Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year’s Reverie: When Memoirs Meet (Smith, Wolcott, Kael)

The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough--Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made.

James Wolcott offered a Christmas Nocturne that pointed out why Metropolitan is a great Christmas movie.

For me, this part of his passage envisions the other holiday bookend, New Year’s Eve: wherever go you, you have to get back. However engaging the festivities are inside, they are so often connected by those cold, bleak, deserted streets in the middle of the night. And that connective tissue that spools out far beyond the chatter in the street is, as Wolcott says, the thing of memories and memoirs, which seems an appropriate subject for a December 31 post.

I read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids in September of this year, and segued into Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. The two together captured the art and soul of the 70s and pinged points in my own timeline. Reading the first-person tales of these cultural players I felt like a little ripple in the water from their radiating splashes, if I may be allowed such an aquatic metaphor.  My timeline would put me in college, in New Brunswick, NJ, in two of its vibrant scenes—indie/punk music, and poetry.

The Court and the Melody

Patti’s description of the beginning of her performing life and Jim’s description of the CBGB scene from its birth rippled into my later memories of the Court Tavern and the Melody Bar circa 1981, a nexus for new bands finding their voice in reaction to the revolution of Horses, Talking Heads 77, the Dead Kennedys, the B-52s, to name some of the standouts. When live bands weren't playing, the speakers thumped the new sounds, new rhythms (Ce que j'ai fait ce soir-là, Ce qu'elle a dit ce soir-là . . . . .Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay). It was a good time to be young and dancing, dancing, dancing, with the thoughts of those papers that needed writing sliding away in waves of sweat.

Even some frats, Fiji in particular, had the vibe in the early eighties, at least for their parties. “Pulled me up” shook the house following Donna Summer, and jocks and denizens of the artistic dorm, Demarest, jumped “up, up, up” together, rubbing elbows and other body parts for the duration of the song, replacing the antipathy the clicks had when the same people passed each other on College Ave.

Wolcott from the epicenter:
“If I can pinpoint the moment the Heads burst through the attic and pointed north, it was the night when they introduced a new number, “Pulled Up,” where the joy whoop of “you pulled me up, up, up, up, up, up!” expressed a giddy, salvational energy that left Warholishm behind like a toy-model village as Astronaut Byrne shed gravity and saw angels knocking around. Not Blakean angels, like Patti’s, but Japanese toys.”

Patti in the epicenter:
In 2010 Patti played a benefit for the Court Tavern, along with The Smithereens and Slaves of New Brunswick, at the State Theater. She had never played there herself, but knew of its historical importance and current need for young bands.


“Smith had two raps for the night, one being about not just saving the Court, not just saving New Jersey, but saving “the whole fucking world!,” her arms often outstretched to hold, or pumped in fists over her head in triumph. The other was about simple perseverance being the key to almost any undertaking in life. Be it music, art, or owning a bar, she hammered home, passionately, that it was the people who kept going that matter, despite being thrown down and fucked over again and again, the people who get back up and keep going, despite the odds, despite what others may care or think, are the ones who triumph.” Mike Black, The Aquarian



William Blake & Allen Ginsberg

 I lived off campus for 2 years, for a short time in Kevin Hayes's apartment on Plum Street that was party central for the academic set. 

He had a tradition of an annual blow-out party for the vibrant poetry scene in NB. One party from 1981 or ‘82 stands out: Alicia Ostriker, a poet who taught at Douglas, edited an edition of complete Blake poems for Penguin, which Allen Ginsberg liked and used for his own work. I think Kevin had arranged for Ginsberg to come for a reading, and then there they were in my old living room, along with the editors of the newly launched lit journal Long Shot, Eliot Katz and Danny Shot, and 100 others on couches, under couches, virtually hanging from the chandeliers. It was the scene from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, minus the suits (but with several B-52's inspired bouffants).

At one point I was in the kitchen talking to someone about my Milton class with the delectable William Keach when Gregory Corso walked in looking for a bottle opener for his beer, and saying, “Milton. So here’s where all the intelligent people are.” What a great opening line. I’m sorry to report I was too unsure of myself to engage him in conversation. The graduate students, however, pounced.

Somewhere long after midnight I was standing on the 4 or 5 step down from the top of the stairs to the apartment, having a conversation with someone sitting on the landing. The door opened and Allen Ginsberg and some of his entourage were leaving. As he walked down the stairs behind me, he turned and kissed the back of my head. A literary benediction of the highest order. A little of just what an English major hopes to find at college.

Patti from the epicenter:

“...I went through our belongings and found exactly fifty-five cents, slipped on my grey trench-coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat. I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed that the price had gone up to sixty-five cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help?”I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg.

We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists. I looked into those intense dark eyes punctuated by his dark curly beard and just nodded. Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich. Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned that I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently.

“Are you a girl?” he asked
“Yeah, I said, Is that a problem?”.
He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”
I got the picture immediately.
"Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?"
"No, enjoy it. It was my mistake."

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac, who had recently passed away. “Three days after Rimbaud’s birthday”, I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.
Sometime later Allen became my good friend and teacher. We often reminisced about our first encounter and he once asked how I would describe how we met. “I would say you fed me when I was hungry”, I told him. And he did.”


Circles and Squares
 I took one film theory class in college, where we worked our way through the big Gerald Mast/Marshall Cohen compendium, which put Pauline Kael’s "Circles and Squares" right after Andrew Sarris’s "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" so you can easily read the two together.

That’s a treat everyone should enjoy once in their lives.

Kael eviscerates Sarris with the simplest of tools: a close reading of the text, with her passion for what she sees as the idiocy of the approach—-and particularly his use of “internal meaning” and “élan” which she hammers on repeatedly-—making the pages almost too hot to turn.

One example, but there are so many:

"Sarris believes that what makes an auteur is 'an élan of the soul.'(This critical language is barbarous. Where else should élan come from? It’s like saying “a digestion of the stomach.” A film critic need not be a theoretician, but it is necessary that he know how to use words. This might, indeed, be a first premise for a theory.)"

Later she cries, “I am angry, but am I unjust?”

Wolcott from the epicenter:

"She couldn’t stand 'stiffs,' whose tastes were fully formed, rigidified, and stuck in the petrified forest of the past, and those of us sitting in the Algonquin were on the upswing of our careers, just starting our scouting missions. These were the years of encouragement. Some would stray off target, disappear into the reeds, defect from criticism under the pressure of unfulfilled expectations and career frustrations, or simply find something more frolicking to do, Pauline being more ambitious for them than they were for themselves. In a sense we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.”

I happened to be walking through a nighttime Times Square on September 3, 2001, with The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cadfael, when I looked up to see Pauline Kael dead at 83 making its way along the zipper. Crossroads of the world, a crossroad of my life (although I didn’t know it then) and now the end of era, which was just a week away from the end of life as we knew it. Not what Kael had in mind when she opposed Sarris's Circles with Squares, but a cinematic moment I hope she would appreciate.

