Elisha Cook and Henry Miller

Elisha Cook JrYou wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had. I’m exhausted and angry. I doubt I will write more today after this very late birthday post.

On this day in 1891, the great novelist Henry Miller was born. I’ve never especially liked his work, but he really did revolutionize the novel. Not that anyone really followed in his footsteps—maybe the Beats and Burroughs. I think a lot could be done with his approach to the novel without his various annoying habits and obsessions. I’ve often thought that this approach might work well for me. Anyway, he’s an important guy and well worth reading. His novels were apparently banned in the United States until 1961, although I really can’t tell you why. They seem tame even by the standards of the 1950s. But America has never been as free a nation as people have claimed. And that is especially true from about 1820 onward.

Other birthdays: English poet Thomas Gray (1716); science writer Mary Somerville (1780); inventor Charles Babbage (1791); American novelist E D E N Southworth (1819); Irish poet Dion Boucicault (1820); French playwright Rene Bazin (1853); French cityscape painter Maurice Utrillo (1883); novelist Jean Toomer (1894); Russian painter Anatoli Lvovich Kaplan (1902); comedian Steve Allen (1921); comedian Alan King (1927); music producer and possible murderer Phil Spector (74); and comedian Tony Rosato (59).

The day, however, belongs to one of my favorite character actors Elisha Cook Jr who was born on this day in 1903. I liked him most in Shane and House on Haunted Hill. He’s also great in The Big Sleep. He had a great and varied career. If you were going to be an actor, his is the kind of career you would want to have.

Happy birthday Elisha Cook Jr!

0 thoughts on “Elisha Cook and Henry Miller

  1. And Cook was the wimpy "gunsel" Bogart de-armed in "Maltese Falcon," MY favorite Bogart film. His face really didn’t become distinctive until later in his career, so a lot of people who recognize him in movie after TV show after movie as "oh, that’s the same guy as!" don’t associate him with the young "Wilmer has always been like a son to me" hood Sidney Greenstreet sells out.

    I didn’t respond to yer post on Bogie’s birthday, but it’s amazing how well the best of his movies hold up. It never hurts when a star at the top of his box-office drawing power chooses projects because he wants to be in them (and/or booze it up with John Huston), rather than just to try and increase his number of Big Hits and bump up his salary. (And, really, that’s a losing game; eventually, they bet wrong and seem desperate for attention.)

    To mention a few who achieved some level of independence under the studio system, let’s construct a "The Fly" machine where we can mix in some iconic, individualist stars from the old days and see what pops out the other end of Vincent Price’s machine. Ready? How about Bogie’s flair for making morally ambiguous characters utterly fascinating. Add in Cary Grant’s effortless charm. And Spencer Tracy’s heart-on-his-sleeve liberalism.

    (Electroinic sound effects.) Zap-pow-crackle, who emerges from the other machine, and is in movies today? Oh, you KNOW who!

  2. @JMF – I specifically didn’t mention [i]The Maltese Falcon[/i] because I don’t think Huston allowed him to do much in it. In [i]The Big Sleep[/i] (not nearly as good a film), Cook gets to show some of what he can do. He aged really well. His performances got better and better.

    As for your experiment, I don’t know what to say. The only person I can think of who really fits that description is Sam Rockwell. But if I were being charitable, I could apply it to both Johnny Depp and George Clooney. It might fit for Jeff Bridges, but I’m still angry for his voiceover work in commercials. I generally think that George Clooney is the modern day Cary Grant. But I don’t think he’s so into the morally ambiguous characters. Even in [i]The American[/i], he was a Good Guy. Same for [i]Michael Clayton[/i]. But now I’m kind of thinking he’s the one you had in mind.

    Did I miss something?

  3. Ah, sorry for the confusion. I can see, now, where my Fly Machine could produce unintended combinations (of course I meant Clooney, I’ll gush over him elsewhere.) But, you know, that’s the nature of those Fly Machines. They never work quite as planned.

    What annoying voiceover TV commercial work has Bridges done? I’ve seen ads for American anti-hunger charities with music by Aimee Mann, those didn’t bug me. I may have missed others.

    Talk about different acting approaches. Depp delights in putting on costumes & masks. (Olivier and Welles did, too, at a much higher level of sophistication.) Bridges . . . who knows what goes through his head. He can utterly blow you away as a broken man in "Baker Boys" or "Fearless" or the more recent "Crazy Heart" and then appear in "Tron" or "iron Man." It isn’t the money, I’m sure.

