December iPod Shuffle

Me

I’ve been very sick. Nursing myself back to health and it’s slow-going. Thursday was a three-movie day: went to Hobbit screening in the a.m., then went to Birdman matinee, and then met up with Charlie for The Passionate Thief. Went to Selma screening last night (it’s terrific). Have my year-end polls to do and was waiting to see Selma before I made up my final tally. Doing all of this with flu-like symptoms was challenging but I powered through, with claritin, saline spray, and copious cough drop lozenges. My sleep has remained steady, so that’s really all that matters. What will I do when my iPod Classic bites the dust? What will I do? It’s so much a part of my life. Here’s the music that accompanied me on my flu-ridden meanderings through the city from screening room to screening room.

“Soul Survivor” – The Rolling Stones. Final track of Exile on Main Street, if I recall correctly. Mick is intense, but I am really drawn to Keith here. Killer sound. Huge.

“I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” (take 9) – Elvis Presley. One of the Sun recordings. Sooo country, that twangy clip-clop guitar, but then his voice quivering with something else that needed to be unleashed. You can hear the merging/blending taking place, right here, in the moment.

“I Call Your Name” – The Beatles. From the Long Tall Sally EP, I think? 1964? Rough, raw, and PERFECT.

“Soon” – Squirrel Nut Zippers. Went through a big SNZ phase. This is my favorite song of theirs.

“Teenage Heaven” – Eddie Cochran. What a heartthrob.

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What a loss.

“I Will” – Alison Krauss. Banjo-picking soulful cover of the Beatles song. I have an intense memory associated with the gentleman I just got a letter from, whose handwriting I recognized. The moment occurred at a county fair in Wisconsin, where I was meeting up with him, and was so intense my knees actually gave way. This song was playing as it all went down, and the lyrics seemed to describe what was happening in that moment. Sing it loud so I can hear you. I loved him more than I’ve ever loved anyone, and having it not work out made it seem like my life had been ship-wrecked. And that was just Phase One of it. Moving on.

“Precious Memories” – good ol’ Waylon Jennings. So far, this Shuffle has been Aces.

“It Might As Well Be Spring” – Doris Day. Every time she comes up now, I think of this.

“I Think He’s Hiding” – Randy Newman. He’s so psycho. I adore him.

“See You” – Foo Fighters. Like The Eminem Show, this album was one of the last albums I remember listening from start to finish, track by track, obsessively … for … a year? More? Music-buying is so different now. I still try to listen to albums (at least once, anyway) in the order in which the artist chose to place the songs.

“Heat Wave” – Marilyn Monroe. Go, Marilyn.

“Eat What You Want” – Siobhan O’Malley, my awesome sister. Check out her stuff. She’s amazing!

“Tragic” Symphony – Franz Schubert. Glorious and painful.

“I Had a Baby” – Sinéad O’Connor. I’m excited by where her career is going now. I’ve hung in there for a long time. Through the reggae, through Theology. I am a fan for life. Some really cool stuff seems to be happening right now.

“Hoodoo Voodoo” – Bill Bragg & Wilco. So joyous! Impossible to listen to and not “dance a goofy dance.”

“I Want You To Want Me” – Cheap Trick. I know what you want, boys, but life doesn’t work that way. You can’t force it so stop pressuring me!

“Kashmir” – Led Zeppelin. Ominous. Pounding. Eerie. Sexy, too, driving towards climax.

“Enter Sandman” – Metallica. It took me a while to extricate the song from this memory. Possible trigger warning for that link. Ha. I wish I had had a trigger warning before walking into that story. The story involves copious amounts of alcohol, 70s-era porn and me getting slapped in a bar bathroom. And loving it. So yeah, consider yourself warned. I would never publish that story now – writing in that way is what brought the crazy stalkers into my life, people who, to this day, harass me and send me mean anonymous emails. Whatever. That memory was the start of a really really terrible era in my life. Enter Sandman. Anyway, the song is such a favorite that I continued to listen to it, despite always finding myself back in Bellevue when I hear the first chords (not the mental hospital, but the bar – it was called Bellevue, hilariously).

“Four O’Clock Blues” – Skip James. Delta blues. The birth of a sound. The voice, that guitar. It has everything in it.

“From Home” – The Troggs. Super-sexy.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” – Bob Dylan. Bittersweet yearning tune notwithstanding, this song is one of the best and coldest disses ever put to music. “You just wasted my precious time.”

“He Got What He Wanted” – Little Richard. An insane song. Please look it up. Listen to it. Revel in how insane the performance is. And the orchestration. And the lyrics.

“A Big Hunk O’Love” – Elvis. One of his sexiest performances. 1958. Loud, rough, and listen to him moaning and grunting and singing during the breaks. These are all live takes with the band. He recorded this while on leave from basic training. He had a lot to unleash.

“The Road to Shamballa” – Good old Three Dog Night. Best blasted in the car as you careen down a wide open highway. On your way to the beach.

“Applause” – Lady GaGa. From ARTPOP, an album that is all over the damn place. This feels pretty stock.

“We Can Talk” – The Band. Woozy, bluesy, boozy, burlesque. They’re so great because the songs evoke an entire world, a place. Can’t you see it? The roadhouse? The off-the-beaten-path honky-tonk? A tent in a field, a country fair, a biker bar. The dance floor full of people.

“Do Me Now” – Robbie Williams. Sure thing, Robbie!

“Love Runs Out” – OneRepublic. Totally catchy. It’s on my workout mix. You must. keep. moving. when you hear it.

“Low Hangin’ Fruit” – Tenacious D. From their latest. This song gives me so much joy. “Don’t want no high class model in a designer fuckin’ bathing suit. We want the low-hangin’ fruit.” The song ROCKS and rocks HARD.

“A Woman, a Lover, a Friend” – Jackie Wilson. The man is, quite frankly, otherworldly. He inspired a generation. White boys, black boys, didn’t matter: he showed everyone up. On the Million Dollar Quartet recording, Elvis spends almost 10 minutes talking about seeing Jackie Wilson do “Don’t Be Cruel” in Vegas. People try to move the conversation on, but Elvis can’t move on. He keeps talking, doing imitations of Jackie Wilson … and he incorporated some of Wilson’s interpretation into his own, forever afterwards. Wilson was the One To Beat. People would watch him, listen to him, and just go BLANK trying to comprehend his genius.

“My Father’s Father” – The Civil Wars. They’re usually too painful for me to listen to. I have to be in a strong mood to be able to take it. I love them, but still … they’re so intense.

“Big River” – Johnny Cash. Here is what pure expression sounds like. It’s honest, and there are no barriers between the expression and the artist. He’s not ambivalent: out it comes. You cannot fake that kind of honesty or authenticity.

“In the Still of the Night” – The Five Satins. That sax, the slight echo on it … making it sound like you’re actually in a smoky dance-hall. It’s beautiful, perfect. The song creates a mood. No matter how many times you’ve heard it.

“Telstar” – The Tornadoes. Where on earth do I get all this stuff? Don’t get me wrong, I love that I have it. Shuffle is an unending adventure, what with 11,000+ songs – one of which appears to be “Telstar” by The Tornadoes.

“Baptize Me In Wine” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Real bump-and-grind stuff, with a typically hilarious and outrageous performance from this great artist. I love it when he screams, especially from the background.

“I Miss You” – Brenda Lee. I adore her. She set records in the 1960s that weren’t broken for 20, 25 years. Until Madonna. I admit I like her rough rocking stuff better than the ballads. Her voice is so … harsh (not a bad thing). She SWUNG it, baby. But this is good, too.

“Walkin’ In and Out of Your Arms” – k.d. lang. I was a huge Absolute Torch and Twang fan, and still am. Those songs still swing. I lost track of lang after that. I know she did some torch-song type stuff, and I didn’t care for it. I like her country-ish stuff. Hell of a voice, great songs, too.

“When You Were Mine” – the great Cyndi Lauper. That album was essential. Here she does a Prince song and owns it. And of course now I think of Greil Marcus’ commentary about “Money Changes Everything.”

“Guitar Boogie” – Carl Perkins. Masterful stuff.

“One of My Bad Habits” – Waylon Jennings. The man is in a world of trouble. He’s got to quit everything! This situation can’t go on!

“Honest I Do” – The Rolling Stones. From their debut album. Bluesy and burlesquey, with a harmonica solo that sounds like it is emerging from the bottom of a well.

“Cool, Calm, and Collected” – The Rolling Stones, from Between the Buttons. Lots of Stones in this Shuffle! This feels British music-hall-ish, with a rollicking kazoo solo. I love the Stones but am not an expert in their career, so take my impressions for what it’s worth. This is from a 1967 album, the same year as Sgt. Pepper. It feels Sgt. Pepper-y. Like something heard on a victrola played either too fast or too slow. With a music hall feeling to it.

“Citadel” – The Rolling Stones. Holy mackerel, it’s a cluster! The song feels rough, hard, driving, that insistent guitar from Richards pushing the song along. Also from 1967.

“Can’t Pull the Wool Down (Over The Little Lamb’s Eyes) – Maria McKee. She’s so wonderful. I feel proud to know her. She’s great. What a voice, right?

“I Want Some Sugar In My Bowl” – Nina Simone. Talk to me, Nina. I could stand some loving too. Her voice aches with her experience: “I feel so funny. I feel so sad.”

“Song for the Deaf” – Queens of the Stone Age. I was so into them for a hot second that I could not get past this album. The phase passed, but I still love that album.

“In This Windy Old Weather” – The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. It’s live, and they ask the audience to sing. You can hear the crowd join in. “Let’s raise the roof!” It’s emotional.

“C’mon Everybody” – Eddie Cochran again. “I got some money in my jeans …” Talk to me, big boy. He was the voice of the Teenage Dream. His parents are gone, he’s got the house to himself, he wants everyone to come over!

“Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn. Classic.

“The Hammer (Keeps A Knockin’) – Faye Adams. Her voice is out of control. That vibrato, the choices she makes, the commitment she pours into every single moment. I love her.

“Lucille” – Waylon Jennings. Absolutely gorgeous aching country version of Little Richards’ nutso rock ‘n’ roll hit. Oh, Waylon. Stop being awesome.

“Xanadu” – Olivia Newton-John and ELO. Just keepin’ it real here, folks.

“Fast Train Down” – The Waco Brothers. Kind of love these guys. Country mixed with … punk? From Chicago.

“Dear Jessie” – Madonna. My God, I had forgotten about this song. From Like a Prayer, which I had on cassette tape: the cassette tape was (remember?) scented with patchouli. I don’t care for that smell so it was rather annoying. But I did love this album. “Dear Jessie” was Madonna being sickly-sweet, “if the land of make-believe is inside your heart, it will never leave.” If you say so, girl!

“Am I Blue?” – Billie Holiday. Not much to say except, Wow.

“One Vision” – Queen, live at Wembley Stadium. Honestly, they’re like Pharaohs. The sound of that crowd.

“Deja Vu” – Eminem. From Relapse. That’s a pretty sad picture you’re paintin’ there, Marshall.

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” – Bob Dylan. I imagine I’m not alone when I say I’ve got major personal associations tied up with this song.

“How Are You Getting Home?” – Sparks. I love this album (Indiscreet) and this song has a great sound, great chords.

“Talking About My Baby” – The Impressions. Smooooth, gorgeous, happy doo-wop/soul. Their voices! The blend of them!

“Even Flow” – Pearl Jam. The song has a macho swagger to it that I really like. It’s aggressive, not recessive. I honestly heard it one too many times on the radio in 1991 or whenever it was it came out, but still, it’s good.

“All Apologies” – Nirvana, from their iconic MTV Unplugged concert. The lyrics still get me.

“The Judas Kiss” – Metallica. A thrilling song. Lars is INSANE. I like to listen to their stuff and try to isolate out Lars from all that noise. It’s always crazy, what he is doing back there. This song is a perfect example of my brother’s comment: “Metallica is metal for math nerds.”

“Don’t Be Cruel” – Elvis, from the “Million Dollar Quartet”. A gathering of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (there was no quartet, there were only three of them) in December 1956 at Sun Records. An impromptu jam session started, and Sam Phillips had the wherewithal to turn on the tape recorder. And speaking of Jackie Wilson up above: Here, Elvis launches his monologue about seeing this singer with Billy Ward and his Dominos – he didn’t know his name then – (“a colored guy … he was a Yankee, you know”) in Las Vegas, do “Don’t Be Cruel” and totally re-thought the song, the singer Elvis saw performed it at such a level that Elvis knew he had been shown up. Elvis upped his game because of what he saw Wilson do (and you can see the result of it in his final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in January, 1957). Elvis talks and talks and talks about Jackie Wilson’s version, doing imitations, bursting out laughing, filled with admiration and awe. “He was much better than the record I put out …” Elvis said.

“Murder Incorporated” – Bruce Springsteen. Love those opening chords. Rocking.

“The Coventry Carol” – The Monks of Glenstal Abbey. If you don’t know these men, check them out. Listening to them is like praying. Or, no, it’s not “like” praying. It is praying.

“Runnin’ Away” – Sly & The Family Stone. From There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the album that was rejected by critics originally (where was all that happy “we are all one” stuff they used to do??) – and is now considered a masterpiece. And it is. It’s a sad and scary album, the culture breaking apart. You can feel/hear it.

“Blue Day” – Waylon Jennings. Early Waylon, I’m pretty sure. I love all phases of Waylon’s career: it had great integrity. He found his own way. He plowed through a lot of bull shit, carving out a space for himself (and others) to maneuver. He gave up his seat on the plane that went down, killing his dear friend and mentor Buddy Holly. Waylon was on that same tour. That plane crash and the death of his friend put him in a mindfuck-headspace for years. But he found his own way. And when the “outlaw” thing started wearing thin, he moved on. He was honest.

“The Sound of Your Cry” – Elvis. Big, gorgeous, dramatic Elvis. From his country album. People who wanted him to get rough and raw again hated material like this, resented it. I don’t at all. This is just as honest as the stuff from early in his career. This, too, is Elvis. He also loved to show off his pipes. The big huge ballads gave him an opportunity to do that. And he fucking MEANS this shit.

“8 Easy Steps” – Alanis Morissette. Another one of her “list” songs. She can’t help herself. She’s an obsessive counter!

“The Ballad of Stagger Lee” – Mississippi John Hurt. For those of you who have read Mystery Train (Greil Marcus again) you will remember well his extraordinary essay on this song, and how it has morphed and changed, and what that character of Stagger Lee (or Staggolee) signifies. I have so many different versions of the song, sung by so many people. This one is haunting. It’s almost 8 minutes long. And Mississippi John Hurt talks it, tells it. It’s incredible.

“Broken Heart Attack” – Jerry Reed. He was so insane. I ADORE HIM. Bad bad boy, wild man. This is from the album called Alabama Wild Man, and the title explains it all. He’s a genius.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – The Beatles. Still exciting. Still blasts out of the speakers.

“It Feels So Right” – Elvis Presley. One of Elvis’ sexiest tracks. And considering how sexy so many of his tracks are, that’s saying something. This one oozes intention. I wrote a whole post about his performing of it in Tickle Me and how incredibly he uses himself. Like a woman. Like a bodacious Mae West woman. Totally unembarrassed about putting himself out there as an object. Fearless. Comfortable in that realm. The power of it still blows the walls back.

“Until Jesus Calls Me Home” – Sam Cooke, with the Soul Stirrers. Soooo beautiful.

“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC. YES. They’ve announced tour dates for 2015. Note to self …

“I Hate Myself For Losing You” – Kelly Clarkson. Woman can sing. I love her best when she’s pissed off, like here. Her Christmas album is great, too.

“Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” – Dean Martin. Ohhhh, Dino. He’s one of those rare performers who I think is actually perfect. There is nothing wrong with him. There is nothing about him that doesn’t work. A natural performer. He was as easy onstage as he was when he was by himself – maybe more easy. I love, too, how you can hear him smiling when he sings.

“Smoke On the Water” – Deep Purple. Ha! You know, it’s all about that guitar hook.

“Rolling in the Deep” – Adele. Already a classic. And now covered by Aretha. So, you know. It’s all set.

“No One Else But You” – Brendan Benson. I adore him. He’s so prolific. I buy every single thing he does. Or at least I try – there’s so much of it. I think he’s a marvelous songwriter.

“Óró ‘Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile” – The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, live at Carnegie Hall, an album I probably heard as I was emerging into this world. I don’t speak Gaelic, but I can sing this song phonetically. It’s great, too, because the whole audience in Carnegie Hall sings along. Wrote a post about this song.

“Honey Bop” – Wanda Jackson. She’s the best. So psyched I saw her live. She’s still out there, doing her thing, touring.

“Blue Monday” – Huey Lewis & The News. From their really cool (and hard to find) album Four Chords and Several Years Ago. 1. My very first concert was going to see Huey Lewis in Providence, R.I. 2. Years later, I was an extra in the video made for the Four Chords album. I’ve only been able to find one clip of it, and can’t see myself dancing up on that scaffold, but believe me, I’m there!

“Gett Off” – Prince. I love this whole album. I love him, in general. Lost … something … while one of his songs was playing. “International Lover,” to be exact, which I realize is RIDICULOUS, but I must tell the truth.

“Busted” – Ray Charles. Brill. The man is in a sorry situation.

“Piggies” – The Beatles. Damn you, Charlie Manson, for co-opting this song. Fuck you and your minions. For so many obvious reasons, but also for this.

“Ya Had Me Goin'” – Bleu. With Mike Viola, on their ELO-inspired joint album called L.E.O. Alpacas Orgling. Bleu is such a rock-star. I don’t care that he plays small clubs with 100 people there. He is a rock star. Went and saw Bleu in November of 2012. I was just starting my descent into psychosis there, and although it might not be obvious to others, I can feel the darkness roaring up at me from below in my writing there. I was in deep shit. Sometimes I want to delete all the posts from November/December 2012, as well as those from June-July 2009, but whatever, I will let them stand. Psychosis or no, it was awesome to see Bleu live. His songs touch me, and he’s wonderful in person. You should check him out!

“My Baby Likes Western Guys” – Brenda Lee. This strikes me as hysterical. Her voice is so HUGE. What the hell is happening. Does it matter? Her boyfriend “likes all the Western guys” and “has no use for her tonight.” Looks like you’ve got some problems, Brenda, for real, girl.

“The Wild Boys” – Duran Duran. Hilarious.

“Beggin My Baby” – Little Milton. One of the guys recorded at Sun Records. You can pick out the Sun Records sound out of a lineup. It’s like Motown in that way. Immediately discernible. Those who know more than I do could pontificate on what that sound really is. All I know is I know it when I hear it. Authenticity is, I guess, the key word.

“Asshole” – Eminem (featuring Skylar Grey). From his latest. Scary brilliant. So fast, so pissed. I will remember 2014 as the year I saw him in concert. He was amazing live. I like him best when he’s mad (like … really mad), but I like all Eminems. He’s an artist.

“Save the Last Dance For Me” – the great Dolly Parton. I absolutely adore her version of this song.

“I’m Ready To Go Home” – The Louvin Brothers. They’re nuts. Their harmonies are perfect. Their religion is terrifying. I love it all.

“I Saw the Light” – Hank Williams. Tap your foot, get saved. What’s it like to be such a pioneer? To be so out in front of the pack? To break new ground? To cross over to that degree, and be the first one to do it?

“Do Rae Me” – Eminem, and Lloyd Banks. Eminem’s daughter Hailey has a cameo in this one. “Hailey!” “Yeah?” “Bring Daddy his Oscar!” “Okay!” Brat. (Him, not her.)

“It’s Electric” – Metallica. From their album of covers. I think it’s a lot of fun. This one is a Diamond Head song.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” – Elvis Presley. It makes me ache. I don’t know why. He skips off the surface of the song. The pace is fast, bluegrass-y. Elvis is practically snarking his way through it, but I sense … something else going on for him. It’s complicated.

“Rollin'” – Randy Newman. He’s so wonderful. The arrangements … the piano, the strings … So melancholy.