Happy New Years everyone! All the best in 2012, the Mayans notwithstanding.

Patti Smith at State Theater Court Tavern Benefit, cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Occupying My Thoughts: I Was at Some of the OWS Predecessors

Councilman: When was the last time you cut your hair?
Drama Teacher: When was the time you brushed your teeth, sir?

Billy Jack, 1971

Protester Chris Johnson, 32: Occupy "has opened up a dialogue that hasn’t
existed since I've been alive." #OWS

Brian Stelter tweet, 11/15/2011



That exchange from Billy Jack is one of the first TV movie trailer lines that I remember. Commercials for Billy Jack were on all the time, and I heard this line 100 times along with its theme song, “One Tin Soldier.” (I still have never seen the movie.)

It was the time of the Generation Gap: there were hippies and the establishment and something about not trusting anyone over 30. The VietNam War was on. I didn’t understand all this at 9, but I definitely felt a general sense of turmoil “out there” in the world as it seeped into TV shows, commercials, music.

Since then, and before the OWS phenomenon emerged, I had occasionally wondered, what had happened to all the protesting? Where were all the mass gatherings to shout “No” to something, a question that the picture of the OWS protestor answers: we've been asleep.

Before we close out the year of 2011, the birth year of the extraordinary Occupy Wall Street Movement, I offer some historical precedents that I witnessed. It seems I wandered into two historic demonstrations when I was in college.


Solidarity March in Washington for PATCO Strike

I marched in the Sept. 19, 1981, AFL-CIO's Solidarity March on Washington with my Rutgers activists friends. The Air Traffic Controllers went on strike organized by the its union PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) on August 3. Ronald Reagan fired anyone who didn't return to work 48 hours later, under the Taft-Hartly act that prohibits federal employees from striking. Nearly 12,000 controllers were fired when they didn't return to their jobs. This march in Washington organized by the AFL-CIO was in solidarity with then. A descript from Wiki:

The solidarity march, with 250,000, was even bigger than the great 1968 march. In other ways the march was a new experience in post-war Washington. Because, though many groups and parties supported the demonstration, it was overwhelmingly a demonstration of organised labour. It was the first major demonstration to have been organised for decades by the AFL-CIO.

The protest was well organized and well financed by the unions. Buses brought us to Washington, we were given maps to navigate the metro to get to the mall and box lunches. At 19, the whole thing was fun. But there was also an undeniable sense of helping, of standing up to the establishment, or being part of something bigger than yourself. The thing was, I was with Reagan on this one. But it didn't matter. I was supportng with my physical presence, and that's all the organizers cared about to raise their rally numbers.

Results?
I was curious about what impact this rally had on the strike. Here’s an assessment from SocialistAlternative.org, written for the 30 anniversary of the strike which was this year:

The most significant factor in the defeat of the PATCO strike was the refusal of the AFL-CIO to come out in support of the strikers. It was imperative that the unions counter the attack with a national shutdown of air travel and organizing mass demonstrations across the country against Reagan and the bosses.

Instead the AFL/CIO leadership hid behind their lawyers and continued to try to placate the employers with concessions and “partnerships” which only led to new attacks. The massive, half-million strong Solidarity Day rally in Washington DC in 1981 was largely symbolic, and despite pressure from below, there was no further action against the union-busting offensive that continues to this day.

Another assessment from a culture of the eighties site:

To the chagrin of the PATCO strikers, and the surprise of nearly everyone else, the FAA's contingency plan functioned smoothly, minimizing the strike's effects.

There wasn’t much support for the PATCO strikers. The public sided with the government and exhibited little sympathy for individuals whose earnings were already well above the national average. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland accused Reagan of "brutal overkill" in firing the strikers, and another union leader complained that the president was engaged in "union-busting," but pilots and machinists continued to do their jobs in spite of the PATCO picket lines, while labor strategists criticized [Robert] Poli [PATCO leader] for calling an ill-advised strike that damaged Labor's image.

In October the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO.


Well, that was all surprising to learn. The march was for show, and not a display of power. The only real solidarity would have been a complete general strike, like they have in England, but no labor leader was willing to go that far.

Protesting in Britain: The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

When I went to Southampton, England, for a semester in 1983, I was one of 70,000 who linked arms in April to form a human chain from Greenham Common to Aldermaston to the ordnance factory of Burghfield as part of the No Nukes movement to protest nuclear weapons being sited at the old World War ll RAF base at Greenham Common.

This movement was more similar to OWS in that it wasn’t a one-day action. A Welsh group, Women for Life, arrived at Greenham in Sept. 1981 to protest the British government allowing cruise missiles on the base. The first blockade was in May 1982, and the first Embrace the Base event in Dec. 1982. The April 1 human link-up received a lot of media attention and put the movement on the world map, which "prompted the creation of other peace camps at more than a dozen sites in Britain and elsewhere in Europe."

As a participant, this was different from the Solidarity experience because of the women’s leadership. Of course men participated, but it was decidedly a “women’s action” and that added a layer of a specific kind of camaraderie and “sisterhood is powerful, ” decidedly feminist vibe to the action. I was only there for the April 1 link-up, but some of the Southampton students stayed at the camp for longer periods between studies.


Results?
From International Museum of Women

The U.S. missiles left the Berkshire common in 1991. After they were removed, the women stayed to ensure the land would be handed back to the community. In 1997, the land was finally sold to the Greenham Common Trust, whereupon it was passed back to the local council for just £1. The perimeter fences of the old base were taken down in early 2000 and after nineteen years of continuous presence at the site, the women peace campaigners closed down the camp, packed their belongings, and left.

No one credits the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp for the U.S. decision to leave that old RAF base, the end of the Cold War had a little something to do with that. The USAF returned the Greenham Common airbase to the Ministry of Defense, and they decided to close the base. But 19 years of continuous presence to advance an idea is impressive,inspiring.

And now, OWS

Physical activism isn’t in my blood. I think it’s a propensity, like anything else, that I don’t have, so I didn’t continue to participate in organized protests after college. I have not gone down to Zucotti Park to witness or join in. I only know what I experience in social media.

Certainly there hasn’t been anything in the last 30 years that has captured the imagination the way Occupy Wall Street is doing. It’s the energy of the 60s and 70s resurfaced: for the young of the protestors it’s the first blossoming. For the middle aged, it’s a touchstone back.

For me, its best accomplishment is to give some corporeal form to the disgust, hatred, outrage that we 99% feel for the greed, swindling, fiduciary abuse of Enron, Halberton, AIG, and on and on and on. The bonuses on Wall Street are still obscene, the “too big to fail” mentality still dangerously prevalent.

But beyond this service, I don’t understand what the OWS is hoping to accomplish. Here’s a video they produced to thank their supporters. They are looking forward to 2012, and I’m certainly interested in what they do next.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

O, Holy Night!



