Sunday, June 26, 2011

"The apparel oft proclaims the man": Peter Falk Meets Polonious

"I’d like to thank Frank for the coat I wore in Pocketful of Miracles. He got me this terrific coat, and he gave me a lot of good business to go with it.

He taught me a valuable lesson: get yourself a good coat. The acting is secondary. Years later I was offered another part and I remembered Frank Capra and I went out and got myself a good coat. I added a cigar, and I’ve been eating pretty good ever since."

Peter Falk at the AFI Life Achievement Aware: A Tribute to Frank Capra, 1982

TV fans mourned the loss of Peter Falk this weekend. I liked his film work, particularly Pocketful of Miracles (which he absolutely walked away with) and Wings of Desire. But it was his gift of the character Lt. Columbo that brought him into the lives of several generations of TV fans and set a standard for the TV mystery that hasn’t been surpassed.

Columbo was part of the NBC Mystery Movie on Sunday nights in the 1970s, and it was syndicated on late Saturday afternoons for much of the 1980s. That’s when it became a cherished weekend ritual for me every week. That's when I saw the original episodes so many times that I can play "I can name that episode in 5 seconds." The stories which TV Guide dubbed “howchatchem” rather than “whodunit” were interesting and well written, but it was the cavalcade of film and theater stars working on the small screen that was the biggest thrill.

I remember in frightening detail the plots and much of the dialogue from many, many episodes. For instance, the One Where:

Ruth Gordon
, a mystery writer, kills her niece’s husband because he killed the niece.

Ida Lupino is an “Aimee Semple McPherson” evangelist type, and her husband Johnny Cash murders her to get away from her blackmailing him.

Ricardo Montalban is a matador who murders his assistant’s son to protect his reputation.

Janet Leigh wants to make a comeback with John Payne and has to kill her husband Sam Jaffe to do it

John Cassavetes as a “Leonard Bernstein” type kills his lover when she threatens to tell his socialite wife Blythe Danner and rich mother-in-law Myrna Loy

Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman accidentally murder their theater producer John Williams (that one turns on a pearl that drops inside an umbrella that is then given to Madame Tussaud’s)

Louis Jourdan murders a restaurant owner he’s been extorting money from

Roddy McDowell murders his aunt Ida Lupino’s husband James Gregory to take over the business

Celeste Holmes is the older sister of Joyce Van Patten who kills their brother who was going to sell their family museum

Ray Milland is an orchard grower who murders his nephew to break an iron-clad trust fund

And so many more from the original seven seasons.

When TV Was the Lesser Screen

Don’t forget that in the 1970s it was a very big deal for movie stars to act on television. They generally considered it beneath them. (This was also the era when it was chic to say “I don’t watch television.”) But part of the very texture of the series is the sheer acting chops on the screen. It’s obvious how comfortable Peter Falk is with these guest villains, who may have done the show because of Falk’s own New York stage acting and Hollywood bona fides. It’s a formula that would sadly devolve into a parody of itself later in the decade when Aaron Spelling got his hands on it for The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.

The Dream Team on Columbo

Peter Falk hid the strength of Columbo’s intellect under the rumpled coat and the unflappable politeness. The “oh, just one more thing” was beaten into the ground, but Falk’s performance had much more to it than that. The character is in LA, and he's not given a back story, but there's still an aura that beneath the wrinkles is an Italian mensch from Brooklyn with real street smarts to go along with the high IQ. In the few times his character wore a tuxedo for a formal function (“Forgotten Lady,” “A Case of Immunity,” and "Murder Under Glass") the handsome side of the actor came through.

On the creative side Falk was surrounded by established and up & coming writing and directing royalty of varying magnitude: Steven Spielberg, Ben Gazarra, Norman Lloyd, Sam Wanamaker, Jonathan Demme, and Nicholas Colasanto (Coach from Cheers!) all directed. Steve Bochco, Steven J. Cannell, and Dean Hargrove wrote along with Levinson & Link. That’s a lot of talent coming together.

The original series ran from 1971 to 1978. It did not have a “series finale.” The final episode on May 13, 1978 was “The Conspirators” where Columbo tracks an IRA gun runner (and I learned that Sinn Fein means “Alone Together,” one of the important clues of the episode). Falk brought the character back in 1989 for two seasons and a bunch of special episodes, with the last appearance of the character on January 30. 2003. I never got close to those shows.

More from Falk’s tribute to Capra:

“[Pocketful of Miracles] was my first Hollywood picture. I went to see Mr. Capra and said, “Mr. Capra, This is a comedy. And I think you ought to know that I’m not funny.

He said, what do you mean? I said, 'I’m a New York actor, I’m a serious actor.'

He started to chuckle and says, ‘Don’t worry Peter. You’re gonna be all right. Look at it this way. Maybe no one else will be funny, and you’ll be the serious relief.’"

We’re glad that Peter Falk took Lt. Columbo seriously. He gave rise to Bobby Goren, Adrian Monk, and Greg House at the very least and kept our little grey cells working on some very interesting puzzles.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Twas the Night Before Bloomsday . . .

