Happy Birthday, Dolly Parton

“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know that I’m not blonde.” – Dolly Parton

An American original. A living legend. I have too many favorite Dolly Parton songs to list, and I love her stuff with Porter Wagoner. Speaking of which, have you seen the episode of Drunk History where this adorable wasted man describes Dolly’s break with Porter? If you haven’t …

He loves her so much! The slam on the table at the end.

The clip at the top is a compilation of different performances of “The Seeker,” and in that clip she shows that transcendent (and yet primal) affinity she has with her audience, which has lasted 5 decades now. In that clip, you can see her honesty about where she’s coming from, and her joy in doing what she is doing.

One small note on the clip above: what she does in between the :49 second mark and 1:04 is an example of why I love her so much. She playfully slaps her own cheek, throwing a grin at her guitarist, reveling in who she is with up there, what they are creating. She loves her band, she loves her backup singers, she loves the audience. This is a woman who couldn’t, literally couldn’t, be anything other than what she is. Boobs and wigs and plastic surgery and all. She is always herself. The surface does not hide the self. The surface IS the self, something some people really have a hard time with. Honestly, if I never hear the phrase, “Such a shame what she’s done to her face” ever again – about anyone – I will be a happy woman. With Dolly, people murmur that she would “be beautiful” without all the glitter, cleavage, surgery, wigs. They tsk-tsk, they cluck-cluck how sad it is “what she’s done to her face.” As though THAT is her defining characteristic as opposed to her immense contribution to American culture. So those people, with all their words about valuing people for who they ARE, don’t value Dolly for who she is AS she is. They think they’re reassuring us plain gals out there that “we don’t have to do that to our faces”, but really, they’re just concern-trolling. How about a celebration of Dolly’s songs, her heart, her lyrics, and not only her sheer staying-power as an artist, but the fact that she keeps writing songs that matter, she keeps touring, she covers songs that make us re-think them entirely. (Her cover of “Both Sides Now” re-invents it as a zippy bluegrass tune, complete with banjo, and it gives the song guts, verve, she makes the well-known melody MOVE in a new and fresh way.)

Dolly Parton has never stopped developing herself as an artist. But she has also never forgotten what made her fans value her in the first place.

Why on earth would you look at a fabulous creature/creation/human like Dolly Parton and decide that concern-trolling her appearance is your best first response?

But this has always been the case with Dolly. People see the boobs, the wigs, the nails as false. Or trashy. No no no no. She thinks she looks beautiful. She is beautiful. And from the beginning she allows us to see her heart. She forces us to look past whatever “persona” someone may have, she forces us to see “both sides” and NOT judge a person on their surface.

To quote Oscar Wilde:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Integrity. Guts. Smarts. Sweetness. A thick skin. A gift for writing unforgettable songs and melodies that stay with us for decades. A performing style that is transparent, joyous, inclusive. A business-smart sense. A connection to her roots – ALWAYS. She’s got it all.

And she’s a hell of an actress, too.

Happy birthday, Dolly.

We’re so lucky to have you.

tumblr_m3kzz1xIhJ1rn8itno1_500

Posted in Music | Tagged | 7 Comments

Happy Birthday, Patricia Highsmith

“I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries.” — Patricia Highsmith, 1966

26861_377502972905_45244617905_3626467_2802552_n

It’s Patricia Highsmith’s birthday today.

He wouldn’t have killed someone just to save Derwatt Ltd. or even Bernard, Tom supposed. Tom had killed Murchison because Murchison had realized, in the cellar, that he had impersonated Derwatt. Tom had killed Murchison to save himself. And yet, Tom tried to ask himself, had he intended to kill Murchison anyway when they went down to the cellar together? Had he not intended to kill him? Tom simply could not answer that. And did it matter much?

– from Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith

“Tom simply could not answer that.” In that one chilling sentence is the key to Patricia Highsmith’s style. There’s nothing else in that sentence except what it expresses. That is a criminal mind. It’s as chilly as Johnny Cash’s unforgettable line: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Unlike Cash’s narrator, Tom Ripley does not kill to see someone die. He kills to survive and keep his true nature concealed. Anyone who is in his way or onto him must go. Tom is almost confused by who he is and why he does what he does. But he’s not all that worried about it. Above all else, he is logical. The way a lion is logical when it camouflages itself before pouncing on the gazelle.

Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith is one of the most startling biographies I’ve ever read, unique in its structure, thrilling to read. It’s up there with Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte.) What I appreciate so much about Joan Schenkar’s writing is her fearlessness in sharing her obvious obsession with Highsmith. It takes courage to write the way she does. Schenkar has lived and breathed Patricia Highsmith for decades. You can feel, in the introduction, her own baffled question of how on earth to start. She does not worry too much about making Patricia Highsmith comprehensible. Besides, Highsmith could be extremely difficult to understand. She even lied in her diary. The lies were meant to throw people (posthumously?) off the scent.

Patricia-Highsmith2

The chapters in Schenkar’s book under the heading “A Simple Act of Forgery” come at the beginning and examine how Highsmith would deceive her personal notebooks/journals, altering dates to make it seem like she was somewhere she wasn’t, messing with her timeline. Forgery is a theme in all of the Ripley books, plus her thriller with the revealing and erotic title, The Tremor of Forgery). All artists are forgers, to some extent. They take on different personae, they imagine themselves into different psychologies, they “steal” qualities from others. In her deceptive journals, Highsmith would “forge” her own version of her life for all kinds of swirling psychological reasons.

In the chapters under the heading “Alter Egos”, Schenkar takes on Highsmith’s detailed creation of alter egos. Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s most famous alter ego, is one of the most brilliant portraits of a sociopath – told from inside his head – ever put on paper (the most chilling probably being Iago, Raskolnikov, or Cathy from East of Eden). Highsmith’s most famous books involve some sort of doubling, usually with two male characters. The homoerotic nature of the bond between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf is explicit, just like it is in Strangers on a Train.

highsmith

Highsmith kept her life compartmentalized, guarding different section with the ferocity of a warlord. Her literary life was separate from her family life which was separate from her friendships. Her multiple lovers, whom often overlapped, were kept in the dark about the presence of the others. This required byzantine deceptions on Highsmith’s part: reading her journals, you wonder how she kept all her lies straight. She would write in the present tense in her journal to make it seem like she was in London at that time, when she was actually in Switzerland (or whatever).

When I first read The Talented Mr. Ripley it thrilled me because it felt so accurate. The Ripley books are totally in line with all of the psychological studies of psychopaths (involving MRI programs started in prison populations to study the brains of those who rate high on the Psychopath Scale, created by Robert Hare). Those studies predate Highsmith’s work (but they predate Dostoevsky and Shakespeare too. Those studies just codify what humanity has always known.) If you meet a Tom Ripley, there is only one thing you should do: Run.

When she was young, Highsmith’s beauty were a convenient smokescreen. Everyone who met her in the 1940s talked about how dropdead gorgeous she was in person. People would stop and stare. Perhaps because of this, Highsmith was able to operate in secret. Nobody would guess the nasty little stories Highsmith was cooking up at home, stories of murder and crime and deception.

patricia_highsmith

Highsmith had a complicated romantic life.

raw

When she was a little girl she insisted on dressing like a boy. She felt like a man trapped in the wrong body. When she was young, she stealth-navigated through the underworld of lesbian life in New York/Paris/ London, having intense relationships, many of them overlapping. She was rarely single. She would get obsessed with a certain woman (one woman she saw for 2 seconds at a counter at Bloomingdale’s and became so obsessed she found out the strange woman’s address and drove out to New Jersey on occasion to drive by the house).

And of course we all now know the result of that obsession, her novel The Price of Salt, adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy into Carol, directed by Todd Haynes into a swoony dream of obsession and romance.

My review of Carol here.

In The Price of Salt, a shopgirl at Bloomingdale’s falls in love at first sight with an elegant customer who comes to her counter. It is an astonishing book, even more so when you compare it to Highsmith’s other novels of crime and sociopathy. She wrote it at a feverish pace, losing herself in the tale, not wanting to leave her apartment. It was a kind of wish-fulfillment. The brief encounter she had actually had in real life was drawn out into a three-dimensional fantasy: “What would have happened if I spoke to her? If we met for coffee? If she invited me out to her house?” To quote Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do, and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love, too.

Love assaults every sense. Love keeps you captive and dizzy. dizzying captivity. People do not behave like they are sane when they are in love. Love is a riptide. Love is glorious, awful. Love is life or death. Highsmith understood the yearning, the terror of rejection. How would one survive if this particular love crashed and burned? Friends advised her not to publish the book all. Eventually, it was published under a pseudonym.

Patricia Highsmith was obsessed with numbers, and her journals are filled with charts and diagrams. You can see that obsessive mathematical tendency in the Ripley books. She loved the finer things. She was a materialist. She only wanted the best coffee, the best cigarettes. While her fellow students at Columbia were living conventional college student lives, Highsmith trolled the streets, going to underground lesbian nightclubs, trying to infiltrate the literary scene in New York. She meant business, and she meant business YOUNG.

