The performer is James Urbaniuk, who played cartoonist Robert Crumb in the film American Splendor and exhibits some of the same gleefully perverse unpredictability here. He greets us sardonically after the room goes dark, pretending to struggle to get a match lit, and then he starts telling us a story. A young boy witnesses the accidental death of his beloved dog, and then, in an odd reaction the boy himself doesn't understand, loses himself in the fascination of swirling a stick in a rain puddle. This sets the mood for the longer story to follow (which turns out to be the oldest story in the world): the boy grows up, he falls in love, and the person he loves does not love him back. This painful truth is finally revealed, and the curtain falls.
Anyway, after having been shelved for so many years, the play's rediscovery has prompted some media attention, and a portion of it will appear in Best Life Magazine this summer.
How about that, huh?
(Thanks to Mob for the reminder.)
Arthur Miller, born October 17, 1915 in New York City, died on February 10, 2005 at his home in Connecticut.
I have respect for Arthur Miller's entire career, but I feel one of his works stands out above the rest: the transcendent play Death of a Salesman. This contemporary tragedy about a small family facing business failure premiered in Broadway's Morosco Theater on February 10, 1949 (the author would later die on the anniversary of this opening day).
A great play needs a great title (witness A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill, etc.) but the title Death of a Salesman packs perhaps the most powerful punch of them all. Miller's drama approaches its lead character with compassion and understanding, yet the very title sneers at him. The words read like a slap in the face: death of a parasite, death of a pest. This is what Willy Loman feels like during every moment of the play.
When we were assigned Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I figured I was lucky, because I'd seen the movie and I vividly remembered Elizabeth Taylor yelling "MAGGIE THE CAT IS ALIVE!" at Paul Newman, so I figured I was all set. Of course, as this story would have to go, I figured wrong. Turns out that Tennessee Williams had included things in his play that hadn't made it into the film, and I was, yet again, lost during class discussion.
This story from my youth serves as an example of the time-worn cliche that the book is always better than the movie. I'm sure we've all had this conversation at some point in our lives:
A: I just saw (insert title here).
B: Oh yeah? Well, the book is better.
And sometimes we've had this conversation with the popular variation, "there's so much in the book that a film can't capture."
And so I'd like to ask what you think about film adaptations of literature. Do movies always fall short of the books they're based on? Why? Can you think of examples of films that surpass the books that inspire them? And finally, have you read something that you've wanted to turn into a movie? How would you do it?
The depression hit when Williams was in his twenties, so he was forced to work in the factory to help support his family. Williams worked there for several years along with his father. The combination of hard work by day and long hours of writing by night was too much for William's health. He had a mental and physical breakdown. After his recovery he took miscellaneous jobs and finally was able to support himself through school. In 1938, he received his B.A. at the University of Iowa. It was while there that he wrote his first play and changed his name. His name change came about because "I had already published a quantity of bad poetry under my real name and wanted to disassociate it from the work that I have written now." MGM hired him to write a play for them. In 1941 Battle Of Angels failed to draw any attention to him. In 1945 his play The Glass Menagerie was released to rave reviews. Today it is considered one of the finest plays of the modern American theatre, and was later made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas. In 1947 Williams released another play A Streetcar Named Desire, yet again the critics and fans loved it. It was turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando. This movie launched Brando's career.
A Streetcar Named Desire won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. He continued to release plays, including Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) which won Williams another Pulitzer Prize. He continued to write plays after this but none of his later plays were met with the same critical approval. Williams died on Febuary 25, 1983, at a hotel in New York.
Williams was a sexual and religious outcast. He brought violence, spiritual degeneration, and despair to the stage and to film. Through his writings Williams helped to change the conventional stereotype of southern writing.
"I know nothing more stupid than to die in an automobile accident."--Albert Camus
The last thing in the world Albert Camus wanted was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. "I'm castrated," the mortified Algerian-born French writer complained upon hearing that he'd won the greatest honor any writer could ever hope for. At that moment in his life, Camus was depressed, ill, and suffering from an enormous writer's block. Now he would be subject to the torture of public exposure, spectacle, and solemnities. Left-leaning Frenchmen led by Jean Paul Sartre had been publicly deriding Camus for being too conservative and for behaving as the high priest of Absolute Morality -- albeit one who carried his own portable pedestal. For conservative Frenchmen, Camus was no conservative at all but a militant radical at a time when the Arabs in Algeria were preparing for revolt. In the press Camus was treated more as a political than a literary figure and was often vilified as a mere writer of illusions. One critic dismissed his work as negative and jeered at the concept of the modern alienated outsider as nothing more than "the hero as vegetable." To his own regret, Camus could ill afford to turn down a Nobel Prize financially or morally, as Sartre later did. Trapped by fame, misunderstood even by his own admirers, and suffering the sting of his adversaries coolly mocking him in the press and in private, Camus wearily made the trip to Stockholm and accepted the award.
