Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Irish Sense of Timing: Happy St. Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day, which for many Irish Americans is a mixture of nostalgia and pride. This particular celebration for me is tinged with sadness, as it happens to be the 30th anniversary of the last Paddy's Day my Dad would know.

Even that sadness is very Irish in its nature, as Chesteron once noted:

For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

This post is one of the first I wrote for this blog, with some edits.

I have a bit of Irish blood in the veins, courtesy of my father. He was proud of his heritage and embodied its characteristic traits: gregarious; a talent for storytelling; a decent tenor voice exercised regularly in church; an acquaintance with barley, hops, and yeast; and a deep love of family, like all Brooklyn Irish. He married a lovely Lutheran woman of Swiss/German/Norwegian descent, but that's a story for another day.

When I was at university in Southampton, England, on a college exchange program, I became the first of the clan to visit the old country.

It was a backpacking tour with a fellow American. We had crossed from Fishguard, Wales to Rosslare, Wexford, which meant by the time we got up to Dublin, it was late and cold and dark and we were very tired. We were trying to get to our B&B by metro bus, and weren’t sure which direction to go. So we waited on one side of the street, and when the bus came, the driver said we needed to be across the street to go in the other direction.

So over we went. It was now even colder and darker, we were beyond exhausted and time was dragging horribly. So this is what purgatory feels like? After forty-five minutes of standing in the freezing Dublin air, we finally see the bus coming along. The door opens, and it’s the same bus, same driver—

Huh. Well . . . .what . . .why didn’t you let us on over there?

“Well, you’d been going in the wrong direction, now, wouldn’t you?”

There is some funny logic there (and some toying with the young Americans).

When I told my father that story he laughed and laughed. He had never been to Ireland, but it struck a deep chord with him, reminding him of some of the distinctly Irish quirkiness of his own father and uncles.

Of course I learned what it is to be Irish American from him. Some things just happened organically in daily life,  like the Irish Coffee ritual and the tip that it's the brown sugar that separates the real from the faux.  Other lessons were very deliberate: like the year he hand wrote the words to important Irish songs for me: The Wild Colonial Boy, MacNamara's Band, The Irish Soldier Boy, and the most important, The Wearing of the Green. An important history lesson in itself, as a teenager the last line "For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green," haunted me. It seems around the 1789 Irish Rebellion, the Brits so feared the nationalism of a color that wearing green was high treason, punishable by hanging. More about that here

"O Paddy dear, an' did ye hear the news that's goin' round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colour can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law agin the wearin' o' the Green.

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand,
And he said, "How's dear old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,
For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green."

The Gift of a Trip to Ireland
After college I got a job as a copywriter for a travel company, writing the itineraries for the brochures of deluxe escorted tours. An idea popped into my head: I wanted to buy an escorted tour for my parents to see Ireland. Travel had never been part of their lives together. Money was usually tight, and 8 years of college bills was quite a strain. My father never talked about a desire to go to Ireland, but you knew it was there.

With help from my older brother, I found that we could buy my parents an escorted American Express trip. I became giddy at the idea. We would give it to them for Christmas, and the tour we picked was in May. Just perfect.

I bought a Fodor’s Guide to Ireland to wrap-up, and made a HUGE oak tag card. On the cover I put a big paper clock, with hands just before 12, and the words IT’S TIME . . . . (Inside): For you to go to Ireland ! surrounded by photos from the tour brochure. Everything was set.

On Christmas morning we gave the Fodor’s book to Mom to open, and the card to Dad. He seemed quite stunned. He became very quiet as it sunk in that his children had the means and the desire to give him this trip, a desire of a lifetime. Such moments are deeply vivid, and very rare.

And then . . .
And then, everything turned. My father was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in January, just after New Years. He died in April. The tour went on without him in May.

How cruel. How could God have denied him this trip ? How macabre and eerie my Christmas card: IT’S TIME. Yes, a phrase often associated with your time being up, but not here—-not on a happy Christmas morning, not about a great trip, not coming from me.

To make this all even more heart-wrenching, I had planned a trip myself to Ireland back in December, to go in March. I would be visiting a college friend who was doing post graduate work in Galway.

By March Dad was pretty ill, but it would have been too much of a shock to him if I canceled my trip, and so I went with the heaviest of hearts.  I remember spending a good part of one day crying in a church in Gort, the town nearest to Lady Gregory's Coole Park, where I had made a pilgrimage to visit Yeats's Wild Swans at Coole.

I got home on March 17, and we had the usual family gathering with my uncles/aunts/godparents. My dad was frail, but rallied to get dressed and join the gang. The photo above shows my Uncle John, his best friend of 30 years, at his side.

Dad died almost an exact month later, on April 16, which happened to be Easter Monday.  That was pretty cosmic.

It is only now, 20 years later, [now 30 years later!] that I can see what an Irish end my dad had. It was sad and tragic, yet imbued with that particular Irish sense of death we know from the great plays and poems of O’Casey and Synge, and Yeats: because life is so precious, death comes with irony, some irreverence, a tinge of comedy, and ultimately, hope.

I’ve been to Ireland several times since he died. I’ve got some new great stories to tell, the next time I see him.

The Irish Coffee ritual was not limited to St. Patrick's Day. And though Crosby sang about a "belt of Bushmills," it's from Northern Ireland & these were the days when that mattered. No money to the IRA. So Dublin Jameson it was.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

There'll Always Be an England: Snape, Crabbe, Grimes, & Britten Walk Into a Bar

This is one of those nestling dolls posts . . .

I'll be visiting—what is to an American's ear—the improbably named Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England at the end of the week.

Seems there is a small town named Snape, on the River Alde, near the east coastal town of Aldeburgh, which wiki says has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. And yes, JK Rawlings named Professor Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame for the town.  Now that's a great piece of trivia.

Even more amazing: you can connect Severus Snape to none other than Benjamin Britten, who was born in Suffolk. In 1937 he took money his mother left him to purchase the Old Mill in Snape, nearby to the Snape Maltings complex, and used it as a studio and home before moving to The Red House in Aldeburgh in 1957, which he shared with tenor Peter Pears until Britten's death in 1976.

The Maltings?  Yes, the town had been a center for malting barely for beer production starting in the 1880s when a Victorian entrepreneur named Newson Garrett built the facility.

In 1948 Britten and Pears, along with writer Eric Crozier,  founded an annual music festival, in Aldeburgh. In the 1960s the festival had outgrown its Aldeburgh Festival hall, AND the company that was producing the malt went out of business, and so . . .  Britten put the two things together. He negotiated to have the Maltings building converted into a 832-seat Concert Hall, which was officially opened in 1967 by HM Queen Elizabeth II and has been the prime venue for the festival since.

Snape Maltings is back in the news, because it is being sold to the charity that organizes the Aldeburgh Festival: From the BBC site on March 5:

 "A popular tourist destination on the Suffolk coast is to become a "creative campus" that aims to match the vision of renowned composer Benjamin Britten (pictured above).

Snape Maltings, a collection of retail units, galleries and residential flats, is being sold to Aldeburgh Music. The charity organises the annual Aldeburgh Festival and runs the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Mr Wright said Aldeburgh Music's plans for Snape Maltings would fulfil "Britten's vision for a creative campus with a new level of public engagements".

I got pulled into all of this because I'm attending a conference called Names Not Numbers that uses venues in Aldeburgh and Snape.

But there's more!

Peter Grimes: The Great Benjamin Britten Opera
Britten wrote one of his masterpieces--the opera Peter Grimes---in Snape!

From brittenpears.org: "In 1942, Britten, then living in America, came across an article by the novelist EM Forster on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’ inspired Britten’s first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes, the work that launched him internationally as the leading British composer of his generation and which almost single-handedly revived English opera."

George Crabbe—whom Hazlitt called “a misanthrope in verse” while Byron proclaimed him “Nature’s sternest painter, but the best”—was born in Aldeburgh in 1754, and the poems capture the lives of the villagers.

I saw Peter Grimes at the Met in 2008, and that sent me back to see what my mentor Paul Fussell had said about Crabbe in his go-to Eighteenth-Century Literature: "The Borough is twenty-four verse “letters” that describe a village, from the Church, to its doctors and lawyers, to the middle-class amusement of clubs, and then, halfway through, “turns to the dark underworld of the indigent, the frustrated, the criminal, and the insane.” (Yeah, that’s the part Peter Grimes is in.)

What Fussell liked in Crabbe was the anti-pastoral. While much of English poetry was imbued with happy, passionate shepherds mooning for love— “Come live with me and be my Love/And we will all the pleasures prove”—Crabbe wrote his character sketches of actual, rural agriculture life, and how hard and soul-crushing it really was.

