Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June Moon

"Are you a writer?" says the guy in the Mets hat. He's sitting with his mother at the table next to mine in the coffee shop, and when he gets up to bus the remains of their coffee-and-muffins, he comes to a halt beside my table.

'I am," I say. "I'm working on a birthday sonnet."

He smiles down at me. Then I realize he isn't smiling at me. He's smiling at my rhyming dictionary.

"That is the best rhyming dictionary in the world!" he cries, echoing my feelings about the book, which I have had since I was 12. The cover is dipped in Scotch tape the way prehistoric mosquitoes are dipped in amber. On the inner flyleaf is my twelve-year-old signature, a legible Palmer Method collection of 13 rigidly vertical letters. On the back flyleaf is Sheila Tagrin's home number in Randolph. Every time I see it, my heart twinges a little, like Sheila just reached into my chest and flicked it with her index finger.

For the next five minutes, as the guy (Adam) stands there with his tray and his mother looks at him with the words MY SON IS A CRAZY PERSON in her eyes, we talk about the virtues of this particular dictionary like two castaways who have just discovered they are not alone on a desert island. We don't talk about our work; we don't trade résumés. We talk Whitfield's.

"I keep mine in a plastic bag, it's so old" he says. "I use it all the time. The way it's set up is so logical. Nothing else out there does the same thing."

I agree with him. I've championed the Whitfield with other writers, and what I've discovered is that the rhyming dictionary you use is one which mirrors the way your mind works. Sondheim's mind works like the 1936 Clement Woods dictionary; mine works like the 1964 Whitfield.

As does Adam's. Which is tantamount to bumping into a long-lost friend in the middle of Times Square. Except that that's happened to me seven times since I've been in this city. This is the first time somebody has seen my rhyming dictionary and treated me like a long-lost friend.

"I love that dictionary," Adam says before he leaves.  "Good luck with the sonnet."

"Thanks, " I say, thinking: "I love this city!" as I write down the words hyacinth and labyrinth, and ponder how I can map four lines to  make them two of the destinations.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Thought for the day (repeat when necessary)

"The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them. I was a long way from solving that one."

--The Barbarous Coast, Chapter 16

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summer Monday Music - He thinks my whiskey tastes fine

When I was 16, I was studying Latin and Greek and reading Herzog in English class. (Saul Bellow at 16--only in a Jesuit high school.)  When Rachel Sweet was 16, she quit high school and toured the country singing in support of an album released on the Stiff label.  She never really caught on--she only made 3 albums, I think--or was it 4?--but my friends and I loved her, and if there had been an American Idol back in those days, she probably would have won everything hands down.

So to get you started right this last Monday in June (aieee!), here's her hit -- 


-- her underage drinking lament--

Wildwood Saloon

--her fun double cover--

And Then He Kissed Me/Be My Baby

--and her bid for The Cheese Hall Of Fame:

Everlasting Love (with Rex Smith)

Hope you like them, and I'll see you next week after I run a couple of red lights on Memory Lane.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

There is a special providence in the completion of a final draft


Up next: the novelization, containing the 600 pages of dialogue I tossed out over the last three years.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A movie for people who read books

That would be Midnight in Paris, and since I read more than I do anything else except breathe, that makes me this movie’s target audience, so there’s no way this is going to be an objective review. I loved  this movie; I will probably see it again; you should go see it yourself. Me, I didn’t just love it because it was an arrow aimed at my heart. If anything, I walked in prepared to dislike it. I have not liked very much of Woody Allen’s recent work, and the phrase “not liked” is the PG version of how I really feel. But I think this is a great movie, and not just because it’s an industrial for English majors. I loved it because, for the first time in a long time, Woody Allen has constructed a work of art as opposed to filming a bunch of name actors trying to deliver his dialogue realistically.

The plot is simple enough.  Owen Wilson plays a character that Woody Allen would have  savaged thirty years ago, a successful screenwriter who yearns to write a novel.  He's engaged to Rachel McAdams, which, to those of us who love Ms McA, makes him one of the luckiest guys on Planet Earth, but There's Something Missing, as there always has been  in Woody Allen leading men ever since Bananas.  Call it nostalgia, call it a desire to escape, call it whatever you want, but Wilson finds it at midnight in Paris when he's spirited back to the spirited Paris of the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Gertrude Stein.

The acting is offhandedly excellent. The guy playing Hemingway is delightful, we don’t see enough of Scott and Zelda, casting Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali is genius (genius!), and then there’s Marion Cotillard, whom you can totally imagine as someone every guy in Paris is fighting over to have as his mistress. Between this and Inception, she’s carving a hefty little niche for herself as She Whom You Can’t Help Desiring; simply by showing up, she takes it to another level. Which just underscores how Michael Mann totally wasted her in Public Enemies.

What makes it a work of art? Inner contradictions. On the surface, the movie is a time-travel fantasy with a Hans Christian Anderson moral, but the way it’s constructed, it’s not that simple. Everything it says with conviction is undercut and challenged by an equally convincing opposite. Three examples:

The magic of the past. On a purely filmic level, the scenes in Hemingway's Paris are truly magical, they're the real nothing-up-my-sleeves thing; but by the time the story ends, that wished-for glamour is shown to be a self-induced delusion of escape, a metamorphosis unmasked as misdirection.  And the opposition is offered without comment.  The two types of magic, the fake and the real, are the same thing--it's just how you look at them--like a drawing that looks like a pretty girl right-side up and an old crone upside-down.

Knowledge. The movie flaunts its knowledge of Paris in the Twenties like Astaire flaunts his knowledge of dance, by making it look easy, by creating comic moments out of what are literally footnotes--I mean, there’s a throwaway joke about Djuna Barnes, for crying out loud--so if you know who Djuna Barnes is, it’s a really funny joke. And it’s delivered with the confidence of a writer who expects his audience to not only know what he knows, but know it well enough to laugh at a joke about it. That’s not casual knowledge; that’s a level of familiarity and expertise that defines a community of interest. And against that, as one of the chief assholes of the movie, there’s Michael Sheen’s pompous know-it-all, the flip side of the footnote coin, the guy whose every spoken word proclaims his smug expertise at everything except self-knowledge. (But then all of Woody Allen’s assholes are stuff-obsessed status-whore know-it-alls, a race of fools who deserve their own island in Gulliver’s Travels.)

Seeing. It’s also about seeing what we want to see. The main character is granted a vision of Paris as an artistic version of the stateroom scene in Night At The Opera, where you can be sitting in a tabac one moment and suddenly talking to Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray the next; and yet he’s totally blind to what’s happening in front of his present-day eyes.


Thinking about that tabac scene reminds me of another wonderful touch: the past accepts Owen Wilson, it never questions or undercuts him.  It welcomes him and respects him as an equal, it says, “If you’re here, then you’re one of us.”  Something people in the present never do, because they can only define themselves by us-versus-them differences.  One of the subtle messages of the movie is that you have to work to surround yourself with like-minded people in this life; they don’t just come up to you because you’re standing there.  In the course of the film, Wilson deliberately seeks out two people he’s met casually, one for help and one because of a shared interest, and those brief moments have more self-reflective weight than all his encounters with his fiancee and his potential in-laws.  (But then they're assholes, which means they are only capable of caring about one kind of reflection.)

Random thoughts:

The opening does for Paris what the opening of Manhattan did for New York. For the entire length of a song (which I’m guessing is Ellington’s "Midnight in Paris”) (**I guessed wrong; check out the comment below--H), we see scenes from Paris—Paris during the day, Paris at night, and Paris in the rain (a plot point) during which there was, for me, a whole “Wait—what French movie is that from?” series of visual echoes. It was not just like seeing Paris, but like seeing movies set in Paris.

The time-travel aspect of the plot gets hung up in a blind alley when Wilson finds a diary written in the 20’s that mentions him. It’s a blind alley because he never does what a normal person finding that kind of thing would do, namely skip to the end to find out what happened to the author of the diary, and find out whether he stays in the past or not.   Which, if he did it, would mean the end of the movie, or a sharp right turn into the lost-love tragedy of Somewhere In Time, but since it goes nowhere, it feels wrong, like a painting that’s not quite leveled.

If you’ve ever dreamed of hearing the words “This party’s boring; let’s go to Bricktop’s,” then this movie is for you. And even if you haven't, I think you'll enjoy it.  Hell, even if you don't like Owen Wilson, you'll enjoy it.   That's how good it is.

So go see it.  And look around and see who laughs at the Djuna Barnes joke.  Those are the people to walk up to after the movie's over and start a conversation about it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Summer Monday Music: Take a-hold of my hand and come with me

Twenty-nine years ago today, I moved to New York.  If you walked down 44th Street on June 20th, 1982, around 2 in the afternoon, you would have seen me, with really long hair, sitting with a suitcase on the steps of an apartment building, sitting there waiting for the friend of a friend who said I could be his roommate. Since this was before telephones, never mind cellphones, I sat there staring at Dyke's Lumber for a long, long time before he finally showed up.

This is one of the albums that brings back that summer. It was released on April 28, 1982, which makes it a good five years older than most of the people I hang out with these days. So these three songs may be new to them, in which case, I envy them this first acquaintance.

This one's for somebody I'll never understand:

Someday, Someway

This one's for Ava and Eva:
Rockin' Around in NYC

And this one's for me.  Duh:
Cynical Girl

Have a great week; me, I'm off to relive my wasted youth by drinking at the Wildwood Saloon.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bragging Rights

From this New York Times article, this quote:

"At last, jubilant Bruins fans will have a Duck Boat parade of their own, joining their brethren Patriots ( 2001, 2003 and 2004), Red Sox (2004 and 2007) and Celtics (2008)."

Meaning that, in the first 11 years of the 21st Century, EVERY SINGLE ONE of Boston's major professional sports teams has won a championship.

Unlike some other cities I could mention (cough) New York (cough).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer Monday Music: What will the angels say

The Katydids were an early-90's band with a mid-60's sound led by lead singer Susie Hug and spouse Adam Seymour (who later played with The Pretenders).  They only had two albums, the first of which is a forgotten little classic.  Produced by Nick Lowe, which automatically guarantees a striking pop sound, the self-titled album has 11 songs on it, and each one has that indefinable but instantly recognizable summer sound to it:  lightness, clarity, sunshine-call it what you will.  It's in all three of the songs below.

The first one is my favorite.  Bouncy, danceable, happy, sly--it's like an updated cha cha (check out the one-two cha-cha-cha drumbeats throughout). You wonder if that was the group's idea or whether it was Nick Lowe's.  Either way, it's a trans-generational crossbreed that's out to prove that your parents doing the cha-cha is exactly like you doing the pogo.

Lights Out (Read My Lips)

For a little balance, here's the sadness in the middle of the happy sandwich--a lament for all the missing things we stick with because we think we'll actually find the missing piece. Ignoring the very real possibility that the piece was never there to begin with. (And speaking of missing pieces, listen for the brief but telling guitar echo to "It's Only Love (and that is all).")

Girl in a Jigsaw Puzzle

Finally, something that sounds like a time warp out of 1965 and not 1990.  You can easily imagine it as a number-one single from a one-hit-wonder band out of Bristol, after which they went to Hollywood and made a bad beach movie based on the song title directed in faux Richard Lester style by somebody with one-tenth Lester's talent in which James Brown and the Famous Flames have a guest number that steals the film. Believe me--it's all there if you listen closely enough.

Miss Misery

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Fred&Ginger

All great loves are the marriage of two dances.
One wants to foxtrot; the other wants to waltz.
One wants to tango; the other wants to stroll.

This one wants to tap dance; that one wants to polka.
One says "I'll lead," the other says "I'm leading."

You'd think that when they hit the floor
they'll really hit the floor,
that it'll be like amateur kickboxing
or girls fighting in an Elvis movie,
rolling on the ground as they pull each other's hair,
or two contestants trying to out-shout each other
with lines not even Sondheim could rhyme.

Which is exactly how it plays out, more often than not,
because one of them wants to win,
or both of them want to win,
which is the quickest way to lose.
Seriously--we're talking speed of light quick here.
Blink and you miss it quick.
Fall out of love quick.

The only way to truly win in love's dumb
they-shoot-horses-don't-they marathon
is if both partners lose
and lose badly
every time the juke box plays their song.
Epic losing. 
Face-plant losing.
Red Sox in 1986 losing.

That's the kind of losing you need
to make poetry together--
to make an impromptu mambo
that is the bastard child of its competing steps,
something neither one of you could choreograph alone--
a move that only you can do together,
a dance that has no name except for yours--
The Bill&Pat,  The AbeNicole.

The Tom&Fred, The Tom&Deb.
The MichalJay, The FranckElizabeth.

This is what love is:

two people floating
over the broken glass of shattered expectations
and making the impossible look easy,
making a cakewalk look like a cakewalk
even though it takes everything inside you to keep up,
even though it's killing your feet,
you wouldn't have it any other way
because you want your partner more
than you want to dance your own dance.

Which, if you're lucky, you will never get to do
because the truth is
the only way you get to dance your own dance
is when you do it alone.

Copyright 2011 Matthew J Wells

Sunday, June 5, 2011