Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In the Bleak MidPinter & Rossetti's Poem

The Homecoming changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just the vessles of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken.

John Lahr, The New Yorker

But like most great art The Homecoming operates on a mythic as well as an immediate level. It insists that some shadowy part of you is part of it. It burrows under your skin and festers.

Mr. Pinter, you see, knows where you live.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times


Then he knows I live about 60 blocks away from the current Broadway revival. Lahr and Brantley’s writing about this happening homecoming was so compelling that I bought myself a ticket to the Boxing Day matinee.

It was not a life-changing experience, but I am very happy to have seen Ian McShane onstage. He is a solid, self aware actor. He knows where to locate, where to center his character, and that makes him a compelling artist to watch. I am a huge Deadwood fan, and loved the perfect match-up of Swearengen and McShane. He certainly calls on some of the territory he explored through Al in his portrayal of Max, his much less successful Brit cousin.

Brantley has a very clear review of the revival here.

I do not know Pinter’s works, so let me offer a fresh, nonacademic perspective. The story in a nutshell is this: an English philosophy professor working in the US brings his English wife to London to visit his family, whom she has never met, and she decides to stay there, as wife, mother, and whore to his 2 brothers and father. In generous terms, it’s an updating with sly twists on a Levirate marriage, if we want to throw some Old Testament its way; well, the wife is named Ruth.

Max, the patriarch, has three grown sons, whom we’ll call Hewy, Dewy, and Louie—-taking our cue from Pinter’s playful nature—-and a brother, Uncle Donald, of course.

When we first meet Professor Hewy and his wife Ruth, she is a bit catatonic. When they run into brother Louie, she wakes up and starts to flirt with him when Hewy has gone up to bed. Shades of things to come.

When Max first meets Ruth, he’s abusive, relentlessly calling her a whore, a scrubber. Hewy stands up for her, finally convincing the family that she is his WIFE, the mother of their three children. Oh. Then. All is sanctioned, all is well.

Until . . . Ruth alludes to her life before her marriage, before she met Hewy and had her children. She tells Louie she had been a model-—no, not of hats.

It’s a quick, slippery slope to her making out on the couch with Dewy, while Max, Uncle Donald, Hewy and Louie look on. Hewy is now the catatonic one, glued to his chair. Stage to black. When we come back, Hewy is still in that chair, Dewy comes downstairs—he’s been upstairs with Ruth for two hours,

When she comes down, Max and the boys have hatched a plot to ask her to stay with them, rather than returning with her husband to their children. She’ll have to pull her own financial weight; no problem, Louie is a pimp and he can get her work for four hours a night for bread and milk money. That way she’d have her days free to service them, and cook, and clean.

Ruth decides to stay—-she negotiates terms she wants. Hewy says goodbye, he can manage their kids as Ruth takes her place in Max’s chair, now the center of this London family.

It’s a funny play, in a discomfiting way. Ruth enters this house of losers, and decides she can be queen. Anything to save her from the life of an academician’s wife. That is pretty funny.

But it’s also bleak, that marriage could be so repressive that a woman would walk away from her family so easily and into such a bizarre situation.

There are hints that it’s the mendacity of our lives that causes such psychic damage to relationships. Uncle Donald reveals a secret, that Max’s wife and best friend were lovers before they died.

Besides the hints that Ruth’s pre-marriage life was promiscuous, I think there are hints that Hewy isn’t really a professor of philosophy. In Act 2 brother Louie starts teasing/grilling him with some psycho-babble questions about the nature of reality and the logic of Christians tenets. Hewy isn’t able to retort at all. He keeps saying something like “that’s not my province.” If he had Ph.d in philosophy, he would at least be able to psycho-babble back in kind. And there are people who think Hewy and Ruth may not be married, because Hewy restates it SO many times.

One reading of this little tale is that the lies need to be exposed in order for the characters to start to return to health. Hence Ruth “wakes up” and takes control when her true nature is uncovered. (Keeping in mind that that "true nature" is Pinter's fantasy.)

This made me think of Dennis Potter, a challenging playwright whose work I do know. He took this idea to a further extreme in his 1976 Brimstone and Treacle. Pattie, who is brain damaged in a car accident, is brought back to consciousness when she’s raped by Martin Taylor, the young man whom her parents let into the house. Martin is likely Satan, the Devil incarnate, and so we see that evil is conjured by all the lying surrounding Pattie’s accident, including her father’s adultery.

Pinter doesn’t have that sense of evil in his house. It’s just Max and the ducklings being clods, as my grandmother might have called them. The story is told with remarkable economy of line, both verbal and visual. It is a good night at the theater.

And the Original Rossetti Poem to Song

English carol singing was much enriched in 1906 when Gustav Holst set a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti to music. In 1909 Harold Darke reset it as a more complex anthem, one of the most beautiful of all time.

This arrangement is Bob Chilcott, and sung by my very own choir at Ascension Roman Catholic Church in NYC, under the direction of Preston Smith.


In the bleak mid-winter / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone;/ Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/ Snow on snow, / In the bleak mid-winter / Long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him / Nor earth sustain; / Heaven and earth shall flee away / When He comes to reign: / In the bleak mid-winter / A stable-place sufficed / The Lord God Almighty, / Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim / Worship night and day, / A breastful of milk / And a mangerful of hay; / Enough for Him, whom angels / Fall down before, / The ox and ass and camel / Which adore.
Angels and archangels / May have gathered there, / Cherubim and seraphim / Thronged the air, / But only His mother / In her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss.
What can I give Him, / Poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd / I would bring a lamb, / If I were a wise man / I would do my part, / Yet what I can I give Him, / Give my heart.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Verbum Caro Factum Est

‘Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the blog,
holiday cheer was stirring,
Or was it the nog?

I heartily recommend making this a participatory post: go mix up a batch of nog for yourself. Here is a top recipe. By using Hagen Daz as the base, you don’t have to get all the milk and sugar together yourself.

•Let 1 pint of vanilla Hagen Daz ice cream melt
•beat 6 egg yolks until they are thick and light
•fold the yolks into the liquid ice cream
•slowly pour in 1 cup brandy, until a smooth base results

•let the base rest overnight in the refrigerator

•to serve, stir in 1 cup heavy cream. Garnish with grated nutmeg.

And so we have come to the yearly night of the dear Savior’s birth. Hmm. Nonsequitur? Maybe more Latin will help.

Verbum caro factum est/ The Word was made flesh

Et habitavit in nobis/ And lived with us

et vidimus gloriam ejus/ and we saw his glory,

gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre/ the glory as of the only-begotten by the Father

plenum gratiae et veritatis./ full of grace and truth.


The “holiday season,” whatever that generic, consumer, institutionalized idea is, has a life—-make that an overblown life—-all its own. It builds through shopping days, now beginning back at Halloween, stopping first at Hanukkah. Then on to Santa’s visit and an even more generic idea of the beauty of winter, where snowflakes are the important motif. Then the celebration of the New Year, when we finally get clear of it all.

If, along the way, the "holiday season" encourages someone to actual cheer or kindness or generosity, then it has some meaning.

As a Catholic, I have to say the whole December experience is increasingly dismal. “MACY’S Santaland and the tree at Rockefeller Center notwithstanding, many New Yorkers are not celebrating Christmas,” wrote Seth Kugel in the New York Times. Good grief. I know Santa and big trees are cultural artifacts of Christianity, but they are not the celebration of Christmas, though for some they have become the end unto themselves.

There is a great throw-away line in the Wikipedia entry on Christmas, that it has a “dual status as a religious feast day and a secular holiday of the same name.”

That’s really it. Two very different things that have the same name.

The secular holiday, in my view, has run amok.

The religious feast, which is a solemnity, is still to mark the birth of the Redeemer of the human race who became Man out of love for a suffering people in great darkness.

Happy to report that the nog recipe works for everyone across the holiday spectrum.

For practising Christians, I offer Cantique de Noel, which captures all the hope and potential for life that entered the world in that manger.

Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels' voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night Divine.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.


Friday, December 21, 2007

"Too Many Christmas Trees": An Allegory for Our Times

We have all now heard of the Dad in California who took his 3 kids to find the perfect Christmas tree, got turned around and discovered they were lost. Seriously lost. In peril for their lives lost.

This story is one for the books in so many ways:

“They had left the Paradise Pentecostal Church of God about 2 p.m. Sunday and drove up to the forest with a saw, light clothing and soft sneakers. After searching for an ideal tree and cutting it down, Dominguez said, they headed the wrong way and reached an unfamiliar road. They turned back, but before long Alexis was exhausted, he said. That night, they huddled close under the branch awning." (MercuryNews.com)

So—-they leave church, near the town of Paradise, no less, and on their way home, they almost meet their maker.

“CHP pilot Steve Ward and flight officer David White found the family after spotting the word "help" stomped in the snow, Hagerty said.“

No one believes this when it’s in a movie.

They were in that culvert for THREE NIGHTS. (No Christian symbolism there.) The rescue effort was first hindered by one snowstorm, and the California Highway Patrol was on their last pass of the evening, because of another storm, when they saw the HELP in the snow.

It is a testament to the instinct for survival that they came through this ordeal to enjoy hot chocolate at the hospital.

One side of me likes this comment left by someone on the CBSNew.com site, after a string of mawkish platitudes:

"This stupid futz of a father hauls his innocent children out into the mountains to kill a tree for Baby Jesus. He exposed them to mortal danger for this stupid custom ----- which derives from Germanic paganism.

Good luck, dad, in the ensuing custody battle with your ex.

As far as axing trees ----- how about we DON’T kill something for Jesus?

And, don’t even get me started on Santa."


But there is a point to this tale that haunts me.

The kids had on light sweaters and sneakers because they were just going to make this little pit stop after church, chop down a tree, and be on their way.

They didn’t realize that their reality was changing, imperceptibly, at first. If we were making a movie for Lifetime, this scene would be so easy to shoot: the kids run from one tree to the next: “Oooh, this one,” “No, no, this one” zigzagging to yet a more beautiful pine “Ahh, this” one—-until they turned around, and it was as though the trees, for a sinister purpose all their own, had moved and cut off the path the family had taken. (Hmm, not being able to find the path in the wood. Dante, anyone?)

What changed by tiny degrees was now an almost incomprehensible situation. They went from cutting down a tree to facing the hour of their death. We make assessments all the time about how complex or difficult what we want to do is—-hence the kids stopping by the woods on a snowy evening in sneakers.

Their tale vividly depicts how fragile that fabric of our lives is. Every day our reality can change instantaneously. In our own blog family we were reminded of this when Dennis Perrin’s sister-in-law was murdered in a random act of violence, and Blue Girl’s beloved cousin died. The fact that most days we don’t experience seismic shifts can lull us into complacency.

But seismic shifts don’t only occur around death—-they happen in the office and personal relationships, where one day the imperceptible changes take horrible shape in the form of a divorce or a project that crashes and burns.

We can try to be as alert and self aware and guarded a possible, but sometimes we’re just looking at that next scotch pine, and thinking about where we need to be later, not appreciating that our “later” may be in a very different place than we planned.

Well, Steed and I are planning on watching The Avengers, "Too Many Christmas Trees," one of our very favorite episodes. Right after I just hop down to Gristedes to buy some popcorn. I don’t need a coat, or my purse, I’m just running across the street . . . . .

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"Lyrics I Write of You . . . "


Having a broken ankle has changed my morning routine. The boot is heavy and uncomfortable enough to make the crowded morning subway too difficult to negotiate. When I can build in an hour of travel time, I take 3 buses. Otherwise, I take a taxi. It’s wildly outside of the budget, but I’m not going to Europe in the near future, and so it’s my travel money that I see quickly ticking away on that meter.

I don’t like taxis. Too many drivers aren’t very good at their job, the stop and go traffic is maddening, and I end up at work rattled before the first morning fire.

Then every once in a while . . . .

The other morning I had a lot on my mind. I got into a cab, and the first good sign was that the driver knew that the all-around best way to get from the Upper Upper West Side to dead midtown is to take the South Drive through Central Park. Many drivers think it’s just a scenic route, but the smart ones know it’s the way to go. So when my guy turned left on 100th street to head into the park, I knew I was in good hands.

He had the radio on low, playing some sort of Swing music. It was happy and engrossing, and I asked him to turn it up. The tune filled the cab and was heating up as we merged into the South Drive.

The Northern part of Central Park is very terraced and the road winds into the terrain beautifully. On this overcast December morning, the air looked slightly silvery, with the last of the late autumn gold and russet leaves punctuating the grey scenery as we grooved along.

This guy was a great driver, and I was actually enjoying the whole experience, when the song ended and the next sound was THE downbeat.

There are just a few songs that I can name in one note. “Thunder Road” is one, and Bunny Berigan’s “Can’t Get Started” is another.

The downbeat of "Can’t Get Started" makes my spine tingle. Written by Vernon Duke, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, it belongs to Berigan. I know every note of that piece, every breath place and embellishment of the solo. I love the words; they makes me feel connected to every thought about man/woman there has ever been. I love Berigan’s casual, easy voice; I love his diction.

I've flown around the world in a plane
I've settled revolutions in Spain
And the North Pole I have charted
still I can't get started with you


It makes me think of my father, who first introduced me to the song when I was very little, and who warned me against Sinatra’s updated lyrics.

On the golf course, I'm under par
Metro-Goldwyn have asked me to star
I've got a house, a show place
Still I can't get no place with you

Cause you're so supreme
Lyrics I write of you
I dream, dream day and night of you
and I scheme just for the sight of you
baby what good does it do

I've been consulted by Franklin D
Greta Garbo has had me to tea
Still I'm broken hearted
Cause I can't get started with you

I’m always swept away by the time Berigan starts the last verse runs. And it was no different in this cab, driving through the woods of Central Park in the middle of our neurotic concrete, at the beginning of a day that was going to have a lot of headaches, absolutely none of them important. It was a comforting moment because it was random. I could carry an iPod and program the song for any ride, but I like to let the universe be the cosmic DJ.

Berigan died in 1942 when he was 33 from alcoholism, straight cirrhosis of the liver. That’s a lot of pain. But 65 years later, he’s giving a lift to two New Yorkers just trying to make it through the day. These musicians, man, they are no mere mortals.

Please listen. And enjoy J.B. Handelsman's New Yorker take on the classic.




The West Drive of Central Park at West 70th Street. (Photo: Susan Farley for The New York Times)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not Yet "Time Out" for Brubeck


Dave Brubeck brought jazz back to 52nd street tonight at The Paley Center for Media. He came for an evening to look at how television has captured his work over the last fifty years.

We watched clips from the heyday of live fifties tv, seeing the young, earnest pencil-tied Dave Brubeck Quartet in glorious black and white on the Timex All -Star Jazz Hour and Playboy’s Penthouse, then early sixties grooving on Blue Rondo a la Turk leading to seventies fusion on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, to a recent legends program where he performed with the great Dr. Billy Taylor, who was on the panel tonight too.

The evening was copresented with The Brubeck Institute, started in 2000 at The University of the Pacific to honor its illustrious alumni. They brought the current Brubeck Fellows to perform, five young musicians studying at the Conservatory on full scholarship.

They are deeply talented musicians, with great composure for being 19 or so.

But the thrill of the evening, without a doubt, was Brubeck taking over the piano on Blue Rondo. He is 87 years old—-I thought it was going to be perfunctory, but the piano became an entirely different instrument under his control. Javier Santiago, the young Brubeck Institute Fellow pianist, was great: agile, connected, a talented composer as they played one of his pieces. But once Brubeck was at the keys, Santiago’s playing seemed child-like. Brubeck’s mastery, experience, sheer depth of understanding changed the sound of the piano. It’s an amazing phenomenon to experience, how one instrument can sing so differently for different players.

What was also remarkable about seeing Brubeck is what a grounded human being he is. Somewhat ironic for the genius who lives in the space of odd, unbalanced time signatures. He exudes exuberance. He has been married to the same women for more than 60 years and they have 4 sons. He became a Roman Catholic in 1980, shortly after composing the Mass To Hope. It seems that the dark side of the force that swallowed up the genius of so many of his fellow greats didn’t touch him.

So the Devil can’t count in 5/4 or 9/8. Good to know.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The House that M.A. Built


It is one year ago today that I staked my own little claim here in the blogsphere and joined the conversation. I always wanted a vacation home--this space may be the closest I ever get. Reading blogs is a vacation of sorts into a world of imagination, a sojourn into interesting, fresh, sometimes bizarre sometimes profound ideas. Writing a blog offers a vacation of sorts for the professional writer because there are no editors dictating what, why, or how. Huzzah!

The first blog I started reading was James Wolcott’s--his original from 2004 before he was beamed into the VF mothership in 2006. I don’t remember how I found it, but reading it became, and remains, a daily thing. Wolcott makes me laugh and reduces me to the web incarnation of the girl “penciling the words ´Yes, very true´ into the margin” of his blog. I don’t regress like this for just anyone, ya know.

Through his impeccable judgment I met many of the sphere’s bright lights, including Matt Zoller Seitz and his House crew, Lance Mannion, Tom Watson, Blue Girl, and later all of the newcritics bloggers. The blog landscape is dauntingly immense, and location, location, location still holds. I entered it in the company of these most wonderful neighbors, and that has made all the difference.

As others have said, the “Delete This Blog” button on the backend does sometimes beckon. The empty page can feel bleak and mocking. Blogging is a multilayered relationship—-with the readers who stop by, with bloggers I visit, with my own thoughts in the writing process. In some posts I seem to meet my inner twee self. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, not even mine, but she will not be stifled, and at least on the Net, no one gets hurt.

When it begins to feel entirely for naught, I’ll peek at the site meter and see that people in Sweden and Australia and Texas all visited from searching on Horace’s "eram sum qualis bonae sub cyrene regno" while I was sleeping. They can’t all be college kids looking to lift stuff for a paper. How amazing is this world where people search for the words to Harry Lauder’s “Wee doch ‘n’ doris,” or for the Rupert Brooke lines “Dawn was theirs, and sunset, and the colours of the earth” or for Thomas Hardy's poem about the Titanic, and then they click over for a visit. What they find is probably not always what they were expecting, but that's part of the beauty of blog reading.

So I’ve signed a lease for another year. Que sera, sera. Thanks very much to everyone who has stopped by and made it all worthwhile. In the spirit of my blogaversary, may I recommend The Avengers 1966 season’s “The House that Jack Built” to you. It is one very cool episode.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Thanksgiving Story, or Steed's Shaggy Fish Tale

My crew

As is true for many of the great pairings—Crockett & Tubbs, Watson & Holmes, Mulder & Scully—Steed and I do not tell each other everything. It’s better that way; it keeps lines defined. This had the most charming consequence on Thanksgiving Day some years ago.

The Set-up

In 2003 (and again in 2004), through a friend of a friend, I was a Balloonatic-—that’s a balloon-handler in the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade--a fact I did not share with Steed.

On Thanksgiving morning, I duly reported to the New Yorker Hotel at 5:30 a.m. to find fellow Balloonatics wrapped around the block several rows deep. The spirit is festive, even in the predawn, cold, pitch darkness. Like something out of a Powell-Pressburger sequence (think A Matter of Life or Death), we are sorted at the door by balloon, and sent to a particular room on one of the lower floors.


My balloon is one of the vintage, midsized ones, called The Fish, not one of the jumbo sponsored ones. There are racks and racks of jumpsuits, each with a name of a handler. Once you have enrobed, you head out to the buses waiting outside to hustle the teams up to the Museum of Natural History, where the balloons are quietly waiting. It is brilliantly organized.

The bus ride is a riot, jammed packed with rows of color-coded people and stragglers who have clearly lost their own regiments. Up on Central Park West we file out and then walk past the police barricades on 79 and 81 street. The whole day is about walking where “civilians” cannot go—-it’s one of the great cheap thrills for a New Yorker.

In the darkness, the balloons look like menacing animals that have been captured and tethered in the nick of time before destroying the village. It's actually very creepy. Then slowly the rising sun over Central Park changes the whole character of the scene, and the balloons no longer look dangerous, but are bright and cheery.

Waiting to join the line of march at 79th & CPW
We find the Fish, nestled in between Where the Wild Things Are and Super Grover. The whole block is slowly coming to life: the professional balloon people come and take off the netting holding things down, and the lines have been left a little slack, so that the Fish floats a bit up into the air. I did not go to the practice session at the Meadowlands, so this is my first experience of picking up the “bone,” the ingeniously simple cross piece with all the line wrapped around it. You circle it toward you to pull in the line, and away from you to let it out.

Out on Central Park West the bands and floats are amassing by the thousands. We hear the announcer officially open the parade and then welcome each participant as they step on to CPW, “Barney-—Welcome to the 2003 Macy*s Thanksgiving Parade,” to thunderous applause. Even to a seasoned New Yorker the parade from the inside seems very magical, if a little surreal.

Finally we get the “lines up” from the captain, and off we go. Up, up, up, we let the lines go higher and higher, and then turn on to CPW. It is a gorgeous, warm November morning. There is very little wind, and the balloon is holding beautifully.

We are directly behind a troupe of antebellum Southern Belles in pastel period costumes with parasols, who drop into a deep courtesy every once in a while, as their thing. It was a little disconcerting the first time they fell, looking like a “phasers on broad stun” scene from Star Trek. I happened to take their picture up on Central Park West as we were waiting to join the line of parade. More about that later!

"A Margaret Mitchell nightmare in pastel"

Going through Columbus Circle is really exciting—then the actual canyon of Broadway, to our 15 seconds in the spotlight in Herald Square. [Update: the parade no longer takes that route, no longer snakes through Columbus Circle, I am sad to say.]

We turn on to 34th street, where Macy*s families are in the bleachers. We turn on to Seventh Avenue, and that’s where we start to pull in the lines, and bring the Fish to the ground. Once it’s in arm’s reach, you have to look for the numerous airlocks that are beneath velcroed flaps, and open them all to let the helium out. It takes some coaxing, but once it’s deflated, we fold it and lift it into a hotel laundry basket on wheels. Then a professional comes and rolls it into a waiting truck, like something in a spy novel. Our duty is done—we go back to the New Yorker Hotel, return the jumpsuit, and join up with family festivities.


My 15 seconds on TV, going through Herald Square

And Now for the Shaggy Fish Tale Part . . .

The next day I had an e-mail from Steed. He had spent Thanksgiving morning at a brunch of a friend whose apartment overlooks CPW.

He said that he had been going to the window off and on, between plates of quiche, when he hung out there for a few minutes, his eye drawn to a “Margaret Mitchell nightmare in pastel,” and then to an old Fish balloon that came behind them, which, because it is smaller, flew most directly at the level of the window he was at.

And he looked down and saw me at the end of one of the lines. “M.A., what were you doing there?” he wrote in his best Patrick Macnee voice.

Honest to God truth. What are the odds? I’d say astronomical. It would have been amazing enough if he had been actively looking out for me, but not to even know I was there . . . . Another minute of getting to the window either way and he’d have missed me. Truly some people are connected, in very special ways, for life.

Best wishes to all for a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore' Blues

It was only a really long seven weeks ago that I became the poster child for “No Running in the Subway.”

The good news is that the ankle fractures do not require surgery. The bad news is these fractures can’t be helped by surgery. And so I have entered the tedious land of PT—-where progress is measured in the centimeters the edema needs to resolve to ever get my foot into a shoe and by the tiny triumphs of even tinnier ankle circles.

I did get out to see Angela Lansbury at The Paley Center for Media on Wednesday. What a talented, talented woman. We know the film career--debuting in Gaslight, Oscar nod the next year for The Picture of Dorian Gray, her chilling evil in The Manchurian Candidate, and my favorite, Kay Thorndyke in State of the Union; and the musical talents--Sweeney Todd, Mame; and the iconic, comfort food TV of Jessica Fletcher; but it was her dancing that surprised me. There were clips of her performing “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at the 1968 Academy Awards, and she had legs to rival Cyd Charisse with moves to match. She was gracious and witty, and genuine. It was a thrill to be in the same room with her.

The other cinematic thrills have come through the plasma screen.

I saw Notorious, my favorite Hitchcock, for the sixth or seventh time. It is one of the sexiest films of all time, filled with real heat between Ingrid and Cary. The famous extended kissing phone scene when they are first in Rio—the sad, pitch perfect “Did you stand up for me—did you tell them I’m not that kind of woman?” and “If only you had believed in me.” I love the gorgeous tight shots when Grant finds and rescues the poisoned Bergman. It is a perfect tale of man, woman, intrigue. On this viewing I was tickled to see that a carpet I just bought for my living room mirrors the black and white floor of Alex’s mansion-—apparently I like everything about that flick.


The X-Files. I was an original fan who left after season 4. I caught season 6 a few years ago on TNT—it’s the Moonlighting season, with mostly stand alone episodes of Mulder and Scully being David and Maddie, which original fans who had hung on hated.

Sci Fi just ran one of the best eps, “The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas”—-Chris Carter’s own mash of Halloween and Holly Jolly. It starts with Mulder waiting in a car with the radio playing Bing Crosby’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Wow. Carter chose Bing’s over the standard Judy Garland. Steed suggested it was just cheaper to license. I doubt Carter had such a restraint—he chose Crosby. That’s a huge endorsement for we poor Crosby fans.

The episode features great guest stars Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin as two dead lovers who try to lure other couples into a murder/suicide pact. It plays beautifully on themes of despair and how hard it is for some people to connect. Carter wrote the episode, and there are many satisfying digs at the series conventions, including Mulder’s first set-up narrative to Scully that rivals “it was a dark and stormy night” for bad writing.

And I’ve started to look forward to a weekly dose of Damian Lewis in Life. I first saw him in last year’s rebroadcast of the 2002 Masterpiece Theatre Forsyte Saga. His Soames was utterly poignant and repulsive. I didn’t see Band of Brothers, but in a PBS interview, he talks about these two characters:

“I guess I'm just good at playing repressed individuals. I'm lucky because those are often the roles that catch people's eyes. It's the Steve McQueen element, all that bubbling energy bottled up inside. It's a very compelling quality on the screen.”

That trapped bubbly energy in Life is seismic anger at being set up and put away in prison for 12 years. Lewis’s Charlie Crewes is then given his life back, or what’s left of it. He needs to find a way to live again, and puzzle out the who, how, and why that crushed him without mercy. He is channeling a little Steve McQueen sizzle here, bringing a distinct character to the tv landscape.

As engaging as all this is, I’m hoping there’s some RL dancing in my not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Finding the Infinite


There are some images that you see as a child and wonder what it would be like to be there. For me, the Terrace of the Infinite was one of those images. It was so exotic, those ancient Romans perched against the infinite blue of the water and the sky. I had no idea where it actually was. Then one day Cad and I took a road up into the heavens, to the exquisite town of Ravello, and, in the always consulted Lonely Planet guide, I found, to my surprise, where to find the childhood vista.

The terrace is on the grounds of the Villa Cimbrone, that exotic hideaway for Stokowski and Garbo. Friends of Cadfael’s from his language school were camping on the Campania, and so we met up for lunch and to ramble through the gardens and hang out with those ancient Romans. It was infinitely enjoyable.

The next day was our trip to Caserta--to the palace of Naples under the Bourbon Kings Charles, Duke of Parma, and then his son. Ferdinand IV, who ruled the Two Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in the eighteenth century.

Modeled on Versailles, the palace has 1,200 rooms, two-dozen state apartments, and a royal theater, as we toured through a never-ending series of room upon room.

But it’s the promenade out to the formal English gardens that put us back into the infinite, with miles of its parallel lines that connect the palace with the gardens. We walked under the hot August sun for what felt an eternity, and still were only in the middle of these parallel lanes.

And so we decided to abandon this endlessness for a very specific kind of Italian infinite—-hospitality. A young Roman friend of Cad’s was visiting his family who lives in Caserta, and he invited us over for lunch. We went from the cold, empty grandeur of the Naplese past to the warmth of a modest middle-class home.

Mother, father, 2 brothers and a sister all came in and out to say hello to the American monk and his New Yorker friend. We ate a perfect meal of spaghetti Bolognese with a Limoncello chaser accompanied by hilarious conversation between Italian and English. We took our leave and went into the city of Naples for the afternoon.

I first heard of the Bay of Naples, in Ireland. In college my backpacker friend Karen and I stopped in the town of Dalkey enroute to Dublin, and there saw a view of the Irish sea that was widely claimed to rival the beauty of the Bay of Naples. And lo so many years later now, I was looking at the original itself. It is stunning, from many angles.

It was time to get back to Amalfi, and that meant driving on some of that extraordinary coast road in the pitch dark. Taking all those hairpin turns in the dark caused a disorienting sensation. The motion of the turns, punctuated by intermittent oncoming headlights, made me feel like we were in a giant pinball machine.

Switchback after switchback upon dizzying turns started to have a hypnotic effect on us both, more problematic for Cad than me. And there was a slightly sickening sensation that a mistake on Cad’s part would put us over the edge and into the final infinite.

But Cadfael’s skill triumphed as usual, and we lived to travel another day.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Remember to Be Funny This Week



Tuesday we start the Comedy Blogathon over at newcritics; I'll probably crosspost the links here.

There are a lot of great posts and surprises planned at newcritics for our Comedy Week, but the blogathon won't be any fun with YOU. Yes, YOU. Don't make everyone else do all the heavy lifting. Look in your archive, or write something new, but don't forget to jump on in.

The topic again is to contribute the funniest moment--the purest comedic moment-- you have ever experienced: it might be in a film, or a book, or on a date, etc.

You post on your on site, saying it's in participation of the newcritics Comedy blogathon, and send the permalink to me at josquin21@aol.com.

Ah, and you Brits--you are darn funny people. I think the US/GB relations could use a cross-blog action here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Suprise Saints of My Generation: The Who


When I was a kid it confused and bothered me that All Saints’ Day comes before All Souls. I knew that Halloween was the vigil of a commemoration of the dead, and I didn’t understand how it could leap over this Saints thing.

Then it became more clear that the “hallowed” of all Hallows Eve means holy or sacred, and that the ordinary people had to wait one more day for their do. Fine. That makes it doubly fitting to talk about The Who on All Saints' Day—-they are many things, and ordinary isn’t one of them.

I had the thrill of seeing the premiere of the new biodoc about them, Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, at the Paley Center for Media on Tuesday night, as part of their annual documentary festival. Besides the film itself, the thrill was having Roger Daltrey and Chris Stamp, their co-manager until 1973, in the audience.

It is an engaging, satisfying documentary. The story threads of the individuals are strong and easy to follow, and there’s enough performance footage to balance the talking heads. Luckily, the main talking heads are Daltrey, Townshend, and Stamp, so your attention does not drift. The filmmakers—-a team of Nigel Sinclair (No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) and Robert Rosenberg, executive producer Bill Curbishley, and directors Paul Crowder (Once In a Lifetime) and Murray Lerner—-have found amazing footage of the band when they were the High Numbers, among other rarities.

There are many highlights, but the absolute standout moment is the footage of the group performing at the Concert for New York in Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001.

I had not seen that concert on tv, so it was a fresh, immediate experience for me here. The defiant downbeat to the unmistakable undulating A and D chords. Sublime tension drawn out . . . drawn out . . . drawn out, until the next merciful, scalding downbeat release:

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Said our judgments were all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Townshend is on fire, Entwistle is planted firm, and Daltrey’s voice is strong, certain

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray

WE DON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN

The primal scream, now taking on meaning informed by the murder of 3,000 people.

The theater-sized screen, the souped-up sound system, the sheer power and brilliance of that performance: the Paley Center crowd broke into applause as the last chord rang out, even jaded first-nighters roused by reliving this painful, extraordinary moment in time. The filmmakers seemed to know instinctively to let this performance footage be the longest in the whole film.

In the panel discussion afterward, Daltrey said that it was Pete who decided that they would do rock ‘n’ roll, that others might be doing more gentle, “healing” songs, but he wanted to rock the place down.

And that’s why they are in my thoughts this sainted day, as the Church encourages acknowledging the saints we know in our daily lives outside of the litany.

Townshend & co. offered back to a shattered, grieving, stunned city the comfort of certainty. His music is in the DNA of at least 2 generations. The angst, the longing in his chords—the anger, the rebellion, the exuberance: THIS IS WHO WE FUCKING ARE. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll—it’s part of life. And a particularly American life.

We had just been attacked, in part, because of those values. Because a fundamentalist viewpoint sees the decadent West that must be destroyed.

But Pete, and Roger, and John pushed back as only they could and said NO. You can’t kill us---we will go on stronger, and longer, and louder. And we were all raised up then, and now in the rewatching, by the blistering, insistent, inspired performance of their anthem. Deo Gratia.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Steve Martin Comes On Board


Well, not knowingly. But the gang at newcritics is running this comedy blog-a-thon , Nov. 6 to 11, during an all-comedy posts week, and Steve is kindly coming out with his memoir next month, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, which is excerpted in the Oct. 29 New Yorker. Is newcritics a thought leader or what?

Here’s more info about the call for the blog-a-thon posts: “Tell us the purest comedic experience you have ever had.” Post your piece to your own site, but send me the permalink at josquin21@aol.com, between November 6 and 11, (which we picked to coincide with the New York Comedy Festival.) I’ll then post all the links at newcritics, with a little commentary.

In the New Yorker excerpt, Steve Martin talks about his earliest days of performing, circa 1965, which has a nice parallel to blogging:

“Standup comedy felt like an open door. It was possible to assemble a few minutes of material and be onstage that week, as opposed to standing in line in the mysterious world of Hollywood, getting no response, no phone calls returned, and no opportunity to perform.”

Martin got out there and did comedy. We bloggers get out there and write. If we waited for Old Media to read and pass on traditional manuscripts, we wouldn’t be the active writers that we are.

And so I hope many of you will contribute to our comedy blog-a-thon. Talented, funny, enigmatic Blue Girl has created these fabulous visuals to inspire and entertain us. So all you lurkers, step up to the plate.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Yearly Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I have a certain day in common, which happens to be this day. And so I have a yearly excuse to revisit some of those couplets that generations have embraced in to our living language:


It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me ?'
****
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
****
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone : and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn :
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

////////////


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
******
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,


His was a deeply literary and intellectual life that didn’t miss much, from agonizing unrequited love of Sara Hutchinson, fulfilling friendships with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, living abroad in Italy and Germany, and an addiction to opium, which fueled some of his dream-like language. He reminds me that we all live in prose--sometimes harsh, sometimes boring--but we can dream and yearn-for in poetry to add dimension to daily life.

Coleridge wrote his epitaph in what would be the last year of his life.

'Stop, Christian Passer-by! - Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he. -
O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise - to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd for praise - to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd, and hoped, through Christ.
Do thou the same!'


Carrie Fisher also shares this day, and Postcards from the Edge works for me too.

Well isn't this a nice cosmic gift: "A junior version of the famous Perseid meteor shower is scheduled to reach its maximum before sunrise on Sunday morning, Oct. 21. This meteor display is known as the Orionids because the meteors seem to fan out from a region to the north of Orion's second brightest star, ruddy Betelgeuse."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mad Men: TV's Own Box of Chocolates

As we bid goodbye to the gang at Sterling Cooper until sometime next summer, this 1994 New Yorker cartoon by Lee Lorenz popped into my head.

In case we have forgotten, Forrest Gump polarized film critics and audiences. As Entertainment Weekly noted in 2004, "Nearly a decade after it earned gazillions and swept the Oscars, Robert Zemeckis' ode to 20th-century America still represents one of cinema's most clearly drawn lines in the sand. One half of folks see it as an artificial piece of pop melodrama, while everyone else raves that it's sweet as a box of chocolates."

Roger Ebert: “What a magical movie.”
‘Dirty Harry,’ Libertas: “. . . . it should be mandatory for any article about lousy Best Picture winners to include the words Forrest and Gump

Mad Men has unassumingly assumed the small screen mantle of such passion. There is no grey area for this world of saturated colors: you either love it or hate it. And that striation, because it is so extreme, is itself something of a phenomenon.

The general critical reception in July for MM was glowing. Then on a weekly basis Alan Sepinwall and Andrew Johnston's "Mad Men Fridays" at the House brought us beautiful, engrossing encomiums, speaking to every character and plot idea. An outsider could only wonder what amazing piece of art could inspire such response.

On the other side were the skeptics, one of whom was Diane Werts of Newsday: “Very little in this critically adored AMC series feels spontaneously genuine. After I ended up in the minority of negative reviewers at the drama's July debut, I figured I'd check back in down the road to see if I was missing something. But as "Mad Men" unreels its sixth episode tonight at 10 on AMC, I'm still left cold by the plethora of precision on parade.”

There are 7 comments to her piece: 4 say MM is absolutely brilliant, “best show on television,” 3 agree that she is “right on the money.”

It’s not that people don’t disagree about other shows, but there is something special, more passionate about the disagreement over this one.

