Monday, June 25, 2007

The Best of Crane

I'm taking a page from Frasier Crane's book. When he goes away—-or, more usually, when he is indisposed—-Roz tells him "Go, go, I'll put on the best of Crane."

My producer is telling me the same. I'll be away for a few weeks, and Steed is off visiting one of his Aunties, so I'm pulling out some of my favorite posts that you might have missed.

I also heartily suggest you pop over to newcritics for ever-changing fabulous posts, and click your way through The Neighbors at the lower right.

I will miss you, and this strange, wonderful place that is the blog page.

From the Archives:

Carly Simon and Thomas Tallis: O Jerusalem--where The West Wing meets the Lamentations of Tallis via Carly Simon

Miami Vice and the 3:00 a.m. Soul--the soothing presence of Crockett and Tubbs

The Unfinished Epic of Peter O'Toole--my favorite actor

Travels with Cadfael: D.H. Lawrence Come Aboard--the monk and I have a surprise visitor in Volterra

Travels with Cadfael: The Songs of Elba--the monk and I have an unexpected 9/11 moment on Napolean's isle of exile

Schooner Girl--youthful adventures, just like Conrad's Youth

Thomas Hardy and the Titanic--Poetry helps make sense of going down for the third time

Sopranos Watch: This Thing of Ours--I came out quickly in support of the "Tony is dead" team.

The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse--Steed and Mrs. Peel in a not-to-be missed promo

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Welcoming the Long, Hot, Summer

The peerless Ada Louise Huxtable captures my feeling about summer:

Summer is the time when one sheds one's tensions with one's clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all's right with the world.

Summer is a state of mind. It’s the living definition of sultry. It’s carrying A Sun Also Rises around in your head and keeping Pimm's Cup at the ready for guests at all times. It’s daring sundresses and city searsucker suits.

And it all arrives at 2:06 p.m. on June 21, the 2007 summer solstice. Photgraph © Andrew Dunn, 21 June 2005.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: A Christmas Tale Begins

Bloomsday—-when Joyce fans the world over celebrate the novel set on June 16, 1904, the first date of the artist as a young man and Nora Barnacle, a personal encounter between man and woman that would change the shape of world literature—-is the day to start to spin the tale of Cadfael’s and my trip to Ireland.

The Christmas tale begins in December 2003. Cadfael had called with the usual “I will meet you anywhere in the world” invitation for during his holiday study break.

It was a call from heaven. I greatly needed be somewhere. On New Year’s Day, The Talented Mr. Ripley (the scary, newly ex) would be walking down the aisle, with his ready-made family, in my own parish. I didn’t want to be anywhere near them.

In all the world, I felt a strong pull to go to Ireland, hoping to be washed in the ancestral warmth and love of the country that specialized in mirth in the midst of heartache. Cadfael agreed. I would fly to Rome on Dec. 23 to meet him, then we would fly to Dublin, then drive cross country to the great city of Galway in Connemara. Each leg of the journey would put space and time between me and Mr. Ripley.

The trip started well. During dinner with a friend in New York before I went to the airport, I was bemoaning how endless the nearly seven hours to Rome feel, and how I never sit next to anyone interesting.

Seat 24 A: “Are you on your way home?”
Seat 24 B: An Italian-inflected “Yes.”


24 A: What do you do in New York?
24 B: I’m a cosmogonist.

And it wasn’t a punchline.

24B was a postdoc at ISCAP, the Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics at Columbia University, codirected by Mr. Elegant Universe, Brian Greene. My own academic brushes with Niels Bohr, Feynman, Millikan came rushing back and we slipped through a worm hole of conversation straight to landing. It turned out that Mr. Cosmogonist—quite the world traveler himself---had known a priest at Kylemore, an ancient Benedictine abbey that was now a school not far from Galway City (I had been there years before), and I said that I would bring a greeting to the priest if he liked. I left the plane with a tiny mission and a sealed envelope when I arrived in Rome.

My first visit to Kylemore was twenty years ago, visiting a college friend who was on a Rotary scholarship to Galway University. I remembered that I bought Seamus Heaney’s collection of poetry,Station Island, in a bookstore in Galway on that trip, and his work started filling my thoughts. Because an Italian cosmologist had brought up the Irish Benedictine community, Seamus Heaney—-the great Ulster Catholic master of vivid language and the complex ideas of Irish identity between Christian and Celt, modern and ancient, English and Irish—-joined me on my pilgrimage. It was a welcomed presence in my desire to erase a darkness, take a break from a reality I couldn’t change, and fill up a loss with the primal beauty of the Irish West.

And so Cadfael and I found ourselves in the Dublin airport on December 23. Cad is a very skilled driver, but the left road thing made for hilarious, scary moments just getting out of the rental car lot as we adjusted our car routine for different hands. Then it was 3 hours of easy driving to the midnight turn to Christmas Eve Day, with a cinematic soundtrack provided by exquisite radio in Ireland. We switched between soaring classics—Saint Saens Christmas Oratorio, Hodie Christus Natus Est by Palestrina, the Victoria O Magnum Mysterium and the Praetorious In Dulci Jubilo—and Christmas carols from Sting and Stevie Nicks.

That long, straight drive, enveloped in a rich deep darkness, put more and more distance of all kinds between me and New York, and I began to breath. We let the unique quirkiness of the Irish set the trip’s tone: the major artery connecting Dublin to Galway is mostly one lane in each direction. One lane. They are a unique tribe, these Irish.

I finally felt a little safe, sitting next to Cadfael going to the city of Galway, where Nora Barnacle was born and lived until she left to work in a hotel in Dublin before walking into literary history.

Friday, June 15, 2007

QQF File: Norma Jean's Spoonbread

Sometimes you need to take a fresh look at your own neighborhood to see some of the amazing stories and people who are your neighbors. For me, I have recently learned about the talents of Norma Jean Darden, an ex Wilhemina model who owns Spoonbread Too, a restaurant of Southern cooking on the Upper Upper West Side. The story goes that a Vogue editor suggested she write a cookbook of recipes from her childhood. It was first published in 1979 and reissued in a 25th anniversary edition:

"This 25th Anniversary Edition of SPOONBREAD AND STRAWBERRY WINE, is much more than another cook-book of Southern cuisine. It is a tribute to a one-of-a-kind family, told through soul-satisfying memories and recipes; a classic collection of home cooking, remedies and reminiscences. The inspiration for this book evolved from a family history project by sisters Norma Jean and Carole in the late 1970s. After extensive travel they had uncovered rare photographs and forgotten rituals of their family's rich African American heritage, which they used to embellish the recipes. With warmth and animation the sisters introduce the pioneers who inspired this book and their lives."

From the RAWSistaz review.

Norma then opened Aunt Mamie's on 110th Street, and later Aunt Maude's on Lexington. She helped me with a recent party, and her food was quite, quite fantastic. I'm going to get the cookbook now, which has seriously rave user reviews on Amazon, and see if I can bring some of her dishes to life myself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sopranos Watch: This Thing of Ours

"You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey."

"Hmph. That’s nice."

Gandolfini is at his hulking, ominous best in the penultimate scene of the series finale, when Tony goes to see Junior in the state facility. He’s trying to see to things—to make sure Junior’s stash goes where it “should,” to Bobby’s children (and we don’t mean the guy from the Ambassador Hotel)—and he tries to jog his uncle’s memory about “this thing of ours,” which leads to Junior’s dismissive “that’s nice.”

From there, Tony walks into the most innovative final scene in tv history. It combines breath-holding suspense, visual wit, cinematic allusions, and a nod toward the technology that makes it all possible. David Chase, on the other hand, beat by beat, frame by frame entered a zone of persona non grata for a good deal of his audience.

The big issue here has to do with the implicit social contract between the creator and the consumer of art, and how we both feel about this thing of ours.

The phenomenon of the reaction to the series finale—115 pages on Television without Pity in one day, much of it shrieks of disappointment and charges of foul play and more vivid images—is a testament to the sheer creativity of the series. Chase breathed life into the characters for 7 years and spun out the tale that he wanted to tell. It happened that the tale captivated legions from many angles: action junkies followed for the bloodletting; mob fans liked the intrigue; ex- English majors liked the lyrical flourishes; everybody could get caught up in the family relationships.

It also happened that Chase is deeply adept at using pop cultural references throughout his work: the music, the movies and tv on the tv, the visual quotes of great films. This all pulled the legions of fans in deeper. This allowed an attachment by “things we know and love.” You hear an imaginative use of Tinderhooks, and you have a “wow” moment in your head, because they are your favorite band. You know the lyrics to an obscure AC/DC song Chase uses, and now that moment become very personal for you.

That’s how over time, the ritual of the Sunday evening watching became very a special experience for the legion, and The Sopranos became “this thing of ours”—Chase's and mine. I (as surrogate for the many) began to feel that my participation in receiving Chase’s tale was equal to his creating it. He was lucky to have such a knowing partner. The whole process was a living form of Reader Response Criticism. When is Stanley Fish going give his take on the ending???

