Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Lounge Lizard - Sophisticated New Drink

The Lounge Lizard is an old term for an habitue of cocktail lounges, an idle man who haunts establishments frequented by the rich or fashionable. Not an endearing term, to say the least. 
The apogee of the cocktail was in the Nineteen Twenties, when the high life was in vogue. Drinking cocktails was a mark of leisured luxury. Maybe in those days, the idea of spending time in a cocktail lounge wasn't frowned upon. It seems like something invented, maybe, in the 1940's or '50's, during the gritty noir, progressive jazz era, when soulful self-destructive hypnotic degradation was deemed "cool."
In any case, here's my latest creation, dubbed The Lounge Lizard--a sophisticated, elegant drink poised between sweet and dry, smooth and edgy.     
2 parts straight rye
2 parts Drambuie
1 part Southern Comfort
1.5 parts fresh lime juice
shaken hard and served up
By the way, for those who don't know, the only way to serve cocktails is as cold as possible. The glass should be kept in the freezer compartment for at least 5 minutes before filling, and the drink should be shaken hard for at least 50 strokes before pouring. Ideally, there should be tiny fragments of ice in the drink, to enhance its bracing, frosty character. Anytime you order a drink at a tavern, and they send it out luke-warm or room-temperature, it's almost certainly a mistake. Make'em re-do it!  

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Minimalism Part VI: Creeley's Collected Later Poems - Little'uns

From the time Creeley initiated his mimimalist phase, in the third section of Words [1967], he explored the possibilities of a poetry based on the smallest, meticulously conceived formulae--or just a handful of carefully placed words--like ingeniously arranged integers, pieces, ciphers, etc.--until the late 1970's, when he resumed the more traditional, characteristic formalities of his earlier career in the volume Hello [1976], which came out amongst a flurry of prose publications including the diary section of A Day Book [1972], Contexts [1973], Mabel [1977], Presences [1976], Was That a Real Poem [1979]. It seemed as if this winnowing, or applied concisions, in Pieces [1969] had forced a reassessment of capability, under the pressure of an interest that had either gone dry, or had reached a logical conclusion in Thirty Things [1974] (about which I have written earlier--see below).

Creeley never wholly abandoned the form, though he did tend to write in more "relaxed" terms for the remainder of his life. Some kind of emotional consolidation or retrospective mood seems to have overtaken him in late middle age.
Still, there are fascinating examples of the "Pieces" style, even into the new century. Here are several examples of his later mimimalist style from Windows [1990], published 20 years after Pieces.
key hole.
There's a big
more at home.
in a
That ice
cream cone'll
I got something stuck
in my hand.
It was a splinter.
The big
Examples like these show a more relaxed motive than the poems in Pieces, which seemed very much like ulterior speculations about cognition, big resolutions, as if the emotional overkill of the poems from the Fifties and early Sixties had been boiled down to some granular density beyond which no further reduction or elaboration might be possible. But these poems seem more playful, even when they're not particularly cheerful in their implication(s)--like toys one might put on a table for a child to play with. Their irreducibility seems a consequence of simplicity, rather than conviction. "The big/red/apple" has a cartoon-like naivete, in which the voice seems overwhelmed by the pretense of pedagogy (TEACHER), and responds with blunt humor. The capital letters function thus as glowering symbolic emblems of fear, intimidation, or power--characteristically seen from a subservient or infantile position: A terrible giant baby!--almost like one of those block-headed Marisol babies. 
That ice
cream cone'll
--the concatenation of hard K sounds--cream/cone'll--enjambed against the elided cone will suggesting the double L's surfeit will topple off, like melting cream off the edge of the stanza, landing on/in the space [occupied by] the word "drip". The moral imprecation--a warning of possible disaster(s)--is resolved/realized in the embarrassment of the word ("drip") itself, the sticky accident of guilt. In William Carlos Williams, such an ingenious little engine would describe a phenomena, without implying any ironic separation--discrete positioning and simple objectification. But the authorial voice in Creeley's poems explores the means--and the implications of those means--deconstructing the effects and laying bear their disguised emotional spins, their terrors and fears.                
This sensitivity to individual letters, evokes kinetic qualities at the smallest possible level of our apprehension of words (or speech sounds--phonemes). It may be that certain speakers--more sensitive to the clues of language--comprehend it at the level of decomposition, or phonemal fragmentation. Certain combinations of words elicit senses of sound or meaning which are otherwise hidden inside the habitual orders of syntax or speech. These "loops" as Creeley sometimes referred to them--which suggests both little parabolic spins and nooses--are like kernals of insight or fascination. We may not at first understand how or why they are so effecting, and indeed they may remain invisible to the casual reader who only comprehends at the quotidian level of syntactical meaning. But poetry at its best is very much concerned with the slants, rings, catches, undulations and tics of common interchange, embedded in the matrix of general discourse.
more at home.
--may function as a code: fields/meadows/more//at home sings as one half of a traditional nursery rhyme.   
1 / 2-3 / 4 / 5-6  
which would be followed by
7 / 8 / 9-10
[as in full fathom five or some similar echoing refrain]
With at home suggesting a domestication in nature as opposed to the misappropriation of land for cultivation, so that "at home" attached to more "domesticates" meadows, links the pastoral to the poetic. If the speaker could be said to be advocating meadows over fields, then FIELDS--as in the earlier poem TEACHERS--functions in a similarly oppressive way, as if in opposition. Thus individual words are treated in opposition to each other--tiny triads--having attractions and resistances deliberately contained in the setting of the poem. Words as things, or as waves of connotation that oscillate in different frequencies in different specific contexts. This dialectical places the poet in an ambiguous relationship to "subject matter"--where words are not simply tools for expression, implying an alienation from language. Doubt and suspicion and skeptical regard are the hallmarks of such a practice, both excusing the speaker from the persuasive associations of syntax and signification, and freeing up our apprehension of the process of composition.   
These senses are endlessly fascinating, though Creeley's need to "say something" appears to have expanded over time, such that the syntactical burden needed to carry his "message" expanded with it. It may be that he tended eventually to regard (his) minimalist works with a skeptical suspicion, deeming them "innocent" explorations, the effects of which were too difficult to adequately control the purposes to which he might put his ulterior summations, about life and writing, the social, relational, aspects of his accrued experience, in later age. If we're to regard this as an aberration of his development as a poet, or as a predictable consequence of a long life's total commitment to an evolving view of the potentials of artistic endeavor, we'd best acknowledge the value of the work itself, instead of what it may signify about the meaning of his biography.   
Inside my head a common room,
a common place, a common tune,
a common wealth, a common doom
inside my head. I close my eyes.
The horses run. Vast are the skies,
and blue my passing thoughts' surprise
inside my head. What is this space
here found to be, what is this place
if only me? Inside my head, whose face?
[from Life and Death, New Directions, 1994]


Friday, December 18, 2009

The Marquis of the Aranjuez Gardens

Joaquin Rodrigo [1901-1999], is undoubtedly Spain's most famous composer, the author of the justly renowned Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, as well as a full catalogue of works for guitar, piano, flute, harp, cello, in addition to other orchestral works.  
Blinded by illness at the age of three, Rodrigo was musically precocious, excelling in composition, and composing works through the facility of braille transcriptions. He studied for several years in Paris, under Paul Dukas, and met his Turkish wife there. Rodrigo's early compositions show the influence of Medieval and early Renaissance court musical themes and techniques, though his orchestration and musical language also show very smart applications of Modernist concision and daring.   

The piece which made him famous, and which is the basis of his world-wide fame, is the three-movement Aranjuez concerto for guitar and orchestra. Though ostensibly a celebration of the gardens at Aranjuez, the actual inspiration for the work, according to the composer and his wife, was the miscarriage of their first child, the somber central movement a dramatic mournful elegy. As an evocation of Spanish culture and landscape, the concerto is similar in feeling and approach to Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, as well as to later compositions such as Ponce's Concierto del Sur (also for guitar and orchestra), and certain "exotic" pieces by Villa-Lobos. It's been enormously influential in his own country, though its actual effect on musical culture outside the Iberian Peninsula has been naturally limited, though undoubtedly contributing to the renaissance of interest in the Spanish guitar as medium for composition, and as a concert instrument.
The Concierto was a regular favorite in the household in which I grew up, my Mother having discovered it I suppose by hearing it first on the radio in the early 1950's. Our recording featured Renata Tarrago [1927-2005], an important guitarist of the post-war period in Spain. Later, I appreciated versions by Julian Bream, and Pepe Romero, among others. 
When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960's, I visited Joaquin Nin-Culmell in his office in the music department. Nin-Culmell was the brother of Anais Nin. As children, they lived for a time in New York City, then moved to Europe in their adolescence, where Joaquin studied classical music in Paris. Nin-Culmell had known all of the Spanish composers of his time, including Falla and Rodrigo. When he died, his incredible collection of sheet music was broken up and sold, and I was able to purchase some of it. When I saw him, he graciously gave me the addresses for several of my favorite (still living) Spanish composers, to whom I wrote to inquire about obtaining their sheet music. "Spain is a very poor country," Nin-Culmell explained, "and it's difficult to get Spanish sheet music if you're not there." Nevertheless, I wrote to several names, and received sweet replies, all in Spanish. Nin-Culmell translated them for me. I was not a music major, but often used the practice rooms in the music department (since I had no piano of my own at that time). Nin-Culmell also recommended several keyboard pieces that I didn't yet know about, including Six Sonata de Castilla con toccata a modo de pregon

Though Rodrigo was the most famous Spanish composer of the 20th Century, his music is really quite retro in its basic inspiration. Musically, Spain had been a provincial outland of serious European classical music. Unable to support large musical ensembles, it had no ongoing traditions of symphonic, operatic,  or chamber music as had France, Germany, Italy and England, until the 20th Century, when nationalist and nativist movements on the Peninsula led to a search for a musical identity, leading inevitably to an interest in peasant, liturgy, and dance elements, which had defined its national character. Court, flamenco and regional folk elements are more important to classical Spanish composers, in a way that is quite apart from other European traditions. 
Rodrigo, following in the footsteps of Albeniz, Granados and Falla, attempted to raise the standard of quality and seriousness in Spanish expression. Prior to the late 19th Century, keyboard music in Spain had been on the decline since the days of Antonio Soler [1729-1783], compared to the guitar--clearly, Spain's national instrument, if it could be said to have one--and it had to wait for Albeniz and Granados to revive it. Nonetheless, the guitar, both as a medium and a stylistic inspiration--has continued to be an inspiration, not just in Spain, but throughout the world. The notion of pairing a single guitar against a full orchestra had been tried on a small scale during the late Renaissance in Italy, but its fullest expression didn't occur until Rodrigo re-"invented" it in 1939 (Concierto de Aranjuez), later adding Fantasia para un Gentilhombre (Fantasia for a Gentleman), for guitar and orchestra [1955] and Concierto Andaluz, for four guitars and orchestra [1967], and Concierto Madrigal, for two guitars and orchestra [1969].
It remains to be seen whether or not the Spanish guitar, as a concert instrument, can continue to inspire innovative compositions in the classical mode. There are a number of branch descendants (of the Spanish guitar) in the 20th Century (both in construction and type of musical application), but the classical mode of composition may present too many historical associations, which tend to overwhelm our sense of what kinds of music the instrument can handle. Rodrigo showed how classical orchestral elements could be arranged along a clear axis against the folk guitar tradition, evoking an at times stern, dignified quality against the romantic, nostalgic deep song of Andalusia--a combination that proved irresistible.        
My instrument as a child growing up was the piano. It was clear from an early age that I did not possess much skill as a performer, but in my late adolescence I became interested in playing classical pieces, and--many years later, in 1985, when I spent a year in Japan, I acquired a beautiful Kawai red-lacquered upiano, and began, for the first time, to compose--something I had always thought an impossibility, given that I had never studied counterpoint or musical notation. The fact is, though, that anyone who can read and play from written music, can compose, with the simplest of means. Like many devotees of guitar music, I dreamed of playing my favorite pieces on the guitar. To this end, I acquired an elegant new Spanish guitar, and tried working my way through some instruction. But I quickly discovered that what manual skills I'd acquired in my piano work, were of little help with the guitar, and soon abandoned this fantasy. Nonetheless, I've continued to compose for the instrument. Perhaps someday I will arrange to have some of them played. I try to compose a few bars of music every day--jazz, classical, blues, or occasionally for Spanish guitar--I've found it much easier to knock out a few fragments of music than to write poetry, which seems to get more and more difficult as I grow older. As a youth in my twenties, I could write pages and pages--it just flowed out of me--but now every time I start a piece, I think I can see exactly where it's going, and get frustrated quickly and abandon most attempts. Perhaps it has something to do with the freedom I feel when composing, since I have no reasonable expectation that it will ever be heard by anyone but myself, and I have no pretensions in that direction--perhaps it liberates me. Nowadays, I seem to write my best lines in the sort of half-sleep consciousness before I'm fully awake--there's an access to the subconscious that quickly dissipates when I'm fully alert.         
Rodrigo composed a number of pieces for both solo piano and solo guitar, and in my opinion he succeeded admirably with both. Inasmuch as he was blind, it's interesting to me how "pianistic" and "guitaristic" his pieces for each instrument are. This quality--the ease of the hand to certain combinations and fingerings--seems to come almost instinctively to some composers, while others don't have it.  Brahms, for instance, is notoriously difficult to play, not only because of the stretches, but the leaps and coordinated combinations he makes. I can't speak with equal authority about the guitar, but I assume the same phenomena apply to it as well.  
There's a new guitar duo--Rodrigo y Gabriela--Mexicans who for some odd reason relocated to Dublin, Ireland. They're breaking new ground in the use of acoustic guitars, playing fast and furiously in a manner that derives from traditional Spanish dance forms. 
Sometimes a composer--or a performer--will become too much associated with a single piece, to a degree that it becomes burdensome. This is certainly true of Rodrigo and his Aranjuez concerto, for which King Juan Carlos raised him to the nobility under the title Marques de los Jardines de Aranjuez. He died in 1999 at the age of 97. I've heard nearly all his works, with the exception of a handful of songs, which have not been recorded, so far as I know. I once dreamed of traveling to Spain, and tracking down all my favorite Spanish composers--such nonsense!      


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two on the Aisle - The Narrative Split in Two Historical Dramas

The evolution of the cinematic medium has parallels to the development of narrative as a dramatic form. The novel grew out of the "non-fiction" account (Defoe), evolved further through the epistolary trope (Pamela & Clarissa), and eventually morphed from complex actions of animated companies of characters (Dickens and Trollope) into the variations we see today (Romance, Historical Fiction, Meta-fiction, Genres (including mystery, horror, fantasy, science fiction, etc.), and the various manifestations of "straight" narrative), as well as a few sports which don't fit any of the usual categories. 
American cinema began by attempting to adapt classic historical narratives into abbreviated bowdlerized mise-en-scenes, in the silent era, and quickly graduated to cinematic-specific narrative actions, which have tended to dominate the medium since the inception of sound in the late 1920's. The increasing sophistication of technical means to make more convincing visualizations, etc., have really done little to alter our sense of the frame of context in movies. It's still a controlled sequence of narrative action, like a play that is captured in a single unalterable version. 

Early novels, which include those by Henry Fielding, used an omniscient narrative voice, perhaps equivalent to the narrative voice-over that is sometimes used in movies, like a sort of stage-manager (Our Town) or as a character's reflection (as in Walter Brennan's narrative voice in Red River) on the action. The use of narrative frames to conceptualize the action and provide a third point of reference between (or above) the dialectic between director and audience, can be seen in two historical cinematic dramas widely separated in time, but which share a similar appropriation: Each takes a famous novel with an historical subject, as its raw material, then adapts it in ingenious ways to make an original movie.
Tom Jones [Lopert Pictures Corporation, 1963, British], direction by Tony Richardson, script by John Osborne [Look Back in Anger], from the novel by Henry Fielding [1749], is a comic romp with considerable verisimilitude--i.e., the bumptiousness of country living, the dirt and grime of London city life. Borrowing certain tricks from the drama, Richardson and Osborne employed the use of direct communication with the audience, called "breaking the fourth wall" in theatrical terminology. In several scenes, Tom Jones, the "foundling" of the drama, speaks directly into the camera (at the audience) to comment upon the action, and in one instance putting his cocked hat over the camera-lens, preventing the audience from seeing his female companion's burgeoning bodice. This, combined with a contemporary voice-over in the manner of an 19th Century narrator, has the effect of setting up a contextual frame not unlike an omniscient narrator, commenting upon the action, as comic "asides," or ironic acknowledgment of the comic absurdity of the action. 
In Richardson's hands, the technique allows the action to be perceived from multiple viewpoints, from the vantage of time (two centuries intervening), and of a moral and cultural exoticism of pre-industrial Britain, by contemporary audiences. It takes its story seriously, but insists upon a removal, which functions both to familiarize the action, as well as prodding or queuing the audience to its own participation. It offered a new way of appreciating historical material, not merely as costume drama, but as a method of ironic contrast. Tom Jones influenced later historical take-offs such as The Draughtsman's Contract [1982], as well as outright spoofs [Monty Python]. 

