Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quote of the Day (Thomas Merton, on the World Created by “Mad Men”)

“Advertising treats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments.”—Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

It’s difficult to imagine Thomas Merton (1915-1968) occupying the same world as Don Draper, but one of the last books of the cloistered monk appeared in the same tumultuous decade in which the protagonist of the Emmy-winning series Mad Men labored.

Among Merton’s many books was The New Man, and oddly enough he and Draper shared something in common: the need to shed an old persona that caused them acute shame. Yet there the resemblance ends.

While Draper and his co-workers at the Sterling Cooper ad agency strive at all hazards in a profession aimed at encouraging and even exalting desires, Merton worked even harder to sublimate his, in an all-consuming quest to experience the goodness of the Almighty.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Headline of the Day (The Daily News, on Gerald Ford and NYC)

FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”—New York Daily News headline, October 30, 1975

Talking about Halloween scares!

There have been tabloid headlines more infectious (one personal favorite: in the New York Daily News, after Joey Buttafuoco was arrested for paying for a prostitute: SO JOEY, HOW’S TRICKS?).

But none were so powerful—or so politically consequential—as the one created by Daily News managing editor William Brink after President Gerald Ford, in a nationally televised speech, rejected the Big Apple’s request for federal aid to stave off imminent bankruptcy.

Eventually, the city managed to keep the wolves from its doors as Governor Hugh Carey cobbled together, with the clock ticking, a package consisting of debt-packaging corporations, strict financial oversight, and concessions by unions (a tale told by Seymour Lachman and my college friend Rob Polner in their new study of Carey, The Man Who Saved New York).

A few weeks later, even Ford helped out, to a limited degree, by signing a package of short-term emergency loans. But the damage had already been done to his standing by the News’ short, brutal headline.

A year later, city and state voters remembered—and made Ford pay at the polls. In retirement, the President would point to the headline as a contributing factor in his narrow loss to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter in the Electoral College. New York State’s 41 electoral votes would have given him Ford victory. Instead, he left the Oval Office, wondering what might have been.

The question inevitably arises: What would have happened if the city's emergency had occurred today? Well, the state itself, of course, would not, because of its own precarious finances, be able to come to the rescue. But it's also safe to say that the situation in Washington would not have been congenial to a bailout.
As we are learning in this current election, American taxpayers are not happy when politicians squeeze them to pay for other people's irresponsibility, even if there's quite a bit of difference between Wall Street firms who engage in the most reckless form of casino capitalism and municipal governments with the best intentions of creating a better life for more of its citizens.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Flashback, October 1880: TR Weds for First Time

Theodore Roosevelt, insane with happiness, not only celebrated his 22nd birthday but his marriage to Alice Hathaway Lee, a fair-haired beauty he met while at Harvard two years before, on October 27, 1880.

The joy turned out to be short-lived. Three and a half years later, TR was nearly insane with grief. Heeding an urgent call to Albany, where he was a rising young politico in the state legislature, he rushed home to find not only his beloved mother on her deathbed, but his wife about to die of Bright’s Disease, only two days after giving birth to their only child.

The story of Theodore and Alice Roosevelt (in the image accompanying this post) holds interest that extends far beyond those (like myself) who are endlessly fascinated by America’s 26th President. It also offers a real-life, Harvard-set Love Story far quirkier and interesting than the one that Erich Segal wrote 40 years ago; a look at how Victorian-era Americans dealt with sex and grief; and how TR’s psychic survival mechanism may have damaged the product of his first union.

Two decades after Alice’s marriage and death, as Americans absorbed every morsel of information they could about the energetic young President and his bustling young family, few knew much, if anything, about the woman who preceded First Lady Edith Carow Roosevelt as Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.

This was no accident. TR was so distraught by this double tragedy that he refused to allow anyone to mention Alice’s name, or allude to her in any other way, in his presence.

More than a half century later, Americans still knew comparatively little about Alice. Richard Nixon’s reference to TR’s distraught diary entry (''the light has gone out of my life'') in his farewell address to staffers in August 1974 was one of the few shards of concrete documentary evidence that most historians knew about this. Not only had Roosevelt not mentioned Alice’s name in his 1913 autobiography, but after that brief diary in the diary, he mused no more about his grief at all in print.

And so matters stood until late in the 20th century, a century after TR and Alice’s short union, and only because of another Alice, the couple’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who became a D.C. institution all her own on the strength of a legendary wit. (One of her best-known sayings was “If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me,” though I think a pithier, more characteristic motto for her was “My specialty is detached malevolence.”)

Ms. Roosevelt had in her possession her parents’ correspondence. Though the letters were far too sentimental for her liking, she did not, thank God, destroy them, but instead donated them to the Houghton Library at her father’s alma mater. Nathan Miller was the first TR chronicler to make use of this unexpectedly rich treasure trove, in his 1993 biography.

"As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me," Roosevelt wrote later. But Alice Lee did not take so quickly to him.

Speaking in a high-pitched voice, looking more like he hopped rather than danced with a partner, and covered with the formaldehyde that showed his longtime interest in taxidermy, TR hardly appeared future Presidential material. His letters indicate that he campaigned for her perhaps more strenuously than he would for any office in the future. He didn’t even give up when she rejected his initial proposal (impetuous fellow that he was, he even ordered dueling pistols in case he became involved in a dispute with another suitor). Her acceptance of his hand just before Valentine’s Day in 1880 made him ecstatic. (Though some accounts would have it that his constant attention to her after their engagement distracted him from his studies, it couldn’t have been that bad, since he graduated cum laude from Harvard four months before their wedding.)

Theodore would not have protested at all about daughter Alice’s characterization of the letters as sentimental; indeed, he would have pointed to the same quality in the greatest of Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens. In this light, his wives can be likened to the two spouses of the title character in Dickens’ David Copperfield. The parallels would not have been lost on Edith Roosevelt, like her husband a great bibliophile.

Alice was TR’s Dora, the pretty, impractical and doomed first wife; Edith was his Agnes, the childhood sweetheart there to catch him on the rebound, sensible and indispensable in creating a lasting marriage. The contrasts ran even deeper between Alice and Edith: golden-haired vs. dark, flirtatious vs. serious, unintellectual vs. literary, sweet-natured vs. unexpectedly tart. (Indeed, Edith might find a kindred spirit in Laura Bush, another booklover forced on occasion to rein in her manchild of a husband.)

What would have happened if Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt had survived? Nothing like a divorce (that was, of course, a social no-no in those days), nor even adultery (TR was about as conventional a husband as you could get, one reason he was so enraged when younger brother Elliott had an affair with a servant). But there is a question whether she would have possessed Edith's strength and equanimity in handling a growing household as her husband’s political star rose, and whether she might not have pushed him into a quieter field, like academe.

As it was, consequences did ensue after Alice’s death, besides the obvious one of intense grief. TR’s strategy for coping with savage loss was twofold: frenetic activity (“Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough”) and emotional suppression.

In the Age of Oprah, of course, the second strategy would be verboten. Political handlers would strongly advise TR to share his feelings, not just with his family but with the entire electorate, in the belief that voters care more about personalities than policies. Psychiatrists would warn about the dangers to families spelled by bottling up the deepest feelings about the loss of a loved one.

Events in the Roosevelt family would bear out the concerns of psychiatrists. First, immediately after the tragedy, TR left his infant daughter in the care of sister Bamie while he headed out for the Dakota Badlands, working as a ranch hand and assistant sheriff, trying to forget. Upon his return, he not only refused to let anyone speak of his first wife in his presence, but instructed Edith not to tell daughter Alice about her mother.

This left the young girl—already resentful that her father was spending more time with his five children with Edith than with her—furious at her stepmother. So unrelenting was this annoyance that Edith would at times lash out at “Princess Alice” that her mother was “an insipid, child-like fool”—Dora, in Dickensian terms.

Young Alice would grow up to be a beautiful, willful rebel--smoking (at a time when proper young women didn‘t do that), going around unchaperoned, tossing off wicked bon mots, and, upon discovering that husband Nicholas Longworth was philandering, embarking on an affair of her own with Senator William Borah that resulted in a pregnancy. She might have been a delightful dinner companion, but was also far removed from the nickname that her mother’s family had for the first Alice Roosevelt” “Sunshine.”

Movie Quote of the Day (Billy Wilder, on Sherlock Holmes’s Love Life)

Dr. Watson (played by Colin Blakely): “Holmes, let me ask you a question. I hope I'm not being presumptuous, but... there have been women in your life, haven't there?”

Sherlock Holmes (played by Robert Stephens): “The answer is yes...”

[Watson breathes a sigh of relief]

Holmes: “...You're being presumptuous. Good night.”—The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder (1970)

Bad enough that there’s an implication here (never entirely dismissed through the rest of the film) that this world-famous character might be, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, “not on our team” (or, at minimum, very distrustful of women) or even (anticipating the same point made later in The Seven-Percent Solution) that Holmes’ boredom with everyday life has triggered a fearsome cocaine addiction.

But did Billy Wilder really have to depict Holmes as less than perfect in solving crimes? From all over the world, the groans of the Baker Street Irregulars could be heard.

A year ago, I thought of writing about three great directors who came a cropper with disasters in 1964: John Ford (Cheyenne Autumn), Alfred Hitchcock (Marnie) and Billy Wilder (Kiss Me, Stupid). Ford made only one more film in the last seven years of his life (7 Women), while Hitch only created one work out of his last four that approached his masterworks: Frenzy.

Wilder had the most interesting final laps of the three. Unlike the Master of Suspense, he did not enjoy another hit comparable to Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard or The Apartment. But after Kiss Me, Stupid brought a storm of execration on his head for delivering up such louche work, he made another half-dozen films up to 1981, and kept going to his office, in the vain hope that he could concoct another property that would flourish under Hollywood’s new financing order, for some years after that. (The latter hope, of course, was in vain, and Wilder summed up his dilemma in typically witty fashion, noting that in the old days they made pictures, whereas now they made deals.)

Moreover, though his films never spun box-office gold again, they remained deeply individual and interesting, expanding the notion of what could be called the “Wilder touch” (in the manner of his great mentor who inspired “the Lubitsch touch”).

Case in point: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which premiered in the U.S. on this date 40 years ago. In the grand coffee-table interview book he did with Cameron Crowe, Conversations With Wilder, the venerable director bemoaned this as The One That Got Away, a film originally projected to run three hours and 20 minutes that ended chopped down, by another hand designated by studio execs, to only 125 minutes. (“I had tears in my eyes as I looked at the thing,” Wilder told Crowe.” “It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot.")

What The Magnificent Ambersons was to Orson Welles, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to Wilder. In fact, Hollywood treated Wilder more criminally at this point than it had Welles. Both were irreverent about Hollywood but worshipful about film, yet one (Welles) was a one-hit wonder whose ego was so immense that thousands in Tinseltown wanted him taken down a peg, while the other (Wilder) was a three-decade veteran who had had box-office misses before (Ace in the Hole) but had rebounded with some of his strongest work.

Gone from The Private Life were entire sequences (and I do mean gone—unless a film reconstructionist of the stature of Ronald Haver or Robert Harris comes along, it’s likely that that excised hour is permanently missing in action).

In a way, it was an appropriate end to a star-crossed production, marked by the following:

* Wilder’s original wish—a musical with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe—had to be shelved when he couldn’t find enough backers.

* Likewise, the original Holmes and Watson, Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers, became unavailable (Sellers, because, on his honeymoon, he had a heart attack in a futile attempt to give pleasure to his frisky young Scandinavian bride, Britt Ekland).

* The entire, effects-laden “Loch Ness Monster” sequence had to be entirely reshot, in miniature, when a) shooting at dark proved difficult, and b) the “monster” capsized in the lake.

* Bean counters at United Artists, suffering several flops in 1969, got cold feet over Wilder’s ambitious project and forced deep cuts.

