January 23, 23, 2022

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

It had been 18 months since we last entered the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and for our first trip back, we decided to concentrate on just a few shows. So, let’s cut to the chase.  

 

Bisa Butler

  

Cut is a good segue to Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, a look at what sewing projects tell us about our past and ourselves. Some of the quilts were “folk art” and others might be classified as “fine art.” I’ve never cared much for such distinctions. Some of the quilters are known in the stitcher community. One is Bisa Butler, whose To God and Truth (2019) depicts the Morris Brown College baseball team. She makes us see the hues among African-Americans by rendering “black” faces in vibrant colors. 

 

Faith Ringgold

 

Another well-known artist (in numerous media) is Faith Ringgold. Her Martin Luther King and the Sisterhood is self-explanatory. Some might also know the name Lillie Mae Pettway, a link to the Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilters whose work has gotten a lot of belated recognition. 

Housetop is a 12-block pattern with variations. 

 

Lillie Mae Pettway

 

The MFA exhibit samples three centuries’ worth of quilts that indeed tell tales. The show is strongest in highlighting people of color and LGBTQIA communities. This is revelatory given that many of the quilters are unknown or forgotten. One quilt points us to reasons to recover their stories, as it depicts various ways in which those outside the mainstream have been (mis)represented. Still others make statements through the sheer skill that went into creating such meticulous work, including one from an unknown Amish stitcher and one from Celestine 

Bacheller titled Pictorial Quilt (c. 1880).

 

Celestine Bacheller

 

 

World’s fairs occasionally spotlight the work of those on the social margins. Some of that has been a sly dance of tokenism, a way to trumpet American progressivism without actually being progressive, yet the art speaks for itself. Edith Morrow Matthews contributed The Spectrum, a trippy quilt that presaged op-art at the 1933 Chicago fair.  Richard Rowley quilted the fair’s map in fabric: A Century of Progress.

 



Matthews above/Rowley below
 

 

There are a surprising number of men represented at the MFA show, including the well-known Sanford Biggers, though his work pushes the boundaries of what we think of as a quilt. Most visitors will probably relate best to overtly political works that require little explanation to (if you will) unravel. Carolyn Mazloomi mused upon a famous song about lynching for her Strange Fruit II and Sylvia Hernandez put thread to needle to ask the question about gun violence that rests upon many lips: How Many More? Edward Larson and Fran Soika cram a lot of troubled politicians into a 1979 work titled Nixon Resigns

 

Carolyn Mazloomi

 

 

Sylvia Henandez

 

Two intriguing works caught my eye. Sabrina Gscwandtner’s Camouflage lives up to its title. Those in a hurry could walk right past it without realizing it is made of discarded 16mm film strips. The most in-your-face work belongs to Agusta Agustsson whose Blanket of Red Flowers makes tangible the phrase “banned in Boston.” It was removed from its first viewing in 1979, as it represents alternating blocks of male and female genitalia. Note the date. It came at the dawning of the AIDS crisis, though its meaning is broader than that. 

 

 

Camouflage


Banned in Boston!


 

If works on paper haven’t caught your attention before, check out a retrospective culled from book projects illustrated by Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes (b. 1955). She celebrates the positivity of blackness in various ways: play, black history, ordinary people, poetry, children’s stories, and the connections that occur in unlikely ways in unlikely places. Her energy is infectious, her colors bold, and her ability to bring a smile to your face a rare and beautiful thing. Kudos to the MFA for allowing teens in its Curatorial Study Hall to write the wall text. Read: You can actually understand what is being said! 

 




 

_________________________________________________________________

 

We vowed to ease back into the viewing groove rather than trying to take in everything. Nice try! We ended up dipping into several other shows, including a good one on Monet that has already closed and two others that were disappointing. “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture” was billed as a total revamp of the MFA’s holdings. It’s not really–more like rearranging the den chairs and sofa. “Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art” was an example of how museums should have the courage to fold their cards when they don’t have a matching pair. It’s really about collectors, not the art, plus the MFA’s folk art collection is so painfully thin it should offload it to an institution that knows the genre.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

11/17/21

WISH IT LASTED FOREVER: LIFE WITH THE LARRY BIRD CELTICS

By Dan Shaughnessy

Scribner, 256 pages.

★★★★

 

 

Were the 1985-86 Boston Celtics the greatest team in National Basketball Association history? Such questions are pointless because sports–rules, equipment, players–evolve. Few analysts, though, take umbrage with saying that the Celtics front court of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish–with Bill Walton coming off the bench–defined the adjective dominant.

 

Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy revives memories of the 1980s. He was a newbie at Globe in 1981, the year after Larry Joe Bird was the NBA’s 1980 Rookie of the Year.  The epic battles between Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the years 1980-87 redefined the NBA and brought it into national prominence.

 

Perhaps you wonder about the showdowns in the 1950s and early 1960s between the Bill Russell-led Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors. Today, the NBA is a global product and the second-most popular team sport in North America. When Russell was a rookie in 1956, he and Chamberlain shed light on a 10-year-old league that played in crummy gyms and had franchises in places like Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Rochester, and Syracuse. The Lakers were in Minneapolis and the Warriors in Philly. Russell helped define the NBA. It grew from the mid-60s on, but didn’t become a media-fueled juggernaut until Bird, Magic, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Julius Erving, and others broadened TV viewership and gained sponsors.  

 

The best parts of Shaughnessy’s book deal with change, not just in the game but also in the media and social mores. Shaughnessy was dubbed “Scoop” by Celtics players and it wasn’t endearing. He was part of a new wave of sportswriters whose perspective was investigative and (in many cases) combative. Consider, for example, that Boston Herald writer Mike Carey had been so chummy with players that he lent them his car and acted as their agents. Today that would be conflict of interest. Bloody on-court fisticuffs would yield lengthy suspensions; in the 1980s, they didn’t always lead to technical fouls. Bill Walton reveals that he knew he loved new coach when K. C. Jones when he put the Lakers’ James Worthy into a headlock during a melee.

 

Shaughnessy was in the seam between the chummy old-style NBA and the emergent; he wanted access to players, but because he didn’t write fluff, he often ruffled feathers. He had a hot/cold relationship with Bird and Parrish refused to talk to him at all. Diehard basketball fans might wish to skim the parts of the book that rehash the long familiar: Red Auerbach’s iron-fisted management style, coach Bill Fitch’s abrasive egoism, Parrish’s sullenness, and Bird’s cockiness. (Bird took trash-talk to the next level. He once defended BYU grad/teammates Danny Ainge and Greg Kite by saying nobody would have heard of Utah without them–and murderer Gary Gilmore!)

 

Bird was the pivot piece, but Auerbach’s unsentimental roster retooling was the lever. During Bird’s peak years he was league MVP three years in a row and the Celtics won the NBA title in 1980-81 and 1983-84, lost the finals in 1984-85, and won again in 1985-86. Auerbach had no problem jettisoning popular players he felt were no longer useful, such as Cedric Maxwell, Quinn Buckner, or Rick Robey. (He robbed Seattle by trading Gerald Henderson for Dennis Johnson.) He also felt (rightly) that the Celtics lost in 1984-85 because the players despised Fitch. Enter K. C. Jones and a magical season.

 

You may never see another team like it. The roster had eight white players, just four African Americans, a black coach, and not a hint of racial tension. (Bird called Jones “the nicest man I ever met.”) Walton claimed that coming to Boston saved his life. That’s hyperbolic, but the Celtics played with infectious joy. McHale set a team record by scoring 58 points, which fell the very next game when Bird poured in 60. They were so cohesive that they went 37-1 at home, wrapped up their division so early they didn’t bother to try for an NBA victory record, and won their final game by playing only the bench. There was no partying when they won the conference title; as Bird insisted, celebrations only came after titles. He also proved that a slow white dude who didn’t jump well could become a hoop god through hard work and a high court IQ. (Shaughnessy advises skepticism re: the “Hick from French Lick” guise; Bird knew how to conjugate verbs!) 

