Steppenwolf: Diary, 7/23 to 7/27/21

Hesse’s Steppenwolf; “Hollywood Comedy Legends” and other movies; progress on Kick Me; reading as a writer; muddle-headed versus simple-minded distinction.

Copyright 2021 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

{7/23/21}  Weight 215.4 at 5:50 am.

I received about 70 movies from Hamilton Booksellers, 50 of those in one package, “Hollywood Comedy Legends.”  So I watched three horror movies on DVD last night, for no good reason; er, that is, I was bored, didn’t want to work on KM, and didn’t want to read, having nothing I’m excited about right now.  Steppenwolf, which I’ve been trying to finish by Saturday (tomorrow), is tiresome.  Anyway, the three I watched are part of one package, “4-Movie Horror Collection” from “Blumhouse Productions.”  It was about $5.  I’ll put in a plug for Hamilton; I have been completely pleased with their selection, prices, and service; they’re often much cheaper than Amazon because they sell mostly remaindered items; prices on new items are comparable, with a total of $4 for shipping regardless of number of items purchased.

So first I watched The Veil, starring Jessica Alba.  I like her, but this movie seemed suspiciously familiar, like I might have seen the start before.  It’s based on the Jim Jones mass suicide tragedy of several decades ago.  Alba plays a documentary movie maker investigating the tragedy, assisted by the lone survivor.  The preaching/ranting of the Jones-character got very tiresome, and the rest of the movie offered little besides jump scares and nonsense.  It’s basically ghosts and zombies.

Mercy was better, based on a Stephen King short story.  A boy loves his grandma, but grandma is scary and eventually terrifying.  Some originality, so not “your usual horror flick,” not bad, not great, about as much as one could ask from one of these.  Shirley Knight plays the eponym.

The last was Visions; a couple buys a winery and tries to make a go of it, but the wife—who’s “off her meds,” is seeing weird things.  Are they real, or what?  Isla Fisher, the star, is attractive and a familiar face; also includes small roles for John de Lancie (not sure of the spelling; he’s familiar as “Q” of Star Trek TNG) and Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory; several other names were familiar, but I didn’t connect them to faces.  The situation is a cliché, but it held my interest; the payoff/revelation at the end was a letdown.

I haven’t watched the fourth in the package, Mockingbird;: “Three unsuspecting individuals receive an unmarked video camera with a horrifying ultimatum: continue filming…or die.”  I’m not encouraged.

The movies are all from 2014, and none are reviewed in my Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever.  I buy a lot of these cheap horror collections; so far this is much better than average, with generally good production values.  On the other hand, I have no particular desire to see any of these again.

{7/24/21}  Weight 214.6 at 5:00 am.  The last time I weighed this little was on 7/2.

Mockingbird, the 4th and last film in the Blumhouse package, is also the least.  The premise, quoted here yesterday, is “Three unsuspecting individuals receive an unmarked video camera with a horrifying ultimatum: continue filming…or die.”  In the first three minutes we hear screaming, again and again, things like, “No, no, I did what you said, I didn’t stop filming.”  Then we see a boy, the screamer, perhaps twelve years old, getting shot in the head.  Then the three cameras are, in turn, taken out of their boxes by three persons, and we see how they react to the unexpected “gifts.”  The movie is quite unpleasant, with lots of screaming and sobbing for the three (plus one spouse) because of endless minor acts of terrorism.  I won’t say more about the plot, except that it was generally disappointing, you see the ending coming, and the denouement is preposterous.  I didn’t like two of the three threads, though the acting was good and I enjoyed the classical music “soundtrack.”  The photography was of the “found footage” type, and thus intentionally quite poor.  I can imagine that some viewers will like it; I did not.

I also watched Angel on My Shoulder, a ’40s comedy starring Paul Muni as a gangster, Claude Rains as the Devil, and Anne Baxter as Muni’s love interest.  I’d guess it was popular in its day, given the popularity of this kind of “second chance at life” thing, but it didn’t do much for me.  Given the lateness of the hour, I fast forwarded through perhaps ten minutes towards the end, without regret.  I adore the sardonic, golden-voiced Claude Rains, but he wasn’t enough to make me want to see this again.  Muni is fine as always, Baxter was okay but uninspiring.  A few laughs along the way.  You likely know well enough whether you’ll want to see this oldie; I don’t recommend it unless you’re a sucker for Capraesque morality plays.

