A BOB DYLAN CHRISTMAS

A few more thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Christmas album . . .

Bob Dylan hasn’t referenced Christmas very often in his own songs, and the most notable references have been either wistful or rueful.  There were, for example, the tatty, neglected Christmas decorations in “Three Angels”, looking down on the foibles of a heedless world . . . and these lovely, melancholy lines from “Floater”:


My grandfather was a duck trapper

He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had ‘em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring dancin’ Christmas carols on all of them Christmas Eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves


This always reminds me of some other wistful lines about Christmas, in one of Robert Johnson’s songs:

If today was Christmas Eve
And tomorrow was Christmas Day
If today was Christmas Eve
And tomorrow was Christmas Day

Oh, babe, wouldn’t we have a time?

The idea in Johnson’s song is that it’s not Christmas Eve, and good times are not just around the corner — may never be again.

It’s a little surprising, then, to find Dylan in such a merry mood on his new Christmas album Christmas In the Heart.  He really sounds as though he’s having fun on all the upbeat numbers — like a kid given the run of a toy store.  On “Christmas Island” he seems to be contemplating a holiday in the tropics with unmitigated glee, and on “Must Be Santa”, you get a feeling he may have been dancing while he was putting down the vocal.  His slightly curdled egg nog of a voice is laced with a jigger or two of intoxicating cheer.

On the more spiritual numbers, he conveys a different kind of joy — almost triumphal.  He sings the first verse of “Adeste Fidelis” in Latin, punching out the words like a preacher on fire with the unimpeachable authority of the good news he’s delivering.  (Now that Pavarotti has moved on, is there anybody left but Bob who can sing Latin like he means it?)  When Bob sings, “Hark, the hee-rald angels sing!” you get a feeling he has them in view, or is perhaps himself a member emeritus of their band.

Christmas songs are encrusted with so many memories that singers rarely feel they have to do more than get them down, offer a respectful rendition.  That’s why it’s such a shock to hear Dylan performing them, interpreting them, as though we might have forgotten what they mean, what their words are all about — not Christmas Eves past, lost times and unreachable dreams, but Christmas Mornings to come, peace on earth, goodwill to men.

My friend Harvey Bojarsky had an interesting insight into the conceptual aspect of the album, comparing its strategy of musical collage — with echoes of American Christmas music of every kind popping up in unexpected combinations — to what Charles Ives (above) was doing in his Holiday Symphony.  In that work, as Wikipedia notes, Ives wanted to write each movement as if it were based on a grown man’s memory of his childhood holidays.  Ives said, “Here are melodies like icons, resonating with memory and history, with war, childhood, community, and nation.”

So it is with Christmas In the Heart.  You’ve heard everything on it before, though now all the elements are mixed up together, out of sequence, out of context, the way they get mixed up in memory, and this allows you hear them anew, and see the connections between them — the secret, perhaps unconscious connections between them you’ve already made in your heart.

[Go here for some more thoughts on Christmas In the Heart.]

LA BELLE, LA PERFECTLY SWELL NOISEUSE — 1

Part One — The Case For the Prosecution

Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse is a fascinating film and, if you'll pardon the chauvinism, very French.

The psychological insights it serves up are almost unbelievably trite, which makes the grave and serious tone in which they are delivered almost laughable.  But not quite.  It is the préparation of the dish and the présentation which redeem it.  It is a form of alchemy which one often encounters in the simplest French restaurants, where a salade frisée aux lardons will sometimes be put together as though the fate of civilization depends on its approach to perfection.

So in La Belle Noiseuse one appreciates the care and refinement of Rivette's filmmaking, the precision and elegance of the dialogue, even when the ingredients Rivette is working with are simple to the point of simple-mindedness.

One has to be on guard when an artist takes on the subject of how hard it is for a woman to live with an artist.  Self-importance, self-regard and self-pity are almost always hidden among the twists and turns of such works, imperfectly masked by a self-laceration masquerading as humility but in fact presented as a higher form of the artist's noble commitment to honesty, which can apparently justify any human failing.

I don't think I'm misrepresenting Rivette's sensibility here.  He's a guy who once ascribed the success of James Cameron's Titanic to the fact that Kate Winslett was fat, which allowed fat teenage girls to identify with her character.  That same peevish misogyny, that same inability to penetrate the female psyche, are on full display in La Belle Noiseuse.

In La Belle Noiseuse an older artist whose creative springs have run dry is restored to his vocation by a younger woman, for whom he will be tempted to betray his long-suffering wife and partner, even as the younger woman is tempted to betray her love and partnership with an aspiring artist for whom the older man is a mentor and inspiration.  (I should add that the betrayals involved here are not necessarily sexual in the usual sense of that word.)

I am prepared to believe that an older artist can be recalled to productivity by nubile flesh, and that there are women who find the role of muse intoxicating and irresistible at whatever cost it comes.  The phenomenon doesn't tell us much about art, however.  It probably plays itself out in every profession, and there are likely more artists inspired by a faithful lifetime companion than ones revivified by fresh meat.

Such a view, however, has no place in La Belle Noiseuse, where betrayal of a loved one for art must be seen as a tragic, bittersweet necessity — somehow intertwined with the truth of art itself.  The twist at the end of the film's story, while humane on one level, only reinforces this mythology.

La Belle Noiseuse is, to put it very bluntly, nonsense, on a philosophical and psychological level, but it is a measure of the intricate delicacy of Rivette's treatment of this nonsense that one can still enjoy the film as a well-observed melodrama, unfolding with excruciating deliberation, and as an incisive portrait of people in the grip of delusions which the filmmaker himself gives every evidence of sharing.

In Part Two of this piece, I present The Case For the Defense, outlining the film's many miraculous pleasures.

FRIEDMAN AND LEWIS

The incomparable Drew Friedman salutes the incomparable Jerry Lewis and gives nine reasons why Lewis should get a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Hear, hear!

The drawing is probably reproduced at too small a size to read all the captions, but the images are fun all the same.

CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART

I believe it's a sin to play Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving and that people who violate this rule will be going to Hell — a stiff price to pay for a couple more spins of “The Little Drummer Boy”.

I took a chance on Eternal Damnation, however, in order to listen to Bob Dylan's new Christmas album Christmas In the Heart, because I wanted to review it.  I figured that if it was any good, folks might want to have a copy in hand when the Christmas Season begins.  In short, I risked the fires of Hell so you wouldn't have to.

It was a wise move, as it turns out, because some of the mainstream media reviews of it have been, well . . . “insane” might be the nicest way to put it.  A couple of dimwits who review rock music for NPR compared it, in its unmitigated awfulness, to William Shatner's dramatic readings of rock lyrics, which have become camp classics.  There's nothing camp about Dylan's Christmas record, and nothing awful about it, either — it is, in fact, one of the great documents of American music.

Dylan was always a strange old man, even when he was in his twenties.  Over the years he's gotten stranger and older.  He's far more radical now, though, than he was as a kid and he's grasped the essential truth of radicalism in our time — it means going back to the old stuff that got us to where we were before we lost our way in the God-awful catastrophe that was the 20th century.

Dylan's Christmas album has a 19th-Century Currier & Ives type image on the cover.  Many of the songs on the album were done in the past by Bing Crosby, whom Dylan admires greatly.  Dylan sings the songs straight in bright, slightly cornball arrangements, often with an accompanying mixed-voice choir behind him.  Don't be fooled, though — there is no irony whatsoever in his approach.

What Dylan is doing is taking us on a tour of American popular Christmas music — the stuff we grew up with, the stuff our parents grew up with, country Christmas songs and big-band Christmas songs and 50s-era lounge-music Christmas songs and ersatz Hawaiian Christmas songs, carols sung on street corners and hymns sung in churches.  There's even a German Christmas polka, to which David Hidalgo adds some Tejano accordian — which of course derives from polka music played in German communities in south Texas which Mexican-American musicians picked up on and made their own.

