Thursday, August 03, 2017

Mother of Exiles

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus
The New Colossus

Trump Aide Dismisses Statue of Liberty 'Huddled Masses' Poem

It greeted millions of immigrants from Europe, including my mother and her parents.  Through all our hypocrisy, it has stood as our ideal, as the very meaning of America to billions of people around the world.  And is the latest to be defiled by this shameful regime in the White House.

Sam Shepard, John Heard

The most exciting evening I'd experienced  as an audience member of professional theatre to that time, and really never to be surpassed, was seeing Curse of the Starving Class at the Public Theatre in 1978, by a playwright unknown to me named Sam Shepard.

I walked into the Public Theatre in complete innocence.  At that time the Public was like a multiplex of live theatre, with as many as four plays on stage every night.  I chose Curse of the Starving Class partly because of the title, and mostly because there was a ticket available.

Apparently in the cast was Olympia Dukakis, Pamela Reed and Michael J. Pollard, but it was the writing that blew me away: the words.  They expanded my conception of what was possible at this level.  Either at intermission or after the play I bought a copy in the lobby of Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class & Other Plays by Shepard.

 Although I would later see another original production--Fool for Love ( with Will Paton the week after he took over the role from Ed Harris)--plus the PBS filming of the Steppenwolf production of True West, and a production somewhere of Buried Child, my main experience thereafter would be reading his works--other plays and play collections, and his prose pieces in Motel Chronicles.  All about the words.

Shepard was a downtown Manhattan star before he became a movie star, and his lore was everywhere there.  Wikipedia has him meeting Jessica Lang on the set of a movie, but legend of that time said he met her when she worked as a waitress at the hip downtown bar where he hung out.

Shepard influenced others, and helped establish a theatre of words for awhile (the most successful of which probably was David Rabe's Hurlyburly which made it to Broadway.)  This was much to my predilections as a writer, though I realized that I was not comfortable enough with violence to write quite like he did, nor as a consequence would I reach such deep places in an audience.  But those long arias of words, spoken in one play by an actor playing drums, were riveting.

I saw all his movies for awhile, including the one he directed, Far North.  Though his New York Times obit refers to his play A Lie of the Mind as "great," at the time reviewers called it disappointing, as I recall.  He seemed to fade into the firmament by the end of the 1980s, though he kept writing and acting.

Oddly then, it was only a couple of years ago that Fool For Love was first produced on Broadway.  I don't know when Shepard was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that varies a great deal in his symptoms and progress, but always ends the same, as it did for my father.  It's said that Shepard dealt with it with the same stoic dignity of his on-screen persona.

At the New Yorker, Patti Smith writes an intimate memorial. UK actor Stephen Rea provides an unexpected perspective. I had no intimate or even actual relationship, but he touched my life nevertheless, and that's as much as I can honestly write about him.  Sam Shepard died at age 73.

John Heard in a TV production of The
Scarlet Letter, made a few years after
Between the Lines.
Another near-contemporary died more suddenly in recent weeks--again it was someone I didn't know and never even met, but who had some relationship to my life, though in one case quite an odd one.

I'd been thinking a bit about the actor John Heard just days before I read of his death.  Specifically for his appearance with Liv Ulmann and Sam Waterston in the singular film Mindwalk.  But when I read his NY Times obituary I was reminded of a long forgotten 1977 film called Between the Lines.   It's survived in film lore for introducing an entire cast of young actors who became successful for decades (somewhat like the later The Big Chill), Heard being one of them.

The film was about an alternative newspaper in Boston, directed by Joan Silver.  The story was conceived by two friends of mine, David Helpern and Fred Barron, and pitched to Silver and her husband after the dinner we all attended at the Orson Welles Restaurant in Cambridge.  The script by Fred Barron, originally called Alternative Lives, was basically about the paper we had both written for, Boston After Dark/Boston Phoenix, with suggestions of the Cambridge Real Paper.

