Friday, January 29, 2010

Holden Caufield: A Singer at Heart

"You know that song 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like — "

"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."

"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."

She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.

"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said."
          Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye

Holden knew that ‘Coming through the rye’ is a song, even if he got the words wrong.

 It’s based on a Robert Burns poem, but it’s more likely he heard the song as a child, than that he read the poem.

I know it’s a song too. I have been able to sing it since I was 6 years old, when I received a Magnus Chord Organ for Christmas, complete with a Favorite Melodies for Magnus Chord Organ books. There are variations on the song, but this is the one the good Magnus Organ people printed:

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye;
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Ev'ry Lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, hae I,
Yet all the lads they smile at me,
When comin' thro' the rye.

For Holden, the song made such an impression that he wanted to catch the body coming through the rye, which in his mind was at the edge of a cliff. And so was born a defining metaphor for several generations of readers, now warmly being remembered at the passing of the 91-year old Salinger.

For me, I didn’t know that “gin” in the song is Scottish for “if,” but these words and music are seared into my brain because I learned them so young, and I was good at getting the gist of all things verbal or literary.

This song is the only thing I have in common with Holden Caufield or his hermetic author, J.D. Salinger. I have no emotional connection to the novel Catcher in the Rye at all. We had the classic copy in the house, but I think a family friend bought it for my older brother. I know I read it somewhere in school, but it made no impression on me. Hardy’s The Return of the Native is the first novel I read in adolescence that rocked my world. From there I found Hemingway, and never looked back. The uber adolescent moment to bond with Holden had passed.

So I didn’t connect with Catcher the way so many literary types did, but I did years earlier connect deeply to my Magnus Organ. My father picked it out for me, the 670 Model, with three octaves of keys, and six major and six minor buttons. I played every one of the songs in the beginning book hundreds of times, learning the words to such timeless songs as “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Oh Susanna,” “Home on the Range,”and many, many others. My love of these songs is part of what shielded me from some of the teenage years bleak alienation, which in turn is part of why no sparks with Holden for me.

Fast forward to the 1990s: I like the Fraiser homage to Salinger in the episode “A Crane’s Critique.” Robert Prosky plays ‘the reclusive author T. H. Houghton, who has only written one iconic novel.’ Martin Crane becomes friends with Houghton, and Niles and Frasier are beside themselves to impress the great American writer. He leaves a briefcase with his new manuscript in the apartment, and the Crane boys read it. When they critique it to him, Houghton realizes it’s completely derivative of Dante’s Inferno. He thanks them and destroys it. Now that’s a literary fantasy.

Salinger died on January 27, just two days after the worldwide annual celebration of Rabbie Burns’s birthday. Maybe they are now somewhere, singin’ together: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind . . . “

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Burning Up the Screen in Tight Jeans and T-Shirt

Burn Notice blazed back into our cold January lives last Thursday, with Fiona still in the US (now that it’s not safe for her to return to Ireland), Sam his usual unflappable self, Mama Westen stretching her own operative chops (and briefly reunited with her old Cagny & Lacey star Tyne Daly), and Michael still striving to get back in to the covert operative life he lost when he was burned.

It was great to see the whole gang, but my favorite part of the midseason premiere was Westen’s sartorial homage to Paul Newman of The Long Hot Summer, the 1958 film based on Faulkner’s collection of stories, The Hamlet. The costuming just leapt off the screen to me and I squealed with delight.

Michael takes on a good-ole boy cover to infiltrate a family insurance fraud ring that causes car accidents. I’d like to think that when Danny Santiago, the series costume designer, was given the script, he thought, ‘hmm, Southern good-ole boy, great opportunity to visually quote Paul’s Ben Quick.’ Donavan’s body type is very similar to Newman’s, and so we get the narrow jeans, the black belt, the t-shirt. Santiago stopped at the hat, because today it would seem more like an Indiana Jones quote.

It’s probably just a coincidence, but the episode featured some serious fire, and Quick was suspected as a barn-burner . . .

The Wonderful World of Costume Designers
A few years ago Deborah Landis came to see me in the day job. She was then president of the Costume Designers Guild, the union started in 1953 and included the likes of Sheila O’Brien, Burton Miller, Erte, and the venerable Edith Head (No Capes!!!!) Landis is a celebrated costume designer whose credits include The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Coming to America, Thriller and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Last year she became first David C. Copley Chair for the study of costume design at the School of Theater, Film and Television. But while still president of the CDG she put me on their magazine’s mailing list, and it is one of my favorite pieces of mail to receive. I don’t follow fashion, but after meeting her I became more aware of the role of costume design in the collective art of film and television.