“Black Betty” – Ram Jam. Another workout-mix favorite.

“Little Red Corvette” – Prince. The sound of college.

“4 Carats” – Kelly Clarkson. From her super-fun Christmas album, that has covers, but also new songs. It’s a lot of fun. Girl wants a diamond ring for Christmas. Don’t disappoint her.

“Crazy On You” – Heart. Absolutely killer opening guitar. I mean, the whole song really … The Heart women out-tomcat their male counterparts, and it’s thrilling. Their songs are like, “Don’t care what your name is, just do me now, and do it right.”

“A Swingin’ Safari” – Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra. WTF. I’m not complaining, but still. WTF.

“Do You Love Me Now” – The Breeders. These girls were bad-asses. I still miss them. This is a great song.

“1816, The Year Without a Summer” – Rasputina. Talk about bad-asses. I LOVE THEM.

“Down On Love” – Jamie Dunlap. I feel you on that.

“Four Till Late” – Robert Johnson. Goosebumps. All over my body.

“Reet Petite” – Jackie Wilson. I mean … really? He was on another plane. Untouchable.

“Fuck Her Gently” – Tenacious D. “I’m gonna fuck you softly, I’m gonna screw you gently, I’m gonna hump you sweetly, I’m gonna ball you discreetly …” So stupid. So funny.

“The Likes Of Me” – Pat McCurdy. Hey, Pat, where you been? Usually you’re extremely bossy on my iPod. Now, not so much. He’s an old friend. We’ve been through a shit-ton together. Although you’d never know it from this. If you live in the Wisconsin/Minnesota/Illinois area, go see him live. It will be like attending a cult meeting, just know that going in. I am a long-time member of that cult. I appear on one of his albums, he wrote a duet specifically for us – which pretty much captures/describes the excitement of that whole time (we sang the song facing each other in a little studio in Milwaukee – a live take, the two of us together, and if I recall we only did one take), I’m thanked in the liner notes for another album called Fainting With Happiness, I performed with him at the Milwaukee Summer Fest for thousands of drunk lunatics, that’s how involved in the cult I am. But trust me: he’s incredible.

“Suddenly Seymour” – Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, from Little Shop of Horrors. It makes me cry. Every damn time.

“Lookin’ Back” – Bob Seger. Live. Awesome. Lester Bangs wrote an interesting essay about Bob Seger.

“Bon Voyage” – Jane McGarrigle, Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Painful and so beautiful. As always, when the McGarrigle sisters come up, I must point to Lian Lunson’s gorgeous concert film, Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle.

“Dream a Little Dream” – Robbie Williams and Lily Allen, a dreamy romantic duet, from his latest swing album, Swing Both Ways, which I adore.

“Sweet Transvestite” – Tim Curry, from Rocky Horror. This song used to be played at high school dances and everyone would strut around singing the lyrics. Was this normal?

“He’s a Man” – Madonna, from the Dick Tracy soundtrack. One of my favorite songs of hers, ever. This is my favorite Madonna Era.

“Kokomo” – The Beach Boys. You know what? They’re timeless.

“My Little Shirtwaist Fire” – Rasputina. Like I said: I love these chicks. Who else does a song about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? And it’s a great song.

“House of the Rising Sun” – Jerry Reed, doing a cover. It’s eerie. I almost prefer it to the original. Listen to that guitar.

I guess there’s as good a place to stop as any. Jerry Reed is always a good place to stop.

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The Books: Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, ‘Not So, Boston,’ by Roger Angell

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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: Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, by Roger Angell.

“Not So, Boston” describes the 1986 World Series, as well as all the championship rounds leading up to it. It’s a painful read, for any Sox fan (I mean, the title alone …). The first World Series I remember following, and knowing what was happening, and investing in all of it, was the 1975 World Series. I was a child, but I was born into a baseball-loving family (which, for us, meant Red Sox), my first blurry memory is of being at Fenway Park, and rooting for that damn team was the atmosphere I was raised in, similar to being raised Catholic. It may seem like an inappropriate analogy, but whatever, it’s true. Being a Red Sox fan was a given, in my Boston Irish family. And being Catholic was a given, too. There are some things that just are, you know. And of course when you come of age, you can make your own way, and choose what team you want to root for, and what religion you would like to practice (if at all), but as a kid, there were certain givens and being a Red Sox fan was one of them. (My siblings are continuing the tradition with their own children.)

The 1986 World Series was (agony notwithstanding) one of the most amazing World Series experiences in my lifetime. It was epic. It was operatic. It was written by a playwright from ancient Greece. It had tremendous heights, and devastating lows. For the duration of the Series, you felt like you were suspended in No-Man’s Land, the only thing you could do was get ready for the next game. I felt that way in 2004 too, and would experience strange moments of dislocation, mid-series, especially when I would meet up with friends who are not baseball fans, who had no idea what was happening. I was so caught up in it, my life totally dominated by that Series, that it was so WEIRD to meet people whose lives were still … normal.

As epic as the 86 Series was, for a Red Sox fan the entire thing can be summed up in one terrible image:

Bill Bucker Error

It is a scar on the psyche of the Red Sox fan.

Back in 1986, I remember worrying, almost obsessively, about how bad Bill Buckner must have felt about that moment. I know I felt bad, but I worried about him. I hoped his friends and family were surrounding him supportively. This is how painful that moment was!

Anyway, enough about me. Roger Angell, whose heart belonged to both the Red Sox and the Mets, had a hell of a time himself during the 86 Series, which he lays out in this monster essay. Reading it brings it all back! He was torn: should he go to Houston? Should he head to New York? Should he go to Fenway? While you were sitting at one game, crazy shit was going on at another game, and it felt like the entire WORLD had gone baseball-crazy. Angell starts the essay sounding almost amazed that it had all gone down in the way it did:

What matters now, perhaps, is for each of us to make an effort to hold on to these games, for almost certainly we won’t see their like again soon – or care quite as much if we do.

The series was arduous, tough, messy. Each team fought like hell to stay in the game. There was a sense that this was more of … a chaotic brawl rather than a nicely set-up baseball game on a pretty little diamond. Shit went awry. People went crazy. People messed up BIG and had to claw their way back. It felt like it went on forever. Angell writes:

More and more, we fans wanted each game to go our way, to come out right, to end the right way – our way – but again and again, it seemed, that wish was thwarted or knocked aside, and we would find ourselves tangled in a different set of baseball difficulties and possibilities, and pulling for that to end right somehow. We wanted to be released, and until the very end the games refused to do that; the baseball wouldn’t let us up. And if we were sometimes sorry for ourselves, because of these wearying repeated pains and disappointments and upsets, I think we felt worse about the players and the managers (sometimes the managers most of all), because they, too, were so clearly entwined in something they couldn’t handle, couldn’t control or defeat, in spite of all their efforts and experience and skill.

There were times when you would think to yourself, helplessly, “Please, God, let this end soon. I have a LIFE to get back to.”

In “Not So, Boston”, Angell walks us through it, game by agonizing game. The experience is fresh for him, there’s not much retrospect yet. He is still amazed by the whole experience.

There’s so much to this essay, but the excerpt I want to share has to do with Game Six of the National League Championship Series. Angell wasn’t even present, he had to piece it together, and obviously talked to a bunch of New Yorkers about their experience, and he puts it together into a hodgepodge of impressions that are hilarious, and really give a sense of how CRAZY the entire experience was. The setup is important:

Angell was in Boston, at Fenway Park, for the American League finale. Meanwhile, the Mets and the Astros were meeting up in Houston at the Astrodome. All of this was happening simultaneously. Angell was in the stands at Fenway, and there was a guy in front of him listening to the game going on in Houston, so Angell was keeping track of two ballgames at the same time.

Meanwhile, in New York, the entire city was caught in a time-warp. The game in Houston started being broadcast at 3 p.m. New York time. It ended at 7:48 p.m. Awkward timing for a work-day, yes? Angell talked to many folks in New York and got their stories. They are so entertaining and really captures, for this baseball fan, what baseball can do to us. I love the anecdote about the woman at the party who was initially dismissive of baseball, didn’t understand it, didn’t care about it, and by 7:48 p.m., she had lost her goddamn mind. YES. Also I love the guy at the opera.

This is what baseball brings us to. When the Red Sox won in 2004, I was watching at a Red Sox bar in Hoboken with my dear friends David and Maria. And remember there was an eclipse that night, happening AS the Red Sox were winning, I glanced up through the skylight at the bar, and saw the moon going into eclipse. You cannot make this shit up. In the mayhem that came with the win, I glanced around wildly at one point, and saw a guy, a well-dressed regular guy, standing frozen, like a Pentecostal preacher, arms in the air, tears on his face. It was not melodramatic. It was absolutely appropriate.

Angell captures a similar moment, in all its specificity and humor and emotion, gorgeously.

Excerpt from Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, ‘Not So, Boston’, by Roger Angell

What I missed by not being in Houston that day may have been less than what I missed by not being in New York. The pennant-clinching celebrations in Boston were happy indeed (about a four on the Roger Scale), but the excruciating prolongation and eventual exultation of the Mets’ Game Six were something altogether different – a great public event, on the order of a blackout or an armistice. The game began at 3:05, New York time, and ended at 7:48, and in that stretch millions of Mets fans in and around New York, caught between their daywatch of the game and some other place they had to be, found themselves suspended in baseball’s clock less limbo, in a vast, mobile party of anxious watching and listening and sudden release. Sports can bring no greater reward than this, I think. In time, I – like many others, I imagine – began to collect Game Six stories: where folks had been that night, and what they had seen and heard and done during the long game’s journey into night. There was no rush hour in New York that evening, I kept hearing: so many office workers stayed in their offices to follow the game that the buses and avenues in midtown looked half empty. Subway riders on the I.R.T. platform at Grand Central heard the score and the inning over the train announcer’s loudspeaker. A man I know who was in bed with the flu or something said that he rose to a sitting position during the Mets’ rally in the ninth, and then left his bed and paced the floor; when it was all over, he got up and got dressed and was cured. Another man, a film editor – not at all a fan – was running around the Central Park Reservoir when a strange, all-surrounding noise stopped him in his tracks. It came from everywhere around the Park, he said, and it wasn’t a shout or a roar but something closer to a sudden great murmuring of the city: the Mets had won.

