September 15, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It was a madhouse. Everybody was running, women were screaming. All of this pollution coming out of the debris; it was like snow falling out of the sky.

—Sonny Rollins

I didn’t know how to release myself from him, and … I had some backlash, you know, on a personal level.

—Michael K. Williams on playing Omar

My idea of “shock and awe” has nothing to do with the label the Bush administration attached to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, wherein “awe” was supposed to suggest disarray, panic, confusion, and terror. “Awe” is what I feel watching Michael K. Williams’s astonishing performance as Omar in The Wire. And it’s what I’ve felt in the presence of the Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins, another native New Yorker who, like Williams, was hit hard by 9/11. With Rollins at his most wondrous, there’s no end to awe, it’s like his definition of music as “an open sky.” And 20 years on the other side of 9/11, the giant is still standing, having marked his 91st birthday on September 7, the day after the death at 54 of Michael K. Williams.

Toxic Snow

TV reports of New Yorkers being evacuated in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks referred to “an elderly black man carrying a saxophone case.” According to @jazztimes, “Sonny Rollins had been home in his Manhattan apartment, six blocks north of the World Trade Center, when the attacks occurred. From the street, he watched the second tower go down.” The next day the National Guard evacuated him from his apartment, where he’d been living for almost 30 years.

Interviewed on September 11, 2019, Rollins commented, “When that second plane hit, it was like snowfall coming down. And that snow, of course, was just toxic stuff. Anyway, I gulped some of it down. We were waiting until the next day to be evacuated, so I picked up my horn to play. I took a deep breath and felt that stuff down to my stomach. I said, ‘Oh, wow, no practicing today.’ … So yeah, it’s been conjectured that that’s part of what happened to me.” He’s referring to the pulmonary fibrosis that ended his playing days in 2012. As he put it in an NPR interview, “I had to go through quite a period of adjustment after I realized that I couldn’t blow my horn anymore.”  more

September 8, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I’m goin’ back…

—Carole King, from “Goin Back”

Looking ahead to Thursday, Princeton’s first day of the new school year, I’ve been going back to school, way way back to my first, McCalla Elementary, which was named for Bloomington Indiana’s first female school superintendent and was an easy two-block walk from home. Otherwise, all my schooling, K-12, took place in the same building, with one notable exception (ninth grade in New York City). The country school where I spent grades four through six is a lesser exception since getting there involved a long school bus ride through hills and valleys and woods to a two-room red-brick schoolhouse called Poplar Grove. That humble building still stands and so does the two-story Classical Revival structure that housed McCalla, which is currently used by the Indiana University School of Fine Arts for sculpture classes.

Lost and Found

After a too-hasty online search, I actually began to fear that the university had demolished the Art Deco building I’d entered as a kindergartner and left as a graduating senior. I was aware that the interior had been gutted long ago because I have a small, neatly cut and polished chunk of the wooden banister with a small plaque attached: University School 1937-1964. On the opening page of my senior yearbook there’s a two-page photograph of U-School’s Indiana limestone facade next to which a “lamentful” sophomore friend has drawn a ballpoint arrow and the words, “Stu, if you’re smart, boy, you’ll stay the hell out of here.”

And so I did for decades, until a classmate and I wandered inside on a June day in 1989. As soon as I walked down the hallway where my locker had been, I realized that I’d been there before in my dreams. I don’t mean nightmares, just dreams of the sort that take you down long, strange, vaguely familiar hallways and stairways and landings, while you try to fulfill enigmatic missions at the urging of various ghostly teachers whose names you’ve forgotten or would prefer not to remember. In these dreams I sometimes end up on the ground floor outside the boy’s locker room, the scene of an ugly, real-life fistfight between a senior class officer and a tough country kid. The class officer was getting the worst of it, his nose bleeding all over his powder blue cashmere sweater. Here were two societal extremes, the elite city kid and the country boy who was never invited to parties of the in-crowd, even if he happened to be a hero on the field.

My friend and I were in there no longer than the time it took to hear the spooky quavering of our voices echoing in the hallway. We’d been kidding around, like old times, and the sounds we were making came back at us like something on the soundtrack of a low-grade horror movie.  more

September 1, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A smile relieves a heart that grieves.

—from “Waiting On a Friend”

It’s July 1981, I’m walking down St. Mark’s Place in the East Village when I see Mick Jagger standing in the doorway of Number 96 and pretty soon here comes Keith Richards smoking and smiling his way through the sidewalk crowd. After a clumsy hug, the two head for St. Mark’s Bar & Grill on First Avenue, where Ron Wood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts are waiting, everything’s cool, it’s time to play, and for some curious reason, no one knows the Rolling Stones are in the house and about to deliver a free performance. The way the video for “Waiting On a Friend” spins it, these five guys are only neighborhood musicians. The folks at the bar take no notice and could care less that the character looning about as if he were Mick Jagger really is Mick Jagger.

This East Village street-life fantasy began with last week’s news of the death of drummer Charlie Watts. Making the rounds of obits, remembrances, and videos, I learned it was thanks to Watts that tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins agreed to play on “Waiting On a Friend” and two other songs on the Tattoo You LP. “My love for Sonny goes a long way back,” Watts says in an “American Legends” article in the January 23, 2010 Guardian. “I first saw him in 1964 at the original Birdland club on 52nd Street, playing with a trio. To sit there and watch Sonny Rollins, my God! In those days he did this fantastic thing: he used to start playing in the dressing room with no band, then walk out and go around the stage, using the room to bounce the sound off. It was amazing. I’d never seen anyone do that.”

