Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Man Who Would Be Kipling

The Son of Man goes forth to war
A golden crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar -
Who follows in his train?

Rudyard Kipling is a great writer whose admirers often feel obliged to qualify their praise for him. As George Orwell wrote in 1942: "Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a by-word for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there." (1)

Even Arnold Bennett, an "enlightened" critic, could write in 1909:

"Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Plain Tales from the Hills delighted first Anglo-Indian, and then English society. There was nothing of permanent value in that book, and in my extremest youth I never imagined otherwise." (2)

Does anyone still read Bennett's novels? I mean, with pleasure? Yet those "Plain Tales" of Kipling's present to us a natural artist before he knew he was one. And long before critics discovered literary value in those tales, countless readers found wonder and excitement in them. 

For me, what makes Kipling's early stories both brilliant and eminently readable are all the telling details with which they are infused: the seemingly offhand observations of the weather, of speech and manners that give life to otherwise ordinary people or commonplace moments.

Appearing first in the newspaper The Allahabad Pioneer that Kipling edited between 1887-89, the earliest stories were collected and published in some of the first paperback books, Wheeler's Indian Railway Library, at one rupee apiece. Kipling was paid an advance of $500 for six volumes of his stories, the first of which was Plain Tales from the Hills. One story from that collection, "The Man Who Would Be King," was made into an excellent film by Hollywood veteran John Huston in 1975.  

Every time a gifted film director adapts a great work of literature to film, what he is attempting is the impossible: to re-create the unique feeling that the writer's prose has inspired in him, while dispensing with the prose itself.

For a former Hollywood director, John Huston was exceptional in many respects. I once watched him explain why a film uses editing to an interviewer. He told the interviewer to look at something to his left and then to look at something on his right. "There!" Huston said. "You blinked! You already knew what's between the two points and you didn't have to see it. So you blinked. You made a cut."

But in one respect Huston was as philistine as they come. Too often, he attempted to adapt pre-existing texts - novels and stories - to the screen. Moby Dick, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, and The Dead are all works of varying literary distinction that Huston turned into films of wildly varying cinematic quality. One proof that this is not such a good idea is that, the greater the literary value of the work (Melville, Joyce), the more unsuccessful the results.

Huston acquired the rights to "The Man Who Would Be King" in 1950 and planned to cast Humphrey Bogart and Clark Cable as Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravout, the two British soldiers whose exploits Kipling captures in his story. Huston had to shelve his project and by the time he found he could at last make his film, Bogart and Gable were dead, and other actors had to be cast in the roles.

Kipling's story is so much more than just a tall tale. Carnehan and Dravout, one feels, know every square mile of India, its cities, its highways and railways, and have seen the farthest reaches of its frontiers and beyond. Better than that, they are extremely knowledgable of Indian customs and its people. They are also expert con-artists, and are always involved in one extortion scheme or another, and know how to barter and bribe their way around the country.

Their story is a near-tragedy on an epic scale: how two men venture forth to find - and attain - fantastic glory, to rule and be worshipped as gods, only to be defeated by their very human failings, with one of them killed and the other - Peachy - crucified "between two trees." Peachy somehow survives, and is set free, and shares his tale with the story's narrator, the very man who witnessed the "contrack" between Peachy and Daniel at the outset of their adventure. The scene in which Carnehan returns, little left of him but a rag, to the narrator's office and tells him the whole of his story, before he wanders off again, only to die a few days later, repeatedly singing through his nose the words of the song quoted above, is unforgettable.

"'I ain't mad—yet, but I shall be that way soon. Keep looking at me, or maybe my words will go all to pieces. Keep looking at me in my eyes and don't say anything.'"

Huston changes Carnehan's speech slightly: "Keep looking at me. It helps to keep my soul from flying off."

It is to John Huston's credit that he managed to get as much of Carnehan's story right in his retelling. In the story, Peachy and Daniel's exploits are all related in extraordinary words. Huston had the advantage of images with which he could bring them to life. Shot on over thirty different locations in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, with the gorges Du Todra, at Tinghir, doubling for the Khyber Pass and the holy city of Sikandergul constructed on a hilltop an hour's drive from Marrakech, Huston got the scenery perfectly right. 

The story has two weaknesses, both of which derived from a British colonialist mentality, which was Kipling's strongest trait and greatest failing as a writer: a faith in Freemasonry that is ridiculous and a quite brazen racism - the British "gorasahibs" conquering an entire region. Since the story is told by an ignorant reject from the British Army, the weaknesses are understandable and somewhat excusable. But when a barbaric Afghan holy city is revealed to be replete with Masonic symbols and when Daniel argues that the Caucasoid inhabitants of Kafiristan are "Englishmen," one feels the intrusion of the authors true prejudices. (3)

But where Huston does an ultimate disservice to Kipling is in his shrinking of the tragic elements of the story to the more domestic dimensions of a whopping great yarn. For instance, he fails to show us Peachy's sad end. Kipling is concise in his summation:

Two days later I inquired after his welfare of the Superintendent of the Asylum.

"He was admitted suffering from sunstroke. He died early yesterday morning," said the Superintendent. "Is it true that he was half an hour bareheaded in the sun at midday?"

"Yes," said I, "but do you happen to know if he had anything upon him by any chance when he died?"

"Not to my knowledge," said the Superintendent.

And there the matter rests.

The two actors that Huston had to settle on in 1975, Michael Caine and Sean Connery, were capable of embodying Kipling's pair of "loafers" (unlike Bogart and Gable, they're British!). Christopher Plummer, who capably plays the narrator, is obviously modeled on Kipling himself. Saeed Jaffrey, a marvelous Indian actor in his own right, does what he can with the role of the Gurkha, Billy Fish.

Huston's cinematographer was Oswald Morris, who tried to do for Morocco what Freddie Young did for the deserts of Jordan in Lawrence of Arabia. His results are spectacular enough but, like Huston's (and Gladys Hill's) script, it lacks the dimension of greatness that Kipling gave to Carnehan's story in his telling. Legendary French designer Alexander Trauner (The Children of Paradise, et al) created a city - Sikandergul - lost since Alexander the Great that is both primitive and strangely classical.

In his memoir, What's It All About?, Michael Caine describes how, after the film was finished, he and Sean Connery were summoned by Huston to a hospital bedside where he appeared to be gravely ill. Seemingly delirious, Huston addressed Caine and Connery by their characters' names in The Man Who Would Be King, as Peachy and Daniel, and bade them farewell. Caine came away convinced that Huston would shortly be dead, but saw in the papers a few months later that he was preparing to make another film. It was like something out of Kipling.

(1) George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling," Horizon, February 1942.
(2) Arnold Bennett, Books and Persons, Being Comments on a Past Epoch 1908-1911 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1917).
(3) Even if Kipling intended the masonic details as an inside joke, it is a feeble joke.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Good Kill, Bad Kill

I feel no pressing need to append my comments of November 11 in the light of the Paris attacks. It seems to me that the Islamists don't like President Obama, especially now that he is keeping a cool head about the terror attacks when everyone else in Washington is losing theirs. What Fox News, ISIS's favorite channel, cannot understand is that history didn't have to be what it is, that the United States didn't have to react to 9/11 the way it did.

In the following excerpts from his column "As I Please" for Tribune, George Orwell addressed the subject of terrorism at the height of the war against fascism.

"So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which ha no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does. Nevertheless, a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a looney-bin made use of by some other planet." ("As I Please," Tribune, 31 December 1943)

"Apropos of saturation bombing, a correspondent who agreed with me strongly added that he was by no means a pacifist. He recognized, he said, that 'the Hun had got to be beaten.' He merely objected to the barbarous methods that we are now using.

"Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them 'Huns.' Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as 'natural death.' The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilisation not by the destruction it causes, nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you re not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself. ("As I Please," 4 August 1944)

I recently watched the American movie Good Kill (2014), that depicts the everyday lives of U.S. Air Force personnel engaged in drone strike operations seven thousand miles away in Waziristan, Pakistan. The scenes of officers (fighter pilots) and enlisted airmen performing their duties conducting drone attacks were technically convincing. Where the film failed miserably was in the conversations they have in between. I have no problem at all believing that such people have genuine conflicts of conscience and have marital problems as a result. The central character, an Air Force pilot, played by Ethan Hawke. requests to be transferred to a combat unit in Africa, supposedly because it would be morally easier to bomb people when he's just a few thousand feet above them rather than several thousand miles, well out of harm's way. I fail to see the significance of the distinction, unless it bothers the pilot to be able to drive home to the wife and kids at the end of the day after he has destroyed a few houses - and everyone inside them. Does it matter to the ones being bombed if the bomb - or Hellfire missile - is dropped on them by a human pilot in a plane or by a remotely piloted drone?

I can say with some authority that active duty service-men and -women never engage in the kind of right versus wrong conversations that are shown in Good Kill. By the time they get around to pulling the trigger on the drone, an abundance of briefings will have made such considerations moot. And if the use of these drones from a desert air base in Nevada is the future of war, I can't imagine anyone - on our side or theirs - who has experienced combat in Iraq or Afghanistan who wouldn't rather fight a war in such a manner.

[Note: I mistakenly called the Pakistani region mentioned in the film "Wajiristan." As Steve Allen used to say, "I stand corrected. I should be, I'm wearing surgical hose."]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Filming the World

To a considerable extent, and increasingly, many of the films of the past two decades have been a betrayal of the medium's origins.  Films today take the world for granted. Fewer and fewer films are being shot on location or on elaborate sets. But in more subtle ways, filmmakers - pressed for time, as always - are uninterested in showing us anything more of a specific locale than they need to get a story moving. If a film is set in New York City, for example, it would be established by an opening shot of the familiar skyline. Afterward, the setting needs no more reason to be evoked or explored. In fact, an audience's belief in the reality of a setting is expected to be manipulated, but in ways significantly different from theater's suspension of disbelief.

Eighty years ago, if a film wanted to show us an office worker going to work, it would be cut in such a way that would show us the worker getting off the bus or the trolley on the street and walking into a building. Then a cut to inside the building would show him coming through the door and walking to the stairs. Then another cut would show him reaching the first landing and walking up another flight of steps, and so on until he reaches a certain floor and walks through the door of his office. Critics like to argue that this is simply unnecessary today, that we no longer have to see the man walking through all that scenery, and that a simple jump-cut would eliminate all that useless footage.

Anyone who has seen Godard's breakthrough film, A Bout de Souffle, will remember how Godard used jump cuts to surprising effect. What they don't know is that Godard, novice filmmaker, shot a great deal more footage that he then had to eliminate because the producer told him to shorten the film's running time to ninety minutes. So the famous scene in which Jean-Paul Belmondo is on the phone with a girlfriend, tells her he wants to see her, and in an instant is there standing beside her was not the result of Godard's design but of the producer's demand for a shorter film.

Many film critics and filmmakers argue that audiences have changed since the 1950s, that, having long since been familiar with the language of film, they're sophisticated enough to know that Belmondo wasn't just teleported miraculously from a phone booth to his girlfriend's room; and that they know that Belmondo must have walked the intervening distance and that they didn't need to see Belmondo covering all that ground.

I think, however, that when Werner Herzog made up his mind that the best way to represent the life of Fizcarraldo (a visionary or a madman with whom Herzog seemed to identify), who employed an army of Amazon natives to haul a huge riverboat over a mountain in his quest to build an opera house in the jungle, was to stage virtually the same stunt in front of his cameras, he performed a service to realism that went largely unappreciated.

There is a marvelous scene in the Buster Keaton film The Cameraman in which Buster is talking on the telephone with Sally, a young woman he wants to go out with him. When she tells him that her date with another man is off, before she can hang up the phone, Buster runs at top speed the several blocks between his boarding house and hers. When, startled, she turns to find him standing right behind her, he says, "I'm sorry if I'm a little late."

The scene is very funny and charming, and it shows off Keaton's superb athleticism. But its comedic impact relies on the film showing us as much of the intervening landscape between those two boarding houses as time and comedic timing allowed. But Keaton was also expecting viewers of his film to appreciate the views of the real world that he included in his gags - a lost world of real weight and dimensions that is practically forgotten today.

If one were to ask an audience of virtually any movie today if they could tell you whether a scene took place in the morning or the afternoon, or even what season it was, they probably could not. The time of day or the season, they might suggest, didn't matter. These details obviously don't matter to most filmmakers. This is possibly due to a belated modernist indifference to the world and to experience. It's commonplace for any contemporary visual artist to avoid references to what he actually sees, let alone indicating whatever feelings he might have for it, lest he be accused of being in the rear guard rather than avant. This would certainly explain the growing preponderance of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in films.(1) Why spend money on actors or wait for the right light to shoot a scene when a computer can do it all for you? I've noticed a common trick filmmakers now use to create the illusion of cold weather: computer generated steam emerging from actors' mouths.

But what if images of specific locales and particular weather that may seem to be incidental to a film's construction were, in fact, intended to be an essential part of its attempt to establish not just certain aspects of reality but the verity of the film's story and its characters? Very early in its development, film acquired a close relationship with the world. We know, for example, that the the detail that most fascinated the first audiences of the Lumiere Brothers' film Feeding the Baby in 1895 [see photo above] was the wind stirring the trees in the background. It surprised them because the trees in the scenery of theater performances had always been painted on backdrops. They were astonished to notice that the trees in the film were moving because they were looking at real trees, that the films existed in a reality that a theater production could only suggest.

