Hateship Loveship (2014)

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Based on an Alice Munro short story, Hateship Loveship features a quiet and fascinating and unnerving performance from Kristen Wiig. I can’t say enough good things about it.

My review is now up at Roger Ebert.

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Happy Birthday, Christopher Smart

“I do not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen, and I have no passion for it.” — Dr. Johnson

Christopher Smart, born on this day in 1722, spent over 10 years of his life locked up in mental institutions (although “institution” is a kind term for what such establishments were back then). He seemed to suffer from some sort of religious ecstasy (although “suffering” may not be the right word at all). He was overcome by the love of God. It made him tremble with happiness. To quote my Dad, “I see no problem.”

Smart was born in Kent, and after his father’s death when he was 11, he was taken under the wing of the Vane family (his father had been a steward at their home). They made sure he went to college, Pembroke. He became friends with Alexander Pope, through his translations and poems, and also somehow became acquainted with Dr. Johnson. He had problems right off the bat with drinking and money, being irresponsible with both. He was arrested in 1747 for not paying his debts. He needed to make a living. He moved to London. He worked as an editor. He got married. In 1756 he was sent to an insane asylum and he stayed locked up until 1763. His wife left him during his incarceration, but in general he had not alienated his friends, not completely, and everyone stood by him, trying to help him out, financially or otherwise (he had two children by this point). While he was in the asylum, he wrote The Song to David. It was published the year of his release. His intense religious poetry came in the couple of years following.

He’s a weird case. He died in 1771. His life was chaotic, to some degree, but his confinement was almost a blessing in that it cut down on all distractions and allowed him the space to praise God as much as he wanted to. It was also a blessing because he could write without the pressure of having to make a living by it, which had always been hard for him. I am hesitant of making a blessing out of madness merely because some good art came out of it. Anyone who has experienced madness to any degree will know that nobody in their right mind would ever choose it. However: as Dr. Johnson’s quote that opens this post suggests: Smart’s madness seemed to be quite benign. He was in love with God. He wanted to praise God from the moment he woke up until he went to sleep. He would fall to his knees in the middle of public squares, praising God. Well, I’ve seen such people all over New York. Perhaps a bit annoying if you are trying to walk down that sidewalk, but other than that, what’s the harm?

Michael Schmidt wrote in Lives of the Poets about how all this might have impacted Smart’s poetry:

Smart’s originality is the product not of a candid, puzzled, anxious personality like William Cowper’s, nor the lucid, nostalgic and humane sensibility of a Goldsmith. It’s the product of a distinctly poetic imagination, using that term in a classical sense. Smart seldom composes verse: he is a poet rare in any age, most rare in the eighteenth century, a spiritual enthusiast and a consummate verbal artist. He might resemble Blake, only he has greater formal tact, a better ear, a better (that is, a less didactic) nature. His poems exist to celebrate God, not to cajole, instruct and persuade us.

In his most famous poem, the one most often quoted today, Christopher Smart sat and watched his cat Jeoffry stretching and playing in the sun, and became overwhelmed by God’s nearness and presence, obvious to him in every ripple of muscle in the cat’s body. The poem that resulted from his awe-struck observations is one of my favorites of all time: “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]“.

Robert Graves wrote:

Christopher Smart wrote A Song to David in a lunatic asylum, and when his collected poems were published in 1791, it was omitted as ‘not acceptable to the reader’. This poem is formally addressed to David – Smart knew that he was no madder than King David had been, and a tradition survives that he scrabbled the verses with a key on the wall of his cell.

Christopher Smart’s influence was quite local during his own time, but he has easily crossed the centuries following his death, and new generations of readers continue to discover his wonderful work. Allen Ginsberg spoke of him as a huge influence. You can see why. Read that poem about the cat Geoffrey and you can almost feel Christopher Smart “rapping” about the cat, riffing, going from one thing to another … a la the Beats of the 40s and 50s, with complete confidence in what Ginsberg, centuries later, would call “first thought best thought”.

His lines don’t look like other people’s lines. At least not in the 18th century. His lines look like the lines from poets in the mid 20th century. That’s how transcendent this guy was. Pleasing only himself, hoping to please God. He often begins all lines with the same word, giving the verse an incantatory feel. In the wrong hands, it could be dreadful stuff. Look at some of the lesser Beats, or some of the poetry-slammers today. Riffing is not always good, and no: first thought is not always best thought. But something else is going on with Christopher Smart. It is almost incomprehensible that he wrote like this in the 1700s. His lines are long and conversational, they look like the lines of “Howl”. Ginsberg clearly was imitating what Smart’s lines looked like. Smart’s poems, with all their exaltation, are the definition of personal.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

However [Song to David] was written, they remain a wonder and a mystery, begotten of the Bible, of broad and deep learning, and of some catalyst that made a confusion that poet resolved, against chaos as it were, to put in some sort of order.

For the word of God is a sword on my side – no matter what other weapon a stick or a straw.
For I have adventured myself in the name of the Lord, and he hath marked me for his own.
For I bless God the Postmaster general & all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen & Shelvock.
For my grounds in New Canaan shall infinitely compensate for the flats & maynes of Staindrop Moore.
For the praise of God can give to a mute faith the notes of a nightingale.

Is it nonsense? Yes. Is it nonsense? No.

Donald Davie writes:

It is not impossible that when Smart is judged over the whole range of his various productions – conventional in form as well as unconventional, light and even ribald as well as devotional, urbane or tender as well as sublime – he will be thought of as the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth.

Northrop Frye wrote:

“Pope’s ‘Messiah’ is not musical, but Smart’s ‘Song to David’, with its pounding thematic words and the fortissimo explosion of its coda, is a musical tour de force.”

Schmidt addresses the whole madness issue in his section on Smart:

We readily assume that he wrote in madness, that what he wrote, in its forms and themes, partakes of his derangement. Or we divide the work into sane and “insane” and judge the parts by distinct criteria. But his madness can be seen not so much as a disorder as alternative order, his religious vision not as eccentric but as direct, comprehensive. To say an artist is “mad” is to say very little. What matters is what he makes of language. Smart makes passionate poetry…

He is not an imitator even in his translations, which hold the original in a form and language that make no concessions. He feels and conveys the force of the poetry he admires. His intution is attuned to a broad tradition, not caught in the rut of convention. Marcus Walsh calls Smart’s mature style “mannered, religiose and self-conscious” – and each becomes a positive critical term, for together they produce a “homogenous” style that “unifies” – the crucial word – “a number of divergent influences”. It is the paradoxical combination of influences, biblical and classical, and the disruptions his imagination registers, that make him outstanding and eccentric. Learning and accidents of biography delver him from the bondage of Augustan convention into the sometimes anarchic, vertiginous freedom of Jubliate Agno and the originality of the Song to David. He has few heirs.

Goosebumps.

And about his “cat poem”:

First of all, check out this gorgeous post.

Second of all: Living as I do with a furry purry beast, Christopher Smart’s lines often come to mind when I watch her behavior. Certain things she will do will remind me of this or that line of his long poem, and it makes me laugh. I think of that 18th-century kitty cat named Jeoffry, and I love that the same crap was going on back then as now.

Examples, using some of Smart’s lines:

For she can creep
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For every family had one cat at least in the bag.

For she is tenacious of her point.

For every house is incomplete without her and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.

For she purrs in thankfulness, when God tells her she’s a good Cat

For she is the tribe of the Tiger

For she can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
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For she counteracts the powers of darkness by her electrical skin and glaring eyes.
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And here is the long-awaited Cat Poem. It still has the power to move me, despite how many times I have read it.

For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

God bless you, Christopher Smart, and happy birthday.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged | 18 Comments

The X-Files: New York Comic Con Paley Center X-Files Q&A with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny

I’ve linked to parts of this great QA before, with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, moderated by my friend Keith Uhlich. It’s a hoot, and I know how much it meant to Keith to be asked to do this. It was, seriously, a dream come true, and he did a wonderful job. But the whole thing is so entertaining. Worth your time!

Part 1: Auditioning for the roles of Mulder and Scully

Gillian Anderson: “And then I told you I was from New York–”
David Duchovny: “Which isn’t true!”

I love Duchovny’s point about how their voices changed, got lower, after the pilot. “It’s not because we went through puberty. It was because we relaxed.”

I love too how they don’t remember the episodes. “What happened next?” they ask Keith.

“I thought the show was gonna tank.” Gillian Anderson.

Part 2: Did they have a sense of what a hit it would be? And on the writers of the show.

“… bitter and innocent at the same time.” – David Duchovny, a phrase I love

Puppetry of the Penis. Dying.

“They were very clean Canadian cockroaches.” – David Duchovny

Part 3: The structure of the series, some clips, etc.

Duchovny: “We were just trying to keep up.”

Loved Duchovny’s thoughts on directing for the first time.

“Where was I when you were doing all of this?”
“You were –”
“Getting married, having a baby, getting divorced.”

Part 4: Both of them remember directing/writing episodes, the “cancer arc”, etc.

“All of a sudden I’m scared to death of fire.” – David Duchovny

“Well, that’s serious, when someone shoots someone.” – Duchovny

Part 5: On Chris Carter. On the two movies. On ending the series.

“Darren’s stuff was sui generis,” says David Duchovny, gaining my ever-lasting gratitude for using one of my favorite Latin terms

“I know me, and if I read in a script that it says I touch your hand, I’d be like Fuck You.” – Duchovny

Part 6: Audience questions.

Person in the audience: “First of all, thank you for existing.”

“You make 25 episodes a year and it’s amazing the batting average the writers had.” – Duchovny

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Gena Rowlands in Opening Night

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“So please. Tell me. Tell me what this play doesn’t express.”
“Hope.”

I had a great time talking with Peter Labuza for his Cinephiliacs podcast, and the final 25 minutes we spend talking about Cassavetes’ Opening Night.

You can download the episode here.

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Snapshots

– Deadline screaming down the pike. I’ve been immersed in this project for a month now. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a marathon not a sprint. It’s going to be hard to “let it go”, once it’s all over with. I’ll share more about the project when it’s further along, and feel comfortable making an announcement. Last night my whole family (mother, brother, two sisters) sat around in our respective states texting one another. All of my siblings have new babies, as I know I have mentioned. So my phone was filling up with cute pictures of babies, my new nieces and nephews. It’s awesome! As a joke, I took a picture of a page of my notebook, filled with writing for this particular project, and sent it to everyone. “And here’s what’s going on with ME.” Someone said, “How many pages do you have, Sheila?” I said, “40. But I need to boil it down. Obviously.” Then Mum said (texted), “It’s like the recipe for maple syrup. 40 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup.” I LOVE that analogy. It’s perfect for the writing process! The end goal is 1 gallon of syrup but you need those 40 gallons of sap to get there. Challenging, when you are surrounded by sap, to believe that all of that will ever become syrup!

– Finished The Flamethrowers: A Novel. Read it. Seriously. Just read it.

– My friend Dan Callahan wrote a beautiful tribute to Mickey Rooney. Speaking of Dan, his biography of Vanessa Redgrave (Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave) is coming out May 15. I cannot WAIT to read it.

– Took this photo the other morning, a rainy chill morning on the Hudson River.

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Cousin Mike O’Malley Welcomes Home the Sox

Cousin Mike hosted the Red Sox Welcome Home Bash last Friday at Boston’s House of Blues. His co-host was Kevin Millar, which, I mean, come on! Cowboy Up! I wasn’t able to attend, but there were lots of O’Malleys in the house (besides Mike, I mean. We are legion!), and it sounds like it was an awesome time.

Mike has emceed this event before, and it takes a ton of work and preparation. But it’s a wonderful and joyous community event. I look forward to the videos, once they emerge.

In honor of baseball season starting, on this freezing wintry day, here I am, age 10, in my back yard, holding our brand new kitten and wearing a Red Sox shirt. Those were pretty brutal days to be a Sox fan, but I kept the faith. It was a requirement, really, if you were an O’Malley. We were raised in the life. (One of my first memories, ever, is from Fenway Park. So it’s at that level.)

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And here. Now. I’m ready to face the gale force winds of the day.

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Whatever team you support, it doesn’t matter. It feels good to have the baseball back in rotation.

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“So Many Currents In Such a Little Puddle”: Dana Stevens and I Chat About National Velvet

A re-post, in honor of Mickey Rooney, a man whose career spanned 10 decades. He worked up until the end. R.I.P.

National Velvet

Introduction: Back in February, Matt Zoller Seitz and I IM-ed about Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight, and I posted the conversation on my site. A lot of people linked to it out in cyberspace and it was fun to see the conversation jumpstarted about a really underrated movie. Dana Stevens, movie critic for Slate, linked to it on Twitter, and we exchanged a couple of messages about possibly doing another one of these IM chats about a different movie. We threw around a couple of movie titles as suggestions, and we decided (pretty quickly) on National Velvet. We tried to nail down a date to do the chat (we’re both very busy), and in the middle of that phase of it, Elizabeth Taylor passed away. The coincidence was striking, certainly, not to mention the fact that in preparation for my chat with Dana, I had re-watched the film and re-read the novel by Enid Bagnold (all in the 4 or 5 days before Taylor passed).

Now that the flurry of tributes to Taylor is over (and what joy to see the wonderful writing about her out there recently, in particular Kim Morgan’s piece on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Self-Styled Siren’s eloquent tribute), it seems like perfect timing to put up the IM conversation that Dana and I recently had about National Velvet. A beloved movie to generations, not to mention a blockbuster and a critical success in its day, I think it definitely deserves a re-visit (especially if you haven’t seen it since you were a kid). It’s deeper than you might remember.

Sheila O’Malley: The timing of our conversation is rather interesting and coincidental. When we first talked about doing an IM chat about a movie, you referenced National Velvet right away as your “top choice.” I was excited to re-visit it, since I hadn’t seen it in years. I loved it as a girl (not to mention devouring the book), but was thrilled to take a look at it again. Then, the next week, Elizabeth Taylor passed away, which brought my memories of the movie strongly to the forefront. I have since re-watched it, and find it just as exciting and emotional as I did when I was a kid (and how often is that not the case?). I guess to get us started I would love to hear from you why this was your first choice, and what made you want to talk about it.

Dana Stevens: In your blog post memorializing Elizabeth Taylor, you mention that after you saw National Velvet as a child, you spent a week or more “living inside it.” Well, it just so happened that the week before Taylor died was one that I had spent living inside that same movie. A dear friend gave it to my five-year-old daughter for Christmas, and after it sat for months on the shelf (it can take a while to convince your kid to watch the movie you want them to), we had finally put the film on. Watching National Velvet as an adult (I only vaguely remember seeing the film as a child, but I adored Enid Bagnold’s novel with a solemn passion) was a revelation. What a movie this is: so broad in scope and yet so intimate in detail. As Velvet’s father asks the family dog near the end, “How can there be so many currents in such a little puddle?”

SOM: The details of the family life (that first scene around the dinner table, in particular) are so perfectly rendered, with all of the daughters (including a young sassy Angela Lansbury) coming to life in individual ways. The manner in which the parents (played so beautifully by Donald Crisp and Anne Revere) handle their blossoming offspring is part of why the film is so effective, I think. Yes, it’s a gripping story of a young girl who dresses up as a boy jockey and wins the Grand National, riding a horse no one believes in. The horse-race scene at the end of National Velvet still has not been topped, although many directors since then have tried. But without those intimate details of the family, and the fascinating dynamic between the parents, the film wouldn’t have its strange power. Anne Revere, playing Mrs. Brown, the woman who once swam the English Channel, brings such an interesting grave element to that character. She never says what you expect her to say. In truth, when I was a kid, the reason I loved the movie was because of Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, and the storyline of a little girl putting on boys’ clothes and beating the competition. Frankly, that was like crack to me as a child. But now, as an adult, I really got the sense of the depth of family connection at work in the film, and how it helped create Velvet Brown’s success. Screenwriters Theodore Reeves and Helen Deutsch did a fantastic adaptation of the book, I thought.

DS: Yes—as in the (wonderful) book, the Brown family, with all of its attendant dramas, is an integral part of the story of Velvet’s victory in the Grand National (though I can attest from experience that the fantasy of winning a horse race in boy-jockey drag still acts like crack on the little-girl brain.) This isn’t a film with an A plot and a B plot—it’s densely woven and observed from the bottom up. Every relationship matters: Velvet to Mi Taylor (the drifter-turned-horse-trainer played by Rooney); the parents to one another; Velvet to her mother (and oh, Anne Revere in that role–we must discuss the attic scene, which lays me low every time); Velvet to her sisters; Mi to Mr. Brown; and of course, Velvet and Mi to the horse, and to each other through their shared love for the horse. This is a movie about so much more than a girl winning a horse race—though as you say, the racing scene is thrilling in its own right.

SOM: In your tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, you wrote, “Taylor … often simply burned her own presence into the screen. To this day, her performances—even the bad ones—give you the distinct and at times eerie feeling that she’s right there in the room with you.” Elizabeth Taylor was such a phenom. I sometimes think there is so much baggage surrounding her adult persona that it is difficult to actually perceive how talented she was from the get-go. Velvet is not your ordinary heroine. She is passionate to the point of obsession about horses. Her mother is gentle with that aspect of Velvet (Mrs. Brown understands obsession: only an obsessive would swim the English Channel), and yet at the same time the mother has that great line at one point, “You’re all lit up …” And she says it to her daughter in a tone of worry. The mother knows that a daughter that passionate is bound to have a life punctuated by heartbreak. Things are going to hit this wee daughter hard. And yet she lets Velvet go, she lets Velvet chase her destiny.

SOM: There are some closeups of Taylor where she is, essentially, talking to herself, about all the horses she wants to have, and her dreams of the future, and Taylor holds nothing back. Her eyes glimmered naturally, but here they burn. In my estimation Elizabeth Taylor, a young talented girl, understood the essence of the character, but not only that: she understood the theme of the entire piece, and her part in it. This is what separates the pros from the amateurs. She plays it at a fever pitch, near tears half the time (not from sadness, but from an overabundance of feeling) and it is just right, exactly what the film needs. You can see Mickey Rooney, at times, taking her in, and taking in her intensity, and he, like Velvet’s mother, knows that Velvet will pay a price for feeling so deeply. The film really captures the almost nostalgic sensation that we, as adults, have looking back on our younger selves, obsessing about this or that. There is a feeling that when we grow up we should “put away childish things,” but for some of us it is not that easy. For Velvet Brown, it will be impossible. Elizabeth Taylor carries this film. Easily. As though it’s no big deal. An instant Movie Star. The performance still blows me away.

DS: The mother’s line about Velvet being “all lit up” is repeated in a later scene by Mi Taylor, in a tone of suspicion: “I don’t like the way you’re all lit up.” Her luminescence, they know, is dangerous, but also the source of her power (and alone among the other characters, the mother and Mi understand this passion.) “You’re all lit up” also, of course, makes the viewer smile with its comic understatement of the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty. Those close-ups—I’m thinking of the one in the stable, when she gives the speech beginning “Every night I pray to God to give me horses,” but there are many others—must count among the great recorded moments of human beauty, along with Greek sculpture or the paintings of Rembrandt.

DS: But Taylor’s performance is so much more than that of a beautiful or even “promising” child. The promise is already fulfilled. You’re right: she grasps the story from the perspective of a mature actress, without ever seeming affected or trained. Her sheer life force is breathtaking, but so is her control of it. And Velvet already has so much of what we came to know of Elizabeth Taylor, the adult movie star, in her. This is a girl with big dreams of speed and power and yes, glory; the Pie (a huge, crazy horse that no one else can tame) is a partner worthy of her, a proto-Richard Burton. Velvet’s boldness and largeness of spirit can’t help but evoke the larger-than-life woman that the actress was already becoming.

SOM: Wonderful observations. It is apparent, from the very beginning, that this child actress needed a partner worthy of her great gift. Otherwise, she’d just blow you off the screen. I mentioned the scene on the steps of the caravan between her and Mickey Rooney in my Taylor tribute, but I’d like to revisit it, because I think it is important. Mi Taylor has ghosts, a bad fall off a horse, and a childhood running from the water-driven obsessions of his father (who trained Velvet’s mother to swim the Channel). I think he has some shame about his “cowardice,” that he can’t get up on a horse again, and Rooney plays that complexity really well. (He also does a hell of a drunk scene when he goes to London to register the horse for the Grand National. Playing drunk is so often a cliché, but he is so convincing in that scene, don’t you think?) He gives an excellent performance all around, suggesting the deep current of class-shame and anger in Mi Taylor, but also his devotion to Velvet and The Pie. This all comes to fruition in the aforementioned caravan scene:

SOM: The two characters sit on the steps at night, and Mi opens up to her about his past, and she sits on a step above him, listening intently. The entire scene (and it’s a long one) plays out in one take. The scene is a complex one for both characters. They have to start out one way and through a series of revelations and emotional outbursts end up another way. Taylor is more than “game” in this scene. It is her way of listening to Mi Taylor that helps him share his fears and shame, and she supports him without judging him. Watch her face as she listens to him. Listening is the key to good acting, and so often in film—where it’s just a series of dueling close-ups—we lose that sense of actual listening in real-time. The caravan step scene is my favorite in the film for its quiet sense of two young people who care about each other actually—actually, because it’s done in one take! —listening to each other. There are a lot of lines to memorize, a lot of “beats” they have to hit. But the scene flows. Elizabeth Taylor, even with her almost otherworldly beauty, was not just a “closeup” actress. She knew how to play a scene.

DS: You just made me rewatch the caravan scene, and yes, it’s a one-take tour de force (on the part of the director, Clarence Brown, as well as the leads.) Velvet asks Mi why he doesn’t ride anymore, and when he resists telling her, she pulls back—no, you don’t need to go there—and it’s this delicacy that enables him to break through and tell his story. And when she throws herself on him, saying “There’s greatness in you, Mi,” (the same thing her mother said earlier about Mi’s father, who trained her for the Channel swim), it’s such a powerful moment—the climax, really, of the Mi Taylor story, which is one of my favorite threads in the film. That earlier drunk scene you mention, in which Mi, in his cups, is tempted to steal the money Velvet has entrusted him with for the horse’s entrance fee, ends with the hazy realization—beautifully played by Rooney—that, in Mi’s words, “she trusts me.” Proving himself worthy of Velvet’s trust, and the family’s, changes Mi profoundly over the course of the movie, and this point is never explicitly stated; it just flows from Rooney’s performance. And as long as we’re talking about acting and listening: watch the scene just preceding the caravan one, in which, as they talk to the Latvian jockey who disrespects both Velvet and her horse, a cold hatred slowly steals over Taylor’s face. Before she speaks a word, you just know that that jockey will never be allowed to set foot near the Pie.

SOM: In the book, Mi Taylor watches Velvet gallop off across a field on top of the Pie, and Bagnold writes, “There are men who like to make something of women.” A really complex line, if you think of it as being part of a children’s book. Mrs. Brown was “made something of” by her trainer, who believed in her when she was ready to give up. And Mi Taylor is his father’s son. He looks at Velvet and sees a gritty determination that he either lacks, or that has been held in cautious submission due to his circumstances. I love that he backs her up, despite the fact that there is a part of him that wants to flee. Rooney is so great in the part.

SOM: And back to the “men who like to make something of women” thought: This brings us to Anne Revere, who gives a tremendous performance as Mrs. Brown. The scene in the attic where she gives Velvet the gold pieces that she won swimming the Channel – gold pieces that she has hidden away in a trunk for a moment such as this – is a slam-dunk in all respects: the dialogue, the setting, the adaptation of the scene from the book (nearly word for word at times), and the acting: the powerful current flowing back and forth between mother and daughter. There is also the slightly subversive fact that Mrs. Brown has hidden the coins from her husband (who seems to be, by all accounts, a very nice man.) But there are some things that cannot be shared, or should not be shared, in a marriage. Those gold pieces are hers to do with what she likes. She did not add them to the common pot to be spent on meat or curtains or milk. She hid them away, and now it is time to pass them on. It’s a quite powerful representation of female autonomy. In the book, Bagnold writes:

[Mrs. Brown] valued and appraised each daughter, she knew what each daughter could do. She was glad too that her daughters were not boys because she could not understand the courage of men, but only the courage of women.”

Her other daughters are not natural competitors, but Velvet obviously is. When Mrs. Brown gives her the gold coins, in order to register the horse in the Grand National, she is making clear that she sees Velvet, out of all of her daughters, as her true heir. It’s an incredible moment. The scene in the attic could have been so full of awful schmacting if you think about it.

DS: I just looked ‘schmacting’ up and couldn’t find it. Is it a Yiddish term?

SOM: Ha! Maybe it’s just a term actors use? It’s a critique of sentimental overblown acting. So instead of “acting” you say “schmacting”, sort of a mix of “schmaltz” and “acting”. That attic scene, as written, is full of traps for schmacting. Clarence Brown avoids the traps, and so do the actors. It ends up being one of the most moving mother-daughter scenes I have ever seen.

DS: After seeing this film probably five times in the past two weeks, I have yet to watch that attic scene without crying. Anne Revere’s calm, focused, almost monastic presence–she reminds me at times of the contemporary actress Jennifer Ehle, who always seems to be possessed of some secret wisdom—and Taylor’s vibrant, childlike openness create, as you say, a kind of electric current between mother and daughter, two athletes and dreamers who in this moment understand each other in a way that transcends time. The mother’s long-ago victory as a swimmer, which in some way, it’s implied, is the source of her strength as a mother and wife, has its final culmination in the moment she pours the prize money into her daughter’s lap. The money has been waiting all these years just for this. And Taylor’s face as she realizes what she’s just received—“It’s your prize money for swimming the Channel!”–is alight with gratitude and love. Yes, this scene could have been the purest schmaltz; instead it’s that rarest of things, a depiction of motherly love that isn’t idealized and sentimental, and that’s integral to both character and story. Anne Revere won an Oscar for this role, but that gold statue seems as incommensurate to her performance as the bag of gold coins is to Mrs. Brown’s long-ago feat of endurance.

DS: Remember I mentioned that a good friend of mine gave this film to my daughter for Christmas? In a note to me, she said that the mother/daughter relationship in the film was one of the most powerful she’d ever seen. I agree—and have already imagined watching this with my daughter in seven years, when she’s Velvet’s age and dangerously lit up about some folly or other. I know National Velvet–the book and the movie both–is a text I’ll revisit throughout my life.

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A Running Tally of Topics I Make Jokes About In My Script

Things churning forward again with my script. Basically, it seems like all you have to do is say “Okay. Let’s move forward” and things start magically happening in response. I don’t know. It’s been a weird couple of weeks filled with coincidences and movement. I’m busy with another enormous project, but I had to take an hour or so out of that to deal with the script and add in some changes and futz around with the Final Draft settings so that when the script is sent out it looks FINAL and not still in process. I re-read it. I don’t do that often. I’ve moved on, except for the determination to get this thing up on its feet. In LA, New York, or Chicago, I don’t care. But it was kind of fun to re-read it.

I decided to write down a list of things I make jokes about in the script. These are things that got huge laughs when we did it in LA, Chicago and New York. You know, I want the whole script to “work,” the sucker-punch at the end, the tragic stuff, it’s extremely heavy, but I think I was most nervous about the jokes. If a joke didn’t get a laugh, I cut it. Writing something you think is funny that then goes over like a lead balloon is the ultimate in Yukky.

Humorous side note though:

There’s a joke in the script about the Peloponnesian War. When we had the first reading in New York, it didn’t get a laugh. I winced in agony from my seat in the back. I thought it was so funny though, so I kept it in. Then we did it in LA. Again, no laugh. White-hot shame filled my soul as I watched from the back. After the reading in LA, I thought, “I love that joke, but fuck that joke. I’m cutting it.” A couple of days after the reading in LA, I was staying with Alex and her wife Chrisanne. Chrisanne (a theatre director) hadn’t been able to make the reading in LA, so Alex and I read the script to her, Alex taking the part of Jack and I played the part of Neve (the script is a two-hander, no other characters). Chrisanne, who is an extremely literate and feisty and intelligent woman, lay on the floor, with a pillow over her head, so she could hear the text better. This wasn’t a performance, I wanted her feedback on the actual script. It takes about an hour and a half to get through the script. We just read it, Alex and I, seated on their couches. And when we came to the lead-balloon Peloponnesian War joke, suddenly there came a gigantic hearty GUFFAW from underneath the pillow.

I KNEW THAT JOKE WAS FUNNY. And maybe only one person out of 10 will get it. But that’s the person I wrote it for. I wrote it for Chrisanne.

And a humorous coda to that: I had told Kerry that story, about how Chrisanne was the only person (so far) who laughed at the Peloponnesian War joke. When we came to do the reading here in New York, Kerry (who played Neve) said to me, “I am determined to get a laugh on that line for Chrisanne.”

And she did!

I will never cut that joke now.

The script ends on such a sad note, I put in as many jokes as I could, and also the play is supposed to be (partly) about how Humor is so essential to love, to the best kind of love.

But boy, this is a strange list.

List of Joke Topics

Pringles
Hippies
The present perfect tense
The Warren Commission/The Kennedy assassination
The Ukrainian famine
The Black Plague
Kulaks
Asperger’s
The Peloponnesian War
The electoral college
Semi-colons
Frankenstein
Baby on board signs
Snoop Dogg
Nancy Kerrigan
The name “Amy”
Cruise ships
Dueling
Short Circuit (the movie)
Cantaloupes
Chippendale’s dancers
The Hobbit
Third wave feminists

There’s even a “Your Momma” joke.

Shameless. I have to say, that’s a pretty sick list, written out in cold blood like that. Like, what the hell is this play about? It’s a play about love. Why are these people joking about genocide and assassinations? That’s what we do, I guess.

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Happy Birthday, Merle Haggard

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“There were so many things I loved about the thirties. I could find many reasons for wanting to live back there. Such as trains was the main method of travel, the glamour of trains always appealed to me. And America was at the dawn of an industrial age. Coming out of a Depression into a war. Then again the music was young. So many things were being done in music, it was wide open back then, electronics had not yet been involved, and basically it was REAL. Sure, I’d have liked to have visited those days and at least seen it happen. For musicians of that generations such as Eldon Shamblin and Joe Venuti it was an unbelievable period to live in, they saw it all.”
– Merle Haggard

“Liz Anderson came to a show we were doing in Sacramento. She said she had some songs, but I wouldn’t have listened if it hadn’t been for my brother Lowell. It turned out she had six hits in her pocket. Well, that kind of opened up a whole trend of songs, such as ‘Branded Man’ and ‘Sing Me Back Home,’ It gave me thought for writing. It gave me direction for writing. You see, what it was, with that song I was really and finally some way or another come together – musically and image-wise. I mean, it was a true song, I wasn’t trying to shit nobody, because long ago I had made the decision not to try to hide my past, but then I found out it was one of the most interesting things about me.”
– Merle Haggard on “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (clip below)

He’s still touring. His voice makes my knees melt.

Happy birthday, Merle Haggard.

Quotes from “Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians”, by Peter Guralnick

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Supernatural: Season 1, Episode 14: “Nightmare”

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Directed by Phil Sgriccia
Written by Sera Gamble & Raelle Tucker

Dean got laid last week. Good times were had by all, involving unembarrassed cuddling in bed all while revealing a sculpted chest like hard-pewter-breast-plates. Warm fuzzies were experienced as well as blatant PantsFeelings. All of this was then completely ignored forevermore. We are, apparently, meant to forget it ever happened.

Regardless, it’s time to get back into the Season-Wide arc, which has to do with the Thing That Killed Mom. We’ve stepped out of that arc for a couple of episodes now. Dean almost died in “Faith.” Sam is having nightmares that come true. In “Scarecrow,” the audience learned that the whole demon-thing is far more serious and personal than we might have originally understood, and Dean and Sam don’t know any of that yet. Since “Scarecrow,” the boys have seemed even more vulnerable, since we know something they don’t. And stupid Dad is still M.I.A.

Except for two small digressions (“Hell House” and “Provenance” – although there may be some details there I’m not remembering), all of the episodes from now on are strictly Season-Arcs. Layers of complexity and mystery are added, piece by piece, the light slowly creaking in through the slats … as the brothers realize what they are up against, and they realize that somehow Sam is personally targeted. The fact that Meg “appeared” on that misty country road in “Scarecrow,” from out of nowhere, begins to seem more and more ominous. But still, at this point, we don’t know anything. We just have a bad bad feeling.

“Nightmare” is when the series starts explaining itself. It is a giant piece of what will be an enormous puzzle.

Directed by Phil Sgriccia, who is an enormous part of Supernatural to this day, as executive producer, the episode has the look of Supernatural as established in the pilot: it is dark as hell. The shadows are so thick that even light from a table lamp can’t penetrate the corners. Faces shine out from the pitch-blackness behind them. It’s almost painterly, the look. And, of course, there are lots of noir touches, stark shadows, geometric shadows, off-camera light sources making shadows loom huge on the walls.

Continue reading

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