Saturday, September 30, 2023

Quote of the Day (T.H. White, on Where Division May Lead)

“The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees." —English novelist T.H. White (1906-1964), The Once and Future King (1958)

Ladies and gentlemen, on the brink of a government shutdown, I present to you the mightily dysfunctional House of Representatives—or, to borrow a Kurt Vonnegut title, “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

Friday, September 29, 2023

Flashback, September 1998: Costello, Bacharach Release Searing Songs of Heartbreak

Twenty-five years ago this month, two songwriters who few could have predicted, two decades before, would ever collaborate released Painted From Memory, a CD that won a Grammy and recharged their creative energy. 

The album yielded a dozen tightly crafted pop songs and considerable creative satisfaction for Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. If their artistic union went swimmingly, the same could hardly be said of the romantic betrayal, pain, hurt, and regret present on every song in this collection, courtesy of this unlikely duo’s relationships with the six wives they had already had to this point. 

Understandably, Costello has made no bones about these songs being “excessively personal.”

When Costello burst on the music scene in the late 1970s, he quickly gained a reputation for rapid-fire, blistering tunes that matched his reputation at the time as a surly young new wave artist. In the same period, Bacharach found himself experiencing a case of the middle-aged crazies, having split from his second wife, actress Angie Dickinson, and his longtime lyricist, Hal David.

Twenty years later, they were in different places, musically and mentally. Costello had gained a well-deserved reputation for being among the most versatile and musically adventurous musicians of his generation, collaborating with country, jazz, hip-hop, classical music, and R&B artists. Bacharach was seeing something of a career revival, with his songs from three decades before receiving renewed exposure in film hits like My Best Friend’s Wedding and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

Costello had long been a fan of Bacharach, more than 25 years his senior, and had even played “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” early on in concert. He finally met Bacharach in 1989 when the two recorded at the same studio.

But what brought the pair together to work was the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, set in the Brill Building songwriting factory of the late Fifties and early Sixties—an environment that had bred, among others, Bacharach and David.

Bacharach had already been engaged to write the music for the song intended for the movie’s Carole King-like protagonist when Costello came on board to write the lyrics. They worked long distance, exchanging lyrics and arrangements via fax.

The result, “God Give Me Strength” (featuring the voice of Kristen Vigard but lip-synched by Illeana Douglas), was a distinct high point in the movie. Thankfully, it didn’t stop there.

As Costello noted in his 2015 memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, “To have written a song like ‘God Give Me Strength’ and simply stopped would have been ridiculous, so about a year later we began a series of writing sessions, the first at Burt’s work studio near Santa Monica and later in a hotel suite on Park Avenue… One of us would lead the way with an opening statement, perhaps a verse or even all the way through a refrain, and the other would naturally follow with an ever more elaborate bridge of resolution, but as the exchange of ideas got faster and faster, we found ourselves completing each other’s musical sentences at the piano.”

If two words could summarize the creative fusion between the two, it would be “painstaking” and “accommodation.”

The two song craftsmen were used to creating the most intricate examples of their specialties: Costello, twisty lyrics spitting out satire, sarcasm, and wordplay; Bacharach, irresistible hooks that masked complicated arrangements filled with changing time signatures and irregular phrasing, all somehow refined from his classical music training and love of bebop.

In Bacharach, Costello found a master of the studio whose compositions were so complex that they required musicians who could meet his exacting standards. On the other hand, he had to find a way to place his own words naturally into this sumptuous sound.

As he told Chris Willman in a March interview for Variety Magazine, his first thought was: “‘How am I ever gonna make sense with something so, so, so spaced out?’… So this was more of a challenge for me, to make those words really land on the (minimal beats), and have it still make sense and have it still sound like me. It took a bit of puzzling.”

At the same time, the relationship agonies expressed in the songs required Costello to convey a naked, soul-baring emotion he had rarely had to summon to date. Each song, after all, was a character study in which a complex character ranged across betrayal, being cuckolded, feeble self-justification, self-recrimination, hatred and heartbreak.

And here’s the thing: beneath its shimmering orchestral pop surface, replete with tinkling piano, French horn, and muted strings, the lyrics did not deviate in the slightest from the CD’s first note to last. The first song is not titled “In the Darkest Place” for nothing—not with Costello singing, “I'm lost, I have abandoned every hope.”

Costello and Bacharach chose the song that brought them together, “God Give Me Strength,” to close out their CD. But if the protagonist has chosen to reach out past himself, it’s because he has to: he is in such despair that God is his only hope.

Few moments in pop music describe the searing loss of a lover with the outburst that Costello lets loose at the song’s climax:

I might as well wipe her from my memory
Fracture the spell, as she becomes my enemy
Maybe I was washed out like a lip-print on my shirt
See, I'm only human, I want her to hurt.

Marinated in melancholy, Painted From Memory masterfully expressed what Wall Street Journal critic Marc Myers called this past March “the anguish of failed relationships—creating a new breed of saloon song minus the saloon.”

