Friday, June 30, 2023

Flashback, June 1963: Brian Wilson Takes Studio Helm for Beach Boys

As the eldest of the musical Wilson brothers and co-songwriter of their first original hits, Brian Wilson was already the center of attention for The Beach Boys

But in June 1963, the 21-year-old took on even greater importance as he assumed the role of producer, moving the band into some of the most innovative territory in 1960s pop music even as the additional pressure from it all endangered his fragile psyche.

I became interested in this topic because of the brief scenes devoted to Brian’s studio sessions for Pet Sounds and the single “Good Vibrations” in the 2014 biopic Love and Mercy.  

If music employs elements of mathematics, then the story of how Brian solved so many harmonic equations simultaneously—all within the tight space of a 2 1/2-minute pop single—makes him seem like Einstein discovering the formula for relativity while everyone else is merely adding 2 and 2.

Paul Dano’s Brian in Love and Mercy is, initially, remarkably self-assured for someone so young, coaxing skilled studio musicians towards the sounds he hears in his head. He’s not dictatorial or arrogant in his perfectionism, just hyper-focused—until he finally hears what he has in mind, producing the most beatific of smiles.

Brian had only formed the Beach Boys two years earlier, but his mastery of songwriting and recording techniques was advancing rapidly. And he now had learned enough to know what hadn’t been working, and to try to do something about it.

He and the other Beach Boys had been quietly fuming about how hurriedly and cavalierly their initial producer at Capitol Records, Nick Venet, had arranged their first two LPs, Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA. As a bass player himself, Brian especially hated the poor bass sound coming out of Capitol’s studio.

Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, pressed Capitol to let Brian be in sole charge of the band’s production from now on. The record company reluctantly agreed.

On June 12, Brian took his engineer and studio right-hand man, Chuck Britz, into Western Recorders studio, where the Beach Boys worked on two of their seminal early hits, “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Surfer Girl.”

Two days later—still a handful of days short of turning 21—Brian turned to L.A.'s Gold Star studio, used by one of his musical heroes, Phil Spector—and, over the next four years, until a devastating nervous breakdown diminished his influence in the band, evolved into one of the most influential forces in pop music.

But more interesting to me ultimately was how Brian came by his musical acumen, what his innovations were, and why—along with Phil Spector, George Martin, and Berry Gordy—he ranks among the most influential musical producers of the Sixties.

To answer the first question: however Brian developed as a musician—the bassist and keyboard player in a rock ‘n’ roll band—was as basic as learning one’s ABCs. Even obvious early influences like Chuck Berry, The Lettermen, the Four Freshmen, and Jan and Dean could only take him so far.

He needed people who could fire his imagination. From the age of four, Brian was taken with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, bowled over by “everything” about it, he told NPR in an interview 13 years ago: “The chords, the melodic movement, the arranging, the impetus, the excitement, the beauty. It was just an absolute work of art."

Among slightly older contemporaries, Brian found a couple of others who provoked him into thinking how he could expand his musical palette.

As a composer and producer, Burt Bacharach was blending the complex chromatic shifts in jazz into three-minute pop melodramas of aching and loss.

The “Wall of Sound” created by Spector particularly affected Brian. He played one of the hits of the super-producer labeled the “first tycoon of teen” by Tom Wolfe, “Be My Baby,” “a hundred times every single day,” according to the lead singer on the single, Ronnie Bennett (who later married Spector). 

In fact, Brian wrote in the following year “Don’t Worry, Baby,” hoping vainly that it would be used by the man he regarded as the greatest producer in the world.

As Brian increasingly used the group of ace studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew,” other members of the Beach Boys—notably, Mike Love—began to chafe about where they would fit in with all of this. 

With so little to do instrumentally themselves, how long would they have to wait around in the studio till he got what he wanted? Where would deviating from their surf rock sound take them on the marketplace? How would they perform this in concert? And where would their own harmonies fit in?

On this last score, certainly, their fears proved groundless.  Brian adopted Spector’s method of doubling up on instruments, including ones that were quite unusual in pop music. (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, on Pet Sounds, featured two pianos, three guitars, three basses, four horns, two accordions, drums, and percussion.)

But, as noted in Scott McCormick's September 2017 post from the blog “Disc Makers,” the Beach Boy leader also exercised restraint and allowed for more aural space, enabling more intimate harmonies—exactly his group’s forte.

A year and a half later, Brian’s crippling workload and frenetic songwriting-arranging-touring schedule led him to have a nervous breakdown while on tour, leading him to stop performing live so he could concentrate on the studio. It was the first indication of the mental health issues that would plague him from then on. 

But, even as he worried about how the Beach Boys would compete musically against a foreign invader on the U.S. charts—the Beatles—Brian would be creating work that would be imitated by fellow musicians and loved by millions of fans for the next 60 years and counting. 

Always musically adventurous, he was evolving the group from its Berry-based guitar foundation and surf-and-hot-rod teen subject matter to polyphonic pop symphonies that would take in a wider age group and world.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Out of Sight,’ As a Bank Robber and Marshal Chat About What Might Have Been)

Jack Foley [played by George Clooney]: “You sure are easy to talk to. I was thinkin', if we met under different circumstances...if you were in a bar and I came up and we started talkin'...I wonder what would happen.”

Karen Sisco [played by Jennifer Lopez]: “Nothing.”

Jack: “If you didn't know who I was….”

Karen: “You'd probably tell me.”

Jack: “Just saying, if we met under different circumstances...”

