This is just the sort of thing that would have driven the famously neurotic Franz Kafka even crazier. Now his visage is condemned to always face city hall.
Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a good documentary about great artists who did a bad film.
Or, more precisely, “Film.”
Yes, “Film,” by Samuel Beckett. I first saw it in college, 30 years ago. What I liked then I still like: many of the visuals (once one gets past Buster Keaton’s eyeball). Here’s the opening:
The other thing I like, of course, is that it brings together Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton, at the stage director Alan Schneider, who did many Beckett and Pinter and Albee premieres, under the producing aegis of Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, to whom we’re indebted for publishing D.H. Lawrence, Hubert Selby Jr., and Henry Miller, censors be damned. For some of us, “Film,” released in 1965, would have been like an All-Star Game.
Unfortunately, it’s not very good. Even at 22 minutes, it makes its point too soon. Worst of all, it completely misuses the talents of the primary creators: Schneider was a stage director with no idea how to shoot a film (he blew most of the budget on the first day, shooting one scene that was later cut); Beckett’s ideas for the film are almost entirely intellectualized and impossible to translate effectively; and Keaton — a master of comedy and a justly legendary film director — is kept away from any input and in particular ignored when trying to introduce funny bits. Each is stripped of his actual gifts, his real talents. The end result is like what you’d have if you’d asked Michelangelo to sculpt with his nose.
What really brought this into focus for me was seeing the documentary “Notfilm” last night at a screening in North Hollywood, accompanied by a talk with the director. You can learn more about “Notfilm” here. “Notfilm” is concerned with the making of “Film” — the preproduction, the artistic antecedents, the production itself, its reception and its legacy. It’s a smart and fascinating film, and also a personal one, as director Ross Lipman gives us his thoughts about the film, its underlying meaning, and the confusions that arose among its creators. In one example of a smart decision, Lipman narrates it, which places the film squarely within the realm of his personal perception (which is the theme of “Film”).
“Notfilm” gives us two further satisfactions: For the first time ever, anywhere that I know of, we get to hear the notoriously reclusive and reticent Samuel Beckett’s recorded voice. And we get to see just how one can make a two-hour documentary about a 22-minute short. There’s something ironically anti-Beckettian about that.
Two authors died today, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.
Ms. Lee wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that was largely derided in its debut as being unbelievable, because the 6-year-old narrator was too wise for her age. I didn’t care; the book, in its simple goodness and in its arch morality tale, stuck with me, as it did with so many.
More recently, Ms. Lee was reputed to have written — or to have had discovered — another novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” I read several excerpts of that book, which featured several of the characters from “Mockingbird,” but 20 years on, and decided quickly that a full visit to that book would have ruined the previous book for me, so I stayed away. I also suspected that the novel was not so much “discovered” as cobbled together, or raised by witchcraft in some fashion, because of the millions of dollars in sales that would surely follow. (And did.)
So, in full, I read one book by Harper Lee. That was half of her oeuvre, and it was the half that counted.
The great contemporary Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote dozens of non-fiction works and collections of essays, of which I read a few, and seven novels, of which I read four in translation, which I consider to be the essential four: “The Name of the Rose,” “Foucault’s Pendulum,” “The Island of the Day Before,” and Baudolino.”
“The Name of the Rose” was a masterpiece — a 1983 novel that greatly affected me in its ruminations over the nature of justness and proper religious observance, and also as a reminder of what was the 1300’s had in common with our own time, and what was strictly alien. In the novel, the lead character, a monk serving as a Sherlock Holmes of his time, is the owner of the latest innovation: an early set of spectacles that enable his fading eyes to read. The entire novel centers around the question of what is proper for an abbey in its obeisance, to wit: Is it proper to laugh, given that no mention is made in the Bible of Jesus ever having laughed? When your worldview is based entirely upon a literal reading of an ancient text, this is a pressing question, and is made immediately relevant to every literate reader asking himself every day what is right, and what is wrong. That vast passages of “Rose” are in untranslated Latin served only as a further inducement to think a little harder, to research, to parse out the meaning. This was a book that one leaned into intellectually, and, at the same, it was a thriller, with a murderer on the loose. It stands as a great achievement.
“Foucault’s Pendulum” (1989) is even moreso a game, in which Eco debunks the conspiracy theory from “The Holy Blood the Holy Grail” (which I had read previously) that Jesus had sired an heir and that a conspiracy everafter secretly controlled human events. “Holy Blood,” which in its center photo spread hilariously included an image of the authors’ believed current descendant of Jesus, is the book that ultimately led us to the accursed Dan Brown novels that started with “The Da Vinci Code.” As a novel, the fault in “Foucault’s Pendulum” is a series of extended dream sequences / journal entires that can be completely skipped; my brother Ray had warned me of the time, and I sneered inwardly at the thought of skipping any part of a book, but later I found to my dismay that he’d been entirely right, that the journal entries were irrelevant, and that the novel would have been stronger without them. Nevertheless, all the other areas of the book are extraordinarily compelling, as one is pulled along on the trail of a conspiracy, and led to a very strong conclusion, with Eco again playing his strong cards: marrying an intellectual pursuit with a classic suspense thriller.
With “The Island of the Day Before,” my interest in Eco diminished, and my capacity for skipping pages grew. I even found it unable to finish the book. What I remember of it is that it took place on a ship where time seemed fractured — and that I didn’t care a lot, in fact at all, about any of it. It was now 1995, 12 years after “Rose,” and I’d discovered many other authors, most notably Rilke and Tolstoy, far more worthy of my time.
In 2001, having almost sworn off Eco, I put “Baudolino” on my Christmas list — and found myself surprised and delighted by it. Here, again, was the Eco I enjoyed: a wry commentator and occasional satirist drawn to the story of an earlier Christianity, but skeptically. In addition, it afforded the opportunity to learn a lot about the 13th century AD, the Holy Roman Empire of its time, and a great early Germanic leader — things I’m always curious about and don’t know enough about. And the book was a romp — it wasn’t a great achievement along the lines of “The Name of the Rose,” but it was fun to read, pulling you along like iron filings to a magnet.
And then… Eco produced three more novels, and I left him behind. “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” sounded too close in theme to “The Island of Day Before,” centering around a character confused about his whereabouts and his past, and by the time “The Prague Cemetery” (2011) and then “Numero Zero” (2015) came along, I had moved on. Given that I have 79 novels on my bookcase waiting to be read, it’s doubtful I’ll return to Eco.
I’ve had a history with both of these authors, as each of us has with anyone whose art we’ve followed, whether it’s David Bowie or Eugene Ionesco or Darrin Bell. I never expected anything great again from Harper Lee, but I’m glad for what I got (both the novel and the movie version). With Umberto Eco, it only gradually occurred to me that “The Name of the Rose” was a singular achievement, and that I shouldn’t expect it again. How delightful it was, then, to find in 2011, after reading all 11 novels of Julian Barnes, that his most recent, “The Sense of an Ending,” was his very best. All of them, mind you, had been good, with all of them having flashes of greatness, but “The Sense of an Ending” showed a greater sense of wisdom and insight than all its predecessors put together — its lucidity about adulthood remains astonishing, and so the novel remains one of my most recommended. (That, and this one, which I promise you is elegantly written and unexpectedly incredibly moving.) I felt rewarded for having stayed in the game.
My friend Jodie Schell — a fine actress and rock and roll singer — shared this on Facebook three years ago. I meant to post it then, but forgot, but I recently found it and it still speaks to me.
“The guy hired to fix the floors in our building has been here all week but doesn’t speak English. He never talks to anyone but when he thought he was alone he would sing these gorgeous ballads. I wish I could speak Spanish, but I can’t so I spoke up today and said, ‘Beautiful voice. Beautiful voice.’
“He tried to talk music but I couldn’t understand. So he said: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water?’ …’Yes,’ and I laughingly started to sing it. He said ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ …’Yes’ and I started singing that too. Then he slowly and painstakingly tried to explain that in Guatemala he was a professor of language and ‘tiaretra? tietra? what?…oh literature! oh wow.’ – but moved to the states because his son wants to live closer to his mother. I brought up Pedro Calderon de la Barca. He brought up Walt Whitman. And we laughed about how little and how much we understood from each other. He snagged my post-it pad and wrote Alejandra Guzman and Joan Manuel Sarret (I guess that’s my homework).
“Before he left, he explained in a lot more broken English, ‘I [studied] poems to get closer to woman. But …in the end it made me …human.’ “
I wish the Beckett estate would lift the embargo so the first (and only) season of this could be released on DVD or streaming.
Well, I guess ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
If you were going to name Los Angeles’ most highly regarded and famous writers, Ray Bradbury would be near or on the top of that list.
When you go to Baltimore, you can visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house. The same with the homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and others. (In fact, Whitman has a bridge named after him.)
But, this being LA, now that Bradbury’s dead, the new owners have torn down his house. Because, well, it was just a house. Right?
That’s the start of many a joke. But you’ll have to tell me how funny you find this after reading it. This is a true story from a close friend of mine who is fighting cancer. My friend is doing well — he’s certainly in good spirits, and the scans he shared with me show great progress in treating the cancer.
My friend compares this situation to something out of Ionesco, and it certainly conjures up theatre of the absurd. But I think it would be funny if it weren’t depressing, or, maybe, depressing if it weren’t funny, so that makes it a bit more like Beckett. (Which I prefer on the stage, and not in medicine.)
OK, so even though I feel fine my Red Blood Cells and White Blood Cells and other things are completely out of whack.
One more transfusion (three units this time). Hopefully I’ll be good for this coming Thursday.
Eugene Ionesco (the absurdist) comes to oncology
Arriving at Dr. M–’s office on Thursday I went to the receptionist’s desk and signed in as per usual.
Receptionist – Last name, please.
Me – [name]
Receptionist – Oh, you’re here for an infusion. Just go right in to the center.
Me – No, I have to have blood drawn and see Dr. M– first.
Receptionist – I don’t see you on his schedule. You’re just here for an infusion. Go right into the infusion center. Through that door there.
Me – No, I have a card that says I have an appointment with Dr. M–. I have to have blood work done before the infusion and I have to see the doctor.
Receptionist – Well you’re not on the schedule. Go on into the infusion center and they’ll draw your blood and take your vitals, and I’ll check with Dr. M– about seeing you.
Me – OK, but no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except George.
Receptionist – What?
Me – George told me that no one should put a needle in me except him. I am telling you what he told me. Maybe you should check with him.
Receptionist – OK, just go into the infusion center and I’ll check with George.
Me – OK, thank you.
R– and I go into the infusion center and see the head nurse.
Me – I’m here for an infusion but I’m supposed to have blood drawn and then see Dr. M– before that.
Nurse – Uh, OK. Have a seat and we’ll take your vitals and draw some blood and then we’ll see if Dr. M– is available to see you in here.
Me – OK. George told me that no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except him.
Nurse – What?
Me – George told me that he is the only person who’s allowed to stick me with a needle. I’m telling you what he told me. Maybe you can check with him.
Nurse – OK, well take a seat and we’ll get your vitals.
We sit. Nurse comes over with a tray to draw blood.
Nurse – It’s OK, I can do it.
Me – Uh, OK.
The nurse looks at my arms, chooses a vein in the left one, swabs me down and inserts the needle.
Nurse – There, that looks good. Oh, the vein collapsed.
Me – George said he’s the only one who’s supposed to do this to me.
Nurse – OK, I’ll be right back.
She removes the needle, puts on some cotton and tapes it in place. She leaves.
Ten minutes later . . .
Nurse – [name], go down the hall and see George.
Me – OK.
We get up and troupe down the hall, nurse in tow (I don’t know why) where George is waiting. He sees the bandage on my arm.
George – What are you doing? No one is supposed to stick you except me.
Me – I told them three times.
George – Never let them poke you. Just come and see me.
Me – I told them.
George – If they tell you something else just get up and come down here and yell my name.
Me – They also said I had no appointment.
George – well you do now.
Nurse – he was only scheduled for an infusion.
George – He can’t be infused without seeing Dr. M– and doing his blood work. That’s crazy.
We go into an examination room and I sit on the table. The nurse sits down right beside me, looking at George as if to say, “OK, show me what you got.”
George pulls out a new needle and swabs, looks at the nurse and says,
George – You can go now. I don’t need an audience.
Nurse – But, . . .
George – You can go. You don’t need to be poking him anymore.
George – Don’t ever let them do this to you again.
Me – OK . . .
George picks his vein, inserts the needle, gets a good location and draws the blood. No muss, no fuss.
The rest of the appointment went as usual. Dr. M– came in. We talked about Scotland, and movies and then he told me my blood work was in sad shape, and I wasn’t infused (as previously stated). If I had let them do what they wanted to do I might be in very bad place right now.
George also told me to come and see him to put a needle in the next time I have a CT or PET scan done in the radiology center down stairs. “Just come up here and I’ll put it in. Don’t let them do it.”
Apparently George owns me now.
(of a poem exalting
What does Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road sound like when “transcribed” by a computer into piano music? Like this:
Sounds about right.
South Coast Rep just mailed me a postcard for the world premiere of Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds. Here’s the description:
“Jamie enjoys a quiet life in his small Pennsylvania town, fixing up his grandfather’s old lake house and pining after Mary, his troubled coworker. But when his brother comes back to town with a new girlfriend, Jamie’s peaceful world is turned upside down. A tender story about those who stay and those who go away — by one of the country’s hottest young writers.”
It’s a long drive down to Costa Mesa, although I’ve done it often enough when it was a play or playwright that interested me. This doesn’t sound like one of those times. But here’s what I find annoying: when they bill someone as “one of the country’s hottest young writers” — I’ve seen this before — as though young is an advantage of some sort. It’ll be better somehow because the playwright is young. (Which makes me wonder just why Shakespeare and Beckett are done so frequently, because they’re not only old, they’re also dead.) Now I’d like to see someone do the new play by, say, Sam Shepard and bill it as “by one of the country’s coolest old writers.”