"I Still Have That Other Girl" brought Costello and Bacharach a 1999 Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. But it turned out to be the last studio album they put out during Bacharach’s lifetime.

Bacharach died in February, only a few weeks before the release of a 4-CD box set, The Songs of Bacharach and Costello. The set includes a remastered version of Painted From Memory; Taken from Life, a song cycle reflecting the development of Painted from Memory into an abortive Broadway musical that would have been co-produced by Big Bang Theory showrunner Chuck Lorre; a collection of concert performances, mostly piano-and-vocal from Costello and another Bacharach collaborator, Steve Nieve; and other live Costello performances of scattered Bacharach and David songs over the years.

Recently I blogged about another artist—director Martin Scorsese—moving in a direction not expected by longtime fans with his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. In a similar radical overturning of expectations, Costello, with Bacharach’s plush orchestration in Painted From Memory, could not have more astounded listeners who wanted no part of collaboration with one of the prime purveyors of Sixties MOR music.

Yet Costello, like Scorsese, created what many now regard as a distinct highlight in a career full of them. And Painted From Memory, like The Age of Innocence, continually rewards those who return to it to find new subtleties each time.

Quote of the Day (Judith Viorst, on How a Hershey Bar Indicates Strength)

“Strength is the capacity to break a Hershey bar into four pieces with your bare hands—and then eat just one of the pieces.”— American humorist, newspaper journalist, children’s book writer, and psychoanalysis researcher Judith Viorst, Love and Guilt and the Meaning of Life, Etc. (1979)

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Quote of the Day (Michael Chabon, on How Life is Like Baseball)

“And in that moment he felt for the first time that optimistic and cheerful boy allowed himself to feel- how badly made life was, how flawed. No matter how richly furnished you made it, with all the noise and variety of Something, Nothing always found a way in, seeped through the cracks and patches. Mr. Feld was right; life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which even champions lost almost as often as they won and even the best hitters were put out 70 percent of the time.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Michael Chabon, Summerland (2002)

This week, fans of the two New York major league baseball teams—so often at odds—share a common emotion: misery. Within days of each other, the Mets and Yankees—two squads with the highest payrolls in the game—were officially eliminated from post-season contention, even with a playoff roster swollen to laughably lengthy size over the past four decades.

From Opening Day to the fadeout of “The Summer Game,” this season became for our hometown anti-heroes like Michael Chabon’s Mr. Feld observed: “filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches”—not to mention one freakishly disastrous injury after another.

Forget about Mudville—these days, there’s no joy in Metville or Yankeeville, either.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Quote of the Day (Saul Bellow, on a ‘Great, Great Crowd’ Thronging Midcentury Broadway)

“On Broadway it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight, and sawdust footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit stores. And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every race and genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence - I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want. Faster, much faster than any man could make the tally.”— American novelist Saul Bellow (1915-2005), Seize the Day (1956)

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Quote of the Day (Vivian Gornick, on the Healing Power of a Walk Through the City)

“As I saw myself moving ever farther toward the social margin, nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like a walk through the city. To see in the street the fifty different ways people struggle to remain human—the variety and inventiveness of survival techniques—was to feel the pressure relieved, the overflow draining off. I felt in my nerve endings the common refusal to go under.”—American critic, journalist, essayist, and memoirist Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (2015)

This week seven years ago, I took the picture accompanying this post while walking through the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn—a section of the New York borough filled with tree-lined streets and brownstones. At least for me, it held some of the restorative powers that Ms. Gornick praises.

Monday, September 25, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Odd Couple,’ As Felix Explains Why He Worries About Oscar’s Health)

Felix Unger [played by Tony Randall] [on why he’s concerned about the health of slob roommate Oscar Madison]: “I watched him eat eight hot dogs today and only saw him chew two.”—The Odd Couple, Season 2, Episode 8, “Fat Farm,” original air date Nov. 12, 1971, teleplay by Albert E. Lewin, directed by Mel Ferber

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Ann Patchett, on Religion and Storytelling)

“I suppose my ability to tell a story came from my good nature and a desire to keep everyone [in the family] together. Catholicism also was the perfect prep. Religion, in general, is story-based and teaches you to believe in what you can't see, and I did.”—American novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett, quoted by Marc Myers, “House Call: Ann Patchett—A Late Reader, She Made Up Stories,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 25, 2023

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Song Lyric of the Day (Don Henley, on Love in ‘A Graceless Age’)

“We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive
In such a graceless age?”—American rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter,” from his CD, The End of the Innocence (1989)
The Eagles’ current "Long Goodbye" retirement tour—and the advancing age of the band’s surviving members—means that, though we may continue to hear from Don Henley at the occasional concert or even CD, our opportunities to hear his unique perspective on the world will inevitably diminish.
Even aside from Henley’s essential contributions to one of the most successful bands of the rock ‘n’ roll era, his solo work from the Eighties will continue to reverberate in our minds—including the question he posed in the quote above.
Sadly, not merely love, but also friendship and even elementary courtesy, face increasingly dire prospects in the “graceless age” already far along when Henley wrote these lyrics—and even worse now.
(The image of Don Henley accompanying this post was taken Dec. 2, 2008, by Steve Alexander.)

