Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mark Harris

Mark Harris works as a writer and editor covering movies, television and books for Entertainment Weekly, where he now writes the back-page column "The Final Cut." He has written about pop culture for many other publications as well, including Slate and the New York Times. His new book is Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
How do you write about a relationship you never witnessed between two people you never met when those two people seem to have left almost no written trace of their history together? Judith Freeman sets that steep challenge for herself in The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, in which she tries to explain -- to herself as much as to us -- the thirty-year marriage of the alcoholic, philandering, possibly bisexual Chandler to a woman eighteen years his senior. It's an act of biographical speculation in some ways, but it's speculation of a very thoughtful and responsible order, and Freeman goes about her task in a completely original way: The Chandlers, for reasons that remain as elusive as their relationship, never stopped moving, and Freeman retraces their path to and from the nearly three dozen houses and apartments in and around Los Angeles where they lived.

As a native New Yorker who writes about the movie business, I've always been fascinated by the impossible geography of L.A. -- its endless sprawl, its lack of a center, and the way in which it constantly keeps facelifting and remaking itself. And Freeman finds, unexpectedly, a new form in which to explore that strange terrain -- her biography gives way to her efforts as a kind of geographical archaeologist who wants to understand, and to feel viscerally, the Los Angeles that Chandler evoked so brilliantly. Sometimes she can and sometimes she can't, but the moments when she comes upon a strip mall or a housing project where a home used to be add up to an amazing cautionary tale about how, as she puts it, "when you constantly change a landscape, you erase the collective memory of a city." By the end of the book, Chandler's marriage was still something of a mystery to me, but his writing, and Los Angeles, suddenly made sense in a whole new way.

In the category of longer-term reading projects, I've been drawn lately to the Library of America's two-volume history Reporting Vietnam, a beautifully ordered chronological collage of journalistic approaches to Vietnam from the earliest days of U.S. involvement to the end of the war. It's really a vindication of on-the-ground journalism, the thing that gets dismissed so often as merely a rough draft of history, something that will be corrected later when one has the leisure to take the long view. That's often true, but the best war journalism -- the best journalism about ANY subject -- has a value that's almost always underestimated; the sharpness and immediacy of its perspective and its ability to capture a specific moment of thought and action has value that is, in some ways, as enduring as post facto history -- and it can be just as illuminating, from a historical perspective, when it turns out to have been completely wrong.
Read more about Mark Harris and his work at the Pictures at a Revolution website.

--Marshal Zeringue