Location Location Location

You don’t write a story based on a location, or do you?

I’ll never forget the day I was having bagels with two friends, one a producer and one a director, and talking about story ideas. The producer had access to a college campus in the Caribbean – we could have free reign over it, since a family friend of his was the president or provost or something. He kept bringing story ideas around to the campus. “Y’know, if we set that at the college…”

Nor will I forget the sunken look on his face when I finally told him to lay off the Caribbean campus ideas. If  we wanted to make a film on a college on an island, we’d be better off shooting in Puerto Rico or the D.R. where flights from New York are relatively cheap. The location is the easy part, I told him, let’s write the best story we can.

I stand behind that, and yet locations have a way of inspiring. Of bringing joy, or creeping out. Last week I was up near the Vermont border and took a walk up Presbytery Lane, where the Presbyterian Church has a camp it is trying to sell. It’s full of weird vistas like this:

If these lawns could talk.....

If these lawns could talk…..

I thought about a young couple going to ask one of their fathers for money for their wedding and finding him on retreat with a bunch of Christian Brothers, telling them “No,” they can’t have an advance on their inheritance, and a tailspin of a plot that ends in a standoff with a hunting rifle. Also maybe a shaved-headed cult leader who welcomes visitors to stay in the one building but, whatever they do, don’t go talk to the people up the hill!

Both of these notions suit my long-term obsession, stories set in tourist destinations in the off-season. But notions don’t inspire. Visions do. Smells do. Cicadas do. Shadows do. Cheap but beautifully dated architectural flourishes do. Creepy old Protestant ghosts do.

It’s still a good idea to write the story first, but half of writing is dreaming.

Olympic Sadness

No doubt there are many sad kids around the world this weekend, since the Olympics are ending Sunday. The Olympics make me sad too. Sad for the eight-year-old whose heart broke when Waldemar Sierpinski beat Frank Shorter to win the marathon in 1976.

More so, I get sad for the 16-year-old track star – “Star”? No, I was an enthusiast, a year before becoming a quitter – who watched Carl Lewis grab a car-dealership-sized flag after his victory in the 100 meters in 1984, and recoiled at his ostentatious patriotism. Mostly, though, I’m sad for the city of Athens and the people of Greece, whose Olympic stadiums twelve years later expose the business of the Olympics for what it is, a scheme to harness idealism and public spending for private gain.

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Los Angeles, 1984.

I was lucky enough to attend the games in Athens in ’04, working for a video company from L.A. Among my athletic feats, I learned Excel, so I could compile spreadsheets of the crew’s spending. On the plane ride there, I handed everyone index cards with “receipt, please” in Greek spelled out phonetically: “Ah-PO-deek-see, para-kah-LOW.” Everyone promptly discarded them, but I had a blast.

I loved Greece more than the games, which seemed like a bunch of Australians and Americans drinking massive quantities of bottled water to avoid sunstroke. My loyalties really shifted the night the USA men’s basketball team, which included Carmelo Anthony and a very young LeBron James, played the Greeks and narrowly beat them. I could see the rapt faces watching the screens around Omonoia Square, hoping for a miracle for the Greek team, a “Miracle on Ice” in reverse, and I thought of the new friends I’d made, what it meant to them. There was already talk that the Olympics were a disaster for the Greek economy; wow, how a victory in that game would have taken some of the sting out.

Days later my boss scored us tickets to see the Americans play Lithuania, another close game. This time the Americans lost. During the second half, I couldn’t contain myself anymore. “Do you realize there are only two million people in Lithuania?” I said to my coworker. I kept imagining the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for rec centers named after the Lithuanian players in their hometowns, and the palatial homes of N.B.A. players, and couldn’t help myself.

We were sitting in a section that NBC had reserved, tickets to be given out as favors, and were surrounded by Americans. Word spread from one seat to the next, that Charles is rooting for the Lithuanians, like I was the elf in the Christmas special who doesn’t want to make toys.

Did the Cold War spoil the Olympics forever? Turn it into grotesque patriotism? Do the games need another millennia-long period of dormancy before it comes back better? We can’t afford to wait that long.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.

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Athens, 2014. Gaia is taking it back.

 

Captain Fantastic

One of the few must-see films in theaters this summer was Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic. A drama about an off-the-grid, beyond-hippie dad whose abilities as a parent are challenged by his wife’s absence to battle an illness, the story eventually becomes As I Lay Dying in reverse- and I’ll leave it at that.

Ross wrote a very original script, and Viggo Mortenson is getting praise for his performance as the dad, and rightfully so, but the kids are moving too. Still, any time an indy film like Captain Fantastic strikes a nerve – and it ballooned in July from four screens to over five hundred, before deflating again this month – I wonder why. Why this film? Why now?

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Thrift Store Olympians Unite! Viggo Mortensen and (half) his brood in “Captain Fantastic.”

Well, the psychological journey in Captain Fantastic is remarkably similar to the Bernie Sanders moment in American politics. For millions of idealists it was the month the bill came due, the season of acceptance and resignation.

In any case, the arc of the hero’s journey here is remarkably inward-looking. It’s the dad’s struggle to keep fighting or to relent in the face of his father-in-law’s overwhelming case for why the kids should leave their revolutionary upbringing behind. It’s a beautiful, elegant script, to have so much action, but the heart of the drama spinning around the axis of a person’s decision whether to keep on fighting.

If anything, I’d say Ross the writer plays too many cards to prove his point. The scene in which eldest son Bo mangles his first romantic tryst with a girl at a campground by breaking down and proposing marriage to her drives the point home far enough – that these kids are truly not prepared for life within cell phone range – we don’t need the wrenching dialogue scene that says so. Likewise the family’s acoustic version of “Sweet Child of Mine”: tear-jerking to some, cheeseball to others.

It took me some time to adjust to the scale of the plot as I watched this film. The very first scene, in which Bo kills a deer in a gruesome fashion during a family hunt, and his father anoints him a man for doing so, creates the expectation that we’re going to see something more epic and violent, some independent film iteration of Gangs of New York even. In retrospect I suppose he was merely establishing that this family was beyond Mendocino, this was not a lifestyle revolution, but a revolution-revolution.

My friend Joe Krings edited Captain Fantastic. I know he’d be upset if I said how superb the editing is. Editing, like funeral attire, should never call attention to itself, and that’s more than a passing compliment. I’ve always thought editors are like morticians or maybe taxidermists: Once it’s shot, it’s dead, and it’s up to the editor to make it look alive. Ideally you don’t notice the editing, and that must have been difficult achieving just that with all the multiple-person conversations, and hand-held cameras, taking place.

It’s heart-breaking watching revolutions die out, and watching the smug get smugger. Kudos to Frank Langella (as always) for bringing some humanity to the villainous father-in-law. It’s no laughing matter, not this summer.

Little Bears Who Wash

I dreamed this morning that raccoons were in my house.

I discovered this while running water for a bath. One had knocked over a dish of cat food and was lounging in the scattered snack tray, picking at it, disinterested in me. I fetched a broom in case he gave me any guff while I chased him out, and discovered another was terrorizing the cats in the bedroom. I figured I’d better turn the faucet off, since this could take some time, and discovered a third raccoon splashing around in the few inches of bath water. I approached, and he laid his humanoid hand on the knob, as if to say, “It’s not full yet.”

Raccoons in my neighborhood are no joke. A friend of mine spent $1,000 paying a trapper to take one after another from her yard and walls. If we leave food for the outdoor cats after dark, we watch them eat it, then take in the leftovers, or else raccoons will come and finish them. Something killed our neighbor’s cat by chewing on its leg, leaving it to bleed to death. Some say it couldn’t have been a raccoon, and must have been a fox, but I’ve never seen a fox around here.

The first time I saw Grey Gardens I was struck by the raccoons in the attic. The Beales are a fallen American dynasty, like the DuBoises in Streetcar, partly because Little Edie and her mother are absolutely nuts. The raccoons were the bats in the belfry.

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If you leave a cat dish out at night…

I can tell, in the morning, when a raccoon has visited overnight because I can see the water in the cat bowl or bird bath is dirty brown. They have a fantastic habit of washing their hands. The Italian phrase for them is orsetti lavatori, “little bears who wash.”

What does it say about me that I dream about little bears washing themselves in my house? Am I a bit crazy like Little Edie Beale? I just know it takes a lot of concentration – and it causes a very different flavor of stress – keeping the indoor animals from going out, and the outdoor animals from coming in.

 

The Great Mother

A thunderstorm tore through New York City yesterday – the sky got that yellow, dirty glass color. On my back porch I resisted the urge to record it with a phone camera, so I could show you all. I knew others were probably on that assignment, and they were, but what does it say that we no longer experience something so elemental as a thunderstorm without reaching for our iPhones like a smoker relieved to be out of a meeting.

“It’s rainin’ it’s pourin’/ The old man is snorin'” I said, and it occurred to me for the first time in my life that the old man in that rhyme may be The Old Man. God snoring, that’s what thunder is. Kids in Catholic school in the late ’70s used to say it was angels bowling.

So I called my friend Mark in Connecticut, a potter who blogs at Offers to Raven, and who’s always ready for a mythic or poetic question. He agreed that even though the old man soon after “went to bed and bumped his head/ and couldn’t get up in the mornin'” that the snoring did imply thunder.

At this point I was sitting under a steel awning with an electrical device in my hand and lightning crashing nearby, so we said good-bye and I traded the phone for a collection of one of the great poets, Wislawa Szymborska.

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From 6,000 BC in Iraq, now at The Louvre.

I’ve memorized her poem “A Paleolithic Fertility Fetish” in the past. Though it fades and comes back in pieces the way memorized-then-forgotten poems become circular loop-de-loops, I often go back to it. “The Great Mother has no face,” it starts. “Why would the Great Mother need a face?”

I always assumed this poem refers to a statuette of a woman from pre-history, Szymborska finding reassurance and peace from the incompleteness and abstraction of the holy object. It ends:

“The Great Mother barely has a pair of arms,
two tiny limbs lie lazing on her breass.
Why would they want to bless life,
give gifts to what has enough and more!
Their only obligation is to endure as long as earth and sky just in case
of some mishap that never comes.
To form a zigzag over essence.
The ornament’s last laugh.”

Goddess forbid, if I get hit by lightning and die, one of you please read that poem before you lower me into a grave with nothing except possibly a sheet between the earth and me. You can read the complete poem if you scroll down here.

A Neighborhood Fights For a Landmark

4th Avenue in South Brooklyn isn’t anybody’s favorite road, not to drive on, certainly not to walk on, nor even – let’s be honest – to live alongside.

Historically, 3rd Avenue was the commercial strip south of Prospect and Hamilton Avenues, until it got an expressway built on top of it just before World War II. Now, if you’re driving to New Jersey or Queens, you take 3rd, at least till you find an entrance to the highway; if you’re driving ten or twenty blocks, you take 4th.

Despite all its traffic, 4th still has a thriving retail life – bodegas, dollar stores, and affordable restaurants, good and bad, not to mention the storied Irish Haven at 4th and 58th. It’s heavier on schools and neo-classical government buildings than 5th Avenue, its more pedestrian-friendly, two-lane neighbor, but most of those buildings are from before the 1920s, when it was still a grand thoroughfare, before the subway lines got built underneath it, and before cars became omnipresent.

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The city proposes demolishing the NYPD Precinct House that dates to 1886.

4th Avenue also has two historic gems. One is the Brooklyn Lyceum way up north in Park Slope, at 4th and President. I’ve always figured “President Street” was a placeholder, waiting for another president to die, one the locals liked enough to name a street after. The Lyceum is just down the slope from the case study in gentrification, Park Slope, and it sold a few years ago for $7.6 Million.

A 30-40 minute walk to the south is the other gem, the NYPD Precinct House at 4th and 43rd. This is my neighborhood, and has been for 11 years now. I’m about 100 or so feet from 4th Avenue. Like many people who’ve been here much longer than that, I’ve been waiting for that building to come around. Sunset Park recently got named one of the coolest neighborhoods in America, whatever that means – no, I know what that means. It means college-educated people from out of town are moving in and changing the rental and retail markets.

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The neighborhood has been rooting for something special to be done with the space.

I’m no knee-jerk critic of gentrification. I’d be a hypocrite if I were, but a person has to be sensitive to the changes they’re bringing to the social landscape around them. Let’s face it, we wreak havoc on storefront churches and tire shops, and make a hard rental market even harder for working people. One of the few benefits we bring is attracting investment to historic places that have fallen vacant or need repairs.

What a shame, then, to hear that the precinct house is likely getting torn down to build a school. They found a developer for the Lyceum, but not this gem full of architectural luster,  just when the time is just getting right to do something with it. Sunset Park community activists generally have more immediate problems to worry about – rent spikes, sink holes, and broken promises politicians make about jobs in the new developments – but one did post on Facebook that the precinct house was at risk. They advised sending a letter or an email by July 15th.

The 15th is this Friday! So I emailed:

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New construction on 4th Avenue generally looks like medical parks, in Syosset.

Dear friends at the New York City School Construction Authority:

We who live in the neighborhood can see that changes, including changes in the physical environment, are coming our way, and we only have to look at 4th Avenue around 3rd Street in Park Slope to see what that will look like: Soulless, boxy condominiums that could be in Brooklyn, or could be in Piscataway or Houston, or anyplace.

We understand the enormous pressure you are under to find politically feasible spaces to build schools on, but we object to the false choice we’ve been given, to have enough classrooms or to preserve some semblance of historical integrity in our neighborhoods.

And when I say “historical integrity” I don’t mean to imply that this is some dilettante-ish desire on our part. We’re talking about those same children who would attend that school you want to build on 4th Avenue at 43rd. What kind of city are they going to grow up in? What sense of New York’s past are they going to have? What kind of respect for classic architecture and aesthetics will they have?

We know, it’s a balancing act. City administrators have to choose between meeting our other goals and saving some bits of history, but let’s agree on one principle. If a building is historically important, and another use for it can possibly be found, and it’s clearly just a beautiful site on the face of it, then let’s always err on the side of saving it.

If this were 1986, when Brooklyn was desperate for investment and public sector improvements, this choice would be a lot more forgivable than it is now. That gorgeous building did not sit empty for a generation for someone to knock it down now that construction crews have finally come back. Do us a solid, and do those future students a favor, and save that building.

Best regards,   Charles Bowe

You can email too: sites@nycsca.org

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For many of us this is our first encounter with the NYC School Construction Authority. Email them at sites@nycsca.org

 

Going Home

Coincidentally, I was asked to dig a grave for a cat last week, within days of long-standing plans I had to get together with friends and watch a documentary about “green burials” for humans. (Some people watch soccer, but this is what we do.)

Most of my friends and neighbors rent apartments here in Brooklyn, and few of us have access to any patch of dirt large enough to bury a pet in, so once in a while we’re asked to inter someone’s beloved cat. It’s a favor, but one I’ve honestly begun to enjoy. I’ve learned to pick a good spot, away from any other skeletons that might be sleeping, and to record where the surrounding flowers are, the way the art department on a film does while location shooting.

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I’ve learned to wet the ground a day ahead of time so that it’s soft but not mushy, and to use the square-edged shovel to dig turf up first, and to keep it separate, and then to have plenty of tarps and tubs on hand, since dirt takes up so much space when it’s lifted out of place. I’m cautious of roots, but you can’t kill privets, so those I just chop through. Incense does wonders for the smell of outdoor cats whose bodies took some time to find.

For indoor cats – someone’s dear friend – usually, the moment of death has already been chosen mercifully. Then, I find, smaller mercies such as herbs and flowers to cover the body with, go a long way toward helping us envision them meeting the great unknown with dignity.

The 2013 documentary was called A Will For the Woods, written and directed by a young Ivy League film-making team. It’s about a psychiatrist in North Carolina named Clark Wang who faces an increasingly long-shot struggle against lymphoma, and prepares for his own burial by asking all the hard questions. Why do I have to be embalmed? Can’t you just stick me in the ground?

Funerals, even more so than weddings, make us susceptible to the salesmanship of propriety, since the dignity we are preserving belongs to someone who can’t speak up. “I’d like to use whatever time I have left to help set a pattern in our community of going back to really traditional and natural ways of handling our dead,” Clark says, and the rest will melt your heart.

Clark makes a superb poster child for green burial since he’s so articulate and dispassionate. This, and because he and wis wife – a charmingly geeky doctor-nurse duo – are so endearing, and partly because it pays equal attention to the obvious love between them, this documentary about death and burial is moving without being maudlin.

Baby boomers are dying now, and they haven’t done anything else according to the old script, so green burials are going to be more and more of a thing, I’m sure. I can already attest to how lovely and more than appropriate many of them will be.

 

Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

bridge poem

The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.

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A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).

 

“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

The Banality of People

Many days I get up and turn on the internet machine and don’t want to be complicit in its hyper-tribalism, or the thousand shocks your individual conscience suffers if you stray from the movie times and museum hours pages. The internet promised breath-taking horizons of information, but social media presents them to us through prisms whose value  and accuracy we question at our own peril. Messages with any nuance, that pay respects to ethical gray areas, get shredded by rhetorical yes-no questions.

Today, I’m guessing Leslie Rasmussen feels the same. She’s the drummer for an underground rock trio of sisters from Dayton, Ohio called The Good English. The Good English’s website is down right now, and a web search about it shows a series of similar news items: Show cancelled. Show cancelled. Dropped from the bill.

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Rasmussen happened to grow up in a suburb of Dayton, and knew a guy named Brock Turner since elementary school. When Turner got convicted of the rape at Stanford this spring, Rasmussen wrote a letter to Judge Aaron Persky to vouch for Turner’s character, to try making a distinction between Turner’s crime and a woman “getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car,” to blame the crime on binge drinking of both perp and victim, and to ask for leniency. Why? Because that’s what friends do.

After the sentence was announced, the extraordinary victim’s statement made its way around, a document that will be read and re-read for years, and rightly so. It made people angry and wishing they could do something, and just then Rasmussen’s letter got released (She says she never thought it would be public.), and now people are parsing the lapses in her moral reasoning to try to determine whether she’s fit to play drums at the Rumba Café in Columbus.

It came to my attention this morning because a friend approvingly posted the news that several clubs in Brooklyn that are holding a music fest this weekend have announced that they won’t be letting The Good English play. I guess that was inevitable given the climate full of comments like this: “Please cancel your upcoming performance of rape apologists The Good English. Women are not safe around women who think rape trials are a political stunt.”

“Since when did girl bands start supporting rapists? They are an embarrassment and offense to your line up. I look forward to seeing you’ve resolved the situation, aka dropped ’em,” said one Yelp-esque customer. “I hope your career crash and burns.” “Fuck this band of no-talent rape apologists!” “Who brainwashed them into thinking rape was okay?” “I really hope the Ballroom [Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, in Cleveland] cancels the Good English concert. I love the values of this venue and I know her words can’t possibly align with those values.”

Where do we start unbundling the ironies? What kind of people are we if we need the bar where we throw back a few beers and listen to indie rock to “align with our values”? Do we look to rock and roll – not just rock and roll, its drummers! – for moral guidance? And is it really necessary to heap public shame on a 20-year-old woman in the name of protecting women?

Watching this clip from a show The Good English did in Nashville last year…

…I wonder how my own 20-year-old self would have reacted, to the rape issue, and to Leslie Rasmussen’s letter, not to the music.

At 20, I admit, I’d have joined the shaming. It feels good to be in a mob. At least it’s something you can do when you’re on the political losing end, and people who take women’s rights seriously do take the Stanford verdict (a lenient sentence for a privileged defendant) as a big loss. So what do we do? We purify the tribe by ostracizing those who’ve stepped out of line. We can’t change the sentence, but we can register our disapproval by preventing a drummer who put her friendship before social justice from taking the stage in Greenpoint.

By 25 I’d have had a deeper answer. I’d have heard enough hard luck stories, had morning coffee with mentally ill people enough times, and had a few epiphanies in theaters, cinemas, and yes, rock clubs to know that life is complicated. It isn’t right, I’d have reasoned – I mean, the victim was unconscious, after all – but they are childhood friends, and you’ve got to make some allowances for that, and she didn’t think it was public, so where’s the shame button for people who violate trust by leaking documents?

This many years later I see one big difference: when I was 20 there was no internet! Typing a letter to the editor was a real pain in the ass, and the public reaction time allowed for a lot more breathing room. There was political correctness, to be sure, and a pack mentality that set in extra hard when scrambling for consolation prizes, but the mechanism for creating that pack was a lot less efficient, and its effects less absolute, than it is today.

I’m guessing that by changing their band name The Good English will figure out some creative path forward from this, and I wish them a good time playing some rock and roll at home this weekend. Surrounded by their sisters. And most of all I wish them time.

 

A Trip To the Moon

What if I proposed a short film like this?

“An astronomer-wizard presides over a committee of astronomers, who meet in a formal session like a medieval guild, but with chorus girl pages delivering phallic trophy-telescopes that the astronomers merely carry like scepters…until they hold them high and they magically turn into stools to sit on.

“The wizard proposes that they take a trip to the moon via a rocket – not a rocket strictly speaking, but a giant projectile bullet of sorts. The committee objects to this so strongly an altercation breaks out, resulting in the wizard brow-beating them into listening, and commanding them all to take off their jackets, put on protective undergarments, then put the jackets back on. He takes them on a tour of his rocket workshop (They had been a committee of six scientific poobahs, but suddenly they are five, and decidedly more clown-like.) He then shows them his launching capability, and soon they all climb aboard the steel-riveted capsule, and a sailor launches them using a gunpowder fuse, again with female attendants to wish them bon voyage, now in swimsuits.

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George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon.”

“They fly to the moon, hitting old man moon in the eye – the moon like all celestial bodies having a human face –  before disembarking and having the marvelous experience of watching earth rise over the horizon the way the moon or sun rises in ours. Soon a tongue of flame distracts them, and they go to sleep with stars and planets looking over them. They wake up after the planets conjure snow to fall on them – it being colder on the moon when the earth sets than it is here.

“They climb underground, to a lush tropical land full of mushrooms of many shapes – one clearly a morel. An acrobatic, trouble-making demon starts harassing the astronomers till the leader smites the being with a stick, causing him to explode into flames, but then reappear completely alive. This goes on a few times till dozens of underground birdmen capture them, and put them on a showtrial of sorts, till they all six of them escape and race back to the capsule, which they’re able to launch themselves by pulling it off a cliff.

“They land back on earth – in the sea, among picturesque sea creatures, before getting tugged ashore, and the public erupts in a pageantry-filled celebration, chorus girls in swimsuits and all, and they dance around a statue that reads, ‘Labor omnia vincit’: Work conquers everything.”

That’s George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans La Lune”), from 1902. It’s also on Youtube, the same 2011 restoration featuring the soundtrack by Air and a panel of text explaining how the colorized version was re-discovered in Spain in the 1990s and digitally restored from the original hand-painted print. A color film from 1902!

 

Its not surprising, I guess, that there are attractive women showing plenty of thigh cheering the astronomers on  every step of the way, like the showgirls carrying signs saying what round it is in a boxing match.

It’s curious, though, that they took a trip to the moon at all. This would have been 40 years after Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” the book it’s said to be based on, but 60 years before President Kennedy. Some say that the Russian rocket scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to seriously propose a rocket trip to the moon, and that was in (guess when?) 1903, a year after Melies’ film. Was it artists who led the way to one of the great scientific achievements of last century?

Le voyage dans la lune couleurs 5

“Were going to the moon, girls!”

Elon Musk got a lot of people excited this year by demonstrating a rocket landing on dry land. I guess it’s no coincidence that the  first moon landing crew landed in the ocean – that’s where our imaginations had gone. Tsiolkovsky spent lots of his career trying to develop a collapsible metal dirigible – while Melies was doing theater – and that’s the best they came up with.

It’s also curious that Netflix knew it should suggest this film to me. I often wonder what the algorithms that choose music or media for us are thinking. I was ready to give it lots of credit till I saw what it saw as a good next move. “More Like This…”

The king fu film Big Boss, Cosmos, or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Imagination is hard work, but work conquers everything.

 

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