No Country for Old Men

Dave and I saw the latest Coen brothers movie a week or so ago. It’s very like Fargo in a lot of ways, so if you liked that and you don’t mind the resemblances, you’ll like this, too. It’s a grisly and intensely suspenseful thriller about a lot of people who are chasing after a suitcase full of money that disappeared from a drug deal that went very wrong. As in Fargo, the various schemes go wrong over and over again with violently bloody consequences, while a likeable rural police officer tries to catch up.

A lot of thrillers that get labeled “Hitchcockian” don’t seem to me to be any such thing except in the most superficial ways; a lot of movie reviewers seem to think that “Hitchcockian” is just a fancy synonym for “suspenseful”. But No Country for Old Men struck me as using a lot of genuinely Hitchcockian storytelling techniques and Hitchcockian touches. Hitchcock wouldn’t have indulged in anything like as much stage blood, but No Country often builds up suspense by the same sort of understated steps that Hitchcock liked to use. In some ways I was reminded of Frenzy, another rather misanthropic thriller that plays some disturbing games with the viewer’s sympathies.

Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum

Oh man, already with the Christmas music. From now until Christmas, the same 22 songs, played over and over and over again.

And not even proper Christmas carols, which would get irritating with enough repetition but at least not quite so quickly. I like a lot of Christmas carols, they have some weight to them, some meaning. But stores don’t want to play a lot of music with specific religious associations — and very rightly so — so what they give us instead is winter novelties, trivial jolly crap like Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, stuff that would be dumb but fun if you only had to put up with it one day a year but which is mind-numbing when for five or six weeks you hear it every time you venture out into public.

(This year I heard my first Christmas music the day after Halloween. I was taking the casual carpool into San Francisco and the driver had it on the radio. Argh! Trapped! I was never so grateful for light traffic and a quick trip across the bridge as I was that morning.)

Hating both crowds and Christmas music, I try to cut my shopping to a minimum in November and December. There are a couple of things I actually need to pick up from Target this weekend and I am dreading doing it and really wondering if I can do without them till after the New Year. Probably not. Ugh.

The DonWatch Journal

While looking up a related website yesterday, I came across The DonWatch Journal, an online journal which my friend Lou Ceci kept while his partner Don Flint was dying of a brain tumor. Don had brain surgery twice, poor guy, the first time for a hemorrhage and the second time for a massive tumor, even bigger than mine apparently (and mine was unusually large).

So after I’d read three or four months of Lou’s journal, it suddenly dawned on me what year this was all happening in. I went back to the first entries, looked carefully at the date, and realized with a start that Don had his first brain surgery about a day and a half after my own.

I’ve only known Lou a couple of years now and I never knew Don — except of course as his spirit and influence lives on in Lou — but I wish I had. I almost did, by maybe eight or nine months: It turns out that Don wrote articles about alternative medicine for WebMD, and my first job after surgery was a three-month stint as an interim senior editor at WebMD, probably less than a year after Don stopped writing for them. It’s not even impossible that I may have heard about him at an editorial meeting, if he was a regular contributor. But I don’t remember, it was too long ago. Part of my job at WebMD was doing the final edit of all the stories, or actually two final edits, because one of the challenges of that job was that I had to edit everything twice, once in our own house style for our website and then again in Associated Press style to send to CNN. I definitely remember that I was editing the articles for the alternative medicine section. So I was less than a year away from being one of his editors, not the one he would work directly with, but the one who did the final polish after his immediate editor was done.

Don Flint was a terrific poet. Lou gave me copies of three slim volumes of his poetry, and I like it a lot. Here’s one that Lou quotes in full on the website, so it should probably be okay if I do the same here.

Meteor Shower

Is it:

A simple rock
tumbling down the
slopes of gravity?

A fireball
vaulting through
the midnight sky?

A shiny needle
drawn through
black velvet?

