Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tohternam's Last Note


Dear Christine,

The news will have been delivered with this letter.
The course of the disease was suprising if not terribly
swift - to me at least.

Forgive me.  I tried for years to interest you
enough so that it would be worth my while to
keep talking to you, but I just couldn't pull it


H. E.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Traveller's Haven


After a very uncomfortable trip which left me
feeling very uncomfortable, I found myself in
Pittsburgh hours early for my appointment.  It
turns out the meeting is taking place in a part of
town with no restaurants, no coffee shops, just
auto glass repair places and poor fellows wandering
the grey-day street with no place to be.

I guess I was one of them.  I headed toward Oakland.
All through the walk, my bag got heavier and heavier.
Nature made her demands, gradually more insistently,
but I was SOL until I hit Oakland and saw Starbucks.

People complain about Starbucks, but where else
in any American city can you be sure of a clean rest
room, a place to sit for several hours, inexpensive  food 
and a decent cup of coffee, not to mention WI FI.

Starbucks is also one of the most democratic institutions
in the country.  People can sit without buying, and I'd
be hard pressed to name any other institution where
the races and classes voluntarily mix so easily or so much.
I should also mention the generations, because the young
use it as a study hall but put up graciously with the old
who know coffee is really about conviviality.

----------------------------------------------------- <-/?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holding Onto A Dream

An Impromptu Fiction

"It's Jane London," said the voice coming through
my cell, "I don't quite know why I'm calling, but I've
been getting some calls from you which sound

-Jane London, I thought, the name was familiar.  I
knew I had called her about a film project.  Who
was she again?  I began to tell her I was a director,
best known for ... but then my voice trailed off.
I just couldn't remember who she was, and I was
dreaming anyway, right?  She wasn't really on the
other end of the phone.

Luckily or unluckily I woke up.  The presence on
the other end waited a second or two more and then
hung up.  Suddenly I remembered who London was -
the producer who could get The Return, my dream
project, made.  I would never get through to her
again though I tried many times.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Television's New Star - the Producer

In an earlier post I spoke of Dean Martin as the greatest
television performer of all time.  Partly I ascribed this to
the passing of the live television in which the performer
was in control of the moment.  No one else would ever
have the opportunity, across the spectrum of acting and
hosting that Martin had,  to excel again.

So it's no surprise that the greatest actor in television's
post-live era - or the great majority of its life - also
produced the show he was on.  The producer rules in
recorded television, and only actors who produce  - or
with the celebrity to make them virtual producers -
have much voice in television.

The greatest actor in the actor-producer combo is Jack
Webb.  Many find his political beliefs abhorrent, but
his absolute belief in them give his acting an authority
that needs no acting to make him real.   In the words
of the greatest film director of all time (Robert Bresson),
he is not so much natural as nature itself.

It's impossible to watch the following short clip with
an open eye, ear and mind and not realize Jack Webb's
overwhelming truthfulness to his own nature.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Two of Us

I'm surprised the song Two of Us hasn't
become a bigger part in the Beatles'
myth as Paul's & John's goodbye to
each other.   It seems to communicate
a residue of affection and esteem that
all accounts otherwise indicate were
sorely strained.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Greatest Television Performer of All Time

Theater is often thought of as a writer's medium,
but from the standpoint of the director and the actor,
the weight definitely falls with the actor who can
do whatever he wants while up on the stage.

Even the incomparable William Shakespeare can
do nothing if some actor decides to add his own
lines to Hamlet's soliloquy.

Film belongs to the director.  The actor can do what
he or she likes, but the editing can change everything.
The look of sorrow can be cut after his friend dies
and cut in when she realizes that despite her husband's
death, his money is still out of reach.  The director
controls the performance.

Today television is thought of as a producer's medium.
It is the producer who sets an esthetic for the show
which both the actors and the director must follow.
A director does not come in and change the producer's
way of covering a scene.  A new director lets the DP
show him how scenes are covered on the show and
works with the guest actors a little.

But in the early days of television - when it was
usually broadcast live - it was the performer's medium
par excellence.  Not only were you as live as in theater
but you had an audience in the millions - larger in one
night than a hit film would have in its whole run.

And in those exciting, heady days of television, the
show belonged to the performer who could take
control of the moment and make it his or her own.
And no one grabbed the attention of the camera
and those both in the studio audience and on
the other side of the lens and then held it like
Dean Martin.

Don't get me wrong:  Martin was a very good film
actor too.  The Matt Helm films and his films with
Lewis at their best often have the feel of the actors
writing the movie as it unfolds; but it's in his live
television performances, where his own good humor
overcomes any need for taking the proceedings too
seriously and in which his charm seems equal to any
darkness - and just imagine the shadow of fear hanging
over duck and cover America - that his full genius really
comes into his own.

No performer since the days of live television has really
had a chance to develop as Martin did, therefore his status as
the greatest television performer of all time is probably
as safe as Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak. 

This clip is a perfectly ordinary one, nothing special
by the standards of his show, yet Dean puts his guest
completely at ease, because he's in complete control
and uses that to his guests advantage; and the comraderie
that flows between him and the other performer is irresistible:

Dean Martin Show Clip

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bertrand Russell's Favorite Movie


To demonstrate the inherent limitation of language,
Bertrand Russell used the following famous example,
favorite of 8th graders:

The following statement is true.

The proceeding statement is false.

In Choose Me, one of the greatest films of 1980s,
the character of Mickey is the human personification
of this contradiction.  He is a pathological liar who
makes everything up, but what he makes up is always
the truth, and he can not lie.

Keith Carradine anchored Alan Rudolph's work like
no other actor, being the only performer to ever fully
carry the romantic burden which is at the heart of
Rudolph's sensibility without sacrificing the irony
and intelligence which makes Rudolph's best work
so engaging.

Among the four films Carradine and Rudolph made
together, Choose Me is the greatest.   It captured the
Los Angeles of its time as Mullholland Drive captured
the same Los Angeles of 20 years later, the Los Angeles
of those who don't become famous and who live
anonymously toiling for something outside their grasp.

As with a pathological liar who always tells the truth, the
achievements of the characters don't even belong to them.
Eve's bar was built by a different Eve; the talk show host
lives behind a persona which alienates herself from her
desires; the violence of one character leads a woman to
fear another man.

Perhaps the greatest American film of the 1980s, Choose
Me has been unfairly neglected.   Except perhaps for
other film calling out so urgently for a Criterion Release.

   And there's not as much time as there used to be.
-                  -                      -                -            -  Choose Me

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Welcome, Fellow Blockheads


$ -  - _   No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
_. .. .. ... .. ................................................................$amuel Johnson

A very good article in the New York Times this week points out that
if Twitter is soon sold for maybe $10 Billion, give or take a few billion,
the writers who created the value for the Twitter will get exactly nothing.
When The Huffington Post sold for only $315 million, the writers got
nothing except the chance to provide their services free to AOL, a
large corporation rather than to the site itself.

In the article, David Carr tells of Mayhill Flower, a Huff Poster
who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the
Obama Campaign which appeared on The Huffington Post.  After
being nominated, she asked Ms. Huffington if having done so well,
there was a chance she might get paid for her work.  Huffington held
out hope to her and held out hope to her and held out hope to her for
two years before Ms. Flower decided to write on her own behalf

I can see The Huffington Post not wanting to pay:  if Jenny
McCarthy remains so popular spreading well intentioned ignorant
nonsense, why pay for good journalism?   But isn't it strange
that a journalist who had received a Pulitzer nomination wasn't
offered a paying job by ... anybody. 

It proves a sad point to all of us running all over ourselves to post
our writing for free on the internet:  our work has no value in
anyone's eyes but our own and that of a few other people who
want to be read and realize that if we,  the ignored, undervalued
writers of the world don't read each other's work, no one at all
will read it.   We read to be read.   Yes, there are too many writers -
as proven by the fact no one will pay to read us - but there are
too few readers to give us all the attention we covet, so we look
hungrily at the new writers springing up on the net, hoping
perhaps if we read their work, they'll read ours. 

