A Letter to Hannah

Hannah goin back to LA brunch-group outside

I had a fine omelet today. Debbie Long’s staff at Dudley’s cooked and served it. The room was suffused with sunlight, making you almost forget there was snow on the ground and it was 19 degrees in Lexington (which, if not flat out illegal, is certainly unethical in my opinion).

The room was also suffused with 400+ years of garnered wisdom in my life; my brunch mates.

This “tribe” is bound together in life by the theatre.

Instead of queries of “How’s the wife and kids?” and “How’s business?” and “Where ya goin’ on vacation?”, the questions run to “How’re rehearsals goin’?” and “Did you see So-and-so at Studio?” and “What’re ya readin’?”

This tribe has held each other’s hands through line-learning, missed cues, rain and lightning on outdoor stages, stage mothers, and glimpses of the glory humanity can achieve in the works of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Mamet, Hellman, and Tennessee Williams.

Glimpses of glory…it’s enough to bind you…it has to be.

Yes, this tribe is bound together by the theatre……but today, it’s also bound together by the love and hope they feel for a young woman they’ve known since before she was even born.

She’s been home for the holidays from her inchoate adult life in Los Angeles. She will return to LA tonight, leaving behind her Lexington tribe (temporarily) and four not-so-wise wisdom teeth (permanently).

She will assemble her Los Angeles tribe going forward.

It will not come instantly and it will not mirror her Lexington tribe exactly, but it will her tribe informed by her Lexington tribe, but her tribe. It will take decades……so what? The assembling is the journey and the journey is all……all.

My letter to Hannah is simply to say; when it seems at times the tribe you’re assembling is failing you, don’t quit on it. It takes time.

When there are low moments, come home.

Your Lexington tribe is here to celebrate and renew you.

Oh, and by the way, thanks for today.

You renew these geezers in Lexington as well.

Sign of the Wolf – 67 Year Old Spoiler Alert

Movie Night!

Janie and I have been binge-watching GAME OF THRONES and our raggedy dog Chloe has been joining us. Chloe is quite taken with the wolves in the series and is now demanding to be referred to as our “dire” pup.

Whatever.

She’s good company though, so I’m trying to nurture her new-found cinematic interest. I allowed her to choose tonight’s film.

Unsurprisingly, she chose a 1941 Rin Tin Tin/Lassie wannabe; SIGN OF THE WOLF.
The title is totally misleading. There are no wolves in the film – not one – zilch – nada.

There are however, not one but two big athletic Alsatian Shepherds named Smokey and Shadow. And if you think about it, that makes a kind of sense. You can’t reasonably expect any one dog to replace Rin Tin Tin or Lassie and to be perfectly honest about it, Smokey and Shadow combined are not really up to the mark either. Oh sure, they can climb walls and fences. They can jump hurdles. They can survive plane crashes. They’re faster than a speeding bullet (For real! They actually seem to outrun the dozens of rifle shots taken at them in this flick) – it’s uncanny. The dogs do all these things in the film. To quote that great philosopher, Groucho Marx; “It’s a hell of an act!” But in the personality department, they are sadly lacking. It doesn’t help that they spend most of the film running around in dirty snow. How charming would you be? In my world, the only thing worse than snow is dirty snow. It’s a black and white flick – I can’t tell if the snow is yellow…but it’s dirty.

This is a Canadian production which is fine by me, but it means Smokey and Shadow bark in Canadian accents. It changes things in subtle, but disconcerting ways. Using the identical barks that Lassie employed to say; “Come quick! Timmy’s fallen in the well!” Shadow’s rescue-seeking bark is interpreted as; “Come quick! Mantan Moreland is trapped in a plane crash!” Frankly, I was baffled.

The film also features Dobie Gillis’ brother, Darrell Hickman as the “Timmy” character. I find most child actors to be quite moving and effective…and awful. Hickman simplified things by going straight to awful.

The film is based on the story by Jack London but that’s okay, Mr. London had died by the time this film was made so he didn’t get to see what happened to his story.
Then of course the snow fell on Friday and Chloe spent Saturday running around in the new, clean snow, barking in Canadian, and looking for plane crashes.

The neighbors fear she’s gone mad.

Camille Claudel & “Me Too”

A few days ago, I watched the film CAMILLE CLAUDEL again.

I think in these days of “ME TOO” and the obscene disparity in gauging the value of male and female work, this film has powerful things to say. Bullies and tyrants and narcissists do what they do “because they can” and “you can’t stop me”.

Resist them.

Shine the brightest of lights upon them and their actions.

Keep their path uneasy.

Point them out.

Stop them.

I’d also like to take a moment to reflect on the remarkable Isabel Adjani. Her performance in this movie rips my heart out. The last shot of this ferociously talented character being carried away in a cage is devastating.

I am a big fan of Ms. Adjani.

Yes of course, she’s beautiful.

AND…

AND she’s given us other captivating performances in THE HISTORY OF ADELE H, NOSFERATU, DIABOLIQUE, QUEEN MARGOT, and THE TENANT.
Don’cha think it’s time we forgave her for ISHTAR?

Monday Night Football at the Saratoga

Pro football seems to me to be a fading proposition.

– We’re scrambling the players’ brains. Their brains! That can’t go on.
– Every third play is either a penalty or a game-stopping injury…or both.
– Replay review is running amok. Can you run amok in super-slo-mo?
– I will never again understand what constitutes a completed pass. “Surviving the ground” sounds like an ecological problem to me.

I have not watched a complete Sunday game in two years. And Thursday Night Football? Please. Isn’t that a fantasy like unicorns and the Easter Bunny……and massive voter fraud in Alabama?

But I have to confess to a persistent fondness for Monday Night Football. I attribute it to happy Monday nights of yore.

My Monday Night Football memories go all the way back to Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Dandy Don…and Strat-O-Matic Football.

Before Dungeons & Dragons, and Atari, and Playstation, before Pac-Man and Frogger, and Pokemon, there was Strat-O-Matic football and baseball.

One season in my 20’s, most Monday nights would find me in my friend Davey Koenig’s apartment at his kitchen table recreating the reality of professional football with dice and cards and wits and luck all in the glow of the Monday Night Football broadcast on his TV (I didn’t have my first TV for another five years or so). I lost the tabletop games with disturbing regularity, but I won big with the company.

A few years later, Monday evenings meant a wedge of lettuce (with 4.2 gallons of blue cheese dressing) and a T-bone steak at the Saratoga in Chevy Chase, usually followed by a small financial speculation at the restaurant’s bar and watching the Monday Night Football kickoff and most of the first quarter on the single 10-inch screen over the bar. The screen wasn’t HD – it was ND – No Density. Then, home by ten o’clock since the “Toga” closed at 9:30.

Ah…Lexington night life…it ain’t no good life…but it was my life.

My First and Last Job Interview

It was spring, 1972, and suddenly I needed a job. Make that both of us needed a job.

My friend Chuck Pogue and I had written a musical. It was a sure boffo smash. It had everything, gangsters, gals, bumpkins (besides us), 20-30 songs (all stunners), and repartee (snappy, very snappy).

We had just spent the afternoon recreating the script and songs in Professor Charles Dickens’ (yes that was his real name) backyard. Charles seemed amused and amazed at the rampant hubris of two college actors whose musical education consisted of several years singing in a rock band for one and a teen years’ immersion in the films of Fred and Ginger for the other.

But the 100-page script and the sheer number of songs were undeniably real – maybe not real good, but real. How could Charles break the news to these aspiring Harbach & Youmans without also breaking their hearts?

He punted.

He promised he would mount a “backers’ audition”-style production of the show next fall if we would rewrite over the summer.

Great!

But…

Chuck was from Northern Kentucky and my folks were living in Michigan. If we were to stay in Lexington that summer, we’d have to find a way to pay the bills. That meant getting a job.

Chuck got the bright idea of calling an acquaintance of ours who acted in local productions and owned a small chain of women’s sportswear shops. Our acquaintance gently pointed out our deficiencies for selling women’s sportswear, but mentioned his partner was just beginning to open a string of liquor stores and seemed to always need help.

Contact information followed and was followed up. There were two openings at two different stores. I got one interview, Chuck got the other. Off we went.

Chuck went to his interview impeccably groomed, coat and tie…and cape……and cane.
I went to my interview with shoulder-length hair, wearing jeans, moccasins, and my floppy leather Clint Eastwood hat.

I’m not sure which of us was more proud.

The store manager who conducted my interview was desperate. He had no other employees and was expecting a houseful of dinner guests in about 27 hours.

The interview consisted of four questions;

1. Do you know anything about liquor? Answer; nope.
2. Do you know how to run a cash register? Answer; never have, but I’m a pretty quick study.
3. Are you 21? Answer; yeah, my birthday was last week.
4. Can you start tomorrow? Answer; what time?

Chuck’s interview wasn’t quite as sanguine (I suspect the cane was a bit intimidating), but he soon got a job for the summer at Shillito’s department store.

My four-question grilling led to a job for the next 44 years.

It was a different time.

