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

Accident WEBThe Princeton Police Department has not yet completed its investigation into the August 26 automobile accident at Stockton Street and Library Place that took the life of Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Emeritus Donald Capps, 76. According to the latest report, his wife Karen, 73, remains in stable condition at Capitol Health Regional Medical Center, where Mr. Capps died at 8:54 p.m. the night of the accident.

According to Seminary President Dr. Craig Barnes, in a statement on the Seminary’s website, “Don Capps represented the very best in our profession. He was an accomplished scholar whose works shaped the field of pastoral theology. He was a beloved teacher who taught generations of future pastors to care not only for others but for themselves. He made a lasting impact on the church and our campus community, and we will miss him dearly.”

Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Seminary Robert Dykstra referred to his colleague’s kindness. “He always erred on the side of unfailing kindness on behalf of the individual. Don would shower attention on individual students and others who found themselves somehow off the beaten path, whose ideas about and experiences of God were spoken only hesitantly. It’s fair to say that Princeton Seminary, the discipline of pastoral theology, and the lives of many who have found themselves on the far edges of a Christian community in which they don’t quite fit, but cannot quit, will not see the judicious likes of Don Capps again.” more

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
PREX Customers: According to new owner Jon Lambert, the Princeton Record Exchange draws 600-700 customers a day, and twice that number on weekends. Here are two from a recent visit, Hun School graduate Ethan Hawke and his daughter. (Photo by Jeffrey Rushnak, Courtesy of Princeton Record Exchange)

PREX Customers: According to new owner Jon Lambert, the Princeton Record Exchange draws 600-700 customers a day, and twice that number on weekends. Here are two from a recent visit, Hun School graduate Ethan Hawke and his daughter. (Photo by Jeffrey Rushnak, Courtesy of Princeton Record Exchange)

The legend known as the Princeton Record Exchange (Prex) originated in April 1977 in the U-Store parking lot on University Place on the same block as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first residence. “I used to find students and offer them an album or two to help unload a van full of heavy orange crates ofКrecords,” Barry Weisfeld told Town Topics Monday, regarding his sale of the Princeton landmark to store manager Jon Lambert for an undisclosed amount. In 1980, Mr. Weisfeld’s traveling record fair found a home on Nassau Street, across from Holder Hall, before moving five years later to the Tulane Street building it occupies today.  more

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.

July 1, 2015

book revAfter the outbreak of war in April of 1861, students at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) raised the Union flag over Nassau Hall. According to the Mudd Manuscript Library blog, two-fifths of the class of 1862 left campus for the South within a three-week period. Students had begun leaving as early as January 1861 due to what college President John Maclean called “the unhappy condition of the country.” Although the administration took the flag down, it would be raised again and remain there for the duration of the war.

Of the 70 Princeton students who died in the conflict and are remembered on a plaque in Nassau Hall, 34 fought under the Union flag and 36 under the Confederate. The plaque does not divide them accordingly, however. They’re honored together as Princeton students.

Baldwin in Princeton

Writing in the November 1955 issue of Harper’s, African American essayist and novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) recalls visiting a Nassau Street restaurant in 1942: “I knew about jim-crow but I had never experienced it. I went to the same self-service restaurant three times and stood with all the Princeton boys before the counter, waiting for a hamburger and coffee…Negroes were not served there, I was told…Once I was told this, I determined to go there all the time. But now they were ready for me and, though some dreadful scenes were subsequently enacted in that restaurant, I never ate there again.”

True enough, although Baldwin’s friend and biographer David Leeming describes a 1965 visit to Princeton during which Baldwin suggested that they stop at a local restaurant: “He seemed angry, as standing in front of the counter with the usual crowd of Princeton students, he ordered a hamburger, left it on the counter when it was delivered to him, and announced that we were leaving.”

The fact that Baldwin felt compelled to return to the scene more than a decade later bears out his claim in the same essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” that the year he lived in New Jersey (working in a Belle Mead defense plant) “had made a great change” in his life. Having grown up in Harlem, a recent graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School, with white mentors and friends, he “knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave.” But “it had never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way. I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.”

According to Leeming, Baldwin’s anger after reliving the scene in the restaurant was such that he subsequently became “argumentative, even abusive” at a faculty dinner party.

“Informed Conversation”

Media commentary about race and racism in the aftermath of the Charleston shootings and the debate over the Confederate flag inspired Brandeis Professor Chad Williams and colleagues at Wayne State and the University of Iowa to create a hashtag, #CharlestonSyllabus, to crowdsource books, films, and educational materials as a basis for an “informed conversation.” BBC Trending’s report (“Charleston Syllabus Builds Book List of Tolerance”) is accompanied by an image showing a dozen recommended books, three of which are by James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and the first and most influential collection, titled after that seminal essay with its Princeton epiphany, Notes of a Native Son (1955).

Meanwhile Baldwin’s 90th birthday has inspired Harlem Stage’s The Year of James Baldwin, a 14-month, citywide celebration presented in partnership with Columbia University School of the Arts and New York Live Arts, and numerous other collaborators. Singer songwriter Stew, leader of a rock group called The Negro Problem, paid homage last month in “Notes of a Native Song,” a song cycle in which he presents Baldwin as a bluesinging literary rock star who, like Stew, ultimately came into his own as an artist in Europe.

The phrase that inspired the name of Stew’s band occurs five times in the five page preface to Notes of a Native Son, where Baldwin observes that “one of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes.”

Baldwin’s life as a professional writer began when he was  “writing book reviews—mostly, it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” Referring back to “traditional attitudes,” he notes that the “change from ill will to good will” is “better than no change at all….But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.”

Fiction’s Special Appeal

Although Baldwin’s essays are generally considered to be superior to his fiction, there’s no doubt that his first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain (1952) “taps the source” and belongs in the Charleston syllabus. However commendable the desire to get people reading and talking about race, if the great underlying dream objective is to reach supposed lost causes like accused killer Dylann Roof, strongly plotted and written fiction would make a more potent weapon than expository prose. In Go Tell It On the Mountain Baldwin is exploring his own history with a sense of personal and aesthetic purpose that gives the story a compelling universality. The opening pages describe a situation in which the protagonist feels like an outsider in his own family, alienated, in particular, from his father. That it’s a black family struggling to get by is secondary to the universal theme of embattled families.

When he left Paris for Switzerland, “armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter,” Baldwin’s goal was “to try to create the life” that he had “first known as a child” and from which he had “spent so many years in flight.” Even after reading Balzac, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, and Walt Whitman, among others, his true mentor in the “absolutely alabaster landscape” of Switzerland was the Empress of the Blues: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken” and “to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America.”

Personal History

Watching President Obama lead the singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the shooting victims in Charleston, I found myself focusing on the words African Methodist Episcopal on the purple banner draped over the podium. I was remembering two quite different race-and religion-based experiences. In the first incident I was 15, on a train somewhere between Tottenville and St. George on Staten Island. It was a Sunday and at one stop a number of black women in their Sunday best came aboard. The tambourine-bearing lady who sat down beside me was the oldest and most diminutive of the group. Right away she began asking me questions about my religion. Was I believer? Was I a sinner? Uh, well, er, what to say? Brandishing the tambourine in the direction of my hemming and hawing, she asked what my church was. Though it had been some years since I last dutifully attended Trinity Episcopal, where my father played the organ, I felt within my rights to say “ Episcopal,” but as soon as the word was out of my mouth, the old lady yelled “Episcopals is Catholics!” and began banging her tambourine and shouting “Save this sinner! Help this poor sinner!” The tambourine banging and the shouting continued until the next stop, where she got off with the others. One of the women came over, patted my shoulder, and said, “She’s old and cranky. Don’t pay her no mind. You believe whatever you want to believe.”

The second incident occured in the fall of the same year when I went with a friend to a black church in Indianapolis. We were two white boys who had come to the capital city to find blues and jazz records and to see if what an older friend had told us about this church was true—that people had “the time of their lives” there. What a thought. To have the time of your life in a place that, for me, was associated with squirming through endless dull sermons and being bored, literally, to tears. The atmosphere of friendly, unforced good feeling we found ourselves in could be seen again in the faces and attitudes of the people sitting behind President Obama and, in effect, cheering him on at the Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston. At the church in Indianapolis we were not only made to feel at home, we were treated as if we were children of the congregation. It was something better than what I thought of as “having the time of your life.” When all the males were called to stand in front of the altar and join hands to sing a hymn, a woman like the one who patted my shoulder that day on the train urged us to go up and join in and we did. We sang a hymn. It was called “Somebody Touched Me” and the tears in my eyes were not from boredom.

June 24, 2015

DVD revTake a walk with me down by Avalon… — Sir Van Morrison, from “Summertime in England”

According to the June 17 New York Times, the Season Five finale of Game of Thrones drew eight million viewers, making it most watched HBO series ever. The death of one of the major characters was front page news the day after, at least in certain New York tabloids. Also in the news were reports that longtime viewers of the show like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill had had enough. “Ok, I’m done,” she tweeted. “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended.”

It’s a rocky ride, for sure. But I’d tweak the phrasing. This ride isn’t just rocky, it rocks. How hard and relentlessly it rocks its audience reminds me of seeing Cream live in a small venue, amps up all the way, Ginger Baker satantically attacking the drums, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce riding out on “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” while “our naked ears were tortured” and you could say the same for the “naked eyes” of the audience assaulted by the scene that upset the senator. But we’re staying on board. We’ve been there before. To be stunned, shocked, repelled has been the name of the Game from day one. You can see for yourself in the home videos on YouTube of people reacting, hands over eyes, recoiling in horror, screaming, totally at the mercy of the Red Wedding sequence.

Enter Sir Van

So, how is it, speaking for my wife and myself, that at our advanced age we not only put up with but actually find pleasure in the dark world of Westeros where no one is safe and innocent children are sacrificed, burned alive by their own fathers? Is it that people who came of age in the rock and roll renaissance of the sixties are more receptive to a television series fraught with the outrages and excesses that have led others to jump ship?

I found one answer in the Arts section of Monday’s New York Times where Jon Pareles has the “newly knighted” Van Morrison taking “a song from way back when” and “living it anew” during a concert at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. Two months short of his 70th birthday, Sir Van’s singing a song called “Magic Time” that begins “Don’t lose the wonder in your eyes” before a crowd of ecstatic fans shown in the picture at the top of the story, arms high, wrinkles in evidence along with glimpses of hair touched with white and grey. You know that many of those shown blissing out en masse lived through the wildness and wonder of the years of Woodstock and Altamont, “Helter-Skelter” and Manson when the airwaves were dominated by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, and magical albums like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. 

Somehow the titles Sir Paul and Sir Mick don’t signify much beyond the prestige of knighthood. Think of Sir Van, however, and you can see a knight on horseback riding through the gates into Arthur’s Court “down by Avalon”— or into the domain of the Iron Throne at King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Over the years the limitless realm of rock has permitted Van Morrison to move freely through time and space and context, bringing Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge together with Mahalia Jackson and Yeats and Lady Gregory singing and dancing in the summertime in England. Or else he’s taking us “up the mountainside/With fire in our hearts” walking “all the way to Tir Na Nog.”

And remember where Sir Van, also known as the Belfast Cowboy, is coming from. When asked why Northern Ireland was “the ultimate choice for the bulk of the shoot and The Game of Thrones base of operation,” co-creator David Benioff mentions “windswept hilltops, stony beaches, lush meadows, high cliffs, bucolic streams — we can shoot a day at any of these places and still sleep that night in Belfast.”