Holmes purists, as I’ve indicated, were not happy with the results onscreen. But all kinds of variations have been tried on Conan Doyle’s familiar formula, and in any case this was hardly the worst instance of cinematic violence done to a great literary detective. (That dubious prize, I submit, belongs to Robert Altman’s deconstruction of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, with a woefully miscast Elliott Gould offering an adenoidal Philip Marlowe instead of the hard-boiled knight of the mean streets.)

Beginning in mirth but ending in melancholy, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is utterly unlike anything else in Wilder’s teeming and magnificent filmography. Together with his penultimate film, Fedora (1979), it not only bookends the Seventies but calls for a reassessment of his autumnal works.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Day in TV History (Potter Adaptation of Fitzgerald’s “Tender” Ends)

October 28, 1985—Fittingly enough, the major adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel about American expatriates, Tender Is the Night, concluded on Britain’s BBC-2, but with additional international financing from Twentieth-Century Fox and the American cable network Showtime, which had only begun showing the series in the U.S. the day before. The six-part miniseries, scripted by Dennis Potter (of “The Singing Detective” fame) and starring Peter Strauss and Mary Steenbergen (both in the image accompanying this post) as the seemingly fortunate couple Dick and Nicole Diver, won justifiable critical acclaim as one of the best translations of the author’s work to the big (or, in this case, small) screen.

An earlier 1962 film adaptation of this novel about "emotional bankruptcy" in the Roaring Twenties, starring Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones as the talented young psychiatrist and the beautiful patient whom he marries, was considered, like most other adaptations of Fitzgerald works, unsuccessful. Director Henry King was a competent enough veteran, but his adaptations of other literary masterworks (e.g., Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and novel The Sun Also Rises), had never really suggested the magic of the originals.

King wasn’t helped as he tackled this most promising but problematic Fitzgerald novel. He had to tread lightly over a plot element still considered too hot to handle by censorship codes of the time—the sexual abuse by Nicole’s father—and had to make do with Robards--who, despite considerable acting skill, was not really a box-office draw--after Jones’ original choice for her co-star, William Holden, proved unavailable.

I saw the Showtime production not during its initial run, but two decades later, at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan. To my knowledge, it has not been shown on American TV in years. More’s the pity that more people haven’t been exposed to it—or that neither the traditional broadcast networks nor PBS have aired any comparably ambitious adaptations of this kind recently of other great literary works.

Strauss and Steenbergen were fine indeed in limning the flaws beneath the surface of their seemingly golden couple, and the supporting cast—including Ed Asner, Sean Young, John Heard, and Piper Laurie—were also exceedingly well-cast. But I think much of the power of this production came from Potter’s decision to dispense with a time-honored cinematic device: the flashback.

Fitzgerald himself had tried this—much of the second third of his book was one long flashback. But initial readers were so flummoxed by the structure that after publication, he said that if he’d only had one more crack at it, he might have been able to lick its organizational problems. Many people—myself included—feel that Potter did just that, by following the chronological reorganization of the book (based on Fitzgerald’s notes) performed by critic Malcolm Cowley in 1951.

True, the shock and mystery present at the end of Fitzgerald’s Book One, when starlet Rosemary Hoyt finds Nicole in the midst of a nervous breakdown, is now gone. But in its place is a more logical treatment of the complex relationship between Dick and Nicole, and one that makes more heartbreaking the end of their love.

A beautifully rendered scene from the miniseries occurs when Dick takes Rosemary and some other friends to the cemetery holding the remains of thousands of casualties at the Battle of the Somme. In somber tones, Strauss recites some of the most moving dialogue in the novel, with one line in particular summing up how this battle, like others from World War I, produced the disillusionment that haunted Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other members of the “Lost Generation”: “All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love."

Quote of the Day (Charles Barkley, on Tonya Harding and His Character)

"I heard Tonya Harding is calling herself the Charles Barkley of figure skating. I was going to sue her for defamation of character, but then I realized I have no character."—Former NBA star Charles Barkley, quoted in “In Other Words. . . / It's One Thing to Think It; It's Another to Say it; A Selection of Our Favorite Quotations From 1994,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 1, 1995

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (Samuel Goldwyn, on a Hitherto Unknown “Russian Secret Police”)

“I want to make a picture about the Russian secret police: the GOP.”—Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974), quoted in Peter Hay, Movie Anecdotes (1990)

I can just hear James Carville now: “See, I was right all along!”

Like the “Yogisms” named for the great Yankee catcher, it’s almost impossible at this point to determine how many of the hilarious malapropisms attributed to Samuel Goldwyn genuinely came from the man’s mouth. But Hay’s book insists that the above really was authentic.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Quote of the Day (Henry James, Starting One of the Great Literary Friendships)

"I egg you on in your study of the American life."—Henry James in a letter to Edith Wharton, October 26, 1900

Though it would be another three years before they finally met, the correspondence—and friendship—of Henry James and Edith Wharton began in earnest on this date 110 years ago.

The relationship did not start until Wharton felt secure about her own accomplishments as a writer. On a couple of occasions in the 1880s and 1890s, she related in her 1934 autobiography, A Backward Glance, she had had the opportunity to meet the great American expatriate author, and had even contrived to wear something she regarded as suitably “pretty” for the occasion. She was crestfallen to find that this man on whom nothing was lost never took notice of her.

Over the remaining 15 years of her life, James made up for lost time, becoming “perhaps the most intimate friend I ever had.” Her memoir is filled with acutely rendered accounts of his mannerisms, his resonant voice in reading poetry aloud, and why she agreed with a friend that he was “the first, easily, of all the talkers I ever encountered.”

Today’s quote derives from a 170-letter treasure trove of James’ messages to Wharton that are now kept in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Much of it, such as this one, features his advice on her writing. But it also reflects how he became a trusted confidante during perhaps the most painful period of her life: the collapse of her marriage to her husband Teddy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

This Day in British History (“Happy Few” Survive Mud-Choked Battle of Agincourt)

October 25, 1415—In one of the most lopsided victories in the history of warfare, King Henry V of England triumphed over a French foe that vastly outnumbered him at the Battle of Agincourt, near Calais. The win would be celebrated in William Shakespeare’s Henry V, featuring the rousing “St. Crispin’s Day” speech.

