Isn't it romantic? A very catchy strain! I think I'll take that down. A-B-A-G-F-E-D-C-C-A-A-B flat. . .
I'm not an Academy member and I don't have a vote, but if I did I would cast it unhesitatingly for "Zero Dark Thirty" for the best picture award. And I lament that Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the film, did not get nominated.
While I enjoyed "Argo," the other best-picture nominee depicting covert ops), it is, in the end, a formula movie, spiced up by Hollywood's valentine to itself in the form of a move within a movie, a farceur's look at Farsi life, with the jovial irreverence of Alan Arkin and John Goodman. It has a poitically correct framing device concluding with a Jimmy Carter voiceover that reminded me of the mock-editorial that may have cost an enterprising Times or Globe man his job: "More Mush from the Wimp." The movie also has a conventional narrative arc, ending in a crescendo of suspense. The joke signaled by the title ("Argo fuck yourself") goes a long way toward neutralizing one's reservations.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a more complicated, darker, less conventional movie. The arc is there but is ambiguous: the main character, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (left), achieves her aims but is last seen crying in an airplane in which she is the only passenger. The killing of Bin Laden does not override all the losses she (and the nation) have endured along the way.
The movie meticulously shows how intelligence works. It is highly dangerous and anything but glamorous. There are false scents, blind alleys, red herrings, b;atant lies, and the intelligence agent has no choice but to follow these even if, as may happen, a calamity may result. The hoodwinking of a sympathetic CIA agent, a friend of our heroine, leads to her murder and that of several of her colleagues.
The movie has been the victim of a smear campaign. Early on it shows scenes of waterboarding. The movie does not endorse this method of interrogation; it simply depicts it. Objections to the film's violence are also overblown. The violence pales next to the torture tactics used by the French in Algeria and shown graphically in more than one affecting movie. The conclusion of the movie, with Bin Laden finally located and killed, is managed without sensationalism. There are no celebrations and parades. The movie is as somber as the subject and it is dedicated quite eloquently to the victims of 9/11 in NY, of 7/11 in London, of other terrroist attacks across the globe (Pakistan, Afghanistan) and to the heroic sacrifices made by first responders.
Do not let the organized campaign against this extraordinarily intelligent and well-made movie deter you from seeing it. -- DL
A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
A leg is better than an arm.
A bedroom is better than a living room.
An arrival is better than a departure.
A birth is better than a death.
A chase is better than a chat.
A dog is better than a landscape.
A kitten is better than a dog.
A baby is better than a kitten.
A kiss is better than a baby.
A pratfall is better than anything.
-- Preston Sturges
"Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), one of the great underrated black-and-white films from the idealistic late1940s, is now available streaming from Netflix, and I urge everyone to resist the temptation of watching all of "House of Cards" all at once and choose instead to spread the pleasure over the course of a week and to interrupt the flow by taking in this well-written, well-acted film, a monument to liberalism when it had its moment as the L word of choice. Gregory Peck stars as a journalist who comes up with a new angle on exposing anti-Semitism in America. The anti-Semitism critiqued is, to use a distinction Ezra Pound would have appreciated, the "suburban" rather than the extermination kind -- the separate but almost equal approach: country clubs and hotels restricted to gentiles; anti-Semitic hiring policies so ingrained that even in New York a well-qualified person named Cohen or Finkelstein would be wise to change her or his name when applying for a job; the assumption that a smart Jew would have figured out a way to avoid combat in World War II ("were you in public relations, Mr. Green?); even Jewish anti-Semitism -- the way a Jew will cringe in the presence of a stereotypically "kikey" (i.e. loud, vulgar, pushy) member of the faith. Elia Kazan directed the picture. The sterling supporting cast includes Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, June Havoc, Anne Revere, Albert Dekker, Dean Stockwell, Sam Jaffe, and Jane Wyatt.
This is from the period when the script could make or break a Hollywood film. Moss Hart wrote this one and copped an Academy Award nominaation. The movie garnered eight other nominations and won thre, including the best picture Oscar. Eliza Kazan won for best director, and Celeste Holm deservedly took Holm an Oscar as best supportng actress (beating out the equally wonderful Anne Revere, who plays the journalist's mother). The lead was offered first to Cary Grant, who turned it down. But they got the the right star In Gregory Peck, who is to principled liberalism what Cary Grant is to suave urbanity. Peck took the role despite his agent's objections. I know he's supposed to be a wooden actor but I have always thought this an unfair characterization and if you see this movie (and "Twelve O'Clock High") I think you'll see my point.
You'll get no spoliers from me. The film is full of surprises, even if the most crucial one is given away in just about anything written about it. But here are some things you might like to know: (1) It's adapted from the best-selling novel of the same title by Laura Z. Hobson, which I read when I was fifteen and thought it was pretty good. (2) Darryl Zanuck, a gentile, who produced the movie for Twentieth Century Fox, decided to make it when he was turned down for membership in the "restricted" Los Angeles Country Club, whose management was under the mistaken belief that Zaniuck was Jewish. (3) More than a few facts about the making of the movie supports its central thesis. Samuel Goldwyn was among the Jewish movie moguls who feared that the making of the film would only stir up trouble -- that Jews would be wise not to call attention to themselves. (4) The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), associating Communism with Jew-lovers, called Zanuck, Kazan, John Garfield (real name: Julius Garfinkel), and Anne Revere to come to Washington and endure the committeee's contempt. Garfield, who refused to name names, suffered on the blacklist for a year and died of a heart attack shortly before being asked to testify a second time. He was only 39. (5) The movie's success was toasted at Los Angeles's Biltmore Hotel on December 12, 1948 with speeches and testimonials followed by an entertainment extravaganza in the hallowed Hollywood tradition. The night was capped off by the Hollywood debut of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They were a hit. -- DL
Well, really it started with snapshots. There was the truck, but there was also Wyoming. In Wyoming, a young Hayward watched red ants bring beads up from deep within the earth—from old burial sites. It was how the earth fused past and present, he noted. Then there was fourth grade art class. Hayward smushed a paintbrush onto paper, watched the bristles splay out, rapt at the potential that lay before him. A humorless art teacher snapped him back to reality— “You’re going to ruin that brush!”
Hayward doesn’t operate in a world where the tools of art—pieces of art themselves—are subject to ruin. After all “to ruin” suggests someone is there to impose on these instruments, to do the alleged ruining. When Hayward creates, he steps aside. Hayward sets the world in motion like the deist god who winds the clock, but where it will go from there is anyone’s guess. Stepping out of the way, however, may be the most challenging artistic task of all.
* * *
Last week Hayward appeared at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho with Laura Isaacman, editor of The Coffin Factory magazine, to discuss his full-length film Asphalt, Muscle and Bone. Isaacman’s interest in Hayward’s work was sparked by a collaboration she witnessed between Hayward and the writer Justin Taylor. Isaacman then began “stalking” the eccentric Hayward—who humored her inquiries—hanging around his studio and digging through old suitcases, looking for anything that might lend some insight into the enigmatic artist and that nagging question of inspiration.
Isaacman, perhaps naively, wanted a linear tale of inspiration, a trajectory from “then” to “now,” but from there things only got less lucid.
After living in 17 states with his older, snake-wrangling sister, who instilled in him a sense of adventure and a hunger for possibility, Hayward got his start in photographic portraiture. As Hayward took the conventional, staid position of photographer behind the lens, enacting his vision on the subject, he felt something was incredibly wrong; he couldn’t get something Kierkegaard once said out of his head.
“He said the advent of photography would make everyone look the same,” explains Hayward. “I decided it was time to mess around, to disrupt.” He began slicing up and rearranging faces—the effect was a cubistic uncanny valley, equal parts creepy and beautiful (the resulting images managed a certain uneasy symmetry, which we are unconsciously conditioned as viewers to believe denotes the utmost beauty).
It also occurred to Hayward that around this time there had been a “gross imbalance of testosterone” in the world for the past three- to four-thousand years. He became fixated on dance, believing dance emphasized the female figure in a position of power, one contrary to the traditional view of women.
“Throw out everything you’re comfortable with,” he adds. “Give yourself permission.”
Hayward made it his mission to reinvent portraiture, to transform it from something unfulfilling and subjugating to a process of the “collaborative self.” (At least this is his explanation for those who demand a narrative, who cannot wrap their minds around the disjointedness of inspiration and creation as they infiltrate our lives, only to abandon us just as quickly as the canvas has been primed.)
Hayward would bring in his “subjects“ for a conversation and together they’d wait for something, anything. That “something” was removed from judgment and from planning. It was full of risk. It usually took about 15 minutes to get the ball rolling, to strip away the inhibitions of daily life and proper conduct.
People tore off their clothing, dipped their hands in paint and stood there, exposed, dripping onto canvases. If it sounds less than earth-shattering to you, wait until you see Hayward’s shots. The man behind the camera disappears, the image yanks you in—it demands your unwavering complicity. You feel as though you’ve just witnessed a crime of passion you yourself perhaps committed. I feel like a traitor calling them “Hayward’s shots” at all, as though I’ve gravely missed the point.
When it was Willem Dafoe’s turn, he created a series of large, oversized, crudely-drawn mother figures. In Hayward’s photos, Dafoe cowers below them, as though being birthed from the pages. “Oedipal” springs to mind.
Don’t ask Hayward what he’s trying to accomplish. He quotes Francis Bacon: “If I knew what I was doing, why would I do it?” He says Asphalt, Muscle and Bone encapsulates “risk-taking and how women have been written off” as well as the “impossibility of love” as he flips through projected film stills, he knows he only wants to see things he’s never seen, but that’s about all he knows.
Members of the audience shift in their seats, they seem uneasy about this “impossibility of love” notion. Hayward feels under no pressure to address the crowd for long, quiet stretches. A man breaks the silence: “Can you expand on the impossibility of love?”
The way we’re introduced to love is completely erroneous, offers Hayward. We have to break it down before we can build it up.
“All of these may or may not be in the film,” Hayward explains cryptically as he shows us film stills of mythical places like the Fat River Hotel and the conceptual Museum of Emotions. You cannot physically enter into Hayward’s museum or his hotel, all the rooms are made up, but you can purchase postcards, postcards which look as though they were pulled from the very ancient burial grounds themselves. And in order to reach these places, you must first yourself get lost.
In his presentation, as in his work, Hayward appears to withdraw into a strange, removed place within himself only to reemerge and confront us with the unseen, the whimsically gritty and eerie. Is this work erotic? Nudes reappear in the stills on several occasions, in hotel rooms, often in compromising poses, seemingly torturing each other or wrapping their teeth around strings of pearls. We almost feel guilty asking ourselves. What is eroticism anymore? Would it offend Hayward if we were to ask? No one does; they’re hung up on the love question. They’re still obsessed by the idea of inspiration.
Hayward says it took a long process of elimination to get to where he is now, artistically-speaking—a lifetime of risk-taking. His life parallels the canvas he describes—a “blank” canvas is not truly a blank canvas, it’s a series of cliches which must be painstakingly scraped away.
Throughout the process, Hayward always felt that push of something being wrong though. It was the impetus to move forward, the force that kept him going. “I feel at ease now,” he says.
In the art of the world around him, Hayward will settle for no less than the standards to which he holds himself. “You can’t short-circuit experience,” he says. Art cannot and should not be commodified. “You won’t find yourself online, on Instagram.” The crowd titters, guiltily. “You won’t find Paris in Disneyland.”
Alissa Fleck is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Our Town Downtown, on Narrative.ly and more. She cares deeply about LGBT issues and has a piece on the subject forthcoming on Truthout.org.
(Ed note: This is the second part of a two-part essay by Laurence Goldstein. Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of Michigan Quarterly Review (1977-2009). His most recent book is a volume of poems, A Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005). A book of literary criticism, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the City’s Essential Poems, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Find the first part of this essay here. )
I argued in my first mini-essay that encounter poems originate in the emotion of awe and strangeness that overtakes the speaker—almost always a recognizable portrait of the author—upon coming into contact with a figure who shocks him or her into a new state of being or mind. In this sense the encounter poem may be said to enact the rhetorical function of all lyric poetry. As I indicated previously, the stranger must be of higher or lower social status in order for the poet to make the mental adjustments that constitute the exchange of insight between poem and reader. Occasionally the mysterious figure encountered in a strange place turns out to be a double of the speaker, arguably an exact equivalent, and his or her recognition of that fact engenders the surprise, even the shock, of the poem. Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is the purest example I know of that dramatic situation. In the subterranean graveyards of battle, differences of social status, national citizenship, and ethnic definition are revealed as fundamental illusions.
History has placed women in the same privileged positions as men for smelling out the false consciousness that follows upon deference to undeserving authority. I would endorse claims that women have always responded as sensitively as men both to fraudulent oppressors and authentic figures of redemption, whether of high or low position on the social register. And not just social station. Those who occupy existential situations as seemingly forlorn as the Leech Gatherer or “Aunt Jemima,” carry what Wordsworth calls “a more than human weight,” as if they had traveled across the furthest border of mortal possibility to confront the merely social station of the speaker. In Hayden’s poem, I argued, the mysterious stranger usurps the customary male role by speaking almost the entirety of the poem, pronouncing the moral in the final lines, a privilege almost always reserved for the poet or his surrogate.
I think of “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves” as a poem that hands off the baton of male authority to a rising generation of women who assert their rights by means of the poetics of correction: “Don’t you take no wooden nickels, hear?” By contrast, no stranger is going to correct the speaker of “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” He holds his axe aloft and the needy wood-choppers recede back into the “mud” whence they came.
So let’s test my rules and regulations on an encounter poem that never fails to stir my students to profitable contention: Ana Castillo’s “Seduced by Nastassia Kinski,” from her volume of 2001, I Ask the Impossible. Encounter poems often share conventions with other genres, and this one belongs equally to the genre of the “movie star homage poem,” about which I have written in my book The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History. This genre is like and unlike the genre in which poets encounter other poets. That is, they are fan’s notes, often laced with envy and resentment but are almost always fantasies of encounter, not real meetings. Robert Frost made himself available to poets like Robert Lowell and Donald Hall, and would not have been surprised to hear that they included his conversation in poems; but we know at once that Ana Castillo is not reporting a gaudy night with the famous star that actually happened. The poem, with its title like a tabloid headline and its lurid narrative of coercion derived from the template of Alec D’Urberville and Tess in Kinski’s most famous role, is all dreamwork in keeping with the agreed-upon conventions of star-fucking poems.
Castillo presents the nubile Kinski as the embodiment of sexual desire:
dance, I avoid her gaze.
I am trying every possible way to escape eyes,
mouth, smile, determination, scarf pulling me
closer, cheap wine, strobe light, dinner invitation.
“Come home with me. It’s all for fun,” she says.
The speaker offers some futile resistance before succumbing:
. . . she
finds me at a table in the dark.
“What do you want, my money?” I ask. She reminds, cockily,
that she has more money than I do. I am a poet, everybody
does. And when we dance, I am a strawberry, ripened and
bursting, devoured, and she has won.
They retire to Kinski’s place and consummate their lust; we understand the sex as a one-night-stand, not as the inception of a continuing relationship. That is the convention of the male encounter poem. But we would be wrong to do so. The next day, a Sunday, the couple goes out for dinner and over champagne “Nastassia wants me forever.” The star-power overwhelms the dazzled speaker, who whispers, “te llevaré conmigo” [I’ll take you with me.]. “As if I ever had a choice,” the speaker laments in the rosy aftermath of their impulsive coupling. What choice or chance does any fan have when encountering the sex object of his or her dreams? Glamour of this wattage is irresistible.
The same-sex character of this seduction, and its ethnic component, provide my students with more grounds for discussion of taboo violations. Hook-ups between strangers may or may not unsettle the Millennial Generation. They know, or learn in survey courses, that the erotic “gaze” and ensuing sexual consummation between women has a literary genealogy at least as far back as Coleridge’s “Christabel,” not to mention Sappho. The formerly masculine-only prerogative of selecting and persuading a bed partner of the opposite sex, and sometimes of differing ethnic identity, was always a cultural myth inviting the potent counter-myth of the openly aggressive female, white or non-white. This charismatic stranger reveals to the speaker new depths to her personality, not without some regret. And, as always, readers learn from texts of transgression something new about the allure of the formerly off-limits Other.
The beginning of a feminist sensibility, we were told decades ago, is marked by an increased fascination with the female body, one’s own and the other’s. The mutual adoration of speaker and stranger, and their erotic union, is a fulfillment that breaks one form of chains derived from the male tradition. It is no backhanded compliment to say that Castillo’s poem still shakes us with the strength of an edgy movie, in which forbidden things challenge and change us.
If I choose to stay on the topic of encounters with movie stars a few paragraphs longer it’s because the ubiquity of references to film actors in contemporary poetry is one of the most noteworthy ekphrastic modes of our time. Yes, the overwhelming and inescapable impact of visual media in our culture is the chief cause of this new feature in our poetics. But I hazard the thought that the voluminous surge of significant writings by women poets beginning in the 1960s has something to do with it as well. One impulse of this new writing was to explore the possibilities largely left open by male poets who seemed not to realize precisely how women understood themselves and the universe around them. Female poets found it useful to shake up the forms, including the encounter poem, by which male poets coded and dramatized information about human relationships. From grammar school to graduate school, from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to M. Esther Harding’s Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, I was astonished by the legends women claimed as their inheritance, legends they felt free to subvert or recreate in contemporary idioms with modern, or postmodern, figures of magic and transformation.
Movie stars make themselves available for such appropriation; indeed, that’s their function in our lives. Male poets paid homage from a distance, acting as high priests of the new religion of cinema. Vachel Lindsay wrote a hymn to Mae Marsh, Delmore Schwartz to Marilyn Monroe, Frank O’Hara to James Dean. But how different their forms of praise are from Anne Carson’s extensive use of stars like Catherine Deneuve and Monica Vitti to help her articulate lyric desire, lyric shame, lyric rapture, lyric degradation. (See the extended prose poem “Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve” in Men in the Off Hours and the sequence of poems on Vitti in Decreation.) Carson does not construct a traditional meeting with these stars; she absorbs them into her identity, her imagination of feminine nature and female destiny that bonds her with the European performers. Dialogue tends to disappear in these poems—certainly dialogue between figures as discrete as her actual self and the Romantic other.
In Decreation the encounters are placed in cinematic or theatrical formats. “Lots of Guns” is my favorite adaptation of movie conventions. The opening scene of what she calls an “oratorio” is a parody of some strange meeting somewhere between two people unlikely to meet again:
Why are you here?
To take your life and stuff it in a box.
You have no right.
My gun gives me the right.
I veto your gun.
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is a way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.
You mean lying?
The concept of lying, yes, is no longer in use.
What do you do when you want to avoid telling the truth?
I use a microwave oven.
How does that work?
Has 600 watts and 5 power levels.
Isn’t it hard on your gun?
I never put my gun in the microwave—there is no need. Guns do not lie.
The Marx Brothers come to mind as a seminal influence here rather than Greek tragedy or Greek comedy. I read the exchange as between male and female, though I’d be cautious about identifying which voice is which. As with poems about Nastassia Kinski and Catherine Deneuve, the discourse is hard-edge and resists recognizable gender roles. The “poem” makes sense whether the one who wields the gun is a femme fatale or the gunsel of noir romance, acting tough but easily brutalized by his/her opposite number.
As long as I am extending the conventions of the encounter poem I’ll make reference to another intriguing experiment with dramatic structure by a contemporary. Denise Duhamel’s “How It Will End” appeared in Best American Poetry 2009 and according to the author’s note it derives, like “Resolution and Independence” and “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” from the serendipity of an actual walk in a picturesque location and the resultant encounter with figures worth writing about. The innovation in this text is that the speaker and her husband do not pass words with the distant objects of their attention, a lifeguard and his girlfriend who are quarreling and generally making a spectacle of themselves. The two would-be eavesdroppers cannot hear the dialogue being exchanged but they do become involved in what they imagine to be the source of contention. “It is as good as a movie,” she says, a silent movie, and then she and her husband proceed to undergo a surrogate encounter as they disappear into the roles of “lifeguard” and “waitress” they endow upon the actors they watch from a bench on the boardwalk.
Duhamel now must complicate the cliché of life as a movie in which we are all bit players and/or eager voyeurs. There is plenty of exposition in the long line free verse, in which most of the syntactical units are fitted to the full line so that the story element is not unduly interrupted by line breaks calling attention to the poem’s status as artifact. Gradually the observing couple begin to bicker among themselves as each takes the part of the corresponding gender figure down by the lifeguard station:
even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?
Maybe he should start recording her tirades,” and I say
“Maybe he should help out more,” and he says
“Maybe she should be more supportive,” and I say
“Do you mean supportive or do you mean support him?”
The misunderstanding between these two is so profound, and so banal, that we sense that they are encountering each other for the first time, struggling to articulate the nature of their own relationship in the guise of perplexed viewers making sense of a movie.
In the more familiar kind of encounter poem the boardwalk couple would continue their walk and speak with the beach couple, or, more daring, the beach couple would spot the spectators and walk up to confront them. But the poem ends like the romantic idyll it is. [Spoiler alert] Suddenly the beach couple is making up:
She has her
arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
He whisks her up into his hut. We look around, but no one is watching us.
Well, not quite. The reader is watching them, and listening to them, and finally that is the encounter that matters. The poem acts on us like cinema, first involving us in a lovers quarrel and then releasing us with a happy ending. Or is it happy? “No one is watching us.” The boardwalk couple is left with hurt feelings of which the poem is the guilty witness. One rises from reading the poem needing an embrace and looks around for one’s beloved.
Is “How It Will End” a gendered or genderless poem? Alicia Ostriker argued in her groundbreaking study of feminist poetics, Stealing the Language, that all poetry is gendered, and especially those poems that chronicle “expressions of rage at entrapment in gender-polarized relationships” by offering “retaliatory poems which dismantle the myth of the male as lover, hero, father, and God.” The speaker’s immediate suspicion of the lifeguard, whose profession is the very embodiment of the heroic, and her first statement in the poem, “He deserves whatever’s coming to him,” are clear expressions of sexual politics. The encounter on the beach is the occasion for an upsurge of discovery, and self-discovery. Though “How It Will End” is in certain ways a “woman’s poem” it adds to all poets’ repertory of strange meetings another timely model worthy of close study.
Find more about Bill Hayward on this blog here.
Visit Bill's website here.
“In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose…you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Eric Idle
(ed. note: This post originally appeared on December 21, 2009 and it's a perennial favorite. I share Michael O'Keefe's love of Barbara Stanwyck and especially Christmas in Connecticut. When you've had enough of gifts and food and family, this movie, and Stanwyck's amazing performance will get you back into the spirit. I watch it every year.)
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.
You now behold (in the photo above) a group of Beverly Hills High School alumni (parents, bankers, singers, and friends) returning to the alma mater as they do each December to sing "Still, Still, Still" with their old high school singing group, The Beverly Hills High School Madrigals.
I had been a parent for oh about a minute when I realized that I would never again stumble upon a group of carolers singing on floor 3 of the mall, children chiming off-key in a red velvet auditorium, middle school brass sections bugling themselves bug-eyed at Disneyland without instantly bursting into happy tears.
Every face, every trying-hard face is so shiny and focused. And then there are always a few faces, bored and daydreaming...the child in the navy satin poof skirt inaccurately mouthing the words. The boy with the monkey-face dramatics who couldn't quite pull the requisite colored outfit together, and would fit in better at the local Chuckie Cheese. And the social dynamics. Gee, they just slap one in the face until the stomach remembers the old flip-flops. Nodding to the parents with a "hip" Queen medley mostly from Bohemian Rhapsody, "mamma, I killed a man...my life had only just begun..now I've gone and thrown it all away" as we audience members howl with laughter, the joke on us for getting old, humming along. A high school diva in a black slinky dress, draped over a piano as if she were a lounge act, supported by four guys her own age in hats and bow ties, two of whom she'd never date, and one who would never date her (wrong gender), and the one who just maybe...and that isn't even storying up to the accompanist. The girl-on-girl duet, part love, part catfight. The sounds of the audience, the live net of high school affections and antagonisms, providing the soundtrack to the series of festive, frought events. I love them. I love every single one of them.
There we sit, we parents, grandparents, and other partisans, holding our tinier-each-year camcorders and recording our bigger-each-year children. I am purged over and over by the beautiful imperfection of the music, from the tiny beauty pageant kindersingers, to the high school minnesingers or maestros, tuning with purpose, and following the conductor with more verb and verse. Sometimes it seems as if you can feel layers under the singing or strumming--the hours of practice, all the different ears assaulted by scales, the "have you practiced enough" arguing behind every household door, and then later the "stop practicing till you have done your homework" or the "that dress is black but it's too short" "too fancy" "too casual". The parents, the children and their dreams. Like raising peacocks or grooming unicorns part of what's so touching is knowing that this is it, this is childhood, the most "adult" form this art will ever have for many of our children.
It seems so grown-up really, to believe in this effort and practice and excellence. To work hard. And then to come together to live it all out. What's wrong with us adults--so quickly bored and scattered, our energy dissipated by not wanting to disappoint our own hopes. How big we were, small like that!
Last week on NPR, Barbra Streisand (now in a new movie) was interviewed by Terry Gross. She talks about singing "People who need people," a song whose lyrics might be exactly opposite of what she believes, but they felt right. She talks about the moment when she was thirteen, and a bridge in the music, a bridge she swore was too long, suddenly got filled by a new idea for her, and when she came back in, the sound that came out of her--it was new. It was something she didn't know she had inside her.
And so this is what art is like. What life is like. Near as I can tell it.
We stop worrying about perfection. We pause for not knowing. We let effort happen, for its own mysterious reasons in its own mysterious state.
And sometimes, if we're very lucky, both Heaven and Nature sing!
Thanks, Joel Pressman. Happy Holidays to One and All...j.f.
The day before I was to have my teeth cleaned, I was telling my wife over the phone how the dentist’s office had said I would be free at 10:00 from their chamber of hooks and mouth vacuums and that ugly, cycloptic light with the orange bulb they crane over you. Because it sounded like I was saying 8:10 instead of “at 10:00,” what began as an ordinary comment quickly turned into a back and forth worthy of my beloved Abbott and Costello.
I don’t recall mumbling my way through high school or college, though I was soft spoken, as friends have reminded me. What happened to my voice, I don’t know. There are times when my speech has been so garbled, I’ve had to apologize and excuse myself from the phone so I could lick my lips, clear my throat, or open and close my mouth to loosen the muscles of my face as if I were doing some kind of demented mouth yoga, anything to try and improve my annunciation so that I didn’t sound like Boomhauer from King of the Hill, a character whom I love and, not surprising, have no trouble understanding.
The paradox of my mumbling is that when I read a poem out loud, I’ve been told my words go from being heavy and thick to a soft, crisp baritone. When this happens, I think I must be engaging more of my body in the act of speaking. My posture is better. I probably inhale more air and project. I open my lips wider and wrap them more firmly around each vowel. Performing a poem is almost akin to entering the Matrix, a place where I’m a better version of myself, minus the tacky trench coat.
Whenever strangers compliment me after a reading, I have always assumed they were being kind because to my ear there’s little difference between my speaking and reading voices. One kind gentleman went so far as to joke that if the poetry thing didn’t work out, there was always radio where I could become the voice of America.
“The voice of America” has a nice ring to it, though I don’t think she would want me to speak for her because there’s no telling what I might say about how she treats her tired and poor huddled from sea to shining sea. Worse yet, I might become a voice of “reason” for the left like Beck or Limbaugh are for the right. If that happened I would no doubt have nightmares in which my fellow soft baritones like Nat King Cole and Keanu Reeves would reproach me for misusing my instrument.
It’s better not to anger Neo or the King. Better to keep my feet on the ground and out of my mouth and instead write poems about dentists or cartoons or yoga in the hope that centuries from now my voice might be one of a thousand in a dusty library whispering from the page about the truth, which never hurt anyone or led people astray, unlike the Truth that continues to bring nations of innocents to their knees.
