Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review Dump 2 - non classical music edition

The Conversation - Charles Theater - September 19th

The Conversation, the immortal movie made by Francis Ford Coppola between his two immortal Godfather movies, is the essential Coppola movie for right now. The original Godfather was essential for the period when it was made and the world longed to return to traditional values of family and ethnicity, on the cusp of forgetting the authoritarianism made the first world divorce such values in the first place. The second Godfather was essential for the eighties and nineties, when the success of America was so enormous that in trying to liberate ourselves from fear and want, we'd become privation and terror we set out to defeat. Apocalypse Now was essential for the Bush era, when neo-imperial hubris made us strike out into unknown places and assume that we could assume such ventures with little sacrifice of and change to our essential natures and without the essential darkness and chaos of these dysfunctional parts of the world rubbing off on us.

In the corporate world of Big Data, in the government world of Homeland Security, in the intelligence world of Putin and PRISM, The Conversation is a textbook lesson in how our own paranoia becomes self-fulfilling. Harry Kaul, being America's greatest expert in wiretapping, knew forty years before the rest of us how easily our privacy becomes compromised. We're all stuck in a world where it's possible for the entire world to know our secrets, and we have no idea to whom we're surrendering our privacy. Is it possible that some of them are in this to try to fight back against the people who'd exploit our lack of privacy, and should we ultimately let them, or do they then, like Michael Corleone, become as evil as the people from whom they wish to protect us? We have no idea how to answer these questions, and better perhaps than any other movie, The Conversation articulates this vague dread that follows us all throughout our days. It is essential viewing for any movie buff, any politically active person, anyone who's ever experienced their privacy has ever been compromised (which is probably all of us). So of course, hardly anybody these days has seen it.

Heaven Can Wait - Charles Revival - August 27th 

It's often said that America's greatest contribution to world culture is the 'studio era,' the 'Golden Age of Hollywood,' the star system. Other countries do literature and theater, but we Americans do movies.

But what remains so strange about the Studio Era is how utterly un-American it was. The movies were generally about high society types that dress immaculately and trade flirtatiously witty barbs that could at least as easily be found in London, Paris, or Vienna as on the Upper-East side of Manhattan. No doubt, there was a kind of wish-fulfillment to it - the wish of the unsophisticated and hard working American bourgeois to have the charmed lives of the European bourgeois - and in the days before FDR liberalism, to be bourgeois signified far more wealth and class and leisure than it did among later generations. The director upon which the very bedrock of high style Hollywood became known for is Ernst Lubitsch, who lived in Berlin until he was 30, and in so many ways, he never left Berlin.

Heaven Can Wait is about a spoiled high society cad who barely ever works, seduces women whenever he can, and relies on his innate charm and good looks to get him through a charmed life and stay married to a saintly wife whom he knows he does not deserve. You don't expect that such a movie can stun you with its quality, and yet by the end it utterly does. It's a completely overlooked movie, even among Lubitsch's output, in which the many seasons of a man's life are portrayed with both humor and unflinching accountability for his flaws, even if the situations are sometimes rather implausible - this is Hollywood after all... I have no doubt that you could find men like this in many American cities, but the way they lived their whole lives were based on the many more society men who lived like this whom you could find in any European city.

All the qualities we claim, or at least seem, to value in traditional Americans: industry, honesty, selflessness, are precisely the opposite of the qualities which Lubitsch and his followers valued. Sure, there were plenty of movies that advanced traditional American values from directors like John Ford and Frank Capra, but the vast majority of movies from Hollywood glorified the selfish, the idle, the liars, who charmed their way out of situations in precisely the manner Americans never did.

Othello - Chesapeake Shakespeare Company - September 24th

I have a soft spot for Othello. It's odd to talk of one of the pinnacles of Western Literature as having a 'soft spot', you don't have soft spots for Othello, you have soft spots for 80's hair metal and reality television. And yet, when it's placed next to Hamlet, Lear, the Scottish Play, and the underrated Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps you have to talk about Othello as though it's something resembling a soft spot. It's perhaps the most magnificent flawed work ever conceived, with dry spots that even make Hamlet fly by. Obviously Hamlet and Lear have their own problems with bloat, but the problem of Othello is that it's basically two plays shoehorned into one. and yet perhaps I prefer Othello to even Hamlet or Macb*th. It is a stretch to say that you can be moved rather than thrilled or in awe by the respective Scot and Dane. But like Lear, Othello is a genuinely moving play.

It's also very difficult to speak about Othello properly because contemporary politics dictates that Othello must be coopted for today's social justice agenda when Othello is hardly a play about race at its most fundamental level. In many ways, if Othello is a play about race, then it is a play about race the same way that The Merchant of Venice is about Judaism. Shakespeare probably does view Othello as an archetypal hot-blooded African who cannot control his moorishly animal instincts to jealousy and lust no matter how thoroughly he tries or how thoroughly he's considered by white society to have mastered them. And yet, whatever the truth of that matter, there is unmistakable sympathy for Othello's plight, and his tragedy is in some ways more meaningful because the stench of racism in how he's drawn is unmistakable. Shakespeare is large enough to contain all interpretations, and to place him within any one of them is to limit him.

The greatest performance I've ever seen of Othello, perhaps the greatest performance I've ever seen of any Shakespeare play, is the 1980 BBC television rendering with Jonathan Miller in the directors chair while starring Anthony Hopkins as Othello, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, and an absolutely immortal performance by Bob Hoskins as Iago that should be studied for hundreds of years as a textbook of how to interpret Shakespeare so that every potential character nuance registers. There are very, very, very few actors worthy of the Shakespearean parts they play, and perhaps no performance I've ever seen comes even close to the pure and infinitely sophisticated evil Hoskins accomplishes here.

I very nearly left a quarter of the way through this production because, like most American theater troops, the actors wreak such havoc on Shakespeare's language. It's not really an issue of being American, there are plenty of English and British actors who have terrible trouble with Shakespeare, though Shakespeare meaning as much as it does to the British, I'm sure they're spared the unperceptive murder of his verse and character we so often get here; but stage actors are not the most thoughtful bunch of people to begin with, and many of them have little ability to render the most intellectually thoughtful writer since whoever wrote The Bible in any meaningful way. Both Othello and Iago were utterly unworthy of the parts they played, and spoke their lines with a woodenness that tells you they might as well be appearing in a Broadway musical made from a movie as one of the cornerstones of human creativity.

To leave would have been a shame, because it was the leading ladies who shone through in this production and forced Shakespeare's magic to take over when it's leading men stood thoroughly in The Bard's way. I do wish that there was a bit more of the shrinking violet in Diane Curley's thoroughly assertive portrayal of Desdemona, the sacrificial virgin element of Desdemona's character is unmistakable and part of her tragedy, and you could feel the actress recoiling against that element as though her inner monologue were saying "I'm not going to be just another 'Victim Desdemona.' And yet, it certainly worked, because the more assertive Desdemona is, the more 'justification' Othello has to meet her questioning with violence. Given the fact that her Othello was such a damp squib, it only served to help the energy of their scenes to see a Desdemona who would not take such treatment willingly.

But the true star was Emilia, Brianna Mamente, who made her final scene into a truly magnificent display of defiance. In such a production you begin to wonder how the women of Shakespearean society could be so subordinate when they're so much more charismatic, more intelligent, more interesting than their male peers.

The Flower Queen - Yellow Sign Theater - October 24th

There's an obvious conflict of interest here, because if my compositions are going have a 'star' in them for the foreseeable future, it's Ali Clendaniel. But the reason I've made her that is because if there are two better performers than she and her partner, Connor Kizer, I have yet to see or hear them.

This is Baltimore ultimate hipster power couple, and unlike the usual Baltimore hipsters who affect with such effort a pose that they don't give a fuck what you think in precisely that way that tells you they give many fucks indeed, these two are two of the only ones who convince me that they really don't. Most performers in local scenes exist in one dimension, they play it cool and flat, and put any of their minimal effort into appearing still more effortless than they really are. But these are two performers who throw themselves into all ten, spilling as much blood and guts and sweat into a minute of what they perform as many performers do in a decade.

The best evidence of the above is probably Connor's band, The Creepers. The name alone should tell you everything you need to know. To front a band in which every song is from the point of view of a stalker in 2016, when the hipster set is scared to laugh at his or her own shadow for fear of giving offense and being thought insufficiently committed to social justice (and therefore uninvited from certain parties), is the mark of an artist with brass balls. Even if you don't think its funny - and I really, really do, all the moreso because some people seem to get so worked up when the band is mentioned - anybody in the arts should admire the courage to court that kind of controversy. 

The first time I heard Ali Clendaniel sing in her two-woman band, Nudie Suits, I was thoroughly amused. They were just starting out, and the music wasn't all that interesting yet, and yet here was a singer who was literally throwing in every vocal effect but the kitchen sink, seemingly prepared to fake an orgasm onstage to keep the audience listening. The second time I heard them, I was stunned at how much better they'd gotten in such a short period. The third time I heard them, I honestly wondered I was listening to someone summon some kind of daemon from the shadow of the deep. Ruby Fulton, manning the electronics and ever the perfect supporter in a hundred Baltimore bands that make the principal artist better than they ever were, found a way to harness the viscralness of Ali's performances so that there were seemingly twenty of her singing at once. I instantly knew I'd found the only person who could sing King David for my Psalms settings. 

So now that I've thoroughly kissed up to them. I have a strong feeling that I was not supposed to understand the first thing about what their play, The Flower Queen, was about, and I didn't. I would and probably will watch either of them in just about anything, but just about anything was pretty much a description of what we watched. I could not tell you a single thing about what the play was about, and Ali was stuck with not much to do, but Conor chewed up the stage like he was on a three-day-bender, and that alone was hilarious enough to merit anyone seeing the play. But I have the sense they don't much care what others think of what they do, me least of all, and that kind of courage of conviction alone is reason enough to follow their careers with interest. How many artists have the courage to simply do what they think is meaningful or funny and take us along for the ride? It's not a long list. Even when the artists misfire, you have to be grateful to be along for the ride. 

Academy Chamber Ensemble - Shriver Hall - October 24th

OK. One classical review... No doubt, it's bad form to give a bad review to musicians from Academy of St. Martin in the Fields when their founder and guiding light, Sir Neville Marriner, just passed away after as rich a life in music as the world can bequeath, but here we are. 

Back in the day, Sir Neville, Snev, was a frequent guest conductor for the Baltimore Symphony, and when David Zinman left, rumor was afoot that the BSO courted him unsuccessfully. The truth is that Sir Neville was the perfect musician for the recording studio, where his natural good taste made for musicmaking that was always pretty and often bland. Never was there anything in Snev's musicmaking that could be construed as an ugly sound. A very fine musician Sir Neville certainly was, but culling through a thousand recordings to find ten revelations is a tall order to place for too little reward.

The main work was the Schubert Octet. A beautiful and exhausting piece of music - exhausting no doubt to play, and exhausting to listen to unless the performers exhaust themselves. One can't fault touring performers for husbanding their resources through an hour-long tour de force that they probably have to repeat ten times in as many days, but any performance of a Schubert work of 'heavenly length' (Schumann's term for Schubert's hour-long excursions through sonata form) that does not demand our attention will not receive it. It was thoroughly well-played, thoroughly pretty, thoroughly tasteful, and thoroughly bland. As I snuck into the front row, spotting a rare open seat next to my grandmother, Shriver Hall's venerable 96-year-old front row institution who never misses a concert, I glanced to my right and spotted Evan Drachman a few seats over - a relatively famous local cellist who is the grandson of Gregor Piatagorsky - and he was there with what appeared to be his teenage son. His son looked even more bored than I was, and his father kept having to silently tell his son to stay calm, because there were still 40, 30, 20 minutes left in the piece. 

Book Rec: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

What we're missing from the American experience today is Willa Cather. I don't mean precisely that we need to read the writer more often as a magic palliative for our ills, though we could do much worse - she should be better appreciated even than contemporaries like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner who are rated her betters; but what's currently missing from this country is the American experience which Willa Cather writes of in her books.

Everything in America is now known. There are no new adventures, no new sights, no new necessities, nothing to discover or uncover. For the first time ever, we are an old country, adrift in too many memories, too little discovery, too much wealth, too little commitment, too much preservation, not enough construction of the new.

My Antonia is perhaps a greater book, about the suffering and striving of Americans come to Nebraska, where the winter is as bitter as life, life is lived on the edge of death, and all that can keep a family, and a community, together is the common bonds of struggle. The suffering in Death Comes for the Archbishop is not quite so close at hand, it is about the experience of two foreign priests, come to the deserted Southwest to save souls, hear confessions, instruct catechisms, and loyalty to one another. A lesser writer would try to make something a bit more overtly homoerotic out of their friendship, just as has been made out of Willa Cather's life. But there is very little erotic at all in this book, if sex is mentioned at all, or even implied, it is in the context of the great suffering which some women undergo at the hands of husbands. The essence of this book, the essence of Cather, is not nearly so monomaniacal to reduce to anything bodily at all, it is pure compassion and Christian love.

Cather is hardly unaware of the mixed motives of people. One of the two priests is clearly vain and arrogant, the other clearly fanatical and temperamental. And yet, their flawed motives are what spur them to rise to occasions of greater humanity. The privations they undergo, the suffering to which they minister, the bonds which they create with their communities, are the bonds that build a country. They are characters whom, through motives as flawed as they are pure (not as large a contradiction as it may seem), created communities where communities did not before exist. Cather is often talked of as a novelist of nostalgia, a conservative who bemoans a lost America. As time marches forward, the America lost is far more essential than mere nostalgia. From the view in 2016, the lost America she bemoans is an America that had hope and vision for its future. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review Dump 1

The least important thing I'm going to do in this space...

October 1: The Marriage of Figaro - Washington National Opera

I thought it started at 8, not 7. It was a completely traditional, thoroughly adequate, thoroughly delightful evening in the company of my favorite opera that I'll travel around the world to see if I have enough money. Fin.

October 6: Simon Bolivar Symphony - Dudamel - Carnegie Hall
Dance Mix

The first time I heard the Simon Bolivar Symphony, they were a youth orchestra, and quite frankly, they were better. This is not the place to get into the relative merits of El Sistema vs. the dysfunction of Venezuela. I don't know what it is that's lacking, the size of the ensemble is still overwhelming, but there is a conspicuous lack of women in their new incarnation. Does the lack of women deplete the frission the orchestra used to have? Whatever it is, the orchestra that used to be a conglomeration of 200 attractive men and women that played with their entire bodies is gradually becoming just another orchestra of jobbing musicians in their thirties who are disproportionately male for whom a concert is just another concert. That first time I heard the Bolivarians live, it was a Rite of Spring for the ages, played by the kinds of youthful, energetic people for whom the Rite of Spring is created. Dudamel's conception was roughly the same, but the weight of the orchestra - in the dead space that is the Kennedy Center concert hall no less, was astonishing. You didn't just hear their sound, you felt it - everything from the basses up to the highest flutes and trumpets registered not only in the bodies of the players, but in the bodies of the audience. In their Rite of Spring which opened the Carnegie Hall season, there was only just a small fraction of that frission. 

Growing up among dance rhythms and the glorification of youth that is Latin American culture, the Bolivarians have a hotline to The Rite of Spring that many more refined orchestras lack. They do not, however, have a hotline into the upper class elegance and nostalgia necessary for a La Valse for the ages. It's something they will have to work towards over a period of decades. This was a fine performance, Dudamel, due to conduct the Vienna New Year's Concert for 2017, has a fine ear for the bends and byways of waltz rhythm, but it was still too mechanical - a generic Ravel piece rather than a macabre love letter to a culture killed by Big Bertha. It was followed by a hodgepodge of 'greatest hits' dance music from 'around the world' which contained few surprises. Hoedown... Trisch-Trasch Polka... Hungarian Dance #5... Ginasteria's Estancia... West Side Story Mambo. Excellently played of course as the Bolivarians always do dance music, but unbelievably awkward in the silence of how pieces which need no introduction were introduced one after the other with a spoken introduction in Dudamel's still quite halting English. 

I believe in Gustavo Dudamel - he has not only not forgotten his roots in Venezuela, he has refused the hyper-prestige appointments which orchestras have no doubt thrown at him behind the scenes with little regard for whether he's ready - staying loyal to the musicians who brought him to eminence in a manner that contemporaries of his like Yannick-Nezet Seguin and Andris Nelsons were all too willing to ditch for more glamorous and prestigious places. In twenty years, I'm positive that Dudamel will be a Maestro for the ages. But in the meantime, the Simon Bolivar Symphony has to undergo the same growing pains that every musical ensemble must after the thrill of youth leaves and one struggles to find one's mature voice. So long as their core stays together with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm, they will reach the promised land of musical greatness.

October 7: Simon Bolivar Symphony - Dudamel - Carnegie Hall

THIS was more like it. Somehow, eighty-five odd years after its composition, this was the Carnegie Hall Premiere of Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasillieras #2. There are all sorts of sleeping giants in the 20th century classical repertoire, with outputs large enough to equal Bach's, and probably similar in how it contains hundreds of treasures alongside hundreds of generic duds (my opinion of Bach's is not everybody's...) - Villa-Lobos, Martinu, Hindemith, Milhaud, Henze, Rautavaara, Penderecki - perhaps even known giants like Sibelius and Nielsen and Messiaen and Britten of whom the world still only skims the surface of their outputs. Even now, they lie in wait for performers and audiences to catch up to them and cull the wheat from the chafe - masterpiece after masterpiece seemingly content to collect dust until the world takes notice. 

If Dudamel puts the weight of his prestige behind Villa Lobos the way Beecham did for Delius, it will be a career well-spent (better than Beecham's... and I LIKE Delius). Alongside a few more light-weight Latin Dances, this was a revelation from a still unexplored continent of music finally brought to life in a new hemisphere. The orchestra slimmed down to (relative) chamber size, and an orchestra that sounded tired the day before came to life with the excitement of new discovery. The Bolivarians are learning how to do new things.

What followed was a Petrushka that was 10x as charismatic as the day before's Rite. Dudamel is no master yet - he still sometimes, as in the Russian Dance, relies on fast tempos to provide the excitement that phrasing and color should take care of - and speed for speed's sake is rarely as exciting as it seems. But within this Petrushka was character galore - the contrabassoon's famous belch elicited an entire concert hall's worth of laughter. Every solo seemed to have an original bend of the phrase. This is the way to make music. 

October 8: Met - Tristan und Isolde - Rattle/Stemme/Skelton/Pape

There are five conductors in my idiosyncratic personal pantheon for whom I will track down every performance of every vintage, and only one of them is living: Charles Munch, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Rafael Kubelik, Leonard Bernstein, and Simon Rattle. There is not a single performance in my experience from any of these five from which you can't learn something, and often something extraordinary. For other conductors, music is an autocracy. For these five, music is a democracy - seemingly no limits in the repertoire they choose, seemingly no limits in the new takes they'll find on old repertoire. Dictators like Szell and Dorati and Muti can thrill through their precision, philosopher kings like Furtwangler and Celibidache and Barenboim can engender awe through their loftiness. But these five do not rule, they are presidents, who proactively inspire their ensembles with inspiring ideas, and thereby inspire their orchestras to the same. In the cases of these five, the goal is neither to capture the spirit of the composer nor the recapturing a lost performance tradition nor the exploitation of music to make philosophic points. The goal is musicmaking that lives purely in the moment of its performance, a living document that is neither bound by the score or by previous performances. 

Of course, such a conception of music should be generally alien to the music of its preeminent philosopher-autocrat, not that it stopped, or should have stopped them, Kubelik particularly was a Wagnerian of distinction whose performances have been preserved quite well. But if any music lives in the moment or sinks by the hour, it is the music of Richard Wagner. Wagner has to live and breathe, every phrase newly minted and originally conceived, or he dies. It should come as no secret then why so many music lovers find his operas moribund. 

It is almost impossible to write about Wagner without aping his extreme length and bloat. One can't possibly do justice to the plethora of elements, particularly if one is not particularly passionate about Wagner. I personally find Wagner a great composer, a good dramatist, a bad poet and a horrible philosopher, and because Wagner's musical genius is hidebound by his ideas, his music dramas can be cripplingly dull indeed.

Tristan generally falls somewhere between the top to the middle of my interest in him - not as interesting to me as Die Meistersinger and parts of the Ring, but hundreds of times more interesting than Parsifal. Even so, there are moments in Tristan, whole quarter hours even, that are breathtaking and my life would be far poorer without. What a shame that the director, Marius Trelinsky I think, underlined them with the subtlety of a kid with a squirt gun. When Brangene interrupts Trisolde's love duet, and all that remains are two string lines intermingling in counterpoint with each other like the merging of two souls, Trelinsky closes the fucking curtain, as though we're too dumb to perceive the blissful oblivion for ourselves. When it's time for the Liebestod, Isolde is left on the stage alone with what one can only assume is a dead Tristan sitting on a bench after he's presumably bled to death from the wound (in this case a gunshot wound) given him by Melot. 

One could hear boos for the staging during the applause, complaints in the audience ("Go back to Stuttgart" I heard a neighbor say). In truth, the staging was neither shocking nor pseudo-shocking in the manner of so much European opera. It was simply unsatisfying in a manner that neither helped to elucidate Wagner's philosophical ideas nor improved them. 

Musically, what can one say? We were in the presence of Nina Stemme, the great Isolde of our era, Rene Pape, the great Bass of our era, and Simon Rattle, the great Maestro of our era (for me at least). If they can't provide a great Tristan, nobody can. It says a lot that Stuart Skelton, not a Tristan for the ages, did very little to embarrass himself. His voice was clearly extremely tired by Act III, but then again, Tristan is on the edge of death and madness, perhaps that's precisely what Wagner intended - his exhaustion only added depth to his scenes. Stemme was, of course, as close to perfect as the largest role in the soprano repertoire can allow. But if anything, her performance showed the limits of perfection. In this least perfect of all composers, perfection is the enemy. Wagner is nothing if not his own musical death cult - he demands that his lead singers give everything to him and risk their entire future career on every performance. A singer unwilling to do so may have a brighter future, but he or she is not a born Wagnerian. 

It was ultimately Rattle's show of course, and Rattle nearly accomplished the impossible - to make the entirety of Tristan truly sing with an unending melody. It was not the plush and rectilinear Met Wagner of Levine or Leinsdorf, thank god, nor was it a Tristan much like any other Wagner conductor. It was a human scaled Tristan, I found myself thinking again and again 'this is how Giulini would have conducted it.' Rattle once said in an interview that he thought of Tristan as Schubert on steroids, and what emerged was an intimate music drama of extremely human dimensions. In this most artful of composers, Rattle fashioned something that felt nearly artless. The effortlessness with which the central love duet spun out was a thing of wonder, for once, Tristan und Isolde did not seem like two philosophical nodes upon which grandiloquence is hung, but two human beings, very much in love. Rattle is the one living conductor who can achieve what is in my view the most impossible task in music: he can make Wagner seem human.

October 10: Philadelphia Orchestra - Mahler 6 - Rattle - Carnegie Hall

I thought I knew Mahler 6 before this concert. I know nothing. It isn't simply a tragic symphony that might summon the ghosts of history or break your heart or excite your nerves, it is an awesome and terrifying daemon conjured from the ether. That's the only thing I can take from this concert. It's a wondrous ghost from the ecstatic deep of tragic sublimity, like the last acts of King Lear and Macbeth, Satan's war speech to his demons, Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, Dante's and Francesca, The Whiteness of the Whale, The Penal Colony, Ecclesiastes and Job, the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the songs of Isaiah, Guernica, The Last Judgement, The Triumph of Death, Saturn Devouring His Son, the finale of Don Giovanni and the Bach Chaconne and the Toccata and Fugue and Death and the Maiden and the opening of Beethoven's 9th taken to apocalyptic proportions. I don't expect to ever hear Mahler like that ever again. I didn't know it was even possible, and I wonder if it's even worth ever listening to it again. This wasn't just how Bernstein or Tennstedt conducted it - magnificent as they are, this is how Furtwangler and Mengelberg might have conducted it if they ever did. Mahler 6 is much too intense to ever be a favorite piece of mine or anybody else's, but after a good but still a bit earthbound performance of the first movement, I sat in that audience for the rest of this performance with my hand over my mouth, barely able to take in enough air. This was music.

How it was done was another issue entirely. I wasn't even certain it was a great performance for the first half of it. Rattle played the first movement at a slow march tempo with very little rubato, telegraphing very little of what was to come. He then, contrary to my tastes, placed the Adagio second, and lulled us with beauty past beauty into a false sense of security. It was gorgeous, it was also a good 30% slower than one hears in more classically minded performances like Szell and Boulez. 

Then came the Scherzo, when not a phrase went by without a tempo change. The odd burlesque Mahler conjures is generally thought to be a parody of the opening movement, not so in Rattle's hands. In Rattle's hands, it is like a ghostly waltz-parody, not unlike the scherzo of the 7th symphony or La Valse, but far more ghostly. Rattle's 1989 recording gives you some idea of what he did, but he chanced still more tempo changes and bends in this performance. 

Then came, holy shit, that finale. It was not simply a tragic statement or a statement about war, much as it may be both, but thanks to such a strange scherzo, we were able to perceive still new levels of strangeness in this music, which Rattle bequeathed to us utterly unblunted, every moment seemingly played for maximum impact while dispensing of formal niceties. Perhaps tragedy plus strangeness equals horror, and what we got here was not simply a classically proportioned depiction of war as Semyon Bychkov seemed to view it last January when he directed the New York Philharmonic in this piece, but a terrifying apparition - truly perhaps what Lenny meant when he said that Mahler foresaw the twentieth century. I fear without wading far into the details of how Rattle interpreted and the players played in this or that measure, I cannot do justice to what they did. It will have to suffice to say again, this was MUSIC. 

October 15: Baltimore Symphony - V. Petrenko

Vassily Petrenko is as gifted as a conductor can get while still giving no indication of any sort of intellectual or emotional depth. In Shostakovich, he clearly knows how to get precisely the right sonorities and balances in loud and soft passages and everything between to make your hair stand straight up. In Beethoven piano concertos he knows exactly how to accompany in such a manner that deflects attention to his soloist and fits the soloist like a glove. 

But Shostakovich 10 is not just a Prokofiev-like rollercoaster. It is, like Mahler 6, one of the great tragic statements in music, and again like Mahler 6, all the more tragic for being so ironic and strange. When the playing is so magnificent, one might be thought ungrateful for uttering any 'but' in addition to awesome praise for an awesome performance... but...

I went back home afterward, I listened to Shostakovich 10 as rendered by Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Oistrakh, Sanderling, Gergiev, Nelsons, Ancerl, Mitropoulos, Jansons, Shipway, (yes, I'm weird, get over it), and particularly when one hears Oistrakh and Gergiev, you immediately perceive a songfulness, a tragedy, a loss, a humor, a depth, about which Petrenko might not have the foggiest idea. The noise was awesome, but a beginning listener could walk away from that performance without it occurring to them that Shostakovich 10 is about anything at all. 

The soloist, on the other hand, Inon Barnatan, is Beethovenian to the marrow. Everything a magnificent Beethoven pianist is supposed to be, Barnatan is. Effortless virtuosity and iridescent fire, leavened by every bit as much poetry and humanity, and an organizational mind to fuse it all together seamlessly. This was as great a performance of Beethoven 3 as the world can ever hear. I hope to hear this pianist many more times over the years. Petrenko was a perfect accompanist to him, a perfect conducting machine - a second Karajan or Mravinsky who could probably drill an orchestra to the level of the world's greatest, but it might be left to guest conductors to find the music which such precision makes possible.

October 22: Baltimore Symphony - Lintu

If I had to venture a guess, Marin Alsop will leave the BSO in 2021. Her contract is up, she'll be 65, and she'll try to use her seventies to chase one last chance for a prestige appointment. I have no doubt she's chomping to get her hands on the San Francisco Symphony when MTT leaves, or perhaps the BBC Symphony. Will she get them? Will she want to stay once she gets these poisoned chalices? Who knows, even if she ends up in St. Louis or Detroit or Cincinnati after Baltimore, it will be a career well spent. 

If the BSO manages to stay a full-time orchestra after Alsop leaves and only 500 listeners show up to any performance, the director will probably be Hannu Lintu, one of the army of tall blond Finns bombarding the orchestral scene at the current moment. Like the Hungarian maestri of yesteryear, these Finns all seem cut from the same cloth. Superbly analytical musical minds that respond incredibly well to new music, quite capable and musically sound in traditional rep, but a little bit arid and too given to virtuoso grandstanding like fast tempos and crisp precision. 

I yearn, I wilt, I pine, for Markus Stenz to be the next director. But it's amazing that a conductor both this advanced in his career and this genuinely great has agreed to come to Baltimore as a principal guest for three weeks a year, let alone ten or twelve. Stenz is not a perfect conductor, given to flights of virtuoso grandstanding in which he takes fast tempos, seemingly for the sole purpose of showing off his magnificent conducting technique that can hold an orchestra together at tempos that most conductors would find impossible to manage (in the 90s, David Zinman had the same problem). But while Stenz is occasionally given to the same virtuoso slickness as Petrenko or Lintu, he provides musical revelation after revelation whenever he doesn't. 