Agincourt has become a synonym for a momentous encounter—indeed, when The New Yorker’s great baseball writer Roger Angell wrote of the epic 1975 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox (the one featuring Carlton Fisk’s walkoff homer in the sixth game), he entitled his essay “Agincourt and After.” In the Hundred Years War between England and France, however, the battle solved nothing. Seven years after his stunning victory, Henry died of a sudden illness, only age 35, and France eventually drove the British kings with their dynastic land claims out of the country.

The decisive nature of this battle is the only misconception of this fight. In English lore, the English archers played the leading role in the French defeat. That role has been somewhat exaggerated, however.

The archers did not, by the mere accuracy of their weapons, turn the tide of battle. Fired from a distance, their arrows were not all that effective against the French men at arms in plate armor. Where the archers did prove important was in freezing the French in place. At the peak of the English attack, 5,000 arrows were coming at the French every 10 seconds. The latter paid attention to their leaders, who advised them to stick together in good order, but they dared not uncover their head armor or even look up.

You try to move under those conditions. Now what happened was a proverbial “perfect storm.” The French had hoped to catch King Henry in a vise as he headed toward the port of Calais, but the terrain actually worked against them now: They were standing on a relatively narrow strip of land between two dense thickets on either side. Movement on that ground, which would not have been a cakewalk in any case, proved to be impossible for the French, who now could not advance any further.

Jehan de Wavrin, whose father and older brother were killed fighting for the French that day, noticed that they were “so closely pressed one against another that none of them could lift their arms to strike their enemies, except some that were in front.”

The French were standing in a quagmire caused by heavy overnight rain, and, despite a manpower advantage of at least five to one, suddenly, because of hunger and exhaustion, began to look vulnerable on the crowded field. The English archers, noticing this, rushed toward them in bare feet not with arrows but with anything else at hand, including cudgels and knives.

When it was over, the English had a huge victory (six to ten thousand French dead soldiers versus a hundred English ones, mostly consisting of the wounded)—and, given the ultimate outlook of the Hundred Years War, little else.

Oh, yes--there is Mr. Shakespeare's consideration of the battle. I was not overly impressed reading Henry V in college. Even Laurence Olivier's cinematic version--generally accounted the first great attempt to translate Shakespeare to the screen--left me cold.

But seeing the drama unfold onstage, as I did at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Canada some years ago, showed me how the Bard's "muse of fire" really did set off his powers of invention. Better yet even was Kenneth Branagh's sterling 1989 film adaptation.

Two aspects of the latter are especially noteworthy: 1) the historically accurate filming of the rain-soaked, mud-drenched battle (seen in the image accompanying this post), depicting how even a lopsided military encounter can be marked by confusion and terror; and 2) the rousing "St. Crispin's Day" speech. (I had forgotten how rousing it was until I saw it replayed as part of a commercial during a Super Bowl several years ago. I can't imagine any coach firing up his men better than Henry--and Branagh, in his Oscar-nominated performance--did with this speech.)

TV Quote of the Day (“Mary Tyler Moore,” as “Chuckles Bites the Dust”)

Ted Baxter (played by Ted Knight): [ad-libbing an on-air obituary] “Ladies and gentlemen, sad news. One of our most beloved entertainers, and close personal friend of mine, is dead. Chuckles the Clown died today from - from uh - he died a broken man. Chuckles, uh, leaves a wife. At least I assume he was married, he didn't seem like the other kind. I don't know his age, but I guess he was probably in his early sixties; it's kind of hard to judge a guy's face especially when he's wearing big lips and a light bulb for a nose. But he had his whole life in front of him, except for the sixty some odd years he already lived. I remember, Chuckles used to recite a poem at the end of each program. It was called ‘The Credo of the Clown,’ and I'd like to offer it now in his memory – ‘A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’ That's what it's all about, folks, that's what he stood for, that's what gave his life meaning. Chuckles liked to make people laugh. You know what I'd like to think, I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on a whoopee cushion.”—"Chuckles Bites the Dust,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 6, Episode 7, written by David Lloyd, directed by Joan Darling, original air date October 25, 1975

Forty years ago, CBS began broadcasting a situation comedy that was the first to feature a young, attractive, career woman who was not only not married but not even engaged. But if that had been the only achievement of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its success would have been limited.

No, the program that Grant Tinker created for his wife at the time, Mary Tyler Moore, stood in sharp contrast with the fare ruling the airwaves until then—the likes of Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee-Haw. This new show presaged the start of programming for a younger, more urban, sophisticated audience.

It’s not just that it opened the way for All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show, and other sitcoms that really made CBS “The Tiffany Network” in those years. Without The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s impossible to envision the “flock comedies” such as Seinfeld and Friends—often featuring young people who invariably hung out in coffee shops—that The New York Times' columnist David Brooks analyzed recently.

All these decades later, the character-driven comedy of The Mary Tyler Moore Show feels as fresh as when it aired. When I slip an episode into my DVD player, then wait patiently for “America’s Sweetheart” to fling her hat up toward the frosty Minneapolis sky, I can rest easy for a half hour, knowing that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

The “Chuckles the Clown” episode, which aired on this date 35 years ago, is usually considered not only the best episode over the show’s seven-year run, but also one of the most hysterical in the sometimes glorious history of sitcoms. The premise itself is absurd—the titular clown dies in a freak accident (“He went to the parade dressed as Peter Peanut, and a rogue elephant tried to shell him,” Mary’s boss Lou Grant explains helpfully, thereby showing why Chuckles, in Ted’s terms, died “a broken man").

But the humor of this Emmy-winning episode—showing, even in Season 6, one year before the end, that the show’s vitality remained undimmed—is mined from two sources: 1) our fear that we’ll do something inappropriate at the worst possible time, and 2) the corollary anxiety that even the most thoughtful and dignified among us--i.e., none other than Mary Richards/Mary Tyler Moore--can fall victim to this (as Ms. Moore did, to wonderful effect, in the scene depicted in the accompanying image, at Chuckles’ funeral).

