Thursday, June 30, 2011

Movie Quote of the Day (Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” on Our Fearful “Potential”)

Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker, on the right in the accompanying image, with co-star Farley Granger): “My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer.”—Strangers on a Train (1951), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, adapted by Winfield Cook from the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Perhaps like no other film by Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train, released on this date 60 years ago today, is dominated by the concept of doubles—even starting with the opening sequence of two men, in medium shots of their shoes, walking toward a waiting train, their accidental meeting and their unknown fate. It’s a literal embodiment of the notion of the doppelganger, or “double walker” in German.

The doppelganger is a secret sharer, a second self who enables the fulfillment of one’s darkest impulses—including, as Bruno notes, murder. Most accounts of Strangers have observed that Bruno merely acts on tennis pro Guy Haines’ (played by Farley Granger) repressed wish that his unfaithful wife be killed so he can marry the daughter of a senator.

But the converse is also true: Guy, in effect, has sanctioned Bruno’s “criss-cross” murder scheme (each of them will kill a perfect stranger that the other knows well, meaning that no motive can be tied to the killer). “Sure, Bruno, sure,” he says, attempting to humor this crazy man, not realizing that Bruno now expects the other end of the “bargain” be kept with Guy murdering Bruno’s father.

What else do Hitchcock’s doppelgangers share? Conflicted sexuality, for one. In a movie industry then regulated by a production code that sharply limited any reference to sex outside of a conventional heterosexual marriage, open discussion of homosexuality was forbidden. But, as in his earlier film Shadow of a Doubt as well as the later Psycho, Hitchcock uses a mother’s too-close relationship to a son as code for sexual instincts not sanctioned by society that will explode into violence.

Years before the term came into common use, Hitchcock created a kind of template for the cinema stalker—except that Guy’s unwelcome “shadow self” is not a woman but another man.

In the increasingly complicated relationship between Bruno and Guy, the strong, durable athlete constantly appears as the weaker of the two. Bruno is always prepared to act, whereas Guy’s anxiety about forthrightly telling the police about Bruno only results in a deeper entanglement with the psychopathic socialite.

Like many of the director’s films (The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest), Strangers on a Train involves an innocent man’s attempt to absolve himself of a wrongful murder charge. The doppelganger device—used in “William Wilson,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, Hitchcock’s key childhood influence—allows for the transfer of guilt that makes plausible how the victim can be credibly accused. “But you wanted it, Guy!” Bruno cries out after the tennis pro recoils from news of his estranged wife’s death.

For Hitchcock, raised on the Catholic notion of original sin, the doppelganger demonstrates how thin the line between innocence and gujlt can be, and how comfortable it makes man with his potential for evil.

One last thought: Over the years, one filmmaker after another has attempted to imitate Hitchcock, sometimes very slavishly indeed. (Take a bow, Brian de Palma! You haven’t had a chance to do that in a while, have you?)

But the most successful of these attempts to recreate the spirit of Hitchcock, I think, came in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this is another adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel in which the protagonist forms a homoerotic attachment to a male with a fiancĂ©e and a seemingly charmed life, or that the doppelganger figures prominently in the course of the action.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

This Day in Film History (Birth of Hitchcock’s Music Master, Bernard Herrmann)

June 29, 1911—The premature birth of Bernard Herrmann to Russian immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side was not unlike how he conducted his career as Hollywood’s greatest film composer: loud, insistent, immediate—an undeniable event.

In a career stretching from 1941 to his death in 1975, Herrmann composed the music for 48 movies, from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver.

But of course, Herrmann’s most sustained work was done with Alfred Hitchcock. The association, which lasted a dozen years, coincided with the Master of Suspense’s creative zenith: nine films, including Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. (Hitch-like, Herrmann made his own cameo appearance as what he really longed to be—an orchestra conductor—at the climax of the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

Of all the people with whom Hitchcock collaborated over five decades behind the camera, Herrmann might have been the most important, because he gave these thrillers a dimension that the image-conscious Briton, according to Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, "didn't have a language for": music and sound.

Herrmann had strong opinions about when music was most appropriate, and didn’t mind arguing with Hitchcock about it. Sometimes he felt a theme was necessary instead of silence, as when he pushed for a leitmotif in Vertigo when James Stewart’s haunted detective Scottie has a shock of recognition over a woman eerily reminiscent of the woman he loved. Other times, however, the composer resisted any attempt to show off his craft if he felt it would have detracted from the action. Thus, in North by Northwest, he allows silence to prevail for much of the early part of the famous cropduster scene, allowing audienceanxiety to build over Cary Grant’s isolation in a seemingly empty field.

Amazingly, though Herrmann was nominated for his film debut as a composer, Citizen Kane (as brooding and brilliant as friend Orson Welles’ direction) and did win for his uncharacteristically sprightly work for The Devil and Daniel Webster in the same year, he did not win—and was not even nominated—for any of his movies with Hitchcock. You have to ask why, especially when those screeching violins in Psycho are as memorable as the rapid-fire shower murder images it accompanies.

The only reasons I can imagine why Herrmann was overlooked were that a) he didn’t need the recognition (he was famous not just for his movies with Hitchcock, but also for his TV work --Alfred Hitchcock Presents, of course, and The Twilight Zone); and b) he was a prickly guy who annoyed enough people that they didn’t want anything to swell his ego any larger than it was already.

Film historians have remarked on Herrmann’s affinity for Hitchcock (the composer was evidently a devout Anglophile), but the person whose temperament was closer to his was Orson Welles. Both were classic enfants terribles who made their marks in their twenties. Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’ bon mot about his co-screenwriter/director (“There but for the grace of God, goes God”) registered strongly in the studio system.

But Herrmann might have been even worse. While Welles might have simply ignored a boss, Herrmann would tell his off. Jim Fusilli’s excellent appreciation of the composer in today’s Wall Street Journal included this line thrown at CBS’ William S. Paley, a media mogul not easily crossed: "You're assuming the public is as ignorant about music as you."

That volatility also ended his partnership with Hitchcock. The director had put up with Herrmann’s various fits over the years (including, but not limited to, his rage that he did not conduct the orchestra for his own score of Vertigo), but was less inclined toward equitability during the filming of Torn Curtain in 1966.

The subpar performance of Marnie led studio brass to put their foot down concerning use of music in Hitchcock’s films. Executives, like their brethren elsewhere in the industry, badly wanted a hit song or two that could boost profits even more than usual. Even the grim subject matter and milieu of Hitchcock’s new project--Cold War espionage and murder--didn’t put them off: Heck, hadn’t Doctor Zhivago scored with “Lara’s Theme” the year before?

Hitchcock made a point of telling Herrmann beforehand exactly what he wanted. The composer agreed, then turned in the kind of brilliant but traditional work he’d always done before. That led to a blow-up between the two men, who never worked together again--and who never had the sustained, multi-year success with others that they had with each other.

“I believe that only music that springs out of genuine personal emotion and inspiration is alive and important,” Herrmann once said. That uncompromising nature led him into exile from Hollywood for several years after the Hitchcock quarrel, but it also ensured that film fans--even those who might not associate his name with a project--would experience extraordinary sounds that memorably--but appropriately--served the story and the character.

