“I care desperately about what I do. Do I know what product I’m selling? No.” — Owen Wilson

I just want to point you towards a recent remarkable profile of Wilson in Esquire, the cover story. The writer – Ryan D’Agostino – really knows what he’s doing. It’s a beautiful piece of writing filled with interesting observations. Wilson even spoke of his 2007 suicide attempt, which he’d never done before, except for “Please, media, let me be cared for and healed” public statement at the time.

I find Owen Wilson funny, but I also find him touching. Maybe my own life of near-constant mental struggle means I recognize these things in him, even with how funny he is, there’s a strain of sadness underneath even the whimsy. It’s why he’s such a good writer. His sense of joy is hard-won.

In 2013, I wrote an essay about Owen Wilson – his melancholy, wistfulness and humor – for Rogerebert.com.

The Melancholy Hero: On the Acting of Owen Wilson.

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Review: May December (2023)

Todd Haynes’ latest, starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, is super good. I reviewed for Ebert.

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“If you feel blocked, do not turn to others, but look inside, in silence, for the enemy of your progress.” — Jeff Buckley

For Jeff Buckley’s Birthday


My brother Brendan, in his 50 Best Albums list, which I posted here during 2020, wrote about Grace. But it’s about so much more. It’s about the time in which Grace came out, and what it was like in pre-9/11 New York City. I worked at The Hub, too, and Bren nails the whole vibe. I hadn’t thought of how Buckley was so interwoven in with that vibe though.


A piece I wrote in 2012, about the most memorable concert I have ever attended: Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill in Chicago. I saw him just before Grace came out. The groundswell of press had begun, which was why we were there. But he hadn’t “hit” yet. He basically hit the next month. So we saw him in the moment before.

I will never EVER forget that night.

Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill

On a rainy night in Chicago many years ago, my friend Ted and I went to go see a singer I knew little about at The Green Mill. His name was Jeff Buckley. He had a couple of tiny albums out, recordings of live shows. His voice was crazy. We bought tickets and went.

It is, to date, the most memorable live show I have ever seen.

Ted and I still talk about it.

A lot of people were pissed off at Jeff Buckley that night. Ted and I were enraptured. Buckley was there, at the bar, mingling, hanging out. We did a shot of whiskey with him at the bar, and told him how much we loved his songs. He seemed freaked out and morose, and we were saying to him, encouragingly, “You’re great, have a good show!” – not at all expecting that a young up-and-coming rock star would be so openly anxious, and telling this to the audience who was just about to watch him play.

In looking back on it: I can clearly see that he knew stardom was about to hit. He knew his life was about to change. The tour bus parked outside was indicative of what was about to happen. But he seemed so small, dwarfed by the bus, by the circumstances approaching him. He had just given an interview to Rolling Stone and had apparently said wildly inappropriate things to the reporter. He told us this! Don’t we all want success? Well, sure, but what success actually means, in the reality of day to day life, is another thing entirely. It’s intimidating, it’s a lot of attention, it’s REAL, and artists oftentimes are people who have trouble with reality. That’s why they’re artists. Stardom comes with responsiblity, with lots of “have-tos” and obligations, not to mention a painful loss of anonymity. Goldie Hawn wrote in her memoir about how she used to go to a little bar in Malibu before she was famous, have a glass of wine by herself, sit staring out at the waves, and write in her journal. It was a beautiful ritual for her. Stardom was a great blessing to her, and she is appreciative and thankful, but she still mourns that anonymous self, the person who could go have a glass of wine alone, write in her diary, and not have someone take a picture of it, sell it to a tabloid and have it appear on the newsstand the next day: GOLDIE HAWN DRINKS ALONE LOOKING LIKE SHIT. Fame is a sacrifice. Not for some, but for many it is a soul-crushing experience. Jeff Buckley was in that latter category.

So there he was, doing shots at the bar, talking with us, but, you could sense things shifting. He wasn’t “normal” anymore, he wasn’t “one of us”, he was not anonymous. He had been playing shows at Cafe Sine, a tiny joint in New York where the musicians sit out in the audience, guitars propped up against the wall, and then just walk up to the “stage” when it’s their turn. The blending of audience and performer. Comfortable.

That world was receding for Jeff Buckley on the rainy night at the Green Mill.

I’m talking about this like I sat down and had an in-depth conversation with Jeff Buckley about his thoughts and feelings. I did not, but it is what I gleaned from his behavior that night, the brilliance of his performing, his obviously self-destructive tendencies, but also his urgent need to connect. It was life or death to him that he break through his anxieties and connect to us. SO many performers do whatever they can (through choreography, lights, flash, impenetrable persona) to AVOID the anxiety of whether or not they are connecting to their audience. But for Buckley there seemed to be no other way, and all of it was happening at the same time, and all of it went into his performance.

I have never seen anything like it.

When he was up there, NOTHING was excluded. A polished performance excludes many things. It excludes nerves, moments of doubt, embarrassment, insecurity. You put those aside so you can do your work and show up for the audience. Jeff Buckley INCLUDED all of that. He didn’t judge any of his own emotions as “inappropriate”, whatever they might have been – fear, anger, sadness, excitement. If he felt it, he let it out. People with decades of experience have a hard time doing that. Some can NEVER do it. Young Jeff Buckley did it automatically. Like Judy Garland. No matter what came up in Judy Garland, it was of use to her as a performer. She did not censor herself. That’s why she is like a raw nerve. Buckley was up there, and he was struggling, struggling to enter into his own life, into the performance, into his own music. He felt outside of it, and he let us see his struggle. For him there was no other way.