Christmas Eve is the most distinctive night of the year. As an adult the frisson comes from the commemoration of Verbum caro factum est: And the Word was made flesh. In simplest terms, the creator of life sent his son to help people cope with the painful difficulties of being human. Which is why it’s so horrific that the Church that Jesus founded on St. Peter suffers from all the greatest of the human difficulties: arrogance, ignorance, sexual perversion, aggression.

G. K. Chesterton’s quip— “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried”— sadly refers to the Church in many was as well as to individuals.

But on Christmas Eve, the sense of hope and optimism blinds all the darkness. And one hymn captures all the beauty and life we are celebrating, the exquisite O Holy Night: a poem by a French wine merchant/poet, set to music by a French composer, translated for the English-speaking world for the ages by a Unitarian minister.

The entire poem is lovely, but these lines particularly are what I hold on to. The wine merchant really understood what it’s all about..
--
It is the night of our death Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth

In all our trials born to be our friend.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
 His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Celine Dion has a very beautiful performance.


Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Visit from a Friend of Dudley's from The Bishop's Wife

I’m not particularly fond of angel pictures, neither tv nor features. I never got into Touched by an Angel, or Highway to Heaven, and even Holly Hunter’s grittier Saving Grace doesn’t draw me in.

But there was an angel named Dudley who made an impression. I saw The Bishop’s Wife as a child, and I was entranced by Cary Grant, the most suave, engaging messenger of God there could ever be. A God who can make Cary Grant surely can do anything.


The Catholic Church recognizes these divine agents (angels that is, not actors). They are not people who have died--as Hollywood often depicts--but heavenly beings in a celestial hierarchy: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, archangels, and angels.

“St. Thomas teaches us (Summa Theologica I:113:4) that only the lowest orders of angels are sent to men, and consequently that they alone are our guardians, though Scotus and Durandus would rather say that any of the members of the angelic host may be sent to execute the Divine commands.” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

In The Bishop’s Wife, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) prays for help in building a new cathedral. Dudley arrives in answer to that prayer, and becomes a part of the Bishop’s life, which includes his wife, Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter Debbie.

What the film captures so well is that moment of Henry in prayer, with Dudley entering in response, and then, his work done and guidance given, his leaving, with no trace of his being there. Except for Henry, who has a dull feeling about something he can’t quite remember. And yes, I had faith that this kind of story was theoretically possible and not a fairy tale.

An Angel at Her Elbow
The film was always a favorite of mine, but it took on more resonance about 15 years ago. My mother was trying to quit smoking, again. My niece had just been born, and my brother didn’t want any smoking near her. But my mother had been smoking for forty years, and they say that for some, the addiction to nicotine is harder to break than heroine.

One day my mother was shopping in the mall when she stopped to light up a cigarette outside of a fabric store. Out of nowhere there was a woman at her side, coming from her blind spot whom she only saw out of the corner of her eye, touching her elbow, and saying “Please don’t smoke." My mother was completely startled. She turned to say something to her, and there was no one there—-only a bunch of young mothers tending to children in strollers.

It’s such a cinematic moment, it would be so easy for me to film this story.
.
That was the last cigarette my mother smoked. She simply hasn’t had another since.

A little Divine intervention?

It could have been a woman who had lost someone to lung cancer, and was compelled to ask total strangers to stop smoking, and then was really good at running away, so as not to have a confrontation.

Yup. That’s possible.

It could have just been a coincidence that after that encounter, my mother was finally able to not light up again. Coincidences happen all the time.

Then again . . . it could have been an angel, visible for a moment, when that moment was most needed.





Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: So Women Aren't Funny, but We Can Appreciate You & Kipling

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
Rudyard Kipling

I was a fan of Christopher Hitchens's literary side, not his political or theological pursuits. I love that one his last articles was a reflection on Rudyard Kipling for Slate. I enjoyed many of his literary essays for The Atlantic through the years, and am so happy that they are online to read again.

But it was his hilarious, outrageous, insane 2007 article for Vanity Fair, "Why Women Aren't Funny" that I remember most, for its great writing, real-life observations, and strange vulnerability. The day I first read it in 2007 it completely related to something I had been thinking about, and so this post about my schooner days. What I didn't remember is that Hitchens works Kipling into that piece too, quoting his poem "The Female of the Species."

The world has lost a distinct voice, and one that genuinely spoke for the great British literary tradition. I admire how Hitchens wrote his way through his dying, verily proving Kipling's quip about the power of words.

My Post from 2007: Schooner Girl
I was rearranging my library to accommodate new titles that had stacked up, when a large leather-bound old compendium toppled from the high shelf and whacked me on the head. That got my attention, and I sat on the sofa, poured a scotch, and flipped through its stories by Maugham, Wallace, Huxley, and decided to stop at Joseph Conrad’s Youth.

The unnamed narrator introduces us to Marlow (who will later lead us into the heart of darkness), but here he tells the tale of his first command of a ship at age twenty in “Eastern waters,” a ship that sinks after an explosion, and puts him and his crew into lifeboats for 12 days.

I was enjoying the tension in Conrad’s world between the exuberance of the young, “There was a touch of romance in it, something that made me love the old thing-- something that appealed to my youth!” and the burdens of the seasoned, “youth, strength, genius, thoughts, achievements, simple hearts--all die . . . . No matter.” when I was startled by this sentence: “The deck being blown up, it had fall down into the lazarette of course.”

Lazarette. Oh my gosh. My own considerable sailing adventures came flooding back with that unique word in a way the tale hadn’t conjured. It’s often left out of my bio, but I crewed on a schooner for summers during college out of Sag Harbor, New York. The Appledore was the last schooner custom built by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine. After Herbert Smith sailed it around the world, he sold it to Cornelius Donovan and Ed Orr, two dreamers who were making a business of day sails in Gardiner’s Bay, and overnights from Montauk to Block Island. That’s when I entered their story.

The lazarette is a storage area in the bowels of the stern. In a schooner it is large enough to crawl into. It is an exotic spot—you see the hull, you are in the skeleton of the ship. You can’t get closer to the mythos of sailing than this.

There are many schooner stories to tell—there were some rough days and some funny ones--but one thought is in the fore. I had two main mates—George and Bobby. Schoonermen: a type of alpha male. They need to be highly skilled and brutishly strong. I was the first woman brought into the franchise, to help the passengers feel more comfortable. George and Bobby were skeptical at first, but I pulled my own weight, never complained, and soon my presence on the ship was welcomed. We fell into a rhythm of drinking Mount Gay & OJ together in port at the end of a sail, sitting and watching the sun set and laughing at the day’s events, before they went off and did their real drinking.