Even the speech by Ted Baxter that I've quoted here is a miniature masterpiece. The laughs don't come from one-liners that can be isolated, but organically, from the plot and the character (in this case, Knight's pompous, stupid but lovable anchorman).

When the writer of this episode, David Lloyd, passed away last fall, quite a few newspapers and blogs took notice of the sad event. Lloyd’s great script was every bit as absurd as Seinfeld and its progeny, but also far less snarky, considerably wiser, and a thousand times more humane.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bonus Quote of the Day (Psalms, on “The Brokenhearted”)

"The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."--Psalms 34:18

Quote of the Day (St. Augustine, on Forgiveness)

"Forgiveness is the remission of sins. For it is by this that what has been lost, and was found, is saved from being lost again."--St. Augustine, "On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants"

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Flashback, October 1935: Mao’s “Long March” Ends

Just one year after 86,000 Chinese Communist troops began to retreat from government forces, only 4,000 survivors completed the “Long March” that entered the nation’s realm of legend and cemented the position of the ragtag group’s leader and incipient dictator, Mao Tse-tung.

Let’s do a little calculation from the above figures: Less than 5% of the original force Mao had at the start of his desperate retreat from Chiang Kai-shek made it to the end in Shensi Province in northwest China on October 20, 1935.

But here are other figures that make this statistic understandable, and the eventual ascension of the Communists to power inevitable:

* 700,000 – the amount of troops that Chiang had at hand in 1934 when he decided, after four unsuccessful attempts, to destroy Communists in China once and for all.

* 368—the number of days it took Mao and his troops to make the journey.

* 6,000—the number of miles on this trip—nearly twice the distance across the continental U.S.

In other words, you had to be pretty tough for this journey. It helped if you were ruthless, as Mao turned out to be over the last 40 years of his life.

How ruthless? I don’t think that the number of deaths blamed on Mao by biographers Jung Chan g and Jon Halliday in Mao: The Unknown Story—70 million, more than any other 20th-century leader—really conveys this, even if you’re inclined to accept this awful statistic.

These facts might help make a little more sense of all this:

* A bitter power struggle broke out in China after Mao’s death because while he was alive, he preferred to have any potential replacements imprisoned, murdered or exiled.

* Mao refused to alter the death sentence of a doctor falsely accused of disloyalty, even though the physician had saved his life. He could get plenty of others without any bother, he reasoned.

* One of his favorite maxims in his infamous “Little Red Book” was “Where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself”—a catch-all term for his all-encompassing influence, used to cover virtually any major bloodbath in his reign, including during the "Cultural Revolution" (a misnomer if there ever was one, along with "People's Republic of China").

For the rest of his life, Mao undoubtedly must have felt that if the Long March didn’t kill him, nothing could. Weapons and supplies weren’t conveyed by motorized vehicles, but on men’s backs and horse-drawn carts, frequently done at night so the Nationalists couldn’t see them, across 24 rivers, 18 mountain ranges and who knows how many swamps. (The crossing at the Tatu River was particularly perilous, as the troops came under nearly continuous fire from Chiang's forces.)

Every day Mao looked around, he saw his line of marchers shorten, falling victim to starvation, aerial bombardment, and constant skirmishing. With his own ideological cadre narrowing, he and his forces were forced to ally themselves with minority groups—and in one infamous instance, drank chicken blood to impress them.

Under normal circumstances, losing 95% of your men is enough to make you an ex-military leader. Before the Long March began, that thought had crossed the mind of Chinese’s Communist Party committee, which actually voted to replace Mao. But the new leaders had proven just as bad as Mao on the battlefield, so he’d been reinstated.

Chiang had been able to virtually annihilate Mao’s forces, but Mao himself had escaped. In time, Chiang would have reason to rue this failure on his part.

Quote of the Day (James Billington, on Why Books Last Forever)

“Books convince; they do not coerce. In libraries throughout America, books that disagree with each other stand peacefully next to one another in the stacks, and readers work peacefully alongside each other in reading rooms.”—Librarian of Congress James Billington, “Why Books Will Last Forever,” The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), September 28, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Movie Quote of the Day (“All About Eve,” on the Theater)

Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders): [Voice over intro] “Those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater.”—All About Eve, written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz (1950)

All About Eve, released on this date 60 years ago, is not the kind of film that cineastes continually watch for its images. Some naysayers, in fact, complain that, like other films by writer-producer Joe Mankiewicz, it’s far too “talky.”

Just goes to show: You can’t please some people. Here is a film abundant with everything, as recounted by Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott a few years ago on his blog:

“It is art, ambition, vanity, intrigue, philosophy, journalism, sexual politics, and celebrity packed neatly into one overnight kit, the outside world barely noticeable in this brightly lit, drably furnished hermitage known as the Broadway theater.”

You’ll find more famous lines in Mankiewicz’ acid little valentine to thespians and their assorted hangers-on—especially the following spat out by Bette Davis (with her back turned to Sanders, in the image accompanying this post): “Fasten your seat belts—it’s going to be a bumpy night!” (The American Film Institute voted that one the #9 movie quote of all time.)

But for my money, DeWitt’s droll intro gets the Oscar-winning classic off to a perfect start. With an almost perceptibly languid sigh—those who don’t recognize his name, the theater critic suggests, not only don’t watch plays but presumably don’t read or even have any kind of cultural life at all—he at last acknowledges that it is “perhaps necessary” that he tell you who he is.

“I am essential to the theater,” he announces. In the sense that his critical judgment might save or doom a play on opening night, perhaps. But epic self-delusion, masking deep-seated insecurity, hangs all over his pronouncement, the same kind exhibited in “Ozymandias.” Once the eponymous ancient Egyptian ruler of Shelley’s poem delivers his self-assessment (“Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”), the poet reveals that time has left only "a colossal wreck" of the monuments that the monarch thought would preserve his heritage forever.

