31 January 2010

The Morini Method

With her essay due the next morning,
our heroine is distressed to find she’s run out of Scotch tape,
just when she needs it most.

The Morini Method, like churning your own butter, operating the steam-powered loom, or blacksmithing, is an ancient, nearly-lost art form displaced by more efficient technological means, yet it was a cornerstone of my high-school education. The Method involved essay-writing with the use of “Specific, Illustrative Examples,” scissors, and Scotch tape. We were asked to write and write and write, then edit our work: cutting out the dross, salvaging all the best bits and patching them together in a perfect whole — and that’s where the scissors and tape came in.

If this sounds like a primitive, pre-computerized version of word-processing, it is, and surely some day my English teacher, Anna Morini, will get credit and some much-deserved remuneration for her farsighted innovations. Please note that the application of the fundamental principles of the Morini Method to the new technology can be effective: I underwent just such an exercise the other day, in revising an article for Opera News.

Having already won prizes for my writing — and not just the creative stuff, but the “ready writing,” wherein I was given a topic and 30 minutes in which to construct a balanced, five-paragraph essay, or an inverted pyramid of journalistic clarity — I resisted Mrs. Morini at first. Why should I learn something I didn’t know, when I knew so much already?

A typical Morini word processor
(Mouse not included)

Well, youth is rebellious. But she indulged me, a little, and my grade-point average didn’t suffer too much. Lately I’ve come to appreciate not only her efforts but those of several of my high-school teachers. People in real estate always talk about the importance of neighborhoods with “good schools,” and my parents surely settled in one.

Consider Carlene Klein Ginsburg, my French teacher, who gave me the tools with which I make my way in France; and Melinda Smith, a former beauty queen (Miss Wool and Mohair!) who suffered fools not at all, and who taught me the journalism that earns me my living today. Since I went on to obtain pricey Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, it’s somewhat disconcerting to think that, thanks to Carlene and Melinda, I’d already laid the groundwork for my future before I ever left high school. But it’s true.

I was by nature and vocation a teacher’s pet, and both Carlene and Melinda knew how to handle me. There was distinct collegiality in their demeanor, but I had to earn that. When Carlene took a group of students to France, I placed into the advanced class — alongside her and the other teachers. As an editor on the newspaper staff, I had to show leadership, pretty much running the class, some days. However, despite my precocity (and inflated sense of merit), and though we got on easily, in neither woman’s class was there any question who was the boss among “colleagues.” We were not peers, and believe it or not, that suited me fine.

I wish to hell that, in addition to French and journalism, they’d taught me people skills like theirs.

Another fine teacher, Joye Davis, taught English in my junior year, with a focus on American literature. She had an advantage over any other teacher I knew, since she grew up in Mississippi. As kindergartners in Jackson, she and her classmates were taken to visit a certain “Miss Welty,” who read stories to them; as a college student in Oxford, she used to sit near William Faulkner at the drugstore soda fountain, eavesdropping on his conversations. She swore she hadn’t learned much from these encounters — Miss Welty struck her primarily as odd-looking, and Mr. Faulkner tended to talk about the weather — but I learned plenty from her.

For example, she pointed out that Amanda Wingfield, in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, isn’t nearly what she pretends to be, and the fatal clue is not her rapturous recollection of Gentleman Callers past. For no fine Southern lady of Amanda’s generation would ever discuss “gastric juices” at the dinner table, as she does. The entire play fell open like a blossom in my hand after that.

Mrs. Davis knew when to level with us. We weren’t assigned Shakespeare’s Othello in Texas public schools, she said, because it was about a black man and a white woman. (Was any other teacher so honest with us?) But she also knew when to be tactful. When one classmate took umbrage at the politics behind Miller’s The Crucible, Mrs. Davis graciously ceded the floor and let her present an impassioned defense of Joseph McCarthy. (Something most people reading the play, even in Texas, don’t get the benefit of.)

Zona Ray taught drama class, and it was a good fit for her. Headstrong and beautiful, with a powerfully projected speaking voice, she reminded me some days of the young Bette Davis, and other days of Faye Dunaway. But not until I was a senior did I understand how much theater meant to her.

Ambitiously, she selected Jean Anouilh’s Antigone for our school’s entry in a play competition, and she went at it with a hacksaw to bring it to the mandatory 30-minute running time. Though we’d clashed a couple of times in the past, and I was no longer enrolled in her course, she cast me as Creon, the king. I understood this as the gift she intended it to be, and I took the part gratefully and seriously. I was as proud of my work as of anything I’ve done — but we lost the competition.

Almost immediately, I saw that Zona wasn’t merely disappointed, having worked her ass off for months. She wasn’t merely frustrated by the opaque injustice of the judge’s decision. She was wounded. For she had, with a handful of teenagers and a battered script, tried to create a thing of beauty. It wasn’t flawless, but it was honest and smart, tough and true. It tested her limits, and dared her to soar, which is, after all, what theater is supposed to do.

And then some fool had turned his back on what she believed in — in favor of a Neil Simon comedy.

Nowadays, I see that my high school produces spectacles on the scale of Les Misérables. I wonder how they manage that: we always had to scrape to find enough boys to put on a musical, which is how I got cast in one.* But I’d be very surprised if they ever put on a show as good as that Antigone.

There were other good teachers, too — Anne Bean, who was so tolerant of (and amused by) my attempts to learn algebra; Homer Alexander, who showed a similar attitude toward my attempts to learn physics; Terry Quon, who designed an intensive course in German, cramming three years into one, just for me; and Alicia Ceverha, who gave me my first real lessons in Italian grammar (as well as the Cuban accent I still possess in that language).

In hindsight, I realize that I received a truly first-rate education at my dinky little suburban Texas high school, and when I got to college, I had nothing to fear from kids who went to Andover instead of J.J. Pearce. I was hardly aware at the time how truly lucky I was.

Hallowed Halls

Yet one of my most telling experiences came outside the classroom. Mrs. Morini’s husband had heart trouble, so raking the yard in November was out of the question, though there were heaps of fallen leaves. She asked me and another student, Margaret Guttes, to come over one Saturday morning to help.

It was a cool, clear day, of a kind that Dallas doesn’t often see, a bona-fide autumn day, like something out of a picture book. Margaret and I worked for several hours, and then Mrs. Morini invited us into the kitchen for lunch. She’d made chicken noodle soup — not out of a can — with penne pasta, which struck me as just about the most exotic thing I’d ever seen — until she sprinkled parmesan cheese on it, which struck me as nothing short of otherworldly.

And that was the end of the story, or so it seemed. Only years later did I realize that Mrs. Morini had taken a terrible risk. Who knows what kind of trouble her average punk student might have caused? And remember that my grade-point average did suffer under the Method.** Just giving me her address must have required a leap of faith that I wouldn’t vandalize the house, in a fit of resentment, some other day.

Yeah, I was a teacher’s pet, but Anna Morini gave me something that day more valuable than the Method: her trust.

I say it again: I was luckier than I knew.

*NOTE: Because my last sung line in Something’s Afoot came before the first entrance of one of the other actors, David Arment, he was able to dub my singing lines from backstage. Now there’s a good indication of Zona Ray’s superlative theatrical ingenuity! (And ever since, I‘ve identified closely with Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.)

**To this day, my mother blames the Morini Method for my failure to gain admission to Yale. Thus perhaps the greater risk to Mrs. Morini was that my parents would turn out to be vandals. However, the celebrated Texas Cheerleader Mom scandal had yet to happen, and we were all more innocent and unsuspecting in those days.

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30 January 2010

A Brief Word on J.D. Salinger

Like many, perhaps most, adolescents, I was drawn instantly to Holden Caulfield, the narrator and central figure in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye — but less for the way he feels about the world than for the way he expresses himself. That voice! It is a siren song, luring other writers to destruction — because we all try to mimic it, when we are young and think ourselves rebels, misfits, and loners. This is the ironic conformity of the most resolutely non-conformist among us. We never mind that imitation is the sincerest form of phoniness.

I soon realized that, whenever I reread Catcher in the Rye, I began to write in a voice that sounded like Holden’s. I’d be stuck in it for weeks. I couldn’t help myself.

And though the narrative voice that Salinger employs in his other fiction is not precisely Holden’s, it’s hardly less potent. Some time after I graduated college, I realized that I would have to set Salinger aside, if I wanted ever to find a voice that was my own. I don’t say that the results were superior, but they belonged to me.

So it is that I read Catcher in the Rye several times; Franny and Zooey twice; the other fiction only once. I haven’t returned to any of it in many years, and prior to Salinger’s death this week, I couldn’t have named all the Glass children, or told you whether Franny or Zooey was the sister.

What strikes me now, as I look back, is how little I see: almost nothing of Salinger’s fiction stuck with me. No lesson, no scene, no affection. Some of it strikes me as irritating, as for example, both Holden and Zooey do. Some of it strikes me as preposterous, particularly after having lived in (and thereby created) New York for myself. Zen on Park Avenue? Was he serious?

This is not to discount the admirable artistic achievement of Salinger’s authorial voice; it is rather to wonder whether, after all, he said much worth hearing. Is it only quantitatively that his output was slim? I haven’t mourned his long, unpublished isolation; and I will feel ambivalence, whether his post-Hapworth writings are published now or not.

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29 January 2010

The End of Bettification

The most outrageous plot twist yet: cancellation.

Ugly Betty, Silvio Horta’s delirious adaptation of the telenovela Yo Soy Betty la Fea, has received its cancellation notice from ABC, and I blame myself. Not only has my residency in a foreign country made it difficult for me to demonstrate my loyal viewership, but I’d been meaning for several weeks to write a little essay here about how strong the show has grown in this, its fourth season. Surely if I’d written sooner, the axe would not have fallen. I apologize.

