The last word on Leni Riefenstahl seems always just out of reach. After her Memoirs, Steve Bach’s new biography provides a desperately needed corrective to Leni’s own lies, evasions, and half-truths. Anybody who has seen The Wonderful, Horrible Life knows what an extraordinarily maddening, talented, obsessive, domineering, and flirtatious creature Leni was even in her nineties–and she lived to 101. For artists anywhere–but especially Germans–Leni remains endlessly perplexing. The questions raised by her life go straight to the core of history, morality, ambition, power, and cinema. The dry statement issued after her death by the German government barely scratches the surface:
Leni Riefenstahl symbolizes a German artist’s fate in the 20th Century both in her revolutionary artistic vision and in her political blindness and infatuation. No one would deny that with her talent she developed cinematic methods that have since become part of an aesthetic canon. Her career also shows that one cannot lead an honest life in service of the false, and that art is never apolitical. (297)
Steven Bach. Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. 2006. ****
Speaking of true friends and good writers: this week marks the release of Next Stop Hollywood: Short Stories Bound for the Screen, an anthology of cinematic shorts that features a story by my friend and fellow Center for Writers graduate John Minichillo. John’s story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” is called “Blind Man in the Halls of Justice.” Editor Steve Cohen pitches it as A Civil Action meets Scent of a Woman, but I see it as 12 Angry Men crossed with Half-Baked. Alexander Payne could do a fine job directing it.
The official site for Next Stop Hollywood hosts excerpts, information for writers who want to be in the next edition, and a list of great movies based on short stories, including Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Killers, Freaks, and Animal House. (They should add Away from Her ASAP.) My copy’s on its way.
You never know what you’re going to find at Jim Hanley’s Universe, the comic book store on 33th street with one of the best selections of European graphic novels in the city. Yesterday, I picked up a book by a Belgian artist who simply goes by Jason. The Left Bank Gang reimagines Paris in the 20s as a haven for expat comic book writers in the shape of animals. Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Getrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound et al. get drunk, make plans for Pamplona, struggle with poverty and obnoxious tourists and discuss the finer points of narrative captions and where do all the erasers go? It’s very funny and endearing, and then the story spins into a fragmented noir. I’ll be looking for more of Jason’s deceptively simple work the next time I’m midtown. You can browse a few pages here.
Jason. The Left Bank Gang. Fantagraphics, 2006. ****
Forget dog-eared: my copy of Cat’s Cradle is a torn-up mess. Still, I took Verylin Klinkenborg‘s advice (mentioned earlier) and revisited the book for the first time in decades. It turns out Klinkenborg’s spot on: Vonnegut’s work is so rich with wit and truth, it deserves to be read outside of a dorm room, by people who think they already know. Somehow, he managed to combine willful naiveté, insistence on kindness, and a freewheeling imagination with a no-illusions view of history and human stupidity, all without having the resulting paradox implode on contact. No wonder he is routinely compared to Mark Twain.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 103, A Medical Opinion on the Effects of a Writers’ Strike:
Young Castle called me “Scoop.” “Good morning, Scoop. What’s new in the word game?”
“I might ask the same of you,” I replied.
“I’m thinking of calling a general strike of all writers until manking finally comes to its senses. Would you support it?”
“Do writers have a right to strike? That would be like the police or the firemen walking out.”
“Or the college professors.”
“Or the college professors,” I agreed. I shook my head. “No, I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.”
“I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems…”
“And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?” I demanded.
“They’d die more like mad dogs, I think–snarling and snapping at each other and biting their own tails.”
I turned to Castle the elder. “Sir, how does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”
“In one of two ways,” he said, “petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”
“Neither one very pleasant, I expect,” I suggested.
“No,” said Castle the elder. “For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!”
Cat’s Cradle. Kurt Vonnegut, 1963. *****
For once, a life worthy of a memoir. Leni Riefenstahl tells the gripping story of her rise from dancer and star of silent mountain films during the Weimar Republic to Triumph of the Will, Olympia, and “Hitler’s filmmaker,” followed by her long fall after the war, the Nuba, scuba. Riddled with contradictions, dubious statements and suspicious omissions, the book is also a thorny tangle that raises complicated questions about moral responsibility, political culpability, aesthetics, and ambition. Leni’s extreme unreliability (I had the uncanny sense that she started lying around page 5, about a playground incident) adds a layer of uncertainty that makes the book even more intriguing, down to the heartbreaking (or calculated?) last sentence.
After the war, when landmark achievements and intimate meetings with the Nazi elite–Goebbels, Göring, Hitler, Speer–give way to frustration and a string of canceled projects, the book slows down considerably. As Riefenstahl faces increasing hardship, it becomes difficult not to admire her dogged vitality and feel a certain degree of empathy for her. Regardless of your opinion on her life, work, and guilt, this book is bound to muddy some certainties. I’ll have to look at the two new biographies to see how some of her assertions hold up (not well, apparently), and I’m rewatching The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl for yet another take, but I don’t hope to come to terms with the confounding implications of the case Riefenstahl any time soon. Riefenstahl died in 2003, at the age of 101.
Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir. 1987. ****
Previously on Muckworld:
The New Biographies
The diving sequence from Olympia:
From the secure, undisclosed New Jersey location where we’re weathering the storm, here’s a muckworld roundup, covering the triumphs, marriages, deaths, drug convictions, and ambivalent critical reception of five artists so famous their first names are enough.
I have neither video nor photos to prove it, but an exquisite literary time was had at KGB Bar on Friday, where Jami Attenberg celebrated tax day and the release of her Instant Love paperback together with Pauls Toutonghi (Red Weather), Darin Strauss (Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy) and Min Jin Lee (Free Food for Millionaires.) Jami read a story about anonymous sex with accountants. Darin Strauss played the Dobro, and Anya Ulinich sang the Internationale. I have it on good authority that less than half of those in attendance actually recognized the song, which indicates that it’s been a good long while since everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers. The dustbin of history, indeed.
Finally, good news from New Orleans: Kermit Ruffins got hitched! I realize St. James Infirmary isn’t quite appropriate, but it’s the best Kermit on YouTube. Congratulations, and thanks for all the BBQ. (And thank you for the tip, Robbi Jeanne.)
“If you read Kurt Vonnegut when you were young — read all there was of him, book after book as fast as you could the way so many of us did — you probably set him aside long ago,” begins Verylin Klinkenborg’s piece in the Times. I followed her advice and just picked up Cat’s Cradle for the first time in 15 years, and it’s even better than I remembered. Around 1999, I saw Vonnegut speak, but at that point, he wasn’t my wavelength at all and just seemed like another bitter old Luddite griping about how superior the post office was to sending email. My friends Dusty and Kathleen enjoyed hanging out with him afterwards, so perhaps it was me who was bitter. Either way, Kurt could write. John Leonard in The Nation: “God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.” Mourning at Metafilter and on Maud Newton.
That Cleopatra rant was my last word on Grindhouse, but there are a few more pieces worth pointing out: Filmbrain, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week, thinks Quentin needs a girlfriend, and the Looker agrees with my assessment that Death Proof is just way dull. At The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich and Matt Zoller Seitz have a debate that’s twice as exciting as the actual movie–and almost as long.
Trey pleads guilty. IANAL, but five years probation with mandatory prison in case he slips sounds like a tough deal. Hang in there, Trey. We love you. Push on ’till the day and don’t you listen to that evil Amy Winehouse. A video of better times: