“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
Head on over to Coldfront where since July 2011, Jackie Clark has been curating the brilliant "Song of the Week" series. Clark invites contributors to write a short piece about a favorite song, any song, and you might be surprised by the choices. David Lehman kicks things off for what will be a sequence of BAP bloggers. Can you guess David's song from his opening lines?:
I remember the first time I heard it. Jo Stafford sang it in Dark Passage, a late 1940s black-and-white movie in which you don’t see the face of the hero, a prison escapee who had been framed for murder, until a risk-taking surgeon reconstructs his visage and Humphrey Bogart emerges from the bandages.
What would be your song of the week?
Over at delirious hem, Jennifer L. Knox is curating a series of essays about CHICK FLIX, however you may define that category of movies. Here's what she writes:
The subject, Chick Flix, is wide open. You can take it from a Gone with the Wind angle, to Gaslight, to Gas, Food & Lodging, to Gidget (me), to The Good Girl, through Gena Rowlands and out the other side of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. I was going to declare one chick per flick, but if two people cover Heathers or Pretty Woman, it’s not going to retread any ground. Nevertheless, I'll be posting a sign up sheet soon.You can write a 50 word punch in the face, or a 5,000 scholarly treatise. That's why there are scroll bars. Just don’t be a bore.
The deadline is December 1 so update your Netflix queue, get out your hankies, and get started.
words by Hub Atwood
music by Carroll Coats
arrangement by Nelson Riddle
vocals & collage by Tony Rizzi
Sinatra sings it on "A Swingin' Affair." When they dropped "The Lady is a Tramp" from the album (because of the release of "Pal Joey" in which he sings it), this was the song that they substituted. They. -- DL
The lyrics of two of my favorite jazz standards, “My Favorite Things” and “Tea for Two,” are cheesy, insipid, even infantile bourgeois fantasies; the original vocals seem to me to be sung in that sunny psycho-killer demented spirit:
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
Day will break and I'm gonna wake
and start to bake a sugar cake
for you to take for all the boys to see.
We will raise a family,
a boy for you, and a girl for me,
Can't you see how happy we will be.
Let’s put aside the sexism of the Fifties for just a second, though these lyrics, written by men and sung by women, obviously exude the insularity and privilege of sexism. These lyrics also bring to mind one of my favorite Chekhov quotes from “Gooseberries,” one I use to introduce a section of TRUE FAITH. “The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness should be impossible.” For I believe the darker explorations of Coltrane and the skepticism of Monk engage more complicated feelings and deeper truths. Coltrane and Monk did not produce an art of consolation, of pure transcendence in the Christian sense (rising above the body. It seems inherent in their Modernism that truth must be embodied, that it lives in the body and the spirit grows out of struggle, out of that writhing in pain and pleasure.
“My Favorite Things” has a simple five note theme which works off a number of variations; “Tea for Two” alternates three and four notes in its insistent theme. I can’t stand Julie Andrews’ and Doris Day’s smile-button versions of the song. But John Coltrane, in his first soprano sax album of the same title (1960), transformed the melody into a compulsive, Eastern snake-charming nudging out the melody and then leaving it by playing two notes played in many octaves. What’s marvelous about Coltrane at this stage in his development as an artist is that he authorizes the hesitation, the holding pattern, the coming to, as part of making more transparent his musical process. In this first recorded version he often returns to the theme to ground his improvisations; retrospectively the leaps and shifts of this first recorded version seem accessible and it became one of his most popular albums.
I know of close to twenty recorded versions Coltrane made of this song: each has its range of moods and tempos (in one interesting version -- where Roy Haynes replaces Elvin Jones -- oddly has more drive than most of the versions that precede it). But perhaps my favorite version is the 18 minute version at the Antibes Jazz festival in 1965 (the second Live at Antibes album on France’s Concert label, released more than 20 years after his death).
His first solo’s relatively familiar, but the second, following McCoy Tyner’s rhythmic modal chords and trills – about eight and a half minutes in, is breathtaking in its tentative and exploratory improvisations. So many voices! He uses multiphonicsand overtones that produce wails, runs that seem like warming up, flutterings,guttural repetitions, audible searches for new fingerings andchord sequences: there’s even a momentary evocation of a samba. The solo is a series of blurrings, disassociations and crossings out of the melody: some passages are taken at break-neck speed, others almost seem like the melody’s standing still in waiting off-stage. Some moments are deeply melancholy, some seemingly frustrated while reaching for a sound, which is to say he repeats a phrase until he figures out where he wants and can only then move on. The solo’s a calling out, it’s an inner voice in church, it beseeches with dissonance and a heightened confusion (this incompletion, this longing is one way I understand the necessity of Coltrane’s shift – after meeting Alice -- to becoming a Muslim a couple of years before this recording). You’ll find infinite fragments of the melody in this version, but The solo can’t be characterized by an act of verbal transcription. What Coltrane manages here for me, with an imagination at the height of his powers, a supreme example of wide-ranging improvisation.
Traditionally the guiding principle of jazz is to take a familiar melody, a community song, and make it your own. But Coltrane revises, steps on, ignores, follows his multiple associations, until Julie Andrews’ sing-song has been deepened, overdubbed (some hip-hop covers revise Motown songs in parallel ways), critiqued, transcended (Coltrane’s spiritual longings in those passages where the voice peels the and melody away). If I had to pinpoint its power it would be that he de-familiarizes the familiar. This technique (yes it’s a technique – Coltrane worked hours a day experimenting with news fingerings and chord sequences) and this vision, these enmeshed threads of beseeching voices in progress. have had more impact on my changing my methodof writing than any poems I’ve read (though Ashbery and other avant-garde poets also see the work of art as continuous movement and change).
Thelonious Monk, in his 1955 version, from the album The Riverside trios (stay away from the late and tentative alternative take which Monk refused to authorize for the album CRISS-CROSS some years later) takes a different path to the same task of de-familiarizing. He uses a more playful and accessible minimalist approach in deforming the “Tea for Two” melody. He hammers the chords almost like a child who doesn’t want to practice: the block chords are insistent, almost simple-minded, but mostly cranky. He satirizes the melody further by tripling the notes in runsand inversions up and down the piano, managing somehow to convey the boring repetitions and burdens of family-life. The solo’s an awkward chant, in places a tantrum. The effect is the same as in Coltrane’s late version of “My Favorite Things”: the song we fell for in our youthful desire to simplify and artificially cheer up experience has been playfully dismantled (Charles Bernstein’s awkward rhyming quatrains, drawing attention to the sing-song artifice of end-rhyme, seem to accomplish similar ironic disfiguring of conventional form).
After hearing these two songs I’d think it would be difficult for a musician to return to swing versions (¾ time) of these tunes and certainly difficult to compose a swing song in that rigid meter. As Whitman said, the door to the barn (desire) is off its hinges. In these two songs, just by example, Coltrane and Monk bring attention to improvisation’s great virtue, extending the imagination to places heretofore barely explored or inhabited.
There’s nothing wrong with artists who are conservators, those who see their jobs as finding their place inside a tradition: their virtues include the nod of recognition, consolation and identification (we are not alone: we share assumptions about continuity and universality). But my personal preference is for a work of art that takes us some place we’ve never been, that challenges ourassumptions, that unsettles what we thought we knew, those works touch my heart as a new close friend might: I love the idea of thinking, I’ve never thought of life that way before, and I’ll never quite see the world in that familiar way again.
The movie wisely does not to go into a long explanation of how this miraculous event came to be, leaving this to the viewer’s imagination. The Greens don’t ask questions, they accept this gift from God or Mother Nature without hesitation and agree to raise the child as their own, all the while keeping his legs covered in long socks so as not to reveal his telltale leaves. Two things are made clear: he is a composite of all the traits the parents had wished for in a son and he seems to be of a species of botanical origin. This is apparent by his consistent show of basking in the glare of the sun throughout the movie. The kid — the Timothy of the title — of course, is perfect. So well-behaved it is almost too good to be true. The kind every parent longs to have. He goes to school, is oblivious to the jokes and pranks that bullies make at his expense, tries out for the soccer team, proves to draw expertly with a pencil, and even shows talent with a drumbeat.
Watching Timothy Green evokes the memories of similarly themed films as 1985’s superb D.A.R.Y.L. and 2001’s moodier A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Like the preteen-aged boys of those movies, Timothy is not quite human, and it shows in his quirky, offbeat behavior. Unlike the earlier films, Timothy Green fails to explore the full depths of this behavior, preferring to focus more on the parents and their observations of and reactions to this miracle child of theirs. This is a mistake on the movie’s part, as Jim and Cindy, despite the complexities of their characters and their obvious insecurities with being thrust full-time into parenthood (Jim is determined to become an improvement over his own less-than-supportive father Jim Sr., played by David Morse) do not sustain as much interest as the fantastical Timothy.
Consider the early scene where Timothy is bullied in school for his noticeable differences — he is brand new to this world and needs to be told how things work and what they mean. This theme was visited in D.A.R.Y.L when the boy-robot of the title is winked at by a girl and responds by blinking with both eyes, not knowing the meaning of the gesture. Only in Timothy Green, Timothy’s relationships with other kids are not adequately explored. His friendship with an alienated girl Joni (Odeya Rush) is presented without much dialogue at all. Joni figures out early on Timothy’s secret physical characteristics, i.e. his leaves and origins. But the interplay between the two does not go much further. Joni’s presence does not lead Timothy’s character development in any new directions. This is in direct contrast to the much more dynamic relationship between Daryl and his young friend “Turtle” in D.A.R.Y.L., where Turtle teaches Daryl that, because parents don’t want their children to be too perfect, he needs to display a mischievous side once in a while. Timothy Green does not offer Timothy such opportunities for exploration.
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.