Ugly Betty made waves in its first season. Its flamboyance, its wild swings from sentimental melodrama to outrageous comedy, and its sheer gayness seemed, and probably were, like nothing we’d ever seen on American network television.

It featured a brilliant cast, led by America Ferrera, whom I’d first spotted in an independent feature film, Real Women Have Curves. Playing a zaftig teen in Los Angeles, she was a marvel of dignity, intelligence, and strength — and she more than held her own against Lupe Ontiveros, the powerhouse who played her mother. Not many young actors could do that. Moreover, Ferrera made you see and admire her character’s beauty, inside and out. When she was announced to play Betty Suarez, I knew I had to watch.

Not the first time she’s played a witch:
Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina Slater

The rest of the cast has been terrific, too, notably Vanessa Williams as the wicked Wilhelmina Slater, making only the latest improbable comeback in her career. (Really, Wilhelmina bounces back from the brink, too, but she can’t compete with Vanessa Williams.) As Wilhelmina’s adversary, Judith Light was a revelation to me. I’d seen her only when flipping past Who’s the Boss?. She turns out to be thoroughly compelling, and I’ve gone back to look at some of her other work on YouTube, astonished by her range.

Judith Light as Claire Meade:
Don’t call her Angela.

The key to success on Ugly Betty is navigating the treacherous shoals of arch verbal comedy, slapstick, and melodrama, and both Williams and Light are aces. Among the less-familiar actors, Ana Ortiz, as Betty’s bombshell sister, has proven every bit as impressive in some of the most exaggerated material.

Two other series regulars, Becky Newton and Michael Urie (from Plano, Texas!), were originally hired as one-shots, but their comedic appeal, their expert handling of some of the scripts’ cleverest lines, and their surefire chemistry meant that bubble-headed Amanda Tanen and preening Marc Saint James became the highlight of many episodes, their webisode duets funnier than much of the regular series. This was especially true during the second season, truncated by a writers’ strike, and during the third season, when the show struggled to get its groove back.*

Filthy, gorgeous: Becky Newton as Amanda

Marc has become an especially interesting character, and I’m reminded of Major James Bellamy (Simon Williams) on Upstairs, Downstairs: when that soap opera ended, we realized with something of a shock that, no matter how much we cared about Rose and Mrs. Bridges, it had been James’ story all along: his lack of preparation for and his inability to cope with the changing times. Now Marc has become the James Bellamy of Ugly Betty.

From the outset, we knew that Betty would learn to trust her heart and her intelligence, to draw strength from her core values, and to stick up for herself. And indeed, that’s what she’s done. She’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, with a Wicked Witch and lots and lots of Munchkins. But really, she hasn’t grown as a character: she will leave with the attributes she brought to the first episode. (Perhaps without the braces, though.) What we couldn’t anticipate was Marc’s struggle with shallowness and his gradual connection with his own humanity.

Michael Urie as Marc Saint James

Against all odds, Ugly Betty has become the story of Marc Saint James’ coming of age — which, when you consider that he began as little more than a cameo, is remarkable.** And though for a while he seemed no more dimensional than Jack from Will & Grace, already, of all the characters in the show, Marc has grown the most.

We got an early signal of this direction in the first season, when he first concealed, then revealed his homosexuality in a wrenching confrontation with his mother. The scene is made all the more powerful by the fact that the mother is played by Broadway diva Patti LuPone, from whom the response “I have no interest in knowing you” would be a lethal dagger pointed at any gay man in New York. But Michael Urie plays the scene gorgeously, running a course of exasperation and pride, pleading and crumbling — and he does it mostly with his eyes. He’s a hell of an actor.

Swishy: Marc hides behind the Suarez family
to avoid coming out to his mother.
Soon, we’ll understand why.

The tipping point for that scene was an outburst from Betty’s nephew, Justin, who represents the series’ boldest gambit — so bold, in fact, that they backed away from it, downplayed it, and turned most of the gay focus onto Marc instead. Justin (played by Mark Indelicato) was supposed to be about 12 when the series began, and he was, in the appraisal of Marc Saint James’ mother, “swishy.” Actually, that’s an understatement. He’s a “fashion elf,” a (formerly) pint-sized show queen — and his family supports him unreservedly.

The show never came right out and said Justin was gay. Lately, he came right out and said he wasn’t — though nobody believed him. (Over a multi-season soap-opera story arc, you can’t tip your hand too soon. And Indelicato’s future career may hang in the balance.) But Justin had all the right attributes, and he faced many of the challenges and obstacles that I faced, when I was a kid.

“Good Morning, Baltimore” ...

In one memorable scene, also from the first season, Justin performs “Good Morning, Baltimore” from the musical Hairspray, aboard a New York subway train. Indelicato is a natural showstopper, and it’s a great number. But it was written for a girl, and as Justin, Indelicato doesn’t hold back on the mannerisms. His exuberant performance prompts an insulting response from another man on the train.

Suddenly, Justin’s estranged father — a macho hulk who previously had been totally uncomfortable with his son’s sexuality — stands up to the fool who called his kid “fairy.” The entire subway car bursts out in applause. And I burst out in tears.***

... and after.

The gay sensibility has showed up in lots of other ways on this series. The color! The fashion! The camp! Particularly once production was moved to New York City, the casting directors tapped a rich vein of legendary Broadway divas, not only LuPone, but (just off the top of my head) Bernadette Peters, Lynn Redgrave, Rita Moreno, Kristin Chenoweth, Faith Prince, Tovah Feldshuh, the Christines Ebersole and Baranski, and Williams herself, warming the hearts of every full-sized show queen. There’s even been a Golden Girl!

But ultimately, Justin will count most.

Sorry, not gay enough:
Guest star Betty White

The character of Justin Suarez is now 15. Other television shows have depicted gay kids that age (look at Glee), and in the real world (or anyway, in New York), it’s not unusual for 15-year-olds to know and to say who they are. In the home stretch now, I’m hoping that Ugly Betty follows through on the trail it blazed. And I wish that I could say “confident” instead of “hoping.”

As at least one earlier essay — on thirtysomething — doubtless made clear, I do take certain TV shows seriously, and I’ve probably devoted too much thought to this one. But for much of its four seasons, when it was at the top of its game, Ugly Betty has made me laugh out loud, and it brought the occasional tear to my eye. I admired its use of language and its actors. And every now and then, I saw myself.

Not great art, perhaps, but smart and worthwhile. I’m sorry to see it go.

Adiós, amiga.

*NOTE: Because the only way to satirize a soap opera is to outdo it in its outrageousness, after a while it must grow difficult to keep ratcheting up the plot. A lot of the writing suffered, but the Amanda and Marc webisodes were pure, giddy fun.

**As a writer, I’ve sometimes found myself sitting back and letting the characters take over the story, and I suspect Silvio Horta experienced something similar with Marc. (It feels good when it happens, because it usually works better than anything you’d have thought of.)

***Look up the YouTube clip. The scene is even more powerful when you realize that, the next time we see Justin singing show tunes, in a school production of West Side Story, his father is being shot to death, in another part of town. In effect, Santos accepted his son — before it was too late.

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28 January 2010

Technology News: The MorinIpad Is Here!

Ideally suited to Kindle,
though possibly not the way you were hoping.

Boasting countless applications and a uniquely user-friendly technology, Anna Morini has unveiled the new MorinIpad.

“The MorinIpad requires absolutely no recharge in order to function beautifully for hours on end,” Morini told reporters at a hotly anticipated press conference that has been the buzz of the Internet for weeks.

“And I do mean hours,” she added. “You could pull an all-nighter with this one. In fact, you probably have to. I’m looking at you, Jean Dirks.”

Asked for further specific, illustrative examples of the MorinIpad’s special features, Morini (widely regarded as the visionary who invented word processing) cited messaging and file-sharing, and pointed out its “extraordinary adaptability to our trademark cut-and-paste technology, making it ideal for writing a five-paragraph theme on the role of conscience in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, due Thursday.”

“But that’s tomorrow!” one reporter was heard to exclaim, going on to double over, clasp his head in his hands, and groan, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

“At MorinIcorp,” Morini said in her concluding statement, “the future is now.”

Industry insiders report that Microsoft will shortly announce the development of a competing technology, with some sort of spiral.

NOTE: If you don’t understand what I’m talking about — or even if you do — check back with me on Sunday. All will be revealed.

(Consider it a kind of Apple for my teacher.)

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25 January 2010

Progress Report 7: Madeline Kahn

Madamina, il catologo è questo…

A new biography of Warren Beatty has gotten a lot of media attention lately, particularly for the author’s estimate of the number of women with whom the actor–director has slept. This titillating tally would humble any Don Giovanni, and tax the patience of any Leporello — but how can it possibly be relevant? I mean, does Beatty’s sexual track record in some way explain his approach to making movies? Does the biographer believe that love scenes onscreen are more credible, because of such exhaustive research off-camera? I’m not convinced.

Perhaps it’s a fundamental difference in philosophy, perhaps it’s just a question of taste, or a pragmatic response to a subject who did not have 12,775 sexual partners. But as I prepare the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn, I am infinitely more interested in her work than in her love life.

A different kind of performer

Naturally, I’ve spoken at length with John Hansbury, her husband; I’ve interviewed a few of her boyfriends, too, and read the love letters she kept in her desk. The things I’ve learned tell me much about her personality, but honestly, her musical training tells me more about her as an actress. And her parents’ sex lives — specifically the way her mother’s two divorces represented the loss of two fathers — probably tell me more about why she wanted to be an actress in the first place.

Though in saying this I may doom my commercial prospects, say it I must: this book won’t be very sexy.

Kiss and Don’t Tell:
Not a love scene — and yet significant.