Recently I watched the movie for the first time in decades on YouTube.  It's not very good.  But John Heard's performance is the strongest.  The script was obviously rewritten several times by different hands, judging from its flabby incoherence, and little remains of the actual ambience or people at the Phoenix (though there seems to be some of Janet Maslin in one character, and her relationship with her then-husband Jon Landau.)

There is one action that I recall was based on something I did at the Phoenix, though it was performed (by Jeff Goldblum) in a different context: when he punched a hole in the plasterboard wall, he was engaged in a satirical context with a conceptual artist; when I did it, it was out of frustration.  But the one actor who looks the most like I did at the time was John Heard, though with a better haircut.  So it was eerie.

As were the circumstances of his death.  Heard, 72, was recovering from back surgery at Stanford University Hospital.  He died unexpectedly in a hotel room in Palo Alto, probably only blocks away from where I'd been staying a couple of weeks before.

Heard had a few leads in film but settled in as a character actor in film and on TV--IMDB has five or six projects yet to be released.  But he never got comfortable with how movies are made, he often said in interviews, and considered himself primarily a theatre actor. I'm sorry I never saw him onstage, since he clearly has the voice and presence for it.  I still admire him in Mindwalk, though that film certainly didn't get mentioned in media summaries.  But there are others who love it, just as there are rabid fans for his starring role in Cutter's Way.  These things live.

May they rest in peace.  Their work and their memory live on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Obama We Hardly Knew Ye

There are days--many days--when it seems it was all a dream.  Barack Obama was President?  For eight years, without the breath of a scandal, without a lie or a serious misstatement of fact, with intelligence, a mastery of fact and logic, with dignity, grace, humor and kindness?

Nah, couldn't have happened.

To say that the current incumbent makes the Obama presidency look better is very faint praise indeed.  I often think that the greatest beneficiary of the apprentice dictator in the White House has been George W. Bush.  He is quite unexpectedly yet undeniably no longer the worst president in American history.  Lucky guy!  And in less than a decade after he exited, taking an extra helicopter turn to view the more than a million and a half very excited and very relieved people assembled for his successor's inaugural.

In his columns and his book Audacity, Jonathan Chait made the case that Barack Obama's achievements are such that he will be viewed as one of the best and most accomplished US presidents in history.  Recently (in what reads like the introduction to a paperback edition of Audacity) Chait looked again at the Obama legacy six months after he left office. (Six months?  Seems like six years.)  And despite the obsessively thorough efforts of Obama's successor to undo and reverse his achievements, Chiat sees only more reason to value President Obama's legacy.

Chiat notes that those who complained about inaction as well as opponents may now realize that "governing is hard. "Obama’s critics complained endlessly about the slow pace of legislation and the endless compromises wrung by interest groups and recalcitrant moderates. Liberals spent his presidency pining for imagined alternatives who could overpower the opposition. High-minded centrists endlessly blamed the president for his failure to dissuade Republicans from their strategy of total opposition, and in so doing helped reinforce the success of that opposition. Throughout his time in office, Obama labored against the contrast of hazy memories of presidents of yore who could supposedly reason with or overpower their foes and impose their legislative will."

Turns out "governing is hard."  Though around here I noted that the same complaints were made about President Kennedy, there apparently was the sense that somebody with bluster and will could get things done.  Hasn't worked out so well.  And there are many more examples of magical thinking that didn't come true, though you had to be awfully stupid to believe they would.

As for Obama's legacy being wiped out, even with such malevolent intensity, Chiat disagrees:  "Large chunks of Obama’s achievements are not even theoretically vulnerable to reversal — most obviously, the stimulus, bank rescue, and auto bailout, which rescued the economy from a second Great Depression."  

Other achievements won't be touched without a 60 vote Senate majority, while others--like the jumpstart to alternative energy technologies--have taken lives of their own in the business economy and are very likely to triumph despite the worst efforts of this apocalyptically regressive regime.  The situation is similar generally in regard to addressing the climate crisis--Obama's quiet gains and his international leadership have created a momentum that so far survives.

Then there's Obamacare, which is more popular now than at any time in the Obama administration. "Half a year of Republican-run government has systematically exposed the right-wing arguments against Obamacare as bad-faith rhetoric or outright fantasy. One small-business owner, who told the New York Times in 2012 that he opposed the law as something jammed down the public’s throat, was re-interviewed this year. “I can’t even remember why I opposed it,” he now says."

Chiat makes no claims for current Democrats but notes that the Obama coalition has proven more potent than the one boasted about by the current incumbent:

"Even coasting on the crest of the Obama-era economic expansion, and having yet to face a crisis he did not create himself, Trump’s approval rating sits in the 30s...
When the wreckage from this presidency is cleared away, there will be only one party that possesses a politically and substantively workable governing model. Trump’s administration may have the power to destroy, but Obama’s had the power to build."

Also in recent days, another view of the Obama years as well of the current regime came from an unlikely source: the conservative Senator Jeff Flake.  Most of the stories derived from his book emphasize his rebellion against that current regime and its fearful leader.  But he also acknowledges that whatever lack of achievements there were in the Obama years were the Republicans' responsibility, with consequences we're seeing now.  In his Politico excerpts he writes:

"But we conservatives mocked Barack Obama’s failure to deliver on his pledge to change the tone in Washington even as we worked to assist with that failure. It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime. 

It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us. 

It was we conservatives who rightly and robustly asserted our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government when a Democrat was in the White House but who, despite solemn vows to do the same in the event of a Trump presidency, have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued. To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial."

Monday, July 31, 2017

Hero of His Own Life? Notes on Dickens' Copperfield

Bob Hoskins as Micawber, Daniel Radcliffe
as young David in the 1999 BBC/PBS version.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

It's one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and after reading Charles Dickens' David Copperfield again,  I'm struck by the ambiguous answer I might give. For in key moments, it isn't David Copperfield who is heroic, but other characters.

The novel has the usual thoroughly evil Dickens' villains: David's cruel stepfather Murdstone and Murdstone's echoing sister Jane, the craven and cruel schoolmaster Creakle (a brief appearance but so meaty that Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan both made a ham sandwich of him in film versions) and the unforgettable Uriah Heep.  There are the usual slyly satiric portraits of institutions of law and order, and the men who make their livings from them, more than hinting at Dickens' underlying outrage and disdain.

 There is also a hero (at least in David's eyes) who commits acts of villainy that Copperfield condemns, yet he persists in remembering him "at his best."  There is a kind of angel or goddess, a child woman, a girl who yearns too much, a wayward girl, and an old woman servant with a heart of gold.  There are the stalwart and large-hearted men of the sea, Mr. Peggotty and Ham.

And there are the somewhat comic characters that populate a Dickens novel: his Aunt Betsey and her friend Mr. Dick, the eternal complainer Mrs. Gummidge, Copperfield's school friend and later companion the hapless Traddles, and the most famous of all, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Mr. Micawber, and his long-suffering wife.

As he does in other novels, Dickens' pegs several of these "minor" characters with their repeated turns of phrase and small repeated behaviors.  But notably and in some respects unexpectedly, several of them do the heroic deeds.  It's Micawber and Traddles who bring Uriah Heep to heel.  It's Aunt Betsy who rescues young David, Mr. Peggotty who with the help of the wayward girl rescues the girl who yearns too much, Emily. And it's Ham who dies attempting to rescue a survivor of a storm at sea.  Even Mrs. Gummidge becomes heroic.

It's true of course that classical heroes often have decisive help, and couldn't accomplish their goal without aid.  And David does have his moments, particularly when he suddenly becomes the financial support of others and applies himself with discipline and hard work.  But it took the special interest and attention of others, as well as their good-heartedness and generosity, responding to  David's good-heartedness and generosity, for him to succeed.

The Signet edition I read, which was the
first to include the entire text
Since I knew the story, both from having read the book before and from seeing a couple of film versions, the emotional response to key happenings was muted, and I was better able to appreciate how Dickens created his effects, and generally to savor the details.  So while it didn't have the emotional resonance of reading W.G. Sebald's enigmatic The Emigrants, which I also recently finished, it provided other pleasures.

But it's probably more than that.  When I was younger I was more than impatient with the pace and language of 19th century novels--it took great effort to sit still for them.  I craved faster prose and faster styles of storytelling that I found especially in some contemporary authors.  I was young, it was the 1960s, my metabolism was set to rock music.  I eventually could become immersed in the images of foreign films but I found these books difficult to sink into.

That's not a problem now.  My old metabolism is happy to read those long sentences and long books, though I take my time, and read not much more than a chapter at a sitting.  For both reasons, I read with delight, savoring the language and narrative skill.

For example, he gives us the murderous-hearted Mr. Murdstone (need it be said for a character in Dickens that he's aptly named?  J.K. Rowling must have known her Dickens) and his sister, Miss Murdstone, as the tyrants of David's young life.  Then after leaving them behind in David's boyhood, he inexplicably and a bit awkwardly makes Miss Murdstone the paid companion of David's employer's daughter who he loves and intends to marry.

But it pays off in a confrontation scene.  After Miss Murdstone has informed on David, the father opposes the marriage.  As the scene begins with formalities, Dickens reminds us of Miss Murdstone's character with a memorable expression.  He doesn't say that David takes her cold hand in greeting, but that "Miss Murdstone gave me her chilly finger-nails, and sat severely rigid."  What a sentence!
The novel was originally serialized, and
structured so that each installment ended
in a "cliffhanger."
But the resonance is given additional power at the end of the conference, as David observes: "Miss Murdstone's heavy eyebrows followed me to the door...and she looked so exactly as she used to look, at about that hour of the morning..." when she glowered at him over his lessons.

It's true that David doesn't exhibit much psychological acuity, apparently not sensing that his first choice for a wife replicated qualities of his mother.  But on more general matters he shows some insight. “I had considered how the things that never happen are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.”

This was a popular work of fiction, serialized in a periodical.  So the philosophical observations in the writing may not be earthshaking but remain essential--and especially essential to Dickens, as in the ruminations of a very minor character near the end of the novel:

“Dear me,” said Mr. Omer, “when a man is drawing on to a time of life, when the two ends of life meet...he should be over-rejoiced to do a kindness if he can... And I don’t speak of myself particular, because, sir, the way I look at it is that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced.”

As for the film versions, they may guide the reader through main events and give visual references to the characters, but they are far too short to suggest the richness and riches of the book.  It's good to have a guide through the story, though, and fun to see good portrayals of the characters.

Probably the best version is the 1999 BBC/PBS miniseries, mostly because it is the longest.  But even this one is not full enough--after lavishing attention on the earlier parts of the novel, it rushes through climactic scenes and invents others.  One notable change is the fate of Uriah Heep.  In the movie he is arrested and is seen as a prisoner to be transported to a penal colony in Australia.  But in the novel, Micawber and Traddles force Heep to make restitution and return funds he had stolen, under threat of exposure.  Dickens clearly doesn't trust the justice system of his day. (The film's solution also muddles the positive meaning of a new life in Australia for other characters in this book.)

But this film version features a fine performance by Daniel Radcliffe as the very young David, shortly before he became Harry Potter.  Other performances are definitive: Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey, Nicholas Lyndhurst is Uriah Heep and so on down the line--in particular, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber (and that's saying something, since the role was also played in movie versions by Ralph Richardson and W.C. Fields.)

The one questionable role was the adult David Copperfield, and that seemed to be the case in all other film versions.  Probably it is not the fault of the actors--in this case, perfectly serviceable--but in the role.  He is the center of the action, but he mostly reacts.  Still, it's notable that well-known actors played the "minor" roles, and not this one.

Which suggests again but doesn't answer the first question posed.  David is the narrator of the story, and he becomes a writer in the course of the book. (Which could be one reason why Dickens named this as the favorite of his novels.) But is   he is the hero of his own life? Well, we might say of him as of ourselves: if not, who is?