Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mary Henry, Meet Betty Draper

Somewhere in the midst of our collective Mad Men madness (2007 to 2015), I happened to re-watch Carnival of Souls for the first time since I saw the 1962 film played on the 4:30 Movie in New York in the seventies.

(The 4:30 Movie had the BEST little credit sequence and music ever.)

In my 10 year old’s memory two shots stand out: the dancing in the dark, and a scene where Mary, our star, goes to a mechanic for car trouble as she’s trying to flee. She asks him if she can stay in the car as he puts it up on the jacks, and he says it’s okay. WHAT IS SHE NUTS?

It’s 1962 and Betty Draper Is Living on the East Coast

What struck me in the rewatch was the detached independence of Mary Henry. In a nutshell, Mary survives a car accident at the start of the film, walking out of a river where a car she’s in with 2 other women careened off a bridge. She takes up a job at a church as the organist. Yes, Mary is a career woman, a professional organist happy to have full-time gig.

I am now a semi-professional church musician myself, so I also noticed the entreaty from the music director at the first church that music needs more than just correct notes, that she has to put some soul into her playing. That is all true, but not something you often hear in a film. Though, there is that title . . .

Mary reports for work at a church near Salt Lake, and is mystically drawn to the Saltair Pavilion. She visits it with the parish priest, but he won’t go past the no-trespassing sign. He does comment earlier that "now we have an organist who can lead our souls." Not the usual kind of detail in horror movies, but then there is that title . . .

Mary later says to her creepy boardinghouse neighbor that she wants to see the place, and she’ll go herself, which she does. Mary is a cool Hitchcock blonde with a detached, cold demeanor.

OMG, just like Mad Men's beloved Betty Draper, particularly in season 2, where she shows almost no affection for her children, and a general defensive numbness toward her cheating Don.

Mary and Betty could be sisters, or at least cousins. It made me wonder if Matt Weiner, who is from Baltimore, also saw Carnival on the afternoon movie in the seventies, and subconsciously modeled Betty on Mary? Carnival is erotic in many ways, from the drag racing at the beginning to Mary's bare feet dancing on the pedals of the organ. That would make quite an impression on a precocious little boy.

Mary has to deal with a gaggle of common variety ghouls, while Betty has to deal with something much more horrifying, the worst kind of ghoul: a charming, monstrously selfish man who can't be faithful and saps the life out of those around him.

I See Dead People


Carnival isn’t given enough credit for its twist, which reached maximum cultural penetration decades later in The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan said that an episode of Nickelodeon was the inspiration for his film, but Carnival predates that.

At the end of Carnival the police find the car that went over the bridge, and raise it out of the water. Inside we see Mary. She’s been dead, and her soul was caught between earth and the afterlife. Sometimes people could see her, and sometimes they couldn’t. The tension of the film comes as the dead go after her to reclaim her to their world.

As I kid, I thought this was only fair, and not so terrible for her. The ghouls got to dance every night; that’s more than many living people get to enjoy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reformation Sunday—From Both Sides Now

Religion seems to be on many minds recently. Lots of punditry about the Pope beckoning to disgruntled Anglicans to “come on over, it’s easy,” the best of which is A. N. Wilson in the NY Times. Maureen Dowd has written another one of her “gotcha” columns about the Catholic Church, which isn’t very hard to do. This time about a two-year Vatican official inquiry into the "quality of life" of those religious in apostolic life, "actively engaged in service to Church and society," a.k.a. nuns. The other shoe dropped this past summer when it was confirmed that “the Vatican-sponsored effort will involve an examination of ‘the soundness of doctrine held and taught’ by the women.” [National Catholic Reporter]

The inquiry itself is not treating the religious as second-class citizens, Dowd’s phrase, as much as a review of their life and service to the Church as measured against Church doctrine. I see it more as a control move, but not unreasonably sinister. When a woman joins a Roman Catholic religious order, it’s clear what the policies of that institution are. It’s not unreasonable for the Home Office to occasionally audit its outposts.

Now, whether the Home Office is just, and wise and Christ-like is an entirely different question. Through the centuries many have thought not. One particular individual who held this view was Martin Luther. He was a priest and a monk who believed the Home Office had gone so far astray that he had to demand an immediate change in business as usual. When that didn’t happen, he protested his way to a Reformation movement that begat Protestantism.

The irony that Christianity splintered into multiple sects is profound to me. Christ said of Peter, “upon this rock I build my church” and humans couldn’t keep even that one simple idea intact. So what hope, really, was there for the complicated things?