Quote of the Day (Melville to Hawthorne, on His “Whale” and Home)

“The ‘Whale’ is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delay of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass -- and end the book reclining on it, if I may. -- I am sure you will pardon this speaking all about myself, for if I say so much on that head, be sure all the rest of the world are thinking about themselves ten times as much. Let us speak, although we show all our faults and weaknesses, -- for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it, -- not in [a] set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation. -- But I am falling into my old foible -- preaching. I am busy, but shall not be very long. Come and spend a day here, if you can and want to; if not, stay in Lenox, and God give you long life. When I am quite free of my present engagements, I am going to treat myself to a ride and a visit to you. Have ready a bottle of brandy, because I always feel like drinking that heroic drink when we talk ontological heroics together. This is rather a crazy letter in some respects, I apprehend. If so, ascribe it to the intoxicating effects of the latter end of June operating upon a very susceptible and peradventure feeble temperament.”—Herman Melville, to friend and inspiration Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 29, 1851, in The Letters of Herman Melville, edited by Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (1960)

A year before writing this letter from Arrowhead, his farmhouse in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, Herman Melville was part of what was probably the most consequential picnic in American literature—the day he met Nathaniel Hawthorne. A prior post of mine dealt with that event, as well as the larger course of their relationship.

But I think it’s worth revisiting here, because “The Whale” that Melville is referring to is his epic of the sea, Moby Dick—a novel certainly inspired by the two writers’ “ontological heroics.” That relationship is reflected in the book’s dedication to Hawthorne.

Melville certainly did have a “very suspectible and peradventure feeble temperament.” When Hawthorne was coming, the younger man would slip out to the barn, away from the sound of his workers and the smell of household privies, and engage his visitor in feverish discussions on metaphysics and on his hulking manuscript about a malignant white whale and the maimed sea captain obsessed with destroying it.

A month after meeting Hawthorne in 1850, Melville bought the Pittsfield homestead—without first selling his New York home, without shopping around for a better property, and without considering that its $65,000 cost was more than the combined sales of his first five books.

That financial rashness would produce great misery in his marriage, and even the friendship with Hawthorne would more or less conclude by 1852, for reasons that biographers can only speculate about. But even knowing all of this, a reader wishes he could have been a fly on the wall as Melville celebrated his distance from “the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York” by sharing a “heroic drink” with the reserved but great man he respected so much.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Photo of the Day: Our Garden, Our Neighborhood

I took the accompanying image a couple of weeks ago of the front lawn of our house, with the neighborhood in the background.

Quote of the Day (Frank Capra, on Peter Falk)

“Peter Falk was my joy, my anchor to reality. Introducing that remarkable talent to the techniques of comedy made me forget pains, tired blood, and maniacal hankerings to murder Glenn Ford. Thank you, Peter Falk.”—Veteran director Frank Capra, on his 1961 film, Pocketful of Miracles, and its marvelous supporting actor, Peter Falk, in The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (1971)

At the time of Capra’s memoir, Peter Falk was about to ascend to another level of stardom, as Columbo, TV’s premiere detective of the Seventies and, more rabid fans might insist, of all time. Within a few years, many people would forget that for two years in a row, at the beginning of the 1960s, the actor had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars, in Murder, Inc. and Pocketful of Miracles.

Those who worked with the actor—who, sadly, died of Alzheimer’s this past weekend—never could forget his prior work, though. They knew that Falk pulled off the same trick in the early Sixties that he would later in the decade: take two figures on the same side of the law and make of them vastly different human beings, each with their own highly individual, quirky lives.

In Murder, Inc., Falk’s portrayal of violent hitman Reles first caught the attention of Hollywood. But a year later, when Frank Capra was fuming over how star Ford was throwing his weight around, Falk managed to save the director’s faith in humanity (though not in Hollywood, as this turned out to be his last movie) as a gangster’s bodyguard, appropriately named Joy Boy, in Pocketful of Miracles.

The energy flags in parts of this remake of the director’s 1933 Lady for a Day (itself an adaptation of Damon Runyon’s short story "Madame le Gimp"), but never when Falk is on screen. The climax comes when he’s asked to masquerade as the rich husband of boozy street beggar Apple Annie, whom his boss, bootlegger Dave the Dude, is convinced brings him luck with her fabulous fruits.

In sputtering rage that reaches hilarious heights, Falk's Joy Boy declares, in no uncertain terms, that this is beyond the limit of even his loyalties: “I ain't gonna marry her! An' y'know why? 'Cause my wife don't like it when I go around marryin' people! She's funny that way!” This scene alone probably netted him the Oscar nomination.

As for Columbo: In my tween years, I never missed an episode—and, I’m convinced, neither did a number of classmates, who remarked that my raincoat of the time reminded them of the police lieutenant’s. We were all caught up on the multiple idiosyncrasies—not just the raincoat, but also the cigar, the car as worn as the raincoat, and the references to a wife who never appeared—that made Columbo as unlikely and memorable a master of crime ratiocination as Sherlock Holmes.

(It's hard to believe anyone else inhabiting this role, but Bing Crosby, of all people, had originally been offered the part. He rejected it, joking that it would interfere with his golf game!)

I was surprised to find out nearly a decade ago that Falk had had an earlier go at the detective show format, in a TV series called The Trials of O’Brien. He wasn’t a married police officer this time, but a divorced attorney who, despite constantly having to hustle because of his spendthrift ways, invariably found the killer. Yet the two characters shared the same crafty intelligence.

I watched an episode of this short-lived (one season, 1965-66) series--which mixed comedy with homicide--at the Paley Center for the Arts in Manhattan, and was delighted to see that Elaine Stritch played the lawyer's secretary. (The series came out on DVD a couple of years back, if you can get your hands on it.)

Besides his brilliance (the producer of Trials, Richard Alan Simmons, echoed Capra in calling Falk “a comedic genius”), co-workers remembered the actor for his generosity. One of the great guest stars of Trials, Faye Dunaway, found herself, by the early ‘90s, in a career trough. No longer receiving good offers on film, the Oscar-winning actress consulted her old friend about a TV series pitched to her.

Now on his second run as Columbo, Falk pulled out a script that he’d written himself some years ago and had put aside until he could find the appropriate actress. He offered it to Dunaway. The role, on an episode called “It’s All in the Game,” led to an Emmy for the actress--a bright point in a year that saw her own attempt at a sitcom end miserably.

Why was Columbo such a success? As a youngster, I was too caught up in the detective’s uncanny unraveling of the crime to notice the overwhelming pattern of the criminals he stalked: not street hoodlums, but mystery novelists, music maestros, fitness gurus, big-time lawyers--the rich and famous. TV analyst Jeff Greenfield noticed the pattern early on, writing in The New York Times in 1973 about “the most thoroughgoing satisfaction ‘Columbo’ offers us”: “the assurance that those who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the very best, do not deserve it.”

For the child of a blue-collar family coming to terms with the role of class in this world, then, watching Columbo offered a fun egalitarian fantasy, a kind of revenge on the nation's elite who brought a perfect storm of disorder and corruption on America in the late '60s and early '70s. Thank you, Peter Falk.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Exchange of the Day (Midler and Slater Learn About Real “Ruthless People”)

Barbara Stone (played by Bette Midler): “So, when do I get out of here?”
Sandy Kessler (played by Helen Slater): “As soon as Mr. Stone pays the ransom.”
Barbara: “What's the problem? What is the ransom?”
Sandy: “Well, we asked for $500,000.”
Barbara: “That should be no problem.”
Sandy: “He wouldn't pay.”
Barbara: “He wouldn't pay?”
Sandy: “Then we asked him for $50,000.”
Barbara: “Yeah?”
Sandy: “He still wouldn't pay. So now we're lowering our price to $10,000.”
Barbara: “Do I understand this correctly? I'm being marked down?”
[Starts crying]
Barbara: “I've been kidnapped by K-Mart!”—Ruthless People (1986), directed by Jim Abraham, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, screenplay by Dale Launer

When Ruthless People premiered on this date 25 years ago today, Bette Midler and co-star Danny DeVito, playing her cutthroat-businessman husband (think Donald Trump, with even fewer warm and fuzzies, if you can), worried that the film would tank and with it, their careers. They needn’t have worried, as it went on to do dandy business at the box office and gave Midler, for about a half-dozen years, a career as a brassy film-comedy queen to go with her success on vinyl.

In retrospect, what seems surprising about the film’s success is that it came in the middle of the Reagan era’s celebration of unbridled capitalism. This was one full year before the Wall Street crash, remember, and just before the collective perp-walk spectacle of Boesky, Milken and their minions led many (as we now know, still nowhere near enough) to question the ethical underpinnings of The Street.

As the above exchange shows, the heart of this farce is a modern-day variation on O. Henry’s classic short story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” in which a 10-year-old brat makes his kidnappers sorry they ever thought of their scheme. (In this case, of course, the "brat" has been transformed into the adult hellion Barbara.)

But the movie doesn’t stop at this premise. The real “ruthless people” are not kidnappers Sandy Kessler and husband Ken (played by Judge Reinhold) but the man who cheated them, DeVito’s Sam Stone, and his mistress Carla (played by the late, lamented Anita Morris). (I’d also include among the "ruthless" Carla's boyfriend-on-the-sly, Earl—played by Bill Pullman, in his first film role—except that he’s too stupid.)

There’s another scene that has stuck in my mind about this film. At an electronics store, Ken is trying to persuade a guy in his late teens or early 20s to buy a piece of equipment. As their conversation continues, Ken, realizing he has an easy mark, hawks the most expensive sound system in the store. Just about to clinch the sale, he notices a pregnant woman--the customer’s girlfriend. No longer with the heart to take advantage of his easy mark, Ken instead shows him equipment that will be just as high quality, but nowhere near as expensive.

In less than two minutes, the scene speaks volumes about how unfit Ken is for the task he’s set himself in kidnapping Sam’s wife--how out of his league, in fact, he and the equally sweet Sandy will be in negotiating with the businessman dying to get his hands on his loud, nightmare-from-hell wife’s fortune.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Quote of the Day (James Thomson, to God, Praising Summer)

“Then comes Thy glory in the summer months,
With light and heart refulgent. Then Thy sun
Shoots full perfection thro' the swelling year;
And of Thy voice in dreadful thunder speaks--
And oft at dawn, deep noon, or falling eve,
By brooks and groves, in hollow-whisp'ring gales.”—James Thomson (1700-1748), from The Seasons (1744)

I took the accompanying image recently at Englewood’s Flat Rock Brook Nature Center.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

This Day in Western History (Custer’s Waterloo at Little Big Horn)

June 25, 1876—Libby Custer got her wild man of a husband to swear off drinking completely, and she induced him to reduce his swearing. But she was less successful at curbing his gambling instinct, and that tendency led Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer to be slaughtered with his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Black Hills of Montana, in one of the worst military disasters in American history.

For a battle that everyone agrees took no more than two hours--and, according to more recent reconstructions of Custer and his surrounded, panic-stricken 200-odd men, quickly disintegrated into a chaotic melee with no command or organization--Custer’s Last Stand has resulted in countless books, articles, and depictions in all kinds of media to match its endless controversy. Such fine historians as Stephen E. Ambrose (Crazy Horse and Custer), Evan S. Connell (Son of the Morning Star) and, most recently, Nathaniel Philbrick (The Last Stand) have weighted in.

(If you’d like some helpful discussions of how the big screen has treated the event, you can read essays by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. and Dee Brown on, respectively, They Died With Their Boots On and Fort Apache, a film with a fictional character strongly suggestive of the colonel, in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.)

You really can drown in all this ink, no matter how fascinating. But as the first paragraph in this post implied, there’s another way to think of the Custer controversy, one really out of left field, one that, nevertheless, is more relevant than you think: women. (Or, as one of my friends--and he knows who he is--might write: WOMEN!!!)

When Colonel Custer died with every one of his men in his ill-fated campaign against the Lakota Sioux led by Sitting Bull, there was one obvious candidate for responsibility for this devastating loss sustained by the U.S. Army: himself. He was a glory-hound of epic proportions, the Union Army’s youngest general in the Civil War but now dying to make his status permanent. (He was only a “brevet” general in the war--meaning that his title was temporary--and had become a colonel in the regular army after Appomattox.)

If he could achieve victory over the Sioux, Custer believed, he could not only receive that long-desired promotion but maybe even propel himself to the White House. It was hardly a pipe dream: from George Washington to the current President, Ulysses S. Grant, Americans had always loved a man on horseback.

That burning ambition led Custer to disregard the wishes of the Commanding General of the Army, William T. Sherman, who warned Custer’s superior office, General Alfred Terry: “Advise Custer to be prudent, not to take along any newspapermen.”(Said newsman, Mark Kellogg of the Bismarck Tribune, died in the battle, too.)

Custer’s frustrated ambitions led him to discipline his men harshly, drive them relentlessly (especially on the 300-mile road trip across grasslands, badlands, mountains, and rivers that took him to the Little Big Horn), and take chances with their lives.

The biggest gamble of all came when, upon stumbling across a Sioux and Northern Cheyenne encampment on the Little Big Horn, he decided: a) to divide his force on ground he didn’t know in the face of an enemy he couldn’t see, b) to ignore the intelligence of his Indian scouts, who warned that Sitting Bull’s forces outnumbered his; and b) to attack said enemy immediately, thereby disobeying orders that he wait until Terry’s force linked up with him.

And there was this, going several years back: the general was given to impetuosity, having been found guilty by a court martial for being absent without leave--a conviction that could have led to his being unceremoniously drummed out of the Army, but for the urging of General Grant that Custer’s sterling Civil War record with the Union cavalry be considered in the sentencing.

The table was set, then, for Custer, with some great degree of justification, to be tabbed as the cause of his own death. It didn’t help that President Grant, annoyed when the general testified about corruption in his administration, had only agreed to him joining the Indian campaign after intercession by Sherman and mentor Philip Sheridan.

Enter Elizabeth Bacon Custer, a.k.a. Libby. She had been the reason why her husband had gone AWOL in the first place. To her, his 60-mile ride to be with her wasn’t abandonment of his post, but rather proof of his devotion.

So now, in the aftermath of the battle, grief-stricken Libby picked up the standard on behalf of her husband. For the rest of her 57 years, she pleaded his case insistently, not only in personal appearances but in three books. Probably no well-known American general had as careful a minder of a flame as Custer had with his Libby.

Well, maybe I should reconsider that. There might be one other contender for devoted widow: Sallie Ann Corbell “LaSalle” Pickett. You might not know her name, but there’s a good chance you know her husband: George E. Pickett. Yes, the leader of another suicidal charge that ended in mass deaths on a ridge, at the Battle of Gettysburg. Pickett wasn't responsible for that slaughter--that, despite generations of Lost Cause wishes, rested squarely on the shoulders of Robert E. Lee--but he was involved with another disaster that doomed the Confederacy.

Pickett and Custer shared some similarities. Their paths intersected in April 1865, when the rebel leader’s foolish decision to leave his troops while he attended a shad bake led to the crucial Union breakthrough on the path to Richmond, aided, in no small measure, by Custer’s pressing of the advantage. Like Custer, Pickett made for a dashing picture with his long locks. Like Custer, he ran afoul of his commander, being relieved of duty by Robert E. Lee just before the surrender at Appomattox. Like Custer, he found postwar life stultifying (probably more so, in Pickett’s case, as he became involved in the insurance business). Like Custer, he died while still young, in the mid-1870s.