Highsmith doesn’t appear to have been particularly well-liked. People were slightly afraid of her. However, many of the relationships she formed in those early years lasted decades. People were loyal to her, as difficult as she could be. By the end of Highsmith’s life she had alienated many. Her alcoholism was acute. People were driven away.

Highsmith kept a chart in one of her notebooks detailing her various lovers’ qualities and prowess in the sack. There were columns for different things: how many times they had sex, how good the sex was, how many orgasms were had (or if none were had), hair color, body type. It’s ridiculous to me that people were so appalled by Duke student Karen Owen’s sex-rating Power Point document, as though that stuff hasn’t been going on forever. The Prudes, male and female, went into high gear expressing Outrage about her calculations, as well as her promiscuity, and there was bemoaning of the Pornification of America, and how Karen, Poor Little Slut, was a victim of that. It was assumed that Karen had no agency whatsoever. So silly. She clearly DID have agency. Dear Men, I know it’s horrifying to imagine being “rated” like that, but oh well, if you dish it out you should be able to take it, right? God help me if my private journal got out. In my youth in particular I was a floozy and a half. Nobody forced me to or had to twist my arm. It was what I wanted to be doing. I had a blast. You couldn’t have “slut-shamed” me if you tried. Highsmith’s Sex Account Ledger shows her obsession with trying to ORGANIZE her overpowering personal experiences.

Many of her girlfriends reported that Patricia Highsmith was the best lover they ever had. Decades later, they still remembered her rapturously, told Schenkar that, of all their lovers throughout their lives, Highsmith was #1.

Speaking of alter egos:

Joan Schenkar uncovered the extent of Patricia Highsmith’s involvement in the comic book world of the 1940s, something not really explored or delved into before. Although comics sold like hotcakes, writers who wrote for comic books often hid their reliance on that quick-cash world. If you wanted to be a serious writer, writing panels for Superman lessened your street cred.

Similar to actors who do soap operas or voiceover-work or industrials so they can afford to do off-Broadway plays, or write a one-person show, or shoot a movie on their iPhone with their friends, Highsmith’s comic book work gave her financial freedom, allowed her room to maneuver, breathing-space to devote to her “serious” literary pursuits. From her notes and story-outlines, it is clear that she took her comic book work very seriously. She didn’t seem to think she was “slumming” at the time.

While she was in college Highsmith got a job with a comic books publisher (the only woman in that particular outfit). She created plots and scenarios, as well as dialogue. She is mainly known for her work on “The Black Terror”.

At night, she would work on her crime stories, and by day she sat at a desk in the comic book office, toiling away at her panels. She worked there for a year, and then for six or seven years afterwards she maintained a position as a freelance writer for various comic book outfits. She would send in her comic-book scripts back to New York from Switzerland or Venice or Paris. Her embarrassment about this section of her work-life led to her completely concealing it later on, as though it were a nasty criminal little secret that needed to be destroyed.

Joan Schenkar interviewed as many survivors of that era that she could find, old men now who remember the pretty dark-haired girl hovered over her desk at, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, scribbling out comics dialogue. She was a novelty: a girl! Many of those men realized, in retrospect, that she probably was a lesbian, they got that vibe even then, and most had huge crushes on her.

Schenkar puts forth the theory that despite Highsmith’s embarrassment about her comics-book-past, that time in her life worked on her on a far deeper level than she herself could probably acknowledge. You might say that “alter egos” are THE defining characteristic of most comic books. Schenkar theorizes that Highsmith’s obsession with doubling made her a very successful comic-book story writer, and that her submersion in the world of comics helped her, later, to create the Ripley books, and all the others where mirror-image personalities and overlapping alter egos (with the constant fear of detection) are the themes.

highsmith_1

Schenkar writes:

When Pat gave her “criminal-hero” Tom Ripley a charmed and parentless life, a wealthy, socially-poised Alter Ego (Dickie Greenleaf), and a guilt-free modus operandi (after he kills Dickie, Tom murders only when necessary), she was doing just what her fellow comic book artists were doing with their Superheroes: allowing her fictional character to finesse situations she herself could only approach in wish fulfillment. And when she reimagined her own psychological split in Ripley’s character – endowing him with both her weakest traits (paralyzing self-consciousness and hero-worship) and her wildest dreams (murder and money) – she was turning the material of the “comic book” upside down and making it into something very like a “tragic book”. “It is always so easy for me to see the world upside down,” Pat wrote in her diary – and everywhere else.

In October of 1954, working on The Talented Mr. Ripley and thrilling to the idea of corrupting her readers, Pat said plainly what she was doing.

“What I predicted I would once do, I am already doing in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.”

And then, just as plainly, Pat said why she was doing it, giving an account that sounds like Will Eisner’s explanation of how people who are trapped by “invincible forces” might feel compelled to escape into “invincible” Alter Egos.

“The main reason I write is quite clear to me. My own life, however interesting I try to make it by traveling and so forth, is always boring to me, periodically. Whenever I become intolerably bored, I produce another story, in my head. My story can move fast, as I can’t, it can have a reasonable and perhaps perfect solution, as mine can’t. A solution that is somehow satisfying, as my personal solution never can be.

“It is not an infatuation with words. It is absolute day dreaming, for day dreaming’s sake.”

Certainly, the suggestion that any of her novels could have shared a creative inspiration with comic books would have driven the talented Miss H into conniption fits. And the tenor of her response to the hint that Thomas P. Ripley, her boyish (and goyische) “hero-criminal”) might owe even a fraction of his identity to the Golem of Prague, the Moses who led the Jews through the desert, or the Superman imagined by two Bar Mitzvah boys from Cleveland Ohio, is only too easy to imagine.

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite writers. A giant who perhaps never got her due since the Ripley books (in particular) are seen as “genre” books. It’s an incredibly dismissive attitude. I happen to think that Stephen King wipes the floor with Don DeLillo, but who asked me? But look at how many times Highsmith’s books have been turned into films. Ripley alone has generated a whole cottage-industry of films. (My favorite “Ripley” is Alain Delon in Purple Noon, who brings that chilling blankness to his performance that feels so Ripley-ish.)

tumblr_ngzsbyu10J1rpoad5o1_500

Highsmith didn’t “empathize” with Tom Ripley. She WAS Tom Ripley (without the serial murder), and so she knew how his brain worked, its calculations, its deceptions, its matter-of-fact organizational skills, something she knew a little bit about. Her books are both incredibly entertaining and deeply frightening. There’s sometimes a flat-affect tone, reminiscent of Charles Willeford’s books in that you get a palpable sense of Tom Ripley’s shallow emotional makeup.

patricia-highsmith2-1

But all you need to do is read The Price of Salt to get a glimpse into Patricia Highsmith’s heart where things weren’t so dark, where love possessed her, where obsession was painful – yes – but part of what happened between people, especially women falling in love in a culture/time where you just didn’t do that publicly. Women have been falling in love with each other since the beginning of time. Little cave-women sharing secret longing glances while cooking up a woolly mammoth stew. You know? It’s not a modern invention. Highsmith’s romantic tale, told with no embarrassment, is a revelation, especially when compared to her other books. The Price of Salt is rapturous about nature, for example, something not present in the Ripley books at all. The Price of Salt is rapturous about objects – suitcases, gloves, cars, clothes – and sex. Those who only know “Tom Ripley” need to know “Carol” and “Therese” as well. Without it, any understanding of this genius writer would be incomplete.

An important figure in American letters, Patricia Highsmith casts an enormous shadow. Other crime writers still struggle to claw their way out from under her influence.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged | 10 Comments

The Criterion Collection: the release of Something Wild (1961)

850_BD_box_348x490_original

At long last, Something Wild, a nearly-unknown film from 1961, and a masterpiece, is available to purchase on Criterion.

I was honored to be asked to write the essay, which is now up on Criterion’s site:

Something Wild: Last Chances.

You do not want to miss this film.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday to My Favorite Actor, Archie Leach

giphy-1

As my friend Mitchell observed (in our conversation about Cary Grant – nee Archie Leach – linked to below):

To this day, people say, “Oh so-and-so’s the new Cary Grant.” Cary Grant was acting in 1930. We’re talking 70 years ago. Almost 80 years ago, and we’re still referring to people as the “new Cary Grant”. Well, guess what, there’s no such thing. If 80 years later, you’re still trying to find someone to be the next so-and-so, there is nobody. It’s only him.

It’s only him.

He created the mould. The mould for what it means to be a modern Movie Star. (He and Joan Crawford. Both.) But the mould was so totally in his own shape that nobody else could ever fit into it. They try. And marketing departments try to convince audiences: “Look. It’s the new Cary Grant.” But it’s like the Uncanny Valley. Nobody buys it. Actors have to create their own mould.

