The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Rathbone the Fencer

If you watch closely, Rathbone is doing all the hard work. Seriously, he's hell on wheels. Flynn isn't bad, mind you, but all the tricky moves go to Basil. In fact, Bright Lights Film Journal says that Rathbone was "an expert fencer, and in his highly choreographed duels with Flynn he made the latter look good, just like Astaire did Rogers (something Rathbone bitched about good-naturedly in later life)." That corresponds with what I've read elsewhere, and, frankly, with what the films show.

Here's the other great example, The Adventures of Robin Hood:

As a poor-to-mediocre (at best) fencer, you can see it in the footwork, and in the attacks. Most of what they're doing is basic parry-riposte. Flynn messes one up a trifle (they're both swinging side, and telegraphing their blows, to make sure nobody gets hurt), Rathbone modulates to cover it.

One last--here is Rathbone against Tyrone Power. Some very nice bladework on both sides, with Rathbone enjoying a bit of flash. The same article quoted above quotes Rathbone as saying that "Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat."

Alas, poor Rathbone was required to lose by the exigencies of the plot. But it's a treat to see him at work.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fathers and Sons

Yeah, there we are. My father, mother, sister, and my grandfather. And some weedy guy I don't recognize in a cheesy mustache.

Leaving aside the ladies for a moment (sorry; but it's Dad's birthday!), there are three generations of us there. My grandfather, storyteller par excellence and a skilled craftsman, my father, who is ridiculously talented--painter, tinkerer, builder of snow dinosaurs and snow bears, and the only man alive who would build a lapidary machine from scrap metal to cut a stone to make his wife a ring. (Beautiful gesture, if more convoluted than one of Colonel Blood's plots). And me.

Since today is my father's birthday, let me tell a tale out of school. My last year of high school, I participated in a program that let me take a full year of college credits (that's how I got through my BA in three years). In history, we were assigned to write a family history, using primary sources wherever possible. So, I went to my grandfather. The bulk of the history paper is a greatest hits reel for him, but in describing his own relationship with his rather formal father, a Victorian businessman, almost a new York City Forsyth, he admitted something strange me: He envied me my relationship with my father.

He admired my father for being able to freely love his children, to talk with them without having to be able to be right all the time, to laugh and play with us, to just be himself.

I've never forgotten that.

My Dad missed the Vietnam War. When we went to see Platoon the weekend it opened, I remember him looking a bit dazed by the end. (The Barber Adagio probably helped there; my Dad has a great ear for and taste in music). I assumed he was thinking about his generation. As we left the theater, he ruffled my hair.

"Thank God you'll never have to go through that," he growled.

My mother and father have loved each other and us truly and well. Thanks to them, I have never doubted that love can survive from youth to age. Believe in it? I've seen it done, as the old joke goes.

My grandfather was a very wise man, but he saw my father more deeply than I could as his son--I took for granted all his gifts. But now, myself in middle age, I know better. To paraphrase Dr. John Watson, happy birthday to the best and wisest man I have ever known.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"It's Only With the Heart that One Can See Clearly. What's Essential is Invisible to the Eye."-- The Fox: Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Today's news that Gene Wilder has died hits home:
Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks; his eccentric star turn in the family classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” died on Sunday night at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.

Eric Weissmann, who was Mr. Wilder’s lawyer for many years, confirmed the death. A nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said that the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: Don’t try to make it funny; try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.

With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”
And that was the brilliance of the man. He inhabited his characters as fully as if they had been written by Shakespeare. His vulnerability to their sorrows, their fears, and their hopes (there's a reason why some Nietzsche thought hope was the last and greatest evil in Pandora's Box), brought a dimension of complexity to his roles, that adds the meat to his films, however uproarious they are.

When I was about 10 or 11, our parents took my sister and me to see Young Frankenstein. It's one of those golden movies of my childhood that is evergreen and forever altered who I am, like Lester's "Musketeers Diptych" (yes, I know about the third one, but it's not at the same level).

That's not because of Mel Brooks's rapid-fire gags (which are great, don't get me wrong--if there's a funnier movie, I have not seen it). It's Gene.

Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein (that's pronounced Frah-nkenstein) as a genius surgeon who is haunted by the obloquy of his grandfather's infamous madness (nobody believes in the Monster, of course). When he creates his own Monster, though, he slowly goes from comic terror of "the Creature" to compassion, finally risking his life to save it.

And the sincerity of the performance works; stripped to its essence, remove the most obvious schtick, and you have a worthy successor to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

There's a line I half remember from the liner notes to High Anxiety: Mel Brooks' Greatest Hits, I think written by composer John Morris, in which he says that the parody and the purity of his score were meant to work in counterpart, the lush violin anchoring the "spooky house" cues:

That's a great analogy to how Wilder plays the part. How he played all his parts. Willy Wonka can be bloody scary, all rage and venom (albeit funny at the same time), only because he's so real underneath:

In The Last Hurrah, the dying Frank Skeffington asks his absurdly loyal, clueless aide "Ditto" the question: How do you thank a man for a million laughs? That's my question tonight, but only in part; laughter is the least of what I owe Gene Wilder.

Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Entertaining Angels Unaware: A Sermon on Hebrews, 13:1-8, 15-16

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, August 28, 2016]

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

One day, about 20 years ago, I was shocked to wake up in a hospital. I was even more shocked when I was discharged later that day. I was newly unemployed, I still had insurance, and, apparently, my blacking out the night before was not going to kill me. The emergency was past, and I could go home.

The sun was beginning to set, and the hospital was not in a good part of town. I couldn’t find a cab, and it was a long walk to my apartment.

I headed downhill, and after a few blocks, I began to get that uneasy sensation that you can get when someone is following you. I sped up, but I was still tired. I heard footsteps behind me, and a man passed me, and turned to face me.
He was African-American, about my age—early thirties, at the time. Taller than I am, and bigger than I was then. An athlete by the look of him.

So he says to me, and this was just the cap to a perfect weekend, “I just got out of prison today.”

I nodded. Really, what did I have to say to that?

Then he goes on: “I haven’t done anything good for anyone else in a long time. A really long time.”

He paused. Then he said, “You look like you’re having a tough day. Let me walk you home.”

I didn’t want him to. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want anyone, even if I had trusted him. I just wanted to slip away, alone, get home and forget all about being in that hospital, of having lost my job, of having lost consciousness. But I didn’t know any way out. So I said yes.

We didn’t talk much that I remember. We just trailed through the City until we reached my door. I fished out my keys, ready to disappear into my safe bright little box. And the man turned around to face me again.

Here it comes, I thought, expecting—what? Him to ask for money? A mugging? I honestly don’t know that I had any expectation. Just that something was going to happen.

And then it did.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly meaning it, and he took my hand.

“Thank you,” I heard myself say, not really having planned to. And he disappeared from my life.

I had entertained an angel without knowing it.

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us to be generous in how we treat the stranger, the homeless, the poor. Because God will see how we treat his messengers, and we won’t always be able to spot them in advance. So treat everyone as if they could be an angel, a messenger of God.

It’s good advice, if a little sneaky on the surface.

But if you dig a little deeper, there’s another layer.

After all, God doesn’t need to spy on us to see if we’re being good, right? In Psalm 139, the psalmist tells us that God discerns our thoughts from far away, and even before a word is on our tongue, God knows it completely.

God doesn’t need a Celestial Intelligence Agency.

So what’s with all the angels then, anyway?

I’m afraid we have it a little backwards. When an angel appears in the Bible, the angel almost always had to begin by saying “don’t be afraid.” It’s never something routine. It’s holy, but a little scary, meeting an angel. Something is about to happen.

The angel is just about always there to transform our lives. Mary at the Annunciation, Cornelius the Centurion, the women at the tomb—all of them are transformed when an angel enters their lives.

But the angel doesn’t do the transforming; the angel’s presence is a catalyst. We have to change. Something has to happen.
The man who walked me home didn’t do anything heroic, we might think. There’s no reason to think that I wouldn’t have gotten home all right—although we’ll never know. He didn’t carry me.

Or did he?

But maybe he did do something heroic anyway, no matter how you look at it.

He introduced himself, told me he’s been in prison. He told me he wanted to help me through a bad day, just by walking with me awhile.

He gave me the choice to accept that help or not.

And when we parted, he thanked me.

Imagine that.

He had stood with me when I was vulnerable, and given me support, asking nothing in return. I started out cynical, unhappy, and suspicious, and was left astonished, awakened, and awed.

For which he thanked me.

I’ve never understood that last bit, by the way.

But in writing this sermon, I think I’ve glimpsed something new. I’ve always viewed this experience for how it affected me, how it changed my life. And that’s true—the man brought the light into my world when it was dark, and despair not far off.

But I never asked myself before a question that now seems obvious: Why did he thank me?

Not for anything I’d done, obviously, I accepted his walking alongside me, I was polite, I took his hand and thanked him at the end. So my mom raised me to have manners. So what?

It’s just possible that little bit was enough.

After all, where was he in his journey?

Just out of prison, after a long time, from what little he said to me. That day, he learned that he could reach out to a stranger, that he could do something good for someone else.

He learned that he could be the Light in a dark place. That he could be an angel.

No wings, no harp, no special effects. Just one man coming out of the dark reaching out to a stranger, and finding a brother.

I’ve had that experience, of being welcomed by prisoners with the light of Christ. It was years later, when our senior deacon forced me to go on a weekend group retreat. During the retreat, we found out that small groups were praying for those of us on the retreat. One group was not small, though. A big poster-board, hand-made greeting card with handwritten messages from a prayer group made of prisoners cracked my frozen chosen Episcopalian heart just a little when I read that they were praying for us by name.

Prisoners praying that we might be free.

There’s another poster, one at the entrance to this Church, that you might have seen on the way here. It quotes the Rule of St. Benedict, saying, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”

Not like Christ, as Christ.
It’s a profound statement, reaffirming the transcendent value of every person who comes into our lives. But it’s also, I’d suggest, a recognition that we never know who that person at the door will be in our lives. We meet the most important people in the most prosaic ways. I met my wife Catherine over a cup of tea, and then again, years later at the calendar call in a Bronx courtroom. We never know what any one encounter is going to mean to us, or to the person we’re meeting.

We need to be open to seeing beyond the surface. Because each person we meet has the potential to act as a catalyst in our lives. And we can have that effect on the lives we intersect with. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of it when we do.
Do not be afraid.

But do watch out for angels.

You just might find that they're everywhere.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.