George had popped into my head earlier today (before Conrad landed on it) when I read Hitchens’s provocation fancy in Vanity Fair. “For men, it is a tragedy that the two things they prize the most—women and humor—should be so antithetical.” He’s all over the place with this, which I’m sure will result in much blogbabble. “Filth. That's what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities.” But George taught me that, sometimes, men want the civilizing influence of women, apart from as the price they pay for desire. No one swears like a sailor, and a schooner sailor is top dog. I didn’t impinge on George and Bobby’s natural order, but I offered an alternate to some of its excesses. At the end of the summer I was walking away from the Appledore when George caught up with me to say I was the truest lady he had ever met, and he was glad to sail with me.

Men, they will surprise you.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Dinner with Julian Barnes


Not really, but I had a lovely little intersection with Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which I'm about 3/4 the way through, on Thanksgiving.

I cooked this year for the first time in many years. The gathering of the family was going to be small (with a larger gathering on Friday), so I made a turkey breast. I ordered an organic turkey from D'artagnan, along with White Truffle Butter. You pull the skin away from the bird and slip medallions of the butter under it, to melt into the meat and flavor it, and it also flavors the au jus beautifully.

I finished doing that, then popped down to Penn Station to meet my mother. On the subway I continued read The Sense, where the narrator is going on about his ex-girlfriend Veronica and his ex-wife Margaret.

And so I read:

I said I wanted to get under her [Veronica] skin, didn't I? It's an odd expression, and one that always makes me think of Margaret's way of roasting chicken. She'd gently loosen the skin from the breast and thighs, then slip butter and herbs underneath. Perhaps some garlic as well, I'm not sure. I've never tried it myself, then or since; my fingers are too clumsy, and I imagine them ripping the skin.

Margaret told me of a French way of doing this which is even fancier. They put slices of black truffle under the skin . . .


Butter and truffles under the skin of a fowl: I had JUST done that very same thing. Art mirroring life on the #1 train on a holiday. One of the thrills of reading.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks Be to Buffy and Blogging





Things are a little intense for me right now, as they are for many people for many reasons, at this time of OWS and all the ongoing wars, struggles around the world.

To handle the pressures—big and small, life changing and life threatening---you’ve got to find small pleasures where you can find them. They are one of the things that help keep you balanced.
And on this Thanksgiving, two small things have given me that little blast of “things are okay”: A Buffy marathon, and a blog comment.

I’m cooking this year, so I was up early and stumbled upon the 6:00 am start of the Chiller Buffy Marathon. I am an original, serious fan. It’s hard to describe the import of that statement to the uninitiated. I haven’t seen an episode since the series ended 8 years ago, so what a great cheap thrill it is to hear that music again. And, the marathon is the last 10 episodes of the series, which (except for the last, which I DID NOT LIKE), I don’t remember that well, so it’s like seeing new episodes. (And, I want to go on record that, in the final analysis, I believe Angel (the series) was the superior creative achievement, an unpopular idea in my circle that I hope to defend someday in print.)

I could transcribe great Buffy dialogue all day: “First Date”: Buffy: He (the principal) may want to give me a promotion, or he may what to kill me; Willow: Well, you’ll have to dress for the ambiguity.

As anyone who has stopped by here before knows, I am also a serious fan of blogging, and tomorrow happens to be my 5 year blogoversary.

Last night someone in Abu Dhabi, clicked over from a 23 year old’s tumblr who had linked to my Orson Welles post. I love when the UAE visits. But my favorite part is the way the 23 year set up the link on his page:

"First-hand Accounts of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds

This has long been my favourite example of early, en masse trolling.
Orson Welles, my hat is off to you sir."

A 23 year old saying that any concept has “long been” in his vocabulary is enheartening.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Enjoy the day of rest and family (and for those who partake, Buffy).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Do I Like Parks & Recreation? I only SUPER do



Leslie: Due to my campaign, the romantic aspect of our relationship is over. And I'm totally fine with that. But Ben and I have so much in common we're amazing friends. And friendship is better because friends help you move, they drive you to the airport. Boyfriends just . . . love you and marry you.


I never got into The Office, haven’t seen many episodes, though I appreciate a line from an event with Steve Carell-—“If you don’t know a Michael Scott, you are a Michael Scott” —and I’m not a particular fan of Amy Poehler, so I didn’t rush to watch Greg Daniels and Michael Schur’s not-Office spinoff, Parks and Recreation starring Poehler.

But I have slowly come around to watching it most weeks, and the recent episode “The Treaty” is such inspired, smart, sparkling lunacy that I am now the recent convert who must convert everyone she knows. It’s for your own good! Watching this episode will pick you up when you are feeling down and restore your faith in humanity!!

A Relationship/Model U.N./& High School


Parks & Recreation
is one of those comedies which—when it’s hot-—can convincingly offer an A, B, & C story in the commercially allotted 21 or so minutes. I’m highly impressed by that narrative agility (How different from the one--story classics of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the early attempts of 2 stories like The Mary Tyler Moore Show.)

Here’s a little set up you need to enjoy "The Treaty":

General series premise: A crew is making a documentary of the city workers in the Parks Department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana. So there is direct address to the camera, which should be a tired conceit after The Office and Modern Family, but somehow it’s still fresh here.

Story A: Leslie Knope (Poehler) and Ben Wyatt (the unassumingly charming Adam Scott) fell in deep, deep like, finally dated, and then broke up when Leslie was approached to run for public office, because she thinks having an office romance won’t be good for her election.

Leslie and Ben are still struggling with how to be apart in this episode, and it plays out with hilarity as they go make the Pawnee High School Model United Nations Club awesome so it doesn't get canceled.

Leslie represents Denmark, Ben, Peru, and while they start as allies they devolve into crazy screaming teenagers, perfectly capturing how the horrible hurt of a broken relationship can manifest in crazy ways (here the crazy is funny instead of scary).

Story B: Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who is Leslie’s boss, tries to rehire Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) who left to start his own entertainment business, which failed.

Story C: City Manager Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) launches an “investigation” into why the daughter of one his employees stopped returning his calls.

They are all good, but the Leslie//Ben stuff at the model U.N. is successful lunacy. I had to watch it twice to pick up all the allusions and get all the lines. And I’m on the side of fans who think that nitwit Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) unknowingly negotiated for liens from Kenya (not real lions).

After you watch the episode, pop over the Sepinwall’s for great commentary and comments.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day in the Digital Age: 11 am on 11/11/11




There is something inherently cosmic/Matrix when the numeric dates that we look at so casually in everyday life reset themselves into such a clean declaration of the primary of the binary code: 1. It also looks like the great slot machine of life has spun and landed on all stars.

Oddly enough, the magnetism of this number was felt back in 1918. Germany had surrendered, and someone decided that the formal Armistice agreement would be signed on 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That set a century of observances in motion, as the magnitude of the devastation to people’s lives became clearer and clearer as the years passed and the human spirit needed some sort of ritual to help it heal from the madness.




We called today Armistice Day until 1954, when Eisenhower signed into law the broader All Veterans Day, which became just Veterans Day. That was an excellent idea. We have Memorial Day to honor the dead; we need something to help us think about the living, all those individuals who have served in war and peace. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website with information about volunteering, helping Veterans in various ways, and I learned that there is a VA hospital at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

Americans never picked up the British honor of 2-minutes of silence, but many people will give some kind of thought to 11:00 am today.

