Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mistakes, Minor and Major


Let me start with a postscript to a previous blog entry about obesity. There is a plea on ABC television for locating missing children, which provides a picture and description of them, and, perhaps inadvertently, induces some serious observations.

First off, these missing children are preponderantly girls. Why? While differing in other ways, some 95 or more percent have one thing in common: they are overweight, many of them grossly so. Well, what imposes itself as the likely connection between obesity and vagrancy?


My guess is unhappiness at the bosom of their families, assuming that their families even have a bosom. The attempted compensation is overeating, mostly of junk food, and if that doesn’t help, escape. Now, lack of bosom brings me to reconsideration of a mistake that has haunted me through the years. Forgive me if I have inflicted it on you before.

It is something recorded, among other places, in the book, “No Stone Unturned” by Diana Rigg, a collection of hostile criticisms disbursed and endured in the theater. There she cites my review in New York magazine of a play called “Abelard and Heloise,” in which she starred as, you guessed it, the latter. And not only starred, but also appeared in a brief, rather discreetly lit, nude scene. It elicited my comment, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” Or so she claims; actually what I wrote was “brick basilica.” This sally, I regret to say, quoted thus mistakenly, is the only quotation from me in a number of anthologies.

More importantly, alas, it prompted what she describes as follows: “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know.” Besides being needlessly injurious, my remark was also inaccurate. Neither a mausoleum nor a basilica, whether it refers to an ancient Roman public building or an early Christian church, had, or was expected to have, a flying buttress, something that came in with cathedrals.

Aside from being in questionable taste (but then witticisms--especially needed in reviews of poor plays—are seldom kind to their targets), there is also a historical question involved: Did Heloise have a flattish chest, and if so, would it have mattered to Abelard, her lover, about whose pectoral preferences. as about so many other things in the Dark Ages, we remain in the dark?

I doubt whether Miss Rigg, a lovely and gifted artist, has read my apology buried somewhere in my writings, but let me assure her herewith that had she ever deemed fit to appear in my bedchamber (to use an appropriately medieval term), the last thing I would have thought of is kicking her out of bed-- basilica, mausoleum, or any other metaphor be damned. Need I add that my joke was based on the popular expression “built like a brick shithouse,” another edifice forgoing flying buttresses.

But on to more impressive mistakes. I repeat here the remark of a female graduate student guide through Olana, the Hudson Valley home of the painter Frederick Church. Before a grand landscape, she declared that “this was the work with which Mr. Church plummeted to fame.” A rather unique mistake from charming lips, forgivable with friendly titters.

But so many other mistakes nowadays are more widespread and far less pardonable. Take what has been issuing with alarming frequency from competing Republican politicians these days on television. Hardly one that hasn’t been wallowing in such idiot idioms as “cannot help but” and “the reason is because.” Call it pleonasm, tautology or redundancy—by any name it smells just as unsweet.

Now it is true that grammar can be curiously idiosyncratic: why should it be “other than” and “different from”? Why is a demeanor masterful and an argument masterly? Why, in popular parlance, is “parameter” wrong for “perimeter”? (If you had some knowledge of Latin, perimeter would be obvious, but who nowadays has even that much Latin?) And in pronunciation, why DESpicable rather than DeSPICable? One could go on and on.

Yet there are cases where minimal thought could avoid illogical lapses. How could “the reason is” be anything other than the same as “because”? How can “cannot help” doing something not suffice without that “but,” and why “cannot but” do something subsist without “help”? Again, doesn’t it take two, and only two, people to love each other, whereas it takes more than two to love one another? There is such a thing as mutual respect, but a friend can only be shared, not mutual, i.e.,reciprocal. Again so on and on. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous pleonasm “free gift”;, of course the world of advertising can no more be trusted than that of television, whose regulars usually “lay” where they should “lie,” never mind that other “lie,” a synonym for major fibbing.

To be sure, there is incorrect usage that has become so ingrained that there is scant hope for correction. There is no chance of good food being called “healthful” rather than “healthy,” as if good could otherwise be infested with germs. And will a crowd of spectators ever be consistently a “number of people” rather than an “amount,” as if it were a quantity of salt in your diet.

