Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter from Irving, Fred, Bing, (and the Guys at Kings)

Irving Berlin gave us our one great pop culture Easter song, Easter Parade, published in 1933 and first sung in the Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer, the same year. As my mother told me long ago, Berlin first wrote the melody way back in 1917 with lyrics, "Smile and Show Your Dimple." It was a flop, but he was smart enough to bring back the lilting tune for the revue.

Berlin then used it in his 1942 film Holiday Inn as the Easter song, with Bing Crosby singing to Marjorie Reynolds.

The song then become the basis for the story for the 1948 film from Charles Walters and Arthur Freed with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.  It is for the me the epitome of the movie musical. Every number is a classic. It's where I learned word "rotogravure" as a kid and loved seeing the shot of St. Patrick's Cathedral "on the avenue, Fifth Avenue."

In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it
You'll be the grandest fella in the Easter Parade
I'll be all in clover and when they look us over
We'll be the proudest couple in the Easter Parade

On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us
And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet
And of the guy, I'm taking to the Easter Parade

And, just because they are so good, the men & boy's from King's College, Cambridge, because it's not Easter without the Hallelujah Chorus. Happy Easter to all who celebrate, and everyone can enjoy the great music.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Johnny Cash Asks Us "Were You There?"

Some of my favorite hymns and a motet for the day.

Were You There When They Crucified My Lord
Johnny Cash  
The show-closer from the Sept. 6, 1969, episode of The Johnny Cash Show, with Johnny, the Carter Family (featuring Anita Carter) and the whole ensemble bring down the house. Johnny sings the all-important lowest "F" in "trem-blllle."

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross
Eddy Arnold
Not talked about much in this century, but he had quite a following in the middle of the last.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Choir of Kings College, Cambridge
Isaac Watts' wonderful hymn sung to the lovely tune Rockingham. Nobody sings a descant like the boys at Kings.

O Vos Omnes

"O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte:
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus."

"O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
If there be any sorrow like my sorrow."

The great cry of hurt written by the prophet Jeremiah mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples, traditionally recited on Tisha B’Av, was co-opted by the first-rate Catholic composers of the 16th as motets for the Tenebrae Service of Good Friday or Holy Saturday, turning the POV to Christ on the cross.

You know what they say, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Pain for a devastating loss is the same, no matter who you are. The composers may have lifted the text, but they did make it completely their own with the most sublime composing saved for this holy day.

Gesualdo was a prince of Venosa known for murdering his wife, her lover, possibly his son and father-in-law. He also wrote in a chromatic musical language 300 years before its time, it wouldn’t be heard again until the late 19th century. Completely astounding. Two telling comments from YouTube: “insanely stunning music by a stunningly insane man” and “really disturbing... that's Gesualdo. Perfection itself.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday from the Poets

It’s a confluence of riches, thinking about poetry during Holy Week.

Oscar Wilde, the poet's poet,  imagines the week in Genoa, that ill-fated city where the faulty vessel that carried Shelley to his watery death was built. And in honor of Maundy Thursday—the commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist—Wilfred Owen, the great World War One poet. His take on the custom of kissing a crucifix has a reveal that underscores the humanness behind all ritual. Owen was shot and killed on the battlefield in France one week before the WW1 Armistice. He was 25 years old. And via PoemHunter, Rilke's stunning poem on seeing Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Holy Week at Genoa
Oscar Wilde

I wandered through Scoglietto's far retreat,
The oranges on each o'erhanging spray
Burned as bright lamps of gold to shame the day;
Some startled bird with fluttering wings and fleet
Made snow of all the blossoms; at my feet
Like silver moons the pale narcissi lay:
And the curved waves that streaked the great green bay
Laughed i' the sun, and life seemed very sweet.

Outside the young boy-priest passed singing clear,
'Jesus the son of Mary has been slain,
O come and fill His sepulchre with flowers.'
Ah, God! Ah, God! those dear Hellenic hours
Had drowned all memory of Thy bitter pain,
The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers and the Spear.

Maundy Thursday
Wilfred Owen

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)

Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(These kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)

Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed - my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)

The Last Supper
Rainer Maria Rilke

They are assembled, astonished and disturbed
round him, who like a sage resolved his fate,
and now leaves those to whom he most belonged,
leaving and passing by them like a stranger.
The loneliness of old comes over him
which helped mature him for his deepest acts;
now will he once again walk through the olive grove,
and those who love him still will flee before his sight.

