Friday, December 18, 2009

Curiouser & Curiouser for the Holidays

All hail David Hoey, director of visual presentation at Bergdoff’s. His windows are stunning all year round, and the Christmas ones the most stunning. Last year the theme was Dickens, and they were chic beyond belief. This year it is Alice in Wonderland.

I have never read the work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, but its tropes are a part of Western pop culture now: Alice's "eat me" "drink me"journey; the Cheshire Cat; the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter; the Queen of Hearts--Off with their heads. Tim Burton’s 3-D take on it is opening March 5, I’ll catch up with it then.

For now Hoey’s windows are the magic. The intricacy, the sweep of imagination---the windows are truly art.

The most glamorous window is the “through the looking glass”—a study in silver and reflective surfaces, beading, and sparkles.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In Praise of Southern Women Characters (and an Uncanny Playwright)

This festive season is seeing an odd confluence of great Southern women characters. Today is the anniversary of the 70th premiere of the film Gone with the Wind. As I have written before, I am a huge fan of the film and the novel. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of immense imagination and will, undone by her inability to imagine the love that is right beside her in the man of Rhett Butler.

My thoughts of her are mixing with the shadows of Blanche Dubois, another great Southern character of American literature. I have not seen Cate Blanchette in the current BAM production, but I have now heard Liv Ullmann speak her thoughts about directing the play, and they were so full and articulate that it as though I have seen her stage vision.

Loss Upon Loss

I always wonder about the broader lives of characters I like. Would Blanche Dubois have read GWTW? It was a million-seller in 1936 when it was first published. We meet Blanche in 1947 (the play is set in its contemporary time), so I think it’s likely that she would have read the novel.

There she would have found the real Southern Belle in Scarlett, bred for institutionalized civility and chaste flirtations in a world where everyone knew and followed the rules. Scarlett’s world will be torn to shreds by the Civil War. She will lose Ashley to Melanie, (her first husband in the book to the war), her mother to typhoid, her father to a broken neck, her food to Sherman’s siege of Atlanta, all before intermission. In Part 2, she will (almost) lose Tara to the tax collectors, (her second husband to a raid on shanty town), her unborn child, her precious Bonnie Blue, Ashley to the veil of death, and just when the scales fall from her eyes about Rhett, she will lose him as he walks out of her life, caring not a damn.

This fate echoed in my thoughts as I read John Lahr’s beautiful summation of Blanche’s lot in the New Yorker:

“As the play unfolds, the extent of her losses becomes clear: she has lost her husband, her family home, her job, her good name, her purity, and, ultimately, her sanity.”

Two Southern characters with overwhelming loss react in very different ways.

Whose Reality Is It Anyway?

Scarlett’s loss strengthens her in wave upon wave and steels her will. As the world of “cavaliers and cotton fields” is dying, she herself will smash society’s rules as she dances in widows weeds, flaunts her money during Reconstruction, and becomes a businesswoman managing her lumber mill herself.

As the film explains in 6-foot tall type:

Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...

That storybook society had a sense of unreality about it, and the nation suffered the bloody tearing down of those dreamy ways. Scarlett’s sanity stays intact, but her father Gerald O’Hara loses his mind when the illusions are gone and he has only the reality of his dead wife and his beloved Tara is in shambles.

Blanche suffers from the fates dismantling her life. She tried to overcome the horror of her early marriage to a homosexual, but a divorced woman in the South at that time was desperately alone. “They” would not let her back into society, and that began the spiral down that lead her to her younger sister’s doorstep, and Stella and Stanley’s cruelty toward her. She tried to give herself some illusion that she isn’t as old, or worn, as she is, and that she might still have a chance with a good, simple man like Mitch. But when he finds that she has misrepresented her own story, he is horrified and will have nothing more to do with her. That seals her fate and leaves her vulnerable to Stanley attacking her.

In the end, Scarlett isn’t Blanche--even though she lies just as much, and is enveloped in a fantasy-- because at each important juncture she is able to align herself with a man who keeps her respectable. She marries Wade Hamilton and Frank Kennedy and finally Rhett, and they allow her cover in society so that she can do more of what she wants. Poor Blanche had no such support, and the reality is such an exposed woman is in serious trouble from all sides. Society doesn't know what to do with such a woman. And so the sanitarium; in another century there was the convent.

The International Streetcars
Liv Ullmann is a unique presence in film history. That open, lovely face, the artful character roles. She is the very essence of woman: what a excellent force to direct the play Streetcar.

I once knew this play very, very well. When I was in college at Southampton, the local amateur theater troupe The Maskers learned there was an American at the college, and sought me out to help them with their American accents for their Streetcar. Like a piece of music, when you are involved in several weeks of rehearsal and 6 performances, you know it from the inside out. This English Blanche was channeling Vivien Leigh’s interpretation--not a bad thing to do.

How wonderful that Leigh, a woman with the demons and strengths of Scarlett and Blanche, was brilliant in giving them both to us for the ages.

Every woman knows the undercurrents of these characters. It's startling and helpful and poignant to see the stuff of life so transformed by the art of a man named Tennessee.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2 Little Tidbits

Two 2 simple things made me smile this week.

In the blur of reading the last few days (the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the usual) I had come across the words “carapace” and “anhedonia” in the same piece. It was as if the Ghost of William F. Buckley, Jr., had made a visit. I’ll admit I looked each of them up, knowing I had done so a couple of dozens times before. Some vocab words just don’t stick.

The 2 $10-dollar words haunted me a bit, and I had a desire to go back to the piece to see again how they were used, but I couldn’t remember what article they were in. I had read too many pieces quickly, on the surface, reading, but not entirely paying attention. Some multitasking was going on.

Since we are at the end of the aughts, I need not be haunted. I googled “carapace” “anhedonia” and took a shot with “the New Yorker” and up popped the piece!

It’s Sarah Lyall’s article about the Tom Ford film with Colin Firth, A Single Man. (It’s in the NY Times, but it still came up with my search words.)

I was so happy to find my bedeviling words. Is this the greatest age for literary geeks, or what.

The other thing that made me smile was a NY alert. I have the most general of the Times alerts on my office computer. It’s the very big general things: Sullie’s landing in the Hudson, the massacre in Mumbai, major moves on the prime interest rate, Michael Jackson dying, that sort of thing. They don’t overdo these. They are not daily, sometimes not even weekly, only when a major general news thing has happened.

And on Thursday, 12/10: News Alert: Notre Dame Hires Brian Kelly as New Coach

OMG. The Times considers changes in ND’s coaching staff to be of national import, worthy of a news alert. Surely my father is looking down on this from the heavens and smiling too.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tears and Tweets for Adrian

Here’s what happened: A beloved cable tv show decided to call it quits after 8 seasons, and went about writing a grand last season, and a very special grand finale.


There was a bit of a fake out. TPTB ran a “Trudy Marathon” on the last day, suggesting that you could piece together clues and figure out the answer to the overriding question: who killed Monk’s wife Trudy?

But they had not plotted the mystery that well, and so had to introduce “the guy” in the 2-part finale. Whenever in need of a bad guy who seems like a good guy, Craig T. Nelson is the go-to guy. That casting was the major clue to the whodunit.

But the fact that the finale mystery wasn’t brilliant did not detract from the excellence of the finale. I really thought Adrian might die through the middle of the episode. And the interactions between the core characters were beautifully in sync with their own histories.

Bringing in Trudy’s daughter for Monk was a nice plot point. But the best was that Natalie and the Captain and Monk are off to another crime scene at the end. It’s what they do. It’s where we would want to leave them. Randi going off to marry Sharona in New Jersey, well, that’s just begging for a spin-off.

I don’t spend much time on Twitter, but I went on just when the finale finished. There were over 800 tweets in 3 or 4 minutes--it became a trending topic. The majority expressed a genuine sadness for the series ending, and many reports of crying! I never felt the presence of “the community” more than in that moment. What an incredible shared experience. The new Randy Newman song—with his signature nostalgic chords--to the montage of moments at the end was exactly what the fans wanted. (The other series that ended with a great montage was Miami Vice.)

A character that elicits such an emotional response from a large viewing community is a very special type of artistic creation. Congrats, Tony Shalhoub and team.