Saturday, June 15, 2013

# 58 The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

Ryder: a curious diagnosis
Carson: nostalgic through and through
Wharton: supremely objective? 
Kundera: the State lays claim to Memory
1993 was an eventful year in the life of Winona Ryder. She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as May Welland in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel.  She was also troubled. The diagnosis was anticipatory nostalgia, “whatever that is,” the actress wondered to an interviewer years later.

Anticipatory nostalgia.  The paradoxical condition begs for a definition, so we turned to the retired psychologist and blogger, Ron Evans, who wrote: “[It] is a scientific sounding syndrome in which one thinks about the stuff that is fading away and might be looked back on as being cooler than it was.”

This folksy summary feels incomplete and overly rosy—even Ryder’s doctor had prescribed her sleeping pills, suggesting some sort of psychopathology and compelling us to ruminate. Isn’t a spell of warm nostalgia accompanied by the melancholic chill of mortality? When an old friend relives glory days that rang out years or decades ago, do you only laugh uproariously as you did then? Or do you also pause, even if long afterward and very briefly, to contemplate the ultimate passing of those times, you and us all?

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, has spun many chapters on such, er, stuff.  He digested his thoughts for his interviewer, the Top 100 novelist Philip Roth:
“This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life…But forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting."
Kundera looks through a European lens that emphasizes the communal and the sociopolitical: remembering, forgetting and nostalgia are tools of the state. Many Americans, we suspect, reject or remain ignorant of that perspective. We cherish our individuality and blithely or defiantly believe we are self-armed with memory; the damn government has nothing to do with it.

These conflicting worldviews may have discombobulated Daniel Day-Lewis, the Irish-English actor who played the hero Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, and had five years before starred in the adaptation of the Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The New York Times landed a rare interview with the acclaimed method actor as he prepared for the Scorsese film.
[Day-Lewis] had been studying books on 19th-century etiquette as background for his character, Newland Archer, in Edith Wharton's novel about beau-monde New York during the Gilded Age. Already, he sounded happy to be ‘drawn into the vortex’ of Archer's life – ‘his subtle hypocrisies, his realization of those hypocrisies, the self-detestation…’  As the conversation in the restaurant drifts back to "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," a film he finds too bleak to think about, it becomes apparent how deeply he inherits what he reads and acts. ‘He actually changed my way of looking at things,’ he says of Kundera. ‘For a long time afterward I was very disoriented. I wasn't strong enough to resist him.’"
In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton explored some of the differences in consciousness and manners between the Old and New Worlds. Archer’s love, Countess Olenska, disparages wealthy New Yorkers’ “blind conformity” to a European-inspired subculture, described as “rich and idle and ornamental.” In its emphasis on bloodlines, ceremony and manners, Newland Archer’s society smacks of Versailles; the New York upper crust is more crème brůlée than apple pie.  “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country,” the countess opines. Her critique means more than simply tolerance of divorce: freedom matters, too.

US Magazine asked Michelle Pfeifer, who played the countess in Scorsese’s film, about her character’s bohemian individualism: 
Q: Countess Olenska likes to shatter conformity and convention. Is that true of you?
 A: I don’t know. Perhaps shattering things, yes. [She laughs.] I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously gone about doing that. I know that I’ve fought in my work against being pigeonholed… All actors are limited to a degree by the way they look. I think if you want to reach beyond the obvious roles that somebody might cast you in, you have to work for it.
The observation about an actress’s appearance sounds refreshingly candid. And the necessity of having to earn something beyond the expected seems like solid advice for thespians, theologians and theoretical physicists alike. The self-effacing Pfeiffer, when asked about one of her co-stars, the aforementioned Winona Ryder, replied, "She’s terribly sophisticated for her age. She’s a strange combination. I felt kind of maternal toward her."

The feeling makes sense: when The Age of Innocence was released, Pfeiffer was 35 and Ryder was 22. Daniel Day-Lewis was 36 and did seem more comfortable with his contemporary than with his junior in the dramatic love triangle.

In real life, Ryder’s relationship status was, to use a Facebook option, “complicated.” Her bout of anticipatory nostalgia was precipitated, at least in her own rear-view mirror, by the end of her engagement to Johnny Depp, not by a statist conspiracy à la Kundera.

This American sympathizer, still seeking to understand Ryder’s affliction, envisions a nine-month old cherub, the most adorable in the world, who is placed on all fours in front of what she wishes to play with most but, as soon as she budges, finds herself moving away in the opposite direction from the toy, which seems even more desirable as it becomes more unattainable. She has just learned to crawl—but only backward. If, beforehand, she had been anxiously aware that such unintentional repulsion would happen over and over to her, then we think we can grasp anticipatory nostalgia.

Newland Archer lived too early to benefit from the insight and chemistry that rescued Winona Ryder.  Left untreated, his symptoms were not so dissimilar from the actress’s; his longing for Countess Olenska is described in one instance as, 
“…an incessant, undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten… He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on…the rest of the world might seem less empty.”
His anticipation is unhealthy.  Elsewhere, the narrator plainly calls Archer “a man sick with unsatisfied love.” In his serially thwarted affair, Archer is tortured by the cycle of temptation, failure and renewable expectation.

“Each time you happen to me all over again,” Archer tells the countess, who concurs, in the book’s only italicized sentence, the articulated essence of this romance. To readers who live and love, the sentiment strikes us as admirably honest and authentic. 

