Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Movies & TV’ Category

“Ryan,” an unusual (and good) animated short

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2020 at 11:06 am

Posted in Art, Movies & TV

Terry Gilliam explains his Monty Python animations

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

6 November 2020 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

RIP Sean Connery, 1930-2020

leave a comment »

The full 22nd Kennedy Center Honors program in 1999 celebrated Victor Borge, Sean Connery, Judith Jamison, Jason Robards, and Stevie Wonder. This is the Sean Connery segment.

Written by Leisureguy

1 November 2020 at 3:13 am

Posted in Daily life, Movies & TV

“Royal Wedding” and some notes

leave a comment »

I just rewatched Royal Wedding (the 1951 Lerner and Lowe movie musical. The actual royal wedding was in 1947, and footage from the event is included in the musical — the crowds! the coach!)

Some points of interest:

Winston Churchill daughter Sarah plays a prominent role as the love interest of Fred Astaire’s character.

I realized as I watched the movie that the famous dance sequence in which Fred Astaire dances with a coat rack follows closely the dance Fred Astaire later does with Jane Powell. (They play a brother-and-sister dance duo, and her love interest is played by Peter Lawford, later of Kennedy clan fame.)

There’s a wonderful slapstick Bronx-set dance sequence in which Astaire’s costume hints at a zoot suit: the trousers have the high waist, though are not so full cut (because he has to dance in them), but the coat does suit, totally lacking in the requisite drape shape. Here’s a real zoot suit worn with panache by Cab Calloway. (I have seen Calloway wearing what seems to be the same suit in a color film. The suit there is yellow — bright yellow.)


Another reason that a zoot suit might have been avoided in a movie probably made in 1950 is the still-recent memory of the zoot-suit riots of 1943, which took the suit out of fashion. The riots occurred in Los Angeles, so Hollywood would have been keenly aware.

There’s one of Astaire’s most famous dance sequences later in the movie, but I won’t spoil the surprise for those who are viewing the movie for the first time. And here’s the full movie.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2020 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Elizabeth Harmon v. Harry Beltnik with commentary.

leave a comment »

I’ve been enjoying The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, a limited series based on a Walter Tevis novel of the same name. (Tevis also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, about “Fast Eddie” Felson (made into movies), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (also made into a movie).)

This game occurs early in the series, in Elizabeth Harmon’s first tournament in her home town in Kentucky. She enters as an unrated player. The YouTube chess commentaries by agadmator are all excellent. Below he comments on this game and also provides a link to the original, played in 1955, so in keeping with the era of the series.

A Vulture article explains why the chess in the series is so good. From the article:

Two key figures in putting together those sequences were Bruce Pandolfini, a longtime chess author and coach who also consulted on the original novel, and Michelle Tesoro, The Queen’s Gambit’s editor, who also worked with Frank on Godless. The two of them talked to Vulture about mapping out the series’ many chess matches, finding innovative ways to cut them together, and the useful advice they got from grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

If you’ve watched the series, that article is very interesting. And see also this Vulture article on the series.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2020 at 11:24 am

Posted in Chess, Games, Movies & TV

Betty Boop as Snow White, and Cab Calloway doing the moonwalk

leave a comment »

The above is from this Open Culture post, well worth reading. You’ll notice that the ghost Cab Calloway does the moonwalk. From the Wikipedia article on the step:


There are many recorded instances of the moonwalk; similar steps are reported as far back as 1932, used by Cab Calloway. In 1985, Calloway said that the move was called “The Buzz” when he and others performed it in the 1930s.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2020 at 10:51 am

Posted in Jazz, Movies & TV

Brief yet unusual video

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2020 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Video

How many dance snippets do you recognize?

leave a comment »

Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2020 at 9:50 am

If you need some maintenance wrt mental well being, go for it

leave a comment »

At various times I have gone to a therapist for assistance with emotional/mental issues. I don’t think it’s any more a big deal than getting a new clutch on your car or a transmission overhaul, and the goal is the same: to make things go better. And in my experience it has indeed been helpful, especially if you’ve done some thinking about what’s bothering you and have some goals in mind — and recognize those might not be the goals best for you.

