New York in the Forties


At the last minute I agreed to sing at the church – as long as everyone understood I couldn’t sing. Oh, I could fake it, pour on the jokey baritone most men can conjure if the mood’s light – but really, don’t expect much. Why did I do it? My mother asked, and that was enough. So I drove to church and took the stage; the pews were packed, the mood jolly; all the aunts and uncles were present. In the balcony, however, there was commotion – the kids were distracted by illuminated insects, and were leaping up and down, trying to catch them in bottles. Once they had settled down I noticed a thick priest’s robe on the floor, and I remarked that it would be like crawling inside the pelt of a bear – whereupon the pastor of the church approached and said he’d help me figure it out. I put it on. It was heavy; it was warm and soft, but preposterously large. I got out my song book, which my mother had given to me. I nodded to her in the pews, not at all surprised to find her alive; the book, I noted with some alarm, was the size of a matchbook, and I couldn’t make out the words. The organ kicked in, solemn and serious. I looked up to the balcony and saw the first row filled with kids starting down at me, each holding a jar full of fireflies in their laps. And I snapped awake.

Checked the clock: oh, no. Too early. Tried to get back to sleep, but no go. The previous evening I had stayed up very very late writing emails concerning a matter of some professional concern, the details of which bore, but trust me, it’s infuriating. Not wrist-slittingly depressing, but rather bridge-burning  / howling fits of fury sort of stuff. Which I prefer. Rouses one to action, not mopery, and mopery is the enemy of work. Anyway. Got up; it was Friday, and Gnat had no school. Took her to a friend’s house to play, went home to file a column. Then game the rest of the day, in the usual order; piano lessons, home, pizza, and a nice night spent not writing anything. Listened to some old radio shows, most of which were less than satisfying, but interesting for one thing I keep noticing: the quasi-British accent that upper-class cads always affected. It’s not really British, but it has that snobby bored dissolute disdain packed in every vowel. Whenever you hear that, ladies, run, because he’s going to kill you. One of the shows also used that most tiresome of hoary-story clichés: the woman who has problems with “nerves,” which makes her imagine things. Like her husband in the backyard stabbing her sister to death, or things like that.

But Roger! I saw it! It was you, and you had the knife, and – and it was horrid! (Collapses in boohoos)

Now now, Angeline, it’s just your nerves. You know what the doctor said – your delicate and undefined condition means you will see things that simply don’t happen, and the only cure to regaining a solid grip on reality is bedrest. Now drink this radium-infused tea and go to sleep.

"Gaslight" did that well, but even that movie got tiresome. Every woman I’ve ever seen it with gets fed up with Ingrid Bergman: for heaven’s sake, punch the guy in the snout and run! What’s the matter with you?

I'm at the Southdale-area offee shop. Snowy March afternoon. Well, it’s not snowing now, but it did; woke to thin white coating all over the world. Winter’s way of letting us know it’s still around. The meteorlogical equivalent of a dog piddling on a tree, I suppose. I'm off on Sunday errands of no particular importance, after which I will not watch the Oscars. Three pieces due Monday morning. Besides, I had my own ceremony this weekend.

Best Coincidences: Watched “Flight Plan,” wherein Jodie Foster loses her child on a very large airplane. But lucky her: she helped design the plane, so she knows how to get around the cargo holds and conduct a more thorough investigation than the crew seems willing to perform. So it could be worse. I like Jodie Foster, and her willingness to look like absolute, washed-out, red-eyed crap; it's a nifty little thriller, really – but one of those movies that holds up to scrutiny like a Kleenex under hot water. I recommend the making-of feature, which shows how they shot a movie in the confined space of an airplane. So much ingenuity and creativity, so much money – and it didn’t do very well. There has to be some moments where Hollywood executives just bury their faces in their hands and moan WHAT DO THEY WANT FROM US? Pimp songs, I guess. It would have been cool if there had been troubled, put-upon pimps in the plane would, enclosed in a small space, would have made us all aware that it is hard in here for a pimp, as well.

Best Alternate Ending: watched “The Ice Harvest,” for which I had high hopes; Harold Ramis can direct some enjoyable films, as “Groundhog Day” showed, and I’d heard it was a tidy little black-comedy / crime noir with John Cusack, who’s good as a bad guy because you never believe he’s bad. It’s easier to root for the bad guy if he’s just a little bit naughty, and has the proper attitude for his genre archetype: cynical, a doomed romantic, decent in a pinch, rough when the situation requires, well-mannered and amusingly sardonic. That’s a good John Cusack role. Too bad the movie is such a horrid thing. It’s not funny; it’s directed in a slack, affectless manner that’s supposed to give you that deadpan Fargo feeling. The three main characters seem disinclined to do any acting; the femme fatale has all the humid sexual predatory qualities of a walking stick with a wig. Oliver Platt shows up as a loud amusing drunk – there’s a stretch – and Randy Quaid is wonderful as a nasty crime boss. But it’s just dank and mean and interminable. The "alternate endings" are amusing; they're both far more honest to the film than the one they used, which tries to atone for the previous 90 minutes witha nice upbeat conclusion. If they'd done "Alien 3," Mickey Mouse would have jumped out of Ripley's belly in the last scene. Aw! Well, that's fine, then.

Note: The box blurbs promised “plot twists.” There were no plot twists.

When it was over, Titanic was on the HD channel.Am I the only person who holds his breath when the ship goes down to see if I could have enough lung capacity to make it to the surface? I make it every time, with lots of spare. Granted, they’re kicking and swimming and scared to death, and I could get up and do jumping jacks, but this is not a skill I expect to use anytime soon.

Best attempt to recapture inexplicable psot-teen attraction to British pre-hippie pill-popping youth culture: Tried to watch Quadrophenia. It's another of those movies I recall with faint regard. I loved the album on which it was based – well, three or four songs, anyway – and have an interest in that period of British culture. The album itself was an Important Thing, and you could tell because it was very heavy and had two Lps and opened up in the middle. (I remember that the gatefold just had a few pictures, which was always disappointing; you expected them to do something with the space. “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” for example, packed the gatefold with a story written by Peter Gabriel in his best sophomore English Major style, peppered with those nifty isometric Hipgnosis illustrations, which were like Milk-Bones for stoners. You know, people hate Genesis because they remember the poppy period with Phil Collins capering about looking like a BEFORE picture in a Hair Club for Leprechauns ad, getting all Cocker-faced over Su-su-sudio. But before the fame they turned out some extraordinary compositions, and there’s moments of rare beauty utterly beyond the capabilities of 99.9% of most pop artists today.  No, I don’t mistake complexity, gnarly time signatures and unexpected key changes for brilliance, or I’d be writing about Yes.

Grampa Prog! Do you remember what it was like when “2112” came out? Why yes, my lad. Have a seat, and I’ll tell you of a time when rock was so peculiar that the words “vocals by Geddy Lee” were actually considered an attraction, not a warning.

Yes, I’m listening to LLD now – it’s on the iPod. Not the live version, though. Collins would sing “The lamb lies down – down down down! On Broadway,” and he’d inflect upward with each down. The Sinatra of my generation, that one.

Anyway, I tried to watch Quadrophenia, but lost interest. It’s a movie about the great epochal struggle between the Mods and the Rockers, the pointless gangs of early 60s Britain. Mods were pill-popping dorks who liked the Who; Rockers were leather-clad quiff-haired Gene Vincent types. Brain vs. brawn, although neither side seemed to possess either attribute in impressive quantities. More time has elapsed between now and the production of the movie than between the movie and the events it describes – not that it matters; it’s set in that pre-68 Europe that seems, like pre-63 America, a remote era we can only understand by studying its artifacts. I do remember seeing the movie, though; went with a friend’s girlfriend – no subterfuge or betrayal, please; we were pals. At least she thought so. Afterwards we went to the Valli and sat behind the cigarette machine by the coffee maker. Saturday night in 1982. I can see it all like it was yesterday, and thank God it wasn’t. Because yesterday – once I got past the fury and the fatigue and the work – was quite fine.

No one ran up the stairs and said DADDY! in 1982.

Tomorrow: I apologize for the whole "foodie" thing, and more. New Quirk - the link should work, it's an award-winning website now - and one small solitary new matchbook. See you tomorrrow.

c. 2005 j. lileks. Email, if you wish, may be sent to "first name at last name dot com."