January 26, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head …

—W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Imagine writing a novel about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Let’s say things are going well, the end’s almost in sight when a real-life pandemic begins producing an alarmingly high death toll. As the numbers climb into the millions, you’re distracted by the ongoing event, the way it may conflict with or affect your concept, not to mention your own well-being, plus the pressure from a publisher looking to rush a sure bestseller into print.

Now imagine playing the starring role in a television series based on a novel about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.9 percent of the world’s population. You’re just beginning to get to know your character when the real-life pandemic of 2020 halts production, puts you in lockdown isolation for months, after which filming resumes in another, supposedly safer country, where you remain until production wraps in early 2021. And then, even as you’re doing pre-release interviews, new variants like Delta and Omicron are making you wonder if the world might be gravitating toward a virus no less unthinkable, and oh, here’s a new film, a silly but scary dystopian satire called Don’t Look Up coming along just in time to put a funhouse focus on life on earth as the environmental doomsday clock keeps moving toward high noon.

The novelist Emily St. John Mandel avoided the first what-if scenario by finishing her book Station Eleven in 2014. The actress Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) had to deal with, live through, and somehow successfully transcend the real-life challenges of the second scenario. more

January 19, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

“With knowledge you can grasp tight a belief: that you  can be better, that the world can be better. With that, you can claim hope.”

—Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)

Accompanying NPR’s complete transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a photograph showing King inside the Lincoln Memorial with a dozen unidentified men that the caption describes as “civil rights leaders.” The group posed at the base of the statue present a mélange of facial expressions frozen in the moment, some appropriately somber and pensive, others abstracted, edgy, uncomfortable. The most relaxed person in the picture would seem to be King himself. The sternest, strangest expression, however, is Abraham Lincoln’s. Probably I’m reading the troubles of the present day into that gaze, but in King’s birthday week, January 2022, it’s as if Lincoln were staring past the “dream” into the “urgency of the moment.”

Poitier and King

Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 in the photograph taken at the memorial on August 28, 1963. At around the same age, Sidney Poitier was coming into his own as an actor. I’ve been reading his book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (HarperSanFrancisco 2000) and watching film clips on the time machine jukebox of YouTube. I’d forgotten the power of his presence, his extraordinary intensity. Hauled into the office of the small town sheriff played by Rod Steiger in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, he commands the scene simply by standing there staring while Steiger outdoes himself performing a Method actor bigot. The Black Philadelphia homicide cop Virgil Tibbs regards this performative display as if Steiger were auditioning for a part in Poitier’s film. Made four years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, Heat of the Night won the Best Picture Oscar at the 1968 Academy Awards, with Steiger winning the award for Best Actor (Poitier had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1963 for Lilies of the Field). The awards ceremony had to be moved to April 10, 1968 from April 8, the day King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  more

January 12, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world — I feel a spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly.”

—John Keats, from one of his last letters

In virtually every episode of Gomorrah, the Italian series about organized crime in Naples, currently streaming on HBO Max, there are glimpses of the setting that Keats, dying at 25, longed to put into words.

I found some words that accord with my general impression of Gomorrah — “I dream of a darkness darker than black” — in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (“The Capitol Police and the Scars of Jan. 6”). The quote comes from the journal of an officer who “felt himself  spiraling downward in the days following the attack.”

Curious but Wary

For years my wife and I had been curious about but wary of Gomorrah, which debuted on Sundance in 2014. So we kept our distance, under a self-imposed form of protective custody. And now we’re paying HBO Max to be sucked into the vortex of a kill-or-be-killed, no-light-at-the-end-of-the tunnel, “darker-than-black” viewing experience.

We finished Season 2 on January 6. The images replayed on the first anniversary of the attack on the Capitol made it clear that no amount of simulated murder and mayhem, however brilliantly shot and graphically executed, could compare with the shocking spectacle of a real-life insurrection, and for all the staged shootings, beatings, throat-slashings and other innumerable acts of violence in Gomorrah nothing could match the glaring intensity of the moment a young cop is crushed by the roaring, pounding mob, pinned against a door frame, screaming in pain, crying out in agony. The real thing is very hard to watch. You have to look away even now, when you know the officer in question survived.  more

January 5, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

According to Merriam-Webster, the “full definition” of anomaly is “something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified.” My first column of 2022 brings together Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, a 72-page novella published in 1877, with Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, a 389-page novel published last year. By definition, then, Flight 22, Paris to Princeton, will be an anomaly about an anomaly, fueled by the fact that the only thing these two enterprises appear to have in common is that both were translated from the French and are landing on the same page at the same time.

No Comparison

Le Tellier’s novel begins, “It’s not the killing, that’s not the thing.” The speaker is a passenger on Air France Flight 006, a hired assassin “who builds his life on other people’s deaths.”

Flaubert’s novella begins, “Madame Aubain’s servant Félicité was the envy of the ladies of Pont-l’Évêque for half a century.”

When I first read that sentence, I was a college sophomore on the rebound from Madame Bovary. So I put the book aside, figuring that the life of a servant in the provinces could not compare with the story of a star-crossed adulteress. 145 years from takeoff, A Simple Heart has arrived. The question now is how can it compare with a literary mystery timed for the misinformational, confrontational turbulence of the current Omicron moment, on the eve of the first anniversary of the January 6 assault on democracy? more

December 29, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Flaubert

The news isn’t just breaking, it’s running wild.” So began my June 3, 2020 column on Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. That was then. The belief that literature, inspired acting, poetry, and music is always timely, always worthy of interest, has been the motive force driving these pieces week after week, year after year. When terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, I brought in Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and Daumier; when they shot up the Bataclan that November, I connected by way of Henry Miller, Rimbaud, and the Velvet Underground. Four years later when Notre Dame was burning, I brought Balzac, Swinburne, Hugo, and the Mueller Report on board.

Three Giants at 200

I’m setting the last column of 2021 in Paris because three bicentenary literary giants — Feodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) — were there at roughly the same time, in summer-fall 1862. Since there’s no evidence I can find that the author of Crime and Punishment got together with the author of The Flowers of Evil, or with the author of Madame Bovary, I’m bringing them together with the help of quotations, observations, and occasional imaginary conversations, thanks in part to The Arcades Project (Harvard 2002), the compendium Walter Benjamin mined from the printed depths of 19th-century Paris. The 1,070-page volume is described in the translators’ foreword as the “blue-print for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city, in effect.” more

December 22, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

“Ah, Shakespeare, Shakespeare! … The great maestro of the human heart!”

—Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Verdi is so quoted in Saturday’s New York Times under the banner headline “’Hail, Shakespeare’ Resonates Across Italy,” for an article on the opera house opening nights of Macbeth, Falstaff, Othello, and Julius Caesar in Milan, Florence, Naples, and Rome.

Above the headline is a lurid panoramic backdrop from David Livermore’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Shown in the foreground, a scattered crowd of people in modern dress appear to be waiting for something to happen, like a chorus of citizens anticipating a cue, seemingly unaware of the fantastical urban inferno looming behind them. It’s as if the set designer is trying to visually evoke Harold Bloom’s vision of Macbeth’s “power of contamination.” In the opening chapter of his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom refers to Shakespeare’s “pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere at once. He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or ‘spell of light,’ almost too vast to comprehend.”

Comic Relief

Shakespeare shows up again in Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section in the form of an immense, darkly foreboding two-page ad for The Tragedy of Macbeth, “written for the screen and directed by Joel Coen.” Looking to keep things cheerful with Christmas only three days away, I went right to the knocking at the gate in Act Two and the Porter’s moment in the spotlight, which Bloom notes as “the first and only comedy allowed in this drama.” Here Shakespeare introduces “a healing touch of nature where Macbeth has intimidated us with the preternatural, and with the Macbeths’ mutual phantasmagoria of murder and power.”  more

December 15, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I was fortunate enough to meet him and chat about songwriting.”

— Paul McCartney

They changed my life.” That was my response to an email from a friend asking: “So the Beatles trump Sondheim?” She was referring to my reviews of Get Back, the book and the film, written at a time when the cultural media was dominated by tributes and remembrances in the aftermath of the composer’s death. I explained that Sondheim’s work was virtually unknown to me, while I’d been living in the music of the Beatles since the mid-1960s. But “changed my life” was too easy to say, too facile, and my friend was uneasy using “trump” (“can we still use that word?”), a verb I’ve been avoiding for the past five years.