Men and women on commuter trains followed the news by Panasonic or Sony, clustering around each radio set for the count and the pitch, and calling the outs and the base runners to the others in their car. At the Hartsdale platform, in Westchester, a woman with a Walkman, having said goodbye to other alighting commuters as they hurried off to their car radios, started up a stairway and then stopped and cried “Oh!” Her companions from the train stared up at her, stricken, and she said, “Gary got thrown out, stealing.” There were portables and radios at Lincoln Center, too, where the ticket holders of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” reluctantly gave the game up at seven-thirty and went in and took their seats for the overture. After a moment or two, a man in the orchestra section sprang up and disappeared through a side exit; he slipped back in a few minutes later (he’d found someone in the cloakroom with a radio, he subsequently explained) and, resuming his seat at the beginning of Figaro and Susannah’s opening duet, turned and signaled, “Seven-four in the sixteenth” on his fingers to the rows around him, and then did a thumbs-up to show he meant the Mets. A newspaperman heading back home to New York stopped off in an airport bar at Boston’s Logan Airport, where the game was on, and fell into Mets conversation there with a woman who turned out to be a Merrill Lynch investment broker; they missed the three-o’clock, the four-o’clock, and the five-o’clock Eastern shuttles, somehow tore themselves away for the six-o’clock – and discovered that the game was still on when they deplaned at La Guardia. A colleague of mine who lives in New Jersey said that while going home he’d followed the game by stages over a spontaneous electronic relay network that had sprung up along the way – a TV set in the fire station on Forty-third Street, a wino’s radio in Grace Plaza, a big TV in the window of a video store on Sixth Avenue, some kids with a boom box in the doorway of a Spanish deli, and then a crowd-encircled gray stretch limo parked in Herald Square, with its doors open and the windows rolled down and, within a flickering tiny television set turned to the game. Radios on his PATH train went blank during the journey under the Hudson but they came back to life in the Hoboken station, where he changed to a New Jersey Transit train, and where the Astros retied the game in the fourteenth. A frightful communications disaster – the long tunnel just before the Meadowlands – was averted when his train, a rolling grandstand, unexpectedly ground to a halt (“Signal difficulties,” a conductor announced), and stood there right through the top of the sixteenth, when the Mets scored three and service resumed.

Writer friends wrote me about the game, too. A woman’s letter began, “My friend Sandy came over to my place for the game with a quart of beer and some snacks – he doesn’t have a color TV set. Sandy and I had been to a couple of games at Shea together, and I assumed it would be just about the same, but this was more like the time we’d been to see the movie ‘Dawn of the Dead’ – he kept turning his face away from the screen in dread. I kept up a casual, chatty, reassuring act, saying comforting things like ‘It’s all right now. Ojeda is totally in command,’ but then there was this one terrifying closeup of Knepper out on the mound – eyes burning and steam coming out of his ears. A real image from a horror movie. As the game wore on, I realized that I was living it through the Mets pitchers, maybe because the pitcher’s motions can give you that trancelike feeling of security. Just about all I was aware of late in the game was McDowell’s right leg coming down and that little bow-legged hop he takes after every pitch, over and over. As long as I kept seeing that, I knew we’d be all right.”

An art critic who lives in the East Village wrote, “At our apartment during the late innings of Game Six were my wife Brooke, our daughter Adam myself, two dinner guests, and two people who had dropped in on short notice and then stayed around. One of the guests was Nell, a film director we like a lot, even though she’s one of those people who can’t believe that anyone of your intelligence actually cares about baseball. One of the drop-ins, an Australian poet named John, knew nothing – nothing – about baseball but took a benign attitude, asking polite, wonderfully dumb questions about the game. The other drop-in was Aldo, our neighborhood cop on the beat, a Mets fan and a friend. Aldo was in full cop gear, and voices crackled from his walkie-talkie: cops out there talking about the game.

“Nell is one of those people who don’t know any policemen and who can’t believe that you do. She looked at Aldo for a while and then said, ‘Excuse me, what are you doing here?’ I had to explain that it was all right, he was here for the game.

“I don’t remember it all, but of course I do remember the growing delirium – like trying to explain to John what a foul ball was and how to throw a slider, and Nell becoming more and more agitated, and Brooke assuming her old rally posture in a particular doorway we have, and then, at the very end, all the whooping and hollering and inaccurate high-fiving, and some wild hugging. Nell was leaning out the window shrieking with joy.”

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The Passionate Thief (1960); directed by Mario Monicelli

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Charlie and I went to The Film Forum last night to check out the restored The Passionate Thief (1960), directed by Mario Monicelli, and starring Anna Magnani, Ben Gazzara and Toto. It’s getting a nice theatrical re-release, and it looks amazing, crisp and glamorous, dark and seedy, the one-crazy-night plot taking place throughout Rome, a city swept away by its collective New Year’s Eve celebrations. Everyone is out partying, everyone crams into the subways, everyone sets off firecrackers and, as one, throws things out of their apartment windows, a very literal gesture of “out with the old,” causing characters to have to dive for cover on the streets below. Slapstick, vaudevillian, totally screwball, featuring missed opportunities, mistaken identities, and ongoing running gags that get funnier with each repetition, The Passionate Thief was a BLAST, and awesome to watch after a week of super-serious end-of-year 2014 films. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a lot of great stuff, but The Passionate Thief is devoted to pure silliness and farce in a way that was like a bubbly glass of champagne, light, airy, ridiculous. There was a guy sitting in the back who was laughing so hard, and stamping his feet that Charlie murmured worriedly that the dude might be about to have a heart attack. But it really was that funny: there is a catharsis in that kind of laughter that was just beautiful.

Anna Magnani plays Tortorella, a struggling actress (we first see her acting her part in a huge crowd scene where she has to react to a saint’s miracle: watching her gesture and scream, “A MIRACLE! A MIRACLE! A MIRACLE!” with 100% conviction was the first belly-laugh of the film). Tortorella is “up for anything,” as another character says, and when she gets an invite for a swanky New Year’s Eve party, she goes all out in preparation. She dyes her black hair blonde, she dresses in an evening gown with swirling little tassels all over it, and drapes herself in a white fox fur (complete with full fox head). She is ready for some fun! Unfortunately, she gets stood up by the group who invited her out (although their paths do cross again later), and so she meets up with Toto, an old friend, who lives in squalor, is perpetually broke, and has just taken a job to be a “second” for a professional thief, out to swipe jewels and purses and cigarette cases from the drunken New Year’s Eve crowds. Toto has hired himself out to Lello, a guy who has promised to bring in a specific amount of money by the next morning, and their first attempts to steal things go terribly, mainly because Toto’s life is one blundering disaster after another. Tortorella has no idea that Toto and Lello are in cahoots: all she knows is that Lello is … well, pretty Rowr, even though he is young enough to be her son, and so she basically decides to crush on him for the evening, an evening that should be fun, it’s New Year’s Eve! Lello plays along, but he’s using her in order to make the scores he needs to make.

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Hijinx ensue. The hijinx never stop. Toto ends up wearing a woman’s flowered hat at an upscale party and singing an Italian ballad on a little stage for the roaring crowd. He doesn’t even know how he got there. Tortorella ends up having to ride on the back of a motorcycle to get to a certain nightclub, after being ditched on the subway by a scheming Toto and Lello … and seeing Magnani, staggering off the motorcycle, in her gown, with newspapers stuffed into her cleavage and up and down her legs in order to ward off the cold on the back of the bike, was one of the funniest bits in the film. Magnani, teeth chattering, says to the motorcyclist: “Could you help me with the newspapers?”

Cars careen through the streets. Furniture flies out the windows. Tortorella has a fight with Toto every 5 minutes. He’s worthless! He’s a beggar, a scoundrel! But then, oh well, let’s move on to the next party. They end up crashing a snooty party filled with stuck-up Germans. It does not go well. The three interlopers are eventually tossed out onto the sidewalk.

There are recurring funny bits involving a drunken American who cruises through the streets of Rome in his gigantic obnoxious tail-finned car. He seems to think that all Italians would love nothing more than to jump into various fountains, fully clothed. He’s seen La Dolce Vita one too many times (it had just come out when Passionate Thief was being made), and Tortorella says, when he tries to drag her into the fountain. “You’ve seen too many movies.”

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The pace is perfection. The gags are ridiculous: Toto, arguing with Lello on the sidewalk outside a restaurant: “Would you go away? I am out with a RESPECTABLE LADY tonight.” (meaning Tortorella). Just as he says that, we see Magnani through the window of the restaurant bop another woman over the head with her purse, screaming curses at her.

Magnani is delicious and completely spontaneous. I re-watched Mamma Roma just last week, and it’s extraordinary to see the difference in approach, depending on the material. The Magnani THING is still there: total truth, always thinking, reacting, totally in touch with her impulses – both physical and emotional – but Mamma Roma is so tragic (despite her determination to do what needs to be done to save her son), and Passionate Thief is so buoyant and openly comedic. It was great to see her in a flat-out farce: running around in her heels, barking out insults at Toto, shivering with excitement at the thought of going to bed with Lello (she has a great moment where she talks to herself in the mirror about it: “So he’s young enough to be your son. So what.”), snuggling up in her furs, fighting, crying, laughing uproariously. She’s the best. Toto didn’t even need to do anything: he just stepped quietly into the action, and I started laughing. And Gazzara was great: sexy, young, intense, and a match for Magnani onscreen (because let’s face it: not many people could keep up with her. Brando told Truman Capote he was afraid to work with her in the proposed stage production of Orpheus Descending, saying: “I had no intention of walking out on any stage with Magnani. Not in that part. They’d have had to mop me up.” Thank goodness, the two eventually did work together, on the film adaptation of that play, The Fugitive Kind – it is electric to see them together, because she is as grounded as he is, and as emotionally truthful. She brings out great great stuff in him.)

