Progress Or The Wheel

23 Apr

It’s something that can only be appreciated properly if you have put in the miles. In other words you have to have lived a few decades to appreciate the spin of the wheel. And you have to distinguish between what seems to be genuine improvement and what is history rhyming itself.

You start with the unquestioned assumptions that your parents have handed down. Take the question of race. When I was a child, I remember loving the tale of Little Black Sambo who ran around a tree so fast when being chased by a tiger that the tiger eventually melted into pancakes. I doubt that book would ever make it today onto the current socially acceptable children’s library list. In England there used to be a jam factory that marketed its product with little black cartoon characters with fuzzy hair and they were called Gollywogs. There was great surprise when a movement rose up to campaign for the banning of this symbol on the jam jar labels. At the time, it seemed a ridiculous notion. The idea of cute little Gollywogs was not racist surely. Looking back over the decades, one sees that it certainly was.

Years ago people at dinner parties used to joke that the custom of smoking at the table and going out into the garden if you were going to smoke some weed was all going to get reversed some day. We giggled at the ridiculous notion that in the not too distant future, the tobacco crowd were going to be the ones shivering out in the garden while the joints would be circulating round the dining room table. It’s no joke any more.

These are probably good things. But what about the see saw attitude shifts? One of my favourite songs is Julie Brown’s “Home Coming Queen’s Got A Gun.” It mercilessly parodies and skews Valley Girl culture with its tale of how the prom queen went postal and shot up the school. In the wake of Columbine and Sandy and Aurora, it’s a song that one might hesitate now to play in public. The same could be said of some of Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs. Some people now would find them offensive. They are all brilliant by the way.

There is a seminal film which had great impact when it was first released in the mid 60′s – THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS – a mock documentary recreation of the Algerian conflict that portrayed female suicide bombers with sympathy and understanding. In the aftermath of 9-11, sympathy for such portrayals was in short supply. Yet, it is a remarkable film, a classic. Now you can probably defend it at a dinner party and get a hearing.

We think we progress. We cannot imagine that we will ever revert to positions we held in the past. We are smug in our unthinking complacency, casting a superior eye over the blinkered attitudes of our forebears. Once I was researching in the Imperial War Museum on matters related to World War 1. One of the attendants showed me propaganda posters not on view to the general public. They depicted the Germans as baby eaters, rapists, killers of defenseless women and children. In the heat of war any propaganda was justified if it achieved its effect of stirring the population.

“Of course,” the attendant said, “that couldn’t happen now. We’re much better educated.” And he slid the drawer shut.

Not too many years later, the Argentians invaded the Falklands. The British response came in rapid stages.

First – bemused bafflement. What were the Argies doing messing around near the Shetlands? Half the UK could not have told you where the Falklands were.

Second – Rage in Parliament and the country. Of the six hundred odd Members of Parliament, only two abstained from voting for war. (One Conservatie, One Labour for the record.) The rest of the body politic was united in baying for blood.

Thirdly – the popular press – especially The Sun – reverted in an instant to the hate mongering propaganda of World War 1. Thousands flocked to see off the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth, converted into a troop ship. When the Belgrano was sunk and over 5oo Argentinians died, the front page of the Sun consisted of a photograph of the vessel about to dive into the deep and a one word headline in 48 point type – GOTCHA!

Two steps forward, one step back. Progress or reversion. And we should not think that it (whatever it is) could not happen here. It manifestly does.

Superstitious Tenors

19 Apr

For quite a while, when I was living in London, I worked as a stagehand at Covent Garden – the Royal Opera House, home to both the opera company and the Royal Ballet. It was a great gig and I was loth to leave it. These were the days when the Three Tenors had not joined forces but were simply stars on their own.

With Jose Carreras, nicknamed ‘Cosy’ Carreras, when he was singing in ELISIR D’AMORE, even the least musical of stagehands would at a certain point drift up to the OP (opposite prompt) wing to get as close as possible when he sang ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’.

Pavarotti and Domingo were temperamental opposites. Pavarotti, ‘King of the High C’s’ was a voice pure and simple. He didn’t bother so much with acting. He just took the center of the stage and opened up his mouth and let the arias sail forth. No more was ever demanded of him.

Placido Domingo on the other hand was the complete professional package. He acted as well as sang. In rehearsal when the repetiteur was out of the room, he would go to the piano and accompany his fellow singers. And it was no surprise when some years later, he added conductor to his quiver of talents.

Both of them had their particular superstitions. In the case of Luciano, he had a ritual that had to be performed before he would step on stage. Most of the scenery in a theatrical set is held together by hinges fastened with a stage pin. This makes for easier assembly and disassembly. Pavarotti’s unvarying ritual was to pace up and down in the wings looking for a loose stage pin on the floor. He had to find one. Otherwise he simply would not go on. He had to find that lucky pin for each performance. Now the simple fact was that there were no stray stage pins lying about on the floor. They would have been swept up.

So we had this game. Luciano would appear and pace worriedly up and down the Prompt Side wings, hunting for his essential lucky charm. We would be standing around, watching him get increasingly desperate. Stella, the stage manager, would hiss at us “For God’s sake, give him his pin!” And one of us would casually drop a pin on the floor for him to find. There was always a crow of triumph from Luciano when he stumbled across it. “See, I always find a pin.” Yes, Luciano, fancy that.

Domingo’s superstition caught us all by surprise. We discovered it by accident on an all nighter when we were breaking up a giant set of FANCIULLA DEL WEST after the last performance. The set was a monster. Act One was a saloon so big that  Clint Eastwood would have been proud to shoot an entire movie in it. Act Two was a mountain cabin three stories high. Act Three was a mining camp with a giant water wheel. It was going to take us all night to break it down.

It was just past midnight when Placido came on stage and halted in surprise at seeing us still there. Somebody said “Did you forget something, Placido?”

“No,” he said. “It just little custom I have on last night of a show. You don’t mind?” He spread his hands, shyly supplicating.

“No, go ahead, Placido. What do you need?”

The stage curtain separating the stage from the auditorium was closed. He pointed to it and said, “Please. Can it be open?”

I stepped to the lever in the prompt corner and pulled it over. The red drape curtain divided and swooshed up out of sight to reveal the empty auditorium. All of us stopped what we were doing to watch. Placido stepped down stage till he was overlooking the orchestra pit. And he opened his mouth and sang an aria to all the silent empty seats. I can no longer remember which aria or from which opera it came.

Not a paying customer in sight. And normally, none of us would have been there. He would usually have been singing with no witnesses nor listeners. An offering, a thanks, a tribute to the Gods. He finished – and, yes, we all applauded. He turned to us and gave an embarrassed shrug. “It is little thing. But I like to do it.” And he left the stage, having shared his private ritual with us.

Keep It In The Family

16 Apr

I can’t remember where I ran across this tale but it was a reputable source. And the story itself has always tickled me. Talk about different times.

In the early days of World War 2 FDR hosted Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador to dinner at the White House. And he recounted an anecdote which had not received much circulation.

One night during the Civil War  Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward were taking a companionable stroll on a street bordering Lafayette Park. They were alone.

A voice called out to them from the dusky park. The President and the Secretary of State halted and walked up to the fence that surrounded the park. There was a couple who had been locked inside the grounds. Much to Lincoln and Seward’s surprise (and concealed amusement) they recognized the embarrassed pair caught in a compromising position. They were – FDR said with beaming relish – none other than ” your predecessor” the then British Ambassador  Viscount Lyons and the wife of the Spanish Ambassador quite clearly in a clandestine assignation. What was more, at this moment in time Viscount Lyons was highly suspicious of Seward, a man he considered was fomenting foreign crises in order to divert public opinion from the Civil War. Their relationship was frosty.

But this was not the moment to bring up foreign policy. With diplomatic despatch Lincoln walked across the street to a house under construction and found a portable ladder which he borrowed and carried back. The release of the redfaced couple was quickly accomplished. And Seward and Lyons laid aside their suspicions of each other and worked together in great harmony  from then on. How the Ambassador’s sub rosa affair turned out has been lost to history.

FDR finished the story with a hearty laugh and awaited Lord Lothian’s comment. “Yes,” the current Ambassador drawled. “That would have been my great uncle.”


