Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Placet." A lot.

A voice proved to be a powerful madeleine for me last Sunday night. I am a big David Suchet/Poirot fan, and I was thrilled that Mystery! will be playing 2 new Poirot stories in their Six by Agatha. I thought Suchet had sworn off the role, but never say never.

Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons is set in girl’s English boarding school. Poirot is invited by the cofounder and headmistress Miss Bulstrode to bestow an award and advise her in choosing a successor.

It turned out that I was not giving the screen my whole attention, indeed I was puttering about, when from the kitchen I heard Miss Bulstrode’s voice: “Our guest of honor and a person of international renown.”

That voice. It struck my ear with all the import of a memory of something that was once important to me. I went in to see who it was, but there was no instant recognition from the image of Miss Bulstrode. She continued speaking, and my mind was searching, searching to place this voice that . . . .


OMG. It was Harriet Vane from the Edward Petherbridge Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series of the late eighties. I had not thought about her, or them, in twenty years, but I had loved that series and the novels. Can you be jealous of a tv representation of a fictional character? I was.

Harriet Vane had everything. She was an independent woman who was a published writer, of mystery stories. She is arrested for poisoning her lover when Lord Peter Wimsey comes into her life. Their banter was catnip for the literary set, which I was hoping to join. And Vane, as played by Harriet Walter, was not beautiful. She was smart and interesting and independent (did I already mention that?). I found her a wonderful role model as I was starting out on my own quest to be a writer with an independent lifestyle. I barely noticed the actress, Harriet Walter, except for the confusion about them both being Harriets; I was just interested in the character.

I was so surprised by this Poirot appearance of Harriet Vane on my tv, that when I realized that Harriet Walter was still appearing a mere 60 blocks south of my apartment in the Broadway play Mary Stuart, off I went to pay homage.

The play is a reworking of Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized meeting between Queen Elizabeth 1 and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a thrilling production, but it’s not for everyone. The first act particularly is extremely talky, but never has England’s history and its religious wars come so alive and been so easy to follow. Both leads were compelling, but I was there for Harriet Walter, Queen Elizabeth. She brought that woman to life as effortlessly as she had created Harriet Vane.

Harriet Vane/Harriet Walter was such a lovely memory to revisit. I have ordered the Strong Poison/ Have His Carcass/Gaudy Night DVDs through the pbs website to enjoy as a midsummer treat. Petherbridge's Wimsey is beautifully limned, a great piece of casting filled out by an authentic sensibility for this Lord who's an ass, but not really. I can’t wait to work my way through them, and see again the most literary of all marriage proposals in Gaudy Night:

“Placetne, magistra?”

As I said, Harriet Vane had it all.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Sidekick, the PinUp, and the King of Pop

The Sidekick, the PinUp, and the King of Pop walk into a bar . . .

Ed, Farrah, and Jacko meet up with Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates . . .

I can’t help it: the clumped deaths of three such A-mur-i-can pop culture icons of the twentieth century is a great set-up for a joke (if only I could write jokes).

Is it true that a country gets the pop culture it deserves? Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson were each part of the very fabric of pop culture over the last 40 years, but it was not a piece of the fabric that I myself paid much attention to.

Farrah Fawcett was the first one I knew, as a girl in the seventies. I didn’t watch Charlie’s Angels, but that hair. It wasn’t just on the poster---it was everywhere. In every magazine. Feathering. I wanted my hair to feather. I had it cut to feather. But it did not feather like hers. I don’t think it was a crushing body image moment, but there was a genuine, deep longing for that hair. I look at the poster now, and the smile seems oddly skeletal—-her jaw is squared and harsh, not all that pretty. She is the first famous person I remember who hyphenated her last name when that started happening in the seventies, Farrah Fawcett-Majors. I thought it was the most fabulous name.

I just read that the iconic poster was first seen in 1976 in Life magazine. Who even remembers that Life magazine was still around in 1976?

Next came Michael, obliquely for me. I didn’t buy "Thriller," but somehow I had a 45 of "Rockin’ Robin" in grade school, I don’t know why. Completely by chance I caught the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever on TV on May 16, 1983, and even without a prior connection to MJ, it was a thrilling performance.

Ed McMahon was the last I noticed, when I started watching Johnny Carson around 1987. I didn’t watch Star Search, I vaguely remembered seeing Ed on the Jerry Lewis MD Telethon. The idea of a couch sycophant wasn’t very appealing, and his forced guffaw laugh was creepy.

Taken together, the culture was enriched by an old school emcee, a talented musician before Neverland, and sweet cheesecake.

