TUESDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2020
Thus ever with revolutions: For ourselves, we've never quite understood how Vertigo came to be regarded as "the greatest film in history."
The film has massive flaws. For starters, its basic storyline takes us so far beyond implausibility that you can't even see implausibility from there.
Beyond that, two of its four major characters have simply disappeared by the end of the film. The ultimate fate of the murderous husband is never addressed. More unhappily, the Barbara Bel Geddes character has also ceased to exist.
In a more humiliating version of the Grace Kelly character from Rear Window, the Bel Geddes character has begged Jimmy Stewart to marry her—possibly, just to concede that she exists—through the first two-thirds of the film.
At that point, she ceases to exists. As it turns out, it wasn't just Stewart. Hitchcock didn't care about this character either!
That said, the film does have a certain dreamy quality, suggesting that it's secretly about all things known to humans. This is especially true when Carlotta Valdes possesses the Kim Novak character, producing dreamy memory episodes which take us back to, and perhaps beyond, the dawn of the human race.
(See Novak, counting the rings on the redwoods, dreamily in the Muir Woods.)
For whatever reason, we've found ourselves thinking of Valdes as we've pondered the New York Times' inevitably award-winning undertaking, The 1619 Project.
At some point in 2019, the Times decided that it would go ahead and set all of American history straight. Nor was it reluctant to say so:
The 1619 Project
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
Finally! Finally, someone was going to "tell our story truthfully!" For better or worse, it was going to be a bunch of journalists at a deeply flawed, Hamptons-based, super-bougie newspaper.
Finally! After all these years, this bunch of journalists was going to get it right. They weren't just going to "tell our story" accurately.
Finally, for the first time, someone was actually going to tell our story truthfully!
Thus spake the eternally childish Times. Mommy and Daddy had lied all along. At long last, finally, the children were going to be honest.
Obviously, there's nothing wrong with trying to give a full account of the backwash—the continuing destructive effects—of our nation's brutal racial history.
There is something a little bit odd about the idea that a bunch of journalists are going to be the ones to accomplish this task—with the idea that these Peter Pans would be the first to try to do so "truthfully."
A certain childishness might seem to lurk in those inspiring phrases. With that in mind, we were a bit surprised by the speed with which this slightly peculiar project took shape.
Last Thursday, Sarah Ellison detailed that part of the story in the Washington Post. The idea began with the Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones, an experienced, thoroughly competent 43-year-old journalist.
At least in Ellison's telling, the project came together quickly:
ELLISON (10/15/20): In December 2018, Hannah-Jones was rushing to finish a book project before the end of a temporary leave from the Times—but another deadline kept nagging at her.
She had been thinking about August 1619 ever since discovering the date in high school, on page 29 of Lerone Bennett’s “Before the Mayflower.” That was when the White Lion merchant ship brought more than 20 enslaved Africans to the shores of Virginia—a rarely noted milestone that probably marked the beginning of chattel slavery in the mainland English colonies.
Now the 400th anniversary loomed. “And I was wondering, what I should do with that?” Hannah-Jones said in a recent interview.
Back at work, she told her colleagues she wanted to mark the occasion with a special issue dedicated to slavery’s impact on modern society. “It didn’t take very much convincing,” said Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor in chief. Hannah-Jones convened a multidisciplinary group of scholars—Pulitzer winners and Ivy League stars among them—to steer her thinking and brainstorm topics.
Seven months later, the 1619 Project had expanded to include a broadsheet section of the newspaper, a podcast series and a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center to develop a free school curriculum...
A school curriculum—even that! The project had expanded like topsy. We'll return to that particular expansion before the week is done.
(In fairness, and on the brighter side, some "Ivy League stars" were consulted. Sic semper that!)
Let's start with the obvious. There's zero reason why Hannah-Jones shouldn't have wanted to call attention to the 400th anniversary of that profoundly unfortunate event.
It made perfect sense to think that the Times might want to call attention to that deeply unfortunate milestone. Beyond that, there's no reason why the Time might not want to chronicle "slavery’s impact on modern society."
Those ambitions make perfect sense. We'll admit that we're not completely impressed with the way things seem to have proceeded from there.
Based upon Ellison's chronology, it sounds like Hannah-Jones approached Silverstein, her editor, at some point in early 2019. "Seven months later," this germ of a perfectly sensible idea had expanded far and wide.
We're prepared to admit that Ellison's chronology makes us think of the old films—for example, Babes in Arms—in which Judy and Mickey get the rest of the kids together to put on a show.
The shows would come together with remarkable speed. At least as Ellison tells it, so did this somewhat unusual project.
For today, we'll only mention one additional point. We're struck by Ellison's account of Hannah-Jones' intellectual journey.
"She had been thinking about August 1619 ever since discovering the date in high school," Ellison writes, "on page 29 of Lerone Bennett’s 'Before the Mayflower.' "
It's completely appropriate that that auspicious date should have stuck in Hannah-Jones' mind. More accurately, it speaks well of Hannah-Jones that the date stuck in her mind.
Based on her own date of graduation from high school, she apparently came upon that date some time in the early 1990s.
It's completely appropriate that that date should have stuck in her mind. But Bennett's book was originally published in 1962. The very phrase, "before the Mayflower," had become iconic decades before it impressed Hannah-Jones, as well it should have.
Our point is simple. The kids at the Times almost seem to think that they have discovered this history for the very first time. In fact, this history had been known to many people for a very long time before Hannah-Jones spoke with Silverstein, and many people other than they have tried to deal with it truthfully.
To our reckoning, the idea that they were "finally" going to "tell our story truthfully" suggests a certain possibility. It suggest the possibility that a so-called "revolution of the saints" was now underway at the Times.
The Times has often produced underwhelming work, and it may have done so again. On that point, opinions are likely to differ.
How good was the work which emerged from this somewhat unusual project? We'll start to evaluate that question tomorrow. For today, we'll only say this:
Revolutions of the saints often produce unhelpful work. Gullible members of our own tribe may not be aware of this problem.
Over the weekend, Carlotta Valdes recalled the many errors of the near and more distant past, American and otherwise. She adopted a dreamy, mournful aspect.
It almost seemed to us that her insights were sharp.
Tomorrow: To our ear, almost a bit like Woodward