Hannu Lintu has the same virtuosity problem as Stenz, and gives into it rather more frequently. Lintu's been in Baltimore every year for the five I've lived in Baltimore as an adult, and he clearly finds it difficult to give into the better angels of his musical nature. The good news is that the better angels are most certainly there. And in these five performances, never have I heard them to better effect than this weekend. 

Rautavaara's magnificent Cantus Arcticus received its Baltimore premiere this weekend, because Baltimore is finally ready for music composed in 1972..., and it was bloody magnificent. I love Rautavaara's music deeply. No composer of his generation wrote more gorgeous sonorities and harmonies, and while there is occasional unmistakable drift into Enya-like new age banality, a composer who wrote so much music has to have some duds. There is magnificence everywhere in his output, and still more in this particular music. Even amid such magnificence, you could see the elderly crowd grinding their bridges into dust as the bird soundscape made its electronic appearance - you could see their thought bubbles: MUSIC ISN'T SUPPOSED TO HAVE BIRDS!

What makes Cantus Arcticus so magnificent is not just the beauty of the string and wind writing, which might seem a little saccharine if taken on its own, or the bird soundscape, which is merely a soundscape without the music. When one puts the two together, you get something between beauty and ridiculousness, precisely the strangeness where sublimity can reside. By the end you have no idea what to make of this... strange bird... (I'll show myself out...)

Another Beethoven Piano Concerto, the first, this time with Angela Hewitt as the soloist. Hewitt is a very fine pianist beginning to get up there in years, you hear an occasional smudge in the runs, but you'd hear that from many pianists half her age. Hewitt is a very probing musician, perhaps too probing at the expense of other qualities, but Lintu wasn't quite with her. In the middle slow movement, she came in with a very slow and flexible tempo and gorgeously soft dynamics, yet Lintu seemed completely unaware of the specialness of what was developing right next to him, and inevitably brought the orchestra in at a faster, metric tempo and louder dynamic. But when Hewitt got to break free, she turned the piece into something completely different - the incredibly long and taxing cadenza in the incredibly long and taxing opening movement was absolutely magnificent - Hewitt seemed ready to tackle an Alkan Transcendental Etude at the end of it. 

But within Lintu's gargantuan but lanky frame with its silver aging hipster faux-hawk and immaculately polished shoes is a real musical mind and heart, and it was on his sleeve during their performance of Dvorak 8. No musician in the world could probe more deeply than he made the BSO probe here. Whether it was cutting loose with the raucousness of Dvorak's Slavonic dance-party, or the breathtaking (and unmistakable in this performance) imitations of nature in the second movement, or the luminously beautiful panoply of melodies Dvorak invites us to share with him all through the score, Lintu gave us Dvorak as he should always be - bathed in the light of the air and the dirt of the earth, rubato everywhere, pianissimos so soft you had to strain to hear them from the front row (where I was sitting), uproarious noise when Dvorak is extraverted, stunning sensitivity when Dvorak is introverted. 

The eighth is my favorite Dvorak symphony - there is no straining for a grand symphonic statement, just an invitation to share in Dvorak's humanity and decency. Three seats to my right, there was an elderly man so slouched over that he looked a month away from the big concert in the sky. During that soft G-Major glimpse heaven towards the end of the finale, he began to cry as his wife consoled him. "It's so nice" he said to her. It was such a beautiful moment that I didn't begrudge him talking in such close proximity to the players, had they seen it, I doubt they would have either.   

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tales from the Old New Land - Tale 4: Just Steve (90%)

And having a playback memory, Carmen remembered something he said about copying down everything he said that sounded vaguely like a reference to Isaiah 8:1, and recorded every word of what he said for fear that he'd demand of her why she did not comply with the order he gave mid-binge/tirade to record these pearls of wisdom. In fact, she did it immediately after he let her go from the ledge. She kept a copy of it on her person every day of her life, in case the Producer ever returned and demanded to see it.

The Producer and Carmen slugged on after that night for another sixteen months. When Carmen finally became Steve's, she was more radiantly beautiful than ever before for two whole decades, and considering the dangers she'd passed, one could argue that she was still more beautiful inside than out. Nevertheless, her ribs had the consistency of crushed ice, her joints bent in manners no human being should, the simple act of arising from her bed was pain itself. Among those who'd experienced repetitive trauma, it is not uncommon to deal with the constant rebreaking of bones, degenerative disc disease and an eventual lumbar spinal fusion; bone spurs, torn ligaments, degenerative arthritis, staff infections from corrective surgeries. And that's only from the effects from before he started to hit her face.

This is mercifully not a book in which to discuss the particulars of tyrannical behavior which cause such internal horror. This narrator has neither the patience nor nothing like the fortitude to speak in any more than generalities about the abominations perpetrated upon Carmen and he beseeches your forgiveness for his need to speak any further of these depravities. But if this fictional rendering of a single Hollywood player getting off on the scent of blood has anything like the ring of veracity to you, then he asks you to at least consider how many thousands there may have been over the past century of powerful Hollywood men who've acted precisely like this.

This particular apparition of a Producer knew on the night of this "window dressing" (his charming term for what transpired that dawn) that his days as a respected Hollywood player could be counted with two digits. Don't mind us the circumstances of his ignominy, there were any number of risible cinematic bombs in the late 70's and early 80's which wiped out Hollywood producers, production companies, and whole studios:

There was At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's trivial homage to 30's movie-musicals, Cole Porter songs, and Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedies - because nothing oozes Golden Age Hollywood class quite like Burt Reynolds, who became a superstar a few years previously when Deliverance allowed us to watch him kill a Georgia hillbilly with a crossbow while the hillbilly sodomized a 300 pound Ned Beatty as Ned's ordered to squeal like a pig. There was The Exorcist II: The Heretic, a shameless money grab of a sequel starring a miserable looking Richard Burton during a period when he looked like he was taking parts in horrible movies just so he could pay his astronomical bar tab. There was The Swarm, a horror movie about killer bees that starred Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and Olivia de Havilland - because what everybody wanted to see in the late 70's was the biggest stars of 1945 in a horror movie with a plot too absurd for Roger Corman to film. There was I Spit On Your Grave - a film that couldn't even find distribution for two years because of its quarter-hour depictions (notice the plural) of gang rape. There was X-rated Caligula, a movie made through the combined talents of literary lion Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione - publisher of Penthouse Magazine, who simply wanted to record a literal rendering of the depraved events within the Roman Emperor Caligula's palace in Tacitus's Annals. Every imaginable degradation seemed to find its way into the script; raping a bride on her wedding day - and her groom, sex shows involving children and the deformed (if you don't believe me, watch it), gladiatorial public execution, and a confusing scene for which poor Helen Mirren has to use what is hopefully a prosthetic vaginal cavity to depict herself giving birth as part of a (literally) execrable performance within all these execrable performances. After seeing the original cut, Guccione decided that audiences weren't getting their money's worth, and insisted on inserting a forty-five minute bisexual orgy near the end which the Roman Senators and their wives are coerced into having.

There was, of course, Heaven's Gate, which lost 30 million dollars, ran to nearly four hours in original cut, deliberately killed a horse with explosives, was yanked from movie theaters after less than a week, and bankrupted United Artists - according to most experts the greatest of all movie studios - forever. Some swear it's a misunderstood masterpiece, this narrator doesn't want to find out... Of course, it has a ten minute rape scene...

There was Inchon, the B-Movie hagiography for America's Five-Star General in Asia, and for a moment in 1952 America's would-be dictator, Douglas MacArthur. Financed with no expense spared by a combination of the United States Military and world's most infamous cult leader, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, with MacArthur played by the world's greatest actor - the ailing Lord Lawrence Olivier - for a cool million bucks, and directed by Terrance Young, who made the first few James Bond movies. MacArthur's closest confidante was played by Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. Who'd have conceived that a movie of such disparate parts would come unglued?

There was Tarzan, the Ape Man - in which a mythical White Ape turns out to be a white man raised by apes and therefore must be brought back to civilisation in England where he can be taught proper discourse. Nevertheless, he retains the animal sexual magnetism of Africa, which overwhelms poor proper and prim Jane. Tarzan's character was found offensive by some in the 1910's when he first appeared, imagine the reception by 1981. Yet somehow, there've since been another six Tarzan movies.

And who can, or should, forget George Lucas's Howard the Duck? A PG live-action movie in which a loveable alien duck gets transported through a wormhole to our world. In the course of the movie, he gets dumped by a club bouncer into a hot tub where a couple is having sex, a human that turns out to be an alien who has a tongue seems to extend like an erection in the presence of Lea Thompson, Howard's duckbill attempts to bite the ass of a sixty-something black woman whose onion-like posterior he finds quite stimulating, he excitedly opens Playduck Magazine in which we see a photo of a duck with curves and hair and feathered white nipples (later in the movie we see duck boobies with pink human nipples), the Cleveland Police Department sexually assaults Howard the Duck, and actor Jeffrey Jones (himself now a convicted sex offender) walks in on Lea Thompson seducing Howard the Duck.

And, of course, Ishtar. The only of these risible and bank-busting movies directed by a woman, and the only one whose director never directed a movie again. Perhaps Ishtar was, truly, the last movie of the Old-New Hollywood - directed by Mike Nichols's old comic partner Elaine May, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty starring, Vittorio Storaro (Coppola and Bertolucci's cinematographer of choice) doing the photography, co-starring New Hollywood luminaries like Tess Harper (Tender Mercies) Charles Grodin (from an Orthodox family), Jack Weston (Weinstein), Carol Kane (Woody's first wife in Annie Hall and an Oscar nominee for a part in Hester Street that she acted in Yiddish), Aharon Ipale (Israeli), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman in A Serious Man), David Margulies (Hollywood's character actor of choice when you needed a Jew). Is it any wonder that a film bombed that had so many Jews involved whose scenario was in an Arab country?

Something rotted in that air of freedom which made the New Hollywood Golden Age possible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It was inevitable that the freedom which allowed for realistic depictions of ordinary people with their ugliness intact, with sex, and violence, and emotional turmoil unshielded by a production code, would curdle into freedom's betrayal by making its depictions into something sickeningly exploitative - sometimes freedom's very liberators betrayed it. In the case of Hollywood, what appeared to be a glorious liberation turned out to be merely another swing of the pendulum that landed on equilibrium for a moment before swinging into decadence. Today's Hollywood has a new production code, a code that allows for rivers of blood so long as the violence is confined to an unrealistic genre and its human consequences softpedaled, a code that allows for the naive innocence of children to continue unabated into adulthood with bro comedies about manchildren, a code which only allows romantic comedies in which love's ugly moments are airbrushed out of existence, a code dominated by action movies for which the stars are the special effects. Just as in the old production code, today's Hollywood movies can still be damn good, but in the opinion of this clearly not humble enough narrator, almost none of them show us ourselves. There are ways around the problem - movies like The Social Network and Her and WALL-E and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which only show us a complex image of the human spirit by showing us how technology may have completely reshaped it; or movies like Boyhood or the Before movies or (believe it or not) Borat, in all of which the experimental gimmick that makes them possible is so radically extreme that they can only be done once and never be copied. There are some very fine and human directors working in Hollywood's orbit if not actually 'in' Hollywood: there are at least two American treasures: Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, both of whom manage in every movie to say something new and elusive about America. Among the 'tribe', there's Jason Reitman, or at least was, who made three of the great American movies at the beginning of his career with Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up In The Air, all three of which manage to say something new and elusive about America, and there's John Sayles, whom nobody remembers anymore, but twenty years ago was the God of Independent American Film. There's Ang Lee, who isn't even American, but easily beats Americans at their own game. Errol Morris, the documentarian who makes movies so utterly different from everyone else's that you shouldn't even call them movies by the accepted definition.

Other than them, there are, as Woody once called them, the Academy of the Overrated: Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson (whom in all fairness seems to be improving), Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufmann, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh (who at least tries to be more ambitious), Sofia Coppola, Peter Jackson, Ken Burns (it takes a rare talent to make the subjects of his documentaries boring), David O Russell, the Wachowskis, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, James Cameron...

These are directors so enamored of movies that they jam pack their movies with references to other movies and forget to put references to life in them. Perhaps that statement is unfair, there are exceptions in every one of their outputs, but the exceptions are very few compared to the misfires. There is a kind of ersatz profundity to their movies - movies like The Matrix and Inception and Avatar and I Heart Huckabees (a movie I used to love) with philosophical messages that can fit inside a fortune cookie; a ponderousness which PT Anderson mistakes for profundity, an incomprehensibility which Charlie Kaufmann mistakes for intellectual challenge, a cynical darkness which David Fincher and the Coen Brothers mistake for gravity, an arrested development which Tim Burton and Wes Anderson mistaken for whimsy, a reliance on CGI which Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis and James Cameron mistake for visual artistry (it's the technicians who are the artists), a reliance on other movies which Tarantino and David Lynch mistake for ironic commentary. In each of these cases, the problem is that they're weighted down by the baggage of movie history. The movies before them were simply too good, so rather than try to compete with them catharsis for catharsis, they dodge the challenge and instead create homages to what older masters did better than they did, and many critics call these postmodern homages 'original' when the only thing that's original about them is their lack of emotional demand on the audience. These are movies about other movies, and therefore perhaps they're movies against movies. Most alarmingly, and prevalent to nearly all of them, are the movies that mistake technology for humanity. Even among the directors unaddicted to CGI, there are more breathtaking shots in today's American movies than ever before. If nature doesn't give you the background you want, if the lighting on some actress's face is not quite what you want, if her jawline is not quite the way you'd like it, you can digitally alter it to any specification you like; but to what end? Today's auteurs have utterly mastered the technical end of filmmaking, and perhaps because we've mastered technique, we've forgotten what the technique is for.  

Meanwhile, people who've devoted their whole lives to film tell us that the world is experiencing a cinematic Golden Age of which the United States is the only first world country who remains excluded. As with so many things about Contemporary America - soccer, news, public transit, languages, condoms, history, black humor, cheap health care, gun laws, and vegetables - we have in America have only the dimmest awareness of the feast that often seems to happen in every corner of the globe but ours because we're too busy playing with our toys.

Special effects are the new stars of Hollywood. The highest grossing movies are no longer character based movies like The Godfather or Bonnie and Clyde or Midnight Cowboy or Easy Rider or American Graffiti or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or MASH or Fiddler on the Roof or Patton. There were plenty of smaller, character driven films during these years that did well, but it was between 1975 and 1990 that technology become the undisputed box office king, and after that came the systematic gutting of movies that portrayed Americans in their natural state in anywhere but independent film and the Miramax ghetto. Just over the other side of 1975 lay the Star Wars Trilogy and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones and ET and Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit - and how human and full of personality do those early Spielberg and Lucas and Zemeckis movies seem next to the high-grossing movies of our time! Would it surprise anyone that Tom Cruise or Chris Hemsworth or Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson were actually computer programs or robots that only exist on a screen? There was even an Al Pacino movie about that exact notion fifteen years ago called Simone. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence is just an updated Simone, an indication that these computer avatars have improved to the point that seem so like us humans that perhaps humans are indistinguishable now from robots!

This New New Hollywood came into existence because the knowledge that movies like Caligula and I Spit On Your Grave and Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck gave us of what we were capable of was too terrible. The freedom to create greater and more uplifting spectacles can also give us things too vile and revolting for contemplation. All it took was less than a dozen movies in which the human animal was presented to us undeniably in all its stinking shit, and the movie world's been running away from its truth ever since.

Our dearly beloved Producer could have been working on any of these movies, it doesn't matter which, but by the same time the next year, The Producer hadn't worked on a movie for nine months; nine months during which his fists literally performed an abortion on Carmen. Perhaps it became his sole source of satisfaction and relief, because for six months, no glamorous friend returned a call, relieving him not only of his own glamor but the sycophants who glommed onto it. Friendship is fleeting, love mere folly, but how much more true would that be when living in a place known as the 'Dream Factory?' But five minutes after every time he went off, he begged her not to leave, just you wait, he'll make you happy again, Hollywood can be something better than its ever been, and you'll be its leading lady!

Then there was the time the Producer bruised her father up after her father asked about Carmen's bruises. Two minutes later, he gave her Dad a $10,000 wad of cash, then drove him to the emergency room personally in his 1977 Lamborghini Countach. The moment he got through the door, he took out more wads of cash for the doctor and nurses and the other patients - they saw nothing. And while they were in the ER, Carmen's sister practically kidnapped her to a courthouse to make her get a restraining order. Carmen was unwilling, worried she was about to get killed. If not by her producer, then by the guys he'd pay to keep her quiet. The judge listened very patiently and carefully and evinced great compassion for her suffering, he then excused himself to his chamber for five minutes, came back and refused the restraining order. Twelve minutes later, the Producer was at the courthouse, gave Carmen a huge hug and kiss as she sobbed her tears upon him, took her home and told her over and over again how much he loved her. Two days later, they were engaged, and she was the one who wanted to go to the courthouse right away; but he promised her a wedding the whole world would know about, the wedding she deserved.

Who could turn down the life he promised? This was a man who knew how to turn the curvature of the Earth to the precise angle he wanted. He was the best actor in Hollywood. For more than a decade, he dealt with creative geniuses every day of his life, but he was a genius of life itself. Every event, the most glamorous, the most spiritual, the most transcendent, the most intangible, could be picked apart and reduced to a transaction. Nothing in life was a mystery to him, and all he demanded in return was that she be no more complicated to understand than the concierge in Oviedo.

Even so, no matter how much of a genius he was, in order to have that wedding, he had to be back in the good graces of Hollywood, and in order to return to Hollywood's graces, he had to be in the graces of multinationals who bought Hollywood up.

It was just at this moment that our dear Producer, whose tastes in cuisine had always seemed tending to the upscale LA specialties of shellfish, steak, and sushi, seemed to develop a yen for rouladen, kasespatzle, saurbraten, kartoffelknodel, bretzels and wurst. Carmen had no idea why the Producer wanted them to go for German every night, and of course he wouldn't explain except to say that there was a different dish he wanted them to try. One night at Old World German Restaurant, the next at Van Nuys German Deli (a standup counter place for which he still insisted that Carmen wear heels), the next at Alpine Village, and the same every night for five or six weeks. Within a month, the Producer was a good twenty pounds heavier, but the moment Carmen's dress seemed a bit tighter, the Producer did what he could to make her not finish what he ordered for them. She would wrap the remains up and take home what remained in a doggie bag, then find them missing from the fridge the next morning.

About five to six weeks in, the Producer pointed to a table across the restaurant. "That's Karlheinz von Huntze, Executive Vice-President of Polygram Entertainment." Until the 60's, Polygram was a third-German, third-Dutch, third-British corporation responsible for no less than seven of the world's major classical music labels and another ten of the world's major Popular Music labels. A number of these labels were all too happy to collaborate with Hitler's culture ministers in times gone by, but Polygram controlled a vast swath of the great musical glories of the gramophone - glories set down before, during, and after the Second World War: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespe, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Oscar Petersen, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, untold numbers of Broadway Musicals, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Rolling Stones and Elvis during some of their best periods, Eric Clapton, Talking Heads, the Ramones, KISS, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, the Village People, the Bee Gees, ABBA, The Osmonds, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, and hundreds of other pop music acts; nearly every major mid-century orchestral conductor, untold numbers of great classical soloists and opera singers and chamber ensembles, the premiere recordings of every postwar work by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, untold numbers of moderately obscure and young and unproven composers whom no major label today would take a chance on, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra... In 1963, it was Polygram's by then long since subsidiary, the Dutch Phillips Electronics (founded by Karl Marx's uncle), that invented the tape cassette.

By 1980, Polygram was surely too big to fail, and yet... its catalogue was simply too large, and it had to either expand significantly to make up for its losses, or shed an enormous part of its product. Since there was very little in music of which they didn't own a significant portion, it was time to move into Movies. What better way to do that than Movie Musicals? Polygram had a 50% share in RSO Records, which gave them a huge profit in the Disco market because RSO Records had the music distribution rights to Grease and Saturday Night Fever. This was in addition to the money made from their contracts with the Bee Gees and the Village People and Donna Summer. Unfortunately, this was nowhere near enough to cover their bill. They needed a movie musical of their own.

Enter Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... THE MUSICAL! Yes, all the Beatles hits are here, sung as you've always wanted to hear them sung by Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin. With cameos from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire, Dr. John, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Valli, and a hundred other musicians - none of which sing their original music, and narrated by George fucking Burns (now there's a name that'll put the young bums in the seats...). God knows how many hundreds of millions Polygram had to pay to acquire the rights for them from EMI, but it was just another couple hundred million pulled down the drain of this spectacular musical black hole. Ever the artistes, John and George refused to even attend the premiere, no doubt they took the money though; while ever the workhorses, Paul and Ringo went to the premiere, then refused to have anything more to do with the movie, or with Polygram.

And there sits Karlheinz von Huntze, all sixty-seven years and 350 pounds of him squeezed into a fecally brown suit that probably fit him when he was fifty-five with a badly tied thin tie that didn't reach his naval, unashamed of his brown teeth and double chin that went past his neck, all of which bit with great begeisterung into the giant plate of braten and sauerkraut in front of him, yet vain enough about his hair to wear a spectacularly bad salt and pepper toupee whose base seemed to levitate an inch and a half over his boneless skull and continue six inches up. On his left hand, a wedding ring seems as though it might at any moment pop off his brat-like finger.

So this was it... The perfect movie musical star - a gorgeously unique looking petite girl with a large head, already well known and liked by everybody in Hollywood, packed to the gills with brains and lungs; no singing lessons necessary, no acting lessons necessary, minimal dancing, can play piano, knows every jazz standard in the Real Book. All it takes is one movie, then she has her choice - greatest living singer or greatest living actress? It's needless to say who's on her arm and advising her every decision.

And of course, she's brilliant when she talks to Huntze. Within ninety seconds, the Producer excuses himself to the bathroom and seems to stay in there for forty minutes. She speaks to him in the fluent German she picked up from her opera training, they compare the Schubert and Goethe they love best, they sing the Papageno and Pamina duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflote at the table (the restaurant bursts into applause, more for Carmen...). He orders four different deserts, and insists on splitting each of them with her and that she eat up her half to the every mouthful. He gives her a standing invitation to visit him and his wife in Hamburg so she can see the Kunsthalle and the Dichterhallen and walk through the taverns where the young Brahms played, and tells her that he'd love to hear her play piano before he leaves town. He writes down an address of a private residence of a freund at who's place he's staying.

Of course, very little piano was played. Someone already as thoroughly demoralized as Carmen has no illusions left of the necessities expected of her. If anything, she was thankful for Herr Huntze's patronizing kindness. The cutesy/schatzi German nicknames he gave her, the grandfatherly forcefeeding of Stroh and Obstwasser before geschlechtich verkehren and makronen afterward (which of course came to her mouth via his boneless hand). He told her she was a shoo-in, all she had to do was meet with a few more people at Polygram and they'd make a musical as a vehicle for her!

It is, of course, needless to tell you that something similar was expected at every new meeting with every member of the Polygram team: Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch, Danish... Old world gentlemen all of them, their courtly manners justifying their sense of entitlement to the world. A few of them were quite attractive - tall, silver-haired gentlemen with immaculately tailored three-piece suits surrounding dark paisley ties or ascots tucked into perfectly pressed shirts; sculpted hair and pencil-thin mustaches above the thin and constantly pursed lips that smoked long thin cigarettes; they wore scarves in the summer and walked with ornate canes - even the young ones seemed old. The bald ones generally had combovers with more mousse than hair, the fat ones always had watch chains on their vests. Never would she leave without an extremely expensive gift - a Channel perfume, a Swarovski Chocolate Box, a De Beer diamond ring, a dress from Christian Dior (and of course, the measurements were perfect). When meeting her at the door they would bend down and kiss her on the hand, or kiss her on each cheek, sometimes three times rather than two. Conversation was always quite pleasant, the meals were always the height of gourmet and gourmand, the wines they picked were amazing (at least when they weren't German...), and occasionally they even flew her to Germany. Karlheinz even got her to the Dichterhallen.

The Producer seemed strangely OK with all this. He never asked her where she was going, gave her free use of whatever car she wanted, and he seemed happier than he'd ever been in their relationship. He was on the phone 18 hours a day, his old friends were his friends again, and during that month when she was in meetings and gaining nearly thirty pounds from all the decadent dishes she'd eaten - which made outfits much tighter and her curves still more alluring - his life was back to a whirlwind of tennis, power lunches, movie pitches from him, and movie pitches to him.

Early in the evening of September 19th, Carmen returned to the house to find every light in the house on, the mirrors covered, the unshaven Producer wearing what looked like a white bathrobe and a fisherman's cap on his head, but all of the cap but the bill was covered by a blindingly white shawl with blue stripes over his head. Carmen knew that it was obviously a tallis, but it was much longer than any she'd ever seen before. He was standing in the corner of his living room, his back to the wall, bending his torso up and down at the speed of sound as he read from a black book while his lips moved with barely any sound at all at the speed of light. He didn't even seem to notice her, and as she walked in his line of vision, she saw that not only was he wearing his favorite tie, but the tie was cut in the middle, almost the entire way through.

Before she could even ask what was wrong, he looked at her and emphatically intoned:

"Vahyigah hadawvawr el meylekh nineveh mikis'aw va'yo'aw'ver ahdahrtaw meyawlawv."

And then he began to walk directly towards her, staring her deadly cold in the eye and taking a step a few inches forward with every seven words:

"For the word came unto the King of Nineveh and he arose from his throne and he laid his throne from him and covered him with sackcloth and sat in ashes and he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the King and his nobles saying let neither man nor beast nor herd nor flock taste any thing let them not feed nor drink water but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto Adonai yea let them turn every one from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands."

He then stared at his hand for a moment that seemed like fifteen, as unaware as she was about what he was about to do.

"You didn't get the part."

And then he dislodged her cornea.


This is the last we will ever say of the particulars of physical abuses perpetrated upon Carmen, and while he can make no promises, the narrator very much hopes that this is the last time he feels the need to elucidate any details of gendered violence in what will hopefully become a mega/meta-novel that takes decades to write for many, many hundreds of pages, if ever. We do, however, have to speak rather lengthily about the repercussions of what was perpetrated upon Carmen, but fortunately, the details of that will proceed organically from the story - with some digressions of course...

"Of course you can stay at my place. However long you need to. I hope you don't mind though, my housemate has a friend staying on our sofa but my room has a foldout couch."

Steve lets Carmen in, they walk into his room, she sees the 250 books on his shelves, she sees the violin case on the fold-out couch, she sees the projector screen covering the window and the projector at the far end of the room with a pile of classic movie canisters as tall as she is; the proverbial cat is out of the bag and she breaks down weeping. Steve holds Carmen to console her, but he has no idea what he's consoling, and while he asks, he's not about to push the matter.

When Carmen finally feels better, she walks over to the canisters, picks out Casablanca, and for two hours they lie down and decide that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world... It's a Monday night. On Tuesday, they watch The Best Years of Our Lives. On Wednesday, It's A Wonderful Life. Thursday, City Lights. Friday, It Happened One Night. Saturday,  The Philadelphia Story. Sunday, Steve finally shows her his favorite movie: Sunrise; meaning not that his favorite movie is somewhere between a pretentious statement about nature and a pickup line, but Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the 1927 masterpiece co-awarded the first ever Best Picture Oscar (even in the first year of the Oscars they could award it all to the best movie...) and a movie that should reduce every living being to a puddle of feelings by its end. It was directed by F.W. Murnau, a young German moviemaker recently immigrated to the United States, who might have proven greater than either Hitchcock or Welles had a car accident not claimed him four years later.

On this, Steve and I completely agree, Sunrise is more than a simply great film. To me it is, next to Citizen Kane, nothing less than the cornerstone of all movies ever made in this country. The dawn at the end of Sunrise is not simply a metaphor for the dawn of a reinvigorated rural marriage, it is a metaphor for the American dawn, for the dawn of movies themselves, for the dawn of witnessing art enacted for us by our fellow humans on a durable screen rather than in our imaginations from a flimsy piece of paper; for the dawn of a modern era when the hope of the New World emerges from the despair of the Old - for the passing of the torch from a world that once coveted Northern European ideals like civilization, education, and culture, to a world that coveted American ideals like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps these new ideals will prove equally unfulfillable to the old ones, but not yet at least, and while there's no doubt that it's hokey to say that the Sun rose on a new day with this movie, it's no less true for being hokey.

It's probably worth mentioning that some night after one of these movies, they have sex for the first time, and perhaps nearly as importantly, Steve has sex for the first time; this era was a few years before it became a given that 95% of students would lose their virginity by the end of college. I'd like to say that they first did it after they watched "It Happened One Night," but that is much too on the nose...

Steve, like most men, particularly most young men who've never had sex before, has no idea what might cause women discomfort, even if it might seem obvious to them in distant retrospect. It somehow never occurred to him that even a woman as intelligent as Carmen might dislike a movie in which a man who attempts to work up the nerve to drown his pure, Aryan-looking country wife (you can tell how innocent she is by her long blond hair wrapped in a tight bun) so he can take up full time with his knowing city tramp of a mistress with a nose slightly too large to not escape a semitic connotation, but if that's not enough to get the point, you can tell how 'knowing' she is from her black hair cut into a flapper haircut...), whom he also tries to kill when she suggests killing his wife to him - but both times, being the splendidly ethical man he is at heart, he manages to stop himself, and after his nearly killing the two women closest to him in twenty minutes, he resolves to redeem himself because of the purity of his wife's being and sufferance in his ignoring her, his wandering eye, and his bad mind for business that puts their country farm in danger.

After he stands over her, his hands lurched outward in the manner of exaggerated silent movie murderousness as he attempts to work up the murderous nerve to throw her overboard from a canoe on a lake, she waits for her coward of a husband to row back ashore so she can abscond to a bus heading to the city, and he runs after her, begging her not to be afraid of him. She can't escape the iron grip of a husband a foot taller and wider in frame, and as he holds onto her, they wander into a city church, and they watch and listen as a clearly Lutheran priest officiates an expensive city wedding and intones from a cue card "God is giving you in the holy bonds of matrimony, a trust. She is young... and inexperienced. Guide her and love her... ...keep and protect her from all harm. Wilt thou LOVE her?" At which point this wayward, murderous hulk of a man becomes a teary and dewy eyed portrait of remorse who collapses into the lap of his suffering wife like Jesus in a pieta consoled by the Virgin Mary. Because what clearly matters is the husband's suffering, not the wife's.

And if that's not enough to make the Carmens of this world cringe, there's then the moment in the beauty parlor, when the wife runs away in horror from a barber with the temerity to try to take her hair out of its virginal bun - her purity thankfully intact. Then there's the set piece with another 'knowing floozy' who tries to give the husband a manicure, suggestively pulling his hand out from underneath the barber's smock, only for him to swat away her ministrations to his wife's all-consuming relief. A moment later, when an upper-class man tries to get fresh with this innocent country wife and breaks off one of the flowers bought her by her husband to put into his lapel, the husband emerges from under the barber's smock, freshly shaved, and this so recently almost murderer draws a pocket knife, only to nip the flower off as the gentleman covers his neck with his hand, clearly certain that the husband was about to give him what the OJ Simpson defense team called the Colombian Necktie.

And yet, amid all this psychotic violence is the simple story of a married couple falling back in love with one another by experiencing a new facet of life - an innocent rural couple, firmly fastened to the prison of country life's slowness that's caused so much desperation and longing in modern literature, arriving in the bustle and activity of the city to find the life and action for which they ache, and arrive at that perverse balance between the innocence of children and the tragic knowledge of adulthood's sacrifices that is romance - that bond we all seek, the eternal spring of life's being, the fleeting moments we wish are forever, when life as must happen disappears and all that remains is life as we wish it to be. And yet in order for life to occur as we wish it to be, life must be disappointing enough to form our wishes.

And after bits with a drunk pig, impossible to explain, accidentally breaking the head off a statue during some horseplay, making out in what the emotion seems to transform a crowded thoroughfare into the Garden of Eden, and then drunkenly making out as flying angels form ring around them, shortly before which the husband wants to beat up yet another upper-class twit for suggesting that the couple do a country dance for a large city crowd - which they do to the city dweller's eruptive delight. They sail home by moonlight, 'a second honeymoon' the wife calls it with all the literalness of a pure country girl, her errant husband, who nearly drowned her on the same boat that morning, as in love as he probably was on their first honeymoon. She falls into blissful sleep upon his chest, and he gently places the lapel of his jacket over her face, in twelve hours, turning into good husband again who protects his wife.

But in these days before doppler radar, a frenzied storm erupts as suddenly as the moonlight seemed eternal but a moment ago. Even the city dwellers duck for cover. The calmness of the lake upon which they live turns into a roaring sea, as the pure and terrified country wife holds onto her husband for dear life, preventing him from doing the rowing necessary to save them.

The desperate husband wakes the whole town up and forms a search party on the lake. She survives by holding onto a bundle of bamboo picked and placed into the boat by his mistress - but not before he tries to kill his mistress yet again, this time, nearly succeeding, and we're half-rooting for him to be successful! But a figure who is probably the wife's mother tells him that she's been found and is alive. He comes back to her bedside and sits by it for the rest of the night, the entire town relieved and overjoyed that one of their own is not lost. The movie ends with the wife awakening, her long hair all the way down, bedecked in a white nightgown and white sheets, her roughly four-year-old son sleeping by her side, she awakens at the rising of the sun to her husband by her bedside, and they share a kiss that dissolves into rays of sunlight and the burst of the sun. Is it not the most beautiful image in all of cinema?

18 hours after this husband almost became a wife-murderer and a few minutes after he almost becomes a mistress murderer, his wife awakens, and they live on, if not happily ever after, then redeemed with a second chance at life - the seemingly redeemed husband seemingly proven utterly deserving of happiness and forgiveness, never mind that had he remained a good husband, the life of his wife would never have been in danger, let alone twice, let alone that the first of the two times, he was the direct cause of the danger, never mind that he was almost became a murderer yet again just a moment before his reunion with his wife.

Sunrise is exactly as melodramatic a movie as it sounds like, with those utterly unbelievable silent movie gestures and a dramaturgy that wouldn't be believable in a Christmas pageant. And yet it should matter not a whit. Its melodrama is just a symptom of the metaphysical drama taking place onscreen. The metaphorical stakes are nothing less than a human soul, the husband's soul. What yetzer will the soul embrace? Will evil be rewarded and virtue punished? Is a redeemed soul that once strayed deserving of any reward?  As melodramatic as Sunrise is, these are not questions easy to answer, and as any Hollywood movie must, Sunrise tries to answer them definitively, and yet it cannot. How many days before the husband erupts again in a violent rage? How many days before he tires of the farm and eye wanders again to another city girl who's probably named Rachel.

Sunrise speaks to us from another world where cynicism has yet to be invented. Men are men, strapping, quick to anger, quick to lust, quick to violence, yet able to be soothed by the purity of love, for which it is a woman's holy duty - a duty she can either assume, thereby becoming like an intercessing goddess, or reject, thereby becoming a whore. It is very easy to be cynical about such movies, and yet one's critical faculties feel an overwhelming urge to melt in the presence of such sincerity. Just as in the music of Bach or the painting of Rafael; Murnau arrived on world history at a very specific moment when his chosen artform was on an indivertible course to conquer the world with its power. 1927 was the final full year of film's Silent Era, and the very moment when visual storytelling blossomed in a manner never seen before and perhaps never since. In this final twilight of Silent Film, everything about the visual components of movies become as fluid and poetic as ballet - sets, lighting, costumes, exposures, even overacting: Sunrise, Metropolis, Faust, Flesh and the Devil, Mare Nostrum, The Son of the Sheik, Sparrows, The Temptress, What Price Glory?, The Winning of Barbara Worth, It, The Italian Straw Hat, London After Midnight, The General, Pandora's Box, The Crowd, The Wind, Underworld, The Unknown, Steamboat Bill Jr., An Andalusian Dog, Lonesome, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Queen Kelly, Sadie Thompson, Show People, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Lodger, Man With a Movie Camera, The Last Command, The Docks of New York, The Circus, 7th Heaven. Just as it was forty-five years later, there was something magic in the cellophane - but the magic dissipated far more quickly. The Golden Age our parents may currently reminisce upon took sixteen years between Bonnie and Clyde on one side and The Right Stuff on the other. The Golden Age which their grandparents remembered began around 1926 and was all over by 1929, but for those threeish years, all a director seemingly had to do was be competent at his job, and he'd create something eternal.

There were flashier directors after Murnau who had much more trenchant insights into human nature, but insight into humans would dilute everything which makes Murnau so special. Just as with Bach, I doubt there is a single artist in his medium who can make you believe again in everything about life about which you've abandoned all hope. If you're close to suicide, watch Sunrise. You may have thought yourself a cynic, but all bad feeling melts in the presence of its beauty - it is the beauty of dawn, of hope, of the idea that not a single person in the entire world is beyond redemption or undeserving of it. It tells the sinner within us all that no matter how badly we oppress others, we are not beyond mercy. It is the kind of hope that those of us privileged enough to feel will use as resolve to take our instinct toward sin and use it for virtue while having to question no longer what is virtuous: to move mountains, to overthrow governments, to build societies, to make a girl who was nearly a movie star into the love of your life.

And all this is precisely everything that Carmen least wanted to hear or see at this moment. Carmen was probably much too close to her agonies to experience anything like a trigger for reliving them, but the idea that a man who is so clearly evil can achieve redemption so quickly was everything that contradicted the last eighteen months of her life. When a man has murder in his heart, there is no redemption for him, and even if there is perhaps an infinitesimal possibility of redemption, it's certainly not something the man discovers over the course of a single fucking day.

Steve did not see her rolling her eyes and grinding her teeth and tensing up her hands in the darkness of his room. He often looked over at her to gauge her reaction, but never caught her at any particularly expressive moment. As we men do 95% of the time, he saw what we wished to see in this particular woman, and if men much more experienced and confident around women than young Steve have no idea what women are thinking, then how was Steve to know? And therefore it came as quite a shock to him when Carmen let out an enormous guffaw toward the end when this prodigally murderous husband kneels in a state of grace at the bedside of his utterly saintly, unblemishable, wife.

The second after Carmen let out her roaring cackle, she apologized profusely, as anyone in a new relationship would after guffawing at a potential significant other's favorite movie. When Steve immediately turned the movie off and light on, she went somewhat limp, as though the dread coursing through her heart dissociating herself from the room before she had to experience the inevitable melodrama that would ensue. But, to her astonishment, Steve was extremely interested in knowing what she thought.

But for one of the first times in her life, the inkwell of her verbal acuity had dried, and she was at a loss to explain precisely what she found so offensive about the movie.

Why did she weep when she saw his books? Because for the last few weeks, she'd found herself unable to recall what she'd read. Books were, to her, something to access with instant neurological availability. One glance at a piece of paper, and it was committed by heart for life. Whole tractates of the King James Bible, whole acts by Shakespeare, whole chapters of the Quixote and whole stories by Kafka she could recite in the original Castillian Spanish and Prague German with the exact pronunciation of its location and period, whole piano concertos by Mozart - both the solo piano part and the orchestral score, whole albums of Edith Piaf and whole operas by Verdi which she was able to sing and play on the piano as though it were second nature, not only able to sing any jazz standard or song by Dylan or The Beach Boys or trash song by Herman's Hermits or Tiny Tim, but able to improvise half-hour piano solos around them with countermelodies and modulations and thematic interpolations of a dozen other songs by the same artist and a dozen more by the artists they influenced and the artists who influenced them. Any one of which she could summon to mind and memory as though by animal instinct, as naturally as the rest of us take a breath or eat a meal after a day's fasting; any one of which were available to call to mind for an audition.

Her parents had no idea where she came from. They were rural immigrants like any rural immigrants, perhaps a bit better at what they did than most, and perhaps assimilated a bit more easily into American life than some did. Music was not something they made themselves, but at they were aware of music and loved it, and surely all four their own parents were musical - folk musicians to whom a career in music, or any career at all, was an utterly alien concept. When they weren't fishing or farming or selling their goods, they played the quena and the bandolina and banduryia and the bukhot; national instruments of the Philippines and Colombia, where their days were spent as farmers and fishermen, and nights around campfires and oil lamps with Tinkling and Muisca dancing - a life that could just as easily take place in either 1600 AD or BC as in 1940. You got up in the morning, you served your particular God, you did your best to avoid other spirits, and you went to sleep until one unsuspecting night when sleep claimed you.  Legendary family stories developed around particular members of the family, but you didn't know if these family members died a few years before you were born, or a few hundred years; maybe even a few thousand. Perhaps variations on these particular stories were common to every family, every town, every region of the world, and perhaps all these folk tunes are just as similar from place to place. But because these stories and this music have no historical record, they seem infinitely more authentic - coming to us from that ether generated by the long darkness of pre-history, when the world was only explicable through magic. Life itself was magic, any day when a person was shielded from death was its own miracle that required a supernatural explanation. Every respite from death was a beautiful gift, every object of order that endowed life with ever so slightly more convenience was wrested from the chaos of nature, and therefore an object of indescribable beauty that could not be conceived had it not already existed. For a moment in these people's lives of whom we have no record, these artful objects did not imitate nature as so much humdrum art does, but rewrites nature's very laws, and therefore every folk tune was beautiful and perfect, every folk tale was beautiful and perfect, every pot and plate was beautiful and perfect, every meal was beautiful and perfect, all of them gifts handed down from above and below by forces well beyond their understanding, because they were all wrested from a nature that would never guarantee a life with the presence of any of them, and the presence of any of these gifts from the spiritual realm was a gift to be savored until the spiritual realm claimed them back. A pot, a plate, an instrument, could so easily break. A musician or a storyteller could die. The fish could disappear from the water, the crops not grow, the animals disappear from the forest. And where there was light, darkness would descend upon the face of the deep.

Miracles were not supposed to happen in America, and yet, here was the miracle that was Carmen Chavez - with all the advances in technique, here was a person who overcame technique and played with it as a baby does with a rattle. Perhaps she's a second Mozart, perhaps she's even a Shakespeare of performance - someone for whom a career as arm candy in a Burt Reynolds movie would be utterly wasted. She should be playing and singing Poulenc and Schubert at Carnegie Hall, she should be playing and singing Cleopatra and Sally Bowles on the West End.

Her parents, both of them, stopped going to church when they came to this country, but when Carmen sang lullabyes back to her mother when she was six months old, when she was speaking entire sentences at nine months in Spanish, English, and Tagalog, reading in all three languages by a little after her second birthday, and reading adult books by four years old. It was shortly after her fourth birthday that her parents had confirmation that something extraordinary was happening to their daughter - perhaps a literal confirmation. They flew back for a cousin's confirmation in Bagota when she was four, and during the celebration in the downstairs church rec room, somebody had broken into the organ loft and made the whole church resound with the note perfect melody of Alma Redemptoris Mater. After the melody was complete, it was played a second time with harmonies, and the harmonies were completely different than the usual organist, perhaps simpler but they worked just as well, perhaps better. But this was no teenage amateur breaking in - both the door and the organ were simply unlocked, and little Carmen, four years old but barely looking three, sitting down on a bench upon which her legs were barely long enough to reach the end of, let alone reach the pedals, and played on a keyboard all by herself. The organist was eating bandeja paisa and drinking aguardiente just as everybody else was, so he stormed up to the organ loft with his ever-ready switch, expecting to find some teenager with a year of piano lessons who broke in and possibly damaged the door. But the moment he saw this girl barely larger than an infant play Alma Redemptoris Mater, he dared not make his presence known until she was done. When she was, he picked her up, he kissed her on the forehead and told her she was a miracle from Heaven. He carried her downstairs to tell her parents, they wept as they knelt down in front of a statue of the Virgin. It was a miracle such as those of which their own parents always spoke. For twenty years, they never missed a Sunday, and every spare dollar not devoted to good works was devoted to music lessons for an extraordinary child who came from nowhere.

The only way she could have known about these keys was on those few times her father took her to see Uncle Ray (who couldn't see her of course), and Uncle Ray would play some songs on the piano for her while Carmen's father fixed some wiring in the lights (why Ray Charles needed lights nobody knew...) and Carmen watched the keys which Uncle Ray could not see as he played. As Carmen progressed, Uncle Ray was all too happy to give an occasional lesson in jazz whenever he was in town, and after the lesson was over, Carmen would be sent to play with a friend down the street with a couple dollars for candy while Uncle Ray gave Carmen's mother a lesson too.

When Carmen's Ina told Uncle Ray heard about what happened, he sat her at the piano, and instead of playing Alma Redemptoris Mater, she harmonized a note perfect and slightly out of tempo What Would I Do Without You and sang the whole song, a few words were mispronounced as a four-year-old would without thinking of what she can't understand: "I get all closer to me," instead of "Aw, get all closer to me." Even a brilliant four-year-old plays like a brilliant four-year-old, but a four year old like this could astonish the world.

This narrator has little to no interest in the details of how she appeared on Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark's American Bandstand when she was seven. He has only a little interest in the details of the private piano teacher from Hungary, Mr. Nordau (Doctor Nordau), contracted directly from Universal Studios by Uncle Ray, who paid every cent of those lessons for twelve years, the methods and personal manner of Dr. Nordau turned her into an obedient girl savant until her fingertips bled. He would balance a coin upon her hands to teach her finger positioning, and when the coin fell off he would strike the hand with a ruler. By nine she'd already graduated from Beethoven Sonatas to Liszt Transcendental Etudes, so the red letter day was not when she mastered a new piece, it was when she graduated from a dime on her hand to a penny, from a penny to a nickel, from a nickel to a quarter. He also has little to no interest in the details of in the details of the other upper-middle-class immigrant teachers from Germany and Austria and Poland and Romania and Czechoslovakia and Italy and the Ukraine who taught her in the high school for science she insisted upon going to rather than a school for the performing arts, or who coached her in the various extracurriculars for which her abilities and work ethic could only be described, once again, as prodigious: drawing, dancing, German, French, Italian, English, creative writing, calculus, chemistry, biology, physics, philosophy, theology, history, current events... Still greater than her ability to assimilate information was how each teacher took it upon themselves, as though they were the only one to do so, to try to mentor Carmen and steer her in the direction of their field, as though netting such a prize achiever into their field would be the achievement that justified decades of surrendering some prestigious post-Hochshule career to put up with every worthless and verzogenes Gor und wildes Tier in the security of Southern California.

How did she imbibe so much information so quickly? Well, if one can reduce such ability to a practical application rather than divinely-mandated ability, her technique was to simply sing her facts. From the moment at five years old that she realized "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" could be sung to the famous tune from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik if you put an extra 'please' on that ending D, she realized that she could find the right piece of music to assimilate any degree of information she wished. But as I'm sure you've guessed by now, what unfortunately matters in Carmen's story is not the ascent, but the descent.

So you'll unfortunately have to permit me to fast forward to five years later, sometime around 1984, when it came time to name their first daughter. Steve and Carmen already had two 'failed' pregnancies to their confution before Cleo came into the world, miscarried because of what the doctor so tactfully referred to as an 'incompetent uterus.' Due to a division in the uterine septum, the children could not derive nourishment from their mother. They therefore passed all too quickly into lavatorial oblivion. I don't remember whether it was the second or the third time that Carmen sprained her pelvis during which Steve asked an OBGYN to take a look and see if the uterine canal could be repaired during the same time that the orthopedist tried to mend the pelvic damage.

Surely enough, six months after the surgery, Carmen had a green light to get pregnant again, and nine months later, they commemorated that joyous day by naming their first daughter Clarissa, in part after Virginia Woolf's most famous creation, but in part to commemorate the day when they first got together and Steve helped Carmen to understand what became their favorite book: Mrs. Dalloway, but mostly because Steve's mother insisted that the daughter be named after her own recently departed mother, Clara, who came to Los Angeles from Berlin in 1936 with a four-year-old daughter hidden in a large suitcase with some holes punched out for air while a husband and two pubescent boys were stranded in Germany.

It was all pretty hard until 1992. Carmen's capacity as a pianist became more and more reduced. By 1987, she could not play for more than an hour at a time without straining a muscle in her hand. By 1992, the strain became a sprain. By 1998, it was a half-hour before she'd break a finger. By 2001, it was the length of a Chopin Waltz played at pianissimo, and then she had to close the piano for the rest of the day. By 2004, she'd forgotten that she couldn't play; she would sight read whatever music was on the piano stand, and would negotiate around the two or three digits she'd already broken in the days and weeks preceding with a howling scream cutting off whatever once beloved Schumann character piece or Schubert Impromptu or Debussy Prelude caught her attention from the piano stand (their younger daughter made sure to put different music on the piano every day so there wouldn't be the same piece resounding around the house forever).

Through it all, Carmen still had her gorgeous voice, which thirty-five years of cigarettes could not wreck, even if it moved her voice down a half-dozen fachs. Unfortunately, she realized that any kind of performance, any at all, might put her straight into the public's black eye because of her time with The Producer. Who knows to what she could yet again subject herself, or to what she could subject her family? To remind people that another paramour of this producer still stalked the streets of LA like a ghost could reopen all manner of old trauma, put the life of everyone she cared about at risk from people The Producer might pay to silence her before she talks, and might make a scandal of her life and her childrens' to the press. She and Steve both agreed that she had to stay away from the stage until The Producer was dead, not even so much as a dinner theater. The Producer was still around Hollywood, one of the many ghosts of Hollywood infamy, a low-level, stipended producer allowed to walk around the studio lots, absorbing the sun like a vegetable as he 'supervised' B-movie releases, which the New New Hollywood let him refer to as his 'comeback.' The comeback necessitated many tabloid magazine and TV stories which would plaster his many sins and conquests and legends ten years after his trivial comeback seemed like any comeback at all. Once every two months there was another scoop chasing journalist calling Carmen, not talk about her story, but about the story of the woman Carmen was left for - Tamera Wittenberg. No comment of course.

Nobody could figure out of Tamera Wittenberg was European Royalty or white trash from Kansas, but she was tall, twig-like, leggy and blond in precisely that way which the charitable call statuesque and the uncharitable call a bimbo, but the 80's called perfect beauty. It's true, she didn't seem like a great brain, but she was as quiet as a mouse and submissive as a dog with its belly up. She was never anything but polite to Carmen.

Carmen however, had nowhere else to go, and was, in fact, living in a room down the hall from the Producer for the first five months that Tammy and The Producer were involved. Carmen had no job, and even after The Producer took up with Tammy, she was understandably worried that The Producer would go ballistic if she showed any initiative outside his house, so for five months, she simply stayed in the house, she read, she went to school, she went back to her room, where the maid would leave a meal for her at her doorstep.

This continued for five months, she would speak to The Producer when spoken to, and occasionally he would visit with her in her room - where discourse was at least a bit more civil than it used to be, and congress a bit more gentle. But one day, Carmen heard the same shouts and shattering of glass and turning over furniture and whimpering tears that she knew so well from time past emanating from the bedroom that once was hers. It was eight-thirty in the morning; she immediately walked out the room without a single possession. She walked from The Producer's Beverly Hills house to which she belonged for eighteen months to the USC campus to meet with Steve three hours later, and life resumed as well as it could.

Carmen wanted to teach voice, but unfortunately, there is never enough market for a voice teacher and far too much market for piano teachers. One would think that parents would go mad with the desire to teach their children most basic musical skill in the world, but singing is so basic that there is no mark of respectability to it. The piano, rather, is the ultimate mark of respectability. If one can carry a tune, one can sing. But to play a piano well is no less an achievement than building your own house or creating beautiful woodwork and clay pots. In Europe, America, or Asia, child who plays piano well is the ultimate mark of a family that wrested order from the existential chaos of living in a lower social class.

Back in the 80's, there was a full roster of piano students whom she taught while Steve watched the kids, but Carmen knew that there were many better piano teachers in the area, so she kept her prices much lower and hoped that volume would cover the expenses which her billing would certainly not. As so many music teachers are, she was in no way cut for a job of managing children; managing their anxious mothers who want to believe their child another Horowitz, managing their bored fathers - more interested in picking her up than his children. Even among her few intermediate-level students, she knew she could never impart any valuable musical ideas to indifferent children whose parents assured them that they would understand why they needed to play piano when they were older. She was becoming like so many of her teachers who wanted better for her, and she did not understand why this new generation of students were so much less obedient than she once was. Her frustration with her charges was continually palpable to them, and most of the kids who'd been with her longest would dread their lessons in a way that ensured any inclination toward practicing killed in its inception. A few times a year, another student would break down in tears mid-lesson, and a call would follow a few days later from the mother: "Jessica has too much on her plate."

All through this life-era, Steve lost as much money as he made. Even with health insurance, the surgeries Carmen needed ever more direly were a fortune each to each - and the more surgeries she needed, the higher her premiums went, until she was just plain uninsurable and their family policy was cancelled. Steve and the children had to each get an individual plan, but Carmen was on her own, corrective surgery after orthopedic surgery after cardiothoracic surgery, and eventually even neurological surgery.

Furthermore, matter how long since she left The Producer for him, Steve feared that Carmen was accustomed to a luxury he couldn't possibly provide, and couldn't possibly admit he couldn't provide. If she hadn't bought a new dress or jewel in a month, Steve would buy her one (to the very end, Carmen was immaculately dressed). But not even Carmen's needs and wants, or the thought of a baby Steve thought Carmen couldn't possibly carry to term, were enough to keep Steve an accountant. When Steve told his mother he was about to go into business with a friend to operate a video store, her screams woke baby Clarissa up.

Steve's father was more supportive and said to give it, and their son, a chance to do what he wants, but his mother was right. Even in 1980's Los Angeles, there wasn't enough demand for a local independent to carve out a share of the market from Blockbuster Video. Had they closed in 1986, Steve would still have possession over the money from his accounting days to pay off their loan. But Steve and his friend kept borrowing to keep it going until early '88, by which time the bank came to repo everything in his house while his four year old daughter absorbed her first vivid memories and his wife tried to calm their screaming six-month-old second daughter: Elizabeth. The furniture, the silverware, the fridge, the beds, the piano, the violin, the books - all 900 of them, the 3700 VHS tapes, even the film cannisters and the projector equipment from college. We were lucky they didn't take the house. For the next five years, Carmen had to teach piano from a four-and-a-half octave Yamaha keyboard which her stepfather bought for her.

Steve did the only thing a real man can do in that situation, he went to his parents for a loan. His mother gave him a big hug, and of course she told him that of course they would, but he knew the condition.

So Steve went back to managing managing books and accounts at the very same bank that repossessed everything he owned. At least they knew him... But when he applied for a job interview, the very last place where thought he'd get an interview, the place he applied to as a private joke, was the first to call him back. Nobody seemed to remember that they took his entire life away from him just a month ago. Perhaps they did, but they were too polite to mention it, or perhaps they were trying to make it up to him; or perhaps he was too generic to remember, or perhaps he was just another anonymously bad investment vehicle among thousands. Nobody checks your credit score when you're applying to be the man who checks the credit score. All they knew was that he had shining recommendations from the last bank at which he worked, high academic honors from the Marshall School of Business, and a mother who threatened to take her account elsewhere.

Steve stuck with his mother's agreement in good faith for three years. Again and again, he offered to repay the loan, but his parents wouldn't hear of it. Every day was miserable, this was the price he paid for doing nothing but watch movies and change diapers for three years, but Steve had a life again. He was making $35,000 a year, but after taxes it was all pocketable money thanks to his parents (his mother's) loan and their agreement to pay for any further surgeries Carmen needs. His beautiful wife learned to spend on a budget surprisingly well, his daughters were brilliant and the older one already showed some flashes of her mother's former brilliance.

In 1991, Steve returned to his mother with a check for the entirety of the loan. He didn't pay for the surgeries  "I'm going into business again and I've quit my job."

"Please tell me..."
"No it's not in video."

It wasn't even movie related. Of course his mother refused to accept the check, and she was actually slightly enthused when she heard his plan, though not as enthused as she might have been. It's LA, people need protection from crime, and he was going to become his friend's junior partner and manage the distribution of car alarms.

It wasn't a bad idea. His parents had been burgled twice in the last five years. Sure, Fairfax was not the neighborhood it once was, but you never used to expect anything like that kind of crime can happen to you. Why can't Steve go into home alarm?

The date Steve stood up to his mother was March 2nd, 1991. The next day, Rodney King would get the pulp beaten from him at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street. Business was slow for fourteen months thereafter. Steve was drawing a salary, but while home alarm was something every white person thought he needed, too few people seemed to think they need a car alarm.

But on April 29th, 1992, Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez were pulled from their cars and beaten on camera as a racial maelstrom deluged its way through the City of Angels, and car alarms become something everyone thought they needed, not because their cars might be stolen, but because a car alarm can surely be what saves you when a pack of marauders attack you while still in a car you can lock, and all you have to defend yourself is a vehicle made of steel that can go up to 200 miles-per-hour.

By June, Steve, who'd never made a salary higher than $40,000, was pulling in $50,000 a month, and would continue to do so for the duration of the 90's - roughly $90,000 a month in the currency of a quarter-century later.

It was also in 1992 that Steve's father passed away quite suddenly; an apparent heart attack while behind the wheel of his SUV, but Steve's mother didn't want an autopsy to confirm it. No sooner than her husband passed did Steve's mother want to be all the more in the lives of her only child and granddaughters. But no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for loans, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for advice, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for support. In the 80's, when Steve and Carmen went out on the weekends, they would drop the kids off with Steve's parents, and his mother would keep a close eye on the kids, but in the 90's, they could hire a stunningly cheap Spanish-speaking nanny. In the 80's, when Carmen needed surgery and neither Steve nor either of her parents or step-parents could pay for it, Steve's mother would sign checks with no questions, except for many private words with her son about how disappointed she was that he married such a high-maintenance woman. But in the 90's, Steve made more money in a year than his parents made in ten. In the 80s, Steve's mother would call four days a week, full of advice and opinions, and her son would listen to them all patiently and with seeming cheer. In the 90's, Steve was sometimes too busy to even take his Mom's call once a week.

Steve's mother - whom we'll call Denarius, not because that was her name but because that was the only thing anybody ever called her which she liked - didn't exactly hold her tongue about her opinions of her son's ingratitude, but she at least held it by her own standards. Even if she complained constantly to relatives whom she knew Steve never had any time for, she never complained about Steve's newfound independence to Steve himself. Perhaps Steve was right to be uninterested in his extended family, they never really forgave Denarius for marrying outside the faith, but her relatives all lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but how many semites were there in Pismo Beach?

Steve's grandmother Clara, his Oma, wanted a future for a daughter with no father, no brothers, no money, no English. These supercilious ersatz Yekke relatives were born in Frankfurt and came to America as children more than fifty years ago. They made millions in schmatteh factories in which worked lots of Jews who had the bad foresight to came over only later when there were more of us, when business was already tougher, and when Jewish immigrants didn't have much money to bring with them.

Aside from the suits and dresses they wore on all occasions, no matter how warm the weather, these relatives might as well have been from another planet - Russia even... Jewel-encrusted rings on half their fingers, necklaces for every day of the week, cars for both the husband and the wife which chauffeurs usually drove, a dinner fit for Shabbos every night. And yet, it was the Great Depression, so apparently they had very little money they could lend a supposedly cherished relative with a kleines Madchen. Sympathy, sympathy, sympathie for their plight, a job in the factory, but not even enough additional money to pay the rent, and not a cent offered to her try to bribe Clara's family out of Berlin.

Los Angeles was a big city, but Clara knew she wasn't wanted there. If her only remaining relatives wanted to keep her side of the family as small as possible, then she knew she had to go elsewhere to give her daughter a new family.

She meant to go up to San Francisco, but as so often happens in these immigrant stories, the only Auto she could afford to buy broke down in a smaller city, Pismo Beach. Rather than get a new car, she renovated a derelict motel and turned it into a nice bed and breakfast with a restaurant on the downstairs floor. Pismo Beach is the Clam Capital of the World, or so they say, so Clara's signature dishes were clams fried in schmaltz and clams stewed in the Yemenite Zhug which Clara's aunt taught her to make. There was kugel and matzoh ball soup on the menu, a brisket sandwich, potato pancakes, a beef stew on Saturdays, home-cured pastrami, and corned beef around September, homebaked babka, chopped liver, blintzes around June, stuffed cabbage, beef sausages, a potato and spinach pastry which the migrant workers thought were empanadas, chocolate chip biscotti, honey cake in the fall, pickled herring, home fried doughnuts in the winter, a carrot yam stew with raisins and apricots around Thanksgiving. The Matzoh Ball soup was so popular that a number of people suggested that Clara should put some shellfish in it and turn it into a Boulliabaise, but Clara's personality was so forbidding that nobody would dare make the suggestion. Nevertheless, "Clara's" was a hit, and if it had nothing to do with the winningness of Clara's personality, it certainly had something to do with her daughter's.

Clara never married again, and her daughter never saw so much as a man in her mother's life. But Denarius was the petite and exotic and funny waitress who served with a smile after school and before homework, who always took the orders right and remembered the name of every second-time customer. She was not beautiful in the way all the other swell girls in Pismo Beach were; she was a half-foot shorter, she had skin with a perpetual tan and a bumpy nose, she wouldn't wait for the fella to pull out the chair or hold the door, and never waited for the guy to tell her what she thought before telling him first. But the swell fellas in Pismo were crazy for her. Every one of them was a faithful customer after school, and every one of them probably asked her on a date multiple times, but she'd never say yes to any of them, and because she never said yes to any of them, they'd come back to Clara's twice as often to try to change her mind.

One guy never asked her out, so he, of course, became the one Denarius asked out. In 1955, he became Clara's son-in-law. Frederick Johansen, six-foot-four, All-American football lineman, decorated Korean War veteran, electrical engineer, man of five-hundred words a day, and former Lutheran acolyte. Certainly not good enough for her daughter, but good enough for America.

The Los Angeles relations refused to come to the wedding, refused to send a gift, and refused to speak to Clara for more than fifteen years. Until '55, Clara would come down every year to Los Angeles for the High Holidays and the Seders; she went to every Bar Mitzvah, every wedding, every bris. Occasionally Denarius would accompany her, but usually not. Denarius barely had half a dozen conversations with any of them as a child. Who the hell knows if these relatives ever went to shul if there wasn't a high holiday or a simcha involved? But even if they didn't, to marry a shegetz among cultural Jews is tantamount to declaring allegiance to Hitler; it is and will always be an excomunnicable offense that breaks families apart forever because it's the argument leads down the rabbit hole of theology's most important and unresolvable question: Is faith motivated by love, or is love motivated by faith?

In our modern era when tolerance has finally won a few battles over faith, the question of intermarriage becomes still more vital. When the world shows signs of growing more tolerant, what need is there to uphold the groups and struggles of old? Every intermarriage, be it Jew to Gentile, Black to White, Liberal to Conservative, Lamb to Lion, is a rejection of old polarities - a declaration that all the great struggles which your ancestors underwent were absolutely unnecessary, irrelevant to the present, and deserve to be sucked into a black hole of forgetfulness. Memory can be as much a curse as a blessing, and surely many memories deserve to be forgotten. But in the modern era, when we so often seem on the precipice of a finer new world in which differences can finally be reconciled, perhaps all that stops us from realizing a world that's at least closer to this finer new world is the fearful memory of the world as it once was and threatens to be again. However, because we cannot erase these memories, perhaps these memories are precisely what dooms us to never achieve a world of greater tolerance.

It was within a month of the wedding that Clara unexpectedly took up Fred's parents invitation to visit their church. In her nearly twenty years in Pismo Beach, the local legend Claradonna Zweig was never seen to socialize with anyone, and Fred's parents only invited her out of politeness. Yet by the end of 1955, she was a regular attendee to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pismo Beach who insisted upon catering the Sunday lunches free of charge. On Good Friday 1956, she took baptism and never missed a Sunday thereafter for her remaining twenty-eight years.

Clara’s was closed every Sunday thereafter, and after Church, Claradonna Helena Zweig would return home with a friend from her congregation, Sieglinde Schafer, a widow from Breslau whose husband, a promising Captain in Germany’s Eighth Army, was felled by a hail of bullets but two months after they were married in June 1914. Hauptmann Schulz was one of the 12,000 fallen Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg, whose legendary acts of bravery enabled the slaughter of 170,000 Russians. Sieglinde was roughly ten years older than Clara. She’d found her way to Pismo Beach with her father in roughly 1920, after the German riots against the Polish, who would eventually transform Breslau into Wroclaw, burned down her extremely German father’s medical offices. Who knows how they ended up in Pismo Beach, but Dr. Schafer died in his sleep in 1938, an eloquent and celebrated member of the Central Californian Bund whose funeral at St. John’s Lutheran was attended by hundreds of German-Americans and Klansmen alike. He was eminent throughout the state, perhaps even the Western United States, for his many kind words and trenchant insights about the great strength of new German regime. Every Bund organization from Montana to New Mexico would engage him to speak as an expert on German politics.   

And so every Sunday in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Clara and Sieglinde would go after church to Clara’s modest apartment over the restaurant. They’d sing all the songs of gymnasium days, they’d play four-hand duets on Clara’s out of tune upright, they’d recite all the Goethe and Heine forced upon their memories by rote, they’d talk disapprovingly of the other church members, and they’d recall friends and husbands long dead.

Clara’s daughter found Sieglinde Schafer a bit icky, and was certain Ms. Schafer was antisemite, but she was happy that her mother finally made a friend when all she’d ever seen from her mother was work and sacrifice and testiness. She had an older friend of her own not unlike Sieglinde, who could remind her of whom she truly was.

Clara’s daughter, whom I suppose fancied herself all American, found Sieglinde Schafer rather icky, and was certain Ms. Schafer was antisemite like her father, but she was happy that her mother finally made a friend when all she’d ever seen from her mother was work and sacrifice and testiness. Even so, her mother's turn toward a new religion proved too much for her.

St. John's installed a new Pastor right before Christmas 1965. A smiling blond from Montana who sported a flattop haircut and bolo ties every Sunday. On Good Friday '66, the tenth anniversary of Clara's baptism, he shocked the congregation by mounting the pulpit with a guitar in his hand. Younger members were overjoyed, they stood up and clapped excitedly while putting their arms in the air as though second nature. Clara and Sieglinde, on the other hand, were incensed and immediately petitioned the board for his firing. But no one on the board objected, they loved Pastor Lehmann, so that was the last which either Clara or Sieglinde made about the issue. For the next twenty years, they simply sat in the back pew and scowled.

Much less objectionable to Steve's grandmother was Pastor Lehmann's fundraisers for Reagan and Nixon, his preemptive encouragement of student deacons to volunteer for the Vietnam War, his public shaming of a lax daughter who asked a question about the War's justice. Clara had never been a political sort, instructing her daughter from the earliest age that political questions are what tear people apart from each other and can only interfere with people trying to go about their lives. But Clara's daughter began to notice the inveighs that Clara now seemed to be parroting from her Church about ungrateful students who protested against this great country of ours, and the ungrateful negroes who dare compare the way good Christians in the South treat their black people to the way godless Communists treat their billions of unfree citizens. The day that Fred offhandedly compared the segregationists to Nazis was the day he ended up with a bowl of Matzoh Ball soup dumped on his head.

That last point about the ungratefulness of negroes was the one that Clara's daughter found truly inconceivable. How could Clara call negroes ungrateful when she owed so much her triumph in America to a negro woman? Neither Clara nor her daughter were the sole progenitors of 'Clara's success. The third, and perhaps most consequential, in their trinity of unexpected prosperity was Mrs. Washington, the kindly lady from Clayton County in Georgia whose husband drove her to work every day from Grover Beach at four in the morning in their beat up Plymouth Valiant before he went back home to get their four children ready for school and then drive fifty miles east to his job as a farmhand and then return at ten to pick Mrs. Washington up. The kindly lady who went every Sunday to sing in the church choir at Bethel Baptist, and catered their after-service lunches every week with 'Clara's leftover provisions from the week's food supply. When Clara herself became a Christian, she immediately informed Mrs. Washington that she no longer had access to the leftovers to cater her church because Clara would now use them to cater lunches at her own church.

Mrs. Washington was the kind of woman who would always sneak Clara's daughter a cookie, sometimes two or three, whenever Clara was too busy manning the stove or the cash register to look up. Running a business takes all kinds of people, and you need a boss who can kill with kindness as much as you need a boss who delights in killing.

Mrs. Washington was, begrudgingly, one of Clara's first hires. Clara thought that colored help, even if they worked in the kitchen, would drive customers away, but she needed the help immediately. Nobody knew who Clara was, and Clara had no idea how to get more applicants attention. The men were in the theaters of war, and their wives were almost fully employed in the factories. If Clara's was going to be a success, they needed all the help they could get. But Mrs. Washington had been waiting tables since she was an eight-year-old kid in Georgia. Clara had no idea how to take inventory, how to fill staffing needs, how to quickly update menus, and how to advertise. It was certainly not Clara who came up with the phone book advertisement in 1945: "Clara's: Home Cooking from the Jewish Mom You Never Knew You Needed," Every time a waitress broke down in tears from the stress of dealing with a customer, or from dealing with Clara, Mrs. Washington was always there with a hug and tissue. Every time a health department inspector or a supplier needed to be supplicated, it was Mrs. Washington, not Clara, who'd handle the negotiation. Every time a customer was in the hospital, Mrs. Washington would visit with a dinner tray taken without Clara's knowledge and some good cheer. Clara was an institution in Pismo Beach, but Mrs. Washington was the reason every customer over the age of 30 came back. And yet for almost twenty-five years, she never took her meal anywhere but in the kitchen.

In 1966, an increasingly infirm Clara accidentally spilled a boiling pot of Matzoh Ball soup on Mrs. Washington while she was mopping the kitchen floor. The skin on Mrs. Washington's limbs was forever disfigured thereafter, and she never properly walked again. Clara claimed to her daughter that it was the wet floor from the mop that made her slip, but her daughter always suspected that Clara, in her sixties and showing every year of it on her once waif-like and now witch-like frame, was already nowhere near as strong or coordinated as she once was.

Perhaps Clara used the accident to explain an infirmity caused by the simple accumulation of years and cares. Clara was untouched by the scald of the soup, but she claimed that her arms and knees were bruised from the fall and was never the same thereafter. She also claimed to have a nagging pain in her right shoulder where the pot fell on her. She claimed that she sympathized with Mrs. Washington for how badly she was hurt by the fall, but perhaps she used her own pain to absolve herself of guilt.

Clara told Mr. Washington that his wife deserved whatever Clara could possibly give her, but that Clara couldn't give her much. Secretly, Clara always thought she'd paid Mrs. Washington far too much, and occasionally suspected Mrs. Washington of occasionally skimming from the cash register. She carefully explained to Mr. Washington that she couldn't possibly pay them anything more than something minimal when Mrs. Washington could no longer work? The hale and healthy Mr. Washington, perfectly slender, grey at the temples and the mustache, with eyes that bore into interlocutors with all too much understanding, nodded silently and sagely as he stood in front of Clara's paltry explanation; not so much as a word in response after the hello, and when she was finished, he walked out of the restaurant without saying so much as a goodbye. Clara promised the Washingtons a dollar twenty five a week for the rest of Mrs. Washington's life - a minimum wage for an employee who maximized Clara's life. She sent it in the mail every week until she died, but never got any confirmation that the Washingtons received it.

Denarius Zweig had never ridden a horse before meeting Annie-Jane Ivers, she’d never shot a gun, never played a hand of poker, never lit a fire, never slept under the open sky, never smoked a cigar or a joint, never skinned a deer. The boys all wondered where Clara’s daughter went when she wasn’t waiting tables, the answer was to let Annie-Jane Ivers show her the dank and steam and slit of the natural world.

Annie-Jane Ivers ran away from her father’s house in 1919, when she was only eleven - her mother perpetually bruised, her independence perpetually violated, her sister perpetually defeated. One month later, she became a permanent worker at Monsieur Marchand’s French Boarding House named Coquette. By fifteen, "Coquette" was the Madame. By seventeen, she was turned into to the street for asking that her older peers get better pay and treatment. Mr. Marchand explained that it was not because she asked once, but that she heard his explanation, yet insisted upon asking twice.

Over the next twenty years, Annie-Jane worked as a bandit, a banker, a blacksmith, a butcher, a bounty hunter, a cardshark, a cowherd, a deputy, a gold miner, a gunslinger, a homesteader, a marshal, a medicine showman, a missionary, a preacher, a railroad laborer, a rancher, a rustler, a schoolmarm, a shopkeeper, a snake oil salesman. No coquette she. You work overtime to survive, or survival works you over.

1948, forty years old, five-feet ten, her hair a bluish silver, her shoulders broad and hands as calloused as any laborer in America, her face wizened by crow’s feet and laugh lines and four packs a day, her skin prunishly bronzed like a person who hadn’t been indoors in a quarter of a century, her eyes with the mischievously rapid movements of a woman hard to impress and easy to amuse, she walks into Clara’s and after ten minutes, Denarius gets her to order the cheese blintzes. Annie-Jane likes them so much that she comes back for the cheese blintzes eight nights in a row. Denarius tries to get her to order something else: the babka, the bialy, the borscht, the brisket, the bulbitchki, but no, she wants more cheese blintzes.

With Annie-Jane’s barmaid humor and her scullery maid’s crudity, Clara’s daughter had never known it was possible to laugh like that. Clara did not approve of Annie-Jane’s loud ostentation, and warned her daughter not to get too friendly with this woman, but she couldn’t exactly tell a customer not to come who stayed for five hours at a time and ordered fifty dollars worth of blintzes every day.

In 1949, Annie-Jane acquires a hundred acre horsefarm. She invites both of the Zweigs to come out and see it. Clara, of course, says no for both her and her daughter. Her daughter, of course, calls Annie-Jane up and says that she’s going to come out there without her mother’s knowledge. The next day, she asks Fred Johansen out on a date next Saturday, on Sunday, she tells Clara that the date went so well that they’re going to have a second date that day. Clara doesn’t approve of her daughter moving so fast, but better to be with Fred Johansen than with that freienfrau.

The next day, Clara’s daughter rides a horse, shoots a deer, smokes a cigar, plays poker. Fred Johansen pecked her on the cheek yesterday, but when it’s time to say goodbye until the plans they made next week, Annie-Jane Ivers bends her backwards over her knee and gives Clara’s daughter a realization she can never unrealize.

Saturdays with Fred and Steve, Sundays with Annie-Jane. That’s how it was most weekends for eighteen years. When Denarius needed an excuse to start spending nights under the stars of Ivers Farms, she tells Fred they’re getting married. Seven weeks later, they declare their love before God under His watchful nave at St. John’s Lutheran. Within five years, the Saturday mornings and afternoons are entirely Steve’s, the Saturday nights and Sundays are entirely Annie Jane’s. Fred simply goes into the garage with his short-wave radio and tunes up his Chevy.

The farmhands give enormous respect to Denarius, never making so much as a pass or flirt, and give her the nickname 'Denarius' because she always rode a black horse. She didn't understand the nickname, but she loved it all the same. Nearly two decades of blissful Sundays, sleeping next to Annie-Jane in fields of open California pampus, awoken by American goldfinches and Savannah sparrows, vigilantly ready for the dawn to welcome another Sunday of riding and hunting with a sunstroked and windswept face which, for eighteen years, Fred never asked once how she acquired.

Sometime around Memorial Day 1967, Denarius returns to Clara's for work on Monday, not windswept but ashen. The only person with little enough tact to ask her what's wrong is Steve, who gets the first of many an earful from his mother.

Steve never got the full story of what happened to Auntie-Jane except what he read thirty years later on microfilm - which was that the legendary Annie-Jane Ivers was found on a small minority of Pine Flat Lake's shoreline that wasn't on her property. Her wrists had been bruised from shackles and her legs chained to a weight that the coroner said had clearly fallen off. He also indicated the presence of multiple barbituates in her system that he speculated were ingested by dissolving in strong alcohol.

One find and simple day in the early summer when he was eating some Matzoh Ball soup, a drunken hand from the horse farm showed up and started screaming some variation that only imprinted itself within his seven-year-old brain as 'YOU DID IT! IT WAS YOU!' while waving a gun at screaming customers while Clara sobbed unreservedly. Denarius emerges thirty seconds later from the back with a rifle, loaded and cocked, and tells the farmhand they'll talk outside. The conversation from the window was animated, but the guy never showed his face around Steve's Mom again.

What happened was probably as simple as Annie-Jane growing sick after twenty years of Denarius living her weekday life as a devoted daughter to a repressed Jesus freak and devoted wife to a beach bum drip, and who knows what a person as hard-scrabble as Annie-Jane Ivers would have done to complete an objective denied for twenty years? As Steve read the microfilm, he began to remember Auntie Jane showing up at inopportune moments like when the family was at a Howard Johnson's, which would prompt an animated discussion twenty feet from the table, or showing up unannounced at their Pismo house, sometimes appearing from some distance in the window. Steve remembered thinking it was very strange when her mother ordered Auntie Jane out of the diner, "I just want to eat here. Remember when that was normal?" she'd say. Until then, Steve had never seen Auntie-Jane in the diner himself, but he thought it as odd as Auntie Jane that she was being ordered out.

It was at a fourth of July party with the Johanssen clan that Clara’s daughter decided to do something which surprised the hell out of everybody, particularly Fred. Steve was seven years old, and she decided he needed to go to Hebrew school. “But why?” Fred asked, not in frustration but in bewilderment. “Why does anybody need a Hebrew education in Pismo Beach?”

“That’s the problem. We have to leave Pismo.”

And just like that, they moved. Fred Johansen was the type that always got along. His entire family was in Pismo more than a hundred years earlier. Dozens of births and deaths and baptisms and confirmations, decades of toil and sacrifice and simmering family resentments that were worked through by the thousands upon thousands of little bonds of love that keep a family together through their worst periods to the moments that all families cherish - the holiday dinners, the birthday parties, the lazy afternoons on the beach, the relaxed Sunday barbecues, the drunken nights out that occasionally ended in throwing a punch or two, but always made up for the next day, the grass they smoked in the back yard. Yet it never occurred to Fred, or to any other Johansen, that such bonds had to work to be maintained, or could strain under the pressure of longer distance.

Whether or not those bonds strained, Fred kept his feelings to himself as he always did, and but for perhaps an extra whiskey before bed or a doobie after everybody was asleep, he was the same quiet picture of smiling amiability in middle age that he was when his wife forcefed him matzoh ball soup for the first time. If he disliked it, he kept it to himself, and sipped on matzoh ball soup at least once a week for the rest of his life.

So in 1967, Steve found a new job as an electrical engineer in LA, and the Johansens moved to the big city. Steve went to public school in Fairfax, and his mother, in truly theatrical Hollywood fashion, got a Bas Mitzvah at the closest Reform Temple, Beth Hoveh, and while she only knew a couple college acquaintances in LA, she made sure to turn the Bas Mitzvah into an event. She sent laminated invitations to every member of the Beth Hoveh and to all her estranged relatives. Worried that these relatives might disapprove of a woman being called to the Torah, she kept calling their houses, talking their ears off for forty-five minutes at a time with whatever subject she could think up, and boaring her way into renewed ties and friendship with them until she was sure they’d relent and RSVP ‘Yes.’ The reception was not held at the synagogue, but at Nate n’Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills, near where her relatives lived.

Fred wasn’t the type who thought much about money. He didn’t spend much, and there wasn’t much he wanted to spend. As far as luxuries went, he had a small boat he built himself, a couple rifles for hunting and a fishing pole, a wet bar in his basement, the 1952 Chevy 3100 pickup that he drove and repaired himself for forty years, and the zither his grandfather, Olaf Erikssen, taught him to play. Any luxury more grandiose than their slightly larger than average 3 bedroom house would not have occurred to him to buy.

But from the moment they were married in 1955, Fred’s wife made sure that every cent not devoted to home or car maintenance was tied up in Treasury Bonds and stocks: GE, GM, Coke, Chrysler, the Seven Sister oil companies, Conoco Energy, Boeing, Campbell Soup, Kellogg, IBM, Whirlpool, Proctor and Gamble, Detroit Steel, Studebaker, Collins Radio, National Sugar Refining, Zenith Electronics… Some of these investments went bad, but of course, most of them paid off quite spectacularly. All you had to do was buy the stock, not touch it for forty years, and you’d have enough money to feed a hundred generations of hearty Johansen folk who wouldn’t have to ever work again.If Fred ever realized that he was a multi-millionaire, he never gave much indication. Steve didn’t realize it either until his mother died and her will left him 18 million dollars in liquid assets.

From the moment Steve turned seven in 1967, his mother watched his grades like a hawk; gave him extra math problems over meals, schlepped him across town for violin lessons, and bought him books with no subtle pressure that he should read, signed him up for every extra-curricular, occupied his empty moments with chores around the house.

Every Saturday from the move until Steve was thirteen, the two of them would go every Saturday to whatever movies were playing at the Chinese Theater. Different movies played there every week, usually in double features, from cartoons to subtitled foreign films. No matter how adult or violent, no matter how risque, no matter how intellectually challenging or B-movie dumb, the ritual was inviolate. Steve and his Mom would sit through it together. It was their ‘thing’, a way that Steve’s Mom could show that she trusted him, and perhaps an unspoken apology for driving him so hard.

Steve eventually had to become a teenager like all teenagers, and became too old to regularly get caught with his Mom every Saturday. Sometimes they’d go, but Steve would usually try to get out of it. By the Saturday of Steve's Bar Mitzvah, their movies became just another chore his mother pressured him to complete.

Pressure was Denarius's adult life: yelling at Steve and Fred, complaining about them to cousins whom she knew tolerated her rather than liked her, loafing around a house with the soaps on the television while her husband was at work and come home to meals that were a pale shadow of what her mother could offer when they visited her in Pismo, let alone Fred's mother. The weekend smoking habit of Ivers Farms became a two-pack a day habit in Los Angeles, and Steve would complain endlessly about how the house would wreak and show his mother every newspaper article he found about how cigarettes can kill. His mother would simply shrug, and on this issue would ask for the privacy she never gave Steve, and Steve knew better than to ever point out the hypocrisy.

When Steve got a girlfriend in Junior High, she banned the girl from their house and staked out near the girl's house in case Steve went over there. They had to meet in secret, but Lisa tired of the sneaking around and eventually went with the running back of Jr. High football team, Mike Johnson. When high school came around and Steve was a lanky six-foot nerd with aviator glasses and a too large nose, and in any event kept too busy by extra-ciricculars for romance, his mother would question him pointedly about why he didn't have a girlfriend and what he could do to make himself more attractive to women.

The first true explosion between Steve and Denarius had to wait until Steve was eighteen, when Steve's Mom insisted that he not major in the film school and get a practical major that could prepare him for work. "You knew that I wanted to go to the film school and you let me apply there so I would stay close to home. Now you tell me I can't go. You just want to keep running my life!" he said in a rare moment of drama and assertion against his mother that ended with the punctuation of a slammed door to his room, a Hollywood-like gesture seen before or since in the Johanssen household. This all-too-rare moment of assertion from Steve was perceptive, more perceptive than Denarius would have guessed, but long experience taught him his mother's motives all too well. Of course this was her motive, and she didn't see what was wrong with it. Parents are there to guide their children. She didn't want Steve to turn out a wild animal like Annie-Jane, and what was the point of having children of she couldn't do better for him than she or Steve's family ever had. Children may disagree with the means, but they'll thank you in the end, and they'll know that you did what you did for their own good. For the week before college, Steve locked himself in his room and never came out. He snuck out through his window for dinner at McDonalds, and of course Denarius noticed, but against her better judgement, she took Fred's rare piece of advise to let him go.

Denarius was not impressed with Carmen. She was as impressed as anyone else with the stunning beauty that now hung around the Johanssen household, but Steve kept telling his mother how brilliant his fiance was, yet Denarius never saw the brilliance for herself. Carmen was quiet, she dressed a little trashy, she was helpful when it came to serving and doing the dishes, and Denarius was grateful for that. When she heard Carmen play the piano, she was vaguely impressed, but she attributed the wrong notes to a lack of practice and work ethic that was in fact due to neurological trauma.

Steve did not dare tell his mother the truth of Carmen's condition until they were married and she was pregnant with Clarissa - knowing that his mother would accuse him of throwing away his future for a woman with such a serious condition, and no doubt would inveigh that Carmen brought these conditions upon herself due to her innate sluttishness.

But Steve's mother was in fact more understanding of it than he thought she would be. Burying her head in her hands and offering immediately to pay for any surgeries - the kind of debt which Steve would do anything to avoid. She explained, quite matter of factly, that had she known she would have advised him against the marriage in no uncertain terms and instantly knew that that was why Steve waited to tell her, but Carmen is now one of us and we take care of each other.

For years thereafter, Steve waited for his mother's explosion on Carmen which never came. His mother exploded plenty, but instead of using his marriage to Carmen as an example of his irresponsibility, Denarius would inevitably take Carmen's side - or at least what she thought to be Carmen's side: when Steve embarked on his video store venture, "You have an unwell wife to take care of and you're going off to run a business that everybody knows will be a flop???" When Steve had a second daughter, she exploded again, not even because of his recent eviction but because "You're going to subject an orthopedically challenged wife to another pregnancy???"

Denarius would note with alarm Carmen's every new slurring of speech, every slightly hesitant step, every sentence not finished, and would offer to come help around the house however often they needed. Steve and Carmen never took up Denarius's offer, but during the eighties she would show up unannounced for two evenings every week during which she'd insist on helping to straighten the house and cook dinner, and happily watched the grandchildren during those Saturday nights when Steve and Carmen went out with friends. During the eighties, she would occasionally try to get Steve and Carmen to come with the kids on Friday nights for Shabbos dinner, but they would inevitably leave after an hour-and-a-half, explaining to Steve's Mom that they had to get the kids to bed and the kids inevitably wake up in the car if they fall asleep first at her house.

Even when Steve's mother was at her most furious with him for his video store venture, she would call him most weekdays and talked to him for forty-five minutes. Steve would roll his eyes to his partner or the rare customer he had to handle, but he would always take the call and answered any questions she posed within the paragraphs of verbiage and shul gossip with an undertone of indulgent irony.

Fred, whose pot belly grew exponentially after the move to LA, died of a heart attack in the winter of '93, a few months from retirement and the beginning of the whirlwind vacations Denarius was planning. About a month after he died were the LA riots, during which she braved the whirlwind of violence and traffic to come directly and unannounced to Steve's house with a rifle and twenty pounds of dried goods to make sure that everybody was safe and well-fed.