The Case of the Two-Headed Author | The Smart Set

The feuding duo behind one of America’s greatest (fictional) detectives

Source: The Case of the Two-Headed Author | The Smart Set

When I was in – 9th grade? – I loved watching Levinson & Link’s TV series Ellery Queen, which starred Jim Hutton as the detective author and David Wayne as his police inspector father. I think what most captured me was Queen’s direct address to the camera just before he revealed the murderer’s identity: “If you’ve been watching – closely – you have all the information you need.“ I never guessed correctly, of course, but I enjoyed the period detail and that was a golden age for spotting character actors.

Double, Double (Ellery Queen novel)

I moved on to actually reading the damn books through junior high and high school. I have no idea why, as they don’t have a lot of charm, the writing is workmanlike, and there are no thrills or action to speak of. (I was probably also reading Doc Savage reissues at that time, so, you know, forgive.) They didn’t have the sort of antique charm of the TV series or even of an Agatha Christie cozy. I do remember one of the “twist” endings: “He wasn’t John’s twin – he was John’s triplet.

The most memorable thing about the Ellery Queen novel reissues in the ‘70s were their covers – a series of absolutely lurid and ghastly “shadowbox” photos of semi-nude women. In my local DJ’s Books and News stores, the Queens were competing against Matt Helm, Shell Scott, Mickey Spillane, and others of that ilk, so maybe that drove the decision. The distasteful, sexist, and just plain ugly covers did not hint at the musty, tame, and unsexy murder mysteries hiding inside. Ellery Queen was part of that necessary landscape against which real genius or originality is compared.

The Smart Set article is a delightful little delve into the Ellery Queen brand, with its own share of colorful and eye-grabbing pulp covers.

 

 

Non Finito | The Smart Set

The Metropolitan Museum Breuer on 75th Street and Madison Avenue (the former site of the Whitney Museum now relocated to hip new quarters downtown) currently features an exhibition that seems perfect

Source: Non Finito | The Smart Set

Paula Marantz Cohen:

I found I often liked the unfinished works on display better than the finished ones that I knew by these artists. Finish has obvious value from the point of view of resale and comprehensibility, but is it as esthetically pleasing or evocative? One could argue that a finished work is often over-finished, and that knowing when to stop is rarer than generally thought.

I also like the invitation of the unfinished work for me to fill it in myself. I also, truth be told, love seeing the scaffolding and architecture, seeing how the rabbit is loaded into the hat.

This may be why I love artist’s sketchbooks so much, more so sometimes. I own sketchbooks by Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Gary Panter, and others; their sketches have an energy, looseness, and immediacy that keeps me turning those pages long after their finished stories remain on my shelf. Also, they don’t worry about making them pretty, which makes me feel OK about my own slapdash sketching (though Ware’s dashed-off sketches look better and more like finished art than anything I could create in a million billion years).

I remember the comics artist Neal Adams reproducing from his sketchbook examples of his original pencil roughs and then the final product. He remarked in at least two cases that he preferred the roughs to the finished art. I could see his point. Inking the pencils somehow pinned those drawings to the page so heavily that movement and life had been drained. In the roughs, he was working out the problem and the scene looked alive. That mental and physical activity was almost absent in the published panel.

This may be why I adore reading journals, diaries, and letters more than any other genre; verbal sketches, perhaps, quickly done (most of them) and capturing life as it’s happening on-the-fly. I feel as if I’m living the life with the person who’s writing it down, fast as they can.

 

Maintaining the Technical Status Quo (For Now)

I spent the last week doing some intensive research on two potential tech purchases: an iPhone for me and Liz, and replacing this WordPress site with Squarespace. I decided to stay with WordPress and we both decided to keep our current “dumb phones.”

The major lesson from this exercise was one I’ve seen pop up in various coaching and self-help articles: if it’s not a hell-yes, it’s a no.

Details follow, if’n you want to read them.

If I had a really concrete professional fear, it would be that I would wake up in the morning and know what I was doing.
Quote I found in my old journals, attributed to “an obscure artist” (I have no idea who I was referring to)

Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.

