Archive for August, 2011

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Working Girls: Cate Blanchett in “Uncle Vanya,” The Kennedy Center. August 6, 2011

She was an excellent Yelena because her ambition and unvanquished aura of health have found a match playing a woman who cannot die but is aggrieved to live. One worried for her as Hedda Gabler and again as Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar Named Desire” (all Sydney Theatre Company productions, where Blanchett is co-director with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton) because she struggled so to fit her neat large bones in characters bodies that repelled Blanchett’s hard work, and optimism. Yelena is dissatisfied, but she has an intellegence that works outside herself, which neither Hedda nor Blanche can do. When Blanchett made her curtain call, I was touched to notice that as she ran offstage, and then returned, her body had found its proper stage

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The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

I started to read when I was about ten years old. I didn’t read children’s books, or fairy tales. I read books that were available to me, which is to say books that were assigned to me in English class in the public school I went to, near the Brooklyn Museum. I seem to remember that the books we were assigned–fiction mostly–were on a list–the Scholastic Book Club?–and I loved reading them because they didn’t so much reflect my life as have some relationship to it. I suppose books like Alice Childress’ “A Hero Ain’t Nothing But A Sandwich,” were meant to warn the primarily black and Hispanic student body about the dangers that would inevitably inform our lives, but what I loved about those books were their generally first-person immediacy, and the interiority of the characters. One novel we read was by a man named Paul Zindel–”My Hamburger, My Love.” Another: “Go Ask Alice,” about a young female drug addict. In those pre-Wikipedia days, you had to really be interested to find out something about a particular author, or follow their career. I was so taken with Paul Zindel’s 1969 novel that I went in search of his other books. He was writing about a world I understood: one where fathers weren’t so much non-existent as a thing of the past; the emotional center of his plays are ruled by women who mask some essential hurt through laughter, and regret. I had an aunt like the mother in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning play,””The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Mood Marigolds.” I had a grandmother like the old woman in the same play, and whom the girls call “Nanny,”  And because I so loved Zindel,  I wrote a monologue about my aunt in the Zindel style, and another one about my grandmother. In each piece I tried to approximate his everyday, dramatic language, and how he contrasted hope and bitterness, nearly on the same page. In 1973 Paul Newman directed the film version of the play. I went to see it. The colors were just like the colors I imagined while reading the play: gray and some blue, a dead grass color mixed with bad pink skin.  It was clear to me at once that Joanne Woodward, who starred as the cruel mother, was essentially too kind a person to play that part. In any case, I was more taken with an actress named Nell Potts, who portrayed Woodward’s sensitive, very quiet, and watchful daughter. I didn’t know that Potts was Newman and Woodward’s actual daughter. In the film I fell in love with how the beautiful and solemn Potts played her character’s obsession with science–like a fact. It didn’t feel so very different from my obsession with words, with writing. Around the same time, I discovered other writers, like Herman Raucher, who wrote “The Summer of ’42,’” and a novel called “Class of ’44,” and my favorite, a movie called “Buster Loves Billie,” a horrible tale about small town Southern prejudice inspired by the Bobbie Gentry song, “Ode to Billie Joe.”  In addition to everything else I lived in a pre-World War II or rural Southern world then. Babysitting my sister’s kids in Brooklyn, I couldn’t put down Irwin Shaw’s “Rich Man, Poor Man,” or Herman Wouk’s “Youngblood Hawke.” I loved those books, and even after I did a little more research and discovered that “Hawke” was in part based on the life of Thomas Wolfe, and that I could read Thomas Wolfe, and did, and that Zindel had probably been influencecd by someone named Tennessee Williams, and that Newman’s version of Zindel’s domestic drama presaged the look of films like Robert Altman’s “Three Women,” or the colors I imagined while reading Joan Didion’s 1977 novel, “A Book of Common Prayer,” I still look to literature, and to films, for what Potts, and Zindel, and Raucher, and others gave me first: fairy tales that weren’t so much instructive, as conversations I could feel.

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Maybe Racism Won’t Kill Me After all

In recent weeks, I had to spend time in a New England city. I was looking for an apartment. During the search, I reached out to a number of people I hardly knew. One was a middle-aged man I’d had a brief flirtation with–brief because he was married. I didn’t know his wife, or anything about her. He was very helpful, my acquaintance; he told me where to eat, and where to live. We met up for dinner one night; his wife came along. She was much younger than her husband (who is white) and not white. We went off to dinner, and during the course of the meal, she told me about her mother, an immigrant whose first home in America was in a predominately black city. This woman’s mother tried to prove she wasn’t racist by talking about her understanding and compassion all the time. Of course, my friend’s wife was happy to reveal just how racist her mother was by recounting several instances that proved just that. At a certain point, I said to my female dinner companion: “It’s weird that your mother is racist, considering your family’s not white.” From the first it was clear to me that by marrying what she considered up–that is, by marrying a white man–this woman thought she’d passed into a hierarchical world where her association with white maleness kept her scarily, excitingly, in the “passing”  zone, whereas my black queerness was another story altogether. And she wanted her husband to know that. (Her straight white male was the only audience that mattered to her. And she thought he should matter to me, too.)  After relieving myself of this tiresome company, I reveled in my ability to say anything to that woman at the time, given that racism generally leaves one silent, stunned: it takes a long time to unchoke from the condescending bile that people vomit into one’s mouth. Also, there is the memory of what generally follows a racial slur: physical violence. I’ve been lynched and burned over and over again. My friend’s wife frightened me more than any white man could, because she came at her hatred and fear sideways; it was something she’d thought about. Perhaps I got over my reluctance to say anything to this woman because her gender wasn’t my first consideration. (I was raised to never hit a lady). But what’s a poor queer to do in a world where social bashing, and racism, isn’t restricted to white men anymore? The racism I’ve experienced in recent years has been generated, for the most part, by women. Is this the new passing? The outcome of our post feminist world, where, in trying to make it in male dominated universe, it’s cool to identify with the oppressor by behaving just as badly, unthinkingly, as he has, and does? While I have always loved my sisters in the struggle, I keep an eye out now for the various forms the will to power can take, too, and without letting any of it break my heart.

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Connie Britton

I come late to “Friday Night Lights.” So late, in fact, that this most remarkable of television series doesn’t exist anymore, which is perfect in itself: it’s hard to top the inspiration that serials worth watching require to keep going, and, even though I’m barely into the third season of this five season wonder, I wouldn’t want any of the incredibly skilled cinematographers and editors (who are as crucial to the look of the show as any of the stars) to eventually lack, or worse yet, feed off of, their past inspiration in seasons to come. Here’s what got me first. That the show was actually cinema. While the innovative cinematographer, Haskell Wexler’s, influence is everywhere–lens to the sun, camera angles that convey something of the rawness and unsettled feel of a Southern landscape–the show’s cinematographers brought a burnished warmth to the characters that Wexler wouldn’t. (Indeed, when Wexler is feeling warmly toward a given person, he lays on the guaze.) But all of the characters–particularly the coach and his wife, played by Connie Britton–come to us with their own High Definition (HD) feelings anyway. Particularly Britton. I had never seen her before this show. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, where her father worked as a physicist, the now forty-four year old actress studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. (Another famous alumn: Diane Keaton.) She first became familiar to audiences on a TV show called “Spin City,” which I have never seen. And I wouldn’t have seen “Friday Night Lights,” either, had it not been for the insistence of certain friends who talked about the writing and casting with a reverence generally reserved for cinema. Britton’s performance doesn’t borrow from the stage–she knows what the camera is for, and what it magnifies, and how improvisation within the confines of a script adds what writers generally can’t think of, since they live their characters in a different way–but from her relationship to the other characters. Like all good mothers, she knows who she is, even as she waits for others to discover themselves, and those aspects of herself that she parcels out, for fear they’d drown in her love and understanding if she showed up all at once. With her long tousled American beauty hair (she won’t give up her young popular Texas girl days for anyone), and “Really?” look of incredulity when her husband or child or student does makes yet another bone-headed move, Britton’s Tami Taylor speaks with a twang and thoughtfulness that dictates where and when she’ll position her body during a particular scene; she’s aware that language is physical and that one’s physicality is visual. Britton’s sun freckled body never threatens to overwhelm the other characters, but she never goes away. She fights for comprehension, even as it eludes her. Years ago, Myrna Loy was always cast as the perfect wife. But surely there’s room for Britton on that mantle, whose directness and truth as a performer rests in our mouth like something freshly brewed–and home grown American.

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Glodeane and Barry

I miss Glodeane. As Barry White’s muse and inspiration for a number of years, the Long Beach, California, native, along with her sister, Linda, developed their skills as vocalists in the church choir before meeting up with their third–Linda Taylor. Together, the girls worked as the Croonettes, making their way as best they could in a world where there was no shortage of black, girl singers, until providence arrived in the form of blue-suited, big-chested, and marcelled Barry White (1944-2003). The ultimate impresario signed them to a deal, and produced two of the most unforgettable soul records of the nineteen-seventies: “Walking In The Rain (With The One I Love),” And “I Belong To You.” It was the latter tune that inspired one of my first short stories, published in a Columbia University magazine called Upstart, where the narrator fell in love with Love Unlimited, as Barry christened the singers. The narrator of that story was also in love with a Jewish boy, but Glodeane was his star–she of the white halter, dangerously full hair, dangerously long, vividly colored fingernails curled about her hips. That image was emblazoned on Love UnLimited’s brilliant 1972 album, “In Heat.” One loved Barry not just because of his orchestrations–he was a kind of smushy Duke Ellington, but with a different brand of cool; mostly it was in his voice, and his serious schmaltz; he gave the world violins in soul music, and that helped spawn Chic, etc–but because he loved Glodeane, too. The couple married in 1974, and they were the precursor to Faith and Biggie, both oversized, and perspiring so memorably in white furs as they rolled around Beverly Hills, pressed. One album cover I looked at over and over again during those years featured Barry sitting at a white piano, with Glodeane leaning near him at the piano, looking as hot and subtle as an inspiration. One can hear a bit of Barry and a tad of Glodeane in what has become my summer jam: Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Closer.” I was only marginally interested in Rae when she came out with her first album in 2006. I wasn’t really much interested in how she was being packaged: as the very image of innocuous English multiculturalism, and on a bicycle, lethargically romping in a sun dappled world of butterflies and twisted hair. She didn’t make me want to “put my records on,” as her hit single commanded. Then I forgot about her. Indeed, I only became reacquainted with her singing when she performed with Al Green on 2008′s “Take Your Time.” I was living in a part of Massachusetts then where I needed something real. Then the snow thawed, and I forgot about Rae again until I heard “Closer,” on 98.7KISS FM several weeks ago. I sort of couldn’t believe it. For there, in the violins and syncopation, the little girl insinuation, was a singer who sounded as though she had somehow found herself in Barry’s archives, and managed to channel the feelings he had for Glodeane in his orchestrations, while getting at the root of what Glodeane gave Barry: her brilliant joy in collaboration, which is a less common form of intimacy.


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Polly Platt (1929-2011)

In those days, I used to approach potential profile subjects informally. You never know. One such potential subject that interested me was the brilliant Polly Platt. First, I loved the sound of her name–a distinctly American moniker that sounded like mud going plop on a bumpy sidewalk in the sun. Then, there was the work itself. As the wife of a young and ambitious director named Peter Bodganovich , Platt influenced American film in ways that I found equally if not more fascinating than actually directing a film. While her credit was generally production designer on indelible movies like “The Last Picture Show,” and “Paper Moon,” Platt was more than that. She served as co-screenwriter on some projects (she received sole credit for her 1978 screenwriting effort, “Pretty Baby”) while also steering Bogdanovitch’s eye to stars that could make all the difference. One such discovery was a young model named Cybill Shepherd; Polly saw her on a Mademoiselle magazine cover and thought she would be perfect for the role of the spoiled rich girl dying of boredom in a small town in “The Last Picture Show.” Shepherd was, and she snapped her director up in the process. But I was less interested in the drama of Platt’s private life than in her process of intellection. Dressing Tatum O’Neal in the famous tuxedo she wore when she picked up her Oscar for “Paper Moon”; helping Wes Anderson get “Bottle Rocket,” greenlit; her world of sound and image. After writing to Polly, I got an invitation to visit her in Venice, California, where she lived in a perfectly appointed little house, near a canal. I remember her telling me that Chaplin used to hang around there in the nineteen-twenties; Venice was the place movie people went to to get away. I got the sense that Polly wanted to get away, too. (We met in 2000 or so.) Not get away from the movie industry, exactly, but to find out what she did and didn’t like about being a strong woman possessed of genius in a community that doesn’t necessarily reward you for either. During the course of our talk, Polly offered me a glass of white wine, which I accepted. gratefully; everything was laid out beautifully in her galley kitchen and living room, which, I imagined, must be what life might feel like on a well run ship: snug, and ship shape. I drank the wine, I took a tranquilizer; I had never been so nervous meeting anyone before; it was clear she could see through anything, including my anxiety: she had midwifed her share of determined young boys. But Polly didn’t have a drink herself; by the time we’d met, she’d been sober for years. “But I love watching people drink,” she told me in her slightly raspy, cigarette-smoky voice. Her smile was small because her mouth was small, but her interest in others wasn’t.  We talked about money, and how I should have some one day; she had a money manager she wanted me to meet; he had made her a rich lady. She talked about her brother, Jack, a military guy; she had come from a family of military people. And we talked about the book she was writing about her life in Hollywood, and elsewhere. Still, she wasn’t resting on her accomplishments; there was other work to do, and the immense pride she felt in her daughters filled up her small frame. After our talk, she dropped me off at a friend’s house. “Wow, we’re really in the ‘hood,” she said, getting out of the car. She  walked through my friend’s house where she asked his roommate all sorts of questions: Who built the house? What did those colors on that wall mean? She was interested in how people create a world. My friend could scarcely believe it. Polly Platt–a cineaste’s real life dream walking through the movie of our lives. And then she was gone. Afterwards she wrote to me about one of her daughters. Would I read a paper she wrote? I did, and I wrote back some time later, not knowing that Polly was probably ill by the time I responded, and living in a different part of the world than the world I’d met her in, but no less herself despite all that.