Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Comden & Green & Shakespeare

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

The 1944 Broadway musical “On the Town” brought together the composer Leonard Bernstein and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and lyrics. The show follows the adventures of three sailors on 24-hours of shore leave in New York.

In Act I, one of the sailors, the serious-minded Gabey, expresses his rapture at suddenly finding love. The song he sings is “Lucky to Be Me“:

I used to think it might be fun to be
Anyone else but me.
I thought that it would be a pleasant surprise
To wake up as a couple of other guys.
But now that I’ve found you,
I’ve changed my point of view,
And now I wouldn’t give a dime to be
Anyone else but me.

What a day,
Fortune smiled and came my way,
Bringing love I never thought I’d see,
I’m so lucky to be me.
What a night,
Suddenly you came in sight,
Looking just the way I’d hoped you’d be,
I’m so lucky to be me.
I am simply thunderstruck
At the change in my luck:
Knew at once I wanted you,
Never dreamed you’d want me, too.
I’m so proud
You chose me from all the crowd,
There’s no other guy I’d rather be,
I could laugh out loud,
I’m so lucky to be me.

Now, you’d be right to say the song’s romantic formula — a woebegone fellow looking for redemptive love finds it smack dab in front of him — has been used so often as to be, by now, a cliché.  But there’s something about the song’s lyrics, some quality that makes it work.

So let’s back up a minute.

Suppose it was your task is to write a jaunty update of this old tale of a lucky turn of fortune, this love-walks-in cliché. Suppose you’re expected to write something that fits within the tongue-in-cheek style of the show while also paying respect to tradition. From whom, among your betters, would you respectfully borrow? What ur-text would you reference?

A possible answer hit me a few days ago, and it may be the very same answer Comden & Green came upon seventy years ago.

I think the guy Comden & Green latched onto was the father of durable clichés: Shakespeare.  My guess for the text they referenced?

Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

You don’t have to strain to see parallels. Both sonnet and song are emotional exclamations and both foreground a man whose depression lifts with the appearance of a loved one. Yet the affinities go beyond subject matter. The path of Gabey’s and the sonnet writer’s stories charts the same course. The same cues appear. All of this is described with synonymous language.

To begin, Comden & Green’s twentieth-century American notion of fate and destiny is of course entirely different than that of Elizabethan England. Yet notice how crucially the word “fortune” is used in both instances. Though separated in time, there is the same initial yearning to be “anyone else but me,” the distressed wish to be “like him” over there or “like him” over there — and, then again, like this man, like that man. We see that the “couple of guys” mentioned by Comden & Green are a summary of what may have been twice that number in Shakespeare.

The emotional “turn” (“Haply I think on thee”) that Shakespeare withholds until the two-thirds of the way through the sonnet is something Comden & Green choose to reveal partially in the introduction (“I’ve found you”) and then with fuller detail as to the circumstances further along (“Suddenly you came in sight”). A different pace and placement of the revellation is understandable, as the lyricists’ audience would demand more lavish attention be paid to the emotional payoff (Sing to me at length, repeatedly, about how you feel now!) than does the reader of the sonnet. The quiet reader is content to learn that the speaker feels like singing at heaven’s gate — and demands no demonstration thereof.

Both song and sonnet close with the identical lesson learned: When I’m in love, there’s no other guy I’d rather be. I wouldn’t change my lot for a king’s fortune. I scorn alternatives. In my state of joy I just want to laugh out loud.

How daunting it is to stand before Shakespeare and his verbal mastery. How could anyone — even word wizards like Comden & Green — not desire that man’s art, that man’s scope? Back to the task at hand, the solution was to stand with Shakespeare or, let’s say, to borrow a little from the guy. To form an informal trio of Comden & Green & Shakespeare.

OK. I’ve got no proof of my hypothesis. But, pace Google, I did find an interview Betty Comden granted in 2004 that offers some interesting leads. Here she reflects on her early education and drama apprenticeship:

I understand that you attended a special program at New York University in the Department of Dramatic Arts. What were your studies like at NYU, and how did they influence your later work?

Oh, well, it was an interesting school. I was there all four years, and we mainly studied the classics—Shakespeare, a lot of Shakespeare—so it was a dramatic group at the college. Not in regular classes, but they did performances every evening in the school auditorium, and so I saw a lot of Shakespeare. But a lot. And it was a great education; I’m glad of it. I recommend it to anyone.

What were the Washington Square Players?

Oh, well that’s the group I was just mentioning that played mostly Shakespeare and some Sheridan. Let’s see, what else? It really was mostly the Shakespeare plays.

While “Lucky to Be Me” is mostly all Comden & Green, it takes nothing away from their accomplishment to say they learned to play well with Shakespeare.

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Who Knew You Could Dance to T.S. Eliot?

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

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As processed through Songify using musical accompaniment of “Deluge” by Khush:  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Opening Lines)

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Shakespeare suffers the same treatment, here: Sonnet 18

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Odds and Ends – 1

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

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Sarah Palin and Refudiategate

Palin was in the news last week for her use of a new word refudiate, an apparent conflation on her part of refute and repudiate. The ensuing to-do was, I thought, much ado about nothing. This sort of slip of the tongue, or to use a fancier term, verbal lapsus, is not uncommon. Haplologies are a type of verbal lapsus in which the speaker blends half one word and half of another.  Wikipedia offers this example: “stummy” instead of “stomach” or “tummy.” I’m a fan of these spontaneous, uncontrolled creations. Whenever one is uttered in my presence, I jot it down. Favorites from my personal collection:

refreshions (refreshments + concession [stand])

illeligible (illegible + ineligible)

verocious (ferocious + voracious)

gidget (gadget + widget)

obliviated (oblivious + inebriated)

And then there are instances of a long-form haplology, utterances that create a weird new figure of speech by blending half of one common phrase with half of another (with bonus points for displaying metaphoric confusion). Here are words I’ve actually heard come out of people’s mouths:

“The plaintiff is gonna ring our clock!” (wring our neck + clean our clock)

“He’s green behind the ears” (green, meaning inexperienced + wet behind the ears)

“They handed us a fiat accompli” (by fiat + a fait accompli)

“That’s the point where me and Sam parted waters” (parted company, meaning disagreed + Mosaic parting of the waters)

Less Than an Existentialist

Is it just me or do you too want to barf when, two and a half minutes into this interview on “Morning Joe,” Bret Easton Ellis slips in the word ennui ?

What ever happened to . . . ?

Who knows from whence cometh the tunes that pop into our head and take over the day’s sonic background. The other day I started singing along to a song that appeared from nowhere and just would not let go: “You and Me Against the World“.  And I asked myself, what ever happened to Helen Reddy? And the answer is she retired from live performance and returned to Australia, where she is a clinical hypnotherapist and motivational speaker. More here and at her website (naturally) here.

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“Noir” by Robert Coover

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

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To borrow the second person voice (“you”) that controls the narrative of Robert Coover’s new novel, “Noir”, let it be noted at the outset that you fall within one of three groups.

1 –   You are a Coover aficionado and have read most or all of his output to date. You will buy or borrow the newly released “Noir” and read its slim 192 pages in a feverish swoon, critics be damned. If, at some point, you find yourself reading reviews of “Noir”, it’s because you’ve finished the book and want to relive the experience or compare your reaction to others.  For you, there are comments further below.

Or:

2 –   You have read one or two Coover books (maybe as part of a post-modern lit course) and want to catch up with what the 78-year-old author is doing nowadays. Is he still in the game, you wonder?  The news is positive. You will find the pages of “Noir” spellbound by Coover’s signature mordant wit and claustrophobic worldview. Elsewhere you may have come across the much repeated statement by NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani: “Of all the post-modernist writers, Robert Coover is probably the funniest and most malicious.” So, yes, you’ll find “Noir” fitfully laugh-inducing — especially if you’re in the mood for a relentless, demented, hallucinogenic parody of crime fiction. If at its end you are still ambivalent about the book, well, that it not uncommon with Coover. At its close you may place a hand on your belly and think to yourself, that was not so much a satisfying meal as a bitter entrée. Or, you may be so delighted by its denouement, incorporating street philosophy, word play, puns, double entendres and all-around cleverness, that you will forgive being dragged through some slow sections.

Or:

3 –   Coover is entirely new to you. If so, you are wondering how do you get a good sense of what “Noir” will mean to you as a reading experience? You’re finding most reviews of the book are frustratingly un-useful to a novice reader.  (There seems to be a jargon-loving Coover clique that luxuriates in the cryptic.) Well, you might consider first checking out a short interview in which Coover himself explains the style and themes of “Noir”. This is available online (use these three words in Google search: Coover bookslut interview). Consider also spending a few minutes watching Coover in action, as he reads an early scene (and arguably the best pages) from “Noir”.  The video is available using four terms in Google search: Coover Penn Reading Video.  (His reading from “Noir” occupies the final minutes of the QuickTime video).  If the interview and video generally pique your interest, and if you would not be put off by what is essentially a light entertainment somewhat burdened with down and dirty stretches of bleak pessimism and erotic haunting, then by all means read “Noir”. Or, consider one of the following alternatives to “Noir” as a better first experience of Coover: “Pricksongs and Descants”, his ground-breaking short story collection; or “The Origin of the Brunists”, a conventionally generous and very American tale of the spawning of a religious cult in a mining community; or, if you can find a used or library copy of  “A Political Fable: The Cat in the Hat for President” (unfairly, it is currently out-of-print).  “A Political Fable” may very well become your favorite piece of zaniness by any author ever.  It is mine.

Finally, here are a few stray perceptions of my own to share with Coover fans who have finished the book.