To this last supper he has summoned them,
and (like a shot that scatters birds from trees)
their hands draw back from reaching for the loaves
upon his word: they fly across to him;
they flutter, frightened, round the supper table
searching for an escape. But he is present
everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour.

[On seeing Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, Milan 1904.]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Our Titanic Catharsis

I've felt some connection to the Titanic my whole life. I have an early memory of my dad in the kitchen filling the old metal ice cube trays. He brought it up, for no particular reason, saying that the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable because of its watertight compartment, but that they didn't have tops, like this tray.

"Nearer My God to Thee" was in my Magnus Organ book. I knew those words and that tune since I was 6, and later learned it was what the musicians played as the Titanic sank. (Apocryphal or not, the NY Times had the music for "Autumn" on their page as part of their coverage the next day in 1912.)

It happened that I went to college in Southampton, England, where the Titanic started her voyage with such hope. I visited the small museum they had in the 1980s, but they have just opened a new, more elaborate center. Later I moved to 106 Street and Broadway, where Straus Park is. It has a memorial called "Memory" to Isidor and Ida, the Macy's magnates, who died together rather than being separated. The sculpture is by Augustus Lukeman, and this line from 2 Samuel 23 is etched into the bench: "Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not parted.” The original reflecting pool has been replaced with a flower bed. (My photos above and below.)

I remember weeping through A Night to Remember when I saw it as a kid. It was directed by Roy Baker, who went on to direct 8 of the best 1965/66 Avengers episodes, another connection!

Daniel Mendelsohn opens his excellent New Yorker article with the quip from some historian that the three most written about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic.

Here are some of the usual reasons pointed to:
*The hubris of declaring a ship "unsinkable" was just begging for karma to act; naming the ship after the gods was bad enough

*"Tall as an 11-story building and constructed from 46,000 tons of steel, it was the largest moving object on earth" -- so what was it doing trying to float?

*The Carpathia steaming to the rescue, but too late for most, the much closer California tragically asleep

*Captain Edward Smith going down with the ship but the ship line owner J. Bruce Ismay jumping into a lifeboat and surviving to a lifetime of shame

*The New York Times has pdfs of their original coverage, all of which is fascinating. It started the reports of the first time "women and children" had been given as an order, and the first time SOS is actually used for distress, in addition to the longer standing CQD [ based on the French for secur, help, then the word distress].

But somehow the place Titanic has had in our minds for generations since April 15 is more than all those points.

My Titanic Thoughts:

*People had been crossing the Atlantic commercially since the mid1800s. They were on the boat for vacation, to see the world, to join family, to go to a new job, to start a new life. It's every circumstance of living in one defined place subjected to the cruelest way to die: unexpectedly, and in great pain.

•A ship on the ocean is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It is a floating small city built not on concrete, but on the Archimedes principle: "Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid. " Buoyancy is great while it works, until it doesn't.

*Then what seemed as solid as Manhattan is but a speck easily swallowed up by the might of the world's oceans.

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport

*What haunts my mind is the overwhelming force of the water filling the ship, taking over every physical space where there once was oxygen, including in the lungs of those on board. The men in the engine room, who worked the brutal job of keeping the boilers stoked to make the steam, died first . . .

*That horrible feeling the moment something has happened: like hearing your knee pop and knowing that it's going to need surgery. The captain and senior officers knew from the moment of the ice on the foredeck that the ship was going to founder. 

*The scenes all the movies portray of the panic of the third class/steerage passengers struggling to climb to deck level, some finding passage ways locked. It is a nightmare come to life.

*Doesn't everyone wonder: what would I have done on the Titanic? Would I have been smart and lucky enough to survive?

*Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic is generally an idiom for futility, but I once read a scientist argue that if you were able to strap enough chairs together you might make yourself something to float on.

In the hundred years since, there have been thousands of maritime disasters including ferries with the death toll in the tens of thousands.

But it's impossible to empathize with all of that. And that's what the Titanic provides us: a story that connects us to our collective vulnerability and mortality. That's why we need it. The photo that I took of the Straus memorial shows someone had recently put a bouquet in her hands.

And then the myth takes us even further: it has allowed generations to feel a cathartic grief for the suffering and death of more than a thousand people dying at once, in daily life (not on a battlefield). Sadly, not for the last time.

Roy Baker, A Director to Remember

The British director Roy Baker died on October 5, 2010, at the age of 93. The Telegraph obituary summarized the eclectic career, from second assistant to Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes to directing Marilyn Monroe in the studio’s early attempt at “yes, she can really act” film Don’t Bother to Knock, to the strange Singer Not the Song with Dirk Bogarde in leather pursuing John Mills as a priest.

That is all eclipsed by his sterling direction of A Night to Remember, the most engrossing, poignant, heart wrenching depiction of the sinking of the Titanic ever filmed. The entire production—-from the book by Walter Lord to the script by Eric Ambler to Geoffrey Unsworth cinematography-—is a dream team of talent who put the most affecting verisimilitude of that horrific night and early morning death 102 years ago--onto celluloid.

But what I will remember the talented Mr. Baker for best is the 8 episodes he directed during the black & white Mrs. Peel era of The Avengers.

The Cinematic Look of The Avengers

I don’t know if it was producer Albert Fennell or writer/producer Brian Clemens who brought Baker on, but whoever did it was a brilliant move that meant a visual film sense would grace the early small screen phenomenon. This changed when the series went into color in 1966/67, and it went back to having that thinner look of video, however offset by the Sixties Mod coloring, sets, and costuming, which was lovely too. But Baker's talent brought the distinctive look of Ealing Studios and the Rank Organization to television and left a distinction mark on the innovative spy series.

These 8 episodes he directed are a high point of the entire series:

1. The Town of No Return (28 September 1965)
2. Two's a Crowd (18 December 1965)
3. Too Many Christmas Trees (25 December 1965)
4. Silent Dust (31 December 1965)
5. Room Without a View (8 January 1966)
6. The Girl from Auntie (21 January 1966)
7. The Thirteenth Hole (29 January 1966)

From the man walking out of the sea to Steed's full high tea on a train in Town of No Return  to Steed and Emma punting on an idyllic canal to investigate “where have all the martlets gone?” in Silent Dust (a nod to Rachel Carson)  to the stylized dream sequences and Dickensian Christmas nightmare of Too Many Christmas Trees, Baker made a huge contribution to the early success of The Avengers. He brought that certain wry British sensibility that fans for several generations have found simply irresistible and have long remembered.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

April Is National Poetry Month: Robert Frost in Orange Is the New Black and More

April is National Poetry Month! From the website: Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

I encourage everyone to look at the 30 Ways to Celebrate, with a month of poetic activities. My offering is "Revisit a Poem."

The poem is Robert Frost's much anthologized "The Road Not Taken." What prompted the choice is I recently stumbled upon my retort poem—doesn't everybody have one?—which I wrote when I was 13. I had a very poetic yearnings in junior high school, before the angst set in.

I'm not entirely at his "ages and ages" hence stage, but far enough along to appreciate the energy and optimism of early the teen years, and to smile at the ability to mirror the original cadence and rhyme scheme pretty well.

In Defense of the Road Less Traveled

They say the man who had the task
To choose of two roads, when he was asked,
Chose the one traveled upon less.
(I would think that this is best.)

Then they contend that he did sigh
A lament of regret before he died.
To this I say I cannot see
How from his words they hold this to be.

Perhaps my eyes are too new yet
To recognize the anxiety and regret
That they can see and identify;
Through personal experience they sympathize.

To prove them wrong I pray to hold
To this less traveled, regrettable road.
Then show my contentment ages hence
And declare: it did make all the difference.

M.A. Peel, 13-year-old poet

Revisiting the Original
Frost's 1916 poem entered pop culture consciousness last year in Orange Is the New Black in the episode "Blood Donut." On that occasion, Slate's David Haglund wrote a great current-day summary of the nearly century-old debate about the poem's meaning, and dare we say, Frost's intention (paging W.K. Wimsatt's Verbal Icon).

"Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) makes a passing reference to “the road less traveled,” prompting a brief, agitated lecture from her fellow inmate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). “You know,” Piper says, “that doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means.” snip 
"But Piper is essentially right about the “The Road Not Taken,” which has long been one of the more misunderstood chestnuts in American poetry. In the first three stanzas, the speaker of the 1916 poem looks at one road, then another, which he calls “just as fair.” This second road, he thinks, has “perhaps the better claim,” because it appears less trodden. But he quickly corrects himself, noting that the “passing” of people to and fro “had worn them really about the same.”

Lots of good links in Haglund's piece to voices explicating in various directions, although many back the 'there-is-no-difference-in-the-paths' meme based on the line "had worn them really about the same."

What strikes me now is, how is everyone missing the grassy knoll:

"Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black."

One side was "grassy and wanted wear" and then he completely contradicts that when he says "Had worn them really about the same."  So what seems like a sweet pastoral poem really has a serious World War One-like disjunction at its core—is anything what we thought it was; dulce est decorum est, pro patria mori?—which gets compounded as we progress to the sigh and beyond.