Word choice is on my mind at the moment because I’m reading Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (Scarecrow Press 2005), a series of his conversations with Library of Congress music specialist Mark Eden Horowitz. And now that I think of it, the theatre, which had also been “virtually unknown” to me when Sondheim was making his name there, had as much to do with changing my life as the Fab Four. It happened during Ray Bolger’s captivating song and dance sing-along show-stopper, “Once in Love With Amy,” at the St. James Theatre. The show was Where’s Charlie?, and I’d just turned 10. A few years later, I saw Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in The King and I and had the good fortune to be in the house when Shirley MacLaine made her the-star-broke-a-leg debut at a matinee of The Pajama Game.

More to the point, after seeing the original Broadway production of West Side Story, I lived in the cast album, singing along with and without it for years. I had no idea at the time that the lyrics playing on the soundtrack of my life — “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” and the others — had been written by someone named Stephen Sondheim. Yet it seems that the lines I knew by heart are the ones he said he’s “embarrassed by” in a February 2020 interview on 60 Minutes. As an example, he cites the duet “Tonight.” When Tony sings, “Today the world was just an address, a place for me to live in,” Sondheim thinks it sounds like this “street kid” has been “reading too much.” He then goes on to admit “that’s not true for a lot of people who find it a very good line and enjoy it.” But “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t write that line …. I know better now.”

Although the musicological terminology in Sondheim’s conversations with Horowitz can be hard to follow, it’s offset by the composer’s personable, down to earth way of expressing himself: “When I feel I’m getting stale,” he says, “I go into sharp keys because they’re so foreign and scary.” Asked about the small red arrows on a manuscript, he explains that it signifies “what I like … after I’ve written down as many ideas as I can, and I feel as though I’m ready to give birth, I’ll go back over it and decide what it is I really want to remember and try to preserve.” more

December 8, 2021

The Beatles’ rooftop concert in London, 1969. (Wikipedia)

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is an energy field, a bunch of molecules. And these particular molecules formed to make these four guys, who then formed this band called the Beatles and did all that work. I have to think there was something metaphysical. Something alchemic. Something that must be thought of as magic — with a k.”

—Paul McCartney, from a 2007 interview

I’ve just “come down” from Get Back, the film — I say “come down” because I was up on the Apple rooftop four floors above Savile Row for the grand finale with the particular molecules formed to make John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Up on the roof I could almost feel the January chill along with a mildly exhilarating touch of vertigo as I gazed out over the chimneys and steeples of London’s West End. Down in the cozy confines of the basement studio, it was all I could do to keep from reaching through the fourth wall to pick up the 55-year-old McVittie’s chocolate biscuit on Ringo’s plate, or maybe it was George’s, so dense was the molecular haze, what with all the cigarette smoke. Six-plus hours immersed in the energy field of the Beatles making music and my attention rarely wavered; it was that compelling. My wife watched the entire epic with me, and though she yawned at times, and came near dozing, she enjoyed highlights like Paul and John’s zitheresque take on “The Third Man Theme,” performed for the benefit of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, said to be Orson Welles’s natural son. more

December 1, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

“Though I don’t pretend to understand what makes these four rather odd-looking boys so fascinating to so many scores of millions of people, I admit that I feel a certain mindless joy stealing over me as they caper about uttering sounds.”

So says Brendan Gill in his review of A Hard Day’s Night in the August 22, 1964 New Yorker. As an example of mindless joy, he mentions “a lady of indubitable intelligence” who told him that the Beatles “make her happy in the very same way that butterflies do; she wouldn’t be surprised if, in a previous incarnation, the Beatles had been butterflies.” A more mindfully memorable response came from the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris, who dubbed A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of juke box musicals.”

Another Beatles Landmark

Fifty-seven years later here they are again alive and well in The Beatles Get Back, which could be called the Citizen Kane of rock documentaries. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has carved a landmark out of 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio, much of it transcriptions of conversations among the Beatles during the making of the album that would be released more than a year later as Let It Be. While I have yet to see Jackson’s three-act epic, I’ve been enjoying the book (Callaway Arts & Entertainment $60). It’s a massive volume, 250-plus pages brimming with digitally scanned and restored frames from the original footage, along with photography by Linda McCartney and Ethan A. Russell. By far the book’s most fascinating feature is the in-the-moment sensation of “being there.” Reviewing Get Back in Variety, Chris Willman was impressed by how much of the dialogue “reads like it could be adaptable into an off-Broadway play, full of dark comedy and rich insight about what can and can’t emerge out of ego and compromise among longtime partners approaching a crossroads.”  more

November 24, 2021

By Stuart Michner

I’m a dark horse
Running on a dark race course…

—George Harrison (1943-2001)

According to Glyn Johns, engineer and producer of the Beatles’ famously fraught Get Back sessions, “If I was ever going to write a book about George, I would print out every lyric he ever wrote, and I guarantee you would find out exactly who he was. Beginning with ‘Don’t Bother Me,’ it’s all there, as plain as plain can be.”

In George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door (Overlook 2015), Graeme Thomson notes that “Don’t Bother Me” was “written out of sheer necessity” at a time when “the insatiable appetite of Beatlemania” was “really beginning to bite.” As someone who “would never be much inclined to float off and write about ‘newspaper taxis’ or ‘Maxwell’s silver hammer,’ “ and who was already “adept at writing about himself,” Harrison was “the first Beatle to write songs about being a Beatle.”

So there he was, at 20, the youngest member of a band dominated by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, a compositional dynamo producing hit songs with titles like “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “Thank You Girl,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and “From Me to You.” Laid up with a head cold while the Beatles were playing “a summer season in Bournemouth,” as he recounts in I Me Mine (Chronicle Books 1980, 2002), Harrison gamely sets about writing the first chapter of his own narrative, a subtext in song with a distinct point of view. While “Don’t Bother Me” is plotted around the standard she-left-me-on-my-own plotline, it comes across as a dispatch from the combat zone of Beatlemania by a singer with no interest in holding hands or making nice: “So go away, leave me alone, don’t bother me … don’t come near, just stay away.”  more

November 17, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

On Veterans Day 2021, I was thinking about my Uncle Bob, who was killed when his B-52 went down in a freak accident in February 1944. I was also dealing with the fact that both my uncle and my maternal grandfather were named for Robert E. Lee. On my uncle’s dog tag, which I keep close at hand, he’s identified as REL Patterson.

Although my paternal ancestors fought for the Union, a conspicuous exception is Gen. Jubal Early, called Lee’s “Bad Old Man” according to various biographers because of his “short temper, insubordination, and use of profanity.” A Potomac River ferry was named for him until June 2020 when it was renamed Historic White’s Ferry. As far as I know, there are still streets named for him in Texas, Florida, and in nine different towns in Virginia, including his birthplace Lynchburg, where there’s a Jubal Early memorial that was restored after being knocked down by “a wayward driver” in 2013.

 more

November 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

What passion cannot music raise and quell!

—John Dryden (1631-1700)

Driving toward the lake listening to Bob Dylan sing “Mother of Muses” (“sing your hearts out, all you women of the chorus / Sing of honor and fame and of glory be”), I’m brainstorming a column on the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale that would feature John Dryden, whose “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” (1687) closes with a Grand Chorus that moves the Spheres:

“So when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageant shall devour, / The trumpet shall be heard on high, / The dead shall live, the living die, / And music shall untune the sky.”

Dryden and Dylan? A rhyming made in heaven? Stranger things have happened. The Dylan of last year’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways would relate to the idea of music powerful enough to raise the dead, bring down the living, and untune the sky. His mother of muses isn’t all sweetness and light. “Unleash your wrath!” he tells her. “Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path.”

Dryden knew about blocked paths. England’s first poet laureate “attained his celebrity at the cost of gossip and scandal and, in the last decade of his life (after the Glorious Revolution and his removal from the laureateship), of suspicion and scorn.” According to the introduction to the Penguin edition of Selected Poems, “He wrote about politics and religion, about trade and empire; he wrote for the theatre and for public occasion; he composed songs, fables, odes and panegyrics, brilliant satire and savage polemic; he translated from many languages and formulated an idiomatic, familiar and fluent prose style,” virtually inventing “the commercial literary career.” And having created a commercial career in music, Dylan might identify with Dryden’s “difficult public life, fashioned from his own unlikely personality — from his privacy, self-doubts, even verbal hesitation (qualities mocked by his enemies)” on his way to becoming “a public figure of literary distinction.”

While you may not immediately associate Dylan with “verbal hesitation” or “self-doubts,” the winner of the 2016 Nobel prize can definitely claim “literary distinction.” In “False Prophet,” he “opened his heart and the world came in,” and surely there’s room for Dryden’s rising, quelling music in there along with Walt Whitman’s “multitudes” and Stephen Crane’s Black Riders (“Black rider, black rider, you’ve been living too hard”). Like Dryden, Dylan’s “a man of contradictions, a man of many moods.” In “Key West,” the most haunting song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, he says “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there / Key West is on the horizon line.”

Last week my subject was Crane, who died at 28 in 1900, and now it’s Dryden, who died at 68 in 1700, both on the  horizon line of  new centuries. more

November 3, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m as much of a Jerseyman as you will find.

—Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Here’s how Stephen Crane happens. One late October day in the 1980s you’re in the Quadrant, a secondhand bookstore in Easton, Pa. You take down a first edition of Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (Stokes 1900), said to be the last of Crane’s books published in his lifetime. Standing there, you glance at the first story, “The Price of the Harness.” On the second page, you find yourself drawn into a paragraph that begins “The day wore down to the Cuban dusk, in which the shadows are all grim and of ghostly shape,” and that ends “From somewhere in the world came a single rifle-shot.” You jump ahead a few pages to this sentence: “As the infantry moved along the road, some of the battery horses turned at the noise of the trampling feet and surveyed the men with eyes as deep as wells, serene, mournful, generous eyes, lit heart-breakingly with something that was akin to a philosophy, a religion of self-sacrifice — oh, gallant, gallant horses!”

The book is $39, too high, but never mind, you’re committed, you have to have it, you’re in a state of happy confusion, and it’s not the gallant horses, it’s the way Crane’s excitement in the writing and your excitement in reading fused in that moment. Before you can say a word about the price, the owner lowers it to $20. Just like that. Like a single rifle-shot somewhere in the world.

The owner tells you that Crane went to Lafayette College, right there in Easton. According to Paul Auster’s biography, Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (Holt $35), Lafayette was “a madhouse of violent hazing rituals and masculine mayhem, with constant battles between the sophomore and freshman classes.” A classmate is quoted recalling how a bunch of raucous sophomore “gangsters” broke into Crane’s dorm room one night and were “persuaded to leave” only after he “pointed a loaded revolver at them.” more

October 27, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Feeling blue, in need of a lift, I drive downtown with Abbey Road on the stereo. I’m listening to “Here Comes the Sun,” the song hospitals played to celebrate survivors of the virus and the caregivers who saw them through. In just over three minutes, the Beatles have blitzed the blues. So have various Halloween yardscapes, the usual cobweb-curtained display of skeletons, tombstones, ghosts, witches and ravens, good dark fun, fear dressed up in jack ‘o lantern orange and gold for the kids and the big kids the adults are supposed to be “somewhere deep down inside.”

Halloween has the big kid inside me thinking outlandish thoughts, like a paranormal birthday party for the Born on October 27th Club, featuring a poetry slam with the ghosts of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath; the ghost of Erasmus reading from In Praise of Folly; a lecture on etiquette by the ghost of Emily Post; and a musical remake of Psycho, with the Minister of Silly Walks John Cleese as Norman Bates and the ex-president’s ex Marla Maples as Marion Crane. The problem is the main event, the stabbing in the shower, which surely even Stephen Sondheim couldn’t set to music. There’s only one director who could pull that off, and you’d still have to rewrite the film, put the Slayer in the shower, make Norman a vampire, and have Joss Whedon writing the words and the music, the way he did for “Once More, with Feeling,” the all-singing seventh episode from the sixth season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which is on every list of the best episodes in television history. As far as that goes, Whedon’s Buffy routinely makes similar lists of the greatest television shows ever. more

October 20, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Described as “the gun that almost killed Arthur Rimbaud,” a 7mm six shooter purchased by his lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine in July 1873 sold at Christie’s in November 2016 for 435,000 euros, more than seven times the estimate, according to the November 30 Guardian.

