News of the talented and much-loved poet Rachel Wetzsteon's death circulated yesterday and this morning an e-mail from her friend Rachel Hadas confirmed the sad news. We're still trying to make sense of it. She apparently took her life, at 42. Too young to die.
As we close out this year, I want to plead with everyone out there who is in despair and feels hopeless: wait. Please please get help. Here's a place to start.
Five years ago, I received a commission from the Royal Danish Ballet to write a full-length ballet with the legendary choreographer John Neumeier, based on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for the opening of the new opera theater in Copenhagen during the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. While working on this score I read almost all of Andersen’s creative output as well as numerous works about him. What is the secret behind Andersen’s fairy tales, so complex, with multi-levels of possible interpretations, with ambiguity under the mask of simplicity, designed for adults although internationally labeled as literature for children?
Andersen understood human nature. In his simple, poetic and metaphorical way, he could speak about the most complex, often tragic elements that are universal. We all have hopes and dreams, some realized, some broken; we all have childhood memories that are precious. We seek beauty in whichever form it may take, we all die. We dream at night and do not know where the dreams come from or if there is a message in them or even what makes us dream. We fall in love, yet we struggle to discover what love is; we may even lose our sense of identity as being in love means to rediscover and redefine ourselves. We are afraid of death as it is unknown, and of darkness as we lose certainty, and of loneliness as we search for understanding. All of this is in Andersen's tales, which remind me of Robert Schumann's piano pieces Kinderszenen – they can be appreciated by children but are intended for adults.
The Little Mermaid's story touches upon many more subjects than just unrealized love. The story of the Little Mermaid is about a being who doesn't belong. She doesn't belong to the Ocean nor to the Earth. She doesn't belong to the world of her Prince (although she may think she does), nor to the world of her father and sisters. She doesn't even belong to the humanly conceived after-death places such as heaven or hell since she doesn't have an immortal soul. Since she is no longer a regular mermaid she can't even turn into the sea-foam as do other dying mermaids, but becomes a creature of the air instead. She is constantly searching and questioning her identity. Her love is her strength as it allows her to transform.
The Mermaid’s transformation at the end of Andersen’s tale is most striking. Neither human nor mermaid, she becomes a sister of the air at last. She is like a Phoenix – dying and burning her past yet is capable through the extraordinary strength of her essence to be born anew. Her last state is neither a reward for courage nor a punishment (although she is assigned a task of purification), yet there is a sense that she may finally find peace as she is the air and she is everywhere. Only perhaps in this purifying nonexistence can she be content. Maybe this is the answer to the ambiguity that Andersen poses with his ending of the story (which is almost always changed in the later adaptations) – it is not a conclusion, but another form of time, where time becomes timeless, space – spaceless. She is nowhere yet everywhere, and her presence is a blessing of pure breath. She loses her desires, but with the loss of desire one loses identity. Thus, she dies (neither as human nor mermaid, but as herself) and transforms into another realm where she is ABOVE her love for the prince. She no longer wants him for herself, she just is, but by simply being in this state she brings goodness and light. In a way it becomes a journey from the darkness of the ocean’s depth – to the light of the air. Yet it is not a happy ending, because the Little Mermaid that we know and love is gone forever.
Almost all of Andersen’s short stories would make perfect theater productions: ballets or operas. I especially love his Snow Queen with its strikingly beautiful images, deep wisdom and complex games with time. Andersen suggests that the human inability to grasp the concept of eternity is man's blessing. In this story a little boy, kidnapped by the snow queen, slowly loses his humanity. Yet he can't solve a riddle with the answer of "eternity" and that is what saves him, as it allows time for the little girl, who is traveling the world in search of him, to stop his heart from becoming ice-cold by melting the ice with her tears. There is a striking, almost painful purity in Andersen's writings. The boy and the girl in this story at one moment realize that they are not little children any longer, that they are grown-ups, yet they remain children in their hearts. There is a certain vulnerable fragility in his writing as if his soul is bared, and one wants to put one’s arms around him to protect this pure sensitivity. And yet his characters are incredibly courageous and strong. Courage and loyalty are important features in most of his stories.