Neither had I when I saw Rollins two blocks up St. Mark’s Place at the Five Spot. That night he started playing in the kitchen, warming up amid the rattle of glassware, plates, and cutlery. When the giant with the mohawk haircut pushed through the swinging door, he had a garland of bells around his neck jingling and tinkling as he strolled among the tables lifting and dipping his tenor sax like a divining rod.  more

August 25, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

But the point is to live.

—Albert Camus (1913-1960)

So ends “An Absurd Reasoning,” the four-part essay Albert Camus begins by declaring, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” In his penultimate paragraph, Camus suggests, after 45 pages, that “it’s no longer even a question of judging the existential leap,” which “resumes its place amid the age-old fresco of human attitudes.” That leap “is still absurd,” for even “as it thinks it resolves the paradox, it reinstates it intact. On this score, everything resumes its place and the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity.”

Camus in Islam Qala

On July 9, 2021, a month before the Afghan government fell, the BBC reported the Taliban’s capture of the “key border town” of Islam Qala. Government officials acknowledge “the loss of one of the biggest trade gateways into Iran, generating an estimated $20 million in monthly revenue for the government.”

“Trade gateway” sounds deceptively grand. From what can be seen of Islam Qala in videos of the Taliban takeover, it’s as desolate now as it was when I spent four days stranded there in the late sixties. I was one of a group of Americans “indefinitely detained” on the edge of the 18-mile stretch of no-man’s-land between the Afghan and Iranian borders. It’s more than likely that the rifle-bearing young soldiers guarding the border and keeping a wary eye on us were the future grandfathers of the soldiers trained by or fighting “side by side” with the post-9/11 U.S. Forces.

We were hoping to catch a ride into Iran on one of the numerous west-bound oil tankers, but when we asked customs officers in a building like the one shown in the BBC video, we were told that a “Muslim holiday” had shut everything down; no one would tell us when it would be over. They had confiscated our passports and we were under house arrest, although a “kinder, gentler” phrase would be protective custody. For food and drink we depended on the whims of a shifting crew of uniformed customs office functionaries. We were the only occupants of the ground floor of a one-story building across the highway from the customs headquarters. It was a big open room covered by a faded carpet, no beds, no chairs, no tables, just us and our packs and sleeping bags. I had nothing to read but Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom in a Penguin paperback that had passed through many hands before it landed in mine, and it’s possible that I’ve read the total desolation of Islam Qala into my memory of that space, along with the similarly bleak landscapes described in Camus’s stories. The time would come when waiting without hope made reading Camus in and of itself an act of existential desperation.  more

August 18, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home

—from Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

According to producers Ronald Moore and David Eick, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) is for people who hate space operas. I’ve never been a fan of the genre, but call it what you will, there’s something to be said for an epic  production that weaves one of its central mysteries around Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Although BSG ended its celebrated run in 2009, the series is no less timely today, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 looming, the pandemic (both the human and Cylon races are stalked by viruses), the 1/6 insurrection, and an environment under siege.

Referring to “Watchtower,” Moore says, “It’s something that lives in the collective unconscious of the show, it’s a musical theme that repeats itself. It crops up in unexpected places, and people hear it, or pluck it out of the ether. It’s sort of a connection of the divine and the mortal — music is something that people literally catch out of the air…. Here is a song that transcends many different aeons and cultures  … and was reinvented by one Mr. Bob Dylan.”

As it happens, Moore’s series is a reimagining of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica created by Glenn Larson. The original show, as described by Alan Sepinwall in his book The Revolution Was Televised (2012), “told the story of an Earth-like colonial civilization that suffers a devastating attack from a race of warrior robots called Cylons. The handful of survivors board a ragtag fleet of spaceships, led by the last military vessel standing, the Galactica.” Sepinwall goes on to quote Moore’s criticism of the original series, which was how “this great dark idea became this silly show.” Moore remembers “a haunting moment in the original pilot where we see the crew of Galactica reacting to the news of the death of billions during the Cylon attacks — and then how that emotion is quickly undercut by a trip to a resort planet” where its “roguish” fighter pilot Starbuck (reinvented as a roguish female in Moore’s Galactica) “can gamble and cavort with beautiful women.”

ABC canceled the series after one season. A quarter of a century later, the reimagined Battlestar was only nine weeks away from filming when September 11 changed everything, and, in Sepinwall’s words, “this escapist sci-fi adventure began to feel uncomfortably real.” The eventual result was “the unlikeliest, but best, millennial TV show inspired by 9/11.” Thus its appearance in Sepinwall’s book along with The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, 24, and Friday Night Lights, among the 12 landmark series “that changed TV drama forever.” more

August 4, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Celebrating Louis Armstrong’s 120th birthday a week before August 4, 2021, I get in the car, put “West End Blues” on the stereo, and drive downtown to the library. For the first time in a locked-down year and a half, I’m returning to my favorite source with a mission. And as usual, I find what I’m looking for, driving off with three biographies: Terry Teachout’s Pops (2009), Ricki Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World (2011), and Thomas Brothers’s Master of Modernism (2014).

In the Phillipe Halsman photo on the cover of Pops, Armstrong stands facing forward, his trumpet tucked under one arm; he’s wearing a red bow tie, and he’s not smiling. If anything, he looks to be on the verge of tears, as if a lifetime of emotion were welling up inside him. The photograph was taken in 1966, when LIFE put him on the cover. Teachout calls it “the climax of his eminence.” Inside is a 14-page interview in which he says, “I don’t sigh for nothing. Sixty years is a long time and there ain’t going to be no more cats in the game that long.” He died 50 years ago, July 6, 1971.

Armstrong in the Sixties

When I get home, the first book I open is Pops, which begins with an epigraph from Brancusi: “Don’t look for obscure formulas, nor for le mystère. It is pure joy I’m giving you.”

