Friday, February 27, 2009

How Football Explains John Coltrane

From "How Football Explains John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson," in Sal Paolantonio's new book, How Football Explains America:

The seamless connection of the game of football to African-American culture has roots that go back to America's only truly original musical art form: jazz.

Here's Harry Edwards, sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete: "Most of what you see on the football field is timing and rhythm and beat. You could literally take a piece by Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and I think Red Garland on piano [Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums], a piece called 'Striaght, No Chaser.' Put that music to a play being run by the San Francisco 49ers and you see the rhythm that's involved."

"Straight, No chaser," is a Thelonious Monk composition. Monk always lived on the edge of life, wrote his music around the edges of jazz. He always found the cracks in the diatonic scale. In other words; Monk mastered the fundamentals, but then he found those shades of chromatic deviation. A perfect football metaphor.

"I Have been sitting on the sideline listening to that Miles Davis cut while [watching] the 49ers with Joe Montana and Roger Craig and Jerry Rice and John Taylor and Tom Rathman and you hear that piece, that 'Straight, No Chaser,'" Edwards said. "Then, all of a sudden Cannonball kicks in and you hear Montana: 'Hut, hut, hut.' Then everything starts to move, and you see that rhythm. It's like Coltrane coming in and picking up the pieces after Cannonball leaves off. And you hear that bass in the background. You hear Garland carrying the whole thing on piano and you see Joe handing the ball to Roger or Tom. It's all of one cloth. That's why some of the greatest American musicians are some of the greatest sports fans. They understood the game. They understood the risk. They understood the practice. You're not just getting ready to run a play during a game, you're downloading the rhythm of the play, the timing of the play, the purpose of the play, the spirit of the play into your automatic response system. So, when that play is called, you go up. You're not thinking now, you're just running the play."

Coltrane's groundbreaking solo with the Miles Davis sextet on "Straight, No Chaser" was recorded in 1958.

"Coltrane would go into his flat and practice for like 72 hours straight," said Edwards, "and it's the same way with plays. I watched the 49ers run play after play after play. It wasn't practice for practice's sake. It wasn't practice to get the play down. It was practice to make the play automatic. And it's the same way with music. That is shared. The risk, playing without a net, getting out there, trying to make it happen against competition. Competition in music being the piece itself. Asking yourself, 'Can I get this done?'"
This gives me a great idea. From now on, instead of being forced to listen to the idiots on ESPN who do Monday Night Football, I'm going to listen to some Monk and Trane and Dolphy while watching the game.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In the Shadow of Hank Willams

One of those strange times when unseen forces mysteriously converge in one direction. . .

I added Hank Williams to my iPod a few days ago. Within 48 hours, I stumbled across several examples of the love and devotion many famous musicians feel for the man.

It started with an article on Leonard Cohen:

"When I wrote about Hank Williams 'A hundred floors above me in the tower of song', it's not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. Your Cheatin' Heart, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer."
Then I discovered that Neil Young owned one of Hank's guitars:
"I've got a Hank Williams' guitar . . . an old Martin D-28. . . . It's always great when someone understands what this is that they're holding, who understands the effect Hank Williams had on all of us. They are sort of awestruck by being in the presence of anything that he touched---to the point that to actually play his instrument elevates them to another level."
(This morning, knowing how important Hank was to Bob Dylan, I did a little searching on the internet and came across this passage from his memoir, Chronicles:
"When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege. In time, I became aware that in Hank's recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars, and they had to be there.")
My favorite story, though, comes from Waylon Jennings' autobiography. As background: The great country singer Faron Young first came to Nashville in 1952, along with his 19 year-old girl friend, Billie Jean Jones. Here's Waylon:
''Everything I did in Nashville, anything anyone did, was measured against Hank's long, lanky shadow. . . .

I wanted to be like him. We all did. Even his contemporaries held Hank in awe. Faron Young brought Billie Jean . . . to town for the first time. She was young and beautiful, and Hank liked her immediately. He took a loaded gun and pointed it to Faron's temple, cocked it, and said, 'Boy, I love that woman. Now you can either give her to me or I'm going to kill you.'

''Faron sat there and thought it over for a minute. 'Wouldn't that be great? To be killed by Hank Williams!' ''
(Hank married Billie Jean two months later.)

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"
(Hank Williams)

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

I've never seen a night so long,
When time goes crawling by.
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.

Did you ever see a robin weep,
When leaves began to die?
Like me, he's lost the will to live,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

thought dream 021909

We analyzed the spatial coordinates, and
then the spatial coordinates were gone. I
detached the nimbus from my claw-hook
and went back to filing reports on the widower

in 2B who dresses up like a clown and does
magic tricks with his ukulele. Tony broke down
the door. We tortured the former government
officials, but it didn't make us feel any better.

It didn't make them feel any better either.
The guests left after the party: cheese dip on
the sofa, blood in the kitchen, a broken watch,
and three loads of empty bottles. We found

someone's cell phone in the refrigerator. I
took pictures of Suzie and uploaded them to
a web site called Absence of Angels. Once,
I fell asleep on a bus in Castile and woke up

many kilometers and several villages away
from my destination. It was the last bus of
the night in either direction. The driver
expressed sympathy. A dog barked, as I

stepped through the narrow streets of some
pueblo de no se que, past the slaughterhouse
and the shuttered plaza, and out into the
moonlit fields. Dressed for a committee meeting

I'd had that day, and carrying my briefcase,
I whistled Hoagy Carmichael as I hiked along
that road in the middle of nowhere, in the warm,
sumptuous dark. I had never been happier.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Speaking in Tongues

The current issue of The New York Review of Books features an article by Zadie Smith called "Speaking in Tongues," which discusses the mutability of our voices as we move from one culture or background to another, and how this applies to Barack Obama and the possibilities of his presidency.

It's a fascinating essay, and I highly recommend reading the entire piece. I'm afraid my efforts to provide you with good, coherent excerpts will only butcher her work and wind up being too long for the blog anyway. But I'll make an attempt.

After discussing her own move from a working-class section of London to Cambridge and how it affected her physical voice, she explores the figure of Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmallion:

By the end of his experiment, Professor Higgins has made his Eliza an awkward, in-between thing, neither flower girl nor lady, with one voice lost and another gained, at the steep price of everything she was, and everything she knows. . . .

How persistent this horror of the middling spot is, this dread of the interim place! It extends through the specter of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety —disguised as genteel concern—for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices—whatever will become of them? Something's got to give—one voice must be sacrificed for the other. What is double must be made singular.

But this, the apparent didactic moral of Eliza's story, is undercut by the fact of the play itself, which is an orchestra of many voices, simultaneously and perfectly rendered, with no shade of color or tone sacrificed. . . . Shaw had a wonderful ear, able to reproduce almost as many quirks of the English language as Shakespeare's. Shaw was in possession of a gift he wouldn't, or couldn't, give Eliza: he spoke in tongues.

It gives me a strange sensation to turn from Shaw's melancholy Pygmalion story to another, infinitely more hopeful version, written by the new president of the United States of America. Of course, his ear isn't half bad either. In Dreams from My Father, the new president displays an enviable facility for dialogue, and puts it to good use, animating a cast every bit as various as the one James Baldwin—an obvious influence—conjured for his own many-voiced novel Another Country. Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson. . . . This new president doesn't just speak for his people. He can speak them. It is a disorienting talent in a president; we're so unused to it. . . .

The conclusions Obama draws from his own Pygmalion experience, however, are subtler than Shaw's. The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural.

For Obama, having more than one voice in your ear is not a burden, or not solely a burden—it is also a gift. . . . [I]n the first chapter, [he discusses] the failure of his parents' relationship, characterized by their only son as the end of a dream. "Even as that spell was broken," he writes, "and the worlds that they thought they'd left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been."

To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It's more interesting. What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? " The Man from Dream City." When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened in his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man—we see in them whatever we want to see. " Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," said Cary Grant. " Even I want to be Cary Grant." It's not hard to imagine Obama having that same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.


But I haven't described Dream City. I'll try to. It is a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion. Naturally, Obama was born there. So was I. When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin—well, anyone can see you come from Dream City. In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That's how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you're not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It's the kind of town where the wise man says "I" cautiously, because "I" feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun "we."

Throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say we. He was noticeably wary of "I." By speaking so, he wasn't simply avoiding a singularity he didn't feel, he was also drawing us in with him. He had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can't see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives.

It was a high-wire strategy, for Obama, this invocation of our collective human messiness. His enemies latched on to its imprecision, emphasizing the exotic, un-American nature of Dream City, this ill-defined place where you could be from Hawaii and Kenya, Kansas and Indonesia all at the same time, where you could jive talk like a street hustler and orate like a senator. What kind of a crazy place is that? But they underestimated how many people come from Dream City, how many Americans, in their daily lives, conjure contrasting voices and seek a synthesis between disparate things. Turns out, Dream City wasn't so strange to them. . . .

Which brings us to the single-voiced Obamanation crowd. They rage on in the blogs and on the radio, waiting obsessively for the mask to slip. They have a great fear of what they see as Obama's doubling ways. "He says one thing but he means another"—this is the essence of the fear campaign. He says he's a capitalist, but he'll spread your wealth. He says he's a Christian, but really he's going to empower the Muslims. And so on and so forth. These are fears that have their roots in an anxiety about voice. Who is he? people kept asking. I mean, who is this guy, really?


For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians. In our artists we look for the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility. The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female—he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliation were ever to arise we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway. Was he, for example, a man of Rome or not? He has appeared, to generations of readers, not of one religion but of both, in truth, beyond both. Born into the middle of Britain's fierce Catholic–Protestant culture war, how could the bloody absurdity of those years not impress upon him a strong sense of cultural contingency? . . .

Shakespeare's art, the very medium of it, allowed him to do what civic officers and politicians can't seem to: speak simultaneous truths. (Is it not, for example, experientially true that one can both believe and not believe in God?) In his plays he is woman, man, black, white, believer, heretic, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim. He grew up in an atmosphere of equivocation, but he lived in freedom. And he offers us freedom: to pin him down to a single identity would be an obvious diminishment, both for Shakespeare and for us. Generations of critics have insisted on this irreducible multiplicity, though they have each expressed it different ways, through the glass of their times. Here is Keats's famous attempt, in 1817, to give this quality a name:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Smith then discusses the 19th-century English Historian Thomas Macaulay and his writings on the great statesman Halifax, whom he describes thus:
His intellect was fertile, subtle, and capacious. His polished, luminous, and animated eloquence...was the delight of the House of Lords.... His political tracts well deserve to be studied for their literary merit.
In fact, Halifax is familiar—he sounds like the man from Dream City. This makes Macaulay's caveat the more striking:
Yet he was less successful in politics than many who enjoyed smaller advantages. Indeed, those intellectual peculiarities which make his writings valuable frequently impeded him in the contests of active life. For he always saw passing events, not in the point of view in which they commonly appear to one who bears a part in them, but in the point of view in which, after the lapse of many years, they appear to the philosophic historian.
To me, this is a doleful conclusion. It is exactly men with such intellectual peculiarities that I have always hoped to see in politics. But maybe Macaulay is correct: maybe the Halifaxes of this world make, in the end, better writers than politicians. A lot rests on how this president turns out—but that's a debate for the future. Here I want instead to hazard a little theory, concerning the evolution of a certain type of voice, typified by Halifax, by Shakespeare, and very possibly the President. For the voice of what Macaulay called "the philosophic historian" is, to my mind, a valuable and particular one, and I think someone should make a proper study of it. It's a voice that develops in a man over time; my little theory sketches four developmental stages.

The first stage in the evolution is contingent and cannot be contrived. In this first stage, the voice, by no fault of its own, finds itself trapped between two poles, two competing belief systems. And so this first stage necessitates the second: the voice learns to be flexible between these two fixed points, even to the point of equivocation. Then the third stage: this native flexibility leads to a sense of being able to "see a thing from both sides." And then the final stage, which I think of as the mark of a certain kind of genius: the voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else's. There it is, my little theory—I'd rather call it a story. It is a story about a wonderful voice, occasionally used by citizens, rarely by men of power. Amidst the din of the 2008 culture wars it proved especially hard to hear.

In this lecture I have been seeking to tentatively suggest that the voice that speaks with such freedom, thus unburdened by dogma and personal bias, thus flooded with empathy, might make a good president. It's only now that I realize that in all this utilitarianism I've left joyfulness out of the account, and thus neglected a key constituency of my own people, the poets! Being many-voiced may be a complicated gift for a president, but in poets it is a pure delight in need of neither defense nor explanation. Plato banished them from his uptight and annoying republic so long ago that they have lost all their anxiety. They are fancy-free.

"I am a Hittite in love with a horse," writes Frank O'Hara.

I don't know what blood's
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child's mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father's underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in
the birches,
and I've just caught sight of the
Niña, the Pinta and the Santa
What land is this, so free?

Frank O'Hara's republic is of the imagination, of course. It is the only land of perfect freedom. Presidents, as a breed, tend to dismiss this land, thinking it has nothing to teach them. If this new president turns out to be different, then writers will count their blessings, but with or without a president on board, writers should always count their blessings. A line of O'Hara's reminds us of this. It's carved on his gravestone. It reads: "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible."

But to live variously cannot simply be a gift, endowed by an accident of birth; it has to be a continual effort, continually renewed. . . .

It's my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. I further audaciously hope that such a man will not mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws, suitable for general application. I even hope that he will find himself in agreement with George Bernard Shaw when he declared, "Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it." But that may be an audacious hope too far. We'll see if Obama's lifelong vocal flexibility will enable him to say proudly with one voice "I love my country" while saying with another voice "It is a country, like other countries." I hope so. He seems just the man to demonstrate that between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recent Screenings

The International (2009) - Clive Owen plays a weary but determined Interpol agent and Naomi Watts an assistant Manhattan D.A. who team up for an investigation of the corrupt International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC). Based in part on the real-life Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the IBBC has dealings with every important global player, legal or illegal: drug lords, African terrorists, the CIA, the Mafia, other major banks, and numerous governments. The closer Clive and Naomi get to the heart of the matter, naturally, the more people die around them. Forgoing the hyper-kinetic sprint from one explosion or car chase to the next that's so popular these days, The International proceeds at a nice, leisurely pace, making it feel closer in spirit to an international thriller from the 1960s or 70s. This slower pace gives a screenwriter and director the opportunity to really explore the complexity of a situation - in this case, global finance and all of its interconnections - as well as to develop their characters. Unfortunately, though I kept waiting for the plot and characters to develop, director Tom Twyker and screenwriter Eric Singer don't take much advantage of their opportunity, and the slow pace too often feels, well, slow.

Luckily, there are other elements that make The International enjoyable, especially Frank Griebe's excellent cinematography. There are some wonderful individual shots throughout the film, most of them composed for the big screen, including a marvelous image of Clive Owen ascending the wide and enormous marble stairs that lead up to the headquarters of the IBBC. And then there's the delicious international scenery: Milan, Berlin, New York, Lyon, Istanbul (with a great a roof-top chase), and one stunning sequence filmed in Lake Garda, Italy that took my breath away. How long has it been since I've been able to really dwell in the extoic locations of a big Hollywood movie and not been jerked away by a car chase?

And though there's only one big action sequence in the film, it's definitely a winner: A terrific shoot-out down Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. (Though one does wonder why it takes so long for the NYPD to arrive.) They could have actually shortened that scene, however, and used a little more action elsewhere.

Clive Owen looks more like Peter Falk's Columbo than an action hero this time around, the result of his character's obsession with bringing the corrupt bank to justice, which has left him exhausted, world-weary and paranoid. It's an underrated talent for actors to pick roles in good, intelligent films, and Owen is one of the better examples of this right now. I wish, however, that he would start to stretch himself a bit more. Make a comedy, Clive; It won't kill you. His role as Interpol agent Louis Salinger feels too much like previous roles. But I enjoy watching him on the screen, and he definitely carries The International. Naomi Watts does as well as she can with a not very interesting or well-written role. I appreciate the director's willingness to not push a forced romance between Owens and Watts, but they could've used more chemistry. They're both fine actors, but they never find a way to make the screen crackle.

Ultimately, The International feels different from most contemporary thrillers - as if it were, gasp, actually made for adults - and I liked that very much. It's a solid, intelligent film, good but not great. It never quite lives up to its potential, but it's worth watching.

The Dark Knight (2008) - After all the hype and hullabaloo, I finally got a chance to see Christopher Nolan's latest Batman film a few weeks ago at the IMAX Cinema at Lincoln Center on a limited re-release for the Oscars. I felt like I had let go of as many preconceptions as I could and was ready to just go along for the ride, in the mood for a big film on a big screen. And I did go along with the ride for a while, enjoying the first half of the film quite a bit, but after about 100 minutes, I looked at my watch for the first time. After two hours and fifteen minutes, I looked at it again. By the time the film ended, I felt exhausted and relieved to get out of there. Even the IMAX Cinema seemed weary and restless, as twice during the latter part of the movie the lights came on and an automated announcement thanked everyone for coming. (AMC gave us a free ticket for that - good customer service on their part.)

There's a lot to recommend in the film. As everyone and their uncle has mentioned, Heath Ledger does an excellent job as the Joker. His performance turns a normally cartoon villian into a more complex human figure. (Though, if he hadn't died, I wonder if he'd be such a lock to win the Oscar.) On the other hand, few people have mentioned Aaron Eckhart as Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent, and I thought he did very well with a role that could've easily remained one dimensional. Christian Bale excels as billionaire Bruce Wayne, but his Batman remains unnecessarily irritating and dull. (After all is said and done, I'm beginning to wonder if Adam West wasn't the most enjoyable Batman.) Maggie Gyllenhaal is a definite improvement over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, but her vast talents seems wasted in the role. Gary Oldman does a fine job as Commissioner Gordon, and Michael Caine gets all the best lines as Alfred the Butler.

There are several beautifully composed shots in the film - I think of Batman up on the roof at night, looking down on Gotham. And some of the action sequences are first rate, especially Batman's rendition of a crooked Hong Kong business man, and a long chase sequence where the Joker and his henchmen are trying to stop a heavy police caravan transporting Harvey Dent.

But The Dark Knight has some issues. It's too long (by 45 minutes), and it takes itself too seriously. You know it's serious, because Batman speaks in that awful, overly-serious voice. Most surprisingly to me, however, is how flawed the film-making can be at times. Heath Ledger's acting and lots of explosions can't hide the fact that this is one poorly constructed movie, with gaping holes (a showdown between Batman and the Joker at a penthouse party inexplicably stops, for example), a number of philosophical and narrative contradictions, and far too many scenes and sub-plots that serve no purpose. Can anyone tell me why we have to suffer through several scenes of a Bruce Wayne employee threatening to reveal his boss's identity, when, at the same time, Wayne keeps threatening to reveal his own identity at a public press conference? And just how many people are kidnapped in this movie? Can anyone keep count? By the time a woman and son are taken towards the end, I was like, "Oh, please. Just let them die and get on with the film." When you don't care about an innocent mother and child being killed by the villain, something's gone terribly wrong.

Worst of all, however, may be the pseudo-intellectual aspects of the film. The Dark Knight is all about "moral complexity," and Nolan practically holds up flash cards at times in case you miss his point. He explores the motivations and moral complexity of Batman, but this kind of psychological and sociological look at a super hero was already tackled in the first two Spider Man movies, and in a much more effective and entertaining way. Nolan hammers home some vague ideas about our own individual moral complexity via a ridiculous set-up involving two bomb-laden ferries, one full of "normal" people and one packed with the worst bad guys. "See, hardened criminals can act decently and normal people can forsake the Golden Rule." Wow. Complex. (Though this sequence does yield one of the better lines in the movie, spoken by a very serious looking criminal with a deep, serious voice.) Unfortunately, while criminals may behave decently at times (who knew?), it seems that every member of the Gotham Police Department can be easily corrupted, from rookie cops to Commissioner Gordon's closest and dearest friends, one of whom is willing to hand over important people to be killed because mom ran up some hospital bills. In another sequence, Nolan dresses up the Joker as a nurse (nurses want to help people, get it? It's ironic!) and gives him a speech about chaos and the big-shots who make plans and what it all comes to in the end, and the speech probably sounds pretty deep to a 13 year-old. And though the Joker condemns those who make plans, he's obviously spent an incredible amount of time on his own elaborate and complicated plans, because they all go perfectly, allowing him to outwit all of the big shots, including the politicians and the police and even the hardcore and ruthless mobsters - everyone, that is, except for Batman. What's truly impressive is that the Joker, who's escaped from an insane asylum, pulls off all of these incredibly elaborate plans with an endless supply of henchmen whom he repeatedly kills (wouldn't that hurt potential recruitment?) or who are stupid and/or crazy fellow escaped inmates. (I guess no one bothered checking reports about dozens of inmates escaping from asylums.) Amazing what can be accomplished if you're able to motivate your employees.

With the Joker as Osama Bin Laden, threatening the good people of New York/Gotham, Nolan also looks at the post-9/11 world and wonders what people might be willing to do in a time of crisis. The war on terror, you see, is also pretty morally complex. Rendition, it turns out, is okay and even pretty fun. Surveillance of the population is also justified, as long as its only done in extreme cases and by someone who's really trustworthy, which, I believe, was also the Bush administration's argument. Torture, though, is going too far. Batman says so. Thus, when the Joker/Bin Laden comes, we may have to do things we're not always comfortable doing. But it's all for the greater good - a chance to give those hardened criminals who have occasional moments of moral clarity an opportunity to travel by ferry in peace.

Alas, a dark palette and a super hero speaking in somber tones doesn't equate cinematic depth. (Though it's enough, evidently, to make critics giddy.) The problems with The Dark Knight - being too long, taking itself too seriously, unnecessary plot lines, and pseudo-intellectual themes - all point to an even greater issue: self-indulgence. I really enjoyed Memento, Christopher Nolan's film from 2000, but his last three films (Batman Begins, The Prestige, and the Dark Knight) have felt increasingly self-indulgent. And with the financial success of The Dark Knight, I don't know who's going to tell him to do a better job of trimming his screenplay and editing his film.

Despite all of the attention, acclaim and money The Dark Knight has received, I'd have to say it wasn't even the best super hero film of 2008. That would've been Iron Man. Though it wasn't as ambitious as Nolan's effort (or maybe because it wasn't as ambitious), Iron Man was a leaner, tighter, and better-crafted movie. It had just as much to say about society, and it did it with humor and fun. And Robert Downey Jr. didn't have to affect a seriously silly "serious" voice when he put on his super hero outfit. Best of all, I enjoyed watching Iron Man and never once looked at my watch.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) - Billy Wilder's second effort as director opens with an unforgettable sequence in which a tank full of apparently dead British soldiers rambles up and down the dunes of a desert in North Africa. Eventually, one of the men regains consciousness, only to fall out of the tank and be left behind, absolutely alone in that vast ocean of sand. The solider is played by Franchot Tone, a leading man in 1930s Hollywood who started his career as one of the original members of New York's Group Theatre that first brought Stanislavski's acting methods to this country. After wandering through the desert, Tone winds up at a hotel in a bombed-out and desolate Egyptian village, out of his mind from sun-stroke. Before he can recover, the hotel is taken over by advancing German troops, led by the Desert Fox himself, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, played marvelously by Erich von Stroheim. Tone takes on the identity of a waiter who was a spy for the Germans in order to find out where Rommel has buried several depots of oil, food and ammunition that will allow him to move rapidly across the desert and take Egypt from the British. It's a taut wartime espionage film, with an efficient and intelligent script by Wilder and longtime collaborator Charles Brackett. The black and white cinematography by John Seitz earned an Oscar nomination that year and helps create an atmosphere of tension and intrigue in the old hotel out in the desert. You can almost see Wilder becoming a great director before your eyes, developing his chops on a fairly typical Hollywood film before tackling his next project, Double Indemnity.

Five Graves to Cairo
may not be one of Wilder's best efforts, but it proves that even B-Level Wilder was superior to much of what Hollywood could produce.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Outlaw Mystics, Part 1: Johnny Cash, Tibetan Tantra, Soviet Science-Fiction and Sexual Aspects of Angelology

A few days ago, I was listening to Johnny Cash sing "Oh, What a Dream." I'd heard the song before but hadn't really paid close attention. This time, however, I literally had to stop in my tracks as I started concentrating on the lyrics. It's one strange little song. And it led me on a strange little journey. . .

Cash originally recorded the song at two different sessions in July and August 1958. (Those dates will be important later on.) Evidently, he wasn't satisfied with either version, so he recorded it again in March 1959, changing the name of the song to "You Dreamer You," and making some minor adjustments to the lyrics. This version (the weakest of the three, ironically) was released that same year and reached #13 on the Country Charts. He even performed it on a 1959 episode of the Chevy Show.

But it's the original 1958 song, "Oh, What a Dream," that usually gets anthologized. Here it is:

Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
I dreamed I walked in a field of flowers, oh what a dream
The houses all were silver towers, oh what a dream
Beside the road an angel sat
I said Hello and tipped my hat
And stopped when I saw her smile
And sat me down a while, I sat me down a while

Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
I tried the angel for a kiss, oh what a dream
But she turned away and my lips missed, oh what a dream
She said, sir, I'll have you know
I met you just a while ago
You're welcome for to sit
But calm yourself a bit, sir, calm yourself a bit

Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
I fell in love like 1, 2, 3, oh what a dream
I asked the angel to marry me, oh what a dream
She said, sir, I can't marry you,
But I'm a dream that can come true
There are dreams of much my worth
That live upon the earth, sir, live upon the earth

Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
Then I awoke and found my love, oh what a dream
As heavenly as the one above, oh what a dream
We'll marry in a sea of flowers
Home will be a silver tower
They'll be heaven in my life
With an angel for a wife, with an angel for a wife
Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
So, what's going on in this song?

First, Johnny Cash is in a dream state. The landscape of this dream is somewhat unusual, as the houses are all "silver towers," which sound urban, yet he's walking through a bucolic "field of flowers." He encounters an angel. This particular angel has taken the form of a woman, a pretty girl, as it were, who causes the wandering Cash to interrupt his journey (Where's he going anyway? Is he just ambling around some like Buddhist pilgrim?)

"Angel Playing a Flageolet," by Edward Burne-Jones (1878) National Museums Liverpool.

Aroused by the angel's beauty, Johnny quickly desires physical connection and tries to kiss her. (This is one fast mover.) She rebuffs his efforts, however, and tells him to cool his jets. It's too late, though - Cash has fallen in love with the angel and wants to marry her. Maybe it's genuine love. Or maybe he bodily craves the girl-angel so much that he's willing to marry her, knowing it's the only way he's going to get her into bed. In any case, she says she can't marry him. (This follows Matthew 22:30, which says that angels do not marry.)

The angel, now assuming the traditional role of messenger, then tells Cash that there are similar angel-women walking the earth. When Johnny awakes from his dream state, lo and behold, he finds a woman "as heavenly as the one above." (Is she in bed with him? How did she get there?)

The story takes one last unusual turn. The sexual-spiritual tension that was building up in the dream seems to resolve itself in a real-life happy ending, wherein the flesh-and-blood Cash and his angel-woman get married. Why, then, do they return to the landscape of his dream? In fact, the terrain has grown even stranger than before. Their home will be one of those "silver towers," but now they're getting married in a "sea of flowers." What had been a "field," something hard and of the earth that one can walk upon, has now transformed into a watery garden-scape. Did Cash come back to earth, marry an angel-woman, and then ascend with her into some spiritual plane? (The Waters of Heaven, perhaps?)

Whatever the case, Cash ultimately achieves union between the spiritual and the earthly - "There'll be heaven in my life with an angel for a wife."

This little mystical tale got me thinking about other stories of earthly human beings having romantic or sexual contact with angelic or supernatural figures.

There are at least three such episodes in the Bible:
  1. Genesis 6:1-4 - "(1) Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, (2) that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. (3) Then the Lord said, 'My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.' (4) The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown."
  2. Genesis 19: 1-5 - "(1) And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground. (2) And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night. (3) And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat. (4) But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: (5) And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.
  3. Jude 6-7 - (6) And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. (7) Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
"The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Man that they were Fair," by Daniel Chester (1923) Corcoran Gallery.

Some argue that the first episode doesn't refer to angelic or supernatural creatures, that the Nephilim are simply exceptionally big humans. (One theory suggests that they were the Neanderthals.) But in all other Old Testament passages, the term "Sons of God" refers to "angels" (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalm 29:1; 89:7; Daniel 3:25.)

What's interesting in the second episode is the physicality of the angels. We tend to think of angels as ethereal beings of pure spirit, but these two eat the unleavened bread Lot serves them and lay down in his house to rest.

And, of course, Christianity itself is founded upon the story of a supernatural being impregnating an earthly, unmarried virgin, producing a flesh-and-blood son who's both human and divine. (Was Jesus a Super Nephilim?)