Or none of these,
but only a perceptual trick
in which the solution to

a simple math problem —
given velocity, mass
and direction —

is displayed in the sky
in such a way
that even smart people

wonder what it could
possibly mean?
All I know for sure

is the belief
I hold about it in secret.
That, and the fact

the very last thing
it did in this world
was turn into light.

There are bits of other poems scattered throughout the journal, too. Some of Don’s poems are rather long and intense, especially the two at the very end of The White Crack, one called “Life Goes On”, which he wrote after his first surgery:

… What did happen, in fact, was that
a surgeon with a knife
saved my life.
But his competence couldn’t save my competence,
couldn’t save the me I’d lived so hard to be
all these years
in the belief I needed to be useful
in order to justify my existence.
So, what was the point of all that effort?
How will I survive now? I asked
when finally I was able once again
to think of really stupid questions.
But I’m willing now, even so soon after the fact,
which seems like only yesterday,
to chalk that one up as a learning experience,
since I am still alive
and happier being a disabled person
disabused of that notion, anyway. …

And another called “Rewrite #108”, which he wrote after he knew that the brain tumor was incurable and that he probably had no more than a year or two to live:

… The resulting poem
doesn’t have to be
a great work of art
to convey that
I’ve spent a lot of time
trying to figure out
just how to say,
“I wish you well”;
that’s how important it is to me —
that, while trying not to appear
merely clever, or, God forbid, deep.
After all, how deep can someone be,
who spends all his time
trying to live forever? …

There are a lot of shorter poems in the three books, too, often with a wry Zen flavor. One of my favorites, which I have taken to quoting in conversation every now and then:

Even an
insightful answer
can disguise the fact
there is no problem
to begin with.

The Turk

At the same time I picked up the Countryman book, I also picked up a used copy of Tom Standage’s The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine. It’s a fairly light read, but very entertaining and full of interesting stuff. It seems to be a pretty complete account of everything that is known about Maelzel’s famous chess machine, from its invention (I didn’t know that Maelzel had in fact purchased it rather than built it, and that it had actually been built by someone else decades earlier — in fact, by the same man who built the mechanical orchestra for whom Beethoven wrote Wellington’s Victory) to its rather sad end gathering dust in a back corner of a Philadelphia museum, where it was destroyed in a fire in the 1850s.

I finished it last night, and reading it has caused me to want to go back and reread (yet again — I’ve probably read this book ten times) the chapters of Robertson Davies’s World of Wonders concerning the narrator’s years as a boy traveling back and forth across Canada with a third-rate carnival, working secretly inside Abdullah, an alleged automaton that does card tricks. So between Countryman and Davies I’ve spent most of the afternoon reading instead of doing something useful.

The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel

John is the gospel I know the least well, and part of that is that I’m repelled somehow by all the emphasis on miracles — not that the other three gospels avoid miracles completely, but the miracles are few enough and there is enough other stuff in between them that I can ignore them and concentrate on the parables and other teachings.

But a few days ago I came across a book on John, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, and it was written by William Countryman, who wrote a very good book on the morality of the Old and New Testaments with the great title of Dirt, Greed, and Sex. That book for me was one of those on-first-looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experiences, revealing to me all sorts of connections and contexts for various parts of the Bible that I had not seen or noticed before. So I picked up the book on John on a whim — it was only four bucks in a used book store — and I’ve started it.

Probably half my books come from used book stores, and it’s kind of amazing and a little frightening to me to think back and realize the extent to which my thinking has been shaped over the decades by books that just randomly happened to be on the shelf and catch my eye in this or that used book store. Some of the books that have most seriously influenced me, I picked up on a whim because they were on the 99-cent table and looked kind of interesting. It’s a bit humbling and disturbing to wonder how different a person I might be if somebody I never knew had not decided to get rid of that old book when he or she did, or if somebody else had seen the book and decided to buy it the day before I walked into the bookstore.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve started reading the book on John, and even though I’m not very far into it, I’m surprised to already be seeing something about John that I have never noticed before, even though it seems to be right there on the surface and which shows how uncarefully I have read it before. Because while it’s true that John’s gospel is irritatingly thick with miracles, Jesus also accompanies them with a recurring commentary on how shallow a person’s faith is if miracles are the reason for it. For some reason I’ve always been so turned off by the miracles in John that I never let myself notice that the attitude Jesus is said to take toward them is one I can certainly get behind.

On the other hand, Jesus’s first miracle in John, the wedding at Cana, is always going to have special associations for me because of the breathtaking way that Robertson Davies developed it as a metaphor in What’s Bred in the Bone, which may be my favorite novel ever. So I can give John that one.

Sex at the Aurora

Dave and I saw a production of Mae West’s rediscovered play Sex at the Aurora Theater. It’s an odd play. At the intermission I had decided it just wasn’t very good, little more than a bunch of vaudeville skits, songs, and jokes loosely linked together by some common characters. But the second act was a big surprise: Many of the apparently disconnected story lines unexpectedly came together and a real plot with real interest and conflict and humor developed. Not a great comedy by any means, just a lightweight sex farce, but the second act was a lot of fun.

The production itself was enjoyable but not ideal. Dave and I both felt that the director and actors were taking a bit too campy an attitude toward the material. This kind of comedy is very difficult to pull off if you aren’t experienced with it, but you can’t slum in it, and it’s a trap to think that because it’s relatively superficial, you can play it on the surface. The characters are less well rounded, more archetypical, than in more sophisticated comedies, but you still need to build them up as you would a character in a more substantial play. And you shouldn’t mock the sentimental parts; they’re an important part of the structure.

For me, the moment when the production and the play were most out of synch was Agnes’s surprise reappearance in Port-au-Prince. For the story to work, this ought to be played seriously for sentiment and pathos; we should see that Margy loves Agnes like a sister, and that she is genuinely shocked and brokenhearted over Agnes’s miserable and impoverished situation. We should not only see but feel that Margy’s fear of becoming like Agnes is what causes her to drop the man she loves and to pursue a wealthy young man with whom she has to pretend she is a different kind of woman than she is.

Instead, though, Agnes continued to speak in her affected widdle-girly voice, and move with the same self-consciously zany mannerisms, so that we didn’t really believe much in her situation, or in Margy’s concern for her. Margy’s subsequent change of affection seemed like capricious gold-digging, and the moment near the end of the play where she decides to abandon her charade felt unmotivated.

For all that, the show is lively and a lot of fun, and if Mae West’s first act feels a bit rambling and disjointed, her second act well makes up for it.

Odd Bit of Technical Editing Trivia for the Day

The Chicago Manual of Style holds that adjectives that refer to a nationality or a place are usually not capitalized when used in a nonliteral way; thus dutch oven, french windows, and venetian blinds.

I came across French drains in a book I was copy editing today, and I very nearly lowercased it out of habit when I realized I had no idea what a French drain was. Was it possible that a French drain was in some way literally French? I couldn’t imagine a way that it could be, but I stopped to Google it just in case.

Wikipedia asserts that some authorities say the term is “merely a popular corruption” of the term trench drain (which is a real term, though for a slightly different kind of drain), in which case it would certainly be lowercase f. But I decided to keep looking anyway, and a good thing I did, too, because over 100 other websites — including Wiktionary — say that the French drain was invented by Henry French of Concord, Massachusetts, who published the idea in his 1859 book, Farm Drainage.

I haven’t actually searched the Library of Congress database to confirm that such a book exists, because life is short and so are deadlines, so it’s not impossible that the existence of this book is merely an urban legend. But given the specificity of the references, and the fact that a couple of the sites contain some details as to Henry French’s biography and the contents of his book, it seems much more plausible to me that the French drain/trench drain connection is the popular mistake and that Henry French is the correct explanation. So till I learn otherwise, that’s the one I’m going with.

Ergo, capital F.

Later: Dave found copies of the book listed for sale at Bookfinder, so I think that closes the case. Farm Drainage seems to have been very popular: it went through many editions and was still in print in the early 20th century.

One Touch of Venus at 42nd Street Moon

Dave and I saw 42nd Street Moon’s production of One Touch of Venus on Thursday. It’s a charmer. The show is an insubstantial farce but it has a witty and gently ribald book by S.J. Perelman and a terrific score by Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill and it’s strange that it’s so rarely done. I would think it would be perfect for community and semipro theaters.

The cast is good all around, but the standout I thought was Tom Orr as Taxi Black — I’ve only seen him in supporting roles at 42nd Street Moon and I hope I’ll get to see him in a bigger role one of these days. (Dave and I wanted to go see his one-man show a few months ago but our schedules didn’t allow it, dammit.) He’s a terrific comic actor. I thought his brilliant shtick throughout the “Doctor Crippen” number at the end of the first act — mugging and sinister leering and some remarkable moments of pantomime — was maybe the funniest thing in the show, and he was just as good elsewhere.

(I know the number somehow from some recording I haven’t listened to it a long long while and I can’t think what it is — one of the Ben Bagley albums? — but I don’t think I ever noticed before the similarities, in terms of both musical structure and dramatic function, between it and “The Saga of Jenny” from Lady in the Dark. After the show I was humming “Doctor Crippen” and found it very easy to slip into “Jenny” and back again, even in the middle of a stanza.

Who’s Crippen?
Never heard of Crippen,
Lying in a felon’s grave.
Deserved a bed of roses
But history discloses
It was all for Ethel LeNave!

It makes me wonder to what extent the writers and Weill may have been consciously using “Jenny” as a model for the “Crippen” number.)

Nina Josephs is very good as Venus, and one of the highlights for me was her song “That’s Him”. Anil Margsahayam is very funny as Rodney but his singing is a bit weak and in places is made worse where he modifies his vowels too much to get more sound, which is an operatic trick that doesn’t work so well when you’re singing in the audience’s language. I thought many of the songs were taken at a little too brisk a pace, and the ballads in particular would have a lot more weight if allowed to breathe a little more. “That’s Him” was allowed to breathe and it was delicious; “Speak Low” wasn’t and it didn’t make the same effect, even though it’s the big hit song and repeated several times during the show.

Tammy Grimes at the Plush Room

Oh my, Dave and I went to see Tammy Grimes singing at the Plush Room last night. I’m glad we did. She’s in her 70s, and her hands shake a bit, and her voice wavers a bit too, but she can still hold an audience, at least a cabaret-sized audience. I still can’t really connect the cozy and plumpish woman I saw, who ought to be cast in a sitcom as somebody’s affectionate if slightly offbeat grandmother, with the flamboyant, headstrong, and eccentrically mannered force of nature she once was, but when she’s singing, you can’t miss that wonderful hazy timbre of hers, and she still has a lot of charisma and stage presence.

There were the expected songs from Molly Brown of course, and I suppose she had to do something from High Spirits though I wouldn’t have minded if she hadn’t — Molly Brown at least has the distinction of being one of the best scores ever written for such a poorly constructed musical, the album just a delight to listen to even if actually sitting through the show a second time is enough to sate your appetite for the story for the rest of your life, while High Spirits is even more poorly constructed (if I ever get around to writing a book on how to craft the book for a musical or opera, the book for High Spirits could serve as the Bad Example for the chapter on how to integrate your songs with your story) and has an routine and uninspired score to boot.

But Ms. Grimes did a whole bunch of other show and pop songs, including a really good “Rose of Washington Square” and a powerful “Pirate Jenny” that made me wonder why for crying out loud she doesn’t have two or three more Weill songs in her set. There was a song from an off-Broadway musical she won an Obie for, I’d never heard of it and can’t now remember the name, but the song was very nice, very wry, sort of a rewrite of the drinking song from School for Scandal but written from a woman’s point of view instead of a man’s.

But even some of the more ordinary songs were delightful, she sang them with so much warmth and charm and meaning. A very enjoyable evening.