The French Lieutenant's Woman [Juniper Films, 1981, British] also explores new ground in the handling of historical material. Based on John Fowles's novel of the same name [Jonathan Cape, 1969], it manages to invent a new formal narrative technique, related to, but much more formally adventurous, than the earlier Tom Jones
Fowles's novel explores the contrasts between Victorian England, in which the story is set, and the present day, by deliberately setting up a dialectic between our view of the past (through the omniscient narrative speaker), and the milieu in which the story would have been conceived, or imagined, by a contemporary writer, such as Thomas Hardy. In the novel, Fowles uses this narrative voice as a platform to explore philosophical issues--Darwinism, feminism, psychology, etc.--and offers the reader two distinct, but plausible, possible endings. It is as if he is saying you can have it both ways: Happy ending, or sad ending. Choose the one which suits your preferred view of life, your preferred version of the best ending for the story. 
In adapting the story, Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, could have chosen to use an omniscient narrative voice. He might, for instance, have used a "stage manager" role (as in the Wilder play Our Town) who introduces and comments upon the action, a figure both in and out of time (like the omniscient narrator). Instead, he chose to make two parallel plots: 
The movie (of the story in the book),
The story of the making of the movie,
a parallel narrative involving the same
in both narrative threads.
The two stories thus share identical settings--in Victorian England--and in present day England--in Lyme Regis, to be precise, a south shore seaside town which looks in many respects just as it would have in its original Victorian guise. The balancing of the two parallel love affairs--Charles Smithson and Sara Woodruff in 19th Century England--and Mike and Anna, the two contemporary actors playing their respective "selves" 100 years earlier in the present. 
The succession of frames--a movie about the making of a movie in which the principles carry on a parallel adulterous love affair--allows the switching of the narrative threads back and forth between the present and the historical past, permitting a clear contrast between the behavioral mores and customs and options available to each couple in their separate segments of time. The movie thus becomes two stories, intertwined, allowing the present-day stand-ins (Mike and Anna) to take the authorial position, commenting upon their respective "fictional characters" in the movie they're making, while sorting out the difficulties caused by their mutual infidelity. The screenplay, by Harold Pinter, is one of the most ingenious formal gimmicks ever devised, doing complete justice to Fowles's "modern" view of Victorian society--even retaining the two endings (the "movie" version, as well as the modern "disappointing" one)--without the awkward device of a narrative "telling" or voice-over "commentary" as the historical action takes place.  
Fowles's book, as a piece of literature, is for the most part a straightforward historical novel with modern asides, whereas The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding, is a "contemporary" novel, with an ironic, picaresque frame. Both books, though, view with some amusement and interest the vicissitudes and complexities of class, sex, custom, and human frailty--in much the same spirit. The motives and tendencies which animate each work are locked inside the respective preconceptions and views of their eras, but the freedom permitted by Pinter's manipulation of time-in-narrative affords us a view of our own foibles and presumptions, and to understand, in some measure, the relativistic quality, as well as the enduring, of how the sexes relate to each other, despite changing outward fashions, and the progress of intellect and knowledge.  
In any case, I would recommend reading Fowles's book before seeing Pinter's adaptation, but there's no harm in seeing Richardson's Tom Jones, because it's so much a piece of comic fluff that it could in no way harm one's apprehension of the literary masterpiece upon which it's based.             

Sorry to Throw Cold Water on it - Alex Smith is Still Not the Answer

All 49er fans now know--along with the rest of the national NFL audience--how good the 49ers defensive unit is, especially when it doesn't have to spend 35+ minutes on the field. The 49ers defensive scheme--a filled spread formation which effectively cut off the short to middle route passing game at which Arizona QB Kurt Warner excels--worked to perfection, and could all by itself have promised victory--had the 49ers anything like a normal, effective offensive unit. But it took 2 interceptions and 5 fumbles for the Niners to overcome their division rivals, and here's the reason why:  Alex Smith.  


As I've been harping about for the last two months, Alex Smith isn't an NFL quarterback. He lacks the special qualities which all successful QB's must possess in order to be a winner. 
In Monday's game, Smith threw two interceptions. But the fact is, for those of us who were paying attention--not letting our surprised and delighted emotions cloud our judgment--that Smith actually "threw" four interceptions--the Arizona defenders just failed to catch those other two. How do you suppose the game would have turned out, had those other two balls been caught by the Arizona defensive backs?  
Even with 7 turnovers, the outcome was still in doubt as late as the middle of the fourth quarter. Credit the SF defense for putting pressure on Warner, and for taking away his first and second options on several plays; since Warner isn't a scrambler or an improviser like Rothlisberger, he can be neutralized if you can deny him his first target, since he doesn't move well outside the pocket. 
Much has been made of the "improved" San Francisco offense, since the team went with the shotgun or "spread offense" scheme under Smith. Singletary started the year using Hill, emphasizing the run. The fact is, that under Hill, the 49ers were performing much better, game on game, than they were with Smith. Why? Because Hill was a ball control quarterback. 
A lot of nonsense is thrown around about great quarterbacks. Certainly Peyton Manning is a great quarterback. So was Dan Marino. These talents excelled at throwing the ball often, and throwing it long. But consider the skills and approach of Joe Montana. Montana is credited with guiding the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories, and 12 years of glory. What kind of a QB was Montana? A ball control, short gain, opportunistic QB! The West Coast Offense, largely invented by Bill Walsh and utilized by him to produce all those wins for The City by the Bay, was designed to control the game through short passes, taking what the defense gave it, and generally avoiding the long downfield passes which were the hallmark of the wide-open style of some famous NFL offenses ("Air Coryell" et al). 
The fact is that the wide open offense is on the ascendancy in the NFL today. The West Coast Offense has largely been abandoned, as more and more teams feature a high-scoring, high-risk passing-oriented approach. And it's worked. Look at the successful teams today, and what you find is that ball control--a methodical offense built around 5 yards and a cloud of dust--doesn't work anymore. Successful teams today have to expect routinely to score 30 points or more, usually in high-scoring affairs where the last team to have possession wins. 
Singletary's retro vision of a smash-mouth, grind-it-out style was obviously passe. But with the world class defensive unit he's been blessed with, he could be forgiven for believing in the impossible. What might the 49ers have done with a truly aggressive, accurate, savvy mid- to long-range quarterback this year? There's been the usual excuse-making about Smith's shoulder injury, the difficulties of having to work with a different offensive coordinator each year--poor baby!--but the facts speak to other causes for his failures. There have been a few instances in which they've asked him to attempt the rare surprise long pass late in games--with disastrous results!--but on the whole, his shortcomings have been no one's fault but his own.   
But the fact remains, as anyone with unjaundiced eyes can see, Alex Smith isn't that quarterback. He repeatedly makes wrong decisions, throws into coverage, and can't find his second or third option. Is he gun-shy, flustered, or just phlegmatic? Does he "get it"--i.e., does he have sufficient gumption to respond to emergencies and crises the way superior athletes do in the clutch? It hardly seems so.
Singletary may be forgiven for capitulating to necessity, and trying to determine, once and for all, whether Smith can step in and perform at the high level required of successful NFL quarterbacks. But the evidence continues to mount: Smith isn't the man, and the sooner the Niners acknowledge that, and get to work replacing him with a superior talent, the sooner they'll be contenders again.     

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Dinner With Andre - The Apotheosis of Media Identity

My Dinner With Andre [Saga Productions, 1981], directed by Louis Malle, broke important new ground in the use of cinema. Superficially, it's a tiny theatre piece--nothing more than two middle-aged New York theatre people having dinner after a period of separation. The dialectic, constructed out of what we eventually realize is a version of the real thing--Andre Gregory and Wally Shawn are acting as themselves, and much of their conversation is basically non-fictional (real life)--succeeds in transcending the flatness of constructed dramatic dialogue to achieve a sort of trompe l'oeil, a staged slice-of-life intended partially to obliterate the screen or membrane between the "action" and the audience's suspension of disbelief. 
This technique echoes attempts by certain writers (Capote, or Mailer, for instance) to make "non-fiction novels" out of actual stories, using the same tools as journalism (interviews, research, reconstruction of scene), but shaped into a coherent narrative, like a documentary of unfolding events. Aside from the ordinary props of a very limited interior (a quiet New York restaurant), the only directorial  innovation would seem to be the movement of the camera around the table, as if by circling the two voices in time, a de-facto fourth dimension could be implied. The camera's intimacy allows us into the conversation in a way that a stage-production couldn't have done, as well as allowing us to turn the scene around, to view it from multiple perspectives. There is thus a sequence of contextual frames:
audience - movie - scene - actors - real people - dialogue - real events - documentary - audience
In other words, the exploitation of a "real event" titillates us with the prospect of naturalistic detail, even as we know (in the traditional sense) that what we're seeing is staged. Could it be, we imagine, that the actors are literally making it up as they go along, as some method actors (like Brando in Last Tango in Paris) were said occasionally to have done? And even if they are, how different would it be from what we're seeing in the film itself? 
The film asks the question: What are the limits of value on experience, in a dramatic action? Does this action fit into any traditional subdivision of drama? Tragedy? Comedy? History? Soap opera? Intellectual dialogue? Do the events and struggles in the lives of two "ordinary" people succeed sufficiently in raising our awareness or appreciation of the human condition to justify the effort? 
I had an old friend from my work in the city, of many years, who joked that the film reminded him of our many break and lunch conversations, and I suppose that's true. There's a certain applicability in the situation of two intelligent people discussing the problems of the world over coffee, albeit perhaps without Andre Gregory's sometimes distressingly camp itinerary of New Age whistle-stops. 
If the movie has an argument, it's over choice of life-styles. In terms of the bourgeois preoccupation with formulaic enlightenment(s), Gregory's obsession to discover the hidden truths in remote aspects, Wally's quotidian hard-luck out-of-work-actor-in-a-stable-relationship foil is neatly opposed. What the two share--and which sympathetic audiences probably also share, with them--is their intellectual curiosity and interest in other modes of life, other alternatives. Gregory's the adventurer, the explorer, whilst Wally is the dreamer, the plodder. Andre needs the stimulation of being at loose ends, on the artificial edge of personal crisis, while Wally needs the security of knowing where he'll sleep, who's waiting for him, and what the next day may hold for him--he acknowledges his stodginess, but ruefully accepts it as inevitable. At least in this sense, the action has some universal applicability, at least in the modern age: For those in the modern world, the decision to stay put or strike out on untrodden paths is a pertinent one. 
My Dinner With Andre balances delicately on this division, between our boredom and our fascination with the possibility of ordinary life served up as interesting fare. As the apotheosis--one kind of fulfillment of the whole interview/analysis genre invented and developed in the 20th Century--of our media-crazed, hypochondriacal culture in which fame and obscurity, excitement and boredom, hope and despair are juggled endlessly in the cauldron of capital--My Dinner With Andre offers the possibility of true introspection. But is it the tawdry vicarious curiosity of The National Inquirer, or the quest for catharsis and self-knowledge we associate with high drama?         


