2014 Gotham Independent Film Award Nominations

The nominations for the 24th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards have been announced. Boyhood, not surprisingly, appears in many categories.

I was on the nominating panel (along with A.A. Dowd, Sam Adams, Ronnie Scheib, and Stephen Witty), for the category of Best Breakthrough Performance. Out of 40-something movies, we had to narrow it down to only 6 nominees! (And this is why October has been the busiest month of the year for me, thus far.)

But what a pleasure: so many good performances!

You can check out the full list of nominations for the Gothams over at Indiewire.

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The Heart Machine (2014)

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The Heart Machine is a debut feature by writer-director Zachary Wigon, and features a really unnerving performance from John Gallagher, Jr., whom I admired so much in Short Term 12. He’s fantastic.

My review of The Heart Machine is now up at The Dissolve.

For those who don’t mind spoilers, or who have already seen it, I wrote another small piece for The Dissolve where I discuss the “reveal” in the film.

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Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 3: Open Thread

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Will catch you all on the flipside for a discussion about tonight’s episode, directed by our favorite freckled demon.

I need a vacation after October, I am telling YOU.

T-minus ….

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A Bad Sport Breakup Song

One of my favorite genre of song is what I call the “Bad Sport” breakup song. Songs about breakups that are not sad and regretful, mournful and longing, but pissed, a little bit petty, and childish. Being a bad sport is just as honest as saying, “boo-hoo, I miss so-and-so, my heart hurts.” I love the songs that are like, “EFF YOU. YOU SUCK.” (This song may be the farthest that one could go in that direction.)

Currently, my favorite is Waylon Jennings’ hilarious (to me) “You Can Have Her.” Every time that huge angelic chorus comes in, it makes me laugh. Like, he’s not just singing this song alone. He’s calling in the big guns, the many many voices, the gigantic chorus, to back him up in his Kiss Off.

So satisfying.

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Happy Birthday, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“These are the pure Magic. These are the clear vision. The rest is only poetry.” – Rudyard Kipling on John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

William Hazlitt, friends to both men, wrote:

Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his voice met with no collateral interruption.

Camille Paglia, in her book Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, writes about “Kubla Khan”:

Sensitive about the poem’s eccentric structure, Coleridge attached a preface whose peculiar claims were accepted as fact by early readers and critics. In it he says that, while recuperating from “a slight indisposition” in the countryside, he was lulled asleep by an “anodyne” (laudanum, an opiate to which he was addicted) just as he was reading a passage in a seventeenth-century travelogue describing the lavish palace of the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan. Awaking from three hours of “profound sleep”, he began to write out the “two to three hundred lines” that had somehow coalesced during his dream. But a knock on the door suddenly called him away. Returning little more than an hour later, he found “to his no small surprise and mortification” that the rest of the poem had faded from memory.

The fifty-four line text of “Kubla Khan” is therefore to be understood, according to the subtitle, as a “fragment”. Was Coleridge’s defense strategy aimed at shadowy carpers or at his own festering doubts? The poem certainly does not feel incomplete to us, whose looser standards of form descend from the radical innovations of Romanticism and nineteenth-century realism. We no longer expect perfection, symmetry, or sharp closure in works of art. Indeed, modernist plays and dance pieces can end so ambiguously that raised house-lights must signal the end of a performance. “Kubla Khan” anticipates the fractures and fragmentation in Western culture that would be registered in collage, the jigsaw medium invented by Picasso on the eve of World War I and applied by T.S. Eliot to the shards of literature shifted from rubble in The Waste Land (1922).

Perhaps, Mr. Coleridge, it would have been better to not answer the door while in the throes of inspiration. But I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for the elusive nature of creativity, of the dream-palace of wonder we have erected in our heads – the perfect work of art, fully realized – and how most often everything falls short. That’s the way it should be. The point is not perfection, the point is to keep creating. But it’s a great story illustrating that, nonetheless.

Now for a personal anecdote. When I was a kid, 9, 10 years old, I loved a book called The Boyhood of Grace Jones, by Jane Langton (one of my favorite authors as a kid). The book tells the story of a young girl named Grace Jones, living in 1939. Grace Jones is about to start middle school, and has taken to wearing her father’s Navy middy blouse, and has cut her hair short, and decides to behave like a boy. She is obsessed with all things sea-worthy, and has a couple of imaginary friends from a book she has read, Captain Nancy and Captain John, sailors both, who follow her around, give her advice, support her, or scorn her. She tries to live up to their expectations of her. Meanwhile, in the world of middle school, suddenly boys become boys, and girls girls – and the girls are all swooning over Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind just came out), and Grace refuses to buy into ANY of it, much to the consternation of her mother and some of her teachers, who wonders why Grace is so ODD. Why does she dress like a boy? Why does she swagger through the hallways shouting, “Ahoy there, matey?” Grace is a terrific character. I was in love with her. She is an obsessive. She follows her obsessions to their ultimate. And then, in an English class, one day the teacher assigns a poem for them to read overnight. It is “Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And something happens to Grace Jones when she reads it. It’s like the top of her head blows off.

Dizzy with incantation, intoxicated with rhythm, Grace almost fell out of the tree. She had discovered poetry and nature in one fell swoop. “Beware,” she whispered to herself, “Beware! Beware! Weave a circle round him thrice …” Then her eyes raced back to the beginning of the poem, and she started to read the whole thing aloud once more, mumbling and whispering at first, then ranting and shouting –

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree …

By the time Grace noticed her dog Whitey at the bottom of the tree, sniffling and whining a doggy greeting, the two mimeographed pages in her hand were a damp smudge of purple ink. She never discovered the questions Mrs. Humminger had typed up on the second page, but she wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway, they were so blurred by now. But she knew the whole poem by heart. She slipped and fumbled down the tree, fondled Whitey, staggered home, burst into the kitchen door, struck a pose, and cried, “Beware! Beware! My flashing eyes! My floating hair!”

I was in love with the book. This was a heroine I could recognize. I did that kind of stuff too. I would read something and get so excited that I immediately needed to play make-believe with it. I always wanted to LIVE in the books I loved. I had never heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was 10 years old, but this book introduced me to him. Grace becomes more and more obsessed with him. The final nail in the coffin in her obsession is when the class is assigned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

The Ancient Mariner was even more staggering than Kubla Khan. There wasn’t the slightest breeze moving in the top of the white pine tree, but Grace had to hang on with both arms to the branches on either side of her to keep from losing her balance, as Coleridge’s verses reeled and throbbed, ebbed and flowed across the pages of the book wedged open in her lap. The ancient mariner had shot a lucky bird, an albatross, with his crossbow, and ever since then his ship has been doomed with a curse. And what a curse! All the other sailors died, one by one, and after that he was alone.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
…………………
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!

There was something about the rhythm. It burned and froze. It beat and pulsed. It surged and dragged. It made Grace want to laugh and cry …

Grace began to learn this poem by heart too. It was easy. The verses beat themselves into her brain like hammerblows, leaving deep dents in her memory. By the time she was ready to climb down from the top of the tree and stumble home, stiff with cold, the dry grass of the field, like a dull mirror, was giving back the tawny color of the sunset sky. She had memorized forty-two stanzas. And that night at home she learned forty more while she was eating her supper and washing the dishes.

Later that night, Grace is so worked up about the Ancient Mariner that she can’t sleep.

She lay looking up at the cold moon, which was sailing high in the night sky, sucking the summer warmth from the ground, casting a cold, bald light on the floor beside the bed. The radiator hissed and knocked. The powerful rhythms of The Ancient Mariner were still tumbling and racing through her head. She couldn’t stop them. After the third time through all of the eighty-four stanzas she had learned that day she sat up warily, turning away from the window, and stared wide-eyed at the darkest corner of her room, where the open door into the hall cast a dense shadow. What if an angel should appear there, writing in a book of gold? Was it true that someone was keeping track? Watching her? Writing it all down on the good or bad side of the page? That would be terrible. It would be much worse to have an angel watching her than Captain Nancy or Captain John, because Nancy and John were her friends, after all, and they weren’t writing it all down like that and holding a lot of things against her forever after.

Grace kept her eyes pricked open, staring as hard as she could at the dark corner, trying by sheer force of will to materialize an angel writing in a book of gold. But she couldn’t do it, and she slumped back under the covers.

Was it true? Were angels true? Was God true? Grace wondered about God for the thousandth time. Her father didn’t believe in religion. He scoffed at the Sunday morning preachers on the radio. He always said the word “God” sarcastically, so that it came out “Gawd“. But Grace didn’t know whether he was right or not. What if he were wrong? Somebody in the family should take some responsibility about religion. Just in case it was true. Somebody, somebody, should pray for everybody. Grace shut her eyes and put her folded hands under her chin, and prayed for them all (just in case), ending up with a line from The Ancient Mariner, ” ‘O, shrive me, shrive me, holy man! Amen.”

BANG! exploded the radiator. Bubblety-gurglety-poppety-BANG!

In the back of this magic little book is the entirety of the texts of the two Coleridge poems referenced in the book, Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner – which I, a child, caught up in Grace’s enthusiasm, read over and over and over again. Grace’s obsessions are free-range, they run wild and unfettered, her intelligence being susceptible to suggestion. All she wants is to be inspired. Over the course of the book, things shift for her – it is the beginning of adolescence, and she finds herself caught up, almost against her will, in the Gone With the Wind mania at the time. So it’s all about Coleridge and Clark Gable. What a wonderful book.

I had to share that story because that was my introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it was almost like a master-class in HOW to read him. This in a book for kids! Go Jane Langton!

To this day, I do not know that much about him, and those are really the only two poems of his that I am familiar with. We read “Kubla Khan” in high school, and all I could think about was Grace Jones. I already felt like an expert in that poem, and knew a bunch of it by heart – not because I had memorized it, but because I had read The Boyhood of Grace Jones so often.

The wonderful Anne Fadiman wrote a gorgeous essay about a biography of Coleridge, including in her book At Large and At Small. Here is an excerpt.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

Along with Doctor Johnson, Coleridge is the great critical intelligence among English poets, but a very different kind of intelligence from the Doctor’s. His interests extend beyond poetry to society, philosophy and religion, but poetry is the heart of wider concerns with language and the power of imagination and ideas. Unlike Johnson, he had no settled opinions; he was a man in search of truth, perplexed by personal, philosophical, political and aesthetic indecisions. We find consistency of principle, uncertainty of application. His mature political thought is lucid, but he cannot – for example in On the Constitution of Church and State – bridge the gap between idea and implementation in practical, institutional forms. Yet Hazlitt is wrong: Coleridge does not indulge in casuistry to get out of an intellectual corner.

Uncertainty has aesthetic consequences. Unlike other Romantic poets, he never establishes a personal mode. He writes Augustan verse of little distinction, discursive poems, then the handful of meditations and nature poems in which he is most himself, and finally three great poems that defy classification: “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Of these poems, two are ostensibly unfinished. Throughout his work there are fragments, including “The Destiny of Nations”. Other poems he worked on for years and remained dissatisfied. His “Dejection: An Ode” adopts a fragmentary form, juxtaposing verse paragraphs that are thematically but not logically sequential. Formal fragmentation reflects the theme: like a modernist, he breaks it to make it whole. He did not complete his vast projected philosophical work. His attempt to schematize transcendental philosophy distorted the ideas imagination could apply but analysis unraveled.

Coleridge started taking opium because he had a toothache, and it became a lifelong addiction. He went to Cambridge. He was not particularly ambitious. He was disappointed in himself, and didn’t get a degree. He got swept up by the French Revolution, and had all kinds of idealistic plans of utopias that could be created in the wake of the Revolution. He started publishing poems, he was in a bad marriage, and he met Wordsworth – one of the most important friendships of his life. They were collaborators, and their publication of Lyrical Ballads marks the beginning of the new Romantic era. It was a fruitful collaboration. It seemed to push Coleridge on to produce more. He was invigorated, despite other circumstances in his life (opium, terrible marriage, a melancholy disposition). He wrote a lot. Wordsworth was his main audience, the man he was writing for. He traveled to Germany, and was swept away by the philosophical revolution occurring there at that time. Schmidt writes:

After visiting Germany in 1798-99, he returned to England and settled near Wordsworth in Cumberland to continue his studies. He fell hopelessly in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, but he was already married. He wrote journalism, lectured, traveled, suffered further financial hardship and grew increasingly dependent on opium. In 1810 he quarreled openly – conflict had been brewing – with Wordsworth. It was one of the great losses of his life. They were reconciled, but the original friendship was over. His reputation grew as his powers declined. In 1817 his prose masterpiece Biographia Literaria was published. His mature political writing is the quintessence of that English Toryism rooted in Sir Robert Filmer and Richard Hooker, adhered to by Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith, and richly proclaimed by Edmund Burke. Its expression is elegiac: that moment in English history was over. Coleridge died in 1834.

In writing of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Schmidt writes (echoing Grace Jones’ experience of the poem):

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” achieves what no other literary ballad of the period did: the tone of folk ballad. In an impersonal ballad singer’s voice, Coleridge explores in dramatic ways a theme developed in the discursive poems. The Mariner chooses one of three young men bound for a wedding feast. He tells his story: his ship, ice-bound near the pole, the albatross of good omen, his gratuitous act of slaying it, the punishment wrought on the whole crew; his individual penance and regeneration when in his heart he blessed the creatures about the becalmed ship. Released, he travels the world teaching reverence, love of God and his creatures. For six hundred and twenty-five lines Coleridge touches our deepest interests. The poem works on us like a dream: questions of belief or disbelief never arise: we attend. Passages have entered common language; the images draw back to consciousness folk elements and hermetic symbolism. Wordsworth wrote privately to the publisher urging that the poem be dropped from future editions of Lyrical Ballads as being out of key with the other poems in the book. He was uncomfortable with its dimensions and themes: Did he sense, too, how much more powerful, durable and inevitable it was than the other poems in the book?

One more personal anecdote. When I was in high school, Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the airwaves. “Relax” was, of course, the big hit. I bought the album, and there was another song included called “Welcome To the Pleasure-Dome”, which I’m sure eventually got radio play. I felt like the smartest person in the world because I immediately knew it was referencing Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.

It had, by that point, entered into my personal lexicon – because of Grace Jones, and, of course, because we had to read it in school. So often when you read literature, especially as a kid, it stays outside of you. It doesn’t enter into your experience and your language and your thought process. Coleridge did. I’m still not sure what it all signifies, and what it means, but the language … the language … It’s got such REVERB.

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

To me, that one phrase alone starts off a series of images, crazy and untrammeled, in my head. I picture the “measureless” caverns, which gives me a shiver of dread and awe (like: please … measure them. Because I can’t deal with the thought of a cavern that is “measureless”) and then there’s the “sunless sea”, which is terrifying to contemplate. A sea deep beneath the earth. Untouched by sun. There are also complex and specific language elements here, the alliteration which gives those lines a sibilant sound, adding to the creepiness, and the reverb. It’s all “s”s.

Schmidt observes:

What the poem means is inseparable from the words and rhythms it uses. Paraphrase hardly gets a toehold. It is not until the second half of the poem that the “I” appears: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw …” … The first half of the poem evokes the “stately pleasure dome”. In the second half the “I” wishes to retrieve it. Could he hear the music he once heard in a vision, he could re-create in air “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” He would be like Kubla Khan, himself sacred and exalted. The dulcimer recalls the harps we hear elsewhere in Coleridge’s work, instruments that harmonize the world of ideas and the world of the senses, and liberate imagination from the constraints of literal vision. In “Kubla Khan” the poetry achieves an intensity unprecedented in the discursive poems. The dulcimer’s sound would recreate not things perceived but imagined. Contemplation authenticates it; it can even transform and generate objects of contemplation, as in “Frost at Midnight”. “Could I revive within me”: it is a conditional clause. In face he cannot. He cannot even “complete” the poem. If he could, he could complete himself, become one with “flashing eye” and “floating hair”. Yet from its partial disclosure we can infer the vision. The poem is about desire, not the failure of desire. In this thwarted hope resides its power.

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

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

Private Violence (2014): HBO Documentary

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A very well-made new HBO documentary about domestic violence and those who advocate for victims and survivors. It premiered tonight on HBO and has also opened nationwide in a limited release.

My review of Private Violence is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Rimbaud’s Son

An essay I wrote years ago, posted today in honor of the birthday of poet Arthur Rimbaud

A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I saw him again the other day.

He stood in front of the St. Mark’s Hotel in the East Village beside a straggly-haired woman showing the ravages of meth on her face, and he was talking at her fanatically, gesturing with his filthy hands, in a dreamspace of self-importance and grandiosity.

For a brief autumn I had dated him.

I met him the day J.F.K., Jr. disappeared. The body had not yet been found. I stood in line at the A&P deli counter, in Hoboken, wearing a backwards baseball cap, overalls, and hi-top sneakers. What I am trying to say is that the day J.F.K., Jr. disappeared, the day I met Thomas, I looked like a Peanuts character, not at all dressed for romance. Coincidentally (bizarre, considering what day it was), I happened to be reading Chris Matthews’ political biography of Kennedy and Nixon. I had my nose in the book as I stood in line, until I heard a tough-guy voice say, “It’s a shame, ain’t it?”

I looked up and there he was leaning on the other side of the deli counter, white apron on, looking right at me. I didn’t know what he was talking about or why he was talking to me.

“What’s a shame?” I asked.

“Shame about his son,” he said.

It did not escape my notice that the guy behind the counter was gorgeous in an overblown young-John-Travolta way. He had thick wavy black hair, he was about six feet tall, and his eyes were startling. A blazing green. His skin was pale, and he had strong Italian features. Total looker, not my type at all. My type runs towards pasty beefy Irish boys, not green-eyed matinee idols in white aprons.

“Whose son?” I asked.

He gestured at my book. “His son.”

I looked at my book, and then understood. “Oh! Yeah. It is a shame. Just awful.”

It struck me as notable that he would look up from slicing turkey, see Peppermint Patty waiting in line, glance at the title of her book, and then speak about it, as though in mid-conversation. Not “Is that a good book?” or “What are you reading?”

But “It’s a shame, ain’t it?”

Two days later when I saw him sitting on a bench outside the A&P, having a cigarette on a break, I took a second to get my courage up and then walked over to him.

He remembered me. We immediately started talking about J.F.K., Jr., who had by then been found.

He told me his name was Thomas.

Thomas was odd in a way I couldn’t quite place. It was like he was ten years old inside that handsome body, he had the same open-faced enthusiasm as a child, the same fearlessness with strangers. I am much more reserved.

In that first conversation, which lasted all of fifteen minutes, I learned that he loved Rimbaud and Henry Miller. He also loved Wallace Stevens and said to me, “With my white apron on in there, I feel like the goddamn Emperor of Ice Cream.” He did not come off as pretentious or as though he was trying to name-drop me to death. He was simple, open, free. He wanted to be a writer. I would later learn that he had written a novel (unpublished), and had stashed the manuscript with a friend who was a dishwasher at a pizza joint on 12th and Willow in Hoboken. “Yeah, I let him read it. He didn’t really understand it though. I need to get it back from him.”

That first day on the bench, he asked me for my phone number and I gave it to him. He called me the following day and we met up for drinks later that night. He showed up on the date with no money, and although I was willing to pay for a couple of beers, he told me “I’m kind of a hustler” and went off to get some drinks for us. It made me uncomfortable, especially when he returned from wherever he went, wielding two Heinekens. Had he begged? Pestered? So he actually was a hustler. We sipped our beers and I listened to him talk. There seemed to be no pretense with him. It was disarming. He talked and talked and talked, flowing from one topic to the other, yet always connected to me. He picked up on every gesture I made, the smallest of expressions. I learned that he lived at the YMCA in Bayonne, a pretty bleak place, and he was on the waiting list for the YMCA in Hoboken, a step up. He told me he had lived in Union City for a while, but had to move because he thought that the person in the apartment across the way was flashing lights at him from window to window, trying to pass on some sinister message. “Union City is a bad place, man,” Thomas told me. “Even the light is evil there.”

He said at one point, out of nowhere, “I hate deja vu. I feel like one day I’m gonna go into a deja vu and never come out.”

Although much of what he revealed (in his speech, the stories he told, his actions) was alarming to me, we started dating. There were those blazing green eyes to consider.

But what really happened was this: I loved how he talked about books. I could not get enough of it. I grew up surrounded by language, and I grew up with parents who loved to read. In my family, you come home for a visit and two seconds after you are asked, “How are you?” you are asked, “So what are you reading?”

Thomas discovered literature late. He had not grown up in a family who valued language or education. His father was violent and cold, his mother simpering and ineffective. His older brother was in prison. Thomas put himself through college. He majored in English. His family thought going to college was a stupid thing to do, a waste of time, and majoring in English was flat-out insane. But Thomas was drawn to books, to words. His taste ran to the difficult and the surreal. He could be a snob about anything that was too “easy”.

Rimbaud was the hook for Thomas, his way in to the world of words. He had never encountered anything so thrilling. Thomas could talk about Rimbaud for hours, and he did. To anyone who would listen. Bartenders, strippers, co-workers who spoke no English, the ex-cons who lived with him at the Bayonne Y, people on the train. He always carried a battered taped-together paperback of Rimbaud’s work in his back pocket so that he could pull it out at a moment’s notice and read out loud the passage he wanted. Rimbaud was not a distant literary figure to Thomas, he was a companion. We’d be sitting my room, and Rimbaud would come up (as he always did) and Thomas would reach into his back pocket for the book, laughing at himself as he did so. “I get so excited I’m like a little kid.” Rimbaud wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it was riveting to hear Thomas proclaim Rimbaud’s words out loud, in my room on a rainy morning, on the A train, on my fire escape, on the steps of the YMCA:

And since then I’ve been bathing in the Poem of star-infused and milky Sea,
Devouring the azure greens, where, flotsam pale,
A brooding corpse at times drifts by.

The phantasmagorical imagery of Rimbaud’s writing seemed to express to Thomas what it was actually like for him, inside his own head. Rimbaud would certainly understand the flashing evil light of Union City. Rimbaud would also fall into a deja vu and never come out.

Thomas talked about writers as though they had written their books specifically for him. He did not come to “the greats” with preconceived notions or the sense that he should be intimidated by them. He met them fresh. To hear him talk about Yeats or Eugene O’Neill or Shakespeare was, for me, like blood to a vampire. None of it was passive received knowledge. He took it personally. So personally that he tried to commit suicide in college after reading a book by Carlos Castanada. He had spent intermittent months in institutions since then, diagnosed as bipolar. His demons were strong, but he resisted medication even though it was supposed to help him not perceive flashing lights from an opposite window as ominous Morse code. He didn’t like the dulling effects of the meds, he didn’t like having no sex drive, he wanted to still see blazing lights, even if they were sometimes scary.

His attachment to me happened instantly. I became the normal sane thing in his crazy life. I would pick him up at the Y, and he could escape into the confines of my cozy apartment, where there was food in the cupboards, a TV to watch, a warm bed, and he could be fed and nurtured for a bit. But I don’t like clinging, and he clung. I was not allowed to have a day to myself because he would start to get frayed and confused when not in my presence. I would say to him, “I really am not the kind of person who needs to see someone every day. As a matter of fact, I am the opposite kind of person. I cannot see you tomorrow. I need some time to myself, goddammit.” But then at 8 a.m. the next morning, a knock would come on the door, and there he would be, pleading, “I won’t get in your way! You can have time to yourself. I’ll just sit in the other room and read or something! I won’t bother you!”

Right before I met him, Thomas’ father had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and instead of facing chemo and treatment he instead chose to kill himself, shooting himself in the head in front of his wife and son. Thomas told me that no matter what he did he couldn’t shake the image of his father’s head exploding all over the living room. He would wake up in my bed screaming.

I was not really serious about Thomas. I was not in love with him. I was in love with the manner in which he approached literature, and I was in love with how he talked about it. But I didn’t take him seriously for one second as a mate. At that point in my life, I felt I could not afford another heartbreak, and it was safe to hang out with Thomas, because he would never hurt me. This was unfair of me. Thomas was madly in love with me although I never could tell if his feelings were genuine or if he was just clutching at a safe zone, someone to take care of him in the midst of his madness and chaos. He was a hustler, remember. He knew how to get his needs met. But still. It cannot be denied that when I had had enough of the 8 a.m. knocks on my door, the badgering and pleading, the irrational outbreaks, and the nonexistent sex, I cut him loose. He never saw it coming. I hadn’t realized as it was happening how much he had deteriorated in the short time I knew him, but when I looked back at our first meeting, the difference was startling. Being under my wing made Thomas feel he didn’t need to take his medication anymore, so he slowly began to fall apart. I got out just in time. To make matters worse, he pleaded with me to change my mind, grabbing onto me in my car, stopping just short of getting too rough, tears in his eyes, begging me. It was awful. I had to pry his hands off of me and push him out of the car. Slowly, shoulders hunched, he trudged back into the YMCA, and it tore at my heart to see him.

I wondered what would happen to him. I now could see the evil ominous light that had driven Thomas from Union City. It followed him around.

A week or so later, he called me (collect). I was instantly angry. “Thomas, I told you. I am done.”

“I know, I know, sorry, but I just had to tell you that I have a whole new plan. I just can’t take Bayonne anymore. It’s getting me down, you know, and I’ve been reading Hemingway a lot, and you know, he really dug Key West, and I think I’m gonna go down and live there, where there’s no winter and people can just live. I can sleep on the beach, and I can write. I got my book back and I want to work more on it. Hemingway was real macho, but he was an artist, too. I think Key West is gonna be good.”

It sounded crazy, but it seemed right to me, too. “That sounds good, Thomas. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

He was manic. I could hear it in his voice. “Tennessee Williams loved Key West, too,” he babbled on. “And he was gay and everything, but that’s the thing about Key West – it can handle the two poles of masculinity” (his exact words) ” — the Hemingway and the Tennessee Williams – so it can handle me, too. I don’t want to be tough all the time like I have to be here.”

Of course Thomas had an angle in calling me. He always had an angle. All he needed from me, one last thing, was money for a one-way bus ticket to Florida. I hesitated. It wouldn’t be a lot of money, but I had already bailed him out financially a couple of times (especially since he was fired from the A&P for getting violent with a customer and also for stealing some of the deli meats for himself). But he pleaded. “This is the last time I ask you for money, I swear. And I’ll pay you back every penny.”

