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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

James Joyce's "The Dead": a.k.a Have Yourself a Merry "Little Christmas"

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

New York City got its first snow today, calling to mind perhaps the most famous last paragraph in all of literature: James Joyce's "The Dead." How appropriate, on January 6, the day on which the story is set. A post from my archive.

* * * * * *

For many, the Day of "The Dead" is el Dia de los Muertos.

For me, it’s January 6. Little Christmas. Twelfth Night. The Feast of Three Kings, the day to reread and savor the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners and so experience Epiphany in all its meanings.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “manifestation." The feast originated in the Greek Orthodox faith, there called Theophany, and it celebrates when the Christ child’s divinity shone through his humanity, as acknowledged by the Magi’s adoration.

James Joyce is generally credited with the crossover of such a religiously charged word to secular life and literature. A Google search brings this definition: Epiphany in fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth that is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment.

Leave it to the angry Irish Catholic apostate—taught by the Jesuits at Belvedere College, a willing devotee of Aquinas—to be attracted to the Greek-inflected word and the sheer power of an idea manifested into some type of discernible reality.

Joyce explored his own secular theology of epiphany in Stephen Hero—an early sketch for A Portrait of the Artist, which he hoped to publish as a novel that never happened. From that sketch: “By an epiphany he [Stephen Hero] meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation,’ whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

The Little Christmas Party at Aunt Kate's

And so it is with extreme care that Joyce brings us the annual Little Christmas party at Aunt Kate’s Dublin home, where he captures “the most delicate and evanescent of moments” for the ages. The life in the story is deep and textured—-every sense is engaged, history swirls, humor abounds; we are rooted in place and time by specific references and stirred by timeless emotions. You can read the masterpiece here, and Wallace Gray’s notes are an excellent, down-to-earth guide to the references.

There are many epiphanies in this story, and much is made of Gabriel’s decision that “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”—to connect again with his Irish soul and not travel out to Belgium or Germany—in what is one of the most famous last paragraphs in literature.

But the epiphany I cherish most is the underlying one of Gabriel’s realization about his wife Gretta.

Gabriel’s first reaction to Gretta’s mood after hearing The Lass of Aughrim is “He longed to be master of her strange mood.”

He suffers through terrible emotions in their hotel room. His lust for Gretta quickly decays to anger when she mentions the boy in Galway from many years ago:

“While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.”

Oh Gabriel—all that self doubt, all that horrible self criticism because you think that Gretta is comparing you to another. It’s not about YOU. She’s simply filled with a memory of her own past. Please let her have that part of her life, and don’t punish her for it.

And then, Gabriel does just that.

“Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully. . . So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.

“He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

“Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.”

From that realization, Gabriel’s soul is opened, and once that happens, anything is possible.

Joyce leaves us in silver shadows, in the peace of falling snow that unites the living and the dead. Critics disagree as to whether Gabriel is spiritually dead at the end, or if now that he realizes he has never fully lived, something more is possible.

At each year’s reading, I like to think that Garbriel and Gretta go on to happier, more deeply conscious lives with each other. But it remains a serious question: do we ever know even the person who most intimately shares our life?

That reminds me, I'm supposed to meet Steed at a warehouse, something about a dead agent with a pair of stilts. Must run.

[photos from John Huston's excellent film adaptation of The Dead.]

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Evelyn Waugh's Epiphany & "Ellen's Invention"

As Christmastide brings us to Epiphany, we inevitably turn to Evelyn Waugh, that maddening amalgam of irreverence, anger, faith, and generally agreed-upon misanthropy.

I first wrote about Evelyn Waugh's 1950 novel Helena for Epiphany several years ago, before I had read it, because I knew its famous passage about the feast—pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate—through sermons. 

And I knew the novel was historical fiction about he journey of St. Helen (or Helena)--the mother of Constantine, who converted the Roman Empire to the Holy Roman Empire when he himself converted to Christianity--to Syria Palestine in 320 or so to find the True Cross of the crucifixion, which she does from instructions from the Wandering Jew in a dream.

At one point in the novel Helena is at an Epiphany Mass in Bethlehem. She is tired, and as the service goes on and on her mind begins to compose a somewhat mystical dialogue to the Magi (abridged here).

"This is my day, she thought, "and these are my kind."

"Like me," she said to them, "you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.

"How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, where the shepherds had run barefoot!

“How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!"

"You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

"Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life there was room for you too.

"You are my special patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

"For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate."

Such beautiful thoughts about outsiders, late-comers of all kinds, and gifts that may not seem needed but are not turned away because they are brought with love. We should all keep such charity in our hearts all year round.

"Ellen's Invention"

I later stumbled upon the novel in a used book store, and reading the whole story found that it is a highly personal expression of faith of a Catholic believer converted from and living within the Anglican tradition.

The fact that it's from the same biting satirist who brought us Vile Bodies and The Loved Ones makes it more surprising. Just the idea of writing the "story" of Constantine's mother search for the True Cross is intriguing.

Here is how Waugh introduces us to his tale in his Preface:

"It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. 'I got the real low-down at last,' she told her friends. 'The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel 'the Invention of the Cross.'"

It has not been my primary aim to disillusion this famous lady but to retell an old story."

Ellen is the Anglicized Helen. [I was baptized Helen because back in the day you needed a saint's name for the rite.] The allusion that St. Helen/Ellen was "a British woman" is part of a literary tradition (not factual) from 12 century Geoffrey of Monmouth down to G.K. Chesterton that she was a daughter of King Coel, married off to Constantius then having Constantine the Great,  thus giving a British pedigree to the Holy Roman Imperial line!

Like Brideshead Revisited, the novel is a prose poem filled with the most beautiful cadences possible. Wiki quotes Waugh as declaring it "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write," and that daughter Harriet later said, "the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud."

In the course of the novel Helen finds and excavates the chamber where the 3 crosses from Good Friday were stored.

And so Waugh ends his tale in the last chapter entitled "Ellen's Invention," a mocking of the Anglican lady in the Preface who attributed the crucifixion to her:

"Helena's many prayers seem to have received unequal answers. Constantine was at long last baptized and died in the expectation of an immediate, triumphal entry to Paradise. Britain for a time became Christian, and 136 parish churches were dedicated to Helena. The Holy Places have been alternately honoured and desecrated, lost and won, bought and bargained for, throughout the centuries. But the wood has endured. In splinters and shavings gorgeously encased it has travelled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact.

"Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent.

"Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is Hope."