    BTW, I’m pretty sure Clooney did some voiceover TV work for Budweiser a few years back when they were bought by a Belgian beer company and needed to shore up their all-American credentials. Either it was Clooney or a good sound-alike, but my ear is pretty sharp on these things. If so, I won’t hold that against him. Not if this was the pitch conversation:

    "Do TV ads for Budweiser." "No." "It will hurt Coors." "Yes."

    I would pick my nose and eat the boogers on a live broadcast if it meant costing Joseph Coors some market share . . .

  4. @JMF – The question is what commercials has Bridges [i]not[/i] done. He clearly doesn’t need the money so I don’t know why he does them. You are right, Clooney did a series of Bud ads about ten years ago. I like him a lot but it lowers my opinion of him. I thought that Bridges sucked in [i]Crazy Heart[/i]. It was a tired, cliched performance. But I liked him a lot in [i]The Amateurs[/i]. And much else. Rockwell is better than all of them.

  5. I’m not very familiar with Rockwell’s work. I did see a movie he starred in some years ago, "Joshua," about a very awful, possibly demonic child. At one point Rockwell’s character gave up on thinking the child was normal, realized it was hellspawn, and greeted it with a very nervous, "Hey, buddy . . ."

    That made me laugh so hard I still use my imitation of Rockwell saying "Hey, buddy" every chance I get. Needless to say it confuses people.

    It strikes me, debating pop culture stuff, that I try to convince you and others of my opinions, while you and others try to convince me, that this is a very familiar dynamic.

    We all have a love of certain pieces of creative work. We all try to convince others that our opinion isn’t just subjective; that anyone who puts the same amount of time/effort into looking into the stuff we like will get exactly as much out of it as we do.

    Nonsense, naturally. There is no such thing as a creative work that will appeal to absolutely everyone, no matter how much we value it or how many others do as well. And those who dislike it may be perfectly capable of appreciating/enjoying brilliance in other manifestations.

    Isn’t that a bit like . . . wait for it . . . religion?

    I could name, quite easily, five bands and five movies and five books I’ve slaved to convince others of their inherent awesomeness. Like, years of effort. I’ve done it here, on this site. I’ve done it in e-mails, phone calls, face-to-face conversations, whatever.

    Because it’s an absolute blast when I get to share my pop culture loves with others. Maybe even more of a blast when they resisted my suggestions at first.

    Isn’t that what religions do? Because, at their base, religions are no more than pop culture phenomena. Nothing about any modern religious dogma vaguely resembles what it claimed as inerrant truth fifty years ago.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that. If delving into the teachings, writings, culture of a religious tradition gives you pleasure, it’s no different from any other hobby. Humans are moderately clever enough to share food-gathering and predator-lookout duties. We have free time (unless we work in a sweatshop making Apple computer products.) We have to spend it on something.

    What’s wrong with religion, to my mind, isn’t anyone’s obsession with a nerdy subsection of culture and literature, but their insistence that, Since This Worked For Me, It Will Work For You Too.

    I realize I’ve done the same with my hobbies/obsessions. What makes it more addictive is that, at times, I’ve won people over who were initially resistant. "You just need to pay more attention to this," etc. And they’ve come to love that stuff the same way I do. Those feel like victories, and they are, in a sense. Not because I won, but because I expanded someone else’s capacity for joy. And then I got to share it with them. Things are more fun when you share them.

    I need, though, to better judge when it’s prudent to just admit, "we have different tastes." And I do think I’ve gotten better at this over my small measure of years. But I’m still susceptible to it, as I’ve demonstrated here.

  6. @JMF – For the record, I’m a big George Clooney fan. And like Cary Grant, I can’t exactly say why, I just like watching him on the screen. As for Rockwell, may I suggest a few films:

    [i]Galaxy Quest[/i]*
    [i]Confessions of a Dangerous Mind[/i]*
    [i]Matchstick Men[/i]
    [i]The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy[/i]
    [i]Frost/Nixon[/i]
    [i]Moon[/i]*
    [i]Seven Psychopaths[/i]

    * Especially good.

    He’s only the star of two of the those films, but he’s just great. He’s kind of like Tim Blake Nelson, another great actor who also seems to be brilliant.

    More serious Christians refer to others as "cultural Christians." But you are right: that’s about all any of them are. One of the things that binds me together with my "tribe" is what I think about religion, politics, and even more film, music, and other kinds of art. And it’s caused a problem with some of my friends who were totally in sync with me at one time but who haven’t grown with me. This is actually a common problem I have because it’s important to my self-image to always be looking for new things to enjoy.

    The problem with Christians is that they don’t think what they believe is opinion, they think it is the Truth. Capital T! One of my all time favorite films is [i]His Girl Friday[/i], but I know that’s just my opinion. [i]It Happened One Night[/i] used to be one of my very favorite movies, but now I’m not nearly as fond of it. But I do love this scene:

    [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXLNCNKKzdc[/youtube]

    It’s important not to get lost in thinking that opinions are more than just that.

  7. I used to think that a shared appreciation of certain art meant strangers were people I would like to know. And, to some degree, that’s true. I’ve never met a Talking Heads fan I dislike (though I’ve met people I like who don’t like the Heads.)

    But at one point I had a co-worker who was really a scummy person. Deeply dishonest, vicious towards others, the lot. Someone who had every possible social benefit growing up to help her overcome quite daunting obstacles, and therefore believed she was Alpha Dog who did it by herself, and no-one else should have the same assistance she had. A real piece of work.

    And her favorite authors were Austen and Dickens! I love Austen! And I respect the hell out of Dickens! How can anybody who likes those writers be a colossal shitburger? Well, that’s just people. There are probably rabid homophobes out there who enjoy Oscar Wilde.

    Now, writing a blog is one thing. Ya gotta be ye! But voicing opinions about pop culture in person can really put people off. Your description of this reminded me of an old article on Pauline Kael (http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/aandc/movies/movies5.htm) with this great bit:

    "Tell Kael that you enjoyed a movie that she thought was, as she might put it, not . . . very . . . good, and she will say "Oh" in a certain tone and look at you–whoever you are, even if you are, say, me–as if you’d said you’d gotten a kick out of Goebbels’s speech the other night. Some people find this absolutism off-putting–well, everybody does. She can say things that make you feel that the room has been flushed with acid."

    And yet she was a thunderously loyal friend and great mom. We Americans need to learn how to disagree better. Europeans can get into the nastiest arguments and still be friends afterwards. I don’t know why that isn’t in our DNA, but it isn’t. See the Internet for examples!

  8. @JMF – There is a scene in [i]Django Unchained[/i] where the bigoted slave owner is told that one of his favorite writers, Alexandre Dumas, is a black man. I don’t know what it all means. Humans are not exactly consistent. And I’m glad for that. I think consistency is highly overrated. My opinions are highly dependent upon my mood. And there is little that will stop one’s creativity so effectively than memory. Think about jokes. I think the best ones work on five or six levels at the same time. But that’s not why they make us laugh. I think the brain works the same way with ideas. Sometimes Schopenhauer’s Will makes perfect sense to me and other times I think it is just rubbish.

    We see this kind of thing going on in the theist-atheist debates. Maybe it is an indication that I am in the middle that sometimes one side makes more sense than the other. But what most bugs me is when I can tell when people are not really thinking. And that’s most of the time. Mostly, people just repeat what they’ve heard other people they respect saying.

    I had the experience of reading a dialog (from the days of newsgroups) where two people who read and admired me were discussing why I had written something they disagreed with. I wanted to break into the conversation and say, "Maybe I’m just wrong!" These guys really wanted to believe that I knew what I was talking about. But in that particular case, they were right and I was wrong. Smart, knowledgeable people are often wrong. That’s how they got to be knowledgeable in the first place. But these two guys were the best of what we are. They weren’t taking what I’d written as gospel. They were just looking for things that they might have missed. It was impressive and even touching.

    But most people aren’t like that. If they trust a source, they don’t question it. And that’s a big mistake. You’ve got to be willing to tell your gods they are full of shit.

    That’s what I think you are getting at. You’ve got the Fox News watchers on one hand and the MSNBC watchers on the other, and they won’t admit that their trusted sources might have it wrong. (Clearly, the problem is [i]far[/i] worse on the Fox News side because they are constantly told that everyone else is lying to them.)

    As for your co-worker, well, cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing. Anyway, think of [i]A Christmas Carol[/i]. In the end, does Scrooge call for social reform? As I recall, no. He just does what any reasonable person would do for his own family. He learns that you shouldn’t be terrible around major holidays. He doesn’t question the unjust system. And he only really cares because of the way other people people think about him. I’m sure that your co-worker did what the society expected of her on major holidays.

    One might watch [i]Dirty Harry[/i] and get the idea that some criminals are so bad that one ought to break the law to get them. But most people who love that film get a different message: if we just ignore the law, we can get rid of all the scum. Joe Don Baker’s dreadful film [i]Mitchell[/i] is the same film as [i]Dirty Harry[/i] for most people. Mitchell uses the same ethics he applies to serial killers as he does to pot smoking prostitutes.

    Most people don’t think too much about things. Thinking is hard. That’s our problem.

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