Examining her work on its own terms will be challenge enough. “Who can say how she did what she did?” another delightful actress, Carol Kane, asked me, when this project was just taking shape — and she meant that as a warning, I think. I’ll be lucky enough to point out a few details that may help a reader appreciate Madeline’s work a little better.

For example, I can’t tell you why Madeline is more charming with a rubber duck on her head, in her cameo in the Sesame Street sing-a-thon “Put Down the Duckie” — but she is. And at least I can point out the duck.

In answer to the question posed by many readers of this blog, writing Madeline’s biography will take somewhat longer than expected. Pummeled by a weak economy and a pitiless technological revolution, the book business is bad. Though I hoped last January to know my publication date by now, I still don’t know even my publisher’s name.

The bright side is that I get the opportunity to spend more time talking with her family, friends, and colleagues, and a couple of recent interviews have yielded some great fun. What journalist hasn’t yearned for an interview subject to shout, “Provoke me!” — as Ed Asner did? And Eileen Brennan spoke for a lot of people I love when she exulted, “God, I love music! Even more than dogs! Even more than cats!

Zero Degrees of Separation: Brennan and Asner teamed up
in a short-lived sitcom, Off the Rack

And I take comfort in the knowledge that Madeline would prefer — if indeed any biography be written at all — that I avoid gossip. She valued her privacy, and she was shy among fans precisely because she worried that they expected her to be the bawdy character she played in Mel Brooks’ movies, a far cry from her reserved, well-mannered self. Peter Bogdanovich told me it was a struggle just to get her to say the word “tits” in Paper Moon (1973).

Somewhere, Madeline is smiling now with genteel but genuine satisfaction that I don’t know, and am unlikely to find out, who “Bop” was, for example, the author of so many torrid love letters signed only with that singular nickname. His letters don’t, in any case, tell me one damned thing about the work in which she took such justifiable pride.

This is what lasts, and it’s what she wanted us to keep.

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21 January 2010

The Model Sheets of Jacques Martin

One of my lasting regrets is my failure, many years ago, to purchase an autographed model sheet for Jacques Martin’s Alix, the hero of a series of comic books set in the age of Julius Caesar. Recto, Alix, a blond Gaulish teenager, and verso, his sidekick, Enak, an Egyptian prince, struck several poses. Nude. The damned thing was priced at a mere 500 Francs (less than $100 at the time), but I was in graduate school and couldn’t afford it. When, having borrowed money from friends, I returned to the shop, the model sheet was gone. I never saw it again.

Shortly thereafter, Jacques Martin quit drawing the Alix books, due to failing eyesight, and this morning, he passed away, at the age of 88. That model sheet must cost a fortune now, and I hereby renounce any further ambition to own it. However, if anybody feels like giving it to me, I will not refuse.

There was nothing inappropriate about the nudity. In almost every one of their adventures, Alix and Enak find themselves in a hot climate, in cultures where clothing was scant and nudity unexceptional — and Martin researched his work meticulously. As he observed, it would be ludicrous to depict Alix and Enak covering up their privates in a Roman bath (though some editors have tinkered with the drawings to just that purpose).

So it’s only reasonable that Alix and Enak’s host, frequently a kindly older gentleman such as Julius Caesar (Alix’s mentor), will say, “Boys, you must be tired after your long journey; why not slip out of those revealing tunics and take a bath with me?”

A very clean young man,
Alix bathes often.

As Martin’s research revealed, only Judeo-Christian cultures frowned on certain close relationships between men. And torture was the primary tool of governance in every ancient state, most often administered by burly men in leather.

So, naturally, nobody in the books minds that Alix and Enak are such inseparable companions, and it’s only reasonable that they so often find themselves tied up and flogged.

Alix and Enak, just hanging out.

But no matter how reasonable and accurate, these elements of the books, when combined with the fierce devotion the young men felt for each other, gave rise to the widespread belief that Alix and Enak aren’t merely the Jonny Quest and Hadji of the ancient world (who just happen to share a tent, and all that), but archetypal gay lovers.

Married with children, Martin repeatedly either ducked the question or announced, diplomatically, that his readers were free to bring to the stories their own interpretations — and their own fantasies, straight or gay. For his part, he never wrote or drew a love scene for Alix and Enak. (He sometimes did throw in a scantily clad slave girl or princess, whom Alix inevitably and heroically resisted.)

Martin’s achievements as a spinner of great yarns, as a founder of historical graphic fiction, and as one of the greats of the “Ligne Claire” school of drawing are beyond dispute, and they’re likely to be discussed at length in the tributes to him that will appear throughout Europe in the coming days. Others may even confirm what I will tell you: that, no matter his demurrals or his real intention, Jacques Martin gave substance and dignity to the dreams of lonely boys for more than half a century.

Gayer than we were happy, we yearned to find a companion in our own adventures, another handsome youth with a noble heart. A fearless rescuer who would share our passions. A hero and friend. We looked in every kind of book for a model, a representation of the couple we wanted to be. Too often, we came up short; too often, we still do.

