Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Decline In The Cultural Level -- Ancient Radio Play vs. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


Sydney Greenstreet as Nero Wolfe

     A chance encounter with a 60-year old radio play while driving early yesterday morning turned the rest of my day into a fevered search for a half-remembered literary citation.

     The radio play, entitled The Final Page, was a semi-silly, but highly enjoyable detective mystery featuring Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe character.  It was originally broadcast on the NBC radio network on March 23, 1951 and told the story of Wolfe solving the murder of a writer friend who had “finally met a deadline”.
     The famous English actor with the unforgettable voice and elegant (and equally unforgettable) physical presence, Sydney Greenstreet, played Nero Wolfe, described in the show’s spoken introduction as “a chair-borne mass of unpredictable intellect”.

Sydney Greenstreet in his most famous role, Kasper Gutman, in The Maltese Falcon (1941) 

     What made The Final Page so terrific was its coherence, its quality of execution and its respect for the audience’s time and intelligence.  The writing was economical, sharp and amusing (which is not to say that it was a literary masterpiece), the acting (lead and character) was uniformly excellent and conveyed the mystery story with vigor and pace through the players’ clear diction and the musicality of their voices, and the show’s creators focused on giving the audience just enough in order to leave them wanting more.   The total harmonious effect was achieved using only dialogue, a simple musical score and very basic sound effects.

Nero Wolfe was an orchid fancier

 Nero Wolfe loved beer.

     I couldn’t help but contrasting the quality of the ancient production, which seems fairly typical of radio plays of all genres I’ve been listening to for the past year on satellite radio, with the great mass of contemporary tv and movie junk I encounter during my personal forays into those media, as well as the shows and films I see with my 13-year old daughter.

     The literary citation I was looking for and eventually found was a line of poetry written by the 20th century American Ezra Pound, taken from his Canto LXXXI.  It reads simply “What counts is the cultural level”.

     I first saw a reference to it in Tom Clark’s Beyond The Pale blog of last August 21st called Wild Life: WPA Posters, 1936-40, which provided a memorable look at tourism posters created by artists working for the United States government’s WPA program during the Great Depression.

     In a responsive comment to a reader, discussing factors he thought made it unlikely that we would ever see  this poster program’s record of artistic high achievement repeated in our lifetimes, Clark referred to “the decline in what Pound once called ‘the cultural level’”. The comment struck me as true and stuck with me.

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

     First,  I would like to say that you should definitely check out Wild Life by clicking on the link provided above.  The poster artwork selected and displayed is a surprise and a delight.  I had no idea that such powerful, yet essentially lighthearted images formed part of the WPA art heritage.  (Like most people, I think, I tend to associate the program with more portentous, serious fare.)

     What makes Wild Life relevant to me as a point of reference is that when evaluating “the cultural level”, I think you need to look at the middle spectrum of art and entertainment (i.e., the bread and butter fare people seek for their daily amusement and diversion), such as tourism posters of marginal commercial value,  as a barometer, rather than at the supposed “high quality”, more rarefied end of things, such as avant-garde art that is by its nature controversial and whose merits are likely to be debated for a long time after the works in question are created. (A recent example that is important to me are the two Chris Burden pieces, Trans-Fixion and Shoot, from the early 1970s, which I included in this space last week to illustrate a painful personal experience. I had been thinking about Burden’s work since the 1970s without resolving my thoughts and feelings about it.  Only last week did these pieces come into focus for me as communicating a sort of intense “cry of pain/ primitive blues” feeling that I found resonant and thought was applicable to what I was trying to say.  I fully recognize that there will always be people who think these extreme works are repellent and worthless.)

     Accordingly, it seems legitimate to compare the Nero Wolfe show (acting as a stand-in for all classic radio, which I recognize is not entirely legitimate) with the current immensely popular movie, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1.

     Our family has seen all of the earlier movies in this series and found them fairly enjoyable, if a little corny, cheesy and ersatz.  (Which is to say that they don’t measure up to Peter Jackson’s work on Lord Of The Rings, but they’re a great deal better than the somnolent, less-than-skin-deep Twilight pictures.)

    However, in terms of the three positive qualities cited above in support of the Nero Wolfe show --  coherence, quality of execution and respect for the audience’s time and intelligence – the Harry Potter film is a piece of junk that signifies a decline in the cultural level.

