Saturday, June 27, 2015

RIP Patrick Macnee: British Agent John Steed Has Left His Earthly Ministry

What an eventful week: the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was laid to rest—after being murdered in his own church—with a deeply moving funeral service in Charleston, where Brother Obama gave a lovely eulogy, which was quite literally while the news of the Supreme Court upholding Marriage Equality in all fifty states was announced and filled social media.

And in other news, Patrick Mcnee died at 93 at his home in California on Thursday, June 25.

It turns out that the last two items are connected. And you know how I love connections.

Patrick Macnee of course created John Steed, the top British spy of the English TV series The Avengers who had vague professional allegiances (MI5? MI6? There are only occasional mentions of even a minister.)

Macnee was born in London in 1922. His father trained racehorses and drank, and his mother

"took refuge in a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead and the madam Mrs Meyrick, before absconding with a wealthy lesbian, Evelyn. Young Patrick was brought up by the pair and was instructed to call Evelyn “Uncle."

From the Telegraph obit. [Bucket list confession: I want to do something in my life that merits me a Telegraph obituary. They are the most beautifully written of all obituaries.)

Uncle Evelyn paid for Macnee's education at Summer Fields, and Eton, which of course gave him the RL experience to infuse his spy with such panache. And so we all say, "Thank you Uncle Evelyn."

See, that's the thing about Marriage Equality: people have FOREVER found their way to loving and dealing with who they truly are. Now it's more institutionally fair, no small thing.

Why The Avengers . . . Still
Each generation . . .around the world . . . finds and loves this early TV show. It has an exquisite combination of style, dialogue, wit, and chemistry between John Steed and Mrs. Peel. (Cathy Gale and Tara King have their own fans, but I am not among them).

I first saw the series in reruns on Sunday afternoon when I was very young and my father was watching. Details are vague, but I remember that checkerboard filmed for the American audience to help us understand. Not sure what the exact correlation is there, but it t dazzled me.

"Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers."

When I later watched reruns as a teen, it was the unique and appealing relationship between a worldly man and an independent, braniac woman who happens to be stunning that kept me watching.  Mrs. Peel is a scientist, something played out more explicitly in the black and white season than the color.

Patrick Macnee had the unique professional opportunity of projecting his own creativity into the character he was hired to play: the journey started as a very shadowy, poorly limned second banana to Ian Hendry in the earliest series called The Avengers. When Hendry left, the show focused on Steed and his "secret agentness" and a civilian partner, Cathy Gale, was introduced.

When Honor Blackman left the series, Diana Rigg stepped in after a big search and a short, false start with Elizabeth Shepherd, who did not have much on screen chemistry with Macnee.

It's the chemistry between Macnee and Rigg that allowed the production team, including Brian Clemens, Julian Wintle, and Albert Fennell to let Steed & Mrs. Peel bring a very special élan to the TV landscape along with that partnership, first messaged meeting up on the chessboard, and then so simply with legs up on a desk.

There is a delicious sexual tension between the duo, with hints that they may have been lovers in the past before Mrs. Peel married, and that they are FOBs while Peter Peel is lost in the jungle from a plane crash.

Emma Peel: You know my wavelength.
John Steed: I do indeed.

That Hour That Never Was

A Touch of Brimstone

How to Succeed . . .at Murder

Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Station
Who's Who????

The Winged Avenger

Steed has impeccable manners, a ruthless streak, English reserve, a Bentley, Savile Row then Pierre Cardin suits, the perfect incarnation of an umbrella: he was the ideal of "English to the core" for post-War TV culture. 

The stories are imaginative and sometimes crazy, tiptoeing into science fiction in The Man-Eater of Surrey Green, mind control in Too Many Christmas Trees, and a villain who wants to drown the world with a rain-making machine in Surfeit of H20 (which was the basis for the "film which will not be named.") It's the total package for a fan.

When Diana Rigg left the series, her last line of dialogue as Mrs. Peel to Steed is

"Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds."

Sweet advice, which I hope also served Macnee well over his long life. 

Fan Tributes
This is a short, poetic look at the duo, set to Norah Jones singing "The Nearness of You."

And this is a great look at Mrs. Peel, set to The Kinks.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Man on Wire" Becomes "Men with Parachutes": I'm Sad They Are on Trial

Update: The trial for the 3 young men who BASE-jumped from 1 WTC last year is underway. I still cannot believe the charges. From the Assistant DA's opening statement reported in the Daily News:

“This case is about the defendants' decision to exploit a New York City monument for their own selfish thrill and to turn the Freedom Tower into a crime scene before its doors were even open,” Assistant District Attorney Joseph Giovannetti.

It is exactly NOT that. They did not do it to exploit, or endanger. They did it because they are young and free. Our enemies convince teens to strap-on bombs on and blow people up. These guys CELEBRATE life by having the spirit to do something a little crazy, but harmless, if you read about their preparation. Watch the video below from the helmet-cam of one of the jumpers. You will see expert skill, and an empty roadway, as they knew it would be.

I pray that the jury embraces them, as they should. And give them community service to teach kids to always wear helmets . . . whenever they BASE-jump.

My original post:

 "The Port Authority joins the NYPD in condemning this lawless and selfish act that clearly endangered the public," Port Authority Chief Security Officer Joseph Dunne said in a statement. "It should be clear that the PAPD and NYPD will go to any length to bring those who defile the WTC site to justice."

Joseph Dunne's statement on the three men who BASE-jumped from One World Trade Center is one of the most depressing things I've read in a long time.

And competition for 'most sad and depressing things' is pretty high right now. 239 people vanish in a jumbo airplane that went wildly off course into the devouring expanse of the Indian Ocean--one of the closest realizations we have for "the middle of no where." 14 people have died horrific deaths in a mudslide in Washington, and 179 are still missing. Russia is trying to annex Crimea as though we were in the 19th century. And yet, the official condemnation of the jump from 1 World Trade Center ranks right up there.

September 2013
The topping off ceremony for 1WTC was on May 10, 2013. Four months after that, on September 30, at 3:00 am, four young guys climbed through a hole in a fence, made their way to the top of One World Trade Center, and three of them base jumped onto the West Side Highway. It was a caper. They admit to being thrill seekers, who saw a challenge.

‘It's a fair amount of free-fall time,’ said Andrew Rossig, one of the jumpers. ‘You really get to enjoy the view of the city and see it from a different perspective.’

They filmed the event, but as a private moment. At 3:00 in the morning, they knew there was almost no traffic on the West Side Highway, and as expert jumpers, no one was really endangered.

'Our intent was never for this to go public. We never posted the video footage. People didn’t know about it. We kept things quiet. As far as we were concerned, no one ever needed to know,' he added

They only posted their video after the police arrested them on Monday—six months after the jump—a week after the 16-year old kid from Jersey made his way to the top of the building too. So security is definitely something that the authorities need to look into. Right now. No question.

August 1974 . . . An Earlier Crime
On August 4, 1974, Phillipe Petite, a French high-wire artist, pulled off a stunt to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Since he first read about the building of the towers at 17 he was obsessed with the idea of walking between them, and for 45 minutes, just before his 25th birthday, he did it.

He called it "the artistic crime of the century." And yes, it was a crime. No question. He trespassed, endangered others, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The title of the documentary Man on Wire that tells the story of how he did it comes from the police report that was filed: it was the best way the cop could think of at that moment to describe the crime. Yup, a man was on a wire.

And then people started marveling. What beauty. What positive imagination. What spirit of soul. What skill.

Ultimately the district attorney dropped all formal charges of trespassing and other items relating to his walk. In exchange, Petite was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park and other acts of community service.

And then the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck. Of course they thought it would be Petite's lifetime, not the towers.

Back to the Present
And now we have a new caper. Same beauty. Same inspiration, Same positive imagination. Same spirit of soul. Same crazy amount of skill. It's still a crime. And of course the site is changed forever since Phillipe's crime by the victims of the terrorist attacks.

These guys were not out to make a grand statement. They are thrill seekers. But life and spirit and imagination are the BEST weapons against the nihilism and death and hatred of terrorists. And to reclaim a site of such horrific death by something that makes the spirit smile is the best we who continue can do.

I LOVE seeing their film.  I love experiencing the fall vicariously, seeing the moment when the parachute opens. Seeing the landing, and running away to hide the parachute. I am so happy to have had this tiny little experience.

And this feeling of admiration sits along side the current day Port Authority guy calls it "defiling" the WTC.

So make the guys teach safe bicycling, or skateboarding, whatever to children, insisting that they wear helmets. And show them that there are consequences to actions.

But most importantly: show them that their spirits can never be destroyed by others who hate, and that they will be fine as long as they have friends who have their back.

(top photo: my copy of The New Yorker from 2006 with one of its all-time great covers.)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Happy 150 B-day, William Butler Yeats, from the Girl with the Yellow Hair

Of all the poets I love, Yeats is first among equals in my heart. His sensibility, the imagery, the unrequited love of Maude Gonne, founding of the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Republic Nationalism coming from a scion of the Protestant Ascendancy: Yeats is simply magical from every angle. Wiki tells us that the Nobel Prize Committee described his work as "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."

His phrases and imagery are instantly recognized and much beloved around the world: that "pilgrim soul" and he who "hid this face amid a crowd of stars; that is no country for old men; an aged man is but a paltry thing/a tattered coat upon a stick; wings have memory of wings; tread softly; a terrible beauty is born; I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love; nearly every line of The Second Coming: Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. . . And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I studied Yeats quite a bit in college and grad school, but there was one poem I had not read until a psychiatrist I was going to brought it up in a session. I never understood the dear doc's point, but I love that Yeats had some thoughts specifically for blondes.  "For Anne Gregory"

NEVER shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.'

'But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.'

'I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.

Monday, June 8, 2015

TV Board Games 101: Dan Harmon Is Community's Old Soul

For some reason I started watching Community back in the day, Anno Domini 2009, aka season 1, and I was hooked. The repartee of the study group at Greendale Community College was some of the wittiest to be found. The pop culture references resonated strongly with me, making me part of its "cult following," and I was not afraid.

I will not try to summarize the élan of a series, you have to experience it for itself (try Hulu, Netflix).

But I must celebrate the tag scene of the season 6 finale--the season that streams on Yahoo--as a beautiful revelation of the old soul of Dan Harmon.


As of this writing it is not known whether the season 6 finale "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television" is the series finale, or if there will be a season 7 on Yahoo or some other streaming service.

Dan Harmon wrote the episode with the characters pitching what could happen in a season 7. And that was fun.  But it's a fake TV commerical for the Community board game, with a family playing it on the dining room table, that is one of the all-time smartest endings of a series.

Yes. A board game. Based on a TV show.

They were a staple of my childhood. But I would think the whole phenomenon was about 10 years before Harmon's time: he was born in 1973. He wouldn't have first-hand attachment to this early merchandising.

But it's as though Dan Harmon was hovering over my girlhood birthdays (and my older brother's) and our Christmas mornings and learning what these games meant to us. From a crass perspective it was all the beginnings of the movie/TV tie-in merchandizing—sometimes officially counted from the Star Wars product juggernaut that started in 1977—but for a child these Milton Bradley/Ideal games were the first real-world extension of the TV show bond.

TV watching for me as a child was family time together, either the whole family, or just with my older brother in our playroom. I didn't really follow the shows we watched in the late sixties/early seventies, but that wasn't the point. It was time together around something as powerful as narrative.

Land of the Giants; The Time Tunnel; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Get Smart; the Saturday morning game show Shenanigans.

And then, when either my brother or I would get the board game as a present, it was exciting. We could use our imagination and  play at being the characters in Land of the Giants: I remember that safety pin circle card as though it were yesterday. And for Shenanigans it was like being in the TV game: I remember the Pie Eye and the tiddlywinks SO vividly. We played these games for hours and hours, and I played them with my friends for more hours and hours.

Community: the Board Game

For Harmon to end Community with a board game—a nondigital, noninteractive game— in 2015 is absolutely hysterical. The usual Community attention to the details of an homage is top-notch: the board pieces, the spinner, the action cards are all spot on.  It all works beautifully and harkens back to my childhood's simpler TV time, when the beloved tropes and semiotics of TV programming were just crawling their way out of the primordial soup. 

And then Harmon introduces the twist: the Son plays the script for Community as a ploy to take his Dad's pieces. But Dad realizes that if there's a script, then "they" don't exist. "We haven't been created by God, but by a joke."

Dad then plays the trump "snow globe" card: "We're all just a part of the universe in here."
(That's the Tommy Westphall Universe of course). This brings the family into sadness, as they contemplate their non-existence.

And so the ad voice-over comes in, as it does, with the details.

"Dice not included. Some assembly required."

(The dice were always included, so maybe it's a nod to "Remedial Chaos Theory" and the role of the die that lead to the darkest timeline?)

And then Harmon gives the perfect summation of his show, read quickly in his own"fine print don't pay attention to this" voice.

Lines between perception, desire and reality may become blurred, redundant or interchangeable.

Characters may hook up with no regard for your emotional investment. Some episodes too conceptual to be funny, some too funny to be immersive and some so immersive they still aren't funny.

Consistency between seasons may vary.

Viewers may be measured by a secretive, obsolete system based on selected participants keeping hand written journals of what they watch.

Show may be cancelled and moved to the internet where it turns out tens of millions were watching the whole time. May not matter.

Fake commercial may end with disclaimer gag which may descend into vain, Chuck Lorre-esque rant by narcissistic creator.

Creator may be unstable. Therapist may have told creator this is not how you make yourself a good person. Life may pass by while we ignore and mistreat those close to us. Those close to us may be those watching. Those people may want to know I love them but I may be incapable of saying it.

Contains pieces the size of a child's esophagus.

To capture entire imaginary worlds and systems of media in a minute ad takes a lot of talent. To also evoke an emotional component is the work of an old soul. I hope Harmon turns down any opportunity to continue on to a season 7. I don't think the fans would be well served, and it would ruin this perfect closure.  But I'm all for #andamovie.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Et in Arcadia ego: Happy Birthday, Brideshead Revisited

 I drank soda water and smoked and freted
until light began to break 
 and the rustle of a rising breeze 
turned me back to my bed.
The Telegraph tells us that we are upon the 70th anniversary of the publication of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited last week, Anno Domini 1945. The effortless poetic cadence of this simple narration from Charles Ryder is just one of the qualities that binds me to Waugh and the story.

I came to the novel through the heralded 1981 Granada TV adaptation, which was the most lyrical, visually stunning program anyone had ever seen produced for TV.

The novel was one of many that my father picked up for me in the church thriftstore he and my mother visited every week, quietly building an impressive library for me until I was ready to partake.

The beauty of Brideshead is that it gives several of the ages of man a touchstone: I was in college when Sebastian & Charles seduced a TV generation. It was a thrill to be so young and read so young, to feel an affinity for the elan of their Oxford even in the quads of Rutgers.  Now I feel the weight and lightness of Charles's middle age, loving/understanding with a middle-age depth that the sanctuary light at the end does make all the difference.  (It's a nice touch that the first American edition of the novel was printed with a "sanctuary light" red cover. )


Several years ago I had a very visceral reaction to a freakishly cold August. Thoughts of Brideshead flooded my thinking, along with long forgotten, but very stirring memories of my own visit to Oxford during my college years.

Midautumn has descended into the beauty of our late August. No, no, I’m not ready. I long for the warmth of air and brightness of the summer sun.

The relentless rain/todrizzle/torain will not last, they say, it’s just a freak of nature.

This unnatural August coldness has a strange affect on memory, summoning long unvisited thoughts. As I put on yet another sweater, Oxford 25 years ago fill my consciousness.

It’s Eights Weeks, and visitors are teeming everywhere. I’m with friends of friends at Wadham College boathouse to watch the races, followed by an "End of the Empire" dance.

We see a musical Alice in Wonderland performed in the Christ Church Cathedral Gardens. It is a magical, site-specific event: the Dean of Christ Church in Dodgson's day was Dr. Liddell & it was his daughters that Carroll wrote for. The Dean's Garden is next to the Cathedral Garden. The chestnut tree in the Dean's Garden is the one in which the Cheshire Cat sat, and Alice's little green door joins the two gardens. I feel like I have gone beyond the looking glass.

We attend a sung Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral, the exquisite lines of Victoria Missa O Quam Gloriosum soaring up to Heaven. It was my fist experience of an English choir, and I did not know the tradition of boy sopranos. I kept looking for the women who were singing such extraordinary notes.

Then over to the Turf for lunch. In memory there is much sunshine and warmth and beauty.

These real experience of Oxford entwine in my heart with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

In the coldness of August I feel his epithet for book 1: Et in Arcadia ego: the haunting Latin phrase on the tomb in Poussin’s pastoral painting, considered to be uttered by Death, “I am also in Arcadia.” I quietly despair the mirror Ryder is for me "I'm homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hopper."

The cold days in a New York August--a memento mori in the summer of a life. Yet. I am glad to be reminded of mortality, and Waugh, but thrilled that the warmth and sun of the season are coming back. It’s not over, there is eternally more. Something Captain Charles Ryder himself "found this morning, burning anew amid the old stones." I quickened my pace to the subway . . .