December 23, 2015

record revA good way to go in this life is to find something you really enjoy doing and then learn to do it better than anybody. — Chet Baker

Tis the season to be jolly and celebrate Chet Baker, who was born on this date, a day short of Christmas Eve, December 23, 1929. What does the man whose trumpet and voice put West Coast jazz on the map have to do with Christmas? You could ask the same of the weather, with 72 degrees predicted for Christmas Eve, or of Bob Dylan, whose album, Christmas in the Heart, was reviewed here on the same day of the month six years ago.

Online you can join the patrons of an Amsterdam jazz club watching Chet Baker play “Auld Lang Syne” on the last New Year’s Eve of his life, December 31, 1987. He begins in a tentative, almost desultory way before the momentum of the moment moves him and he makes a gesture to the rhythm section, as if to say really play it, take it to the limit, give it the full measure of your devotion, and with that he dives into the second chorus, bending the notes just so, as only he can do, each one as bright and simple as the lights on a Christmas tree.  more

December 16, 2015

DVD the killing

He sat back, checking only to see if the tape was still running, lit his pied piper, and gave ear. — John Lennon, from Skywriting by Word of Mouth

On one of this December’s rare rainy afternoons a dark green 2000 Honda CRV pulls into a deserted parking lot and sits idling while the male occupant talks urgently into his cell phone. Ten minutes later a silver-gray 2011 CRV pulls up alongside. Rolling his window part way down, the man in the green car calls out “Yo Linden!” and the woman in the silver car laughs and shouts back “Holder!”

The couples’ playful nod to Linden and Holder was inspired by their total immersion in the rain-drenched world of The Killing, where two Seattle detectives are trying to capture the Pied Piper, a serial killer so named because his victims are teenage girls, street kids selling sex to make ends meet. more

December 9, 2015

EH 4907P

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia in 1952 posing in front of Waldo Peirce’s oil portrait of the author in 1929. (The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

The best news I’ve heard lately is that Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has become a bestseller in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. With sales surging, copies of his bittersweet celebration of life and art in the City of Light are appearing among the flowers and candles in makeshift memorials honoring the victims. The title in French, Paris est une fête, has become a trending hashtag on Twitter.  more

December 2, 2015


When Bogart tells Bergman “We’ll always have Paris” as they say their farewells in Casablanca, he’s responding to her plaintive question “What about us?” For Rick and Ilsa, Paris is another word for love. “We lost it until you came to Casablanca,” he tells her. “We got it back last night.”

While the city of the title is a Moorish fantasy fabricated on a back lot at Warners with stock footage of an overview, Paris is the absolute that will always be the City of Light as Humphrey Bogart will always be the epitome of cool, Ingrid Bergman the epitome of beauty, and “As Time Goes By” the theme song of their romance.

When the two lovers were reunited in Rick’s night club, they talked of the last time they were together, in a Montmartre cafe called the Belle Aurore on the day the Germans marched into Paris. “Not an easy day to forget,” said Rick. “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” more

November 25, 2015

book revOnce upon a time a long time ago Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) came to Bloomington, Indiana, in the form of a Classic Comic of Gulliver’s Travels being read by an eight-year-old boy and an impish, bespectacled, congenitally effusive young man of 25-going-on-15 who will eventually be proclaimed Swift’s “best and fullest biographer” by Christopher Ricks in the London Review of Books.

The boy and the biographer are both seated on the living room floor, the Swiftian-to-be having politely refused the boy’s parents’ offer of a chair. “It’s exciting, but scary” the eight-year-old says when asked his thoughts on Gulliver’s Travels. To show what he means by “scary,” he points out the frames where the Lilliputians are swarming over Gulliver’s body, binding it with ropes, staking his long blond hair to the ground. After discussing the imagery, the biographer begins to make playful comments about the “Life of Swift” on the comic’s last page, which the boy has read and finds disturbing. At this point, the parents intervene and the biographer is coaxed into a chair.