The same thing applies to Addison DeWitt and the real-life critic who, Mankiewicz’s disclaimer to the contrary, probably inspired George Sanders’ Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor role. George Jean Nathan is seldom recalled today, aside from serving as co-editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury with H.L. Mencken, and he is probably read even less.

In his heyday, like Ozymandias, he ruled all he surveyed with his coldly appraising eyes—whether a starlet batting her eyes at a supper club or a new playwright on the stage. He championed Eugene O’Neill and Sean O’Casey when they could use the support. Yet, though those playwrights continue to be read and performed, Nathan is now a mostly forgotten practitioner of a far more ephemeral art: criticism.

Nearly 30 years before Mankiewicz mimicked his waspish tongue, F. Scott Fitzgerald had the same idea, using Nathan as the basis for his critic Maury Nobel in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned.

DeWitt observes that he does “not spin,” but in fact he traverses the delicate, intricate spiderweb better known as Broadway far better than almost anyone—except for Eve. The other characters might be fools or prima donnas, but DeWitt and Eve are users, and all the more dangerous because they are so intelligent at their game.

DeWitt, in fact, is probably worse than Eve. At least you can understand her motivation: the hunger of being a nobody. But now that DeWitt is at the top of his profession, he’s not above going beyond merely cynical observation. Meeting Eve for the first time, he urges his voluptuous but dim date, Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe), to make an old producer at the party happy--i.e., offer him sexual favors. In other words, it’s high-class, in-all-but-name, pimping.
So skilled was Sanders’ reading of the opening lines that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck became convinced that the film title should be changed from “Best Performance” to “All About Eve,” one of DeWitt’s phrases in his opening monologue.

In a marvelous post about Sanders, the unexcelled film blogger Self-Styled Siren quotes from a letter, written 13 years before All About Eve, by the actor to friend Brian Aherne about the theater:

“You talk about the theatre as if it had some cosmic significance. As a matter of fact it is pathetically sublunary; a drab and dusty monument to man's inability to find within himself the resources of his own entertainment. It is usually rather fittingly housed in a dirty old building, whose crumbling walls occasionally resound with perfunctory applause, invariably interpreted by the actor as praise. A sad place, draughty and smelly when empty, hot and sick when full.”

It’s easy to see from this how Sanders took so well to the role of DeWitt: he has the same intelligent, sardonic tone. And yet, while you could hear DeWitt (or Nathan) letting loose such insults at a mere actor, you can’t imagine him using it about the world of theater itself. It would be as if he were acknowledging the emptiness of the world to which he devoted his whole life. For his own sanity, he dares not go there.

Sanders did, and paid for it. Like Richard Burton, his intelligence only left him all the more vulnerable to the self-destructive fear that, after all, acting wasn’t really a worthwhile profession. When he finally got around to penning a suicide note, in 1971, he claimed he took his life out of boredom.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” Published)

October 21, 1940—In For Whom the Bell Tolls, published on this date by Scribners, Ernest Hemingway did more than just write a bestselling book and further burnish the Byronic image that had made him a celebrity. He also made the most successful effort, in the last three decades of his life, to solidify his standing as a serious literary artist.

The future Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner had achieved standing among literary critics in the 1920s with a quartet of works still taught in college and university English courses: two short-story collections, In Our Time (1925) and Men Without Women (1927), and two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). But the 1930s were a more problematic decade.

Like younger friend John O’Hara, Hemingway was probably most adept in short fiction, but his aspirations—and the serious money—lay with the novel. Winner Take Nothing (1933) showed that he was a master of the miniature narrative, but he longed to do other things, with results not always happy. Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Green Hills of Africa (1935), ostensibly about, respectively, bullfighting and big-game hunting, turned out to be, as his later acolyte Norman Mailer would later term one of his own works, “Advertisements for Myself.”

And then there was To Have and Have Not. If you want to know what kind of reception that received, recall the legend that director Howard Hawks bet the author that he could make a decent film out of his worst book. (Audiences in effect voted with Hawks by making the resulting movie with Humphrey Bogart and sultry newcomer Lauren Bacall a roaring box-office success.)

The public and most critics, however, decided that For Whom the Bell Tolls was a return to form for the former darling of the Lost Generation. The novel about the Spanish Civil War was, simultaneously, Hemingway’s most ambitious project and his biggest bid for commercial success. (In considering the latter, recall that Hemingway’s hero, Robert Jordan, was written with good friend Gary Cooper in mind. Probably no novel was so self-consciously crafted for a particular actor until Michael Crichton summoned the face and mannerisms of Sean Connery as he fleshed out the character of “John Connor”--an Anglicization of the Scot’s name--in Rising Sun.)

The adjective most often associated with For Whom the Bell Tolls is “Tolstoyan”—pretty much what you’d expect about a sprawling realistic novel with love and war as its major themes. But the man who identified an equally strong influence was Hemingway's onetime mentor and current frenemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Though writing a gracious letter to his old expatriate compadre after receiving an inscribed copy of the novel (“I envy you like hell and there's no irony in this"), Fitzgerald gave greater vent to his feelings privately in his notebook: “It is so to speak Ernest’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’ though the comparison isn’t apt. I mean it is a thoroughly superficial book which has all the profundity of ‘Rebecca.’”

What a takedown—in two sentences, three memorable books, each made (or about to be made) into memorable films, dismissed. There certainly was an element of envy here: from his youth, Fitzgerald had harbored far more intense interest in theater and film than Hemingway, yet here was the man he had formerly championed now having Paramount Studios wiggle $150,000 for the rights to adapt the book, while Fitzgerald had been diverting his waning energies from fiction by laboring in the nation’s great Dream Factory these last few years. (Until, of course, dismissal from his studio job gave him enough time to begin writing The Last Tycoon.)

For all his palpable resentment over the success of a former friend who had mercilessly dissed him in the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Fitzgerald was onto something: For Whom the Bell Tolls contained much of the same sentimentality that suffused A Tale of Two Cities, but also the sweeping narrative drive and colorful detail that the theater-obsessed Charles Dickens could pack into his Victorian novel. Both Dickens and Hemingway wrote of heroes so self-sacrificing that they bordered on suicidal. (Indeed, as he awaits death, Robert Jordan recalls how his father committed suicide—a situation all too similar to the fate of Hemingway’s father Clarence.)

