Gotham Diary:
Jour de Collapse
19 October 2011

You may think that “Jour de Collapse” is bad French, or not-even-French, but it’s something else: it’s Law French. Having spent as much time with the Graunde Abridgement and the Sergeant Maynards as I did in law school (witnesses can attest to my ostentatious displays of scholarship — those folios are huge!), I am entitled to resort to this pidgin in moments of entropy and inanition; indeed, I claim the right to coin such new terms as come to mind. I did not feel guilty about taking yesterday off; on the contrary, I felt quite entitled to do so. But I did have to remind myself that my mind, lately, has been something of a racing cutter full sail on a winning breeze. The easiest way of urging a rest was to murmur, “jour de collapse, jour de collapse.” 

So I watched three movies, all “in the middle of the afternoon,” and read from three books. The movies were Putney Swope, Out of Sight, and Killers. The books were Railroaded, The Journals of Spalding Gray, and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. For eats, I ordered in. Kathleen was in Washington, scheduled for a bright and early breakfast meeting, so we had our good-night call on the early side, and I went to bed soon after. Aside from emptying the dishwasher, I did nothing.

The movies: I wish I could remember who recommended Putney Swope recently. I thought that it was Ray Soleil, but no; he’d never heard of it. I called him because, as I watched it, I was puzzled; what about this early indie satire, directed by Robert Downey, Sr, could possibly appeal to Ray? My jaw slack, I was beset by a liminal question: would you describe the production values of Putney Swope as “nonexistent,” or as “fuck you, and your mother, too”? There is certainly more than a flavor of art-house porn — that Lucky Airlines stewardess romp is art-house porn. It’s as though Andy Warhol were making a movie for (and on a budget provided by) Max Bialystock. You have to see Putney Swope, just as I’ve heard all my life, but you only have to see it once. It has its moments, and they are very momentary. It’s astonishing how tedious transgression can be.

Out of Sight I hadn’t seen since it was new, in 1998. I didn’t know either of the principals in those days; Jennifer Lopez was a new face, and I would mix her up with Penélope Cruz, name-wise, for years. George Clooney was new, too, because I hadn’t seen ER. Someone somewhere recently on the Internet wrote that Out of Sight is one of Mr Clooney’s best films. It’s very good, but there’s a problem: like many of the very strongest film actors — Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte, and Harrison Ford — George Clooney took a while to grow into his face. In Out of Sight, he still hasn’t, quite. Ms Lopez is much better than her subsequent career (which I’ve only heard about, cringing) led me to fear. As for Killers, I really wanted to see it the other night, but it was too late for delivery from the Video Room. It’s much better than Putney Swope, but it is an odd duck of a film. It is brisk enough to sustain its light-headed satire of suburban life, and Katherine Heigl works some engaging variations — inversions, really — on the damsel-in-distress trope. In the end, though, the picture belongs to Catherine O’Hara. What’s really scary is how close the premise of Killers is to that of The Joneses, the movie that Demi Moore made at about the same time — and how far the result. I’m not sure that The Joneses isn’t the much better picture.

The books: mostly, I read Richard White’s Railroaded. It’s a great book that must be read by every thinking American, but, like Jackson Lears’s even more important Rebirth of a Nation, it covers a rebarbative period. All those whiskers; all that fustian speech. Not to mention the brazen hypocrisy. This last is always good for a laugh (White is an excellent mimic of Mark Twain’s faux incredulousness), especially when Leland Stanford is involved.

The heavy lifting came with Leland Stanford, who at first failed to appear and then asserted that the government actually owed the Central Pacific money, presenting the commission with what amounted to a bill. Why the government should pay any of the items Stanford submitted, which were not part of the original legislation aiding the railroad, was a basic source of wonderment, but some of the calculations were themselves as revealing as they were amazing. included was $17 million the government supposedly owed the Central Pacific for loss of business to competing lines that had also received aid from the United States. And Stanford added almost $20 million, the loss to the railroad from having sold its government bonds at below par.

There is also a sublime line about how relatively unremarkable it would have been “if Stanford had claimed locomotives ran on moonbeams.” Whatever happened to moon beams?

I didn’t spend much time with the other books, which only just came in the mail.  The other day, I read that Spalding Gray kept John Cheever’s journals on his reading shelf for quite a long time, and I was not surprised. As for the Proust, a friend of mine is working her way through In Search of Lost Time, and has just arrived at the second volume — which I still think sounds better entitled Within a Budding Grove; although James Grieve’s translation is much closer in feeling (and freshness) to the original — and I thought I’d read along with her, dipping into my one-volume Tadié from time to time. 

One of the most difficult French words for me is tant. I never know what it means — never know, that is, which of its many meanings is the one at hand. “Sans doute, tant que je n’eus pas entendu la Berma, j’éprouvai du plaisir. My glazed instinct is to translate this as “Insofar as I hadn’t heard Berma, I enjoyed myself,” but of course it’s “until,” not “insofar as”; Proust’s characteristic point is that he delighted in anticipation but was disappointed rather than gratified by his first experience of great acting. (It suddenly occurs to me that Proust wrote the first serious young adult novel.) I can’t understand why “until” isn’t always jusque, but it isn’t.

As you may be able to tell from the picture, we’ve been waking up to rain these days. Until this morning, the clouds have given way to sunny clear skies, but I’ve got a feeling that that’s not going to happen today. Which means that today would have made a much better jour de collapse; if one thing did bother me yesterday, it was doing nothing on a fine day. But we can’t have everything, and renters, after all, don’t enjoy usque ad coelum rights.