There is also a philosophical resonance that adds to the pleasure of re-reading or contemplating the scene.  Wharton in 1908 told a friend that she enjoyed Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, according to Carol Shaffer-Koss. The author allowed that she had indulged in “a glance” at the German iconoclast’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which offers the concept of the Eternal Return, or the Eternal Recurrence, according to your taste in repetition.

Eternal Recurrence is a thought experiment “...on a possible reality in which every action [people] had committed (all faults, setbacks, mistakes, and wrongdoings) was bound to be relived by them, an infinite amount of time.  Where they would be forced to endure their shame and grief over and over again, unable to change or improve on any past misdeeds, for all eternity.  And then to ask the question, “Would you be willing to bear such a reality?” 

Shaffer-Koss saw the theory applied in the Wharton short story, “Roman Fever” but, curiously, not in The Age of Innocence, in which Archer and Olenska are each willing to bear the reality of falling in love over and over again, though the recurrence brings joy and pain.  We might view Archer's line as the expression of Nietzsche's compelling, though controversial idea.  If Wharton didn't intend it as such, she may have at least smiled when it she pulled the German's arrow from her quiver and let it fly to the page.

Martin Scorsese, the expert dramatist, was drawn to the recurring conflict in Wharton’s tale. In making a costume drama of his native New York during the Gilded Age, he did not seek to lovingly recreate an era.  He had other ideas, as he told the critic, Roger Ebert
“What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language. In the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870’s didn't have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don't know which is preferable."
Wharton, via Newland Archer, acknowledges the need for a good defense in considering the women of that time and their devotion to fashion: “It’s their armor…their defense against the unknown, and their defiance of it.” 

In an interview with Gavin Smith, Scorsese detailed his choices for virtually every aspect and shot of the film, from angle to number of takes, to lighting and camera movement.  The voluble director has throughout his career discussed his technique and work endlessly—making him the antithesis of his contemporary, Terrence Malick, who may not even speak—and for this reason the centathlete thinks of him as more artisan than artist.

In other words, Scorsese, by opening his kimono after every film, resembles a celebrity chef who strips off the apron and shares each recipe, its preparation and inspiration—with an air of agreeable promotion. In life, dining and cinema, the centathlete prefers ambiguity: more mystery and less history, if you please. How do you lean?

The master craftsman not only explained why he was drawn to The Age of Innocence, he revealed the take-away he sought. “What I wanted to do as much as possible was to recreate for a viewing audience the experience I had reading the book,” he said in a citation by Karli Lukas.

Some of us would argue that the goal should be to tell the story cinematically, rather than having it read to us with accompanying pictures… Any way, it’s not surprising that the film featured much narration (by Joanne Woodward), a bugbear for the centathlete, who prefers gesture to disembodied monologue. "Show, don’t tell" would seem to be a movie maker’s preferred credo.

Another practitioner of the visual arts has expressed admiration for Edith Wharton. Julian Fellowes, creator of the beloved TV series, Downton Abbey, in 2012 visited The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. The Wharton Society’s chronicle of the occasion indicates there was no shortage of fawning.

"[Wharton] had the ability to judge the society from which she came from, but not condemn it," Fellowes intoned. "[Her work] is simply an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of society." Adam Poulisse of The Berkshire Eagle added in his report, “Fellowes was too modest to compare his writings to Wharton's, but it's hard to let the similarities and themes go unnoticed.”

Even the multitudinous, cultured admirers of Downton Abbey’s Crawleys and their ecosystem can acknowledge that Fellowes has oversimplified Wharton’s authorial perspective and simultaneously defended his own. In asserting objectivity, Fellowes in fact displays what the Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the chronicler of cognitive biases, has called “bias blind spot”, in which we assume we think more rationally than others.

In his teleplays and screenplays of big-house aristocracy, Fellowes also exhibits “confirmation bias,” in which we search for memories that affirm our preconceptions, and "status quo bias," which makes us dislike change.

In a statement that could fairly be called representative of Fellowes’ perspective, Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey says, “We all have different parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them.”

Freedom within a track might make some of us recoil: what if you don’t like the part you’ve been assigned or born into?  Fellowes, we gather, upholds the robust molecule and rejects atomic anarchy. His utopia is a big tent that accommodates, eventually, most performers.  He has Carson, the head butler, express an objective, mature perspective that will help one thrive downstairs: 
“To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.”
According to his background on a wiki for the series, Carson's dominant trait is that he is “nostalgic for the past." 

Much of the pleasure in Downton Abbey is aspirational; it makes us want to live in fabulous Highclere Castle, wear those clothes, and dine sumptuously as they did back in those days. That sense is not conveyed in The Age of Innocence. The innocence is not something to be recreated because it “...seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience.”

Wharton’s lovers cannot ever unite, even when offered a late encore in Paris. As the product of his “small, disciplined” society, Archer is fated to live in a melancholic limbo apart from true love—and without the capability to fully remember what might have been. His memory of his almost romance is sterile and “abstract.”

Another theme, a woman’s lack of freedom, suggests Wharton’s lack of nostalgia. Written some 45 years after the portrayed era, The Age of Innocence does not advocate a return to the days when a woman knew her place, which was substantially more conscribed. Incidentally, we suspect that the formula of reflecting on pre-feminist mores two generations ago will always hold a certain appeal.

A progressive analysis of nostalgia is very much a present occupation. In a May 19, 2013 column titled “Beware Social Nostalgia,” in The New York Times, the historian Stephanie Coontz wrote, “...nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.”

She also encouraged the cross-examination of even happy memories and finds those most sound who have carefully reflected on others’ sacrifices and deference so they “…could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others.”