Karen: “You have got to be kidding.”Out of Sight (1998), screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, directed by Steven Soderbergh

I try to stay on top of upcoming film, book, and music anniversaries for purposes of this blog, but this sly, really enjoyable heist film —which premiered 25 years ago this week—came to my attention again through Jason Bailey’s account in today’s New York Times.

There are some movies that you can’t believe succeeded at the box office, they’re so criminally stupid. On the other hand, it’s criminally stupid when a movie with such wickedly offbeat dialogue and great chemistry between Clooney and Lopez underperforms.

Well, that’s what cable, DVD and streaming are for: to allow you another crack at a movie that, for reasons best known to you, you never got around to before. As Bailey notes, the movie ultimately helped turn around the careers of the two stars and Steven Soderbergh.

As for me: I was one of the lucky ones, sitting in a movie theater a quarter century ago, trying to figure out what would happen next between Clooney’s smooth, smiling career criminal and Lopez’s tough federal marshal who takes a liking to the bad boy despite herself.

Twenty years ago, Lopez’s character was turned into the ongoing center of a TV series, Karen Sisco, starring Carla Gugino. I never got around to watching it, even though it was on TV for three seasons. I guess I couldn’t see how it could top what was on the big screen.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (George Orwell, on Totalitarianism and ‘The Continuous Alteration of the Past’)

“From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”—English novelist and essayist Eric Blair, aka George Orwell (1903-1950), “Books v. Cigarettes,” originally published in 1946, later reprinted in Essays (Everyman Library, 2002)

George Orwell wrote these words with two totalitarian rulers in mind: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Hitler’s dream of a thousand-year Reich crumbled at the end of WWII, and the Soviet Union that Stalin turned into a superpower collapsed from within more than 40 years later.

But Vladimir Putin has learned the lesson these two dictators taught about using fake history to control the present moment. He exploited fear and resentment over the loss of national power to manipulate his people.

Lucian Kim’s March 2022 article for the Wilson Center explored Putin’s “dangerous hobby”: a grasp of history “highly selective and distorted by politics” (a blueprint for control, I might add, that is increasingly envied, if not emulated, by Western proto-strongmen). Kim’s analysis of the Russian leader’s obsession with the wrong lessons of the past is best summed up with respect to Ukraine:

“If Russians are not allowed to condemn past crimes committed in their name, they will not be able to liberate themselves from the Soviet mindset. And as long as they are not free of the Soviet past, Russians will be unable to accept the paradox that the Soviet Union could be both liberator and occupier of half of Europe—and that they themselves were prisoners in their own country.”

(Jordan M. Poss’ blog post from May of last year contains another interesting reflection on “Orwell on History and ObjectiveTruth.”)

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Quote of the Day (Rachel Carson, on What’s Found ‘In Every Curving Beach’)

“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth.” ― American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist Rachel Carson (1907-1964), “Our Ever-Changing Shore,” Holiday Magazine, July 1958

The image accompanying this post was taken on a beach while I was on vacation in Hilton Head, S.C., in November 2014.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

A Disturbance in the Atmosphere: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ as a Summer Novel

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”—American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), The Great Gatsby (1925)

A week or so ago, a friend’s quote from The Great Gatsby—"And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer”—led me to ponder what had never really occurred to me in nearly a half-century of reading and re-reading my favorite book: the extent to which F. Scott Fitzgerald had written a summer novel.

What previously came to mind when I heard the phrase “summer novel” was fiction in a seaside or resort setting, often featuring young or forbidden love that was fully a match for the hottest season of the year (as in Edith Wharton’s underrated 1917 book Summer), or some combination of the two.

Occurring in New York City and Long Island, The Great Gatsby had not had the same seasonal or geographic associations for me.

But even in its first chapter, narrator Nick Carraway casually observes that he will be presenting “a history of that summer” when the mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby entered his life.

Far from throwaway lines

With that in mind, let’s look more closely at my “Quote of the Day.” It’s nowhere near as rhapsodic as the “boats against the current” ending that, for instance, inspired the title of this blog. But these are far from throwaway lines.

What seems like a simple wind shifting objects around in the room symbolizes the disturbance in the emotional atmosphere during this fateful summer, represented by the arrival of Jay Gatsby.

Air conditioning is now so taken for granted that it’s hard to imagine how summer heat affected Americans a century ago—and how they reacted to it, architecturally and psychologically.

Cooling units were too big and bulky for the home in the 1920s, so Americans adjusted through light-colored apparel and homes filled with long draperies to keep out the heat and multiple large windows to circulate air. (For an excellent short history of air conditioning, see this summary from the Department of Energy.)

But when heat waves stretched the limits of endurance, tensions rose and people often acted aggressively—with or without the cool drinks that momentarily fed the illusion of comfort and ease.

Over a year removed from his disastrous attempt to write a profitable play, The Vegetable, Fitzgerald had absorbed a valuable lesson from this ill-starred foray into the theater: Don’t provide a static description, but one that also includes action, highlighted here by verb forms involving movement: “blew,” “twisting,” “rippled,” “fluttering,” “shut,” and, in a quiet fall, “died out.”

The color of money

The passage does more than vividly detail the setting: the Georgian Colonial mansion of narrator Nick Carraway’s second cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, among “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg” that represent the attainment of dreams.

The passage also foreshadows the tragic arc of the novel, in which the exertion of force results in the end of Gatsby’s dream.

In these two paragraphs Fitzgerald is already suggesting associations for the complex color scheme that will dominate this most concise of American literary classics.

White is the most commonly repeated here—particularly in the summer dresses worn by the two young women on the coach, Daisy and her friend, the “incurably dishonest” golfer Jordan Baker (or, in the image accompanying this post, actresses Mia Farrow and Lois Chiles from the 1974 film adaptation)—but also in the “gleaming white” windows and, implicitly, in the “frosted wedding cake of the ceiling.”

That last, striking metaphor signals the motifs of acquisition and possession that will become more pronounced with the appearance of Jay Gatsby later. During infantry training in Kentucky for WWI, Gatsby had fallen in love with the 18-year-old Daisy, but he lacked the money to marry the debutante.

Tom has had the wedding that Daisy wanted, and her white dress even now parallels the white gown she would have worn at the ceremony. For Gatsby, Daisy will always be the symbol of innocence and purity he just missed and hopes to have again, no matter what may have transpired since then—or her moral failings that he will be too blind to recognize.

The non-white colors in this passage are implied rather than explicitly drawn out. The “fresh grass” is green, and will be echoed in the novel’s famous conclusion that evokes “the fresh green breast” of the New World encountered by Dutch sailors three centuries before.

The red in the “rosy-colored space” and “wine-colored rug” evoke wealth, risk, and blood—the violence that erupts periodically, including:

*Daisy’s accusation that Tom caused her black-and-blue knuckle, even though he didn’t mean to—hinting at coercive control he wields over her, whether physically or psychologically;

*Tom’s breaking of the nose of his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, during a drink-fueled squabble—witnessed by Nick, instead of being inferred, as with Daisy;

*The party that Nick attends at Gatsby’s mansion, a riotous affair, concludes with women fighting “with men said to be their husbands” and, lying in a ditch, “a new coupe” wrecked by one of the tipsy revelers;

*The party in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel, preceded by a “loud and tumultuous argument” that worsens when drinks are consumed—and Tom and Gatsby have it out over Daisy;

*The auto accident on the way back, when Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, runs over Myrtle Wilson;

*Gatsby’s murder in his pool at the hands of George Wilson, maddened to violence by Tom’s false suggestion that Gatsby rather than Daisy drove the car that killed his wife.

Rising temperatures…and aggression

Violence also lurks beneath the surface in the backgrounds of two other figures, in ways that Fitzgerald did not need to spell out for contemporary readers but which probably require an explanation for those who encounter the book for the first time in 2023.

Bootlegging, for instance, lurks beneath the surface, conducted in defiance of the Prohibition laws on the books in the Roaring Twenties (underscored, again, by the “wine-colored rug”).

Meyer Wolfsheim (the name translates, roughly, as “home of the wolf”), Gatsby’s business partner and friend, is an organized crime figure who, rumor has it, had “fixed” the 1919 World Series.

Moreover, although never spelled out in the novel, Gatsby, as a member of an organized-crime enterprise, could only have maintained his market “niche” by forcibly removing competitors.

But Fitzgerald judges Gatsby (and even, admittedly to a far lesser extent, Wolfsheim) less severely than another purveyor of violence: Tom.

Reading the list of bulleted items above leads to the inevitable (and correct) impression that much of the aggression it summarizes happens through the instigation of Tom, who possesses “a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.”

“Leverage” is defined as the exertion of force. But Fitzgerald, wanting to leave no doubt of its possessor’s intentions, adds that Tom’s is a “cruel” body—and Tom prefigures how he will impose himself on the threat to his marriage represented by Gatsby even on the mildly ruffling breeze coming through the windows as his wife and Jordan await the arrival of Nick.

With not just his new-found wealth but with his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” Gatsby imperils Tom to such an extent that he even disrupts how the Buchanan house keeps the outside world at bay. The “fresh grass outside,” like Gatsby’s hope for Daisy again, “seemed to grow a little way into the house,” which itself is, like the Buchanan marriage, “fragilely bound.”

Tom reacts the only way he knows how: by crushing any outside influence on his home through power. You can feel it through four words used as nouns here but which double as verbs: “whip,” “snap,” “groan,” and “boom.”

As a lover of poetry, especially Keats, Fitzgerald was acutely aware of the weight, feel and rhythm of words, and in the last sentence of the quoted passage, you can sense Tom's almost tactile deflation of Daisy and Jordan:

“Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

If you associate summer novels with “light,” “beach” reading, then The Great Gatsby doesn’t fit the bill. But if you think of this genre as evocative of the senses, of depicting a time when the rules of life may seem suspended but when so much can turn on unexpected moments of exultation and deflation, then Fitzgerald’s classic eminently qualifies.

Quote of the Day (Vespasiano da Bisticci, on Writers ‘Chasing Away the Darkness’ of Ignorance)

“All evil is born of ignorance. Yet writers have illuminated the world, chasing away the darkness.”—Italian humanist, biographer and bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci (1422-1498), quoted by Ross King, The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance (2021)

Monday, June 26, 2023

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Sleepless in Seattle,' on ‘Days When People Knew How To Be in Love’)

Annie Reed [played by Meg Ryan] [watching "An Affair to Remember"]: “Now those were the days when people knew how to be in love.”

Becky [played by Rosie O'Donnell]: “You're a basket case.”

Annie: “They knew it! Time, distance... nothing could separate them because they knew. It was right, it was real, it was...”

Becky: “A movie! That's your problem. You don't want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.”— Sleepless in Seattle (1993), screenplay by Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch, directed by Nora Ephron

Thirty years ago this week, Sleepless in Seattle premiered, and promptly became a hit.

At the time, I enjoyed the film without being ecstatic about it. Maybe what dimmed my enthusiasm slightly was that it felt as much about falling in love with movies as it did falling in love with a person—not just this scene’s homage to Nora Ephron’s obvious inspiration, An Affair to Remember, but also to its counterpart, the “male weepie”—most obviously, The Dirty Dozen.

Ephron paid similar homage to another classic romantic comedy, the James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan Christmas classic The Shop Around the Corner, with You’ve Got Mail. Again, I felt that, for all Ephron’s wit, her particular spin did not improve on the original.

Maybe the problem was that I had previously encountered Ephron in a different guise, as a masterful essayist whose contributions to Esquire I could never get enough of—an original, biting voice whose departure for Hollywood I felt was a big mistake.

I’m glad that Ephron found enduring love in the end with Nick Pileggi (another excellent journalist who decamped to Tinseltown). But her first love—and really, the one that sustained her through all—was the movies—just what you’d expect from the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron. (The daughter in their film Take Her, She’s Mine was based on Nora.)

Since Ephron’s death 11 years ago, I have come to feel differently about her work. I still wish that her films were more original, and I still beg to differ with the subtitle of Erin Carlson’s I'll Have What She's Having: “How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy.”

But with time, I can better appreciate how much of a struggle it was for her or any woman to get anything close to a unique vision of a film made in the face of unimaginative, sexist movie executives.

I can better value the sprightly voice of her screenplays and the primary value they championed: wit as a life preserver for those facing loneliness, fear, and tragedy.

I can better see the void her passing left in a Hollywood increasingly consumed by budget-busting, CGI-crazy sequels.

In fact, I would say, Sleepless in Seattle now feels timeless, capable of being appreciated by multiple generations.

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, on Traveling With a Baby)

“There is much to be said for those who maintain that rather should the race be allowed to die out than that babies should be taken from place to place along our national arteries of traffic. On the other hand, there are moments when babies are asleep. (Oh, yes, there are. There must be.) But it is practically a straight run of ten or a dozen hours for your child of four. You may have a little trouble in getting the infant to doze off, especially as the train newsboy waits crouching in the vestibule until he sees signs of slumber on the child's face and then rushes in to yell, ‘Copy of Life, out today!’ right by its pink, shell-like ear. But after it is asleep, your troubles are over except for wondering how you can shift your ossifying arm to a new position without disturbing its precious burden.”— American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945), “Kiddie-Kar Travel,” in Pluck and Luck (1925)

Okay, the passage of nearly 100 years means that, more likely than not, families will be taking planes instead of trains—and the barking newsboy, with his get-up-and-go energy and entrepreneurial vigor, is a thing of the post.

But, with school out and the summer travel season upon us again (and the fear of COVID receding, though not yet entirely gone), parents (including two I can think of) are about to experience something like the sheer terror that Benchley is talking about.

Funny how that “ossifying arm” keeps being passed along from generation to generation…

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (1 Samuel, on How God Made Himself Known to the Prophet)

“At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to [the priest] Eli, he said, ‘Here I am.  You called me.’ Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, ‘Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ Samuel answered, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.” — 1 Samuel 3:8-10, 19 (New American Bible)

Like so many of the stories in the Bible, this one exerts a mysterious but powerful hold on my imagination. Like Samuel, many of us, for the longest time, go through life unsure when and how we are being called by God, and for what purpose. But the task remains for us to remain open to His call—to let God know that we are listening.

It is Samuel’s marvelous power that God would not “any word of his…be without effect.” That is the gift all writers wish for, in their way.

The image accompanying this post, “Samuel Mistakes God's Call” (depicting Samuel approaching Eli), was created by the great Pennsylvania painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945)—not only an extraordinarily vivid artist himself, but also father and grandfather of others with similar gifts: Andrew and Jamie, respectively.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Quote of the Day (Toni Morrison, on Beauty as ‘What We Were Born For’)

“I think of beauty as an absolute necessity. I don’t think it’s a privilege or an indulgence, it’s not even a quest. I think it’s almost like knowledge, which is to say, it’s what we were born for.”—American novelist and Nobel Literature laureate Toni Morrison (1931-2019), interviewed by Claudia Brodsky Lacour, The Paris Review Podcast, Episode 13: “Before the Light,” Podcast Season 2, Oct. 23, 2019

The image accompanying this post of Toni Morrison was taken on Mar. 28, 2013 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

Quote of the Day (Sarah Thyre, Against the Cringe-Worthy Vogue for ‘Journey’)

“Using the word ‘journey’ to describe anything other than a perilous trek through Middle-earth to throw the One Ring of Power into a volcano. (Also: You must be a hobbit.)”— Actress Sarah Thyre, on what will seem embarrassing or regrettable to our future selves, quoted by George Gurley, “Future Cringe,” The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2023

Ms. Thyre’s wish is this blogger’s command: The image accompanying this post shows Frodo (played by Elijah Wood) and his friend Samwise (played by Sean Astin) in The Two Towers, Part II of the book and film trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.”

