March 2010 Archives
The year was 1986. Performance art was still considered scary and threatening to noninitiates, part of the conspiracy of superiority that David Byrne was in on but you weren’t. That summer I saw a movie called Legal Eagles. I remember virtually nothing about it except that it was a waste of A-list talent (its stars were Robert Redford and Debra Winger, its director Ivan Reitman) and that it featured a preposterous sequence in which Daryl Hannah, playing a forbiddingly nonemotive performance artist, previewed her latest conceptual piece for Redford’s character.
Even though I was young and relatively unschooled in the ways of the avant garde, I remember Hannah’s “piece” as an abomination, a Beverly Hills person’s idea of what conceptual artists were doing in subterranean performance spaces in Manhattan’s East Village: way too literalistic, not nearly open-ended enough, and just... astonishingly wrong. I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. And now, thanks to the YouTube Memory Retrieval Machine, I’ve been able to watch it again. It hasn’t grown any less ridiculous. In fact, Robert Redford’s wide-eyed expressions of gobsmacked disbelief and fear are even sillier than I remembered, like Stymie’s reaction shots in old Our Gang shorts. Watch for yourself:
I was startled upon opening the April issue of Vanity Fair to see a spotlight on Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, and The Winds of War, among other books. Startled because I’d presumed he’d been, oh, dead for at least two decades. It turns out he’ll be 95 in May, and he has a new book out called The Language That God Talks. (Maybe when you’re in your nineties, you start hearing it.)
Now that I’m armed with this new knowledge that Wouk is alive, I’m wondering if I should resolve an agitating episode from my freshman English class in high school. We were taking a test on The Caine Mutiny. The big essay question was, “Who is the real villain in The Caine Mutiny?” I knew a tricky question when I saw one, and figured that the teacher wanted us to weigh who was most culpable for the messy situation aboard the World War II minesweeper the USS Caine: Was it the tyrannical, corrupt, warped Captain Queeg; the cynical, jaded protagonist, midshipman Willie Keith; or the aloof, manipulative communications officer Tom Keefer?
I went with the obvious choice, Captain Queeg, saying the other two have their flaws but are not purely evil, as Queeg is. I wrote what I thought was an eloquent essayette to this end. And then I got a bad grade because my teacher said I was wrong! The “correct” answer, she said, is that the real villain of The Caine Mutiny is the U.S. Navy, which created a climate in which a monster like Queeg could rise up through the ranks, and in which people like Keith and Keefer would have their worst tendencies brought out.
I was outraged and crushed. (And, admittedly, a totally grade-conscious little priss back then.) First of all, how could there be an objectively right answer to the question “Who is the real villain of The Caine Mutiny?” And second of all, who expects a bunch of 15-year-olds to intuit that the “correct” answer is some abstruse anti-military meta-concept?
I vented to my mother about this (albeit not in those words) and told her that I’d love to know how Herman Wouk himself would answer the question. She mentioned that her Uncle Dan actually knew Herman Wouk, or had known Herman Wouk, and maybe they were still friends. Uncle Dan was a writer of some repute named Daniel Fuchs, a man who wrote a trilogy of novels about the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the 1930s and later became a successful screenwriter out west. Such was my animated rage that I spent 45 minutes staring down Uncle Dan’s California phone number in our address book, trying to summon the nerve to call this relative I barely knew so that I could ask him to put me in touch with his putative friend Herman Wouk so I could ask Wouk what he thought of my English teacher’s smug little thesis and the stupid question that set it up.
But I never called Uncle Dan or pestered Wouk. And then the whole episode receded in my mind as the years went by and other grievances and perceived slights took its place. Yet now, knowing Wouk is still out there, I’m tempted to get his phone number and ask him who he thinks the real enemy in The Caine Mutiny is. Uncle Dan is long dead. But I bet, with my V.F. connections, I can get Wouk’s number.
—from the forthcoming “A Catalogue of Perceived Slights: A Memoir”