Neither Julian Fellowes nor his man Carson would find servile arrangements as unjust as does Coontz.

In April 2013, Winona Ryder once again described the phenomenon of distortedly looking back, albeit in her hazy fashion. She seems to have a broader perspective when she regards her salad days when she played the goth teenager in Beetlejuice, the 1988 Tim Burton movie. Or, when we read her words through a lens of wish fulfillment, should we see her as still afflicted by her originally diagnosed condition?

“I think there's a nostalgia going on for that era,” she told The Huffington Post, “or something.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

# 2 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Foreboding in the Pool

Norma's drowning pull?
Sarah peeks under the pool cover.
If you make your inflatable bed...
Marat: cherub slain by a maiden
Gaius Maecenas is a name that readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby should reckon with for two reasons.

First, Mr. Maecenas (70 BC – 8 BC), a very wealthy, connected Roman politico and “munificent patron of literature,” referenced early in the text as a member of an alliterative triumvirate of lucre ("Midas and Morgan and Maecenas"), is credited as having built the first heated swimming pool. Jay Gatsby died in his own fabulous marble pool, so naturally we look back to the origins of chlorinated currents.

Secondly, he is a name source for a character in Satyricon, written around 61 AD by the Roman author and “party animal” Petronius, one “Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus.”
An anonymous scholar noted: “This name…shows how pretentious [the character] is. Gaius is a popular name in the family of the Caesars, Pompeius is the name of a Roman general, Maecenas was the name of the Emperor Augustus’ ‘spin doctor.’” Petronius’s character, a classical representative of the life of superluxury, is commonly known simply as “Trimalchio,” and he so inspired Fitzgerald that he modeled Jay Gatsby after him and even named an early version of the novel, "Trimalchio." Gaius Maecenas is therefore the forebear of Gatsby’s forebear.

By invoking Trimalchio, Fitzgerald was walking in the fresh footsteps of T.S. Eliot. The epigraph of Eliot’s The Waste Land, published three years before The Great Gatsby, is a quote uttered by Trimalchio while relating the story of the Sibyl, described by a devotee of the poem as “an old, withered, but immortal woman who is tired with life and wants to die…”

In The Waste Land’s first stanza we are presented with another woman’s ominous vision. “Fear death by water,” sniffles Madame Sosostris, the tarot card reader with a cold. This warning gets our associative synapses firing as we imagine Gatsby’s fresh corpse floating on a “pneumatic mattress” in his swimming pool.

John McGuirk explained that Madame Sosostris’s warning is inapt because the purported seeress misunderstands myths and therefore the possibility of rebirth: Avoiding such a death of self is to avoid renewal and remain in a living death.”

In the later stanza titled “Death By Water” we read of the recently drowned Phlebas the Phoenician and we again rush for exegesis, in this case furnished by Arwin van Arum: “The majority of interpreters…see Phlebas’ drowning as a death by water that brings no resurrection, although there is a strange sense of peace in the death.”

Not all deaths by water invoke peace, nor do they involve drowning. Some are in fact fearsome and violent. Along with the shooting of Gatsby, we recall the stabbings of Marion Crane while showering in the Bates Motel (in the 1960 movie Psycho), and Jean-Paul Marat while reading in his bathtub (memorialized in Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, La Mort de Marat).

Hitchcock, with his frantic pace and varied perspectives (cut to Face! cut to knife against torso! cut to silhouetted slasher!), dialed up the victim’s fear and vulnerability—to such an extent that one poll named this the “most nail-biting moment of all-time” in cinema.

This death and its ensuing prolonged, clinical clean-up, deprive the criminal Marion Crane of the rebirth or spiritual comfort she may have desired. writes, “She goes to her room and takes a shower, which feels to her like absolution. But it’s too late for that.”

David, in contrast, glorified Marat the victim, whose draped, languid posture and cherubic smile suggest not fear but stoic heroism, even though his death was sudden and at the hands of a stranger, Charlotte Corday. The painter, who had visited Marat just the day before, assigns him a rebirth, according to the Web Gallery of Art:
“…the most striking element is the arm hanging down lifeless. Thus David has unobtrusively taken over the central image of martyrdom in Christianity to his image of Marat. Revolutionary and anti-religious as the painting of this period claimed to be, it is evident here that it very often had recourse to the iconography and pictorial vocabulary of the religious art of the past.”
Marat was slain by a “cool, gracious, studious maiden;” Crane was offed by a man behaving and dressed as his mother; and Gatsby was done in by a publicly cuckolded, needy widower. Murdering a bather is evidently not a macho deed.

The novelist is neither a movie director nor a painter. Fitzgerald gives us a kill without the hysteria and immediacy of Hitchcock, and without the sensual adoration of David. We experience the scene in the past tense through Nick’s eyes, memory and pacing. There is the unraveling of the lies in the wake of the accident, the build-up of Wilson’s unhinging and revenge wish, and Nick’s measured but charged vocabulary (“the holocaust was complete”) after finding George Wilson’s body.

Fitzgerald displays a painterly technique throughout his masterpiece, most obviously through his use of color (white, yellow, green, etc.).
In the final image of Gatsby, the slain hero slowly rotates on his mattress as blood traces a circle around him “like the leg of transit.” Nick had circled his train schedule before rushing out to the mansion, foreshadowing this symbolic circling.

Unlike David, who in his painting honored the face and flesh of a close friend, Fitzgerald via Nick Carroway focused on the icon and the dream. Gatsby is noticeably depersonalized through the gospel of his death and burial; the emphasis is on the insufficient mourning. His body is not described.

