Sunday blog: Erik Satie, by Jean Cocteau

 

 


 

The above (the original of which hangs in our living room) is an engraving of Erik Satie by the French author / artist / provocateur Jean Cocteau. Cocteau dashed it off from life around 1915, liked it, and reproduced it many times during his lifetime; it made him a lot of money.

 

Here is the provenance of my copy:

 

     

  • It was one of a number of engravings in a portfolio given by Cocteau to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1950s.

  • Upon Shostakovich’s death, it went to his daughter Galina.

  • Upon Galina’s death, it went to her widower,

  • who sold it to a dealer,

  • who sold it to me.

     

 

Satie (who died in 1925) was a well-known crackpot. If he knew I had this engraving hanging on my wall, he’d probably be furious that Cocteau made so much money off his image. On the other hand, he might get a kick out of it.

 

Cocteau (who died in 1963) would be delighted that his work was still being admired, though he’d probably find my living room too bourgeois. Given that he was a capitalist to the teeth, he’d also want to know how much I paid for his work.

 

Shostakovich (who died in 1975) would probably just shrug. I imagine him saying: “Oh, was that mine? Yes, I think I remember. Oh, well. I’m glad it didn’t get thrown away, anyway.”

 

I’m glad too.

 

 


 

Happy fun science time

 

 


 

Where is George Gamow when we need him most?

 

Gamow was an eminent twentieth-century physicist. He was also quite the jokester. He was also, miracle of miracles, a competent and entertaining popularizer of science.

 

Popularization is a difficult thing to do well, but Gamow had the knack. He could explain things simply, using effective and appropriate analogies, and he was never ridiculous or condescending. He could be funny, and witty, and sharp, and never childish.

 

Which brings me to the state of modern science programming on television.

 

The PBS of my childhood was education, education, education. It had the production values of a community-college class, with only half the charm. Then in the late 1960s PBS learned to be sexy and sophisticated, with programs like “Masterpiece Theater,” and funny/folksy, with programs like “Sesame Street.”

 

Then came “Cosmos.” Even thirty years later, it’s a beautiful program: poetic and sweet, full of good solid information, much of which is still valid. Most importantly, it does not talk down to its audience. It’s a little twee at times, with its dandelion-seed spaceships and huge closeups of Carl Sagan’s mug, but these are small flaws.

 

Then PBS took a wrong turn. Instead of learning from the success of “Cosmos,” they drew the wrong conclusion from “Sesame Street.” If you can teach kids the alphabet by showing them thirty-second clips of fuzzy blue monsters singing catchy tunes, can’t you dress up the sciences in the same way? It can be bouncy and fun and magical, and –

 

Okay. Go watch an episode of “Through The Wormhole With Morgan Freeman” and see if you can figure out the problem.

 

Do you see what I mean? The analogies are suddenly strained and silly. The effects, instead of explaining the science, are just Matrix foofaraw, science-fictionish and cute.

 

Worst of all, we have the Scientist as Rock Star.

 

In “Through The Wormhole,” for example, we have Garrett Lisi, the theoretical physicist / surfer. He explains quantum physics to us on the beach in Hawaii while wearing a wet-suit. Radical!

 

There’s a 1990s series called “The Astronomers” that’s just as unwatchable, for all the same reasons. It features astronomers – perfectly nice people, smart, devoted to their craft – and presents them as dynamic entertainers and fascinating people in their own right.

 

Well, the science may be fascinating, but the people aren’t, usually.

 

And if I see one more archaeologist in an Indiana Jones hat, I will throw something heavy at the TV screen.

 

The high priest of this whole Science Is Fun! movement is Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s the life of the science fair, and his sense of humor is perfectly adequate to keep fourth-graders amused. He attached himself early on to the Pluto-is-not-a-planet movement, which got elementary school children involved – not in learning science, but in writing adorable letters to Neil deGrasse Tyson about how much they love the planet Pluto. (Anybody remember Art Linkletter?) Tyson squeezed a TV program out of it, somehow.