“Pure joy” is something I instinctively associate with the music of the Beatles. In the sixties, I had no interest in Armstrong songs like “What a Wonderful World,” which I listened to just now on YouTube; it’s a version for cynics with a warm and fuzzy introduction from Louis addressed to “all you young folks asking how about all the walls, and the hunger, and pollution, how ‘wonderful’ is that?” And he tells them, “It ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it.” When he sings of “trees of green” and “skies of blue” in his Times Square-on-New-Year’s-Eve voice, I’m smiling; when he gets to “the bright blessed day,” and friends shaking hands and saying “How do you do” when they’re really saying “I love you,” I’m thinking of the mob storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the Delta variant, and the massive cloud rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  more

July 28, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Here in the summer of 2021, when misinformation pollutes the Net and truth is a shadow of its former, undernourished self, I’m reading “The Art of Little Ruses” in Billy Wilder On Assignment (Princeton Univ. Press 24.95), a collection of Wilder’s salty, spirited writings from 1925-1930, edited by Noah Isenberg and spiritedly delivered into English by Shelley Frisch.

Writing in the May 1, 1927, Berliner Börsen Courier, the not-quite-21-year-old Wilder admits that as much as he appreciates and honors “the so-called truth,” he “can easily imagine that in two or three decades lies will be regarded as an indispensable and hence utterly unobjectionable implement in our daily lives.” So why not teach “the art of lying” as “a mandatory school subject, accessible to everyone and anyone,” making it “no longer the privilege of the few who have a natural predisposition in this arena” but  “the consummate moral and social justification of this hitherto maligned resource.”

Cynicism Rules

The cat-who-swallowed-the-canary wise guy on the cover of On Assignment already looks the part of the multiple-Oscar-winning Hollywood director Andrew Sarris deemed “too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” If anything, based on the features and opinion pieces in this lively book, he believed in his own cynicism 40 years before Sarris downgraded him to the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

Labeling A Foreign Affair (1948) and One, Two, Three (1961) Wilder’s “irresponsible Berlin films” (“a series of tasteless gags, half anti-Left and half anti-Right”), Sarris singles out the “penchant for gross caricature” he says “marred” classics like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959). When he pompously concludes that Wilder “is hardly likely to make a coherent film on the human condition,” I can almost hear Berlin Billie saying, and Hollywood Billy chiming in, “When was the last time coherence had anything to do with the human condition?” more

July 21, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Ernest Hemingway began The Sun Also Rises (1926) on his 26th birthday, July 21, 1925. “Everybody my age had written a novel,” he told the Paris Review’s George Plimpton, “and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.” He finished the first draft exactly six weeks later in Paris.

I came back to Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” novel by way of John McPhee’s April 19, 2021 piece in the New Yorker (“Tabula Rasa: Volume Two”). Referring to a passage in which the protagonist Jake Barnes and his pal Bill Gorton are walking “across a meadow and through rising woods and across high open fields and down to a stream,” McPhee, who turned 90 on March 8, observes how “each successive sentence, in stairstep form, contains something of its predecessor and something new — repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing, like fracture zones on the bed of the ocean. It is not unaffective. It is lyrical.” Years later when he was teaching his Princeton course in creative non-fiction, McPhee assigned the passage to writing students, “asking if they could see a way to shorten it without damaging the repetition.”

Don’t Touch a Word

Reading the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises for the first time in decades, I was surprised to find evidence of the “elephantine facetiousness” Scott Fitzgerald pointed out in the ten-page-long handwritten letter he sent to Hemingway in the spring of 1926. I was 16 when I first read the book, although “read” isn’t the word for it. I drank it down like an underage drinker on a binge.

Three years later I opened A Farewell to Arms (1929) to one of the most celebrated examples of Hemingway’s “repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing” don’t- touch-a-word-of-it prose topography:  more

July 14, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It all comes down to the map shown on this page. As soon as I saw it, I was hooked. I’d say it was love at first sight, no, that’s too easy, but what else can you call it when your first view of a book is an inviting gateway that rouses something deep inside you, something truly special, something at the heart of who you are and how you see the world? All the better when the book is about a perilous journey undertaken by the one figure in American history who loomed above the miasma of fact sheets and data-to-be-memorized.

My first encounter with the Liberty Bell, at 12, was not particularly memorable. A few days later when my father took me to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., I was moved, fascinated, and remain haunted to this day by the photographs of the gallows and the hooded bodies of the four conspirators executed on July 7, 1865. As you read Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020), the real-life equivalent of Chekhov’s metaphorical gun is always waiting in the wings, the gun you know will be fired in the last act by an actor who played the crookback king in Shakespeare’s Richard III, one of the numerous plays Lincoln could quote by heart.

Thanks to the map, I was drawn into Widmer’s book before I read a word. There’s a hint of a board game quest in the way the colorful lay-out puts Lincoln’s Odyssey in play, from Springfield to the goal of Washington and inauguration, a route twisted in tangents because of assassination conspiracies brewing in Baltimore, thus Poe’s raven perched on the letter B.

And thanks to my search for an online image of the map, I landed on the April 2020 CUNY Book Beat website and a quote by Ted Widmer that communicates an enthusiasm that can be felt throughout the narrative: “It’s the story of thirteen days in the life of Lincoln. He’s been elected president, the South is seceding, Washington is falling apart and somehow out of all of this chaos he’s got to get on a train, go two thousand miles, meet millions of Americans and try to avoid an assassination attempt. . . .  It’s not just to save the North, it’s to save the entire country, the United States of America, the most successful democracy on earth . . . It felt to me like something out of Greek mythology or any of the old epics from a lot of different civilizations where someone has to fight against terrible odds, almost as if the gods are against him to get to his destination to fulfill his quest. It felt bigger than a story out of American history to me.” more

July 7, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

I finished Ted Widmer’s Lincoln On the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020) on the verge of America’s 245th Independence Day and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 217th birthday.

I was enroute to an unqualified appreciation of Widmer’s book when he brought Nathaniel Hawthorne on board his roundabout journey to Lincoln’s inauguration (1,904 miles, 18 different railway lines, at least 100 speeches, and thousands of handshakes). Hawthorne enters the narrative by way of three quotations in the first 105 pages. Discussing the South’s refusal to accept the reality of Lincoln’s election — for “many Southerners ‘Lincoln was not only unlikable, he was unthinkable.’ ” — Widmer introduces the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) as “a specialist in fantasy” whose “creative powers simply shut down when he tried to imagine a Lincoln presidency.” Reading that comment with the train-in-motion metaphor in mind was like hitting a rough stretch of poorly maintained track — a giant of American literature was being cast as a genre writer, a mere “specialist.” The rough stretch continued with the thirdhand patchwork paraphrase from Carl Sandburg in James R. Mellon’s The Face of Lincoln (1980): “It was the‘strangest’ thing, Hawthorne wrote, and a true measure of the ‘jumble’ of the times, that Lincoln, ‘out of so many millions,’ had prevailed. He was ‘unlooked for,’ ‘unselected by any intelligible process,’ and ‘unknown’ even to ‘those who chose him.’ How could such a nonentity [Widmer’s term] have found a way to ‘fling his lank personality into the chair of state?’ ” While I didn’t doubt that Hawthorne would have been astonished by Lincoln’s election, I found it hard to believe that his “creative powers” could be shut down by a “nonentity.”

Hawthorne’s next appearance came with a turn of the page to a section headed “Secessia,” after a term he would eventually apply to the Confederate States — in Widmer’s words, “as good a name as any for a place that often seemed to be a state of mind as much as a working government.” At this point it’s worth mentioning that Widmer’s stated source was Hawthorne’s long, controversial article in the July 1862 Atlantic, “Chiefly About War Matters,” which includes an in-person view of Lincoln so irreverent (“the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable”) that the article was published anonymously, “By a Peaceable Man,” and even then partially censored by the editors.  more

June 30, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Friday Night Lights is that it is painfully, breathtakingly realistic and yet also exists as some sort of platonic ideal of what human beings can be ….

  —Will Leitch, introducing A Friday Night Lights Companion

When Peter Berg pitched Friday Night Lights to NBC executives in 2006, he accentuated the negative: “I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero. This wonderful, beautiful kid with his entire future ahead of him …. And he’s going to break his neck in the first game. We’re going to create this iconic American hero, and we’re going to demolish him.”

Berg is quoted in “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose” (a variation on the Dillon, Texas Panthers’ pregame mantra “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”), an oral history compiled by Robert Mays on grantland.com and posted July 28, 2011. Mays describes the series as the “story of a high school football coach from Dillon, whose improbable victories mirrored those of the critically beloved — but disastrously rated — show itself. In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights (FNL) emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of our Country seemed most in doubt.”

That was “our Country” a decade ago.  more

June 23, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!

—from Juneteenth

Unable to find a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth (Modern Library 1999) on short notice, I’ve been reading an excerpt reprinted in Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings (Modern Library 2001), edited by Robert O’Meally. According to O’Meally’s note, the piece in question (“Keep to the Rhythm”) was first published in 1969 as “Juneteenth,” a section from “Ellison’s forthcoming novel.” Given the fact that the novel didn’t actually “come forth” until 1999, five years after the author’s death and 47 years after the publication of Invisible Man, one of the great 20th century American novels, this has to be among the most famously delayed follow-ups in American literature, along with the still-unpublished Glass family saga J.D. Salinger was working on for the last 40 years of his life.

Promised and Delayed

Last week Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday, a long-time-coming recognition of the occasion already celebrated as Jubilee Day or Black Independence Day two and a half years before the Texas liberation of June 19, 1865. As poet Kevin Young points out in a guest essay (“Our Freedom Is America’s Freedom”) in Sunday’s New York Times, Juneteenth and other emancipation holidays commemorate “both the promise of freedom and its delay.” In Young’s words, “The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.”

Young’s piece begins by citing the music of Frankie Beverly and Maze as “one of the things Black people have enjoyed that white folks don’t know about.” Follow the Times’ YouTube link and you find that the group’s song “Before I Let Go” has had 36,926,680 views, compared to 44,104 views of 52-year-old Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) in a 1966 documentary reading the Juneteenth sermon from his work in progress. more

June 16, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Begin the day at a simple gravestone in the Princeton cemetery, SYLVIA BEACH 1887-1962. From there it’s only a stone’s throw to Sylvia Beach Way, the lane that runs behind the Sands library building, one of Princeton’s most popular dropping-off, picking-up spots. Across town is Library Place, where Sylvia and her family lived before she moved to Paris and opened Shakespeare and Company in 1920; in her eponymous memoir, she wonders if the name of the street influenced her choice of a career in the book business. Her father Sylvester Beach (Princeton Class of 1876) was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, where, according to Sylvia’s friend Annis Stockton, the horses of Washington’s staff had once munched their oats in the pews, a tidbit the author of Ulysses would have appreciated.

