There’s a cosmic intersection between John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, besides both being named John and both being murdered by guns. I first noticed it during the Paley Center for Media’s documentary festival in 2010. Its October lineup opened with two films about John Lennon: the bio pic Nowhere Boy, and the new American Masters documentary, LENNONYC; and it closed with a new film from cinema verite pioneer Robert Drew, In the Company of JFK, a compilation from four of his extraordinary films about Kennedy, with startling footage from the unprecedented access he was given .
These films were chosen for their subject matter and obvious merits. It was just happenstance that it meant the festival was bookended by two of the most culturally important murders of the 20th century.
Then, on November 22, 2010, on the 47th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, PBS premierd LENNONYC nationally, bringing the two deaths near each other again. It’s as though the universe itself still needs to reconcile the violent, early death of these two icons of the last century who meant so much to so many people.
Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting thorough my open mind
Possessing and caressing me
Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
John, Pre & Post Beatle
The two Lennon films were to honor the 70th anniversary of his birth on October 9, 1940 and acknowledge the 30th anniversary of his death on December 8, 1980. The bio pic Nowhere Boy takes a lot of poetic license, but the Quarrymen who were at the Paley Center screening said that it captured the essence of their teenage years together, rising from a skiffle band to rock & roll. LENNONYC captures the last 10 years of John’s life in New York with Yoko (and Los Angeles without her). The archival material is amazing, with home movies and studio footage you’ve never seen.
In the fictional Nowhere Boy we meet the boy who was abandoned by both his parents when they divorced and was raised by his Aunt Mimi(his mother’s sister). His uncle dies early, and he reconnects with his mother for a few years before she’s hit by a car and dies. He’s on his way to Germany with fellow townsmen Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and you know the rest.
LENNONYC captures John’s story with Yoko, after the band broke up in 1970. It’s a story that is not as well known as the Beatles years. As Rob Salem of the Toronto Star says, it’s about the various John Lennons: “peace-seeking protester; avant-garde artist; philandering party boy; Nixon-designated national threat; beleaguered refugee and blissfully domesticated dad.”
Some of the best moments in LENNONYC are from producers Roy Cicala and Jack Douglas, and guitarist Earl Slick who bring the musician John to life with their stories. They articulate beautifully the sheer talent in John’s music, which is the root of why we all fell in love with him in the first place. What's also striking about the documentary is how much voiceover they use of Lennon himself. It really feels like he's still with us.
And then, on that horrible day in December, 1980, when John and Oko were returning home, a madman shoots John four times in the back. He was pronounced dead 15 minutes later. What a shock. How is it possible that a Beatle is murdered in New York, on his own front doorstep? Our rock stars have died in plane crashes, they’ve died from drugs, but pop culture icons just aren’t murdered in cold blood, are they?
Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe
John, on November 22, 1963
Robert Drew’s film A President to Remember: In the Company of JFK draws on footage from four of his early films: Primary; Adventures on the New Frontier; Crisis; and Faces of November. It is an astonishing new work that captures JFK from the Wisconsin primary against Humphrey, through to his state funeral.
What Drew’s film doesn’t touch on is this cosmic coincidence: Wiki tells us that on November 22, 1963, CBS Morning News ran a 5-minute piece about Beatlemania that was sweeping Great Britain. The piece was to be rebroadcast in the evening, but it was canceled because of the assassination. Walter Cronkite then decided to run it on the CBS Evening News on December 10. It lead to a spike in sales of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and 8 weeks later the Beatles were at John F. Kennedy International Airport (which had just been renamed on December 24, 1963).
Kennedy’s assassination still haunts the country. The Lee Harvey Oswald/ Jack Ruby explanation becomes less and less satisfactory, but the country had to move on. Some say The Beatles invading ten weeks later were part of that healing process with their youth and style and new sound.
“Anybody here seen my old friends John”
Let’s imagine John Lennon on February, 7, 1964, arriving at JFK airport with the Beatles, full of excitement in the rush of their gargantuan success at home and number one hit here. Even with the depth of his poetic soul and all his hidden mysticism, he could not have imagined that 46 years later, a documentary about the last nine years of his own life—-which artfully deals with his murder—-would be premiering to an American audience on the date that JFK was assassinated. We will not know their like again. Such is the nature of the journey of souls, across the universe . . .
Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
exciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe
John Lennon on his song “Across the Universe": “It's one of the best lyrics I've written. In fact, it could be the best." Rolling Stone interview 1971
(JL NYC photo ©Bob Gruen. The Quarryman Leslie Kearney 1957©2010 The Quarrymen. Andy Warhol/JL photo in the Bar Louis, Hotel Fauchere, Milford, PA taken by Lance Mannon. JFK images are screen grabs from the Drew film.)
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Lynn Messina recently pointed out that my tweeted love of the "word 'glom' as in 'glom onto'" should have been "glom on to." Prepositions and spacing are very important. Given the season, this puts me in mind of the grammar confusion passed down the centuries by one of the Christmas Carols.
It happens to be the carol that Charles Dickens chose to represent the whole kit and kaboodle to Scrooge.
"...at the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror”
This carol was first written down in the 18th century, with no known composer.
As a song it is a triumph of clear, simple exposition of faith: the Son of God came by name to save us from sin and bring us comfort and joy. That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.
As syntax, it is a little less successful, because "merry" is an adverb in hiding describing ‘how God should rest you’ where rest is the sense of "keep" or make," and not an adjective describing gentlemen, even when that comma goes astray (God rest you merry gentlemen). Which, I’m sorry to say, it did in the juvenile edition of the Dickens story that I bought for my niece. Sigh.
There is also the "ye" versus "you." Because it feels like it's from Merry Olde England, most people reach for the "ye." But "ye" is the nominative case, and so would not have been used as the object. And we know this because in one of the earliest surviving written documents for the song, from 1760 London, when thees and thous were in abundance, the word is "you." It's also what Dickens transcribed in 1843 for his story, and it's what Bing Crosby so clearly sings, so that settles it.
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
From God our heavenly Father
A blessèd angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:
O tidings ...
(update from 2009 post0
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Remember Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister in Love, Actually? He gives an updated pop-culture version of the John of Gaunt “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech:
“We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that.”
How is it possible that Doctor Who didn’t make the short list? Now there's a national treasure.
The debut of Doctor Who joins the notable anniversaries this week: Gettysburg Address 150 years on November 19; Kennedy assassination 50 years ago on November 22; and the next day, Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, on November 23. It was a hit in Britain for decades, then ended in 1989, and when it came back in 2005, it found a large American audience.
I only started watching Doctor Who on BBC America in the 2005 reboot led by Russell T. Davies. I caught the tail end of Eccleston, driven there by the incredible recap writing about the show from Alan Sepinwall and Ross Ruediger. It was a little hard to follow the idea of a Time Lord at first, but Eccleston drew me in and sold it, in spite of Billie Piper. I am not a Rose fan. But no matter.
What I love about the series is how deeply imaginative it is. The stories go back in time to the days of Shakespeare or Pompeii and ahead in time to the end of the world in this and other galaxies-—following a Time Lord means all things are possible.
One Martha Jones episode with the Tenth Doctor, “The Lazarus Experiment," is set in today’s London. The villain of the week is a 72-year old doctor looking for the a fountain of youth, which turns him into a raging, really scary-looking CGI monster. In his lucid moments, he remembers back to the London Blitz as a child, when his home was destroyed. The last scene is in St. Paul’s, where he was brought as a child for safety, and where he ultimately goes from monster back to man. I found the story very moving, and important that a show basically targeted for children would create a plot around the last of the generations who saw WWII.
The monsters in general are the creepiest, most elaborate, scariest things on tv. And yes, there was a really gross spider monster, the Empress of Racnoss, which, as I discussed, my arachnophobia, was hard for me to watch.
And then there are the Daleks, the evil nemeses of the Doctor with the really cool voices. You could write about them forever, but it wouldn’t do them justice. They are one of the great fictional destructive forces of all time. (See photo below, but don't be fooled by their party hats.)
Quick Doctor Recap & The Original Fans
1. First Doctor, played by William Hartnell (1963–1966)2. Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton (1966–1969)
3. Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee (1970–1974)
4. Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker (1974–1981)
5. Fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison (1981–1984)
6. Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker (1984–1986)
7. Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy (1987–1989 and 1996)
8. Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann (1996)
The Time of the Time Lords War
9. Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston (2005)
10.Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant (2005–2010)
11. Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith (2010 - 2013)
12. Twelfth Doctor, will be Peter Capaldi
Russell’s new incarnation of the show had a deep, rich history to build on, now with great CGI effects and the modern Doctors of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.
I envied the original fans who first started watching as kids and have seen the Doctor through all his regenerations and all his companions. However, when it returned in 2005, they were not all happy.
Some impassioned hatred from one blogger: "Why do I hate it...? Where do I start? Bad dialogue, bad plotting, bad acting, bad jokes and bad science. Sentimental, patronising, inconsistent and too eager to please. Some of it is so cringeworthy I actually blush while I'm watching it."
From blog comments on The Telegraph: "The earlier Doctor. Who, of the Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton eras, were paced much more slowly allowing for the drama to develop, whereas this series is all flash bang wallop, and strangely seems stuck in the 1980s, in its sensibility. Just not very good at all.”
David Tennant: THE Doctor
The BBC has been running documentaries for each doctor. It's a wonderful history of the creative life of a series, and of each actor, as they progress, talking about "their" Doctor, the one they grew up with.
For me, and many, David Tennant is the Doctor, the way William Shatner is James T. Kirk. There may be other actors who play the role for various reasons, but they don't count.
Tennant showed a deep and unique understanding of the potential essence of this character, over 900 years old, sad and happy traveling along, knowing he needs a Companion to temper the darker side of his nature. Tennant expressed the sheer power of the Doctor in a way that Matt Smith cannot. (Eccleston had flashes of that good/evil power too.) David Tennant is also a true fan of the series, in a way Matt Smith is not. I count the Tennant episodes as some of the most enjoyable TV watching of my life. And what are the odds that the tenth Doctor would be named TEN-Nant? Mystical, right?
Doctor Who: A True "We Are the World" Experience
Big Kudos to the BBC for celebrating 50 years of this creativity with a worldwide simulcast of their anniversary special. Literally. Uniting fans across the globe to experience the story at the same time. I am very luck to be heading down to see it in a theater. See you on Twitter.
[Updated from a 2008 post]
Friday, November 22, 2013
It almost defies imagination--like many elements that were the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—that the man whose life force was extreme would declare his favorite poem to be Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." (Wouldn't a life-affirming Yeats or Keats poem have served him better?) And that he would "often ask his wife to recite it." You might expect this kind of reveal to be on a list in People Magazine, but it's on the Kennedy Library site, so one would expect it's true. Seeger died in World War 1, on the Somme.
Things I Have Always Known about JFK
It's not that my family had formal discussions about our first Irish-Catholic president, but growing up I seemed to amass many tidbits about JFK from my parents and grandparents.
•Papa Joe Kennedy wanted his first son, Joseph, to be the first Irish Catholic president, and started grooming him very young. When Joe died in WWII, Joe turned his eyes to Jack, and that was it. Jack had no say in the matter. Joe was smarter than Jack, and might have been a better man for the presidency.
•Papa Joe "bought" Jack the election through a combination of old school dealmaking and straight out bribes and corruption.
•His Addison's disease.
"Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's in the 1940s. In 1955 he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an insufficient output of thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include many of those associated with Addison's, as well as paleness, intolerance to cold, depression and a low heart rate."
•Sister Rosemary was "slow" and her father wanted to "fix" her. He brought her to have a frontal lobotomy when she was 23, while her protective mother was away in France. It incapacitated her permanently, and she lived on the grounds of a convent in Wisconsin until she died in 2005 at 86.
•Jackie wanted to divorce Jack before the election because of his rampant infidelities, and Papa Joe paid her a huge amount to stay.
•There was a second son, Patrick, who was born in the White House but died after only three days. (See below.)
•I wrote about Ted Kennedy's death here.
Things I Learned Later
•Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born on August 7, 1963, and died August 9. It was an emergency C-section for Jackie, and his lungs weren't fully formed.
•Lee Radzwill, Jackie's sister, had been in Greece on on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis. He says 'you should go to your sister to console her.' Lee ends up bringing Jackie back to the yacht in Greece for her to recover from her son's death. That is where she meets the shipping magnate she will marry in 1968. Hmm.
•The gorgeous couple in the above photo are grieving parents of just three months. And then they get in that car.
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
(President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, arrive at Love Field in Dallas on a campaign tour with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. (Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images)
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Rhett Butler utters this description to Scarlett when she asks how much longer the war will go on. He says it won't be long now, there's "a little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg" that will pretty much do it. When you watch Gone With the Wind it's a moment of real historical connection within the fiction. We know it's considered the war's turning point, for the characters, it's just another battle to try to regain territory.
Four and a half months after the Union's "win," Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery to battle dead on Nov. 19, 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago today.
The speech is prose poetry of Biblical beauty when the nation was just 87 years old.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
What strikes me today is the interplay of life and death, not surprising to dedicate a cemetery, but extra poignant in this week of the last day's of President John F. Kennedy's life fifty years ago.
Lincoln & Kennedy: Deeper Than the Old "List"
It's not surprising that a "list" of all the coincidences between our two great assassinated presidents became an Urban Legend. But there are deeper intersections.
We know that JKF was a genuine history buff, and that he asked Ted Sorensen to study the Gettysburg Address (among anther speeches) when drafting his own inaugural speech.
So November 19, 1963, the 100th anniversary, had some meaning for JFK personally, and politically as well. It is noted how presidents treat this anniversary.
It's the math that makes this all a little chilling. If it hadn't a big anniversary year for the speech, the date would probably have gone unnoticed. But the spotlight was on, as it had been for Woodrow Wilson and the 50th anniversary, and FDR at the 75th anniversary in 1938, both of whom made official visits to the cemetery. The article of this history is titled, Obama Snubs 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg Address.
Kennedy did not make an official visit. The article said he "made only an unannounced visit with no speech." That made it a private thing, a personal thing, to honor his predecessor's rhetorical and political brilliance. Perhaps he found inspiration anew, as many do, at the entreaty of what "the living" need to do to for the "unfinished work" and the "great task remaining before us." The stakes during the Civil War were as high as they could be: the continuation or disintegration of this nation. Kennedy had inherited the very best of the continuation of "we, the people."
All this focus on the living in the face of his scheduled trip to Dallas, his appointment in Samara. That's the important connection for me, of these two public servants, killed in the line of duty.
For the Living: Learn the Address!
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, documentarian Ken Burns, along with numerous partners, has launched a national effort to encourage everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the Abraham Lincoln's famous speech. The site is Learn the Address.
Here are the kids from a high school in Alabama. You can't beat that for what the speech is all about.
(Photo from USA Today story about the project)
Saturday, November 9, 2013
This quip came via telegram from Algonquin wit Robert Benchley to the delicious David Niven, although I'm certain that had it been the 20-teens instead of the 1930s, it would have been a tweet. [The quip has multiple permutations & attributions, all wonderfully tracked down by Quote Investigator]
Earlier this year the polyphonic segment of my life brought me the opportunity of singing a concert of Venetian masters Gabrieli and Monteverdi with a brass quartet in Venice. I planned the trip months ago, which give me the time to read a trifecta of Venice literary nesting dolls:
Geoff in Venice, Death in Varnasi
Venice is the city that never disappointed and never surprised, the place that was exactly like it was meant to be, exactly synonymous with every tourist's first impression of it.
There is no real Venice: the real Venice was—and had always been—the Venice of postcards, photographs, and films. Hardly a novel observation, that. It was what everyone always said, including Mary McCarthy. Except she'd taken it a stage further and said that the thing about Venice was that it was impossible to say anything about Venice that had not been said before, 'including this statement.'
The Venetians invented the income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, anonymous denunciations (the Bocca del Leone), the gambling casino, and the Ghetto. The idea of the Suez Canal was broached by Venice to the sultan in 1504. They were quick to hear of new inventions and discoveries and to grasp their practical application.
Casanova had the true Venetian temperament: cool, ebullient, and licentious.
In the traditional Venetian serenades, played from cruising gondolas, the songs today are all Neapolitan. Foreigners cavil at this, but the Venetians point out that there are no love songs in the Venetian repertory—only witty exchanges between man and maiden.
Death in Venice
When Aschenbach first feels the urge to travel, he sees in his imagination a landscape like that of the Ganges delta; the climax of this vision is the frightening epiphany of a tiger in the thicket. When he calms down and makes realistic travel plans, he decides he need not go "all the way to the tigers."
And so we go full circle back to Dyer's Geoff doing what Aschenbach did not, and going to the Ganges for his oblivion.
Please ignore McCarthy's warning about saying anything about Venice that hasn't been said before, and follow me on twitter for bulletins from the canals of 2013.