Happy Birthday, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Voici mon secret. Il est tres simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”

saint-exupery-website

Today is the birthday of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. His writing meant a great deal to me when I was 15, 16, and I have never forgotten that.

Here is an extraordinary excerpt from Wind, Sand and Stars – a book I last read in high school, when I was in my Richard Bach-airplane-writing-soulmate-search phase. Listen to this prose.

And yet we have all known flights when of a sudden, each for himself, it has seemed to us that we have crossed the border of the world of reality; when, only a couple of hours from port, we have felt ourselves more distant from it than we should feel if we were in India; when there has come a premonition of an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.

Thus, when Mermoz first crossed the South Atlantic in a hydroplane, as day was dying he ran foul of the Black Hole region, off Africa. Straight ahead of him were the tails of tornadoes rising minute by minute gradually higher, rising as a wall is built; and then the night came down upon these preliminaries and swallowed them up; and when, an hour later, he slipped under the clouds, he came out into a fantastic kingdom.

Great black waterspouts had reared themselves seemingly in the immobility of temple pillars. Swollen at their tops, they were supporting the squat and lowering arch of the tempest, but through the rifts in the arch there fell slabs of light and the full moon sent her radiant beams between the pillars down upon the frozen tiles of the sea. Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, circling round those giant pillars in which there must have rumbled the upsurge of the sea, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight toward the exit from the temple. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid.

In 1939, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry met Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

What follows is just one excerpt from War Within & Without: Diaries And Letters Of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1939-1944, that describes the weekend encounter with Saint-Exupéry.

The volume opens with the Lindberghs returning to America in 1939 after a couple of years living in England and France. 1939 was a dreadful year, and Europe was hunkering down for war. The Lindberghs settled down on Long Island. Charles Lindbergh was causing an uproar, through his involvement with America First, and much of Anne’s diaries at this time were an anxious apologia for his views. Most of Anne’s family lived in New Jersey, so she was thrilled to be back close to them, and also thrilled that her children of school age could experience American schools for the first time.

Within a month of their return, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry comes to visit the family. The two aviators had never met. Saint-Exupéry had written an introduction to one of Anne’s books and had made an observation about her that cut Anne to the core, something about her being like a little kid, running eagerly to catch up to the grown-ups. “He had seen all that in me?” she thought, almost embarrassed. She felt, even before she met him, that he was a kindred spirit. The entries of his brief stay with the Lindberghs (complete with multiple car breakdowns) goes on for pages and pages and pages. Perhaps Anne was feeling a bit isolated in her own marriage. She didn’t have an affair with Saint-Exupéry, at least not an actual physical affair, but it is clear that she has fallen head over heels for him. Something has opened up in her in her encounter with this man. Something profound. When he disappeared in 1944, she grieved it as hard as if she had known him all her life, even though she had only spent one weekend in his presence. More than anything, what she felt when she met him was a sense of recognition, and the Saint-Exupéry entries are some of the most romantic things she has ever written.

Her feelings for Saint-Exupéry were so strong that Charles admits he feels a little bit jealous. Although there was a language barrier, and Anne was in charge of translating, her French wasn’t that good, so the three people communicated as best they could.

Excerpt from War Within & Without: Diaries And Letters Of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1939-1944

Sunday, August 6th

M. St.-Ex comes down while we are all at breakfast and tells us with some amusement that when he went to bed last night he didn’t notice there were two doors to his room. This morning he got up, went out the wrong door, and could not find his way about. “The bathroom was the second door on the right …. but there is no rightje suis fou!” Land comes in – a cherub with golden hair. St.=Ex looks at him, overcome, it seems to me, with his beauty.

Jon takes him out to see the tortues and talks French to him. “Mais, il parle trés bien le français!” says St.-Ex, delighted.

We talk all morning on the porch, C. and he on Aviation, Germany’s strength, England’s next move, France’s inherent strength, war tactics. Of war: it is so terrible, I say, it must be avoided at almost any price, and he agrees.

Also, C. tells the Göring lion story and at the crucial point Land hands St.-Ex a turtle, which proceeds to act. “Tout a fait comme le lion de Göring!

There is really nothing to say at this point but “Heureusement que vous n’êtes pas dans un uniforme splendide!

I ask him to write in our copy of Wind, Sand and Stars, which he does – something polite besides his name – and C. says then that I must write something in Listen! the Wind, which we have given him. I can think of nothing to write except, “In gratitude for the adventures he has given us” and then a quotation from Whitehead on adventure (in English, of course).

We go swimming at 12, and then C. and I take him to his friends outside of Huntington. I don’t know exactly how we find the way, because he is talking all the time about a crash he was in, under water and almost drowned. (He has been in an incredible number of crashes – bad ones – but I don’t see how a man who is that much of an artist can fly at all.)

We ask him if he will come back again and he says he’d love to come back for supper. So we plan to come for him at 5. C. and I talk about him, going back. I am convinced he is going to be killed if he goes on flying. C. talks of the impossibility of being absolutely first-rate – perfection in the world of action – and being anything else (at the same moment). And I suddenly remake an old discovery. It is the striving after perfection that makes one an artist. It is the sense that one is imperfect, unfulfilled, unfinished. One attempts by a superhuman effort to fill the gap, to leap over it, to finish it in another medium. And one creates a third and separate thing: “Adventure rarely reaches its predetermined end. Columbus never reached China. But he discovered America.”

The stutterers (or those who cannot speak well or quickly like me) write. But it is not enough to be a stutterer. One must also have glimpsed a vision of perfect articulateness which presses one on to compensate for one’s inadequacy.

After a quiet lunch I lie in the sun, try to comfort my body after these intense hours of living only in the mind.

Then we go for St.-Ex at 5. He is doing card tricks on the porch with his friends. One man is so ill that it makes me tremble to be near him, to feel his tremulous nearness to Death. I am so conscious of him and his lassitude – life flowing out of him and the gap between us and him, and also of his wife’s tired, carved, sharp and patient anguish – like an old hurt – that I can hardly pay attention to anything else. Is there as much of a gap between life and death.

Then we come home and swim – only I can hardly immerse myself in it; my mind is going so hard, is so quickened, that I can only think of more and more things to say. I can only feel horizons breaking and then breaking again in my mind, like the locked ice pack in the spring – pieces breaking off and flowing away, with a tremendous roaring.

And all the time the sense of life being so precious and running away so fast that not one fraction of a second must be lost.

Coming home in the car we talked – he and C., really, I translating – of missing the desert, of desert weather. How danger and solitude are the two factors that go to form a man’s character, that do the most for him. There is a kind of mountaintop, clear, cold-air austerity about him that reminds me of Carrel or of a monk, dedicated to something – what?

He says he can talk to us as to his own family, and how quickly one recognizes that one is on the same level. “Je comprends tout ce que vous dites.” (“I understand all you say.”) “There are the people one can talk to and there are the people one cannot talk to – there is no middle ground.” The three greatest human beings he has met in his life are three illiterates, he says, two Brittany fishermen and a farmer in Savoy.

“Yes,” I say, “it has nothing to do with speech – quick brilliant speech – though one thinks it has when one is young.”

“Oh, yes,” he says, “mistrust always the quick and brilliant mind.”

And then he goes on to say that the great of the earth are those who leave silence and solitude around themselves, their work and their life, let it ripen of its own accord.

I believe this so utterly that it is like my own thought.

Of the Despiaur head he says that it is a chef d’oeuvre because it does not say it all the first time one looks at it but bit by bit. And that he had thought from my writing that I could sculpt!

We have supper on the porch – with a very red sea and very green trees – and they talk about the state of France, what is wrong with it, various ills, alcoholism. We talk about Dr. Carrel, too, and how they must meet. (And we get bitten by mosquitoes). A little June bug gets caught in my hair. I take it out hastily, a little afraid, and then put it on the table. (If you kill it … I think.) But he picks it up gently and looks at it. “It is trying hard to take off,” he says, and when it does, only to land on his arm. “It was hardly worth taking off for such a short flight!”

Then we walk down to the beach. He talks about the south of France (the interior), where he says we must go and which we would like, and people he would like us to meet.

I say of La Grande Chartreuse: “Quelle vie admirable!

And we talk of Illiec, where we want him to come. Though in this changing world I fear neither of those things will come true. We are living in a dream interlude – before what cataclysm, I don’t know but fear.

We walk home through the heavy drowning sea of cricket song.

St.-Ex talks of Baudelaire, his life, his poetry. He says that Baudelaire was great not for what he said but because he was one of those who knew best how to knot words, and he recites some of his poetry to me and goes on, about his theory of style – that the same words arranged differently became banal, did not mean the same thing. The unexpressed finds expression in style, rhythm, etc. – words carry only half the freight. Of how inverted words sometimes gave quality.

Yes, I say, it is the breaking of rules, but cannot explain all I mean by that, which is much more – a union of the familiar and the strange which makes for an artistic creation – in fact, for any creation.

Then he talks of the poetic image – which is, technically – very exciting. He describes how in comparing things one has one object and another object and a bridge with which they are linked – so-and-so is like so-and-so. Like is the bridge. But sometimes one has no bridge. The mind must vault the gap, one’s mind creates the bridge. It creates a new thing entirely. A whole new civilization – in the case of “Les Archevêqyes de la mer” one’s mind imagines a whole hierarchy of things, an imaginary world.

“But perhaps this doesn’t interest you?”

“Oh, yes … yes!”

Then he takes the example of the stereoscope – two pictures of the same thing taken from a different angle – you put them together and the mind makes the adjustment. The mind supplies a third picture.

I tell him about the missionary in Baker Lake, translating the 23rd Psalm – the Lord is my shepherd – to the Eskimos in terms of reindeer and whale blubber. He asks about the Eskimos – where they interesting people? I talk a little about their rigid codes. C. disagrees and cites their changing of wives.

Yes, I say, but for utilitarian reasons, not for pleasure. Is that more moral? C. asks. Of course, St.-Ex and I answer together, looking at C.

I hardly know, looking back, which are my thoughts and which his, for he would start a train of thought and I would go off on a line of my own, jumping ahead, finishing his thought, whether correctly or not I can’t tell.

All of this, of course, is not accurately stated, because it has been translated and filtered through my mind. I wonder if it would not be the same if I met any of the people whose minds have touched mine in books – Rilke, or Whitehead (but no, I could not talk to him), V. Woolf (when I most admired her), L.H. Myers (for his preface to The Root and the Flower and Strange Glory), Thornton Wilder, for his Our Town. The man who wrote They Came Like Swallows. Victoria London for Jenny in February Hill. Perhaps my excitement comes because so rarely do I tap that world (my world – even if I am not a master in it – world of artistic vision). I have not yet found my circle, my friends, my nation. If this is true then “O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”

What a commentary it is on human communication in this world. How impossible it is to know other people. When one finds a person who has the same thought as yours you cry out for joy, you go and shake him by the hand. Your heart leaps as though you were walking in a street in a foreign land and you heard your own language spoken, or your name in a room full of strangers.

We get ginger ale and milk and C. and he talk on what he wants to do in this country and see – planes, factories, etc. St.-Ex says he wants to see the Grand Canyon!

Then to bed, very tired. What a comfort is C.’s unspoken understanding. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Littleprince

And finally I will post what is probably the most famous chapter of The Little Prince – the chapter where the prince meets the fox. I’ll post it in English – but then I also must post it in French, because I first read it in French in high school French class, and the English translation is just not as beautiful. It is meant to be heard in French.

Here is Chapter 21:

It was then that the fox appeared.
“Good morning,” said the fox.
“Good morning,” the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.
“I am right here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”
“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”
“I am a fox,” said the fox.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”
“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”
“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
“It is possible,” said the fox. “On the Earth one sees all sorts of things.”
“Oh, but this is not on the Earth!” said the little prince.
The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.
“On another planet?”
“Yes.”
“Are there hunters on this planet?”
“No.”
“Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?”
“No.”
“Nothing is perfect,” sighed the fox.
But he came back to his idea.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life . I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.
“Please– tame me!” he said.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me– like that– in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”
The next day the little prince came back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”
“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.
“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–
“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”
“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.” And then he added:
“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”
The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.
“You are not at all like my rose,” he said. “As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”
And the roses were very much embarrassed.
“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you– the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.
And he went back to meet the fox.
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

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Okay, so here comes the French!

Chapter XXI

C’est alors qu’apparut le renard.

-Bonjour, dit le renard.

-Bonjour, répondit poliment le petit prince, qui se tourna mais ne vit rien.

-Je suis là, dit la voix, sous le pommier.

-Qui es-tu? dit le petit prince. Tu es bien joli…

-Je suis un renard, dit le renard.

-Viens jouer avec moi, lui proposa le petit prince. Je suis tellement triste…

-Je ne puis pas jouer avec toi, dit le renard. Je ne suis pas apprivoisé.

-Ah! Pardon, fit le petit prince.

Mais après réflexion, il ajouta :

-Qu’est-ce que signifie “apprivoiser”?

-Tu n’es pas d’ici, dit le renard, que cherches-tu?

-Je cherche les hommes, dit le petit prince. Qu’est-ce que signifie “apprivoiser”?

-Les hommes, dit le renard, ils ont des fusils et ils chassent. C’est bien gênant! Il élèvent aussi des poules. C’est leur seul intérêt. Tu cherches des poules?

-Non, dit le petit prince. Je cherche des amis. Qu’est-ce que signifie “apprivoiser”?

-C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie “Créer des liens…”

-Créer des liens?

-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’a pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde…

-Je commence à comprendre, dit le petit prince. Il y a une fleur…je crois qu’elle m’a apprivoisé…

-C’est possible, dit le renard. On voit sur la Terre toutes sortes de choses…

-Oh! ce n’est pas sur la Terre, dit le petit prince. Le renard parut très intrigué :

-Sur une autre planète ?

-Oui.

-Il y a des chasseurs sur cette planète-là ?

-Non.

-Ça, c’est intéressant! Et des poules ?

-Non.

-Rien n’est parfait, soupira le renard.

Mais le renard revint à son idée :

-Ma vie est monotone. Je chasse les poules, les hommes me chassent. Toutes les poules se ressemblent, et tous les hommes se ressemblent. Je m’ennuie donc un peu. Mais si tu m’apprivoises, ma vie sera comme ensoleillée. Je connaîtrai un bruit de pas qui sera différent de tous les autres. Les autres pas me font rentrer sous terre. Le tien m’appellera hors du terrier, comme une musique. Et puis regarde! Tu vois, là-bas, les champs de blé? Je ne mange pas de pain. Le blé pour moi est inutile. Les champs de blé ne me rappellent rien. Et ça, c’est triste! Mais tu a des cheveux couleur d’or. Alors ce sera merveilleux quand tu m’aura apprivoisé! Le blé, qui est doré, me fera souvenir de toi. Et j’aimerai le bruit du vent dans le blé…

Le renard se tut et regarda longtemps le petit prince :

-S’il te plaît…apprivoise-moi! dit-il.

-Je veux bien, répondit le petit prince, mais je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. J’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaître.

-On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise, dit le renard. Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Il achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi!

-Que faut-il faire? dit le petit prince.

-Il faut être très patient, répondit le renard. Tu t’assoiras d’abord un peu loin de moi, comme ça, dans l’herbe. Je te regarderai du coin de l’oeil et tu ne diras rien. Le langage est source de malentendus. Mais, chaque jour, tu pourras t’asseoir un peu plus près…

Le lendemain revint le petit prince.

-Il eût mieux valu revenir à la même heure, dit le renard. Si tu viens, par exemple, à quatre heures de l’après-midi, dès trois heures je commencerai d’être heureux. Plus l’heure avancera, plus je me sentirai heureux. À quatre heures, déjà, je m’agiterai et m’inquiéterai; je découvrira le prix du bonheur! Mais si tu viens n’importe quand, je ne saurai jamais à quelle heure m’habiller le coeur…il faut des rites.

-Qu’est-ce qu’un rite? dit le petit prince.

-C’est quelque chose trop oublié, dit le renard. C’est ce qui fait qu’un jour est différent des autres jours, une heure, des autres heures. Il y a un rite, par exemple, chez mes chasseurs. Ils dansent le jeudi avec les filles du village. Alors le jeudi est jour merveilleux! Je vais me promener jusqu’à la vigne. Si les chasseurs dansaient n’importe quand, les jours se ressembleraient tous, et je n’aurais point de vacances.

Ainsi le petit prince apprivoisa le renard. Et quand l’heure du départ fut proche :

-Ah! dit le renard…je pleurerai.

-C’est ta faute, dit le petit prince, je ne te souhaitais point de mal, mais tu as voulu que je t’apprivoise…

-Bien sûr, dit le renard.

-Mais tu vas pleurer! dit le petit prince.

-Bien sûr, dit le renard.

-Alors tu n’y gagnes rien!

-J’y gagne, dit le renard, à cause de la couleur du blé.

Puis il ajouta :

-Va revoir les roses. Tu comprendras que la tienne est unique au monde. Tu reviendras me dire adieu, et je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.

Le petit prince s’en fut revoir les roses.

-Vous n’êtes pas du tout semblables à ma rose, vous n’êtes rien encore, leur dit-il. Personne ne vous a apprivoisé et vous n’avez apprivoisé personne. Vous êtes comme était mon renard. Ce n’était qu’un renard semblable à cent mille autres. Mais j’en ai fait mon ami, et il est maintenant unique au monde.

Et les roses étaient gênées.

-Vous êtes belles mais vous êtes vides, leur dit-il encore. On ne peut pas mourir pour vous. Bien sûr, ma rose à moi, un passant ordinaire croirait qu’elle vous ressemble. Mais à elle seule elle est plus importante que vous toutes, puisque c’est elle que j’ai arrosée. Puisque c’est elle que j’ai abritée par le paravent. Puisque c’est elle dont j’ai tué les chenilles (sauf les deux ou trois pour les papillons). Puisque c’est elle que j’ai écoutée se plaindre, ou se vanter, ou même quelquefois se taire. Puisque c’est ma rose.

Et il revint vers le renard :

-Adieu, dit-il…

-Adieu, dit le renard. Voici mon secret. Il est très simple : on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

-L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux, répéta le petit prince, afin de se souvenir.

-C’est le temps que tu a perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.

-C’est le temps que j’ai perdu pour ma rose…fit le petit prince, afin de se souvenir.

-Les hommes on oublié cette vérité, dit le renard. Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose…

-Je suis responsable de ma rose…répéta le petit prince, afin de se souvenir.

70DEE1546

Voici mon secret. Il est tres simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

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Posted in Books, On This Day, writers | Tagged | 10 Comments

On This Day, 1957

Jerry Lee Lewis made his TV debut on the Steve Allen Show. The performance is terrifying. Imagine tuning in and seeing that come out of your screen. It’s Old Testament speaking-in-tongues preacher, and it’s leering sex maniac on the loose. Plus the piano-playing. Plus (my favorite moment) when he stands up all of a sudden, pushing the stool behind him. It’s exhilarating. It’s raw. I don’t care that we have more “license” to show more stuff on television nowadays, boobs and butts and profanity and all the rest. None of that can hold a candle to the shock that was THIS.

Posted in Music | 6 Comments

“It is as easy for the mind to think in stars as in cobble-stones.” – Helen Keller

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Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin

Today is Helen Keller’s birthday. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life is essential reading.

In 1932, a doctor saw a photograph of Helen Keller on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. He wrote her a letter asking what she saw.

Here is her magnificent reply.

Posted in On This Day | 10 Comments

Hondo (1953) at MoMA: John Wayne in 3D

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Perfect timing: I’ve been absolutely loving Scott Eyman’s biography of John Wayne: John Wayne: The Life and Legend. It’s so good, people. It’s the biography that this icon deserves. I’m not done with it yet, and I’ll post more on it when I finish it. But Eyman GETS acting. This is the thing so many biographers, so many critics, DON’T get. They don’t understand technique and craft enough to talk about acting intelligently. Camera moves, they’re on solid ground. But how an actor is effective, and why? Crickets. And John Wayne is an especially interesting case for various reasons: his stature as a star, for one thing. It’s an untouchable monolith of fame, fame that lasted uninterrupted for 40 years. Why? HOW? There were many factors that went into it, time-and-place things, a break given to him by John Ford, etc. But how many actors are given good breaks, and are really good in whatever role the big break represents, and DON’T become John Wayne? Like, all of them. So the mystery goes deeper than one big break. You don’t become a star for 40 years, a top box office draw for forty freakin’ years, without some serious Mojo going on. Eyman breaks it down, and he does so specifically. He’s an excellent critic, not just of the films (background, production, post-production), but of the performances John Wayne gave IN the films. What is John Wayne actually DOING that is so good, besides “being John Wayne”? This loops into my pet peeve about the comment “he just played himself,” especially in regards to John Wayne, which I ranted about here to such a degree that there’s no need to go over it again.

As a huge John Wayne fan, it’s sad to me that I still haven’t seen many of his movies on the big screen (the way he is meant to be seen). Larger than life applies to him, who in real life was already huge, 6’3″, with broad shoulders, a lean waist, and long ambling legs. He towered over everybody. And yet, and yet, he was always graceful. His athleticism is extraordinary, his physicality smooth and controlled (and yet always natural). He was huge, but he was at home in his huge-ness (a lot of tall men are not). There is nothing more pleasurable than watching John Wayne’s gestures. But to see him on the big screen? He’s quite literally overwhelming.

What a treat, then, that MoMA has been playing the 1953 film Hondo, in 3D! New Yorkers, you have one more chance to get your ass there: July 4th – fitting, considering the patriotism of the man.

Directed by John Farrow (with John Ford doing uncredited second unit footage), with a script by Jimmy Grant (who emerges as quite an unforgettable character in the Wayne biography), Hondo was produced by John Wayne’s own production company. It featured Wayne, of course, as “Hondo,” the outlaw-gunman, part Apache, trying to round up settlers in the way of the Apache threat who are pissed off, and rightly so, at the betrayal of the white man who broke his promises to leave their land alone. Hondo has ambivalence about the whole thing, due to his kinship with the Apaches (both emotional and actual, he speaks longingly of his squaw, who died). He is the quintessential Wayne part: an individualist. Against conformity. His own man. He is 45 years old. He himself said that this was his prime, that he felt he never looked better than he did at 45. Which, considering his drop-dead-gorgeousness in The Big Trail over 20 years before, is saying something.

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But he was right. At 45, he was seasoned, filled-out, but lean and perfect. His first entrance in Hondo, from out of the wilderness, with “Sam” the dog trotting beside him is a spectacular example of the undeniable fact that all John Wayne had to do was appear – and you HAD to look. Star power. We can talk more about that. It has to do with relaxation, first of all, and an ability to let us in on who he is. He does not worry about acting. He is too busy being. And being is hard. Regular people can’t manage it, let alone with a camera on them at all times.

To those who don’t watch Supernatural, and may be baffled at why I have written about it so extensively, and about Jensen Ackles in particular, it is because Ackles, one of the stars, taps into an old-school Movie Star Persona brand of acting that is reminiscent of the great Persona stars of old.

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Ackles has been playing the role of Dean Winchester for 10 years, going on 11, and that one role has given him opportunities to show a diversity of emotions/character traits/flaws/weaknesses/humor/pathos, all poured through the filter of one Persona. This is difficult to do. Other actors would get bored. They want to show their range in more obvious ways, playing a variety of roles. But Ackles is no dummy and understands that his character is in a larger tradition, of Outlaws and Good/Bad Guys from Westerns (Spaghetti and otherwise), and 70s cop shows, and Tough Guy noirs. With some 1930s screwball thrown into the mix. That’s what he’s doing. His work, like Wayne’s, is the kind that is so solid and reliable that it is often under-appreciated. People don’t understand how good it is, how difficult it is, because guys like this make it look so easy. As easy as breathing.

And so in Hondo, Wayne appears, and everything stops. He is breathtaking.

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Geraldine Page, already a New York stage star, made her feature film debut in Hondo, playing Angie Lowe, a sweet woman, alone on an isolated farm with her young son, waiting for her husband to return from herding cattle. Hondo shows up in the first frames of the film, dusty and exhausted, walking over the rocky field, no horse in sight. Who is he? Is he up to no good? Is he an outlaw? Will he rape and pillage? She’s on guard.

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Meanwhile, the Apaches start circling. Angie has always had a good relationship with them. They water their horses at her creek, they shoot the breeze with her, they ride off. It is inconceivable to her that the Apaches could “turn” on her, not when she’s been so kind, not when they’ve always been so pleasant to her. Well, times are a-changing, ma’am, and the Apaches are fed UP.

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Hondo’s equivalent on the Apache side is the Chief, known as Vittorio, played by Michael Pate, in a wonderful performance. He is tough, fierce, but – similar to Hondo – looks at this white woman living on the edge of the wilderness and thinks she needs protection. He has befriended her son, so much so that he puts the kid through a blood-brothers ceremony, and the two go off together, on what amount to “play dates.” Vittorio shows up at the door, on horseback, the kid comes running out, and Vittorio swoops him off for a day with his people. Angie totally trusts her child will come to no harm. But the other Apaches, behind Vittorio … will they play by his honorable rules? And etc. and etc. Hondo knew Vittorio, or knew of him, and knew he was a man to be trusted, but also a man to be feared. There’s a wary respect between the two men, especially since Hondo speaks their language and doesn’t treat them in a contemptuous racist manner. He’s still a white man, and therefore an enemy, but he’s an outlaw – like they are. They “get” each other. The situation could “turn” at any moment, and of course it does turn, but it takes a while to get there.

Hondo “moves in” on Angie pretty quick. John Wayne had confidence as a lover and romantic figure. He wasn’t a brute, like Clark Gable (I’m talking acting persona now, not who they were in real life – although Wayne apparently loved sex with great gusto). He wasn’t shy and sweet like Gary Cooper or tormented and cynical like Humphrey Bogart. Wayne pursued a woman with the same confidence and know-how that he used when he leapt on a horse or cocked his rifle. He wanted it, he went for it. But there was always a kindness there, a lack of contempt. Think of him and Angie Dickinson, bantering it out Hawks-style in Rio Bravo. Or the gorgeous scene in Sands of Iwo Jima when he goes home with a random woman, thinking of course that it’ll be a hook-up, and she wants to hook up too, the rules are clear, but when they get to her place, he discovers a baby boy in a crib. Instantly, he changes tactics, and starts making formula for the kid, helping her out. She, a lonely single woman, is so embarrassed, afraid he will turn on her, or judge her, or find her unattractive because she’s a mum, but none of that comes. His view is (and it comes instantly, because he has a moral compass): She’s a lady in a tough spot, she wants company, no judgment there – so do I, sex is part of life – she wanted it, so did I – no biggie – but she needs help, well, all right then, I’ll help. God, I love that scene. There are others. The love story of Angel and the Badman, its complexity, his kindness, but also his inability to compromise who he is. He’s his own man. He is not befuddled by love, and he does not run from it. He is a realist. He knows that loving a guy like him will never be easy for any woman. He’s tough, he’s independent. But he is not afraid of love. When it appears – either the possibility for something long-lasting, or a one-night thing, he goes for it.

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And here, in Hondo, despite the fact that Angie Lowe is married and her husband is out there somewhere, he moves in on her. She puts him off. “I am a married woman.” But Hondo knows women, knows something is off about her situation. She needs help. Her husband has abandoned ship, in a time of great peril. He understands the Apaches, and understands that they are preparing for a war. He is caught in the middle a bit, due to his affiliation with them, but he’s also doing his best to warn the homesteaders in the way. Angie Lowe is slow to realize the danger.

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Watching a 3D movie at MoMA was somewhat hilarious. Because the vibe is so hushed and sacral, so to see all those people with their 3D glasses on, maintaining a sacred silence before the film cracked me up. It was great. As the lights went down, he said, “Okay, see you later!” his 3D lenses gleaming in rainbow through the darkness. Hysterical. After the movie, we wandered around looking for a bar to get a drink. We were like, “Look for a shamrock. That’s the kind of place we want to be.” Shamrock located, across the avenue, we waited to cross the street, and then I saw the neon sign in the window, blaring out the name of the bar: THE STAGECOACH. “Holy shit, look at the name of the bar.” “We are so going there.”

Now about the 3D. Except for a couple of scenes in the Lowe’s cabin, the entire thing takes place outside. The images are crisp and gorgeous, shimmering with clarity and depth. Wayne is usually filmed slightly from below, so he towers above the horizon, his head backed by blue sky and clouds. The fight scenes, one in particular, are superb (with Wayne clearly doing many of his own stunts). Wayne, at his best, made fight scenes seem real, and in this one – a contest between him and an Apache on top of a cliff – is actually gripping because (unlike in many other Wayne movies) – it’s an equal match. You’re not sure who’s going to win. There are a couple of incredible long shots of a circling wagon-train surrounded by Apaches on horseback. Stunning panorama. The 3D shows up with punches flying into the screen, arrows coming right at you, horses barreling towards you, but besides those “gimmicks,” the 3D is there to provide depth. It’s an extremely simple and effective use of the technology: it doesn’t take over or drive the story. It is part of making that long-lost world come to life (because that is one of the themes of Hondo: what we are witnessing is the death of a “way,” the Apache way, and there’s a mournfulness about that death felt by both Hondo and Angie).

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There’s humor. Wayne was very funny, in general, and he’s relaxed about it, no pushing, it comes naturally. When he picked up Angie’s kid and threw him in the river to teach him how to swim, the audience erupted into laughter. Wayne does it in one continuous movement, swinging the kid back like a baseball bat and then letting him fly into the air. One shot – so the kid really needed to do that “stunt” and Wayne had to do it without hurting him. It’s all so fluid, and the position of both of their bodies, the kid horizontal – his limbs all starfish-ed out, and Wayne gigantic, imposing, and gentle (his gentleness the trick up his sleeve, the surprising thing about him), tossing him into the water like he’s a rag-doll.

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The growing bond between Hondo and Angie is beautifully done. It goes through many phases. She’s a woman torn. He has secrets. He lies to her at one point and you can tell: he haaaaaates doing it. It feels wrong. He tries to come clean a couple of times, because he can’t bear it. Finally, there is a great confrontation scene between Page and Wayne, where she reads him the riot act about what he is about to do to her kid. She is the one who finally comes clean, about her life, about what has really been going on. She has a line about how a married woman has no truth of her own, her truth is that of her husband’s, and unfortunately the MoMA audience snickered, my least favorite kind of audience laughter, the oh-we-are-so-superior-and-enlightened snicker. But what she was saying was TRUE for women. Her statement wasn’t an endorsement of the attitude, so much as an expression of reality as WELL as a feminist critique of the same, for God’s sake. Women were helpless if their husbands were brutes, or malingerers, or abusive. They had no legal recourse. So it was essential that you pick a good man, a hard worker, and kind, someone whose “truth” was honorable. Her husband has left her helpless and alone. She is strong, but two is better than one, as any pioneer family would probably tell you (if they weren’t, you know, dead for centuries.) Her farm is falling to pieces because she can’t do it all, and she is left alone with her child, in a hostile wilderness with enemies circling around the homestead. Unforgivable, in the eyes of Hondo. Eff that loser, in other words. This is a simple woman, who has grown up in that wasteland, who knows no other life, who has lived a life of isolation, first with her parents, and then with her husband. Whatever man she lets into her world had BETTER be a good man, because there was no other social structure set up to support her, and women didn’t run around getting divorces in 1862 or whatever. You were stuck with the brute you got. So it’s crucial that her man be good, be fair. Why is that funny? Oh well, people like to feel superior.

One scene in particular stood out to me, and it comes early on.

Ready for an acting lesson? Here we go.

John Wayne and the “Reality of the Doing”

Hondo shows up, unannounced, out of the blue. He warns her that she needs to haul ass out of there. She’s like, “The Apaches are my friends. I’m waiting for my husband. I don’t know you. No. But still, you can stay here and get some warm food and have a bed – on the floor – to sleep in – until you can get yourself back together.” Hondo immediately starts making himself useful. Teaching the little boy how to shoot. Doing chores, chores that the man is supposed to do, because the woman is too damn busy hauling water, cooking meals and washing clothes. Everybody worked hard. You can’t do it alone. This is when Hondo guesses that her husband isn’t just herding cattle, gone for a couple of days. The horses are neglected, their horseshoes have fallen off. The man has clearly been gone for weeks, maybe months. He calls her on it, but she is defensive, sticking up for her husband against this bossy-pants interloper with the mean dog. Hondo shrugs it off, suit yourself, ma’am, and gets to work doing the things that need to be done.

In one lengthy scene, filmed in one almost unbroken take (there are only a couple of cuts, I think – I’d have to see it again), Wayne makes horseshoes in the little outdoor smith in the yard. She hovers nearby. He talks to her about the Apaches, and what they are up to, he talks to her about everything. She argues back, resisting him, resisting the danger, standing up for herself. John Wayne is actually making horseshoes, though – that’s the thing that really struck me. This is about continuous physical action, what my acting teacher in college called “the reality of the doing.”

When Dennis Hopper first started out, James Dean was an idol. Hopper had come up in a theatrical tradition, more classical and declamatory, that was his training, but when he had a small part in Rebel Without a Cause, he watched Dean’s work with amazement and awe. He started copying Dean’s attitude and mannerisms. Dean noticed, and clocked Hopper on the falsity of it, pulling him aside and saying, “If you’re going to smoke a cigarette onscreen, don’t act like you’re smoking a cigarette. Just smoke the cigarette.” It was like a light bulb went off in Hopper’s mind. Dean’s comment set him free as an actor. It helped him know what to DO. It relaxed him, totally.

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A quote along these lines from Sam Schacht, my acting mentor in grad school: “Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”

This goes along with Wayne’s famous comment about how he did not see himself as an “actor” but as a “RE-actor.” He partly said that because he was invested in the narrative that he had somehow “fallen into” acting, that he started out as a prop guy, that he had no ambition to be an actor. Uh-huh, Duke. Whatever you say. But the fact remains that he was right: As much as Wayne DOES onscreen, he never forgets the RE-actor part of it (which is the “listening and talking” element of acting. I’ve said it before: ALL good actors are world-class listeners. There are no exceptions.)

What does “the reality of the doing” mean? It has to do with James Dean’s advice to Dennis Hopper. Sanford Meisner, an original member of The Group Theatre, who became one of the most famous acting teachers in America through the Neighborhood Playhouse, was obsessed with “the reality of the doing.”

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He thought the Method, at least as taught by Lee Strasberg, was too focused on feelings. Meisner’s definition of good acting was thus:

… behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.

Notice that word “behaving.” Not “feeling” or “being.” Behaving. Doing. And “truthfully” is just as crucial to the full thought and concept. None of it matters if what you are doing is lazy, unmotivated, or phony.

Elia Kazan, another Group Theatre alum, described his job as a director as “turning psychology into behavior.”

Again with the “behavior.” I don’t mean to beat the drum so repeatedly, but the focus on emotions has a way of taking over, at least in acting classes, when actors are susceptible and eager to learn. Gena Rowlands has said that she “can’t cry.” “Crying” is not her thing as an actress. Who cares. She’s one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.

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Meisner created all of these great exercises, now known as “The Meisner Technique” (which was my training) to help actors click into “the reality of the doing.” Actors get swept up in the emotions: they worry about whether or not they will be able to cry, they are concerned with what kind of anger to bring to a scene, they obsess on emotional backstory. These are all necessary things for an actor to know how to do, I don’t mean to dismiss them, and neither did Meisner. But what about the DOING? Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.

If all an actor does up there is feel, the audience will be left cold. It is the DOING that makes scenes come alive, “pop.” The doing can be physical, backed up by objective: “I am going to wash these damn dishes like MAD because I am so pissed off at my husband right now and don’t want to deal with it.” (Joan Crawford was a master at this. Her waitressing behavior in Mildred Pierce. Her meticulous preparation for escape in Sudden Fear, or the scene with the dictaphone. Wow. Her glasses-behavior in Humoresque, her coffee-pot/artist’s-smock behavior in Daisy Kenyon. Business, business, business. All motivated, all figured out by her, all flowing with her lines and her emotions.) The doing can be purely emotional, what people mean when they talk about “objective”: “What I am DOING in this scene is trying to get THROUGH to you/trying to fuck you/trying to comfort you.” Everything you say, every gesture you make, comes from that objective. (John Wayne knew this on a truly remarkable level. He was a natural at playing an objective.)

Sam Schacht again: When actors were “stuck” in a scene in his class, unsure of how to make it happen, he would throw out the reminder: “Every scene is either Fight or Fuck. Pick one. See where it gets you.” “Fight” or “fuck” were objectives, things to do. Or at least ATTEMPT to do, because your scene partner, with his or her own objectives, may not want to fight you, may not want to fuck you. If you both play your different objectives 100%, then Voila. You are doing what Tennessee Williams wrote, or Shakespeare, or whoever. It’s amazing to watch when it clicks. I still think of that “fight or fuck” thing when I’m trying to break down a scene and analyze what the actors are doing, how they are going about achieving their objectives.

If you want to witness a group master-class in that kind of “doing”, watch episodes of Thirtysomething.

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The entire show was built on emotions, shown through everyday behavior like making dinner or getting the kids ready for school. That was the rhythm of the show, and those actors were brilliant at accomplishing it, inhabiting it. That’s why the group scenes in that show were so incredible and the sheer amount of DOING going on was often overwhelming. It always felt like dinner was REALLY being made, the kids’ backpacks were REALLY being packed.

Dean’s advice to Hopper again: Don’t act like you’re making dinner. Make dinner. Thirtysomething devoted itself to physical behavior in a way that is unique – definitely something for actors and directors to learn from (especially those master shots, with people coming in and out of the frame, going to the fridge, searching through cupboards, exiting out the back door for a second, re-entering holding a bike helmet, or whatever – so there was clearly a REASON to go outside, all as everyone is talking, and acting, and living. It’s unbelievable ensemble work: very difficult to accomplish and choreograph.)

Everything we do has a reason behind it, either large and urgent (“I must board up the windows of my house before the typhoon hits/before the aliens arrive/before the serial killer comes up the driveway”) or small and non-urgent (“I am a neat-nik, therefore I must place coasters on all of the tables before the guests arrive.”) If you do physical business without a reason behind it, then you got nothing.

Watch Gena Rowlands walk into her huge penthouse suite in Opening Night with Cassavetes or Gazzara or whoever trailing behind her (the scene repeats).

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What she wants, what she is DOING, in that purposeful walk, is going to get a drink. She doesn’t take her coat off. She makes a beeline for the bar. She cannot wait to get there, why is the room so HUGE, why are the drinks so far away? Get me over there NOW. In every single scene, every. single, scene, her desire for alcohol is so imperative that it drives everything she does. You can FEEL her need for a drink. THAT’S “doing.”

If an actor only focuses on emotions and forgets the DOING part of it, not to mention the whys of the doing, you don’t have a scene. Much of acting class, in general, is helping actors click into “the reality of the doing.” (The bad acting teachers only focus on emotions. You can clock those actors from miles away. They can cry, but they cannot walk and talk at the same time. When they are asked to do “physical business” at the same time as they are having a catharsis, they are unable to do it and will always prioritize the catharsis.)

The great actors understand all of this intuitively. They’d think all this talk about it was silly. Either you DO it, or you don’t. Don’t sit around TALKING about it.

John Wayne did not become a star right away. He made many many B-Westerns before The Big Trail and then many many many after, until Stagecoach came along and made him a star. He was not a natural “actor”, but he was a natural personality. Once he figured out he didn’t need to “act” at all, and he could just “be” onscreen, everything clicked into place and there was no more awkwardness. His personality was so strong that everybody felt it, in real-life and onscreen. But to OWN that? To understand it, and be able to utilize it? To be able to channel it into roles as diverse as the ones he played? Ethan Edwards, Ringo, Hondo, Thomas Dunson? These are not the same guys. Wayne used himself and his personality consciously and with humility. But he always knew what he had. Only the great ones can pull that off.

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Gary Cooper once said that he enjoyed doing Westerns so much because it was real. You have to really ride the horse. You can’t fake it. You have to really get on the horse. You have to really tie up the horse. While all that “doing” is going on, there’s no time to worry about acting. It’s funny: if an amateur actor (a talented and coachable amateur actor, that is) is flailing a bit in a scene, unsure of what to do with his emotions, give him a physical action to perform and then have him play the scene. A talented albeit green actor will suddenly understand, get the Dennis Hopper light-bulb. Ohhhh, okay, so if I play the scene AS I am sewing a button on the sweater, and if I focus just as much on sewing the button as I do on my lines, and my scene partner, suddenly we’ve got a SCENE. I’ve seen such moments in countless acting classes, and have had such moments myself. It’s great. Because in real-life, the whole world does not stop because you are arguing with your wife, the entire world does not take a pause so that you can burst into tears at your leisure. You are still driving your car, or boiling water, or herding sheep. You have to do BOTH. Simultaneously.

Sounds elementary, right? Well, actors will understand how much of a challenge all of this is (and Wayne had to figure it out too, he didn’t stride out of the gate as his confident glorious self, although he brought to the table many natural attributes like grace and beauty and fearlessness – those things help.) Actors have to understand this concept and master it QUICK, or they will find themselves being acted off the stage by their scene partner who already gets it.

I’ve gone on long enough, although this was hella fun to write.

My point, ultimately, is this:

In one mostly unbroken take, John Wayne makes horseshoes, all as he banters and scolds and flirts with Geraldine Page. It’s a very talk-y scene. If they had been just standing in the corral, doing nothing else but talking, the audience would not only fall asleep, but it would feel phony. In general, people do not stand in the middle of an open space and talk at one another about their lives for 20 minutes. They’re doing other things. Making horseshoes is a complicated multi-step process. Wayne’s doing it all: hammering out the shoe, heating it up, pumping the bellows, plunging the shoe into the cold water – a hiss of steam accompanying it – hanging the shoe up for later, starting in on another one. It’s an archaic piece of business too: it’s a 19th century kind of thing, although horses still need to be shod today. Wayne does it with the grace and ease of a man who has been around horses all his life, and knows how to take care of them, knows what he is doing. His actions are as automatic as a practiced and experienced cook making Thanksgiving dinner for a huge crowd all by herself. She’s got the turkey going, she’s mashing potatoes, she’s boiling water for green beans, she’s got the biscuit batter all mixed … and as she’s doing all of this, she’s chatting with her kids, giving them chores, talking with her guests, whatever. I myself could never pull off such a feat, and my cooking-for-guests usually end up being more like Warren Beatty trying to cook dinner for Diane Keaton in Reds. In other words, a disaster.

John Wayne is doing multiple things at the same time in this wonderful scene. He is taking over Angie Lowe’s life, in a peremptory manner, even when she says, “I don’t need you” because he doesn’t care, she DOES need it, and her husband is a loser/loafer who has left her in peril, whatever great things she may say about him. He is also drawn to her, physically and emotionally, and he’s been alone a long time, probably his only sex life is fucking the whores in town whenever he makes it that way. So … he likes her. You can tell he likes her. Right away. The scene ends with him coming up behind her and grabbing her. Because dammit, she’s a good woman and he wants her. She deserves to be taken care of and man-handled. With care, of course. She’s flustered, saying, “I know that I am a homely woman.” The way he looks at her though … she’s the most gorgeous thing in the world. Through all of this emotional stuff, though, grounding the scene, and giving it its structure, is the horseshoe-making Grand Pantomime. Only it’s not a pantomime. It’s the real thing.

Wayne never stops. He walks and talks at the same time. He plays multiple levels of emotional reality with every line. He throws lines over his shoulder. He has a comeback for everything she says. When he pauses, you hold your breath. Because this man does everything deliberately. And Wayne makes those damn horseshoes right before our eyes.

This is the sort of acting moment that rarely gets pointed out and praised. (I think this is partly because many folks writing about movies care most about direction, to generalize. And so they don’t understand how important/rare/difficult/beautiful such a scene is for an actor to pull off – and also how crucial it is that these details are set, and present, and it is up to the ACTOR, not the director, to accomplish that.)

Watch him make the horseshoes. And carry on a conversation. And have multiple objectives. And be attracted to her. All at the same time. And as you watch, understand that what he is doing looks easy, because it is easy for him, but it is not easy for others. Also: it’s not just that it’s easy. It looks easy because Wayne prepared. He was meticulous in his preparation. If he had to do something onscreen, he learned how to do it, he practiced it, so when the cameras were rolling, he was confident, he had done it 100 times before. The rifle-twirl that he does in his famous first entrance in Stagecoach is a perfect example.

He had to practice that, he had to have a stuntman show him how to do it, the rifle had to be slightly sawed off so it wouldn’t catch under his arm, and he did it over and over and over again, until it was automatic. Business like that has to be worked out. An actor has to devote himself to the smallest details. The camera is tuned into truth, and phoniness and fakery come across as though blasted through a megaphone.

