Sunday, November 30, 2014

800 Words: Identities

There are many, many things in life I’m deeply uncomfortable with. I’m uncomfortable with Baltimore, uncomfortable with the Left, uncomfortable with many women, uncomfortable with many friendships, uncomfortable with Judaism, uncomfortable with my generation, uncomfortable with just about every major aspect of my life, and forced into a close, unnatural proximity with them all. Some days, perhaps most days of my life since childhood, I wonder what would happen if I were able to take a sledgehammer to the walls of my life. Would my life be better? Am I even able to do it?

Uncomfortable is different than not wanting to be part of it. I’m very much a Jew, I’m just not a Jew anybody wants - an ambivalent agnostic who likes some of the Bible, most of the food, a bit of the music, and and has contempt bordering on hatred for the rest. I loathed growing up in Jewish day schools, forced to learn Hebrew and Yiddish, in a homogenous community of co-religionists who assured me that the wider world wasn’t much worth seeing. Yet I can’t deny the impact it had. In the wider world, I’m nothing but Jewish. I spend as much time outside of Pikesville, MD as possible so that I may be a Jew - inside Pikesville MD, I’m a bad Jew. I’d much rather have been raised Jew-ish - sent to a Baltimore private or magnet school like Park or Friends or Carver, where ‘different drummer’ types were encouraged. Would it have been so terrible if as an adult I turned out to be a social justice protestor type who smoked weed every day of his adolescence and thought music didn’t get better than indy rock? I’d have been less in touch with reality, I’d have also been a much better adjusted adult.

Ditto whatever sort of left/liberalism I subscribe to - which I’m reminded nearly every day is completely out of step with virtually everyone I know save perhaps my father and a few college friends. Eventually, every old leftist looks on the developments of their younger counterparts and sees their aspirations mocked in favor of another unrealistic goal - aspirations toward rights of workers in our great-grandparents’ generation gave way to longings for racial equality in our grandparents’, which gave way to pining for world peace in our parents’, which gave way to yearnings for complete rights of the bedroom in our own generation. Perhaps all four generations of leftists have made a small bit of headway on their chosen issue, but nowhere near what they dream, and the miniscule progress they made makes their aspiration a tantalizing mockery, only closer enough to see just how impossibly far it still is. Inevitably the generation after them has a different focus, and old leftists look at the generation after them as having betrayed the revolution that ‘really matters.’ For me, the leftist utopia of my dreams is the one in which utopia does not exist - everybody pursues data-driven, practical solutions that give the greatest good to the greatest number of people. There is no need in such a world for ideology, politics is something boring that the left-brained people can provide for us in the best manner, while us right-brained creative types who always spell trouble in the political arena can be divorced from politics altogether.

What would my ideal 32-year-old self be? Well, for a start, I’d be about seventy pounds lighter and the incessant ulcer burping that started two years ago would never have happened. We’ll take it as a given that height cannot be changed. Also, as perhaps a given, I’d be less narcissistic and less given to wondering about what my ideal self would be.

At 32, I think I’d like to have lived in New York. Preferably downtown Manhattan or the Lower-East Side but if that’s too pricey then Brooklyn wouldn’t be a bad option either. I eat out with friends five nights a week, and two nights a week I cook - once for friends and once for my wife. If I’m temperamentally the same person, then I’m far from ready to be a father, but I’d like to think I’d have been married around the time I turn 30 after a 20’s which are obviously filled with ungodly amounts of meaningless sex. The girl is Jew-ish, as practical as I’m dreamy, so much smarter than me that she makes me smarter, and indulgent of all those special ways in which I’m particularly stupid. She’s a few inches taller than I, and possessed of a number of qualities prized by the superficial male… I’ll spare whoever reads this the details, and there are many, but truth be told, since this is of course my fantasy, she’s as beautiful as I’m homely. There’s a small part of me who believes that every good looking person has a moral obligation to settle down with an ugly one. The fate of the human race depends on us all being understanding and compassionate towards one another - what better way is there to train ourselves to do that than in matters of love and sex? Beautiful people need be trained to look past the ugliness in others in the same way that ugly people need to be reminded that they can be beautiful. If more beautiful and ugly people manage to couple with one another, we know we’re getting better as a species.

For a living, I’m an opera composer. Nobody’s ever made a living purely on writing operas since Puccini, but in my fantasy world, my premieres and recordings would be looked forward to as eagerly as the latest album from Bjork or Radiohead, and I’d be remunerated accordingly. My operas would be progressively tonal - akin in harmonic language perhaps to Prokofiev or Poulenc or Britten but with both more popular appeal and rhythmic kick, and more intellectual depth than any of them. They’d be far less obfuscatory than your average avant-garde operatic fare from Henze or Birtwistle, but far more complex than the average musical or rock opera. The faucet of words, then as now, would never shut off. But my always obstructed faucet of notes would repair itself in this parallel universe, and I’d have written an opera every year from the time I was twenty-one. The music could portray every style, the words every conceivable character. Both glide effortlessly though that always fragile line between tragedy and comedy, and my ideal self would find an idiom that does justice to ‘my masters’ - Mozart, Janacek, and Sondheim. Politics, so time-consuming in my real-life’s thoughts, would be the secondary concern it truly is in these works. What would matter in these works is ‘permanent things,’ only permanent because they're so obviously ephemeral. They wouldn’t be too far from the plotlessness of life itself - the life of The Marriage of Figaro, or Uncle Vanya, or Middlemarch, or Seinfeld, or Tokyo Story, or The Adventures of Augie March, or The Rules of the Game, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Company, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Louie, or The Confessions of Zeno, or Mad Men, or A Long Day's Journey into Night, or The Human Stain, or perhaps something a little more fantastical like The Simpsons or Into The Woods or Don Giovanni or Fanny and Alexander or The Cunning Little Vixen. The subject, for one and all, would be life itself, how it passes through us, and how we pass through life - with all its tragedy, comedy, and absurdity completely intact. The subject of the operas would be life as people like my real self live it.

Ideal Evan would never make the cover of Time Magazine, not at least until he was in his sixties, and wouldn’t ever become a household name, but he would get blurbs fairly often. He would have enough success by this age that he can make a lot of side money by conducting, or directing theater, or giving master classes at universities, or even writing book reviews. Once a week, a la Woody Allen, he would have a group of musicians with whom he’d perform in public as a violinist in a regular place - the genre would be somewhere in the nexus between jazz, gypsy music, and generic American folk and roots. He would be a blogger like he is today, only every blogpost would have a thousand comments. Mornings would be spent reading and listening to music, afternoons spent in writing of various sorts, evenings taking in New York City in its various forms, and perhaps most importantly, he would be able to get to sleep every night between 10 and 11 should he so desire, and this horrible insomnia which has plagued him since he was 7 years old would never have reared its pillow-tussled head. Long international vacations would be taken twice a year, visits to Baltimore to see family would happen once every three months - usually in keeping with the Jewish Holidays, and family would be up to visit me a different four times a year.

It seems like a very good life… But 99.9999999% of us can only fantasize about the lives of our ideal selves, and the few among us who achieve our ideal selves are probably psychopaths who have to throw hundreds of people under a train to get and keep the lives we all so fervently desire. The rest of us have to figure out how to live a decent life in the circumstances which conspire to keep us disappointed by the way life unfolds.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

800 Words: Delusions of Grandeur - My Unrealized Projects - Part 2 - Theater

The Ten Commandments - The movie that's on every Passover, watching it is a rite of passage for every Jewish kid to sit through. It would make a great subject, albeit getting the rights would be torture. It is operatic at every pour, and has the perfect combination of high drama and soap opera for an opera. It also has, as many operas do, an obsessive interest in freedom and individualism which can make, if the composer is good enough, for a lot of very stirring music.

Watchmen - I'm sure you've heard of the graphic novel. I think it would make an amazing opera. 'Nuff said.

The Portage of San Cristobal A.H. - It's a novella about Nazi hunters who stumble on Hitler in his 90's in the Argentinian jungle and put him on trial only for Hitler to mount a brilliant defense of himself. It would be, I think, a fantastic project, albeit one that disturbs the hell out of me.

A Tale of Two Liars - I've had this idea since College. It's based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story about two con artists, a man and a woman, who come into a shtetl and become the rage of the town. The devil decides to get involved and make them fall in love with each other. With predictable mayhem ensuing. It would be a black musical comedy, but it would be set in Yiddish.


Deli Strummer: Deli Strummer was a Holocaust survivor from Vienna who spoke all around Baltimore for years when I was a kid. She was amazingly charismatic, spoke fantastic English, and could reduce even the most jaded children to tears. It then turned out that she falsified the account of her survival.

The Rules of Our Game - Based on Renoir's 1939 movie - The Rules of the Game. In this version, a group of spoiled Ivy League Seniors, perhaps from Princeton, go for a weekend on the beach, perhaps Cape May, with the intention of hitting the Jersey Shore bars. There would be equivalents to each character, I can explain those in detail. It would be, in many ways, a portrait of the income disparities in our generation and how that warps us all. At the end, the weekend goes terribly awry, ending with the death of one of the Princeton students, and everybody's parents agreeing to smooth over the details of what happened.

DC Story - Based on Tokyo Story, the Ozu film from 1952. A very simple story. Two old and ailing parents from Baltimore keep trying to visit their children in DC, but their children don’t have time for them and view them as pests. Then one of the parents dies, and the children realize that they never made the effort.

Fanny and Alexander - Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1983 movie, but with a much more political edge. A rich Jewish family in 1960's Baltimore, loving and cultured, with three middle aged brothers who run various parts of a business together. Their mother is a widow, who has a romantic relationship with her husband’s black business partner. But after the oldest brother dies, the his wife remarries to a right wing religious clergyman who basically abducts the children. The marriage of the youngest brother is torn apart by affairs with young hippies. The middle brother is also a college professor, and his job is victim to radical divides he doesn’t understand.
The American Presidency - Shakespeare wrote histories about kings. Why hasn’t some American playwright taken it on himself to write something similar to chronicle American presidents? Given how the modern mind works, it would probably only be effective if the presidents were in living memory - perhaps Roosevelt onward. But given the drama that accompanies American history, the plays would almost write themselves.

Graz 1907: This would take a little more detail to explain, just because it's so obscure. Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler hike up a mountain on the day that Strauss's opera, Salome is being premiered. Present at that premiere, among others, will be the two of them, most of the kings of Europe, Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Adolf Hitler, and Adrian Leverkuhn (the main character of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus). Mahler, an extremely anxious and moody Jew, worries that he's being run out of his position as director of the Vienna Opera, and fears that what's happening to him is happening all over Europe, and something terrible may soon happen. Richard Strauss, a level-headed Bavarian obsessed with money who will one day would become a Nazi collaborator, assures Mahler that he has nothing to worry about and his carrying on is, as always, ridiculous. In the second act, Mahler goes to the men's room a half-hour before the opera begins. Mahler is stopped before he leaves by a young man named Adolf from Upper Austria, who says that Mahler made him accepting of the fact that he's part-Jewish, and talks about how he wishes he could be a conductor and emulate Mahler's conducting style, and how the sets of his art director, Alfred Roller, could be the basis for rebuilding an entire nation. He then tries to touch Mahler's hair the way Salome does, then tries to kiss Mahler. Mahler runs out horrified, and Adolf Hitler may have been born in that moment. Act III would be a party gathering of all the various celebrities and the various hijinks that ensue. I can explain it if you need me to.


