Thursday, November 28, 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Happy Birthday Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor Awaits

Remember Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister in Love, Actually? He gives an updated pop-culture version of the John of Gaunt “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech:

“We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that.

How is it possible that Doctor Who didn’t make the short list? Now there's a national treasure.

The debut of Doctor Who joins the notable anniversaries this week: Gettysburg Address 150 years on November 19; Kennedy assassination 50 years ago on November 22; and the next day, Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, on November 23. It was a hit in Britain for decades, then ended in 1989, and when it came back in 2005, it found a large American audience.

I only started watching Doctor Who on BBC America in the 2005 reboot led by Russell T. Davies.  I caught the tail end of Eccleston, driven there by the incredible recap writing about the show from Alan Sepinwall and Ross Ruediger. It was a little hard to follow the idea of a Time Lord at first, but Eccleston drew me in and sold it, in spite of Billie Piper. I am not a Rose fan. But no matter.

What I love about the series is how deeply imaginative it is. The stories go back in time to the days of Shakespeare or Pompeii and ahead in time to the end of the world in this and other galaxies-—following a Time Lord means all things are possible.

One Martha Jones episode with the Tenth Doctor, “The Lazarus Experiment," is set in today’s London. The villain of the week is a 72-year old doctor looking for the a fountain of youth, which turns him into a raging, really scary-looking CGI monster. In his lucid moments, he remembers back to the London Blitz as a child, when his home was destroyed. The last scene is in St. Paul’s, where he was brought as a child for safety, and where he ultimately goes from monster back to man. I found the story very moving, and important that a show basically targeted for children would create a plot around the last of the generations who saw WWII.

The monsters in general are the creepiest, most elaborate, scariest things on tv. And yes, there was a really gross spider monster, the Empress of Racnoss, which, as I discussed, my arachnophobia, was hard for me to watch.

And then there are the Daleks, the evil nemeses of the Doctor with the really cool voices. You could write about them forever, but it wouldn’t do them justice. They are one of the great fictional destructive forces of all time.  (See photo below, but don't be fooled by their party hats.)

Quick Doctor Recap & The Original Fans
1. First Doctor, played by William Hartnell (1963–1966)2. Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton (1966–1969)
3. Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee (1970–1974)
4. Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker (1974–1981)
5. Fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison (1981–1984)
6. Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker (1984–1986)
7. Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy (1987–1989 and 1996)
8. Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann (1996)

The Time of the Time Lords War

9. Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston (2005)
10.Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant (2005–2010)
11. Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith (2010 - 2013)
12. Twelfth Doctor, will be Peter Capaldi

Russell’s new incarnation of the show had a deep, rich history to build on, now with great CGI effects and the modern Doctors of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

I envied the original fans who first started watching as kids and have seen the Doctor through all his regenerations and all his companions. However, when it returned in 2005, they were not all happy.

Some impassioned hatred from one blogger: "Why do I hate it...? Where do I start? Bad dialogue, bad plotting, bad acting, bad jokes and bad science. Sentimental, patronising, inconsistent and too eager to please. Some of it is so cringeworthy I actually blush while I'm watching it."

From blog comments on The Telegraph: "The earlier Doctor. Who, of the Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton eras, were paced much more slowly allowing for the drama to develop, whereas this series is all flash bang wallop, and strangely seems stuck in the 1980s, in its sensibility. Just not very good at all.”

David Tennant: THE Doctor
The BBC has been running documentaries for each doctor. It's a wonderful history of the creative life of a series, and of each actor, as they progress, talking about "their" Doctor, the one they grew up with.

For me, and many, David Tennant is the Doctor, the way William Shatner is James T. Kirk. There may be other actors who play the role for various reasons, but they don't count.

Tennant showed a deep and unique understanding of the potential essence of this character, over 900 years old, sad and happy traveling along, knowing he needs a Companion to temper the darker side of his nature.  Tennant expressed the sheer power of the Doctor in a way that Matt Smith cannot. (Eccleston had flashes of that good/evil power too.) David Tennant is also a true fan of the series, in a way Matt Smith is not. I count the Tennant episodes as some of the most enjoyable TV watching of my life. And what are the odds that the tenth Doctor would be named TEN-Nant? Mystical, right?

Doctor Who: A True "We Are the World" Experience
Big Kudos to the BBC for celebrating 50 years of this creativity with a worldwide simulcast of their anniversary special. Literally. Uniting fans across the globe to experience the story at the same time.  I am very luck to be heading down to see it in a theater. See you on Twitter.

