Sasha, a brilliant young Russian violinist, needs a visa to stay in New York. He gets a fellowship to study at Juilliard and he's good, but his domineering father, a cellist from the old country, keeps interrupting Sasha's lessons with his teacher, Marie, an exceedingly attractive American pianist (Carolyn McCormick) who knows her Tchaikovsky and can down her vodka with the best of them. The young man (the extraordinarily talented Phillipe Quint) meets Ramona, a bohemian blonde keyboard player and singer (Nellie McKay), who lives hand to mouth, raiding garbage dumpsters for her next meal. Meanwhile, Papa (Michael Cumpsty) gets it on with Marie, and will Sasha bone up for his recital or will he throw caution to the winds and join Ramona's band? The movie is tender-hearted and sweet but not sentimental with great shots of street musicians on and off the subway. New York City (Brighton Beach, Lincoln Center, the Russian Samovar) is happily on display. The superb soundtrack veers from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and ambitious cavatinas to "classic rock" songs featuring violin and keyboard and written by Mr. Quint. It's an homage to dualities: two cultures, two love affairs, two kinds of music. Brilliant. See it. -- DL
Read this interview with Beth Harrison, acting director of the Academy of American Poets, on "poem in your pocket day" (April 26), movies and poetry, and much else, from the current issue of Guernica.
An excerpt I loved:
Guernica: I noticed that one of the Academy’s suggestions for National Poetry Month is to watch a poetry movie. I must admit, all I could think of was Howl until I looked at your list. Do you have a recommendation?
Beth Harrison: Stacey Harwood compiled a terrific list of movies that include poetry, as well as a great essay on the subject, and anyone who wants their cinema with a side (or sometimes main course) of poetry can do no better than to start here.
Usually I recoil from snarky letters to the editor pointing out errors in an article, although sometimes the unseemly back-and-forth between bitchy intellectuals in the back pages of the NY Review of Books is the best thing in the rag. When I see an error I usually think someone else will run with it so I just turn the page. But in yesterday's Wall Street Journal there was a review by Frederic Raphael, an English writer of some note, devoted to Alice Yeager Kaplan's Dreaming in French, a book about three redoubtable American women who spent formative time in Paris: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Mr. Raphael is not terribly impressed with Ms. Kaplan's writing: not all of it is "sycophantic gush," he writes, but "banalities and imprecisions abound."
In discussing the treatment of Jackie Kennedy, Mr. Raphael writes that "A gauche juvenile poem in French ('Who knows why an April breeze / Never remains / Why stars in the trees / Hide when it rains') is gravely admired, and construed for us, by Ms. Kaplan." Although I admire the critic's adroit use of the adverb ("gravely"), the errors here are too splendid to go unremarked. The lines that the reviewer (and, I infer, the book's author) believes are taken from a "juvenile poem in French" are actually from Johnny Mercer's lyric for Hoagy Carmichael's song "How Little We Know," which Lauren Bacall sings in her screen debut in To Have and Have Not (1943). Gauche? I don't think so. It's a gem of a song, and it must be said that Jackie remained loyal to Mercer: everyone knows she adored "Moon River," which Johnny wrote for Henry Mancini's tune in Breakfast at Tiffany''s (1961).
Here's the scene from To Have and Have Not. Judge for yourself. -- DL
According to Hollywood Reporter, actor/poet James Franco (above right) has paid a record price for the film rights to "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School," David Lehman's seminal study of the four poets (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch (above left), Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler) who during the mid-20th century "revitalized poetry at a moment when it seemed that everything that could be done had been done."
In a separate statement, Lehman revealed that he would likely collaborate with Franco on the screenplay. Production is scheduled to begin later this fall. Early scenes will be shot on location in Cambridge, Mass, where the young John Ashbery befriended Koch and O'Hara while at Harvard. Production will move to New York City for the remainder of the film.
"Franco is a talented writer and actor with a deep appreciation of poetry," said Lehman. "I'm thrilled that we were able to reach an agreement on the film." Word is out that actor Seth Rogan will portray James Schuyler and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey's Matthew Crawley, below right) will play John Ashbery. Franco is tight-lipped about who will play Frank O'Hara, giving rise to rumors that he will play the ill-fated poet himself.
Negotiations for the film rights reportedly began shortly after Franco appeared as Allen Ginsberg in the critically acclaimed "Howl." At first Franco refused to disclose how much he paid for "Avant-Garde" but when pressed he admitted that he tapped several poetry-loving investors to come up with the record cash amount of continue reading here.
