Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy 75th GWTW: You Reign Supreme Forever Because of the Love Story, and the Acting

Thank goodness for TCM. What a national treasure to help lovers of classic movies come together and celebrate great American classic films outside of individual living rooms.

Two years ago I was very grateful when they sponsored bringing Casablanca back into theaters for its 70 birthday.

That was an interesting experience because I was sitting near a group of 20something friends, who were chatting away and had come to mock the picture, but  from Bogart's first entrance, they got quieter and quieter. Great films have that effect, even on the current crop of jejunes.

Anniversary Screenings, Across the Country #GWTW75
I didn't know what to expect for the 2:00pm Sunday showing of GWTW in Times Square in conjunction with Fathom Events & Warner Home Video, one of only four total times this anniversary treat is showing. The actual premiere was on December 15, 1939, in Atlanta, an event to which Hattie McDaniel was not invited.

I'm happy to say that every age, race, and ethnicity you can think of was in attendance in Times Square.  Much applause in all the right places, much laughter in all the right places. And the weeping. Even the geeky/tech-looking young guy of Indian descent sitting next to me didn't make it through the crane shot of Scarlett going to the Atlanta depot without some very furtive tear wiping. But that's what it's all about, isn't it? 

Though I have not seen 12 Years a Slave, I appreciate in contrast the cultural damage that GWTW's sentimental depiction of slavery has had. But the film endures because, like the novel, it is not a story about slavery. It is a deeply resonant depiction of the battle of the sexes, with a most astonishing, strong, stunted, selfish female character in Scarlett. It's the relationships between all the characters that pulls you in for the fastest four hours in cinema history, even with the intermission.

And it will endure because of the acting. Vivian Leigh is absolutely compelling in every frame. She conveys a multitude of subtle yet complex emotions with every facial gesture, as does Clark Gable.  Their chemistry together is for the ages. Their talent simply radiates off the screen, it is dazzling in a way that no modern counterparts match. Their kind of Hollywood of 1939 is itself gone with the wind, and another reason why this  film will still be around in another 75 years.

The restoration is the most astonishing I have seen. It is the most vibrant Technicolor I have ever witnessed, and the overall acuity of the frames breathtaking. The aspect ration means that the picture goes top to bottom of the screen, but not side to side. By having the black letterbox effect only left and right, the figures look even more larger than life than they do when the image fills the screen, or in IMAX. It is a thrilling, "natural" looking movie experience like no other. The film is simply a sequence of superlatives for me.

Below is from a broader appreciation I wrote about the novel & the movie in 2007.

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

I don’t brook no literary snobs who dismiss Margaret Mitchell’s tale. Yes, I first found it in junior high school, like many other girls. But the serious reader does not hold that factoid against it.

What I could appreciate only later was how exquisitely, masterfully, Mitchell captures the painful zig and zag between ill-fated lovers. Scarlett’s constant fear and loathing of Rhett’s mocking of her (both real and imagined) matched point for point Rhett’s constant fear that Scarlett had only contempt for the men who worshipped her.

With these two, Mitchell captures that sickening, life-destroying panic you feel when you can't trust the one who’s next to you, no matter how well suited you are for each other. For Rhett and Scarlett, when one starts to trust just a little, the other answers with cruelty. It's a dark, dark tennis match.

Thus GWTW is a tragedy of the most human kind—-of two people who throw happiness away with both hands. Rhett is right that they are two of a kind, and Scarlett can't see it because of the fog of Ashley in her head, clouding her vision, until she finally "sees" that it's been Rhett all along, just as he is done, with a capital "D."

The storytelling overall is stellar, especially the early chapters about Scarlett’s mother Ellen (played by Barbara O'Neill, which always ticked me), and how she came to marry Gerald O’Hara.

The Civil War is there too. But that I have no personal experience of that . . . .

Margaret Mitchell is a unique figure in literary history. She wrote the novel while recuperating from ankle surgery, with no intention of anyone besides her husband reading it.

She had gone to Smith College in 1918, engaged to a Harvard man, Lt. Clifford Henry. He was killed in France, and shortly after her mother died of the pandemic flu, before MM got back to Atlanta to see her. She knew too well much of what she wrote for Scarlett, and her life hints at the theme of haunted love: the fiancé who died, then her first marriage ended in divorce, and the second was to her ex‘s friend. But Mitchell raised the idea of shadows in love to an art in Scarlett's attachment to Ashley.

Mitchell ultimately took her book title from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae,” which is from the opening of Horace’s Odes, Book 4.1: “I am not the same as I was in the days of Cynara.” (Well, she was a Smith girl, although she left when her mother died, before she graduated.) Dowson was an English poet of the Decadent Movement, which included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. His poem is about a lover who is “desolate and sick of an old passion.” (Think Bob Dylan’s haunting “Visions of Johanna.”)

The third stanza, which begins “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,” touched Mitchell: it was the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted."

And so we were given the words that scrolled majestically across the screen to Max Steiner’s superlative score. The film is one of the all-time great realizations of a novel, which for me is rooted in Vivian Leigh’s captivating energy and Clark Gable’s controlled, knowing, beautifully tailored passion.

