Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jim Rockford: My Last Innocent Girlhood Crush

Where the generation before me found daydream crushes in the leading men of the movies, my girlhood stirrings founds their objects of desire squarely on TV.

I fell for my first three when their prime-time shows from the 1960s were shown in syndication in the 1970s, and my older brother and I watched TV together in the playroom as I roller skated during the commercials.

My crushers were: Captain Lee Crane, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; James West, The Wild, Wild, West; and Captain Kirk, Star Trek. I had an active nighttime fantasy life around each of these characters, spinning my own stories of our daring feats together. I even had some crossover episodes, where Captain Kirk and I beamed into the Seaview, and he and Lee Crane would fight over me. (Maybe I should follow my friend Lynn Messina into writing Romance novels. Hmm.)

By the time The Rockford Files came on, I was old enough to stay up and watch it in prime time with the family, and so it took on a deeper emotional dimension in general, but my daydreams about Jim Rockford were still my own personal joy.

The attraction of course was felt by legions and has been well articulated. Both character and actor were handsome, witty, dry sense of humor, smart, and capable. In my personal series of The Rockford Files, I modeled my look on Gretchen Corbett, who played Jim's lawyer and sometimes girlfriend, but my character was a private detective, like him. Because he wasn't married and had no children, it was easy to spin stories of us working together without destroying the narrative of the series [not that I had this structural vocabulary yet] and the romance that naturally ensued. You see, I really understood his inner hurt and pain, and could bring a warmth to the trailer that he secretly yearned for . . . .

The series itself was so very hip and visionary in many ways: using the new technology of the answering machine in the credits; the very look of the credits with the freeze frame photos and quick cutting, which still looked fresh and innovative when Homicide: Life on the Street credits used a similar sensibility 20 years later!

The whole focus on the father/son relationship 20 years before Frasier, when adult children living with parents and vice verse became a cultural reality. Rockford didn't live with Rocky, but the series focus on their relationship was unique, with an authenticity that made it compelling.

The mad, 70s plaid jacket. Garner made it look good as few men could.

There were a few earlier touchstones of James Garner before Rockford. I went with my brother to see Support Your Local Sheriff in the theater, and as a family we had watched The Thrill of It All on TV.  So I had an idea who Garner was when The Rockford Files came on.

But TV has that power of intimacy. In your home. Every week. And that's how my guys filled my fantasies, as serialized, episodic daydreams.

I was "over" Rockford by the time the great Polaroid commercials with Mariette Harley started in 1978, but of course loved their banter as TV's best couple. Bruce Weber's appreciation in the NY Times got one thing horribly wrong:

"One of his most memorable roles was as a perpetually flummoxed pitchman for Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in droll commercials in which he played a vexed husband and Mariette Hartley played his needling wife."

Garner's character was decidedly NOT flummoxed. His voice is always measured and declarative for The One-Shot, and "vexed" is far too strong a word.

Weber does offer Garner's very best line about his approach to acting:

“I’m a Methodist but not as an actor,” he wrote in The Garner Files. “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth."

* * * * *

There were just a few other fantasy dreams after Jim Rockford: briefly Remington Steele and Sony Crockett in particular. Life and men had gotten real, which was exciting and sometimes disappointing at the same time, and there was less time for daydreaming.

But Jim Rockford was the last of my innocent girlhood crushes, something I hadn't thought about in years until today's sad news of James Garner's passing. I'm so lucky. It couldn't have been with a nicer guy. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

July 8, 1822, and the Burning, Reckless Heart of Shelley

It is to-day a hundred years since that sultry afternoon when Edward John Trelawny, aboard Byron’s schooner-yacht Bolivar, fretted anxiously in Leghorn Harbour and watched the threatening sky. The thunderstorm that broke about half-past six lasted only twenty minutes, but it was long enough to drown both Shelley and his friend Williams. . . .
  Christopher Morley The Powder of Sympathy

One of my favorite finds from a used book store is Christopher Morley's The Powder of Sympathy, a 1923 collection of essays from this true man of letters, best known as the author of Kitty Foyle (the film version of which is famous for Ginger Rogers's only Academy Award for Best Actress), and the godfather of bloggers.

The title of one essay is simply "July 8, 1822," the date that Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Tuscany. Morley was struck that 1922 was 100 years hence, and decided to commemorate the date of the great Romantic poet's death by copying out part of Edward John Trelawny's description of the cremation of Shelley's body on the Italian coast from his indispensable Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. And so I follow suit, on our July 8, 2016.  It is quite a graphic description, so let's  pick it up with

Byron could not face the scene; he withdrew to the beach and swam off to the Bolivar. Leigh Hunt remained in the carriage. The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to redue its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some framents of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all, was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt. 

Morely in 1922 was able to say “There are those still living who have shaken the hard, quick hand that snatched Shelley’s heart from the coals.”

We in 2016 can make no claim. Trelawny gave the heart to Mary Shelley, and it was found among her things when she died and buried with her at St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth. So while Shelley ashes are over in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, his heart is in England.

Morley's other personal commemoration was to reread Francis Thompson’s essay entitled “Shelley,” “which remains in our memory as a prismatic dazzle of metaphor.” That’s one thing to call it. Francis Thompson is an odd, ascetic figure on the literary landscape whom I wrote about because he is on the list of Jack the Ripper suspects. His Shelley essay is here [God bless the Gutenberg Project and all who partake.]  It is dense, baroque, almost insanely passionate, and brilliant.

Shelley’s work has, of course, inspired great passion from the actual greats. Here is Yeats: “I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”

Morely muses upon a weekend meditation on Shelley and "what he still means to us."  A fair question in 1922, even moreso in 2014. What Morely did not have in his day was epic television. Yeats was brought into the pop culture consciousness through The Sopranos and A.J. studying "The Second Coming" at college. And Shelley's "Ozymandias" had a huge resurgence because Moira Walley-Beckett built season 5, episode 14 of Breaking Bad around it. These guys were cultural rebels, I think they would have liked this eschalon of TV, breathing new life and generations into their work.

But on this 194th anniversary of Shelley's death by drowning, "Ozymandias" and its decay is not the voice to listen to. It's Morley himself, in his closing thought about the poet and what he brings into our lives:

"Though lulled long ago by the blue Mediterranean, that burning, reckless heart survives to us little corrupted by time--survives as a symbol of poetic energy superior to the common routines of life."

And we'll follow Yeats into Prometheus Unbound to see that burning, feverish heart for a momentary break from our daily routine:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

(Top image: Famous, but factually flawed painting of The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier; my picture of Shelley's grave in Rome. Updated from an earlier post.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sun Also Rises on The Festival of San Fermin: aka The Running of the Bulls

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly  to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.        The Sun Also Rises

The big news this year for San Fermin aficionados is the upcoming release of a new edition of The Sun Also Rises, first  published in 1926, with Hemingway's alternate opening. Not with Robert Cohn, as above, but, as Patricia Cohen in the NYTimes explained: "Originally, Hemingway began his tale of the Lost Generation by introducing its beautiful and heartsick embodiment, Brett Ashley: 'This is a novel about a lady.' ”

Wow. That would have put a whole different perspective on this post World War 1 tale of searing hopelessness.

Each generation finds The Sun Also Rises, which limns the fervor of the Festival of San Fermin as experienced by the brittle, crushed, shredded souls who lived through the Great War. Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley & crew are always talking about water of some sort—to bathe, to drink, to quench the bottomless thirst for humanity & connection that was destroyed in the trenches. They are the Lost Generation, which doesn't seem as much of a cliche this year, the centennial of the start of World War 1, when attention is focused on just how devastating that world event was.

The Feast Is Not in Honor of Bulls
The festival's roots are in Roman times. Wiki tells us:

Fermin is said to have been the son of a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona in the 3rd century, who was converted to Christianity by Saint Honestus, a disciple of Saint Saturninus. According to tradition, he was baptised by Saturninus (in Navarra "San Cernin") at the spot now known as the Pocico de San Cernin, the "Small Well of San Cernin." There is no written record of veneration in Pamplona of the Saint until the 12th century. Saint Fermin, as well as Saint Francis Xavier, are now the two patrons of Navarre.

Bullrunning appears in 17th and 18th century chronicles together with the presence of foreigners and the first concerns on the excessive drinking and dissolute behavior during the event. The Giant's Parade was created by the end in the mid of the 19th century. The first official bullring was constructed in 1844. 

Here is a schedule of these year's ceremonies that are held from July 6 to 14. The "run" started because bulls to fight in the evening were kept in off-site corrals, and had to get from point A to point B.  Good overview article in Newsweek.

I Happen Upon Pamplona, Iruna in Basque
In 2002 I did a tour in Spain & Portugal performing with a small acapella group from the Upper West Side.  I knew the itinerary included singing at Santiago de Compostela and the Bilbao Guggenheim (where I had to suffer the Jeff Koons Puppy in person).

I did not know that some of the group was planning to get up at 4:00 am to drive over from San Sebastian,  Donostia in Basque, and I went along.

This was quite a journey for me. The Sun Also Rises startled, rattled, and rocked my college world. And now I was making my way through the endless sea of red and white, looking for the sophisticates of Jake and Lady Brett, only to find hordes and hordes of drunk English college boys.

My friends and I didn’t even try to see the actual run, but went to the bullring, where they enter at the end of the three minute run.

We found good seats right above the door of the ring, and saw the bulls charge in at incredible speeds to a deafening roar from the crowd. The pulse of the entire scene is enormous. Blood is hot and pumping everywhere. When the fever of the run is over, there is a playful time with baby bulls and cows in the ring. The sun rises further and further, and it gets hotter and hotter still until you find a cool wineskin to drink from.

I got separated from my friends amidst the pandemonium of leaving the bullring. I made my way through the narrow, stone streets packed with people moving in every direction at once. I managed to break through a particularly bad body jam, turned a corner, and was amazed to see 6 Gigantes--30 feet figures of a Moor, an Indian, a King and Queen--literally towering over the chaos, with a majestic stillness and quietness. It was eerie and beautiful, medieval and carnival all together.

The Festival of San Fermin is so much more than the bulls. It is a mélange of folklore and Catholicism--people go to the main Mass each day, and the procession of the saint is important. I was struck by how many families were there. The Basques and the Spanish are very elegant people, with strong family bonds.

Everything about Pamplona shouts of life and it takes on the inherent difficulties of the human condition: like the crazy hubris to goad and run with bulls to the darker side of cruelty to animals. I can't defend bullfighting, but I believe in primal forces, not all of which can be "civilized" or intellectualized out of humanity. And, no one ever said humanity is smart. 15 runners have died since they started keeping records, in 1923.

Hemingway took it all in, and couldn't let it go. He did what he could: he wrote to underscore the frailty of our lives:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

(My photos of The Feast of San Fermin, Pamplona)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day: A Slight Refresher Course in the Events that Changed the World

Happy Birthday, USA. Another  Independence Day when we stop commerce, close the Stock Market, hit the beaches, go to baseballs games, gather in backyards for the very idea of our Declaration of Independence.

It's the anniversary of our legal separation from Great Britain, but not the anniversary of our independence—though we call it that—because we were still fighting the Revolutionary War. There were many points after this legal separation when the tide turned toward a Redcoats victory. It is possible that the Continental Congress would have written and adopted the masterpiece that is

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

but it would have been no more than a poetic moment and not the start of a nation that has meant a great deal to so many if the brave farmers and craftsmen who fought hadn't won. And the odds were definitely stacked against the rebels, as Wiki so succinctly puts it:

The Americans began the war with significant disadvantages compared to the British. They had no national government, no national army or navy, no financial system, no banks, no established credit, and no functioning government departments, such as a treasury.

The Revolutionary War went on for a brutal 8 years, 1775 to 1783, marked from the date of the Boston Massacre on April 19, and for us ending with the Siege of Yorktown, when Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. Fighting continued in Gibraltar and the East and West Indies, reminding us of the international complexities as the war grew, which finally ended on September 3, 1873, with the Treaty of Paris. That other masterpiece, the US Constitution, is adopted on September 17, 1783, and went into effect on March 4, 1789.

I went on a four-hour tour of Revolutionary sites in lower Manhattan, organized by Fraunces Tavern.  They run it in the middle of the night, from 3:00am to 7:00 am, just to make it extra special. The guide paints a picture of lots of history that New Yorkers walk by every day.

Remembering Evacuation Day Hijinx

The last invading, garrisoned British troops left our beloved NYC on November 25, 1783. It's known as Evacuation Day, and was celebrated as a holiday in NY for a century.  Washington would not formally enter the city while any Union Jack was flying. One was seen near the Battery, and when the Patriots went to get it down, they found the Brits had greased the flagpole, and our guys couldn't scrammble to the top to get it down.  The Pats then made a series of cleats to hammer in, and veteran John Van Arsdale got to the top, took down the last British flag, and put up the Stars & Stripes. Enter the victorious George Washington.

The flagpole at Bowling Green, behind the Wall Street Bull, has a plaque commemorating this original Evacuation Day, just another part of hidden New York.