30 September 2008

The Photography of David Seidner

© International Center of Photography, David Seidner Archive

Beginning 2 October, through 1 February 2009, the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint-Laurent here in Paris will host an exhibition of the photography of David Seidner (1957–99). For a few years, I’ve become familiar with some of Seidner’s work, thanks to my friend Gilles Jaroslaw, who is one of the exhibition curators and who worked for a time as Seidner’s assistant. As Gilles prepared the exhibition, I’ve had the opportunity to see more of the work, and to reflect on it.

Seidner’s photographs are cool, detached, lending to each image something I find unnerving. Others describe various kinds of passion in the imagery, but I don’t see that. I see an outsider, almost a Leonard Zelig with a camera, who can assimilate perfectly any photographic style and yet remains apart.

Seidner died of AIDS, and in his work I see a conflation of Susan Sontag’s writings both on photography and on “illness as metaphor.” It’s unfair to reduce him to such a simplistic critique, I know, and yet I keep coming back to it. I’m grasping at straws, really, trying to understand what I see. Long before he grew ill, he regarded the human body with a clinical curiosity. And until the end of his life, the human body — draped in couture or naked, full-length or bust — was his constant subject.

Robert Mapplethorpe
© International Center of Photography, David Seidner Archive

An early, full-length portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe is rendered in five distinct images, as if cut up yet, in fact, scrupulously planned, captured, and arranged in separate shots. One sees the portrait simultaneously as a single image and as fractured pieces: is it my eye or Seidner’s that fills in the interstices? Is it he or I who grasp the whole? Is Seidner dissecting or restoring? I’ve been looking at that/those picture/s for a couple of years, and I’m still struggling with these questions. At every turn in his career, Seidner sees great beauty, but he has no intention of making it easy for us.

A series of facial portraits of important artists, part of a series that includes the self-portrait reproduced here, exploits the stark contrasts of lighting in the paintings of Caravaggio or Rembrandt, yet because the images are in black and white, we’re not given the flesh tones that the masters used (grudgingly, in Caravaggio’s work) and that are described, technically as well as emotionally, as “warm.” The stony faces are unsmiling, unfrowning, neutral, and others have compared them to Roman statuary, the portrait busts of emperors and generals, in whose marble eyes one must search to find any feeling or story.

We know that Seidner admired the artists he shot, yet his pictures suggest that they are mere mortals, like him. He stands smack in their faces and remains far outside them all the while, and in doing so, he keeps the viewer at a distance, too.

The examples I’ve seen of his fashion photography betray a similar austerity, even when the clothing worn by the models attains flamboyance. We’re in the realm of the Second Empire portraitists here, Ingres and his followers and rivals, in the careful compositions, the almost lacquered surfaces of Seidner’s images.

There are exceptions, of course, and a portrait of the soprano Jessye Norman is one. He makes her beautiful, tender, in ways that other photographers have not managed, and it comes as no surprise to learn that they were friends. As far as Norman was concerned, Seidner wasn’t an outsider at all; their correspondence fairly glows. I’ve followed Norman’s career for a lot longer than Seidner’s, and thought I understood her. Yet I didn’t expect her openness or her avid intellectual curiosity about all the arts. I can’t say that the photograph revealed her to me — the letters did that. But the woman in the letters is the woman in the picture, and I’d never seen her before.

© International Center of Photography, David Seidner Archive

But such pictures are atypical, as I say, and the rest of the work in this exhibition remains troubling to me. A series of black-and-white academic nudes is almost erotic: the models are in far better shape than the Greek gods of sculpture whom we invoke when we admire physical beauty in the flesh. They are, in short, superb. Yet as image piles upon image, I realize that the models are all standing in the same two poses, identical front and back, male and female. The effect is somewhat creepy, as if one were reviewing a lineup of a Master Race. Is there a connection here? Seidner was Jewish, gay, and soon to be ill — but there’s no overt political statement I can see.

As AIDS afflicted him, he took steroids and went to the gym, taking a series of self-portrait nudes in which the distinctions between man and machine are abandoned. Finally, unable to manipulate the camera as he used to, he used an auto-focus for a series of vividly colored photos of orchids in close-up that renders much of the image indistinct. The backgrounds are brightly colored, too, equally but contrastingly so. These are the colors of the Fabulous Fifties, and Seidner’s childhood, as if in a last attempt to reconcile who he was with who he had been brought up to be. Yet he’s still an outsider, held at such a distance now that he can no longer see clearly.

Whether he’s inspired by ancient sculptors or John Singer Sargent (in an uncanny series of portraits not included in the current exhibition) or the rotogravure colors of the popular culture he grew up with, Seidner is able to incorporate the stylistic concerns of earlier schools of art with precision. It’s not mimicry, though, it’s synthesis — it’s very nearly a Darwinian adaptation. Gilles sees a dialogue between, on one side, that perfect stylistic technique and, on the other, the strangely dispassionate passion Seidner brings to each image. He may be right.

But I have yet to hear precisely what is being said in that dialogue, and perhaps this is why I keep coming back to the pictures. Maybe that’s all Seidner wanted: to make me look, then look again; to make me think, and on those occasions when he made me feel, to make me question what the feeling was, and why I felt it.

Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint-Laurent
5 Avenue Marceau
75116 Paris
Hours: 11 AM to 6 PM, Tuesday through Sunday
+33 (0) 1-44-31-64-31

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How Depressing!

I’m sure they don’t mean to panic anybody, and yet I’m equally sure it’s not an accident of programming: the French radio has been playing Depression-era music all day. Some of the selections aren’t unusual — Mistinguett, for example — but Shirley Temple’s stirring rendition of “Animal Crackers in My Soup” is a rarity, and it must mean something.

Thanks to the complete failure of the U.S. government to take action, or even to propose better action, and thanks to the blithe bumbling of the Europeans (whose own financial institutions are beginning to fail), we may well be on the brink of a new Depression. In a sense, I am better-prepared than I might be: my parents reared me with a Depression-era mentality, and that tendency to thriftiness has been compounded now by ecological concerns. I wash and reuse aluminum foil and Saran Wrap, for example, when I must use them at all, and I compulsively look for pennies in the street.

(As an aside, I note that, prior to the adoption of the Euro, one never found change on the sidewalk in France. Now one always does, despite the fact that a cent, though still called a centime, is worth six times more than the old hundredth of a franc was. Clearly, the shared currency has made the French more careless.)

Thoughts of the Great Depression and Shirley Temple do inspire in me at least one hope: we may have movie musicals again.

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29 September 2008

The Raw Deal

FROM WIRE SERVICE REPORTS: In a nationally broadcast radio address on Sunday, President Bush described the current financial crisis as the worst that has been faced, and also created, by his generation. He urged Congressional lawmakers to ratify the emergency bailout plan, struck only minutes earlier, as quickly as possible, ideally before the Asian financial markets opened and before New York Times editorial columnist Paul Krugman had time to write about the plan.

“This is not a rush to judgment, as many are saying,” Bush explained. “It is a rush to avoid Paul Krugman’s judgment.”

The President warned that the bailout will not immediately solve America’s financial problems, which were, he said, “the result of many years of neglect, primarily by my generation, including my Administration and my Party. It took a long time for us to create this mess, and it won’t end overnight.”