What identifies a nation is its poets. Yet, as with any great poet, Andersen became an international figure. I have read several biographies of his life and times, including his own novel "The Fairy Tale of My Life". What is curious is that throughout his life, Andersen was composing his own biography, creating a perfect fairy-tale of his life, often rather different from its tragic and, at times, cruel reality. His real self can be glimpsed through his tales: he IS the Little Mermaid who outgrows her surroundings and is misunderstood by those around, he IS a steadfast soldier who keeps his courage and doesn't give up, he IS a poor, dreaming girl with a box of matches, capable of a wondrous imagination that lulls her into the forever blissful sleep of death, away from cold and hunger.
One of the peculiar qualities of writing theater music is that you need to find a balance between achieving what you intend to create artistically and make it work organically together with the dramatic requirements of the theater. If music becomes a servant of the dance as has happened with many 19th century ballets then there is a big problem. The other difficulty is the length. With The Little Mermaid we have three full acts, and to sustain the best quality within the span of an almost three-hour-long production, where the overall architecture needs to hold the structure together, was my highest priority and a challenge.
Neither the music nor the choreography of the ballet suggests the Danish culture of Andersen's time as this would not only be false but it would artificially cage him into a time which he has outgrown. At the same time, it was very important for me, in order to understand Andersen, to gather as much information about Danish culture and his life as I could. John Neumeier and I even studied the score written for one of the Andersen plays called "Agnete og Havmanden" (Agnete und der Meermann) with the music of Neils Gade, which was staged (to complete fiasco) shortly before Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid.
In Andersen’s tale, Little Mermaid has a most beautiful voice. Of course in the ballet, I could not use a real singer. In the orchestration, I was searching for an instrument that could represent the voice of the Mermaid and would be close to a human voice, yet also have an other-worldliness, a transcendental haunting quality. I found the timbre I was searching for in the sound of the theremin, the very first electronic instrument, created in the 1920’s by Leo Theremin. The instrument is incredibly expressive - think of a mixture between cello and flute to have an idea of its sound. Also, there is something very mysterious in this instrument, as it is played by moving hands in the air, no strings attached, no keyboards. The instrument itself is an electromagnetic field, created by its antenna. There is something magical about creating the sounds from emptiness. The instrument also is an outsider of the standard orchestra just like Little Mermaid is an outsider of her surroundings, and to represent a creature who becomes a spirit of air the theremin seemed most appropriate. For Mermaid’s human nature I have chosen a solo violin. Thus, there is a duality between violin and theremin, representing the dual nature of this chimera. The ballet’s orchestration is for the full symphony orchestra and is highly multilayered, presenting different levels, similar to the ocean’s complex co-existence of different worlds.
The ballet “Little Mermaid’ will receive its American premiere by the San Francisco Ballet on March 20th, 2010. The last performance of the San Francisco Ballet on March 28th will mark the 70th performance of this ballet world-wide since its premiere at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen in 2005.
“Instead of [meaning] we see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum, or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.”
Now, translated to reasonable joy:
Instead of [meaning] we see at least momentary gratification, and thanks to our almost constant needs we are graced with moments of pleasure and satisfaction, we live and continue onward through much and long suffering, which we all suffer together, though separately, and the cold usually find a warm place to go inside; the lonely sometimes notice that they are not lonely; fueled by anxiety we have flashes of the bliss of creating; also, we hold each other. Sometimes we join in the shrieking and howling, sometimes we wait it out; it goes on and on and on and on though someday it will stop, and it is ours right now and everyone’s always, always, always. Alright my doves, you know I loves you. Last night I heard my three year old singing in the bathtub, “All the single ladies, all the single ladies.” Be safe on New Years and I’ll see you on the other side of 2010. Here goes the twenty-teens. Love, Jennifer
PS Above picture is from an exhibit at the Jewish Museum -- they've asked some writers, including me and to name one other Francine Prose, to comment on some art all of which inspired by Genesis, you know, In the beginning. Kind of a tough assignment. xoxo
Go Stand in That Patch of Light.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on December 30, 2009 at 02:24 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Mark Twain, in a characteristically wry observation, once noted that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." A comparable comment can be made about Bob Dylan's voice, or, more accurately, his voices. Anyone who, without warning, first listened to Nashville Skyline and thought the vocals were the result of studio engineering knows that like the man himself Dylan's voice shifts identity. Dylan's nasal Midwestern twang lately sounds like a weathered voice that has spoken and sung and battled its way down many miles of sorrow and found, from time to time, some refuges of hope along the way.
I'm writing about Dylan's classic voice, the voice on Freewheelin' through Blonde on Blonde, the voice that made Hibbing famous. It's fair to note that it was Dylan's lyrics that captured the age. But those arresting words would not have had same impact they had if Dylan had not sung them the way he did. I always thought he sang his songs better than all the covers.
Dylan's voice had many elements. The vocal qualities that so shocked Mitch Miller and almost everyone else at CBS Records were Dylan's successful effort to inhabit Woody Guthrie's voice box. The very untutored rawness of the voice with its inherent affront to the sweet, packaged conformity of the 1950s made it the right voice to attack those who made profits from war or wanted to block the way of a new generation.
The vocal elements, though, were only part of the overall voice. The reason so many Dylan covers fail is that the singers mouth the words but lack the ability to transmit their emotional power. George Burns once noted that, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made." I want to believe Dylan was sincere as he sang his songs. I believe he was, despite the fact that he sometimes dismissed this idea. But sincere or not he acted as though he was sincere. He was a great actor, that is, either because he believed in the line and could control his voice to make listeners believe he believed, or he could simply mimic and fake passion perfectly.
Beyond the vocal elements and the emotions, Dylan's voice was helped by his phrasing. Particular syllables were emphasized and forced the listener to focus on them. Sometimes the phrases were virtually spoken in a rhythm, like beat poetry or talking blues. Talking blues was developed by Chris Bouchillon who recorded "Talking Blues" in April 1926. The recording director noted that Bouchillon's pleasant voice sounded better when he talked than when he sang, and so the director suggested that Bouchillon talk while he played the guitar. Woody Guthrie made the style popular. In Woody's case, he used talking blues to de-emphasize any beauty in the songs so that listeners could focus on the social and political importance of the words.
Dylan sometimes altered normal word accents. In poetry, such an alteration of the normal word accent is called a wrenched accent. It was common in the folk ballads that made up Dylan's informal education.
Putting vocals, emotion, and phrasing together with incomparable lyrics made Bob Dylan's voice unique in musical history.
NOTE TO READERS: My book Political Folk Music in America From Its Origins to Bob Dylan will be published on March 16th. For further information see: http://lawrencejepstein.com/folk
There are eight pawns, like a city. They are babies cast down the river. The knights disappear into an L-shaped darkness, two fiery preachers. Each bishop drives drunk in sideways rain. Rooks turn their collars up, muffle doubtful sighs. The one king resurrects slowly. The queen plays dead, is a stubborn ghost.
Last evening Stacey and I went to see the highly touted movie "An Education." It is a well-acted British film set in London and Oxford in 1961; the young (24) actress Carey Mulligan won rave notices for her portrayal of the under-age heroine, Jenny. The plot line is familiar: the movie is a busted fairy tale, in which the ordinary girl becomes a princess until the moment when her savior turns out to be a frog.
Nothing prepared us for the anti-Semitic line running through the movie. The charming cad -- who turns out to be a con man, a parasite, a philanderer, a thief, and a pervert -- is repeatedly identified as Jewish, gratuitously, for religion plays no part in the seduction narrative. Nothing requires that he be Jewish -- except the perpetuation of a stereotype, the demonizing of "the other," for allegorical purposes. The characters who reflexively voice their anti-Semitic prejudices -- the headmistress of Jenny's school, played by the redoubtable Emma Thompson, reminds the headstrong student that "the Jews killed our Lord" -- are not repudiated but vindicated by the turn of events in the movie. I found this element of the film most chilling, a disturbing reminder of the "genteel" anti-Semitism that I remember from my own time in Britain, and I scratch my head wondering why the vast majority of the critics overlooked this point. David Edelstein, in New York magazine, was an exception: "The story's most obvious lesson is 'beware of Jews bearing flowers.'"
Here is an excerpt from Irina Bragin's excellent piece, "The Wandering Jew in An Education: the Anatomy of an Anti-Semitic Film." -- DL<<<
We were only 15 minutes into the film and this was the second reference to the “Wandering Jew,” an age-old, European anti-Semitic stereotype. The British coming-of-age film, “An Education,” had gotten rave reviews, yet the more I watched, the more the character of David Goldman resembled the parasitical Jew of “Der Ewige Juden” (“The Eternal Jew”) — one of the infamous 1930s Nazi propaganda films I had studied in Peter Loewenberg’s class at UCLA.
From the moment David starts following the teenage Jenny in his fancy car, the pudgy, effete David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard) proclaims his ethnicity. (Jenny: “I’m not a Jew.” David: “No, I am. I wasn’t ... accusing you.”) Like the predatory creature characterized in “Der Ewige Juden,” Goldman pretends to adopt the values of his host culture in order to turn its treasures into his profit. He offers Jenny “three five-pound notes” to drive her cello home safely out of the rain; “I’m a music lover,” he tells her. Then he proceeds to corrupt the innocent gentile girl (played by Carey Mulligan) with expensive flowers, gifts, concerts, art auctions and trips to Oxford and Paris.
Read the rest of Irina Bragin's piece here.
This week, we're going to use this space to post items that came to us during the year but that somehow got lost in the deluge.
We recently learned about the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation, an organization that works tirelessly to perpetuate Ella's music and educate the young and foster the love of music. We *heart* Ella Fitzgerald and we're especially proud that the foundation gives a shout-out to A Fine Romance.
Watch this space for updates during the week.
Button up your overcoat.
Layer sweater, leggings, petticoat,
mittens, muffler, ascot.
Is that coat
warm enough? A new winter coat
need not cost a on the reservoir in
are on sale everywhere. 25% off on these coats
40% off on those coats.
down layers under smooth green throats.
We’re not supposed to but we toss them oats,
Rim of reservoir: ice coated.
Policemen: blue coated.
puddles in crosswalks, sidewalks: coated
with salt, driveways: sand coated.
on the reservoir in
in hazelnut coating,
a Tbs. olive oil will do to coat
romaine. Vanilla custard thickens, coats
my spoon. We drink a red, a
de Rhone. Please bring home a bag of tacos.
I buy us a used coat rack: we’ve no room in the coat
closet for so many coats. It needs three coats
of paint: an undercoat, a primer, a top coat.
-- Florence Cassen Mayers
Fish fillets lightly with flour, recoat
-- by Jim Cummins
(Paris Review & Harpers)
Ed note: Read more about Millay in here.
Almost a hundred years ago, Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the best-known women in America and certainly the best known female poet. Though she's been unfashionable for many years, I predict a comeback -- for reasons explained below. Anyway, true talent is never a matter of fashion for those who strictly meditate the thankless muse. Certainly that included Papa Hemingway, who said of Vincent (as ESVM liked to be called), "She could hit them with the bases loaded":
Tenderly, in those times, as though she fed
An ailing child -- with sturdy propping up
Of its small, feverish body in the bed,
And steadying of its hands about the cup --
She gave her husband of her body's strength,
Thinking of men, what helpless things they were,
Until he turned and fell asleep at length,
And stealthily stirred the night and spoke to her.
Familiar, at such moments, like a friend,
Whistled far off the long, mysterious train,
And she could see in her mind's vision plain
The magic World, where cities stood on end...
Remote from where she lay -- and yet -- between,
Save for something asleep beside her, only the window screen.
In 1920 Vincent began her love affair with young Edmund Wilson, whose books Memoirs of Hecate County and To the Finland Station are sexual allegories of this torrid and inflaming time. "Bunny" and Vincent used to amuse themselves by shooting nude figure studies of the poet, of which some excellent prints still exist. The pictures are now in the possession of the Library of Congress, but are under an embargo...until 2010. Yes, that's why I predict the start of an ESVM revival beginning as soon as next week!