I was surprised at how different the poem is from the opera, but like all creative endeavors, the original idea was transformed to something new.

The poem begins with Peter Grimes and his own mother and father and what we would now call elder abuse:

“How he had oft the good old Man revil’d
And never paid the Duty of a Child.

Nay, once had dealt the sacrilegious Blow
On his bare Head, and laid his Parent low”

Poem Peter is set up as heinous from the beginning, with patricide as one of the gravest of mortal sins. He grows up to be an even darker and more twisted man:

"He wanted some obedient Boy to stand
And bear the blow of his outrageous hand
And hop’d to find in some propitious hour
A feeling Creature subject to his Power."

He finds such a victim, a young apprentice.

“Some few in Town observ’d in Peter’s Trap
A Boy, with Jacket blue and wollen Cap;
But non inquir’d how Peter us’d the Rope
Or what the Bruise, that made the Stripling stoop”

In Crabbe, the town is not a mob, but an indifferent witness to a child in trouble.

“The trembling Boy dropt down and strove to pray
Receiv’d a Blow, and trembling turn’d away
Or sobb’d and hid his piteous face;--while he,
The savage Master, grinn’d in horrible glee;
He’d now the power he ever loved to show,
A feeling Being subject to his Blow."

Poem Peter has already killed 2 boys, when he is at the inquest for another boy, which is where the opera starts its action, and the Mayor says, “Henceforth with thee shall never Boy abide; Hire thee a Freeman.”

Poem Peter is so hated, that no man will work with him. The ardor of fishing by himself turns into nervous exhaustion that decays to madness. In the end he is a writhing lunatic, and confesses to a priest: for months he has seen his father walking on water, with a murdered boy holding each of his hands. The trio will not let him rest.

“Then with an inward, broken voice he cried,
‘Again they come,’ and mutter’d as he died."

Opera Peter is simply a harsh man whom Britten sees as a product of his society; he once described his work as “the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual."

I think Crabbe would have agreed in general with this idea, but his Peter was more of a Bad Seed and less a product of poverty.

The opera introduces the widow Ellen, who tries to reach out to Peter and bring him in from the cold. When she sees the bruise on the new apprentice, all hope for a new future for Peter is shattered. Then the boy falls to his death, and Peter sets out to sea to kill himself, to escape certain death from the townspeople who are now a mob.

I don’t see as much ambiguity in Opera Peter as others do. The beauty of some of Peter’s arias just makes his crime of violence against a child all the more severe—if he can imagine “kindlier homes,” then he should be able to stop torturing a boy. End of story.

Both Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears are buried in the parish cemetery of St. Peter and St. Paul's in Aldeburgh.  I hope to visit when I'm in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Once in a Blue Moon: It's 30 Years since Moonlighting First Lit Up Our Night Sky

In its debut,''Moonlighting'' managed to concoct an ending that had Dave and Maddie hanging, Harold Lloyd-style, from the hands of a large public clock several stories above street level. At the time, I thought the series was, at the very least, unusually promising. 

Now, with the better part of a season behind them, it is clear that ''Moonlighting,'' created by Glenn Gordon Caron, is indeed something special. For one thing, it has the courage of its offbeat goofiness. For another, it has the irresistible chemistry being generated by the two stars.

John J. O’Connor review in The New York Times, 1985

The two-hour Moonlighting pilot movie debuted on March 3 in 1985. Can it be 30 years since Al Jarreau told us, "We'll walk by night, We'll fly by day, Moonlighting strangers, Who just met on the way."

I, along with much of the TV viewing public, fell in love with the series and suffered the heartache of its decline and demise. I thought about the Blue Moon Detective Agency for the first time in decades last fall, when I was thinking of what to send the BFF for her birthday that would have some resonance to our long friendship. It popped into my head that she was living on Taiwan when "Atomic Shakespeare" first aired, which had completely swept me off my feet. So I bought her the DVD of season 3. Now that I had opened that door, I wanted to reconnect with my lost love Moonlighting, like wanting to read old love letters you have bundled up in a box under the bed, so I watched the series in a week-long marathon.

One thing I realized was how many episodes I had never seen, and yet my memory of loving and then leaving this show is so vivid. I had watched Remington Steele with my parents, and it was good, but there was no heat between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan.

Then Glen Gordon Caron took some of the essence of that show—he wrote and produced its first ten episodes— and brought us to the moon with David and Maddie, and it was indeed, something special.

The pilot seems very slow now to watch, but as John O’Connor—the now forgotten, once powerful TV critic for the New York Times— tells us, there was already something unusually promising.

You Made Me Love Yous

Why did the country fall in love with Maddie and David falling in love?

The premise was good and believable: super model learns her accountant embezzled all her money. She’s broke except for a tax write-off of a detective agency named for her Blue Moon shampoo sponsorship that comes with employees David Addison and Agnes Dipesto.

•Cybill Shepherd looked particularly stunning in the early episodes. (Then her look hardened and her hairstyle went crazy 80s.)

•Bruce Willis overflowed with a natural charm and the wit of youth. He was happy and he knew how to enjoy himself in a way many people envy. Limbo dancing just isn’t seen enough in office buildings.

The signature overlapping dialogue is built on Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s banter from His Girl Friday, but the specific cadences between our two detectives are exceptionally appealing, it is true sparkle, true élan, and the extent to which they used it was amazing.

•The Music!!! The show must have spent a fortune on licensing, because almost everything was original artist: Whistle while you work, Marni Nixon as Snow White; La Bamba, Richie Valens; Please Mr. Postman, the Shirelles; New York State of Mind/Big Man on Mulberry Street, Billy Joel; Nowhere to Run, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas; When a Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge. The list is priceless and endless.

•The Love of Film & Pop Culture The series echoed many beloved film and pop culture touchstones.  The episode titles themselves give an idea of the spirit that animated the series:

Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde? • The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice • Somewhere Under the Rainbow • Atlas Belched • 'Twas the Episode Before Christmas • North by North DiPesto • In God We Strongly Suspect • It's a Wonderful Job

•Their falling in love happened slowly, built on how well they worked together solving cases. In the DVD extras, Caron said he had to promise ABC execs that the characters would not become romantically involved “because no one would believe a woman like that would fall for a guy like that.” Remember this started filming just as Billy Joel (that kind of guy) and Christie Brinkley (that kind of woman) got married.

And when Bruce & Cybill were in the zone, you felt like you could not get enough of David & Maddie's magic.

The Decline: Blame It All on the Writers
The stories are legion: Cybill was hard to work with, then got pregnant with twins; Willis started as a guy glad to have a job, then became John McTiernan with a swelled head; Caron left; and the writers seriously lost their way.

It fascinates me when writers of TV shows seem to forget—-or just don’t understand—-the history of the characters they are writing (and have created).

For instance, when the writers finally maneuver Maddie and David into becoming lovers, she immediately has regrets about ‘this thing” and wants “a pact” that it won’t happen again.

When she asks for time together, a date, outside of the bedroom, David says okay, then doesn’t plan anything, and takes her to a Laundromat. That’s ridiculous. This is the man who in season 1 had the imagination to follow her down to Argentina! when she goes after the accountant who stole her money and talk his way into a seriously sophisticated hotel wearing a white dinner jacket. Now that he is with the object of his heart’s desire he’s a palooka that can’t make a dinner reservation? A writing failure.

And her. She drones on and on about how they have nothing in common. But she got out of a warm bed with Mark Harmon!! to find David on a stakeout and finish a case with him. That’s what they have in common: their business,  working together, and she knows she has fun with him. So why does she keep questioning why she’s with him? Another writing failure.

The fact that Shepherd’s pregnancy and Willis’s Die Hard filming meant there would be numerous episodes that kept them apart could have been handled creatively in so many ways that didn’t end in a RIDICULOUS wedding of Maddie to the Walter. A huge writing failure. (And yet I am one of the few people on the planet that think the miscarriage episode with Baby Willis in the womb—"A Womb with a View— is wonderfully creative. )

It fascinates me that as much as a writer has seemingly complete control over what characters say and do, there seems to be another force that’s part of the creative process that writers can’t always overpower. Some series are cosmically doomed and their characters go off the rails. Such was the fate of the Blue Moon detectives.

But before they ceased to exist in the last episode, "Lunar Eclipse," (which no one had any interest in by the time the series finale came around), they left 66 episodes that in hindsight (away from the emotion of feeling disappointed in our love for the duo) are all enjoyable, and some are . . . . DAZZLING.