There’s talent, which he had. There’s versatility, which he had. There’s career and money smarts, which he had. There’s beauty, which he had. These all helped enormously especially in the longevity of his career. He played it really really smart. But the thing he really had – which is difficult to talk about or define – is Magic.

And THAT’S Cary Grant.

I watch him in WONDER.

Here are some of the things I have written about him over the years:

#1, an enormous essay on one of his best performances in Hitchcock’s Notorious:
The Fat-Headed Guy Full of Pain: Cary Grant in Notorious

#2: Mitchell and I discuss Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Don Rickles and Cary Grant:
Mitchell Fain Presents: Part 1

#3: For Bright Wall/Dark Room:
You Are What You Do: His Girl Friday

#4. On Sylvia Scarlett, the extremely strange film that represented Cary Grant’s real “break” although he had been in films for a while:
The Wonderful Weird WTF-ness of Sylvia Scarlett

#5. Because of course:
Anatomy of Two Pratfalls: Cary Grant and Elvis Presley

#6. For Capital New York:
On Bringing Up Baby

#7. For House Next Door:
5 for the Day: Cary Grant

The rest of the stuff I’ve written on Cary Grant can be found here.

P6ToO

Posted in Actors, On This Day | Tagged | 34 Comments

Book Review: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, written and illustrated by Edward Sorel

primary_Mary-Astor-Purple-Diary-2017

I reviewed this absolutely wonderful book for Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Actors, Books | Tagged | 2 Comments

The First Glimpse of The Guy Who Started It All

giphy

Age 13. Babysitting. Up later than I normally would be. East of Eden was on late-night television. I had never seen it. I don’t even know that I was aware of who James Dean was. And certainly not Elia Kazan. I was a ravagingly unhappy pubescent, intermittently suicidal and prostrate with despair. Recovering from what I now realize was my first breakdown at age 12, bipolar having stepped into the room, uninvited and unannounced, saying, “Whassup. I’ll be your new Roommate for Life.” Of course I didn’t know that at the time and it would be decades before things got so harrowing that I got diagnosed. I was also already a budding actress, involved in community theatre and drama clubs. My aunt was a professional actress and an inspiration: Acting was a JOB that could actually be DONE. It wasn’t some weird fantasy. I was ambitious enough to try to figure out – on my own – how I could get myself to New York for an Annie open call. I wanted to move to New York some day. I was one of those very young people who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to do one day. No question. I was already in love with old films and actors, in general.

James Dean is first seen in long-shot for the haunting opening sequence, a lanky figure in the background. And this – up above – is our first real glimpse of his face. It is not an exaggeration to say that this moment shook my world. It re-arranged me. A seismic shift. My priorities, my awareness. My GOALS changed. This moment led me to the Actors Studio many years later, sitting in the balcony of that famous renovated church on 44th Street, where Marilyn Monroe had sat, Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, steeped in the history I had been dreaming about since I first saw East of Eden. (After seeing the movie, I used my after-school job at the local public library to research the film. I discovered a treasure trove of biographies. I learned of a man named “Elia Kazan”. I followed the trail of bread crumbs.) I attended sessions at The Studio, I got involved in projects any way I could. I studied with Actors Studio members who had worked with Lee Strasberg, with Kazan. (A propos of nothing, recently I realized – and I have no idea how I did not notice this before – that in my life I have had not one, but TWO, romantic entanglements with people whose fathers had important roles in Kazan’s autobiographical film America America. I did not plan this, I swear. I wasn’t targeting people from afar. It just happened that way.)

This was the Moment. The genesis of everything. A to B.

Posted in Actors, Personal | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin.

A re-post for Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, born in Massachusetts on this day in 1706. This makes me so sad to post. On this week of all weeks. If you’ve read me long enough, then you know my feelings for our Founders and my admiration for how carefully they created our flawed yet beautiful form of government. They tried. They tried to see into the future, to anticipate what could threaten the institutions, what could be coming. They knew that man was not to be trusted. Ever. They were deeply practical men. This is a terrible week. To anyone who thinks this is a good week, your comments are not welcome here. I’m very sad to say this for I have always cherished good old-fashioned political debate. But it’s a new world now. Defending the indefensible will not happen on my site. Not now. I re-read this post this morning, which I wrote maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and there’s a very prescient (if I do say so myself) line about the “easily duped.” So I post this with sadness and rage and the deepest sense of patriotism that I possess, which is pretty damn deep. I will continue to honor “these guys,” as I always have, even when it was unfashionable to do so in certain circles – some of the circles I operated in – these eccentric, contentious, brilliant, flawed men, who tried to set something up that would stand the test of time. Honoring them is now an act of protest.

