Archive | Book Matters

Why ‘The Exorcist’ Haunts Us Still

I first saw “The Exorcist” when I was 13 and home alone. This, of course, was a mistake; by the time the iconic bars of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” were running over the credits, I knew I’d never sleep that night, or possibly ever again. But it was not the circumstances of my viewing that made this film so abjectly terrifying. Forty-five years after its release, the adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 eponymous novel remains the most frightening movie ever made, and not just because it features a tween whose head spins backward.

At the time of the book’s publication, it seemed unlikely to ever achieve a mass audience, let alone be adapted into the ninth highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. Until then, Blatty, who also authored the screenplay, had been best known as the comedy screenwriter who’d given us the Inspector Clouseau mystery, “A Shot in the Dark.” A devout Catholic, he’d fictionalized an account of a 1949 exorcism by a Jesuit priest, but even his fancy Hollywood credentials couldn’t save it from being sent back to the publisher in droves. Only when a mysterious set of flukes landed him on the Dick Cavett Show for a full 45 minutes did the “The Exorcist” catapult to the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for 57 weeks. Continue Reading →

‘Wag the Dog’ Still Wags the Dog

When “Wag the Dog” hit theaters on Christmas 1997, nothing could have seemed more cleverly prescient. About a fake war staged to draw focus from a first-term U.S. president’s sex scandal, the film was released a month before then-President Clinton was accused of having sex with intern Monica Lewinsky and an Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was subsequently bombed by the U.S. Viewed ten years later, this dark comedy seemed even more relevant. Though the world was verging on an economic meltdown after the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, the media was distracted by Britney Spears’ nervous breakdown and Brangelina’s growing brood. Only today does this adaptation of Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero read as depressingly dated — if only because we have entered a new era of fake news and governmental deception. Continue Reading →

Past Perfect ‘Seasons’

Once when I was 12, I saved up my babysitting money and bought a ticket to hear Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” performed on George’s Island, a waterfront historical park located right off the coast of Boston.

I’d always been in love with that group of concerti, and my love had been as private as it had been absolute. My father was a resolute R&B worshipper and my mother bopped along to whatever he put on the turntable, slipping on Broadway musicals like “Gigi” when he wasn’t around. But I’d been a violinist since I was six; the Suzuki Method was huge in that era and both my factory-worker grandfathers had played ardently if unprofessionally. Playing classical instruments isn’t so common anymore but back then ordinary people of all classes and backgrounds did it all the time. I’ve been thinking about this, about how we used to make our own art and culture, didn’t just consume it like fast food.

By the time I realized I preferred the richer registers of the viola, my parents had already bought a grownup-sized violin–I was a tall kid–and my compromise was to practice just enough to justify their purchase. I played second violin in orchestra, and used my sight-reading skills more joyfully in chamber choir, where I sang first tenor. The result was a passion for the rigors of classical music that I rarely revealed at home or in my working-class neighborhood. Even now I rarely discuss this prediliction, though, left to my own devices, I listen to those busybody Baroque composers nearly as often as I listen to Aretha. Bach, Vivaldi, Dvořák; Telemann, too. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy