Despite the “National Emergency,” I’m going to post a blog this week. As I watch the horror-show unfolding in Washington, our shared national nightmare, and want to cover my eyes, all I could do is resolve to get ready for 2020 and send $50 worth of support to my congressman Adam Schiff, who is going to have to be a hero in all this mess.
… Meanwhile in my micro-life …
I confess: I’m a creature of habit. I’ve been happily married to the same beyond-wonderful woman for forty-seven years. I’ve lived in the same pleasant, comfortable house for the past thirty years. I’ve known my best friend since 1960. I’m still close with high school friends from half a century ago. Maybe some people would say that I’m in a rut, but I just think that I know myself. If I like something, I like it permanently.
It’s the same in my artistic taste. I experience new things, but I always come back to my old favorites.
The TG and I saw VAN MORRISON at the Wiltern Theatre here in LA for the fortieth(?) time. At one time, I had an accurate count of our shows, but that information is long gone. Since our first show at Carnegie Hall in 1972 when we were still in college, there have been concerts at the Beacon Theatre, Avery Fisher Hall, the Felt Forum, Pier 84, the Academy of Music, the Universal Amphitheatre, the Shrine Auditorium, and the Wiltern – from sublime to indifferent.
This one was closer to the sublime despite the fact that I’m not crazy about the setlists of Van’s recent tours. He’s settled into a semi-predictable mixture of blues-jump tunes-jazz-standards-one or two “deep cuts” from his massive catalog, at least one of his early classics (“Gloria” and/or “Brown Eyed Girl)–and one long, inventive “workshop.” I understand that he’s trying to please several constituencies (old fans, new fans, casual fans) as well as satisfying himself. He tries to touch every base and embrace all genres in the manner of Ray Charles, one of his heroes. It’s not the show I want him to do, but I’ll settle for what he did sing.
Here is the setlist from the Wiltern show on February 5th:
A Foggy Day
Ain’t Gonna Moan
Days Like This
Have I Told You Lately?
Baby Please Don’t Go medley
Tear Your Playhouse Down
Beautiful Vision with his daughter Shana
Why Must I Always Explain
Did Ye Get Healed
Who Can I Turn To
In the Afternoon
Brown Eyed Girl
Except for “Crazy Love,” “Ballerina,” and perhaps “Moondance,” there’s not a song on this list that’s in my Top 50 Van Morrison songs. And he did “Crazy Love” is a less-than-satisfying up-tempo version. But I guess it’s not realistic to expect Van, a 73 year-old man, to turn himself inside out emotionally onstage, the way he did in his youth. (Only Springsteen does that.)
The main thing is he sang very well and seemed to enjoy himself. The band was tight, our seats were great (best ever?), and it was our anniversary present to each other. In all, a fantabulous night.
“In the Afternoon/Don’t You Get Me High/Ancient Highway/Raincheck” – from our show at the Wiltern – 2/5/19 – the one “workshop” song we got, Van doing what only he does and having fun – the climax of the main show, the last song before the encores
“Ballerina” – the very end of the 2/5/19 show – a true highlight: a slice of “Astral Weeks”
Van in the old days – “CYPRUS AVENUE” – with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, 1973
MOVIES I CAN’T TURN OFF
Seeing Van again got me thinking about the things – movies, music, literature, visual art, etc. – that I like to experience repeatedly. There are certain movies that when they come on the screen, no matter how many times I’ve seen them, I have to stop and watch.
THE GODFATHER, I AND II (of course) … THE THIRD MAN … MOONSTRUCK … THE PHILADELPHIA STORY … LAWRENCE OF
ARABIA … FARGO … THE BIG LEBOWSKI … THE BIG SLEEP … DOUBLE INDEMNITY … GOODFELLAS… STRANGERS ON A
TRAIN… MY DARLING CLEMENTINE… HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY … RED RIVER … NINOTCHKA … THE USUAL
SUSPECTS … PULP FICTION … several movies by William Wyler – THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE HEIRESS, THE
LETTER, DODSWORTH … and, yes, CITIZEN KANE
And then there are movies that I will watch obsessively over a short period of time. I’m currently seeing as many showings of PADDINGTON 2 and THE DEATH OF STALIN as I can. If it’s a movie that I really value, I’ll watch it over and over again, trying to learn its secrets. My family ridiculed me for obsessively watching Mike Leigh’s magnificent SECRETS AND LIES over and over again.
Come to think of it, I’ve always watched/listened to things over and over again. When I was a kid, I might have watched “Mighty Joe Young” or “King Kong” or “Captain Blood” on MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE on Channel 9 fourteen times in a single week!
But as an adult, there’s nothing I’ve watched as often, as obsessively, as the 1963 film of the 1962 Chichester Theatre Festival production of UNCLE VANYA with Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Rosemary Harris, Max Adrian, Sybil Thorndike, etc. Stuart Burge directed the film of Olivier’s famous production. ("The admitted master achievement in British twentieth-century theatre … .for authority and finish - above all for centrality of purpose - this has no competitor"—Sunday Times … “One of the greatest productions of an era... the most satisfying and integrated...”-- London Observer … “This company and this production will be remembered for a long time...that leaves you awed, grateful and humble in the face of such perfection.”-- Punch
I’ve watched this UNCLE VANYA countless times. I keep the DVD in my laptop and when we travel, I use it -- on planes and in strange beds -- as comfort viewing/Seconol. But I watch it all the time at home, too, for entertainment purposes and as an instruction manual.
It’s hard for me to express the reverence with which I hold Chekhov. He is one of my gods, and with Shakespeare and Beckett, part of the trinity upon which theatre rests. He writes about the drama of every life. As he says, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” His characters are real and unique, foolish and tragic, and he exposes them like no other dramatist.
How Chekhov does what he does – laying out people’s characters in a few, significant, perfect strokes – never fails to mesmerize me, no matter how many times I watch his plays. How does he do what he does? What is the secret to creating that Perfect Human Truth onstage? I guess the secret is “genius.”
This VANYA is in black-and-white, and it is breathtakingly simple: tragic and beautiful against Sean Kenny’s all-wooden set. All four leads are simply magnificent. Olivier, notoriously stingy with praise for other actors, called Michael Redgrave’s performance as Vanya, “the best performance I’ve ever seen in anything.” He might be right: Redgrave is just heartbreaking. And he is matched by Joan Plowright’s Sonya. For the filming of the play, Rosemary Harris replaced Joan Greenwood who played Yelena onstage (which might explain Harris’ extremely low, throaty voice, in imitation of Greenwood’s famous sexy purr.) But Harris holds her own with her immortal co-stars..
I watch it over and over, and Chekhov’s magic works on me every time. There is no monologue like Sonya’s at the end of the play:
SONYA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONYA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN'S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest.
The curtain slowly falls.
Breaks my heart every single time.
How does he do it?
A scene from the Chichester UNCLE VANYA with Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave
Another scene with Olivier and Rosemary Harris
Another scene with Joan Plowright, Max Adrian, and Redgrave blazing
This is the height of human art. The writing, the acting, everything.
The only problem now is that my DVD is damaged, and I’m getting “SKIPPING OVER DAMAGED AREA” messages. Time for a new disc?
Maybe I’ll do another blog on the music I can’t turn off, the TV shows I can’t pass by, and the books, stories, and poems I’ve read more than once.
And for my own personal easy access --
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Over and Over (from the RAGGED GLORY album) – as Greil Marcus noted, one of those Neil Young songs that says everything