R.I.P. Jesse Winchester

13 Apr

Back at the end of the 60′s or the start of the 70′s I was browsing in a London record store. An album cover leaped out at me. It had a gatefold which meant it had four sides. The same stark black and white photograph stared out at you from each side. A thin bearded face that looked as if it belonged in some Civil War Matthew Brady image. The album was titled ‘Jesse Winchester’ and I felt compelled to buy it without even listening to it in the booth. It barely left my turntable over the next few months. Every track a classic. ‘Yankee Lady” “Biloxi” “Brand New Tennessee Waltz”. Two songs gave me chills. “Quiet About It” and “Black Dog”. They had that sense of the public apocalyptic.

On the basis of those last two, Jesse Winchester became my candidate for “the new Dylan”. Dylan himself, it turned out, was mightily impressed and sang Winchester’s praises. He knew all about him because it had been Robbie Robertson of the Band who had produced the album.

Other nominees for the “new Dylan” tag included Loudon Wainwright who even wrote a song about, wryly saying that all the failed candidates were in a 12 step program and they used to meet usually at Bruce’s house. And of course it was Springsteen who won the mantle, accepted the role of public bard. But by his second album Jesse Winchester had turned inward and away from that kind of scrutiny.

Winchester was a draft protester who refused to go to Vietnam, chose exile in Canada instead. Thus for years he could not perform in the States. Not until Jimmy Carter had declared an amnesty in the late 70′s. But the albums came steadily, each of them stunning in their craftsmanship as well as in the singing. In “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” you were immersed in an aural swamp of a Southern afternoon, seduced by that high resonant voice. I could go into exhaustive detail about nearly every track he cut.

After the amnesty, Winchester would perform in the U.S. but continued to live in Canada. And then he fell silent. Everybody was performing his songs but him. The Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffet. the O’Kanes, to name a few. He didn’t release another album for a decade.

One day I heard on the radio Wynona Judd singing a song called “Just Like New.” It had that underlying lolloping rhythm that seemed part of the DNA of a Jesse Winchester song. I bought the album it appeared on and checked the credits. Sure enough, it was a Jesse Winchester song. Now at this stage, I don’t remember how, I happened to have Winchester’s personal email address. I sent him a message, saying I had identified the Judd song as one of his by the idiosyncratic rhythm that was the thumbprint of a Winchester song. He wrote me back in mock alarm, asking if that meant that all his songs were the same. We continued a sporadic exchange of emails about music. At one point I raved to him about the Dan Penn album Do Right Man. He wrote back in surprised agreement, having picked up the album. I replied that surely this would not be news to him, considering Penn’s track record for writing such classics as Dark End Of The Street. To which he shot back the retort in caps – YES BUT WHO KNEW HE COULD SING SO WELL!?!?.

If you don’t know Winchester, I would suggest going on YouTube and looking up ‘Jesse Winchester’ and ‘Sham a Ling ‘ or “Elvis Costello’. It’s a clip from a show hosted by Costello. Winchester sings a song off his last album. And just watch Neko Case seated beside him, starting to cry, tears streaming down her face, at the sheer heart of the performance.

He came to Portland a couple of years ago and played at our local theatre – the Aladdin. Afterwards, I said to him that I hoped it would not be so long between performances. And he promised he would be back in the near future. That’s a promise he won’t be able to keep. But apparently he completed a last album before he died. That is something.

Brush Of Great Events

8 Apr

Norman Corwin was the great talent of American radio. A legend. I found out that he lived near my Los Angeles neighbourhood and managed to get an introduction to him through the kindness of Bob Trout, another of that Murrow’s Boys generation who had made their reputations reporting from the European theatre back to America.

Norman told good stories. And as I got to know him, we settled into a casual routine of going out for dinner once every month to six weeks. He seemed to have known everybody. I asked questions (I wish I had asked a million more) and he would tell me tales and bring past eras to life.

There was one tale he told me that stood apart. In 1942 -3, both Norman and Ed Murrow were in London, charged with a joint radio series meant to convey to the American people what life was like for the English. They shared an office through the good graces of the BBC, whose services they required to fashion and transmit their radio shows.

“One day,” Norman told me, “Murrow came into the office and sat down, looking disturbed. He lit a cigarette and said nothing, just stared at the map on the wall. I asked him what was the matter. He was never normally gloomy. He said “I’ve just been to see the old man.”

That was how Murrow always referred to Churchill with whom he had a good relationship.

“I’ve never seen him down before,” Murrow said. “But this time he told me that he couldn’t see a way to win the war. If the Germans win at Stalingrad, they’ll gain the oilfields and then there’s no stopping them.”

“So,” Norman said, ” we were both pretty depressed that night.” He looked at me across the restaurant table and raised his forefinger for attention. “But the very next day we were summoned by some senior people at the BBC and they played a recording of a German broadcast that morning by Goebbels. Goebbels said, “The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be a warning for everybody to to do their utmost for the struggle for Germany’s freedom and the future of our people.”

“Now,” Norman said, “what was under discussion was whether to release to all the news agencies quartered in London this bombastic broadcast and how it would be taken by the population of occupied Europe. Did we think the speech should be buried or given normal distribution. It was a question of morale. The thrust of the speech implied Germany was about to defeat the Russians at Stalingrad. Eventually the decision was taken to give it normal distribution and let people make up their own minds what was really going on. We felt there was a touch of ‘the lady doth protest too much’ about the speech.”

He leaned forward and gripped my forearm on the table for emphasis.

“Now here were Murrow and I, believing Churchill’s dark confession of despair and thinking that the tide of history was about to go against us. And the very next day,” he repeated it, “the very next day the German radio suddenly broadcast the Adagio from Bruckner’s 7th. And then they announced the German surrender to the Soviets.”

Norman sat back and spread his arms, oblivious to the people listening at nearby tables. His voice was resonant.” Can you imagine it? We went from the depths of despair to the heights of renewed hope – in one day. Twenty four hours. And Ed said he never saw Churchill downcast again. He cracked for a day and then the good news came. The hinge. The turning point of the war.”

And I sat there, thinking how lucky I was to be hearing history come alive from the mouth of the man who had been a participant and a witness who remembered everything.

A Clean Well Lighted Place

5 Apr

Some five years ago my wife and I moved from Los Angeles to Portland. We knew only two families up here before we arrived. Coming from Los Angeles and its ‘living in a car’ culture, where it’s difficult to know your neighbours, we were expecting to feel somewhat isolated at the start.

Our expectations were turned upside down in short order. Justine was in a coffee shop and fell into conversation with the woman at the next table. They bumped into each other at the coffee shop on several mornings and sat together. The lady (Anne) mentioned that on Wednesday nights the Italian restaurant on the corner had the custom of communal dining at the big table in the front. No booking. Just show up, find a seat and introduce yourself to the person beside you. A revolving cast from the neighbourhood took part. Mary Ann, the owner and hostess, allowed you to bring your own wine.

Rapidly, far more rapidly than in Los Angeles, we were meeting new people every week. It wasn’t an artistic gathering, though there were painters and writers. It was simply the neighbourhood. Teachers. Landscape architects. Graphic Designers. Aging hippies. We attended every couple of weeks. Some people were there every Wednesday. Some would show up every six months. I find it hard to convey how nourishing that communion was  for us, how running conversations would be resumed. “Hey, I saved that article for you.”

Now this last Wednesday we had the last supper. Mary Ann is moving on. All the habituals got the word and so many showed up that extra tables had to be pushed together. And in the end, there still was not room for everyone. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Will it remain an Italian restaurant under a new owner? Or will something new take its place. All we really know is that things are not going to be the same. We have forged connections outside of the weekly dinner. We have been invited to Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas Day celebrations and dinner parties by the regulars. So we should feel secure in the web of our contacts. Nobody is leaving. But all the same things will alter. There’s going to be a vacuum, a hole in our l ives. I’m very grateful for what we’ve had.

Boomerangs Part 3

1 Apr


Somehow my throwing a boomerang across the Rio Grande seemed to be a sign from the aboriginal gods that I had made sufficient psychic atonement. My education could continue. Or as Confucius informs us – when the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.

It was a weekend in Westwood and my significant other wanted to explore an arts and crafts fair. Booths lined both sides of the boulevard. And she had that gleam in her eye. I wanted to head her off at the pass. But we never got past the first booth. It was I who jerked to a halt. Something had snagged my eye. I gaped. “Those can’t be….”

A carved cheetah was suspended in mid bound across one panel of the booth. On the back wall a six foot lionfish glowed in polychrome hues. Mounted in a glass display case a green boa constrictor let its weighty coils droop over a sheathed samurai sword. Each was a work of art. Some, I later discovered, hung in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. But it wasn’t that  which had caused me to brake to a sudden halt. It was the bizarre fact that each piece seemed to consist of interlaced boomerangs – in an overwhelming variety of shapes and sizes.

A young man sat on a stool beside the booth. He eyed my startled expression with amusement. “You seem to recognize a boomerang when you see one.”

“I thought I did,” I said. “Now I’m not so sure.”

Alan, as he introduced himself, told us that his life since the age of 12 had been devoted to the art of boomerang – and in particular to pushing the envelope of design as far as possible. His creations bore as much resemblance to a traditional boomerang as a Lamborghini does to a Model T Ford. Put simply – where conventional boomerangs have designs painted on them, his boomerangs were what they depicted. The very shape of one tri bladed boomerang was itself arched into the death struggle of a bird and a snake. What was more – oh, sign from heaven – it was left handed. Minutes later I was the proud (if significantly poorer) owner of the carved beauty of “African Secretary Bird fighting a Python.”

I couldn’t wait to get to the neighbourhoood park the next morning. But when I got there, I was seized with doubts. Had I just bought myself an expensive wall ornament? The first throw – and all doubts were answered. Whatever boomerangs I had thrown in my past life, they were not in the same league as this little darling. The flight of it. It darted overhead, skimmed back, made a tight spiral, hovered, side slipped and slammed on the brakes right in front of me.  It reared, fluttered and settled right back on my palm. There was real witchcrafte here. I was dazzled.

The following week I drove an hour north of Los Angeles to Alan’s house hidden away on a suburban street of a small farming town. I found him in his garage, a workshop open to the street and a steady passing stream of awed kids. Design sheets of fantastical shapes were pinned everywhere. Boomerangs in various stages of being carved or painted lay on racks of drying trays that slid out of specially designed cabinets. Rows of picture books on birds and other wildlife lined the shelves in witness to his scrupulous research.

I learned a few other facts about him that afternoon. He had defeated world champions in both design and performance categories a few years before. But he had retired from competition. He was on a different track. If you saw the movie BAGDAD CAFE, the man who throws the boomerangs around the water tower, that’s Alan.

The boomerangs were not cheap. The multiple works containing a dozen or more boomerangs went for thousands of dollars. One of the more elaborate single boomerangs could go over two hundred dollars. But when you see the care, the dozen separate slow drying coats of laminate (three months) and the myriad painstaking details that go into their making, you understand why they cost  what they did. They were simply unique.

I said, “Aren’t people afraid to throw them?”

Alan grinned. “I make them for people who think art should have a little risk attached. They tend to appreciate them more.”

I told him of my disaster with the old aboriginal throwing stick. He winced in understanding. Then he pulled open a drawer and had me look. There, laid carefully on a towel lining were a handful of antique throwing sticks he had recently bought from another collector. He pointed to a thin stick with dried sinew bindings along its grooved length. “That’s a Hopi Indian throwing stick. It’s at least 750 years old. That one with the paddle wing is interesting. The third one is aborigine.” It was a near twin of the one I had broken.

He shut the drawer and picked up a large leather bag. “Let’s go throw a few.” We closed up the workshop and drove a short distance to a deserted high school playing field and walked out onto the grass. Some dark dots hovered high in the sky. Alan squinted up at them. “California condors.”

So under the gaze of an almost extinct giant bird I got my first real lessons in the art of boomerang. Alan opened the bag and pulled out one shape after another. A toucan. An eagle with a fish in its talons. Wrestling snakes. Longhorn cattle skulls. And the two fighting koi fish that spun through the blue. twirling like a hypnotic eye in the sky. We threw for hours.

Alan showed me how to maintain a plane in my throwing and also how to break it to get a roller coaster effect in the flight pattern. He showed me how to take a Cyalume stick and tape it to the wing so the boomerang flew with flashing lights in the dark. At one point, after looking around cautiously for potential witnesses, he unveiled a prototype of what he expected to be the first 200 yards out and back boomerang. He refused to throw it, said there wasn’t enough room. All I can tell you is that it looked like a cross between a sickle and the stepped inside of a jet engine.

As the sun was sinking and we were packing up, I was reminded of that first sighting. I mentioned it – how that first strange boomerang had flown and how it had stayed up longer than I believed possible. Longer even, it seemed, than any of Alan’s that we had thrown. More a dream than a real memory.

Alan said, “Oh, you mean something like this?” He bent to the bag and rummaged. He produced a long skinny unpainted boomerang. He motioned me back, cocked his arm and snapped it hard. The boomerang climbed, climbed, whistling and thrashing. Arcing to and fro across the sky, whipping at an unseen enemy, summoning the condors to battle.

“What’s the longest a boomerang has stayed up?” I asked.

“Well,” Alan said, “the official record is about three minutes. But last year – and they captured this on video, a guy threw one in freak air current conditions. It stayed up  seventeen minutes. And what’s more, he caught it.”

We stood, craning our heads back, gazing up at it as it flailed through the air. My memory had not played me false after all. Some lines of verse came into my head.

The blackbird flies with panic
The swallow goes with light
The finches move like ladies
The owl floats by at night
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as artists might.



30 Mar

Unfortunately, it’s Willie Shakespeare no less who has given remakes an air of respectability. With the exception of LOVE’S LABOUR LOST which seems to be an original, the other three dozen were adaptations and do overs. Try reading KING LEIR some time. The bard of Avon pulled it off triumphantly. Since his versions always improved on their original source material, nobody is complaining too much.

But in general – and especially in the movies – remakes are a bad thing, a fall back. There are some reasons to remake a story but in the main, it’s the default position to deploy the protection of a brand name. A brand name means BATMAN or SPIDERMAN or THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Hollywood will remake those cheerfully and as quickly as the market will bear. Right now it seems to me that nothing is getting greenlighted by the studios that is not a remake.

When is a remake a good idea? If the potential of the story wasn’t exploited in the original version. A good example of that is THE MALTESE FALCON which had been made twice before but only became an electrifying hit with the John Huston version. Another reason is if you can find an extra twist on the original material. A good example of that would be what Howard Hawks made of THE FRONT PAGE when he made the central duo not two men but a man and a woman with prior history. HIS GIRL FRIDAY was the dazzling result. And it is still the benchmark for the fastest exchanges of dialogue ever in a movie.

Almost as bad as remake fever is that sincerest form of flattery – imitation. CITIZEN KANE has topped polls for decades as  the greatest movie ever made. But you haven’t seen anyone copying it. Too difficult. On the other hand, take a movie like THE WILD BUNCH where Sam Peckinpah took film making technique and reinvented it all. His methods of mixing slow and normal motion footage from multiple cameras gave audiences a whole new way of seeing action. And those techniques were promptly strip mined for use in slasher and horror movies. And it devalued the coinage.

Two iconic and classic movies proved dangerous for the movie industry. CASABLANCA and CHARADE. Hollywood over the years has tried to imitate the magic. The results are movies like HAVANA and ARABESQUE.

And why does Hollywood keep pumping these ripoffs and remakes out? Because we still go to see them. Don’t you think it’s about time to remake THE GODFATHER?

Sometimes You Get Rained Out

25 Mar

When I was young (19) a film director said to me in the course of a conversation about movies “Do you know how hard it is to make any movie, even a bad movie?” He didn’t wait for my response. He went on. “So do you know how much harder it is to make a good movie?” Since he had just made a movie called THE WILD BUNCH, I guessed he knew what he was talking about.

It’s funny how you can get all the elements lined up and then for some reason or other, the film never takes off. It just lays there on the screen. And the reasons can be many and various. What has me thinking about the subject is the recent movie THE MONUMENTS MEN.

It’s hard to come up with a single reason for its failure to work. The cast was good. The locations and the photography were perfectly fine. I suspect that on the page it read just like a blockbuster. But, structurally, it had weaknesses. The members of the group were sent off on missions in pairs. That left the audience adrift. It’s hard to root for someone when they are not there on screen.The thread of Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett hanging about in Paris was particularly irritating. It seemed ridiculous that her character would refuse to give Damon the information he needed.

War movies often contain contrasting elements juxtaposed. A light comic scene ends in someone unexpectedly being shot dead by a sniper for example. Well, they tried for that here. And it didn’t work well. Also most of the sight gags and schtick were tired cliches warmed up and recycled. In the basic training sequence you just knew that someone was going to tell John Goodman – “Those aren’t blanks!”

The picture started to pick up once the group had reunited and focused on one particular objective – racing the Russians to the salt caves where all the looted art was stored. It was fresher in KELLY’S HEROES but still it came to life a bit there. Over it all hangs the ghost of a superb movie on the same subject. THE TRAIN. A pity. Oh, and one little sign that the movie might be off kilter came in an early expository scene where George Clooney’s character is briefing FDR on the subject. Roosevelt is in half shadow. The actor’s voice was totally wrong for the part. Roosevelt had a distinctive patrician way of talking.  It would have been an easy matter to dub in a better voice. It sounds trivial but that error pulled me out of the movie right away. Such a simple thing. As I said – a pity.

The Club Of Queer Trades

23 Mar

THE CLUB OF QUEER TRADES is an episodic novel by G.K. Chesterton. To belong to the club you have to have invented the trade you live by. These are harder to think up than you would imagine. In my life I have only come across one person (maybe two) who would be a member.

He was an American called Dennis Severs and he was a passionate Anglophile, the kind that knows more of his adopted land than the natives do. The changes of history fascinated him. After casting about in several directions, he settled on the experiment of buying an old house in Spitalfields, an area hard by the City of London that originally owned an immigrant population of Huegenot silk weavers fleeing religious persecution on the Continent. Out of this house gradually Dennis built a time machine. Or the nearest to it than anyone will ever come. He collected the right period furniture and orchestrated the ‘history’ of the house and its family in chronological order from the cellar to the attic. It was a cabinet of wonders and he was the curator.

No more than eight people at a time were taken on the tour of 18 Folgate Street. You were instructed to arrive at the precise moment. If you were late, the effect could be ruined. As the master of ceremonies, Dennis briefly laid down the conditions under which he and we were to operate. Anything untoward like a sudden need for the toilet could disturb the spell he was attempting to cast. Starting with Roman pottery fragments in the cellar Dennis introduced his audience to the generations of the same family that had lived over two centuries in the house. He conjured up their individual lives. He conjured the picture of their world. At times he would leave you alone in a room, the kitchen, say, and you would hear the urgent whisper outside the window of a crony of the cook. The house became alive around you. Hearing voices from the diningroom, you would hover in a panicky silence outside the door, half afraid that you would be caught in the act of trespass. When the diners departed out the other door, when it was safe, you would be permitted entry. A clay pipe would still be smoking on the table. Glasses of half drunk wine. Plates with food scraps. You felt like a burglar in another dimension of time, running the risk of being unmasked, caught stranded.

The whole thing was very difficult to define. Part theatrical performance, part son et lumiere, part museum tour, part historical lecture. The cumulative effect was to feel you were literally by some special dispensation coexisting in the same place with long dead generations. There was a moment on my first visit when I knew the day was cloudy outside and wet with rain and I heard the news from Waterloo. There used to be an American TV program called YOU ARE THERE in which modern newsmen would interview figures from the past like George Washington about to cross the Delaware. In both cases you were an eyewitness to history.

But 18 Folgate Street was the full immersion 3D experience. When I heard the news from Waterloo, I was there. What made it all different from all other attempts to lift the veil of the past, was the simple use of chronology as one moved up the levels of the house. One was not going back. One was moving forward in time. Think of the Victorians and their over stuffy furniture with antimacassers and side tables full of oddments. To most of us now, it would seem a smothering environment. But that is because we are looking backwards at it. For the Victorians, their desire for comfort was a reaction to the spare furniture, elegant and chilly, of the previous century. Seen in that light, it made perfect sense. Each generation was reacting to the one before. They weren’t looking backwards. They were looking forwards. And it was this change in perspective that made the whole experience so compelling for Dennis’s groups.

When the show was over, he would always ask one question. At which point, in which room did you surrender to the spell he was trying to cast? About half would say “the cellar, the beginning”. Nobody resisted past the second room. By the end one was so convinced by the history of the family that had inhabited the house for two centuries and the selected examples of their furniture, evolving over the generations, that it came as a blazing shock to find out that all was a fiction. Dennis had made up the entire saga. And most of the furniture was second hand replicas.

It was an experience that I would term unique. For once the word is absolutely appropriate. It was something new under the sun. And I did not run into an equivalent match until I was living in Los Angeles and came across a weird  operation on Venice Boulevard that called itself The Museum Of Jurassic Technology. A different beast. But they both shared that cockeyed freedom of imagination.

Sadly Dennis died too young. But at least 18 Folgate Street  is still preserved by a trust and you can visit it. A foggy winter’s night is best.


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