Thursday, March 31, 2022

Quote of the Day (Joseph Conrad, on ‘The Real Significance of Crime’)

“The real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind.”  — Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Lord Jim (1900)

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Flashback, March 1972: Brilliant Brando Briefly Revived in ‘The Godfather’

The Godfather, released 50 years ago this month in the U.S., did more than just update the gangster film genre of the Great Depression, introduce a host of memorable movie catchphrases, and lift the profiles of rising actors such as Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan.

No, the top-grossing film of 1972 and winner of the Best Picture Oscar for that year also marked a return to brilliance, however brief, of the most influential actor of the postwar period: Marlon Brando.

The recent death of William Hurt, with a decade of glory in the 1980s, reminded me more than a little of Brando: another performer with a string of Oscar nominations and one statuette in a concentrated period; another character actor whose unexpected success as a leading man made him uncomfortable; and another conflicted personality whose youthful idiosyncrasies and self-indulgence reduced the quality of the projects he was given in middle age.

Hurt’s late-career Best Supporting Actor nomination as a crime boss in A History of Violence called to mind, albeit fleetingly, his great string of performances in The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, and Broadcast News. But it came in a film that he did not anchor and that never became a landmark in cultural history.

In contrast, Brando’s turn as Mafia chieftain Vito Corleone did all of that.

Moreover, the character couldn’t be more different from the roles that made him a legend in the 1950s: brutal, animalistic Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; rebellious gang leader Johnny Strabler in The Wild One; and the anguished washed-up boxer turned informant Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.  

As marvelous as he was in those films, his time onscreen in The Godfather represented a master class in cinematic character creation—as well as one of the most remarkable comebacks a leading man has ever made back to relevance.

What Brando himself called 10 “dank, dismal” films made over the prior decade had given him more than a reputation for high maintenance: they had also rendered him box-office poison. 

His defiance of convention (e.g., reading cue cards placed discreetly off camera rather than memorizing lines), once tolerated if not celebrated, was now simply abominated.

Virtually none of the executives at Paramount Pictures wanted Brando as Mafia patriarch Vito Corleone, including the late producer Robert Evans. 

(I almost burst out laughing when, at Sunday night’s Oscars, director Francis Ford Coppola thanked Evans. You would never have known how much they clashed about virtually everything during the movie’s production.)

After butting heads with studio bosses over his lone directing gig, the 1961 western One-Eyed Jacks, and being blamed for the costly bomb Mutiny on the Bounty, Brando had largely lost interest in movies. Some of his projects (e.g., The Ugly American) stemmed from his well-intentioned idealism; others (e.g., Reflections in a Golden Eye), from a belief that directors like John Huston and Arthur Penn could create compelling films. None had really worked out.

In considering an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling potboiler in 1970, Hollywood execs wanted someone, anyone, else besides Brando to play Vito: Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, Carlo Ponti, even comedian-TV producer Danny Thomas. 

Maybe only two people with responsibility for how the character would be created saw Brando as ideal for the part: Puzo and Coppola, then looking to make the leap from highly regarded screenwriter (Patton) to director in his own right.

The very thought of Thomas—who, through his own long-running comedy series (Make Room for Daddy) and others he had produced for others (e.g., The Andy Griffith Show), had enough capital to buy a controlling interest in Paramount and enjoy a clear path to the role—was enough to rouse Puzo to action.

Writing from a fat farm where he had gone to shed weight, Puzo wrote a letter urging Brando to take on the role: “I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather with that quiet force and irony (the book is an ironical comment on American society) the part requires.”

At first, Brando dismissed the idea. But a deep look at the script roused him from his torpor by convincing him that it was not strictly about the Mafia so much as “the corporate mind.”

Or, as he elaborated to journalist Shana Alexander for a Life Magazine cover story: “The Mafia is so American! To me, a key phrase in the story is that whenever they wanted to kill somebody it was always a matter of policy. Before pulling the trigger, they told him, ‘Just business, nothing personal.’ When I read that, [Vietnam War architects Robert] McNamara, [Lyndon] Johnson, and [Dean] Rusk flashed before my eyes.”

Although this realization informed his general consciousness of the story’s larger meaning, the genius of his characterization lay in the thousands of details he used to bring it to life, in these ways:

*Physical transformation: The appearance of Vito Corleone evolved during what Coppola told the actor was a “makeup test” but which was, instead, a de factor audition for the benefit of doubting Paramount heads. Coppola had a cameraman on hand to record how Brando, a blonde in his late 40s from the Midwest, turned himself into an Italian two decades older: pulling his hair back, applying shoe polish, and then, to effect the look of what he called a “bulldog,” stuffing his cheeks with Kleenex. (During the actual filming, he used a mouthpiece made by a dentist--and, to solidify this impression of an older man, he would walk around with weights around his stomach and in his shoes.)

*Voice: Two decades after Brando made an indelible impression on American culture with the primal yell “STELLA!!!” in A Streetcar Named Desire, he did the same by lowering his voice to barely above a whisper in The Godfather. He did so because of his conviction that this is how Vito, previously shot in the throat, would sound now. Moreover, he had been struck by the raspy voice of mob boss Frank Costello in the 1951 Kefauver hearings. “Powerful people don’t need to shout,” Brando realized. This mumbling forced those who interacted with The Don—as well as the audience—to lean forward to pay closer attention.

*Improvisation: Sometimes Brando would work with a prop supplied by Coppola, such as a stray cat that the director found on the set (and which the actor then held throughout a scene). Once, it was a spontaneous decision, an outgrowth of the needs of the scene and Brando’s frustration with another actor: a slap across the face of Al Martino, playing the Sinatra-like singer Johnny Fontaine. “Martino didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” remembered Caan. The most ingenious improvisation, though, occurred during Vito’s death scene, a sequence that studio executives initially scorned as unnecessary. Coppola was struggling with how to believably depict the sickly, elderly mob boss playing with his grandson.  As the director later told Playboy: "[Brando] said, 'Here's how I play with kids,' and took an orange peel, cut it into pieces that looked like fangs and slipped them into his mouth." “Of course!” Coppola continued. “The godfather dies as a monster!" But that wasn’t the only reason the scene suddenly became effective. Stylistically, it formed part of a leitmotif with the earlier scene when oranges roll on the street after Vito is shot. (The bright colors formed an ironic contrast with the doom represented by the action). Furthermore, this death scene, surreptitiously and hastily filmed to avoid the prying eyes of visiting studio personnel, had become so memorable that they couldn’t dream of cutting it.

*Interacting with cast members: In an interview with Parade Magazine to commemorate the movie’s 50th anniversary, Talia Shire, who played daughter Connie Corleone, praised Brando’s “tremendous elegance”: “Look at the way he dances with me in that wedding scene. But what I found was that he was also incredibly charismatic, generous and disciplined. He really wanted you to be great in a scene.” The rest of the cast, already awestruck just to be in the same movie as this seminal influence on postwar screen acting, bonded with him from the start of the production during dinner at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan.

*Trusting his director: Many of Brando’s problems with the movies of the prior decade had been caused by disillusion and even disgust with individual directors. But from the beginning, he had placed his faith in Coppola, a novice behind the camera, and he had not been disappointed. Coppola’s extensive pre-production rehearsals with actors, for instance, reminded him of a similar method used by Elia Kazan, who had guided him to Oscar-nominated performances in Streetcar, Viva Zapata!, and On the Waterfront, according to William J. Mann’s biography of Brando, The Contender. In the end, Brando’s confidence in Coppola saved the film and arguably altered the course of the director’s career after studio execs, disgruntled with the movie’s early rushes, contemplated replacing Coppola with Kazan. Hearing the news, Brando threatened to quit—a major risk for someone whose troublesome reputation had rendered him persona non grata in the Hollywood. It is impossible to imagine another director, lacking Coppola’s feel for the Italian-American milieu of the story, conjuring up similar cinematic magic.

The dominant actor of his era, Brando also dominated The Godfather; though present in less than 40% of its screen time, he consistently remained the focus of its attention. At least partly in recognition of that fact, he won an Oscar for the role. 

Yet Brando couldn’t help but display his contempt for the industry once again, as he asked actress Sacheen Littlefeather to appear at the ceremony to reject the award on his behalf as a protest against Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans.

Brando had one more performance that drew on all his emotional resources, as a haunted widower in the sexually explicit Last Tango in Paris. But director Bernardo Bertolucci's demands were too much for his psyche, and he would never invest so much of his energy in roles thereafter.