Savage Commentary

Because my parents had the first 20 issues of Classic Comics bound as a present for my ninth birthday, I still have the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Irvin Ehrenpreis and I were perusing together all those years ago. Looking over the “Life” at the end, I’m struck by the vehemence of the language describing Gulliver’s “savage commentary on the European world” as “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Pretty heady stuff for an early reader; no wonder I found it disturbing, not to mention the concluding paragraph, in which “Swift’s satire became more and more violently bitter, possibly the result of a mental disease which, by 1736, caused him to become insane. He never recovered and died on October 19, 1745.” In the brief biographies at the end of every Classic Comic, each author dies in such and such a time and place, but Swift’s fate became one of the numerous shadowy elements of a childhood occasionally haunted by the sound of phantom footsteps and the sight of an abandoned playground where the empty swings were still in motion.  more

November 18, 2015

book rev

In Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Paris is a “cradle” in which “each one slips back into his soil: one dreams back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk. Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris” — which could also be said of cities everywhere, including Cairo and Damascus, Istanbul, Aleppo, and Baghdad. In Paris, Miller adds, “Everything is raised to apotheosis. The cradle gives up its babes and new ones take their places … where Zola lived and Balzac and Dante and Strindberg and everybody who ever was anything. Everyone has lived here some time or other. Nobody dies here.” more

November 11, 2015

Book RevNear the end of her new memoir M Train (Knopf $25), Patti Smith returns from a trip to find the West Village café she considers a second home closed, for good. When she taps on the window, the owner lets her in and offers to make her a last cup of coffee. She sits there all morning in the closed café, the “picture of woebegone” shown on the cover with her camera and her coffee, head propped on one hand while she keeps the other hand palm down on the table, as if to hold it, claim it, keep it until she’s ready to give it up. The cover photo was taken by a bystander with a Polaroid camera like the one Smith uses to illustrate her travels with pictures of stations along the way, her aim being “to possess within a single image the straw hat of Robert Graves, typewriter of Hesse, spectacles of Beckett, sickbed of Keats.” After sitting at her corner table “a long time thinking of nothing,” she picks up her pen and begins to write.

When she says “good-bye to her corner,” the owner gives her the table and chair. It’s a Patti Smith moment.


In M Train, which has been on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list for several weeks now, Patti Smith withdraws into her own “atmosphere,” and wherever she goes, the atmosphere, like Mary’s little lamb, is sure to follow. The effect on chosen scenes, situations, places, objects, and dreams resembles Keats’s notion of the poetical character, which “has no self … is every thing and nothing … enjoys light and shade” and “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”  more

November 4, 2015

Stuart RevIn the course of checking to see whether the 2015 World Series is the first to begin and end in extra innings, I found that the longest game ever played without being called a tie or suspended was between the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals on September 11, 1974. The game lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes, and when the Cardinals won it 4-3 in the 25th inning, it was 3:13 a.m. and only a thousand fans were still at Shea Stadium. Writing a few weeks ago when post-season play had just begun, I quoted catcher Bengie Molina’s father telling Bengie that it was possible for a baseball game to last forever if no team scored. The idea that baseball could defy space and time sounded to Bengie “more like God than anything I heard in church.”

If I’m thinking of extra innings in cosmic terms — baseball’s version of the afterlife — it’s because I’ve been reading W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (1982), the basis for the 1989 film Field of Dreams. Among the novel’s numerous challenges to the “suspension of disbelief” are two formidable fantasies: the return of baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson to a ball field laid out for him (“If you build it, he will come”) and the forced return of literary legend J.D. Salinger from self-imposed exile in New Hampshire. An even more improbable leap of the imagination for Kinsella than the resurrection of Jackson was the notion of a fictional baseball-loving Salinger ultimately going along with the field-of-dreams fantasy. Still more improbable was that the real-life Salinger would allow himself to be written into someone else’s novel.  more

October 28, 2015

Book Rev

Like everyone else, I’ve never gotten over The Recognitions. — Harold Bloom

When I told a friend who likes big, difficult novels that I was about to begin William Gaddis’s 956-page tour de force The Recognitions, which was published by Harcourt Brace 60 years ago, he wished me luck: “I’ve tried at least 4 or 5 times to crack that book, but without success.” In a later message, after hearing that I’d embarked on so daunting a journey, he said, “I’ll pray for you.”

Over the decades, for every person who told me I had to read The Recognitions, someone else told me it was unreadable. Yet people who had “been there” carried on as if they’d returned from the journey of a lifetime. Having arrived safely, if dazed and word-weary, I’ll tell you some of what I experienced on my four-month sojurn in Gaddis’s mid-century wasteland. more

October 21, 2015

Art Review 2

Cézanne…was the greatest. The greatest for always. — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s love of Cézanne is expressed more guardedly in his posthumous Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964). Even there, after saying he was learning “very much” from Cézanne, he admits he was “not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” Here’s a world-famous writer entering his 60s and he’s still celebrating his enthusiasm as if he were a boy with a secret. Writing as his youthful alter ego in The Nick Adams Stories (1972) he lets his feelings show (Cezanne “was the greatest”) in a short hitherto unpublished piece titled “On Writing.”  more

October 14, 2015

book rev

Book love is your pass to the greatest, the purest, the most perfect pleasure….The habit of reading is the only joy in which there us no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.

—Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

The quotes about “book love” and “the habit of reading” spearheading this introduction to the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale surfaced while I was gazing into the sprawling immensity of Anthony Trollope’s beard. Of all the views of Trollopian facial hair shown in an online gallery of images, this prodigious display most fittingly suggests the depth and range of the event that begins Friday morning at ten in the Community Room. Seen here in full flower compared to the more crafted and contained incarnations, the author’s beard spreads hugely east and west, a veritable landscape, offering in its sheer breadth not only an evocation of the scope of the sale but a definitive image of its owner’s productivity, at rough count 40-plus novels, 15 story collections, and 15 works of non-fiction. more

October 7, 2015

Book RevI’m planning ways to pipe “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics into the St. Louis clubhouse when the Cardinals host the National League Central Division playoffs this Friday. Why send a Power Pop anthem to a team that has won 100 games in spite of losing virtually half their starting lineup this season? That’s not miracle enough? Not if you add to that truckload of adversity the loss of a potential Hall of Fame catcher and proven post-season clutch hitter who saves pitcher’s souls and throws out baserunners at a major-league-leading clip. When “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold,” Yadier Molina is the center that holds, and at this writing, there’s no way of knowing how effective he’ll be even if he’s cleared to play in the post season.

The September 20 incident that put Molina out of action is an example of what his former manager Tony LaRussa calls “beautiful baseball” — in the bottom of the eighth inning in a do or die game against the surging Chicago Cubs, Anthony Rizzo racing for home, a perfect throw from right-fielder Jason Hayward snagged on one hop by Molina, one quick stab of Molina’s mitt to tag out the sliding runner, a medley of forces converging in game-saving synchronicity. Except that as the catcher executes the neat rapier-like motion of the tag, the force embodied by the 6’3, 240-pound Rizzo going hellbent for home has Molina slinging off his mitt, in pain from what proved to be a partially torn ligament in his left thumb, and just like that, the one indispensable player is out for the last ten days of the regular season and perhaps the playoffs.

So it goes with baseball. Beautiful, yes, but also inevitably bipolar, a field of ups and downs and broken dreams. more

September 30, 2015

book rev

Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (Doubleday $26.99), which entered the N.Y. Times non-fiction best-seller list in 7th place this week, is a gutsy rock and roll memoir whose sales have undoubtedly been boosted by online chatter surrounding the author’s account of a sexual attack and her repeated refusal to blame her attackers. Now she finds herself, as she slyly puts it in a recent Washington Post interview, “a leading authority on rape.”

In the same interview, she says, “I wouldn’t expect most people to do some of the stuff I did. But then again, most people don’t get to be a rock star, either. We have to walk the plank.” In her case, walking the plank meant going to a biker “party” with a shipload of sexist pirates and suffering the consequences.  more

September 23, 2015
book rev

Photo by Tom Grimes

After walking in a daze down the brightly-lit aisles of McCaffrey’s, stunned by Monday’s New York Times obit, I find myself in the same check-out line where I last spoke with the poet C.K. Williams, who died at home in Hopewell Sunday. When he and his charming wife Catherine lived on Moore Street, I used to see him often at McCaffrey’s. He was hard to miss. At 6’5, he loomed over everyone else. We would shake hands and I would think how good it is to live in a town where you can shake hands with a great poet while pushing a shopping cart at the market. Life in Princeton …. more

September 16, 2015

Book Rev web

On drives from Indiana to New York City before the Interstate, my parents took U.S. 40 east, which brought us into the hilly outskirts of Pittsburgh at night. It was the most vivid moment of the trip: the red-orange glow of steel mills against the dark sky, the smoke-hazed aura around the glow, the balmy summer air, the excitement of seeing that vision lighting up the sky. The moment was marked by the metallic scent of industry, like the aroma of pure power, which is what I seemed to be breathing again in “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection” at the James A. Michener Art Museum.  more

September 9, 2015

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky“If I live.” These words translated from the Russian can be found at the end of nearly every dated entry in the 1895-1899 journals of Leo Tolstoy, who was born on this date, September 9, in 1828, and died at 82 on November 20, 1910. I wonder what Oliver Sacks, who died at 82 ten days ago, would make of Tolstoy’s daily acknowledgment of his mortality. Sacks’s maternal grandfather, who fled Russia at 16 to avoid being drafted into the Cossack army, might know. Perhaps it was nothing more than an abbreviated prayer. After “If I live” July 31, 1896, Tolstoy is quite literal, writing later the same day: “I am alive. It is evening now. It is past four. I am lying down and cannot fall asleep. My heart aches. I am tired out. I hear through the window — they play tennis and are laughing.”

Short, simple statements of fact. You can almost hear him breathing.

While the most familiar image of Tolstoy may be the photograph from 1908 of a white-bearded patriarch seated on a rattan chair, one leg crossed over the other, very much the ruler of his domain, I prefer the word-pictures by his neighbor in the Crimea, Maxim Gorky, who used to see him along the coast, “a smallish, angular figure in a gray, crumpled, ragged suit and crumpled hat … sitting with his head on his hands, the wind blowing the silvery hairs of his beard through his fingers.” This sounds more like the man who would write “If I live” and “I am alive” in his journal. But then, in the same paragraph, Tolstoy becomes “the old magician” in whose “musing motionlessness” Gorky feels “something fateful, magical, something which went down into the darkness beneath him and stretched up like a search-light into the blue emptiness above the earth.” more

September 2, 2015

DVD rev 1You guys have a way of making a way out of no way. You know the sun comes after every storm—President Obama to New Orleans

Ten years after Katrina, the president comes to New Orleans, looks the city in the eye and says,” You inspire me.” At the same time he’s shining a light on his administration’s high points, he’s making sure the audience in a community center in the lower 9th Ward knows there’s a grease stain on his pants from some fried chicken he ate at Willie May’s Scotch House on St. Ann Street in Tremé; he’s just glad it didn’t get on his tie; he’s got his mojo working; after all, he’s in “the gateway to America’s soul, where the jazz makes you cry, the funerals make you dance, and the bayous make you believe all kinds of things.”

It’s the human touch, mix the politics with some sloppy downhome reality you can rub between your fingers, and make your exit while Bruce Springsteen’s singing “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  more

August 26, 2015

book rev

Ten years ago this week, August 29, Katrina savaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Just under two thousand people died, with damages estimated at over a hundred billion dollars. Spike Lee in When The Levees Broke, David Simon in HBO’s Treme, and Dave Eggers in his book Zeitoun are among the artists who have done justice to the magnitude of the event and its troubled aftermath. You could say Walker Percy did justice to it before it happened. more

August 19, 2015

record rev

A chapter near the end of Neil Young’s autobiography Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider 2012) begins with him behind the wheel of his car “rolling down a California two-lane highway” listening to a group called the Pistol Annies, with “visions of the future and past” brewing in his “coffee-soaked mind.” I can relate to a driving-listening-to-music chapter because that’s how I bonded with his new album, The Monsanto Years (Reprise), in which he teams up with Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah and Lukas’s group Promise of the Real to put the Fear of Neil into corporate giants, with special attention to the one targeted in the title. more

August 12, 2015

book rev

On the last day of his life, August 12, 1827, at 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand in London, William Blake, who was born in Soho in November 1757, stopped working and turned to Catherine, his wife of 45 years. “Stay, Kate!” he said, “keep just as you are — I’ll draw your portrait — for you’ve ever been an angel to me.” What followed that last drawing “has been told more than once in print,” and “can never be told without a sense of some strange and sweet meaning,” Swinburne writes, picturing “how, as Blake lay, with all the tides of his life setting towards the deep final sleep, he made and sang new fragments of verse,” which his wife heard as “songs of joy and triumph.” After telling her that they would never be parted, that he would be with her always, he died, says one witness, “in a most glorious manner.”

With the help of Peter Ackroyd’s definitive biography, Blake (Knopf 1995), it’s possible to visualize the scene that took place in the “plain, red-brick house of three stories” adjacent to the future site of opera impresario D’Oyly-Carte’s luxury hotel, the Savoy. The Blakes had moved into two rooms on the first floor in the spring of 1820.  more

August 5, 2015

rec rev

In the sleeve notes accompanying Beatles for Sale, Derek Taylor surmises that “the kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today,” for “the magic of the Beatles” has “cut through our differences of race, age, and class” and “is adored by the world.” Half a century later in AD 2015, “One of the strangest things about the Beatles phenomenon,” according to the group’s first biographer, Hunter Davies, “is that the further we get from them, the bigger they become.” more

July 29, 2015

book revI recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. — George Orwell, from Homage to Catalonia

A friend who went to Antioch College tells of arriving as a freshman to find himself confronted on a dormitory stairway by a stunningly lovely girl holding a pail of water, shouting, “Would you have fought in Spain?” Taking into account the water, the stairway, and the girl, he answered in the affirmative and was allowed to pass.

George Orwell, who fought in Spain and wrote about it in Homage to Catalonia (1938), found something more rewarding than the chance to fight fascism: “Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people…all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality.  more

July 22, 2015

book rev“Why is it that everything I have loved on this earth has gone away from me in two day’s time?” wonders Jean Louise Finch a little over halfway through Harper Lee’s long-awaited (to put it mildly) Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins $27.99).

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout has grown up, is living in New York City, and has returned to her Alabama hometown, Maycomb, during what might be called the post-Brown v Board of Education era. Her cry from the heart follows a shattering encounter with Calpurnia, the black woman who raised and loved her and her brother Jem, and is now a remote figure on the other side of the racial divide the color-blind Jean Louise is struggling to comprehend. There the old woman sits, “in a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions … wearing her company manners,” her face “a million tiny wrinkles, and her eyes dim behind thick lenses … no hint of compassion” in them, even as Jean Louise begs her, “I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”  more

July 15, 2015

book revThe peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection. It just is.

—Henry Miller, from The Colossus of Maroussi

If nothing else, Greece’s last-ditch stand against austerity has led me to the poetry of George Seferis, given me a reason to reread Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi (1941), and reminded me of three “it just is” evenings of peace on the Acropolis, each on the same day in the first week of August, all in the space of six years.