The President, left, with a young American. According to Administration analysts, the citizen, when mature, can expect to work for 16¢ per day for a Chinese conglomerate, to live in a cardboard box, and to keep what little money he has in a sock.

He called for a sweeping series of initiatives, which he described as “a Raw Deal for all Americans” whom he does not know personally and who have never contributed to a Republican campaign. Many of the programs he proposes, say economists, do not entail government oversight or accountability.

“Accounting is the problem,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto agreed. “We don’t want anything to do with it.”

Other Bush proposals may prove controversial. These include a $300 billion bailout of Halliburton Corporation, a $6 billion contribution to the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, the elimination of all taxes for the top 1 percent of American earners, and the tripling of taxes for anyone who plans to vote Democratic in the November elections.

In order to identify potential Democrats, the President proposed a sweeping program of domestic wiretapping and unrestrained interrogation techniques.

“These proposals are outrageous,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “They amount to a bailout of the Republican Party. I intend to complain very loudly, with a variety of witty soundbites, before voting for all of these measures in a single, bulging package, and I urge other Democrats to do the same.”

Mr. Bush went on to call for the immediate invasion of Iraq. “Saddam Hussein’s aggression toward our economy cannot go unanswered,” said the President.

Unusually for Mr. Bush, last night’s radio address was delivered from the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, drawing comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era “fireside chats” and taking advantage of the fact that, in the fireplace a few feet away from the President, Vice-President Dick Cheney was burning sensitive documents from his office.

The candidates to succeed Mr. Bush thus far have not raised objection to the Raw Deal proposals. Senator Barack Obama, reached while campaigning in Ohio, called for immediate, long-lasting further study of the proposals, as well as further study of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Leibniz, which he called “essential to the restoration of confidence in our nation’s institutions, which must be our categorical imperative for America’s hardworking middle-class families.” Senator John McCain, who has suspended campaigning in order to take a nap, declined to return a reporter’s calls.

His running-mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, offered to take questions from the press, but she was wrestled to the ground by alert McCain campaign operatives and transported to an undisclosed location.

An alleged third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, has not been seen in several months and is presumed missing or dead.

Reaction from foreign capitals was swift. “This is a plan we can endorse,” said one Chinese official, “at least until we pull the rug out from under you guys.” The official, who agreed to comment on the record but who has an unpronounceable name, confirmed that President Bush recently received a shipment of milk-based Cadbury chocolate products, “a gift from the people of China” in gratitude for his policies.

“Is he blaming us again?” demanded German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Okay. Whatever. I am so over this guy.”

In concluding his radio address, President Bush echoed Franklin Roosevelt. “After all there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people,” Mr. Bush said. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith, because the economy itself is a faith-based program; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses, by informed analysis or by the facts. Instead, try prayer.

“We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work, and to pay for it. It is your problem, and it will remain your problem for many years to come, whereas it is my problem only for the next 114 days. Together we cannot fail. Trust me.”

Reached late last night, Paul Krugman revealed that he intended to write Monday about autumn foliage in Vermont.

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27 September 2008

Against the Physical Law That Prevents My Being Two Places at Once

I didn’t watch the U.S. Presidential candidates’ debate last night. I am in France, without television, and though the French radio news has been generous in its references to the event, these have hewed mostly to telling us that it took place, without characterizing the statements made or the outcome. We are interested in the electoral campaign, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to get bogged down in the details — somewhat like the candidates themselves.

Nevertheless, thanks to the Internet, I have been able to read the New York Times coverage and some of the Washington Post. Thanks to dial-up, this process took only slightly longer than the debate itself. I’m sure that watching the pages load was less interesting than watching the telecast, but I inspired in myself the enthusiasm, even the suspense, necessary to enjoy myself. (After these years of net-surfing in Beynes, I will be fully qualified for a paid, full-time position to watch paint dry.)

I do regret that I was unable to be in the States last night: the ideal circumstance would have been to sit with Feldstein, my most trusted political adviser, engaged in a simultaneous running debate of our own. “Debate” is perhaps the wrong word, since we agree on practically everything, and nothing more than our mutual certainty that, if only more people would do what we tell them, the world would be a better place. Last night would have been a princely occasion, liberally sprinkled with wine or something stronger, and the fact that we’ve known other such evenings would not diminish my enjoyment, any more than it diminishes my regret now.

But it is a law of physics that one cannot be in two places at once. I have tried to violate that law, without any success. This week would have been an exceptionally good time to find myself scribbling away in Beynes (as I have done) and at the same time skipping along the streets of Manhattan, off to see Feldstein and to attend the tribute on Thursday night to my former boss, Teresa Stratas, sponsored at Town Hall by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

From the Met Guild’s promotion of the Town Hall event, Teresa as (left to right) Jenny from Weill’s Mahagonny, Marie Antoinette from Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and Mar'enka from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The last is one of my favorite pictures, because although Teresa smiles and laughs often, there are few pictures that show her doing so.

Some of my most precious moments with Teresa have been those when the two of us were alone, talking about music, which inevitably led to talking about life, a subject about which she knows a great deal more than I ever will. I knew that the Town Hall tribute wouldn’t afford me such opportunities, because the event would be shared with hundreds of people. In that sense, I wasn’t missing much.

But I was Teresa’s fan long before I knew her, and another of my precious moments was an entire summer we spent trying to organize her press clippings and other such memorabilia. Since Teresa has about as much interest in remembering her triumphs as she does in commanding a Marine landing, I don’t know what the purpose of this archival work could have been, though I suspect its real purpose was to put spending money in my pocket while I was in graduate school.

In a steamer trunk filled with clippings and photos, there were all sorts of unexpected gems. A performance at the White House, for President Kennedy! The Queen of Spades in the Soviet Union, when she created an international incident: she thought the Russians didn’t like her singing, when in fact they were waiting for the curtain call to cheer her. That Canada and the U.S.S.R. didn’t fire their missiles that night is pure luck. Or the time she was mugged in Central Park, and overpowered her assailant. (She’s 4'11.) And dozens of pictures of her in roles I never knew she sang.

That wasn’t a steamer trunk, it was a treasure chest. Some of these things she was willing to talk about, and others, she insisted, she had forgotten. Sometimes she seemed as surprised as I was by what we found.

As a fan, then, I’m tantalized by the knowledge that much exists in Teresa’s career of which I have only inklings. The Met Guild promised surprises of its own, rare video clips of her performances, and since there are plenty of those that I never saw, and others (her terrifying incarnation of Berg’s Lulu) I’ve seen only once, I’m furious at the laws of physics.

The Ancient Greeks of course preferred to blame their deities for these things. Teresa’s Cretan ancestors likely had a name for the god or goddess who prevented my being with her; if I supplicate appropriately, perhaps I’ll be able to see her in a few days, when I fly to New York.

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25 September 2008

Field Guide: Fanny Ardant

In Roman de gare

Her chiseled cheekbones and lean, aristocratic poise provoked early comparisons (from American critics) to Katharine Hepburn, yet once you get past that highly superficial assessment, Fanny Ardant is another species entirely. The proof? Hepburn never even smoldered, whereas Ardant is … well, ardent. I’m nuts about her. Though there’s an immense backlog of her pictures I’ve never seen, I make it a point to see each new film as soon as it’s released.