I gave him the money and Thomas hopped on a one-way ticket ride to the land where the Two Poles of Masculinity could remain in balance and he could hover between the two, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams holding hands across the blazing white sand.

He called me once more after that (collect, of course) to tell me how things were going. He was dismayed to learn that sleeping on the beach was not allowed in Key West and the cops were really strict about it. He was homeless for a while, stashing his duffel bag with the book manuscript in places where he knew it would be safe. He washed dishes at restaurants, crossed paths with some sketchy characters who offered him money to strip in gay clubs or have sex with older tourist women. He finally was invited by a drug dealer he had met to crash on the couch at the drug dealer’s psychedelic home, full of swirling colored tiles and mannequins hanging from the ceiling draped in Mardi Gras beads. It was something out of a Tennessee Williams play. Thomas had reached the Camino Real. It sounded, frankly, terrible to me, way worse than what had been going on for him in Bayonne, but Thomas talked about it all as though he got a kick out of the whole thing.

I asked, “So how’s that whole Two Poles of Masculinity thing going for you?”

“You know what is so weird about that, Sheila? Key West is full of roosters and stray cats. They’re everywhere. They walk like they own the streets. But I like to think of them as cocks and pussies. Everywhere you look here are cocks and pussies.” He started laughing at his own pun.

“You’re crazy. You should write all that down.”

“I go hustle drinks at Sloppy Joe’s and sit in the seat where Hemingway used to sit. It’s the island of misfit toys down here”

I hung up with Thomas, imagining him sitting in Hemingway’s chair, surrounded by cocks and pussies, and I figured that was that. He sounded cheerful, at any rate, and at least he was out of my hair.

One wintry day a year later, I was walking down the street in Hoboken, and I glanced at a grubby figure lying in a doorway, got one glimpse of the bright green eyes, and stopped, jolted to a standstill. My heart pounded. That couldn’t be him – could it? Why was he here? He was supposed to be in Key West. When did he come back? What happened? He was so filthy I couldn’t be sure it was him, so I circled the block to take another look. I wasn’t sure why I was so frightened. It was terrible to imagine him being so lost like that. I confirmed, in my second walk-by, what I had known from the moment I saw the green eyes. It was him. The homeless man lying in the doorway was Thomas. I was upset, but what shocked me the most, scared me the most, was that his thick black hair had gone completely white in just a year. He was an old man. Whatever grip he had had on reality when I knew him was obviously gone. He was talking to himself, muttering in a cranky self-righteous way. He had his hand out for change and his fingers looked like something out of a Walker Evans photo. The light in his eyes was no longer sane. It was now unearthly, floating about untethered, never landing in one spot. The “azure greens” were now unhinged, staring at “flotsam pale” corpses 24/7. Union City got him after all.

I did battle with myself. Should I speak to him? Remind him of the freckled girl in overalls he had once cavorted with through the midnight streets of the East Village? Remind him of that one night when we were parched and couldn’t find an open deli, and Thomas grumbled, in an annoyed voice,

Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!

Would he remember me, or was his madness one that had obliterated the past, wiping out everything along with the image of his father’s head in pieces on the sofa? I moved on, without speaking, pricked with guilt, shaken up for the rest of the day.

I kept my eyes peeled after that, giving each homeless person a second look to see if it was Thomas. But I didn’t see him again, at least not in Hoboken.

Years passed.

And then, the other day, as I mentioned, I saw him again, this time in Manhattan, hanging around on the corner outside that den of despair, the St. Mark’s Hotel. He was arguing with his meth-whore, giving her the business, and I stood back to watch. Thomas, that beautiful sensitive man I had once loved to listen to, staggered away from her, enraged, the over-oxygenated look of a religious madman on his face. He was smoking a cigarette, his clothes were falling apart. He was skin and bones.

As he lurched past me, close enough to touch, I found myself peering at his butt, battered jeans hanging off his hipbones. I had to check. For that dog-eared copy of Rimbaud. I know it’s naive, but if he still had that book, I thought it might mean … something.

But what would it mean? What difference would it have made, ultimately? He still would be a homeless man, off his meds, staggering down the street.

Of course there was no book in his back pocket.

I almost hadn’t recognized that dirty white-haired man. It wasn’t just his appearance that had changed so much, although he had gone through a radical transformation. It was that the actual person looking out of those green eyes was different: He, the tough sweet guy behind the deli counter, was no longer in there, and the Rimbaud had probably been lost a long time ago.

On high roads in winter nights, without roof, without clothes, without bread, a voice gripped my
“Weakness –
those whom I met did not see me.”

But I saw. I saw.

It’s a shame, ain’t it.

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Posted in On This Day, Personal | Tagged | 19 Comments

Happy Birthday, Chuck Berry

(It was yesterday – also, incidentally, my blog’s 12th birthday.)

Here’s Chuck Berry burning it up on the famous 1964 TAMI Show. The show opened with him, closed with the Stones. And see if you can spot Teri Garr dancing in the background.

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Tribute to Gena Rowlands

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Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence,” 1974, directed by John Cassavetes

The great Gena Rowlands is being honored with a Career Achievement Award from the L.A. Film Critics Association.

The 84-year-old actress is still working. Known primarily for the films she made with her husband, John Cassavetes, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, she’s never stopped. She has a unique position in the industry. One of the greatest actresses who has ever practiced the craft. She is outside the mainstream (although she has appeared in a couple of gigantic mainstream hits, mainly The Notebook, which brought Rowlands to a whole new generation.). But still, while she was nominated for many awards (including an Oscar nomination in 1974 for her performance in Woman Under the Influence), she has never been one of those actresses whose name is regularly in the pot come awards season. That is an indictment of the industry, not of her work.

This Career Achievement award is thrilling news for those of us who have always looked to Rowlands as one of the greatest, who will see whatever she does, who cherish not only her work … but what her work seems to mean.

The award ceremony will be held on January 15. Wish I could be there.

Gena Rowlands has been all over the place recently, her name in the news, what with the recent re-release of Cassavetes’ Love Streams (his final film,) by the Criterion Collection. You can buy a copy here, or elsewhere, Amazon, etc. Superb strange film. Extraordinary acting. And of course, there’s my video-essay included in the special features on Gena Rowlands’ career, and what it is that makes her HER.

It is the kind of career that gives me hope.

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Today In History: October 19, 1781

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The surrender at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

Day before:

General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington, October 18, 1781

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation upon the basis of the garrisons of York and Gloucester, including seamen, being prisoners of war, without annexing the condition of their being sent to Europe; but I expect to receive a compensation in the articles of capitulation for the surrender of Gloucester in its present state of defence.

I shall, in particular, desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid-de-camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail without examination, when my dispatches are ready: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind; and I shall likewise desire, that the traders and inhabitants may preserve their property, and that no person may be punished or molested for having joined the British troops.

If you choose to proceed to negociation on these grounds, I shall appoint two field officers of my army to meet two officers from you, at any time and place that you think proper, to digest the articles of capitulation.

(Check out the full correspondence in the days leading up to the 19th)

Cornwallis realized that aid would not come in time, and after two days of bombardment he sent a drummer out into view, who apparently was beating the rhythm of: “STOP! LET’S TALK!!!” A British officer high in rank came forward, was blindfolded and taken to George Washington (who was on his last legs himself).

The surrender document had already been drawn up, with Washington dictating the terms. Here are the Articles of Capitulation.

Over 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown.

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The story goes that as the defeated army marched away, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”. I did a quick Google search and found a lot of defensive impassioned people out there who feel the need to shout out into the wilds of the Internet with such comments as: “There is NO evidence that ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ was played …” I love nerds who take sides in meaningless historical debates like this. I adore them. I’m a nerd like that. But still. Whether or not it happened, it’s a good story. There are a couple of versions of said song (which has, by itself, a long interesting history). Here is one of the versions:

If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army, is one of our eyewitnesses of the capitulation, and he published his version of events a couple of years later, the relevant passage being:

“At about twelve o’clock, the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their bands of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, is a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect.

The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed.

It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitude; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British march. Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced to his excellency the commander-in-chief, taking off his hat, and apologized for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, his excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms.

The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance, as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his store and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete, prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular, and their ranks frequently broken.

But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test: here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word “ground arms,” and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.”

One of my favorite sites, Boston 1775, describes the blame-game that ensued, following the capitulation, between the British generals.

Here is a strategic military map from 1781.

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Map found here in this awesome collection (I could get lost in there forever.)

On the map you can see the positions of the British Army commanded by Cornwallis, and you can see the American and French forces commanded by Washingtonm and check out the French fleet (under Count de Grasse) comin’ down the pike!

And here is a story I love. Again, perhaps it’s apocryphal, or an out-and-out fabrication, but I love it nonetheless.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He was there as a diplomat, and a walking-talking advertisement of Teh Awesome Colonies. He played chess, he drank, he socialized, he wore fur-lined hats, he was a great storyteller, and France went wild for him. One of the first international celebrities.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”

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