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

March 17, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Reading that quote from a 1930 letter from Einstein to his son Eduard, I had an absurd early-20th-century vision of myself delivering Town Topics on a bicycle. Even more absurd, my route comprised the two streets we lived on during our first decade in Princeton. In reality, this would mean riding a bicycle across town from Patton Avenue to Hodge Road. Every Wednesday. While there have been times when I needed to do the honors for our current street, that was from a car. What makes the old-fashioned paper route-on-a-bicycle idea truly ridiculous is that I never met a bike I liked, and vice-versa. I honestly never really wanted or needed one, and was rarely comfortable my few times in the saddle.

Anyway, here we go. Patton Avenue, our first Princeton street, was named for the 13th president of the University, Frances Landey Patton (1843-1932), who during the Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1896 made it official, declaring that the College of New Jersey would “in all future time be known as Princeton University.’’

We lived on the top two floors of a half-stucco, half-shingled house built in the 1920s. The terror of even the bravest of paper boys, a gigantic Irish wolfhound named Troika occupied the first floor, along with his master, a stage technician at McCarter. At a yard sale advertised in Town Topics we got to know the couple next door, who performed as a duo called Smile. The wife gave piano lessons to Stalin’s granddaughter, but that’s another story I’ve told more than once before.

The most striking feature of our stretch of Patton Avenue were the sycamore trees whose roots turned the sidewalks into hazards for kids who ran before they looked, not to mention aged, bicycle-riding newsboys attempting to toss Wednesday’s paper onto porches and driveways without losing the all-important life-balance stated in Einstein’s theory.  more

March 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It is shuddersome and sinister. About it hovers the grisly something which we all fear in the dark but dare not define.

—James Huneker on Chopin’s Prelude No. 2

When a film is called Night of the Living Dead, you know what to expect. Same with The Walking Dead. Given the Hitchcock brand and half a century of shower-slaughter word of mouth, you know where you’re headed with Psycho.

Carnival of Souls is another matter. The film’s title alone has intriguing possibilities, with room for whatever or whoever you want to bring to the dance, if you don’t mind fox-trotting or waltzing to sinister organ music reminiscent of NBC’s Inner Sanctum, the old time radio precursor to The Twilight Zone. The horror movie genre it has been consigned to is less interesting to me than the title’s suggestion of a gathering of souls. In my preferred vision of the carnival, the doors are open to great souls like Kafka and Chopin, whose 211th birthday was March 1.

Keeping in mind the rhetoric Chopin’s sometimes “shuddersome and sinister” music has attracted — the “affinities with the darkling conceptions” of Poe and Coleridge in the Scherzo in C-sharp minor that James Huneker likens to “some fantastic, sombre pile of disordered farouche architecture” about which “hovers perpetual night and the unspeakable and despairing things that live in the night” — I’ve been thinking a lot about Carnival of Souls and its protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Having survived an accident in which two friends drowned, Mary moves from Lawrence, Kansas, to Salt Lake City, where she has a job as a church organist. She’s in a department store buying a new dress when suddenly the world goes silent, sales people and other customers no longer see her, she can’t hear them, they can’t hear her, and after escaping outside she’s still in the silent spell until a bird’s song brings the real world back to life for her. 

Going directly from that nightmare to the church organ,  she begins to rehearse, but the sounds she’s producing soon veer into dissonance and discord that she’s helpless to control, it’s as if her hands have taken on a spasmodic life of their own, crawling and creeping over the keys, and when two large hands reach out of nowhere to cover hers, you think at first they belong to the ghoulish figure that’s been stalking her. But no, it’s the appalled minister putting a stop to the profane uproar before pompously firing her on the spot. A day ago he’d praised her playing, telling her to put her soul into it, and so she has but it’s not her soul.

The sequence takes only four of the film’s 80 minutes, and I’ve seen it several times on YouTube, trying to imagine the impact on the minister had certain portions of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata been translated into the language of the pipe organ, a sonata that Schumann says “begins and ends … with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances,” not to mention “the brief, astonishing finale, a coda to the famous marche funebre suggesting that the departing mourners were swept away by a tornado.”    Scarily akin to the sight of Mary’s hands is a fellow pianist and composer’s account of Chopin at the piano: “It was an astonishing sight to see one of his little hands reach out and cover a third of the key-board. It was like the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit. In reality, Chopin was made of rubber.”

The first piece I associated with Mary’s trauma was the Polonaise fantasie in A flat major that Franz Liszt described in an 1852 monograph as “an elegiac tristesse … punctuated by startled movements, melancholic smiles, unexpected jolts, pauses full of tremors, like those felt by somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides.” To a critic of the period, “the piano speaks here in a language not previously known.” When he was working on the Polonaise, Chopin himself admitted he didn’t know what to title it until the end, confessing, “I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call.” He completed it in August 1846, three years before his death. more

March 3, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Imagine this scene from a gone world: a live event is underway at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. The owner is reciting a passage from Americus: Book 1 (New Directions 2004). It’s the summer of 2004, you can hear fog horns and there’s a North Beach mist steaming the windows. Projected on the wall next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti as he reads is the final moment of the silent film that gave the store its name.

Make this an audience for the ages, a gathering worthy of the poet publisher of City Lights whose subject is the “eternal dialogue echoing through the centuries of all the voices that ever sang or wrote.” Everyone’s feeling the “maze and amaze of life” when Chaplin gazes into the astonished eyes of the once-blind flower girl the moment she realizes that the rich handsome benefactor she’s imagined is a pathetic little tramp. He’s gone to great and hilariously exhausting lengths raising money to help pay for the operation that restored her sight and all he’s got to show for it is the flower she has just gently, sweetly, patronizingly bestowed on him, and yet he’s smiling as he holds the flower to his face, using it to hide the wretched, Chaplinesque wonder of a smile that made Einstein weep, a smile in synch with the words the white-bearded 84-year-old poet is reciting, “a sound of weeping beyond reason, a pianist playing in the ruins of Prague, a London fog.”

In his brief preface to the 60th anniversary edition of Pictures of the Gone World (City Lights 1955), Ferlinghetti remembers “the unique San Francisco consciousness of the 1950s” and the “freshness of perception that only young eyes have in the dandelion bloom of youth.” At the moment I’m thinking of 1958 when the then-39-year-old clean-shaven Ferlinghetti was a few blocks away reading from A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions 1958), with the Cellar Jazz Quintet. I’m realizing that I never felt as close to the man or his poetry as I do now that he’s “no longer with us.”

“A State of Change”

In his brief preface to “Oral Messages,” Part 2 of Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti advises the reader that the poems “were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment … rather than written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental live readings, they are still in a state of change.” Going to Ferlinghetti after last week’s bicentenary celebration of Keats is like moving from one live performance to another.  more

February 24, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

“Portrait of John Keats on his death-bed in Rome,” by Joseph Severn

Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel.

—John Keats (1795-1821)

Why begin a column about friendship, love, death, and poetry with reference to the positive energies displayed in a street quarrel? You might also question the timing of a tribute to the poet of “beauty and truth” and “fellowship divine” when America is still living in the shadow of the monumental lie that led to the January 6th insurrection, not to mention the monumental truth that more Americans have died of the coronavirus in the past year than in two world wars and Vietnam. 

The fact of the moment is that snow is falling, again, as I write, and that John Keats died in Rome 200 years ago yesterday. And the monumentally unfactual word that comes to mind when watching fresh fallen snow is poetry. If you take some liberties with Keats’s theory that the poet is the most unpoetical of God’s creatures, with no self, foul or fair, no identity, “continually in for and filling some other Body,” sun, moon, sea, then it’s easy to say the poet is the snow, that it’s freshly fallen Keats giving grace and mystery to the day.

Five hours later the morning’s poetry has turned to slush and I’m reading “Bright Star,” one of the last poems the unpoetical poet ever completed, a sonnet that begins over our prosaic heads, poetical to a faretheewell, so sculpted and lofty, with “Eremite” pulled out of the poet’s grab bag to rhyme with “night,” and the poetry of falling snow reduced to “a new soft-fallen mask” to rhyme with “task.” But all the pomp and circumstance vanishes when the poet comes down to earth with the “soft fall and swell” of his fair love’s breast, “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever — or else swoon to death.”

So ends Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star (2009), the film and the poem’s last words both beautifully, brokenly uttered by Keats’s grieving Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as she walks into the snowy dusk on Hampstead Heath. Reading about the poet’s last hours in Robert Gittings’s acclaimed 1968 biography, I was reminded of the most striking scene in the film — the moment Fanny is told of Keats’s death. Rushing from the parlor to the stairs, she holds the bannister for support, she’s lost, she’s falling, turning one way, then another, groping with her hands, helplessly pleading, supplicating, suffocated, bent double, brought to her knees, jabbing one hand toward her chest, calling for help, choking, “I can’t breathe!” Only when she’s being held and lifted and sustained by her mother does the wrenching visceral misery of the seizure begin to resemble an actor’s performative hysteria, except that by now the force of the fit has generated so much breathless momentum there’s no relief until the abrupt cut to the next scene. Seconds later she’s a lone figure walking on the snowclad heath, whispering the sonnet so thoughtfully, so tenderly, that even the rhetorical formality of the opening lines live with love as the poet becomes star, night, nature, snow, human shores, mountains and moors. more

February 17, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

But we loved with a love that was more than love.

—Edgar Allan Poe, from “Annabel Lee”

This post-Valentine’s Day adventure was launched by a letter I found in Horace Wyndam’s The Magnificent Montez: From Courtesan to Convert (Hutchinson 1935). Written in the revolutionary year of 1848 — from King Ludwig I of Bavaria to the woman he made the Countess of Landsfeld, alias Lola Montez, who was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland, on February 17, 1821 — the letter begins:

“Oh, my Lolita! A ray of sunshine at the break of day! A stream of light in an obscured sky! Hope ever causes chords long forgotten to resound, and existence becomes once again pleasant as of yore. Such were the feelings which animated me during that night of happiness when, thanks to you alone, everything was sheer joy. Thy spirit lifted up mine out of sadness; never did an intoxication equal the one I then felt!”

After shooting the king’s translator, flash forward to mid-20th-century America and read the opening lines of The Confession of a White Widowed Male:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta …. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

I’ve been here before. Last fall I cushioned the loss of Prof. Nabokov’s former student, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with a visit to The Annotated Lolita, in which another of his former students, Alfred Appel Jr., devotes almost five pages of commentary to the novel’s opening paragraph. Appel gives special attention to Humbert’s fixation with Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” from whom neither angels nor demons can “dissever” the poet’s soul (“But we loved with a love that was more than love”). While the line “Lola in slacks” prompts a reference to Marlene Dietrich’s Lola in von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel, there’s no mention of the living, breathing Lola Montez who inspired Ludwig’s cri de coeur. The deposed monarch was writing from a villa on the Riviera while his lovely Lola was in England being denounced by the London papers as “Bavaria’s famous strumpet,” “the notorious courtesan” blamed for “the sanguinary and destructive conduct of the Munich mob.” more

February 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Looking out the back window Monday afternoon I saw three deer in the snow behind the big black boulder, our piece of the Princeton Ridge. Led by a stag with a classic set of antlers, they were there and gone in the space of a minute. Something in that snow scene, the sudden wonder of it, resonated with my thoughts about Wardell Gray, whose 100th birthday is this Saturday, February 13.

At that moment I was thinking someone should write a song for Wardell, something like “Percy’s Song” by Bob Dylan, the Fairport Convention cover, with Sandy Denny singing her heart out (“Turn turn turn again, turn turn to the rain and the wind”), infusing the words with so much passion and warmth that the monstrous injustice of the story makes you feel uplifted and brought down at the same time. But Wardell’s tale is deeper and darker than that. Dylan could write another song in the same key, or maybe something righteously outraged like “Hurricane.” For a kinder, gentler version with an edge, you could look to Stew, who wrote a lovely tribute to Thelonious Monk for his group the Negro Problem. Or better yet, something along the melodic lines of “Nature Boy” as rendered by Nat King Cole in 1948, the year Wardell came into his own as the star tenor sax soloist with Benny Goodman and then Count Basie, with his epic solos on “The King” and “Little Pony.”

Thanks in great part to the national exposure that came from playing with Goodman, Wardell jumped from nowhere to fourth place in the tenor sax division of the 1948 Metronome poll. To understand why Lester Young “gave a blanket endorsement” of Gray when asked who the best tenor man of the new generation was, all you have to do is listen to the Goodman small group performing “Mary’s Idea,” a nice, genteel, crisply swinging little number — until a tenor sax life-force blazes through the tidy chamber-music table setting and takes everything to another level. What you’re hearing is the epitome of the late Whitney Balliet’s phrase for jazz, “the sound of surprise” — joyous energy, moving fast and fluid, full of life and love in the playing.

Whether he was playing or speaking, Wardell Gray was one of the most articulate jazz musicians of his time, Black or white. Along with his interest in serious literature, classical music, ballet, gourmet cooking, leftwing politics, and existential philosophy, he belonged to the NAACP at a time when the group was considered radical enough to assure him a place in the files of the FBI. He was also devoted to his wife and stepdaughter, writing in one of his last letters that he looked forward to the three of them “working hard, studying, going to school, perfecting ourselves for one another.” Half a year later on the opening night of the first mixed-race night club in Las Vegas, his body was found in a drainage ditch on the outskirts of town. Though drugs were involved and foul play was ruled out after an abbreviated investigation, the circumstances were mysterious enough to inspire Bill Moody’s 1995 detective novel, Death of a Tenor Man.  more

February 3, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.

—James Joyce, from The Dead

The snow began falling late afternoon Sunday, January 31, Franz Schubert’s birthday. The snow is still on the ground today, James Joyce’s birthday, and I’m still in a Schubert state of mind. At the tipping point of the year, Vienna and Dublin seem to move closer, side by side on the same map, snow falling on the Danube and the Bog of Allen and softly falling on “the churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.”

By now, it’s clear that Monday’s snow will still be with us on Wednesday, February 3, which happens to be Felix Mendelssohn’s birthday. Since Schubert and Joyce are “family” compared to Mendelssohn, I began to give myself a crash course on his life and work last week. Then came the snow.

A Schubertian Mood

Decades ago when I shared M.B. Goffstein’s A Little Schubert with my 3-year-old son, I knew less about Schubert than I do about Mendelssohn. Goffstein sets the scene in “a cold and snowy town called Vienna,” creating a Schubertian mood with her drawing of the composer, “a short fat young man with a small round nose, round eyeglasses and curly hair” who “lived in a bare little room without a fire. …Every morning he sat at a little table and wrote music as fast as it came into his head.” Whether you’re 3 or 43, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the shoes, spectacles, and tiny frockcoat of the elfin composer who heard music when his friends heard nothing, music that no one had ever heard before, “so much music he could not possibly remember it all,” music he was “so very busy writing down, he did not mind his bare room or his shabby clothes. But when the cold made his fingers ache, and he almost could not write his music, Franz Schubert got up, “clapped his hands and stamped his feet,” making “his shabby coattails fly as he danced to keep warm.”

Attached to the back of the book was an envelope containing a plastic disc of the five “Noble Waltzes” that “Franz Schubert wrote down in his little room in Vienna around one hundred fifty years ago” (that was in 1972, so by now it’s around two hundred). The waltzes led to the purchase of a three-LP set of Schubert’s piano waltzes, followed by string quartets and quintets, piano sonatas and symphonies, fantasies and impromptus, and thousands of songs. Early on, we had family birthday celebrations complete with a cake, with “Happy Birthday Franz Schubert” in chocolate icing letters, along with a yellow bird on a branch and some bars of edible music. more

January 27, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

You cannot imagine how enchanting the music sounds from a box close to the orchestra!

—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) to his wife

If we are not together now, it isn’t you who are to blame, but the demon that filled me with bacilli and you with love for art.

—Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) to his future wife

Besides listening to Mozart and reading Chekhov this week — both born in January, the composer on the 27th, the writer on the 29th — I’ve been reading their letters, which are enlivened by the same buoyant spirit, along with a shared understanding of the human comedy in relation to life and love and nature, the joys, temptations, and excesses of existence.

As I read, I kept imagining how two such sympathetic spirits might have viewed one another in the context of their work, the music Mozart might have discovered in Chekhov and the literature Chekhov might have drawn from Mozart. So I decided to compare some letters from their middle twenties as well as letters to their wives later in life. Chekhov was 27 when he wrote the letter below, dated April 25, 1887.

A Cossack Wedding

Writing to his sister Maria after revisiting his birthplace, Taganrog, on the Black Sea, Chekhov sorts through “many discordant impressions” as he recalls the events of the previous day, “a real Cossack wedding, with music, women caterwauling, and a loathsome drinking bout. … I acted as best man, and was dressed in a borrowed frock coat, with fearfully wide trousers, and not a single stud on my shirt. In Moscow such a best man would have been kicked out, but here I looked smarter than anyone. … I saw a lot of wealthy marriageable girls, but I was so drunk the whole time that I took bottles for girls and girls for bottles. Probably owing to my drunken condition the local maidens found me witty and satirical!” Meanwhile, “apparently in obedience to a local custom, the newlyweds kissed every minute, kissing so vehemently that every time their lips made an explosive noise, I had a taste of oversweet raisins in my mouth, and got a spasm in my left calf. … I can’t tell you how much fresh caviar I ate and how much local red wine I drank. It’s a wonder I didn’t burst.”

If Mozart were scoring it, the wedding feast would be a scherzo followed by the moody andante of an overnight wait between trains at a place called Zvyerevo: “I had to sleep in a second-class railway-carriage on the siding. I left the car to relieve myself and it was miraculous out there: the moon, the boundless steppe — a desert with ancient grave-mounds — the silence of the tomb, and the cars and rails standing out boldly against the dim sky — a dead world. It was a picture one would not forget for ages and ages.”  more

January 20, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s transcendent, you feel it. It’s there, the vanished transcendence and insistence of chance, action and fortuity. It’s there and you can’t unfeel it.

—Walker Evans (1903-1975)

Walker Evans is talking about the impact of the moment he encountered “a visual object” he knew he had to photograph. If you read those words after wading through the tide of raw imagery unleashed by the January 6 storming of the Capitol, you know what it means to feel a force so insistent that “you can’t unfeel it.”

In the opening chapter of Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton Univ. Press $39.95), Svetlana Alpers refers to poet William Carlos Williams’s review of Evans’s groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photography (“the pictures talk to us and they say plenty”). Focusing on the poet and photographer’s shared “passionate belief in American art as they made it,” Alpers quotes from a poem by Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

The idea that poetry and photography have the power to enhance or sustain or even save a life resonates on January 20, 2021, whether in relation to the Capitol riots or the inauguration of the 46th president, who found therapy for a childhood disability by reciting the poetry of William Butler Yeats. The “news from poems” in this tumultuous month ranges from the “terrible beauty is born” of Yeats to President Biden’s campaign mantra by way of Seamus Haney: “Make hope and history rhyme.” more

January 13, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

—Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

When I skimmed It Can’t Happen Here (1935) at the time of the 2016 election, I thought it might make an interesting column. But since the dystopian fantasy by Sinclair Lewis, who died 70 years ago this week, had already been reprinted to high sales and serious notice with Trump’s ascension to the nation’s highest office, I put the piece on hold.

The problem now is not just that I’m distracted by last week’s real-life invasion of the Capitol, but that I’m finding it hard to believe in a despotic president and former U.S. senator from Vermont named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who, the day after being inaugurated, demands the instant passage of a bill giving him complete control of “legislation and execution.” When Congress rejects the bill a day later, he declares martial law and orders the arrest of over a hundred “irresponsible and seditious” congressmen for “inciting to riot.” During the ensuing nationwide riots that the president has, in effect, incited himself, protestors are attacked by the bayonet-wielding troops of his vast private army, the Minute Men (a term with a certain ring in the era of the Tea Party).

Lewis portrays Windrip as grotesque, “almost a dwarf, yet with an enormous head, a bloodhound head, of huge ears, pendulous cheeks, mournful eyes,” and “a luminous, ungrudging smile” that “he turned on and off deliberately, like an electric light, but which could make his ugliness more attractive than the simpers of any pretty man.” His hair was “so coarse and black and straight, and worn so long in the back, that it hinted of Indian blood.” During his years in the Senate, Windrip “preferred clothes that suggested the competent insurance salesman, but when farmer constituents were in Washington,” he “appeared in a ten-gallon hat.” Comparing him to “a sawed-off museum model of a medicine-show ‘doctor,’” who had “played the banjo and done card tricks and handed down medicine bottles and managed the shell game,” Lewis details the offerings of “Old Dr. Alagash’s Traveling Laboratory, which specialized in the Choctaw Cancer Cure, the Chinook Consumption Soother, and the Oriental Remedy for Piles and Rheumatism Prepared from a … Secret Formula by the Gipsy Princess, Queen Peshawara.” Windrip had eventually ascended “from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing on an indoor platform under mercury-vapor lights in front of a microphone.”

If you find it hard to take such a character seriously, you’re in agreement with the novel’s hero, a small-town newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, who at first considers Windrip little more than a bad joke and plays down criticism of the government in his paper, the Informer. “The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see,” he tells his readers, so hard is it for him to believe “that this comic tyranny could endure.” What most perplexes him is “that there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists …. a dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward.” Did that, Doremus wonders, “make him less or more dangerous?”

As someone who, among many others, failed to take the current president seriously when he announced his candidacy, I should mention, as I did at the time, the front page of the June 17, 2015 New York Daily News (“CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ”) showing the candidate with a red clown nose and mouth under the line: “Trump throws rubber nose in GOP ring.” While the star of The Apprentice has nothing in common with the likes of Twain and Ade (not to mention Will Rogers), it’s fair to say that he’s shared the metaphorical stage with a road show con man of vulgar frauds, shell games, and bogus medicine. more

January 6, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

The blind was down and a strong light was burning in the room. The shadow of a man who was seated in a chair within was thrown in hard black outline upon the luminous screen of the window.

—from “The Adventure of the Empty House”

“What are you doing here?” Sherlock Holmes wanted to know.

Two hours into the new year, after online searches linked to combinations of the numbers 2-0-2-1, I encountered a brightly inviting onscreen image of the cover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which I’ve been reading. When I clicked on the small red arrow flashing above the title, I was livestreamed into 221B Baker Street, where I found myself facing a facsimile of Holmes like the window-framed silhouette on the front of the book, a replica of the wax bust devised to entrap Dr. Moriarty in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

After the charged silence that followed my rushed account of how I got there, the shadow spoke: “I see you have your own copy of the 1905 McClure Phillips edition previously owned by a Louise K. Ribsam of Trenton, New Jersey.” Indeed, the selfsame volume lay open on my desk, its front and back covers hanging for dear life from the tattered cliff-edge of the spine. “At the moment,” the elegantly mannered voice continued, “you are feeling the effects of a vile combination of Prosecco, hard cider, and Celestial Seasonings iced tea (the Bengal Spice flavor). You have just commenced work on your weekly column for a newspaper that will appear in print and online Wednesday, January 6, the date that some well-meaning if misguided obsessives have settled on as my birthday. In addition to rereading The Return and watching reruns of the BBC series that bears my name, you’ve been reading Shakespeare’s comedy of sociopathic madness, Twelfth Night, in which everyone except the clown Feste is insane without knowing it, thus the subtitle, Or What You Will.”

Right on all counts except the Bengal Spice. In the spirit of “what you will” and anything goes, I tell myself to go  with the flow and stop worrying about how this cyber sleuth could know so much about me — this is Sherlock Holmes. This is what he does.  more

December 30, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Since Christmas Day I’ve been in search of a fitting subject for the last column of 2020, a year blighted by a death toll of third-world-war magnitude and the “long cold lonely” lockdown winter-of-the-mind that began in March. But listen! — the sound of thundering hoofbeats, a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, can it be, is it a mirage, no, here come the Four Horsemen of Melodious Apocalypse riding to our rescue from those thrilling days of yesteryear led by the unmasked Lone Ranger, Paul McCartney! 

Yes, like it or not, the Beatles are a pop culture absolute and 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the year they sang their scattered swan song, as McCartney preempted the debacle of Let It Be with his first solo shot in April, and George Harrison launched his November 29 triple-LP blockbuster All Things Must Pass all but on top of John Lennon’s December 11 solo outing.

Now here’s Sir Paul with McCartney III, his first number one record in decades, also scheduled for a December 11 release until it was postponed for a week due to “unforeseeable production delays.” Was the shared release date purely coincidental, or a subtle gesture of auld lang syne to the Lennon-McCartney partnership? Another Beatles connection is put in play when “the long cold lonely winter” of “Here Comes the Sun” is echoed by the new album’s closing words, “We’ll fly away and find the sun when winter comes.”  more

December 23, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The country music station plays soft, but there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off.

—Bob Dylan, from “Visions of Johanna”

The volume is down as low as it can go, softer than soft, the station is Radio Beethoven, 250 on the dial of the ages, and the visions are of Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa communing with the adagio sostenato of Sonata number 29 in B flat major (Opus 106), known as the Hammerklavier.

The sound’s turned low because the house is asleep, it’s between 2 and 3 a.m., and I’m listening to the movement Wilhelm Kempff called “the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote,” an adagio “unequalled in the entire piano literature.” Writing about Kempff’s performance in 2013, I described “a series of ascending, probing, striving, needful, joy-seeking variations” leading to a “heaven of feeling so rich and strange that all you can think is how thankful you are that you heard it before you died.”

Watching Lisitsa play the same set of variations on YouTube in the year of the virus, I feel still closer to the music and even more at a loss to put my feelings into words; admitted, there’s a big difference between listening to Kempff on a car stereo and seeing Lisitsa lean so close to the keys that she’s nearly kissing them. She’s a Rapunzel at the keyboard with those long blond tresses, offset by a dark jacket, white cuffs protruding from the sleeves. Viewed almost entirely from the side, she presents a handsome profile, nothing self-consciously performative, no soulful swooning ah-sweet-mystery-of-life sublimity; she appears both down to earth and exalted, and wholly dedicated to her mission, everything else ruled out.  more

December 16, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Jane Austen is 245 years old today; she was a month short of 190 long ago when I found Northanger Abbey in a New Delhi railway station bookstall. The Indian paperback had a lurid cover (woman screaming) and a memorable blurb (“Cunning! Compassioned! Strangely Touchy!”). And although the paper was cheap and the print faded and irregular, Jane was there in the form of her heroine Catherine Morland, who grew up with “neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome,” was “noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” At 14, she was happier playing “cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country” than reading books.

Baseball? If you’re reading Northanger Abbey while waiting for the 2 a.m. train to Benares, the thought of the game you love, the National Pastime, seems as far from reality as the image of Jane Austen swinging a bat, running the bases, and sliding home in a pinafore. With smartphones decades in the future, however, I had no way to check the Net for information about baseball in Regency England. At the time I figured it might be a freak of typography, another malappropriate misadventure like the blurb on the front cover. Not so. The same reference shows up in subsequent editions, as well as the Project Gutenberg ebook, and now there are blogs headed “Jane Austen Invented Baseball,” where fans match hometown players with characters in her novels. I get it. We want Jane to be cosmically applicable to all things both great and small, mundane, modern, or marvelous, and the wilder, more unconfined and unladylike the better. more

December 9, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

—Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

John Lennon’s first solo album was released 50 years ago this week. No name appears on the cover image of a man and a woman stretched out under a massive tree, his head in her lap. The entire back cover consists of an enlarged photograph of a little boy’s face. The absence of information creates an impression of timelessness: the tree could be any tree anywhere, the couple any couple, and this most personal of recordings by one of the most famous people in the world could be by, for, or about anyone and everyone.

A few days ago when I played the half-century-old record for the first time in decades, the first sound I heard after the crackle and hiss and pop of the surface was of a bell tolling, four deeply resonant strokes. Big Ben, history, London, the Blitz, wartime, no narrator needed, the sound speaks for itself. As the fourth stroke fades, John Lennon belts out the primal word, “Mother,” and goes on to deliver a performance that does to this listener what poetry does to Emily Dickinson.

That said, the top of my head was never at risk the first time I heard John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in mid-December 1970. As impressed I was by the power of Lennon’s long-awaited, much-hyped solo album, it wasn’t easy to hear it through the chaotic static of the Paul-and-Linda, John-and-Yoko Primal Therapy fall-out of the Great Beatles Break-Up. By the time I was listening to “God,” the track everyone was talking about, with its off-puttingly prosy opening line (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”) and the statement it was leading up to (“I don’t believe in Beatles”), I’d begun to back out of it, especially after the line “I just believe in Yoko and me.”

But then came the message of the tender, beautifully sung farewell coda: “I was the dream weaver … but now I’m John … and so, dear friends, you just have to carry on …” because “the dream is over,” — except that something deeper than a dream was in play when he sang “but now I’m John,” sealing a personal first-name connection that was still alive ten years later in the grieving crowds that gathered worldwide after his death.  more

December 2, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

On December 2, 1867, Charles Dickens gave the first of 80 public readings in America, a grueling tour undertaken in spite of pleas from friends and colleagues concerned about his health. Arriving in Boston, he was welcomed by adoring crowds and the mid-19th-century equivalent of paparazzi; in New York City people began lining up at three in the morning for tickets, waiting in two lines, each almost a mile long.

In Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, novelist George Gissing refers to the “disastrous later years” that show Dickens as a “public entertainer … shortening his life that he might be able to live without pecuniary anxiety.” The American readings ended in late April 1868, earning him $250,000. He died of a stroke in early June 1870. He was only 58.

“A Dreadful Locomotive”

After attending one of the Boston readings, Ralph Waldo Emerson told the wife of Dickens’s American publisher, James T. Fields: “He has too much talent for his genius; it is a dreadful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from nor set at rest. You would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them. He is too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left. He daunts me! I have not the key.”  more

November 25, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

In his landmark celebration of translation, John Keats not only heard Chapman’s Homer speak out “loud and bold,” he put a new planet into orbit, with its kingdoms, states, islands, realms of gold, and bards.

It was Richard Burton’s “loud and bold” translation of Hamlet’s speech to the players that finally put Shakespeare on the map for me. Burton didn’t change the words, he just re-energized them, brought them to life, up close and in person on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Striding briskly back and forth, he commanded the house, still in fame’s floodlight after playing Antony on the screen with Elizabeth Taylor, the movie queen Cleopatra who came to pick him up after every performance, setting off a nightly fan-crazed mob scene on 46th Street.

Antony and Hamlet

Translation has been the theme of the moment ever since an English friend sent me his rendering of C.P. Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony.” Although I have no knowledge of Greek beyond what I picked up on the island of Mykonos, where Roger and I first met more than half a century ago, all it took to get into the game was a fondness for the poem and access to standard translations like the one by Princeton professor emeritus Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. I was playing at translation, an unsupervised amateur enjoying the ebb and flow of poetry in motion, a fluid text “writ in water,” as Keats worded it in his death bed epitaph. more