Miller writes of arriving in Greece on the eve of World War II: “I had entered a new realm as a free man … for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy,” because “to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how … and still be happy … in the being and knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”

That’s vintage Henry Miller — never go halfway, take it to the rhetorical limit, damn the torpedoes! full speed ahead! If there’s any writer anywhere who embodies the antithesis of austerity it’s Henry Miller. And in Miller’s Colossus, Greece is “the antithesis of America”: “Economically it may seem unimportant [those were the days], but spiritually Greece is still the mother of nations, the fountain-head of wisdom and inspiration.” At the moment mother Athens is under siege. While the front page of Monday’s online edition of the New York Times says the European moneylenders have reached an agreement on the Greek debt crisis, the story comes with a photo worth a thousand words showing a street person holding an empty glass, crumpled as if dead on the pavement in front of an Alpha Bank ATM where people are waiting in line. more

July 8, 2015

DVD rev

“That was the greatest entrance there ever was,” Orson Welles tells Henry Jaglom in My Lunches with Orson (Metropolitan 2013), referring to his first moment as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).

For me, at 11, it was more than an entrance. It was a revelation. Until then, most heroes on the screen were stock figures going through amusing motions, cowboys, villains, good guys, bad guys. This was something fascinating and new. Harry Lime was dead and buried, for one thing. Everybody in Vienna said so. He’d been hit by a car. Or had he?

What heightened the moment was the bombed-out European city of night surrounding it, the stark vistas of crumbling terraces, deep shadows, the blackest deepest blacks I’d ever seen, the way light gleamed on cobblestone pavement, the sense of menace in the war-haunted metropolis, the excitement of the name, Vienna, and the zither music that seemed to anticipate and express every last nuance of intrigue.

The fact that Joseph Cotten was playing Harry’s best friend immediately drew me in because I’d recently identified with the same actor as an artist in love with a mysterious girl who transcended time and space in A Portrait of Jennie. It was as if Joseph Cotten and I had already shared a romantic adventure and were together again trying to find out the truth about what had happened to Harry, who the police claimed had been involved in some nefarious business on the black market. He also had a girl friend, a sullen beauty named Anna whose cat was fond of Harry. And late one night, outside her building, we’re walking, footsteps echoing on the pavement, when we see the cat that liked Harry in a pool of light at the base of a dark doorway someone is standing in. The cat is grooming itself, very much at home. Suddenly a window in the building opposite opens and a light falls on the face of the man in the doorway. It’s Harry Lime back from the dead, slyly almost smugly alive, his face bright and strange, lit with  a kind of cold radiance. The zither takes a run up my spine to give me the moment, putting a chill on the chill already climbing the back of my neck. Harry’s smiling, he seems about to speak, as if to say, “Yes, old friend, it’s me, and I’ve seen and done things you’ll never know or want to know.”

In his biography Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Knopf 1996), David Thomson gets the impact of the moment, Lime’s “grin is ineffably sinister but sweet, and it goes into the camera like charm’s knife.” Only Orson Welles could have filled that moment, made it magical, with help from director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker. As Welles says to Jaglom, referring to the film’s success overseas and his sudden fame, “In Europe Harry Lime represented their past … the dark side of them. Yet attractive, you know …. It was a kind of mania. When I came into a restaurant the people went crazy. At the hotel I was staying in, police had to come to quiet the fans. It was my one moment of being a superstar, a traffic-stopping superstar … I could have made a career out of that picture.”

The Power of His Presence

Orson Welles was born 100 years ago, May 6, 1915, and died 30 years ago, October 10, 1985, only hours after taping an interview with Merv Griffin. On a YouTube video he tells Griffin how it feels to be 70 and looks back on his life and career (“I was awful busy and awful lucky”). Such is the power of his presence, there’s no sense of a declining force; if anything, he gives the impression of entering his eighth decade still busy and still lucky. Nothing in his manner, his way of speaking, his frankness and clarity and his sense of humor about himself, would suggest that this is his last public appearance.

And busy he was, right up to the end. After taping the Griffin show, he put in some time at the typewriter working on stage directions for the television special, Orson Welles’s Magic Show, then to bed never to wake.

