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The Old Myths Have Faded; New Ones Are Needed

11 Apr

 

Homer

Homer, the blind poet

 

Zeus, most powerful of the Olympic gods, is the protector of guests. Remember this when you sit down at diner with enemies.

 

An ancient Greek tradition requires you to be hospitable to all who visit under your roof, be they friends or enemies. This honored and revered tradition is known as Xenia. If a guest is not treated properly, Zeus could intervene on their behalf.

abduction-of-helen

The abduction of Helen

Paris of Troy ignored Xenia and ignited a war when he ran off with Helen, the wife of his Greek host.  In recent times, a ghastly violation of Xenia was depicted in the famous Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, where all guests were slaughtered.

Red-wedding

Shock at the Red Wedding

Xenia and other intricate facets of ancient Greek culture come down to us through myths. The myths are extensive and far reaching. They involve great heroics, tales of morality, flawed character, the foibles of gods and humans, desire, lust, misjudgment and so much more.  The myths also help explain the world and how it got here.

Pillars-of-hercules

A statue honoring Heracles and his pillars

For example, it was Heracles (aka Hercules) who connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. While traveling to the end of the known world, he reached an impasse. Rather than climb a mountain,  he broke though one and created a narrow strait to the ocean, leaving what we know today as the Pillars of Hercules. From ancient Greek stories we learn how peacocks got their colorful tails, why once-white ravens are now black, and how two people, told by the gods to build a small ark, repopulated the world after a great flood by tossing over their shoulders stones that turned into men and women.

Fight-between-lapiths-andcentaurs

Drunken centaurs creating havoc

The importance of these myths to Greek culture, and later to Roman and European culture, is shown by the art they inspired. A piece of  pottery from the 6th century B.C. shows Bellerophon destroying the fire-breathing Chimera. A first century Roman sculpture is of baby Heracles strangling a viper sent by Hera to kill him. A 16th century painting by Piero Di Cosimo vividly captures the drunken centaurs creating violence at a wedding feast.

 

That artists desire to retell these stories speaks of their value, even if we don’t understand that value today. While every culture has its stories and myths, the Greek myths are undeniably special. Their depth and originality is unmatched. They took root in multiple cultures and have  persisted over centuries. When we watch Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, we are being entertained not so much by Hollywood but by the ancient Greeks.

Wonder-woman

The warrior Amazons were a Greek creation

As I now reread some of these tales, I sense a current vacuum in contemporary western culture. With no disrespect to Gal Gadot, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Brad Pitt as Achilles, I don’t believe the legacies of Greek mythology are doing for America what the original myths did for Greece. I don’t think they educate, inspire and set a correct path for us. And I don’t think anything has effectively replaced them.

 

Meanwhile, we are being pulled apart by forces like politics, race and class.

 

In truth, the detailed and fabulous Greek legends never fully unified the Greeks. The Greek city states were almost constantly at war with each other. Yet there is something strong, powerful and wise about using engaging stories to teach people what they are and what they should be. That someone or some group was willing to do this speaks to the inner essence of a humanness that, without help, is prone to chaos. The goal of the storyteller, of course, is to civilize.

Moses

Moses leading his people

The Hebrew prophets had this intention when they wrote and compiled scripture for an uncultured, barbaric tribe. To a great extent, those prophets succeeded and the western world, thriving today in commerce and replete with interaction and exchange, is a reflection of their efforts. Even so, the impact of scripture is waning and its messages, like the Greek tales, are being lost or forgotten. What’s needed now are new insights, new stories, new guideposts. It is time for a 21st century Homer, a modern Moses, a fresh light cutting through an old fog – a Greek revival, of sorts, if you will.

 

Our biggest problem is we have forgotten what we are and what we can be. Teaching this anew,  we can first understand ourselves, then respect and value ourselves. Once we develop true self-respect and visualize a purpose, we can, as individuals, extend respect and dignity to others. Building a culture around respect and dignity will not only strengthen us, it will unify us. And it may do so in ways the Greeks never imagined.

 

So let the stories be told. Let the heroes flourish. Let us see virtue and valor prevail. Let us know all the things that lead to failure, disrepute and disfavor so a place is reserved for harmony and peace and a new meaning is brought to life.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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Acting like you’re famous and wishing you were: The Million Dollar Quartet

3 Sep
million-dollar-quartet2

Actor/musicians (from left) Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis Presley and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash

If you’ve been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s tame fun with a hint of sadness. What’s sad is that many of the wildly ambitious and talented players will never hear the roar of a real crowd or get the glory that accompanies fame.

For me, the experience is similar to seeing a Broadway show at a regional theater. The one difference is that on good nights the actors at a regional theater do hear the roar, a sound satisfying beyond money. Still, after the curtain falls, you’re in a bar wearing street clothes and looking normal and someone asks what you do for a living and you’re afraid they’ll laugh if you say you are currently performing on stage as Elvis Presley.

At the Bucks County Playhouse this weekend in New Hope, Pennsylvania, I saw not only Elvis but actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This 50s-era group of rock and roll royalty once came together by chance at a small recording studio called Sun Records. For a few brief hours on Dec. 4, 1956, they formed what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Million-Dollar-Quartet-hits-high-note-at-Bucks-County-Playhouse

That was the show I saw, “Million Dollar Quartet.” It was based on the recordings the four made under the guidance of legendary producer Sam Phillips. When I walked into the theater my first impression was that the set, a recreation of Sun Records, looked really good. Knowing little about what I was to see and hear, I was even more impressed when a Playhouse employee announced that all music would be live and performed by the actors on stage. Nothing had been prerecorded.

As I waited for the show to start, I assumed the audience would be kind but not overly enthusiastic, mainly because it was a very old audience. More than a few people had walkers and canes and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. When the music started playing – there are 22 numbers in the show – I was relieved that the reaction was, if not effusive, at least respectable.  The performances, however, were so good that younger people might have been up and hollering. Even so, I was confident the people who created the show were experts at pacing and that we weren’t supposed to really let go until the end. This turned out to be true.

A few points in general about the show, which continues thru September 29: Johnny Cash didn’t look much like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis came off too much like Harpo Marx, but as a regional show is was worth the ticket price. As one of those so-called jukebox musicals, songs dominated over plot. A minimal story line involved Sam Phillips’ struggle over whether to sell out to RCA; Johnny Cash’s worry about telling Sam he was leaving Sun for Columbia Records; and Carl Perkins’ anger at Elvis for recording his song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

milliondollarquartet_originalphotoresizedjpg

From left, the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In the end, everyone came together in mutual respect, understanding and friendship. This fresh harmony allowed the actors to finish in concert style with three strong numbers. Right before the concert, there was a touching bit that probably doesn’t sound touching if written about. Sam Phillips, the record producer, asks the four boys to pose for what he says will be an historic photo. They pose, Sam shoots, and the actual photo the real Sam Phillips took on Dec. 4, 1956 comes down from the ceiling. Everyone claps. Some tear up.

The concert consisted of  “Hound Dog” by Elvis, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” by Cash and “See You Later Alligator” by Perkins. These numbers were clearly full-tilt/high energy and the crowd, some with walker assists, finally got on its feet and went nuts. After “Alligator,” the boys proudly marched off stage and Sam Phillips urged us to demand an encore, which we already were doing.

The boys came back. They ripped it up and shook the house with Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Sam Phillips, who so far had only dialogue and narration, coolly pulled out a harmonic and gave an incredible mouth organ solo.

It all ends, and we cheer loudly. This was the best part because you could see the actor/musicians break character, glance at each other in unexpected ways and silently say with expressions of delight and satisfaction, “Seems like we did pretty good tonight.”

The loving reception gave them hope that even if they are in the minors now, one day soon they could be called up.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

4 Jan

Rockefeller-finger

Former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a presidential candidate and the grandson of one of the most successful capitalists in history, once commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a Marxist, to paint a fresco in the lobby of the RCA building in Manhattan. In that fresco Diego included a portrait of Lenin.

Rockefeller’s father, thoroughly embarrassed, had the artwork removed. With the money left over from the commission, Diego moved to other locations and painted the fresco over and over until his money ran out.

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

This incident is documented in a book by Richard Norton Smith called, “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.” It also is shown in the 2002 Selma Hayek movie, “Frida.”

For younger readers who may not remember Rockefeller, he was the first divorcee to seek high office. He may or may not have been the first nationally known politician to die (at age 71) while in bed with a woman who was not his wife.

A Republican, Nelson was a big government spender and probably would not be accepted by his party today. He possessed enough courage and arrogance to flip the bird to a news photographer, as shown in the photo above.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

Fran Lebowitz – a true New Yorker talking through the cheers and boos

31 Aug

Lebowitz portrait

Fran Lebowitz is a comic writer who has a difficult time writing. So instead, she speaks.

 

She’s the quintessential New Yorker. She loves her town. She celebrates it and it celebrates her. Real New Yorker’s like people with opinions – brash, bold ones – and brash, bold opinions are Lebowitz’ chief currency.

 

Her Grade A conversation makes her popular and in demand. She’s simply fun to be around.

 

waverly signI never met her, but her charismatic magnetism is on display in a documentary entitled, “Public Speaking.” The film is directed by her friend, Martin Scorsese. Much of the footage is of Scorsese and Lebowitz sitting and talking in her hangout restaurant, The Waverly Inn in the West Village.

 

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/uLceaQuFyQE” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

 

In the film, Lebowitz complains that New York has gotten boring. The grit and nastiness she liked disappeared when the city cleaned up to attract tourists. Especially sanitized was Times Square, an area Lebowitz says no self-respecting New Yorker ever visits.

 

A second trauma that damaged New York, she says, was the AIDS epidemic. The city’s great culture, especially the performing arts, existed in such a high state only because of the demanding and enthusiastic audiences, mostly gay. In her view, the audience is just as important, if not more important, than the performers. The old New York audiences knew every nuance of ballet, opera, all of it. They wouldn’t tolerate a single flaw, and the performers were aware of this. But the caliber of the audiences fell as thousands of gay New Yorkers died of AIDS. This, she said, devastating New York culture and all of the performing arts.

FranLebowitz-quote

Lebowitz has an interesting take on the gay rights movement. She said the best thing about being gay was you could avoid marriage and the military. Now, those benefits have been undone by foggy-headed reformers who were trying to do good.

 

The author of several books who has made countless public appearances, Lebowitz tells Scorsese of her most horrible experience on a stage. She was booed by over a quarter million people.

 

The setting was a massive rally of activists trying to convince leaders of the old Soviet Union to allow Jews (Lebowitz is one) to emigrate. Lebowitz was among the speakers who was asked to read a letter of appeal from one of thousands of oppressed Jews. But she also was asked to say a little something first.

 

Referring to a petition with thousands of signatures, she said something like:

 

“I expect the leaders of Russia to respond positively to these demands. I know I wouldn’t want this many Jewish women mad at me.”

 

And the boos rained down on her.

 

So be it. Nobody can take a joke anymore.

The theme of this blog at NotebookM is, “Speaking, because it is allowed.” What I love about Fran Lebowitz is she speaks. God bless her for that. And God bless Martin Scorsese for bringing us this film about her.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Lebowitz Quotes

 

“Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.”

 

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

 

“Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.”

 

“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

 

How about, “She Love You, Yes, Yes, Yes?”

19 Jan
Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

 

Once a writer gets deep into the art, craft and process of writing, there is a temptation to be more taken with sound and rhythm than with content.

I once read that Edgar Allan Poe very much liked the cadence of the words “cellar door” and hoped to fashion a poem around them. He failed, but compromised and used the similar-sounding “nevermore” to create “The Raven.”

When you read the Raven, you’ve got to think that Poe cared much more about the tap dance underneath his verse than what it actually said:

 

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

 

But what’s important to the ear of the writer is not always important to the mind of the reader. The cliché (and name of a 60s rock band) “blood, sweat and tears” seems to have been authored by a mass of people who intentionally or unintentionally chose to edit a speech by Winston Churchill.

Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, was trying to rally his people in 1940 when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

It was a certainty that the content and meaning of this speech was crucial to Churchill, but so was its sound, hence the alliterative “toil, tears” and the five-beat rhythm of da, da, da, da, da – a little like iambic pentameter. Still, for all Churchill’s literary and artistic intentions, the people ultimately had their way. Churchill’s words have pretty much been lost and their words have stayed.

KhayyamIn college people would quote a line from the 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. With romance in mind they would say, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”

I had never read Khayyam and I’m not sure they ever did. But recently I learned they did to him what they did to Churchill.

Having stumbled upon a copy of Khayyam’s poems, which in English is call “The Rubaiyat,” I looked for that line and found:

 

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou.”

 

Again, a rhythm of four things was turned to three.

When Tonight Show host Johnny Carson would do a series of four jokes – and bomb – he’d turn toward his producer and say, “I told you four never works.”

And so the difference in opinion between those who create art and those who consume it remains.

We should be aware of this when we read great works like the Iliad or listen to traditional folk songs. Those things started out one way, and along the way people made what they considered improvements. The Iliad, for much of its life, was not written but recited. If a clever reciter made a good edit, it stuck and was passed on. Same thing with many songs whose original authors have been lost to history.

Which leaves us the question: Should literary greats like Homer and Churchill and Khayyam be altered by lesser literary lights? I don’t know, but it’s clear that a whole lot of people think they can do better. I think in some cases, they probably have.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Art and the importance of suspending belief, even for Shakespeare

2 Jan

theater-disney

On my own, I’ve been studying filmmaking. I have even made a few short films, including this one. From my studies I know the craft is in turmoil due to vast changes in technology. Critical decisions have to be made on what new technology to use, how to use it and what from the old to keep. With high-definition digital cameras, a film can be as realistic as life, but most filmmakers see this as bad.

Audiences, they say, are used to the imperfections and inexactness of 35 mm film shot at 24 frames per second. For feature films, this “old look” brings the viewer into a world that is not his own, a world where he can suspend belief and enjoy the fiction being created on the screen. If a film is viewed in high-definition, all one may see is a bunch of actors walking around.

In such a case, the real world treads on the world of fantasy.

And so movies are shot with digital cameras but the images are converted later to a format that looks much like 35 mm film.

ShakespearI had a taste of this necessity to suspend belief during the Christmas holidays. It was not at the movies but rather at the gorgeous Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Ballet was performing George Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.”

This was a first-class production. I was enjoying myself when suddenly, while watching costumed dancers swirl, jump and create visual poetry, I saw on the stage a painted sheet. Then I saw painted boards. Belief was no longer suspended; the magic had disappeared.

It was just for an instant and it occurred for no apparent reason. While outside the spell of the stage, my mind entertained a passing thought of using digital effects to duplicate a Russian winter. That thought quickly left. I returned once again to an illusion that I was willing and able to accept as real.

In the golden age of radio, that medium was referred to as “the theater of the mind.” But no less a personage than William Shakespeare has pointed out that even theater needs the cooperation of the mind.

I know little of this man and would not dare to interpret him. Still, it seems clear that in the prologue to “Henry V” he finds it necessary to ask his audience to suspend belief.

He seeks pardon for “the flat, unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object,” and ask rhetorically if the stage can “hold the vasty fields of France?” He explains, through his chorus, that one crooked figure will have to take the place of a million, and actors of no world standing will pretend to be historic figures, and that the imagination of the audience is required to dress the king.

He pleads, “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.”

This from a man who, with a few words, can induce hypnotic visions.

Had some muse or god given him the power to actually bring all of France to the stage and allow a thousand horses to romp across it, would he have accepted the gift? I think not, nor would the best of our filmmakers, nor would the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The power and force of fantasy is, after all, fantasy itself.

In the theater or at the multiplex, please do not watch too closely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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