Happy Birthday to “the Ploughman Poet” of Scotland

In other words: Robert Burns. Or perhaps I should say “Rahbbie Barrrrrrrrns.”

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Right now in Scotland, and around the world, wherever Scottish people gather, people are standing up and proclaiming his verses into crowded pubs, everybody chanting along in unison. I love that.

Robert Burns was born poor, in the middle of the 18th century. He had a lot of brothers and sisters, his parents were farmers. Yet his father decided that Robert, his eldest, should have a bit of an education. A tutor was hired, and Robert, in between the farm chores and hard work, learned how to read and write. A whole world opened up to him through language. Writing came naturally to him. He started writing poems and songs almost immediately, some of which are still famous today (although “famous” doesn’t quite cover it. These works have seeped into the culture to the level that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets have. Total absorption. If you’re wasted on New Year’s Eve, gripping a bottle of champagne, and singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of your lungs, annoying people on the subway, you are quoting Rahhhhbie Barrrrns.)

Robert Burns was a wild person who loved pleasure, loved fun, loved women. He had many illegitimate children.

He was a farmer’s son, with informal education at best. Where did his writing bug come from?

Here was Burns’ answer to that question:

For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in Love, and then Rhyme and Song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.

Burns hated the climate in Scotland, and yearned to go someplace warm. But this ended up not being his fate: He eventually got married (to one of the dames he had knocked up) and when his poems started being published, in collected works, he became famous in Scotland. He wrote in the voice of his countrymen/women, he wrote in their dialects, he wrote about THEM. It was a fresh and vibrant voice, a truly local voice. He became known as “the Ploughman Poet”. With his fame, he decided to stay in Scotland.

He was prolific. Nobody knows how much he actually wrote because there are probably lots of traditional songs and verses out there written by him which cannot be pinned down to him. As it stands, there are over 400 Robert Burns known songs in existence. He was a celebrity in his own time. The fame he achieved in his own lifetime is nothing compared to the Rahhhbie Barrrrrns frenzy that goes on now.

The lyrics Robert Burns wrote have lasted centuries. Some of the verses are so engrained in our culture that we can’t even imagine that one person penned them at all. They seem to have just descended upon us, whole, from Olympus, or something. But no … someone actually WROTE these things.

Like “Auld Lang Syne” for example.

He also wrote a simple little love lyric, one of his most famous I suppose. It’s so famous that it is hidden in a cloud of canon-respectabiity – but read it out loud: It’s still fresh, it’s still emotional, the emotion is on the page (and remember Burns’ words about where the poetry impulse came from). I love the poem for its simplicity, its openness, its unembarrassed joy.

My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose
O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like a melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho it were ten thousand mile!

Robert Burns died at 37. Over 10,000 people showed up at his funeral!

So I suppose it would be highly appropriate to end this commemorative post in honor of an extraordinary writer with his own words, words we all know by heart:

Auld Lang Syne

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

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Happy Birthday, Michael Ontkean

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The strip-tease scene in “Slap Shot” that launched the fantasy-lives of many young people, male and female, who were way too young to be watching that movie anyway.

I love him as an actor, and I am glad Twin Peaks exists because we got to see so much of him so consistently. And he had such a warm openness in that role, a vulnerability mixed with intelligence. I love that character.

But Slap Shot is where it all started for me. I love that nasty foul-mouthed offensive gorgeous gritty movie.

Posted in Actors | 9 Comments

The Books: The Redress of Poetry: ‘Counting to a Hundred: On Elizabeth Bishop,’ by Seamus Heaney

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

NEXT BOOK: Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry.

Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets (a post about her here). 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.

Bishop’s early life was harrowing, but she had been left financially solvent through some kind of trust fund set-up. She never needed to have a day job. It ended up giving her enormous freedom, to travel, to settle down in places that interested her (Key West, Brazil), and to work and work at her meticulously observed and beautifully constructed poems. She was not prolific. She did not pour forth in a tsunami of expressiveness like Yeats, or like Heaney or Plath. She was cautious. She had stuff to say, but it took her a while to get to it. She was a masterful observer (after her poem on, say, sand pipers, you will never see them in quite the same way again.) She carried on a friendship (and rich correspondence) with Robert Lowell, a friendship that enriched and informed both of their work. They were kindred spirits, unlikely soul mates. But there was madness in Bishop’s family line (her mother had been institutionalized, she was raised by relatives), and Lowell was famously mad himself, so there was a kinship there. Their correspondence has been published (Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell), which I have not read, but will some day. It’s a gorgeous volume. (A play has been written about their relationship.)

Words-in-Air

Heaney’s appreciation of Elizabeth Bishop’s perfect eye for detail, and her ability to stay on the surface, to describe what she sees, until the descriptions reach a kind of transcendence (the most famous example of this being her, perhaps, 2nd best-known poem, “At the Fishhouses.”) So much poetry today is description only. See The New Yorker. Ugh, I don’t care about the green leaves or the white china teapot: show me something ELSE, this isn’t a photo-journalism class. Bishop takes what is description, and works it, polishing it, sometimes during the course of the poem, whittling it down to its essentials, going back to images that matter, circling and circling over what interests her until the mere fact of her laser-eyed attention is the main perception. Not many poets can help you SEE better. Elizabeth Bishop does.

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She was gay, but the thought did seem to cross her mind that she and Lowell were so simpatico that … what if … what if … It certainly crossed his mind. He was deeply involved with another woman, eventually marrying her, but he was haunted by the thought that Bishop really was “the one,” even though she was an out lesbian. Regardless, these two friends worked it out, somehow, continuing their chatty correspondence over the course of their lives, cheering one another on, providing frank reactions to one another’s work, it was a very fruitful friendship. Bishop preferred a life out of the limelight, far away from literary centers. She did not live in New York. She lived in beach houses on Key West. She moved to South America. She wanted peace and quiet and freedom.

She was not a forgotten genius or anything like that, but her stature has definitely grown since her death. Her reputation seems more monumental now than it did when it was unfolding in real time.

Her poems remind me of Yeats’ words on Jonathan Swift: “Imitate him if you dare.”

People try to imitate Elizabeth Bishop’s voice, and what they end up with is a shallow list of descriptions. They miss … the “thing” … that Bishop “thing” – the moment of sudden expansion in the final stanza – but still mysterious, meaning not being the point … “The Moose” is the best example of that, but “At the Fishhouses” have it too. And so Bishop’s imitators are many but they should have heeded Yeats’s warning.

The excerpt from Heaney’s lecture (he’s wonderful on “At the Fishhouses” and other poems) has to do with Bishop’s most famous poem, the one most commonly anthologized, “One Art” (posted below). “One Art” represents a departure for her, an explicitly personal poem, spoken by an “I”. She was surrounded by confessional poets, including her BFF Robert Lowell who took “confession” to such a level that he basically changed the course of American poetry, helping to open up the boundaries of acceptable speech and topics. Bishop found a lot of Lowell’s poems to be unseemly, not worthy of him, and she was open with him about that in her letters, cautioning him to go deeper than just “what happened”. In other words: “So this happened to you … so what. Is it a good poem? Work harder, my friend.”

Bishop did not write about her life’s events in her poems, but you can tell a lot about her. You can tell she lives at the beach, mostly. You can tell that she is outside a lot.

But in her poem “One Art”, Bishop lays herself out there. And yet there’s a protective quality to it, because of its strict rhyme scheme and formal structure. It’s like she NEEDS that structure in order to be brave enough to just “come out with it.” I wonder if it is her most well-known BECAUSE it is “personal”: we live in a self-obsessed day and age when people value something highly if they can “relate” to it.

Still: nothing can take away from “One Art”‘s awesome power and universality (poem posted below). I love how she has to FORCE herself to admit what she admits in the last line. She doesn’t want to go there! She tries so hard to not go there, to take a jokey tone, to be a good sport. But honesty must win out. Still, though: She has to COMMAND herself to come out with it.

Following the poem, I’ll put up the excerpt of Heaney discussing “One Art.” It’s lovely analysis!

And, to show that I’m not above “relating” to a poem or a work of art (it’s only when that’s the ONLY arbiter of value placed on a work that I get annoyed) I’ll speak personally for a moment. If confessional writing ain’t your thing, skip the next part, and don’t blame me. Blame the poems that speak to us so palpably, so viscerally.

In 1994 something ended. A romance. It happened almost invisibly, the two of us approaching the cataclysm, peeking over, and then backing off. He wasn’t fully aware of what had happened, I don’t think, it was an extremely confusing time, a hothouse as well as an ice-plant, the two of us colliding in a way that threatened to tear us both apart. For real, yo. He seemed blindsided by what was happening, and confused. That would change. But in the first wave of it, he was trying to stay calm, while I found myself flailing through empty space. I’m just going to be real frank. That thing ending was a disaster for me in the truest sense of the word (which I’ll get to, because it’s related to Bishop’s poem “One Art.”). I am not saying my life would necessarily have been better if he and I had worked out, there are no guarantees, and something that burns as hot as that can also flame out into ash pretty damn quick, although I STILL wonder: “what the hell WOULD have happened if we had said ‘Yes’ to this thing? Would we have made it?”

(My latest theory – because theories are the way one tries to understand disaster – is that if he and I had gotten together, it would have been so inherently crazy-making and fun – let’s not forget – fun as HELL – and it would have involved me moving to Milwaukee? or him moving to Chicago? UPHEAVAL all around … I was 26 years old and he was 40, a hell of an age difference, although it seemed irrelevant at the time. I loved him. Anyway, all of that upheaval may very well have ended up with me in a psych ward due to the stress and excitement. Looking back I know that I should have been in a psych ward ANYway in the late summer and early fall of 1994 – but it may have been hurried along by the consummation of this feverish relationship – which meant I would have been diagnosed way back then. It might have saved me the trouble of those many many harrowing years afterwards when the illness entrenched itself, nameless, dangerous. This, though, is pure speculation, obviously. We may have devoured one another like the two raging fire-balls that we were … all kinds of Bad things might have happened if we had gotten together. But I just don’t know. That’s the “What If” of it.) I don’t have too many What-If’s with men. Most of them have been obviously not appropriate as mate-material (the main one being my long-time Chicago-and-for-years-afterwards flame, the man who ultimately knows me best, who was hilariously fun and wild in a Dada-esque kind of way that I found supremely relaxing – the last quote in that post I linked to was something he said to me once at 3 o’clock in the morning while we were playing cards, watching the movie Tap. Yes. Gregory Hines Tap. We were playing cards, and out of the blue, this big tough grumpy Chicago guy came out with that line to describe our relationship. And I agree with him still. I loved the Milwaukee guy but I TRUSTED the Chicago guy). Or the other men have been obviously bad for me because they were controlling abusive dick-heads, or, recently, charming sociopaths, guys it is easy to walk away from once their nature is revealed. But Milwaukee-guy …. It took YEARS for the smoke to clear from that one, and in a lot of ways, there’s still smoke. I don’t walk around in mourning like I did in my late 20s, those days are long long gone, but still … there are echoes. I live with them. He does too. This thing ended in 1994! That’s some long-lingering shit right there. In Before Sunset, Celine (Julie Delpy) tells Jessie (Ethan Hawke) that she resists getting involved with men now, because the breakups hurt her too much: “I never fully recover.” I never fully recovered from that guy. Life moved on, but I was forever altered. In many ways, it remains unresolved. For both of us. It’s a road not taken. You don’t have too many of those in life, at least not so obvious.

It was such a disaster (or at least perceived as such by me) that I was thrown into an almost completely wordless state following its dissolution. I could not speak. I lost my words. I couldn’t make sense of anything. In the immediate aftermath, a week or so later, I went to the movies with a friend of mine, who also knew the guy pretty well. We had had a good time that night, talking about other things. But when we pulled up in front of my apartment, my friend brought it up. He said, “So. We haven’t talked about it. But you’ve just experienced a massive train-wreck, haven’t you. Is that what this was for you? Is it that big?” Something like that, it was a long time ago, but he was saying, “Uhm … this feels massive to ME as a bystander … how ya’ doin’ there?” I said, “Oh, you know, I’m hanging in there … I miss him so much I can’t breathe” (literally: I found it hard to breathe in the week following the backing-off or whatever it was we did.) “but … it’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” Reassuring myself. But honestly it wasn’t okay. It was so bad I moved to New York, I moved less than a year later, which may seem like a good thing, but in retrospect, I am not so sure. And he married someone else less than a year later. Once it wasn’t a “go” with us, we went catapulting off at breakneck speed in opposite directions.

SO. All of that being said. “One Art” is one of those poems that people turn to in such moments. It is jokey and sincere, at the same time, it is cynical and self-deprecating, and that last line … it validates the sense that you have been traumatized and destroyed.

“Disaster” has an interesting Latin root. “Dis”, “aster”: “separation from” “the stars.” Take it literally. The world has gone awry, the sky has lost its familiarity, one is lost in space. The connection in subject matter to Auden’s “The More Loving One” and its brutally difficult final line is clear. That’s what disaster actually feels like – to be separated from the stars, and all that they signify.

Bishop NAILS it. It’s difficult for her. It’s difficult for those who are traumatized (those who also have some rectitude, that is). To say, “This has been a disaster” is an enormous concession to chaos, something that one naturally resists.

I also love how Heaney points out that the word “write” in the context of that last line is actually a pun. You could also hear it as “right”, as in RIGHT THIS SITUATION INSTANTLY.

Anyway. Enough. On to Bishop and to Heaney.

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.

Excerpt from The Redress of Poetry, ‘Counting to a Hundred: On Elizabeth Bishop’ by Seamus Heaney

In this poem, Bishop’s ability to write plainly and at the same time reticently manifests itself in extremis. This is wonderful lyric writing; it is impossible to separate the poem’s reality as a made thing from its effect as a personal cry. It is in one way, of course, entirely formal, preoccupied with its technical procedures, taking delight in solving the challenges of rhyme, in obeying (and disobeying) the rules of the highly constraining villanelle form. At the same time, it is obviously the whimper of a creature who has been hard done by; or, to be more exact, it is a choked-off whimper, the learnt behaviour of somebody who, without the impersonal demands of an art and an ethic of doughty conduct, might have submitted to self-pity. In fact, the conquest of a temptation to self-pity is what the poem manages to effect: wit confronts hurt and holds a balance that deserves to be called wisdom. The writing itself could be called deadpan-ironical or whimsical-stoical, but it is not exactly either. It is, to quote another famous line of Bishop,s “like what we imagine knowledge to be.” By its trust in poetic form and its abnegation of self, it bears a recognizable relationship to the work of that seventeenth-century English poet-priest whom Elizabeth Bishop so admired, George Herbert. Like Herbert, Bishop finds and enforces a correspondence between the procedures of verse and the predicament of the spirit. She makes rhyme an analogy for self-control. 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:

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.

The pun in that nick-of-time imperative – “Write it!” – is in deadly earnest. The redress of poetry is called upon by one of poetry’s constant votaries, the poem is asked to set the balance right. Losses of all sorts have caused the mind’s scales to tilt drastically and so they desperately need to be evened out by a redistribution of the mind’s burdens – and the act of writing is depended upon to bring that redistribution about. The throwaway tone of the thing is recognizably the tone that accompanies a throw that risks all. In the pun on the word “write”, therefore, and in the harmony which prevails momentarily in the concluding rhyme, we experience the resolving power of deliberately articulated sound in much the same way as the narrator of “In the Village” experienced it. There, the scream was subsumed in the anvil note; here the “disaster” is absorbed when it meets its emotional and phonetic match in the word “master.” Bishop’s “one art” does not after all fail her. For all her caution about over-stating its prerogatives and possibilities, she does continually manage to advance poetry beyond the point where it has been helping us to enjoy life to that even more profoundly verifying point where it helps us also to endure it.

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Against the Sun (2015)

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I reviewed Against the Sun for Rogerebert.com. I have a fascination with survivalist stories, human beings making it out of horrendous encounters with Mother Nature, or whatever. Against the Sun is the true story of three downed airmen in WWII who had to take to a life raft in the middle of the Pacific, with no food, no water, no supplies of any kind.

There are only three actors in the movie (the biggest name is Tom Felton). I am placing this under the Supernatural tag because one of the three men in the life raft is played by Jake Abel, aka Adam Winchester/Milligan. He’s excellent. They all are.

You can check out my review here.

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 8 Comments

Cake (2015)

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I reviewed Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston, for The Dissolve.

Posted in Movies | 4 Comments

Happy Birthday, Lord Byron

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lord Byron’s epitaph to his dog:

One who possessed beauty without vanity,
strength without insolence,
courage without ferocity,
and all the virtues of man,
without his vices.
This praise would be unmeaning flattery if inscribed over human ashes,
is but a just tribute to the memory of my dog.

What up, hottie?

Lord Byron (aka George Gordon Lord Byron) bemoaned the state of poetry in his current day, thinking his contemporaries did not measure up to what had come before, and although he was a thinker and a critic, he wasn’t all that interested in abstract intellectualism. He liked the effects, he was a visceral poet. People had mixed feelings about him (then and now). His legend precedes him. He was a “bad boy”. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to a friend:

Lord Byron is an exceedingly interesting person, and, as such, is it not to be regretted that he is a slave to the vilest and most vulgar prejudices, and as mad as a hatter?

He is the ultimate Romantic. He defines the Romantic tradition. He is self-conscious, aware of himself, reaching for his audience consciously, playing them like violins.

Robert Graves wrote:

Byron knew and regretted the colossal vulgarity, which he shrouded by a cloak of aloof grandeur. It was a studious vulgarity: cosmetics and curl papers tended his elegant beauty; an ingenious, though synthetic, verse technique smoothed his cynical Spenserian stanzas. But he had unexpectedly come into a peerage and an estate while still ‘wee Georgie Gordon with the feetsies’ – whom his hysterical and unladylike mother used to send limping round the corner from her cheap Aberdeen lodgings to buy two-penny-worth of ‘blue ruin'; and whom, at the age of nine, a nymphomaniac Calvinist housemaid had violently debauched.

Good Lord. It’s better than a breaking report from TMZ. Byron was like a rock star, with a cult of personality. Sounds like someone we know.

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Camille Paglia, in her bizarre and compulsively readable survey-book of Western culture and androgynous figures who make up the basis of that culture, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, devotes a chapter to Byron, and in one section compares him (at length) to Elvis Presley.

Byron belongs to the category of androgyne I invented for Michelangelo’s Giuliano de’Medici: Epicoene, or the man of beauty, an athlete of alabaster skin. Jane Porter found Byron’s complexion “softly brilliant,” with a “moonlight paleness.” Lady Blessington called his face “peculiarly pale,” set off by curling hair of “very dark brown”: “He uses a good deal of oil in it, which makes it look still darker.” White skin, dark oiled hair: Elvis Presley. In homage to singer Roy Orbison, Presley dyed his brown-blonde hair black and continued to do so to the end, despite friends’ urging to let the natural color return. Presley, a myth-maker, understood the essence of his archetypal beauty.

Byron and Elvis Presley look alike, especially in strong-nosed Greek profile. In Glenarvon, a roman a clef about her affair with Byron, Caroline Lamb says of her heroine’s first glimpse of him, “The proud curl of the upper lip expressed haughtiness and bitter contempt.” Presley’s sneer was so emblematic that he joked about it. In a 1968 television special, he twitched his mouth and murmured, to audience laughter, “I’ve got something on my lip.” The Romantic curling lip is aristocratic disdain: Presley is still called “the King,” testimony to the ritual needs of a democratic populace. As revolutionary sexual personae, Byron and Presley had early and late styles: brooding menace, then urbane magnanimity. Their everyday manners were manly and gentle. Presley had a captivating soft-spoken charm. The Byronic hero, says Peter Thorslev, is “invariably courteous toward women.” Byron and Presley were world-shapers, conduits of titanic force, yet they were deeply emotional and sentimental in a feminine sense.

Both had late Orientalizing periods. Byron, drawn to Oriental themes, went off to fight the Turks in the Greek war of independence and died of a mysterious illness at Missolonghi. A portrait shows him in silk turban and embroidered Albanian dress. The costume style of Presley’s last decade was nearly Mithraic: jewel-encrusted silk jumpsuits, huge studded belts, rings, chains, sashes, scarves. This resembles Napoleon’s late phase, as in Ingres’ portrait of the emperor enthroned in Byzantine splendor, weighed down in velvet, ermine, and jewels. Napoleon, Byron, and Presley began in simplicity as flaming assertions of youthful male will, and all three ended as ornate objets de cult. British legend envisions a “westering” of culture: Troy to Rome to London. But there is also an eastern of culture. We are far from our historical roots in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; yet again and again, collective emotion swelling about a charismatic European personality instinctively returns him or her to the east. Elizabeth I also ended as a glittering Byzantine icon.

Another parallel: Byron and Presley were renowned for athletic vigor, yet both suffered chronic ailments that somehow never marred their glossy complexions or robust beauty. Both constantly fought off corpulence, Presley losing toward the end. Both died prematurely, Byron at thirty-six, Presley at forty-two. Byron’s autopsy revealed an enlarged heart, degenerated liver and gall bladder, cerebral inflammation, and obliteration of the skull sutures. Presley suffered an enlarged heart and degenerated colon and liver. In both cases, tremendous physical energy was oddly fused with internal disorder, a revolt of the organism. Presley’s drugs were symptom, not cause. Psychogenetically, Byron and Presley practiced the secret art of feminine self-impairment.

Well. I could read prose like THAT all day.

Poets still argue about Byron. What exactly was he doing? Was it all smoke and mirrors? Auden referred to him as “odious”. Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, makes the astute observation:

Byron is, certainly, tactless, but not wholly undiscriminating. His attacks on Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats are more than the effusions of prejudice, even if they are less than the fruit of cool judgment. He hated Southey’s change from radical to Tory: it condemned the older poet tout court. But Byron was too young to have experienced the euphoria and subsequent trauma of betrayal that was the French Revolution. His politics were not lived until he went to Greece to fight for freedom and died. Those of a Whig aristocrat, his politics were more the product of certain social aversions and personal pique than of pondered experience: politics from the outside. He chose Greece as his theater of political action, not Britain. His civic heart beat more vigorously abroad than at home.

Here is an excerpt from the Tennesseee Williams one-act “Lord Byron’s Love Letter”.

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Byron’s actual name has now become a symbol for something else: the Byronic figure. He was playing a part in his short life, he was “playing himself”, an act of egotism that prefigures the individualism of the 20th century. He helped create that. He remained separate, aloof, self-consumed. Was the “Byronic” hero something he created, in order to more effectively speak in his own voice? Using a mask is certainly nothing new for artists: Masks reveal more often than they conceal. Ask any actor worth his/her salt. They feel more “real” when “hiding” behind the mask of a character than when being “themselves” at a cocktail party. The mask HELPS you to get the truth out, whatever the truth may be. Is that what Byron was up to?

Byron was born with a disability, a deformed foot, which shaped his character in ways he probably did not understand fully. He was competitive, aggressive, and unwilling to sit on the sidelines. He published his first book while in college, and then in 1809 he published a long poem attacking all of the sacred gods of poetry at the time. He throws down the gauntlet: He, Byron, is not “like them”, he places himself in line with Alexander Pope, his idol. It was an opening salvo, that poem, Byron introducing himself and his voice to the world. He traveled a lot.

Michael Schmidt writes about Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

The narrator is not the emphatic Byron known to his foes and friends, but the kind of man he liked to imagine himself to be: morose, enigmatic, bitter, dashing, cultured, with certain social ideals and an eye for the picturesque. If he were less nebulous he would be fascinating. He travels and reflects. More substantial than his reflections is the question: Why he is so gloomy? Byron was not quick to deny that Childe Harold and George Gordon were the same chap. Was this his darker side? Inspired by his nurse’s Calvinism, perhaps, or his love for his half sister? In fact the narrator isn’t Byron. He is an early manifestation of the Byronic hero. The poem struggles toward dramatic monologue. Lack of design, a chronicle progression, a unity depending entirely upon the narrator, point toward the picaresque mode of Don Juan, his masterpiece.

He reminds me a bit of certain young actors I have known, actors who have watched too much Brando, and decide to live their lives as though they were the young hot Marlon Brando. They mumble, they agonize, they overwhelm you with their charming torment … It’s all balderdash, of course, but it is indicative of a young person trying to find out who he is, through trying on different roles. Will this fit? Will this “pass”? It’s also reminiscent of young girls who make a spectacle of their own depression. Sylvia Plath is the role model for that, and one look at Tumblr, where everyone introduces themselves by listing their various mental health issues (“Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I love Star Trek. I have ADHD, social anxiety, clinical depression, and PTSD flashbacks. Hope you like my posts!”) shows that that impulse has become even more extreme. There is something else at work there besides ridiculous self-involvement, something that has to do with masks, and how freeing they can be. Masks can help a shy person be an extrovert. Masks can help a silent person have a voice. Masks can give you the privacy to work out important issues, away from the public eye, while you continue to circulate out in the world. I am all for these types of masks. I think they’re great.

Byron was interested in a certain kind of person. He, with his strange upbringing and sudden fortune, not to mention his deformed foot which held him back from excelling in certain things, found introverts fascinating, found doom-filled contemplations far more interesting than an easy public persona. He experimented, in his life and in his work. Personality can be a fluid thing. A mask can help turn the personal damage into art. As an acting teacher of mine once said, brilliantly, “I have always been a big fan of sublimation. You take your pain, and you make it sublime.”

Byron is the poet of Youth. Nobody who is middle-aged could put up with such nonsense from themselves. Byron wrote these long narrative poems, he was a story-teller really, depicting adventure and escape and melodrama. He married, but left his wife. Scandal. He befriended the Shelleys and joined them on vacation in Switzerland. He was there the night Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein, and it was Byron’s idea that everyone present should write a ghost story. He was always committed to Greek independence, and joined the Greek army to fight the Turks. He died there in 1824 of a fever.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and a thousand other books, wrote in her journal:

Don’t like the man as well as I like his poetry — for I do like Byron’s poetry very much. It thrills some chords in my being as no other poet can do. Byron is out of fashion — but he is immortal for all that. Passion is always immortal and he touched too poignantly all its notes, of spirit as well as sense, ever to be forgotten. But his letters make a disagreeable impression on me. They give a sense of unreality and posing. And his life — what a series of tragedies it was! For himself and the women entangled in it. He was a being of storm-cloud and lightning flash — beautiful, ruinous, transient.

Michael Schmidt again:

Byron hated “sentimental and sensibilitous” people. His dismissal of Keats is only the most damaging aspect of this hatred, which became an assertive, sometimes aggressive expression of virility in his work, masking his sexual ambivalences. Everywhere we sense an impetuous, unresting nature, a personal amorality of a sort that became more common, if less macho and exuberant, later in the century: “The great object of life is sensation – to feel that we exist, even though in pain.”

Robert Graves again:

I pair Byron and Nero as the two most dangerously talented bounders of all time.

While Don Juan is his masterpiece, his I’ll Go No More a-Roving has passed into the popular lexicon in a way that most poets can only dream of.

Here’s a poem. It was first published in 1815, and grew in popularity over the decades. Mark Twain loved this poem. Ogden Nash satirized it. It’s the story from the Bible (2 Kings 18-19) of the Assyrian king Sennacherib campaigning to take Jerusalem, which, naturally, does not end well.

And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.

Bummer.

I like this poem because of its rhythm, reminiscent of Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride, with its relentless hoof-beats.

The Destruction of Sennacherib

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

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Locke (2014): Tom Hardy. In a Car. For 85 Minutes.

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Locke is 85 minutes long. The entire thing (except for maybe 20 seconds in the opening sequence) takes place inside a moving car. There is only one man in the car. He is Ivan Locke. He is played by Tom Hardy. Ivan Locke is driving on the M6 towards London from a northern suburb. The drive is supposedly going to take an hour and a half. He makes a series of phone calls as he drives.

That’s the movie. He never makes a stop, he never pulls over and interacts with a gas station attendant. It is just Tom Hardy, talking to various people in his life as he makes this drive (which, you learn maybe 10 minutes in, is a momentous one). He speaks to his wife, he speaks to his teenage son, he speaks to a colleague at work, he speaks to his boss, he speaks to someone else I won’t reveal, and these calls are made methodically, meticulously, call after call after call (multiple calls to each person) handling what needs to be handled during the 90-minute drive to London. Over the course of the film, everything changes. Nobody is the same at the end of it.

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Written and directed by Steven Wright, Locke operates like a thriller, and yet the only action is a man in a car. Yet it is a grueling experience, an exhausting emotional cliffhanger. You think it couldn’t possibly be as gripping as it sounds, you think that maybe it sounds like a gimmick, or something that experimental theatre groups like to try: “I know! Let’s have all the actors be hanging upside down as they do Othello!” In other words, placing an extreme physical limitation on the properties of the written word – in order to see what kind of theatrical sparks can fly operating within those limitations. (Artists love limitations. Good artists do, anyway.) How could a man making phone calls in the same setting possibly hold your attention for almost 90 minutes? That’s the major thrill of Locke. I have read reviews that give away what the drive is about. Thankfully, I read the reviews after I saw the film. Going into it, all I knew was that the whole thing was just Tom Hardy in the car.

Ivan Locke is a man who has always done the right thing in his life. He is a responsible man. He is a good father. His son’s phone calls about the rugby game he is missing on television speaks to their relationship. You get the whole off-screen picture of who Ivan Locke is in his household, which is essential, because by the end of the film, all of that has been altered. It’s damn near Ibsen-esque: Nora flitting around as a happy childlike housewife at the beginning of A Doll’s House to Nora walking out the door a day later. How did such a transformation occur? How will any of the humans bear it?

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Ivan is the foreman of a gigantic construction crew, and the following day there is scheduled a cement pour, the biggest cement pour in the history of Europe, with trucks converging from all over the place. It’s an international company, run out of Chicago, and the pressure is extreme. Ivan Locke is an unflappable guy. You get that. In his job, he is required to micro-manage a pour like this: road closures have to be approved through the local police department, as well as the various neighborhood councils. Every pump has to be checked. And double-checked. Every truck-driver has to be on point, and the cement mixture has to be perfectly right: he has to make sure all of the various distributors send the right thing. If this fails, millions of dollars are at stake. But Ivan Locke is not a panicker. He didn’t plan on having to drive to London, he was completely ready for the cement pour. But circumstances have arisen that makes his drive mandatory. So calls must be made.

The cement pour starts to loom in the foreground as he drives to London. Screaming calls from his boss come in. Panicked shouting from his drunken underling. Problem-solving, under the gun, a careening mis-fire of an event is barreling towards everyone, only hours away and Ivan Locke will not be there.

He hangs up with his boss. He calls his wife. He speaks with his wife. He speaks with his son. He takes a call from the underling, he calms down the underling. He calls the police department to ensure the road closure. He has to track down a councilman to make sure the road will be closed. “I’M IN AN INDIAN RESTAURANT,” screams the annoyed councilman. Ivan slowly, methodically, insistently, keeps working the problem. It is no one’s responsibility but his own, and he takes full responsibility. His voice is soothing and calm, his reaction to panic. He is unable to lie. He does not prevaricate or dissemble. To anyone. He speaks the truth, however destabilizing it will be for those listening. He is that kind of man.

