Monthly Archives: July 2021

L.A. Confidential

Recent headlines have come out about a sequel to L. A. Confidential with Chadwick Boseman, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce attached to it that Warner Brothers inexplicably turned down. That would’ve been a movie to remember, and a timely one, too. Nothing speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement like the script of this 1990s movie, where the longstanding hidden curriculum of police work is spelled out in black and white. Would’ve been another instant classic, but it’s just like a big studio to turn down a thought-provoking script in favor of King Kong vs. Godzilla and the like.

But at least we still have the original. And at long last, I’ve found a Psalm that captures the chemistry between Russell Crowe and Kim Bassinger in L. A. Confidential. This poem is based on the 63rd Psalm.

You would know, Lynn. I came to see you.
My throat went dry when I saw you smile,
and my skin tingles to stand near you
in this wasteful city of strangers.
Just so, in your dressed set, I saw you,
a vision – a nyad in satin.
For an act of kindness from you, I’d lay down my life.
Your name haunts my lips.
With soft curses I lay at your door
all the troubles L.A. thanks no one for.
The sight of you is an opulent feast,
and to meet your lips is a show of praise.
Yes, I am thinking of you in my work.
Through the pale night-watches I dwell on you.
For you would have tried to ease things for me,
in your tender resentments I sensed real love.
My restless body clings to yours,
for your sensuality feeds mine.
Men with hidden agendas stalk me now –
a worthless lot who will feed the worms.
The mock justice they dragged me into
will be their undoing – death on the street.
And Hollywood won’t bat an eye,
old L.A. will keep to its sultry ways,
and the lies they planned to tell will be forgotten.

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Filed under Corruption, Dream Ensemble, L.A. Confidential, Poetry

Ludovico Einaudi – Waves

I opened up a book of early poems by William Butler Yeats the other day, and I read “The White Birds” while listening to some piano music about the ocean by Ludovico Einaudi. I discovered Einaudi from some of the more enchanted moments in the soundtrack to Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner. I’ve been wanting to write some poetry about Einaudi’s music ever since.

But this short poem for Yeats and Einaudi quickly became just another poem about ocean plastic. I can’t think of anything but plastic when I picture the beach. Even listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful album Waves, all I can smell is trash from the dumpsters where the seabirds feed, now that the oceans contain more plastic than fish.

Plunge again in the water, dive deep in the foam –
count the lost inland seabirds who called these waves home.
Tangled in netting from hungers long spent,
the seashore rewrites all – the white birds have left.
The lily-like creatures of reef and abyss
turn empty glass faces toward ours, and we miss
the companionship wild geese and gulls mocked in us,
when we nodded to see them and bribed them to fuss
over all of our comings and goings – they’ve gone
up the rivers to forage from dumpsters that spawn
around cities we once fled to come to the sea.
Their detritus now covers all we can see.

Sorry to be so grim today. But here are some beautiful deep sea creatures to take your mind off the ugliness of it all.

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Filed under Directing, Music, Poetry, The Water Diviner

Man of Steel

I hesitated to watch Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, not sure if I could enjoy watching Russell Crowe (who plays Superman’s real father, Jor El) hang out of an airplane by two dislocated shoulders while doing his own stunts (as usual), but this movie was a happy surprise for me – a thrill ride with lots of heart, and one that stays emotionally grounded enough to have meaning today, even with the good ol’ Planet B trope in play.

This sonnet is in Clark Kent’s voice, after the film takes place, looking back on his father Jor El’s message for him with the eyes of a reporter who has seen the crisis of climate change impending on all fronts at once, when he finally understands what his father meant about helping Earthlings learn from Krypton’s mistakes.

To send me worlds away from all you’d known,
and in me, send the sum of all your dreams,
our people’s only hope – and to disown
our dying planet’s mountains, hills and streams –
took madness, or the genius of the damned.
In me, you saved mere possibility,
the hope that I would offer up my hand
to Earth’s inhabitants, and set them free
of their great fear of the unknown – to show
these people how to learn from other worlds
what peril lies in reckless waste – that no
mistake is deadlier than habit curled
in on itself in blind constraint – the need
to curb the sheer momentum of mass greed.

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Filed under Man of Steel, Poetry

A Beautiful Mind – Alicia Nash

In the movie A Beautiful Mind, the later years of John’s battle with schizophrenia are glossed over into a sort of happy ending, in which he takes the newer meds, and through sheer willpower (a “diet of the mind”), resists the temptation to slip back into delusional ideation.

The real John Nash had been so traumatized by his early experiences with psychiatric care, that he didn’t trust the new meds, and continued to battle psychotic symptoms for the rest of his life. But Alicia really did stay by his side, no matter what. Jennifer Connelly won a well-deserved Oscar for her performance in this role, opposite Russell Crowe.

This poem, based on the 62nd Psalm, recognizes the role she played in helping him keep his soul alive, even when his mind was unrecognizably sunk in the torturous labyrinths of paranoia.

Only my wife can quiet my soul.
From her love comes the only respite.
Alicia holds fast – my anchor at sea,
my shelter – by her side, I stand tall.
These assaults on my mind are relentless –
a murderous effort to break my will –
just as one tears down a leaning wall,
or rips out an unsteady fence.
My achievements threatened their spy games.
With relish they snared me in their lies.
Using terms of compassion and help
they undid me and locked me away.
Only our love can quiet my fears,
for Alicia alone holds out hope.
Only she stands between me and ruin,
holding them back – I won’t be fooled again.
Alicia redeemed me, unswerving,
my constant guide in the labyrinth.
Always remember the strength of love.
Open your heart and for once, have faith.
Love is the wellspring of timeless truths.
All our other convictions – mere breath,
the teachings of scholars stand empty.
When weighed against all our fine theorems,
a passing breath is more substantial.
Place no trust in state secrets and lies,
don’t imagine these spooks have your back.
Code-breaking may be your living,
but it cannot become your life.
When my wife tells me one thing,
it’s two things I hear:
that strength resides only in love,
and that her strength has always been kindness.
For she weighs my worth by my courage.

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Filed under A Beautiful Mind, Acting, Dream Ensemble, Roll Credits

ZZ Packer – a riff on a short story

This gem of a short story in ZZ Packer’s eponymous collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, really took me back to freshman year in college, and all the tensions I felt among my new college ‘friends’. The poem I wrote in response doesn’t do the story justice, but I couldn’t resist trying.

Against Yale’s brick and mortar edifice,
our question marks about ourselves wore thin,
a trying-on, a test that’s hit-or-miss,
the sort of test we’d skipped, to not fit in.
The shabby drills of funerals caught out
the repartee we lived for – cryptic, crabbed
and always quick to hang its hat on doubt –
the rules of death, for us, no less exact.
In the event, one dreams of Istanbul,
of coffee on the Bosporus, away
from childhood’s traps – al through the strain a full
day of mourning puts on you – just to stay
lucid and connected with the future
you still had the day before: you daydream
and you try not to remember her.
I couldn’t say that, without starting to seem
like the sort of person who holds you,
when all you want is to cry and be held.
Nothing I said would have made that sound true,
no matter how reflexively my heart swelled.

This book of short stories is for people who don’t normally go in for literary short stories. Beautiful, compelling, deeply personal and utterly refreshing writing that speaks to the here and now with real scope and clout.

No time for a new book? For a quickie from ZZ, check out her Trump-era essay for NYT Magazine on civility and civil society in an age of polarized politics. Reading this essay alongside descriptions of entire factories of professional internet trolls clocking in to send hatespeech from work in Peter Pomerantsev’s book This is Not Propaganda is really frustrating.

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Filed under False controversies, Poetry, Puppy love

A Passage to India – Sonnet 5

Victor Banerjee’s performance as Dr. Aziz in David Lean’s A Passage to India really stole my heart. He brings the lived experience of the Raj for Indian professionals into our living rooms, and he does it with a gentle charisma, giving us a point of view character who is at once vulnerable and guarded, even with his friends.

Banerjee doesn’t pull any punches in the emotional roller-coaster of a diligent professional’s daily struggles trying to come to his own terms with the casual and unthinking injustices perpetrated by English colonists – their class solidarity and shameless racism. This sonnet is in the voice of his Dr. Aziz, as a continuation of the letter he sends to Adela Quested in the final scene of the film.

Against the backdrop of the swelling plain,
our differences looked trifling and tame –
and now that all is said and done, this same
exhaustion with the world smacks of disdain.
What little motives brought us to this pass –
what rancorous assumptions and half-truths
our trial brought forth! Yet with the grace of youth,
you cast aside the lies of tribe and class.
Surrounded by my children and my friends,
I write to you with gratitude – despite
the foolish things you said, when you took fright
and kowtowed as a wind-whipped sapling bends.
The fears you faced down on the stand were real;
in facing them, you bought me time to heal.

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Filed under Acting, Judy Davis, Poetry

A Passage to India – Sonnet 4

I finally finished David Lean’s A Passage to India today, and I can say now with conviction, they don’t make movies like this one any more. The subtlety of the performances from Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee in the last act of the film really took my breath away.

And David Lean creates space for their quieter artistic choices rather than boxing them into a crescendo-series the way so many directors do in contemporary film. You don’t come to epic set pieces expecting something like this nowadays. You look back on the first two acts of the film as you watch their character arcs come to a fitting conclusion, and you can see how every little detail in their artistic choices realizing these roles sets up the climax and denouement flawlessly.

Now I can really see why Russell Crowe tells people he wants to be the next Judy Davis.

This sonnet is in Adela Quested’s voice, trying to make sense of her own actions in hindsight, after the conclusion of the rape trial.

While she is on the stand, we are given a momentary flash-back to a moment on the slope, approaching the Marabar caves, when she clasped Dr. Aziz by the hand for support as she struggled against heat exhaustion and pressed on with him alone. And when giving testimony, she takes us back to a conversation the two of them had during a short rest in their climb. Mr. Fielding, trying to help her make excuses after the trial, suggests that it was suggestion alone that drove her to make the accusation – all along, he suspected she was surrounded by people who mistrusted Indians wholesale, and that this was the whole trouble.

In the end, we are left with the impression of a sensitive young woman who does not quite fit in anywhere, too alert to the contradictions that surround her station in the British Empire to make herself at home in the world.

The sense of touch, the recognition there
of conversations huddled on the brink
of truths we would not speak, but sought to share,
brings waves of vertigo each time I blink.
So many featherweight assumptions press
upon me from well-wishers – when I stayed
the course, I muddled through under duress,
unwilling to disown the scene I’d made.
The horror of the self alone pursued
me down the slope from those unblinking caves,
and how could I explain? Our friends seclude
themselves away from mirrors and close shaves
with self-reflection – they abhor self-doubt,
and cannot feel the fears I dream about.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry, Roll Credits

A Passage to India – Sonnet 3

While watching A Passage to India, David Lean’s adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, I’ve begun reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s prison letters to his 10-year-old daughter, Indira Gandhi, who went on to become the Prime Minister of India (twice), like her father before her.

I discovered this little gem of a children’s book through a sweeping history of one of the world’s most vibrant new democracies, India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha, who is now my favorite history writer of all time. Guha’s history of India is rich in personal detail, while still remaining epic in scope and searchingly powerful in the variety of perspectives it brings to bear on each chapter in India’s eventful recent history.

Reading these letters (from 1931) today, while watching the third act of the movie, gave a special poignancy to the story. This sonnet is about Peggy Ashcroft’s Academy Award-winning performance as the Englishwoman Mrs. Moore.

Here, Mrs. Moore looks out on the moon’s reflection in the Indian ocean from a steamer on which she has left India alone, spurned by her son, the colonial magistrate, who has just refused bail to her friend, Dr. Aziz, on the grounds that his fiance (her friend Miss Quested) accuses Dr. Aziz of attempted rape, during an expedition to the eerie and remote Marabar caves.

To look upon the moonlight on the deep,
I cannot help remembering Aziz,
not as he is, but as we met – I keep
returning to that scene, the great Ganges,
the modesty with which this doctor smiled
to share the view with me, as if he knew
my heart the way an unassuming child
can read our minds at once – and as I do,
my very being stutters at the thought
that our encounter led him on to this
appalling consequence. Those empty caves,
so full of what we bring to them, and not
what we would take again – all that’s amiss
re-echoes in distorted, ceaseless waves.

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Filed under Acting, Corruption, Directing, Judy Davis, Poetry, Roll Credits

A Passage to India – Sonnet 2

I just read a review of Amartya Sen’s memoirs of India, and the review makes some telling points about the British Raj and its self-styled legacy. While I’m not ready to start a new book (still reading Ramachandra Guha’s epic India After Gandhi), Sen’s book sounds like a good companion piece to David Lean’s A Passage to India, which I’ve been watching in small chunks this week, to get a glimpse of the early Judy Davis, one of Russell Crowe’s all-time favorite actors.

In this scene, Adela Quested (played with understated charisma in this scene by Judy Davis) has just had a fight with her fiancé, the stiff-backed colonial magistrate, over his incivility to two Indians who were her companions at a small party hosted by another dignitary of the Raj. She needs a break from the awkward family circle at her fiancé’s fancy bungalow, and goes out cycling alone, where she comes across a ruined tantric temple guarded only by wild monkeys.

This set was built for the David Lean film, but in faithful imitation of an actual temple at Khajuraho. The scene is quite controversial with fans of the novel and play that inspired the film, as it does not appear in either one, and is far more explicit in exploring Adela’s sexuality than Forster’s book. The following sonnet was written without the benefit of having read the book or seen the rest of the film (yet).

A wind that runs before the noonday sun
cut through the palmy grass, unveiling sights
a bride might half-suspect, so far from Eton,
far more wondrous than the Marabar heights.
I slowed my bicycle to study each
rapturous frieze in this strange pantheon
of demi-gods, as if stone busts could teach
the ornament of love to anyone.
Perhaps it’s true that marriage cannot make
one know the other – even so, we reach
for what is of ourselves to give, and take
to us the trappings of a bond we would not breach.
The demons of the animal in us
drive out pure-minded thoughts of paribus.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry

Ladyhawke

This movie dates me, but it’s also a timeless classic. Starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick, Ladyhawke tells the mythical story of a knight and his lady, cursed by an evil bishop to inhabit the forms of hawk and wolf in alternation between night and day, so that though they are together forever, they cannot simultaneously take human form. Helped by the thief nicknamed Mouse, they search for a way to break their curse.

Michelle Pfeiffer is unforgettable in this film, and this poem (based on the 61st Psalm) is a love song addressed to her Isabo from her dark knight in shining armor, who guards her human form by night as a wolf, and carries her as a hawk on his arm by day.

Hear me, Isabo, this is my wolf song,
and in it burns a constant heart’s lost prayers.
From the wreck of creation I call you.
When I falter, you lead my gaze upward.
In the coldest nights you have sheltered me,
and by day you fly hard at my foes.
Let me dwell in your dreamlight always,
and rest my head in your wings’ hidden folds.
For once, our God has acknowledged my vows,
and has granted a way to break our curse.
Days though it adds to the bishop’s long life,
this eclipse will defy his black magic.
May this troublesome thief know solace, too.
God’s kindness alone is his surety.
I sing out her name with a wolf’s lone might,
for my vow to Isabo sustains me.

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Filed under Music, Poetry