 

Wish It Lasted Forever has eyeopeners, including pranks that wouldn’t fly today, like putting an M. L. Carr jersey on a car lot’s advertising gorilla. Casual sexism was also a thing. We laugh when Shaughnessy loses $160 in a free throw challenge with Bird, who taped his entire hand and thumb. Shaughnessy also gets another booby prize for leaving the basketball beat in the spring to cover the Red Sox, then the city’s biggest sports attraction. (Today, they might be number four.) We appreciate Bird’s color-blind judgments, including his prediction that Michael Jordan would become the NBA’s greatest player. (M.J. transformed the game a third time.) Alas, nothing lasts forever. Injuries took their toll and it would be 22 years before the Celtics hoisted another championship banner.

 

Rob Weir

11/15/21

Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird


 

 

GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)

By Harper Lee

HarperCollins, 278 pages.

★★ ½

 

I didn’t rush to read Go Set a Watchman. The initial reviews were damning, though they gave way to others declaring it a brilliant lost gem. Which is it? In my estimation, neither. I’d call it a prosaic effort that wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day had not Harper Lee (1926-2016) published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.

 

Go Set a Watchman is an oddity in Lee’s total output of two novels. It was supposed to be her first novel. She penned it around 1957, began revisions, and then locked it away. To Kill a Mockingbird went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a hit movie in 1962 that won three Academy Awards. Lee either never got around to finishing revisions of Go Set a Watchman, or deemed it beyond repair. It was thought to be lost until it surfaced in a lockbox and, in 2015, Lee was persuaded to allow its publication. This was controversial, as some critics alleged elder abuse on the part of Lee’s conservators.

 

It’s a pointless debate given that the novel was ultimately released. What we have is a first book sequel to a book that was released before it– a sequel to a prequel, if you will. If only that were the most problematic thing about it. Before diving into this, a quick note on the title. It’s from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” (It’s from Chapter 21 and the next line gave rise to a famed song: “Babylon Has Fallen.”)

 

In Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) is a 26-year-old woman who has been living in New York City. Each year she spends two weeks with her father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is now 72 and slowing down a bit. He still has his law practice, but most of the work has been turned over to his protégé, Henry “Hank” Clinton, who comes from a humble background, but is seen by Jean Louise as the man she’ll probably marry. Her brother Jem is dead from the same weak heart that killed their mother and their African American maid Calpurnia has retired.

 

One wonders if Lee was channeling Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Jean Louise is a young woman who is too Southern for New York and too New York for Alabama. She loves Atticus, her Uncle Jack, and her Aunt Alexandra, but the latter two drive her batty. The learned Jack, a retired doctor, tells circuitous stories and utters remarks obscure even by his standards and the heavily corseted Alexandra is obsessed with propriety, religion, and getting Jean Louise married off. She’d be okay with the latter, but New York has made her too independent for the traditional role expected of her, she’s not at all sure she wants to move back to Maycomb, and Hank wants to stay. Gossip seems to follow Jean Louise around like a shadow. Go Set a Watchman is at its best in revealing Alabama as a time warp challenged by post-World War II social changes.

 

The novel’s crisis comes from those changes. When Calpurnia’s grandson runs over an elderly drunken pedestrian, it scarcely matters that it’s not his fault. The accident reveals racial fault lines in the Deep South just a few years removed from Brown v. the Board of Education. Suffice it to say, the NAACP is not popular among Maycomb whites and African Americans are beginning to sluff off their subordinated skin and with it the fiction of easygoing racial relations.

 

Social friction gives way to personal trauma when Jean Louise catches wind a meeting of the all-white Citizen’s Council and finds that both Hank and Atticus are members of it and the Ku Klux Klan. She is outraged and explodes at each of them. The open question is whether they are infiltrators or collaborators. Uncle Jack helps bring the book to what I’d call a compromised conclusion that certainly will not please those weaned in the age of wokeness.

 

The last point aside, Go Set a Watchman is a wildly uneven novel that reads like what it probably was: an insufficiently revised work. Numerous To Kill a Mockingbird devotees expressed their displeasure at the depiction of Atticus Finch, whose morality is at best ambiguous in Go Set a Watchman. Other detractors have called the novel an apologetics for whiteness, though one could just as easily make a case that it is a more realistic portrait of race than one gets from To Kill a Mockingbird. I hold the view that it’s simply a subpar book.

