Marie Howe

Marie Howe was the find of the summer for me. Just when I think I know most contemporary American poets I come across a new one, new to me, whose voice speaks to me.

IMG_3541

In this case my wife gave me Howe’s 1997 book What the Living Do. It has lots of poems about surviving the death of a loved one, but also tons of poems about growing up an American girl that warrant re-reading many times.

Many are deceptively simple in that they read like a story. She describes what happened straightforwardly, with an odd eye for detail, and you wonder, “Is this a poem or not?” By the ned you realize the economy of words was part of her poetic method, and you’ve just been treated to a spare collection of images that describe a happening, and hint at something universal, in the space of a minute.

Take “The Copper Beech.” As a writer who often says too much and needs an aggressive editor, I’d give my right hand to be able to write a poem so simple with my left.

The Copper Beech

          By Marie Howe
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.

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.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_1902

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.

 

Tales of Tales

My head spun when I saw the film Tale of Tales last week and only realized afterward that it was directed by the very same Matteo Garrone who made Gomorrah in 2008.

Gomorrah (which is one of a dwindling number of features you can watch and re-watch on Netflix streaming) felt like a cinematic beating. A sprawling, Neapolitan-language gangster film set in the Naples housing projects, with “Martin Scorsese presents” splashed across it, it felt like you were tapping the same main root that Mean Streets had come from – but even more shocking in its violence, and even more unwieldy in how diffuse its several narratives are.

tale-of-tales

Salma Hayek with John C. Reilly (on left).

I liked Gomorrah (written by Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano based on Saviano’s book) just as much when I re-watched it this week as I did in the theater. Its hyper-realism feels like an urgent wake-up call, and the de-centeredness of the story something like a magazine profile of organized crime as seen by its low-level operatives, some with tragic falls, some with more subtle compromises.

Tale of Tales is based on another Neapolitan book, by the 17th Century folklorist and author Giambattista Basile. (It’s funny to think that, while the Pilgrims in Massachusetts were splitting hairs about salvation, ever fearful of witchcraft, another Christian across the ocean was writing about witchcraft and magic, committing Rapunzel and Cinderella, among others, to paper for the very first time.) Filmed in English, the script is again by Garrone, Braucci, Di Gregorio, and Gaudioso.

Tale of Tales, though I enjoyed it, is a lot harder to love, I suppose because the fairy tale setting makes my expectations go through the roof. You don’t have to tell me what the world of fairy tales is like; it’s full of witches and princesses and ogres, I know that. So you don’t get a pass if you make merely situational drama.

When I watch a fairy tale I want a Freudian slap across the face, not an exercise in trying to weave some thematic coherence out of loose-ended stories. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Jacques Demy film Donkey Skin (1970), one of his under-watched films after Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and also (true confessions) The Princess Bride. They’re all three a bit second-rate with special effects compared to their contemporaries and clearly labors of love. Donkey Skin is a tight narrative with a clear protagonist and through-line, whereas Tale of Tales talks around the through-line and makes you surmise it.

Tale of Tales 2

One of the memorable images from Tale of Tales is the (newly) young princess in a moss-covered wilderness, red on green, a palette Garrone used in Gomorrah: blood gushing from gangster’s heads onto an Astroturf patio. Like Gomorrah, Tale of Tales is gruesome and a bit moralistic. Even when you see the payoffs coming, you’re still in suspense. Garrone is the center of a circle of writers on top of their game, making stories that are clearly theirs. Even if it’s not my game, I have to say “Bravo.”

Music to Remember My Father By

You could call my father a lot of things, but a country music enthusiast he was not.

He died four weeks ago today, from complications from Alzheimers. He’d been diagnosed almost eight years ago, and made a slow descent until the last few days, when he suddenly began letting go in a hurry. One of the cruel things about Alzheimers is that you have to hurry to get your “good-bye” in. Otherwise, you get a sad feeling one day that you wanted to say something but didn’t get your point across, followed by the realization that the best conversation you’ll ever have with your parent is already in the past.

My father Hugh Bowe and me.

My father Hugh Bowe and me.

I had the honor of delivering my father’s eulogy at the Saint Gregory the Great Church, across the parking lot (“the macadam,” the nuns used to call it) from the Catholic grammar school I attended through 4th grade. I felt I’d been handed an opportunity to shape my family’s memory of him. I also knew enough about writing to know that you have to pick one theme, and that’s about all you get.

My father was a laboratory glass salesman who learned to golf on “caddies day.” He was a big fan of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. He had a legendary sense of humor that, like Groucho Marx’s, was both charismatic and occasionally cruel at the same time. A working class kid from a broken home makes good, raises a family and becomes a professional, but stays true to his roots, peppered by a few of his funnier anecdotes: That’s a slam dunk of a eulogy, but what was the theme? The spin? The bit of license the eulogist can exercise?

I chose to remind everyone what an intensely private person he could be: how, like many apparent extroverts, Hugh needed a lot of time to himself. A lot of miles in his Buick between sales calls across New Jersey. A lot of hours on the driving range. And Friday nights he was always sacked out on the living room rug, listening to The Sounds of Sinatra, with Sid Mark.

Saint Francis, in my back yard, this morning.

Saint Francis, in my back yard, this morning.

I wasn’t around the morning the funeral got planned. I left that to my mother and one of my brothers. I had to come back to the city, ostensibly to pick up my suit, but I managed to turn it into a full day of wandering around by myself. Like father, like son. I didn’t know what hymns they’d chosen, but took it as a matter of course that we’d sing the “Prayer of Saint Francis,” and we did.

My father’s taste in music is a topic my family never gets tired of. Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Ella, Sarah, Tony Bennett. He thought Broadway was the epitome of good songwriting, and that Broadway ended in 1960 or so. He loved hearing live jazz, and gave no-name musicians in faraway cities his rapt attention. Any time the topic of poetry came up, he would say that good songs were poetic, and would offer “Lush Life” as the prime example. We played it many times at his viewing.

Knowing someone with Alzheimers, you fully appreciate the depths to which music affects the brain. Hugh could sing entire verses long after his ability to hold a conversation had gone. The last few times I saw him, when he wasn’t speaking and didn’t appear to recognize me, you could put on the Mills Brothers, and he’d exhale a low hiss of a laugh.

My mother, since age 70, has developed a taste for Led Zeppelin and The Who like never before, but my father never came around regarding his kids’ rock LPs. He was once in stitches listening to “Ziggy Stardust” in the car: “’So where were the spiiiiders?’ What the hell?” Good question, dad.

But worse than rock, an aesthetic affront to everything he stood for, was country music. “Shitkicker music,” he called it. He couldn’t fathom why the British invasion bands loved Americana so much. To Hugh, music was aspirational. It must try to be as fine as it possibly can at all times. Country music was crude, maudlin, and politically suspect.

As a kid, I figured jazz and jazz singers were the Establishment, the kind of people who got medals at Kennedy Center. To my father, they were the sounds of his ascendant generation, and he was as attached to them as we were to rock. To hell with the stuffy WASPs and their classical music. Ahmad Jamal was as good as any concert pianist. A new kind of refinement was possible, and among its charms it was on the right side of the defining social issue of its day, racial integration, and it was simply excellent music on the face of it. Why on earth would anyone resist it?

I had to move to Minneapolis in my 20s to discover country. Saturday afternoons on KFAI radio there was an honest-to-goodness blind, steel guitar-playing deejay named Johnny Field. Trying recipe after recipe from The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking while smoking Midwestern ditch weed, I was seized by the beauty of George Jones, Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Buck Owens, Hank, Merle, Tammy and many others.

The songs were simple and nostalgic, often rough around the edges in execution, with intentionally clunky rhymes, but had a less-is-more elegance about them. They had more in common with the Beatles and the Kinks than Gershwin did. And, they had this habit of mixing gospel songs into their sets, and that blew my mind. Faith, to a mid-20th Century person, even a practicing Catholic, is a little bit corny. It isn’t something you’d tap your foot to while on a date, but Johnny Field could play “If You Got the Money, I Got the Time” followed by “The Cup of Loneliness” or “Old Brush Arbors.”

Yet more birds!  Roy Clark's 1971 gospel concept album, "The Magnificent Sanctuary Band."

Yet more birds! Roy Clark’s 1971 gospel concept album, “The Magnificent Sanctuary Band.”

These American hymns have gone into standard rotation on my “by myself” playlist – music having become, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “the aural wallpaper” of life. I confess to a morbid fondness for Catholic dirges, but I’d never listen to “Faith of Our Fathers” while prepping a dinner party. “Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus,” I could listen to every day, and have been.

A few days before my father died, a friend treated me to a Bob Dylan show at the Beacon for my birthday. Dylan’s currently playing a mostly blues set that’s almost entirely his music since 1997. People who’d come for his greatest hits seemed bored, but my friend and I were 100% in. His band is the closest we have to an American La Scala, and he’s Bob Freakin’ Dylan: If he thinks you should listen to blues versions of his new songs for two hours, then that’s what you should do. Like a good Catholic boy, I took his communion and crossed myself.

Maybe that cemented my attachment to Americana for the month. Maybe I also just needed to mourn my father, and contemplate mortality, and do so in private. In any case, even for us agnostics, gospel music is waiting to put its arms around us when we need it.

One day around Christmas, when the city was blissfully empty, I found myself alone at a bar. Friends had been checking in on me, and I was drinking and crying, and texted one back, “I’m good!” That got me laughing and drinking and crying, and I thought I’d better cut it short. I got on a 2 Train and sat next to a young West Indian guy who, honest to God, was reading How To Win Friends and Influence People.

I’ll play “Lush Life” when I’m with the family.

Balboa Discovers Pacific, 500 Years Ago Today

Today is the five hundred year anniversary of the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Nuñéz de Balboa. Although the exact date is disputed, it says so on today’s little square on my Porto Rico Importing Company calendar that the clerk gave me when I bought a pound of coffee there around Christmas, and that’s as definitive as we need to get.

Balboa discovers the Pacific.

Balboa discovers the Pacific.

During my pre-P.C. childhood (in more senses than one), I absolutely loved the maps of the Age of Exploration. Da Gama keeps turning left to round Africa. Cabot. Magellan. What a bunch of lunatics. But I always had a special place in my heart for Balboa, because his “discovery” seemed so sad. What happens when we find a vast new land and destroy its people? Anything is possible. We are, like Herzog’s great conquistador he created during the Vietnam War era, the wrath of God.

One day, though, we discover that on the other side of that enormous lump of paradise is another ocean. There is only so much conquist-ing one guy can do. Our dreams are finite, and no matter how little we thought the world was, it’s even littler than that. In my 2nd Grade imagination Balboa was putting his armored feet in the water somewhere around San Diego, and his achievement seemed like the final American discovery: the end of the continent.

I showed a comedy script* to a director named Soham Mehta a few years ago. It had a supernatural element, and some magical moments, and in the last act it sprawled out right where it should have gotten tighter. Mehta’s most insightful comment was that when anything is possible, you don’t know the parameters of the possible outcomes you are hoping for. It’s something storytellers should keep in mind – or at least a principle we should observe by not introducing game-changing elements too late in the story. Give the reader/listener/viewer the pleasure and the respect of knowing the whole terrain of the land before proceeding to the final confrontation.

No one is raising a glass for Balboa today, and it’s not the same lightning rod of an anniversary that Columbus Day, 1992 was. Maybe exposés of the actual, genocidal nature of the Age of Exploration are passé. Maybe there just isn’t a Spanish-American community with a knee-jerk attachment to Balboa the way the Italians took to Columbus. (When the Bay Ridge Italians first suggested naming the Brooklyn-Staten Island bridge after the explorer Verrazano, Robert Moses scoffed that he’d never heard of him.) To me, though, today does define the Age of Exploration. It’s the day you realize you can’t have it all, and have to make real choices.

*Script as in screenplay. Screenwriting has been going on almost daily. More news soon.

The Wizard of Oz and the “Holy Shit!” Moment Every Script Should Have

Part One: The “Holy Shit!” Moment

I found myself standing before a room full of non-profit executives in New Jersey a few weeks ago, asked to talk about storytelling. I figured I should start by reviewing what a story is, but I can’t stand the “grand theories that explain everything” type of story analysis, so I reread or skimmed five books about screenwriting and mythology from my shelf and came up with my own list of story elements I more modestly called “Eleven Things Most Stories Have Always Had.”

It is beside the point of this post, but they are: 1. Main Character or Hero. 2. Exposition. 3. Unique Opportunity or “The Call.” 4. Major Theme. 5. A goal. 6. A dynamic character. 7. An antagonist. 8. Inner conflict. 9. Setbacks. 10. Divine intervention. 11.Climax.

One thing I omitted from my list on account of my audience – since I wasn’t talking to screenwriters, but to administrators – is the “Holy Shit!” moment. In a three act story, this is the moment in Act Two when things go from bad to worse. No matter how screwed your hero thinks he or she is, he realizes he’s much worse off than he ever imagined.

It’s the moment in Jaws when Brody sees the shark up close for the first time and can only stammer, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” An even better example is the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends have finally gotten an audience with the wizard, and the wizard says, in essence: Did you see that witch who was threatening to kill you on your way here? Go get her broom!

Its delivery is better in Oz than in Jaws because you the viewer have been set up for it better. In Jaws it’s just a matter of scale: You knew it was a big shark, and now you know it’s a bigger shark. In Oz, that witch has been bothering your heroine on and off the whole time. You don’t know yet that the wizard is a big phony, so it’s an unimaginably cruel and impossible assignment straight into the heart of danger. “Holy Shit!” you figure. The one thing that you already know would be hardest for the main character to face is now the exact thing she’s facing.

When I’m reading a script, if it starts to lose me somewhere in the middle, I often suppose it can be fixed by adding a “Holy Shit!” moment. Suppose one of the hero’s friends turns against him. Suppose that kind old lady is also a zombie. Suppose the snitch has to run from the cops AND the drug gang now. Suppose the pilot passes out and now the woman who’s afraid of heights has to fly the airplane. It’s the moment when the plot hits the accelerator because:

1.the antagonist is worse than previously thought (the bigger shark); 2. now you’ve pissed that antagonist off; 3. a plain shitty set of coincidences has suddenly made things harder; or 4. by trying to fix things, your hero has inadvertently made things worse.

Of course ‘adding a “Holy Shit!” moment’ is like adding an earthquake to a landscape. It requires redefining two tectonic plates and repositioning the fault line to that moment. A good writer prepares the viewers for the “Holy Shit!” moment without letting on that they’re being set up, and then re-imagines the rest of the story based on the new reality.

When I am revising a story, I try not to read ahead. There is no future point where your story HAS TO go. There is only the present, and the one question you are always answering: What happens next?

There was a time, 1956 to be precise, when The Wizard of Oz hadn’t been on TV yet, and it was another well-liked, not altogether successful 17-year-old movie that most people still hadn’t seen. Even it had a present tense, and was full of surprises. I’m sure audiences reacted to the “Holy Shit!” moment the way the lion did.

Part 2: The Wizard of Oz As Shorthand For the American Mind.

I love baiting my screenwriter and playwright friends by telling them that The Wizard of Oz is the best film ever. As writers, what we appreciate in films is often the authorial voice: the director or the writer has a narrative plan, and takes us there one step at a time.

The Wizard of Oz had three directors and numerous credited and uncredited writers. It already had a long life as a book, in vaudeville, in films, and in sequels to all of the above. It had close to mythic status in that the public already knew the characters and gist of the story by 1939. All this in just 39 years: It was about as old as The Godfather is now.

I am guessing that there is already a body of psychobabbly theory about why it has become a shorthand, not just for screenwriters, but for all kinds of stories. The only book I’ve ever read about it is Salman Rushdie’s long essay for BFI Film Classics, which – apologies to the living literary saint – didn’t teach me very much.

You could say that the stars aligned over Culver City in ’38, and Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and Frank Morgan all happened to rattle off master works at the same time. You could also say that a handful of artists knew exactly when to put their foot down for something good within the studio system; they had to fight to keep “Over the Rainbow” from being cut, for example. You could also say it is a movie about something universal, a girl at the very end of girlhood. It is arguably the most sexually repressed story of all time, or possibly the most ingenious, under-the-radar celebration of sexuality ever put on film:

Dorothy looks like a 17-year-old dressed in her little sister’s clothes. A tornado (puberty) has sent her to a mystical land (adolescence), and she lands there literally bouncing on her bed. It’s no easy passage, however, and childhood doesn’t just give up. She has landed in Munchkin Land, a place where people live in permanent semi-childhood, and babies are hatched from eggs. The leading civic institutions are the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild. The munchkins practically worship a Good Witch, who visits by descending in a pristine ovum, but the Wicked Witch, the Satan of their cosmos, carries a disheveled broom, a surrogate pubic bush. Dorothy magically finds herself wearing the Wicked Witch’s ruby slippers (the blood of her deflowering), which the Witch naturally wants back. Since Dorothy just wants to go home, the Good Witch and munchkins cheerily send her off all by herself to the guy who can help, the Wizard of a color-coded city. On her way, she meets the Scarecrow, a sexless guy who joins her. If there is any doubt about his intentions, their first encounter with the Witch’s minions is a slap-fight with a grouchy apple tree, who refuses to let them taste the fruit. Instead of defying God and eating the fruit, as heroes do in myths around the world, they defy the fruit itself and provoke a fight with the tree, who throws its own apples at them as they run off. Dorothy and the Scarecrow, two of the greatest characters Hollywood ever imagined, get to have it both ways for a time: They tricked sexual maturity itself and got to wander deeper into the wide world of adults, while keeping their childhood camaraderie intact. Next they meet the Tin Man, with a habit of crying so much he rusts himself stiff. He is dad, more effective than a scarecrow, but nonetheless male and sexless all at once. Next they meet the Lion, the fully developed sexy guy, who immediately chases Dorothy around, ostensibly to eat her, but also by implication to rape her. Only he turns into an even mushier, simpering pile of pathos. The lion is the hair metal guitarist who tempts girls like Dorothy when they go to college. His greatest secret is that he promises pure physical sex but needs his hand held even more than the others do.

Frank Morgan (Wuppermann) in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Frank Morgan (Wuppermann) in Green-Wood Cemetery.

And that’s one of our greatest national myths, a perverse exercise in cruelty and crude sexual metaphors. It would lose steam once the lion joins the crew,  so the writers upped the stakes temporarily with the poppies, followed by the the counter-narcotic offensive launched by the Good Witch, followed by the most definitive “Holy Shit!” moment in cinema.

Part 3: “Well! Bust my buttons!”

It turns out, Frank Morgan is buried at Green-wood Cemetery just a short stroll from my home. The man behind the curtain, who also played four other parts in the film, is with his family in their plot: the Wuppermann’s.