And now we turn to the soldiers’ widows.

Like Libby Custer, LaSalle was a pretty young thing who turned her husband into a fool for love. The two women married their mates during the war, and went to bat on behalf of their husbands when they could no longer defend themselves. And both women died in the 1930s, more than 50 years after the deaths of their men.

If there was one good, even historically accurate, aspect of They Died With Their Boots On, it was the casting of Olivia DeHavilland, one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most intelligent and vibrant actresses, to play Libby. The widow was everything the actress could want in a role: beautiful, intelligent (valedictorian of her class), and devoted to her husband.

How devoted? So devoted that Libby lectured on her hero throughout the world. So devoted that she ended up writing three books that formed a collective shrine to her husband.

The effect of these should not be underestimated. Historians have, by and large, accepted Grant’s assessment of battles and junior commanders in his Personal Memoirs. Given the failings of Custer I discussed just now, there was no reason to think his negative view of Custer wouldn’t take permanent root as well. But Libby’s advocacy assured this wouldn’t happen. In fact, Custer became in popular memory not a fool, nor even a victim, but a gallant martyr in America's westward expansion.

Amazingly, though, LaSalle Pickett trumped Libby. Libby might have been indefatigable, but she wasn't excessively creative with facts. But it’s now been pretty much conclusively established that LaSalle’s books contain what can only be called whoppers--starting, but not ending, with the tall tale that Congressman Abraham Lincoln championed her husband's entrance into West Point.

We also now know that LaSalle Pickett was a fabulous fabulist who concocted two entire collections of wartime letters supposedly written by the Confederate general.

It all makes you wonder about this quote--written in overheated prose right out of a romance novel--by her husband that she hauled out, in her nonfiction account Pickett and His Men, supporting her conclusion that he could not have been drunk at Gettysburg: "I promised the little girl who is waiting and praying for me down in Virginia that I would keep fresh upon my lips until we should meet again the breath of the violets she gave me when we parted."

Unlike Pickett, Custer would not be accused of drunkenness at crucial instances in his career: He gave up booze permanently in 1862, after an embarrassingly public debauch endangered his courtship of Libby.

Ironically, it was another man more credibly accused of heavy drinking while on duty, President Grant, who, for all the unjust accusations of him as a "butcher," was far more careful with his men's lives than the teatotaling "Son of the Morning Star."

(Incidentally, the image accompanying this post shows the battle as recalled more than 20 years later by a Native American survivor, Kicking Bear. It’s not as well-known as the white-created depictions of the calm, sharp-shooting Custer and his men, but it is very likely far more truthful.)

Quote of the Day (Edgar Lee Masters, on Media That “Glory in Demoniac Power”)

“To scratch dirt over scandal for money,
And exhume it to the winds for revenge,
Or to sell papers,
Crushing reputations, or bodies, if need be,
To win at any cost, save your own life.
To glory in demoniac power, ditching civilization,
As a paranoiac boy puts a log on the track
And derails the express train.
To be an editor, as I was.
Then to lie here close by the river over the place
Where the sewage flows from the village,
And the empty cans and garbage are dumped,
And abortions are hidden.”—Edgar Lee Masters, “Editor Whedon,” in Spoon River Anthology (1915)

Last year, I missed the chance to write about the 95th anniversary of the classic by Edgar Lee Masters. Then, last weekend, I came across this New York Times article about an adaptation of the book mounted in, of all places, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, running through Sunday, June 26. The opportunity to write about one of the great narrative poems was too good for me to pass up.

Together with contemporaries Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, Masters—a Midwestern law partner of Clarence Darrow who eventually took up the literary life—wrote about an America still well within the small-town/rural tradition. All three poets often wrote the kind of dramatic monologues that Robert Browning had made his own particular province.

The major difference among the trio is that Robinson’s and Frost’s work in this form was more diffuse—and their achievements more extended—whereas Master’s was concentrated like a hard diamond into the 246 free-form poems that made Spoon River Anthology, in effect, a novel in verse, a portrait of a community collectively liberated by death to reveal what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.”

This particular poem is among the most savage of the entire collection. We learn from other poems here that Whedon has conspired with the town’s richest man to ruin opponents of their schemes. As the now-dead editor addresses the reader, he narrates his sins with the same note of objectivity as a journalist is supposed to have. There’s a quiet hint of irony in the line, “To win at any cost, save your own life.” He also acknowledges his irresponsible stewardship of his paper with the metaphor of the boy derailing the train.

But it’s in the last few lines that the poem picks up its awesome power. Whedon has to come to grips with more than just the fact that his work is infinitely perishable. He also understands that his physical remains, like the scandalmongering campaigns he conducted in life, belong now, quite literally, with the garbage, the detritus of a life better forgotten. That last line—“And abortions are hidden”—hints both at the kind of secret he didn’t mind exposing in his paper and the sense of shame that will now afflict him through eternity.

To me, part of the savagery of this poem derives from its small-town setting. For much of the 20th (and 21st century), “to scratch dirt over scandal for money” has been heavily associated with big cities and their institutions, where mass media hold the potential for mass profits and mass damage.

But Masters, like Robinson (and, in fiction within less than a half-dozen years, Sinclair Lewis) locates this desire to destroy even in the most micro of settings. It doesn’t take the corrupt promise of mass media to help surface this latent instinct. It lies in the Midwest of Abraham Lincoln (whose early love, Ann Rutledge, is among the voices of the dead), even in the dream of the uncorrupted provincial life cherished by Thomas Jefferson. Most disturbingly, Masters suggests, it lies at the heart of our American Eden.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Photo of the Day: The Happiest Roman of Them All

Years ago, cigar-store Indians were ubiquitous outside tobacconist shops. But I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these solemn, silent wooden sculptures. You can probably guess why from the 1993 Seinfeld episode called—surprise, surprise!—“The Cigar Store Indian,” in which Jerry is chided as a racist by a Native-American woman who's caught his eye, when he buys such a figure as a peace offering for Elaine.

Political correctness can scare off attempts to enlist representatives of racial or ethnic groups for business purposes. In Wednesday’s New York Daily News, for instance, John Mariani took to task Presidential candidate Herman Cain for his past association with Godfather Pizza, which, the writer observes, perpetuated stereotypes about Italian-Americans and the Mafia.

But, if you have to tread carefully about a symbol involving today’s Italians or Italian-Americans, yesterday’s—well, okay, ancient—ones present no such problems. A couple of weeks ago, on West 49th Street in midtown Manhattan, I came across a nice counterpart to the cigar-store Indian: an ancient Roman standing guard outside the restaurant Da Marino.

I have no idea what this eatery’s food is like, but this fine fellow caught my eye and made my chuckle. To start, there's the cut of his jaw, the most prominent chin this side of Jay Leno.

More than that, there’s a real difference between him and others of his ilk from the age when all roads led to Rome. It wasn’t easy carrying out the whim of power-mad emperors, lording it over oppressed alien groups or protecting a corrupt people from the horrible fate at the hands of barbarians that they so richly deserved.

If you want proof of what I’m talking about, just look at John Wayne’s cameo as the centurion in George Stevens’ reverent Greatest Story Ever Told. Now, if I were making boodles of money in a two-minutes-tops appearance, I’d try to sport a more serene mien. But The Duke looks like he’s really getting into method acting here, rather dissatisfied with his lot, until he makes a hash of his climatic moment. (“Surely this man was the son of God.”)

And what about those two soldier-friends in the late HBO series Rome? Titus Pollo and Lucius Vorinus certainly don’t appear to be pleased with their lives, what with all their discontent about loved ones and the responsibility of saving the republic from itself.