What We've Been Watching - January '16

Youth (Dir: Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) I like a slow, meandering, plotless movie more than the next guy (such as Russian Ark), but this pretentious piece of codswallop reminded me of 1980s-era SCTV parodies of similarly aimless European cinema. I thought the symbolism annoyingly on-the-nose and the story structure annoyingly obvious; I was successfully predicting what would happen next. The blinkered view of women, the sentimentality of the ending – just awful.

Carol (Dir: Todd Haynes, 2015) Stylish, gorgeous, achingly recreated period detail. Wonderful performances. A romance between two women poured into a noirish thriller mold; I kept waiting for something more dire to happen, and pleased that it didn’t. And one of the best endings in a movie I’ve seen for a long time. A piece of writing advice I remember is that the ending of a story is the start of the next; Carol‘s ending had me thinking what that next story would be.

Spectre (Dir: Sam Mendes, 2015). Not as good as Skyfall, but as my friend Scott said, what could be? Gob-smacking set pieces, a leading lady who does not spark off of Daniel Craig the way Eva Green did in Casino Royale, an impossibly accomplished villain in Blofeld, Andrew McCarthy aka Moriarty will always and forever be seen as a psychopath so no surprises there, yet with a return to the Bond “family,” which I really enjoy seeing. Spectre felt like the finale to the multi-season arc of a long TV series. I agree with the Atlantic writer who argued that the Bond of the novels was a blunt instrument with no personality and no past; the desire to give Bond a psychology is admirable but kind of misses the point of the Bond character.

Anomalisa (Dirs: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, 2015) (What’s up with the one-word movie titles?) An odd animated piece that, were it a live-action movie, would be rather wet, gloomy, and not terribly interesting. But the movie’s radio drama roots and the affectless look of the dolls invite the viewer to actively participate in adding the emotion and motivation. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice work was exceptional, with the moment where she sings “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” both funny and heartbreakingly tender. A beautiful moment. Apart from her, though, this struck me as a cold and rather remote movie about an uninteresting man’s midlife crisis.

TV shows we finished

  • Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was light, enjoyable, and up to the minute with its references to the modern urban/online/digital landscape. It did not deal in cringe comedy, which is a pleasant change from a lot of what we’ve seen lately. One of my favorite episodes showed scenes from the childhoods of the characters’ immigrant parents. I responded to Master of None’s sensitivity and gentleness. Although Ansari isn’t my favorite comic actor, I liked his fast-talking brashness here a lot more than I did in Parks and Recreation; it pairs better with his character’s essential childishness and innocence.
  • We’re big fans of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe so we watched Series 1 of Pulling, co-written by Horgan for the BBC in 2006. It’s a bloke comedy except here it’s the women behaving badly: drinking, screwing, miscommunicating, and destroying the lives of everyone they touch. It’s harsh cringe comedy with the “no-hugs, no-learning” ethos hugged tightly to its dark heart. If the performers were less appealing, and the comic acting less precise, it’d be tough to take. I’m betting there will be no happy endings here.
  • I’m really out of touch with sketch comedy; haven’t watched Key and Peele or Mr. Show or any of them. So, we started watching series 1&2 of Inside Amy Schumer and hoo-boy, this is not The Carol Burnett Show. Like the Ansari comedy, the technology and online/urban culture references are pulled from today’s Twitter feed. As with Pulling, lots of cringe comedy and shocking (for us, anyway) subject matter. Amy is a delightful performer. There’s usually at least one sketch or moment that saves the show, and that ratio gets better as the series goes along.

Playmakers Rep's "Three Sisters"

In their ads read during the local morning NPR news, Playmakers Rep touted its “new take” on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. What on earth does that meaningless phrase mean? This is my third production of Three Sisters and it didn’t look anything like some of the wilder Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Chekhov plays are so rooted to their time and place that they resist overmuch tampering.

Is it a "new take" because it was a new idiomatic translation? Or color-blind casting (two of the principal actors are African-American)?