Gazzara wrote about the experience filming The Passionate Thief in his autobiography:

Monicelli was a very serious, unsmiling man but a master at directing comedy. As Toto and I weaved through what must’ve been a thousand people – men in black ties, women in evening gowns – our attempts at lifting things from the other guests were truly comical. As he did in BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, Toto found the humor in his own ineptitude. That production gave me a lasting lesson in freedom and improvisation. Magnani and Toto came from a background of theater and variety shows, where dialogue was often improvised or rewritten, and they war forced to use their imagination and their wit. They kept me on my toes but I learned fast, and despite the fact that I acted in English while they spoke Italian, the timing never suffered. I’d always spoken the Sicilian dialect with my parents, never a word of English, and that was a big help in understanding my costars. I never missed a cue …

I first saw Anna Magnani in Rossellini’s OPEN CITY. The raw realism of her work in that 1945 movie was an eye-opener. Whenever I could, I used to go to the World Theater on West 49th Street, which showed foreign movies, usually Italian or French, in the years after WWII. A few directors who were part of a new movement called Neorealism had started making terrific pictures. I was still a kid but I knew that these movies had something that American films lacked. Neorealism WAS a new realism, shot often on real streets. In some scenes the directors had nonprofessionals playing scenes with professional actors, who didn’t seem to be actors either. Magnani’s Roman roots were evident in her passion and in her humor. Her talent bowled me over….

One night we were shooting in a beautiful Baroque church. Toto, Anna, and I were seated outside near the entrance. The street seemed deserted. It was August, holiday time, and most Romans had left for the country or for the beaches. I asked Toto to sing me the song [he had written]. He looked at me from behind his dark glasses. He didn’t so much sing the song as talk it, with a reality and an immediacy that I’d never heard before. At one point, Anna joined him in harmony. An extraordinary night.

Charlie and I had an absolute blast. We laughed nonstop for the entire length of the film. It’s that much fun! Any movie that can bring on that sort of reaction has my heart and soul forever.

New Yorkers, it’s playing at the Film Forum (and has been extended through the 16th). Also keep your eyes peeled for the restored version on DVD. It’s wonderful.

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Legends Together

Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Carl Perkins, and Linda Gail Lewis, performing “This Is Your Land” from the pilot of the never-produced Jerry Lee Lewis Show. Watching this has made my morning.

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Inherent Vice (2014); directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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In Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” there is a section that reminds me of the vibe that Thomas Pynchon captured in his druggy LA-noir set in 1970. Didion wandered through Haight-Ashbury in 1968, 1969, meeting people, hanging out, and in one section she describes a conversation she has with a guy named Steve:

A few days later I drop by to see Steve in his apartment. He paces nervously around the room he uses as a studio and shows me some paintings. We do not seem to be getting to the point.

“Maybe you noticed something going on at Max’s,” he says abruptly.

It seems that the girl he brought, the dark pretty one, had once been Max’s girl. She had followed him to Tangier and now to San Francisco. But Max has Sharon. “So she’s kind of staying around here,” Steve says.

Steve is troubled by a lot of things. He is twenty-three, was raised in Virginia, and has the idea that California is the beginning of the end. “I feel it’s insane,” he says, and his voice drops. “This chick tells me there’s no meaning to life but it doesn’t matter, we’ll just flow right out. There’ve been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it’s going to happen.” He lights a cigarette for me and his hands shake. “Here you know it’s not going to.”

I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Something. Anything.”

Something. Anything. California. The end of the road, the beginning of something else, the ocean launching itself off into the West, haunted by the Golden Fang ghost ship that is everything and nothing, something and anything.

Thomas Pynchon’s druggy paranoid laugh-out-loud-funny 1970s-California noir detective story feels damn near un-adaptable. The book is a maze of plot-threads, strange characters who float into the action, float out, and then re-appear 180 pages later. All is connected, but damned if I could explain any of it. The point is not really the solving of the case (although it is eventually solved), the point is to evoke a certain moment in time, the moment directly following Woodstock and the Manson murders, the 60s burning themselves out in assassinations and blood, leaving a wasteland of confusion and alarm behind. Drugs kept people docile and checked out, flower children turned out to be murderers, and politics took on a distinctly paranoid edge. Inherent Vice captures a time clouded by pot-mist and conspiracy. All is connected. None of it means anything. Tenderness is still possible, as is kindness, but it all feels exhausted, burnt out. The book is hilarious (one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), and the prose surges around, circular, feverish, lazy – sometimes all at the same time. The book itself feels like it is on drugs. It’s one of Pynchon’s most purely entertaining reads.

So when I heard Paul Thomas Anderson was doing Inherent Vice, I felt excited and apprehensive. If anyone could helm such a multi-tiered story, it would be him. And Doc Sportello was, within 1 or 2 pages of the book, an absolutely beloved character, and I also felt afraid/protective of the character being represented onscreen. But then I heard Doc would be played by Joaquin Phoenix, and I approved. None of this matters, since I was not in charge of the production (obvi). Whatever. I haven’t seen The Shipping News and I never will: I already know it’s not right, and it’s mis-guided and it’s horrible, based on who they chose to cast. If you love a book, you sometimes have that proprietary feeling about it.

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Halleluia, Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a big, druggy, gorgeous, hilarious dream of a movie. It is a story of tangents, of paranoia, of bad vibes and worse real estate deals, of an uneasy coalition of Jewish moguls and their Aryan Brotherhood biker bodyguards, the fear of cults, the deranged tail-end of the 60s burning itself out with little or no fanfare in the beach-y environs where the Pacific Ocean starts. Nobody is going anywhere, not even Bigfoot, the ambitious cop-slash-TV-star, played by Josh Brolin (hilarious, his head is completely square) who is frustrated by his whole life, compelled to walk on the wild side, even as he abhors all that hippie bullshit. His only comfort are his frozen chocolate-covered bananas that he slurps on at all times. It is a portrait of a society in decay, and what beautiful dreamy decay. Them’s were trippy trippy times. Or so I’ve heard.

It’s a movie to get lost in, it’s a movie that requires you to let go. The genre tropes are all there, the lonely detective, the misty-water-colored-rain-drenched memories he has of his sweet “old lady,” the wacky secondary characters, the cool as SHIT cars (this is a great gearhead movie), the secret meetings in foggy alleys, the going undercover in some weird ashram … Everyone’s on edge, Doc is hired to look into a specific case. He is then hired for another case. As he investigates, stoned the entire time, he starts to follow the threads, varying, intersecting, converging, confusing, and realizes all is connected. It is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Everyone whispers about this mysterious ship called The Golden Fang. What is it? Who controls it? And … honestly … what does it have to DO with anything?

Hilarious, in its larger chaotic psychedelic weirdness, and in its smaller moments with beautifully-observed tiny bits of behavior (Doc shushing his “lawyer” as the waitress approaches the table, Doc nearly bursting into tears as he watches Bigfoot EAT a joint, too many moments to count), Inherent Vice is awesome because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and – most importantly – gets the book. It gets it HARD.

Just one example:

In the book, Doc is asked to investigate the whereabouts of a missing saxophone player. The sax player was part of the whole surfer-music scene and then suddenly vanished, and his now-cleaned-up-junkie wife is very anxious to find out what happened to him. This appears to have nothing to do with the OTHER case, the main case, and feels like a tangent, in other words, but it’s not a tangent at all. In trying to find the sax player, Doc attends a party at some huge house filled with rock stars, their groupies, and a British invasion pop group called Spotted Dick. It’s rumored that the sax player is there somewhere. The second Doc walks into the party, he gets a bad bad BAD vibe. Like Manson Family vibe. It’s trippy, and since Doc himself is always stoned, you’re just not sure if he’s a reliable witness to reality. But he knows what he knows: these people are into some bad shit. It’s ominous as hell.

Anderson doesn’t linger at the party as long as Pynchon does in the book, but there is a dreamy nightmarish moment when Doc looks around the mansion, seeing naked girls, and long-haired guys, making flower wreaths, and putting pizzas on the table … and this is the configuration they all end up in.

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And that right there is the brilliance of Anderson’s approach to this bizarre material.

Visually, that moment says it all, says what Pynchon took 6 pages to do (and hilariously so) in the novel. Best of all, the tone is right for the film, the tone is snarky and psychedelic, nightmarish and hallucinatory, with flashes of tenderness and caring, all of the varying parts of the scene clicking together to re-create that famous image, almost casually, and gone before it even solidified. But Doc knows what he saw, knows what he sensed.

The whole film is like that. Dazzling and funny, meandering and dark, anchored by wonderful performances from Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon. Gestures are important, shapes are important, the way bodies move through space, the way bodies connect or diverge, the shapes they make against the backdrops, or against each other … It’s a collage, fragmentary and beautiful, romantic and seedy, strange and fragile.

Wonderful acting, too, my favorite kind: performances that are solid in their details, grounded in their emotional reality, and almost schticky in their broad-ness.

It’s a hoot. For real. Didion again:

I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Something. Anything.”

Also:

We do not seem to be getting to the point.

Exactly.

Inherent Vice opens this Friday.

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Happy Birthday to the Belle of Amherst

Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830. It is not known why she withdrew from society so completely. Theories abound, the latest being that she was epileptic. Books have been written. The mystery remains. What we have are her poems. A wide interior life lived in one room.

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Here is Ted’s post on Emily Dickinson. Ted and I collaborated, years ago, on a show about Joseph Cornell (more on Cornell here) who made some of his most famous “boxes” for Emily Dickinson.

Camille Paglia theorized in Sexual Personae that Emily Dickinson was an heir to the Marquis de Sade, that her insistence on boundaries, limits, restraints has more in common with the erotic underbelly of literature, the sado-masochism of some of history’s criminals, like de Sade than with any of Dickinson’s contemporaries. Dickinson was someone addicted to sensation. She is constantly pricking herself with a pin, and gasping at the pain. In many ways, Dickinson stole from no one. She read widely, she loved poetry, but she had her own voice from the start. Dickinson sounds like no one else. Generations of writers following her imitate her. She is one of the few poets where you can recognize a poem of hers just by looking at it.

Michael Schmidt wrote, in his wonderful book Lives of the Poets:

She sewed her poems into little books and put them away, one after another, in a box, where after her death her sister found them, nine hundred poems “tied together with twine” in “sixty volumes.” And it’s not an untenable theory that the beloved whom she mourns, departed, may be Christ, the soul’s lover, rather than a particular man — or a particular woman.

Here’s a poem.

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I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air – am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints – to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun —

In the poem below, we could read whatever we want into it, it’s not “clear” – who is “You” – it would depend on where you are at in your life, the answer. You could read it as being addressed to God. Or it could be to a great lost love, one of those experiences that mark a person forever. “Because you saturated Sight / And I had no more Eyes / For sordid excellence / As paradise”. I have felt that way about a man.

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I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to —
Putting up
Our Life — His Porcelain —
Like a Cup —

Discarded of the Housewife —
Quaint — or Broke —
A newer Sevres pleases —
Old Ones crack —

I could not die — with You —
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down —
You — could not —

And I — Could I stand by
And see You — freeze —
Without my Right of Frost —
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise — with You —
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ —
That New Grace

Glow plain — and foreign
On my homesick Eye —
Except that You than He
Shone close by —

They’d judge Us — How —
For You — served Heaven — You know,
Or sought to–
I could not —

Because You saturated Sight —
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be —
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame —

And were You — saved —
And I — condemned to be
Where You were not —
That self — were Hell to Me —

So We must meet apart —
You there — I — here —
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are — and Prayer —
And that White Sustenance —
Despair —

Quotes and excerpts below about Emily Dickinson, in honor of her birthday.

“She is the spider, not the fly.” — Alison Brackenbury

“Her relationship to books , to literary preedent and example, was similar. She was no ransacker and devourer of libraries. Like Lincoln, she knew relatively few volumes but knew them deeply. As a girl she attended Amherst Academy and also Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a few miles distant, during her seventeenth year, but school gave her neither intellectual nor social satisfactions to compensate for the reassuring intimacy of home and family she keenly missed. The standard works she knew best and drew on most commonly for allusions and references in her poetry and vivid letters were the classic myths, the Bible, and Shakespeare. Among the English Romantics, she valued John Keats especially; among her Englishc ontemporaries she was particularly attracted by the Brontes, the Brownings, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and George Eliot. None of these, however, can be said to have influenced her literary practice significantly. Indeed, not the least notable quality of her poetry is its dazzling originality. Thoreau and Emerson, especially the latter, as we know from her letters, were perhaps her most important contemporary American intellectual resources, though their liberal influence seems always to have been tempered by the legacy of a conservative Puritanism best expressed in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Her chief prosodic and formal model was the commonly used hymnals of the times with their simple patterns of meter and rhyme.” — Norton Anthology of American Literature

“No great poet has written so much bad verse as Emily Dickinson …” — Richard Chase

“When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse — it does not mean — me — but a supposed person.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“Dear friend,
I congratulate you.
Disaster endears beyond Fortune —
E. Dickinson”
letter written to a friend after the friend’s house had burned down

“Throughout her life ED was especially sensitive to such occasions.” — Emily Dickinson’s editor, commenting on a poem Dickinson wrote on the 4th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s death

“Whitman, Dickinson and Melville seem to me the best poets of the nineteenth century here in America.” — Randall Jarrell

“The language is not literary. It enacts heard experience. Kinsmen, unexpectedly met, chatting late into the night from their different places: it brings beauty and truth into intimate focus. Strange: These are the same great terms of Keats’s ‘cold pastoral’.” — Michael Schmidt

“Her coy and oddly childish poems of nature and female friendship are products of a time when one of the careers open to women was perpetual childhood.” — Richard Chase

“I never read his book – but was told that he was disgraceful.” — Emily Dickinson on Walt Whitman

“My Mother does not care for thought.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“I am growing very handsome indeed!” — Emily Dickinson, age 14

“More than any other poet, Emily Dickinson seemed to tell me that the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal; that there was a range for psychological poetry beyond mere self-expression.” — Adrienne Rich

“We have the legend, but the crucial facts in the recorded life are absent. Dickinson’s reticence seems part of her poetical strategy: if we could assign the poems to specific emotional events, we would ground them. As it is, they are a miracle and a mystery of language.” — Michael Schmidt, “Lives of the Poets”

“Her wit is accuracy.” — Alison Brackenbury

“Immense in scale and oratorical in tone, this amazing short poem [Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers] departs from Dickinson’s usual four-line stanza format, based on sturdy Protestant hymn measure. The first five-line stanza rolls out in a single, thrilling sentence, delivered in the magesterial public voice of a sermon or eulogy. Its as if the poem’s disturbing theme – the dead and their defeated hopes – can barely be contained by traditional structure.” — Camille Paglia, “Break, Blow, Burn”

“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Higginson, 1862

“Emily, you wretch! No more of this nonsense! I’ve traveled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once.” — Samuel Bowles, shouting up the stairs at Emily. Emily finally did come down.

“A step like a pattering child’s in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair & a face a little like Belle Dove’s; not plainer – with no good feature – in a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & blue net worsted shawl. She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said ‘These are my introduction’ in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice — & added under her breathe Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say — but she talked soon & thenceforward continuously — & deferentially — sometimes stopping to ask me to talk instead of her — but readily recommencing…I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Here is the review I wrote of The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris.

Joseph Cornell, American artist, who specialized in making boxes built boxes for Emily Dickinson. He didn’t build them as gifts FOR Emily Dickinson (who, of course, was long dead). He built them as spaces that she might inhabit. He was “preparing a place” for her. That’s why so many of the Emily boxes are empty. With open windows. Which is interesting, too. He always wanted to make sure that Emily had a way to escape. However, let’s not forget that he was creating a box for her, another prison.

Here is the most famous box he made for Emily Dickinson. It is called “Towards the Blue Peninsula”:

emilydickinsonbox.jpg

I can feel her presence in that box. It’s like she just left, via the window, but an afterimage remains. The Belle of Amherst has already flown the coop.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 9: Open Thread

5-Supernatural-Season-10-Episode-1-S10E1-title-card-600x337

… coinciding with John Milton’s birthday. An accident? I think not.

Posted in Television | Tagged | 126 Comments

Making It Look Easy: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Morning Glory

Today is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s birthday. Here’s a re-post.

fairbanks1.jpg

Some actors seem to believe that unless they SHOW all the work they have done, their job is not worth doing. And if you don’t congratulate them on all the work up there on the screen, they will most definitely remind you of all that work. “I worked with a Latvian lute-player for 8 months, and I also gained 30 pounds which really helped me get into the character.”

More power to ya.

An interesting and frustrating aspect of this (if you let these things get to you) is that the actor who shows his work is more often appreciated and applauded than the dude who strolls around making it look easy.

Ease is something that has always been under-rated because it doesn’t make a show of itself, and it doesn’t look to be congratulated or noticed. The more splashy parts get the most attention because they DEMAND the attention. That’s all fine. Many great performances are of the “splashy” variety.

However, I really love the actors who stroll through their parts nonchalantly, charmingly, easily, making it look as natural as breathing.

Morning Glory gave Katharine Hepburn the first of her four Academy Awards. It is really a vehicle for her. I’ve seen the performance criticized, and I can understand the criticisms, although I think Hepburn is actually doing more subtle work than she is given credit for. This character is a broken woman. Although the film ends in triumph, the triumph is mitigated by the fact that Hepburn’s final monologue (she’s not afraid of “being a morning glory”) is said to a woman who is a washed-up actress now working as a wardrobe mistress, a woman who had once been an up-and-coming star like Hepbrun.

Fame is fleeting. I don’t believe that Eva Lovelace’s fame will be of the long-lasting variety that Hepburn herself enjoyed. Lovelace is too fragile, she is not destined to be the next Ellen Terry or the next Sarah Bernhardt. Those women had thick skins. Eva Lovelace very well might end up as a wardrobe mistress herself, a forgotten “morning glory.” The ending of the film feels more ominous than happy, despite the swelling positive music. Hepburn does not play the triumph. She plays the defiant, almost mad belief in ONLY the moment- lovely, sure, but on deeper examination it is what will be her downfall. Eva Lovelace is a showy part for Hepburn: it has a naive open-faced beginning, a cautious and sad middle, interspersed with a big drunk scene at a party where she does not one but TWO Shakespearean monologues, and then a sudden rise-to-the-top ending. The role capitalized on Hepburn’s strengths: her somewhat mannered way of speaking (much more marked early in her career), her blinkered ambition, her intelligence (she could not play dumb, and when she tried she was terrible), her self-centeredness, her theatricality and the vague sense of unreal-ness that Hepburn had back then, perfect for the playing of an actress-wannabe who lives primarily in a fantasy world. Hepburn was born to play such a part.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays a New York playwright named Joe Sheridan who takes a shine to Eva Lovelace. He senses talent in her, but he’s not sure if it can be used. He keeps bringing her up to his friend, the manager: “She’s got something, don’t you think?”

Nobody agrees with him, really. Everyone thinks she’s a bit cracked (when a young actress tells you in your first meeting that her goal in life is to eventually take her own life – onstage – you can be forgiven for thinking she’s batty.) But Joe Sheridan isn’t sure that there isn’t something else there, a difference, a beauty that could be transformed into genius on the stage. He keeps her in mind. He does not forget her after their first meeting.

Fairbanks, with ease and grace, plays multiple levels of this somewhat thankless role. He’s not just an earnest “artist” looking for a muse for his next play. Joe Sheridan is a nice man, a sweet intelligent man, who has his own uphill battles to fight in his artistic journey. He’s a success but he remembers what it was like to be a beginner, like Eva, and her hope and belief and enthusiasm touch him, touch him in a very deep place, that place where he remembers who he really is.

He knows, or he can sense, that life is going to be tough for someone like Eva. He senses it from the moment he meets her. That is why, months later, when they run into each other at a party, he says, “You know … I worry about you sometimes.” It’s quite an intimate thing to say to someone you barely know. He senses (unlike anyone else in the film, who either take advantage of her, or snicker at her theatrics) her fragility. He thinks she should be protected.