The journey is phantasmagorical, like one of the journeys Scrooge is taken on during his night of ghostly visitations.

The result is a Christmas album like no other.  Dylan's gnarled late-career voice has a built-in poignancy as he tries to sing these sweet songs sweetly, making them seem like crude homemade gifts brought to the stable in Bethlehem by a child or a troubled old man . . . just the sort of gifts that would mean the most to a guy like Jesus.

The true miracle of Dylan's versions of these songs is that he sings the words as though he believes them — believes in the good news that will bring joy to the world, peace on earth.  For all the nostalgic references in the arrangements, Dylan makes the songs seem brand new — revivified by faith and commitment and hope.

Before I heard this record I would have said that the best Christmas album of all time was Luciano Pavarotti's O Holy Night, in which the great tenor sings with the same faith and commitment and hope.  Dylan's funkier work can stand beside it, though — in part because of Dylan's technical limitations as a singer.  Pavarotti sings like an angel, supremely confident in the truth of miracles.  Dylan sings like an old drunk at a midnight Christmas Eve service desperately hoping for a miracle he has no choice but to believe in, all other options having been exhausted.  Both sing from the heart, but it just may be that the old man with the broken voice is somewhat closer to the spirit of the first Christmas, when there was no room at the inn, and a young woman had to give birth to the hope of the world in a stable.

In these times, when the ancient holiday has been commercialized into a neurotic nightmare of shopping and guilt, the only place you can find a meaningful sort of Christmas is in the heart.  That's where Dylan went looking for it, and that's where he found it, still in reasonably good shape, mirabile dictu.

Get your copy of Christmas In the Heart now and prepare to play it often — but please, in the name of all that's holy, after Thanksgiving.

[Go here for some more thoughts on Christmas In the Heart.]

AVE ATQUE VALE

It's always sad when an old pair of underpants wears out.  Underpants are the most intimate of companions — they stick with us (and sometimes to us) through thick and thin.  They can serve as pajamas, lounge-wear and as a form of sexual display capable of driving women wild.  The brightly-colored cocktail glasses on the defunct underpants above, for example, send a clear message — “I'm fun . . . but sophisticated!”

I bought those underpants about seven years ago at the Old Navy store on 34th Street in Manhattan.  They were very cheap.  They had a good run and served me well in good times and in bad.

They will be missed.

KISS ME, STUPID

Not long ago I posted a teaser for a preview of an essay by Tom Sutpen about Kiss Me, Stupid which Tom posted on his blog Illusion Travels By Streetcar.  Tom has now posted the full essay — well, not the full essay, but the parts of it he felt were worth reading in their present state.

It's fascinating stuff, and made me bump Kiss Me, Stupid up to the top of my Netflix queue.  What Tom wrote set my mind racing, and tempted me to respond — which is precisely what good criticism is meant to do — but I'm going to wait until I've seen the film to get into it.

To read Tom's post, click me, stupid.

THE THEATER OF GARDENS

Here's another piece by Mary Zahl about gardens — getting into the nuts and bolts of the way a garden works and how that contributes to what it means:

LOOKING AT THE HOUSE AND GARDEN RELATIONSHIP

by Mary Zahl


Reflecting on what is happening visually in what I consider good
residential garden design, whether my own or someone else’s, I have to
start with the relationship of the house to the garden.  For good or
ill, the house is the most important structure in the landscape.  That
makes creating an effective relationship between the two all the more
difficult if the house is a) not particularly attractive, and b) not
designed to open up to the outside visually. 



The first point is staring me in the face as I look at much of the
residential architecture around me:  In Central Florida, most new
housing is the big-box-with-a-roof look in stucco, the older houses are
one-story cinderblocks, and the terrain is pretty flat for both.  Only
where there are established large trees (live oaks!), is there much
hope for a satisfying complimentary landscape design.  The photo above shows a typical single-story Central Florida home graced with majestic live oaks.



