Monday, June 30, 2003

Montgomery Clift: A Biography, by Patricia Bosworth

The first time I was aware of Montgomery Clift was seven or eight years ago when my roommate John brought home a rented copy of A Place in the Sun and said "You have to watch this." The movie is a classic in its own right, but in large part it's Clift's performance that makes it so. His portrayal of George Eastman (no relation to the camera inventor) is nuanced, hopeless and thoroughly engrossing. Monty is probably best-known for the role of Prewitt in From Here to Eternity--either that or for The Clash song "The Right Profile"--but his career, while not as prolific as one might have hoped, ranged from stage to all different genres of film.

Bosworth's book provides a glimpse of Monty's approach to acting, of all-night discussions with friends and colleagues on the finest points of character. She makes it clear that he was not always easy to work with; he often rewrote his own dialogue, criticized the performances of his co-stars, and struggled with directors over their approaches. Monty's uncompromising nature, and perhaps his genius as well, may have sprung from his upbringing. His mother Sunny was the illegitimate granddaughter of a Civil War hero, and her mother's sister had married into a wealthy family. But Sunny was raised by a foster family, and despite a lifelong struggle was never acknowledged by her relations. Still, misled by a great aunt into thinking that if she raised her children "properly" that she would eventually gain acceptance, she raised Monty, his twin sister and their older brother as "thoroughbreds," traveling with them to Europe, teaching them several languages, hiring them tutors in music and art. His mother's ideas of what was proper were a weighty influence on Monty in later life, feeding particularly into his internal conflicts over his homosexuality. Whether it was this alone which led to his excessive drinking and drug use is open to debate, but it certainly seems to have been a contributing factor.

Bosworth's portrayal of Clift centers largely on the people who came into his life--once they are introduced many of them fade into the background of the narrative--and on the signposts of his career. Even after his substance abuse became habitual, Monty's work was rarely short of stellar. An automobile accident in 1956 during the filming of Raintree County left him disfigured and necessitated reconstructive surgery, but despite losing much of the mobility on the left side of his face Monty never lost his ability to reach for the heart of a role and make it breathe. Despite this, he developed a reputation for being difficult, and was all but blacklisted by the time of his death at 46. Monty never seems to have been particularly happy, although it seems clear that he drew great satisfaction from his work when all was going well.

Bosworth writes well, and clearly, and drew upon interviews from family and friends for this book. She neither sensationalizes Monty's life nor flinches from his shortcomings, and that makes this an illuminating--if heartbreaking--read.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Catskin: a swaddled zine, by Kelly Link

When Christopher Rowe called for contributions to the below zine, for whatever reason this story was not completed in time. Hence its publication by either Jelly Ink Press or Small Beer Press, I'm not certain which. It's a tiny little book, which I happened upon while browsing at Quimby's, and which you yourself will probably never find again if you don't already have a copy. Moment of smugness. OK, now I can tell you that this same story appears in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales which is not so very difficult to find and which households of good repute already have on their book-shelf or -stack. (Households of ill repute may have copies as well, but rest assured that I wouldn't know it if they did.) So you too can own and read Ms. Link's fairy tale.

Catskin is the story of Small, the smallest of a dying witch's three surviving children, and the one to whom she bequeaths her revenge. What follows is a fairy tale, skinned, worn and turned inside-out, stained, torn and stretched almost beyond recognition. What's best about Link is that she never follows straight lines and rarely takes the quick and clean way through when slow and dirty will do. Small is befriended by one of his mother's cats, and becomes a cat himself, or a boy in a catsuit, traveling with a cat who becomes like a mother to him except insofar as she may in fact be his real mother, who may or may not still be buried in the infant house where he and his brother and sister left her. You must read this story, because I cannot describe it any better than this, and this is terribly inadequate. So go, and buy, and read.

. . . is this a cat? a question, a publication of The Fortress of Words

The Fortress of Words is the publishing concern of Christopher Rowe, although "publishing concern" is a big bunch of words. Basically FOW publishes Say . . . (of which . . . is this a cat was the maiden voyage) and nothing else (so far).

The contents of . . . is this a cat? consist of answers to the question posed, in fictional, factual, graphical or other forms. There's "Cat Years" by Scott Westerfield, which takes a bouncer's request for ID to absurd and literal lengths. There is "Nakadamit ang bata na parang pusa," by M. L. Konett, the story of a Filipino mother and daughter with an affinity for cats. Jeffrey Ford contributes "Summer Afternoon," the story of a blocked writer who places imaginary phone calls to Henry James and real ones to a woman novelist. Gwenda Bond's "The Strange Case of Portnoy Rowe: A Gumpaw Story" takes a hard-boiled investigative approach (complete with feline P.I.'s), while Justin Colussy Estes's "His Master's Face" is a comic about shifting identities. "I Remember the Catsuit Kids" is a surrealistic fictional family memoir by Alan Deniro, while "Four Scenarios" by Justine Larbalestier takes a direct approach to possible answers. There are stories by Alex Irvine and Richard Butner, charmingly odd pieces by Gavin J. Grant, an essay by Emily Pohl-Weary, a crossword puzzle (you read it right) by Pen Waggener, and a nonfiction piece on delusional misidentification syndromes by Ted Chiang. All in all, a strong issue, the best pieces being the Westerfield and the Butner, though Gavin Grant's oddities are also very entertaining.