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

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


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.