Creative Sensemaker #10
The tenth instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a new cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Peter Hoskin Fri, Jul 30, 2020
Of course, technically speaking, the past is always receding; getting further and further away. But, occasionally, there are terrible shearing moments when the distance suddenly seems so much greater. In the case of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one of those moments came earlier this year, with the death of Kirk Douglas at the age of 103. And another came earlier this week, with the death of Olivia de Havilland at 104.
De Havilland wasn’t just a star from that era – she was a precedent. In 1943, eager to move on from Warner Bros, where she felt too often cast in docile supporting roles, she decided to take the studio to court over its labour practices. Two years later came victory, and what’s still known as the ‘de Havilland decision’. For once, an actor had beaten the system.
Writing in the 1980s, and quoted in Victoria Amador’s excellent recent book Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant, Bette Davis summed up the significance of the de Havilland decision: ‘Olivia should be thanked by every actor today. She won the court battle that no contract should ever have to continue more than seven years. Years ago, our contracts could have been indefinite.’
So it’s bitterly ironic that, nowadays, de Havilland is best known for roles in Warner movies: as Maid Marian in The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) and Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind (1939). Both are superb performances, but they are also the sorts of performances that de Havilland eventually wearied of – more saintly, wide-eyed women.
But it’s not all irony. Thanks to home video, de Havilland’s best post-Warner performances are probably better known now than at any time since their original release.
About a year ago, Criterion released a wonderful edition of The Heiress (1949), in which she plays a woman stretched to breaking point by the forces of society. A year before that, Arrow put out The Dark Mirror (1946), where she’s both good twin and downright wicked twin – a dark mirror, perhaps, of de Havilland’s difficult, real-life relationship with her own sister, the actress Joan Fontaine.
It’s a cliche to say that the old Hollywood stars live on in their films – but there’s often truth in cliche. And it’s also true that the films themselves are living on, beautifully preserved on disc by caring home-video companies. Perhaps the past isn’t receding too speedily after all.
Here, as always, are some other cultural recommendations to see you through the week:
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957), Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018)… to the long and distinguished line-up of ‘campus novels’ set in and around academia, we can now add Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. It gained the distinction this week of being published in the UK and longlisted for the Booker Prize, and all the accolades are deserved. This is a bruising study of a young, gay, Black man’s remove from a world that constantly keeps pushing him away.
Unspeakable Acts edited by Sarah Weinman
Editors’ names don’t normally stand out as much as authors’, but Sarah Weinman’s comes close. She curated the Library of America’s brilliant Women Crime Writers books, and now she’s turned her mind to more recent crime writing, pulling together 13 non-fiction stories for the collection Unspeakable Acts. If you’d like a sense of its contents, some of the stories can be found online – including Pamela Colloff’s long feature for Texas Monthly about one of America’s earliest, deadliest mass shootings, ‘The Reckoning’.
Wonder Woman: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)
Although it never achieves the pop greatness of the previous decade’s Batman series, the televisual Wonder Woman of the 1970s is still a blast – and now it’s available in high definition on Blu-ray. Watching it this way, as a very modern boxset, is a strange experience for anyone who grew up with sporadic episodes on old TV sets. And it calls attention to the show’s evolution; from a cartoonish WWII-era romp in season one to a better-made, yet somehow less satisfying, contemporary slugfest in season three. Throughout it all, however, there’s that one brilliant constant: Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter.
Train To Busan (Netflix)
Have hope, for cinemas are back in South Korea and doing fairly big business. According to Deadline, Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie action flick Peninsula made about $20m across Korea and four other Asian territories in its opening week – which is as good as it’s been during the time of coronavirus. And now Peninsula is making its way westwards, arriving in American movie houses on 7 August.
If you’d like to ready yourself – and, when it comes to the zombie apocalypse, it pays to be prepared – you can watch Train To Busan (2016) on Netflix now, the prequel to Peninsula’s sequel. Its premise is as fun as its execution: what if the walking dead didn’t so much walk as cascade, and you were stuck on a train with them?
The Michelle Obama Podcast (Spotify)
‘In this first season you’ll be hearing me talk with some of the people I’m closest with.’ So says Michelle Obama in the first episode of her new podcast, released a few days ago – and it just so happens that her first ‘special someone’ is her husband, Barack. Their discussion is about something big and vital: community and our responsibilities to each other. But it unfolds in a terrifically gentle, homespun way, not unlike a modern-day version of Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio show. This is a podcast to subscribe to, in every sense of the word.
Johnny Cash: A Night To Remember (Third Man Records)
Third Man Records, the label set up by the White Stripes’ Jack White, has provided succour to music fans for almost a decade now, but it feels as though they’ve gone into overdrive during the lockdown. Their Public Access livestreams have been a particular joy. And now they’re putting out a fancy edition of a previously unreleased Johnny Cash live performance, from 1973, as part of their Vault series. The preview clips certainly are exciting – the Man in Black, on a black stage, singing to lift our spirits.
Video game music (Spotify)
We normally keep video games to the Play section of the Creative Sensemaker (see below), but then Pitchfork went and published its list of the best video game music of the past 20 years. It’s a good way into what is still an underappreciated corner of the musical landscape – and one which is increasingly easy to explore on Spotify. The Pitchfork people are right, the Celeste (2018) soundtrack really is a marvel. So too, in a jazzier way, is Shoji Meguro’s piano music for Persona 5 (2016). And when you’re done with those, there’s always Tortoise’s list of recommendations to keep you going.
Maid Of Sker
Could games be a new way of telling old folk stories? There are certainly examples: from the original Legend Of Zelda (1986), with its nods towards Shintoism, to Never Alone (2014), which drew on a native Alaskan legend – and now there’s another title to add to the list. Wales Interactive’s Maid Of Sker, released a few days ago, was inspired by a Welsh ballad of longing, captivity and death. It is, as you might imagine, a scary game that has you skittering around in the dark to avoid assorted horrors. Croeso i Gymru, as they say.