Of course I’ve always appreciated the effect Alun Hughes had on The Avengers, working with Diana Rigg to throw off the leather of her predecessor Honor Blackman and find her own identity in the color and soft fabrics of the Emmapeelers. But I didn’t think about it much beyond the ur series.

I hope Santiago continues to play with Michael Westen’s cover ids. Maybe he can work in an homage to Clark Gable from Red Dust. (We can only hope.) Of course if he chooses the It Happened One Night route, it’s no t-shirt at all.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hope for Haiti, and a Great International Battle of the Bands

What an amazing night of television.

I watched the Hope for Haiti telethon. I liked the softness of the performances, which was appropriate in the face of the tens of thousands who died, like the hushed tones you automatically adopt when you walk into a funeral home. But music brings hope and comfort as well. The songs ran through pop music’s entire songbook of inspirational songs. I loved Stevie Wonder’s “Bridge Over Trouble Water,” and Jennifer Hudson’s “Let It Be” was particularly moving in her invocation of Mother Mary: “And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

But the highlight was Wyclef Jean playing the show out. The images of the destruction on stage were replaced with beautiful geometric patterns of his nation’s bright palette. He started in the tone of his fellow performers with “The Waters of Babylon,” then went into a Creole rap. Then he took off his guitar and said “let’s show them how we do it in Haiti” and let rip with a real Haitian beat, rhythmic and joyous. Life is for the living and the Haitian spirit is vibrant and defiant, sleek and cool. It’s who they are, and it was inspiring to see such life in service to alleviate the suffering of so many.

“Earthquake we seen the earth shake but the soul of the Haitian people it would never break”

A quirk of fate put Conan O’Brien’s last night hosting The Tonight Show on the same evening, following the telethon an hour and a half later. I’m not a fan of the sophomoric humor of late night, but I respect the tradition of these shows, and that they are the way a huge viewing audience relaxes after the late news.

I thought it would be uncomfortable to watch an American millionaire whining about losing his job right after the images of real suffering.

Instead I was surprised that his show had more dignity than I expected. Both Tom Hanks and Neil Young were on their way to the telethon after taping his show. Conan put up the web address, and so acknowledged the serious work of the evening.

Then he did his stuff. But the highlight was Conan joining Will Farrell and friends to play out the show jamming on “Free Bird” in front of a huge American flag. Farrell was decked out like a country singer, and I was afraid the set was going to be lame. But he totally brought it. ZZ Top and Beck were taking it seriously, and by the second chorus the ensemble was really rocking, Conan included. Once Farrell picks up the cow bell it all starts levitating. What a great salute to America. What a great complement to the Haitian band two hours before.

In his closing speech Conan asked his audience not to be cynical. It can be easy to look at Hollywood turning out for Clooney’s telethon and be cynical about it. It was an astonishing number of music and movie stars quietly in one place. But it’s what they can do. They aren’t doctors or nurses or firemen. They can help raise money. Let’s hope that the world’s generosity is put into the right hands to alleviate the suffering.

On a lighter note, someone should really think about replacing the winter Olympics with an international battle of the bands.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Unmitigated Suffering

The news and images from Haiti are soul-wrenching, humbling.

We take daily life for granted. There is no other way to live---but it can all be swept away in a flash in any number of ways, from an earthquake or a flood to man-made catastrophes. I live on the Upper Upper West Side in Manhattan. The #1 subway line, which runs along Broadway, surfaces at 122 street, and the 125th street station is an elevated stop, the only one left in Manhattan. The line then descends back to a subway right after the station. Most people don’t know that the reason for this lone elevated stop is a fault line, right there, and the subway tunnel couldn’t be built through those unstable plates. The last significant earthquake in Manhattan was in 1884, a 5.2 magnitude event felt from Virginia to Maine. It’s not likely that there would be a significant quake in Gotham, but the fault is there, so it's not impossible. Do we have a plan if that happened?

The horror of Haiti now is that help itself is crippled. The world is trying to send food, water, doctors, and supplies, but the devastation is so complete the airports aren’t functioning and there isn’t enough power being generated.