So why would an “unknown bidder” pay a small fortune for the gun that almost killed Rimbaud, who was born on October 20, 1854, and died 120 years ago on November 10, 1891? Because we’re talking about a legend, a star, an action hero of literature who gave up poetry for good at the age of 21. As it happened, Verlaine was in a drunken delirium at the time and no more capable of doing away with Rimbaud than he was of helping Bob Dylan write “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (“I been shootin’ in the dark too long … Relationships have all been bad / Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s”).

Rimbaud and Rambo

Verlaine’s gun was sold three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. Remember those flags and yard signs showing Trump as a bazooka-wielding Rambo? It’s possible that some super rich supporter bought the gun as a souvenir for the Donald, not that he’d want anything soiled by the hands of a poet. In fact, Rimbaud not only rhymes with Rambo, he was symbolically present at the birth. When David Morrell first conceived the hero of his 1972 novel First Blood, he intended the name of the character to rhyme with the surname of the poet, aware that the title of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell fit with the horrific POW experiences he imagined his Rambo enduring and from which sprang the blockbuster film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone. The OED extends the implicit Rimbaud connection, defining Rambo as a term “commonly used to describe a lone wolf who is reckless, disregards orders, uses violence to solve problems, enters dangerous situations alone, and is exceptionally tough, callous, raw and aggressive.”  more

October 13, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America

—Paul Simon

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon marks his 80th birthday today, Wednesday, October 13. Incredible but true, this is the first time I’ve written about him, unless you count the caption headed “A Hazy Shade of Winter” I wrote for the front page photo of a snow scene on January 26, 2011. Sharing the same page in the same issue is a photo of someone I’ve come back to again and again over the years, Simon’s fellow New Yorker, J.D. Salinger, who died in January 2010. As Holden Caulfield would say, “if you really want to know about it,” I’ve always thought of Simon as a Salinger character, like maybe Holden’s brilliant, long lost song-writing baseball-playing cousin from Queens.

Also incredible but true, the last time I was in the city was in early November 2019, for the J.D. Salinger centenary exhibit at the New York Public Library. And the last time I was in Simon’s New York was the other night listening to “Bleecker Street” and “The Sound of Silence” from Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.

He’s In Your Head

Comparing poetry and popular music, Billy Collins, another New Yorker who grew up in Queens, points out that because “pop songs get into people’s heads as they listen in the car, you don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head and you can sing along. With a poem you have to will yourself to memorize it.”

The Simon songs playing most often in my head over the years along with “Sounds of Silence” have been “Dangling Conversation,” “Homeward Bound,” “59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “The Boxer,” and “America,” along with lines like “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” from “Mrs. Robinson,” the song heard ‘round the nation on the soundtrack of The Graduate (1966). more

October 6, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Charlie Kaufman’s film I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) and Iain Reid’s debut novel of the same name (2016) share the same first-person point of view, the same opening sentences, the same time sequence of settings and events, ending in a haunted high school in the middle of nowhere with a blizzard raging outside. What happens or appears to happen there is the difference between filmgoers focused on questions of meaning (“the ending of Ending Things explained”) and readers responding to the “ferocious little book’s … visionary, harrowing final pages” and a “psychological torment so impenetrable it’s impossible to escape.”

A “Molecular” Woman

I saw the film on Netflix almost six weeks ago, as I was starting a column on Camus and Afghanistan. I was so impressed by Jessie Buckley’s performance that I wanted to write about it immediately. I even tried to find room in the philosophy of the absurd for a concept in which a film’s most sympathetic character, the one who carries it, lights it up, gives it mind, heart, and soul, exists only in the imagination of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), who may be the younger self of an elderly, terminally depressed high school janitor.

In a Sept. 17, 2020 IndieWire interview, Buckley says “Just before I went to do the audition, I got a note from Charlie that said, ‘This woman is molecular.’ I didn’t know what that meant! I was awful at chemistry, but I kind of loved that note. It could be anything to you. It kind of meant there was nothing solid, it was something that moved and broke apart and joined other atoms.” Referring to the screenplay, she describes the way it “transcended and shifted and moved from when I read it to when I was playing it, to afterwards when I watched it.” Explaining why she read Reid’s novel prior to the audition: “I take in everything. I’m like somebody who puts too much chili on my food when I cook, because I just think, ‘Just whack it all in.’ I take all the bits and I try and throw away all the bits as well, once we get to shoot.” more

September 29, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Prez won’t play a tune if he doesn’t know the lyric — the entire lyric.