 

There’s definitely a wonderful science program to be made about the outer solar system, but this isn’t it.

 

I vividly recall an episode of Stephen Colbert’s show when Colbert invaded the Smithsonian and assaulted Tyson with some real honest-to-God straight-faced adult satire, asking ridiculous questions with a straight face. Tyson looked alternately bewildered, angry, and terrified. He had no idea what was going on.

 

Prancing around a stage will get you attention, especially from children. But you need something a little deeper, more solid, to make a real impression. It’s no good encouraging children to believe that physicists get to surf all day. It’s far better to throw the science out there – as well-presented as you can manage – and hope it falls on a few patches of fertile soil; a few children who might grow up to be scientists, a few adults who might feel enriched by the experience.

 

George Gamow, wherever you are, please come back. We need you badly.

 


 

 

The ballad of Sonny Tufts

 

 

 


When I was a kid, there was a recurring joke on the old Jay Ward cartoon shows.  Someone would invoke the name of an old forgotten celebrity, and everyone would react with incredulity and amazement.  It was a combination of “Who the hell are you talking about?” and “Why the hell are you talking about him?”

The name was Sonny Tufts.

Here’s the story (paraphrased):

Radio show, early 1940s.  An  established movie star is finishing up his run as the announcer on a dramatic series.  He doesn’t know who his replacement is; he’s just doing a cold reading of the script he’s been handed.  It goes something like this:

“Thank you for tuning in tonight.  This is my last broadcast, and I have been glad to spend time with you every Sunday evening.  Tune in next week, when your new announcer will be – “

(Long pause.  Now, in a voice of total amazement:)

– Sonny Tufts?”

I do not need to tell you that this never really happened.  This story came from the same bizarre fantasy world that spawned the Uncle Don story, and the Bozo no-no story, and the day Julia Child dropped the turkey on the floor.

But no matter.  Sonny Tufts became a byword.  You couldn’t say his name without everyone in the room chorusing, in mock disbelief, “Sonny Tufts?”

Sonny was an actor. He was pretty cute, actually. His body of work, however, is scanty.  You may peruse it at IMDB, and I will bake you a batch of brownies if you have ever seen any of this movies (with the exception of “The Seven Year Itch,” and quite frankly I don’t think of that movie as a star vehicle for Sonny Tufts).

Then, of course, there were Sonny’s personal eccentricities.  Here is a summary, taken from snopes.com:

  • 1948: Actor Edward Troy fractured his knee while “riding piggyback on Movie Star Sonny Tufts” at an Arizona resort motel.
  • 1950: Sonny and three companions were arrested for public drunkenness after Los Angeles police spotted them “tight-rope walking” down the white line in the center of a busy street.
  • 1951: Sonny’s wife sued him for separate maintenance, claiming that he had been jobless for over a year and was “dissipating their community property” on alcohol and luxurious living.
  • Also 1951: Sonny and Hawaiian actress Luukiana Kaeola (of whom I can find no trace in IMDB, or Google for that matter) were arrested as “transient drunks” after arguing with a night-club cook over an unpaid bill for $4.55 worth of fried chicken.
  • 1954 (this is my favorite): Sonny was sued by two female dancers who claimed he had bitten both of them on the thighs.  In separate incidents.
  • 1955: Sonny was sued by a 22-year old woman who claimed he had approached her in a restaurant, “mauled her, then pinched her so hard she screamed.”
  • And finally, 1957, the year of my birth: Sonny and a female companion were jailed for public drunkenness after the two of them collapsed in a heap on the Sunset Strip.  Sonny managed to get a cut above his left eye in this incident.

Ahem.

There’s a great lyric in the Kinks’ song “Can’t Stop The Music”: “Let’s all raise a glass / To the rock stars of the past: / Those who made it, those who faded, / Those who never even made the grade, / And those that we thought would never last.”

Sonny definitely never made the grade.  He devolved into a walking joke.  And yet: here we are, talking about him, reminiscing about that warm evening in 1948 when he took Edward Troy for a piggyback ride in Arizona.

There are worse kinds of immortality.

To your health, Sonny.


 

 

Mazel tov, George and Brad

 

 


 

The legendary Lana Turner was fortunate enough to count the handsome Lex Barker, one of the movie Tarzans, among her husbands.  (He was quite a specimen, if you can’t quite remember him.)  After their wedding, a reporter asked Miss Turner (only in Hollywood are you still “Miss” immediately after the wedding): “What’s the first thing you’re gonna do on your honeymoon, Lana?”

And Miss Turner, gloating over her brand-new cutie-pie husband like a glutton over a bucket of fried chicken, said: “I’m just gonna look at him for a while.”

Trust me, I am the last person in the world to believe in Hollywood romance.  I was born just before the whole Eddie Fisher / Debbie Reynolds / Elizabeth Taylor fiasco, and I think there must have been something in the air in those days that conferred immunity to studio publicity.

But I get all mooshy when I see photos like the above.

You’ve got to understand that gay people have never had the opportunity to see nice pictures of our favorite gay stars cavorting down the steps of the Elvis Chapel after getting hitched.  Heaven knows we didn’t even have “favorite gay stars” (although we know very well now who was who and what was what – don’t we, Tab Hunter?).

I am the last person in the world to insist on Rita Moreno’s Law (“Stick to your own kind”). Gay people can act straight and vice versa.  I am in a paralysis of joy when I watch the oopsy-daisy delicacy of Eric Stonestreet portraying Cam on “Modern Family.” And Neil Patrick Harris is satisfyingly straight ‘n sleazy on “How I Met Your Mother,” and did an adorable straight ‘n sentimental in the “Dr. Horrible” series.

But it is immensely satisfying to see gay people on the screen, and point at them, and holler: “Comrade!”

So, when I see Neil Patrick Harris arm in arm with his partner David Burtka, and David Hyde Pierce with Brian Hargrove, and Alan Cumming with Grant Shaffer, and Jane Lynch at the Emmys with her new wife Lara Embry, I shed a genuine tear of joy.

 

I have no illusions that these are perfect relationships.  There ain’t no such animal.  But I rejoice that we get to see those incandescent moments of happiness, those brightly-lit newlywed photo ops, for gay couples too.

Finally we – gay people! possessors of a genetic predisposition for movie appreciation! – get to moon over romantic Hollywood photo spreads and say: “Don’t George Takei and his husband look nice in their white tuxes?”

 

The above picture, with its double punch of domestic bliss and Star Trek nostalgia, hits me with a double whammy. It’s delicious. It’s a moment of pure perfect bliss in an ocean of Tea Party insanity.

 

I’m with Miss Turner. I’m just gonna look at it for a while.


 

The death of the bedroom TV

 


 

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually watched a TV die.

 

It’s like watching a family member get sick.  You notice odd little things – cough, weight loss, pallor – and all of a sudden they’re thrashing in delirium.

 

Well, the bedroom TV has evidently decided that it is reaching the end of its days.  We were watching some stupid movie on Saturday morning, and all of a sudden Partner said, “Look at the corners of the screen!”

 

Green.  Bright green.  The picture was bleeding outward, and the four corners of the screen were bathed in an eerie Shrek-colored glow.

 

It’s not all the time.  I think it only happens after the TV’s been on for a while.  It’s an old TV anyway – probably between ten and fifteen years; Partner bought it from a coworker some years ago for twenty-five bucks, I think.  It’s a real dinosaur anyway, big and fat and heavy, the way TVs used to be as a rule.  And it generates heat like a sumbitch.

 

It makes me remember the black-and-white TV I grew up with.  It was probably purchased not long after I was born – a big console model, a Zenith, I think.  Then, after ten years or so, for no apparent reason, its picture began to shrink, bit by bit, the longer the set was on.  Finally, after four or five hours, the picture would disappear completely – kapow! – into a demonically bright little pinprick of light in the middle of the screen.  (I held my eye up to that tiny spot of light more than once, and I swear to you that I was sure I could see the entire TV image in there.  In retrospect, of course, putting my eyeball directly in line with a pure beam of cathode-ray emissions probably wasn’t the smartest thing I could have done.)  You had to turn the TV off and let it cool down when that happened, and sometimes, if the moon was in the right phase, you could resume your viewing after a while.

 

But we all knew the TV was doomed.  That’s when we bit the bullet and got our color TV.  The sick black-and-white model moved into my dad’s den in the basement, where it lived in fitful retirement for many years; Dad mostly watched “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” anyway, so the picture quality didn’t make too much difference.

 

TVs don’t seem to break down the way they used to.  I somehow don’t believe they’re better made than they used to be, so there must be something else going on.  But then, we don’t use them up the way we used to; we replace them.  In the old days, a TV was a serious investment, and you used it until it broke or exploded.  Nowadays you’re always shopping for a good deal, or a better model, or something a little sleeker.  You’re not replacing a broken device; you’re just buying a slightly better/newer one.

 

Partner and I are of two minds on this subject.  Partner likes to replace things.  I, on the other hand, am a grim Calvinist, and believe in riding the horse until it whimpers in exhaustion and dies.  (Well, not always.  The lure of shiny new things speaks to me too.)

 

But the TV in the bedroom is spitting up rancid electrons as we speak, so there’s not too much debate over what happens next.

 

See you at Best Buy.

 


 

The continuing story of Peyton Place

 

 


 

The late lamented Harry Golden wrote that, when he was a boy, he kept a scrapbook of all of the top news stories of the day. Years later, when he rediscovered it, he found that the news stories weren’t really that interesting; the really interesting stuff was on the reverse side of each clipping – peaches for two cents a pound, a fire on 43rd Street, a birth, a death. History is one thing; everyday life is another thing, and a greater thing.

 

A few weeks ago I found a DVD set of the first season of “Peyton Place” – thirty-one episodes – for a couple of bucks. Peyton Place! My god, my mother and sisters used to live for that show in the mid-1960s. I wasn’t allowed to watch; it was too racy. Since the 1960s, the show has mostly been just a memory; there have been a few airings – apparently the Romance Classics Network (!) showed it some time back. But getting my hands on this DVD set was too good to be true. Finally, at last, forty-six years later, I was going to get to see what my family wouldn’t let me see in 1964.

 

It has been a revelation. The pacing is slow, much slower than modern shows, and the dialogue goes in misty circles. It is amazing how much gets said without even using the right words. One of the characters, Betty Anderson (a lovely young Barbara Parkins), gets P-R-E-G-N-A-N-T by town playboy Rodney Harrington (handsome Ryan O’Neal) – and somehow the show gets the message across without using the word, or even a euphemism. Betty looks troubled. She walks around the old pillory in the town square and meditates on being shamed publicly. She goes to the doctor. She’s upset. “Does Rodney know?” the doctor says sympathetically. And there you have it.

 

I generally think of soap operas as slow, slow, slow. Not “Peyton Place.” In the first couple of episodes – the first disk of the set – I was treated to teen pregnancy, infidelity, spousal abuse, alcoholism, and “frigidity,” not to mention broad hints about intimations of illegitimacy, mental illness, and lots of other spectator sports. (Am I the only one who thinks Norman Harrington was maybe gay? Or as close to gay as 1964 TV could make him?) Censorship is jabbed at early on by Constance Mackenzie, the owner of the town bookstore, who wishes that a book would be “banned in Boston” so that it would sell better. (Don’t forget that the original novel was pretty scandalous in its day, with heaping helpings of incest and rape on top of everything else.) Matt Swain, the avuncular newspaper editor, makes a thoughtful little speech about the Bill of Rights. Rodney joshes about joining the Peace Corps. We get constant reminders that, in a little New England town like Peyton Place, everyone knows everything about everyone, and scandals and rumors lie thick on the ground.