Marty and Me
Perhaps moreso than many cradle Catholics, I was aware of Lutherans from an early age because my mother was a Lutheran before her marriage and conversion to Catholicism. As I sat next to her at Mass, she would whisper to me, “this is a Protestant hymn,” and so I became aware of the distinctions. As kids we slowly understood that one of our grandmothers wasn’t an Irish Catholic!

Many years later I followed the talented Gwen Toth from St. Francisi of Assisi, where she was music director for almost 2 decades, to Immanuel Lutheran, her new post. And that’s how I became involved with Reformation Sunday.

Today as part of Immanuel Lutheran’s festivities Gwen programmed a concert of all German music, including the only motet Luther ever wrote, as well as Reformation era composers like Ludwig Senfle (“Das Gelaeutz zu Speyer,” music painting the bells of the famous cathedral there) and Johann Schein, “Was betruebst, du dich meine Seele.” The concert came off well, and I found it very moving to be participating. People have died horribly, needlessly, for the differences between Catholic and Protestant, but for at least this Sunday afternoon, musicians were coming together to create exquisite music. And the talented players were bringing to life old period instruments, such as the cornetto, dulcian, theorbo, violone, viola de gamba; an interesting sight at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

There are of course theological issues betweens the sects. It seems that Luther himself believed in the True Presence, but he was basically out-voted on that by the theologians he surrounded himself with. The theology of Justification separates the two sects: basically, Marty’s people believe that faith alone will be enough for God’s grace to grant your soul salvation; for RC’s, it must be faith combined with good acts---that you must actively participate in your personal salvation, along with faith. This is the tenth anniversary of the Vatican signing a “Join Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” with the Lutheran World Federation in a gesture to try to bridge the schism.

Thank God people have stopped killing each other over the differences, even, for the most part, in Northern Ireland. Of course the killing was actually about the economic and political attachments to the sects, and the less easy to define cultural sensibility of the two sides.

Still, when I think about the pain Christians have heaped upon each other over the centuries (and yes, upon peoples of all faiths and no faiths), I wish that this bumper sticker would come true:

“Stop fighting. Don’t make me come down there again.” JC

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More Birthdays--the Guggenheim, Mr. Monk, Tony Shalhoub, and Me

I’ve always liked the date of my birthday, October 21: 21 has often been a lucky number for me, and October is the best of the autumn months.

But I did not know that I share this date with the actual opening date of the New York Guggenheim Museum on 5th and 89, until I did this Sunday’s NY Times crossword puzzle. It was the answer to the puzzle’s theme, in honor of its birthday. They are giving everyone free admission that day as a gift, among other special b-day offerings.

And it was a nice surprise to see “Happy Birthday, Mr. Monk” making Adrian, and it turns out, Tony Shaloub himself (October 9), more fellow Librans (cf Julie Andrews and Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Natalee throws Mr. Monk a surprise party, and the decorations at the party are fabulous. I've been given one surprise party, it was in college. My BFF said I had to go the music room to help her roommate with some piece of music, and it was a party, a surprise birthday/"Come as your favorite French Existentialist." It was hysterical, everyone was wearing black, and French berets, smoking gauloises, someone had bongos. There were some specific impersonations, like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. And, it wasn't my actual birthday, it was a week later, so I really was surprised.

Here’s the nicest gift of all for today: The Guggenheim and Mr. Monk are both turning 50, and I’m not!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

O Pythons, My Pythons

Happy Birthday, Pythons. Their birth is considered to be October 5, 1969, the day the Flying Circus first aired on the BBC, and I am glad that the show is a fellow Libran. IFC has started running a 6-part documentary this evening, which is Pythonesque in its absurd length. But the surviving five guys thought, do it once, and do it right. Leave no thought unexpressed. So I’m in for the series. I like that it started with a glimpse of each of their childhoods.

I will always love the Pythons for saving me during junior high school. My very oldest BFF is the reason I found many of my teen loves, including T.E. Lawrence, Joni Mitchell, The Lord of the Rings, and Monty Python. It was on PBS on Sunday, which meant Monday morning we would gather to relive the great lines (even before the ad nauseum multiple viewings). To say there was nothing like it on American tv is profound understatement. And nothing at the time had such an impact on the audience—it created one of the first definable, vocal tv fan communities. People who could quote were fellow travelers:

Immanuel Kant was a real piss-ant
who was very rarely stable
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
who could think you under the table
David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Froederich Hegel
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
who was just as sloshed as Schlegel

What did I love? The verbalness of it all, the pitch perfect send-up of English institutions, the unapologetic intellectual references, the absurdness in thought, writing and deed, the naughty bits. How one sketch flowed into another. The fact that they were a troupe---they had each other, they were the smarter Friends of an earlier generation. And the exuberant sense of joy. That’s what the lifeline was at 14, when the storm clouds of puberty gathered, and the Pythons were a lamp unto my feet (read in the best, clipped BBC English, with the right kind of pauses, thank you very much).