Quote of the Day (Edna St. Vincent Millay, with a Different Experience of Fall)

“In the fall of the year, in the fall of the year,
I walked the road beside my dear.
The rooks went up with a raucous trill.
I hear them still, in the fall of the year.
He laughed at all I dared to praise,
And broke my heart, in little ways.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), “The Spring and the Fall,” in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1922)
A century ago this month, Edna St. Vincent Millay became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. “The Spring and the Fall” was part of the collection that won her the honor.
This poem, which I came across in a school reader from 70 years ago, reminded me of why I have enjoyed Millay. Read in its entirety, it touches on the “ecstatic passion [and] skepticism of enduring love” that, New Yorker reviewer Maggie Doherty wrote in May 2022, represented the “great themes” of the lyric poet.

Over the last century, she has somewhat fallen out of favor with critics, despite Nancy Milford’s well-received 2001 biography, selections from the poet’s diaries published last year, and the heroic efforts of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society to preserve Steepletop, her longtime home in Austerlitz, NY.
No matter. Millay may be one of those authors, like the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who survive, barely, on high school and college curricula, but continue to find readers somehow.

You can find many interesting posts on Millay on the blogosphere, but you might find especially thoughtful this February 2021 post from the Farnsworth Art Museum that feature Maine poets reading letters and poems that focus on Millay’s exploration of loss and renewal—as well as their own poems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, personal loss, and the threat of global climate change. 

It’s a welcome reminder that, despite the intensely intimate nature of Millay’s early, best-known work, she became increasingly engaged with national and world issues as time went on.)

Friday, September 22, 2023

Quote of the Day (Brooke Shields, Suffering a Case of Massively Mistaken Identity)

“The other day, I was in the airport and the flight attendant came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re Caitlyn Jenner!’”—Actress Brooke Shields, during her debut show at Manhattan’s Café Carlyle, quoted by Jacob Bernstein, “‘Fame Is Weird,’ and She Knows It,” The New York Times, Sept. 21, 2023

(The accompanying picture of Brooke Shields was taken Feb. 21, 2018, by Greg2600.)

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Quote of the Day (Feist, on the ‘Quiet Little Line’ Between Writing Music and Listening to It)

“I always think about how I'm in my room alone writing it, and eventually most people listen to music alone. So there's actually a quiet little direct line between writing and listening. It's a strange bubble of solitude, because you're linked, but you don't know each other, yet you're communicating.''—Canadian singer-songwriter Feist in Jon Pareles, “The Bounty of Solitude,” The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2011

The image accompanying this post, showing Feist at Day 2 of Coachella, was taken April 21, 2012 by Jason Persse.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Quote of the Day (Michel de Montaigne, on Needing a Good Memory Before Lying)

“It is not without good reason said ‘that he who has not a good memory should never take upon him the trade of lying.’ I know very well that the grammarians distinguish betwixt an untruth and a lie, and say that to tell an untruth is to tell a thing that is false, but that we ourselves believe to be true; and that the definition of the word to lie in Latin, from which our French is taken, is to tell a thing which we know in our conscience to be untrue; and it is of this last sort of liars only that I now speak. Now, these do either wholly contrive and invent the untruths they utter, or so alter and disguise a true story that it ends in a lie. When they disguise and often alter the same story, according to their own fancy, ’tis very hard for them, at one time or another, to escape being trapped, by reason that the real truth of the thing, having first taken possession of the memory, and being there lodged impressed by the medium of knowledge and science, it will be difficult that it should not represent itself to the imagination, and shoulder out falsehood, which cannot there have so sure and settled footing as the other; and the circumstances of the first true knowledge evermore running in their minds, will be apt to make them forget those that are illegitimate, and only, forged by their own fancy. In what they, wholly invent, forasmuch as there is no contrary impression to jostle their invention there seems to be less danger of tripping; and yet even this by reason it is a vain body and without any hold, is very apt to escape the memory, if it be not well assured.”—French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), “On Lying,” in The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877)

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Quote of the Day (Somerset Maugham, on Strength and Circumstances)

"There are very few of us who are strong enough to make circumstances serve us." — British man of letters W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), The Circle: A Comedy in Three Acts (1921)

Monday, September 18, 2023

Quote of the Day (Kenneth Branagh, on Creating Hercule Poirot’s Mustache)

“We had nine months of preparation that started from something that was a slither of what Charlie Chaplin might have had, passed through Hitler, went via Errol Flynn, turned the other side of Kurt Russell in Tombstone and landed in a world that tried to justify Christie’s description of his mustache as having a ‘tortured splendor.’”—Actor-director Sir Kenneth Branagh, on finding the perfect mustache for iconic sleuth Hercule Poirot, quoted by Alex Ritman, “Man and Mustache: Kenneth Branagh Takes on Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” The Hollywood Reporter, Oct. 18, 2017

After so much time creating such a look, it would be a waste never to use it again, wouldn’t it?

