The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Doc" Simon: On Outliving One's Era

Yeah, I know. That's the one we all think of.

Or, if I'm being very honest, it's this:

In memorializing the late Neil Simon, Frank Rich writes:
It is probably impossible for those theatergoers who didn’t grow up with Neil Simon’s plays to understand how big a deal he was in his prime, both to the theater and American pop culture. That was during the 1960s and 1970s when the phenomenal one-two punch of Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), which between them piled up about 2,500 performances in their original runs, was followed up by one smash Broadway hit after another. As the Simon assembly line quickly accelerated, his hit plays begat hit movies, which then begat television sitcoms, which sometimes begat additional television sitcoms. He wrote musicals too (the best is Little Me, as originally guided in 1962 by Bob Fosse), and Hollywood screenplays. For a while it was all Neil Simon all the time — remarkably so given that his mainstream branch of domestic comedy was in conflict with a culture, in theater and movies alike, that was moving fast in the opposite direction.
Rich isn't the only one to sound this note--not quite disparaging, but viewing the late "Doc" Simon as a dinosaur, whose era long ago ended. Even Charles Isherwood's considerably more appreciative obit in the NYT ends on a similar note, quoting Simon as saying"I know how the public sees me, because people are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for the good times,’”.... “But all the success has demeaned me in a way. Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”

There's a tendency to write Simon off as a joke-machine, but (as Isherwood notes), the flip humor covers real emotion:
Agony is at the root of comedy, and for Mr. Simon it was the agony of an unhappy Depression-era childhood that inspired much of his finest work. And it was the agony of living in Los Angeles that drove his determination to break free from the grind of cranking out jokes for Jerry Lewis on television and make his own name. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Rewrites” (the first of two volumes), the plush comforts of Hollywood living might extend your life span, but “the catch was when you eventually did die, it surely wouldn’t be from laughing.”
I still have my copy of The Comedy of Neil Simon, the 1971 collection of his plays from "Come Blow Your Horn" through "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." This is decades before the more overtly autobiographical trilogy, or Lost in Yonkers.

And yet, in his introduction, "Portrait of the Artist as a Schizophrenic," Simon levels with us, describing himself as split between the "Human Being" who lives life, and the "Monster" who lives underneath the bland, benign face with the kind smile. The Monster observes, and writes, and hones all the experiences of the Human being, or of anyone whose behavior catches his watchful eye, into drama. Oe comedy. Quoting a moment from Barefoot in the Park when the newlyweds are squabbling, Simon tells us it's a recast version of a fight between him and his wife--this time without the frozen veal chop being hurled at him--and he thinks, "Damn you, Monster, they're just a couple of nice kids starting out in life. Give them a break, will you?"

Even then, Simon was motivated by the need to find the story, and the humor in the story.

Yeah, the plays are mixed in quality. And have aged, some badly, some quite well. The one-liners are usually good, though, and based in character and place.

And that's a way in which Simon was a dinosaur. His New York--Manhattan--is gone. Oh, little pieces of it can be found, but the self-consciously wry, dirty and yet beautiful city of my youth where strange but likable people made kvetching an art form, crafting a poetry of exasperation, and piling on the frustration like Pastrami on a sandwich at Katz's--that world has left only behind trace elements. Hell, nowadays the staff at the Strand are polite. Usually.

There was a lot wrong with it, and a lot that had to go (and still has to).

But there's something to be said for the old New York, the one I remember in my student days, and the first years of my career, when Manhattanites strode out into the world with no armor but the bracing sarcasm of Simon's characters, women and men alike (the televised version of The Odd Couple nailed it when they cast raspy-voiced Brett Somers as Oscar's ex-wife, opposite her actual husbandJack Klugman, and giving as good as she gets). It was Simon's era, Gelbart's, Matthau's and Lemmon's, and it shaped me.

