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(no subject) [Aug. 16th, 2010|08:24 pm]
Whenever I visit LJ, I feel badly I don't post here more -- although virtually no-one I know here ever posts here (except for maybe 3 people), so it seems in certain ways "abandoned" compared to Facebook.

And yet this has always been a much better format for airing one's thoughts in a more substantial way than FB. But it's become a kind of alternate universe, where no-one comes any more. Very sad, in some way. :/
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on Philip K. Dick [Aug. 2nd, 2010|06:37 pm]
In reaction to a thread in an online film music group I belong to (a thread asking why Hollywood didn't just adapt something new of Philip K. Dick's rather than remaking TOTAL RECALL), I wound up posting this characteristically long-winded response. While it may echo or reproduce something else I probably posted about PKD in the distant past, I decided to post it here anyway:

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(no subject) [Jul. 12th, 2010|05:33 pm]
In response to this provocative essay in The Boston Globe:


Mr. Keohane has written an interesting and provocative article that nevertheless dances somewhat blindly around acknowledging that a huge part of the problem he is describing derives from the inescapable "fact" that Americans have lost the intuitive certainty that information sources or nearly any institution is telling them the truth about anything. If he is correct that "the more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are," then we should all acknowledge that the overwhelming problem in America today is that we have lost the ability to trust our sources of information. Part of our inevitable reliance on intuition and gut feeling is because we are collectively adrift in a surging sea of corporate-agenda-masquerading-as-public-policy from our government and most corporate media, and often when we grab for any stabilizing life-raft of reliable fact, it has eventually proven to be false or misleading or tainted by other agenda itself.

It is our entire national culture of information itself which has led us to distrust information we are given via any of the mainstream sources, which is why on some underlying level we feel "threatened," which reduces our open-mindedness. Can we be blamed for an almost Soviet style of distrust in our sources of information within the quicksand of propaganda which our public discussion has become? If we thought we could get objective facts reliably from somewhere, we might be able to relax enough as a nation to become more open-minded. But the realities of how anti-citizen our Federal government currently is (no matter which party is in charge), or how the majority of institutions are dedicated daily to misleading us (whether intentionally or unknowingly) into accepting some point of view for the long-term goal of profiting the survival of that institution or power structure rather than the greater benefit of the nation as a whole, coupled with the general cultural undercurrent of American society that teaches us that our underlying value system is based entirely on profit and gain rather than any kind of objective right-or-wrong principle-based existence, has created in America a "sick culture" which we intuitively sense does not "feel" right. Thus our ability to process information is poisoned by our deep intuitive sense that we are being lied to and misled every day, and that the nation is stampeding in some direction which does not "feel" in our best individual interests, no matter which side of the political spectrum we are on. We have to fend for ourselves, and have become inured to a barrage of contradictory reported interests perpetually masquerading as fact.

Undeniably the right and the left in this country have entrenched themselves in different versions of "resistance-to-information-which-does-not-fit-their-interpretation-of-the-world."
But being open-minded is incredibly difficult to pull off when the nature of truth itself is manipulated constantly by those in power. I managed to believe in what Obama campaigned on, for instance, only to find out that once he was elected, he entrenched himself in the existing corporate power structure and worked actively against the public and constitutional interests that motivated so many of us to elect him. I must assume that I am open-minded because when he started to clearly sell us out, I recognized it and had to adjust my interpretation of visible fact, so that I now have no faith or confidence in him at all (even though when no powerful financial interests have a stake otherwise in something, he may still manage to occasionally work for something I agree with, though it is rare and rather random-seeming). But ironically, on the Republican side, there are many in conservative media who still histrionically paint him as a subversive Socialist, despite the fact that in objective terms he is the furthest thing imaginable from even progressive values, let alone socialism. He is a committed corporatist, which most modern conservatives, were they able to stop and view him objectively, would recognize as "one of their own."

So this problem of being incessantly told, day after day, lies by government and media, is the real reason we have become so entrenched in our individual belief systems. We don't know who to trust and so we must trust ourselves, and hold onto the life-raft of things we hold to be self-evident, since we can't rely on the guidance or compass of mainstream informational sources. If I look honestly at my own situation, I can candidly say that the only media program where I thought I was actually reliably getting the genuine truth about anything was Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS, which is now off-the-air as Mr. Moyers has retired. I've also grown to trust that "The Young Turks" will provide me with a lot of truth, even though there is plenty of material there that I have to sift through with a grain of salt -- but by-and-large I feel that Cenk is not intentionally misleading me and is actively working at disseminating an objective view of principle-based observations of governmental events, even when the facts (very often these days) show that the workings of the political left in Washington is nearly as tainted in its own way as the agenda of the right is-- the difference of course being that right-wing media and power-structure is far more invested in intentionally misleading the segment of the public who have been "agitated" (to use a term from Keohane's essay) into a perpetual feeling of being "threatened," and to offer themselves (the conservative power structure) as the only way to resolve the ennui. Are the masses of the right-wing more gullible than those of the left-wing? Perhaps not innately, but they are certainly more massively (and cynically) misled by their Hannitys, Becks, and Limbaughs.

I think that this article does have something cogent to say, but the elephant in the room is that the symptoms being described here are the result of an overall culture in which Americans of every stripe have become customarily wary and distrustful of any information source, and so on some strong interior gut-level we have ceased believing, in the day to day way, that we are reliably "getting the facts" from anywhere within the tidal deluge of contradictory information in which we live. So our resistance to being manipulated in such studies (described in the article) wherein one is intentionally given wrong information and then given corrected information is so much like everyday real life that of course we're not going to respond very constructively to it.

It is telling that the researchers did find that in the one study where people were more willing to change their minds, "Kuklinski’s study... involved people getting information directly from researchers in a highly interactive way." I think the crux of the problem is visible in this statement: if, one-on-one, an individual can be given a fact directly by a person who is seen to reliably be a source of objective fact unbiased by self-serving agenda, that person will more readily process it as fact. But in our day-to-day lives, this isn't our experience. Instead we are pummelled daily by a hailstorm of agenda-filled factoids that we intuitively know are not to be trusted, no matter which side they come from. In a world that has devolved into Americans having no reliable source of fact, you can't then "blame us" for being resistant to the delivery of information from a deeply flawed and corrupt media culture. Fix that media, put a little of that "blame" back in public reporting and treatment of incessantly lying politicians and policy-makers on either side, and perhaps even the Boston Globe may be surprised to find that Americans are capable of intelligent responses to objective truth. If the media wants to report on the problems of our collective "cognitive dissonance," they must also face the fact that one of the prime carriers of this epidemic of cognitive dissonance is the media itself.
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PIQUE DAME [May. 2nd, 2010|10:04 pm]
Saturday night I had the great privilege of attending the final performance of Houston Grand Opera's production of Tchaikovksy's THE QUEEN OF SPADES, and in every way it was an evening I will expect to stay with me for a long time to come.

While it was impressive on numerous levels, its most profound effect on me was unquestionably the music itself. This is an enormous work by one of the greatest of all composers, and was vivid, living proof not only that powerful orchestral music can retain its relevance and immortality in our time, but also that Tchaikovsky's heart lived unmistakably in the theater.

Ambitious in scale, masterful in technique, texture, content and orchestration, Tchaikovsky not only sustains this enormous behemoth of a work with unfailing craft and confidence but literally propels it constantly forward with unflagging variety and invention. Time and time again, the opera shifts from melodrama to metaphor, from dramatically climactic textures to exquisitely lovely melody, from a cosmopolitan symphonic sophistication to traditional "Russianness," and from traditional 19th-century techniques to moments of near-Wagnerian orchestral power or soulful vocal expressionism. There are even two conspicuous homages to Tchaikovsky's beloved Mozart, one in the text (of a passage that Tomsky sings) and the other an extended classical "Pastorale" in Act Two of almost neoclassical proportions.

Surely this is Tchaikovsky's most "modernist" work, bravely and confidently so. It certainly is his most ambitious work, and it's rather stunning how much dramatic power he achieves, how many brilliant choices are made not only musically but in terms of the opera's dramatic potential. While this production may take things further visually than anything Tchaikovsky might have imagined, all the layers of psychological complexity are right there in the score (case in point: note how when Herman confronts the Countess in her room, the music quiets and then grinds down to a moment of complete silence even as Herman cannot sustain his conviction to kill, an effect which also then represents the stopping of the Countess' heart).