That’s the most likely explanation I can think of why, after spending so much time crafting this famous bit of facial hair for Murder on the Orient Express, Sir Kenneth Branagh came back to this look for Death on the Nile and the just-premiered A Haunting in Venice.

That, and the fact that the first two films were either somewhat successful at the box office or they didn’t lose a fortune. Because the only crime Hollywood studios will never forgive a filmmaker is a box-office bomb.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

This Day in Film History (Scorsese’s ‘Age of Innocence’ Harks Back to Golden Age of Period Drama)

Sept. 17, 1993— The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of the 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edith Wharton, opened to general release in New York, on its way to disappointment both at the box office and at the Academy Awards.

But in the three decades since, this piercing examination of conscience and conformity versus the promise of freedom and self-fulfillment has become celebrated as an example of bravura cinema, as well as representing a high point in the careers of its three principal actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

The 30th anniversary of this plush period drama coincides with the release this fall of Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest entry in the half-century career of Innocence director Martin Scorsese, as well as Season 2 of The Gilded Age, the HBO series that occurs in the “Old New York” milieu that Wharton chronicled with such irony and insight.

All of this provides an opportunity to examine how The Age of Innocence relates to and departs from Scorsese’s larger work; why its initial reception fell short of expectations; and why it nevertheless repays repeated viewings.

Underappreciated at the time

Coming off the acclaimed Goodfellas, Scorsese had now turned to the costume drama genre that had long interested him. Friend Jay Cocks had been urging Scorsese to see this as next project for nearly a decade, but it was only after the controversy over the alleged “blasphemy” of The Last Temptation of Christ had died down that the director decided to collaborate with Cocks on the script.

But the choice puzzled and mystified fans that were awaiting another in his line of urban dramas often laced with violence and profanity, dating back to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver in the Seventies. (They would have to wait another two years to get what they wanted: Casino.)

The reception might have been different if, as planned, the movie had debuted in the fall of 1992, when its principal competition at the Academy Awards would have been Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

But it was held back by over a year to allow Scorsese more time to edit, so that what would have been prestige Oscar bait would now enter awards season facing Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama Schindler’s List.

In an interview for a Criterion Collection DVD from2018, Scorsese said that Vincent Canby’s negative review in The New York Times “killed” The Age of Innocence. That is probably overstating matters.

Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy was closer to the mark in predicting, “For sophisticated viewers with a taste for literary adaptations and visits to the past, there is a great deal here to savor…But it is difficult to picture general audiences warming up to these representatives of the old ruling class.”

Even the opening scene brings audiences face to face with this situation: a sequence from Gounod’s opera Faust that segues into a sweeping reaction shot of the audience.

It sets up that the upper-crust spectators are less interested in the onstage spectacle than the drama in the seats: the presence of Countess Ellen Olenska, a scandal-shadowed member of the socially prominent Mingott family. It also foreshadows the doomed relationship that will eventually develop between Ellen and lawyer Newland Archer.

Yet casual viewers, unfamiliar with the Faust source material, are unlikely to grasp the symbolism. Moreover, as the scene lingers for a couple of minutes without subtitles, it tests viewer attention and patience from the start.

Moreover, Wharton’s characters speak in code—approaching sensitive subjects but using silences and facial expressions fill in the gaps left by words they dare not utter.

The similarities between Gilded Age aristocrats and Mafia gangsters

Viewers taking in this atmosphere of physical opulence and verbal repression, then, are likely to be astonished by Scorsese’s claim that this was “the most violent film I ever made.” What could he possibly mean by this?

The best answer might come in one of the film’s best-remembered set pieces: a dinner at which Archer, moving toward breaking away from his affectionate but passionless marriage to the judgmental, unimaginative conformist May, finds his path blocked by the entire mass of aristocratic New York.

Like Goodfellas’ Tommy DeVito finding too late that his initiation as a Mafia “made man” will not in fact transpire, Archer discovers a cadre that will punish him for defying its code, with the camera sweeping past the guests and their sumptuous even as narrator Joanne Woodward intones Wharton’s words:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings. As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May's canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy. And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to "foreign" vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer's natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.

The images, in combination with the foregoing description, eliminate the need to include onscreen this Wharton passage that may have capped the resemblance between the genteel aristocrats and the crude gangsters of Goodfellas:

It was the old New York way of taking life "without effusion of blood": the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than "scenes," except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.

A cinematic feast

This dinner scene is an example of how Scorsese sought visual and aural counterparts to Wharton’s verbal splendor. The aural component was supplied by Woodward’s voiceover narration and a memorable, Brahms-influenced soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, while the visuals came through Gabriella Pescucci’s Oscar-winning costume design and Dante Ferretti’s production design.