So, mostly out of mistaken political correctness (and when is P.C. not mistaken?) we get “everyone has their reason” or “everyone please sit in their seat” where the “one” part in “everyone:  begs for a singular. But “his” would be, it seems, an affront to feminism, and “his or her,” though correct, would be cumbersome. Thus does gross solecism become enshrined in polite discourse. How much real harm does “his” and, for that matter, “mankind,” do to rational women’s self-respect? Of course, for “mankind” there is “humanity,” but for “his,” despite the weirdest attempts, there is no bisexual version.

And why, out of sheer ignorance, come up with “thanks for inviting Bill and I to your party,” as if there were no such thing as the properly accusative (or objective) case to be made for “me.”” This is an errant gentilism, which assumes that “I” is always more refined than “me.” Not only is “me” mandatory there, it has also pretty much replaced “I” in phrases like “It is me.” With this, we cannot but acquiesce, even without reference to (preferable to “referencing”) Rimbaud’s renowned “Je est un autre.”  This usage is so ingrained that it bypasses the rule that any form of the verb “to be” governs the nominative, thus “It was they [not them] who got there first.” Complicating matters is that the correct phrase “Than whom no one is smarter” somehow may justify “He is smarter than her.”

These days “good” has, with like illogic, replaced “well” in an answer to “How are you?” The questioner is, however uninterestedly (not, please, disinterestedly, which bespeaks selflessness), politely inquiring about your health, not about your behavior, about which he couldn’t (not “could”) care less. “I am good,” besides being a mistake, is boastful; only other people can truly judge how moral you are. The problem is that adjectives, like good, are more popular than adverbs, like well. This, probably, because they are shorter, snappier, than adverbs: “I was doing nice (rather than nicely) before I met you.” Also, confusingly, adjectival forms often do nicely as verbal complements: “Go slow,” for “go slowly.”

Ah, grammar! It has more pitfalls than a minefield, and similar problems arise with spelling and pronunciation, the rather dim Spellcheck notwithstanding. And the same for phrases: how many people use “begs the question” correctly? It is not only a matter of British versus American English, although Bernard (not George Bernard) Shaw was right to characterize us brilliantly as two nations separated by the same language. There are obvious differences involved here (in England, Parliament is plural; in America, singular) and a difference in one does not affect the other. The problem is that English’ unlike French, does not have an Academy prescribing what is correct. And even the good old Academie Francaise is apt to change its mind, presumably to follow usage rather than to stipulate it. I was in Paris on a Fulbright when it was announced that the “s” in “pas” (not) may or may not be elided, which, as I recall, caused quite a fracas. What we do have are the Internet and the computer, bit I won’t go into the devastation they have wreaked.

A good many mistakes could be avoided if we did have some sort of established guardians of correctness, although even then we could ask with Juvenal, “But who will guard the guardians themselves?” And there I am concerned with bigger mistakes than the mere linguistic ones I have mostly dealt with herein.

How to avoid the wars that cover more of our globe than do the oceans? How avoid the folly of many of our elected—or worse yet, unelected—leaders? How to try more earnestly to eschew religion, or at least differences in religions, setting us at one another’s throats? How to get our teachers to really teach, and our students to really study? Surely we could do better than that fine writer George Meredith, who, because of his own marital troubles, arrogantly demanded for women “More brain, O Lord, more brain.” There is no such thing as more brain to be granted, or even a Lord who might do the granting.



34 comments:

  1. Another engaging blog entry! It's so fun to read this guy!

    I cringe when Simon does his grammar rants. I cringe because I do ALL of the stuff he's talking about. I "lay" down and take a nap quite frequently. I write "anymore" all the time. I don't eat healthful food (or healthy food).
    I think it's where I was born. In working class Southern Illinois, bad grammar is normal grammar, and it's hard to get that stuff out of your head. When ten to fifteen generations of your family have been saying "lay" instead of "lie", it becomes ingrained in the DNA. Heck, before my father and mother's generation, none of my family had gone past the third grade. They were farmers or worked in coal mines. They were good people. Some were intelligent, all of them had a nice sense of humor. They just weren't well educated.
    Just picture the mountain people in "Deliverance", and that'll give you a pretty good idea.

