25 April 2012

‘Glee’-nalysis: Senior Moments and Junior Blaine

Darren Criss as Blaine Anderson,
backed up by the New Directions kids.

Much of last night’s episode of Glee was devoted to the impending graduation of several of the series regulars, and the various ways they’re saying goodbye to each other and to those they’ll leave behind. While this sort of thing can get old very fast — and knowing this show, it probably will — it did produce a couple of good scenes last night. I note particularly the conversation between graduating Kurt (Chris Colfer) and his father (Mike O’Malley), characters who have inspired the series’ writers to come up with terrific material time and again. Really, the Kurt-and-Burt relationship provides the series with its only consistently strong scenes, episode to episode. I don’t think they’ve ever taken a single misstep.

Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley), now a U.S. Congressman,
bonds with Kurt.

Graduation has meant some curious, seemingly arbitrary decisions as to who is and is not a senior. In what seems to be an accident, Brittany (Heather Morris), who won the office of Senior Class President earlier this season, has for the past couple of episodes given every indication that she’ll remain in Lima, possibly at McKinley High, while her girlfriend, Santana (Naya Rivera), moves on. The scriptwriters haven’t said this outright, but for example when Brittany and Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) announce that Santana has been admitted to the University of Louisville, they missed the perfect opportunity for Brittany to chime in, “And I’ll be going there, too!” Maybe this sin of omission will be corrected later, or maybe I’m a fool to look in Glee for consistency of even the simplest kind.

Love Shack, Baby: Valentine’s 2012.

Very different considerations seem to motivate the writers’ approach to Blaine (Darren Criss). When we were introduced to him, he was a junior at Dalton Academy. He transferred to McKinley, but suddenly he’s a junior, bracing himself to stay behind while his boyfriend, Kurt, goes to acting school in New York City.

What’s at work here is the result of financial fear, plain and simple. Glee is graduating two of its strongest singers — Lea Michele and Chris Colfer — one of whom also plays the show’s most important character, the one who has really set Glee apart from anything else on television and permitted the show to make important statements to a broad audience.

Kurt (with his trusty Margaret Thatcher dog visible in the corner) cheers up Blaine, who can’t handle the painful stress of being Matt Bomer’s kid brother.

Let’s put it this way: last night’s authentically thrilling “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” a celebration of the lesbian fabulousness of Brittany and Santana complete with an all-girl cheerleader dancing chorus, might never have happened if the Kurt Hummel saga hadn’t elicited such a powerful response from the audience.

Glee isn’t just a television show: it’s also a touring stage production, a theatrical-movie company (with only one film made but the contractual possibility for two more), and, above all, a record label. While the character of Rachel Berry and Michele herself divide opinion, there’s no question that Michele is a phenomenally gifted singer, and she helped to keep song sales strong during the early stages of Glee.

Santana (Naya Rivera) and Rachel (Lea Michele), friends at last.
Only lately does it seem that the producers realized how well Rivera sings — but Santana is graduating, too, so adiós to that line of revenue.

Darren Criss proved how much further the song sales could go: his “Teenage Dream” broke all kinds of records, and virtually guaranteed that the character of Blaine Anderson would survive the four-episode arc originally planned for him. I maintain that it was as much the financial question as any narrative or audience imperative that drove the show’s creators to choose Blaine — instead of Sam (Chord Overstreet) or Karofsky (Max Adler), each of whom was hinted at as a potential swain — to be Kurt’s boyfriend.

Keeping Blaine around for an extra season is just a little insurance that the Glee record sales won’t tank next year. The sacrifice of continuity is insignificant when millions of iTunes downloads are at stake.

Blaine casts his spell — once or twice an episode, actually.

It feels a little weird as an audience to be manipulated for such crass commercial cause, but on the other hand, television in the United States is virtually nothing but a commercial, popular medium, one that strives to give the buying public what it wants. Most shows try only to anticipate what they suppose an audience will want, but Glee has proved a remarkable ability to respond to what the audience demonstrates that it does want. Moreover, very few if any shows have ever been swifter or more nimble about this.

The elevation of Brittany, Santana, and Mike Chang to star status is one example. The elevation of Blaine to superstar status is another. I guess we should be grateful for what we can get, and forget about the monetary motivations behind the generous gestures.

Couples counseling in Emma’s office: Will Blaine be quite so compelling once Kurt has left McKinley?
Imagine, for example, the vituperative pandemonium that will ensue
if Blaine ever dares to date anyone other than Kurt.

Random Observation: Brittany had several of her patented clueless lines last night. My favorite was her assessment of Joe, the Christian boy with the Disney’s-Tarzan dreadlocks (played by Samuel Larsen): “Joe’s really pretty, but I hear she doesn’t shave her armpits.” Also awfully good: “Quinn, in my dreams you’re still dancing. And you can fly. And breathe fire.”

Read more!

24 April 2012

The Dark Knight Also Rises

In the morning it was bright, and they were sprinkling the streets of the town with blood, and we all had breakfast in a café. Gotham is a nice town. It is like a very clean Spanish town, except for its not being clean or Spanish. But otherwise it is very like. The coffee was good and we ordered a bottle of wine. We did not need the wine but there is always force of habit to be considered. It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and not to be thinking about Bane or any of the other criminal masterminds who were threatening the town in those days. Bane was dastardly but it was good not to think about him too much.

I saw the waiter’s gun so I overtipped him again and ordered a vieux marc. Selina asked for a cognac. She dipped the flies in the cognac and then she set fire to them with matches. I ordered another coffee.

Selina looked up. “Batmen and jockeys are the only people who are polite any more,” she said.

