Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Que Sera, Sera is the Refrain

What happens makes the world--to paraphrase Creeley. We live in it, on it, floating in a space we seldom stop to consider. We're time-travelers, passengers on the space-ship earth as it careens through the void in its various orbits, wheels inside wheels inside wheels, spinning off into nowhere. Somewhere is here, is now, is present. Presence. All that we have.

For some reason, it occurred to me to name my latest cocktail concoction Que Sera. The phrase, Que sera, sera apparently is not grammatical Spanish, but showed up in English as early as 400 years ago, in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. The song we know was written by the Jay Livingston and Ray Evans team, and debuted in the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956], directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The 1956 production was in fact a re-make of Hitchcock's earlier effort, from 1934, made in Britain, which starred Peter Lorre, among others. I've never seen the earlier film, which I think makes my appreciation of the 1956 version cleaner. One of the advantages of using original screenplay material is that one isn't tempted to compare a former literary or cinematic version with the latter. But writers and directors can often make superior versions of earlier narratives. A lot of classic fictional stories were adapted during the Silent Era of motion pictures, which were clearly inferior films. But the plot-line of Hitchcock's original 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much wasn't changed very much from its first incarnation. The effect of different actors, and technically advanced procedures, obviously helped. But it's still classic Hitchcock, with his symbolic queues and little tricks and tropes, familiar to anyone who's seen any of his work.

In a penultimate scene from the movie, Doris Day sings the song at a foreign embassy where her son Hank is believed to be held, and she sings it louder and louder, hoping that Hank will hear her. The drama of the scene (and the song) is heightened by the pathos and agony the Day character (Jo McKenna), who is desperate to have Hank back, is feeling.

The song, billed in the movie as Whatever Will Be, Will Be, was a big hit on the charts. It reached #2 on the Billboard list, and became Day's theme-song for her own television sitcom, The Doris Day Show [1968-1973]. Day tended to play herself in her film roles--not that that was an aesthetic mistake, she was enormously popular during the 1950's and 1960's, scoring in a succession of corny romantic comedies, with Rock Hudson, among others, solidifying the familiar "perky but down-to-earth level-headed American matron" profile to perfection. Her performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much is the only role of hers I ever admired. Elsewise, I usually found her an insufferable fake. I remember the late American novelist John Updike once claimed that she was the big fantasy sex symbol of his life, so go figure.

Music figures as a primary theme in the film. Hitchcock had commissioned the writing of a special concert piece for full orchestra and chorus by composer Arthur Benjamin, for the original version in 1934, to be performed in the movie at the Albert Hall. The piece, known as the Storm Clouds Cantata, includes a conclusive dramatic highpoint punctuated by a big cymbal crash, which provides the "covering sound" for the assassination (by pistol) attempt at the Hall.

Also, as is typical of Hitchcock, the movie is filled with mysteriously vivid scenes which, though well-integrated into the plot-line, nevertheless have psychological reverberations which evoke other peculiar, troubling emotions. When the French spy Louis Bernard is slain in the marketplace of Marrakesh, he turns to Doctor McKenna (played by Jimmy Stewart) to speak his dying words which form the recipe for the subsequent action of the story. Disguised as a native Moroccan, Bernard has dark make-up on his face. In the course of filming, it was discovered that this dark application wouldn't "rub off" the way Hitchcock had planned it, so an alternative method of having Stewart's hands covered in white grease was worked out. In the movie, as Bernard slumps to the ground, dying, his face slides out of Stewart's hands, as the make-up is "rubbed off"--a classic touch. The metaphor of disguise and identity is brilliantly staged.

And yet the audience never really finds out the details of the the secret plot--there's no political sub-text, simple terrorism and intrigue. There's a plan to kill a foreign European diplomat in London, but we never discover who the perpetrators represent, or why they want him dead. For Hitchcock, never the political man, this is of no importance. Life is mysterious, events happen seemingly without purpose, violent events occur and the unexpected is always just around the corner. Things are not what they seem, and as often as not, they may turn out badly. Suspicion, danger, foreboding, deception--these are the preoccupations of his art.