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  3. Yes, I cringe too, for the same reason. Mr. Simon once told me not to use the phrase "the below link," or "the above picture," a lesson for which I'm grateful. Apparently Mr. Simon chose his parents very wisely.

    And now for something completely different:

    Could Harold Bloom have appropriated his “Shakespeare invented the human” theory from “The New Puritanism," an early 1970s essay by British novelist and critic John Wain? Mr. Wain seems to say in less than one paragraph what took Mr. Bloom 700 or so pages:

    “… by the time we reach the epoch of Shakespeare, the individual has moved into the centre of the stage. All Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the major tragedies on which his reputation mainly rests, are concerned with the clash between large-scale personalities, aflame with the incandescence of their uniqueness, and the vast impersonal universe to which, somehow or other, they must temper themselves. Indeed, Shakespeare’s main service to the world may well have been that his plays dramatized, and so brought into full consciousness, the nature of the human conflict as it was to be during the centuries of individualism. If this is so, the lives of the gigantic individuals who act out Western history from the Renaissance to our own time were made possible by Shakespeare and the other writers who were nourished by him. Because large-scale individual characters had been imagined and portrayed and set talking and moving on a lighted stage, they were free to exist in ‘real’ life. And this, after all, is not more than the cliché that life imitates art; as one feels that Wilde and Pater were to a large extent creations of a movement in literature that began when they were children…”

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    1. Ah! Let's not forget some that went well before Shakespeare. Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides; all schooled Uncle Willy.
      I looked everything up on Wikipedia. It's easy to be smart these days.(he-he!)

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  4. Emily Brewster is one of the sexiest women alive. Think you have to use the word "healthful"? Think again. Check out the 'link below'.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/healthy-vs-healthful

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    2. @Lubed Up Larry, are you a Camille Paglia fan? She just weighed in on Lena Dunham in a 'Salon' column:

      "Lena Dunham belongs to the exhibitionistic Andrea Dworkin school of banner-waving neurotic masochism. The body is the enemy, a tainted lump whose limitations and afflictions the public must be forced to contemplate in grisly detail. We must also witness, like hapless medieval bystanders at a procession of flagellants, just how unappetizingly pallid Caucasian flesh can be made to be without cracking the camera lens. The torpid banality of Dunham’s utterances (reverently accorded scriptural status by the 'New York Times') is yet another matter. I am woman---hear me kvetch!

      "I feel so blessed to have grown up in a vastly more stimulating cultural climate. The icons of my adolescence were Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn. In college and graduate school, I was enraptured by Julie Christie, Jean Seberg, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, and Monica Vitti. What vitality, electricity, personality, and genuine eroticism!

      "But perhaps the best example of how far we have fallen was the fabulously whip-smart and stylish Suzanne Pleshette, who grew up in the same affluent, privileged Manhattan art and theater world that Lena Dunham did but who left a legacy, both on-screen and off, of verve, originality, and emotional depth. Please descend, ye Muses, and save us from our plague of self-pitying bores!"

      http://www.salon.com/2016/03/10/i_was_wrong_about_donald_trump_camille_paglia_on_the_gop_front_runners_refreshing_candor_and_his_impetuousness_too/

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    3. I wasn't aware of either one. Had to Google them. I don't like Dunham much from what I saw on YouTube, and it sounds like Paglia would agree.Camille's an interesting writer, from what little I read.
      It's amazing how many BAD programs/movies/Pop Art are out there. Anyone with a cell phone and an internet hookup can become a "star". It makes it that much harder to find the good stuff.

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    4. Paglia is great, I hope you become as much of a fan of her work as I am! And yes, there's a lot of bad pop culture, but some great prime-time soap operas too -- 'Mad Men', 'House of Cards', 'Ray Donovan' -- although you might have to be a native Masshole to fully appreciate 'Ray Donovan'...