I think it all goes back to the period-piece fantasy at its roots. We are witnessing women struggling to be taken seriously in the work place while men are exercising their primacy and trying to cope with the forces of change around them. How you relate to those themes will play in to how you relate to the series. And the debate between the “I was there, it was nothing/exactly like this” is an interesting subgroup within the camps.

Beyond that, it is the most cinematic, sustainable prime-time hour on the landscape (since Pushing Daisies can’t last). It ably quotes film, and it sometimes finds a lyrical sensibility that actually serves the storyline. I thought not having commercials in the final episode strengthened everything about it.

Now we have ¾ of a year to think about dandy Don Draper, and what—-dare I say like Scarlett O’Hara, who also realized what she wanted just as it walked out the door—-he’s going to do when he gets up off those stairs.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Comedy Blog-a-thon: It's a Little Bit Funny

The world situation is relentlessly grim, the national political scene is discouraging, and the Mets go into the history books as one of the all-time greatest collapses of a team during one season.

To offer some relief from this reality, newcritics is hosting a comedy blog-a-thon November 6 to 11 to coincide with the New York Comedy Festival. We are putting out a call for posts that answer this question:

What is the purest comedic moment you have ever experienced?

This blog-a-thon is designed to cut across blog genres: we hope that you film guys will contribute the great movie moments; the lit crit types might regale us with scenes of Evelyn Waugh or Wodehouse that you find brilliant; you tv addicts will kick in the great small screen nuggets, and so on.

We know that to analyze comedy is to kill it, but this is also a personal question--it's your most satisfying moment of experiencing what we collectively call comedy, but which will have a spectrum from the sardonic to slapstick.

Maybe it was at a standup performance, maybe listening to a comedy album, maybe it was at your best friend's wedding. We look forward to hearing about it. And, like Joel McCrae learned at the end of Sullivan's Travels, you never know when a story you share is going to lighten the day for one of your readers.

Send links to josquin21@aol.com as you publish, Nov. 6 to 11.(Yes, that's me. Even though I don't have a sense of humor, I am running this thing. Irony I like.)

Newcritics will also be posting an array of comedy-centric pieces all that week.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men:
"And you, sir, are no John Galt"

Who is Don Draper, besides being Dick Whitman?

On the one hand he is a self-made man who has ably demonstrated Galt’s creed: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Just ask his half brother, or his poor wife and children.

I was surprised when Ayn Rand was brought into Mad Men via Mr. Cooper. Other than on The Simpsons, she’s not a sixties cultural touchstone that turns up in TV shows the way Kennedy/Nixon, The Apartment, and Maypo might. The fact that this week--in fact I believe it's today--is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged makes it all even more intriguing.

Personally I don’t see Don as a Rand hero at all. For one thing he isn’t good enough at his job. Her heroes are extremely competent to brilliant at what they do, and Don’s creative ideas just aren’t that good. Does anyone remember Bethlehem Steel?

"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." Francisco d'Anconia

What Don is good at is impersonating a life, something Rand would have contempt for. He didn’t earn the Purple Heart, he didn’t marry a soulmate, and he supports the system he works in, even if he is good at manipulating it. He hates Kennedy, maybe because he senses another poseur like himself. As Robert Dallek tells us, Kennedy’s image of youth and health was an illusion: “Films at the Kennedy library . . . . suggest that the variety of ailments Kennedy had struggled with for a long time—spastic colitis, osteoporosis, prostatitis, urethritis, and Addison's disease (a malfunction of the adrenal gland)—may have been the principal contributing factor” for his hands shaking. Very little, we all learned later, was what it seemed in Camelot.

“To me, there's only one form of human depravity--the man without a purpose." Hank Rearden

Draper doesn’t take his responsibilities as husband and father, two honorable roles, as a true purpose. Becoming a partner in an ad agency might be purposeful to him; leaving his family and starting a more sincere life over with Rachel might be a purpose.

At the end of the day, if Don is going to fulfill a TV destiny as a latter-day Rand hero, he must become what he now only pretends to be.

“A is A.” John Galt

Pop over to newcritics tomorrow at 10:00 ET as we watch the all-important penultimate MM episode.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: The Amalfi Coast

“I’m near Salerno—do you want to visit?”

It was a variation on a theme from the last several years. Usually Cadfael said, ”I’ll meet you anywhere in the world.” But this time the destination was predetermined, as though we were Calvinists: the Amalfi Coast.

Cad picked me up at the Naples airport, and we drove the highway to Salerno, then down to the extraordinary coast road back to the actual town of Amalfi. It’s an alpha driver’s highway, where you must hug the ancient hewn, towering granite on the hairpins, as the buses come barreling straight on, all against the startling blue sky and sea.

It felt like we drove forever, looking for the Hotel Luna Convento. Finally we came to its distinct tower that sits on the rock that juts out into the water, seen in many photographs of the area. Built around a convent founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1222, it was a perfect hotel—-white stucco, gorgeous tiled floors, stunning views of the water.

Cad was staying near Salerno, where he was subbing for a priest in a small town. I don’t do well with jet lag, so I took the first day to relax by the pool. In the morning I walked to the dock in town and took the ferry over to Salerno. It’s one of the all-time most beautiful ferry rides there is, as you pull away from the town and can see life miraculously built into the sides of those sheer rocks.

It was charming to see Cad on the other dock, waiting for me. Usually it’s him coming to get me in our travels, and this was a twist in the ritual. Some of the joy of travel with a partner is ritual—his driving, my navigating, reading from literature at times, just being quiet at times. “No, no, they can’t take that away from me . . . “

We visited La Trinite della Cava, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1025. As usual, our private tour took us behind the scenes, and in this case, into the ground. The monastery is enormous, and they were excavating centuries of levels and rooms below it as part of a joint government archaeological project. It was part creepy, part astonishing to descend into the ancient past—-all that physical work to build and create, seeing traces of all those people gone and forgotten, but for the witness of the current people populating the planet, like us,

That night we went to a dream-like restaurant, high in the mountain above the monastery. It was part of a winery, and the tables were outside, under an arbor covered with grape vines. As is often the case in our travels, we were the only nonItalians in the place. The food was light, simple and deeply savory, the wines full and rich, and while this was vacation mode for me, I marveled again, as centuries of people have before me, at the distinct beauty of Italian life. Our senses, so fully engaged, was a powerful contrast to the dust of the day's visit.

I don't know if our lives will leave any discernible mark to be witnessed by the current people 1,000 years from now, but the idea of witness to lives led took on more meaning when we went to Pompeii the next day.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Pequa Boys Rock; Walgreens Scoops Pushing Daisies

Ankle issues have impeded some of my usually scheduled blogging—-it’s that, or when I had my hair cut last week, I, like Samson, lost some of my writing strength.

It was fun to see my hometown’s two comic sons on screen together tonight on 30 Rock. The episode wasn’t fabulous, but it was good. I love the music of the show, from the charmingly frantic, forties chase scene beats of the opening, to the extended big movie vamp music in scenes.

Having Donaghy meltdown in front of Seinfeld wasn’t that good of a premise, but having Baldwin, who went to Berner High School (“the other high school”), cave to Seinfeld, who went to Massapequa High School, was funny to the hometown crowd.

I would like to see the two in another episode together that gave them more to do, and, since this is fantasy, throw in Jack Rudolph. That would be one fine half hour of television.

I haven’t been keeping up with too many of the new crop of shows, but I watched Pushing Daisies.

I enjoyed it. I like an occasional easy sojourn into the fairy tale sensibility and those gorgeous saturated colors are a real kind of eye candy. The writing was engaging and the narration hypnotically melodious.

