Theatre review

Pat Carroll, Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein, and the Specters of One-Man Shows

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To me:

Pat Carroll always was always will be Gertrude Stein. And Gertrude Stein always now will be Pat Carroll. Sort of like when Gertrude Stein, on seeing her portrait by Picasso, said that she looked nothing like the painting and Picasso said she would. And she did and she does. And they are gone now, all of them, but the portrait remains and it is always was always will be Gertrude Stein and Pat Carroll will always be always was Gertrude Stein too.

Martin and I saw Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein forty-two years ago. I had seen other biographical one-man shows and would see several others in the intervening years. And some of them, like the best, most soaring, most searing, drama, took me to catharsis. And some faded almost as soon as I had seen them. My first, which I saw all by myself — a unique experience in itself, as I never go to the theater alone — was James Earl Jones in 1978 as Paul Robeson.

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I must say I had forgotten there was an accompanist on stage. Because in my mind’s eye, summoning up this performance all these decades later, what I see is the person Jones conjured on the stage. Not Robeson, no. In the second act, I think, he talks of meeting a little girl, and Jones bent down to speak to this little girl so tenderly, so gently: I saw her. He brought her to life and I saw her there on the stage beside him. I never felt quite that sensation with any other actor except Pat Carroll — more about that later — and when Kevin Augustine’s puppet play Animal ended and I waited for Eugene the puppet to come out for his bow. Something not there had been put there, lived there, a sorcery that can only occur in live theater.

(In this context, I note a related observation, resorting to the lazy parenthetical aside invoked by too many reviewers/bloggers, but this observation is of a magical moment I have not previously recorded and long to set down — not for fear of losing it, no, it’s embedded in me — but to share and marvel at anew. In David Henry Hwang’s original production of Golden Child, I saw theater magic of a level that made me gasp aloud. In this ornate, lush staging, it was the simplest of gestures that touched me. An old lady harangues her grandson, admonishing him to recognize who he is and where he came from. And in one fluid movement, she straightens her arthritic spine, unties her kerchief and — she is twelve years old, the apple of her powerful Chinese father’s eye. How did the actor take us from here to there, from now to then, with such breathtaking ease? Magic. No other word for it.)

In those college and just post-college years, my brother and I also saw Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde at Ford’s Theater. I remember nothing of this performance, not even a sense of sharing a space with the legendary Vincent Price — and certainly not a sense of sharing it with the celebrated Oscar Wilde. I have a mental sense of being behind a pole, my view obstructed. Whether this was objectively or subjectively true, I cannot say. But it signifies something to sense the space rather than the subject.

Other incarnations that similarly left me untouched were Kathleen Turner as Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Morse as Truman Capote. And, more regretfully, Ben Gazzarra as Yogi Berra.

Just like James O’Neill, father of Eugene, would take the Count of Monte Cristo out of mothballs and Sarah Bernhardt would trot out the consumptive La Dame aux Camélias, Marguerite Gautier, and stage another Farewell to America Tour (she apparently did five) whenever the lack of money or other opportunities spurred the need for new audiences, so too have actors turned to the biographical one-man show to reset, recharge, reinvent — and/or recapitalize. As a struggling young actor in the ’50s, Hal Holbrooke famously conceived his Mark Twain one-man show and rode it from school performances to a Tony, ultimately performing Mark Twain Tonight! over two thousand times (one of which Steve and I saw) across sixty years and patently substantiating his acting bona fides. Pat Carroll sought out young playwright Marty Martin to commission a one-man show on Gertrude Stein to exorcise the twin ghosts of recent divorce and a stalled career. These two were glorious, genius match-ups of artist and subject, a pioneering template on which lesser efforts, sometimes verging on stunt casting, were based.

Turner and Morse’s shows are quite definitively in the faint carbon copy category. Their source material was unmemorable, their lock on the character’s essence — particularly Kathleen Turner’s — tenuous, the overall result disappointing. And after both I sensed — again totally subjectively — neediness, a desperate desire to pull this off. I have a dim memory of Turner incessantly on the phone, and an even vaguer sense of Morse with pillows on a couch. No people were conjured; I took away only inanimate objects.

I took still less away from Steve and my time with Ben Gazzara/Yogi Berra. As with Vincent Price/Oscar Wilde, there was no there there. But the tone was more in keeping with time spent with James Earl Jones or James Whitmore: the sense of being in a room with a confident master. Perhaps what was missing was the ineffable link between interpreter and muse. I don’t know. There are also some insanely talented actors I know primarily from the screen who simply don’t register for me on stage. Put on this list, with much regret, Dustin Hoffman (Death of a Salesman), Al Pacino (Hughie), Gabriel Byrne (Moon for the Misbegotten), and Kevin Spacey (The Iceman Cometh).

Another confident pro was Frank Gorshin, possibly the most skillful impressionist of all time (for proof, see the clip below for a “straight” impression, no jokes, of Gorshin channeling Richard Burton in Camelot). It was an entertaining, if perhaps odd, experience seeing Frank Gorshin in Say Goodnight Gracie: The Love, Laughter and Life of George Burns. It was like seeing a double image: the incomparable George Burns superimposed on the magnificent Frank Gorshin — or maybe the other way around? Whichever, it kept me from totally entrusting myself to the character and staying warily more on the surface while completely appreciating the humor and the pathos Gorshin skillfully evoked.

I might have seen James Whitmore as Will Rogers with my brother in the ’70s, but I definitely know I saw him with Steve on his final run with the character at Ford’s Theater some thirty years later. And this characterization must be ranked with that of Hal Holbrooke as Twain. These actors inhabited the very souls of their subjects, living in their skins, becoming one with them as  inevitably, inextricably, and seamlessly as Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Both actors played their respective roles over multiple decades, constantly adapting, adjusting, refashioning, and refreshing their performances by revisiting the source material to make the character and his observations as timely and telling as possible. This is a luxury not many can afford, but it sure makes for a lived-in, utterly believable character. That was not James Whitmore or Hal Holbrooke; they were completely erased, in service and in thrall to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. 

Stepping back a bit, I must confess that I have rarely seen a colder performer than Holbrooke. I cannot explain or account for that, but I know my brother felt it too when he had seen Mark Twain Tonight! A curious dispassion. But not at all withstanding, a wonderful performance.

Which brings me, at last and ultimately, to Pat Carroll. But first a brief lament as to the present lack of access to her Gertrude Stein. James Whitmore’s Will Rogers is captured on film and tape, including an hour-long C-SPAN production as part of the 1997 Clinton inaugural festival. Hal Holbrooke’s Mark Twain is all over YouTube. But Pat Carroll’s Gertrude Stein is not readily found; the play is available but not her performance. After poring over the Internet, I only came up with this two-minute audio clip, preserved by the Queer Music Heritage website on its Gertrude Stein & Alice B Toklas page. There was a documentary made of her tour with the play; this is only available through the Paley Center for Media. There is some contemporary talk show footage of her discussing the play and the character and her art, which is lovely, but so incomplete. (This longish clip with Merv Griffin is fun, however.)

There was also, as Merv notes, an audio recording made; as of this writing, one vinyl disc is available on Amazon. And I can’t decide if I want to buy it or not. Because theater lives. It is nice, often very nice, to have a record or recording of that experience. It can evoke, provoke, invoke; but it’s never quite the same and so is ultimately sad and hollow. (Which probably explains my antipathy to photographs.) And nothing is ever again the moment in which you first experienced it. Which as a sentiment sounds so Gertrude Stein. And as a conceit brings me back to Pat Carroll and the night (day?) Martin and I saw her and Gertrude Stein. And waited for Alice, who was upstairs, asleep, waiting for Gertrude to awaken her. I was so firmly convinced that Alice would come down those stairs, because Pat Carroll had made this invisible person concrete, just as had James Earl Jones. Think of that: not just manifesting a personality you know through a body you see with makeup and costumes and props. But summoning up an entirely unseen and more shadowy creature. 

And Alice was not the only person Pat Carroll brought to life. Gertrude Stein as interpreted by Carroll was exuberant, vivacious, curious, humorous, irresistible, and unquenchable. She had life force enough for dozens and she brought forth multitudes. I will never forget her brother Leo Stein, the quattrocento art enthusiast, the period-denoting adjective of whose enthusiasm Miss Carroll enthusiastically and savoringly enunciated over a thrilling span of several seconds. Likewise, of course, Isadora Duncan, whose sad end Gertrude Stein wistfully recounted, only to be greeted by — shockingly to me and Martin — a guffaw that night from the balcony, to which Pat Carroll turned her face up sideways and said semi-reprovingly, “It’s tragic, you know.” And the magnificent second act set piece of the Banquet for Rousseau, every participant at which —  including Picasso and his then-mistress Fernande Olivier, the artist Marie Laurencin, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Alice B. Toklas — I can to this day see so clearly as they assemble. Any difficulty I have in visualizing the scene is only because I was laughing so hard as Pat Carroll/Gertrude Stein narrated it.

And so Pat Carroll became the portrait. And I love Gertrude Stein to this day because of her. And, like Miss Furr and Miss Skeene, we were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.

Book review

Mythos, Heroes, and Troy (Stephen Fry)

mythologyIn the beginning was Edith Hamilton. A dog-eared paperback featuring a Medusa-wielding Perseus saved from full-frontal nudity by a highly strategically placed sword. The book we had was more faded than this one, I think, so no bright orange sun to divert the eye. At eleven or twelve, the unapologetic boldness of the cover (later editions were not so daring; the book I now own shows both slayer and slayed pretty much from the neck up only) promised a glimpse into a world of grown-up mysteries. I knew from asking my parents that he wore no clothes because this was Art. I knew too by reading the cover that this very worldly, adult-seeming book was somehow all about my most favorite thing in the world. Oh sure, it didn’t say “fairy” tales explicitly, but “timeless tales of gods and heroes” sounded pretty dead on. What a great book this was going to be! One well worth forgoing illustrations and navigating three hundred pages of close-set, narrow-margined small type.

And, in retrospect, fairly wooden — albeit accessible — retellings of the Greek myths.

DaulairesBookOfGreekMythsFrom Edith it was a hop skip and a jump to the more kid-friendly D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I must have checked out on a weekly basis from our library, along with the stately, elegant, and comprehensive Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (which had made me so inordinately happy as a child and yet was priced so dauntingly that I only finally and triumphantly purchased it to share with my own children, albeit now as the New Larousse). There were myriad other volumes I consumed, their titles lost to time. I even dipped cautiously and quickly into Egyptian and Norse mythology before hurrying back with relief to the endlessly fascinating Greeks. I read Bulfinch, whose renditions, to me, compared unfavorably to Hamilton’s — even if hers were dry, his I remember finding off-putting and stuffy, somehow old-fashioned. 

larousseAs I grew older, the books once again dropped their colors, tightened their leading, and decreased their font size as works of scholarship and cultural comparison replaced the storybooks. In college, I read GIlgamesh, and the Illiad, and the Odyssey. (I had always read the tragedies; I distinctly remember my brother and I reading/acting out Sophocles’s Antigone: isn’t that what all little kids do on a rainy Saturday?) I read some, but never all, of The Golden Bough, which I really must not have cared for as it is not on my shelves today — oh wait, yes it is, I just found it. I read books connecting mythology to history, to literature, to archaeology, to religion. I read Graves and Campbell (but never made it through the four-volume Masks of God series, and am now so dismayed by the font size that these paperbacks might forever remain unread). There were some other books that were beyond me: I bought, but never read, Jane Harrison’s 1912 Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Similarly, I tried but could never get far in Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. I read books about single gods, like Dionysus; books about single events, like the Trojan War; books about goddesses; books about, yes, the Norse gods and the European gods. And, marvelous as the Greek gods and heroes are, there is nothing quite as soul-chilling as the concept of the death of the gods, whether termed Ragnarök or Götterdämmerung — what savory words. Although the mournful tale of the death of Pan comes damn close.  

I hadn’t remembered until just now when I checked, but this I first learned from Bulfinch, so maybe my earlier dismissal of him was too peremptory, as his words have lingered in my consciousness for decades. In enumerating the myths surrounding and involving the Great God Pan, the buoyant, lusty epitome of paganism and nature worship, Bulfinch ends by citing “The Dead Pan” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the first twenty or so of whose stanzas first evoke a particular Greek god or goddess, confirm their demise, and end with a declamation of Pan’s death (“Pan, Pan is dead,” “Great Pan is dead,” “For Pan is dead,” “Now Pan is dead!,” etc.). Her poem (the full text of which is available here) marks the triumph of Christianity over paganism and is a response to Friedrich Schiller’s pro-pagan “The Gods of Greece” (available here; and so much more deliciously titled in German —”Die Götter Griechenlandes” — isn’t it?). Bulfinch notes that Barrett Browning’s

lines are founded on an early Christian tradition that when the heavenly host told the shepherds at Bethlehem of the birth of Christ, a deep groan, heard through all the isles of Greece, told that the great Pan was dead, and that all the royalty of Olympus was dethroned and the several deities were sent wandering in cold and darkness.

And connects to the flat statement that, according to the Greek historian Plutarch, Pan is the only Greek god who actually dies. This declaration, which I first read somewhere, sometime, and is on Wikipedia and elsewhere, is to me so profoundly sad for being in the present tense. However, Robert Graves pokes a huge hole in this:

The Egyptian Thamus apparently misheard the ceremonial lament Thamus Pan-megas Tethnēce (‘the all-great Tammuz is dead!) for the message ‘Thamus, Great Pan is dead!’ At any rate, Plutarch, a priest at Delphi in the latter half of the first century A.D., believed and published it; yet when Pausanias made his tour of Greece, about a century later, he found Pan’s shrines, altars, sacred caves, and sacred mountains still much frequented.

So the reports of Pan’s death, like Mark Twain’s, are greatly exaggerated, Ragnarök has been averted, and the gods live on.

But for me, they eventually did die. My interest in Greek mythology faded several years ago, although the books still retained place of honor on my very nicest and most prominent bookshelf, propped up and cleanly demarcated by my very favorite bookends (pairs of elephants and dragons). I had loved the myths and the gods (especially Athena) and the heroes as glamorous fairy tales, cautionary tales, explanatory tales; as a connection to a time and place of romance, promise, and ancient history (in that regard, see this wonderful site); as a link to the stars and the planets around and above, so many of which bear Greek and Roman names; as an impetus of artistic and philosophic theories and movements; as an entry point for understanding Western civilization. And for understanding humans in general.

Then, last summer or early fall, idly perusing the tempting book displays at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, I stumbled on Stephen Fry’s Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined. What a joyful confluence of teller and tale! I didn’t buy it, but I mentioned it to my brother, and he DID buy it for me, along with its sister volumes, as a lovely lovely present to take me out of myself and help me take it easy after my October surgery.

And now, eight months later, I have finished the final volume, with a happy, but rueful, sigh. What a treat these books have been. Funny and friendly and thoughtful and witty and informative — like having Stephen Fry in your living room and graciously, genteelly, cleverly, and tirelessly spinning yarns.

The books hew closely to the traditional organization set by Hamilton and Bulfinch and Graves, tracing the established chronology of Greek mythology from literal Chaos at the start of Mythos to metaphoric chaos after the fall of Troy. It is a sweeping arc, and Fry masterfully spans it by maintaining just the right note between raconteur and cognoscente. He presents the Greek gods and heroes as he would old friends he’d love to have us meet. And unlike Hamilton and Bulfinch, he shows rather than tells. He expands rather than summarizes, illustrates rather than encapsulates. For instance, the story of Cupid and Psyche (sort of a forerunner to Beauty and the Beast) runs over twenty pages, filled with long stretches of dialogue, punctuated by crisp and wise narration, like this, after Psyche has broken her vow to Cupid and lit a lamp to see her previously invisible lover:

Eros…lay in a secret chamber, racked by the agony of the wound on his shoulder. You and I could endure with ease the slight nuisance of a lamp-oil burn, but for Eros, immortal though he was, this was a hurt inflicted by the one he loved. Such wounds take a very long time to heal, if indeed they ever do.

He thus tells us as much about the human condition then as now as about the myths per se.

Fry can be playful, as when a disgruntled Agamemnon loses Helen’s hand to his younger brother Menelaus and is pacified by Odysseus with the suggestion of marrying Helen’s sister:

‘Go on!’ said Odysseus, daring to nudge Agamemnon in the ribs. ‘Marry Clytemnestra! What could possibly go wrong?

Above all, he creates fully rounded characters, and lets them speak to us and to each other. Here is a snippet from when the newborn and unrelentingly mischievous Hermes first meets Apollo after stealing his cattle and inventing the lyre:

Put it there, Pol. Delighted to meet you. Hermes, latest addition to the divine roster. You’ll be my half brother, I think? Mother Maia here took me through the family tree last night. What a nutty bunch we are, eh? Eh?

I could quote many more examples, but I find — as did poor Steve, trying to plow through Tender Is the Night or immersed in Paul Auster’s Music of Chance — that it is almost impossible to pull out a quick bon mot and irresistible to recite long, droll, and leisurely extracts filled with witty self-deprecation and gentle ribbing. So, in the interests of fair use, I will not quote more, except this fun passage where Fry goes where mythologists usually do not and we get to see Prometheus Unbound, freed by Heracles, returning to Olympus after years of suffering for having given mankind fire and thereby incurring the wrath of his erstwhile friend and ally, the king of the gods:

‘Remind me,’ said Zeus. ‘Prothemus? Promedes? It’s Pro- something, I’m sure of it.’

‘Funny,’ said Prometheus. ‘Very, very funny.’

I tore through the first two volumes; Troy took longer, even though shorter. And the reason for that is, I think, that the subject matter is dark and depressing. Mythos and Heroes are filled with rape and rapaciousness, pettiness and pathos, vengeance and viciousness. But not like Troy. The Trojan War, like all wars, is grueling and galling and godawful. And it brings out the worst in everyone. And though Fry talks of the heroism and selflessness and courage on display, this doesn’t come through anywhere near as strongly as the barbarism, savagery, and vindictiveness.

Now the three books have joined the others on my favorite bookshelf. They are a most wonderful hybrid of the others on the shelf: big sturdy hardbacks set in a single column with wide margins and bounteous full-color pictures. So I am back to my childhood. And I am reminded of a much-beloved Ray Bradbury story, “I Sing the Body Electric!,” which tells of three children who, having lost their mother, are raised by a wondrous robot, an Electric Grandma, who tells them

When you are very old and gone childish-small again, with childish ways and childish yens and, in need of feeding, make a wish for the old teacher nurse… send for me. I will come back. We shall inhabit the nursery again, never fear.

 

Book review

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s (Otto Friedrich)

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Word processing software is a paradigm-shattering innovation, reaching its apogee in the late 1980s in WordPerfect 4.2 (in my mind, all later incarnations, to paraphrase Hillel, are commentary). One of its most powerful features is that it allows an author to amass scads upon heaps upon tons of information and then to organize, reorganize, reassemble, and — wisely, judiciously, sagely, and carefully — streamline, hone, retrofit, revise, and polish to perfection. Too often, that doesn’t happen: I’ve read all too many nonfiction data dumps where undigested clumps of detail clutter or curtail the logic of a paragraph or where an author could not or would not kill his or her darlings to unclog the narrative. 

And then there’s Otto Friedrich and his Royal 440 typewriter. And then there’s the 1986 history of Hollywood from its 1939 pinnacle to its post-television decline in the 1950s, City of Nets. And what a rambling, shambling, ambling, sweeping, tumbling kaleidoscope of a book this is! The bibliography comprises some six hundred works ranging from Occupied America: A History of Chicanos to The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, from Kitty Kelly and Kenneth Anger to treatises by the WPA and Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons. As in his earlier Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s, Friedrich ambitiously tackles a hectic epoch of transition driven, or in many cases merely persevered, by a vivid cast of characters and punctuated by momentous events global (World War II), national (the Red Scare), and industrial (the antitrust suits that eventually decoupled movie studios and theaters and ultimately toppled the studio system itself). Beloved classics are made in cinema and other arts, reputations enshrined or destroyed, corruption and sanctimoniousness synergistically yoked, and the seeds of our twenty-first century despair planted and watered with the book’s last line a wry reference to Ronald Reagan, then running for governor (“some people said that he had a promising political future”). Somehow, without benefit of word processor, just by the skin of his teeth, Friedrich keep dozens of themes, a cast of hundreds, and a flotilla of anecdotes, rumors, yarns, perceptions, stories, and facts — varyingly weird, wild, poignant, pointed, or rueful, some familiar, some not — threaded along a twelve-chapter, ten-year journey from “Welcome (1939)” to “Farewells (1950)” and wending through “Ingatherings (1940),” “Treachery (1941),” “Americanism (1942),” “Prejudice (1943),” “Reunions (1944),” “Breakdowns (1945),” “Treachery (1946),” “Un-Americanism (1947),” “Prejudice (1948),” and “Expulsions (1949).”

“City of Nets” refers to “Mahagonny,” as in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, a city founded, as Opera Wire describes it, as “a pleasure city where men can have fun” and which “was destroyed by warring factions from within.” The analogy may be a little shaky, but it does draw clean strong lines to the German-Austrian refugees in 1940s Hollywood — including Brecht, but also Billy Wilder, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and Fritz Lang — featured prominently in the book’s opening chapters and revisited frequently throughout, providing a useful outsider vantage point for Friedrich’s tale of an increasingly dark period of growing conservatism, intolerance, hypocrisy, and fear, which ironically had been what forced many of these from Europe in the first place and would lead some back there in disgust or despair or defeat.

That might all make it sound that this is a somber, heavy book. Quite the contrary. This book is sheer delight, filled with loopy stories, strong personalities, and what Patrick Dennis would term Little-Known Facts About Well-Known People. Poor Steve, who was trying to read Tender Is the Night, was interrupted repeatedly while I recited passage after passage. Some favorite tidbits:

  • Groucho Marx’s revenge on Ben Hecht’s amateur chamber music group, which wouldn’t let him play with them, by interrupting their first rehearsal on the upper floor of Hecht’s house with bangings and exhortations to “Quiet, you lousy amateurs” and more mysterious noises until the musicians came downstairs to find that Groucho was conducting the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in the living room.
  • The fabulous Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel, widow of three geniuses and a formidable presence in the intelligentsia refugee community, who arranged all the details of Werfel’s  (the author of The Song of Bernadette) funeral, which was “a great event… But Alma herself was not there.” Thomas Mann quoted her as saying “‘I never come to these things.'”
  • John Huston, called to duty in the midst of filming Across the Pacific, who tied Bogart to a chair, surrounded him by guards in a virtually inescapable situation, and then called Jack Warner to say that he had to leave now, but Bogie knew how to get out: “Bogie didn’t know, and neither did anyone else.”
  • James Cain basing Double Indemnity on a printer’s deliberate typo in an ad (the word was supposed to be “tuck”) and his haunting explanation for why he did it: “‘you do nothing your whole life but watch for something like that happening, so as to head it off, and then…you catch yourself watching for chances to do it.'”
  • Orson Welles, reading the seventeen-year-old Oona O’Neill’s palm on their first date and pronouncing that she would very shortly meet and marry Charles Chaplin.
  • The improbable movie that was Preston Sturges’s real life, complete with a deluded mother, Isadora Duncan, magic potions, happenstance meetings, heiresses, and this summation: “It didn’t last of course. Nothing in Sturges’s life lasted; that was the essence of Sturges’s comedies. Everything was breakable.”
  • The tale, told twice in the book, of John Barrymore’s corpse being installed in Errol Flynn’s house, positioned in his favorite chair (“But haven’t we already heard this same story with quite different details? Yes, all the best Hollywood stories have several contradictory versions.”)
  • Billy Wilder’s initial conception of the first scene of Sunset Boulevard, to consist of conversations between the recent dead in a morgue.

Not surprisingly, given the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the implacable demands of the studio contract system, much of the most interesting material is about improbable or legendary pairings. Hitchcock and Salvador Dali. Walt Disney and Stravinsky. Ayn Rand and Cecil Be. DeMille. Arnold Schoenberg and Irving Thalberg. Bertholt Brecht and John Wexley, the writing partner foisted on him by Fritz Lang, and who annoyed him by addressing him as Bert (“when even his own wife called him ‘Brecht'”). Clark Gable meeting William Faulkner, and neither of them knowing — at least according to Howard Hawkes — what the other did. These odd match-ups sometimes resulted in inspired work (regardless of whether the participants actually got along) and sometimes led to simmering resentments or bitter fallouts. A huge factor is how well the work styles of the personalities involved meshed: Raymond Chandler hated working with Billy Wilder, whose insistence on locking them together in a room to write Double Indemnity, “‘has probably shortened my life.'” And Chandler detested working with Hitchcock, complaining that the director

‘is always ready to sacrifice dramatic logic (insofar as it exists) for the sake of a camera effect or a mood effect. He is aware of this and accepts the handicap. He knows that in almost all his pictures there is some point where the story ceases to make any sense whatever and becomes a chase, but he doesn’t mind. This is very hard on a writer, especially a writer who has any ideas of his own.

Buried in and between the anecdotes, which come fast and furious, are fascinating critiques and perceptive insights. I particularly liked his assessment of Gloria Swanson’s performance in Sunset Boulevard:

…it had a quality that most Hollywood films lacked: passion. Norma Desmond really had wild feelings about Joe Gillis. When she couldn’t keep him, it was as natural to her as it would have been to Medea or Phaedra to kill him and then go mad. She went mad in a purely Hollywood way, of course, descending that stairway…with such feeling and such style that it was probably the nearest approach to classic tragedy that Hollywood had ever achieved.

Friedrich quite definitely plays favorites. He adores Ingrid Bergman and treats Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth, both terribly out of their element in Hollywood, with especial tenderness. And it was striking for me that he echoed Quentin Crisp’s assessment of Hayworth’s dancing as the purest and most shockingly natural in film. (I heard Crisp’s opinion decades ago when offered as follow-up to a query about the best movie of all time. “This,” said the discerning Mr. Crisp, “is always so difficult. Citizen Kane? or Cover Girl?” and then launched into a five-minute eulogium on the latter and Hayworth’s hair sweeping the floor in stunning abandon.)

Friedrich also is unilaterally swift and scornful in his condemnation of the bullying, entitled movers and shakers of Hollywood, such as Louis B. Mayer and Howard Hughes. For example, he contemptuously dismisses the notion that Hughes designed Jane Russell’s famous aerodynamic brassiere, saying the legend “defies plausibility, if only because of Hughes’s continuing inability to design airplanes that functioned properly.” But his treatment of the power players is more than mere disparagement. To some extent, it may be that he dislikes these people, who, like Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, share a native habitat with artists but “In it, I toil not, neither do I spin.” But more, Friedrich is a moralist, and he despises the gangsters, studio chiefs, union leaders, congressmen, money men, and other villains who exploit others, pervert truth, and back no cause other than their own well-being. He has an amplitude of targets in this regard during this time period, and he is scathing in his treatment of them. This bitter assessment of Las Vegas, at the end of his chapter detailing Bugsy Siegel’s West Coast dealings, gives an example:

Las Vegas today is what hell might be like if hell had been planned and built by New York gangsters… Where thousands of tourists are herded into a row of garish hotels and encouraged to squander their money in joyless revelry until it is all gone. Pleasure grimly organized and sold, around the clock, mass produced and mass consumed…

Otto Friedrich pulls no punches, and he reserves his most scathing lacerations for the participants in the pre-McCarthy anticommunism covered in the period — both those who persecuted, and those who caved. These passages were too grimly reminiscent of our own partisan times, and I happily escaped from them into the other aspects of the history presented, luxuriating in the glamour and grit of post-war Hollywood.

 

Movie review

2022 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

Well. Fresh back from IN THEATER showings (hurray) of the live and animated Oscar-nominated short programs. It is quite appropriate that this year’s crop was viewed sitting stiffly, masked and uncomfortable, in full (albeit small) theaters with little discernible group audience reaction — certainly no spontaneous ringing rounds of applause or cheers, no belly laughs, no muffled concerted sniffling — aside from smatterings of outdoor voice within-group chatterings, two years of in-home viewing having gotten us all out of respectful sotto voce habit. On the other hand, maybe it’s them, not us. Rarely do audiences clap their hands to their ears and scream into the void as a joint reaction to an afternoon matinee.

In my review of the 2019 live action Oscar shorts, I compared that program to the bleak double-bill my brother and I saw over forty years ago of Lord of the Flies and The Iceman Cometh: the slash-your-wrist film festival. Move over 2019; 2022 is here, and filmmakers really really really need to see the sun again or I fear 2023’s live action bill will be accompanied by a cyanide tablet.

I suppose there has been progress in the intervening years: my comment on the 2019 program of gloom and despair was that it was all about white people, primarily little white boys. Not so this year! The 2022 class features heartbreak, injustice, and senseless tragedy wreaked on a veritable melting pot of humanity: a Polish midget trapped in a life of unending, lonely, romance-less routine — until she isn’t, which is somehow even worse; a tragic Dane lip-syncing a final Elvis soul-releasing valentine; a hapless Latino trapped in a Siri/Alexa-inspired and -driven penal system that out-Kafkas Kafka; a kidnapped teen bride in Kyrgyzstan; and a British Muslim family subject to sudden, vicious, and unthinkable victimization.

A thread of not just lost or missed but utterly broken-down communication weaves through the five films. Cellphones are lost; messages are undelivered; families and coworkers labor silently alongside each other. And in the one film where people are freely talking, teasing, joking, laughing, engaging, and exchanging — they are met with an unspoken, unspeakable brutality that ends all hope.

It is possible in most of the cases that had words been spoken and heard, had people engaged meaningfully, situations would have been ameliorated, even if the basic conflicts had not, could not have, been eradicated. But generally, the filmmakers aren’t looking for mitigation; for them, the possibility of understanding is moot, and, as Brecht’s Threepenny Opera has it, “The world is mean, and man uncouth.”

There are a couple of brief flashes of hope; and the U.S. entry, Please Hold, makes satire rather than despair out of these ingredients: a welcome and much-needed approach. Directed by Los Angeles Latina K.D. Dávila and co-written by half-Muslim, half-Jewish Omer Levin Menekse, Please Hold is one of the smartest satires I have seen, envisioning a human contact-less world that looms all too near:

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The live action films are not bad ones; just so very sad — The Long Goodbye (streaming in full on YouTube), brought me to tears — full of impotent rage and powerlessness. That may be the zeitgeist, but oh dear, for an escape. Please Hold offers that: we still have time to heed the message and change.

Animations should be bright and light, right?

Wrong.

Well, not entirely wrong. The five shorts are generally dark and/or adult. And frankly, the one exception, the execrable Netflix production Robin Robin, may not tackle dark themes but has an even worse darkness in its heart: it is insincere, derivative, and calculating. I loathed it and its utterly misguided and ham-handed story of a bird that wants to be a mouse (and sneak into houses and steal food and, ultimately, a Christmas tree star — as if it’s not bad enough to be vermin and pests but we also need to wreck Christmas for the kiddies in the house). If it turned out this short had been written by AI, I would not be the least bit surprised; what a mess.

Where, where were Pixar and Disney this year? Manipulative as the latter can be, these studios know the human heart. I may have to cancel my Netflix subscription in protest.

The other four were definitely for the grownups, but generally soared artistically if tended to crash emotionally.

Let us dispense with the least appealing first: Chile’s Bestia is shocking and cold and scary and — for me — an opaque cypher. I gather it has to do with a real-life horrible Chilean but oh man is it unsettling and weird.

Sarah liked Boxballet the best. It has the most fluid and glorious animation of long, Modigliani–style ballerinas I have ever seen. And when our heroine ballerina is touched around her tiny waist by the slimy impresario, the #MeToo reaction is visceral. Her incongruous love affair with the brawny boxer is charming — and, hopefully, lasting. Sarah says they both learned from each other: he learned culture and she learned to stand up for herself. The filmmaker is more ambiguous, perhaps planning a sequel or longer version, ending with images of Yeltsin and noting in titles that they have much unknown adventures ahead of them. I would like to see those. They would be rooted in love and respect.

Affairs of the Art uses a style of liquid animation I love, with outlines ever wavering and oscillating. Nothing definitive, nothing permanent, everything possible and permeable. As is our heroine, ironically enough. The fifty-nine-year-old Beryl, apparently a long-running character for her creators, Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, is joyfully creating and obsessing over her creations and creativity. Is there a better place to be? I think not. Maybe it’s blind-sidedly willful of me, but this immersion in Beryl and her and her family’s fancies and fixations, is a lovely antidote to a world of pandemic and polarity. (I should note, however, that taking this point of view does entail overlooking some mighty weird and unsettling obsessions. Just let it flow and don’t focus too closely.)

But my favorite of the day’s program was The Windshield Wiper, an avowedly and fiercely personal meditation on love. Whatever. I adored this. To me, it soared and dipped and swept and wept and gripped me with a sense of carpe diem that the other films did not. It says it’s about love, but it’s really about taking a chance, about being aware, about opening your eyes and ears and mind to possibility. And what sealed the deal for me was the lovely and consistent use of imagery. The animator, Alberto Mielgo, set up early on an image of two parallel smokestack-like towers that were detonated and demolished, leaning into each other and then collapsing. And that’s his conception of love. And you watch the film and you watch the parallel lines that either lean in or lean away or pass by or pass up. And those variants break your heart.

Or they did mine. I thought this film unique and glorious and beautiful. A shard, a shred, a chimera in a world and a year that had little of transcendence.

Book review

Was It Murder? (James Hilton)

Even minor Hilton is a pleasure, or at least pleasant. And this was both minor and pleasant. Was It Murder? is the somewhat clunky title chosen for the American edition of Hilton’s 1931 mystery Murder at School, which he published under the pen name Glen Trevor. This sole foray into the mystery genre is not a stellar work when compared to either Hilton’s oeuvre or detective fiction overall. (When I told my brother Hilton had used a pseudonym, he said he hoped it was Agatha Christie.) But it has the unmistakable low-key Hilton tone and texture:

Someone had actually tried to murder him… [I]t was a monstrous thing, and he experienced though a hundred times more intensely, the feeling that constrains so many Englishmen to write to the Times.

And it certainly — set as it is at a boys public school — has a familiar Hilton setting. It comes just before his lovely And Now Goodbye, and just two years before Lost Horizon. So he’s definitely on his way, even if the detective novel is most decidedly not his genre.

I know so little about Hilton the artist or Hilton the man, so I cannot hazard a guess as to why he wrote this. For money? To stretch himself? He does not bring anything particularly new to the form, except a restless, intelligent dandy of a protagonist at somewhat loose ends with his life. Could this ambitious twenty-seven-year-old with high literary aspirations, a string of rejection letters, and a dawning sense that his best years may be behind him as he struggles to deliver on the promise he displayed at Oxford be a stand-in for the author himself? Certainly Hilton sympathizes with the young man, even as he slyly pokes at the sprawling magnum opus he has undertaken, “a full-length satirical epic in the manner and metre of Don Juan” which now “had grown to lack only two things — continuity and a publisher.”

Colin Revell is rescued from himself by a note from the headmaster of his old school inviting him to investigate a possibly suspicious death on the campus. Revell has a reputation for keen observation, and in great need of distraction and purpose, he accepts the challenge, and the game is afoot. More or less.

The urgency of the investigation soon fizzles out, and Revell returns home. Shortly thereafter, another death occurs, and Revell is on the case in earnest. We are introduced, through Hilton’s characteristically light, sure, quick portraits, to an interesting cast of suspects: far more well rounded and complex than usually found in detective stories. And ultimately — although rather prolongedly, and with a seemingly interminable denouement during which all the clever twists (and they are clever) are near-numbingly delineated — the mystery is solved, the murderer (yes, it was murder) punished, and the case closed. Our hero has grown wiser, sadder, and richer. So, a satisfying story overall.

There is, however, a very unsettling core: the deaths are of innocent young schoolboys, which is really quite upsetting when you stop to think about it, but the detective novel — this one included — rarely focuses on why and barrels headlong into how and where and when. (And certainly doesn’t stop to muse what?!) Generally, detective novels prefer to do in those who deserve their fate (greedy businessmen, useless socialites, selfish patriarchs), making Hilton’s choice all the odder.

Perhaps tied to this decision is a statement made late in the novel by an outside character commenting on a WWI veteran:

My brother was deeply indignant over murder; but he felt that the state, after organising murder on a wholesale scale for four years, had no right to be.

A rather bald and subversive remark. Particularly when we are so used to thinking of the Great War, and forget that it wasn’t, not at all, and that people living then knew that too. Or some did. Many of the characters at Hilton’s school — and certainly the most intriguing one, the headmaster — are not quite what they seem, not quite what they should be. Perhaps it would be worth revisiting this book to better tease out these broken, damaged characters and see where they fit in the Hilton world view.

Uncategorized

The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness (Suzanne O’Sullivan)

Every few years, I stumble on a nonfiction book that so succinctly and intelligibly describes an aspect of the human condition — particularly of the human mind and body — that I want to share it with friends, colleagues, and family, recommending it to all and sundry and citing its precepts in the most casual of conversations. One such book was Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave; another was Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Add to these neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan’s The Sleeping Beauties. While some reviewers have been tempted to compare her work to Oliver Sacks’s, that’s not an apt comparison. She shares his compassion for the individuals she examines, but her focus is on the broad systems that produce or exacerbate their illnesses.

O’Sullivan’s premise is that illness is not, and should not be treated, solely as a physical problem. Rather, illness is a product and manifestation of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors and should be understood — and acknowledged — on that basis. Psychologically induced illness, especially when tied to a particular culture or community, can be a metaphoric response by the body to a situation in the larger society that is too overwhelming, too amorphous, too threatening. And the society, for its part, variously tolerates or negates this metaphoric illness response. To prove her point, she explores recent cases from around the world of mysterious clusters of what are variously labeled psychosomatic ailments, functional neurological disorders, and mass hysteria.

Illness is a socially patterned behaviour, far more than people realize. How a person interprets and reacts to bodily changes depends on trends within society, their knowledge, their education, their access to information and their past experience of disease.

O’Sullivan’s writing is crisp and cogent, occupying a quite different realm — and with a quite different intent — than the lyrical, precise prose of Oliver Sacks. She is a reformer. The structure of the book supports this. She presents her data, introducing us — in carefully sequenced chapters that build on and inform each other — to comatose children, fainting girls, multi-symptom villagers, tinnitus-suffering diplomats, et al. As she progresses through the book, she circles back to earlier chapters, drawing increasingly rich analogies and conclusions.

Throughout, she painlessly presents the basic neurological language and concepts we need to understand these cases, including recall bias, predictive coding, classification effect, and feedback loops. All of these are essentially the tricks our brain plays on us, convincing us of and keeping us in illness.

People with a newly diagnosed disease often hit on the memory of a recent minor injury or some kind of environmental exposure on which to pin the blame, when, really, many diseases occur just by chance.

Predictive coding creates real physical symptoms out of expectations that are programmed into our brain networks.

Once you give a person a label, that person is encouraged to take on the features of that label.

I particularly liked her assessment of the body being “awash with white noise.” There’s always some ache or pain or anomaly that can be fished out; aligned with other facts, circumstances, or opinions; and interpreted as disease. A familiar exercise perhaps in these COVID days.

In the final chapter, O’Sullivan makes several stinging indictments of Western medicine, noting that it gives priority to finding as much disease as possible as early as possible.

Western medicine promotes the pathologizing of every bodily change.

Ordinary people’s late-night googling of symptoms from the white noise in hopes of cashing out with a nameable condition is reinforced by doctors, drug manufacturers, and insurance companies all eager for problems that have names that can then be solved — or medicated. This turns people into patients, and makes conditions chronic. I seem to remember a comedian noting years ago that Americans never take “regular” aspirin; their headaches always require extra or maximum strength.

O’Sullivan decries this medicalized, pathologized approach to the sufferings of the mind and body. It denies the strengths and benefits of simple coping — or of simply not coping and retreating until one can. She urges for a new paradigm, one that doesn’t always try to explain and solve but that accepts and waits, noting:

But perhaps a better answer is to provide more support to people, so they can reassess their situation without the requirement of a formal medical diagnosis.

There is more, much more, that she explains and explores. I haven’t half done it justice. But it is hopeful and helpful to find a doctor railing against the status quo and pointing a humane and tolerant way forward.

Book review, Movie review, Theatre review

2021 Round-up

Books (me)

  • Trust, Pete Buttigieg
  • Think of England: Short Stories, Frederic Raphael
  • Ghosts of Berlin, Rudolph Herzog
  • The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller
  • Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, A Lost Generation Love Story, Amanda Vaill
  • The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews, eds.
  • Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz
  • Transit, Anna Seghers
  • I Have Something to Tell You, Chasten Buttigieg
  • No Doors, No Windows, Harlan Ellison
  • Father’s Day, William Goldman
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
  • Morning Journey, James Hilton
  • Heroes, Stephen Fry
  • You Again, Debra Jo Immergut
  • A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, eds.
  • Mythos, Stephen Fry

A gratifyingly tall stack of books read this year, although with the bulk falling admittedly into the comfortable as opposed to challenging category. I read this year for pleasure rather than explication, which is progress of a sort. Many were pleasant; some inspiring and hopeful (notably Pete and Chasten Buttigieg’s works); one evocative, existential, and intriguing (Anna Seghers’s Transit, whose movie incarnation led me to its discovery); and at least one neared the status of the compelling Truly Good Read (You Again, which opens with the stunning line “I saw myself last night.” and is compiled of diary entries, doctor notes on therapy sessions, and emails between experts and jumps between three timelines as a woman barrels toward a breakdown).

A pair of books haunted me for a long time this year: Amanda Vaill’s Everybody Was So Young, a joint biography of the now-little-known Gerald and Sara Murphy, fabulous trend-setters, taste-makers, patrons, and muses of the 1920s; and Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, which is dedicated to and features distorted versions of the pair. Vaill is a good and fair biographer; I had earlier enjoyed her book on Jerome Robbins, and I love that she writes about people with whom she has some sort of personal connection. In this case, her mother was a friend of the Murphys’ daughter, and she met the quite-elderly couple in their “maisonette…in the East Fifties or Sixties” when she was just eight or nine. Her thoughtful and achingly sympathetic portrayal of these visionary expats, whose lives were both so rarified and yet so streaked by tragedy, is compelling and comprehensive. Sara was painted by Picasso; Gerald himself was a noted painter; one of his remaining works, the six-by-six-foot Watch, is below. But mostly they are known for who they knew, feted, supported, charmed: a veritable anybody who’s anybody of the American and European artistic milieu of the times. They must have been extraordinary. And no less so than for being polite when they were so ill-used by Fitzgerald. I have never knowingly read a novel forearmed with the protagonists’ real-life biographies, and it quickly became clear that far from shedding light or perspective on the sometimes troubled Murphys, this was instead another invocation of the always troubled Scott and Zelda.

Once again (as ever?), my kind and perceptive brother provided my most memorable favorite books of the year: the delightful The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, an overall punny, funny, clever anthology of pastiches and parodies and “potpourri” in the style, or featuring the character, of the master sleuth himself. The pieces ranged from sly to smart to sentimental; it was bittersweet to see Ellery in his last case and wonderful to see Nikki and the Inspector again. And how can you resist such tongue-in-check silliness as detective Celery Green and a title like “The Norwegian Apple Mystery”? The pleasure lay mostly in the obvious love of Ellery and all things Queenania that inspired and sustained the book and its authors: like a lovely party to be invited to. Martin’s other present was the three-volume Stephen Fry Greek mythology feast. I have so enjoyed having Fry’s wry wit and plummy descriptions in my ear and am beyond happy that I have another whole volume to go. It has been such fun “listening” to him recount the myths, providing all manner of dialogue and discourse in text and fun and lightly dispensed erudition in footnotes and even touching and wistful appendixes. He makes the myths live and breath and makes the familiar characters rounded and complex and irresistible. And he makes a good case for admiring the much-maligned Hera. Such fun.

Books (Steve)

  • I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt
  • Deacon King Kong, James McBride
  • Greatest Poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • Unbeaten: The Story of Rocky Marciano, Mike Stanton
  • Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie
  • Big Door Prize, Mo Walsh
  • Nick’s Trip, George Pelecanos
  • Hunter’s Moon, Philip Caputo
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, B. Traven
  • Being There, Jerzy Kosinski
  • The Cactus League, Emily Nemens
  • The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler
  • A Cast of Killers, Sidney Kirkpatrick

Steve’s favorite of the year was McBride’s Deacon King Kong; he really likes the way McBride spins a yarn. The subject matter — gangsters and the West, respectively — of I Heard You Paint Houses and Reservation Blues made these Steve favorites as well. But he found The Cactus League quite appealing too; whether it was because it’s by someone Danny knows from his time at grad school at LSU or because it’s the pleasing dichotomy of a young woman telling a baseball story, he couldn’t say. Steve also found it a pleasure to read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing the movie so many times. And he reverently sought out Ferlinghetti to mark and honor his passing this year.

Theater

  • Fresh Kills (Downtown Urban Arts Festival)
  • Dreaming (La Mama)
  • Puppet Slam (La Mama)
  • Hadestown (Walter Kerr)

We actually went to real theaters this year — cautiously and carefully, which perhaps dampened the joy of live performance, for none were quite as wonderful as I had hoped and certainly nowhere near cathartic. Fresh Kills was a full production of a tight, funny, and soulful ten-minute piece Sarah wrote about two people having a blind date during COVID on the Staten Island Ferry. We saw a “double feature” at La Mama: two puppet pieces, one the slam, which is always such a pleasure. It was very satisfying to be in a room of puppet lovers again. Hadestown was a keen disappointment. For one thing, André De Shields — whose performance on the Tonys (see below) compelled me to ticket-buying as soon as it was safe — did not do the matinee we attended; and more, I just couldn’t release my heart into the show’s safekeeping: the magic eluded me, and I was so sad for this. Julie was enchanted, and Sarah and Steve both really dug the music, so I will not let my disappointment overshadow the experience. It was good to be in a theater, in a throng, in the moment, in the music, after all this time. And the stagecraft was extraordinary.

We also saw some theater or movie versions of theater online, old and new: notably tick, tick…BOOM!, Copenhagen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fifth Of July, Follies in Concert, A Chorus Line, The Pilgrim’s Progress (by Trav S.D.), and Julie’s (No.11’s) A Christmas Carol. Most of these were okay; none (except perhaps Julie’s, informed by our having attended so many of these annual productions in person) moved with the magic of live performance. 

Movies

I have desperately missed going to the movies. And finally, we have gone. We have been four times to actual movie theaters (total combined audience, including us: three-quarters of a dozen), and three of these outings have been sublime. (We went twice to one movie.) One movie was awful (C’mon C’mon), but even so. We were with other people in the dark with a big screen and a good sound system.

I cannot decide if I love Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (which we saw twice) or Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley better. Both filmmakers create gorgeous, detailed, layered worlds — places of color and charm and whimsy (Anderson) and of color and mood and texture (del Toro), during whose unspooling I whispered to my seatmate that I could stay in this world of theirs willingly and happily forever. Because these both were fully realized places, with their own rules, logic, and vocabulary, taking me out of myself completely and into a realm of flawless, limitless imagination. And what different emotions each evoked: Anderson’s ranging from funny to wistful, joyous to ironic, nostalgic to bizarre, but always sincere; del Toro’s exploring the width, depth, and breadth of damnation in a series of garish, lush, and macabre noir settings.

Other new movies we watched on TV, but while Annette was crazy intriguing, most (Malignant, Reminiscence, Mank, No Sudden Move, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Relic) were not. Only the short, The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, struck me as wild, exciting, and cinematic:

Newish movies that we were riveted by included the heartbreakingWaves and the stately, sneaky, insidious The Power of the Dog. I adored The Truth, with the formidable Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke as a functioning dysfunctional family whose secrets, once revealed, changed nothing really but reinforced the sense of mutual tolerance, infuriation, and underlying love. And The Burnt Orange Heresy I found breathtaking in its audacity and style and power.

We saw or revisited a lot of older, old, and classic movies during the year, courtesy of all our streaming services, Netflix disks, shifting sensibilities, and passing fixations and fancies. We had a George Segal mini-festival in commemoration of his passing, watching Blume in Love, Loving, and Fun with Dick and Jane, and concluding that all too often, he just played skeezy. We continued to seek out Powell and Pressburger gems, finding the gorgeous and repressed Black Narcissus and the stalwart, fresh wartime pix One of Our Aircraft Is Missing and A Canterbury Tale. For reasons I can no longer remember, we embarked on a Matt Dillon cycle, watching the always fun In and Out, the absorbing The Big Town, the Picnic-esque Kansas, and the quite solidly good City of Ghosts, which he directed. We also curated a Brian De Palma film festival in the wake of having watched a quite good documentary on him and continued to seek out Taika Waititi features, stumbling on the adorable Eagle vs Shark. A micro-mini Liza Minnelli festival featured Cabaret, Liza with a Z, the still-hearbreaking The Sterile Cuckoo, and the not-seen-previously but really good and so of its time Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.

Then there were just the odd picks, determined, as Sky Masterson says, through chance and chemistry; the best of these were the idealistic yet sober drama directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Andy Garcia, Night Falls on Manhattan (with a riveting James Galdofini in an early career role and the always mesmerizing Ron Leibman); Kenneth Lonergan’s fascinating Margaret, featuring an unforgettable Jeannie Berlin; and the unexpectedly fresh and fun and light and affirming Enola Holmes. Also unexpectedly good was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a 2012 sleeper based on an 1880s mystery novel. Paris, Texas and Mikey and Nicky haunted in their own unique ways.

We watched some highly intriguing and quite satisfying foreign movie classics, including Love Is Colder Than Death  and The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder), The Double Life of Véronique (Kieślowski), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy), Purple Noon (Clément), and La Rond (Ophüls). Newer pix were Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, which we weren’t really crazy about), and the arresting noir The Invisible Guest (Oriol Paulo).

There was a bevy of first-seen, old-time movie delights, which were sharper, fresher, crisper, and funnier than much contemporary stuff — which is damning with faint praise, as these were each marvelous in their own right and on their own terms. I’ve already written about Roughly Speaking, but let me add to this a pair of late-vintage Charlie Chaplins, Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York, which blew us away with revelations of masterly technique and wry pathos; a pair of incongruous, scruffy, and endearing Humphrey Bogart comedies (!), Beat the Devil and We’re No Angels. The Charles Laughton comedy Hobson’s Choice is feminist, funny, and sly. But our hands-down favorite of the year (amid tough competition) was Cluny Brown, the last Ernst Lubitsch, featuring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer in glowing performances (Jones’s face, when she realizes she has been abruptly demoted from welcome guest to overdue domestic, registers overwhelming embarrassment nuanced with an incredible gamut from hearty exuberance to stunned resignation) and featuring Boyer’s marvelous line (appropriated later by Owen Wilson in Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way):

But the most unexpected and delightful movie discovery of the year was the German New Wave director Percy Adlon. We fell in love first with his Badgad Cafe (see trailer below, even though it gives a bit of the story’s surprises away), which also introduced us to the magnificent Marianne Sägebrecht, then followed this rapidly with Rosalie Goes Shopping, Younger and Younger, The Swing, Salmonberries, and Sugarbaby. With each movie, we marveled anew at the optimism, warmth, compassion, humor, and humanity of this contemporary of Fassbinder, entranced by each new quirky, supportive community he introduced; happily immersing in his message of tolerance and championing of the outsider.

TV

Our favorite “must see” sit-concentratedly-in-the-living-room-with-captions-on television for the year included the most excellent, highly satisfying series Treme (why did it take us so long to find this?); the puckish and delicious Call My Agent; the unexpectedly taut, fraught, and fun Flight Attendant; and the Australian oddity Wanted! We watched, and disliked, the slit-your-wrists agonies of Mare of Easttown and American Rust. We greatly enjoyed Pretend It’s a City, and the three of us — Sarah, me, and Steve — could have sat through a dozen more episodes of the acerbic Fran Leibowitz and the adoring Martin Scorsese. We duly and attentively watched Ken Burns’s Hemingway and Muhammad Ali. There was much, much more; some really good — Landscapers (wildly innovative),Ted Lasso (disarmingly delightful), and The Pursuit of Love (I’m a sucker for the Mitford sisters) — most meh. We were watching foreign-language Harlan Coban mysteries on Netflix for a while; only one of these, The Innocent, directed by Oriol Paulo, was any good.

But our most innovative TV was the discovery of podcasts; recently, we have swapped our dinner viewing of tried-and-true, hit-or-miss series TV for the opportunity to listen to the radio as unseen narrators spin tales of old Hollywood.

