“Rock n’ roll! It’s the music of puberty.” — Suzi Quatro

Suzy Quatro was born on this day.

In July of 2020 , I reviewed the documentary Suzi Q, about Suzi Quatro. Because it was July 2020, the tour she had planned, alongside the doc, had to be canceled. Or, at least, postponed. July 2020 was some serious shit. I was bummed because I was so turned on by the documentary I would have sought her out to see her. Her journey is an interesting one: she knew what she wanted when she was very young. She was already touring as a teenager. She didn’t get caught up in anything bad, drugs or men or exploitation: something in her was strong enough to resist all those temptations. She got married young. Had a baby young. Was a rock star (at least in Europe) young. Her fame in Australia, to this day, almost rivals the Beatles. Ask an Australian. When she toured there in the 70s, she was greeted by screaming throngs at the airport, she was transported via motorcade to the venue, with throngs lining the roadways. She was massive in Europe. #1 hits, songs she wrote. She is mainly known in America for one shmoopy duet-ballad, the only song that charted over here – a total departure from her normal aggressive sound – as well as her regular appearance on Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero. America just didn’t fuck with her at all. 10 years later, Joan Jett came along, and we embraced Joan Jett, maybe not realizing that someone else did it all FIRST.

Debbie Harry, Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett

Joan Jett took everything from Suzi Quatro, which she fully admits in the interview she gives in the documentary. She had a poster of Suzi Quatro on her wall as a teenager. She was so inspired by this tiny girl playing a huge bass. Suzi Quatro paved the way for Joan Jett and so many others. Understand the continuum, and respect your elders. Or at least KNOW ABOUT your elders, because they got there first, and they made possible the things that came along after.

Just tripped over this and I love it: Quatro discusses her favorite bass riffs.

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“Literature is the written expression of revolt against expected things.” Happy Birthday to the least happy man ever, Thomas Hardy

“A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable. It is the essence of individuality, and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done.” — Thomas Hardy

That quote above from Thomas Hardy is something I have thought of, often, and used quite a bit in my own work, as a critic and also as a writer of other things, here, my script, everywhere. It is a reminder to stay specific, to not worry about being universal, to let that (and the reader) take care of itself.

He was criticized often for the “provincialism” of his novels. They all took place in a 10-mile radius. He delved deep into one particular slice of society and never left it or branched out. But depth is as valuable as WIDTH. I love some of his novels, although I had to come BACK to them after being forced to read them in high school (here is my post on Tess).

The interesting thing is: I think because he’s so firmly established in “the canon”, it makes it seem like he’s part of the status quo or something. I’m not a scholar, I’m just talking about the vibe. He’s seen as one of those Dead White Males who represent gatekeepers and canon and establishment. But that’s just retrospect and a lack of … people actually reading him? lol Hardy’s views were so anti-establishment he was basically perceived as a radical in his day. His first novel was rejected because its satirical lampoon of society was judged too harsh. He did not look around the world and find any of it good. This was then – and is now – a radical standpoint, and in some circles, damn near heretical. It could be seen as a very conservative viewpoint, the kind of conservatives who yearn for the past, seeing it as some sort of Eden, disliking the complexity of modernity – OR it could be seen as a rejection of the status quo, a firm NO to upholding the existing structures – burn it all down, in other words – which is basically the opposite of classical conservatism. The establishment now “claims” him but they rejected him when he was alive. Hardy published all these novels, famous great works – titanically angry and compassionate for the suffering of the “little” people, those with no voice or power – and then – abruptly – switched to poetry. He then wrote VOLUMES of poetry over the last decades of his very long life. He was born in 1840 and died in 1928. Look at the changes he witnessed. He watched an entire world pass away.

More after the jump:

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“I’m not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.” – Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe


Marilyn Monroe:

People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.