MTE1ODA0OTcxNjMyNzg5MDA1

My grandmother had a big illustrated copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which I had practically memorized by the time I was 6 years old. The illustrations were goofy and elaborate, and I somehow “got the joke” that so much of it was a joke, a satire on the do-good-ish bromides of self-serious Puritans who worry about their neighbor’s morality. Obviously I wouldn’t have put it that way at age 6, but I understood that the book in my hands, the huge book, was not serious at all. Clearly, many others did not get the joke. Benjamin Franklin, throughout his life, was a master at parody and satire, as well as such a master that he is still fooling people! He was his very own The Onion! He presented ridiculous arguments and opinions in a way where people nodded their heads in agreement, and then afterwards wondered uneasily if they were being made fun of. Their uneasiness was warranted. Yes, Benjamin Franklin was making fun of them.

Franklin played such a huge role not only in creating bonding-mechanisms between the colonies – with newspapers, his printing service, the Almanac – but in science and community service (he started the first fire-brigade in Philadelphia on the British model. He opened the first public lending library in the colonies), as well as his writing. He was an Elder Statesman of the relatively young men who made up the Revolution. There were so many of “those guys” who played a hand in the Revolution, but perhaps Benjamin Franklin played the most crucial role in his time as a diplomatic presence in France, where he became so beloved a figure that the French fell in love with him, commemorated him in songs and portraits, putting his mug on plates and cups and platters and buttons – so that in a time when nobody knew really what anybody looked like, Benjamin Franklin was instantly recognizable the world over. The French falling in love with him was extremely important, and helped ingratiate the rebellious American colonies to the French so that they made the (in retrospect) unbelievably risky choice to back the Revolution financially. (Dear France, you HAVE a king. You are supporting throwing over another King. You’ve got to know that that is going to come back and bite you in the ass. Oui? Non?)

When the Battle of Yorktown went down, Franklin was still in France. The following story may be apocryphal (as so many Franklin stories are), but I love it nonetheless:

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”

Oh_burn

One of my favorite periods in Benjamin Franklin’s life was early on, long before his time as a Revolutionary, and beloved ambassador to France. He was a teenager. 15, 16 years old. He was trying to get his work published. No luck. He had a lot to say. But no newspapers were biting. So he created an alter ego, a widow in her 40s named Mrs. Silence Dogood. I mean, the name alone … Mrs. Silence Dogood wrote chatty letters-to-the-editor about various issues of the day, her observations, her thoughts and feelings. Benjamin Franklin, the teenager, who had created her, would push “her” letters under the door at his elder brother’s print shop (brother printed the New England Courant). Franklin’s older brother found the letters amusing, and he had no idea that his teenage apprentice brother was the author. He started publishing them. They received a lot of attention, locally, and people loved her. She even got marriage proposals through the mail. Picturing a 15-year-old boy engineering this hoax just so he could see his name (although not really) in print … it’s just too awesome. Silence Dogood’s voice was somewhat arch, a little bit dim, very sentimental, and she seemed to not realize how funny she was. But Franklin knew how funny she was.

Like any good actor or performer, Franklin had a whole backstory for Silence Dogood. He cared about his character. He created her voice, and he stuck to it: he imagined his way into her “thought” processes. She shared her entire life story in one of the letters. I can barely read the Silence Dogood stuff without laughing out loud. All I can see is a teenage boy scribbling it all out in his tiny room by candlelight, giggling to himself.

Just one excerpt from the 15 Silence Dogood letters eventually published, this about her marriage to her “Master”:

We lived happily together in the Heighth of conjugal Love and mutual Endearments, for near Seven Years, in which Time we added Two likely Girls and a Boy to the Family of the Dogoods: But alas! When my Sun was in its meridian Altitude, inexorable unrelenting Death, as if he had envy’d my Happiness and Tranquility, and resolv’d to make me entirely miserable by the Loss of so good an Husband, hastened his Flight to the Heavenly World, by a sudden unexpected Departure from this.

Now if you didn’t know that the whole thing was an elaborate joke, you might see in this flowery language a depth of emotion, an actual woman trying to express herself. This was the style of the day. Nobody would ever guess that a pimply kid was writing it. But once you know the joke, there is barely a line of Silence Dogood’s prose that is not 100 % hilarious. It’s all quite EARNEST, her opinions, her humility (“why should any of you want to listen to little ol’ me?”), her outrage about things like hoop skirts, her observations, her expressions of loneliness and yearning for a man … But it’s all just an invention of Benjamin Franklin and it’s deliciously funny.