Similar to the bad acting classes where the folks who cry loudly and lustily in every scene get the most attention/praise, the more histrionic “showy” acting gets the most attention. Wow, she was really crying. Wow, his anger was so loud. Wow, she was super-drunk in that scene. ACTING with a capital A! I wonder if this is because acting and the use of the imagination in such a powerful childlike way is still such a mystery to many folks, who couldn’t even begin to do something like that. It’s the “how do you memorize all those lines” school of audience-member (and there’s no judgment in that. That comment never bothered me because it seemed like an acknowledgement that acting was a weird and challenging and cool thing to do.)

But none of that emotional stuff has any “oomph” whatsoever if the actor is not clicked into some “reality of the doing” that pours into the overall Story as a whole. The “reality of the doing” occurs in the big moments of catharsis and crisis, helping us understand the stakes, helping us invest. But, even more importantly, the “reality of the doing” has to be present in the small moments as well. Moments like diligently making horseshoes as you talk to a woman you desperately want to kiss.

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The Books: The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17; “An Orgy of Disorder and Cruelty: The Beginnings of Sex Antagonism”

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17

The fight for women’s enfranchisement was bitter, protracted and violent. The suffragettes of England had organized themselves to such a degree that they would show up at various political meetings, where the men were discussing Important Things (usually leaving out the issue of votes for women), and demand rowdily from the back or from the galleries that they address their concerns. Riots broke out, with women being thrown down stairwells and beaten to a pulp (as today’s excerpt, an article in The Clarion from 1912, describes.) Rebecca West herself was present at many of these events, from when she was a teenager, witnessing the callousness with which polite requests were treated. No wonder women resorted to more violent means. If you could be thrown into the bushes just for shouting “Votes for Women,” then that was a clear signal of how threatened/closed-off the power structure really was. The press, both Tory and Liberal, did not comport themselves particularly well, which is why the feminists started their own newspapers (which is how Rebecca West got her start as a journalist).

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The power structure was so set in stone, and very few people give up or share power willingly. That’s how seductive power is. This should not be a surprise, or a revelation. I think it was Napoleon who observed, from afar, George Washington’s second term as President, and remarked, “If he walks away from office, he will be the greatest man who ever lived.” And of course, Washington did walk away. Napoleon could never do it. Because once you have a taste of Rule, you want more. And more. History is full of examples. So the men, who owned all of the arms of power, did not want to give it up. The fight for enfranchisement was like lancing a boil or something: all this nasty shit started coming out, shit that was always there in the patriarchal system, and yet hidden from view before women started saying, “We don’t want this.” Now that really was a revelation for many of the women, fighting the fight: Look at how much they HATE us. They had sensed that hatred and contempt, but it had been hidden from view in a veil of politeness and deference, required by the Victorian patriarchal system which put women on a pedestal. Once that pedestal crashed, out came this roaring rambunctious hatred, and for many it was upsetting, sure, but for many others it was the force that drove them on. As in: Okay, now we know the truth, now we have confirmation: they despise us. So we will be DAMNED if we let men who are so small-minded, so hateful, rule over our lives and destinies.

Rebecca West, who enjoyed men a lot, who always was ready to point out that “sex antagonism” (men hating women, politics favoring men over women, etc.) could work both ways, and she wanted men to understand that. As she wrote later in this essay:

It never seems to strike men that a party which renounced the principle of liberty, when dealing with women, might renounce them when dealing with men.

There was a lot of rage-boy whining going on, which we all should be familiar with today. Witness GamerGate. Or John Oliver’s recent rant about the Internet and women. Go to any article that discusses John Oliver’s rant, and then read the comments. Sex antagonism is alive and well. These boys are like, “Yes, women should be equal. I should be able to punch a woman in the face, and not be judged for it. If I can punch a man, why can’t I punch a woman?” Oh boo-hoo, baby wants a bottle. How about we stop punching altogether and start talking and listening? This just goes to show you that a sense of entitlement is very engrained – it is somehow encouraged, by osmosis, and so when something comes along that threatens that, people flip OUT. I read some of the vicious misogyny and think: Who raised these monsters? Shame on Mom and Dad both: You both did a terrible job. Well, that’s one thought. The other one is: My goodness, I am glad I hang around men who like women. Jeez Louise, boys, it’s just so much easier in life when you like women. So much else starts to make sense then. (The opposite is true as well, ladies.) The last one is: Do these people not know ANY women they like? Mothers? Grandmothers? Sisters? Daughters? A 2nd grade teacher who praised your drawings? Nobody? How can you generalize about women so? It is so revealing of your intellectual limitations and you are not even AWARE of it. I can’t generalize with total certainty about men because I know far too many men who have ZERO to do with the stereotype.

Anyway, reading Rebecca West’s pieces about the violent fight for enfranchisement is a bummer because so much of that shit is still going on AND it is my point of view that it is definitely worse now than it was back when I was coming of age. I think it’s because every bozo now has a microphone on the Internet, whereas once upon a time, the bozos had to write out their manifestos in long-hand on a legal pad, like every other crazy person, and none of us had to hear any of it.

The article excerpted below describes “an orgy of disorder and cruelty” that followed a bunch of suffragettes breaking up a speech made by Lloyd George (soon to be a national hero, but West had no use for him) in his home town of Llanystumdwy, where he was opening up a village school. He portrayed himself as a paragon of a family man, wife and kids, the ultimate politician with his smiling brood around him, and West thought it was all bullshit (as the opening paragraph below expresses. I love it when Rebecca West does not pull her punches.) Lloyd George was a Liberal, and, famously, one of the engineers of the modern welfare state, as many would call it. Rebecca West despised the Liberals, almost more than the Tories, because of the hypocrisy and “littleness” on display in much of their politics and attitude. She continued to be relentlessly logical, pointing out the fallacies in the arguments propping up “sex antagonism”. She was unwilling to give the Liberals a pass, because they were for the “right” things, like health care and education and blah-dee-blah. She saw it all as a bunch of windy rhetoric: these guys wanted a pat on the head for being less awful towards women than the Tory party.

And so, the riot that broke out at Lloyd George’s speech-making day in his home town, was a symbol to West, a warning to other suffragettes who put their hope in the Liberal party, who were willing to compromise/wait/forgive.

West was never afraid to “take on” a sacred cow. Lloyd George was something of a sacred cow (and would be even more so throughout World War I, when he served as Prime Minister). In 1912, he presided over a riot, throwing up his hands helplessly at the sight of women being punched in the face, when he just as easily could have done something. West did not forgive or forget. Mind like a steep trap, if you’ll forgive the cliche.

One of her most famous quotes (which she used a couple of times, both in her masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and also in one of her earlier articles) was the following:

A strong hatred is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere.

I tend to agree with her. She never forgot her various hatreds, and was able to pull them out when she needed them. “Yes, he may have done much good in this sector, but let us never forget his appalling behavior HERE.” People have short memories. West did not.

I am piecing together the event that prompted the following article based only on West’s description and my own vague knowledge of Lloyd George. The book Young Rebecca suffers from a total lack of explanatory footnotes, or explanatory contextualized opening paragraphs. There was so much wrestling back-and-forth going on, in print, with journalists arguing it out in their columns, and West is responding to a pious “Liberals patting themselves on the back” article about the “orgy of disorder and cruelty”.

Here’s the excerpt.

Excerpt from The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17: “An Orgy of Disorder and Cruelty: The Beginnings of Sex Antagonism”, by Rebecca West

With the modesty for which he is notorious, Mr. Lloyd George celebrated his birthday last Saturday by presenting, far from anonymously, to Llanystumdwy, the home of his boyhood, what the Daily News called “a village university.” It was a village institute. He found himself unable to perform the act of generosity without the support of his wife and family and five MPs. “In the absence of Mr. Winston Churchill, the ceremony of opening the outer entrance was performed by Mr. Mastermind MP, who was presented with a golden key for that purpose, and upon reaching the institute, the door of the building was opened by Mrs. Lloyd George, to whom another key had been presented.” The whole George family was present in ecstasies over the noble deed. Miss Megan Lloyd George, that unremarkable child whose bare legs twinkle across the stage of English politics, was photographed all day, playing with daddy or pushing a go-cart in the garden. The festivity was as characteristic of Mr. Lloyd George’s generosity as of his modesty. The institute was built with £1,000 which was awarded to Mr. Lloyd George in a libel action. We may receive the statement without rapture if we reflect that he charges his unhappy country £5,000 a year for his services in hatching addled Insurance Acts. It was a debauch of vulgarity. And there was something sinister about it. No one would mind if the George family went to Blackpool for the day and ended up by changing hats and singing comic songs on the promenade. But this brandishing of the simple pieties and Christian virtues under the camera’s eye is false and dangerous. So no one need have been surprised when the celebration suddenly turned into an orgy of disorder and cruelty, a letting loose of Hell.

Some suffragettes turned up at the opening ceremony. They reminded Mr. Lloyd George that the question of enfranchisement of women had not been settled. They were tactful. They did not point out the plain truth – that it is galling for women to be cheated out of their citizenship by such an inefficient person as Mr. Lloyd George. They made remarks such as “Votes for Women”, and expressed disagreement with various challenging statements that he made. Nothing they said could have aroused the fury with which they were received. A gentleman named Mr. P.W. Wilson, who occupies a confidential position in the Liberal world, claims to have made a protest.

“Remember,” he exclaimed, when he saw a fellow-Liberal scratching a suffragette, “she is a woman!”

He was thereupon hustled, and quite rightly, too, for making such a silly remark. The questions were not in the least provocative of scratching, and had the questioner been a man, there was not the slightest reason why he should be scratched any more than a woman.

To prove that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, Mr. Wilson tells us that afterwards one of the men who had hustled him came up to him and, touching his hat, begged his pardon. How like the vanity and littleness of liberalism to record solemnly a triviality like that when describing a scene as brutal and perilous as a battlefield!

The population of Llanystumdwy showed clearly that, though it had been given a village institute, what it really wanted was a village shambles.

Think of a mob of screaming, shrieking men, convulsed with liberalism, throwing themselves on singlehanded women, beating them with sticks and stones, tearing out their hair in handfuls, and stripping them down to the waist! Think of them dragging the bleeding bodies of their captives towards the village pump, pitching them over hedges, and trying unsuccessfully to dip them in the river!

Then listen to the speech with which Mr. Lloyd George was leading their hearts heavenwards:

There is no country where political warfare is fought under stricter and more honorable rules of fair play and personal chivalry, than in Great Britain. That is a worthy pride and boast for this land, and they fight all the more effectively because they fight honorably.

The right honorable gentleman broke the chain of his argument for another distinguished son of Llanstumdwy. Seeing a suffragette pinioned by this fellow, who was pummeling her face with his fist, “I am sorry in my heart,” he complained, picturesquely. “I would do my best to protect their lives, but I cannot be responsible any longer.” It was only by a miracle that his fellow countrymen did not take the hint.

It is impossible to take this scene as a mere bit of rowdyism. It happened under the auspices of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it was performed by the supporters of the present Government without fear of arrest. It is an event of profound significance.

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Happy Birthday, Billy Wilder

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Billy and Audrey Wilder

One of my favorite directors. I love his tips for screenwriters (#6 helped me enormously when I was writing my own script and problem-solving the final scene.)

Billy Wilder’s Tips for Writers

1. The audience is fickle.

2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4. Know where you’re going.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.

9. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then —

11. — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Taken from the essential “Conversations with Wilder“, by Cameron Crowe


Look at these two bad boys. They are up to no good.

Posted in Directors, On This Day, writers | Tagged | 10 Comments

Ex Machina (2015)

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Ex Machina knocked me out. Knocked me OUT, I tell you.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (a novelist and screenwriter), it is a first feature: extraordinary, considering the authority the film carries. There are no first-time jitters in evidence. No grabbing-for-the-brass-ring and showing the strain, common of first-timers. Garland knows exactly what he is doing, what story he is telling, and how he wants to tell it.

I saw it without reading the reviews – only hearing the raves. That is the way to go. I’ve read reviews since and they give a lot away. I will try to not do so here, but feel free to skip the review – and SEE the film, and then come back to discuss. Because watching the film with little prior knowledge meant that I did not know what was coming, I had no sense of the trajectory of the story, and was able, then, to be drawn into this creepy claustrophobic world. If Caleb feels trapped, if Ava feels trapped, then so did I.

Briefly: the film wastes no time getting started. A young programmer named Caleb (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company-wide contest. He works for a Google-ish Search engine called Blue Book, invented by a genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The “prize” is a week spent in Nathan’s secluded (putting it mildly) hideaway in the mountains, an extended one-on-one. Nathan is a mysterious figure, a Citizen Kane, whom nobody has really seen. To get to his home, Caleb has to board a helicopter, which flies over glaciers, through mountains, white and green, to a small green valley where there is an empty field. The helicopter drops Caleb off, the pilot saying, “The house is over that way. Just follow the river.” Confused, in his suit, holding his suitcase, Caleb makes his way through the forest to a house buried in the woods. He is issued a key-card by a robotic female voice at the front door. Once inside, he descends a glass staircase into the house proper. The furnishings are elegant and spare, there are glass windows everywhere, looking out on the river, the trees. But there’s no one around. No one greets him at the door. He finally comes across Nathan, bearded, shirtless, punching a boxing bag out on the back porch. Nathan greets him with a “Hey there, bro, what’s happening?” vibe that is both disarming and somewhat suspicious. (Oscar Isaac’s performance is incredible.) Whatever Caleb, clearly a good boy trying to make a good impression, in his suit, calling Nathan “sir”, was expecting, this sweaty guy talking about how he’s detoxing after a hangover, in a “You know how it is, right, dude?” manner, is not it.

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Why has Caleb been brought there? What are the two men going to do for a whole week in isolation? Caleb has been kept in the dark. Nathan has an air of excitement and focus that looks either sinister or enthusiastic, depending on the moment-to-moment behavioral cues. Alone, in his mountain lair, Nathan has been working on something, something big, something that will change the world (even more than he already changed it, with Blue Book). He has been working on A.I. technology. For years. And he thinks he’s finally getting somewhere. That a breakthrough is imminent.

But it needs to be tested by an outside eye, which is where Caleb comes in.

Enter Ava (Alicia Vikander), the Artificial Intelligence. She is kept in a glass-walled room. Her arms and her torso are see-through, showing blinking circuitry within. The film is broken up with chapter-markers: “Ava: Session 1″ or “Ava: Session 2.” Caleb’s job is to have sessions with Ava, and then report back to Nathan his impressions. Nathan can be frightening. He is charming, but he can also “turn.” He’s volatile. What he wants from Caleb is not a nerdy lecture on her impressive and fluid vocabulary and her understanding of semantics. What Nathan wants is Caleb’s emotions: Do you FEEL that she is human? What do you FEEL when you are in her presence? Nathan doesn’t mention the “uncanny valley”, although that is what I thought of. What Nathan is interested in is Caleb performing The Turing Test.

Caleb’s sessions with Ava proceed. Nathan quizzes Caleb afterwards.

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Shit gets twisted, dark, and terrifying. I had no idea how the story would go. All bets seemed to be off.

And that’s about all I’ll say about the plot. I did flash on last year’s magnificent Under the Skin (my review here), and there are many similarities, especially in Ex Machina‘s interest in exploring gender, and what that means, how it presents, how we respond to it, the “state” of being a woman, and what that actually means. The “state” of being a man, and how that informs/distracts/enlightens. How does one understand who one is on this basic level? Under the Skin was practically a gender-studies thesis, although that makes what is riveting and visceral sound dry and academic. These films do not lecture. But they have more to say about the realities of gender imprisonment (for both men and women) than more realistic films. Good science fiction can address the human condition with total confidence (I am thinking of Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?thoughts here – turned into Blade Runner, of course – another source material I thought of after I came out of Ex Machina, blinking into the raw rainy morning. I had been on a date the night before, that went really well, sparks! fun! talk! he spent the whole night glancing at my mouth! Yay! – and then careened off the rails in the last 5 minutes, so I was still trying to shake it off the following morning. AND, to intensify the literary conceit, as I walked down 8th Avenue to the subway, post-date, I was assaulted. I was walking in the “lane” next to the bike-path, because the sidewalk was crowded, which meant I was next to the line of cars that park along that lane. A guy lunged at me from out of a car, grabbed my breasts, hard, he hurt me, and said “Nice titties.” I am not even kidding. Had he just watched the despicable Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or something? I bashed his hands off me, said, “Fuck you” and kept walking. I forgot about it promptly because I went back to the weird date in my mind, thinking, “What the hell just happened.” I didn’t even remember the “titty”-grab until the next morning because the date was on my mind. I know, I’m strange. Like … the titty-grab was not the weirdest thing that happened to me that night. The entire night was like Womanhood in Microcosm, with all elements represented. In regards to the date, I felt like I had joined a cult for 36 hours and was trying to come out of it. Ex Machina spoke into that personal experience, as all good films do. It wasn’t just about me, but there was a dovetail present – and I’m sure if I saw it on another day, with no great-date-that-turned-super-weird followed by a-scary-stranger-grabbing-my-breasts directly in my rear-view mirror it would have reminded me of other things, other experiences.)

There is a deep and very human empathy at work in Ex Machina, startling and strange considering the scientific and spare environment of that house, its chilliness, its intimidating perfection. I don’t need all films to be kind and empathetic towards women. I honestly don’t. I loved Wolf of Wall Street, and was so frustrated with the “It’s misogynistic” commentary. For God’s sake, of COURSE it was, because those guys in the film were misogynistic ass-clowns. What do you want? One of those douche-bags to suddenly spout a regretful monologue, “Oh my God, I am a misogynistic asshole and I am so sorry!” Or to have Scorses somehow point an arrow at all of them, telegraphing, “This is bad behavior.” Have you seen a Martin Scorsese film before? So what you are saying is, you would have liked Wolf of Wall Street better if it had been a bad film but showed the “enlightened” viewpoint? Get outta here with your bullshit. Showing something is not necessarily endorsement. I want to put that on a billboard.

But Ex Machina has something to say about women, and how they are viewed, the prisons men put them in, literal and imaginary. It’s subtle and sneaky, there isn’t too literal a point made of it, but it’s there, it’s the atmosphere of the film, it’s the air it breathes.

However: more than Under the Skin, or any other film/book about A.I., what Ex Machina reminded me of was the famous French folktale about Bluebeard, clearly a deliberate choice. Bluebeard, who gives his wife a set of keys to every room in his castle, telling her that she can go in any room she likes, except for one room. She is forbidden, under any circumstances, to go into that one specific room. She has a key to the room on her key-chain, but she must never ever unlock that door. She promises. But of course Bluebeard goes away, leaving her alone in the castle, and she makes a beeline to the forbidden door, opens it, and finds, to her horror, all the bodies of Bluebeard’s murdered wives.

Film-making pioneer Georges Melies made a film in 1901 called Bluebeard, and the moment of revelation is horrifying and evocative.

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Nathan was Bluebeard. The key-card that Caleb is issued opens only some of the doors in that massive house. Nathan tells Caleb: “You can go in any room that the keycard lets you into. But if the door won’t open, then that room isn’t for you. Kapiche?” Caleb says Fine. Yet the longer he is there, the more he wants to know what are in the other rooms. The other rooms could also be representative of Ava herself, mysterious and conscious, yet clearly robotic and see-through. What is inside her? She seems to have feelings that happen organically. Is it a trick? What is it like to be her? Embedded in this is the “unknowability” of women (from the male standpoint), men who struggle to put themselves in a woman’s shoes (human or A.I.), because desire messes everything up. Desire is good and human, don’t get me wrong, but it also can cloud compassion. Caleb is forced to consider Ava, outside of any desire he may feel. It is a destabilizing experience for him. He is forced to understand who she is, outside of his own conception of her, of women in general.

Caleb goes further and further into Bluebeard’s castle, and finally, of course, the forbidden doors he wants to go into will be unlocked. The fairy tale makes that inevitable. He will find out Nathan’s secrets. He will understand what he has walked into. He will understand the stakes, he will see all.

And that’s all I will say. More would be unfair.

Just see it.

Posted in Movies | 36 Comments

This Magic Mike XXL Trailer Is Insane

It’s an assault on the senses, and has its own narrative thrust (puns are inevitable), which has nothing to do with story, although you get snippets of it here and there. The snippets (“Let’s go compete in Florida” “Let’s get new routines”) are not the focus of the trailer. The focus is to overstimulate you through quick-flashing visual information. It creates a VIBE, in other words. So few trailers create a VIBE of any kind. Compare to most trailers: they obediently walk you through the plot (sometimes the entire plot), stringing together what are clearly the high points, all underscored with generic music. Unimaginative. Boring.

Magic Mike XXL may or may not be any good, but that is one hell of a compelling and sexy trailer. Trailers are interesting although I don’t put much stock in them (at least not in terms of what it might say about the actual movie). Trailers are launched and some critics pontificate, “Judging from the trailer, such-and-such looks like it’s going to be a huge disappointment/everything I’d hoped for/Meh.” Come on, people. You write about the industry. Don’t you know how advertising works? You should know better than that. Trailers are their own THING, and of course are meant to make you want to go see the movie. But so few trailers accomplish that. The ones that DO (like the Mad Max: Fury Road teaser trailer, for example – INSANE.) are fascinating works of art in and of themselves. One of the best trailers I’ve ever seen (both in terms of how it is put together AND in terms of how it worked on me, assaulted me, made me think: “I MUST SEE THAT MOVIE.”) was the first trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I wrote a whole thing about it. The beauty of it was that the film was just as good as the trailer promised. But the trailer was fascinating because – it told you everything, but it also told you nothing. It had its own style, and it used “Mr. Blue Sky” as its underlying soundtrack, and the images used were startling and strange, especially when seen out of context, before you had seen the movie. What was it about? What the hell?? There are other Eternal Sunshine trailers, more conventional ones, like this, but that first one … Wow.

But back to Magic Mike XXL, which I can’t wait to see:

Last year, I reviewed a movie directed by Joe Manganiello (an actor in the original Magic Mike), who became so fascinated by the male stripper scene through his role that he decided to do a documentary about La Bare, a high-end insanely elaborate male strip club in Dallas (if I ever visit Dallas, I am going! Like, I’ll get off the plane, catch a cab, and say, “Take me to La Bare.”). It was a very sweet movie, strangely enough, and I highly recommend it – it was called La Bare, and here’s my review.

In the meantime, let’s watch that insane trailer again. Hats off, ad-men. Ya done good.

Posted in Movies | 13 Comments

Check

chess

It was a drizzly morning. I went to an early movie this morning before my doctor’s appointment. Movie was down in Union Square, near my docs, so emerging from the subway is when you walk into Chess-Land. It had started to rain, not much, not heavily, but a persistent little drizzle.

But rain won’t stop the Union Square chess community. Neither will snow or blazing sun.

Things change all the time, all around us. The change is sometimes terrible, sometimes welcome.

But these people playing chess are eternal. I find it comforting.

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Happy Birthday, Paul Muldoon

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“This work [Paul Muldoon’s book ‘The Annals of Chile’] gives the impression of coming clean and being clandestine at one and the same time. It is Joycean in its combination of the everyday and the erudite, but it is also entirely sui generis, a late-twentieth-century work that vindicates Muldoon’s reputation as one of the era’s true originals.” – Seamus Heaney

A giant in modern poetry (not just modern Irish poetry), Paul Muldoon is, like Heaney, a rural Ulster man. He grew up on a farm in County Armagh, a Catholic in the middle of a Protestant majority. His parents tried to shield the family from the political realities of the moment, although they were nationalists themselves. The Troubles reverberate through his verse. He’s published over 30 books of poetry. He is now a professor at Princeton. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s won every prize. He is self-taught.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, wrote of Muldoon:

He was born in Portadown, County Armagh, in 1951 and brought up near the Moy, a village to which his poems return. Muldoon’s mother was a teacher with strong literary interests, his father a farm laborer friendly to the Republican cause, a Lawrentian formula that resulted not in Sons and Lovers but in poems about complementarities and incompatibilities. Fruitful and tragic misalliances are a recurrent theme in his poems, wired and triggered by ironies that can be unexpectedly savage or heartbreaking.

He went to Queen’s University Belfast, where Seamus Heaney was one of his teachers. It was a hot time in Belfast, not just politically, but in the literary scene, and Paul Muldoon was very much a part of that. Some of the names at the time: Michael Longley (post here), Derek Mahon (post here), Ciarán Carson (post here), Medbh McGuckian (post here), Frank Ormsby, Muldoon – they were all part of the Belfast Group, a writer’s workshop. Heaney was a member of the group, and much of his earliest work came out of that workshop.

One of Muldoon’s idols and guiding stars was Robert Frost. Muldoon said of Frost:

Frost was important to me early on because his line, his tone of voice, was so much a bare canvas.

Seamus Heaney wrote about Muldoon’s love of Frost, deepening our understanding of the connection between these two apparently disparate poets:

Robert Frost, a poet whose roguery and tough-mindedness are admired by Paul Muldoon, once wrote about the art of filling a cup up to the brim ‘or even above the brim’. This impulse to go further than is strictly necessary is presented by Frost as the most natural thing in the world. It’s why young boys want to climb to the tops of birch trees and why grown-up poets write poems.

Muldoon is a big risk-taker in his verse, like Frost was. He is dazzling, but not in a showy way. He’s a bit in your face. His poems are intricate and, at times, daunting, but at the heart of them is deep feeling Muldoon tries to wrestle into form. The pages of today’s poetry journals are filled with Muldoon imitators, but the original has the breath of life in it, whereas the imitators often come off as tricky, too-clever, self-conscious. Muldoon is a brainiac, as most autodidacts are. He is voracious in curiosity and scope. Information is there to be used, messed with. He is respectful, but not overly so. He’s a lot of fun to read.

Michael Schmidt again:

His formal and verbal inventiveness leads away from self. In Madoc he risks rewriting the lives of Coleridge and Southey, as if they had fulfilled the ambition of Pantisocracy and set up their community on the banks of the Susquehanna. Philosophers from the ancient Greeks to Stephen Hawking comment tersely and in character on the enterprise. It is very funny, very learned, a high-table game. He speaks for a while histor of thought, talked down, as it were, but not trivialized. “I’m interested in ventriloquism, in speaking through other people, other voices.”

With all of this, Muldoon is also one of the most eloquent poets of “the Troubles”.

If you’re not familiar with Paul Muldoon’s stuff, check him out. Just pick up any given New Yorker.

Muldoon:

I’m very much against expressing a categorical view of the world. I hope I can continue to discover something, and not to underline or bolster up what I already think I know.

While he often writes long poems, today I’m posting a brief one. It’s only five lines, but it gets more profound with every successive reading. As you think about it, cracks in what you think it is open up … and then more cracks, and suddenly the entire culture from which Muldoon sprung is visible.

Ireland

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged , | 4 Comments