Of the three, Jacko was given the 3-column banner in the NY Times online when the news broke. It started with this exuberant image from the Dangerous era, perhaps the last time Michael looked healthy. I don’t know what power Michael Jackson had as a live performer, but his truly global fame meant that he spoke across cultures and generations. There are shades of Sammy Davis in his dancing, a comparison that would have been anathema to him as he grew more and more horrified in his own skin. He went from a precociously talented boy soprano, to a sexy young man, into a dark, tortured limbo of dementia.

Andrew Sullivan has an excellent appraisal of the pain behind Jacko:

"Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell."

What strikes me about these three is their obvious desire for fame, which wasn’t the case when, say, Paul Newman died. Farrah had it early based solely on her looks, and she struggled to parlay that into a more satisfying and sustaining career. Ed McMahon was a last bit of Old B-list Hollywood. He had a niche, and he didn’t try to better himself beyond it. But he had a sense of entitlement to being “famous.” Michael of course is in the league of Marilyn, and Elvis, and James Dean. Fame came to him, and then devoured him. Are we collectively to blame for that? Is our culture that dangerous to its stars?

Let’s not forget that amidst this pop cultural swirl is the 12-day courageous strivings of the Iranian people in the midst of a cultural revolution who want to be freer to create their own broad cultural icons. And that makes me appreciate mine—-even though I didn’t love them-—all the more.

(Ed McMahon photo: AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac/file 1992)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Black Pride: “The Public, Not the Pro, Rules at Bethpage”

Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots - but you have to play the ball where it lies.
—-Bobby Jones

Long Island pride is running high right now. Bethpage Black. Farmingdale’s contribution to world-class golf. 2002 was the year the Open came to town, paying $3 million to spruce up the Tillinghast 1936 WPA project via contemporary golf course architect genius Rees Jones. A very quick 7 years later and the Open is back to the only public course on its roster. The NY Times has written several articles about the carnival atmosphere at the Black. Well, yeah. You got a problem with that?

The rain plaguing the play is seeming of Biblical proportions, which is too bad, but maybe to be expected given the origin of the town name: St. Matthew's Gospel (21:1). ''And as they departed from Jericho, a great multitude followed Him, and when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem and were come to Beth'phage, unto the Mount of Olives.'' And then came Moses. Robert Moses, the man who preferred cars to people but had the vision to create the New York State parks, including Jones Beach, ensuring that its pristine sand never became ravaged like the Jersey Shore.

Family Ties
My brother worked at Bethpage State Park for a summer when he was in high school. Those State park jobs are hard to get, and are mostly awarded to kids within the Machine as favors for State government donors. It seems there was some mistaking of our family last name for some major player in the Democratic party. . . .

It was a lucky break for my brother, who spent the summer driving around the Yellow, Green, Blue, Red, and Black courses (colors connoting the easiest to the hardest course) in the truck, changing out cups, and generally having a good time. He played a bit himself, having a young man’s golf phase.

Thinking about that brought me back to our family outings of miniature golf. Well remember, we lived in suburbia. The earliest game I remember I think I was about 6, playing a nearby course with my dad and brother. The windmill! The clown’s mouth! The pond!

I have such a vivid memory of that one particular Sunday that the 3 of us played. When we got to the end, I had the highest score! I was SO HAPPY that I had won. I couldn't believe it. Then they both told me that I had lost. I could not understand this. How could the higher number lose---that’s not the way it goes. It really upset me that what I thought to be true—high score wins---now wasn’t true. And that they had not told me about this when we started the game. I was completely crushed, as only innocence can be, sitting in the back seat of the car, crying all the way home.

And Later with Steed
After the crushing realization of miniature golf, I gave up thinking about golf until my BFF was working at Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, at Duke University, many years later. For our birthdays we took a golf lesson with the club’s pro. It was an interesting peak into the traditions of golf teams in the South, and the only time I had hands-on knowledge of how complicated the swing is.

Given that the game was born in Scotland, it’s not so surprising that there’s an Avengers episode that is set on a course called "The Thirteenth Hole." Steed and Emma play through in a Cold War story about a Russian satellite that is over England every day at a certain time, which scientists are using to give secrets to the enemy.

My real Steed and I once enjoyed a quintessential Manhattan golf game. Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery in TriBeCa, mounted "Putt-Modernism," an installation of 18 playable holes of miniature golf created by prominent contemporary artists and architects, including Frank Gehry, Cindy Sherman, and Michael Graves. I found the score card to our eighteen holes the other day. I love its entreaty: “Please remember these are works of art!!” along side the more usual rules: 1 stroke penalty if ball leaves putting surface; Ball may be moved 6” from rail or hazard without penalty; 6 stroke limit per hole.