But I must say that in terms of television, the Walgreens “A Town Called Perfect” commercials got there first (except for the color palette.) Those are only 30 seconds, so I agree with the blogsphere’s skepticism that PD can be sustained.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Rescuers of Every Stripe

So now the tables are turned. You might remember the time Steed was laid up with an injured knee from falling down the stairs. Turned out there had been a trip wire place across the bottom step by a diabolical mastermind, to prevent him from joining me for weekend of bridge with Sir Cavalier Rusticana—- which turned out to be a ghastly setup by that joker, Prendergast.

I helped him by pouring his scotch, and Steed has returned the favor, duly coming by to fluff my pillows, pour some tea, and make sure my cell phone is charged.

A broken ankle is no joke. Leg injuries make it pretty hard to get around, so the world has shrunk to what I can see and do from the couch. I had tickets tonight for the opening of the Miller Theatre season-—oh, you full-ankled friends who are still going, have a great time.

The last two days have been a bit of a blur, as the adrenaline from the fall and break wore off, and duller reality set in. I watched the season premiere of CSI, where Grissom looks for Sara. Then today I fired up the microwave popcorn and watched Disturbia—-the teenage, modern update of Rear Window. It was enjoyable to watch the Scooby team take on the roles of Jeff and Lisa, and then take a turn into Nightmare on Elm Street.

What these two shows have in common is the rescue of someone in danger. Sara freed herself from being pinned under a car in the desert, only to wander under the merciless sun with no water, inching to a painful, certain death. Luckily, Grissom and team do not give up looking for her, and since Jorja Fox isn't leaving the series until midseason, Sara is found. Jeff/Kale’s mother is abducted by scary Perry Mason/David Morse, and Kale does not give up looking for her, as he goes through levels and levels of the Morse’s house of horrors, persistently calling “Mom, Mom.”

There is something cathartic to these standard “reached in the nick of time” endings; that’s why they dominate pop culture. I had my own unexpected rescue, after my equally unexpected smash/fall in the subway system. I’m happy to report that New Yorkers did stop to see if I was all right, and several asked me if they could do something. Someone said there was a police station in the subway and they could go get an officer. As I was trying to collect my wits and hang on to my pocketbook, I remembered that the sister of my longest, dearest friend is the police captain of that station.

When the officers came I kept babbling that I need to speak with Cherished Sister. They were certainly surprised I was asking for their commanding officer, and in such a familiar way. They were very vague, in a protective way, about whether she was there at all. After much effort I made it into the police station, where there was some serious police-business commotion going on, but I was barely taking it in.

As I was looking for my driver’s license for ID, I heard an incredulous “M.A.?” and there was Cherished Sister. And thus was I rescued from so many things-—fear, getting lost in the system, making bad, on-the-spot decisions. God, I love this city.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

L.B. Jefferies Live Blogs Mad Men Tonight

Last Thursday was the great Mad Men fake out, when AMC unnecessarily reran episode 5. So I'm still in the catbird seat over at newcritics tonight at 10:00 p.m. ET.

My intro essay last week (scroll down under the detective teams) referenced Leave Her to Heaven. I'm afraid tonight it is Rear Window--call me Jefferies. I fractured my ankle last night running, then tripping, flying and falling, enroute to the #1 train. I don't have a wheel chair, although that would make things easier.

My wrists are bruised, but not my fingers, and so far, not my sense of humor. See you tonight over at newcritics.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bobby, Alex, Tommy, and Barbara


As a longtime fan of the Mystery! series and the Law & Order franchise, I must report I have detected a striking parallel between beloved police duos on both sides of the Atlantic: Barbara Havers of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries is the British Alex Eames, of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Or another way to look at it, Kathryn Erbe is Sharon Small’s American cousin.

For those who don’t know, Havers is the Detective Sergeant Lewis to DI Thomas Lynley (I assume everyone can navigate from Morse). But more importantly, she has the delicate bone structure, flattish hair, sartorial taste, and strong, quiet delivery of our old friend Eames.

Each woman is the centering partner of the detecting duo (and each has evolved her look over seasons, from short to long hair).

As we know, Eames plays Watson to Goren’s quirky brilliance; with the Brit set, it is more a class balance. Lynley is the 8th Earl of Asherton, and Havers is pure working class. But they easily follow each other’s leaps in intuitive thinking, and that’s what drives the procedural.

Eames and Goren are not personally close, and aren’t drawn to each other romantically, fanfic notwithstanding. There is more personal intersection between Havers and Lynley-—he redecorates her mother’s house after she enters a home so that Barbara can sell it, and although he marries Helen, he keeps being drawn back to Havers in various ways.

We enjoy how Eames keeps pace with Goren, although I wish she were given more than little Orbach-like pun pronouncements. Still, she is a very satisfying foil to the idiosyncratic detective. She can reach him in a place where others can’t—and isn’t that what we love about partners? Police partners have the ultimate work marriage, and episodic television—with its reveal over time like RL and in-our-living-room intimacy—can be a stronger medium for presenting the interplay between two people than film.

Havers is a more rounded character than Eames. For instance, we see both she and Lynley, briefly, struggling to date. She has a reputation for being difficult to get along with, but the fact is she doesn’t want to get along with idiots. Her personal struggles are more visible than Eames, as she swaddles herself in large formless, colorless coats.

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries
are based on the novels of American Elizabeth George—the early seasons were adaptations, then scripts were written for the series straight out. The stories are covering all the English bases: country villages, boarding schools, Parliament, the aristocracy, cool British cars cars. Lynley has not been picked up for a new season, although there is a fan effort afoot to bring it back.



I would love to see a crossover episode where a case brings Eames and Goren to Britannia and into DI Lynley’s juridiction. I think the Erbe/Small scenes would be great television all around, fascinating in the doubleness of it all. The Lynley/Goren interplay could go in many creative directions.

We all know about the great L&O/Homicide crossover episodes, but don’t forget that Columbo got to go to London and meet up with Bernard Fox, Honor Blackman, and Richard Baseheart, so there is a television precedent. Maybe I can find an e-mail address for Dick Wolf somewhere.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men: Madness Directed

Last week’s Mad Men episode began with a sunny shot of Betty in striking sunglasses, and ended with the crazed Bonnie Parker in pink Fredericks of Hollywood out for the 1:00 p.m. kill-the-neighbor’s pigeons session. It felt to many that we had taken a turn into David Lynch territory, because these two scenes had an unreal/hyperreal feel to them with Lynch’s underlying disturbing creepiness.

For me those sunglasses were a visual quote back to the all-time creepiest use of sunglasses in film history, in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). As described in the allmovie guide, “Gene Tierney portrays a beautiful but unstable woman who marries successful novelist Cornel Wilde. “ Swap out novelist to ad man, and we have a match. Tierney becomes so obsessed with her husband that she cannot bear him spending time with anyone but her, including his crippled brother. She lures the boy into the lake to encourage him to swim to get stronger as she spots him from her rowboat. One day she takes him out further and further, then puts on sunglasses and rows away from him as he calls out that he’s getting tired and needs to get back in the boat. The camera focuses on Tierney, expressionless, sitting there in those sunglasses as the boy struggles, and struggles, and drowns.

"It’s deepest noir in the brightest Technicolor"—a description some would apply to suburbia. And it was directed by John M. Stahl, who directed the original Imitation of Life in 1934 with Claudette Colbert and the original Magnificent Obsession in 1935 with Irene Dunne. Thus Stahl begat Sirk who begat Haynes—-with all those permutations of Heaven titles between them.