Gatsby’s corpse spins because the mattress had bumped into leaves, affirming that it is the first day of autumn, and evoking nature-worshipping concordant with pagan observance. Casie Hermanson wrote of the narrative’s emphasis of Time, “This seasonal calendar is more than just a parallel, however. It is a metaphor for the blooming and blasting of love and of hope, like the flowers so often mentioned.” In his death representation, Gatsby becomes a human water-clock marking the end of youthful exuberance and sexuality, and announcing the season to cease sowing and begin reaping.

As the body turns, we gaze at the water and contemplate related classical imagery. The Mythical Creatures Guide cites Walter Burkert: “The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs is deeply rooted not only in poetry but in belief and ritual; the worship of these deities is limited only by the fact that they are inseparably identified with a specific locality.” The guide adds, “Nymphs are personifications of the creative and fostering activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs.”

What a nymph gives, a nymph can take away. In Argonautica, the chronicle of Jason and the Argonauts by Appolonius of Rhodes in the 3rd century BCE, there is the tale of Hylas, the beloved, handsome friend of Heracles. Hylas is thirsty, so he is drawn away from his entourage to a pool where he meets a nymph and his fate, as we read at the Online Medieval & Classical Library:
“A water-nymph was just rising from the fair-flowing spring; and the boy she perceived close at hand with the rosy flush of his beauty and sweet grace. For the full moon beaming from the sky smote him. And Cypris made her heart faint, and in her confusion she could scarcely gather her spirit back to her. But as soon as he dipped the pitcher in the stream, leaning to one side, and the brimming water rang loud as it poured against the sounding bronze, straightway she laid her left arm above upon his neck yearning to kiss his tender mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy.”
Sweet terror in this death by water! John William Waterhouse captured the boy’s defenselessness in his 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, which Ezra Pound called, “Foreboding in the Pool.” By calming the waters and cloning six more fair nymphs, Waterhouse accentuated the erotic allure of the event.

Like the springs of yore, the modern swimming pool has been at times linked with the energy and force of female libido. This is unforgettably demonstrated in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.

When Joe Gillis arrives at Norma Desmond’s mansion, her swimming pool, like her house and her self, is a former marvel that is now decrepit. In fact, the pool is filthy and rat-infested. Norma is a withered Sibyl-like figure, unfit to be Joe’s lover because her sexual identity has been neglected and untended for years.

Later, the consummation of their affair is confirmed at the pool, which has been miraculously cleaned and restored. Norma, born again, announces:
“…I’ve never looked better in my life... Because I’ve never been as happy in my life.”
She then towels off Joe and clutches him around the neck from behind. The sinister movement reminds us of Argonautica and the drowning-pull of Waterhouse’s Nymph A. Norma is no longer a Sibyl.

Later still, Joe dies and floats in Norma’s pool and, by association, her dangerously revived perception of herself as a celebrity sex goddess. Like Joe, Jay Gatsby is shot by a mad, spurned lover, though not his own.

The 2003 French film, Swimming Pool, took a few more explicit laps with the motif of an Older Woman and Her Pool.
Sarah Morton, a successful English writer, opts to spend a summer at her publisher’s desirable country house in France. When Sarah arrives, the pool is covered with tarp and littered with leaves, and her character’s Dowdy and Uptight Index is at record highs.

This index drops during the film, as the director François Ozon stated in an interview, “As Swimming Pool progresses, Sarah evolves in both her attitudes and her clothes. She blossoms, becoming more feminine and luminous.”
The catalyst for Sarah’s metamorphosis from Sybil to nymph is the young, voluptuous and reckless Julie. Her main activity is bathing in and lounging by the water. Watching Julie unsettles Sarah, and one of her coping mechanisms is to painstakingly clean the pool. Ozon elaborated:
“I’m utilizing the swimming pool for its plasticine quality and also for its enclosed and confining aspect. Contrary to the ocean, a pool is something that you can manipulate. The swimming pool is Julie’s space. The pool is like a cinema screen on which you project things and through which a character enters. It takes a long time before Sarah Morton gets into the swimming pool. She can do it only when Julie becomes her inspiration, and only when the pool is finally clean.”
In view of Sarah Morton and Norma Desmond, we see that an actively used, clean swimming pool connotes a vigorous sex life and nymph-like identity. What about the male Gatsby and his pool? It is notably “unused” the entire summer—Gatsby swims in it for the first time the day after the vehicular manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson, the first day of his loss of Daisy. His swim and his float on the mattress replace an amorous encounter with the woman who dwells across the water.

The tedious 1973 movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford, depicts the murder scene in blinding whites, creating an atmosphere of sterility. Gatsby’s marble swimming pool is not dirty and dingy like Desmond’s, but then he is a young man obsessed with a dream girl, not a faded star dwelling behind curtains. Superficially, his pool resembles Norma Desmond’s as a symbol of Roaring Twenties’ decadence and celebrity, and, because of its nonuse, emptiness.

Ah, existential emptiness depicted by a young man floating on a mattress in a plasticine pool—we would be talking now about the 1967 movie The Graduate, right? (“Plasticine” derives from “plastic,” recalling Mr. McGuire’s one-word career advice for Benjamin Braddock.)

