60 Years Ago Today: July 30, 1954: Elvis Steps Onstage at the Overton Park Shell


The Overton Park shell, Memphis

60 years ago, on July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Records, with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Sam Phillips hustled the 45 over to Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who broadcast out of the Hotel Chisca. Dewey Phillips played it a couple of nights later, and all hell broke loose. Elvis had known that “they” would be playing his song on the radio that night, so instead of hanging around his parents’ radio to listen, instead he fled to the movies. We could talk about that personal choice forever. I always have a sense that Elvis knew, somewhere, how huge he was gonna be. I mean, it wasn’t a done deal, but when that space opened for him, he stepped into it like he was born to the role. As indeed he was. And if you are going to be as big as Elvis, then you need to gear up for it. You are not going to cling to the radio to listen to them play you. You are going to hide out in a movie theatre and then have your parents report to you later what it sounded like. Putting off the inevitable. As Elvis was hiding in the movie theatre, biting his nails, Dewey Phillips popped on “That’s All Right.” Almost immediately the switchboard began lighting up with requests that he play it again. And almost immediately, local teenagers began swarming around Hotel Chisca, where the knew Dewey was, hoping to get a glimpse of the guy they heard singing on the radio. It was mayhem. Elvis was aware of none of it. Because, you know, HIDING.

Dewey Phillips played the song again. And again. And again. And again. He played it a total of 17, 18 times in a row, and still the requests were coming in. At one point, he put in a frantic call to Sam Phillips, demanding that he bring Elvis to the studio to do an interview. NOW. The callers were dying to know more about this person, and many people thought he was black. Dewey’s show was a crossover show: he was a white guy who played black music, and was part of the burgeoning cultural revolution that was going on in the country as a whole, but Memphis was Ground Zero. White kids buying black music. The radio democratized music. Nobody could police the airwaves. Shows might be segregated but the radio wasn’t.

Now the Presleys didn’t have a telephone, so Sam Phillips called a neighbor and had them run over to grab Gladys, and tell her to bring her son to the radio station immediately. Gladys and Vernon obeyed, and ran to the movie theatre to find Elvis. Imagine Elvis: sitting there in the dark, wondering if he was being laughed out of town after his own measly song was played, having zero idea that throngs of teenagers were calling the radio station begging for it to be played again and actually driving to the radio station to scream MORE MORE MORE. Gladys and Vernon found their son sitting in the dark and brought him to the Hotel Chisca, where Dewey interviewed him on the air. Elvis was still a teenager, and a shy one at that. He stuttered. Dewey asked Elvis where he graduated high school (which had just happened), and Elvis said, “Humes High.” Dewey wanted to make sure that got out there, that this kid was white. Humes was a white high school.

People like Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips (no relation) were determined to blend the boundaries of our country, at least culturally. There was so much happening in black music, that informed white music, and vice versa, and there was no reason that it should all be separated out. A white kid who sang like that could, potentially, be a big deal. Maybe.

So that was Elvis’ big radio debut. “That’s All Right” started making inroads in regional charts immediately, and Sam Phillips had to crank out more and more of the 45s to keep up with the demand. Meanwhile, Elvis had never played a live show beyond a few talent contests when he was a kid. Sam knew he had to get the guys some gigs, just to get their feet wet. Who knows, maybe Elvis would bomb live. They had to get some practice.

A couple of weeks later, mid-July, Elvis and Scotty and Bill played a small show on a flat-bed truck in a parking lot, a promotion for a radio station. It was a minor thing, a mid-day thing. Sam also got Elvis and Scotty and Bill booked in a hillbilly show that was going on out at the Bon Air Club (a place Elvis couldn’t even get into as a customer, since he was a minor). Sam Phillips described the crowd at the Bon Air as “pure redneck”, and Elvis stuck out like a sore thumb, with his greasy pompadour.

Although Sam would later say that Elvis “came off real good”, Elvis was crushed by the experience. He said to Sam afterwards that he felt like he failed. Sam tried to reassure him, although he knew that Elvis still needed more experience. He said Elvis looked miserable onstage, nervous and unhappy. There was hostility in the crowd, too, towards the newcomer who was singing hillbilly music but with a blues sound to it. It was not a disaster, but Elvis was sensitive. What happened at the Bon Air was crushing. Elvis was a mystery – not only to himself, but to Sam, Dewey, Scotty, Bill, and every established musician in that joint. He was completely new, untried, and didn’t look like anyone else. Who did this young thug think he was, coming on THEIR stage playing THEIR music but in his own way?

Sam was determined to get the boy in front of people, so he called Bob Neal (who eventually would manage Elvis for a year, until the Colonel came along) and had Bob add the trio to a “hillbilly hoedown” that was going to be happening at the Overton Park Shell, an outdoor amphitheatre with a giant lawn. There would be a ton of musicians on the bill, and Slim Whitman was the star of the night. Bob Neal added the trio to the list of acts. The show was happening on July 30, 1954, not even a full month after Elvis first recorded “That’s All Right”.

And so Elvis’ real debut as a live performer, in a major venue, occurred 60 years ago today: July 30, 1954.

Nobody knew what he would be like in front of a huge audience. He was the definition of raw. He was a teenager. He could barely play the guitar. But he had something. Everyone sensed it.

And Elvis stepped out on that stage, started singing, playing, and jiggling, and within seconds, all hell broke loose.

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When I drove by the entrance to Overton Park my first time in Memphis, I suddenly thought of Elvis’ parents driving out to the park with relatives, and Elvis’ girlfriend Dixie going out there too, driving with Elvis, excited for him, nervous, overwhelmed at what had been happening in the last couple of weeks, and scared that he wouldn’t get a good reception, knowing how rejection would affect him. Dixie had been on vacation with her family in Florida when “That’s All Right” started exploding in early July, and was alarmed by the urgent telegram sent to her by her boyfriend back home: “HURRY HOME. MY RECORD IS DOING GREAT.” Dixie was like: What record? What?

Elvis was still driving a truck for Crown Electric at this point. Dixie came home from her vacation. Elvis was relieved to have her back, you can feel his separation anxiety in his telegrams to Dixie during her absence. How dare she take a summer vacation when all of this crazy stuff exploded for him? WHERE THE HELL IS SHE?? Dixie would go on his truck delivery route with him, and they would go roller skating at night, and listen to the radio. His two songs would come on, and they would get quiet and excited. It felt like something was about to happen.

Elvis and Scotty and Bill got together periodically to rehearse for the upcoming Overton Park show.

The first advertisements started to appear. Some of the posters spelled Elvis’ name wrong.

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Meanwhile, on the ground, some strange things were happening.

Elvis’ two records were in constant rotation on pop music stations, folk/hillbilly music stations, and what was then called “race programs” – black radio stations. The three diverse and normally separate audiences were all listening to and loving the same songs. It was unprecedented. The albums started to sell outside of Memphis. Orders were pouring into Sun from all around the South. Only a month before, Elvis’ main goal had been to join a gospel quartet.

On the night of July 30, 1954, everyone started gathering at the Overton Park Shell. Elvis drove over with Dixie and then Dixie went out onto the lawn to sit with Mr. and Mrs. Presley. Elvis stood on the steps behind the shell, having a nervous breakdown. That is where Sam Phillips found him. Right here, in other words.

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Sam Phillips describes Elvis’ demeanor on July 30, 1954.

“When I got there he was standing on the steps at the back of the shell looking kind of pitiful – well, maybe pitiful is the wrong word, I knew it was the way he was going to look: unsure. And he just grabbed me and said, ‘Man, I’m so glad to see you, Mr. Phillips. I – I – I – I —’ You know, that was just the way Elvis did. ‘I – I – I – I just didn’t know what I was going to do.’ Well, you know, it’s like when somebody’s mother is real sick and you tell them everything is going to be all right, and yet you know there’s the possibility that his mother might die. I said, ‘Look,. Elvis, we’ll find out whether they like you or not.’ And then I said, ‘They’re gonna love you.‘ Now I didn’t know that, and if you want to call me a liar or a fake for saying something that I didn’t know to be the truth – but I believed that once he started to sing and they saw him, I don’t mean the stage act, once they heard that voice and the beautiful simplicity of what those three musicians were putting down … “

The show began. Then it was Elvis’ turn. He entered the stage and Scotty remembers that Elvis was shaking so badly that Scotty could almost hear Elvis’ knees knocking together. Elvis held onto the mike, and Scotty remembers he gripped it so hard his knuckles turned white. The three men had only just met a month and change before. They knew two songs. This was insane pressure.

Elvis reminisced many years later about what happened next:

“I was scared stiff. It was my first big appearance in front of an audience, and I came out and I was doing my first number ['That's All Right'], and everybody was hollering and I didn’t know what they were hollering at.”


Elvis Presley backstage at the Overton Park Shell, July 30, 1954

Legend has it that it was the nerves that made him shake that left leg, trying to get rid of all of that extra tension, and that nerves made his lip curl up into a sneer. Sure, I’m sure nerves had a lot to do with it. But plenty of people choke when they experience that kind of nervousness. The majority of people, actually. Nerves are something human beings do their damndest to AVOID. Nerves/stress impacts the entire body. Nerves make you dry up – not only physically (you lose your voice, your throat stops operating, your breath gets shallow leaving you unable to produce sound) – but emotionally. When confronted with an onslaught of nerves, most normal people have a fight-or-flight response. It is how we are wired.

Great fear makes your choices clear: get the hell OUT OF THERE. But performers have to learn how to cope with nerves, work with them, embrace them, turn that stress into something positive and expressive. It sometimes takes years to master. This is why actors spend so much time in learning relaxation techniques. Because it’s all well and good to be brilliant alone in your bedroom, but when an audience is suddenly looking at you, shit starts happening to your body that you cannot control. You have to anticipate that: “Okay, I am going to have a dry mouth and throat, so make sure to drink a lot of water, and vocalize.” “Okay, I am going to be scared, so I need to find a way to concentrate and relax anyway.” Normally, this takes training. It takes practice.

People like clutch hitters are those who can come up BIG in very stressful moments. They do not lose their nerve. They are special people, different from most of us. Nerves do not affect them in a detrimental way. On the contrary: nerves are what make the clutch hitters do their best work. They perform their best when the stakes are high.

Elvis is the definition of a clutch hitter, only he had no practice at it. He didn’t even know that he would be a clutch hitter. He only knew his own need, his own desire to be in front of people. It was of the utmost importance. All he knew was that he was pissing his damn pants backstage, experiencing waves of vertigo, and had a huge bottomless fear of being laughed at, scorned, or, worst of all, dismissed. He had no training. It was all instinct.

When faced with the reality of his own dream, before that show, he panicked. He wanted to flee.

But the second he launched into “That’s All Right”, Scotty remembers Elvis suddenly going up onto the balls of his feet, his body quivering all over, and, with a roar, the audience spontaneously responded.

Interestingly enough, Scotty also remembers that afterwards, Elvis had no concept of what had happened and when he heard the crowd response, Elvis initially had thought they all were laughing at him.

Most hillbilly singers stood still and tapped their foot to the music. Elvis moved. He jiggled, shook, and leaped around. Scotty remembered later,

“That was just his way of tapping his foot. Plus I think with those loose britches that we wore – they weren’t pegged, they had lots of material and pleated fronts – you shook your leg, and it made it look like hell was going on under there.”

Bill Black was a real showman, and on their second number, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, he turned the bass sideways and rode it like a horse, slapping on it. The crowd went nuts. It spurred Elvis on. Elvis came offstage after the two numbers, confused about what was going on. He had to be told that the crowd was screaming for HIM. He didn’t get it. Bob Neal told Elvis that the crowd went wild because he was jiggling his leg. They were screaming for an encore. The trio went back out onstage to play one more (they sang “Blue Moon of Kentucky” again, having run out of songs), and Elvis – who had been clued into what was happening by Neal – jiggled his leg on purpose in the encore. He listened to the screams, knowing now that it was HE who did that, HE made them make that sound.

It is difficult to express just how quick a study he was. In 10 minutes, in the middle of a high-stress situation (the highest stress yet for Elvis, except for maybe first opening that door of the Memphis Recording Service), he understood his own power, and didn’t fight it, question it, or second-guess it. He went back out there, with his brand-new-found knowledge, and immediately used it on purpose. It takes some performers 15 years of live performances to really understand their own power up there, how in charge they are, how to conduct an audience and control them. Elvis got the memo in 10 minutes.

Bob Neal watched the encore from backstage and watched Elvis jump around, jiggling and quaking, now doing it confidently, having a ball, and could not believe that that was the same shy boy with the debilitating stutter backstage only moments earlier. Nobody could have seen that The Sex Thing (as I call it) was about to come exploding out of this young boy, who was still a virgin at this point. Nobody could have predicted that one. That was ALL ELVIS. It was who he was onstage. He figured it out instantaneously, and he figured it out all by himself.

Bob Neal said later, “He just automatically did things right.”

Dixie Locke, watching from the audience, had an odd experience watching the mayhem her boyfriend caused. She knew her boyfriend. She had seen him in action, playing for her and her friends, horsing around. She was familiar with his constantly jiggling leg. Hadn’t it driven her insane on their dates, when he couldn’t sit still? Hadn’t her parents said to her after their first time meeting Elvis, “Can’t that boy sit still?” But to watch him do that same thing in front of a crowd, and watching the Memphis girls erupt into spontaneous screams – the first girls to scream for Elvis – she wondered what was going on. She felt angry and possessive and wanted to tell the girls to leave him alone. She felt lonely, sitting out there, watching him. Suddenly he didn’t belong to her.

But she was happy for him too, because he was so happy afterwards. Elated is more the word. He was high. He didn’t sleep for two days, the adrenaline still buzzing through him.

Dixie said later, “I don’t think he was prepared for what was about to happen. He knew this was what he wanted to do and that it was breaking for him, but I don’t think he ever thought that everybody would just go crazy.”


Approaching the shell through Overton Park


The stage of the shell


On the stage of the shell. What Elvis would have seen. A packed lawn, an estimated 4-5,000 people out there, which would have been overwhelming


The door onto the stage. Probably where Elvis entered from, knees shaking from nerves, on July 30, 1954. Get ready, pal. Change is coming. Walk through that door and meet your destiny.

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The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street”

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Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

Growing up, E.B. White’s children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little were hugely formative influences. I read them over and over and over again. I maintain that Charlotte’s Web has one of the most moving endings in literature.

I can’t even re-type these words without tears coming to my eyes:

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

Perfection.

White has an interesting background. He began as a reporter. Shortly after The New Yorker was founded in 1925, White started submitting stuff to it. A woman named Katherine Angell (her son is, famously, Roger Angell, another New Yorker institution) was the literary editor, and these manuscripts caught her eye. Angell thought White should be a staff writer for the magazine and that is what ended up happening. Angell and White also ended up marrying. So it was all very cozy and insular and literary and awesome. Angell died in 1977, and White followed her in 1985. E.B. White, along with his children’s books, and, of course, penning The Elements of Style with Mark Strunk, was a staff writer for The New Yorker for the entirety of his career, which lasted six decades. He also wrote columns for Harper’s Bazaar.The majority of the essays in this collection were originally published in The New Yorker. He was a master of the essay form. Life in minutia. Life boiled down into three pages. The essays are so simple, and yet so deep. He takes the mundane, the everyday, and ponders it, turning it over, his emotions accessible to the deeper meanings in these small moments (today’s essay being a perfect example).

In today’s self-confessional world, where personal essays are par for the course, his work acts as a refreshing tonic. They are confessional, but only because he wrote personally and simply about the things that mattered to him, about his observations and thoughts.

He also is one of the best “writers of New York” that there is. He writes about the city in ways that are still being imitated. He’s the one to beat. After September 11, his essay “Here is New York” resurfaced, and was mentioned constantly, due to one strangely prophetic paragraph about the vulnerability of skyscrapers to attacks from above. It is, perhaps, his most famous essay.

Here is another “New York” essay. In it, he describes the challenges involved in packing up his apartment in order to move somewhere else. It seems that he and his wife are moving out of the city. And so they are attempting to do a purge of their belongings, and finding it challenging. What to do with all your diplomas, say? Your “trophies”? Isn’t it depressing to keep them hanging around? Why do we keep acquiring stuff? We don’t even have to WORK at it and stuff piles up. The key is to throw out as much stuff as you acquire, but who does that? There’s always more coming in than going out. So he and his wife are “bivouacked” in a nearby hotel during the process, and go over every morning to tackle their possessions once again.

It’s disheartening in a way. White wonders if they will ever get it done. In the middle of the process, he suggests that they escape out of town for a weekend. They go to a country fair, up in Maine. Perhaps not a smart choice for those trying to avoid acquiring more stuff, because a fair is all about acquisition. There’s even a cattle auction.

And here is where White shines. Up until now, we’ve heard a mildly funny and extremely observant description of what it feels like to box up your apartment, and how you have to make choices about what to take and what to throw away. A universal experience. Anyone could relate. But while they were at the fair in Maine, Sputnik was launched up into the atmosphere.

Sputnik brings the essay to a new level. The world is also an “acquisitional” world. It seems to be our destiny.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street.”

The day we spent at the Freyburg Fair was the day the first little moon was launched by the new race of moon-makers. Had I known in advance that a satellite was about to be added to my world, in this age of additives, I might have stayed in New York and sulked instead of going to the Fair, but in my innocence I was able to enjoy a day watching the orbiting of trotting horses – an ancient terrestrial phenomenon that has given pleasure to unnumbered thousands. We attended the calf scramble, the pig scramble, and the baby-beef auction; we ate lunch in the back seat of our flashy old 1949 automobile, parked in the infield; and then I found myself a ringside seat with my feet in the shavings at the Hereford sale, under the rattling tongue and inexorable hammer of auctioneer Dick Murray, enjoying the wild look in the whites of a cow’s eyes.

The day had begun under the gray blanket of a fall overcast, but the sky soon cleared. Nobody had heard of the Russian moon. The wheels wheeled, the chairs spun, the cotton candy tinted the faces of children, the bright leaves tinted the woods and hills. A cluster of amplifiers spread the theme of love over anything and everybody; the mild breeze spread the dust over everything and everybody. Next morning, in the Lafayette Hotel in Portland, I went down to breakfast and found May Craig looking solemn at one of the tables and Mr. Murray, the auctioneer, looking cheerful at another. The newspaper headlines told of the moon. At that hour of the morning, I could not take in the exact significance, if any, of a national heavenly body. But I was glad I had spent the last day of the natural firmament at the One Hundred and Seventh Annual Exhibition of the West Oxford Agricultural Society. I see nothing in space as promising as the view from a Ferris wheel.

But that was weeks ago. As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy. I look out onto Forty-eighth Street; one out of every ten passers-by is familiar to me. After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on. They are the nameless actors who have a daily walk-on part in my play – the greatest of dramas. I shall miss them all, them and their dogs. Even more, I think, I shall miss the garden out back – the wolf whistle of the starling, the summer-night murmur of the fountain; the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow. And the visiting birds of spring and fall – the small, shy birds that drop in for one drink and stay two weeks. Over a period of thirty years, I have occupied eight caves in New York, eight digs – four in the Village, one on Murray Hill, three in Turtle Bay. In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation according to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.

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Ida (2014); directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

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Ida is one of those miraculous films where the images on the screen are so startling, so unique, so themselves, that the visuals take on a whole subterranean level of meaning, coursing beneath the actual plot. The power of the images tell their own story. Often the characters are seen in the bottom of the frame, with space ricocheting up above their heads, tall trees, or a wrought-iron gate and window, or a wall. So we are forced to deal with the images on their own terms. They demand attention, but not in a pushy or distracting way. They ARE the story. Often the camera is static but what is going on in the frame, just in terms of its setup, is so arresting that you need that static quality just in order to take in what you are seeing. It’s like standing before a gigantic painting in the Met. Everything goes still as you face the grandeur and mastery of what is before you, and you need to slow everything down, inside, in order to look this way, that, to take it all in. So Ida‘s static quality then becomes an engine of enormous tension.

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Directed by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebokowska). Anna (also known as Ida) is an orphan, who was raised in an orphanage before joining a convent. She is about to take her vows when the film begins. She is a young woman, with a serious alert face, and she gives herself over to her chores and her prayers and her convent duties with both a practical nature, stomping around in her work boots, and a rapture. It is an isolated and peaceful community, something that is to be treasured, especially in 1962 Poland, gripped in the vice of both Communist rule and the harrowing living memory of World War II. It is a Poland haunted by its own memories. Milan Kundera wrote a lot about “forgetting,” especially in terms of living under totalitarian rule. The role of “forgetting” in such situations is both a survival technique and a tragedy. An enforced system of belief, complete repression, complete censorship, has a way of dictating reality. Anna does not know that she is living in a state of “forgetting.” She has no memory of her parents. She does not know anything about them. She was a foundling. But all of that is about to change.

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Before the vow ceremony, the Mother Superior calls Anna in to her office and tells her to go visit her aunt Wanda, the only remaining member of her family. Wanda will not come to visit Anna, Anna has to go to her. Even though Anna has never met Wanda, did not know of Wanda’s existence, and is perfectly ready to take her vows and submit to the life of the convent, she obeys.

She shows up at Wanda’s door. Wanda is played by the absolutely magnificent Agneta Kulesza. Wanda is a judge, and spends her off-hours drinking too much and having random sex. She chain smokes. All of it is her own version of “forgetting,” a swan-dive into oblivion in order to wipe out the memories. We don’t know what those memories are at first. They are eventually revealed. A woman in her 40s, she lived through both the Russian/German carving up of Poland, and the Holocaust. In order to survive, she collaborated with the new Communist regime, and became a notable judge known as “Red Wanda,” ruthless with enemies of the state. In the character of Wanda, you can see the disorientation of an entire culture, overrun, destroyed, brutalized, conquered. People do what they must do to survive. But perhaps Wanda did so with a bit too much gusto? We don’t know for sure, but the haunting reality of her current life tells the whole story.

Meanwhile, within 5 minutes of Anna being in Wanda’s apartment, Wanda drops a bomb: “You do know you’re Jewish, right?”

No. Anna didn’t know.

Anna and Wanda set out in Wanda’s beat-up car to find out how Anna’s parents died. It is a quest for information. It is also a journey into the past, a past that was fractured, with millions falling into the abyss. Now, under Communist Rule, it is as though it never happened. Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn covers the same ground. Anna and Wanda drive through a bleak and beautiful landscape, with empty fields, the emptiness shrieking with what had happened there once.

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The relationship between Anna and Wanda, as it develops, is a major part of why Ida works so well, although it works on every level it needs to work. Anna is somewhat shocked by Wanda’s floozy ways, but, with a faint grin, she does admit she sometimes has “carnal thoughts,” too.

