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After the virus, there will be decorating

20 Apr

Milan_Cathedral        

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Easter came and there were no large family gatherings or in-church services. There was only Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who sang for free while the world  listened.

Bocelli said his was not a performance. He called it a prayer and the event was advertised as Music for Hope.  It took place in the Duomo di Milano, one of Italy’s most breathtaking cathedral. Bocelli was accompanied by a musician playing the world’s largest pipe organ. Otherwise, save for the unseen camera crew, he was alone.

Inside the cathedral, the tenor sang a few piece of sacred music. People watching live on Youtube saw a pantheon of statues, stained glass, etchings, carvings, relief work, marble, enormous pillars, icons and more. As Bocelli sang, there were cutaways to the empty streets of great cities like Milan, Paris, New York and London. After 25 minutes or so, the blind singer stop singing and walked unaccompanied down a corridor, through an enormous door and onto the Duomo steps. There was no one outside in the locked-down city, the epicenter of the Coronavirus in Italy. The small country of 60 million has reported 159,000 cases and 20,400 deaths.

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Andrea Bocelli

Bocelli stood on the steps and returned to his singing. In English, he sang the 18th century Christian hymn, Amazing Grace. There was no music at first. After a time, the production people layered in a full orchestra. When the song ended, there was silence, and the cameras shutdown. The prayer was over.

The concert lasted 30 minutes and, so far, has been watched by at least 37 million people.

Andrea Bocelli’s music, as intended, gave us hope. Even more inspiring might have been the miracle and magnificence of the Duomo di Milano, the largest cathedral in Italy. Construction on it began in 1386, just a few decades after the Black Death killed 100 million people worldwide. Many believe the depths, damage and darkness of the plague is what spawned the creativity, commerce and optimism of the European Renaissance.

Duomo interior

Interior of the Duomo di Milano

The amazing thing about the Duomo is its utter completeness as a work of art. The virtuoso violinist Itzak Perlman has said that in the world of symphonic music there is no such thing as a casual note. With the Duomo, there is no such thing as a casual surface. Every piece of wood or stone has been slaved over and loved into a masterpiece. In Renaissance Italy, the greatest and most famed artists would fight for commissions to illustrate or decorate a surface. And great time would be spent on them. Lorenzo Ghiberti spent 27 years on the doors of the Baptistery in Florence. When Michelangelo saw those doors he called them “the Gates of Paradise.” The doors to Milan’s Duomo may not be as famous, but they are covered in jaw-dropping art work. Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, said this about the Duomo doors:

“The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures —  and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest …”

            You look at a place like the Duomo di Milano and quickly comprehend that no such monument would be built today or could be built today. It’s a representation of a now unachievable achievement. The Duomo was a continuous work in progress for nearly 600 years. That’s how long it took to complete. The expense was enormous and funds were not always available. In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte, about to become King of Italy, ordered the facade to be finished and said he’d pay for it. He never did.

Duomo doors

Door engravings, the Duomo di Milano

The art and culture of the Renaissance arose as great fortunes in banking and commerce were being made. Wealthy, influential families like the Medici and the Borgia possessed incomparable riches and used their fortunes on the arts. It was expected and something of a requirement. What was created was to be shared with regular people and offered up to God in thanks. Great new wealth also has been amassed in our era through the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple, PayPal and others. But it is used differently. There is good being done, but it’s a different kind of good.

Screenshot_2020-04-19 From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates How auto dealerships are attracting a whole new class of investor

Buffett, Gates, Soros

True, the rich create foundations to better mankind (and get a nice tax deduction for it). George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are among a handful of billionaires who have contributed much of their wealth toward improving the human condition. The other side of this benevolence, however, are efforts to change the world in more entrepreneurial ways. The excessive profits of enormously successful companies, for example, might be channeled into no-profit or low-profit ventures, like building space ships or driver-less cars. Intentions are good and hopes for mankind are high, but the goal is ultimately money. Rarely do we see artistic creations or architecture wonders (the Brooklyn Bridge is an older example of this) that people feel part of and gravitate toward.

Apple is said to have spent about $5 billion on its campus for 12,000 workers in Cupertino, California, yet by any stretch it is not considered a great wonder of the world. (For that money is should be.) Today’s really impressive modern architecture is found mostly in the Middle East and Asia. The world’s tallest building is in Dubai. Eye-poppers are all over Singapore, Malaysia and Shanghai. Still, all this is so very different from building a church that takes 600 years to finish and is so magnificent that, even when surrounded by the sad solitude of a catastrophic pandemic, looking upon it makes us feel good.

Hearing Bocelli and seeing the Duomo I think of the Renaissance and whether a new one might be on its way. When our pandemic turns to dust, will we find a vigorous need to look upon life as new and to create things never before created, perhaps experience joy in ways that have been forgotten? Will we insist on engraving the mundane with the spectacular and seek enjoyment from even the routine?

graffiti-1

Graffiti art

Trying to fathom a modern day equivalent to the high art of the Duomo surfaces, I stumbled on a harsh and incongruous comparison  — inner-city surfaces covered in graffiti. These markings, considered art by the best of their creators, deface yet celebrate. They spring from repression but in a perverse way speak to optimism. Can anything about tomorrow be learned from the spray paint on walls, bridges and subway cars?

After the population decline of the Black Plague, wages for laborers went up (high demand, low supply) and the price of land went down (low demand, high supply). Inequality eased off. Opportunity abounded. The Renaissance (literally The Rebirth), and later The Enlightenment, burst forth, light from dark. So what happens to us and our culture when the all-clear sounds?

Duomo arches

The Duomo

This could be our big chance for change, unity and joint hope. Let Bocelli keep singing. Let the light shine each evening on the Duomo Di Milano. And let everyone else search out and lay claim to a surface in preparation for its decoration. The unadorned will no longer be accepted.

 

The Quiet Presence of Celebrity

17 May

PPM-blur

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A man who sold millions of records in his lifetime and entertained hundreds of thousands sat on his guitar case on the sidewalk in front of the funeral parlor. He was about three hours from his New York home and may have been waiting for an Uber to the train station. Everyone else either went home or got in their cars for the procession to the cemetery. They walked by him and around him. He seemed old, frail and alone.

The funeral was for my friend, who was also his friend. The deceased was accomplished but not famous. This was not a celebrity funeral. It took place in a quiet suburban town. About 150 people attended.

My friend had been many things in life, most notably a newspaper man. As a journalist he met famous people. He eventually struck up a friendship with a trio of folk singers who were wildly famous in the 60s and even after. The group was so well-known it popularized Bob Dylan songs in a way Dylan never could. As I entered the narrow hallway of the funeral parlor, I saw the musician, one of the two surviving members of the trio, trying to make his way through the crowd. Even at 80 he was recognizable to me. He was being unceremoniously jostled, as was I, but with a guitar in hand and extra age on his body he was finding it difficult to maneuver. I waited for people to treat him in some special way, to acknowledge him and greet him, but at that moment no one did. He eventually made his way to a room off from the viewing area where there was coffee and snacks.

After an hour or so, the service began. All seats were taken. People were standing. A few more chairs were brought in and the singer managed to get one near me. He sat down precariously. The hand holding his guitar was shaking.

The famous folk trio he belonged to broke up in 1970 and thereafter would frequently reunite, perform and even record. Years ago, my friend wrote a lyric about the Irish-English conflict and sent it to him. The performer wrote music for it, and his trio recorded the song – Fair Ireland – in 1990. After three eulogies, the singer took the microphone, talked about our friend, and sang Fair Ireland. His shaking hand had settled.

The song opens with the verse:

They build bombs and aim their pistols in the shadow of the cross
And they swear an oath of vengeance to the martyrs they have lost
But they pray for peace on Sundays with a rosary in each hand
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland

It ends with:

So we’re left with retribution it’s the cycle of the damned
And the hope becomes more distant as the flames of hate are fanned
Who will listen to the children for they’re taught to take their stand
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
Only love and real forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland

There was gentle applause. The singer retook his seat, and the service ended.

I imagine that after a life of intense fame and a loss of privacy, achieving semi-anonymity in old age is welcome. Nonetheless, I felt deep sorrow for the entertainer, possibly a carryover from the sorrow I felt for my friend, but still altogether different. I fully understand that generations pass, that what once was popular fades, and that value and esteem can evaporate. But there is this hope that dignity remains intact. Seeing the musician alone, sitting on his guitar case, waiting for something, I wanted to offer him a ride as a way to preserve his dignity. That would have meant leaving my place in the funeral procession, so I didn’t do it.

 

From my car window I could see he was weary, worn and sad. In his early years, he had traveled the world. He married and then divorced. He had two children. There was a problem with alcohol and drugs. In the 70s he was arrested on a sex charge but pardoned by the president of the United State. I wouldn’t have felt so bad if he had just come down from New York with a friend, anyone, younger or just as old. It didn’t matter. Just someone there for support.

He most certainly has people in New York. I only wish I could have seen one. To me, that would have made his past life more meaningful, more joyful. As the long funeral procession pulled away, I was at least happy that my departed friend, highly successful, had his success elevated by intense love and caring. In the end, he was not alone, and had never been alone. This, one learns, is the enviable life.

 

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

 

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.”

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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.

 

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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

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