The Sony Shuffle, Copland's Appalachian Spring & Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody
Saturday, March 20, 2010
March, 21, 2010
Yesterday I had a wonderful day, I spent most of it either cooking or going shopping for the ingredients of our traditional Saturday evening meal. Rebecca made an excellent fresh strawberry cobbler and Lauren played alone in the garden and later helped her grandmother picking up dead leaves and other stuff she was cutting back. They filled our green refuse bins. Lauren then changed to a pretty blue dress and loosened her hair in prepartion for our guest.
Our dinner guest was John Lekich. After dinner we watched Lillian Gish in the 1920 D.W. Grifith silent film, Way Down East
. I could write here what a perfectly delightful time we had even though the film ran for two hours. Lauren, 8, could not read the explaining titles that appeared here and there so she soon became bored. For Rebecca it might have all been strange as in several sections of the film Rebecca does indeed resemble a young Lillian Gish.
But I cannot write more about it as the idea that a blog is an electronic diary is not quite right. The original word blog was a merging of web and log. In Spanish we have the word bitácora
which originally meant the daily log contributions of the captain of a ship. Captain Fitzroy’s log aboard the HMS Beagle has been of interest to many who have wanted to read another side of Darwin’s story.
A diary until the advent of the blog was a day book (another name given to personal diaries) was simply a record of a single person’s reactions to the events of the day. These would be positive, negative or they might meander through the doubts of the course of ones immediate life. Some diaries weren’t exactly diaries by strict definition but almost daily letters between two people. One example is the almost daily letters between Galileo and one of his nun daughters, Suor Maria Celeste. Most of the letters from him to her have been lost. So what remains is one history’s most fascinating diary. This diary is deftly compiled, in Italian on one page and in English on the other by author Dava Sobel’s book Letters to Father
A personal diary never had the problem of potential problems with libel or plagiarism. A personal diary was mostly a person’s reactions to that day’s events.
Blogs have modified what our perception of a diary is. When possible I have tried to keep my blog in the trajectory of the old-fashioned revelations of which some might seem to be much too personal. Some who read my blog are aware that I sleep with three pillows or that I have Venice Bakery scissor buns for breakfast. I have no standard method for readers to interject my blog with comments. I am afraid of cranks out there so I prefer my blog going out there and fizzling out into the ether of cyberspace.
When possible I have avoided rants or blogs that begin, “I read the other day…” or “I read this in the Vancouver Sun
and I think the columnist is out to lunch. And this is why I think so.”
For many who study the internet it is plainly evident that the bulk of the blogs and web magazines on the net, not to mention the social networks, all feast (in the shark frenzy sort of way) on the conventional media that the web is supposed to supersede.
This is why I rarely quote such publications (the ones that I read with interest from paid hard copy that comes to my front door every day) But I must quote today from a most timely article by the NY Times’ book reviewer Michiko Kakutani who from one very long and fascinating piece in Sunday’s, March 21, NY Times. I read it the day before as the Sunday papers comes crashing to my front door step on the night before. In this essay Texts Without Context – The Internet Mashes Up Everything You Know About Culture
, Kakutani reviews 8 books of which I have read The Cult of the Amateur
by Andrew Keen. The others are:1. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
by David Shields.
2. You Are Not A Gadget
: A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier.
3. The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
4. True Enough: Learning To Live In A Post Facts Society
by Farhad Manjoo
5. The Age Of American Unreason
by Susan Jacoby.
6. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge
by Cass R. Sunstein.
7. Going To Extremes: How Like Minds Unite And Divide
by Cass R. Sunstein.
I am always reluctant to quote from this conventional media (one that I respect) but today I will make an exception as in one final paragraph Kakutani writes:
He [Jaron Lanier] points out that much of the chatter online today is actually “driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media,” Which many digirati mock as old-fashioned and passé, and which is now being destroyed by the internet. “Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lander writes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”
My reaction to the media that surrounds me is one that would be no different from that of other bloggers so I try to keep it a minimum, and paradoxically it steers me into the direction of an old-style written diary which is more internal than external.
It was precisely at eleven, on Saturday that I was listening to CBC Radio 2. They were playing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring S
uite (The Atlanta Orchestra Symphony directed by Robert Spano. After the 23.2 minute performance (and I know because I checked the CBC playlist for the day) a young man with a curious French accent (a most pleasant voice) began to reminisce of his life. The program is a new one called This Is My Music
and it features hosts who may be famous musicians or in this case it was Alexander Mickelthwate, the musical director of the Winnipeg Symphony. Somehow he talked about pancake breakfasts and it all connected to the next piece in his program (until that point delightful and endearing). It was the Bohemian Rhapsody
from Queen’s album, Classic Queen
(composer Freddie Mercury).
I can understand that in such a program the host could offer Dmitry Shostakovich’s orchestration for Tea for Two and then perhaps offer Thelonius Monk’s solo rendition of Tea for Two.
In the unprofessional opinion of this old coot blogger the only connection between Aaron Copland and Queen might be the as-yet-undocumented penchant of Copland to emulate British actors like Laurence Olivier to emerge from a closet dressed as a woman.
CBC Radio 1 and 2, (and I will not digress on my distaste for the podcaster man of Radio 3 who shares a name, by sound, with Vivien Leigh’s former husband) are out to prove that we all want to listen to Queen and Copland. Those of us who love Copland will be turned on (so the CBC thinks) by the virtuosity of Queen and vice a versa.
Wonderful afternoon shows on Radio 1 now have middle of the road (and to this Iggy Pop and Johnny Thunders fan) mediocre, mainstream guitar strummers with inconsequential voices filling radio space between radio traffic reports (“There has been an accident on the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge”) and some excellent reporting and interesting guests.
My car radio has buttons set for CBC Radio 1, 2 and the French CBC Radio Station. I can now punch one after the other and get that guitar strumming music. When this happens (and it happens much more now than ever before) I switch to the CD player where I will be sure not to listen to Queen.
You might wonder why I am illustrating today’s blog with a scan of one of the rarest of my home garden rhododenrons. It is Rhododendron stenopetalum
'Linearifolium' also called the spider azalea because of the shape of its leaf clumps. The leaves are not quite 2 inches long. When you see it in bloom (it has tiny pink flowers) you would never suspect that this little plant (little in my garden) is a rhododendron.
I am using this plant to illustrate how sometimes I like to listen to music in a linear way. I like the order of music in old LP’s but the advent of CDs made it easy to skip sonic klunkers., I believe I must blame Sony for installing in its early CD players that damned button called shuffle. Shuffle has helped destroy linearity and we now have mashups and an increasing distate for what takes a large chunk of our attention span. I would call it the Classics Illustrationification [my what a complex sounding word!] of our world.
It was Sony’s Shuffle that brought us Copland’s Appalachian Spring followed by Queen.
So, dear diary, to conclude, I want to point out that the fact that I worship to the altar of linearity that does not mean I have to stick to it and I can wander off as I so frequently do here.
A Wandering Jew Returns Book & Édith Piaf Sings In Ste. Vierge, Saskatchewan
Friday, March 19, 2010
Obsession is an overwhelming passion for the intangible.
ELEPHANT WALK at the Cultch to March 20 (8.P.M. and Matinee at 2 P.M)
On Sunday Rosemary and I went to see the Chutzpah Festival play Underneath the Lintel
(read about it in the second section below). We arrived home, thoroughly entertained but exhausted watching actor Christian Murray’s 80 minute one actor performance as a Dutch librarian obsessed in getting answers to the riddle of a book returned 113 years after it was borrowed.Underneath the Lintel
was really good but we were unaware that the play would be matched in entertainment and intensity by Elephant Wake
at the Cultch which we saw, two days after, on Tuesday. This play, also a one-actor, one-act play features actor and playwright Joey Tremblay. Elephant Wake
premiered in a shorter version in Edmonton 14 years ago is a Globe Theatre (Regina) production directed by Bretta Gerecke (and sets, and lighting and costumes!). It is 90 minutes long and the minutes go awfully fast. While actor/playwright rejects any who might think that this play is autobiographical, he did live in a small French Canadian community in Saskatchewan (Ste. Marthe) that somehow ceased to exist when a nearby, much larger Anglophone town competed for business.
A way of life ended and Joey Tremblay poignantly (funny, too, when you hear his terrific impersonation of Édith Piaf) tells the story of the decline and eventual disappearance of a way of life through a 75 year-old man who is not too smart, has a big heart and is the last living inhabitant of the fictional Ste. Vierge. Gerecke’s set design is an integral part of this performance. There are two reasons why you might not want to take children to his play. One is the occasional swearing and insults to Her Britannic Majesty and the other is that your children will soon deplete you of all your newspapers and flour.
When Rosemary and got home we were as exhausted emotionally as we had been with Underneath the Lintel
. I have become convinced that both plays are about obsession. Underneath the Lintel
(read below) is about an obsession to find the truth. The second, Elephant Wake
, is I believe the obsession of one man who may have had this play in his head and an ever warm back burner for many years.
I went to photograph Joey Tremblay (above) yesterday and I was not in the least surprised to find out that he was having a nap in his dressing room. I don't see how a nap could possibly help him outlast the grueling performance wating for him that night. When he opened the door I was amazed that the 75 year-old man Jean Claude of the play, may be in his late 30s. He posed for me with one of the props (a French priest’s hat). As I left I asked him how he would define obsession in one sentence.
Without too much reflection, Joey Tremblay said, “An overwhelming passion for the intangible.” I am sure that the Dutch librarian and Christian Murray would both agree.
One of the positive side benefits of the restoration and improvement of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre is that its director, Heather Redfern had to move plays and other productions to other venues which resulted in co-sponsored productions like the on with Chutzpah a the Norman Rosthein Theatre and I could not forget to mention the three-way involvement with the Arts Club Theatre, and the Push Festival of the Catalyst Theatre production of Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe
last February. Redfern has also traveled and has been bringing us the best of these travels. It was in 1995 that she first saw Elephant Wake
. We can be grateful to her that she did.
While there have not been any big white Chinese elephant sightings in Saskatchewan I would advise any motorists approaching Welby, Saskatchewan to keep their eyes peeled on the road.
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL (7 P.M. to March 20 at the Norman Rothstein Theatre) part of the Chutzpah Festival
When my granddaughter Rebecca accompanied me, some years back, to a concert of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra held at St James Anglican on East Cordova I told her that the church was as Roman Catholic as it could possibly be but still be Anglican. Her curiosity led her to ask me to explain to her the 14 Stations of the Cross on the wall. When I got to Station 5 I told her that my Spanish, and very Roman Catholic grandmother had told me that El Cirineo
(Simon of Cyrene) had been a reluctant Jew who was forced to help Jesus with the carrying of His cross to Golgotha.
It came as a surprise to find out there was a different and intriguing side to that story last Sunday when Rosemary and went to the Chutzpah Festival play, Underneath The Lintel
(Presented with the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad and The Cultch and which is a Frankie Productions, Nova Scotia, performance).
This 80 minute wonder is a one man (Christian Murray), one-act play written by American writer Glen Berger. It is directed by Mary Vingoe with sets designed by Stephen Osler and lighting design by Ingrid Risk.
The play is about a small Dutch town librarian who is off on a search for answers when at his desk he finds a 113 year overdue travel guide book that has been anonymously returned. His obsessive curiosity takes him to London, Paris, Dingtao, China and Australia. Throughout the performance, in spite of the fact that I was being highly entertained I was both amazed and worried for the well-being of the actor. Such a performance must drain him. Not being an actor I will never understand what propels one to act in one act plays and suffer the agonies that must accompany such an undertaking.
This Nova Scotia production proves to me that not only is the one actor, one act plays alive and well in BC but also across Canada. In the past I have been amazed by one actor, one act plays featuring locals Lois Anderson, Bill Dow and Jonathan Young.
In Glen Berger’s version of the El Cirineo
story a man is under the lintel of his home when Christ passes by carrying his heavy cross. Christ stops and gestures for help. El Cirineo
refuses. Christ tells him, “You will wander, and not rest until I return.”
This is one version of the wandering Jew, a man who never sleeps, rests, sits down or settles to live in any one place for long.
The librarian begins to suspect that the man is somehow alive (but not well and wanting to reveal his existence with obscure hints) into the 20th Century.
Christian Murray deftly shifts between being the nerdish librarian who lusts after a better position, to the obsessed man, who in the end gives no importance to the possible loss of his job and pension. There are botanical and canine connections in the play that I will not reveal here.
If there is a problem, it would be which play, of these two, to see first. Underneath the Lintel
runs until Saturday (7 P.M.) and so does the Cultch’s Elephant Wake
(8 P.M.). But there is the extra opportunity of catching the latter as a matinee on Saturday at 2 P.M.
Yapa, Cholesterol & Blood Sugar
Thursday, March 18, 2010
From the late 60s to the early 70s in Mexico City, Rosemary and I went through a small generation of VW beetles. All were purchased new. By then the folks of Wolfsburg had pioneered an early version of computer diagnostic.
I would take our VW for service to the dealer and an obviously German manager would meet me in a pristine doctor’s white coat with a bulletin board in hand. His German accent, when he spoke Spanish, was plain enough to give me the comfort and trust that my car was going to be in good hands. Picking up the car the next day I would be given a computer print-out of the compression of each of the four cylinders. After a year or two I would see the unevenness between the individual compression figures to know that my brand new VW was aging. I would eventually get bills for brake drum repair or told that the clutch was slipping. It was almost impossible not to get a fender bash in Mexico City in a year. People often parked by ear and bumpers would be bent out of shape. It was soon evident that the up and up graphs of the compression measurements would start that inevitable decline. The shine of the new car would wane and that inevitable corrosion of the body and the decline of its mechanical parts would push me into melancholy.
At the time in the apex of my youth it never occurred to me that our little VW was mimicking the course of my own body graphed as the compression of four cylinders in a period of time.
Yapa is a Peruvian word that is used in South America to denote something extra. The 13th loaf of a baker’s dozen would be called yapa (that y is pronounced like the Hungarian Z in ZaZa Gabor!). A peanut butter jar offering 15% more would be in Spanish 15% yapa.
(Del quechua yapa, ayuda, aumento).
1. f. Ingen. Azogue que en las minas argentíferas de América se añade al mineral para facilitar el término de su trabajo en el buitrón.
2. f. Am. Mer. añadidura.
1. loc. adv. Am. Mer. además.
2. loc. adv. Am. Mer. gratuitamente.
Real Academia Española © Todos los derechos reservados
I believe that half a century of existence is just about right and that anything over that is yapa.
For most of my life I have eschewed exercise and a too healthy diet. Rosemary and I eat well. We have lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
It was a few months ago that my daughter Hilary convinced me to see one of those half & half doctors. These are doctors that are 50% conventional and the other 50% is dedicated to prescription of natural medicines that will equalize or improve blood sugar counts etc.
I went to see the woman and she insisted I have one of those thorough blood tests. One of them involved a full fast which meant that even though I was not looking at the woman removing the blood (“Are you a vampire? I asked her.) or the blood being removed I felt faint. I had to repeat the procedure that afternoon.
Then I had to wait for two weeks before the tests were sent to the doctor and then another week before an appointment was made for me to see it.
Would the tests reveal cancer of the pinkies or failure of my adrenal glands to secrete adrenalin which would mean that I would never ever have the pleasure of losing my temper or feeling stress?
I went to see the woman with that fear that I had when I would take my VW to face that white-robed paragon of Teutonic efficiency.
It seems that my blood sugar is up a tad as is my cholesterol (the nasty one not the nice one). The doctor recommended chromium (will my new found health make me shine like my VW’s brand new bumpers?) and niacin. I am to go back to the vampire for a blood test in a month to see the results. Meanwhile I have been told to exercise. Perhaps I will walk with Rosemary. Perhaps I will reduce the sugar in my tea from two to one teaspoon. Perhaps I will eat fewer carbohydrates.
But I am not going to try too hard. After all, with a half a century gone in my life the rest is yapa.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
By the end of 1994 my friend Celia Duthie was talking about the World Wide Web and something called wimsey. I had no idea of what she was talking about. She compounded my confusion by telling me about a new powerful Sun Micro System device that was going to make her bookstore an on-line store.
In March of the next year with the help of Duthie I opened an account with a local service provider called wimsey and I was given my first e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. I remember calling the wimsey tech support chap one day and he asked me, “It’s raining here on 4th Avenue. What is it doing by your neck of the woods?” Little did I know that pick-up-the-phone-and-call-for-tech-support would be a thing of the past and soon I would be talking to persons in Rumania who would not help me with my FTP blogging problems. We would be having no-language-in-common problems.
Then I went to Duthie’s with my wife’s IBM laptop (it was called a think pad at the time) and I connected to the internet for the first time. Duthie went to France and I decided to pitch a story to Equity Magazine
about a daily e-mail communication with Duthie in France. The article was published in May 1995 as (Almost) on-line from France with Celia Duthie: diary of a techno-illiterate's battle to send an electronic letter
. The techno-illiterate was, of course, me!
At the time I was barely able to use my computer. My friend Paul Leisz had written me step by step instructions which began, “Turn computer on.”
For close to 6 years I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers by using a Smith Corona Word Processor. I would print out my manuscript and then type into Eudora which was an early equivalent of Microsoft’s Outlook Express. One of the editors I submitted my stuff was Nick Rebalksi at the Vancouver Sun. He never objected to my format method. It was later around 2003 that I finally stopped using the Smith Corona and learned to use Word.
Shortly after getting connected to the internet I joined an Electronic Round Robin of the American Hosta Society. It was a de facto social network many years before the likes of My Space and Facebook. And it was a bit more that the contemporary electronic bulletin boards of the time. Before I joined that electronic round robin I had been a member of the plain round robin. I was part of a group of 6 hosta enthusiasts who would write in a letter and enclose it in a package that included the letters of the five others. Some of us were lazy and sometimes it would take a couple of months for the round robin to makes its rounds. One of the members of the robin was Alex Summers, the founding member of the American Hosta Society. He had wonderful and intelligent things to say but his handwriting was illegible! We were civil and I enjoyed the process.
The electronic round robin was much more direct and there were many more than 6 members in it. It was, looking at it with contemporary hindsight a specialized botanical community out of something like Facebook.
We all had opinions ( Is hosta hyacinthina a species Hosta hyacinthina
or a cultivar Hosta
‘Hyacinthina’) and we rarely were uncouth. Those who were uncouth were flamed. It was fun and soon I was at it more hours than I should have been. There was one member of the robin (a friend of mine who lived in the US Midwest who decided to play a prank. He stayed up at night and was known to drink heavily. He had mastered the technique of having many email identities. With a couple of them he would write opinions contrary to his own opinions and then fan the flames between his two personalities. Soon our robin was a mess and people were insulting each other. I caught on (it seems that in spite of my low techno-illiteracy I had been able to read the clues). I called him up and he told me he was having a ball.
Soon one of our members, who was a lawyer, had hired another to write up a “constitution” that would regulate behavior in the robin. We were summarily given two days to sign or opt out. Many of us, including me, cited the constitution as being neo-Hitlerian in character and we signed off. My friend, the culprit, signed and remained. I never returned to the robin.
I past years I have been members of photographic forums (these are similar to the American Hosta Society Round Robin) and in no time photographers are insulting each other and moderators intervene and banish the offenders for days or permanently. I quickly lost interest in these forums. A typical photographic forum question might be, “Do you ever get sexually excited when you photograph a nude woman?” or “Which is a better camera a Canon EOS Jaguar Four-Door or a Nikon Lumix V-8?” The perennial, “Which is better digital or film?” garners tons of back and forth insults. If you happen to point out that a posted picture has flaws you are quickly told that your opinion was not asked.
A friend living in Spain wrote to me telling me she wanted me to look at her pictures but that she did not know how to send me jpegs. I was to join Facebook so I could see them. I reluctantly did this under my official first name (in Spanish) and with my mother’s maiden name. I saw her pictures and then became curious about Facebook. After a year of it I have gotten multiple requests from men in Barcelona and in Madrid who want to be my friends. Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer sent me a request for me to be his fan!
Perhaps what I dislike the most about Facebook is the unreal concept that those in a circle or community live in a world where everything is “gosh, that’s lovely!” and people exchange platitudes in increasingly Twitter-like brevity.
I don’t have a Facebook circle since I mostly read what some of those would-be friends write about while I “publish” photos in my wall with comments on them (all in Spanish). A few days ago I saw some photographs of a Spanish model/photographer with whom I e-mail some years ago. She lives in Madrid. These pictures were taken by another photographer. They made the freckled-faced beauty look older, rough and downright unattractive. I wrote a comment (I should have known better) that I longed for her to take more self portraits and that the photographer in question should perhaps switch to another profession. I was immediately lambasted with several comments that I should keep my comments in a positive way and that the photographer in question was really a good guy and was an excellent photographer. I stuck to my guns and wrote another comment (I should have known better!) that there are photographic standards and that at the present rate photography as we know it is drifting into a uniform mediocrity. To make it all worse I quoted my grandmother in Spanish. One quote refers to our Darwinian origins, “He showed his tail.” And the other “Ignorance is daring” is all about the fact that now anybody can “publish” any photograph, anywhere, any time.
This got me into hot water and the photographers around the model’s social circle went after me with a vindictiveness that was scary. I did nothing and called my own retreat.
In a world where we still have tests and grades in schools it is evident to most that there are good students and bad students. We cannot all excel in the same profession. Yet in Facebook all photographs are wonderful, exciting, interesting and nobody calls a spade a spade.
I cannot reconcile the idea that some can and some can’t with the politically correct concept that we all can if we try.
I am giving Facebook a skip. I should have known from my days of the Electronic American Hosta Society Round Robin.
Lillian Gish - First Lady Of The Silent Screen
Monday, March 15, 2010
First Lady of the Silent Screen
By John Lekich
Special to the Globe and Mail
Friday, October 24, 1986
At 90, Lillian Gish can’t seem to shake the habit of talking with her eyes. Some 75 years after making her silent film debut in D.W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy
, her eyes can still swell with a purity of emotion beyond speech. As the light from the window of the Meridian Hotel coffee shop sifts across her delicate Victorian features, it’s almost possible to believe that the slightest sound would be a pointless intrusion.
Gish recently attended the closing gala of the Vancouver International Film Festival, where Jeanne Moreau’s Portrait of Lillian Gish
was screened. The woman dubbed “The First Lady of the Silent Screen” not only speaks plainly, but with impeccable diction that befits a former pupil of Toronto’s legendary Mrs. Carrington (the vocal coach who, as John Barrymore once confided to Lillian’s sister Dorothy, “saved me from being nothing more than a fifth-rate actor”).
Among the animated tones, there’s enough honest wisdom to explain the late Griffith’s contention that Lillian Gish “is not only the best actress in her profession, but has the best mind of any woman I have ever met.”
Says Gish: “Oh, I have an awful memory. I could never lie because I would always forget what I said. So I had to tell the truth. And it worked out rather well. Because people tend to respect you if they know you’re just being yourself.”
Despite downplaying her memory, Gish, who once labeled Hollywood “an emotional Detroit,” vividly recalls a vast array of anecdotes that span several eras of show-business history.
A performer since the age of 5, she remembers dancing in a play opposite Sarah Bernhardt (“She was the woman who made it possible for children to work on the stage”), taking her first curtain call on the shoulders of Walter Huston (“I was so scared that I tried to run downstairs and hide behind some boxes”) and portraying Alan Alda’s “slightly off-centre” mother in his recent Sweet Liberty
( “I turned down the part five times because I thought he looked much too young to be any son of mine. But after a few minutes of looking into that beautiful face, I thought: ‘I’d work for this man for nothing’”).
“I never chose money,” she says. “I always chose people. I wanted to be around people who knew more than I did. I think that’s why I never fell in love with an actor. They never seemed to know any more than I did. I wanted to be with writers…My idea of a dream man was Thornton Wilder.”
Describing herself as “endlessly curious,” she’s resisted matrimony (“I’ve always love men. But I would never ruing their lives by marrying one”), traveled extensively (“I’ve been everywhere except China because I know I’d end up walking too much for my own good”) and sampled life on the other side of the camera (“In 1920I directed Dorothy in a film called Remodeling Her Husband
. That’s when I discovered that directors don’t sleep well at night”).
Yet, curiosity had little to do with the Gish sisters’ initial involvement in silent pictures. Born a year apart, the girls had more pragmatic reasons for working in movies.
“We were hungry many times,” Gish says of a childhood that included a wandering father who refused to support the family and a struggling mother who “was as near to God as I would ever get.”
“The only place that would have us was the movies,” she adds. “And in those days, that was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Our biggest fear was that someone from our home town in Ohio would see our name in the paper. In the Midwest, a proper girl got her name in the paper three times. When she was born, when she got married and when she died. Otherwise you were a loose woman.”
In 1912, neither Lillian nor Dorothy realized that, by simply entering the offices of Manhattan’s American Biograph Company after seeing neighborhood friend Mary Pickford in the movies, they’d end up changing the face of the silent screen.
In a time of crude photography, “where you were a character actor by the time you were 8,” Griffith put the two teenaged sisters to work immediately. Tying different colored ribbons in their hair so he could tell them apart (“He would shout: ‘Blue over here! Red over there!’) they began a relationship that would see Dorothy grow into a skilled comedienne, while Lillian became the era’s foremost dramatic actress through such Griffith classics as Broken Blossoms
, Orphans of the Storm
and his 12-reel epic, Birth of a Nation
Gish has high praise for Griffith, the man credited with virtually inventing the language of filmmaking. Recalling his pioneering use of the close-up, she says: “The people in the front office got very upset. They came down and said: “The public doesn’t pay for the head or the arms or the shoulders of the actor. They want the whole body. Let’s give them their money’s worth.’
“Griffith stood very close to them and said: ‘Can you see my feet?’ When they said no, he replied: ‘That’s what I’m doing. I am using what the eyes can see.’ ”
Gish also helps to explain why his improvisational methods proved impractical with the advent of sound.
“The only writing you saw on a Griffith picture was his signature on your cheque each week, “she says. “There was never any script. You never knew what the plot was in advance. He would stand at the back of the room and call out the story as you walked through it a couple of times. Finally, freely and without thinking, you said whatever lines you felt the character might say in that situation. That was the direction. That was the way I worked for nine years.”
The same creative faith often overlapped into instances where she would risk life and limb. Nowhere is this more evident that in the 1920’s Way Down East
. In one of the screen’s most unforgettable moments, the climax finds Gish lying on a huge ice floe, her long, flowing hair and the fingers of on hand trailing across the frigid water as she heads for the falls.
Holding up her right hand she exhibits a couple of bent fingers. “It was my idea to put my hand and hair in the water, she says. “The water was so cold that it burned. I had no idea it was going to hurt so much. Of course, you can’t blame anybody but me for that.”
She has steadfastly refused to use a double throughout her career. “I’ve always felt you could tell the difference,” Gish says. “People move differently…Of course, in those days, everybody fell off everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thrown off a horse.”
Working well before the development of unions also meant putting in 12 hours a day with not time for anything else but sleep. While she once worked 25 hours at a stretch before her bloodshot eyes prompted a disgruntled cinematographer to send her home for a restorative nap, the actress looks upon those early days with Griffith as among the best in her life.
“We were like a family,” she recalls, painting a picture far different from the Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor sex scandals that would later rock the infant industry. “With Griffith there were definite rules. We weren’t allowed to kiss anybody. If a scene called for it, you’d put your lips near the leading man and the camera made it look like they were touching. But we never actually did it.”
She remembers when the theatrically trained John Emerson was lent to the studio to direct the 16-year-old Dorothy in 1914’s Old Heidelberg
. “They came to a scene where John said, ‘All right Dorothy, now you kiss so and so.’ Dorothy just looked at him and said: ‘Oh we don’t do that sort of thing in this studio!’ ’’
The issue of to kiss or not to kiss split the company in half, but “pretty soon,” Gish says, “The actor’s wife called our mother and explained that it was quite all right for Dorothy to kiss her husband. He had no diseases and it wouldn’t hurt her. So Dorothy had to do it. But, since neither of us had ever been kissed, she didn’t exactly relish the idea.”
In 1913, Gish migrated to Hollywood in search of weather that would allow Griffith’s company to use sunlight all year long.
“There was no Hollywood then,” she says. Griffith invented it. We worked out of a little shack on the outskirts of L.A. where the city used to store their streetcars. But I thought we’d found paradise. It was orange blossom time and the mockingbirds would sing you to sleep every night. It was so beautiful.”
But she would never forget Griffith warning her about the very thing he had helped to create. “He said, ‘Don’t let this place fool you. It’s very good for your body and very bad for your mind and soul.’ Of course, he was right, but somehow I managed to survive.”
Not that surviving Hollywood was easy. By mutual consent, she reluctantly left Griffith for a higher salary and greater creative control – eventually joining MGM in 1925. Stepping off the train from New York, she began a lifelong friendship with Irving Thalberg, the studio’s wonder boy, by mistaking him for the baggage clerk.
“He looked all of 18 years old,” Gish says of the man F. Scot Fitzgerald would later use as the model for The Last Tycoon
. “He was a wonderful, brilliant man – consistently amused by the fact that people were always taking him for the office boy.”
Her relationship with Louis B. Mayer was far less pleasant. She credits Mayer- the only person she expresses even the vaguest dislike for – with putting a virtual halt to her film career throughout the thirties.
“He always insisted that any film with an unhappy ending would ruin your career,” says Gish, whose handpicked projects with MGM included King Vidor’s La Bohème
and Victor Sjostrom’s Scarlet Letter
. “L had seven unhappy endings.”
While such films proved successful, they worried the commercially conscious Mayer. “He called me into his office one day and said” ‘You’re sitting way up there in a pedestal and nobody cares. Let me knock you off and everybody will care.’
“He wanted to stimulate box office by creating a scandal for me the way he did for John Gilbert and Greta Garbo,” Gish says. “He said that they had Garbo now and they really didn’t need me. So if I refused to play along, he’d make sure I never got another job in the movies.
“I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to have to give a performance on screen and off screen if I am going to be a sex symbol. I went back and told him: ‘I’m sorry Mr. Mayer. But I don’t have that much energy.’ ”
Finding jobs scarce in Hollywood she returned to the stage, where Jed Harris offered her the role of Sonya in the U.S. premiere of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya
(“Harris was like Griffith,” Gish says. “A genius. I got along well with genius.”) Subsequent roles included Ophelia opposite John Gilgud in a legendary performance of Hamlet
(“Gilgud didn’t play Hamlet, “Gish says. “He was Hamlet”), and an 18-month run in Life With Father
(“I spent a year and a half running upstairs. That’s a lot of exercise when you include matinees).
“I found that I truly loved the theatre,” she says, adding that her only regret was that a play prevented her from attending Griffith’s funeral in 1948. “But the best part of being on the stage was that I didn’t have to go back to that mean Mr. Mayer after he tried to ruin my career.”
Through it all her stipulation for accepting work has been the thought of trying something different with people she admires. (She accepted her role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding
because “he said you die, but you die with comedy, I like that.”)
Gish characteristically refused to say anything negative about the current state of the movies. “I don’t see enough films to make a judgment,” she says, “although I laughed until I cried at Tootsie
. And Gandhi
was four hours that seemed to go by in four minutes.”
Still, she admits to missing silent films, and tours with her favorite, 1928’s Wind, every chance she gets. “At that time,” Gish says, “only about 5 per cent of the world could speak English. Silent pictures not only changed the world, they controlled it. Then with a smile that makes you wonder why they ever bothered to make talkies in the first place she adds: “Who knows? Maybe some day they’ll come back.”
Re-published by kind permission of the author.
The portraits here are not of Lillian Gish but of my granddaughter Rebecca Stewart who rose to the occasion when I suggested the project to her.
A Regal Lauren Surprises The Old Man
Sunday, March 14, 2010
I have known Rebecca for all of her 12 years and Lauren for 8. It is difficult not to feel some sort of favouritism as Rosemary and I have traveled with Rebeccca to Argentina, Uruguay, three times to Mexico and once to Texas and Washington DC.
It was two weeks ago when I asked Rebecca to come into the garden to help me weed the rose bed that she told me, “I first have to go inside to put on some makeup.” I found this most strange so I told her, “You don’t need makeup to help me weed.” But she went inside and came back out with dramatic eye makeup. I was almost shocked not because I knew that her parents did not allow her to apply that much makeup except to play, but because I saw a resemblance. “Rebecca come inside and let me show you something.” I went to my computer and Googled Lillian Gish. The resemblance that Rebecca has to a very young Lillian Gish is quite remarkable especially with the heavy eyeliner under the eyes and very dark lipstick.
Of my attempts to photograph Rebecca as Lillian Gish yesterday I will write on another day.
While I was taking pictures of Rebecca in the dining room Lauren was under the dining room table. She was distracting Rebecca and I told her to go. But Lauren said, “I want to see.” As soon as Rebecca went for a rest Lauren took her place and posed for me. I almost dismissed her but then I realized that I had to take her picture, one way or another if only to keep her happy.
I finished with Rebecca leaning against a sofa. She protested that her neck hurt. I was beginning to tire of her prima donna performance so I finished taking her pictures with half a roll of a very valuable roll of Plus-X Pan 220 film left. Lauren calmly stepped in with a straw hat and took Rebecca’s place.
I need not explain that she charmed me and looked regal. Today Paul Leisz visited and taught me some tricks on pseudo vignetting using Corel Paint Shop Pro X. I am most satisfied with my picture and I now look at Lauren as an exciting source of photographic inspiration.