Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (2016)

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A movie like Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong shows just how difficult it really is to pull off something like The Clock, or Dogfight, or the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater. Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong wants to be like that, but isn’t.

I reviewed Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong for Rogerebert.com.

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Things We’ve Watched and Discussed

We both love her so much. Our discussion about Roberta Flack involved: the Don McLean connection, of course, and how moving we found it. “I prayed that he would finish … but he just kept right on …” How piercing and perfect a description of what powerful art can do to us, or how it reveals to us our own pain. We also discussed the quality of her voice. It’s no-frills. It’s basically her speaking-voice, which is why it has that direct quality, nothing between it and her, or her and us.

We’ve been discussing The Pointer Sisters for the entirety of our friendship. Mitchell saw them perform multiple times in childhood at the legendary Warwick Tent (where he saw everyone), and they were a big favorite in college. I don’t think, in college, I was fully aware of their background, the atmosphere from which they sprung, AND, how truly BIZARRE they really were. (Bizarre as in: awesome, and “sui generis.”) Sisters. New Orleans jazz. Andrews Sisters. Southern girls. I mean, WATCH that performance above. It’s such a blend of influences, made their own, and sparked with the enthusiasm of siblings who have probably been imitating those influences, using hair-brushes as microphones, since they were kids. Mitchell said, “I mean, who thought that this would be a valid way to start a pop career?” (This is not criticism. It’s an acknowledgement of how “out there” they were, how MUCH they were themselves … the eccentricity and unique nature of what they were doing. Brilliant.) They were not packaged as a “sister act”, they were not a gimmick or a commodity. They burst out of the gate, showing us who they were and the kind of music they loved and listen: You cannot manufacture authenticity like that, the in-sync-ness of siblings, the enthusiasm that they bring. You either have it or you don’t. We watched, and Mitchell gave me brief bios on each sister, the blend of personalities/tastes that made up The Pointer Sisters.

That clip led us to this performance (same concert) of one of the country songs written by the sisters. Old-school country. You can hear the resistance of the audience to her question, “Do you love country music?” They’re like, “Uhm. No.” But into it she goes, and it’s a classic. It’s country music, straight-up, a country song sung by that voice, and it’s the culture from which she springs as well. There’s an integration in this, a bridging of the gap, in such an authentic and personal way. I’ll have more to say about this in a second, but first, watch the beautiful clip.

At one point, watching the clip, I started singing along. I didn’t realize I knew the words. I somehow had missed that this song was a Pointer Sisters song, and I racked my brains: How do I know this song? Who covered it? Because it’s through the COVER that I knew the song? Then I got it. Then I heard it. I told Mitchell, and he was like, “What?? He covered it?” (It’s always pleasing to me, in a semi-pathetic way, whenever I can tell Mitchell something he doesn’t know, especially about music.) So then we queued up HIS version. And it’s actually a favorite performance for me from him. He loved country music, no surprise there, but I love a couple things in his version: the ladies behind him (the Sweet Inspirations, including Cissy Houston), as well as his sexy and committed prosody and phrasing on “You used me … you deceived me … and you never seemed to need me … but I’ll BET … you won’t forget me when I go.” (It’s his commitment on “I’ll BET” that is electric. He’s PISSED.)


The mention of The Sweet Inspirations, one of Elvis’ back-up groups in the 70s also had a long storied career: Nothing like those church girls singing a pop song. THAT’S the sound that BECAME pop music. So we pulled up their cover of the Bee Gees song.

All roads lead to Barbra Streisand. Mitchell pulled up two clips from one of her TV specials. (We both miss TV specials so much.) Barbra, in her full and glamorous 70s beauty, does a series of numbers with Ray Charles (and his awesome Girl Back-up Group, so essential to his sex appeal and style and sound.) Barbra sang with everyone. She was SUCH a solo star, but the pairings she has done show her versatility, as well as the generosity of a certain kind of star. Pouring her attention and focus on someone who is equally fabulous. She’s self-consumed, as most gigantic stars/icons are (hello, Marlene Dietrich), but she also loves the excellence of others, and they love the excellence in her.

So maybe Ray and Babs make no sense on the face of it, but seeing them together … it makes PERFECT sense.

First up, Ray taking OFF into the stratosphere with his awesome “Look What They’ve Done To My Song.” He’s doing his thing, she’s doing her thing. She doesn’t alter her style or try to be someone that she’s not. Why should she? She’s Babs. BUT she’s also there as support staff to him, setting him up, continuously tossing the ball his way. The comments she throw in, in between his phrases … asking questions that he then answers in the next batch of lyrics … SO entertaining.

Also, she never takes her eyes off of him. Because one of her jobs is to keep herself totally in sync with him, because she can see him, and he can’t see her. So she reins it in (except on the sections where he plays support staff to her), and stares right at him … timing her own phrasing to PERFECTION to match up with his. That’s one of her jobs.

Also, she’s essentially singing back-up. When did Barbra EVER sing back-up? So she’s also timing herself up with the syncopations and off-beats of the back-up arrangement, being sung by the ladies who are placed BEHIND her. So watch Babs’ strange tapping on the piano, not quite in sync with Ray’s beat. She doesn’t need to keep in sync with Ray. She needs to keep in sync with that back-up beat. So the hand helps.

The whole thing is so right-brain-left-brain and it’s masterful.

And finally: watch how he goes OFF on his classic riffs at the end, going over and over and over the same section, improvising, building the tension … as the back-up singers hold strong behind him. Nobody knows when he will decide to end the riff and move on into the explosive ending … and everyone has to hold tight, doing their thing, sensing when he will switch it up. I love that kind of tight tight tight intuitive collaboration. And Barbra … holding strong, with her part in the back-up, never taking her eyes off Ray, knowing she has to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to launch into the next section. And he’s going to be the one to do it, he’s in charge … go with him, or be left in the dust.

After that, we moved on further into that pairing in the same TV special. “Crying’ Time” moving into “Sweet Inspiration”, two wildly different numbers, with wildly different vibes. Again: the glory of Babs harmonizing with a male voice. It’s so beautiful, so creamy-dreamy, the collaboration of two geniuses, blending their voices together. The song has so many pauses built into its melody, and again, Barbra has to keep her eye on Ray Charles, so that she lets go of notes at the same time he does, and picks up the next phrase at the identical moment.

And on to “Sweet Inspiration,” where Babs is, essentially, wearing the white pant suit from What’s Up, Doc?, showing off her superb figure … doing choreography (when did Babs ever do choreography?), in sync with the back-up ladies behind her. It’s so adorable.

And she’s a part of their dynamic, but she’s also the star, and she puts her own Babs-ish spin on those movements, and it’s goofy and charming and entertaining.

Bring back the TV special.

And singers/producers need to realize that if there are geniuses at work, you don’t need to add too much to it. Keep the camera angles simple, keep the lighting uniform … you don’t need to add huge attention-getting cues that take away from/pull focus from the dynamic between the two performers.

This is all we did on Wednesday. I didn’t get out of my pajamas. January has been pretty wretched, I don’t mind telling you, and my health has suffered because of the stress. I’m coming out of it now, but my resilience is compromised ANYway so I need to get myself back on track (and I am). But a day in my pajamas watching Youtube clips with one of my best friends worked wonders.

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Valentine’s Day Story #2: The Spitball Valentine

In the 6th grade, I was passionately in love with a boy named Andrew Wright. My love for him had begun to blossom tentatively in the fifth grade, but the sensation that exploded in sixth grade was real love, no more kid’s stuff, and I could sense the difference like night and day. I didn’t love Andrew Wright because he was cute, or because he had a nice way about him and was really funny and would crack jokes in Sunday School, or because he thought I was a good person to have on his baseball team. I loved him because he was the epitome of all that was good and right in the world.

We grew up in the same neighborhood, and had been hanging around since we were little kids. We went to the same church and had made our first communions together. We were on the same school bus, we would play tag or baseball in the summer twilights or the two of us would take turns re-enacting Carlton Fisk’s famous homer from 1975, as our mothers called us impatiently in to dinner, we would sneak into the backyard of the house diagonally across the street from mine and pick the raspberries that grew there, running away at the slightest movement from inside.

It was all very unrequited. We were eleven years old. Half of the fun was just being in love with someone. Nothing ever had to be done about it.

That winter in 6th grade, Andrew and I spent all of our time after school, and on weekends, skating on the frozen pond in the woods near our houses. He would steal my hat, and I would chase him to get it back. We would wrestle for it, sometimes rolling around on the ice, I would get it back, and then he would chase me. It was a private thing we did. We didn’t reference it when we were in school. We didn’t say to each other, “Let’s keep this a secret.”€I guess when you’re a kid you understand these things. We had become very close, in an unspoken way, in an outdoor way. Our true milieu was on the ice, the grey wintry woods around us, chasing each other on skates, laughing, bantering, freezing cold, and the bare trees towering above.

In February of that year, sixth grade, there was a big Valentine’s Day ceremony in our class. In grade school, the custom was to buy Valentine’s Day cards in bulk, the ones with cartoons and silly rubber-stamp sentiments (2 good 2 be 4 forgotten). Each kid was called up by name, all the cards passed out, with everyone hovering over their pile, pre-pubescent misers, reading the messages, fluttering with sixth grade romantic feelings and alarming hormone surges.

Of course, once I settled down with my pile, I started searching for Andrew’s card immediately, trying to play it cool in case anyone looked over at me, womanly wiles already kicking in. You know, no biggie, whatever, just lookin’ at my Valentines, not looking for one in particular, heck no!

By the time I got to the bottom of the pile, my heart had clenched up into a tiny hard ball bearing. He hadn’t given me a card. There was no card from Andrew Wright in my pile. How could he? How could he … how could he have not written me a card? After all that we had shared? After the frozen pond?