Billy Wilder from Conversations with Wilder:

She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her. That, I think, was very important. And she automatically knew where the joke was. She did not discuss it. She came up for the first rehearsal, and she was absolutely perfect, when she remembered the line. She could do a 3-page dialogue scene perfectly, and then get stuck on a line like, “It’s me, Sugar”… But if she showed up, she delivered, and if it took 80 takes, I lived with 80 takes, because the 81st was very good …

She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. Fright. She was afraid of the camera, and that’s why, I think, she muffed some lines. God knows how often. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.

Eve Arnold:

If an editor wanted her, he had to agree to her terms. She knew how she wanted to be seen, and if her cooperation was sought, she reserved the right of veto.

She knew she was superlative at creating still pictures and she loved doing it.

She had learned the trick of moving infinitesimally to stay in range, so that the photographer need not refocus but could easily follow movements that were endlessly changing.

At first I thought it was surface technique, but it went beyond technique. It didn’t always work, and sometimes she would tire and it was as though her radar had failed; but when it did work, it was magic. With her it was never a formula; it was her will, her improvisation.

Peter Bogdonavich from Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors:

The fact is that Marilyn was in bad trouble from the day she was born as Norma Jean Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in the city of angels and movies, a poor bastard angel child who rose to be queen of a town and a way of life that nevertheless held her in contempt. That she died a martyr to pictures at the same time as the original studio star system — through which she had risen — finally collapsed and went also to its death seems too obviously symbolic not to note. Indeed, the coincidence of the two passing together is why I chose to end this long book about movie stars with Marilyn Monroe.

What I saw so briefly in my glimpse of Marilyn at the very peak of her stardom (and the start of my career) — that fervent, still remarkably naive look of all-consuming passion for learning about her craft and art — haunts me still. She is the most touching, strangely innocent — despite all the emphasis on sex — sacrifice to the twentieth-century art of cinematic mythology, with real people as gods and goddesses. While Lillian Gish had been film’s first hearth goddess, Marilyn was the last love goddess of the screen, the final Venus or Aphrodite. The minute she was gone, we started to miss her and that sense of loss has grown, never to be replaced. In death, of course, she triumphed at last, her spirit being imperishable, and keenly to be felt in the images she left behind to mark her brief visit among us.

Elia Kazan from Elia Kazan: A Life:

Relieve your mind now of the images you have of this person. When I met her, she was a simple, eager young woman who rode a bike to the classes she was taking, a decent-hearted kid whom Hollywood brought down, legs parted. She had a thin skin and a soul that hungered for acceptance by people she might look up to …

The girl had little education and no knowledge except the knowledge of her own experience; of that she had a great deal, and for an actor, that is the important kind of knowledge. For her, I found, everything was either completely meaningless or completely personal. She had no interest in abstract, formal, or impersonal concepts but was passionately devoted to her own life’s experiences. What she needed above all was to have her sense of worth confirmed. Born out of wedlock, abandoned by her parents, kicked around, scorned by the men she’d been with until Johnny, she wanted more than anything else approval from men she could respect. Comparing her with many of the wives I got to know in that community, I thought her the honest one, them the “chumps”. But there was a fatal contradiction in Marilyn. She deeply wanted reassurance of her worth, yet she respected the men who scorned her, because their estimate of her was her own.


Marilyn Monroe:

Being a most serious actress is not something God has removed from my destiny as He chooses to destroy my chances of being a mother. It’s therefore my perogative to make the dream of creative fulfillment come true for me. That is what I believe God is saying to me and is the answer to my prayers.


Marilyn Monroe:

Well-behaved women rarely make history.


John Strasberg (son of Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s acting teacher):

I think I was talking about cars to Mother and Father. You know how I loved cars. I’d just come home and it was going to be my eighteenth birthday. I’d wanted to come for that.

Mother and Father hadn’t wanted me to come. “Why don’t you wait till the end of the year?” Well, i’d already been kicked out of college. They didn’t know yet.

