JANE RUSSELL

JANE RUSSELL

Several decades ago, I made an appointment to meet the actress Jane Russell in Manhattan. While I was waiting for her in a bar off the lobby of her hotel, a man came in and asked if I was who, as it turned out, I was. He made small talk that included apologizing for the delay, an apology Jane Russell had already adequately made via the house phone. Somewhere in the chit-chat, the man said, “By the way, it might not be a good idea to ask her about Howard Hughes.” Nothing, I told him, was farther from my mind. Jane Russell’s association with Howard Hughes — which dated back to the 1943 film “The Outlaw” — had been documented ad nauseam. In fact, I wasn’t primarily interested in the career in which she established herself as a talented entertainer. I was there to talk to Jane Russell about an organization she founded that did pioneering work in placing children from overseas in adoptive homes in the United States. As far as I know, this organization — the World Adoption International Fund — is still functioning.

HOWARD HUGHES

HOWARD HUGHES

I understood the motivation for the emissary’s advice. Jane Russell’s life had its “paths and detours,” as the title of her autobiography noted, but she was hardly alone in that regard. In the short time I spent with her, she seemed like a nice woman, and I believe that is her reputation. But it was hard for her to escape questions about Hughes — who had first made her a national celebrity.

Hughes was an unusual figure, an engineer, an award-winning aviator,  an aeronautical innovator, an airline and aerospace mogul, a film producer and director, and a philanthropist. He was also eccentric, and over time his eccentricities took on more and more bizarre and self-destructive characteristics. There had been a flurry of news reports about his mental condition around the time I visited with Jane Russell — whose connection to him was far behind her — and it must have been inevitable that someone would seek her opinion.  Hughes’ behavior was at least as outlandish as that attributed to Michael Jackson, whose death prompted me to think about Hughes. One can only imagine how his life would have been covered by today’s media.

MICHAEL JACKSON

MICHAEL JACKSON

I do not understand the subject well enough to know what to make of all the hyperbole about Michael Jackson’s transforming influence on popular music. Even if it’s valid, it hardly compares with Hughes’ contributions, but it does present a similar paradox — a man endowed with more than the usual share of talent and insight and the will and savvy to put it to use, and yet a man so deeply flawed that his insanity becomes more an object of public fascination than his achievements.

The man who approached me in the bar didn’t think I was going to ask Jane Russell about Hughes’ design for the H-4 Hercules. Given the man’s apparent age, in fact, I’m not sure he would have known enough to think that. Hughes was already known more for his frailties than for his works, and his experience evokes the question of how Michael Jackson will be remembered in the long run.

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SYLVIA LEVIN AT WORK Ken Hively/LAT

SYLVIA LEVIN AT WORK Ken Hively/LAT

If this isn’t a record, it might as well be.

Sylvia Levin of Santa Monica, Calif., registered approximately 47,000 men and women to vote. It can’t be established formally, but authorities on the subject say that total exceeds anything accomplished by an individual in the state.

Sylvia didn’t achieve this distinction overnight. She did it by setting up her rickety card table six days a week for 36 years and calling out to passers-by: “Are you registered to vote?”

Sylvia Levin died Thursday — the same day as Michael Jackson — at the age of 91. Her son, Chuck Levin, who has his own history of registering voters, told the Los Angeles Times that his mother “lived a long and full life of adventure and grace, simplicity and openness, of love and hope — no regrets or fear.”

“Grace, simplicity and openness” — a nice epitaph for a woman whose death attracted no crowds of voyeurs, no lurid headlines, no morbid speculation, just the appreciation of the relatively few who know what she contributed to the well-being of us all.

The full story about Sylvia Levin appears here:

http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-sylvia-levin28-2009jun28,o,1025723.story

BEN TIBBER

BEN TIBBER

We watched the 2003 movie “I Am David,” which is based on “North to Freedom,” a novel for children written by Ann Holm in 1965. The book was first published in Denmark, where it was a best seller.

The story concerns a 12-year-old boy who has spent his life in a Soviet labor camp in Bulgaria. The boy — the David of the title — is played by Ben Tibber. Although it isn’t overly graphic, the film makes the point that these camps were similar in their brutality to the Nazi concentration camps that the public is more familiar with. David, whose parents are inexplicably absent, is heavily influenced in the camp by an adult inmate, Johannes, played by James Caviezel.

JAMES CAVIEZEL

JAMES CAVIEZEL

From the beginning of the movie, a disembodied voice urges David to escape from the camp, tells him how to accomplish it, directs him to travel to Denmark, and advises him to blend in as well as possible with the people he meets and to trust no one. David’s understanding and application of this last instruction is the battery that drives the story.

The unseen voice tells the boy to pick up a bundle that has been left for him outside the prison fence. This contains a bar of soap – heavily symbolic, as it turns out – a piece of bread, a folding knife, a compass, and a sealed envelope he is to deliver unopened to “the authorities” in Denmark.

The bulk of the movie follows David as he makes his way through Italy and Switzerland, a process that is made easier for him because life in the polygot culture of the labor camp has made him multilingual.

joan_plowright

JOAN PLOWRIGHT

A pivotal figure in David’s journey is an artist, Sophie, whom he stumbles on while wandering northward in Italy. This character is played by the redoubtable Joan Plowright.

This film, directed by Paul Feig and shot in Bulgaria, is visually appealing. A contrast is repeatedly and effectively drawn between the harsh conditions in the labor camp and the bright and colorful outside world that David experiences for the first time but is hesitant to adopt as his own.

The actors are all exemplary, particularly Ben Tibber, who seems to have understood well how a child of that age would be affected by the inhuman treatment he received from his jailers and by the lack of a normal education in social life.

Perhaps because its source was designed for children, this film’s principal weakness is that it repeatedly strains credulity. Happenstance plays too frequent a part in David’s journey for this story to be taken seriously – or, rather, for it to be taken literally. It can be taken seriously as a kind of fable about fear and trust – including the tendency of the state, at times, to fear the people in whom its trust would be well invested.

BEN TIBBER and JOAN PLOWRIGHT

BEN TIBBER and JOAN PLOWRIGHT

MICHAEL JACKSON
MICHAEL JACKSON

When I learned last night that Michael Jackson had died, I was at a fair – kiddie rides, foot-long hot dogs, funnel cakes – in a town in Bergen County. I drove about an hour and half to get there — not for the hot dogs, which were fine, but to listen to Noise from the Basement, a band in which my son plays keyboard. I would do it again.

When I got home and checked my blog here on wordpress, I saw that traffic on my journal had already soared beyond the normal number of daily visits – by a factor of eight. This was caused by the death of Farrah Fawcett. Her passing apparently sent many people scurrying to a search engine, and some of their searches tripped over two entries I have made in the past couple of months complaining about the way some of the media and some of the public were reacting to her illness.

It might be fortuitous for Farrah Fawcett’s memory that she and Michael Jackson died almost simultaneously. Because of the complicated life that Jackson led, there is likely to be an endless stream of speculation about the nature of his death, and even some serious commentary on the meaning of his life.

I have to say that Michael Jackson meant nothing to me, one way or the other. I didn’t pay close attention to the coverage of his life, but I did see and hear enough to know that the difference between fact and fiction was difficult to discern. If the far more sedate lives of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Sir James Matthew Barrie are any example, some of the questions about Jackson’s behavior will never go away.

JOSEPH MERRICK
JOSEPH MERRICK

One small issue in Jackson’s life that did get my attention was the report in 1987 that he had offered to buy the remains of Joseph Carey Merrick, known in popular culture as “John” Merrick, the “elephant man,” a 19th century Englishman who was severely deformed by a disease that has not been conclusively identified. I have spent far more time learning about Merrick than I have ever devoted to Michael Jackson, because I have been interested in Merrick’s determination to achieve some sort of human dignity despite a condition that, through no fault of his own, made it impossible for him to live in society. In fact, he had to be protected from the public. It’s worth noting that Dr. Frederick Treves, who was principally responsible for providing Merrick with a home at London Hospital, had misgivings about his own role in making Merrick something of a darling of British society, including the royal family.

My initial reaction when I heard that Jackson had tried to buy Merrick’s remains was disgust. I couldn’t imagine any legitimate purpose to such a thing, and I felt strongly that Jackson would be violating Merrick’s memory by removing what remains of him from the hospital that gave him the only true sanctuary he ever knew. Although there have been many public reports that Jackson did, indeed, acquire Merrick’s “bones,” my reading indicates that it never happened. Some have claimed that Jackson himself deliberately spread that rumor after having viewed the remains in London, but I haven’t found any substantiation of that idea. The bizarre tones and the uncertainty of this bit of Jackson’s history or legend is a microcosm of the odd and often mysterious biography that will be written and re-written for years to come.

Peter Conrad wrote an interesting essay in The Guardian about Michael Jackson in anticipation of Jackson’s appearance in London next month. It’s at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/14/michael-jackson

Tammy Paolino — the name is no coincidence — also wrote an insightful piece about the impact of Jackson’s death. It’s at http://blogs.courierpostonline.com/mamadrama/ in an entry dated June 26.

 
BLUE BUG

BLUE BUG

I’ve stayed as far away from the Octomom story as one can get while remaining on this planet. Still, I felt uncomfortably close when I stumbled over a photo in the Los Angeles Times. It shows a display mounted on the outside wall of a Volkswagen parts business in Whittier, Calif., where Nadya Suleman lived until recently. (It’s something on the subject of my distance from this story that I learned the woman’s name for the first time today. For real.)

The item in the Times reads, in part, as follows:

Back in February, the world’s media converged on Whittier hoping to get a glimpse of octuplets mother Nadya Suleman and her 14 children.

There, drivers can’t help but chuckle at a display owners Ralph and Diva Chase have set up. Mounted on the wall of the building is half a grabber-blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Inside, a black-hair mannequin — respectfully named Teri, not Nadya —  is sitting with her legs crossed and is surrounded by babies. A box of diapers sits on the bug’s roof.

Ralph Chase said his 22-year-old niece, Jenna White, put the display together, meant as a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.  “She’s Teri’s stylist,” he joked.

They sometimes change Teri’s clothes to freshen her look, and some people have come by to donate clothes for the display.

What caught me up short was the blue Beetle. See, I drive a blue Beetle. It’s not a ’69; it’s a ’99 with more than 167,000 miles on it, but from a distance it looks uncomfortably like the one Teri and the kids are sitting in.

'THE ONE'

'THAT MAN'

So this is “a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.” It got me to wondering, if I were to sacrifice my Beetle to commemorate someone’s mark on Whittier, whom do I envision beaming out from behind the wheel. Oscar de la Hoya? Nomar Garciaparra? Andy Etchebarren? Eric Stoltz? Or – should I even say it? – That Man who, the tapes tell us, wanted to “destroy” Thomas Eagleton – “pipsqueak that he is”?

I have to go with Andy Etchebarren. He was the last player to bat against Sandy Koufax – and he hit into a double play. That seems about right.

Hillary’s folly?

June 24, 2009

INUIT WOMAN sciencepoles.org

INUIT WOMAN sciencepoles.org

It was always the subject of some mirth, in the heyday of the Soviet Union, that the name of the most prominent newspaper there – Pravda – meant “truth.” The paper was shut down in 1991, but the name lives on in several forms, including another daily paper and an independent web site — pravda.ru.

I have never seen the newspaper, but the web site, if anything, is worth even more laughs than the old Soviet sheet. While it carries a lot of breaking news stories, much of the content would fit in well at the supermarket checkout line. Among the headlines on the site today, for example, are “Atlantis Found Under Antarctica,” “Russian Scientists Contact Nether World,” and “U.S. Scientists Unveil Secrets About Cities on the Moon.”

GREENLAND ICE MELTING

GREENLAND ICE MELTING

There was also a headline that I found especially compelling: “Greenland to Become 51st State of the United States.” The bulk of the story was about a law passed by the Danish parliament that expands Greenland’s autonomy in a couple of ways related to management of natural resources and foreign policy. The writer was tentative about some of the facts, remarking, for example, that Greenland is “presumably populated by the Eskimos” and that “the majority of Greenlanders are presumably employed in the fish-processing industry.”

One doesn’t have to read between the lines to get the impression that the writer has a low opinion of the native people in Greenland — who prefer to be called Inuit, not Eskimos. The story reported, for example, that “Many in Denmark believe that the Greenlanders are not ready for their independence. It’s not for the high level of social problems, alcoholism and suicide rate. The majority of Greenland’s qualified specialists come from Denmark. The gap between them and the culture of hunters and fishers is too large.” Well, excuse me for living!

The only thing in the story that supports the headline is the last paragraph:

“There is another relevant reason which puts Greenland’s independence into question. The island may quickly become the 51st state of the United States if it acquires sovereignty. The White House has been showing interest in the island since the 20s of the 19th century.”

Where is William Seward when you need him?

ANGELINA JOLIE

ANGELINA JOLIE

We watched “Changeling,” a 2008 film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. This film which, I gather from independent reading, sticks fairly close to the facts, recounts the story of a 1928 kidnapping case in Los Angeles. Walter Collins, a nine year old boy, disappeared from his home and was never seen again. A boy found several months later in DeKalb, Illinois, claimed to be Walter Collins, but Walter’s mother, Christine (played by Jolie), told police the boy was not her son. The LAPD – which at the time was ridden with scandal and under public pressure to solve the Collins case — insisted that the boy was Walter and that the mother was delusional. Eventually, under a prerogative the police had at the time, police Capt. J.J. Jones (played by Jeffrey Donovan) had the woman committed to the psychiatric wing of a Los Angeles Hospital. A seemingly unrelated immigration case led police to Gordon Norcott (played by Jason Butler Harner), a murderous Canadian whose arrest figured in the somewhat incomplete resolution of the complicated case.

JASON BUTLER HARNER

JASON BUTLER HARNER

This film is two hours and 22 minutes long — and that’s after two scenes were cut from the final version. It is arresting, however, even for that long — and that’s due at least in part to the awareness that the bizarre events being portrayed on the screen actually occurred.

Angelina Jolie was nominated for a “best actress” Oscar for this role, but there were equally powerful performances by Harner and Donovan. Harner appears on the screen for the first time in an inocuous situation — his car has overheated — and he has no known  connection to the story, but he plays that scene in such a way that it’s immediately apparent that there is something very wrong with him. The more we see of him, the more he makes our skin crawl.

JEFFREY DONOVAN

JEFFREY DONOVAN

Jeffrey Donovan is effective as the bullheaded and myopic police captain. His behavior so defies simple logic that he would have fit in well at the trial of the Knave of Hearts. Donovan’s unyielding demeanor makes the character the personification of self-justifying bureaucracy. Malkovich presents a study of the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who campaigned against political corruption and other things he regarded as immoral, and who provided Christine Collins with support that turned out to be critical to her own well being. Briegleb is portrayed here as a radio preacher, but he was not a broadcaster in real life. He was also known to publicly express his anti-Semitism. However, this film sets out to tell the story of Christine Collins, not of Gustav Briegleb, and other sources suggest that Malkovich correctly plays the minister as tough and single-minded.

There are some upsetting albeit not overly graphic scenes involving murder and an execution, but these things are worth facing in a film that reminds us of how much damage can be inflicted on individual lives by corrupted public institutions.

JOHN MALKOVICH

JOHN MALKOVICH

Grasping at straws

June 22, 2009

THE GIGLIO

THE GIGLIO

You have to see this to appreciate it: Men of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Williamsburg dancing through the streets with a 65-foot-high, three-ton tower on their shoulders. It’s such an exquisite demonstration of — well, I’m not quite sure what it demonstrates — that it would be sacreligious to question it. Like Jerry Lewis’s career and the popularity of sushi, it just is.

The occasion is a belated celebration of the feast of San Paolino. The feast day is today, but the dance of the giglio will take place on July 12 during the parish’s annual street fair.

My attention was attracted to this, of course, because of the name of the saint. On an English church calendar, one finds him listed as St. Paulinus of Nola. His full name, rendered in Latin, was Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus. The dance of the giglio is a tradition that was imported to Brooklyn and a few other spots in these United States from Nola, the Italian city where Paolino was bishop in the fifth century. Although his feast is celebrated with sausage and peppers and zeppoli, he wasn’t Italian. This is part of a pattern in which one national group attaches itself to a saint who actually is from somewhere else: St Anthony of Padua from Portugal, St Nicholas of Bari from what is now Turkey, St Patrick from Britain, for example.

Paolino, or Paulinus, was born in Bordeaux. He was highly bred and wealthy and he had political power, but he and his wife put all that aside for religious life. Paolino became very influential in the church and was closely associated with St. Jerome and St. Augustine, among others, and his poetry is still highly regarded and, in fact, is the subject of a current book.

SAN PAOLINO

SAN PAOLINO

At one point, before he entered religious life, Paolino was Roman governor of Campagna, which is not far from where my family lives. However, I must confess that my connection to him is tenuous – what with him being French and celibate and all. But I take what I can get and throw his name around whenever I get the chance.

The giglio, incidentally, is a tower covered with paper lilies – hence the Italian term giglio — with a statue of the saint perched on top. The tower rests on a platform on which a small band is seated, and the men of the parish carry this whole assembly on their shoulders.

Although I have to admit, when challenged, that San Paolino and I probably have nothing to do with each other beyond our common baptism, I still feel I have made some progress.

PAOLINO UZCUDUN

PAOLINO UZCUDUN

After all, when I was a kid and hadn’t yet heard of the saint from Nola, I clung to a clumsy heavyweight named Paolino Uzcudun, whose claim to fame was that his title fight with Primo Carnera represented the greatest combined weight ever in a championship bout.

HRH ELIZABETH II

HRH ELIZABETH II

The British still have some respect for millinery. (Go out and ask a few young people what “millinery” is.) We know on the authority of Eliza Doolittle that a woman’s headgear was once valued as highly as human life. At least it seemed that way to Eliza as she reflected on the disappearance of a new straw hat that she had expected to inherit after the death of her aunt. What became of the hat? “Somebody pinched it,” was Eliza’s theory, “and what I say is: them as pinched it done ‘er in.”
Eliza made that observation at the Royal Ascot, so this is sort of an anniversary since the 2009 version of Ascot was run this week. It was an occasion, as always, for hats. The British monarch showed off a couple of new toppers during the week, although we’re kind of used to seeing her in hats, so she probably didn’t turn any heads the way Eliza did. Well, maybe the hat wasn’t the only reason for that if Eliza actually looked anything like Audrey Hepburn.
AUDREY HEPBURN

AUDREY HEPBURN

Actually, the hats Queen Elizabeth wore to Ascot this year were fairly sedate compared to the gear some women trot out. I can recall my mother wearing hats like the one Her Majesty has in the photo above – although I’m sure the milliner in Paterson didn’t use quite the same materials or charge quite the same fee. One rarely sees a hat like that any more, except on American Movie Classics, and I often wonder what became of the folks who used to make them. I don’t know when they started disappearing from the scene, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their demise was helped along when the Catholic Church abrogated the requirement that women in the Latin Rite have their heads covered when they were in church. That was the rule from 1917 to 1983.
One place to see this year’s Ascot hats is: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/06/19/royal.ascot/

god2Bill McGraw writes in the Detroit Free Press about what seems like the increasing tendency of political figures to invoke the name of God to justify virtually anything. The immediate inspiration for McGraw’s column was a remark by Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who is in the crosshairs of a potential federal bribery indictment. “On Tuesday,” McGraw writes, “when it became clear the feds were closing in on Conyers, she described herself to viewers of her weekly TV show as ‘a child of God,’ and told viewers ‘if you’re not praying for me, then you’re just adding to the problem.’ Then she added: ‘All these things that are going on right now … I believe in my heart that God will deliver me from them.’ ”

McGraw went on to reminisce about invocations of the Diety by Detroit public figures over the past couple of decades, including former Police Chief William Hart who was charged in 1989 with using public funds to subsidize $72,000 in rent on his daughter’s former home in Beverly Hills. “With God as my witness,” Hart said, “I swear I did not do that.” He was subsequently convicted of stealing $2.3 million.

GodMcGraw observed that few office holders have made as many public references to God as did George W. Bush while president of these United States. “I trust God speaks through me,” the president told an audience in Lancaster, Pa., in July 2004. “Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” I’ve seen that quote many times, and I’ve always suspected that the president said, or at least meant, “I trust God speaks to me.” I don’t know about George Bush, but I don’t think I would attribute to God many of the things that come out of my mouth.