 

Rob Weir

11/12/21

Project Hail Mary: Complete and Incomplete Passes

 

PROJECT HAIL MARY (2021)

By Andy Weir

Random House, 496 pages.

★★★

 


 

 

Andy Weir (no relation) scored so big with his 2011 debut, The Martian that Hollywood came calling. His second book, Artemis (2017), is “in development,” a phrase that could mean anything from “about to go into production” to “thanks for letting us work up a script, Andy; here’s some money, now go away.”  In both previous books, Weir went off world and he stays in space for Project Hail Mary­–deep space.  

 

There is much speculation over whether humankind can save itself. In Weir’s novel, though, climate change isn’t the culprit. Something is sucking energy from the sun and if something isn’t done to stop it, Old Mr. Sol will die 5.5 billion years early. The villain is astrophage, a space virus that extracts energy from the sun and light from Venus. Step one is capturing some of the beetle-like little devils. If harnessed, astrophage could power a space ship in ways that aren’t quite warp drive, but would certainly be superior to any current fuel source. That’s needed because, unless a team can trace the source of the astrophage and figure out how to stop its path, Earth has just decades before it becomes a lifeless hunk of space ice.

 

Probes secure some astrophage, but a lot of it must be bred to provide fuel for what will certainly be an out-of-the-galaxy space voyage. That’s where Ryeland Grace comes in– to his surprise and chagrin. In graduate school, he explored a theory of replicating space viruses that met with derision and hurled him toward a very different profession than he once envisioned: junior high school science teacher. He’s very good at it, though, and has no desire to reopen a topic that made him an academic joke.

 

Not that he has a choice in the matter. Public calm is holding, but world powers know the real score and for once, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States are on the same side. They’ve even handed global dictatorial power to Eva Stratt to “draft” anyone who doesn’t volunteer to do research or be part of a space team whose mission is surely suicidal. Ryeland is spirited to a lab to work on replicating astrophage and it doesn’t matter if he wants to do it or not. When I say Stratt is all-powerful, I mean she has the authority to buy Earth more time by melting Antarctica so it can release methane gas and create a greenhouse effect that delays Earth’s rendezvous with icy lifelessness.

 

If you know Weir’s work, you know there are two constants. First, he loves geeky stuff. There is a lot of math and science in the novel–some that’s highly speculative. You know also that Weir likes to pit a single individual against seemingly impossible odds. Ryeland thinks he has done his bit when he actually creates astrophage via ideas pooh-poohed by those with fancier pedigrees. Imagine his reaction, though, when Stratt next informs him he’s going to be a no-return astronaut to Tau Ceti in a different solar system. He refuses, but Stratt gives him the choice to “volunteer,” or be taken to the ship in shackles. She assures him he won’t know much, because the crew of four will be in suspended animation until the ship is ready to collect data and send a “solution” back to earth. Ryeland wakes up, but that’s more than can be said of his three colleagues.

 

Ryeland has no choice but to improvise everything—repairs, food, water, leaking astrophage, or what have you. Imagine being alone among the stars. He won’t be for long, as he makes first contact with an Eridian sharing his fate. So, how do you communicate with a blind spider-and-stone-like alien whose planet has an atmospheric pressure (and spaceship) 8 ½ times greater than that of Earth? Soon, though, Ryeland and “Rocky,” as Ryeland dubs him, cooperate in trying to save their respective planets. (Rocky’s comrades also perished.) Thus begins a race against time that involves lots of physics, math, and trial-and-error. 

 

I enjoyed, but didn’t love, Project Hail Mary. At its best, the novel is a gripping thriller that sucks in readers, though we’re pretty sure something good will happen. In its weaker junctures, it’s as if Weir is channeling Michael Crichton, with echoes of an old Star Trek (Original Series) show involving a critter called a Horta. (The episode is titled “The Devil in the Dark,” if you’re keeping score.) Depending upon which side of your brain you use the most, the calculations, science, and science fiction in Weir’s novel will either excite your Inner Nerd or send you running for the Aspirin bottle. I experienced both sensations and I also didn’t think much of the tacked-on sappy ending. Call Project Hail Mary a satisfying but bumpy ride.