Except for the practicality of the business of creating television, I think that Chase would have told his tale even if there had been only 1 very wealthy patron who had paid him to tell it. I don’t believe he owed anything to we readers, no matter what our expectations were. I don’t think Chase owed anything to the conventions of narrative—he used the semiotics of storytelling in a highly imaginative way throughout the series. Why should he follow rules for the last hour?

From one angle, you could say that Chase pulled the plug on his creation—beautifully simulating the cable going out to a collective gasp across the country—doing to his tale what his audience had the power to do to him, each and every week: simply turn him off. It’s the kind of power that a creator might grow to resent. And a man as clever as Chase may not be able to resist the opportunity that allowed him to turn the tables.

On the other hand, the entire “Made in America” is a work of beauty. From the bright whiteness of Tony waking up to Jim Kerr and the morning show, to the snow swirling around the airport meet with Agent Harris, and the poignant shot of the 2 chairs in front of Satriale’s with Paulie sunning himself—this is not the product of disrespect from the creator toward his created nor toward his audience.

And it resolves the core family’s lines: Med is on her way to being Consigliari; AJ is settling into a combination of Christopher and Tony; Carm is continuing with her spec houses; and Tony has triumphed over New York. [The resolution is so fast and tidy—if sad that what’s left of the Family way of life is going to continue in the next generation—that one theory floating around is that it’s a dream sequence from the end of The Blue Comet, when Tony lies down in a cold, blue room with his assault weapon, completely under siege. ]

The Bell Tolls for Tony, Absolutely
And that brings us back to Holsten’s diner, a throwback to the seventies by way of the eighties. Here Chase paints a tantalizing canvas of unsettled disjunction. Tony enters, surveys the tables, and the next cut shows him sitting in a booth. [Some have suggested that that cut switches the POV to Tony himself, setting up that the screen goes black when Tony dies. More about that in a minute.]

Sitting there while each character enters, he isn’t brooding—he doesn’t seem depressed, even as he tells Carmela about the indictments. When AJ comes, he flings a spitball at him. It’s a light side of Tony we didn’t often see. They all pop onion rings, perfect little ciphers or great big ZEROS. Now there's a harsh visual comment from Chase.

The scene builds, the bell rings as each person comes through the door, tolling for thee, when Chase shatters convention—and apparently his relationship with much of the legion—by going to black before the end of the visual sentence.

I’m in the “Tony is dead” camp. The “Tony will always be looking over his shoulder camp” just isn’t interesting enough to me. And like other great characters in the pantheon—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, (dare we think Harry Potter)—their creators had a need to put them to rest, I think in order to put to rest their own demanding relationships with them. (It’s possible Chase learned something from Conan Doyle, who had tired of Sherlock and killed him in The Final Problem, and then had to find a way to bring him back when the outcry was overwhelming and he needed money.)

Alan Sepinwall has an exclusive, day-after interview with Chase:

"I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there," he says of the final scene.

"No one was trying to be audacious, honest to god," he adds. "We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people's minds, or thinking, 'Wow, this'll (tick) them off.' People get the impression that you're trying to (mess) with them and it's not true. You're trying to entertain them."

I believe Chase. (And admire his loyal to his hometown Jersey paper.)

As I said, I think the cues in that last scene set up Tony’s death. If they don’t, Tony may get the last laugh. When you leave a creation as vivid and real as Tony Soprano “out there,” you do it at your own risk. Surely Chase is familiar with that other Italian dramatist, named Pirandello. . . .

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sopranos Watch: "Everybody's Out on the Run Tonight But There's No Place Left to Hide"

The endings of some tv shows are clear. Rachel and Ross just had to end up together, so did Carrie and Mr. Big. Magnum returning to the Navy felt just right, as did Crockett and Tubbs headed toward the Keys for “a career in Southern law enforcement,” together. The Buffy team driving out of town on a Mrs. Frizzle school bus left me cold, but Angel and his team heading out to do a final battle was just right.

The Sopranos is more complex, and therefore more maddening.

Here are some thoughts about the ending (let’s not call them predictions) before the final hour strikes:

•The episode title is “Made in America”: As someone posted somewhere (sorry I didn’t capture who/where): it echoes the very first line of The Godfather: “I believe in America,” spoken by Amerigo Bonasera, the Italian immigrant. It is a very fitting tribute ("In the beginning was the Word"--and that word was "Godfather.")

It also echoes being a "made man" in the mob, that you've killed for your team, and the phrase we use on products--both literally, as people often look at lables to "buy American," and figuratively stamped on the pop culture that we export to the world.