It was my first taste of that particular brand of dread, something that I perceive now as adult in nature. My feelings were clearly not reciprocated. How could that possibly be? And what will I do now with all of this feeling?

It was an entirely new sensation, startling to me in its relentless clarity.

I thought I might have to get up and leave the classroom, which was abuzz with conversation and laughter and gossip, everybody wandering from desk to desk. I had a pile of cards in front of me, but not one from the boy I loved. I needed to get away and just be really really sad for a minute, maybe even cry, away from my classmates. Nobody must see my grief. Andrew must never ever know how much I had hoped for a Valentine from him.

But then, suddenly, Andrew Wright, on his way somewhere else, walked by my desk and, without stopping or saying a word, dropped what looked like a tiny spitball in front of me. He kept going, didn’t look back. Nobody looking on would have perceived what had happened. It was a sly gesture, meant to appear invisible, a camouflage.

Disbelieving, I opened up the spitball.

It was not a store-bought card. It was not a rubber-stamp Hallmark that he had signed his name to. It was not generic. It was not, in short, like the card I had given to him. (Even then, the intensity of my emotions was such that I felt the need to hide it, to protect people from it, even the boy I loved. It would be “too much”, right?)

What he dropped on my desk was a tiny piece of white construction paper that he had clearly ripped off the corner of a larger sheet, and he had written his own message on it in smudgy #2 pencil:

Dear Sheila
Youre a good kid and a good story writer.
Andrew

Even though I was a child, I knew what had just happened and the enormity of it:

— He couldn’t have just given me a cutesy Hallmark Valentine. It wouldn’t have been right. In his young boy’s heart, he knew we were closer than that.

— He needed to express how he felt about me privately. It would have been a disaster if other kids in the class had seen that message. Our frozen-pond twilights were in that card.

— In the note, he didn’t talk about how cute I was, or how he liked my freckles, or any other “part” of me. He talked about my qualities and my talents, and how he liked those. We are on the cusp of young adulthood here, still little kids, but with adolescence breathing down our necks. In the years to come, much of the attraction of another human being would be pheromonal, and chemistry-driven, based on the overwhelming desire to roll around on a couch in a clutchy-grabby way with that person. All awesome stuff, but Andrew’s note pre-dates those desires. He probably wouldn’t have written such a note a mere year later, when we were in 7th grade. But here? He likes me because I am a “good kid”, and he likes me because I am a “good story writer.” I did not realize at the time what a gift that would be, to have someone perceive ME, in that way. Or, let’s say, I didn’t realize how much I would yearn for such a note in years to come.

— A generic flirty note would not have been right either, he knew that, so he made the bold move to go personal. He addressed me. Directly.

The note from Andrew, written before I wore a bra or knew about things like cramps or heartbreak, written during the bleak tail-end of the 1970s, is still the most romantic I have ever received.

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Valentine’s Day Story #1: An Eyeball and a Dozen Roses

I was living in Chicago, having a grand old time. There were a couple of men buzzing around me. One of them (sweet, nice, a guy I had seen perform numerous times – he was HILARIOUS, his most important quality) approached me at a party and, after chatting me up for a while in a very humorous and effortless way, asked me out to dinner.

I said Sure!

I’m not a real date-r. I’ve been on dates, obviously, but any relationship I have ever had has not come out of that traditional set-up. I don’t know how to flirt unless I mean business. This guy was very traditional, and so – like a true gentleman he set up the entire date (picked the spot, picked the after-dinner spot, etc.)

It ended up being one of the best dates I have ever been on before IN MY LIFE. Not because there were sizzling romantic sparks between us (there weren’t) but because of where he took me to dinner, the people we met there, and what we ended up doing. We went out to eat at a great old-school Greek restaurant (sadly, the joint is now closed). The coffee they gave us at the end of the meal was so thick our spoons could stand up in it. We stayed there for hours, talking and laughing, and then, after 11 or so, the music started. There was a round dance floor in the middle of the tables (like a nightclub you see in 1940s movies, although dilapidated and decaying), and people started dancing. These people were all Greek. They danced in a circle, holding hands, shouting and whooping.

To give you a more specific image, we were the youngest people in the place by about two generations. The median age of everyone there was around 75. When the dancing started, it involved a bunch of 70-year-old Greek women, caked with makeup, jewels glittering on their ears, their fingers, dancing around in a circle, holding hands, gesturing majestically out to us to join their dance, as their 70-year-old Greek husbands, or lovers, stood on the outskirts, throwing money up into the air. The air was filled with floating American currency. 78-year-old Greek women picked up 20 dollar bills and plastered them onto their sweaty necks and sweaty 78-year-old cleavage. The atmosphere was sexually charged and exhilarated, more so than any hip dance club filled with 20-somethings like ourselves. It was 3 a.m., and he and I finally joined the geriatric Greek dance, as money swirled through the air. We scuffed through the bills on the floor, laughing at how much fun we were having, how awesome it all was.

But that’s a tangent, and not the story I want to tell which is the story of the Eyeball and the Dozen Roses.

During the great date at the late-night Greek place, for some UNFATHOMABLE reason, I told him that my eye doctor had taken a picture of the back of my eyeball.

He: “Your grey eyes look so lovely. I could drown in their sparkley depths.”

Me: “Oh yeah? I should show you a picture of the BACK of my eyeball, pal.”

I have no idea how the subject came up, but he (bless him) seemed completely fascinated by the idea of having a picture taken of the back of his eyeball. The photo of the back of my eyeball was very weird and I was kind of obsessed with it: It looked like a big burning red ball. It looked like a close-up photo of the red storm circling Jupiter in the cold depths of space.

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The back of my eyeball looked like that, basically.

During the date at the Greek place, he already set up the next date. I’m telling you, he had the basics down! “Okay, so Valentine’s Day is next week. And – I know we don’t know each other at all or anything, but I think it would be fun to have a date on Valentine’s Day. Whaddya say?”

I Zorba-ed my way through the carpet of money, plastering 20 dollar bills on my arms, and said, “That sounds like fun!!”

I’m not big on Valentine’s Day, not being a romantic type (as this story will OBVIOUSLY prove), and also: it just seems like a hell of a lot of pressure. When I see couples out on Valentine’s Day, the men look stressed and cowed, and the women look either vicious or triumphant. It’s not my scene, man. But he and I had such an unbelievably fabulous time on that first date, I thought: It’s cool.

And then I came up with what I considered to be an inspired idea.

Instead of getting him a nice Hallmark-y little Valentine’s Day card, I put the photo of the back of my eyeball into a little red envelope, with his name on it. On the margins of the photo I wrote, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

I know it is insane.

I cannot defend it.

I am just reporting the facts of the case, which are: I put a photograph of the back of my eyeball into an envelope to give to a guy I barely knew on Valentine’s Day.

I went over to his apartment for our date. He greeted me at the door, so nice, so sweet. He let me in. He got me a drink. We didn’t really know each other at all, but we had had (no contest) the best date EVER. One for the books. We were kind of proud of ourselves for that.

He went into the kitchen, and came back out, holding a dozen red roses for me. For Valentine’s Day.

The second I saw the roses, I remembered the little red envelope in my purse, and I could feel my face getting as beet-red as the back of my own eyeball.

Oh my God. I am such an asshole. I have given him a photograph of the back of my eyeball. What the hell was going through my mind at the time that made me think that was appropriate??? My head was literally burning with embarrassment and shame about my eyeball.

I suppose I could have chosen to not give him the picture of Jupiter’s eternal red storm. But, as I said, comedy is important to me, too, and I knew that what was going down here was freakin’ funny.

I said, “Okay, so this is completely embarrassing, seeing as you gave me a beautiful bouquet of roses … but here’s what I got you.”

He opened up the envelope, looked at the Polaroid, and then BURST into laughter. (Thank God.)

Throughout the night he kept making jokes about it, pretending he was describing his Valentine’s date to friends who didn’t know me. He would do both sides of the conversation.

“Hey, man, did you go out on Valentine’s Day?”
“Oh yeah, dude, I went out with this sweet girl I just met.”
“Really? What does she look like?”
Long long pause.
“Oh …. she’s a circle.”

“Dude, you went out on Valentine’s Day? What did the girl look like?”
“Uhm, sort of like a raging fireball.”

Or, when someone would ask him, “What did your date look like?”, he would take out the photograph of the back of my eyeball and, smiling proudly, hand it over.

He ended up being very kind about the whole thing, turning it into a huge joke, which I appreciated.

So that is the mortifying story of a man who gave me a dozen roses and I gave him, in return, a Polaroid of the back of my eyeball.

A Coda:

We ended up going on something like 4 dates, stretched out over an 8 or 9 week period. Obviously there wasn’t a sense of urgency to it all. We weren’t hot for each other, we weren’t burning like the backs of our own eyeballs to see each other. I don’t even think we kissed. Occasionally we would go to a movie, or out to dinner, whatever, but nothing ever really happened beyond that. There were no games, no weirdness, it just was what it was. I would forget for weeks at a time that he even existed, and then he would suddenly call me up and invite me to do something. I was dating other people, I’m sure he was too. Whatever. No biggie.

The whole thing ended when I called him up, after another 3 week “break”, and asked him to go to a movie, or something like that.

He sounded very hesitant. I could tell immediately something was up.

So I said, “What’s up?”

He said, “Well … I guess I’m thinking that we should slow down.”

I sat there, on the other end, filled with blankness. I thought nothing, I felt nothing. I went completely dead. There was nothing to say, but I was still required to respond.

And what finally came out of my mouth, was: “I literally do not know how much slower I can go.”