And then there were the scores: M.A. 57, Steed 49. This time at least I knew I had lost before someone had to tell me. And the tears were of a much more serious nature.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Wearing of the Green

Happy Bloomsday everyone. The annual salute to James Joyce and the mother of all first dates of the last century that lead to Ulysses.

But the wearing of the green this year goes to the Iranians fighting for freedom in their lives. Andrew Sullivan has been covering this since Friday, showing the amazing power of the internet. And now Twitter seems less ridiculous. How amazing to witness history at this ground level.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

Even when it is tiny and sits on a window sill in an apartment.

I hear echoes of The Little Prince every time I look at my charges.

Then one morning, exactly at sunrise, she suddenly showed herself.

And, after working with all this painstaking precision, she yawned and said:

"Ah! I am scarcely awake. I beg that you will excuse me. My petals are still all disarranged..."

But the little prince could not restrain his admiration:

"Oh! How beautiful you are!"

"Am I not?" the flower responded, sweetly. "And I was born at the same moment as the sun..."

The little prince could guess easily enough that she was not any too modest-- but how moving-- and exciting-- she was!

"I think it is time for breakfast," she added an instant later. "If you would have the kindness to think of my needs--"

And the little prince, completely abashed, went to look for a sprinkling-can of fresh water. So, he tended the flower.

* * * * *

"I should never have listened to her," he confided to me one day, "One should never listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance."

"If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, 'Somewhere, my flower is there...' But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened... And you think that is not important!"

He could not say anything more. His words were choked by sobbing.

Ah, the love and heartbreak of the gardener.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

btw, NPH Rocks

“I’m tv. They’re movies.”

Ah, the Tonys. Living in New York I sometimes think I should go see more theater than I do. But the artifice of its storytelling doesn’t resonant with me as deeply as film does.

Or tv, for that matter. What I love about episodic television is that it brings plays into my home weekly. Neil Patrick Harris is on a clever little show called How I Met Your Mother. He and his colleagues must learn a new play every week for 26 weeks (or so). They have to not only enact the specific episode, but be aware of character development over time.

Sure theater actors perform live, but that’s not so difficult. So do classical musicians, opera performers, and rock stars.

The Billie Elliot kids were genuinely charming.

There are performers who are worth going to see in person. For me one is Angela Lansbury. What an amazing career. It’s surprising that she has never won an Oscar (nominated for her very first film, Gaslight, and The Picture of Dorian Grey, and Manchurian Candidate), or an Emmy. She was nominated for 12 consecutive years for playing Jessica Fletcher, and never won. But on stage, she has now won five Tonys. Brava!!

I liked NPH's 11:00 number at 11:03, but then I’m a Neil Patrick Harris fan. I think he did a good job as host. I loved his Dr. Horrible, where we got to see him sing and dance, and if it ever comes to Broadway, well, I’d go to see him.

(Tony photos Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Gyres of History: The 20th Century Finally Ends

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Yeats had a personal, complicated theory of cycles of history. So maybe it’s my Irish blood that is leading me to feel that the different gyres of history are intersecting in a special way rigt now.

I don’t usually think about the big pulses of history, but the events of the last year have been so troubling and frightening that consciously, subconsciously, I yearn for a story that will make sense of the bits and pieces of the recent world-altering moments. Fifty years from now someone will make a documentary, and with that comforting documentary voice (if it's still fashionable), will piece together a timeline that is clear and puts order into recent chaotic moments.

Maybe it will start with the subprime mortgage collapse of 2006, which set off the chain reaction of market collapses around the world. Recession, unemployment, wiped-out retirement savings. Lehman Brothers fails, GM going bankrupt. All the while the wars drag on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is anyone still looking for Osama Bin Laden? When was the last time we heard anything about that front?

Where is this all leading? Can anyone see the big picture these pixels are creating? Surely an age is ending. What kind of age is rising in its place?

This D-Day: Ending the Last Century

Against this chaos comes what is likely the last big anniversary of D-Day with the men and women who accomplished it among us. For me, this D-Day feels like the final actual end of the 20th century.

I’m watching HBO’s Band of Brothers because Alan Sepinwall decided to lead a a rewind of the 10-part series that follows Easy Company from D-Day to the end of WWII. The community outpouring of praise for this work is quite something. This series is a stunning, realistic portrait of a platoon of paratroopers based on a book about Easy by Stephen Ambrose. It's a way in to understanding how these teenagers from across the US rose up and found strength to kill and conquer when it had to be done. It shows the brilliance of the invasion plan and the push to capture Berlin. It exposes how much went deathly wrong, and yet we won. The performances are superb, especially from Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston.