(ed note: Lewis Saul's tribute to Dave Brubeck, who died last week, prompted this affectionate exchange between Jamie Katz and Lew, two musicians who know their stuff. I thought it worth highlighting since both raise important points. A big thank-you as well to Jamie for turning me on to Lionel Loueke, whom I've been listening to with much pleasure. Check him out! -- sdh)
December 11, 2012:
Thank you for this wonderful essay. Of course, as you know, you were the one who turned me on to what I still call the odd meters—how to hear them and think about them. Now we have artists such as Lionel Loueke routinely playing complex rhythms without any strain or feeling of unnaturalness and creating grooves that cook like 4/4. (You can go a whole week in New York jazz clubs without hearing 4/4 these days.) Loueke—who is originally from Benin—is a favorite of mine. After hearing him play at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan a few years ago, I asked him if growing up with West African music had nourished his liking for polyrhythmic grooves and meters like 19/8. And he said, actually, it was more about Bartók and Stravinsky. I think possibly he said that to ward off any assumptions he thought I might have been making about his musical sophistication being "native." Black musicians have been dealing with that insulting assumption for a long time.
It took me a long time to come around to Brubeck. His popularity got in my way, as did the odd meters and my feeling that other pianists from his generation—such as Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans—were more deserving of acclaim. But that's stupid. As you also taught me, if you love steak, you can love chicken, too! I'm terribly glad I got to hear Brubeck when I could still enjoy him live, as I did at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center three years ago. He was joyful! (And his alto player, Bobby Militello, is a motherfucker!)I was also influenced by stories I heard about Brubeck. When he became the first jazz artist on the cover of Time magazine, in 1954, he apologized (unnecessarily, but still appropriately) to Duke Ellington. And then there was the deeply moving clip Ken Burns included in his "Jazz" series. Brubeck, who grew up on a cattle ranch and served in Patton's Third Army during the war, was talking about racism.
“The first black man that I [ever] saw, my dad took me to see on the Sacramento River in California," Brubeck said. "And he said to his friend, ‘Open your shirt for Dave.’ ”
“There was a brand on his chest," Brubeck said, breaking down as he shared his horror, still fresh in mind some 60 years later. “And my dad said, ‘These things can’t happen.’ That’s why I fought for what I fought for.”
Brubeck was a mensch: a fine pianist, a beautiful composer, a musician's musician who somehow kept it going for generations, a generous friend and teacher—and a humble man, too.
I am grateful that you spent time with him, and have shared some of his goodness with me and many others.
-- Jamie Katz
December 12, 2012:
Jamie, you nailed two very important points.
First, Bartok and Stravinsky were doing things in odd meters in the first two decades of the 20th century -- at least 40 years before "Take Five."
What Bartok and Stravinsky is (obviously) infinitely more complex than ANY Brubeck tune ~ but Dave studied that music with Milhaud (who's no slouch with time sigs, either!) and TRANSMORGIFIED that dynamic to the jazz slash pop-music world -- and he did it with elan, polish and style.
And you were right (and brave) to admit that many many black pianists were ignored in the 60's while Dave basked in his Time Magazine cover glory. I think he felt much the same way as you did. He LOVED those guys and was most likely slightly embarrassed by all the (white)-media attention...
One more great example:
Check out Paul Simon's THE TEACHER from his CD "You're the One." In ELEVEN (6+5), but it sounds so perfectly natural and flowing that no one would think of it as an "odd" meter.
That's what I meant by following, but "trying to make sense of the past."
December 12, 2012:
One more salient point:
TAKE FIVE was recorded over a period of several weeks ~ perhaps 20-30 hours for composition, recording and editing.
TRUTH IS FALLEN (how many of you readers have ever heard it? [The LP is Out Of Print and there is no CD]).
Dave probably spent nearly 1,000 hours composing, COPYING (!), and rehearsing the massive combined forces for the performances and recordings.
The disconnect between "good" jazz and "this-is-good-for-you" classical is a deep, uncrossable chasm.
Ben Affleck’s Argo opens with the image of the long defunct Warner Brothers logo that the studio used in the 1970s. It was upon seeing this blast from the past that I knew this movie was something neat. Ultimately Argo is a double-layered film: a movie wrapped in a movie. And that is what makes it neat. So much so, in fact, that when I examined it closer and found just how many conventional devices the film employs, my instinct was to overlook them. Argo is neat enough to be forgiven many clichés that might sink an inferior movie.
Argo is based on true events, some infamous and some unknown, kept under lock and key by the CIA for the past thirty years. As the world remembers it, Iranian revolutionaries held fifty-two American Embassy workers hostage for a period of 444 days from November 1979 until January 1981. The image of the blindfolded captives, as broadcast on ABC Nightline every day of the ordeal, remains an icon of helplessness that continues to resonate for Americans today.
The events unknown until recently center on the escape of six embassy workers out a back exit. The six were sheltered for weeks at the Teheran residence of the Canadian ambassador before managing to depart Iran and its reign of terror under the guise of a movie crew scouting locations for a putative science-fiction picture and using false Canadian passports – the whole improbable but effective scheme cooked up by the CIA working with Hollywood. Argo reveals the newly declassified details of this great feat.
The hero of the story, CIA Agent Tony Mendez, as played by actor/director Ben Affleck, comes across as the typical battle-weary troubleshooter with a troubled home life, who can always be counted on as the voice of reason in a room full of indecisive bureaucrats arguing and dithering on how best to provide cover for the extraction of the six Americans (or “ex-fils,” a neologism based the inverse of infiltration). Getting approval for the operation from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is “like talking to the two old fucks on the Muppets,” says Affleck’s CIA superior, played convincingly by Bryan Cranston.
Affleck doesn’t have to reach too far to convey his character’s burnout and lassitude. His sunken-eyed expression says it all. As you might expect, it is his force of will that drives the rescue plan to fruition. At one point, Affleck stares definitively at the fourth wall, as if to say ‘let’s do it.’
Adding a dose of cynicism and black humor are two Hollywood figures, an irreverent make-up artist (John Goodman) and a cantankerous veteran film producer (Alan Arkin). The steadfast Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber) is heroic, as is his young Iranian servant girl, who in one of the movie’s best scenes covers for the houseguests, standing up to questioning by the Iranian secret police, overriding her own conflicted loyalties in the process. The worsening situation tests the resolve of the film’s heroes.
Argo’s genius is in its mosaic of spy intrigue and revolutionary violence and its commentary on Hollywood egotism and the burgeoning popularity of Star Wars-like sci-fi movies. It makes clear that the anti-American demonstrations of the Iranian militants are just as much a type of theater as Hollywood’s overblown science-fiction make-up and movie sets and costumes. At one point a character points to the TV image of the U.S. flag-burning protestors and asks, “you ever think how this is all for the cameras?”
The ever-present stare of the Ayatollah Khomeini, emblem of the repressive regime adorns posters in Teheran. These are similar images to those found (even more threateningly) in 1991’s Not Without My Daughter, also set in the Ayatollah’s Iran. Starring Sally Field (in one of those crusading-mother roles usually assigned to Sally Field, Meryl Streep, or Sissy Spacek), NWMD recounts the true-life tale from the 1980s of an an American woman’s efforts to flee, with her young daughter in tow, Iran and her abusive Iranian husband. Where Affleck in Argo attempts to convey sensitivity toward Iran’s complicated history and its people’s legitimate grievances against the American government NWMD demonizes the Iranian people. In the opening voiceover, Argo is careful to include references to the 1953 U.S.-backed coup d’état against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq and the subsequent backing of the Shah’s oppressive regime. NWMD leaves these matters unmentioned. This is not to say that Argo is not without negative stereotypes, but Affleck is more thorough at balancing them out with his cultural liberalism.
There are elements of pungent irony: for example, a shot of burka-clad Iranian women eating buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Alan Arkin says of film extras in an unrelated picture he is producing in Africa, “They may be cannibals, but they still want health and dental insurance.” Arkin’s favorite catchphrase becomes the movie’s signature line:: “Argo Fuck Yourself!” As gloomy international events continue to air on the nightly news, Arkin mutters, “John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what’s left of America!”
suicide trip –
unique vacation –
by David Lehman (from When A Woman Loves a Man, Scribner 2005)
La Rafile -- "The Round-Up" -- opens at the Quad Cinema on Thirteenth Street just east of Sixth Avenue on Friday, November 16. Roselyne Bosch's hard-hitting 2010 movie depicts the despicable behavior of the French gendarmes and officials who collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis in deporting numerous Jewish chldren to their deaths. "For decades, the official line of successive French governments was that the deportations were entirely the fault of the Germans, assisted, perhaps, by the collaborationist Vichy regime," Menachem Z. Rosensaft writes in the Washington Post blog. "It was not until July of 1995 that the newly elected French President Jacques Chirac set the record straight and confessed his nation’s 'collective error.' Speaking on the 53rd anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, he said that 'France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.'” The film -- in French, German, and Yiddish, with English subtitles -- centers on several of the Jewish children, svereal of whom escaped, and the Protestant nurse who aided them. Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent star. The movie was a box office hit in France two years ago.
On Sunday, November 11, there will be a special screening of a documentary about George Plimpton at the School of Visual Arts theatre on West 23rd Street. Harvard graduate Plimpton founded The Paris Review in 1953 and remained at the helm of the groundbreaking journal until he died in his sleep fifty years later. Plimpton, an inventive, risk-taking editor, was also a terrific writer and journalist, who invented participatory journalism -- detailing his exploits playing footnall with the Detroit Lions, golf with professionals, and boxing with Archie Moore. In 1985 he (and Sports Illustrated) sprang a delicious April Fool's hoax involving Sidd Finch, involving a pitcher with a 150-mph fastball. Plimpton, a peerless toastmaster and host, threw memorable parties at his Manhattan townhouse on East 72nd Street. He also acted in movies -- such as Oliver Stone's Nixon. The Paris Review is offering discounted tickets to the screening. -- DL
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.