Tuesday, May 16, 2023

My Diva

 


We're all meant to have a personal Diva, or at least we once were, gay men. May still be true for all I know. Is it, young LGBTQIA+ persons? Are there queer young people laying on narrow beds in a childish rooms, greedily reading every word about Zendaya or memorizing all the lyrics of Billie Eilish? There must be. But is it still a gay thing? (Come to that, are there still going to be gays?) The whole business of gay Diva worship may well have passed into obsolescence, like wearing a green carnation in one's buttonhole, like buttonholes, or the hanky-code, or being defined exclusively as gay. There will always be crushes and fans. Youth will call to youth and kids will pick some pretty child from a Korean boy band or devote a wall to exactly the same kind of mild, manufactured rebellion that put up all those pictures on bedroom walls across the nation. Remember those spreads from Tiger Beat and Teen Magazine featuring cuties and "bad boys." (In my day a "bad boy" was basically any young celebrity who  posed for a photo while smoking -- preferably in his underwear.) Some of us weren't brave enough to keep Matt Dillon anywhere but tucked away in our dreams and or under the mattress. However having pictures of  Dolly, or Linda Carter, or Marilyn wasn't quite the tell you might think. Despite Sontag's 1964 essay, in my youth camp hadn't yet come to the hinterlands. So loving Bette Davis, while part of a long and storied gay tradition unknow to me at the time, was weirdly both safe and daring. My grandma liked Bette Davis. (Dad was a Gene Tierney man. Always a sucker for a sexy overbite. Mom was a big Van Johnson and Johnnie Ray fan, which is of course why I am gay.) 

Even as a little kid I loved the movies, particularly the old ones. No westerns. No war pictures. Never a Three Stooges enthusiast. Not one for Jerry Lewis either. More of a Marx Brothers man, even when I was ten. (Unusual perhaps, but hardly unheard of. Groucho was having something of a last hoorah in the late sixties and early seventies, when they started showing his movies on college campuses. He frequently appeared on the Dick Cavett program. The Paramount and MGM pictures still ran on television now and then. Groucho glasses with attached eyebrows, nose, and mustache were de rigueur for the sophisticated humorist of the 5th grade.) And then there is, was, and will always be Davis. From the first time I saw one of her movies, I adored Bette Davis. Watched The Nanny (1965) one Saturday night and found her terrifying, and sad. My favorite kind of monster! Saw Now Voyager (1942) one day on the Afternoon Movie. "These are only tears of gratitude -- an old maid's gratitude for the crumbs offered." And... I just knew before I even knew I knew, if you know what I mean. Saw Winter Meeting (1948) and wanted to live in her New York apartment. By the time I saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) my fate was sealed. Bette was it, sister. Davis was my Diva. I scoured the TV Guide. I remember the absolute thrill of  buying a paperback of Mother Goddam, by Whitney Stein at Walden Books in The Hermitage Mall, Sharon, PA. I studied that book like Torah, honey. And yes, I put up pictures of Davis in my bedroom, right beside Karloff's creature. Monsters! Maybe it didn't seem so very strange at the time. I was as I said movie-mad. Maybe it did seem odd in an eleven year old boy, but nobody said anything. Never really changed my preferences since, so to say. I still have a photograph of Davis on my wall. I may be the last of the dinosaurs. Worshiping some great female star and carrying that idolatry into adulthood, that may already be as dead as disco, but hey, I liked disco.

When I was in my twenties, I worked in a video store with a man who owned an original oil painting of Joan Crawford. That's right, an original oil painting. The painting was nearly the size of an actual Crawford. He lit it like a shrine. Pretty much took up the one empty wall in his very small studio apartment. At least two other walls were lost behind bookcases containing every available film and bootleg of the lady on VHS. He had every book and every article ever written about her and files of photos, signed and unsigned. He knew her credits and her husbands, her triumphs and struggles the way a nun might know the Stations of the Cross, or straight guy might know a baseball player's freshman stats. It was impressive. He was a good looking guy, the Crawford fanatic, if balding, with a magnificent mustache. He did alright in the bars, from what I'd heard, so his tricks must not have minded all that Joan -- though who really wants to wake up to that woman every day? (Who ever did? Poor Joan.) Years later when the video store was long gone, I visited him once in his new digs. He was managing quite a nice apartment building and had a big place on the ground floor. By then he had a menagerie of abandoned pets from dead tenants. A box turtle sat under the kitchen table and ate lunch with us. Not a sign of Crawford and for some reason I didn't ask. Simply moved on I suppose.

Once in San Diego I was introduced to a friend's neighbor who had photo-albums uniformly bound and filled with Diana Ross. His greatest treasure, brought out specifically because I'd been told beforehand that I should ask, was an album full of Polaroids he'd taken at concerts with the lady herself. There were dozens of these. I worry now they must all have eventually turned that sickly green Polaroids tend to turn over time, maybe they even faded away altogether. In the end, was there anyone to preserve those pictures? Save that album? He must have meant to pass them on, but to whom? My friend moved, then died some years later. They hadn't kept in touch. When I met the Diana Ross queen it was clear he hadn't long to live, though who knows? Some did.

Of course those examples were both extreme and all the more memorable for being so, but I certainly met others less fanatical through the years, if no less devoted in their own way. Once, aged maybe twelve, at a sledding party at a working dairy, I was drawn away from our hot coco by the sound of unfamiliar music. Without a moment's hesitation I abandoned the party of grubby, noisy boys and the freezing wet "fun" of hurtling downhill and into the side of an enormous barn. Boys. Ick. (And yum, admittedly.) Safely inside that big, stinky farmhouse, I went in pursuit of that music and found it. Thereafter I spent a happy hour on the floor of an older brother's bedroom, being introduced to the mystery that remains Liza Minnelli. The brother's room was all about Liza; scrapbooks, and posters, and records. This was probably also my first time hearing the story of her mother, the glorious tragedy that was Judy Garland, in many ways the Mother of Them All, the Gay Divas. If I did not entirely understand everything about that dark afternoon, I nevertheless remain grateful for the effort made to initiate -- in the most innocent way -- a fledgling queen. Every queer boy needs his first Judy.

Much latter I would meet opera queens, show queens, and enthusiasts of various cults like Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson, even a man who claimed to have seen every show Edith Bouvier Beale ever did at Reno Sweeney. I don't know that I ever laughed harder in my life than I did when a friend played me the cassette a Barbra queen made -- back when making such things was harder to make -- of just the final note held in every Barbra Streisand song. Heroic was what that was.

My taste in heroines would prove fairly catholic, though I've naturally had long-standing, largely dead favorites. Before she passed, I actually prayed that Mama Cass Elliot would cohost The Mike Douglas Show for another week. (The show broadcast from Philadelphia in those days. Mike bought Cass a grocery cart full of Tastykakes -- a local competitor of Hostess -- and presented the gift to her on air. It was a simpler, crueler time, though I must say Tastykakes still kick Little Debbie's ass.) I've loved Bette Midler since I first saw her sing Ten Cents a Dance on the same show in 1971. I collected records by Blossom Dearie, Shirley Horn, Rosemary Clooney, so many. For a time I was obsessed, in turn with Margaret Rutherford, Cloris Leachman, Anna Magnani. Later I became determined to see everything Margo Martindale has ever done or will do. I like a broad performance, so to say. For me it has almost always been women artists who most attracted me, be they actresses, jazz singers, pop stars, novelists. Still, there's only ever been one woman whose picture I keep on my office wall, so yes, I do have a Diva, capital "D" for Davis, first name Bette. I know it is not an original choice.

I have a friend who prefers Hepburn -- Katherine not Audrey -- a choice of which I completely approve. Some years ago a film organization voted Katherine Hepburn the greatest female film star of all time, though as I remember it, they revealed the name of her male counterpart, Bogart, after her, top of the bill as it were, which even then seemed to me sexist and wrong. Hepburn deserved that spot. (Davis was number two in that particular list of top actresses.) This same friend, the Kate man, regularly insists that one should never argue matters of taste and he is right, as I've found he is about most things other than Margaret O'Brien (inexplicably he can't stand the kid, even in Meet Me in Saint Louis wherein she was maybe the last performer able to steal focus from Judy Garland, and Judy singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, yet! That's a pro, right there.) I concede Kate's place in the pantheon without a murmur. Extraordinary creature, astonishing, long career, and in a number of my favorite films. AND she was Spencer Tracy's beard. (And he hers.) Points again. I could and do watch Hepburn over and over and over again and always with wonder, affection, and abiding admiration of her very great, and very specific gifts. In her way, she was a kind of genius, and an admirable human in most other ways to boot. 

Bette Davis was many things, but not I think admirable in quite the same way. I would not have her any but the way she was, you understand, but no one ever looked at Better Davis and thought, "she must be fascinating on a hike," or "I should very much like to see her garden." Both New England girls, by the way. That in common if little else. Question of class, possibly? Hepburn's parents were moneyed, her father a crusading, overbearing doctor, her mother a Suffragette. Davis' dad was a lawyer, but a deadbeat. Bette was raised by her rather grasping, somewhat hapless mother, Ruthie. Both actually enjoyed the outdoors and both looked pretty good in a flannel shirt, but Hepburn? Hepburn made everything she did, everything she wore, everything she said into Hepburn. "My, she was yar." (Not unlike Dietrich in that regard, though Dietrich had a distinct offstage persona too: glamourpuss to hausfrau and never the twain shall meet.)  Ruth Elizabeth Davis was more cigarettes and tinned beans and a bottle of Jack by the campfire. I might have wished Davis more happiness in her personal life, though that is simply sentimental and not at all to do with why she's my star. I don't hold with artists being more worthy of worship for coming to sad ends; Judy, Judy Holliday, Monroe, Lady Day*. Love those ladies all and find their untimely ends deeply moving, but I don't listen to Billie for the heroin, as it were, or listen for the amphetamines when Garland played the Palace. I like my stars upright and running circles around the competition. And I generally prefer the truculent to the tragic, a riposte to a riptide. All these tragedy women were smart and funny, but at some point you had to look away. I like my stars fixed and flashing. I love Billie kicking the tar out of an up-tune. I love Judy when she could still giggle. Come to that, I love Hepburn when she purrs a putdown without missing a consonant. But I love Davis in everything. 

Hepburn has sharp angles. Bette has edges.

I have in fact read every major and minor biography of Bette Davis -- none of them very good, may I say, though I still own nearly all of them -- and I believe I have by now seen every surviving film and most of what she did on television, including interviews and talk show fluff (she was never a great talk show type, like Judy G. or even Hepburn when she finally did it on Cavett. Bette Davis doesn't relax much on camera without a script. We get only glimpses of how much fun she must have been at lunch with Olivia de Havilland, or watching TV with Victor Buono.)  In her greatest film roles it would be no exaggeration to say that I have seen Bette Davis dozens of times. I've kept all these years the People Magazine announcing her death, and then there is that eight by ten glossy of her as Margo Channing, her greatest role, framed above my bookcase.

I love Bette Davis I think for the very thing that now threatens her reputation as a great actress, namely that she was almost never not acting. Not so Hepburn. Hepburn at her very best, though never not Hepburn for a minute, was supremely clever at allowing the camera to slip in and see her, the actual woman, if only for a very well judged moment exactly as she was or would be in that moment, in the given circumstance. Most famously she did this watching Spencer Tracy's last monologue on film, the admiration and affection brimming her eyes, but she did it nearly from the start, and at least once or twice in every early film until she'd mastered the camera completely. It can still be quite startling, and very moving. It might be her frustration in Sylvia Scarlett, her hilarious practicality in Bringing Up Baby, or her wry vanity in Lion in Winter, but always there she is and nothing in the way. It is an intimacy Garbo might have envied. It makes even some of Hepburn's most mannered performances weirdly modern, despite that diction and the languorous physicality very much of an earlier style of acting than any we might see now.

Davis invites no such intimacy. She might well have bristled at the suggestion that anyone in her audience had a right to any such thing. In this she remained all her life and despite a history littered with husbands and lovers, a very proper New England sort of prude. The very idea! (For a woman who by literally aaaalll reports liked dick nearly as much as Crawford liked attention, Davis was hilariously prim in public discourse, insisting for example that she saw something in her first husband, the appropriately named Ham Nelson other than, well, meat. If she did she was proved very sadly wrong. Of the lot though, and she had four husbands, based on even just the few surviving photographs? I'd fuck 'im.) What's more, as she was always the first to point out, and again unlike great beauties like Hepburn, the camera did not love Bette Davis. From the moment she arrived in Hollywood this was the one thing about her with which her employers all seemed to agree; there was nothing in her face, figure, or person that called the camera to her. Even those famously large eyes are less likely to invite us in than frankly to stare us down. At five foot three, with a broad face and a high forehead, bad teeth, and a bust too big for her frame, as she put it, she was "never a glamour girl." Sex, on the rare occasions it was called for from her on screen, though obviously in her personal wheelhouse, was -- when she acted -- neither more nor less than the task at hand; like playing the piano, or starting a campfire, shooting Claude Rains, or making baked beans; something to be acted as well and as honestly as she was able. 

I'm reminded of a moment from very early on in Davis's career, in a picture she claimed to detest called Three On a Match, from 1932. The stars are the delightful Joan Blondell and the repulsive Warren Williams -- a now almost unwatchable example of 1930s Lothario best passed over quickly. In the film there is one of those typical pre-code scenes where, for no good reason Davis is dressing while talking to Blondell. Curious now to think that it is Davis in the slip and Blondell fully dressed, but then maybe Blondell being the bigger name at the time was entitled to keep her dress on. Almost any other actress of the day would have played up or have been made to play up the suggestiveness of such near nudity. Blondell herself might have played the same moment any number of entertaining ways, comedic and or weary, but sexy in either case. When Davis puts on her stockings and garters it is nothing of the sort. Instead it is a sixty second study that might as well be titled A Woman Puts On Her Stockings. There's nothing prudish in it, no demure, but neither is there a hint of anything other than a practical, unobserved task appropriate to the action. This is how one does that. One can almost sense the voyeur's and presumably the director's disappointment even now. Still makes me smile.

A more famous example of the actor's sangfroid would be from Of Human Bondage (1934), perhaps her first really good part in a really good picture. As fans, in our house we still quote entire her deliciously hateful confrontation with poor Leslie Howard, "And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!" and always with appropriate gestures. But it's the end of her Mildred of which I now speak. Her cockney accent has dated about as well as Dick Van Dyke's. There are now faults to be found throughout the performance that established her as more than a star, and a serious actress. Not my business here. I would not presume. (Try not to watch her though, every minute she's on screen.) But for the end of the picture, when her character Mildred is discovered dead or dying in a seedy room, Davis researched how such a person facing such a death would look, where she might fall when she dropped, and Davis fought fiercely to be discovered exactly so. It is still a breathtaking moment. It is a minor triumph and a tragedy in miniature and unequaled I think by any American actress of her stature until Meryl Streep played dead in a similar scene in Ironweed more than fifty years later and for what feels like half of an hour. Of Davis' Mildred we get only a glimpse, but there is still an echo of the original audiences gasping nearly a century ago. Comedy may be hard and death easy, but dying is no easy thing to get not just right but real and Davis was intent on getting things right.

She didn't always. Setting aside all the things she may have got wrong offscreen; marriage, parenting, theater, exercise, alcohol, some of her choices on film can seem arbitrarily fulsome, her commitment disproportionate to the occasion. She won her first Academy Award for Dangerous (1935,) a potboiler about a dipso actress on the skids, rescued by selfless love. (Joan Crawford would have nailed it.) It is about as good as that sounds, though it has some beautiful work from cinematographer Ernie Haller. Down and out, stumbling along the genuinely mean looking streets, Davis is superb. No one in cinema ever looked likelier to hit the gutter, hard. But when rescued and threatened with kindness by the blandly pretty Franchot Tone, she vibrates and pops like dry beans in a hot pan. It is a genuinely startling performance, if not always in a good way. Davis was frequently accused of being theatrical. She isn't here. There are actors of that period, Judith Anderson, Constance Collier, Ethel Barrymore come to mind, who always look and sound like they've just crossed into frame out of a production of   Medea or Macbeth or something by Congreve. However trite or contrived the screenplay, however small the part, They all just sailed in from the wings of the Old Vic. Angela Lansbury may have been the last truly great theatrical movie actress. She could do screen acting beautifully, and did when they let her which wasn't often enough, but she knew just when a broad should be broad as well  -- Death on the Nile (1978) comes to mind -- and it now looks breathtakingly bold. (But I'm wrong. There's another. Nathan Lane.)  Despite some serious stage training and the mid-Atlantic accent that used to connote legitimacy, Davis never declaims or poses or mugs. She does shriek, honk, yell, wring her hands, roll her enormous eyes, pull her hair. When required, as she saw it, her voice is no prettier than her puss. Why? Because this character in these circumstances wouldn't be concerned about such things and so Davis plays it that way. Keep that very much in mind watching Davis, she intends not to tell but to play the truth. That's the lady's job. If it's pain required, she will by-God perform pain in every excruciating particular, likewise anger, love, distrust, lust, despair, hated, exhilaration, etc., and all in the space of the time allotted. She doesn't exaggerate the emotion so much, or the moment, she just performs -- everything. In Dangerous, it's too much. It lacks variety. It can be as hard to watch as an actual breakdown. These explosions are not infrequent in her early work, on the rare occasions when she was actually given something big enough to do. Mostly though they tried to make her into either a denuded platinum starlet -- see those dreary first Universal pictures -- or another blond dame at Warner Brothers, sort of an anemic Joan Blondell or a Glenda Ferrell with veddy gud deportment and elocution, see?

But one has only to watch her in better films, with better scripts and better stories and better directors to see her make better choices. In her greatest triumphs from the late thirties through the mid-forties she is capable of unparalleled subtleties that put every other actress save Garbo -- and only Garbo inevitably in love, at that -- to shame. She goes blind better and dies more beautifully than anybody, in part because before this she panicked perfectly, and laughed and played house, and suffered. Yes, she could be a bitch. So could Joan. Joan wants us to love her even when she's being an asshole. Bespeaks an insecurity not so much in her acting as in her person. Davis doesn't need our sympathy. She has our attention. She breaks an engagement or a fiancĂ© like a matchstick and we love her untroubled selfishness. Her uncertainty in borrowed evening clothes is exactly right and achingly real. Her all too brief mad scene in Juarez (1939) is actually dizzying. Rigidly unhelpful as her husband dies behind her, or meltingly faultless in her secret love for a married man far above her station in life, or older than it seems possible to be when she lets Errol Flynn lose his head, no actor on film ever made bolder, more beautiful choices. She needs you, the audience to know what this looks like, to see the emotion she is showing you, this character at this moment, and all of it alight. She never fights onscreen but for her life. She never falls in love but from a great height, even when all she has to land on is usually just doughy George Brent. It's not dishonest, it's just more; more than is seemly, more than is usual, more than we might ever allow in anyone but Davis. She feels everything for us. She is never without an audience, but we are expected, very much what she deserves. We are after all her one true love, but it is a love of equals. We pity Crawford. We admire Hepburn. We rise to Davis. It's why we secretly like it when Paul Henreid won't leave his wife, or Gary Merrill looks like he won't last. Davis will always turn to us.

In 1976 Davis paid tribute to her greatest director (and former lover) William Wyler when he received his Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. (A year later Bette Davis became the first woman so honored.) She described a particularly tempestuous exchange with Wyler when he insisted she do a scene not as she intended but as he wanted. Unsurprisingly, he won that fight. He was the director. He was a man. In her speech Davis could not resist adding that she still thought she was right, even as she lauded Wyler as her first great director. I loved that. The point wasn't that she was right, but that she was still willing to continue the argument. A major part of her legend comes from her willingness to fight; for parts, for better scripts, with the studio and against the limitations imposed upon her as a woman and an artist. She was to the end notoriously combative. Lots of performances and loads of anecdotes to support this idea of Davis as a termagant -- all delightful to relive as a fan at this safe distance from her death. Also points to what I think is one of her greatest achievements on screen. Bette Davis was film's first really angry woman.

Think about it. Gish suffered. Garbo made art from unequal parts unhappiness and bliss. Blondell was sassy. It only feels like Crawford slapped more faces on film than John Wayne threw punches, but usually she just wanted some dope like Jeff Chandler to notice her and say she was pretty. Stanwyck was the only other star I can think of with something of the same temper on film. Women's anger was shocking. Still is, sadly. It was usually punished, even in a Bette Davis picture. She wore that red dress to the Olympus Ball in Jezebel (1938) but it did not go well thereafter. Both Davis and Stanwyck were humbled on film for their discontent, punished for kicking against the pricks. In the misogynist hegemony, what could be worse, or more thrilling, than laughing right in men's faces? With Crawford this always looks like a strategy before the inevitable clinch. When Stanwyck said she'd kill ya, she meant it. Davis too. When Davis as Margo Channing fights with her not so charming younger lover in All About Eve (1950) it is clear she would kick him right in the nuts if she could, not because she is jealous, or insecure, or hurt, but because he deserves it. She clearly knew whereof she acted. An incandescent Davis is a force with which to reckon, not just a lady in a mood. Davis didn't do anything by halves. Pissed off she's near perfect.

Other than angry, and often at the same time, my favorite Davis is Davis laughing. She was a great actress and some of her very best performances are quiet to the point of delicacy, as in All This, and Heaven Too or the superb William Wyler adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter, both released in 1940. But a year later, in The Little Foxes and The Man Who Came to Dinner, for very different reasons playing completely different characters, she laughs and it is thrilling. When it was right for the role, she roars, but even better is the laugh that slips out. It feels perfect, exactly what we want from her, utterly human. She can smile very like an actual movie star, but there's effort in it, whereas bemused is her at maybe her most attractive. Sarcasm came naturally to this working woman in a man's medium, and with it she tends to show off her lower register. But her bark has bite and mocking or mirthful her laugh is I suspect as close as we the viewers ever get to seeing Davis do that thing Hepburn could seemingly do at will, maybe the mask slips a little. There she is, Bette. Hepburn and Stanwyck could play comedy brilliantly. Neither strikes me as having had a specially developed sense of humor or any real capacity for self-mockery. Neither was I should think very funny in company, whereas Davis was rarely funny on screen, not a lot of that came her way, but she is uniformly reported to have been a hoot in real life at least as often as she proved a horror, I imagine depending on her blood alcohol. When she is funny in movies, it's usually because she has let herself comment a little on the scene with a look, a smile, a pause to light the next inevitable cigarette. But when she laughs I laugh. Doesn't matter if it's a chuckle because Robert Montgomery has briefly stopped being a prat, or a mad cackle at her own villainy later in her career. Davis laughing isn't pretty, it's profound. That's how you do it, that's how you tell death to fuck right off. Smoke forty cigarettes a day, sip a gin martini, adjust the hair, and -- bark. There's always a hint of a jeer in even her lightest laugh, often at her own expense. Even when she isn't funny, she gets why it is, or should be. Never winks though. Beneath her. Furies don't wink.

And that's why she's my Diva. I inherited my father's quick anger, but not his birthright as a straight, white dad to express it. I've always avoided confrontation. Many of the most awkward and uncomfortable moments in my life have come from panic in the face of strong emotion. I don't fight, I scramble. Better to please, amuse, distract, defuse. As a sissy I learned early that my antagonist always had a weapon in easy reach. I was born outnumbered. So no, I did not identify with the melting femininity of Marilyn Monroe or the bisexual dash of Carry Grant. One cannot aspire to be as pretty as Robert Taylor or Brad Pitt. I'm never going to be as funny as Chaplin holding a fork or tying his shoe. Watching the movies, I hoped one day, if I was lucky, to be either Clifton Webb or Monty Wooley. I could see my lane. I studied Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward and longed for silk dressing gowns and snappy lines. Eventually I used an actual cigarette-holder. I did. As a boy I watched for coded faggotry on the tv and prayed one day for wit. I cultivated what I could of self-deprecation and disdain -- the defense and offence of gay. I hid as much as I could of what would get my ass kicked. No question what my authentic self might look like  -- turns out he's fat with a white beard, remember Monty Wooley? -- but I knew it was going to be a long time before I had the chance to be him. Meanwhile, to understand authenticity, to know emotion, I had to see it acted. That was how you do that, honey, soon as you get the chance. Make a note. Someday, when it's safe, that's how you tell someone to fuck right off. That's how you show contrition. That's how you sacrifice yourself for love, and suffer beautifully, and laugh at fate, and smoke. That's how you shoot Claude Rains, slap Miriam Hopkins, keep Mary Astor on a diet, lose your damn mind and push a flower pot onto the heads Joseph Cotton and your friend Olivia de Havilland. And so I worshipped Bette Davis. She inspired not because I saw myself in her, but because I saw in her the possibility someday of feeling everything overtly that I had to keep very much to myself.

I recently had a brief conversation at the cash register with a customer buying books by the famous Buddhist monk and writer Thic Nhat Hanh. I told her that I had actually seen him once, years ago in San Francisco. The customer gasped and told me how lucky I was and I agreed.  She told me she considered him her "spiritual master" and greatest teacher. When she asked me who mine would be I said without hesitation or thought, "Better Davis." We were both startled by my answer. Took her a minute to even sort out who I might have meant. "The movie star?" she said. "That's the one," I replied.

If that seems absurd it is because it is. There was a time when I intended to become an actor. Went to school for it and all. Never once at the time did I think "I want to be Bette Davis!" Neither did I ever ask myself onstage, "How would Bette Davis do this scene?" I was too busy reading Stanislavski and studying Uta Hagen. I was trying to peel imaginary oranges and worse, trying to smell them as I did. It was all rather awful and wonderful and all too brief. Really nothing to do with Bette. 

There are writers, novelists, poets, and yes, even philosophers and scientists who have been my greatest teachers, writers who have shaped my thinking, and my language which comes to the same thing. Montaigne would have been a good answer.  Artists of all sorts have inspired me and from earliest childhood I have studied and imitated the line of this one and the composition of that. No one has had a greater influence on my character than my parents and later my husband of nearly forty years. 

Nope. Bette Davis.

The truth is I've no idea why I said it, but it still does not feel wrong. Bette saw me through some shit, may I say. I remain absolutely fascinated even after all the unflattering, occasionally damning information I've so greedily taken in over the decades. I would still rather watch her in some pre-code stinker than almost anybody else, including the real stars of that era, just because it is her and I might miss something. I still make myself not watch All About Eve or The Old Maid unless they turn up on Turner Classic movies just so as to not miss out on other things -- like Glenda Ferrell in a Torchy Blane programmer or Ann Sothern playing Maisie again, because that can be great fun too. ("Can't all be caviar and cock," as my late friend Jimmy used to say.) Nonetheless, given my druthers -- and who's to say what I do with my own damned druthers at this age?! -- I would rather reread Great Expectations, and listen to Ella sing the Cole Porter Songbook, and watch Bette Davis in any goddamn thing than do just about any goddamn thing else. Haven't watched June Bride in awhile, or The Sisters. The Catered Affair?

She made me the man I am today, or at least the one I still intend to be. 

Miss Bette Davis, ladies and gentlemen? Rise.

*In a later generation, there are those who are quick to insist that when it comes to more contemporary pop Divas that the late Amy Winehouse was superior to Adele, somehow the more authentic artist or some such because -- heroin and dead? Balls. Loved them both the very first time I heard either. Not the same artists. Not a competition. 

Monday, May 8, 2023

Old Man Listing


Time for a new list? I think yes. Specifically, an old man list, by which I do not mean a list of old men. (For that, Please See: Congress, all major political donors, and "established" rock bands - a term of art I recently learned from a friend who still writes about that Rock and Roll music. "Established" in this context means even I remember them, or put it another way, "Good lord! Isn't he dead? Are they still touring? Why do the Rolling Stones all look like Maria Ouspenkaya now? Is there still Journey? How are they not all dead?!") No. I am proposing a list of things that I've begun to realize may define me now as old, whatever my actual age. Due to a variety of recent indicators, many of them physical and involving new or more profound deficits, I've become increasingly aware of my age and or encroaching mortality. I wasn't unaware. The reminders just got rather more thick on the ground in recent weeks; kidneys and gall-bladder kicking up, knees misbehaving, had to cut the dosage on one of the heart medications that keep me alive because the higher dosage decided to kill me a different way, things like that. What else, by which I mean what other than the premature if entirely predicable decline of my body? What else has made me feel old lately? Best make a list. Lists are good. In order to make a list I've had to stop and think about what makes me old, which is something old people do by the way, stop and think, and make lists. A contemplative, scribbly bunch, the aging. It's all that free time when one stops going out or wanting to go out or do anything that involves wearing trousers after seven in the evening. Also trying to remember things like why one went into the kitchen, etc. (See: all the aging comedians.) that rather requires stopping and thinking even if this doesn't seem to change the outcome the way it used to. And sometimes old people just stop of their own accord, if not forever then in something like a preview of coming internment. The phrase is "stop dead." Old people do that a lot, I've noticed. I don't yet, but I know people who do. Not my problem so far, but who knows if I'll know when it is? People don't seem to. Lists are something of a hedge against unknowing. A good list is almost like doing something. I make lists instead of doing other things that may well be more useful, like updating my phone contacts and taking out all of the dead people (and the one convicted murderer now doing life -- no lie -- but that's a story for another day. Old guys say shit like that all the damned time too. Annoying, ain't it?) So, am I old yet? Turns out, the signs are all there. Now I'm deaf in one ear, I'm missing organs (Glad to be shed of 'em, mostly, you understand.) So maybe I am just getting to it now, but then I was always told I was old beyond my years and it seems the years have caught up. So maybe I am old-ish at last. This is strange considering that I'm being told incessantly by television commercials that no one my age or older is actually old at all anymore. Advertising would seem to have abolished old age. Seems nearly all of my contemporaries, at least the straight ones, are still fucking in hot tubs and on hammocks, taking Tai Chi classes, and walking off their COPD symptoms at various State Fairs with the grandkids, when not actually discussing term life insurance with their remaining friends in kitchens the like of which I can only dream. Even advertising can't stop death. So am I old now? How old am I really? Let's see.

ACTUAL SIGNS THAT I'M GETTING OLD 

1) What is a "substack"? What is it to be "Drake"? Is it "sus" of me to ask?

2) I still cook something called a "ham-steak" regularly, sometimes for breakfast.

3) I eat breakfast. 

    3A) Or My Breakfast Ruined.

Took the elderly husband into the hospital for an angiogram the other day. Normal enough, as he is actually of an age. (He's fine.) Anyone who has done will know that is is an all-day business, whatever weirdly optimistic estimate offered by one's health care provider. Got there in the morning. Didn't escape until late in the afternoon. Procedure actually took less than an hour start to finish, but they book medical procedures nowadays like they're scheduling flights for Southwest; cardiac cases stacking up like discount flights to Vegas on a three-day weekend. It's a mess. Now how old am I? I'm so old I actually rate hospitals -- all of which are now nightmares of for-profit-callousness and service-shaving -- at least in part by the quality of their cafeterias. Yeah, you heard me. Hey, you spend the day, you're going to get hungry and they frown on egg-salad sandwiches pulled from pockets. I won't say I looked forward to this visit, but I did remember this particular cafeteria being specially nice, at least pre-pandemic.

Entirely automated now, with touch-screens to order and pay, and no chance of an actual human interaction. I personally know exactly one person who likes the self-checkout in the grocery store and this sort of profitably impersonal interface. He's an old friend, I'm quite fond of him, but I sometimes worry he'd rather his friends were actually robots. All I know is that someone actually had to help me order my breakfast burrito after I repeatedly tapped "pay now" but could not see what came next -- turns out this was "done." There used to be a whole line of cooks serving hot food in this cafeteria, some of it made to order, as well as fresh salads and pastries and whatnot. Now there were three lost souls in the whole kitchen, all of them looking like they'd been forced to work off a dermatologist's bill. None of them spoke until one finally bawled out whatever name one had typed into the wretched touch-screen to tell you your order was ready. (Wish I'd known this as I would have typed in "Dante Alighieri.") 

When it came my food was cold and not so much wrapped in a traditional tortilla as shrouded in one. Soon as I picked the thing up, everything fell out. It was not good. Looking around me nothing looked good. I noticed that none of the staff seemed to be eating anything that had not been prepackaged in plastic. 

So, yeah, I did lean over to strangers at the next table and tell them how nice the place used to be. So now I'm that guy.

4) We still watch television on a television.

5) I wear hats because my head gets cold -- because bald not hip.

6) I remember when Johnny Depp was fuckable and you could still see Leonardo DiCaprio's eyes.

7) We watch what we still call, "The News."

8) we subscribe to four newspaper and two of those are printed on paper.

    8A) Or My Virtual Newspaper Spoiled.

The new-to-me theatre critic for The Guardian newspaper recently wrote a piece defending people eating and talking and applauding at awkward moments during live performances. She argued there was historical precedence for this seemingly new raucousness and that reverent silence was a fairly recent imposition on audiences. This piece made me as furious as anything happening of actual consequence in the real world including war and the climate crisis. I actually argued aloud with my phone while reading this nonsense. Now I will hate this person forever and ever and cannot bring myself to even open that section of the paper. Hurrumph.

9) I still speak to at least three Republicans, and one unaffiliated Libertarian which is way worse.

    9A) Or The Real Reason I Hate QAnon.

Just this morning I was reading a new book called Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America, by journalist Will Sommer. (Old men it seems like making themselves furious over breakfast, when we still have the energy for a proper sputtering fury.) The broad strokes of all of this Q bullshit were pretty familiar. Even some of the loopiest details I already knew from previous reading. Still, it was weirdly satisfying to have a proper narrative of the whole rotting horror, like watching that time-lapse footage of a dead opossum turn eventually to dust and fur. So what was nagging at me this whole time? What was the thing I couldn't and still can't get past about this cult? 

Q. The letter Q.

For me Q will always be the nickname of the very late Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; out of print novelist, first editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse, and chief influence, via the New York Public Library, on my beloved Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road. She didn't get to go to college on account of the Great Depression. She always credited Q, whom she never met, and the books he wrote and edited as being her university, as in a smaller way she was a vital part of my own education. (From her I made lists of books I had to read and did, including Quiller-Couch, but also Hazlitt, Newman, Landor, Milton.) I continue furious that this inoffensive if somewhat pointless English letter, and by extension the memory of a great and largely forgotten English Gentleman of Letters, has now been forever besmirched by these conspiratorial goons, these whooping Yahoos and shit-slinging lower primates of American politics. Damn them all to the very Hell they've made in their empty little heads, for all the evil they do, yes, but also in memory of dear old Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, heaven rest 'im. The man embodied nearly every virtue in opposition to the Philistines, and now the Philistines have taken his nickname and made it synonymous with insanity. The bastards.

10) I always take the envelope when I buy a greeting card (no one under the age of thirty does this.)

11) I probably have change for a twenty.

12) I'm gay. Just gay. Straight up homo. No flex. No bend.

13) I vote, every time.

    13A) Or Why I Vote.

Washington is a Vote by Mail state because -- sanity. Don't get me wrong, we have plenty o' local, homegrown crazy, they just can't keep their numbers up, bless 'em. The state is actually divided East and West by a mountain range and attraction/repulsion to Idaho. That's right. There are people whose ideal, whose shining city on a hill is -- Idaho. Dude, I am not making this up. There are separatists right now in the eastern part of Washington who want to join, county by county, Idaho. What's your vision for the future, my Eastern Washington friend? Well, mister, that would be the past, and not just any past, mind you, but an execution by firing-squad, we love militias, can't practice obstetrics anymore 'cause 'bortion, "weather creating difficult calving season conditions" leading the local news past. Sometimes think Western Washington being the cradle of aviation may have happened just because no rational person wanted to drive east.

        13a) The last Special Election we voted in? One issue. It was something called a "social housing" initiative. look it up if you want the details. Did not know what this meant, so I read the ballot information booklet and looked up the definitions online. I am that old. It passed, by the way. 

14) I remember things now but not other things.

    14A) Okay, not birthdays or the name of the lady who buys all the crochet books, but I do remember:

        1) The John Birch Society

        2) When fresh cut roses cost less than a car-payment

        3) Having a waist

        4) Network television

        5) FM radio

        6) When Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter redefined the temptation of Christ (if you didn't want Robert Ryan's John the Baptist to do unspeakable things to Him, you simply were never gay.)

        7) Or We Have Been Here Many Times Before.

I remember Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schlafly, the fat Falwell, and Ronald Reagan. I remember Pat Robertson and the Lesbian hurricanes. I remember Matthew Shepard. I remember the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. The time before that I read about in books, as I have all the times before that that I know of. (So old I read books. So old I read history. So old I remember history. So old I don't expect to be remembered by history.) It is always our fault, or rather it is our fault when it isn't the Jews or the brown people, etc. O course there's quite a bit of crossover there, and never more so than when the reactionaries are looking to explain The Decline of the Bless'd, or Now Why Ain't It Enough I'm White?  I remember the Birchers and the Blimps, the Dixiecrats and the South'rn Baptists, the closeted clergy and the closeted congressmen, the conversion "therapists" and the troglodytes in pickup trucks, and the Nazis and the Klan, and yeah, I remember yesterday and Trump and the NYT before they decided to hire Terfs and trolls for their editorial page. I remember what it feels like to be threatened and bullied and unsure of my safety. I remember what cops all but invariably were and mostly are still. I remember being punched in the face for just being gay. 

Now it's drag queens reading children's books aloud to kids, and transgender athletes, but it's the same shit. The same assholes who can't understand that I have exactly ZERO interest in their wretched, filthy, little litters of Future Fascists of America are exactly the same goons, dullards, and bores who think those precious babies should be spared the history of race in America, the sight of David's penis as sculpted by Michelangelo for a cathedral, and knowledge of my existence. How is this sort of thing still possible in the modern world? Well, if one's cosmology comes from a comic book and one's politics from a Fox feeding trough, safe bet that one will be just as pig-shit-stupid as one's unremembered and un-mourned grandpappy. More to the point though, it seems there will always be cynical types in search of scapegoats and wedge issues, and those fuckers can never let the gays alone.

    14B) And just for balance, I don't remember the following:

        1) Civility in American politics (guess you had to be there in the Senate dining room)

        2) "Life before phones," a phrase I've heard a lot from actual old people, but none of them born before 1876 so just shut up about this. We have COMPUTERS that fit in our POCKETS!!!

        3) When candy bars were "way bigger" (My husband insists this was true, and no, it's not just that his hands were smaller when he was a child and... now I'm an asshole.) 

        4) Caring about cars, sports, camping, maps, or pandas especially. 

        5) The words to Tiny Dancer, though I always seem to think I do and should but then I don't.

Wait. Is this still a list? Where was I? 

     15) I lose the thread sometimes.

Okay, enough with the listing. Maybe just skip to the Big One, the number one sign that I am getting older. Ready?

       (DRUMROLL!)

Hate. 

That's right. I'm hateful now. What does that mean? I will explain. (Old men do this ALOT.) It means I hate more now, more easily, and more often. One could say that I've gotten better at it. (Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?) I guess I'm a hater now. I'm surprisingly okay with this. At least I've become accustomed to it, to hating, I mean -- oh, and I specifically hate way more people than I used to. It's "second nature to me now, like breathing out and breathing in." 

You wouldn't know it to look at me. If anything, I now look absolutely harmless, not unlike my childhood hero Freddy the Pig when he would affect human clothes and false whiskers. This is one of the most common dodges of the old, looking harmless. If one didn't know the real purport of a Trumpf  Hassfest, for example, just looking at all the whitehaired attendees one might be forgiven for assuming they were just watching the wrestlin'. Do not be deceived! Grandma isn't singing along with Wayne Newton, she's making overt her hostility to the Jews and the queers, and the GD brown people, and grandpa is wishing Nancy Pelosi and her elderly husband actually, violently murdered. No, really. That's what these MAGA goons do now. Ignorance and pride aren't just for Sundays anymore. Pawpaw and Meemaw go to Nazi rallies now, just like they kin used to was spending picnic-time with the Klan. Some of these good white Christian folk hate full-time now, 24/7 and right in front of the grandkids and the television cameras. I'm not so far gone as that, I can still keep my head, I still have all my faculties, dimensions, senses, affections, passions. Unlike them I am not yet consumed by hate, but I do hate, even as I seemingly grow ever more so adorable. Irony!

Maybe older people just hate more easily, just as love seems pretty straight-forward to me now. (Old people quote old songs a lot so I could just say that if you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with. Just change the singular to plural. You get it. Peace and love.) Getting older means feeling everything pretty much all the time. Joints, kidneys, receding gums, for instance, but also complex psychological states and rich veins of sentiment. Emotions seem nearer under thin skin. Some clever person suggested that we humans tend to hate what we fear and I cannot disagree. It's true. I'm scared. It seems I am frightened anew, and in a way I perhaps foolishly thought I had done with, until Trumpf. In my youth I remember being very much aware of young men in crowds, and old men in pick-up trucks with gun-racks, gym coaches, and cops, and all the people who did not hesitate to call me a faggot and threaten my life. It's not like I thought these men went away, (a number of them seem sadly to have gone on mission to post colonial Africa,) but I did think they'd been driven well back into the VFW Halls and golf resorts and gun clubs. Perhaps naively I hoped they would all eventually go peacefully into pig and boar sanctuaries, mostly in Florida, and there die.Years ago I decided to only live thereafter in civilized places north of the Mason Dixon Line, places with large and diverse populations, public transportation, more than one Asian cuisine, and more than one bookstore. I thought, frankly, I'd outrun the bastards. Turns out, no. They regrouped, elected a leader, and got if anything louder. Hate that.

Hate, not dislike, mind. There's a difference. I dislike babies on airplanes. I dislike gin. I dislike commercials on Hulu (but refuse to pay more just to watch Murders in the Building. I dislike pretty much everything else on Hulu.) I disliked both Bushes and remain to this day none too fond of Bill Clinton. I disliked everyone on Fox News since the launch and I thought Glen Beck was an unbelievable ass. Then they came out with Bill O'Reilly who was of course a whole new kind of bellicose buffoon. (Always up-grading ((down-grading?)) their idiots at Fox. It's what they do. Now Tucker's got the boot! Who's next? Just an actual boat-shoe full of actual shit? Stay tuned. Actually, don't. Please.) What did I hate though, back in my callow youth? Well, I hated bullies in school. Wished those boys dead in a ditch many a bedtime. And algebra. Hated algebra. Hated my algebra teacher, come to that. She was a miserable old bitch who's favorite question was, "Are you stupid?!" I was heartened years later when my mother sent me that teacher's obituary. Mum wrote on the back, "Knew you'd want to see this." Funny. I have of course hated the Republican Party as long as I can remember, but then we were always Democrats. Didn't mean I necessarily hated the neighbors. Most of them voted wrong even then. Didn't make me like them, but hate? I did actively hate Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, all those other old bigots, racists, and windbags from back in the day. Why wouldn't I? Why didn't everyone? I know that I hated Reagan and I will 'til the day I die. Soulless, empty-headed, suit. He left my friends to die. Couldn't make him even say the word for years. Hated him and was glad he died sitting in his own mindless mess. See? I've had practice. So, yeah, I have been doing this whole hate thing longer than you might think. Nothing new really, just more so now. Never knew how easy it could be though until Trumpf. Not all to do with him, but yeah, him. 

If there's ever been a man in the White House or out that only sapheads, hoaxers, and authoritarian-bossy-bottoms could love, it was Donald whores'-john Drumpf, that piss-poor President for all the worst reasons and all the worst people. You remember him. If you don't hate the sight, sound, and smell of the man there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Have you had a stroke? Are you completely disengaged? Are you really that dumb? What is wrong with you?! And if you've been itching to pipe up just here and say that you, as a Christian, or a Buddhist, or an ethical vegetarian, and or just a better-person-than-me, that you don't hate anybody and that the only answer to hate is love and whatnot -- well all I can say to that, my darling, is go fuck yourself. Was that uncharacteristically harsh? Did that sound shocking coming from a human snow-globe of otherwise relentless good cheer? Well? See? Hateful.

Growing up in the 1960s as a sissy in a small town I understood pretty quickly that hate was coming my way sooner rather than later, the minute I spoke, walked, or sang quietly to myself while I played with my troll dolls and or drew pictures of misunderstood clowns and monsters. Hate could spring up from various directions and pop like a jack-in-the-box from seemingly harmless looking, even cheerful settings. Sunday school and church functions could be a minefield. Any sport or sporting venue was inherently dangerous, and locker-rooms were guaranteed to be unspeakable. It was my responsibility to avoid, deflect, deny, or diffuse. Being hated was something of an accident of biology, if not my actual fate. It somehow was my fault. Knew that. I was the object of the verb. Nothing to be done about it but dodge. I certainly saw and heard it directed at other innocent folks like blacks and Jews and feminists and foreigners -- none of which tended to be anywhere near in those days --  and other real or imaginary radicals, communists, and or strangers. When I was little I didn't always know that that was what that was, hate, but that was what that was. I wasn't very old before I understood that I deserved a share. I hate knowing how young I must have been when I learned that. But then even if I've been hating for a good stretch now, those motherfuckers have been at it for centuries.

The most obvious difference between me hating them and them hating me is potential. They could kill me. I wouldn't care if they died but that's not the same thing. Me being frightened of them is not the same as them being frightened of us. They are always frightened of us for stuff they insist we intend to but never do like take their guns for instance, and their children, and their Constitutional right to worship an angry little white god, and listen to Trace Adkins read the Bible as a book-on-tape while they drive their Ford F-150 across endangered tundra. They're convinced we will make them watch RuPaul and not go to Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A, maybe spell out the word "filet" or maybe even spell it with two "l"s like a bunch of damned foreigners. They are sure that some crossdresser is just waiting in the next booth in the lady's loo to molest them. Actual history, like science, matters not at all. The odds matter not a bit. Percentage of transgender athletes actually in competition? Evidently one's too many. Every single advance in human equality, every scientific advance in our understanding of sexuality, identity, gender, reproduction, -- well, anything frankly not to do with making Cheetos cheesier or guns more deadly -- it's all a slippery slope leading to... their mild discomfort, and that would be INTOLERABLE. 

Meanwhile they shoot us at nightclubs, accuse us of unspeakable horrors more properly left at the doorstep of their preachers, priests, pastors, and police. They bully, bash, and murder us as if we mattered less for being unlike them which is the greatest blessing frankly in our collective lives. They have influenced whole nations in Africa to make us illegal again, to send us to prison, or to our deaths. Suddenly they even like Putin -- a fuckin' Russian -- in part at least because he hates us too. And we, it seems, and people being respectful to one another, and people struggling to make a more equitable world, plain old common decency, all of this is a graver threat to them than actual deadly viruses. It is insanely stupid. I hate them.

I can see this more clearly now after decades of unlearning the self-loathing with which they once sought to control and marginalize me. That's energy better directed now at the idiots who think me and the beloved elderly husband are a bigger threat to their children's safety than pink AK47s for the baby's birthday. 

A century ago George Bernard Shaw said, "I have defined the 100% American as 99% an idiot" and that has clearly not changed. What has changed for me at least is my willingness to call a blockhead a blockhead I guess. I understand that it is possible to hate ignorance and stupidity and yet not hate the person manifesting these in public. Seems to me high school teachers must do this every hour of every working day, bless 'em. I am not a teacher. I do work in retail. That has its struggles too. Not the same, briefer pain, but real. Really, nearly all of us put up with quite a bit, humans, but some more than others and some, it seems, have to invent their oppression just to feel more important and exaggerate their loss of power and status and blame equality for their inadequacy and narrowness of spirit, and yeah, I fucking hate 'em.

Yup. Hate. I honestly do not wish them well. More, I wish they all fell right off the edge of their flat earth and took the Taliban, and Narendra Modi, and the Tories, and the dictators, and all the evangelicals here and in Africa and the Carribean, etc. with 'em. I should live so long as to dance on all of their graves. May all their children become dance majors with a minor in French Literature, marry outside their race and religion and cease to define their gender traditionally. May their churches fall in on their heads and their fortunes be lost in crypto and their guns be melted down to anchors to be hung 'round their stupid necks. That's hate, isn't it?

According to my dictionary (like I have just the one! Ha!) it is meant to be "a strong feeling of dislike" but in common usage we tend to hate pretty indiscriminately in conversation: I hate these commercials, I hate my hair, I hate beets, I hate poppy seeds in my teeth, etc. Such drama. Getting older hasn't broken me of the habit of exaggeration. I still "adore" singers I will not listen to in a month's time. I still describe meals as "unforgettable" and then forget them. I insist that everyone simply must read this book or that and then, a week later when they do I don't remember the plot anymore. Did I say I love broccolini? Well, now I don't so much anymore. Fickle bitch, that's me. My "strong feelings of dislike" though, at least for the people banning books, and drag shows, and medical care for trans people, you know, assholes like that? That turns out to not be a mood.

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

SO many smart people have said SO many smart things about hatred, including above, this brief bit o' Blake. And maybe wacky William is right and just expressing my detestation of bullies and boneheads and bigots allows me to let some of my anger go. But all of that wise advice about hatred hurting me more than the people I hate? Doesn't alter the fact that I can't look at a Proud Boy and not want to punch him right in his smug ignorance. 

What do do then with this new knowledge of just what a hateful ol' bastard I've become? Where, as it were, to put that bit of self-awareness? Obviously - here - was my first thought. Makes sense. Among friends. And then there's the list of where and what I won't:

1) Much as I may want to and much as I may feel fully justified in doing so, I will probably never:
    a) punch a Nazi
    b) slap Lauren Boebert in her stupid mouth
    c) set Mar-a-Grosso with all its hideous occupants, goods and chattels alight
    d) kill, crush, mutilate, torture, abuse, traumatize, and or actually shit on anybody
    e) be rude to grandma until she's rude to me

All of that said I will probably go on feeling what I feel and doing largely as I've always done because I was raised right and I am not actually a jerk. Not bragging. Still hating, still okay with it too, but if one were forced to demonstrate the clearest difference between what I do and what they do? There it is. I may be yet another hateful old bugger, but I'm not a fascist. If you are, please keep in mind that I did say "probably." 

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Cool Reaction


OMG! "Beat" (Kitano) Takeshi's favorite movie is Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) 1945, directed by Marcel Carne. (!!!!) This is also my favorite movie. "Beat" Takeshi is so cool. "Beat" Takeshi thinks Children of Paradise the best movie ever and I do too SO, I am now cool just like "Beat" Takeshi  -- because that is how that works. Waste of time, may I add, explaining logical fallacies and transitive law and such to me just now. I am not proving anything. I am claiming what one might call associative cool. No, it's not a real thing. 

I found Takeshi Kitano's Top Ten Films of All Time List exactly where such lists breed, on social media. A friend, a playwright and cineaste, posted a link. Takeshi is a big Kubrick fan. 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968  (#2) and A Clockwork Orange 1971 (#3) show up right after the Carne picture. There's a Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia 1974, that I never liked at #7, and Sam Raimi's Darkman 1990 at #8 which I find completely mystifying. None of that really matters though. All that matters is that I now have something to talk about with my new pal, "Beat" Takeshi, namely Les Enfants du Paradis -- when and if we should ever meet which is never going to happen. I would of course also tell him how much the beloved husband and I became obsessed with him after Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in 1983, how we loved Kikujiro 1990, how much I admire Sonatine 1993 and  Hana-Bi 1997, how I've watched his version of Zatoichi 2003 a ridiculous number of times on television. Now that we are buddies and I am cool like him, he will probably be embarrassed by how much I go on about his work. Better we should talk about Carne.

I first saw Marcel Carne's great Romantic drama from the light booth at the Craft Avenue Theater in the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The playhouse was actually a complex of various stage spaces. Most nights they showed repertory movies in the Craft Avenue stage, children theater during the day.  The theater was so old, I actually had to raise and lower the lights manually, using levers. This meant I got to sit in the booth and watch the movies -- in case there was an emergency or the film broke and I had to bring the lights up. It was the early eighties, I was a student and doing the lights was part of my work-study job. I also sold Milk Duds and popcorn (more than once to Mr. Fred Rogers!) Saw a lot of great films for the first time at that job: Fellini's La Strada 1954 and Amarcord 1973, Wild Strawberries 1957, Le Belle et le Bete 1946, Seven Samurai 1954. The prints were usually shit back then; unrestored, often cobbled together with glaring breaks, unreadable white subtitles on washed out film. Sometimes it didn't matter. Rashomon 1950 survived the worst showing through which I ever sat; repeated breaks, bad sound, a mess and a revelation. And Carne's masterpiece was magical even when I couldn't quite hear or read Jacques Prevert's words, even when Jean-Louis Barrault's face faded to just sad eyes in a blazing white mask. (There was finally a worthy and complete restoration of the film in 2012.) 

If you've never seen Children of Paradise you must. It is a great film. It is beautiful and moving and the story of its creation and the artists and collaborators (ahem) who made it is as fascinating as any in film history. If you don't like it you may still be cool, but you can never be my friend, or "Beat" Takeshi's either I should think, though he may not be quite so judgmental as me.

Takeshi Kitano, if you don't know (and if you don't know you can never be cool, sorry) is a Japanese comedian and tv personality who became an exceptional filmmaker and actor. He's won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He's been awarded the Ordre des Arts et Lettres in France. He is cool the way Bogart was cool. He has the cool to which most actors, most directors, most humans may only aspire. What is that? I do not know, but, you know, right?

Generally speaking, cool is something about which I could not be made to give much of a shit. I myself have never been. Hasn't bothered me much. Like obscenity at the Supreme Court, I know it when I see it of course, but cool has changed a lot since I last worried about it in my teens. Back then it involved cigarettes, liquor in heavy glass tumblers, maybe a little cocaine, tight trousers, what else? Even then cool was unreliable. Miles Davis, sure. The gays? Depended then on who one was meeting in which alley to what purpose and so on. I was pretty sure at the time that pretty much all the gays other than me were cool. Right? What did I know? Redneck is frankly antithetical to cool and guess what I come from. When I was a teenager I must have aspired to at least a little cool. Reading a little Marshall McLuhan back in the day probably helped. And People Magazine, maybe? Esquire? I don't remember. Also, I never much liked most of the people who were cool, back when cool was still a thing in pop culture -- which we did not call it at the time by the way. Nobody thought "pop" was any kind of culture at all back then. Elvis was white trash. Comic books were for little kids and lowbrow Gomers. Nobody thought pop music was cool except nine year old girls and their little gay friends. Even low culture wasn't quite so low as to be overtly popular, just a little simple, like folk art and white gospel music. Pop was neither threatening nor respectable, just pleasant, like menthol and wine-coolers. It's actually hard for anyone in this post-ironic age to appreciate that kitsch was still just worthless trash back then. That cheese had to age a long time before anyone decided to serve it again. We weren't completely clueless, but we weren't terribly hip either, most of us. In the seventies some of us  understood that those hideously bright clothes we all wore were made out of fibers better suited to underground cable than to underground clubs, but most of us just thought we looked pretty. Everybody knew Nixon wasn't cool. The Vietnam War, Bob Hope, etc., not cool. Abbott & Costello had to be long dead before "Who's On First?" started to sound like Congreve to anybody over the age of twelve. Before pop got to be anywhere near to being high culture or any kind of culture back then Roy Lichtenstein had to repaint it -- and much BIGGER. So, cool? Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall. I don't have an answer, or even need one really. Everybody hates a fad but loves a trend, no? Cool.

Obviously I am not immune to any of this even now. I tried kale chips, and those flat, watery soda drinks, and I watch all the latest true crime still hoping for another Tiger King. Back in the day I wore something called "Earth Shoes" despite the fact that they were fucking ugly and not actually all that comfortable. Why? Were they cool? I'm thinking not, but for a minute there they felt very much of the moment. Fad then. Likewise mood rings, the Equal Right Amendment (alas), and pet rocks. Trends that survived the seventies? I'll say, sexual liberation, computers & new tech, maybe... library science - 'cause that's where the Internut was a bornin'. Not unrelated though I certainly never saw it coming was the eventual triumph of nerd culture. How did THAT happen?! (See computers and tech.)

Nerds are nice. Admittedly I encounter them primarily in one of their happy places -- the Science Fiction/Fantasy section at the bookstore -- but in my own anecdotal experiences nerds are much nicer individually and en masse at a book-signing or a convention for example than, say, ladies of a certain age who garden. Never has a nerd taken umbrage at the absence of an out-of-print title on nasturtiums or insisted that they've "always" bought their seed catalogs at the bookstore, etc. If anything, nerds are inexplicably delighted by almost everything related however tangentially to their hobbies, interests, collecting, reading, childhoods. Nobody ever laughed more heartily or with less reason at the slightest joke made by anyone at an author event. No one applauds a pun like the nerds. It isn't mindless enthusiasm either, like you might see at rally for the Orange Goon, or at a music service in a mega-church. Nerds are serious people, good humored and kind, also earnest, intellectually engaged, and deeply attentive to detail. They like art and ideas and conversation. They respect and honor their favorite artists and encourage each other's creativity. They share information and research and they support their communities. I honestly admire them.

I am not however of them. I don't read their books anymore. I did when I was a teenager, but then I started reading other things and fell out of the habit. I'm not a fan of their Marvel movies either, or their comics or their cosplay, or their tv shows, mostly. I have enjoyed some epic dragon related content, but I was also one of those spoiled, casual viewers who turned it off even before the blond lady lost her wits like soap opera actress in search of another daytime Emmy nom. Zombies, icy, or smelly or both are just so fucking dull. I like a villain capable of a bit o' pointless verbal taunting, maybe a little light seduction. Icy stares are fine, but there are only so many ways to play wordless menace and most of them are fucking boring, mate.

Not that I am not still occasionally induced to watch new zombie dramas despite being bored to walking death by zombies. Fast or slow, zombies are tired, honey. (Also? Any Halloween costume a frat boy can make without a girlfriend -- vampire, caveman, zombie -- is not cool. But then frat boys are inherently not cool unless they are in gay porn and even then they are not cool, just hawt, depending on one's investment in wooden paddles, performative reluctance, hypermasculinity, etc.) Now it seems zombies might be cool again. Well, shit.

What's kept zombies current in the culture is guns. Simple. (Guns figure pretty obviously in some of the Bogart and "Beat" Takeshi cool too.) Video games are where zombies come from now. Zombies aren't characters, they are targets. The timeline runs roughly: folklore, evil hypnotists, Val Lewton, Night of the Living Dead, comic books, Max Brooks, then Frank Darabont decides to become Walt Disney (Zombies on Ice! Zombies of the Caribbean!), and -- exhaustion. And somewhere in there, between Ms. Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto, the undead went straight to video, just games this time. Zombies, zombies, zombies, 'cause your mom was not comfortable with you shooting people people. I was far too old for first person shooter games. I still remember playing Pong for about ten minutes when it was the new thing. That's how old. That's how long my interest was held. The idea of roaming through incredible complex digital landscapes interests me not at all as I am already disinclined to wander through actual landscapes. Virtual cities wherein one can neither book shop nor eat? Get back to me when I can browse for rare volumes of Walter Savage Landor and can taste virtual pizza. Add to this carrying a gun around to shoot anything and I am simply not your guy. If I need to carry a gun in order to survive I won't. Seriously, what is this? Texas? No thanks, y'all.

I think we've established though that I am not immune to trending and faddish whatnot, so yeah, I watched the first couple of seasons of The Walking Dead, even after they killed off the reliably shirtless Jon Bernthal and I no longer had a reason to live. Actually, I lasted on and off until two things happened. First, some asshole with a baseball bat beat Glenn to death for no fucking reason and we were meant to watch the whole bloody business no thank you and fuck you ALL VERY MUCH. Then my friend Chuck died and nobody I loved was watching anymore so I couldn't care. Anytime I happened to catch some stray episode from some random redheaded stepchild of the franchise thereafter I had to wonder what we were all on about back in 2010. Watched a bit of the "series finale" (which it wasn't) and frankly it made Dick Wolf's Law and Order retreads sound like Shakespeare. What an airless, empty graveyard of a show it has become. Seriously, last season of Lost  level bad. 

And now a much admired first person shooter game has become a much talked about new television series. Again, not the audience. (Enjoy.) But then, the beloved husband -- who refuses to ever watch anything with so much as a hint of the supernatural or the speculative -- messaged me while I was in Pennsylvania visiting the elderly mother and told me I had to watch episode three of season one of the new HBO show, The Last of Us. What now? If there is anything my darling A. likes less than dragons, it may be zombies. For him to insist that I needed to see this new zombie show was really weird. (I understand that because the arising incident in this thing is some mushroom-mycelium-whatsit rather than straight up dead rising from the grave, one ought not to call said creepers "zombies." The fact that no one in the story calls these things "'shrooms" or "truffle-shufflers" or anything fun tells me... they're just zombies with a more fabulous color palette -- "Zombie, Shiita - kay, you stay.") 

So I did as I was told, like I always do. Okay, maybe not always but often. When I got back from Pennsylvania, I settled in and watched season one episode three of The Last of Us. Have you? If not, do. And don't read this as I will not hesitate hereafter to spoil it for you, try as I might not to, and not for want of enthusiasm. I loved it! I laughed! I cried! I cried a lot. It was maybe the best hour and change of television I've watched this year or in years. I even went back and watched the two preceding episodes which were just fine for what they are. Don't know that I'll ever need to watch the rest, but episode three -- Holy Shit that was GOOD!* 

Basic outline of the show/game is your usual magical child savior who must be protected at all costs because only she can... oh, who cares? The world has ended after the usual fashion, just this time with mushrooms rather than mushroom clouds or Martians. The usual mayhem ensues. And zombies, natch. (If I may be allowed a curmudgeonly moment from the get, is there anything more artistically and or ethically bankrupt than the one wee innocent who must be saved in order to save the world? Stillborn storytelling. Monotheism at it's most reductive. Innocence can't save shit, people. Not its job. Just stop investing in this bullshit. Nobody else needs to admire your damned baby, Mary. And while I'm ranting? The world doesn't have to end for the Fascists to win, people. Think we've proved that more than once now. Don't wait for the apocalypse, go ahead and punch a Nazi now.) 

Anyway, the magic child this time is a really good actor named Bella Ramsey and she teamed up for most of this long zombie road picture with the delicious Pedro Pascal, who is clearly having a moment now what with this and The Mandalorian, SNL, etc. (We know him from Game of Thrones, and Narcos and appearances in old people tv like The Mentalist and The Good Wife. Watch Narcos if you can stand seeing people people seriously mistreated.) Pedro plays the hero here, though I don't think I'm giving anything away by predicting that savior girl is destined to kick ass in her own right someday. Just a guess. I don't care.

The heroes in these adventures are always rough and ready types, violent, macho tops who always have to be humbled and broken to learn or relearn empathy and to love or love again. (You know, kinda like bottoming that first time. Well done, butch! Who was a big brave boy?!)  I don't begrudge them their teachable moments and life-lessons. They're always SO tired you know, after all the murdering. Better late than never I guess. (Is it though?) The sad reality is that a delightful human and very good actor like the beautiful Pedro Pascal, at least in these hero roles, never gets the chance to be silly and fun and charming and all the other sexy stuff he so clearly is in real life because this kind of hero story doesn't have a lot of room for dancing, or jokes, or sex, come to that, at least not the fun kind where people actually enjoy themselves and maybe laugh while naked. Sex in this kind of apocalyptic story, when it isn't actual rape (see Game of Thrones) tends to either the ravenous up-against-the-wall or clear-the-table quickie, or the sort of softcore romantic porn that years ago in the cable-tv-era became a brand on Cinemax, aka Skinamax: soft lighting, heaving male backsides, lingering shots of clasped hands, tracking shots that end in a raised knee or perfect if slightly damp eighties hairdos. Passion! Profiles! Sparkles! Here poor Pedro doesn't get so much as a lingering kiss, bless him. Widower to start I think and just say his luck does not much improve thereafter.

None of that is ultimately the point, at least for this unlikely viewer. We are now pretty much done with the leads here. What is special in episode three is that our heroes are just the frame story. (!) I went online and learned a new term, it seems that this kind of Very Special Episode is now called a "bottle story," meaning a complete narrative within the larger, episodic story. I also learned that this tv story is very different from the original game narrative. In fact, I learned a lot online after watching episode three of The Last of Us, titled "Long, Long Time." In fact, I have now spent more time online watching videos of people watching episode three than I did watching the whole first season of the show. Plot twist! Who saw this coming?!

For my book club I am rereading the first half of one of my favorite novels of all time, the English comic masterpiece, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. It's nearly time for our second of three virtual meetings on this glorious book and what have I been doing every night at bedtime for weeks? Well, yes I have been reading about Becky Sharp, but I have also been watching something called "reactions" or "reaction videos" on YouTube. I have been neglecting -- just a bit -- something I genuinely love, distracted not by life or other art, but by watching people watch television.

Not my first rodeo. I've actually seen this sort of thing before: young black people realizing that The Righteous Brother or Tom Jones could sing like that and be white, other young people hearing Whitney for the first time, or jazz, or their first chamber music. I regularly watch two adorable British twinks watching old horror films for the first time just because the boys are awfully cute and very genuine and savvy about their love of film, even if they've never seen Battleship Potemkin 1925 or Citizen Kane 1941. I watch this kind of thing for the joy, the cheap hits of happy adrenaline, the contact high, as it were.

However I have never before binged this shit like a hayseed with access to a Sackler plant. Clearly I have a problem. First step, right? So how did this happen? Well, episode three of The Last of Us is special, everyone seems to agree, and more than that -- spoiler alert! -- it's really gay.

It seems that in the game the character Bill, played expertly on tv by Nick Offerman, is a straight up survivalist dick (redundant) who happens to be gay and something of a widower when the players meet him. The writer decided to correct and expand this for the HBO show. And so we get the equally brilliant Murray Bartlett as Bill's lover Frank. Really great television ensues. It has not been without it's critics, this new and much elaborated love story. Everybody's a little tired of gay tragedy and dead queers -- me too in principle -- and there's a whole discussion to be had about gender roles and straight interpretations of gay relationships, and even a straight actor playing half of a gay relationship. I get all that. Valid criticism, mostly. I don't necessarily disagree with any of it. I also get how not cool all of that sounds now. I do. That said, I still loved this story and these actors and this exceptional hour of television. I hope everybody gets an Emmy. 

More though and more to the point, I have loved the reactions of all the viewers on YouTube, or nearly all of them. In large part this is to do with what to my mind is a shift in the culture for which I had long hoped but of which I had almost no expectation in my lifetime. I have now watched better than three dozen people watch a love story between two grown men and nearly no one had anything either homophobic or hateful to say. True, a few of the guys complained about such fuzzy, bearded kisses, "so much beard, dude!" Also, a couple of the fellas blushed and looked away from the (very tasteful and brief) love-making scene. That's okay. What was wonderful to see was how happy nearly everyone was to see Bill, a character all the gamers knew already, find real love. Even the folks who were not players of the game and came to the story for the first time, like me on television were obviously glad for the crazy survivalist bastard. 

I was also impressed with the devotion to detail of so many of these reactors; how they noticed consistently the turn of a dinner plate on a charger, appreciated the finer phrases in the dialogue, pointed out improvements in the interior decoration from one time jump to the next. I was shocked to hear one after another of them identify Max Richter's composition, "On the Nature of Daylight" -- at least until one of them mentioned that it's been used in a lot of other movies and shows I've never watched like the movie Arrival 2016 and The Handmaid's Tale that never ends on Hulu. Still. Good eye, good ear. And remember, they record their reactions in real time. One of the pleasures of watching is also seeing them jump to the wrong conclusions with all the enthusiasm of a frog on a hot-plate. Enthusiasm, it's what they do best, bless 'em!

I cannot emphasize enough just how heartening it was to watch a genuine cross-section of people, all races, all genders, in relationships and not, domestic and foreign, united in their nerdiness and devotion to gaming and or this kind of story and this style of storytelling take pause to sincerely enjoy and engage with gay characters, cheer on their love story and cry real tears at the most moving bits. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that watching this made me cry more than the actual episode. Here were these people, not really my people though some were gay, most of them sitting in their special watching chairs, with their Marvel movie posters and comics memorabilia behind them, more than a couple with a wall of boxed Funco Pop** figurines behind them, and in the hour it took to tell this story, these people loved these two gay men, this couple, this story.

That was so fucking cool.

Of course I ended up with favorites. First, all the people who comforted their partners and friends when the story upset them. Obviously, I loved everybody who cried, and the more they cried the more I loved them, but even better were the people who rubbed shoulders or held a hand or got up and got the roll of toilet paper because they couldn't find the Kleenex box. I loved all the young guys who say "bruh" constantly, and to express every shade of emotion. I loved the people who argued with the deviation from the game and then surprised me and usually themselves by saying that this story was "beautiful" which it was, or even "better than the one in the game," for which I will with gratitude have to take their word. I loved all the people, mostly cis men who tried very hard not to cry in front of their friends and found themselves with strange and unlikely itches that needed scratching near the ends of their noses and under their eyes. I loved the young lesbian couple who had to rewind repeatedly for crying so hard and for expressing exactly why this kind of representation on tv and in this genre was so important. I loved the lovely, elfin British lad (do I have a type suddenly?) who wept from the midpoint on and through an accent straight out of Dickens said repeatedly that this episode "'at's the moes b'u'ifull fawkin' fing" he'd ever seen.

As I write there are in the United States roughly 351 separate pieces of anti- LGBTQ+ legislation currently working their way through various State Houses. The Grand Old Minority Party of Political Reaction, (suspicion, hate, racism, greed, etc.) has returned to it's old strategy, well-remembered from my youth, of queer-bashing to appeal to the doddering gray bigots cursing progress as they hurry not nearly fast enough to their graves. The Trumpian circus bankrupted the last plausible claims to civility in the Conservative Movement and revealed it as the know-nothing shit show of fascism, intolerance, and xenophobia it always was. Meanwhile, a whole new generation has come up behind mine, a generation even less interested in religious foolery, sexual repression, granny's suspicion of brown people, and grandpa's fundamental distrust of women. I have great hope, even as I watch the "demon-haunted world" rise up yet again from the pit. I have hope because I have renewed faith in the decency of nerds.

Nerds triumphant might be the watchword of our present cultural. For good and ill their taste in entertainment (save music) has come to be the nation's, if not the world's. (Not mine.) Nerds are the new cool. Obviously we could do worse. (Think Sinatra singing to Nancy Reagan, think Elvis at the White House.) I don't have to like this. Neither do you. Before we know it, if we should live so long, something else will come along. Meanwhile there is this admittedly anecdotal, unscientific review of nerds watching a zombie show and seemingly out of nowhere, restoring my faith in humanity, even as the cruel people seem to go from strength to strength the world over. 

And now (in my head) I'm going to invite my dear friend Takeshi Kitano to pull up a comfy imaginary chair and we'll watch our favorite movie of all time and trust to the new cool. (Now if I could just convince those cute British film fans on YouTube to watch Les Enfants du Paradis! I've left multiple suggestions in the comments but so far nothing. Kids today, am I right?)


*And I did watch the rest eventually and it was... well made.

**Full discloser, I do myself own a Funko Pop figure -- out of the box -- of a Cyberman. Bought it off the discount table at the Funko flagship store in Everett, WA. (Go if you can. Cool joint.) A nerdish friend explained these charming objects to me. "They have big heads and little bodies like human babies. We are hardwired to like them." Absolutely so. Genius.