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Movie Quote of the Day (Nora Ephron, on ‘When You Slip on a Banana Peel’)

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. You become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”—American essayist, novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter-director Nora Ephron (1941-2012), in the documentary Everything Is Copy, written by Jacob Bernstein, directed by Jacob Bernstein and Nick Hooper (2015)

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Quote of the Day (J. R. Moehringer, on ‘The Mystic Paradox of Ghostwriting’)

“Maybe the Germans have a term for it the particular facial expression of someone reading something about his life that’s even the tiniest bit wrong. Schaudergesicht? I saw that look on Andre [Agassi]'s face, and it made me want to lie down on the floor. But, unlike me, he didn't overreact. He knew that putting a first serve into the net is no big deal. He made countless fixes, and I made fixes to his fixes, and together we made ten thousand more, and in time we arrived at a draft that satisfied us both. The collaboration was so close, so synchronous, you'd have to call the eventual voice of the memoir a hybrid—though it's all Andre. That's the mystic paradox of ghostwriting: you're inherent and nowhere; vital and invisible. To borrow an image from William Gass, you’re the air in someone else’s trumpet.”—American journalist, memoirist, and novelist J. R. Moehringer, “Personal History: The Ghostwriter,” The New Yorker, May 15, 2023

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

This Day in Yankee History (Bobby Murcer Retires, Just Short of Greatness)

June 20, 1983— Bobby Murcer, saddled with the burden of succeeding superstar Mickey Mantle as the great hope of the New York Yankees—and one of the few bright spots in the Bronx during the wilderness years out of the postseason from 1965 to 1974—was released by the team and took up duties in the broadcast booth.

As a youngster in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I was just a little too young to experience the Yankees in the golden era of Mantle, Maris, and Ford. I became interested in the team when a trio of young players gave them a glimmer of hope of a return to glory: Thurman Munson, Roy White, and Bobby Murcer. It was Murcer, above all, who became my childhood baseball idol.

I listened breathlessly on the radio on June 24, 1970, when he tied a major league record by clubbing four consecutive home runs in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. I thrilled when, during his first two full seasons with the team (not shortened by injury or military service) in 1969 and 1970, he took advantage of the short rightfield fence at Yankee Stadium by swatting 49 homers.

I imitated that slight crouch at the plate that helped earn Murcer five All-Star berths. In my greatest delusions, I dreamed that, like him, I would win a Gold Glove and succeed him in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, in the same hallowed ground once also patrolled by Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Earle Combs—all Baseball Hall of Famers.

And I mourned in late October 1974, when Murcer was traded straight up for another star saddled with outsized expectations: Bobby Bonds, who had been hailed as the next Willie Mays for the San Francisco Giants.

No matter the electrifying all-around play that Bonds flashed in his single season with the Yankees, he could never replace Murcer for me. I was angry with the Yankees for exiling this leader who sparked the club on the field and won over teammates in the clubhouse with his easygoing manner.

And I was absolutely delighted 4½ years later when the Yankees arranged a trade that brought him back to the team he had dreamed of joining as a child and never wanted to leave. As much as he gave all to the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs in his time away, it was obvious he never really felt at home away from the Bronx.

The three words that may have best defined Murcer’s career were “just short of.” In the first, most substantial part of his career, he fell just short of the postseason, as the team continually lost to the more powerful Baltimore Orioles. In his return, now as a part-time role player with eroding skills, he made it only once to the World Series, recording just one hit in 11 at-bats over two postseasons.

Ultimately, missing out on the postseason in his prime may have meant Murcer fell short of overall greatness. His career statistics over 17 years—252 homeruns, 1,043 RBIs, .277 batting average, .802 OPS—could not match Mantle’s stellar 536 homeruns, 1,509 RBIs, .298 batting average, and .977 OPS. But repeated, excellent play in the postseason during his best years might have earned him more serious consideration as a Hall of Fame candidate.

Comparisons with Mantle cropped up from the moment Murcer arrived at the Yankees’ training camp in 1965, as they both:

*hailed from Oklahoma;

*were signed by the great scout Tom Greenwade;

*started as shortstops before their erratic arms convinced the team they were better suited for center field;

*earned the affection of teammates through their country-boy charm.

Yet, though these comparisons were inevitable, they were also superficial because they obscured significant differences during their careers in the game and afterward. Murcer lacked Mantle’s gasp-inducing natural skills, especially his almost unparalleled power-speed explosiveness.

On the other hand, once their playing days ended, Murcer was not dogged by Mantle’s inner demons. Wondering if he could have been even better if he’d taken care of himself, unsure what to do in retirement, Mantle took refuge in womanizing and alcoholism that depressed those who knew him, while Murcer earned three Emmy Awards as live broadcaster for the Yankees and enjoyed a stable, happy family life.

Murcer’s return to the Bronx in 1979 came during a lost season for the Bombers: not just the only time that the club would miss the playoffs from 1976 through 1981, but one darkened by the tragic death of Munson in a plane crash.

It was a season painful for the Yankees and their fans alike except for August 6, when, after delivering a stirring eulogy at Munson’s funeral, Murcer flew back to the Bronx for a nationally televised game against the Baltimore Orioles. With the Yankees down 4-0 in the seventh inning, he brought the crowd to its feet with a three-run homer, then won the game with a two-run single in the ninth. (See this YouTube clip for footage of his heroics.)

With other lefty-hitting outfielders on the squad in Reggie Jackson, Oscar Gamble, and Ruppert Jones, Murcer found his playing time limited, and after the 1980 season he never played a position again, finding himself confined to pinch hitting. The emergence of the smooth-hitting 22-year-old first baseman-outfielder Don Mattingly meant that the Yankees needed to clear space on the roster for him, and Murcer accepted George Steinbrenner’s offer to become a broadcaster.

The title of Murcer’s memoir, Yankee for Life, testified to his steadfast loyalty to the team. It also proved sadly prophetic, as he died of complications from brain cancer only two months after publication.

Former Yankee publicist Marty Appel spoke for many in explaining how gracefully Murcer adjusted to the mantle of greatness thrust upon him:

"He had an easy, Oklahoma politeness and a modesty that isn't normally associated with elite athletes. He was a fans' player and he was a players' player.