Not that this is all bad.  The writers whom I like to read in exchange
for them occasionally reading my work are by and large a good
audience, well worth cultivating.   I am very happy to join with them in
deluding ourselves that we are creating value for anyone beside
the Internet entrepenurs preparing IPOs and selling advertising
at the click of a button.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Born Too Early, In Memory of Kit Carsson

There are about forty minutes left on the first anniversary of
Kit Carsson's death.  Last February 4th she died from what
were probably complications of cancer, but since she refused
to be treated when she felt herself declining again, we'll not
know for sure.

Kit was not only a dear friend of mine.  She was the collaborator
who except for Michael Maggio had the largest influence in
pushing me into trying theater.  She directed my second produced
play, Sleepwalker, in a basement.    It became my most produced
play, and she even led one in Berkeley.

For a while we had a theater company called Marlowe's Swan,
maybe the most obscure company of what was the Golden
Age of Chicago Store Front Theater before Curious Theater
Branch moved to the Lunar Cabaret, back when Paula Killen
seemed to have a new one woman show every week and
Theater Oobleck was mounting the impossibly inventive and
moving plays of Mickle Maher such as The Hunchback Variations.

Kit never directed another play of mine.  She did a wonderful
Hapgood, which I consider the ideal Stoppard production.  She
explained to me that a double agent works for both sides - cold
war still barely on, you know - and who prospers from her
information has to do with which side uses her more deftly, not
with where her deepest loyalty supposedly lies.

Everything she directed now is lost in the tangles of a very
few people's memory and in several capsule reviews in weekly
papers she had long since given up sending out.

All that's left is a blog she wrote for a single person - and
for me too I suppose, since she did show it to me - but which
she never showed to that person.   Kit died of a broken heart.
I really believe that.  Not long before she died she told me
that she had a dream in which her face was buried in a
snowbank.  She remembers a voice, probably her own, saying,
"If you don't lift your head, you're going to die."

I think she made the decision to NOT lift her head.
Kit felt she was born 15 or so years too early, and that when
she got sick enough to need home nursing, she met
her soulmate, only to find the difference between them
was a little too much to be overcome.  As long as Rachel
was there, Kit was happy:  she didn't really need romance;
she just needed Rachel around.  But when Kit got well
enough to not need a nurse anymore, Rachel left.  Kit
did fine for a few years, and she started a blog - to Rachel.

She did not publicize it, and she never showed it to Rachel.
She showed it only to me for my feedback on how to improve
her poems.  With Rachel gradually  passing out of her life all
together.  Kit used to say to me, she always hoped as long as
she lived that Rachel would think of her at least one more time.

At her death she left it up to me whether to leave her
blog up.  I took over the administration of it and left
it up, posting one more of her poems she wrote near
her death.  I do not have the heart to take it down.
I feel it is less a collection of love poems, than a novel,
mainly in verse, charting one sensitive woman's unbearably
painful love for another.   I wish there were a button for
blogspot which you could push and reverse the order of
 the posts.  I would read them from her first to her last,
but if you choose to read them, read them in whatever order
you desire.

One final note:

As far as I know, Rachel, Kit's beloved has never
read these posts or even knows about them. I don't
know if she ever guessed Kit's feelings for her.  She
called me one afternoon to tell me she felt perhaps
she had said too much to Rachel, and Rachel wouldn't
be back.  From what Kit told me, it wasn't clear that
she had.  If she had ever showed Rachel this blog,
it would have all been clear, but she never did.
Here it is:

Rachel is Gone

Friday, January 28, 2011

Buddy Holly & The Late Italian Renaissance

I have often been amazed how Buddy Holly
anticipated the changes in song writing that
Bob Dylan was to personify in the mid-1960s.
(Of course it was The Beatles who really made
it stick as they entered their middle and late
periods and proved its commercial viability.)