So this soldier outside Da Marino was a revelation. He’s smiling so much, you’d think he’d just been named to command a legion.

On the other hand, since he’s standing outside the restaurant, there could be an alternative explanation. He could be delighted in the meal he’s just had. When you think of it, what could fortify a soldier like this--what could inspire him to take up his manifold, lonely duties--if not the very real prospect of an excellent dinner?

What better advertising for a ristorante?

Quote of the Day (Ray Bradbury, Explaining Why I Blog)

“Whatever fascinates you deserves to be told, always in your own way. Do not think about what people are expecting from you. Do it just because you love it.” —Ray Bradbury quoted in Beatrice Cassina, “Ray Bradbury’s ‘Theater of the Morning,’” The Writer, January 2003

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Quote of the Day (Horace Mann, on Books)

"A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them."—Attributed to American educator Horace Mann (1796-1859)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This Day in Exploration History (Hudson Marooned by Mutineers)

June 23, 1611—Having gotten his ship and crew intact through an icebound winter in desolate, then-unknown reaches of Canada, Henry Hudson was heading home when his men, embittered and hungry, mutinied. The 46-year-old English seaman, together with his 17-year-old son and seven supporters, was set adrift in a small, open boat. Neither Hudson nor the others in his small boat ever made it home to complete his fourth voyage in search of the Northwest Passage to Asia.

Early in the 20th century, in tones reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (not surprising, as the British poet laureate was one of the three people that, he admitted, influenced him the most), Henry Van Dyke evoked the bravery of the embattled explorer in “Hudson’s Last Voyage”:

“For, mark me well, the honour of our life
Derives from this: to have a certain aim
Before us always, which our will must seek
Amid the peril of uncertain ways.
Then, though we miss the goal, our search is crowned
With courage, and we find along our path
A rich reward of unexpected things.
Press towards the aim: take fortune as it fares!”

Van Dyke’s attitude is no longer so widely shared. Like other explorers once lionized—Columbus, Magellan, James Cook, and Robert Scott—Hudson has come in for historical revisionism. Visionary, the Englishman might have been, the argument now goes, but the mutiny that blasted his hopes did not come out of nowhere. Hudson was at least partially responsible for his own misfortune.

On his prior voyage, Hudson--for the only time in his four voyages, in the service of Holland--broke his agreement with the Dutch East India Company return to Holland if his northeast voyage proved unsuccessful. Instead, he crossed the Atlantic, where, he had heard, a strait might take him through the American land mass to Asia. The voyage of the Half Moon is best known to us now because he explored the New York river now named for him. (Indeed, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his rhapsodic ending to The Great Gatsby, alludes to “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world.”)

It would have been interesting to see what the Dutch East India Company would have done if Hudson made it back. But he and his crew were intercepted when they stopped in England, where, they were told, they could no longer enter the service of foreign powers. For his next voyage, then, Hudson would be back in the employ of the company that financed his first two trips.

As before, Hudson made great discoveries, including, between Greenland and Labrador, two bodies of water later named for him: Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. But things came a cropper for him in the James Bay. He spent three months in the eastern part of the bay--an oddity, given that the object of his trip was to find a passage to the west. He continued there until well past the point when it was clear it offered no passage to the Pacific. Then, in November, his ship--the hopefully Discovery--became trapped in the winter ice.

Given that the boat lacked food and supplies, it was a miracle that all hands didn’t die over the next seven months they were trapped. But the crew suffered enough, and toward the end of that period, hunger combined with resentment got the better of the men.

Most of his men didn’t like what had been happening at all:

* In September, when they had a chance at an ample supply of food, Hudson disregarded his crew‘s pleas and pressed on.

* Hudson set anchor in the James instead of heading home when he could.

* Hudson gave one crew member, Henry Green, a gray gown, then took it back when Green displeased him.

* Many in the crew suspected their captain of hoarding food and doling it out to favorites.

* Hudson decided to demote captain’s mate Robert Juet and a boatswain. Why Hudson decided to act mid-voyage instead of at the end of his last one, when Juet had mutinied already on the trip to the northeast, is mysterious. But it left him with an enemy in his midst.

* Hudson promoted a carpenter who happened to be illiterate, leading the crew to believe “the Master and his ignorant Mate would carry the Ship whither the Master pleased.”

Once the mutiny unfolded, the captain was cast into the boat with a few supporters, a couple of crew members judged to be too old and infirm to last on the return voyage, and Hudson’s 17-year-old son John. (The famous image accompanying this post, by John Colliers, appears to lower the age of the teenager considerably. It heightens the pathos of the son—young Hudson even clings in fear to his father—but by taking some creative license with the facts.)

For awhile, Hudson’s tiny shallop attempted to keep pace with the larger ship, but once the Discovery hoisted another sail, the mother ship swiftly left its former captain and his small band to their own devices. They were never heard from again, and the only clue to their fate was discovered 20 years later, when another explorer came across the remains of a shelter, possibly erected by the castaways.

On the way home, Juet and Green were killed in an attack by Eskimos. This proved extremely convenient for the other mutineers, who could place most of the onus for the mutiny on their slain comrades.

Surprisingly, the Discovery survivors were prosecuted not for mutiny—of which they were manifestly guilty—but rather for murder, a far more difficult charge to prove. (After all, where were the bodies?) Naturally, they were acquitted of the latter charge. The unlikely prosecution strategy might have resulted from the need of the British East India Company and the Muscovy Company, the backers of the voyage, for seasoned hands who could continue to look for the Northwest Passage. By this reasoning, mutiny had to appear to be punished, but with no reasonable outlook for success.

It would take nearly three centuries and more tragedies (notably, the failure of Sir John Franklin’s 1845-47 expedition in the Arctic) before Scandinavian explorer Roald Amundsen made the full transit by sea and reached the long-unattainable goal of the Northwest Passage.
Ironically, global climate change has sparked speculation that melting icecaps in the North might make it easier for ships to traverse the routes that defeated Hudson, Franklin and many others.

Quote of the Day (Joan Collins, on Film Great Billy Wilder)

Favorite occupation: "Watching a Billy Wilder movie while eating Belgian chocolates."—Joan Collins, quoted in "The Proust Questionnaire: Joan Collins," Vanity Fair, January 1995

I’m all with “Dynasty’s” diva on this one. Mention even only about a half-dozen of the movies of Billy Wilder—born on this date in 1906--and you’re likely to find something that’s appeared on at least one all-time best film list: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, or my favorite of the bunch, The Apartment.

If, as Dustin Hoffman observed, every actor has at least one Ishtar on their resume, then every director has at least one minor-league Heaven’s Gate on theirs. (Pity the one with a major-league Heaven’s Gate on theirs.) Even most of Wilder’s box-office misfires, however, have something interesting and even redeeming about them, including The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Fedora, and one that has really grown to something like cult status with the years, Ace in the Hole. (See this prior post of mine on the moral and spiritual dimensions of this dark, dark film.)

The March/April issue of Believer Magazine, focusing on film, includes a brief appreciation--and, better yet, a DVD attached--of a film Wilder wrote before fleeing Nazi Germany: People on Sunday. The movie, co-directed by future Hollywood mainstays Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, with Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons) serving as assistant cinematographer, is definitely on my “to watch” list for the summer.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (The Lovin’ Spoonful, on the Heat and Humidity I Dread)

“Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”--“Summer in the City,” written by Mark Sebastian, John Sebastian, and Steve Boone, from the Lovin’ Spoonful LP Greatest Hits

This song which hit #1 on the charts in the summer of 1966, remains as vivid an expression of what it's like to endure the oppressive heat and humidity now as it was then.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Clarence Clemons: Death of the Central Side Man

In the image accompanying this post—one of the most famous in the history of rock ‘n’ roll—Bruce Springsteen’s right hand rests on the gargantuan shoulders of a man wailing blissfully on a saxophone.

