James Dean, death-cult idol

(K. Brent Tomer),

IN SPRING 1955 a 26-year-old photographer named Dennis Stock went to a party at the Los Angeles bungalow of Nicholas Ray, a film director, and was introduced to a 23-year-old actor named James Dean. Dean was a taciturn kid with a sharp chin and hair that stood up off his forehead in parallel lines, like copper wiring. He said he had just worked in a new movie by Elia Kazan. Stock went to see it; it was “East of Eden”, and he was floored. Stock pitched and shot a photo series for LIFE magazine (“Moody New Star”), with Dean slumming about New York and hamming it up on an uncle’s farm in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. Six months later Dean was the biggest youth idol in the history of American movies, and he was dead.

Sixty years ago today, on September 30th 1955, Dean slammed his Porsche Spyder into an oncoming car in central California. It has since been impossible to look at material from his life without a sense of foreshadowing. In “Rebel Without a Cause”, the movie he made with Ray, Dean’s character takes part in a game of chicken, racing…Continue reading

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On poetry, piety and the pope

(K. Brent Tomer),

IN HIS address to Congress last week, Pope Francis named Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, as one of four great Americans he admired. The other three were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King junior and Thomas Merton. Few people would have been more delighted with this tribute to Day than a fellow New Yorker, W. H. Auden.

Auden, who was ten years younger than the 1897-born Day, called her a saint. He admired her as much for her dedication to social justice as for her individual conscience, which resonated with his own take on Christianity. Day was a socialist and single mother who attacked Spain’s church-backed dictator, General Franco, supported Cuba’s pro-poor but anti-clerical Fidel Castro, took on the cardinal of New York when he broke a grave-diggers’ strike, marched against the Vietnam war, and hated being called a saint. Auden was a practicing homosexual who referred to the almighty as “Miss God”, did not believe in the resurrection, and found the idea of hell “morally revolting”. His sexuality tormented him, but he refused to choose between his love for Christ and other eligible young men.

1933 was of crucial religious significance to both Day and Auden. It was in this year, when the Great Depression was at its bleakest, that Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin, a radical French immigrant…Continue reading

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The rajah of cricket

(K. Brent Tomer),

A FOREIGN viewer of Indian television, on the evening of July 29th 2006, might have been forgiven for thinking the country had just elected a new government: such was the barrage of news flashes and shouted punditry, across dozens of news channels and in multiple languages, to record an election that had just taken place in Kolkata. But in some ways it was bigger than that: Jagmohan Dalmiya, the fallen titan of Indian cricket, who had turned the country’s favourite game into a multi-billion-dollar business and in the process transformed it, was back.

Mr Dalmiya, who died on September 20th, loved cricket with the passion of the Bengalis he grew up among. The smell of a freshly mown wicket, the hubbub of an expectant Indian crowd, the sight and sounds of cricket, the company of cricketers: he adored it all. The son of a rich builder, from the astonishingly successful Marwari business community, he also loved making money—maybe he loved…Continue reading

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America’s most watched

(K. Brent Tomer),

ON SEPTEMBER 22nd 18m Americans huddled around their televisions to find out the fate of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the silver-haired, stoic lead of “NCIS”. Although you would never know it from the newspapers, “NCIS” (which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service), is America’s most-watched television drama. Combining the elements of a police procedural with an extra splash of ooh-rah patriotism, the show appeals to America’s heartland but repels big-city liberals. With a median viewer age of 61, it’s the least hip show on television.

Shows like “NCIS” and “The Big Bang Theory” (the most-watched show overall) illustrate a growing divergence in the television-viewing habits of coastal urbanites and the rest of the country. Both shows are produced by CBS, have huge followings—averaging over 20m viewers each—but receive very little attention from the media. In contrast, critically-acclaimed shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” each averaged just 9.3m, and 3.7m viewers, according to Nielsen, a television-ratings agency. Since Mad Men’s launch in 2007, The New York Times has written…Continue reading

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Targeting Blatter

(K. Brent Tomer),

FIFA, football’s global governing body, was thrown into crisis in May. The United States indicted more than a dozen of its officials and sports-marketing executives on corruption charges, and had seven of them dramatically arrested at dawn at a swanky Zurich hotel. Since then, the organisation’s top dogs have been careful not to travel to countries that have extradition agreements with America—which forced them to miss the women’s World Cup final in Vancouver. But any thought that the authorities in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, would go easy compared with those do-gooding Americans was laid to rest this week. On Friday the Swiss attorney-general’s office announced that it had placed Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s 79-year-old leader, under criminal investigation. Mr Blatter was questioned, his office searched, and data seized.

