Wednesday, April 29, 2009

20 Days in the City of Angels: The 12th Day (Getting Along)

Reginald Denny and his attacker

Certainly the city of Los Angeles and its hundreds of suburban communities were aware of the April 1992 trials, held in the outlying community of Simi Valley, concerning the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of beating Rodney King on March 3, 1991. We had all watched the tapes, played over and over in the public media, of King's 1991 beating, and almost everyone I knew was outraged by the police brutality. Although the police and their lawyers declared that King was violent, resisting arrest, and insisted that not everything occurred as it seemed on George Holliday's amateur camcorder, we felt it represented a truth that was hard to erase. Both the tape and pictures of King after the incident testified to the outrageous anger of the police.

It came as somewhat a shock, accordingly, when on the afternoon of April 29th, 17 years ago from today, the jury decision came down at 3:15, acquitting all four officers of assault and acquitting three of the four of using excessive force.

That night, however, was something that few of us could have imagined. It began at about a quarter of seven as many in the city were watching the evening news. At the corner of Florence and South Normandie Avenues in South Central Los Angeles, crowds had been gathering for some time. Suddenly they attacked a stopped truck, dragging its white driver, Reginald Denny, from the vehicle, beating him, culminating in someone throwing a concrete fragment at his head as he lay unconscious in the street. News helicopters hovered over the entire scene, and dinnertime watchers were forced to witness not only the beating but the horrible whoop and dance of derision by one of Denny's attackers. Police stayed back from the scene, and Denny was saved only by an African-American, Bobby Green, Jr., who, watching the scene on television, rushed to the location and drove Denny, in his own truck, to the hospital.

Other beatings followed, including a local construction worker, Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant who was pulled from his truck and robbed of almost $2,000 while Damian Williams slammed a stereo into Lopez's head and another rioter tried to slice off his ear. Upon losing consciousness, Lopez was spray-painted by members to the crowd across his chest, torso, and genitals.

The terrifying savagery of these events, witnessed by millions of viewers, horrified the city. Within about an hour and a half, the entire area near Florence and Normandie had been looted and burned, and rioters began moving into other neighborhoods, torching cars, beating drivers, looting stores, and burning homes and offices; even a Black bookstore was destroyed. Protestors at the police headquarters, Parker Center, began to throw rocks at the entryway to the building. Responding firefighters throughout the city were met with rocks and gun-fire. Some flights at Los Angeles International Airport were cancelled or diverted. The police seemed to have disappeared as a mad and frenzied lawlessness had exploded into the streets.

By the morning of April 30th Los Angeles mayor, Tom Bradley, declared a state of emergency and California Governor Pete Wilson activated the National Guard.

That same morning, I received a call from my shipper, Reggie Jones, a Black man who lived in South Central. In a hurried and near-breathless tone he recounted the horrors of the night, how numerous homes near where he and his family lived had burned to the ground, how intense the noise had been, and how he had spent much of the night attempting to put out local fires which the Fire Department were unable to reach. "I feel like I'm sort of reporter calling in from the warzone of some foreign country," he gasped.

"Reggie," I think it may be safer if you don't try to come in today, particularly since you do it on bicycle." He agreed, but by about noon, Reggie arrived, almost out of breath.

"I just couldn't stay there anymore. It was just too difficult to remain," he explained.
At 12:15 Bradley announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and Reggie and I began talking about possibly closing the office—located on one of the major thoroughfares of Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard—early. Soon after, I received a call from my companion, Howard, who reported that the museum had suggested its employees leave for the day. As he crossed the street to go home, he'd encountered a long line of cars and trucks, each filled with shouting beings, armed with long sticks and guns. I ran to the porch of my office and saw the procession moving toward us.

Together, Reggie and I watched as they jumped from the cars, vandalizing and looting the May Company department store (now part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), located a block from the Sun & Moon offices. Again, there were no police in sight.

I quickly demanded that Reggie come inside with me, locking the doors. As the angry procession passed us without incident, I told him we should both leave while we could. He agreed, but was determined to stay a bit longer, hinting that he had nowhere else to go. As I left, I told him to keep the doors locked.

I quickly walked home, looking back only to see the violent revelers attacking a small shopping mall just west of me. We later heard that the cars and rioters had been turned back at the edge of Beverly Hills, a few blocks further west. The police there were evidently not intimidated. But the gang, in turning, attached a sports shop, loading up, so I heard, with guns and other weapons. Fifty-three people died over the six days of the riot.

At home everything was eerily quiet, but as I sat watching the television set in horror, I suddenly told Howard that I was afraid that Reggie left without locking the door. He had forgotten the keys to the building before, and there was every reason that he might have forgotten today.

Howard and I began to drive toward the office using the back way, taking Eighth Street instead of Wilshire. Not a soul was in sight. But suddenly out of nowhere a car came racing toward us, almost forcing us to take to the sidewalk, the driver and passengers screaming obscenities to us as they passed.

The building was wide open. I quickly locked it and returned to the car, and we rushed back home again.

As the sun begin its slow set, the television helicopters revealed hundreds of fires throughout the city. At times it looked as if the entire metropolis was ablaze, and we could see the sky over our courtyard lit up with yellow and orange flames. Curls of paperous ash fell to our balconies and walkways. Yet a few minutes later, it seemed that every child in our building was in the pool, which our windows overlook. "Why are all the children suddenly swimming?" asked Howard.
"I think their parents were probably afraid of their watching any more television, and sent them out so they could play."

"That seems reasonable," Howard answered. But as we turned our eyes from the flaming city upon the television set to the screaming and shouting children frolicking in those blue waters the scene seemed surreal, as if somehow all those in our building could not comprehend the severity of the situation.

Finally, as darkness prevailed, and the children returned to their apartments, a strange quiet overcame everything as we listened to the newscasters softly echoing their dismay from nearly all the units of our condominium building.

By the morning of May 1st, the National Guard units had reached the size of 4,000, moving throughout the city in Humvees. Rodney King appeared on television, asking his simple, but profound question that would haunt the city for years: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"

Reggie called in, reporting that he and his girlfriend had spent much of the night helping to fight fires in our neighborhood, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's warehouse, near Pico Avenue.

Although no one could condone the acts going on about us, many of us also recognized the extreme bigotry of the community. While Los Angeles is always proud to boast that it is one of the most diverse places on earth, we also know that the layout of the city is a jigsaw puzzle of segregation, with the Hispanics clustered in the East, Blacks restricted to South Central, with vast areas to the West and North of these communities of Central Los Angeles populated by Japanese and, particularly, Korean immigrants. Hundreds of small Koreatown stores and shops had been hit by the virulent wave of riots, and Asians were particularly outraged by the absence of the police to protect their "American Dreams."

Despite a black out in areas that had been hardest hit, the night of May 1st was calmer. Sports games and other events had been cancelled. Public figures began to speak out, some, like Bill Cosby, attempting to alleviate the hostilities, others like George H. W. Bush, seemingly stirring them up by denouncing what he described as "random terror and lawlessness." Still other figures attempted to explain the African-American anger and resentment, pent up for years after the 1965 Watts Riots.

In some respects, all who spoke were right. The actions of the rioters were ugly and violent, and demonstrated some of the terrors we might expect when the city is hit by a strong earthquake—which will inevitably happen. But the police, long profiling individuals from the Black and Hispanic communities, needed to change their behavior and attitudes. It's hard to know whether those changes were ever thoroughly effected, even though Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates, lost his job because of police irresponsibility and inaction.

At the time, I attempted to put down some of my feelings and reactions in a letter I sent to a few friends, most notably Lyn Hejinian. Lyn seemed a little overwhelmed by what she read; I think she thought I had been a bit melodramatic. But even now, as I relive those awful few days, my eyes begin to tear.

Order was finally restored on the fifth day, and the curfew lifted on Monday, May 4th.
Can we all get along? Some weeks it appears that we have wonderfully achieved that goal, but at other times it seems we still have a long ways to go. But the answer is "yes," if only we seriously try.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2009

Describing this planned essay to my dear friend, poet Will Alexander, he noted that he experienced both the Watts Riot and the Rodney King Riot at "ground zero," and suggested the he also planned to write about his experiences. I strongly encouraged him to do so. We need a large number of recountings of those events, I argued, if we are to release ourselves from the hateful past these events represent and remind ourselves of the changes still necessary to bring this vast, disparate community of Los Angeles into a caring and shared future.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2009

Saturday, April 25, 2009

20 Days in the City of Angels: The 14th Day (All Shook Up) [on the Northridge Earthquake]

On Sunday, January 16, 1994, Howard and I traveled by car to Orange County to see a show at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Neither of us can recall what show we saw, but on our way back, I felt uneasy, for the first time, about driving beneath the vast interchanges of highways through which we had to pass.
That evening I inexplicably asked Howard as we lay in bed, "Do you know where your clothes are?"

He looked at me quizzically. "What do you mean by that?"