 The photo—engraved permanently on my memory as a teenager, from all the times I peered at Springsteen’s epic album, Born to Run—was my first clue about the blood-brother bond between The Boss and "The Big Man," Clarence Clemons

Springsteen’s midlife decision to put the E Street Ban on a long hiatus (an act thankfully rescinded for good a decade later) might have somewhat strained that bond, but only death could really severe the 40-year musical partnership and friendship between him and Clarence. And now, that prospect is upon us with the death this past weekend, from complications of a stroke, of Clemons, at age 69

Ever since reading Clemons’ 2009 sort-of-memoir, Big Man, I knew he had suffered all kinds of medical ills the last several years, so I can’t say that the news of his stroke was a complete surprise. Still, when someone has formed such an indelible part of your musical life over the years, you can’t really believe he’s gone. 

In a Time cover story on Born to Run at the time of its 1975 release, Springsteen spoke of “the stage thing, that rush moment you live for. It never lasts, but that's what you live for.” Many of those "rush moments" came from his interaction with the E Street Band, several of whose members had played together before but never with as much cohesion as here. 

I would not see them perform in concert for another three years, but already I sensed that they were less a group of hired musicians than a band of brothers. The most commanding presence was Clemons, a linebacker-sized Sancho Panza who could play effortlessly off The Boss and even dominate in his own right. 

It was Clarence’s sax that gave the final triumphant punctuation to "Thunder Road," that put the bar-band strut and bounce in "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," that, in "Jungleland," transformed a song about gangs facing off on the streets into a tragedy filled with all the aborted hopes of the demilitarized zone of the heart.
To a kid like myself growing up in a city that had seen its share of tension between blacks and whites, the obvious and unfeigned affection between Bruce and Clarence was a revelation, yielding the possibility that people could find a plane of friendship high above class tensions and cultural distrust. Clemons might not have been the most technically proficient of the E Street Band (take your pick between Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren), but in his undying humor and passion, he was the central side man. In fact, he might be the indispensable one. Can you imagine anyone else even attempting his “Jungleland” solo?

Movie Exchange of the Day (Richard Dreyfuss, Desperate, Confronts Bill Murray)

Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfuss) (waving a gun): “You understand, right? There's no other solution. You won't go away.”
Bob Willy (his obsessive-compulsive patient, played by Bill Murray) “Yes, I will.”
Leo: “No, you won't. You're just saying you will, so that when I don't kill you, you'll show up again and make everyone else in my life think you are wonderful and I'm a schmuck. But I'm not a schmuck, Bob, and I'm not going to let you breeze into town and steal my family away just because you're crazy enough to be fun.”—What About Bob? (1991), directed by Frank Oz, story by Alvin Sargent and Laura Ziskin, screenplay by Tom Schulman

Sadly, writer-producer Laura Ziskin, co-creator of this comedy with future husband Alvin Sargent, died of breast cancer just a few days from the 20th-anniversary of the release of this hilarious film. If you’re in the helping profession, you’ll find this a comic vision of a familiar problem: a patient left adrift when a psychiatrist—a lifeline—leaves the city for a much-needed summer vacation.

But if you’ve visited a psychiatrist, you might find the film positively therapeutic, as the good doctor Marvin, author of bestselling self-help books (immortal sample advice: “Baby steps!”), is revealed as far less well-adjusted than the patient he calls “human Crazy Glue.” Dr. Marvin, so pompous that he makes Frasier Crane look unpretentious, comes unglued himself, in a nice bit of role reversal.

Takeaway: If you have a choice at a family barbeque between the self-important psychiatrist and “crazy enough to be fun” Bob, it’s not even a contest.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Quote of the Day (John Newton, on Christians “Like the Oak”)

“A Christian is not of hasty growth, like a mushroom, but rather like the oak, the progress of which is hardly perceptible, but which in time becomes a great deep-rooted tree.”--Anglican minister and composer John Newton, letter of June 20, 1776, in The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Late Rector of the United Parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch-Haw, Lombard Street, London, to Which Are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life by the Rev. R. Cecil (1853)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Photo of the Day: Two “Ladies” on a Bench

Even though I live in Englewood, N.J., it had been some time since I visited one of its more distinctive institutions, Flat Rock Brook, an 150-acre preserve and nature center. I had seen much else in the park previously, but not this whimsical and utterly delightful piece of public art, next to the garden adjacent to its visitor center. And, as a lifelong bibliophile, I think: Isn't it nice that one of these ladies has a book open?

Quote of the Day (Malcolm Muggeridge, on Interviewing Brendan Behan)

“My TV interview with [the playwright] Brendan Behan is to me a memorable one, because he was drunk and did not utter throughout it one single comprehensible word. For Behan the experience was decisive. The papers next day were full of him and, Miss [Joan] Littlewood told me, several West End [theatre] managements, hitherto uninterested in his play, telephoned offering to put it on. So Behan learnt, and he was quick to learn - there was a crafty, calculating side to him - that one drunken, speechless television appearance brought more of the things he wanted, like money and notoriety and a neon glory about his head, than any number of hours with a pen in his hand."—Malcolm Muggeridge, Observer, July 26, 1970

English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge interviewed Brendan Behan for the BBC program Panorama on this date in 1956. Behan (1923-1964) was supposed to be talking about his play The Quare Fellow, which had become something of a cause celebre after its opening in Stratford because of material considered a potential turnoff to the British public of the time (e.g., Irish political prisoners, one gay character).

This should have been an ideal forum for promoting his work. In fact, this is what it turned out to be, for the playwright’s short-term gain but long-term ruin.

Well before he even got to the studio, Behan had started imbibing at a club. When friends' attempts to induce him to beg out of the interview on account of illness proved unavailing, he then made his way to the BBC‘s “green room,” where efforts by Muggeridge and others to sober him up were likewise ineffectual.

According to Bill Peschel’s Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes, the suits at The Beeb considered canceling right then and there, but Muggeridge’s plea to let it continue was granted--save for one condition: If Behan referred on-air to a certain part of female anatomy, it was all over.

Well, that didn’t happen, but much else did.

Behan started the interview but kicking off his shoes, and things came quickly unglued from there. Producers probably wished he had been completely inaudible, because his first words were that he needed to take a leak. A resourceful worker had taken the precaution off-camera of propping the playwright up--otherwise, Behan would have quietly slid to the floor.

Behan’s response to Muggeridge’s first question--mumbling--led the interviewer to paraphrase (or, if you will, improvise) an answer on the spot. Several bizarre and embarrassing minutes ensued, with Muggeridge bringing the proceedings to a merciful close by successfully prevailing on the inebriated Behan to sing a song from the play.

As Muggeridge noted in the quote above, several London theaters--five, to be exact--phoned about producing The Quare Fellow. As the journalist noted, the impact of all this on Behan was not salutary.

In December, I passed by New York’s famous Hotel Chelsea, where all kinds of the illuminati--Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Thomas Wolfe, and James Schuyler, among many others--have passed through over the years. It was Behan’s fate to re-enact there the fate of Dylan Thomas, who had a somewhat more substantial body of work than Behan but met a similar alcohol-fueled end in that spot.

Eight years after the BBC interview that made Behan a TV celebrity, Arthur Miller found him at the Chelsea, where he was being encouraged “to drink and perform his cute Irish act with his salivating brogue which Americans adore."