    —Bobby Scott, from “The House in the Heart”

What are your charms for? What are my arms for? Use your imagination …

    —from “Just You, Just Me”

With the baseball playoffs looming and the St. Louis Cardinals riding a record-breaking winning streak, I’m in the car listening to Lester Young make love to “Just You, Just Me,” recorded in New York in December 1943, the year the Cards won the pennant and lost the World Series to the Yankees. Driving down the hill from the Kingston Post Office, I’m wondering what position Prez would play on a jazz all-star team, and by the time I get to River Road, I know he’d have to be the pitcher, telling a different story with each throw, deceptively smooth and dreamy, Ali-style, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Sure enough, in his biography Lester Leaps In (2003), Douglas Daniels reports that while playing ball “with Basie’s Bad Boys,” Lester “wouldn’t think of letting anyone pitch but himself.” Known for a “backspinning” curve that made the batters hit grounders, “Prez could do anything,” according to his bandmate, altoist Earle Warren.

A Giants Fan

Looking for jazz as the city-to-city link in a New York Times story on the 2015 Mets/Royals World Series, sports reporter David Waldstein points out that Young made his name in Kansas City’s nightclub district “before migrating to New York, where he became not only a jazz giant but also a fan of the New York Giants baseball club.” He also played on Count Basie’s team “as a pitcher with nimble fingers.” But not so nimble the time he was shaving, getting ready for a gig at Birdland while listening intently to the radio as the Giants faced the Dodgers in the deciding game of the 1951 National League playoff. When Bobby Thomson won the pennant for New York with the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” Young was so excited that he cut himself “badly enough that he had some difficulty playing that night.” more

September 22, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I don’t want to create responsible shows with lawyers in them. I want to invade people’s dreams.

—Joss Whedon

No doubt about it, Joss Whedon’s extraordinary series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) suffers from Laughable Title Syndrome. Even now, all these years later when it’s become a pop culture fact of life, I hesitate to tell someone how much I’m enjoying the show. Even now, I’m asking myself “How did I get into this?” But I said the same thing after binging on Friday Night Lights and Battlestar Galactica. It all goes back to Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, where Joss Whedon’s Buffy has its own chapter among the 12 series that “changed TV drama forever.”

“Never Camp”

Sepinwall immediately differentiates the WB series from the 1992 feature film, which was “too camp,” according to Whedon’s colleague David Greenwalt: “Joss does a lot of things. He does funny, he does serious, he does break your heart, but it’s never camp.”

Worse yet, the victim of the camping was Whedon himself, since the film was a travesty of his own screenplay, his creation, his Buffy. Television critic Emily Nussbaum describes what he went through in her piece “Must-See Metaphysics” (New York Times Magazine September 22, 2002). Watching his vision of “populist feminism” turned into “a schlocky comedy,” he “sat in the theater, crying. ‘I really thought I’d never work again … It was that devastating.’ “ Yet he was able to resurrect Buffy on television, “restoring the show’s powerful central metaphor: adolescence is hell, and any girl who makes it through is a superhero.”

The title remained — and still remains — an issue. But, as Whedon said in the same article, “if I’d made Buffy the Lesbian Separatist, a series of lectures on PBS on why there should be feminism, no one would be coming to the party, and it would be boring — the idea of changing culture is important to me, and it can only be done in a popular medium.’’ more

September 15, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

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

—Sonny Rollins

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

—Michael K. Williams on playing Omar

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

Toxic Snow

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

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

September 8, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

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

—Carole King, from “Goin Back”

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

Lost and Found

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

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

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

September 1, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A smile relieves a heart that grieves.

—from “Waiting On a Friend”

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

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

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

August 25, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

But the point is to live.

—Albert Camus (1913-1960)

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

Camus in Islam Qala

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

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

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

August 18, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home

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

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

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

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

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

August 4, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

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

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

Armstrong in the Sixties

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

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