It’s not too late. You can still make your plans for the day that most honors the depth and complexity of the poetic Irish soul, June 16, the day on which James Joyce set his epic novel of daily life shrouded in inner dialogue.

So not late, but that sentence was far too linear. To honor Joyce it needs to be more like:

Anno domini 1904, boy & girl enact simple primitive ritual, tortured soul steps out with Nora of the Barnacle. A connection to cosmos: Praise then of the labyrinth mindmotif of polyglot auteur, AVE Hibernia, for a day cada ano during Solstice less the golden rings. Annuit coeptis NYC’s myriad activities gathered on Bloomsdaynyc:


IABANY BLOOMSDAY CELEBRATION: With the Irish American Bar Association, down at 60 Centre Street. You’ve got to love these guys, celebrating the landmark First Amendment ruling over obscenity laws to publish Ulysses. Keynote speech by Kathleen Sullivan, followed by re-enactment of the 1933 court case, USA vs. One Book Called Ulysses.

On WBAI 99.5 FM and online Readers include Alec Baldwin, John Lithgow, Jerry Stiller, Garrison Keillor, Wallace Shawn, Kate Valk, Paul Dooley,

Follow @11ysses. Starting 8:00 a,m, Dublin time (that’s 3:00 a.m. for NewYorker) you’ll get a stream of programmed tweets following the journey of the novel. Interesting assembly of “tweaders”

Isaish Sheffer's yearly valentine to his favorite novel. Will also live stream

I'm a sucker for this creative activity by Joyce’s fans. I don’t pretend to be a true fan or much of a student of the work. The closest I got was one tutorial with Maud Ellmann, the daughter of one of Joyce’s great biographers Richard Ellmann, at Southampton University. As we were discussing part of the novel Maud would say, “Let’s see what dad had to say about that” and break open the biography.

But I understand the desire of the fan to gather, to bring what is an internal experience into the external world, the better to experience it anew in a communal

yes I said yes I will Yes

Monday, June 13, 2011

Blogs: Where Noms de Plume Rule!

"At its most basic level, a pseudonym is a prank. Yet the motives that lead writers to assume an alias are infinitely complex, sometimes mysterious even to them."
Carmela Ciuraru

So Ms. Ciuraru opens the article in Salon as part of the publicity for her new book, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. The excerpt isn’t very satisfying, and her descent into academic constructland has the usual soul-numbing effect on the unsuspecting reader:

"If the authorial persona is a construct, never wholly authentic (no matter how autobiographical the material), then the pseudonymous writer takes this notion to yet another level, inventing a construct of a construct."

But it’s her conclusion that is setting my pseudonymous head spinning:

"Today, using a pen name is less often a creative or playful endeavor than a commercial one."

Maybe true in dead-tree publishing, but has she glanced at bloggers? I understand her thesis is "the decline of the pseudonym: false names have allowed many famous writers to make a new start -- but the digital era is changing that." But if she is interested in where the tradition of pen names is alive and well, then she must look beyond commercial publishing to the community of bloggers.

Creative Endeavors All

The self-publishing form that lead to the explosion of blogs gave rise to a resurgence of the nom de plume. Some early blogs were established with the author's name, like Tom Watson, but many were titled for an idea or sensibility that shaped the blog in some way, giving it a personality and setting it apart from other blogs. The average blogger wasn't launching as an established writer, but their knowledge of cooking or film or living on a remote Scottish island became something that other people were interested in reading about.

My blog circle offers some very imaginative pen names: Blue Girl in a Red State (now a Redesigned State) who started blogging during the Bush years when Ohio was a red state to rage against those dark times. Lance Mannion, whom James Wolcott christened as “manly name, manly blog” when he came upon Mannoville in its early days. The Self-Styled Siren, who launched with the tongue-in-cheek sultry appellation which she has now owns. Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur, whose nom de plume reveals a desire to be married to the original delectable Mrs. Peel and a love of Cassavetes. And the late, great Jon Swift, who carefully chose his pen name to craft a faux-conservative, satiric blog. From Media Matters report of his untimely death in 2010:

'Jon Swift' was a talented and droll satirist, with a keen eye for the absurd, who lovingly adopted the persona of a faux, well-intentioned conservative who did not take kindly to folks besmirching Fox News. (Think Stephen Colbert, but without all the manic yelling.)

I have met some of these bloggers in RL and know them by their real names. They each to differing extents use their names in certain parts of the digital space. But their writing is how I know them best—it’s the place I interact with them most-—and so their pen names are stronger identities to me than that line on their birth certificates. Many would have said the same about Mark Twain in his lifetime.

I Fall Into a Pen Name

I have an affinity for the literary pen name. Some of my earliest literary memories are my mother telling me about Elia (I think because she had “his” Shakespeare volume, and he’s often in the crossword puzzle) and Saki, when she told me the story of “The Open Window.” While still in elementary school I knew of O. Henry, Lewis Carroll, Georges Sand & George Eliot (whom I mixed up for a bit, like I did the colors “silver” and “gold” until I really got it all straight in my head), and then in high school I was interested in Genet (whom I mixed up with Jean Genet for a bit). [As one commenter noted in the Salon piece, who remembers the real names of the great pen names? Can you identify the given names for my list?]