Tim Dirks describes Benjamin Braddock as he idles away his summer in both his parent’s pool and in the bedroom with Mrs. Robinson, and he explains how the director Mike Nichols made sure the viewer sees the parallel:
“With a clever transitional device and a montage of images, suggesting the emptiness and joylessness of his life, [Benjamin] walks back and forth transparently between these two pursuits and worlds. He rolls off the raft in the backyard pool, pulls on a white shirt, and enters a doorway to the Braddock home… One of their many sexual contacts is symbolized by his rising up onto a inflatable rubber pool raft (after the dive), inter-cut with his landing on top of Mrs. Robinson in the hotel bed.”
If you make your inflatable bed, you lie in it in more ways than one, like Benjamin and like Gatsby. Benjamin escapes his purgatory of the Pool and Mrs. Robinson, but Gatsby is not so lucky: he succumbs like Joe Gillis and Hylas. Gatsby’s nymph-murderer Daisy is two degrees of separation from the actual shooter, though her action provoked him.

We can only wonder if Mr. Maecenas commissioned a mattress to go with his new creation. We do know that the first swimming pool would have evoked already established conceptions of Life, Death, Rebirth and mainly feminine Sexuality. By the 1920’s, the pool had already attracted connotations of extravagance and celebrity. Its usage, covering and maintenance—and lack thereof—provided powerful imagery for subsequent artists with insights into psychology and astute abilities to press the viewer’s and reader’s button.

In his own death by water, Jay Gatsby participated in and contributed to a long and vibrant tradition of viewing a commonly refreshing recreational activity as something much more complex. The glamorous life is negated, love is lost, and absolution is denied for the hero who was blind to the foreboding in the pool.

See you in the deep end.

Monday, February 20, 2012

# 59 Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm

The magician herself.

Zuleika in the flesh?

Three Seated Suits: Thackeray, Beerbohm, Wolfe

An Open Letter to Tim Burton

Dear Tim,

Even now some of us look beyond the certain future victories of Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie to the time when the majority of the myriad strokes, plaudits and remunerations have been received, digested and approximated (as you know, they will be too numerous to count precisely) and after all the glitter has been swept up and re-flung and the scarlet carpets vacuumed and rolled and unrolled for the less talented auteurs in Hollywood. It is never premature to contemplate our next banquet or summer vacation and so, at this point in history, we can’t help ourselves from speculating about your artistic prospects in the years 2013 and 2014. Without insinuating that your plate could be anything less than heaped in light of your imaginative fecundity, we humbly propose that you adapt Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel, Zuleika Dobson, as your next venture.

Our appreciation of your decades-old embrace of death done artfully and fancifully (as in Beetlejuice and Corpse Bride) has eclipsed our potential compunction over presuming to tell you how to go about your business. We are further bolstered by the estimation of your respect for some of Old England’s idiosyncratic crannies (you admired the “over-the-top” thrust of the Sondheimian rendition of Sweeny Todd and the “trippiness” of the book behind Alice in Wonderland). You must agree it was natural for us to take a blood oath that you would be drawn to Beerbohm's spectacle of the mass suicide of strapping, well-bred Oxonians—prompted by the love of a dark beauty who is also a middling magician—as depicted in an eloquent, farcical and sagacious manner. If you are already planning your version of Zuleika at the time of this treacly correspondence, we simply ask that you list it on IMDB so we can crow about our prescience to family and friends and temporarily break free from the languid solipsism of our weekend scribbling.

As you shepherd your Zuleika Dobson into pre-production, we suggest you attach to the project a compelling anchor star who evokes immediate industry and public enthusiasm because of her general magnetism and her aptness for the role. But who could possibly play Beerbohm’s femme fatale of the Thames? This role demands bewitching, world-renowned pulchritude (though Miss Dobson is “not strictly beautiful”), manifest ease amid luxury, and comedic self-regard. Superficially, it was written of the siren, “She’s dark. She looks like a foreigner...” and that “an Elizabethan would have called her ‘gipsy.'” Moreover, she has violet eyes. Can there be one woman to fit such a bill?

Let us present Mila Kunis, whose unforgettable acquaintance you have likely made at The Ivy or at Winona Ryder’s house by the pool, if she has one. Known at large for “her fiery and daring personality,” according to, the Ukrainian born Miss Kunis has conquered the small screen as the “rich, spoiled, selfish, conceited” Jackie Burkhart of That Seventies Show and the big screen as the sensuous, dangerous Lily of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The sultry actress does not possess violet orbs like Zuleika but she does suffer from Heterochromia iridis, a splendid affliction that produces mismatched and perpetually beguiling eyes.

Tim, in addition to the sweet sickness you will suffer as you inwardly direct Miss Kunis through the quads of Oxford, you will also become captivated by the singularity of Max Beerbohm himself. Like you, Max could draw: Gerald Scarfe anointed him one the ten greatest cartoonists ever on account of his famed caricatures. In your limnings, the two of you revel in the exaggeration of heads and physical features. Though he aimed for effects other than the grotesqueness that you obsess over, Max exists as one of your predecessors, you will easily perceive. He was simultaneously a cultural insider and outsider in his era, a status that you yourself may not shun. Not surprisingly, Max liked masks, which caused Oscar Wilde to ask a mutual friend, “When you are alone with him, Sphinx, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?”