Coover is nothing if not quotable. Wherever you are in “Noir” you are not far from coming upon yet another comment on humankind’s bleak condition. Coover spins endless variations on an astringent melody whose lyrics tell of “your incorrigible weakness in a meaningless universe” (page 103), a ballad “meant to provoke reflections upon life’s brevity, and its thin sad beauty” (page 108). Other examples: “It’s not the story you’re trapped in but how you play it out … your style … steppin’ round the beat … How long does that matter? As long as you live, meaning, no time at all.” (page 52).  “What’s the connection? No idea. Connections [are] probably an illusion in such a fucked-up world as this. Why you’re down here. Illusory connections” (page 113). “The city was as bounded as a gameboard, no place to hide in it, no way but one to leave it, you alone defenseless in it, your moves not even your own” (page 175). Most Hobbesian of all is this: “The body has to eat and drink so it can stay healthy long enough to enjoy an agonizing death, and the mind, to help out, has to know where the provisions are and how to get them and who else is after them and how to kill them” (page 159). The novel’s close brings a softer tone: “You can’t escape the melody but you can make it your own.”

Especially at the novel’s climax, borrowings from films are abundant: the shifting cityscape of “Dark City” (page 163), the mirror room scene in “The Lady from Shanghai” (page 181), and the false-identity caper “Catch Me If You Can” (page 186).

At one point Philip Noir tries to recall who once likened an odd juxtaposition to “a pearl onion on a banana split.” This is a line used by Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. When another character advises, “Plant you now, dig you later, man” (page 111) , this is a twofer or maybe a three-way: its source is the jazz world of the 1920’s/30’s, but the phrase also was used as a title of song in “Pal Joey” and later as the title of a “Gilligan’s Island” episode — facts surely not lost on pop culture maven Coover. Other more careful readers (with or without benefit of Google search) will best me in this endless game of spot-the-allusion, but final mention should be made of one “high culture” reference I spotted, a reference that informs the musical ambiance of the book. Philip Noir notices a few words carved into the wooden tabletop at a jazz joint: “You are the music while the music lasts.” This is a line from “The Dry Salvages”, the third section of “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot.

I wonder whether the sympathetic character of Michiko (“she’s a work of art”) is Coover’s homage to the sympathetic critic of his work, Michiko Kakutani. But, given the fate Coover confers on the fictitious Michiko, I’m thinking maybe this is best left unexplored. As the author himself cautions:

“It’s all quite simple. But sometimes not knowing is better. It’s more interesting.”

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One final observation (to be filed under “Annoyances, Petty”):  The covers of both the American and French editions of the novel sport photos that are at odds with the story. Both photos are of daytime scenes of a walker in a city. But the perambulations of Philip Noir take place entirely at night. Does the discrepancy matter? Probably not, but wouldn’t it be nice if the photographer, or the editors who selected the final images, had actually read the book?

(A version of this review appears on Amazon.com, here.)

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“Monsieur Pain” by Roberto Bolano

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

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Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) wrote “Monsieur Pain” in 1981-82, at the start of a brief but productive career as an imaginative writer of fiction. The Chilean-born Bolaño is best known for his dazzling breakthrough novel, “The Savage Detectives,” and the posthumously published “2666”. (For an excellent summary of Bolano’s main themes and motifs, see Henry Hitchings review of the “summative” novel “2666” here.)

“Monsieur Pain” is a short (134-page) work, and two audiences may find pleasure in spending a few hours in its spell:

Happy veterans — readers who have been entranced by one or more of Bolaño’s celebrated later works and who want to trace the origin of his mature themes, his obsessions, and his methods, back to the time of their youthful first expression, will find revelations in “Monsieur Pain”.

Wary novices — new readers who are intrigued by, yet also skeptical of, the Bolaño phenomenon. A Washington Post critic, reflecting on Bolaño’s death in 2003, declared: “Bolano has joined the immortals” — and this kind of passionate celebration, echoed many times over by the mainstream critical establishment, garners attention and maybe distrust among general reader population. Some potential readers are, understandably, daunted by the weight of his final writings. They may also be confused by negative reactions to the author, as voiced in the two dozen one- and two-star complaints among the customer reviews of  “2666” on Amazon.com. For those wary readers I recommend this novel as good investment of your time.

Another reviewer described Bolaño’s worldview as “strange and marvelous and impossibly funny, bursting with melancholy and horror.” By Bolaño’s own reckoning, his formative literary influences were all over the map.  In the case of “Monsieur Pain” Bolaño turned to Edgar Allan Poe as the animating force for his narrative. This is not hidden. Between the Dedication Page and a Preliminary Note, on what is sometimes referred to as an Inspiration Page, Bolaño placed a dialog excerpt from Poe’s short story of 1844, “Mesmeric Revelation.” That tale is told as a conversation between a hypnotist and an invalid, a man on the cusp of death, who is placed under hypnosis in an experiment to see whether it will afford him a glimpse of the after-life.  At one point the hypnotized patient confides: “the mesmeric condition is so near death as to content me.”