When I’d gone off at the airport, I’d turned to Mother and said, “For two cents, I won’t go.” Nobody gave me the two cents, but I’d meant it. What I’d wanted to do was work. I’d wanted to work from the time I was fifteen, and they were always against any effort on my part to be strong or independent. I remember how much I resented it. “You don’t have to work, we’ll take care of everything,” undermining me.

So I was talking about cars, no one was listening, and Marilyn was there and out of the blue said, “Why don’t you take my car, Johnny?”

I thought I hadn’t heard her right, and I said, “What?” She had remembered the summer before, in California, I’d had that Chevy I’d rented. God, I loved that car, a ’57 Bel Air silver Chevy, and she had the Thunderbird.

She continued, “I’ve got the Ford Mustang the corporation gave me, and Arthur and I have a car. That one’s just sitting in the garage, we don’t use it.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe she meant it.

Mother and Father were horrified; they didn’t like it at all. I don’t know if it felt like too much to give me or if they were worried about my driving in my state of mind, but they objected strenuously. “He’s too young. Maybe later, Marilyn. You don’t have to. It’s impossible, he can’t afford it, it could be dangerous.”

Marilyn just said, “Well, don’t worry about any of that, it’s in the corporation’s name, so I’ll take care of the insurance.”

I’ll never forget that … There were so few, so very few people who were generous like that. Especially to me, who couldn’t do anything for her.

I think that car saved my life.


Ella Fitzgerald:

I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her time. And she didn’t know it.

Billy Wilder:

I never knew what Marilyn was going to do, how she was going to play a scene. I had to talk her out of it, or I had to underline it and say, “That’s very good” or “Do it this way.” But I never knew anybody who … except for a dress that blows up and she’s standing there … I don’t know why she became so popular. I never knew. She was really kind of … She was a star. Every time you saw her, she was something. Even when she was angry, it was just a remarkable person. A remarkable person, and in spades when she was on the screen. She was much better on the screen than not on the screen.


Marilyn Monroe:

Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work.


Billy Wilder:

It’s very difficult to talk seriously about Monroe, because she was so glitzy, you know. She escaped the seriousness somehow; she changed the subject. Except that she was very tough to work with. But what you had, by hook or crook, once you saw it on the screen, it was just amazing. Amazing, the radiation that came out. And she was, believe it or not, an excellent dialogue actress. She knew where the laugh was. She knew.


Marilyn Monroe:

For breakfast, I have two raw beaten eggs in a glass of hot milk. I never eat dessert. My nail polish is transparent. I never wear stockings or underclothes because I think it is important to breathe freely. I wash my hair everyday and I am always brushing it. Every morning I walk across my apartment rolling an empty soda bottle between my ankles, in order to preserve my balance.

Monroe’s recipe for stuffing

If you’ve seen “The Misfits,” and if you haven’t you really must, you’ll know what a hoot this scene is. It’s the drink in her hand, staying steady, that is so funny. Or, ONE of the things about this scene that is so funny.

Eve Arnold:

I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects.


Marilyn Monroe:

It’s not true that I had nothing on. I had the radio on.

Ernest Cunningham (photographer):

I worked with Marilyn Monroe. A rather dull person. But when I said “Now!” she lit up. Suddenly, something unbelievable came across. The minute she heard the click of the camera, she was down again. It was over. I said, “What is it between you and the camera that doesn’t show at any other time?” She said, “It’s like being screwed by a thousand guys and you can’t get pregnant.”

Peter Bogdonavich:

More than forty years have passed since Marilyn’s mysterious death, but her legend and persona have survived. This is all the more remarkable because she actually made very few films, and even fewer that were any good. But there was a reality to her artifice — she believed in the characters she played, even if they were inherently unbelievable. “Everything she did,” [Arthur] Miller said to me, “she played realistically. I don’t think she knew any other way to play anything — only to tell you the truth. She was always psychologically committed to that person as a person, no matter what the hell it was, rather than a stock figure. Because the parts she got could easily have been stock figures, which had no other dimension. But she wouldn’t have known how to do that. In other words, she did not have the usual technique for doing something as a stock figure … She was even that way when [director] John Huston used her the first time [in a memorable walk-on bit] in The Asphalt Jungle [1950].”

This went for every picture she did in her surprisingly, painfully short career as a star, barely a decade, little more than a dozen pictures. Though she managed to work with quite a number of major directors, it was not necessarily always in their best efforts; but still they were Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks (twice), Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder (twice), George Cukor (twice, if you count her last unfinished one), John Huston (twice), Laurence Olivier, Joshua Logan, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (bit part in 1950’s classic All About Eve). In my conversation with Miller, he said, “I thought she had the potential for being a great performer if she were given the right stuff to do. And if you look at the stuff she did do, it’s amazing that she created any impression at all because most of it was very primitive. And the fact that people remember these parts from these films is amazing … She was comitted to these parts as though they were real people, not cardboard cutouts. Even though the director and author and the rest might have thought they were cutouts and would deal with them that way. The way the two men [Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon] in Some Like It Hot felt with their parts, or George Raft with his part. She was real. And therefore she had the potential of being a great comedienne.” (Norman Mailer, in his book on Monroe — he never met her — wrote that starting with 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was a great comedienne.)


Marilyn Monroe from The Making of the Misfits:

I’d prefer not to analyze it [acting] … it’s subjective; rather, I want to remain subjective while I’m doing it. Rather than do much talking I’d rather act. When it’s on the screen, that’s when you’ll know who Roslyn [her character in The Misfits] is. I don’t want to water down my own feeling … Goethe says a career is developed in public but talent is developed in private, or silence. It’s true for the actor. To really say what’s in my heart, I’d rather show than to say. Even though I want people to understand, I’d much rather they understand on the screen. If I don’t do that, I’m on the wrong track, or in the wrong profession…. Nobody would have heard of me if it hadn’t been for John Huston. When we started Asphalt Jungle, my first picture, I was very nervous, but John said, ‘Look at Calhern [the late Louis Calhern, a veteran actor], see how he’s shaking. If you’re not nervous, you might as well give up.’ John has meant a great deal in my life. It’s sort of a coincidence to be with him ten years later.


John Strasberg from his sister’s book Marilyn & Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends:

The first time I met her I remember she came out of the living room and Pop said, “This is my son,” and my first impression of her was that she was different from most of the people who came to the house. I’d watch all these people trading their most human qualities, betraying themselves for success at all costs, to become rich and famous, and afterward, when it was too late, they’d realize they had lost the best part of themselves along the way, but she, she was like me. When I looked into her eyes, it was like looking into my own, they were like a child’s eyes. I was still a child. You know how children just look at you. My feeling was she had less ego or was less narcissistic than most of the actors who never really bothered with me. She was just another person to me, another one from that world I felt cut off, excluded, from. She was nicer, real simple, no makeup, and she really looked at me as if she saw me. It wasn’t that I wanted people to look at me, but I knew the difference when she did. I knew everyone said she was the sexiest, most sensual woman in the world. Not to me. I thought there was something wrong with me for not feeling that from her. I’d felt it from other women who came to the house. I was pretty sexually frustrated then. She was so open, so loose, and her sensuality as such was so totally innocent, nothing dirty in it at all, and the first time it was just like talking to an ordinary person, only realer than most who came into the house in those days. She was quiet, too, I remember, like an animal is quiet, and I was like that too, survival tactics. She seemed smart, but not in an educated way, instinctively smart, nobody’s fool.

Couldn’t resist, especially since Bloomsday approaches:


Judging from where she is in the book, she’s in full-on Molly Bloom mode. She would have made a perfect Molly Bloom.

Marilyn Monroe:

I am a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me because of the image they have made of me and that I have made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much and I can’t live up to it. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy’s the same as any other woman’s. I can’t live up to it.


Marilyn Monroe:

My illusions didn’t have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!


Arthur Miller from Timebends: A Life:

She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence. Sometimes she seemed to see all men as boys, children with immeidate needs that it was her place in nature to fulfill; meanwhile her adult self stood aside observing the game. Men were their need, imperious and somehow sacred. She might tell about being held down at a party by two of the guests in a rape attempt from which she said she had escaped, but the truth of the account was far less important than its strange remoteness from her personally. And ultimately something nearly godlike would emerge from this depersonalization. She was at this point incapable of condemning or even of judging people who had damaged her, and to be with her was to be accepted, like moving out into a kind of sanctifying light from a life where suspicions was common sense. She had no common sense, but what she did have was something holier, a long-reaching vision of which she herself was only fitfully aware: humans were all need, all wound. What she wanted most was not to be judged but to win recognition from a sentimentally cruel profession, and from men blinded to her humanity by her perfect beauty. She was part queen, part waif, sometimes on her knees before her own body and sometimes despairing because of it — “Oh, there’s lots of beautiful girls,” she would say to some expression of awed amazement, as though her beauty betrayed her quest for a more enduring acceptance.


Peter Bogdonavich:

The year before her much-speculated-over death at thirty-six (rumors of presidential involvement, etc.), playwright Clifford Odets told me that she used to come over to his house and talk, but that the only times she seemed to him really comfortable were when she was with his two young children and their large poodle. She relaxed with them, felt no threat. With everyone else, Odets said, she seemed nervous, intimidated, frightened. When I repeated to Miller this remark about her with children and animals, he said, “Well, they didn’t sneer at her.”


Burt Glinn (photographer):

She had no bone structure — the face was a Polish flat plate. Not photogenic in the accepted sense, the features were not memorable or special; what she had was the ability to project.

Billy Wilder:

Marilyn was not interested in costumes. She was not a clotheshorse. You could put anything on her you wanted. If it showed something, then she accepted it. As long as it showed a little something.


Henri Cartier Bresson (photographer):

She’s American and it’s very clear that she is – she’s very good that way – one has to be very local to be universal.

Frank Taylor (producer of The Misfits):

Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They were on the same wavelength. They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.

Marilyn Monroe:

Acting isn’t something you do. Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you’re going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.


Arthur Miller:

To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.

Marilyn Monroe:

I’m not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.


Marilyn Monroe (this is what she pleaded at the end of the last interview she gave):

What I really want to say: That what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers.

Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe.


The Death of Marilyn Monroe
By Edwin Morgan

What innocence? Whose guilt? What eyes? Whose breast?

Crumpled orphan, nembutal bed,

white hearse, Los Angeles,

DiMaggio! Los Angeles! Miller! Los Angeles! America!

That Death should seem the only protector –

That all arms should have faded, and the great cameras and lights

become an inquisition and a torment –

That the many acquaintances, the autograph-hunters, the

inflexible directors, the drive-in admirers should become

a blur of incomprehension and pain –

That lonely Uncertainty should limp up, grinning, with

bewildering barbiturates, and watch her undress and lie

down and in her anguish

call for him! call for him to strengthen her with what could

only dissolve her! A method

of dying, we are shaken, we see it. Strasberg!

Los Angeles! Olivier! Los Angeles! Others die

and yet by this death we are a little shaken, we feel it,


Let no one say communication is a cantword.

They had to lift her hand from the bedside telephone.

But what she had not been able to say

perhaps she had said. ‘All I had was my life.

I have no regrets, because if I made

any mistakes, I was responsible.

There is now – and there is the future.

What has happened is behind. So

it follows you around? So what?’ – This

to a friend, ten days before.

And so she was responsible.

And if she was not responsible, not wholly responsible, Los Angeles?

Los Angeles? Will it follow you around? Will the slow

white hearse of the child of America follow you around?


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“[My ambition is to] give something to our literature which will be our own.” — Walt Whitman

“I like to think that eventually he will shame us into becoming Americans again.” — Guy Davenport on Walt Whitman

Whitman is the organizing principle behind my review of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Bob Dylan quotes Whitman all the time. If you put them together, it contextualizes the way we think about them both. Or at least that’s true for me.