MM said she wrote the last chapter of GWTW first. It is intriguing that she started with that bone weary, completely burnt-out feeling of her leading man, and then imagined the path and depth of a great love-—of his love—that had been so completely thwarted by a selfish, stunted woman.

I haven't re-read GWTW for quite a while. But in that personal way you have with certain stories, I hold out hope that whenever I do, Mammy will hear Scarlett when she calls out for Rhett after her miscarriage, and the star-crossed lovers can find some happiness. Isn't it pretty to think so.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Breathes There a Man with a Soul So Dead" The Last Certain Day of the UK As We Know It

The UK is on the eve of possibly coming apart at the seams, and so the Twitter feed is filled with all things Scottish. A CNN post declares Sir Walter Scott the first literary superstar, and Wiki agrees, saying he was the first English-language author to be celebrated internationally in his own lifetime. He was born in 1771, after the England/Scotland marriage. He manifested the oral tradition of Scottish lore into sweeping historical novels that gave flesh and blood and Tartans to a war-strewn history of his country in the Waverly novels, Ivanhoe Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermore, and so helped to create a national identity.

The famous canto from The Lay of the Last Minstrel is uniquely fitting for the day, although both sides have claimed the Great Scot for the WWSWD.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land"?
Whose heart hath n’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned...?
If such there be, go mark him well...
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
...Doubly dying shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung. —


No politics here, but the CNN story reminded me of this post I wrote a few years ago when I learned some lovely tidbits about one of my favorite stories from childhood, Scott's Lady of the Lake.

My father bought me used books for many years to build a library of classics for me. One of them was a small book of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). As a child, I thought it was wonderful that the Lady is named, well, L.N (as M.A.’s alter ego is known to her RL friends).

So, I developed a deep attachment to L.N. Douglas and Scott’s work.

Now, jump to almost any Catholic wake or wedding you’ve been to, or the first scene of the film Prizzi’s Honor. There you would have heard someone singing Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s a beautiful, beautiful melody, which Schubert wrote around 1825, set to the Latin words of the prayer to the Virgin: “Áve María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum. Benedícta tu in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus. Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen."

All of the 3 tenors have recordings of this, and Andrea Bocelli, and Celine Dion, and everyone and their aunts.

(This is not to be confused with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, which is less often heard.)

Except, that Schubert did not set the words of the Catholic prayer. And if you listen closely, you will hear that the melody and the tune are not tightly in sync. Unlike the Bach/Goudnod, where the music moves perfectly with the words.

Schubert actually wrote his haunting, beautiful melody to a “song” from The Lady of the Lake. At one point in the action, Lady L.N. goes to a cave to pray to the Virgin for protection from being discovered by the enemy clan. Scott calls it a song in his text, and the first words are Ave Maria. The rest are English words that he wrote for his poem. Schubert was a fan of Scott, and so he set one of the songs of his great poem. In German, he called it “Ellens dritter Gesang,” “Ellen’s Third Song.”

It was some time later that an anonymous person, inspired by the opening words Ave Maria, squished the Latin prayer into the haunting melody. It was so successful to generations of listeners, that it became known as Schubert’s Ave Maria. Schubert died in 1828, three years after his “Ellens dritter Gesang,” so he never heard the permutation of his music that became so famous.

Here are the words to Scott’s song, and below is Barbara Bonney singing the German translation of Scott, which is what Shubert actually set to his melody (although from the comments, people don't seem to know it's not the religious text). This wikipedia page is very clear bout this strange twist of fate.

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden's prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish'd, outcast and reviled -
Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern's heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, list a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer,
And for a father hear a child!
Ave Maria!

And,  here’s one more amazing thing about Scott’s Lady of the Lake. It is the origin of the song “Hail to the Chief.” Scott wrote it as the “Boat Song,” for the arrival of the clan’s chieftain.

It was set to music in 1810 by James Sanderson for a stage version of the epic poem. In 1812 the stage version opened in New York. By 1828 the piece was well known as popular music, and the Marine Corps. Band performed it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was attended by John Quincey Adams. The song was first played to announce the arrival of the president at James K. Polk's inauguration on March 4, 1845. It was Julia Tyler, wife of Polk's predecessor, John Tyler, who suggested that the song be played when a president made an appearance, and in 1954 the Department of Defense made it the official music to announce the president. (All from Wikipedia.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

If It's Tuesday, I Must Be Going "Over There"

I have had a cosmic connection with Belgium since childhood, and this week I am finally visiting the country, in connection with the 1914-2014 Centenary Anniversary of World War One. I'm almost giddy.

It started when I was in 6th grade. We had to do a major "country report" in the form of an extreme outline, to teach us how to outline ideas. We were assigned countries, and I got Belgium.

These were the day of having to get in the car and go to the local library to get books to do research. And it turned out the local library had almost nothing about the history or the culture of Belgium.  I was quite the little student at 11, and I started to panic that I would not be able to complete the assignment.

The teacher had suggested we might contact the Consulate General of our assigned country for information, and so with a heavy heart I wrote to the Belgian Consulate General in NYC, which today is near Bryant Park, telling them my tale of woe.  In a short two weeks, I received a large envelope from the Belgians with the most glorious gift: a huge sheet of images of paintings of Belgian history and photos of Belgian culture, all with generous explanatory text. It was astonishing. What wonderful people these Belgians must be.

A few years after that the delightful romantic comedy If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium was on TV, and my family watched it together. It's seared into my brain how much we laughed out loud together. A wonderful memory.

The next touch points were in college, finding both Jacques Brel & Paul Fussell.

I memorized the Ne Me Quitte Pas album, including the lovely Marieke, the one song where Brel sings in both his native French & Flemish.

Ay Marieke, Marieke, je t'aimais tant
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand

And with Paul Fussell I studied the literature & poetry of the First World War, where I first heard the words Passchendaele, the Ypres Salient.

Bruges and Ghent and the Last Post Ceremony in Ypres
And now I am going to "Bruges et Gand" and Ypres, with a group called Run by Singers, who gather in various cities to rehearse great choral music and then give a concert.

We will sing the Faure Requiem in Bruges, visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and participate in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres. That's a ceremony that the townspeople have been holding since November 1929, every day without fail to show their appreciation to those who died for Belgium's freedom. The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates the names of over 54,000 soldiers from the UK and the Commonwealth who died on the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917, and whose remain were never found for an individual grave.

The photo at the top is of the Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade at the Last Post Ceremony.  Lots of information about the ceremony and its history here.

My Grandfather's WW1 Was "Over Here"

Because of the WW1 Centenary I started looking into at my Grandpa Brown's WWI service. He's my mother's father, and he died before I was born, but connecting with the some of the traces of his service has given me a little bit of his life that I didn't have.

Arthur Cornelius Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1892 to immigrant Norwegian parents. (The family name Jacobsen was changed to Brown as they came through Castle Clinton.)

He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, David's Island, New Rochelle, on May 10, 1917, when he was 23 years old.

Wiki: By the onset of World War I Fort Slocum had become one of the busiest recruiting stations in the country, processing 100,000 soldiers per year and serving as the recruit examination station for soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the New England states.

He was not sent "over there." The family explanation was that he could not wink, and therefore couldn't shoot properly. I have a feeling if the war had gone on longer, an otherwise healthy man would have been shipped out.

But he was not sent overseas.  Grandma said he never got out of Fort Hamilton, which is in Brooklyn. Grandpa served his two years in the 22nd Infantry, which was headquartered in Fort Jay, which is on Governors Island. He was promoted to Private First Class to Corporal in 1918 (above), and given the all-important honorable discharge in June 1919 (below).

And so I began my journey to the WW1 battlefields of Belgium by going to Governors Island in New York Harbor,  a short 15-minute ferry ride from downtown, from the slip right next to the Staten Island Ferry.

Once on the island I visited Fort Jay, walking under the entrance to the main part of the fort, which Grandpa must have done many times in 2 years, to do things at battalion headquarters. Fort Jay is now a National Monument under the U.S. Parks Serviced, and served by Park Rangers.

Now my journey will take me from our U. S. Army fort to Flanders, in my grandather's stead. I am grateful that he was not sent into the hell that was the trenches and mud and disease and death that met far too many who served. He was able to continue his life after his war service, and get married, and have two daughters, one of whom I'm lucky to call mom.

In Flanders I will pray for the souls of all who were slaughtered during the Great War, which is thought to be about 8.5 million people, not including casualties. And for the victims of all the recent wars and war-like acts.

And I will hold one particular death in my heart. My grandfather's British Army, Royal Army Service Corps counterpart, Lance Corporal Arthur Brown. He was sent "over there" from Mother England's shore and is one of the hundreds of thousands whose bodies were never found.

The Imperial War Museum has digitzed the records of those who served on an amazing website, where the digital age let's you note "Remembering."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 9/11 Museum and Memorial: 13 Years On

I visited the 9/11 Museum and Memorial this weekend. It's a lot to take in, I will need to go back to really absorb everything.  The space itself is extraordinary. You descend down a series of very steep ramps. They do a good job showing schematics of how deep you are on different level, and where you on in relation to where the shopping mall once was, where the original PATH station was, etc.

I didn't take too many pictures, but I wanted to capture some of it.  I think they've done a good job. It's essential to tell the story of mass murder of 3,000 people who just went to work 13 years ago. The majority of the visitors on Saturday evening were foreign tourists, which I think is a good thing.

The photo above does not capture the piercing blues of the tiles.  Different artists were commissioned to try to capture the actual blue of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a color that is seared into the memory of anyone who was there.

The actual slurry wall, that held, keeping back the Hudson River. A small miracle.

The broadcasting antenna from on top of the North Tower, which was the main broadcasting vehicle to NYC for decades. Close to my heart, given my career at Paley Center.   The intensity of the blue panels is captured more accurately in the background here than in the top photo.