The Big Chill

My son just urged me to do a good job on Falstaff. It’s a Christmas Eve tradition for him to watch Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966) on tape/DVD; he’s been doing it for the past 14 years. There’s a warmth in Welles’s Falstaff that’s lacking in much of his other work. Citizen Kane begs for superlatives, it’s a phenomenon, a miracle, a triumph, but what, for me, keeps it from being as great as it’s cracked up to be is its lack of warmth. One obvious problem is in the boorish, unsympathetic aspect of Kane, a side-effect of the fact that he’s based on an unsympathetic, to put it mildly, model, W.R. Hearst. However vivid and energetic the visuals and the pace, however brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland, with superior performances by Welles and his players, notably his close friend and fellow centenarian Joseph Cotten (1915-1994), it’s an essentially cold piece of work.

There’s also a hint of the chill in the Welles aesthetic: the way people seem to talk at cross-purposes, one voice on top of another, and the sense of distance in the interiors, almost as if Welles had discovered the visual equivalent of the echo, the seen music of chilly echoing spaces. Like the brilliant early scene that has Kane as a boy shouting and playing in the snow outside the window while his future is being coldly decided. The magnificently gothic opening credits and the closing moments crowned by the “Rosebud” revelation are thrilling. But then so was the great hoax Welles pulled off three years before Kane with his radio broadcast of an invasion from Mars that sent a chill of fear up the spine of the nation (especially central and northern New Jersey). Then there’s Touch of Evil (1958), one of the craziest great films ever made, and as cold at the center as Welles’s Hank Quinlan, the dead mountain of corruption Marlene Dietrich absurdly eulogizes (“some kind of a man”) at the end; thrilling, too, as pure cinema, is the famous hall of mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai; and any number of other virtuoso moments in The Stranger and Mr. Arkadin, not to mention Othello and Macbeth.

There are moments of warmth in The Magnificent Ambersons (most of them, as I remember, centered on Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello), but, as with so much of Welles’s work, the material has been so thoroughly violated by the studio, it’s not fair to Welles to assume the finished product is as he intended it. In Chimes at Midnight, however, he has the benefit of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character as rich and warmly eloquent as any in literature. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie,” he said in 1982, “that’s the one I’d offer up.”

The Voice

It’s clear that Welles also feels close to his last completed film F for Fake (1976), which is, as he tells Henry Jaglom, “the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane.” David Thomson agrees, praising its “utmost originality, delicacy, and sly personal insight,” while finding it “flawless” and “unlike anything anyone had ever done before.” In spite of insisting, again speaking to Jaglom, that the film is “a fake confessional” and that “the fact that I confess to being a fraud is a fraud,” Welles inhabits the project companionably, and, more to the point, warmly. As he walks through the film, sometimes garbed in magician’s regalia of black cloak and broad-brimmed hat (in the opening scene he quotes Robert Houdin to the effect that “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician”), sometimes in his customary attire, at his ease, at table, he’s at once the director, the central presence, the narrator, and the reader, as when he recites poetry, not in the manner of an actor declaiming verse on the stage, but as he puts it, “by the fireside,” as if he were sitting side by side with you saying, “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures, and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’”

True Friends

Back in June 2013, I did a column about visiting Vienna on a summer tour (“Light and Dark: Themes and Anthems for a European Tour”). For the image I used a still from The Third Man showing the Joseph Cotten character in the shadow of the great ferris wheel at the Prater, waiting for what would be his one and only encounter with his old friend, Harry Lime. In that odd entity called “real life,” Cotten and Welles, who were born in the same month, same year, May 1915, enjoyed a friendship worth mentioning here, on their joint centenary. As Cotten recounts in his 1987 autobiography, when he suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke that affected his speech center, he began years of therapy that eventually made it possible for him to speak again. As he began to recover, he and Welles talked on the phone each week for a couple of hours: “He was strong and supportive,” Cotten wrote, “and whenever I used the wrong word (which was frequently) he would say, ‘That’s a much better word, Jo, I’m going to use it.’” One of the last things Welles read before he died was the manuscript of his old friend’s autobiography.