I wondered if she had guessed my secret identity and whether any of it mattered any more. I ordered a bottle of Château Margaux and it was good.

“Oh, Bruce,” Selina said, ”I’ve had such a hell of a time.”

“I thought you weren’t ever going to talk about it.”

“I heard Bane had hurt you, Bruce.” Her conversation made no sense, mostly because she was trying not to quote too many consecutive lines from Hemingway so that no one would sue her for plagiarism. She kissed me, and while she kissed me, I could tell she was thinking of something else.

She asked for a coffee with cream on the side and when it came she poured the cream into the saucer and drank it that way. Her tongue was small and pink and clean. It was a good tongue, and I thought about how the fishing must be good up in the mountains at this time of year. Then she finished the cream and a SWAT team from the Gotham City Police Department burst. I guessed they had received my message. It was a good team and they were strong with big hands but small feet, like a dancer’s. When Selina saw them she knew it was over and she pressed against me.

“Oh, Bruce,” Selina said, “we could have made a damned good sequel together.”

One of the police marksmen fired his gun and he hit her. He was a good shot and she fell to the ground. There was a lot of blood.

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?” I said.

Read more!

23 April 2012

Progress Report 12: An Official Announcement

Though this isn’t the best copy of the image,
I’m quite smitten with this portrait of Madeline:
beautiful, proud, and in the spotlight,
where she belongs.

It’s my immense pleasure to announce that the University Press of Mississippi has contracted with me to publish the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn. For now, no publication date has been set, since I have to resume my research and interviews, and at some point actually write the thing — but I am very much and very joyfully back in business.

To the best of my ability, I’ll use this space to keep readers up to date. For now, I can tell you that my working title for the book seems to have passed muster, and it may yet wind up as the real, final, and official title: Taffeta, Darling! The Life and Work of Madeline Kahn.

Taking my cue, of course, from the farewell scene at the train station from Young Frankenstein.

In a troubled economy, the process of finding a publisher has been longer by far than anticipated, and sometimes brutally discouraging. In fact the Press first confirmed its interest in the book just hours after my seemingly ominous encounter with a homeless author on the New York subway — that is to say, when all looked most dire.

Now I feel we’re in very good hands: the Press does a terrific job with books like mine, and I’ll be working with a first-rate editor. Really, I’m not sure things could have turned out more happily.

To all those who have helped me so far, thanks — and keep it coming! I’ll need plenty more help before this thing is done. And to one and all, please, do leave comments here, and do keep coming back for updates.

Foxy lady: That fur piece didn’t survive its encounter with Marty Feldman.

Read more!

22 April 2012

On Election Night, Carla Bruni Reads Gossip Magazines

PARIS -- In the aftermath of his historically disappointing second-place finish in presidential elections today, incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed supporters from his Union pour un Mouvement Populaire party tonight at the Palais de la Mutualité. Conspicuously absent from the dais and nowhere to be seen in the audience, French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was seen in a laundromat in Neuilly, reading magazines.

These included such popular titles as VSD, Gala, Voici, and Closer, all known for coverage of celebrity gossip, or la presse pipole, as it is called in this country.

Prior to her marriage to the President of the Republic, Bruni was reputed to be perhaps Europe’s most accomplished (and self-described) mangeuse d’hommes, or “maneater,” numbering among her conquests noted celebrities such as rockers Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, actors Charles Berling and Vincent Pérez, father and son Jean-Paul and Raphaël Enthoven, and a former Prime Minister of France, Laurent Fabius.

“Is Carla here? No? Are you sure?”

“Yes, she was here for about two hours,” laundromat manager Hortense Essorage told reporters. “She just sat there by herself, reading magazines and repeating, ‘I refuse to be the mistress of a nobody.’

“When she left,” Essorage continued, “we discovered that she’d torn out all the pictures of [actor] Brad Pitt, [football player] Cristiano Ronaldo, [swimmer] Camille Lacourt, and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and taken them with her. Oh, and all the pictures of [U.S. President Barack] Obama, too. I can’t explain it — can you?”

While the race remains extremely volatile, polls indicate that Sarkozy will lose to Socialist candidate François Hollande in the runoff election on May 6.

Read more!

21 April 2012

Les Zélections

Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Sarko?

It’s a curious phenomenon: tomorrow, the French will vote in the first round of elections for President of the Republic, and what ought to be my principal preoccupation right now seems as distant to me as the moon. While I’ve managed to glance at the websites for Le Monde and Libération from time to time, and to listen to French radio broadcasts on the Internet, there’s nothing to compare with the constant onslaught of news and analysis of the campaign that I’d get if I were in France now on a day-to-day basis.

These elections are important, however, to the destiny not only of France but of all Europe, and despite the remoteness and the relative dullness of most of the candidates, we really ought to pay close attention.

If French voters construe these elections as any kind of referendum — on the economy, on the current administration, on hot-button issues such as immigration — then President Nicolas Sarkozy is in deep trouble. His aggressive, “American” style, his private life, and his rather skimpy list of achievements during this, his first (and possibly only) term, have dismayed the French, who would like to be rid of him. His principal hope is to appeal to voters’ concerns that any of his rivals would make things worse.

For example, any of the alternatives could mean a major change in France’s status in the European Union, in which Sarkozy has played a significant role in recent years (notably in his close alliance with Germany’s Angela Merkel): in this case, change might mean economic upheaval and loss of political influence, both scary prospects.

Not your father’s xenophobe: Marine Le Pen.

Sarkozy is also courting both moderates (who would ordinarily vote for François Bayrou) and the far right (who would ordinarily vote for Marine Le Pen), whom he’d like to lure away from their respective parties (the Mouvement Démocratique and the Front National), but the catch is that these groups don’t really agree on much, and he’s got much more experience making veiled appeals to the hard right than to the center.

And Marine Le Pen is doing awfully well for herself already. There’s something (almost?) cynical about the way she’s rebranded the FN, long associated with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She can say precisely what he said, promoting a xenophobic, ultra-nationalist, radically conservative line, and yet it’s automatically more appealing than it was when her father said it. She’s blonde, pretty — in no way a cranky old man like her dad — and anything she says seems more palatable.

Protest votes for Jean-Marie Le Pen already catapulted him into the second round in 2002, knocking out the Socialist candidate, then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and obliging a broad spectrum of French voters to hold their noses and support incumbent President Jacques Chirac, rather than see Le Pen in the Elysées Palace. The Socialists, in turn, have done a piss-poor job of nominating viable candidates: under the Fifth Republic, only François Mitterrand has won election to the Presidency, and both Jospin and Ségolène Royal, the party’s candidate in 2007, failed to reach far beyond their bases.

Jospin suffered largely because voters wanted to signal their displeasure with his policies as Prime Minister, and because they never dreamed he wouldn’t make it to the second round. Royal was simply ineffectual. And curiously, she spoke so often of her refusal to be beaten (battue) that even the leftist Libération began to speculate about her psychological background, and whether in fact she might have been abused.* Meanwhile, her domestic life fell apart, which was exceedingly awkward, given that her partner and father of her four children was also running her campaign.

That man was François Hollande, who is now the Socialist candidate for the Presidency and who, regardless of his history with Royal, is quite possibly the dullest man in French politics. Frankly, I was surprised that he won the nomination. But given the widespread discontent with Sarkozy (who is, if anything, far too interesting a character) and given the implosion of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who turned out to be much more interesting than anybody knew), dullness begins to look like a strength. Even the head of the Socialist party, pugnacious Martine Aubry (architect of the controversial 35-hour work week), was too interesting. Hollande took charge, and he’s been polling very well: if he and Sarkozy face off in the second round, Hollande is expected to win handily.

The dullest man in French politics? François Hollande.

He’s had to keep a close eye on his left flank, however, as candidates from smaller parties have gained momentum: notably Philippe Poutou, of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Front de gauche, have excited popular enthusiasm with direct appeals of a kind that Hollande is simply too moderate and too bland to make. Along with Eva Joly**, of the Green Party, these candidates pose a serious risk of splintering the leftist vote and costing the Socialists their best shot at victory in many years.

French law requires that all the parties get a hearing during the campaign, which means that television and radio have been dominated by these characters, ten candidates in all, and this drama. I’m sorry to be missing out on so much of it.

*NOTE: Royal’s father was in the military, and the ensuing speculative construct amounted to a French version of a Pat Conroy novel.

**Joly is a naturalized French citizen, Norwegian by birth. See what happens when you’re not tougher on immigration?

Read more!

20 April 2012

Campaign Rhetoric Heats Up

With Mitt Romney now the almost inevitable Republican nominee for President, the general-election campaign is underway in the U.S., and rhetoric on both sides is heating up. Before a crowd of approximately 4,000 at a whistle stop yesterday in Ann Arbor, Romney unleashed his most direct attack yet on Barack Obama’s competence, declaring, “America can’t afford to reelect a President who splits his infinitives.

“Barack Obama makes us look weak and poorly educated in the eyes of the rest of the world,” Romney continued. “You’d never see the president of Germany splitting an infinitive, that’s for sure.”

Stung by the criticism, the White House fired back almost immediately. “The record is clear,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “This Administration does not often split infinitives, and Gov. Romney is simply out of touch with the real issues facing this country today.”

Asked for examples of “real issues,” Carney cited the ongoing debate over the use of the so-called Oxford comma, “one of the most divisive issues this country has faced since the Civil War.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney

“At the same time,” Carney continued, “most American authorities see no problem with splitting an infinitive. Time and again, the Republicans are in denial about the science of grammar.”

Later in the day, the Democratic National Committee released video of Romney at a rally in Pennsylvania, just a few weeks ago, in which he is heard splitting the infinitive “to support.”

“Yet another example of flip-flopping by Mitt Romney,” wrote left-leaning blogger Linc Madison. “Maybe splitting infinitives is simply a practice he thinks is okay for wealthy white men, but not for everyone else.”

In other news, economists are now predicting a “spring slowdown” in the economic recovery, and the United States remains at war.

Read more!

19 April 2012

Mysterious Painting Removed from Dick Clark Home

SANTA MONICA, CA -- By cover of night, a team of unidentified workmen removed a full-length portrait painting from the home of television impresario Dick Clark yesterday, driving away in an unmarked van.

Clark, often known as “the world’s oldest teenager,” passed away yesterday at the age of 82. His American Bandstand program and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve celebrations proved perennial favorites for generations of Americans. Many in Clark’s original audiences are grandparents and great-grandparents now, despite the fact that Clark himself never seemed to age.

Witnesses described the mysterious painting as “hideous,” adding, “I know this man was responsible for the spread of so-called ‘bubble-gum pop,’ but surely he had better taste than to hang a thing like that where anybody could see it!”

Clark at work, in a photograph from last year.

Another neighbor speculated that the figure in the painting was roughly the age of Clark himself — 82 — yet bore the traces of a life much harder lived than Clark’s, the body twisted with lust and the face stained with unspeakable vices.

“It’s almost as if this were the painting Clark is supposed to have kept hanging in his attic, that permitted him to remain young and beautiful despite his depraved lifestyle,” said another neighbor, Douglas Alfred. “Of course, if that were the case, the painting would have reverted to its original state — a depiction of Clark in his youthful beauty — while Clark instantly decayed until on his deathbed he resembled this monstrosity. Right?”

Another neighbor, Sybil Vane, agreed. “Dick looked great, right up to the end. That’s certainly not how these mysterious portrait things work, is it? Am I right?”

Read more!

18 April 2012

Producers, Fans Respond to Maggie Smith ‘Downton’ Rumours

Elspeth Venable was one of the lucky ones. Although she attempted to set fire to herself — dousing her ruffled taffeta gown with a mixture of kerosene and sal volatile, then walking headlong into a lit candelabra — she survived.

Not so lucky was Winston Derwent, who gorged himself on cucumber sandwiches, crumpets, and rat poison; or Hyacinth Moncrieff, who screamed, “There’s nothing left to live for!” before leaping to her death from the rectory roof.

They are just some of the countless dozens of victims worldwide of the persistent rumours that Dame Maggie Smith will not return to the hit television series Downton Abbey. Filming on the third series is currently underway, to be telecast at the end of the year in Britain, and in January 2013 in the United States.

The latest round of suicides followed an article in the London Daily Mail that the beloved actress, age 77, had asked Downton creator Julian Fellowes to write her out of the series at the end of this season. Although a press representative for the series’ producers, Carnival Films, denied the rumours and described them as “complete nonsense,” it was too late to save Lucinda Quince, Olivia Hammermill, or Tertius Cosgrove, just three of the estimated 97 Downton suicides last week in greater London alone.

A representative for Scotland Yard confirmed that no television-related death toll had reached such numbers in Britain since actor David Tennant accidentally described himself as “the Last Doctor” in an interview with TV Times. British morgues were overflowing for at least a fortnight until that rumour was put to rest.

Read more!

16 April 2012

Women Who Marry Older Men 100% Likely to Be Unhappy, Study Finds

Older husbands are much more likely to become jealous of younger, more artistic, politically aware and physically attractive men who are their wives’ friends, the study finds.

A new study released today finds that women who marry men considerably older than themselves are radically more likely to be unhappy. This raises troubling concerns for many women, whose age on average at the time of first marriage currently hovers around 27 years in the United States and who in recent years have been advised by a number of self-help experts to “settle” for any available man.

“We have found that a young woman who marries an older man is as much as 100 percent likely to be unhappy,” said head researcher Lewis Henry George of the Institute for Marriage Research and Statistics (I-MRS) in London.

The study, entitled The Key to All Relationships, is based on a random sampling of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady; it has a margin of error of plus or minus 20 percent, depending on how much older Sir James Chettam is than Celia Brooke. However, George said, the cases of Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy, and Isabel Archer leave little room for doubt.

Even a slight difference in age can pose risks. In some extreme cases, one or both spouses turn violent.

“Forget about your biological clock — the possibility of childbearing is virtually nil,” George said in a press conference this afternoon. “Moreover, again and again, we see that an older husband is more demanding, less forgiving, often manipulative. He will use money to impose his will on his younger wife, and what prior to marriage seemed like an admirable interest in art and culture will generally turn out to be an unhealthy obsession.

“Simply put, a young woman who marries an older man is doomed,” George added. “It is for this reason that I must regretfully announce the termination of my offer of marriage to my assistant, Miss Bosanquet.”

I-MRS, one of Britain’s oldest polling organizations, first came to international attention in 1813, when it concluded that a single man in possession of a good fortune is 100% likely to be in want of a wife. The margin of error in that study was zero percentage points; in nearly 200 years, that study’s findings have never been seriously challenged.

Isabel Archer, among the cases studied, was extremely unhappy (albeit terrifically photogenic) in her marriage.

The photographs show Patrick Malahide as Casaubon, Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea, Rufus Sewell as Ladislaw, Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond, and Douglas Hodge as Lydgate in the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch (1994); and Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996).

Read more!

14 April 2012

Merrick’s ‘The Lord Won’t Mind’

My recent rediscovery of James Kirkwood’s Good Times, Bad Times inspired me to seek out another forbidden text from my youth, this one so intimidating that never before ordering it from Amazon had I owned a copy. I used to read it in bookstores, ideally those far from any place where I might be recognized. Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind (1970) held within its pages the potential to undo me — I was certain. But I was quite powerless to resist its spell.

It’s hard to believe that only two years separated the publication of Kirkwood’s novel and Merrick’s, so vast is the difference in their treatment of the stories they tell. Both novels center on pairs of young men of much the same age — on either side of 20 — and of similarly privileged backgrounds and generous endowments. Both narrators begin by telling us they’re motivated by a desire to find “that one special friend,” but only Merrick is honest enough to admit that another kind of desire is at work, too. Whereas Kirkwood’s Peter and Jordan remain purely and improbably platonic, Merrick’s Charlie and Peter are tearing at each other by page 22.

The erotic power that scene held over me, when I was the age of Merrick’s protagonists, can’t be imagined. Not that much imagination was needed: the sex is nothing if not explicit. The scene begins with a corny, drawn-out seduction worthy of the cheesiest porn-movie set-ups — excepting of course that none of those movies had been made when The Lord Won’t Mind was written.

Charlie and Peter’s coupling is quick, ardent, and just the first of many in the book. Kirkwood’s boys share one and only one kiss on New Year’s Eve: two years and a revolution separate these novels.

Gordon Merrick: Here he looks much as he describes his characters, cousins who are said to resemble each other strongly.

It may help to think of The Lord Won’t Mind as the gay equivalent of a trashy, Harold Robbins- or Sidney Sheldon-esque story, in which rich, good-looking people get into soap-operatic scrapes and have lots of sex. Of course, most of those novels hadn’t been written yet, either, which may help us to understand how groundbreaking Merrick’s work really was.

According to Wikipedia, where everything is true, Merrick shared a number of traits with Charlie, the older and more experienced (and more profoundly messed-up) of his boys, including a theatrical background and an acquaintance with director–playwright Moss Hart that are reflected in The Lord Won’t Mind. He also had a very long-lasting relationship with another man. Indeed, the book may be viewed as a kind of veiled coming-out story: Merrick’s narrator gives us to understand, at the beginning and the end of the novel, that he and Charlie are one and the same person. At the start, however, he declares that it’s too difficult to tell this story without changing the names and detaching himself from the characters.

So be it: I won’t try too hard to draw biographical allusions. As a document of Merrick’s times, however, The Lord Won’t Mind is especially fascinating. The kinds of incidents Merrick depicts in the book had been going on as long as men have walked the earth, of course, but within his lifetime a new era of openness had begun. Remember, the Stonewall riots took place only one year before this book was published — when it became a New York Times bestseller.*

An early paperback edition

That success seems improbable to this modern reader, not least because the depiction of sex is, as I say, so far from most mainstream publishing of that era. Really, for equivalents you have to look in the darker corners of pulp fiction, which boasted a considerable subgenre of homoerotic literature set in prisons and reform schools that also seems to have inspired James Kirkwood to at least some degree.

An undercurrent of racism characterizes The Lord Won’t Mind and may account in part for the fact that the book has been out of print ever since Alyson Publications reissued it in 1995. Although Charlie is devoted to Sapphire, his grandmother’s maid (a very marginal character whose tolerant pronouncement gives the book its title), he’s nevertheless inclined to make casual observations that are anything but politically correct. Granted, Merrick is describing pre-World War II New York, when a certain kind of racism was even more widespread, and granted, too, there’s a payoff in the plot twist at the end of the book — but until you get to that point, you may be occasionally uncomfortable in your reading.

Even more pernicious is a broad streak of misogyny throughout the novel. The Lord Won’t Mind features two principal female characters, both of whom start out charming and end up absolute monsters. (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but really, commercial fiction doesn’t get more lurid than this.)

While I’d like to report that more recent generations of gays are entirely reformed and love all women like sisters or goddesses, I do occasionally still hear ugly sentiments expressed. But for the present discussion, what’s most telling is that, in an era when blacks, women, and gays were all fighting for their civil rights, these groups remained largely discrete. Common cause had not been made, and to judge on the basis of the vote in California’s Proposition 8, the struggles aren’t fully united yet, though the goals haven’t been reached.

The paperback editions of my youth looked like these.

Charlie’s attitudes toward women also point to his own deeply conflicted character: he’s unable to admit the true nature of his feelings for Peter, and all the plot complications stem from that denial of self. He goes so far as to marry Hattie, an actress who is for several chapters the book’s liveliest and most engaging character. But the constant repression of Charlie’s sexual identity takes its terrible toll on him, on Hattie, and on Peter (who from the first scene freely admits his impassioned love for Charlie), until all three are “acting out” in ways that, even now, are pretty shocking.

That level of psychological insight gives The Lord Won’t Mind whatever enduring literary merit it may have, and again, it points to the revolutionary tenor of the times in which the book was written. To the question “Why can’t you just stay in the closet?” (one that’s still being asked today), the novel offers the clear response: Because bad stuff will happen if I do.

The success of The Lord Won’t Mind inspired Merrick to write several more gay-themed novels, including two sequels in the story of Charlie and Peter. I haven’t read them, and because they’re out of print, they’re collector’s items now, some paperbacks (the Alyson books are rather flimsy) selling for upwards of $100 on Amazon. So I’m not likely to catch up any time soon on Merrick’s work.

He died in 1988, just as writers like David Leavitt were bringing stories of young gay love to a new level, equally open and much better written. The times had been changing, and they continued to change. And for my part, at least I’ve matured to the point where I can own a copy of The Lord Won’t Mind and keep it in my bookcases. My reading is no longer furtive, and I can take the book for what it is — which is not a radioactive scandal waiting to happen.

But page 22 is still pretty darned hot.

I have it on good authority that the characters do not in fact get around to talking about music. One for the Gods is part of the Charlie and Peter trilogy.

*NOTE: A friend tells me that, as a boy, he found Merrick’s novel on the shelves of the public library in the small town in Texas where he grew up. We have deduced that, because the book was a bestseller and because it had “The Lord” in its title, the librarians must have thought it was an appropriate addition to the collections; we can’t believe the librarians ever read it.

Read more!

13 April 2012

‘Manon’ at the Met

“Let’s take advantage of youth!”
Anna Netrebko, as Manon.

In an interview for Opera News a few years ago, the French stage director Laurent Pelly told me he’s drawn to works that possess une qualité onirique — a dreamlike quality.* Especially in opera, because singing is not the usual means of communication among human beings, Pelly doesn’t go for realism but for the heightened, the unexpected, the ephemeral, and he draws on a variety of collective cultural memories to do so. Very often, this leads to productions that please this audience, and he draws out memorable performances from artists I admire, notably from the French soprano Natalie Dessay.