A Funny Little Publisher

When James Joyce despaired of ever finding a place for Ulysses, which had been preemptively banned in the English-speaking countries, Sylvia Beach asked him if he would let Shakespeare and Company “have the honor” of bringing his book out. He accepted the offer “immediately and joyfully.” Describing the moment, Beach admits thinking it “rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher.” As Joyce’s wish was to have the first copy off the press on his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, she promised to make that happen. When the printer, who was located 300-plus kilometers from Paris, said that it couldn’t be done, she insisted otherwise. Came the day, she received a telegram telling her to meet the 7 a.m. express from Dijon, which she did, her heart “going like the locomotive” as the train “came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone – me.” Soon she was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing the author “Copy No. 1 of Ulysses.” more

June 9, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

…. and they rode up smiling Prospect Avenue, through the gay crowd, to have tea at Cottage.

—from This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

I’m walking up Prospect Avenue. On my right is the apartment building at 120 where Dream Songs poet John Berryman was fixated on Don Giovanni in the summer of 1947. Up the street on the other side is the Cottage Club, the site of the spring 1920 honeymoon revels of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, during which Zelda “turned cartwheels down Prospect,” according to Fitzgerald’s biographer Andrew Turnbull. Thinking of all the characters, poets and players, outsiders and insiders who have walked and dreamed and cartwheeled up and down that illustrious thoroughfare, including T.S. Eliot, I’m having “such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands.”

“Paradise” and the Garden

I went to Prospect Avenue last week for a first-hand look at the three Victorian houses slated for demolition as part of the University’s vision of the street that the petitioners of Save Prospect Now (SPN) are hard put to understand. As  much as I sympathize with SPN’s resistance to the plan, I’m taking advantage of the occasion to write a belated centenary celebration of Scott Fitzgerald’s prose poem to Princeton, This Side of Paradise, and Princeton’s Garden Theatre, both of which made their debut in 1920, the novel in May, the theatre in September. The first film I saw at the Garden some 50 years later was a revival of MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932). It’s been even longer since I read This Side of Paradise. I have to handle my copy with care; the pages of the 35-cent Dell paperback are yellowed and flaking, and no wonder; it’s copyrighted 1948, in the name of Zelda Fitzgerald, who died that year in a fire at Highland hospital in Asheville, N.C. more

June 2, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Not Kafka again!” says my wife when I mention my plans for this week’s column. It’s true. I find his presence everywhere, most recently haunting an article in the front section of Friday’s New York Times about the reopening of The Vessel, “the labyrinth of staircases at Hudson Yards that closed four months ago after several people killed themselves there.” Related Companies, the developer, “had put measures in place to reduce the risk of suicides” among visitors to the “150-foot spiraling sculpture,” with its “154 interconnecting flights of stairs and 80 landings.”

No need to reference Kafka in the article, he’s there. He can also be read into baseball (K the symbol for a strikeout), and the current conspiracy-theory twilight zone of American politics. The first place I look when I need close-up one-on-one Kafka, however, is in my copy of Diaries 1914-1923, edited by his friend Max Brod. Say you’re reading around in the summer of 1917, you’ve been trying to find words for the sound the Brood X cicadas are making in the summer of 2021, and you land on a single line set apart from the surrounding entries:

“The alarm trumpets of the void.”

Does it come close to the surreal magnitude of a sound so monstrously impending that you seem to be seeing what you’re hearing? Close enough I think. In German, it’s Die alarmtrumpeten der Leere. The translator of this edition of Diaries is listed as Martin Greenberg, “with the assistance of Hannah Arendt.” Where does the line come from? It might be a fragment from a work in progress such as “In the Penal Colony” or “The Great Wall of China.” Whoever, however, wherever, all I know is Kafka pitched another K, a nasty slider that just caught the outside corner of the strike zone. more

May 26, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Close your eyes. Pretend you’re 10 years old. Playing. Just playing.

—from Friday Night Lights

Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time.

—Bob Dylan, from Chronicles

Picture two people in a pasture with some cows, a line of pink light balanced on the horizon. Move in closer and you see a high school football coach and his wife. The toxic spillover of a train derailment and an explosion has cost the coach home field advantage, an absolute necessity for the upcoming game that will decide whether his team goes to the state finals. He’s refused the emergency option of a big stadium with all the amenities, an offer tainted by big money, bribery, and corruption. Mainly, he knows what home field means. So, two days before the game, he decides to convert the pasture into a makeshift stadium, with arc lights, stands, scoreboard, end zones, goal posts, everything. Clearly an impossibility, but he’s a determined man. His wife has doubts and questions. “Where would people park? And how would you put lights in here?” Coach says he doesn’t know, doesn’t care. When a cow moos, he takes it as a show of support. “All I’m tryin’ to do,” he says, and suddenly he knows what he wants to say, it’s what the moment’s all about, the heart of the matter. “Come here,” he says. When she’s within whispering distance, he holds her face in both hands, tells her to close her eyes and pretend she’s 10 years old. Just playing. Just playing….

What Hit Home

Playing! That’s the word that hit home for me and brought back the essence of play, as in playing ball, 10 years old, me and my friends, as it was and seemed it would surely always be, just us, no adults, no coaches, no parents, no pressure (no cows). Just kids having fun, with a football in fall, a baseball in summer, using scuffed up, grass-stained balls and a few Louisville Sluggers with black friction tape around the handles and nothing but the rough sketch of an infield to play on in a onetime pasture with an old barn at one end and on the bluff beyond it the Illinois Central railroad tracks. We were still playing in the fading daylight right up to the moment parents called or whistled us home. That was before the adult-monitored, organized competition of Babe Ruth or Little League, or in high school, where, if you were lucky you had a coach like the one in Peter Berg’s series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011).  more

May 19, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Now you see in Hip Talk, they call William Shakespeare “Willie the Shake!” You know why they call him “Willie the Shake!” Because, HE SHOOK EVERYBODY!

—Lord Buckley (1906-1960)

There was a time long long ago when I thought the best thing that ever happened to Shakespeare was Marlon Brando. Even as Elvis was singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” high school kids in southern Indiana forced to memorize “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen” could take heart from Brando’s presence in MGM’s Julius Caesar. Or you could listen to Lord Buckley’s album Hipsters and read his version of the speech, “Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies,” in the City Lights paperback Hiparama of the Classics.

Enter/Exit Norman Lloyd

Me, I had to wait until James Shapiro put Lord Buckley’s rendition of Antony’s funeral oration into his anthology, Shakespeare in America, which was published by The Library of America in 2014, the Bard’s  450th anniversary.

In November of that year, Norman Lloyd celebrated his 100th birthday. If you’ve heard of him, it’s most likely because he died last week at 106, remembered in the New York Times obituary as “the young actor” who moved audiences as Cinna the poet in Orson Welles’s 1937 fascist production of Julius Caesar, which Welles subtitled The Death of a Dictator. I recognized the man in the Times photograph as the title character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), described in the obit as “the chilly fascist sympathizer who had kept audiences on the edge of their seats as he dangled from the Statue of Liberty.” He didn’t just dangle, he fell, the sleeve of his jacket tearing as Robert Cummings tried to pull him to safety. The mother  of all vertigo paranoia is Hitchcock’s shot of Lloyd falling to his death. Thus, the young actor, who “died” at the hands of a jackbooted Nazi mob in a modern-day Caesar and five years later as a Nazi agent, outlived everyone involved in both productions. He and Welles, who died in 1985, were both 22 when Lloyd’s onstage murder stopped the show at the Mercury Theatre.

What made Cinna’s fatal misadventure in Act 3 a show-stopping sensation? Introducing Stanley Whipple’s New York World-Telegram review in Shakespeare in America, Shapiro notes that while Welles drastically cut Shakespeare’s text, “his focus on fascism and mob violence led him to stage in full, for the first time in America, the scene in which Cinna the Poet is attacked … by the kind of mob that gives you a Hitler or Mussolini.” According to Lloyd himself in a July 2014 interview on eatdrinkfilms.com, “the show stopped for about three minutes. The audience stopped it with applause” because it showed them “what fascism was; rather than an intellectual approach, you saw a physical one.” The immediacy of the act electrified the audience. Said Lloyd, “In 1937, Hitler was in power and the Germans were killing people on the street. If your name was Jewish, you were gone. I wanted that, so I said to Orson, ‘This is just a guy who gives the wrong name.’ “ In the play all Cinna can say, over and over, is “I’m Cinna, the poet,” not the Cinna implicated in Caesar’s assassination.

A second notice written by Whipple during the opening week refers to “the trance” the play induced among theatregoers. The “tragedy of Cinna the Poet” is singled out as “a triumph for the direction of Mr. Welles and the playing of Norman Lloyd.” Whipple’s account focuses on “the slender figure of the poet” confronted by “a little knot of man hunters  obviously trying to mop up the conspirators.” To their questions, he keeps mildly repeating the words “I am Cinna the poet” and “handing out his scribblings with polite bewilderment, to prove his identity.” As he starts to move free, another group of men blocks his way. Then another, and another. “Around him is a small ring of light, and in the shadows an ever-tightening, pincer-like mass movement. Then in one awful moment of madness the jaws of the mob come together on him and he is swallowed up and rushed into black oblivion.” Clearly still seeing and feeling the moment, Whipple takes a breath and concludes: “Mr. Lloyd’s gently comic bewilderment, his pathetic innocence and the crushing climax as the human juggernaut rolls down upon him make this one of the most dynamic scenes in today’s theater.”  more

May 12, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

—Newton Minow

Sixty years ago on Sunday, May 9, 1961, newly appointed F.C.C. Chairman Newton Minow labeled television “a vast wasteland” in an address to the National Association of Broadcasters. After suggesting that “when television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better,” he asserted that “when television is bad, nothing is worse.” His litany of negatives included “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

If you’re wondering what Minow would make of today’s non-stop, everything-you-desire-is-endlessly-available wonder/wasteland, he’s here to tell us, at age 95, and according to news.wttw.com in Chicago, he thinks that the expanding of viewing choices has “contributed to the deep divisions in our country.” As a result, no surprise, the most important issue today is “deciding what is a fact.”

Speaking of Facts

A few weeks ago I referred to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul as “a great American film,” as if my opinion had some basis in fact. Writing at Oscar time, when American films are the center of the universe, I was speaking in extremes to make a point. Yes, it’s an outstanding series, it’s American, and it’s a film, but it’s also a five-season 50-episode saga with a sixth and final season yet to come. Sometimes I have to temper my enthusiasm to avoid sounding like a glorified blurb writer or a publicist with delusions of grandeur, not unlike Saul Goodman himself.

Another factor that would have sounded fantastically futuristic when Minow made his wasteland speech is the freedom to binge that allows me (and my wife) to speed through an entire five-season series in under two weeks. By so doing, we’re violating the real-life viewing experience of audiences that may have had to wait a year or longer for a new season. Meanwhile, it’s hard to keep a spillover of excitement from driving a written response, especially if you’re still feeling the wind of the binge at your back. more

May 5, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught.

—Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), on American films

Sunday, May 2, marked the 100th birthday of the Indian film director Satyajit Ray, who was presented with an honorary Oscar at the 1992 Academy Awards “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”

Videotaped as he lay in a Calcutta hospital three weeks before his death, the golden statuette clutched in one hand, Ray’s acceptance speech was direct, open, and down to earth, in contrast to the lofty rhetoric of the citation: “When I was a small, small school boy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. Became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply, was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn’t get a reply. Then of course, I got interested in the cinema as an art form, and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn’t reply either. Well, there you are. I have learned everything I’ve learned about the craft of cinema from the making of American films. I’ve been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught.”

The Only Truth 

Last week the New York Times brought images from India’s pandemic nightmare to the breakfast table, vistas of funeral pyres burning in New Delhi and headlines like “Death Is the Only Truth” over Aman Sethi’s April 30 account of the mass cremations in Ghazipur. At the same time, my wife and I were watching the life and death truths at the heart of Ray’s Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu/Apur Sansa (1959), films of which Ray’s fellow director Akira Kurosawa has said, “Not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” more

April 28, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

You could say that growing up with the Princeton Record Exchange sealed my son’s fate. I can still see him sitting on the floor, plowing through the $1.99 bargain bins at the back of the legendary store’s first location on Nassau between Chambers and Bank streets. When Prex was two years old in 1982, Ben had just turned six, and there he was, hunkered down picking out albums that would be recycled over the years as his taste began to shift from mainstream pop to power pop to metal to psych to prog, and on and on into the most exotic, obscure, and farflung reaches of the rock and roll universe.

“Little Red Corvette”

The first record Ben actually owned was Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” purchased on his birthday from a startled sales clerk at Titles Unlimited, who wanted to know if the little kid in the stroller knew what the song was about. I put him off, not ready to delve into the philosophical depths of a five-year-old’s careless infatuation with lyrics like “a pocketful of horses, Trojans some of them used,” “a body like yours oughta be in jail,” and “your little red love machine.” Not only were the words hilarious, he liked the way they fit the music, and they were fun to dance to.

From early on, as soon as Ben heard a lyric, he knew it cold. Call it a gift or a curse, this is true today, on his 45th birthday. He still delights in reciting lyrics like Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” in which the singer goes from being “pressed in love’s hot, fevered iron like a striped pair of pants” to “the sweet green icing flowing down” because “someone left the cake out in the rain.”  more

April 21, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Describing the long strange trip behind the making of Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal, director Darius Marder tells screendaily.com, “Hollywood didn’t want to hear about two things — heavy metal and deaf people. Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for representing this, that, or the other, but when you’re trying to do it, man, it got no love. It was the end of a conversation before it even began.”

Seventy-six years ago, after seeing a rough cut of Johnny Belinda, Warner Bros. boss Jack Warner reportedly told  the film’s director, Jean Negulesco, “We invented talking pictures, and you make a picture about a deaf and dumb girl!’’ The girl was played by Jane Wyman, whose Best Actress Oscar was among 12 Academy Award nominations Warner was referring to when he phoned Negulesco afterward and said, “Well, kid, we did it again! Next time we do a picture we’re gonna get fourteen nominations!”  As Neguelsco points out in The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, this cozy familial  “we” came in spite of the fact that Warner had fired the director when he was about to shoot the film’s last scene.

Extending the Ending

Sound of Metal is the only film among this year’s nominees I wish I could have seen in a theater. The last scene channels the “this-is-the-way-the-world-ends” last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” except for ending not with a whimper but with the distorted cacophony of a church tower bell beating out the hour. A cinematic experience that began with a crash-bang full-force fury of heavy-metal drumming ends with the drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) sitting on a bench listening to the dissonant fragments of a world of shattered sound, in which the bell in the tower he’s glaring at delivers one slow soggy heavy blow after another, splash-bang-crash, splash-bang-crash, as if the bell ringer were producing a sick-joke mockery of Ruben’s former occupation. You’re watching with him, in his head, when he puts an end to the charade by detaching himself from the super expensive cochlear implants, plunging himself, his surroundings, and the film into silence.

This is an ending that belongs in a theater. It needs to resonate; it’s too large for a living room. And how would an audience of in-the-moment witnesses react to the film’s protagonist taking matters into his own hands and shutting off the sound? After being shocked, disabled, humbled, enlightened, confused, and challenged by the storyline, Ruben takes full possession of the film, it’s all his now, as he makes the final move. The audience knows he’s got another life waiting in America, a community, and a culture, and it’s likely that as the significance of the moment sinks in, there would have been applause, perhaps cheers.  more

April 14, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine! You can’t conceive what I’m capable of!  I’m so far beyond you, I’m like a god in human clothing! Lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!

—from Better Call Saul, Season 5

Better Call Zeus is more like it. In fact that passionate utterance comes from the owner of a Suzuki Esteem named Jimmy (“S’all good, man!”) McGill, who is at a transformative breaking point not unlike the Shazam moment where Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel.

So, you may be thinking Saul Goodman of the lightning bolts is either a Shakespearean actor in rehearsal or a deranged black comedy superhero out of the Marvel comics universe, surely not a shyster lawyer with a University of American Samoa law degree (by mail) driving a vehicular alter ego of a color somewhere between a “yellow matter custard I-am-the-Walrus” shade of yellow and the Crime and Punishment yellow symbolic of corruption, dilapidation, decay, and soulsick decadence. And don’t forget the slightly unhinged strip of chrome on the passenger side, just down from the blood-red rear door that suggests the work of a body shop mechanic with delusions of abstract expressionist grandeur.

Every time Jimmy speeds off on another mission, the camera makes sure you get a clear view of the word ESTEEM to the right of the New Mexico Land of Enchantment license plate. And every time you see that word you’re reminded of how brilliantly far the show’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have gone — the proverbial extra mile — to put their hero behind the wheel of the perfect car for a driver on his way to the far side of “esteem” as Saul Goodman, a Friend of the Cartel.

