Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Farewell, Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker taught my son to read.

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. He didn’t sit with Nick and sound out the vowels and work on the phonics textbooks. But he made Nick want to read and that’s more important than all the vocabulary tests and grammar lessons put together. I gave Nick Mortal Stakes, Looking for Rachel Wallace and Early Autumn when he was in eighth grade. Up until that moment he had never read a book for fun. Schools aren’t too big on fun, and don’t seem to understand the carnal pleasures and quiet consolations of a good book, whether you’re waiting on line for a movie (I read Schindler’s List waiting to see Jurassic Park – thanks, Steve), or waiting for your father’s funeral, which is when I burned through the Harry Potter books available at the time.

It was my Dad who gave me my first Robert B. Parker Spenser novel, Taming a Seahorse. I had just landed at LAX after a long plane flight from New York. He handed me the novel and said “This will take care of your jet lag.”

Dad loved Spenser’s tough unsentimental style and his dry wit.

I remember Spenser correcting an un-amused thug who had just remarked that “Everybody’s a comedian” noting, “You haven’t said anything funny.” Threats like “I’m going to kill you,” were always met with a precise and ironic “You’re going to try.” When Spencer goes back to the crippled billionaire whose family’s murder he avenged in The Judas Goat to ask for money so he can rescue Hawk in A Catskill Eagle, the old crank is amused by Spenser’s casual admission that his only interest is money and Spenser’s complete failure to suck up to him during the intervening years. Spenser never schmoozed and he never faked it. Some friend of Hawk’s once asked him “What do you see in that big white guy?” And Hawk replied, “He does what he says he’s going to do.” For Spenser that constitutes a whole philosophy of life, but I remember thinking at the time – “That’s it? What’s the big deal?” That was before a thousand missed appointments and a dozen fizzled partnerships, before a hundred let downs, big and small – many of them with me at fault. Gradually, I learned the depressing, repetitive fact of life: almost no one actually does what they say they’re going to do. I try to do it, as I try to live up to Spenser in so many ways. You could have a worse role model, though not a more exigent one. Spenser does things his own way. In Early Autumn, he’s hired to find a runaway boy. He tracks down the kid easily, but soon realizes that the parents are ,monsters and the boy one Paul Giacomin, was right to run away. Instead of returning the spoiled petulant little creep, Spenser takes him out to some land he owns in Maine and builds a house with him. He teaches Paul construction and fighting, the two things he knows best and the kid turns out all right. In later books he becomes a ballet dancer and remains a true friend over the decades. Paul is just one member of the extended Spenser family. When Spenser takes the job of protecting radical lesbian Rachel Wallace, he strong-arms some security people. They were trying to forcibly remove her from a political demonstration, and she wanted to be manhandled out of the place, to make a political point. She fires Spenser … and then gets kidnapped. Spenser finds her on his own, for no pay, out of simple remorse and obligation. Rachel Wallace continues to appear in later books, as does Patricia Utley, the high class madam we first meet in Ceremony. Lawyer Rita Fiore, gangster Gino Fish, local cops Belson and Quirk are among the many other regulars in the books.

And then there’s Hawk, cool, impeccably dressed Cristal-drinking leg-breaker and equal member in Spenser’s freemasonry of American manhood. He doesn’t talk much, but he and Spenser understand each other. They are two Quixotes, cleaning the street gangs out of a Boston housing project for no money, making jokes about doubling their fees next time. Spenser is cool but hawk is the coolest. Who forget that scene in A Catskill Eagle where Hawk arm-wrestles some hulking mercenary in a bar, letting the guy press his arm to within an inch of the table top, stopping him there and then -- when Spenser indicates that they have to go -- effortlessly snapping the soldier’s arm in a 180 degree arc and slamming it onto the table.

Of course the primary member of the Spenser family is Susan Silverman, his gorgeous shrink girlfriend. I have to say I’ve never been overly fond of Susan. She thinks too much and she’s a little self-conscious. Also she eats like a bird. Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said “I’ll be your Susan if you’ll be my Spenser.” I pulled up next to the woman at the red light on Fairfax and rolled down my window. ‘You have a problem,” I said. “Susans are everywhere. But Spensers are hard to find.” She shrugged. She knew it, much better than I did. Oh well, there was always the next Spenser book.

Until today.