These terrific photos are from The Guardian: British troops in Afghanistan; Veterans in London; 2 minutes of silence at Lloyds of London.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Relentless Pollution of Chongqing



One of Andrew Sullivan's regular features is The View From Your Window, where he posts photos that readers send him of the view they are looking at as they blog, or do work of any sort.

This one is from a high rise in Chongqing, China. I was there in 2010. When I first woke up I thought that it was just a cloudy day. But it was every day; then I realized the cloudiness was severe pollution. And after being outside for a whole day, I felt very unwell, in a weird, unspecific way.

I am sad to see this picture. I don't think the people who live there ever see the sun in the city. It has an eerie post-apocalyptic feel about it. I don't know what the answer is to the poisoning pollution of the earth, but if Americans experienced this level of pollution, I think more efforts and intelligence would go toward making changes.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Music for All Souls Day

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

"Grant them eternal rest, O Lord"




I find great beauty in the propers for the Requiem Mass, and on All Souls I find myself drawn to the musical settings of these most important and final of words.

The idea of eternity is so profound, so unimaginable, that sublime musical writing from the genius of composers is necessary to even glimpse the beginning of the magnitude of the concept. There are the big heavy requiems like Mozart, Verdi, Bruckner, and the more ethereal compositions of Faure, Durufle, and Rutter. The Faure is my favorite—-you can hear the haunting original ancient chant in its lines—-and if you have never heard it I urge you to iTunes or YouTube.

I heard the Britten War Requiem last weekend, from the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Lincoln Center. Britten wrote it in 1961 as a nonliturgical setting of the Requiem Mass, interspersed with the poems of the War World One poet Wilfred Owen. It's a powerful, moving juxtaposition, with the import of so much history: it was first performed in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in World War Two. For me, the music is too "modern" inflected with the dissonances of that mode.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis


I also heard the LSO under Sir Colin Davis perform the towering, overwhelming, Missa Solemnis. It was one of the most moving concert experiences I have ever had.

It is particularly difficult to capture the emotion, genius, joy, exuberance of this piece in words. In 2010 Anthony Tommasini called it "one of Beethoven’s most inspired, audacious and mystifying scores. . . . one of Beethoven's greatest compositions. It encapsulated his deepest thoughts, his profound humility in the face of adversity, his triumph over fate, the dignity of humanity as a part of God's design." (Recent review here)

My favorite writing on the mass is from the Bohemian-Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick. Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis between 1819 and 1823, Hanslick's review was first published in 1861. Our civil war was raging, but Austria was thriving as a music capital. The whole piece is worth reading, but here are some excerpts (from Barry Mitchell's excellent blog, The Theory of Music, where you can read the whole review.)

"There is no other work of Beethoven’s which crushes the unprepared listener with such gigantic strength, at the same time raising him up again, deafened, delighted, confused.

A work by Beethoven conceived in the full power of his imagination and fully characteristic of his utter lack of compromise, is not to be enjoyed as easily, as freely, as a symphony by Haydn. In the Mass in D, Beethoven set down everything he possessed in the way of sublime ideas and religious feelings; he gave to this music three years of his life then in its sunset and brilliantly aglow with its double majesty of genius and adversity."


The Kyrie is the original Phil Spector wall of sound, amped with the entreaty of "Lord, have mercy." To experience the piece with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra is to have a tide wave wash over you, and then raise you up in the water, just like Hanslick describes. The first downbeat of the first cry is like a sacred "Tristan Chord": riveting, emotional, profound, joyous and so very full of life.

Just perfect for All Souls Day.

This performance of Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann is sterling. If you listen to nothing else today, listen to the first 4 minutes: the grand orchestra downbeat, followed by the melody in the oboes, then the enormous choral downbeat, out of which the soloists intone, until the chorus builds on triumphant thirds an explosion of sound.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Halfway Down: Milne Helps with the "Middleness"

A.A. Milne's poem positively leaps to mind today, my annual personal New Year's Day, with this particular birthday encumbered with the sense of middleness.

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any
Other stair
Quite like
It.

I'm not at the bottom,
I'm not at the top;
So this is the stair
Where
I always
Stop.


Milne's poem from When We Were Very Young has been described as a "juvenile meditation" of a small child sitting on a middle step of staircase, equally able to go up or down.

I grew up in a split-split level house. There were 3 sets of stairs from the ground floor to my bedroom at the top of the house (and a set of stairs down to the finished basement).

The stairs from the second bedroom level to the living room were the longest and most reminiscent of Ernest Shepard's illustration. I spent many happy hours on those stairs, especially when my parents were having parties. I had been put to bed, but I would "sneak" down to watch the grownups, who seemed very glamorous.


Bound By This Date
I like to think about my fellow celebrants—living and deceased—as well as interesting things that happened today, such as John Keats leaving London for Rome in 1820, 190 years ago today, where he will die in his apartment on the Spanish Steps on February 23, 1821, and the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1959.

As for celebrants, Samuel Coleridge is the first among equals. Then there's Dizzy Gillespie, Carrie Fisher, Elvin Bishop, Manfred Mann, Ursual K. Le Guin, Patrick Kavanagh, Alfred Nobel, Alfonse de Lamartine. And my favorite, the character Olivia Dunham on Fringe (the episode "The Cure" which took place on her birthday first aired on October 21, 2008.)

Bound By an Image
This birthday also calls to mind one of the most poetic visual images I have of my father. It was the day of his middle birthday, which was in June. I was in my bedroom at the top of the house and for some reason looked out my window to the backyard. It was raining very hard, and my father, who had been doing some sort of heavy yard work, had gone under the small awning of the tool shed in the very back corner of the property to wait out the rain.

I saw him in his yard outfit-—jeans and a white T-shirt-—squatting down, looking out over his beautiful property as the rain teemed. I imagined him thinking about all he had accomplished, and all he had not

He died seven years later. That's the tricky thing about the stairs. In real life, you don't know which stair you're standing on.

But for now, I'm happy not to worry about it but let "all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head."

Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up,
And it isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery,
It isn't in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head:

"It isn't really
Anywhere!
It's somewhere else
Instead!"


Kermit's nephew Robin sings a lovely rendition of the poem set to music by Harold Fraser-Simson. Sing us out Robin!





Thursday, October 20, 2011

21st Century All For One, On My Birthday!

It made me smile to see that the 3D, 21st century, action packed Three Musketeers opens tomorrow, on my birthday! Given my love for the novel, what are the odds it would be created and released this year, when my birthday is on a Friday? I have a feeling it will be awful—why couldn't Guy Ritchie have taken on Dumas rather than Conan Doyle—but I am thrilled that the team is being brought into this century. I will see it tomorrow along with the other faithful.




