Saturday, January 31, 2009

Brideshead Regurgitated

In 1947 MGM invited Evelyn Waugh to Hollywood to discuss the sale of the film rights to Brideshead Revisited. Soon after talks began, it was clear to Waugh that MGM wanted, not his masterpiece, but a Hollywood version of the story. So the talks broke down. But Waugh made the most of his trip, visiting Forest Lawn Cemetery, which inspired him to write the satirical The Loved One. This one was sold to MGM, many years later, with sorry results. Waugh hated it and probably felt relieved that he had at least kept Brideshead out of MGM’s clutches. Coincidentally, Waugh died shortly after The Loved One was released.

(Actually, Waugh didn’t sell the film rights to The Loved One to Hollywood. His agent sold them to a Mexican on the assurance that it would never be produced but would allow Waugh and Alec Guinness to enjoy a Mexican holiday together. The Mexican later sold the rights to Hollywood, infuriating Waugh.)

As a matter of fact, Waugh’s stylish prose does not translate well to film, the towering exception being the 1981 television production of Brideshead Revisited, about which more later. Sword of Honor, based on Waugh’s wartime trilogy, was made into a passable TV film, and A Handful of Dust was more than passable, but Scoop, Vile Bodies (Bright Young Things), and The Loved One were dreadful. Once the screenwriter decides to “improve” or “modernize” Waugh, the die is cast: After you remove Waugh’s brilliant prose, there is nothing left, because Evelyn Waugh wrote novels, not film treatments. (Graham Greene, on the other hand, wrote with the camera in mind, which is why The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, and other Greene titles were as successful as movies as they were as books.)

Writer John Mortimer, who wrote the screenplay for the widely and justly praised Brideshead Revisited miniseries (and who died only a few weeks ago) was rigorously faithful to Waugh’s novel, and this fact, plus a solid gold cast, made that production what is, in the minds of many (including me), the best piece of dramatic fiction ever put on film. Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom were Lord and Lady Marchmain, Jeremy Irons (in his breakthrough role) was Charles Ryder, John Gielgud played his father, and Anthony Andrews was Sebastian Flyte. The supporting actors, notably Simon Jones as Brideshead and Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia Flyte, were all excellent. But the lion’s share of the credit is due John Mortimer for capturing not only the language but the spirit of the novel.

That brings me to the 2008 movie version of Brideshead Revisited. I was not expecting a production to rival the 1981 TV classic; that would be asking too much. But the lead screenwriter was Andrew Davies, well known and respected for his many Masterpiece Theater scripts, so I was not expecting a total disaster either. But that is what I got. If I had viewed the “Making Of” featurette in the bonus material, I would have been warned. “We wanted to do a contemporary reading of the novel,” said someone. Oh-oh. Translation: The producers said to the writers, “Look, Waugh leaves the relationship between Charles and Sebastian ambiguous. Let’s make them conspicuously gay, maybe have them kiss. And Waugh’s Lady Marchmain is a sympathetic if over-zealous matriarch. Bo-ring. Let’s make her a sort of a Catholic dragon lady, with a hint of Lady Macbeth."

The movie is constrained by its length (a little over two hours), so Anthony Blanche, Cordelia, Samgrass, and Boy Mulcaster are reduced to walk-ons. That’s forgivable, but not the jettisoning of the spiritual story at the heart of the novel.

For the miniseries, Mortimer was wise enough to have Charles Ryder deliver voice-overs, with the distinctive voice of Jeremy Irons intoning the elegant sentences of Waugh. Thus, when Ryder, a wartime soldier, returns to the majestic Brideshead mansion he recalls:

“I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendor, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the beauty of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”

Matthew Goode, who plays Charles in the new film, looks and sounds a bit like Irons, and several other members of the cast look eerily like their earlier counterparts, with similar hairdos and costumes. And Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which became a tourist magnet a quarter century ago after it gained word-wide fame as Brideshead, is again pressed into service for the film. But these surface similarities only remind viewers who have seen the miniseries what a gulf in quality separates the two versions.

The real losers are those whose first exposure to Brideshead Revisited is the 2008 film – those who have never read the novel or seen the 1981 television production. They are to be pitied, for they will have seen a movie that is pretty lame, and they will wonder, “Why has so much been made of this very ordinary story about very unhappy people?”

In fact, the new film is probably the very film that MGM moguls wanted to make when they welcomed Evelyn Waugh to Hollywood in 1947. They might have cast Cary Grant as Charles, Jimmy Stewart as Sebastian, and Vivien Leigh as Julia. The 1947 movie would have been chaste, of course, but it would have been as soul-less as the newest version. Waugh saw it coming and fled. Too bad his estate didn’t have his good taste.

Oh, well. At least it hasn’t been made into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Obama Presidency - Chapter One

We are scarcely one week into the Obama presidency, and the carping has begun, from both the right and the left. From the right, the beef is that he is socializing the country. The left is sore that he is not moving faster to socialize the country. With a sky-high approval rating, the President can afford to ignore the snipers on the fringes, but it is harder to ignore the extremists in Congress.

Meanwhile, “W” has gone back to the ranch, to the accompaniment of a stirring “Ave Atque Vale” from Karl Rove, who says that Bush’s unforgivable sin, in the eyes of his detractors, is that he won in Iraq. I must have missed that news bulletin. The fact is that the country is worse off, by a mile, than it was eight years ago, and, though not all of the problems were of his making, too many were. To those who quibble about the WMD deception, the hawks shift gears, insisting that “the world is a safer place with Saddam Hussein gone.” But the world, in the eyes of many, is a safer place with Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle et al gone. As for Bush 43, he will lie low for a while, remembered by the public much as Bill Buckner was remembered in Boston.

Obama’s problem is not the sniping, but the economy. The country will have to deleverage big time, and the process will take years and be painful. Although deflation is the immediate threat, eventually Government will react the way Governments always react to economic collapses: They debase the currency. China, holding a ton of our IOUs, watches anxiously, and one wonders what on earth possessed Timothy Geithner to yank China’s chain by accusing it of currency manipulation. One expects Senator Schumer to bash the Chinese, as demagogues are wont to do, but the incoming Treasury Secretary?

Of course, when you publicly insist that the yuan is too cheap and should appreciate, what you are really saying is that the dollar is too high and should depreciate. But you can’t say that, so instead, if you are the Secretary of the Treasury, you keep blathering that a strong dollar is in the national interest.

President Obama is a smart man who no doubt is going down the presidential learning curve very fast. Here is what I suspect he has already learned:

Much as the public is fed up with bank bail-outs, there is no way to avoid more of them. Like it or not, the banking system is the ship carrying the economy, and if the ship sinks, we all sink.

China and the U.S. are now joined at the hip. Their economy needs our markets, and our economy needs their financial support. But we need them more than they need us, because their people can endure hardship better than we can. Put another way, the last thing Obama needs on his plate is a flare-up in U.S. – China tensions. (BO to TG: Cool it.)

Much of the Arab world is aghast at what Israel has done to Gaza, but that was to be expected. The reaction in Europe is another matter. The fact is that Israel has only one real supporter of substance in the world: us. None of the other major players on the world scene – not China, nor Japan, nor Europe, nor India – is interested in cosponsoring Israel. So in the community of nations, not only is Israel isolated, but on this matter we are, too. Even more dangerous, Israel may believe that it can count on our support if it strikes Iran preemptively. The chances of such a strike will increase after February 10, when the hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu will likely become Israel’s Prime Minister. “Peace is purchased from strength,” writes Netanyahu in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, overlooking the fact that Israel has enjoyed overwhelming military superiority for decades, with no peace to show for it.

Obama has already made it abundantly clear that, whatever the truculent instincts of other countries and tribes, his preference is to cool off the hot spots with diplomacy. That is a hopeful sign. Besides, what’s the alternative? Shock and awe?

Our new President also faces tough choices in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, North Korea, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and even neighboring Mexico, where drug wars infest the streets of Tijuana and Juarez. England’s economy is crumbling, and continental Europe is rethinking the wisdom of a common currency. In fact, few parts of the world do not have major problems. Why would anyone in his right mind want to be President at a time like this?

It’s the audacity of hope. The whole world is looking to the U.S. cavalry to ride to the rescue. Foreigners don’t like to admit it, but they really believe we are their only hope. That is why billions watched the inauguration on TV so hopefully. They saw more than 2 million Americans on the mall in Washington, being civil, no, friendly to each other. The week before, they saw more than 100 people standing on the wings of a half-submerged airplane in the Hudson River, as calmly as if they were waiting for a taxi at Grand Central. No pushing and shoving, no climbing over each other to get a seat on the ferry. Only in America, the world thought.

And the world was right.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


It is time, the always readable Peggy Noonan writes, to suspend disbelief. Barack Obama is really happening. What’s more, this unbelievable event gives us all a chance, a sliver of a chance, to reshape our country, to put aside the rancor, the meanness that has infected our dialogue for too long. Yes, coming together is the bromide of every political campaign, but Barack Obama really believes it. He is the most sincere, most genuine, most persuasive president-elect I have ever seen. He is either the real McCoy or the greatest con artist this country has ever seen. I vote for McCoy, because it is also time to suspend cynicism.

It is also time to pray. The country is in great trouble. It doesn’t look that way at first glance. Bread lines or soup kitchens are hardly a common sight, as they were in the Great Depression. But Wall Street has seen a few suicides, and millions of people are out of work. Mortgage foreclosures are epidemic, and other shoes (commercial real estate, credit cards, car loans) have yet to fall. The patient’s condition is serious, and we need a seriously capable leader, and I think we may have one starting Tuesday.

Much is made of Franklin Roosevelt’s heroics in the 1930s, and he does deserve full credit for making people think they were better off while the unemployment rate kept climbing. My parents, life-long Democrats, believed in FDR and bought into the New Deal and the WPA and all the rest. Today it’s easy to be cynical about Roosevelt, but consider this: Let’s say that nothing he could have done would have pulled us out of the Depression in the 30s (my view, as it happens). Now, would the public have been any happier without all those fireside chats and soaring speeches? Or would revolution have been in the air? There is much to be said for an inspirational leader. If the leader is also wise (like, say, Washington or Lincoln or Churchill), so much the better.

There is also much to be said for a leader who is unflappable in a crisis. We need a president who will deal with a global financial meltdown the way Captain Sullenberger dealt with losing both engines of his A320 – calmly, professionally. Barack Obama is one cool cat, as they used to say ages ago, and it is impossible to imagine him losing his composure when it is most needed.

I am also naturally drawn to Obama because he is a man of words, a gifted writer and orator. When was the last time we had a president who treated the language with respect, who delivered sentences and phrases and whole paragraphs as if they were music? Yes, he has a speechwriter, but Obama will be the master of the Oval Office rhetoric, and he will craft the structure and vocabulary and cadence of what he delivers.

So, Peggy, I will gladly suspend disbelief Tuesday. More than that, I will watch the pageantry with a sense of awe and a prayer that, no matter how high the expectations surrounding Barack Obama, he will exceed them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Sitting on my night table is a remote digital thermometer, which receives signals from an outside sensor and converts them into temperature readings so that each morning when I wake up I can see what I am store for (this time of year in Maine, the news is usually bad). As far as I can tell, it is accurate, and the digits are big enough so that I don’t need my glasses, so I am generally a happy customer. But the thermometer also includes an alarm function, so that every day at noon it chimes for two minutes. Or, to quote my wife, “it goes ding-ding. Fred, it is going ding-ding. Why is it going ding-ding?”

I have read every word of the instruction sheet, and I have concluded that there is no way to turn off the ding-ding. It is a software bug. Either that or Taylor Instrument has forgotten to tell users how to shut the damn thing up.

If this were an isolated instance of digital mischief, I could understand. But I am afraid it is worse than that. All the digital devices in the house have mounted a mutiny, which has grown worse since the protracted power outage caused by an ice storm a few weeks ago. The microwave oven goes berserk almost every day. One minute it works fine, the next minute it quits, and no amount of poking the controls will produce any response. Then, an hour or two later, it comes back to life. Unplugging it, as the manual suggests, doesn’t cure the problem. Nor does the addition of a surge protector. It works when it jolly well feels like working.