"In case there's an earthquake," I found myself saying. What had I meant? I hadn't been thinking of anything in particular; the words had simply slipped from of my mouth.

At 4:31 AM, our bed began shaking, and, as we ran into the living room with clothes in hand, the large roar* and shaking of what we knew was a serious earthquake continued. As I tried to step into my pants, I fell to the floor, startled by the fact that the shaking was continuing much longer than any temblor we had previously experienced. The quake lasted for about 20 seconds.

"Was that the big one?" I asked.

"Big enough," Howard responded.

We finished our dressing and took up a flashlight to inspect any damage. A large bookcase in our den had fallen across the desk, sending the computer to the floor, but little else was in disarray. We decided to check out my office, located two blocks away.

As we exited the front door of our building, however, a strange gathering had taken place. Several individuals stood on the terrace outside, looking out in one direction, as if there was something to see there. Everyone whispered, many hardly daring to speak. It looked like a frieze out of some disaster film: the silhouettes of these fearful people, some of them dressed only in bathrobes, eerily reminded me that people sometimes do imitate art.

Meanwhile, we could see a few men trying to pull back the gateway to our parking lot, locked because of the power failure. Howard and I helped them to pull it open part way, and a few cars drove off into the semi-dark.

At my office, only a few books had fallen to the floor, and I left them where they lay. Howard determined that we must go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, across the street, where he worked. The guards let us in, and another curator who'd immediately driven to the museum, led us through Ahmanson Building, where much of the ceiling had fallen to the floor. A large ancient Buddha lay in fragments, with a few specialists inspecting at the results. We were led on to what is now known as the Art of the Americas Building, where the modern and contemporary art collections were shown.

With a conservator in hand, Howard and I separately toured the several rooms on each floor, observing and calling out news of any fallen or destroyed objects. In one gallery, all of the small, beautiful sculptures of Degas's ballerinas had fallen to the floor. At the top of the stairs, the huge Anselm Kiefer sculpture, Das Buch (The Book), although held against the wall with hidden rope, had turned nearly 180◦. A few glassworks were shattered, but, all in all, the collection had primarily survived.

It was a painful experience, nonetheless, to access all of the damage that had been done.

The earthquake was not the big one, but, nevertheless, was the largest ever recorded by instruments in an urban area of North America. Centered in Reseda and Northridge, areas of the San Fernando Valley, the 6.7 quake, as we gradually discovered throughout the day, had destroyed hundreds of fireplaces, numerous homes and buildings, and, most startlingly, several major underpasses—precisely what I had feared the day before.

A short walk around our neighborhood revealed dozens of brick fireplaces laying on the ground. And just south of us, the underpass of the Santa Monica highway (the 1-10 Freeway), had broken in two pieces and collapsed. That afternoon, we walked down to see it, with dozens of others joining us along the way.

Later that day the power returned, and through television we discovered that there had been fires in the Valley and that a parking garage had completely collapsed, killing several people. Part of the Northridge Fashion Center had been destroyed. Overall, about 72 people were killed in the quake and 6% of structures were determined unfit.

The next day, my senior editor, Diana Daves, who lives in the Valley, called to report that everything in their kitchen had crashed to the floor, and that part of their ceiling was now on the living room floor. Their daughter, Molly, had been terrified as she became trapped in her bedroom.

For weeks, the stories continued. But, I think the most horrifying thing about the earthquake was our knowledge that, beyond the 20 million dollars in damages from this quake (later called the Northridge Quake), we had still to face a much larger and more destructive one in the future.

A couple of days later, I stopped into our local coffee shop, the famed Johnnie's, a place now closed, but still used as a location in dozens of films. The waitresses always seemed to be from another time and place: "Hi, honey," said my favorite waitress. "Hower you? And where you been?"

Los Angeles, April 22, 2009

*For those who have not experienced an earthquake, one of the most terrifying aspects of the event is the sound of everything shifting and twisting in space.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Irritable Comfort (on Howard Hawks's film, Rio Lobo)

This is the third in my discussion of Howard Hawks's three westerns he directed late in his life. To revisit the other two, go here:

Leigh Brackett and Burton Wohl (screenplay), based on a story by Burton Wohl, Howard Hawks (director) Rio Lobo / 1970

At times in director Howard Hawk's last film, Rio Lobo, it almost seems as if he is tempting the Hollywood idols. Except for the dozens of brilliantly comic one-liners of Brackett's script, the story is a shaggy dog tale without any "fur" to it. And it's hard to imagine a cast of less convincing actors than the Mexican heartthrob Jorge Rivero (whom Wayne addresses as "Frenchy" throughout), Brazilian actress Jennifer O'Neill (Rio Lobo was clearly the best movie of her career), and future studio director, Sherry Lansing! Publisher George Plimpton plays the 4th Gunman. Even Jack Elam (standing in for Walter Brennan and Arthur Hunnicutt) and John Wayne, at his most laconic (in one of his first lines of the film Wayne reports to his soldier friend, "Ned, your neck's broken."), have seen better days. At one point, as the Rebels try to carry Wayne to his horse, they report what is obvious to all: "He's heavier than a baby whale!"