The definitive film version is from Richard Lester, with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Charlton Heston, and Faye Dunaway as Milady. I wrote about it and my love for the novels here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Love Among the Torts: 25th Anniversary of L.A. Law




The sexy sax riff wailing over the black screen to the declarative thump of the car trunk, both primal and urban. As opening credits go, it offered the total package.

And so L.A. Law announced itself to weekly prime time with a classic Mike Post back-beat composition on Oct. 3, 1986 (after its two-hour pilot movie was shown twice the month before). From the close-up of the license plate for the Golden State we see bright sunshine bouncing off the windows of the tall, glass, L.A. buildings. It’s the same brightness we enjoyed in the '80s Remington Steele and Moonlighting, both zeitgeist influences on the lighter side of Law. Bochco’s own Hill Street Blues, with its large ensemble cast and interweaving storylines, was the more direct model for the legal drama. No longer on the gritty streets of the anonymous urban city, L.A. Law brought interesting, contemporary issues into the pristine, modern offices of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak and mixed them up with quirky romantic entanglements and a dash of the bizarre.


Howard Rosenberg wrote of the premiere:
“There should be a law requiring more series like NBC's new L.A. Law. Its premiere, at 9 tonight immediately raises the level of the fall season about a dozen notches…Though vastly different in tone and texture, L.A. Law honors the tradition of that fine old CBS courtroom series of the 1960s, The Defenders."

That’s what’s hard to remember 25 years hence: what the landscape was before L.A.Law. We live in a world that knows Ally McBeal, Bobby Donnell of The Practice, Alan Shore and Denny Crane of Boston Legal, Patty Hewes of Damages. But before them audiences knew and loved Perry Mason (1957 to 66), Lawrence Preston, The Defenders (1961-65), Judd, for the Defense, (1967-69), Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971-74). These characters were fairly one dimensional, stiff, less “life like” than those we know today. The TV naturalism that broke through in the '70s (as surely as color did the decade before) with likes of All in the Family and Maude and continued with Hill Street and St. Elsewhere in the '80s first hit the legal profession with L.A.Law. That’s one reason it was such a hit. It also was fresh and engaging, with good dialogue and smart perspectives on difficult issues. It earned 15 Emmys, with four for outstanding drama series in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991.

Love Among the Torts

What pulled me in as a viewer was the Grace Van Owen/Michael Kuzak romance. Grace was a model for young women in the '80s: reserved (which became dour as the seasons went on), good at her job, and the love interest of Harry Hamlin and Jimmy Smits. Who wouldn’t want to be her? Her style of dress started a trend. Rose Marie Turl of The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that “what has become known in the retail trade as 'the 'Law blouse' is surfacing all over Los Angeles. ‘I don't remember a blouse like this: the V-neck, the softness and the fact it works with any jacket,’ marvels Lee Hogan Cass, fashion director for the Broadway. ‘Wrap blouses have been in existence for a long time, but this is a little different version. It's a very feminine way of softening a suit.’“

I also got hooked into the surprise romance of Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry) and Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker). Their romance became even more popular than Van Owen and Kuzak/Sifuentes, helped by the never defined Venus Butterfly. A storyline that transcended the series was Diana Muldaur as Rosalind Shays. She comes to the firm as a rainmaker, then maneuvers to oust Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart). They become involved amid the doublecrossing, which was interesting enough, but it’s the scene at the elevator where Leland thinks Roz is upset that he won’t marry her, when she turns to enter the elevator and falls down the shaft to her death. (An episode mischievously titled "Good to the Last Drop.") It ranked No. 81 on TV Guide/TV Land's list of 100 Most Memorable TV Moments and it’s part of the bizarre edge to the series, which started with the partner Chaney dead at his desk.


Order in the Court

The comings and goings of the creative team of L.A. Law would make its own interesting series. Suffice to say it was created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher and through the years saw the talents of David E. Kelley, John Tinker, John Masius and William Finklestein in creative control. By season six, ratings had dropped. Here’s the ever curmudgeonly John J. O’Connor from The New York Times on Oct. 17, 1991:
“The formula, with its office politics here and court cases there, has gone flat. The scenes in court have all the fizz of a set-in-concrete Matlock encounter as dramatic outbursts alternate regularly with brooding stares of significance, the camera lingering pointedly. The issues are current, but the scripts are strictly fill-in-the-blanks exploitations of topics like spouse abuse or the legal status of Vietnam M.I.A.'s. In short, L.A. Law has become totally predictable.”

In 1992, both Steven Bochco and David Kelley returned to the show, to see if they could bolster its popularity. It continued on to an eighth season, ending on May 19, 1994.

Cultural and Professional Impact

In 2009 the ABA Journal ran a poll for the best legal TV shows. Not surprisingly L.A. Law was voted No. 1, 15 years after it left the air. The editors’ comment is very telling: “For lawyers of a certain age, Leland McKenzie is the managing partner they are still looking for. Douglas Brackman Jr. is the manager they seem to end up with.”

John Leonard had some harsh words for its impact on its descendants in a 2008 review of Raising the Bar:
“But Bochco’s next big hit, L.A. Law, after a long and lurid run of big money and soap shenanigans, inspired so much contempt in the popular culture for private-practice law that subsequent noble-noodle shows like Shannon’s Deal, Eddie Dodd, The Wright Verdicts, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill and Sweet Justice never stood a ratings chance.”

Were we really poisoned by the money and slickness of McKenzie, Brackman? Perhaps. There were many cultural casualties of the 1980s. We’ll see if Kathy Bates and Harry’s Law purifies the image of our legal profession for a new generation.

An Anniversary Rider

Back in 1993, Steven Bochco and the cast and creative team of L.A. Law were the honorees of the gala of the then-Museum of Television & Radio, now The Paley Center for Media. Bochco filmed a short piece for it with the partners at McKenzie, Brackman debating whether they should go to the gala. You can see this never-seen-outside-of that-dinner video on The Paley Center for Media site. So pop on over to see Leland McKenzie, Douglas Brackman, Ann Kelsey, Arnie Becker, Jonathan Rollins and the gang in the conference room, one last time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Libra’s National Holiday

It’s Autumnal Equinox day! To most people that means equal length of day and night. Of course it’s much more complicated than that, but at the least it’s when the sun “appears to cross the celestial equator from south to north.”

The sense of evenness, of balance, is the cornerstone of most new age therapies (followed closely by fighting “inflammation”).

For we Librans— born under the stars that are The Scales--balance is in our DNA. We strive for peace and harmony and evenness. We like when things even out, and are no longer off keel, out of kilter (keel I know from sailing, but what is a kilter?) Making the time of equal light and equal light our national holiday.


The Even Steven of “The Opposite”


Leave it to Seinfeld to bring this idea to the quartet. The subtheme of the classic “Opposite” episode---where George finds success by doing everything the opposite of who he is and what he does—is Jerry, Mr. Even Steven.