This was greeted by a deafening silence.

And then what came out of my mouth was: “If I go any slower, I think I will stop.”

An even louder silence from the other end.

I wasn’t being bitchy. But I was, God help me, being truthful, and the entropy was already swirling me into its polar vortex and I could not, conceivably, in any biologically-sound carbon-based universe, go any slower than I was already going, without stopping outright.

Needless to say, we stopped.

And to this day, amongst my group of friends, “If I go any slower, I think I’ll stop” is a favorite phrase. It really works well in a multitude of situations.

I ran into him a couple of years ago at a party in Chicago, and we had a hilarious conversation. I said, “To this day, that date at the Greek place is the best date I’ve ever gone on.” He said the same was true for him as well.

But I didn’t ask him if he had kept the picture of my eyeball.

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Chicago Memory: That Night I Became a Member of a Monarchy That No Longer Exists

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asshole

I’m in Chicago now, staying with my friend Mitchell. We’ve been friends since college. Then we were roommates in Chicago, and the adventures we had are legion. Here, we had come home from some night out. We were not drunk, or not wasted, let’s say that. And for whatever reason, my outfit, and the lighting in our little crappy hallway made Mitchell want to take some pictures, with my cool camera. He said, “You look like some complete wastrel member of a defunct monarchy.” Like, what? He elaborated: “You know, like you’re a princess in the Hapsburg or Romanov line, and you have no throne to sit on anymore because your monarchy no longer exists, and so instead you spend your time drinking and doing coke and making scenes in Biarritz or Monte Carlo, dating criminals and compulsive gamblers and international asshole playboys, and your only ‘throne’ now is the tabloids who cover your drunken exploits.”

And I took it from there. Because isn’t that an evocative image? Wouldn’t you “know what to do”, too, if someone presented that image? “Okay, act like this.” “Oh yes. I know exactly who that person is. Here we go.”

Mitchell and I are (much) older now but we still do shit like this, merely for our own entertainment. Also, who else but Mitchell would look at a woman in a biker’s jacket on a cold wintry Chicago night, and say, “You look like a member of the lost Romanov clan”? I ask you, who.

It’s good to be back.

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February 9, 1964: The Beatles’ 1st Appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show

Posted in Music, On This Day | Tagged | 2 Comments

“If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.” – Happy Birthday, Brendan Behan

“Shakespeare said pretty well everything and what he left out, James Joyce, with a judge from meself, put in.” – Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan, Irish playwright, IRA man, criminal, was born on this day, in Dublin, in 1923. He led a life of poverty, violence, controversy, and aimless wandering. He spent time in jail as a teenager, for being part of a plot to blow up a bridge (he had the bombs in his bag). Then he was involved in the attempted murder of two detectives, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. While in prison, he (like so many other convicts) spent that time of enforced solitude writing. He wrote memoirs, confessions, poetry. He was still only 23 years old. His IRA activities ceased after that time, although he remained connected and friendly with most of its members (naturally – his whole family was involved). While in prison, he learned the Irish language. He drank like a fish. He had trouble getting published in Ireland (he was in a grand continuum of Irish writers who faced similar censorship issues). Behan was raised in a staunchly Republican family. His father was involved in the Easter uprising. Behan was Catholic, but not in name only. He was a true believer.

Please go check out my friend Therese’s post about Behan.

In the 1950s, he left Ireland (in yet another grand continuum of Irish writers who leave choose exile over living at home) and moved to Paris.

I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

When we were in Ireland as a family, my dad took us to the writer’s museum in Dublin. It’s like going to the Vatican of authors. Nobody is more dominant in the written word than Irish writers. Even as a kid I appreciated the museum, especially because I grew up surrounded by books by old Irish authors on my dad’s bookshelves. I hadn’t READ any of the books, but people like Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan and Francis Stewart and W.B. Yeats were a part of the warp and weft of our family.

My first published piece was in The Sewanee Review, the longest continuously-running literary journal in the United States. It was about my father and my childhood steeped in Irish literature, all told through the framework of the elaborate “Irish author” ritual we were put through in order to get our allowance. Brendan Behan is featured. My essay, called “Two Birds,” appeared in the Irish Letters edition, along with luminaries such as William Trevor. One of the proudest moments of my life. I read the piece on the radio. My dad got to tune in. So much has happened that my dad didn’t get to see, including me getting “better,” finally, but at least he was around for “Two Birds”, because the whole essay was a tribute to him.

We had (and still have) a big picture of Brendan Behan in our living room: it was a drawing of Behan’s bloated meaty face, all rendered in one uninterrupted line.

I remember our visit to the museum and seeing Behan’s battered typewriter under glass (you can see images of it on the museum’s link). I didn’t even know who he was, as a writer. I just knew his books were all over our house, and I just knew that he was on our living room wall. And even as a young teenager, I was into “objects”, the same way I am now. Like seeing Alexander Hamilton’s DESK at the New York Historical Society and literally having to walk away from the display because I didn’t trust myself to not reach out and touch the damn thing.

I think perhaps it is because I had a battered typewriter of my own, given to me on my 10th birthday, and it lasted me pretty much until I went to college. Old-fashioned, I had to buy ink ribbons on spools, where certain letters came out quirky, no matter what you did. I loved my typewriter, and I wish I still had it. Behan’s typewriter spoke to me. I was a teenager living in the early 1980s. Behan seemed like a man from ancient Rome to me, yet his typewriter was like mine!

“I am a drinker with writing problems.”

His cynicism about the Irish and Ireland borders on the psychotic, but on a primal level, he knew what he was doing. An unfortunate generalization, perhaps, but it was how Behan saw it: The Irish ARE serious, but they don’t take themSELVES seriously.

It’s not that the Irish are cynical. It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.

It is his “lack of respect for everything and everybody” that makes his work so exciting His feelings and judgments tremble before you like a hologram. He lives in his words. He is unforgiving. Yet so funny. If he just had the unforgiving attitude, he would have been a rather humorless writer, a propagandist. Behan was a riot.

Never throw stones at your mother,
You’ll be sorry for it when she’s dead,
Never throw stones at your mother,
Throw bricks at your father instead.

Brendan Behan, “The Hostage”, 1958

It doesn’t surprise me that he and Jackie Gleason were best friends. They both had the same dead-eyed response to absurdity, the same intolerance for stupidity and silliness, the same potential for explosive rage and explosive tragedy, and also the same huge humor. Plus alcohol.

Jackie-Gleason-right-with-Brendan-Behan-in-Gleasons-dressing-room-1960

They became friends because of a notorious drunken appearance by Behan on a television talk show, where Gleason was also a guest. While Behan was shocking to many, Gleason saw a kindred spirit.

As an adult, I finally read all of his plays and realized what the fuss was all about.

1954’s The Quare Fellow, about his time in prison, ran for a short time in Dublin, and was a modest hit. The prison language is meaty, funny, and shows Behan’s gift for satire. There’s a Pinter-esque quality in some of it (strange as that may sound) in that a lot of times the events that happen offstage take on far more importance than what is happening ON. It adds to the audience’s feeling of imbalance, or wanting to peek around corners to get the whole story. “The Quare Fellow” himself is never seen in the play, although referenced constantly.

With The Quare Fellow, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop came into the picture, an essential development in the Behan story.

Joan-Littlewood

We have her to thank (partially) for the fact that Brendan Behan is so famous today. I am not sure that fame was a done deal for someone like Behan, in the way that it was for someone like Joyce, who seemed destined to be a singular star. Behan was more fringe, more of a scrabbler-scibbler. But Littlewood, a theatre director and producer, took The Quare Fellow over to England where it became a smashing success. Eventually the play moved to Broadway, bringing Behan worldwide fame.

My dad wrote me a note about The Hostage (another one of Behan’s plays):

Dearest: I saw the play done once in the 70s: it seemed like John Cleese [or some other Python] had adapted Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation for the stage. I believe that it owes most of its success to the director [Joan Littlewood?]. love, dad

My father’s comment reflects the general consensus that seems to be out there: that it was Joan Littlewood who took Behan’s work, wrestled it into a theatrical form, produced it so that its strengths could shine, hiding its weaknesses: any collaboration that Behan had afterwards suffers in comparison. Behan owed much to Littlewood. Perhaps that is why they had such a testy difficult relationship.

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The Hostage was written in 1958. It was originally written in the Irish language – An Giall – and had a couple of small productions. Then he translated it into English, and once again it was directed and produced by Joan Littlewood.

Interestingly enough, my copy of the book, given to me by my father, was an early edition, 1959, and in the biographical sketch on the back it says: “Brendan Behan, the son of a house painter, left school at thirteen, and three years later served his first prison term for political reasons. As an IRA terrorist he has spent eight years of his life in various jails …” That little bio of Behan is quite a time-traveler, from an earlier decade when people weren’t so hesitant to call a spade a spade.

The Hostage was an enormous theatrical success in London, Paris, and New York. The play is laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also angry, pointedly political, sad, with certain Keystone Cops slapstick elements. It should be played like a bat out of hell. You should only “pause” when Behan tells you to pause. Other than that, let it fly, keep the speed up, ba-dum-ching! The points made are difficult and prickly – still relevant today … but points such as those must not be underlined for the audience. I wish every director – for stage, TV, and film – would resist the urge to underline (with music, dialogue, closeups, repetitive language in the script to make sure we all “get it”) what is already obvious.

The Hostage takes place in a brothel in Dublin owned by a former IRA commander. The cast of characters is a motley array of whores, night-owls and other fringe-dwellers. It’s a fast-moving theatrical work, full of wise cracks, and jokes. Nothing is taken seriously, a very Irish sensibility. (Try saying something maudlin or sentimental to a table of Irish people from Ireland, and see the response you get. I dare you!)

When the play opens, we eventually learn that the following day an 18-year-old IRA member, accused of killing an Ulster policeman, is to be hanged. There’s lots of chatter about the IRA, 1916, martyrdom, Ireland … A young Cockney soldier, Leslie Williams, is held hostage in the brothel, in the hopes that somehow this might stave off the execution. When the IRA member is hanged the following day, the British police eventually attack the brothel, and Leslie ends up getting killed by gunfire.

The Hostage was Behan’s last major success.

Critic Kenneth Tynan said:

While other writers horde words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight.

Here is an excerpt from The Hostage – a play that is well worth looking into if you are not familiar with it. Despite the IRA themes and the title: it is a comedy.

Notice in the excerpt below that a “pause” is written into the script. And, hysterically, the Officer shouts “SILENCE!” after the pause. If you’re in a production that is floppy, in terms of cue pickups, with pauses left and right, with people stopping to think, or ponder – then that moment would be lost, the timing would not be right, you need to be able to “hear” the joke that Behan has written into the thing. It needs to be rat-a-tat dialogue all along, no pauses between lines, so then that sudden “Pause” will really have an effect. And the fact that the Officer shouts “Silence” after the ONE pause in the script so far is hilarious, and says worlds about that character. (This is very Pinter-esque. In terms of “Pinter’s pauses”: follow them like you would a musical score. Do not add more. Do not subtract any. Just DO WHAT HE SAYS.)

So happy birthday to Brendan Behan.

You make me think, basically, of my whole damn life. You were given to me, by my father, like so much else.

Wherever I look, in the timeline of my life, you are there. Just like the picture on our wall, one uninterrupted line.

EXCERPT FROM The Hostage, by Brendan Behan.

OFFICER: Now your rent books, please, or a list of the tenants.

PAT. I can give you that easy. There’s Bobo, Ropeen, Colette, the Mouse, Pigseye, Mulleady, Princess Grace, Rio Rita, Meg, the new girl, and myself.

OFFICER. [PAT fetches his notebook] I’ll tell you the truth, if it was my doings there’d be no such thing as us coming here. I’d have nothing to do with the place, and the bad reputation it has all over the city.

PAT. Isn’t it good enough for your prisoner?

OFFICER. It’s not good enough for the Irish Republican Army.

PAT. Isn’t it now?

OFFICER. Patrick Pearse said “To serve a cause which is splendid and holy, men must themselves be splendid and holy.”

PAT. Are you splendid, or just holy? Haven’t I seen you somewhere before? It couldn’t be you that was after coming here one Saturday night …

OFFICER. It could not.

PAT. It could have been your brother, for he was the spitting image of you.

OFFICER. If any of us were caught here now or at any time, it’s shamed before the world we’d be. Still, I see their reasons for choosing it too.

PAT. The place is so hot, it’s cold.

OFFICERE. The police wouldn’t believe we’d touch it.

PAT. If we’re all caught here, it’s not the opinion of the world or the police will be upsetting us, but the opinion of the Military Court. But then I suppose it’s all the same to you; you’ll be a hero, will you not?

OFFICER. I hope that I could never betray my trust.

PAT. Ah yes, of course, you’ve not yet been in Mountjoy or the Curragh glasshouse.

OFFICER. I have not.

PAT. That’s easily seen in you.

OFFICER. I assure you, my friend, I’m not afraid of Redcaps.

PAT. Take it from me, they’re not the worst [to audience] though they’re bastards anywhere and everywhere. No, your real trouble when you go to prison as a patriot, do you know what it will be?

OFFICER. The loss of liberty.

PAT. No, the other Irish patriots, in along with you. Which branch of the IRA are you in?

OFFICER. There is only one branch of the Irish Republican Army.

PAT. I was in the IRA in 1916, and in 1925 H.Q. sent me from Dublin to the County Kerry because the agricultural labourers were after taking over five thousand acres of an estate from Lord Trales. They had it all divided very nice and fair among themselves, and were ploughing and planting in great style. G.H.Q. gave orders that they were to get off the land, that the social question would be settled when we got the thirty-county Republic. The Kerrymen said they weren’t greedy like. They didn’t want the whole thirty-two counties to begin with, and their five thousand acres would do them for a start.

OFFICER. Those men were wrong on the social question.

PAT. Faith and I don’t think it was questions they were interested in, at all, but answers. Anyway I agreed with them, and stopped there for six months training the local unit to take on the IRA, the Free State Army, aye, or the British Navy if it had come to it.

OFFICER. That was mutiny.

PAT. I know. When I came back to Dublin, I was court-martialled in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.

Pause.

OFFICER. Silence!

PAT. Sir!

OFFICER. i was sent here to do certain business. I would like to conclude that business.

PAT. Let us proceed, shall we, sir? When may we expect the prisoner?

OFFICER. Today.

PAT. What time?

OFFICER. Between nine and twelve.

PAT. Where is he now?

OFFICER. We haven’t got him yet.

PAT. You haven’t got a prisoner? Are you going down to Woolworths to buy one then?

OFFICER. I have no business telling you any more than has already been communicated to you.

PAT. Sure, I know that.

OFFICER. The arrangements are made for his reception. I will be here.

PAT. Well, the usual terms, rent in advance, please.

OFFICER. Is it looking for money you are?

PAT. What else? We’re not a charity. Rent in advance.

OFFICER. I might have known what to expect. I know your reputation.

PAT. How did you hear of our little convent?

OFFICER. I do social work for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

PAT. I always thought they were all ex-policement. In the old days we wouldn’t go near them.

OFFICER. In the old days there were Communists in the IRA.

PAT. There were, faith, and plenty of them. What of it?

OFFICER. The man that is most loyal to his faith is the one that will prove most loyal to the cause.

PAT. Have you your initials mixed up? Is it the FBI or the IRA that you are in?

OFFICER. If I didn’t know that you were out in 1916 I’d think you were highly suspect.

PAT. Sir?

OFFICER. Well, at least you can’t be an informer.

PAT. Ah, you’re a shocking decent person. Could you give me a testimonial I could use in my election address if I wanted to get into the coroporation? The rent, please!

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Hail, Caesar! (2016); d. The Coen Brothers

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That’s the official poster. Boring. I like this one much better.

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In comparison to Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar! has an outlook on humanity that is damn near sunny. Inside Llewyn Davis’ was a well-observed portrayal of the coffee-house folk-music scene pre-Dylan, suffused with an existential bleak mood. (I loved it.)

Hail, Caesar! is not exactly a “well-observed portrayal” of Hollywood post-WWII (a mix of the 40s and 50s). It’s not a documentary, although real people – or versions of them – predominate. It’s not a straight satire or a spoof either. It’s a bizarre mix of heart, corniness, and satire. It covers a lot of things familiar to people who know the history of Hollywood: how the big studios operated, including their patriarchal control over their stable of stars. The power of gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, fearsome women wearing gigantic hats who made studio heads tremble. The screenwriters who went to Community Party meetings which then would come back and bite them in the ass during the Blacklist years. (In the Coens’ re-imagining of that dark era, those people made up a true Communist cell, taking their orders from the Soviets, sneaking Commie propaganda into Hollywood movies.) The kinds of movies made by certain studios, mass-entertainment, musicals and Biblical epics. Movies “we” may be ashamed of now (speaking generally), but which were the bread-and-butter of a different era.

But Hail, Caesar! does not approach its environment with cynicism. It’s not slick. It also doesn’t treat Hollywood with contempt, nor is it mean-spirited about an industry devoted to make-believe. It has an almost gentle view of all of the characters, one of the biggest surprises about it, as ridiculous as many of them are. Hollywood is made up of hard-working people who have weird useless gifts (lassoing, horse riding, swimming, dancing with bananas on your head) that have brought them an immense amount of luck and good fortune. There isn’t one Diva actor on the lot in the film. I appreciated that so much. In my experience working in theatre, Divas are rare. Divas stand out in your memory. For the most part, actors are hard workers, humble (they really want to please the director and do a good job, even the stars feel that way), and, yeah, somewhat silly, because who would have ever thought that an ability to twirl two guns into your two-sided holster could make you Box Office Gold? It’s insane, it’s play-acting, and actors feel very very fortunate if they get to the point where they can make a living at it at all. People who see actors as egotistical idiotic maniacs probably don’t know many of them personally. The Divas get all the press. The nose-to-the-grindstone people do their work and go home.

I’ve read that some people don’t find the film “laugh out loud funny,” but I laughed out loud throughout. Your mileage may vary.

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George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a dim-witted good-hearted alcoholic/womanizer movie star who spends the entire movie in Roman dress with a Caesar haircut. As strange as this might be to believe, he barely looks attractive at times. It’s hilarious. At one point, Josh Brolin (who plays Eddie Mannix, head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures – based on the real-life Eddie Mannix – sort of) slaps Clooney across the face multiple times (there are a couple of 1940s movie-slaps in the film), and in between one of the slaps, Clooney stares up at Brolin in such horror and surprise that his mouth is open in a perfect circle, eyes bugged out of his head. I guffawed.

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Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, an “aquatic” star along the lines of Esther Williams, but with throwbacks to the 1930s Busby Berkeley years, with grandiose synchronized swimming numbers, filmed from the ceiling, so human figures in the water start to look kaleidoscopic and abstract, creating different illusions.