Fairbanks plays that type of man: a man who doesn’t sneer at weakness, but worries about it, for no reason other than he is a nice person.

It is a deceptively simple part: The “nice” guy who loves the girl, but she’s not interested in him except as a friend. You want to shake Eva and say, “PLEASE consider Joe Sheridan and put that horrible manager out of your mind!” But life isn’t like that. Love is messy and one often falls in love with horrible people who don’t treat you well, especially once sex is involved, as it is with Eva and her manager.

Fairbanks could have played the part as a milksop, a weak guy, a lapdog. He doesn’t. Niceness is one of the hardest things for an actor to portray, in the entire cornucopia of qualities. Insanity? Piece of cake compared to niceness. What is “niceness”? What does it mean? What does it look like? And if all you’re doing is playing “nice”, will your work even be discernible? Shouldn’t you make it at least a bit dark and twisty so you will be memorable? Fairbanks is above and beyond those ego-driven concerns, and manages to show the essential character of Joe Sheridan, his decency, his sense of honor, without seeming weak or ineffectual. This is no easy task. He emerges as a friend, really the only friend that Eva’s got in the shark-fest that is the world of the play.

Naturally, though, there is more. He is also in love with her.

To play a man in love, who is also interested in the quality of life of his beloved, and to be concerned over her welfare and how she is treated, is a delicate thing. It requires subtlety and attention to detail. He could have mooned and sighed and pouted. He does none of these things. He seems like a good and serious playwright who keeps his eye on the ball, in terms of his career, but he sees in her a freshness, a humor and fragility, a charming unselfawareness, that touches him. He loves her. It’s that simple.

morningglory1.jpg

Let’s get down to specifics.

How does Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. DO all of this?

Surprise, surprise, it’s all about listening. If you want to see what real listening looks like, watch Fairbanks’ performance in Morning Glory. In his one-on-one scenes with Hepburn (the one at the party, in particular), he listens to her with a sensitivity and subtlety that seems quite modern, from another movie, another acting style all together. Nobody else in the film is listening quite like he is. And that’s right for the picture: he really is the only person with integrity, he really is the only one who SEES her. His way of listening helps him stand out.

There are these strange out-of-time performers whose work never dates, never seems like another style. They are timeless. They not only would “fit in” now, but they would dominate now as they did then. Cary Grant. Bogart. Wayne. Cooper. Judy Garland. Barbara Stanwyck. They came out of the same tradition as the great vaudevillian players of the time, they had the same training, the same context. Film was a new medium. These people figured it out early, and worked it to such a degree that they are still the gold standard of film technique. Many great and wonderful actors (Ronald Coleman comes to mind, although there are so many more) are placed firmly within a specific acting tradition, the old-school more classical style, the modulations of voice and gesture that dominated acting training for centuries until, well, Marlon Brando came along. There is nothing ‘lesser’ about that kind of work. But when you see someone like Gary Cooper or John Wayne in their early days, or John Garfield, or Bogart, you know you’re looking at something new, something different.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has that in Morning Glory. When he smokes a cigarette, he conscientiously blows the smoke away from her face. Totally naturalistic behavior. When he listens, he listens. You can watch the responses and thoughts flicker over his face, even if he has no lines. There is a spontaneity to the performance.

There’s one moment in a scene with Adolph Menjou where Fairbanks starts to laugh and he actually snorts while laughing. It is startling to watch someone who actually seems incapable of “creating” anything on purpose. It all just looks like life. A lot of us snort from time to time when we laugh hard. But actors back then, in general, didn’t. He did. I love him for it! And I love that he slipped into this really nothing part with a sensitive purpose, an understanding of where he might fit in, what his real role was in the story.

If we don’t feel like Eva Lovelace is missing the boat by not choosing Joe Sheridan, then the picture doesn’t work. We are aided in this by the casting of the manager, the rotund fatherly Menjou. If the manager was, say, Clark Gable, we’d have a very different picture. Fairbanks is so handsome, so at ease in his own skin, it’s fascinating (and part of the tension) that Eva is blind to him.

What I am really left with is Fairbanks’ ability at creating a man who understands kindness. (Think of how, during her potentially embarrassing meltdown at the party when she decides to perform Juliet’s balcony monologue for the entire crowd, and he, from his spot in the room, throws one of Romeo’s lines up to her … so she won’t have to sit up there, waiting for a cue that will never come. That’s the kind of man Joe Sheridan is).

At the end, I ached for him. I ached for her, too, sensing the tough road ahead, but I really ached for him. She will always be the one that got away. And he must let her go. That’s the gentlemanly thing to do, first of all, but it’s also the right thing to do. He does not pout, or bemoan his fate. He just kisses her hand, lingering there, and then walks out of the room.

He’s a nice man. And he just lost.

Fairbanks Jr. does it all with such a grace that we may not even notice how effective the performance really is.

Watching Morning Glory, I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from the first of Fairbanks’ autobiographies, The Salad Days (review and excerpt here)

I did not aim to supplant or rival my father nor to outdo my grandfather as a business tycoon. I did believe, quite as a matter of fact, that I would be better at whatever I put my hand and heart to than most people and that any shortfall would be due as much to my own lack of interest as to anyone else’s superiority. I wanted very much to be my own self, well clear of anyone’s shadow, but I had no very specific goals in mind.

I have never lacked awareness of the diversity and potential of my talents. By the same token, I have never been burdened with the conceit that I was another Noel Coward or Chaplin or even a carbon copy of my father. I have, since maturity, known full well the limits of my capabilities (which I’ve never quite reached), the perversities of my personality, and precisely how much self-discipline I should, could, and would apply to get whatever I had to do done well. I may have exaggerated myself to other people, but I have rarely deceived myself. That is probably my only real virtue.

Reading that passage, it doesn’t surprise me at all that such a man could so convincingly and with such great ease create true niceness onscreen.

Because it’s the genuine article.

Posted in Actors | 14 Comments

Happy Birthday, John Milton

Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself lay.

— William Wordsworth

Milton, with the possible exception of Spenser, is the first eccentric English poet, the first to make a myth out of his personal experience, and to invent a language of his own remote from the spoken word.
– W.H. Auden

Milton was born in 1608, and although he left Oxford without completing his degree, he remained a thinker and a propagandist/pamphleteer and a scholar till the end of his days. The isolated poet, focused on self and emotion, would come in with the Romantics. Milton was a public and a political man, a propagandist for the Commonwealth (a dangerous position to take, especially once the Restoration came about)l he addressed all kinds of “unpoetic” social and civil issues in pamphlets, books, poems, articles. He was famous in his own day. His reputation since then has risen and fallen with the tides, and we are now in a huge Milton upsurge. He turned 400 a couple of years ago, and there were celebrations across New York City: art exhibits, library exhibits, and also a costume-party in Brooklyn where you had to dress up as either Milton himself, or a character from Paradise Lost.

I had to read Paradise Lost in high school and thought it was the most boring thing I had ever read in my life. I had to prop my eyeballs open to get through it. I then re-read it about 10 years ago, nd it felt like the top of my head exploded trying to comprehend not only the thoughts/philosophy in the great work, but also the depths and transcendence of the language itself. I feel like people should be FORCED to re-read what they were FORCED to read in high school.

Milton traveled widely, and most of his writing was meant for public consumption: he was not a private scribbler. He wrote political and religious tracts and philosophical works, what amounts to op-ed columns addressing those trying to understand and keep up with what was happening to the constitution in England at that time. He wrote poetry privately; he had been writing poetry since he was a young boy.

Jonathan Rosen, in his wonderful New Yorker article about the continuing relevance of Milton, writes:

Sometime in 1638, John Milton visited Galileo Galilei in Florence. The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” Milton was thirty years old – his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, Paradise Lost, all lay before him. But the encounter left a deep imprint on him. It crept into Paradise Lost, where Satan’s shield looks like the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope, and in Milton’s great defense of free speech, Areopagitica, Milton recalls his visit to Galileo and warns that England will buckle under inquisitorial forces if it bows to censorship, “an undeserved thraldom upon learning.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of picturing the encounter – it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman – there’s something strange about imagining these two figures inhabiting the same age. Though Milton was the much younger man, in some ways his world system seems curiously older than the astronomer’s empirical universe. Milton depicted the earth hanging fixed from a golden chain, and when he contemplated the heavens he saw God enthroned and angels warring. The sense of the new and the old colliding forms part of Milton’s complex aura. The best-known portrait of his mature years makes Milton look like the dyspeptic brother of the man on the Quaker Oats box, but he is far more our contemporary than Shakespeare, who died when Milton was seven. Nobody would ever wonder whether Milton was really the author of his own work. Though Paradise Lost is a dilation on a moment in Genesis, it contains passages so personal that you cannot read far without knowing that the author was a blind man fallen on “evil days.” Even in his political prose, Milton will pause to tell us that he is really not all that short, despite what his enemies say. Though he coined the name “Pandemonium”, all the demons for the palace that Satan and his fallen crew build in Hell, he also coined the word “self-esteem,” as contemporary a concept as there is and one that governed much of Milton’s life.

Read the whole thing: here.

Poet Walter Savage Landor wrote:

Milton, even Milton, rankt with living men!
Over the highest Alps of mind he marches,
And far below him spring the baseless arches
Of Iris, colouring dimly lake and fen.

Milton lost most of his public standing when the Restoration came, although he didn’t experience the harsh reprisals that many others did. He was blind by that point, and his great works, the works that would put him in the canon for all time, were still ahead of him.

Milton’s “sonnet to his blindness” is a searingly truthful poem (especially if you fear going totally blind), and it is a poem I have turned to in my darkest hours.

Sonnet: On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

He dictated Paradise Lost to his daughter, a fact that makes my entire brain go blank.

There are some people who seem to be vessels of a higher being. Whatever you want to call it. You could tie them up, throw them in a basement for 75 years, and they would STILL scratch out an epic on the basement wall. It is something that cannot be easily explained. It just is.

Michael Schmidt wrote of Milton in Lives of the Poets:

Milton was revered through two and a half centuries. Before Eliot tried to knock the bust off its plinth, only Doctor Johnson had expressed damaged misgivings, and he tempered criticism with grudging respect. Milton became a spiritual and literary duty, a task and test, a measuring stick, and a rod to every poet’s back. Shakespeare was monumentalized, but he remained engaging, inspiring, inimitable, Milton furrowed the brow of most readers.