Jerry: “Yesterday I lost a job, and then I got another one, and then I missed a TV show, and later on they re-ran it. And then today I missed a train, went outside and caught a bus. It never fails! I always even out!”

Kramer to Jerry: "You know who you are? Even Steven."

Jerry: “Elaine, don't get too down. Everything will even out. See, I have two friends. You were up, he was down. Now he's up, you're down. You see how it all evens out for me?”

Jerry Seinfeld the comedian is an Aires. I couldn’t find a birth day for the character, but I’d bet he’s a Libra.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Great War & Modern Memory: The Sublime Gash of War Horse


"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Millions were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress."
Paul Fussell

I entered college with an attachment to the First World War, if that’s what you can call it, because of T.E.Lawrence. I had read through Seven Pillars of Wisdom in high school and fallen under its heady romantic spell. Lawrence was a gifted writer who embodied the English literary tradition from the inside, and he wrote his own mythology simply because he could: he knew the power of the trope and how to wield it (and saw an opportunity in the newsreels of his own personal Barnum, Lowell Thomas).

To my Freshmen amazement, there was a class on World War One Literature, taught by Paul Fussell, based on his own National Book Award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory. It’s a cultural study/close reading of the literary tradition before WW1—particularly poetry--- and how it changed during and in relation to the war. We didn’t study Lawrence, but I discovered the vast and profound literature of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the work of Sir Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Bernard Bergonzi.

All of which came to mind at a recent performance of War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The Western Front

The play is an adaptation of a children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo and published in the UK in 1982. Morpurgo knew a WWI veteran from his local pub who had been in the Devon Yeomanry and worked with horses. He wrote the book to tell of the experience of the last war with substantial cavalry forces, and all the suffering modern warfare brought to man and beast alike.

And so the story of Albert, a boy from a poor farm family, and Joey, the horse he raises from a foal amid a tangle of family tensions and sadness. His dad sells Joey into the army, and when the captain who promised he would look after Joey is killed, Albert runs away to France and joins the Yeomentry to find him.

The play is engaging on many levels. The puppetry of the horses is as spectacular as everyone says it is. It doesn’t take long before you don’t even “see” the talented puppeteers. The story draws you in, although in the second act it devolves into clichés, and the French mother and child are shrill and painfully overacted. The battle scenes are compelling, with their flashes of painfully bright lights and seriously loud shell explosions.

But for me, the piercing artistic element is Rae Smith’s gash of a rear projection screen that hovers above the action.

The Rend in History

On her website Smith calls the screen shape a “torn page,” referencing the sketchbook of Captain Nicholls, who draws Joey. Sketches of the town and the farm are projected there as scenery, as well as more abstract images for the shell explosions (which one critic saw as Vorticism echoing the short-lived literary magazine, BLAST).

But it’s so much more than that, even if not by conscious design. It symbolizes the great gaping gash in the universe that was World War One, which cut the 20th century off from the rest of history. The carnage was so unspeakable—-from the use of gas warfare to the 500,000 who died in the mud of Passchendale--that civilization shattered.

Artists captured that shatter, not always consciously, but simply because it was real. T.S. Eliot reflects the rupture in The Waste Land: April is no longer the sweetest month (Chaucer) but the cruelest, breeding lilacs out of the dead. Voices are adrift; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Hemingway knew that language could no longer be trusted, language that once talked of the glory of dying for your country. He could use no adjectives, no adverbs, just safe, simple words. Isn’t it pretty to think so.

And so that piece of stagecraft is a startling visual, in the 21st century, of where we have been. It’s the rend in the universe we are all still suffering from. I felt comforted that this concept was an element in the play. In the middle of one of the battle scenes that gash is filled with a projection of enormous poppies. It's a beautiful visual moment.


Who’s War Was It Anyway?


Who'll sing the anthem and who'll tell the story?
Will the line hold? Will it scatter and run?
Will we at last be united in glory?
Only remembered for what we have done


I first saw War Horse in London, in the West End in July 2009. As the second act battle scenes come to a close, I kept waiting for some reference to the American troops. Not a whole scene, just a line of dialogue about the Yanks coming over. Just some nod that something happened between the battles in France and Armistice Day.

But there was nothing. This struck me as bad history at the least, and a terrible cultural snub at worst. Especially in a play that opens with a man singing “Who’ll tell the story? Only remembered for what we have done.” So this story does not remember the American allies.

The forgetting goes beyond the play. Last year before the 2012 London Olympics I wrote about my recent experiences of Englishmen of a certain age honestly not knowing the Americans fought in World War 1, offering a photo of King George pinning a medal on an American Doughboy, and the list of the 8 American World War 1 cemeteries in France, Belgium, and England.


Paul Fussell offers some explanation for this cultural blind spot in an intro he wrote for the 25th anniversary edition of his Great War & Modern Memory in 2000. He was commenting on the reception his book was given twenty-five years earlier:

“From England came evidence of further annoyance at my book. There, some readers seemed to feel that no American has a right to probe into what they regard as their business.”

National identity is a deep-seeded construct. Tribal feelings can only be “civilized” out of us so far. That’s something I can respect.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why I Want to Remember




Because the tales of the few survivors from near the impact zones are harrowing beyond belief. The 911 tapes released reveal the desperate, terrified people calling for help, screaming about the heat and the flames and the smoke, begging for someone to “come get us,” until they succumbed to the fire or died when the towers collapsed.

Because the tales of people who weren’t killed on impact had to choose——try to go higher in the buildings because they couldn’t breathe or battle to walk down-—and too many chose to go up and walked to their certain death.

Of course there are layers and layers of issues and reality to “9/11.” And the cultural personification of all of that can sometimes be bewildering, tedious, crass, empty-feeling.

But none of that is important. All that matters is remembering, as best we can, that so many of the nearly 3,000 had the agony of knowing they were in mortal danger---whether trapped in an airplane hijacked by terrorists, or in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon--with absolutely no preparation or context, and they died violently, into oblivion. So few bodies were recovered from any of the attack areas.

Our brothers and sisters were murdered for no other reason than that they worked in one of the world’s great symbols of freedom.

We simply can’t remember these people enough.

Rest in peace.

(Flag from back page of NYTimes from Sept. 16, 2001)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My Own Open Window: The Literary Meets the Culinary


“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn."



Nowhere does our inner sensibility get such an intriguing expression than in the furnishings of our home. It’s a part of human nature that Restoration Hardware, West Elm, and Pottery Barn have codified for the middle class in a multimillion dollar industry.

I needed to update my small, UWS galley kitchen. I had resurfaced the cabinets and countertops 5 years ago, so this was just cosmetic: the wallpaper was peeling, the light fixture was cracked, the floor was yellowed from it original 1984 setting.

Wallpaper is an under-sung tool in the home decorator’s arsenal. By enveloping you with a pattern or a scene, a color or a texture, it has the power to set a tone and a mood. Originated in the ancient rice papers of China in 200 B.C., it grew in Europe alongside the rise of papermaking and woodcuts, with a guild of paperhangers first established in France in 1599.