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The “By the Waterfall” number in Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film “Footlight Parade”. Those are human beings. Here’s the full clip:

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Esther Williams, “Dangerous When Wet” (1953)

Johansson’s voice in Hail, Caesar! is a brassy sassy New York accent (perfection), reminiscent of Jean Harlow’s voice: the tough-girl, the working-class New York girl, nobody’s fool, a gun moll voice. The first time you see DeeAnna Moran, she rises from the surface of the pool, engulfed in a spout of water from a pretend-whale beneath the waves. Dressed in a skintight green mermaid outfit, she does a high-dive into the center of the synchronized swimmers, and then, once the cameras stop rolling, swims off, her tail flapping in the waves, annoyed because the damn thing is too tight. “Did you have gas again?” asks an assistant on set, and she scoffs, “Did I have gas again … come on.” Turns out DeeAnna Moran is pregnant, doesn’t know who the father is, although she thinks she might be sure, and Eddie Mannix has come to propose a quickie-marriage to an appropriate gentleman, just to avoid the scandal.

Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip-columnists named Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker, both based on Hedda Hopper. The hats Swinton wears, with deadly-looking feathers jutting off to the side, are not an exaggeration.

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Hedda Hopper

Thora (or Thessaly) stalk after Eddie Mannix across the Capitol lawns, threatening to reveal sketchy stories from Whitlock’s past if she doesn’t get an exclusive. The sisters are in ferocious competition with one another for scoops.

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Ralph Fiennes plays a director named, hilariously, Laurence Laurentz (and nobody in the film can get the stresses right on either of his names). Laurentz is an elegant man with a British accent who seems to make drawing-room comedies along the lines of William Wyler or a low-rent George Cukor, with a palatial set of a parlor, and a fancy-schmancy family sitting around having cocktails.

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Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, the song-and-dance man star of the lot, modeled mostly on Gene Kelly, who brought a man-of-the-people athleticism to his dancing, so different from the elegant Fred Astaire. Comparisons are odious. They were two very different dancers. Gene Kelly dressed in sailor’s middies, or the classic khakis/jeans rolled up and loafers. Very different from tux and tails.

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Vera Ellen and Gene Kelly, “On the Town” (1949)

Channing Tatum is not the dancer Gene Kelly was (who is?), but he’s charismatic, compelling, and yes, he can dance. Tap-dance, waltz, athletic leaps, fancy foot-work, the whole nine yards, he can do it. The first time we see Burt Gurney he is in a sort of On the Town type picture, shooting a frankly homoerotic number with a bunch of male soldiers in white sailors’ uniforms, bemoaning the fact (in song) that they have no dames. It ends with all of them dancing around with each other. I mean …

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Burt Gurney is another humble star, eager to do his best. But Burt is more complex than meets the eye. Oh, Channing. How I love that I get to live in the moment where I get to watch this improbable and fearlessly-old-school entertaining career develop and take wing.

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Josh Brolin, quickly becoming one of my favorite leading men/character actors (his performance in Inherent Vice is now a favorite), even though he’s been around forever, plays Eddie Mannix. Yes, he’s a tough-talking guy, strutting around keeping his artists in line. But he’s also so tormented by guilt he goes to confession once a day: Priest: “How long has it been since your last confession?” Eddie checks his watch. “18 hours, Father.” Tired sigh from the other side of the grille: “My son, that is too soon …” The touching part of this is that Eddie Mannix is not an overt sinner, no more than the rest of us. The biggest thing on his conscience is that he promised his wife he would quit smoking, and he snuck a few cigarettes and he feels genuinely bad about it. He is good at his job, but he is also being courted – heavily – by Lockheed, and Lockheed’s representative characterizes Eddie’s industry as silly, frivolous, a waste of time for such a talented man. If Eddie came to work for Lockheed, he would be set for life, in stock options, bonuses, salary, and he wouldn’t have to work until 11 o’clock at night. He wouldn’t miss his kid’s debut as shortstop on the baseball team. He wouldn’t think he was wasting his life in Make-Believe-Land. Mannix is torn. But he can’t stay torn for long, because he believes in the movies he’s making, he really does, and he also has to race around trying to find Baird Whitlock who has mysteriously disappeared from the set, calm down Laurence Laurentz, find a quickie husband for DeeAnna Moran, and a host of other problems that seem extremely urgent, absurd though they may be.

Brolin is extremely touching in this role. Very unexpected. Very well-written part.

And finally, because, for me, he is the big surprise of Hail, Caesar!, and one of the main reasons to see it (outside of the Coen Brothers, that is).

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Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy star, who came out of the rodeo racket because of his horse skills, and found himself a movie star. With a real “brand.” I’ve seen him characterized as some hokey-Okie, but that could not be farther from the truth. Yes, his accent is thick-as-tobacco-chew. Yes, he wears chaps, and barely ever sets foot in the studio because “his” movies are filmed out in the desert. Yes, he has a kind of wide-eyed openness that seems “innocent.” But watch closely. And watch what Ehrenreich does. Again, it’s a very well-written part. This isn’t an element that Ehrenreich has added on his own. It’s there to begin with, and he brings it out with such deep-down gut-level understanding of who Hobie is, and not only that but more importantly: what the role requires in order to tell the story the Coen Brothers want to tell. This is what team-playing actor-craft looks like. It also is an example of genius casting. Honestly, watching this relative newcomer you are seeing a Master at work. (Supernatural fans will probably not recognize him from “Wendigo,” he was one of the kids. Another Supernatural alum is wonderful character actor Robert Picardo who played the evil leprechaun in “Clap Your Hands” and plays the rabbi here, called in by Mannix with a bunch of other theologians to weigh in on the portrayal of Jesus in the upcoming Biblical epic. Ricardo provides one of the first laughs in the film, referencing the other religious guys at the table: “These guys are screwballs.”)

Alden Ehrenreich is so good he almost takes over the movie (and he’s not even featured in the poster!). His quiet charisma, and his quiet take-over (you keep waiting for him to come back – not that the film lags when he’s not onscreen, but his presence is felt always) is good and right, because the character’s trajectory shows the absurdity of what can happen in Hollywood, the beautiful convergence of strange-ness mixed with desperate measures that can alter someone’s life forever. It shows what happens when a so-called rube gets in front of the camera. There’s a scene with Hobie that reminds me of John Garfield in Michael Curtiz’ Four Daughters (1938), a somewhat genteel family drama that John Garfield, as “bad boy outsider”, strolls into and walks away with because he makes everyone else seem like cardboard cutouts.

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Our very first glimpse of John Garfield in “Four Daughters”. Hubba hubba.

Four Daughters was Garfield’s debut but you watch him (and he disappears halfway through) and think, “It is inevitable that that guy will become a huge star.” His performance pre-dates Brando by 10 years, but it predicts Brando. It opens up the way.

Watch, in Hail, Caesar! how Ehrenreich says the line, “It’s complicated.” He – and Hobie – KILL. IT.

Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes have one bit that is so funny I have no conception of how long it actually lasted, because I was laughing too hard. I’ll have to see it again to clock it. But it was so well done and so funny, on both sides, that I could have watched it for 5 minutes more.

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There are surprises throughout. The adorable Veronica Osorio plays Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda-type, known for doing sexy dances with bananas balanced on her head. She and Hobie are set up for a date by the studio, and she accompanies him to the premiere of his new cowboy movie. They don’t know each other and what on earth could those two people have in common? But they have fun together, are both sweet, doing their best to be entertaining to one another, and also have a good time on this totally manufactured date, that they actually connect. It’s beautiful. Who knows, they might decide all on their own to go on a second date.

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Frances McDormand has one killer scene. (Almost literally). She plays a chain-smoking film editor who hangs out in a dark room, splicing together the dailies, nearly setting the whole celluloid-filled room on fire, but flipping switches and cutting and re-rolling the film in an assembly-line automatic way that shows you this is all she does. All day. Every day.

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Jonah Hill shows up as a notary, a go-to guy when the studio is in trouble and needs someone to 1. rush through divorce papers at the 11th hour 2. go to JAIL in some cases, “taking the fall” for a movie star in trouble 3. pose as a foster parent. Whatever. He’s on call 24 hours a day. Hill is so deadpan that he seems to be barely there, but that’s what’s so funny about it.

There is a “study group” of show-business Communists holed up in a house in Malibu, discussing the dialectics of history, economics, the “means of production” and how Hollywood plays into it. How they are involved in the story you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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Hail, Caesar! takes place in the space of a manic 24 hours; the timeline is compressed and urgent. Yet there’s an ease to the tone and rhythm overall. Scenes are allowed to breathe, behavior given space to flourish. It’s not manic for the sake of being manic. There’s a deliberate hand behind it (or … two pairs of hands), letting us get to know these people – not so much by seeing their hearts and minds – but by watching them work, watching them do what they are good at doing. Produce. Edit. Act. Swim. Write. Sing. Because that’s really all that matters to them.

I’ve quoted this Stella Adler gem before and it applies:

It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.

Every character onscreen is doing their thing, whatever it is, like Hercules.

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There have been a lot of lists “ranking” the Coen Brothers’ film. Ranking is not my thing. It creates a hierarchy of accomplishments as opposed to a sense of a still-unfolding career. What we are seeing – and have been seeing since the Coen Brothers arrived – is an extraordinary joint career developing over time, film after film after film, each one unique, some more successful than others … but that’s what Art is about. You don’t hit a home run every time you’re up at bat, and artists, even when doing their best, understand that better than most.

Hail, Caesar is not so much an homage to old Hollywood (although you can feel the directors’ love of those old forms, the Busby Berkeley stuff, the Gene Kelly stuff, the cowboy stuff) as a “spin” on some of those old familiar themes. The story reads as a “tall tale,” in a lot of respects. Show business is full of those. Read the gossip columns of Hedda Hopper, et al. They are creating the truth, and then that “truth” is passed on down. Hail, Caesar! has the feeling of gossip, passed down through the ages, clarity lost in the game of telephone. “Remember when Baird Whitlock was kidnapped? Did that actually happen that way?” “Remember Hobie’s first day of shooting that Laurentz picture? Were you there? I know someone who knew someone whose brother worked in the costume department, and he has some great stories.” “Remember DeeAnna Moran’s aquatic movies and what a huge a star she was? I wonder what ever happened to her …”

The film is not drenched in nostalgia, it’s too sharp for that. Its sharpness gives it its unique tone, both funny and fond, as well as its humor and absurdity. The pace never stops. The movies made at Capitol Pictures are made fun of – a little bit – but not entirely. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it is a condescending attitude towards films of the past, and the audiences who loved them. For example, in Hail, Caesar: you can totally understand why Hobie is a star when you watch him in a scene in one of his movies, sitting on the porch of a frontier shack, staring at the moon, strumming his guitar and singing. He’s riveting, and the scene is gentle, quiet, and archetypal in a way that is totally out of style now but you realize how essential it is, how difficult it is to achieve, when you watch it done really really well. You can understand why audiences would flock to see DeeAnna swim towards the camera in a mermaid dress, or Carlotta dancing around with fruit balanced on her head. If these people have one thing in common, it’s that they love what they do. Sugar-coated view of the industry? Not really. It’s closer to reality than you think.

Hail, Caesar‘s ultimate and unexpected gentleness means that you do not feel like you are spending two hours in the company of familiar stock types “play-acting” at being movie stars of a bygone age.

Instead, you feel privileged and grateful to get to hang out with that wacko sincere gang of hard-working screwballs.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Rebel Without a Cause (1955); d. Nicholas Ray

For James Dean’s birthday: An essay I wrote about Rebel Without a Cause, when the new restoration was released theatrically in 2013.

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I first saw Rebel Without a Cause when I was the general age of the main characters in the film. Although I was a child of the 70s, and an adolescent of the 80s, it felt like it expressed to me what life felt like in those difficult years. I had it good. I had parents who loved me and supported me, friends, and everything else. But I was an intense and sensitive child, a sponge to the influences upon me (mostly gotten from literature and film). And the sense of yearning that comes with being a teenager, the sense of “divine dissatisfaction” (to quote Martha Graham) which can give even pleasing things an existential ache, reaches its high baroque stage in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. The film is baroque almost to the point of decadence, drenched in symbolic colors, and images evocative of the crucifixion and resurrection (the whole thing takes place on Easter weekend), and it mainlines into the mother lode of anxiety and frustrated sexuality that runs at such a heightened pitch in adolescents due to hormones and the fact that nobody at that age has enough life experience to know that “this too shall pass”.

(One small side note: I have read every book I can get my hands on about James Dean, about this film, etc. I know all the anecdotes, all the small cast members’ experiences, what the shoot was like. This is another thing that I had to almost forcibly get out of the way in order to even be able to see the film fresh. It comes with so many associations and stories attached.)

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Of course when Rebel Without a Cause was first released, it was touted as almost a sociological study of Juvenile Delinquency and what it signified in our culture, which does the film a disservice and misses some of its finer points. But that’s no surprise. The youth culture was exploding, and there were lots of teenagers hanging around in an era of new prosperity with money in their pockets, tons of leisure time, and so, naturally, lots of stuff started happening on a much larger scale, due to the sheer force of their demographic numbers. Elvis Presley was already starting that seismic shift down South, and while he wouldn’t explode to national prominence until the year following (1956), the process was well on its way. There were other harbingers of things to come, in movies like The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando’s famous rejoinder to the question, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”: “Whattya got?” Newspapers and preachers and teachers-associations agonized over what was afflicting the nation’s youth. It was also an era of tremendous conformity on an almost invisible level, so all-encompassing was it. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an opus to what that kind of institutional societal conformity can do to the individual. And it is true that one cannot exactly point to the problem. It is pervasive, Big Brother-ish in nature, a culture devoted to the illusion that we are all the same. If you have the time, I go into all of this in this post about Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, 1956, especially in the section where I discuss Dorothy Sarnoff’s appearance on the same show and what that showed about the absolutely fascistic propaganda-level of Gender Roles at that time. Pervasive. To see her back to back with Elvis shows you just how much he toppled. To quote Lester Bangs in his famous obituary for Elvis:

Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact.

Rebel Without a Cause is one of those films that may be difficult to remove from its context, not to mention the fact that its young star, James Dean, died one month before its release. The impact of his death was seismic. Martin Sheen describes feeling like he was lost: who was there to look up to now as an actor? Elvis cried when James Dean died. Already, with East of Eden, James Dean had made an electric impression. And, creepily, the films kept coming after he passed: first Rebel, then Giant, Dean’s power resonating from beyond the grave. Dying young is a sure way to ensure immortality, but “dying young” cannot fully explain the impact Dean’s acting had on the youth of the time. It existed before he died, and that is important to keep in mind. His death just intensified what was already there.

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The other young stars, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, also came to untimely and violent ends, which may be gruesome to even dwell on, but it’s present in my feelings about the film. That knowledge hovers like a ghostly afterimage.

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There is a haunting quality to the movie, overall, a true strangeness that makes it far more than just a presentation of What Is Wrong With Kids Today? Rebel is not literal in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t feel “ripped from the headlines” the way other films addressing similar topics did at the time. Instead, it tiptoes towards and around a bombed-out landscape of existential dread and fatalism, with a doom-ridden end-of-the-world awareness licking at that generation’s heels, following the bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Hamlet, another existential worrier, these kids in the film felt life was “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”. What does any of it matter anyway if some World Leader on the other side of the globe could push a button and vaporize us in moments? All of that seeps through the film like an invisible poison gas, inhibiting our relationships to one another, our ability to connect.

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Look at the framing there, the placement of the bodies, the barriers between them (and between us, we can’t see some of their faces), and yet the way they are framed connects them, almost against their will. Bound together.

It doesn’t matter that these are not kids from the wrong side of the tracks. As a matter of fact, that is one of the reasons why the film is potentially so disturbing if you are invested in the status quo because there is not an easy diagnosis. You can’t point the finger at what is wrong. Rebel Without a Cause is bold and dark enough to suggest that what is wrong is how our culture is set up in the first place, its intimacy, claustrophobia, and the premium it puts on fitting in, and also that what is wrong doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. We are all made up of star dust and to star dust we will return. We are a blip on the radar screen of the universe. None of it matters. Perhaps loving one another and being kind to one another does matter (as Jim’s kindness to Plato shows, as Judy’s kindness to Plato shows), but it doesn’t alter the course of events, it doesn’t change a damn thing. The film is a vision of dark hopelessness, that startled me even more when I just saw it at a press screening last week. In that context, the most important scene in the film could be the field trip to the planetarium.

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Rebel is totally out of tune with anything that could be described as properly American. It’s totes French, in other words. Or should I say: Tôtes?

A great example of all of this happens on the night of the chickie run. The school thug, Buzz (Corey Allen, excellent), has been bullying Jim Stark from the first moment he met him. He responds to Jim Stark in what is obviously a sexually-threatened way, part of the homoerotic overall nature of almost every male interaction in the film. Now that’s deep subtext, but it’s there. Jim, as played by James Dean, has a quiet kind of power, and people project things onto him. Everyone does. Hopes, dreams, aspirations, resentments … all get poured at Jim Stark like a wave. This happens in every scene. He’s different, he’s quiet, he’s compelling, and also, he’s drop-dead gorgeous. People react to beauty in strange ways. We want to be that beautiful, but we are not, and so it can come out in envious ways. The film doesn’t shy away from those implications, the film doesn’t pretend that James Dean isn’t as good-looking as he is. Every shot, every image, every frame, is chosen to highlight his good looks in what amounts to blatant objectification. Buzz picks up on that. He has to lash out at it. He’s obviously attracted, too. EVERYONE is. So things come to a head between Buzz and Jim during the knife fight at the planetarium. The air between them crackles with hostility. That night, Jim shows up at the cliff wearing his red jacket. The two young men look over the cars for the race. The energy between them has shifted entirely. The rest of the crowd gathered are teenagers, still kids. These two are men. They know it. But they don’t know what “being a man” means. Their fathers have not taught them (a theme I’ll get to in a minute). So they have to make their own worlds, their own rules, because the grownups in their lives have failed them. The two of them are almost exhausted at this point, and talk to one another quietly as they look over the edge of the cliff.

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Buzz Gunderson: You know something? I like you.
Jim Stark: Why do we do this?
Buzz Gunderson: You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?

That very well may be the most important and eloquent exchange in the film. It says it all. And so even with the whiff of nihilism and fatalism that seeps through the action, there is that doomed hope of connection. But it is, indeed, doomed. A lesser film would not have developed Buzz in the way that it did in that chickie run scene.

One of the major impressions I had this recent time seeing it is how overwhelming James Dean is on the big screen. It can’t be overstated. I have seen all of his films in the theatre and it’s something I recommend, if you can swing it. His spontaneity and his power is electric in a way that few actors have, and it may have been a tenuous talent, it may have emanated from some sort of “sick”-ness (as Elia Kazan suggested). Marlon Brando thought he was good but that he lacked discipline as an actor. He was young. He was 24 when he died. He had that “thing” that cannot be mimicked or faked, although that didn’t stop other young actors from trying. That “thing” is star quality. You want to see what it looks like? Watch Dean in Rebel. There it is. The “what if” that hovers around Dean can take away from the sheer fascination of what he was able to accomplish while he was alive. You have to almost get the Myth out of the way, the best you can, in order to actually perceive him at all. Seeing him in a dark theatre on a big movie screen is a great way to do it, because his authenticity is undeniable. I have seen the movie so many times I know it by heart. I held up a tape recorder to the television back in the day, so that I could listen to it and “re-live” the movie in my head, pre-VCR days. So I know every grunt, pause, aside in the film. And still, still, I found moments that surprised me, clutched at me, struck me. The famous moments like rolling the milk bottle around on his face (a spontaneous choice by Dean), and punching the desk (he actually broke his hand during the filming of said scene), and laughing when the cop frisks him. The famous opening scene where he drunkenly falls into the frame.

