Dolphin Tale 2 (2014)


I really loved Dolphin Tale, the true-life story of Winter, an injured dolphin saved by the groundbreaking development of a flexible prosthetic tail. I wondered why on earth a sequel was necessary. I was fearful. Would Winter be turned into some superhero-dolphin or something? (Winter, the injured dolphin, is actually played by herself, in both films.) But the sequel, Dolphin Tale 2 is wonderful. I saw it at a screening filled with children, and they ate it up. Laughed in all the right places, talked amongst themselves during stressful moments, asking each other questions. “Is Winter going to be all right?” “What if she doesn’t like the other dolphin though?”

They got it. It’s for them.

My review of Dolphin Tale 2 is up at

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Tribute of Light

Last night.





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The 2996 Project: In Memory of Michael J. Pascuma, Jr.


The 2,996 project is an ongoing collective tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I signed up during its first year. You were assigned a name, at random, of one of the people murdered on September 11, 2001.

I was assigned Michael Pascuma, Jr.

I cannot pretend to know Michael Pascuma, and in some ways, even writing this tribute has felt presumptuous. But I will say this: I can’t imagine that another September 11 will go by without me thinking, specifically, of Michael J. Pascuma – and Linda Pascuma – and Michael, Melissa, and Christopher Pascuma.

Here is a post in tribute of a man taken too soon.

Michael Pascuma, Jr., center, with his family on a recent vacation. Left to right are his son Michael, wife Linda, daughter Melissa, and son Christopher.

Newsday article:
Michael J. Pascuma
Broker didn’t sweat ‘the small things’
April 19, 2002

Every Tuesday morning, Michael J. Pascuma Jr. of Massapequa Park would take a short stroll from the American Stock Exchange to meet colleagues for a breakfast conference at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center.

“They would conduct business and maybe later tell a few jokes,” recalled his daughter, Melissa Pascuma, a fourth-grade teacher at the Shaw Avenue Elementary School in Valley Stream.

Pascuma, 50, worked as an independent stock trader with his father at their firm, MJP Securities. Both held seats on the exchange. The senior Pascuma, 93, still works as a trader at the exchange. Shortly before the terrorist attack. MJP merged with another firm and is now called Harvey, Young & Yurman.

Pascuma’s daughter said that immediately after the first plane struck the north tower, her brother, Michael, reached their father by cell phone. “I have to get out of here. There’s a fire,” were the last words he said to his family. The trendy restaurant was located on the 107th floor of Tower One. Pascuma’s remains were discovered shortly after the disaster, and a memorial service was held at St. Rose of Lima Church in Massapequa.

“My father had the most amazing sense of humor,” said Melissa Pascuma. “He thoroughly loved telling jokes to the family and his friends. He was constantly generous with everyone around him, and he enjoyed every single day of his life.”

She said her father was fond of chatting online with friends and was an avid golfer. “He never worried about the small things. He knew what mattered,” she said.

Pascuma’s wife, Linda, said, “My husband was a wonderful family man who was very much loved and appreciated by everyone.”

The couple would have been married 27 years on Sept. 21. Linda Pascuma called the entire family “Disney-O-Philes.” “For the past seven years at Easter time, we’d all go to Disney World for 10 days,” she said. A friend served as travel agent and also went along on the trips. The annual event also included her sister’s family, bringing the fun-seeking entourage up to about a dozen members, recalled Linda Pascuma.

“Sometimes when my husband got a little bored with things, he’d go off to play golf while we went on the rides and things,” she said. “But it always was a trip we’d talk about all year.”

Pascuma, who grew up in Richmond Hill, never attended college but as a young man learned the ins and outs of stock trading from his father, still a well-known figure in financial circles who remembers the stock market crash of 1929.

Besides his wife and daughter, both of Massapequa Park, Pascuma is survived by his sons, Michael, a college student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.; Christopher, a Massapequa High School student; and his parents, Michael and Ada, of Richmond Hill.

–Bill Kaufman (Newsday)

I went to the memorial sites where people who knew the victims could leave tributes and I came across the following message:

You will be missed. Thank you for all of your kindness. I will miss being your customer. Anne Boudreaux (New Orleans, LA )

There were many messages I found from family members, childhood friends, but this one in particular really struck me: “I will miss being your customer.” How many businessmen can say that there will be those left behind who will say, “I will miss being your customer“?

Other people from Mr. Pascuma’s life left tributes on various victims’ sites – and here are some personal memories of him.

Childhood friend Al Husni:

“I will always remember growing up with Michael. Playing ball, hanging out at PS66 with Michael, Chris, Latz, and the rest of the gang. His sense of humor, his gentleness, will never be forgotten by myself or those who knew him.”

Michael’s cousin Susan wrote, in 2006:

It’s sad to think about all of this even five years later. You are a grandfather now and you are not with your family. Life seems so unfair. Not a day goes by that you or your family are not thought about. May God Bless you and your family always. You all are always in our prayers.

Childhood friend Robert A. Maltempo:

“I grew up across the street from Michael, moving away from Richmond Hill at the age of twelve. I will always remember the good times we had and what a wonderful father Michael had (he treated me like his son). I remember playing ring-a-leevio until dark, seemingly every evening, at P.S. 66. I remember Billy Speckman and also another friend of mine and Mikes, named Michael (I’m butchering his last name) Krachunis) who lived next door to Michael. Had many, many wonderful times growing up with Michael…his basement that was full of miniature/toy construction equipment, the NY ranger games his family took us to, a row boat trip with Michael’s father singing “Michael Row the Boat to Shore” while Mike and I struggled with the oars.

George Moeser tells some really beautiful and funny stories about Michael Pascuma:

I met Michael Pascuma through my sister Jean Barone back in the 1980′s when my (now) ex-wife and I visited her and her (now) ex husband Tommy Barone during a Christmas holiday. We attended a party hosted by the family that owned the Mermaid Restaurant. Of all the people we met at that party in Massapequa Park, Michael was the standout. He was and still remains one of the nicest most genuine people I have met in this life. His warmth, demure and canny sense of humor along with that winning smile of his were a true reflection of great soul, something that can not be faked, learned or acquired.

He and his wife opened his home to us as if he had known us all his life. I met his father and talked about his horses. His wife Linda and Bianca became friends. Later that week we met him for a visit to the exchange where he worked, but I didn’t know there was the dress code and said he could take Bianca inside and I would wait. Michael thought for a moment then said, “Come on in with me, it will does these guys good to shake them up a little bit.” As we went on to the floor, all three of us were pelted with spit-balls and hoots laughter from the men and women working there, all in good natured fun. One of the keenest impressions I got about Michael was that you could sense the friendship and admiration his coworkers felt for him. He later told me, to his knowledge I was the only person in the history of NYSE to walk the floor in a cowboy hat and blue jeans.

The irony for me in learning of his tragic and untimely death was that he took Bianca and I to the Windows on the World Restaurant for lunch that day. I still have the photo Bicana and myself with the Manhattan backdrop taken by Michael. I have another of him and I on the train with him pretending to pick my pocket in an exaggerated pose, this great smile stealing the scene. Later in the week he met us for lunch again, this time to the Carnegie Deli. He didn’t want us to miss what he called the best corn beef sandwich on the planet – It was.

When we returned to Tucson, he would sometimes call the Boss Shears, the hair salon Bianca and I owned. Pretending to be a first time customer, he would ask if we took late appointments, saying he would have to fly in from New York. The receptionist would ask Bianca and I if we wanted a late appointment. And one or the other of us would ask what time. Then Michael would ask to speak to one of us, and I would recognize his voice instantly. He would laugh and say he might be able to catch the red-eye, get his haircut and fly back in time for work, but would bring two corn beef sandwiches from Carnegie as a tip for staying late.

Over the years we would fly back to New York on the holidays or a family function. Each time Michael and I saw each other again, it wasn’t as if years had past but only days since our last laugh, shared antidote or exchange of impressions.

Years later I was divorce, my sister was also divorced, and had moved to Brooklyn. She and I became estranged and I lost contact with her friends from Massapequa Park. My ex wife kept in touch with my sister Jean and Bianca continued to exchange Christmas card with the Pascuma family, but I lost touch. It was years later when I asked how he was doing that I learned he had died in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. That he died at the very same place where he and I had shared laughter over a meal was deeply moving to me. My eyes filled with tears and I prayed the Lord to bless him and keep him in all his ways. I still do.

Charlie Manos wrote:

You walked into my crowd on the floor of the Amex, and there it was a grin from ear to ear – always happy. I am blessed to have worked with you. I miss you guys. God bless.

Debbie Lenge wrote, in 2007:

With each day that passes you are missed more and more. “Nealon” events are just not the same without you. You would be amazed to see how the gang has grown. I often think about our commute–in the early days you made my trek into BBDO so enjoyable! Every morning was a comedy show. Few people can make me laugh as much and as hard as you did. Your granddaughter is absolutely beautiful. She looks just like her mommy. Melissa is a wonderful mom–you would be so proud of her. And Michael, I have to say from the bottom of my heart that you and Linda could not have raised better children. All three of your children are beautiful on the inside and out. They are truly class acts. If my children turn out half as good as yours did, I will feel like a success. I miss your jokes. I miss your stories. I miss you calling me an idiot. I miss the disapproving looks you gave me. I miss you shaking your head at me. But most of all I miss smashing pie in your face! You will never be forgotten. You are in our hearts forever!

On April 22, 2005, Michael Pascuma’s daughter Melissa had a baby girl whom they named Madison Michael. It would have been Michael Pascuma’s first grandchild.