I haven’t revisited them in the ensuing years, but this birthday is a reason to click around YouTube and feel the rush of connection to many funny, funny moments. I am particular to the classic Cleese/Chapman brilliance.

There’s a penguin on the telly.
Why’d you say Burma?
I panicked.

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion, the visit to Sartre.

Kamikaze Scotsmen.

Upperclass Twits of the Year, the Village Idiots, Confuse a cat. “My brain hurts” “It will have to come out.”

Oh, I'm a lumberjack, and I'm okay
I sleep all night and I work all day

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition—

Friday, October 16, 2009

"A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou"

English majors the world over are well acquainted with Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation of some of the Persian mystic genius’s thousand plus poems, which he published as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Fitzgerald put the word “rubaiyat” into the English language; it’s a translation of an Arabic derivation of “four” refering to the quatrains of the poetry. I’ve really haven’t seen it used in relation to anything but this poem.

From Fitzgerald's 5th edition, Quatrain XII

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

I’m not a dedicated foodie, but I’ve found some recent delight in what the Khayyam called out as part of bliss.

A Jug of Wine: I was going to a brunch on 72nd and Broadway and I needed to pick up a bottle of wine. I saw Bacchus, Wine Made Simple, and popped in. It’s a wonderful place. They have a section of “Recession Priced” wines. I asked one of the guys for a suggestion, and he gave me a $10 Chilean wine that was crisp and light and the perfect brunch white. They have a welcoming, helping attitude, completely devoid of oenophilic snobbery. They believe that good wine of all levels should be enjoyed by everyone. I liked them so much I signed up for one of their wine clubs. Once a month they deliver 2 bottles of wine to your door, with a description that helps you place the wine. Here’s my first delivery:

Chardonnay, Stuhlmuller estate, CA, USA, 2007. Soft, yellow flower aromatics with hints of honeysuckle, spicy pear, candied lemon and sweet corn. On the palate, it has a light and creamy texture filled with flavors of lemon custard and mild tropical fish.

Pinot Gris, Del Rio estate, Oregon, USA, 2007. Ripe fruit flavors of pear, apple, and tropical fruits, with aromas of wildflower honey and a juicy, mouthwatering freshness. This wine is spicy, aromatic, and exceptionally versatile.

A Loaf of Bread: The most exquisite flatbread is from Margaret’s Artisan Bakery. My favorite flavor is Rosemary and Sea Salt. The flatbread is truly light and crispy; many store flatbreads are horribly dry. The flavors are strong and completely fresh. Rosemary, that evergreen branch of the mint family, has a long literary tradition for its association with remembrance: "There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance." (Hamlet, iv. 5) The name comes from the Latin for rosmarinus, meaning “dew of the sea.” Maybe that’s why it tastes so amazing with sea salt in one of the great culinary pairings.

If my recent reality of good wine and bread wasn’t enough of a connection to this world-classic verse, Steed quotes it to Mrs. Peel in the episode “Return of the Cybernauts.” I first heard it as a kid, and it has always stayed with me.

And Thou. Still a fluid concept.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Shore Thing: The Music of The Lord of the Rings

Part of the greatness of great films is their score: who can imagine Gone With the Wind without that sweeping “Dah DAH, da dah,” or Lawrence of Arabia without “DAH, Dah, da da da da DAH da” or James Bond without that wild minor-key electric “Duh da da da da, duh duh duh, (modulate half-step) Duh da da da da. Everyone can hear these, right?

Music is a key element to the sensibility of the film. How we hear and internalize music is an incredibly personal experience, and so our reaction to a film score deeply personalizes the film itself.

I never thought much about (not “of,” an important distinction) the score to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy before this week, but Middle-earth came to Radio City Music Hall for two symphonic concerts of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I am glad to have enjoyed a new focus on this great literature of my youth.