What THE POST is Not – Spoiler Alert

My friends continue their assault. They are determined I should watch some films from this millennium. But you’ll notice the films are set in the 1960’s. They’re trying to ease me into it.

Tonight it’s THE POST. It’s real good. I liked it!

BUT, it’s not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN…and that’s OK.

It certainly looks like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN…happily so. Ben Bradlee was there, in his same office, with his feet up on the same desk…happily so. The news room looked and sounded the same…yes, happily so. Nixon is foiled…so very happily so.

But the stakes are different in the events depicted.

In THE POST, the object of intrepid journalism is “The Ellsberg Papers”, a collection of reports about the history and motivations of a war in Southeast Asia assembled by a team in the Secretary of State’s office mostly by simply asking the Pentagon for the information. It was devastating information confirming the worst fears of a movement of young people opposed to a conflict that killed one to three-and-a-half million people (depending on whether you consider Cambodia, Laos, and political assassinations as part of the casualties – I tend to do so).

In THE POST, this devastating information was not that hard to obtain. The drama…the courage…the journalism was deciding to publish in the face of threats of court action by the White House.

The lesson to be learned was in the question of why it took so long to assemble the information that had been gathering since the early fifties. The answer was in the cozy relationship that had developed (festered?) between the press and the people in government. Hard questions, awkward questions got delayed and forgotten in the warmth of golf with Ike and touch football on the White House lawn with Jack and Bobby.

THE POST makes this point. My hippie sensitivities might wish the point had hammered longer and harder but that’s not fair. It’s a movie, a work of art, and a damn fine one, and the point was made within that reality.

The events depicted in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN are about the clumsy burglary of the political office of an already defeated candidate. What’s the big deal?

– Only that the burglary was authorized in the office of the Attorney General of the United States.
– Only that the money paid to the burglars to buy their silence was raised by fundraisers of the President of the United States at his behest.
– Only that the President’s suggestion to the newly appointed head of the FBI was to drop his evidence in the Potomac.

I repeat; what’s the big deal?

I mean…no one died.

But two young nobody reporters sifted through files, pounded on doors, waited on recalcitrant elected witnesses, cornered reluctant participants, lingered in parking garages, and endured the public berating of the most powerful office on Earth to deliver a truthful report.

A report that a few years before might not have been published had not the Washington Post had the guts to publish “The Ellsberg Papers”.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is the better film.

How could it not be?

I might be the world’s biggest Meryl Streep fan and I can’t be far behind on Tom Hanks. But ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN has complete performances by Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Penny Fuller, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, and Martin Balsam.

Wow!

I have confessed to being both an old hippie and a true geezer. I have lived through these events.

If you are interested in moving towards a relevant-to-today understanding of these happenings, may I offer a triptych?

– See THE POST, it’s real good.
– Read ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (Woodward/Bernstein).
– See ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN it’s even better.
– Read THE FINAL DAYS (Woodward/Bernstein).
– Read BLIND AMBITION (John Dean).

I have a writer friend who talks about the mystic power of three.

It seems much of my art-consuming life, I have encountered trilogies regularly (…and happily so); THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STAR WARS, Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS, Clint Eastwood’s DOLLARS westerns, THE GODFATHER, and INDIANA JONES.

Might this be another?

THE POST, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, ……?

The Shape of Water – Spoiler Alert

I have friends who try like hell to drag me into this millennium.

It’s tough and thankless duty.

I immerse myself happily in “Thin Man” movies, and CASABLANCA, and Mexican monster movies, and 70’s/80’s giallo gems from Europe, and just about anything Fellini touched. My playlist includes Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (and Bing Crosby for that matter), Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, Joni Mitchell, Carmen McRae, and Luciano Pavarotti. I avidly devour books by Kerouac, Edgar Wallace, Tolkein, Didion, and Hurston.

But thankfully, my obstinate friends insist I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Neal Stephenson, listen to Anais Mitchell and Anat Cohen…

…and watch THE SHAPE OF WATER.

I love this film.

It’s a love story with monsters…river monsters and 1960’s Cold War-driven human monsters.

It’s the logical extension of THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON sans the inexplicable white swimsuit or any swimsuit at all for that matter.

It’s a love story that finally answers the question; “Which came first, the chicken or…?” SPOILER ALERT; it’s the egg.

It’s as dark in palette as BLADE RUNNER and as wholesome as Fred and Ginger.

Thank you to Guillermo Del Toro for directing and writing this film.

Thank you to my friends for tugging me out of the house and the comforts of the 20th century.

A Last Wave Unleashed

Movie night!

I like Peter Weir movies and tonight I’m watching THE LAST WAVE.

This flick gets ripped for being obscure and for not solving the mystery.