I just saw Telly Savalas – Kojak a little later in his life, with considerably less hair – riding a bike and hanging onto a car being driven by character actress Cara Williams, and then losing his balance and falling off his Raleigh Sports. It’s a heart-stopping moment (ha!) near the exciting climax (ha!) of the 1963 Danny Kaye comedy, The Man from the Diners’ Club. I happened to be watching this screwball gem (not quite) on YouTube early this Sunday morning (dubbed in Hungarian, of course) -- because I’d recently acquired a publicity still from the film, an image of Kaye exiting an establishment with an awning that says “Your Loss is Our Gain,” pedaling furiously on his bike, and I wanted to know what was going on, plot-wise.
Well, the black-and-white Columbia release is about a timid credit card company clerk (Kaye) who inadvertently approves a card for a mobster (Savalas) and has to get it back, or lose his job. There are G-men and gangland goons, and a lot of the action happens at the Sweat Shop Gym (hence the awning with the motto). At one point, a fleet of gangsters, disguised as florist deliverymen, quit the gym en masse on bikes. And at the same time Savalas is busy crashing his two-wheeler, Kaye is cycling at high speed trying to get to a church so he can marry the girl he loves (Martha Hyer). Lots of rear-projection and backlot stunt doubles.
It turns out that William Peter Blatty, who would later publish a little horror thing called The Exorcist, wrote The Man from the Diners’ Club screenplay (credited as Bill Blatty). Be sure to store that info for a particularly challenging round of Quizzo!
I promise my next blog post won’t be about movie stars on bikes…. Anyone have a photo of Wallace Stevens riding around on a Schwinn?
The late Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) was one of the most talented women of the 20th century. She received two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, the first in 1974 for her performance as Trixie Delight in Paper Moon; the second the next year for Blazing Saddles, in her unforgettable turn as Lily Von Shtupp, "The Teutonic Titwillow." In this movie, she sings possibly the dirtiest song ever written that never actually mentions sex, "I'm Tired"
In fact, her comic performances for Mel Brooks are what she is most remembered for: Blazing Saddles,Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and The History of the World, Part 1. She also did some brilliant work in early episodes of Saturday Night Live. If you have Netflix, check out her first appearance, from May 8, 1976. (Some of the clips are available on Hulu.) Her range is amazing: Marlene Dietrich, Pat Nixon, a twelve-year-old girl explaining sex to her friends at a pajama party, a film noire vamp singing "I Will Follow Him" with John Belushi's Jack Nicholsonesque private eye. There is also a sweet couple of minutes with Gilda Radner, which leads into Kahn singing this exquisite version of "Lost in the Stars" from Kurt Weill's musical of the same name (an adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, which just happens to be one of my favorite books). I remember watching this the first time it aired and, at the age of 14, being completely stunned. I've been looking for it again for 35 years. (I apologize for the poor quality of this clip. NBC is very stingy with their material, and this is the only version I have been able to find online, other than embedded in the complete SNL episode.)
Kahn was one of those people who got singing. What I mean is that, on top of a powerful voice with impressive range and lovely pitch, she knew how to present songs so that the lyric and music blended into a whole work of art, in the tradition of Sophie Tucker and Judy Garland, so that her singing became a true performance and a song-writer's dream. As funny as she was - and she was funny as all hell - this is what I love best about her as a performer. She could sing anything - from some blues to a duet with Sesame Street's Grover. Finally, here's a clip of her from the 1988 celebration of Irving Berlin's 100th birthday. Don't be surprised at how wonderful she is.
While Sonny is driving alone in his car, he's listening to the October 3,1951 radio broadcast of Russ Hodges calling the decisive third game of the Dodgers-Giants playoff -- a half-inning before Bobby Thomson ended the Dodgers' season with the "Shot Heard 'Round the World, which many consider the national pastime's all-time greatest moment.
Of the main cast, four pairs of actors share a birthday: Al Pacino and Talia Shire (April 25), Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall (January 5), James Caan and Sterling Hayden (March 26), and Abe Vigoda and Al Lettieri (February 24).
Whether it is, as many of us think, one of the two or three greatest of all movies, The Godfather is certainly a script that the certified US male of a certain class knows much of by heart. For more exquisite Godfather trivia (Jews play Sonny and Tessio, an Italian plays the Jewish Moe Greene) go here.
Jane Russell, who died this year, did some great duets with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Quick: for the pleasure of being absolutely correct, what have they just sung?
-- "You say tomato, I say tomato"
-- Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
-- I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
-- Shall We Dance (Gershwin & Gershwin))
-- Shall We Dance (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
-- They Can't Take That Away from Me
For extra credit which if any won the Academy Award for best song of the year? Three were eligible.