The variety of today’s wallpapers is dazzling beyond description.

But from the moment I knew I was going to clean up my kitchen, I had a vision of what that wallpaper needed to be: a mural at the end of the galley kitchen to look like French doors opening onto a garden, with a sense of vines on the wall of a conservatory (like in Clue, not Oberlin).

It’s the fantasy that my imagination wanted to see. I don’t have a country house, and am not likely ever to. But I can transform some of the space that I do have to evoke that idea, which is a yearning of my sensibility.

And I know that Saki’s beguiling short story, The Open Window——which made a huge impression on me as a child——helped to inspire this vision.

As the “very self-possessed young lady of fifteen” narrates her little tale about her poor aunt . . .

“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back.

“In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.”

Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. ‘Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk.’


They can walk through my kitchen now any time, as can countless other figments of my imagination.

Saki's story has a wonderful twist that I won't give away. It's very short, I hope you'll read it. The Open Window

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Swing Time: "No Cuffs!"



Fred Astaire was born in the last year of the 19th century. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we pause for a moment to consider Swing Time——one of his greatest achievements——on its 75th anniversary.

The big assessments all are available to read: Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book; John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films; Hannah Hyman’s Fred and Ginger. There you can read about George Stevens and Howard Lindsay and all the formal calibrations and comparisons that are the world of film studies.

For myself, one question stuck in my head: What does Swing Time offer us in the 21st century?

Well, it is stunningly fresh in so many ways. It sweeps us into lush monochrome beauty, offering a respite from the glare of the colors of real life. The absurd storyline is not alien in the age of Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, not in plot points per se but in plot probability: man’s friends waylaid him from getting married because they don’t want him to leave the act, and twice—–not once but twice——important things happen because characters aren't CERTAIN that men’s morning trousers SHOULDN'T have cuffs. (And that rang in my head as "No cuffs!" a cousin of the immortal "No capes" from Edna Mode in The Incredibles.)


Fred’s first entrance as Lucky Garnett in full wedding suit regalia sets up the distinctive tone for our time together. His uncanny ease in formal attire never loses its power: authority of place and time, conviction of character, and an understanding of the tools of his trade of dancing wrapped in genuine nonchalance. His waistcoat, top hat and spats are his second skin, and his understanding of this gives us all permission to simply enjoy the visual beauty of the lines of his exquisite suits rather than being put off by them.

Calling Judd Apatow, Jon Lucas, et al

No one is watching Swing Time for the story, but it has charms to offer the 2011 viewer.

Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) has a best friend, Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore), which makes him a rich man in the important ways. But it’s 1936 and people are still reeling from the Depression.

The boys in the act take the cash Lucky gambled from them, but that doesn’t stop him. He wants to “go to New York” to make his fortune so that he can marry his fiancee. With no money for a ticket he hops a freight train. Pop runs along the train with a suitcase of all their clothes. It bursts open and they lose everything but a toothbrush. But since this is not a drama, they keep laughing. That’s part of the fantasy and the kind of "guy zaniness" people liked in The Hangover.  In New York, they will have to talk their way into an apartment, and then Lucky tries to gamble a tuxedo off of a mark so that he go to the dance audition with Penny Carrol (Ginger Rogers). This ease in the face of serious issues——being broke——pulls you in. Yes, I want to have that much chutzpah and courage in the face of economic strain.

La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance
To try to capture the songs and the dance of Swing Time in words is a little painful: It earthbounds what lives on a celestial plain of motion and soundscape. But words (and YouTube) are the best we have to share the experience of this piece of art.

Pick Yourself Up: The most exuberant of the duo’s dances, perfectly punctuated by the flare of Rogers’s biased-cut dress. Astaire’s sheer lightness of movement creates a visual definition of “joyous” that never has been topped. The advice to “dust yourself, start all over again” is welcome to all ages at any age. The dance and the songs spark with optimism and confidence.

The Way You Look Tonight: The great nondanced song from the ultimate song-and-dance man. Its opening lines are in imprinted into the psyche of several generations. I love that Penny is not waitin' on no man, she’s going on with the details of life, such as touching up the dye job on her hair. Astaire needs only to sit and sing to exude his considerable charisma.

Waltz in Swing Time: One of the great orchestral pieces with big, pendulous declarative riffs which Astaire and Rogers dance around, between, amidst.

A Fine Romance: I love the snow. I love the fur coats. I love the inside joke of a “fine romance with no kisses,” given Astaire’s dislike of onscreen kissing. He said that his lovemaking onscreen was in dance. Oh yes.

Bojangles of Harlem
: Fred and his three shadows. Another song with a bracing beat and an imaginative chorus line sequence. While a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as many have pointed out the flashy jacket is Sportin’ Life, not Bill who dressed very plainly. The challenge for some today is the blackface.




Never Gonna Dance: Even if you’d never read that this is considered the pinnacle of the Astaire/Rogers art, you would know it after one viewing. (Click here for proof.) More accessible and less fussy than Top Hat’s "Cheek to Cheek," it actually is more sophisticated and “deeper” in how it tells the whole story of “boy meets girl/loses girl/boy is crestfallen” in six exquisite minutes with a spectrum of moods, steps, and rhythms amid twinkling Art Deco splendor. Rogers’ gown is stunning: a simple satin slip dress with rhinestones crossing under the bust and across the bare back. When Rogers starts to walk away midpoint, Astaire pulls her back, just like the audience wants him too. Then the motion up the stairs to the big finish, with an amazing series of fast pirouettes from Ginger, until with one final pirouette she pivots away.

The plot then winds its way through more absurdity until Lucky and Penny find themselves with each other free and clear, with one boffo reprise singing “A Fine Romance” against “Just the Way You Look Tonight.”


Yous Do, Something to Me

The Astaire/Rogers team tantalizes because of how much more is their whole than the sum of their considerable and lovely parts. It’s the alchemy that happens when certain people are together: The Beatles, Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable, Crockett and Tubbs, Brangelina. There are pairings that just make people want more, want to know more, want to BE a part of the pair somehow. That phenomenon is in full force in Swing Time. Fred and Ginger are the most equal of partners; the synchronizing of their parallel steps is magical. For me, I can’t take my eyes off of Fred. For me his unfailing virtuosity over shines Ginger’s. I’m in the camp of “Eleanor Powell is a more accomplished dancer than Ginger Rogers.” But Powell never had the rapport with Astaire that Rogers did.

And so Rogers and Astaire are in a pantheon all their own. I hope that pop culture points the younger generation toward this artistry sometime in a big way. As I said, there’s lot that will make sense to The Hangover crowd, and much that would jazz them. What they might not know is just how hard Astaire worked at his art.

"This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn't want to be tracked. It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable.
"
Fred Astaire


Best tribute, go watch the film!