Matthew Weiner certainly draws upon that body of film work, where the director with his cinematographer is responsible for the creative essence. But in the producer’s medium of television, it's Matt, as creator/producer, who has all the power to get his creative vision on screen. Episodes are parceled out to numerous directors, who work within the established sensibility of the show (and channel David Lynch when necessary).

Mad Men
has an enviable “A” list of directors: Alan Taylor (who just won for The Sopranos “Heidi and Kennedy” episode); Ed Bianchi and Tim Hunter (Homicide, Deadwood); Lesli Glatter (The Closer, West Wing) and the multitalented Paul Feig, who directed “Shoot.” It’s the reason the show is so compelling to watch—-you can virtually feel that talent in the direction.

Update: AMC faked us out and ran a repeat. That's not supposed to happen in a first run series like this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

QQF: Fresh Mint

A nosegay of fresh mint in the fridge is a magical mood lightener. I cannot smell its deeply aromatic leaves without smiling, no matter what has befallen me throughout the day enroute to the evening’s escapade in the kitchen. I find the scent of mint wildly heady—-it is a burst of freshness and hope and LIVING, all within a simple waft of its greenness.

Mint is so beautifully flexible and unfussy to work with. A pair of scissors is all it takes to snip, snip, snip it into salads—-float it in ginger ale for a superb beverage experience—-use it in tacos instead of lettuce, as it positively sings to the accompanying margarita--add it to store-bought tabbouleh for extra snap—-make an elegant omelette with it--all in addition to the de rigueur Mojitos and herbal tea.

What remarkable leaves they are.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Emmys: Our Annual Fear and Loathing in the Living Room

It's not that the Emmy had any actual meaning before yesterday. But there are lines that get crossed, in terms of the world not making sense to me, that frighten me. And James Gandolfini not earning an Emmy for seven years of inspired, thrilling, serious achievement in the art of acting, frightens me.

Overreaction? No. Because it means that the judgment of a group of sentient adults, who supposedly have knowledge about the art of acting, particularly as it relates to television, is seriously impaired, and yet these people vote in national elections, drive on our highways, and raise children. The world is not a safer place with the likes of these Academy members.

That 30 Rock won Best Comedy and The Sopranos won Best Drama restored a little peace of mind to my worldview. And I thought the tribute to The Sopranos was an authentic moment. The images on the screens were well chosen, and the Jersey Boys's songs added a quick, ironic context to the clips. When the whole cast came out and stood in that huge circle in the round, you could sense the enormous, collective talent who now share a very special collective history. They took a bow, under that bold show logo, and it was a very classy piece of television.

Those bright spots notwithstanding, it is beyond embarrassing that the award show honoring excellence in television is such bad television. The show in the round didn’t work for presenters or accepters, the first 45 minutes were a complete jumble, with no coherence—a tribute to Tom Synder popped up out of nowhere—and there were two times what seemed to be a technical difficulty sent the camera off of the main stage, though it might have been the censor, who then must have gone home when Brad Garrett got onstage.

But beyond the sloppiness of this high school production, we had to witness a subsection of the culture wars.

The Family Guy cartoons started off with a song, a cute nod to the Oscars—-but one of the first lines was something about “trash” on tv, with a punchline of sorts that there’s such a broad range of trash. Why does TV have such low self-esteem? This quickly became a self-fulling prophesy by the most narcissistic, unfunny monologue from Ray Romano, well, until Brad Garrett got up. (How much power must Romano still have to be given that spot ?)

Jump cut to the fine actors from Roots, with Lou Gossett, Jr., saying, “I’m moved at what television can do to enrich our lives and educate, and I’m proud to be part of this medium.”

Television is a battlefield of sorts between the crassness of the Romanos and Garretts, and the actual contributions to the viewing lives of audiences from the Robert Duvalls, Helen Mirrens, Stewart/Colbert/Carrells of the world. The two collide each year on the Emmys (with the middle ground fighting to hold its own), and it isn't a pretty sight. I think Hugh Laurie as host would have helped.

Of course, you can always change the channel. But that's not the point. Television's own award show should be a true celebration of the extraordinary work we invite into our living rooms on a daily basis.

I'll be an optimist and say, maybe next year.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

TV Notes

Chuck and Triple Chuck.

The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz likes the name Chuck. He has an NBC pilot called Chuck, and a new series on the CW called The Gossip Girl that has a character named Chuck.

I’ll definitely watch the NBC one, hoping to maybe learn what the hell the "Anvil Chorus" is doing in the promo.

Not to be outdone, the go-to Mozart Requiem "Lacrymosa" is in the Cane promo. Is classical music making a surreptitious comeback on prime-time tv? Can a resurrection of The Bell Telephone Hour be far behind?

Update: its seems that Schwartz was just keying in to something in the zeitgeist--there is a Dane Cook/Jessica Alba flick coming out called Good Luck Chuck. This is a lot of attention on one name in a compressed amount of time. Hmm.

Emmytime

The Emmys are this Sunday. The Sopranos will be together for the very last time. It may be the only reason to tune in.

James Gandolfini had better walk off with that Best Actor statue. As Dennis Leary said at the recent nominee swag party, 'I just think he's the greatest character in the history of television.'' I agree. No other character has been so richly, deeply given life by any other actor, and sustained over time in numerous subtle and larger-than-life ways. What is the Emmy, if not to recognize truly extraordinary work.

Alan Sepinwall has his very funny "I watch the Emmys so you don't have to" line, but hopefully Sunday will be worth watching to see the fitting final closure to the life of Tony Soprano.

The snub to Deadwood, and to Ian McShane's Swearengen in particular (the only character who comes close to Tony Soprano), is one of those things that reinforces how miserable the award process really is. But in a post-lapsarian world, it's not surprising.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Denkkerent

I like to think that I have a good sense of humor, but it rarely manifests as a laugh. I'm trying to lighten up and not be encumbered with phrases like "manifests as a laugh."

But for now, it is rare for me to laugh aloud, particularly when reading something.

And yet, there is this classical pianist named Jeremy Denk, whose writing is so imaginative and strangely witty that I have found myself actually laughing aloud at his blog. It's quite amazing.

It was after being steeped in 9/11 memories and sadness that I read his take on our poor Miss Teen South Carolina, and like at the end of Sullivan's Travels, was reminded that comedy is a great gift to the world:

By now, we are all familiar with the recent performance of Miss Teen South Carolina. (I know what you’re already thinking: “why, Jeremy, why from the shelter of your Upper West Side comfort, hemmed in by prolific ATMs, would you feel the perverse need to pile any more scorn upon this poor girl? Just get a puppy if you need something to do!”)

I think it helps to divorce oneself from the visual component of this event, and focus on the pitiless words themselves:

Q: Recent Polls indicate a 5th of Americans can’t locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?

A: I personally believe that US Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the US should help the US or should help South Africa it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for us.

… and they say poetry is dead! Grammar itself cowers in terror before this free-ranging masterpiece. [snip]

The proper vehicle for addressing this text is musical, not semantic or grammatical (though it refers to the semantic and grammatical in order to create its pseudo-musical paradigms). It begins innocently enough, with seeming Mozartean grace:

Antecedent phrase: I personally believe the US Americans are unable to do so…
(moving from tonic to dominant)

Consequent phrase: because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps.
(dominant back to tonic)



And on Jeremy goes, with such pearls of wisdom as "She has absorbed the lessons of Verlaine, but has transported them to Applebee’s."

His post on airline online checkin issues is equally entertaining.

Pop on over at your own risk. A doctorate in comparative lit and a degree in music will be useful, but isn't necessary. That airline stuff--it's like having Alan King back in his prime.