"He was just a terrific kid who was handed an oversized assignment and he handled it with grace and honesty and dignity, as he did everything until the very end....He made you a better person just to know him. No man ever wore the New York Yankee uniform better.”

Movie Quote of the Day (‘White Men Can't Jump,’ With an Epic Bit of Trash Talking)

Billy Hoyle [played by Woody Harrelson] [intentionally antagonizing Spike and Willy, during the basketball tournament] “What, you still throwing up bricks? What is this, a Masons convention? Wha... clank, clank! I need, like, a welding torch to play in this league! I got an idea... let's just stop right now and gather up all these bricks and let's build a shelter for the homeless so maybe your mother will have a place to live!”— White Men Can't Jump (1992), written and directed by Ron Shelton

There were definitely times in the recently completed NBA playoffs when I groaned at all the “bricks” being hurled from three-point range. At those moments, Harrelson’s taunt came to mind.

Thankfully, those images of basketballs bouncing loudly off the rim will fade from my consciousness until the start of the pro basketball season this fall.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Quote of the Day (Bruce Watson, on Juneteenth)

“The celebration has begun. Some shout and dance. Others fall to their knees and weep. A few freely enter former masters’ homes and put on their clothes. Song. Spirit. Jubilee. And the date goes down in history — June nineteenth, soon shortened to Juneteenth….

“For the rest of the [19th] century, former slaves remembered. Each Juneteenth, they gathered to share stories, scripture, spirituals. Barbecue and baseball. And until Jim Crow laws arose, Juneteenth featured instructions on how to vote….

“Faced with myth and rising violence, Juneteenth laid low. Only in the 1940s did its embers stir.  Then came the Civil Rights Movement, too busy to celebrate. Finally, in the 1970s, Juneteenth came alive again.”— Editor and biographer Bruce Watson, “Juneteenth!”, American Heritage, June 2020

(The image accompanying this post shows Juneteenth--or, as it was called at this point, Emancipation Day--being celebrated in Richmond, Va., the capital of the former Confederacy.)

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Photo of the Day: Juneteenth Festival, Englewood NJ

Today concluded a four-day festival in my hometown in Bergen County, NJ, that was devoted to Juneteenth—the federal holiday that takes its cue from the order from a Union general reading the order proclaiming freedom for slaves on June 19th, 1865 in Texas—the westernmost, and most remote, state of the former Confederacy.

The Englewood event, held at Depot Square, included various rides and food sellers. Residents placed their chairs on the broad stretch of grass on the square, eating and enjoying the spectacle just before them, with summer only a mere couple of days away.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Pope Francis, on the Church ‘With Doors Always Wide Open’)

“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door’: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” —Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”), Nov. 24, 2013

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Photo of the Day: Overpeck Creek Kayakers, Bergen County, NJ


I took the photo accompanying this post late yesterday morning while walking in Overpeck Park, a couple of miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ. 

As you can see, not too many people were out on adjacent Overpeck Creek at that hour of the day—partly because the forecast called for rain by early to mid afternoon (which arrived as predicted).

I imagine, however, that with summer arriving, people will have more free time to venture out on this calm stream.

Quote of the Day (Kurt Vonnegut, on Love as ‘A Purpose of Human Life’)

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” —American novelist and short-story writer Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Friday, June 16, 2023

Flashback, June 1963: Budget-Busting ‘Cleopatra’ Barges Into Theaters


Cleopatra, conceived as a cheap, quick-and-dirty remake of a silent feature, premiered in June 1963 at New York City’s Rivoli Theater with 10,000 spectators. 

It’s hard to resist the conclusion, after the movie went from an originally projected $2 million budget and 64-day shoot to one coming in at $44 million (or nearly a half billion dollars in today's money) and taking three years, that many of these “fans” had turned out for the same reason that others have for centuries: to witness a catastrophe.

During its troubled shooting, the movie shed a director, producer, three screenwriters, two leading men, a cinematographer, and an on-location film set—and, most notoriously, the latest husband of the actress playing the title character, Elizabeth Taylor.

Midway through creating this post, I thought of headlining it “Anatomy of a Disaster.” That wasn’t the case when I first became of the film as a teen in the Seventies. Like many film fans, I initially became fascinated by the scandal that made the movie notorious: Ms. Taylor’s affair with her Marc Antony.

As I noted in this prior post about her eventual marriage to Richard Burton, photos had flashed around the world showing the couple in intimate off-set moments, producing palpable shock and swift condemnation. (The Vatican accused Taylor, already infamous for stealing Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, of “erotic vagrancy.”)

But in more recent years, perhaps because of a lifetime spent in the business world, I have become more intrigued by how management lost control of the movie, leading to the near-bankruptcy of studio 20th Century Fox.

I wanted to know: How did this whole project get out of hand? What steps, if any, were taken to keep the situation from worsening, and why didn’t they work? And how did this affect the many people caught in its wake?

Maybe it was appropriate that the scandal-marred Cleopatra was the brainchild of Walter Wanger, a producer trying to live down his own past brush with notoriety: his shooting, in the most precious part of the male anatomy, an agent he believed was carrying on with his actress wife. Wanger hoped his peers would forget about the whole unfortunate business and his subsequent jail time for the same reason Hollywood usually did: a box-office winner.

Since 20th Century Fox already had starlet Joan Collins under contract, it only made sense to use her, argued company president Spyros Skouras. And they had a ready-made property whose intellectual rights it already owned: the 1917 silent film Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert as the legendary queen likewise confirmed that the public would be interested in this, he believed.

Ms. Collins even tested for the role. But a consensus quickly formed in 1959 that, rather than cast the English actress who was something of a poor-man’s Elizabeth Taylor, it was better to pursue the real thing.

Unconvinced that the role was meant for her, Taylor at first demurred. When Wanger relayed the offer again over the phone to Fisher, Taylor joked to her latest husband that she’d only accept it for $1 million, convinced that this would put Wanger off once and for all. Instead, the producer accepted her demand.

A 1962 report by a C.P.A. (cited in David Kamp's excellent "When Liz Met Dick," in the April 1998 issue of Vanity Fair) attributed the skyrocketing expenses till then to four factors: Taylor, lack of planning, corruption on the part of employees, and friction between American and Italian executives. In all its dryness, the following sentence still speaks volumes: "No effort was made at this time to review the first category, due to the danger involved.”

That may seem unfair to the actress, particularly given a number of circumstances beyond her control, but considering all that happened, much of what subsequently transpired did revolve around Taylor.

Ms. Taylor’s basic salary condition was 10 percent of the gross (with no break-even point). The take of the gross followed the precedent set by James Stewart with the 1950 western Broken Arrow, and the $1 million mirrored what Marlon Brando was receiving at the same time for another deeply troubled production, the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.

At the start, Ms. Taylor’s expected windfall might not have seemed like such a gamble. The actress had retained her popularity with moviegoers from adolescence to adulthood, and her Oscar three years before for Butterfield 8 demonstrated the increasing respect she was receiving within Hollywood.

Moreover, the commercial and critical success of other recent epics set in ancient times (e.g., Ben-Hur, Spartacus) seemed to prove that, no matter how much money was spent or how much turmoil occurred on a set, audiences would still turn out in droves for spectacles they couldn’t find on their boxy black-and-white TV sets.

But Ms. Taylor’s final windfall ended up costing 20th Century Fox far more than expected. Here’s why:

* Her contract guaranteed her $50,000 for every week filming ran over the 16-week schedule—and it did three years for the movie to wrap up;

* She insisted the movie be filmed on 70mm Todd-AO, which her late husband Mike Todd created to compete with CinemaScope, and which she owned now;

*She (along with Burton and Fisher) sued Fox for their share of the gross.

When all was said and done, Taylor was believed to have walked away with $7 million—and that didn’t account for other expenses associated with her, including:

* $194,800 just for her costumes—the highest amount ever shelled out for an actress in a single role;

* $150,000 paid to Fisher for “junior-producer” duties that really amounted to taking care of his wife;

* $25,000 for Taylor’s personal physician, Rex Kennamer of Beverly Hills, to be flown in to Rome;

* an untold amount went for her American hair stylist to be flown to England—sparking a strike by the British hairdressers on the first day of shooting in that country.

Another Taylor demand--shooting outside the U.S., to make this a truly international epic--introduced cascading complications during production. Initially, lured by tax breaks offered by the British government, Fox decided that the on-site location should be not Rome, but Pinewood Studios, just outside London.

Nobody seems to have anticipated that the damp autumn weather in the UK--bad enough that the multitudes of shivering extras on the 20-acre lot would emit cold vapor into the air--would exacerbate long-standing health problems of Taylor, to such an extent that a cold would worsen into pneumonia and eventually require an emergency tracheostomy.

For the sake of their fragile star, Fox relocated the production to Italy, whose Mediterranean climate would be more salubrious for her now-impaired bronchial condition. Director Rouben Mamoulian, chafing at all the turmoil already surrounding the movie, threw up his hands and cabled his resignation.

According to Patrick Humphries' 2023 account of the multi-year fiasco, only a little less than eight minutes of all Mamoulian shot made it into the nearly four-hour Cleopatra initially released to theaters (nearly another hour would be cut to improve chances for profitability in general release), and the cost had already reached $7 million.

The studio gulped when it learned that it had to replace its original Caesar and Antony, actors Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, because of prior filming commitments. At least they found two highly regarded substitutes in Rex Harrison and Burton.

But those sets made in England? Made of papier-mache, much of that "marble" had peeled away in the UK fog, rendering it unusable. The sets would have to be reconstructed from scratch in Italy.

The filmmakers were still intent on offering audiences every penny's worth. The triumphant procession of Cleopatra and her son into Rome, for instance, required dozens of scantily clad female dancers, along with a black, 30-ft. high marble sphinx, pulled by over 300 Numina slaves. 

Some (including the creators of the documentary “The Making of ‘Cleopatra’”) regarded it as one of filmdom’s most impressive sequences; but I see it as a slow-moving monstrosity—wretched excess, to be sure.

The presence of all those "slaves" gave rise to a scandal that attracted nowhere near the same amount of notice as the Taylor-Burton affair, but which in retrospect oddly foreshadows the #MeToo movement: the “Revolt of the Slave Girls.” 

After the production moved to Italy, multiple female extras who played Cleopatra’s servants and slave girls resorted to a strike to secure protection against the roaming hands of the local technical crew. Nobody had a phrase for it at the time, but it was a textbook case of sexual harassment.

Twentieth-Century Fox hired a special guard to protect the women and its own reputation—which, as it turned out, was probably one of the more justifiable expenditures in the production. 

Corruption was rampant in Italy. The studio found itself billed $100,000 for paper clips and $3 million for the vaguely termed "miscellaneous" expenses. Taylor remembered more than 30 years later, "They said I ate 12 chickens and 40 pounds of bacon every day for breakfast. What?”

Even after this move to a healthier climate, illness kept Taylor off the set at points—except that this time it wasn't because of pneumonia because of an overdose of Seconal after Burton made a belated, guilt-ridden, but brief attempt to break off the affair and return to his wife Sybil.

