Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Photo of the Day: The Clock “In the Middle of the Town”

"How can you ever be late for anything in London? They have a huge clock right in the middle of the town." —Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live, March 5, 2013

I took the photo accompanying this post in late January 2013, on a short but intense business trip to London. But Big Ben began operating on this date a long time before that—on this date in 1859, to be exact. 

At the time, it embodied the latest in clock technology—and it still happens to be awfully good in that regard. But nowadays, it’s also seen--rightly--as an architectural landmark.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Love and Friendship,’ In Which a Hubby Is Found Wanting)

“What a shame you married Mr. Johnston: too old to be governable, too young to die.”— Lady Susan Vernon (played by Kate Beckinsale), to American friend Mrs. Johnson (played by ChloĆ« Sevigny), on her far older husband, in Love and Friendship (2016), written and directed by Whit Stillman, adapted from the novella Lady Susan by Jane Austen

This past weekend, dying for some cinematic fare besides Captain America vs. Superman, or whatever the latest crossover-hero nonsense out now is called, I used the excuse of a long weekend and the need to escape from the remorseless humidity to see Love and Friendship.  It turned out to be a marvelously droll costume comedy about a middle-aged widow looking, as many Jane Austen moms are wont to do, to get her daughter into a marriage that will ensure both their futures.

While the daughter is assuredly a sweet young thing, the widow has the market cornered on the kind of charm that sends men clear around the bend. It helps that said widow is played by Kate Beckinsale, whom a friend of mine (and he knows who he is!!!!!) has classified as a DHBB—i.e., “Dark-Haired British Beauty.”

For far too long, Ms. Beckinsale has languished in flashy, big-budget fare that doesn’t allow her much room to emote—the likes of the Underworld vampire franchise and the equally pale From Here to Eternity knock-off, Pearl Harbor. It’s nice to see her as a Regency-era Circe who, for all her conniving, charms modern audiences as much as the men of her time.

It’s also good to see her back with her co-star of The Last Days of Disco, Ms. Sevigny. Come to think of it, that’s the last film that I think gave Ms. Beckinsale ample room for her talent. Is it any accident that the writer-director of that movie is the same one involved in her current triumph, Whit Stillman?

After his first three critically acclaimed films (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco), Stillman, like Ms. Beckinsale, hit something of a creative trough, with only one film, Damsels in Distress (2011), which quickly sank. With luck (and, perhaps, some friendly prodding from potential financiers of his films), he’ll write another project with Ms. Beckinsale in mind very, very soon. Maybe he can transplant themes from Austen in a modern setting, as he did with his 1990 rookie effort, Metropolitan?

(By the way, this might be a good time for a shout-out to the costume designer of Love and Friendship, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. It wasn’t until I went searching for an image of Mrs. Beckinsale from this film that I realized how often she appeared in black and in hats that, though ostensibly meant to convey that her character is in mourning, always, uncannily, display her to best advantage.)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Photo of the Day: 745 Plaza, Midtown, NYC

Amid the giant glass corporate buildings of midtown Manhattan, there aren’t anywhere near enough public parks like this one, a through-space running from 49th to 50th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. That’s reason enough to celebrate it—and for me to take this photo.

Quote of the Day (Stephen Crane, on a Soldier’s Death)

“The tall soldier turned and, lurching dangerously, went on. The youth and the tattered soldier followed, sneaking as if whipped, feeling unable to face the stricken man if he should again confront them. They began to have thoughts of a solemn ceremony. There was something rite-like in these movements of the doomed soldier….

“At last, they saw him stop and stand motionless. Hastening up, they perceived that his face wore an expression telling that he had at last found the place for which he had struggled. His spare figure was erect; his bloody hands were quietly at his side. He was waiting with patience for something that he had come to meet. He was at the rendezvous. They paused and stood, expectant….

“Finally, the chest of the doomed soldier began to heave with a strained motion. It increased in violence until it was as if an animal was within and was kicking and tumbling furiously to be free.”—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) began in the period after the Civil War to honor the dead from that conflict. By common agreement, Stephen Crane (1871-1900)—who was not even alive while the war was raging, and so never witnessed the events he described—produced the most vivid summary of the common soldier’s experience under fire.

That experience is, for Henry Fleming, far different from the romantic vision of glory he had expected. With chaos bursting all around him, he deserts his unit—only to find, when he links up with it again, that the “tall soldier” of this passage, his friend Jim Conklin, has been fatally wounded.

In reading the Library of America’s volume of Crane’s collected Prose and Poetry, I came across the short story “The Veteran.” I imagine that Crane wrote what was, in effect, a short coda to his most famous work to satisfy those who wanted to know what happened to his alternately vainglorious and confused protagonist.

In it, Fleming is identified as having fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville, a resounding Union defeat marked by confusion. In sharp contrast to the novel, where he is almost always referred to as “the youth,” Fleming is called by the omniscient narrator of the short story “the old man.”

In fact, at the time of this story, Fleming would be somewhere between his late 40s and mid 50s—not really what we would think of today as old. But the war has surely aged him, and in few instances so much as the death of Conklin, a sight horrible enough to haunt him the rest of his days.

In the most real sense, America remains as haunted by the Civil War as Henry Fleming is by Jim. The nation’s wounds were gaping and raw, especially in the South—enough so that, during Reconstruction, a balance could not be achieved between reconciliation and rights. We live with these consequences today, in the form of racial resentments that shows little sign of abating.

"Old" Henry Fleming dies putting out a fire in “The Veteran,” in an act that makes literal what Abraham Lincoln called the Civil War: “this fiery trial.” Even as we honor the soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice in the Civil War and all America’s other conflicts, it would do well to remember that victories on the battlefield are made necessary by peacetime political failures, before—and, sadly, after—the gunfire rages.

(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1951 film of The Red Badge of Courage, starring Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier of World War II. His wartime memoir—adapted for the screen with Murphy playing himself—was entitled, appropriately enough, To Hell and Back. In the 26 years between his return from Europe and his death in a plane crash, he was afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder—a late casualty of the war.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Flashback, May 1966: Dylan Caps Prolific Period With ‘Blonde on Blonde’

Bob Dylan unintentionally put a punctuation mark on perhaps the greatest creative streak that any solo artist has had in the rock ‘n’ roll era with Blonde on Blonde. There seemed no limit to his creative productivity, so much so that  this latest creation was released this month 50 years ago as a double album—a first for the recording industry.

Blonde on Blonde was the third studio album in only 14 months, following Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, in which the formerly acoustic Dylan used an electric guitar in pursuit of a "wild, thin mercury" sound. The lyrics had evolved, too, away from the early protest songs characteristic of so much folk music of the time to a more personal, poetic, phantasmagoric, even perplexing style. 

Although artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Byrds had already soared on the charts with Dylan-penned songs, Blonde on Blonde gave him more hits, rendered in his own offbeat voice, than any of his albums to date, including “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” For the free-form FM rock music stations that would take off in a few years, several other songs would also receive heavy airplay: “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine),” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands.”

That summer, a motorcycle accident sidelined Dylan (a mystery-shrouded incident recounted in this prior post of mine). When he emerged with another studio album, John Wesley Harding, in 1968, it was as an artist more conscious of his mortality, obligations as a family man, and the need to tone down expectations of grandeur.

Not that Dylan hadn’t experienced a musical metamorphosis before. It had just been easier to ferret out on Bringing It All Back Home, where the acoustic songs were presented on one side and the electric ones on the other. In contrast, Blonde on Blonde listeners would be hard-pressed to determine which material was performed before Dylan switched recording from Columbia Records’ Class A studio in New York down to Nashville, where he could avail himself of veteran country musicians.

Among these players, Dylan felt comfortable enough to experiment with his vocals. As George Starostin, author of this post on the “Only Solitaire” blog, notes: “Bob sings here in a significantly lower register than he'd used to before; and since so many of the songs are taken at relatively slow tempos, this gives him the opportunity to draw out, twist, mutilate, and make otherwise suffer as many syllables as he wishes to — including that odd manner of adding a rising tone to everything that's stressed.” Don McLean’s “American Pie” alludes to Dylan as “The Jester,” and perhaps on no other LP (except as part of The Traveling Wilburys in the late 1980s) did Dylan don this guise so insistently as on Blonde on Blonde.

Over the years, other artists have offered stunning recordings of songs from Blonde on Blonde—notably, Richie Havens’ majestic “Just Like a Woman” and Cliff Eberhardt’s aching “I Want You” from the 2001 A Nod to Bob tribute album. But it would take live versions of a couple of others before I could properly appreciate them—in particular, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine),” performed by Dylan with The Band on his 1974 tour (and released on the resulting album, Before the Flood), and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” given a rollicking treatment by George Harrison in Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Tribute concert.

 While “Just Like a Woman” is often claimed to have been inspired by Dylan’s affair with model Edie Sedgwick (see the line "her fog, her amphetamines and her pearls"), three of the 14 songs on the album are widely believed to have been inspired by the woman who became his first wife, Sara Lowndes: “I Want You,” “Visions of Johanna” and the 11-minute epic “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (so long that it was given an entire side of its own). The breakup of their marriage also gave rise to what is arguably the last consistently great Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks.