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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

Danger – I’m talking about race (but also art)

26 Mar

cab calloway-2

I sat down to write about creativity but will begin with race. I’ll get to creativity later.

Normally, race is a subject best avoided. Even good-intentioned statements can offend. I don’t mind offending, as long as I offend everyone. When I discuss race, I generally keep these three precepts in mind:

  • All people are basically the same.
  • Even so, likes prefer likes.
  • Whether acknowledged or not, every group thinks it is better than the other.

I’m told that, historically, each tribe of Native Americans referred to themselves as “the human beings” or “the people,” while the names they gave other tribes were epithets describing creatures who were less than human.

That’s us! Is it not?

Dividing us by race and setting us against each other seems like a cruel thing for the Creator to do, but I guess there was a reason for it. Giving us the capacity to enslave others, however, is too harsh to even remotely understand. That capacity is what rightfully gives racial issues their hypersensitivity.

I can wish everyone wasn’t so sensitive, but there is too much working against it.

While smart people don’t discuss race, I have to admire those who do. One is Bob Huber, a writer for Philadelphia Magazine. In the March edition of the magazine, he wrote a piece called, “Being White in Philly.”  In it he tells stories of race from a white perspective.

“Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city,” he wrote. “Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante.”

So let’s talk!Philly Mag

After Huber’s article, many did. This was his intention. There were a number of public forums around town and the online version of the article – as of March 25 – had 6,292 comments.

The article, among other things, mentions how whites, upon entering a local convenience store, hold open the door longer for blacks than for whites in order not to offend them. Later, Huber quotes a Russian woman who thinks blacks do nothing but sit on their front porches smoking marijuana. It’s that kind of material.

In response, the only full-time African-American employee at Philadelphia Magazine wrote a counter piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She described her coworker’s message as: “black people are essentially what’s wrong with the city and that white people who live here are afraid of them.”

My test of the article’s validity is not its truthfulness but its honesty. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the piece accurately describes how some white people feel. It would be dishonest to argue they don’t feel that way. Whether or not they accurately portray blacks is a totally different issue

I think it is good to know how people feel. I want to know how people feel about me, even when they don’t like me. My natural assumption is many will not like me, or at least think I am less that I am, certainly less than they are.

In the extreme, this may anger me, but I can live with it.

I understand that others may not, cannot and will not.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing about creativity. Mainly, I want to know if one race is more apt to be creative than another – specifically whether minorities are more willing and more capable than the majority in advancing art.

In the past I’ve had thoughts on this. They resurfaced recently when I heard a radio interview with a black record producer. By his own admission, this producer is not your normal black record producer. In order to set up a story about his style of producing, he told the show’s host that black artists create something then quickly leave it behind to create the next thing. White people, he said, go back and revisit what already has been created.

Then, in a twist, he said, “I’m that white guy.”

Twist aside, I saw truth in his stereotype, especially in the progress of music. By the time white bands, for example, took up the blues, black artists had left it way behind.

Shortly after this interview, PBS aired an American Masters episode called, “The Blues Brothers Band Remembers Cab Calloway.” The Blues Brothers movie, of course, clearly depicts the tendency for whites to revisit the old. More interesting was a specific story in the documentary about the legendary Cab Calloway.

John Landis, the movie’s director (white), told how he wanted Calloway (black) to sing his 1931 classic  “Minnie the Moocher” in the movie and to do it in the original style. When Calloway saw the music charts, he expressed disgust and said something like, “What the hell is this?”

He could not comprehend why anyone would want to put a near ancient rendition into a contemporary movie. Landis eventually talked him into it, but it was completely foreign to Calloway.

I was amazed at how closely this little story paralleled what the black record producer had said. The record producer might not fit the stereotype, but Cab sure did. I wondered just how deep this pattern went, or even if it were true (Little Anthony and the Imperials, after all, still perform their hits.)

One of the shockingly bad things about art in any form is that it so often is a copy of something done by an innovator. I believe it was Paul Gauguin (not a minority but definitely off the path) who suggested that there are only two kinds of artists: plagiarists and revolutionaries. It could be said that the plagiarists have a stake in the status quo while the revolutionaries want to destroy it.

Could this be the case with the white-black creative dichotomy described by the record producer and illustrated by Cab Calloway?

While few want to discuss race, I’d like to hear from people on this. Let’s forget about Philly Mag and the suppressed hostilities of whites for a while and talk about whether muses favor those who have been pushed outside the mainstream. What drives a person to originality and risk when so many others are content to stay stuck on what’s popular?

Is white innovation a rarity? Surely there are white revolutionaries. In a pinch I could name 10. (Pollock yes; Presley no.) Do white innovators have to try harder, or must they – unlike blacks – possess a genetic mutation or be social misfits?

I can’t speak first hand to this. I’m hoping others can. Please write.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Walt Whitman – better now than ever

18 Oct

Here’s a little secret:

Over the years, the things we were forced to read in high school have gotten better.

It was punishing to read great literature at a young age. Personally, I was not only incapable of appreciating it; I didn’t want to appreciate it.

Aside from things like “Catcher in the Rye” and maybe those THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE TOTALITARIAN books, there was no desire to spend time with genius writers. The time was for living; not so much for reading.

After the edge is worn off life experiences, literature has more of a place. Yes, you can jump out of an airplane if that’s your idea of excitement, but it’s not like going to a Friday night football game and expecting a fight; it’s not like kissing a girl that you cannot stop thinking about; it doesn’t compare to that first road trip with five guys in a rusty car and a total of $100 between you.

Certainly none of this can compete with Melville or Ezra Pound. Those two can’t even compete with the understated magic of hanging around a parking lot complaining that there is nothing to do – but hoping that soon there will be.

Those anticipatory adrenalin rushes fade for reasons both physical and metaphysical. When they are gone, great books becomes much sweeter.

Someone recently discarded an anthology of American Literature. I picked it up. The book is filled with writers rarely read outside of classrooms but there are in there because they are brilliant.

I reviewed the preface to Walt Whitman; learned how much time he spent on “Leaves of Grass,” basically rewriting it his entire life; thought he was just a human and that the person describing him was over stating his case.

Then I read Whitman, putting him in the context of his time (meaning no one ever wrote like this before), and quickly realized how deserving he is of the place he holds.

I remember from high school that Whitman was considered the ultimate optimist, the lover of everything.

“I am satisfied – I see, dance, laugh, sing.”

He would not allow bleakness and atrocity to wither his spirit.

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But they are not the Me myself.

 

To Whitman, there is no death . . . as mortals understand it.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

 

Would I seem ridiculous if I gushed: This kind of stuff goes on and on for page after page after page.

The enormity of it overwhelmed me. Whitman’s ability to sustain his pace and prophetic message mystified me.

My advice then: A retreat to the refuge of beauty and truth, even if they are under appreciated, is recommended when you can no longer find the Heart of Saturday Night.

And so I end, from the anthology, with Emily D:

I died for Beauty – but was scarce

Adjusted in the Tomb

When One who died for Truth, was lain

In an adjoining Room –

 

He questioned softly, “Why I failed”?

“For Beauty,” I replied–

“And I – for Truth – Themselves are One—

We Bretheren, are,” He said—

 

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—

We talked between the rooms—

Until the Moss had reached our lips—

And covered up—our names—

–By Lanny Morgnanesi 

 

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