Milton was political, moral, religious, a bit of a finger-wagger, but ultimately he was connected to the depths of what it means to be a human being, all the pain and grief and joy and striving that makes up our condition here. He was interested in good and evil but he falls into the usual writer’s trap of making evil seem so … appealing. Milton understood the appeal of evil, the appeal of the fallen angel.

Schmidt writes:

Milton was unsuccessful with protagonists. Christ, God, and Sampson repel us in different ways; what they represent they do not recommend. His antagonists can be admirable. They are given much of the best verse. Comus and Satan are attractive villains. Blake could claim Milton as “of the Devil’s party” and John Middleton Murry branded him a “bad man” on these grounds. Robert Burns declared, “I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments – the dauntless magnanimity, the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, the noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage, SATAN.” Milton’s unequal skill in moral characterization is inevitable. Goodness and virtue cannot be particularized without limiting or containing them. Virtues are flimsy, tend toward abstraction when they aspire to be comprehensive. Evil, however, has to be particularized. Fallen men fall in different ways. Evil acts in a world of characters we recognize. The devil has the best, because the most diverse and seductive, tunes. A marriage between virtue and character, between pure qualities and mundane objects, is beyond most art, even his. Or is it beyond our comprehension? Is there a modern prejudice that finds the individual invariably more real, more attractive, than the universal?

The Commonwealth had been restored, leaving Milton a bit at odds’ end, and it was during that time that he wrote, in succession, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.

He died in 1674.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of late-stage Milton:

My mind is not capable of forming a more august conception than arises from the contemplation of this greatest man in his latter days: poor, sick, old, blind, slandered, persecuted: ‘Darkness before and danger’s voice behind,’ in an age in which he was as little understood by the party for whom, as by that against whom, he had contended, and among men before whom he strode so far as to dwarf himself by the distance; yet still listening to the music of his own thoughts, or, if additionally cheered, yet cheered only by the prophetic faith of two or three solitary individuals, he did nevertheless

… argue not
Against Heaven’s hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bore up and steer’d
Right onward.

T.S. Eliot wrote:

In Milton the world of Spenser was reconfigured and almost unrecognisable … What had been reasonable and courteous, a belief in the fact that men of culture and intellect will be able to engage in rational discussion and agree to disagree, had been displaced by faction and sometimes violent intolerance. The moderate had stood down and the fanatic had taken his place, in the pulpit, in Parliament, and on the very peaks of Parnassus.

Schmidt writes:

The case against Milton is largely a case against his effect on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was universal in Britain, and not confined to these islands. Milton is strictly inimitable: a radical and an anachronism. T.S. Eliot delivered telling blows, some of them against the moral content. The poem’s moral purpose, like that of The Fairie Queene, has become muted and remote. We read it for reasons other than edification. It fell to F.R. Leavis to square his shoulders before the master and try to knock him down. Leavis attacks first Paradise Lost and the grand style. He finds it predictable: “routine gesture,” “heavy fall”, “monotony”… Milton is “cut off from speech … that belongs to the emotional and sensory texture of actual living.” His style is “an impoverishment of sensibility.” Milton had “renounced the English language.”… Many of his charges are in part true. There is monotony; the grand style does compel an attitude in the reader (it has designs on us), the language is cut off from speech, except when it is speaking. But such facts need not be incriminating. The poem answers the more serious case … There is subtle and delicate life in the verse, and a variety of subtleties and delicacies. In dismissing Milton, Leavis assaults the wide area of English poetry which he affected; and his effect is still felt. The prejudice of our age, as much an unwritten rule as the rules of decorum were in the eighteenth century, is contained in Leavis’s declaration that Milton’s language is “cut off from speech”. His sin is his language.

Yet for two and a half centuries – even for a “speaker” like Wordsworth – Milton’s virtue was this language, which engaged and developed subjects difficult to combine, moral verities and the created world. The language of speech is not the only, or first, language of poetry. To criticize work in terms strictly irrelevant to it is of little value: a critical act of “brute assertive will,” or a prejudice so ingrained as to be indistinguishable, for uncritical readers, from truth itself. With the decline of literacy, Milton, like Spenser, becomes a more difficult mountain to scale, more remote from the “common reader”. Yet Chaucer and Shakespeare, the only poets in the tradition who are Milton’s superiors, both grow and recede in the same way and are not dismissed. They seem more accessible. In the end Leavis’s hostility, like Empson’s and Richards’s in other areas, is to the Christian content of the poems, and in Milton it is obtrusive and central. We read Herbert’s and Donne’s divine poems even if we are unbelievers: there is their doubt to engage, and the framed drama of specific situations. But Milton will not allow disbelief to go unchallenged: his structures and narratives are not rooted in individual faith but in universal belief. The question of revealed truth raises its head as in no other poet in the language.

Michael Schmidt, above, levels a charge at critics which I think is a fair one: They dislike the content, but they don’t feel they can say that outright, so they go out of their way to decimate the verse for other reasons.

In the introduction to my copy of Paradise Lost, written by Edward Le Comte, he writes:

Out of the ruins and out of the darkness Milton brought Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes – a long epic, a short epic, and a Greek tragedy, all without rivals in the language. It was a miracle of the spirit – of, he intimated, the Holy Spirit, for he was strong and insistent in his belief in the sacredness of his inspiration.

Here is a part of Paradise Lost from Book One, with the hot and attractive Satan calling upon his followers.

Paradise Lost

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
TITANIAN, or EARTH-BORN, that warr’d on JOVE,
BRIARIOS or TYPHON, whom the Den
By ancient TARSUS held, or that Sea-beast
LEVIATHAN, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the NORWAY foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell,
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d.
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope their pointing spires, & rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from PELORUS, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring AETNA, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds,
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet. Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the STYGIAN flood
As Gods, and by their own recover’d strength,
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

“Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,”
Said then the lost Arch Angel, “this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?”

So SATAN spake, and him BEELZEBUB
Thus answer’d. “Leader of those Armies bright,
Which but th’ Omnipotent none could have foyld,
If once they hear that voyce, their liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft
In worst extreams, and on the perilous edge
Of battel when it rag’d, in all assaults
Their surest signal, they will soon resume
New courage and revive, though now they lye
Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire,
As we erewhile, astounded and amaz’d,
No wonder, fall’n such a pernicious highth.”

He scarce had ceas’t when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the TUSCAN Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of FESOLE,
Or in VALDARNO, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on NORWEGIAN hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In VALLOMBROSA, where th’ ETRURIAN shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds ORION arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
BUSIRIS and his MEMPHIAN Chivalrie,
VVhile with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of GOSHEN, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating Carkases
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. “Princes, Potentates,
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.”

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

We Are the Best! (2014); directed by Lukas Moodysson

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“We should start a band.”
“We seriously should.”

One of the perfect gems of 2014.

With all the hype about Boyhood (much of it deserved), it is wonderful to see a movie about young girls coming of age, a story that is equally as sensitive, kind, as well as scarily accurate. What are 13 year old girls like? Well, many of them are like this. I saw myself in each one of these characters. I remembered middle school. I remembered how passionate we were about the music we loved. The awkwardness of developing a crush, when literally 2 days ago (it felt like), you were 8 years old. Holding hands was the biggest deal in the world. And your friends were everything. These three girls are friends.

These are not cliched children. This is what it was like. For many of us. The fact that that needs to be reiterated and underlined just shows you how sad the situation is, that young girls are not represented properly, or at least not enough. There’s not enough out there to counter-act all the precocious sexualized dehumanizing bullshit that little girls face, especially as they hit puberty. Being 13 years old is its own thing. It’s not being 16, it’s not being 19. It’s being 13. What does that mean, what does that look like? I was 13 years old once, we all were. So few films really deal with it in a friendly way: girls are seen as prey, or on the rough road to adulthood, growing up too fast, blah blah. Yes, those things happen, too. But that’s the ABC After School Special theory of adolescent female-hood, it’s all treachery, one wrong step and you’re hooking under the freeway ramp! But what about other stories? About girls who know what they like, who try to be good to each other (and sometimes fail, and then have to try to do better), who support each other, who have other things on their mind than getting a date to the school dance? We Are the Best! is a bracing, funny, and intelligent tonic.

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Who are these children? The three young actresses (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne) are amazing. They have some real scene-work to do, some real issues to portray (one’s mom is a bit of a floozy, with a new boyfriend every week, one comes from a strict religious background and has conflicting feelings about going all punk – but that situation resolves itself in a human and unexpected way, rather than a cliched way), and they are all completely game, completely open to the improvisational reality of every moment. They are funny, smart, awkward, chatty, giggly, sometimes angry. It is 1982 in Stockholm. They love punk music, but punk has been declared dead. They missed the movement. They wear their hair in spikes, in Mohawks, they discuss punk music passionately and knowledgeably, they want to be a part of it. They want to live it. We Are the Best! remembers that brief moment in time, early in the 80s, before Madonna arrived, when things were still … rough, un-corporatized, when the sound was still ugly and raw. The girls are naive about music and politics and social change. Of course they’re naive. They’re 13 years old. The film does not disabuse them of their ideals. Time enough for that as they grow up. For now, they want to be punk rockers, they live, eat, breathe, punk!

We Are the Best! also includes one of the most purely satisfying scenes in any movie this year. A bunch of older musicians, all male, want to help the young girls out. They assume nobody can play an instrument, and so they (kindly, but still) mansplain the girls to DEATH about how to hold the guitar, and adjust the strap. The girls sit there, listening to this, laughing out loud. The second Hedwig starts playing, and she sounds better than any of those grown-up males do, jaws drop around the room. All the guys start nodding, enthusiastically, impressed. I felt like cheering.

We Are the Best! had a groundswell of critical support when it hit American shores, and is currently streaming on Netflix. Definitely one of the films of the year. I love a film that is so fully, so completely, so confidently, itself.

Posted in Movies | 22 Comments