Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cat Man


Kichie
When it comes to pets, a lot of us are dog people. The majority of my friends are among them. They post photos of their dogs on social media. I like to kid them now and then, especially when they tell me that their dogs have human traits, that they have souls and deep thoughts. Ok. So let's pretend that your dog is actually a human being. Naked, covered in hair, he can't understand a language and can only make rudimentary noises. He isn't toilet trained and has to be taken for walks on a leash. He's likes to pee all around your yard - on trees, on walls, on your car's tires. He also sniffs everything, including your friends' crotches when they come over to your house. Imagine your friends' reaction to this naked, hairy human being in your house. They would be terrified. "He's just being friendly" you reassure them when he humps someone's leg.

Some of us, though, are cat people. My mother was a cat person, so I grew up around a few cats. We went through rather a lot of them, I'm afraid. We lost them to accidents, usually involving a car. We lost them in long, cross-country moves. They disappeared mysteriously, because of an evil-minded neighbor or because my father took them on a "one-way ride." My father - you guessed right - was not a cat person.

One memory stands out from all the rest. It happened before I was in school. My folks were getting ready to move. Since my father was in the Army, we moved rather a lot. When all the boxes were packed and the movers had arrived, we couldn't find the cat. We called her and looked everywhere. One of the movers found her inside my mother's empty wardrobe - with a litter of newborn kittens. We had to leave and there was no way we could take the cat and her litter with us. So my father took them, all five of them, into the bathroom, locked the door behind him and drowned them in the tub, despite my screams outside the door. I resented what he did for years.

My latest cat arrived in my life in June 2014. My girlfriend called me from outside and I went out the front door to the terrace where she held out to me two tiny kittens that our neighbor's cat had given birth to a week before and told me to choose one. One was a gray tabby and other was red. I chose the red one. He was male. We had to wait awhile until the mother weaned him before my girlfriend brought him home.

Since I wanted him to be a house cat, we had to improvise a litter box. I live on a remote provincial island in the Philippines, so pet supplies weren't available anywhere. My girlfriend had never owned a cat before. Over the years, I had owned several. I preferred them to dogs because they were smaller, cleaner, and easily house-trained. But also because they were smarter and more independent. I had learned that you never earned a cat's devotion easily. You had to work at it. Ultimately, I found them to be inscrutable, which was, I think, a large part of their fascination for me.

My girlfriend and I had trouble getting him to eat. He went days without eating and, having tried our best, I resigned myself to his imminent death. Then, hearing a fishmonger outside our house one day, my girlfriend bought some small fish and offered them to the kitten. He gobbled them up so quickly that he threw up. But at least we found something he would eat. Our neighbors, some of whom couldn't afford to feed fish to their own children, were amazed that we were feeding fish to our cat. They were also surprised that my girlfriend spoke to him and how, eventually, he would reply. She named him "Kichie" and when she called his name, he would reply "Ma! Ma!"

We tried to keep him in our house but it became impossible. As soon as he was strong enough to jump from the floor to the top of our refrigerator, and from the refrigerator to the top of the wall beneath the eaves of our house, he was routinely outdoors. It was our intention to have him spayed, but when my girlfriend reminded her relative, who was supposed to perform the operation, he reneged. This turned out to have serious consequences for the cat and for us.

When he was 16 months old, we moved a short distance down the road to another house and brought Kichie with us. Within a few months he established himself as the alpha male, with his own territory and a harem of females to defend. He would come home with fearsome injuries, some of which were obviously inflicted by a dog. There were several dogs in the area around my house. As I have pointed out elsewhere, these dogs don't belong to anyone. They are "adopted" by people in the same way the ,dogs "adopt" their fleas. They stake out a selection of houses from which they eat discarded scraps of food and the people utilize them as watch dogs. Unrestrained, the dogs are a nuisance, causing accidents on the road, scattering garbage everywhere, and engaging in loud and bloody territorial. fights with other dogs. When a female is on heat, male dogs from all directions arrive to have a go at her. It is a terrible sight when the dogs, sometimes more than ten at a time, swirl around through yards, with the female at the center, savaging one another for their turn.

These dogs are also a menace to cats, and when I discovered the wounds that they had inflicted on Kichie, I planned to poison them with engine coolant. I never went through with it. Kichie recovered and returned to his place as the alpha male.

My girlfriend learned to live Kichie deeply, just how deeply I discovered when she came to me and thanked me for persuading her to adopt a cat. Kichie was like her child, she said. Unfortunately, two years after we moved, we had to move again. Like the first move, it was only a short distance down the road to our new apartment. After we were finished moving, my girlfriend brought the cat to our new apartment in a rice sack. Unlike our old house, there were no spaces between the walls and the roof to escape through. We expected it would take some time for Kichie to adjust to his new territory, but we were surprised when he got out the door and, after a brief inspection of the area, disappeared. He didn't come back, and the following day my girlfriend returned to our old house and called his name. "Ma!" he cried as he emerged from behind the house. My girlfriend then brought him back a second time, and then a third time, to our new apartment before we realized that we would never be able to keep him there. His hard-won territory was back at our old house. He had made his choice.

Now, three months after we moved, my girlfriend sometimes returns to the old house, which has been transformed by renovation. Kichie always answers my girlfriend's call. He gives her a sad look. He has grown thin, despite the promises of the house's new residents to save their leftovers for him. He is 3½ now. My last photograph of him shows him poised in a living room chair, glancing nervously at our open door. That was September 15, the last time he was with us. We have spoken of getting another kitten, but my girlfriend is no longer interested. She hasn't learned what I learned so long ago - that pets can never be replaced, that they somehow cross the distance between the animal and human worlds to become our familiars, companions, to occupy that special middle ground, less than human but more than animal. But the love we had for one can sometimes be bestowed on another, however grudgingly, until they, too, are, as Rilke put it so beautifully, helped "up into a soul for which there is no heaven."*


*Letter to N.N., February 8, 1912.



 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Baby, It's Cold Outside

It began in 2014, I believe, when The Huffington Post ran an article that, for sheer purblind stupidity, would be hard to beat. "A Line-by-Line Take Down of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’"(1) by the eponymous Em & Lo, accuses the 73-year-old Frank Loesser song, which he wrote for himself and his wife, of being "creepy" because its language suggests nothing less than date rape. Whether the legions of admiring listeners across the decades were aware of it or not, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is "a song that basically sanctions date rape — roofies and all."(2)

In disbelief, defenders of the song insisted that the key to the song's charm is its context of a loving couple (Loesser and his wife) kidding around on a cold night. Rich Lowry of The National Review wrote last Christmas, 'A cottage industry has sprung up denouncing the song as “creepy” and even as a “rape anthem.” Two singer-songwriters recently reworked the song so it could pass muster, say, at the holiday party of the Oberlin College gender-studies department. The result is predictably leaden and humorless.'(3) Even the greatest songs are subject to interpretation, the interpretation of the singer who has to find its true meaning and present it to the listener. Simply reading the printed lyrics is like reading the text of a play: it often provides nothing but indications, clues for an actor to "flesh out." 

Unconvinced, the critics of the song continue, every holiday season, to stand on their own necks, proudly displaying their ignorance of double entendre and denying the possibility of the tongue-in-cheek. The corrected (unsexed) alternate version of the song accomplished nothing but make the original seem far better than it is.

Which raises the ultimate point: it's only a song - an old song at that, written for a generation that is long gone. The fact that it has stuck around for so long is all the testimonial its qualities need. It will probably outlive the current fidgeting with the past. I mean, why should men and women from the 1940s, like my father and mother, be held to our enlightened standards of behavior? Times have changed and, we can only hope, so have people.

Nobody seems to have seen the MGM film in which the song debuted - and which won an Oscar for Best Original Song.(4) Neptune's Daughter was a star vehicle for former Olympic swimmer Esther Williams. The scene in which the song is performed features two couples in separate locales - Williams & Ricardo Montalban and Betty Garrett & Red Skelton. Montalban and Williams perform the song straight, i.e., "romantic," as it was written. But Betty Garrett and Red Skelton perform the song with the roles reversed, presumably for laughs, with Garrett playing the aggressor and Skelton playing the victim. I hate to break this to the enemies of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" but the Garrett-Skelton duet stands their date-rape argument on its head, unless they mean to suggest that Garrett has plied Skelton with roofies and is planning to rape him? 

One of the most entertaining recent renditions of the song by She & Him is contained in a very clever animated short that can be found here. The woman very aggressively tries to convince the man to stay in her cabin. She even stoops to disabling his car. Finally, all her efforts wasted, she sits, exhausted and alone. But then the man comes back to knock on her door, and, smiling, holds up a mistletoe. I wonder how many people will lose their jobs this Christmas season by hanging mistletoe around the office?


(1) Huffpost, The Blog, Dec 19, 2014.
(2) In the same article, Em & Lo take a swipe at the Richard Curtis film Love, Actually, which is "mind-bogglingly offensive in its depiction of women as nothing more than the embodiments of men’s romantic and/or sexual fantasies." Such sexism isn't the exclusive domain of men. One of the most cogent criticisms of Jane Austen's novels is that they are exclusively about young women seeking to land good husbands. I wouldn't dream of equating Love, Actually with Sense and Sensibility, but isn't Austen guilty of depicting men as nothing more than the embodiments of women's romantic and sexual (and monetary) fantasies?
(3) The National Review, December 24, 2016.
(4) A different Frank Loesser song was going to be used in the film called "(I Want to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China" which - ironically - the infamous Hays Office warned was too risqué. So Loesser sold MGM "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - over the objections of his wife.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Long Ball

"Baseball fans are pedants, there is no other kind."(1)
(Wilfrid Sheed)


Speaking now as a former fan about baseball, I want to address Joe Morgan's recent letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Morgan says just about everything I expected he or any other player from the analog days of baseball would say about the continuing refusal to induct some former players who are eligible for induction into the Hall. The reason is by now no longer what it was when these players were active: a secret (although it was the subject of widespread rumors). The problem with Morgan's letter is that the issue isn't nearly as black and white as it seems. Morgan wrote:

"The Hall of Fame has always had its share of colorful characters, some of whom broke or bent society's rules in their era. By todays's standards, some might not have gotten in. Times change and society improves. What once was accepted no longer is . . .  But steroid users don't belong here. What they did shouldn't be accepted. Times shouldn't change for the worse."

(I am heartened by Morgan's faith in society's improvement through the years.)

I learned to love baseball through the eyes of my father. Born in Lagrange, Georgia, his team was the Atlanta Braves. He was a devoted fan, which you had to be if the Braves was your team. "Cellar Dwellers" is the old term for sports teams that commonly occupied last place in their divisions, and in the late 1960s and early '70s the Braves lived up - or down - to it year after year. The only ray of sunshine during those years for a Braves fan was one player - Hank Aaron. I remember when Willie Mays and Aaron were neck-and-neck in the race to break Babe Ruth's record for career homeruns. Week after week, I would check the Sunday newspapers for the lists of the top homerun hitters of all time. There was Ruth's name at the top with 714 homeruns, with Mays' and Aaron's names beneath. Mays, who was older, gradually faded away. He retired with 660 homeruns. But Aaron kept going. When he finally broke Ruth's record, in May 1974, I was in hospital recovering from an appendectomy. I also celebrated my 16th birthday there, which is why it's easy for me to remember the date of Aaron's feat.

When I look at the current list of Major League Baseball's Top 300 career homerun hitters, it feels like I'm being wrapped in a warm blanket on a December night. The names that stand out for me are Willie McCovey (521), Boog Powell (339), Dave Kingman (442), Willie Stargell (475), Harmon Killebrew (573), Reggie Jackson (563), and Frank Robinson (586). Mea culpa - I remember their names because they were sluggers, "long ball" hitters. For a kid, there is nothing in sports more impressive than a homerun.

There have always been great baseball players who didn't hit homeruns. Pitchers, for instance, were expected to be poor hitters, which is why they were almost invariably the ninth batter in the lineup. Barry Bonds was a gifted hitter and had a dependably high batting average. But, too often, he found his accomplishments ignored because he hit comparatively few homeruns. "Cleanup" batters, at number four in the lineup in game after game, were always the long ball hitters. They couldn't match Bonds in average, on base percentage, in runs scored. But it didn't matter as long as they could knock the ball out of the park thirty, forty, or even fifty times a season. That's why Bonds decided to become a slugger, and why he, and some other sluggers - Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez - changed baseball by cheating. They took their natural talent for hitting the ball and enhanced it to the extent that they broke - shattered - existing records for single season and career homeruns. Both McGwire, Sosa and Rodriguez later admitted to "doping," but Bonds has always denied it. Their long ball stats are impressive: Rodriguez 696 homeruns, Sosa 609 homeruns, McGwire 583 homeruns. And Barry Bonds sits atop the list at 762 homeruns. So why aren't they in the Hall of Fame?

It seemed like it happened all of a sudden. In 1998, it became obvious that Roger Maris's record for most homeruns in a single season - 61 - was going to be beaten. By whom wasn't exactly clear, since there were two contenders. Mark McGwire had forearms so enlarged that he reminded me of Popeye. He and Sammy Sosa made the breaking of Roger Maris's record into an appalling circus. McGwire finished the season with 70 homeruns, while Sosa had a mere 66. One would think that, getting close to the record, these hypertrophied antiheroes would've perhaps slowed down so it didn't look so obvious that they were doping. But, no, they approached the record in haste, it seemed, broke it, and then kept on going into stratospheric heights of absurdity. Not to be outdone, Barry Bonds nullified McGwire's record in 2001 by hitting 73 homeruns.

Joe Morgan was a great member of a great baseball team - the Cincinatti Reds - that also included a cheater - Pete Rose. Morgan is a member of the Hall of Fame. Rose is not, and may never be. Rose never doped, but he participated in gambling while an active player and was proven to have, on occasion, bet against his own team. 

Americans invented baseball, basketball, and their own kind of football, but the principles behind these games and the rules that bound its players were all invented in 19th century England. Wilfrid Sheed could write with some authority on the subject because he was an Anglo-American whose dreams of playing any sport were forever extinguished by a brief bout of polio at the age of 13. As Sheed wrote in his essay, "Why Sports Matter," "But perhaps the greatest benefit of all, to judge from the fuss that would be made about it, was that sports not only outlawed cheating but drilled its devotees to detect and despise it in each other and by extension in themselves."(2)

When I think of great baseball players of the past, like Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, both of whom played with sometimes crippling injuries, I think of what they accomplished and what they might have accomplished if they hadn't had to contend with injuries. But then I think about the fate of the record-setting balls. According to Wikipedia, "[Barry Bonds's 756th homerun ball] was consigned to an auction house on August 21 [2007]. Bidding began on August 28 and closed with a winning bid of US$752,467 on September 15 after a three phase online auction. The high bidder, fashion designer Marc Ecko, created a website to let fans decide its fate. Subsequently, Ben Padnos, who submitted the (US) $186,750 winning bid on Bonds's record-tying 755th home run ball also set up a website to let fans decide its fate. 10 million voters helped Ecko decide to brand the ball with an asterisk and send it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Padnos sold 5-year ads on a website, www.endthedebate.com, where people voted by a two-to-one margin to smash the ball."