[Updated from a 2008 post]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"A little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg"

Rhett Butler utters this description to Scarlett when she asks how much longer the war will go on. He says it won't be long now, there's "a little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg" that will pretty much do it. When you watch Gone With the Wind it's a moment of real historical connection within the fiction.  We know it's considered the war's turning point, for the characters, it's just another battle to try to regain territory.

Four and a half months after the Union's "win," Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery to battle dead on Nov. 19, 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago today.

The speech is prose poetry of Biblical beauty when the nation was just 87 years old.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What strikes me today is the interplay of life and death, not surprising to dedicate a cemetery, but extra poignant in this week of the last day's of President John F. Kennedy's life fifty years ago.

Lincoln & Kennedy: Deeper Than the Old "List"
It's not surprising that a "list" of all the coincidences between our two great assassinated presidents became an Urban Legend. But there are deeper intersections.

We know that JKF was a genuine history buff, and that he asked Ted Sorensen to study the Gettysburg Address (among anther speeches) when drafting his own inaugural speech.

So November 19, 1963, the 100th anniversary, had some meaning for JFK personally, and politically as well. It is noted how presidents treat this anniversary. 

It's the math that makes this all a little chilling. If it hadn't a big anniversary year for the speech, the date would probably have gone unnoticed. But the spotlight was on, as it had been for Woodrow Wilson and the 50th anniversary, and FDR at the 75th anniversary in 1938, both of whom made official visits to the cemetery. The article of this history is titled, Obama Snubs 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg Address.

Kennedy did not make an official visit. The article said he "made only an unannounced visit with no speech." That made it a private thing,  a personal thing, to honor his predecessor's rhetorical and political brilliance. Perhaps he found inspiration anew, as many do, at the entreaty of what "the living" need to do to for the "unfinished work" and the "great task remaining before us." The stakes during the Civil War were as high as they could be: the continuation or disintegration of this nation. Kennedy had inherited the very best of the continuation of "we, the people."

All this focus on the living in the face of his scheduled trip to Dallas, his appointment in Samara. That's the important connection for me, of these two public servants, killed in the line of duty.

For the Living: Learn the Address!
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, documentarian Ken Burns, along with numerous partners, has launched a national effort to encourage everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the Abraham Lincoln's famous speech. The site is Learn the Address.

Here are the kids from a high school in Alabama. You can't beat that for what the speech is all about.

(Photo from USA Today story about the project)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Venice. Streets filled with water. Advise"

This quip came via telegram from Algonquin wit Robert Benchley to the delicious David Niven, although I'm certain that had it been the 20-teens instead of the 1930s, it would have been a tweet.  [The quip has multiple permutations & attributions, all wonderfully tracked down by Quote Investigator]

Earlier this year the polyphonic segment of my life brought me the opportunity of singing a concert of Venetian masters Gabrieli and Monteverdi with a brass quartet in Venice.  I planned the trip months ago, which give me the time to read a trifecta of Venice literary nesting dolls:

Geoff in Venice, Death in Varnasi
Jeff Dyer

Venice is the city that never disappointed and never surprised, the place that was exactly like it was meant to be, exactly synonymous with every tourist's first impression of it.

There is no real Venice: the real Venice was—and had always been—the Venice of postcards, photographs, and films. Hardly a novel observation, that. It was what everyone always said, including Mary McCarthy. Except she'd taken it a stage further and said that the thing about Venice was that it was impossible to say anything about Venice that had not been said before, 'including this statement.'

Venice Observed
Mary McCarthy

The Venetians invented the income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, anonymous denunciations (the Bocca del Leone), the gambling casino, and the Ghetto. The idea of the Suez Canal was broached by Venice to the sultan in 1504. They were quick to hear of new inventions and discoveries and to grasp their practical application.

Casanova had the true Venetian temperament: cool, ebullient, and licentious.

In the traditional Venetian serenades, played from cruising gondolas, the songs today are all Neapolitan. Foreigners cavil at this, but the Venetians point out that there are no love songs in the Venetian repertory—only witty exchanges between man and maiden.

Death in Venice
Thomas Mann

When Aschenbach first feels the urge to travel, he sees in his imagination a landscape like that of the Ganges delta; the climax of this vision is the frightening epiphany of a tiger in the thicket. When he calms down and makes realistic travel plans, he decides he need not go "all the way to the tigers."

And so we go full circle back to Dyer's Geoff doing what Aschenbach did not, and going to the Ganges for his oblivion.

Please ignore McCarthy's warning about saying anything about Venice that hasn't been said before, and follow me on twitter for bulletins from the canals of 2013.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lou Reed: Your Silent Night at Carnegie Hall Made Me Cry

I was saddened with much of the world at the death of Lou Reed last Sunday. A daughter of Long Island (Massapequa Park) by way of Brooklyn mourning one of its sons (Freeport) via ditto.

I was not an intimate fan of the rocker outside of his classics that are ingrained in the soundtrack to life of my age eschalon.

But two things brought me a little closer to this distinct voice, this rocker talking to my generation.

One is that he came to the Museum of Television & Radio in January 1994 when we had the US premiere of the TV documentary, Curious: The Velvet Underground Live in Europe.

I didn't get to talk to the man, but I had some conversation with his entourage, including Peter Gabriel. He had the bluest eyes this side of Paul Newman, and we talked about the English choir tradition, he being of the Ralph Vaughan Williams school, where I prefer the slightly lesser loved Herbert Howells.

I went out to dinner with the entourage, I think Penn Jillette was at my table, because as it was breaking up, Laurie Anderson and Lou came over to our table, and he was zipping up her parka. It was a very cold evening and they were bundling against it. They looked like little kids getting ready to go out and play in the snow. A friend commented that there was an inner youth about them, that they would never seem old. I don't know why that struck him then, but it did and he was right.

With Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hal

Several years later, December 13, 2006, to be exact,  I went to The Wainwright Family & Friends Christmas Show at Carnegie Hall. It was a magical evening that I wrote about in the early days of this blog:

The Christmas Show is unique because it included Rufus Wainwright's sisters Martha and Lily and Aunt Sloan, and guests Jimmy Fallon, Teddy Thompson, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed.
How can you describe the Rufus voice? It is wildly distinct. It’s a clear, pointed sound, with a nasal but not unappealing undertone. He swells note to note in well controlled verbal scoops. His sound has a sexiness that pretty much defies gender categories.

He sang What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, channeling Rosemary Clooney. If he had been in a black strapless dress, it would have seemed perfectly natural. His Cantique de Noel, with a beautiful piano accompaniment, was elegant and very moving.

There were other great numbers: Martha and Jimmy Fallon singing Baby It’s Cold Outside; Laurie Anderson droning a hurdy-gurdy to all verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, which she graced with the O Superman inflection; and Sloan singing a knockout, uplifting, joyous rendition of Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas.
And then there was Lou.

He comes out wearing a bright yellow, wild jacket—must be his idea of festive—and sings White Christmas with Rufus. It's campy and sweet at the same time, with Lou giving his version of a crooning bass.  He was born in 1942, the year that Holiday Inn, which gave us Irving Berlin's White Christmas, came out. So there's a wonderful connection there.

And then he sang a solo Silent Night that was poignantly hallowed, in its way. He gave it his driving rock beat under a jagged—jarring semi shout of SILENT NIGHT. And yet there was a sense of respect for the words, and . . .  all 3 verses. Not even Bing Crosby did that. The third verse usually makes me cry, and this was no different:

“Son of God, Love’s pure light. Radiant beams from they holy face; with the dawn of redeeming Grace. Jesus Lord at thy birth. Jesus Lord at they birth.”

All with.----The Reed rhyyyyth-mnic----phrasing.That----we know---and love.

He is our aural e. e. cummings. This rocker, this drug addict, this malcontent, offering the classic hymn, during Advent, in Carnegie Hall.  Nunc dimittis.

Someone at that December 13 concert filmed the White Christmas duet. The video is very blurry, but the audio is good enough to capture the moment.  No one has posted the Silent Night.

Reed would later go on to sing at the Jubilee concert in Rome for JP11, and the Vatican's pop cultural guru in the curia, Gianfranco Ravasi, tweeted words to Perfect Day when Reed died. Clearly because he speaks to the true humanity in us.

Good night sweet prince (as Laurie has called you). And flights of rockin' angels sing you to your rest. The life of a rocker, it's a bitch on the body. May your soul rest in peace.

(Top photo: From the  Kate and Anna McGarrigle: A Not So Silent Night DVD, backstage at the Knitting Factory, 2009, similar to the Carnegie Hall concert.)