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Director Steven Wright has kept it simple, understanding that the event of those phone calls will be (should be) enough to hold our interest. The brilliant cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos fills the screen with reflections and mirroring windows, headlights and street lamps, highways and traffic, swooping across and superimposed over Hardy’s face. The images meld together into one big collage of lights and blurry movement. It’s a moody approach, maybe a bit too … artsy? or complex is maybe the better word … showing a slight concern that what was going on onscreen would not be enough to hold an audience’s interest. The approach is slightly busy, in other words. However, for me, not knowing where the film was going, not knowing why Ivan Locke set off on that fateful drive, the light show did not detract: I zoomed in instantly on the most important thing, which was those phone calls, and Tom Hardy’s acting. The film is gorgeous to look at and gives a sense of loneliness and isolation. People are amazingly private in their cars. They talk to themselves, sing to themselves, they forget they are actually in public. This goes on here, and those swooping dreamy blurry lights help add to the dreamspace feel, the fugue-state feel.

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Wright was smart in knowing that the unseen actors on the other end of those phone calls were essential, that these had to feel like real phone calls. There needed to be some major players on the other end. And so the cast he assembled, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels (and more) breathe life into their unseen characters, they are real people on the other end, and you can hear background noises, and doors closing, drawers being opened … all in real-time. It feels spontaneous. I watched the special features and learned that Tom Hardy was out there, “driving” a car, being pulled along by a truck … and the rest of the cast members were holed up in a hotel somewhere, and they would actually call in to him, live, via cell phones. So these were real calls happening, a real in-the-moment back-and-forth. These weren’t voices recorded in a studio, and patched in later (one of the main issues I had with Her: you could tell that those two people were not actually talking to each other.)

Ivan Locke is surrounded by a complex and busy world: he has many obligations, obligations that are NOT a drag on him. He welcomes them, actually. It means he is responsible. It helps him have a sense of identity. He takes pride in being a good husband, an involved father, he takes pride in being a reliable boss, someone people can depend on. It is that very pride that is his … well, not downfall … but it makes him do what he does in the film, it makes him set off on that drive to London. He has made a mistake and he must fix it. Otherwise, who is he? What has his life has been about? If he shirks his responsibility here, in this one thing, he will never be able to look at himself in the mirror again. And so he must live according to his code.

He is trying to do the right thing.

And lives shatter because of it.

The film is a wrenching unforgettable experience. You forget that it’s just Tom Hardy in a damn car. You feel the whole WORLD around this guy. And there’s no way out but through. Call by call by call …

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Because …

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He’s the best, that’s why. And this photograph is smokin’.

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Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 10: Open Thread

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Seeing a play tonight and this is a 4-deadline week. Knocked two out of the way, two more to go, so I’ll be scarce round these parts. Have fun. Catch up with you all when I clear my desk.

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Wadjda (2013); written/directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

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The behind-the-scenes stories would be enough to put Wadjda in the history books: The first film to be shot inside Saudi Arabia. By a Saudi director. A female Saudi director. Because of the restrictions placed on women in the public sphere, director Haifaa Al-Mansour could not be out on the streets of Riyadh with her actors, she had to be holed up in a truck nearby, watching on the monitors, and communicating through walkie-talkies or cell phones with those out on the street. The cast is all Saudi. Al-Mansour wrote the script and it is a personal vision of her nation, including celebratory aspects as well as criticism.

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Wadjda shows, in ways oblique and overt, what happens in a culture that shares a vested interest in turning women into literally non-persons. But what is also there in the film is a funny and well-told story about a very real little girl, trying to get along at school, trying to get along with her parents, trying to get away with as much as possible without getting in trouble, basically. She’s a wisecracker. She’s an eye roller. She’s played with beautiful natural-ness by the remarkable Waad Mohammed. The way she lolls on the couch playing a rugby video game with her dad is a perfect example: her body language is totally relaxed, there is no self-conscious “acting” happening. Many of her scenes are with the phenomenal Reem Abdullah, the actress playing her mother, arguably the biggest (and really only) female star in Saudi Arabia. The two of them create a poignant and extremely real mother-daughter relationship. There are other Saudi artists involved (including the excellent Ahd, who plays the severe principal at Wadjda’s school), but many of them have had to travel to Europe or America in order to study film, make films, work. But Reem Abdullah has stayed in Saudi Arabia. I have never seen her work before (she stars in a popular Saudi television series), and she’s fantastic in Wadjda. The layers she reveals of her character’s experience, the amount of stuff she allows us to see (insecurity, judgment, despair, rage, helplessness, gentleness, vanity, sexual anxiety and desire) … it’s fearless, especially considering that the “Saudi woman” is practically non-existent in terms of representation out there in the world of art. Mostly we just see fully-cloaked-and-covered figures. Reem Abdullah is a pioneer, too.

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The plot:

10-year-old Wadjda wants to get a bike. Her best friend is a little boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), and he has a bike, and she wants to race him. But bikes cost money. Bikes are also “not for girls.” Her mother warns, you might lose your virginity while riding one. But Wadjda is the type of person who will not take No for an answer. So she begins a secret campaign to raise enough money to buy the bike she wants, a gleaming green beauty she first sees floating above a wall on back of a truck like a vision from a dream, and then parked on the sidewalk outside of a toy store. That’s her bike.

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In order to raise money, she makes twisted yarn bracelets and sells them at school, up-selling them to unwitting classmates. She’s a natural hustler. Any time anyone asks her to do something, she puts a price on it. “Sure, I’ll take that note to that boy outside for you … it’ll cost you 20 riyals.” In one upsetting scene with Abdullah, her little friend, she starts to cry with frustration over something, hiding her face in her hands. Abdullah is 10 years old. He loves his friend. He does not know how to handle the situation and finally says, “I’ll give you 10 riyals if you stop crying.” Without looking up, Wadjda shoots her hand out. It’s hilarious.

She bargains and hustles the store manager (Ibrahim Almozael, his performance cracked my heart!), trying to talk him down from his original price. The answer is always No, but he does “hold” the bike for her, reserving it until she can raise the money. He looks at her, and you can tell he quietly admires her, he wants her to get the bike. He won’t GIVE it to her, though, because what would be the lesson in THAT.

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Wadjda is an indifferent student, but when she hears that there will be a Quran-recitation competition with a money-prize for first place that could get her that bike with money to spare, she signs up for the competition and puts her nose to the grindstone. It’s sheer drudgery at first. Her religious teacher is frustrated with her, praising the other students, warning them that if they have their period they have to touch the book with Kleenexes. All of the girls giggle. The religious teacher snaps, “You think it’s funny? It’s not funny.” This is a tough woman to please, man. Wadjda is daunted by what she has to do, but she remembers how much she wants that dreamy green bike.

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The limitations placed on the filming, its pioneering aspect, the danger surrounding the whole endeavor might make one tempted to grade the film on a curve. Thankfully, Wadjda doesn’t need that. It’s a remarkable achievement, confident and deep, funny and angry, and the story (more complex than it seems on the surface) holds together in taut and loose ways, similar to the multiple threads woven together to make bracelets like the ones Wadjda sells in school.

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The moment where Wadjda first gets a glimpse of the bike is a perfect example of Al-Mansour’s visual sense, its magic and energy, its perfect right-ness for the moment. Wadjda wanders aimlessly through a dusty construction lot, her veil falling off her head in the wind, and she suddenly stops, seeing something in the distance. At that moment of connection, the camera starts moving away from her, quickly, at an angle, emblematic of the emotion of the moment and also representing the thing that she is looking at, moving away from her. In the next moment, we see what she sees: there’s a white wall on the edge of the construction lot, and beyond that is a busy road full of traffic. Floating above it, on the back of an unseen truck, is a green bike. The camera swoops along, following the bike, moving away from Wadjda, and then moving back in to her, as her eyes follow the vision into the bright desert distance.

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The final 10 minutes of the film brings a release of emotion that made me think my heart would burst.

Wadjda is not a stand-in or a symbol for Oppressed Womankind. But, of course, throughout the film, incessantly, she is reminded that the world is not set up for her freedom, or for her getting what she wants, in things large or small. She is about to “come of age,” and girls disappear completely into marriage (and under the full abbayah) at extremely young ages (one of her classmates, a pudgy girl of around 12 years old, is married off). Wadjda does not even experience that larger world as unfair, or not in a way that consumes her every thought. What is the MOST unfair is that no one will let her have a bike! THAT’S the real injustice.

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Keeping the focus on that bicycle allows the film enormous freedom to make its larger points, to weave in the problems of the adult world, as well as the truly uneasy worry, trembling throughout, over what will happen to Wadjda. Will she get her bike, for sure is an important question. But what then? She’s smart and capable and she also has a high tolerance for sticking-to-it through unpleasant tasks, all qualities that will make a wonderful well-rounded adult. But what is there for her in Saudi Arabia? Marriage in a couple of years? Even her strict traditional mother has moments of uncertainty, and her lashing out at Wadjda about her tomboyish-ness, her desire for a bike, is really a lashing-out at the world that will not just let her daughter be whoever she wanted to be. SHE wasn’t allowed to be who she wanted to be, why should her daughter experience anything different? And so tyranny is passed down. It’s an inner tyranny.

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There is a strong critique of the whole women-aren’t-allowed-to-drive issue, an issue that has made international news in the last 10 years, with various protests spearheaded by Saudi women. Wadjda’s mum works, but she can’t drive to work, and so Wadjda’s dad has to devote a large amount of his salary to pay for a private driver. This causes resentment, economic and otherwise. It inhibits women, for sure (there’s a great shot of the big van filled with veiled women, waiting to be driven to their destination), but it also inhibits men. It’s a waste of money, first of all, and it also places regular guys in a patriarchal position which sucks, all around. Nobody is happy. This is an often un-talked-about aspect of misogynistic cultures, and Wadjda portrays it head-on, especially in the character of Iqbal (Mohammed Zahir), the guy hired to drive Wadjda’s mother to work. He is rude to Wadjda’s mum, abusive even. As far as he is concerned, he is driving around worse than second-class citizens, he’s got a bunch of animals in his car, and he has no compunction about treating them contemptuously. Wadjda sasses him to his face, “You have no manners!” and Wadjda’s mum also reprimands him for his tone, but what else can she do? She’s trapped.

The film works so well, ultimately, because of director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s meticulous and emotional brick-by-brick approach to the collage of events that make up the film. The mother and father’s relationship. The strict principal of the school disciplining girls for laughing out loud in public, or playing hopscotch in the school yard where men can see them. The boring-ness of school lessons. The comfort of forbidden pop songs on cassette tapes. Wadjda’s sometimes-fraught sometimes-affectionate relationship with her mother. And the bike, the substance of things hoped for, the dreamworld of movement/motion/freedom! And there’s a whole other level of grownup-stuff going on in the periphery, stuff Wadjda picks up on but assumes, “Meh, that’s not my problem. I want my bike.” But it becomes her problem.

There’s a moment involving a diagram of Wadjda’s family tree that is, along with Jafar Panahi walking out into the waves of the Caspian Sea in Closed Curtain, the most painful image put onscreen last year.

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