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Tuesday, May 04, 2004

THE FATHER OF ROSEMARY'S BABY 

Michael at Two Blowhards just put up a fabulous post championing Ira Levin--the author of several well known suspense novels, including Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys from Brazil--as a shining example of how Americans can make really good, really American art by inventively combining low and high.

His main conclusion:
For all these reasons, it seems to me that, as a general rule, the best way for a sophisticated artist to respond to (and try to take part in) American culture is to first accept it as is -- as the quirky, eccentric, non-Euro, money-driven, anti-intellectual free-for-all that it has always been. Instead of fighting the losing battle of rejecting and overcoming this basic fact, why not instead add to it? In the words of the great jazz-writer and novelist Albert Murray, don't reject the basics, but "extend and elaborate" them. (In Murray's view, that's what jazz is: an extension, elaboration, and complexification of certain folk and popular ingredients.) Don't have a tantrum and call your tantrum art. Why not instead try the value-added approach? Why not accept what the culture comes up with, and deepen it? Show your class not by rejecting but by improving; take the enjoyable, funky basics and raise 'em to a new level. Without putting what they are in the raw form down, of course.
But like I said, that's just his conclusion (or more precisely, one of them). It comes near the end of a a post that's very long--an essay, really, in typical Two Blowhards fashion--but that's well worth reading in its entirety, not least for Michael's analysis of a wonderful passage from Stepford about a dinner party. I've never read anything by Levin, but the excerpt that Michael glosses just promoted him to the top of my reading list.

As an aside, I saw Roman Polanski's movie version of Rosemary's Baby for the first time on late-night cable a few months ago, and I was surprised by how good it is. (Michael says he likes it but not nearly as much as he likes the novel.) Largely filmed in the ready-made Gothic atmosphere of the Dakota--yes, that Dakota--it's both stealthily suspenseful and (no doubt unintentionally, but charmingly so) uncannily evocative of mid-60s Manhattan. But most surprising to me was how damn funny it is. The last scene in particular is so over the top that I was laughing out loud. But I suppose that kind of suspense-culminating-in-humor genre-busting is just another twist on what Michael is advocating. And if the book trumps the movie, I can't wait.

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