Richard III: Richard is usually portrayed as a kind of Hannibal Lector - a loveable psychopath who gleefully commits crimes. But the more I delve into Richard III, the more I wonder if the text supports that interpretation. The Dream scene, particularly makes no sense in that interpretation. Perhaps Richard is truly tortured, a depressed and malformed man made by circumstances into a reluctant lunatic - not unlike Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. When he says about Clarence “I do love you so that I shall send you to heaven.” Perhaps he really means it. When he goes after Princess Anne over the body of Prince Edward and says her beauty made him do it, perhaps that’s really why he did it.

Romeo and Juliet: I always thought R&J could be played as 80 year olds, but apparently that was done a few years ago in England. Instead, what if Romeo and Juliet are both obese? All the stuff about Rosaline is in fact merciless taunts by Mercutio, who is simply a bully, and sees Romeo pining after a girl clearly far out of his league. The Nurse could be a gorgeous but poor older contemporary of Juliet, and the fan scene could be something which makes the Nurse look fat. Paris could be a money grubber who clearly has no interest in Juliet.

Wiki Midsummer Night’s Dream - I will never have the organizational ability to bring this off, but I think it’s a great idea for someone who could. Each of the four worlds could be done by a different artist, a different director, and a different cast. Perhaps each scene even could… The fairy world could be done as animation or as a series of paintings with voiceovers, perhaps the rude mechanicals could be done as a really bad student film. I suppose it would also be possible to do The Tempest like this, but I think it would work better with Midsummer.

Julia Caesar - We’re on the cusp of the first female President at the exact same era that we’re the American Presidency has powers verging on dictatorship. There would never be a better time to do a Julius Caesar about feminism. Julius Caesar would be a woman, so would Antony and Octavian, and the conspirators would all be men. It would play into all of men’s fears about losing their privileged position and becoming obsolete, it would play into . The murder could (should?) even be done as a sexual assault that Brutus stops right before Caesar says ‘Et tu Brute?’. It could contrast the masculinities of Brutus, a traditional male who upholds real masculinity, with Cassius, a traditional male who pretends to. Antony’s last line over Brutus ‘this was a man’, would have a completely different meaning.

The Henriad in a Single Night: Orson Welles cut it down to make a play in which Falstaff would be the main character, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done again, though perhaps with the focus on the story itself rather than on Falstaff. Though making Falstaff the main character would be fun too.

Monday, November 17, 2014

800 Words: Something to Say - Part 1

What we have in life is conversation - the ability to communicate to one another, to listen, and to evolve. We grew from hearing, and we grow from being heard. Conversation is the only thing in life worth a damn, because if we’re ever going to understand each other, it will only be by hearing what we all have to say.

As I was driving home last night form a concert, an interview with Dick Cavett came on the radio. I’m probably the only person under the age of 40 that knows who Dick Cavett is, but for those who don’t, he was, in so many ways, Stephen Colbert for another generation. The only difference is, Cavett didn’t have to wear a mask of ignorance. He’s an emissary from a gentler, more cultivated era, when self-consciously intelligent people needn’t be typecast as intellectuals, could be knowledgable without seeming smug, and even a standup comedian could be intelligent. Comedians are probably the world’s smartest people, but don’t try telling that to the average American, it’ll make America a much less humorous place.

(Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer)

Cavett made a great point - what makes talk shows unique is the talk, not the show. And whom among today’s celebrities do we really want to hear talk at length? We spend, at most, fifteen minutes in the company of these guests, and in that time, most of them will have exhausted whatever there is of value which they have to say. Back in Dick Cavett’s day, he would have guests on for a full half hour, and if they were especially interesting, the tape would simply keep rolling, and Cavett would get a full week’s worth of broadcasts out of it - or a whole gaggle of guests, each of whom could be fascinating in his own way. The conversation might be enlightening, it also might be a circus freak show. It was Charlie Rose by way of Letterman - it was simply every possible excitement which you could ever want out of a conversation. And like everything else in America with the temerity to combine the lighthearted with the serious, the profane with the sacred, the carnival with the temple, Cavett has been forgotten. But no matter what happened, a live audience was present, and Cavett trusted that whatever happened would be interesting enough that a live audience would stay engaged for the whole of it. This was not a format the 92nd St. Y, this was for network television! And yet it never happened again. Such is the way of America - giving us the power to create the most truthful and beautiful things, only to cover up our national treasures when they hold up a mirror to us that’s too clear.

(Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog)

Just do a youtube or wikipedia search for Dick Cavett and it becomes clear how different this show is than anything on today. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal squaring off against each other after Mailer headbutted Vidal backstage. Comedian Mort Sahl threatening to hit the critic John Simon in the face. Truman Capote attacking Sonny Liston with a handkerchief. Oscar Peterson playing piano for an audience of millions. Weeks worth of shows devoted to pornography and depression. A roundtable with Satchel Paige, Lillian Gish, and Salvador Dali during which Dali brought an anteater onstage and deposited it into Gish’s lap. Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Stephen Stills on the day after Woodstock ended.  A film director’s panel with Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, and Frank Capra. Janis Joplin, Margo Kidder, and Gloria Swanson on simultaneously! Jack Benny and Bill Cosby on together. A whole show with John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazarra. Full hours with Groucho Marx, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, John and Yoko, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Fred Astaire, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Woody Allen, Zero Mostel.

(John Lennon premieres "Imagine")

No talk show on television today, not Stewart, not Colbert, not Letterman, not Charlie Rose, is nearly so ambitious as this. It is a show which is literally meant to take the pulse of the entire country during an age when the country was still sufficiently united that its pulse could be taken. In the ‘rough and tumble’ of an hour-long conversation, there’s no Colbert-esque hiding behind a persona with quick one liners, and no Carson-esque staff to prepare you for what you should be asking. There is only the native intelligence it takes to know your material well enough that you can talk about your subject in detail.

(John Cleese)

How many of today’s huge stars are interesting enough that we’d want to spend an hour in their company? Perhaps George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence among movie stars, but how many others can you think of who’d be worth that chunk of your time? Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt? Kristen Stewart? Anne Hathaway? When you mention names like those, the question becomes self-answering. Movies, at least movies which come from the old star system, are almost completely dead. So their biggest stars are, almost necessarily, people who are dead on the inside.

(Marshall McLuhan and Truman Capote)

If you want to hear from interesting actors, you have to get actors who are actors first, movie stars second. Ian McKellen and especially Patrick Stewart have reached an Indian Summer on the internet, and it’s because their careers are more than simply careers - they are real human beings with real skills who have fallen into the movie business as if by accident. Stewart may be slightly wooden and hammy in genuine theatrical roles (not for nothing was Captain Picard the perfect role for him), but who wouldn’t want the company of a 75-year-old Shakespearean actor who posts a picture of himself on twitter dressed as a lobster?

(Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills)

Comedians also make for great talk show guests. Comedians, more than virtually any other job, is grounded in people who make their careers based on having interesting things to talk about. A fact that’s hit home in Jerry Seinfeld’s web series - Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The show itself is not particularly extraordinary, but it’s a thoroughly watchable show, because Seinfeld understands that what we’re watching is funny people talking to each other, and in order to be funny, you have to be interesting first and have insights which are worthwhile to be heard. Among comedians, Robin Williams was of course the most amazing talk show guest, not only because he was funny, but because he was smart. There was no way he could get access to that extreme barrage of references without a first-class brain to access. If he had an hour on a talk show, he could probably improvise an entire hour’s worth of material - very nearly it’s own HBO special made up on the spot.   

(Katherine Hepburn)

To paraphrase Citizen Kane, there’s no great secret to being famous, if all you care about is being famous. If fame is your biggest motivator, there is a checklist of things you must do in order to achieve it, and if you combine that with a little bit of luck, you will achieve your life’s goal. But as with any other career, if you’re defined by your career, you will be uninteresting and unworthy of company outside of it. Your boringness may even make you worse at your job.