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    5. I don't watch much television. Sports and movies. 'Ray Donovan' looks interesting. I like the idea of a psychotic Jon Voight running around terrorizing everybody. I didn't even recognize him. I still think of him as he was in 'Midnight Cowboy'. Where does the time go?
      The thing I don't like about TV dramas (and this is almost across the board) is that the players seem to be over acting terribly. They all have those scowls on their faces, and the veins popping out on their foreheads. Really hammy stuff.
      I liked the first three years of 'The Office'. That was the last show I made a point to watch.

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    7. 'Ray Donovan' is great if you watch it as a live-action comic book. Liev Schreiber as Ray is a genius at underplaying! The show spares no expense in bringing in movie people like Katie Holmes, plus actors you haven't seen in a while like Ann-Margret and Cheryl Ladd. The show is a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless....

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  5. I keep seeing the word "defiantly" when I'd expect to see "definitely" -- at least on line. It puzzled me until I realized that the spell-it-as-you-say-it method is common, and "definitely" is nowadays often pronounced as if it were spelled "definatly." Spelling-correction software spots this as an error -- n and a transposed -- and makes it into "defiantly." Thus millions of people are defiant when they mean to be definite...

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  6. Listless

    I know I'm not being helpy,
    But I collapsed at healthful
    As opposed to healthy.

    With more grammatical shit
    Unable to acquit,
    My mind then full of it;

    Not caring a fig,
    Thinking no deal big,
    Like the chest of Diana Rigg.

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  7. "Ah, grammar! It has more pitfalls than a minefield..."

    So true! A minefield needs only mines, not pitfalls, to be a minefield, but an unmixed metaphor would understate your case.

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  8. Mr. Simon's longtime colleague Stanley Kauffmann lecturing on American fiction back in 1968 -- if you're a lover of fiction, you'll be pleased:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gwrs0NpDt3w

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    1. This is great! Thanks for posting.

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    2. I spent 90 minutes on Saturday night riveted by Kauffmann's lecture -- he recommended several novels I want to check out, especially 'The Flagellants' by Carlene Hatcher Polite:

      http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/233557.Carlene_Hatcher_Polite

      But I was disappointed that Kauffmann didn't give a shout-out to James Purdy, whose 'Cabot Wright Begins' from 1964 is my fave 1960s novel:

      http://www.amazon.com/Cabot-Wright-Begins-James-Purdy/dp/0871403528/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458562348&sr=8-1&keywords=cabot+wright+begins

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    3. Just ordered the Purdy book.

      After about 20 seconds of research. . .my favorite novels of the 60's: 'Catch-22', 'Slaughterhouse-Five' (tie)

      Best non-fiction-'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'

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    5. Great review! I'm looking forward to it. Sounds like a cross between 'American Psycho' and 'La Dolce Vita'

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    6. Thanks -- I had to take the review down in order to edit it, here's the bowdlerized version of my "keys" to James Purdy's novel 'Cabot Wright Begins':

      "It was written in 1964": It is totally and completely of its time, which makes it dated for some, but for me it's a perfect snapshot of the U.S. right before it went it off the rails. And from the picture Purdy shows, one can see that the disasters to come were inevitable. I am very pleased that the paperback reissue has that lurid cover with what I believe is a 1964 automobile (a Comet?) on its cover....

      "It satirizes all of NYC society, from the high to the low": from a Brooklyn flop house to Manhattan penthouses, with especial vitriol for the publishing industry and certain types of women. What a cast of characters he has gathered! Ted Solotaroff said in his review of the book that Purdy takes aim at too many targets, swings too wildly, but I don't mind that, it appeals to my MAD magazine sensibility, the idea that 99% of everything is b.s.

      "The quote": The key to the novel is the passage that states (I paraphrase), in America, everyone is talking about sex, but there isn't a stiff pecker or warm box in the house. The book is a plea to the reader to not "die down there." The rich man (Warburton?) leaves all his money to Cabot after he finds out Cabot "raped" his wife, because he admires the man's virility. Warburton was super-rich, but he had died down there.

      "It's written by a gay man": the novel is a gay literary man's satire of heterosexual society. Purdy takes the hetero man's fantasy of having sex with every woman he sees, and shows what would happen if it was put into practice.

      "Cabot Wright is 'cured' at the end": Cabot Wright ends up released from prison, living in a flophouse, and totally impotent.

      Purdy wrote that he wants his readers to get rid of all guilt whatsoever, and this is good advice, because gnawing guilt over one's awful actions makes one repeat those actions, creating more misery and guilt. One needs to accept forgiveness and forgive oneself, even though one realizes how horrible one is. As Quentin Crisp said, "If we got what we deserved, we'd all starve."

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    7. I received my copy of 'Cabot Wright'.I'm about 3/4 of the way through. I'm enjoying the book so far. It's slightly confusing. I'm not sure if this is the book (the one I'm reading) being written by Bernie (spruced up by Mrs. Bickle) or if it's the book being "written" by Purdy. Adding to this confusion is the non-linear storytelling. Nevertheless, it's quite an interesting read, and funny as hell. Maybe things will come together towards the end. . .and, if not, maybe that's a good thing!

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    8. I finished 'Cabot'. I loved the book until the last 30 pages. What happened to the story? Purdy gave up on his adventure! He let the characters dissolve into cartoons and then went on a personal rant for the rest of the book. What's worse is he tried to tie up all the loose ends with some kind of wacky letter written by Cabot to Mrs. Bickle (instead of actually WRITING an ending!). It would have been better to end the book with Cabot rolling in the Brooklyn mud finally being able to laugh.

      Some why's:

      Why would a big time publishing company editor think that some nobody who had never written anything could pull off the story of Cabot? Purdy's text was pretty clear that Bernie wasn't even that good of a writer. Why put all of your eggs in Bernie's basket knowing he can't do the job? They could have read the first couple of chapters, figured it out, and then sent Bernie packing. Everyone could have saved their job.

      Why didn't Mrs. Bickle want to write the book? She was clearly a better writer than Bernie. She was the only one close to Cabot.

      Why is it that, at the beginning of the book, Bernie and Carrie seem like well-educated and middle class, but at the end of the book they come across as ignorant trailer-park trash?

      What caused Cabot to give up on raping women? It wasn't made clear why he changed. Prison?

      What is the significance of the giggling and laughing. Nowadays Cabot can laugh, but before he could only giggle. WTF?

      Why did Bernie turn gay? There was no indication that he was leaning that way in the first 3/4 of the book.

      Bottom line? Purdy could have had a pretty good book on his hands but he (or someone) messed up the ending. Too many things didn't add up.

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  9. Speaking of politics, here's a classic political satire by the great Frank Jacobs, longtime contributor to MAD magazine:

    YOUR CANDIDATE flip-flops on the issues.

    MY CANDIDATE has redefined his position.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE panders to lunatic fringe groups.

    MY CANDIDATE reaches out to disenfranchised voters.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE shamelessly takes contributions from lobbyists and favor-seeking corporations.

    MY CANDIDATE believes all Americans have a right to participate in the political process.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE surrounds himself with bootlicking toadies.

    MY CANDIDATE puts together a team that shares his dream for a better America.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE mumbles weasel-like rationalizations when confronted with his drinking and womanizing in the past.

    MY CANDIDATE admits to "youthful indiscretions."

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE stonewalls the press.

    MY CANDIDATE reserves the right not to disclose information that could jeopardize the national interest.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE waffles on the issues.

    MY CANDIDATE sees the merits of both sides of the argument.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE will pack the courts with judicial hacks who'll rubberstamp his extremist agenda.

    MY CANDIDATE will handpick eminent jurists whose rulings reflect the will of the American people.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE sucks up to blacks, Latinos and Asians to get their votes.

    MY CANDIDATE works to bring minorities into the mainstream.

    ******************************

    YOUR CANDIDATE smears his opponent with vicious lies and personal attacks.