The comparison might seem strange as Holly's
song never grew lyrically complex, and he
very seldom developed a song much beyond two
verses, but the complexly sensitive male singing
Well All Right is completely alone among the
rock stars of his time.  He is petulantly self-assertive,
but he also realizes the woman he's speaking to is
as fully alive (with her own desires and inner life)
as he is himself. 

And it's practical knowledge:  the man who
sings Words of Love has a very sophisticated
ability to talk to women - again  unique among
his fellow greats singing lines like "She's sure
fine looking, man; she's something else" - this
after comparing his love to his car.

Even Rave On anticipates a vocabularly 30 years
or more in the future.  (And again the woman
takes the initiative. )  But Rave On reveals some-
thing else about Holly:  not only did he anticipate
the future, but by some strange coincidence, he
developed a style of singing very close to the
Sprezzatura so highly prized by composers of
the late Renaissance such as Caccini, Cavalli,
and most notably Claudio Monteverdi.

Sprezzatura means something like negligence,
but in a good way, and the freedom with which
Holly's voice bent and spread out against a
disciplined bass line would have allowed
Monteverdi to trust one of his composition's into
Holly's hand with confidence:

For comparison sake compare Holly's singing
on Rave On with what starts around the :40
mark of Monteverdi's  Zefiro Torna, 
e di soavi accenti  from his 8th Book of Madrigals.

Rave On

Zefiro Torna, e di soavi accenti.

Buddy Holly continues to astound over
fifty years after his death.  He has the most
densely compact career of any rock 'n roll
great, having in just a handful of years and
songs reached back into the centuries and
looked forward into the decades.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Baby, We All Gotta Go Down

She was at a concert - for a band she'd be embarrassed
to own up to - and she was not enjoying herself either,
when suddenly a song caught her ear, a boisterious
song, Baby, We All Gotta Go Down, and she immediately
started to cry. 

The old men singing it on stage did not appeal to her,
and she could not understand why it made her so emotional.
She could not shake the song from her memory, and again
it made her cry for something lost she could not name.
She bought an old vinyl disc of another band playing the
song, and since she had no other way to play it she took
it to her mother's house and played it there on her antiquated
turn table.

Her mother wasn't at home, and her father had been gone
for years, so the house was empty when she arrived. 
She went straight to the turn table without taking off her
coat and could not understand why she was shaking as she
put the record on.

Not wanting to scratch the grooves of the song itself,
she put the record on at the beginning and let it play
to her song, but when the song was finished, she picked
the needle up carefully and placed it precisely at the
right spot, even though her eyes were filled with tears.

It was on the 3rd play that she noticed her mother
standing in the room.  Her mother was crying too.

- Why, the daughter asked, what is it about this

- Do you remember your father?

- Of course not.

He had died before she turned 3.

-Oh, yes you do, answered her mother, he used to
sing this to you everynight at bedtime.  You hated
going to sleep and absolutely refused until he sang
you this, Baby We All Gotta Go Down.  You
wouldn't let me sing it after he died, and you lay
awake for hours with a dim hall light on,
refusing sleep.

The daughter looked up out the window: part of
the landscape was missing; it had grown dark,
and what was missing comforted her.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Samuel Johnson, Internet Star

In the history of Coffee Culture, one man stands above all
others - no not that shepherd monk who realized the goats
right after eating coffee beans were suddenly alert and
happy - but Samuel Johnson.

The first European coffee houses were in Venice, and it's
 not hard to guess why.  Venice was the most cosmopolitan
city in the world in the 17th century, and La Serenissima
had no qualms about adopting Turkish habits. 

In England, various coffee houses developed into such
institutions as The London Stock Exchange, Lloyds of
London, Sothebys, and Christie's.  A king of England
even tried to close them for fomenting sedition, but
they survived, some even sprouting up for Tories, to
counterbalance the ones catering to Whigs and radicals.
Significantly they were places to read political literature
too.  Political movements formed among their tables. 

Still if  the Golden Age of the Coffee Shop is now usually
taken to be centered in late 18th century London, the reason
was simple:  Johnson & Boswell.  Johnson was there to
talk, and Boswell was there to take it all down.
(For those who are sticklers for historical accuracy,
we're talking about the legend that has shaped our
collective imagination, not the historical record.)

In his own life, Johnson was first a writer, an
essayist who wrote and published his thoughts
under the brand name, The Rambler.  It would be
easy to call it a proto-blog.  So lets do it.  There
were others, most famously The Tatler and The
Spectator.   But even in his life, he found himself
becoming more famous for his conversation than
any other accomplishment, except perhaps his

The problem with conversation of course is that it
doesn't have lasting power.  If Boswell had not
written down so much of Johnson's conversation,
Johnson would not hold the place in literary history
he does.  To say Boswell wrote the Life of Johnson
is misleading.  More accurately he collaborated
with Johnson, so much of the biography is Boswell's
writing down as accurately as possible what
Johnson said.

It's impossible not to see in Johnson's writing career
an anticipation of what happens to so many writers
today when they go on the net.   To our point in
history - it's bound to change - most writers come on
the net first looking to promote carefully crafted,
painstakingly put together work; but especially with
the rise of social media sharing tools, they find themselves
caught up in something which feels much more like
conversation than old media writing in which the
author(ity) lays down the line.

And the computer is there to be Boswell and capture
all our ephemera.  More and more writers, especially
those who don't have agents to list in their twitter profiles,
are beginning to think of a legacy in their tweets and
posts, many put down quickly or written under great
emotion, or aimed very directly at a specific person -
and almost all designed to be read soon, very soon, after
they are written.

Given how quickly so many other writers are also
adding to the superabundance of thoughts and life
captured on the web, a writer knows that if a message
doesn't reach people right when it comes out, it's
highly unlikely it will find an audience later.

But of course, the net is basically free.  We can store
our work there - where it can be found (how lucky
Emily Dickinson was that no one threw her desk out) -
and someday, some conscientious reader or scholar
following a series of intriguing clues, will discover
the real work, the essential  writings, the ones
stored on the net,  but not of the net.

The hope is not completely idle.  The Life of
Johnson has led to some to want to read The
Work of Johnson.  It's doubtful his Life of Savage
would be have been read by even half the small
number of very appreciative readers who have
taken it on if Boswell had not not digitized
Johnson's conversation and posted it in
The Life Of Johnson.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Three Filmmakers

John Ford
The Searchers

Nicholas Ray
Bigger Than Life

Hurt McDermott
Nightingale In A Music Box

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Alone On A Hill

Like many artists I was a miserable child.  I was born
in Rio de Janeiro.  Between 2 and 3 years old, my
mother got sick with what they thought was lung
cancer.  She could not take care of me, and she had
just had my younger sister.

I was sent to my Aunt's house in Mississippi.  I did
not speak English, and most nights I woke up
screaming, 'BEESHU (phonetic spelling) which
meant bogeyman in Portugese.

My mother's lung mass turned out to be tuberculosis.
She was given a new lease on life, and 3 months
after I'd been sent away to a foreign country (the U.S.)
where they spoke a foreign language (English)
I was reunited with my parents in the States.

They had moved back.  In 3 months I had forgotten
all my Portugese and spoke only English.  I was clearly
depressed, and after that I was a mess.  I was teased a
lot, and my misery was what made me feel special.
I often cried myself asleep.  My mother would come
sit on the edge of my bed, trying to figure out what
to do.  I took a perverse pride in the other kids not
liking me and thinking I was weird.

Then one day I was walking up the hill to a neighbor's
house.  I often picture myself pushing a bike on this
occasion, but I don't think I actually was.  Out of the
blue I thought,  "Do you really want to be like this -
miserable - the rest of your life?"  I was a little
surprised to realize that the answer was no.

Things didn't suddenly get easier for me overnight.
I continued to struggle, but it was the turning point
of my life - alone on a hill when I asked myself a
question and was surprised to find over the next few
months and years that the answer meant something.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Hour You Realized

The hour your realized
 you were to be disappointed

The moment hardly seemed
 like anything at all,

Compared to the drama
 with which you later invested it.