Jacques Martin provided us with the models we sought.

Straight people are permitted to admire them, too.

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19 January 2010


The Yanks are coming...

Two groups that ordinarily don’t get a lot of good press in France are the U.S. military and the entire state of Israel. That’s why coverage of the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake has been remarkable: as U.S. and Israeli teams go about the hard work of rescue and relief, French television has been dotted with reports of Haitians chanting, “Good job, Israel!” and “Go, U.S.A.” — for once, without meaning “Go away.” The phenomenon is quite probably unprecedented.

... And they’re monopolizing the landing strips.

The French haven’t quite brought themselves to join in the chanting, and over the weekend, we heard a fair amount of grousing about American control of Haiti’s airport. It seems the Americans were limiting the number of landings, and favoring American planes over those of other countries. (Quelle surprise.) No good deed goes entirely unpunished.

Yet the images are powerful: American troops peacefully securing Port-au-Prince, offering relief, and even playing with Haitian children. In this country, the contrast to the more usual representation of the U.S. military could hardly be greater.

Israeli rescue teams have earned high marks from the French press, and an Israeli field hospital is reportedly the best facility in Port-au-Prince today. It was the scene of a new beginning, this weekend, as a Haitian woman delivered a baby there on Saturday night. For most Haitians, childbirth in a hospital is rare, and since the earthquake, the few remaining medical facilities have been overwhelmed with other, sadder business. Yet in the field hospital, a few people found time to help the new mother, Jeanne-Michelle Gubilande — who has named her son Israël, to display her gratitude. Though we are far away, geographically and politically, France heard the news, and saw Israelis in a different light.

“Good for the Jews,” as the saying goes:
Israël, Jeanne-Michelle, and a few friends

We use the noun miraculé to describe a person whose rescue, recovery, or escape has been miraculous. From the rubble of Haiti, the brighter images of the U.S. and Israel seem miraculées, too.

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17 January 2010


“Smile, though your heart is breaking,” Charlie Chaplin wrote, in his most memorable song, the anthem of every sad clown. Dalida was not exactly that, yet she’s remarkable in her ability to convey so much happiness, while suffering so deeply.

These qualities made an icon of the French singer, born in Cairo to Italian parents. Though she’s little-known in the English-speaking world, she was a superstar almost everywhere else, cannily navigating a course from early success in Italianate novelty numbers (in French) to disco, combining glamorous physical beauty (she was Miss Egypt, in 1954) with a nearly over-the-top emotionalism and a husky, belting alto. A generation after her suicide, she remains one of the most revered performers in France.

My Neighbor
The singer’s grave, in the Montmartre Cemetery

Her early hits, for Barclay Records, are simultaneously pure and guilty pleasure: they’re kitsch of the best kind. Capitalizing on her accent, she dove headlong into the wave of Italianate pop culture that swept through so much of postwar Europe and America, from restaurants to record stores to Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida — whose look Dalida mimicked, at first.

Her first big hit, and only her third recording, was “Bambino,” in 1956, an old Neapolitan song in which she addresses a little boy who pines for a hardhearted little girl. “Love and jealousy aren’t child’s play,” she sings, “and you have your whole life to suffer as grownups do.” This is incredibly catchy, and she sings with an audible smile:
“So gratta, gratta [strum] on your mandolino
Mon petit Bambino.
Your music is prettier
Than all the sky of Italy.
And canta, canta in your cuddly voice
Mon petit Bambino.
You can sing as much as you want,
But she doesn’t take you seriously.”
The raw power of her emotionalism went on display early, too, as in “Ciao, Ciao, Bambina,” a breakup song that features an instrumental break, during which she wails (and does not sing) “Bambina!” at the top of her lungs. Try it some time, and you’ll feel better.

As Europe became ever-more united, Dalida was ahead of the curve, adding to her Franco-Italian repertory songs from Germany, Spain, and Greece (the French version of “Never on Sunday,” for example). “Hava Nagila” was an early hit, and she covered American songs, too: Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales,” Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Sonny and Cher’s “Bang Bang,” and, memorably, “Itsi Bitsi Petit Bikini.” (She leaves out the yellow polka dots, but it’s “tout petit-petit.”)

Success in America eluded her, and she may have been thinking of her own experience when she sang “Gigi l’Amoroso,” about a small-town Italian boy who goes to Hollywood to become “the best-looking Caruso of all” — and comes home disappointed. Consoling him, she scoffs, “The Americans! What do they understand but le rock and le twist?”

Seeking more serious material in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she tried her hand at the melancholy, ruminative, intellectual sort of French song, but the style was at odds with her inherent brio. French philosophy sounds better when growled, not à pleine voix, and she was never a diseuse.