Even after the shock and tumult created by his films has faded, Brando remains a complicated, even controversial, figure for his off-screen life. (Actress Rita Moreno, who attempted suicide in frustration with his cheating during their eight-year relationship, told fellow Oscar winner Jessica Chastain that he was “a bad guy when it came to women.”)

But the mysterious power of his best work onscreen endures as well. In particular, The Godfather has inspired two generations of actors, and even evoked tributes of another kind: parody. 

Disguising himself as The Godfather in The Revenge of the Pink Panther, Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau accidentally swallows a cotton ball he’s stuffed in his mouth, and Brando himself sent up his character in the 1990 comedy The Freshman.

Quote of the Day (Zadie Smith, on Manhattan)

“When I land at JFK, everything changes. For the first few days it is a shock: I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street—or during any fluid-moving city interaction—unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way. I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. ‘A reality shaped around your own desires’—there is something sociopathic in that ambition.”—British novelist-essayist Zadie Smith, “Find Your Beach,” in Feel Free: Essays (2018)

I took the photo accompanying this post in Times Square in September 2011—what feels like a century ago now. (In a change from the prior 30-plus years, when I commuted into the city Monday through Friday, I have only ventured into New York twice since the start of the pandemic.) How the city of striving that Smith celebrates will survive an economy increasingly geared towards a remote or hybrid workforce remains to be seen.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Quote of the Day (William Shakespeare, on Reason vs. Vengeance)

“Yet with my nobler reason 'gaitist my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
 In virtue than in vengeance.”— ‎English playwright-poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616), The Tempest (1610-1611)

The wisdom of maturity—Prospero’s as well as Shakespeare’s—is summed up in these lines. Too bad that far too many people in public life fail to realize or practice it.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The Producers,’ on Their Way to Their Ideal Director)

[Max Bailystock and Leo Bloom are on the lookout for “talent” to help them achieve their million-dollar payday: a sure-fire Broadway musical flop.]

Max Bialystock [played by Zero Mostel]: “This afternoon we have an appointment with none other than Roger De Bris.”

Leo Bloom [played by Gene Wilder]: “Who? Oh, the director! Is he any good? I mean, is he bad?”

Max: “He stinks! He’s the only director whose plays close on the first day of rehearsal.”—The Producers (1968), written and directed by Mel Brooks

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Pope Francis, on ‘The Only Way to Peace’)

“It is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.”—Pope Francis, Sunday “Angelus” prayer at noon, Sept. 1, 2013

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Photo of the Day: Church of the Ascension, New Milford, NJ

I took this photo the other day while driving through New Milford, a town several miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ. The Church of the Ascension began with the suburban migration from New York City early in the post-WWII period, and the need to Archdiocese of Newark’s need to accommodate this influx.

In 1953, Ascension Mission Church was formally established as a canonical parish. A fundraising drive led to groundbreaking for a complex consisting of church, rectory, convent and elementary school in 1957, with the first mass held in the church itself in February 1958. 

Quote of the Day (Christopher Dawson, on a Society Without a Sense of History)

“An individual who has lost his memory is a lost individual, and a society that has no history and historical consciousness is a barbarous society.”—English historian Christopher Dawson (1889- 1970), letter to The Spectator, Sept. 24, 1956, quoted in Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (1984)

Friday, March 25, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Addams Family,’ As Morticia Reveals a Logical, Legal Mind)

[Insurance agent Joe Digby has come to the Addams living room about a claim they filed to replace a stuffed bear that Uncle Fester accidentally set afire with a new flame-thrower. Digby quizzically eyes the pile of ashes on the floor.]

Joe Digby [played by Eddie Quillan]: “I don't want to quibble, but how do I know that was a bear?”

Morticia Frump Addams [played by played by Carolyn Jones]: “Well, let's use simple logic. Does it look like an antelope?”

Digby: “No.”

Morticia: “A zebra?”

Digby: “No.”

Morticia: “A giraffe?”

Digby: “No.”


Morticia: “An elephant?”

Digby: “No.”

Morticia: “A tiger?”

[much later]

Digby: “No.”

Morticia: “A camel?”

Digby: “No.”

Morticia: “A gorilla?”

Digby: “Well, uh... No! No!”

Morticia: “Well, then it must be a bear.”

Gomez Addams [played by John Astin]: “Querida, with your incisive mind, you should be on the Supreme Court!”

