Dreamcatcher (2015): Premiering Tonight on Showtime


An excellent documentary about prostitution and human trafficking, focusing on one dynamo activist, Brenda Myers-Powell, and her organization The Dreamcatcher Foundation. Directed by veteran documentarian Kim Longinotto. It premieres on Showtime tonight.

My review of “Dreamcatcher” is now up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | 2 Comments

Ebertfest 2015 Lineup

It’s going to be an awesome festival. I can’t wait. And, even more exciting, my mother is coming with me! She and I attended the 2013 Ebertfest together, mainly because I had just been diagnosed and was still in the midst of the crisis. Still spiraling up and down, not stable at all. I needed her to help me manage my illness in the midst of all that film festival activity. She was amazing. And she also got Haskell Weller’s autograph. So, you know, it was a win-win for all involved. Now, though, I am stronger … so we will just have a blast, seeing movies, hanging out, and talking about everything we just saw.

It’s a wonderful lineup of films – the latest Godard! the magnificent Ida! Groundhog Day! – and I am really looking forward to it.

Posted in Movies | 2 Comments

Supernatural: Season 10, Episode More Peril, Please. Open Thread.


Catch ya on the flip side.

Posted in Television | Tagged | 135 Comments

Starsky & Hutch Unleashed


It’s Paul Michael Glaser’s birthday today and my friend Mitchell posted this photo on Facebook, commenting: “No wonder why I loved this show.”

The photo has made my day. I want it framed on my wall.

Posted in Television | 14 Comments

On This Day: March 25, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sweatshop located on 23-29 Washington Place, right off Washington Square Park. The majority of workers were immigrant women. In the years preceding the fire, The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union had been working to organize the garment workers all over America. There had been many strikes (and violent ones). These brave women were arrested time and time again. Because the garment workers were mostly immigrant women, happy to be in America, happy to have jobs at all, getting them organized to criticize their working conditions was quite a feat. You tell the boss you need better ventilation? After you fled pogroms in Russia? What are you, cracked? You keep your head down, you be grateful you’re here at all, you do what you’re told. But those were the early days of the labor movement in this country, and alongside of the Union there were also organizations of mainly middle-class do-gooders (we would call them that now) who helped these workers to organize, providing support and encouragement. They were asking for an 8 hour work day and safe working conditions. In 1909, there was a giant walk-out organized, historic, really. Other unions in the garment trade had small victories around that time, but much of the changes were slow in implementation, and certainly not in place to stave off the catastrophe that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

March 25, 1911 was a Saturday. Survivors say that if the fire had broken out on a weekday, the death toll would have been much higher: the place was not as full as it normally would have been Monday through Friday. A couple of survivors say that that was the day women would come to pick up their checks, even if they weren’t working that day. So there are many stories of women who were only there, waiting around to get their paychecks … or of women who decided NOT to pick up their paycheck that day and wait until Monday, thereby saving their own lives inadvertently. The fire broke out on the top floors of the building. The workers would store fabric underneath their stations, and there were scraps of fabric everywhere, which made the fire basically explode in the small enclosed space. It was a natural lighting fluid. The exit doors were locked, many of them. Some of the women on the very top floors escaped via the rooftop. Within minutes, the 8th and 9th floors were engulfed in flames, and women were jumping to their deaths. There were only a couple of elevators. The exit doors were locked. They were always locked. One of the survivors says that the doors were locked because the superintendent was afraid women would walk out with dresses/shirts they had made, and try to sneak them out that way. So, women crowded up at the locked doors, banging and screaming, their hair and clothes burning off of them. Women crowded out onto the fire escapes to escape the blaze, and the fire escapes began to buckle under the weight. The fire trucks – which had arrived within minutes, had ladders but, awfully, they did not reach the 8th floor. There was a gap of a couple of stories. And so the trapped women began to jump. Passersby stood and watched as woman after woman leapt out of the windows and off of the fire escapes, plunging to the sidewalk below. I can only imagine the horror.

I was talking with my friend Jen about it once and she told me that her great-grandmother had worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and had quit two months before the fire.

Here is the story, transcribed from text messages from Jen and her mother:

[Her name was] Sadie Heilweil married name. Sadie Coopervasser maiden name… She was born in Austria on September 24th 1886. She was married to Abe in 1911, in NYC, while she was working at Triangle. I know she worked on collars and cuffs. She told me and she helped another woman with her work as she was a slow worker and Sadie was fast. They did piecework. She said one of her friends escaped down the elevator shaft by wrapping her long hair around the cable and sliding down.

Interview with survivor, Dora Maisler, 1957 (full transcript here):

Q: You went to the funeral . . . ?
Maisler: Oh, I used to go, sure. But I belonged then to the union. I wanted them, you see. But not too much that you can make history about that.
Q: Did you go to the funeral?
Maisler: No. I couldn’t.
Female Voice: You were still in a state of shock? Is that what you mean?
Maisler: Yeah, I cried. I know I couldn’t see it. I just couldn’t see it without [inaudible]. I was there in 1950 in New York. I liked to go in the cemetery. I have a friend of mine who every chance she goes to New York. She – she didn’t work there. She – she goes to the cemetery. I – I understand there was one stone.
Q: One stone for everybody.
Maisler: For everybody.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the worst single disaster in the entire Industrial Revolution. It changed the history of American labor, and it changed New York City forever. We are still marked by it.

In the wake of the fire, there were of course law suits and civil suits (I believe the owners of the sweatshop were acquitted). Many of the workers who survived were changed forever. One of them says she never worked again. Her mother wouldn’t let her. But outside of the personal level, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a watershed moment in American history. Safety codes, fire codes, clearly marked exit doors, proper ventilation, regular inspections, cleanliness codes, fire engine ladder height … all of these things were implemented in the wake of the disaster, in the hopes that nothing that awful would ever happen again.

by Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers–

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

Interview with survivor Pauline Pepe, 1986 (full transcript here):

Pepe: I never want – I don’t know what – I used to sew a lot of things but I never thought – but my friends encouraged me. The people around the neighborhood. Says, “Oh, come on. We have a good time. We have lunch together.” We used to bring our lunch. We used to walk and laugh. Coming in, oh, we had such a good time.
That was a terrible thing. And when we got down, we saw the three flights burning. I said, what good – were we up there? We couldn’t imagine we – the three flights were – the wind was blowing all up and everything was caught.
David: Umm.
Pepe: From one – one, two, three – the three flights, the office and everything were burning. Three flights all burning.
Daughter: Eight, nine, and ten it must have been.
Pepe: Oh, and . . .
Q: Right, right.
Daughter: Yes, it was eight, nine, and ten.
David: Yeah, that’s right.
Daughter: Cause it started on the eighth.
Pepe: Yeah. They – he – they had a big office upstairs and that’s where they had all the . . .
Q: What was it like out on the street? What – when the firemen let you go out from the building.
Pepe: Oh, my God, we never thought we were up there. We were all very nervous and crying. My God. I was cold. I had no coat or nothing. Some man was very nice; he took us in the car. He asked where we were going.
Q: So you didn’t stay there? You went straight home? So they did let you . . .
Pepe: Oh, straight home. We were – they were glad to take us home. The firemen. Sure.
Daughter: What was – what was going on downstairs when you came down? What did you see when you came down from . . . ?
Pepe: The people. There all – all bodies – oh, oh, oh, it was terrible. We got sick. We had – we had to – the man took us away right away. You know, they – some of them went down with those who – you know those little glasses?
David: Yeah. The [inaudible] lights.
Pepe: They went right through that. Can you imagine?
Q: And you saw that? You saw, like, the broken glass.
Pepe: The people – oh, when I think of all those girls getting engaged to be married, oh, I felt terrible. [Slightly tearful.] That was a sight to see.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. From the Wikipedia page, a first-hand account from Louis Waldman:

One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library… It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.

The fire was the galvanizing tragedy of the labor movement in America, but the cost was far too high. 146 people died.

Remember them.

Rasputina: “My Little Shirtwaist Fire”
Once it started
The frail and fainthearted
Just withered to the floor
Oh, so sadly
We examined hands burned badly
By that which no man fears more.

The terrible flames of
All that remains of
My Little Shirtwaist Fire

My best friend
Was alone in the alcove,
Does anyone see her there?

Such a sweet face
Trapped in a staircase
By the smell of her own burning hair and the

Terrible flames of
All that remains of
My Little Shirtwaist Fire

Glow baby glow as the embers they died there,
Nobody knows what we saw inside there.
Twisting and burning, the girls’ fine young bodies

Yes, we’re burning can you help us please?
Yes, we’re begging, we’re on bended knees
Oh, My Little Shirtwaist Fire.

Girls work hard for
Small rewards or
Invitations to dine.

Or one kind word from
One who loves them but
What I have earned is mine

The terrible flames of
All that remains of
My Little Shirtwaist Fire

Posted in On This Day | Tagged | 6 Comments

The Books: Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001: ‘The Indefatigable Hoof-Taps: Sylvia Plath,’ by Seamus Heaney


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001.

Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes were great friends. Heaney also knew Plath, casually, through his association with Hughes. His essay on Plath comes from a slight remove, which is actually a relief, since so much of the writing about Plath is over-heated, biased, or has a “J’accuse” feeling to it, highlighting her victimhood as though her suicide is the most interesting thing about her. If you love Plath, as I do, and my relationship with her work has gone on for really the majority of my life (I discovered her when I was 15) … then good strong criticism of her actual work is a breath of fresh air. Similar to Elvis Presley, to River Phoenix, to Kurt Cobain … any major artist who “checks out” early ends up making a comment on their work, on their life, through that early death. This happens whether we like it or not. And so everything starts to have portent, because it flows into that early death like an inevitable force. I dislike this approach, although I understand why it happens. What ends up happening is that the work ends up being analyzed ONLY in conjunction with that early death. This gives us the “What if” form of criticism, a level or two above fanfic, and so then more energy is spent being sad about what DIDN’T happen as opposed to joy at what DID happen. I’ve written about this before, mainly in terms of Elvis, but it’s true with a lot of other figures. Sylvia Plath is an interesting case. It IS hard to talk about Plath. How do you get all of that other stuff out of the way? All I can really do is remember my first encounter with her poetry, and how it seared through me with its power, its frightening voice, the unforgettable parade of images (the black yew tree, the buzzing bees in the orchard, the blood-red poppies, the moon rising, eyeless mannequins) … It was one of those moments that happens rarely: where an artist becomes a part of you almost instantly. I read the Ariel poems for the first time and was a fanatic for life. I was in. I would read everything she ever wrote, and I have continued to do so, over and over and over again. It has been a shifting relationship. The adolescent Sheila does not respond to what the adult Sheila responds to. The suicidal Sheila does not respond to what the well Sheila responds to. These poems shift, and morph, and change … depending on where YOU are at.

There are some things I thrilled to at 16 that did not “make the cut” once I grew up a little more. But Plath lasted.

Now about those poems that she wrote in the last months of her life. The poems that would be published posthumously in the Ariel volume. The poems that are taught in classrooms today. It is true that she wrote them at a manic speed, sometimes up to 4 poems a day. Her friends were worried. Yes, the poems were extraordinary, but they scared the shit out of people. The general reaction was: “Wow, these are amazing poems. But … uhm … are you okay?” It was not just the poems that frightened – it was the pace that also frightened. She was headed for a crash. The productivity would end. And then what? But in that time … say, September 1962 to her death in February 1963, she was on fire. The details of her life are well-known so I won’t go into it too much. The thing about these poems, the fall 1962 poems especially, is that they are highly intricate. The “bee poems”. I mean …

And I think the myth is that she tossed these off, her “madness” almost helping to create her “genius,” and blah blah blah. No. The evidence suggests the contrary. Each poem went through multiple rigorous drafts. She kept her drafts, dating them. The first draft may have been “tossed off,” but after that came the painstaking editing process – entire verses slashed, words replaced, re-writing done – all at a condensed and fiery speed. The editing process is belabored. And for Plath it was too. But she was working at warp-speed. What might have taken a month, took a 24-hour period.

There is an entire book written about the “revising” process of the Ariel poems.

Heaney’s essay on Plath is insightful and heartening to any Plath fans who get sick of the “victim narrative” that colors critical assessment of her work. I am going to excerpt from just one section of the essay, where he discusses the poem “Elm,” including its various drafts. The drafts are illuminating because it shows Plath’s mindset as well as her creativity unleashed, her filtering process, her decision-making process. You can feel her whittling away at the images until she reaches the right one. That takes a couple of drafts.

Ted Hughes felt that “Elm,” along with a couple of other key poems, represented the real breakthrough in her work. She had had semi-breakthroughs before, moments that predict the 1962 “voice”. But honestly, her 1950s work, her 1960 work … it’s still labored, careful, precocious. Effective, mind you, with a couple of flashes of what was to come (“The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “Full Fathom Five,” many others) … but Hughes gave us the image of Plath composing poems with a Thesaurus balanced on her knee, and that’s how they read.

Not so the poems that began to explode in the summer/fall of 1962, with the breakup of her marriage. “Elm” is a major poem, and represents a breaking-away from the past for Plath.

It’s fucking scary (just in case you’ve never read it before, and have to prepare yourself.) When I was in high school I had a nightmare about the fourth-to-last stanza. So, you know. Consider yourself warned.

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?

Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Echoing, echoing.

Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.

I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?

I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?——

Its snaky acids hiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.

The arch Sylvia, the scholarship-girl, the straight-A student, the overachiever, the Mummy-pleaser … these identities were so strong for Plath, so engrained, that they had to be killed outright. There had to be that strong a break. The psychosis of the 1950s expectation for women … I mean, that was a huge part of it. She had internalized that stuff. Until finally it exploded in her face. From that carnage came the unforgettable voice heard in “Elm.”

Heaney is interested in the poem “Elm,” in Hughes’ observations about it (he included one of the drafts for “Elm” in the Collected Poems of Plath that he edited after her death), and also in Plath’s various drafts. I appreciate his insights because it has to do with language, primarily. Not just psychology or autobiography. But picking “the right words at the right time,” and how Plath worked at that.

Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, ‘The Indefatigable Hoof-Taps: Sylvia Plath’ by Seamus Heaney

Ted Hughes has written about Sylvia Plath’s breakthrough into her deeper self and her poetic fate: he locates the critical moment in her writing at the composition of the poem called “Stones” … In this middle stretch of her journey, she practices the kind of poem adumbrated by Pound – in Canto I, for example – in which a first voice amplifies the scope of its utterance by invoking classical or legendary parallels. These poems are serenely of their age, in that the conventions of modernism and the insight of psychology are relayed in an idiom intensely personal, yet completely available. When we read, for example, the opening lines of ‘Elm,’ the owls in our own dream branches begin to halloo in recognition:

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

In his edition of the Collected Poems, Ted Hughes provides a note to ‘Elm,’ and an earlier draft from which this deeply swayed final version emerged. There are still twenty-one worksheets to go, so the following represents only what Hughes calls ‘a premature crystallization’. (The wych-elm which occasioned the poems grows on the shoulder of a moated prehistoric mound outside the house where Plath and Hughes lived.)

She is not easy, she is not peaceful;
She pulses like a heart on my hill.
The moon snags in her intricate nervous system.
I am excited seeing it there
It is like something she has caught for me.

The night is a blue pool; she is very still.
At the centre she is still, very still with wisdom.
The moon is let go, like a dead thing.
Now she herself is darkening
Into a dark world I cannot see at all.

The contrast between this unkindled, external voice and the final voice of “I know the bottom, she says” is astonishing. The draft is analytical and unaroused, a case of ego glancing around on the surface of language. In fact, what Plath is doing here is packaging insights she had arrived at in another definitive tree poem called “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” a subject set by Ted Hughes, who writes in his “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath’s Poems”:

Early one morning, in the dark, I saw the full moon setting on to a large yew that grows in the churchyard, and I suggested she make a poem of it. By midday, she had written it. It depressed me greatly. It’s my suspicion that no poem can be a poem that is not a statement from the powers in control of our life, the ultimate suffering and decision in us.

“Elm” clearly comes from a similar place, from the ultimate suffering and decision in Sylvia Plath, but access to that place could not occur until the right rhythm began to turn under her tongue and the sentence-sounds started to roll like flywheels of the poetic voice. The ineffectual wing-beats of “The night is a blue pool; she is very still. / At the centre she is still, very still with wisdom” are like the bird of poetry at the glass pane of intelligence, seeing where it needs to go but unable to gain entry. But the window glass is miraculously withdrawn, and deep free swoops into the blue pool and into the centre are effected with effortless penetration once the new lines begin to run:

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?

Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it.
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

Here too is dramatic evidence of another mark of high achievement, the interweaving of imaginative constants from different parts of the oeuvre. These hooves are related to the hooves of the runaway Ariel, just as they are also pre-echoes of the phantom hoof-taps of “Words.”

The elm utters an elmy consciousness; it communicates in tree-speak: “This is the rain now, this big hush.” But the elm speaks poet-consciousness also. What is exciting to observe in this poem is the mutation of voice; from being a relatively cool literary performance, aware of its behavior as a stand-in for a tree, it gradually turns inward and intensifies. Somewhere in the middle, between a stanza like:

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires

— between this immensely pleasurable mimesis and the far more disturbing expressionism of

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity

— between these two stanzas the poem has carried itself – and the poet, and the reader – from the realm of tactful, estimable writing to the headier, less prescribed realm of the inestimable. It is therefore no surprise to read in Ted Hughes’s notes of 1970 that he perceives “Elm” as the poem which initiates the final phase, that phase whose poems I attempted to characterize earlier as seeming to have sprung into being at the behest of some unforeseen but completely irresistible command.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

We Are the Best! Girl Power: “Enter Sandman”

The band is The Warning. The musicians are: Daniela (14 years old) on guitar, Paulina (12 years old) on drums, and Alejandra (9 years old) on bass.

Posted in Music | Tagged | 3 Comments

On This Day: March 24, 1955: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on this day, in 1955, in New York. Brooks Atkinson, one of Williams’s staunchest critic supporters, wrote: “[The play seemed] not to have been written. It is the quintessence of life.” The performances were praised to the rooftops, Ben Gazzara became THE new guy in town, and Cat ended up running for almost 700 performances. It was a smash hit, playing to standing-room only houses. (There was a production in New York in 2013, and my friend Ted had some thoughts on the play’s long-lasting power.)

Cat was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Ben Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes. Williams was tormented by the writing of this play. He found it “messy”, and wrote in his journal that “the intrusion of the homosexual theme may be fucking it up again”. But he kept at it. He always kept at it.

On April 3, 1954, Williams wrote to his agent Audrey Wood:

Here’s a sort of rough draft of the play that threw me into such a terrible state of depression last summer in Europe, I couldn’t seem to get a grip on it. I haven’t done much with it since then, but I would like to have this draft typed up, so that I will at least be able to read it with less confusion. Although it is very wordy it is still too short and would need a curtain-raiser to make a full evening. But I do think it has a terrible sort of truthfulness about it, and the tightest structure of anything I have done. And a terrifyingly strong final curtain.

In June of that year, he wrote to Cheryl Crawford (director, producer):

I let Audrey read “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” while she was here and to my surprise she seemed to take a great liking to it, said the material excited her more than anything I’ve done since “Streetcar”. But she doesn’t find it complete in its present form and wants me to add another act to it. So far I don’t agree with her. I think it tells a full story, though it is under conventional length, and that as soon, or if I get back my creative breath, i can fill out these two acts (or 3 long scenes as they actually are) to a full evening without extending the story as I see it.

Williams’s back-and-forth with his agent are always really good reading, dealing as they do with the creative process. Here is part of a letter Williams wrote to Wood in September, 1954:

I agree in principle with what you say in your letter … but I feel there are circumstances to consider carefully in this instance. For one thing, I gathered that your enthusiasm for the “Cat” play is more or less contingent on my adding another act to it. To me the story is complete in its present form, it says all that I had to say about these characters and their situation, it was conceived as a short full-length play: there are three acts in it. First, Brick and his wife. Second, Brick and Big Daddy. Third, The family conference. They are short acts but complete, and I thought at least structurally the play was just right, I liked there being no time lapse between the acts, one flowing directly into the others, and it all taking place in the exact time that it occupies in the theatre. I would hate to lose that tightness, that simplicity, by somehow forcing it into a more extended form simply to satisfy a convention of theatre, would much rather risk the prejudice that might be incurred by bringing down a curtain at 10:30 or 10:45 and possibly raising it a little later to compensate. Or even using a good one-act play as a curtain-raiser.

This was a disagreement that would go on and on (even carrying over into Kazan’s feelings about the play, which culminated in there being TWO versions published: Williams’s preferred version, and then Kazan’s staged version).

Williams only wanted Kazan to direct, naturally. Kazan was “his” director. Williams sent the play to Kazan, and then began a back and forth between them. They were very close intimate friends and colleagues – they were able to speak truthfully to one another (sometimes forcefully), expressing emotions of dismay or conviction – without sugar-coating things. This is the collaborative process. I would so love to have Kazan’s side of these letters published – or to have a volume of the Williams-Kazan correspondence – showing BOTH sides, because while Williams gave birth to these plays (and Kazan has said that all of Williams’s plays came to him complete, needing no major revisions – but Cat is the exception) – Kazan was the “midwife”. It was his input and sensibility that helped ground Williams’s lyrical and sometimes sentimental art.

Williams sent Kazan one of his preproduction rewrites with the following note (obviously an ongoing conversation between the two of them):

The play was not just negative, since it was packed with rage, and rage is not a negative thing in life. It is positive, dynamic! … [Brick’s] one of the rich and lucky! Got everything without begging, was admired and loved by all. Hero! Beauty! — Two people fell in love with him beyond all bounds. Skipper and Maggie. He built up one side of his life around Skipper, another around Maggie – Conflict: Disaster! — One love ate up the other, naturally, humanly, without intention, just did! Hero is faced with truth and collapses before it … Maggie, the cat, has to give him some instruction in how to hold your position on a hot tin roof, which is human existence which you’ve got to accept on any terms whatsoever … Vitality is the hero of the play! — The character you can “root for” … is not a person but a quality in people that makes them survive.

Kazan had obviously written to Williams giving him some strongly-worded reactions to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It had to do with its structure: the highpoint of the play came in the second act. It should come in the third, according to Kazan (and to Wood). Williams disagreed. In October, 1954, Williams responded:

There is certainly no use in my trying to disguise or dissimulate the fact that I passionately long for you to do this play. But I can understand why you are afraid of its failure although I am not. I don’t mean I think it couldn’t fail. I think it not only could fail but has a fifty-fifty chance of failure, and know how much I have to lose from such a failure, but still I do passionately long for its production and for you to stage it because I think it does that thing which is the pure aim of art, which is to catch and illuminate truly and passionately the true, true quality of human existence. It so happens that the second act has the highest degree of dramatic tension. That has happened before in very fine plays and they have survived it. It has to be compensated, not by a trick or distortion but by charging the final scene with something plus, underlining and dramatizing as powerfully as possible the sheer truth of the material, its very lack of shrewd showmanship, because I think critics and theatre lovers will respect it all the more for not making some facile, easy, obvious concession to the things which a lot of people have complained about in us, both, a too professional, showy, sock-finish to theatre. Am I rationalizing again? Maybe, but on the other hand, I may be simply trying to articulate to you my side of the case … Even if “Cat” is not a good play, it’s a goddam fiercely true play, and what other play this season is going to be that? I resumed work this morning, at 8 a.m. after not much sleep, on Act Three, determined to get what you want without losing what I want. (Assuming they are essentially the same thing, just conceived of in different fashions) I dare to believe that I can work this out, but it would help me immeasurably if you and some producer would give me a vote of confidence by committing yourselves to a date of production with the work still on the bench. I don’t think that I would fail you. Of course I will be disappointed if you refuse, perhaps even angry at you – I was angry with you last night, too angry to sleep! – but I will not hate you for it, and we would still do something together again. I know that you are my friend.

Kazan wrote about this Third-Act disagreement (among other things) in his autobiography. So let’s get his side of things:

I believed Big Daddy could not be left out of the third act. I felt that his final disposition in the story had to be conveyed to an audience. I also thought that the third act was by far the weakest of the three – one and two were brilliant and as good as anything Tennessee ever wrote. I suggested that Big Daddy be brought back into Act Three, a suggestion that had nothing to do with making the play more commercial. Tennessee said he’d think about my suggestion, and a few days later he brought me a short scene where Big Daddy did appear and told a dirty joke. It wasn’t this author’s best work, but perhaps it was better than nothing.

This is a big disagreement. What Kazan describes (the Big Daddy short scene) happened once rehearsals got underway, but the issue was there from the start.

Kazan agreed to direct. A date was set. Work continued on the script. Williams wrote to Kazan on Nov. 3, 1954:

I am glad that in “Cat” we are getting off the chest some of the terrible things that we have to say about human fate. I want to keep the core of the play very hard, because I detest plays that are built around something mushy such as I feel under the surface of many sentimental successes in the theatre. I want the core of the play to be as hard and fierce as Big Daddy. I think he strikes the keynote of the play. A terrible black anger and ferocity, a rock-bottom honest. Only against this background can his moments of tenderness, of longing, move us deeply. This is a play about good bastards and good bitches. I mean it exposes the startling co-existence of good and evil, the shocking duality of the single heart. I am as happy as you are that our discussions have led to a way of high-lighting the good in Maggie, the indestructible spirit of Big Daddy, so that the final effect of the play is not negative, this is a forward step, a step toward a larger truth which will add immeasurably to the play’s power of communication or scope of communication.

Work on the script continued. Kazan sent a 5 page letter to Williams (why can’t I read that letter??), telling Williams his problems with the script – it mainly had to do with the conception of the character Brick.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Allow me a digression:

Tommy Lee Jones came and spoke at my school. He could be frightening at times, and wasn’t afraid to let people know that some of the questions were a little bit stupid. (“So what drew you to doing Ulysses in Nighttown on Broadway?” Jones barked, impatiently, “James Joyce.”) One of my classmates, a playwright, asked (and it was the WAY he asked it that was so funny), “I know that you played Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Having suffered through many a terrible Brick in almost every acting class I have ever been in, I just had to ask you: what’s up with Brick? What’s the challenge, what’s the roadblock?” Tommy Lee Jones’ whole body language changed. He responded to the question physically, perking up, changing his position. He loved it. He responded that his feeling was that Brick came from Williams’s long fascination with Nietzsche, that Williams was working out something in that character that had to do with Nietzsche’s views, and so that had been Jones’s approach to the role.

Because Brick IS a problem, a conundrum. He is not a problem to be solved, mind you, but one of those characters with a deeply unspoken mystery at the heart of him, and that is why he stays in the mind long after the play is over. Jones also felt that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was certainly Williams’s most well-made play, and, ultimately, Williams’s “only truly great play”.

No wonder everyone who worked on the original production felt like they were wrestling with a giant anaconda. Williams was working on something different than he had ever worked on before: the themes in Cat are not the themes of Streetcar or Menagerie – and that play really does stand out (in my opinion) in his body of work as quite singular.

The “homosexual” level of the story was difficult to handle (although crucial), and Williams stuck to his guns about all of it, with an increasing sense that he was not being understood at all. He was more than willing to collaborate, to take in suggestions – but when the suggestions seemed to threaten the core of the play, he pushed back.

Williams wrote in his journal, about Kazan’s Brick comments:

I do get his point but I am afraid he doesn’t quite get mine. Things are not always explained. Situations are not always resolved. Characters don’t always ‘progress’. But I shall, of course, try to arrive at another compromise with him.

In one of his notes on the play, Williams wrote:

The poetic mystery of BRICK is the poem of the play, not its story but the poem of the story, and must not be dispelled by any dishonestly oracular conclusions about him: I don’t know him any better than I know my closest relative or dearest friend which isn’t well at all: the only people we think we know well are those who mean little to us.

In another letter to Kazan, this one from Nov. 31, 1954, Williams talks specifically about the character of Brick, one of the many bones of contention (and seriously: every actor attempting to get by the “roadblock” of this character should not only heed Tommy Lee Jones’s advice, but also read this letter in its entirety):

Why does a man drink: in quotes “drink”. There are two reasons, separte or together. 1. He’s scared shitless of something. 2. He can’t face the truth about something. – Then of course there’s the natural degenerates that just fall into any weak, indulgent habit that comes along but we are not dealing with that sad but unimportant category in Brick. – Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Brick did love Skipper, “the one great good thing in his life which was true”. He identified Skipper with sports, the romantic world of adolescence which he couldn’t go past. Further: to reverse my original (somewhat tentative) premise, I now believe that, in the deeper sense, not th eliteral sense, Brick is homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment: a thing I’ve suspected of several others, such as Brando, for instance. (He hasn’t cracked up but I think he bears watching. He strikes me as being a compulsive eccentric.) I think these people are often undersexed, prefer pet raccoons or sports or something to sex with either gender. They have deep attachments, idealistic, romantic: sublimated loves! They are terrible Puritans. (Marlon dislikes me. Why? I’m “corrupt”) These people may have a glandular set-up which will keep them “banked”, at low-pressure, enough to get by without the eventual crack-up. Take Brando again: he’s smoldering with something and I don’t think it’s Josanne! Sorry to make him my guinea pig in this analysis (Please give this letter back to me!) but he’s the nearest thing to Brick that we both know. Their innocense, their blindness, makes them very, very touching, very beautiful and sad. Often they make fine artists, having to sublimate so much of their love, and believe me, homosexual love is something that also requires more than a physical expression. But if a mask is ripped off, suddenly, roughly, that’s quite enough to blast the whole Mechanism, the whole adjustment, knock the world out from under their feet, and leave them no alternative but – owning up to the truth or retreat into something like liquor ….


Williams is making the case that Brick does, in a way, “progress” (one of Kazan’s criticisms) – that he eventually faces the truth about who he is. Williams goes on in the same letter:

He’s faced the truth, I think, under Big Daddy’s pressure, and maybe the block is broken. I just said maybe. I don’t really think so. I think that Brick is doomed by the falsities and cruel prejudices of the world he comes out of, belongs to, the world of Big Daddy and Big Mama. Sucking a dick or two or fucking a reasonable facsimile of Skipper some day won’t solve it for him, if he ever does such “dirty things”! He’s the living sacrifice, the victim of the play, and I don’t want to part with that “Tragic elegance” about him. You know, paralysis in a character can be just as significant and just as dramatic as progress, and is also less shop-worn. How about Chekhov?

It was time to find the cast. Again, there were disagreements between Kazan and Williams. Kazan writes in his autobiography (and this, to me, is a brilliant analysis of a certain TYPE of woman that perhaps I recognize because, duh, he’s talking about me):

[Barbara Bel Geddes] was not the kind of actress [Williams] liked; she was the kind of actress I liked. I’d known her when she was a plump young girl, and I had a theory – which you are free to ignore – that when a girl is fat in her early and middle teens and slims down later, she is left with an uncertainty about her appeal to boys, and what often results is a strong sexual appetite, intensified by the continuing anxiety of believing herself undesirable. Laugh at that if you will, but it is my impression and it did apply to Miss Bel Geddes. I knew how much a working sexual relationship meant to this young woman and that in every basic way she resembled Maggie the Cat. I trusted my knowledge of her own nature and life and therefore cast her.

I’ve seen actresses play Maggie the Cat as some nympho and I find it misogynistic (on the part of the director, and also the actress, frankly) and incorrect. Misogynistic because it compartmentalizes women into two different groups: the sexy and the unsexy. And the “unsexy” can’t possibly have sexual feelings, right? At least it’s not anything that an audience (male audience, it is assumed) would want to SEE. But everyone on the planet has sexual feelings, and whether or not you want to “see” it is irrelevant. Wanting to SEE something doesn’t give it more value. I find it far more interesting to see Maggie cast as a normal woman, who expected a normal (ie: sexual) relationship with her husband, and is driven to the brink by his refusal to participate. How much more agonizing would that situation be for a woman who already has some anxiety about her attractiveness to men (as pointed out by Kazan)? Anyway, you could take many different tactics with this – and it’s not that a beautiful woman can’t also have insecurities and anxieties – but often the actress playing the role doesn’t include those elements at all (which are in the script). All she does is beg her husband to fuck her, writhing around in a negligee. Well, that’s one (unimaginative) way to go with it. Kazan sensed something in Barbara Bel Geddes that he thought would be powerful and potent in the part.

Young actor Ben Gazzara was cast as Brick. He was well-known at the Actors Studio, but this would be the role that would make him a star. He writes in his autobiography:

When I was cast to play Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it was a dream come true. Every actor wished to be in a Tennessee Williams play directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan had not been abandoned. He lost friends but he worked in film and in the theater whenever he wanted to. And despite the controversy surrounding him, most actors would have killed to work with him, too. He was the “actor’s director” and he had chosen me to work with. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.. I’d seen how Williams’s plays gave actors the material they could delve deeply into – the glorious Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie and the electrifying Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. How would I pull it off?

Gazzara describes the first rehearsal:

When I arrived at the New Amsterdam Roof, near Times Square, where we were to rehearse, everybody was already seated around a huge wooden table. Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams, Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, Mildred Dunnock, Pat Hingle, and Madeleine Sherwood. Seated nearby facing them were Audrey Wood and the producer Roger Stevens of the Playwrights’ Company.

Nobody got up or even said hello. They looked at me in silence. I was embarrassed because I’d arrived late …

But once the reading began, all else was forgotten. To hear Tennessee’s vivid dialogue being spoken by these fine actors was a revelation. The play became much more than I imagined when I’d read it on my own.

Gazzara talks about the part of Brick:

He’s married to a beautiful woman, and I had to make it clear to viewers that rejecting Maggie doesn’t come from his dislike or disgust, but instead from the death of Skipper, the friend he’d loved with a love he never admitted, even to himself. The loss of Skipper leads Brick to more and more booze and even greater disgust with people’s mendacity, especially his own… I worked on reaching into myself to find the broken part of Brick.

What a beautiful way to put it.

Gazzara describes some tense moments at reherasals, when it became clear that Williams was not happy with the casting of Barbara Bel Geddes.

She was much too wholesome for [Williams’s] taste. He was looking for something more neurotic, but I’m sure that Kazan had cast Barbara precisely for that wholesome quality. Theatergoers loved Barbara and therefore she would be able to make audiences embrace this complicated and not always likable character. Gadg [Kazan] was absolutely right about that.

