Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Monday, March 30, 2009
These guys are the Johnny One-Notes.
You all know a woman who’s gone out with one of these guys. He’s the one you look at with her and go “I just don’t get it; what does she see in him?” Or “How can she go out with him? Nobody likes him but her!” And the truth is, it’s not about seeing, or liking, or even thinking. Especially not thinking. It’s about the fact that this guy has the one thing that gal knows for a fact she’s missing. (Which shows you how much you should trust facts, right?) It could be as cheap as sex, as seductive as money, as soothing as passion, or as exciting as logic, but that note he sings to her is the equivalent of Fred Astaire walking into a Ginger Rogers movie and saying, "Let's dance." Cue Ginger's big glowing smile, and run credits. I mean really. Who the hell else is she gonna end up with?
And like Fred Astaire, Johnny One-Notes always (always) get women. You’ll fall for one, too, if you haven’t already, because you're missing that note and he has it -- because there’s that itch in you and he knows exactly where it is, and he will scratch it till you purr and go “A-a-a-a-a-a-ahhhh . . .”
And that’s all he’ll do.
(Let me say that again, because you were too busy purring and going “A-a-a-a-a-a-ahhhh . . .” to actually hear me. )
That one thing? That is all he will ever do for you.
YOU: Oh honey, that feels great, could you scratch over there for a minute?
HIM: God, when did you get so demanding? [Goes back to watching football.]
So remember. Just because the one thing is perfect, that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It may feel that way for a while, but eventually you will find that you have changed the notes of your song, because what woman in the world wants to keep singing the same thing over and over again? Only boys do that. (Really. See that guy next to you on the train? Start humming “You Give Love A Bad Name.” He’ll be singing it to himself from now till next Purim. And he’ll be happy. Until some strange girl on a train starts humming “Satisfaction,” and he does Keith Richards air guitar for the next three months. )
The point is, when you change your tune (and you will), you will look at your Johnny One-Note and go “Why aren’t we in harmony any more?”
YOU: Why aren't we in harmony any more?
HIM: You’re not singing the same song.
YOU: Of course I’m not singing the same song.
HIM: Why not?
YOU: We’re not mating. I was singing a mating song. Now I’m singing an “I have a mate” song.
HIM: Well don’t blame me. I’m not the one singing a different tune.
YOU: Look. You can’t keep singing a mating song when you’re part of a couple. You have to sing a duet.
HIM: I can be part of a duet.
YOU: Then why aren’t you singing with me?
HIM: Because I only know the one note. If you want this to be a duet, then you have to work the tune around me.
And at that point, sister, you either have to say goodbye, or resign yourself to singing “When I’m Sixty-Four” while the man of your dreams thumps out the bass note to “99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall.” There is no other way to deal with a Johnny One-Note. You either have to dump him and find somebody else to sing with, or write your own song around him. And smile. Smile a lot, okay? That way he'll know you're happy.
And whatever you do, don’t despair. There are indeed guys out there who like to sing duets. Lots of them. The reason you never noticed them when you were dating? They don’t just sing the one note. Which is probably why these men can always found in the Guide To Guys under the letter S, for Second Husbands.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
How does something timely become timeless? What’s the secret sauce, as the Wharton grads say, that turns one into the other? Besides, you know, Time and Distance. The Rockies are huge close up, but they always dwindle away minute by in your rear-view mirror. That’s what happens to the timely stuff in a work of art; in the end, it’s so distant you need a Hubble telescope to see it. But the timeless stuff gets larger. You look in that rear-view mirror and even while the Rockies are shrinking, one mountain stays the same size, or even looms larger, as crazy as that sounds. To the naked eye it’s just the same as all the other mountains, so what makes this one visible? What makes this one count? (Case in point: Merchant of Venice. Shylock in 1595? Just as big as Portia, Antonio, Bassanio. Shylock in 2009? Not only bigger than everyone else in the cast, but bigger than the play he’s in, because we can’t not see him through the lens of the 20th Century.)
It’s like every creative work of art has seeds in it, and Time waters them all until some of them poke out of the ground, after which it pulls the weeds away so the flowers can blossom and keep blossoming long after its creator is dead, its initial audience is dead, and its critics are dead. That’s the image I’ve been picturing since I saw Exit The King with Geoffrey Rush last week. Ionesco wrote the play in the early 60’s, and even with this new translation/adaptation co-authored by Rush and director Nick Armfield, it still has a cloud of avant-garde patchouli hanging over it, like that girl you almost went to Woodstock with. But instead of making the play thin and trivial, Time has made it stronger and more meaningful. (Or maybe, because it’s about dying, it’s simply me growing old that made it feel deeper than a bunch of surreal gags.) (Either way, credit Time, okay?)
So what about the play I actually saw, as opposed to the one that’s in my head? Well, everybody in Australia knew that Geoffrey Rush was the best comic actor in the country long before I ever saw him in a movie, so his performance would be no surprise to them -– just me. As my friend Shannon said: “You know how when you love someone’s film work, you really hope they have the stage chops to back it up? This guy has the chops, and it really makes me happy.” And the play made me happy too. Yes, it’s a dramatized metaphor, but it’s delightful, moving, hilarious, absurd (duh), and Rush is all of these –- a limber-legged clown with amazing breath control who is so precise and loose at the same time that he threatens to tower over everything. But he doesn’t (except maybe when the Guard announces “The King is marching!” and Rush goes into this full-out two minute routine to music with Ray Bolger rubber legs and sly looks at the audience). (There’s a lot of fourth-wall breakage here too, and it’s all done just right.)