So perhaps I had a predisposition for a pen name. I can assure you it had nothing to do with “a construct of a construct.”

Here’s how M.A.Peel was born. In 2006 I became a fan of Matt Zoller Seitz’s “The House Next Door.” I lurked for quite a while, and then decided that I really wanted to comment on posts. At the same time, colleagues of mine at the day job were starting a group blog. To give it personality they decided that all the posters needed potato-based names. Can’t say I know how they came up with that idea. But one person was Tater, one PommesFrites, one Spud, one Mashed, etc. So to participate I needed a potato name. The word peel popped into my head, and it was a short hop for a life-long Avengers fan to arrive at M.A.Peel.

That group blog was short lived, but it gave me the impetus to register the name on blogger and start writing.

For me having a blog name is a flight of fancy, a bit of whimsy, it’s entirely playful. It’s not a full-blown persona, like Jon Swift was. It just adds a special layer of creativity to my essays, criticisms, and travelogues. It does afford some privacy, but it’s not a shield, I don’t hide behind it. If there was any serious issue that needed “my” direct attention, I would take care of that.

With the small body of work I’ve created as M.A.Peel I feel a literary connection to my childhood pals Saki and Elia. Who can ask for more than that?

I hope Ms. Ciuraru will find some enjoyment in the blog writers who are embodying the great nom de plume tradition that she cares about.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Scire: Scio, Scis, Scit

The World Science Festival was in town this week, when scientists go onstage to present some of their work for a broad audience and tease out some Big Think. It was founded by Columbia University string theory guy Brian Greene and his wife Tracey Day five years ago and it's gotten bigger each year.

The word Science comes to us via old French from the Latin “scire” “To know,” from its present participle “sciens” for “knowledge.” Hence its primacy in many lives for what is “true.”

In a broad cultural sense, I wonder how different things might be if our language had instead used the Latin participle from “explorare,” to explore, to define “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world.” Science is always an exploration——a neutral concept——but the concept of “knowing” is a value judgment which has consequences. Naming things. Now there's the real power (Joseph Campbell anyone?)

Storymakers & Storytellers: Who’s Narrative Is It?

I attended the panels at the Paley Center. The highlight was the rock star panel of Steven Pinker, Siddhartha Mukherjee, James Watson, E.O. Wilson, and Brian Greene, who were then joined by science journalists Jonathan Weiner, Deborah Blum, Natalie Angier, and Timothy Ferris. The premise of the panel wass if/how scientists can control their own stories.

Each scientist had written one or more popular books for a general audience about their subject. They spoke about how reaching out to nonexperts was dismissed by many of their peers, and their concerns that it might escalate to the "Carl Sagan Syndrome," where their science would be questioned simply because they had translated their idea for the general public. Moderator Robert Krulwich asked James Watson why he wrote The Double Helix: “Because it was too important a story not to tell for all.”

The surprise of the panel was seeing that Watson and Wilson are the Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis of the science community: ornery, brilliant, hyperliterate.

E.O. Wilson had the best quotes of the day. One he attributed to Truman Capote: “Interviews are seductions followed by betrayal,” and the other was his: “Funeral by funeral [scientific] theories advance.”

Alan Alda’s session was about his work bringing improv skills to young scientists. He brought some young science grad students from Stony Brook and ran them through some improv exercises, with the goal of them being able to better translate their work to nonscientists.

“Scientists should be able to speak in their own voice. They shouldn’t have to be mediated by anyone else, because it’s their work…not only their work, but their passion, their understanding, and their intuition.”

Alda feels strongly about the need for scientists to be able to communicate to the general public: “More people believe in Satan than in evolution. This is a communications problem.”

That seems a simplistic idea in itself, that if scientists could only communicate evolution clearly enough everyone would believe it. Not sure if Alda is implying not to believe in Satan, but I did just see the Anthony Hopkins film The Rite (which was better than Stephen Holden thought), and I’m sure that no amount of clear communication will dissuade someone from a belief in evil incarnate if it’s part of their religious faith (or direct empirical experience).

The Illusion of Uncertainty
I went down to the panel at the Tishman Auditorium at the New School about risk, probability, and chance. There was audience participation, filling out cards with “heads/tail” while Josh Tenenbaum of MIT flipped a coin 5 times, and Amir Aczel demonstrating probability by blocking off just 30 people in 2 rows and saying that at least 2 people would share the same birthdate, and they did.

What isn’t an illusion is the maleness of this field. That one of Gerd Gigerenzer’s examples had something to do with a gynecologists and I swear he was cupping his hands to his chest as he talked about birth control. I know that there was a panel about women scientists, but many of the main panels are dripping in testosterone.

These are not my people, this is not my world. My understanding of numbers is always opposite of what’s going on. It’s so bad it’s amazing I get through the day. I am always happy to return to the lens of language and literary concepts: then the world starts making sense again.