Massenet’s Manon might not at first seem an ideal fit for Pelly’s distinctive vision: not least since it aspires to a particular kind of realism. (Arguably rose-tinted, but real enough.) But Pelly, who has directed more Offenbach than just about anybody alive, seems to have identified a comic-opera strain in Massenet’s score, and he seizes on it. So we get not only the toy-sized props (dollhouses to suggest the town of Amiens) and skewed perspectives that are something of a staple in Pelly’s work, but also a much broader acting style, best represented by Christophe Mortagne, who plays lecherous old Guillot de Morfontaine as if he were in a vaudeville, and at several points the cast got laughs where, I’m pretty sure, no Manon-ites ever did before.

Chantal Thomas’ set in Act I is dominated not by the toy town but by what looks like a concrete airshaft, recalling the recent controversy in Goshen, NY, over what to do with a municipal building in the brutalist style. Manon is if anything the exact opposite of brutalism, but increasingly the Met under Peter Gelb is embracing the very kind of flat ugliness that the rest of the country is so eager to demolish. (Think also of Luc Bondy’s Tosca, Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle, and Des McAnuff’s Faust.) Fortunately the cast and orchestra, under principal conductor Fabio Luisi, did their part to give our ears the lavishness that our eyes were denied.

Piotr Beczala as des Grieux.

Massenet’s opera is built around its titular heroine, just as Pelly’s production is designed as a showcase for soprano Anna Netrebko — but for this audience, the real success of the evening is the performance of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the Chevalier des Grieux. I can’t think when I’ve heard such a beautiful instrument so perfectly suited to this repertoire: Beczala’s singing hearkens to the great Nicolai Gedda’s in this role, with the same kind of liquid ease and golden hues. Without the least overstatement in sound or in gesture, he’s faithful to the mood and to the language of the character — and Beczala’s French is far better than that of my first des Grieux, Alfredo Kraus.

Netrebko’s voice is more molasses than champagne, darker and thicker than what I’m accustomed to in this role, and she didn’t attempt much coloratura here, a far cry from Beverly Sills or Natalie Dessay. But her sound struck me as much richer and more even in the house on April 11 than it had over the radio on April 7 (something that was true of several of her colleagues, as well). Above all, Netrebko is an intensely glamorous presence onstage, as Manon really must be, bursting with charisma and unrivaled physical beauty, and Pelly, who designs his own costumes, went overboard, even throwing in an extra, dramatically unjustifiable costume change before the Saint-Sulpice scene.**

Those costumes will pose a challenge to any sopranos who take over the role and are less proud of their upper arms than Netrebko (and Dessay), but they’re a potential challenge to the audience, too. Updating the opera to the time of its composition, Pelly dresses the men in period-appropriate frock coats and top hats. The trouble is that all of them look alike, a reality of which German Expressionist playwrights used to take advantage (“Herren im Frack” are a trope of the genre) but which makes it very hard to tell de Brétigny from the Comte des Grieux or even Lescaut, in the Act IV gambling scene. (That all three characters have deep voices doesn’t clarify matters.)

The updating poses a further problem in Act IV, namely that, by 1884, the word of a French nobleman was no longer sufficient to get someone thrown into prison: what makes sense in a conventional production, set around 1715, is confusing in Pelly’s staging — set 95 years after the Bastille fell. My date, who had never seen this opera before, was puzzled, to say the least.***

This raises an important question. If Pelly was going to update the production, why not go all the way and set the piece in the present day (or near-present, which is his preferred setting)? The usual excuse among stage directors is that updating makes it easier for audiences to grasp the relevance of the plot and to identify with the characters. Why is 1884 supposed to be more effective than 1715 — or 1954 — or 2012?

Brutal: Has the Goshen city council thought about selling this building to the Met?

Paulo Szot, who enjoyed an enviable triumph as Emile de Becque in the recent revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, has to push his voice to fill the Met: on this occasion, he came right up to the limit of my comfort, certainly, and during the radio broadcast he sounded as if he’d exceeded his own. While he’s an appealing artist who delivered a lively account of Lescaut’s character, I worry that he’s risking too much in the long run to keep singing at this house.

David Pittsinger cut a severe figure onstage as the Comte, but his elegant reading was undercut by spotty French diction. Language posed no problem whatever to Mortagne, the only native speaker in the cast, who effortlessly projected his spoken texts to the farthest reaches of the house. This aptitude turns out to be no surprise, after all, since he’s a veteran of the Comédie Française, but his singing proved just as pointed and flavorful as his speech, and his physicality hearkened to early French cinema: he capered as if he’d just stepped out of the chorus of a Georges Méliès movie.

At a couple of points Luisi sped up or stretched out the tempo in intriguing ways — but at this remove, I don’t remember exactly what those were. Overall, it’s interesting to hear somebody other than Julius Rudel conduct this score, but I’m still not getting the feeling that Luisi is asserting his own artistic will at the Met. However, I do feel as if I’m in thoroughly professional, utterly capable hands.

On my way to the Met, I pulled from the shelves my old copy of Prévost’s novel, Manon Lescaut, battered and marked with notes for a paper I wrote in college. It’s a hell of a story, and sexier than I’d remembered. (For example, des Grieux begins by telling us how innocent he is, a mere child who never even looked at a woman, but once alone with Manon, he discovers that he’s more of a grownup than he realized. Which is to say, he slept with her.)

The novel is told entirely from des Grieux’s point of view (which in turn is delivered to us by a narrator), and Manon speaks for herself barely a dozen times: everything else is reportage or conjecture or projection. Men make of her what they will, and that’s surely part of what Pelly was trying to get at. But Manon’s real vindication is that, while Massenet made of her what he would, she’s been speaking for herself ever since. It’s one of my favorite operas, and I encourage you to seek it out.

Another way of doing things:
Beverly Sills as Manon.
(Tito Capobianco’s staging for New York City Opera)

*NOTE: Yes, I had to look up the word “onirique” when I got home. The English cognate is “oneiric.”