The second point came home to me vividly in the last house we lived in,
a church-owned rectory situated next to a parking lot.  This was an
attractive two-story colonial stone house from the outside.  But from
the inside, the only views out from the living areas were of the
parking lot.  Even the screen porch had this vantage!  We might as well
have been living in a house with no windows, apart from some of the
filtered light.  I found it depressing.




When designing a garden, one of the primary tasks is to go into the
house and look out from the key windows and doors.  I ask the clients
where they like to sit, and it is almost always in a room with a view
of the garden.  Most gardens end up being a stage set, which means they
should look as attractive as possible as much of the year as possible
from the inside.  Above is a garden in Birmingham, Alabama, as seen from a favorite indoor spot of the clients.

Anyone who has a swimming pool understands that it
should be beautiful to look at, because it may seldom be used for what
it was intended.


Then, working on paper, I draw center lines out from each of those
important vistas, and try to make the garden’s axes work from them. 
Not only is this the classic design principle we inherited from the
Ancients, but an adaptation of this axial approach is what makes the
greatest gardens of the world — many in England — work so well:




I am often reminded of a friend’s explaining to me that Balanchine was
such a great choreographer because he never abandoned the classical
principles, but found creative ways to interpret them.  This same idea
is at work in the best English gardens, such as Sissinghurst or
Barnsley House.  That's Sissinghurst Garden in the photo above,
in Kent, England, designed by Harold Nicholson and
Vita Sackville-West, among the first to combine strong geometric lines
with profuse planting, a marriage of two elements and two personalities
that matched them.



The challenge for me as a garden designer is to stick
to classical principles of axes and proportion with a huge variety of
residential architectural styles.  Above, the “axis” of a garden in Birmingham.



This is where the plants and the quality of hard materials come in. 
Planting needs to soften and “warm up” the geometry. Materials should
age as quickly as possible to do the same, which is why natural stone
or brick or pots are always preferable.  Geometry alone makes for a
cold garden.  A profusion of plants with no geometry or relationship to
the house’s architecture is too chaotic for my tastes, and makes for a
less integrated whole, and actually a less peaceful atmosphere
year-round.  Getting that balance right for the client’s taste is the
biggest challenge I have.  Well, that, and creating something that
doesn’t die!

Below, an example of strong geometry and natural  materials softened by planting in a Birmingham garden:




Finally, to go a step further, I want the views to be so appealing that
they actually draw the owner out into the garden.  This is my unstated
goal: to create a gardener — or at least someone who is drawn into
nature and away from the computer or television — to a place that might
feed their soul.

Below, an inviting space for sitting in a small courtyard garden in Birmingham:

I'm struck by Mary's comparison of the garden to a stage set, something that must work first as seen through the “proscenium arches” of a house's apertures — windows, doors, porch frames.  The same is true for a theatrical set, once the curtain rises, or for the shots in a movie.  All these “sets” must be pleasing in themselves but also invite us to enter them — literally in the case of gardens, imaginatively in the case of stage or screen.  A stage set or a shot in a film, like a garden, can't just offer us a pretty picture — it must have a spatial quality which lures us into it, makes us want to inhabit it.  Only then, as with a garden, can it work its real magic.

[Photos by Mary Zahl, who also designed all the Birmingham gardens pictured above.]

MAGIC

In an earlier post, no longer available on the site, I argued that theatrical illusions have little to do with “escapism” but serve a practical function — to make us “aware of the provisional and constructed nature of all perception.”

“[W]e know,” I said, “that there is wisdom to be found in being reminded of this fact . . .  [that] to enter such illusions knowing they’re illusions puts us into a very special state of mind, a state of grace, even, in which we engage the practical mechanics and mysteries of perception directly.  We escape into truth, about ourselves and about the world.

Last year, Boing Boing posted a link to a scientific paper recording the results of a study of the methods of stage magicians as a key to understanding the “mechanics and mysteries of perception.” As an article on The Boston Globe’s web site reported:

At a major conference last year in Las Vegas, in a scientific paper
published last week and another due out this week, psychologists have
argued that magicians, in their age-old quest for better ways to fool
people, have been engaging in cutting-edge, if informal, research into
how we see and comprehend the world around us.  Just as studying the
mechanisms of disease reveals the workings of our body’s defenses,
these psychologists believe that studying the ways a talented magician
can short-circuit our perceptual system will allow us to better grasp
how the system is put together.



The study may be underplaying our collaboration in the trickery of stage magic.  The truth is that we’re not really fooled by what the magician does, since we know he’s tricking us.  What we enjoy about the experience, what’s profound about the experience, is the demonstration of the limits and imperfections of everyday perception — something we already know on a very deep level but need to be reminded of at regular intervals in safe surroundings.


                                           [Portrait of Flora Rankin by Lewis Carroll, 1863]

The phenomenon is similar to the delight we take in nonsensical wordplay, which reminds us of the limits and imperfections of language.  “The rule,” says Lewis Carroll, “is jam to-morrow, and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day.”  That’s a grammatical sentence in which the rules of language have been correctly employed to convey an illogical idea.  There is wisdom to be found in being reminded that language can be used in this way.

I would suggest that we have always known, on an intuitive level, what psychologists are starting to discover about the methods of stage magicians.

FRANÇOISE DORLÉAC

Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, obsessed me throughout my teenage years on the strength of three movies and a glamorous photo-spread of the two sisters in Look magazine.  The three movies were Truffaut's La Peau Douce, de Broca's L'Homme de Rio and Polanski's Cul-deSac.  In each of them Dorléac was a luminous presence — she had more than a little of her sister's remote mystery but without the barriers that seemed to forbid an approach to that mystery.

Photos of the sisters together suggested a kind of hall of mirrors, as though you were seeing multiple sides of the same woman from different angles.

Dorléac died in a car crash near Nice in 1967, when she was 25 years-old.  The crash created an explosion and Dorléac could only be identified by some personal possessions in the car that survived the fire.

She has haunted my imagination ever since.  Whenever I see images of Deneuve, I see the image of Dorléac's ghost in her face.

NO WOW

The second album by another two-person (guy-girl) group like The White
Stripes.  Good, solid, stripped-down rock — lyrics weak at times, with
a kind of shopworn left-over-from-the-20th-Century attitude . . . but
the music is edgy and inventive and exciting.  Quite cool, almost very cool.

(This is an old album but au courant, if you're in the right courant.)

DISINCLINATION

A current article in the online edition of The New York Times about
Roman Polanski says, “He is being held for possible extradition to the
United States more than three decades after fleeing sentencing on sex
charges in 1978.”


Sex charges?  Why be so vague?  Mr. Polanski was charged with rape.  It
was “statutory rape”, which can imply sex with a “consenting” minor –
assuming you think that a 13 year-old girl can give meaningful consent
to sex with a 43 year-old man — but the sex, according to the victim's
undisputed testimony, was not consensual.  It would have been rape, by
most reasonable definitions, even if she had been of age.



What can explain this strange disinclination to face what Polanski actually did?

ARS GRATIA ARTIS

James Naremore's The Films Of Vincente Minnelli is a thoughtful and illuminating work of criticism but Naremore, like any respectable modern critic, is fixated on the conflict between art and commerce, finding in Minnelli's work for “the dream factory” of MGM a paradigm for that conflict.

But what is this conflict, exactly?  When was that golden age when art and commerce were separated?  Where was that fabulous Arcadia which played host to artists who worked for the sake of art alone?  I cannot find it in history, anywhere I look.

We don't know much about the artists who created the great sculptures of ancient Greece — we have just a few quotes from them.  One of them is this — “Sculptors should strive for excellence in their works so they can win competitions and thus earn more money than their fellow sculptors.”  This was how the guys that decorated the Parthenon thought about art.

Vincent Van Gogh dreamed fondly of becoming a commercial artist, obsessively collecting and copying magazine illustrations that delighted him.  This is how the painter of Crows Over A Cornfield thought about his talent and the uses to which it might be put.

In the 20th Century, Igor Stravinsky said, “There are only two questions a musician should ask — how long should the piece be and how much money do I get paid for it?”  This is how the guy who created Le Sacre du Printemps thought about art.

The idea of art for art's sake, as Naremore points out, was created by artists at the dawn of the industrial age, when art began to be thought of as a mass-market commodity.  Artists who wanted to separate themselves from the values of the industrial age concocted a pose in which they were somehow above it, just by virtue of being artists.  The romance of the starving artist as cultural hero was born with this — starvation being an unknown ambition among artists of the past.

It's all a lot of hooey.  There has always been conflict between artists and their patrons, between artists and their audiences.  This is built into the nature of art, which navigates a fine line between novelty and familiarity, between challenge and reassurance.  The enterprise is hazardous for the artist, who must encompass the paradoxes involved and constantly renegotiate an inherently unstable compact.

But to see Minnelli's relationship with MGM as somehow different, conceptually, from the relationship of Phidias with the city fathers of Athens, from the relationship of Michelangelo with the Vatican, from the relationship of Bach with his vestry members, is absurd.

Art functions on so many different levels and is so intertwined with the everyday business of life, including commercial intercourse, that the idea of “art for art's sake” makes about as much sense as the idea of “food for food's sake”.  The French may think that they appreciate food for food's sake, but what they eat still gets converted into energy and fat and excrement.  However sublime a meal may be, it is still an integral part of a most prosaic human process . . . and so is art.

HELLO, MR. CHIPS

Paul Zahl, the Preacher From the Black Lagoon (see The Zahl File), revisits a commercial disaster from days gone by — the 1969 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips:

A MOVIE WITH SOUL

by Paul Zahl


I am beginning to know James Hilton's books and the movies made of
them, such as
Lost Horizon, in two wonderful versions; Random Harvest,
which is an almost perfect elegy to selfless love; and
Goodbye, Mr.
Chips, also in two wonderful versions.




The second version of
Chips, which bombed in 1969 (with the exception
of Pauline Kael's memorable praise), is an interesting case of a film
that more or less disappeared after its initial showing, became almost
notorious for its over-dubbed and stream-of-consciousness songs, and
co-starred the now less-remembered English pop star Petula Clark.



A personal interest in James Hilton, together with an interest in the
English playwright Terence Rattigan, led me to this movie recently,
which was released on DVD last January.  And yes, it is an odd
collection of things — a familiar drama (or so it seems at first) of
life in an English boarding school; a use of idyllic outdoor long shots
and zoom effects that are like ads for Tab, or even Coke, back in the
'60s; spectacular and also heavily edited musical numbers within a
story concerning a Latin master of the 1920's; and in the heart of it,
right at the core of it, a love story that rings completely true.



In short, this is a movie with soul, which is also greater than the sum
of its parts.




After watching two versions of Terence Rattigan's
The Browning Version,
both of which were filmed on the same location (i.e., Sherborne School
in southern England) as the 1969
Chips, I felt saturated with this
elite context. 
(The first version of The Browning Version, with Michael Redgrave, is illustrated above.)  Is there much left to say, after these two persuasive
works, about the introversion and disappointments of prep school
teachers of Latin and Greek?  Well, Rattigan must have believed there
was, because he took a familiar story, Hilton's novella of Brookfield
School, and batted it straight into the stratosphere.




His script, which now focusses almost completely on the love story of
Mr. Chipping, played by Peter O'Toole, and the unlikely love of his
life, played by Petula Clark, is literary and beautiful, full of
Classical allusions yet uncontrived.  When Rattigan puts the Ancient
Greek maxim “Know thyself”, together with the God Apollo, at the
turning point of the story, it is fully apt and touching and true.



He also writes a scene between the two meant-for-each-other lovers,
filmed by the Victorian greenhouse at Syon House on the Thames, which
is as affecting a proposal of marriage — it is basically she  who
proposes to him, yet with no tenor of forwardness — as anything of its
kind on film.  Incidentally, I write as someone who has performed
hundreds of marriages and who gladly embraces Lloydville's title, Preacher From the Black Lagoon.



How does a movie acquire soul?  We have an impressive script by a
master, Terence Rattigan.  We have a great theme from James Hilton: the
transformation in real time and life that is effected by a devoted
woman in relation to a shy misunderstood schoolmaster, and the
consequent effect of the couple's marriage on an entire community,
Brookfield School, petty, political, and witchy.  Yet these two
elements don't fully account for the movie's soul, which means you
start crying by the middle of act two and can't stop until way after
the end.



I think there are two other things that make
Chips something like a
great movie, although probably not a great movie in the way of
cinematic art.  The first is its visual style, which, as I said, is
full of long shots of the heroine and hero, with flowers in the
foreground; constantly changing colors to mirror the emotions of the
leads; many zooms from high up (God's eye!); and basically the most
accomplished style of the kind of thing Dan Curtis was doing in his
made-for-television horror movies of the same era: a little arty,
consciously 'visual', and plain pretty.  It works here and you probably
wouldn't alter a thing.  Thus the sequence at Pompeii and Paestum works
because the honey-colored marble of the sublime ruins matches the early
love of the surprizing surprized couple.




The second added thing in this wondrous movie is the music.  The songs
are by Leslie Bricusse, who wrote “Stop the World, I Want To Get Off”;
and the instrumentation is by John Williams.  The songs were considered
forgettable when
Goodbye, Mr. Chips first opened, without much for
tunes.  Yet they are mostly sung by Petula Clark and Peter O'Toole as
narrations rather than lip-synch performance.  They are internal
monologues.  They are therefore true to life.  Petula Clark's song
“Apollo”, for example is subtle and everything that the word “nuanced”
is now supposed to mean.  And I will guarantee something to the readers
of this blog:  If you see Chips  and do not go straight to YouTube or
iTunes and listen to “Fill the World With Love”, over and over again,
you had better check to see if you still have a heart.  To be honest
with you, now that I know what that Bricusse-composed school hymn means
in light of the powerful story in which it figures so prominently, I
don't ever want to sing anything else again.  (Maybe “Be True To Your
School” by the Beach Boys, but nothing more, ever again.)




So, here is a movie with soul. 
Goodbye, Mr. Chips from that hinge year
1969 is hard to explain.  It's got Hilton in the first stratum,
Rattigan in the second, sublime if ever so slightly cheesy visuals, and
introspective songs that work, partly because they do not overwhelm the
other elements.




There is a fifth element, however, one more thing, to add.  There is
Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark.  These actors were made for each
other.  Clark embodies a kind of heroine that you rarely see any more. 
(I married one 36 years ago.)  She loves her husband,  supports him
with everything she has and thus brings out qualities in him that he
never knew he had, and she's humble while having a kind of luminosity
– a word like “nuanced” which suffers from over-use — or inner
spiritual strength that is contagious in this self-absorbed world. 
Katherine Brisket, which is the name of Clark's character, is the
strongest entity in the entire movie.  Yet her life's work is love. 
That is why the bull's eye center of
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the scene
when Mrs. Chipping takes the entire student body and faculty to a new
and noble level as she leads them, not by design, in the school hymn
“Fill the World With Love”.  This is not dumb!  It completely works. 
No wonder O'Toole's character falls in love with her, defends her, and
establishes an unforgettable rock of a life with her.



Goodbye, Mr. Chips is now available on a beautiful DVD, its soundtrack
also available on a connoisseur's three-disc CD from Film Score
Monthly.

 


Oh, and I just took a look at
Joanna, made one year earlier in England
with Donald Sutherland and Genevieve Waite (and Rod McKuen — listen to
the warm) in order to get some perspective on the period.  Odd isn't
it:  I loved
Joanna back then, and thought Chips was dumb.  Now I love
Chips and think Joanna is the queen of dumb.

STILL OUR TOWN

It's hard for any American to get through life without seeing at least one production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  The play is a perennial favorite of high school drama departments and amateur theatrical companies, because it has a lot of parts (only one of which has a lot of lines), requires little scenery and almost always packs a punch, emotionally.

I must be one of the very few who managed to get through almost 60 years in this great land of ours without ever encountering it.  My interest in it was aroused, however, by a report from Paul Zahl for this site on a celebrated production of the play done recently in New York.  I put a couple of filmed versions of it in my Netflix queue and one of them showed up in my mailbox last week — a videotaped record of a production by the Westport Country Playhouse starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager (the part with a lot of lines.)

The Stage Manager sets the scenes for us, comments on them — he's a busier version of the Shakespearean chorus.  The setting of the play is a small town in New Hampshire in the first decades of the 20th Century, the characters are “ordinary” American folk.  The subject is the passing of time — which is to say, death, towards which all time on this earth trends.

The play asks, in effect, what will remain of us, what will our lives have added up to, in the gaze of Eternity?  In Grover's Corners, where the play unfolds, we know it will not be anything grand, or out of the ordinary, for anybody.  All virtues there, and all vices, all successes and all failures, are modest in the great scheme of things.

Of course, one is bound to reflect if there are any virtues, vices, successes or failures which are not modest in the great scheme of things — in the greatest scheme of things, in cosmic history.  When our sun has burned itself out, when the universe returns to the nothingness from which it emerged, as some believe it inevitably will, what difference will Shakespeare or Napoleon have made, not to mention you and I?

Wilder offers an answer to this question.  It is mystical, of course, as all such answers must be, but it is not facile, not made up of off-the-rack concepts of an intellectual or philosophical or theological sort.  It's flavored with Christian imagery but also calls to mind imagery from Buddhism and even Nietzche.  It can't be reduced to words, but one can say that it's more minatory than consolatory.

It might not change your life, but it could easily change the way you look at your life.

The videotaped version of the Westport Country Playhouse production, available on DVD, is very well done.  Newman is superb — I think it might be his best performance ever.  The Stage Manager could easily come off as a bit of a fuddy-duddy, but Newman brings a no-nonsense virility to the part which rivets our attention and cuts through what might at first seem like a flood of nostalgic sentimentality.  Our Town is not a sentimental play, nor is it, except technically, a period piece — which is one reason that productions of it go on and on.  Its purpose it to evoke the now — the eternal now, in which even death must take a supporting role.

Wilder suggests that we ought to start giving thanks for it now.  Right now.

MARIONETTES

Part of the appeal of puppets and marionettes is the contrast of scale they present to the real world.  They usually inhabit a smaller version of our world, and are smaller versions of ourselves — but sometimes they inhabit a larger one.  Very large puppets, however, generally represent creatures who are “naturally” large, imaginatively speaking — like the dragons in Chinese street parades.  Colossal representations of humans occur more often in sculpture, like the Statue Of Liberty, for example.

The colossal marionettes picture here, creations of the French Royal de Luxe street theater company, offer a delightfully witty inversion of the usual inversion.  Marionettes, customarily reduced versions of ourselves, here reduce humans to the proportions of marionettes, or even toy soldiers.

I find them unspeakably wonderful.

These photographs, from the Boston Globe's Big Picture site, record a performance at a celebration in Berlin marking the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The deep-sea diver and the little girl moved towards  each other across the city for a reunion, which offered another inversion — the colossal girl became a little girl again.

For more pictures of this event go here (with thanks to Boing Boing.)