“Monsieur Pain” combines elements of a mystery and a detective story, the latter a genre Poe pioneered. But it is much more than that; the novel genuinely defies categorization. It is narrated by Monsieur Pierre Pain, a veteran survivor of the battle of Verdun, where he was gassed. Two decades later, he is a pensioner living, poorly, in the Paris demimonde. He has studied mesmerism. Pain is called upon to apply his mesmeric skills to save the life of a hospitalized poet. Not long after his initial visit to the Clinic, events begin to assume a surrealist bent. Blended with a free-floating paranoia, this surreal atmosphere holds sway over the remainder of the novel. Time and space bend: time, at one point, is described as running faster than a clock; the Clinic morphs into a prison, its corridors a labyrinth.

Try as he might, Pain cannot shake off a pair of Spanish assassins, one of whom, when given the chance, attempts to escape, Oswald-like, by ducking into a movie theater. (Whether Bolaño, who would have been 10 1/2 at the time, followed the news of the JFK assassination, is unknown.) Pain is amused by an odd pair of young artists, genuine twins, ensconced in a bizarre cafe whose every fixture and surface is painted a shade of green. These brothers construct miniature disaster scenes (car crashes, train wrecks) inside fish-tanks. (The novelty of this art eerily anticipates Jeff Koons’ likewise surreal basketballs-in-a-fish-tank constructions?) Pain learns about a conspiracy that may involve radiation experiments; he’s made privy to a rumored love affair involving Madame Curie’s daughter. Pain encounters a former friend who has since become a torturer for Franco’s forces.

Which brings us to the political. The dread hanging over Paris in the year 1938 is the specter of totalitarianism. For Bolaño, who considered himself primarily a poet, the personal sorrows of a young Keats (half in love with easeful death) are distant indulgences, supplanted in the modern era by men powerfully in love with half death. Poe would not have been surprised by this turn of events. The question of the poet’s response to fascism, hinted at in “Monsieur Pain,” will take on greater urgency in Bolano’s subsequent novels.

By the mid-point of “Monsieur Pain,” the narrator has fallen sway to paranoia, he is captive to waking dreams. (Those many dreams had a real effect on me: I went to sleep immediately after finishing the book, and that night had more vivid dreams than I’d had in a long time.) Encounters with labyrinths, real and metaphorical, multiply. No matter where you are, you never really find the way out of the labyrinth. The novel ends with an Epilogue for Voices that reveals the main characters’ fates.

Some readers will find all of this a weird, indigestible brew, a fun-house ride not worth taking. If the prospect of Poe meets Borges meets Paul Auster meets Thomas Pynchon is off-putting, best stay away. But if you stick with it, you will appreciate how economically Bolaño sketches scene after scene, how he manages to maintain a fast pace throughout, disorienting the reader yet maintaining equilibrium. For me, the reading experience was similar to watching a film noir with an experimental bent. From time to time I was reminded of Hitchcock, especially in the way Bolaño “edits” a sequence for the reader’s consumption, and the way he uses physical surroundings to reveal psychological space, and vice versa. There is a cleverly unfurled scene in a movie house in which Bolaño’s piecemeal description of the plot of the film being screened serves as counterpoint to the stories exchanged by two former friends catching up in the audience. True, the book offers no big pay-off; it never soars. Instead, its rewards are modest. Yet you are sure to come away respecting how Bolaño, the poet, can access beauty through sensitive description. You will learn how touching he can be.

Despite or maybe because of the book’s incoherence I wound up liking it; another short novel of his, “By Night in Chile,” is on my near-term reading list.

[Update (01-30-2010): An abridged version of this essay is published as a book review on Amazon.com, here.]

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My First Movie produced on iMac using iMovie

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009
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This is also available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXPg-HUxibU

The Manifesto of Thompson Hotels

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

A mission statement spells out a company’s overall purpose and provides a sense of direction to decision making.  Among other things, it defines what the organization aspires to be.

The other day a friend sent me a link to a curious document that fits the general notion of a mission statement, although this one is labeled a “Manifesto.”  It also fills up an entire page, making it wordier than the run-of-the-mill mission statement.

The Manifesto was generated by Thompson Hotels, a wholly owned subsidiary of a privately held real estate development firm named The Pomeranc Group.  In 2007 the New York Times profiled the company’s entry into the world of boutique hotels.  The firm’s growing portfolio now includes nine hotel properties.

If you go to Thompson Hotels’ black-backgrounded homepage at http://www.thompsonhotels.com you’ll be faced with a flashing series of quotations.  Featured are the words of luminaries such as Che Guevara, Bob Dylan, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Oscar Wilde, and Jean Baudrillard.  I noticed that in the hotelier’s talky firmament, the French post-structuralist Baudrillard’s star shines brightest.  Two of his bons mots are offered for your delectation.  Meanwhile, in the background, hip music is heard.  An infinitely repeating loop plays a medley of eight instrumental selections, each abbreviated to 30 seconds.   The overall mood?  Retro groovy.  I felt smothered by an über trendy ooze.

If you visit the homepage, and I recommend you do, be sure to click on the word “MANIFESTO” found in the top border.  Or access the manifesto directly, here.  On that page you’re invited to test whether your personal identity matches the profile of an ideal guest as conceived by the hotel owners.  Here is the text of the Manifesto:

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Dear Guest,

In a world full of choices, we all need to question who we are and where we belong.

