Tuesday, December 23, 2008

haddy grimmble, randoob*

*From In His Own Write, by John Lennon:

Randolf's Party

It was Chrisbus time but Randolph was alone. Where were all his good pals. Bernie, Dave, Nicky, Alice, Beddy, Freba, Viggy, Nigel, Alfred, Clive, Stan, Frenk, Tom, Harry, George, Harold? Where were they on this day? Randolf looged saggly at his only Chrispbut cart from his dad who did not live there.

'I can't understan this being so alonely on the one day of the year when one would surely spect a pal or two?' thought Rangolf. Hanyway he carrie don putting ub the desicrations and muzzle toe. All of a surgeon there was amerry timble on the door. Who but who could be a knockingon my door? He opend it and there standing there who? but only his pals. Bernie, Dave, Nicky, Alice, Beddy, Freba, Viggy, Nigel, Alfred, Clive, Stan, Frenk, Tom, Harry, George, Harolb weren't they?
Come on in old pals buddys and mates. With a big griff on his face Randoff welcombed them. In they came jorking and labbing shoubing 'Haddy Grimmble, Randoob.' and other hearty, and then they all jumbed on him and did smite him with mighty blows about his head crying, 'We never liked you all the years we've known you. You were never really one of us you know, soft head.'

They killed him you know, at least he didn't die alone did he? Mery Chrustchove, Randolf old pal buddy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Weekend Update

DOUBT. There was a great article about Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sunday's New York Times. Here's the money quote:

In “Doubt,” for instance, which was originally a play, he is a Catholic priest who may or may not have been inappropriate with a young male student. He is suspected and accused by the principal of the parish school, a nun named Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep. “If I asked 10 people on the subway who I should cast for the older nun, they’d all say Meryl,” Shanley told me. “But I didn’t know what Phil would do with the part of Father Flynn, and that intrigued me. I did know that he would make Meryl sweat, that she would be up against someone of equal intelligence. Meryl is a street fighter, and she schemes as an actress — she wants to win the scene. Phil won’t play that way. He won’t engage. Before their big confrontation scene, Meryl would be muttering ‘I’m going to kick his butt’ for the entire crew to hear. She’d look at him and say, ‘I know you did it.’ And Phil would just laugh and say, ‘Meryl’s always trying to get in my head.’ ”

And she never does. But she sure gets into your head, which is one of the beauties of the movie. Run don't walk.

So did everybody have a party on Thursday night? Because I've talked to three different people who were out Thursday night, and all four of us had one of those the-hours-just-flew-by great-times-partying how-the-hell-did-it-get-to-be-2-AM nights.

OZ. Speaking of time flying by like nothing, I can't think of the last time I sat through a 3-hour movie and felt like it was 90 minutes long; unless it was last night, when I saw Australia. Apart from being totally fascinated by how immobile Nicole Kidman's face is (especially when she tries to express emotion; at this point she's the perfect choice to play Buster Keaton), this is one of those movies that gives melodrama a good name. Plus the theatre was packed for an early-evening Sunday performance, which is way unusual.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Yay Us! or, Why Aliens-Visit-Earth Movies Are Like Soviet Propaganda

Look! It's Neo John Constantine Klaatu!

One can have a delightful time riffing on the earnest balderdash at the heart of this remake reworking of the classic Robert-Wise-directed Day The Earth Stood Still. There's more than enough here to give a moderately-talented stand-up comedian a good 90 minutes worth of sure-fire jokes. Only 10 of which would be about Keanu Reeves, who has now achieved the apex of Schwarzeneggerite Acting. Just as Arnold always made his robot roles seem human and his human roles robotic, Keanu can always be counted on to make his aliens seem human and his humans act like fucking weird-ass aliens. As for the other 80 minutes? Where to begin? How about the so-called science? I mean really--casting John Cleese as someone who's won the Nobel Prize for Altruistic Biology? (That must have been the same year Enron won the Nobel for Selfish Economics.) And evidently the study of Altruistic Biology involves writing a lot of equations on a blackboard--y'know, like physics--except it's not physics, it's terrestrial biology, so how could an alien (a) understand the symbols and then (b) correct the errors? At least in the original, it was a problem in interstellar transportation. Here, the equation is never explained; for all we know it could be a recipe for chicken soup. Except that--wait--making soup from chickens wouldn't be altruistic, would it? And think about it: when was the last time you saw a biologist writing an equation? Correct answer: about the same time you saw your boss doing trigonometry during a sales conference. (Which would actually take place if Hollywood decided to make a movie about that sales conference. Count on it.)

One can also expend a Vietnam War's worth of ammunition attacking the so-called plot, in which an alien visitor comes to earth in order to give the UN a warning about how we're selfishly putting ourselves first instead of the planet, only to say, "Screw it, you don't deserve a warning, I'm scouring this planet of you and your stupid civilization," only to say, "Wait--you humans have another side to you, let's see if I can give you another chance," after a ten-year-old kid selfishly wants the alien to raise the kid's dead father from the grave and then cries because he can't get what he wants. Now there's a kid who's going to grow up cherishing the environment.

But the thing that really cheeses me off is something which should not surprise me at all at this point in my movie-going life, since it is a staple of all Hollywood-made science-fiction films (and far too many science-fiction novels)--namely, the not-so-subtle message which proclaims to the entire cosmos that "Being human is the best thing in the universe." Doesn't matter where the aliens are from, or how advanced they are. Once one of them spends five minutes in the company of us earthlings (preferably a human female; Lois Lane, anybody?), all that advanced alien intelligence takes second place to admiration and envy for our unique, incredible, top-notch mortality. It's the first commandment of all sci-fi movies: "We are the Human Race; thou shalt have no other races before us." We get second chances when we don't do anything to deserve them; we get allies and friends when we do nothing but attack them; and we win over everybody (and everything) just because of who we like to think we are when we're at our best. It's sort of like being American, except that it's a species-wide delusion instead of a national one. Like in this movie, where we see an alien agent who's been living among us for 75 years proclaim that he is going to stay on the planet and suffer total annihilation because he's fallen in love with us. The fact that he's played by a Chinese actor sends the not-so-subtle message that just like everyone in the universe wants to be an earthling, everybody on earth wants to be an American.

I don't know about you, but just once I'd like to see a sci-fi movie where an alien impersonating a human for 75 years says "These earthlings suck! Get me out of here!" Just once I'd like to see an alien ambassador tell the United Nations: "We are nuking this fucking planet because if you yahoos ever get space travel, you'll kill us all." Just once I'd like to see Starman turn to Karen Allen and say "This thing you call love is the Stockholm Syndrome of breeding, and how stupid are you not to see it?" But no--I have about as much chance of seeing that in a movie with aliens as I do of seeing someone break the Second Commandment of Sci-Fi, which says: "Anyone who's immortal and could live forever secretly longs to age and die like a normal human being." (I'm looking at you, Hancock .)

Oh yeah, baby--aging and dying is the best. Ask any immortal. Just like being part of the Human Race is the best. Ask any alien. They all want to be us, love us, save us, or protect us. You know what that means humanity is? Not just a state of helpless promise, like a new-born baby; not just something which instills worship, love, and respect in total strangers--but something which compels everything it meets to worship it as the be-all and end-all of universal creation.

In other words, humanity worship is a virus that infects everything it touches. Now that's a sci-fi movie plot.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The line every guy wants to hear

"The truth is that you're a quiet, sensitive type but if I'm prepared to take a chance I might just get to know the inner you: witty, adventurous, passionate, loving, loyal, a little bit crazy, a little bit bad, but, hey, don't us girls just love that?"

Under Repair

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I played The Dark Knight Drinking Game, where you have to do a shot of Jameson's every time you see Heath Ledger's tongue.

Needless to say, after 20 minutes I had to be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

Friday, December 5, 2008

gold and silver

Where Ideas Come From

I've started reading Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathan Glover, and a little light went off in my head when I came to these lines on page 23:

"The idea of humiliating a blind beggar appals us. Narrow self-interest might lead someone to take the blind beggar's money away; retaliation would be unlikely, and there will be no social sanctions if no one else is around to see. But the idea disgusts most of us."

The light was like a flashbulb illuminating a picture: a blind beggar with a bowl in front of him, and in that bowl is a 20 dollar bill. Nobody else is in view. You walk up to the beggar, and you look down, and see the 20. What do you do? Do you take it? And if you don't, what's stopping you, if not some inner sense of morality that has nothing to do with religion, but just fellow-feeling for an unfortunate human being?

Then I thought, okay, what if you need 20 dollars? What if 20 dollars will buy you medicine that could save your life, and you're dead broke, and that 20 is right there for the taking? What do you do then? Wait--too selfish--what if it's not for you, but for your kid--your baby needs medicine and you need $20 to get it, $20 you don't have. Do you take the blind beggar's $20? And if you do, doesn't the fact that you need it for someone else make it okay? Like you could say to the blind guy, "You agree with me that saving a child with this $20 is a good thing; you'd let me take it if I asked you." It's as if the fact that there's a third party involved negates the idea of theft, because it's going towards something.

So then I went back to the original image of a blind beggar with a bowl. No possibility of unselfish rationalizations. There's going to be a $20 bill, and you either take it or you don't.

At which point I started turning it into a story. Blind beggar and bowl on an empty street; no one watching. The beggar is really blind. Person #1 walks by. Never looks at the beggar. Never acknowledges the beggar's existence. Eyes straight ahead, walks past the beggar and down another street corner. Gone.

Person #2 walks by. Sees the beggar. Stops. Pulls out a $20 bill. Drops it in the bowl. But because it's a bill, it doesn't make a sound, so the beggar doesn't know he's been given something. Person #1 frowns, grudgingly pulls out some change, throws that in the bowl as well. Beggar says "God Bless you" when he hears the change hit the bowl. Person #1 walks off satisfied, because his/her generosity has been recognized. Turns down a street corner. Gone.

The beggar and his bowl, as a breeze comes up. The breeze swirls down the street, and when it gets to the beggar, the $20 bill corkscrews out, floats like a leaf in the air for a moment, and then falls to the street outside the beggar's bowl.

Person #3 walks by. Sees the beggar. Sees the $20 bill outside the bowl. Hesitates for a moment, then keeps walking. Walks by the beggar. Stops, turns around, looks at the $20, maybe even starts to walk back; and then shakes his/her head, turns his/her back on the beggar, and walks down the street. He/she looks back once more before turning a corner and vanishing.

Person #4 walks by. Sees the beggar. Sees the $20 bill outside the bowl. Without hesitating for a second, he/she reaches down, takes the $20, and puts it back in the bowl, then heads down the street, turns a corner, and is gone.

Person #5 walks by. Sees the beggar. Sees the $20 bill inside the bowl. Without hesitating for a second, he/she reaches down, takes the $20, pockets it, heads down the street, never looks back, turns a corner, and is gone.

Five people; five different responses to the beggar and his bowl, and the beggar and his $20.

"So what happens next?" I ask myself. And my immediate response is, "The beggar gets up, takes off his black glasses or whatever he was wearing to convince people that he was blind, looks down the street where the five people were walking, and smiles." Which means that there's something bigger going on here. These five people are now part of a moral experiment, and the blind beggar is running it.

I wrote down a title ("Five Points"). I wrote down "Melville's Confidence Man" next to it, because this could be a modern version of that novel. Then I started making premise notes: "Five people get five different chances to show what they're made of. Five different moral/ethical choices. The first one: no one sees them (or because they think the beggar is blind, they believe no none is watching. Same thing.). Second choice: a stranger witnesses, and they all know they're being watched as they're being tested. Third one: a friend or acquaintance witnesses. Fourth one: whenever one is tested, the other four are the witnesses (establishing/connecting the groups at last). Fifth one: the world sees it, which means it's televised live or something.

"How does it end? No idea yet. What are the choices they face? No ideas yet. Who are the five? Good question. Say the fifth person, the one who steals the $20, is the best-dressed of all five, whether male or female, and visibly richer than the other four. Except possibly the first person, who would be on the same social scale as #5. For symmetry's sake, that means Person #4, who puts the bill back in the bowl, would be the poorest. Which leaves #2, the one who gives the $20, and #3, the one who sees and hesitates but keeps on going. The obvious choice would be a woman for that person, so let's go with a male. And this is just test #1, after all. In the other tests, the reactions of the five will differ depending on who's watching and what that means to each of them."

Which is where I stop making notes and drop my pen and shake my right hand because it's cramping up.

And that's where ideas come from.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


(Add this to the Countreie Matters discard pile: a scene-openiong monologue that stops the play dead:)

“You fought a battle and he won. He won her.”
Well he can have her. I will not be my uncle
And steal another man’s wife. I will not steal
Another man’s wife if she were Helen of Troy.
I will do nothing. And the world will think
That I am weak and must be pigeon-hearted.
Tomorrow the King of Denmark shall be married
And Hamlet takes a wife. By doing nothing.
If the King turns and runs away? He is
A coward. And if Hamlet stands and thinks
“All will be well?” Then he too is a coward.
So what is bravery then, when saying no
And saying yes are the twin children of
Timidity? Is valor in the act
Itself? Is heroism standing up
When lower men sit down, or charging forward
When slower mean hang back? It is the man
Who moves that the world looks up to –- the man
Of action who’s courageous, not the man
Who silent stands and lets the moment pass
Like Hamlet. Who can I be but myself?
I’m not a man who dares death for an eggshell.
I am a man who thinks about the egg,
The chicken, the barnyard, the farmer --
The history of agriculture and
The cumulative effects of drought and flooding
On crop rotation. And then dreams about
The farmer’s wife, like she was Helen of Troy.

copyright 2008 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


DOCTOR HURT:“Bruce! I am your father!”
DC EDITORIAL: “Not if we have anything to say about it.”

Grant Morrison’s run on Batman began back when the Cedar Tavern was still open, which means it’s taken more than 24 months to publish 17 issues and fulfill Morrison’s promise of an event that will shake Batman continuity to the core:

"When we begin to suspect the identity of the villain, I think it's the most, like I said the other day, it's possibly the most shocking Batman revelation in 70 years."

Sorry, Grant, but the only revelation in Batman 681 is that you need to read another bunch of comic books to find out how the story ends, which is so typically DC they ought to patent it. So why am I so cheesed off about this that I keep trying to think of a good image equating DC with the hooker who promises sex but never delivers, or the drug that never really gets you as high as your dealer says it will, or the event that never lives up to the promise of its advance billing? Why, with all of DC editor Dan DiDio’s relentless insistence on story and character whenever he’s interviewed, do story and character continually take second-place to a micro-managed, event-driven cross between continuity porn and fan fiction? Obvious answer: because it sells. Other obvious answer: because the so-called “characters” of the DC universe are properties first and people second. This means that they cannot change like real people, cannot grow old and die, cannot grow at all, because their existence is tied to a branded and marketable commodity whose recipe, like that of Coca-Cola, cannot be deviated from. It can only be refined. Which in character terms means that the same old stories get told in greater and greater detail, until continuity becomes an exercise in fractal mathematics.

Which is why there was probably no other way the RIP storyline could end except with a death that is so obviously not a death that only stupid people in a comic book universe will believe it. Like Dick (Nightwing) Grayson, for instance:

Hey! That full-pager reminds me of something. Something like this:

Right – the final page of Batman 658, which ended the Batman and Son arc. And killed a couple of people just as unlethally as Bruce Wayne gets killed in Batman 681. I’d like to think this echo is authorially deliberate, but with the delays and the artist shuffle, part of me believes that DC Editorial took Morrison’s original ending and tweaked it, or had Morrison tweak it. And isn't Batman supposed to get gunned down in front of Damien? That's the way it's told in Batman 666:

And yes, this is the legend of the Batman, but still -- a bloody death in Crime Alley sure makes for that circular the-end-is-the-beginning tale that clever authors love to try to pull off whenever they can. Possibly Morrison's original intention? Hard to say. But the fact that I'm continually reaching for the "editorial interference" card means that I can't help saying "Who dealt this mess?" Especially when I read the "I am Thomas Wayne" stuff.

I don't know about you, but there's something awkward about all that dialogue, like it was originally clear and then got rewritten to the point of being deliberately vague. "I am your father." "No you're not." "Then the only alternative is dot dot dot." Which is why a lot of people think that this guy is the devil incarnate. Which means the most shocking revelation in 70 years of Batman continuity is that Bruce Wayne is Jesus Christ. Which would explain the immortality angle in this full-pager, right?

Snark aside, I shouldn't have to feel like the kid who has to explain "No soap -- radio!" when I read a supposedly-self-contained comic book story. I have no idea who the villain really is, or what all the talk about wearing other people's skins is about except that Morrison used that in The Invisibles and maybe he's doing a Stephen King Dark Tower thing here, fitting all his disparate little floppy writings into a consistent universe. Good luck with that, Grant. But as someone who over-intellectualizes everything, when you've got me scratching my head? You've already lost the normal audience. And if it was DC Editorial and not you behind this train wreck helicopter crash of an ending, than all I can say is: why do you hire writers when all you end up doing is rewriting their work?

Malcolm in the Middle: The Adult Years

Monday, December 1, 2008

Weekend Update

The day we give thanks we no longer live with our parents. Watched parade on TV? Check. Listened to "Alice's Restaurant?" Check. (Thanks, Tommy!) Avoided watching football? Check. Side dish forgotten and never served for dinner? Check. Turn-around-twice-and-it's-Christmas clock pushed into overdrive? (December? Already?!?) Check.

Batman: RIP. More later, but seriously -- wtf? Check out the comments here, and meanwhile ponder the fact that Grant Morrison is now responsible for both the defining Superman and dumbest Batman storyline ever.

Tamara Drewe. And just to clean your graphic novel palate after the balderdgoulash of Batman: RIP, check out this modern adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd through a David Lodge lens. British author Posy Simmonds has brewed up a clever mix of test and artwork, with pinpoint characterisations told through a multitude of pitch-perfect first-person voices. And once you've finished this, hunt down her earlier work in the same vein, Gemma Bovery.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Old habits/diehard

It’s safer to be friends with someone whom
I could adore –- safer for both of us.
If we’re just friends, then I can yearn for her
In silence and despair, which is the food
My soul has learned to savor and survive on.
That's how I love -- I always do the things
I know I'm good at -- giving without getting,
Reaching but never touching -- all the wrongs
I've learned to make a working right, because
I’m wired to live with failure, not success.
The only victory I know is losing,
So that’s what I play for each time I fall
For someone new. Which is safer for them
As well, because, this way, they’ll never know
The selfish lout I turn into when I
Act out of selfless love.

copyright 2008 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"That's a Smith and Wesson. And you've had your six."

When James Bond first hit the screen he was a cold killer under a suave veneer. The balance is perfect in Dr No, and swings a little to the veneer side in From Russia With Love, before finally starting to stiffen and solidify into all-veneer all-the-time from Goldfinger on, reaching a mummified climax in the Roger Moore years, when the double-0 became a license to utter glib puns after being replaced with a stunt double. The first attempt at a return to the roots was when Timothy Dalton brought a Healthcliffian darkness to the role, but after three* films he was even less memorable than George Lazenby in the public’s eyes (though not in mine). Dalton’s darkness was picked up by Pierce Brosnan in his tenure, but by Brosnan’s last Bond film the veneer had reasserted itself with invisible cars, iceberg surfing, and a tossup for worst Bond moment ever between Madonna’s cameo and Madonna’s title song. Both of which make you yearn for that moment in Dr No when Connery, cigarette drooling from his lower lip, casually informs an attempted assassin that he's out of bullets with the immortal line "You've had your six," before shooting him in the heart the way another man would flick ash from a Parliament.

That's the spirit in which Daniel Craig currently embodies The Icon That Connery Built, first in Casino Royale and now in Quantum of Solace. Craig, who looks like the bastard child of Sting and Victor McLaglen, has about as much veneer as a ball peen hammer. He bulls his way through everything, but he's also a bull with a brain -- you can see him thinking as he's chasing that freaky runner in Casino Royale, figuring angles and approaches. And there are moments in each movie where you can see him becoming the Bond we know, the know-it-all babe-bedder with a bullet and a wisecrack for every occasion. But he's not that Bond, at least not yet; which is why, I think, this movie has gotten such a lukewarm reception from the film critics.

It seems to me that the same reviewers who cried "Wow -- we're watching Bond become Bond!" when Casino Royale came out are now whining "Where's the Brosnan panache? Where's the arcane knowledge of Andalusian wines? Where's the meaningless sex? Cripes, he doesn't even tongue kiss the female lead!" In other words, they're tired of the origin story already; they want to fast forward to the golden years --or in this case, flashback to Goldeneye. Don't show us Prince Hal learning the ropes; skip right to the part where he's the King.

What they all seem to have missed is that this movie, even more than Craig's first one, is setting up a group called Quantum as a SPECTRE/SMERSH for the 21st Century, a group that destabilizes governments, has a finger in every illegal and political pie, and whose line agents can be anyone, no matter how trusted. And the mysterious Mr White (the guy who got shot at the end of Royale) looks to be its Blofeld. There's a key scene in Solace where Bond forces his enemies to break cover and reveal themselves -- all but Mr White, who keeps his cool (and his seat) like the mastermind and survivor he presumably is. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to find him stroking a white cat in the next flick.

As for Bond 22, as it was known in pre-production? It's fast, dark and dirty, with very little to laugh at. The action scenes are little too Bourne-blurry. There's no climactic release or revenge scene -- a major death occurs offscreen, two key conversations are only referred to after the fact -- but there's also no gratuitious silliness. Solace advances and deepens everything we thought we knew in Royale, upping the stakes as it ties up some loose ends, unfurls a few more to be tied up in the next movie, and totally isolates Bond and M (and Felix Leiter) as the only trustworthy souls in a world corrupted by accomodation and evil. In other words, it's The Two Towers. The character of Bond is still in mid-journey. He doesn't even know where Mordor is, never mind who's sitting on the Dark Throne. (I say nine men at a round table, the Nine Unknown who secretly rule the world.) But he'll smash his way through Middle-Earth until he finds it.

There's also a timely political subtext to the film. Craig's Bond is a thuggish blunt instrument who may dress like the tony rich but would never be mistaken for one of them any more than he would consider respecting any of them. You don't find the villains in dark alleys in this film -- you find them at the opera house, hiding amongst their own. They're the real rulers of the world and therefore the real reason why the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And Bond doesn't so much have a license to kill as a license to go rogue in order to get the job done. The system is broken, and the only person who can fix it is someone who's working from the outside, not the inside. Anybody inside is potentially corrupt. Can the rogue agent do it? Can he beat the bad guys? Repeat after me: Yes he can.

So what can we hope for in Bond 23? I can think of 6 things:

1. The producers ignore the critics and go right on doing what they've been doing, rebuilding the character and the franchise from the ground up.

2. No Moneypenny or Q. Has anybody missed them these last two movies? I know I haven't.

3. A better opening song. If the franchise lasts another 46 years, I will give you any odds you like that this movie's title song, "Another Way To Die," will still be the shittiest Bond song ever written. Madonna is now totally off the hook for "Die Another Day," and should pay Jack White accordingly.

4. Quantum becomes to MI6 what Thrush was to UNCLE, which means that

5. Craig's Bond has to go up against his opposite number on the other side, an agent just as clever and ruthless as he is (think Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love). Which would make a fitting climax to not just a movie but a trilogy which would logically end in

6. The return of the king. *See comment below--this should be two, not three.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Self Esteem

There are days when the only way that I
Can look at myself in the mirror with
Something like pride is after I do something
So stupid that a normal man would turn
His head away in shame. But in the eyes
Of that man staring back at me, I see
The pride of a professional, a look
That says, "This is the one thing I do best,
My friend -- hurt and betray the friends who trust me,

So I can hold my head up."

Copyright 2008 Matthew J Wells

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nicole Atkins at the Bowery Ballroom 11/14/08

The usual ten-times-better-live-than-on-CD show, with only two drawbacks: the final perfomance of keyboardist Dan Chen with the band, and the creepy stalkerish asshole up front who kept yelling "We love you Nicole!"after every song. Credit him with making this the first (and hopefully last) conversationless live show Atkins has ever given; you could tell she was weirded out by the whole thing. Good news: after an Asbury Park show the day before Thanksgiving, Ms Neptune City is taking time off to work on the next album. Better news: one of the new songs is called "The Tower," and listening to it was like like watching an emotional vocano erupt with a year's worth of therapy sessions compressed into a five-minute primal scream. Devastating.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fool's Gold

Sometimes you only want another person
Not for herself, not because who she is,
But because there is some deep love-shaped hole
In you that can be filled by anyone;
And then, because that person is just like
A makeshift bridge across the void, you walk
All over her, and wonder why she hates it.

Copyright 2008 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remnick/Stoppard Part 2

[Part one can be found here.]

REMNICK: How much fussing do you do with actors?

STOPPARD: A great deal, actually. I always tell the actors, it is never too late to improve a translation. At the closing in London, yes, that will be too late. But up until then? As a matter of fact I was dicking around with a couple of lines just the other day. The thing about writing a play is that one has to construct a functional utterance which serves the narrative utterance. Sometimes a sentence which has to be said to move the narrative is not what a person would say at that moment, so you keep going back and forth. Now when one is writing his own play, it’s an interesting brain thing. One gets something pretty much right, it’s fine, and once it’s done you come back to it and it never changes, one goes to bed thinking, “Okay, that part is done.” With a translation, one goes through the same process, one goes to bed thinking it’s pretty much right, it’s fine, and then when one wakes up and re-reads it, it’s as if the Estonian au pair had rewritten the script during the night. [LAUGHTER] Translation involves a reverberation, one is constantly experiencing certainty followed by an erosion of clarity, which is why one should never work on it for more than three hours. Any more than that and one is writing rubbish.

REMNICK: Let’s talk about Eugene Onegin. I know you think thaty Nabokov's translation is a total disaster, --

STOPPARD: I don’t think it is –- it is. [LAUGHTER] Nabokov spent years on it.

REMNICK: And it runs to several volumes and it’s totally accurate, but it’s not a very good translation.

STOPPARD: Actually the best translation out there is --

REMNICK: Charles Johnson

STOPPARD: Charles Johnson, yes.

REMNICK: Have you read the latest War and Peace?

STOPPARD: The new one?

REMNICK: The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, the husband and wife team –- she’s Russian, he’s American, and they live in Paris.

STOPPARD: I have read it; and that is actually the best way to do it. She knows Russian, he knows English – in my case it’s like I’m married to Helen Rappaport. I was talking to someone about this version recently, and he didn’t like it. And I said, “Yes, too accurate, isn’t it? You feel like you’re missing absolutely nothing.” Which is a case of aesthetics sacrificed to comprehensiveness.

REMNICK: They have several good translations –- Dostoevesky, Chekhov. But their Gogol is not very good.

STOPPARD: Gogol is difficult. There is one version by . . . [thinks for a moment] I’m hopeless with names nowadays. But I did come up with Gogol, give me that. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: What kind of preparation did you do for the Cherry Orchard translation? Did you read Chekhov’s stories, his diaries, his letters?

STOPPARD: I’ve been reading them for years.

REMNICK: Let’s talk about Coast of Utopia. A great deal of reading went into those three plays. How did you start? What inspired you?

STOPPARD: When it comes to creating a play, all that reading is a consequence of the ignition, not the ignition itself. This particular trilogy started with a paragraph in Isaiah Berlin about a Russian writer called Belinsky. When Belinsky was temporarily allowed outside Russia, and went to Paris, his friends begged him not to return because, if he did, his writing would be censored. But Belinsky hated Paris precisely because there was no censorship. He could have written anything he liked and no one would have noticed. In Paris, there were magazines and pamphlets everywhere, and none of them mattered. In Russia, students would line up and wait for the latest magazine to be published, and then twelve of them would share a manuscript and argue about it all night long in a coffee shop. “That is success,” said Belinsky. And I thought, “Well, there’s definitely a play in that.” I have always been interested in the fate of dissidents, and in fact in one of my recent plays [Rock ‘n’ Roll], I have a character who says in effect, “I’m better off in Prague in 1977 than London in 1977.” There’s that sense of samizdat literature, of smuggling typewritten sheets back and forth and in and out of the country.

REMNICK: You went to Russia to work on the Russian version of Utopia. Personally I found that in a country where nothing is allowed, everything matters, whereas in the West, anything goes and nothing matters. The last time I was in Moscow, I was in a supermarket and I actually heard over the loudspeaker system, “The new edition of Gulag Archipelago is now being sold in Aisle Three.” And my face nearly fell off, because twenty years ago that would been an impossibility. So my question is, are you disappointed that anything goes in our culture?

STOPPARD: My sense is that the circle is never squared. Human nature is not good enough or constrained enough to take only the good out of the free market system and not the bad. I actually stole a line from someone, I forget who it was now, but I was having this conversation in England with a young, upper-class Marxist on Russia, --

REMNICK: Which are the only kind of Marxists in England.

STOPPARD: -- exactly, and he said, “In Russia, the lorry drivers all read Dostoevsky.” And this other friend of mine said, “But if pornography were available, . . .” [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: It’s an interesting fact that the Russians in Coast of Utopia are precisely the kind of people that Russia doesn’t have today – liberals. What was the reaction in Russia to that part of the Utopia trilogy?

STOPPARD: They reacted in two different ways successively. I originally sent the script to the theatre which had done Arcadia, and the reaction I received was that it was too soon. They were sick of the characters before they even read the play. [LAUGHTER] The second reaction was much more receptive. It went from “Who does he think he is to tell us about our own people?” to, about four years later, a recognition of what the play was doing, and a sense of being grateful that someone was taking an interest in their history.

[Brief discussion about Hertzen/Gertzen’s alleged softness, “he’s out of fashion now,” “he was too hard for the liberals and too soft for the Communists,” and current Russian street names -- Hertzen Street named and re-named; “I was actually staying in a hotel on Belinsky Street.”]

STOPPARD: Russia is still a country where, if you think out loud, you can be murdered. This is happening to journalists. Playwrights, poets and novelists – they’re okay, because they no longer fill the truth-telling role they did on the old Russia. Today that role is filled by journalists. In a way, Solzhenitsyn was a journalist; he was hated because even though he was writing a novel, he was telling truth to history. Of course, his career was strange and in the end tragic. He told the truth when no one else told it, but after history turned turtle, he was looked on as a bit of a bore and a reactionary, the voice crying in the wilderness while a louder voice was proclaiming that the new BMW is coming to the showroom next week. I exaggerate, but once the country opened up, he was looked down on for his conservative nationalism.

REMNICK: He was never as hip as Havel.

STOPPARD: Havel happens to be one of my 20th-century heroes. I say that not just as a fellow Czech but because I admire his prose, his essays, and of all the writers who engaged with politics, he is the one who displayed the greatest consistency.

REMNICK: You wrote once [and he quotes a New York Times essay in which Stoppard claims to have no political viewpoint or agenda]. And yet currently you have written about history and politics in a ferociously committed way.

STOPPARD: Yes, I seem to have definitely outrun that statement. Does that have a date appended somewhere?

REMNICK: 1968.

STOPPARD: That was very early on, and I would say it was a conscious over-correction, given the politicized times. But the terms on which I wanted my writing to be valued have always been absolute ones, not relativistic. Personally, I’ve always loved newsprint. I love reading newspapers, and I have always loved reading them, ever since I was a teenager. I remember, when I was 15, I read a story about the Ray Robinson/Randolph Turpin fight, written by someone who was unknown in England called Red Smith, and the way he described Turpin getting knocked out was just seven words long, but I have never forgotten it. It was, “He zigged when he should have zagged.” [LAUGHTER] I would have given a lot to have written those words. I’d give a lot to have written “O to be in England, now that April’s here,” but not as much as “He zigged when he should have zagged.” [A 2005 essay by Stoppard on the subject can be found here.]

REMNICK: So did you grow up wanting to be Red Smith?

STOPPARD: No, I grew up wanting to be a foreign correspondent and live a glamorous life.

REMNICK: [darkly] That can be arranged. [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: [uh-oh] Great. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: There’s a plane leaving for Kabul at 10 . . . [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: I was rather hoping to be the St. Tropez correspondent actually. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: When you’ve cited your influences, there are names which come up that one does not ordinarily associate with you, in terms of your work. John Osborne, for instance.

STOPPARD: When talking about influences, one has to separate what it does to one, reading the work, seeing the work, from what it makes one want to write like. There are many playwrights whom I like, and you must excuse my fuzz-headedness, I can’t think of any names at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to emulate them. There’s Havel, of course. When I was given Memorandum and The Wedding Party to read, I said to myself, “Now that’s the stuff.” And there’s a play I reviewed years ago called Next Time I’ll Sing To You by James Saunders, which was very good. When it comes to one’s own work, the whole question of influence is one that doesn’t matter. It’s like saying, “How can I possibly like the works of Harold Pinter, since he doesn’t write anything like the way I do?”

REMNICK: Talking about influences, who would you cite as those in your life which gave you permission to write like Tom Stoppard?

STOPPARD: Your premise is wrong. One does not obtain permission to write in one’s own style. One writes what one writes because of who one is. In my case, it came out the way it came out, and if nobody had liked it, well, there you are.

REMNICK: How would you describe the London theatre scene versus the New York theatre scene?

STOPPARD: I’m not comfortable here. There’s a certain pressure to succeed. Everything has to be good – the collaboration has to be good, the work has to be good, the run has to be good. And I don’t feel that in London. I don’t feel that the West End is capitalism the way that Broadway is capitalism.

REMNICK: Do you feel that there’s a stronger element of good work in London as opposed to New York?

STOPPARD: No, there’s a stronger sense of, for example, the importance of advertising; the constant blood pressure of how are we doing – how are we doing tonight, how are we doing this week versus last week, how are we doing for the run? In London, frankly, I never know that because I never ask. I would say that, yes, there are devoted professionals in both places, but here, you are all in this tent where you are judged by a success ethic. Here there is more shame in failure than there is in London. But you can see them both slowly becoming the same thing, especially when you look at the proportion of musicals to so-called straight plays every year. And then of course what always happens statistically when one starts judging by numbers is that during a particular season, suddenly there are 8 straight plays when one has calculated the best possible average to be 3.7. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: So does the economic side of things drive you to write more screenplays?

STOPPARD: I get offered a lot of things to write, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m interested. Having an opinion is not the same as having an idea for a play. Recently I haven’t been able to think of what to write next. I’m never happy when I’m not writing, so I said, “All right, I will write the screenplay of Arcadia and direct it myself,” and I had some interest in that and started working on it, and literally three days later I received a call from the BBC asking me if I would be interested in adapting a series of 1920’s novels for them. I’m not going to go into any more detail than that, because I believe in bad karma, but it’s a project in which I’m very interested, and I’m having a great deal of fun working on it.

REMNICK: So you’re not going to be writing the next Indiana Jones movie? [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: I had involvement in only one Indiana Jones movie. That came about because Sean Connery said, “Cripes, look at what they’ve got me saying. Can we get Tom to do some of the dialogue here?” And when I came on board and started writing for Sean, Harrison said, “Jesus, if he’s doing his dialogue, . . .” [LAUGHTER] So I did a great deal of writing, some of which is actually in the picture. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: Can you give us an example?

STOPPARD: I think that strange bridge thing at the end is mine. The bridge that doesn’t look like it’s there? That was mine. That’s the beauty of working with people who have a great deal of money. One comes up with these crazy ideas, and they can actually afford to create them. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: Final question. [Groans from the audience] Would you say this is a rich time for American playwriting?

STOPPARD: I wish I was in a position to say yes, I’ve seen a lot of new plays lately. What I am aware of is that there are far more small stages today than there were years ago, and the new play, the good new play, is still somehow the animal most of them are trying to catch. It’s a reciprocal chicken and egg machine. And I am blathering now.

REMNICK: Which seem like a good place to stop. Thank you.

STOPPARD: Thank you.

Remnick/Stoppard Part 1

As part of BAM’s Artist Talk series, David Remnick interviewed Tom Stoppard for an hour last night. Stoppard’s new version of The Cherry Orchard is being directed by Sam Mendes and will be performed at BAM next year in repertory with A Winter’s Tale. What follows is a reconstruction from the notes I took while the two men were talking, notes which can barely approximate the offhand precision of Stoppard's conversation, which was at all times elegant, clever, and grammatically correct.

REMNICK: I’d like to start off by talking about the art of translations. You’ve done several of them – Schnitzler, other Chekhov plays – and like Vladimir Nabokov you have an enormous interest in translation. As a matter of fact, you share a number of similarities with Nabokov -- verbal magic, that throbbing feeling within, --

STOPPARD: The fact that he’s dead. [LAUGHTER] But still protesting.

REMNICK: Nabokov himself supervised his own translations and spent years himself translating Eugene Onegin, which we should probably talk about later, but what I want to ask you now is, you have a very full plate. You write plays, you write screenplays and radio dramas. So why translations? There are many translations of Chekhov out there; what do you get from doing one?

STOPPARD: Well, number one, by the very nature of translation, and more acutely in the case of a great writer like Chekhov, there is no terminus to the event. The Cherry Orchard exists somewhere around the intersection of innumerable translations, but none of them can really account for the play, not can they ever hope to. And the second thing is, a translation that appears to have its optimum realization also has a built-in obsolescence. It may be perfect for its time, but in five years it will seem dated. What seems right for one now, always seems wrong a few years later. Plus there’s a third thing. I haven’t discussed this yet with Sam Mendes, but it also seems to me that directors like to have a new text to work with because the text is essentially unsettled. It is only when the play is performed and the script is published that the text becomes settled. And yes, of course, there are several translations of The Cherry Orchard by a number of writers which are quite good. Michael Frayn’s, for instance -- which has the added value of being written by the only one of us who also reads Russian. You would think that would have taken care of the problem for everyone else. But when the script is being worked on by directors and actors during rehearsal, there is still the sense of a writer composing in English and not the original language. (One of the problems with having me as an interviewee is that I can go on and on like a toy. [LAUGHTER] This is not a tribute to your question so much as it is a tribute to my nature. [LAUGHTER]) As I was saying, having the text not settled is a pleasure and a benefit, but it means that the task of translation is always an open-ended one.

REMNICK: What qualities would you put in your translation that you weren’t getting in Frayn’s? What do you want your Chekhov to have more of? What is Tom Stoppard’s Chekhov?

STOPPARD: I don’t see it in those terms. One must remember that theatre is an event, as it were, and not a text. The text is fulfilled in performance. And when one is working on a translation, one writes for actors, one sounds out the lines, pretending to be an actor while saying them. It’s a different type of storytelling. But all storytelling is an art form, and an Anton Chekhov story is told in what is even now a slightly idiosyncratic -- and at the time quite revolutionary -- manner. The fact is that in a Chekhov play there is a macro-story and a micro-story, like a palimpsest of several maps layered one upon the other, where two different scales of action are taking place. A great deal of internal things are going on while a character speaks two lines and takes a drink. There’s a story that when he finished his first play -- he was 27, and it took him two weeks, ten days actually -- he wrote a letter to his brother and he said “I have written no villains and no angels.” So he had some sense of what he was achieving, the revolutionary nature of it, even now, that one can write with total moral neutrality. And it didn’t come out of nowhere -– one can point to Turgenev and a Month In The Country which was written 50 years before. But it was revolutionary. I just thought of a strange analogy. It would be equivalent to someone saying seventy years ago, “What the hell is this with New Yorker stories? They don’t seem to finish, they just stop.” [LAUGHTER] Of course people now are taking that in stride. One does not judge modern stories by how much they are like an O Henry story. By the way, I would like to come back to Eugene Onegin at the half past nine mark. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: When Constance Garnett translated Dostoevsky and Tolstoy into English, it was their introduction into the English language culture. I interviewed Joseph Brodsky once, and he said, “Your problem as English-speaking readers is, they sound the same to you. Oh, maybe Dostoevsky is a little darker, and Tolstoy is a little lighter, but they’re essentially the same. You don’t understand. Dostoevsky is a hilarious writer.” That’s a word you don’t usually hear to describe Dostoevsky. “Hilarious.” So my question is, do you think translation a tonal thing as well as a verbal thing?

STOPPARD: Tonal as well, yes. One comes back to the proposition that theater is an event. Chekhov was always seeing tonal problems in the performance of his plays. He would complain that the actors were always too emotive with his words, while the actors were shocked and surprised that he would describe Cherry Orchard as a comedy. But the more one sees Chekhov in performance, and working with him, as it were, in translating his play, one understands the meaning of the term comedy as he meant it, which can be stated very glibly. “In what sense is Cherry Orchard a comedy? Well, in what sense is life a comedy?” His plays contain genuine, authentic reflections on what people are. His refusal to judge them is stated explicitly in Ivanov, where a character says, “I don’t understand you, you don’t understand me, and neither of us understand ourselves.” He is totally neutral on the issue of morality, he has no judgment on how we behave with each other, and yet even a toddler knows what is good behavior and what isn’t. But Chekhov resisted the easy categorization of credit and blame.

REMNICK: Did you ever study Russian?

STOPPARD: For about a fortnight. I was very keen on a girl once who went to Russian lessons. But she gave it up after two weeks, so I saw no point in continuing it. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: So you base your version of the play on a word for word translation written by someone else.

STOPPARD: Yes. Of course, one would not want to see a production of Chekhov written by a linguist. [LAUGHTER] My assistant, Helen Rappaport, provides not only a word-for-word translation, but she also suggests alternate words, she notes topical and historical references, allusions, that sort of thing. Plus there are all these other versions up there on the shelf. I ended up taking down an anonymous one, which was accurate and faithful, which meant that it was also a little stilted in its conversation.

REMNICK: Robert Lowell wrote a series of poems he called Imitations, based on various poets, which were not so much translations as stylistic echoes. But they all ended up sounding like Robert Lowell. Do you want your Chekhov to sound like Tom Stoppard?

STOPPARD: Oh no. Although there have been moments. When I was working on translating a Schnitzler play, there was a particular line, I can’t remember what it is now, but I could not see my way through it. And that was like a revelation, because that was the point where I realized that as a translator I was there to serve the purpose, and not the text. Having said that, however, I have done horrible things to other people’s plays; --

REMNICK: For instance. [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: If I may finish what I was about to say after the semi-colon, “which I would have to have done with mine.” [LAUGHTER] For instance, in this production of Ivanov I just finished working on -- I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone else -- I killed a character that Chekhov unaccountably failed to kill off. [LAUGHTER] I gave him a heart attack. Chekhov wrote the play in ten days but he wasn’t satisfied with it, he was never satisfied with it, as a matter of fact, which I felt was an opening for me, although not a wide-opened door. [LAUGHTER] So there was a monologue which an actress gives, and she’s essentially saying things she’d said before, but I didn’t want to cut it, so I gave another character a heart attack while she was delivering it. Two things happening at the same time. And Chekhov had the last laugh, because no one even noticed. [LAUGHTER]

[Continued here]