Scenes from Season 2, Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde.

Maddie Does Gilda

Good Lovin’

Monday, February 16, 2015

Oscar Catch-Up: Our English Cousins

Today is President's Day—that strange amalgam of Washington's Birthday February 22, and the nearby Lincoln's birthday on February 12, moved to the closest Monday—and that lead to a thought about the play that Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.

Wiki summarizes Our American Cousin, by English playwright Tom Taylor,  as "a farce whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish, but honest American, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate."

It is notable that the last thing one of this nation's  greatest leaders ever saw before he was shot in the head was a story about what a bunch of rubes we are in relation to our aristocratic forefathers, who, as it is a farce, are played broadly, for laughs.

It also popped into my head because the Oscars—which I consider a distinctly American institution, like Disneyland— offers two films that focus the cultural conversation on two extraordinary Englishmen and their surrounding worlds: Alan Turin, who "broke the German Enigma code" during World War ll that helped the Allies win the war; and Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who defied all odds and has lived five decades of immense accomplishment beyond the "two years" he was given at his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, motor neuron disease to the Brits),  in his twenties.

When you are telling a story about a real person and historical events, there is of course that extra layer for how does it stack up again "real life" from every angle possible.

But there is no uninterpreted data. All of history is storytelling, with varying degrees of "evidence" and a natural crowd-sourcing to support the narrative. So I am not judging these films based on their accuracy. The Civil War was a very complex, historical event, and Gone With the Wind, which did not capture that entire reality, is a great film.

That said, our English Cousins themselves, as presented in these films,  could not be more different: while both are men of maths/science, Turing struggled with all levels of human contact, and the enormous burden of homosexuality being a crime in England in his lifetime; while Hawking seems to have been born with a permanent twinkle in his eye.

The Imitation Game
I saw this film first of the two.

I knew only the barest of who Alan Turing was going in, and that was the general knowledge line above: he broke the German Enigma code that lead to the Allies winning the war.

I did not know at all that in 1952, following a burglary, Turing was charged with "criminal indecency"--homosexual acts were a criminal offense until 1967!!—to which he pled guilty on the advise of counsel and his brother. He chose chemical castration over imprisonment, and died 2 years later, at the age of 41, under suspicious circumstances concerning an apple and cyanide.

The Imitation Game is not a good film because its overall tone is too unsophisticated. A few examples:

The Scooby Gang
The early scene where Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) bounces in to where Turing is holding a test for crossword solvers was one painful cliche after another: she is repeatedly told where the secretary's room is, yes,  because it's the 1940s and sexism reigns supreme, but also partly because her demeanor shrieks assistant, not the serious of mind intelligence of someone with her ability.

The "turn" when chess champion Hugh Alexandre goes from disliking Turing, to fighting to support him was hookey, not the emotional arrival point it should have been.

When Turing has an epiphany and recalibrates the machine with the breakthrough move, the team effort and celebration feels like the Scooby gang finishing up their latest case.

It's the tone that's off.

In comparison, there was a BBC drama called The Hour that followed the beginnings of a BBC news magazine show around 1956, the time of the Suez Canal crisis. Written by Abi Morgan, it captured the distinctive post-war time with a completely believable seriousness of purpose.

The characters—played by Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Gara—believed in the importance of this new kind of news program, and everything about the script, direction, and performances supported that gravitas without ever dulling it down. In fact the gravity enriched the entire experience. It was a fully realized world limned with an economy of strokes.

There's no question of the seriousness of purposes surrounding the Allied efforts of World War ll, and yet The Imitation Game stayed very flat, and on the surface for me. And I have no more insight into the complexity of Alan Turing the man than when I entered the theater.

There are some compelling moments from Benedict Cumberbatch, particularly with Keira Knightly, but no best actor awards from me.

The one exception was the performance of Alex Lawther as the teen-aged Turing. He conveyed every nuance of a young emotionally crippled genius just trying to decode the world and his own sexuality. I would see the film again to see that portrayal.

For the Record:
As I said, I'm not judging the film based on its connection to reality. But, here is my understanding of some of the big picture:

•The Germans developed the Enigma code at the end of WW1 to encrypt important communications.

•Three Polish cryptologists/mathematicians first cracked the code in 1932 and built the first machine (bomba, bombe). They shared their work with the French and the English.

