A TISSOT FOR TODAY

Paul Zahl (of The Zahl File fame) recently sent me a postcard of the Tissot painting above, called “The Ball On Shipboard”.  It was done around 1874 and is now in the collection of The Tate Gallery in London.

It was, I believe, the first Tissot I ever saw, reproduced in a book.  It was certainly the first Tissot that took my breath away, with its intricate progression of spaces leading the eye deeper and deeper into the image, starting with the figure of the young lady seated in the foreground and seeming to look into the viewer's space, on this side of the picture frame.  Then groups of figures lead us back over the main deck and down to the dancing on the deck below and finally to the wide view of the harbor over the ship's rail.

We are left with a sense that we have moved through these spaces physically — that we have attended this ball rather than just seen a picture of it.

THE EVERLASTING HILLS

Thou enlightenest wonderfully from the everlasting hills.

                                              — Psalms 76:4

Another superb dossier for The Zahl File — Paul Zahl on two extraordinary movie sets from two oddly related films:



Autumn on the Hill

by Paul F. (“Maleva”) Zahl


“It is always the end of autumn on the hill, the spirit of a year has passed through.  In the fall school begins, you feel very young, the trees teach a lean lesson about paths in life.  The atmosphere of the hill is heavy, pungent; leaves are burning somewhere, even though there are Martians.”

                                                             – Dennis Saleh, Science Fiction Gold (1979)

The hill referred to is from Invaders from Mars,
a dreamlike film from 1953 that concerns aliens who take over the minds
of a little boy's parents.  The intruding saucer is buried beneath a
hill behind the family house.  At the top of the hill there is a hidden
opening into which humans are dragged down, like in quicksand, to be
implanted with alien control devices.  
Invaders from Mars is
famous for many things, the chief of which is the set design, much of
it created to look as if seen from a child's point of view.  The autumn
hill is the big prop, with its picket fence, and no one who saw this
movie as a child will ever forget that hill.  
Invaders from Mars was directed by William Cameron Menzies, who had also directed Things to Come in 1934.



There is another hill designed by Menzies.  He was
production designer for the Hollywood version of Thornton Wilder's play
Our Town and praised for his beautiful set for that drama of life and
love and death in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire.  The keystone of
Menzies' design for the film version of
Our Town (1940) is another autumn hill,
with another picket fence.  The movie begins with the hill, as the
Stage Manager emerges from it, gently stooping to pick up broken pieces
of its picket fence; and the movie ends with it.  The concluding
section takes place almost entirely on the hill, which is the autumn
place of the dead, the site of the town cemetery, where most of the
characters now stand, dead, in quiet distance from their earthly lives.



This cinematic version of Our Town is very good.  It is
filmed intimately, with long conversations between leading characters framed in close shots, almost like early television, although the
photographer was Bert Glennon, who also worked with John Ford.  The
acting is excellent.  The movie is never self-important.  It exists to
capture the feel and thought of the Wilder original.  Jack Kerouac, by
the way, who praised few of his literary contemporaries, wrote,
“Our
Town by Thornton Wilder is vastly enlightened, the dream ended,
Scrooge looking back.”

Of all the images of this subdued and beautiful
meditation on film concerning beginnings and endings, the autumn hill
of William Cameron Menzies sticks in my mind.  The place it occupies is
not so far from the autumn hill in the little, later movie, the
claustropobic and domestic picture of alien invasion.

The two hills are the same.  They exhibit the end
of human identities and human striving.  One malevolent, one benign (if
somewhat indifferent), they both represent the negation of human
existence in the presence of something bigger and larger.  The people
on Wilder's hill have lost their lives and become indifferent to what
they (thought they) had.  “. . . all those terribly important things kind
of grow pale around here.  And what's left when memory's gone, and your
identity, Mrs. Smith?”

This is a  meditation on death, the caesura to end all human
intentions.  While he was composing his play, in 1934, Wilder described
it in a letter as “A theologico-metaphysico-transcription from the
Purgatorio with panels of American rural genre-stuff.”  (He wrote most of Our Town, by the way,  far from the 'Grovers
Corners' of America.  He wrote it in the Zurich suburb of Ruschlikon,
almost next door to where my own sons attended middle school in the
1990s.)