They interview people in the village where Anna hailed from, people who knew her parents, people who had shielded them from the Nazis, their nice Christian neighbors. Secrets fester. There is a ton of cultural and generational guilt, too huge to even be acknowledged. And Wanda shares in that guilt.

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There’s something about the way Pawlikowski films this quiet haunting story that makes it seem like it hails from the past. The modern world is not in evidence. The Cold War has descended, leaving a chill in the landscape. People lose themselves in music and dance, the little echoing hotel bars filled with revelers, as the outside world looms beyond the windows. Wanda and Anna pick up a hitchhiker, (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young guy who is a tenor saxophonist in a band, he’s on his way to a gig. Anna sits at a table in the bar, her nun’s habit dangling, looking on as the band jams out a John Coltrane tune after the gig. It seems like they are the only people alive.

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Anna and the saxophonist connect, in a tender and sweet and unspoken way. He knows she is looking for her parents. And that she is Jewish, despite the nun’s garb. He jokes, “I just found out I have some gypsy in me,” bonding with her, and she smiles.

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There are scenes where Anna stands at the top of the stairway in the hotel, the sound of the band echoing up the marble halls, life going on elsewhere, quiet and yet strong, as gigantic world events still wreak their havoc on the individual lives of the people onscreen.

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What ends up happening is completely devastating. This is partially because the film goes at its subject matter in an oblique way. Scenes are filled with silence, the light streaming through the windows, or the car parked at a ramshackle filling station in the middle of a field, the figures dwarfed by the countryside. There is a lot of talk, but feelings aren’t really discussed. The feelings are there, they pulse off the screen, but something about the direction and the script helps us keep our distance. That distance is where the devastation comes from. I got the sense that I was in the presence of a completely brutalized landscape, scorched earth – not only literally but within people’s minds. The Nazis have almost become cartoon villains at this point, used repeatedly in cinema as unambiguous bad guys. There is nothing wrong with that, the Holocaust is a huge topic, and the mind balks at trying to understand. But the world shown in Ida has shadings of treachery and betrayal that arose as a byproduct of the German invasion, the fallout, so to speak. People do all kinds of terrible things to survive. One cannot be faulted for doing what one has to do, and things like honor and valor are abstract concepts when it comes to life and death matters. There were those who had good intentions towards their Jewish neighbors, but finally, inevitably, it became Us or Them. Anna and Wanda showing up on these people’s doorsteps, asking questions, brings back things they would rather forget.

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The performances are revelatory, and the film is often quite funny. The only music we hear is that which plays on the radio, or record players, or from the little hotel bar band. Other than that, silence. Knocking on doors. Driving down roads. Wanda snoring in the hotel bed, passed out fully clothed, as Anna kneels and prays.

The film is so quiet that the devastation, when it comes, feels like a bomb going off deep below the ocean’s surface. The reverb is almost total. There is a delay before we start to feel the waves pulse up top, barreling towards the shoreline. You know something has been exploded. You don’t know what the destruction will look like. You have to wait and see.

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Ida is still out in theaters, although probably not for long. If possible, you should see this one on the big screen. The film has been haunting me for two days. I can’t get what it looks like out of my mind. And what it looks like IS what it is about. The more I think about it, the bigger it seems.

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This Is the End (2013)

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Hilarious. Thought-provoking. Self-aware. But also with an undercurrent of true worry, a gnawing and growing awareness of “How do we live a good life? How do we be good people?” It is truly concerned about these things. This Is the End could so easily have felt like an inside joke, or just an excuse for a bunch of good friends to make a movie. One of those things where you think, “God, it must have been so much fun to make that. Too bad it’s not fun to watch it.” But This Is the End is fun and entertaining and sweet (sweet? Yes!!) and ridiculous and deep, from moment to moment to moment.

The film is out of its mind.

The end of the world erupts out of nowhere one night, when Seth Rogen and his buddies are all partying at James Franco’s house. Explosions. The sky opens up. Chaos. Destruction from the sky. A sinkhole opens up outside James Franco’s ridiculous house and swallows up the young celebrity set of Hollywood, gathered there for a party: Mindy Kaling bites it. Michael Cera plunges to his death. Kevin Hart dies. Rihanna falls into the pit. Jason Segel dies. Everyone dies, except for James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride (my fantasy husband, my ideal man, just FYI), and Emma Watson. Hollywood Hills is in flames. Strange clawed beasts stalk the land.

The survivors hole up in Franco’s house (Baruchel’s first comment when he sees Franco’s house: “Who does he think he is? Pablo Escobar?”), dole out food, make video confessions, curl up in bed together when they’re scared, descend into Lord of the Flies-type fighting, problem-solve, scream, work on their relationships, and have to come to terms with what it means to be brave.

I can’t believe the whole thing works as well as it does. I kept waiting for it to derail. Not consciously, but it was there: will this continue to work? Will this mood hold? It does. It holds beautifully.

All of the performances are great, they’re all playing exaggerated and craven versions of themselves (Michael Cera’s version of himself is especially hilarious, as well as his gruesome death, which I laughed at throughout). In This Is the End James Franco idolizes Seth Rogen to such a degree that he has had two paintings made, one of his name, and one of Seth’s name, to hang in his main room. Seth looks up at it, and James looks at Seth eagerly. Seth is uncomfortable but James is so eager for praise that he has to say, “Wow, man. That’s… really cool.” Jonah Hill idolizes Jay Baruchel, even though Jay Baruchel is visibly uncomfortable with the entire group, and doesn’t understand why Jonah Hill is being so nice to him. What’s Hill’s angle? No one is that nice, right? Seth Rogen wants all his different groups of friends to get along. Craig Robinson is the nicest guy ever. Jonah Hill turns on Jay Baruchel and ends up privately praying to God, asking him what the hell he was thinking on the day he created Jay Baruchel.

But they have to put aside their petty disagreements in order to, you know, survive the ensuing apocalypse.

Emma Watson gets separated from the group in the beginning and then hacks her way into Franco’s house with an axe, demanding shelter. The guys are all thrilled to see she is safe, but also concerned, because now they have to re-divide the food into smaller portions. They look at each other. Dammit, will there be enough water for all of us now? Jay Baruchel pulls the guys aside and tries to bring up the fact that she’s a female, and they’re all guys, so “we just should be mindful of that …” and all of the rest of them are baffled, like, “What are you talking about? She’s our friend. Mindful of what?” Jay: “I’m just saying … we should be sensitive to how she might be thinking … so let’s not be … rapey or whatever …” They all explode: “WOAH. WHAT?” “Nobody here is being rapey but you.” “I wasn’t even thinking rapey thoughts about her but now I am because of you.” “Nobody’s raping anyone here.” And on and on. Emma Watson overhears their whispered conversation and proceeds to attack all of them with her axe, before fleeing into the burning Hollywood Hills: she’d rather be out there than in Franco’s house with her FRIENDS who all appear to be discussing whether or not to RAPE her. (It’s yet another example – Neighbors being another recent one – of how a rape joke can be freakin’ hilarious if it’s done right.)

And any movie that has Jonah Hill chained to a bed, speaking in a demonic voice, all as Jay Baruchel stands over him, hoodie on, holding up a cross made up of tied-together spatulas, shouting, “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU” is a-okay by me. Not to mention a crazy cameo by Channing Tatum.

The film is both silly and profound: it’s my favorite combination, and so difficult to accomplish. Nearly impossible. You can get the silliness, and then the profundity feels forced, or you get the profundity and the moments of silliness feel arch, and imposed. This Is the End combines both, beautifully, seamlessly. The ending, which I wouldn’t dream of revealing, is so delightfully loopy and also emotionally connected that I found myself laughing and tearing up at the same time, and also laughing at MYSELF that I was tearing up.

This Is the End is up there with Boyhood as my favorite film of the year thus far.

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The Elvis Puzzle

Every year, we stay in the same house, a big rambling old house, with a gigantic wraparound porch, perched on the edge of a huge hill that leads down to the lake. Our family has grown exponentially this year, with three new members, and we move in and TAKE OVER. We have been going there for years now and there are many precious memories wrapped up in this house. And there are still things to discover. My sister Jean found a jigsaw puzzle upstairs and told her daughter Lucy to “go give it to Auntie She-She.” (That would be me.) So little Lucy approached, and handed me the box, not sure why I would want the puzzle, but doing what her mother said. And it was an Elvis jigsaw puzzle. A black and white photo of Elvis in the 1950s, with the greasy ducktail and the one curl over his forehead, and a sweet snarl on his lips.

Lucy was fascinated by the fact that I was interested in it. She looked at the photo of Elvis.

“Is that a girl?” she asked (which I thought was FASCINATING. The gender-bendy Elvis shadow lengthens through the decades! He is still confusing people!)

I said, “No, honey, that’s a boy. He was a famous singer.”

Lucy looked slightly sad and cautious and said, “Is he dead?” (In tune with the past tense, meaning she’s a wicked smartypants.)

“Yes.”

She thought about it. She asked, “Did he have a family, She-She?” She seemed worried.

I said, “Yes. He has a daughter who is around my age, and she’s doing great.” (I didn’t want her to be worried about anyone, least of all Lisa Marie Presley.)

She thought about that. “Was there a Mommy?”

“Yes, there was!”

More thinking, more worrying. “Is she dead?”

“No, honey. She’s alive and well, too.”

Then Lucy asked, “Was he a friend of yours?” and my entire family started laughing.

And basically the puzzle was too hard for us to do. It was all black and white, so you couldn’t even group the colors together, and his face was made up of a mosaic of tiny little Elvis faces and newspaper clippings, etc., and they all looked the same. Lucy and I tried to work on it for about 10 minutes and then both got bored.

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But Elvis stayed scattered on the table for the entirety of the week, in case anyone felt like working on it.

Elvis is Everywhere, part infinity …

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Vacation Books

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I had brought Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon on vacation with me, which I am loving re-reading, as well as Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor, which I have never read and am in love with already. It’s already made me laugh out loud three times and I’m only on page 12. Choosing what to read on vacation is a weighty decision. But you also have to be willing to throw out what you planned and choose your route spontaneously, should the occasion arise. Game of Thrones was on the bookshelf at the house where we were staying. I have never seen one episode of the show. I have never read any of the books. For no particular reason, I love all of those actors, and love Peter Dinklage, but, you know, I am extremely behind in television watching in general. I enjoy Martin in interviews, he’s a fascinating guy, but just never read any of his work. But suddenly last week I picked it up one day, took it down to the dock with me, lay on my towel, read only the Prologue, and thought, immediately, with something akin to despair: “Oh shit. Now I have to read all the books. Dammit.” Based only on the Prologue! The characters are amazing, the world is totally fleshed out and lived in, it feels real down to its underlying architecture, and he’s a beautiful writer. Had a lot of fun reading it over this past week (I finished it yesterday morning), but even more fun was talking about it with my nephew Cashel, who has read all the books (so far). Our conversation lasted the whole week. “So what’s happening now?” he would ask me as he joined me on the dock. Then we would talk it out and discuss plot and characters and the TV show and the adaptation and it was so fun. I love my nephew! He is such a great person, smart and funny and kind and caring. I will continue on with the rest of the series, and text him my thoughts, so we can keep the conversation going.

And Cashel’s vacation read? Cat’s Cradle was one of them (he’s as fast a reader as I am, and blows through two books in a day sometimes), so we had a lot of fun talking about that too.

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Vacationing With a Family of Project Runway Fans

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Seen on Highway 91, Vermont

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It’s not the exact make and model, but it’s close enough to be a doppelgänger.

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 2: “Everybody Loves a Clown”

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Directed by Phil Sgriccia
Written by John Shiban

Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows,
which the world knows not; and oftimes
we call a man cold, when he is only sad.

Hyperion, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You do not know the burdens that other people carry. Longfellow wrote those words in 1839. In every era, there are expectations of what a certain thing should look like, be it joy or love or pain. Cultural norms shift and morph over the years and currently we are in a time when the “self-help culture” dictates what things should look like. So things like repression and denial and sublimation are seen as bad, or at the very least unhealthy. This is treated as fact. It is not fact. It is an opinion, a theory, a fad (albeit a long and deeply entrenched fad). And there is a lot of evidence suggesting the opposite, actually: that something like repression is a valid and useful survival technique, honed over thousands of years of brutal human experience, and not necessarily unhealthy at all. Try telling that to someone who has swallowed the self-help culture wholesale. It is as though you are speaking heresy.

I like one of my acting teacher’s definitions of “sublimate”: “You take your pain, and you make it sublime.” I have been doing that since I was a kid. Therapy didn’t save my life when I was a suicidal 12-year-old. Ralph Macchio did. Sublimation is a way of life for me. I know that a lot of it comes from loneliness (as a permanent condition, not a phase), but hell, it’s a good deal for me, because I could be sublimating through drugs or self-destructive behavior but I get so much pleasure out of culture and movies and books. It’s a win-win.

This is the landscape of the opening episodes of Supernatural‘s Season 2. John Winchester is dead. Sam and Dean are both grieving in their own ways, and neither of them can talk about it, at least not in a way that opens up space. Loss is not a monolith. Not everyone is going to be impacted in identical ways. The issue I have with the self-help culture is that it prioritizes what something looks like on the outside. And that’s why Longfellow’s words are so important to keep in mind. Sometimes a loss results in someone recoiling, hunching over their own metaphorical wound, protectively. This is not being in denial. This is an appropriate reaction to being wounded.

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Wish I Was Here (2014); directed by Zach Braff

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There are many things in this world that make me angry. Zach Braff isn’t one of them.

My review of his second film, Wish I Was Here, is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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