As a composer I could not help but feel deeply inspired by such compositional achievement, the likes of which we can rarely expect to encounter in our time. Clearly this is a model of fearless writing, of Tchaikovsky racing along in the fast lane and sustaining an almost superhumanly expert level of invention and creativity for 3 hours of uncompromised, fully committed music. There is perhaps no higher complement I can pay this piece than to say that it had much to teach me, both about music itself and about theater. For example, it was clear that while the score is filled with propulsive orchestral passages that wait for no-one, very often Tchaikovsky scored the arias in a totally different way that fully supported rubato and personal choices by the singers without any potential mishaps in the pit. To hear this practical distinction so clearly (and effectively) exercised by an experienced composer who knew exactly what he was doing (both in the artistic and practical senses) represented a lesson better taught by such expert example than via any textbook. Any work that leaves me at the end with the sense of "knowing more" about my own art is something to be treasured.

The production itself, originated by the Welsh National Opera, is ambitious as well, if a little on the austere side in terms of decor. But it is intelligent, provocative and with a few truly brilliant visual and interpretive elements, especially the puppets and the multiple uses of a special rolling bedroom. Curiously, the evening begins with the production's least compelling scene, a very minimalist three-bench park in which we gradually meet all the protagonists in a kind of scrolling tableau whose strongest visuals involve the adult and children's chorus. But the presentation of the exposition of the card story is very static indeed, redeemed only by the substantial acting gifts of Tómas Tómasson as Tomsky and by the piercingly passionate singing of tenor Vladimir Galouzine as Herman.

But as soon as this expositional scene concludes, we move immediately to the most sublimely effective sustained episode of the whole evening, the scene in Lisa's bedroom. In forced perspective we see her small room, with an odd skylight-window open to the sky. The room is filled with her young friends as she sings a gorgeous duet (from her bed) with her friend Pauline (sumptuously sung by Maria Markina, whose voice is just as impressive as that of any of the principals). In an almost audacious move, Tchaikovsky shuts down the orchestra completely and begins this scene with onstage piano only. It was during this moment, with its quiet melodic simplicity and austerely intimate texture coming after the more conventionally full-throttled expositional scene with its tutti histrionics from Herman, Tomsky & Company, that I began to sense palpably that I was in the hands of a genius, and in for a fascinating evening of contrasts.

Finally, when the friends leave, and Lisa (the vocally magnificent Tatiana Monogarova) lies awake singing of her mysterious admirer, the admirer himself appears in the skylight and sings back to her. The ensuing scene, as Herman eventually enters the room and pledges his love to a conflicted Lisa, is the most emotionally moving passage in the entire opera, and the staging helps achieve this brilliantly through such physical motifs such as Lisa pressing herself against a wall in muted denial of her passion or in tentative handholds between the erstwhile lovers when they are not facing each other. (Herman even asks her "why are you crying" when he cannot see that she is crying, which subtextually "feels" in this production like an expression of their essential connection). This scene made me weep, the only time during the opera in which I had that emotional a reaction.

In Act Two, Scene 1, puppetry is introduced in a brilliant fashion to tell the metaphorical "pastorale" story which is a microcosmic variation of the larger narrative (and yet another layer of contrasts from Mr. Tchaikovsky). Fortunately, the device by which the puppets roles are sung by principals gives us another chance to listen to the principals, including Ms. Markina. The whole party-and-pastorale as staged is fascinating and gloriously successful, ending with a high-powered choral anthem to Catherine the Great in full-tilt Russian nationalist mode, bringing the large chorus downstage "in one" to fill the hall with Tsarist fervor.

We are back to the bedroom set for Scene Two, in which the underlying creepiness of the story itself begin to to be felt in claustrophobic staging involving such elements as the Countess' portrait, her nostalgic singing of Grétry music, a bathtub, a phalanx of maids, and Herman's ironic golden crown and pistol. Here if anywhere, Tchaikovsky outdoes the director and designers, creating even more a sense of suspense, doom and encroaching madness than either the staging or setting can match. As the curtain falls, we have turned the corner into the chaotic tragedy which is to come.

In Act 3, the designers triumph again by taking the rather static "letter-reading" and insomniac soliloquy of Herman and placing it in a gigantic bed in a tiny bedroom as viewed from above, complete with both a magical effect of dropping the letter to the floor and, later, in another tour-de-force of puppetry, having the ghost of the Countess join Herman in his bed. Scene 2 returns us to the three-bench park of the opera's opening, as Ms. Monogarova fills the empty space with thrilling singing and acting as she waits with increasing dread for Herman to arrive. Tchaikovsky emphasizes material which evokes his late symphonies and even, curiously, the music of Schumann, another composer Tchaikovsky admired. This scene contains the production's one blatant anachronism -- a plastic bag in which Herman carries his moneybox -- but the director seemingly uses this anomaly intentionally (hold on, dramaturgs!), drawing our attention to it and then using it to very modern effect as though a contemporary deus ex machina has been teleported into the 19th century to advance the tragedy.

Finally, the production pushes us into an intensely agitated final scene: an amazingly surrealist version of the gambling room, with the male chorus and all male principals crammed into the small bedroom along with a huge tilted table on which most of the action of the finale takes place in a kind of Bruegel- or Dali-esque frenzy. The male chorus shines here in traditional "Russian Male Chorus" fashion, though there is an edge of drunken madness to most of the proceedings. The production's only seeming miscalculation occurs here: Tomsky sings his raucous ode to women while playfully molesting a random man-in-drag-and-makeup. The moment feels out of place despite the potential resonances to Tchaikovsky's own inner turmoils because it is not staged strongly or surrealistically enough to become a metaphor for latent misogyny (or latent anything else, really), nor does it make the presence of the drag-queen seem organic to the event taking place realistically. Unlike the plastic bag, it doesn't "pay off," so winds up taking the audience slightly "out of the story" in a literal way without later using this element to make a greater point. It doesn't suggest any particular relevant subtext, so it feels random rather than organic to the production -- so one has to conclude it was the one device that "doesn't work." (It's not the presence of the homosexual element that doesn't work -- indeed its presence might have made sense if handled differently -- it's the fact that it is not effectively contextualized in any way that makes it seem coherently relevant to the scene).

But despite that momentary sense of contextual derailment, the work nevertheless climaxes with great intensity in these extended and declamatory final moments, with even a final macabre appearance of puppetry to push it all over-the top. [I couldn't help observing however that as in SWEENEY TODD, we are slightly less moved emotionally by Herman's tragic ending because he had already callously allowed or caused the deaths of other characters we cared about as he moved into a place of amoral madness. Contrast this with the final scene of Stravinsky/Auden's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, in which Anne comes to visit our hero in the asylum and sings him to sleep without his knowing who she is -- that conclusion is far more emotionally devastating because it is Tom himself who has suffered the ultimate effects of his actions, not those people he loved. For my tastes this makes more effective tragedy, though exceptions like OTHELLO abound].

It was interesting to read afterward that Tchaikovsky himself, along with his brother Modest, wrote the libretto, because there were many moments which felt somehow more "Western European" in their expressions and word choices (for example: toasting with "hurrah" instead of "slava" or "nasdravye") and the sensibilities as a whole seem to sometimes eschew the more straightforwardly Russian. Watching the opera I found myself wondering how Tchaikovsky had found a Russian librettist who was as much of a European polyglot as he was -- even the names of the characters are "westernized" from the original Pushkin. To then find out that Tchaikovsky wrote it himself answers the question handily. Subsequent reading of the notes even revealed that Tchaikovsky composed the work in Florence, and also, amazingly, that he composed it in only a few months of concentrated effort. I cannot exaggerate enough the usefulness to a composer to be able to work on nothing but a single large work for several months with no other work distracting him -- it's a luxury we rarely get these days because most of what we write has to be done in bits and pieces between more menial concerns, with momentum and "flow" lost over and over again, unless a commission ensures the ability to concentrate on just the one thing. If there was ever a work which argues strongly in favor of letting a composer really immerse himself or herself exclusively in one large creative task for a period of time, it is THE QUEEN OF SPADES.

The evening was filled with a sense of unusual achievement from end to end. I don't think you could find a better Herman or Lisa than Mr. Galouzine and Ms. Mongarova, and surely most productions wouldn't have a Pauline as vocally sublime as Ms. Markina. I would have sworn that the fellow who played the Prince was not Russian at all, given his curiously unconvincing singing in Russian (almost as though some random midwestern baritone had been thrown into the mix), but his name (Vasily Ladyuk) and his bio assure me he is very much a Russian. He was handsome and acted well, but was not on the same level vocally as the other principals in this production. Conversely, I assumed the powerful, dramatically assured Tómasson must be Russian, but he turned out to be Icelandic. Even Judith Forst as the Countess made a poignantly indelible impression in a role which is admittedly the antithesis of bravura.

The chorus was impressive throughout (especially as they were given quite a bit of movement and choreographic staging), as was the children's chorus, who appear briefly early on with more than a whiff of the pungent Soviet era yet to come when the opera was written. But my warmest sustained admiration throughout the evening went to the magnificent playing of the HGO Orchestra under the baton of Carlo Rizzi. This was a world-class orchestral performance of an extremely demanding work, and their playing was a triumph by any standard. Rizzi (of whom I had a clear view all evening) impressed me as a calmly affable, unruffled yet authoritative leader of the proceedings, conducting with clarity, intelligence and enthusiasm, giving singers the moments of rubato and passion they seemed to want and yet pushing the score ahead with alacrity and taste without any sense of haste, compromise or insecurity. In terms of balance, ensemble and a fierce atmosphere of concentrated collective unity, this orchestra shone as one of the true stars of the evening. It's hard to imagine this colossal work being played any better anywhere in the world.

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(no subject) [Apr. 24th, 2010|07:04 pm]
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ÉN LESZEK A JÁTÉKSZERED [Apr. 6th, 2010|01:39 am]
I just listened to Beáta Palya's new album (arranged and produced by Samu Gryllus) from one astonishing end to the other. Who knew it was going to be such an ambitious, audacious, wild musical circus of an album, with extended moments of controlled anarchy alternating with oases of quiet beauty and transitions of musique concrète? Bea had shared many of the individual songs with me before, while the album was in gestation, but somehow in the context of this strange and wonderful album, the material as a whole weaves a magical total fabric that is much greater than the sum of its fascinating individual parts.

It is "an album of covers," but it journeys through such a wide range of approaches and styles that it's like nothing you've ever heard before -- in part because surely no-one's ever made an album quite like this before. It never "stops," because each song merges into transitional tracks which have "found audio" of dialogue, aleatoric musical content or foreshadowing elements of the next song. There is never a time when the album comes to a complete stop except very near the end of the CD. (The last two tracks seem to stand alone as a kind of quiet epilogue to the long journey).

The source material is fascinating: mostly Hungarian songs from the country's Soviet-dominated era. This results in a rather surprising variety of musical styles, some distinctively Magyar in character, but many with pop sensibilities, jazz inflections, or a "cabaret" personality. Bea shifts masterfully from one approach to another, singing with velvety quiet smoothness on one song, with full-volume folk ornamentation or vocalized percussiveness on another, shifting easily from intimacy to Balkan Dance Party mode from track to track, seemingly with no limitations ever indicated. At the very least this collection is a vocal tour-de-force for Bea, and Samu matches her variety with a kaleidoscope of arrangements and production approaches that would be the envy of any producer anywhere. Nothing ever settles into what you would expect, yet constantly provokes and delights, demanding (and getting) the most from some of Hungary's finest players.

From the very outset Bea provokes us by taking what is presumably a seductive love song in a seemingly quasi-ABBA mode (called "Let Me Be Your Plaything") and then transforming it with rebellion, shouting "no!" over and over again, screaming, and generally in every way rejecting the docile pliancy of the original persona in the song. Underneath the band thrashes furiously, especially a frenetic soprano sax solo (presumably Balazs Szololay Dongo, though I've not yet seen the album credits).

While Bea gives us plenty of earthily earnest songs along the way, late in the proceedings there appears an extended side-trip that defies description: a suite of three tracks in a row based on a song called "Amerika." It all begins with a strange instrumental introduction (seemingly mixed from elements recorded separately) in which a drumset, a cello and an insistent tuba all riff in completely different characters over an extended distorted conversation between Bea, Samu and others. Stephen Foster is "quoted," Bernstein's "West Side Story" is referenced, but then eventually Bea begins the song itself and gradually the instruments (which now include a klezmeresque soprano sax or taragot) join along, almost reluctantly, before building momentum into a manic "Verbunk" which then disintegrates.
When it all finally concludes in a frenzy of almost surrealist proportions, the instrumentalists begin a deconstructive improvisatory-seeming new episode in which more Stephen Foster and other elements are explored (under more dialogue), before Bea reprises the song in the third track. The three tracks teeter between the humorous anarchy of the Bonzo Dog Band and a kind of intentional dark irony, progressive jazz impulses and improvisatory modernist "spaciness" that seem to merge the personalities of all these musicians with the complexity of Samu himself.

Bea and Samu made two previous albums together, one Bea's charming children's album "Álom-álom, kitalálom" in 2004, then arguably the most ambitious album Bea has ever made (before this one), a musical adaptation of poetry by Weöres Sandor called "Psyché," a year later. Both of these fine albums combined folk sources with original material by both Bea and Samu, and "Psyché" especially is an sustained triumph on every level, even without my being able to understand the poetry upon which it is all based. At a certain point they turned "Psyché" into a theater piece, but even just as an album it's a gem that never disappoints, as the spontaneity of folk music is deftlycombined with the subtle organization of "composed" material.

In the years since, Samu has travelled personally in the direction of rather more austere concert music, aleatoric processes, atonality and very progressive theater music (including time spent studying music here in the US on a Fulbright scholarship), while Bea has intensified her own approach to adapting folk materials and suffusing them with her own lyrics and reinterpretations, developing a deeply personal style as both a performer and as a person that generates a primal, archetypal earthiness through which she communicates deeply rooted human qualities that transcend any language barrier.

A year ago Bea released "Just One Voice" ("Egyszálének"), a bold solo album in the truest sense: mostly only Bea, a capella, with minimal use of other musicians, and layered with her own vocalized percussion or vocal overdubs. The album began and ended with a recording (from the 1960s) of her grandfather, and there are echoes of that "found audio" concept developed extensively throughout this new album.

Reuniting now several years later, Samu and Bea are much different people than they were in their previous collaborations, and somehow they have outdone themselves in the strangest of categories: an album of covers. Bea sings in a myriad of styles and excels in all of them. Samu brings truly eccentric textures, unique and fascinating instrumental doublings or textures and occasionally totally surprising accompaniment choices. Long-time musician colleagues of both artists bring their joyous artistry (and rapport with Bea) to the fore here, most notably master percussionist András Dés and the aforementioned woodwind virtuoso Balázs, but there are many other wonderful musicians as well.

From track to track you'll literally have no idea what you're going to hear next, and everything works on its own terms and yet benefits in some incalculable way by the gradual momentum of hearing each song juxtaposed with a contrasting neighbor, never stopping and continually journeying outward into new ideas. It is an endless source of surprise, even if you've heard any of the songs before, full of quirkily magnificent choices from everyone involved. There are even two covers of American songs, Whitney Houston's "My Love is Your Love" and a raucously Balkan version of Stevie Wonder's "Part-Time Lover."

By stringing all these ideas and songs and textures into a non-stop montage of creativity and often hauntingly good music, Bea and Samu have achieved a genuine masterpiece of Brechtian proportions, like nothing either of them has done before. I'm amazed, literally.

I couldn't post some pictures of Bea and Samu together (they wouldn't work as an outside link) but you can view them here on this page:
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Notes for a March evening.... [Mar. 28th, 2010|12:13 am]
I’ve been thinking this evening about those people I have, at various times in my past, really been very much in love with. I’ve gotten used to the idea that I will probably be a solo act for the remainder of my life, and yet with only one exception I don’t look back with any regret toward those relationships, even if no one of them survived into perpetuity or marriage.

In one case I clearly prevented that outcome from happening, and there’s no escaping that I’ve always regretted my complicity in thwarting my own overwhelming potential long-term happiness and growth with that person. That relationship still haunts me to this day, because she felt so much like “the person I could have been with for the foreseeable rest of my life” that the loss of that shared specialness, that sense of intimate inevitability, that subtle awareness of the metaphysical being somehow gently expressed in even the modest interactions of the day-to-day, has remained a quietly empty place within my identity for 20 years now.

I have of course loved since then, and appreciate greatly those people who welcomed that love and shared it for a time. By my reckoning, I was a part of only four truly serious relationships, ones that held that unmistakable power of what truly felt like transcendence to me, and I hope felt something like that to the other person as well. Each of those four women I was deeply in love with were wonderful, intelligent, complex individuals who fascinated me as people, whom I admired, and whom I was very proud to be with when among other people. Except for my very first significant relationship (with someone with whom I’ve now totally lost touch since about 1998, so I have no idea what she’s doing or how her life has turned out in the past 12 years), I continue to admire those women, continue to be proud of them, continue to feel the same effortless love for them, though of course the intensity is diminished.

But inevitably I also find myself contemplating the various people, regardless of gender, throughout one’s life that one loves without any component of sexual expression being involved. Those deep friendships or bonds – either blissfully relaxed with easy familiarity or occasionally self-consciously awkward from being unable to analyze the nature of them, some joyous with clarity, others tinged with slight confusion -- are perhaps easier to hang onto, harder to lose, because the riskiest layer of intimacy is never broached.

As one gets older, those relationships that have a certain sense of ongoing, reliable or relatively unconditional “devotion” from one or the other side (or both), seem to gain in value as one gradually realizes over the years just how evanescent so many other things can be, with the passage of time. Years ago I might have wondered “will I know this person all of my life? Or is this just important right now?” But a lot of years have gone by, and it’s much easier to discern just how important some of those very long-term friendships are – even when you don’t see or talk to some of those people all the time. Many of the people you love become a true “family” to you. And somehow I always seem to be seeking new significant and meaningful associations with new people. Sometimes it surprises me that I seem to be driven to do so, though perhaps this quest is because there is no one pre-eminent significant other in my life.

I have no conclusions to draw from any of this. I’ve had no epiphany of insight on this topic tonight. I’ve just been thinking how important it is, in any life, to love. And to be loved in return (as the songwriter of “Nature Boy” seemed to insist on so eloquently). It does not appear that I’m ever going to have children of my own, so I will apparently not experience that kind of parental love. And yet, whatever situation any human being finds himself or herself in, it seems to me that one of the few things that can really keep us going is to know with certainty that we have loved. That we do love. That we experience love, one way or another. It’s hard to imagine how bleak life would seem without that. There are plenty of aspects of life about which I feel essentially clueless, totally without much conviction that I will ever really be able to figure out where I stand, on which terrain, or truly understanding on which bearing I am headed. The world-at-large can seem like quite a cipher to me.

But in spite of all that perplexes me, I remain perpetually grateful that music and certain other forms of art have never lost their meaning for me, nor their ability to transmit certain reassuring values even within a world I can't always comprehend in so many other ways. And I am also grateful that I do know what love feels like, that I haven’t had to live without it being a part of my life, and that is always somewhat present, quietly nourishing my spirit from one direction or another, and staving off despair. I don’t take that for granted, ever, because I think I know how bleak life would be without that awareness of love, in its many forms – spiritual, personal, platonic, affectionate, familial, even still occasionally metaphysical -- to reassure me.

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ZERO HOUR! [Mar. 20th, 2010|10:56 pm]
Nearly every American of our generation has seen AIRPLANE!, the comedy classic that put Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker on the map as successful Hollywood filmmakers. The movie was essentially an elaborate parody of an existing "disaster movie" from the 50s called ZERO HOUR! Recently Turner Classic Movies had the inspired idea to show the two films back-to-back.

I didn't watch AIRPLANE! again. I've seen it a dozen times by now in my life, including in the theater when it first came out, a laugh-out-loud personal comedy epiphany if ever there was one -- I can even remember the theater I saw it in: the Showcase West outside of Pittsburgh. So I decided to give ZERO HOUR! a casual look, mostly out of curiosity to see just how alike the two films were.

The similarities are many, even down to the main character's name of Ted Striker. Other verbatim shared motifs include:

1. The child visiting the cockpit and having the pilot's arm around him.

2. The panicky woman raving "I've got to get OUT of here, gotta get OUT of here!" and being shaken by another passenger and stewardess.

3. A white-haired doctor "taking charge" in a deadpan manner.

2. "Throw every light you've got on the field."

3. "I guess I picked the wrong day to stop smoking."

4. "I just want to tell you both: we're all counting on you."

and numerous other clear or subtle similarities, including the way many of the shots are set up. This wasn't really a surprise, given how openly the writer/directors of AIRPLANE! have always cited ZERO HOUR! as not only their inspiration but literally their "bible" for the scripting and shooting of their film.

Yet here's the surprise: even though I know the whole story from AIRPLANE!, and associate the story with comedy and big laughs, I still found ZERO HOUR! a taut, suspenseful, well-crafted, highly effective film in its own right. It seems almost impossible that the same exact story, associated for nearly two decades with one of the funniest movies of our lives, could also work so successfully as a drama.

I've watched AIRPLANE! again and again over the years. I watched ZERO HOUR! out of mostly curiosity adjunct to my affection for the later film. Yet, quite frankly, I'd readily watch ZERO HOUR! again on its own terms. It's a solid film that does not suffer a bit from being in the shadow of its far more famous parody.
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Rahm Emanuel [Mar. 8th, 2010|06:45 pm]
The New York Times has stepped into the fray of "defending" Rahm Emanuel. I have no patience for that. In response to a posting of the NY Times article on my friend Nichole's Facebook, I wrote this rant, so I thought I'd copy paste it here. Here's the Times article:


And here is my rant. :)


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YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU [Feb. 28th, 2010|06:32 pm]
The 1938 Frank Capra adaptation of Kaufman & Hart's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU happened to be on TCM this morning, and while it's a film I remember not caring much for when I first saw it (15 or 20 years ago?) I decided to give it another try.

It's a real curiosity, because it has a spectacular cast, and there's so much about it that "should be" charming. But I find it one of the least convincing of the early Capra classics, because somehow it just seems unfocused and unconvincing in terms of its Depression-era tale of folksy old-fashioned American spirit challenging the cold-heartedness of business. Certainly it's a story whose relevance has become even more acute in the last year or two here in the USA, and I suppose I was viewing it this morning through a slightly different lens than many years ago, and yet I still find it strangely unsatisfying.

In the meantime, I actually saw the play itself (in Ted Pappas' ebullient PPT production) several years ago, and enjoyed it immensely. I didn't know what to expect from the play, and many of the characters and occurences are similar, but the play had an organization and flow and subtlety that is not matched by the way Capra opens up the story to Kirby's office, Jimmy Stewart & Jean Arthur's courtship "at work," a courtroom scene, an ominous "boardroom" scene, etc. The only set-piece outside of the Sycamore house that really works for me in Capra's version is the scene in the jailhouse, where the privileged rich and desperate poor (called "scum" by Kirby) are thrown together in incarceration.

Clearly there is plenty in the film that is not Kaufman & Hart at all, but rather screenwriter Robert Riskin. This need be no liability, as Riskin wrote or co-wrote some of the finest Depression-era screen comedies and satires of all time (including Capra's own classics "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Meet John Doe").

This film is ambitious, has a lot of kinetic energy and is overflowing with great performances by great actors. It's one of Lionel Barrymore's most endearing screen performances, in fact. And yet, for me, the whole is noticeably less than the sum of its impressive parts. Somehow the story doesn't really add up -- we never really understand Kirby and his wife, and since Kirby's life as a ruthless capitalist is never really clear to us, his attempts at "converting"back to humanity don't have the ring of a kind of conviction that could have made this film "say" more. Moreover, the secondary members of the Sycamore family are lost in the shuffle of a kind of surreal background blur of eccentric behavior which never allows any of them to feel like real people (and I seem to recall that every family member was well-delineated in the play).

The end result is that this film somehow falls short of delivering either the genius of Kaufman & Hart OR the genius of Capra. It has all the Capra earmarks and favorite themes, but somehow it doesn't congeal into a convincing package. We are somewhat moved emotionally by the end of the film, no question, but there is none of the catharsis of Mr. Deeds, John Doe, Lady for a Day or George Bailey. This film aims for that catharsis, but never quite achieves it. It's still entertaining (how could it not be, with this pedigree of talent before and behind the camera?) but although I found it slightly more palatable than my original experience of it, long ago, it still somehow misses the mark for me.

Lest this seem like random old-film heresy, let me admit that I have the same reaction to the supposed Howard Hawks "classic" "Bringing Up Baby." I find it shrill, unfunny, forced, annoying and virtually without charm. Imagine how many people disagree with me on THAT one! Although I otherwise love Hawks' work, and most of the fine screwball comedies of the era.

"You Can't Take It With You" was preceded on TCM this morning by "The Philadelphia Story." Now THERE's a film, adapted from a play, that gets absolutely everything right. A masterpiece! :)
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