Monday, May 26, 2008

Back to the Fifties: Curtains & Indiana Jones and that Crystal Skull

In celebration of this Memorial Day weekend, I attended two defining American art forms: the Broadway musical and the Hollywood blockbuster.

I saw Curtains on Broadway and Indiana Jones & the Crystal Skull 12 hours apart. Even for a professional, it was pop culture overload, as each is a mad frenzy of references and allusions. Surprisingly, there are many similarities between the two, including that they are somewhat entertaining but suffer from trying too hard.

But the important connection is that they share the same fictional time frame: it’s 1959 in Curtains, and 1957 for Indiana and crew. (With its “everything and the kitchen sink” approach, I half expected to see Indy in silhouette somewhere in Curtains Act 2, a la the Road pictures.)

Curtains channels 1953’s The Bandwagon, a film about producing a Broadway musical, with Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley evoking their fifties counterparts, Comden and Green.

The musical was supposed to be in league with Kander & Ebb’s classic Cabaret and Chicago. Instead, in the words of Ben Brantley, it “ lies on the stage like a promisingly gaudy string of firecrackers, waiting in vain for that vital, necessary spark to set it off.” Ah yes—that elusive spark. Another thing Curtains and Crystal Skull have in common.

Debra Monk is the standout of the show—-she’s in the tradition of Ethel Merman, another embodiment of towering talent. David Hyde Pierce is a quieter star—the Boston accent made his speech very odd and labored at times, but his sitcom timing translates well to the stage here.

The acting/dancing/singing is all great, the story/book is okay, and yet somehow it doesn’t sparkle. The whole is less than the sum of the parts. No lighting in a bottle here.

I don’t have much of an emotional attachment to the Indiana Jones films. The only one I saw in the theater was Raiders in 1981 with my brother. (In the last scene, when the spirits first come out of the ark and are beautiful, I turned to my brother and said, “They are going to turn horrible and ugly.” When this happened, it freaked him out for years.)

For a great collection of Indy posts and assessments, pop over to the blog-a-thon at Cerebral Mastication.

For me the Crystal Skull is a hodgepodge that lazily yearns to deliver real entertainment with an emotional payoff. Instead, the relentless allusions and over-the-top campy tone make it all self-indulgent rather than masterful. Didn’t the opening shot of the prairie dog remind everyone of the gopher in Caddyshack? Didn’t the next shot of the jeep and the roadster drag racing remind you of American Graffiti? And you better be careful if you try to evoke Brando’s Wild One. The visual quotes were exhausting.

The entrance of Indy in shadow was good, but Ford himself seemed very weak in the whole warehouse scene. He/his performance gained strength later on, but that first impression set a tone of disappointment.

I have no love for the 1950s, real or fictionalized. I find nothing light hearted there, nor particularly appealing. Peter Stone/Kander&Ebbs and Spielberg/Lucas, however, clearly enjoyed sojourning there themselves.

So, what’s really going on here?

As Manhola Dargis said in her Indy review: “what’s absent is any sense of rediscovery, the kind that’s necessary whenever a filmmaker dusts off an old formula or a genre standard.”

I would take that thought one step further: Spielberg did no re-imaging of how Indy might relate to a 21-century audience. Crystal Skull’s 1950s time period was dictated by the calendar math of the earlier films, but Spielberg could have made this installment of the “30s/40s serial genre” more modern in sensibility. Dargis’s observation (and mine) could equally be said of Curtains.

I think the general critical disappointment of these two artistic creations-—besides the “spark” that can be elusive for any creative endeavor and is what sets, say, Casablanca and Cabaret above the pack--signals that the curtain is coming down on the sensibility of Spielberg/Lucas, Stone/Kander & Ebb. We are witnessing the end of their like as we head toward the first double digit year of our century.

The Saddest Holiday on the Calendar

Memorial Day. A national pause to honor the legion who have died in service to this country.

Ray Charles tells it like it is.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Natured and Nurtured

I traded in the concrete canyons of my city this week for the mountains of western North Carolina. As part of a family birthday celebration, I attended a wildflower workshop in the Southern Appalachians, held at one of North Carolina’s grand old rustic resorts, High Hampton Inn, (described by one blogger as offering “Such peace for those who want to get away from television and phones and radios and other signs of commercialism”).

What is a wildflower workshop you may ask? I had no idea before I went. What I found was a serious-minded but light-hearted series of lectures by the director of the UNC, Chapel Hill Botanical Gardens. The attendees were serious amateur gardeners seeking to be able to identify wildflowers on their own. In between lectures there were field trips, to actual fields (what a concept).

As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest. Everything about this trip was a break from what I know. No television, no computer, no phones (or cell reception). The wildflower group ate together, and the conversation was often focused on plants and plant stories. Some of these people were repeat attendees, because the program is so excellent. They get very few Northerners, which is true to for the Inn itself. I was surrounded by those soft Southern accents, which made my clipped Northern speech seem very harsh.

The Blue Ride Mountains are beautiful but I glimpsed their dangerous power when a severe hail storm came out of nowhere. One minute the sky was blue, and with astonishing speed, dark clouds flew in and then exploded with fury. I could not help but think of the devastation in China, where the mountains lashed out and crumbled the man-made structures that had populated it. Man builds, but nature reigns.

The lectures taught me that man does more than build---he catalogs his world to create order and understand his surroundings. Part of this cataloging is the detailed science of botany. Not having a scientific mind in the least, what I enjoyed most from the lectures was their storytelling element, which I’ll illustrate here by the tale of the Oconee Bells, formally named Shortia galacifolia, something of a Southern hometeam favorite.

The botanist M.V. O'Gorman observed that Shortia galacifolia was "discovered by a man who didn't name it, named for a man who didn't see it, by someone who didn't know where it was."

It’s quite a backstory for a rare wild plant. It was first discovered by the great French botanist Andre Michaux in 1788. He brought back a fruiting specimen (an incomplete plant) to his Herbarium in Paris. It was there, in 1839 that Asa Gray—-the most important American botanist of the 19th century-—saw it. He was excited that there was an unclassified plant from the Southern Appalachians, and he and John Torrey named it Shortia galacifolia, the former in honor of the Kentucky botanist and physician Charles Short, and the latter for its resemblance to the foliage of the allied genus Galax.

However, they never found actual living plants, as Michaux’s notes to where he had found them himself were confusing.

In 1877 it was finally rediscovered, by accident, by a kid in North Carolina.

From there it was embraced by mountain pop culture, dubbed Oconee Bells for the county where it can be found. It has been misspelled as Acony Bell, which is how Gillian Welch (who shared in a Grammy for the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and David Rawlings spell it in their song.

There was so much to learn, on this vacation. I was glad to get home, where it’s easier for me to read the semiotics of the new Indiana Jones movie, than to identify a trillium on my own in the wild. The skills of either jungle are not very transferable.

"The fairest bloom the mountain know
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I'll tell
Known as the brave acony bell

Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon

Well it makes it's home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world "why should i wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away"

And so I'll sing that yellow bird's song
For the troubled times will soon be gone"

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Solitaire, Anyone?

There’s a scene at the end of the classic Emma Peel episode “The Joker” where Steed is playing Solitaire, and Mrs. Peel starts “helping.”

Mrs. Peel: “Red eight on black nine”
Steed: “I’ve seen it”
“Then why didn’t you do it”
“I was saving it for later, I was savoring it. Solitaire, as the game implies, is a game for one person”
“I know, highly antisocial”

It’s odd that Steed doesn’t call it Patience, which was the more-common British term for the game, or it was before Solitaire got bundled into Windows.

No matter. It’s all a nice pun since the episode is Mrs. Peel-centric; she goes off alone to play bridge with Sir Cavalier Rusicana, which is a ruse devised by an old German agent who wants to kill her. Highly antisocial on both counts.

I didn’t come from a card-playing family. My mother played a mean Canasta before she got married, and my grandmother liked to play Gin Rummy, and Mille Bornes with me, but that was about it. (Speaking of Gin Rummy, it’s on the cover of the New Yorker this week, with the guy creating a card-playing robot. Hmm. Card-playing must be in the air.)

I guess all kids pick up how to play Solitaire somewhere along the line. What we call Solitaire is actually a specific Solitaire game called Klondike. There are an astonishing 300 types of Solitaire listed on Wikipedia, Klondike and Spider being the most popular.

I had completely forgotten about this solo pasttime until, ironically, a New Year’s party a few years ago, in a crowded vacation house in Palm Springs. Everyone was playing Hearts, decks of cards were everywhere as were parallel games of Solitaire. And it was there that I entered the hypnotic place that is the Solitaire universe.