I will grant the latter. I think one of the responsibilities of artists who trade in mysteries in movies and books is they must, at some point, solve the mystery. Is that too much to ask? In both THE LAST WAVE and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Mr. Weir chooses not to do so. I still like both films.

I will however, take issue with the accusation of obscurity.

Since my teens, I’ve had a literary addiction to novels and stories of the supernatural. One of my favorite British authors is from the early 20th century; Arthur Machen. Machen writes often of nature in revolt – of nature, thought to be tamed, but perpetually about to bust out and re-exert dominance over man in disorienting and disturbing ways. In this light, THE LAST WAVE makes amazing sense.

Nature hovers. Disturbing and disorienting intrusions occur.

  • Baseball-sized hail falls from a cloudless sky.
  • From his protective bubble of a car in a torrential downpour, Richard Chamberlain sees;
    • A man with an extreme umbrella drinking from a water fountain. Why doesn’t just open his mouth? No, he chooses the “tame” water over nature’s wild water.
    • A poster for the local zoo featuring apes gazing back at Chamberlain in his car. Who’s really caged and on display?
    • Vehicles crawling through snarled traffic with icons on them featuring the image of a jungle cat; jaguars in the streets.
  • At Chamberlain’s home, with the maelstrom outside continuing to rage, turning the windows of the home into images like of the inside of a dishwasher, water appears inside the house flowing down the stairs. We immediately assume there’s been a leak from the outside, but it turns out to be a bathtub overflowing. Water thought to be tamed…
  • Chamberlain’s wife admits that she’s a fourth-generation Australian, but she’s never met an aboriginal. She’s lived distanced from nature, behind societal barriers that now appear to be quite fragile.

This is not obscure. It’s mysterious and ominous, but not obscure. We think we’ve tamed and sealed out nature from our lives. (Climate change? Pshaw!)

But nature will persist. It will find a way past our barriers. It will win. How scary is that? Nothing obscure at all.

It’s a fine and effective film.

Joe Gatton; You Say Lichen & I Say…

It’s a brutally cold night in Lexington and for some unfathomable reason I’m recalling a blistering hot summer afternoon in 1989.

We were rehearsing KING LEAR for Lexington’s Shakespeare in the Park. It was directed by Joe Ferrell and it was a strong cast, featuring Fred Foster, Lisa and Paul Thomas, Walter Tunis, Becky Smith, Robert Brock……and Joe Gatton.

Joe Gatton is a fine actor and a remarkable fellow. Smart, loyal, loud, murderously thoughtful, imaginative, hard-working, and an ardent admirer of cheezy movies featuring diaphanous costuming and intense backlighting.

Joe possesses a pragmatic artistic wisdom that affects those who work with him. Michael Thompson, another highly experienced local actor explained to me one evening that he made many creative decisions by considering; “what would Joe Gatton do?” Was he serious? Knowing Michael, probably not, but it was just plausible enough…

This particular summer afternoon was a true ordeal. Sunny, ninety-something degrees, 150% humidity…a real beauty. Compounding these balmy conditions was our rehearsal space. It was outdoors, in the sun, on a concrete slab that had at one time doubled as a shuffleboard arena.

The air simmered – it was hard to breathe.

The concrete sizzled – our shoes melted.

Gatton and I weren’t required on stage for a spell. We sought a shady respite. I can’t just sit and melt in the heat. I pulled out my ever-present Frisbee. Joe and I began a super-slow-motion tossing of the disc. The emphasis was not on running and jumping. The goal was tossing and catching with a minimum of actual movement.
It was cerebral, like a meditation.

Who am I fooling?

It was @%^&$#* hot.

I suggested we instead imagine something amazingly cool to fool our brains into cooling our bodies. Joe was game for the experiment. I suggested a cool, dark, cave with walls covered in lichen. I pronounced it; “litchen”.

“What’s that?”

“Litchin…litchin! That green moss that grows in cool, dark caves.”

“Oh, you mean ‘liken’.”

“No-o-o, I think it’s litchen.”

“I always thought it was liken.”

Well, we could never agree on the pronunciation, but we tried the thought experiment anyway. It failed (big surprise there) and we attributed the failure to the pronunciation uncertainty. These were pre-Google days. How’ya gonna look it up? Besides, we were being called to the stage.

However, the question has festered in the back of my mind for 28 years and a few weeks ago I thought I had stumbled upon the answer.