Like a prowling jungle cat, she speaks her lines in a husky purr and toys with her co-stars before devouring them. She’s managed to apply these qualities to an interesting variety of films, yet she has limitations. She seldom attempts comedy, and among the stars of François Ozon’s 8 Femmes, she was least comfortable singing, which is saying a lot. Her highly polished, urbane sophistication is indestructible, apparently, and it’s a limitation, too. One can’t imagine she’d be very good portraying a working-class housewife or any kind of unintelligent woman. Her characters can be deluded or deceived, yet the actress’ fundamental smarts can’t be disguised.

Having played Maria Callas onstage in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, she was Franco Zeffirelli’s choice to play the diva in his ill-conceived Callas Forever. She’s wonderful in the picture, but you wish everybody concerned had done something else instead. You’re better advised to check her out in La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door, directed by her lover, François Truffaut) or, best of all, in Ridicule, both of which enjoyed solid American runs.

As Callas

She recently made the leap to directing operetta here in Paris, garnering good reviews from Stephen Mudge at Opera News.

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24 September 2008

Sweet Sue, Disparue

If you are lucky enough to have a largish family, the chances are that you know someone like my cousin Paul. When I was a kid, he was my idol. Enough older to be sophisticated, adept, adroit, he was at the same time close enough in age to be something other than an extraterrestrial alien. I could and did admire him, identify with him, though I was never for a minute intimidated by him.

Over the years, as our grownup lives have carried us remorselessly in different directions, I’ve seen very little of Paulie. I met his wife, Sue, only once. Now comes the news that she has succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Much though I try to absorb this news, I cannot reconcile it with what I know to be true. For we are not middle-aged people to whom awful things happen; we are young, the bright promise of a still-distant future. We are not finished yet. This cannot be.

As a very small child, I used to sit in my father’s lap while he drew pictures for me — but Paulie was more gifted. As I grew older, he dazzled me with his flawless imitations of comic-strip characters, which he drew on a grand scale, on poster board, with a black Flair pen: Snoopy and Linus, Andy Capp and B.C. Paulie was funny and smart; he was athletic (at least when compared with me), and there was absolutely nothing he could not do. I yearned to be exactly like him. I never replicated his prowess in sports, but I got a Flair pen of my own and began to draw cartoons for myself.

For years, I wore his blue blazer — I don’t know if it was new when he began to wear it, but it was unquestionably a hand-me-down by the time I got it. When I played Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer (Groucho, for you non-Marxists), in the junior-high talent show, my Harpo was a girl for whom I harbored a terrible crush. I wore Paulie’s blazer for luck. I wore it again, for similar reasons, when she and I began to date, and yet again, a few years later, when I conducted my first interview for the high-school newspaper. I continued to wear the blazer, long past college, and I still have it, though it’s too small for me and in an alarming state of decay. No matter. The symbolism is what counted.

He could have loved a monster, and I’d have found something to admire in her. Yet Sue was instantly adorable in her own right, skipping over such inconveniences as the fact that we knew nothing about each other, and she dutifully kept me on her mailing list for years so that I could be informed of the adventures she and Paulie shared. She was a talented artist, too, and more than a match for her husband in wit and fun. The bond between them was almost palpable and entirely reassuring: if these two people could find each other, the world must not be such a bad place, after all.

That conviction must now be revised, but not abandoned. Together, they found for a little while something that most people — including me — have never known. I grieve for them, as I celebrate them.

NOTE: The photographs are from the wonderful adaptation of Peter Pan (2003), directed by P.J. Hogan and starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. Among its other sterling attributes, the film remains one of the most stirring depictions of young love it has ever been my privilege to witness. If you’ve never seen it, you need to. And while you watch, spare a thought for Paulie and Sue. I’m chasing after them — whether I’m Michael, John, or merely a Lost Boy — second star on the right, and straight on ’til morning.

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20 September 2008

Field Guide: Isabelle Huppert

In Nue propriété

Les Soeurs fâchées got a limited release in the U.S., but American audiences probably missed out on half the joke, or more: what’s fun about the film is the way it tweaks our expectations of the leading actresses. If you don’t know the actresses, you have no expectations to tweak. Catherine Frot plays largely to type, yet hers isn’t the comic role — that honor goes to Isabelle Huppert, though she’s also playing to type. This time, she delivers her famous nervous intensity strictly for laughs. Her brittleness becomes the point. And, smart lady that she is, Huppert is very much in on the joke; she did something similar in Ozon’s 8 Femmes (8 Women), too. Her tiniest tics, so often ominous, become hilarious, and in Les Soeurs fâchées, she comes close to making us understand how someone so adorable — Catherine Frot’s artistic specialty — could drive anybody over the edge.

As the eponymous heroine of Gabrielle

Huppert needs but little introduction from me. She speaks good English and sometimes appears in American films, notably Heaven’s Gate and I Heart Huckabee’s, but she excels in the detailed psycho-microdramas that are a staple of French cinema. One recent film, Nue propriété could hardly have been any smaller, a vignette about a mother and her two sons, yet she delivered a titanic performance. Her rage spilled out of the screen until we felt it, too — only to learn, tragically, that it had been misaimed from the start. While she railed against her ex-husband, her sons were lost to her.

Unlike most movie stars, she seeks out unsympathetic characters to portray, never winking at us as if to say, “Ain’t I the dickens?” — as even Bette Davis sometimes did. Perhaps only in France could she have made a career of such roles; I can’t think of any American actress, ever, and scarcely a European who’s succeeded this way. It takes guts to do what she does, and she’s physically courageous, too, as she demonstrates in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste.

In that film, she cuts herself (and I don’t think she was faking), while playing a monstrous character, yet despite all the unpleasantness we can’t take our eyes off her. We want to see how this plays out; it’s not so much that we sympathize, perhaps, as that we want her lot to improve, one way or another, for our sake as much as hers. Even when she doesn’t strip naked — though she often does — she exposes every fiber of her character’s torment. She’s been acting on screen since she was a teenager, and she knows exactly how far she can go: in this case, she doesn’t overpower the picture, but she does fill it completely. She must have a good sense of scale, because she manages to do this, in films big and small, no matter the director, with only the rarest exceptions.

With Benoît Magimel, in La Pianiste

Because she’s relatively well-known in the States, her movies are released there, usually, and I urge you to seek them out. I hesitate to say that her participation guarantees the quality of a picture, but there’s always something interesting, troubling, and meaningful in her work. Not a lot of actors about whom I can say that.

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19 September 2008

Field Guide: Catherine Frot

As Odette Toulemonde

Though I can hardly recall the last time I set foot in a movie theater, I remain a serious cinéphile. (If I were casual about it, I wouldn’t use the French term, would I?) On the chance that you may sometimes go to the movies, and on the further chance that some of those movies may be French, I began to write a kind of guide to help you identify some of the more notable actresses in the country where I live.

That entry quickly grew to one of the longest I’ve written. Rather than give you the whole shebang at once, then, I’m going to break it up, and write about these ladies individually. I begin with Catherine Frot, in many ways my favorite of them all, though she’s little-known in the States.

A baby-faced brunette with trademark slurred speech, she has perfected a comic innocence that’s disarming and memorable. A line from Un Air de famille sums up her usual persona, in a scene when she learns that a couple are breaking up: “Divorce is so terrible for the children! Happily, they don’t have any.”

In the same film, set at her birthday party, after hours in the family’s restaurant, her character’s brutish husband gives her a present: a dog collar. Her attempt to put a brave face on her humiliation was stunning. This was Frot’s breakthrough role; she won a bushel of prizes for the film, as well as for the play on which it was based. In a country where most famous actresses have difficulty playing either comedy or innocence, directors leapt to exploit her ability to do both.

Stop laughing! As Folcoche, with Jules Sitruk

She’s tried lately to break out of this mold with several out-on-a-limb roles, including an especially unfortunate turn in Vipère au poing (Viper in the Fist), a deadly serious family psychodrama, in which her attempt to portray the heartless mother actually provoked laughter in the audience at the screening I attended. Compounding the challenges, her leading man was another comic actor, the late Jacques Villeret, in one of his final appearances.

Making the picture was an incredibly risky stunt for her, because there’s no way audiences would come to the cinema without fixed preconceptions, not only of Frot but also of the character. Every French person over the age of 14 has read the book by Hervé Bazin, on which the film is based, and the sons’ resentful nickname for their mother, “Folcoche” (short for “folle cochonne,” or crazy sow), entered everyday speech long ago. It’s a word that absolutely nobody would use to describe Catherine Frot. Ordinarily, that’s a good thing — but not here.

She’s been more fortunate with La Tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner), a thriller, and with what promises to become a whole cycle of Agatha Christie adaptations in French, and she’s escaped unscathed from the soap-operatic Le Passager de l’été, in which she played a farm widow in a hot-and-heavy rivalry with her daughter for the love (or maybe just the brawny body) of an itinerant hired hand. In a sense, Frot is still finding her way as an actress, despite having achieved perfection already, in many films.

In Chaos, with Vincent Lindon

Frot may never again have a role as good as that in Coline Serrau’s Chaos (2001), in which she portrays a pampered bourgeoise — much like her usual characters, but with a twist, as she strikes an alliance with a street-tough prostitute (Rachida Brakni). Together, they seize control of their lives. It’s an engrossing drama, in which Frot’s comic skills are seldom used (excepting a scene in which she clobbers a thug with a plank longer than she is tall), though her deftness of touch prevents the movie from turning into a feminist polemic. Meanwhile, she subtly conveys her character’s growing conviction that something is very wrong with her life, and that only she can correct it.

In Les Soeurs fâchées, with Huppert

For me, however, Frot reached the very summit of art in Les Soeurs fâchées (Me and My Sister), a comedy in which her sunny, serene Country Mouse nature drives her Parisian sister (Isabelle Huppert) nearly insane with resentment. The secret to her happiness lies in her ability to take pleasure in simple things; in her greatest scene, she orders a crêpe from a street vendor. As an afterthought, she asks him to put extra Nutella on it. Then she takes a bite. She sighs. She smiles. But only a little. (This isn’t an ad for Nutella.) Her perfectly calibrated expression of contentment — neither too great nor too small, registered in a fleeting second at the end of the briefest of scenes — rings true.

It’s an astonishing piece of acting, and it may have changed my life. Ever since seeing that scene, I have striven to be more like Frot’s character. She knows what she needs to make her happy, she asks for it, and she enjoys it when she gets it.

In another recent film, Odette Toulemonde, Frot plays a hardworking single mother who is lifted — literally — out of her dreary existence by the novels of a bestselling author. She writes him a fan letter, which arrives just as the author is grappling with self-doubt and rejection. In an improbable Cinderella story — the two wind up falling in love — she gives a very fine performance, making wonderful use of her distinctive charm.

She reads the fan letter in a voiceover, and as I listened, I realized it was very much the letter I’d been wanting to write to her, down to apologizing for the clumsy prose style in French. I’d have told her that, no matter where her ambition and her artistic curiosity may lead her, I hope she’ll always save a little room for the ditzy roles she’s best known for. She gives such characters poetry and grace. They’re genuine, they’re special, and what’s more, in her hands they're urgent, important — necessary. Nobody else can play them so well. Typecasting be damned!

In La Dilettante

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17 September 2008

Late Blooms

That stalwart alumna of the fabled Brown Film Society, Holly Sklar, has been in touch recently, pointing me to her own blog, Late-Blooming Mom. (She doesn’t use the hyphen in the title, but being a former editor and grammar instructor, I do.) Blessed with breathtakingly adorable twins in her late 30s, Holly writes with vigor and charm about her experiences. I daresay it was a mistake on my part not to let her write more often for the Film Bulletin, but it’s too late to undo the damage now, except by directing you to her current writing.

I’d be unnerved, embarrassed, and possibly traumatized to come across my own mother’s accounts of my early childhood, but I suspect that Thing 1 and Thing 2 (as Holly has dubbed them for the purposes of the blog) will cope just fine when they’re old enough to read these entries. Yeah, they’ve been a four-fisted handful at times, but Holly’s love for them radiates in every line. Seriously. You may want to adjust the lighting level of your computer screen as you read.

I’m a great connoisseur of other people’s children, which makes up in large measure for my failure to have any of my own. As recently as a few years ago, friends were reminding me that I could adopt, that there’s no reason I couldn’t sire an heir or two even when I’m 70, all terribly encouraging, possibly comforting, and even flattering. They wouldn’t say such things if they didn’t think I’d be a good father, would they? (Unless of course they’re trying to sucker me, as they themselves were suckered.) Meanwhile, I have continued to accumulate godchildren, much as other people collect snowglobes.

If I do say so, I'm a terrific godfather, officially to four kids and unofficially to many more. I picked up two more at Reunion, Max and Julia, though I’m not sure they know yet that I’m part of the family. They met me only for a minute.

My career began unusually. A friend named her firstborn son William. She insisted that she hadn’t named him after me — but we hit it off brilliantly from the start. As William and I sprawled on the floor, surrounded by toys, I looked up at my friend and said, “You know, if he thinks it’s the truth, and I think it’s the truth, it’s the truth. You have no more say in it. He is my namesake.” And I became a godfather.

Through all of my godchildren, I have made astonishing discoveries. For example, it is worth any amount of trouble to make a child laugh. I learned this when I applied the suction cup of a baby toy to my forehead: little William found this hysterically funny. I did it again and again. His peals of laughter were music to me. The hickey on my forehead lasted a week.

Would I do it again today? Try and stop me.

I may have been a kind of toy myself to my godkids, especially when they were small. I would do things that other grownups wouldn’t: get down on the floor, run through the sprinkler, and I don’t believe I ever once refused to give a piggyback ride, sometimes to several kids at once. Surely the two hours, six days a week I spent in the gym were intended primarily to make myself a better godfather.

I held myself to exacting standards of godfatherhood, and still do. I have no intention of being the sort of godfather who sits in the kitchen drinking coffee with the parents and saying, “Go run and play now, dear,” when my godchildren seek my attention. I want to be active, engaged, in every part of the kids’ lives. Except changing diapers. That’s when I hand off to mommy and daddy. It’s simply not part of my job description.

My feelings are crushed when I’m not shown the latest art project. I reproach myself if I lose interest in the umpteenth repetition of a song or a joke, if I drop out of a game or a race, if I leave the playground too soon. I grieve when I miss the school play. Mind you, I don’t spoil my godchildren: I don’t consent to every request, but I do hear them out.

My standards of fatherhood would be even higher, I believe. I would be the person I am as a godfather — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, forevermore. With additional services that I’ve seldom if ever been required to offer the godkids: sage counsel, patient listening, judicious discipline, home-cooked meals. I would even change diapers. I am certain of this.

Yet recently I came to realize that I don't have the energy anymore to scamper after small children. One friend from college, who had her third child only a few years ago, insists that this isn’t a problem, and indeed, she manages beautifully with only minimal scampering. But I couldn’t live up to my own standards if I became a father today. It may be a good thing, after all, that my oldest godchild just started college, and hasn’t asked for a piggyback ride in years.

I often say that having kids is like singing opera: everybody is happier if I let my friends do it. Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with my childlessness — I never have been. At the christening of my Texan namesake, Will slept in my arms, his own tiny arm flung over my shoulder with an almost voluptuous abandon, as my godmother remarked when she saw the pictures. Will’s father wasn’t present for the ceremony, so I stood before the priest. Afterward, an older woman stepped up and said, “I’ve never seen a father and son so devoted to each other.”

It was at once the proudest and the saddest moment of my life.

So I’m grateful to my friends, for letting me be a part of their children’s lives and for enriching my own. I can’t wait to meet Thing 1 and Thing 2, and to make them, if only for a few hours, my godchildren, the shining apples of my loving eye.

NOTE: The photographs are from the film Finding Neverland (U.S. 2004, directed by Marc Forster), which tells of the author J.M. Barrie’s godfatherly relationship with the children of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and the sources of his play Peter Pan. You’d swear it was the story of my life, though Johnny Depp is arguably better-looking than I.

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16 September 2008

Lipstick Traces

There’s plenty of reason to be concerned that, in the week leading up to the worst financial crisis in United States history since the Great Depression, the candidates for the Presidency were mired in a debate over lipstick. If the upheaval on Wall Street and the bailouts in Washington had any benefit to the rest of the country, it may be simply that the candidates have changed the subject — at least for now.

Yet the political climate in America has my friends on both sides of the Atlantic worried. Both Democrats and Republicans are telling stretchers about each other and themselves, and both campaigns obsess over trivia, not issues. My left-wing friends put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Senator McCain’s operatives, who promote blatant lies about Senator Obama and who suck their opponent into futile arguments. (And it’s true that Obama’s misrepresentations of his opponent are smaller-scale and have less traction.) Yet the finger-pointing is perhaps the smallest of their concerns: they’re more worried, indeed panicked, that the American voters may be fooled by all this nonsense, and wind up making their choices on the wrong grounds. That is, they worry that McCain’s smoke and mirrors will distract Americans from his real positions on the economy, foreign policy, judicial appointments, and all the rest, positions that they believe contrary to the public interest and in many cases dangerous to the world at large.

My friends are bemoaning Obama’s cool, possibly calculated responses to attack. Moreover, they castigate the press for excessive devotion to “balanced coverage,” which leads to a failure to expose McCain’s lies, and Governor Palin’s. Trouble is, the press has already done so, and as one of her handlers observed, it doesn’t matter. The more that the “mainstream media” point out that Palin didn’t say “no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere, didn’t sell a plane on E-bay, saddled Wasilla with debt, etc. — the more they pick apart her résumé, the worse they look.

This is (I hope) the culmination of the ages-old Republican drive to turn journalists into enemies of the State. In the build-up to the Iraq War especially, the American press rolled over and played dead, more lapdogs than watchdogs, while continuing to take repeated beatings. Long accustomed to Republican attacks, reporters feared more of the same if they didn’t come to heel. When Dan Rather lost his job at CBS News, primarily because he’d reported about President Bush’s National Guard record what even the White House admitted to be true, you can bet that other, less secure, less well-paid reporters paid attention — as they did in 1988, when Dan’s attempt to question President Bush’s father about the Iran-Contra affair blew up in his face. (In the aftermath, only one other journalist, Bryant Gumble, dared question Bush Senior on the subject — the next morning. Bush’s possibly illegal and impeachable activities never came up again.)

The credibility of the American press had suffered already by the time that Bush Junior orchestrated his propaganda drive to war with Iraq. That credibility is lower now, and we are only beginning to see the results. When the press tries to report important news — Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo; the outing of Valerie Plame; the firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons; the serial abuses of Constitutional power by Bush, Cheney, and Addington; the incompetence of Rumsfeld, Gonzales, and “Heckuva Job, Brownie”; the false representations of McCain and Palin — nobody pays much attention anymore. Excepting left-wingers, of course, who were already convinced of the wrongdoing.

In the past few weeks, Ron Suskind has delivered evidence that the Bush Administration knowingly cooked the books, inventing false justifications for a war that Barton Gellman now reveals to have been started arbitrarily: hitting somebody, anybody, was viewed by Dick Cheney as a signal of American determination. Iraq was merely a convenient target, and the lofty declarations of American security interests and Mid-East stability were only window-dressing. Bob Woodward has painted a portrait of Bush as alarmingly detached from reality, more interested in political gain than in loss of human life. Yet thus far there have been no repercussions. No Congressional investigations, no criminal proceedings, no popular backlash, no demonstrations in the street.

Much like the current financial crisis, the loss of credibility of the American press is far worse than it appears at first glance. The McCain campaign has so far been able to flourish with its contradictory message (“Republicans have damaged America, so elect Republicans to fix things”), to shield Sarah Palin from questioning and scrutiny, and to persuade significant portions of the electorate (including some of my relatives) that Obama is a secret Muslim operative who favors sex-education for kindergartners and will raise taxes for most Americans — these things are, in their way, only a narrow indication of the scope of the problem.

Will voters be fooled? That remains to be seen. But it will be a long time before the jitters subside. The game plan has been clearly established, it’s been proven to work, and other campaigns — whether Republican or Democratic — will follow it scrupulously (or un-) in years to come. To defeat these tactics will require legions of gifted candidates, an even greater number of courageous journalists, and an electorate that learns, by whatever means necessary, to tell the difference between truth and lipstick.

I can understand why so many of my friends are pessimistic.

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12 September 2008

A Season in Quatrelle

La Belle Quatrelle

The sale of my mother’s 1957 Chevy was one of the signal traumas of my early childhood. As the deal was concluded, and the “Shibby” traded in for some other vehicle since forgotten, I had a meltdown. This provoked bafflement in my parents and consternation among the sales staff. By way of explanation, I managed to wail, “There goes the only car I ever loved!”

It remains to be proven whether the loss of the Chevy coincided with the brief run of the television series My Mother the Car. Television had a habit of putting ideas in my head in those days, rather than eliminating them, as it does now. Yet neither television nor Freudian psychology can explain to my satisfaction the love I felt.

I find that car aficionados have little trouble understanding my early passion for the Chevy: its graceful, characterful lines; its powerful, smooth ride (at least at the beginning). The rest of you may have to work to imagine the pleasure offered by the Chevy, none greater than that of getting trundled, at age two and three, onto the broad, belt-free front seat in the certain idea that we were going somewhere. Every trip was an adventure, and the fact that my mother would be arrested if she attempted today to transport a pre-schooler this way had nothing to do with the fun.

In all the years since, I have managed to avoid falling in love with any other car.

This 57 Chevy is actually quite a bit nicer than my mother’s,
but it’s the right color.

Even the Banana, a yellow Dodge Colt station wagon that served as my high-school chariot, never vied with the Chevy for my affections. Possibly because it was impossible to be cool, difficult to be popular, and a challenge to get laid, behind the wheel of an economy station wagon. These things matter when you’re 17; they may explain why my parents chose the car for me. It was like a chaperone or a chastity belt. My college graduation present, a Ford Torino sedan previously belonging to my grandparents, might have proved a mighty rival to the Chevy had I spent more time with it. But in those days, chop-shopping was Rhode Island’s principal industry, and the Torino was stolen from a Brown University parking lot shortly after I took possession of it. I never saw it again. The police said there wasn’t much left of it, in any case, and they would know.

During my years in France, I’ve come to believe that, if only I had a Citroën 2CV, I might fall in love again. Popularly known as a Deux Chevaux (Two Horses), this model hasn’t got the mystique of its more glamorous compatriots, like the still-futuristic Citroën DS (Déesse, or Goddess), but it’s friendlier, eminently approachable, almost huggable. It’s like a Charles Trenet song on wheels.

The early Deux Chevaux boasted all kinds of exciting features that promised hours of wholesome fun, like Tinker Toys or Playmobil sets, including convertible roofs that functioned much like a window shade, and removable seats that provided comfortable outdoor sofas at picnics or at student uprisings and other sporting events. Some French people could take apart an entire 2CV and put it together again in minutes. I believe this was in fact the “talent” display of a winning Miss France, several years ago.

There’s a legend that, when the Disney Studios were developing The Love Bug, in the 1960s, the Deux Chevaux nearly won the leading role, instead of the Volkswagen Beetle. (I doubt this: for one thing, Deux Chevaux don’t float, as Herbie must, and for another, The Love Horses is not a title that suggests family entertainment, nor even family planning.) However, it’s provably true that in the wonderful French animated movie, The Triplets of Belleville, even the limousines of the French Mafia are caricatured Deux Chevaux, with longer, more menacing bonnets.

A Trenet song on wheels

Citroën stopped making the 2CV several years ago, although one still sees them on the streets, and there are restoration firms that specialize in them, and devoted fan clubs all over the country. I’m sorry to say, however, that no one I know owns one, and I’ve never driven one. Since the Deux Chevaux is reputedly incapable of reaching speeds greater than 50 mph., which is the extreme limit of my comfort zone, I might even learn to drive a stick shift, just for the chance to putter around France in such style.

For the past several years, Bernard has been the proud owner of a Renault 4 GTL (shortened to 4L and turned into a single word in French, Quatrelle), a tiny, off-white station wagon whose charms were not immediately apparent to my 2CV-bedazzled eyes. Over time, I’ve grown to admire her frank homeliness and her indomitable character.

Like all cars in French, the Quatrelle is feminine, but she is no goddess. No, she’s more comparable to Félicité, the housemaid heroine of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart: as simple-minded as she is simple-hearted; a bit eccentric, if not mad, and yet tireless in her devotion.

She has no air conditioner, and her windows slide open by diligent shoving only to about five centimeters, insufficient to admit even tiny whispers of air; she is stuffy even in springtime, and intolerable in summer. But her heater works admirably in the coldest weather, if you give her enough time — generally about five minutes longer than the trip you have undertaken. She has no radio, which is a pity, but she does her best to make up for lapses in the conversation with her rackety engine, a kind of orchestra unto itself, and the plaintive honking of her horn inspires mainly pity in geese. The noise doesn’t matter, though, if you have ever sat inside her when someone shut one of her doors, for in that case you are deaf already.

Parked is now her top speed, most days.

There’s hardly an item available at Ikea that hasn’t been crammed into her or strapped onto her sagging roof at one time or other, then dragged up the six flights of stairs to the apartment in Paris. She has transported many of our friends on these adventures, though never very many at a single time: though she’s got a back seat, it does not accommodate more than one adult, who has to sit sideways, feet before him as if on a chaise longue, because both the front seats must be pushed all the way back to accommodate the driver and front passenger. When the Quatrelle is a station wagon, the back seat must be folded down, and at these times the ride in the back is not one that I recommend to anyone. There is no seat anywhere in the Quatrelle that is not guaranteed to induce sciatica after about 15 kilometers.

Somehow, she has driven us to Royan and back many times, in blithe defiance of her own limitations; she has sailed deep into Normandy and Brittany, and Heaven knows where else. Bernard bought her, well-used already, from his cousins in the Jura, and upon a return to her old haunts, a couple of years ago, she zipped along the winding mountain roads with something like her old vigor. For my birthday this year, we returned to Normandy.

She never could compete on the French highways, and had to stick to back roads; as a result, I’ve seen some of the odder corners in the Hexagon, strange little backwaters and forgotten châteaux, secluded nooks and ghost towns. Since the Jura, she’s been unable to take the strain of long journeys. Nevertheless, Bernard continued to drive her back and forth between Beynes and Plaisir. Yet even when she is ailing, the Quatrelle does not protest, no matter the cargo, no matter the journey. If she cannot go the distance, she simply stops, for she is staunch.

I am — dare I say it — very close to falling in love with her. There’s a little thrill any time I see any Quatrelle now, because I am reminded of her. It’s a bit like Groucho’s self-defense in A Night at the Opera: “Do you know why I was sitting with that other woman? Because she reminded me of you.”

But her time is coming to an end. The garage mechanic reported on Friday that her chassis is corroded. From my limited comprehension of French automotive vocabulary (and my English is no great shakes, either), I gather that one of her axles may be near the breaking point. Driving far or fast, even if her engine could handle such a thing, would risk the loss of a wheel. Bernard is unsure whether she could make it as far as the city dump, on the far side of town, only a couple of kilometers away: this, just as the autumn raking season begins.

As I say, I’ve never learned to drive a stick shift. I may need to do so now, just to take the Quatrelle for a single spin around the municipal parking of Beynes, before she goes to her reward. I will drive her slowly, not out of fear but out of respect — and gratitude — and enduring affection.

Maybe my next car will be a Déesse.

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10 September 2008

Scene but not Heard

We’ve all been there: those nights at the opera when, no matter how glorious the music, no matter how distinguished the performances, we find ourselves wishing the darned thing were five hours shorter. Yet how seldom we appreciate the fact that many operas, even the longest ones, are substantially shorter than the composers originally intended.

At great expense and after many years of research (well, it felt like years), I offer a few examples.

The Abduction from the Seraglio: Many astute opera-goers have noted the weird failure of Belmonte, Constanze and their friends to escape from the seraglio at the end of Act II, even though the kids have a ladder and the coast is utterly clear. Instead, they stick around to be recaptured, and we get a third act that few of us were dying to hear. Well, it could’ve been worse! New scholarship reveals that, in Act III, after the “final” curtain, the original libretto called for Constanze to refuse to exit the stage. All the tortures imaginable, she sings, cannot persuade her to shut up and go away. Exasperated, Pasha Selim orders Osmin to kill her on the spot.

The Barber of Seville: Thanks to tenor Juan Diego Flórez (seen above), Metropolitan Opera audiences are now familiar with Almaviva’s marathon eleven-o’clock number, “Cessa di più resistere.” But did you know that, in Rossini’s original draft, Rosina had a reply? It was called “Non resisto niente, uominino insolente,” a forty-eight-minute series of cadenzas, with flute obliggato, later recycled by the composer as the overture to the now-forgotten Dino, Duca di Lucca.

Ariadne auf Naxos: Hardly have the ecstatic final notes of Richard Strauss’s score sounded but the hitherto unseen patron, Herr Jourdain, enters, demanding an encore of the entire opera, including the prologue and the little-known pre-prologue, in which the young Composer gives up a promising career in chartered accountancy. This time, however, Jourdain wants to hear “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” sung backwards.

Der Rosenkavalier: Octavian and Sophie are united at last, and with sweet resignation, the Marschallin prepares to make her exit. But just then, she reveals that she’s on her way to her daughter’s wedding. Octavian cries out, “You mean Elaine is getting married?” “Ja, ja,” replies the Marschallin, “and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Undissuaded, Octavian runs off. In Strauss’s unpublished Act IV, Octavian storms the church where the wedding ceremony is taking place; he and Elaine escape together by horse-drawn omnibus, leaving both Sophie and the Marschallin distraught.

Lulu: It’s well-known that Act III of Berg’s opera was withheld by his widow, and not completed or performed until after her death; what’s not generally known is that she suppressed sketches for a fourth act, which would have come between Acts II and III. In this act, currently being edited by renowned scholar Augustin Achdulieber, the Schoolboy gives Lulu a puppy. She promptly strangles it, explaining to the horrified Alwa and Geschwitz that, because life is long and full of pain, she’s actually doing the animal a favor. Several people in the audience agree.

Les Troyens: Berlioz’s epic was originally projected to last seventy-three acts and eight months, but once the bulk of the balletic interludes are pared away, we’re left with the five-act crowd-pleaser we know today. Among the last-minute cuts to the score are these:
Act I: Cassandra predicts that, in a future time, opera companies in a country called “France” will exist primarily to supply wealthy men with mistresses. To show off the girls’ jambes, French composers will be obliged to write trouser roles and pointless ballets in every stinking opera. Cassandra’s fiancé declares that this is not a bad system, and demands to see her ankles, while a chorus of Trojan women in tights performs a tribute to Gallic sugar daddies.

Act II, Scene 1: Before fleeing the fallen city of Troy, Aeneas and his men decide to take in a show. A forty-minute ballet follows.

Act II, Scene 2: As the women of Troy are taken captive, Cassandra consoles them, explaining that their city’s fame will live forever. Not only will Aeneas found Rome, “a second Troy,” but also Troy, NY, will be voted one of America’s friendliest cities, and the actor Troy Donahue will enjoy great popularity. The women dance with joy, to the theme from A Summer Place.

Act III: The Carthaginian queen Dido receives tributes from her subjects. This part you know, but what you don’t know is that after all the farmers and seamen, Berlioz intended for representatives of the musicians’ local to dance their praise to the queen who has granted them so many hours of overtime.

Act IV: Caught in a storm, Dido invites Aeneas to seek shelter at the ballet theater.

Act V: Abandoned by Aeneas, Dido is disconsolate. Anna tries to comfort her by performing a pastoral ballet, in which a shepherdess castrates all her sheep, one by one, while Dido counts them. Awakened toward the end, Dido announces that she can’t take another goddam ballet (“Adieu, fière jétée”); she kills herself.
Parsifal: Yes, even Wagner’s mammoth masterwork could’ve been longer. According to the composer’s sketches for Act I, the Grail Knights’ rituals are interrupted by a knocking at the door. Kundry’s identical twin sister, Zütt, is sent to answer; she returns with the news that a group of English knights have come in search of the Grail. Amfortas dispatches a French soldier to taunt the foreigners (“Ihre Mutter war ein Hamster, und ihr Vater von Elderberries gestank!”). One of the Flower Maidens enters to ask whether it’s Act II yet; Gurnemanz advises her to call the baby-sitter, because it’s going to be a long night.

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08 September 2008

Baby Boomer Bummer

See Sally pay for Dick and Jane’s mistakes!

The recent, controversial takeover by the U.S. government of the lending institutions Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is difficult for many people to grasp, and I am one of that number. The introductory course in economics at Brown was taught by graduate students with limited English, or any other known language; I dropped out after a few classes. Nevertheless, the core of the crisis is clear to me, and I am prepared to share it with you now. This is another case of the Baby Boomers screwing the rest of us.

For people my age, this isn’t the first time. Statistically, we’re part of the Baby Boom, but in reality, we’re neglected younger siblings. Of the fabulous Boomer trends, we got only hand-me-downs. Baby Boomers got the great political movements for blacks, women and gays, and we got Watergate and Ronald Reagan. They got Woodstock and disco, we got “We Are the World.” They got the Sexual Revolution, we got lectures on Condom Safety (or worse). They got great jobs and security, we got pink slips. Again and again, the post-war generation reaps the advantages and leaves us not only with chaff but the necessity to pay for it.

George W. Bush is a prime example. Our second Baby-Boomer President never once in his life got a job without relying on his daddy’s friends, and he’s failed at every job he’s had — thereby forcing others to clean up the mess. If Barack Obama wins in November, he’ll merely follow the pattern: the late-Baby Boomer must pay for the excesses of the early-Baby Boomer. (It doesn’t stop there. In the case of the colossal debts with which Bush has burdened the United States, future generations will continue to pay.)

The Baby Boomers have spent all their lives screwing the rest of us. The only question is whether they remembered to wear a condom while they did it. Time will tell.

A few of us have begun already to take action. Some, like Obama, demand political change. Others, like Sarah Palin, insist that government isn’t the answer, and to some degree they argue that things really aren’t so bad, and we can afford to continue on the course the Baby Boomers set for us.

Unfortunately, most of my contemporaries have been so jaded, and perhaps so beaten down, that we have yet to rise up and tell these people to go to Hell. We don’t take action, we submit. And so we will pay for the rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we’ll forfeit our dreams of home ownership, and we’ll watch them gobble up the Social Security payments that we’ll be needing more than they, because there will be nothing left of the economy. As a semi-generation, we will learn to smile without complaining and to say, “Would you like fries with that?” We’re doing it already; we are used to it. We have spent all our lives in training.

Benjamin Spock, who spoiled them all:
Personally, I blame this guy.

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07 September 2008

Inventory: 18 Seldom-Seen Classic Sitcom Episodes Probably Based on Shakespeare Tragedies

We all remember the episode of Gilligan’s Island in which the cast performs a musical version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet it’s impossible to understand the show without grasping that the entire series finds its origins in a different play, The Tempest, and each castaway represents a character from Prospero’s Island. (Both Thurston Howell III and the Professor claim different aspects of Prospero’s personality, for example. Moreover, Ginger = Ariel, Mary Ann = Miranda, Gilligan = Trinculo, Skipper = Stephano, Lovey = Caliban.) Other classic sitcoms borrowed from the Bard, too, albeit somewhat less blatantly, and in episodes that aren’t often re-run.