All we can do now is go back and re-read them, along with the other great books, All Our Yesterdays, his Boston police epic, Wilderness, his thriller-writer-witnesses-a-mob-hit-and-finds-himself-living-one-of-his-own books adventure … and of course his glorious, late career western trilogy (Appaloosa, Resolution, Brimstone) with Spenser and Hawk re-imagined as itinerant gunmen Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole

Parker taught me to appreciate scotch and soda, stand up to bullies and finish the extra set of sit ups. He taught me how to make a fast meal and break into a window by chipping out the glazing. He taught me that solving a case has more to do with poking at a situation waiting for things to happen than finding clues. He made Boston appealing (even without a GPS). More than that, he made adulthood appealing, for three generations of my family – my brilliant, alcoholic father, my hesitant pre-adolescent son, and me. Someone once remarked that I was always in search of father figures. Maybe it’s true. I know I lost another one on Monday morning.

He died at his desk, writing, That’s the way any writer would want to go. The police said there was no sign of foul play. That was oddly disappointing, a brackish dousing of reality. A writer found dead at his desk in a Parker novel would spark another fascinating case for Spenser and Hawk. Susan would chime in with the psychiatric angle: an angry editor? A pathological fan? A jealous mystery writer? They would track it down, between runs along the Charles and work-out at Henry Cimoli’s regrettably gentrified gym (It has potted plants now).

This is real life, though -- and Parker is just gone. But his people remain, caught in time,unfaded, reliving their adventures, forever.

Parker taught my son to read; I suspect he’ll be teaching my grandson, too.

Avatar: The Best Picture

We just got back from seeing Avatar 3D for the second time in three days.

Each time we had to drive thirty miles of frozen Vermont highway, there and back, to watch the film. We’re staying in Montpelier this week, and the 3D version was only playing in a little theater just outside of Burlington. But the trip was more than worthwhile. It was essential. Twenty four hours after the first viewing Annie and I both realized that all we really wanted to do was see it again. It draws you back. It’s like a drug, and it leaves you feeling stoned – shaky and dazzled and goofy and disoriented. For hours after the first time, I felt like a gong someone had hit with a huge fuzzy mallet, vibrating happily, rocking back and forth on my ropes, barely connected to the world around me. Navigating route 89 south with my hands unsteady and my knees trembling, I was probably as dangerous as a drunk. The thought occurred to both of us – could this be dangerous? Had this movie re-wired our brains? Would we ever be able to watch ordinary movies again? Would we ever be able to enjoy the actual world around us (historically admired for its three dimensions) again? It certainly seemed flat and lifeless as we tottered out of the theater. The distortion wasn’t quite as complete and overwhelming the second time – but it was close.

You watch this movie ecstatically immersed in its world; but as you go deeper and deeper into its field of images, they penetrate you, also. They irradiate you. All you want to do at the end is watch it more. You want to go back to Pandora, maybe buy a small plot of land on one of those floating mountains.

Annie said, “This is what it must have been like at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, when people saw the first talking picture.” Maybe. But I think this was even more revolutionary, even more spectacular. After the first vertiginous moments when you actually fight it, when you finally adjust to, or perhaps submit to or just embrace the pictures opening up in front of you, you experience this story so viscerally that it stays with you like dream, like an acid trip, like some long forgotten, hypnotically resurrected part of your own life or your ancestral past.

So, long story short, it’s worth the extra two bucks.

And I have to add here, it’s not just the technology.

James Cameron has a brute ferocious story telling genius that more subtle minds, telling more nuanced stories, can only envy. You can critique him for the familiar ‘tropes’ of his narrative – the Dances with Wolves moments, the Last Samurai echoes, the Ferngully clich├ęs – but all of that misses the point. The story may be familiar – all stories are familiar, Broken down far enough, there are only, like, seventeen of them, or something. In the end it’s all about the execution, and Cameron tells this familiar story with a rip-roaring high style, an image-drunk cinematic gusto and a heartfelt passion that you can’t deny or debunk. Is it liberal guilt propaganda? Yes! Do we guilty liberals need some great propaganda? Damn right we do. The corporate creeps who want to strip mine paradise for money represent everything I hate and the Nav’i who fight them to a standstill are my heroes. In this Dances with Wolves, the Indians win. The inhabitants of Pandora and the planet itself rally together to kick some serious robber baron capitalist ass, and it feels great.

But don’t get me wrong – Cameron loves his villains, and you can’t help loving them, too, Colonel Mike Qauritch, played by the incomparable Stephen Lang, is so single-minded, so absolutely sure of his mission, so willing to sacrifice everything for what he believes, that you wind up as drunk as he is with that crazy monomania. “It’s not over while I’m alive,” he croaks, launching into his final assault over the scattered corpses of his army and the flaming ruins of his high tech armada … and you sense that Cameron was writing himself in those lines. Only someone with that steely, relentless, demented self-certainty could have pulled this epic masterwork together, creating the technology on the fly, and ram-rodding platoons of dubious studio executives and skeptical technicians and baffled actors through the years of financial, industrial, scientific and aesthetic warfare required to realize this preposterous and unprecedented vision.

The Colonel is Cameron, and Cameron is the Terminator, cruel and unstoppable and if he had been unstoppable, he would have been stopped,

We can only be grateful that he wasn’t.

This movie should win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. It was made for that title “Best Picture”, it is quite simply the best picture, the absolutely best pictures … so much the best, so self-evidently the best, that it seems unfair to set this film in competition against its paltry two-dimensional adversaries.

And there’s another dimension I have celebrate here. Unlike most high-tech science fiction fan-boy geek movies – and this may be the ultimate example of that genre – Avatar has heart. It’s a passionate love story, acted with compelling fervor by Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington – both of whom acted in mediocre, now bizzarely dated, science fiction films by lesser directors recently. The directors of Terminator Salvation and Star Trek must be stunned, leveled, reeling right now at this majestic tale of discovery and rebirth. And they should be. They’ve just been rendered obsolete.

Avatar is an emotional tsunami that sweeps away anyone not absolutely barricaded against it, anyone who can sit back, adjust those 3D glasses and let the storm surge take them. This movie stuns hardened cynics to tears and leaves jaded film buffs babbling. This is film history happening right in front of us and all you can do is bow down, get your sea-legs and watch it again.

That’s what we did. And it was even better the second time.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dueling Banjos and Air Guitars: Confessions of a Non-Musician

I always wanted to make music.
Fiction and poetry are fine, but the fact remains: you can’t describe falling in love so that someone who’s never had the feeling will feel it. Metaphors are for the initiated. Words can give you the thrill of recognition. But the actual experience, the first kiss, the last fight? Until you’ve lived them, the greatest words in the language are just chatter.
Melody is different, as remote from the approximations of language of any emotion it might evoke. But music isn’t trying to describe anything, it’s not second hand. It’s the thing itself, whole and complete, effortlessly repudiating the tinkertoy tools of language: you can’t describe a song.
You can only sing it.
This all comes to mind because I wanted to write a song today.
There was something in the grey Atlantic light, the ebb of Christmas into the chilly rain-spattered start of a new year, the damp wind off the Atlantic, taunting hope and tricking it out of you at the same time. I knew the right tune, some minor melody modulating into a major key, could express my feeling perfectly. More than that, it would reflect the emotion, like the ridge of trees pointing downward in a still lake, become its avatar, embody it as a living creature without language conveyed without words to anyone who heard it.
But I can’t write music.
I’ve never had a tune in my head, never woken up with one playing there, as Yesterday was playing in Paul McCartney’s head, all those years ago; as All Those Years Ago was playing in George Harrison’s a few years later.
So instead I write words, and they seem especially puny right now.
I was listening to a New Year’s Eve rock concert tonight, some local band. The sound mix was bad, the singers weren’t miked right and you couldn’t hear the lyrics at all. But it didn’t matter. The drum beat caught my heart rate and picked it up, the music worked its way past my bruised ears and into the captive synapses and the rim shot capillaries, waves of pleasure riding the lifting tides of memory and desire, until I was unable to keep still, my head bobbing, my feet stamping the high hat pedal under the table.
Rock and roll!
This was pure art, the way ragas are pure art, the way John Coltrane and Entrain and Coleman Hawkins and Nat King Cole are pure art, and Emmy Lou Harris and the Harrisburg Philarmonic playing Schubert lieder and the Shangi-las singing Leader of the Pack. You don’t need the lyrics, you just need the beat and the track and the tune.
Words are pale and flimsy next to that. Authors from Aristotle to John Fowles have claimed prose and poetry as the greatest arts because of their specificity – the incomparable ability of the written word to capture the essence of a thought. But words are a little less accurate with feelings. Every writer has felt this wall separating his scribbles from the ongoing rush of the living world. It’s a fact -- words fail.
Mallarme: “A poem is never finished, but abandoned.”
Eliot: “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”
Billy Joel:“There’s a new band in town but you can’t get the sound from a story on a magazine.”
That’s why Chrissie Hynde stopped writing rock criticism and formed a band.
That’s why you can’t really compliment a musician after a performance. Everyone likes praise (and money!) but the only communication that matters with a musician is through music itself. You see it on stage – jazz musicians ‘trading eights’; you see it walking down the street when one musician starts singing and his friend lays the harmony on top of it. The relatively tone deaf third wheel (that would be me) can only fall back a few steps and listen. You see it in films, when Jon Voight and the little banjo player connect in Deliverance, when the aliens greet us with music in Close Encolunters, when the teen-age lovers skip over their awkwardness to play a duet in Juno.
Maybe that’s why musicians only seem to make lasting unions with each other. They share something the rest of us don’t.
Leonard Cohen to Janis Joplin: “We are ugly but we have the music.”
So I admit it. I have art envy.
And musicians are as self-contained as they music itself. I think of those old bluesmen before the big city white guys in suits with tape recorders discovered them, happy to play sitting on rocking chairs on their porches, heard by no one. I think of Woody Guthrie quitting his radio gig, saying “I don’t need this job. I can play while I’m walking.”
The lead guitar dude tonight works in some local government job, he’s never cut a record. I leaned over to my friend at one point and I said “What is a guy who can play like that doing here?”
My friend just smiled, “Playing,” he said.
Nothing else really matters.
I think of the street musician in Joni Mitchell’s For Free, playing for the pure pleasure of it while she ruefully admits, “I’ll play if you have the money, or if you’re a friend to me.”
But intention is irrelevant, and at least for me her music has a an alchemical power far removed from the grumpy old woman who seems to spend most of her time these days disowning it.The music exists, independent of everything else, including its creator.
The other arts are relative; music is absolute.
If a string quartet plays in the forest and there’s no one to hear them, it doesn’t matter. Beethoven composed his greatest works after he went deaf; Def Leppard sold six million copes if Pyromania, and not because of the words

Ridin' into danger, laughin' all the way
Fast, free and easy, livin' for today
- – Yeah, whatever. Just play the music.

Best of all, and most difficult to understand or deconstruct, music is uniquely porous to experience: chords and harmonies can be irradiated by the events of your life, joy or trauma can penetrate the music permanently, and transform it with an emotional half life roughly the length of your own. Your heartbreak, the feeling the rain-dark streets where you paced it out, the shabby overheated apartment where you were happy for the first time in your life, translate themselves into chords of a certain song and stay there. The song becomes the evening light, and the snow ticking against the window panes, the leap of expectation when the phone rang. You had an actual phone then, a landline where you could actually hear each other talking. These memories warp and recast the music. It’s not accidental that people refer to ‘our song’. It is theirs; and anyone else’s whose life merged with the chord changes, a hundred thousand different songs, a million songs, and all of them the same.
Proust claimed this power for the sense of taste – his famous Madeleine cakes dipped in tea, that “contain in the almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” No taste has ever done that for me, though I feel something comparable for the sense of smell. Entering an old house, the odor of resinous wood and dust and damp plaster can bring me back to chilly summer houses opened up in the late spring, still storing the winter cold. The sudden sense of being ten years old again with a long vacation in front of me is almost immobilizing.
It’s exactly like that, walking into the closed room of a much-loved song, breathing in the full dense complex atmosphere, the haunted perfume of a past moment, eyes closed, afraid to move or make a sound of my own.
No book, no painting, no sculpture, no dance performance or stage play or film has ever done this for me.
But Joni Mitchell does it every time.
Her music is the storehouse of my past, and the only pure preservative for fragile species of feeling that would have vanished long ago, gone extinct and fossilized into old slides and letters and journal entries, without it.
Whatever she may think about her body of work now, this is the gift she had, and just as importantly, the one she gave with such profligate indifference, simply by writing songs and singing them.
It’s not just her, of course. We each have a select group of musicians who wrote the soundtrack for our lives, whose tunes hold our whole wounded personal history in suspension.
That may be why, when I find out someone I dislike has musical talent, my opinion of them rises like balloons at a kids’ party. I saw Joe Scarborough playing the guitar on TV the other day and Annie said ”Oh yeah, he was in a band” and I found myself actually liking old shovel face for the first time ever, completely against my will. But I mean – he plays guitar!
I walked into a house I was working on last year, and the arrogant, shrewish unbearable owner was upstairs, getting the place ready for real estate agents. I thought she had the radio on, but it was her singing and her voice was gorgeous. I stood there for a few minutes listening, appalled by the chemical changes going on in my brain, suddenly fond of this woman, against all reason and common sense.
I can carry a tune, but barely; I immediately start singing the harmony when someone else does.
I feel for those hapless the American Idol wannabes.
I know why people enter karaoke contests.
I play air guitar on the steering wheel when I drive with the radio on. Sometimes I drum on the dashboard.
I listen, I download, I sign along. That ought to be enough for me but it isn’t. The longing to participate remains. Music is sublime, music is perfect, music is everything I want and cannot have.
I can’t explain it.
I’d write a song about it but I don’t know how.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Watching "When Harry Met Sally" on New Year's Eve

This is one of the four or five best romantic comedies ever written, and after watching it today, I was able to analyse the decisively brilliant moment I had never thoughtmuch about before.

Here's a transcript of the New Year's Eve party scene, just before the end of the film:
Harry: I've been doing a lot of thinking. And the
thing is, I love you.
Sally: What?
Harry: I love you.
Sally: How do you expect me to respond to this?
Harry: How about you love me too?
Sally: How about I'm leaving.
Harry: Doesn't what I said mean anything to you?
Sally: I'm sorry Harry, I know it's New Years Eve, I know
you're feeling lonely, but you just can't show up here, tell me
you love me and expect that to make everything alright.
It doesn't work this way.
Harry: Well how does it work?
Sally: I don't know but not this way.
Harry: Well how about this way. I love that you get
cold when it's seventy one degrees out, I love that it takes you an hour
and a half to order a sandwich, I love that you get a little crinkle
above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts, I love that
after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes
and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go
to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because
it's New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realise you want
to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of the
life to start as soon as possible.
Sally: You see, that is just like you Harry. You say
things like that and you make it impossible for me to hate you.
And I hate you Harry... I really hate you. I hate you.
(They kiss.)
Harry: What does this song mean? For my whole life
I don't know what this song means. I mean, 'Should old acquaintance be forgot".
Does that mean we should forget old acquaintances or does it mean if we happen to
forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already
forgot them!?
Sally: Well may be it just means that we should remember
that we forgot them or something. Anyway it's about old friends.

Why does this work so well?

I only figured out today, after God knows how many viewings (I own the DVD)

Here's the emotional choreography:
Harry makes first move. In a classic feint to the negative, Sally rejects it. So Harry digs deeper, gets specific and hits the emotional bull's eye. She caps the moment with the "it's impossible to hate you" speech.
The scene could have ended there. Many a lesser writer would have been ecstatic to get that far. But Ephron has one more card to play. I call it the 'off-topic feint' -- a line that seems to draw us away from the immediate moment, or pull the characters away from each other and into the broader context of the scene -- in this case, a New Year's Ever party with Auld Lang Syne playing as the ball drops. On its own, without reference to the ultimate strategy, this is a brilliant tactic: Harry makes an 'off hand' comment that's typically clever and charming -- what the hell does this song mean, anyway? It sets up their reunion as a fait accompli. They can now return to 'business as usual' -- just talking about stuff and enjoying each other's company.

The great narrative coup come just after Sally's halting, heartfelt attempt to answer: "Maybe it means we're just supposed to remember we forgot them or something."

Ephron takes this seemingly random bit of chit-chat and uses it to pull us all the way back into the absolute thematic center and the emotional heart of her story:

Sally says, "Anyway, it's about old friends."

Aint it the truth.

This is close to genius, and there's a lot to learn from it: using the apparently trivial external aspects of the scene to define and fulfill your story.

Whatever her later failures, you can't take this one away from Nora Ephron.

Happy New Year!