We have also learned to think about film actors differently. Although we know they are actors playing parts in a made up story, we believe sufficiently in the world that they inhabit for the duration of the film to believe that, unlike stage actors who drop the pretense of acting when they walk offstage, film actors, when they leave a scene, go on living their made up lives, unseen by the camera or by us. It's possible to imagine a filmmaker following a character out of a scene on a tangent that takes the film in a totally different direction. In his film, Shoot the Piano Player, Francois Truffaut introduces us to a piano student leaving Charles Aznavour's flat and his camera follows her for a few minutes for no other reason than to introduce us to the possibility of the film going somewhere else entirely. After following the girl for awhile, Truffaut returns us to the film's central story.

Some of the greatest filmmakers demonstrate to us their love of the world by paying attention to seemingly minor - but actually major - details. When Erich von Stroheim adapted Frank Norris's novel Greed to the screen in 1924, he was encouraged by the big budget provided by his producers at MGM to go to some absurd extremes for the sake of the novel's reality. For example, when a character is sitting inside a house and Harris mentions that a particular car was parked in the street outside, Stroheim took the liberty of actually having a car of the exact same make parked in the street outside the house. Even though we never see the car in the scene, Stroheim believed that its presence there outside the house was somehow essential to the reality he was trying to re-create. I've written before about how Stroheim insisted on taking his cast and crew down an actual mineshaft to shoot a scene, rather than just re-create the mineshaft on a studio set. Viewers of the film in 1924 may never have known that Stroheim had gone to such lengths for the sake of realism, but, like Werner Herzog taking his cast and crew up a remote Amazon tributary rather than using some placid backwater for his scenes in Fitzcarraldo, but going to such lengths derived from a faith in verity, in truth, that is being forgotten.

Robert Bresson announced at the start of his extraordinary 1970 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels that "For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of REAL things in an order that makes them effective. Later on in the same interview, Samuels pointed out to Bresson how, in many of his films, he dwells on a setting a few beats longer than anyone else:

Samuels: "Before a character enters a place or after he exits from it, the camera holds on a set. . . In Diary of a Country Priest he rides his bicycle to the house of the Bishop of Torcy. He enters the house, and you hold outside the house. It happens repeatedly in Pickpocket. . . In Une Femme douce the couple comes into the house, and the camera remains on the door. Then they walk upstairs and the camera holds on the landing. We see the door to their apartment before they open it and after they close it etc. You weren't conscious of this?"

Bresson: "Of course I was conscious. Let me tell you something about doors. Critics say, 'Bresson is impossible: he shows fifty doors opening and closing;' but you must understand that the door of the apartment is where all the drama occurs. The door either says, 'I am going away or I am coming to you.' When I made Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I was also accused of showing too many doors. And Cocteau said I was criticized for being too precise: 'In other films you see a door because it just happens to be there,' he said 'whereas in your films it is there on purpose. For that reason each door is seen, whereas in other films the door is scarcely noticed.'"

Despite being known for his "transcendental" style, Bresson knew how important it was that a film should, in Auden's words, "be before it seems" - how it should establish itself in reality before attempting to be metaphorical. In his masterpiece, A Man Escaped (whose literal title is A Man Condemned to Death Escapes), Bresson carefully captures the experience of his protagonist, a Frenchman imprisoned during the German Occupation (an experience Bresson knew first-hand), through the smallest physical details, because he knew that it was only through such details that the experience could come alive for the viewer.

In his audio commentary of the DVD edition of his film, The Tailor of Panama, the film's director, John Boorman, stated that he would like to see a disclaimer in the end credits of some films that informs viewers that "no CGI was used in the making of this film." I don't think that Boorman's disclaimer is likely to catch on, or attract much interest among filmmakers, especially young ones who seem far more interested in creating fantasy worlds rather than looking closely at the world in which they live. The trend today is away from the aesthetic origins of film, away from images of the real world into images of digitally manufactured worlds. The people who fled from their seats when the Lumiere Brothers' train entered the station in 1895 - because they believed that it was a real train entering the room where the film was being screened - have been replaced by people who no longer expect that what they are being shown on the screen has much to do with reality, and are no longer amazed or moved by the truth.

(1) Like everyone else, I was appalled when I learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead of a heroin overdose early in 2014. Recently, I was further saddened to discover that the makers of the final Hunger Games film resorted to using a digital mock up of Hoffman so that they could complete scenes left unfinished at his death. At least there is some consolation in the knowledge that Hoffman will be remembered for much more than just those colossally useless movies.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


In one of the most memorable poems from his collection The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin wrote about August 1914, when the Great War began:


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

17 May 1960

From the perspective of 1960, Larkin knew that an enormous, impassable gulf separates us from the world before the Great War. He looks at a photograph of men lined up to enlist in the Army, who know nothing of the hell into which they are about to be plunged. Siegfried Sassoon, in his poem "Prelude: The Troops," made it clear:

They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin . . .

But they look like they're embarking on a "bank holiday lark." The very everyday quality of the scene - of a world that "changed itself to past" with unprecedented speed, as if it couldn't wait another moment to throw itself away - is haunting. Everyone (except the very few who already knew the truth) expected it all to be over by Christmas. By the time it was finally over, on this day in 1918, the world that existed before the war had not just vanished without a trace, it was regarded with some distaste. How could they have been so willing, so eager to throw their generations of men away? No one seemed to recall their own innocence.

As James Wood pointed out, this poem is "an acute examination of nostalgia, a poem which sees that our loss of innocence is that we can no longer see their loss of innocence without nostalgia. When the poem tries to see that lost Edwardian world, it deliberately distances and pictorialises its blurry subjects:

The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark . . .

The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens . . ."(1)

I can only wonder what Larkin, who died in 1985, would have made of September 11, and how carelessly Americans kissed the past - that turned to past so suddenly - goodbye. By now, a mere fourteen years later, America on September 10 seems like a long-gone, faraway country. 

Another terror attack, the blowing up of a Russian commercial jet in flight, and all the old boogey men have once again emerged from our closets. The term "boogey man" derived from "bogey-man," which itself originated in "boney-man," who was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Parents in early 19th century Britain would frighten their children with warnings that, if they didn't behave, the "boney-man" would get them. Today, we're being frightened again with a shadowy threat that is as remote and as insubstantial as Napoleon was to British children.

On the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR, I wrote on this blog about why I believed it was the most important historical event (so far) of my lifetime. One of the effects of the end of the Cold War was that the one great superpower left in the world - the U.S.A. - was left without a suitable enemy, an opposing power that represented its opposite in every way. Since then, what Dwight Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex" has been busy trying to locate another reason for being. One was found, apparently, on 9/11. We are once again engaged in a war of indeterminate length, except that instead of a Cold War, it's now a Hide 'n' Seek War.

The Great War changed the world irrevocably and left its terrible mark on the 20th century. November 11 is memorialized by the wearing of the "remembrance poppy" in the UK. In the U.S., the end of the war is commemorated as Veterans Day.

The extent to which September 11 changed the world and marked the 21st century will only be known when the century nears its end. Based on how it has changed America in just fourteen years makes me wonder how much worse things will get in what's left of my lifetime. I remember the freedoms we enjoyed before 9/11, living in an open society. I miss them. Of course, that very openness made us vulnerable. But that is the price to be paid - that we seemed willing to pay - for living in such a society. What is more surprising is how willingly people are surrendering their freedoms, one after another, out of fear.

Men and women whose job it is to predict the actions of terrorists, based on the information gathered from a multitude of sources, managed to conclude a short time prior to 9/11 that Al Qaeda was planning to hijack planes and crash them. They also managed to present their conclusions to the President Bush. But the president disregarded the warning. Unlike the rest of us, he can't have been surprised when their forecasts came true. Bush's efforts to keep us safe, that have resulted in nothing but further loss for everyone, were a little late. Oops. Caught napping, he made sure he'd never be caught napping again - while telling the rest of us that, under the rest of his "watch," we could sleep soundly.

Who wants to sleep any more? Never such innocence again.

(1) James Wood, "The Slightest Sardine," London Review of Books, Volume 26 No. 10, May 20, 2004.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Putting Words to Music

In one of his shimmering short stories, John Updike described being fascinated when he was a boy by the light emanating from the radio in his father's truck, and the music lilting from it while he was riding around in 1940s rural Pennsylvania. He claimed that it inspired in him a lifelong fascination with popular music, defined as the musical noise always being piped in from somewhere at every strategic moment of our lives.

For reasons of my own, this is precisely why I have always hated popular music: it is unsolicited and inescapable. Like everyone else, alas, there are occasions in my life that are inextricably linked to whatever pop song happened to be playing at the time. Of course, the songs were never the ones I would've wanted to hear at the time - songs of beauty and meaning quite beyond the emotion with which such moments were freighted. I learned quickly enough in my youth that I was born out of my time when I learned that the song that my mother and father called "our song" was Nat King Cole's "Stay As Sweet As You Are"(1) while I was forced to settle for one or another fatuous rock anthem. (Although, I must admit, there was a particular party from the 8th grade that will always be evoked by the mellifluous Love Unlimited song, "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love.")

Most of the time, the words of a popular song are its least memorable part. Normally, they are nothing but words strung together that make merely platitudinous sense. When Rolling Stone recently published its list of the "100 Greatest Songwriters" (Bob Dylan was number 1), what they failed to make clear was that the "songwriters" to which they were referring were only those that their readers would have known - writers of pop songs for the past fifty-odd years. Those readers grew up (well, some of them anyway) listening to songs whose lyrics were either too silly or forgettable - or both - for them to make their writers' names worth remembering. There were occasionally pop or rock songs from the last half of the 20th century that had something to say, but practically no one expected or required them to do so. Songs normally overheard on the radio, the musical equivalent of wallpaper, were rarely credited as anything more than bubblegum for the brain.   

When I was married in 1995 in the Philippines, a reception was held in a local Chinese restaurant. Since I had a video camera, but was otherwise occupied, the occasion was videotaped by one of my bride's neighbors, named Pia. The music that was playing in the background wasn't of my choosing. I'm not sure if the person who chose it knew that it was supposed to accompany a wedding reception. They were suitably generic and innocuous. Sometimes, an English-language song would become popular in the Philippines without anyone making any sense out of the song's lyrics. I often heard Philippine radio stations playing rap songs in the '90s that contained some of the most scabrous and obscene language without the slightest attempt at censorship.

There was one particular song that stands out in my memory of the wedding reception, Matt Monro singing "Walk On." I remember it because it wasn't just another stupid pop ballad, but a torch song, an older "standard" that might've been sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I'd heard the song before, oddly enough on a dinner date more than a year before with my future (now my ex-) wife, but I never listened closely to the words until this past week when I heard it being played on a radio show that the woman I now live with listens to almost every day. Here are the words to the song - and bear in mind that it was offered up as muzak at a wedding reception:

Walk away, please go
Before you throw your life away
A life that I could share for just a day
We should have met some years ago
For your sake I say
Walk away, just go.

Walk away, and live
A life that's full
With no regret,
Don't look back at me.
Just try to forget.
Why build a dream that cannot come true?
So be strong, reach the stars now.
Walk away, walk on.

If I heard your voice,
I'd beg you to stay.
So don't say a word.
Just run, run away.

Goodbye my love.
My tears will fall.
Now that you've gone,
I can't help but cry.
But I must go on.
I'm sad that I, after searching so long,

Knew I loved you, but I told you
Walk away, walk on, walk on.

Not very distinguished as song lyrics go, but to the point.

As chance would have it, my marriage didn't work out as planned. The name of this blog is something of a giveaway on the subject of my marital status. (I'm not, in fact, a widower. The woman in question didn't die, at least not in any physical sense.) Just think, I said to myself when I understood those words for the first time, of all the time and emotion and ultimate disappointment I could've spared myself if she or I had just hearkened to the words Matt Monro was singing - to the two of us - on that day twenty years ago. No matter how many times my sister, who believes that everything happens for a reason, would've told me that it had to be so, that I had to go through with marrying that woman just so that everything that has happened in my life subsequently - including my meeting the woman who now lives with me, a meeting that took place on December 4, 2007 precisely five years after my divorce was finalized by  judge back in Colorado - could've happened, I can't resist wondering where I would be now if I hadn't, in the words from Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," so "sentimentalized" my pleasant time with her that I made the mistake of thinking that I could make it last for the rest of my life. The rest of one's life is a very long time, after all.

The words of another old torch song, "One for My Baby," come to mind, sung by a man telling a familiar story to a bartender (named Joe):

"Well, that's how it goes
And Joe, I know you're getting
Anxious to close.
And thanks for the beer.
I hope you didn't mind
My bending your ear.

But this torch that I found,
It's got to be drowned,
Or it soon might explode.

Make it one for my baby,
And one more for the road."

1. While I won't call it poetry, such lyrics as "Like a song of love that clings to me,/How the thought of you does things to me" from another Nat Cole song, "Unforgettable" is almost worthy of Keats.