Friday, June 28, 2013

The Importance of Being Inconstant

A foolish consistency, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, is the hobgoblin of little minds, to which I reply, yes, but…

Who among us doesn’t love his hobgoblins? Shakespeare had his Mid-Summer’s Puck. Where was Waldo when I needed him to remind me of my foolish consistency?

Back in the day when I knew everything life seemed so ordered. True or false. Natural or synthetic. Wars and ballgames were either won or lost. It was a matter of life or death to solve or resolve life’s puzzlements. Elementary, my dear whatshisname. If this, then that. Follow those breadcrumbs and step on it.

Now, I reserve the right to be wrong. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I agree with myself. On Tuesday and Thursday I’m not so sure. On weekends a third possibility pops up. Context changes.

Enter my hobgoblins. They leadeth me away from still waters. I wouldn’t have it otherwise. They have a nose for trouble and are faintly subversive. Catechism is consistent. Poetry is not. Astonishments are inconsistent. So are epiphanies and punch lines:

Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup/ It looks like the backstroke to me, sir.

Life is dissonant. Bring on the improv as in jazz or conversation, a Charlie Parker riff, the blurt, the flaw or mishagoss. The speckled banana is a narrative. The second banana with needless glasses and secret voice becomes first banana when the star slips on a banana peel.  Segues are turning to non-sequiturs. The sudden swerve in the road that takes me through a eucalyptus grove. The unscripted line when the phone doesn’t ring on cue.

The step by step argument leads to nowhere as in the cartoon of the construction worker building a staircase on a high rise and calling down, Escher, get your ass up here.

Before GPS we had maps in our glove compartments. They were carefully folded, like a well-conceived argument, into equal rectangles. Open them up and trace your journey. Then simply re-fold the paper according to the creases. Simply? Count me among those who struggled to restore the folds to their original flat, neat consistency. My hobgoblin won’t allow me. With the energy expended in the effort I could have written a blog.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mistaken Identity

Sylvia, I shouted across the outdoor patio of the restaurant. She didn’t turn around. I caught up to her bent over the familiar black walker, with the same profile, same blouse I’d seen Sylvia wear before. I said, Hi Sylvia, when she turned and said her name wasn’t Sylvia but she’d be glad to become her for a while if I insisted. I should have insisted.

Embarrassed, I return to my seat mumbling, Who is Sylvia? What is she? When a young man passing by said he sang that song on stage recently to which I replied, smugly, Two Gentleman from Verona. Things like this happen when you live in a small town like Los Angeles. It seems to be getting even smaller, at least in my diminishing mind. What if there were only 11 people in the world? All right, 37. It would make my life a lot easier.

I could have made two new friends at once but I returned to my table pondering my habit of mistaken identity. Everyone looks like someone else to me. I’m not at all sure I would recognize myself if I met me in an elevator. I’m often startled to look in the mirror. I know the guy looks familiar but I can’t quite place him.

Some of us like Redford or Newman keep the same face for a lifetime. No wonder they recognize themselves. Others like Pacino or Brando morph as if there was always another Al and Marlon waiting to emerge. A friend once remarked that she had married Roddy McDowell and ended up with Danny De Vito. 

Watching old movies I often blurt out to Peggy, that’s the same actor who was in so and so. I’m so sure we’ll bet $5.00. I’m always wrong. I’ve become her most reliable source of income next to Social Security.  

My friend, Fred, emails me faces of famous people to identify.  I’m batting well under 500. Give Jesus a haircut and I wouldn’t know him from Woody Allen. I might identify Mona Lisa with a mustache as Meryl Streep. At a police line-up I picked the wrong guy even though he had held me up twice and knew me on a first name basis.

About ten years ago several people mistook me for George Bush. I’ve never quite recovered from the trauma. Nobody, as far as I know, has mistaken me for Obama. It must be the ears. It’s small comfort to know there are others out there challenged with faces as I am. Someday one of them might mistake me for Sylvia.

Sylvia, you used to be short and fat. Now you’re tall and thin.

I’m not Sylvia.

And you were once female, now look at you.

I’m not Sylvia.

And you even changed your name.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Trouble in Far-Away Places

You don’t hear much about Labrador these days. Google it and you get eleven pages on Labrador retrievers and 2 articles about the country.  In fact it isn’t a country. It isn’t even a province. Labrador is part of the province in Canada known as Newfoundland-Labrador. It is twice the size of the island but has only 8% of the population. Most folks live in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.    

Labrador could fit inside Nevada. The climate varies from polar to sub-arctic, not a choice spot for beach volleyball or even a frozen yogurt though the views are spectacular. It is probably a great place for a witness-protection program and a certain destination if you are a polar bear. There are currently 28,000 people living there and 100,000 moose. Here’s something you didn’t know: Moose are the most dangerous animal in North America. Why? Because they are taller than cars, drawn to headlights and if you should hit one expect 1,100 plus pounds to fall through your windshield.
Another tidbit: in 1943 German submarines gained their only foothold in North America establishing a weather station in the northern tip. It wasn’t discovered until 1980.

And tell me again why I want to know all this? You want to know because the indigenous people are Inuit and Innu and they warrant our attention. Greenland is also 90% Inuit and their relationship with mother country Denmark was recently the subject of the internationally acclaimed Danish series on political intrigue, Borgen, now shown on public television.

Greenland, and thanks for asking, is considered part of North America but has been colonized by European countries for a millennium. Four years ago it was granted some measure of autonomy. It is the least densely populated country in the world and the largest island, ideal for U. S. nefarious acts such as rendition in which terrorist suspects are abducted and whisked away for interrogation and worse.
Over twenty countries, including Ireland, Italy, Iceland and Lithuania have taken part in these extraordinary inquisitions. Kudos to Danish TV for bringing to light their own involvement. The program also addressed the plight of the native people in Greenland where the suicide rate ranks highest. As a virtual colony of Denmark their identity has been severely compromised.

Greenland is not the size of South America as it appears on many maps. It is about the area of Belgium, Norway and Denmark combined. But Greenlanders are a proud people racially aligned with other arctic inhabitants. Their territory should not be a repository for our extrajudicial, muscular hegemony.
As for the Labrador retrievers they are the most popular dog in the U.S., Canada, Australia and U.K., so named for their retrieval of fishing nets. Bred from mastiffs and St. John water dogs, their name may, one day, become symbolic, helping to retrieve the culture of their homeland. As the polar ice cap melts Labrador and Greenland could witness a population-boom along with a new sense of empowerment and win their struggle for full sovereignty.

See how much more you know now than you did five minutes ago.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Don't Speak

If you have nothing to say the very least you can do is to shut up. So said Tom Lehrer. I thought of these wise words as the four of us got up at intermission and left the theater. It was a filmed version of the British play, The House, unrelenting, vacuous bombast, loudly delivered. I could hardly wait to get into the silence of traffic, all things being relative. Evidently the staging was purposefully rendered to depict political in-fighting in the House of Commons during the years leading up to Margaret Thatcher, not unlike our own. It is the sound of backroom legislative dysfunction. At least our Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell both appear to be on heavy sedation as they whisper their bluster. If nothing else they have learned the power of the under-statement. Unfortunately most Senators are suspicious of silence.

Inquisitional hawks often regard a dignified silence as admission of guilt, in spite of the Fifth Amendment. We are supposedly protected against self-incrimination but this hasn’t stopped Congress from issuing contempt citations against witnesses with sealed lips.
There are times when less is more and silence is better yet. My college professor used to say, Why not keep your mouth shut and let us just think you’re stupid instead of opening it and removing all doubt?

Jack Benny perfected silence. When asked at gunpoint for, your money or your life, the pregnant pause was one of radio’s finest moments. We could see his face through the speakers, deliberating. His timing was impeccable, I’m thinking, I’m thinking.
Vin Scully is another master of the mike. Given as he is to interject a moment of poetry now and then to elevate the broadcast of the ballgame he also knows when to allow the crowd noise to speak volumes. Yasiel Puig, the new Dodger phenom, had just hit a grand slam home run and Scully refrained from any histrionic verbiage. All the adjectives had been used up. He simply gave us thirty seconds of silent wonderment to soak it all in.

The master-sleuth Sherlock said to his companion, You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It make you invaluable as a companion. We all know about keeping silent from our vast experience solving crime from the couch:

Come clean, Mugsy. You have the right to remain silent….but we know you did it. Your prints are on the wheelchair you rolled down the stairs with your partner in it. And we have two witnesses.
Listen inspector, you damn well know those prints are partial and smudged and the witnesses were across the street, in the shadows and without their glasses.

There is a nobility to silence. We need more of it particularly in this age of saturation chatter. Our most intimate moments are being together wordlessly. Woody Allen caught that well in his movie, Bullets Over Broadway. Dianne Weist and John Cusack in a hilarious love scene:
She: No, No, don’t speak. Please don’t speak. No. No. No.
He: Just one…..
She: No, don’t speak







Thursday, June 6, 2013

Say What?

You have a banana in your ear.

What did you say? I can’t hear you. I have a banana in my ear.

Decibels are dropping off as I speak and the sound is deafening. It seems like everyone I know is losing their hearing. And I’m one of them. I can hardly hear myself think.
Choosing a lunch place has become a weighty decision. We have to arrive either before or after the crowd. 11:30 assures us a booth in the corner but 2:30 guarantees a near-empty room. My favorite time is when they are changing light bulbs or mopping up with ammonia. Otherwise everything on the menu tastes like noise. Lip-reading across the table doesn’t work. I find myself laughing before the punch line or agreeing to something I just disagreed with. Soon I’ll only meet with people whose voice has the timbre of a bass baritone.

M tells how he tried many hearing-aids without success. When his friend of fifty years died he decided to ask his widow if he might try his late friend’s hearing aid. She agreed and it works like no other had in the past.  I told this story to F and he said, Let me know when M dies. 
One by one my friends are all wearing hearing-aids or should, but some of us are too vain or too cheap to lay out the $4000 to $7000. It’s a growth industry. We all have too much Stan Kenton stuck in our ears or Tijuana Brass. I should have settled for Nat Cole or, God forbid, Guy Lombardo.

I’ll have the Chef salad but hold the feta.
Did you say I should fold your letter?

No, he said he sold your sweater.

Let me have two eggs scrambled.

I didn’t know Peggy gambled.

Instead of fries, a side of slaw.

Your appetizer tastes too raw?

Restaurants are afraid of silence as if someone would think it’s a Christian Science reading Room. They want the buzz, the illusion of busy. They turn up the music, amplify the chatter, let the place rock.  Damn the acoustics. Don’t they know there are more and more of us not quite ready for assisted living? It isn’t only that high decibels agitate our innards but some of us still remember conversation. How else can we hear about each other's latest infirmity or as T put it ...quiet the din so we can hear the organ recital.







Sunday, June 2, 2013

Film as Message

Movies have always been seen as escape. Fred and Ginger danced us through breadlines and the Dustbowl. From Oz to far-away galaxies we have gone to the big screen to slip out of this world for a few hours.

If you want to send a message, Samuel Goldwyn famously proclaimed, call Western Union. I would argue that images carry content, more than the stuff of dreams. There is often a sub-text of what is there and what isn't, that contains the presumptions we hardly question and values to which we aspire, from Lucy’s antics to Tracy’s rock-solid decency, to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo’s right to cross the street; from James Dean’s smolder to Brando’s mumble to the anchorman’s shout in Network that he’s not going to take it anymore. 

We were saturated with depictions of blacks as either sainted maids or satanic pimps. Intellectuals were ineffectual egg-heads. Women had to choose between a career or the kitchen. Vigilante justice has always been the preferred method for fighting evil.

Sixty years ago, in the McCarthy days, several great films were made responding one way or the other to the Hollywood Blacklist. All were high drama with memorable performances written, directed or produced by figures directly involved in the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
High Noon, told in real time, was written by Carl Foreman and produced by Stanley Kramer. It starred Gary Cooper as the sheriff, abandoned by the town-folks, confronting the thugs riding into town to exact revenge. Foreman had been an unfriendly witness before the committee. It was his way of calling out those who turned away from standing up to the witch hunt. Kramer was a liberal film-maker who went on to produce several movies including Judgment at Nuremberg and The Defiant Ones.

Gary Cooper testified as a friendly witness before the Committee but did not offer any names. He later came out against the blacklist. High Noon won four Academy Awards and is number 27 on the American Film Institute’s list of great American films. It has elicited a wide response from notable people. John Wayne hated it because it wasn’t his idea of how a sheriff should act, getting help from his Quaker wife. In fact as a rebuke to High Noon he made Rio Bravo with a real man (like himself) as sheriff, not some weakling like Sheriff Cooper who asked for help from his fellow citizens. Cooper was also a Conservative. Ironically when he won the Oscar that year it was John Wayne who accepted for him.

In 1971 Marian Morrison (AKA John Wayne) got a few opinions off his chest in a Playboy interview. He said, I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership to irresponsible people. As for American Indians he offered this great insight… they were selfishly keeping all that land for themselves.

Surprisingly, Ronald Reagan praised High Noon. Dwight Eisenhower loved it and played it frequently at the White House and Bill Clinton screened it 17 times. In their infinite wrong-headedness the USSR condemned it as a glorification of the individual while the American Left hailed it for rendering a crisis of conscience for the sheriff and the suggestion that it takes a village to confront wrongdoing.

Another highly acclaimed film made two years later was On the Waterfront written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan both of whom testified before the House Committee, named names and ruined careers. The theme was the struggle over being a snitch and revealing union corruption to the court. Brando could have been a contendah but was an informer instead. It was set up as justification for their role as informants and a plea for exoneration. Whether Kazan and Schulberg really believed the leftists posed a threat or they were just out to save their own skin in Hollywood is up for speculation.
In any case movies are often embedded with ideology which passes un-noted and may not even be deliberate. Every story has implicit within, a set of precepts and choices which point to a reinforcement of received values or present a challenge.

It occurs to me that my references above are rather dated. Much has changed and much hasn’t. Certainly independent films have found an audience. We are enjoying a golden age of documentaries. And there is a new consciousness around race and gender. While the roles for women reflect more options I don't see the feminine principle entering into full play. Instead we get female characters asserting themselves with masculine aggression. Perhaps empathy and forgiveness have no place in a society riddled with fear, loathing and a bent toward the punitive.
Media in general pleads the case that it merely gives what the public demands. They absolve themselves from any part in creating that demand. It should come as no surprise that cinema is an extension of America’s position as a superpower. Just as I grew up thinking that most people wore tuxedos today’s films reflect our leisure and affluence largely ignoring low-wage jobs and long hours.  We police the world, blow up bad guys and get the girl. If you don’t believe it just go to the movies.