Thursday, December 10, 2009

My E.B. White

I can't remember exactly when I first became aware of E.B. White. My Mom had been an admirer of The New Yorker since her youth (she grew up in Neena, Wisconsin in the 1930's), and all the magazine's original big name columnists and journalists were familiar names to her. For my 18th birthday, she gave me a subscription as a Christmas present. The first issue I received contained John McPhee's Profile of Bill Bradley, then a star basketball player at Princeton University, and later a Rhodes Scholar, and so on. In any case, working at the Napa City-County Public Library during my Junior and Senior years of high school, I routinely shelved books by White, and at some point--probably in my Junior year--I'd picked up a copy of The New Yorker at the local pharmacy store magazine rack, and was intrigued by its format. There was no table of contents, and much of its front matter consisted of extremely detailed accounts of happenings, events and goings-on in New York City. There were very sophisticated cartoons and strange little quotations at the tail end of longer articles (which were called "news breaks"). I'm not sure what I made of it at the time, but as I say, it was intriguing.  
At some point or other, my parents decided that we should read Stuart Little together. How old was I when that happened? Could this have been before 1960, when my little brother Clark was born? I have no idea now. On the jacket blurb for the book, White was quoted as saying that he'd begun the story as an entertainment for a niece, but that before he'd been able to finish it, she'd grown up and was reading Hemingway. This disarming modesty is characteristic of White; indeed, there probably wasn't a more self-effacing a writer of his stature in the 20th Century. 
White grew up in an upper-middle class home in Mt. Vernon, New York. He did a stint in the service before taking a degree at Cornell. Then he worked briefly as a journalist in Seattle, before joining the staff of The New Yorker, in the same year as James Thurber, just after its inception in 1925. He also met and married the recently divorced Katharine S. Angell in 1929, adopting her son Roger. They had one son, Joel, who became a noted designer of yachts in Maine. To judge from period photographs, Katharine was a beautiful woman. As an editor at the magazine, she was largely responsible for setting the standard of taste and the subtle tone it became famous for. For White, who had pretentions as a writer of light verse, and innocent humor pieces, the magazine afforded him the chance to exercise his talents in several directions at once--as humorist, as casual serious topical columnist [The Talk of the Town], as the inventor and author of the "newsbreaks" and, eventually, as a serious political and literary essayist.                 
Perhaps not surprisingly, the story of Stuart Little is an analogue of White's own life story. Born in the city into a comfortable family, Stuart soon feels the irresistible pull of Nature, whereupon he takes his leave of the Little family and sets out on his own in the world. White himself, after spending a little over a decade in the city as a successful periodical writer, grew weary of city life, and longed for the country. Following his instincts, he purchased a salt water farm on the coast of Maine, and he and Katharine began spending longer and longer periods of time there. This period in his life is chronicled in his most ambitious book of expository prose, One Man's Meat [1942, Harper & Brother], a collection of "letters" from the country, which are filled with his experiences and feelings about a rural, agricultural existence. Henry David Thoreau's ghost is a palpable presence throughout. The Whites eventually abandoned the city altogether, and though they both would continue their literary activities for several more decades, this early removal symbolized their semi-"retirement" from the hectic demands of city life, to a more sedate, pastoral existence.   
This idealized separation between city and country is the governing trope in White's vision of the world. The quintessential, sophisticated New Yorker nurses a yearning for a simpler, more basic connection to the environment, to the smaller social scale of the country. The elegant, cocktail-sipping essayist prefers finding eggs in the chicken coop on cold Winter mornings. The opera performance may beckon, but that old shake roof on the barn needs patching before next season. This conceit about the gentleman farmer is exploited to the hilt, and forms the conceptual frame within which White's imaginary persona--both in his fictions and in his non-fiction prose--is constructed. White's only truly serious polemic involved his support for the creation and purpose of The United Nations [created in 1945], a series of pieces collected into The White Flag [1946, Houghton Mifflin]. White's earnest optimism may seem naive today, as "little" wars and terrorist attacks seem almost a daily item in international news reports, but White's generation had experienced two world wars, and that seemed ample justification to believe in the possibility of an international body, devoted to preventing conflict and encouraging cooperation around the world. 
Maintaining a safe distance from the urban bustle, also enabled White to take a more meditative, objective, relaxed view of important issues. From the remote aspect of his Maine farmhouse, he could mount little campaigns against the erosion of free speech, as in his piece against the underwriting of magazine articles by the Xerox Corporation: "I have great respect for all newspapers and magazines, and this Xerox-Esquire arrangement would mean that any rich corporation or rich individual could pick out a reporter and put $50,000 on him and that would be the end of freedom of the press."
My favorite White essay--though I have many--is "Bedfellows"--a piece from 1956, where he recounts the exploits of his late, sometimes lamented pet Dachsund Fred, and in which the ponderous pontifications of Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson are played against off against the amusing behavior of a dog:
"Fred was a window gazer and bird watcher, particularly during his later years, when hardened arteries slowed him up and made it necessary for him to substitute sedentary pleasures for active sport. I think of him as he used to look on our bed in Maine--an old four-poster, too high from the floor for him to reach unassisted. Whenever the bed was occupied during the daylight hours, whether because one of us was sick or was napping, Fred would appear in the doorway and enter without knocking. On his big gray face would be a look of quiet amusement (at having caught somebody in bed during the daytime) coupled with his usual look of fake respectability. Whoever occupied the bed would reach down, seize him by the loose folds of his thick neck, and haul him painfully up. He dreaded this maneuver, and so did the occupant of the bed. But Fred was always willing to put up with being hoisted in order to gain the happy heights, as, indeed, he was willing to put up with far greater discomforts--such as a mouthful of porcupine quills--when there was some prize at the end. Once up, he settled into his pose of bird watching, propped luxuriously against a pillow, as close as he could get to the window, his great soft brown eyes alight with expectation and scientific knowledge. He seemed never to tire of his work. He watched steadily and managed to give the impression that he was a secret agent of the Department of Justice. Spotting a flicker or a starling on the wing, he would turn and make a quick report. 'I just saw an eagle go by,' he would say, 'It was carrying a baby.' This was not precisely a lie. Fred was like a child in many ways, and sought always to blow things up to proportions that satisfied his imagination and his love of adventure. He was the Cecil B. deMille of dogs. He was a zealot, and saw in every bird, every squirrel, every housefly, every rat, every skunk, every porcupine, a security risk and a present danger to his republic. He had a dossier on almost every living creature, as well as on several inanimate objects, including my son's football. Although birds fascinated him, his real hope as he watched the big shade trees outside the window was that a red squirrel would show up. When he sighted a squirrel, Fred would straighten up from his pillow, tense his frame, and then, in a moment or two, begin to tremble. The knuckles of his big fore-legs, unstable from old age, would seem to go into spasm, and he would sit there with his eyes glued on the squirrel and his front legs alternately collapsing under him and bearing his weight again. I find it difficult to convey the peculiar character of this ignoble old vigilante...."
The photo above shows White at his typewriter, with Fred or his predecessor holding court over the proceedings. It takes little imagination to see how the aging politicians and their imprecations and warnings and cautionary predictions fare in comparison to the valiant old vigilante Fred.                 
White and Thurber, shown here in their salad days of the 1920's, did a parody of popular Freudian advice books, entitled Is Sex Necessary? [1929, Harper & Brothers]. Though both began as light-hearted humorists, White became the more serious writer, while Thurber continued to elaborate his sense of the absurd for the rest of his life.
The New Yorker, too, grew up eventually, taking on a more staid character, until by the early 1960's, when I first discovered it, it had become an institution, and was more responsible, and dogged, and serious than it had been in the early years. "The world grew up," someone once said, "and a damned shame, too." The world of White's early, lighthearted poems and essays [The Lady is Cold, 1928; Ho-Hum and Another Ho-Hum, 1931-32; Every Day is Saturday, 1934; The Fox of Peapack, 1938; and Quo Vadimus, 1939] seems to exist in a hazy past of innocent amusements, a slowly turning colorful carousel of dogs and sailboats and lady's hats and wacky wisecracks. White's later books--aside from the wildly successful children's titles [Charlotte's Web, 1952 and The Trumpet of the Swan, 1970], are serious essays, like letters from a rich uncle whose leisured regimen requires only of him that he send the occasional update to his extended family of legitimate eavesdroppers. You get the feeling, from White's later work, that he only grudgingly acknowledged the necessity for working, and would much rather have spent his time pottering around the back yard in his civvies. 
But White was such a good writer, that he could easily have entertained you even if he was only talking about spider webs in the rafters of his barn, which if you think about it, is sort of what he did. I've never been a big fan of children's literature, generally, but I think Stuart Little will live as long as Mother Goose, or Raggedy Anne, Winnie-the-Pooh, or the Oz books--primarily because it doesn't condescend to its presumed audience. There were those who criticized it, early on, as being too difficult, too "open-ended" and sad, for children. But the best literature communicates to those of all ages with equal pertinence. 

In retrospect, White's career is a record of half-reluctant reassessments, false starts, and forced resolutions. But each stage yielded fruit. He accurately estimated his skills, and made the most of them. He turned his private preoccupations into universal folk-tales, and made himself famous. This from a man whose privateness, modesty and naturally retiring manner seemed more typical of a sort of secular monk, than an elegant thinker. He's a distinctly American type, interested neither in laurels, nor notoriety, nor ostentation. A study of the common man, content to live a quotidian existence, tinkering on projects and inventing practical solutions to everyday problems. But of course he was much more than that--which is the contradiction of his personality.