Now that the entire Russian Winter Olympic team has been banned from competition in South Korea early next year because of substantial evidence of systemic and institutionalized doping, the issue of performance enhancing drugs is once again in the spotlight. While sports organizations have all decided that it is bad for every sport, I wonder if a majority of fans really care. I mentioned above that I am a "former" baseball fan. Contemporary professional sports is exasperating to me because it doesn't seem to even want to make up its mind. Like everything else, professional sports has been tainted by money. I don't watch baseball much any more, but if players like Bonds, Rodriguez, McGwire, and Sosa are voted into the Hall of Fame, which is probably nothing but a matter of time, I will never watch another baseball game, not in my home, not at a friend's house, if I am in a bar and a baseball game is on the TV, I will get up and leave. Before lights were installed in stadiums, baseball games used to be called on account of darkness. For baseball, it's getting darker by the hour.


(1) "Why Can't the Movies Play Ball?," The New York Times, May 14, 1989.
(2) "Why Sports Matter," Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1995.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bwana Go Home

You big game hunters out there (all thirteen of you), take heart. The Trump administration, the Guardians of the Gigarich, have not forgotten you and your contributions to his campaign fund. On Thursday, November 16, to the surprise of many (not me), it was announced that trophies from African safaris - like elephant tusks - can now be imported freely into the U.S. As usual, Trump issues edicts that benefit his wealthy cronies - golfing partners, yacht club members, tax evaders, and fellow slum lords - who alone can afford to traipse off to African game reserves and, like the Bwanas and Pukka Sahibs of old, pull the trigger and blow away some of the very few elephants, lions, and mountain gorillas remaining in the wild. 

The day the news broke, CNN's Michael Holmes asked a representative of safari hunters the ultimate question, "Why would you want to kill an elephant?" Nonplussed, the man stammered out something to do with, "Unless you've experienced it, the thrill is impossible to describe." 

The announcement on Thursday provoked such a crescendo of outrage, even from conservatives, that on Friday Trump put the decision on hold pending further review of "conservation facts" - or, of course, until everyone is distracted by another one of his antics.

Shooting an elephant - a bull elephant, a "big tusker" - gives a certain number of people (a number that is dwindling) some kind of pleasure that the vast majority of us will never know. I wonder if poachers get a comparable thrill from the experience of bringing down an elephant. There are currently 400,000 wild elephants, and an average number of 96 fall to poachers every day. Do the wealthy big game hunters feel at all upstaged by a poor African poacher who is merely filling the demand for elephant ivory? The poachers are there for the money - not for the thrill of the kill.

But what the big game hunting representative probably meant to say is that, unless you are in possession of such disposable wealth as to make it easy for you to pay for an exclusive safari the ultimate goal of which is to place you so close to a herd of wild elephants that you can pick one off with a high caliber rifle without any of the discomfort and the risk that such hunting used to have, in the days when Hemingway risked more than just his ego in the old days when men were men and there was no one questioning the rectitude of slaughtering big game or the taking of trophies to decorate one's home - unless you have the wherewithal to make all of it possible, you will never know what it's like to shoot and kill an elephant. 

One man who knew what it was like to shoot an elephant was George Orwell who, when he was Eric Blair enlisted in the British Constabulary in Burma in the late 1920s, had to destroy an elephant not for sport but in the line of duty. It was a messy, harrowing job that affected him so deeply it later inspired him to write one of his most brilliant essays about it.

After informing the reader that, "As for the job I was doing, I hated it  more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear," Orwell describes how he responded to a report of an elephant gone berserk, killing a cow and destroying property. On his way, he finds the body of a native crushed to death by the elephant. "He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony."

The young elephant was on "must" - the condition in which his body and mind are flooded with testosterone and he becomes uncontrollably aggressive. He had been chained up by his mahout but had managed to break his chain. When he finally arrives on the scene, Orwell sends a native to fetch him an elephant gun belonging to a nearby friend. He did not even intend to shoot the elephant: "As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant - it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery - and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided." But when he notices what a large crowd of something like two thousand natives has gathered, who have only come to see the sahib kill the elephant, Orwell realizes that he must do it or lose the respect of the Burmans. "To come all that  way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing - no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at."

"But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems  worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast's owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly."

(Currently, the value of elephant ivory is estimated to be $730 per kilogram.)

When the elephant gun arrives, Orwell laid down in a prone position and, without knowing exactly where to aim, fired three shots into the elephant's head. He brings him down, but he has to fire his last two shots "into the spot where I thought his heart must be." But even this doesn't finish him. Orwell retrieves his smaller rifle and "poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat."

Orwell finally decided he could take no more. He was informed that the elephant took a half hour more to die and by the afternoon the natives had stripped the carcass almost to the bone of its meat and organs. There was some debate over whether or not he was justified in killing the elephant. But Orwell could only conclude: "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."

Killing elephants for sport is a far different matter than having to destroy one out of duty. Poaching is appalling but is a problem only because of a persisting demand for contraband ivory. That leaves what must be a tiny minority of safari enthusiasts who want to experience what an ever decreasing number of human beings will ever have the money to know: the thrill of seeing a magnificent bull elephant fall at the pulling of a trigger. 

As Lionel Trilling wrote: 

Everyone knows the famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Ernest  Hemingway (Hemingway refers to it in his story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," and Fitzgerald records it in his notebook) in which, to Fitzgerald’s remark, “The very rich are different from us,” Hemingway replied,  “Yes, they have more money.” It is usually supposed that Hemingway had the better of the exchange and quite settled the matter. But we ought not to be too sure.(1)

By now it isn't the "rich," but the Super Rich that Fitzgerald would have been referring to. People so voraciously acquisitive that they have 30-car garages, even though they have only one body to be transported by car at any given time. People who can afford to spend $450 million at an auction for a painting with a dubious pedigree. Does simply owning an art masterpiece somehow bestow cultivation - taste - on the owner? People so obscenely rich that they can live in a world all their own with little or no contact with the world in which all the rest of us have to live should try to be less ostentatious with their buying power.

The half-forgotten English poet Macaulay once wrote that puritans wanted to put an end to bear-baiting not because of the pain it brought to the animals but because of the pleasure it brought to the people. His point probably made more sense in 1850s England, but by now it is transparently clear that the puritans were right to try and deny people the objectionable pleasure of watching a captive bear defend itself against the attacks of vicious dogs. If objecting to the pleasure that a tiny club of people find in the destruction of elephants makes me a puritan (and H. L. Mencken would probably insist that it does), then save me a seat on the Mayflower.


(1) Lionel Trilling, "F. Scott Fitzgerald," The Nation, August 25, 1945.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

I get the feeling that Charles Schulz, creator or the Peanuts comic strip and writer of the Charlie Brown television specials, didn't care much for Thanksgiving. It is a nondescript holiday with a strange history, falling on the third Thursday of November instead of on a specific date every year like Halloween and Christmas. There is a tradition linking it with the first hard winter endured by the Mayflower Puritans and the unexpected generosity of native Americans who shared their food with them. Associated with the holiday feast are the cornucopia, or "horn of plenty," and uniquely American food, like turkey, corn, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and pecan pie. Since the 1950s, television has played an prominent part in the holiday, with broadcasts of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning and NFL football games in the afternoon.

Schulz's ambivalence toward Thanksgiving might explain why he waited until 1973 to devote a television special to the holiday, and why, unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which have become part of our definition of Christmas and Halloween, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving seems in comparison so slapdash and perfunctory, as if Schulz couldn't discover anything definitive to say about the holiday. It was the tenth Peanuts special, but only the third to be aired perennially. 

I was 7 years old when the very first Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was first aired on CBS on December 22, 1965. I've watched it every Christmas since, when I'm home in the States, that is. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown came the following year, which is at least as familiar to me. I don't remember watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, probably because I was 15 when it first aired on November 22, 1973 and convinced that I had outgrown the familiar world of Peanuts. I find now, at 59, that outgrowing it would be like outgrowing the past or outdistancing life.

I was quite surprised when I discovered that, altogether there have been 45 Peanuts specials - the latest one, Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, airing in 2011. A documentary, It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, commemorating the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, was shown in 2015. Two specials were never aired, because CBS decided to let the contract lapse in 1992. ABC picked it up in 2002, and has shown the specials ever since. This year, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving will be shown on Wednesday, November 22nd, but I won't be home to see it. I have a copy on my tablet, so I can watch it at my leisure. This is in no way a compensation for watching it on TV at home in the States, which is just one of all the other holiday rituals shared by Americans.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving opens with a gag that was introduced in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: Lucy persuades Charlie Brown to kick a football that she holds in place, despite his fears that she will pull it away at the last moment and he will fall on his back. Part of the humor of the repeated gag is, of course, that it's repetitious - that Lucy always manages to fool Charlie Brown into trying to kick the football. He knows from experience that Lucy will only pull the ball away just as he is about to kick it and he will crash to the ground. This time Lucy reasons to him: "But, Charlie Brown, it's Thanksgiving."

"What's that got to do with anything?" he asks.

"Well, one of the greatest traditions we have is the Thanksgiving Day football game. And the biggest, most important tradition of all is the kicking off of the football ... Come on, Charlie Brown. It's a big honor for you." He walks away from Lucy, with the bushes and trees in the background going bare of their leaves. He muses:

"Well, if it's that important, a person should never turn down a big honor. Maybe I should do it? Besides, she wouldn't try to trick me on a traditional holiday. I'm gonna kick that football to the moon!" Charlie Brown runs toward the football, but, as usual, Lucy pulls it away at the last moment and he flies through the air and crashes to the ground. Lucy looks pitilessly down on him.  "Isn't it peculiar, Charlie Brown," she asks, "how some traditions just slowly fade away?"

"Holidays always depress me," Charlie Brown grumbles to his little sister Sally. He is anxious to find out (and Charles Schulz is anxious to tell us) the true meaning of Thanksgiving. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, he was depressed by all of the commercialism that smothered the true meaning of Christmas. It turns out, 50 years later, that he was right, and the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas is even more relevant today.

This time, Peppermint Patty has invited herself over to "Chuck's" house for Thanksgiving dinner, except Charlie Brown is going with his parents to his grandmother's house later in the afternoon. He fails to tell her this, however, so he has to make dinner for Patty and her friends Marcie and Franklin before he leaves. Snoopy and Woodstock set up a ping-pong table in the yard and cover it with a cloth and improvise on the dinner with buttered toast and popcorn.

The table all set, with chairs all around, the guests arrive. There are ten places set at the table, but only seven guests. With Linus and Marcie at opposite ends of the table, Charlie Brown, Sally, Peppermint Patty, and Snoopy sit on one side, while Franklin is segregated - the only word for it - on the other. I don't know if this arrangement - Franklin sitting conspicuously alone on one side of the table - was made to conform to anyone's particular design (Schulz's, the TV network's), but it presents a quite uncomfortable picture. There are also some continuity flubs in which the empty chairs beside Franklin appear and disappear inexplicably.

Snoopy arrives with the food and someone asks if they should say grace. Linus stands up and gives everyone a history lesson about Miles Standish, the Pilgrims, the natives, and the first Thanksgiving. Snoopy serves up the buttered toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks and jelly beans on plates and distributes them around the table. Looking at this improvised repast, Peppermint Patty complains, "What kind of a Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where's the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin pie?" Charlie Brown, who hadn't the nerve to tell Patty the truth, leaves the table. Marcie lectures Patty about her having invited herself to the dinner, Patty repents, Marcie apologizes to Charlie Brown, and everything is resolved when Charlie Brown's grandmother, over the telephone, invites Patty, Marcie and Franklin to her house for the holiday feast. Everyone climbs into a big green station wagon and they all drive away singing, "Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother's House We Go." Left alone, Snoopy and Woodstock retire to the doghouse from which Snoopy produces a big roasted turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. After eating, he proffers the wishbone to Woodstock, they pull hard, the wishbone snaps, and Woodstock sails through the air, smirking as he holds the larger piece of the wishbone. The End.

Sorry, but A Charlie Brown Thansgiving doesn't do it for me. It fails to evoke anything, least of all its stated mission - finding the true spirit of Thanksgiving. Having watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown only a few weeks ago, which is redolent of Halloween, the weather and landscape of late October, all the tongue-in-cheek spookiness and even some genuine mystery, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is superficial, dimly conceived and indifferently executed. Even Vince Guaraldi's dependable jazz musical accompaniment is mostly borrowed from previous specials. There's the song, "Little Birdie," with its funk overtones (sung by Guaraldi himself), and some electric keyboards evoking the era. But this holiday special has not, for me, earned a place in our Thanksgiving traditions.

I'm looking forward to watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in a few weeks, which is still a charming reminder, even for a devout atheist like me, of the true meaning of Christmas - which is, after all, about memories of the past, the cumulative, layered meaning that Christmas has acquired over the decades, its meaning for me, personally, but also its broader, social significance. With stores now opening at noon on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps we are all in too big of a hurry to wait for Black Friday and start our Christmas shopping, to begin the stampede of materialism that Christmas has become. Too bad that Charles Schulz couldn't do something with Thanksgiving that would make us want to linger there for just one day longer.

Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Name of the Rose

How could I conscionably resist commenting on the auction at Christie's in New York of a painting only recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (that underachieving genius of all time) in excess of $450M? Just the mention of that much money drew gasps from onlookers of the auction. That so much could be spent for a 26-inch tall painting whose authorship has been the subject of speculation and whose condition has been altered by painstaking restoration involving the removal of what someone other than Da Vinci painted over his original arouses - at best - a mixture of emotions.

I was once again bemused, especially since in the 1950s the painting was only considered worth about one-ten millionth its current value, at £45. It is the last Da Vinci painting, of which there are less than twenty, in private hands. Will it be displayed proudly by the owner somewhere in his private residence for visitors to marvel at? Will it be confined to a vault because it is simply too valuable to be put on display? Or will it be hung in the owner's bathroom directly opposite his toilet so that he can contemplate its glories in absolute solitude?

I have written about Leonardo at greater length before (see The Sun Stood Still), and I continue to be surprised at the sheer size of his reputation, given that, for a Renaissance artist (a contemporary of Michelangelo and Raphael), he was something of a failure. The publication of a sub-literate suspense novel embroiling Da Vinci in a secret society of the blood relations of Jesus Christ appears to be responsible for the current vogue for everything to do with Leonardo. Todd Levin, an art advisor, is reported to have told The New York Times about the painting's sale that “This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”

Clearly, the word of a consortium of art historians who acquired the painting in 2005 for $10,000 and who spent eight years removing what had been painted over the original figure by an unknown artist, was impressive enough for a Russian oligarch to buy it in 2013 for $127.5M, a trasaction still in dspute. All of this begs the question - among others - how could a painting be considered worth just $60 in the 1950s, $10,000 in 2005 be suddenly worth $450M? It clearly has nothing to do with the image itself, with its intrinsic qualities as an artwork. Watching people marvel at the painting's beauties - now that its bona fides have been established - is certainly amusing.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wishes that Romeo had a different name, since "Montague" was anathema to her family of Capulets. Her speech has become one of the most famous in English:

O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

What Shakespeare knew is that a rose by any other name is no longer a rose, regardless of its smell. A painting by someone other than Leonardo da Vinci, evidently, can be mistaken for the real thing and sell for a record sum in a preposterous world like ours. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Le Feu Follet: Malle's Gentleness


"A few more nights, the last ones. Around six this evening he would go back to Paris and plunge deep into the definitive night."(1)


If you thought you could clear a crowd of filmgoers faster with the name "Bresson" than you could with a fire hose, try using the title "Le Feu Follet." Praise all you want the discretion of the direction by Louis Malle,(2) the delicacy of the performance by Maurice Ronet, the beautiful clarity of the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, the perfect choice of music by Satie. Recommend the film as a masterpiece. All of this is evidently and verifiably true. But what you will always come up against is the inescapable fact that Le Feu Follet is one of the saddest and darkest films ever made. Tell this to people who haven't seen it and they will, as the saying goes, "stay away in droves." But it remains one of the most shattering experiences of my filmgoing life.

Like music, a film exists in time, in duration, and once set in motion, Le feu follet has an inexorable rhythm, like the "Adagietto" from Mahler's 5th Symphony. I have seen the film several times over the years, and in the opening scene, from the moment when Lydia speaks the words, "pauvre Alain" and we hear the first stately notes of Satie's 3rd Gymnopedie, the tone of Le feu follet has been set. One feels that a mechanism has been set in motion whose conclusion is as inevitable and inescapable for us as it is for Alain, the film's protagonist. "Protagonist" is a fitting description of Alain, since it is his agon to which we are the witnesses.

Alain has, we can deduce, failed her physically, and is mortified but not exactly surprised. '"It's been a long time," he murmured expressionlessly." Failing others is only fitting for a man who is already planning to fail himself. He spends his last 24 hours tracking down his old friends, secretly beseeching every one of them for a reason to go on living. One by one, Dubourg, Praline, Urcel, Cyrille, Solange, they disappoint him.

Malle's choice of such an obscure novel published in 1931 was unusual enough. That he followed it so closely in his adaptation is a revelation. The author, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, was more famous for being a Nazi collaborator, who committed suicide shortly after the Liberation. Born in 1893, he was one of that most unfortunate generation of Frenchmen whose coming of age coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Wounded twice, he had crawled out of the trenches to become a member of some of the movements of the Twenties - Dada and Surrealism. His membership, however, was never purposeful. He had other fish to fry, as his political leanings pulled him further to the Right in the Thirties. Instead of Communism, Fascism attracted him, at a time when such an allegiance was fraught with consequences that he perhaps could not have foreseen. It turned out badly, as Drieu perhaps wanted it to. Suicide had been a fetish in his life, as his posthumously-published Secret Journal revealed.

In his novel Le Feu follet, Drieu modeled his hero, Alain Leroy, on Jacques Rigaud (1898-1929), a poète maudit who chased women and money with varying success until he finally carried out his own sentence of death on November 9, 1929. Like Alain, Rigaud was 30.

Louis Malle was 30 in 1963, and he had suffered the loss of a friend to suicide. He worked on an original script inspired by the experience, but was unsatisfied at the result. Someone suggested Le Feu Follet, and the result is, for me, a near-perfect success. Malle updated the novel with some minor changes - Alain can answer the telephone in his room rather than downstairs at the sanatorium, Lydia returns to New York by plane rather than by boat, instead of a truck driver asking Alain if he was "gassed," Alain tells him he doesn't work because of an illness of "the heart," instead of cashing Lydia's check into "ten crisp thousand franc notes," it's hundred franc notes. But the film differs crucially in Malle's portrayal of every major character, especially Alain. He cares deeply for Alain and for some of the people to whom he turns in his hour of need. Drieu is indiscriminately brutal toward all his characters, including the many beautiful women. Everything in the book is ineffectual. Even a car is described as "a powerful, silent, indifferent machine." 

Five years before the appearance of the novel, Colette had created a sensation with her sequel to Chéri, which she called The End of Chéri. The resemblances between the novels are superficial - Chéri is practically divine, too perfect for this world. His long affair with Lea had spoiled him so completely that he was lost without her. Alain is a 30-year-old Chéri, even if such a man could never exist. He knows he has run out of chances of renewal. The final moments of both books are strikingly similar. Colette: 

"Without rising, he experimented in finding a convenient position. Finally he lay down with his right arm doubled up under him. Holding the weapon in his right hand, he pressed his ear against the muzzle, which was buried in the cushions. At once his arm began to grow numb, and he realised that if he did not make haste his tingling fingers would refuse to obey him. So he made haste, whimpering muffled complaints as he completed his task, because his forearm was hurting, crushed under the weight of his body. He knew nothing more, beyond the pressure of his forefinger on a little lever of tempered steel." 

Drieu: 

"Propped up comfortably, neck on a pile of pillows, feet braced at the end of the bed, legs apart. Chest out, naked, well exposed. You know where the heart is. A revolver is solid, it's made of steel. It's an object. To touch an object at last." 

Malle gave the role of Alain to Maurice Ronet, with whom he had worked on Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Ronet lost forty pounds for the film, and Malle provided him with his own clothes to wear. Ronet looks and acts weary, as Alain would've been after a four-month cure. His friends remark on his drawn appearance. Praline even tells him he looks like a "cadaver." Some believe his cure has worked, others know that it hasn't. Malle portrays these old friends far more gently than Drieu had. They genuinely care for Alain. In the book, Doctor de la Barbinais leaves Alain thinking that, "He dared not protest that life was good, for he felt he possessed no convincing arguments." In the film, Malle has him protest, "Alain, la vie est bonne" as he goes out the door. Alain answers, "Good for what, doctor?"

Drieu makes Alain an addict of heroin as well as alcohol. Lydia had spent one of her three nights in Paris with Alain in a police station after a narcotics raid. Malle makes him merely an alcoholic. Alcoholism being more familiar, it is easier for us to sympathise with Alain, especially when, halfway through his long day's journey, he indulges in a drink and he is quickly undone. The velocity of his decline from that moment becomes alarming, especially when it is played out in front of his friends. One of the film's most terrible revelations is that the love of all of his friends combined isn't enough to save Alain. All they can do is watch him as he falls. Malle gives Praline (or a character that is otherwise unnamed, played beautifully by Jeanne Moreau) Urcel's line, "he's a very nice boy, and a very unhappy one."

Drieu allows himself an occasional moment of tenderness toward Alain. Late in the novel, on his way back to the clinic, we read:

"Alain walked without looking at anything, as he had always done ... And yet the avenue was beautiful, like a broad shining river that rolls in majestic peace between the feet of the elephant god. But his eyes were fixed on the little world he had left forever. His thoughts wandered from Dubourg to Urcel, from Praline to Solange, and farther, as far as Dorothy, Lydia ... For him, the world was a handful of human beings. He had never thoughtthere could be anything more to it. He had never felt involved with anything larger than himself. He knew nothing of plants, of the stars: he knew only a few faces, and he was dying, far from those faces."  

Malle's most significant improvement on Drieu's novel takes place in the Café de Flore scene in which Alain tracks down some old mercenary friends from the Algerian War. Supposedly OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) members, the old guard of French right wing activists who were later behind attempts to assassinate De Gaulle (3), the Minville brothers talk to Alain about "good old times," an old undisclosed "plot," and hint at upcoming adventures on a "skiing trip" to Spain. Alain tries to discourage them, calling them "boy scouts," so they abandon him in the café. 

Alain restlessly watches the passing crowd. Resting on the adjacent table is an untouched glass of cognac. Cautiously, Alain drinks it. A pretty young woman watches Alain curiously until he is overcome with the effects of the cognac. Throughout the film, attractive women pass by Alain and look at him - some with interest, some with longing, others with pity - and continue on their way. Alain sometimes returns their looks, but cannot bring himself to act on them. In the Café de Flore, he even attracts the attention of a young man in the public latrine. Outside, an older man sees Alain and says to the young men with him, "See that face? Alcohol. He's finished. A shame. He was good looking. Richard was in love with him." As Drieu wrote, "The stares no longer had any effect on him: he wasn't interested in pleasing now, men or women; he was through pleasing."    

Malle and Maurice Ronet make us care deeply for Alain, so that by the time the film's last scenes arrive, and we know what's coming, we are overcome with an alarming feeling of pity and of waste, watching a human being whom so many people love, but not quite enough to save him, during the last moments of his life. The voice of Solange, the last woman to hold a promise, however ephemeral, out to him, is the last voice he hears, calling out his name through a telephone receiver as he hangs up on her. In the novel, he reads a nameless detective story in his last moments. In the film, he finishes reading The Great Gatsby. There are several references to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the film, including a scene lifted bodily from his story "Babylon Revisited." Fitzgerald, too, was cured of his alcoholism too late.

I think that the reason for Alain's malaise is, simply put, his impotence. The film and the novel open in a hotel in which rooms are let by the hour. The action commences at the precise moment when Alain has climaxed - and Lydia, presumably, has not. Alain even apologizes. "It's been a long time." Later, he tells Dubourg that all his problems - with drugs, money, women - are due to the fact that "I'm a lousy lay." As a possible motivation for suicide, it's more plausible than some might think. It's rumored, based on his cryptic journal entries, that it was Cesare Pavese's complaint. Hemingway believed that Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda preyed on his sense of sexual inadequacy. It may sound foolish, but the inability to sexually satisfy a woman is the source of considerable male anxiety - it's even identified clinically as "performance anxiety" that can effectively paralyze a man in everything he attempts to accomplish. It is Alain's inability to satisfy Lydia and Dorothy and - potentially - Solange that leads him to his conclusion. At the house of Cyrille and Solange, humiliated by Brancion's imperious hold over Solange's attention, Alain is intoxicated with alcohol and with his own confession - his inability to touch anything. He appeals helplessly to Solange, "To leave without ever having touched anything. I don't say beauty, kindness ... with all their words ... but something human ... and then you ... you can do miracles ... Touch the leper." Of course, it is from a beautiful woman that Alain makes his last appeal for succor, for salvation. But Solange can't help him, at least not in the way that he needs help.

To his friends, his death is a rebuke. But Malle wants the viewer to feel it, too. The final image of the film is a still photo of Alain with the words "I kill myself because you didn't love me, because I didn't love you. I kill myself because we were always apart, to bring us closer together. I leave a stain on you, an indelible stain." 



(1) The Fire Within by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Richard Howard, translator. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965). Incidentally, it was Malle's film that inspired renewed interest in Drieu's novel, leading to its first English translation.
(2) Malle worked as an assistant director on Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956).
(3) See The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsythe's book and Fred Zinnemann's film.