I was binge-watching a 1962 British TV sci-fi series called PATHFINDERS TO MARS (no diaphanous costuming, no backlighting, just a boxy studio set with un-moving dials and blurry monitors). Yes, I am the world’s oldest hippie-nerd. Everyone else binge-watches OUTLANDER and GAME OF THRONES. What can I say? Nerds gonna nerd. In the first episode of the series, the young actress uses “litchen”, but in every other episode it’s “liken”. I’m guessing the first actor goofed.

I’m ready to call Joe after 28 years and announce my discovery.

BUT!

There’s always a “but”.

BUT…I live in new and wondrous age now. We have (as the 2nd President Bush called it) “the Google”. I found a site that offered an audio pronunciation for the US and the UK.

US = liken

UK = litchen

Now we know. I’m not quite sure of the usefulness of what we know, but now we know.
Does that mean we have to do KING LEAR again?

@%^&$#*

Pronounce that.

A Return to Sunset Boulevard

I revisited SUNSET BOULEVARD.

Not the whole street – 10086 Sunset Boulevard, the home of Norma Desmond to be precise.

Before my viewing revisit, it had been almost 40 years since I’d been there and it has changed…or probably, I have.

I remember seeing it before with a sensitivity short on life experience and fresh from a recent viewing of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, a callow and totally incorrect approach. Hollywood madness played large and deadly.

I accepted the criticisms of many that Gloria Swanson’s “campy” performance to be accurate. (Cue the loud buzzer and the announcer’s voice; “Thank you for playing!”)
I have come to think the two most difficult things for an actor to play are;
1. Not pretty, and
2. Not smart.

It’s not so hard to play ugly, and it’s not so hard to play stupid. It’s actually quite comfortable and safe. After all, audiences will surely know you’re merely acting and it’s not really you. Ditto with playing smart and pretty. But “not smart” and “not pretty”…that’s a little close to home. People MIGHT think you’re not having to act too much…maybe it’s what you are…not smart and not pretty. That’s not so comfortable and safe, eh?

I watched SUNSET BOULEVARD with a group of movie lovers and one of them suggested that Ms. Swanson’s performance wasn’t campy at all. “This was how Norma Desmond and her colleagues acted in their silent roles, it only makes sense that this is how they act in life when they’re ‘on’.” That sounds right to me and Ms. Swanson’s performance seems perfectly plausible today. Now, keep in mind, I’m not averse to chewing my own share of scenery when the opportunity presents itself…or even when it doesn’t. Who am I to begrudge an actor their dose of over-the-top?

I think this is a brave performance by a 50-year-old actress in 1951 when there weren’t many roles for 50-year-old actresses. The character was exotic and glamorous…but not pretty. She was certainly not smart. And while she was not old, she was “not young”. Today, this performance could have unleashed subsequent movie offers galore. In 1951, Ms. Swanson was rewarded with few scripts and they, according to her, were merely re-channelings of Norma Desmond. Perhaps people were thinking she was not having to act too much? William Holden sprang from this film to box-office stardom. Ms. Swanson drifted into retirement…in her 50’s!

Speaking of William Holden, he is just fine in the flick, and he completely rocks the clothes…even the vicuna overcoat (“…since the lady’s buying…”).

But what about Joe Gillis, the character he’s playing?

I will admit to some relief when he was killed in the film. I was beginning to be teased by the outré possibility that Dobie Gillis might have been the bizarre offspring of Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis – not a good place to go.

Seriously, there is little to admire about Joe Gillis. The show opens with him in his bathrobe, in a maelstrom-designed apartment, three months behind on his rent and car payments, lying to his car repossessors, and accepting the hospitality of a deluded older woman preparing for the funeral of her chimp.

Her chimp!
What’s that?
There’s opening for a chimp in this household? What is Joe Gillis thinking?

Joe has some of the best lines in the movie but they’re usually preceded by something amazing said by Norma. Thus, we miss his comments. For example;
Norma; “I am big! The movies got small!”
Joe (under his breath); “I knew something was wrong with them.”

It’s another of these mutterings that makes you completely write Joe off as an admirable human being. As Norma and Joe are out one evening in Norma’s remarkable car, Joe’s narration remarks; “By then, she had taught me to play bridge.” It’s a complete capitulation to comfort, clothes, chimp-dom, and the ultimately fatal swimming pool.

At least he has his moment of redemption. He finally jettisons the jewels, the clothes, the girl, the house, the car and the pool. BUT a Faustian bargain is made up front and there’s no going back. The terms are made early and the price of the transaction is not altered by buyer’s remorse. We have rooted for Joe in spite of his unworthiness of our sympathy, we resonate with his redemption, and we are saddened but unsurprised by his demise. Forget that $35-a-week editing job in Dayton – you bought the pool, mister.

Have I mentioned that I love this film?