Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books

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Long recognized as America's most brilliant jazz writer, the winner of many major awards—including the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award—and author of a highly popular biography of Bing Crosby, Gary Giddins has also produced a wide range of stimulating and original cultural criticism in other fields. With Natural Selection, he brings together the best of these previously uncollected essays, including a few written expressly for this volume.
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Overview

Long recognized as America's most brilliant jazz writer, the winner of many major awards—including the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award—and author of a highly popular biography of Bing Crosby, Gary Giddins has also produced a wide range of stimulating and original cultural criticism in other fields. With Natural Selection, he brings together the best of these previously uncollected essays, including a few written expressly for this volume.
The range of topics is spellbinding. Writing with insight, humor, and a famously deft touch, he offers sharp-edged perspectives on such diverse subjects as Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Marlon Brando and Groucho Marx, Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan, horror and noir, the cartoon version of Animal Farm and the comic book series Classics Illustrated. Giddins brings to criticism an uncommon ability, long demonstrated in his music writing, to address in very few words an entire career, so that we get an in-depth portrait of the artist beyond the film, book, or recording under review. For instance, Giddins offers a stunning reappraisal of Doris Day, who he terms "the coolest and sexiest female singer of slow ballads in film history." He argues eloquently for a reconsideration of the forgotten German-language novelist Soma Morgenstern. In a section on comedy, he offers fresh perspectives on the three great silent film stars—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—while resurrecting the legendary Jack Benny and reevaluating the controversial Jerry Lewis. There's also a memorable look at Bing Crosby's film career (he calls Crosby's blockbuster Going My Way "a neglected masterpiece") and a close examination of Marcel Carne's beloved Children of Paradise. Of course, Giddins also supplies excellent commentary on jazz: major and underrated figures, and especially the uses of jazz in film.
A wonderful gathering of little-known treasures, Natural Selection will broaden the perception of Gary Giddins as one of our most important cultural critics.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A critic who wears his erudition lightly, writes with an impeccable combination of verve and sobriety and, above all, makes you see (and hear) the objects of his ruminations.... An engaging mind fully engaged with significant cultural objects in which it finds useful, surprising resonances.... We see our culture more clearly because of the force, intelligence and alertness to overlooked detail that Giddins brings to his readings of a past that remains stubbornly, if sometimes only subliminally, present in our own less acute remembrances."-Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Times

"Just try to read all of 'Natural Selection' without buying at least a few CD's and DVD's; the Criterion Collection should pay Giddins a commission."—New York Times Book Review

"In an age of blogs and the everyman critic, it's reassuring to know people as brilliant as Giddins are still ready to offer insights only a true critic can provide. This is an exceptional addition to a remarkable career.... Nowhere else in his works do we find such a wide range of subjects, which proves his perceptive talents and in-depth knowledge of the mediums of which he writes are unequalled."—Library Journal (starred review)

"Gary Giddins is well known for his sensitive and brilliantly insightful books and articles about jazz, but it turns out he is equally at home, and equally enthralling, writing about the movies (foreign and domestic), TV and radio personalities, fiction, authors of all sorts, and even rock music. The essays that make up this Natural Selection, taken individually, are often as good as humanist, personal criticism can possibly get, and taken as a whole, the book is very difficult to lay aside. You think you'll just read one more piece, and then you're into another couple because the ideas and style are so inviting, enjoyable, and revealing. When you've finished the whole thing, all you want is MORE!"—Peter Bogdanovich

"I'm not surprised that our premier jazz critic also turns out to be such an avid, knowledgeable writer on film as well as a discerning literary reader. Giddins's enthusiasm is contagious—his writing invariably gives genius its due. His essays on movies, music, and books are not only fluent and entertaining; they pack a shameless quotient of appreciation, information, and discrimination into a brief compass." —Morris Dickstein, author of Gates of Eden, Leopards in the Temple, and A Mirror in the Roadway

"Gary Giddins is not just giving us reviews—he's giving us autobiography, sharing with us the tastes, moods, observations, and passions of a man gifted with a pitch-perfect ear and a discerning eye. Natural Selection is his guided tour through the artifacts of his evolution. And along the way we evolve too as we realize we are traveling with a great sharer and passionate teacher. Listen and learn." —Philip Kaufman, film director

"Gary Giddins is one of our most important cultural critics, but it's only with this collection that I realized just how knowledgeable and expansive his sensibility is. I'm particularly glad to have in book form his DVD columns for The New York Sun, where he's given the space to resurrect lesser-known films, place them in context, and make readers want to get hold of and watch them with Giddins's book as guide. A must-have for every movie-lover's shelf!" —Molly Haskell, critic and author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies

Ada Calhoun
[Giddons] makes the case that popular culture, in all its minutiae, ultimately engages us with the world; immersing oneself in a book, song or film is the very opposite of escapist.
— The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195179514
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Giddins wrote the Village Voice's "Weather Bird" column for more than thirty years. His eight books and three documentary films have garnered unparalleled recognition for jazz, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, two Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Awards, six ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, a Guggenheim, and a Peabody. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Comedy
1 Speechless (Charlie Chaplin / Buster Keaton) 3
2 Hanging tough (Harold Lloyd) 10
3 There ain't no Sanity Claus (Groucho Marx and Brothers) 15
4 This guy wouldn't give you the parsley off his fish (Jack Benny) 24
5 Cowardly custard (Bob Hope) 37
6 Idiot semi-savant (Jerry Lewis) 46
Pt. 2 Film
7 Best picture, 1889 (Edison : the invention of the movies) 53
8 Who was that masked man? (Lon Chaney) 57
9 Reviving ghosts (Olive Thomas / Hindle wakes) 61
10 The pulse of the world (Fritz Lang) 64
11 Ways we weren't (Vitaphone shorts) 67
12 Naked truth (Children of paradise) 71
13 Things that go bump (horror films) 93
14 A few stops on the way to the grave (films noir) 97
15 Hokum became him (William Wyler) 93
16 Primal fear (Nightmare alley) 97
17 Tales of treachery and loyalty (Jules Dassin/Jacques Becker) 100
18 Incomparable (Greta Garbo) 104
19 Awash in ambiguity (Marlon Brando) 108
20 Going his way (Bing Crosby) 111
21 Blond and beaming (Doris Day) 117
22 The two Leons (Animal farm / Looney tunes golden collection, volume two) 121
23 Kong has crazed his mind (Ray Harryhausen) 124
24 All the screen's a stage (Jean Renoir) 128
25 Eternal Times Square (Shadows) 132
26 Once upon a time on the Via Veneto (La Dolce Vita / Divorce Italian Style) 135
27 Charming imagination (L'eclisse) 139
28 I spy (The counterfeit traitor) 143
29 McCarey nods (Satan never sleeps) 146
30 Across the Pacific (Zero focus / The demon) 149
31 "My life makes me cry" (The insect woman) 151
32 The Holland line (Dutch movies) 154
33 Still curious (I am curious) 158
34 Broken promises (The honeymoon killers) 162
35 Calm, cool, and now collected (Steve McQueen) 166
36 Rock heads (Martin Scorsese) 170
37 Real reality TV (The UP series) 173
38 Roll out the sixties and we'll have a wonderful time (Berkeley in the sixties / Letter to the next generation) 176
39 'Round and around and around (Twist) 181
40 Color him purple (Listen up : the lives of Quincy Jones) 183
41 Call it anything (Miles Electric) 186
42 Savage servility (Glory) 188
43 Simplicity itself (Robert Bresson) 191
44 Pretty boy (Alain Delon) 194
45 French doubt (Too beautiful for you / May fools) 196
46 Blown away (A shock to the system / Pretty woman / The hot spot / White palace) 200
47 WWII and the whole truth (The big red one / Devils on the doorstep / British war collection) 208
Pt. 3 Music
48 Mixing hot licks with vanilla (Fats Waller / Glenn Miller) 217
49 Brush up your Porter (Cole Porter) 221
50 Long-playing (Duke Ellington) 225
51 Jazz for the eyes (The sound of jazz / Jazz on a summer's day) 232
52 Regrets, they've had a few (Sinatra) 236
53 The ambassadors (A great day in Harlem / The real ambassadors) 240
54 Explosive (Count Basie) 244
55 "I'm Supposed to Deliver" (B. B. King) 246
56 Brother Al (Al Cohn) 259
57 The arranger (Gil Evans) 264
58 A new kind of virtuosity (Christopher Earl) 269
59 Beale Street talks (Harold Mabern) 273
60 Old Man Rivers (Sam Rivers) 277
61 Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin? (Bob Dylan) 280
62 Fresh flowers (Albert Ayler) 284
63 Put your voice where your mouth is (lip-syncing) 287
64 On her 90th birthday (Billie Holiday) 291
Pt. 4 Books
65 'Harsh as the sound of a man's snore was the name of Khufu' (Norman Mailer) 297
66 The grove of Academe (The new grove dictionary of American music) 300
67 Carrying a torch (the modern library) 304
68 Muddy Waters, I presume (Alan Lomax) 310
69 Soupspoon's blues (Walter Mosley) 313
70 Short and acerbic (M. M. Liberman) 316
71 Oxford jazz (Sheldon Meyer) 319
72 A public burning (Ralph Ellison) 322
73 Doin that waitin (Albert French) 327
74 Closed minds (Saul Bellow) 329
75 Laughing man (Moss Hart) 332
76 He's got no kick against modern jazz (Robert Christgau) 340
77 Mr. Ellington, meet Mr. Matisse (Alfred Appel Jr.) 343
78 Fighting for freedom and bad taste (Sammy Davis Jr.) 347
79 Pops and pops (Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman : two kings of jazz) 352
80 Seduced (Classics illustrated) 357
81 Fear and trembling (Friedrich Durrenmatt) 369
82 Kaddish for the Jews (Soma Morgenstern) 377
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2006

    A wonderfully refreshing collection of essays/reviews on the lively arts

    Whether writing on films, TV, music, books, or comedy, Giddins displays in this volume an impressive perspective and depth of knowledge about his subject matter. Within this compendium, the author gives thoughtful discussion to an array of diverse topics: ranging from Jerry Lewis's artistic standing to an evaluation of a Doris Day DVD collection, to a nostalgic discussion of the Modern Library book series, to the impact (or lack thereof)of the Frank Sinatra TV miniseries produced by the crooner's daughter. Giddins is proof that a critic/reviewer/essayist can be astute, articulate, amusing, and exceedingly informative. A great read!

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