The seedy life of the professional small-time criminal became his theme, and he described this life with unprecedented realism. His concept of degradation as a aesthetic life-choice anticipated Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs, while his raw, lushly scatalogical images of common life present another window into the visions of Henry Miller.
He did not begin writing until 1942, when he wrote 'Our Lady of the Flowers' while in prison. After producing many works of brutalist prose, he began a new phase of conceptual Absurdist drama. In 1968 he made an unusual trip to America to protest the Vietnam War alongside Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago.
Genet died on April 15, 1986 in the city of his birth, Paris.
Online excerpts from his writings can be experienced at the Jean Genet Page.
Henry Murger is barely remembered in literary circles today, but he wrote one of the most culturally influential works of all time. Scenes de la Vie de Boheme (Scenes of the Bohemian Life) popularized the idea of the Bohemian: the prototypically rebellious and indifferent young starving artist living on the left bank of Paris.
Murger was born in Paris in 1822, the son of a tailor. His born name was Henri Murger, though he later chose to distinguish himself by modifying the spelling of his first name, as well as placing a meaningless "umlaut" over the "u" in his last name.
He explored various potential careers as a young man. He labored as a messenger boy for a lawyer, experimented with painting and poetry and served as secretary to a mysterious Russian diplomat, Count Tolstoy, during the exciting revolutionary year of 1848. It is still not clear what political activities this Count may have engaged in, and what part young Murger may have played in them.
Mainly, though, Murger was a struggling artist and writer, and he had many friends in the same class, including such notable or soon-to-be notable figures as Champfleury, Nadar and Baudelaire. One group of literary aspirants Murger was close to went around calling themselves the "Water Drinkers", a sarcastic reference to the fact that they could not afford more expensive drinks.
A small newspaper called the "Corsaire-Satan" allowed Murger to begin writing articles about contemporary life, and it is here that he began the series that would later form the basis of his famous novel.
A good starving artist must be filled with revulsion and doubt about his own choices, and Murger was. His early writings and correspondences show much distaste for his friends and for his own lifestyle, and this ambivalence to Bohemian culture gave his articles in the "Corsaire-Satan" a richness and depth that a more superficial participant in this lifestyle could not have captured.
Murger's "Scenes" were noticed but not particularly successful. The big break came in 1849 when a successful play was launched based on these sketches. They were published in book form for the first time in 1851, but the play was more successful and well-known in Murger's time than any of the prose forms of the work.
Most of the characters in Scenes de la Vie de la Boheme were based on his friends and associates. Mimi and Musette were, in real life, Lucille Louvet (who died in 1848) and Marie-Christine Roux.
As often happens to the ambivalently famous, Murger allowed his newfound literary stature to wane. He got sick and died in 1861, poor and unhappy, at the young age of 38.
It is interesting to note how Murger's career would be mirrored a hundred years later by that of Jack Kerouac. Both writers drew highly honest, searingly critical sketches of their "crazy friends" and their own debauched lives. But in both cases the intended ambivalence was ignored and the lifestyle was popularly celebrated, labelled and packaged as a one-word cliche.
However, Murger's own persona never achieved the mythic status of Kerouac's. Today he is mainly remembered in the popular imagination as the author of the original work upon which Puccini's opera La Boheme is based.
His final words were "No more music! No more alarums! No more Bohemia!" Little did he know.
I was curious to see, thirty years after the Los Angeles police attempted in vain to shut the play down, just what the fuss had been about. I was expecting something wildly offensive, and was surprised to find a quiet, subtly shaded and intelligent dialogue play about the different ways men and women approach sex. There were only two characters: an archetypal male played by an actor who looked slighly like Kid Rock wearing a cowboy outfit, and an archetypal woman who resembled Courtney Love in platinum-blonde mode. This man and woman spend the entire play -- literally, the entire play -- philosophically debating whether or not they should have sex. This might sound somewhat tedious (actually, it sounds like a lot of my dates when I was in college), but the concept is relevant enough to make it add up to a memorable statement, and an enlightening evening.
In fact the primal battle between men and women is a familiar theme -- the play reminded me especially of the cartoons of male and female armies engaged in civil war that James Thurber used to draw, and also of similar "symbolic" treatments of the sexual dialectic like "No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre (in which a triangle of three characters illustrate the theme) or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" by Edward Albee (which gives us two matched pairs, a total of four). McClure keeps the concentration on the primal two. His approach to drama is cool and diagrammatic, with none of the emotional build-up and release of a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller play -- just the endless Escher-like curving-back-upon-itself of the "big question", as the man and woman discuss it over and over and over (yeah, the more I think about it, this was a lot like one of my college dates).
I'm happy to report that the iconic characters do have sex in the end, symbolically at least. In the final moment before the curtain drops (actually there is no curtain, but whatever) the blonde woman acheives a blissful sonic orgasm. I admit to being slightly disappointed that she never took any of her clothes off (what's up with that?) and maybe some women in the audience were disappointed that Kid-Rock-Boy didn't either. Pretty incredible to think that, back in the sixties, they shut down a theatre for presenting ideas about sex. I think (I hope) we've come a long way since then.
If you can't come to New York City to see this play in person, check out the fragment of the script on McClure's own excellent web page, which also presents some of his interesting poetry.
2. Holy Shit! There's an amazing site of free literary MP3's at MP3Lit.com. Everybody from Sylvia Plath to Nicole Blackman, Henry Rollins to Noam Chomsky to Mumia Abu-Jamal to Tom Wolfe. A great selection, and a great public service. The site is fairly new and should grow quickly, but I hope the interface remains as simple as it is now. I'm looking forward to the upcoming "Loudmouth" section where unknowns can present their own fiction and poetry -- should be some interesting results there. Do not miss checking this place out.
3. The New York Mets are back in the playoffs for the first time since 1988 -- a very good sign for the coming millennium. Literary Kicks says "Let's go Mets!"
New York Magazine said Francis Ford Coppola was holding an open casting call for all major parts in his upcoming film of On The Road. I thought: cool! I'm not nearly extroverted enough to play Dean Moriarty, but I could handle being Sal Paradise. I kinda look like my mental image of Sal -- well hey, he's fictional, anybody can look like him if they want.
The article gave a date (Saturday, February 4th) and a location (St. Paul's Church on 58th and Columbus). I called the church for more information and was told to just show up at noon. Sounded easy enough ... but on Friday (one day before the casting call) I saw a poster around Greenwich Village that gave the real instructions. To try out, I'd have to bring an 8x10 photograph and a cassette tape (non-returnable) containing a one-minute reading from a long list of beat-related writers: Kerouac, Wolfe, Melville, Dos Passos, Proust, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Spengler, Burroughs, etc.
I have absolutely no acting experience, and I haven't the slightest idea how to read onto a tape in an "actor-ly" fashion. What the fuck, I decided. I'll wing it. First I called my sister Sharon, who wanted to go to the audition with me. Sharon's really into Kerouac -- in fact she was the one who persuaded me to read him for the first time. I told her about the 8x10 and the cassette tape and her reaction was the same as mine: oh shit. But she agreed to do it.
I decided to read a section from the first part of On The Road, the passage where Sal and his friend Eddie pass through Shelton, Nebraska. First I tried to get myself into a Kerouac frame-of-mind -- which means I got a little buzzed and paced around the bedroom scratching my head for a few minutes. Then I hit the record button and read the two paragraphs straight through, no planning and no rehearsing. Turned it off and, Kerouac-style, declared it a final draft -- no revisions or second thoughts allowed. I took it into the living room and played it for my wife, who said it wasn't as bad as she thought it would be. Praise! Yes!
Neither Sharon nor I had 8x10's, but like any good webmaster I have my trusty handheld photo scanner. I scanned a photo of Sharon 'on the road' -- her then-boyfriend/now-husband took it during a cross-country trip, and here it is:
Saturday morning I picked Sharon up at her place on the Upper West Side, and we listened to each other's tapes. She'd gone through several books looking for a good female bit to read, and settled on a letter Mardou Fox wrote to Leo Percepied in Subterraneans. Her husband Jeff got inspired and played a jazz record (Dizzy Gillespie) in the background, and Sharon and Jeff were both really excited about the tape because there was a certain horn bit that coincided perfectly with the moment where Sharon/Mardou read the word "Oh ..." -- in fact they were so enamored of the tape they weren't sure they wanted to give it up, and we couldn't leave for the audition until they made a copy for them to keep. Sharon's tape didn't look exactly professional -- she hadn't had a blank tape around, and just taped over a cassette of some female folksinger, Holly or Molly something ... I wondered what Coppola would think of me and Sharon, with our inkjet photographs and taped-over tapes.
It hadn't occurred to me yet that Coppola might not want to pay a real lot of attention to Sharon or me. I'm stupid this way: I always underestimate how many people will be interested in things I'm interested in. I was expecting to find maybe 30 or 40 people there; I figured I'd get to bullshit with Coppola and tell him how much I liked The Godfather and suggest a few camera angles for his scenes with Sal and Dean ... in short, I didn't have a clue. Because Sharon and I got there and there was a line of FIVE THOUSAND FUCKING PEOPLE STANDING IN THE FREEZING COLD OUTSIDE THE CHURCH BITCHING ABOUT HOW LONG THEY'D BEEN WAITING.
I'm not exaggerating about the number of people. I had no idea how many desperate actors there were in New York City. The church was on a long city block, and the line wound past the corner, all the way down the long end of the block, into a parking garage (because it was cold), back out of the parking garage, then around to the far corner and halfway down the block again. I'm not talking single-file either -- the line was four or five people deep.
I'd been expecting a lot of bookish beatnik/hippie types (like me) to show up, but the crowd was largely made up of professional or semi-professional actors, and they didn't seem particularly interested in or knowledgeable about the Beats. They were mostly attractive and young, short-haired and neatly dressed, and many of them carried glossy 8x10 headshots. Sharon and I started talking to the people around us, mainly to three people:
- a 25-year-old brown-haired guy with a grunge-rock look. Had read a few pages of On The Road and hated it: "What was all that about dingledodies and burn, burn, burn ...?" His grunge look was deceptive -- he was rehearsing for an off-broadway play about Kurt Cobain, and had grown his hair for the part. He showed me his photo and I was surprised: he had the clean-cut conventional appearance of any male lead in a soap opera.
- 19-year-old NYU student, female, who hadn't brought a tape or a picture. Never read Kerouac, perhaps never even heard of Kerouac. Had done some acting. Had a sort of cute 50's look and could have played Marylou, Dean's first wife. Kept talking about how terrible she looked today, maybe hoping somebody would contradict her.
- 46-year-old slightly batty woman, extensive and mostly unsuccessful acting experience. She and the pseudo-grunge guy found they knew a lot of the same industry people. Talked a lot. About five feet tall and slightly overweight. She had read some Kerouac, and I asked her what part she had in mind for herself. She said "I don't know, Camille?" which is Dean's beautiful 20-year-old second wife. Uh ... yeah. I guess you develop a really good imagination after a few years in this business.
There were many others, and we all got to know each other real well because we spent FOUR FUCKING HOURS standing out there. It was freezing cold, but in a way our mutual suffering brought us all together, and by the end of the wait we all knew everything about each other. It was kind of like A Chorus Line where we each take turns telling our life stories, except we didn't sing (well, one person did -- actors are so hammy).
Sharon had to go home after a couple hours (she just had her first baby recently), but I was determined to make it inside. The line moved slowly. We entertained ourselves with jokes, coordinated jumping, coffee, cigarettes (I had three and I don't smoke). It was all kind of fun, although my toes got frozen stiff. The psuedo-grunge guy and the girl from NYU were looking kinda chummy by the fourth hour. I wonder if she'll still like him after he turns back into a soap star.
We got in the door at six-thirty (we'd arrived at two). They herded us into a basement auditorium in groups of three hundred, and passed us little pink slips of paper to write our personal statistics on. One of Coppola's assistants explained that they'd be letting us up to the front one bunch at a time, and all we were to do was hand in our slips, tapes and photos and say hello to Mr. Coppola. They told us to please not shake Mr. Coppola's hand, as he has a sore shoulder. What about auditioning? we all wondered. There was no audition, it turned out. We were to hand in our materials and let them look at us, and that was it.
Perhaps they would make some sort of unspoken selection, but it was not clear how they would do this. After the long cold wait, we were all a bit stunned and didn't know what to think of this. The actors were more annoyed than I was, since I was really there just for fun (for them it was business).
My bunch went up. I handed in my tape and photo and slip, then moved on to the table where Francis Ford Coppola was greeting everybody. I spotted Allen Ginsberg sitting behind Coppola (I had a feeling he'd be there) and I thought of going up and speaking to him, but he looked tired, possibly even asleep behind those plastic goggle-glasses, and I decided not to bother him. Coppola seemed to be in a very good mood. Somebody handed him a trumpet (I don't know what the significance of this is) and he played a few notes. I was surprised how jovial, almost goofy, he looked. He actually resembles Allen Ginsberg, except that he's younger and much heavier, so it was strange to see them both together in the same place.
I happen to like Coppola a lot (he directed the Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and The Outsiders, in case you didn't know), and I was kind of excited to meet him. When it was my turn he actually reached out and shook my hand, which surprised me because we'd been told that handshakes were a no-no. He had BIG beefy hands. I said, "I hope you'll make a great film" and he said "Yeah, well, we've got to get started," or something like that. It was hard to concentrate with all the other actors clamoring behind me. I moved on.
Well, that's the story of my first cattle-call. It's been five days and nobody's called me back yet. If I get called I'll let you all know. But I feel kinda 'Hollywood' now anyway, just from the experience of hanging out with all those actors for a whole day. So ta-ta for now (*kiss, kiss*). And I'd like to thank ... ah fuck it.