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

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

I said Sure!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The back of my eyeball looked like that, basically.

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

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

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

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

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

I know it is insane.

I cannot defend it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Coda:

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

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

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

So I said, “What’s up?”

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

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

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

This was greeted by a deafening silence.

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

An even louder silence from the other end.

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

Needless to say, we stopped.

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

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

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

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Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances: An Interview with Sam Schacht About Method Acting

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time and finally last month it happened. I sat down with my old Actors Studio acting teacher Sam Schacht to get his perspective on “Method acting,” a term I hear bandied about – particularly in the film world – and I barely even recognize what these people (who have never studied it) are talking about. Sam studied with Lee Strasberg, is a member of the Actors Studio, taught at the Studio, and now teaches at Stella Adler. I studied with him for years. I love him. A while back, I went through the notebooks I kept during the chaotic Playwriting/Directors’ Unit, run by Sam, and found myself WEEPING with laughter at the things I jotted down. Sam has a way with words.

He is a great great teacher. And really knows his stuff.

My interview with Sam Schacht is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Packing/Unpacking Montage

I haven’t been around these here parts much in the last 2 weeks. I moved to a new apartment on February 1 (and the move was somewhat unexpected. It all happened – finding apartment, applying, getting approved – in a 24-hour period 2 weeks before the move-date. So, yeah. Whirlwind.)

In packing up, I discovered many possessions I forgot I owned, possessions that made me think: “OOH. Time to revisit.”

I didn’t have enough wall space in my old place to hang this poster, a poster that, to me, is the equivalent of comfort food. I have more room here. I look forward to “visiting” this poster on a daily basis.

During the couple of days I spent boxing everything up, I noticed a certain … restlessness-slash-stillness in my cat, Hope. She knew something was up. I don’t know what people are talking about when they say cats don’t have facial expressions. Look at this. I know exactly what’s going on with her right here.

I call this one Portrait of Loneliness. I also call this one: Spot Elvis’ Head in the Background.

See what I mean? Maybe it’s just because I know her every move, but I look at this and all I can see is panic and confusion. A sort of taut inner ENDURANCE of impending change.

Suitcases and cats have an intimate universal connection. Again, she perched on it like a little Cornish hen, not moving, not purring. Just watching. Thinking: “This is BAD. I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s BAD.”

I took all my stuff off the walls and stacked it in my little front hallway. It was a nice tableaux of inspiration.

Goodbyes are hard. I have had this beauty for 20 years. It is falling apart, granted, but I love it so. There’s no room for it in the new place. Plus: it’s rickety as hell. A tough farewell.

What my library looks like off of the shelves. Waist-high. It reminds me of that fact that if everyone in New York came out of the buildings at the same time, there would not be room enough on the streets for them. We saw that in action during the 2004 blackout.

My good mojo T-shirt. Gift from Dad.

I made up my bed in the new place. Hope leaped upon it. She knows that “place.” But still, her body language was taut and alert. She kept looking at me. Again, I look at her here and I know that she is freeeeeeeeaked OUT. Also, she just spent a couple of hours yowling in her crate. I had to keep her out of the way. It was a tragic day for her.

Much later that night, after doing preliminary organizing of all of my stuff, I walked into my bedroom and saw this. I was so proud of her. She’s very resilient.

During the move, which was done by 5 burly (GOR-GEOUS) Russian men, there were a couple of humorous moments. I had them pack my books. I have 1500 of them. I couldn’t face it. It was so worth the extra cash. At one point, I went into my main room and a huge guy, taping up a box, says out of nowhere to me, strong Russian accent: “What’s your favorite Elvis song?” He had been quietly packing up my Elvis shelves. I told him probably “My Baby Left Me”. He said he likes “Jailhouse Rock” best. Later, I watched an enormous Russian man carry my Elvis doll – still in the ceremonious package (gift from Charlie) out to the moving van. I love incongruity. On the other side of the move, once they left, I pulled a random box to me to get started on unpacking. I opened it and saw this … First box. A good omen in the middle of what is already a dreadful year? Nah. But still: fun.

Many of you will recall the legendary day my bookshelves were built in the old place and how all of my friends came over that night to help me put away my books because I was in the midst of having the biggest crack-up I’ve ever had in my life. (I should have been in the hospital). It was an act of pure love on their part, and I didn’t even have to ask them to show up. They organized it behind my back. Finding an apartment big enough for my library (and also that I could afford) was my biggest worry. But I did it! I had to have the bookshelves dismantled by Mike (who had built them in the first place) and then put back together on the other side. Until Mike had time to come over and re-build, here is what my life looked like in my kitchen. And there were 7 boxes in the other room too. So you see the problem. The only thing I own that matters to me – really – are my books. They come with me wherever I go.

It’s this stage of packing that is the most stressful. Packing paper, piled up, to be dealt with later. The whole “Okay, we’ll deal with that later” part of packing – which is still going on for me – is the worst part.

Unpacking a box filled with my random notebooks and writing paraphernalia, I found a tiny leather day-book dated 1929 with the words “Lest We Forget” embossed on the front. My old boyfriend and I had bought it at a flea market and used it to take down all of our jokes. I forgot I had it. I forgot its existence. The morning after the move, I sat down on the floor and read through some of it. I was amazed at how I have no memory of any of these jokes but then I came to something and started laughing so hard I could no longer speak. It’s super stupid but that was our sense of humor. He and I drove cross-country. We lived in a van for months. We had moved out of our apartment. We had no address. The trip was epic on many levels, the major one being that by the time we reached California (we took 3 months to do it) we had broken up. All I remember is the slow continental-breakup. But the day-book tells another story. We were still compiling jokes all across country. Early on, we were driving through Wisconsin and decided we wanted to pull off and buy some fruit. We had a hankering for berries and apples and peaches. We went to the first grocery store we found off the highway and it was like the store in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The store sold very little and it sold no fruit whatsoever, fresh or otherwise. We left disgruntled. And promptly made up a song about our experience, which we sang at top volume as we careened north. I’m sure Beloit is lovely. But on that day, it had no fruit, and it is for that fact alone that we memorialized it in this song. The tune came back to me too. I sang it in the shower later. I read this, weeping with laughter.

A house is not a home without
1. Elvis paper dolls sent to me by cousin Liam and
2. a 2nd edition copy of Ulysses – that would be the 1922 Egoist Press edition – after the 1st Shakespeare & Co edition – so delicate it needs its own special box – given to me by dad at the end of his life. Bookends of my world.

Bookshelf construction morning! I was in a mild state of anxiety until I could start putting my books away.

Kitchen bookshelf! Mid-re-loading!

A scary ballerina I drew while I was on hold with the Internet company.

Another re-discovery: When I was 11, 12 years old I wrote a 250 page novel – by hand – about Andrea McArdle’s rise to fame. I was a very strange and very driven child. I did some research on her back then – as much as I could without Internet – but I just made up most of it. I always assumed I’d lost it somewhere along the way. Today while unpacking, I opened a folder inside another folder and saw a very thickly packed Manila envelope labeled: I will post some excerpts eventually once I get the courage to re-read it.

I call this one Unpacking Obsession. 1. John Wayne. 2. Anne of Green Gables.

Holy shit, look what I found.

These three framed objects tell you everything you need to know about me. 1. Elvis kissing his booty call in a stairwell in 1956, photo by Alfred Wertheimer, given to me by cousin Mike. 2. The Proclamation by the Provisional Government of Ireland in 1916 after the Easter Rising, bought by me in the bookstore at Trinity College in Dublin. 3. Me in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at Circle in the Square Downtown.

The bookshelf now loaded up in my “sitting room.” It definitely needs some work. I lost the top shelves because the ceiling here is lower, so it’s very crowded.

The first DVDs I unpacked was this box set of noir classics. One of my favorite movies of all time – Gun Crazy. Another good omen? Nah. I don’t believe in those, especially not now. But still: it made me feel good that these were the first, and not, say, Dodge Ball, although I love that movie too.

Sunrise and my fire escape.

Winter twilight outside my kitchen window. I can live with that view.

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From Arrow Films UK: Woody Allen Box Set 1986 – 1991

Arrow Films/Video in the UK has been putting out Woody Allen box sets, and their latest covers the years 1986-1991.

I was so honored to be asked to write the booklet essay for one of my favorite Woody Allen films, a film that doesn’t get discussed NEARLY enough when his work is brought up, Another Woman, starring Gena Rowlands in one of her best performances (and that’s saying something.)

The film also features brilliant performances, big and small, from Ian Holm, Martha Plimpton, David Ogden Stier, Blythe Danner, John Housman, Gene Hackman (he’s never been sexier), and shattering cameos from Betty Buckley (included her performance in this long-ago list) and Sandy Dennis. It’s meditative quiet Woody, it’s Woody showing his Bergman influences. It’s filled with so many harrowing closeups of Gena – closeups that go deeper and deeper and deeper into her heart of darkness.

I love Another Woman, and I’ve never written about it, so I was so happy to be asked. Writing the essay also gave me a chance to plug – yet again – the brilliance of By the Sea (I already did so here and here). Angelina Jolie probably watched Another Woman on eternal repeat during her preparation for By the Sea.

My pal Glenn Kenny wrote the booklet essay for Shadows and Fog so I’m in good company.

Purchase the box set here.

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Review: Kedi (2017)

I can’t say enough good things about Kedi. It’s a must-see. It won’t be playing multiplexes probably. For any of you out of reach of arthouses, keep an eye out for this one on VOD. Very special.

My review of Kedi is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Review: Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

I was excited I was assigned this one. Oh, and Supernatural fans, “Brady” – Sam’s old BFF fro Stanford – plays the villain. A villain who is also a book editor. Because of course!

My review of Fifty Shades Darker is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a drinker with writing problems.”

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

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

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

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

Brendan Behan, “The Hostage”, 1958

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan-Littlewood

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

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

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

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

Hostage-1

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

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

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

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

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

The Hostage was Behan’s last major success.

Critic Kenneth Tynan said:

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

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

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

So happy birthday to Brendan Behan.

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

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

EXCERPT FROM The Hostage, by Brendan Behan.

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

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

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

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

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

PAT. Isn’t it now?

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

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

OFFICER. It could not.

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

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

PAT. The place is so hot, it’s cold.

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

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

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

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

OFFICER. I have not.

PAT. That’s easily seen in you.

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

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

OFFICER. The loss of liberty.

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

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

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

OFFICER. Those men were wrong on the social question.

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

OFFICER. That was mutiny.

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

Pause.

OFFICER. Silence!

PAT. Sir!

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

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

OFFICER. Today.

PAT. What time?

OFFICER. Between nine and twelve.

PAT. Where is he now?

OFFICER. We haven’t got him yet.

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

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

PAT. Sure, I know that.

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

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

OFFICER. Is it looking for money you are?

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

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

PAT. How did you hear of our little convent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAT. Sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the major impressions I had this recent time seeing it is how overwhelming James Dean is on the big screen. It may be a cliche but it still can’t be overstated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The movie ends at dawn. I envy you if you find that ending hopeful.

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

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets. She actually didn’t write all that many poems during her life (compared to other poets who lived as long as she did). She was meticulous, picking and choosing every word with the utmost care. This, naturally, slowed Bishop down. She was not hugely famous during her lifetime, although famous enough to be Poet Laureate from 1949-1950. However, since her death her reputation has skyrocketed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop finally settled down in Key West.

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

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

One Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Fishhouses

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

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

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

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

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

Poet Randall Jarrell said a great thing about Bishop:

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

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

THE MOOSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

DICKENS MISCELLANIA: QUOTES AND APPRECIATIONS

Charles Dickens, “Hunted Down”:

I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don’t trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.

William Thackeray, after finishing the fifth installment of “Dombey and Son”:

“There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: It is unsurpassed – it is stupendous!”


Letterhead for Charles Dickens’ literary magazine, ‘All the Year Round’, founded in 1859

Queen Victoria wrote in her journal two days after Charles Dickens died in 1870:

It is a very great loss. He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes.

Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets:

[William Cullen] Bryant became a big noise in American journalism, a champion of liberal causes, and a catalyst. When [Charles] Dickens arrived in New York, he is reported to have asked on coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?”

Charles Dickens kept up a voluminous correspondence. He responded to fan mail, to reader questions, to any letter that came across his desk. In 1866, a woman wrote him about her desire to be a writer and if Dickens had any advice. Here is Dickens’ reply, dated December 27, 1866:

Dear Madame, you make an absurd, though common mistake in supposing that any human creature can help you to be an authoress, if you cannot become one in virtue of your own powers.

I love to hear about writers’ influences and inspirations. And so this quote from Dickens very much satisfies:

I don’t go upstairs to bed 2 nights out of 7 without taking Washington Irving under my arm.

Along those same lines, after reading the manuscript of Robert Browning’s “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon’ in 1842, Dickens wrote:

“I swear it is a tragedy that MUST be played; and must be played, moreover, by Macready. There are some things I would have changed if I could (they are very slight, mostly broken lines); and I assuredly would have the old servant [Gerard] begin his tale upon the scene [II, i]; and be taken by the throat, or drawn upon, by his master, in its commencement. But the tragedy I never shall forget, or less vividly remember than I do now. And if you tell Browning that I have seen it [ms.], tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.”

My favorite Dickens? Oliver Twist was my initial “way in.” I read it when I was 11. Tale of Two Cities came next. Read when I was 15. I’m sure I read Christmas Carol I was a kid, and going to see Trinity Repertory’s annual production of it, it was part of the air I breathed as a child. But then came all of the others. Great Expectations. Dombey & Son, Pickwick Papers. David Copperfield. And, for me, the Grand Pooh-Bah: Bleak House.

L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote in her journal:

I first read [Pickwick Papers] when a child — there was an old coverless copy lying around the house and I reveled in it. I remember that it was a book that always made me hungry.”

George Orwell wrote an essay on Dickens, a fascinating vigorous analysis told in a scolding tone. Orwell was not noted for his sense of humor, and Dickens, above all else, is FUN. He should be FUN, George, remember? Still, it’s a must-read. Here are two excerpts:

The fact that Dickens is always thought of as a caricaturist, although he was constantly trying to be something else, is perhaps the surest mark of his genius. The monstrosities that he created are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probable melodramas. Their first impact is so vivid that nothing that comes afterwards effaces it. As with the people one knew in childhood, one seems always to remember them in one particular attitude, doing one particular thing. Mrs. Squeers is always ladling out brimstone and treacle, Mrs. Gummidge is always weeping, Mrs. Gargery is always banging her husband’s head against the wall, Mrs. Jellyby is always scribbling tracta while her children fall into the area — and there they all are, fixed for ever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids, completely fantastic and incredible, and yet somehow more solid and infinitely more memorable than the efforts of serious novelists. Even by the standards of his time Dickens was an exceptionally artificial writer. As Ruskin said, he “chose to work in a circle of stage fire”. His characters are even more distorted and simplified than Smolett’s. But there are no rules in novel-writing, and for any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about — survival. By this test Dickens’s characters have succeeded, even if the people who remember them hardly think of them as human beings. They are monsters, but at any rate they exist.

And here Orwell writes about Dickens’ gift for writing about childhood:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child’s point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child’s mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.

Christopher Hitchens wrote, in a book review of Peter Aykroyd’s biography of Dickens:

So I find the plan of my original enterprise falling away from me; I must give it up; there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid.

Jeanette Winterson on Dickens in her essay “Writer, Reader, Words”:

Dickens is to me the most interesting example of a great Victorian writer, who by sleight of hand convinces his audience that he is what he is not; a realist. I admit that there are tracts of Dickens that walk where they should fly but no writer can escape the spirit of the age and his was an age suspicious of the more elevated forms of transport. What is remarkable is how much of his work is winged; winged as poems are through the aerial power of words.

David O. Selznick, independent movie producer, was a huge fan of Charles Dickens. He said later on in life that he could point out punctuation errors in new editions of Dickens’ novels, so well did he know all of those books. Here are two memos from Selznick (who was famous for his memos. In fact, they’ve been compiled in a hugely entertaining book: Memo from David O. Selznick : The Creation of “Gone with the Wind” and Other Motion Picture Classics, as Revealed in the Producer’s Private Letters, Telegrams, Memorandums, and Autobiographical Remarks):

To: Mrs Kate Corbaley
June 3, 1935

It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens’s brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramtic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak. Don’t think that I am for a minute trying to run down one of the greatest books in the English language. I am simply trying to point out to you the difficulties of getting the Dickens feeling, within our limitations of being able to put on the screen only action and dialogue scenes, without Dickens’s comments as narrator. I am still trying my hardest and think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud – but it is and will be entirely different from David Copperfield.

My study of the book led me to what may seem strange choices for the writing and direction, but these strange choices were deliberate. Since the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must “pack a wallop”. These, I think, Conway can give us as well as almost anyone I knew – as witnessed by his work on Viva Villa! Furthermore, I think he has a knack of bringing people to life on the screen, while the dialogue is on the stilted side. (I fought for many months to get the actual phrases out of David Copperfield into the picture, and I have been fighting similarly on Two Cities, but the difference is that the dialogue of the latter, if you will read it aloud, is not filled with nearly the humanity, or nearly the naturalness.

As to Sam Behrman, I think he is one of the best of American dialogue writers. Futhermore, he is an extremely literate and cultured man, with an appreciation of fine things and a respect for the integrity of a classic – more than ninety per cent more than all the writers I know. He can be counted upon to give me literacy that wiol match. On top of this, he is especially equipped, in my opinion, to give us the rather sardonic note in [Sidney] Carton.

Here is another one of Selznick’s memos:

To: Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
October 3, 1935

I should like also to call to your attention the danger of treating this picture [Tale of Two Cities] as just another [Ronald] Colman starring vehicle. Granted that Colman is a big star; that any picture with him achieves a good gross; A Tale of Two Cities, even badly produced, would completely dwarf the importance of any star … The picture is beautifully produced. If I do not say this, no one else in the organization will. It has been splendidly directed by Jack Conway; and Colman is at his very top. Further, bear in mind that the book of A Tale of Two Cities would without Colman have a potential drawing power equaled only by David Copperfield, Little Women, and The Count of Monte Cristo among the films of recent years because only these books have an even comparable place in the affections of the reading public. This is no modern best seller of which one hundred thousand copies have been published, but a book that is revered by millions – yes, and tens of millions of people here and abroad.

dickens-at-desk

Tens of millions. Indeed.

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