Zuleika Dobson, Beerbohm’s only novel, emerged very roughly midway between satires of especial note: William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair of 1848 and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities of 1987. Tourists of the monumentally vain need not stop between these epics to take in Zuleika Dobson, but they are not disappointed if they do. From the multitude of comparisons between the writings of the natty Beerbohm and the urbane Wolfe, we have culled Leni Zumas’s view that, “…Beerbohm resembles Tom Wolfe…because he leaves the reader without a strong sense of ‘what to do’ about what has been satirized. Instead, Beerbohm seems to celebrate the parody itself…” We now proffer the comparison that a Tim Burton film inventively mocks conventions and celebrates style, without prescribing an antidote. Roger Ebert observed such a sensibility in his review of the masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands:

Burton uses special effects and visual tricks to create sights that have never been seen before. The movie takes place in an entirely artificial world, where a haunting gothic castle crouches on a mountain-top high above a storybook suburb, a goofy sitcom neighborhood where all of the houses are shades of pastels and all of the inhabitants seem to be emotional clones of the Jetsons.
It is a negligible mental stretch to envision a Burtonesque portrayal of gothic Oxford and the absurd Edwardian herd of cloistered dons and students conducting their pageants and ministering to their cliques.

Aye, Beerbohm presents motifs that could only appeal to your palate. The tale offers phantoms, a favorite phenomenon of yours, for wispy commentary. To our greater delight, there are recurring scenes involving a series of sculpted heads that Max’s narrator coins The Emperors. From an Oxford website we learn that: “The official name for such heads is ‘herms.’” From the very font of the English language, Oxford’s own Dictionary, we understand that “herms” arises from Hermes and means: “A statue composed of a head…placed on the top of a quadrangular pillar.” These bearded busts stand sentinel in front of the venerable Sheldonian Theatre, “the principal assembly room of the University and the regular meeting-place of Congregation, the body of resident Masters of Arts which controls the University's affairs.” Commonplace in antiquity, herms, we worry, may not exist anywhere in America (Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, modeled after the Sheldonian, instead offers elevated busts affixed to its façade). Indeed, as one inspects the exteriors of museums and academic institutions across the United States, the prevalence of vacant plinths suggests a retroactive Yankee antipathy toward neoclassicism. Finish what you started, America—we would urge—and place a statue on every pedestal!

As they ruminate about the progressions of the doom that Zuleika Dobson is bound to induce, the Roman Emperors serve very capably as a Greek Chorus. Rather than keep these figures stoic and silent, we elect to think of them animated and singing. Tim, we can only wonder what ditties your longtime collaborator Danny Elfman will dream up for them! Based on your conversation with Elfman in Interview Magazine, we know that you will contribute in no small fashion to the melodies that he will engineer:

Elfman: I’d like to touch on a hidden talent of yours, which is writing rhymes and lyrics. When I began the songs for [The Nightmare Before Christmas], I was surprised to see that you had already written a lot of the great lyric pieces, all of which got assimilated and incorporated into the final songs.
Putting words in the mouths of Emperors—what fun that will be!

Aye, Zuleika Dobson lends itself to the operatically inclined. One Connecticut Yankee, Rod Mitchell, composed Zuleika: The Musical in 2005. A more robust expedition occurred during the 1950’s when James Ferman and Peter Tranchell co-created the musical comedy Zuleika. The former, who wrote the book and lyrics, was a Long Islander who traveled to England, studied at Cambridge and ultimately became a controversial British film censor. The composer Tranchell was “amongst the brightest stars of the post-war Cambridge music…[who] founded the Cambridge University Light Music Society whose greatest triumph was the production at the Arts Theatre of Tranchell’s musical Zuleika Dobson in 1954. Three years later it was given a London production at the Saville Theatre.”

Tim, we conjectured that you and Danny Elfman would want to hear this work in order to stand on the shoulders of these giants, so we contacted one John Gwinnell, who maintains a website devoted to Mr. Tranchell, to ascertain the existence and accessibility of any recordings. Mr. Gwinnell graciously replied by email:

The story of the gestation and eventual production of Tranchell’s Zuleika is long, complicated and fascinating, but I am afraid you must wait until I eventually finish the biography (a couple more years at least) to discover the details. Rest assured I will put you on the mailing list to be informed once it finally appears. There were no recordings made at the time; you might be lucky and find sheet music of some of the numbers available from on-line retailers (which is how I found my own copies) – arranged by Felton Rapley and published by Chappells in the 50s. The work was expected to be a huge popular success, which is why these arrangements were made and published, but ultimately it was a disappointment to everyone. Chappells had an arrangement of ‘hits from the show’ made for brass band, but this perished in the disastrous warehouse fire – the last in a long serious of unhappy circumstances dogging the show (earlier, during the pre-London provincial tour, the leading lady slashed her wrists in an Oxford hotel and then ran off with the producer). The London run itself was during one of the hottest summers known, and in an unsuitable large theatre...
The pyrotechnics, doom and mystery that attended this affair cannot help but augment the desire to do Zuleika and her prestidigitation honor through a cinematic musical that will be, to use your words, “an even mix of funny, tragic, overly dramatic, all at the same time.”

Tim, if during your research you plan to purchase the book, we do not recommend you follow in our penny-pinching footsteps. Online we acquired, at what seemed a very reasonable price, a soft copy of the novel, the sight of which upon receipt would doubtless have furrowed the author’s prodigious brow on account of its abject homeliness. The unwieldy, letter-sized volume was printed on copy paper in Lexington, KY on March 8, 2011 (the back page reads), the same day the centathlete ordered the book. One could not assail the layout and typography of the text because no human consideration graced the design and it is not sporting to insult a computer. The back cover tenders a solemn proclamation that begins, “This collection serves as a vessel to carry forth the light shed by the greatest writers our world has ever known." The nature and contents of this edifying collection are curiously unspecified but we do appreciate the assurance that the output of authors on other worlds will not complicate our voyages therein. Faint and blurry, the author’s name and the book’s title are listed quite plainly on the front cover, which features a nineteenth century coastal tableau that either relates to Zuleika Dobson in an obscure but revelatory way or, more likely, benefits the bank account of someone in a side office at the publisher. This last entity, incidentally, is not named in the volume; the record of the purchase indicates it is CreateSpace, a division of Amazon which specializes in on-demand printing, self-publishing and sundry other services, though evidently not the attractive, appropriate packaging of actual literary classics.