 

Rob Weir

11/10/21

The Lost Weekend: Innovative for 1945

 

THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Paramount, 104 minutes, NR (pre-ratings system)

★★★★


 

 

 

The Lost Weekend cleaned up at the 1946 Oscars. It got seven nominations and won four: Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actor (Ray Milland), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). It would have won a fifth for Best Original Score, except that Miklós Rózsa lost–to himself! (Rózsa also scored Spellbound and won for that film instead.) The Hungarian-born Rózsa is no longer a household name, but few rivaled him for scoring films whose subjects begged for tension-laden music. But, The Lost Weekend was really Ray Milland’s moment in the sun.

 

Perhaps I should say Milland’s moment in the murk. His was once considered the portrait of an alcoholic. Milland is Don Birnam, a New York-based critic/writer who has struggled with the bottle, despite the efforts of his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) to keep him sober, and support from his attractive girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman). Don met Helen when their coats were mixed up at an opera house. The Lost Weekend leads with that and tells its tale in reverse.

 

That was one of several innovative things that led to Billy Wilder’s Oscar. Back-to-front scripts are now so common that today’s directors often dispense with any sort of linear plot. Wilder didn’t invent reverse narratives, but his was a superior take on the device. He also added edginess by having Milland walk/stumble the streets with everyday New Yorkers while hidden cameras filmed him. Wilder also got permission to film inside an alcohol ward of Bellevue Hospital, which added another layer of verisimilitude.

 

Wilder wasn’t showing off. Don Birnam is the very embodiment of character disorder. Drunks do horrible things, but most of the damage they inflict upon those who care is the equivalent of a daily dose of paper cuts, not any one (or two, or three, or…) blow-up moments. If you see a film in which the latter happens more than once, you know that the script writers are more in love with melodrama than fact-gathering. In essence, the cumulative toll of most alcoholic behavior unfolds slowly and is hard to portray on film, let alone lend itself to being encapsulated in a single “lost weekend.”

 

Don’s crisis coincides with Yom Kippur, not because Don is Jewish but because most of New York’s pawnshops were once operated by Jews. That’s inconvenient for an alky who wants to pawn his typewriter (again!) to buy rotgut. He will manage to get a few drinks on tab at Nate’s Bar, until Nate (the vastly underappreciated Howard DaSilva) cuts him off with a lecture on how shabbily he treats Helen. Message sent, but not received. Don cons an ex-girlfriend (Doris Dowling) out of some dough, drinks to oblivion, and wakes up in a Bellevue drunk tank overseen by cynical ward nurse/counselor Bim Nolan (Frank Faylen, in an acidic turn). Don manages to bust out and not take the cure. All of this leads to a crisis point when he does find an open pawnshop, but uses his gain to buy a gun to put an end to his woes. Does he do it? Watch and find out.

 

The Lost Weekend was bold on other levels. The Hollywood Code was still in effect and had strict rules about how to portray tough subjects. The usual standard was that your subjects had to experience comeuppances or land in a net when they fell from the wire. Some studios, especially Warner, pushed the envelope because they owned theaters and could ignore pressure on distributors. (That would change in 1950.) By 1945, the Code was weakening, Paramount had its own screen network, and it needed the big hit The Lost Weekend provided. (Paramount was in receivership from 1931-40.) Another gutsy thing Wilder snuck in was that Birnam was modeled on one of his friends, crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler.

 

The Lost Weekend occasionally feels naïve and old-fashioned. That’s because we know a lot more about alcoholism today. Suffice it to say that in 1945, alcoholism was viewed as a moral or psychological failing, not a disease. Remember also that Freud was once the gold standard for disorders. The film’s glancing forays into dual personalities is a nod to Freud. All of this said, no matter what lens you bring to your living room chair, The Lost Weekend is a poignant reminder of the bottle and the damage done. Treatment modalities have changed, but the problem remains.

 

Rob Weir