Forty-seven years ago today – on January 30, 1969 – for 42 minutes. Until the coppers told them to turn it down. That doesn’t make me feel old. Nah.
On this date – January 21 – in 1793, Louis XVI is executed by guillotine.
There had been executions during the French Revolution prior to Louis’s execution, but from the moment his kingly head left the royal body, rolling off the guillotine – only to be snatched up by a teen-aged executioner’s assistant and brandished for the crowd, which roared approval and dipped their handkerchiefs in Louis’s blood – it was game on in the Reign of Terror.
When the Reign of Terror was over – a year and a half later –16,595 French had died by guillotine and another 25,000 had been executed by other means. Among the dead were Saint Just and Robespierre – principal architects of The Terror – along with Marie Antoinette and tens of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen. That’s a lot of carnage in a nation with a population then of about twice the size of Los Angeles County now. Carnage carried out in the service of Belief.
When I read of something horrible happening – the latest ISIS outrage or the tragic Charlie Hebdo killings of a year ago, the Harrods bombing or the Munich Olympic massacre in more distant times – I feel anger and sorrow, of course, but I don’t find what happened “inexplicable” and I’m never especially surprised. I guess that’s because I know history. Human history. I think of the French Revolution or – closer to home – the behavior of small-town crowds at lynchings, crowds that were composed of my fellow Americans who worked and played and raised families during the time when my grandparents were alive. Crowds composed of one group of people who Believed a second barely-distinguishable-from-them group of people were Other, less than them, people to be feared.
And, while devoutly wishing that the perpetrators of the latest forms of Terror be caught and punished, I try not to demonize them. The way, for instance, that those perpetrators demonized their victims. It’s hard, but I try.
How sad, I think, that we humans still do these things. And still in the service of Belief.
Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.
By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”
Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as “failing to live up to the original.”
Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.
I like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni). The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”
I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.
Constantin Stanislavski (January 17, 1863 – August 7, 1938)
Stanislavski didn’t just talk the talk – or write it in the series of books (beginning with An Actor Prepares) that serve as the foundation for acting training – he trod the boards himself as an accomplished and gifted stage actor. So much for those who can’t, teach. Stanislavski could and did.
At age 14, he began appearing in plays put on by his rich artsy family. He got his first training at home and his family was one of the wealthiest in Russia. So much, too, for having to “struggle” for your art. A little money can provide an artist with a good start and comes in handy later on … when the rent is past due, for instance, and you’re still in rehearsal.
And young Constantin does not appear to have suffered much, although he did need to conceal his true ambitions from his aristocratic relatives. They enjoyed their amateur theatricals, but would have been appalled by the idea of Stanislavski becoming a professional actor. He hid this fact from them until 1896, the year before when – at age 34 – he cofounded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.
Life became more difficult after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when most of Stanislavski’s money and assets were seized by the new Soviet Union and he was exhorted to put on “socialist realist” dramas. Stanislavski declined, continuing to produce and direct plays only to his liking until very near the end of his life (when he finally succumbed to Stalinist pressure). And he wrote the books. Which are still read.
But acting was Stanislavski’s first love. And it is acting – his – that I celebrate today.
P.S. You might have seen this post before … on January 5th to be exact … which is Stanislavski’s birthday on the old Julian calendar, the dating system that Russia used when Constantin was born. I pulled it to repost it on his birth date according to the Gregorian calendar, which we use and which Russia switched to eventually after it became the Soviet Union. Do you think Stanislavski was pissed when he lost those 12 days? I mean, how do you “prepare” for that?
Book Lovers: Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg, reading, 1969.
His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.
David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books
- The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
- The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
- Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
- The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
- Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
- A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
- The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
- Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
- The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
- Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
- Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
- Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
- David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
- Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
- The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
- Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
- Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
- Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
- Money, Martin Amis, 1984
- White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
- Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
- The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
- A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
- A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
- Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
- Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
- Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
- Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
- Viz (magazine) 1979 –
- The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
- Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
- In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
- Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
- The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
- Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
- Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
- Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
- Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
- In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
- Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
- The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
- The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
- Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
- The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
- Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
- Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
- In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
- City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
- Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
- Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
- The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
- The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
- The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
- A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
- Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
- Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
- On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
- Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
- Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
- The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
- All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
- Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
- The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
- On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
- The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
- Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
- A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
- The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1948
- The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
- Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
- The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1944
- The Outsider, Albert Camus, 1942
- The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
- The Beano, (comic) 1938 –
- The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, 1937
- Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
- English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1934
- Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
- The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
- Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
- As I lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
- The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1930
- Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
- Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
- The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
- BLAST, ed. Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15
- McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
- Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1896
- Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont, 1869
- Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
- Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
- Inferno, from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, about 1308-1321
- The Iliad, Homer, about 800 BC
Read. Twiggy (aka Lesley Hornby) with book, circa 1966.
Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412 – 30 May 1431)
An illiterate French peasant girl devoted to Catholicism, Joan of Arc was 16 years old when she got out of an arranged marriage to a dude she didn’t like, split for a nearby town (where she convinced the locals she was “the virgin who would save France” of folk myth), and got an audience with King Charles where she persuaded him that she spoke to archangels and they answered her back. She went to war against England in men’s clothes and bobbed hair, led French troops to victories in the endless crock of shit known as the Hundred Years War, fell into enemy hands and was tried on trumped-up charges including everything from heresy to cross-dressing to stealing a horse. Joan was 19 when the Brits burned her at the stake.
Joan of Arc – nicknamed the Maid of Orleans – is France’s national creation story. She is promoted by many as a feminist symbol … or at least a better role model than Paris Hilton. In 1920, she was awarded saint status by the Catholic Church. Joan has also – with the exception of Jesus – inspired more works of art than anyone in Western history, providing the basis for a raft of novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, operas, oratorios, pop songs, tapestries, paintings and sculptures. Not to mention screensavers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.
A brief list of Joan’s Greatest Hits would include Henry VI, Part I (1590, where good Englishman, William Shakespeare, makes her the villain); the painting Joan of Arc at Prayer by Peter Paul Rubens (1620); Voltaire’s savage epic poem The Maid of Oranges (1756) and its sympathetic answer from Friedrich Schiller in The Maid of Orleans (1801); the two operas based on the Schiller play by Verdi in 1845 and Tchaikovsky in 1878; Mark Twain’s neglected, uncharacteristically earnest novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); Joan as Chicago labor leader in Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1930); the Leonard Cohen single “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate (1970); and the two-part Joan the Maiden (1994) by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette.
I am one of the five people who like Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), primarily because of the lovely natural portrayal of Joan by Jean Seberg (in her 1st movie) who was panned at the time but whose performance in retrospect seems almost the film’s only good one. The 1923 George Bernard Shaw play – upon which the Preminger movie was based – is the best stage presentation of Joan’s trial (drawing on actual transcripts) and one of Shaw’s finest works. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc is an artistic experience with few equals. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance is so compelling that not only do you believe Joan heard voices, you start hearing them yourself … and it’s a silent film.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention former Go Go Jane Weidlin as Joan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and the boys’ friendly greeting, “Welcome aboard, Miss Arc.” And the theme song from the Seventies TV series Maude, which has a line that sums it all up: “Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her/she was a sister who really cooked.”
On this date in 2006, three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, its former dictator, Saddam Hussein, was executed just before dawn at the joint Iraqi-American military base called Camp Justice. The official reason given for Saddam’s death sentence was 148 murders of Iraqi Shiites that he ordered committed in Dujail in response to an assassination attempt.
Hussein’s request to be killed by firing squad was rejected and he was hung instead. There were reports of jeering from the onlookers and some minor mutilation of the corpse, but the scene was unsensational by the standards, for instance, of lynchings in the American South. It’s important to keep these things in perspective.
Saddam Hussein was a bad and brutal man. Very few people, including me, shed tears at his demise. But he had been sold to the American people by our government as the world’s number one threat, a potential nuclear terrorist, and somehow responsible – in spirit if not deed – for the 9/11 attacks. We were told it would be a relatively safe war with relatively few casualties on both sides. And, with the achievement of a greatly stabilized Middle East, the war would practically pay for itself.
As of today, 4,495 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and more than 30,000 have been wounded while estimates of Iraqi deaths go as high as 1.5 million. A study released in March of 2013 concluded that the Iraq War has cost the American people $2 trillion already and that the total bill – with interest and continued albeit diminished involvement – could top $6 trillion. Oh, and that greatly stabilized Middle East has, among other things, produced ISIS.
The execution of Saddam Hussein – carried out eleven years ago today – just might be the most expensive hanging in history.
Charles Dickens was up against it when he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol (1843). He was 31 and already a celebrated author, but he had big debts, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child, and his publisher had just sued him for the printing costs of his latest serialized novel – Martin Chuzzlewit – sales on the initial installments of which had been less than half that of The Old Curiosity Shop two years earlier.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, then put up his own money to have it printed. He managed to get his book into stores before Christmas … but just barely … on December 19th. Not that there was much of an Xmas buying season back then – there was hardly an Xmas – and the latter-day commercialization of the holidays would have appalled young Charles. He was all about getting together with family and friends, feasting, singing, dancing, wishing each other well … things that can’t be ordered from Amazon … like generosity of spirit and charity to the poor.
A Christmas Carol was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially, but it didn’t solve Dickens’s money problems. In the short term, it added to them. There had been cost overruns on the production and there were soon pirated editions all over England. Dickens himself had to sue the pirates, who promptly filed bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay legal fees of $60,000 in today’s money. What his book did achieve, however, was to formalize an English revival of celebrating Christmas – then underway – and to give it, at least initially, a social purpose.
A Christmas Carol is structured as a Christian allegory – using staves instead of chapters, for instance – and the word “carol” originally meant a song of praise to God. It is a humanistic, distinctly Dickensian form of Christianity that the book espouses, however. One that preaches good works … and more good works … and never quite gets around to praying or going to church. The ghost of Jacob Marley wanders the earth dragging heavy chains because he was miserly and selfish and rude – one helluva greedy son-of-a-bitch – not because he was profane or gay or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol or put other Gods before Him.
It’s no stretch to imagine Jacob Marley, in his ghostly wanderings, bumping into Ayn Rand or Sam Walton or, one day soon, the Koch brothers. Not to mention a few Republican candidates for President. But A Christmas Carol teaches us that as long as there is life, it’s not too late to change. And even the worst sort of Marleys can become Scrooges – the Scrooge of the book’s final stave – who begin using their money for good.
They have nothing to lose but a few tax deductions. And their chains.
Edgard Varese (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965)
Avant-garde French composer Edgard Varese left behind only about three hours of finished music … approximately five seconds of which could be considered melody … but they might well be the most influential three hours in music history, inspiring everything and everyone from electronic music and jazz fusion to Babbitt, Cage, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn.
Varese immigrated to the United States in 1915 – two years after the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and took up with other French expatriate avant-garde figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. It was Varese’s intent as a maker of music to “let in all sounds, sounds which up to now—and even today—have been called noises.”
He achieved this goal in a series of unique, surprisingly popular compositions beginning with Amériques for large orchestra in 1921 and concluding with Poème électronique for electronic tape in 1958. He eschewed the term “music” for his work, preferring “organized sound.”
The record label Varese Sarabande, which was formed in 1978 and is now dedicated to film scores and cast albums, was named after him.
Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)
It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen – I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.
Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off. She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.
Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.
These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I. He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.
Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.
Ford Madox Ford (17 December 1873 – 26 June 1939) – Writer and Friend
In his literary publications English Review and Transatlantic Review, Ford Madox Ford debuted or published the work of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Rhys, Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy, Gertrude Stein, H.G. Wells, and Henry James among many others. He was Joseph Conrad’s mentor and collaborator on his first works.
It is difficult to imagine modernism (or, for that matter, 20th century literature) without Ford Madox Ford’s tireless promotion and generous support. Most of the writers he assisted paid him back by becoming more famous than Ford, a couple of them slept with his wife, and Hemingway (whom he helped the most and who apprently never met a patron he didn’t betray) made fun of Ford in print and trashed him in person.
Ford Madox Ford might be literature’s illustration of “Nice Guys Finish Last,” but here’s the thing. He was a very great writer, who deserved to stand with those he helped. At age 40, he sat down to see what he could do himself and the result was a masterpiece, The Good Soldier (1915). Then, at 41, he enlisted in the British Army as an officer and saw a lot of action in World War I. He put those experiences into a series of five novels with the umbrella title Parade’s End (1924 – 1928) that is also a masterpiece and possibly the finest work of prose literature produced by the Great War.
Happy Birthday, Ford Madox Ford … a great writer and the better man.
P.S. That’s Ford in the photo on the end next to James Joyce, who is looking very Joycean and who is flanked by Ezra Pound, who is looking insane and vaguely fascist. The other man in the picture is John Quinn, the Irish-American art collector and lawyer who (among his many other accomplishments) defended Joyce’s Ulysses against charges of obscenity.
Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎, 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963)
If you’re ever tempted to believe that we humans are not all alike … that Grandma’s cooking, the amount of melanin in your skin, your religion or country of origin, the presence or absence of an epicanthic fold makes a big difference … spend a weekend watching Yasujiro Ozu’s films.
Ozu is the best director you’ve probably never heard of. His movies weren’t released in the West until the early 1960s, shortly before his death, and then mostly confined to art houses. But Ozu is one of the three great directors of Japan’s “classic period” – the contemporary and peer of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa – and one of the greatest world directors of all time.
Ozu violates some of the conventions of Western filmmaking (e.g., not always following the “180-degree rule” and rarely cutting on action) but I find his signature style the simplest of the great directors. For the most part, Ozu uses the same shot (from a low still camera), the same lens (a slightly distortive 50mm), and straight cuts. He never uses transitions and, as introduction to or punctuation between scenes, he employs what are called “pillow shots,” brief glimpses of exterior detail from a train station clock to a cumulus cloud. This device of the pillow shot is adapted from Japanese poetry and Ozu used it to create a film poetry all his own.
Ozu’s subject matter, too, is simple and relatively fixed. Domestic dramas that, on the surface, seem relatively minor variations on the theme of family ties. Generations butt heads, someone marries or wants to marry, established unions strain and spouses stray, someone leaves for a better job in a bigger city, someone dies, and – in Ozu’s finest film, Tokyo Story (1953) – aging parents visit children from whom they’ve grown apart,
Watch these families in Yasijuro Ozu’s movies and tell me they’re not your family, the families of relatives and friends, people whose families you know. Watch two or three of his elegant, beautifully composed films – about the mess of daily life – and tell me we’re not all the same.