All posts by Laura Grey

The Wham of Sam: My Sammy Davis Jr. Ephiphany

Wham

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

A few months ago, I was doing a difficult job that lasted six weeks instead of the two I thought I’d signed on for. I was commuting about 10 hours a week (and I hate driving), and the job required intense focus on thousands of important details. I learned a lot, the people were kind and helpful, and the work they did was important, but I felt out of place, frustrated, and blue.

I tried reminding myself of all the things going right with the job: I was employed, working with good folks at an institution that improves people’s lives, making enough so that I didn’t have to work two jobs, and setting a good example for my daughter by showing that sometimes we do things we don’t enjoy in order to pay our dues, fulfill our obligations, be helpful, and earn a living. Of course, while my brain understood all this, my heart felt cranky and sad. I was frustrated that the talents I feel are the most valuable and worthy ones I have to offer weren’t being used to the extent I’d like to use them. And then I had my Sammy Davis Jr. epiphany.

To try to make the hours in stop-and-go traffic feel less gruesome, I realized I needed to find fresh and uplifting tunes. I love NPR (which recently featured an interview with Sammy’s daughter, Tracey, who discussed her new memoir of her father), but sometimes focusing on the latest events in Fallujah while stuck on a bridge for 30 minutes just feels too nasty and I need music. I rummaged through my CDs and found one I’d bought a few months back but hadn’t listened to much yet. It was a CD of songs performed by a man I must now admit I used to think of as one of the poster children of Vegas kitsch: Sammy Davis Jr. But the best part is the name of the album: “The Wham of Sam.

I must digress at this point. Are you already asking yourself, why would Laura buy Sammy CDs in the first place? Well, because I heard one of his songs in a store somewhere and was reminded what a fine voice and a great sense of expression, style, and warmth he had at his best moments. The many TV appearances he made during the 1960s and 1970s were so filled with Vegas schlock and corny overstylization that he was almost a self-parody by the time I started listening to music in earnest. He was doing campy, obvious, cool cat riffs during his showy performances on Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and The Tonight Show, and I couldn’t be bothered. I knew I’d loved his portrayal of Sportin’ Life in the film “Porgy and Bess” when I’d seen it on TV as a tiny kid, but I don’t think it’s been on TV since about 1970 so my memory is now faint, and I loved his performance as the Cheshire Cat singing “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” in a strange 1966 animated parody variation of “Alice in Wonderland.” His turn as groovy evangelist Big Daddy in “Sweet Charity” is a classic sixties moment that featured Sammy’s charismatic rendition of the song “The Rhythm of Life,” but somehow I forgot about that. The big hits he had when I was a kid, like “The Candy Man,” felt too cutesy and pat to me, and I dismissed him, with his goofy hipster patois and giant diamond rings, his membership in the Rat Pack, and his public support of Nixon was too bizarre. (I still shudder when I remember the much-publicized photo of Sammy’s adoring, awkward, full-body hug of Nixon.)

But when I heard him singing over the speakers at some chain store I thought, damn, no wonder this man was so popular. Listen to the feeling he puts into that line! What clear, clean enunciation! What sophisticated, tasty phrasing! So I swallowed my pride and hung out at a CD store listening station for a half hour, listening to selections from a number of his albums. I bought two, one of ballads and one of swingier songs. What a good move that was. But then I got distracted and hardly listened to them.

Anyway, back to my commute-hour epiphany. I popped “The Wham of Sam” into my CD player, and right there, boom, I was hooked with the first song, the star of the album, “Lot of Livin’ to Do.” The horns grabbed me immediately, and the energy, which starts out high, somehow continues to build with every measure of the song. The band arrangement by Marty Paich is fabulous, swingy in the style of Sinatra’s terrific “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” album (one of my favorite albums of all time, by anyone–it was arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle).

“Lot of Livin’ to Do” is big and brassy and has something new going on at every turn, but the band never outshines Sammy, whose phrasing is exactly right. His syncopation is so sure and it builds right up to the payoff moments. He knows when to pull back a little and when to let it rip. The intonation and enunciation are beautiful, but beyond his technical chops, he works the lyrics just right. He’s thinking about what he’s saying, he means what he’s singing, and I believe every word. He was sizzling and I was thrilled, sitting right there in a traffic jam at 8:30 a.m., bouncing up and down in my seat.

I must have listened to that song six times in a row on the way into work. The words crept into my brain and Boom! I had a revelation. The words aren’t Shakespeare; they’re standard upbeat lyrics, and the song was originally written for the musical “Bye Bye, Birdie,” which is fun but not Sondheim, you know? But somehow, sung with that bravado and joy and excitement and underscored by that hot band, the lyrics spoke to me:

“… [T]here’s wine all ready for tasting / And there’s Cadillacs all shiny and new / Gotta move ’cause time is a-wastin’ / There’s such a lot of livin’ to do. / There’s music to play, places to go and people to see / Everything for you and me / Life’s a ball if only you know it / And it’s all waiting for you / You’re alive, so come on and show it / There’s such a lot of living to do.”

I heard it, and I believed it. I figured, hey, this slight man had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a glass eye, grew up without his mom, had to deal with racism from day one, and had to perform in hotels that he was barred from sleeping in because of the color of his skin (until he became a big name and helped break the color barrier in show business). And man, did he love life. He ate it up and went right over the top, drinking and smoking and skirt-chasing too much, and hanging out with some unsavory folks, yes–but he also took a song like “Lush Life” and sang it like he’d lived it. Damn, he sang every song as if he lived it. And meant every word.

He brought fun and swing and life into everything he sang. Sometimes the hipster kitsch of it was too much for me, and sometimes the low-brow, I’m-gonna-please-everybody style of his later years felt like he’d dumbed-down his act, especially considering what sophistication he was capable of. His desire to please everybody and be up, up, up all the time cheapened his rep in the eyes of many of us, but the joy he brought to life, the beauty he found in it and made for others, and that devotion to wringing every drop from it reminded me how lucky I was and how many wonderful things are around for me to enjoy. I thought it seemed a sin to waste another day in disappointment that I’m not doing more exciting work, and I vowed I’d make good things happen, find them, make sure they’re a part of every day of mine, and every one of my daughter’s days, too. I figured if Sammy, who had so much garbage to contend with, could take his talent and shoot it off like fireworks, why can’t I take whatever gifts I have and make something fine and exciting of them, too? I may not be the dynamo Sammy was, but I don’t have his struggles either. And one doesn’t have to be a superstar to find something splendid in each day, or to make fine things happen.

So from that day forward I’ve reaffirmed my dedication to finding and doing good work, to making beauty, to learning something good and doing something kind each day, to being grateful for the opportunities to enjoy life more and to worry less about my dwindling savings (and how long it takes to find good jobs), and to writing regularly and with purpose. In a roundabout way, I have Sammy to thank for getting me off my tush and starting my  blog. The wham of Sam, indeed!

How Schoolhouse Rock Led Me to Jazz Great Blossom Dearie

Schoolhouse Rock

[Originally published as “My Roundabout Introduction to Blossom Dearie” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When I was a child, ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon line-up was punctuated with wonderful short musical cartoons sponsored by Nabisco: the famous “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. The educational songs created for these cartoons were so clever, catchy, and memorable that they were all rereleased on video in the 1990s for the children of the children who enjoyed them over 30 years ago. I grew up on the “Multiplication Rock” and “Grammar Rock” videos; my daughter loved them 30 years later.

Much of the appeal of these videos was that each was just the length of a pop song, and the music and lyrics were written by proven and talented professional musicians, not by earnest professional pedagogues. They were quick and full of information, and had busy, funny animation. And they were the only regular music videos for kids on TV then; there were weak shows with live-action singers or talentless oafs in bad costumes doing pathetic songs, like on “New Zoo Revue,” and there were catchy theme songs on the somehow compelling yet also vaguely disturbing Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” (which starred Jack Wild, who played The Artful Dodger in the musical film “Oliver!”), “The Bugaloos” (whose villain was played by comedian Martha Raye, probably most famous to people my age as a denture adhesive pitchwoman) and “Liddsville,” that bizarre show about the land of talking hats starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick (a.k.a. Eddie Munster). But MTV didn’t exist yet and catchy musical TV ads for dolls or games (from “Life” to “Mystery Date“) were no match for three-minute musical cartoon masterpieces like “Three is a Magic Number” or “Conjunction Junction” or “I’m Just a Bill.” These songs were so good that a number of popular rock bands covered them on the album “Schoolhouse Rock Rocks.”

Of all the songs in the “Schoolhouse Rock” oeuvre, there was one that shone out as a particularly elegant little gem: “Figure Eight.” My mother loved it so much that she bought the “Schoolhouse Rock” album on vinyl many years ago just to listen to that song. This ode to the number eight was illustrated by a figure skater and the song was sung by a woman with an unbelievably darling name and voice: Blossom Dearie. The dearest part is that she was born with that name. And the best part is that sweet, small, clear voice has sung some of the lightest, crispest, most refreshing versions of a number of jazz standards I’ve ever heard. She also has a fresh, spare style of piano playing that underscores that little pussycat voice.

I remember seeing Blossom Dearie interviewed on TV in the 1970s; she had wit and sparkle, and I was rather amazed that her tiny little voice seemed not to be a put-on but the real deal. When I started listening to her recordings of jazz standards years later, I found there was less cutesiness than I expected, and more of a wistful, light yet wry quality to her singing. I love the way she delivers Dorothy Fields‘ lyrics in “I Won’t Dance” (“For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos”) and the light but knowing quality of “They Say It’s Spring.” “Rhode Island is Famous for You” makes my daughter and me laugh, and it’s fun to compare her version of that song to Michael Feinstein’s. While I love Feinstein’s direct, swoony, passionate if sometimes campy treatment of lyrics, and think he does that song well, Blossom Dearie’s delivery has a quiet humor and a conspiratorial wink, whereas Feinstein’s is more of a showman’s romp, bigger and bolder and more obvious. Both have their place, but Dearie’s intimacy makes me feel like I’m in on a more sophisticated joke.

Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me

clown

 

I’ve never cared much for clowns. I don’t have coulrophobia (fear of clowns), though this fear is apparently surprisingly common. I just find pretty much everything they are and most of what they stand for annoying. I don’t hate them, but I avoid them when I can, and I’ve been sorely tempted to buy myself a “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me” T-shirt. Apparently many of my fellow Americans agree with me.

My beloved Uncle Steve is the exception to my anti-clown rule. He finally retired from his recurring role as Tidy the Clown in the annual Redwood City (California) Fourth of July Parade after 25 years of clowning around in public, and I must say I did enjoy him. But he was a gentle clown who pushed a bottomless garbage can down the street, popping junk into it and leaving a trail of trash behind him as the debris went right through the bottom of the can. When he’s a clown, the joke’s on him, and the audience gets to giggle at his cluelessness.

Steve’s alter ego, Tidy, recruited elementary school kids to be his clown sidekicks every year, and the result was charming and sweet. Tidy stuck flowers into piles of pucky left by the horses of the mounted police that went before him, and only approached people if they seemed open to it; he’d never force himself on a child. He’s more the sweet, Chaplinesque Little Tramp sort of clown, not the barrelling, bamboozling, freakazoid clown one finds on, say, ice cream cone packaging. (That is one horrifying dude.) I can make exceptions for someone like Tidy, but in general, keep Bozo and his ilk far away from me.

The sort of clown my uncle represents is endearing and enjoyable, a sort of old-style, mid-20th-century, fun-loving clown. But nowadays such cuddly clowns are rather rare. The cheerful, perky clown toys of the past have given way to more garish and ghoulish representations in the general media.

The general idea of the American clown, a white-faced social misfit clad in oversized and odd clothing, ignoring people’s personal space, attacking them with seltzer bottles or squirting flowers, and using them as the butt of public jokes as a way of seeking attention, pretty much sums up the worst of American behavior in one self-parodying, campy, over-the-top package. It’s nearly everything I hate about our embarrassingly accurate national stereotype: garish, self-absorbed, pushy, willing to trod on other’s toes, thinking our needs are greater than everyone else’s, ever ready to laugh at others’ humiliation but in a touchy, bad-humored funk when the table is turned and the joke’s on us.

To be fair, clowns of other cultures (e.g., buffoons like Pantalone and Arlecchino in the commedia dell’arte tradition, or Britain’s Punch and Judy puppet versions of clowns) are also caricatures with distinct, overscaled features, costumes, and gestures, all of which predate the founding of the United States by many years. I’m being unjust in blaming American culture for the American clown tradition, I know. They come from a long and, to my sensitivities, annoying tradition of making the audience the straight man, barrelling over others for laughs, and making light of humiliation and slapstick violence. It’s the sort of thing that Roberto Benigni did in his Holocaust-lite Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser, “Life is Beautiful,” a few years ago—much to my disgust and dismay.  For a description of the film that agrees with my take on it, see David Denby’s review, “In the eye of the beholder,” published in The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.  I found nearly everything Benigni did in that film either offensive, maudlin, self-aggrandizing, disrespectful, or embarrassing—or all of those things rolled into one.

I’m not actually a humorless prig; I can cackle and guffaw with the best of them, and I laugh so hard I snort more often than I care to admit. I can enjoy dark humor, tacky humor, vulgar humor, but I can rarely appreciate or enjoy slapstick physical comedy or farce, unless they’re so bizarrely irrational (e.g., my beloved Monty Python) that it’s impossible to empathize with the person playing the butt of the joke. Otherwise, I usually become uncomfortable when the laughs come at the expense of someone else’s pride, safety, or happiness. Even when the straight man is set up to seem an unpleasant sort who deserves his comeuppance, I generally don’t like seeing others derive happiness from the suffering of others. But then, I don’t appreciate most light romantic comedies, either. I can watch “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” all day long (gimme that angst!), but ask me to watch ditsy women trip over themselves to get the attention of pretty boys with great abs for an hour and really, I’d rather floss my teeth or weed my garden, thank you very much.

Of course, I’m not alone. A quick search of eBay will find you scores of scary clown puppets, figurines, and posters that the sellers recognize as distinctly creepy. A walk through the aisles of your local Blockbuster shows DVD covers emblazoned with killer clowns in the horror section. “The Simpsons” even featured an episode in which Bart is so frightened by the clown-inspired bed Homer makes him that he stays up all night chanting, “Can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me.” This is apparently the genesis of the refrain now printed on T-shirts worn by proud coulrophobes across the nation. (Leave it to Matt Groening to explore odd undercurrents of our nation in such a fun and funky way.)

I don’t know whether it’s worth it to resurrect cheerful, inoffensive clowns, since even they had elements that have scared children for centuries; outsized features, crazy make-up, and disturbingly child-like behavior coming from an oversized adult are just odd. I prefer my comedians to take the forms of everyday people, I guess. I like my fantasy worlds to feel as close to a world I can believe in as possible, so I can get lost in them more easily. Some like fantasy characters and scenarios to be as outlandish as possible in order to feel truly immersed in another world and way of thinking, but I’d rather have some emotional connection to fictional characters so that I can care about them and identify with them, and for me, that usually involves making them feel as much like realistic human beings as possible. I also prefer it if they don’t step out of their boundaries and squirt me in the face with a shot of seltzer water. I’m funny that way.

[Originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

 

“It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.” —Rod Serling

Mud-luscious and Puddle-wonderful: The Poetry of E.E. Cummings

Cummings

[Revised from the version originally published by in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Here’s the thing about works of art that we all grow up with, have to analyze as kids, and dismiss because they seem dated or obvious, hackneyed or over-explained:

Sometimes they’re actually wonderful after all.

For example, the poems of E. E. Cummings. I love them. During my junior high and high school years (think 1970s) he was one of the more frequently taught poets, largely because his acrobatics with punctuation and wordplay are fun and accessible even to people who claim to hate poetry. I know there are critics and readers who think him naive or over-exposed; they find him too accessible or well-known to seek him out afresh to find pleasure or insight. What a shame.

I reread his poems every few years (and even more often nowadays) in the expectation that, at last, I’ll find them somehow embarrassingly old-fashioned and obvious. But they never feel that way to me. They still have those great lines that punch me or move me when I don’t expect it, the casual colloquialisms, the thoughts that beg to be combined into one word to emphasize their speed or oneness. All of those devices can be found in “Buffalo Bill’s,” for example.

One of the most anthologized of his poems is the fresh, light poem “in Just-” which evokes the way children explode out into the world and splash and stomp and whirl through it in springtime. I still love its cadences, the way friends bettyandisbel and eddyandbill are so constantly with each other that they merge into single entities, the bittersweet everpresence of that little lame balloon man as he whistles far and wee.

The bitterness of the young Cummings, disillusioned by his experiences during World War I and unable to leave what he learned behind upon his return home, pops up regularly in his work. When we think of the “lost generation,” the disillusioned postwar youth of the 1920s who populate the work of writers like Fitzgerald, we think of novels full of ennui, anger, and feelings of betrayal. We think of heavy works like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. But Cummings made his own jabs, often in wisecracking, cynical asides, such as in “my sweet old etcetera.” In”next to of course god america i” his sarcasm and disgust for jingoism and militarism get considerably darker and more obvious. By the time one reads “Humanity i love you” Cummings’ anger and disillusionment with not only his country but with humanity are made completely plain. But so are his ambivalence and sense of humor (dark though it is). This isn’t the Cummings we were taught to consider so harmlessly affable and nonchalant, too easy, too fun or fey.

My favorite Cummings poem remains the one most people would probably consider the obvious choice, “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” which so many high school anthologies have reprinted for decades with the same dull set of talking points and questions. Yet it’s surprising how many different interpretations I’ve seen for this supposedly obvious poem. In my reading of it, I always find it terribly moving, in its sweet and small way. The poem contrasts the vastness of time with the anonymity of the little characters who populate it, including dear little anyone and noone. Seasons pass as the poem lengthens, children forget the essentials as they grow older, and while “anyone” and “noone” mean nothing to the world at large, they are everything to each other. The inevitability of death and anonymity are softened by the fact that, while busy folk bury the dead side by side, “little by little and was by was,” and forget them (if they ever knew them in the first place), anyone and noone loved each other and were each other’s everything, and in their little lives, that’s all anyone and noone required.

This poem feels anything but gimmicky to me. Like Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” boils the stages and essence of life down quickly, with bittersweetness, humor, a touch of cynicism, but also a touching empathy for the littleness and vulnerability at the heart of every human being. That’s why children still learn these works today; because they’re beautiful, because they’re funny, because they’re a little dark and surprising, and because they’re true.

For my last two years of college, I had to commute an hour each way to Mills and back home again, and I found I could make good use of those hours on the road if I borrowed spoken word records from the library, taped them, and then listened to the tapes in the car. (This was in the olden days of the early 1980s when one rarely found prerecorded books on tape but all sorts of wonderful things could be found on record at public libraries.) I was introduced to some fine plays this way (Ibsen’s The Master Builder and An Enemy of the People, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, lots of Shakespeare) and a lot of poetry. One of my favorite records was of Cummings reading his poems in the late 1950s. Often I find listening to poets reading their own work painful; so often they adopt a false tone and awkward phrasing, with self-conscious over-emphasis or an odd near-monotone, or a bouncing lilt at the end of each phrase, in a sort of questioning manner, like a Valley Girl? putting a question mark? at the end? of each small phrase? It’s been many years since I listened to E. E. Cummings read, but I remember finding his readings surprising and a great relief from the artificial, stentorian tones of so many other readers and writers of poetry.

By the way, the long-standing stories that Cummings signed his own name e. e. cummings and hated capital letters are myths; Cummings signed his name with the usual capitals and often used capitalization in his poetry, just not always in the obvious or expected ways. He did like to be inventive and a bit subversive in his use of language, but not to the extent that he felt it necessary to take on the affectation of using non-standard punctuation for his own name. I think this oft-repeated error serves to underline the common (and I believe erroneous) belief that he was a gimmicky writer of sing-song verse. To my mind, he was an original thinker with a light touch and a sense of humor who influenced a lot of (often bad) poets by snubbing long-established convention in ways that grab attention. Nowadays nearly every school child is asked to mess with English a little after reading a bit of Cummings in hopes that this mild subversion of all he or she has been taught will shake loose some creativity and instant love of poetry: Drop your capitals, Betty! Start a verse in the middle of the line, Isbel! Scrunch those words together into one long line, EddyandBill! We’ve all seen and done it so many times it feels quaint. It wasn’t in the 1920s when Cummings did it. And it still feels fresh to me, 80 years later.

My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary

architect

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.

Papaoutai

In 2013, the most popular video on French TV and the number one song in France and Belgium was “Papaoutai” by Belgian singer Stromae. The tune and rhythms are appealing and unusual; the video is compelling and, ultimately, moving. Though the title sounds like it could be a word in an African language, it is actually meant to be understood by French speakers as meaning “Papa, où t’es?” which translates as “Dad, where are you?” The song and the story of the video refer to the absence of Stromae’s father, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The plaintive cry of the singer who feels the absence of his father is also expressed in the child in the video who begs his mannequin-like father to come to life.

Oompa Loompas Go Oingo Boingo

oingo

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

To celebrate my daughter’s twelfth birthday, she and her dad and I went to see the Tim Burton version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We were disappointed with it, largely because of the occasional scenes of gratuitous nastiness and Johnny Depp’s unsympathetic portrayal of Willy Wonka. The book’s author, Roald Dahl, is a favorite of ours, and while he was never afraid to expose young readers to scenes of characters getting pleasure out of bringing dismay or suffering to children, his willingness to show us brutish and nasty antagonists serves only to bring us closer to his protagonists and empathize with their pain. The nastiest things happen to those who aren’t pure of heart.

Tim Burton’s new twist on “Charlie” introduces Wonka with an awkward animatronic display in the style of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride (on an intimate scale) and then proceeds to burn, melt, and destroy the Hummel-like plastic figures of children to the alarm of real children and to Wonka’s delight. Right off the bat, this introduces a sociopathic streak to the character. It doesn’t carry forward the spirit of the original book, nor does it serve to make the film more appealing or enjoyable.

The Wonka of the book and earlier movie did get pleasure from surprising and even frightening the children some, especially when they were being selfish. Gene Wilder‘s Wonka was mercurial, well-read, nimble with language, the inscrutable mix of wit, joie de vivre, charm, alarm, entertainment, warmth and unexpected temper that he is in the book. Wilder’s Wonka was philosophical, quoted Shakespeare, and showed evidence of introspection, which made his tender moments with Charlie affecting and meaningful. Wilder (and the script, penned by Roald Dahl himself) showed Wonka to be a wild genius but also a man of caring and conviction.

The Willy Wonka created by Roald Dahl was wounded but determined to find faith in the future again by putting his masterpiece in the care of someone who would appreciate it for its magic and creativity, and who wouldn’t turn it into a crass, commercial, soulless enterprise. Depp’s Wonka is completely lacking in introspection or empathy until the very end, and even when he arrives at some awareness of his own shortcomings and Charlie’s value, it’s really only as an adjunct to his narcissism, as a means to getting positive attention, not because of a drive to better the world. Rather than showing signs of wit and erudition, he makes two-word pronouncements that are less articulate than any of the children who have come to him with Golden Tickets: “You’re weird.” “That’s gross.” Gone are the wonderful spirals of wordplay that flew out of the pages of the book, the arch insights into the crassness and self-absorbed nature of modern culture. What we have instead is a flattened world and a diminished Wonka, artisanal Belgian truffles reworked into stale Hershey’s Kisses.

This take on the story is especially sad because Johnny Depp is an actor of range and depth when given the direction or inspiration. In last year’s film “Finding Neverland,” in which he starred as J.M. Barrie, he was delightful and nuanced, as was the young actor Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie in the new film. All the scenes with Charlie’s family were more affecting and appealing than the analogous scenes in the Gene Wilder version of the film. This Bucket family is warm, engaging, and loving, and the scenes with them bucking each other up in their hovel were a tender contrast to the brash bright production numbers featuring scores of Oompa Loompas. They also underscored the flatness of Wonka’s character. In the book and the Gene Wilder film version, Wonka’s anything but flat.

I will give Depp credit for saying much more with his facial expressions than the script allows him to say with words. The new “Charlie” features several scenes involving killing and tasting the entrails of a large flying insect and lots of caterpillars. Tim Burton’s style of humorous sadism is gooier than Dahl’s, and he draws out the “ew” moments in this film in a way that is at odds with Dahl’s subtler and funnier wit. Tim Burton’s vision requires Johnny Depp to play a Willy Wonka so completely out of touch with both the world of children and the world of adults that he comes across as a sort of disturbing mixture of Emo Phillips and Michael Jackson.

Twenty years ago, Tim Burton took another childlike misfit character, Pee-wee Herman, and built a brilliantly original film around him, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” But Paul Reubens’ Peewee had an appealing inner core; he was wildly immature, but he also cared for people (like Simone the waitress) and animals (whom he rescued from a burning pet store). He was a goof, but he was harmless, and while he could get angry at Francis, his nemesis, he didn’t want to cause others suffering. He was a sympathetic character, so he could stand up to the Tim Burton treatment, and even benefit from it; the slight darkness of Burton’s vision burnished the edges of Peewee’s primary-colored world, and the scene involving Large Marge is priceless.

Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (also played by Depp, and beautifully) was an incredibly sympathetic figure, a tender-hearted artist trapped in a body with monstrous and dangerous hands. Burton’s “Batman” with Michael Keaton was such a successful mix of dark and dangerous with quirky and humorous that it launched a whole series of films trying to capture some of the magic and excitement of the Burton treatment. But I’ve found most of Burton’s films of the past decade a bit colder and meaner at heart. “Big Fish” was just an odd mess; it was trying for emotional connection with the audience but I just found it poorly scripted, boring, and overacted. Usually excellent actors like Billy Crudup and Albert Finney gave annoying and vaguely embarrassing performances (which I blame largely on the loopy direction).

I hope that Burton’s soon-to-be-released animated film, “The Corpse Bride,” will once again mix his gothic cynicism with the sense of childlike wonder that some of his earlier films held. I miss the fresh visions and psychological insights of those works. I will give applause to Danny Elfman for the (as usual) exciting score and fresh, funny, original songs. I’ve enjoyed his work for nearly 25 years; I used to go to see him and his clever, brash, brassy band, Oingo Boingo, when they came up to the Bay Area and loved them every time I saw them. Their energy was intense and focused, the band was tight and great, the lyrics were unique and cynically funny. Elfman was clearly a man of strong opinions and endless energy. His score for “Peewee’s Big Adventure” was a perfect jumping-off point for his talent and his style, and his theme for “The Simpsons” fits the feel of the show and the characters; it’s hard to imagine it without that signature theme and all the visual cues we all associate with its musical phrases. His orchestral work for the movies is so lush and evocative that I always enjoy his scores, but I’ve missed the darker, edgier, bouncier Danny I saw in San Francisco and Berkeley years ago.

The new songs for the glitzy Oompa Loompa production numbers in the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” will stick with me and entertain me longer and better than the film itself. That’s a soundtrack I’ll be happy to own. But I’ll skip the DVD; I’d rather drag out my old “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” videotape and watch Gene Wilder sing “Pure Imagination” again. And again. And again.

Horror Vacui: The Fear of Empty Space

Horror vacui - Mosque Tiles

[Revised from the original article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I once heard the late jazz pianist and singer Shirley Horn say that her mentor, trumpet legend Miles Davis, always liked the way she used space in her singing and playing. I liked that description so well, since Shirley Horn was a master of slow, careful, pared down musical expression. There was never an extraneous note in her playing, and she could never be accused of playing anything too quickly. Sometimes there are such long rests between her lyrics that I worry, Shirley, may, never, get, to, the, end, of, the, phrase. But I have to admit that her singing and playing were very elegant, and the lack of adornment does focus the ear and the mind on the sound and the meaning. (And her version of Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “(It’s Not Easy Being) Green” is exquisite.)

I admire minimalism in architecture and fashion, too, but I’d be bored out of my mind living in minimalist clothing and surroundings all the time. My visits to W Hotels and to Ian Schrager’s Paramount and Hudson hotels in New York left me thinking how fun it was to be in such stark, angular spaces for a little while, and how chic and clean the lines are, how pure and streamlined the sensibility was—and how I could never live like that at home.

In autumn and winter I wear a lot of black, and I feel very good in it. I love to travel in black so that strangers can’t tell that I’m a tourist, or where I come from, or what I sat in on the subway. I love the classic, crisp, elegant anonymity of it. But my lavender shoes and my bright pink coat and the crazy, oversized floral patterns on some of my favorite skirts are just as necessary to my wardrobe, and to the vision I have of myself and how I must sometimes present myself to the world.

I think a lot of us fill up the spaces in our lives carelessly to make ourselves and those around us less afraid. We feel we have to talk through an entire visit with a friend, have the TV on in the background, fill every shelf, and try every dish at the buffet. My mom, who found the study of art and art history thrilling, as I do, laughed with me when she realized that the Latin term “horror vacui,” which describes the fear of empty space which makes some artists decorate every inch of a surface, applied to her and to her life as well. She feared too much quiet or extended contemplation in much the same way that she feared a bare wall. She found it too easy to project her fears of inadequacy, loss and emptiness into those spaces, both literal and metaphorical. A lack of adornment meant a lack of value to her; less was less and more was always more. I’m often guilty of this sort of thinking, too. I collect too many things and crave too many distractions, accumulate to fill up voids in my life and avoid winnowing my collections so I can focus on novelty and expansion, on all the things I might do with them in the future, all the possibilities open to me because I have such a collection of stuff. Winnowing would mean admitting that there are limits to my life and its possibilities, that I may never need that unused German language workbook, might not create a work of art incorporating vintage mah jongg tiles and dominoes after all, probably won’t review my Chinese history notes from 1983 again, and don’t need a dozen Depression glass candlestick holders after all, even if they are 70 years old and very cool.

I think there’s an optimism to accumulation and void-filling, a belief that I’ll use this, I’ll enjoy that, my life will be better if I expand and decorate and dress it up with one more thing. I really will be fluent in French someday! It’s not too late to learn to become a goldsmith! Those broken plates could make an amazing mosaic top for a bedside table! I’d always be sad if I got rid of that Singer sewing machine from 1924! But of course, this sort of self-confidence through accumulation bases value on the ephemeral and external rather than on the lasting and innate. Emphasizing that expansive optimism is how our culture justifies binge spending, over-extended credit (both personal and governmental) and constant expansion. It’s a sign of fear and a lack of discipline, I believe; evidence of a fear of growing older, of growing bored or boring, of appearing outdated to others, of having to make do or invest more energy or time in something or someone, of facing what we really are, have, need, or are capable of. Stuff dulls the senses and brings comfort. I love it, but I think it’s time to stare down that horror vacui a little bit, and see what riches I’m missing in my life by focusing too much on the riches that cost me money.