On that rather flat note, we leave you perhaps momentarily fatigued but sufficiently catalyzed to embrace Zuleika Dobson. We thank you in advance for sharing with us your progress in this regard.


The Centathlete et al.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

# 98 The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

Caught with a snazzy tie.

Not cute enough for Frank.

Tufnel played a Collings.
Marv takes a seat.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The road to Ensenada, on the other hand, “is plenty wide and fast.”

The source of the former declaration is a beatified Frenchman, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: “This proverbial statement probably derives from a similar statement by St. Bernard of Clairvaux about 1150… ‘Hell is full of good intentions or wishes.’”

The latter observation derives from the venerable Lyle Lovett, whom the centathlete exalts and has seen in concert five times over two decades. In the title track of his 1996 album, “The Road to Ensenada,” we hear the Mexican town portrayed as a destination for American wantonness:

But down here among the unclean/
Your good just comes undone

During a taped session, Lovett related that the song was inspired by one of many motorcycle trips with his close friend, the eminent guitar builder Bill Collings, whose devotees include Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and the unequaled Nigel Tufnel. A comment to the video states: “this is Lyle’s first Collings dreadnought (East Indian rosewood / German spruce) from 1979 built out of Bill’s two-bedroom apartment on Bingle Rd in Houston.”

The same model guitar appears in this performance, a duet with John Hiatt of the exquisite heartbreaker, “Nobody Knows Me.” In this older track, which the singer has evidently labeled “a cheating song about Mexican food,” Lovett describes the ease of infidelity once you leave the country:

But it was a dream made to order/
South of the border/
And nobody knows me like my baby/
And she cried man how could you do it /
And I swore that there weren't nothing to it

Frank Chambers, protagonist of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, knew what Lovett was singing about. He tells us, “Ensenada is all Mex, and you feel like you left the U.S.A. a million miles away.” The remoteness brings perceived freedom from consequence, and Chamber cheats on his wife Cora when he visits the town with a brand new acquaintance. Through the swiftness and ease of his carnal error, Chambers affirms Chris Rock’s claim that “a man is as faithful as his options.”

Back in the U.S.A., when Cora finds out, she confronts Frank and cries. Rather than swear there was nothing to it, like Lovett’s sad cowboy, Frank offers man’s only other excuse: “She didn’t mean anything to me.”

Frank’s appraisal of Ensenada adds to the distinct waft of racism that appeared earlier in the narrative. When a restaurant patron mistakes Cora for a Mexican, she says, “I’m just as white as you are.”

Frank overhears this retort and subsequently speculates about Cora’s availability despite her marriage to the older Nick Papadakis. He says, “It was being married to the Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.” Frank jabs with the epithet “the Greek” to denigrate and depersonalize the man he’s about to cuckold.

In fact, Cora wanted the patron to know that she’s superlatively white and American, as evidenced by her Iowa roots. This form of proof brings to mind Superman, who first appeared in 1938, and his extreme American-ness, as Michael Rizzotti noted:
“…Superman lands in a corn field in the Midwest. His adopted parents are white, Anglo-Saxon and in all likelihood protestant (WASP). The question is, why the Midwest? He could very well have landed in a native, Jewish, African, Arabic, Mexican, Italian, or Chinese neighborhood in any of the US’ [sic] thriving big cities. The reason is that during the period in which Superman was popular, to be American meant to be white Anglo-American.”
Frank and Cora’s Depression-era bigotry adds ugly honesty to the narrative. Cora’s remark is a small sign of her limited perspective and sensitivity about identity—and of her desperation and savagery that will surface later.

Previously, by marrying Nick Papadakis, Cora had escaped aimless, sordid poverty as an L.A. floozy, to end up as an Old World fairy tale heroine (lowly girl rescued from drudgery by prince). But the marriage proves unsatisfying because Cora, a modern woman with her own drive, wants more than a comfortable life at a wide spot in the road—she wants to achieve the American dream. Her Greek prince is too old and settled, and his princedom isn’t big enough.

Ironically, Cora, by choosing to cheat on and then cold-bloodedly murder her husband, not only fails to attain the 20th century American Dream, she becomes a latter-day, classical tragic heroine, following in the footsteps of Clytemnestra, who plotted with her lover Aegistius to kill her husband Agamemnon. Cora's last year is ultimately very Greek.

Hollywood, in the 1946 movie adaptation starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, whitewashed over race and ethnicity. “Nick Papadakis” became “Nick Smith” (in the book, Cora’s maiden name is Smith) and Nick’s roots were transplanted to northern Canada. Turner, with her bottle-blonde coiffure (Cora is dark-haired in the novel) does not have to explain to anyone that she isn’t Mexican.

Mexico as the land of temptation is marginalized as well. In the opening scene, Garfield as Chambers tells us he ended up in Twin Oaks while hitching from San Francisco to San Diego. In the book, he was coming from “Tia Juana” on a three-week bender.

(Tijuana is more Sin City than Las Vegas. Years ago, the centathlete visited one night with friends. The very first scene past the Border Crossing was a bust of some kind: ten or more locals were lined up against a wall. On nearly every corner, pharmacy signs promoted cheap medications and quick surgeries. Two blocks off the main drag it was dark and foreboding. And then there were the tequila bars.)

