Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Book: Things I’ve Said But Probably Shouldn’t Have, by Bruce Dern (2007)

Dern subtitled his book “An Unrepentant Memoir,” and he’s as good as his word. His co-writers Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane are wise enough to organize the material and then stay out of Dern’s way as he walks through a long career “playing people that live just beyond where the buses run.”

The result reads like a long, rambling conversation with the actor while he’s waiting to be called to the set. Dern’s voice can be courtly one minute, referring to actresses he admires as Miss (Miss Bening, Miss Sally Field), and juvenile the next. Dern is refreshingly frank about sex but discusses it like the Midwestern teenager he once was, talking about “humpers” and getting into some puss. He isn’t shy about airing his grudges and his dislikes. (He calls Al Franken “a poor man’s Art Metrano,” for me the high point of the book.)

Dern also expounds at length about what excites him to this day about acting, namely capturing actual human behavior onscreen. He cites several of these living moments, called “Dernsers,” with many coming from my favorite Dern movies, Smile and Diggstown. His comparison of Matt Damon’s performance in Good Will Hunting and Ryan O’Neal’s in Love Story has me ready to watch both movies again. And he makes it plain how his devotion to long-distance running has brought discipline to his life and work. This warts-and-all book goes on the (very) short list of acting memoirs worth reading.

Newsstand: The New Yorker, July 9

I just caught up with Alex Ross’s article on the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who became a popular favorite during his life but never received the respect of the critical establishment. He died without completing what was expected to be his masterwork. There’s a lot of music theory in the article that’s beyond me, but a great deal that seems applicable to the arts in general. Two quotes in particular struck me. The first, from Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s 1925 book Living Music:

“The simplest is the hardest, the universal the most lasting, the straightest the strongest, like the pillars that support the dome.”

And American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, from 1984:

“The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.”

Of course, that one ain’t just true of the arts.