He is being probed “on suspicion of criminal mismanagement as well as, alternatively, on suspicion of misappropriation” of funds. The investigation relates to a television-rights contract that Mr Blatter signed in 2005 with Jack Warner, then head of the Caribbean football federation (who was one of those indicted in May, but remains in his homeland of Trinidad, fighting extradition to America). The attorney-general suspects that this deal was unfavourable for FIFA and that Mr Blatter thus “violated his fiduciary duties”. Under the…Continue reading

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The universal resonance of Orpheus and Eurydice

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT IS ONE of the best Greek myths: the story of the man who almost brings his wife back from the dead. Orpheus and Eurydice have bequeathed us an unforgettable drama of amorous failure. A man, given a second chance at keeping his true love, blows it for good.
Through the ages, composers, artists and writers—Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, Ingres and Rodin, Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh and Tennessee Williams—have repeatedly mined the narrative for its implacability, its mix of desire and loss. The doomed pair even made it into Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”, an acclaimed 2013 rock album. The cover shows Rodin’s exquisite 1893 sculpture of the two figures.
The myth’s literary foundation lies in works by Latin poets Virgil and Ovid. Orpheus, whose music overpowers all who hear it, is an Argonaut. His wife is Eurydice; pursued by a lustful son of Apollo, she steps on a snake and its…Continue reading

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Munch and van Gogh finally meet in Amsterdam

(K. Brent Tomer),


AXEL RÜGER, the russet-haired director of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, is a confident man. And this ambitious new show feels very much a product of that confidence. It is, after all, the first time Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, near-contemporaries and equally iconoclastic painters, have met.

A few months ago this tête-à-tête would have seemed inauspicious if not wildly unlikely. What is now the entrance to the exhibition space was thick with builders’ dust and rubble; the new glass atrium, which also contains the cloakrooms and gift shop, only opened to the public on September 5th. The sheer value of the works by the two painters proved a challenge too. One of the four versions of Munch’s “The Scream” was sold for $120m in 2012 to Leon Black, an American financier. It was recently announced that “Landscape Under a Stormy Sky”, painted by van Gogh in 1889, a year before his death, is expected by Sotheby’s to reach between $50m-$70m at an auction in New York in November. The cost of the insuring the 130-odd works on view—around 60 by each artist plus some by contemporaries—threatened to…Continue reading

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Fate and furies

(K. Brent Tomer),

Stones of contention

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945. By Nicholas Stargardt. Bodley Head; 736 pages; £25. To be published in America by Basic Books in October; $35.

WHEN Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it started what the world has ever since seen self-evidently as a war of German aggression. But Germans had a very different view, as Nicholas Stargardt, a historian at Oxford University, convincingly shows in this depiction of how ordinary Germans experienced “their” war.

In 1939 there were no rallies or marches in Germany, as there had been in 1914. The atmosphere was instead one of muted worry. The Germans had accepted the Nazi propaganda that “they were caught up in a war of national defence, forced upon them by Allied machinations and Polish aggression.” Their anxiety only turned into euphoria after the surprisingly easy victories in the early phase of the war, first in Poland then in France.

Embedded journalists accompanied the army and sent home newsreels depicting heroism and adventure. German boys worried that they were “born too late”; the war…Continue reading

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Unclouded vision

(K. Brent Tomer),

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. By Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Crown; 352 pages; $28. Random House; £14.99.

WEAPONS of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. It will rain tomorrow. Jeremy Corbyn cannot possibly become leader of the Labour Party. The Japanese rugby team will never beat South Africa. Human beings cannot resist trying to scry the future. If soothsaying is not the oldest profession, it is certainly one of them.

The Chinese had the I-Ching; the Romans peered at the entrails of sacrificed animals. These days, anyone wanting to know what the future holds can consult everything from telephone psychics to intelligence agencies, bookies, futures markets and media pundits. Their record is far from perfect. But it is difficult to say just how imperfect: for all the importance people attach to forecasting, hardly anyone bothers to keep score.

Philip Tetlock is a rare exception. His most recent book, “Superforecasting”, (written with Dan Gardner, a Canadian journalist with an interest in politics and human psychology) is a scientific analysis of the ancient art of divination. Mr…Continue reading

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