In 1974, for example, she recorded “Il vient d’avoir 18 ans” (He just turned 18), which owes more to Brel than to Bambino. This time, the boy has grown up — a little — and by now, he “laughs at words of love.” Unnervingly, she finds him attractive and sleeps with him anyway. Serge Lama’s “Je suis malade” becomes explosive, operatic, in Dalida’s hands — though it works, somehow. Perhaps because we sensed that she was telling the truth.

In 1976, she turned next to disco, with immense success, beginning with a thumpa-thumpa cover of the Rina Ketty standard from the 1930s, “J’attendrai”; more hits followed, and Dalida traded in her sequined evening gown for rhinestone jumpsuits, while her backup dancers (never butch) donned motorcycle caps and leather gear instead of tuxedoes. Her gay following — already devout — became a permanent fixture at this time.

And along the way, she became a pioneer of ethnic fusion, with “Salma Ya Salama,” an irresistible Egyptian song she performed in Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. No boundaries existed for her: she sang “Besame Mucho” in Japan.

But as the years went by, she was increasingly unhappy. One of her later hits was “Mourir sur Scène” (To die onstage), and while Shirley Bassey lately refashioned it as “I Was Born to Sing,” that’s not the same thing at all. Really, Dalida makes the song a variation on Hamlet: “To be performing, or not to be.” She’s warning us of what’s about to come.

Though Dalida was clearly depressive, she also had rotten luck. She seems to have been a magnet for suicidal men, and no fewer than three of her lovers killed themselves. A surgical procedure in the 1960s left her unable to have children, and in time even the adulation of the public was no longer enough to soothe her troubled soul.

In 1987, she took an overdose of barbiturates, leaving a note that read, “Life is unbearable to me.”

I prefer to remember her as she was in the beginning, when happiness still seemed possible for her, in the abundance that she offered every day to others. Dalida, come prima: “Tu me donnes tant de joie, que personne ne me donne comme toi."

As in the beginning,
You give me so much joy,
Which nobody gives me
The way you do.

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15 January 2010

The Late NBC

Zucker: Time to go back to the mailroom?

With so many other, more serious things going on in the world, I have somewhat shamefacedly found myself thoroughly engrossed in the ongoing saga of NBC’s late-night hosts. Some of my interest is at least marginally professional: as an employee of a national television network in the ’80s and ’90s, I seldom did understand the thought processes (if any) of my corporate bosses, and it’s satisfying to see one suit, NBC Universal’s President and CEO, Jeff Zucker, publicly humiliated for his colossally crappy judgment. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien seem to enjoy watching Zucker squirm; so do I.

I was working at CBS when Zucker ascended to the executive producer’s job at NBC’s Today Show; that was also the era when Conan O’Brien was plucked from obscurity to host Late Night. Both Zucker and O’Brien are only slightly younger than I, and (at least as far as most people knew at that moment) not notably more deserving or better-looking, albeit Harvard-educated. Resentment seethed among us CBS underlings. We worked at an old fogey’s network — while at NBC, they gave all the coolest jobs to whippersnappers like us! Hell, we thought, we should just go to work at the NBC mailroom; clearly, within a matter of months, they’d hand the place over to us.*

O’Brien: Team Captain
Fight fiercely, Harvard!

Nowadays, both Zucker and O’Brien are of an age that seems more appropriate to their lofty positions, and O’Brien has distinguished himself wonderfully on the job. (I don’t resent him anymore. I promise.)

For most of us, the NBC turmoil really doesn’t matter at all. For O’Brien and his crew, who uprooted from New York and transplanted to Los Angeles, all in the pursuit of Zucker’s folly — the situation is more serious. And throughout the process, poor Jay Leno has done exactly what his bosses asked of him, and been punished for it. Yet I don’t think anybody need spill a tear for any of these people. Even if Zucker joins the ranks of the unemployed, he won’t go hungry.

In France, I can’t even watch clips of the Leno and O’Brien shows. In its infinite corporate wisdom, NBC blocks its programming over here, with a view to reselling it to foreign markets. Obviously, the French are just dying to watch Leno and O’Brien, people they’ve never heard of, telling jokes that, by the time they’re translated and dubbed, won’t even be topical.

Leno: An object lesson in the perils
of doing what your bosses ask.

But I do like the guys, and I once had a sort of encounter that left me feeling quite fond of Leno. When he took over the Tonight Show, he took some pretty harsh criticism, and I urged Dan Rather to send him a note of encouragement. He did so, writing something to the effect of “Hang in there. I know how tough it is to follow a television legend.”

A few days later, the office phone rang. It was Jay Leno, asking — in a voice choked with emotion — to speak to Dan. Ever after, Dan had an open invitation to appear as a guest on Leno’s show, and though accepting that invitation required some delicate diplomacy with David Letterman, Dan did eventually make his way to Jay’s desk.

There is a human dimension to all the nonsense at NBC. It won’t bring relief to Haiti or reform health care in America, but it is — in some curious way — real.

*NOTE: In reality, of course, that’s not quite the way things work at NBC — but on the other hand, Kenneth the Page is a star today, isn’t he?

