Sunday in New York

At this writing, I have called New York City home for nearly three decades — several years longer than I’d been alive when I moved here. I have lived in Harlem though mostly in my current home of Brooklyn, and I’ve worked in Manhattan and the Bronx. I got married in Prospect Park and sent my children to public schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I have served on two juries, voted in seven mayoral elections, and watched the progression from one-dollar subway token to two-and-a-quarter MetroCard. I am a New Yorker.

Or am I? I ask this because I wonder whether, if I were truly convinced of and secure in my New Yorkerness, I would still feel the urge that comes over me once a week — on Sundays. I have not seen all of the United States, but I’ve seen enough to know that much of it shuts down on that day. Not my town, though. That, to me, is the mark of a vibrant city, and there is no better time to be in one than Sunday. You can appreciate what’s around you in a way that isn’t possible when you’re rushing to get to work on time or hurrying to lunch with a client. Gone by Sunday, too, is Saturday’s frenzy of celebration. Still at leisure, but with our feet back on the ground, we can take in a city that has slowed down just enough to be seen. This balance of our awareness, the city’s magnificence, and its — and our — unhurried pace is a magic formula, making it possible to revel in our New Yorkerness, to do that quintessential thing that lets us feel a part of this place. The urge I have on Sundays is to do that thing, my only question being —and I’ve been here twenty-eight years—What is it? A classic movie at Film Forum, or a Yankees game, or a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, or brunch at Sylvia’s, or lunch at Katz’s Delicatessen, or a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, or a tour of Louis Armstrong’s house? I have enjoyed all these things, but the problem with doing anything at all, in any place at any time, is that that thing precludes everything else, which won’t cut it if the point is to feel of a piece with a city whose essence is unlimited possibility.

On a recent Sunday, in search of an answer, I turned to a movie from the early 1960s. As with many other movies, I had seen part of it on TV when I was a boy; I had retained very little beyond its title, but this particular title alone had led me to search for it online over the years, always finding it unavailable — until recently. Finally, I had in my hands the work that would yield, if anything could, the secret to capturing the feeling I was after. What better way, after all, than to spend part of a Sunday in New York watching a movie called Sunday in New York? When it was over I felt, if I may be permitted a comparison to another film, a bit like Dorothy after she’d been to see the wizard. Sunday in New York is a very enjoyable sex farce that is nonetheless dated by the very thing that must have once made it seem so fresh: the burning question of whether a “girl” should or is expected to bed the guy she’s out with. Unlike many works whose day has passed, this one gave me the brief, sad feeling that mine had, too, and not just because the movie was released in the year of my birth. When the twenty-two-year-old Jane Fonda character referred to her parents back in Albany, I realized that those obviously settled folks, not important enough in the movie even to appear on screen, were probably younger than me. More pertinently, this sweet love story, while set in New York on a Sunday, is not about Sunday in New York; shots of rowing in Central Park aside, the setting could be Chicago or San Francisco. I liked the movie, but it didn’t have much to tell me.

I was on my own, back to my original question. It might help, as they used to say where I’m from, to break it down. What are the elements of this quintessential New York feeling or experience? What are the things that say “New York” to me? Literature — elegant sentences or verse by the writers, so many writers, who have come here; music — strains from the meeting place of jazz and symphony, grand but playful and unpredictable like the city, works by Duke Ellington, say, or another transplanted New Yorker, Charles Mingus; people — seeing so many walking this way and that. On another recent Sunday, I tried for some of this. At home I had The Symphonic Ellington playing while I read Auden poems, works that are themselves like the city, beautiful and elusive; from time to time I looked out my living room window at bare tree limbs silhouetted against the gray-blue winter sky. After a while I took the Auden collection with me to a diner down the street, where I read while sipping black coffee and watching strangers go by the window. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though eventually something occurred to me about this afternoon of experiencing New York: I had barely left home.

But maybe, if this quintessential New York experience can be even partly achieved in one’s living room, it is largely a state of mind. And maybe any New York activity, incomplete though it may be, is the real deal for that very reason: its incompleteness proves you’re in the right place. You can take in all of Hudson, New York, in an afternoon. Not so New York City. You get there only a piece at a time, and you never get there. And if you did, what then? Better to think of each little piece as a DNA sample, making do for the whole. Maybe you live here; may you visited once; either way, you’ve had part of the experience. I will try to remember this on some Sunday while looking down the long, long stretch of Park Avenue as I walk along in the East 80s, on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art . . .

What do you do on Sundays?

The 100th tellcliff Post!