**Maybe Pelly wants us to believe that Manon changes outfits in the cab on the way to Saint-Sulpice from Cours-la-Reine.

***Oh, all right, I’ll tell you who my date was: the author–actress Christina Haag. Honestly, it was the fulfillment of a college boy’s dream to take her to the opera.

Read more!

11 April 2012


Carry on.

The hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is upon us, with commemorative articles appearing already in newspapers and magazines (and blogs like this one), a few days ahead of the actual date (April 15), and the re-release last week of James Cameron’s immensely successful film from 1997, now in 3-D. Moreover, and more happily, the anniversary is also the occasion of a newly updated edition of Down with the Old Canoe, Steven Biel’s landmark analysis of the shifting cultural responses to the disaster.

In preparation for this media mega-event, I watched Cameron’s movie for the first time. I’d always avoided the picture, having been given universally to understand that most of the things I value in a movie — character, dialogue, insight into the human condition — are completely lacking in Titanic. Also, I knew the ending.

Kate Winslet

Despite my misgivings, all of which were confirmed in the viewing, the picture is entertaining enough, and you can’t say it stints on spectacle. It’s probable that certain of the performances make more impact now than they might have if I’d seen them when Titanic was first released. How young Kate Winslet is! I’d admired her already in Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility, but if it took Titanic to persuade the rest of the planet of her gifts, so be it.

Ultimately, however, I came away from Titanic impressed above all with the beauty of Leonardo di Caprio’s hair. Clearly, the ship provided excellent conditioners and shampoos to passengers in steerage, much better than what one finds even in first-class cabins on cruise ships today — a fact of which I’d been unaware. Will I see Titanic in 3-D? Can I really bear to see Leo’s hair in three dimensions, so real and yet so unreachable?

More rewarding is a return to my old, un-updated edition of Down with the Old Canoe, the central focus of which is the near-universal belief that the ship’s sinking means something: about politics, about theology, about progress, about race and sex and capitalism. Almost any concept you can imagine has been attached to the ship’s hull at one time or another, and that in turn explains why we’re still talking about the Titanic a century after the fact. Dr. Biel (who, among his many other distinctions, was my college roommate) sorts through pictures and pamphlets and old songs — one of which gave him the title for his book — as well as movies, of course, and he writes with wonderful objectivity and good humor.

The real ship…

Thinking about Down with the Old Canoe got me to thinking about the central disaster of my own lifetime, 9/11. In that story, of course, politics and religion were present from the start; nobody needed to project them onto the attack. And yet the way we interpret 9/11 can be as revealing as the way generations of sink-ologists have interpreted the Titanic, whether we use the attack as justification for war with Iraq or for a renewal of religious faith — or for anything else. Our own private agenda are exposed as we reflect on our shared experiences.

There’s no avoiding this tendency, I expect, and we can be confident that, in another hundred years, people will still be looking for meaning in the wreckage — of the World Trade Center, surely, and no doubt the Titanic, too.

…and the movie version.

Read more!

‘Glee’-nalysis: Glass Closets and the Undead Quinn

Matt Bomer as Cooper Anderson.
Here, Cooper, a Hollywood actor, demonstrates “dynamic head shot poses”; a shame I didn’t see this a few weeks ago, when my godson was photographing me.

Glee returned with a new episode last night, and while I’m disappointed by the news that [plot spoiler] Quinn Fabray did not die in her car wreck, I was pleased by a number of other developments, notably those involving Sue Sylvester, the Gorgon cheerleading coach played by Jane Lynch. It’s as if the show’s writers made a solemn vow to do something with the character, and after nearly two full seasons of implausibility and aimlessness, Sue has been given a fresh start.

Her pregnancy delivers both laugh lines and legitimate emotional grounding, and her conflict with the synchronized-swimming coach, Roz Washington (NeNe Leakes), a worthy adversary, has raised the stakes even further. Suddenly, Sue has purpose and meaning, motivation and development: at long last we are not required to believe that a grown woman is devoting her entire life’s energy to thwarting a high-school glee club. She still fires off her trademark corrosive insults, but she’s a character again and not a cartoon villain.

The undead Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron),
bonding with Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale).

Or at least, that’s the case this week. Who knows what the future holds, on a show as scattershot as this one? And so, instead of dissecting the episode any further, I’d like to focus on the appearance last night of Blaine’s older brother, played by Matt Bomer, a man so handsome that his looks became a running joke last night.

Bomer’s character is named Cooper Anderson, in what must be a dig at a certain CNN anchor who’s the object of scorn and fury throughout the Internet for his coy refusal to admit publicly that he’s gay. He doesn’t deny it, either, and he’s hardly hiding his social life or his longtime boyfriend. The gay website AfterElton has even coined a useful phrase for his status: “the glass closet.” Everybody can see you, but you never come out. [Please see the update below.]

Poster boy for gay teens:
Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss)

So, whether you noticed it or not, the writers twitted America’s most visible closet case, lending his name to the brother of a character who’s the face of young gay pride today. (Or half of it, anyway: attention must be paid to the out actor Chris Colfer, who plays Blaine’s boyfriend, Kurt.) And just to stir up the pot a little further, the producers cast Matt Bomer — another resident of the glass closet, at least until recently. Bomer’s very existence has provoked gay bloggers and chatters just as acutely as Anderson Cooper’s still does. (An afterthought: would we care so much if either of these guys were ugly?)

This intriguing construct seems to have sailed right past many viewers, and it may have occurred by accident in any case. But it’s worth noting — and now I’ve done so.

Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester

UPDATE: Anderson Cooper has come out, as of 2 July 2012, in a message to columnist Andrew Sullivan. So I guess the glass closet is a little less crowded now. As part of the coverage of Cooper’s announcement, it’s been made clear that the term “glass closet” did not in fact originate with AfterElton and has been in use at least since 2007, in a number of publications; I regret my error (above).

Read more!

10 April 2012

Preview of a Memory with Gotham Chamber Opera

Youthful exuberance: Angelini, Munger, and Biller, the newest Gotham Dreamers
All photographs by Richard Termine at New 42nd Street Studios.
Used with permission.

Not very long after conductor Neal Goren launched the opening bars of Il Sogno di Scipione (Scipio’s Dream) on April 6, 2001, New Yorkers huddled in the playhouse of the Henry Street Settlement knew they were witnessing something special. The North American premiere of an opera by Mozart, no less, performed by a winning cast of unknowns (for at least a few more minutes), in a provocative staging by Christopher Alden.

Over time, our memories of that first night have accrued a golden luster, to the point that — just as you could not meet a Berliner who didn’t claim to attend opening night of Weill’s Die Groschenoper in 1928 — it’s become difficult to meet a music lover in this city who doesn’t claim to have attended the first performance of what has become the Gotham Chamber Opera. (For the record, I didn’t get to the show until a few performances later in the run. Remind me of that, when I’m old and forgetful.)

Luminous (and at the time scarcely known)
Celena Shafer as Costanza, in 2001.

So it’s daring — a word we have come quite usually to associate with the Gothamites — to revisit our memories. But to celebrate the troupe’s tenth-anniversary season, Goren not only commissioned a world premiere, Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, he’s also reviving Scipione. The show opens tomorrow night at John Jay College, on Manhattan’s West Side, and runs through April 21.

Let it be said from the get-go that we couldn’t have known, back in 2001, that Goren’s ensemble would become venerable, though by now they’re well on the way to that status. With a combination of unusual repertory, attractive singers, and attention- and crotch-grabbing stage direction — that is, all the ingredients present from the start — Goren has managed to keep New Yorkers talking about him, and consequently he’s managed to keep his company going, when other opera organizations big and small have fallen by the wayside over the years.

Make no mistake: New York is full of talented people. It’s not easy to put on a first-class production, but it can be done — it is done, all the time. But endurance is another matter: even the revered New York City Opera now looks like a flash in the pan. Goren and the Gothamites are still going.

Yesterday, I attended the final dress rehearsal of the new edition of Il Sogno di Scipione, and the experience proved edifying in the extreme. The charms of the original were almost precisely as I remembered them — though, now that I saw the show again, I was reminded that this was not, after all, a flawless musical experience. It remains a singularly joyful one, however.

Biller enjoys a Fortunate cocktail.

Mozart’s score, an occasional piece meant to amuse his patron, who was both a prince and an archbishop, manages to be fresh (he was 15 when he wrote it) and conventional at once (with a libretto by the inevitable Metastasio, based on a work by Cicero), a series of bravura arias linked by the titular hero’s choice between Fortune and Constancy, here represented by two sopranos, and abetted by the ghosts of his father and grandfather. Everybody sings about virtue and fame, and then we pat ourselves on the backs and go home.

Alden sets all of this in one of his trademark anonymous rooms, the sort of background familiar to commercial travelers and to fans of David Lynch movies (and also to audiences for Alden’s stagings — but eleven years ago, the trademark still seemed quite novel). The principals start out in their underwear and, over the course of the single act, get ready to face the day: Fortune in particular has a great deal of stage business, first trying on more outfits than the average Barbie doll can boast, then mixing cocktails. How on earth she remembers what notes to sing is anybody’s guess, but the role was a triumph for Georgia Jarman in 2001, and it’s likely to yield comparable acclaim for Susannah Biller now.

One doesn’t review a dress rehearsal, of course, and it is always expected that, if anything, the performances will only improve by opening night. But the singers were all new to me, and I admired each tremendously: Marie-Ève Munger as Costanza (which the young Mozart couldn’t know would turn out to be the name of his wife), Michele Angelini as Scipione, Arthur Espiritu and Chad A. Johnson as the wounded grandfather and father (respectively), and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Licenza, who concludes the event with a deliciously congratulatory flourish. “Though my heart praises Scipio,” she tells us, “my heart praises all of you, my patrons,” and you get the sense that she and Goren are addressing us, the patrons of Gotham Chamber Opera.

All of these attractive young people display the kind of brilliant, pure, flexible voices that we’ve come to expect from the Gothamites, and their utter fearlessness onstage is exemplary. I once helped to stage-direct an opera in which a tenor refused even to raise his hand while singing, much less cavort in his underwear. Alden employs amusing gestures to accentuate the singing: just by way of example, Angelini grabs his own ass on high notes in one aria, and Johnson’s melismas are excited by his stoic nurse (a marvelous young actress, uncredited at the rehearsal).

This is great fun, and while it might get in the way of the storytelling in one of Mozart’s mature operas, it works here, keeping lively what might otherwise be little more than a song recital.

In the pit, Goren maintains a kindred, equally spirited approach. This music was written to give pleasure, and by golly, that’s what Goren delivers. Mozart apparently never heard the piece played through — Scipione’s first complete performance seems to have been only in 1979 — but you’ve got to believe he’d have enjoyed hearing it exactly like this, as youthfully exuberant as he was when he wrote it.

So it’s not merely to revisit a cultural landmark that I urge you to see Il Sogno di Scipione, and to celebrate Neal Goren’s achievement over the past decade: it’s first and foremost to exult in the sheer pleasure that music can bring.

Read more!