•The Germans then did something more to the code, which meant that the existing machines could no longer decode the messages.  And that's what Turing did: he saw the next generation of machine/code-breaking that needed to happen and the breakthrough to get it done.

•Queen Elizabeth gave Alan Turing a posthumous pardon. For his homosexual "crimes." In 2013. And that effort was lead in part, by Stephen Hawking. The Guardian, December 13, 2012.

The Theory of Everything
I had a general cultural awareness of Stephen Hawking. Brilliant. English physicist. Confined to a wheelchair. String theory something.

I have not read his book, The Theory of Everything, but I appreciated his cameo on The Big Bang Theory.

I enjoyed this film more than The Imitation Game. Its world is more fully realized and with a deeper conviction.

I found myself resisting the conscious beauty shots at the beginning of the film. Like the May Ball [corrected 2/17]  at Cambridge, with the intellectual elite in their best traditional black tie and tails, dancing under summer mood-setting fun fair lights.

Maybe it was the class thing. I haven't read much about class in these two British films, but it is a constant companion to each.

But by the time of the Hawkings' wedding, the film had convinced me to go along with the Instagram Early-Bird filtered wedding video and pictures, evoking the Polaroid coloring of pictures from the 1960s along with determined optimism.

And that's exactly what I want a film to do: convince me along with the way of its truth, make me shed some of the baggage I bring into the theater.

The story is really Scene from a Marriage, English genius style; with a glimpse at the extraordinary difficulties of the a degenerative disease; plus a testament to the human spirit of never. giving. up.

The one thing that took me out of this convincing world: Harry Lloyd, as Hawking's roommate and friend, Brian.  I always recognize the Doctor Who actors where ere I see them.

Lloyd played Jeremy/Son of Mine in the top-tier Tenant 2-part episode written by none other than Paul Cornell, Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

At a dinner party, the conversation turns to something about "he's now a doctor", to which Lloyd answers, "Who?" and everyone laughs. In the film's time period it's after 1967, because baby Robert is on the scene. The series Doctor Who started in 1963, so the gang could have been early fans. The line would have been funny with any English actor, but it's really funny given how good Lloyd was in the classic episode.

Everything should not get best picture, but Eddie Redmayne is deserving of Best Actor.

Now on to the American biopics, Selma, and The American Sniper.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Oscar Catch-Up: Birdman Does Not Fly Me to the Moon

“It reminds me of that old joke. You know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs."

― Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Woody Allen's end-of-film direct address to his 1979 Annie Hall audience popped into my head the moment Emma Stone smiled as she gazed up into the sky at the end of Birdman.

YES. THERE ARE SPOILERS. Stop reading if you haven't seen the film.

Her dad, the Birdman character and washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, had just jumped out of the window of his hospital room.  But all sense of reality stopped when Riggan opened the window, because hospital windows do not open in NY. Doubt they open anywhere.

Which is part of the film's conundrum.

Richard Lawson explains it very well in Vanity Fair:  "Riggan’s descent into madness is played as madness, until it isn’t. The fantasy isn’t real until it maybe is. The film can’t seem to make up its mind about its reality. Which is allowed, certainly. But that inexactness muddies the scrappy truthfulness the film works so hard for in other scenes. "

So her father could not have jumped out the window.  We see that he's not in the bed, so he must have just walked out of the room, perhaps as a similar occurrence when we first saw Birdman fly through the air, but we then glimpse a shot of the actual taxi that brought Riggans back to the theater.

The film shows us Sam looking down to the ground, and then up into the sky, as though the Birdman is flying again instead being a blood splat on the ground. Oookaay.  We know Riggan can't fly, but we're asked to go with the story--interwoven amid the cinematic verisimilitude of reality & not madness---because, many argue, we need it, we need the eggs from this magical chicken. Just like we need the offerings from the complete artifice of theater itself. Humans have always created, and needed, art.

The Gump Affect

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a front-runner for best picture.
This isn't only a "love it or hate it" movie. More interesting (as a critique) than hate is boredom:  There are tons of comments out there, on multiple sites, that people found the movie boring. For others, the relentless references, technical achievements, and cinematic quotes are pure catnip, leaving the viewer exhilarated. The film is dividing audiences like back in the days of Gump (thanks Lee Lorenz and The New Yorker).