But I like it best as a synonym for “Born in the USA”: that stark anthem from the genius from freehold New Jersey (who is a second generation Italian on his mother’s side), that Reagan mistook for pride in this country. Springsteen has deep love for our country, but that song was about the shameful treatment of returning Vietnam vets.

The entire Springsteen catalog captures so much about growing up in Jersey in the shadow of New York, and the deep, driving yearning to make it big. He’s got to be a huge influence on Chase. And I would think he or at least one of his songs would be in the finale. (We know that he’s in the last Studio 60. Now isn't that a strange twist of fate.)

“The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody's out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide”

•One end game theory is that someone, maybe Paulie, is on Phil’s payroll or turns Fed on Tony. Some people think Sil may not be dead. I didn’t think much of that, but on a second watching of "The Blue Comet," several things jumped out:

*Paulie can't reach Sil by phone the night Faux Phil is killed;
*Sil uses the phrase "go underground" and says that's what "they" call it, when he's talking to Tony in the garage, and Tony's ears prick up;
*At the end, Tony tells Paulie that he can't reach anyone at the hospital to get a report on Sil's condition, and Paulie tells him that Sil isn't likely to recover.

Betrayal by a trusted partner is the gravest sin. In Dante’s Inferno, in the very bottom of the 9th circle of hell is a three-faced Satan himself. And in his three hideous mouths are Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.

I think it’s possible that Sil isn’t dead. That he’s made some deal, and that Paulie is part of it.

•I think Tony will come to a violent end. Chase once sited the 1931 Public Enemy as one of his favorite films as a kid. It has one of the most shocking ends in film. James Cagney plays an Irish gangster during Prohibition who starts a gang war and is violently killed. But the shock is when he is delivered to his mother’s door, wrapped up like a mummy, while “I’m forever blowing bubbles” plays on a music box.

That’s as far as I’m going. Que sera, sera.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Time Out, TONY

The only magazines I subscribe to are the New Yorker and the Atlantic monthly, so the thick Time Out New York that showed up in my mailbox was easy to spot.

It was also a surprise because I didn't order it. I called the subscription line, and they said I was not in their system. And yet, I insisted, I have a copy with a traditional label on the cover. And they insisted I wasn't in their system, I didn't really exist to them, and wouldn't be charged. There's no arguing with publisher's subscription services.

It's now the third week of getting TONY, and so I accept it--since I'm not in their computer, there's no way to stop it anyway. Maybe like a cold, it comes out of nowhere, runs its course, and then disappears again.

I'm not a fan of the magazine. It's a great resource, but on a weekly basis it's exhausting to even glance at 184 pages of 'things to do and know about.' I will not get psyched out that I've never heard of the band at the Mercury Lounge--maybe when I was 20 that would have worried me, but no longer.

I took the What's Your New York Age? quiz on the cover, and it set my clock back 15 years. Is that good? The young air-brushed woman on the cover is "76" in New York years. Does that make her happy? The Cosmo quizzes are much easier to interpret.

The one nice thing about this weekly gift horse is that I will turn to Gia Kourlas's dance feature. I like her writing a lot. So much so, that I hired her for one of her early-career editing jobs at The Museum of Broadcasting. Many years later, she reviewed a book by Lynn Messina, called Fashionista, for TONY, and she gave it a favorable review. I had also hired Lynn, years after Gia, for the same position, in what was then The Museum of Television & Radio. I had never mentioned either to the other. Now that was a very New York moment.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Sopranos Watch: Tony, Meet Danny Ocean

The television has recently been awash with the Ocean’s series, from the network premiere of Ocean’s 12 on CBS, to the 1960 Ocean’s 11 on AMC, and the 2001 on TBS, all leading up to June 8’s release of Ocean’s 13, which happens to be right between the last two Sopranos episodes.

This recent ubiquity of the Ocean crew on the plasma offers an interesting contrast to the end of our serialized Mob drama.

The two fictional universes have points of overlap: Danny and his crew, not Mafia nor killers of any sort, are worldclass thieves. Stealing is part of the Soprano universe, even if it is the more pedestrian boosting of tools coming up from Florida or cases of wine.

Vegas/Atlantic City is another intersection point. The Mob has interests in both gaming capitals, and Danny and crew, of course, focused a lot of creative energy on stealing from Vegas bigtime, both in 1960 and 2001.

From this fictional overlap, there is a subtle connection from reality: Sinatra, the boy from Jersey with his own ties to the Mob.