It turns out that in the last Presidential election, both major-party candidates cited For Whom the Bell Tolls as major influences. It's easy to see why the soldier--stoic in the face of possible death--would have appealed to ex-POW John McCain. But Barack Obama, too, found inspiration in the book, according to an NPR story from 2008. The successful candidate would have found the lesson taught by his mother--"You must live so you make a difference in the world"--reinforced by Jordan, another academic who left his job teaching to bring justice to an uncertain and dangerous world.
Hemingway's star was at its brightest around the time of publication of this book: financial success had come his way, critics were hailing his return to form, he was marrying the glamorous foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn, and the public was recalling his own involvement on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. But things were never really so good again.
It wasn't merely that the union with Gellhorn failed, or that his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, would turn out to be more nurse than mate. But from here on, mounting physical and mental woes would sap his energy. He was able to complete only two more works over the next two decades: Across the River and Into the Trees, a disaster, and The Old Man and the Sea, which, though better, still never approached the force of his earlier work.
The alcoholism that, he believed, undid Fitzgerald took longer, but now it began to plague Hemingway. Additionally, the depression that plagued his father began to affect him more. (Gellhorn had correctly predicted, toward the end of their marriage, that he would kill himself.) He could start projects now, but no longer had the focus to bring them to successful conclusions--one reason why so much of his work ended up being published posthumously (A Movable Feast, Islands in the Stream, Garden of Eden, True at First Light).

Quote of the Day (James Poniewozik, on Johnny Carson)

“Our Presidents serve for four to eight years; even F.D.R. went just over 12. Carson ruled The Tonight Show for nearly 30. The greatest Presidents have mere administrations. Johnny Carson had a reign.”-- James Poniewozik, “The Great Telecommunicator,” Time, January 30, 2005

He’s been gone from this life for five years now and from the talk-show scene for nearly a generation. But Johnny Carson remains, indisputably, King of the Night. Nobody managed to unseat him throughout his three decades with The Tonight Show, and despite the partisans of various claimants—David, Jay, Conan—nobody has really taken undisputed possession of his throne since.

This coming Saturday would have been his 85th birthday. God, what fun he would have had with today's political scene! For starters, he surely would have been puzzled how Jerry Brown could still be still around. That current candidate for governor of California, you might recall, saw the first stage of his career come to an end, at least partially, because of the memorable nickname bestowed on him by Carson: "Governor Moonbeam." But Brown--even the 1970s version--looks positively sane compared with today's candidates.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (Bruce Springsteen, with a “Hungry Heart”)

“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back.”—“Hungry Heart,” written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, from The River LP (1980)

A week ago today marked the 30th anniversary of the release date of The River—and, for the life of me, I don’t know why more of a fuss hasn’t been made about it.

As I’ve written before, Born to Run made me a fan of The Boss for life. And certainly Bruce Springsteen regards Darkness on the Edge of Town as crucial for his career to date—songs shorter, tighter, less allusive, and less derivative than his first two Dylanesque LPs.

But The River has its distinctions, too. It became the only studio double album of Springsteen’s career—and, in contrast to recent works by artists who, after one catchy single, fill up the extra audio room provided by a CD with swill, it’s filled with songs covered by one artist or another over the years.

The title cut has received the most critical acclaim, with its tale of youthful lust curdling, by virtue of an unplanned pregnancy and Jimmy Carter’s recession, into a long, hollow marriage. But “Hungry Heart” has its own fascinating history and interpretations.

It came when Springsteen had come storming back on the rock scene, but still had something to prove. The double album allowed him to establish a true oeuvre (on its release, my favorite rock station of the time, WNEW-FM, had more than enough songs for a “Springsteen A-Z” special lasting several wonderful hours well into the night. These were also the days when I couldn’t bear to leave for the commute to college without the station’s morning DJ, Dave Herman, giving Boss fans a good helping of “Bruce Juice.”)

Supposedly, The Boss wrote this when Joey Ramone asked for something his own group could use. That would have been right around the time of The Ramones' insane studio sessions that ended up as End of the Century, the next-to-last full-length album produced by Phil Spector.

With its dense, bouncy production values, “Hungry Heart” would have been just the type of studio effort that the “Wall of Sound” producer—or another mad Sixties pop genius, Brian Wilson—might have come up with. (Indeed, in 2003 The Beach Boys’ Mike Love would sing a decidedly inferior cover version for a Springsteen tribute album.) It even featured, on backup vocals, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles.

Let’s linger over that sound, in juxtaposition with those lyrics, for a second. From the first notes, you feel like a giddy kid in the middle of a carnival midway. You’re too carried away to notice the very problematic protagonist, who’s pulling the irresponsible, disappearing-dad-act found in just about any Raymond Carver short story or John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

The song marks a change in attitude on Springsteen’s part. Many prior songs, especially on the Born to Run album, celebrate escape as a means of freedom from a “town [that] rips the bones from your back.” Now, however, he begins to recognize the fundamental emptiness of being forever in motion: “Ain’t nobody like to be alone.” He goes even further on another song from The River, “Two Hearts”:

“If you think your heart is made of stone 
And that you’re rough enough to lick this world 
Well, alone, buddy there ain’t no peace of mind.”

“Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first Top 10 single, helped push The River toward five million copies sold—and took The Boss up another notch towards superstardom.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flashback, October 1940: Artie Shaw Records “Stardust”

Big-band leader Artie Shaw went into the studio on October 7, 1940 to record a tune already covered upteen times by other swing orchestras: “Stardust,” with lyrics by Mitchell Parish and music by Hoagy Carmichael. By the time he was through, the great clarinetist had produced what a disk-jockey poll sponsored by Billboard would vote as the greatest record of all time.

Over the years, members of my family came to know that “Stardust” was the wedding song of my dear, late Aunt Mary and Uncle Al. It’s one of the deepest ironies I can imagine that the eight-times-married Shaw provided the great background music for more than six decades of married life for the most devoted couple I’ve ever known.

Additionally, Shaw, like my aunt and uncle, lived into his 90s with all his faculties intact—meaning that this restless musical taskmaster, who walked away from the music business for good in 1954, heard this major hit of his played for another five decades after he laid his instrument down for good.

In Stardust Memories: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, music critic Will Friedwald traces the genesis of the Carmichael-Parish tune (Carmichael, then a restless, unhappy lawyer, was inspired one night at a local campus watering hole by the memory of a past love to sit down and write the melody), as well as its innumerable pop vocal and instrumental versions.

Isha Jones’ first pop recording of the song (1930) set off a floodtide of interpretations. You name it--virtually every big band of the Depression Era played it--Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller.

Shaw himself had recorded it in 1938. But a year later, now with one of those different versions of his ensemble that he kept formatting every couple of years, as his ability to cope with fame waxed and waned, Shaw felt he could lead his so-called “West Coast Orchestra” through another version of the song, this time for Victor Records.The result was, according to this bandleader who was never shy about (literally) tooting his own horn, “the definitive big-band version of ‘Star Dust.’” (Note: The song title was originally two words before being shortened into its present one-word form.)

I don’t think my aunt and uncle would have minded Shaw’s immodesty in the least. More than five decades later, at a celebration of their anniversary, they were caught up again in the song’s romantic swirl, just as they had been around the time they met.Time has claimed these two people who loved each other so much, along with many of those who loved them as well. I am left thinking of their slow, happy movement around the dance floor, and Parish’s lyric echoing in my head: “But that was long ago--now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.”

TV Quote of the Day (“Rumpole of the Bailey,” on the Law and Another Profession)

“Lawyers and tarts, Miss Trant—the two oldest professions in the world. And we always aim to please.”—Barrister Horace Rumpole (played by Leo McKern) to young lawyer Phyllida Trant (played by Patricia Hodge), in “Rumpole and the Married Lady,” directed by Graham Evans, written by John Mortimer, air date April 24, 1978

Monday, October 18, 2010

Movie Quote of the Day (“Animal House,” Displaying Unique Knowledge of History)

John "Bluto" Blutarsky (played by John Belushi): "'Over'? Did you say 'Over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!"--National Lampoon's Animal House, screenplay by Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, directed by John Landis (1978)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Brett McCracken, on Christianity’s Alternative to a “Phony, Ephemeral” World)

"If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it's easy or trendy or popular. It's because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It's because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched--and we want an alternative. It's not because we want more of the same."--Brett McCracken, "The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity," The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Quote of the Day (Tony Curtis, on His Taste in Wives)

"I wouldn't be caught dead marrying a woman old enough to be my wife."--Actor Tony Curtis, showing how Bronx-boy brashness met Hollywood ego, quoted in Lisa Schwatzbaum, "Legacy: Tony Curtis, 1925-2010," Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quote of the Day (Stephen Vincent Benet, on "Bread and Peace")

"Grant us a common faith that man shall know bread and peace--that he shall know justice and righteousness, freedom and security, an equal opportunity and an equal chance to do his best not only in our own lands, but throughout the world. And in that faith let us march toward the clean world our hands can make."--Stephen Vincent Benet, "Prayer," concluding sentences (1942)

Archibald MacLeish, poet and Librarian of Congress, asked Benet to write "The United Nations Prayer" to be used in celebration of Flag Day, June 14, 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended up using it in his radio address for that occasion. Adlai E. Stevenson used these last few sentences on his Christmas cards in 1964.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Quote of the Day (John Lennon, on His Childhood)

"I was hip in kindergarten. I was different all my life. The second verse [of "Strawberry Fields"] goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.' Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius- 'I mean it must be high or low,' the next line. There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people couldn't see."--John Lennon in 1980, quoted in "The Beatles: 100 Greatest Songs," Rolling Stone (Special Collectors' Edition)
The young boy on the bike in the accompanying post would have been 70 today. Technically, John Lennon, like Jack and Bobby Kennedy, died in early middle age. But in the mind's eye he, like those other '60s icons, seems preserved in youth, his voice ringing louder than the gun fired by his murderer.
Revisionism may have retouched the Kennedy's images in the eyes of historians, but the depredations of Albert Goldman have left Lennon almost totally unsullied as a kind of secular saint. After all, how much of a shock can anyone create about Lennon when he had said virtually all of it about himself anyway--including about his infinitely sad childhood away from his mother?
Is that new film, Nowhere Boy, about this period in his life, any good? Whatever the case may be, I strongly suspect it won't be the last consideration of his early days. We've already had a cinematic re-examination of his pre-Beatlemania days (Backbeat), and Black 47 frontman Larry Kirwan came up several years ago with an alternative vision of the possible futures of Lennon and the other Beatles in the novel Liverpool Fantasy.
The Lennon of "Imagine" obscures a man whose childhood left wounds as stinging as those afflicting Charles Dickens and Angela's Ashes memoirist Frank McCourt. He left us no clues on how to achieve the world of peace he craved other than the magnificently simplistic "All You Need Is Love." (You can imagine the weary musical rejoinder of Noel Coward: "If Love Were All.")
But the best moments of his adult life were hard-won object lessons for those of us who, like Lennon, have wondered how to fit in. Lennon lanced his anger, first through sardonic humor, then through introspection. He committed--at first to his craft, then, when he was ready, to others.
In the end he lived the advice, offered to millions of kindred spirits, of fellow English Invasion musician Ray Davies, who counseled, in his own wondrous "Misfits": "This is your chance,/This is your time so don't throw it all away."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Quote of the Day (Queen Elizabeth II, on Grief)

"Grief is the price we pay for love."--Queen Elizabeth II, in "Quotes," Reader's Digest, June/July 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quote of the Day (Thornton Wilder, on Tributes to the Dead)

"The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude."--Attributed to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Quote of the Day (Gospel of John, With Words Applicable to My Mom’s Passing)

"My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall not perish. No one can take them out of my hand."--John 10:27-28