Thanks, Doc.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Flesh and Blood: A Sermon on John 6: 41-51 (et seq)

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, August 12, 2018)

It doesn’t look like bread, does it, the little wafer we hand out? It is, of course, but it looks almost like a simple disc of some unknown substance. Not quite cardboard, certainly not bread you’d get a sandwich on. More like a Necco wafer, if your remember those, than what you think of when you think of bread.

But it is bread.

It’s made from unleavened wheat flour and water. The bread most Episcopal churches use is made by Cavanagh Altar Breads, a secular baker out of Rhode Island that provides altar bread to C.M. Almy, which sells it to Catholics, Protestants, and those of us in between.

Apparently, Cavanagh’s bread has something like 80% market share, and its popularity was enough to put the Poor Clare Nuns of Bernham, Texas, out of the business. A few orders of nuns have stopped competing and started distributing as retailers, so there’s a whole distribution chain in which these wafers travel.

When we give it to you, we remind you what it is: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

But how can something that barely qualifies as bread be the Body of Christ? And does the recurring liturgical formula, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” become so rote that we don’t hear it, don’t take it in?

Because if you think about it, “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” is not an easy teaching. The Eucharist, which we share, which is central to this service, is one we don’t reflect on often.

[That’s strange because, in breaking with Roman Catholicism, the Church of England in the Thirty-nine Articles rejected the traditional 7 sacraments taught in that faith, holding instead in Article 25 that “[t]here are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. The other five were denied the status of sacraments on the ground that they were more properly viewed as “states of life allowed in the Scriptures”, such as marriage, or holy orders, or else they are the result of “corrupt following of the Apostles”—extreme unction, Penance, or Confirmation.

Now, we’ve moved away from the 39 Articles and, since the success of the Anglo-Catholic movements of the 19th Century, we have welcomed back confirmation, anointing of the sick, and Confession.] (Bracketed paragraphs omitted in delivery).

But, for all the quarrels about the sacraments that have marred Anglican Church, the two sacraments on which the most Low Church and High Church partisans have always agreed on are baptism and “the Supper of the Lord.”

So the Eucharist—the eating of bread and drinking of wine in commemoration of the death of Jesus—is at the core of our liturgy, at the core of our worship.

Normally, we just do it, and don’t grapple with the language Jesus uses. But today, I don’t think we have a choice in the matter—we have to listen to what Jesus says, and try to understand the emotionally-laden language he uses.

Which means that this week and next, we’ll be facing some of the harder to bear language in the Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus talks at length about what it means to say that Jesus himself is the Bread of Life.

So it’s our duty to wrestle with this Gospel and next week’s, each part of the same conversation, but broken up in our weekly reading so that this week we get to think of Jesus as the bread that comes down from heaven, so that whoever eats of it shall not die, and not just let it sail over our heads.

A nice metaphor. Jesus is like manna from heaven—a phrase that nowadays can mean simply a great gift, unexpected and welcome, life-enhancing.

Not too threatening yet, right?

We feed on Jesus, and, since we are still in the more abstract part of the Gospel today, we can think of it as Jesus nourishing us with the Spirit, or by his teachings.

But then this Gospel reading has a sting in its tail. Jesus then tells is that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And we, like the crowd, do a double take. He can’t mean it literally, can he?

Next week it gets a little frighteningly concrete. The crowd is murmuring “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

And here’s where Jesus really does an un-Episcopalian thing: crosses the line of good taste and discretion. Jesus says to them

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Archbishop William Temple in his Readings in St. John's Gospel (First and Second Series) reminds us that these words were especially shocking to Jesus’s Jewish audience because to consume the blood of sacrifices was a grave offense under the Law.

Not to mention what Raymond Brown, the great scholar of the Fourth Gospel, calls “the Jewish repugnance at the cannibalistic thought of eating his flesh.” Brown asserts that these words led to claims that the early Christians were in fact cannibals and blood-drinkers, and the Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero “fastened the guilt” for the great fire of Rome “on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” (Annals, 15:4)

Even today these words can draw strong reactions when they aren’t cushioned by routine, safe in a church. These last few verses disturbed the writer Alan Ryan enough that he wrote a story, called “Following the Way,” about a young man who, over a period of years, keeps meeting a Jesuit priest who repeatedly invites him into the order, only for him to discover at the end that the chalice which promises eternal life is not filled with wine.

