Frida Kahlo Meets Moses

Though we didn't win a prize at our theater friends' "Famous Dead Persons" Halloween party, we do think we were the most provocative couple there!

And I'm amazed how much I actually looked like Frida Kahlo!


Career, Cukor, and Me

How do I feel about my career? Well, it’s important to my sense of self and well-being. I feel needed, wanted, useful, productive, smart, and important enough to avoid debilitating moments of self-doubt. I place value in education and I enjoy teaching and learning. I write well and I like writing. Not sure about cause and effect in all of this. Do I enjoy writing because I do it well or have I developed the ability to do it well because I enjoy it. Probably, the answer is “yes” (or “all of the above,” as my friend Rick would say).

I also love acting. Would I love it as a career? I’m not sure. Certainly, there is the theatrical within teaching: the students as audience to teacher as performer. The best teachers, so I am told, let the students perform. But I also believe that there are times when you just have to lecture, to bring new ideas rather than just asking questions to let students discover things on their own. There are some thoughts that some people just won’t come to without someone pointing out a path to them. In any case, teach is not acting. Students are a far less grateful audience most of the time, nor are they in the classroom to applaud their teachers. Nor should they be. So I also like acting for its own sake. I like performing someone else’s words when well or entertainingly written. I like singing good songs. And I love applause.

I have no desire to be a director. Never a behind-the-scenes type though I admire those who are content or thrive there. I enjoy taking photos, but I’d rather be in them (if well taken and make me look good). I love contemplating bringing something to the stage, but I’d rather bring it there bodily (and enjoy the applause).

All these not-new thoughts have been swirling around my head today as I read Gavin Lambert’s interview book On Cukor. Cukor loved the theater from age 12. Wasn’t great at school. Never wanted to act. Guessed he’d love directing without really understanding it. Saw every show he could in NY whenever he could as a young adult. Did assisting, stage managing, coaching, then directing. Then went to Hollywood and became a dialogue coach in the early days of “talkies.” Eventually went on to direct 80+ films. Privileged child of Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents who wanted him to be a lawyer but let him forge his own path with privileged-class indulgence.

I bring all this up because, for one, I’m trying to figure out why I am writing a book on gender in the films of George Cukor. Well, I love analyzing, I love gender studies, I enjoy film and am getting very good at critical analysis and teaching thereof. Then, Cukor and I are the children (or children’s children in my case) of European Jews who aren’t religious—though he had more class privilege than my folks or my folks’ folks on either side. And he was a closeted gay man who chose the discreet, conservative route most of the time and maybe I have in some ways but mostly not so much. I know I’m getting a great deal of pleasure writing this book. Some ideas come easier than others, some chapters come together easier than others, some films are more enjoyable and fit my schema easier than others. And I love reading all the gender theory and queer studies analyses and film criticism and film history. Maybe there’s no more to say than that it is a happy coincidence that I’m finding a blend of films I like to study, an approach I enjoy that will likely get published, my son is old enough to enable me the mental space I need to write a book, and few people have written on Cukor’s films. He’s kind of this odd combination of highly successful team player and underdog and I can’t always relate to him or his films, but I enjoy him and his films and anyhow it’s just working so there you go.

Though I’ve rambled on for several paragraphs, the specific purpose in beginning this was to cite a few quotations from Lambert’s book about Cukor that I find intriguing. They speak of a way of being and feeling that sometimes really speaks to me and reflects my worldview and other times really does not. Here we go:

“There are artists whose work is basically a release from personal tension, and there are others for whom their work is an extension rather than a tension, a mode of pleasure and a way of expressing curiosity about their world.”

This really makes me think of my mom. As for me, I think work for me is a combination of tension and extension, but in any case I love the words: extension vs. tension. I am very curious but also sometimes very threatened, so work for me is a way of sorting this out, seeking the new while protecting myself from the threatening. This assumes we mean teaching and research as art. If we’re talking acting, then we’re talking release from tension while engaging in pleasure, but in my life that also means not talking about career. Hence, my choice of doing more comedy and musicals than serious drama, which is compelling but not escapist for me usually.

Quoted within Lambert’s book is also this, from a letter by Lesley Blanch (don’t yet know who that is): “I think he has not, or has passed, ambition, in the destructive sense. This makes him utterly free. And being perfectly sure who he is, what he is, he does not envy—is not eaten up by competition.”

Oh, to reach this before I am, as Cukor was when Lambert interviewed him, 70. I think of myself as someone who is not destructive because of my ambition and envy, but I know there are times—at work, at home, with friends—where I am more competitive than I should/need be, more jealous or envious than I wish I were, more “eaten up” than I would like to be. I don’t envision being “utterly free,” nor do I think Cukor ever was. No one is. Cukor was semi-closeted his whole life, never truly loved his looks, lots of things. But as for career, he made his peace with it. I think I have too, for the most part. No desire to be an academic superstar, though not complacent and still with desire to do more, like this book, my first attempt to write a complete scholarly tome—to make the time and mental space for it despite a heavy workload.

If I can get to a space truly beyond destructive ambition, I sometimes feel, I will achieve the humility Cukor does seem to exude. Whether from a self-doubt related to his sexual orientation and ethnic looks amid the thin, white Hollywood ideal or a true inner peace, I love that Cukor could look back on his career and say he had “an almost mystic respect for other people’s talent.” I have moments of this, as when I admired the actor’s portrayal of the Jester in Once Upon a Mattress in the recent production I was in or this same actors work and the skill of the director in the production of The Bald Soprano I saw when I was doing The Hot L Baltimore. It’s not that I’m cocky and think I’m the best actress ever; it’s that I sometimes am too much in my own head (often in my own insecurities) to pause to really and truly respect other people’s talent. Again, not slamming myself here and not idolizing others; indeed, I think I can be more generous and giving than most people I know. Am just expressing a desire to be a little more generous, a little more patient with self and others, a little more listener than speaker. I’m better than I was and not as good as I hope someday to be. And that’ll do for now.


O Leafy Sea Dragon, who can match thy wonderosity?

Please meet my new favorite animal, the Leafy Sea Dragon. A stunning creature, a seeming blend of plant and animal of a species in which the male does the pregnancy and childbearing. Amid the moon jellies and manta rays and the utterly creepy-cool moray eels, I found you and could barely tear myself from your tank at the Chattanooga Aquarium. All hail the seahorses and their champion, the Leafy Sea Dragon!


Rethinking Country Music

You know, I have a lot of "re-" posts on this blog. Rethinking, reconsidering... I find this blog a useful place to work through second thoughts, reevaluations, new perspectives, or returns to subjects from fresh angles.

Being in Tennessee, perhaps it's predictable that sooner or later I'd rethink country music. But it's probably not in a predictable manner. I still don't listen to the vast majority of country, though I've always liked Patsy Cline, and who could dislike "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" on the jukebox? I think my friend Kate has always liked "Rocky Top," and though I didn't like it when younger, I've since come to enjoy the knee-slappin' twang of it. (Wasn't it you who'd enjoy it on the Rainbows Bar jukebox? Or do I misremember?)

But I still dislike the majority of country and worse for me is the political conservatism that seems to accompany it and, especially, its fans. I don't groove on white trash anthems or sappy break-up songs or high hair or "boot scoot boogies" or cowboy-hatted bubbas. This is, in part, cultural bias. Or at least cultural difference I can't get past.

Nonetheless, there are some artificial distinctions here that require me to say that, in certain circumstances, I do like country. I like rockabilly. I like bluegrass. I like "Ring of Fire" and "Jolene" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" sung with all the fervor singers can muster for a religion I will never understand.

More importantly, dismissing country wholesale means dismissing a folk tradition and a long and compelling history. One I'm proud to say I'm reading in Charles Wolfe's 1977 book about the relationship between country music and Tennessee, called Tennessee Strings.

I saw Walk the Line last night on HBO when flipping channels and found it badly written but engaging enough to watch most of. And it made me thinkg of Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly and Elvis all playing alongside Johnny Cash and the artificiality of country/rock distinctions with their performances and songs. And I really wanted to talk to Charles. But he's gone so I can't. Which is really unfortunate. I'm rethinking and he's unavailable for comment. A colleague replied that perhaps he was up in heaven having a beer with Johnny Cash even now. Great image. And if I believed in an afterlife, it would have been even better.

Another person I know is a book editor and just finished an editing job that should really be called writing a book (but won't because his name won't be on it as author or ghostwriter or assistant - just in the acknowledgements page, I imagine) about Johnny Cash, a guy's memoirs related to touring with Cash. Maybe I'll pick that one up too after I finish some of Charles' work.

Anyhow, I don't imagine becoming a country music fan anytime soon (or probably ever), but the history and study of it is definitely worth my time.