We set out to create a group of hotels that are effectively sophisticated and classically cool but small enough to provide personal service. Thompson Hotels are contemporary and elegant with an element of edge and surprise. At Thompson Hotels we believe there’s a place for refined, intimate style in a world of overly dressed up mega brands. We are not trendy boutique hotels. Our style is simultaneously timeless and avant-garde.

Who are our guests? Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance; really more of a mind-set than a demographic… “good looking revolutionaries.”

We wish we had known: Steve McQueen, Bobby Kennedy, Mick Jagger in 1973, Grace Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Edie Sedgwick and the fictional Royal Tenenbaums.

You’ll find us watching Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes, Badlands, Blow Up, Le Mans. Or listening to The White Album, the Sex Pistols, Sinatra and we don’t pick sides between the East Coast and the West Coast.

We collect Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, vintage Zippo lighters, matchbooks from cafes, quotes and one day, Basquiat.

We are a tribe, nomadic in nature joined by common threads. We are driving up the coast to a life of epic adventures… “It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… but no matter the road is life”: Jack Kerouac.

See you soon,

TH

p.s. we will keep all your secrets and promises.

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The term “fisking” is blogosphere slang for a point-by-point criticism of a statement, article or essay.  The fisking process involves questioning the analytical framework of the text and highlighting perceived errors.  It values close scrutiny, so the dissection usually proceeds sentence-by-sentence or paragraph-by-paragraph.  After reading the Thompson Hotels Manifesto, I thought, “Now there’s a document begging for a good fisking!”  I’m not sure I’m the man for the task, but what the heck, it’s worth a try.  Below is my token gift to art-house wise-asses everywhere.  Especially those who, due to their good judgment or bad finances or both, are destined never to find themselves embedded in a Thompson Hotel.

Caveat: It is possible the Manifesto is a small hoax, a put-on, a tongue-in-cheek bit of cheekiness designed to separate those who get it from those who don’t.  By the same token, maybe my text below is too.

So.  Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

In a world full of choices, we all need to question who we are and where we belong.

Come on, confess.  When you read that first sentence, sounding so eerily like an invocation, an invitation to prayer, you sensed a spiritual touch, did you not?  Maybe a tingle of  déjà vu ? Oops!  Lo and behold, the sentiment does fit nicely on a Church Sign:

church-sign1

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We set out to create a group of hotels that are effectively sophisticated and classically cool but small enough to provide personal service. Thompson Hotels are contemporary and elegant with an element of edge and surprise.

Having established in the reader’s mind the notion of sanctuary, of a time and place for spiritual self-evaluation, the authors of the Manifesto decided to drop that idea cold.  Instead, it’s full steam ahead!  On to a relentless chug-chug-chug of words!  The modus operandi is simple.  Throw down words and phrases in hopes that something coherent will emerge.  The document becomes an onslaught of adjectives, adverbs, oxymorons and proper names.  Scatter shot onto the page, you watch them pile up into an enervating mass.  You encounter novel compounds (“effectively sophisticated”) as inert as the arbitrary pairings formed when kids fiddle with Magnetic Poetry words on a refrigerator door.

But let’s move on to the next bit of nonsense.

At Thompson Hotels we believe there’s a place for refined, intimate style in a world of overly dressed up mega brands. We are not trendy boutique hotels.

I like how a simple declarative sentence (“We are not trendy …”) stands out amidst the lazy mush (“overly dressed up mega brands”).  It turns out this defensive crouch (“We are not!”) has a back story:  one of Thompson Hotels’ co-owners has been quoted elsewhere as saying, “If you call us a boutique hotel chain, I’m going to scream.”  He prefers the term, small luxury hotel group.  The reason has something to do with branding and status.  But I am not Winston Smith (nor was meant to be) and shall not revise my text.

The term “Boutique hotel”  is commonly used to describe intimate, usually luxurious or quirky hotel environments — exactly the environment the Manifesto, however clumsily, purports to describe.  Check out Wikipedia’s article on the “boutique hotel” phenomenon for a consensus understanding of the term. The unavoidable fact is that these hotels are inherently trendy, occupying a segment of the industry characterized by constant churn, where players forever chase the next wave.

Historically, boutique hotels (sometimes also known as “design hotels” or “lifestyle hotels”) began appearing in the 1980s in trend-setting neighborhoods of London, New York, and San Francisco.  Typically, boutique hotels are furnished in a themed, stylish and/or “aspirational” manner.  The mission, the raison d’être, of Thompson Hotels is to participate profitably in this trend.

When responding to an absurd assertion, I often find it useful to summon the the clarity of the French.  What’s the best way to view a trendy Manifesto eschewing trendiness?  Comme ça:

magritte-ceci-nest-pas-une-pipe-1

Though not as deft as Magritte playing with the way we attribute significance to images, the Manifesto does serve the purpose of highlighting a complicated relationship between the company’s self-definition and reality.

Our style is simultaneously timeless and avant-garde.