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(The opening moment where Dean drunkenly plays with a toy monkey, the camera seemingly placed below the pavement, is referenced overtly in Jeff Bridges’ drunk scene in “The Fisher King”, as well as the final shot in an episode of Supernatural “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie”.)

These are the well-known ones, but it’s there in subtler moments, too. The way Jim seems to understand the nature of Plato’s love for him, and how instead of recoiling at that knowledge, it makes him kind. The look of pain that crosses his face when he sees his father (Jim Backus, wonderful) on the floor, in an apron, worriedly picking up the spilled food. And also the beautiful scene with the sympathetic police officer that opens the film, the man-to-man talk over the water cooler, when Dean really seems to be taking in what the police officer has to say. James Dean is riveting. His beauty just adds to his almost overwhelming effect as an actor. He’s a movie star.

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One of the things Dean does so well (and so naturally) is to have both a brooding interior energy as well as an extroverted sense of action and objective. His acting wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t have that blend, if he privileged one side over the other. The interior energy is the sense that he is always thinking, contemplating, musing, on another plane that has nothing to do with the script. It’s subtext. Dean plays it, never ever forgets to play it. And the sense of action and objective are what makes him thrilling and important as an actor, the way he kisses Judy gently on her temple, the gentle way he covers Plato up when he is sleeping, the way he manhandles his father (never forgetting that what he is feeling there is grief, as well as rage).

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These are actions coming from character and objective, the nuts-and-bolts of good acting as seen through behavior.

Some of the closeups of Dean are so beautiful they ache. You’re staring at something perfect. And when he puts on the red jacket for the chickie run, you still feel the thrill of danger, how startling he looks, highlighted by that red. It’s a warning signal, a red flag, a sign of his newfound stance against conformity, against the tweed-jacket-loafers “costume” he had been wearing in earlier scenes. No more of that. Set the individual free, society be damned. He will NOT grow up to be a henpecked dutiful husband, domesticated and shamed for his male-ness.

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Natalie Wood, as Judy, lives in rampant sexual confusion, which was seen as so explosive at the time that the studio execs were worried about some of the implications in regards to what the hell was actually going on with her father. This is key. Fathers are key to Rebel. Mothers are irrelevant. They are either scoldy-pants nonentities, or irresponsibly invisible. Fathers are the ones who have shirked their responsibility to make sure their children grow up whole and enter adulthood un-broken. Sex is the key to all of this. It’s the radical subversive underpinnings of the entire movie, and it’s there, powerfully, and yet acknowledged only from the side, almost afraid to address the reality of sexual politics in domesticated suburban homes, the threat/fear of incest, and what it means to a parent to see your child blossoming sexually. How this is handled is KEY to the child’s development.

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Judy’s father has rejected her once she started adolescence. He no longer gives her affection, he no longer kisses her, and he shames her for the fact that she is becoming a woman. When she tries to kiss him at the dinner table, he explodes. She’s too old for all that now. Old for what? Being loved by her father? By rejecting her, he throws her to the wolves of her peers where she will now strut and pose and “act out”, looking for acceptance in the form of sex. Easy enough with teenage boys. But, of course, that puts her entire future in peril. Judy doesn’t want sex, not really, she wants acceptance and acknowledgement. Having a 16-year-old daughter suddenly sprouting breasts and wearing lipstick is, of course, a disturbing and scary thing for a parent, I imagine. You want to protect your child. You don’t want to be inappropriate. But a daughter becoming a woman is the natural order of things, and she should not be shamed for it. But Judy’s parents fuck it all up. The mother is useless. The father is bound up in his fear of his own reaction to his daughter’s sexuality. This is something he cannot admit to himself.

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Strutting about with her “juvie” friends, it is clear that Judy is playing a role. Jim sees right through it, because he saw her crying at the police station. He doesn’t understand why she feels the need to “act” like that. It doesn’t suit her. Judy starts to realize that herself, through the long night in hiding with Jim and Plato, and a softness starts emerging, a softness that had been squashed by her father’s rejection and the careless treatment she probably received from boys for being the easy “Rizzo” at her school. With Jim and Plato she gets to be soft, caring, maternal. She gets to be receptive and open as opposed to over-it and tough. It is interesting to contemplate what will happen to Judy later, after the film ends. Maybe college will free her. But maybe not. I don’t have high hopes. Her father has been too instrumental in shoveling shame upon her head for no reason. It is unforgivable.

But in the Utopia she creates with Jim and Plato that lonely night, surrounded by the broken statuary and cracked concrete of an abandoned mansion, she is allowed to be strong, and she is also allowed to be a woman, with all the softness that that entails. Both energies are necessary to this world, none of it should be shamed out of existence. Conformity in gender roles is harmful because it stifles our natural responses, the way we WANT to be. Once things become prescribed by the culture at large, the only natural thing is to rebel against it. Judy has been forced into this position by her father. Mothering Plato is something she is good at. Loving Jim is something she is good at. Her “womanliness” is something to be treasured, not ashamed about. As well as her desire for affection (and sex). It’s part of life, it’s part of being human.

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And then there is Plato, played unforgettably by Sal Mineo. Plato was abandoned by his father, and his mother may have stuck around but she’s no better. Plato is raised by the family maid (Marietta Canty), who is the one who comes to pick him up at the police station, the one who tries to save him, the one who takes on the bullies tormenting him. Her love for him is sincere, but Plato needs a real family. From the first moment he lays eyes on Jim Stark in the police station, he chooses his new father.

But of course what really happens is that he falls in love with Jim, and it is played explicitly that way in the film, by both Mineo and Dean. There isn’t much hiding behind euphemism here, and it’s so refreshing. It’s not subtext, it’s text. Mineo plays it for all it’s worth. He follows Jim around with his eyes, and you can feel his heart palpitating in his chest, with love, lust, desire, idolization. And, beautifully, Jim senses that this is going on and is kind about it. He includes Plato, protects him, doesn’t shame him for having those feelings. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to have been gay in the 1950s and see this film.

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We see Plato at his locker in school, watching Jim through the little mirror he has tacked up. Beneath the mirror is a photo of Alan Ladd. All we need is the image to understand everything about this lonely tormented young man. Later, when he runs away from Jim in the mansion, he screams out, “You’re not my father!” and I can’t even type out those words without tears coming to my eyes.

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James Dean is filmed throughout like a Christ figure, looming above the other characters in a dizzying way, his head dropped down onto his chest. With all of the symbolism of the colors (there was nobody like Nicholas Ray for drenching his films in symbolic colors), what I was left with this last viewing was the sensitivity of Dean’s acting, its openness to possibilities, its openness to ambiguity and silence. He is truly thoughtful. Onscreen. All of the flash and storm surrounding his death and the subsequent Myth of his short career should not take away from the accomplishment of the performance itself.

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The title of the film is accurate. There is no cause. What we have here is an awareness of mortality that has reached a deafening boom. How to live with the knowledge that we will die? How to live with the awareness that the world is going to end? The sensitive teenagers at the center of the film are baffled by the adults in their lives who seem complacent about such questions. What the hell is wrong with them?

At the end of the film, Jim introduces Judy to his parents. He calls her his “friend”.

I love that detail. Not “girlfriend”. It’s bigger than that, it’s kinder and more inclusive. Women don’t have to be slotted into roles: “daughter”, “girlfriend”, “wife”, “school slut”. Men and women can be friends, too.

His parents suddenly look in awe at their son, so confident, so himself. He is beyond them now. He is a man.

The end of the world buzzes through the film like static or white noise, the fuzz on the television in the middle of the night, something everyone in the culture could hear/sense but could not point to on a map. The teenage kids are treated to the spectacle of the world ending in a flash of fire while on the planetarium field trip, and of course all roads lead to the Griffith Observatory yet again in the final scene.

There’s one queasy moment as we approach the finish line where Jim’s parents look at each other and finally laugh, as though burying the hatchet, and to my mind it is the only cop-out in the whole picture. It was a bone thrown to the conformity-ridden culture, saying, “Hey, guys, you’re not so bad after all, we forgive you clumsy lunks.”

But nothing really can assuage the uneasy and disturbing forces unleashed through the film. Plato, holed up in the planetarium against the forces gathering outside, asks Jim if he thinks the end of the world will come at nighttime. Jim thinks about this. He really does. Then he answers, “No. At dawn.”

The movie ends at dawn. Good luck with finding Hope in any of that.

Posted in Actors, Movies | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets, and she actually didn’t write all that many poems throughout her life (compared to other poets who lived as long as she did). She was meticulous, picking and choosing every word she wrote with the utmost care (similar to Joan Didion, who agonizes over punctuation, and works on one sentence for weeks at a time). This, naturally, slowed Bishop down, in terms of output. She was not hugely famous during her lifetime, although famous enough to be Poet Laureate from 1949-1950, but since her death her reputation has skyrocketed.

