Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Purity. Body. Flavor": The Stuff of a Lifetime

A guy sits down at a bar and says “Oh, I’m so tired from doing all those chores.”

Next barstool says, “What chores?”

First guy, “I’ll take a Ballantine, thanks.”

Did I mention it’s 1953?

Even that detail wouldn’t have helped me get it entirely. This was a little joke my father once told me, and he had to explain it was a play on “What’s yours?” which is a way of saying “What’ll you have?” and that if you ask it in a bar, it means you’re buying the round (unless you’re the bartender.)

[Let’s take a tangent here: Not that I doubted my father, but I had never heard this “What’s yours” in real life anywhere. Then in college I was reading Hemingway’s "The Killers" (written in 1927), and here are the opening lines:

The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They say down at the counter.

“What’s yours?” George asked them.

So Hemingway and Dad were on the same page; that’s an English major’s dream. It was also one of those moments when you are reminded just how much more your parents really do know, especially when you are just 18.]


But back to our bar. This little joke was part of the jocular culture of a neighborhood bar in Richmond Hill, Queens, in the late forties and fifties.

My father walked into The Shelton in Richmond Hill as a young man, and, in a sense, met his life when he met another Irish American habitue named John. They would enjoy a special, deep, lifelong friendship along with John’s own brother Luke. Their personal histories would become part of the larger picture of the forces that built post-war suburbia.

It sounds cliché, but it was all the real thing. They three drank together, laughed together, and dated together. They were each true, devoted, smart baseball fans, with that special edge that comes from being New Yorkers, and they spent many, many happy hours arguing the merits of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Mets (my Dad) over the Yankees (Luke and John).

They married within months of one another, started out in small garden apartments in Brooklyn, then all made the big move to the house on Long Island, mostly fueled by the G.I. bill in one form or another. Soon the three families were growing.

My memories of these two uncles along with the faux cousins are some of the happiest of my childhood. Particularly ringing in more than a decade of successive New Years with 2-day parties that rotated among the three houses.

They faced the trials of life in the knowledge of several certainties, including God, country, and each other. I admired their rooted goodness and decency, and came to understand that their own flavors of quiet desperation were tempered by their commitment to family.

The last of the friends died this week. My father died first when just 57, which was terrible. One of my clearest memories of his wake was how visibly upset my Uncle Luke was. “How could this happen” he cried out with honest abandon in the funeral home.

As the families of Ed, John, and Luke gathered yesterday for Uncle Luke’s funeral Mass, we each had the same visual thought:

They are sitting on the great bar stools in the Shelton in the sky, arguing about the Yankees and Mets. It did not go unnoticed that the first of the day’s Subway matchups, while we were having lunch after the Mass, went to the Mets. What happened in the evening at Shea would be cause for recriminations and another round of celestial Ballantine.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summertime, and the Drinking Is Rum

We have passed through the magical force field of the Solstice, landing straight into summer 2008.

One of the great attributes of the season is the resonance of rum, which captures all the languid heat and dreaming quality of the days.

When James Bond walked into history in Casino Royale he asked for Mount Gay Rum and soda. That says it all.

Mount Gay is sweet and smokey, but not too sweet. It’s a preferred drink of sailors of all stripes, a nod to the beverage that was the backbone of British Navy for centuries.

And now we will consider the Mojito.

For there is also a place in our hearts for light rum
For fresh mint is heady and clarifying
For the sparkling is sparking indeed

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dancing in the Dark, 1921 to 2008


It just so happened that this morning—the day after Cyd Charisse died-—my fabulous neighbors gave Steed and me tickets to tonight’s ABT performance of Sleeping Beauty.

And so we found ourselves in the dark watching beautiful classical dancing at the Met. We rarely go to the ballet, so everything felt a little unfamiliar. I was struck by how many 8 to 12 year old girls were in the audience. I don’t know if that’s usual for all ballet, or all classical ballet, or particularly for the Sleeping Beauty chestnut.

As I saw their bright smiles underneath braided buns piled high, I felt a sad wave of all of their crushed dreams to come. Not that I’m a pessimist. Some of them may find a career.

Many girls have a ballerina phase. Mine was mostly imaginary, just thinking about being a ballerina and running around the house in a tutu, but the girls at Sleeping Beauty are actually starting down road.

Just as I was growing out of the ballerina thing, I watched The Band Wagon with my parents. My father kept talking about Cyd Charisse’s legs (which seems to have been a common occurrence among fathers of a certain generation). My mother remarked that she and her friends thought Cyd could have done better than Tony Martin!

I was genuinely dazzled by the movie, most deeply by the "Dancing in the Dark" scene. I’ve seen it a hundred times since then, and tonight, while I was sitting in the dark, I came to understand why Cyd’s work is so powerful, at least for the distaff side (her allure for men is obvious).

Charisse is our childhood ballerina desires grown up to a desirable, strong, talented woman. No tutus, but elegant, graceful, soft-white street clothes that we can all wear. Her steps with Astaire capture everything you want to experience with a partner: joy, timing, flirting, floating, and then when she is in her Girl Hunt, shimmy-shimmy flapper red outfit, sex, fabulous sex.

Through her dance, Charisse was a role model for girls, showing us some of the best of what might come. Thanks a million, Cyd. I picked up some of the moves that you had to teach.

I hope Fred is crooning to you, even as we speak--

Dancing in the dark 'til the tune ends
We're dancing in the dark and it soon ends
We're waltzing in the wonder of why we're here
Time hurries by, we're here and we're gone

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mannion's Movie Madness


I invite you to pop over to my blog-away-from blog, newcritics, tomorrow, Wed. Jun 18 and join in Lance Mannion's Wednedsay Night at the Movies. It's an open thread about a film, with everyone posting as though they had just watched it. But here's Lance to tell you about it:

"Just a reminder. Tomorrow night's Wednesday Night at the Movies open thread at newcritics will feature the Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger classic, In The Heat of the Night.

Thread opens at 10 PM Eastern, 9 Central. We have a new comments format at newcritics and it requires registration but it'll save the trouble of having to fill out the forms every time you want to comment. Registration's quick and painless but you might want to show up a little early to get it over with before the discussion gets underway.

As per the rules laid out by me, and I'm the king around here, you don't have to have watched the movie recently, or ever, to join in. Lurking discouraged but not prohibited."

Thanks, Lance.

I don't think I have ever seen this classic. I may watch bits and pieces on YouTube. But YOU--YOU, I'm sure, have all the classics under your collective belts and have many interesting things to say about them. It's an opportunity not to be missed.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Who's Looking for What?

Oh, the glories of the sitemeter. It’s not the numbers, but the two tantalizing pieces of information that they come with: the city and country of the visitor matched to the words they searched or a referring site. But I particularly like the words searched. It’s such connective tissue between blog writer and reader. It’s a little glimpse into another life somewhere in the big world at a specific moment in time when that mind was looking for something.

Here are some interesting searches that brought people here from interesting places:

1. Chahar Mahall va Bakhatiari, Iran
"17 century comment on "the definition of love" by andrew marvell"

It’s surprising to me when anyone is looking for a quote from a metaphysical poet; I’ll admit it’s a little more surprising when that person is in Iran.


2. Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of the Congo
“Verbum caro factum est”

This was part of a Christmas post, and it was lovely to see the page translated into French

3. Istanbul, Turkey
“Thomas Hardy Immanent will”

The poet of Dorset and his sense of fate is world literature at its best

4. Managua, Nicaragua
“Realm and conquest”

Michael Clayton’s own fiction is very popular

5. Moscow City, Moscow &
Worcester, Worcestershire

“Strange case of the missing corpse”

This is a fairly obscure piece of The Avengers series, a promo created for when the show came to the USA in color. True fans know no geographical boundaries.

My favorite:

6. Shanghai, China
“Where does don draper live?”

The lure of those wacky madmen is universal

and now my second favorite:

7. Doha, Qatar
george clooney's spine


These searches are a good mix of serious literature and pop culture, which I like to think captures the character of this tiny spec on the blogsphere.

But I should also note that the search words that have drawn the most traffic--at literally 4 times more than the second most popular search words, are:

"How to create a Simpson avatar."

D'oh.

Monday, June 9, 2008

When Tony Was Ralph

Alan Sepinwall has opened the door to a one-year re-evaluation of the ending of The Sopranos, and I find myself walking on through. Such is the power a haunting, artistic achievement in television can have.

Alan focuses his look at a loquacious blogger who has put forth 22,000 words arguing for the “Tony is dead” team. Sepinwall came out strongly for the other side last year, but is taking a one-year re-appraisal of his position and is open to changing his mind.

I was immediately in the “Tony is dead” camp for two main reasons: the Bobby Bacala flashback in the penultimate episode, that “you never hear it coming”; and The Godfather/bathroom connection. Both are such strong signals to Tony being shot that I don’t see how you can interpret the scene otherwise. (And I would throw in the “for whom the bell tolls” of the door opening, for good measure.)

But what strikes me more deeply, now that we are revisiting, is an uneasiness about the whole scene that I felt at the time and has become more clear.

The entire diner scene is off: it’s completely wrong in tone to the story we have been watching.

At the top of the scene, when he walks into the diner, we have the Tony who has just visited Junior---he’s the dangerous, hulking serious mob boss we have been following for six years. He surveys the restaurant with that mixture of general malaise/depression and anger that define him.

In the next moment there is that strange jump cut/change of POV, to where Tony is now sitting at a booth.

Except that Tony in the booth has become Ralph Kramden, right out of the ‘classic 39’. He has the hapless, easy expression of Ralph in his sweeter moods. He even makes a little Kramden-like grin when Carm tells him about Meadow going to the doctor for different birth control.

He is lighthearted when AJ joins them, flicking his straw cover at him. He’s a goofy, sitcom Dad.

What’s going on here?

Most of his crew has been killed, Carlo is going to testify, and he’s calmly sitting and playing the jukebox? True, Phil is gone, but Tony is looking at nothing but trouble, and it’s not in his nature to take things that well.