The film begins near the end of the Civil War as Col. Cord McNally (Wayne) and his Union soldiers attempt to transfer a large container of money from one town to another. The Rebels, headed by Capt. Pierre Cordona, whip up a plot to steal the money by greasing the tracks, rigging up trees with ropes, and tossing a hornet's nest into the armored car wherein the Union soldiers are contained. The plot succeeds, and McNally, determined to seek out the Rebels, is captured and forced to lead them out of harm's way. But as he quietly leads them around a Union encampment, he shouts out for the troops, and the Rebels are foiled.

None of these series of high adventures, however, has any major significance for the rest of the film. The War is declared over the moment the rebels are captured, and McNally treats his former enemies to a drink. Their actions, he reasons, were determined by war; the men he's after are the treasonous Union soldiers who clearly betrayed their own forces by leaking information to the other side. Neither of the Rebel soldiers knows the name of the two traitors. McNally charges Cordona and his friend, Tuscarora Phillips to report to him through the sheriff of Blackthorne, Texas if they ever encounter these two men again.

In Blackthorne, McNally awaits the appearance of Cordona, bedded down with a woman. Cordona has evidently encountered the men. Suddenly a gun-toting woman, Shasta Delaney (O'Neill) enters, demanding to see the sheriff: there has been a murder in Rio Lobo. Blackthorne sheriff Pat Cronin reports that it's our of his jurisdiction. Delaney reports, however, that the sheriff of Rio Lobo is corrupt and himself involved in the shooting. A posse from the nearby town arrives to take Shasta away. She shoots one of the men, Whitey, under the table and McNally finishes off all but one of the rest; the final posse member is about to shoot McNally in the back, when Cordona appears, pulling up his pants and shooting the other man dead. Whitey, Cordona reports, has been one of the traitors.
Shasta faints and Cordona insists that she should be taken to his room, as he dismisses the woman with whom he has just shared the bed. Shasta's awakening is one of the most humorous scenes in the film, and best conveys why Rio Lobo works despite its loony storyline and its unconvincing actors:

[Shasta wakes up in Cordona's bed after fainting]
Shasta: What am I doing here?
Cord McNally: Well, you fainted after you shot Whitey, so we put you
to bed.
Shasta: Wait a minute! Where are my clothes? Which one of you took my
Cordona: I did.
Shasta: Why?
Cordona: Well, we flipped a coin and I won?
Shasta: Where are your pants?
Cordona: You're sleeping on them.

Brackett, in my estimation, should have won an award just for those lines!

Off go the unlikely trio, McNally, Cordona, and Shasta, to Rio Lobo, 70-80 miles away, to save the day and restore and law and order. We know the formula: the three fall into a kind erotic relationship that strengthens their determination to protect each other, drawing others to their side.
While in the previous two films of Hawks's Western trilogy, Wayne was surrounded by weaker women and men, here McNally is himself a kind of agèd alcoholic, offering a round of drinks at every opportunity and demanding a swig of any liquor he can get. As the three spend the night in an old burial ground, McNally, sitting by himself in the cold, giggles in mysterious delight. Asked what he is so happy about, he answers: "I've had about the right number of drinks. And I'm warm, and I'm relaxed." Awakening the next morning to find Shasta by his side, McNally is startled. Shasta explains that she slept next to him because he was "comfortable." And it is clear that, if he is no longer a hero, he now represents a kind of irritable comfort, a safe place in a world of immanent dangers.
The rest of the story hardly matters. Of course they find graft and corruption facing them in Rio Lobo, as they are met with guns, imprisonment, and hate. A local bully, Ketcham has installed his man, "Blue Tom" Henricks as sheriff, and is trying to overtake the farms about. Tuscarora, Cordona's former Rebel partner, has been arrested on trumped-up charges. Visiting Ketchum's farm, the three overcome Ketcham, upon which Cordona reports that Ketcham is the second of the traitors. Forcing Ketcham to sign over the deeds of the stolen farms, McNally and his friends temporarily win the day. But, soon after, Cordona is taken by Ketcham's gang and an exchange, Ketchum for Cordona, is arranged. The local farmers join McNally and Delaney in the standoff, as Cordona dives to safety into a nearby river, and the evil gang is destroyed.