Reading this sentence, I was momentarily intrigued.  I like timeless.  On occasion I also like avant-garde.  The Manifesto brings them together again for the first time.  What’s not to like?  Should I worry about how stable the marriage is?  No, for the moment I’m willing to play along, especially since the sentence sparks a frisson. There’s an echo of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In “Burnt Norton,” the first segment of that magisterial poem, Eliot posits:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present,

All time in unredeemable.

Along those lines, did you notice the verse from Hebrews 13:8 on the Church Sign, above?  Jesus is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow.  The Manifesto promises your stay at a Thompson Hotel will be just like that too! Heavy, man.  Could be heavenly, too.  But this has got my head spinning.

I know once reason returns I will understand there is no way to halt what The Bard called “time’s fell hand” — especially not in the trendy business of boutique hotels.  After all, we’re talking about an industry in which a Thompsons Hotels co-owner cited with amazement the extraordinary “longevity” of an employee who’s been with the firm a whopping six years!  There are reports the company’s Gild Hall location in lower Manhattan (open for less than two years) is slated for a style makeover, as its star restaurateur is being replaced.  The company used to boast about its free Wi-Fi, but this year reversed its stance in favor of charging guests an extra $10.00 a day.

Timeless?  I report, you decide.

But take heed.  Clouds approach.  Pretentious gobbledygook lies straight ahead.

Who are our guests? Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance; really more of a mind-set than a demographic…

I was going to point out hyphenation flaws and other nits throughout the Manifesto (for those interested, a useful hyphen guide is found here; don’t say you’re learning nothing from this post).  But the prospect of correcting wrong notes in this Bohemian rhapsody reminded me of the scene in Basic Instinct when Michael Douglas (Detective Curran) comes upon the injured George Dzundza (Gus), who’s been attacked with an ice pick.  Curran tentatively applies a finger to block the bleeding from Gus’s neck.  But then he notices, in a growing panic, the full extent of the punctures.  He quickly runs out of fingers to stanch all of Gus’s fatal wounds.

I know, I know — you’re still wishing that the chain of “blah-meets-blah-meets-blah” would meet up with a meat cleaver.  And I’m reminded that the “fisking” process compels me to propose a remedial measure.  OK, then.  Let’s add one more hookup to the chain: Bohemian chic meets art-house-wise meets quiet yet radical elegance meets Freddy Krueger.

(Really more of a cathartic comeuppance than in your fondest dreams.)

“good looking revolutionaries”

Yes, Thompson Hotels defines its preferred clientele as persons who qualify as good looking revolutionaries.

Where to begin?  Smug, self-satisfied, and fatuous, this loose phrase sinks into a swamp of cynicism.  The concept of “good looking revolutionaries” belongs to a place where prices are known and values ignored.  Where everything is superficial, cosmetic, trivialized, reduced to fashion.  As for the not pretty faces and imperfect bodies of today’s equivalents of, say, Emma Goldman, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, Betty Friedan, Balzac, Gandhi?

Oh for God’s sake, we don’t want the likes of them spoiling our hotels.

We wish we had known: Steve McQueen, Bobby Kennedy, Mick Jagger in 1973, Grace Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Edie Sedgwick and the fictional Royal Tenenbaums.

These appear to be the hotelier’s picks for the class of good looking revolutionaries.  The introductory clause (“We wish we had known …”) sets up the sad premise that these are folks no longer available to be known.  They’ve passed on.  They’re now guests at the Celestial Hotel.  Or, in the case of the still prancing Mick Jagger, his 1973-vintage incarnation (beautiful at age 30) cannot stroll through a Thompson Hotel lobby in 2009.

The prefatory language also presupposes that the persons cited were all once capable of being known, i.e., their feet once trod the earth.  News Flash:  Fictional characters, such as members of the Tenenbaum family, the clan given cinematic life by writer-director Wes Anderson, were never in fact alive.  Trust me on this.  If “we” harbor a desire to commune with fictional beings, the first thing to do is to express that desire using different rhetoric.  For example:  “I wish Holden Caulfield were a real person so that I might have a chance to talk with him.”

The second thing is, “we” need to schedule an appointment with a therapist.

You’ll find us watching Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes, Badlands, Blow Up, Le Mans. Or listening to The White Album, the Sex Pistols, Sinatra and we don’t pick sides between the East Coast and the West Coast.

An orgy of mid-cult name-dropping, these selections sound like a basket of DVD’s and CD’s that Charlie the Tuna might gather for his undersea lair.  To prove his eclectic good taste.

Note the strangely truncated name (“Darko”) applied to writer-director Richard Kelley’s 2001 film, Donnie Darko. A Google search uncovers no evidence of actual people — whether they qualify as good looking revolutionaries or not — using the name “Darko” when discussing that movie.  Maybe Thompson Hotels is trying to start a new trend?  Say it ain’t so.

Next, notice the boast, “You’ll find us watching . . . Blow Up.”   Hmmmm.   It’s at this point that the needle on the Creepy-o-Meter starts to dance.  Remember, this is a Manifesto presumably concocted by sophisticated advertising copywriters (correction: make that effectively sophisticated copywriters), then reviewed and approved by company management, one of whom promises to “scream” if confronted with words or terms he finds inaccurate.  This means the Manifesto cannot be referring to the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film, “Blowup”.  As shown in the screen credits (one frame of which is below), the title of Antonioni’s film is one word.  While it is true the title appears hyphenated on some promotional and packaging material (as in the poster further below), it is never correct to render the title as two separate words.

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Assume, then, that the Manifesto’s reference to a “Blow Up” signals something else.  What might that be?  One clue is that this “Blow Up” is something that can be “watched.”  More particularly, it is something that you will find “us” watching.  So let’s take a step back and ask, who are the “us”?  Remember, the Manifesto is addressed to an anonymous “Guest” and is signed by “TH.”  So “us” likely is the hotel itself, as represented by its owners, managers and staff.  Or does “us” refer to the hotels’ guests?  Or to both groups?  What are they watching when they watch this thing called a — or the— Blow Up?  An act of violence involving an explosion?  A sex act?  Both?  Maybe posting a third quotation from Baudrillard would help readers solve the puzzle?  We must work through the night to find the answer; otherwise, I fear grave consequences.  Dawn may expose a pale, naked Manifesto, shorn of its raiments of erudition; a document written, edited and approved by a cadre of folks who, notwithstanding their air of knowingness, in the final analysis are (yes, it pains me to type the sentence’s final word, even though its etymology is French) poseurs.

We collect Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, vintage Zippo lighters, matchbooks from cafes, quotes and one day, Basquiat.

More trendy brand names and other detritus.  Spare me.  This recalls a short-lived literary trend of a few decades ago, led by a set of young novelists.  They wrote prose with copious references to trendy high-end consumer goods, discos, real life celebrities, and other pop culture stuffing.  Their theory was that in our consumerist society, what you eat, wear, listen to, where you go clubbing, how you furnish your apartment, the famous people you encounter — all of that stuff taken together equals your identity.  Therefore, a list of a fictional character’s recent purchases would be a valid shorthand way to construct in the reader’s mind a fully-formed fictional personage.  The Manifesto shares this bleak and shallow world view.  It tacitly endorses the notion that you are what you consume.

In the present text, I was glad to find a soupçon of wisdom hidden in the final words of the sentence:  “… and one day, Basquiat.”  Implied are the principles of connoisseurship and deferred pleasure.  Collecting the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat demands maturity and a lot of groundwork.  Accumulating money, of course.  Finding a house or apartment with tall ceilings.  Most critically, developing a discerning eye — something especially important with an artist like Basquiat whose output was of notoriously uneven quality.  Assuming I’m not reading too much into those four words, the author deserves kudos for that little grace note.

We are a tribe, nomadic in nature joined by common threads. We are driving up the coast to a life of epic adventures… “It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow… but no matter the road is life”: Jack Kerouac.

True to form, a return to folderol.  I’m hoping you, dear reader, will join with me in announcing that we are growing bored by all the silly talk coming from this other “we.”  It occurs to me that you and I together are a “we” superior to the Manifesto’s “we.”  We possess largeness; the author of the Manifesto’s gotta wee “we.”

(The silliness is spreading.)

As for the tribal and nomadic references, I defer to another reader of the Manifesto, a person known as “jr”.  He (or, if “jr” is initials, maybe she) left a comment back in May, 2008, on a blog named Harry’s Place, in response to a piece about the Manifesto.  The commenter looked at the document as a marketing effort:

I suspect the purpose of the marketing is to make you think you will be more lucky to fuck an equally desparate fellow guest at this hotel and not feel too seedy afterwards.  “We are a tribe, nomadic in nature and joined by common threads” means “we want some casual nooky and we’re not thinking too much about herpes.”

Was “JR” weirdly prescient?  In 2009, Alexander Wang’s limited edition designer condoms became available for purchase exclusively at Thompson Hotels properties.

p.s.  we will keep all your secrets and promises.

My secret, which is not much of a secret, is that I have never been mistaken for a good looking revolutionary (alas).  If you ask what I myself will keep, the answer is, I will keep my money — far away from the hands of Thompson Hotels.

That I promise.

Frank Gehry Scores Big With Disney Concert Hall

Monday, May 4th, 2009

As with all great works of architecture, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (completed in 2003) richly rewards visitors willing to engage their senses, reconnoiter the structure, enter its interior courtyards, experience the squeeze and release through tight and open spaces, enjoy its forms and gestures, admire its skin in changing light, absorb its physical beauty, and breathe sympathetically with its rhythms.

Professional photographers of the structure usually try to capture the totality of its iconic presence, highlighting the mass of shapes Gehry based on sailing, “wing on wing, the wind behind you.”

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Rarely is the building photographed from a ground level perspective directly across South Grand Avenue.  (In the photo above, you see a bit of the street’s asphalt in the lower left corner.)  This may be for the simple reason that the six-lane corridor is a noisy crossing, a sorry, off-putting, quotidian presence estranged from the visionary building emerging from its flank.  Then too, Gehry fans may be avoiding photographing the site from that perspective for fear of adding support to a common criticism of Gehry’s designs: that his buildings do not seem to relate “organically” to their surroundings.  And yet by standing on the east side of South Grand Avenue you’ll find yourself in the best position to see a defining architectural detail.

Google Maps, through its street view function, allows you to “walk” — or more accurately, to “drive” — past the street level facade.  Unfortunately, individual photos taken from the drive-by Google Van are of disappointing quality, as evident in the two screenshots below.

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Flickr and other photo sharing sites contain pictures with finer resolution.  Here is a virtually identical shot, from a slightly more oblique angle (credit: core.formula on Flickr):

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Finally, here is a full frontal shot, apparently taken from across the street (the ideal vantage point), looking straight-on at the sidewalk entrance to the building:

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All four photos include the detail that is of interest to me.  Focus for a moment on the base of the composition and the single, wide, rectangular shape that swoops across and projects outward from the building.  Of the dozen or so curving pieces or individual “sails” that comprise the skin of the structure, this one stands apart somehow.  Viewed unkindly, you might conclude it is an afterthought, an empty, ungainly, tacked-on piece, a doodle, a patch protecting the lowest portion of the building.  I disagree.  I think  it is different for a reason.  There are clues, if we open our eyes.

This particular piece has a more subtle rotation, is less of an arabesque, and more of a standard shape, than the other pieces.  Although made of unadorned sheet metal (stainless steel), it manages also to look like a blank billboard, floating with no apparent support above glass walls and doors.  Stretched horizontally with a slight incline from left to right, the entire form seems to be lifting up to grant you entrance to the ground floor.  Viewed in isolation, it is a kind of tabula rasa.

So, if the other individual pieces are whimsical cut-outs, enjoyable for their own sakes, what extra meaning does this frontal plane possess?  What does it remind you of?  What is it referencing?  Or, to ask the question another way, what do you want to project upon it?

One reference, consistent with the theme of the building as a whole, might be to a nautical flag flowing in a sustaining light breeze.  Although this is a reasonable thought, I think Gehry’s intention was something else entirely.

On closer inspection you notice ten horizontal lines of crimping, ten visible seams if you count the top and bottom edges as “lines.”  (This is best seen in the next-to-last photo above; in person, the lines are even more plain to the eye.)  As a matter of engineering, of course, these lines are merely the residue of a structural technique binding expanses of sheet metal, lapping the pieces together.  You may also notice that scores of  individual stainless steel sheets are the constituent notes making up the whole.  These small units (rectangles positioned horizontally) together compose a similarly-shaped, but much larger form.  This may be an example of a phenomenon mathematicians call self-similarity.

The horizontal, seamed striations lend a pronounced grain to the convex swoosh, reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s brushstroke paintings and prints from the mid-1960s:

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So we have an unfurled nautical flag and the choreography of a painter’s brushstrokes — both suitable ideas to associate with the architecture of this cultural center.   But I return again to the singularity of that expansive sheet above the entrance, to its discernible separateness even while it participates in the dance of the overall composition.  I think it wants to communicate something on its own.

It wants to sing.

Step back a moment and ask, What is the purpose of this complex building?  To house a particular form of art: music.  Philosophers devoted to the study of aesthetics consider music to be the highest form of art.  Music is unencumbered by the compromise of physical form.  It avoids constraints afflicting sculpture, dance, and architecture.  Goethe declared that architecture is frozen music.  It would not be surprising if a thoughtful and gifted architect such as Frank Gehry, tasked with designing a grand physical container for music making, were to choose to comment on this subject somewhere in his design of the Disney Concert Hall.  I think what Gehry decided to say is writ large in that floating blank sheet with ten horizontal lines.  Or, inching closer to the answer, he’s saying something ought to be writ large there.

As in Poe’s The Purloined Letter, the object of our search may be hidden in plain sight, so obvious that it becomes all too easy to overlook.

Remember that Gehry is a leader in adopting new tools to assist in the visualization, modeling, and execution of his visionary designs.  A man who cares passionately about the tools of architecture would no doubt reflect on the tools of the sister art, music, that his commission has bound him to serve.  (A side note: When I attended the final performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s inaugural season at Disney Hall, I saw Gehry and his wife in their customary seats; the architect is an inveterate concert-goer.)

What I believe Gehry has chosen to emblazon across the entrance to his work is a replica of — an homage to — the essential tool for the communication and dissemination of music.  Here is the transformation:

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The Grand Staff of music — a framework upon which notes are marked in relation to ten lines, five above middle C and five below — has in Gehry’s hands become a grand architectural gesture.  Remember also that this place is the Walt Disney Concert Hall — a place where imagination, creativity, and engineering magic can turn a pre-scored skin of metal into a giant treble clef (there to hold an unfolding melody) and an equally giant bass clef (there to host a supportive harmony).

A place where music begins.

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UPDATE 07-13-2009:  A different Lichtenstein print, created in 1995, recently came to my attention.  Roy and Frank, humming the same tune:

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