More – lots more – about Whitman below the jump.

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“In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.” — Agnès Varda

It’s the birthday of Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda, a pioneering force in the development of the French New Wave – she was French New Wave before it was even named “French New Wave.” When she died at the age of 90, you could feel the waves of loss and tribute breaking over the landscape. My first disoriented thought when I heard the news was, “But what am I supposed to do now?”

Here’s an anecdote about Varda as a director, an anecdote that has always stayed with me. Maybe it stayed with me because of my actor background: I love examples of directors who know how to give good direction.

Here is the great Sandrine Bonnaire giving her unforgettable performance in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond.

Like all great directors, Varda knew when to give direction/guidance, and when to stay silent. When Varda DID give direction, it was specific and action-oriented. Bad directors talk about abstractions and themes, none of which an actor can really play.

Bad director: “Remember, your character represents innocence in a fallen world.”
Actor: “….. Okay. Got it.” [Inner monologue: WTF.]
Scene begins. Actor tries to represent innocence in a fallen world.
Bad director: “Cut! Okay, so maybe this next take think of a really happy circumstance in your childhood that you now look back on and feel sad about.”
Actor: “So … I wasn’t really getting across innocence in a fallen world, is that what you’re saying?”
Bad director: “No, it was great, what you were doing was great, I just want you to maybe think about something personal.”
Actor: “So … a happy childhood memory that makes me sad now?”
Bad director: “Yes. Let’s try it.”
Actor: “Should I keep trying to be innocence in a fallen world?”
Bad director: “Let’s forget about that for now.”

This is not an exaggeration of what it is like to work with a bad director who
1. does not know what he/she wants
2. does not understand the actor’s process

Good directors always give actors something to DO. If you’re a bad director, and you don’t know how to do that, then just say NOTHING to the actor, let the actor work, stay out of their way. (Unfortunately, of course, bad directors don’t know they’re bad. That’s why they’re bad.) Good directors know how to say one tiny thing, one tiny suggestive thing, that sets the actor’s imagination on fire, or makes the actor know, “Got it. I know just what you want.”

Varda didn’t “help” Bonanaire give the great performance she did in Vagabond. That’s a misunderstanding of the relationship between director and actress. Bonnaire is, quite literally, brilliant – all on her own. It’s what she brings to the table. But every actor needs guidance, or at least information from the director that helps contextualize what the director wants, what the movie is, what the director envisions. So Varda made one comment, one very pointed comment early on, and this was THE thing that gave Bonnaire her “way in” to the character.

In the early development stages, Varda said to Bonnaire, “Your character never says ‘Thank you.’ To anyone.”

Something in this simple statement sparked something in Bonnaire. She was curious about it, she hadn’t thought about it in those terms, she wondered what that would look/feel like. Also, on a practical level, it was something she could DO. Specificity is ALWAYS preferable to generalities. No exceptions. Even in highly stylized work.

Bonnaire began experimenting in her own life with not saying “Thank you,” just to get a feel for it, just to see what it might provide her in understanding the character she was going to play. She said she was surprised at how difficult it was. It felt wrong. It made her confront all kinds of things in herself, how you internalize society’s rules until they are automatic, how we all use good manners to get by the best we can in this world. This is not a bad thing. But what happens if you opt out of it? The “why” isn’t even as important as the “what.” Choosing not to say “Thank you” in the preparation phase of the film made Bonnaire realize how often she said “Thank you.” A cashier hands you change. A guy holds a door open for you. You trip off a stair and someone reaches out to help you. A waitress clears your table. You say “Thank you” for the help in every single circumstance. Or you should.

But not if you’re playing the lead character in Vagabond.

Bonnaire got into the groove of what it was like to accept help and never say “Thank you.” It was a whole other world and it opened up all of the possibilities of the character for her.

And it all came from a six-word sentence of direction. PLAY-able direction.

It set Bonnaire – already enormously gifted – free. Keeping those words in mind, she literally could do no wrong in her performance. It showed her how to be, where to go, what to do, what not to do.

Young directors, take note: THAT’S how you give direction.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET.” — poet Countee Cullen

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
— Countee Cullen

It’s his birthday today.

Cullen is often compared to Langston Hughes (my post on Hughes here), seems a little unfair, not to mention reductive. You don’t have to pit these two artists against each other, or set them up in an either/or way … The Harlem Renaissance is such a rich subject, with so many figures and voices. I’m grateful I took a semester in college on the Harlem Renaissance because although some of the poets (Langston Hughes, primarily) had been “covered” in high school humanities classes, there was so much else going on and the course was a beautiful deep dive into the period. Countee Cullen was a major figure.

Langston Hughes took his inspiration from black American forms: blues, jazz, spirituals. He was criticized for this at the time, mainly by other black writers, who protested how they were being portrayed to the white world.

Countee Cullen used strictly European forms. Sonnets, ballads, Elizabethan rhyme schemes. He was criticized for this at the time, mainly by other black writers, for abandoning his heritage, and associating himself with the white world.

So you see where the criticisms were coming from, in both cases. To boil it down: Hughes was criticized for using so-called “low” forms, Cullen was criticized for using so-called “high.”

More about Countee Cullen below the jump:

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Remembering, Honoring

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tiffany Robinson, assigned to 449th Air Expeditionary Group, kneels in front of a battlefield cross following a Memorial Day ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, May 26, 2014. The cross was created with combat gear representing each of the five U.S. military branches, in commemoration of fallen service members. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric R. Dietrich/Released) From Wikimedia Commons

In Flanders Fields (1915)
By John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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It’s the birthday of composer György Ligeti

György Ligeti was a classical composer, born in Romania, who lived in Hungary as a young adult, before fleeing Stalinist oppression to Austria. Stanley Kubrick used his music in 2001, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut (one of the things pointed up again and again by the people interviewed for Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures was how much Kubrick changed the way music was used in film).

Ligeti’s work is well-known by his colleagues and classical contemporaries, but it was Kubrick who introduced his work to a wider audience. Ligeti died in 2006, but how fortunate that he was still alive to be interviewed for Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures because some of his comments are invaluable. One, in particular.

Ligeti sits on a couch, reminiscing about Kubrick. Ligeti is an old man, and he does not look well. His skin is chalky white, his lips are almost blue, and there are black circles around his eyes. His accent is thick, and he has a passionate emphatic way of speaking that makes you listen very closely. This is an artist.

He was interviewed about all of the pieces he composed that Kubrick used, but it was the brief comment he made about his “Musica Ricercata” – used so unforgettably throughour Eyes Wide Shut – that stays with me. The clanging piano notes of the song are used so artfully, so perfectly, in Eyes Wide Shut that when I first saw it I couldn’t quite locate what was so frightening: it all seemed frightening, but it was the music that tipped it over the edge.

“Musica Ricercata” is almost unbearable to listen to. It’s so tense you ache for something to relieve it, even if whatever it is is violent. The music is not a call to violence, those sharply struck piano notes are violence itself. The notes of the piece happen one by one, there is no “arrangement” or blending of left-hand with right-hand – there is NO cooperation. There is also an echo: what is happening at the top-end of the piano is echoed by the same notes far down at the bottom end. And it’s awful: the top and bottom create a trap: you can’t escape ABOVE and you can’t escape below: the notes are locked gates.

Additionally, the notes seem to be in a cluster, which may sound like a contradiction, due to the echo effect. But within the “tune,” there is not a wide range. The notes of the tune stay in one section of the piano, going up one scale, down two, up two, down one … It is a strange and jagged repetitive sound, creating unbearable tension, but resolution never comes. The piano notes just keep clanging, one by one, a little bit up, a little bit down. The workings of the piece are perhaps mysterious but undeniable.

Watching the movie, I wanted the music to stop. Sometimes it does. But it always returns. And when I would hear that clanging piano note, the dread would rise up. “Oh, no, not THAT again.”

This is how Kubrick used music in film. He obviously felt a kinship with Ligeti’s music.

Here is one of the sequences in Eyes Wide Shut:

The comment from Ligeti that so stopped me in my tracks was one of those moments where someone reveals something, almost in a throwaway line, and the moment is gone before you can fully understand it …

But, to be honest, I want an entire documentary now about György Ligeti, based on this one quote.

Musica Ricertata (a much longer piece than the section used repetitively in Eyes Wide Shut) was written in the early 1950s.

Ligeti, sitting on the couch, an old man, says to the interviewer:

I was in Stalinist terroristic Hungary where this kind of music was not allowed. And I just wrote it for myself. Stanley Kubrick understood the dramatics of this moment and this is what he did in the film and for me, when I composed it in the year 1950, it was desperate. It was a knife in Stalin’s heart.

Listen to the piece again now. Listen to it thinking of his words.

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“Only the bad directors tell you how to read a line, how to define your character. The good ones let you do your job.” — Carroll Baker

It’s her birthday today.

When you look back on your life – especially once you’re, how you say, OLD – it’s sometimes interesting to try to untangle some of the strands, the things that happened that made you who you are, and try to find the source, the start, the beginning. Sometimes certain people take on gigantic significance when you look back on things from a distance. Carroll Baker is one of those people for me. She was the gateway.

Or … James Dean was the start, but her autobiography was the gateway, which I read at the tender age of 12/13, having somehow tripped over it in the library where I worked after school. It was James Dean that was the attraction: I saw East of Eden and began scouring the index pages of actor biographies looking for his name. (I am not a librarian’s daughter for nothing.) This is how I found her autobiography, which I DEVOURED.

Her autobiography is not all that great, really, but something in it grabbed hold of me, and I followed the bread crumbs to other books, conducting my own independent research project, reading books and watching movies, educating myself. Learning of Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. 15 years later, I’d end up in New York, at the Actors Studio, taking classes in the room where Carroll Baker had taken classes … and it all made a kind of sense. There were so many things that went into my Strasberg-ian path – even though my first acting training (my favorite training) was Meisner – but Sanford Meisner was part of that whole crowd. I loved everything to do with that whole crowd. And I first learned about them because of Carroll Baker. I went into this whole thing in excruciating detail in a post I wrote years ago about her autobiography – in a weird way, that little cheap paperback was one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It was the start of it all.

I haven’t even written a word about Carroll Baker’s actual career yet. This is how deeply entangled she is in my actual development as a human.

When she showed up in Ironweed a couple years later, I felt a jolt of excitement and happiness. THERE SHE IS. I felt like I KNEW her.

This backstory is why being asked by Criterion to write the booklet essay for the release of Something Wild (1961) – directed by her husband at the time, Jack Garfein, and starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker, was such an emotional thing. It felt … right. It felt like part of the continuum started when I first read her autobiography. I had been inspired by Carroll Baker as a teenager (even though she barely mentions Something Wild in her book. She devotes pages to her affair with Ben Gazzara but only one line to this great film, one of her best performances!). If you haven’t seen Something Wild, then you really must.

For years it was virtually un-seeable. It was never on DVD until 2011. It was “lost.” Not anymore. Here’s my booklet essay for the Criterion release.

Then: In 2016, Giant screened at the Film Forum for its 60th anniversary, and Carroll Baker was in attendance for a QA. Here’s a transcript.

Happy birthday, Carroll Baker. You’re somehow wound up in my own journey towards taking acting seriously and wanting to be good at it.

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Review: Close to Vermeer (2023)

I liked hanging out with the people in this documentary, I liked soaking up their passion and expertise. I reviewed for Ebert.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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