From the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Of course his older brother eventually discovered that he had been printing phony letters – written by his sibling – and was furious about it. Benjamin Franklin fled Boston and went to Philadelphia, and left Silence Dogood behind him.

But I love that that was Franklin’s start as a writer. It was basically a drag performance. You get the sense he could have just kept going. And Poor Richard’s Almanack (wrote a post about it here) was also a “performance”. Yes, it had proper almanac features, but it was the voice of the self-pitying “Poor Richard” himself that distinguished it from other almanacs. And sprinkled throughout were little pearls of “wisdom”, epigrams and “sayings” – and these are what the almanac is still known for.

Obviously I could talk about Benjamin Franklin forever.

Let’s move on to Hitchens’ essay about him, included in Arguably (an awesomely comprehensive essay collection – the subject matter, the depth, the breadth!). This particular essay is a review of Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought, by Jerry Weinberger, a book that Hitchens clearly admired very much. I should read it. I’ve only read crappy biographies of Franklin. And then of course there is Franklin’s essential Autobiography. Hitchens writes, of that Autobiography:

There are two kinds of people: those who read Franklin’s celebrated Autobiography with a solemn expression, and those who keep laughing out loud as they go along.

One can guess which group Hitchens belonged to. He describes reading it in a bar in Annapolis and guffawing to himself, and when people asked him what he was reading that was making him laugh so hard, he showed them the cover, and everyone looked confused.

You have to go into Franklin’s Autobiography with great skepticism, and you need to keep an eye out for the booby traps everywhere. Some of it is serious, some of it is not. Some of it is personal myth-making, other parts are making fun of those who turn their own narratives into an epic myth. Take nothing at face value. Benjamin Franklin is both brilliant and totally unreliable as a narrator. Don’t trust him! Ever! It’s like people who post links to the Onion on their FB pages, saying, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS IS GOING ON????? I AM OUTRAGED.” And the comments section then fills up with people saying, “Uhm, that’s satire.” Once the credulous folks realize that they have been Punked but GOOD, they often resort to defensive huffy comments such as: “Well, it’s so close to the truth that I AM STILL OUTRAGED.”

The easily-duped will always be with us. I wonder if being addicted to OUTRAGE. ALL. THE. TIME. makes people more credulous.

Here’s an excerpt from Hitchens’ entertaining book review.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, ‘Benjamin Franklin: Free and Easy’, by Christopher Hitchens

It is precisely Franklin’s homespun sampler quotations about frugality and thrift that made him rich and famous through the audience of his Almanack. And it was these maxims, collected and distilled in the last of the Poor Richard series and later given the grand title The Way to Wealth, that so incensed Mark Twain as to cause him to write that they were “full of animosity toward boys” and “worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel.” A point, like a joke, is a terrible thing to miss. When I re-read The Way to Wealth from the perspective of Jerry Weinberger, I could not bring myself to believe that it had ever been taken with the least seriousness. In the old days at the New Statesmen we once ran a celebrated weekend competition that asked readers to submit mad-up gems of cretinous bucolic wisdom. Two of the winning entires, I still recall, were “He digs deepest who deepest digs” and “An owl in a sack bothers no man.” Many of Poor Richard’s attempts at epigram and aphorism do not even rise to this level. My favorite, “‘Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright,” is plainly not a case in which Franklin thinks he has polished his own renowned wit to a diamond-hard edge. The whole setting of The Way to Wealth is a “lift,” it seems to me, from Christian’s encounter with Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim’s Progress. And the heartening injunctions (of which “The Cat in Gloves catches no Mice” is another stellar example) are so foolish that it is a shock to remember that the old standby “God helps them that help themselves” comes from the same anthology of wisdom.

Franklin’s moral jujitsu, in which he always seemingly deferred to his opponents in debate but left them first punching the air and then adopting his opinions as their own, is frequently and sly boasted about in the Autobiography, but it cannot have afforded him as much pleasure as the applause and income he received from people who didn’t know he was kidding. The tip-offs are all there once you learn to look for them, as with Franklin’s friend Osborne, who died young.

He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen’d first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate State. But he never fulfill’d his Promise.

At a time when some noisy advocates are attempting to revise American history, and to represent the Founders as men who believed in a Christian nation, this book could not be more welcome. I close with what Franklin so foxily said about the Reverend Whitefield, whose oral sermons were so fine but whose habit of writing them down exposed him to fierce textual criticism: “Opinions [delivered] in Preaching might have been afterwards explain’d, or qualify’d by supposing others that might have accompany’d them; or they might have been deny’d; But liter script manet.” Yes, indeed, “the written word shall remain.” And the old printer left enough of it to delight subsequent generations and remind us continually of the hidden pleasures of the text.

Posted in Books, Founding Fathers, On This Day | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Birthday, John Carpenter


Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley, 1979

“An Elvis movie is always worth watching because of Elvis.” – Kurt Russell

John Carpenter, director:

In dealing with Elvis, I’m bringing a lot of my own feelings to it and how I feel about him, and how I interpret the script, how I interpret his life. And in that sense, from my point, it’s a personal film. I really love Elvis a lot. I’ve always been a fan of his. I love his music. I have a strong feeling for him, it means something to me, I care a lot about the character, I care about his story. And in some senses I feel lucky to be able to direct a film about Elvis, this kind of a film which I don’t feel is exploiting him but I feel is trying to tell his story, trying to tell a story about a man who is bigger than life which is very interesting because he really was a human being, but somewhere in his life I think he transcended that and became mythical.

I am thankful this movie exists. It was the first attempt to “deal with” Elvis after his death in 1977. So many horrible details had come out following Elvis’ death (as well as right before his death, with the tell-all Bodyguard Betrayal) that Carpenter already felt that an Act of Redress was necessary. Same with Dave Marsh, whose spectacular 1981 book Elvis! served a similar function. Why drag Elvis off his pedestal? Who cares about the drugs, except for the fact that they took this man and his music from us? Maybe Elvis WAS a cautionary tale but that’s not all he is.

John Carpenter’s Elvis deals compassionately with Elvis’ rise to the top, and it is an act of almost aggressive positivity in the face of the morbid gloom about how far Elvis had supposedly fallen. Kurt Russell, who, as a child actor, kicked the actual Elvis’ shins in It Happened at the World’s Fair

… is so wonderful as Elvis (and I can’t watch actors being Elvis, and I can’t stand Elvis impersonators). Shelley Winters plays Elvis’ beloved Mama, Gladys.

Things are left out of the film. Mainly: drugs. Elvis didn’t get into drugs in the ’70s. He was introduced to amphetamines in the Army, 1958!, so that he could stay up all night on his patrols and shifts. The addiction was terrible in its sneak and stealth (the pills were seen as harmless, and were also a good way to lose weight), especially to a guy who had never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and hated “partying” and “drunkenness.” He loved to have fun, but fun for him involved girls and football and roller coasters and movies and hamburgers. Carpenter made a choice to leave the drugs out. And the film ends not with Elvis approaching his death, but with Elvis taking the stage in a white jumpsuit for his nerve-wracking live comeback at the International Hotel in 1969/1970. When he triumphed, yet again.

But in the face of all of the revelations about Elvis, and all the tell-all books from people who barely knew him, Carpenter – whose comment above is eloquent – wanted to show the mythology (the dead twin, the Mama’s Boy thing, the vulnerability that helped make him who he was as a performer) in a positive way, and yet an honest way. The isolation of fame. There’s a great scene where Elvis stands in his backyard, surrounded by his entourage, and he takes out a cigarette and they all whip out their lighters. Elvis does not demand that kind of devotion, and Russell plays the moment uneasily, accepting a light from one of them, but showing that in the heart of the character, he knows that this is not normal, nor is it good for him.

Carpenter’s film has not yet been topped.

CY3w3QmWwAIwh-w.jpg-large

The man had towering stature as a cultural figure. Any film that does not acknowledge at least that is untruthful and vindictive.

Thank you, John Carpenter! I know you’re known for other things now, but this is the one I treasure.

Posted in Directors, Movies, On This Day | Tagged , | 10 Comments

“Like seeing a myth materialize.” On the lost footage (3 minutes and 17 seconds) of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of New York subway grating while in character for the filming of "The Seven Year Itch" in Manhattan on September 9, 1954.  The former Norma Jean Baker modeled and starred in 28 movies grossing $200 million. Sensual and seductive, but with an air of innocence, Monroe became one of the world's most adored sex symbols. She died alone by suicide, at age 36 in her Hollywood bungalow.  (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)

What a great article.

Posted in Actors | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review: Ma (2017)

ma

Ma is a fascinating and gorgeous-looking low-budget film (I think she funded a lot of it on Kickstarter) from dancer/choreographer/film-maker Celia Rowlson-Hall. Worth a look. Support smaller films. This is when people have nothing to lose and no choice but to be personal.

My review of Ma is now up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment