Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?

Cherish

I was a little boy in the 1960’s; I was eight when the decade came to an end. The world was a very uncertain place for a kid during that time period; people really believed the country was falling apart, or being pulled apart. The divide between the generations, the divide between left and right, the concept of American exceptionalism vs American responsibility; the Vietnam War and the opposition to it; the rise of the civil rights movement and the struggle to end Jim Crow once and for all; the rise of the women’s movement; and even the beginnings of a queer rights movement–all in the 1960’s. A president was murdered and men landed on the moon. There was a huge societal upheaval that changed everything that people had come to know and expect; television also began to change and grow up some, which led to some groundbreaking series in the latter half of the decade as well as set the stage for what was to come in the 1970’s. The after shocks from the 1960’s are still being felt today.

It was also a strange time for films; at the beginning of the decade the big studios and the old systems of American filmmaking were starting to erode away. The best picture Oscar winner in 1961, for example, was West Side Story, the film version of a hugely successful Broadway musical that recast the feuding Montagues and Capulets from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into juvenile gangs–one white, one Puerto Rican. (I rewatched this film shortly after the 2016 election, and was amazed at how differently I saw it then I did before) The Academy Award for best picture in 1969 was Midnight Cowboy, to date the only Oscar winner to have an X rating (although by today’s standards the film is remarkably tame), a movie which would have never been made in 1961. (Midnight Cowboy is another film I need to see again, quite frankly; I also would like to read the book it was based on again.)

Mark Harris, a Hollywood historian whose book Five Came Back was made into a documentary which I enjoyed, wrote a brilliant book called Pictures at a Revolution, which looked at how film, and the film industry, changed during that decade through the framework of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967; which, if any year was indicative of the changes being made and the changes to come, was indeed the perfect illustration. Two of the films were old style Hollywood–Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle–two were of the new Hollywood–Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate–and the fifth, and ultimate winner  (In the Heat of the Night) seemed to straddle the line in some ways, and whose win–and other four wins–seemed to be a compromise between the old and the new.

Harris’ book, which follows all five films from conception to script development to production and then release, culminating in the Oscar ceremony itself, is riveting and informative. You learn who all the players in each case were; you follow along the studio politics and behind-the-scenes deal-making that went into the making of each film, and in each case, Harris brilliantly illustrates how each film represents an aspect of his thesis. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night both dealt with the current issues of race; one as a gentle family comedy and the other through the darker lens of a murder investigation in a small Mississippi town, Dr. Dolittle represented the beginning of the end of the big Hollywood musical; the early part of the 1960’s gave the world the Oscar winners West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music; the immense musical flops of the second half of the decade were ushered in with this epic disaster (there’s also a book in tracing the rise and fall of the big Hollywood musical in the 1960’s).

I greatly enjoyed this book, and if you’re a fan of movies, or have an interest in the industry, this is a great read for you. I’m not so interested in the film industry of today, but I am interested in its past, to be honest; I don’t really care about the Academy Awards anymore and often change the channel while it’s on–there are no surprises anymore, and the ridiculous amount of awards leading up to the Oscars, from the Golden Globes to the SAG Awards to the Writers’ and Directors’ Guild awards, have taken away any mystery or suspense as to who is going to win; it’s much more interesting to read about the old days when they were always kind of up for grabs, and hadn’t become the expensive, overblown spectacle they’ve become today.

The book also made me want to watch these films again; it’s been years since I’ve seen any of them, and in most cases, I only saw them in their edited-for-television versions.

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