Morticia [considering it]: “I do love those black robes.” —The Addams Family, Season 2, Episode 28, “The Addams Policy,” original air date Mar. 25, 1966, teleplay by Harry Winkler and Hannibal Coons, directed by Sidney Lanfield

Would the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee prefer Morticia to Biden Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson? Perhaps, if the matriarch of the creepy, kooky family announced a GOP affiliation.

At least her exercise in logic here is not as breathtaking—or as twisted—as what Senators Cruz, Graham, Blackburn, Cotton, Hawley et. al. displayed the last few days at Jackson’s confirmation hearings.

As noted by Domenico Montanaro of National Public Radio, much of their questioning took place with midterm messaging to their base in mind, as well as the airing of grievances on how Democrats treated the GOP’s most recent nominees for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.  

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Quote of the Day (John Stuart Mill, on Eccentricity vs. ‘The Tyranny of Opinion’)

“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”— English political philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), On Liberty (1859)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Quote of the Day (Stanley Kauffmann, On What to Bear in Mind in Watching the Oscars)

“I watch the Oscars every year, and I have more or less the same reaction: that everything is in character. And every year, regular as a sort of intellectual clockwork, knowledgeable critics are ready to scorn: to disclose the industrial ogre beneath the artistic hoopla, to rip open the pretensions, to excoriate the lengthy and unexciting familial tributes and embraces. Each year I wonder what these critics expected. A coronation by the Muses on the slopes of Olympus, perhaps?”—American editor and film/theater critic Stanley Kauffmann (1916-2013), “Different Weights,” The New Republic, Mar. 21, 2005

It'll happen this Sunday night, too. Bet on it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Quote of the Day (John Ruskin, on the Artist as ‘A Seeing and Feeling Creature’)

"The whole function of the artist in the world is to be a seeing and feeling creature; to be an instrument of such tenderness and sensitiveness, that no shadow, no hue, no line, no instantaneous and evanescent expression of the visible things around him, nor any of the emotions which they are capable of conveying to the spirit which has been given him, shall either be left unrecorded, or fade from the book of record."— English art critic and social commentator John Ruskin (1819-1900), The Stones of Venice (1853)

Monday, March 21, 2022

Quote of the Day (S.J. Perelman, on a Fantasy Created by a Hitchcock Classic)

“In my waking hours in London I saw myself as Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent, wearing a double-breasted trench coat and hiding in windmills. I finally realized I was Perelman from Providence, Rhode Island.”—American humorist and Oscar-winning screenwriter S.J. Perelman (1904-1979), quoted in Israel Shenker, Words and Their Masters (1974)

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Henri Nouwen, on God and the ‘Deep Inner Memories’ of What We Have Lost)

“I know that the fact that I am always searching for God, always struggling to discover the fullness of Love, always yearning for the complete truth, tells me that I have already been given a taste of God, of Love, and of Truth. I can only look for something that I have, to some degree, already found. How can I search for beauty and truth unless that beauty and truth are already known to me in the depth of my heart? It seems that all of us human beings have deep inner memories of the paradise that we have lost. Maybe the word innocence is better than the word paradise. We were innocent before we started feeling guilty; we were in the light before we entered into the darkness; we were at home before we started to search for a home. Deep in the recesses of our minds and hearts there lies hidden the treasure we seek. We know its preciousness, and we know that it holds the gift we most desire: a life stronger than death.”— Dutch-born Catholic priest, theologian, psychologist and writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (1992)

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Photo of the Day: Late Winter Sunday Afternoon, Hackensack River, NJ

I took the attached image late this past Sunday afternoon. I had just finished walking on the west side of the Hackensack River, a few miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, before crossing the William Ryan Bridge over to Olsen Park in Bogota. Looking west off in the distance into Hackensack, you can get a bit of a sense of the development going on this capital of the county.

Unless something unusual happens in the next 24 hours, before the spring equinox, I see the time when I took this picture as, in effect, the last stand of winter.

We had had, in the last few days, some wild swings of 40 degrees, and last Sunday was no exception. Nobody wanted to be out for a walk or jog. The ground was brown and the sky green, and while I tried to get some last-minute walking in, a snow squall blew up, making me hurry towards my car.

I can’t say that the weather won’t cause me more concern going forward; some days over the last few weeks have been unseasonably warm, making me dread when the worst summer days hit. I was about to write that I won’t miss days like this past Sunday. But in this time of dread and death, any day alive is a day to be savored. Breathe in the air and take in the sky.

Quote of the Day (Lewis Carroll, As the Cheshire Cat Opines on Directions and Sanity)

[Alice] “was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off.

“The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had VERY long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.

“'Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. 'Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

“'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

“'I don't much care where--' said Alice.

“'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

“'--so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.

“'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'

“Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. 'What sort of people live about here?'

“'In THAT direction,' the Cat said, waving its right paw round, 'lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,' waving the other paw, 'lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.'

“'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.

“'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'

“'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.

“'You must be,' said the Cat, `or you wouldn't have come here.'”— English author, illustrator, mathematician, photographer, and teacher Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

This past week, a writer’s group submission by a prolific and accomplished playwright, Jim, alluded to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in its own delightful satire. After guffawing all the way through, I hunted down my copy of Lewis Carroll’s classic.

Midway through the Victorian Era, Alice amused readers through its whimsical depiction of eccentric characters (including the anthropomorphic Cheshire Cat). These days, it can strike people like me as a future glimpse at an age—such as ours—when absurdity edges closer to reality.

The image accompanying this post is one of the drawings from the original edition of the book by the English illustrator, graphic humorist and political cartoonist Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914).

Friday, March 18, 2022

Quote of the Day (Joe Queenan, Imagining an Unusual Example of ‘The Great Resignation’)

“The Great Resignation has now begun to spread to some unusual sectors of the economy.

“Members of tribute bands, for instance, are folding their tents for good. ‘I couldn't play Hotel California even one more time,’ says Cheyenne Foucault-Giordano, lead guitarist in No, Not the Philadelphia Eagles, an Omaha group that’s been playing exclusively the music of the Eagles since 1983. ‘Now, with what I can pick up as an Uber driver, I'll never have to play Life in the Fast Lane again. Talk about a peaceful, easy feeling—this is it.’”—Columnist Joe Queenan, “Moving Targets: Some Jobs Are Just Made to Resign From,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 5-6, 2022

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Quote of the Day (Bairbre McCarthy, on the Irish Lephrechaun)

“Often he is seen sitting cross-legged with a tiny hammer in his hand, working on a fairy shoe…. He is no bigger than three feet tall and sometimes as small as twelve inches. Usually, he wears a suit of green and has fine leather shoes adorned with silver buckles. Sometimes he wears a cap with a feather. The leprechaun is the keeper of the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow and he knows where all the wealth of the world is buried. If you are lucky enough to catch him, you must keep your eyes on him at all times and not allow him to distract your attention or he will disappear. If he does not outsmart you he can make you very wealthy and make your wishes come true!”— Irish storyteller (and County Clare native) Bairbre McCarthy, Irish Leprechaun Stories (2018)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Quote of the Day (Robertson Davies, on Life and Experience)

“Man moves from confident inexperience through the bitterness of experience, toward the rueful wisdom of self-knowledge.”—Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies (1913-1995), A Mixture of Frailties, Volume 3 of “The Salterton Trilogy” (1958

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Quote of the Day (Herman Melville, on Creating Art)

“In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt–a wind to freeze;
Sad patience–joyous energies;
Humility–yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity–reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel–Art.” —American novelist, short-story writer, and poet Herman Melville (1819-1891), “Art,” from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2: Herman Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals, edited by John Hollander (The Library of America, 1993)

Monday, March 14, 2022

Movie Quote of the Day (‘My Cousin Vinny,’ As 2 New Yawkers Try to Fit Into a Sleepy Southern Town)

[Inexperienced trial lawyer Vinny Gambini, with longtime fiancĂ©e Mona Lisa Vito annoyed by her ticking biological clock, has come to a conservative Southern town to defend a cousin and his friend from a murder charge.]

Mona Lisa Vito [played by Marisa Tomei]: [Vinny looks at her funny, taking in her black miniskirt and black leather jacket.] “What?”

Vinny Gambini [played by Joe Pesci]: “Nothing. You stick out like a sore thumb around here.”

Mona Lisa: “Me? What about you?”

Vinny: “I fit in better than you. At least I'm wearing cowboy boots.”

Mona Lisa: “Oh yeah, you blend.”— My Cousin Vinny (1992), screenplay by Dale Launer, directed by Jonathan Lynn

Thirty years ago today, My Cousin Vinny premiered. It wasn’t the most critically acclaimed movie, with one reviewer, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, describing it as “pure no-brain bunk.”

Just goes to show: Don’t believe the so-called “experts.”

The above dialogue demonstrates what a well-constructed “fish-out-of-water” comedy this is. But the interplay between Pesci and Tomei (winner of an unexpected Best Supporting Actress Oscar) shows why so many of us laugh helplessly every time we see it.

Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene offers an eye-opening oral history of the film—which, incidentally, premiered 30 years ago today. Among its revelations: one studio exec urged screenwriter Dale Launer to delete Mona Lisa Vito from his script; others strongly disputed casting Tomei in her career-making role; and yet another wanted to cast then-hot Andrew Dice Clay as Vinny.

Again: don’t believe the “experts”—at least, the ones who deal with movies.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Teresa of Avila, on the Pledge of God’s Love)

“Whenever we think of Christ, we should remember the love with which He has bestowed these favours on us, and what great love our Lord God has revealed to us also in giving us this pledge of His love for us, for love calls out love.” —Doctoris Ecclesiae (Doctor of the Church) St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish nun, mystic and reformer The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself (ca. 1567)

Four centuries ago yesterday, Pope Gregory XV canonized one of the most extraordinary sets of holy people in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church: Isidore the Farmer, Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Teresa of Avila.

Four of these figures were members of religious communities. I am especially fond of the pioneering Jesuits Ignatius and Francis. But among this quintet, the most unusual might be St. Teresa of Avila.

Some 30 years after her canonization, the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini finished Ecstasy of St. Teresa. In the portion of that masterpiece I’ve reproduced here, you can fully understand the sense of spiritual transport that this Carmelite saint sought to convey in her autobiography:

"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying."

Not surprisingly, that passage demonstrates why the symbols associated with her are a heart, an arrow and a book. Because she also wrote of the migraines she experienced in episodes similar to this, St. Teresa is also the patron saint of migraine sufferers, making her a figure of special interest to those afflicted with chronic pain.

Figures ranging from the American philosopher William James and Catholic radical activist Dorothy Day (now herself being considered for canonization) have been fascinated by both her writing and her life. And no wonder: Among her Carmelite nuns, she promoted a renewed emphasis on detachment, prayer, fasting, self-denial and works of penance, and contemplation during the Counter Reformation.

For her troubles, Teresa was investigated by the Spanish Inquisition. Her canonization, two generations after her death, represented her posthumous victory.

It would take still longer, however, for the full dimensions of her spiritual achievement to be realized. 

In 1970, Pope Paul VI named her the first female Doctor of the Church, a designation that Rome reserves for saints who have significantly contributed to theology or doctrine. Even now, she is among only four females out of 37 of these figures. (The other women in this group are Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen.)

St. Teresa is more than an exemplar of astounding holiness. In its enduring faithfulness, her life represents a standing rebuke to a Church hierarchy where strong vestiges of misogyny linger to this day.

(For an interesting brief consideration of this saint’s views on prayer, I urge you to read Gina Loehr’s October 2018 post on the “Franciscan Spirit” blog.)

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Quote of the Day (Harvey Dorfman, on a Case Study of Baseball as a State of Mind)

“Certain guys don’t need my help. Rickey [Henderson] has rocks in his head. You can’t mess with his approach.”— Baseball psychologist Harvey Dorfman (1935-2011), quoted in Karl Taro-Greenfield, “Stay in the Moment (With Doctor Baseball),”Men’s Journal, February 2009

Thursday’s announced settlement of an end to the second-longest work stoppage in major-league baseball history helped owners and players avert a near-catastrophe that would have been entirely avoidable and due to their own greed.

The two sides treated the sport as a business. The players forgot—and the owners never learned—what fans could have told them long ago: America’s Pastime is an act of faith, a belief that, in an oasis of grass within the confines of a city, participants and onlookers could briefly return to Eden.

That is why Susan Sarandon’s superfan Annie Savoy hailed “The Church of Baseball” in the opening monologue of the 1988 rom-com, Bull Durham. Like the church that so many traditionalists like me continue to belong to, the Church of Baseball sorely tested our faith over the last 99 days of the lockout.

