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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 


He’s not wearing pants, and they still don’t look

2 Jul


Because movies rely so heavily on visuals, film producers and directors  are good at describing complex concepts with just a few words.

I read such a description in a book review by Susan Balee in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It comes from film producer Michael Deane, who was trying to explain the importance of car crashes in movies.

It’s a great line, a true cultural barometer, and worthy of a posting:


A thousand people drive past the statue of David.  Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look.


Does a genius steal, borrow or reinvent?

30 Jun

Whimsy or truth:

Good artists borrow; great artists steal. – attributed to Pablo Picasso.

Art is either plagiarism or revolution – attributed to Paul Gauguin.

I just left the Philadelphia Art Museum and a show entitled “Visions of Arcadia.” It features work by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and others. In that show I saw plagiarism, thievery, revolution … and genius.

“Visions of Arcadia” is designed around a theme rather than a style or period. The theme is the classical idyllic life associated with ancient Greece and the region known as Arcadia.

Even though the ancient Greeks seemed to be constantly at war, there is this myth of Arcadia as a land of simplicity, peace, virtue and the sensual pleasures of nature, wine and women.

The Roman poet Virgil, who wrote in the first century B.C., romanticized Arcadia in his work “Eclogues.” European artists became fascinated with his concept of Arcadia and sought to paint it, with some scenes taken directly from Virgil’s words.

These are the paintings in “Visions of Arcadia.”

Most are of either bathers or people in the woods having lots of fun.

Many of the paintings are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the museum’s commentary, it is suggested that the artists found inspiration in a 17th century work by Nicolas Poussin, which hung in the Louvre. Admiring artists would visit the Louvre to study and copy the Poussin, then  base their own work on it.

Their derivatives inspired other artists, resulting in a whole lot of bathers being put on a whole lot of canvas. Some were sinfully like those that came before.

But is that stealing?

How many great literary works have taken titles from other great works? For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Grapes of Wrath, Song of Solomon, Inherit the Wind, Stranger in a Strange Land. In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! an entire biblical story is retold.

In all artist efforts, there seems to be this unstoppable tendency for the great to hover around the great, to want to become kin, to show understanding of the legacy, to build on it and improve it.

Which is not really stealing.

It is more like worshiping a god in hope of becoming one.

“Visions of Arcadia” does, however, make one wonder why so many artists insisted on painting and repainting bathers. Touring the show, the viewer learns that many of these artists worked together, socialized together, philosophized together. Although egos often were huge, you can sense that the artists acted like a cultural community, with a single purpose; or that they even were a single entity with a single mission.

That mission started as plagiarism but ended as revolution.

That becomes obvious as you move past the Renaissance style paintings, through Impressionism and Pointillism and on to one of the last – a cubist rendition of bathers.

When you learn that the artists we idolize today were mostly outcasts whose work was considered unacceptable trash (sometimes called “fauve” or savage), you realize they could hardly be considered copyists.

If you are nearby, go see “Visions of Arcadia” at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Perhaps your reaction will be far from mine. I’m betting it will be.

A musical legacy: Black, proud, loud and wet

18 Mar

Hard work is to be admired, as is James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

There’s a new biography out on Brown, who was also known as the Godfather of Soul. The book is by RJ Smith and called, “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.”

Dan DeLuca, in a review that appears today in the Philadelphia Inquirer, repeats an anecdote from the book illustrating the intensity of Brown’s performances. The story had the entertainer playing in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, where a swimming pool separated the audience from the stage. As the show peaked with the number, “Sex Machine,” Brown – at age 73 – leaped into the water. He sank, and band members jumped in after him.

Wet, the entire ensemble finished the show.

According to DeLuca, Brown would sweat so much on stage that band members couldn’t avoid sliding on the drippings. After shows, Brown was rehydrated with an intravenous hook up.

Brown was a perfectionist and very tough on his musicians. He’d fine them for playing the wrong notes, DeLuca reports. He wanted to be the best. After Elvis died, Brown was given a private viewing of The King and was heard to have said, “Elvis, you rat. You’re not number one anymore.”

The book apparently paints James Brown as self-centered (his hair was done three times a day) and non-empathetic. But he rose from poverty, took nothing and – from what I understand – gave a lot of money away to help children, lectured to school kids on the importance of education (he had little) and was a social activist credited with preventing riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. (He agreed to a rare television concert the quelled anger and took people off the streets.)

He was patriotic, but bitter. Once asked to give advice to a rising Tiger Woods, Brown said, “Get him to understand how vicious this world is. Everything in this world disappears and vacates.”

Add to his many credits: Philosopher.

India hasn’t forgotten the English – A case of true bilingualism

10 Mar

No words in this trailer, but the movie — Guzaarish — is an example of mixed language. Watch it on Netflix.


I like language, its power, its beauty and its imperfections.

Learning about a language can tell you a lot about the people who speak it. Chinese, for example, is structured in a way that allows the speaker to say something without really saying it. It is a subtle and metaphorical tongue. This is due in part to the fact that many, many words share the same pronunciation, like the English “dear” and “deer” but on a much wider scale.

The given name of deceased Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping, for example, sounds just like the words “little bottle.” When the Chinese people tried to convince the Communist government to install Deng as their leader, they marched through the streets holding up little bottles. This allowed them to make a point while denying they were engaged in political activity.

That’s cool.

In India, they do something even cooler, something I find fascinating but don’t understand. I hope someone can explain it to me.

I haven’t been to India and know nothing of Hindi, the official language, but I do watch Indian movies. In those movies people will be speaking a blue streak of Hindi – to a friend, to a lover, to a business acquaintance or government official – then without warning or pause switch to English. Then just as quickly, they will switch back to Hindi, then do it again and again.

Ten words of Hindi, five of English, 100 of Hindi, three of English … on and on.

I’ve tried to figure out if certain things are said in English for effect or emphasis, but it doesn’t appear that way. It appears random – totally random, without reason. But it can’t be. Or can it?

Who out there can explain?

Imagine a land where girls go to school

8 Mar

The few Iranians I’ve known I’ve liked. But they pre-date the ayatollah. Curious about what people and life are like in today’s Iran, I went to see “A Separation,” an Iranian movie that won the Oscar for best foreign film.

Here are my quick observations about what makes that country different from ours:

  1. The women cover their heads.
  2. All buildings are in need of interior and exterior paint jobs.
  3. In court there are no lawyers.

Aside from those differences, people and life are the same as in the U.S.

Husbands and wives fight. People lie and cheat. Cities are busy and crowded. There are strong women able to fix problems caused by men. There is traffic. Girls go to school. Children are valued. The unfortunate find themselves out of work and out of money. There is an attempt to see that justice prevails.

I was looking for strong evidence of Islam. Little was found, even in court. Court mainly consisted of all parties yelling and screaming and a judge (in street clothes) trying to rule without the aid of procedure.

Some people, like in America, were more devout that others. A woman hired to take care of an Alzheimer’s patient telephoned a spiritual advisor to ask if it was OK to change the man’s soiled paints. Others didn’t seem so devout and would swear in front of women and children. Someone was accused of stealing money but there was no attempt to cut off her hand.

In the end, a couple divorces and a child is forced to choose which parent to live with.

Iran could easily have been Brooklyn.

So be advised. If we bomb them, we are bombing people very much like ourselves

One thing I also should mention: Those Iranians can act. “A Separation” was a simple yet worthy film, well executed in a shockingly realistic style. You don’t even think you are watching actors.

Don’t go without a phone

4 Mar

At the Philadelphia International Flower Show, in front of the better exhibits, arms shoot up in the semi-darkness like a mass salute … a salute with glowing smart phones.

Standing among the throng, my immediate worry was for the companies that make cameras. (They’ve got to be going out of business) My second worry was for myself: How am I going to take a decent picture with all these arms in the air?

While the flower show, which I attended on opening day, was full of rich, lush plant life (the theme was “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha), the event was mostly about getting in the way of people taking pictures and people getting in your way as you try to take pictures.

Putting that aside, however, the show truly can be enjoyed as a mass display of intricate, complex natural beauty tamed and woven into poetic design by human beings.

It can take your breath away. It is well worth the trip, even if you don’t get a decent photo out of it.

What good are crowds when you’re dead?

20 Feb

Mulberry Tree

Yesterday I stood in line with hundreds of people waiting to see a show by an artist who, while alive, sold only one painting.

The “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum was a collection of paintings done in the last four years of the artist’s life. Many were completed at an asylum where he was being treated for mental illness.

In the context of his time (the late 1800s), his work was revolutionary. It was unacceptable – almost a joke — to the majority of the established art world. Vincent Van Gogh, in his life, was a failure. It is a sad thing that greatness has to suffer in its time because it is so far ahead of its time.

The rest of us are so slow to catch up.

“This was done by a free mind,” my wife, an artist and teacher, said. “My young students can do work like this.”

Van Gogh self-portrait

She did not mean they reach Van Gogh’s level of artistry, craft and creativity. She meant that like Van Gogh their minds are unshackled.

It takes time to shackle a mind, but in the end they get locked down pretty tight.

In many ways, the reaction to new art is like the reaction to great scientific discovery, which is said to have three stages:

  • First, people deny that it is true.
  • Then they deny that it is important.
  • Finally they credit the wrong person.

Well, at least Van Gogh got his credit … belated though it was.

A truly great performance

12 Feb

Montgomery Clift in "Judgment at Nuremberg".

Each time this year, TCM – the cable movie channel – presents, “31 Days of Oscar.” I happened to have tuned in when it was showing the 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremberg.” I had never seen it. From the beginning, it was easy to tell this film is not only very good, it is very special and unique, with a strong, unusual perspective and a universal message.

I had been expecting anti-German propaganda.

Directed by Stanley Kramer, the film is studded with stars: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland – even a young William Shatner pops up. The story is about the post-war trials in Germany. Top Nazis have already been prosecuted, and the film focuses on the trial of three judges who approved Nazi-ordered sterilizations (read castrations).

What motivated me to write this post, however, was Montgomery Clift.

His performance on the witness stand as a not-very-intelligent sterilization victim overwhelmed me with its power.

I was never a fan of Monti’s, who looks very different in this film. I had seen him play roles like soldiers and boxers and never felt they were right for him.

As the sad little witness, frightened and damaged, he is incredible. His screen time is a mere 12 minutes.

Please watch. (the first minute or so is missing)

Here is the interesting part, as reported on the Internet Movie Database site: Clift was having an extremely difficult time remembering his lines, so the director told him to ad lib, and that his confusion would ad to the confusion the character was going through under cross examination.

God did that work.

Clift usually cut his hair short after each movie, and didn’t make another until it grew back. In this film, there was no time for it to grow back.

How hungry do you have to be?

8 Feb


“The Gleaners,” by Jean-Francois Millet

I heard a little – not much – about a gleaner movement where volunteers seek permission from farmers to glean fruit and vegetables from fields, then use what they harvest to feed the hungry.

When I learned about the movement, my grandfather came to mind.

He was an immigrant, and his own gleaner. If he passed a fruit tree where apples were left on the ground, he would walk up to the door of the house and ask if he could have them. The gleaned food was in addition to what he grew in his own garden.

His son, my father, with disgust for modern life, once told me his father “fed his family on less than you spend today for paper towels.”

My grandfather was a proud, ingenious man who felt no shame in gleaning what would otherwise be wasted. If I were hungry – and I doubt he ever was – I’m not sure which I would find less tasteful: gleaning for myself or having others glean for me.

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