Field Trips

Our trips during COVID were quite constrained and generally pragmatic and personal. We did make a short visit to Richmond in June to see baby Ollie (and of course Ollie’s parents). We went to Philly twice, the first time to move Sarah to her spiffy new apartment on Walnut Street, and the second to pick her up for a long holiday weekend; that visit, we did get to see a bit of the city, efficiently (and prudently) hitting the highlights of the Italian Market. We spent a long day in Queens, helping Julie and Yael in their move to their new apartment. Nice neighborhood, which we hope to explore more thoroughly in the coming year. But oh my, not via the BQE. We had a jam-packed day in October in the City, spending masked time at the Strand, Barnes and Noble, the Union Square Market, dining al fresco in the East Village with Julie, and seeing two shows at La Mama. And that was pretty much all the field trips, except for visits to grocery stores and the Trenton Farmers Market. And to the hospital with all the pre-, during, and post-surgery visits. New Year’s resolution: stay healthy.

Food and Restaurants

Fairly quiet on the dining front as well, perforce. Our big COVID takeaway has been that takeout is generally not great. We searched mightily for better Chinese, Vietnamese, barbecue, and Peruvian chicken, foraging as far as Dunellen and Perth Amboy. In all cases, the anticipation greatly exceeded the return.

There were a few takeout successes, including two redoubtable sandwich destinations: Neil’s Kitchen and Taliercio’s Gourmet Deli; the Lobster Brothers, a family fishing operation that sells lobster, shrimp, and scallops (which are amazingly sweet) along the Shark River in Belmar; and a new old favorite, Mr. Shrimp. Many was the summer and fall night we headed south to Point Pleasant for outdoor dining — apparently along with every other shut-in on the Shore — only to end up bringing home Mr. Shrimp’s lobster pot; it became something of a running joke.

Recipe-wise, Steve added potato leek soup to the regular rotation and spun off a version of oven-fried chicken tenders. He also perfected, with ingredient assists from Joe Leone and A Taste of Italy, the muffaletta.

Dining, except for one semi-neurotic evening, was outdoors.

I do miss hearing “May I tell you tonight’s specials?”

To better days.

Movie review

A Canterbury Tale

ACT1
I found this photo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on a blog by Paul Banks, a musicologist who has written a very interesting and detailed essay on A Canterbury Tale; see http://pwb101.me.uk/the-imagined-village/

Seeing a Powell and Pressburger movie is, for me, a privilege, an entrée into a magic, elevated place of decency and complexity and strange beauty where the ordinary rules of day-to-day living become somehow suspended as deeper issues are explored. And those issues are the eternal verities of what makes life worth living: love, friendship, place, nature. I am making these sweeping statements premised on only having seen about half of the Archers’ work — A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, 49th Parallel, and tonight, A Canterbury Tale. But their effect on me is always haunting; they take me to a better place. And seeking out and savoring their oeuvre — indeed, savoring the seeking out — has become something of a mild fixation for me, given how relatively rarely they come available on Amazon or TCM.

A Canterbury Tale, like several of Powell and Pressburger’s films, takes place during World War II. Something big is going to happen soon, and we meet our three young heroes at the beginning of a weekend as they arrive on the Pilgrims Road outside of Canterbury, each with a different destination yet banded together from the start. It occurred to me midway through, that this film could be seen as a sort of British response to On the Town. Both are set in the very compressed time frame of a war leave, with the protagonists in an unfamiliar location they are eager to explore, pursuing odd and unforeseen adventures, while the clock ticks and the war waits and its grim uncertainties lend a beauty and urgency to this limited time.

Time is very important in both films — but in very different ways. On the Town‘s three sailors have “just one day.”

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The modern-day pilgrims in Canterbury have six hundred years of history to come to grips with.

I won’t detail the plot, because that wasn’t really important to me. What I loved about the picture is its humanity, as people find common cause — not in war, but in peacetime occupations, traditions, things longer and larger and lasting.

The character I particularly liked is the American Sergeant Bob Johnson, who was played by a real-life American soldier, Sergeant John Sweet. On his previous leave, he had spent his time at a double feature in a movie theater; this leave, he so opens himself to the place and the people that, instead of joining his friend in London for the weekend, he summons his buddy to the cathedral. And I love that he — like other Archer protagonists — sets no agenda but instead willingly and happily lets fate and impulse take him where they will. And with that open attitude, connections can be made. As in this scene, where he comes to fetch Alison, the girl he met at the train station the night before (it wasn’t even his stop, as he mistakenly left the train a station too early), and ends by being invited to dinner by a local craftsman:

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But the filmmakers do not let you forget that there is a war going on. And they do it so skillfully, so silently, so subtly. Alison, the only one who has previous ties to Canterbury, is seeking an address where a precious link to her past is stored. And we walk with her into a shocked and shocking realization of the reality that surrounds them all.

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Powell and Pressberger are always pealing odd and unexpected notes. I cannot wait to hear them anew or again.

Book review

Morning Journey (James Hilton)

Morning Journey is minor Hilton, but even minor Hilton is a warming treat. And that is not to say that this is not an enjoyable book or an interesting one. It is just not one of his best: it doesn’t entirely cohere and left me somewhat dissatisfied with the ending and with the protagonist.

Hilton does try to stretch in Morning Journey. For one thing, it is set mostly in America, rather than England, and in the world of theater and film, rather than the sleepy confines of a Lancastrian village. For another, it centers exclusively on a female protagonist — something none of his other novels do, to the best of my knowledge or recollection. And finally, it has a lead character drawn wholesale from a real-life personality. And what a personality and character — questing and temperamental Paul Saffron can be none other than Orson Welles.

The story is straightforward, told chronologically in five parts by an omniscient narrator — who occasionally yet mildly deflates his most romantic characters’ efforts at self-deception— after an establishing prologue: Carey Arundel, whom we meet at sixteen in her native Ireland, is an actress, possibly not of the first order, but a steadily shining star, who relies on the intuitive, empathic tools of her craft to navigate both her professional and personal life. Suddenly unmoored by the suicide of her only extent relative, her stepfather (Carey is surrounded by and interacts almost exclusively with men throughout the book), she joins forces with the young and ambitious Paul Saffron, ultimately marrying and — as we know from the prologue — divorcing him. We follow Carey’s life over the next twenty years or so, from stage to a second marriage to screen. These are some of the most turbulent years of the twentieth century, including as they do the crash, the depression, World War II, and the dropping of the A-bomb. Carey glides through much of this, remaining bemused, tolerant, kind, and generally passive.

Paul too generally exists outside the crises of the times, with his problems instead self-imposed. He is Wellesian to a tee: egotistical, extravagant, abrasive, and passionately devoted to making art: first as a stage director, and later in film. As he himself says, “I’m right when I do what I want…I’m wrong when I try to compromise or please others.” He is very much the character Patrick Dennis describes — albeit somewhat more affectionately — in Genius, where the improbable and impossible Leander Starr is a male analogue to Auntie Mame:

…saint and sinner, innocent and ingrate, benefactor and blackguard, charmer and charlatan, sage and scoundrel, gallant and grifter, wit and wastrel, sophisticate and simpleton, rebel and rake, dreamer and dope, but always unabashedly and unaffectedly a genius.

(An aside: it took my brother and me decades to understand that Leander Starr was a thinly disguised Orson Welles. I wonder how many other novels and stories, apart from  Robert Kaplan’s delightful Me and Orson Welles, have consciously featured the already semifictional — metafictional? — Welles. And another odd aside: I picked up Morning Journey shortly after starting the second of (now apparently four) volumes of Simon Callow’s exhaustive, smart, and well-written biography of Orson Welles. Apparently, Orson is much in my ear. Literally too. For some fantastic Orsonalia, check out Peter Bogdonavich all over the place on YouTube, and notably and most recently in TCM’s The Plot Thickens season one podcast.)

Many bemoan, fear, or disparage Paul (notes a German actress drily, responding to Carey’s musing as to why Paul doesn’t pick up languages quickly, “it is because he does not really listen when others are talking”); Carey’s own balanced appraisal is that

he was indifferent to money; what he did want were plaudits, power, prestige, and the satisfaction of a boundless artistic ego — plus, of course, enough of someone else’s money to spend and if necessary to lose.

But difficult as Paul is, he is also singularly inspiring. Carey does her best work with and for him, recognizing that

The theater freed him from all that made muddle in his life, so that on the stage decision came to him purely and instantly from something deeper than his mind and sharper than his brain.

The omniscient narrator is a little more jaundiced, reporting on Paul instructing his company in approaching a play:

“Understanding is a basis for emotion, but no substitute. From now on we must begin to feel. The mind has had its feast — now comes the turn of the heart.”

Paul had a store of such gaudy sayings about acting and theatercraft…They did not always probe deeply, but they decorated his instruction and were apt to seem talismanic towards the end of a grueling rehearsal.

Over the course of their marriage and working partnership, we watch Paul blow up his career and his bridges over and over again, heedlessly and endlessly biting hands that feed him:

The trouble was that there were so many more possible antagonisms on a movie stage than in a theater — so many more rules, written and unwritten, to be despised and challenged; so many more taboos to tilt against, so many more egos to affront.

Paul is blunt, brusque, evasive, and an all-around lousy husband and helpmeet. But, as Carey’s second husband Austen discovers,

Paul did not make her happy, but…in some incurable way she was able to take delight in him.

It is somewhat easier for Carey to take that delight from afar. For much of parts two, three, and four, Paul is making films in Europe and Carey goes into semi-retirement and a second marriage. The bloom goes off that rose most assuredly, as Carey gradually comes to realize that Austen has “the fastidiousness of a man who normally does unpleasant things at such long range that he escapes all personal contact with the event.”

For much of the novel, Carey bounces between Paul’s orbit and Austen’s moneyed and cocooned world, occasionally and most happily retreating into either nature or the theater, which is where she feels equally at home. Tellingly, it is the conjunction of these compartmentalizations that chills her:

…at the moment she found it easier to be disturbed by the remarkable similarity of Paul’s views and [Austen’s] about security. Nothing, she felt, could symbolize insecurity more than their agreement.

Morning Journey itself is another conjunction. This is the title of the film Paul and Carey work on, and win awards for, in the prologue. The film was initiated by Carey to revive Paul’s career — a fact of which he remains obtusely unaware. Her commitment to it spells the end of her second marriage, as Austen silently but emphatically withdraws and drifts away.

All of these endings and beginnings and continuations crash down on Carey and she succumbs to an existential crisis of faith and meaning. Reinforcing and feeding into this — and I couldn’t quite believe in this, given her character throughout — is a profound post-atomic sense of futility and resignation, which I think more reflects Hilton’s preoccupations than Carey’s. She literally goes to the mountaintop for insight, impulsively acting on a convenient invitation to a nearby observatory proffered at a party by an astronomer. Her question took me, but not the astronomer, aback: “Will the world blow itself up one of these days?” To which he ultimately responds,

Suicide’s an ugly word, isn’t it? …and yet collectively, if we take the road we’ve been warned is fatal, what else can you call it?

This, plus the long view of the California hills and the high heavens, and a Bach recording shared by the astronomer, lead Carey back to her natural optimism — 

it was possible to think [that nothing mattered] quite happily if there were only the merest loophole, one’s own private something tucked away in the mind — like Bach…

— and to Paul, presumably Carey’s “loophole.”

Familiar Hilton gifts are on display throughout the novel. For one, his sly, quick, sharp characterizations of minor characters such as Paul’s horrible mother, as in describing Carey’s weekly visits to her:

This could have looked like kindness to a lonely soul, except that Mrs. Saffron was neither lonely nor the kind of person who is called a soul.

There is also the occasional Hiltonesque indulgence in an allegorical character name. Carey’s second husband, an almost shockingly manipulative investment broker with “a quietly inflexible will…those who knew and liked him best were doubtless his employees and servants,” is named Austen Bonds. As the protagonist of Gary Rudoren and David Summers’s So, I Killed a Few People would enjoin, “You do the math.” Similarly, “Saffron” is a rare, exotically colored, and outrageously expensive spice.

Too, Hilton shows a real feeling for the craft and art of performance, honed no doubt by his years in Hollywood, but revealing a man very conversant with the stage and its craft. His descriptions of Carey carefully delineate the characteristics of a compelling stage star:

…occasionally she put into her lines a curious quality that riveted an audience’s attention in the wrong place…the most striking thing about her, this voice…capable of catching the random ear as color catches the eye

He later similarly captures Hollywood:

…the geographical heartlessness of the city, the miles of streets where nobody walked, the rigid charm of the professionally decorated interiors, the air of insecurity that was more sinister, somehow than the perhaps greater insecurity of stage life.

One quirky final point. Men circle Carey throughout the book: her husbands, her agent, her stepson, her producer, the astronomer, a lawyer. Some of these characters are dramatically insignificant, but all are admiring. Do they hint at paths she has not taken? While that is a distinct possibility, the situation rather reminded me of Nina’s, the over-the-top protagonist in Eugene O’Neill’s over-the-top Strange Interlude.

TV review

Treme

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We this week finished the thirty-six episodes of David Simon’s Treme on HBO. What a consistently absorbing and intelligent series, and peopled with such intriguing, unforgettable, and human-all-too-human personalities. Acres have been written about the show, and each episode has been recapped, examined, and analyzed ad infinitum. I don’t want to do much more here than compare and contrast it a bit with The Wire, from the same creative team and similarly filled with rich and compelling characters you really come to care about.

Neither is a soap opera; both are social commentary. There is a big narrative looming over both shows, one that threatens to swallow up the players that strut and fret in its shadow: or at least mightily influence — and limit — their choices and actions. The Wire is set in the context of Baltimore’s intractable war on drugs. Treme is set in a poor, arty New Orleans neighborhood in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Both stories create and present the lives of communities, and the individuals in these communities, as they face — or more accurately live against — the challenges their environments have imposed.

The Wire is Greek tragedy. The gods have preordained the outcome: the rich, the well-connected, the compromised, the venal, the pragmatic, and the bureaucratic will survive and thrive. But anyone who challenges the natural order, the Icaruses or Orpheuses who fly too high or feel too much, will be savagely rebuked. The game is the game, and most of the characters are  pawns.

Treme, in contrast, is gumbo. Not only because it’s a satisfying and spicy blend of diverse elements coming together, but also — and maybe more — because of this definition, the third in the American Heritage Dictionary: a fine clayey soil that becomes sticky and impervious when wet. The residents of Treme are not beaten down, despite living, like the Baltimoreans, in a city with appalling levels of condoned corruption, crime, and callousness. Now this could very well be because The Wire ran from 2002 to March 2008, and Treme originally aired from 2010 to 2013 — putting the former firmly in the shadow of the Bush era and the latter in the sunshine of the Obama years. Even though the Treme characters’ lives were upended by Katrina and pummeled and hampered by Bush agents, it was all in the rearview: the cavalry is coming, and the last episode basks in Hope and Change on the Mardi Gras following the inauguration.

This is not to say that the bad don’t keep doing bad; they do: there are arrests, but, as in The Wire, the system itself is unbreakable, and New Orleans corruption is far more ancient and insidious than that of Baltimore. Very few of the characters even bother to challenge it, it’s so pervasive and unassailable; and one who does, like McNulty, like Bunny, like Cedric, ultimately walks away from the fight before he is completely ground down and spit out. And the crooked real estate deals, and the graft, and the petty scams, and the crime, and the carpetbagging opportunists all survive and thrive. And we see many shocking glimpses during the seasons of Treme of how it must feel to live in a world where you cannot trust the institutions on which a functioning society is based: access to health care, to housing, to education, to security, to justice. But overall and withal, there is hope; the most obvious exemplar of which is the plethora of children and babies with committed parents and/or promising futures at series’ end. (By contrast, The Wire‘s next generation is, with very rare exceptions, alienated, disaffected, dead, behind bars or heading that way.)

The implicit optimism of Treme is not just from its time, but also from its place. This is a neighborhood of deep cultural and musical traditions. A large percentage of the episodes occur on feast days and holidays (and they have a lot of these: a very funny moment in the last episode is when a reporter from the outside world is trying to nail down some information with Times-Picayune colleagues the day before Mardi Gras to be rebuffed with the reminder that it’s now Lundi Gras and that the Wednesday won’t work either, because that’s for hangovers). There is always something to celebrate, masks and costumes to don, beads to be caught, and dancing to be done. But more significantly, there is tradition: things that the characters — and their parents and grandparents before them, and their children after them — have always done. And whether that is a meal, a masking, or a pilgrimage, it gives these characters a rootedness that their Wire counterparts lack.

The strongest root in Treme is music. All — and I really think it is all — of the characters are connected somehow ultimately to music. Most play themselves, or are married to or involved with someone who does. Even the least musical are forever turning on radios or phonographs or CDs or going to a club or a festival or a parade and grooving out. And Simon and co. do so well by the music; I have never seen any PBS special or concert documentary that made a musical performance feel so immediate, so real, so insistent, so live and so alive. Music, and the human connection to it, is grounding and affirming and wordless and emphatic. And the Treme residents get it, and the music lifts them, buoys them, steadies them, guides them, beguiles them, saves them. And keeps them safe from the tides, eddies, waves, pools, floods of corruption and greed and dysfunction.

And that, even more than Obama, is the salvation here, the source of optimism.

The central conflict for many of the characters in Treme is how much of themselves — their individuality, their style — they want to surrender, to sacrifice, in order to succeed. For Wire characters, the equivalent question entails a moral choice, and few do — or can — answer it wisely or well. There is no way out or up in Baltimore. Numerous characters stay because, they explain, they’ve never left, wouldn’t know how to leave. In Treme, with its grounding, its traditions, its music, characters can choose to stay and to grow. There are support networks, people who believe in them, people who love them (sometimes those are the same people…), the history, the traditions, the past, the future. And always the music.

(Treme soundtrack below.)