Like other anglophiles who spent a few years in England and understands the heroic significance of World War II (Dunkirk, blackouts, Hail Brittania! pomp, circumstance, and the bulldog at Ten Downing Street!) to the English sensibility, I am a sucker for period dramas that English TV wizards put together for delighted consumption on both sides of the pond. I enjoyed the inaugural season of "Downton Abbey" on PBS last winter and, knowing that the second season played to even greater acclaim in London, look forward to its arrival in the States starting in a week or two. The last episode of season one left us in a garden party interrupted by a telegram announcing that "we" are now at war with Germany. The arc of the first season has taken us from the Titanic to the guns of August, and we're ready now for the endless war to end all wars. All well and good, but BUT and it's a big but please, I beg of the fates, do not allow the producers to do anything as cheap as they did in season number one when they shamelessly lifted a great scene from Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 movie starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon that won the year's best-picture Oscar. When Maggie Smith as the dowager garciously, and against her own egocentric impulses, gives the award for best locally-produced rose to a commoner, she is repeating Dame May Whitty's gesture at a climactic instant of Mrs. Miniver. It was the cheapest act of unacknowledged plagiarism that I have seen in many a day . . . unless they plan to make such acts of theft a recurrent feature of the feature, in which case I guess we can chalk it up to postmodernism in action. In any case, here's the theater trailer for Mrs. Miniver, which you should see. -- DL
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.
Here’s my Christmas book gift recommendation. To (re-)discover a first-rate critic, and read about a life that went wrong in a harrowing way, you must read Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Press), by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the New York Dolls, and Warren Zevon. He served as the record-review editor of Rolling Stone and was an A&R man for Mercury Records.
But this thumbnail sketch of Nelson’s career doesn’t begin to suggest his import as a writer and presence. Avery’s book is divided into two parts. The first is a biography titled “Invitation to a Closed Room: The Life of Paul Nelson.” The second is a collection of some of his most famous and/or influential pieces, titled “Good Critic Paul: The Writings of Paul Nelson.” The biography tells a story that might easily be transformed into the plot of one of the semi-obscure hard-boiled writers Nelson admired so much, a tale out of David Goodis, say, or Horace McCoy. It’s the story of a man who loved a certain kind of music, literature, and movie with a passion that eventually overtook his life. Nelson was a romantic, and prized tales of loners, misfits, and rebels. Whether it was Zevon’s song “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” the Lew Archer detective novels about missing children and bad parents, or the sere Westerns of Howard Hawks, Nelson prized above all portraits of men who performed with grace under pressure, who pursued doomed love affairs, who held themselves apart from society as independent agents even when what they really were were high-functioning hermits.
So it was with Nelson. His greatest influence and activity occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s. In a 1976 Village Voice essay entitled “Yes, There Is a Rock Critic Establishment, But Is That Good for Rock?,” Robert Christgau named the Establishment’s core quintet: John Rockwell, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, Nelson, and Christgau himself. All but Nelson continue to have active careers; Nelson, however, became, in a Graham Greene phrase Nelson himself used too frequently, a “burnt-out case”: His taste and standards of excellence became so circumscribed, his natural inclination to hole up in his small, rent-controlled, pack-rat Upper West Side apartment re-watching old movies and re-reading The Great Gatsby and thrillers so self-seductive, that he slowly slipped away from the world.
Eventually, Nelson took a job behind the counter of Greenwich Village’s Evergreen Video store to make a bit of money; he pretty much ceased writing, and abandoned keeping up with new music. When he died, he was indigent and malnourished.
Does this sound like not the sort of book you’d give as a cheery Christmas present? Perhaps, but you’d be wrong: This volume is exhilarating. Avery tells with great energy Nelson’s tale, with copious details about the active period of his subject’s life, and in so doing limns a portrait of a certain kind of pop-culture/bohemian existence in the late-70s. And Avery’s generous selection of Nelson’s writings are certainly among Paul’s best, particularly Nelson’s profile of Ross Macdonald, “It’s All One Case,” and the harrowing account of helping to pull Zevon back from an addict’s life in “Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death.”
I knew Paul somewhat – he assigned me reviews at Rolling Stone; I visited his apartment a number of times to watch movies and admire his carefully maintained collection of first-edition mysteries. A picture of Paul among other friends taken at my wedding appears in this book. But my acquaintance with Paul Nelson doesn’t color my judgment of “Everything Is An Afterthought” as a first-rate book: It’s right there in the pages, in the opportunity to hear Nelson’s soft but authoritative voice. One of the subtexts of Avery’s book is that a critic can be as much of an artist as any artist he or she writes about. This is a portrait of an artist who declined to be an artist anymore.
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.