The Miller’s Tale

Another force from the rock renaissance evoking the world of Game of Thrones is Procol Harum in albums like Home from 1970 and the chart-topping 1967 single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” where “As the Miller told his tale … her face, at first just ghostly,/Turned a whiter shade of pale.” Though the group’s out-there lyricist Keith Reid has denied consciously channeling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there’s no denying the “magic time” of myth and legend haunting that lyric and the songs on Home: “Light a candle up in kingdom come…A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down.” Or: “I beheld that flaming chariot and I saw the sacred bride,” or “God’s aloft, the winds are raging/God’s aloft, the winds are cold.” Or, given the revenge theme running through the Season Five finale, you have Gary Brooker belting out “Still There’ll Be More,” a deliriously jubilant serenade of unending vengeance: “I’ll waylay your daughter and kidnap your wife/I’ll savage her sexless and burn out her eyes/…You’ll cry out for mercy. Still there’ll be more!”

Drawing the Line 

The underlying issue in the blogosphere debate about Game of Thrones is where do you draw the line? Or where or when should the producers draw it? In fact, the secret of cable’s success, HBO in particular, has been to ignore the line networks have had to live on the other side of from the inception of television all the way back to Hollywood and the reign of the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency. Explaining why compressing Martin’s massive work into a feature film was impossible, David Benioff says that besides being forced to discard “dozens of subplots and scores of characters,” such a film “would almost certainly need a PG-13 rating. That means no sex, no blood, no profanity.” To which he added: “[Profanity] that!”

Those who claim to be abandoning Game of Thrones because of the violence and sex should consider the ultimate dramatist. When did Shakespeare draw the line? Even if you dismiss the crazed, cannibalistic bloodbath of Titus Andronicus as a parody of Marlowe or the work of another hand, what about, for a start, the Macbeths, and Goneril and Regan in King Lear, and the ultimate protagonist Hamlet (“my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth”), who skewers his true love’s father and when asked where the old man is, says “At supper…Not where he eats but is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet.”

Heroes and Villains

While Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf Hamlet of Game of Thrones, pictured in the graphic above and memorably played by Peter Dinklage, might not be a match for the Dane verbally, he has Shakespearean dimensions, as do most of the major characters. Interviewed in Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones (Chronicle Books 2012), Dinklage speaks of the way the show “crosses genres” and finds the characters “as vibrant and real” as anything he’s come across in “more traditional great fiction.” Lena Headley, who plays his deadly, diabolical sister Cersei, finds that the characters “never stop moving, growing, changing. No one ever remains what you think they are.”

Audience Awareness

Referring to the show’s source, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, co-creator D.B. Weiss mentions always being “on the lookout for deep characters, a beautifully crafted and compelling story, passion, violence, intrigue, humanity, and all the ambiguities that come with a fully realized world … and you never find them all in the same place. Except we did. It was exhilarating and terrifying.”

Using terms like “exhilarating and terrifying,” Weiss already understands the dimensions of the challenge facing not merely the producers of the show but the audience. For one example, there’s the wedding night rape in Season Five that led Senator McCaskill, among others, to say “I’m done.” It’s important to mention that there’s an audience within the scene in the person of the man being forced to watch it; he and the victim were childhood friends. Well aware of the previous relationship, the husband says, “You’ve known her since she was a girl, now watch her become a woman.” The viewer doesn’t actually see the rape except as it’s reflected in the person standing helplessly by watching it. We know that he himself has been violated, and worse—beaten, tortured, emasculated, and dehumanized—by the perpetrator. We hear her cries but watching him watch, shaken, torn, sobbing, is where the rape is most vividly manifested. The act is as much a violation of the witness as it is of the victim. And there’s reason to believe that the scene was conceived with an awareness of what the audience to Game of Thrones has been going through. Remember those videos of horrified witnesses to the Red Wedding. They don’t want to see it, they hide their eyes, but they have to look.

Slapping Joffrey

For detestable characters, it’s hard to equal Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the horrific brat who steals the throne and orders the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the true hero of Season One. Thankfully, there’s a scene before Joffrey becomes king where his Uncle Tyrion gives him the slapping he more than deserves, a moment to be savored that has been posted on YouTube and extended to ten minutes by a viewer who appreciates Game of Throne’s rock and roll undercurrent. As Peter Dinklage unloads, again and again, the music playing is Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.”