The new translation by Libby Appel seemed fine, though with too many Americanized phrases for my ear. Appel translates “I don’t understand you” as “I don’t get it.” Yes, it’s shorter, more colloquial–but it jars my ear. Some phrases also struck me as clichés that would have been stripped from any other play. (Had I gone with the intention of writing a review, I’d have taken notes!)

Vivienne Benesch’s direction orchestrated some fine moments, though I think the size and spread of PRC’s thrust stage, with audiences on three sides, worked against the production and the play.

Chekhov charts the sisters’ descent from their height in Act 1, where they are clearly the center of attention and in charge of the household, until they are slowly squeezed into a small bedroom under the eaves, and then finally ejected by the domineering sister-in-law whose vulgarity they had earlier sneered at.

The creeping claustrophobia of the home is echoed by the smothering provinciality of their small town. The sisters early on deride the town’s small-minded pettiness and lack of culture. “To Moscow, to Moscow” is their prayer, their plaint, their lament.

Yet the stage, though cleverly redressed for the major scene changes, never emphasized their increasingly crowded and shrinking horizons. Olga and Irina’s bedroom should be a tiny thing, and though small enough on the PRC stage, there seems to be a whole other space alongside it where they and their uninvited guests can wander freely, talk, lie down, and scream. The sheer size of the stage undercut the play’s intimacy.

The performances were good, but not uniformly so. Daniel Pearce’s Kulygin always commanded my attention when he walked onstage, and Carey Cox’s Natalya was quite strong.

For me, the standout performances were Allison Altman’s Irina–particularly her sad and shocking breakdown as she realizes she will not escape to Moscow–and Arielle Yoder’s Masha, whose cool demeanor hides a seething anger and yearning. Marinda Anderson’s Olga was firm and supportive–the tone-setter in the opening minutes and the solid emotional anchor in the final minutes–but isn’t given the opportunity to tear into her own longings and desires. One moment of Anderson’s I loved: her shock and uneasiness at Natasha’s barking mad frustration with the old nurse.

In the last scene, as the sisters stand in the back yard of their former home, Olga hears the marching music of the soldiers leaving the town. She hopes that the sisters will soon learn “why we are alive and why we suffer.” As she said this, I think all three sisters turned outward to look at the audience, as if to say–We’re suffering so you can learn and remember. I’m not sure if I’m remembering or interpreting that moment correctly; it simply struck me as odd for the sisters to turn their backs to each other at a moment when they should be reaching toward each other and thereby finding their purpose.

Three Sisters was a fine but not a great production, with moments of exquisitely etched agony and loss, but it did not strike me as a new take.

Mark Forster's Book Challenge

UK time management coach and author Mark Forster has set himself the challenge to read only one book at a time. Although he is great at starting books, his challenge has been finishing them. He's used a variant of his Autofocus task management system in the past as a way to read War and Peace. I wonder if his high distraction rate means he got what he wanted out of those unfinished books, after all; a quick skim may be all that's needed for a sense of completion.

For myself, my book selection and (non-)completion methods have varied over the years. Here's what I do now:

  • John Sutherland, I think, recommends reading page 69 (any random page really) and then deciding based on that whether to read the book at all. I use this method when searching for bedtime books to read to Liz.
  • I give a book 50 pages or so and then decide whether to continue. Oftentimes, particularly for light non-fiction books, I practice Maugham's "art of skimming."
  • On my physical bookshelf, the top shelf is reserved for books of current interest. When I return a book, I place it to the far right. If a new book usurps its place, the new book is placed to the far right. This is just the Noguchi technique applied to books; uninteresting books migrate to the left of the shelf and can probably be safely discarded.
  • I keep a collection on my Kindle titled "Now Reading." I can only read books in that collection. I keep three books only in that collection: a short-story collection, a novel, and a non-fiction book. Yes, I'd get through one book faster if I focused on it rather than dividing my time and attention among three books. But I am eternally fond of Randall Jarrell's famous line: "Read at whim! read at whim!"