But as a reader of the Best American Poetry blog, you don't have to wait until next week. Through my contacts in the government, I've been able to obtain a few of "Bunny's" quite excellent photographs. I submit them here to your connoisseurship, including the brief notes that "Bunny" scribbled on the backs ---->>>>
Here's a link to a good article about Vincent, including mention of the photographs and shared optimism for revival of interest: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200110/mallon
Nights heavy with suffocating smells, heat . . .
I’m thinking of times long before I was born . . .
At night you took it easy. White laughter of mulattos . . .
But the real disaster was pretending the Republic could
Me, I want more disasters . . .
Mario de Andrade (from Clan
do Jaboti, 1927)
In a narcissistic slight of hand actor Michael O’Keefe interviews himself about his poems, Christmas and other matters significant to him and him alone.
Q.: Michael, nice to have you here.
A.: Pleasure to be had and here.
Q.: You’ve published a book of poems recently.
A.: You’re quite right about that.
Q.: But enough about poetry tell me about the meaning of life.
A.: Hey, let’s get back to poetry, Interlocutor. Unemployed actors know very little about the meaning of life. They can’t even hold a job in the real world. That’s why they became actors in the first place.
Q.: How did you become an actor?
A.: I was dropped as a child.
Q: And why publish a book of poems?
A.: I thought you’d never ask.
Q.: Oh, I wouldn’t leave you hanging.
A.: No, but you sure can’t interrupt a guy who’s trying his best to say something about poetry.
Q.: Sorry. I’m all ears. Tell us about your poems.
A.: The book is called “Swimming From Under My Father,” and…
Q.: Why not just “Swimming Under,” or “Swimming From?” Why “Swimming From Under…?”
A.: Oh for Christ’s sake. Can’t you keep quiet?
Q.: I hardly think using Christ’s name in vain on Christmas Eve is an appropriate way to celebrate the holiday.
A.: And I don’t badgering me with interruptions is the way to interview me about my writing.
Q.: I’ll be the judge of that. Your first blog for BAP was about Christmas and Barbara Stanwyck. Do you think the reason you’re single at your advanced age has anything to do with an inability to connect with someone in the real world? And isn’t that why you hold Ms. Stanwyck in such high esteem? She is, after all, only an illusory presence for you.
A.: Advanced age? Have you ever been knocked cold by an interviewee? Because, Brother, I am about to sock you in the jaw.
Q.: Whatsa matter? Did that hit close to the bone?
A significant pause ensues as Mr. O’Keefe waits for Mr. O’Keefe to collect his thoughts and regain his composure.
A.: William Carlos Williams once said that while it is difficult to get the news from poetry men die miserable deaths every day from lack of what is found in its pages.
Q.: (In an Irish brogue) Did he now?
A.: When you did become Irish?
Q.: (Continuing the Irish brogue through out the rest) Ach, get away. Sure, I’ve been this way all along.
A.: Look, I only have so much time. Can we please just settle into a conversation about my poems?
Q.: I’ll not be badgered by ye, ye unemployed actor with yer high falutin’ book a poems. Poems is it? What’s next? Philosophy? From an actor yet. Bollocks!
A.: God, you’re a nuisance. What does “Bollocks” mean anyway? I hear Irish and English people use it frequently but no one’s ever made clear what it means.
Q.: It means, “testicles” ya ignorant git.
A.: Gross. How the hell did that ever make it into the lexicon of modern speech?
Q.: Oh no ya don’t. I’ll be asking the questions around here, Mr. Fancypants.
A.: These are jeans.
Q.: And I’ll wager ya spent hundreds of dollars on them.
A.: What if I did?
Q.: Yer not a real poet. Real poets suffer fer their art. You wouldn’t find Jane Hirshfield or Henri Cole in a pair of jeans that cost hundreds of dollars.
A.: Perhaps you’re right about that.
Q.: A course I’m right. And that’s all the time and space we have.
A.: I thought space-time was unlimited. Kind of like a fourth dimension. I’ve heard string theorists go on about it.
Q.: Brilliant! Next time I’ll interview one a dem. Tune in next time for, “String Theory. Math or Religion? You decide.”
A.: Oh, bollocks.
An Australian cameraman at whom she threw a glass of champagne marveled. "She was so bloody gorgeous." That is what he was thinking when the glass and its contents went flying at him. That was Ava Gardner. Like a hurricane but beautiful, glamorous yet down to earth -- she could swear like a sailor; had a terrible temper; gravitated naturally to macho men, matadors, crooners, big-band leaders, big-game hunting American writers on safari. She was 5'6, a brunette with killer looks and a nice voice. They dubbed her in the movie "Showboat" but it's her voice you hear on the soundtrack. They should not have dubbed her. It sounds phony. Her voice full of tequila cocktails was just right for Julie's showstopper, "Bill." Her eyebrows and mouth rival Vivien Leigh's; her eyes give Liz Taylor's a run for the money. On the sexuality scale, she ranks right up there with Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak. She posed for Man Ray ("absolutely ravishing"). A sculptor got her to step out of her little two-piece, one piece at a time. He did inspired work. But they didn't use the statue. Damn it, it has tits, the executive roared.
Ava commanded an unusual loyalty. Among her ex-husbands, Frank Sinatra was really hooked. He had a statue of her in his backyard until his fourth wife (Barbara Marx) made him remove it. But was it the same one? When she fell ill in 1989, Frankie paid all the bills. He called her "Angel." But he didn't attend the funeral when she died in January 1990. Neither did the two other ex-husbands, Mickey Rooney, a major Hollywood star when she was nineteen and breaking in, and clarinetist heartthrob Artie Shaw, who ruined her self-esteem by reminding her how uneducated she was. Artie made her read Dostoyevski, Mann, and Flaubert. He even took Darwin along on their honeymoon. Darwin's great-grandson deemed her to be "the highest specimen of the human species." But Artie thought she was a dummy, and she was desperately in love with Artie. "I don't think he ever really understood the damage he did," Ava wrote about Artie Shaw. Mickey Rooney remembered that sex with her had been great. She demurred: "Not for me," she said. Of her third husband, Frank Sinatra, Ava once said. "Frank weighs 120 pounds but ten of them are pure cock."
Surprisingly, there is more North than South in her natal chart -- 56.4% to 43.6% -- a proportion that beautifully mirrors the popular vote after certain landmark US elections. Her chart conjures a type of individual who externalizes her emotions rather than bottling them up. In a certain mood, she is more likely to fight, curse, slap, and shout than to act quietly bitchy. She is not introspective. As the actress herself once said, "deep down I'm pretty superficial." The predominance of water signs in her chart suggests a state of constant motion, change, and periodic upheaval. Can anyone be surprised that the proportion of yin to yang in Ms. Gardner's chart is more than three to one, 76.3% to 23.7%?
Planetary: The predominance of the moon, Mars, and Saturn in Ms. Gardner's chart indicate that she can be saturnine, martial, and lunar, though not all at the same time. The dominant signs in the chart are Capricorn (her birth sign, which also houses her Mercury), Cancer (her rising sign, and her Pluto), and Pisces (the moon, Mars, Uranus). Much depends on your interpretation of Ava's eighth house -- the house of transformation and the house of sex -- which in her case is particularly complex. The strong currents of the water signs in her chart suggest an unremitting flow of sexual energy. The fact that both her Venus and her Jupiter reside in Scorpio give you an idea of the unpredictable nature of her temper and moods. Such a woman. when endowed with a beautiful face and body, is guaranteed to have a bewitching hold on men -- whether the strong, silent, sincere type, the mercurial genius, or the vain prince.
Let me just put it this way: she shares a birthday with Elvis Presley. She is the same height as Catherine Deneuve (5'6).In Chinese astrology, she is a water dog. When Sinatra sings "I'm a Fool to Want You," he's thinking of Ava. She taught him heartbreak and the dark side of passion -- and that was just one of the gifts she bestowed on him during their tempestuous marriage. It is said that Sinatra got his career-reviving role in From Here to Eternity (1953) not from the machinations of a mafioso (as The Godfather would have it) but because Ava, then as big a box office star as there was, weighed in with Harry Cohen of Columbia Pictures.