The movie focuses on the sex appeal of the doomed couple; with Garfield as the tough homunculus and Turner as the temptress of the diner. Turner looks overly made-up but fabulous in her white wardrobe. Director Tay Garnett explained:
“There was a problem getting a story with that much sex past the sensors. We figured that dressing Lana in white somehow made everything she did less sensuous. It was also attractive as hell… They didn't have ‘hot pants’ back then, but you couldn't tell it by looking at her.”
Garnett and company appear to have also thought about the choice of ties. The chubby Nick Smith wears a conspicuously short tie, which adds to his portrayal as a sexless clown. When Cora catches Frank cheating on her, the proof is the snazzy striped tie he left with the other woman.
While they were glamorous celebrities at the time of filming The Postman Always Rings Twice, Garfield and Turner were in reality not unacquainted with the tribulations of Frank and Cora. Garfield for a time ran with a gang in New York City. Turner was embroiled her whole life in eventful marriages and affairs. In 1958 she participated in a murder trial when her 14-year old daughter Cheryl was charged with fatally stabbing Turner’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, a gangster’s bodyguard. Cheryl was acquitted on account of self defense.

To write The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain drew on one of the most sensational trials of the 1920’s, the Snyder/Gray case. Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray, gripped in a torrid affair, killed Ruth’s husband, Albert Snyder, an editor of Motor Boating magazine, which even today “covers the passions, adventures and lifestyles of active, affluent boat owners while delivering authoritative reviews and how-to information.”

The lovers blamed each other for the murder, which took place on Long Island, one of the bastions of civilization and, of course, the cradle of the centathlete. David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace summarized some of the trial’s tawdry aspects:
"Although both later claimed the other was the dominant partner, Judd’s nickname of ‘Momma’ or ‘Mommie’ for Ruth would seem to indicate that she was the real leader in their relationship. Ruth wasn't a beauty, but she exuded animal magnetism. During her trial, she received 164 marriage proposals."
It was a circus trial, Troy Taylor writes:
“Celebrities attended in droves, including mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart; director D.W. Griffith; author Will Durant; evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson.”
Famous journalists such as Damon Runyan and Walter Lippmann attended as well. James M. Cain told The Paris Review that one comment stuck with him: “Walter said it seemed very odd to be inhaling the perfume...of a woman he knew was going to be electrocuted.”
Unsurprisingly, a charged olfactory sense appears in The Postman Always Rings Twice. “I could smell her,” Frank tells us when he first encounters Cora. Pheromones are in the air and lust is up his nostrils.

The scent of a woman impressed another noir hero, Marv of the 2005 film Sin City. The killer is smitten with Goldie and says, “She smells like angels ought to smell, the perfect woman…” The tender, prayerful adoration contrasts with the black deeds of an “unstably violent” giant.

Frank Chambers is no comic-book assassin with a heart of gold like Marv. His revelation about smell shows him to be primal and animal-like. What sort of animal?

“You look more like a hell cat,” Frank says to Cora, kicking off the Cat Motif in the story. There’s the dead pussycat at the base of the stepladder. Then, Frank hooks up with Madge Allen, who raises a lion, a tiger, jaguars and pumas, and the two take the road to Ensenada. They discuss tracking pumas in Nicaragua, though it’s never cleared up if they managed to leave their motel room to undertake this expedition.

As a token of their romance, Madge leaves a baby puma for Frank—but gives it to Cora, who hysterically chews out her cheating husband: “And the cat came back! …Ain’t that funny, how unlucky cats are for you?” The image evokes the black cat in The Matrix, a sign of déjà vu that demonstrates a glitch in the system.

Intriguingly, the swaddled feline becomes a surrogate baby for Frank and Cora, albeit for a night only. Frank exhibits no warmth toward a bundle we could presume to be adorable, as this video shows. Parenthood, like marriage, can’t fulfill him.

The National Center for Biomedical Information reports that the puma “occupies the most extensive range of any New World terrestrial mammal.” Astrologists tell us even more:
“…those who share the puma as their totem should be mindful of their tendency to lash out too quickly, or act out in haste. Call upon the patience and observation of the puma before taking action in order to avoid quick and unsavory consequences.”
If only Frank and Cora had known. Of course, hasty lashing out and unsavory consequences make for good noir. Cain himself did not use that label; he thought his narrative was distinctive because it showcased “…the lingo in the mouth of a hobo with good grammar, like they have in California.” He further told The Paris Review: “Let's talk about this so-called style. I don't know what they're talking about—‘tough,’ ‘hard-boiled.’ I tried to write as people talk.”

To us ultramoderns, noir speech doesn’t seem exactly natural—it sounds affectedly measured and menacing, or “razor-sharp and acerbic.” It’s an outdated posture that takes some work to assume. To wit, Mickey Rourke prepared unusually to become Marv, according to Sin City director Robert Rodriguez:
“Mickey had this one piece of music he would play on the set to get into the character of Marv… It was Johnny Cash’s version of The Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt. If you listen to that song that’s how he did Marv."
(In 1992 Johnny Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame. His presenter was Lyle Lovett.)
For his last stop on the road to Hell or somewhere else, but certainly not Ensenada, Marv gets the electric chair, just as Frank Chambers does in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And just as Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray did in 1928 in Sing Sing. A tabloid reporter snuck in a camera and shot Ruth right when the juice was turned on and, as Marv would say, they “got to it.” If you like noir, you’ll want to see the picture. It’s a doozy.