Jimmy’s 1998 Esteem takes a hit almost as soon as he puts it in motion in the series pilot when an insurance-scamming skateboarder tumbles accidentally on purpose over the hood and smashes the window. Amazingly, the Little Yellow Car That Could almost makes it to the end of Season 5 (spoiler alert) as Jimmy/Saul drives it to the Mexican border. You could say that when the Esteem goes literally over the edge — it’s goodbye Jimmy, hello Saul. more

April 7, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

The greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.

—Gary Giddins on Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

It’s Opening Day at the Great American Ballpark. So begins a fresh, new, hopefully complete season after the travesty of 2020. At first glance there was a touch of poetry in that combination, the idea of a sports venue that hadn’t been branded by a corporation; alas, the home field of the Cincinnati Reds bears the name of The Great American Insurance Company.

But then the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, the team I’ve followed almost all my life, play their home games on the site of a slave market in a stadium built and named for a beer baron.    

I’m not complaining, not after watching Major League baseball played with real people in the stands. Never mind that the crowd amounts to only 20 percent of capacity, these living breathing yelling drinking eating fans are a joy to behold after last year’s cardboard facsimiles, with crowd noise Muzak piped in at peak moments in the action.

I’d like to think the upside of that surreal season was that it refreshed our appreciation of the game, the moral being “You don’t know what you’ve got until you almost lose it.”   

The same story was played out at the same time when America almost lost itself; now democracy is starting a new season, with the MLB commissioner pulling this year’s All Star Game out of Atlanta as a rebuke to Georgia’s recently passed voter suppression bill. Remember the way the Republican secretary of state stood fast against the gangster tactics of an unhinged president? Remember the 1919 Black Sox scandal?  It’s as if a right-handed reliever named Raffensperger refused to throw the game, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth, thus validating the playing-by-the-rules ideal shared by baseball fans bound by a love of the game, whatever their team or party. Except that fans of the Great Lie booed, threw things, and stormed the field of broken dreams screaming “Kill the umpire!”  more

March 31, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Marvell is the most enigmatic, unclassifiable, and unaffiliated major poet in the language.

—Harold Bloom

Now let us sport us while we may…

—Andrew Marvell (1621-1679)

   No man is an island entire of itself …

—John Donne (1572-1631) 

In October 1966, Ray Davies and the Kinks recorded my theme song for the day, “Too Much On My Mind,” which makes a surprising but perfectly natural appearance a decade later in The American Friend (1977) by the German director Wim Wenders. At the time of the filming, Wenders told an interviewer that rock and roll had “saved” him: “It gave me the idea of finding out about life. It led me to everything; it led me to film-making.” Because of rock Wenders started to think of creativity “as having something to do with joy: the idea of having a right to enjoy something.” That’s a striking admission from someone who grew up in postwar Germany; instead of the burden of guilt, angst, and negativity: enjoying the right to find joy in creation.

It’s not that I mind having too much on my mind every week. Far from it. Witness the crowd of epigraphs at the top. I could have added a dozen more, including all of Andrew Marvell’s irresistible seize-the-day and see-the- world-and-die seduction song “To His Coy Mistress,” one of those poems it’s hard to stop reading. One sip of this salty Margarita and you’re off to the races with the world and time like the wind at your back, the notion of maidenly coyness the salt on the rim of the glass. Try not feeling happily drunk reading a line like “our long love’s day.” Then to go from that to the sweeping geographical audacity of the coy mistress finding rubies by the Ganges while the love-crazed poet from Hull sings a lusty far-reaching complaint beside his own hometown Humber (was Humbert Humbert here?). Then a take-no-prisoners love song pitch for all time, “I would love you ten years before the Flood.” Who cares what happens after the Flood? And the casual beauty of “And you should if you please refuse” with the not so casual “until the Conversion of the Jews.” Another one-two punch follows, the time-wise, “My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster than Empires, and more slow.” How slow? At this point a poet writing in the 1660s, his poetry unpublished in his time, casts his line and lands the last, July 29, 1997 entry, in the journal of William S. Burroughs two days before his death in Lawrence, Kansas, where a low-rent midnight movie called Carnival of Souls had been filmed in the early 1960s around the time Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was being served up to the world.

Too much on my mind, for sure. Like Ray’s song says, “It seems there’s more to life than just to live it.”  more

March 24, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Earth, you darling, I will! Oh, believe me, you need
your Springs no longer to win me: a single one,
just one, is already more than my blood can endure!

—from Duino Elegies

I walked into Labyrinth Books last week looking for nothing in particular and walked out with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Norton Library 1963). Later the same day I read the first four of the 10 elegies aloud to myself, softly, just above a whisper, with the rain gently falling in the background.

In an essay from his 2012 collection In Time, C.K. Williams agrees with “the many readers” who consider Duino Elegies “the greatest single poem of the twentieth century.” Rilke named the work for Duino Castle, near Trieste, where he began the first elegy in 1912 after a stormy walk along the bastions with the Adriatic Sea “raging two hundred feet below.” According to J.B. Leishman’s introduction, Rilke heard the first line in the wind: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?” In the translation by Leishman and Stephen Spender: “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?”

Something like the unsettling pleasure of reading Rilke soft and low in rainy day serenity is in the music of the first stanza: “For Beauty’s nothing / but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, / and why we adore it so is because it serenely / disdains to destroy us.”

In his essay, Williams finds Duino Elegies “simply gigantic: inexhaustible.” If he were alive again and sitting across from me at this moment celebrating the poem’s “superabundant being,” he’d be smiling, leaning forward, delighting in a poet who could write “Earth, you darling, I will,” as if the Earth had just proposed marriage. The pleasure of this imagined moment is the feeling that two poets are face to face with you saying, “Look, I am living.” And so they are. more