I didn't love the film, and experienced a little of the boredom. Which is strange because I like Roland Barthes et.al  references as much as the next ex reader-response critical theoretician, but the overall feeling I got from the film is we are all fools: for being onstage, or in the audience. Tell me something I don't know.

I'm a TV girl at heart, so here are some recap points:

•The drumming. Often a sound that bleeds into a scene relates to another reality. Here, it's actual hallucinatory madness, so in a way,  Iñárritu is messing with our heads.

•I like the subhead, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." It's an excellent nod to Alexander Pope, who coined "a little learning is a dangerous thing" in his masterpiece Essay on Criticism . . . "drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." The film takes direct aim at critics as the coward piranhas who feed off of the courageous artists, but is there anything actually more devastating than a well-targeted heroic couplet? I think not.

"'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging Ill.
But, of the two, less dangerous is th'Offense
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense."

The subtitle also summons Pope because he used a subtitle for his parody of Longinus' Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime): Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry. So very clever there all around,  Iñárritu and team writers.

•I liked The Shining homage. The hallways & carpet evoke the hotel, and with the celebrated camera work I absolutely felt  I was on my big wheels, rolling through the St. James Theatre. John Powers in Vogue also called out Andrea Riseborough's Shelley Duvall hair, and "the barroom as a truth-telling place." Yes.

•I did not like the conscious, insistence of Riggan that he "make art,"  be "an artist." For me, the worst cliche possible. The narcissism that is needed to act, either in film or the theater, is unpleasant to experience in any mode.

•But that is all topped by the crazy street person, whom Riggan encounters when he goes to the liquor store, who is spouting MacBeth: I think I heard it from "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" but it was the "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" that made me cringe. I mean, really?

(Side note: The building/construction/scaffolding that Riggan shoves the crazy guy up against reminded me of 30 Rock's "The Tuxedo Begins" episode. When Jack Donaghy goes back to a similar sidewalk scaffolding where he was mugged, and enters his own magical realism, complete with Mr. Met. At the beginning of the episode, Tracy Morgan says, "I have an Oscar, now I get to do real art." Hmm.)

For Iñárritu to drag Shakespeare in here tells us again:  All of this time, effort, anxiety to produce a play, and a movie about producing a play, is just loud (check, we've got the drums) and means nothing (check, unless you're Roland Barthes).

The emptiness of the film is another common comment. There are flashes of emotion and humanity within, amid all of the solid acting performances that have been well documented, but no conviction about the performing arts or the audience except that we are all idiots.

I once studied critical theory with Walter Benn Michaels. He commented that it's an intellectually vibrant field, but ultimately sterile. Sometimes he'd rather be inhabiting the world of Pride and Prejudice full on, rather than pondering the theories of relating to it.

For all of its affects and heady references,  Birdman left me with that sterile feeling. I do enter and enjoy the world of magical realism in various ways. I just want to do it with conviction of feeling, like Chagall's "Lovers Above the City." That kind of flying makes complete sense to me.  No primal drumming or madness required.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Greek & Roman Comedy, If It Wasn't So "Historically" Pathetic

A little bit of slush outside GCT after #Juno #Blizzardof2015 was done with NYC. Photo NYTimes

Hubris: In the modern sense based on Greek tragedy means extreme pride or self-confidence. When it offends the gods, it is usually punished.

The Roman goddess Juno: wife of the chief god Jupiter, was regarded as queen of the gods and known for her jealous nature.

You combine these two ancient ideas, and you end up with a bizarre, man-made shutdown of one of the world's great cities while a few flurries float on by.

The Greek Side
What first ticked me off was the use of the word "historic." The blizzard of 2015 was being called historic before it happened. That, my friends, is an act of hubris:  pre-determining, deeming in fact  that something is going be epic. Something as powerful and unpredictable as the weather.  And hubris, we know, is often punishable by the gods, the cosmos, fate, whatever. Just ask Xerxes, or Ajax, or Oedipus.

Beyond the time-bending arrogance, there is the question of our language. Words have meaning. When you play with that, you cheapen everything about our most important human asset. Why would anyone do that?

It unfortunately happens very easily. It started at Mayor de Blasio's pre-storm press conference. He started the idea with "This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of this city.”

But it was our beloved National Weather Service that put the anachronistic thought into play, as Gothamist reported: "CRIPPLING AND POTENTIALLY HISTORIC BLIZZARD TO IMPACT THE AREA FROM LATE MONDAY INTO TUESDAY.