     I haven’t read any of J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter novels, so I cannot say whether the movie is more or less coherent than the source material, but that doesn’t really matter.  It’s an incoherent film from the moment it begins its non-exposition until it reaches its non-conclusion.  Like some other "Better Living Through Chemistry" inventions, it is more like getting on a modern fairground ride (shiny, fast, smooth and ultimately unmemorable) than embarking on a journey you long for, one which calls to you that you hope will take you  to an unknown, unpredictable destination, which is what I usually desire in any work of art.

The slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry" originated at DuPont and was modified and adopted by other companies.

     The Deathly Hallows’ quality of execution is fairly poor on all levels.  Variety, the entertainment industry trade paper, awarded it the usual “tech credits excellent” line of praise, a judgement that is fairly meaningless in the contemporary movie world.  The men and women creating the special effects are obviously gifted, but their work is meant to serve the story, rather than serve as the story.   In any event, on the “SFX” score the film is no Matrix or Independence Day and it minimizes the impact of the impressive effects it does use through excessive repetition.

     The script and the quality of acting are mostly execrable, meaning that in addition to the illogical plotting and sequencing  (leading to audience confusion and boredom; the formula is now to insert a chase scene and/or employ a magic wand to blow something up while figuring out where to go next in the story), the lines are uniformly flat and pointless when spoken by any of the three sadly untalented lead actors (whose performances have each sunk to new lows in this film) or, even more unfortunately, by the extremely talented group of British lead and character actors who make up the rest of the cast and are woefully underused. (I believe the always great Alan Rickman appears in two scenes only.)

     A clear and despicable sign of awful film making or fiction writing is when a creator kills off a character the audience has grown to know and like arbitrarily.  Such acts of disposal acknowledge that that the character isn’t real, but only a prop, merely a way of getting from Point A to Point B. This essentially describes the entire trajectory and purpose of this movie, which functions primarily as a transition device to the series’ conclusion in the forthcoming Part 2.

Real world special effect, July 2007, Glasgow, Montana (Sean Heavey)  

     In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the expendable victim is Harry's owl Hedwig.  In prior films, this mysterious and self-possessed creature seemed (as owls generally do) to have authority, her own story and some important role to play in the future.  In The Deathly Hallows, Hedwig is killed off, virtually unnoticed, unremarked on and unlamented during the initial 5-10 minutes in the first of the picture’s many pointless, unexciting chase scenes.

     This event, treating the death of an important character as mere “collateral damage” (at best), is the clearest indication to me of the film’s lack of respect for its audience’s time, intelligence and, finally, its pocketbooks.  It is contemptible and I hope the owls of the world take notice and retaliate. That would be a movie worth seeing.

Real world special effect, July 2007, Glasgow, Montana (Sean Heavey)

     Over the past year I’ve recommended to Jane, who is handy with home recording equipment and an artistic person as well, that she and her friends develop radio plays for school projects and simply for fun.   The Harry Potter films prove again that having a large budget is no substitute for imagination and discipline. Listening to the radio, I can close my eyes and, aided by the writers, actors, musicians and directors, summon up a real world that in turn suggests other real worlds.  If I am ever again forced  to watch a movie actor tap-tapping on a computer keyboard or goonishly staring into a monitor, signifying that fundamental actuating events of  life are occurring, I think I will give up going to the cinema forever. (At today’s ticket and snack prices, that’s probably a very good idea and a might be a blessing in disguise.

Sydney Greenstreet as Nero Wolfe, NBC Radio publicity photo

     You can’t cheat emotion and real audience engagement in this way on radio, of course.  It forces creators to use the virtual colors available to them in different, interesting and unexpected ways.  In some respects, as with beautiful black & white film, the medium's potential is inherent in and proceeds from its limitations.

Stranger than fiction

     I know Armageddon (even worse than a decline in the cultural level) seems to be upon us when we’re subjected daily and repeatedly to those television commercials featuring G. Gordon Liddy selling gold for Rosland Capital.  (What hath God wrought?)

     But I’m hanging on to hope, nonetheless.