The Lord of the Rings: The Source

It’s easy to be dismissive of Tolkien. He built a fantasy world peopled with medieval-sounding names like Aragorn, Boromir, Gandalf, and creatures like Orcs, Urakai, Goblin men. A cult grew up around him in the US in the sixties, as the hippies found the American edition that was first printed in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin (on October 21, my birthday!). There was something about the imagination of Middle-earth that appealed to yearnings of Utopia that was underlying the Summer of Love. By the seventies, Doonsebury had made a joke of Hobbit posters being de rigueur for a college dorm room.

Tolkien himself was not happy with his cult status (he died in 1973), nor with the layers of meaning slathered on to his work. He is very clear about why he wrote LOTR in the foreword to the second edition:

“The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. . . . As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. . . . The crucial [Hobbit] chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past,’ is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster.”

Today I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a new copy of the work. I was honestly surprised that he is not in the Literature section; he is in Fantasy/Science Fiction. Of course it’s fantasy, but it has the breadth and depth of great world literature. (And, in case you’re curious, J. K. Rowling is in the Teen Readers section. That’s just fine with me. I’m never happy with the people who favorably compare Rowling to Tolkien. He is waaay out of her league.) The earnest B&N worker wasn’t amused when I said I was sad that he hadn’t even made it into Mythology. “No, no, he is only Fantasy,” she proclaimed.

Reading The Lord of the Ring was one of the few great pleasures of junior high school. It is a beautiful depiction of the themes of friendship, honor, adventure, good vs. evil, wrapped in a grand, English-inflected adventure tale. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Tolkien’s towering intellect and erudition had a lot to do with quality of the writing, the intricacies of the languages he created for Middle-earth—Quenya, Sindarin, Rohirric, Black Speech, among others—-and his ability to draw upon Beowulf and the Norse saga for inspiration. He was a world-class scholar, a devout Catholic, and a consummate Englishmen (born in South Africa), all of which informed his imagination.

Scoring the Film

Everything about Peter Jackson’s 10-hour film-in-three-parts is epic. It is truly one of the great achievements in cinematic history. Howard Shore was hired to score the film. A Canadian composer, conductor, orchestrator, he had found pop-culture fame as the music director of SNL and indie fame as the composer for most of David Cronenberg’s films. His film work includes The Silence of the Lambs, The Departed, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. (Clearly Scorsese is a fan.) But nothing he had done to date presaged his accomplishment with this score.

Since 2004, Shore has toured conducting local orchestras in performance of his own symphonic arrangement of the scores into a six movement piece, sometimes to projections of stills from the film. That experience left him wanting more. “After three years of working with all the original recordings [which were released as the Complete Recordings in 2005] I had a real interest in hearing the complete score performed live.”

He first did this in Lucerne, Switzerland, with Ludwig Wicki and the 21st Symphony Orchestra. And then he brought them all to Radio City, where I saw them Friday night.

I was very close to the stage, I was afraid too close. But it turned out to be the most extraordinary experience. I was looking up at the screen, seeing the film through the symphony orchestra. I was so close that I could see Wicki’s laptop computer, sitting on the music stand with the score. It ran the film, with visual markers so that he could be certain of entrances and tempo. A conductor usually stretches some passages and quickens through others from one performance to the next, but in this context he has to be dead on in sync with the film.

The performance was excellent. It was thrilling, from the opening exposition, to hear the music and the choruses so clearly. While the dialogue was left in, the music was the dominant element. The Celtic motifs of the Shire, the sweeping brass figures for the world of Men, the clanging, disturbing cacophony of Saruman’s orcs all came across beautifully. The choruses featured some boy sopranos and an Enya-knock-off in a stunning red dress, Kaitlyn Lusk.

The music did not seem very difficult to play; there was one point in the mines of Moira that I saw some desperate arm waving from Wicki, but for the most part he was relaxed and the orchestra was engaged.

It was exciting to watch this film with 6,000 fans who applauded when Aragon first appeared, and the entrance of Legolas and Gimli. All the high points received waves of applause.

At the end, Shore came on stage with Frodo, Pippin, and Merry, and the place really when wild.

Shore in Person

Howard Shore came to the Paley Center for an event before the concert, along with Billy Boyd and Douglas Adams, the musicologist who wrote the linear notes for the complete recordings. The questions turned to the influence of Wagner (whom he “thanked” but did not see as an influence). He spoke about his multiple Celtic motifs, which he arrived at because those chords, that sound is one mankind's oldest. He was engaging and interesting. He said that the entire production was unique in that he was told to spend whatever he needed to make it “right,” Boyd revealed that on set, everyone carried the books with them so that they could argue a point of minutiae if they needed to; “But that’s not what Tolkien said . . . . “

Shore’s score isn’t yet in my head like GWTW and Lawrence of Arabia, but after some more viewings, it will be. That would be Da-da DAH, da da dah, da Dah da, with a brass rising then descending tone.

Monday, October 5, 2009

It's Impossible!: Julie Andrews on TV

The incomparable Julie Andrews came to the day job this evening to speak about the work of her career that she did on television, which includes a short-lived variety series (1972 to 73); two acclaimed variety specials with Carol Burnett; several important appearances on The Muppet Show; and the only musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for TV, Cinderella.

Not surprisingly, she was warm and engaging. The clips from the collection showed off her enormous talent with the great talents of the 20th century, including Jackie Gleason, Gene Kelley, Harry Belafonte, Richard Burton. Her sound is so distinctly beautiful, and she has played such important musical characters of the 20th century, that many people feel an oddly emotional connection to her. It was very moving to sit with a large audience, watching her watch her performance of “Edelweiss” and “The Sound of Music” on various shows through the years, knowing that surgery in 1999 damaged her vocal chords and took away from her that stunning, ethereal singing sound.


The most historic of her tv work was Cinderella. The year was 1957. Much of tv was still live production, where dramatic anthologies like the U.S. Steel Hour and Playhouse 90 were bringing a parallel of theater into living rooms, since the creative language of TV didn’t yet exist. Julie said that the decision to go live, however, was a creative one, not a technical one.

NBC had broadcast the Broadway musical of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan live in 1955. They were looking to follow up with another musical, but CBS already had Julie Andrews signed, and so Rodgers and Hammerstein went with Paley’s network for their new work.

It was an innovative idea for the team to create a new musical for tv. The Disney animated movie of Cinderella had come out in 1950, with music by the studio stalwart, Oliver Wallace, so the story was in the air

I didn’t see Julie’s Cinderella. It was broadcast just once live, on Sunday, March 31, 1957. Rodgers remade it in 1965, with the unlikely, weak-voiced Lesley Ann Warren (corrected 12/5/14). That production was taped in 1965 and rebroadcast 8 times through February 1974. Those were my years, she was my Cinderella. Lesley was paired with Stuart Damon, who found tv fame for decades as Alain Quatermaine in General Hospital, which compares nicely with Julie’s prince, Jon Cryer, who played Chief Daniels in Hill Street Blues. Julie’s other cast members were Howard Lindsay, Ilka Chase, Edie Adams, Alice Ghostly, and Kay Ballard.

It’s All About the Dress
What dazzled me most about the annual viewing of Cinderella was that moment when LAD’s rags become a ball gown. I didn’t even see it in color, but the fir trim, the sweetheart neckline, the flow of the skirt with sparkling rhinestones that came across even in black & white was a visualization of everything I hoped being a woman some day would feel like.

It’s interesting that Jack Gould, who reviewed the original for the New York Times, didn’t like Julie Andrews’s dress: "couldn't Cinderella have been dressed in a dreamlike ball gown of fantasy rather than a chic, form-fitting number?" Julie’s is an Empire style-dress (popularized by Napoleon’s Josephine).

The Fairy Tale
Music underscores ideas greatly. I watched Cinderella every year mostly because of the music. “In My own little corner, in my own little room, I can be whatever I want to be,”;
“It’s impossible, for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden coach, Impossible.”

I was a girl in the first wave after the feminism of the sixties, when the patriarchal underpinning of everything was illuminated, examined, questioned. The questioning extended to was it healthy to have a fairy tale where the young woman waits for her prince to come. Fair enough.

But from another angle, what I loved about the story was the imagination: that 4 mice could become horses, a pumpkin could turn into a couch, a rat become a footsmen, that birds and mice could sew a ball gown. And it’s an older, powerful woman, her Fairy Godmother, who makes it happen.

Back to Julie

I didn’t get to stay for the whole event (I had to go slog my way through more Russian with the Gotham Scholars). One of her tidbits was that when she was filming Cinderella she started chatting with the floor manager as they were blocking a scene, and asked what his next show would be. He said he didn’t know, that he had an idea for bringing free Shakespeare to a theater in Central Park. Yes, it was Joseph Papp. Julie Andrews is one of the rare talents who really has worked with everyone.

Here’s a clip from one of my favorite movies, which I saw at Radio City with my grandmother, Darling Lili. As a little girl, I was SO happy that Julie Andrews is a fellow Libran. Sometimes it's the little connections that mean the most.

Julie Andrews Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images