    MY CANDIDATE simply wants to set the record straight.
    ----------------

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    1. More of Frank Jacobs' brilliance:

      MAD’s “THEY” and “YOU” Book

      THEY
      …are a bunch of “Yes”-men.

      YOU
      …show proper respect to superiors.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are cheap.

      YOU
      …have learned the value of thrift.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …have lousy taste in clothes.

      YOU
      …believe the “inner you” is more important than surface appearances.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …let their kids run wild, like a pack of wild animals.

      YOU
      …believe in self-expression for young people.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …bad-mouth everyone they know.

      YOU
      …tell it like it is.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are pushy.

      YOU
      …show self-assertion.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …would con their own Mother for a buck.

      YOU
      …have a keen mind for business.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are a bunch of neurotics who couldn’t cope if it weren’t for their “shrinks”.

      YOU
      …benefit from professional advice.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are weak jellyfish who can be talked into anything.

      YOU
      …are flexible.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are a bunch of reactionary squares.

      YOU
      …have a deep regard for tradition.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …ruthlessly claw their way to the top.

      YOU
      …take advantage of every opportunity.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …get drunk and embarrass everyone around them.

      YOU
      …are the life of the party.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are never on time.

      YOU
      …pride yourself on not being run by the clock.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …can’t hold onto a job.

      YOU
      …enjoy discovering new worlds to conquer.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …throw their money away, gambling.

      YOU
      …are intrigued by the laws of probability.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are insensitive practical jokers.

      YOU
      …have a well-rounded sense of humor.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …can’t be trusted to keep a secret.

      YOU
      …believe in open communication.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …go along with every ridiculous, half-baked new fad or craze.

      YOU
      …are a disciple of the New Age.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …camp out, get blisters and are eaten alive by mosquitoes.

      YOU
      …enjoy roughing it.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …are fault-finding nit-pickers.

      YOU
      …have a good eye for detail.

      *********************************

      THEY
      …bore everyone by showing endless slides of their vacations.

      YOU
      …enrich your friends by exposing them to your discoveries in remote foreign cultures.

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  10. A commenter at the 'NY Times' website said she’d move to Canada if Trump won, and someone made a memorable (to me) reply:

    “What makes you think that Canada wants you? I’m serious, I don’t mean this in a snarky way. I’m sort of fascinated by this response. The logic seems to be: Of course, America cannot come first. But of course, as an American, I get to decide to live wherever I want, unlike every single other person on the globe. All I need to do is figure out where. Naturally they’ll want me. And naturally I have the money & wherewithal to just quit my job and move anywhere in the world that suits me.

    “It is so American-privilege-centric, and I find this fascinating as it comes from people who attack people like Trump for being American-privilege-centric.”

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  11. Since I do not have your email address, I will use this medium to say how much I appreciated your commentary on The Emigrants, packaged with the new Criterion Collection edition. It reminded me of how much we miss your reviews of plays and films. My only complaint is that your Emigrants commentary is too short!

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    1. Thank you for calling this important DVD release to our attention! I believe Mr. Simon's review of the film is in his 'Something to Declare'.

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    2. Agreed. Troell is the best director nobody ever talks about. I'd put him in my top 20 directors of all time.

      I would have loved to see him try his hand in Hollywood. Just ONE film (assuming he hasn't done one already). ONE car chase. How would he have done it?
      Who knows, maybe he still will! I think he could make a great Hollywood film.

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    3. In fact, Troell did try his hand in Hollywood. It was a remake of "The Hurricane" with suitably embarrassed or embarrassing stars Jason Robards Jr. and Mia Farrow.

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    5. ****I just ordered the DVD from Netflix. Full report when I get done viewing. There's something intriguing about mixing up Troell and Dino De Laurentiis in a big ol' bag of movie fun.

      Here's something hysterical. Vincent Canby's review of the film. Several great lines in this piece.

      http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=950DE4DE1F39E732A25751C1A9629C946890D6CF&partner=Rotten%2520Tomatoes

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