Work on Kick Me proceeds well; I’ve finished a final read-through, so now I have to do the editing.  Reading with close attention to familiar material turns out to be more difficult than I knew, and after about two hours I’ve had enough.  The editing should be painless in comparison, so I anticipate meeting my end-of-month deadline.

{7/26/21}  Weight 216.4 at 4:00 am.

Yesterday’s weight 215.0 at 6:40 am.

These days I’m waking up after five or six hours of sleep and can’t get back to sleep until three or four hours later.  A melatonin pill doesn’t seem to make any difference.

I’ve been watching “Hollywood Comedy Legends,” a 50-movie DVD package that cost me ten bucks.  Disks 1 and 2 is all “dogs,” unless you like Bogie’s Beat the Devil, which I did not—I shut it off after less than half an hour, not being at all interested in “who will get the uranium?”  It’s one of the movies that persuaded me to buy this set.

Last night I watched Texas, Broadway, and Heaven and was surprised and charmed by the adorable Diana Lynn in a fairly amusing story of young love.  Guy Madison is the swain.  I laughed out loud a few times, but the painfully silly last half hour cast a pall over the whole.  David Niven and Loretta Young in Eternally Yours looked passable for a while, but even the ever-amusing Eve Arden wasn’t able to save it for me, and I gave it up after twenty minutes.  Others of the eight on these disks were even more hopeless.  Rejects include:  Catch Me a Spy, That Uncertain Feeling, Broadway Limited, and Rescue from Gilligan’s Island.  So far the only one that held my interest without disgusting me is Angel on My Shoulder, reviewed here on 7/24.  Forty-two to go.

TCM had on Captain Sindbad (from 1963), also with Guy Madison.  I watched it because it has Heidi Brühl, who died tragically young at 49 in 1971.  I thought I had written about this last time I watched it, a few months ago, but I couldn’t find anything, looking as far back as the 2019 diary file.  It’s a silly but colorful movie that seemed a lot more interesting in 1963, but Ms. Brühl still appeals to me.  Great eyebrows (not kidding).  She was a popular singer in Germany in her day.

The Hemlock Club meeting on Saturday (today is Monday) went well but I have no interest in writing about it, or about much of anything, but I want something for the blog and posterity.  I suppose I could say that I’m depressed; eating two hefty cinnamon rolls yesterday is some evidence of this.

I’m fifty pages from the end of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which has been a plod through a charmless and increasingly silly “study” of depression.  It’s mostly wool-gathering and whining by the suicidal, self-absorbed protagonist, Harry Haller.  Pablo and I have had an absurdly heated dispute over a comment that I made early on about the believability of something described in the framing story, specifically, about how much can be discerned of the thoughts of a person who has glanced at the narrator, that is, how much can be “read” from someone’s “glance.”  It annoys me when an author presents something that I find unbelievable in a story that seemingly aims to be realistic.  Pablo argues that I shouldn’t be annoyed, that I should let the author tell his story in his own way—words he got from me, it seems—and goes on about “suspension of disbelief,” which I counter with “the desirability of verisimilitude.”

Regrettably, most of our “disputes” are “absurdly heated.”  I blame him for this, of course.

I did a little rearranging of some of my possessions, getting some clothes packed away instead of just having them in a stack on top of a bookcase.  My shortage of storage space is annoying.

My usual pursuits seem mostly aimless, feckless, and worthless, despite solid progress on KM and other good things happening this year.  This always happens whenever I neglect my “highest priority,” which now is the editing of KM.  Over the past two months I’ve acquired about six books on writing which are mostly good, or good enough to keep, but it’s like my mother with cook books—she read them for enjoyment, and not for practical application.  So I drown my sorrows in old comedies that aren’t funny.

I told Pablo about my theory of “reading as a writer” and how I want to approach each paragraph with two questions in mind, “What is the author saying here, and how is she saying it?”  I’ve lately added, “Why is she saying it here?”  However, I find that the questions are rarely productive, that is, if I consider the questions explicitly, they rarely make sense regarding a paragraph.

{7/27/21}  Weight 215.8 at 5:20 am.

Watched Johnny Belinda and Earthworm Tractors yesterday.  Johnny Belinda I wanted to see because of Jane Wyman’s Oscar-winning performance as a deaf-mute.  Lew Ayres plays the young doctor love interest, though he’s ages too old for the part.  Charles Bickford is unusually effective (for him) as the gruff father, and Agnes Moorehead is usually effective (for her) as the maiden aunt.  It’s a sentimental, good drama.  Wyman is adorable and almost believable as the daughter.  While watching Stephen McNally as the complex villain, I couldn’t get out of my mind that my mother was a fan of his.  Was it because of this movie?  I wasn’t thoroughly happy with the ending, but I can’t remember why.  Anyway, I like it.