Menzies' other autumn hill, constructed 13 years
later on a 20th Century Fox set, is parallel.  It sure looks the same!
 It, too, hides the end of human striving, this time because of hostile
aliens, who make no distinctions between women and men, children and
their parents, nurses and soldiers, as they destroy their identities
and take them over. When I first saw
Our Town the movie, I felt instinctively the chill of the hill.  It was unsurprising to read, years later, in the correspondence between Sol Lesser, the producer of Our Town,
and Thornton Wilder, the author of the source, that William Cameron
Menzies was being praised for his achievement in the design.  

Two hills, one benign, if indifferent, and one
malignant, each exhibiting negation.  Positively, I would like to say
that the autumn hill of
Our Town represents a funerary and
profound transcendence, the end of engagement with life on its own
repetitious terms, in favor of the very biggest picture, which is
forced on us human beings, whether we like it or not, by the fact of
physical death, and sometimes death-in-life . . . even though . . . there
are Martians.

Editor's Note: I found the above frame grab from Invaders From Mars on the DVD Savant site, which has a long and interesting review of the film, including this observation on the hill set:


The Sand Pit Hill Set



Menzies appears to have put the majority of his resources into one
very large, very special set, the hill leading to the Sand Pit behind
David's house. It is one of the most remarkable sets ever made, for a
number of reasons. A slightly curved path winds up the hill between
some leafless black tree trunks, followed by a broad plank fence.  Atop the hill, the blackened fence dips out of sight into the largely
unseen Sand Pit beyond.



The hill is 'deceptively artificial.' On first impression it reminds of
the bridge in the 1919
Cabinet of Caligari, the bridge over which
Cesare the Somnambulist kidnaps his female victim. The
Invaders hill
appears to be a similarly flat-perspective, diorama-like design. In
static shots it resembles a painted backdrop. But when an actor walks
up the path, all sense of perspective goes haywire. The hill is like a
2-dimensional painting, but 3-dimensional people defy visual logic and
diminish as they walk 'into' it. It's a 'reverse forced-perspective'
optical illusion. George MacLean seems to get smaller than he should as
he reaches the top of the hill, and it takes a lot of steps to get him
there. But the trees at the rear of the set don't give the right
'perspective clues,' so it almost looks as if George MacLean is
shrinking as he walks. It is a subtle effect that is more easily
perceived on a large screen.


Click here for the full review.

UNSPEAKBLY COOL

A couple of Christmases ago my sister gave me the remarkable object pictured above.  It's a hollow ceramic pumpkin in which a funeral scene is being enacted.  A woman holds her head and weeps, another throws herself upon the coffin of the departed, another seems to be eating bread, while a man supplies music on a guitar.  All of the figures have skull faces — this is, of course, a dia de los muertos diorama.  There is fresh food laid out for the spirits of the dead.

The pumpkin rests on a cone base made of hundreds of pink button sewn together.

My sister found it in an eccentric toy shop in Los Angeles.  The proprietor had bought it years ago in Mexico — he believed it to be about a quarter of a century old.  It was made by a man named Alfonso Castillo from Izúcar de Matamoros, Puebla, Mexico, in the southern part of the country.  Mr. Castillo is apparently part of a large family of artisans from that region — here's a picture of him at work:

Mr. Castillo's dia de los muertos pumpkin had sat in a case in the toy shop for ages, much admired but never purchased, until my sister had the good sense to snag it.

It's one of the coolest things I own.

THE CIRCLE OF CASH

The other day I went over to the Mandalay Bay Casino to buy some tickets to The Lion King for myself, my sister and her two kids.  I scored some great seats but they were expensive — very expensive.  I felt a tinge of guilt — surely it would have been more responsible to settle for cheaper seats further back.

Now here's where the genius of the modern casino shows itself most clearly.  The Lion King box office is located right next to the Mandalay Bay's card room.  I looked over at it after I bought the tickets and saw that there were several games in progress, even though it was just after 10 in the morning.

I was seized with an irresistible thought — if I bought in to one of those games, got some good cards and played them well, I could win back all the money I just spent on the tickets in a matter of hours.  The alternate possibility, that I could lose my buy-in in a matter of minutes and walk out of the casino even poorer than I already was, hardly figured into my thinking.

I bought in to a game, got some good cards, played them well and started making money.  I was very selective about the hands I stayed in with, didn't chase long-shot draws and got some invaluable help from a few players at the table who just couldn't bring themselves to fold what were obviously second-best hands.

I played for about three hours and only won four or five pots, but three of them were monsters.  I looked down at a certain point and saw that I was up about the amount I paid for the tickets.  I racked my chips, cashed them in and walked out into the grueling heat of the valet parking pick-up stand.

Back home I popped open a beer — it was the end of the day for me — sat back in an armchair and felt just fine.  I'll be seeing The Lion King for free.  Acuna matata.

MOON

This is a photograph of Buzz Aldrin, the second human being to walk on the moon, taken by Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the moon.  Apparently, Aldrin didn't take any color still photographs of Armstrong on the lunar surface, but Armstrong did manage to snap a self-portrait here, reflected in Aldrin's helmet visor.

McSORLEY'S

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

                         — A. E. Housman

The great caricaturist Drew Friedman recently designed the label above for one of McSorley's house brews.  McSorley's, in downtown Manhattan, is the oldest continuously operating bar in New York, going strong, or at least going, since before the Civil War.  It has a special place in my heart, for it was there I began my lifelong love affair with beer.

In 1968, I spent the summer of my 18th year in the East Village, NYC, in an apartment near McSorley's.  The bar had not at that time been adopted by NYU frat boys, and was a dive, little changed from the 19th Century.  Old, grizzled men, many of them retired merchant seamen, hung out there in the afternoons drinking the fine house ales and filling up on the cheap sandwiches sold at the bar.  The drinking age was 18 back in those days, and my friends and I hung out there in the afternoons, too.  It was a grubby but magical place.  It looked exactly the way it looks in the 1912 painting below by John Sloan:

Women were not allowed in McSorley's then — a 19th-Century policy that would soon be challenged by feminist activists.  The first of them who walked in and demanded to be served got a pitcher of beer emptied over her head.  The courts eventually ruled that McSorley's could not legally bar women.  This opened the way to its current status as a hipsters's joint.  It still looks the same as it always did but cannot be visited by sane people at most hours of the day and certainly not after dark.

I'm glad that women are served there now, of course, and its popularity will insure its survival for another century or so, but the hiraeth comes upon me when I think of it as it was once — the hiraeth, a Welsh word that means “the longing for what has been”.

The quote above (thanks, Django) is from a poem by Housman called “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff”, which also contains the following lovely lines:


Oh I have been to Ludlow fair


And left my necktie God knows where,


And carried half way home, or near,


Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:


Then the world seemed none so bad,


And I myself a sterling lad;


And down in lovely muck I've lain,


Happy till I woke again.

EVIDENCE


                                                                                                                 [Image © 1976 Langdon Clay]

My friend Lang Clay recently sent me the photo above which he took in 1976.  That's me on the left, standing with a pal in front of the doorman's station at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City.

I'm having a hard time bringing myself to believe that I was ever that young, but the photographic evidence seems to be conclusive.

MOCKINGBIRD

Paul Zahl, of this site's The Zahl File, is, as I've mentioned before, a preacher, but his most impressive contribution to the revival of humane religion in our time may have been fathering three sons who are also preachers — this is where Protestantism has a distinct advantage over Catholicism in keeping the clergy ranks full.

His sons are all contributors to the Mockingbird blog, which you should check out.  Mockingbird is a youth-oriented Christian organization based in New York and its blog is both serious and cheerful, with a cheeky attitude towards popular culture that you'll find refreshing, and probably surprising if all you know of Evangelical Christianity is that part of it which attracts the media's attention — the grim, self-righteous, judgmental and often spectacularly hypocritical part.

I myself have no use for institutionalized religion of any stripe, but I've never forgotten something Camille Paglia once said . . . roughly, “Evangelical Christians are the only group in America who are asking the right questions, it's just that they're coming up with all the wrong answers.”  That may be true as a general rule, but the right questions are still the right questions.

Incidentally, if you scroll down the main page of the Mockingbird blog, or click here, you'll find a very interesting piece by Paul Zahl about three extra-ecclesiastical religious artists — the Victorian novelist Mark Rutherford, George Harrison and Jack Kerouac.

A THOUSAND GUYS IN LOWELL

There are 1000 guys in Lowell who know more about heaven than I do.

                                                                — Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac left an amazing portrait of America in the second half of the 20th century — paying attention to the everyday warp and woof of things and their mythic role in the unconscious epic of the nation.  To find anything comparable in the art of our time you have to look to the photographs of Walker Evans and William Eggleston, especially Eggleston.

Kerouac celebrated and eviscerated American places in long, impressionistic passages in his writing and in brief epithets tossed off in passing.  These epithets, taken together, have something of the quality of the Catalog Of the Ships in The Iliad.

Paul Zahl, a regular contributor here, discusses Kerouac's geographical epithets, about America and other places, with some choice examples:





A JACK KEROUAC GEOGRAPHICAL GLOSSARY

by Paul Zahl

 


Kerouac had a wonderful way with vivid adjectival phrases.


 


In his letters especially, and wherever he could write free of
stricture or zealous editor, he would use jammed-together phrases to
describe the places he visited, the people he met, and the phenomena he
observed.


 


I have made a little study of Kerouac's descriptive phrases for the
cities and towns, and even foreign countries, in which he spent time.


For example he described Morocco as the place where one could see “the
true glory of religion once and for all; in these humble, often
mean-to-animals people”.


If you have spent time in a Middle-Eastern country, this phrase
instantly connects.  How many people I know who have left their
inherited religion in the West and are impressed by exactly the phenomenon
Kerouac observes, right down to the flogging of the camels.


 


Here is a little 'Beat' geographical glossary, from the man who saw,
and wrote what he saw.


Oh, and some of them may offend you if you actually live in the place
he is describing.  When Kerouac refers to “rainytown Pittsburgh”, he
captures the essence of that particular city.  But Pittsburghers don't
see it this way at all!


 


So hold on to your hats.  And get ready to smile, and maybe wince a
little.


(All these phrases come from the letters of Jack Kerouac composed
between 1957 and 1969, which are collected in the 1999 Viking Press publication edited by Ann Charters.)


 

Rock n Roll Hooligan England

 


sick old Buddhaless Europe


 


California TOO MANY COPS AND TOO MANY LAWS and general killjoy culture


 


Total Police Control America


 


Doom Mexico

(Kerouac survived an earthquake in Mexico City, and was
also fascinated by the interest in death which he saw in the culture
there.)

 


“Orlando Florida”

(Kerouac complained that you could not buy On the
Road
at any newsstand in Orlando, where he and his mother lived for two
fairly long periods, so that city for him would always be in quotes.)


 


nightmare New Orleans

thank God for Spain!  All living creatures are Don Quixote

 


San Francisco, that town of poetry and hate


 


unholy Frisco


 


Muckland Central Florida in Febiary
(sic)

 


midtown New York sillies world


 


this New York world of telephones and appointments


 


peaceful Florida, winter Florida, Florida peace


 


Massachusetts boy-dreams of Harvard


 


the South where everybody is DEAD

And thinking globally . . .

 


so goes the Dostoyevskyan world


And from
Visions of Gerard . . .


That hat, with its strange Dostoyevskyan slant, belongs to the West,
this side of this hairball, earth


 


the world, the uncooperative and unmannerly divisionists, the bloody
Godless forever

Home again . . .

 


overcommunicating America


 


You could probably write an essay on every pungent phrase that Kerouac
comes up with.
  You may also be offended by his incautious descriptions.  Furthermore, they were mostly written down under the influence of
alcohol, by the author's own admission.


 


Yet they are evocative and at times (to me) inspired.  They are also
very funny.
  After just a few days in London, thirty years before the rise of the
“soccer yob”, Kerouac spoke of “Rock n Roll Hooligan England”.
  What prescient voice is this?

 

If this starter glossary re-connects you with Kerouac's
voice, the voice of a man Allen Ginsberg described as “heaven's recording angel',
and sends you back to his work, try writing down more of these phrases as they catch your eye.  As your Catalog grows you'll wonder, “Where did this man receive his wisdom?” and “Did
he not grow up right here in Nazareth, and do we not know his mother
and his brothers and his sisters?”



[Editor's Note: "Overcommunicating America" -- we live there now, all right.  And even a man who could write, decades ago, "
California TOO MANY COPS AND TOO MANY LAWS and general killjoy culture" might be surprised at the way The Wellness State has calcified into his most extreme vision of the place.  Jack apparently never visited my hometown, Las Vegas, but he would have nailed it, too, I imagine, in a way that would make me wince . . . and laugh.  Paul Zahl just moved away from a suburb of Washington, D. C., where Kerouac and Gregory Corso once dropped in unannounced on the poet Randall Jarrell and found him "hobnobbing in Chevy Chase", a world center of hobnobbing.  Kerouac will find you wherever you are, America -- you can run but you can't hide from heaven's recording angel.]

The map above is from one of Kerouac's diaries.  The portraits are by Tom Palumbo.  You can find more of Paul's articles in The Zahl File here.