Andrew Sullivan as usual has excellent, informative posts, and filmmaker Paul Haggis talks about Artist for Peace and Justice, an organization he founded a year ago to help funnel aid to the poorest Haitian communities and in support of Father Rick Frechette, who’s been working in Haiti for 22 years now in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sag Harbor: A Letter Forgotten

I love the whiteness of January. After all the holiday red and green and blue have been tucked away there is an appealing sleek brightness to the first 31 days, when the day light has a particular absence of color. Is it a coincidence that we have the tradition of the January White Sales, when sheets and linen go on sale at deep discounts, or are merchants simply tapping into the primal collective unconscious of whiteness? Hmm.

The frigid weather—-which is white itself in its starkness—-is my excuse for indulging in a little post-holiday burrowing before the year starts to pick up steam. I’m reading through more of the NY Times than I usually do. That included a little tidbit from Ben Yagoda, “The Perils of ‘Contact Me’,” an essay about how people contact writers to answer questions. In his case the questions are about Will Rogers, The New Yorker, and grammar, because of books he’s written. He’s not complaining about this, except maybe when it’s school kids who want him to write their papers.

This reminded me that I contacted an author last year, a letter I had completely forgotten about. Not to ask a question, just a fan letter. I wrote to Colson Whitehead after reading his novel Sag Harbor, about black teenage kids in the mid1980s summering in the black enclaves that their grandparents had staked out. I bought it because I spent two summers in Sag at that very same time crewing on the Schooner Appledore (which I’ve written about here). Sag was my town: The Tuck Shop, the Corner Bar, Canios, the American Hotel; these are serious flashbacks for me.

Janet Maslin called the book “sea-breeze buoyant” and it is. It’s narrated by Benji who recounts his summering rituals and working in a fictitious ice cream shop. I found it funny and charming, and just ate up Whitehead’s mastery of pop culture references. He captures the WTF moment of New Coke just right.

I was hoping that the Appledore might make an appearance in the book. It docked at the end of Main Street and might have been something the kids saw and commented on. But no.

But what finally drove me to take the time and write the letter and look for an address was his reference to the 1973 tv movie SSSSS. I saw it as a kid and the image of Dirk Benedict lying on the floor and morphing into a cobra SEARED into my brain. I have never met another human who saw this thing, and I was floored to see a reference to it in print.

Colson never responded to me. His website has no direct contact info, so I did snail mail to his publisher. I like to think he never got the letter. Now, Ben Yagoda, he’s got an email address, plain and easy to find. Maybe I’ll read his Will Rogers bio next.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sherlock and the Doctor: Two Franchises for the Teens

It will be interesting to see what new characters enter our collective imagination in the 2010s, but two highlights of the aughts were the rebooted Doctor Who TV series, most fully realized by David Tennant who took over from Christopher Eccleston just 13 episodes in, and our beloved Sherlock Holmes, given a new lease on life by the now fully resurrected Robert Downey, Jr. They both added great spirit to the last holiday season of the decade, and their sequels will have a cultural presence in the teens.

The End of David Tennant’s Time

Doctor: “Worst. Rescue. Ever.”

Doctor to Master “It said someTHING is coming not someONE. Don’t you ever listen?”

Wilfi: Not bloody likely
Doctor: Don’t swear

Just some very small moments that I love from the last episode of David Tennant’s Doctor, the 2-part “End of Time.” I must say BBC America gave him a right proper send off, with a marathon of all his episodes starting on January 2 and ending with the final episodes.

David Tennant’s Doctor #10 is going into history as one of the greatest.

His acting is a joy to watch: he sparks and sparkles; he puts across wit and physical comedy beautifully and then menaces with frightening depth. There is a natural intelligence behind all his line readings and a conviction in what he’s staying. He is so naturally comfortable as the Doctor that the glee is never over the top, the anger isn’t forced. I love the way he conveys authority.

The last episode lacked in some logic and common sense, but it had the important beats right: the Doctor’s relationship with Donna’s grandfather Wilfi who becomes his final companion, his showdown with the Master and the Time Lord’s president, his victory lap visiting with all his friends. These were all satisfying plot points, beautifully written and executed.

One of the great things about Doctor Who is its own history. Its original run was 1963 to 1989, with eight different doctors. It was primarily a British cultural touchstone—-some Americans found it, but generations of Brits embraced it, and since the reboot looked forward to the annual Christmas Day special. It was relaunched in 2005 by BBC Wales in Cardiff, with Russell T. Davies at the helm. British actors of all stripes have guest starred over the years-—as an Avengers fan I would point particularly to Honor Blackman, Peter Wyngarde, and Michael Gough in the earlier years. Since the reboot we got to see Zoe Wannemaker, Kylie Minogue, Derek Jacobi, Simon Callow, Penelope Wilton, and Bernard Cribbins, John Simm, and Timothy Dalton. (The closest thing we have to a TV show that attracts American actors is 30 Rock, with Tina Fey attracting Alec Baldwin and some considerable film guest stars.)

Doctor 11 will be Matt Smith. Who? Nobody really knows. He’s very young, and he has very big shoes to fill.

Sherlock and Watson, Together Again

I have to say straight out that an American shouldn’t being playing Sherlock Holmes. It’s just not right. There are SO many British actors who would be excellent. It’s a DNA thing. It’s a national boasting rights thing. The Empire should see to its own for something as important as introducing Holmes to the next generation of fans.

Downey does a good job, but he’s coming back as Tony Stark in Iron-Man 2. I don’t want my Tony and my Sherlock to be the same man. It just isn’t right.

The real thrill of the new franchise anyway is Jude Law. His Watson is sharp and capable and talented. The two banter as well as Nick and Nora Charles, though it’s obviously chaste (whatever provocative pish-tosh Downey was dispensing on Letterman). And the whole made-up plot point of Sherlock trying to sabotage Watson’s engagement was straight out of Gunga Din, not some subversive reading of the Holmes canon.

I liked the stylized production. And the very surprise use of “The Rocky Road to Dublin” over the boxing fight scene, and the final credits. (I thought it was the Clancy Brothers version, but I’ve seen it attributed both to them and the Dubliners.) Very sporting for the London-centric Holmes to acknowledge Dublin.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy 010110

Quite the binary-code start to the new decade, isn’t it. Could this be the beginning of how humanity comes to live inside the Matrix?

A new decade within the new millennium. From a psychological point of view it feels more “new” than 1990 did, than all of the recent decades of the last century did, since they were all the old millennium getting older. I’m trying to embrace the sense of newness, (even as I absorb the fact that 20 years ago is 1990!)

Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker has the best overview about that issue of what to call this past ten years:

“In retrospect, it might be recognized as a troubling harbinger that, ten years ago, no consensus could be reached in this country on what to call the decade upon which we were about to embark. The ohs? The double-ohs? The zeros? The zips? The nadas? The naughties?”

I lean toward “aughts,” which was the common designation for 1901 to 1910 (well, other than Edwardian) although she sets the record straight on that 1800s English word:

“Arguably, a grudging agreement has been reached on calling the decade “the aughts,” but that unfortunate term is rooted in a linguistic error. The use of “aught” to mean “nothing,” “zero,” or “cipher” is a nineteenth-century corruption of the word “naught,” which actually does mean nothing, and which, as in the phrase “all for naught,” is still in current usage. Meanwhile, the adoption of “the aughts” as the decade’s name only accelerates the almost complete obsolescence of the actual English word “aught,” a concise and poetic near-synonym for “anything” that has for centuries well served writers, including Shakespeare (“I never gave you aught,” Hamlet says to Ophelia, in an especially ungenerous moment, before she goes off and drowns) and Milton (“To do aught good never will be our task / But ever to do ill our sole delight,” Satan declares near the beginning of “Paradise Lost,” before slinking up to tempt Eve).”

Yikes. Is there aught without consequence?

The “noughties” has been used quite a bit by the Brits. Tim Footman chose it for the title of his engaging cultural exploration of the current “decaditis”: the fallacy that ‘slicing the past up into periods of 10 years [is] a useful thing to do.” The Noughties: a decade that changed the world.”

The Telegraph has a very enjoyable, interesting, and UK-centric “100 defining cultural moments of the noughties” with some things that are on everyone’s list---the debut of the ipod, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (Stephen Frye’s elevator tweet heard round the world), the premiere of The Office (the UK original)s, Harry Potter (multimedia), The Lord of the Rings films––and many more arcane moments, like Polaroid announcing they are ceasing production of instant film.

My issue with “noughties” is that it is far too whimsical for a decade that saw the large-scale murders of 9/11.

Newsweek produced “the Decade in 7 Minutes,” a U.S.-centric video that captures many news moments you have probably already forgotten.

And so from day 1 of the New Year we slide into day 2, and so it goes. We are now out of the aughts and into the teens, which come with overtones of adolescence awkwardness and first loves. As technology continues to expand our world for good or ill or silly, we may want to personify the next slice of ten years with as many human traits as we can.