Ezra Pound, Vortograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1916-17)


  1. In the seventh Harry Potter book, Harry did have a stronger reaction to Hedwig's death than he did in the movie. I think there's a good three page section dedicated to mourning her, with Harry crying and begging to go back and find her body. However, the movie did make her death seem kind of irrelevant. There were also a lot of areas that the movie skidded over that were more important in the book. In short, the books were a lot better than the movie :)

  2. Good morning. I so appreciate your comment. As I said, I haven't read the books, just seen the movies, and I felt that this one represented a steep decline from the earlier installments, which I found quite entertaining and diverting. I don't think I would wish to see this one again, while we have enjoyed re-watching the previous films as a family. As a movie series, the Harry Potter films have sustained their momentum for a fairly long time, but everything eventually declines in quality, I'm afraid. I really didn't care for the lead actors' performances and the Hedwig episode made me viscerally angry, as you can tell. I'm glad it was handled more appropriately in the book. Curtis

  3. Dear Outraged,

    Firstly, I think you may be comparing apples and abstruses, for radio, in the period that you mention was a high art--indeed radio might have been the supreme art of the early nineteen thirties--obviously, a much different position than it occupies now.
    Secondly, Brother Ezra probably gave little thought to such "general level" considerations as the noted fact that during Shakespeare's time, three-quarters of adult males could not even sign their names--a situation that was probably a good deal better than in the day of Sophocles.
    Finally--like many of us--you have, to judge by your last paragraph, a decidely Kantian way of looking at culture--one which values as much what a view brings to the presentation, over and against what the spectable foists off on the viewer . . . modern film is really much closer to l8th century opera than its technological sibling, radio.
    Thanks for your always provocative reflections, you wisest of Golgarians.

  4. Hi. Having returned in a thoughtful mood from the first Christmas party of the season, I'm so happy to hear from you and to respond. The thought that I might be comparing apples to abstruses occurred to me throughout the cranky drafting process. At least I think I removed the typos and the grammar was relatively correct. I was definitely bending Pound to my own uses. I guess the best part of being out of the academy is that you're allowed a little more freedom of thinking as long as you acknowledge (for yourself and anyone who cares) your limitations. I really love the radio plays I listen to and I'm glad you do also. They've added a lot to my life on a number of levels, including being able a little bit to understand what my parents were talking about when they enthusiastically reminisced about radio. A lot of my mental soundtrack and sense of humor are still composed of Firesign Theater jokes and the post-radio days movies Dr. Strangelove and Chinatown (not so much humor there), which I love and could both have easily been produced on the radio. As for Sophocles, one question I've always wanted to know the answer to is whether or not he had a show-biz lawyer. Curtis

  5. Curtis,

    I think we've talked somewhere about our mutual irritation with the use of techie gizmos as shortcut expositional devices in recent films (which is for me a salient indication of the hollowness and thinness of recent films.)

    You have evoked my memories of another kind of art, the art of the radio play, in which the imagination of the audience is actively engaged, not patronized (or excused with a free pass to zone-out).

    As a small child I once rode in the back seat of a car through a long night drive while the radio play of The Petrified Forest played in the Herriman-esque void blackness of the American night.

    I was too young to understand the meaning of "petrified forest," yet was also at that stage in which one is already growing too proud to enquire, and was thus allowed to linger on in unknowingness... for years.

    And some years later, when I did actually cross that desert and view the Petrified Forest, it was, frankly, a disappointment.

    (Maybe reality is always like that.)

  6. Tom, Hi. Reading your account of listening to The Petrified Forest on the radio felt to me like....a radio play, which was wonderful. I share memories of long night drives and also feeling that type of pride and reticence. The Petrified Forest must have played well on the radio. My first encounter with it was seeing the film version with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis when I was still quite young. I had already pulled my mother's copy of Howard's daughter's book about her father, A Quite Remarkable Father, from the bookshelf and read about the picture and saw the stills, which were quite arresting. I always think about Sherwood's The Petrified Forest as the "real thing" as petrified forests go. Another example of magical thinking, but I can't help it. Curtis

  7. Has The Cultural Level risen or declined since the theme song for Little Lulu, a cartoon character we grew up watching?

    "Though you're wild as any Zulu and you're just as hard to tame,
    Little Lulu I love you you just the same, the same,
    Little Lulu I love you you just the same."

    It's coherent as all get-out.

    I've only read the anthologized ones, but based on those, Ezra Pound did not write a single good poem. The one quoted is especially poor, though I give it points for brevity. Still, why "apparition"?

    But he had a genius for managing his reputation, and he was a fierce watchdog of The Cultural Level.