(See, for example, Ordinary People, when the boy Conrad (Timothy Hutton) goes to see Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) for emotional issues following his brother’s death in a boating accident. In the hallway, Conrad knocks on the office door, but a door farther along the hall opens and Dr. Berger sticks his head out and invites Conrad in. Conrad was knocking at the wrong door, as he is when he tells Dr. Berger that he wants to get his emotions more tightly controlled — but see the movie.

At any rate, an occasional checkup with someone who knows about such things and has practice is fixing them is a good idea when things seem not to be running so well, whether it’s your car or yourself. COVID has been here for 9+ months now….and the uncertainty around the election and winter are both looming. All of this is especially hard for people with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, and people who are grieving for family and friends who have been lost to the pandemic. NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a 24-hour helpline in the US: 800-950-6264. Would you share this info?

Written by Leisureguy

24 October 2020 at 2:49 pm

A Robert Mitchum profile from 1982

leave a comment »

Robert Mitchum is a favorite actor. Carrie Dickey wrote this profile in The Village Voice 38 years ago, and it begins:

Trouble waits in sullen pools along the way l’ve taken.
Silent windows stare the empty street.
No love beckons me save that which I’ve forsaken.

And the anguish of my solitude, sweet. 

— Robert Mitchum, circa 1932
Verse written to his mother while he was serving time on a chain gang in Chatham County, Georgia

Shortly after he drowsily recites this “sophomoric” poem written at the worldly wise age of 15, Mitchum invisibly shifts gears and tartly remembers, “How­ard Hughes always said to me, ‘Robert, you’re like a pay toilet, aren’t you? You don’t give a shit for nothing.’” Hughes was wrong, but the self-deprecating Mitchum would be the last to care. At 65, the only observation he makes on his own behalf is “I know shit from pound cake, I know bad from good.” His slang is pep­pered with references to bodily functions. He returns from the bathroom, self-satis­fied, announcing, “That was a three-flush piss. I feel like the frog-prince.”

Robert Mitchum confides his poetic sentimentality and communicates his vio­lent antiauthoritarianism in the same voice, that husky, gravel-purr monotone two octaves below basso profundo, just at the edge of audibility. His lack of inflec­tion alerts listeners to content. An acid rain of profanity sears the air after the humid sweetness of a stray confession. He wears the fragrance of Tequila like after­shave, chain-smokes Pall Malls and what­ever other filterless weed is within reach. He is a reluctant interview, likening his promotional tour for That Championship Season to serving time (he’s been in the slammer on 11 occasions, for everything from vagrancy to conspiracy to marijuana possession, and refers to prison as “the great leveler”). But much as he wants to hold back, he’s a congenital raconteur, rapping improvisationally with a jazz man’s syncopation and stream of con­sciousness, immensely articulate if, at times, semicoherent.

He’s large. Burly shouldered, barrel chested, ample bellied, Mitchum, upon our introduction at a publicist’s lunch, intimidates me by barking, “Fuck you and the boat that brought you!” I smile, “No boat, sorry,” and he gets raffishly apologetic, extending his hands, which I inspect to see if the knuckles are still tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE” from his role as the evil fundamentalist preacher in Night of the Hunter. “Been in so many fistfights since then, they got erased,” he drawls, his lazy, bruised mouth curling. For those of you, like me, worried about the condition of his hams, he still has the digit severed in The Yakuza. Impulsively, he gives me a bear hug, and what I’ve suspected for 30 years is confirmed: I’m in love with Mr. Love/Hate, and he acts out every contradiction he projects on screen.

Alternately mucho macho and muy simpatico, Mitchum respects people who hold their ground, because he’s always held his and knows it’s hard. After lunch I arrive at his Waldorf suite for the inter­view (“You’ll have to be nude between the sheets,” he’d instructed me, “and wear a false mustache”), and we discuss his vagabond childhood, how his railroad­worker dad was killed in a train accident, how his mom, he, and two siblings were always the new folks in town. “My brother and I were always put in the position of proving ourselves. The trick was to push the challenger’s nose to the back of his brain without giving him a cerebral hemorrhage.” Mitchum slithers off the settee and forcefully rearranges my face without doing any damage, while I silently get hysterical and imagine Post headlines (ACTOR REVISES CRITIC’S PAN) but hold my ground. He’s respectful. He’s let­ting me know how far I can pursue this line of questioning. I ask him a little more about the early days, and he’s disgusted. “Why should I tell you when I can write it myself and get a $1 million advance?” He’ll tell some, but not all.

Dad’s early death. Gypsy life with his mother, brother, and half-sister. Mom’s a newspaperwoman who worked her way up from the linotype room. Robert was a habitual runaway and scrapper, given sax­ophone lessons as therapy (“Because I shit in the teacher’s hat or something”), and by his account, which sounds more mythopoetic than documentary, he played instrumental scat-tattoos during the “Star Spangled Banner” while his classmates plugged perfunctorily away. At 15 he was in Manhattan attending high school and working after school as a lyric arranger at WMCA. (“At the age of 15?”   I ask. He doesn’t answer.) He idolized Johnny Mercer and new music, which was jazz. Various arrests. (How?) Pissing in alleyways, vagrancy. Chain gang. Hopped a freight for California during the mid-­’30s. Wrote some radio plays. Directors told him whenever he wants to be in front of the mike, he’s hired. He accepted. He can ride a horse, so he was hired as a movie extra. Because he’s dumb enough to do his own stunts, he was in constant demand as actor/stuntman, directors get­ting two performances for the price of one.

Since 1943 (he was 26), Mitchum has been in 100-plus movies and slowly chiseled an acting career of Rushmore monumentality. He brought a new kind of love to the postwar screen (sex) and a new kind of ethos (stoic doubt). His bedroom eyes and barroom mouth bespoke the rig­ors of the sack and the sauce. In the two movies be made with Jane Russell — ­Macao and His Kind of Woman — the pair are so sultrily laconic and sleepy (they look like twins) that it seemed as though they were filmed between rounds in the boudoir. When I mention my fondness for these films, he dismisses me with “You just like tits, Carrie.” I reply: “Hers or yours?” Almost guffawing, Mitchum growls, “Hers are bigger, mine are fur­ther.” I don’t know what he means, nei­ther does he, but we both know a punch line when we hear one.

For Mitchum on screen, sex wasn’t about romance or conquest; it was an  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 October 2020 at 2:53 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Borgen and how men treat women

leave a comment »

“Borgen” was made 10 years ago, and a lot has happened in the post 10 years. I think people in general have become more sensitized to how women are too often treated badly by men. A cultural shift means the we see things from a new perspective.

To take a clear example from movies, the character portrayed by John Cusak in “Say Anything” (1989) and by Robert Downey, Jr. in “Only You” (1996) are both stalkers, and that aberration — stalking a woman of interest — was at the time of those movies still presented as “romantic,” though today it seems creepy and inappropriate (much like ignoring a woman repeatedly saying “No” and refusing to accept her stated wish that a man leave her alone).

In Borgen, we see repeated clear examples of behavior that today seems obviously transgressive, though it’s not clear whether the audience is intended to judge the behavior as such. Maybe the creators thought that was okay behavior? However, the inappropriateness is so overt that I believe the series does deliberately take the stance, “Look at how these men behave!” and offers us a look at such behavior from a more enlightened view.

At any rate, some of the behavior seems shocking to current norms and attitudes: men being presumptuous, condescending, arrogant, immature, and with a poor sense of boundaries and propriety. It’s not all the male characters, and even those who exhibit bad behavior differ in the degree of offense, but cringe-worthy behavior happens often enough and in enough situations that it does seem the series is making a comment.

Watch it and see what you think. It’s on Netflix.

Certainly I now cringe at some things I did years ago. What was I thinking? But perhaps that’s a good thing — a sign of progress, as when one reads something he wrote years ago and now sees it as very poorly written.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2020 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Great political TV series on Netflix

leave a comment »


Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2020 at 6:34 pm

Grim thought in a line from a movie for children

leave a comment »

The movie is The Kid Who Would Be King.

The line is “A land is only as good as its leaders,” said by Merlin, played by Patrick Stewart.

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2020 at 8:26 am

Posted in Movies & TV

If you listen to me, ….

leave a comment »

Read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert A. Caro. That is fascinating in itself and also provides context for Ed Norton’s movie Motherless Brooklyn, which is worth seeing and wonderfully done.

Written by Leisureguy

19 July 2020 at 6:51 pm

Posted in Books, Movies & TV

Tap Dance to Anna Kendrick’s cup son in “Pitch Perfect”

leave a comment »

The sequence in Pitch Perfect starts at 26:30 if you want to see it again.

Written by Leisureguy

16 July 2020 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Music, Video

Steve Martin: “Carl Reiner, Perfect”

leave a comment »

Steve Martin’s eulogic essay on Carl Reiner:

I’ve known only two perfect people in my life. One is that son of a bitch Martin Short; the other is Carl Reiner.

I met Carl in 1979 when I asked him to direct my first film, “The Jerk.” Carl was the go-to comedy director of the day, having made hits like “Oh, God!” as well as respected art fare like “Where’s Poppa?” Carl said yes, and I was thrilled. Exhausted by my previous 10 years on the road and a bit personally lost, I would now get to hole up face-to-face with Carl Reiner while we worked on a movie script. Rather than hibernating in my barely furnished condominium — the road had left my personal life bereft — I would hang out at his home on Rodeo Drive, where the sofas and pillows held indented impressions representing years of family and friends.

I was a novice film actor-writer wannabe, and I got lessons right away. Minutes after I arrived, he opened the script and said, “Here’s the first thing I do.” He started going through page by page making occasional marks. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m changing all the nights to days.” Carl was saving cast and crew the pain of unnecessary night shoots, where your body clock is severely whiplashed, as though you’ve taken a quick weekend round trip to China.

My goal as a co-writer of the script was a joke on every page; Carl’s was too, but all through the process he stressed and bolstered the tangential romance that was in the early drafts until it was in the forefront. Carl’s most valuable contribution to the movie was its emotional center, and I suspect it was those heart tugs that made the film a success.

“The Jerk” was filmed during the gas crisis, so Carl would pick me up for work every day in his Honda Civic. That seemed reasonable, so I bought a Honda Civic. Carl had seltzer water in blue bottles delivered weekly by the last remaining seltzer-water delivery service in Beverly Hills. That seemed reasonable, too, so I had seltzer water delivered to my WASP-y bachelor household. Carl’s influence on me was just beginning.

On the first day’s drive to the set, he confided, “Whenever I start a film, I hear the child’s voice in my head singing, ‘We’re makin’ a movie, we’re makin’ a movie!’” I was already excited, but I was glad to see this old pro so gleeful at starting yet another project. On these drives we began conducting little thought experiments to see if we could improve the day’s work. Once, we got so giddy over a scene we had to pull over. Here was the scene:

My character, Navin Johnson, was hitchhiking from a small farm in Missouri to the big city. A car pulls over to give me a lift. The driver shouts to me, “St. Louis?” Puzzled, I say, “No, Navin Johnson.”

The joke didn’t play as well as we expected — I finally admit 41 years later — but it did give us an afternoon of uncontrolled hysterics.

Carl knew how to direct comedy, of course, and while we were shooting, he gave me the best comic direction I ever received. We were filming a scene and slightly stuck. After about the fifth take, he stopped shooting and took me aside. I was expecting a lengthy discussion of motivation, character and possibly a discourse on comedy, but he said only, “Funny it up.” Not a Stanislavsky direction, but one I could understand.

At the end of the film, I got another practical tidbit. He invited me to a “color temperature” screening, a mysterious affair where the movie is shown to the director and cinematographer to determine if the color is accurate. We watched without sound and at double-speed to make the process easier. At the end of the screening, Carl said to the cinematographer, Victor Kemper: “Great. Now lighten it up two points.” I surreptitiously whispered, “Why?” He said, “Lighter is funnier.”

During my five or six creative years with Carl, we had lunch together almost every day. We ate at Ma Maison, a restaurant where a young Wolfgang Puck created innovative dishes that Carl and I marveled over.

Those lunches at Ma Maison were fascinating. The names Sid (Caesar) and Dick (Van Dyke) came out of his mouth regularly, accompanied by stories, reminiscences and, to break it up, his current political outrages, which he would dissect with rabbinical clarity. The stories were so vivid I can recall them from memory. One lunch, he described a foreign spy sketch he did with Sid:

“I approached Sid on a railway station. I told him all he had to do was deliver a briefcase to the next stop. I said, ‘When you get off the train, you will see an exceptionally beautiful blond woman with long lŭurious legs. That woman will be me.’”

Another time, he told me this story about the maddest he ever got:

“I wanted to hire Dean Jones for an episode of ‘Dick Van Dyke.’” (Dean, a born-again Christian, was booked to do some intermittent religious duties exactly when Carl needed him.) “But Dean wanted to do the show, so I worked out a schedule where I would shoot two different shows shuffled together over two weeks. I could shoot Dean on Monday on Script 1, then on Tuesday shoot part of Script 2, then get Dean back on Thursday to shoot for two days, and then repeat the process the next week. I was moving actors around, moving shooting days around and moving locations around. When I called Dean to tell him the plan, he said, relieved, ‘I knew the Lord would find a way.’”

I’ve heard several people say Carl was like a father to them. But, to me, Carl was not fatherly. He was exemplar. Five years and four films later, I was a different person because of a subtle osmosis of traits from Carl to me. Carl’s manner on the set taught me how to behave on the set. His interaction with people gave me a template of how to be better, nicer, how to lead with kindness. His directorial results were the same as the nastier directors I ran into later in my career. He taught me about modesty, too. I called him late one evening to discuss the next day’s shooting. I asked, “Am I interrupting you?” He said, “No, I’m just lying here going through a litany of my failures.”

When I perform comedy, I can still hear echoes of my influences coming through. Jack Benny, certainly, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen, Carl Reiner, too. But it is not Carl’s comedic advice I cherish. Rather, it was how he affected my everyday life, the part that has nothing to do with movies or acting. Sometimes I deal with people in meetings, social dinners and plain-old conversation with a buoyancy foreign to me and realize, “Oh, that’s the way Carl would have done it.”

So Carl, I raise my glass of seltzer and . . .

Continue reading. Of all the qualities Carl Reiner exhibited, Martin points to one not often mentioned as a characteristic of famous people: decency.

I will point out that what Martin describes is the transmission of memes — of behavior, of how to look at things, of what to be aware of — from Reiner to him, memes perhaps acquired by Reiner from exemplars he himself admired. That’s the sort of afterlife we have: our affect on other people, the spreading ripple of the memes we pass along.

Written by Leisureguy

9 July 2020 at 6:35 pm

A good sign in a TV legal series

leave a comment »

At the beginning of episode 5 I had to go back and watch episode 1, knowing what I now know, and many things stood out now in high relief. A very good series. Janet King, Australian Crown Prosecutor, Amazon Prime.

Written by Leisureguy

7 July 2020 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Barrister & Mann Cologne Russe and the Rockwell R3

leave a comment »

The fragrance of Cologne Russe is striking — haunting, even. And that Rooney Emilion is a terrific brush. I loved the lather I got this morning and spent some extra time enjoying the fragrance and the feel of brush and lather. Barrister & Mann’s description:

Based on one of the oldest forms of perfume, Cologne Russe is a throwback to a scent created by the House of Guerlain for the Russian royal family and discontinued in the early twentieth century.

We blend lemon, bergamot, petitgrain, and herbs with violet, rose, bay, and amber to produce a rich, beautifully fresh scent derived from the colognes of old. The scent is distinctly warmer than most other cologne-type fragrances, owing largely to its inclusion of castoreum, benzoin, and vanilla. Clean and elegant without the aloofness of some other scents, Cologne Russe is the perfect way to brighten your morning.

The Rockwell 6S is a wonderful razor. I have used (and like) all the baseplates, but generally I go with the R3 as I did today. The baseplate design does make switching baseplates easy by providing a comfortable grip at the ends. Three passes left my face remarkably smooth, a result due perhaps not solely to razor and blade but also to the extra time spent in lathering.

A splash of Cologne Russe aftershave, and I’m feeling top-notch.

I just watched “It’s a Lovely Day in the Neighborhood,” the movie about Fred Rogers and the man who wrote an Esquire interview of him (who in the movie bore the name Lloyd Vogel, though the writer’s name is in fact Tom Junod, which he pointed out in a post-movie article about Mr. Robers). Atlanta magazine also has an interesting interview with Junod about his relationship with Rogers.

The pieces linked above indicate that the movie falls short of capturing the character and charm of Mr. Rogers, but one thing in the move struck me forcibly. Throughout the movie, the character Lloyd Vogel is unshaven — not in the sense of having a beard, but rather like someone coming off a four-day drunk. Add some rumpled, worn, mismatched clothing and he would look like a Skid Row bum: a person who cannot take care of himself.

That presentation may be deliberate, for indeed the character portrayed in the movie is unable to take care of himself — he can’t care for himself because he doesn’t care for himself, and his appearance reflects his low opinion of himself. Who knows the effect a good shave — a shave like the one I experienced this morning — would have had on his mood and demeanor?

In the Guide, I discuss the psychological follow-through of giving yourself a good shave — not merely a fast shave with a cartridge razor and canned foam, but a shave using a good and fragrant true lather and a comfortable and efficient safety razor with a brand of blade you like. That sort of shave takes a few minutes longer than a cartridge razor + canned foam shave — say, 7 minutes instead of 3 minutes — but the return on the four additional minutes is substantial.

For one thing, the shave becomes something enjoyed rather than something endured. For another, the man’s unconscious mind notes the time and care spent on himself, and the evidence of self-care would trigger cognitive dissonance with the sort of self-loathing and anger Lloyd Vogel exhibits in the film. The unconscious reasoning is that taking time and care in this morning routine means that one must be worth that time and care. The effect from a single day’s shave is small and short-lived, but the cumulative effect of a daily pleasurable shave ritual over two or three months is to demonstrate to oneself that he is cared for — by himself, if no one else — and that he thus is worth caring for.

The ripple effect can extend to more attention to dress and appearance, a more cheerful demeanor and outlook, more openness and good feelings with respect to others.

I will note that Fred Rogers was always clean-shaven and never looked like a bum.

Written by Leisureguy

7 July 2020 at 9:33 am

“The Big Short”: see it (again, if you’ve seen it before) on Netflix

leave a comment »

The Big Short tells, in a highly entertaining way, one chapter in America’s decline which, to all appearances, continues unchecked. It’s an entertainly move with solid substance.

Written by Leisureguy

2 July 2020 at 9:44 am

Posted in Business, Movies & TV

Wallace Shawn, The Art of Theater

leave a comment »

A Paris Review interview from 2012:

Wallace Shawn is recognizable to most of the world as a character actor: he made a memorable debut in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) and, since then, has appeared in movies as diverse as The Bostonians and The Princess Bride and on the popular television series Gossip Girl. He has also starred in two films made with his longtime collaborator, André Gregory: My Dinner with André (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which were directed by Louis Malle.

It is as a writer, however, that Shawn has most influenced the American stage. Perhaps the noted young playwright Rebecca Gilman, citing Shawn as an influence, put it best when she said of his work, “He’s the only writer who writes about intellectuals in a complicated and even contradictory way. He’s really funny, too.” Shawn has written in other genres as well. His latest book, Essays (2009), is just that, a collection of first-person nonfiction that reflects, among other things, his political activism and his interest in other writers (it includes, for instance, an interview with poet Mark Strand that he conducted in 1998 for The Paris Review).

Shawn was born in New York City in 1943. His father, William Shawn, was, for nearly thirty-six years, the editor of The New Yorker; his mother, Cecille, worked for many years as a journalist. His younger brother, Allen, is a composer (they collaborated on the opera The Music Teacher, which had its New York premiere in 2006). Wallace—or Wally, as he is known to family and friends—graduated with an A.B. in history from Harvard in 1965; that same year, he traveled as a Fulbright scholar to India, where he taught English, and then spent two years at Oxford studying philosophy and economics. He returned to New York in 1970 and has lived there ever since.

Shawn’s first play, Four Meals in May (1967), was written when he was still at Oxford. He continued to write when he came back to New York, supporting himself at different times as a copier in a copy center, a runner in the garment district, and a schoolteacher. Following a trio of early works—The Family Play (1970), The Hotel Play (1970), The Hospital Play (1971)—Shawn’s first professional production came in 1975 with Our Late Night, directed by Gregory. Since then, he has written six plays: A Thought in Three Parts (1976), Marie and Bruce (1978), Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), The Fever (1990), The Designated Mourner (1997), and Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2008). He has also adapted Machiavelli’s The Mandrake (1977) and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (2006), Shawn’s first work to reach Broadway.

Our conversation took place in the offices of The Paris Review over a period of three months in 2009 and 2010, during which time it always seemed to be snowing. Shawn’s distinctive voice, thoughtful and deliberate, turned a number of his interlocutor’s questions inside out, which lead to many interesting digressions and further meditations on Shawn’s big  subject: the nature of speech and what we mean when we try to say anything at all.


Why did you choose to leave the theater to perform The Fever?


Because there was something I actually wanted to say. The Fever is a one-person play. I decided I would perform it myself, and I decided I would not perform it in theaters, because the character in the play says certain things that I meant. I thought, I’m not just trying to entertain somebody, I’m trying to tell somebody something that I mean. And you can’t do that in a theater, because if you put a person on a stage in a theater, that person will be interpreted as a character in a story. No matter what happens on that stage, it will be interpreted by everybody as a form of entertainment.


What would be wrong with that? Are you against entertainment?


That’s like saying, Are you against pumpkin pie? Pumpkin pie is enjoyable and people enjoy it, but it’s in a different category from, for example, penicillin. Enjoyment is important, and pie is important, but pie is not the only thing we need.

I didn’t want The Fever to be seen as just another “disturbing” play—“disturbing” being a term of praise for a certain kind of enjoyable or entertaining evening. In an amusement park, you can go on a roller coaster that carries you up and down, or you can go on another kind of ride that whirls you around in a circle. Similarly, there are different sorts of entertaining experiences in the theater. You can go to a play that is enjoyable because it’s funny, and then on the next night you can go to a play that’s enjoyable because it’s “disturbing.” For example, in the sixties, there were plays inspired by the black power movement where a guy would come to the front of the stage and yell at the audience, “You are pigs, we are going to get you.” And the drama critic would say, “My favorite part of the evening was the thrilling moment when that guy approached the audience and said ‘You are pigs. We are going to get you.’ ” To that drama critic, that was an exciting moment of theater. To the writer of the play—well, he might have meant it. But the critic watching the play didn’t really feel threatened, he just thought it was great theater.

The idea that people might react like that to The Fever was nauseating to me. I didn’t want to give someone an agreeable feeling of agitation. I was trying to speak as a friend to a friend, from one human being to another. And that isn’t possible in a theater, because in a theater, even if an actor has a heart attack and dies onstage, the audience always interprets it as part of the show.


Where else could you stage it?


I decided to do The Fever in apartments, in private homes. In a way, the play was a kind of declaration to my own friends, first of all, and then to my class, the bourgeois class. I was telling my own group that I no longer believed in the various justifications for our existence that I’d formerly found convincing. It was like a secret meeting of the bourgeois class, in which I would speak frankly about what we were.


But eventually you did perform the piece in a theater.


Eventually I thought, I can’t keep doing this play for twelve people at a time. I love doing it like that, but I’ve done it now a hundred times, and only twelve hundred people have seen it! If I could only do it in one of those rooms where there are a lot of seats cleverly arranged, a hundred people could see it at once! So I went back to theater, although I did do the piece in a slightly nontraditional way—I mingled with the audience before the play, I didn’t have theatrical lighting or a set or a program, et cetera. Unfortunately, it was pretty brutally denounced.


By critics?


Yes. It was described as something that was almost without any value—a ludicrous display of pomposity.


What did you make of that?


Public humiliation is always quite painful, obviously, because you do feel that everyone on the street has read about you and believed what they’ve read, and they’re all thinking, Ah yes, there’s that pitiful fraud I read about. But mainly I was shattered to realize that The Fever would not become part of a public conversation, would not stretch out across the United States and beyond and have the chance to affect people. I was trying to explain to all the nice people out there how it could be possible that from our own point of view we’re so nice, and we’re so lovable, and we’re so cute, and so sensitive, and yet from the point of view of people who are weak and powerless we are an implacable, vicious enemy. I’d found what I knew were the best words I could ever find to say what I wanted to say, and I realized that because of the negative criticism, those words would be heard only by a handful of odd theater fans, not by society as a whole.


Do you enjoy going to the theater? . . .

Continue reading. Lots more, all good.

Written by Leisureguy

16 June 2020 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Art, Movies & TV

%d bloggers like this: