Saturday, January 29, 2011

Graham Greene's Movies

Graham Greene was a wonderful storyteller. More than that, his stories made wonderful movies, especially when he also wrote the screenplays. The Third Man is one of the most memorable films ever made – who can forget the long closing shot of Valli walking along the cemetery road, or the fat-faced little Austrian boy shouting “Murther!”? The Comedians is another of my favorites. How could it miss, with Alec Guinness and Richard Burton? Our Man in Havana, The Fallen Idol, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter – so many good stories, so well told.

Now a new Graham Greene picture is about to open: Brighton Rock, with Helen Mirren, Sam Riley, and Andrea Riseborough. This is a remake of a 1947 film noir starring Richard Attenborough. The original was good, but this promises to be better (at least the trailers look promising). Greene’s novels are the kind of stuff that film studios can’t stay away from. The End of the Affair was made in 1955 (with a strong performance by Deborah Kerr), but Hollywood, no doubt hooked by the title, remade the movie in 1999, with Ralph Fiennes. I have mixed feelings about the two versions. Ralph Fiennes was a much better Bendrix than was his predecessor, Van Johnson, but screenwriter Neil Jordan (1999) mangled the story as told by Greene. But sometimes the remake is far superior to the original. The Quiet American with Michael Caine was infinitely better than the 1958 version with Audie Murphy.

One of Graham Greene’s best spy thrillers, The Human Factor, was filmed in 1979. Directed By Otto Preminger, it starred Richard Attenborough, Nicol Williamson, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, and John Gielgud. Despite all this starpower (plus a screenplay by Tom Stoppard), the movie ran afoul of cold-war politics, and to this day no DVD is available.

Anyone interested in learning more about Graham Greene’s films can do no better than Graham Greene: The Films of his Fiction, by Gene Phillips S.J. Published in 1974, it does not cover the remakes, but it is good reading nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The President's Speech

Having been bowled over by the President's Tucson speech earlier this month, I was eagerly awaiting his State of the Union address. He had loaded the bases in Tucson; now all he had to do was hit the ball out of the park. A grand slam, with all the world watching!

It didn't happen. What we got was standard political boilerplate. We're going to attack the deficit (nod to the right), but not by cutting investments in education (nod to the left). And so it went, with the President endlessly talking about investment, without ever acknowledging that investment presupposes the availability of money to invest. The United States is in hock to China alone to the tune of $900 billion and is currently spending a trillion dollars more than it takes in each year. The word "investment" has a nice ring to it, politically, and that's where the President headed last night, and the result was a sad misuse of his rhetorical power.

Today the President flew to Wisconsin, where he commended a manufacturer of solar shingles. The company was unable to get bank loans, it turns out, so Uncle Sam came through. The banks apparently thought the company a poor risk, but the Government knew better.

Cynics might say that a Presidential visit to Green Bay two weeks before the Super Bowl had a political component. How could anyone think that?

The trouble with being a great orator is that your failures as well as your successes are magnified. The State of the Union address was a monumental failure, because so much was expected, and so little was delivered. If the speaker had been George Bush, it wouldn't have been so bad.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Of Builders and Traders

Andy Grove, ex-CEO of Intel and a recognized technology guru, was asked to comment on Steve Jobs the other day. “There are builders and there are traders,” he said, “and Steve is a builder.”

The builder/trader dichotomy has been with us for ages. In the last half of the twentieth century, the traders were ascendant. We didn’t call them traders, we called them venture capitalists, and they and the builders coexisted well. I worked for a bonafide builder, Alex d’Arbeloff, for many years. Alex was a good friend (and fellow Francophone) of General Doriot of American Research & Development, an iconic venture capital firm and an early investor in Digital Equipment and many other successful companies. General Doriot, a long-term holder, would never have thought of himself as a trader, but all venture-capital firms, including ARD, had exit strategies. Alex had no exit strategy; all his thoughts were on building the Company he cofounded.

Steve Jobs, when he was first told he had a serious medical problem, could have checked out and spent the rest of his years on Bora Bora. But that wasn’t in his DNA. Instead, he spent the next five years turning his Company into the most phenomenally successful story in the history of high tech. Today he could probably buy Bora Bora, but when his medical leave of absence ends, he will return to Apple, for he is a builder.

The American dream is based on creating a society that cultivates a steady supply of builders, people like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and of course Steve Jobs. If we have an edge on our global competitors, it is our capacity to produce and motivate builders. No other country approaches us when it comes to that. And the curious thing is, very few in our society object to the great wealth amassed by successful builders. “Americans aspire up and resent down,” The Economist editorialized once. When we start resenting up, that will be an ominous signal.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Orator Returns

January 12, 2011: On this day, in Tucson, Arizona, Barack Obama, the master orator who inspired so many of us on election night in Grant Park and then disappeared as he was overtaken by the hurly-burly of politics, reemerged to give what may have been his greatest speech yet. It was eloquent in language and tone, and entirely appropriate to the occasion. This, I remember thinking as I listened, is what oratory is all about.

The setting added to the drama. Arizona is hardly a blue state and certainly not in the President’s comfort zone. Boston or Chicago would have been more simpatico. Also adding to the drama was the President’s revelation that Congresswoman Giffords had opened her eyes that very day, for the first time since she was shot But a dramatic setting can take one only so far. The President could have milked the emotional points but did not. He walked the fine line between bathos and passivity with skill that cannot be rehearsed; it’s in his DNA.

Barack Obama has made some terrible blunders in policy and in politics. He has lashed out at fat-cat bankers and rallied his colleagues to "keep the drug companies honest.” He promoted his health-care program as a cost saver, admitting after passage that no one should have thought that 30 million Americans could be added to the insured rolls at no cost. So President Obama has much to answer for.

But give him his due: He is a giant among the orators of our time. This talent must not be underestimated or undervalued. The country is dangerously divided, and oratory ranks high among the leadership qualities the nation so desperately needs. On January 12 the President found his voice again, in a speech that will reverberate for a long time. One hopes that among those who take its message seriously is Barack Obama himself.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Death of Debate

Much has been written about the killings in Arizona, much of it centered on the overheated political climate in this country and the effect of so much vitriol on minds that are already unhinged. Convince a nutcake that a politician is guilty of treason, add a chorus of encouragement on the Internet, and throw in ready access to guns (even for the nutcakes), and you have a recipe for disaster.

All that is true enough, but there is another element worth mentioning: the death of rational debate.

People shoot their perceived adversaries because they don’t know how to debate them. It calls to mind the frustration of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, when asked by the heavenly star-keeper why he hit his wife. “We’d argue about something,” says Billy, “and she’d be right. So I hit her.”

A young man in Arizona thought of Gabrielle Giffords as an enemy. Maybe it was her stand on immigration, maybe health care, but he wasn’t capable of organizing his arguments into a rational discourse in that Tucson parking lot. So he shot her.

Rational discourse is not the stuff of FaceBook pages or 40-character tweets. It demands logical argument and a command of language. As a civilization, we're losing that, for a variety of reasons, including the coarsening of language. In so-called action movies, the heroes shoot four-letter words as fast as they shoot bullets. The same four-letter words, because they don’t know any other adjectives. Sad.

In my high-school days, debating was a big deal, and my best friend was the President of the Debating Society. We called him our golden-voiced orator, and not just because of the way he spoke. It was what he said for or against the proposition. He didn’t have to use four-letter words, because he had a rich vocabulary.

And he didn’t have to shoot people he disagreed with. He could mow them down with words.