The Next Wave of Administrative Power at NBC

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13 January 2010


After all that Haiti has been through — political turmoil, poverty, disease, and natural disasters of every kind — I wonder: if there is indeed a God, does he love that nation so much that he continually gathers its people abruptly by the hundreds and brings them to sit beside him? If so, what does he feel for those he leaves behind? I can’t help recalling the words of Mark Twain:
The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them.
-- Letters from the Earth

But this isn’t the time for philosophy. My father, who in the course of his career witnessed the aftermath of many an earthquake, hurricane, fire, and flood, always praised the work of the American Red Cross. That organization is seeking funds now to help the people of Haiti. From within the U.S., you can text the word “HAITI” to the phone number 90999, and a donation of $10 will be given automatically to the Red Cross, charged to your cell phone bill. Or you can go online to the Red Cross website to make a contribution to the relief effort.

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11 January 2010

Art Clokey’s Ecstatic Visions

As an adult, I’ve gone back only occasionally to look at the Gumby films that captivated me when I was a child. Now the news of the death of animator Art Clokey provokes memories like fever dreams, filled with strange and almost incomprehensible images, of the sort that make hallucinogenics superfluous.

Those little stop-action movies were the oddest things I’d seen, when I was four, and they’re still near the top of the list — yet I approached them matter-of-factly. I was unfazed by green-clay Gumby and his sidekick, the orange-clay horse called Pokey, though they inhabited a universe in which every form was always mutable. Honestly, I was more interested in the characters’ jokes (pretty mild, when heard today) and in the general atmosphere of playful adventure than in the incessant marvels of Clokey’s surreal imagination.

Constrained as I was by the laws of physics, I couldn’t quite replicate those adventures, not even when I deployed any of the many, many bendable Gumby and Pokey figurines I owned over the years. Though they couldn’t change shape or defy gravity, they were real, they were tangible, and they were satisfying to chew on.* These qualities probably made it easier for me to watch the weird stuff that their counterparts did on TV.

Clokey’s other masterwork was surreal in a way different from Gumby and Pokey. Davey and Goliath looked more or less realistic, but the resemblance to earthly life forms ended shortly thereafter. Sure, they got into scrapes — but then the preaching started. Each episode contained a moral lesson, courtesy of the Lutheran Church.**

And while the talking dog Goliath was amusing (“Gee, Daaaavey”), Davey himself talked like a girl — voiced in fact by Norma MacMillan, who so memorably impersonated Caroline Kennedy on the First Family album in 1962. She voiced Gumby, too, but that casting posed no significant problems in a show that was so strange already, and less blatantly concerned with Christian values.

For a girly Davey (already an insufferable goodie-two-shoes) could find few admirers, and fewer converts, among boys in his audience. You just couldn’t see yourself — or hear yourself — saying in that voice, as Davey so often did, “I’m sorry, God.” Your best bet was to watch only the beginning of any episode, and to skip out before the cocktails of retribution, atonement, and penance were served. I’m surprised none of the show’s producers realized this.

Now Clokey will have the opportunity to ask God whether he got the right answers to the tests of Christian life, as Davey struggled so hard to do. But, at least as far as Gumby and Pokey are concerned, Clokey can look God in the eye. For he, too, created a universe. And it was good.

Weird, but good.

We are as spiders in the hands of an angry Animator.

*NOTE: Our own dog agreed with me on this point, gnawing through innumerable Pokeys. Both of us drew the line, however, when the wire armatures started to emerge. Not chewy enough.

**Before I was old enough to appreciate the fact, my father pointed out that the show’s theme music was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” by that super-Lutheran, Johann Sebastian Bach.

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10 January 2010

A Lesson in Art Appreciation

That face! Those eyes! Those Lipitor!

The New York Times reports that Vito Franco, professor of pathology at the University of Palermo, has diagnosed Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with high cholesterol. He cites “a subcutaneous accumulation … around her left eye.” And in Franco’s view, it doesn’t matter whether Leonardo himself understood Lisa’s cholesterol problem: “The people depicted tell us about their vulnerable humanity,” the professore told La Stampa, “independently of the awareness of the artist.”

This is fascinating information and, of course, it contributes so much to our understanding and appreciation of one of the masterworks of the Renaissance. Inspired by Franco’s groundbreaking analysis, I sought out a local pathologist, Dr. Tara Biscotet of the Beynes Free Clinic, to ask what other medical conditions may be depicted in famous works of art.

Vermeer: Girl with a Glass of Wine
Yeast infection

Franz Hals: Laughing Cavalier
High blood pressure

Titian: Doge Andrea Gritti

Bronzino: Eleanor of Toledo

Goya: Saturn Devouring His Children
Sleep apnea

Leonardo: John the Baptist
Erectile dysfunction

Caravaggio: Love Triumphant

Velázquez: Infanta Maria Teresa

Botticelli: Birth of Venus

Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights
Bat-shit crazy

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