Now we see that they did say "potentially historic." But that is a clunky phrase. No news agency is going to pick-up a three-syllable adjective in a headline or even in text. Of course it got picked up around the world as "historic." There were often quotations, a nod perhaps to the fact that it hadn't actually happened yet.

CNN website:  "The National Weather Service, which isn't prone to exaggeration, is using terms like "life-threatening" and "historic" to describe the weather system taking aim at the Northeast, with the worst expected to hit Monday night into Tuesday. " And so on in countless reports.

Even so, why was it such a short walk from a mis-applied "historic" to a curfew & the shutdown of the MTA? The subway shutdown was ordered by Gov. Cuomo. Gee, New Yorkers used to be made of sterner stuff. We were known for it. What has happened to us?

The Roman Side
Count me as one of the many who did not understand the #Juno hashtag attached to #Bizzardof2015. Wasn't that a movie with Ellen Page? What is going on.

Thank you uproxx for explaining it:
The Weather Channel named the storm Juno, by themselves, with "no preexisting agreement between the various weather organizations to (or not to) name winter storms."

Do we need to try to name everything in nature we want to control?  Or is this part of a brand-crazed culture.

There was some more helpful background in the Lowell Sun.
"It came from a list that high schoolers in Montana created."

Of course it did.

"The Latin class at Bozeman High School generated a list of storm names for the 2014-2015 winter season, used by The Weather Channel to name particularly notable storms."

The Punishment?

Good-willed New Yorkers, trapped at home, subjected to hours of Don Lemon in the #Blizzardmobile, who insisted after every commercial for hours on end that he had "breaking news." Oh my God. Sure we changed the channel or turned off the TV entirely, but that didn't change the fact that he was out there . . . saying these inane things.

And the predictable egg-on-face for all the authorities as the flurries failed to fall in Gotham, while we were under a siege-like lock down. 

To our Eastern Seaboard neighbors who are actually dealing with significant snowfall, may the gods smile upon you and clear your way quickly.

And may these same elements of a perfect storm never come together in this way again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Extreme Intimacy of Penmanship: National Handwriting Day

Dad's handwriting
Yesterday was National Handwriting Day.  How did I not know this? I love everything about it.

It was declared waaay back in 1977 by WIMA, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, to "celebrate the lost art of penmanship."  So it has nothing to do with computers replacing handwriting. They were worried about typewriters replacing pen to paper. Imagine that.

They chose January 23 because it is John Hancock's birthday. A lovely touch.

Twitter did it proud with #NationalHandwritingDay and people posting photos of personal notes; of writing favorite poems/passages to take a picture to post for the day; and of posting examples of famous writers handwriting. It is wonderful hashtag to peruse.


Mom's handwriting
The Extreme Intimacy of Handwriting

If we count the modern age of home computers from Apple's 1984, I squeaked in to have the experience of letters from home, and first love letters, that needed to be, well, physical letters.

When I went for a senior year abroad at Southampton University, England,  there were no cell phones or email.  There was only one phone in the whole dorm, at the bottom of the staircase. So contact was by letter, and I have to say my mom & dad, and brother were wonderful and wrote to me almost every week. That's a lot of letters, and I cherish them greatly.

But yesterday's National Handwriting Day reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years: the enormous emotional charge of seeing the handwriting of a loved one.

 It is a  simple visual experience, on the one hand, seeing the ink on the envelope. But it is something of a phenomenon that those particularly shaped letters connect—instantaneously—to your deepest feeling, knowledge, love, of the person who formed them. 

When I was feeling homesick, I only had to pull out a letter from mom or dad, each with their most distinctive penmanship, and the homesickness dispersed. What my mom wrote was important, but it was her handwriting that created the feeling of a hug 3,000 miles away because that visual DNA is only hers, and it brought her into the room along with our bond. This is not so with email.

When the letter is from a lover, that instantaneous recognition/connection for me was literally electric. I felt sparks within my nervous system that I couldn't control, it would sometimes actually take my breath away, because of all that lay beneath those particularly formed letters. (Which is why it did all eventually burn out, like a circuit board.)

All from the Alphabet. Formed. On a Piece of Paper.

It is a very special, magical corner of the human condition that letters on paper can so vividly evoke he who wrote them. And one that our digital generations are missing out on.