Paralleling the plot of El Dorado, McNally, who has been shot in the leg, walks off using his rifle for a crutch, while Amelita (Lansing) runs forward to help him walk.

Few critics, with the exception of The New York Times' Roger Greenspun, appreciated the film. And Greenspun's faint praise, "the movie is close enough to greatness to be above everything se in the current season," evidently produced a flurry of angry letters. Despite Hawks's apparently lackadaisical attitude about his last film, the work is extremely amusing and was one of the biggest earning films of 1970.

Los Angeles, April 18, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rara Avis (on Walter Braunfels's opera, The Birds)

Aristophanes The Birds, in Three Comedies, ed. by William Arrowsmith (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969
Walter Braunfels Die Vögel/The Birds, LA Opera, conducted by James Conlon / the performance we attended was the Los Angeles premiere, April 11, 2009

On April 11, 2009 my companion Howard and I attended the Los Angeles Opera premiere of composer Walter Braunfels's The Birds, a opera performed as part of their "Recovered Voices" series devoted to bringing attention to "lost operas," operas banned by the Nazis and neglected since.

Braunfels was certainly not the typical banned artist. Although part-Jewish, Braunfels had converted to Christianity after serving in World War I, an experience which transformed his view of life. The opera, begun before the War and finished after, premiered in Munich in 1920 and received at least 50 performances over the next few years. With its Wagnerian and Strauss-like harmonies, and its restatement of Germanic Romantic values, the opera, indeed, might have nicely served the Nazi cause had it not been that Braunfels was adamantly anti-fascist, refusing to write an anthem for Hitler. His music, accordingly, was labeled as "Degenerate" (Entartete Kunst), and he was removed from his position as co-director of the Hochschule für Musik Köln (the Cologne Academy of Music); Braunfels waited out World War II in Switzerland, returning to a post-War world in which his music appeared as old-fashioned and completely out of touch with its time.

Yet, as several music critics have observed, there is shimmering beauty to The Birds that creates a comforting sense of homage to Wagner and Strauss which easily enchants its audiences. Based loosely on Aristophanes's hilarious satire of Athenian society, Braunfels's version follows the journey of Good Hope and Loyal Friend to visit the head of the birds, Hoopoe, paralleling Pisthe-tairos's sudden inspiration—stimulated, in part, by his fear that he and his friend will be killed by the skeptical avians—that the birds regain their rightful place as rulers of the heavens by rising up against the gods and building a heavenly walled city in the sky. As in Aristophanes's play, Cloudcukooland is built and the birds, delighted with their success, award Pisthetairos (Braunfels's Loyal Friend) with their friendship and wings.

In Aristophanes's work, however, the building of the great city brings on a plague of visitors, each satirizing an aspect of Athenian society; Good Hope in the ancient version of the play is all but lost as Pisthetairos, one by one, mocks and wittily dismisses his "enemies," and, even outfoxing Zeus, marries the figure who translator William Arrowsmith describes as "Miss Universe."

From the evidence of his Act I, Braunfels may have originally intended to more closely follow Aristophanes, but Act II of his opera diverts the focus of the work away from Loyal Friend's grand schemes by having Good Hope fall in love with the song and being of the Nightingale, resulting in one of the most memorable of the opera's duets between tenor Brandon Jovanovich and soprano Désirée Rancatore. He further imbues Cloudcukooland with Utopian possibilities by adding a marriage ceremony and dance between Miss Dove and Mr. Pigeon (Yvette Tucker and Seth Belliston).

Omitting the series of visiting troublemakers to Cloudcukooland, Braunfels focuses instead on the mythic possibilities of the bird kingdom and the birds' hubris in attempting to rise up against the gods. Whereas Aristophanes's Prometheus comes to Cloudcukooland to warn his human friend, Pisthetairos, suggesting how he might outwit Zeus, Braunfels's Prometheus (brilliantly sung by Brian Mulligan) is more like Strauss's John the Baptist, a prophet crying in the wilderness.

The terrifying storm of lightning Zeus reigns down upon the upstart kingdom, reduces the birds and humans involved to the twittering, fearful creatures they had been at the beginning of the work. The Utopian world sought by Good Hope and Loyal Friend has been destroyed, perhaps Braunfels's presentiment that the Weimar Republic would not survive. Certainly he would not be the first German-language writer to predict the dangers that lay ahead; two years after the premiere of The Birds, Austrian writer Joseph Roth wrote a scathingly realistic portrait of the conspiracies of the radical right in his novel, The Spider's Web.

Yet Braunfels's work, with Good Hope's final insistence that his encounter with nature has changed him, healed him perhaps, an experience that will remain with him forever, merely reiterates the Germanic Romanticism that lay behind so much of the Nazi ideals. And in that sense, the dream of a militaristically-determined city-state, as presented in Braunfels's conception, may be a likely desire of another generation.

Los Angeles, April 16, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Acting and Perceiving (on Peter Handke's On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House)

Peter Handke On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, translated from the German by Krishna Winston. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).

The small village of Taxham—on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria—was constructed early-on in the manner of many villages throughout the world today, with barriers blocking most of its entrances and exits due to the highways, nearby airport, natural boundaries, and old military bases. In short, it is a city unknown almost to all except those that live and work in it.

Peter Handke's most recent novel, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, centers on one of Taxham's citizens, the local pharmacist, whose life, like that of the village, has been carefully constructed to keep others out and himself locked in. Although he shares his house with his wife, she and he have little communication and live in spaces (real and imaginary) that each other does not inhabit. His major activities other than the daily pattern of opening and closing the town's pharmacy, is a morning swim, his reading of medieval romances, and his love of nature which is particularly focused on the gathering, tasting and analyzing of various varieties of mushrooms.

Indeed for the first third of this work, he appears as an unlikely candidate for the fantastic fable that he, the narrator of the work, and Handke himself are about to tell. But one evening, while in the woods, his is apparently attacked and hit severely on the head. The injuries, which at first seem minor, are soon recognized as serious when, at the local airport restaurant, he is unable to speak. There, as if in a dream, he picks up two strangers—a former Olympic sports champion and a poet, both now down on their luck, and travels with them into a strange world, which, although later named as Spain, represents an archetypal city "of the night wind," as surreal as the worlds created by Kafka, Walser, Celine and other continental fabulists.

They've chosen the city, almost by accident, because the poet recalls that his ex-wife and a child he has never met lives there. But upon arriving in the strange Santa Fe, they perceive the city is celebrating a festival, and the poet can recognize very little. Although they find the house, his wife no longer lives there. Nonetheless, the pharmacist, now described by the other two simply as "the driver," there encounters, once again, the former woman friend of the ski champion in whose house they had spent the previous night and who had strangely enough entered the pharmacist's room and pummeled him in his bed; and he also recognizes, among the gypsy musicians, his own son, who had abruptly left his family years before upon being slapped by his father in the face upon the boy's release from the authorities for a petty theft. And soon after, the poet recognizes his own daughter as the queen of the festivities at the very moment she is arrested and taken off.

In short, the three together vaguely represent aspects of one being, and events in each of their lives recall and newly effect one another. In the days following the first evening of the festival, the town and townspeople gradually take on stranger and stranger qualities as a plague of near-madness begins to effect the citizens, one by one, each of them falling into tirades and attacking, for no apparent reason, others, often killing them. Upon saving his poet friend from just such a fate, the pharmacist realizes he must leave, and enters the seemingly endless vastness of the surrounding steppes.

Accordingly, Handke sends his character across a near-desert in a kind of pilgrimage into the self, the past, and all that in the bunkered-up village of Taxham the pharmacist has attempted to escape. The surreal voyage across this seemingly desolate and empty space—which we gradually come to see is actually filled with animals, vegetation and other itinerant voyagers—is a true literary tour-de-force, as Handke's anti-hero both suffers and finds, at times, near ecstasy in the inexplicable search for something different in his life. The vague magnet of this voyage is the skier’s friend, the woman described earlier in the book as "a winner," presumably a term applying to her appearance and personality, but growing in the pharmacist’s voyage to mean so much more: a winner in life, something as the young skier was, a champion, perhaps a prize.

Handke's hero does ultimately find something of value, his own voice, a reconciliation of sorts with the son (who is seen with the poet's daughter), and the discovery of love with the "winner." But the final section of the book is not a record of fulfillment and rewards, but a statement of the role and purpose of art. For life has returned to its usual pattern, slightly altered perhaps, but filled with the tedium of the daily repetition and workaday acts. The pharmacist, now designated as "the storyteller," has experienced something amazing, and he knows that he must record it, not only "tell" the story, but as he says the narrator, to see it in print, in "black and white." "I want to have my story in writing. From speaking it, orally, nothing comes back to me. In written form, that would be different. And in the end I want to get something out of my story too. Long live the difference between speech and writing. It's what life's all about. I want to see my story written. I see it written. And the story itself wants that." Handke brilliantly points up the differences here between the act of living and the recognition of it, the reception of those acts. They are not the same. As in this profound, short work, things simply happen in life, one is pulled, driven to it in a world where the acts themselves often make little sense, often seem to be without meaning; while art records them, reveals them, allows one to observe them, to give them substance.

Los Angeles, 2000

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Geriatric Heroes (on Howard Hawks' El Dorado)

Leigh Brackett (screenplay), based on a novel by Harry Brown, Howard Hawks (director) El Dorado / 1966

Seven years after filming Rio Bravo Howard Hawks produced the second film of his late Western trilogy, El Dorado, a movie, as countless reviewers and film historians have pointed out, that is extremely similar to the previous one. Here too, a Sheriff (J.P. Harrah, played by Robert Mitchum), in need of help to protect his small community, gains the support of an older deputy (Bull Harris, humorously played by Arthur Hunnicutt), a former friend and top gunman (Cole Thornton played by John Wayne), and a younger man who becomes involved in the acts almost by chance (Alan Bourdilllion Traherne, nicknamed Mississippi, played by a youthful James Caan). The only superficial difference in the two films is that this time around the Sheriff, himself, has become the alcoholic—also on account of a "no-good" woman—allowing Thornton/Wayne to step in as a kind of symbolic sheriff. Together this foursome, spurred on by the love of a local saloon operator, Maudie (Charlene Holt), returns the town to order through a shootout between Bart Jason and his men, who are trying to take over the water rights of another local rancher-family, the MacDonalds.

The various vagaries of the plot, the fact that Thornton refuses to sign on as Jason's gunman and accidently shoots one of the MacDonald boys, are of no great importance, for, once again, the theme here is friendship and the love and heroism it evokes. Indeed, as in the earlier film, the relationship between the men is embedded in a series of comical homoerotic metaphors. After an encounter with hired gunman Nelse McLeod and his gang, Thornton insists Mississippi wait with him while he warns McLeod and his men not to sign on with Jason. After insisting twice that the impatient young man wait with him in the bar, Mississippi blurts out, "Would you mind telling me why you have such a great passion for my company?"

Thornton has, in fact, saved his life; had he left the bar alone others of McLeod's gang would have shot him down in the street. By saving his life, moreover, the two men are symbolically wed. Before long, Thornton, insistent upon going it alone, is joined in his journey back to El Dorado with the young man. As they head into town, Mississippi asks Thornton,

"Well, where are we headed?
Cole: To see a girl.
Mississippi: To see a "girl?"
Cole: Yes, a girl! Don't you think I could know a girl?

And when the two men are sworn in as deputies by Bull, the script even presents us with a metaphoric wedding ceremony:

Bull Harris: Now, raise your right hand [they do as they are told]
I forgot the words, but you better say "I do!"
Cole and Mississippi: I do!

If in Rio Bravo the Sherriff and his gunman friend were getting on in years, in this movie Hawks practically turns them into geriatric figures. Thornton is shot early in the film by MacDonald's daughter, Joey, and suffers throughout much of the film from spasms, leaving his shooting hand temporarily paralyzed. Suffering from a home remedy for alcohol cooked up by the enterprising Mississippi, Harrah spends much of the later part of the film doubled over in pain, and, along with Thornton is shot in the leg. The final showdown is hilariously played out as both men hobble down the street on crutches, Mitchum's crutches sported sometimes on his left and, at other times on his right; apparently Hawks shot whatever he felt looked best, and later was forced to add a line to the film noting the inconsistency, as if Harrah suffered not only from gun wounds but Alzheimer's disease.

The two sheriffs may save the day, but by movie's end they are in sad shape. The next generation, represented by Mississippi and his potential relationship with the wildcat Western girl Joey, will clearly be different. While these men and Bull fight out of responsibility and honor, Mississippi, freshly in from the Delta, is fighting another kind of battle, a war of revenge. His best friend, a part-Cherokee river gambler has been killed, and over the years he has been seeking out and killing the murderers. This man of the new generation, moreover, does not even know how to use a gun; Mississippi prefers to kill his victims with a knife. Later, joining up with Thornton, Mississippi proves such a terrible shot that older man buys him a double-barreled shot-gun that splatters shots at everything in sight. Quoting Edgar Allan Poe's poem "El Dorado,"* it is clear that Mississippi's relationship to the West is a romantic one, that he sees Thornton as a kind of gallant knight who will soon ride in the Valley of the Shadow. Alan Bourdillion Traherne's refusal to give up his friend's river chapeau for a cowboy hat, makes it clear that, like the trumpet-toting Bull Harris—a remnant of the Calvary and Indian days of the early West—the values and heroism of Thornton and Harrah are almost a thing of the past.

Los Angeles, April 5, 2009

*El Dorado

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old,
This knight so bold,
And o'er his heart a shadow,
Fell as he found,
No spot of ground,
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength,
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow;
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be,
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the mountains
Of the moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied,
"If you seek for Eldorado!"

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Blindfold (on Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly)

Lugi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on the play by David Belasco and the story by John Luther Long, Giacomo Puccini (composer) Madama Butterfly / the production I saw was a recast in high definition of the Metropolitan Opera production on Saturday, March 7, 2009 with Patricia Racette, Maria Zifchak, Marcello Giordani, and Dwayne Croft

Nearly anyone who has seen an opera knows the story of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Having fallen in love with the dashing American Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, the fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio San marries him, despite the fact that in doing so she must give up her own family and friends. With Yankee haughtiness and a sense of superiority, Pinkerton scoffs at the American consul's advice that Cio-Cio San is taking the marriage seriously, and soon after, leaves her behind as he sails off to America and, ultimately, a "real" wife.

Meanwhile, Cio-Cio San trusts that eventually he will return, singing her famed aria "Un bel di," in which she describes one beautiful day when a ship will sail into the harbor, returning Pinkerton to her. Meanwhile, Cio-Cio, courted by local men such as the wealthy Goro, refuses to give up her so-called "American" marriage and ardently denies their insistence that Pinkerton has left her for good.

The consul, Sharpless, has been given the difficult task of reading a letter from Pinkerton to Cio-Cio, reporting that he has been married, and will not return, but she, so delighted to hear any word from her husband, cannot comprehend what he is attempting to tell her, and when Sharpless tries to explain the facts in a more outright manner, she produces her and Pinkerton's son whom she is sure will draw Pinkerton back to her.

Pinkerton, in fact, has already returned to Nagasaki, and has no intention of visiting Cio-Cio. When he does hear of the child's existence, he, his wife, and Sharpless, convince Cio-Cio's servant Suzuki, to break the news that Pinkerton and his new wife will adopt the son.

Finally, Cio-Cio, who has been blinded throughout the entire opera to the truth, has her eyes opened, realizing, in horror, her delusional condition. She asks Pinkerton, a man so selfish that he has refused even to face her himself, to return so that she may offer up the child. But we also know that she intends to leave him her own body, committing ritual suicide. Who could not be moved by Patricia Racette's dramatically convincing performance? The Lithuanian-born American next to us—who had never before attended a Met video performance—was in tears, as were Howard and I.

Belasco the original playwright and storyteller John Luther Long, upon whose work Puccini based his opera, was quite prescient in his fin de siècle piece, establishing a type, the ugly American, which has remained in place for all those years since, particularly in the context of the Korean, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In Puccini's hands, the dichotomy between the all-consuming Yankee and the self-sacrificing Japanese maiden could not have made clearer.

Yet, one can only recognize that it is Cio-Cio San's propensity for self-sacrifice is as much a problem in this relationship as has been Pinkerton's greed and disdain of her life. In her absurd innocence, she has been blinded not only to the impossibility that she could be recognized as an American wife, but has forgotten who she herself is and how her traditions and behavior conspire to permit the Pinkerton's of the world to prey upon such youths.

Puccini poignantly points up this fact by having her son, whom she has sent out to play, wander into sight just as she is about to draw the knife. To protect him, she blindfolds the child, sending him on his way. But in doing this she merely reiterates her own condition all along. Singing of her hope that her son will remember her at the very moment that she is about to disappear from his life, we can only perceive that were he to do so, it could only bring him great pain for the rest of his days. In Anthony Minghella's Metropolitan Opera production Howard and I saw, the child, "Sorrow"/"Trouble" was played by a Bunraku-like puppet, manipulated by three hooded assistants, which visually restated the child's future sense of emptiness, his destiny, perhaps, to join in the world of hollow bodies.

Accordingly, although the opera ends with a corpse upon the stage, we know that it is already a disappearing thing, representing as it does a way of living that will inevitably be replaced by the avaricious gluttony of the survivors.

Los Angeles, March 28, 2009