Modern cinema offers similar stories of angels and humans having romantic contact. Off the top of my head I can think of three: Wings of Desire, City of Angels, and The Bishop's Wife. And there are other scenarios in which non-angelic supernatural beings fall in love with earthly women. In Death Takes a Holiday, Death himself falls for the beautiful Grazia. On television, "Angel," a supernatural creature of the vampire variety, has romantic/sexual entanglements with a girl mystic (vampire-slayer variety) named Buffy. And, of course, Dracula and all his incarnations involve desired union with female mortals.

Notice, however, that in all of these cases, the angels or supernatural beings are men and the earthly object of their desire is female.

In Johnny Cash's version, however, this gendered power structure is reversed. It is the female who is supernatural and holds power over the human male. The force of desire still originates in the male (what can I say, men are dogs), but he's no longer in control.

There are tales in various spiritual traditions of supernatural women becoming involved with male humans. The most famous example in the west is that of Lilith, a Mesopotamian female demon who was often a seductress. And in the Middle Ages, the Succubus was a demon in female form supposed to have carnal intercourse with men in their sleep.

Evidently, if a woman has supernatural power and bodily desires a man, she's evil. While a male supernatural being can have sexual union with an earthly woman and be, well, God. Or an angel. And/or a Nephilim, "mighty men . . . men of renown." Ah, patriarchy.

In "Oh, What a Dream," however, Cash turns this patriarchal convention on its head. While a female angel does appear to him in a dream, and there is physical desire on his part, she's not evil at all, but remains pure, rebuffing his sexual overtures. She performs her role as messenger and ultimately leads him on the path of love and a spiritual-earthly union in his awakened state.

Naropa (1016-1100)

In this regard, Cash's story resembles one from Tibetan tantra, in which Naropa, the 11th-century mystic, achieves enlightenment after encountering a female spiritual being called a dakini in his dreams. (Granted, in at least one version of the legend, Naropa does have carnal intercourse with the dakini, but that's not unusual for Tibetan tantra, which believes that sex can be a path to enlightenment.)

So, was the Main in Black a practitioner of Tibetan tantra? Doubtful, right?

Except. . . doesn't the phrase "sea of flowers" suddenly make sense when one considers the sacred lotus, which floats on top of the water?

If Cash wasn't referring to Tantric Buddhism, and I didn't think he was, what was the origin, I wondered, of imagery such as "silver towers" and a "sea of flowers"? I decided to do some investigation. Perhaps the terms came from mythology. I looked for the two phrases together in a number of scholarly databases, including JSTOR, MLA International Bibliography, Project Muse, Répertoire International de la Press Musicale, International Medieval Bibliography, and The Bibliography of Asian Studies.


I turned to the internet. Surely the web would reveal something. Google Books alone comprises over 7 million books, from ancient kabbalistic texts to thousands of recent books on Tantric Buddhism. And, according to a Netcraft Web Server Survey in February 2007, there are 108,810,358 distinct websites out there. Somebody somewhere had to have written about "silver towers" and "sea of flowers." Perhaps I could figure out their origins.Incredibly, as it turns out, there were only two items on the web that contained both phrases: The lyrics of Johnny Cash's song. . . and a utopian science-fiction novel published in the Soviet Union in 1957: Andromeda: A Space Age Tale, by Ivan Yefremov. [Full-text version in English.]

In Chapter 2 of Yefremov's story (On the planet - Epsilon Tucanae) , I read the following:
The five people of Earth gazed in silence at that astounding new world. . . . On the sea-coast opposite the statue, carved silver towers marked the beginning of a wide, white staircase that swept boldly over a thicket of stately trees with turquoise leaves.
Later, in Chapter 11 (Island of Oblivion), one of the five people from Earth, a man named Mven Mas, encounters a beautiful but unusual girl in "a sea of flowers." He's immediately drawn to her, gazing "admiringly at her graceful figure."

Finally, in Chapter 13 (Angels of Heaven), a woman historian from Earth, Veda Kong, has an ancient romantic melody stuck in her head, which makes her think of angels:
"Angels-that's what religious Europeans in the old days called the imaginary spirits of heaven, the heralds who made known the will of the gods. Angelas meant 'herald' or 'messenger' in the ancient Greek language. It's a word that has been forgotten for centuries...." Veda shook off these thoughts while she was at the station but they returned to her in the coach of the Spiral Way train.
Strangest of all, however, was the fact that the novel Andromeda is about people from Earth journeying into space on "Cosmic Expedition No.37," aboard the "First-Class Spaceship Tantra."

Something sounded familiar. I went back to the Wikipedia entry for dakini.
In the Tibetan language, dakini is rendered Khandroma which means 'she who traverses the sky' or 'she who moves in space'. Sometimes the term is translated poetically as 'sky dancer' or 'sky walker'.
Woah. So, was Ivan Yefremov also a practitioner of Tantric Buddhism?

How was it that the only two references I could find to "silver towers" and "sea of flowers" came from a novel published in 1957 and a song recorded in 1958? And why did both seem to have connections to Tibetan tantra and a female dakini who leads human men to a higher spiritual plane?

Was it possible that Cash had read Andromeda: A Space Age Tale?

Not unless he could read Russian, because the first English translation didn't appear until 1959, after he had already written and recorded "Oh, What a Dream."

Some theories:
  1. The Main in Black was a Soviet spy who could and did read Russian, including utopian science-fiction by his friend and fellow practitioner of Tibetan tantra, Ivan Yefremov.
  2. Johnny Cash and Ivan Yefremov did not know each other, but both were visited around the same time by a dakini in the form of their "muse," who whispered mystical tales to them in dreams.
  3. Cash encountered an East German in a bar in Berlin. Germans love country music, so he or she would've been trilled to meet the Man in Black, and he or she, being an East German, may have been reading Andromeda at the time. He or she could also have been a practitioner of Tibetan tantra who would've been able to pick up on the motif in Yefremov's work and imparted it to Cash.
  4. Both Cash and Yefremov may have been influenced by a common source, probably Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was undoubtedly familiar with tantra and dakinis, and who used "silver towers" to describe Athens in section V of his long poem "Ode to Liberty," as well as "the unfolded flowers beneath the sea" in section IV, when writing about the waters around Greece. One of Yefremov's earlier novles, The Land of Foam, dealt with Ancient Greece. And, as a utopian, he may have appreciated Shelley's poem about humankind's progress towards Liberty.
  5. There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between Cash and Yefremov. It's simply a coincidence that the terms only show up in their work. (Except the dakini says "There's no such thing as coincidence.")
Johnny Cash in 1958

What does it all mean? I have no earthly idea.

Except male humans still dream of having sex with angels, as seen in a recent discussion on one of the forums at

Cash and Yefremov have both moved on to their own "silver towers," taking with them any secrets about their mystical connections.

One must come to one's own conclusions. Love. Love is the path. Of that much, I'm sure.

Next up, I'll take a look at the Zoroastrian implications in Cash's "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog."

Monday, February 09, 2009

thought dream 020309.2

I'm thinking about writing something about
thinking about writing something. I'm thinking
about thinking, thinking about writing, thinking

about thinking and writing and how they relate.
I'm thinking a lot. Am I thinking? I don't know.
Sometimes I'm not even sure I'm breathing.

Sometimes, when I'm meditating, and I'm
following my breathing, I start thinking about
meditating, and then I start thinking about

my breathing, and my breathing gets
messed up, and then I'm no longer meditating
and following my breathing. I'm just thinking

about meditating. How did I even start thinking
about that? I was thinking about writing
something about thinking and writing, and,

suddenly, I'm thinking about something else.
Like now, when I suddenly start thinking
about Fats Waller, probably because I'm

listening to Fats Waller in the background
while I'm writing. (I've started writing now.
Am I still thinking about writing?) Fats is

singing "Honeysuckle Rose" in 1934, and
playing piano, and I'm thinking about Fats
singing and playing "Honeysuckle Rose,"

and I'm thinking that he probably wasn't thinking
much, if at all, about singing and playing while
he was singing and playing. And I'm thinking

about writing something about Fats Waller
singing and playing and how it relates to thinking
and writing and thinking about writing. But now

that I'm writing about Fats Waller and thinking
and writing, I wonder if I'm actually thinking
about writing while I'm writing about thinking,

or am I just writing? I seem to be thinking and
writing at the same time, or thinking about
writing a millisecond ahead of writing about

thinking, thinking about a word and then
writing the word, so that by the time I start
writing the word, I'm already thinking about

the next word and thinking about writing the
next word, and then writing the next word,
ad infinitum, until I stop thinking anymore

about writing about thinking about writing,
or thinking about anything, or maybe
thinking about something completely unrelated

to writing, at which point, I stop writing.
Come over here, little Honeysuckle Rose,
and let me show you who's your Sugar Daddy.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

thought dream 020309

We drove for miles through a white-out,
the lines on the road vanishing beneath the snow,
the road vanishing beneath the snow. Bob Dylan's

"Visions of Johanna" on the tape deck in the
darkness. Trying to reach Denver by morning
in a shaky metal hull, like some bathysphere

cut loose in a powdery, bone-white ocean,
Buena Vista submerged somewhere off the
port side, the steady crunch of tire chains on

a buried highway. We could've easily driven
off the map, or over the side of Monarch Pass.
23 years-old and not giving a thought to

Death's centripetal pull sucking us towards
its wintery maw, the night a dull white lightscape,
everything outside the car lost in the roaring hush

of heavy snowfall, you and me singing, "A ghost
of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face,"
until we finally had to stop the car, wondering

if we were still on the road, or still on the planet.
Praying an 18-wheeler wouldn't crush us
from behind, as we sat there in my old Honda

in a late winter white-out, middle of the night,
somewhere on Highway 285, waiting for impact,
slowly vanishing beneath the beautiful, vicious snow.