 

Now I understand why my mother and sisters ate up this show so eagerly. It was real life, everyday life, dressed up with a fancy hairdo. It was actually smart sometimes. The young people are dreamily beautiful. The older people, like characters in a mystery play, look exactly the way they’re supposed to look: tired, intense, severe, gentle, thoughtful, troubled, angry. The street scenes and exteriors are Anytown USA. There are pregnancies, and marriages, and romances, and breakups, and estrangements, and reconciliations.

 

At one point, Alison Mackenzie, talking about her dreams for the future, says: “I want everything to happen.”

 

And everything does.

 

And that’s everyday life, in the continuing story of Peyton Place.

 


 

American idiots

 

 


 

 

Emily Dickinson said real poetry made her feel as if the top of her head had been taken off.

 

I had that experience on Saturday.

 

Partner and I went to see “American Idiot” on Broadway. If you’re as out of touch with popular music as I am, you will need to be told that this show is based on the Green Day album of the same name. Partner had seen some scenes on the last Tony Awards telecast and was very interested in it. I was a little dubious; I had bad memories of a road production of “Movin’ Out,” the Billy Joel-inspired ballet/musical, and after an hour’s worth of Twyla Tharp-style leaps and twirls to the tune of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” I decided that stage shows and pop music do not mix.

 

I was wrong.

 

This is an amazing show. Everything pops. The set is a busy amalgam of rock concert, living-room furniture, fire escapes, and a compact car suspended by chains over stage right. And video screens everywhere, chattering through the whole show. And light projections, sometimes mimicking the action, sometimes commenting on it, sometimes disagreeing with it.

 

The talent – well, it’s Broadway, you really don’t make it onto the stage unless you’re pretty good. Everybody in the cast was able to sing, and dance, and act, and do gymnastics, and play the guitar. I kid you not. Everybody.

 

And the dancing! This is not Twyla Tharp. This is angry dancing. This is ugly dancing. When the choreography was supposed to communicate fighting, or sex, I found myself holding my breath, thinking: Oh my god they’re actually doing it.

 

And then there are the songs. Every new musical I’ve been to for years has had dead spots and meaningless songs. “We need a song here – go write one. How about a ballad?” (The “Spamalot” number “The Song That Goes Like This” says it better than I ever could.) “American Idiot” does not have a single wasted song or dead spot. The ballads, when they come along, are actually a welcome relief to the propulsive energy of the show; you get a chance to catch your breath before the next onslaught.

 

When we came out, Partner and I were both incredibly buzzed, and had to walk around for a while to get rid of the energy we’d built up during the show. New York is always sensory overload for me anyway, so I was deaf and blind for a few minutes as we jostled our way down 44th Street.

 

But Partner told me a story later about something he’d seen right after we came out of the theater.

 

In among the crowd, he saw a mother dragging two kids – a boy around thirteen, a girl maybe fourteen – out of the theater. The boy had a rapturous look on his face; he’d obviously really enjoyed the show. And then his mother shrieked: “I don’t want you to get any ideas! I don’t want you to come home smelling like drugs and dragging girls home with you!”

 

Partner said the boy shrank into himself, going from ecstasy to sullen defensiveness in a matter of seconds. The boy turned to his sister. “You liked it,” he said accusingly. “I saw you crying.”

 

“I was not crying,” the sister said. “I thought it was boring.”

 

The mother did not get it. Maybe the sister got it and maybe she didn’t.

 

But the boy got it.

 

Once the top of your head gets taken off, there’s no getting it back on again.

 


 

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