1. “Opie’s Revenge,” The Andy Griffith Show
Likely Source: Hamlet

Something is rotten in Mayberry! When Andy Taylor is called to Mount Pilot for a disciplinary review, deputy Barney Fife is left in charge. Naturally, Opie believes that Barney has murdered Andy and is preparing to seize the title of sheriff and to marry Helen Crump, as well. Opie reluctantly sets out to kill Barney, but in a last-minute twist, his gun misfires, injuring Floyd the Barber on the front porch of his ear. Aunt Bee sends the boy to bed without his supper.

2. “The Dinner Party,” Bewitched
Likely Source: Macbeth

In this late-series episode, Larry Tate yet again commands Darrin and Samantha to invite “a million-dollar client” to dinner at their home. On short notice, Samantha enlists the assistance of Esmeralda, but wouldn’t you know it’s hay-fever season. Every time Esmeralda sneezes, the image of Dick York magically appears and vanishes at the dinner table, though only Darrin (Dick Sargent) can see him. Dr. Bombay is summoned to give Esmeralda an enchanted antihistamine. Meanwhile, Endora predicts that Darrin soon will be the boss at McMann & Tate. But how to do it? Why, is this a dagger here before him? As her husband murders Larry, Samantha explains to the bewildered client that it’s all part of Darrin’s exciting new ad campaign — for spot remover.

3. “The Boss Comes to Dinner,” The Honeymooners
Likely Source: Macbeth

Murder most foul strikes on Chauncey Street this time. Eager for a raise and a promotion to traffic manager at the Gotham Bus Company, Ralph Kramden invites his boss, Mr. Marshall, home to Brooklyn for dinner. While Alice nags Ralph that this scheme, like all of his grand ambitions, is doomed to fail, he accidentally seasons the soup with rat poison. Mr. Marshall drops dead at the table. What to do with the body? KranMar’s Delicious Mystery Appetizer, of course! In one memorable scene, Ed Norton thinks he sees a dagger here before him, and by golly, it can core a apple.

4. “Fred’s Rainy Night,” Sanford and Son
Likely Source: King Lear

After a bitter argument with his termagant sister-in-law, Aunt Esther, Fred finds himself locked out of the house in the middle of a fierce rainstorm. Fred rages at the storm, at Esther, and at his faithless son, Lamont (who paradoxically doesn’t appear in this episode), all the while invoking his late wife, Elizabeth. This extended comic monologue is interrupted by occasional asides from the loyal Grady (Whitman Mayo), who, on seeing that Fred is locked out, has locked himself out, too.

5. “La Commedia È Finita,” Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Likely Source: Coriolanus

Surprise, surprise, surprise! With a stirring rendition of “Vesti la giubba,” Gomer has just won another talent show, but Sgt. Carter passes him over for promotion anyway, saying he doesn’t really like opera and wanted to hear “Jambalaya” instead. Outraged, Gomer goes A.W.O.L. in the middle of inspection and vows to take command of the Viet Cong, who have surrounded the base. Can Luann Poovie persuade Gomer not to commit treason? And if she succeeds, will Sgt. Carter take him back?

6. “Et Tu, Chachi?” Happy Days
Likely Source: Julius Caesar

Fed up with Fonzie’s domineering arrogance and the way the audience screams uncontrollably every time he enters Al’s Diner, Ralph Malph and Potsie plot to assassinate him. Will nice guy Richie Cunningham join them? Will Joanie and Chachi lovably save the day — or strike the first blow? Or is it all just a dream brought on by tainted anchovies in the pizza?

7. “Reversal of Fortune,” The Jeffersons
Likely Source: Timon of Athens

Poor George Jefferson! It seems like everybody wants a piece of him. Son Lionel is demanding his inheritance, Weezy wants a raise in her spending allowance, Mother Jefferson has hired a chauffeur and expects George to pay, Florence is on strike for better working conditions, and the Willises and Mr. Bentley keep showing up uninvited at mealtime. Convinced that people pretend to love him only to take advantage of his money, George abandons his Upper East Side apartment and moves into a cave in Central Park. Dressed in rags, he hurls insults and filth at passersby. This being New York in 1982, nobody notices.

8. “Marcia Dates a Negro,” The Brady Bunch
Likely Source: Othello

It turns out the new kid in school is black, and he asks Marcia Brady out on a date. This infuriates always-envious middle sister Jan Brady (“Miscegenation, miscegenation, miscegenation!”). She schemes to make the boyfriend jealous by telling him that Marcia is secretly getting it on with brother Greg. All ends happily when the boyfriend is bused to another school district on the other side of town. (In a possible allusion to The Merchant of Venice, Alice’s stalwart boyfriend, Sam the Butcher, offers her a pound of flesh.)

9. “Jan Has a Plan,” The Brady Bunch
Likely Source: Richard III

Driven mad at last by her parents’ inattention, Jan Brady plots to kill her sisters and brothers, reasoning that, if she’s the only child left, Mike and Carol will just have to love her. She manages only to drown Cousin Oliver in a barrel of rainwater. In a last-minute rescue, Alice intervenes just as Jan is about to cut Cindy’s throat. Or was it all just a dream, brought on by tainted anchovies in the pizza?

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Posted by I’m so first

Posted by larrygroznicfan
Curses! Foiled again!

Posted by comicbookguy

Posted by unemployed english major
Sorry to point this out, but it just isn’t a tragedy.
It’s a romance.

Posted by rweroiu
Don’t get out much, do you?

Posted by he’s right you know
You’re the tragedy, unemployed.

Posted by unemployed english major
I refuse to stoop to the level of ad hominem attacks, you sick turd.

Posted by phonics is fun
The homonym of ad is “add,” not “attacks.”

Posted by sharona verona
This list sucks! How can you not include Romeo and Juliet? There are hundreds of great sitcom episodes are built around star-crossed lovers!

Posted by so mertz it hurts
Yeah, like the classic episode of “Here’s Lucy” where Lucy and Viv finally admit their secret passion for each other and carry on a torrid lesbian affair until they get caught and have to commit suicide to escape the scandal. No — wait — that was Children’s Hour.

Posted by shlmiel shlamozel
No, that was an episode of Laverne and Shirley.

Posted by cindy4ever
Cindy Williams was hawt.

Posted by so mertz it hurts
She’s my mother.

Posted by cindy4ever
Really? That’s so cool.

Posted by cindy4ever

Posted by unemployed english major
I suspect they left Romeo and Juliet off the list on purpose — too easy. But I still say Tempest is not a tragedy.
I mean, these inventories have no meaning if they fail to adhere to their own guidelines.

Posted by rweroiu

Posted by 3hour tour
That Gilligans Island is just like Lost?

Posted by what took you so long
Everybody has noticed. Its old newz.

Posted by 3hour tour
Oh. My bad.

Posted by judge wapner
You may stand down now.

Posted by billevesées
If you don’t read the Onion A.V. Club, you probably won’t understand any of this. Sorry about that. As a goodwill gesture, I offer you a picture of one of the most beloved figures in TVLand.

Read more!