    Leading to the following axiom: No creative writer produced anything good or amusing by worrying about the cultural level. When I hear the words, I reach for my martini.

  8. p.s.

    Which is not to say that on any particular cultural product I will not bow to M. Cravan's taste, which has been, after my big sister, the single greatest influence on mine, ever.

  9. Good early afternoon. I'd forgotten about Little Lulu until you mentioned her and, having briefly visited Youtube, may try to forget her again. I really found that song annoying. I wasn't trying to advance a unified theory about anything (including anything to do with Ezra Pound's poetry), but I do think that observing and commenting casually about the cultural level is fine, valid and something to be expected and, in fact, encouraged. I'm no poetry expert and definitely no Pound expert, but I like that short poem and I think the use of the word "apparition" makes sense to me poetically. I chose to incorporate the image, which I found by chance while looking for Pound portraits, because I knew the poem and thought the rendering was effective and evocative. I don't think evaluation of the "cultural level" should be used as a tool for or of governing (otherwise you end up with NPR -- all super-serious voices and Yuck), but the Harry Potter film is emblematic of a kind of shiny, horrible cinema junk that does represent a decline from an earlier, more literate (for lack of a better word) standard. And I feel sure that none of the juvenile actors in the film could ever find work in radio. The good news on this front, however, just learned, is that my fluted pastry cutter has been found so I don't need to leave the house to buy a new one. It was jammed in the back of a drawer. I'm planning on making fresh pappardelle later. Anything to prevent further declines in the cultural level. Curtis

  10. Roddy -- Thank you for your p.s. That was very sweet. I highly recommend that you check out my last post -- the one about salted almonds. The two recipes there are really great. When we lived in Brooklyn Heights, near the various Near Eastern spice and nut purveyors, it was heaven and made the yearly duty of acquiring large amounts of nuts for roasting (including macadamias) quite affordable. The whole production line aspect of the nut and vodka facture was something we looked forward to. But our present list has decreased and over the last couple of seasons, sadly, so has our enthusiasm. With any luck, the latter, at least, will return. Curtis

  11. Harry Potter was kind of confusing, you really had to read the book to get the movie, and i had to see it twice to REALLy undertsand it. I agree with you that killing off hedwig was a stupid idea, and as rachel said they completely ut out Harry morning her, the other thing i didnt like about the movie was that the killed off Dobby. I cried during that scene and i think it was really unnesecary to kill him off.

  12. Hi Aliki: I never cared for the Dobby character in previous films (he reminded me, as a critic noted, of the Jar-Jar Binks character in the fourth Star Wars movie), but I thought he was given some good lines in this one and allowed Daniel Radcliffe to have his best scene. I think he's probably the best of the three leads, but we'll see where he goes in the future. (He no longer has to go to the bank; he can check his large account amounts online.) I think the Hermione actress may model for a while, but it's difficult to imagine her acting over the long run. I hope the owls of the world take off after the film makers -- soon and big time. I think you, Rachel, Jane and anyone else you can corral into the project should try to produce radio plays, though. Everybody and his brother (or sister) wants to be a film maker. I'd say the field is overcrowded. Or you and Maria could be lawyers. Firm names like yours would come out -- "K_____ & K_______" -- are invariably impressive. Curtis

  13. Mon Vieux,

    Okay, the poem ain't bad. Though, pedantically, I wonder why the petals are "on" the "bough" itself, as opposed to being part of a flower on a stem on a branch on a bough. Maybe Ez had forgot to put his contacts in. Blame the rain.

    I am sure you are right about Harry P., and I love the old stuff: My Darling Clementine knocked me out the other night. Just to watch how Henry Fonda walks and sits and wears his hat is a thrill. So are Walter Brennan's hat and voice and eyes. (And whip.)

    But there were boatloads of dead crappy movies and tv shows in the old days, too. Even John Ford had his off days

    Some good things today, alive and soulful, that would not have been made then: Brokeback Mountain, Primetime Glick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the Sopranos.

    A cinfession: I am a fan of npr. Car Talk, Terry Gross, etc. Driving home last night npr taught me how horribly Bruno Bettelheim got the cause of autism wrong. And was reminded he committed suicide in 1990.

    Obviously much of what I hear on npr bores and offends, and Terry let Keith get away with murder, but it's a radio station so you take the bad with the good.

    NPR aside, there's the Pantheon, Michelangelo's David, Washington Arch, National Gallery, Walker Evans, Sesame Street -- some instances where government has gotten it right intervening in culture maintenance.

    You bet I will try them almonds, thanks.

  14. Re the Pound poem (which I may have originally heard in the same classroom session as you did; I seem to recall it as a Gunnery memory), I just always liked its drama, immediacy, rhythm and the image itself. Whoever put together the visual I posted did a great job, I think. I really, really love Primetime Glick. It's a great family favorite. Interestingly (not surprisingly, but somewhat disappointingly), an old friend of mine (an entertainment lawyer) worked a great deal with the miraculous Martin Short when he had his short-lived, KingWorld-produced tv show, and said that it was not a good experience on any level. That's usually the way it is, unfortunately. As for NPR, I've heard things from time-to-time that I like, of course, and they were a valuable public relations outlet for Caroline during the course of her career (especially in later years Terry Gross), but it usually just drives me crazy. In terms of news reporting, reporting is what I want, not built-in "news analysis". It was on NPR, however, that I first heard NY Times reporter John Burns discuss (this was about 15-16 years ago) what he predicted would be future developments concerning the Taliban that would pose difficulties for the West, and I'm definitely in favor of long, in-depth interviews with serious speakers, rather than sound bites. (Except in the context of the Morning Joe echo chamber, which has become insufferable.) I tend to prefer BBC World Service to NPR as a broadcast outlet and got into the habit of listening to it on shortwave when I had to live mostly on my own in Boston during 2000. Now I mostly listen to Radio Classics on Sirius XM or the Joint or Underground Garage. The nuts (both almonds and macadamias) are simply remarkable and fun to make and learn to get right. Curtis

  15. I like the BBC too, available on Sirius. Which reminds me, the Bettelheim thing was not on NPR It was on CBC1 -- the Canadian version of NPR -- very good, by the way, and and less predictable and odder than NPR. Also on Sirius

  16. Thanks for this. My earliest BBC listening experience, which I remember being in a hotel room in Paris during college, was trying to fall asleep to the radio (an old habit) listening to a "Dear Lonelyhearts" program. It stayed with me and came back strong when Ray Davies wrote a heartrending song of that name, which is included in the "Return To Waterloo" movie and soundtrack album. I'm happy you brought back the memory. Curtis

  17. Hi,
    Undoubtedly you have gone out of your way in this article to be contentious, and I suppose there's no reason to condemn that. However, I do have more than a few problems in this article. Clearly, the article is centred around a point that you are determined to make rather than the material/evidence you have at your disposal. Maybe you should have chosen 'Avatar' when you were suggesting that special effects have become too integral a part of plotlines. I think you could be right, on occasion. Special effects should facilitate the progression of a plot, rather than create a plot. It's a thin line, but an important one. It is, though, one that Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows stays on the right side of, with the plotline being continued by the use of suspensful shots of REAL landscapes and the harrowing events of the characters' plight. Hedwig's death, far from making her seem like a prop which is easily disposable, reminds us of her mortality, and displays the idea that no one is safe from the dark times that the world of magic is going through. But you make some good points, and perhaps there are things that today's movie business can learn from old radio plays and indeed other forms of media.

  18. Hi Luke and thanks so much for your comment. I didn't go too far out of my way to be contentious, but I will admit that I wrote this fairly quickly directly after seeing the Harry Potter movie with my daughter and hearing the radio program I described. I thought the HP movie reflected more skill than talent and was the result of the sort of "in transit" nature of this episode, i.e., the movie seemed mainly to function as a plot bridge between the last film and the upcoming finale, and the fairly terrible acting of the three juvenile (sort of, at this point) leads. I think that in a long series like this, you're bound to hit moments like that. I really disagree with you that Hedwig's death was treated as anything more than an afterthought. I haven't read the books, and I'm told that her passing receives more attention there, but movies are meant to be experienced as movies (although I'm sure most of the audience are devotees of the books). I'm pleased they stayed away from 3-D (although I'm sure a re-versioning is in the works) and feel comfident that I'll see the next movie with Jane and eventually own this DVD. Radio plays, of course, are a vast subject and vary in quality, but from my blogger/graffiti point of view, I think the points I made, while probably trivial, are valid. It's nice that you found this and I hope you'll continue reading my blog. I try to keep it varied and interesting and it's meant to invite responsive comments like yours. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Curtis