The other thing that strikes me is the title. He did not title it "The Road Less Traveled" i.e., the chosen path.  His title focuses us first on the unknown, the empty cipher, the path not taken, starting us off immediately with the wistful. He was 42 when he wrote the poem, and he knew a thing or two how these things go.

And Now for the Designers
Chip Kidd did the National Poetry Month poster for this year, focusing on Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Sure. Making the other dominant image just a hand, Whitman's actual hand to size from a cast. Hmm. No comment.

My favorite remains Paul Sahre from 2009 and the brilliant visualization of my pal T.S. Eliot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Man on Wire" Becomes "Men with Parachutes": Nothing is "Defiled"

 "The Port Authority joins the NYPD in condemning this lawless and selfish act that clearly endangered the public," Port Authority Chief Security Officer Joseph Dunne said in a statement. "It should be clear that the PAPD and NYPD will go to any length to bring those who defile the WTC site to justice."

Joseph Dunne's statement on the three men who base jumped from One World Trade Center is one of the most depressing things I've read in a long time.

And competition for 'most sad and depressing things' is pretty high right now. 239 people vanish in a jumbo airplane that went wildly off course into the devouring expanse of the Indian Ocean--one of the closest realizations we have for "the middle of no where." 14 people have died horrific deaths in a mudslide in Washington, and 179 are still missing. Russia is trying to annex Crimea as though we were in the 19th century. And yet, the official condemnation of the jump from 1 World Trade Center ranks right up there.

September 2013
The topping off ceremony for 1WTC was on May 10, 2013. Four months after that, on September 30, at 3:00 am, four young guys climbed through a hole in a fence, made their way to the top of One World Trade Center, and three of them base jumped onto the West Side Highway. It was a caper. They admit to being thrill seekers, who saw a challenge.

‘It's a fair amount of free-fall time,’ said Andrew Rossig, one of the jumpers. ‘You really get to enjoy the view of the city and see it from a different perspective.’

They filmed the event, but as a private moment. At 3:00 in the morning, they knew there was almost no traffic on the West Side Highway, and as expert jumpers, no one was really endangered.

'Our intent was never for this to go public. We never posted the video footage. People didn’t know about it. We kept things quiet. As far as we were concerned, no one ever needed to know,' he added

They only posted their video after the police arrested them on Monday—six months after the jump—a week after the 16-year old kid from Jersey made his way to the top of the building too. So security is definitely something that the authorities need to look into. Right now. No question.

August 1974 . . . An Earlier Crime
On August 4, 1974, Phillipe Petite, a French high-wire artist, pulled off a stunt to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Since he first read about the building of the towers at 17 he was obsessed with the idea of walking between them, and for 45 minutes, just before his 25th birthday, he did it.

He called it "the artistic crime of the century." And yes, it was a crime. No question. He trespassed, endangered others, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The title of the documentary Man on Wire that tells the story of how he did it comes from the police report that was filed: it was the best way the cop could think of at that moment to describe the crime. Yup, a man was on a wire.

And then people started marveling. What beauty. What positive imagination. What spirit of soul. What skill.

Ultimately the district attorney dropped all formal charges of trespassing and other items relating to his walk. In exchange, Petite was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park and other acts of community service.

And then the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck. Of course they thought it would be Petite's lifetime, not the towers.

Back to the Present
And now we have a new caper. Same beauty. Same inspiration, Same positive imagination. Same spirit of soul. Same crazy amount of skill. It's still a crime. And of course the site is changed forever since Phillipe's crime by the victims of the terrorist attacks.

These guys were not out to make a grand statement. They are thrill seekers. But life and spirit and imagination are the BEST weapons against the nihilism and death and hatred of terrorists. And to reclaim a site of such horrific death by something that makes the spirit smile is the best we who continue can do.

I LOVE seeing their film.  I love experiencing the fall vicariously, seeing the moment when the parachute opens. Seeing the landing, and running away to hide the parachute. I am so happy to have had this tiny little experience.

And this feeling of admiration sits along side the current day Port Authority guy calls it "defiling" the WTC.

So make the guys teach safe bicycling, or skateboarding, whatever to children, insisting that they wear helmets. And show them that there are consequences to actions.

But most importantly: show them that their spirits can never be destroyed by others who hate, and that they will be fine as long as they have friends who have their back.

(top photo: my copy of The New Yorker from 2006 with one of its all-time great covers.)