Born in 1911 in Massachusetts, Bishop had a harrowing childhood. Her father died when she was a baby. Her mother was mentally ill and institutionalized. Elizabeth’s grandparents raised her after that, but then her father’s side of the family got custody and she was moved off to live with them. She didn’t really know them, she missed her grandparents, she developed asthma. She was one of those human beings who experienced complete despair from before she was 10 years old. To add to the confusion, her paternal grandparents realized she was unhappy, maybe felt she was too much to handle … whatever the case, Bishop was moved yet again to with her aunt (her mother’s sister). Bishop’s aunt was very poor, and the Bishop grandparents sent money for the care of Elizabeth. They lived in a tenement, in a terrible neighborhood. But Bishop’s aunt introduced her to poetry. So there’s that. Bishop was a sickly child (exacerbated by the grief and disorientation of being essentially an orphan, made worse by the fact that her mother was still alive – just locked up and she couldn’t see her). Bishop rarely went to school. So she was self- and aunt-educated. She ended up going to Vassar, thinking she would be a composer or a musician (music being her first love), but she had also started writing and publishing poems by that point. She started a literary magazine with classmate Mary McCarthy. She graduated from Vassar in 1934.

Because her dead father had been successful financially, she had a pretty big inheritance. She was independently wealthy. This fact also helped shape Bishop. Unlike a lot of other artists starting out, she never had to take a day job. She never had to teach or do other things to make ends meet. She was extremely shy, maybe even crippled by it (although her letters reveal that she was not a shrinking wall-flower personality to her friends and lovers: she was bubbly, funny, and irrepressible, with a great eye for the perfect anecdote.) She traveled the world. She loved to travel. She did not huddle in New York City like many of her fellow poets, who jostled for seats at the bar in Greenwich Village, forming a small community. She was out of the country. She lived in Brazil. She lived in Florida.

Introduced to Robert Lowell in 1947, they formed an intimate kinship almost immediately, starting up a correspondence that continued for the rest of their lives (it has been recently published and it’s amazing: Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It was a symbiotic artistic marriage.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell, after reading one of his poems.

“It took me an hour or so to get back to my own metre.”

I am interested in how the work affected each other. They traded drafts back and forth, they made comments and critiques. They were not just “fans” of each other. They took the other’s work seriously enough to really engage with it, be honest about what didn’t work. Lowell valued her input, and vice versa. Lowell was much more famous in his own day than Elizabeth Bishop. He was part of a “trend,” which helped, an openness and personal-ness in subject matter that was to become known as “the confessional poets,” the most famous being Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who were in a later generation. (The two of them both took a class with Lowell, and the three of them would go out for drinks afterwards. Why can’t I have a time machine?

Lowell’s stuff was extremely confessional, talking about his hospitalizations for mental breakdowns (he was bipolar), and was seen as shocking at the time, although it was also hugely influential. In my opinion, as much as I love him, his stuff doesn’t hold up as well as Bishop’s. Her poems may seem descriptive and distant, in compared to Lowell’s searing tell-alls, but once you really read them, and get inside of them, you realize just how personal every word is, how exquisitely placed. The images she puts in your mind (her famous moose, the now-famous fish-houses and shoreline) stay there forever.

They never married. Lowell had many lovers, and a wife. Bishop stayed with one woman for many years (sadly, this woman committed suicide; yet another plot-point in the tragic story that was Bishop’s personal life, she was surrounded by mental illness from a very young age). But theirs was a soulmate kind of connection. Lowell did ask her to marry him, and her cooler head prevailed. But, they were each other’s “perfect reader”. Every writer needs one. Not a critic, not a gushing fan … but someone who is able to really hear not just the words, but the intent. Who can speak to the theme, the greater picture.

Bishop was solitary, with a small literate following. She wrote about fish houses and the beach and small observational moments. He opened up his psychology, pouring passion and unrequited feeling into his poems. Bishop had some serious reservations about Lowell’s work, which she shared with him. They worked FOR one another, over decades.

William Logan writes, in the NY Times review of their correspondence:

Their admiration even made them light fingered – they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop’s dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them – that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. The only time Bishop took exception to Lowell’s poems was when, in “The Dolphin” (1973), he incorporated angry letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. ” –Art just isn’t worth that much,” Bishop exclaimed. She flinched when poets revealed in their poems too much of themselves, once claiming that she wished she “could start writing poetry all over again on another planet.”

These poets, in short, inspired each other. Lowell always seems to be stuffing her newest poem into his billfold, so he can take it out later like a hundred-dollar bill. Bishop saw immediately how strange and even shocking “Life Studies” (1959) was (its confessional style caused as violent an earthquake in American poetry as “The Waste Land”); but he noticed something more subtle, that she rarely repeated herself. Each time she wrote, it was as if she were reinventing what she did with words, while he tended to repeat his forms until he had driven them into the ground, or driven everyone crazy with them. Bishop was loyal enough to admire, or pretend to, even Lowell’s mediocre poems.

If Lowell and Bishop often seem to love no poems more than each other’s, as critics perhaps they were right. A hundred years from now, they may prove the 20th century’s Whitman and Dickinson, an odd couple whose poems look quizzically at each other, half in understanding, half in consternation, each poet the counter-psyche of the other. Their poems are as different as gravy from groundhogs, their letters so alike – so delightfully in concord – the reader at times can’t guess the author without glancing at the salutation.

Bishop finally settled down in Key West.

For a long time she was known as a “poet’s poet”, but her appeal is much broader than that. She’s up there with Robert Frost, a poet with whom she has much in common. Her work has that mix of grandeur and homeliness. You wonder how she does it. She writes about “small” things: the look of waves, a moose in the darkness, fishing rods, in the same way that Frost writes about “small” things – an axe, a snowfall, an apple. Yet nobody could say that these were trivial poets, or “surface” poets. They plumb the depths of the human condition itself, not by focusing on experiences with electric shock therapy, or family dramas (and some of the confessional poets are terrific, my faves, this is not an either/or kind of thing), but by excavating the meaning and grace and import in things, objects, nature.

Bishop’s poem “One Art” stands out as different from her others. It is directly personal. In it, she speaks in an “I” voice, rare for her. The poem’s form is formal, with set-up obvious rhymes and a sense of rhythmic repetition. You can feel the influence of her soulmate Robert Lowell in “One Art”, even though the expression, the poem itself, is all hers.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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Seamus Heaney, in a lecture he gave on Elizabeth Bishop, makes the observation that if you read “One Art” out loud, the person listening to you may not know that “Write” is not “Right.” They can’t see the word on the page. But it works as “Right” as well, like: “CORRECT it.” “RIGHT what has been made wrong.” Brilliant.

In the same lecture Heaney takes a close look at the way her language operates in “One Art”:

The first time “master” and “disaster” occurs, in stanza one, they are tactfully, elegantly, deprecatingly paired off. It wasn’t a disaster. The speaker is being decorous, good-mannered, relieving you of the burden of having to sympathize, easing you out of any embarrassed need to find things to say. The last time the rhyme occurs, however, the shocking traumatic reality of what happened almost overbrims the containing form. It was a disaster. It was devastatingly and indescribably so. And yet what the poem has not managed to do, in the nick of time, is to survive the devastating. The verb “master” places itself in the scales opposite its twin noun, “disaster,” and holds the balance. And the secret of the held balance is given in the parenthesis “(Write it!)”. As so often in Bishop’s work, the parenthesis (if you have ears to hear) is the place the hear the real truth. And what the parenthesis in ‘One Art’ tells us is what we always knew in some general way, but now know with an acute pang of intimacy, that the act of writing is an act of survival.

Marianne Moore was a huge influence and early champion of Bishop’s stuff. Moore wrote in re: Bishop:

Some authors do not muse within themselves; they ‘think’ – like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength – assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness, the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.

Moore said that Bishop was “spectacular in being unspectacular.”

Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, writes:

Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop. We know more about her from her poems, despite her reticence, her refusal to confess or provide circumstantial detail, than we do of Plath or Lowell or Sexton, who dramatize and partialize themselves. Bishop asks us to focus not on her but with her. Her disclosures are tactful: we can recognize them if we wish. Her reticence is “polite”. Given her vulnerability, she could have “gone to the edge”, as A. Alvarez likes poets to do, praising Plath and Lowell for their extremity. Instead she follows where William Cowper led, using language not to go to the edge but to find her way back from it; using poetry – in an eighteenth-century spirit – as a normative instrument. Even in her harshest poems, such an art is affirmative.

It’s a toss-up as to what is her best-known poem. There are two that seem to make it into the anthologies the most: “At the Fishhouses” and “One Art”. If you read these poems one after the other it is very difficult to not be in awe of her versatility. The voice used in each is so completely specific, and perfect to the subject matter.

Every time I read “At the Fishhouses” I am lulled into a quiet space, almost a dream-space where her images work on me in unexpected ways. I SEE that scene, but not one word is prosaic, or merely descriptive.

At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

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Maybe I love it because the landscape is familiar to me, an East Coast girl who grew up 10 minutes from the vast heaving Atlantic. The fishing industry is part of the landscape of my childhood, and it’s all there in her language. Bishop makes it look so easy that it is hard to remember just how good she is.

But, for me, “The Moose” is her greatest poem. Somehow I had missed it, I was not familiar with it (it’s not as commonly anthologized, first of all) and for whatever reason, about 10 years ago Dad brought it to my attention. I think it was re-published in The New Yorker. A treasured memory is telling my dad I was getting into her, and how much I loved her, and he asked if I knew her poem “The Moose.” I didn’t. He pulled out a book (he always knew where the right books were), and read it out loud to me. My father had a gravelly voice, unforgettable, warm and grumbly, and he was wonderful when reading out loud. As much as I love “The Moose” (and I DO, it’s now in my Top Bishop poems), what I really love is that when I read it now, I still hear it in my father’s voice.

Poet Randall Jarrell said a great thing about Bishop:

All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.”

Yes. That comment is what I think of when I read “The Moose.”

THE MOOSE

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

uninterruptedly
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

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