Earthworm Tractors was a vehicle (pun) for Joe E. Brown as a thoroughly irritating blowhard who destroys everything in sight by driving around a large tractor.  I laughed out loud a few times, shamefaced to be amused by such an empty-headed piece.  I’ve never been a fan of Brown, and this movie didn’t nudge the needle toward approval.  I turned it off after the tractor antics stopped, not wanting to see the conclusion that I expected to be sticky-sweet.

Other movies on the disk didn’t detain me long:  Lovers and Liars with Goldie Hawn I had seen on cable recently; Ginger in the Morning with Sissy Spacek started badly with an annoying, loud-and-fast-talking minor character played by a vaguely familiar actor and I gave it up after fast forwarding a bit; Love Laughs at Andy Hardy I didn’t even try, being an anti-fan of Mickey Rooney in most of his roles (as an old man he did some things I can tolerate).  So that was disk three of the “Hollywood Comedy Legends” set.  These Millcreek sets, though technically dubious because of sound and picture quality, are a good value when priced at $9.95, but at a list price of $29.95 I can’t recommend them.  This is about the fourth such set I’ve owned, and the others got donated, like this is sure to be eventually.  I’m always interested to see and learn the names of the old actors; Patsy Kelly, for instance, in Broadway Limited.  She was good in a thankless role in a worthless movie.

I am unfairly dismissive of so much talent and hard work, I know; I can live with that.  Many of these movies are of interest only as curiosities; for example, Tommy Smothers in There Goes the Bride, upcoming on disk four.

Now, to work.

I’ve been a good boy this morning.  Now I want to address something in Steppenwolf.  Spoiler alert!  Towards the end, to start a long sequence, Pablo2 invites Harry to “a little entertainment.  For madmen only, and one price only—your mind.”  p. 198.  [I call the character “Pablo2” to avoid confusion with my friend Pablo.]  Harry is shown a mirror, they go into a theater, Hermine is sent off, he is given drugs, then Pablo2 says, “…to teach you to laugh is the whole aim in getting up this entertainment…” p. 202.  I might have mixed up some details.

Harry does laugh, and the mirror is charred.  Pablo2 says, “You have done with the Steppenwolf at last.” p. 203.  This apparently is the “trifling suicide” that Pablo2 has said is required.

Harry is shown another mirror in which he sees a multitude of versions of himself, Pablo2 departs with one of them, another leads Harry to the hall of doors, and finally Harry enters a room in the theater, behind a door which says “Jolly Hunting—Great Hunt in Automobiles.”  p. 205.  Once inside, Harry tells us, “I saw at once that it was the long-prepared, long-awaited and long-feared war between men and machines, now at last broken out.” p. 205.  Harry’s schoolfriend Gustav turns up, p. 207.  Harry and Gustav then proceed to kill the drivers of cars; passengers are collateral damage.  This seems to me heavy-handed irony—the war against the machines involves killing men, not machines.

I don’t know what to make of this lengthy sequence except that it’s essentially a dream, because impossible things happen.  Pablo2 calls it a “visionary world.” p. 202.  There’s not much point in doing what I’m inclined to do, to try to separate visions from reality—e.g., are the persons killed actually dead?  What price laughter?  There’s nothing here to be “understood”; instead, we are encouraged to engage in what I call “tea leaf reading,” i.e., finding what isn’t there.  Thus pages 197 to 210.

It seems that X has blocked me on Facebook.  It seems that he really hates me.  Surely I deserve it, it’s not unexpected, yet it’s sad and depressing.

Talked with Pablo about Steppenwolf, which I finished today.  I said that it was a “muddleheaded novel, and I’m simple-minded,” a reference to what [Alfred North] Whitehead said to [Bertrand] Russell, quoted at the start of my Bleak Philosophy blog post.  I’ll quote the point:

“The muddle-headed look at the complexities of things and write obscurely; the simple-minded cultivate clear and distinct ideas but miss the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”

For the source, follow the link above.  This distinction turns out to be very useful, since I’m “simple-minded” and Pablo is “muddle-headed.”  Nog isn’t exactly either, since he doesn’t write, but he’s more interested in muddle-headed writing than I am, so I’d lump him together with Pablo in this.

Copyright 2021 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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