But thanks to Neil Armfield's direction, Rush never becomes bigger than the play he’s in, and the actors around him carry their weight for the most part, from Brian Hutchinson’s jarhead guard (a great example of the timeless in the timely) to William Sadler’s straight-out-of-Moliere Doctor to Andrea Martin’s I’m-in-my-own-crazy-universe Nurse. The only disappointment, and it’s a minor one, is Susan Sarandon. She gets the hardest part –- Queen Marguerite is more a narrator than a character, sitting there on her bench being calm when everyone’s frantic and focused when everyone’s scattered and doing nothing but taking it when her husband and his second wife insult her -- but even so, it feels like everyone else is performing while she’s doing the DVD commentary. In vocal terms, she speaks the part like she’s laying down a master track and will get around to tweaking the lines in post-production. There’s very little range to her delivery, which on the plus side makes her final monologue a great you-can-hear-a-pin-drop finale to the play. But it’s nothing we haven’t heard for the last two hours (except for the amplified echo effect).
None of which is a hard knock, only a soft one. Not only is there an Ionesco play on Broadway, but it’s a great production of what looks to be a timeless piece of theatre. Go see it.
Oh and, uhm, this crazy little redhead?
Still out there proving there's nothing she can't do. Nothing, I tell you.
Monday, March 23, 2009
SOMEBODY: Hey dude, how do you define infinity?
ME: Easy! That’s the number of times my female friends ask me the question: “Matthew, why do guys do that?”
The fact that I actually get asked this question, instead of getting yelled at for doing something stupid, means that my female friends don’t think I’m part of the problem. And sadly, because I'm not part of the problem, I also get asked “Why are there no good guys out there?” a lot, which means I’m not part of the solution either. But that’s okay. Like I always say, the reason I know every one of my female friends is smart is because none of them is dumb enough to want to go out with me.
So. Why do guys do that? Not an easy question to answer, because the ratio of screwed-up people on the planet to those with a Y chromosome has always been a couple of decimal points shy of 1:1. But thanks to years of observation, rumination, and looking into the mirror, certain common types of male behavior can be identified and classified by their actions once they screw up. Unfortunately they can never be identified before they screw up, because guys are like earthquakes -- they cannot be predicted, they can only be categorized by the amount of damage they leave behind. Although in some cases their behavior can be predicted with total certainty by the type of woman they chase after.
Which brings us to our first type: The Born Chaser. This is the guy who is always running after somebody else, and is not to be confused with the guy who says he likes everything you like so you’ll like him back (the Born Identity), the guy who says “My way or the highway!” (the Born Ultimatum) or the guy who is the king of all he surveys, including you (the Born Supremacy).
No, this is the Born Chaser -- living proof that at least once in human male evolutionary history, some really drunk guy got a shark pregnant and raised the kid in solitude until he was old enough to go to law school. This Mitochondrial Adam passed on a bunch of shark genes to every male on earth, particularly the one that makes a shark keep swimming or he dies. (Yes, ladies, we all have this gene; it's just recessive in some of us.) This makes Born Chasers like land sharks -- instead of swim or die, it's chase or die. They chase after everything-- women, jobs, cellphone service -- and the minute they get what they want, they’re off looking for a bigger and better one, or at least one that’s running away from them, because you can’t chase something you’ve caught.
How do you recognize these losers? Easy. They're the guys who go out every night because they are so prey-oriented they don’t know what it’s like to be alone in an empty room. (And yes, women do this too, but for an entirely different reason. Women go out every night because their shoes make them do it.) Wanna know if a guy is a Born Chaser? Ask him what he does when he’s alone. If he plays video games, then chances are he treats dating like a point-and-shoot challenge where it’s all about getting to the next level -- and the level after that, and the level after that -- and then dumping the game entirely when a better one gets released. (Sound familiar? You bet it does.) Born Chasers don’t know what it’s like to be really alone. They have to bring someone to bed with them (or wind up in someone else’s bed) because at heart they are other-person oriented. This is a good quality in saints and philanthropists, but a bad quality in potential male mates, because to guys like this the word “other” means “any other.” They might as well have ABY tattooed on their shoulder (Anybody But You).
YOU: Nice tattoo. So what does the ABY stand for?
HIM: Oh, that? It used to be BABY, but the B faded away.
YOU: Wow! Same with me!
YOU: Yeah! I have the words YOU ARE FULL OF SHIT tattooed on my lower back, and the TOTALLY faded away.
So ladies? If you want to wind up with one of these motorized morons, kick off your heels, put on your Nikes, and start sprinting, because the BC will chase Donnas the way a shark chases dinner. Just remember two things: if you stop running and let him catch you, he will stand still only long enough to see who’s just out of reach and head off after her; and if you ever turn around and start chasing him? He will screech to a halt, jump up and down and click his heels together, stick his tongue out twice as he goes “Meep! Meep!” and vanish so fast in the opposite direction that the highway will roll up behind him.
And the only Acme remedy for that is Acme Tequila.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
Here at Trampley Nixon we’ve been watching the decline and fall of market capitalism with what we euphemistically call “total fucking glee,” because we’re making so much money that we don’t have to lay off anybody. We don’t even call them lay-offs here; we use the word SCUCK, as in Start Collecting Unemployment Compensation, Kid. Nobody ever gets SCUCKed at Trampley Nixon. Or at least that’s what we said up until the end of February, when people actually started disappearing from the Corporate Directory in droves, after which the CEO sent us all an e-mailed letter explaining that, since everyone else in Corporate America was suffering, “we need to be seen to be suffering as well, so we don’t look like the heartless greedheads we all know we are.”
Well, if it’s anything we heartless greedheads know how to do, it’s pretend to be repentant when we get our hands caught in the cookie jar. (And I mean really - our hands spend so much time in that jar that it might as well be called the Cookie Glove.) So I got my sackcloth and ashes from HR, I practiced my mournful worried frown in the little hand mirror I carry around to cut coke lines on, I bought $100 bottles of wine for lunch instead of the usual $500 ones, --
And then they SCUCKed me.
That was two weeks ago. Since then, I have gone through the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the binge drinking, the spam e-mailing, the breaking and entering, the trashing of window offices, and the suspended sentencing. I am now at the final stage of Job Loss, the sarcastic blog posting. In the past two weeks, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and even more about my former job. Seven things, in fact – and I am happy to share them with you in total violation of my non-compete agreement.
1. It’s not that they fucked up, it’s that you’re not stepping up. No matter how vital the information which is lost when an employee is SCUCKed, it’s never your manager’s fault for getting rid of it, it’s always your fault for not knowing it. Sample dialogue:
THEM: You’re supposed to be translating this into Spanish every morning.
YOU: The guy who knew Spanish got fired on Friday.
THEM: So why aren’t you doing it?
YOU: Because I don’t know Spanish.
THEM: Then you’re not stepping up.
2. You are just a number on a balance sheet. It’s not about how well you do your job, it’s not about how badly you keep fucking up, it’s about whether that annual salary number you’re paid is either noticed or not noticed. If it’s not noticed, you can harass interns, surf the net all day, and append the words “Please advise” to the end of every e-mail like the asshole you are, and you will always get a corporate paycheck. But if that number becomes noticeable? You better take your pint of whiskey home from that bottom left drawer, because your corporate days are numbered.
3. When they say “family,” you’re the in-law. In family terms, getting SCUCKed is like getting divorced. They love you as long as you’re happily married to one of their children, but the second you’re kicked out of the house, their cellphones go unanswered, their Facebook pages are all blocked, and your your heaping plate of family Thanksgiving turkey is now a pile of food stamps. And everyone in your so-called family becomes like that elevator operator in Night At The Opera, the one who smiles at Groucho when he has a job and then kicks him downstairs when he doesn’t.
4. You are working in Stalinist Russia. Ours is the best company ever, with the best leaders and the best employees who haven’t been purged yet. (Repeat as necessary, during town hall meetings, earnings announcements, and self-aggrandizing appearances on FOX Closing Bell.) And when any of our best leaders and employees do get purged, they disappear down the memory hole just like members of the Politburo vanish from photos of prior May Day parades. Because things are not only getting better in the future, they’re getting better in the past. (When you realize how hooked these people are on creative accounting, it’s no wonder they’re addicted to creative history as well.) Only the pure survive a purge; only the flawed are hit by one, and once they’re gone, they’re gone retroactively, like they never got hired in the first place. And you will go the same way, unless you praise Stalin and try to forget that one wrong move will land you in a gulag. Be happy you’re on a bread line. Seriously. Be visibly happy. Or else.
5. Your smarts must never make them look stupid. In Corporate America, information is a battleground. When your managers start addressing a
6. The problem is your reaction to the problem. It’s never what was done to you; it’s your reaction to what was done to you that matters –- like when somebody shoots you, and you have them arrested? It’s your fault for calling the cops. Sample dialogue:
THEM: What are the cops doing here?
YOU: You shot me!
THEM: That’s no reason for you to call the police.
YOU: What am I supposed to do then?
THEM: Just deal with it and move on.
YOU: But I’m bleeding.
THEM: Then put a band-aid on it, and move on.
YOU: But you fucking shot me!
THEM: And this wouldn’t be an issue if you didn’t keep bringing it up.
YOU: Can I at least call a doctor?
THEM: Sorry, you don’t get healthcare.
7. You are sleeping with crack whores. You cannot trust the people you work for. You cannot reason with them. You cannot save them. They are only friendly because friendly makes you lower your guard. They are not your friends. They are crack whores. If they need the money, they will roll you. If they like your stuff, they will steal it and sell it. If they envy your talent, they will drag your name in the mud. They will suck your dick till you think you're the God Of Love and they will forget you the moment you leave the room. And the longer you sleep with them, the quicker you get their diseases.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
I stare off at the sunlight glinting on the porphyry tiles of Cleopatra's Palace as The Death of Caesar comes to its stirring conclusion. The complex is currently the residence of Aelius Gallus, the Roman Prefect, a sour-faced by-the-numbers general who is even now descending to the street, as if the play is over. He knows that everyone is watching him, but he keeps his head up and his eyes front and only glances around at the audience to put them in their place as lesser beings who are too stupid to walk out of a play once the main character dies. That's the kind of officer that Rome wants -- someone who knows enough to leave a lyric tragedy before the rest of the audience, so he can relieve himself in a privy and fortify himself with some liquid refreshment before the start of the next play in my son's trilogy. A man who knows that the truth is what he sees with his own two eyes, and since he has just seen Brutus and Cassius conspire to kill Caesar, for him the story of Caesar’s death is obvious -- Brutus was a patriot; Cassius was bitter and jealous; Caesar was a tyrant. Descriptions which, like military orders, will be repeated endlessly down the chain of command until everyone marches to the same monotonous rhythm, and the truth is crushed by an army of lies, and all that remains is the marching order that has become the official history of that dubious and chaotic time.
But then all histories are official, are they not? Uplifting fairy tales created specifically for the children of the world's survivors, and crafted to bequeath to them the valuable lessons and moral precepts which garnered their forefathers greatness and success. And the most important lesson is that, when you win, you not only get to play the hero, but you also get to declare that the loser was a villain, and proclaim that the gods were always on your side. Which is how the race of mortals has decided the issue of History ever since man first learned that language could be used to lie.
It is as if History is a single roll of papyrus. You open it up, and what you see is a story entitled “The Death of Caesar.” Here is Brutus; here is Cassius; here is the record of Caesar’s last hours. A quick glance tells you all you need to know about the facts. But when you look closely at the words, here and there you see something that looks like a smudge or a faint shadow, and you begin to realize that this roll of papyrus once contained a totally different story, a story that was erased to make room for the one that everyone now reads. And as you study the manuscript, you realize that “The Death of Caesar” as it has come down to us has been written over the half-erased story of how and why three slaves were murdered, of what their deaths meant to Brutus and Cassius, and how their deaths led to the final hours of Caesar.
Three dead slaves.
In my mind, they all lie together on a hot and dusty road, barren of everything except the smell of decay. And then, like a wild rose, the death of Caesar sprouts up from their bodies, and what was once thought to be lifeless is revealed to be an evil garden.
Three dead slaves.
Everyone has forgotten those dead slaves. Everyone except me. I remember their names. I remember their faces. I remember how Rome was shaken when their bodies were discovered. From the Tarpeian Rock of hindsight, it is easy to see how they heralded the earthquake of the Ides of War as surely as if they had been a series of preliminary tremors. But at the time, they were earthquakes in their own right. Now, they are as inconsequential as the initial sacrifices at a great man's funeral. If it had been any other man's funeral, those sacrifices might still be remembered. But this was mighty Caesar's pyre -- the blaze that burned away his earthly shell from its bald head to its fallen arches, leaving behind the immortal spirit which now presides over the imperial future of Rome as its newest god, presumably with younger feet and a full head of hair.
And History? History is like Medusa. She turns living, breathing human beings into statues, and then she arranges them in an orderly tableau of frozen poses that represent courage and honor, betrayal and love, victory and defeat. If an event cannot be summed up in a simple thought or a single word, she does not make a statue of it. But Caesar’s death? Look –- there is a statue of Marcus Brutus with a knife raised high. Cassius stands behind him; the dead body of Caesar lies in front of him. As far as the Medusa History is concerned, that is all you need to know about the death of Julius Caesar. The whole story told in one image. What could be simpler?
That is how History works. It winnows. It simplifies. History loves simplicity. History adores simplicity. Given the choice between a complicated truth and a simple lie, History will choose simplicity every time. Simplicity is a clever and a powerful magician -- clever enough to supply an illusion so vivid that it makes a liar out a man’s better judgment, and powerful enough to make a man reciting the facts sound like a self-serving liar. And when the facts behind the deaths of those three slaves are told? Caesar’s death is anything but simple.
Three dead slaves.
I take a deep breath. I stare straight ahead. The actor playing Brutus is raising a bloody sword. He calls the murder a sacrifice, an offering to the gods. He asks for the blessing of History and the support of the righteous, not knowing that History will brand him as a villain and the righteous will shun him like a leper. And as he proclaims a new era of freedom for Rome, I think back to the days of the old era, and how it really ended.
copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells
There is sudden silence on the stage. None of the performers are moving; they stand as if trapped in the charged silence that always occurs before a battle is joined -- the moment when everyone on both sides holds their breath, the moment beyond which there is no retreat, only advance and charge.
The chorus of Senators begins to sing a high, piercing note. A dog howls in the little market behind the theatre. Brutus raises his sword high. Like everyone else in the audience, I expect him to make a beautifully-phrased speech about tyranny and freedom. Like everyone else in the audience, I watch open-mouthed as Brutus reaches back and hurls his bright sword like a javelin. We all gasp at the same time -- it is like no other sound I have ever heard in my life, the noise of a thousand people choking at once. The sword seems to hang in the air for an instant between Caesar and Brutus, and then it arrows into the Dictator's chest with a great thwack and an even greater gout of blood, driving him back against the throne.
I find that I am half out of my seat in astonishment, gasping for breath like the rest of the audience. My pulse is racing; my heart is hammering against my chest. Part of me is convinced that I have just seen a man die, even though another part of me knows that I am watching a play, that the actor playing Caesar is still alive, that the blood is pig’s blood concealed in a bladder beneath his toga, and that the piercing blow is just another illusion. But what a powerful illusion -- powerful enough to make a liar out of my better judgment.
Brutus turns to us and clutches his toga with his left hand while his right arm points to the sky. "Sic semper tyrannus!" he cries, and the audience bursts into spontaneous applause. I confess that I am clapping wildly with the rest of them, shaking my head all the while. Everyone in the theater is cheering. The din is tremendous.
I glance down at my son, to see that he is closely studying my expression. For a brief moment it is like the clashing of two swords -- he tries to draw blood; I try to defend myself -- and then I lower my guard. "Amazing," I declare. "You must remind me to compliment the author."
Ptolemy Alexandros has the decency to blush. I reach down and ruffle his hair, the way I used to when he was a boy, and I think of my father. My father never ruffled my hair. He only touched me twice in his entire life. So naturally I have grown into an old man who believes that the one thing a son needs from his father is a lot of hair-ruffling. Not surprisingly, my son regards it as a deliberate reminder that in his father's eyes, he will never be more than a child. And when he has a son, he will barely touch him. And the next cycle of well-meant misunderstanding will begin.
Mindful of my son's displeasure, I do nothing until the noise has died down and everyone has returned to their seats. I wait until the final scene has begun, and Brutus and the Chorus share a brief and ironic dialogue about the future of Rome. According to them, because of this day's work, a new Rome will rise like a phoenix from Caesar's funeral pyre -- a very un-Roman image which points forward to the next play in my son's trilogy, The Revenge of Caesar, in which Antonius and Octavianus pledge to avenge the Dictator by killing his assassins. A new Rome rose up, all right; but it was not a phoenix. It was a ravening wolf.
I glance at Ptolemy Alexandros. Because he is my son, I nod my head and say: "Well done. Well done." And because I am his father, I bite my tongue and stifle the overwhelming urge to add: "But you forgot the three dead slaves."
Thankfully, I catch myself in time, and the words die in my throat. The last thing I need to see right now is my son's crestfallen face as I express my paternal admiration by saying in effect: "You may be able to create, but you don't know all the boring facts, like I do. Facts like, for instance, those three dead slaves."
[ -- to be concluded]
copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells
Thursday, March 12, 2009
As I watch, Cassius steps forward to strike next. This, at least, is historically accurate. Cassius was indeed the first man to attack the Dictator head on, but only because he could not see two feet in front of his nose with any clarity. Beyond that, his world was a misty fog of hazy figures, any one of whom could be the Dictator. As Albinus remarked, when he discovered that Cassius was angry at him over some petty slight: "Cassius isn't angry with me -- he's angry at life, because it refuses to get close enough for him to see it." (Poor Albinus -- besides being the only Conspirator with military experience, he was also the only one with a sense of humor.)
At any rate, there was neither laughter nor argument among the conspirators when Cassius, giving lip service to his deeply-felt belief in the restoration of the Res Publica, demanded pride of place in the assassination line. Everyone understood that Cassius' motives were as blurry as his eyesight; his rabid denunciations of the Dictatorship had nothing to do with the office and everything to do with the man. To Cassius, politics was the bow he used to fire a volley of poisoned arrows at Caesar. The Conspirators understood this; and since Cassius was as purblind as a mole, the general consensus was that a clear field and an uninterrupted charge would be the only way to prevent Cassius from stabbing either himself or somebody else in his splenetic attempts to eviscerate the Dictator. So, as soon as Casca's knife came down, Cassius was given a healthy push in the right direction by Albinus and Titinius, and everyone else within reach scurried as far away as possible as Brutus' roaring brother-in-law slammed into the Dictator head on and, as Albinus remarked later, "viciously stabbed to death a perfectly innocent toga." Some say that the Dictator actually laughed at the missed blow; others report that he cried: "You stab like a girl, Cassius!" But all agree that Caesar spat in Cassius' face, after which Cassius roared again and swung his knife like a scythe, carving the empty air as the other conspirators shoved him away and descended on Caesar in a spume of blades and blood.
But there is no spitting as this Cassius strikes his blow against tyranny; and as for confusion, it is nowhere to be seen. Everything is orderly and polite as the music swells and swords flash up and strike down in wave after perfectly-choreographed wave, like a tide of silver. Meanwhile the chorus of Senators has broken into two groups on either side of the slaughter. The group on the right is singing a passage in Greek from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, specifically Agamemnon's cry of despair as Clytemnestra kills him offstage. This is either the writer's idea of a joke or an astute observation on the reading habits of the Roman upper class. The Senators on the left are singing: "The gods have decided the issue! The gods are defending the right! The gods are speaking now!" They repeat this over and over again, first in Latin, then in Greek, then in six-part harmony, while the Senators with the swords perform a stately, ritualistic dance in front of the Dictator. It resembles a receiving line -- one by one they each shuffle up to their victim and strike him with a sword, while the entire group sings in Latin:
Here is the throne that he deserves --
The throne of death and damnation.
Stirring stuff. Would that the real assassination had been so well directed; instead, it was a chaotic butchery. Of the one hundred and sixteen separate injuries that were inflicted during the minute and a half it took the Conspirators to change the history of Rome forever, only twenty-three wounds were found in Caesar's body. And only two of those were lethal. All the other blows -- ninety-three of them -- were struck in a storm of slices and stabs that rained down on anyone unlucky enough to venture within arm's distance of the victim. Not a few of these ninety-three were struck by the Dictator himself, who used a stylus to slash at his attackers as they forced him back against Pompey's statue. Proving that the pen draws more blood than the sword -- as long as the pen is in the hand of a writer like Caesar.
The music suddenly resolves itself into a deep drumbeat, and the chorus of Senators has become a double line stretching from Caesar to a single man standing at the far end of the stage -- Brutus, the only conspirator who has yet to strike a blow. One line of Senators is chanting "Death! Death! Death!" while the other line is chanting "Rome! Rome! Rome!" Both lines are stomping their feet.
The Dictator, whose toga is awash with blood, is leaning heavily against his throne. He pushes himself upright and staggers forward so that he is standing in the center of the aisle of Senators, about fifteen feet away from Brutus. He clutches at his bleeding stomach with one hand; with the other he points at Brutus. "My son, my son,” he says in Greek.
Brutus replies in Latin. “I am not the man you think I am.”
“Nice touch,” I whisper. My son elbows me, but there is a smile on his face.
And now Caesar is extending both hands towards Brutus, and proclaiming his famous final words. “Kai su, teknon?” he says, his voice quavering. You too, my son?
"Well at least that's authentic," I mutter.
My son elbows me again as Brutus cries out: "No son of yours, but a true son of Rome!"
There is a burst of applause from audience right, where about a dozen Roman soldiers are pretending to watch the play while they drink and eat and talk amongst themselves. I can’t decide whether they are cheering because they side with Brutus against Caesar (a dangerous position now that the Empire is being run by his adopted son) or because, like all foreigners, they cannot resist the urge to cheer whenever someone mentions their home city in public.
[ -- to be continued]
copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Caesar and Cicero were as different as arrows and antelopes. Of the two men, Cicero was the one whose face was readable by anyone with eyes. It was Caesar whose features were frozen into a supple mask of distant deference -- you would never be able to look at him and expect to read his inner thoughts, and you would certainly never see him express the flaming vanity that lights up this actor's soul like the Pharos lights the harbor of Alexandria. I suppose that this is what my son refers to when he uses the words "good acting."
It is certainly not the kind of acting that I am used to seeing. I was brought up in Rome, where actors wear masks designed to disguise their features and amplify their voices. Here in Alexandria the current fashion is for the actors to wear vivid makeup and project their voices to the upper benches of the theatre without the aid of artfully-hidden megaphones. Perhaps I am a purist, but seeing the facial expressions of an actor is distracting and annoying because it takes my attention away from the verse. And seeing these strange men pretending to be Caesar and Brutus and Cassius is an even greater threat to my powers of attention. They look nothing like the Caesar and Brutus and Cassius that I remember, and whenever they speak or frown or glare, I cannot help but remember, and compare them unfavorably to, the Caesar and Brutus and Cassius I knew.
Take Casca, for instance. He stands behind the acting Dictator, and because he is being portrayed by one of the local darlings, a charioteer who races for the Greens, he is wearing a tunic that displays the oiled splendor of his naked legs. If the real Casca had ever displayed his naked legs in public, everyone within a hundred yards would have been struck blind, so this is a distinct improvement on history. Which is, I suppose, the definition of good drama. And this towering young Casca is looking very dramatic. From all appearances he is perched on a low platform of white marble. He is raising a sword high over his head with his right hand -- blade up, like a captain about to order a charge.
"Casca carried a knife, not a sword," I say.
Those three heads in the next row turn around again. Judging from their expressions, I have insulted not only their wives but their daughters.
Beside me, my son shushes me with a harsh gesture. Then he whispers that it is obvious to anyone with eyes why Casca is brandishing a sword instead of a knife -- why, indeed, all the conspirators are carrying barely-concealed swords in their togas. "So everyone can see them," he explains.
I nod my head like an idiot, and refrain from observing that a senator, clumsily trying to conceal a two-foot gladius in the folds of his toga, would never have been allowed within striking distance of the Dictator.
Caesar, seemingly oblivious to the man with the raised sword who is standing behind him, takes a firm step to his right. He is now directly in front of Casca. It is my son's turn to play the expert; he leans in to me and whispers: "In the theatre, this is called corrective staging."
"Let the gods defend the right!" Caesar cries, this time throwing his head back and raising both his arms to the sky. Four appeals to heaven in less than a minute -- this is definitely not a Caesar with whom I am familiar.
"Let the gods speak now," announces the gorgeous gladiator who is playing Brutus, and Casca reaches up with his left hand, reverses the blade, and drives the sword two-handed into Caesar's back.
There is a look of satisfaction on Casca's face. He is visibly proud to be the first man to strike a blow against tyranny. He is reveling in the distinction. He is heroic in his anger. He is nothing at all like the real Casca, who was a political backstabber with a loud voice and a weak pair of legs. The kind of blowhard who brags and makes promises and then, when the time comes to act, is usually three streets away drinking wine in the back of a tavern. The only reason that Casca was given the dubious honor of initiating Caesar's assassination in the first place was because everyone knew that if Casca did not strike first, he would have chickened out at the last minute and turned everyone else in for treason.
"Nobody raises a hand until Casca strikes the first blow." That was the only plan the Conspirators had, and to all appearances Casca eagerly embraced it. "Where do I strike him first?" he asked. "In the heart? In the belly?" Cassius smiled and said: "In the back. So that everyone can see you." Men whispered later that you could actually watch the life drain out of Casca's eyes as those words descended from his ears to his heart. He knew then what his fellow conspirators really thought of him -- and knew, too, that there was no way he could get out of performing this particular role without being killed on the spot. The Dictator knew, as well. His actual words, upon feeling the slice of that first knife-blow against his spine, were: "Casca, you coward!" He didn't even have to turn around to see who it was. Not that he could have, with his stiff neck that day.
But here, Caesar's words are: "Casca, you dog!" (in Greek, which is a nice touch), and then he staggers forward, seriously wounded by the blow of Casca's sword. In actual fact, Casca’s great blow for freedom barely pricked Caesar's skin. Because he was so nervous, and because he drove the knife down so hard and at such a wide angle, Casca wound up stabbing himself in the thigh and letting loose the kind of blood-curdling scream that you always hear when a pig is slaughtered in the marketplace. Which is the origin of the rhyme that Aligerius made at the Dictator's funeral:
Albinus did the planning, Cassius did the scheming,
Brutus did the killing, and Casca did the screaming.
[ -- to be continued]
copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Three Dead Slaves
Prologue: Part 1
Alexandria, 730 A.U.C.
His cheeks are red, his thin-lipped mouth is twisted into a frown, and his eyes, lined with kohl like those of an Egyptian harlot, glow with the inner flame of an oncoming fever. There is a thick vein throbbing at the center of his forehead, just below the laurel wreath which he wears to conceal his baldness. The veins in his neck stand out like pillars supporting a temple. He is leaning forward like a spear at the ready, the long fingers of his feminine hands clutching the arms of a marble throne with all the ferocity of a man strangling a pair of snakes, a feat they say that Hercules performed once in his cradle.
But this tetchy, epileptic old ranter is not Hercules. He is Gaius Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, and he is facing a semi-circle of white-robed Senators, only two of whom (in a nice touch of sartorial irony) wear the purple. One of these two is young and tall and blessed with the body of a gladiator; the other is fat and bald and hunched like a spider bracing itself against a stomping foot. Guess which one is supposed to be Brutus. Both these men have their right hands in their togas; whatever they are hiding cannot be seen by the man in the laurel wreath from where he sits upon his burnished throne, but as they briefly turn their backs to him and nod at each other, those of us in the audience who are lucky enough to be looking at them can see the gleam of the afternoon sun as it flashes off their polished blades.
The actor playing Caesar raises his right hand. "Let the gods decide the issue!" he cries, and it is all I can do not to laugh out loud. Gaius Julius Caesar never once put his trust in heaven without first hedging his bets. This is, after all, a man who did not say "Let the gods decide the issue!" when he crossed the Rubicon; he said, "Let the dice fly!" The Butcher of Gaul was never one to petition heaven whenever he marched up to a crossroads. He had only one definition of piety -- bribing (or better yet, blackmailing) a priest into delivering omens that promised the success of whatever Caesar wanted, and the failure of everything else. I speak from personal experience –- I was in charge of delivering a wagonload of gold to the priests of Osiris in Egypt, when Caesar bribed them to approve his liaison with Cleopatra -- an incident which has yet to find a home in any of the official histories of our history-mad empire.
"I give this judgment to the hands of Jove!" this Caesar cries. "Trouble the gods, and trouble me no more!" And as the words leave his lips, he leaps to his feet in a movement that is swift, violent, and awkward, as if the golden throne beneath his bony buttocks has suddenly flamed up like a red-hot griddle. There is a look of fierce indignation in his bloodshot eyes, a look that is meant to inspire obedience and servility, a look that fairly screams "How dare you question me?" And that certainly fits the real Caesar's mood on the day of his death. On that fateful Ides of War, Caesar was not himself -- between the violent thunderstorms which turned the Forum into a wading pool and the feverish nightmares of his latest wife Calphurnia, the last living descendant of the goddess Venus had slept no more than two hours in his last twenty-four. As a result, he was uncharacteristically tetchy and irritable, his stomach was queasy, and according to Albinus, who heard him complaining about it as they walked to the Senate, the Dictator had pulled a muscle in his neck, which meant that he had to swivel his upper body around whenever he wanted to turn his head.
This particular actor's posture is nothing like that. It is not even an approximation of Caesar's deliberately deferential slouch -- the submissive posture which the Dictator adopted for all his dealings with the Senate. Instead, this actor is standing with his head held high, his shoulders squared as if for mortal combat, and his feet firmly planted upon the floor of the Senate chamber. With his right hand the actor points to the heavens; with his left hand he clutches at his toga like a drowning man clawing for air. It is a famous pose. The only problem is that it is not Caesar's famous pose.
"Gods above, he looks just like Cicero!" I announce.
Three men in the row in front of me turn their heads and glare at me as if I have just insulted their wives. Beside me, my son sticks an elbow in my ribs.
"Well he does," I whisper. "Cicero practiced that pose whenever he noticed anything that reflected his appearance, from a mirror to a puddle of dirty rainwater. He thought it looked Roman, and Cicero was obsessed with being Roman."
My son is not listening. Instead, he is rolling his eyeballs. In the eloquent language of youth, this is like a loud voice crying: "Once again you have discovered a new way to embarrass me."
I reply with a grunt which, in the universally recognized language of old age, announces that youth is wasted on the young. Especially snot-nosed whelps like my son Ptolemy Alexandros, who doesn't know the difference between Caesar and Cicero.
[ -- to be continued]
copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells
Monday, March 9, 2009
I'll say more at greater length soon, but right now, three thoughts.
"This movie is a love letter to the fans of the graphic novel." My friend Jay said that when we walked out of the 10:45 Saturday morning show at the Times Square AMC, and he's right. I cannot believe how much of the comic book made it onto the screen. So much, in fact, that I can't honestly recommend it to anyone who's not a fan of the comic, because I don't know what the hell you'll think of it. But if you do like the comic book, you will not be disappointed. Yes, there were changes, but they're dwarfed by what was faithfully honored.
Sauce of milk, please. God, were those reviews condescending or what? The New York Times wants me to grow up; the New Yorker thinks that nobody over twenty-five could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under eighteen should be allowed to witness it. Well you know what? The fact that the Grey Lady and the Weekly Snob don't get this movie is fifty points in its favor, because what they're really arguing against is the graphic novel, which means that even THEY recognize how much of Moore and Gibbons made it intact to the movie screen.
Hands down. Best opening credit sequence ever:
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Stoppard Lite ("Now with one-third the wit and intelligence!"). There are two kinds of clever plays: plays which are actually clever, and therefore smart, which make your average audience feel dumb; and plays which feel like they are actually clever, but are not, and are therefore designed to make an audience feel smart. Impressionism is the second kind of clever play. Like dots on a canvas which give the illusion of form when seen from a distance, the script of this play is nothing but pointillism writ large.
What doesn’t work. The writing: chatty dialogue does not a play make, though it does a teleplay make, and the author has extensive TV experience. The Africa flashback in which the author reveals that he has never even been to the Africa part of Epcot, never mind the real continent. The doubling (see below). A heavy directorial whack to your head at the end of Act One. The writing. The established fact that Irons’ character has known Allen for two years (this is a play, not a novel; two months tops, okay?). And did I mention the writing?
What works. The acting. The Magic Negro in Act Two. Actually all of Act Two, which plays like a single unit. Of course it’d mean a lot more if the characters in Act Two were the same as the ones in Act One, but they’re not. The Act One characters, with all their flashbacks and history and angst, are only glanced at in Act Two, which confirms the (cough) impression that Act One is filler designed to flesh out a simple idea so that it becomes a full evening. The overall effect is of eating one of those onion rings that's 80% batter and only 20% onion.
What good casting brings to a meh script. Credit casting agent Laura Stanczyk with getting the absolute best actors for a script like this, because Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen spend most of the play filling in nearly all the empty spaces in the script with color, depth, and conviction, like two experienced portrait painters confronted with a cartoon. The end result is greater than the words on the page: you not only feel like you actually know these people, you feel like they’re people, period. Which is no small achievement here. Most of the scenes in this play indicate, rather then expose, like a sketch indicates a sculpture. Allen and Irons breathe life into those indications until you could swear you were seeing something actually come alive.
What’s this about again? In Act Two, there’s an extended argument/discussion about the meaning of a painting -- what it means to the people viewing it, how we all in a sense see ourselves in a work of art, how we project ourselves and our desires or fears into art. It would be great if this was the theme of the entire play, but it isn’t. Oh, it’s indicated, like everything else. Which will make your average audience feel very smart when they realize: “Hey! She likes that mother/daughter painting because she’s the daughter in it! Brilliant!” To which I can only say “No –- sorry –- brilliant is when you don’t notice it because it’s organic.” (And remind me to take my own advice the next time I come up with a “brilliant” idea, okay?)
The misuses of doubling. Whether or not you believe that Robert Armin played both Cordelia and The Fool in the original production of King Lear, it makes thematic sense that the same actor plays both a rejected daughter and the one character onstage who keeps tweaking Lear about that rejection. (Even when he looks at the Fool, he sees Cordelia! Now THAT is brilliant!) But in this play, when Jeremy irons doubles as Joan Allen’s father and then a painter with whom she is involved, it makes you ask thematic questions the play never raises. Doubling by its nature indicates depth, so if you’re not going to write a script with any depth, then don’t double just because it saves money. Or if you have to do it to save money, then GIVE it depth. (It's called "rewriting," Michael Jacobs.) Is Joan Allen father-fixated? Is she attracted to painters? Is she priggish? (She refuses to pose nude.) All these are questions which could be addressed just enough for an audience to make the kind of connections which add depth to a script and a performance. But those questions are not addressed, any more than the implications of the Act One flashbacks are carried over to Act Two. It’s like the characters which were set up pre-intermission went off for a drink while a couple of different characters took the stage for the last 30 minutes.
And yet. There’s funny stuff here. Marsha Mason is a breath of fresh air. Andre DeShields is the best Magic Negro ever. And you will be engaged. You will laugh. You will want these people to get together. You will want to get teary-eyed when they finally kiss. And like the actors onstage, you will have to do most of the work to make that happen.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Tonight I'm doing research for a blog entry the likes of which you will never find on the New York Times
Look for me at the bottom of this by sunset:
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
So it’s a little disconcerting to realize that, because of three things that happened to me in the last ten days, I have three new ideas. Without going into too much detail (because if I did, then half my friends would know the people behind these stories, and they would tell the other half), here they are, copyright 2009, Matthew J Wells, yadda yadda yadda.
Kilkenny Cats. In December an LA friend of mine came into the city for a couple of days, and over drinks we got on the subject of my social life, and internet dating, and to nip that discussion in the bud, I said, “You know, I seriously considered becoming a priest when I was younger, but I said no because I like women too much. And now every woman in my life treats me like a Father Confessor.” “Oh Matthew, that explains so much,” she replied. (And it does.) Last night I found myself repeating that conversation to someone who has an engraved pew outside the Father Wells Confessional, and as I was retelling it, (and this is the part I can’t explain because when my mind moves, it moves like a knight on a chessboard, by hopping to one side and then jumping two spaces ahead) I got an image and a thought at the same time. The image is from history -- when Cromwell went through Ireland like Sheridan marched to Atlanta, leaving behind nothing but a wasteland, he and his army took a particular revenge on the town of Kilkenny. After running out of Irish human beings to kill, his soldiers ran a rope between two houses, gathered up all the town cats, tied them together by their tails, slung them over the rope, and had a grand old British time watching them tear each other apart. The thought was this: suppose a small-town Irish priest, the one man who knows all the town’s secrets and is totally forbidden to speak of them by his vows, suddenly declares that he is leaving the priesthood, meaning that his vow of secrecy is no longer in effect. Wouldn’t the town tear itself apart (and tear him apart) because they’re afraid of what he’d be free to say? Not knowing or even imagining that a man of morals, when pledged to secrecy, doesn’t suddenly become a blabbermouth just because he can. He said, speaking from personal experience.
Chinatown Rules. I recently mailed out a few scripts to a friend of mine who is a reader for the Second Stage department of a theatre company. It’s the first mailing I’ve done since my agent said the evolution play I sent her was “more of the same” and tiresome (not a direct quote, but definitely her reaction), which was the main reason I spent most of 2007 working on a novel. Cut to the other night, when I went to see a movie and, while watching the credits, realized that someone I know was involved in it. Someone who, like my Second Stage friend, is involved with script readings, and to whom I handed a play of mine five years ago which I considered at the time to be the best thing I’d ever written, the one which everyone says “Oh man, this needs to be done somewhere,” whenever they read it. That was not my friend’s reaction because, to this day, he’s never mentioned it –- meaning, I presume, that he’s never read it, or if he did read it, then he didn’t like it, and can’t be honest enough with me to tell me his honest reaction.
So the idea I got was this: writer has a couple of friends out to dinner to celebrate a play of his getting produced at a name theatre (let’s say The Magic in San Francisco, just to make it even more autobiographical). One of those friends is a director whom the writer’s known since college. During the course of the first act, there are a couple of factual arguments between the writer and the director in which the director gets those facts wrong, but the writer backs down rather than taking the argument to the next level. This is to establish the writer’s memory as impeccable. Because when the writer announces the title of his play, and describes the plot, the director says, “Wow. I would have loved to have done that,” and the writer replies, “Well, you had your chance.” “What chance?” says the director and the writer reminds him that he handed him the first draft of this play five years ago. The director says “No you didn’t.” And they go back and forth, just the like the previous two arguments, only this time the writer doesn’t back down, and when the argument does escalate to the next level, it gets personal and bitter and (yeah) alcoholic, until finally the writer pulls out the script of his play, opens to the title page, shoves it into the director’s face and says “I dedicated it to you, asshole --of COURSE I gave you a copy.” Blackout; end of Act One.
Act Two would be, say, two years later. The play at the Magic was a hit; it’s being done in New York; the writer’s director friend is all set to direct it; and the New York producers want to go with somebody else, or else they’re backing out. They don’t care that the writer has promised his friend that he can direct it; it’s all business to them. So what does the writer do? Say “It’s Chinatown, Jake?” (hence the title) and dump his friend in the name of business? Or side with his friend, keep his word, and not get a New York production? The answer to which I will not know until I actually write it, and don’t hold your breath, okay? I mean, I figure if I do, my agent will say “not scientific enough” and hand it back to me.
Don’t Tell Me. This one would take Coward’s Design for Living and go it one better by adding a third male character, the (cough) Father Confessor who, in the course of a single night, watches a man run away from a woman, a woman chase the wrong man, and a man chase the wrong woman, complete with secrets that nobody knows now but him, the kind of secrets which make you avert your eyes whenever you look someone in the face. This is based on (a) an evening out two weeks ago, when, in the course of 90 minutes, the three other people I was with took me aside, swore me to secrecy, and spilled a bunch of toxic beans about each other; and (b) the mental pictire of a frowning brunette checking her cellphone every two minutes for a text from Mr. Wrong. No idea who the main character would be of the three (Father Confessor's out; he already has his own play above); and no idea how this will end, either, except that it'll end badly if I'm being true to life or it'll end happily if I'm being true to the conventions of comedy. Or, perhaps both, if I'm talented enough to pull it off: a nice nasty happy ending, the Noel Coward equivalent of Carole Lombard raging while John Barrymore draws lines on the floor. (That's what this Depression needs--more screwball comedies!)