In focusing on the themes of money and marriage in Victorian Age, Scorsese had one obvious antecedent: William Wyler’s The Heiress. In a February 1994 interview with Ian Christie of Sight and Sound Magazine, Scorsese acknowledged that the 1949 adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name and its source material, Henry James’ Washington Square, “made a strong impression on me as a child.”

Yet, though he admitted that it still “holds up well,” he criticized it for being “theatrical,” with a “three-act” structure—and “no narration, no montages, no flashbacks or flashes forward and no visual interpolations such as letters”—all devices he employed in The Age of Innocence.

These were not the only methods that helped make this one of Scorsese’s most controlled movies: Vibrant colors, dissolves, transitions, and similar visual motifs echo and reinforce each other, or subtly reinforce characterizations:

*Fireplace scenes building slowly in intensity parallel the growing emotional intimacy of Archer and Ellen;

*Archer bangs a pen violently at one point to force the ink out—encapsulating his frustration with bottled-up social norms;

*Demure young May is dressed early on in virginal white, while her more unconventional, passionate older cousin Ellen is dressed in red;

*And one scene that Scorsese made sure to carry over from the book depicted May as skilled at archery—a sly representation of how she will hit her target, Archer himself.

Unlike The Gilded Age, which in its first season leaned heavily on New York stage actors, Scorsese relied heavily on British actors.

Scorsese and Cocks have explained that such casting made sense, as New York aristocrats of the Victorian Era still retained strong verbal influences from their English ancestors. I think the choice also might derive from a belief that British actors came with appreciation for texts and a verbal dexterity springing from their intensive stage training.

Even so, to be fair, it’s hard to argue with what Lewis, Richard E. Grant, Alec McCowen, Michael Gough, Geraldine Chaplin, Stuart Wilson, Siân Phillips, and Miriam Margolyes did with their dialogue.

I think that The Age of Innocence is one of Scorsese’s overlooked masterpieces. Far more than most movies, it yields new insights each time viewed to go with scenes that will never fade from the memory.

Only the third time around, for instance, did I notice that a portrait of a woman bearing a striking resemblance to Woodward hangs on the wall in one scene. And only on this latest viewing did I pick up on how the camera, having focused for several minutes on the dogs climbing over Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Mingott, mocks her further by moving towards other objects in the room: paintings, drawings, and sculptures featuring even more dogs.

At the same time, fans like me recall how Archer’s unbuttoning of Ellen’s glove in a horsedrawn carriage leads to a passionate encounter, or how the nimbus of light in which he beholds Ellen from a distance as he waits for a sailboat to pass a lighthouse at sunset.

Enhancing appreciation of Wharton

I am also grateful that Scorsese’s adaptation has fostered renewed appreciation of Wharton, one of my favorite writers, after an extended period of popular neglect.

In the 1920s and 1930s she had enjoyed significant attention, not only in sales but also in royalties from theatrical and cinematic adaptations. The Age of Innocence itself became a 1928 Broadway vehicle for Katherine Cornell, as well as a 1924 silent film (now lost) and a 1934 talkie starring John Boles as Archer, Julia Haydon as May and the incomparable Irene Dunne as Ellen.

Given the reverence accorded Scorsese and his greater faithfulness to the source material (approximately an hour longer than the Dunne version), this adaptation was not only more high-profile than these earlier efforts, but more successful than Hollywood’s other attempts to explore Wharton in the 1990s.

The Children (1990), with Kim Novak and Ben Kingsley, took on one of the novelist’s bestselling but less critically acclaimed works of the 1920s, and Ethan Frome (1993) featured Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette in Wharton’s tale of thwarted romance in the Berkshires. The decade closed with Gillian Anderson movingly depicting doomed Gilded Age beauty Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (2000).

In November, Apple TV+ will begin a series based on Wharton’s The Buccaneers, a novel completed several decades after her death in 1937 by Marion Mainwaring. Although Sofia Coppola’s attempt to develop another Wharton novel, The Custom of the Country, has temporarily hit a roadblock, there is always the hope that this biting satire will also find its audience.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult for any of these past, present, or future adaptations to match the art, depth of feeling, and appreciation for the source material shown by Scorsese’s Age of Innocence.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (P.D. James, on How Religious Faith is Like Musicality)

"I certainly have found faith important, but I do have friends who are totally without it and who cope admirably with life, sometimes under difficult circumstances, and who live extremely good lives. It isn’t a given that if you have faith, you’re happy, and if you don’t have it you’re miserable; or that you have it and you’re good, and you don’t have it and you’re less good; or even that you have it and you’re comforted, and you don’t have it and you’re not comforted. I sometimes think that religious faith is rather like musicality. You’re either born with it or not. Some of my friends who haven’t got faith find it rather a surprising thing to have. Religion is a dimension of life of which they have no understanding, really.” —English novelist of crime and dystopian fiction P.D. James (1920-2014), quoted by Trudy Bush, “Reasons for Writing: An Interview with P. D. James,” The Christian Century, Sept. 27, 2000

