Friday, June 20, 2014

Buzz the Nine-Nine-Nine Bookshop

"This is my favorite book in all the world, although I have never read it." So begins the introduction to William Goldman's The Princess Bride. It might be my favorite book too, because I have read it so many times. The tale grows in the telling for me. I read it to myself the first time. I read it to my stepmother over the course of one day the second time. I read it to my mother in our apartment on Wilshire Boulevard, our tiny Maltese nestled between us, for the third time. I read it to my husband, many years later, a fourth time.

The tale of The Princess Bride grows each time I "tell" it by reading it aloud. I look through its familiar window and see the old bookshops and steak houses and bars and ethos of New York City in the 1970s. I see the young boy in the 1940s with pneumonia trying to get the game to come in on his radio. I see the bench in Central Park in the dead of winter where a writer sat and puzzled over his childhood memories and I see the Southern California pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, past which I drove each day in my youth.

Each recitation was to someone new and in a different era of my life. As Uta Hagen said, we always have a reason for telling a story. We are not living in a memory, we are reproducing a tale for an express purpose.The same can be said of the books we read to our loved ones -- we want something from the listener (identification? camaraderie? wordless understanding?) and we want to convey something about the book we've chosen that we cannot find our own words for. Fortunately, that "something" is in the book's words themselves.

This week's New Yorker article about the three sisters who run the Argosy Bookshop on 59th Street is rich in detail.

But it missed one.

"Helen?" I said then. "Listen, do me something. Buzz the nine-nine-nine bookshop and have them send over "The Princess Bride."
"Lemme get a pencil," and she's gone a while. "Okay, shoot. The what bride?"
"Princess. By S. Morgenstern. It's a kid's classic. Tell him I'll quiz him on it when I'm back next week and that he doesn't have to like it or anything, but if he doesn't, I'll kill myself."
So begins the meta journey in which an adult William Goldman hunts down a beloved classic from his youth, read to him by his father when he was feverish with pneumonia. It's called The Princess Bride,  by S. Morgenstern.

Published in 1973, The Princess Bride may not have pre-dated the concept of meta (though it may have) but it certainly pre-dated the truncated term "meta" and its current ubiquity.

The nine-nine-nine doesn't have the book, in the original "Florinese" or in the English translation. Goldman stews poolside at his hotel, and tries again. He hears his father whispering in his ear, telling him the tale of true love and high adventure. He is distracted by a starlet desperate to take advantage of him, as he is of her, but he is distracted more by his sudden and overwhelming need to share this book with his son, who is about to turn ten. He calls his wife back. He asks her to try Doubleday. She calls him back to deliver the news: "The Morgenstern's out of print."

He calls her back.

"Call Argosy on Fifty-ninth Street. They specialize in out-of-print stuff."

No soap.

He gets a list from his own publishing house of every bookstore in the Fourth Avenue area and tries one after another. He finds himself frantically dialing New York on the eve of a blizzard.

No soap.

And then the final call.
"You don't get much call for Morgenstern nowadays. 
(After 17 interminable minutes of hunting and crashing in the back room, in which Goldman describes much Yiddish cursing and many complaints of physical ailments, the old bookseller returns to the phone.)
"Well, I got the Florinese like I thought."
So close. "But not the English," I said.
And suddenly he's yelling at me: "What, are you crazy? I break my back and he says I haven't got it, yes, I got it right here and it's gonna cost a pretty penny." 
Goldman's lawyer picks up the books as the blizzard starts -- he has to take the Florinese if he wants the English -- and delivers them to his New York apartment in time for his son's tenth birthday. He wants so much to find a listener in his ten year old son. He also knows, as do we, that such a desire is futile in the case of this particular son.

I read this book to my mother on my third reading. I was sixteen. I'd been twelve when I'd first read the book, in the last week of summer before seventh grade. A lot happens in four years and when you return to a book, it seems to have grown older and wiser. You don't realize that it may be you who is just a little bit more so.

We were living on the 11th floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. My stepfather had departed, at last, for good. We were two now. Well, three, actually, counting our loyal Maltese, Chloe. We were free. We were free to read a book all day on my mother's king-sized bed in the Wilshire Estina. The shadow had vanished and oxygen rushed in to fill the the newly sunny space. We greedily inhaled and luxuriously exhaled.

The sick little boy with the raging fever listens to his immigrant father sound out the words of The Princess Bride. The grown man can't get him out of his head as he sits by the pool with the Hollywood starlet.

"Hunters," my father was saying now. "Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies." He was camped in my cranium, hunched over, bald and squinting, trying to read, trying to please, trying to keep his son alive and the wolves away. 
Not a dry eye on the bed. Even Chloe wept, but that's probably because Maltese dogs tend to have leaky tear ducts. My mother and I cried because we identified, not just with the text, but through the text with each other. Happy tears. Nostalgic tears. Poignant tears. Big fat longing for everything and understanding each other tears.

A few years later, I found myself in a quandary as a sophomore at Columbia, three thousand miles from my mother and Chloe. The quandary occurred suddenly and I felt that quite possibly, my life was over. I wandered downtown. I recall it as an Autumn day, but my memory is always that it's Autumn when the magic comes.

I was headed toward Bloomingdales, I think. I thought the perfume counter might be of some cheer.  Then a sign on 59th Street caught my eye. Argosy. Argosy Book Store. Oh my god. It had stepped out of The Princess Bride and it was towering over me on the sidewalk. Argosy.

I went in. I don't remember the staff as being especially pleasant or unpleasant. They left me to my own devices. I spotted a book called  Book of Common Sense Etiquette, by Eleanor Roosevelt. I fondled the cloth cover and laughed at the more antiquated suggestions for housewives. But it was the last sentence of the introduction that sold me the book:

If you ever find yourself in a situation in which following a formal rule would be manifestly unkind, forget it, and be kind instead. -Eleanor Roosevelt, New York, 1962
And here's the ending of the introduction to The Princess Bride:

S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all. -William Goldman,
New York City, 1972
I bought the book for 25 dollars, which might as well have been a thousand for a college kid. I decided it was going to be my guide in this time of trouble. I could rise to the occasion if I had this book. I would develop character and triumph over adversity.  If Argosy was a real place, then the rest of William Goldman's story probably checked out too.

P.S. On the first night of December many years ago, I went to the movies with a young man, beginning my own tale of true love and high adventure. It was warm for December, and after leaving The Paris Theatre after a criminally long and boring film, I asked him to walk me home. I took him past Argosy on the way. I told him about that college experience and the Book of Common Sense Etiquette. I don't know if he thought I was stuffy or old-fashioned or just strange, but if so, he got over it and we married four years later. Or maybe he never got over it. In fact, I hope he didn't, and never will. It was the greatest date of my life. William Goldman concludes in the end of the introduction that he doesn't think there is such a thing as true love or high adventure --fans of the film might find some delicious if dark surprises in the novel-- but having stumbled on Argosy after dreaming about it and then stumbling on a first date I couldn't have hoped for in my wildest dreams, I respectfully disagree. On that lonely day when I bumped into Argosy, I had been wrong that my life was over. In fact, it had yet to begin.
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Of Mighty Hearts and Leaden Wings: A Review of "Maleficent"


There's a moment three quarters into A Mighty Heart in which Angelina Jolie's character receives confirmation of the death of her husband. It is, in a performance that overall dazzles in its realism, a stand-out moment. It is literally breath-taking. We feel the air sucked from our lungs as we watch Jolie struggle for air and fight against the truth she cannot come to grips with. Both  Jolie and Michael Winterbottom, who directed the film, deserve our gratitude for this exquisite and exquisitely horrible moment.

Much has been made of the "rape" allegory of Maleficent.  Critics have argued over whether the scream the fairy utters when she discovers her wings have been cut off is out of place in the film. Angelina Jolie herself, an actress whose work I often admire greatly, discussed the scream in the issue of Elle whose cover she graced. She spoke of how hard it was to find that place in her gut where inhibition gave way to primal holler. I was stunned. Has she forgotten A Mighty Heart? That scream still echoes in my ears. Has she forgotten the primal scream of loneliness she conjured from the depths of her soul at the end of Girl, Interrupted? The stunning realism of that wail made me forgive her character all her cruelty, such was the pain that drove it.

There has been much fine calibration combined with moments of release in Jolie's previous work. I had not yet seen Maleficent, so I wondered what this other scream might be like. I relished the prospect of seeing a fine actress exploring a new place in cinema: fantasy combined with realism. A fine actress can offer realism in a world of fantasy. Such was my hope, at any rate.

So. I wasn't sure "the scream" was "the scream" when it happened. It was only at the end of the film that I concluded it must be "the scream," as there were no other screams after that. The scream is a whimper, of sorts, a cursory nod to her physical pain and terror when the sleeping Maleficent awakens to discover her body dismembered by her lover. I don't object to a whimper. People are entitled to react to trauma in any number of ways. I don't object to any portrayal of humanity as long as it is...human.

When I was a child, my mother called Disney "fake childhood." Having seen Maleficent, I submit that Disney has branched out and now offers "fake adulthood" as well. I don't think I have ever been less persuaded by a "world" than that which the fairies occupy in the film, except perhaps by the dime-store human kingdom across the way. The man who steals Maleficent's wings becomes king of this creaky cliche-ridden kingdom as a reward for his savagery. Despite this, there is no dramatic force to propel this character to do it. A crown seems a rather dull reward by dramatic standards. It also seems a dramatic problem easily solved.

Couldn't the film have granted his character some back story, say a moment of bullying he has suffered that makes him turn to savagery and a lust for dominating a kingdom?  We are asked to believe that this villain is complex, or at least in possession of a brain. You'd never know it to watch the actor's work on screen. I don't disdain the work of other actors lightly. Too often we are the victims of dreadful, expository dialogue and cheap direction. It is not the actor I am disdaining at all, but his misfortune at having crossed paths with that rapist of actors' souls and dignity, The Disney Corporation.

I think of another director, Peter Jackson, so good at fantasy world-building and character development both, and so caring of actors. Their performances, in his hands, contain as much integrity as his visual conception of Middle Earth. There is CGI, to be sure, but those actors also trudged through a lot of very real snow in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They also rehearsed.  If Jackson's effort was majestic, noble and utterly human, Robert Stromberg's Maleficent's is pedestrian, uninspired, lacking in regard for human dignity (by never showing one moment of truthful behavior on screen) and, (perhaps its greatest sin) cutesy. I confess that when we are first introduced to the young Maleficent, I  wanted to blow a strong wind to remove the cutesy dust from those magnificent wings. There are two young kids at the start of the film, and both are directed to be unbearably coy. Stromberg is desperate to show us how gentle Maleficent was before her trauma. Oh my goodness, we get it. Children are innocent. Why is "innocent" so frequently mistaken for "cute?" Fake childhood, indeed.

Peter Jackson was accused of "going soft" after he had a child, and turning the violence of The Lovely Bones into a fairy dust mess because he couldn't face the horror of the story. I wonder, perhaps unfairly, if Jolie, who apparently had a lot of creative say in Maleficent, has similarly "gone soft," and was not able to conjure the sufficient dryness of delivery to make you believe that she truly hates children. (She utters this very line, and to her own adorably impish child, who plays Aurora as a tot.) I admit that as a mother I found this moment charming regardless of the flubbed delivery, because the little one was so clearly enamored of her mother and unconcerned with her altered appearance as a wicked fairy. But this was a moment I enjoyed for the surrounding context, not a moment conjured by the film itself.

Dialogue. What is it good for? A lot. In cinema,  it is often at its best when it is unspoken. The best moment of the film is when it turns out that it is not a prince's but Maleficent's kiss that is the one of true love and thus frees Aurora from her coma. You see the moment coming a mile away, and all the better for it. I relished watching the young prince fail to stir the sleeping beauty and waited eagerly for a hopeless Maleficent to do the honors, unaware of the power of her own kiss. And it's lovely. And then Stromberg trashes the moment by having Maleficent's trusty sidekick whisper, "True love's kiss,"  in wonderment. In case, Disney felt, we weren't in awe of the moment, we had damned better be schooled in its magic.

 I had no quarrel with the theoretical "humanizing" of Maleficent. I know many critics found it distasteful and wanted her to remain evil in the tradition of Iago: evil for its own sake. I myself don't find that interesting. The desire, particularly of female film-goers, to keep her as evil as she was in Disney's original Sleeping Beauty may be a well-earned revenge fantasy for women. (I loved the movie Teeth.) But I think the story they chose to tell was a worthy one. It's the story's execution-- achieved with the bluntest of hammering instead of with the delicacy of a fine sculptor--that I take issue with.

I didn't need to see Maleficent turn into a dragon, although I respect that many people feel robbed of this potentially glorious moment and were infuriated that it was turned over to a proxy, and a male one at that. Perhaps that the C.G.I. was painfully clunky might lessen their despair ? It wasn't much of a dragon.

As a dancer who has suffered much soft tissue damage and had it laboriously repaired, who has felt the aching pain of the road back to using that ruptured tissue, I felt cheated when Maleficent regains her wings, courtesy of Aurora, and immediately fuses with her torn-off body parts. I felt robbed of that beat of reconnecting to your wings. When my labrum finally healed, I could soar again. But there is a horrible pain and ache in the repair process and I would have liked a moment in which Maleficent feels the pain of reuniting with that old damaged tissue and further, is called upon to use it immediately. I'll never forget being asked to walk (with crutches) less than 12 hours after a surgeon trimmed and removed  hundreds of tiny tendon fibers from my angry, red-as-raw-steak inflamed tendons. But Maleficent rejoins with her wings and poof! She's flying as if she'd never suffered an ounce of pain --which betrays the one bit of dramatic tension on which the film is so flimsily based.

 Poor Elle Fanning. She is confined to laughing "merrily" as she falls in piles of autumn leaves more artificial-looking than those that adorn  Back-to-School displays in store windows come September. She smiles emptily and throws mud in order to achieve a badge of honor as a  creature of the Earth, so winning in her "tomboyishness" that even cranky old Maleficent can't help but fall hard for her. Watching this display reminded me of the word "feisty" and how often it is attributed to young girls, denigrating them rather than recognizing their strength. I didn't care for the gender politics in the piece. I was fine with Maleficent's journey, but not Aurora's barely sketched character.

Lastly, don't replace Tchaikovsky unless you have something more daring, dramatic and spellbinding to replace his music with. I promise, you don't. The original score of Sleeping Beauty , which I believe used  several melodies from Tchaikovsy's score for the ballet version of Cinderella, is gorgeous and haunting, bestowing both gravitas and terror.

I could go on, but I will try not to follow Disney's lesson. I'll let some things go unsaid so that implications may hover, like wings, in the air.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Idea For a Short Story

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I sat on the venipuncturist’s table in the hematologist’s office. I am an actress, which made it impossible for me to tell whether I was nervous about having my blood drawn or acting as though I were, because there is no difference. I have that disorder – 15% of the population has it – the one where you faint at the sight of blood. I had told the hematologist that immediately, as an ice breaker. I am funny and not as nervous as I seem.

I have anemia. The doctor had photos of his children and his wife covering his wall like an art gallery and he told me I should not feel pressured to rush through my history, as he had all the time in the world. He chatted about children’s shows, freely admitting he was trying to calm me down and I told him I knew that and it wasn't working because although I also have a child, hence the topic of children’s shows, I dislike most children’s shows. He tried to one-up. (Parents love to one-up each other by competing over how much they disdain children's entertainment.) 

"No Yo Gabba Gabba in our house," he said. “Does your daughter like Lori Berkner?” I  said, “I don't.” “Really?” he asked. “I found her one of the tolerable ones." I told him about an Australian rock group for kids that featured a baritone opera singer, a ballet dancer and a jazz pianist. The Wiggles, version 2.0. The ball kept passing over the net and no one was trying to make the other person lose contact with it. We weren't competing anymore, we were just talking shop. Parent shop.

When he took me to the lab, his two beautiful assistants prepared the vials. I entertained myself with the idea of a hematologist's decorating his office with depictions of Count Dracula. Or maybe just the Transylvanian countryside and a bit of the Count's castle at the edge. (The vampire himself, that would be putting it over the top.) Would patients find it funny? I would.

The doctor’s last name could be of any origin. It probably wasn't Romanian but wouldn't it be great if it were? I had told him that I had fainted on the subway reading Dracula. I was reading the scene in which Dracula punctures his own chest vein when visiting Mina. True, it was a hot and humid summer’s day and the downtown 1 was a study in faulty air conditioning and herds of restless sweating bodies swaying as the train snaked along its curvy path. I hadn't eaten much breakfast,either. Still,  it was the blood in the story. I heard music in my ears swell and developed tunnel vision and nausea and the last thing I remembered before my blood pressure dropped enough to throw me to the floor of the car was wishing that the subway could just get to 18th Street before I vomited. We were at 28th Street and then I heard the conductor announcing a delay at 23rd and I thought, “Crap, I was so close to getting there without being sick.” And then I realized I was on the floor of the subway. And then I was being ushered off  by some EMTs and I realized that I was the sick passenger. There are signs all over the subway: “In the event of a sick passenger, the train will be halted. If you are the sick passenger, you will not be ignored.” I was the reason I had not made it to 18th Street.

 I told this story to the doctor who had all the time in the world, but a condensed version. No one has that much time. I had also also fainted once when my father had handed me the bloody eyeglasses of a woman he'd helped up after she'd tumbled on the sidewalk. I saw a single drop of blood on the glasses and I fell backward into my sister’s arms. I have that thing --what is it called--that thing where you faint at the sight or mention of blood.*

The doctor didn't want to take any chances. He had apple juice on stand-by and he asked the venipuncturist to lay me down on the table. I persuaded them it wouldn't be necessary. I have a technique: I look away and pretend a bee is stinging me.The needle isn't upsetting, it is only the blood. Bees don’t draw blood. Not that you can see, anyway.

I stared at the wall and giggled, imagining Playbills of old productions of Dracula lining the wall of a hematologist’s lab. Wouldn't patients love that? Would they? I would. The needle went in. Damn, that hurts. They took the blood vials away. I never saw where they went. Down the corridor somewhere. Initial results were printed and more results were promised by the week’s end.

I wonder what they do with all the blood after they test it.

The doctor had shown me his screensaver: his two teen-aged boys, one of whom was blond and had, in the doctor's words, “the icy smile of a psychopath.”  He was holding his brother in a hammerlock. The other boy was a red head. Grinning, cheeky, ginger and spice. He was colorful next to his white blond brother. 

“Does everyone say they look like William and Harry?” I asked the doctor. “Yes,” he said. “And they are. The older one is very serious and the younger is much more lighthearted.” I decided not to mention that Harry was rumored to be the son of Diana’s riding instructor as he was his spit and image of the equestrian with whom Diana had acknowledged an affair at just the right time to conceive the spare heir. William looks just like Charles, of course, so thank goodness it came out in that order. But I didn't say that to the doctor. Obviously. 

“The older one is more like me,” the doctor said. I was surprised. He was a jovial guy. He liked putting his patients at ease. He was a family guy. He loved people. He had cushions on a couch in his office and all the time in the world.  I looked over at the screensaver and the pale blond with the icy eyes and the gingery goofball of a brother in the elder's violent clutch. I would have guessed the younger brother to be more like his father. Maybe his Dad had another side. Or maybe the older son did. 

Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, if the doctor were a vampire and he’d converted only the first of his sons as yet?

What do they do with all that blood once they test it for Ferritin and Hemaglobin?

Why did a Manhattan doctor have all the time in the world? Who on Earth has all the time in the world, much less a Manhattan doctor?

What a great idea for a short story, I thought. I have to write it down.

It wouldn't be the story of a bad vampire, for goodness' sake. This man was an angel who was about to infuse me with iron. He could be a Joshua York* kind of vampire. 

The co-pay was thirty five dollars. And five vials of blood. 

*The name of the disorder is "vasovagal response." 

*Joshua York is a vampire in George R.R. Martin's "Fevre Dream."
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