to pick up a few books for your holiday gifts. Won't you consider books by the fabulous guest bloggers we've hosted over the past year? Or the books they've recommended? Or the books by our wonderful roster of correspondents? And I'll make a special pitch for David Lehman's latest, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters American Songs, and Yeshiva Boys. Remember, many of the songs you'll be singing this week were written by the songwriters profiled in A Fine Romance. How about that!
ps. And The Best American Poetry 2009 makes a fine gift too!
|A Christmas Carol|
|by George Wither|
So now is come our joyful feast,
For some A Christmas Carol, (Alistair Sim’s version please) is the definitive Christmas film. For others It’s A Wonderful Life holds the honor of best film to watch during the holidays. “Marry Christmas Bedford Falls! Marry Christmas, Mr. Potter!” James Stewart bellows returning from a parallel, yet horrible, reality to face charges for bank fraud in “the real world,” whatever the hell that is. Both have the Christmas spirit for sure. But for me the films to watch at Christmas all star Barbara Stanwyck.
First there is the not very well known Remember the Night (left). Fred MacMurray and Stanwyck star in Preston Sturges’ screenplay. (No, they don’t plot the murder of her husband, though Stanwyck does play a shoplifter.) In the interest of transparency I should mention it’s a romance, the protagonists meet cute, overcome obstacles, fall in love, observe traditional male and female roles (and I mean traditional for 1940) and live in an America that may have only existed in the mind of Preston Sturges and his contemporaries in Black and White Hollywood, USA. Oh yeah, transparency. I should reveal that in the singular nature of my love life, I'm not extraordinary nor remarkable. I’m single and stand alone. And my proclivity to indulge in sentimental notions around Christmas makes my opinion not only biased but most likely hooey, as they used to say in 1940.As hokey as some of the sentiment is, and as obvious as the plot line of a shoplifter bailed out and brought home to Wabash, Indiana by a prosecutor for a heartwarming Christmas is, the film knocks me for a loop every time. The key and the heart of the film is Stanwyck. MacMurray’s family is seen through her eyes, and their homespun values melt her cynicism in moments that pierce what passes for my veneer of sophistication. Perhaps the fact that I’m approaching the age of fifty-five and have little to show from my love life but a collection of snapshots, cards and memories that linger but do not nourish should disqualify me in the holiday movie round up. Or could it be that that same status should make me Chairman of the Christmas movie board? For the purposes of this blog let’s hope it’s the latter. The two other films to look for are Christmas in Connecticut and Meet John Doe. Though the latter is not set at Christmas its climax takes place on Christmas Eve and that’s close enough for me. In Christmas in Connecticut (right) Stanwyck plays a columnist that has created a fantasy world of a farm in the country, a loving husband and a handle on domestic details that surpasses anything Martha Stewart ever cooked up. When asked to take in a wounded Vet for Christmas by her publisher she attempts to con them both but ends up falling for the Vet, played by Dennis Morgan. The look in her eyes as she gives herself over to her longing is spectacular. But her speech at the end of Meet John Doe, a wonderful Frank Capra film, where she begs Gary Cooper not to jump from roof of the City Hall, is the topper of them all. She’s suckered Gary Cooper into playing ‘John Doe’ so that her ruse of writing a John Doe column for a powerful paper won’t be uncovered. Cooper plays along at first but when he realizes he’s been a stooge for a power hungry Nazi-like bad guy, Edward Arnold, he tries to reveal the scam but is thwarted in his attempt to do so. Abandoned by all those he’s touched across the country he decides to keep John Doe’s promise to throw himself from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest man’s inhumanity to man. What he doesn’t know is that Stanwyck, Arnold and his cronies, and some loyal supporters are there waiting for him. Sick with the flu, and desperate to stop the suicide Stanwyck throws herself into his arms and begs him not do to it. The depth of her plea is staggering and when she calls him “Darling” I fall to pieces every time. In short: If Barbara Stanwyck’s character from any of these films walked into my life I’d sweep her off her Black and White feet and never give the bright and shiny world a second glance. I’ll be home and alone for Christmas this year but Barbara Stanwyck, with a little help from her friends, will give me hope. And that’s gift enough for me. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.