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Quote of the Day (Tom Bligh, on Cover Songs)

“Movies get remade, songs get covered. A cover song comes with history attached. The song’s past blends with its present to create something surprising yet recognizable: two stories in one, two contexts, two visions. Covers are familiar enough that we know what to expect, plus there’s opportunity for the unexpected, an appealing combination of same/different. Our favorite songs slip away from us when overplayed. The familiarity does breed contempt. They become routine. We hardly notice what makes them special. A friend of mine says these songs don’t register until you’re drunk. Then they come through, fresh and strange; you appreciate them all over again. I propose another way to make old songs new: the cover song. The best covers show both artists in a new light.”— Fiction writer and Mount St. Mary’s Univ. English Professor Tom Bligh, “A Treatise on Cover Songs,” The Oxford American, Issue 54, Fall 2006 (Music Issue 2006)

Growing up, I never cared much to know if a song was a cover version or not. But as I’ve grown older, having witnessed the whole cavalcade of American rock ‘n’ roll and more fascinated by its history, cover songs have fascinated me more and more.

In fact, I’ll even search YouTube for songs by artists I enjoy, but covered by others.

Tom Bligh’s article From The Oxford American—which I came across again the other day—has some interesting things to say about this phenomenon, including that the “original artist” doesn’t refer to the songwriter, but rather the person who made the first public recording. (Case in point: Frank Sinatra, who did not compose songs himself but often was the first to release songs created by some of the prime names in the Great American Songbook, notably Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.)

He also makes a telling observation about how performers “make the song their own”:

“When people like a cover, the common saying is that the artist ‘made it his/her own.’ That’s never entirely true. Bits of associative residue cling to even the best covers. The relationship of cover to original is not wax-museum dummy to real person. We don’t listen to a cover song because we can’t find the original—we listen to experience the pleasure of a familiar song in a different way.”

I think you might also like this article listing “75 Greatest Cover Songs by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees.” Yes, this list is entirely subjective, so I’m sure it’ll start more than a few arguments about what gets included, what doesn’t, and whether certain artists deserve to be ranked so high or low.

But I’m also sure nearly everyone will find songs that they will nod along in agreement with—and maybe sing along to. My personal favorites on the list, for what it’s worth, are (to list the cover artists with original performers in parentheses): George Harrison’s “If Not for You” (Bob Dylan), David Bowie’s “China Girl” (Iggy Pop), Rod Stewart’s “I Know (I’m Losing You)” (The Temptations), Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” (The Beatles), and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell).

Over the years, I have created mixtapes for friends of cover songs. At some point I’ll share one or more of those lists—and maybe even the “liner notes” I included.

Friday, September 15, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Golden Girls,’ on Handling an Academic Lecher)

Blanche Devereaux [played by Rue McClanahan]: “I asked my teacher for help like you all told me to. He said the only way I would get an A on his final is if I sleep with him.”

Rose Nylund [played by Betty White]: “No!”

Blanche: “Oh yes! I just don't know what to do!”

Sophia Petrillo [played by Estelle Getty]: Get it in writing.”— The Golden Girls, Season 1, Episode 20, “Adult Education,” original air date Feb. 22, 1986, teleplay by James Berg and Stan Zimmerman, directed by Jack Shea

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Quote of the Day (John Galsworthy, on Beginnings and Endings)

"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy."— Nobel Prize-winning English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy (1867-1933), Over the River (1933)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on Freedom)

“The noble craftsman we promote,
Disown the knave and fool;
Each honest man shall have his vote,
Each child shall have his school.
For what avail the plow or sail,
Or land, or life, if freedom fail?”—American essayist, poet, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “Boston,” in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1876

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Quote of the Day (Anthony Powell, on Human Relationships)

“Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become.” —English novelist Anthony Powell (1905-2000), A Dance to the Music of Time: A Question of Upbringing (1951)

Monday, September 11, 2023

TV Quote of the Day (Steve Martin, on Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Clean Image’)

“You have such a clean image. And that’s hard to do in today’s world. I suggest that whatever you’re paying the National Enquirer, you should double.”—Actor-comedian Steve Martin, to late-night host Jimmy Fallon, appearing with Martin Short on The Tonight Show, February 14, 2019

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “two-minute hate” is a public screaming session in which members of a totalitarian state vent their anguish and frustration toward a politically expedient enemy. It becomes a “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer.”

In the age of shortened attention spans and social media, that tendency to express one’s suppressed hate has spilled over from politics to entertainment.

When, it’s discovered, performers behind the scenes are not as genial as their public image, the vitriol directed in their direction becomes too much to handle, and damage-control doctors (formerly known as publicity agents) justify their salaries by working overtime and taking any headache remedy at hand.

Rosie O’Donnell, dubbed “The Queen of Nice” by Time Magazine as a daytime talk-show host in the early years she was on, can relate. So, even more so, can Ellen DeGeneres.