A digital picture frame also has a mind of its own, firing up at odd times without human intervention. A possible explanation, according to the manufacturer’s on-line service technician, is that it speaks PC, and I speak Mac when I load pictures from iPhoto. Then there is my wife’s computer-controlled sewing machine, which, after years of faithful service, decided that buttonholing was something it just didn’t want to do any more.

My wife talked darkly of mischievous “little men” inside these digital devices. I used to laugh at this; now I am not so sure.

Next month, we are all forewarned, analog television signals will go the way of 45-rpm records, and a new day of digital bliss will dawn. Digital signals, the FCC and the consumer electronics industry tell us, will give us better picture quality and open up lots of ancillary services. (Most of all, they don’t tell us, they will resuscitate sagging sales at Best Buy and Radio Shack.)

The other day I played an old tape cassette on a good tape deck into a very good analog amplifier, which fed a pair of very good old speakers. It was a tape of Melissa Manchester singing old classics, starting with “Over The Rainbow.” And I heard sound I have never heard from my CD collection or my iHome player or any of the digital wonders that bedeck my entertainment center. The timber, the bass, the color were beyond anything the digital equipment could emulate. It was beautiful.

I will go along with the digital revolution, because I have to. Analog computers lost the battle a long time ago, and if we want all the benefits of the computer age we must be willing to put up with the occasional mutiny and the ding-dings. But I will keep my old analog gear, my old tape cassettes, and my old original cast albums on LP records, so that every so often I can listen to full-bodied music and not just digital slices.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wanted: 10,000 Entrepreneurs

Barack Obama, who will become our President next week, puts his economic philosophy this way: “It depends on whether you want to reward wealth or reward the workers who create wealth.” That’s a standard Democratic mantra, for which he can be forgiven. But there is another subset of the population that is overlooked in both the Democratic and Republican catechisms. It is a tiny subset, but it is the subset we must depend on if we are to extract ourselves from a recession that could become a depression.

I am talking about the people who have the vision, knowledge, and leadership skills to create dynamic new companies.

Vision: Some people have a sixth sense that tells them where the markets are headed and what responses will best exploit the coming trends. These people are not infallible, and sometimes they get it wrong, but when they do they cut their losses and start again, because it’s in their DNA. Of course, to act on their vision they need

Knowledge: If the vision involves electronics, they must know electronics. If it involves pharmaceuticals, they must know medicine. Because we are talking about business opportunities, they must know the nuts and bolts of business, including finance and sales and, probably, manufacturing. Then, to give their new company critical mass, they need

Leadership skills. All the vision and knowledge in the world are useless without the ability to find, engage, motivate, and retain a work force that understands the dream and is inspired by it. We are talking now about communication skills, plus the indefinable quality that a platoon leader shows when he tells his troops “Follow me!” – and they do.

It is clear that we are talking about a rare combination of qualities. In many cases the visionary lacks one of the essentials, so a partner is found. Thus Dave Packard joined Bill Hewlett to found H-P, Larry Page joined Sergey Brin to found Google, Bob Noyce joined Gordon Moore to found Intel. Exceptional people all, and it is often impossible to know exactly which qualities were contributed by each member of the team.

Such people are a rare breed, much rarer than most people realize. (I worked for such a person for 27 years, so I know whereof I speak.) My guess is that in the whole United States there are no more than 10,000 people (and that's a generous estimate) who have the potential to create (or co-create) companies of substance. A few can create industries, and these are the rarest of the rare.

So, President-Elect Obama, don’t worry about rewarding capital or labor. That’s yesterday’s story. Concentrate on finding and motivating the 10,000 people who have the magic touch that can create a Google or an Intel or a Microsoft (or, for that matter, a Wal-Mart). You may say that education is the key, so we must have better schools. But that process takes years, and we need solutions now. The 10,000 are out there. Some have founded small companies and failed. Their next venture may be the next “new thing.” Some may be looking for the right partner. Some may need funding, just when the venture capitalists have gone missing. You can help, maybe. You could, for a start, sit down with someone like Steve Jobs or Larry Page for a brainstorming session on the subject of entrepreneurism. You need – we need - those 10,000 people in a hurry.