The sad thing about Behan is that far, far more has been written about him than he managed to write himself. Great talent brought low by substance abuse is wrenching indeed to watch.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Quote of the Day (James Weldon Johnson, on America’s Racial Divide)

“How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?”—James Weldon Johnson, “To America,” Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)

Like few others in American history when faced with overwhelming odds, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) kept his “eyes fixed forward on a star.” I wrote briefly on Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” nearly three years ago, on the brink of Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American to reach the Oval Office. Today, however, on the 140th anniversary of Johnson’s birth in Jacksonville, Fla., it seems more appropriate to celebrate his wider achievements, including:

* the first African-American to be admitted to the Florida state bar
* successful songwriter
* U.S. Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua
* founder of a daily newspaper in Jacksonville, then, 20 years later, editorial writer for the New York Age
* high school principal
* field organizer and general secretary of the NAACP
* poet
* memoirist
* novelist

Thursday, June 16, 2011

This Day in Japanese History (Tsunami Leaves More Than 20K Dead)

June 16, 1896—Less than 40 minutes after experiencing slow shaking from an earthquake, the Japanese port of Sanriku was hit with a tsunami that destroyed 170 miles of coastline and 9,000 homes, claimed the lives of up to 28,000 people, and injured still thousands more.

In the long history of mankind, a kind of numbness, as much by sheer repetition as by mass suffering, can ensue when reading about the impact of natural disasters. For anyone hoping to understand other nations, this is unfortunate not just because, as John Donne writes, “Every man’s death diminishes me,” but because the impact of natural events is magnified countless times in the human environment.

In a way, it was almost inevitable that I would write about this particular destructive event, especially after the tsunami that occurred this March in Japan. How did the earlier disaster match up against that one, along with the even more ghastly 2004 Indian Ocean catastrophe?

For the Meiji-Sanriku disaster, its initial 7.6-magnitude earthquake didn’t match the one that occurred three months ago (8.9-9.0 magnitude), nor the one that devastated 11 coast countries along the Indian Ocean seven years ago (its undersea earthquake was magnitude 9.1-9.3). But it was bad enough to rank on a list of the world’s 10 worst tsunamis compiled by the Oregon Emergency Management Preparedness and Disaster Blog.

Here are other ways to imagine the distress created by the 1896 disaster:

· The wave unleashed after the mass mocement along the underwater fault reached a height of 25 meters (80 ft.) high;
· The crisis first broke slowly, then swiftly, carrying virtually everything before it; and
· The impact could be felt as far away as San Francisco, where a 9.5-ft. wave was observed.

At first, fishermen from Honshu, off the coast of Sanriku, were unaware of the event. More than 20 miles out to sea, they had no reason to suspect the worst, because the waves beneath their boats--only about 15 inches--were nothing like the waves bearing down on the coast.

You can imagine their horror, then, when, approaching land, they beheld more debris than they could imagine--and corpses floating in the sea.

The tsunami ravaged Japan’s maritime culture. The nation’s numerous mountain areas have long compelled residents to seek shelter and jobs along the coast, frequently as fishermen and in aqua cultural industries and canneries. That meant that they suffered disproportionately because of the tsunami.

In an article written before the last disaster, reporter Winston Ross noted that, because of the frequency of tsunamis in Japan over the years, the nation has become "the best-prepared country for tsunamis and earthquakes in the world, with a vigilance that combines the reflections of the past with the technology of today - at a cost of billions of dollars.”

Even getting its early-warning system down to three minutes, however, Japan still survives horribly from these events. In a way, the scale of the damage has become even more frightening, because of the interconnectedness involved in a highly industrialized society (the people of 1896 did not have to worry about a nuclear event.

Quote of the Day (The Earl of Chesterfield, With Timeless Advice for Getting Ahead)

“Those whom you can make like themselves better, will, I promise you, like you very well.”--Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, letter of August 6, 1750, in Letters to His Son by the Earl of Chesterfield

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Quote of the Day (Saul Bellow, on the “Weak Comic Furniture of Life”)

“I bump along among unfinished works, promises unkept, things undone, lawsuits without end and the rest of the weak comic furniture of Life.”—Saul Bellow, Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor (2010)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Quote of the Day (Tallulah Bankhead, With Characteristically Sober Advice)

“Here's a rule I recommend: Never practice two vices at once.”—Attributed to actress Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Quote of the Day (Ozzie Guillen, Telling Sean Penn Where to Audition for Secretary of State)

"Sean penn if you love venezuela please move to venezuela for a year. But rent a house in guarenas or guatire to see how long you last clown.”—Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, suggesting continued irritation with the bromance between two-time Oscar winner and three-term-going-onto-life President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in his June 8, 2011 tweet.

Several years ago, congratulating a novelist friend on his latest work, I asked who he could imagine playing his hero. “Sean Penn,” he replied--echoing the exact same thought I had.

Twenty years from now, when he is retired from film or edging closer to it, Penn will receive a lifetime achievement award from Hollywood, and he will be one of its most richly deserving recipients. But his political judgments are a thousand times less sure-footed than his creative ones.

Penn resembles nobody so much as Ira Ringold, the “Communist” in Philip Roth’s novel I Married a Communist. Roth sympathetically depicts Ringold's plight as a blacklist victim, but he is also too penetrating and honest a novelist not also to show the character's hopeless naivete--and willingness to perform hair-trigger ideological turns--in his allegiance to a foreign figure whose faults he ignores. Unfortunately, Penn reveals a similar ideological blindness.

The actor seems to operate under the motto, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” His principal “enemy,” George W. Bush, is now retired, but he continues to cherish an abiding affection for those who gave the symbolic finger to the former President. Men like Hugo Chavez.

Ozzie Guillen has taken all that he can of this. He had already taken issue with Penn for saying the American media falsely perpetuate the image of Venezuela as a dictatorship. Now, the White Sox manager has become so apoplectic by Penn’s more recent assertion in The Huffington Post that this reputation constitutes "defamation, not only to President Chavez, but also to the majority of Venezuelan people“ that he has become virtually incoherent, as shown in his recent tweet.

But then again, he is merely mirroring a similar state in Penn. Okay, so you have well-justified suspicions that the American media are so lazy that they like to peddle stereotypes. But do you then claim, as Penn has done, that “one goes to prison for these kinds of lies”? Only if you live in Venezuela, where freedom of the press is increasingly being abridged, rather than in the U.S., still under the protection of the First Amendment.

If you're Penn, you don’t even have to accept the say-so of media that you seem to think, against all evidence, swallowed whole the assertions of Bush (with whom they had little sympathy) about Chavez’s electoral bad faith. In fact, you could have looked to an entirely nonpartisan international source, Amnesty International, which in a report last year charged that Chavez and his minions “have established a pattern of clamping down on dissent through the use of legislative and administrative methods to silence and harass critics. Laws are being used to justify what essentially seems to be politically motivated charges, which would indicate that the Venezuelan government is deliberately targeting opponents."

In her post on the dispute, Caitlin Dickson, a blogger for The Atlantic, refers to Guillen as “infamously hot-tempered.” You’ll find no argument from this quarter--nor, indeed, from virtually any baseball fan (nor, I daresay, Guillen himself)--about that.

However, Dickson seems to have forgotten Penn’s own well-earned reputation for volatility. Paparazzi who’ve tangled with him have not, however.

Penn’s Hollywood colleague, actress-singer Maria Conchita Alonso, has, unlike Guillen, answered the actor point by point. After reading the actor's claim to talk-show host Bill Maher that Venezuela’s elections in the Chavez era were “transparent,” she wrote an open letter to Penn demonstrating why this was not so. Moreover, for the benefit of the American media-loathing actor, she explained why the situation was far worse in Venezuela, where Chavez controls more than 90% of media outlets.

A native of Cuba who lived for a long time in Venezuela, Alonso demonstrated the kind of historical perspective and direct experience that eluded Penn. She knows firsthand how Hollywood romanticized Fidel Castro in his first couple of decades in power (until, perhaps, his gay-bashing became infamous in Tinseltown), and sees incipient signs of the same syndrome now in a respected actor who overlooks the many faults of a caudillo who wants to become Castro’s successor as the man who defies the norteamericanos.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Theater Review: “The School for Lies,” Adapted by David Ives from Moliere’s “The Misanthrope”

Were Moliere (1622-1673) alive today, it’s easy to imagine him producing something like The School for Lies. To be sure, David Ives has taken a few liberties with The Misanthrope, the French comic genius’ uncompromising satire on an all-too-easily compromised society, but they’re fewer than you’d think.

I managed to catch Walter Bobbie’s sterling staging of this comedy earlier this month, just before it closed, at New York’s Classic Stage Co. The sprightly production was not only endlessly amusing in its own right, but made a persuasive case for mounting this adaptation elsewhere.

All the major characters in this comedy retain their original French names except for the protagonist: called Alceste in the original, he goes by the name of Frank (as in brutally frank) here.

Moliere and his company, the Troupe du Roi, first mounted The Misanthrope at the Theatre du Palais-Royal in 1666. As he did with other works, Moliere molded his protagonist partly on himself, a middle-aged man frustrated by his much-younger paramour’s endless flirtatiousness with other men. Adding even more realism to the proceedings, he cast his wife as the flirt. That bit of double-stunt casting didn’t make this five-act comedy in verse popular in Moliere’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it’s been recognized as one of his finest attempts to stretch French comedy beyond its enormous indebtedness to the Italian commedia dell’arte form.

Ives and Bobbie eliminated the concept of the cuckolded middle-aged man, but Moliere’s central conceit—of a man who practically goes out of his way to create enemies—was effortlessly embodied by Hamish Linklater, who strode around the stage like a mad stork. (Even his hair--the most unruly male top this side of Barton Fink--got into the act.)

Though he has what friend Philinte calls “a preternatural gift for being blunt” (he calls two people he meets “a doormat” and “a bedpan”), Frank is struck uncharacteristically mute by the sight of the glamorous Celimene, and she proves more than a match for him in wit. “You mimic rigor mortis so intently,” she teases as he remains stuck in his verbal stupor.

In a society where candor is punishable as much by law as by custom, Frank’s blunt dismissal of an abysmal poet makes him the target of a lawsuit. Celimene has her own troubles with the law, something this widow hopes a wealthy, well-connected suitor can help her with. Philinte’s fraudulent suggestion that Frank is an aristocrat leads to an amazed outburst from her (“This kook’s a duke?”) and an affair with the delighted misanthrope.

You may or may not recall Mamie Gummer’s name, but her face has the distinctive imprint of her mother, Meryl Streep. I can’t tell you whether she has her legendary parent’s skill with Berlitz-style pronunciation, but, having seen her a couple of seasons ago in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I can say that she displays similar range. While she played a sheltered 15-year-old convent girl all too ripe for seduction in the former, she makes the worldly Celimene here at first amused, then astonished by a man as alien from her world as it’s possible to get.

Bobbie shows a similar sure-handed touch with other cast members, notably Alison Fraser as Celimene’s viperfish frenemy, Arsinoe (“I never gossip, dear—I just report”). Outside of casting, not all of Bobbie’s or Ives’ creative decisions work so smoothly. There’s a routine with a servant, for instance, that wears out its welcome after, oh, the 12th repetition. In addition, Moliere might have protested the decision to soften his depiction of Celimene as a heartless coquette, as well as to substitute a more upbeat ending than his own ambiguous one.

But on the crucial questions—Does it make us laugh? Does it make us think—there’s no doubt that the playwright would have been pleased, as Ives’ clever introduction puts it, by the batter whipped up from Moliere’s ingredients. Even in other instances in which the play departs from what Moliere wrote, he would notice how it pays homage to several of his other texts.

Ives’ title, for instance, not merely takes its cue from Frank’s declaration that society is a school for lies, but also echoes later Moliere classics such as The School for Wives and The School for Husbands. Moreover, the play’s conclusion, in which a character resolves the plot that does not grow organically out of the text, echoes a similar deus ex machine in Moliere’s Tartuffe.

I hadn’t been to the Classic Stage Company since I saw Amy Irving nearly a decade ago in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Bobbie and Co. have made it more likely that I’ll be back again soon because of their work on The School for Lies.

Movie Exchange of the Day (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” As Karen Allen Shows Who’s Boss)

Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford): “Hello, Marion.”
Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen): “Indiana Jones. I always knew some day you'd come walking back through my door. I never doubted that. Something made it inevitable. So, what are you doing here in Nepal?”
Indiana: “I need one of the pieces your father collected.”
[Marion surprises him with a right cross to the jaw.]
Marion: “I've learned to hate you in the last ten years!”
Indiana: “I never meant to hurt you.”
Marion: “I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!”
Indiana: “You knew what you were doing.”
Marion: “Now I do. This is my place. Get out!”—Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), directed by Steven Spielberg, story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan

Raiders of the Lost Ark, premiering on this date 30 years ago, harked back to the old serials that baby boomers Lucas and Spielberg grew up with, but at its best the franchise they established set its own standard with nonstop action and wiseguy wit. But I do have to write "at their best" because, all too frequently, the results in the later three movies in the quartet were inconsistent.

Which then brings up the question: How do I rate the four “Indiana Jones” movies? Raiders of the Lost Ark, the best; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, second; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, far, far back; and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the worst, hands down.

Take a look at the two best sometime. You don’t have to examine them that critically, by the way, to discover the secret of their success. It has nothing to do with the stories, the relevant appeal of Harrison Ford, or the quality of the special effects. It all boils down to two simple words: Karen Allen.

I was lucky enough to see the talented actress in the 2001 Roundabout Theatre Co. production of Speaking in Tongues, a show that she and equally talented co-star Margaret Colin made far more intriguing than the script deserved. Truth be told, I jumped at the chance to see Allen. By the 1990s, she had largely fallen off Hollywood’s radar screen, and I considered myself lucky even to find her in a guest appearance on Law and Order or one of its spinoffs. Then, like the strong, independent Marion, Allen carved out a distinct place for herself far away--in this case, a "fiber arts" business in Western Massachusetts.

I was delighted when Allen returned in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. From the moment she came on screen with an ear-to-ear smile, you sensed that, far more than Ford, Lucas, or Spielberg, this wasn’t for her about another lucrative payday but about having fun.

How Spielberg and Lucas thought that Indiana would last five minutes with a whining blonde (Temple of Doom’s Kate Capshaw) or a treacherous blonde (Last Crusade’s Allison Doody) surpasses reason. The exchange quoted above establishes immediately why Allen makes Marion the ideal full action and romantic partner for the fedora-wearing, bullwhipping-snapping archaeologist-adventurer. She can drink you under the table, outslug you, outsmart you, but wherever you’re going, she’ll never weigh you down.

If you’re in a tight spot, facing Nazis or Commies, hordes of human snakes-in-the-grass or the reptilian kind, Allen’s Marion is the one for you. And when it’s time for tenderness, someone who’ll understand what you mean by “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage”—well, is there anyone else seriously worth mentioning in the same sentence?