Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Random Weblinks

Iddy Poo Poo. "It's not what I signed up for." Because, you know, getting financial perks from dating an investment banker is something that requires a contract and a signature.

Lest We Forget. This is why Updike never really turned me on.

With great power comes great liability.

This week in Hollywood sexism. Never make your leading man look fat. (But old is okay, since they all are anyway.)

The world at your fingertips. That's it--I'm never going offline again.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spineless Media Watch, or, Here We Go Again

Howard Kurtz in today's Washington Post announces the return of journalistic integrity, which is what always occurs when a "liberal" gets elected President:

If journalists don't start holding the 44th president accountable--in the same way the left wanted us to hold George W. Bush accountable--we will have defaulted on our mission. It will be bad for the country, and bad for Obama.

Just like it was bad for the country when nobody held W accountable? God no--that's totally different! [Insert sarcastic emoticon here.]

Journalism 101, folks -- cowardice is the way of the journalistic world. Because the Main Stream Media has a perceived left-wing bias, they always treat right-wing Presidents with kid gloves -- if they don't, they'd be perceived as biased and partial, and the MSM is never biased or partial in this country, no siree. [Insert incredibly sarcastic emoticon here.] Which is why they put on the boxing gloves when they get in the ring with anybody who's not a right-winger, because what better way to look impartial and unbiased than by beating up on somebody who shares your perceived values?

Bottom line? Because they had a perceived anti-Bush bias, the MSM coddled him. And because they have a perceived pro-Obama bias, they will rake him over the journalistic coals. All in the name of objectivity. [Insert incredibly disgusted emoticon here.]

Watching the Inauguration in Times Square

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Translations: part 1 of 2

Translation is cultural kidnapping –- cultural because the act of turning a foreign word into a domestic word is like painting, with shades and colors and contrasts, and every language has its own palette; and kidnapping because the bad ones always end with the victim’s escape from your clutches, while the good ones always end in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome marriage. Even the best translation can’t help but substitute a value for every word, what Noam Chomsky would probably call the myth behind the language. Which is why, in much the same way that every Hollywood movie about Ancient Rome becomes a replay of the American myth -- the war of freedom and democracy against tyranny and dictatorship -- every British translation of Chekhov is about the English character: class snobbery and repressed emotions.

(And it's not just Chekhov. Check out Night Creatures, the Hammer version of the Dr Syn story starring Peter Cushing, and compare it to Disney's Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. In Night Creatures, the Robin Hood figure is an ex-pirate who must pay for his past sins with his life. In Scarecrow, the Robin Hood figure is anti-tyranny ["There's a new spirit in the world, Mipps. Men can't beat armies. But ideas can."] and risks his neck to save a proto-Son-Of-Liberty from the gallows. Or to put it another way -- in England: repressed emotions; in America: a secret identity.)

And in Chekhov? It depends on the translation. There's a lot of repressed emotion and blindness in Tom Stoppard’s new Bridge Project version of The Cherry Orchard, which is currently playing at BAM. There's also a lot of comedy, which is not a tree that is usually found in most Orchards, despite Chekhov's insistence that comedy describes the play perfectly. But then most translations of the good doctor's plays go for the wistful over the wacka-wacka-wacka; it's only in the one-acts, the obvious farces, that you're given a clear and consistent presentation of the over-the-top craziness that is Chekhov deliberately going for a laugh. Of course, if you listened to Anton talk about his own work, every page of his plays has laughs galore. But since an author's blindness to his own work is not limited to modern writers whose program notes have no relationship at all to what's on the stage, you have to take Chekhov's self-professed label as a comedian with not just a grain of salt, but a lemon and a shot of tequila.

The laughs in this version are more Stoppard than Chekhov, which is at the same time a plus and a minus. It’s no secret that, because English is Stoppard’s second language, he has a wider brush when it comes to wordplay. His émigré status is also the reason why there’s a continental feel to even his most British pieces -- the sense that they’re not taking place in London but in Schnitzler’s Vienna, where any ill-considered word could provoke pistols at dawn. In Chekhov it’s exactly the opposite; in Chekhov there are nothing but ill-considered words, which (when they are not deliberately ignored) provoke the distant sound of sleighs and carriages as much as they do gunshots. The best translations of his plays show people verbally stepping on each other’s toes, and meanwhile hiding a wince when their own little piggies get trod on.

Is Stoppard's that kind of translation? No. But then I don't think there's a translation in English that reproduces this aspect of Chekhov's writing. I don't even know if it can be done without tearing the plays apart and re-inventing them as American fables. And even then. Setting Cherry Orchard in Virginia circa 1900 and turning Lopakhin into the son of one of the plantation's slaves would be the only comparable analogy to what Lopakhin represents as the son of a Russian serf, but the American representation comes with its own unique cultural baggage which (a) warps the role of "servant" into something so culturally charged that (b) in essence you've got a totally new play, not about repressed emotions but a repressed race of people. (I'm putting it on my project list right under the 1950's version of Hedda Gabler. Oh wait--Cate Blanchett already did that one.)

Next: so if it's impossible, why do it? or, The Everest Effect.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"And a Happy New Year - in jail!"

Dick Cheney attends the inauguration as Old Man Potter
from It's A Wonderful Life.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Be Seeing You

Of the many stories about Patrick McGoohan (how he turned down the role of James Bond because he didn't want his daughters seeing him play that sadistic killer from the Ian Fleming novels; how his Danger Man/Secret Agent contract had three clauses -- 1) no kissing; 2) each fight had to be different; and 3) his character must always try to use his brains before resorting to a gun; how he married his wife of 57 years between the matinee and the evening performances of Taming of The Shrew, in which they were both starring) here's one you may not have heard before.

I remember being totally puzzled when Peter Falk won his first or second Emmy for Columbo and made a point of profusely thanking his great friend Patrick McGoohan, without whom he wouldn't be standing there. I thought, "Huh? McGoohan appeared in one episode, and yeah, he directed another one, but did he create the character of Columbo or something?"

I didn’t find out until years later that, yes, in a way, McGoohan did.

The story goes that Falk and McGoohan first met when they ended up sitting next to each other on a coast-to-coast plane ride, during which Falk handed McGoohan a Columbo script he was about to shoot and asked him for his opinion. After reading it, McGoohan told him it was crap. “I think so too,” said Falk. “Let me see what I can do with it,” said McGoohan. So he rewrote it during on the plane ride and handed it back to Falk, who ended up shooting the episode with McGoohan's changes.

After that, Falk would hand every Columbo script he got to McGoohan for polishing, and McGoohan would do an uncredited rewrite. And as a bonus McGoohan got to direct five episodes, write and produce two credited shows, and play the murderer in four.

So when you watch a Columbo episode, especially one from season 2 on? There's a very good chance that, no matter who the murderer is, the script is by McGoohan.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Like a sex column written by chastity converts

If you've been following the New York Times Proof blog, as I have, then you've probably been wondering why, in a series of articles about "alcohol and American life," the ex-drinkers, non-drinkers, and anti-drinkers outweigh the actual drinkers four to one. On a historical level this may be the Times' crafty way of reminding us all that whenever we have a Great Depression, the great Moralocracy declares that the Eleventh Commandment is "Thou shalt not introduce spiritous liquors into thy sinful, stupid, drug-addicted body." On a cultural level, the Times may be reflecting the actual Manhattan percentage of non-, anti- and ex-drinkers versus those who still line up three-deep at Professor Thom's to watch a Celtics game. But on a purely marketing level, the Times is guilty of false advertising when it claims that the contributors will "consider the charms, powers and dangers of drink," and then prints little else besides a lot of finger-wagging about the dangers.

In the past two months, we've seen a sixty-year-old AA member confess that she hasn't seen anyone "visibly drunk at a New York Party" in the last ten years, an ode to buybacks and bar fights, an inspiring "I stopped drinking and it changed my life" testimonial, a none-too-subtle "We drink to find God (but He's really serving coffee at AA meetings)" post, and the token "I drink; I throw up; no problem" post from (who else) the hip chick who's gotten trashed in Edinburgh.

As someone who has never been to Edinburgh (but has had enough Scotch in him to qualify for a green card), I call shenanigans. Having a blog about drinking where nobody actually drinks is like reading a sex column written by chastity converts, a comparison which I actually sent to the Times as a comment on one of the articles. You won't find it anywhere, though; it never got past their moderator. Which just adds insult to injury, as far as I'm concerned. Since obviously I can't challenge any of these poseurs posters to a game of quarters in retaliation, I have only one recourse. I'll just have to start posting about my own alcoholic escapades under the snarky graphic above.

And anybody who wants to join in the fun, first round's on me.

The Cherry Orchard at BAM

The very tall
Rebecca Hall
Thinks plummy vowels equal sense

While Simon Beale
Will never kneel
To anything but excellence.

There is something very British about Tom Stoppard’s new Bridge Project version of The Cherry Orchard, which is currently playing at BAM. As directed by Sam Mendes, in a style which deliberately tries to build a bridge between Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett (hence the project name?), the show is one part willful blindness, one part class warfare, and a dash of despair served in a mug of repressed emotion, which adds up to a portrait of the British character more than an unblinking look at Russian landowners. But those qualities are always the ones which have attracted the Brits to Chekhov. There is no vodka sweat in their productions of Chekhov, just the bright perspiration of teatime. Which is not a complaint, mind you; translations are tricky businesses (and the subject of a later post) but this one seems more innately British than most.

Possible reason why? It's not really a translation, but a revisal. Stoppard said earlier this year that he wanted to treat this Cherry Orchard as a working play, not a rote exercise in word substitution, and in that he's succeeded. There's a loose vernacular feel to the script; it's so fresh in places that, if you're familiar with the play, it makes you misremember things. Is Yasha's part really so small? (If it is, as a friend of mine remarked, then Josh Hamilton is getting gypped.) Does the dialogue between Trofimov and Ranevskaya really go on that long? And is Varya secretly in love with Trofimov -- is that why she's always sniping at him? The last question was one of a number of little revelations this new version provides. By opening up the script to the kind of working rewrites he'd do for his own work, Stoppard is stretching familiar characters into unfamiliar places. For that alone, you should see it. But the main reason to see it, of course, is for the acting.

Sinead Cusack
Still has the knack
Of making women who are blind

To their own flaws
Look sweet because
At heart they're basically kind.

The Bridge Project is a British/American joint venture (heavy on the Brit side) which will be doing this play in repertory with Winter's Tale at BAM through March and around the world for the next year. It is also a master class in acting, with the Brits as teachers. While there's a certain anti-Colonies bias in the casting (the Yanks play the cad, the schlemiel, and the perpetual student) , everyone is in the same play (how rare that is), there are no fake British accents from the Americans (no Peter Sarsgaards in this production, thank God), and everybody brings game whenever a Yank and a Brit have a scene together.

The direction by Sam Mendes is a solid mix of drawing-room intimacy and impressionistic stage pictures. There are a series of triptychs, three people looking out into the audience as if through three bay windows, that reminded me of the opening of Olivier's Three Sisters. (Homage? I'd have to see the Olivier film again; I only saw it the once, when it came out 30-odd years ago, but I still have vivid memories of Alan Bates and Joan Plowright in it.) And the end is straight out of Samuel Beckett -- the old man in bare feet and a nightgown, falling to the stage and lying there in the bright white lights of a room empty of everything except for a child's chair.

Give Ethan Hawke
A chance to talk?
There's nothing he won't give tongue to.

He'll race the course
A little horse
(And so's his voice by sentence two).

There are a great many directorial brilliances in this show (Beale's Lopakhin running amok at dinner being the brightest), and only one mis-step that I can think of. [Spoiler alert] There's a point in Act Three where Lopakhin kneels beside Ranevskaya and leans in to kiss her. It's a brilliant touch (if Lopakhin is in love with anyone, it's the mother, not the daughter), but it makes hash of the Act Four moment when Ranevskaya plays Dolly Levi and sends her daughter Varya to Lopakhin so he can propose to her. It says something either stupid or nasty about her character that she wants to see her daughter married to someone who so obviously wants her instead. (Sinead Cusack goes the willful ignorance route; there's a lot of Mother Lord from The Philadelphia Story in her performance, especially the Mother Lord of the second half, where the once-sharp matron seems to have lost half her wits upon the return of her errant husband.)

Picky picky picky, right? Still, it's the rare revival where you find yourself seeing a play and its characters with fresh eyes, and this is one of them. If you saw The Seagull that was just on Broadway and liked it, then you'll love this. And if you hated the Broadway Seagull, then you owe it to yourself to see this, if only to cleanse your Chekhovian palate.

And while we're doing poetry, here's the play in six lines:

The servant's son
is Number One --
He buys the house (including tax).

Proposal? Nope.
Regret trumps hope
And puts the orchard to the axe.

Next: some thoughts about translations, or, The Myths Behind Language . . .

Sunday, January 11, 2009


A Facebook friend informed a bunch of us of the upcoming Creature from the Black Lagoon Musical and challenged us "to come up with at least 4 lines of lyrics."

I got a little carried away:

I’ve never been a grouper --
I flounder on a date.
With love, I’m in a stupor --
I just can’t take the bait.

But when I saw you swimming
To my complete surprise
You threw my sole
Up on a shoal
And the scales dropped from my eyes .

Let’s fall in love for the halibut
And snuggle up in the swamp.
We’ll pas de deux
And pitch some woo
Where green-eyed alligators chomp.

Let’s fall in love for the halibut
And open clams with a wrench.
We’ll spend our days
Catching some rays
Down in the Marianas Trench.

So what if my friends call me kook?
I’ll fight against the world’s rebuke
And prove our love is not a fluke
Or full of ills --

My love’s so deep, it’s submarine.
Oh please be my aquatic queen!
Say no and you’ll just make me green
Around the gills.

Let’s fall in love for the halibut
And find a perch high above
The homo saps who think that I’m
Half-man half-fish and total slime
And want to give our piscatory passion the shove --

Rough seas may shake us
No pain will ache us
Each dawn will wake us
Making subaqueous love

copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

Friday, January 9, 2009

ladders get discovered as winter melts*

*with apologies to "Winter" by Tori Amos ["Boys get discovered as winter melts"]

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The King Of Expectations, The Princess of Surprises

There are two kinds of movie-viewing pleasure –- the pleasure of expectation, and the pleasure of surprise. Like shoes, cars, clothes and marriages, the pleasures of expectation are comfortable, soothing, happily passionless, and ultimately reinforce something; like love affairs, the pleasures of surprise are sexy, dangerous, jolting, and they don’t reinforce anything –- they reawaken you, they take a blindfold from your eyes you didn’t even know was there. It’s the difference between a room full of old lovers and a room full of beautiful strangers; or, in movie terms this winter, the difference between The Wrestler and Slumdog Milionaire.

The Wrestler is a suitcase-full of expectations. Buy a ticket to see this film and you’re handed Mickey Rourke’s film career and his appearances in the tabloids, Marisa Tomei’s Supporting Actress Oscar and her nude scene in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Evan Rachel Wood’s father issues and her performances in Thirteen and Across The Universe, Darren Aronofsky’s previous films, and a compilation of Hulk Hogan wrestling matches. Yes, you can watch the movie without all this baggage; but you can’t enjoy it. The actor’s lives and careers are built in. The female lead isn’t an over-the-hill pole dancer -- it’s Marisa Tomei playing an over-the-hill pole dancer, and if she’s over the hill, then I want to be at the bottom of it to hitch a ride from her. The main character isn’t a wrestler attempting a comeback -- it’s Mickey fucking Rourke attempting a comeback, okay? And don’t you forget it. In fact, you can’t forget it –- the minute you do, the movie is meaningless.

If watching The Wrestler is like navigating under the comforting stars, watching Slumdog Millionaire is like sailing blind under a starless sky. Almost everybody who’s loved this movie has said to me “The less you know about it before you see it, the better it will be,” and consciously or not, every one of them is remarking on the uniqueness of this kind of pleasure, the special circumstances of that love. It’s the difference between an outdoor roller coaster ride where you see the loops coming, every single one, and the Magic Mountain ride at Disney World -- you’re totally in the dark, you have no idea what’s coming next, and no matter what you brace yourself for, you’re always caught off-balance.

And in pure film terms, it’s the difference between watching something with movie stars and watching something with unknowns. It’s impossible to see Clint Eastwood or Will Smith fresh; whatever they’re in becomes a Clint Eastwood Film or a Will Smith Film, and you can grab onto Smith and Eastwood, no matter who they’re playing, and know ahead of time what you’re going to see (and know too that the Eastwood character will probably turn around at some point and grab you back). Watching unknowns is different. If Charlize Theron is co-starring with Will Smith, you know their characters will wind up together at some point because that’s what happens when stars appear over the title. But because Dev Patel and Freida Pinto have no prior US movie history, they ARE the characters they play, and anything can happen to them. They can die; they can change; they can surprise you.

I think the main reason Slumdog is so popular is because this thrill of surprise –- this pleasure in not knowing what is going to happen next –- has become a rarity in our info-glutted culture. Our entertainment diet is all Wrestlers these days, and our digestive system has adapted to it. It’s only when we find ourselves eating something deliciously foreign that we realize what spices and flavors we’ve been missing. It’s like finding a foreign word as the final rhyme in a poem –- by the time we get to the end, we know what vowel sound we’re going to hear, so it’s the word that either surprises us or makes us nod our heads.

In the same way that a jazz riff makes us hear the standard in a new light, The Wrestler rings multiple changes on a tune we’ve heard before –- but only when we factor the players into consideration. Your head has to be involved somewhere; it’s not just anybody doing “My Favorite Things” –- it’s John fucking Coltrane, and don’t you forget it. And in the same way that a pop song creates a never-before-heard hook, Slumdog Millionaire sings you the tune you’ve been yearning to hum without knowing it, a tune that makes you want to get up and dance, or learn the words so you can sing along. It won’t sound as good the second time; but it will always leave the taste of that first time on your tongue.

And if you’re lucky, it’ll even make you look around for more surprises.

Monday, January 5, 2009

They Died With Their Swastikas On

Like all film noir caper movies, the tragic end of Valkyrie is a foregone conclusion –- the meticulous preparation will be undermined by the unpredictable; at least one member of the gang will be revealed as craven and weak, and use his cowardice as a shield and his vacillation like a bullying sword; and our hero will meet a pitiful but noble demise. Which is why Bryan (The Usual Suspects) Singer is the perfect director on paper for Valkyrie. Instead of a heist gone wrong, it’s a murder and a coup gone wrong. And like all movies where the ending is pre-ordained, it’s not the building that’s important, it’s the nuts and bolts of the architecture –- the way it’s supposed to be constructed as opposed to the way it gets built, because no matter how it gets built it will always, always, come tumbling down on its creators, crushing them all.

Singer gets all that, but he doesn’t go far enough. In movies like this, the gap between the plan and its execution is what creates a metaphysical tension (man proposes. God disposes), but there also has to be a lower human level of tension –- the melodrama of cops versus robbers, patsies versus traitors, or the robbers versus each other –- something that adds the human to the mechanical, like beads of sweat on a robot. That kind of sweat is the one thing that’s missing here, which is supremely bizarre when you consider that the villain of the movie is the real world equivalent of Sauron, a man who survives a fucking suitcase bomb, for Chrissakes, and yet he’s not used as the villain in a way that opposes him to the hero. The more screen time Hitler has opposing von Stauffenberg, the bigger von Stauffenberg is when he tries and fails to beat him. How much more dramatic would be this failure if, every time we see a shot of Tom Cruise on the phones rallying support, we cut to Hitler on his set of phones turning that support back into obedience. As it stands now, when the coup falls apart, von Stauffenberg isn’t defeated by Hitler, he’s defeated by the phone company.

And yes, you’re constrained by history to be accurate about what happened, but focus is always a choice within the factual –- sticking with the conspirators in their command center as they realize they’ve failed is one way of looking at what happened; cutting back and forth between the conspirators and the people they’re trying to overthrow is another way. A melodramatic way, perhaps, but I think if Singer was directing this as a struggle between Professor X and Magneto, he would have cross-cut between the two of them, and not kept the camera locked down in one room of the X-Mansion.

On the flip side, adherence to history gives a filmmaker the opportunity to sound a few grace notes which will echo in the ears of those who know their stuff, and Singer does this in at least two places, both near the end. One is the dramatization of documentary footage of the post-conspiracy trial, where defendants were humiliated by a snarling, sarcastic judge who ordered them all to be dressed in pants a size too large and then took their belts away, so that they had to spend the entire trial with one hand holding up their trousers. (Where and when did I ever see this? No idea. Some documentary about Hitler, probably; maybe even a documentary about von Stauffenberg.) And there in the film is the defendant addressing the court as he’s holding his pants up, and that over-the-top judge ridiculing him (and the moment I saw him, I flashed on the original black-and-white trial footage –- about which more later).

The other nod is to the Holy Grail of Hitlerian memorabilia. It is a known fact that, when the conspirators were garroted with wire nooses and hung on meathooks, Hitler ordered the executions to be filmed, so that he could watch the proceedings any time he wanted, the way you or I would watch a couple of Law and Order reruns. The film has vanished from history, but in that brief shot where Singer recreates the executions, you can see the camera and the cameraman on screen right as Singer pans to the next prisoner to be garroted.

But geekish thrills do not a great movie make, and this is not a great movie. Good? Yes. Good in a very old-fashioned way, a very 40’s Warner Brothers old-fashioned way. I kept thinking while I was watching it that Valkyrie would be a lot more truthful if it was filmed in black and white, because that’s how we see World War II, through the lens of Hollywood and contemporary documentary footage (something Stephen Soderbergh realized when he turned The Good German into a two-hour jazz riff on black-and-white war movies).

And in a sense, it already is a black and white movie from the 40’s. All the actors use their real accents, just like they would if Michael Curtiz were directing. Which prompts another geekish thrill: because the conspirators are all played by Brits, the movie is like a metaphor for the Battle of Britain. It’s the Brits who are trying to overthrow Hitler, not the Germans. So does that mean that all good Germans are British at heart? And what would Michael Curtiz make of that? No –- wait -- not Curtiz -- Raoul Walsh. Why Raoul Walsh? Duh:

(That’s Walsh on the right. He lost his eye in the 20’s when a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car.)

So yes –- this could totally be a 40’s Warner Brothers movie, with the conspirators as the modern equivalent of Claude Rains and James Mason (co-starring Sydney Greenstreet as Field Marshal Keitel and Peter Lorre as Goebbels).

But who would play von Stauffenberg? It wouldn’t be a great actor. It’d be the star, like Cruise. The hero everybody follows, the leader everybody looks to. Somebody handsome. Somebody dashing. And when they all die in the end, he’s the last one to fall. But his death will not be in vain. It can’t be. He’s the hero. He may not be able to hold an acting candle to the lowliest Brit in the cast, but he doesn’t have to. He’s the star.

Which is why, when people ask me what I think of Valkyrie, I say: “It’s a really good Errol Flynn movie.”

New Year's Letter

Dear Mum:

I dreamed you were alive last night.
I was out shoveling the stupid driveway
In Randolph, and my back was killing me,
And when I staggered through the kitchen door
You poured me a small whiskey and said “Here.
And wipe your feet.” Then you lit up a Lark
And held the pack out, saying “Help yourself.”
And I pulled one out and I lit it up
Because that’s what we always did together
When we talked in the kitchen –- smoked and drank.
(And oh those Larks with their micronite filters.
No taste quite like it.) I took a deep puff
And you poured me another whiskey, and
That’s when I knew that I was in a dream –-
Not because I was smoking (and yeah, what
Does that say about who I think I am?)
But because you were pouring me Sam Houston,
Something I didn’t even know existed
Until two years ago at Emily’s.
I looked up from the bottle to your eyes
And woke up in my bed, with your hard stare
Weighing on me like a wet comforter,
And felt the way I do after I’ve had
A great meal: full, and fuzzy-headed, and
Shut down, because of what I can’t digest.

We’ll leave the alcohol and cigarettes
For therapy (that ought to keep me going
Till 2020); right now, let me ponder
The fact that, just as I was asked to speak,
I wriggled out of saying anything,
Avoiding any verbal revelations
And kept my options open by escaping.
Convenient, huh? And vintage Matty Wells:
The only item missing from the scene
Was the quick quip or the deflating pun
Before I made my exit (such an actor).
So what was I afraid of saying to you
(Besides, y’know, the usual deep stuff
I do a Peggy Fleming over). Or
Was it that other thing you said to me?
The “Help yourself?” A double meaning there.
How many times have I helped someone else
Instead of myself or before myself?
If I spent half the time putting me first
As I do helping friends, I’d be the guy
You used to say would set the world on fire,
Instead of looking bitter in the glow
Of more successful pyromaniacs.
But then, perhaps, I would have burned out young
And never lived to feel like a teenager
Trapped in the cold canoe of middle age,
Sailing to deeps I thought I’d never see.
The pachyderm in this year’s living room?
In seven months I’ll be as old as you
When you died from those stupid cigarettes,
Even though I’m still 18 in my head.
Did you think the same thing? You had to, right?
I can’t imagine anybody truly
Believing that the creaking, weathered barge
They sail in is the boat they really are.
We all think we’re still sleek, bright-painted yachts
No matter how the outer hull appears.
In my head, Mum, it’s still the hopeful summer
Of 1970, so that means you
Are still in 1945 or 6,
The A-bomb yet to drop on Hiroshima,
With friends your age preparing to invade
Japan (like Dad –- you’d met him by then, right?)
And others dead, trapped in 18 forever.

This growing old thing is a mother, ain’t it?
And maybe that’s why you dropped in to visit.
My friends all know how often I do puns
When I’m awake, but only God and I
Know all the ones I rattle off when I’m
Alone or sleeping. So (fill in the blank)’s
A mother. Christmas? Aging? Shoveling snow?
Or something else? (Cough) Alcohol. (Cough) Smoking.
(Cough) Yeah. As God and I know all too well,
I’ve got a thing for self-destructive habits.
So were you there to tell me to lay off
The drinking and whatever cigarettes
Are meant to represent? (Cough) Freudian.
(Cough) (And I’m sorry, but that subject’s not
Something I’m comfortable discussing with
My mother even when she’s dead, okay?)

So let’s just say they represent addictions
Or self-destructive impulses or (cough)
The way I always manage to disperse
The energy I should be using to
Create by wasting it on something that
Distracts me, gets me nowhere, or winds up
Expended in some form of self-abuse --
Brief pleasure over creativity,
Play over work, partying over thought,
And shallow splashing over deep dark dives.
The guy who reads a book instead of writing,
‘Cause books are twice as dangerous as beer --
The energy I need to write will always
Get spent in getting lost inside the pages
Of anybody else’s published work.
It’s not escape for me; it’s a distraction.
For instance –- I have two books with me now:
The heavy one (Clarel by Herman Melville)
And something light (Genius and Heroin
By Michael Largo). (Yes, that’s “light” to me.)
Why two? Because then I can double my
Chances to run away and hide inside
Somebody else’s head, instead of looking
Inside my own with nothing to distract me.

Scary shit, Mum. Scary like Halloween.
But what is fear, if not the dark beyond
An open door? We either walk inside
And hope nobody cuts our head off as
We reach out for the light switch, or we stay
On this side of the darkness, where it’s safe,
Where we won’t lose ourselves in something deep --
Won’t take on anything that isn’t facile
Or doesn’t offer us the easy out
If we get tired of it. No, that’s the room
Where, once we enter it, we pay the rent --
The room we dread because once we go in
We can’t come out again until we’ve done
Whatever This-Is-Who-I-Am endeavor
To some kind of acceptable perfection.
A Roman would have called that room our genius --
The thing that makes us special, drives us on
To do the thing we were created for
At the expense of all creation’s gifts.
That’s the Frost choice we get: faced with two roads,
One leading to the old threescore-and-ten
(Or in your case, twoscore-and-seventeen) –-
A spouse, children, respectability --
The other leading there, into that room
Where we live only barely just as long
As it takes us to burn out from the flame
We light to see the monster in the dark
And tell the world about it –- in a book,
A play, a poem, painting or symphony.
Is that the deal here, Mum? Did you stop by
To kick my ass about the writing, so
I’ll spend more time in my Dark Room next year?
That’s not a question I can honestly
Answer without some inner contemplation.
It calls for thoughtfulness; it means I must
Be truly honest with myself. Nice, Mum.
Nothing like forcing Matt to use self-knowledge.
Which means of course I have to find some first.
(I swear to God, not even years of death
Can stop your mother from being your mother.)
But here’s the rub with that one, Mum. If you
Get “I’m your mother, I know best” on me,
How else can I respond except by saying
“And I’m your son, so whatever you say,
I’ll do the opposite, no matter who I hurt.”
“You’ll only hurt yourself, you know,” you’ll say,
And I’ll reply “Oh yeah? Well I’ll show you!”
Isn’t it great when mothers push your buttons
To set you in your self-indulgent ways
And make you think you’re acting when you’re just
Reacting -- like a metal filing thinking
It’s running from the magnet. Silly rabbit --
The magnet’s in control of everything.
Like mothers, who flip back and forth between
The side that pushes and the side that clings
Because (like magnets) that what they’re made of.

So are you pushing me or pulling, Mum?
And in my head I see you look at me
And say without a smile, “What do you think?”
What do I think? Hunh. Me? What do I not?
I live inside my head, not in my body;
My life is like a small room with a desk,
A pen, blank paper, and four walls of books:
A smarter version of my father’s study --
Which sums up half my life in seven words.

Well now. Look at how far we’ve traveled, Mum,
From cigarettes and whiskey. Should I start
Reading Sam Houston’s life into this too?
God knows I want to, the same way I want
To find the hidden footnotes to the footnotes,
The quarks beneath the atoms, all the wee
Beneath the wonderful, as if the deets
Denote the only truth that ever matters --
Which is one truth of me. And will it be
The overriding one, the boat I sail?
Or do I have to jump from it to swim --
To get rid of the damn thing like a hitter
Tosses his bat away to head for first?
I know -– the question is rhetorical.
The answer’s obvious, and I’m a fool
For spinning what I know into a question
I can consider several answers to --
As if, once I connect with a fast ball,
There’s tons of ways to go except first base.

And with that answer hovering like smoke
Over the head of someone puffing Larks,
I so much want to change the subject, Mum --
To end the dream somehow –- to keep from giving
An answer that, like marriage, I’ll regret
(If ever I agree to it) because
I’ll either have to live up to it, or
Live up to something else. “Better to live
With options open,” says an inner voice.
It’s not your voice, Mum. But it sure is mine
Sometimes: the voice of 18-year-old me --
The boy who thinks commitment is a trap,
The kid who thinks there’s always going to be
Another golden opportunity
Around the corner, even though the road
Ran out of corners miles and years ago –-
The road that forks in two just up ahead,
One turn a traffic jam off to the right,
The other dark and empty and the left.
And I don’t know about you, Mum, but me?
I hate traffic. No way I’m going right.

Meanwhile, it’s midnight. New Year’s Day is done.
I’ve written this in pieces all day long,
And here I think I’ll let it go for now
(Because it never stops, the dialogue
Between the living and the dead –- it just
Becomes a little how-you-say one-sided).
Thanks for the dram, Mum, and the heavy meal.
It’s only hard to swallow if I don’t
Chew on it, right? Outside the wind claws at
The walls and windows, looking for a door,
Making the building creak and crack like claws
On hardwood –- or like you, tapping your nails
On a Formica table, with a drink
In one hand and a Lark poised in the other,
Looking at me and saying “Help yourself.”
I will, Mum. Thanks. And if you wonder where
I am, just try that dark room over there.
I’ll read you stuff as soon as it gets done,
And see you soon.

Much love,

Your eldest son.

copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

Saturday, January 3, 2009

5 Ways To Start The New Year Right

1. Have lunch with a new friend-for-life. (Hey, Liz.)

2. See a movie that actually makes you feel sorry for Richard Nixon. (Frost/Nixon)

3. See a movie that makes our soon-to-be-ex-president look like a sorry little loser (W) and when it's over, say "Damn right!" when the brunette across the aisle cheers and yells "It's almost over!" and the guy sitting in front of you cries "Nineteen more days!"

4. Write a letter to your mother after she appeared to you in a dream on Christmas Eve.

5. Be totally embarrassed by something you did over Christmas. I'm scared of me too, Alyssa.

Friday, January 2, 2009

5 Ways To Start The New Year Wrong

1. Put on the shirt you wore last New Year’s Eve and realize it doesn’t fit.

2. Text the girl you have a crush on and check your phone every ten minutes for a response that never comes.

3. Check Facebook on 1/1 and see New Year’s Eve party pictures of the girl you have a crush on with her arms around some stupid guy who could be your twin brother.

4. Go through last year’s list of things to do and break a calculator trying to add up all the ones that never got done.

5. Pick up Murphy by Samuel Beckett and after reading the first sentence (“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”) use the book as kindling.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008's Tally

Movies seen: 78

Music shows attended: 38

Plays and dance performances seen: 31

So let's see. That works out to roughly 3 movies every two weeks, 1 music show every 9 days, and 1 play/dance thing every 12 days.

I guess it was a busy year.