Welcome to the 100th tellcliff.com blog post! I write that somewhat sheepishly, since this is not what you’d call a major event. I don’t know who, if anyone, reads this lovingly prepared blog with any regularity; I feel a little like Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, embarrassed that he has broken the minor-league home-run record—except this ain’t even the minors. But as my family likes to say: Oh, well. I write tellcliff.com because I enjoy it. Maybe somebody else finds something to enjoy here, too. If so, here’s to you.

Looking back over my more recent posts, I realize I’ve been doing more telling than being told, which is my fault. Some of the posts don’t leave much room for response, particularly when I go on about fairly obscure subjects (the silent films of Louise Brooks or Louis Feuillade, say). So with this post, tellcliff.com returns to its roots. I will offer a few lines each on recent, wonderful discoveries in my usual areas—books, film, jazz—and then ask what YOU have discovered lately. Away we go:

FILM. Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Very, very early (1967) Martin Scorsese, starring a very, very young Harvey Keitel. In the current phase of Scorsese’s career, when he seems to have decided that more is more—witness the excess and sheer length of The Wolf of Wall Street—this black-and-white film is a surprise and a delight. Not all of its subject matter is delightful. Keitel, un- or ambiguously employed, spends a lot of time hanging out with the borderline-shady guys in his working-class Manhattan neighborhood. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a young woman (Zina Bethune) he meets on the Staten Island ferry. The subject of their first, faltering conversation, the John Wayne movie The Searchers, turns out not to be a random choice on Scorsese’s part: Keitel’s beliefs, we come to find out, bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Wayne character’s. The standout parts of Who’s That Knocking—three montages, two of them using still photos—convey more, despite their brevity, than the three hours of The Wolf of Wall Street. As I like to say, anything’s new if you haven’t seen/heard/read it before, and Who’s That Knocking,  from 47 years ago, is one of the best things I’ve let in lately.

MUSIC: Friday Night in San Francisco. Three acoustic guitars, live concert, 1981. John McLaughlin of Miles Davis jazz-fusion fame joins Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia. The music is by turns moving and exciting, and you just can’t believe human fingers can play that fast. Is this jazz? I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s fantastic.

BOOKS. If on a winter’s night a traveler. This 1979 novel by Italo Calvino sat on my shelf from 2002 until last week, when I finally picked it up. The main character, known as the Reader and referred to by the narrator as “you,” buys a novel and reads the first chapter—as do we—only to discover that the book then turns to blank pages. Obviously in possession of a faulty copy, “you” return to the bookstore for a good one, which turns out to contain a different first chapter altogether (we read that one, too). “Your” search for the real novel brings “you” in contact with a long-suffering publisher, a shady translator, an angst-ridden Irish novelist, foreign revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, a second Reader, and the second Reader’s sometimes-disguised sister—in between many first chapters of seemingly unrelated books. It sounds annoying—actually, it is a little annoying—but it’s also brilliant, with laugh-out-loud send-ups of publishing and academia and transcendent passages about the nature of writing.

And now for the important part: what great things have YOU discovered lately?

Tell Cliff!

Cliff’s Coen Brothers Ranking

The Coen brothers are celebrated for their quirky aesthetic, located at the border of the hilarious and the horrifying. What I personally love about them in their ability to capture a given sensibility, one you recognize even if you can’t put a name to it, one you may have thought no one else knew about (think of, say, Sam Elliot’s gentleman cowboy-narrator in The Big Lebowski).

Following is an attempt to identify levels of quality in the brothers’ work, and to rank films within each level – a pointless exercise, probably, and, like many pointless things, a lot of fun. So:

 

GREAT COEN

1. The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges as The Dude, maybe the brothers’ most inspired creation. Transcendent.

2. Fargo. A great concept, summed up by the image of a hugely pregnant officer of the law (Frances McDormand) holding a gun on a sociopath.

3. Raising Arizona. My vote for the funniest movie ever made.

4. Miller’s Crossing. It’s irresistible, all of it — from the guys in black fedoras and long dark coats to the made-up lingo (“What’s the rumpus?”) to the theme of one guy, in this case Gabriel Byrne, taking on everybody.

5. Barton Fink. John Turturro as a monstrously self-absorbed playwright holed up in a dank, eerie hotel, John Goodman as the seemingly average guy staying next door. Ohhhhh, watch out, Turturro.

 

NEAR-GREAT COEN

6. No Country for Old Men. A movie remarkable for subverting every expectation  formed during a lifetime of movie watching. With Javier Bardem as the stuff of nightmares.

7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? The first scene of George Clooney improvising country blues in a recording studio is worth the price of the rental.

8. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Mostly this black-and-white film looks terrific, and Billy Bob Thornton is great as the enigmatic, doomed man who longs for the land of “things they don’t have words for down here.”

9. True Grit. It loses energy after a while, but Jeff Bridges is great in the John Wayne role, and so is Hailee Steinfeld, playing one very determined teenaged girl.

 

SERVICEABLE COEN

10. Burn After Reading. The brothers’ funniest film, after Raising Arizona.

11. Blood Simple. Their first work, a taut film noir — in which, as someone once pointed out, every human fluid gets spilled.

12. Inside Llewyn Davis. The main character is a jerk, and the story goes exactly nowhere, and yet it works. A wonderful evocation of a fondly remembered time — early ’60s New York – one that wasn’t always great for the people living in it.

13. A Serious Man. A little too serious, but not bad.

14. The Ladykillers. Really, guys? Ironically, the brothers updated the 1955 film by bringing in two of the oldest black stereotypes in existence. On the other hand, Tom Hanks is brilliant as an extremely erudite criminal — my favorite thing I’ve seen him do — which is what saves this movie from being . . .

 

BARGAIN-BASEMENT COEN

15. Intolerable Cruelty. Substandard Coen, which still makes it better than a lot of other movies. And it has one great line, from Cedric the Entertainer: “You want tact, call a tactician.”

16. The Hudsucker Proxy. The only boring movie the Coens have made.

 

 

Alas, Joseph Epstein

Years ago I had a date with a stunningly beautiful woman. As we sat down to dinner together in a restaurant, we had an unspoken but obvious attraction to each other, and the evening seemed full of promise. Then we started talking. The more we talked, the more uneasy I felt, and the more the light in her eyes appeared to dim. Politics, religion, art, movies, books — you name it, and we not only disagreed about it, we were like soldiers in trenches on opposite sides of a battle line; it was as if we’d been matched by some sort of anti-dating service. When we left the restaurant, there was no need to discuss the one thing we agreed on: that we would never see each other again.

Actually, I made all of that up. It never happened. But if it had, I think I would have felt the way I do now, having read my first book by Joseph Epstein, the essay collection In a Cardboard Belt!

Belt was published in 2007, around the time that Epstein — whose nineteenth book this is — was turning seventy. It starts out with charming reflections on reaching that milestone, which is “an odd thing to happen to a five-year-old boy who only the other day sang ‘Any Bonds for Sale,’” seventy being a time when “middle age is definitely — and definitively — done,” when “not recogniz[ing] that one is no longer living (as if one ever were) on an unlimited temporal budget is beyond allowable stupidity.” From there we’re off to a section of personal essays, including a thoughtful and evocative piece on his father and on fatherhood. Many passages in the section called “Literary” are gems of clarity and power, like this one, in which Epstein paraphrases the poet and critic Karl Shapiro: “The Pound-Eliot Axis has succeeded, with the aid of the academic New Critics, in creating a poetry in which ideas and symbols replace feeling and pure love of language. . . . Looking back on the history of twentieth-century poetry, one realizes that what Pound and Eliot accomplished, along with the building up of their own reputations, was removing poetry ‘from the people’ and delivering it ‘to the classroom.’” The five pieces in “Attacks” are just that — hilarious balloon-puncturing takes on such intellectual blowhards are George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Bloom began his career as “quite a good” critic, Epstein writes, “but his ambition grew and he soon became the intellectual equivalent of the character in P. G. Wodehouse who looked as if he were poured into his clothes and forgot to say when.” Similarly, “what George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world’s most learned man.”

But amidst all this humor and insight, all these impressive dispatches from “that unending work in progress called [Epstein’s] education,” are flashes of other things that made me more and more wary as I read. Epstein is, I don’t think he would mind my saying, a conservative. At its best, a modicum of conservatism lets one choose common sense over the worst excesses of politicized thinking; for example, I cheered the following passage about Epstein’s teaching career: “One year, at the opening of my Conrad course, a student asked ‘how’ we were going to read Joseph Conrad, by which she meant what suppositions we were going to bring to the task: Marxist, structuralist, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, and so forth. I said that we were going to try to discover what Joseph Conrad himself meant to convey in his novels and stories, and that this ought to keep us sufficiently occupied to fill out a quarter.”

And so I am not one who equates conservatism with sexism and racism. (For what it’s worth, Epstein praises Ralph Ellison’s work to the skies.) But there are passages here that beg the question of where one ends and the other two begin. “Even though all the world’s famous chefs seem to have been men . . .,” Epstein writes in a piece about dining out, “my sense is that in general women seem to taste food with greater sensory refinement than do men. (Perhaps women don’t have the first-sergeant, kick-ass personality that is required to run a large kitchen staff).” Or perhaps I should introduce Mr. Epstein to some of the women I’ve met. The book’s concluding essay, “I’m History,” performs the dubious service of validating my suspicions. “In my twenty-three years as editor of The American Scholar,” he informs us, “the title ‘Ms.’ never appeared in its pages. ‘Chair’ or ‘chairperson’ didn’t make it, either. I thought the first unpronounceable, the second patently silly.” There, at least, he gives explanations for editorial policies, as benighted as they are. But he apparently considers the wisdom of a later statement to be self-evident, since he doesn’t bother to explain it. Mentioning “feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies,” Epstein writes, “I . . . mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.” Is that, in the case of black history, because it’s not part of American history? Are blacks not Americans?

I found most of Epstein’s essays to be funny, illuminating, a joy to read. What a pity that I’ll probably never pick up another one. What did I expect, taking a reading tip from David Brooks . . .

Smalls and Tom Harrell’s “Number Five,” or, Ditched by the Mail Order Santa Claus of Jazz

On a Saturday night last month I went to hear some live music in Greenwich Village with my friend The Mail Order Santa Claus of Jazz. I am fairly well steeped in the classics of that genre, but Santa has mounted a valiant campaign to bring me into the present. As we made our way on foot to catch the tenor saxophonist David Schnitter at Smalls, whose cover charge was music to my bank account, Santa talked about really wanting to hear Tom Harrell, whom he called the greatest living trumpet composer and who was playing at the nearby, legendary and legendarily expensive (well, not really) Village Vanguard. Nonetheless we went to Smalls, which, living up to its name, was so packed that the front row was the only place left to sit.  What a boon. We were maybe eight feet from the sixty-something Schnitter, whose breaking-down body took nothing away from his warm, fluid tone, and we were even closer to the club owner/house pianist Spike Wilner, a dead ringer for the young Elliott Gould and a player with some of the same wistfulness as the late Vince Guaraldi. I got mesmerized watching his fingers on the keyboard, seeing his face as he worked to anticipate and complement Schnitter. At the break I turned to say as much to Santa, but he was gone, and even more surprisingly, he wasn’t back when the music started again! The longer the band played, the more I worried. Had Santa, in a moment of dreaminess brought on by the beauty of the music, fallen and cracked his head in the john? Had he stepped out for a breath of the fresh air of our storied city and gotten mugged? I went to look for him, but he wasn’t stretched out groaning on the sidewalk or lying unconscious between the sink and the toilet. I pulled out my cell and left a message on his, and I was still in the bathroom when he called back to say, very apologetically, that he had slipped out to hear Tom Harrell. I went back, laughing, to hear the rest of the Schnitter set, and I made a mental note to check out the music of this Harrell, apparently worth ditching one’s friend for.

And so it turns out to be. I downloaded Harrell’s Number Five (2012), and while I will need a few more listens to write anything worth reading about the trumpeter’s compositional prowess, I can tell you right now that it’s a very, very fine jazz record. Number Five features a quintet, but a number of the cuts have wonderful pairings. Some standouts for me: Harrell’s trumpet and Johnathan Blake’s nimble drum work on the opening track, “Blue ’n’ Boogie”; “Journey to the Stars,” on which Harrell plays a beautiful middle-range solo to Danny Grissett’s spare, deft piano accompaniment, making for a tune so deceptively simple that it brought to mind the best modern paintings, the kind with just a few bold colors; and “Preludium,” which has Harrell playing alongside the tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, whose distinctive tone has a kind of . . . shine to it, and who, like Johnny Hodges and Dexter Gordon before him, is able to do a lot without a lot of notes (though he has them when he needs them). Then there’s Harrell’s version of “Star Eyes.” The best way I can think of to describe his solo on that standard is to say that if the original melody is a well-worn footpath, Harrell tunnels underneath it, every so often poking his head up through the dirt. Thanks for pointing the way, Santa!

On Nonfiction

On September 22, 2013 I participated in a panel on nonfiction at the Brooklyn Book Festival, along with George Packer, Svetlana Alpers, and the moderator, Phillip Lopate. Below are remarks I prepared to deliver at the panel but, because of the format (readings from our books, then a general discussion), did not get to.

Before I begin talking about my own approach to the essay—and, actually, by way of doing so—I’d like to acknowledge my friend Albert Murray’s passing on August 18, at age 97. In books including the essay collection The Omni-Americans, Mr. Murray supplied several generations of thinking people, especially thinking black people, with a big piece of the American puzzle that had gone missing. The hole in the puzzle is what has led some of us over the years to change our names, put on dashikis, and declare ourselves to be Africans who happen to live on American soil. While I do not disapprove of that course, it does leave open the question of how, if you’re black, you relate to that soil, the scene of many crimes against people who look like you. But a closer look at that soil will reveal a history not only of pain but of resilience, achievement, and artistry in the face of that pain. Not only that: this soil, which for better or worse produced you, also bears your imprint, your trademark, your copyright symbol. To put it succinctly, you are an American.

A moment ago I mentioned artistry in the face of pain. That is a serviceable definition of a black-created art form: the blues. Then there is the blues’ fraternal twin, jazz, the improviser’s art. At its best, improvisation is new action based on knowledge, experience, and guts, three elements at the heart of the American—and black American—stories. Improvisation, or making a way where none existed before, produced both the Declaration of Independence and the Underground Railroad. Jazz serves as both example of, and metaphor for, such improvisation; jazz is part of every American’s, particularly every black person’s, cultural inheritance and identity.

Albert Murray helped me to understand this. But his work left one question open. Now that I know what I am, what do I do? My approach to the essay represents, in part, an attempt to answer that question.

Surely one of the benefits of knowing who and what you are is having a position from which to relate to others. Identifying elements from one’s own artistic culture that are similar to those of other cultures ultimately underscores the interrelatedness of all humanity. That is a large part of I try to accomplish with essays. What are examples? It seemed to me, as I wrote in one essay, that the music of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young is similar to the writing of Ernest Hemingway; just as Young’s spare, graceful melodic lines merely suggested underlying chord structures, Hemingway’s equally spare, equally graceful sentences left to our imaginations the pain felt by his characters. To quote a different essay, “It occurred to me as I listened to the work of the bassist-composer Charles Mingus . . . that it bears similarities to the films of Robert Altman: that the films, with their many characters crowded into a single shot and their simultaneous conversations, might be mere exercises in cacophony but are instead works of power and beauty—pulling off a feat similar to that accomplished by Mingus’s polyphonous compositions.” In still another essay, I found a parallel between the career progression of the novelist Zadie Smith and that of the actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood.

In addition to cultural connections, I try to address in essays what I sometimes call “the general problem of being human.” How do you deal with the knowledge that the close, loving family you are raising will one day cease to be a unit, will one day cease to be at all? What features of middle age—if any— compensate for the refusal of your eyes and knees to work the way they used to? What do you and your close friend do after something like 9/11, when it’s all either of you can think about, and you think about it one way, while he has a completely different view?

And when I’m really lucky, I can locate a connection between the cultural and the personal. Hence my approach to discussing Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days, one that includes my recollection of singing a song about John Henry as an elementary school student in music class. Engaging in this mix of the cultural and the personal, I see myself as the beneficiary of what seems to me a trend of the last several decades: the synthesis of various nonfictional and even some fictional forms, which has assured the continuing vitality of the essay. There was the introduction of dialogue and close-third-person point of view into feature stories, by Truman Capote and New Journalists such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe; there was Wolfe’s playfulness with things like onomatopoeia, effects echoed recently in the typographical tricks of Ander Monson; there was the insertion of the personal into the story, as pioneered by Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson and carried on today through the do-it-yourself-ism of bloggers; there is the tradition of the “outsider” perspective on such mainstream subjects as presidential politics, as seen in the past in the works of essayists including James Baldwin and today in the nonfiction of Zadie Smith, among others. As alloys can make metal both stronger and more flexible, so this combination of the objective and the subjective, of erudition and confessed fallibility, makes the essay form capable of nearly anything.

But first you have to write it. I remember reading an interview with the late Kurt Vonnegut, in which he advised young writers that they need only have something to say, and the paragraphing would take care of itself. While I respect Vonnegut’s work, I found that statement to be wrong on two counts. Having “something to say” will not lend beauty and rhythm to your passages, will not prevent the flattening effect of ending two consecutive sentences with the same word, will not help you judge whether a sentence is lyrical or simply too long, will not provide the image that hangs on in the reader’s mind. And I have found that having something to say plays a small part, sometimes no part, in saying something—since it is often in the act of putting words down that the writer comes to understand his own thoughts and feelings. Having something to say does not make you  a writer; writing does.

Finally, there is the subject of essays vs. fiction. Essays fall under the heading of nonfiction, an unfortunate term that in itself might seem to indicate an inferiority to novels and short stories. Pity nonfiction, named for what it isn’t! A friend of mine who is a short-story writer, a normally thoughtful woman, once expressed the opinion that a good fiction writer could knock out a personal essay in her sleep. This, too, like the term “nonfiction,” seemed to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the form. The implication, I think, is that the essayist is spared the work of constructing a reality, that his subject—like a trust fund—has been handed to him, and all that remains is the spending. But just as there is more to a blues performance than standing before an audience and crying, there is much more to an essay than simply writing down what you have experienced or observed, and because of this the essay and fiction forms have more in common than is generally acknowledged. Both have as their building blocks human experience, and the task facing both the essayist and the fiction writer is to interpret and order that experience; in doing so, both kinds of artists—yes, artists—have limitless possibilities and exactly one restriction: truth, be it actual or virtual. With these possibilities and this requirement, one can succeed or fail, plummet or soar.

For all these similarities, there is perhaps one major difference, besides the obvious one, between the essay and fiction forms: ultimately, the function and purpose of fiction may be more in the nature of performance, while those of the essay involve communication. All eyes are on the fiction writer, while the essayist, with perhaps more humility, or perhaps more brashness, with, in any case, greater warmth, has sought you out to convey something. That “something” may be concrete or ephemeral, but the basis of its conveyance goes back to what I mentioned in a different context a minute or two ago, which is the interrelatedness of all humanity. The strongest essays have this at their root, and those essays are, to put it simply, great works. And so I belatedly advise my fiction writer friend to read the essays “Canal Street,” by Ian Frazier; “Dreaming of a Black Christmas,” by Gerald Early; “The White Album,” by Joan Didion; “Against Joie de Vivre,” by Phillip Lopate; “The Hottest Water in Chicago,” by Gayle Pemberton; “Upon This Rock,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan; “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace, “Equal in Paris,” by James Baldwin. And if you think that in your sleep you can write works like these wonderful mixes of the cultural, the social, the historical, the political, and, above all, the human, then drop what you are doing and run, do not walk, to your bed.

So Long, Albert

There is an essay I want to write about my friend Albert Murray, who died at 97 on August 18, 2013, and this isn’t it. The essay I have in mind will require re-reading Murray’s books about race, jazz, the blues, literature, and American identity, the books that led me to seek him out two decades ago. It will require me to think hard about those works and the man who wrote them, to recall my conversations with him, to explain what he meant to me and what I think he meant to the world . . .  but in the meantime, here are thoughts (most of them good) about his memorial service on September 10 in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center:

If you have to depart this life — and we all have to — this is the way to do it. Behind the stage of the 463-seat Allen Room is an enormous window that looks out onto Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the Manhattan skyline, which Murray loved. On each side of the window, on a large screen, a rotation of black and white photographs showed Murray and his wife, daughter, and friends at different points in their lives, finally freezing on one of Murray in his later years, wearing a fedora and his signature grin — an image that brought to mind his throaty laugh.

Now came the sound of horns. Marching in from stage left, playing a New Orleans–style dirge, was the seventeen-piece Lincoln Center jazz band, led by Murray’s disciple Wynton Marsalis. From there, the celebration — and that is what this service was — began. More musical numbers, including an achingly beautiful bass clarinet solo by Joe Temperley, alternated with personal remembrances and with readings from Murray’s work by people including Judith Jamison and Jimmy Heath. (Marsalis’s reading from the novel Train Whistle Guitar made me think that if the trumpeter hadn’t settled for becoming the face of contemporary jazz, he’d have made a pretty decent actor.)

The only parts of the service that gave me trouble, and for reasons that rest entirely with me, were the personal tributes, most by people I’d never heard of. They were funny and poignant, they evoked Murray in all his loquaciousness, warmth, and irascibility, they made me miss him and feel happy that I’d known him, and they made me . . . okay, here it comes . . . jealous. Because Albert Murray was both a great man and something less than a household name, a small part of me always felt — ridiculously — as if I’d discovered him. (Click HERE for my tribute to him at City College back in ’97.) So who were these guys at the memorial service, talking about my friend? All right, so they had known him even longer, read his work even earlier, than I had; fine, so they had worked with him closely on some of his major projects, such as founding Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I hadn’t. What’s your point?

And then, unexpectedly, my inner adult piped up. Mr. Murray had a great many friends because he was very generous with his time, and it was owing to that quality that I got to know him at all. His generosity was in part what I was at the service to celebrate; as one person there put it, his willingness to give of himself probably cost him three or four more books. Maybe the way to repay him is to reflect just a little of his influence in works of our own.

Les Vampires

“You’re my dad,” my older daughter said, smiling in amusement and patting me on the shoulder. She had found me in nerd heaven: sitting at our dining table, Volumes 1 and 2 of the H. W. Wilson Company’s excellent World Film Directors open beside me, filling unlined pages of a very large notebook with information about foreign filmmakers whose works I had seen. Along with other facts, I wrote under each name who the director’s influences were, to see what patterns emerged, which names repeated. Roberto Rossellini was The Man in Italy, which was not news. Slightly more surprising, at least to me, was how many French directors idolized Charlie Chaplin. But the real discovery, the point of the whole exercise, was the number of French filmmakers—including Jacques Feyder, Julien Duvivier, and Alain Resnais—who had worked under or simply been inspired by one of their countrymen, a man whose name had been on the blurry edge of my mental radar screen: Louis Feuillade.

Feuillade (1873–1925), it turns out, is best remembered as the director of serials from the pre-sound era, including Les Vampires, Judex, and Fantomas. I recently checked out the ten-part  Les Vampires, from 1916, and I’m glad I did. The story concerns not vampires but a Paris newspaperman’s pursuit of the titular gang of thieves and murderers—a key member of whom is the harmless-looking but ruthless Irma Vep. (Rearrange the letters of her name and see what you get.) Les Vampires is atmospheric and entertaining: the scenes in the Vampires’ club/hideout, the Howling Cat cabaret, are evocative of the after-hours pleasures of a bygone era; and the shots of the Vampires stealing and doing other no-good deeds in blue-lit rooms late at night, then scampering away across Paris rooftops, are fun to see.

I’m not going to tell you that these silent, thirty- to sixty-minute episodes match, say, The Usual Suspects or Drive in terms of tension and intrigue, but I will say that part of the series’ charm is the refreshing absence of certain movie conventions, which Les Vampires does not so much eschew as predate. In a contemporary Hollywood version of the story, the newsman, Phillipe Guérande, would be played by Hugh Jackman (unless the movie was produced and directed by that racist, sexist loser Mel Gibson, who would insist on casting his too-old self). But in the 1916 version, Philippe—who appears to live with his mother!—is played by Édouard Mathé, whose earnest expression and slightly stooped shoulders make him look less like a leading man than like, well, a newspaper reporter. Then there is Irma Vep. She is portrayed by the actress/writer/director who went by the name of Musidora, a dark-haired, large-eyed woman with a body that, while perfectly nice, was not born from the marriage of a personal trainer and high-priced dietician; similarly, you don’t get the feeling that her every movement is calculated to arouse the men in the audience. The result is that Irma’s sexiness seems inadvertent, which makes it all the more powerful. (That said, she does sometimes don a form-fitting black jumpsuit for nighttime capers.) Plus: today it would be necessary, practically from the first scene, to establish sexual tension between the male hero and the female villain, but Philippe and Irma don’t have time for that foolishness; he has his work to do, she has hers. There is one movie convention that Les Vampires observes, and very well: comic relief. As Oscar Mazamette—the former, reluctant Vampire who now helps out Philippe—the balding and gigantic-nosed Marcel Lévesque makes me laugh just by showing up on the screen, and when he starts moving his face, fuhgeddaboudit.

If you need your heart to pound, you might want to stick with Ryan Gosling, but if you feel like something a little different, maybe a pleasant trip to the early days of cinema . . .

Post-Blackness, post Trayvon

In my post of April 2012, which is included in my book Love for Sale and Other Essays, I offered my thoughts on Touré’s book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Here is part of what I wrote:

The part of the book I personally found the most strange was the chapter “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened . . .” Airing his own feelings, sharing the thoughts of his interviewees, [Touré] essentially equates contemporary blackness with a state of perpetual self-consciousness, fear, and suspicion, with being stuck in the Harrison Ford/David Janssen role in a version of  The Fugitive that has no ending. From wondering what plum job racism may have cost you without your knowledge, to worrying that you’ll confirm stereotypes if you eat fried chicken or watermelon in front of white people, blackness is presented here as one blood-pressure-raising moment after another, from the time of waking until your head hits the pillow. I read this chapter with rising discomfort, feeling as if I were having dinner with someone who kept turning to address a third person I couldn’t see. I know, everyone knows, that racism has not gone away. Like every black person, I am forced to think about it; sometimes I think about it a lot. Does the subject make me angry? Damn right it does. But it is not the center of my life, which means, to my mind, that it has not defeated me.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin may make the views stated above seem naïve. The jury in that case concluded that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder—not guilty, after pocketing a weapon, following an unarmed kid who had done nothing to him, and taking that kid’s life. Zimmerman’s acquittal—even of the manslaughter charge—can be seen as making a mockery of the idea of justice and confirming that black males are something approaching an endangered species.

It is hard, especially right now, to argue with any of that. But as we rightly feel hurt and anger, as we rightly caution black boys about what they are up against, as we rightly seek other avenues of justice (I applaud the Justice Department’s decision to pursue a civil rights case against Zimmerman), maybe we can remember something else too.

Newspapers and books are full of statistics about black men’s overrepresentation in prisons, and that is certainly cause for grief. But can I tell you about some of the black men I know, friends and relatives of mine? One is pursuing both a PhD and an acting career; one makes a living as an editor; one has worked long and successfully to prepare minority students for college; one is the assistant pastor of a church; one commands a SWAT team; one chairs a department at a major university; one has had careers as a musician, photographer, and technical writer; one is a celebrated jazz pianist. I could go on. These men and I have had good lives—none of which would have been possible if we had accepted the “truth” that we were doomed from birth. And we are not as unusual as one might be led to think.

When I hear hyperbole to the effect that we are living in times not much better than the slave era, I consider it an insult to the work, sacrifices, and achievements of everyone from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers to Geoffrey Canada and Barack Obama. Worse, I worry that this doom-saying could act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For Lulu

“Take a number,” my friend said when I confessed to having a crush on a woman named Louise. The case is even more hopeless than my friend’s response makes it sound, and not just because I’m married. Louise died at seventy-eight in 1985.

The Kansas-born Louise Brooks left behind one immortal film from the silent era and one very good book. I saw the film, the Austrian director G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), for the first time several years ago and again just the other day, and the second viewing stood up to my memory of the first. As Lulu, Brooks has her signature look: dark, wide-set eyes framed by black hair worn in bangs and tapered to single quotes at the sides, a style that revealed the neck of a goddess. Brought to life by Brooks, Lulu is a stage performer and kept woman whose sexiness is matched only by her innocence; she moves through life in Berlin happily and mischievously but not cynically, treating sex not as a matter of profit but as an extension of her vitality. Her beauty and lightness of spirit bring out the darker sides of the men and at least one woman around her: her former pimp and first seducer (played by Carl Goetz); the newspaper publisher who marries her against his better judgment (Fritz Kortner, resembling the middle-aged Charles Foster Kane); the publisher’s pining son (Francis Lederer); a stage costume designer (Alice Roberts, playing the cinema’s first lesbian); and, finally, after circumstances have driven Lulu to London, Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). Pandora’s Box is a marvel in a number of ways, but I’ll limit myself to two: Pabst’s use of light and shadow, particularly in the London sequences, and Brooks’ performance as the charming, doomed Lulu, which is astounding when you realize that she conveys all that vitality, mischief, and innocence without speaking a word.

In a broad sense, life imitated art. Brooks, a romantic adventurer herself, was as much of a maverick in Hollywood as Lulu is in Europe, and when silent films gave way to talkies, a vengeful studio executive spread the word that Brooks’ voice was not suited to sound pictures. That lie effectively ended Brooks’ acting career. She was devastated, but her misfortune did not prevent—perhaps it even made possible—the discovery of another talent within herself.

Brooks’ Lulu in Hollywood was published in 1982 by Knopf and reissued by the University of Minnesota Press in 2000. The book collects the wonderful autobiographical essays and pieces on film that Brooks began writing in the 1950s. There are pictures, too, including stills from Pandora’s Box and Brooks’ other collaboration with Pabst, the 1929 film Diary of a Lost Girl (also considered a classic but marred by a hopelessly sentimental ending). Lulu in Hollywood is not the ghostwritten vanity project of a bubble-headed film star who got bored one day and decided it would be fun to see her name on the cover of a book.  Louise Brooks was a born writer. Here, for example, is part of her take on Humphrey Bogart:

“[N]othing but searching ambition could have enabled [Bogart] to see in Leslie Howard’s quiet, natural acting technique a style he could adapt to his own personality, a style that would prepare him for The African Queen. In that film he developed his character with his voice alone. Nothing but inflexible willpower could have enabled him to tear down his ingrained acting habits in order to submit all over again to the self-conscious agony of learning to act.”

From later in the same essay:

“In The Maltese Falcon his part was uncomplicated, but too much dialogue betrayed the fact that his miserable theatrical training had left him permanently afraid of words. In short speeches, he cleverly masked his fear with his tricks of mouth and voice, but when, in this film, he was allotted part of the burden of exposition, his eyes glazed and invisible comic-strip balloons circled his dialogue.”

One word of caution: If you read Lulu in Hollywood (and I hope you do), leave Kenneth Tynan’s long introduction until last. Originally a stand-alone piece in the New Yorker, it tells, with less eloquence, much of what Brooks is about to tell you herself. And, anyway, when it comes to being in Louise Brooks’ company, three’s a crowd.