Mind you, I graduated from a Jesuit college, and I’m not taking any bets about their induction ceremonies.

But just as Ryan found in these lines fuel for a Gothic fantasia, the Gospel itself tells us that “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” In fact, only the Twelve remained—and one of them, as Jesus rather pointedly observes, is a devil.

So why did Jesus choose such provocative, such offensive, language?

Quite possibly because it was the only language that came close to doing the job. Temple reminds us that to eat something is to take it into ourselves and to use it as the basic building blocks assembling our bodies; we make Jesus’s full humanity—his flesh—his mortality—a constituent element of who we are. We make our own the dying of Jesus.

Likewise, the book of Deuteronomy tells us, “The blood is the Life”; (No, I didn’t recognize Count Dracula was quoting Scripture until I read Temple either. Apparently Shakespeare was right to warn us that the “Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose”).

By drinking from the cup, Archbishop Temple tells us, we accept the life of Jesus into ourselves, the resurrected life.

Temple urges us to see a synergy in the eating of the Bread and the drinking from the cup, that each requires the other.

Or, as Temple puts it, by eating the bread, we receive the power of self giving and self-sacrifice; by drinking the cup, we receive, through that self-giving and that self-sacrifice, the life that is triumphant over death and united to God.

Which is beautiful and eloquent Eucharistic theology—but what does it mean here, today, this minute?

Let me try a translation:

We Christians believe that we are called to lives of service, not of selfishness. By eating the bread, we make part of our very physical being a perpetual reminder of that calling. We literally take it into ourselves and let it become a part of our anatomy.

By drinking of the cup, we claim that the love of God, the deathless and unkillable love of God is so much a part of the redemption of Creation that that love flows through our very arteries and veins. We acknowledge that we are called to love, and that love literally pervades our being—again, our physical being.

We ourselves claim the blessing and assert that the love of God surges through us, is that of which we are made.

So how can we refuse to love, to forgive, to care for others? How can we allow ourselves to let that love become just a dry routine, instead of a call to arms?

But not to literal arms, not to violence, or triumphalism. We are called to the much harder task of building bridges to those with whom we disagree. To those who have hurt us, or, even harder, to those whom we have hurt.

We are called to a life in which we pray and try to live the beautiful words of St Francis:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, joy;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

And how can we, knowing our own faults and weaknesses, our own moments of anger and unkindness, even hope to achieve this?

We eat the bread of life, we drink from the cup of love.

It’s in our muscle memories, our own sinews, our very DNA.

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

Sunday, August 5, 2018

"It's Dangerous to be an Honest Man": The Godfather, Part III

Ok, I needed something to read recently, and fell on my old copy of Puzo's novel, and, after rereading it, wanted to see the least-loved of the films drawn from it--my memory (from seeing it in the theater when it came out) was that it was better than many thought.

The 1990 final installment of Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy was greeted with....not the rapturous reception the first two installments received. Some of this was the less than superb acting of Sophia Coppola (actually, a little better than you remember her, and a hell of a director), but, I have always thought, the main reason for the lower reputation of the final film is simple human nature: A story about decline and fall is less thrilling than one about the rise to power (Part I, and Vito's story in Part II) and its consolidation (Michael' story in Part II).

Coppola's skill as director is evident from the first moments, a long tracking shot of the now-abandoned, falling to ruin, Corleone family home in Nevada. We sweep through all the old locations, seeing their decay, a wonderful metaphor for the state of the Corleone Family itself as the movie unfolds.

Oh, not at first; Michael, back in New York City, is seemingly at the apogee of power, being invested as a Papal Knight, and is now completely legitimate in his business interests. The first long set piece, the celebration of Michael's honor brings together Michael with his fractious (and fractured) family: Kay (Diane Keaton, in a quicksilver performance, by turns spiteful, compassionate, loving, and heartbreaking), her children with Michael, Mary (Sophia Coppola) and Anthony (Franc D'Ambrsio), Connie Corleone Rizzi(Talia Shire, of whom more later), and a handful of old faces, with new ones to supplement the thinning ranks.

Kay is quite hostile to her ex, though when he agrees to let Anthony follow a musical career, she relents, a little. Michael is briefly reluctant to let his son go--but his memories of his own youth, and the knowledge that young Tony knows about Fredo's murder (the ghost haunting this Macbeth) leads Michael to give way with little fight.

But Michael's old friends at the Commission are watching enviously as he stages a financial coup--to buy a majority interest in the Vatican-backed Internazionale Immobiliare company, and they want him to let them, er, "wet their beaks a little." When he refuses, as did his father Vito in the first film, an attack, ostensibly by the thuggish Joey Zasa kills most of the Dons, but not Michael.

But you don't need plot summary--suffice it to say that Michael suffers a diabetic stroke, which leads Kay to visit him, they end of having something of a rapprochement in Sicily where Anthony is making his debut as an opera singer, but also while in Sicily, Michael discovers who has betrayed him, and, yielding power to his nephew Vincent--Sonny's child, conceived at the wedding in the first film--sets in motion one last sequence of revenge that, this time, blows back on him and his.


The standout performance, after Pacino's, is Talia Shire's as a profoundly changed Connie. Oh, she told Michael she wanted to help him in the last movie, but unlike the late lamented Tom Hagen, Connie is a wartime consiglieri. Shire's physicality in this film is impressive--her voice goes from elegantly modulated to a fishwife's when she goads Vincent to murder Joey Zasa. She is elegant, flashes of the charming bride coming through, but more often her elegance is the predatory beauty of a hawk--her dispatching of a traitor into climactic sequence sees her in both guises--for the old traitor whose favorite she was as a little girl, she is girlish--until she watches him die from the poison she has fed him. I can't think of a performance by her that matches the nuance, the breadth, of this one.

Likewise Pacino--he and Keaton fight, but, when he takes her on a tour of parts of Sicily, the innocent Michael from the first part of the first movie returns to us a little bit--he points out his love for his father, Vito's dire straits when he stepped in, and abandoned, for want of any other option, the destiny he had dreamed fro himself. The rapport between Keaton and Pacino is superb, their old compatibility flaring up, despite her now complete knowledge of the "family business." Even after she sees him get caught up in the business again--the murder of Michael's old protector Don Tommasino, she murmurs "It never ends," with a bit of disgust, only to thoroughly enjoy his company at the opera, watching their son--and murmuring happy little asides to each other.

And then the butcher's bill at last comes due.

And I think this is why this movie is less loved than the others.

Michael pays dearly for his crimes, his vaunting ambition, his hopes--founded as they all were in love for his family, he cannot believe that they are all foredoomed, but they are. We see Michael and Mary shot, her die, as Keaton screams--only to have Pacino scream at first silently, but then as full-throatedly as Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class, a death scream--but Michael does not die. We see a montage of waltzes--Michael and Mary, then with Appolonia, then with Kay--and then fade to the prosaic spectacle of a tired, defeated old man, at least a decade, maybe two, later. He dies alone, feared or forgotten, in a dusty Sicilian ruin, where his father died playing in a lush garden with his grandson.

No catharsis, no triumph. The once innocent man, who had such potential, loses everything at a stroke.

The film shows Michael no mercy, no redemption. Where he committed terrible crimes in the first two films, he keeps the audience's sympathy in the first, and even through most of the second. Here, wishing to atone, he cannot. His confession to the honest man who will soon become Pope offers a glimpse of hope, but as even the Cardinal observes, Michael does not believe he can be redeemed--and so he won't be. His dreams of better things for his family die long before the shell of a man we glimpse at the end does.

As Kay says, "It never ends."