But Tennessee felt there were problems during the scene where Barbara is on her knees embracing my legs and making a plea for me to take her to bed. Tennessee said something like, “Gadge, she’s fuckin’ with my cadence.” He may have thought he was whispering but Tennessee had a deep, mellifluous voice which at that moment was too loud. And he’d been drinking. Well, I looked over and Barbara was gone. She’d run off the stage in tears, so I went after her to console her. When I came back, Gadge looked at me for a long time and said, “You’re a nice guy.” I didn’t understand. Wasn’t it normal to help a lady in distress?

Kazan finally spoke to Williams and told him to lay off Bel Geddes, which he did. Eventually, Williams went up to Bel Geddes and told her she had much improved and he was happy with what she was doing.

The opening approached.

Frequent Kazan-collaborator Jo Mielziner was the set designer. Kazan wrote in his autobiography about the creation of the set for Cat:

Jo Mielziner and I had read the play in the same way; we saw that its great merit was its brilliant rhetoric and its theatricality. I didn’t see the play as realistic any more than he did. If it was to be done realistically, I would have to contrive stage business to keep the old man talking those great second act speeches turned out front and pretend that it was just another day in the life of the Pollitt family. This would, it seemed to me, amount to an apology to the audience for the glory of the author’s language … So I caused Jo to design our setting as I wished, a large triangular platform, tipped toward the audience and holding only one piece of furniture, an ornate bed. This brought the play down to its essentials and made it impossible for it to be played any way except as I preferred.

After a run-through in early March, Tennessee Williams sent his notes to Kazan, some of which I will excerpt here – just a fascinating glimpse of the artistic process:

The bare stage background in New York may have been partly responsible but it seemed to me that the last act of the play, the first part of Act III, suffers from an undue portentousness as if we were trying to cover up some lack of significant content by giving it a “tricky” or inflated style of performance.

In manuscript, in style of writing, this is almost the most realistic scene that I have ever written. I gave enormous care to restricting all the speeches to just precisely what I thought the person would say in precisely such a situation, I tried to give it the quality of an exact transcription of such a scene except for the removal of any worthless irrelevancies. I assumed, and still believe, that the emotional essence of the situation was strong enough to hold interest, and that the exact quality of experience, if captured truly, would give it theatrical distinction…

There is a “poetry of the macabre” which I was creating in all the silly, trivial speeches that precede and surround the announcement to Big Mama, the fuss over what he ate at dinner, the observations about Keeley cure, anti-buse, vitamin B12, the southern gush and playfulness, these all contribute to a shocking comment upon the false, heartless, grotesquely undignified way that such events are treated in our society with its resolute concentration on the trivia of life. Practically all these values disappeared, for me at least, in a distractingly formalistic treatment of the situation…

I’m not happy over the interpretation of Doc Baugh whom I had conceived as a sort of gently ironical figure who had seen so much life and death and participated actively in so much of it that he had a sort of sad, sometimes slightly saturnine, detachment from the scene, a calm and kindly detachment, but he plays like a member of the family, in the same over-charged manner, like a fellow conspirator, especially at the moment when he starts abruptly forward as if about to deliver a speech and says the Keely cure bit at stage-center with such startling emphases. It is off-beat off-key little details like this which give the beginning of Act Three its curiously unreal look-for-the-rabbit-out-of-the-silk-hat air …

I love the noise of the storm fading into the lovely negro lullabye: that’s a true and beautiful bit of non-realistic staging which comes at the right moment and isn’t the least bit exaggerated, in fact I would like to hear the singing better …

After all of this, he closes the letter with:

I am being utterly sincere when I say that, on the whole, you have done one of your greatest jobs. I just want all of it to measure up to the truest and best of it, and to make it plain to everybody that this play is maybe not a great play, maybe not even a very good play, but a terribly, terribly, terribly true play about truth, human truth.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof went on to win Tennessee Williams the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Award.

When Williams heard that he had won both of the plum prizes for a playwright, he sent a telegram to the cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on May 2, 1955:



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Sister Rosetta Tharpe Turned 100

She was crossover before “crossover” was even really a concept. In the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in her rock-star electric guitar playing – electric guitar!, you can see the future of music. You can see Little Richard. You can see Scotty Moore. You can see Keith Richards. It’s all there. She opened that ground up. She created space. It would be up to others to fill that space, and they would … but she had to get there first. She was a pioneer in every sense of the word. She should be more well-known, that’s for sure … but that’s often the case with those who get somewhere first. She was a gospel singer, who brought rhythm ‘n’ blues into her church-focused style. God was always present for her. You can feel it in her performance here. The melding of seemingly-disparate styles is what would eventually give us rock ‘n’ roll. Here it all is, encapsulated in one fabulous woman.

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First and Final Frames Side By Side

Probably many of you have seen this beautiful video making the rounds, but in case you’ve missed it, here it is. Compiled by Jacob T. Swinney, it shows a series of first and final frames of various films, shown side by side. I was happy to see The Searchers included (one of the most famous first frames AND final frames in all of cinema), but there are many dovetails of images that I hadn’t before really perceived or even thought about. Maybe too many modern films for my taste, and mostly American films too … but let’s not quibble. The point is still made about the conscious care taken by directors, and the importance of beginnings and endings.

I would recommend showing this video to any young aspiring film-maker.

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