Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Vox Populi

The voice of the people. Frank Capra, like Whitman before him, heard America singing. The song Capra heard became an anthem for his movies in the late 1930s-early 40s. He was a household name at the time and for some years later but he seems to have faded away along with his notion of Populism.

His hit films in that period were Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. (2 of them are being shown on TCM this week)

Ironically, those 3 films were studio hits but his glaring failure at the box-office was the 1947 flop, It’s A Wonderful Life which is now part of the American grain.

His themes were about politics but were not political in the way we think of that word today. He identified Everyman, townspeople, simple powerless folk, the American myth. John Cassavetes, of all people, said, Maybe, there was no America. It was only Frank Capra. 

His obsession was democracy itself. Nobodys became somebodys naively taking on the stuffed shirts and bloviators who grabbed power through corruption. Hiss the villains. The common man was played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, men who knew how to gulp and say aw shucks while the love interest was supplied by perky Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck.

Capra’s invention of an idealized smalltown America was so attractive it was adapted in big cities as well. If Everyman stumbled as they did in his movies it would soon be remedied in his fabricated narrative. I bought what he was selling, along with most of the country. He either captured the Zeitgeist or created it.

What happened along the way is beyond the scope of B-movie backrooms. The downtrodden masses have been played as if some flimflam man rode into town, stoked their grievances and transformed the good folks into a lynch mob. Athens has become Sparta. Democracy is being threatened by racist demotic forces which have always smoldered just below the façade of old movies.

Where are you now Frank Capra? Some called his body of work, Capra-Corn but his vision gave us worthy aspirations, even if simplistic, sentimental and moralistic. He didn’t foresee the level of mindless subversion we are witnessing among Bible-thumpers and a working class having abdicated their autonomy to an authoritarian.

The Populist party of a hundred years ago was the Progressive party with an agenda of direct election of senators and woman suffrage. The word itself has been usurped. Now we see the fetid underbelly of America ripe for descent into fascism. If Capra was preachy, it was of a piece with the hard times and capitalism itself being questioned as we were entering into a war against a Nazi dictator.

The country numbered 132 million when Capra wrote. Today it is triple that with his cast of Caucasians soon to be a minority. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. The new Everyman / woman has a different look. If this were a Capra movie the heartland would wake up in the last reel with city folk and the rural working class finding their common thread.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Hard-Earned and Simple

I was fourteen once. It took me a year to get over it. Apparently, the movie-going public today has found a way to remain at that age well into their forties and Marvel Cinematic Universe has obliged with comic book juvenilia. Audiences can’t seem to get enough superheroes, mayhem and special effects to bedazzle their senses.

All this has left me longing for quiet, simple cinema. I flashed back to one such movie from about twelve years ago set in inhospitable, rugged Connemara, Ireland. Not a pub in sight.

A young woman (Lotte Verbeek) appears in flight from we know not, as I remember it. Her worldly goods are on her back including some sort of roll-up blue tent, her sanctuary. Just a few words are spoken for the first fifteen minutes and not many after that.

She comes upon a house set at the end of a peninsula, owned by a lugubrious Stephen Rea. He welcomes her company but neither offers a name or anything of their past as if they have none. We are transported to life reduced to its elements. Genesis reenacted, perhaps.

She is fiercely independent, rejecting his move at goodwill. Yet when she begins to trust he pulls back. Over time she accepts his invitation to sit at his table even as he becomes silent. Rea’s face is a biography of his wounded life, cratered but with a heart of kindness.

The craggy countryside is as stark and raw as their interior landscape. Yet it is sensually suggestive as the slow-paced camera closes in on her fingering sinuous, slithery kelp and pulling onions from his garden. Together they transform the austere patch of land into something nearly Edenic.

She cooks him soup. He offers her music. She dances a jig. The blue of her tent becomes a blue jar on the sill, his blue shirt, the blue light at dusk.

Their insistence on anonymity yields to a primordial intimacy. They are unable to resist forbidden knowledge in spite of themselves and the film’s ironic name, Nothing Personal.

As simple humanity emerges, he suffers a heart attack just as it opens. She watches over him and when he succumbs, she wraps his body in a sheet and embraces his nakedness; a most memorable movie image both erotic and poignant.

There is a redemption of life through hard-earned love, the way potatoes grow between ancient stones and bogs, through non-arable soil.

Marvel's big budget movies usually deliver bloated characters. Their out-sized urges tend toward good or evil of allegorical proportions with loud and tiresome lessons of morality. The villainy is monstrous and the righteousness a form of vigilantism which further undermines our institution. By contrast Nothing Personal finds an audience who cherish matters of the soul and the shared quiet of a cinema experience.

P.S. I don't believe this movie is available on streaming. However my friend Marcia just told me it can be ordered from Netflix by mail.




Thursday, May 12, 2022

Come To Think of It

Now, there’s a phrase deserving of another life, come to think of it. It’s one of those throwaway clauses I want to pluck from the doomed to the recycled can.

We say it to announce the arrival of a small but sudden insight or mini-epiphany. Nothing monumental like the discovery of Saran Wrap or 3.14 as Pi. I doubt Einstein said, come to think of it, E=mc sq.

By George, here’s the pair of glasses I thought I had lost last year. No, that’s not quite right either. More like, come to think of it, I shouldn’t have ordered that tiramisu since I’m really not as hungry as I thought I was. Or come to think of it, I already saw that movie you just recommended. It comes with a lightbulb overhead rather than a drumroll.

Coming is the destination of going. The idea has traveled with the speed of a thought. Where did it come from? Another synapse? Left field? A bolt from Zeus? It hasn’t just come, it was welcomed and received just in time.

There’s something faintly subversive about the rush of whatever we have just come to think of. It carries a deviation enough to upset the previous given. It’s a reversal, or swerve, a course correction or at least a whimper of change. Let’s take this side road. I’ve always wondered where it leads.

Do I detect a fleeting moment of admission in it as if a fog just lifted revealing a glimpse of lucidity? Such an ah-ha presents itself regularly but it is not seized until the come-to-Mama/Papa instance. To seek is one thing; to find is another.

Come to think of it, does not suggest much deliberation. More like an intuitive exclamation which bypassed all the filters of self-censorship. Come to think of it, writing this page was a spur of the moment (there’s another expression worth a moment’s pause) act which caused me to come and see what I was thinking about.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Dear Friends, Enough

Please, do not send me any more articles about our withering democracy leading to nullification of Roe v Wade or Ukraine v Putin and his barbarism. Just those two. My threshold of endurance has been reached. My mailbox is full. Strike that, make it four subjects. Add climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. I’ve had my fill of exasperation and wrath, the chronicle of deceit and stupidity. Might as well call it at five. I have no more brain cells left for vilification of immigrants either.

Part of this is self-serving. My own tongue wags too much sometimes with a penchant for barbed language. When I hear the litany of dangerous buffoons like Trump and other miscreants it engenders my sardonic and strident voice. I would forgive you for not forgiving me.

Though forgiveness has its rewards. Mark Twain said, Forgiveness is the fragrance violets shed on the heel that crushed it. So, I take a deep whiff and forgive everyone who stepped on my toes in crowded elevator and other misdemeanors but I’m unable to forgive those who have subverted our democratic experiment.  

I want to live out my allotted time eating peaches and other edibles, round and juicy. Sloppy-Slurpy. Or listening to music for transport from Joshua Bell to John Coltrane, bypassing my head to my heart. Topsy-Turvy. Or immersing myself in the soufflé of good words rising. Warble-Babble. Or the exuberance felt by visual art or dance. Razzle-Dazzle, Merry-Molly.

There is too much to love about life, my friends and even my enemies though I can’t think of any adversaries outside of the above mentioned whom, thankfully, I’ve never met. I have also never met many friends on Facebook expanding the definition of the word.

There, I feel better already. One needs a brief sabbatical from evil. Gaze into the abyss too long and its gaze back gives off a noxious vapor I might inhale. Maybe the malodorous air in our midst is that last gasp from a place of moral vacuity.    




Friday, May 6, 2022

The Book and the Eye

I’m reading a book entitled Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, as if on two levels. My rational mind is asking, and then what.  But there is no then what. There is only the narrator in her stone cottage in rural Ireland telling us how it is to be alone in this stone cottage. On another level I’m being drawn into her aloneness and my own.

Unaccountably, I jump up looking at my walls. No stones. In fact, there is little wall unadorned with art: pictures, masks, assemblages and bookcases. I realize how much of it is unseen by me. Sadly, the artwork has become invisible to my eyes from familiarity, almost like furniture.

As the woman in the book takes possession of her space so too am I taking ownership of this room and the next. I find myself rescuing the Polish poster of Robinson Crusoe stranded in the bedroom, into the living room. The watercolor of the Rose Café interior is shifted to the dining area along with the encaustic still life which has always yearned for more light. The Van Gogh poster of a Japanese footbridge has also been brought to a different wall. I find myself shifting eleven pieces to new habitats.

I am reminded of the Japanese aesthetic which demands more space around each piece as if to let it breathe. Addition by subtraction. We had one wall with eight masks and assemblages. There are now just three. The unintended consequence is a pocked-marked wall yearning for spackle. If I painted one wall I'd have do the entire area which entails moving seven bookcases. I entertain no such thought. Instead I shall regard the nail holes as an absurd junk sculpture.

In the movie, First Monday in October, I recall a scene in which the crusty Supreme Court Justice played by an irascible Walter Matthau is asked by his wife to close his eyes and describe the wallpaper they’ve been living with for years. Of course, he cannot ... whereupon the marriage ends.

In a moment of benign mischief, Peggy once told me to cover my eyes and describe what hung on the wall across from the couch. It could have been worse; she could have asked me what she was wearing or the color of the wallpaper we don’t have. I was getting off easy, only the one wall which I had lived with for decades. I bumbled my way through with some lucky guesses but missed two African masks and a Oaxacan wood carving. One might have to know our walls to appreciate everything I got right.

As Niels Bohr said, No, no, you are not thinking. You’re just being logical.  Forget about wallpaper. There is much more that passes by unnoticed, particularly in the realm of the imagination beyond logic.

The artwork is given new life. And I’m revitalized as well. I’m back into the book now feeling somewhat aligned with what the author is feeling. Her words have bypassed my censorious brain and given me permission to alter my walls. No small thing.



Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In the Garden of Nettles and Petals

This patch of land we call Planet Earth needs serious attention. As custodians we have neglected the air and the water so that doom may soon have it over bloom, and weeds over seeds. This state of affairs has its corollary in language itself.

Someday they’ll have a softball game between the Yeasayers and Naysayers to settle the matter. The two strains run through our national character as the punitive voice comes up against a more liberating one. Our enlightened deist founders had to contend with those anal Puritans. Maybe the differences go beyond theology or politics.

If language is any bellwether, it’s no contest. Negative words far outnumber the positives. Google, which tallies our every utterance in some grand ledger, has it that un words swamp their counterpart by huge numbers. The bad to good ratio is 5 to 1, unhappy to happy 260 to 1. The Thesaurus lists twice as many synonyms for unpleasant as for pleasant.

Are we a species of sour pusses? Do we see out of jaundiced eyes? Why do we get such kicks from bad news, and ads from candidates which smear and scandalize their opponents? Make a vampire movie and they will come. The  lost, aggrieved, and seething anti-hero is favored over the Boy Scouts of America model every time. Flawed characters feel like us, perhaps that’s why. The late-great curmudgeon Oscar Levant once quipped that he was so guilt-ridden, when watching courtroom dramas and the judge ordered the defendant to rise he’d get up from the couch.

Freud and Oprah have consorted to encourage us to spill our guts. Anyone without a deprived childhood has been deprived. We are all in recovery. When asked at random for the intersecting event in their lives most people single out a death or trauma that forced them to be the way there are. Victimization is our default position and a vocabulary has been amassed to describe it. Cynicism has become to many what daffodils were to Wordsworth to paraphrase Phillip Larkin.

Maybe our negativity is an antidote to those insufferable happy faces, good fellow, well-met, painted smiles and happy endings. Perhaps skepticism is a natural response in a consumerist society with a built-in sniffer for hype and the inauthentic. Pessimism might be well-aligned with the decline of the American empire.

On the other hand it could be just a lag in language. Words for community, for caring, and all the varieties of love seem to have been nearly taken out of public discourse. We speak of childhood scars more than the nourishment we received. We are more fluent in varieties of despondency, despair, dejection, deceit and depression than in varieties of affection or the transcendence offered by art.

Boys have trouble using the word, love. If everything is described as awesome or cool the language becomes impoverished. Unlike Eskimos relation to snow we seem to lack the words to express empathy and compassion without risking ridicule.

Hallmark cards have pillaged the warm and fuzzy words and sucked the life out of them. They have raided the common tongue and now we mistrust sentiment. Writers seem more inclined to prowl the darkness than shine a light and critics hone their barbs rather than their faculty for appreciation. In the end, of course, life is a tender and clumsy dance with both violins and kazoos. We swallow the outsized myth of the super hero but have a paucity of words to describe simple acts of daily heroism.  

In spite of our inattention to preserving democracy and neglect over our resources it is too easy to convert the music of the spheres into a dirge. Revitalizing the lament can be an Ode to Joy as we discover nuggets in the sludge.

Now I should follow these words and hold my vituperative tongue against the new Confederacy and their slate of mendacious fools. But it comes so easily and if I swallow my rage I may break out in a rash. Besides, there is so much malignant about them that has earned my scorn. Maybe it is enough to know when to scowl and when to sing.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Color Wheel

Streets lavender with sudden jacarandas

lavish in their deceptive beauty 

of sticky, slippery flowers

cursed and extolled at once

exploding in loud declamations

of excess, purple as prose

hard to sweep from driveways of the mind

as those distant shadows of Ukraine

artillery gray with splotches of red hemorrhaging

each day a dark and stormy night

amber waves of wheat gone to

land mines and convoys in dark white smoke

while yellow trails of missiles scissor

blue skies seen through open roofs

against a green yearning

for return to the orange havoc of spring

and the unconditional victory of grass

along with apples and artichokes bursting

their baskets and bins in all their grandeur 

in this great spinning of the wheel.