The latest TV star to experience this phenomenon is Jimmy Fallon—the subject, you may have heard, of a Rolling Stone expose of his show’s toxic environment.

Fallon is now in a situation in which every utterance that he or a guest makes is likely to be scrutinized on the spot or reinterpreted at some point in the not-so-distant future, at least sometimes in a manner not originally intended. It’s happening already, in the Tonight Show episode featuring today’s “Quote of the Day.”

Fallon’s critics are citing Steve Martin’s joke as a sly way of pointing out the host’s phoniness—especially since it came right after friend Martin Short’s remark in a similar vein: “This is the greatest show on television because there’s no host on late night that pretends to care the way you do. I mean, no one captures phoniness the way you do.”

A close look at the Martin-and-Short segment in which this exchange took place shows how out of context such criticism is (especially since the two comics lobbed increasingly absurd remarks not only at Fallon but also each other). But that won’t seem so to Fallon haters.

“There’s no business like show business,” advised Irving Berlin, but that adage is only true to an extent. Money passes through show business like all other kinds, bringing with it greed, insecurity, ruthlessness, and the arrogance of power.

If show business does differ from other professions, it is because its members are more glamourous and more charming than the rest of us—and, thus, more adept at concealing their less savory character traits.

The Fallon Fiasco is, in a sense, an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement—which, far more than an attack against the misuse of sex in employment, was an outburst against the misuse of power.

In the wake of these scandals, employees have grown more accustomed to bringing their grievances to journalists. What toxic entertainers and their enablers may have counted on previously—silence—no longer works so well.

In years past, biographers would have to wait at least several days following their subjects’ burial before they could safely state with little fear of recrimination, for instance, that Jackie Gleason was far from “The Great One” to Honeymooners writers, or that Johnny Carson could be variously drunk, verbally abusive, or aloof when not in front of an audience. Quite a difference from today.

Will Fallon be canceled as a result of these revelations? Not necessarily. With the writers’ strike putting TV production on hiatus, he will have more time to work out an apology to the public and not just to his staffers.

If the not-so-subtle hints in the article are true, he could also take the time to go into rehab, in order to deal with the substance abuse that, the Rolling Stone article strongly hints, may have contributed to his moodiness.

In one sense in his remark above, Steve Martin was being more correct than he may have realized with his reference to The National Enquirer.  In 2016, a Presidential aspirant arranged to have Enquirer publisher David Packer pay for, then kill, a story that could have damaged his candidacy.

Only now has that “catch-and-kill” program put the candidate in any sort of legal jeopardy—but I’d still bet that he is less likely to face the consequences of that than Jimmy Fallon, whose conduct did far less damage to the American republic.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Jimmy Carter, on the Unseen ‘Guiding Lights of Life’)

“One of the most interesting verses that I know in the Bible, for instance, is when the Romans ask Paul, ‘St. Paul, what are the important things in life? What are the things that never change?’ And Paul said, interestingly, ‘they're the things that you cannot see.’ What are the things that you can't see that are important? I would say justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, love. You can't see any of those. You can't prove they're there, but they're the guiding lights of life.” —Former American President Jimmy Carter, remarks from a 1996 appearance on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer quoted in Tom Bearden’s report on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Carter, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Oct. 11, 2002

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on ‘Everybody’s Youth’)

“ ‘Everybody's youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.’

‘How pleasant then to be insane!’"—American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922)

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Quote of the Day (Nicholas Kristof, on the Counterproductive Tendency Towards Renaming)

“I…worry that the liberal penchant for renaming things is counterproductive. When we employ terms like ‘Latinx’ and ‘A.A.P.I.’ or we fret that it is offensive to refer to ‘the French’ or ‘the college-educated’ or we cite ‘people with uteruses’ rather than ‘women,’ the result is meant to be inclusive but actually leaves many Americans feeling bewildered and excluded. The way to win elections is to engage voters rather than wag fingers at them.”—Opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof, “In the Age of Trump, It’s Hard to Be Humble,” The New York Times, June 18, 2023

Friday, September 8, 2023

This Day in Pop Music History (Sinatra Concept LP, ‘Only the Lonely,’ Offers Torch-Song Toppers)

Sept. 8, 1958—Once again collaborating with master arranger Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra reached something like a career commercial and critical peak with his latest in a series of song cycles he had helped popularize, the “concept album.”

Though baby boomers associate the concept album (a song collection united by theme and musical motifs) with such collections as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Who’s Tommy, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Sinatra got there first, sensing, with the extra minutes afforded by the arrival of the LP in 1948, that he could make such records far more ambitious—and requiring closer attention by the listener—than a mere collection of hits and filler material.

In a little more than a decade, he would create several such compilations: Songs For Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Moonlight Sinatra, and, as he turned fifty, September of My Years.

While several of these would be uptempo, it was his more melancholy LPs that called out his soulful, sensitive side. There are those who prefer In the Wee Small Hours as an example of this tendency.