Melissa wrote to her father on Sept. 12, 2005:

I miss you more and more each day, month and year. I would do anything to get a tight hug from you, hear your laugh, or hear one of your jokes. There are very few children in this world that have an amazingly exceptional father. I am so thankful I happen to be one of them. You held our family together and were the kindest, most generous human being that lived. You did not deserve this. You are a grandpa now. She carries the name of a hero, Madison Michael. Love you endlessly, Your princess

Michael Pascuma’s son Michael wrote:

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and will be Madison’s first. You should be here sharing this with us in more than just spirit. I wish there was something I could do because I would in a second! There is so much that we never got to do or say and I would do anything for 1 more minute. I was in Miami this past weekend and saw more Ferraris than ever before and I didn’t have you to call. For a split second I thought call Dad and then realied that can never happen again. I will never forget all the times we did share and will cheerish those forever. I miss all the things we used to do together and wish we could play one more round of golf. I would even take just being able to hear one more joke and hear your laugh. I miss and love you so much and I’m getting to upset to continue writing.

The NY Times Portraits of Grief piece on Michael J. Pascuma says:

Golf was Michael J. Pascuma Jr.’s consuming passion. He played every Saturday with a group of friends from work, at courses all over Long Island. He watched golf endlessly on television.

Michael, 50, immersed himself in everything, whether it was golf, his family in Massapequa Park or his work as a stockbroker on the American Stock Exchange. Work and family were entwined: he and his 92- year-old father, Michael J. Pascuma Sr., possibly the oldest broker in the United States, had their own firm, M.J.P. Securities, which recently merged with Harvey, Young & Yurman.

“You would think it was a stressful job, but he was never stressed,” said his 23-year- old daughter, Melissa Pascuma, whom he called his little princess. He also had two sons, ages 20 and 17. “As soon as he came home, he detached from it and his family was No. 1.”

Michael’s wife Linda:

My husband, Michael J. Pascuma, Jr., was an only child. Michael worked with his father on the American Stock Exchange. His father is still employed there at 93 years old. His mother is 89.

He was very well liked and a very respected Stockbroker. He was a very fair and honest person. He had a great sense of humor. He loved telling jokes or playing pranks at work.

He also loved playing golf. He played every Saturday with friends. He had started to travel a little to play on different courses.

Most importantly, Michael was a great father. He had three children, a daughter and two sons. His children loved him. He never fought or got mad at them. He would do anything for them. His sons enjoyed playing golf with him. He never worried about the small things. He loved life and appreciated everything he had. He knew what was important. If they made a mistake or if there was a problem he would always say it didn’t matter as long as everyone was healthy.

We struggle every day without him and he is truly missed by his family, friends and co-workers.

From the Amityville Record:
September 26, 2001

Michael Pascuma knew he had a great dad. Over the years, he had never heard his dad raise his voice or lose his temper, and he always knew he was there for him and his brother and sister and mother if they ever needed him.

But it wasn’€™t until Michael Pascuma had a chance to work with his dad at the New York Stock Exchange that the younger Michael realized that his father was a person who treated everyone with respect and kindness.

“Even the man at the truck where he picked up his coffee and newspaper in the morning knew him by name and knew how he took his coffee,” said Michael Pascuma. “I saw that everyone liked him and liked to be around him.”

Michael Pascuma Jr., 50, died Tuesday morning, September 11 as terrorists crashed two commercial jetliners into the Twin Towers in New York City. He was having breakfast at Windows on the World as he did every Tuesday morning.

“When I heard that a plane had hit the Towers, I didn’t think much about my husband’s safety,” said Linda Pascuma. “I knew he worked in the area and occasionally had breakfast at the Windows on the World but thought – €˜what are the chances of his being there just as the planes hit?”

That misplaced sense of security was quickly shattered as Linda Pascuma received an urgent call from her son Michael who is a student at Sacred Heart College in Connecticut. “He knew my husband’s schedule because he had worked with him over the summer and knew that on Tuesday morning, every Tuesday morning, he and the other members of the firm met for breakfast there.” The young Michael had called his father on his cell phone after the first plane hit. It was a brief, ten second conversation before the phone lines went dead, but his son managed to get one, final plea out: “I told him to get out of the building,” said his son.

But like the thousands of others who perished in that cruel attack, Michael Pascuma Jr. perished. Unlike many of the other families, however, the body of Michael Pascuma was recovered and identified.

Linda Pascuma said that is the result of the intervention of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“Whenever I go on a long trip, I take a small statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that my grandmother gave to me,” said Linda Pascuma. “For some reason that morning, when I left the house to drive my husband to the station, I grabbed the statue and took it with me. I believe it was because my husband was the one who needed him that day.”

After watching the horrific pictures of the attack on the television, Linda Pascuma thought her husband’s body would never be found and she prayed. “I told the Sacred Heart that if my kids have to go through this to please allow us to have some closure. I didn’€™t want them to have to live in limbo, always wondering.”

Her prayers were answered and the Pascuma’s were able to lay Michael Pascuma Jr. to rest last week.

Linda and Michael Pascuma would have shared their 27th wedding anniversary Friday. The couple met through friends and made a life together in Massapequa, raising their family here. Michael Pascuma worked for NJP Securities, which merged recently with Harvey, Young and Yurman.

She described him as a man who never worried about small things and who enjoyed life. “He would always say to me that I shouldn’t worry about the small things that didn’t matter. He played golf every week; we went on vacations together to Disney World and he even got a chance recently to drive a race car. He was a wonderful husband and a wonderful father.”

In addition to his wife and his son Michael, Michael Pascuma Jr., is survived by his other son Christopher and his daughter Melissa, as well as by his father Michael Pascuma Sr., and his mother Ada.

His daughter is engaged to be married next year, a family event that will bring both joy and sorrow to the family, undoubtedly. “My daughter will be married and not have a father to walk her down the aisle,” said Linda Pascuma who added that she’€™s angry and outraged by the attacks.

“My husband was murdered by these people. I am angry because our system let him down. Not one, but two airplanes were hijacked from the same airport. In an effort in this country to be nice to everyone, we didn’€™t keep our own people safe.”

The anger comes in waves, replaced by sorrow and grief. In the next moment, Linda Pascuma cries a little and apologizes. She says that she asks only that people know that her husband was a good man and a good father and that his wife and his children loved him dearly and will miss him terribly.

“We want everyone to know that,” she said. “Just that.”

(photo taken by me, at the Tiles for America display, corner of 7th Avenue South and 11th Street)

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I Want To Go To There


One of my favorite shots from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

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The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “The Ring of Time”


Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

Written in 1956, this essay is about one of E.B. White’s Florida sojourns. He is in Sarasota, and he soaks up all of the differences between Florida climate and a more Northern climate, and because he’s E.B. White, it’s all fascinating. It’s 1956, though, and he is uneasily aware of the segregation of the society he visits, and can’t really get away from it. Everywhere was segregated in America then, but visiting the South from New York would be a reminder of how bad it really was. (Interestingly, Sam Cooke, who hailed from Chicago, was totally horrified by his first experiences traveling with his gospel group through the South. Even in a segregated Chicago, there wasn’t the level of fear he felt in the South.)

E.B. White often started with the micro and moved into the macro. It’s a style thing, something he excelled at. People imitate him when they write essays now and probably don’t even know who they’re imitating. You know, squeezing your morning orange juice leads to a contemplation of the situation in the Ukraine. Whatever. We’ve all read such essays and usually they are extremely self-indulgent, and poorly done. The connections are not made properly, or it tries to put two unequal things on an equal playing field. It prioritizes the writer’s experience, which is irrelevant, really, put alongside big world events. But White’s way of making connections is elegant, thoughtful, and gentle. He makes it sound like he’s just musing out loud. “You know, I was watching the birds build a nest outside and here is what I saw. Then I went back to the kitchen and read the newspaper. The front-page news made me feel this way.” And somehow, gently, invisibly, connections are made. I don’t mean to use the dreaded passive voice, it’s just that you often can’t clock E.B. White on “making connections.” Sometimes you can, and sometimes he does get didactic, but in general, he doesn’t at all. He sticks to the details right in front of his nose.

“The Ring of Time” is a perfect example. Ringling Bros. was holed up in Sarasota, getting ready to go on the road, and one day, he goes to visit. He happens to witness a circus rider rehearsing her act, riding her horse around the ring. And it gets him to thinking about time. Its circular nature, how things move forward, and yet things are also captured in time.

What I love about the following excerpt is how he describes the circus rider, and describes what it meant to him to see her, and he does so in such a way that now I get to have it as a “memory.”

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “The Ring of Time”

The ten-minute ride the girl took achieved – as far as I was concerned, who wasn’t looking for it, and quite unbeknownst to her, who wasn’t even striving for it – the thing that is sought by performers everywhere, on whatever stage, whether struggling in the tidal currents of Shakespeare or bucking the difficult motion of a horse. I somehow got the idea she was just cadging a ride, improving a shining ten minutes in the diligent way all serious artists seize free moments to hone the blade of their talent and keep themselves in trim. Her brief tour included only elementary postures and tricks, perhaps because they were all she was capable of, perhaps because her warmup at this hour was unscheduled and the ring was not rigged for a real practice session. She swung herself off and on the horse several times, gripping his mane. She did a few knee-stands – or whatever they are called – dropping to her knees and quickly bouncing back up on her feet again. Most of the time she simply rode in a standing position, well aft on the beast, her hands hanging easily at her sides, her head erect, her straw-colored ponytail lightly brushing her shoulders, the blood of exertion showing faintly through the tan of her skin. Twice she managed a one-foot stance – a sort of ballet pose, with arms outstretched. At one point the neck strap of her bathing suit broke and she went twice around the ring in the classic attitude of a woman making minor repairs to a garment. The fact that she was standing on the back of a moving horse while doing this invested the matter with a clownish significance that perfectly fitted the spirit of the circus – jocund, yet charming. She just rolled the strap into a neat ball and stowed it inside her bodice while the horse rocked and rolled beneath her in dutiful innocence. The bathing suit proved as self-reliant as its owner and stood up well enough without benefit of strap.

The richness of the scene was in its plainness, its natural condition – of horse, of ring, of girl, even to girl’s bare feet that gripped the bare back of her proud and ridiculous mount. The enchantment grew not out of anything that happened or was performed but out of something that seemed to go round and around and around with the girl, attending her, a steady gleam in the shape of a circle – a ring of ambition, of happiness, of youth. (And the positive pleasures of equilibrium under difficulties.) In a week or two, all would be changed, all (or almost all) lost: the girl would wear makeup, the horse would wear gold, the ring would be painted, the bark would be clean for the feet of the horse, the girl’s feet would be clean for the slippers that she’d wear. All, all would be lost.

As I watched with the others, our jaws adroop, our eyes alight, I became painfully conscious of the element of time. Everything in the hideous old building seemed to take the shape of a circle, conforming to the course of the horse. The rider’s gaze, as she peered straight ahead, seemed to be circular, as though bent by force of circumstance; then time itself began running in circles, and so the beginning was where the end was, and the two were the same, and one thing ran into the next and time went round and around and got nowhere. The girl wasn’t so young that she did not know the delicious satisfaction of having a perfectly behaved body and the fun of using it to do a trick most people can’t do, but she was too young to know that time does not really move in a circle at all. I thought: “She will never be as beautiful as this again” – a thought that made me acutely unhappy – and in a flash my mind (which is too much of a busybody to suit me) had projected her twenty-five years ahead, and she was now in the center of the ring, on foot, wearing a conical hat and high-heeld shoes, the image of the older woman, holding the long rein, caught in the treadmill of an afternoon long in the future. “She is at that enviable moment in life [I thought] when she believes she can go once around the ring, make one complete circuit, and at the end be exactly the same age as at the start.” Everything in her movements, her expression, told you that for her the ring of time was perfectly formed, changeless, predictable, without beginning or end, like the ring in which she was traveling at this moment with the horse that wallowed under her. And then I slipped back into my trance, and time was circular again – time, pausing quietly with the rest of us, so as not to disturb the balance of a performer.

Her ride ended as casually as it had begun. The older woman stopped the horse, and the girl slid to the ground. As she walked toward us to leave, there was a quick, small burst of applause. She smiled broadly, in surprise and pleasure; then her face suddenly regained its gravity and she disappeared through the door.

It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable, and I have failed, as I knew I would. But I have discharged my duty to my society; and besides, a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him. At any rate, it is worth reporting that long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given. Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources – from internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.

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Elvis Presley’s 1st Ed Sullivan Appearance: September 9, 1956

58 years ago today, Elvis Presley made his first historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. A re-post.

In September of 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the first of three appearances over the next couple of months. 1956 was his big TV-appearance year, which utilized the new medium in a juggernaut kind of way, turning Elvis Presley from a regional phenomenon into a national star as well as the nation’s worst nightmare: a grungy sex-crazed vision from the South, with an accent, intimidating sideburns, and a leg that wouldn’t stop shaking. What was he doing to the nation’s youth?

James Dean had died the year before. The entire culture had been in a state of hysteria over the mythical problem of “juvenile delinquency”, and James Dean became a symbol of that. Elvis Presley idolized James Dean as an actor, and was lumped under the same “juvenile delinquent” umbrella as Dean (and other figures like Brando). However, Presley didn’t really have much in common with Dean. What they did have in common was an ability to project and communicate with people their own age, teenagers, going over the heads of the adults, and saying, essentially, “Here is what it is like for us down here.” They cut out the middle man. Presley didn’t have Dean’s neurotic inner-war (the neurotic inner-war that made Dean so compelling on screen). Unlike Dean, Presley moved with total abandon: he felt something and he expressed it. He held nothing back, not his aggression, not his joy, not his sexuality, not his gentleness. He could access all of it. Dean was more twisted and repressed, more agonized over all he felt that he COULDN’T say. If Dean quivered with repression, Presley quivered with expression.

Presley was seen as far more dangerous than James Dean because he was so comfortable with himself, and also “tickled” (his words) by the impact he had on his audience. He said repeatedly he didn’t see what the big deal was, he wasn’t trying to be nasty or vulgar, he was just letting off some steam, and so were the screaming girls in the audience. In interviews around this time he sometimes comes off as baffled and hurt, and sometimes even angry, but he did not apologize for what he was doing because he didn’t see that there was anything wrong with it. And that was the most unforgivable sin.

There was regional prejudice operating as well. James Dean was a Midwestern boy, from Indiana, for God’s sake, so even though he twitched with wordless rebellion, he was still recognizably good-stock-American. But Elvis was an exotic-looking greasebomb from the swamplands of the South, he was a Pentecostal, a “Holy Roller” (in the insulting terminology of the time), and regional bigotry was overt in some of the early pieces about Elvis.

It crossed the North-South line too. Northeastern writers didn’t hide their contempt for his roots, showing how much they despised the South in how they wrote about him, and Southerners equated Elvis with the hated black community, and who was this white boy to come along and celebrate black music? To add to the pile-on, he was seen as “white trash” to defensive Southerners, and not an element of the community that Southerners were proud of. He was a threat to every status quo there was.

He was perceived as a threat even more so because in person he was so demure, unfailingly polite, patient, and funny. He was an aggressive panther onstage, and offstage he was a pussycat. This so-called contradiction was not understood about him. What was he up to? It couldn’t be anything GOOD.

It should be noted that not one iota of any of this mattered to the screaming fans. It never does. Screaming girls gotta scream. They also cross state lines. Girls in Wisconsin screamed just as loud as the girls in Alabama.

Elvis started off the year of 1956 with a series of performances on the Dorsey Brothers Show. Then he did Milton Berle, twice. On the second Milton Berle appearance, he performed “Hound Dog”, as he had been doing in his live shows, and the shit hit the FAN. (clip here).

The following day, Elvis Presley was excoriated in article after article. Appearing on national television brought the controversy that had dogged him everywhere in the South to a wider stage.

There were press conferences held in various cities with various officials saying that Elvis Presley was not welcome to perform in their city. There’s footage of a guy smashing all of Elvis Presley’s records. Preachers took to the pulpit. Much of what was said about Elvis was vicious, sneering at his Southern background, insinuating that he was trash and his people were trash. Elvis’ mother Gladys always stuck up for her boy, but these comments broke her heart. They may have been poor, but they were not trash. Elvis tolerated all of this as best he could, continuing to do his thing, trying to be patient with the insulting questions thrown at him.

Things, despite all this, were going great for him. He had signed with the Colonel in March. Hal Wallis had signed him to a movie contract. Love Me Tender would be his screen debut, coming out in the fall of 1956. He was selling out shows. He was making tons of money for the first time in his life. He was able to buy as many cars as he wanted. He bought his family a nice house in suburban Memphis (not yet Graceland). He was a good boy.

When asked what was the hardest thing about his new fame, Elvis replied, “Well, I can’t go to church no more.”

He was seen as a seriously destabilizing influence (and that he was: he destabilized everything), and yet at the same time he was also just a good Southern boy with religious convictions and a voracious sex drive, and both of those things were true, and Elvis saw no contradiction in that.

The Milton Berle controversy got everybody in television running scared. Advertisers were up in arms. You go back and watch him on those early TV shows, and you never know what he’s going to do next, even if you’ve seen the clips 100 times.

In early July, Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen show. Steve Allen, aware of the controversies, put Elvis in a tuxedo, and made him sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog onstage. When Steve Allen introduced Elvis to the audience, he said, “Please welcome to the stage … the NEW Elvis Presley.” Elvis had only been in the public consciousness for 5 or 6 months at that point, and it was already required that he reinvent himself. (Elvis was mortified by what he was asked to do on that show, although he was a good sport about it.) Interestingly enough, there were a couple of columnists who wrote pieces following the Steve Allen-Emasculation-of-Elvis-Presley-Project, columnists who criticized what had been done to the boy. Being tamed didn’t work well for Elvis. It didn’t fit. You ache with awkwardness for him, watching him sing to that damn hound dog to a completely silent audience who don’t know how to react. If you had no idea who Elvis Presley was, but had heard all of these bad things about him, and then you watched him on the Steve Allen show, you would have had no idea why he was causing so much trouble.

But one important thing had happened.

The Steve Allen Show the night of Elvis’ appearance had buried Ed Sullivan in the ratings. Ed Sullivan had said that he would never have Elvis on his show. “He is not my cup of tea,” were his words. However, behind the scenes, the wheels were already in motion to get Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Colonel was contacted. Ed Sullivan was no dummy. He was afraid of what Elvis would do on his show, certainly, and he was afraid of the criticism it might generate. But if he DIDN’T have Elvis on his show, he would consign himself to irrelevance.

Eventually, Elvis was booked for 3 appearances on the Ed Sullivan show for a staggering price of $50,000.

If you were on Ed Sullivan, you had made it. The show epitomized mainstream America, and was close to the nation’s vaudeville roots, featuring jugglers, mimes, comics, choir groups, gymnasts, trained dogs, the latest Broadway stars, entire scenes from Broadway musicals. At a time when the majority of American families were investing in televisions, and tuning in every week in astronomical numbers (unheard of today, when the selection is so much more vast, and there are so many more channels), the Ed Sullivan Show was part of the national conversation. He was so important he helped set the national conversation.

To allow Elvis Presley valid space in that national conversation was a coup of the highest order, and the Colonel knew it.

Ed Sullivan knew it, too and that was why he balked initially. He wasn’t sure what was happening with this ducktailed youngster, and he didn’t know what to make of the screaming girls, but he knew a phenom when he saw it.

Marlo Lewis, producer of the Ed Sullivan Show, describes Ed Sullivan’s fears, and also his willingness to get over those fears in order to propel Elvis into the spotlight.

In August of 1956, Ed Sullivan was hospitalized after a terrible car crash, and so the great Charles Laughton would be stepping in as guest-host. Elvis was thrilled about this. He loved Mutiny on the Bounty! He sent Ed Sullivan a get-well card. He was out in Hollywood already, having started filming on his first movie Love Me Tender. Everything was new to him. Having to get up early in the morning was new to him. But he was a sponge, and soaked up the experience. He wondered if he was any good. He was upset that they were making him sing in the movie. But he didn’t complain. He worked hard. He dated a bunch of girls, including Natalie Wood, as well as calling his summer flame June Juanico on a nightly basis, quizzing her on whether or not she was dating anyone else. He wanted her to come out and visit. Would she come to Memphis the next month when he was home? (She could, and she did). He lived in the Knickerbocker Hotel with his cousins and friends. He called his parents every night. He was happy and ambitious.

The Ed Sullivan show was done in New York and played in real-time in the eastern and central time zones, but shown by kinescope on the West Coast – and it is through these kinescopes that we even have any of this footage at all today. Thank you Harold for the correction!. On September 9, Elvis went to the CBS Studios in Hollywood, to appear in his segments (which would be staggered throughout the show, and broadcast to the audience in New York). There was an audience in the studio in Hollywood as well.

Now. The Elvis on Ed Sullivan show clips are famous. You can see them all on Youtube. But here’s the thing: seeing Elvis in isolation is all well and good, but to really understand the impact he had, you have to see what surrounded him in the rest of the show. It is so important to get how unlike anything else he was (then OR now). The three Ed Sullivan shows on which Elvis appeared are all available, in their entirety, and it is really the only way to see them. Because then you see how suddenly Elvis emerged. In the midst of jugglers and sweet Broadway sopranos … here comes … this?

He looks gorgeous, of course, young and gorgeous. But his hair is tall and greasy (and still almost blonde, he would dye his hair soon afterwards), his coat is loud and flashy, and he comes off as truly bizarre.

Then, when he speaks to the audience, he takes his time, stuttering on occasion, which is always a nervewracking thing to watch, and saying whatever the hell seems to be on his mind. He is never “inappropriate” in these seemingly impromptu speeches. Everything he says is correct, and sweet, and charming. But he still seems spontaneous in a way the other guests do not.

Imagine settling down to watch The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and maybe you’d heard of Elvis, but of course you had never seen him live, because the culture then wasn’t the same as it is now, where the country is drawn together by cultural references, because we’ve all seen Lady Gaga perform, even if we’re not a Lady Gaga fan. But those days were just starting in 1956, and Ed Sullivan was a huge part of coalescing the nation culturally. The wide swath Elvis cut across the South and South-East and West had had a giant impact on the region. The North was totally left out of that. They heard the guy on the radio, but had never seen him in person. It was a different world then. Elvis Presley happened to come along at just the moment when television started to reach its critical mass. 5 years before, and he would have remained a regional phenomenon probably. 5 years later, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But in 1956, everyone and their grandmother and their grandchildren tuned in to Ed Sullivan. So whether you were ready for him or not, whether you tuned in for the circus acts or the dog acts, it didn’t matter: here comes Elvis Presley.

The culture had no idea how to handle Elvis Presley, and you get the sense that even the power brokers of the entertainment business were just playing frantic catch-up with a naturally exploding phenomenon. Nobody wanted to be left out. And although the Colonel steered Elvis’s career with a firm hand, he was jumping on the bandwagon too. It was already happening when he came along. He just thrust him onto the national stage so that all of America could try to deal with him. As Lester Bangs wrote, “Elvis was a force of nature.”

You can see that in his Ed Sullivan appearances. Even in the clips where he was famously filmed from the waist up. (Sullivan had ordered his camera operators to doggedly film ONLY Elvis’ torso. On the Milton Berle show, the audience saw his full-body gyrations and Sullivan wanted to avoid that.)

As Lester Bangs wrote in his obituary for Elvis:

Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.

So in order to understand the impact, you have to include everything that surrounds it. Because therein you understand the contrast. It was immediately apparent to those who lived during these times, but for those of us who followed it is sometimes not so clear. But watch those Ed Sullivan shows in their entirety, watch all of the acts, and then watch Elvis Presley stroll onstage.

It still has the power to blow your hair back.

On September 9, 1956, the show begins with riotous applause as the portly and jolly Charles Laughton strolls onstage. He announces that he wants to start the proceedings with a “high tone”, and so he takes out a book and reads a ridiculous poem in a lugubrious and somehow jaunty manner.

When he finishes, he says, “Now that’s dampened your spirits, hasn’t it.”

Laughton introduces an acrobat act, The Brothers Amin! The two brothers, with long-ish flopping hair and snappy outfits, bound onstage and do an extraordinary act, involving one brother perched on the feet of another brother in all kinds of contorted positions that are frankly insane and terrifying to watch.

The other wonderful thing about watching the original Ed Sullivan shows (not just the Elvis episodes) is how much time each act is given. There is no sense of rush, no sense of a time limit (although of course everything was exquisitely timed). Acts are given a chance to stretch out, breathe, really show their stuff.

Following the Amin Brothers, Laughton then introduces Broadway star Dorothy Sarnoff, currently appearing down the block in The King and I as Lady Thiang. Laughton sings her praises before she comes on, and also sings the praises of the show itself. There’s an elaborate set, with a balcony and a walkway, and Sarnoff stands there in an elegant cocktail dress with long white gloves. She sings her heart out. It’s a style of singing no longer in vogue, a shrieking quavering soprano. The song is beautiful (it’s one of those numbers from The King and I that bored me as a child, but I have grown to appreciate as an adult). From head to toe, she is the vision of the glamorous 1950s woman.

And a really interesting thing occurs in the middle of her song. A vaguely idiotic monologue has been added during the bridge, but it’s fascinating because it shows the TONE of the cultural conversation at that time. The monologue is not from The King and I. The damn musical takes place in Siam. Lady Thiang is not a 1950s housewife. But a monologue has been added, and I struggle and squint through the mists of time to understand why. Here is what I think happened. The King and I was a huge hit (understatement), and in introducing it to a wide national audience who weren’t living in New York, the choice was made to add a monologue that middle America could click into. The King and I wasn’t about some heathen king with 75 children. It is a story anyone can relate to. But her monologue, which starts personal, about her experience doing the show, and then moves into an almost Mad Men-like diatribe of wifely concerns, reveals how dominant the mainstream culture was then, how homogenous, and how frightening. I don’t think I’m reading too much into this. The message here is: Women stay at home, men go to the office, men come home and don’t pay attention to us, and yet we endure it as our wifely duty. It’s not even subtextual: it’s blatant.

Here is Dorothy Sarnoff’s monologue, which she says as she strolls across the stage.

You know, I think I loved singing that song in the show so much because I felt as though I were speaking for every woman. Every woman who has loved and endured. And perhaps had that love endangered by something great or …. even something very small like when he comes home from the office and he says, ‘Hello, darling! How are you? Did you have a good day?’ And then he settles down in his armchair behind his newspaper and drops ashes on your favorite rug. And before you know it, he’s asleep and he calls out to you in his sleep, ‘Florence, Florence’ and you just smile because … even though your name happens to be Mabel… then he comes to you one day with a fantastic scheme for making a million dollars and because you love him you say, ‘Yes, darling.’ Because you know …

.. and then she launches back into the song.

I don’t believe in reincarnation but if I did I think I might have been a 1950s housewife, because the thought of it fills me with such existential dread that I can barely look at it directly. Julianne Moore’s failed housewife in The Hours made my soul shiver, as though it was an actual memory. Perhaps because I know I would never fit into that world. Perhaps because the limitations seemed so arbitrary, and yet also so necessary to the culture. Women’s limitations were important to ALL of us. I mean, look at that monologue again. The husband is crying out someone else’s name in his sleep and you are more pissed off about him ashing his cigarette on your nice carpet. You are a good wife, you don’t complain, you smile and nod and refill his martini glass. I want to kill myself just thinking about it.

Frankly, I find that monologue to be psychotic.

And the most psychotic part about it is how casually she does it, and how she obviously is speaking to a culture softened up for that kind of message. She speaks with an air of complete assumption that everyone listening is smiling and nodding in recognition. That monologue would be incomprehensible if done today, thank Christ, outside of the patriarchal homeschooling Christian sub-culture. That monologue describes and speaks into a kind of national psychosis about marriage and the role of women which was about to be blown to bits in the following decades.

And, ironically, Elvis Presley – a good ol’ boy who had very traditional ideas himself about who women should be (he joked to Priscilla during their marriage, “Women’s lib is ruining our women, dammit!”) – was a huge part of shattering that psychosis. His mere appearance made women scream for release. And they never stopped screaming for 20 years. They’re still screaming. They looked at him and said, despite the public disapproval, “I WANT THAT.” “That” being him, certainly, but he represented so much more. The girls screaming for Elvis may very well have fantasized about being his wife, and him coming home and ashing on their clean carpet, but I seriously doubt it. Their fantasies were in another realm entirely, involving the back seats of cars, probably, and the public admittance of the vein of their fantasies was one of the most unstable things about Presley’s impact.

As a real-life man he was obviously quite liberal sexually. He loved it, he slept with a lot of people, and he was a gentleman about it, despite the racking-up of numbers. But as a real-life man he also always wanted a loyal loving homemaking wife, or at least a steady girlfriend who was a sweet little lady. He was rarely faithful, but he always had a main squeeze. So he was a traditional guy in many respects, not unlike a lot of men. But as a performer, he was indulging in a public fantasy with the girls in the audience about what they all knew they wanted to do with one another.

Dorothy Sarnoff already looks like she’s from another world, especially when Elvis appears later in the program.

In one fell swoop he makes her irrelevant. The youth of the world was suddenly like: “Oh yeah? Well we want something ELSE from our lives.”

If you think I’m reading too much into it, then you need to go and watch Dorothy Sarnoff back to back with one of Elvis’ performances on the same show.

He was a revolution.

Following Dorothy Sarnoff’s song, which engages openly in the national psychosis, Laughton then introduces an advertiser to the stage to talk about the latest Mercury automobile. (I love the commercials incorporated into the shows. Talk about seeing what was important to a culture. The obsession with cars careens through Ed Sullivan’s shows like an underlying repetitive trumpet blast. You can feel the prosperity of the land in these commercials, a new prosperity, exciting and acquisitive. We are middle-class. We are exploding. We can HAVE things.)

After the word from the sponsor, Charles Laughton comes back on and introduces The Vagabonds, a zany quartet who were hugely popular in the 40s and 50s and still have a nice big fan base. They are total kooks. Great musicians, bopping around the stage, making jokes, doing little bits, and it’s interesting to watch because there is something here that cannot be controlled. The repression of Dorothy Sarnoff’s monologue becomes even more clear. The Vagabonds are goofballs, and excellent performers, and they obviously get a kick out of what they are doing.

They sing three numbers: “The Queens Ruler,” “I Wonder” & “How You Gonna Keep Em’ Down on the Farm,” ending with a big crazy finish. Riotous applause.

When Charles Laughton reappears, he is now before a black curtain, on which are hanging four gold records.

Laughton speaks:

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re probably all wondering what these objects are behind me. Well, I have a very good answer for you and I’m going to tell you. They’re gold records. Now these gold records, four of them, have been awarded to a singing star that you’re going to meet in a moment. You know very well who I’m talking about. I’m talking about Elvis Presley. These gold records are a tribute to the fact that 4 of his recordings have sold, each sold, more than a million copies. And this, by the way, is the first time in record making history that a singer has hit such a mark in such a short time. At the very first opportunity Ed Sullivan will award these gold records to him personally but now it’s time to meet the singer I’ve been talking about, and so, away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley.

There are screams. We then cut to the CBS Studio in Hollywood. The set is dark with giant guitars hanging from the ceiling. The stage is empty. And then, suddenly, Elvis walks on. From out of nowhere. The audience erupts. He looks almost aggressive, his shoulders hunched up, there’s something dominant about his stance. He swipes his tongue across his teeth, which makes him look tough, like a bruiser almost. This was not his personality at all. It is a projection. It is the image he created. Imagine if you had no idea who he was. He looks a little bit frightening in that first entrance.

When the cheers die down, he clears his throat deliberately and roughly. It’s a weird moment. It gets a reaction, laughter, as it was meant to. I think he did that to relax himself, and to get the audience on his side. It works.

He always did whatever he wanted to do in front of an audience (joking that he could burp and the girls would still scream – and sometimes he did burp into the mike, and yes, they did scream). He would make his voice go deep, he would growl into the mike, he would change lyrics, he would laugh out loud in the middle of a song … He was a complete wild card. Whatever he did worked. His first manager, Bob Neal, said, “He just did everything right.” That was the magic of his star quality. It can’t be bought, recreated, or even explained. Some people just have that thing where whatever they do when people are watching them is right.

Elvis Presley is 21 years old here, a young man, and had only been in the business for two years. But he had been on the road constantly since early 1955, and had gained all the experience and confidence he needed. He saw no need to mess things up for himself by changing. He walked onstage and people were riveted, and he enjoyed it. You can see that in his entrance here, and also in the deliberate and almost-bratty clearing of his throat. He LOVED the attention. You can hear the audience flipping out. No matter what he does, they are with him, and even when he makes them be silent (because he was a great conductor, too, a master at making audiences follow him) – you can feel them bubbling on the edge of an explosion.

Once they quiet down, he starts to speak. I sometimes get nervous when he speaks. The clips of him speaking at live shows from the 50s are adorable, and awkward, and there are a couple of times where the stuttering gets so bad that he has to stop speaking altogether. There’s one audio clip from 1955 that starts with him saying to the audience: “This is a new song – we ain’t done it but wo-wo-wo-wo-wo- wo ….” Full stop. Then he says, almost exhausted by what he just went through: “Yeah.” He regroups, and then gets it out: “but one time on the Louisiana Hayride …” It’s a high wire act, any time he speaks.

He survives because of his sincerity. You just have to wait it out. And if he can’t get it out (and there are a couple of times he flat out can’t), then they just launch into the song. None of it matters. He was not smooth or slick.

Here he is eloquent and sweet, and I just want to point out that whenever he refers to himself and his act, he says “we”. He doesn’t say “I”. It’s “we” or “our”.

That was who he was.

“Thank you, Mr. Laughton. Ladies and gentlemen. Wow. This is probably the greatest honor that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except, if it makes you feel good, we want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now … Don’t Be Cruel.”

The Jordanaires are there with Elvis, off to the side.

“Don’t Be Cruel” is performed in a jaunty, light and easy manner. Elvis didn’t go into a Zone of Privacy when he performed, or at least not always. It was all about communication with the audience. And if he ever felt the need to get a rise out of the girls, because he MISSED them dammit, if they hadn’t screamed in 3 seconds he felt abandoned by them – all he would have to do would be cock his shoulder up and down, or snarl a word, or – here – do that almost whinnying-noise at one point, and the girls were back to their vocal selves. Elvis was needy. He loved the back-and-forth. He manipulates them to get a response, and then laughs with pleasure when it comes.

And throughout the song, you can hear girls … singularly and sometimes together … erupting like shrieking banshees in the audience. He doesn’t even need to do anything, and some girl out there in the dark will start screaming.

Remembering the Vagabonds and the Amin Brothers and Dorothy Sarnoff is like looking at the earth while standing on the moon. Suddenly, in 5 minutes, everything else seems very very far away.

He finishes the song, bows, gestures to the Jordanaires. We don’t go back to Laughton yet. Elvis Presley is now in charge.

When he thanks the audience, he says, “Thank you, ladies” which gets a huge laugh. There were men in that audience, too. Elvis was playing for the girls. He knew it, they knew it, he was never embarrassed about it, and it was his raison d’etre for his entire career, a fact that many so-called serious rock critics hold in contempt. How could he devote himself so wholeheartedly to hormonally raging females? Wasn’t that beneath him? Didn’t he want a more serious audience? Well. Ain’t nothing more serious than a hormonally raging female: she is one of the most powerful demographics on the face of the earth, and her loyalty will last a lifetime. Elvis maybe didn’t know that, at least he couldn’t see how loyal these girls would eventually be … but he saw nothing wrong with devoting himself to the Girls. If Boys liked it too then that was great, but he always liked the Girls better. They were more vocal, they were openly appreciative, they screamed and hollered, they made him who he was. He never forgot that.

Elvis keeps speaking. He is sweet and sure of himself. He makes a stupid joke, it gets a huge laugh. He could do no wrong.

“And now friends we’d like to introduce you to a brand new song, it’s completely different from anything we’ve ever done. And this is the title of our brand new 20th Century Fox movie, and it’s also my newest RCA Victor escape … release.

There is then a little pause, and Elvis keeps speaking. The effect is arresting. He takes the time to acknowledge his good fortune and all of the people helping him.

“I would like to say right now that the people over at 20th Century Fox have really been wonderful, all the great stars in the cast, the director, the producers, this is our first picture and they’ve really helped us along. With the help of the very wonderful Jordanires, this is a song called “Love Me Tender.”

“Love Me Tender” is certainly “different from anything we’ve ever done”. A very slow ballad, with a Civil War era tune, it is a sweet and powerful song, and would eventually become one of Presley’s biggest hits, something he performed until the end of his days.

There are a couple of moments I want to point out in the performance below. He starts singing, and almost immediately needs to get rid of his guitar, so he takes it off and hands it off. It is a strange moment, almost like it’s a filmed rehearsal, a caught moment of spontaneity, but it’s indicative of Elvis’ comfort when he was being looked at. In person he was shy, and almost demure. Onstage, he did whatever he wanted to do. It may not seem like handing off your guitar is a groundbreaking moment, and it isn’t really – but what is interesting about it is how easy he looks while doing it, and how strange it is to see such ease in someone so new to the business.

And then, after the guitar handoff, which happens while the song is going on, Elvis does what looks like an involuntary twitch, like his nerves jut out of his body for a strange moment. It has nothing to do with the song, it has nothing to do with the lyrics, it has nothing to do with performance either. The twitch doesn’t look like one of his sexy deliberate twitches. It looks involuntary (similar to his compulsive shoulder-hitch thing that is one of his defining gestures. I always saw the shoulder-hitch as a way for him to let off some steam – and Presley had more to let off than normal people – and also a way to get the soul and the body into alignment. He had to twitch himself into position.)

So Elvis does this random funny-looking twitch, his tongue flopping out (WTF, Elvis.) and the audience goes mad. He smiles. The song is serious, but it can take whatever he does during it. He is often adjusting his stance and you can see the cameraman swerving gently back and forth to make sure Elvis is still in the frame. Elvis looks beautiful, soft, open and sensitive.

If you had only heard of Elvis as a bad rocker boy, “Love Me Tender” would have smashed your expectations to smithereens.

The first Elvis segment is now over and we go back to New York to a waiting Charles Laughton, who makes one comment:

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast?” The audience laughs.

The hostility to Elvis Presley at that time cannot be overstated. His appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show dissolved all of that. It was a stamp of approval from the older more stately generation, and even when they showed they didn’t “get it”, they were happy to include him in their pantheon. It was a powerful message.

And now, on with the show! Which starts to look more and more bizarre because Elvis Presley had appeared. Yes, this is retrospect talking, but those who were alive at that time also speak of the impact he had.

Even earlier, in 1955, when he was appearing with a group of other acts in the Louisiana Hayride show, eventually it became clear that they HAD to end the show with Elvis, even though that was a ‘dis on their more established stars. But Elvis caused such havoc and riled the audience up so much that anyone who came after him, talented though they may be, suffered in comparison.

A comic enters the stage. He is strictly Borscht Belt stuff, and is very amusing. He does magic tricks, makes dirty jokes, and, in general, is entertaining. Again, though: from another world. A world quickly disappearing.

Charles Laughton then reads some more poetry, after a diatribe about how how sadistic fairy tales are, and how terrifying he found them as a child.

Laughton is so great. How I wish I had grown up with Laughton, LAUGHTON, appearing as guest host on one of my favorite TV shows.

Next up is a tap dancing act! Conn And Mann, doing their thing, bantering and tapping and singing, and it’s all very vaudevillian. You can feel that old America, the America of the 20s and 30s, still trembling in the culture. It’s gone now. Gone for good. We can see evidence of it in the movies of that time, when all of the great character actors and many of the leading men and ladies had come from the world of vaudeville. It was still a reality. It shaped the culture. A lost art. Something to celebrate and mourn.

Laughton then introduces a young singing sensation from India, who is appearing just down the street in such-and-such a supper club, and here she is, Amru Sani! On she strolls, in a traditional sari, and she belts out a version of “In the Mood for Love” which basically bashes you over the head with how “in the mood” she is. She’s got a big crazy belting voice, her gestures are unsubtle and huge, and all in all it is quite an odd performance. The song calls for some subtlety, some softness. But Amru Sani is not the one to provide it!

Somewhere along in here we have another car commercial, this time with an elegant spokesmodel.

Finally, it is time to get back to Presley.

Laughton’s second intro is brief, and his use of “that man” is eloquent. We all know who we are talking about, we all know who we are waiting for.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, once more to Hollywood to see and hear that man again, Mr. Elvis Presley.

The cheering in the studio in Hollywood erupts and Elvis patiently waits for it to end. Up until this point in the show, he has sung two rather mellow numbers. This was probably part of Ed Sullivan’s nervousness about having on his family-fare show the young man rumored to hang a Coke bottle inside his pants. If we make him sing ballads, then that’ll keep him from moving, right? Yes. To some degree. But the girls screamed anyway.

But now, with Elvis’third song on the show, Elvis rips it up with “Ready Teddy”.

There are a couple of interesting things about this performance:

The camera work is very deliberate and thought-out. During the musical bridge, which is normally when Elvis goes apeshit, the camera stays on the whole band for a bit, but high above, including Elvis in the frame with all of the others on that stage, and then cuts away to behind Elvis, so we see him through the rest of his band. It’s a diffusing camera move, a fearful camera move: who knows what Elvis might do, best to keep the camera far away from him. This is not the famous “waist up” appearance but the same anxiety applies to how they deliberately avoid showing Elvis in long shot. If that young man has a dangling Coke bottle inside his pants, then we don’t want our audience to have a chance to see it. Cut away, cut away!

Here, we see Elvis unleashed. He is a visceral presence. He also looks flat-out insane, crossing his eyes meaninglessly on the words “sock hop ball”. Why, Elvis? Please tell me why. Because it’s funny, because he was having fun, and nobody should take anything too seriously. Let’s rip it up. Enough with the ballads. Let’s let off some steam.

Even if you’ve seen the clip before, it’s worthwhile to watch it again. Even with the deliberate closeups when he obviously is moving up a storm in his body down below, you can feel his power. His eyes get serious and dead on occasion, the look of someone about to rip your clothes off in the back seat of a Cadillac. And you’ll like it. There’s one moment where maybe he feels the crowd is too rote in their screaming for him? He wants to shake them up, perhaps, so suddenly, in the middle of his jiggling, he stands totally still, freezing himself in a pose. He would do this often. The audience would wait, breathless, and then when he’d start to move again, they’d scream even louder than before.


He’s out of breath when he finishes. He bows, in that way he did in the beginning, with his hands on his knees, a sweet adolescent bow. He’s not done yet, he thanks the audience, who is still screaming. He has more to say, though. He gets it out.

“Mr. Sullivan, we know that somewhere out there that you’re looking at and all the boys and myself and everybody out here are looking forward to seeing you back on television and we’ll be seeing you October the 28th in New York when we’re back on your show again.

This message to Ed Sullivan, watching from the hospital, was an important moment for Elvis. Perhaps the impact wouldn’t really be understood until later. Ed Sullivan had been nervous about Elvis. He had seen what happened to Milton Berle after that “Hound Dog” performance. He didn’t want to mess up his own show. Elvis’ message directly to Ed Sullivan was impressive, and made Elvis seem (as he was) polite and kind. He also then acts as his own promotional arm, announcing that they will be appearing again on the show the next month.

Elvis then continues:

“Friends, as a great philosopher once said …”

They then launch into “Hound Dog”. (Elvis used “as a great philosopher once said” as an intro throughout his career for this song. He never got tired of it as a joke.) It is a truncated version of the song (I can’t find a clip of it. He performed “Hound Dog” again on one of his follow-up appearances, and that is available, but I can’t find the one from Sept. 9, 1956). This was the song that caused so much trouble on the Milton Berle show, and it is incredible (although smart) that Ed Sullivan had him sing it again. But they didn’t let him go on and on (and on) as he did on the Milton Berle show. He sings a verse and a chorus, no bridge, and that’s it. No room for that half-time ending that made everyone lose their ever-loving minds. Before you know it, it’s over.

One of the things to get about it, though, is that even though behind the scenes and across the op-ed pages and in the pulpits, people were very nervous about Elvis Presley, he still did what he wanted to do. He was that confident in himself. I believe that sense of self-belief comes partially from being so well-loved and cherished by his mother. He was already a star to her. She loved everything he did. Why shouldn’t the rest of the world feel the same? He wasn’t a bad boy. He believed in Jesus and all that, and he declared his faith in almost every interview. But what he was doing wasn’t religious music, and it wasn’t meant to be. I don’t think he was being insincere. He knew exactly what he was doing to those girls in the audience, and he meant to do it, but he didn’t see anything wrong with it. It was all in good fun. He liked girls. He treated good girls with respect. And the bad girls? They knew the score. He had fun with a lot of them. He worked it out for himself.

It takes great courage and great self-belief to keep on keepin’ on even when suddenly everyone is saying you are a bad influence, a white trash piece of nothing, a horrible singer, an agent of Beelzebub. Elvis wasn’t cavalier about those insults: he actually was very sensitive about being considered “white trash” or a “Holy Roller”, and he tried to live a clean life (no drinking, no partying), and he worked hard on his singing, and was a true believer in God. The criticisms of him cut to the very heart of his insecurities. But still: he did what he wanted to do. He believed in himself.

So even here, in what was a very tense situation, his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and his first real introduction to the nation, even though you can feel some vague attempts to tone him down (the first two song choices, as well as some of the camera moves later), Elvis still appears as himself.

It is not at all like the travesty of the Steve Allen show where Elvis Presley was forced to participate in his own neutering.

Elvis appears here. More than an appearance, he shows up. Fully. You can see him, in all his glory and weirdness and unpredictability, and also his politeness, his sweetness, and his good nature. It’s all there. Filming him from behind, through his band, to stave off any negative criticism of any jiggling he might do, doesn’t lessen Elvis’ impact at all.

There he is.

Welcome to America. Welcome Elvis Presley.

Posted in Music, Television | Tagged | 30 Comments

The Drop (2014); directed by Michaël R. Roskam


The Drop, which opens this week, is James Gandolfini’s last film. He plays “cousin Marv,” a big Brooklyn guy who owned a bar called Cousin Marv’s Bar. The bar was Marv’s life’s work. Yes, it was a dive bar populated by sorry-ass drunks, people running up tabs they couldn’t pay, but it was his. It would be his retirement. He was a big-shot. Maybe a little crooked, maybe he paid people off to keep his bar open, but it was his. He was somebody. That all changed when he started getting pressed by the Chechen mafia guys who started taking over the neighborhood. He fought back, but then couldn’t fight back anymore. He “blinked.” And now “they” own his bar, and he is just an employee. His worst nightmare has come true. He works for “the Man,” in this case “the Man” being some terrifying Chechens who milk him for payment, harass his employees, and worse. Marv is in a tight spot. I suppose you can’t blame him for doing some sketchy shit.

But there’s sketchy … and then there’s Sketchy(™).


In Gandolfini’s hands, Marv is a ruined man. He has lost his confidence, his standing in the world. He is ashamed of himself. He is afraid of the Chechens and becomes submissive when they stop by to tell him what to do. He is over-ingratiating. He hates himself afterwards. The Drop, an extremely effective thriller (with an unexpected mood of melancholy and loneliness), is yet another example of Gandolfini’s great range as an actor, and a reminder of what we lost when we lost him. Gandolfini has (of course) played gangsters and criminal bosses before. Marv is in that wheelhouse. But Marv is different from the others. Gandolfini understood the needs of Story, and was not afraid or hesitant to bring out what was necessary. His Marv is a case study in emasculation. You cringe watching him kow-tow to the gangsters, you cringe watching him submissively run around trying to do what they ask. You want him to show some spine. But Marv can’t. Once his confidence was lost, it was lost for good.


Based on a short story by Dennis Lehane, about a silent shy Brooklyn guy named Bob (cousin to cousin Marv), who works in Marv’s bar and who one night finds a baby pit bull, bloody and abandoned in a trash can, The Drop takes place in a 3-block radius. It’s a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The corruption goes to the center of the earth. The inhabitants of the neighborhood are busy trying to go about their lives. They watch the Super Bowl. They go to mass and nod hello to each other when they come back from getting communion. They all know each other. Their memories go way back. As E.B. White noted in his essay “Here Is New York,” the thing that tourists don’t get about New York is how small-town-provincial it really is. The boroughs are made up of hundreds of small neighborhoods, indistinguishable from Small Town U.S.A. Many people go their whole lives without leaving their small neighborhood. The gleaming towers of Manhattan across the river are akin to the Emerald City. The neighborhood is all.

Bob (Tom Hardy) works as a bartender in Marv’s bar. His parents are dead. He lives in the house where he grew up, cluttered with knick-knacks, little shelves in the corner with china angel figurines crowding up all available space. He walks to work. He walks home. He appears to be a good bartender. He is shy, almost recessive. The film opens with a tired voiceover from Bob, explaining how the “drop” system works in Brooklyn. It doesn’t sound like a script. The way Hardy does it, it sounds like he’s alone in his house at 3 a.m., maybe a little drunk, but still coherent, describing to somehow how it all goes down. Money moves around Brooklyn every night, from bookies and poker games and betting. Bars are chosen as “the drop bar,” and it’s rotating, and random, so that the money is always on the move, and nobody knows where it will all end up. You never know when your bar will be chosen to be “the drop bar.”