But now, fans can once again escape from the problems of the world, and ask ourselves, as we wonder how a handsomely compensated player can strike out, misplay a base in the field, or simply do something staggeringly stupid: “What was he thinking?”

Which brings me to today’s quote—hilarious and true—by Harvey Dorfman. I came across a Men’s Journal profile of this late “sports psychologist” in the last few weeks, and knew that I would use it the first chance I had.

So maybe the end of the lockout is a flimsy excuse for the quote, particularly since its subject, Rickey Henderson, has not only been out of the major leagues since 2003, but will be eligible for Social Security in just a few years.

Nevertheless, this first-ballot Hall of Famer is a useful stand-in for the kind of grand eccentrics who made Bull Durham so enjoyable, as well as for so many of today’s players.

Dorfman’s comment struck right at the heart of how so many of us, watching Henderson play for nine big-league teams in 25 seasons, could shake our heads at this awesome combination of speed and power and question why, often in the same game, he could be wonderful and woolly-minded.

A relative of mine saw that latter quality firsthand when he took his young son to a game played by the Newark Bears, a now-defunct minor-league baseball team that the 44-year-old Henderson had joined, for a mere $3,000 a month, in 2003, in the hope that it would be his springboard back to “The Show.”

So, at this one game, all the Bears starting nine had taken up their positions and were listening as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played just before the start of the contest—except for one. Then suddenly, from the Bears dugout, a player came out sprinting, frantically trying to tuck in his shirt and button his pants as he made for the vacant left-field corner. It was Henderson.

My relative didn’t ask what had been keeping the player. He merely laughed, “Typical Rickey!”

Over the years, many watchers of the game would agree with my brother—and with Dorfman’s observation that Henderson had “rocks in his head.”

The stories about Rickey’s ego, moodiness, and zaniness (recounted in Jacob Thompson’s hysterical “Bleacher Report” post from 2009) are almost as numerous as those associated with Yogi Berra, and as with the great Yankee catcher you have to wonder how many are true. (For instance, did he really ask a teammate how long it would take him to drive to the Dominican Republic?)

And yet, there’s a reason why Rickey’s had a plaque in Cooperstown since 2009.

You don’t get to being universally described as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history without a commitment to maintaining your physique well into your 40s, without believing that your opponents were powerless to stop you from stealing or taking an extra base, without loving the game so much that you were still willing to trudge through a couple of seasons in Podunk towns in independent leagues when your calls were no longer being returned at the big-league level.

Dorfman, hired as a “mental-training consultant” for the Oakland A’s in 1984, worked with the likes of Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch, Rick Honeycutt, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco but not with Henderson, still on the team at that point. That surely accounted for much of the consultant's sarcasm in the quote I’ve used today.

But Dorfman’s remark also revealed a grudging respect for the outfielder. 

The speedster—who had already eclipsed Lou Brock’s single-season record for stolen bases—may have been unorthodox, even plain nuts at times. But he believed unconditionally in himself. You also couldn’t mess with his approach, because it worked.

Dorfman—a former teacher and freelance baseball writer—went on to work with a number of other famous players throughout his career, including Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Jamie Moyer, Carlos Pena, and Raul Ibanez.

In both his influential books (e.g., The Mental Game of Baseball) and one-on-one counseling sessions with players, he was nothing like the comic, bow tie-wearing shrink who tells the slumping New York Knights in the Robert Redford film The Natural, “Losing is a disease, as contagious as polio … as contagious as bubonic plague, attacking one but infecting all.”

Instead, Dorfman, believing that distractions lay at the heart of the nervous big-league players felt in big moments, got those who sought his advice to concentrate on the basics.

It sounds simple, but it meant, as Taro-Greenfield summed it up in his profile, that Dorfman had to “meld the then-fashionable ideas of visualization and actualization, of human growth and potential, some aspects of the various Zen-as-sports and Tao-of-sports ideas that were swirling around, with baseball.”

In other words, by learning the skills of a synthesizer and proselytizer, he became the consummate baseball whisperer, the sport’s guru of high-performance consciousness.

One of Dorfman’s clients, according to the Men’s Journal piece, was Alex Rodriguez. This must have been one of the greatest challenges of the consultant’s career, for the slugger was so insecure that The Onion cracked, at the height of the 2006 American League East race, that the Yankee had been “placed on the 15-day emotionally disabled list.”

You could almost imagine the thoughts that could flood A-Rod’s mind when he came to bat at a key moment in the game: Why did my father leave our family? Why did Cynthia have to go and take our two girls with her? Why does Derek Jeter hate me? Why didn’t that blonde in the bar last night think I was hotter than Jeter? Why did Jose Canseco write all that nasty stuff about me in “Vindicated”? Why doesn’t Cousin Yuri get here sooner with those ‘roids? Why does nobody like me?

We all know by now how juiced A-Rod was. But, with all the stuff racing through his head, it was a wonder that he got to the plate at all, let alone that he hit so many home runs.

Though Dorfman never spilled the bean on his clients, I can’t help but think that A-Rod benefited from their sessions—and might never have been tempted to go to those performance-enhancing drugs if he had only used Dorfman’s services even more.

Baseball is so much about belief in one’s self. A-Rod, with all his physical gifts and keen analysis of the game, didn’t have it. Henderson, with all those “rocks in his head,” did. Let's see who else has it this season.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Quote of the Day (Ian Frazier, on the ‘First Creative-Writing Class’)

“Creative writing matters because the human species is hardwired for narrative. In caveman days, we sat around our fires and spun stories, just as creative-writing students today sit around seminar tables and play video games. Recently, I had the uncanny experience of regressing to one of my former selves—a caveman. There was the old campfire. Another caveman walked into the circle of light and proceeded to hold me and my fellow cave people rapt with narrative. However, I quickly stopped him. I said I thought he should interrogate the beginning of that narrative, the part with the ice bear. He left the circle of light, came back, and began again, skipping the ice-bear part. All of us sitting around the fire agreed that the narrative worked better and was much clearer without the ice bear.

“And so the first creative-writing class was born.”—American writer and humorist Ian Frazier, “Shouts and Murmurs: Creative,” The New Yorker, May 27, 2019

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Quote of the Day (Raymond Chandler, on His Deliberate Use of Slang)

“I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To use it I had to study it and analyze it. I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I've found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language and slang that you make up yourself. Everything else is apt to be passe before it gets into print.” — Mystery novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), letter to Alex Burris, Mar. 18, 1949, in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane (1981)

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Quote of the Day (Emily St. John Mandel, Anticipating a Civilization Gripped by a Pandemic)

“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.”— Canadian novelist and essayist Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Two years ago this week, the New York metropolitan area prepared to shut down as COVID-19 spread.  Few people could have predicted the pandemic’s impact on American healthcare, business, technology, culture, politics—and, in the fissures it created among friends and family, even relationships.

We did not quite reach the nightmare that Emily St. John Mandel wrote in her novel Station Eleven. But, even as New York and other cities now prepare, tentatively, to loosen restrictions and “reopen,” who can say what may happen in the near future?

The COVID-19 variants Delta and Omicron should have taught people that, just as animals can evolve, so can viruses. 

But from the first, a hard core of Americans have engaged in successive forms of denial about the coronavirus: that it even exists, that it’s not as bad as others from the last decade or so, that it’s been confined to a certain geographic area, that social distancing, masks or even vaccines aren't needed to combat its spread, or that it could it couldn't damage one’s self or one’s family.

Pray that we have something like a return to the cherished sights and sounds of civilization celebrated in the passage starting this post. But above all, pray that neither COVID-19 nor any future disease surprises us again.

(The accompanying photo of Emily St. John Mandel was taken on Dec. 2, 2017, by librarie mollat.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Quote of the Day (John Lithgow, on His Disastrous 'Batman' Audition)

“My worst audition was for [director] Tim Burton for Batman. I have never told anyone this story, but I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part [The Joker], and I succeeded. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. About a week later I heard they were going after Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson…. How about that for stupid? Actors are not necessarily smart people.”—Tony-winning actor John Lithgow, quoted in Katie Van Syckle, “John Lithgow Still Regrets Passing on Playing the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman,” New York Magazine, June 13, 2017

In the new blockbuster version of the adventures of the Caped Crusader/Dark Knight, Barry Keoghan plays the vexing villain, The Joker. It would have been fascinating 33 years ago, though, to see how Lithgow would have put his stamp on a role that, in addition to Keoghan and Nicholson, has also been played by Cesar Romero, Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix.

(The accompanying image of John Lithgow was taken by David Shankbone on March 27, 2007.)