The scene plays like a curtain call, with each character coming in one by one to take their bow. And still, it’s Ralph Kramden who sits down for our Tony.

Heresy though it may be, the more masterful treatment of the character that people became attached to may have been created by Terry Winter, who wrote 23 episodes (topped in number only by Chase’s own 25). (A point suggested to me by Steed.)

At the end of the series, where Chase probably asked for the least amount of input from his creative team, we were subjected head on to Chase’s sensibility, which has a lot of sentimentality in it. Boomer television tropes were bound to seep in.

Ultimately the ‘is he dead/is he alive’ was a bit of misdirection from the better questions: who is this character now? Has he grown or changed since we first met him with the ducks? Is he a tragic figure in the classical sense, with a heightened sense of his own downfall?

None of which are even hinted at in the diner. It could have been structured as a more sophisticated ending all around—building on the whole season of philosophical questions from the Kevin Finnerty travails to Yeats among the weeds-- but deep down, that’s not who Chase is.

Ralph Kramden’s life was not without irony. Who wrote “Swanee River”? I imagine Chase chuckling over that one every time.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Hey, It's Internet Week


We know Fashion Week—-very glitzy, insiders only. Advertising Week---mostly of industry interest. And now Internet Week New York, presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences in cooperation with City of New York and The Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting.

This start-up year was thrown together in a matter of months, to back into the Webby Awards themselves on June 10.

But the organizers were smart about it:

“Like the Web itself, Internet Week is open: anyone can attend events, and anyone can throw events. There's no fee to participate. No organization is too big or too small to be included. Open access for all!”

Their site was open for people or organizations to post events directly. And in an ad hoc way, it’s an impressive array of web-related events, from the tech community, digital artists, marketing people, and of course, bloggers.

I’ve gone to 2 events, both part of the Time Warner Conversations on the Circle. The first was politics and the Internet, the second on entertainment. I had never been in the corporate side of the Time Warner building (nor I have been in the mall that fronts it). The sense of power certainly reverberates off of the tasteful grey walls.

The panels were mostly old media talking at new media, stringing together as many buzz words and phrases as possible. What was more interesting were the buffet breakfasts beforehand, where executives rubbed elbows with a wide array of individual bloggers and all types of small media company people. Now that doesn’t happen every day.

Here’s the schedule of events---it’s really worth perusing.

And here are some of the exuberant web people involved in a group ritual, from Caroline McCarthy’s blog at cnet.`

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A 2007 Film Festival--Woo Hoo!


I had a marathon home screening the other day, heding the warning from pay-per-view that some of the hot films of 2007 would soon no longer be available. I know, Netflix is a click a way, but the Movies on Demand service is so ridiculously easy that I’m spoiled for anything else.

And that’s how I came to watch Before the Devil Knows You're Dead; That’s No Country for Old Men; and There Will Be Blood in one 10 hour stretch.

I really enjoy watching “big” films from a safe distance of the hubbub. I can clearly see just see the film divorced from the hype. And so here’s a little attention for these flicks that the rest of the world has left behind in pursuit of the next big thing.

Yes, there are spoilers here.

BTDKYD: A middle-class, Shakespearian play. The familial intrigue,with idiot brothers and lots of death has a whole different ring to it when kingdoms aren’t involved. It was engrossing, if depressing to watch the Brothers Hanson struggle so painfully as their lives are circling the drain. Playing off the drinking toast “May You Be in Heaven” and written by an ex-Franciscan brother, it’s the darker side of Irish overtones. Albert Finney is ultimately feudal king, as judge, jury, and executioner. Filicide of a son by a father is not very common in myth, literature, or film. (The daughters don’t fare as well--Agamemnon, Orchamus, Titus Andronicus. . . .)

TNCFOM: Yeats meets the Coen brothers via Cormac McCarthy. The violence is so shattering that I did think, why am I watching this story? What value does it have to my life? Not sure I have an answer there. Much hubbub was about the technical mastery of the film. Yea, okay. But that’s about the vessel. What about the story? I felt a huge, momentary relief when Sherif Tommy Lee Jones entered the story (after opening the film’s narration), thinking that he would get his man, he would bring order and goodness to this place. But as the title warned us, this country doesn’t take to old men. We are left with unredeemed, unchecked, lawlessness.

TWBB: This was the most artistic of the three. The oil derrick fire is the best cinematic conflagration since GWTW’s burning of Atlanta. The film homages were as strong and blatant as everyone said they were, from Scorsese to Altman to Huston. Daniel Day Lewis seemed to be channeling the Chinatown John Huston in the heaviness of his speech. What struck me the most was the music: from the haunting, haunting use of Arvo Part and Brahms to Johnny Greenwood’s own orchestral compositions. The music is a full-blooded character, helping to define the drama of the story and its own consciousness of that drama, which I liked. The bowling-alley scene was either going to be a distinctively brilliant, memorable one--- a la last scene of Lady in Shanghai---or not. I think not.

(Jeremy, what was your point about the Brothers Sunday? I thought they might both be the same person (beyond being played by the same actor, until Plainview makes a point at the end of saying exactly where Paul is.)