But production was also delayed because through much of the shoot, there wasn’t a settled script. Mamoulian, dissatisfied with both the first script and a rewrite commissioned by Wanger, ended up getting a third. 

Taylor did not like any of the three, and shortly thereafter Mamoulian was out and Joe Mankiewicz—who, like Taylor, found his initial lack of enthusiasm for the project oozing away in the face of an enormous salary offer—came on board.

At the heart of Mankiewicz’s acclaimed work as a director were his scripts, especially the Oscar-winning original screenplays he wrote for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. He had also earned Taylor’s trust through his work with her a couple of years before on Suddenly Last Summer. 

But Mankiewicz had never helmed a movie of such complexity with so many moving parts, and he had never taken over a film so far behind schedule and so far over budget.

Most of all, for all the interference he may have encountered as an old studio hand, he had never experienced a situation till now where the studio believed that its very life rode on the success of the film. The meant their “supervision” was more incessant, more emotional, more desperate—and, because shooting was so far away from Hollywood, more fruitless.

Twentieth Century Fox had seen several films crash and burn over the last few years, leaving it in a big financial hole. It was rushing movies into production, whether the scripts were ready or not. If the film started to have problems, it might terminate it unexpectedly to maximize the cash needed for Cleopatra and another Fox film having cost overruns, the D-Day epic The Longest Day.

That was the case with the Marilyn Monroe film Something’s Got to Give. The star was constantly absent, it was true, but she was convinced that her termination represented the studio’s scapegoating of her for similar or worse problems stemming from Taylor on Cleopatra.

Firing Monroe wasn’t the only extreme measure Fox took to deal with its Cleopatra-induced cash-flow crisis. 

As the production delays for the movie reached an apogee, Skouras engineered the sale of Fox’s 260-acre Los Angeles backlot to the Aluminum Company of America for $43 million. That property was then developed into Century City, a sprawling office-building-and-shopping-center complex, in a deal regarded as a financial fiasco for Fox.

Insurance was also playing a role in what was transpiring. The 1958 fatal heart attack of star Tyrone Power while shooting a prior sword-and-sandals epic, Solomon and Sheba (a crisis I discussed in this prior post) lingered in the minds of Fox and other studios about securing the health of their leading actors. 

Wanger acknowledged afterward that preserving the health of Taylor (integral to the overwhelming majority of the film's scenes) guided much of the studio's decision-making. And both English and overseas insurers needed to be involved.

All this was happening thousands of miles away from Taylor, Burton, Harrison, and their colleagues. But the emotional environment was inevitably something Mankiewicz had to consider as he tried to remake the movie on the fly.

Moreover, Mankiewicz was, by day, directing a movie with more than the normal share of technical challenges and heightened emotional stakes among its principals, then returning to his room at night to write more scenes for the next day. If Taylor and Burton had had lovers’ quarrels the night before, one or both might be in no condition to come on set when they were supposed to.

As a result, Mankiewicz could not shoot scenes economically based on set availability, weather and similar conditions, the way on-location shooting has traditionally taken place. This left cast and crew members lingering for extended periods with nothing to do, for far longer than originally intended. (Actor Hugh Cronyn, for example, signed for 10 weeks, ended up in production for 10 1/2 months, using his spare time to tour the Italian coasts and Tuscany.)

His postmortem on the film—one of the only times he cared to comment on it at all in the remaining two decades of his life—was concise, hilarious, and true: Cleopatra was “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic.”

The disorder revolving around Cleopatra (and, to a lesser extent, The Longest Day) led Darryl Zanuck to stage a successful coup among the Fox board of directors against Skouras, who ended up out of Fox after two decades leading the company.

Skouras wasn’t the last person connected to Cleopatra to experience a termination:

*Despite an entreaty to Skouras’ successor Zanuck to let him continue to work on Cleopatra, Wanger was out as producer during the 1962 post-production period.

*Mankiewicz’ quarrels with the home office were pointed enough that Fox fired him at one point. Then the studio recalled that it needed him onboard because, after all this time, a final screenplay still had to be written—and, as the guiding light of the project, Mankiewicz was in the best position to do so. So he was rehired.

Even so, Zanuck disregarded the director's desire that the movie be released in two three-hour parts, focusing first on Cleopatra's relationship with Caesar, then with Antony. Back-to-back filming was an intriguing idea that would foreshadow how the Back to the Future, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises would handle their releases. 

But Zanuck rejected the proposal--and, considering how much energy Cleopatra loses after Harrison's Caesar exits the movie, I'm not sure it would have worked, anyway. By the time the film was cut and re-cut for general release, several of those associated with it (such as Taylor) felt the final product was rushed and incoherent at points.

Cleopatra is not without its defenders, who correctly point to its excellent performances by Harrison and Roddy McDowall as Octavian, as well as to a box-office take that made it among the highest grossers of the Sixties.

But it took a decade--after all those audiences in cinemas and its sizable sale to network TV--before Fox made back its investment. Even then, the studio kept all future profits secrets so it wouldn't have to pay investors promised a percentage of its profits.

That was better than what Joe Mankiewicz experienced. “Cleopatra affected him the rest of his life,” remembered his widow, Rosemary. “It made him more sensitive to the other blows that would come along.” 

For this film professional he regarded his writing as essential to his directing assignments, he would never have another screenwriting credit. After three films made over the next decade, he spent his last 21 years “finding reasons not to work,” according to his son Tom--a devastating ending for a once-prolific and honored filmmaker.