Playing Solitaire is a truly unique combination of the relaxing and compelling. For me the cheap thrill is at the very start—what are those 7 random face-up cards going to be? The number of random patterns is fascinating. How can 4 aces turn up out of 7? But they do. Sometimes it’s all red cards, sometimes all face cards. And from there—LIKE IN LIFE—you do what you can with the hand you’re dealt. There’s not a lot of strategy to Solitaire—I try to move the cards on the deeper piles first. I build up the suits whenever I can.

There is a satisfaction to winning, to seeing everything come out all right. There is also a crystallization when you see it just “isn’t in the cards”—what you want to do is blocked by the implacability of the binary red and black. Maybe that’s what helps at the end of a long day—it helps you let go of countless pieces of everyday life that don’t always fall into place. Move on, shuffle again, get a new set of 7 cards to work with. And seven, such a mystically, spiritually charged number itself. Some say it reveals the mind of God.

I only recently found a great website to play. It offers different backgrounds and various designs of cards. It also offers 13 different varieties to choose from, including a double decked Klondike. I highly recommend it.

No look at Solitaire would be complete without a glance at the Neil Sedaka song “Solitaire.” It’s a depressing song that has become a beautiful standard. Youtube has quite a collection of renditions, including Shirley Bassey, Clay Aiken, Norway’s own Sissel, and Neil Sedaka, But for me the definitives are from Karen Carpenter, with those lush, lush low notes, and Elvis, where the words resonate with painful layers of meaning to his own oddly solitary life.

There was a man, a lonely man
Who lost his love, thru his indifference
A heart that cared, that went unshared
Until it died within his silence

And solitaire's the only game in town
And every road that takes him, takes him down
While life goes on around him everywhere
He's playing solitare

And keeping to himself begins to deal
And still the king of hearts is well concealed
Another losing game comes to an end
And he deals them out again

The Carpenters


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Words Are Six to One

She-who-must-be-obeyed, aka Blue Girl in a Red State, tagged me for a One-Word meme. It’s a fun exercise to encapsulate yourself like this in answer to specific prompts.

It reminded me of a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece I read back in February that has stayed with me. SMITH magazine ran a “write a 6-word memoir” contest, in honor of the legend of Hemingway writing a story in six words to win a bet.

Hemingway came up with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Sadly evocative.

SMITH refined the story idea into a call for personal memoir, and their website has received over 30,000 entries, from all quarters.

They published a thousand of them or so in book form. The memoir chosen for the title is “Not Quite What I Was Planning,” sent in by Summer Grimes, a 25-year old hairdresser in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Beautifully said. And that it was sent in by a 25-year old makes it even more fabulous. (Let’s see what she has to say at 40.)

You can read through a bunch of them here in the New Yorker. (“Well, I thought it was funny" from Stephen Colbert)

At this point in time, here is my memoir:

Girl Interrupted, Must Return to Piano

I don’t mean it as drastic as Susanna Kaysen’s own actual memoir, or the film based on it. But in the sense that I was somewhere, and the fabric of that place was torn to shreds by The Talented Mr. Ripley, completely interrupting my life. And all of it revolved around my deep love of the piano and desire, as an adult, to learn to play.

The 6-words will change. There will be sequel.

And now for the One-Word meme, via Blue Girl and our very favorite Heretik. Pop over to see their oneness.

Yourself: Intense
Your Partner: Unknown
Your Hair: Highlighted
Your Mother: Inspiring
Your Father: A Memory
Your Favorite Item: My piano
Your Dream Last Night: pedestrian
Your Favorite Drink: Diet Ginger Ale
Your Dream Home: beachfront
The Room You Are In: Living
Your Fear: Paralyzation
Where Do You Want to be in 10 years: Paris
Who You Hung Out With Last Night: Bach
What You Are Not: Laid back
Muffins: Triple berry
One of Your Wish Items: Family
Time: 3:00 a.m.
Last Thing You Did: cook
What You Are Wearing: loungewear
Your Favorite Weather: Sunny
Your Favorite Book: GWTW
Last Thing You Ate: sesame noodles
Your Mood: balanced
Your Best Friends: scattered
What Are You Thinking About Right Now: practicing
Your Car: M104 bus
Your Summer: Sicily
What’s on your TV: House
What Is Your Weather Like: clear
When Was the Last Time You Laughed: today
What is your relationship status: Independent