And still, it haunts, me, how amazing do you have to be to jump out of a plane WHILE PEOPLE ARE SHOOTING AT YOU.

TV also brought Into the Storm, a BBC portrait of Winston Churchill during the war years (juxtaposed against his reelection after the war). It’s not as finely done as BofB, but it’s a moving reminder of the Battle of Britain and how much the British suffered during the war. It also makes clear how much failed, how much went wrong, beyond even the reverse at Dunkirk. And yet, we won.

Against this tide of the past is the reality of 2009, where it turns out that the Queen and Prince Philip were not invited to the ceremonies of June 6 in France. WTF. There is much finger pointing between the French and the British government in the person of Gordon Brown. She and Philip are the only living leaders who actually served in WWII and they aren’t invited to the ceremony on the beaches where so many British died? In the documentary fifty years hence, that will be a small but poignant point for those who are really paying attention.

In a face-saving solution all around, Prince Charles will be attending.

Maybe this is the universe’s subtle nod to the 20th century ending. The older age passes away, and the newer cycle gets stronger and more clear. One of the centers of the new gyre is certainly Barack Obama. His visit to Buchenwald was deeply moving, as I’m sure will be his visit to the beaches of Normandy. A place where black soldiers were not even allowed to serve (except for one unit).

I’m feeling uneasy in this time, feeling the friction of the gyres rubbing up against each other. There’s nothing to be done about it, except to honor all those who delivered the safety of my suburban childhood, and to KBO, as Churchill would say.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Augmenting My Reality

My head is spinning. I attended the Creativity and Technology conference today (CaT), hosted by Creativity magazine as part of Internet Week. It was an excellent overview of some astonishing technology that is being used now in websites and mobile devices, plus more esoteric ideas of data visualization that feed the soul and the imagination.

An interesting thread that ran through many of the panels was the question/primacy of storytelling, a concept that is dear to my heart. APIs still need a connective thread, emotional ones have the most power to be effective. Technology still needs to connect to human cognition, for the brain to be able to process the message. And it is still all about the message, or a piece of knowledge, that is being communicated.

Some presentation highlights:

Bruno Uzzan, CEO and Cofounder of Total Immersion
. These guys have a software program that turns an ordinary computer into a 3D machine. Augmented Reality is best described as taking a real image and compounding it with a computer-generated 3D image. The camera of the computer reads a real thing-—Bruno had a box of transformer toy he bought at Toys R Us--and you see the box on your screen WITH a 3D image of the toy sitting on top of it.

He also had Lord of the Ring playing card. The camera reads the flat cards, and on your screen you see the figures stand up. And if you have 2, the figures can interact with each other.

GE has a site that has AR software loaded so that you can experience it yourself.

The iPhone Guy! Yay!
Steve Sprang, Creator, Brushes iPhone App
Steve is one of those soft spoken geniuses. Brushes is his first project as an independent producer after seven years with Apple, where he designed and implemented the 2D graphics program used throughout the iWork suite. There is a community of Brushes artists on flickr, all created with just the creative push of a finger.

The big story last week was Jorge Colombo’s aptly named “Finger Painting” for the June 1 cover of the New Yorker. He created it while standing on line for an hour to get into Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square (who knew that place was so popular?).

Kevin Slavin, Managing Director and Cofounder, Area/Code

Area/Code creates cross-media games and entertainment. Very entertaining presentation on Sharkrunner that they developed for the Discovery Channel, and Parking Wars, a Facebook game to call attention to an A&E series. The game got millions of players; the tv show only a few thousands of viewers. Hmm.

The Super Wizards of Data Visualization

Aaron Koblin, Technological Lead, Google Creative Lab

From creating art through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—-a mural of sheep, in homage to Dolly and the Little Prince—to visualizing flight patterns and text and phone patterns, there is knowledge to being about to see data that is usually represented by numbers, as well as art. His work has interesting philosophical underpinnings. You've got to experience it for yourself.

Joanna Kuchera Morin, Director, Allosphere, UC Santa Barbara

An “instrument” as she calls it, that allows you to walk into data, so that you are immersed in a visualization of data, from a hydrogen atom to a piece of a brain. The possibilities for her work reach to infinity. (Photo up top.)

Tomorrow I return to the minutiae and frustrations of producing any real world print or web piece, but I’ll feel a little more connected to this great community of people who think big, and deeply, and without limits.