But the one that came out 65 years ago today, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (often shortened to Only the Lonely, as I will do here), struck a special chord with the public, reaching #1 on the charts and being nominated for five Grammys in the first time those recording industry awards were presented. It also measured up to the singer’s demanding standard, as it would be one of the ones he would cite toward the end of his five-decade career as his favorite.

The Best Album Cover Grammy—the only one that, ironically, the album did win—should have been a dead giveaway that the finger-snappin’, swaggerin’ swinger who had been riding the pop charts had taken a back seat to the self-described “saloon singer” who craved the intimacy of a nightclub to communicate with audiences.

Artist Nick Volpe painted Sinatra, amid a gloomy dark background, as a Pagliacci-like sad clown, and the singer had much to be sorrowful about during the recording sessions: his last attempt at a regular TV series, The Frank Sinatra Show, was about to be canceled, and though his divorce from Ava Gardner was finalized the year before, she still represented for him The One Who Got Away.

Sinatra joked that the bleak tunes on Only the Lonely were “suicide songs,” but those familiar with the singer-actor knew and fretted over his mood swings (and he had, in fact, attempted suicide several times at low points in his relationship with Gardner, and once in the early 1950s when he thought he was washed up).

In Nelson Riddle, Sinatra found a musical partner whose temperament and musical orientation meshed perfectly with his own. Another New Jersey native who was an only child growing up, Riddle was also dealing with heartache during the Only the Lonely sessions, having recently endured the deaths of his mother and daughter.

Paired with Sinatra by Capitol Records to help forge a more mature sound from the one that one that made him a teen idol in the early 1950s, Riddle had triumphed beyond expectations with a series of bestselling LPs that took advantage of Sinatra’s changing voice textures, which were evolving, in the words of Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, “from a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones."

In an interview cited in Terry Teachout’s July/August 2021 Commentary article, “The Man Who (Re)Made Sinatra,” Riddle described what he had tried to do in the studio with his most famous musical project:

“First, find the peak of the song and build the whole arrangement to that peak, pacing itself as [Sinatra] paces himself vocally. Second, when he’s moving, get the hell out of the way. When he’s doing nothing, move in fast and establish something…build about two-thirds of the way through, and then fade to a surprise ending.”

On movie sets, he was infamous for an unwillingness to rehearse or maintain interest beyond a few takes. But with lyrics, it was different. He positively burrowed into each note, each line, and when he was done he had created a kind of musical short story in each tune.

Part of Sinatra’s magic stemmed from his exquisite sense of which songs worked for him. As with his other LPs in this period, he turned to some of the greatest lyricists and composers who comprised the Great American Songbook, including Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (“Blues in the Night”), Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (the title track). Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“Spring Is Here” and “Where or When”), and Jule Styne (co-writer, with Cahn, of “Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry").

Three songs in particular fascinated me about this album. Carl Sigman and Robert Maxwell’s “Ebb Tide” would later be covered by the Righteous Brothers, but Sinatra and Riddle chose a different way to close out the tune than the rock duo and their producer Phil Spector, climaxing on the lyrics “I can tell, I, I can feel/You are love, you are real/Really mine in the rain/In the dark, in the sun” before receding with “Like the tide at its ebb/I'm at peace in the web/of your arms."

Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" had been written for the 1943 Fred Astaire movie musical The Sky’s the Limit, but Sinatra made it into an unsurpassed demonstration of his own powers of interpretation.

On movie sets, he was infamous for an unwillingness to rehearse or maintain interest beyond a few takes. But with lyrics for his albums, it was different. He positively burrowed into each note, each line, and when he was done he had created a kind of musical short story in each tune. You can see how he wove his magic in this YouTube clip.

Matt Dennis and Earl Brent’s “Angel Eyes” provided the ending to what Sinatra had billed as his “retirement concert” in 1971. It was surely a mistake, for someone who thrived so much on audience attention, to leave the stage while still only 55.  

But, had he followed through on his resolution, nobody would have ever been able to forget how he chose to go out. As seen in this YouTube video in the closing minutes of the June 13, 1971 show in Los Angeles, with smoke from his cigarette billowing and the spotlight on him dimming, he sang,

Pardon me, but I gotta run
Gotta find who's now number one
And why my angel eyes ain't here
Excuse me while I disappear.

If only he could have disappeared at this point! But he un-retired in short order. The success of his two late-career CDs, Duets and Duets II, was due more to the younger performers who blended their voices with his (unlike old days, not in the same studio) than to his own powers, which were on the wane at this point.

On February 23, 1995, in Japan, the 79-year-old Sinatra—confused and glassy-eyed, as remembered by drummer Gregg Field in this 2015 Vanity Fair article—performed in public for the final time, at a concert in Japan where he kept missing lyrics from nearby teleprompters.

The epitaph on “The Voice’s” tombstone came from one of his most ebullient songs: “The Best Is Yet to Come.” But the vulnerable spirit of his reported final words at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. in 1998 could have come as no surprise to close listeners of Only the Lonely: “I’m losing.”