Saturday, June 30, 2007

Looking for Ava Gardner: part 1

On the beach at last, after a sleeper-train ride into Boston.

As happens every summer, the storms of winter and spring have caused the tide to completely rearrange the Third Road section of the beach where we plant our towels, chairs, and coolers. Last summer it was all sand with no rocks bigger than your fist. Today, with the tide still coming in at 11:30, it's all huge rocks, like the Atlantic spent all winter throwing up the broken pieces of a reef against the sea wall. And the tide's higher than I ever remember it being, which makes sense when I see that the sand level is down about two to three feet. Melted away like an ice cap . . .

The full moon rose last night at 9:03, so my niece Alyssa and I went down to the beach and looked north and east for the next ten minutes or so, but we saw nothing except the dwindling sunset (must remember to come out an hour earlier tonight to get the best of that). Meanwhile the mosquitoes were all over us--or all over me, anyway, they completely avoided Alyssa. "They're not bothering me!" she insisted. "They must like you because you're old."

Ah, my niece. Alyssa is the classic type who displays affection by making a great show of rejecting, insulting, and joking about you. The people she really doesn't care about, she totally ignores. Me, she climbs all over like I'm the jungle gym and she's the Czechoslovakian gymnast. (She's 11.) She throws sand on me when I'm trying to sun myself, yells "No reading!" when I pick up a book, pulls my earphones away and asks "What are you listening to?" and then cries "Gross!"when I tell her it's techno, and then asks me to play badminton with her. Which pretty much describes the kind of female I've fallen for like a ton of bricks through greased air my entire life, so it's only fitting that I am now condemned to observe the habits of one of them in captivity, so to speak . . .

I didn't see the full moon until I was helping my sister bring a hassock to a cottage down the street--it was hovering over the house-line like a gold beach ball in the southeast sky. By the time I got my camera, the gold had been drained away by the moon elves and the moon's pale ghost was lighting up the clouds like an out-take from a Wolf Man movie. . .

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The God Thing

The God Thing

Most of us tell God we love Him
The way a 12-year-old boy
Tells a girl he’s soft on her –-

By making a big deal
Of pushing her away

Whenever he's around his friends.

Most of us look for God
The way we look for food
In a half-empty refrigerator –-

Every five minutes we open the door:
Searching for the miracle of the loaves,
Blind to the miracle of the left-overs.

Most of us come to God
The way a fed-up wife
Drives to a gas station
After her idiot husband got them lost --

Never realizing that God
Like a smart woman
Will never give us the time of day
Unless He thinks our weakness is attractive.

--Matthew Wells

Monday, June 25, 2007

Democracy? What Democracy?

From an article by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker in Sunday's Washington Post:

Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel has asserted that "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch," and is therefore exempt from rules governing either. Cheney is refusing to observe an executive order on the handling of national security secrets, and he proposed to abolish a federal office that insisted on auditing his compliance.

Richard Cheney--doing his best to make Richard Nixon look like Jimmy Carter.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Things I thought about while running the Corporate Challenge

Why is everybody walking in the middle of the street? Walkers to the right, dammit!

Now I know how a car feels on the LIE.

Whoa—are all the girls on the Coach team gorgeous or what?

Look—it’s Lauren Ambrose trying to get to the Delacorte! Ha ha!

Nice T-shirt. (“I hope you’re not this slow in planning your retirement.” Of course, everybody who wore it was WALKING.)

Get. The Fuck. Out of my WAY! (I said this a LOT.)

This is like the Mermaid Parade for investment bankers.

Wow—I just ran a 10-minute mile. I bet I could have done it in 9 if these people walking would just GET. THE FUCK. OUT OF MY WAY.

Is the air really this thick or is it just the 15,000 hot sweaty runners who are making it this thick?

Ah shit—Abe just called with a free ticket to the Fab Faux at the Bowery.

Nice ass. (It was a girl on the Coach team.)

I’ll be damned if I let a speed-walker beat me to the finish line.

Water, please. With a water back.

And really--how fugly is this T-shirt?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007



The last coherent look my mother gave me
As she lay on what would become her deathbed
Was when I asked her, “How are you feeling, Mum?”

Too doped up on painkillers to do anything
But slip into a coma, she turned her head
And gave me a look that said, “How do I feel?

That’s the first thing that comes to mind now when
I think of her –- that wounded, dying look
That makes me want to cry: “Oh God, I’m sorry!”

But the dead can’t forgive, any more than
The living can stop acting like idiots.
-- Matthew Wells

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Euripides' First Law

There's a review of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer which describes the film this way: "It's miscast, underwritten, muddily shot, and slackly paced, but there's something captivating about its unabashed shittiness." I don't know about you, but when I want to be captivated by unabashed shittiness, the last thing in the world I think of doing is revisiting one of the pleasures of my youth after it's been manhandled by the writer of My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the producer of Elektra, and the director of Taxi with Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. I didn't see the first FF movie, and I have no intention of seeing this one. So instead of running out to the half-price 11 AM show at the AMC in on 42nd Street, I lugged my archive edition of the Fantastic Four to Ozzie's on 5th Ave and read these issues over morning coffee and a blueberry muffin:

Initial reaction: there's a complete disconnect in my head between the epic nature of this storyline and the fact that it's confined to two issues. And that includes one of those iconic Kirby Photoshop-before-there-was-Photoshop splash pages. Two issues that contain enough material for a miniseries -- it's like the equivalent of one of those not-a-word-wasted Cornell Woolrich short stories that get Hitchcocked into a two-hour movie. Two issues. In today's comic marketplace, a storyline like this would either be paced for the 6-issue trade or stretched out for the 12-issue hardcover. And it would have four artists. And the last issue would ship a year after the second-to-last issue. (Talk about your unabashed shittiness.)

The other thing that struck me was how (blanket generality alert) the direction of storytelling in all media everywhere seems to progress as a rule from larger-than-life to smaller-than-life, as if there's a trade-off to be had when realism enters the picture. Call this Euripides' First Law: when myth is treated realistically, not only does it lose its mythic stature, but it threatens to become a sour and bitter undermining of everything that the original myth stood for. Which is not to say that realism is a bad thing: about the best example of the Euripides approach to comic myth is Watchmen, and it don't get much better than that, folks. But just like not every artist is a Kirby, not every writer is an Alan Moore, although you wouldn't know it to look at all the Moorish (and Millerish) memes that have infected comics over the last 20 years under the guise of "exploring" this or that character or event.

Remember the lesson of Star Trek. If Realism is the termite in the church of myth, then looking at what's happened to the Fantastic Four since the days of Lee and Kirby is like looking at what happened to Star Trek since the days of Roddenberry. The original series (talk about mythic) has melodramatic music accenting every moment of tension and excitement; technobabble is at a minimum; there's an undercurrent of primitive energy that can only be described as sexy. And every series from Next Generation on took the myth further and further from that energy source -- trading the melodramatic horns for hushed violins, upping the technobabble to the level of a separate character, and shrouding everything in reverence. But since by then the termites had eaten away every trace of divinity from the Gods, the church of Kirk, Bones and Spock was empty of all but worshippers.

Which is to say that the blessing and the curse of exploring is that you end up with maps that say "Here is a crack house" instead of "Here there be dragons." Personally, if I have a choice? I'll take the dragons:

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thursday, June 14, 2007

25 Years Ago Today . . .

. . . I moved from Boston to Hell's Kitchen, back when it actually was Hell's Kitchen, to live in an apartment on 44th Street between 8th and 9th, back when 9th Avenue was sketchy, 10th Avenue was Danger Will Robinson, and Alphabet City was suicide. The Improv was across the street, right next to Dyke's Lumber, and half a block east on the north side of 44th, the AFL/CIO building still sported the logo of its previous owner, Paramount Pictures. Those were the days when every corner had a Blarney Stone instead of a Starbucks, and Citibank was the first and so far the only bank to offer automatic teller machines; the days when you could smoke in a movie theatre, and see three shows for spare change in the grimy theaters on 42nd Street; the days when walking down 43rd between Broadway and 8th or having lunch in Bryant Park was an invitation to a mugging; the days when the Drama Book Store was on Seventh Avenue, The Lone Star was on the corner of 5th and 13th, the Palladium and Luchow's were on 14th Street, and subway cars were covered with graffiti; when lofts in SoHo were dirt cheap, the Halloween Parade was a neighborhood-only event, MTV was playing music videos non-stop, and Cats was just about to move into the Winter Garden with an unheard-of top ticket price of $40 for an orchestra seat. It's memories like that which make me say to myself, like J Alfred Prufrock, "I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ode to the Cedar Tavern

I was a long-time regular at the upstairs bar of the Cedar Tavern. A lot of people didn't even know it existed, but there was and still is no other bar like it in the city. I liked to refer to it as the Scotch of bars: an acquired taste which did not appeal to everyone, but if you had the palate for it, then watching the building across the street glow red in a summer sunset or seeing a blizzard whip down University Place left a warmer glow in you than a shot of Tallisker.

I wrote something every time I was there. I completed seven plays at that bar, one of which was performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, and jotted down enough ideas to keep me busy for the next ten years. One of the things I’ve started and still not completed is the diary I began after I got word that the Cedar was closing. I’ve typed up all the entries except the last two: the final Saturday night and the closing party on Sunday. I’m convinced that somewhere in the back of my mind I have this idea that, if I keep this diary unfinished, I can keep the place from closing for a little while longer. We all do what we can, right?

Everybody asks me “Where are you going these days? Have you found a new place yet?” And when I shake my head and tell them no, I want to say that there are some things you can’t replace. You can always go to a bar and write, or relax, or watch a game on TV. It’s another thing entirely to go somewhere because you want to be with friends. That was why I went to the Cedar. And of all my years of doing the skylight shift, that one fact –- the way the Cedar staff always treated me like family -- is what I miss and cherish most of all.

If the Cedar Tavern had been a boy born in 1866

Conceived a good two years before his birth
And named after the street where he was born,
He grew up serving whiskey in tall glasses
To veterans of Gettysburg, the stunned
Survivors of the ’63 Draft Riots,
And Wall Street types who had not yet become
Clichés of selfish greed and lousy tipping,
And kept them all away from Table 5,
Where Herman Melville spent his afternoons
With Billy Budd and Bartleby the scrivener.

He learned at a young age how to read people,
Their little ticks and traits his daily specials.
This guy will pick a fight because that’s how
He justifies his day; this girl will have
That one too many ‘cause she can’t say no;
And that young punk with the Rasputin eyes
Won’t leave until he’s found and hypnotized
Some trusting soul to buy him tonight’s drinks.

He moved up to the Village in his 80’s,
And fell in with some wild Bohemians.
Too broke to buy their own Pall Malls or Camels,
They picked through ashtrays till they found a snipe
(And all left tabs behind that were paid off
By Fame, a woman in a long black dress
Who had her own stool by the service bar).

The drinks he bought their girlfriends got them laid,
And when they swore they’d never leave his place,
He smiled and shook his head, because he knew
That he was just a station on the road
And not their destination –- just the friend
You cling to like a life preserver when
One of your parents dies, then in a year
Or so you wake up one day and you feel
Held back instead of up, and know the time
Has come to get on with your life, and leave.
He’d seen it happen far too many times
Not to expect it every time he heard
Some innocent cry: “I’ll be here forever.”
Nothing’s forever. Not the price of drinks,
Not customs of address, not courtesy,
Not loyalty, and certainly not taverns.

He moved up to his last home at a hundred,
And never bothered to correct the rubes
When they sat down at Table 105
And said “This is where Ginsberg took his meals!”
He let Fame drink for free, and looked away
Whenever she told stories of the days
When Pollack and O’Hara ran up tabs.
He knew the sober truth, but no one cares –-
It’s three-drink truth that people want to hear.

He lived to see three dozen presidents,
And outlived almost all his generation,
But at the funeral for young McHale’s
He felt a premonition like a house
Feels termites chewing at its two-by-fours.
So no, it wasn’t really a surprise
When they told him “I’m sorry; here’s your tab.”

And when at last he finally passed away,
His wake was packed with people who kept saying
“Who are these people?” and drank up until
His liquor cabinet was just as empty
As all his mourners felt. Fame was there, too.
She had the last pour from a fifth of Jack
That Joan Baez had bought for Bobby Dylan
One sodden night in summer ’63.

His tombstone is a tall apartment building.
Fame has the co-op on the second floor,
The one that used to be the upstairs bar.
They say that in her living room, a ghost
Sits in mid-air and leans on nothing as
He writes into a nonexistent notebook
With one hand, while the other now and then
Raises a never-empty pint of Guinness
Up to his phantom lips. They also say
That when you stand outside at 4 AM,
The downstairs bar shines like a gold mirage.

As for his epitaph, there was a great
Debate about that just before he died.
“Taken before his time” got the most votes,
“Another one bites the dust” took second place,
“No bottle left behind!” a solid third.
But in the end, it was decided that
The best way to commemorate his passing
Was to re-number University
So that it now says on the street floor door:

-- Matthew Wells
6/6 - 6/12/07

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What he said

"I propose a new term for the TV culture lexicon:

Meadowpark (noun): An ambiguous, sudden ending to a long-running television series.

"Oh my God, did you remember that last episode of the X-Files? What a fucking meadowpark that was..."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Cinéma Jamais: The Great Gatsby

Watched the Cary Grant Great Gatsby this weekend. You can see why he won the Oscar for it, it’s the darkest thing he ever did, darker even than Suspicion and Notorious, and certainly the bleakest thing George Cukor ever directed, even including A Double Life. Orson Welles wasn't far off when he said, "If any movie deserves the title Heart of Darkness, it's this one." Everybody in it is a user -- Gatsby uses Nick to get to Daisy, Daisy uses Gatsby to get back at Tom, and Nick and Jordan use each other to get back at Daisy and Gatsby, because the way Gatsby constantly comes between Daisy and Jordan (which is shot-for-shot the way Daisy comes between Nick and Gatsby) gives the two rejected "friends" something to get a lot more passionate about than each other, which is probably why Nick and Jordan only kiss twice in this movie, once after Jordan bitches about Daisy and once after Nick rails against Gatsby. Jordan even tells Nick he's "the other woman" in so many words, and the look on Jimmy Stewart's face when Ruth Hussey says it is priceless. 

It's a commonplace now to say that you can see the seeds of Vertigo and the Anthony Mann westerns in Stewart's Nick, but what the original audience saw when the movie first came out was poor decent Jimmy playing second banana once again to suave Cary Grant, only this time it wasn't heart-warming and funny, it was bitter and disturbing, because decent and suave turn out to be the veneer on top of resentment and cruelty, like the shiny red skin on a wormy apple that's dark inside. Rotten dark inside. (Have I mentioned this movie's dark?) Plus when you look at it from a certain angle, it's the closest Cukor ever came to being honest about his own sexuality on film. As practically every French critic worth his sel has pointed out, the world of this Gatsby is a male preserve which is constantly under siege by the opposite sex, with the men always keeping to their mansions until one by one they’re lured outdoors and picked off by women who float in pools like lily pads and play croquet on golf-course-wide front lawns and appear out of the evening fog like threatening reefs, all of which gives the film more gay subtext than the Montgomery Clift/John Ireland gun scene in Red River

The film is dark visually too, thanks to John Alton’s stunning cinematography.  The constant play of deep shadow against bright light, the fog scenes, the three-shot of Daisy between Nick and Gatsby where Nick is lit from the front, Gatsby is lit from below, and Daisy is glowing from three different light sources at once -- all classic Alton. And the justly-famous deep focus shot of Nick and Jordan in the love seat, with Jordan telling Nick all about Jay Gatz while between their heads Gatsby slowly walks out of the West Egg fog with Daisy and then sweeps her up like they’re crossing a threshold, is still one of the most stunning uses of shadow and light in cinema. (There’s an obvious echo of it in the Alton-shot section of American in Paris, when Gene Kelly sweeps Leslie Caron into his arms in the misty fountain dance. But that one’s in color, which is not the same thing.)

The DVD has a great little documentary on the history of the film. I didn’t know, for instance, that Cukor directed the original stage play of Gatsby in ’26 and then got passed over for the silent film version when he couldn’t strike a deal with Famous Players Lasky. Or that (believe it or not) elegant William Powell, who plays Tom Buchanan in the Cukor version, actually played auto mechanic George Wilson in the ’26 film. Or that Cukor's version was originally planned as a casting sequel to Philadelphia Story, reuniting Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ruth Hussey and Katharine Hepburn, but Hepburn passed because she didn’t want Daisy to be at the wheel for the hit and run, and when MGM demanded that Cukor change the ending so that Gatsby lives and Daisy goes to jail, Cukor and Grant got independent financing and went hunting for a female lead. Luckily, they only had to look as far as Jimmy Stewart’s girlfriend.

The picture that used to be behind the bar at Daisy Buchanan's in Boston.

Gatsby is Cary Grant’s Oscar, but it's Martha Vickers' movie. She had just finished filming The Big Sleep, where she watched all her scenes cut to the bone because she was stealing the film out from under Lauren Bacall, and she was angry and hurt and had a fiercely determined “I’ll show you!” chip on her shoulder. Her screen test is lost, but there are archival interviews with people who saw it and never forgot it. Her performance in the movie is on the same level as watching Rita Hayworth in Gilda: when Vickers is on-screen, you cannot take your eyes off her. She’s warm, she’s distant, she’s wounded, she's invulnerable, and she is totally, alluringly crazy, but it’s not the babydoll-psycho craziness of Carmen Sternwood, it’s the kind of crazy that’s half-wild and the kind of wild that every guy in the world thinks that he alone can tame. The look on her face in the driving scene just before the hit and run, that sixty-second close-up of her smiling with the wind in her hair that seems to last forever until she finally licks her lower lip and you hear the thud of Myrtle's body hitting the car? If you could teach a panther how to operate a stick shift, this is how it would run over gazelles. You watch that and you think, “Wow!” and then she goes and tops it in the scene where she tells Wilson that it was Gatsby at the wheel when his wife was killed. It’s a major departure from the book -- in the novel, Tom Buchanan tells Wilson it was Gatsby -- but it works, thanks to Vickers. The look on her face when she finds out from Wilson that Gatsby was sleeping with Wilson’s wife is topped only by the look on her face when she finally says “It was Jay.” And then, when she finds out that it was Tom who was having the affair with Wilson’s wife, not Gatsby? It’s enough to make you go “Jesus, woman, whatever possessed you to marry Mickey Rooney and drop off the face of the earth for the next five years?”

"It was Jay."

Billy Wilder said it on the set, while they were filming the swimming pool scene. (It’s an open secret that Wilder got the idea for the opening of Sunset Boulevard by watching Cukor set up the shot of Gatsby’s body from the bottom of the pool; they got into a famous fist-fight over it at Ciro’s.) When Vickers wades into the pool, cradles Grant in her arms, twines her legs around his body and slowly, slowly, rolls over, and over, trying to drown herself, trying to kiss him back to life, Wilder turned to Cukor and said what every man who’s ever seen this movie has said: “Can I die next so she can do that to me?”

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Three Songs for Billy Collins: Update

So here’s what I have after a week. I have a workable chorus for Song 1:

Men can’t see for dreaming
Guess that’s just the rule
I am so beautiful
And you are such a fool
To love me

I have a snarky verse for Song 2:

God made you pretty, so it’s no surprise
A smile from you can bring a man to tears.
There’s something like a promise in your eyes
But not a single thing between your ears

And a possible chorus:

God made you beautiful
The way you smile can break a million hearts
God made you beautiful
To bad He never gave you any smarts.

And for song 3, just a verse:

You are a fool/To think I am a goddess
You are a fool/To picture me with wings
I’m not an angle from above/So please don’t talk to me of love
As far as I can see, it’s just one of those things

And that’s where I stalled, because I think in terms of theatre and performing, so in order to actually write these three songs, I needed to know who’s actually singing them, and I didn’t. And Song 2 has taken the initial idea and turned it into something a lot harder than the premise, which is “You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool,” not “You are so beautiful, too bad your elevator doesn’t go all the way to the penthouse.”

It was the third song that turned out to be the key (you are a fool to think that I am beautiful). Just saying the words out loud made me think of Rita Hayworth, or rather the Maria Conchita Canseco behind the stage name. Which means the first song is either sung by the actress or one of the roles she plays (Gilda? Elsa Bannister?) and the second by one of the men in her life, which to me means Orson Welles. Which would mean a three-song cycle where a man falls in love with an actress who warns him away from her, because the woman inside the actress knows it isn’t going to last.

That’s what I’m working on now. We’ll see if this makes things any easier for my too-smart-for-my-own-good brain . . .

I love Bubblicious . . .

But after this commercial I'm giving it up

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Things that were everywhere when I moved to New York, Part 1: TV Ads

When I moved to New York (which was 25 years ago next week), one of the two or three things I saw more often than all those hookers on 46th Street between 9th and 10th was this guy:

On a good TV day, you saw at least two of these every half hour. On a bad TV day, when you were watching a local station like Channel 11, it seemed like every commercial break had the Crazy Eddie guy screaming at you for 30 or 60 seconds. And you could not look away. Ever. It was biologically impossible. These commercials were keyed to grab the attention of the monkey brain inside every human being in the Tri-State Area, and they never failed. I often wonder what happened to this guy after the stores closed down. I’ve never seen him do a guest shot on Law & Order (which would be a total hoot), and I've never seen him do any other ads, which is a shame, because if I saw him on a TV set telling me that Starbucks’ coffee prices were "Insa-a-a-a-a-ane!" my monkey brain would send me running out to buy enough lattes to gag a goat.

Monday, June 4, 2007

It Was Twenty-Five Years Ago Today . . .

(as long as we're in anniversary mode):

Renervate, n. To renovate the life out of a place.

Case in point: The Film Center Café in Hell’s Kitchen. Remember the old wooden booths, the unbalanced wooden tables, the actors behind the bar serving the actors sitting at the bar, the frayed menus with the cheesy movie posters on the front, going out for drinks after a show and seeing Selma Blair eating a side order of fries two tables over? All. Gone. The place now has a maitre d’, a lot of pencil-thin Eurotrash waitresses in Little Black Dresses who pronounce Budweiser like it has a V in it, a DJ booth overlooking the restaurant floor, and a décor that screams Bubble Lounge Wannabe:

It's enough to make you walk down the street and drink a six of PBR's at Rudy's . . .

Saturday, June 2, 2007

It was forty years ago today . . . .

. . . that I hopped on my bike and rode into Randolph Square to the Kresge's, where I plunked down a whopping $2.99 for Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Drove back home one-handed (the other hand holding the shopping bag with the record in it) and (because my parents didn't want to hear it in the house) set up the record player in the garage and proceeded to listen to it three times straight through. And get this--because they had the lyrics printed in the middle? You could actually follow along with the words! You think videos changed the face of music? Sorry. It was nothing compared to actually having the lyrics right there in front of you. By the middle of the next week? Everyone in my high school class had the entire album memorized. (Except for the George Harrison song, which we always skipped over.) And thanks to the cover, everyone suddenly knew who Aleister Crowley was. (I think he's second from the left in the back.) And we had less than a year to wait for covers like this:

Although we had to wait ten years for this:

Friday, June 1, 2007

Energizer Posters*

Still-ll-ll-ll advertising . . .

*posters still on display long after their movies have closed