But Bob doesn’t seem to worry about all of that. He goes to 8 a.m. mass every morning. He pours drinks all night. He is kind to those who line belly-up to the bar, even the old drunk lady who can’t pay her tab. He lets her sit there anyway.

Bob is a case study, too. although it is not clear of what, and half of the fun of The Drop is watching the character emerge, reveal himself. It would be impossible to say too much without giving the game away. There is a “Gotcha” element here, although that’s not the point. It’s not a puzzle to be pieced together and all is then understood. There are things to learn about Bob, and we don’t learn them until the movie is almost completely over. What we learn, though, is not half as illuminating as what we get from his behavior. What a character he has created. He reminds me a lot of Rocky Balboa (and there is even a courtship scene in a pet shop), although Rocky was almost completely benign, and you get the sense that Bob, recessive though he may seem, has a wealth of strength underneath that gentleness, strength that could turn into something dangerous. But for the majority of the film, you just don’t know.


All you see is a guy of few words who finds a dog in a trash can, and decides to take it home and take care of it. He doesn’t know anything about dogs. He is not sure if he is ready for the responsibility. The dog is a puppy. It will need to be trained. Bob works all night every night. The dog has been brutalized by its former owner, whoever that was. It has a bloody cut on its head. It has been thrown in the trash. That just isn’t right.

Nadia (Noomi Rapace) catches Bob in the act of digging around in her trash can for the dog, and wonders what the hell he is doing and who the hell he is. She is wary and suspicious. Bob seems completely benign, bovine even … but still, a girl can’t be too careful. She doesn’t know anything about the dog. It is not hers. After taking photographs of Bob’s license and texting it to 4 friends (just in case he kills her later), she lets Bob and the dog come into her house so they can clean up the dog’s injuries. She volunteered for a summer in an animal shelter when she was in high school. Bob is quietly amazed by that. And by her.


Now. There’s a ton of plot in The Drop. There are gangsters and old scores to settle and violence and a couple of missing persons. There is a suspicious detective, snooping around cousin Marv’s bar. There are bossy Chechens, dark alleys, scary confrontations. All of this is filmed with moody sensitivity by Roskam (the cinematographer was Nicolas Karakatsanis, who also shot Roskam’s film Bullhead). The streets gleam wetly. They are deserted, ominous. Bodies can disappear easily here. The little strings of Christmas lights people twine around their chain link fences in front of their homes appear to be talismanic symbols to ward off evil.


But the plot isn’t “the thing” with The Drop. If it were only its plot, it would have been like any other crime thriller. But Tom Hardy, from the moment he starts speaking in that exhausted voiceover that opens the film, creates a compelling and mysterious character. He is quiet. His quiet nature draws you to him. What is he thinking? What do we see in his eyes? What does he want? I wasn’t sure about him. We see everything through his eyes but we are not sure his perspective. That’s very important. It’s why the performance works so well and seems to expand in the mind when the film ends.


Nadia tells him what to get at the pet store, and what pit bulls like, what to feed it, she suggests he read a certain book about pit bulls. “This book has everything in it,” she says. Bob does what she says. Well, he doesn’t read the book. He’s not really a reading man.

Elia Kazan said that good acting was psychology revealed through behavior, and the scenes between Hardy and Rapace are revelatory in terms of Behavior. A lot of scripts miss this, and think that good acting probably means good actors saying a lot of words explaining the psychology of the character. The script here is pared down to its barest minimum. The people in this world do not divulge, they do not open up, they have not read self-help books, they do not explain themselves. They don’t have the words. But the feelings are strong. Often this type of material can be condescending, and actors sometimes inadvertently take condescending attitudes about such characters. Nobody does that here. Bob and Nadia have somehow found themselves connected, because of the pit bull, and she watches the dog while Bob works at the bar, and they meet up and go for walks with the dog, and it all seems to happen via creep.


Suddenly … they are friends. Somehow.

She has a scar on her neck. He has noticed it. You get the sense that bovine Bob notices everything. She tells him she got it when she was a junkie. She did it to herself. She was a different person then. She’s clean now. She’s doing better. He takes this all in. He doesn’t judge. She admits to him she had a boyfriend who was a pain in the ass and dangerous and she’s still scared of him. She admits this, almost afraid that Bob will get jealous, or that he won’t like that she was once with someone else, or any other long list of misogynistic reasons that men punish women for having lives before they came around. We’ve all been there. But Bob doesn’t live life like that. It doesn’t seem to occur to him at all to judge Nadia for having a past. He’s glad she’s not with that guy anymore: that guy sounds like a jerk.

These scenes are very romantic, although the two never touch. They don’t kiss. They sit and talk. They stand outside her house after walking the dog, and say goodbye. He walks home alone. She goes into her house. 3/4s of the way through the film, with everything else that was going on, I found myself aching to see them get together. To at least embrace. What would that be like? How would they handle it? How would they be together? How would they get over the shyness and wordlessness to connect on that primal level? And I took note of my reaction, and realized that the film was working on a profound level if I was aching to see two fictional characters kiss. This was not just a matter of chemistry or anything like that. I couldn’t even tell if they had chemistry. Both characters are too buried in their game-faces to have much chemistry at all. But there was something there. Something tender and small, and I wondered what it would be like if it were allowed some room to breathe.


The “romance” is not even the point of the film, although it became the focal point for me. I could not get enough of their scenes together. I wanted to crawl up into the screen to get a closer look at each glance, each thought, each hesitation. It was so rich. There’s a scene where he invites her in to his place. They sit in his kitchen and have a couple of beers. Bob is not a humorous character, and there are times when I wondered if he had no sense of humor at all. If, somehow, this was a quality he lacked. Nadia is asking him about himself: how do you know Marv, how long you been at the bar, etc. Bob is open with her. He doesn’t play things cool at all. He says, “Marv and my mother … they were sisters.” Nadia starts laughing and he doesn’t know why she is laughing. You can see him wonder if maybe he’s being made fun of. She knows it was just a slip of the tongue, but it’s funny anyway. She says, “You said Marv and your mom were sisters …” Bob gets the joke then. Smiles faintly, but a hundred other things are going on with him at that tiny moment that lasts a millisecond. He is completely out of practice being intimate. Maybe he’s never been intimate. He is also not accustomed to hanging out and laughing about things. It’s a muscle that has not been developed. He likes this woman. He likes her so much. So maybe it’s okay that she’s laughing. But he’s not sure. He laughs, though, because he likes her, and says, gently, “Why you raggin’ on me right now …” He’s almost hurt. She says, “No, I’m not … it was just funny.” And you can almost see him relax. It’s tiny, but it’s there.

I just spent 75 words describing a moment that lasts 2 seconds. But that’s how rich it was. I almost wanted to look away. Oh God, these people are having a courtship, and they’re very shy and I honestly should not be watching. Vulnerability. That’s what was there.

The swoop-y romantic music that filled the screen at its final moment did not ring true. The Drop is not a heartwarming story. It is a brutal story about a brutal world. In The Drop, there are things you must do in order to keep your world safe. Marv wasn’t strong enough for that; he caved at the first sign of pressure. Will Bob? There is evil in this world. You must crush it, because the nature of evil means it will seep in through the floorboards if you are not vigilant about it. You can feel the material’s short story roots (pit bulls: misunderstood/beaten/turned into monsters by dick owners, Bob: maybe a misunderstood pit bull himself, maybe if he saves the pit bull he can save himself, maybe Nadia needs to be saved too, and etc., there’s a lot of that symbolic dovetailing going on), but I didn’t mind it. It didn’t feel shallow or manipulative.

The “drop system” in Brooklyn, the process by which money is laundered, secretly, and on a vast scale throughout the borough, is interesting. Marv is caught in the pincers of a system where he once was King. Bob sees everything, and sees how Marv is not up to the task. Marv, though, has some tricks up his sleeve. Nobody is clean. Nobody is innocent.

We’ve seen it all before.

And we’ve seen courtship between two shy people before, too. Rocky and Adrian again.

But Roskam and Lehane (who also wrote the screenplay) keep it simple. Keep it quiet and steady. The characters remain the focus, as the events pile up. Gandolfini manages to be both despicable and tragic. Hardy manages to be both shy and forbidding. Rapace manages to be sweet as well as hard-shelled, for very good reasons. Openness is not really a possibility here. Yet openness comes anyway.

What happens between Hardy and Rapace happens between the lines, up and around and below the words. It takes them a long time to get to the point. They are pretty much dating long before they kiss. People at the bar tease Bob about “havin’ a girl” and all they are doing is taking walks with the dog. It’s old-fashioned. Put into the context of the surrounding neighborhood, and its violence and long memories, the romance starts to seem even more fragile and precious. Nothing innocent can survive in that world. This is an innocent romance. And it barely exists. It’s not “on the page.” It exists in the pauses, the thoughts in their eyes, the hesitations. Their scenes together are amazing. I didn’t “root for” Bob. I didn’t “root for” Nadia. It’s not really that kind of movie. But I did find myself rooting – HARD – for them together.

The Drop opens end of this week. I highly recommend it.

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 28 Comments



Women boxing on a rooftop in Los Angeles, 1933.

Posted in Art/Photography | 4 Comments

Happy Birthday, Buddy Holly

Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly, Grand Central Station, 1959

Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan Show, January 26, 1958

Buddy Holly on Arthur Murray Dance Party, December 29, 1957

Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan Show, December 1, 1957

Buddy Holly’s career was tragically short. Signed to Decca in 1956, he was killed in a plane crash in 1959 (“the day the music died,” of course). While he was here, however, he managed to record quite a bit and inspire generations (including the Beatles, whose band name is a nod to Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets). Still. What a huge loss. He was only 23 years old.

Favorite Buddy Holly songs off the top of my head?

“Love Me.” That guitar. That aching demanding tone, so typical of a young man, the urgent young-man sexuality that was so much a part of the birth of rock ‘n roll. I love it when he roughs up his voice, too. “Midnight Shift,” “Holly Hop,” “Think It Over,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Down the Line,” “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down,” (talk to me, big boy!), “Ting-a-Ling” (so sexy), “Rave On.” Really, all of them.

Here is the great Waylon Jennings, seen above in that awesome photo (there are many more in the same series, two young rock star friends having a blast in a photo booth), talking about Buddy Holly. He was supposed to be on that plane. He was part of the same tour. He gave up his spot. He’s written songs about it. He was just a teenager at the time. Buddy Holly was like a big brother to him, a mentor.

Posted in Music, On This Day | Tagged | 2 Comments

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013); directed by Jim Jarmusch


It’s a rare movie that wraps you up in its own unique dreamspace. I suppose that’s the ultimate goal for any director, and any scriptwriter, too. Many movies try to do that. Many movies fail. The story, whatever it is, exists as a dream in the writer/director’s head before it makes it to the screen, before words are put to paper. There is something to say, something to contemplate, a world to be inhabited, characters that need to speak. The goal, the hope, is that whatever that dreamspace is will translate.

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive has one of the most luscious and evocative and emotional dreamspaces I’ve experienced in a long time, and while the movie lasts, you are caught in it, submerged in its mood and feeling. It takes a long time for the effects to wear off. The characters in Only Lovers Left Alive are nocturnal, by necessity, and emerging from the film is akin to walking out in bright sunlight after being in a dark space for hours on end. You shake your head to let the dream go.

John Cassevetes once said, “I don’t care about the scene. I only care about what happens between people.” Jim Jarmusch is the same way. He is interested in the charged space that exists between people: they could be strangers, they could be a long-time married couple … but when human beings (or, as in Only Lovers Left Alive, the undead) interact, a charge is transferred, something sparks, something ignites. The spark is not controlled. Anything can happen in that space: empathy can open up, or close down, connections can be made and lost, understanding achieved or disintegrated. Human beings often shy away from those sparks, because they cannot be controlled. We fall back on cliches or small talk in order to bear the interaction. We do so automatically. It’s not necessarily rude. It’s how we survive. Jarmusch removes those barriers. All that is left behind is the raw and open space “between people.” What happens in that space? How do we listen to one another? How do we share ourselves and share our perspective on things? Are we alone? Or can a hand cross that abyss and pull you over?


Only Lovers Left Alive tells the story of a longtime married couple. They got hitched in the 1860s. They are vampires (although the word is never spoken in the film). Their names are Adam and Eve. They are played brilliantly by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. At the beginning of the film, Adam is hiding out in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of Detroit, surrounded by his collection of guitars and amps, and Eve is holed up in Tangier, books stacked against every wall. Travel is challenging, since they have to avoid the sunlight. Blood supply is a constant issue, especially since so much blood is now contaminated. Getting “the good stuff” requires connections. Eve has a connection in Tangier, a “doctor”, also an undead being, who is actually Christopher Marlowe (played by John Hurt). “Kit” is able to hook Eve up with “the good stuff,” procured somewhere in the warren-maze streets of Tangier. Adam, meanwhile, has a connection at a Detroit hospital, a “Dr. Watson” (Jeffrey Wright), who gives him thermoses of blood in exchange for wads of cash, no questions asked.


It is not clear why the couple is across the world from one another, although the opening sequence makes clear, visually, that geography is irrelevant. A record spins on the record player. It is Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love.” As the swoon-y gritty song plays from the Queen of Rockabilly, we see Eve from above, the camera circling over her, echoing the circling of the record. Her beige hair is long and wild, and she lies on the floor against a sky-blue bed, surrounded by books. We see Adam, sprawled on a leather couch, surrounded by shadows, guitar in hand, also with the camera circling above him. The images continue to alternate, circling, circling, no movement from the figures, the only movement coming from the camera. They are on opposite sides of the world. They are connected. Life is hard. Adam is depressed and lonely for his wife. Eve flies to Detroit (making sure all the flights are night-flights) to be with him.



From the get-go, I was caught in the dreamspace of Only Lovers Left Alive. Not much happens. It is a story of a marriage. There are a couple of other characters: John Hurt’s “Kit,” a grizzled old guy, who still seethes somewhat because Shakespeare got the glory for works written by him. “He was illiterate …” moans Kit. There is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who shows up uninvited in Detroit, asking to crash. There is bad blood, so to speak. Something bad went down in Paris once, involving Ava. She is impulsive, reckless, bratty. She plays with Adam’s drum set, grinning at him, hoping for approval. He glowers. It’s like any in-law drama you’ve ever seen. Except they’re all the Undead.


There is a humor in that dichotomy, but it’s not presented in a cutesy way, i.e. “Oh, isn’t it funny to have a vampire man bitch about his vampire sister-in-law to his vampire wife?” In Jarmusch’s dreamspace, it’s an emotional confrontation, with a sister-in-law who shows up uninvited, and leaves a trail of wreckage wherever she goes. Adam is right to be cautious. Eve feels torn. Ava is hurt.

The plot is not the thing here, anyway. “The thing” here is a portrait of a marriage. A good marriage. When one is in need, as Adam is in the beginning, contemplating suicide, lonely, the other does what she has to do to get to his side. The reunion is breath-taking. They play chess. They listen to music. They talk about music. After all, Adam lives in the city of Motown, although, as Eve says to him, “I’m more of a Stax girl, myself.” She tries to get him to lighten up. She takes care of him. She makes fresh-blood popsicles, and they suck on them as they play chess.


He is gloomy. She is practical. She tries to get him to see the bright side. She forces him to dance with her, even though he’s not in the mood. The scene where they circle around, playfully, sexily, intimately, all to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” is a swoon of romance.

Things happen. Bad things. But all around it is the magical and strange darkness of the night, the spaces in between people, the relationships, the inter-relation of all things. Having been alive for so long, the vampires have a wealth of knowledge. Eve touches one of his guitars and knows the make and model, merely from what her fingertips tell her. She speaks every language on the planet and speed-reads books, inhaling them. He was a Romantic – like, literally. He hung out with Byron and Shelley. He saw Eddie Cochran play. He writes music and releases it anonymously. Blood is hard to come by. It seems that they may be at the end of the road.

olla dark and light

Jarmusch films all of this with a heightened and glamorous drama, the shadows thick and encroaching on the figures. In one scene, we see Adam and Eve lying in bed together, the blankets are black, their skin is white, and they are so entwined it is hard to tell whose limb is whose. It’s gorgeous. Detroit seems like an abandoned city. It is seen only at night, the bright lights of downtown glimmering faintly in the distance from the bombed-out outskirts, overrun by gigantic empty factories and shells of houses. Adam and Eve take long drives at night. They drive by the house where Jack White grew up, and sit there in the car at the curb, staring up at it. They are still capable of being amazed by things. It is the main way they connect.


Our culture is drenched in vampires. It always has been, since they first stepped onto the scene. Currently, of course, we have the tween version, with glittery skin and Superman powers, vampires being turned into a metaphor for self-sacrifice. There is that here, too: the undead here do not kill, or “turn” people. At least they try not to. They try to get by with blood procured from other places. Humans do intersect with them, sometimes on comfortable terms, but, in general, Adam and Eve keep their distance. It’s better for all involved to keep a low profile.


Tangier and Detroit are the locations, filmed only at night. It’s a a dark and twisty insomniac underworld where everyone seems both out of place and at home at the same time. Everyone needs something. Everyone is wandering the streets, looking for a fix. Whatever it might be. Sex, drugs, black-market blood, companionship. The vampires don’t “pass” as normal people, not really. You get the sense that the humans know something may be strange about them, but they’re not sure what. They always wear gloves when out in public. They wear sunglasses at night. They seem to communicate without language.


Einstein’s “spooky entanglement” theory is mentioned once at the beginning, briefly, and then brought back near the very end. How do quantum particles react to one another, mirroring one another, changing, reversing, whatever, while at opposite ends of the universe? How is that possible? It could be seen as the theme of the film, or at least the theme of the marriage between Adam and Eve. Without getting intellectual about it, Jarmusch shows us that interconnected-ness from the very first scene, with the twirling record, and the twirling couple, separated by thousands of miles.


Once upon a time, Hollywood used to specialize in something sometimes referred to as the comedy of remarriage, where a husband and wife who have separated or divorced find their way back to one another. The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, is a high watermark of the form. His Girl Friday. The list goes on and on. What was so special about these films, and what is still so special, is that the re-marriage comedy doesn’t have to trouble itself over a “meet cute,” or a falling-in-love process, or the other things that go into typical romances. The remarriage comedy features a couple who has already been through all that. They’ve got some miles on them. You can’t fool your partner anymore like you did during the courtship stage. The mystery is gone. But with the disappearance of mystery, other more profound things start to come into play. The audience is thrust smack-dab into the middle of a well-worn relationship, and when these films work, you ache for them to get over themselves and get back together. It also makes marriage look like the biggest possible adventure.


In its strange undead way, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the best and most positive films about marriage I’ve seen in a long long time. This is a working relationship. Adam has strengths and weaknesses, so does Eve. They balance each other out. They reach out for one another, glancing towards one another, for confirmation, or questions asked/answered, many times without any language exchanged. They hang out. They talk about literature and music. They problem-solve together. What he cares about, she cares about, and vice versa. The needs of his soul are on her radar. Always. It’s a partnership.


The more I think about the film, the more I think about those separated quantum particles, spinning and reversing, and reacting to what is happening with its partner across the universe. Adjusting: “Oh, you’re going this way now? Okay, lemme catch up, so I can go that way too.” Balance, connection, mirroring.

Like Cassavetes said: The scene doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what happens between people. And the space “between” could mean across the room or across the universe.

Only Lovers Left Alive is all about that. It’s a swooning dark dreamspace of love.

Posted in Movies | 20 Comments