Hitchcock designed his productions first visually, on story-board diagrams. This might seem a completely predictable and sensible approach to staging a visually unfolding medium, yet few directors in history have relied so relentlessly on it as Hitchcock, primarily because it was so important to his vision of what movies meant.

For Hitchcock, actors were like ciphers moved about on a game-board. It was more important, for instance, that we should see the relationship of Farley Granger and Robert Walker in the absorbing Strangers on a Train [1951] as being random and opportunistic, than that we should care about who these two figures are as individuals. The meaning of a scene, or an interaction amongst characters, was its literal content, not the extraneous sentiments we might attach to the actors, their emotive subtleties, of their physical attractiveness.

When I was a boy, my grade-school teachers often complained to my parents that I was easily distracted from class lessons, and spent time looking out the window or doodling at my desk, instead of focusing on the matter at hand. Kids these days are usually identified as having learning "disabilities" at a very young age, and then are force-fed psycho-active drugs to make them docile and tractable. The modern "classroom" concept is commonly regarded as a sensible setting for the indoctrination of children and the inculcation of knowledge. But I've always thought it an alienating and unnatural situation, in which originality and imaginative response are thwarted in favor of controlled behavior and a phony "order." Theories of propaganda usually begin with the discipline of attention, then move on to repetition and dogged insistence to complete the business of making good little Nazis. Even as early as the 1st grade, I could see how some of the kids would become obedient soldiers in the social collective. Then, I secretly envied them their success and reward; after all, official authority endorsed their behavior, and held them up as models to be emulated.

As a creative writer, your best ideas often come by way of undirected, or random, meditation. One's mental attention wanders freely over the vast fund of recorded experience, and new combinations or inventions may occur without any deliberate origination. "Idea" people are different from problem solvers. Some people work best from strict programs, or from meticulously designed directions or procedures. Others may simply be sword carriers, or truck drivers.

But there are lower depths to Hitchcock's movie. The McKennas are a typical American middle class family of the 1950's. When the Moroccan inspector attempts to jerk them around, McKenna (Jimmy Stewart) pulls his best indignant "ugly" American imitation, "now you just hold on, there, mister, we're American citizens!" The McKennas, unwilling to let the wheels of justice and law turn inexorably, set out to London straightaway to solve the mystery of their son's disappearance themselves. Rather than accepting their fate as an act of god, or as the determined outcome of chance or providence, they take matters into their own hands, and thwart the forces of chaos and terror almost single-handedly. Jo's symbolic scream at the moment of truth, in the split-second interregnum before the clash of the cymbals, is the power of the individual human (voice) to alter event and intervene on behalf of order and peace. In Hitchcock's version, human beings can alter the course of their lives, and of history. This is not the passive capitulation of "Que sera, sera" but a rejection of determinism. Whatever will be may be the lyrical refrain of the music, but the story Hitchcock tells is not the Eastern one of passive submission, but the Western notion of a mastery over fate, of American know-how and deliberate problem-solving.        

This diversion has taken me pretty far afield of my original post--to describe another cocktail recipe. Inventing cocktails requires the free floating variance of chance and intuition. What might work in combination? Taste can be like a dance. What will happen if you mix A with B, then add a dash of C? How do you stretch the limits of your imaginative taste buds? Some people go their whole lives having tried, perhaps, only two or three cocktail recipes. I've probably mixed as many as a thousand different variations. Some people think of life as a determined outcome, "what will be, will be" and never give a thought to living or doing anything unexpected. For them, Que sera, sera seems a kind of deep wisdom. Pity them. Life is so much more than that!

Herewith, another variation off the shelf of booze: The Que sera, by proportion:

4 Parts white rum
1 part herbsaint (or Pernod)
1 part ginger liqueur
1/2 part vanilla almond syrup
Juice of 1 sweet lime

Shaken lightly and served up.

A guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. A girl, on the other hand, can do just what she wants.

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