Like I said, a lot of people were pissed off at him that night because they wanted a conventional show. They wanted him to just play the damn songs they wanted to hear. They didn’t want him to talk in between sets about how freaked out he was, they didn’t want him to suddenly stop a song, mid-lyric, and announce, “God, that sucked. Let’s start it over again …” and then …. start the song over again … from the top. Judging from comments below this post from other people who were there that night, Ted and I were not alone in being absolutely riveted by him, but it felt like there were more people who wanted a straight show. Buckley couldn’t have given a straight show if you paid him a million dollars.

He grappled with himself. In front of us. It was inspiring to watch how private he was in public – something almost no one can do, something actors go to school to learn HOW to do, to shed our social selves, the social self that inhibits us from being, from admitting the darker parts of ourselves. Ted and I, both in theatre, actors/directors, understood what we were seeing, it was what we tried to do, it was what happens in rehearsals or class. You grapple with yourself to GET OUT OF YOUR OWN DAMN WAY, so you can get to work. That’s what Buckley was doing. His voice is otherworldly, as good live as on the album, but he was in a state of dissatisfaction and anxiety. The record company had obviously funded this tour and paid for the tour bus, and were probably trying to iron Jeff Buckley into some kind of appropriate persona. Because let’s not get it twisted: Buckley was dropdead gorgeous. Not handsome really, that’s not the word. He was soulfully beautiful. Like James Dean or Alain Delon. It seemed that success would be a slam-dunk. To look like that and have a voice like that?

But you could feel that Buckley wasn’t interested in ANY of that. Buckley seemed to feel this enormous institution behind him, he felt the pressure of it, and as he rambled on, and stopped songs, and confessed his feelings to us, he kept waving his hand at the wall – because he could FEEL the tour bus on the other side of that wall. He kept mentioning that damn bus, he hated it, it was too much.

The show was chaotic. He was heckled by the increasingly annoyed crowd. People were yelling at him in frustration. “SHUT UP – JUST SING THE SONG!” It was a constant chorus. There was a lot of hostility in that club. Buckley didn’t fight back, he didn’t bristle or snap, “Hey, fuck you, man, I’m up here doing my thing”. No. His ego wasn’t like that. Instead, he apologized profusely. He’d say, “You’re right, I’m so sorry.” He kept saying things like, “I suck … I’m so sorry … I just suck …”

Buckley said at one point, “I want to give everybody their money back … I am so sorry about the show tonight … I suck so bad …”

This sort of self-deprecation can be annoying. However, with him you could tell it came from a deeply true place. He was genuinely pained.

He was also drunk. He was drunk when he arrived, or at least seriously soused. He announced to us, at one point, with huge floppy gestures:

“You guys, I’m so sorry, but I am drunk. D – U – R – N – K. DRUNK!”

Did he mean to misspell drunk? Was he really that drunk? Was he kidding? Ted and I burst out laughing, and we still say that to each other. “The woman was drunk. D-U-R-N-K, ya know what I mean?”

He started to sing “Halleluia”. But … but … you could just feel (that’s the other thing: he was emotionally transparent just standing there. If you were paying attention, as Ted and I were, you could FEEL everything he was feeling.) So he started “Halleluia”, but … it didn’t feel true to him … you could tell … so he stopped the band impatiently: “Stop stop stop stop …” It was like he was in pain, far away was he from his own ideals. I am thinking of Clifford Odets in Hollywood, experiencing spiritual death. What Ted and I saw (and we went out and talked about it all night afterwards in a diner down the street as the rain splashed against the windows) was a man trying to imagine himself, work himself, push himself closer to his own ideal in his head. He wanted to transcend. And if that meant starting a song over, even though there was a whole crowd there, a whole crowd who was dying to hear him sing “Halleluia”, so be it. What we were seeing was not a finished product. He would not BE a ‘product’. He was in process.

It was self-indulgent, yes – but any artist’s process MUST be self-indulgent. How else will you know what works, what failure feels like? You have to GO there. Art is worthless if the artist isn’t willing to pay the price, to have it cost them something, to put ALL of it out there.

After the “Halleluia” debacle, he sang “Lilac Wine” and you could have heard a pin drop in that dark club. His voice made the hair rise up all over your body. He went to another place entirely, a private place of fantasy and creation. You were afraid to move, you were afraid to break the spell.

I watched Buckley up there, alone by the mike with that beautiful face, the innocence of his face, but also the wildness, and how he would throw his body up towards those high notes, his neck flung back, launching his voice up into the octaves above, eyes closed, body slack and open, letting it happen, letting it come … he seemed to be not just a singer but a CHANNEL: he just had to open up to let that other thing – his GIFT – come pouring through. I watched him and I remember so clearly thinking: God, what is going to happen to this boy. This special wild boy. This is not just retrospect talking, I want to make that clear. The whole night was like that. Buckley kept talking about the interview with Rolling Stone, he seemed to be having a nervous breakdown almost about the impending fame. It made him far away from himself. He was trying – in front of us – to get back into alignment with himself.

We would be among the last people to get to see him in a small club. He was going somewhere else now and Buckley felt the loss.

He handled the heckling with grace but he didn’t change his approach. He didn’t “pull himself together”. He started to sing one song and for whatever reason he felt like he needed to sit down, so he crossed his legs, and sat down with his back to the audience. He sang the entire song in that position. Beautifully, by the way. He needed to shut us out in order to do his thing.

His band was amazing. They went wherever he went. If he stopped a song, they stopped. When he wanted to start over, they started over.

They started to play “So Real”. Like I said, I didn’t know Buckley’s music well at that point. But I loved the song, and his voice pierced through me. Ted and I stood there, lost in it (many of us were lost in it, hecklers be damned) and maybe after a verse and a chorus, Buckley said, in this drunken “oh, fuckitalltohell” tone, “God, stop stop stop … ” He seemed like a little boy, hurt, because his mom interrupted his make-believe game of knights and dragons with the prosaic request that he set the table. He was BUMMED that he wasn’t being transported like he wanted to be, that his song wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go.

So he stopped the song, which had sounded FINE to me, BETTER than fine. He was openly in pain: “God, that sucked … we SUCK … ” (more heckling – which he acknowledged) “I know, I know, you guys … I’m so sorry … Let’s start it again …”

They started the song again. And almost immediately you could tell what had happened. It was like night and day, the performance before the interruption and the performance after. The performance before was a rough draft, or like a dancer “marking” the steps so as to conserve energy. And Jeff Buckley realized that, he realized he he wasn’t IN it – and so he needed the break to clear the deck. He needed to FOCUS so that he could “go there” in the song. And that’s what happened after the interruption. The band almost blew the roof that tiny club. Buckley was a shaman, a madman, a choirboy with Lucifer on his shoulder, a fallen angel, wailing to the skies, catapulting his voice up, up, up, his gestures fearless, uninhibited. When he “pulled himself together”, by stopping the song and starting over, when he cleared the deck of everything extraneous and unnecessary to his performance, the power, the passion, that came pouring out gives me goosebumps to this day. I’ve seen a lot of live performances and nothing else comes close.

I was so sad when he died. I imagined him swimming in the current, drunk, stars wheeling by overhead, communing with Bacchus, with God, lost in his dream of himself. I can’t say I was surprised, though, because his wildness was so apparent, his yearning towards the edge, his openness and vulnerability. You could sense it all in the room.

To me, Jeff Buckley was always that pale-faced boy doing shots at the bar on a rainy night in Chicago, many years ago, with a gigantic tour bus looming outside. Change coming, change coming fast … and yet … in the moment, there was just him … on stage … trying to transport himself into the world that he imagined.

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“There’s nothing you can tell me about guilt.” — Martin Scorsese

It’s his birthday today.

It will be a huge loss when this man goes. He holds up the torch for continuity of cinema history, and his breadth and depth of knowledge – which he is so eager to share – is an essential part of the movie-lovers’ world. I cannot tell you how many movies I have sought out because of his passionate advocacy. He knows everything. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet of my friend Glenn Kenny’s book Made Men, about the making of Goodfellas, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Glenn interviewed everyone involved, including a lengthy sit-down with Scorsese (whom Glenn had interviewed before). It gives good context about the phenom of that film AND how it was rejected by a lot of people, because of the violence. (Same shit, different day.) Its reputation has grown to a towering height ever since, but it was one of those things where people didn’t quite recognize what they had when it first arrived. There was a lot of chatter about that movie. Maybe not as totally irritating as the ridiculous chatter around The Irishman, ranging from “This movie literally silences women” (there aren’t enough eyerolls in the world …) to “Scorsese only directs movies about gangsters” (I guess Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, New York New York, The Last Waltz, King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, Last Temptation of Christ, “Life Lessons”, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator, Shutter Island, the George Harrison doc, Hugo, Wolf of Wall Street and Silence don’t count. He’s done more movies NOT about gangsters than movies about gangsters. And these people, some of them, actually write about film. In a way, they help me save a lot of time: I know who NOT to read now.)

One of the honors of my career thus far was to write and narrate a video-essay on the three central performances in Raging Bull, included in the special features of the Criterion Collection’s long-awaited 4k release of that masterpiece. That piece required a deep and concentrated dive into the Scorsese/DeNiro collaboration – one which I have already been invested in since I first became aware of movies as a teenager – but to do so in a deliberate way, with this focus in mind, was an intense joy. I am very very proud of that video-essay (not online: you have to be a paying member of the Criterion Channel and/or buy a copy of Raging Bull to watch it. Of course I highly recommend you do so, and not just because of my video-essay.

One unexpected result of my participation in Criterion’s release of Raging Bull was receiving a hand-written card in the mail.

I had to sit down on my front steps when I figured out what was going on, when I saw the masthead on that little note card. I am truly honored.

For his birthday, here are some other pieces I’ve written where Scorsese figures either prominently or peripherally:

— For my Film Comment column about watching movies in a theatre vs. watching them at home, I wrote about the quaalude scene in Wolf of Wall Street, and how differently it played in the two different contexts. It was fascinating!

— I had the great honor of interviewing Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker about her gig restoring Powell/Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, one of Scorsese’s obsessions and influences.

— In 2013, which feels like it was a million years ago, I wrote about The King of Comedy for what was then Capital New York, and is now Politico. I love that bleak joyless movie.

I wrote about Taxi Driver on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary. The film hasn’t lessened in power, not by one iota.

— For a feature at Ebert about the Best Films of the 2010s, the contributors all voted on their choices, and the editors tallied it up coming up with the final list. I lobbied – hard – to write about Wolf of Wall Street, which I did. I lobbied hard because:
1. I love that movie.
2. Women criticized the movie for its misogyny. I thought it would be cool to have a woman sing its praises, just to fuck with the accepted narrative.
One of my goals in life as a writer is to combat sexist assumptions – coming from men AND from women – about what women will and will not or should and should not like. If a woman disagrees with the so-called feminist status quo, she is shunned by so-called feminists as “not like us.” It’s happened to me practically all my life. It happened to me in high school, in college, and beyond. It happens to me now in the world of film criticism. The only way to deal with it is to not give a fuck. I already don’t give a fuck about sexist men. They’re everywhere. But women who buy into this “girls like different things from boys” shit? What is WRONG with you? Why are you reinforcing Victorian-era-1950s-era gender roles like this? Make it make sense. I address this in the piece.

And finally, and the biggest: I wrote the booklet essay for Criterion’s release of After Hours, his Beckettian-Surrealist-Kafka-esque (all of the above) New-York-cross-section movie starring Griffin Dunne. My involvement in the release led to a 45-minute phone call with the man himself, where I was nervous beforehand, and then not at all nervous during, because he was so nice. We talked about After Hours, yes, but so much else. He gave me a code-name the next time we meet in person, which we are bound to do: “Sheila-Raging-Bull-After-Hours” so he’ll know who I am. You know I will take him up on it!

I’ve seen Killers of the Flower Moon twice. It’s still in theatres: I highly recommend seeing it in a theatre. It’s different from his other films. There are very few cinematic flourishes, of the kind we associate with Scorsese. There’s one long shot, swirling through the rooms of a house, each room bustling with activity, one of those intricate shots Scorsese is so good at, an attention-getting camera move. But other than that, Killers of the Flower Moon is shot in a fairly straight-forward way, with lots of focus on the faces, on close-ups. Lily Gladstone gives a performance literally like no other – it’s an unprecedented role – but it’s De Niro I think of when I think of this film. This is unlike anything he’s ever done before – so exciting, and – quite honestly – one of his most frightening performances. But what’s going on goes even deeper than that. There are certain performances which are so psychologically acute – so insightful – that they actually explain how the world works. Not many performances are like this, because not many actors (or people, really) have that wide a lens. De Niro does. He had that wide a lens as a young actor too. It’s why he stands out. He’s beyond himself, he’s beyond a SELF. Travis Bickle explains something about how the world works, he explains a TYPE of alienation in the same way Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov explains the same thing. We need these people, these characters, these vessels – and when it “hits”, then forevermore we have it as an example. We can go back to Raskolnikov again and again. It’s not a character. It’s not even a mindset. It’s a psychological state of being: and we need artists who look at things with such a wide lens. Again, it will be rare. Because, in general, human beings are not very smart about why we do what we do, and how we do what we do. Otherwise why would we keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Robert De Niro’s performance is chilly, ice-cold, and perhaps it’s coldest when it’s warmest. If you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean. Lily Gladstone represents the human cost of the evil perpetrated. De Niro is the evil. And evil doesn’t snarl and cackle like a villain. Evil is caring, evil speaks in a soft voice, reaches out with a soft touch. Evil HIDES itself. Robert De Niro, a pessimistic even nihilistic man – at least in terms of his psychological makeup – understands this. Even very good actors find a way to wiggle out of the psychological implications of what they are asked to play. Playing a villain LIKE a villain is one way actors try to escape, keep themselves safe, avoid complicity in what they are playing. They find ways to distance themselves. De Niro does not.

Seriously. It’s a major performance.

Seeing these octogenarians working, still upping their game, challenging themselves, going to newer deeper levels, and creating a work so personal it implicates ALL of us … this is reason to celebrate.

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She’s not a bad person. Honest she isn’t: Kerry O’Malley in David Fincher’s The Killer

“I guess I am begging.”

My breath caught when my cousin Kerry O’Malley said this line in David Fincher’s The Killer, now streaming on Netflix. Her face, her tone, her collapsed body language, was all so open and so desperate, and she knew it was useless to beg (she knew whose hands she was in), but she had to plead for her life.

The whole sequence was heartbreaking and yet also fascinating on a psychological level.

Who is this woman? She’s a nice lady living in a nice little house working in an office in her muted-colored Talbot’s clothes … and yet …

“I’m not a bad person.”

The second key line reading.

The character’s whole life is in that line. Kerry didn’t put too much on it. She didn’t INSIST she wasn’t a bad person. She didn’t use the line to plead with him. By that point, she was beyond begging. When she says, “I’m not a bad person”, she is past even worrying about whether or not it is true. She herself knows it probably isn’t true. But she has spent her life justifying her actions.

Through such people, horrors are made possible. The Eichmanns of the world.

This is what Kerry brought to the role.

So proud of her, especially since she’s been on strike for months and months, enduring financial hardship, etc. She deserves this success. Hers is the standout scene.

“I guess I am begging …”

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“Omissions are not accidents.” — poet Marianne Moore

“I disliked the term “poetry” for any but Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s or Dante’s.” — Marianne Moore

T.S. Eliot felt Moore’s poetry was probably the “most durable” of all the greats writing at the time.

Sadly, I have no idea how to recreate what Moore’s poems LOOK like. WordPress irons out her jagged beginning lines. Half of the fun of Moore is what her poems look like on the page. The start of each line is staggered, like little steps, and so the reading of the poem becomes something almost experiential.

Moore was great friends with people like H.D. (more on her here) and Ezra Pound (more on him here) and she had many admirers. Her work as a critic was unfortunately cut short, due to the collapse of the literary journal she wrote for, but you can see her critical mind at work in her poems. She wrote a lot about poetry itself. She had many ideas: she wanted to let images talk to one another through the verse. Perhaps the connecting links were opaque to the readers, but this quality adds to the poems’ power, her poems are puzzles to decipher, they have been compared to Cubist paintings. Poetry is not meant to reveal all. What you leave out is almost as valuable as what you include.

Continue reading

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“I learned to act while watching Martha Graham dance and I learned to move in film from watching Chaplin.” — Louise Brooks

“One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema … she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting.” — David Thomson

Louise Brooks is one of the most enigmatic, charismatic, and hard-to-pin-down movie actresses. It even seems wrong to call her an “actress”, although obviously she was. But she was more like a walking talking shimmering fluid persona, open to the camera in a way that is still startling today. She is FREE. Whatever she is doing, it’s not what we normally think of as “acting”. She’s hard to discuss, because … what is she actually DOING? And what did she FEEL about what she was doing? She’s so unbelievably free on camera, she beckons you into her headspace, her world, it’s an extraordinary relationship with the camera. In fact, she often looks directly AT the camera which … you just don’t DO in film. But she did.

To my mind, the best thing written about her as a performer – the most insightful – is the chapter devoted to her in Dan Callahan’s book The Art of American Screen Acting, Volume 1. I interviewed him about the book, and we discuss Louise Brooks quite a bit.

Her career was not long. She had a lot of trouble during her heyday. Her talent was untame-able. She couldn’t “fit in”. She couldn’t “behave”. She was really set free when she went to Europe, and collaborated with the German master G.W. Pabst. She said he was the first director to treat her with respect, the first to “set her loose”. He wanted her emotionality to have free rein. All he had to do was point her in the right direction. The films she made with him were extremely controversial, and still can be somewhat shocking (because we may fool ourselves into thinking we have “progressed”, but we have not. Sorry.) Louise Brooks wrote: “So it is that my playing of the tragic Lulu with no sense of sin remained generally unacceptable for a quarter of a century.”

Her career did not last into the sound era, and she had a very rough road over the following decades. Poverty, obscurity. But eventually came the arthouse revival era of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and her star rose again. And she was still around. She lived to see her work celebrated, her memory revered. Not to mention the fact that she could WRITE, and her book Lulu in Hollywood is a classic. She turned herself into a wonderful writer and an amazing memoirist and anecdotalist. The book is filled with character portraits – of Pabst, of her good pal Humphrey Bogart, and more. She intersected with everyone. She is able to describe her own process, and how it developed. This is extremely valuable. Lulu in Hollywood is not just an actress memoir. It’s a book of cultural and social history unique in the canon. She was there. She lived it. Lots of people lived it, though. Not too many can also write. If you haven’t read Lulu in Hollywood, I urge you to pick it up.

And watch Pandora’s Box, first off. You can still feel “it”, whatever “it” was.

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“Something is gone and that’s why you write.” — Irish poet Eamon Grennan

“I have a double sense of things, but I tend to write about what’s under my nose. I write about here when I’m here and when I go back to Ireland I write about what’s there. I regard myself not as in exile, but as a migrant. That’s what attracted me, in some of my early poems, to birds. My becoming a poet—in this particular incarnation anyway—was not unconnected to someone giving me the present of a pair of binoculars.” — Eamon Grennan (who wrote a poem called “Sunday Morning Through Binoculars”)

Eamon Grennan was born in Dublin on this day. He has lived most of his life in America. He went to UCD, and moved across the Atlantic to Harvard to get his PhD. He has taught at Vassar for over 30 years. He returns to Ireland annually for what he calls a “voice transfusion”. His career has been long and fruitful, with prizes and National Endowment grants. His poems appear with regularity in The New Yorker. His connection to Ireland is clear in his work (you can hear the cadences of the Irish in his rhythms), yet he looks at things from a distance. It is an international perspective. He says he feels that all poems are “elegies”. Every poem is trying to capture something that has been “lost”. A memory, an image, a feeling. “Something is gone and that’s why you write,” says Grennan.

He is quite eloquent in interviews about language, and the particular problem of language when you are Irish. This is well-trod ground. When you speak English, you are speaking an imposed language. A language imposed with violence. This was most clearly expressed by James Joyce in the famous “tundish scene” in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (I discussed that here and elsewhere.) What happens when the language you use is not comprehensible to all readers? Do you adjust? But if you adjust your language to make it easier for those who don’t understand, are you not cutting yourself off from your own history? Grennan thinks about this a lot.

In this fantastic interview with Grennan, the language-problem is addressed when discussing Grennan’s poem “Wing Road”.

BH: [“Wing Road”] is a street in Poughkeepsie, New York, but “dustbin” is an Irish word.

EG: That’s right.

BH: I wonder if you use that word intentionally. I was thinking of Seamus Heaney’s remark that you should stay close to the energies of generation.

EG: Right. That’s right.

BH: Heaney was speaking of one of his poems where he used the word “flax-dam.” He said originally it would have been called a “lint-hole,” but later he had to explain “flax-dam” anyway, so maybe he should have stayed close to the energies of generation and used the original term. I wondered about that with your usage.

EG: Yes. I mean I’m sure there is something like that. I wouldn’t have formulated it so elegantly or eloquently, of course, but I think I used “dustbin” there because in another book, in “Incident,” for example, I say “garbage can.” In part, I think every choice you make has a whole set of tentacles attached to it. Right? When you’re writing a poem, you don’t know about them until after the fact.

When I look at the tentacles attached to “dustbin,” I would say: One, it’s a word that would come naturally to me. “Empty the dustbin” is what I would say. “Garbage can” is still a foreign word to me and “garbage collection,” too. I mean, I think of them as the dustbin men because that was what I thought of them as a kid in Ireland. And then, I’m sure I’m using “dustbin” here because when I hear the line “young man who empties our dustbin,” I’m hearing the sound of “young” and “dustbin,” so that is a bit of assonance at play. I’m sure I used it because “young man who empties our garbage can” would not have pleased my ear, so the other came more naturally.

BH: You use assonance quite frequently.

EG: Yes. It’s the old and probably Irish kind of nerve beating inside the verse, for me anyway. So I used “dustbin” for that, and then somebody decided I used it because “dustbin” has a slightly more eschatological, last-judgment kind of thing, and this is the last judgment, right; the thing is about the last judgment in some way as is the garbage collection, so “dust to dust” is evoked by dustbin [laughter]. So, in fact,” dustbin” is a more interesting word than “garbage can” in a certain sense, because of its connotations.

BH: That also suggests, perhaps, a religious context…

EG: That’s what I mean.


You can see what Grennan meant when he discusses the “tentacles” attached to every word choice. To James Joyce (and his alter ego Stephen Dedalus in Portrait), “tundish” was the word he would use. It was “tundish” or nothing else. You can’t suddenly call an “elephant” a “magnolia” and have everyone agree to it. There would be holdouts who still would see a great grey-colored trunked-creature and say, “Dammit, that is an elephant.” While “tundish” and “funnel” meant the same thing, the difference was as great as that between an elephant and a magnolia; so the English could call a “tundish” a “funnel” all they wanted, but the entire “tentacle” formation around each word was entirely different. This is a matter greater than just language. You cannot eradicate a language without doing damage to meaning and identity. Stephen Dedalus, confronted with the British Jesuit who says it is “most interesting” that the Irish call a “funnel” a “tundish”, thinks distractedly:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

Nobody even comes close to what Joyce accomplished in that one paragraph.

But the problem remains, and Irish poets – whether living in Ireland or America – still face those issues.

Grennan has said of the poem I chose to excerpt today, “Men Roofing”:

I have a few poems about workers. The poem “Men Roofing” is another celebratory acknowledgement of a certain kind of work. I don’t know if it sentimentalizes it, but it certainly tries to celebrate it by turning it into art, not so much deliberately, but charging the language used to describe it with a kind of ceremony.

I love the poem. There is a sentimentality at work here, as he says, but it is of a poetic nature: a way of seeing and trying to “celebrate” what he sees. It is a prosaic act, putting on a roof, but what could it mean metaphorically? What could it show us about who we are, and the beauty of it? Eamon Grennan has often been compared to the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (one of my many posts on her here), and here, in this poem, it is obvious why.

Men Roofing
for Seamus Heaney

Bright burnished day, they are laying fresh roof down
on Chicago Hall. Tight cylinders of tarred felt-paper
lean against one another on the cracked black shingles
that shroud those undulant ridges. Two squat drums
of tar-mix catch the light; a fat canister of gas
gleams between a heap of old tyres and a paunchy
plastic sack, beer-bottle green. A TV dish-antenna
stands propped to one side, a harvest moon, cocked
to passing satellites and steadfast stars. Gutters
overflow with starlings, lit wings and whistling throats
going like crazy. A plume of blue smoke feathers up
out of a pitch-black cauldron, making the air fragrant
and medicinal, as my childhood’s was, with tar. Overhead
against the gentian sky a sudden first flock whirls
of amber leaves and saffron, quick as breath, fine
as origami birds. Watching from a window opposite,
I see a man in a string vest glance up at the exalted
leaves, kneel to roll a roll of tar-felt flat; another
tilts a drum of tar-mix till a slow bolt of black silk
oozes, spreads. One points a silver hose and conjures
from its nozzle a fretted trembling orange lick
of fire. The fourth one dips to the wrist in the green sack
and scatters two brimming fistfuls of granite grit:
broadcast, the bright grain dazzles on black. They pause,
straighten, study one another – a segment done. I can see
the way the red-bearded one in the string vest grins and
slowly whets his two stained palms along his jeans; I see
the one who cast the grit walk to the roof-edge, look over,
then, with a little lilt of the head, spit contemplatively
down. What a sight between earth and air they are, drenched
in sweat and sunlight, relaxed masters for a moment
of all our elements! Here is my image, given, of the world
at peace: men roofing, taking pains to keep the weather
out, simmering in ripe Indian-summer light, winter
on their deadline minds. Briefly they stand balanced
between our common ground and nobody’s sky, then move
again to their appointed tasks and stations, as if they
were amazing strangers come to visit for a short spell our
familiar shifty climate of blown leaves, birdspin. Odorous,
their column of lazuli smoke loops up from the dark
heart of their mystery; and they ply, they intercede.

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“Excessive consciousness is a disease.” Happy Birthday, Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you. You may say I’m not worth bothering with; in that case, I can say exactly the same to you. We are talking seriously. And if you do not deign to give me your attention, I will not bow before you. I have my underground.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, 1864

I wrote a thing on Notes From Underground here. Notes from Underground is so ahead of its time as to be damn near SPOOKY. That’s a 20th century book published in 1864.

He’s one of my favorite authors and I return to his stuff again and again. In fact, I just re-read Crime and Punishment last year. It’s my 4th or 5th time. I don’t really count the first time, which was in high school, although SOMEthing got under my skin back then. The book gets deeper and deeper each time I return to it. Also FUNNIER. It often makes me laugh out loud. Razmuhin! I love that character so much.

His humor is one of the things that startles me about Dostoevsky consistently. He’s funniest when his characters are at their most deadly serious. There is nothing funny about the situation in The Double at ALL and yet … it IS hiLARious. The lead character in White Nights is in DEADLY EARNEST but he’s so so funny! You want to tell him to please just put a cool cloth on his head and RELAX. Laughing “at” Dostoevsky’s characters is dangerous though – for me, anyway – because it’s like laughing at myself, laughing at vulnerability, laughing at people who are sensitive, who take things too hard. I finished Crime and Punishment this last time on the flight back from Utah, and I was in tears. I’ve read the damn thing like 5 times. And I’m still in tears. I take it personally. I think it’s impossible not to. He was just that kind of writer.


E.M. Forster’s lecture on the “prophetic novelist”, under which category he put Dostoevsky:

“Prophecy — in our sense — is a tone of voice. It may imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity — Christianity, Buddhism, dualism, Satanism, or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them: but what particular view of the universe is recommended — with that we are not directly concerned. It is the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist’s phrase, and in this lecture, which promises to be so vague and grandiose, we may come nearer than elsewhere to the minutiae of style.”

E.M. Forster:

In Dostoevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them; though yet they remain individuals they expand to embrace it and summon it to embrace them … Every sentence he writes implies this extension, and the implication is the dominant aspect of his work. He is a great novelist in the ordinary sense — that is to say his characters have relation to ordinary life and also live in their own surroundings, there are incidents which keep us excited, and so on; he has also the greatness of a prophet, to which our ordinary standards are inapplicable.

Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experience. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical — the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours. We have not ceased to be people, we have given nothing up, but “the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea”.

Clifford Odets, journal entry, March 29, 1940

The man of genius walks, talks, sleeps, eats, loves, and works with a load of dynamite in him. If he carries this load carefully — balance — its power for good work and use is enormous — it can landscape a whole mountainside. Abuse — out of balance — is suicide and a bitter grave.

It is in this sense that the artist, if he makes a proper amalgam, is beyond good and evil, for everything in him is for creation and life.

For example, let us say that Dostoevsky had impulses of rape in his heart. See how a great artist held this part of himself within his recognition and acceptance of what he was. Its creative uses were enormous. It gave him work, tone, feeling, anguish, a wealth of feeling. Finally, it was just such “weaknesses” which gave Dostoevsky’s novels their religious ecstatic fervor.

In other words … inner contradictions are not solved by throwing out half of the personality, but by keeping both sides tearing and pulling, often torturing the self, until an AMALGAM ON A HIGH LEVEL OF LIFE AND EXPERIENCE IS ACHIEVED! For the artist there is not “bad”. He must throw out nothing, exclude nothing, but always hold in balance. When he has made this balance he has made and found his form.

H.L. Mencken:

The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope – all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 per centers, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.

by Charles Bukowski

against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with

James Baldwin:

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing that way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoevsky, from Balzac. I’m sure that my life in France would have been very different had I not met Balzac. Even though I hadn’t experienced it yet, I understood something about the concierge, all the French institutions and personalities. The way that country and its society works. How to find my way around in it, not get lost in it, and not feel rejected by it.

William Styron:

Writers ever since writing began have had problems, and the main problem narrows down to just one word – life. Certainly this might be an age of so-called faithlessness and despair we live in, but the new writers haven’t cornered any market on faithlessness and despair, any more than Dostoevsky or Marlowe or Sophocles did. Every age has its terrible aches and pains, its peculiar new horrors, and every writer since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what that same friend of mine calls “the fleas of life” – you know, colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another. They are the constants of life, at the core of life, along with nice little delights that come along every now and then. Dostoevsky had them and Marlowe had them and we all have them, and they’re a hell of a lot more invariable than nuclear fission or the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. So is Love invariable, and Unrequited Love, and Death and Insult and Hilarity. Mark Twain was as baffled and appalled by Darwin’s theories as anyone else, and those theories seemed as monstrous to the Victorians as atomic energy, but he still wrote about riverboats and old Hannibal, Missouri.

Alexander Woollcott to Mrs. Otis Skinner, Aug. 2 1935:

[I have been] weeping steadily because once again I had come to the great healing chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. It always chokes me up and fills me with a love of mankind which sometimes lasts till noon of the following day.

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint:

I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off!

John Gardner:

The theory of the superman is kind of interesting, abstractly. The question is, Is it right? Will it work? Can human beings live with it? So Dostoevsky sets up the experiment imaginatively. Obviously he doesn’t want to go out and actually kill somebody to see if it works, so he imagines a perfectly convincing St. Petersburg and a perfectly convincing person who would do this. (What student in all of St. Petersburg would commit a murder? What relatives would he have? What friends? What would his pattern be? What would he eat?) Dostoevsky follows the experiment out and finds out what does happen.

I think all great art does this, and you don’t have to do it realistically. Obviously Raskolnikov could have bee a giant saurian as long as his character is consistent and convincing, tuned to what we know about actual feeling.

Gabriel Fallon, Sean O’Casey: The Man I Knew:

Then Yeats ventured an opinion. He said that the play, particularly in the final scene, reminded him of a Dostoevsky novel. Lady Gregory turned to him and said, “You know, Willie, you never read a novel by Dostoevsky.” And she promised to amend this deficiency by sending him a copy of The Idiot.

Ralph Ellison:

Never mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism. Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial – all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain?

Michael Schmidt:

Fyodor Dostoevsky is nearer to Poe in his fiction than any American successors.

James Baldwin:

I was always struck by the minor characters in Dostoevsky and Dickens. The minor characters have a certain freedom that the major ones don’t. They can make comments, they can move, yet they haven’t got the same weight or intensity.

From “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”:
By Hugh MacDiarmid
(Gin Glesca folk are tired o’ Hengler,
And still need breid and circuses, there’s Spengler,
Or gin ye s’ud need mair than ane to teach ye,
Then learn frae Dostoevski and frae Nietzsche.

Rebecca West, letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917, written during air raids:

Talking of these nasty foreigners I cannot agree with you about Tolstoy. I wish I could. Twice have I read War and Peace and found nothing but stuffed Tolstoys, and such lots and lots of them. And plainly Anna Karenina was written simply to convince Tolstoy that there was nothing in this expensive and troublesome business of adultery and oh Gawd, oh Gawd, Kitty! And about Resurrection I cannot speak, but only yawn. And those short stories seem to me as fatuous as the fables of La Fontaine. But Dostoevsky –! The serenity of The Brothers Karamazov, the mental power of The Possessed, the art of The Raw Youth! Isn’t it awful to think that nothing can ever decide this dispute?

John Gardner:

Look, it’s impossible for us to read Dostoevsky as a writer of thrillers anymore because of this whole weight of explanation and analysis we’ve loaded on the books. And yet The Brothers Karamazov is obviously, among other things, a thriller novel. It also contains, to my mind, some pretentious philosophizing.

William Styron:

My God, think of how morbid and depressing Dostoevsky would have been if he could have gotten hold of some of the juicy work of Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, say Sadism and Masochism. What people like John Webster and, say, Hieronymus Bosch, felt intuitively about some of the keen horrors that lurk in the human mind, we now have neatly cataloged and clinically described by Krafft-Ebing and the Menningers and Karen Horny, and they’re available to any fifteen year old with a pass-card to the New York Public Library.

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Happy Birthday, Bibi Andersson

It was my great honor to write and narrate a video-essay last year for The Criterion Collection about Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s collaboration – both separately and together – for Bergman: Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Sisters in the Art

From David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film : Expanded and Updated , the entry on Bibi Andersson:

“She needed such a holiday to prepare for one of the most harrowing female roles the screen has presented: Nurse Alma in Persona (66, Bergman). That this masterpiece owed so much to Bibi Andersson was acknowledgement of her greater emotional experience. She was thirty now, and in that astonishing scene where Liv Ullmann and she look into the camera as if it were a mirror, and Ullmann arranges Andersson’s hair, it is as if Bergman were saying, ‘Look what time has done. Look what a creature this is.’ Alma talks throughout Persona but is never answered, so that her own insecurity and instability grow. Technically the part calls for domination of timing, speech, and movement that exposes the chasms in the soul. And it was in showing that breakdown, in reliving Alma’s experience of the orgy on the beach years before, in deliberately leaving glass on the gravel, and in realizing with awe and panic that she is only another character for the supposedly sick actress, that Andersson herself seemed one of the most tormented women in cinema.”

Indeed. I saw the movie in college when I was studying acting and felt a kind of swoon of despair/anxiety/desire: it’s like you’re shown “the bar” which others have set in the field you’ve chosen for yourself. And you may never be that good, but at least you recognize what there is to strive for. That’s what Bibi in Persona did for me. Her drunken monologue which remains, for me, one of the greatest single pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

But there is so much more to her career than just Persona. She did 10 movies in total with Ingmar Bergman, and had a rich career elsewhere (although it is through those films with Bergman that she will be remembered: Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Persona being the most famous, but there’s also The Passion of Anna, The Magician, The Devil’s Eye, Brink of Life … God, this collaboration. (Here’s a piece I wrote about Bergman’s work last year.)

She was one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. I was so in awe of her as a teenager after Persona that I stayed far far away from that film for some time. I needed courage in my own pursuit of acting, I needed to find my own way and her example was too daunting, too intimidating. (I had a similar thing with Gena Rowlands. The fact that, so many years, later, I would pay tribute to both Rowlands and Andersson for the Criterion Collection, having completely found another path for myself, hacking a writing career out of NOTHING all by myself … is a beautiful and strange dovetail, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.)

Bibi Andersson was flat out on another level, and I recognized it instantly. It is a level very few actors reach … but at least you know it’s there, at least you know the bar has been set.

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