Saturday, July 3, 2021

Quentin Tarantino's Helter Skelter Theory of Narrative

 


“It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon." 

That's the first line of "Helter Skelter," the legendary true crime recounting of the Tate-LaBianca murders masterminded by Charles Manson - grisly killings that stamped themselves on the collective memory of America, fusing the upheaval of the 1960s, with what Greil Marcus once referred to as "The Old, Weird America," and the enduring blood and death mythos of Hollywood. 

That opening, written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, tells the real story of what happened over two nights in California in 1969. A crew of hippie castoffs were inspired to commit a string of bizarre, motiveless murders that struck down "the Beautiful People" of the time, reducing them to "pigs" seemingly deserving of dehumanizing slaughter. That kind of story would seem an obvious draw to a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. Thus his 2019 film, "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood."

But two years later comes Tarantino's first novel, bearing the same title. On one level, you can say it tells the same story, but that would also be false, just as false as the Hollywood ending he gave the murder of Sharon Tate and four others in his movie. 

The book subverts an obvious Hollywood tradition - the movie tie-in novelization, which usually appears at the same time as the film, for maximum monetization. And just like the time it celebrates, Tarantino's book comes in a retro, mass-market paperback edition that calls to mind hundreds like it available in second-hand bookstores across the country, their yellowed, dog-earred pages awaiting a new generation of readers anxiously turning the pages to keep their copies from falling apart. 

The 400-page book also subverts another strategy - the tie-in following the movie, note-for-note, a prose re-rendering of the film, with some expansion of character motivations, but a work subservient to the screen, the prose usually reflecting a tight deadline. This book comes advertised as, "The new novel based on the film." 


Before I get to the book, it's necessary to talk a little about the film. "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" tells the story of aging screen actor Rick Dalton, a once-promising television star, perpetually knocking on the door of big time features, who never quite got the same break as contemporaries such as Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. It's now the 1960s, and his career appears to be sinking as the needs of Hollywood change with the permissiveness of the times. Rick is the past, as is Cliff Booth, Rick's friend, stuntman and gofer, a no-nonsense veteran who is also playing out the string on Rick's payroll. Hovering in the background of their careers is Rick's next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate, who the audience knows, died at the hands of the Manson family on Aug. 9, 1969.

James Cameron's "Titanic" tells another familiar story - the sinking of the ocean liner - but takes three-and-a-half hours to tell the story. The audience knows what's going to happen - but Cameron gives you Rose and Jack and their love story so that you will learn to care about them, and thus, care about the tragedy of more than 1,500 people. Spoiler: The ship is going to sink. The iceberg cannot be stopped. The twain shall converge. 

But "Once Upon a Time" is a comedy, and the unsuspecting audience enters the film with the knowledge of the Tate murders hovering menacingly in the background, providing steadily escalating tension. "How's this going to end?" they wonder, knowing there's nothing remotely funny about a young, beautiful woman in her ninth month of pregnancy being stabbed to death. Then Tarantino transforms Chekhov's gun into a flamethrower, and the Manson killers into slapstick villains getting their just deserts, at least on the screen. Rick is then invited up to an evening with Sharon, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, all very much alive. Their show must go on. And by this ending, we barely care that the two hours of meandering plot we spent with Rick and Cliff have virtually no connection to this ending.

For his novel, Tarantino takes a different course. The movie ending -Cliff's dog dispatching Tex and Katie, Rick frying Sadie - are dispatched in a few pages relatively early in the novel. We even get a look into the future to see how Rick's career benefited from his exploits against the Family. This tells us that our experience in prose will be different. In Tarantino's 400 pot-boiler pages, we are treated to elaborate backstories for Rick, Cliff, Sharon Tate, and the Family member Pussycat. Pulpy chapters of fake western storylines unfold. The director unpacks pages and pages of films and television shows - some real, some fake - until we are unsure where the real world ends and this alternate universe begins. Which is interesting, because most of the novel is situated in the very real business of Hollywood make-believe. 

The point - as with most of Tarantino's work - is cinema, the magic of getting a roomful of people to stare at a screen of rapidly moving still images, an illusion reflecting an illusion, and have their lives melt away by the intellectual force of the story unfolding before them. There's a passage, familiar to the film, where Sharon Tate takes in a matinee of "The Wrecking Crew" in order to judge the audience's reaction to her taking on pratfall comedy. But in telling the story, the director Tarantino recounts a story of Tate's husband, the director Roman Polanski, and a particular shot in "Rosemary's Baby." Why did he insist on framing the shot in a particular way? Sharon learns months later when she sees the film and watches hundreds of people crane their necks simultaneously in order to see something the shot obscures - something they obviously can't do. 

"Why did he do it?

Because he could." 

That could serve as an adequate explanation for why Tarantino decided to give us this novel, not quite a companion piece to the film, or a compliment to the film, but something else entirely. We learn that Cliff, personable fellow he is, is nonetheless a calculating killer who holds his instincts in check most of the time, Bruce Lee notwithstanding. Rick is a drunk because he's undiagnosed bipolar. Pussycat became a member of the family because Charlie Manson bribed her father by pimping out family members to him. 

There are plenty of examples of Tarantino's flair for dialogue. One also gets the idea that Q understands the differences between his preferred medium and the printed page. A chapter where Pussycat breaks into a home, with Charlie's disembodied voice following her, goading her, instructing her, is well-done and succeeds in rendering something close to the spooky mystery of the real Manson on the page. And in the extensive fake filmographies Tarantino renders, he even places himself at the helm of a film in the 1990s that he never made. 

The book also shares the film's celebration of a kind of male bonding and unconscious, oblivious masculinity that contemporary pop culture feels uncomfortable with. We know that Cliff is smarter than Rick, but Rick, with his constant grousing about his career and the course of his life, his proud ignorance, his thin skin, is both calculating and taciturn, and ultimately, a survivor. We get the impression that Tarantino wants us to acknowledge there is a kind of epic grandeur in cast-off cowboys, fighting against the demands of time and audience. This world of make-believe is real. In page after page, we understand that Tarantino truly loves his menagerie of serviceable TV westerns, Italian spy knockoffs, vaguely erotic European thrillers, bubble-gum rock, and 8-track tapes, where Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Jim Stacy are constantly downing drinks at some obscure California bar, swapping stories. 

If there is another discernible theme hidden in the novel, it is hidden in plain sight and shared with the film - the possibilities that brood behind every second of our lives. In "Once Upon a Time," Sharon Tate does not die. We do not know if she had a healthy baby, or if her marriage improbably survived the sixties, given what we know of Polanski's private life. She would be 78 years old at the publication of Tarantino's novel, and we would presumably know if her career ever fulfilled the promise that eluded her in life. But we know from the book that Rick becomes a regular guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where perhaps he was asked, yet again, to tell the story he grudgingly recounts three times in the book - how close he came to getting the role in "The Great Escape" that eventually went to Steve McQueen. 

This was a plot point in the film, but it gets more of a workout in the book. One reason for this story is McQueen's position in the mythos of "Helter Skelter" - he was almost in the Tate residence the night of the murders, and had supposedly been marked for death by the Manson family. But not only is Rick asked to recount the story several times, he is brought face-to-face with McQueen outside the gates of the Cielo Drive house. When Rick gives the story a final airing out, he attempts to destroy it. His point - he was never going to get the part. Yet the story dogs him, because of the tantalizing possibility of what his career might have been. He can't allow himself to go down that road, no matter how much he might want to. It's worthy of mention that, as Tarantino gives us a limited view of what becomes of some of his characters in the years to come, he omits Sharon Tate. But the nature of tragedy is not limited to her. Jim Stacy, after his time on"Lancer," lost an arm in a motorcycle accident to a drunk driver. He made a comeback, but eventually pleaded no contest to molesting an 11-year-old girl. After fleeing to Hawaii and attempting suicide, Stacy served a six-year prison sentence, before eventually dying of anaphylactic shock after receiving an antibiotic injection. He could have used several alternate outcomes.

The point is the movies, even between the pages of the book. The personalities at war with each other on sets, the compromises and coaxings needed to get performances on film, the vagaries of screen personas and how they are used to lead an audience, making careers rise and fall. The book ends, not in August with Rick and Sharon unaware of what happened in our world, but back in the Spring of 1969, with Rick on the phone with young costar Trudi Frazer, going over lines the night before a big scene, so that the show will go on, as it must. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The True Account: The Gospels - a new translation by Sarah Ruden

 


About fifteen years ago, I was standing in a museum on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, looking at a small, 2,000-year-old limestone box, an ossuary, which had once held the bones of someone from 1st Century Palestine. Discovered in Jerusalem in 1990, the box bore an inscription in Aramaic, “Yehosef bar Qayafa" - Joseph, son of Caiaphas. It is the opinion of some scholars that this held the bones of Caiaphas, the high priest who conducted the trial of Jesus. This man, at one time, heard another man standing before him speak these words, "You'll see the son of mankind sitting to the right of the power and coming with the clouds of the sky."

Looking at that box, I realized I was quite possibly standing at one remove from a physical link to the story that has dictated and dominated my life. I am a Christian. I gave my life to Christ at the age of seven in a Southern Baptist church in Alabama. I have taught Sunday School at two churches for almost 20 years. I read the Gospels twice a year. But looking at this stone box was sobering and exhilarating - I am separated in so many ways from the story I have told so many times.

I was reminded of this reading Sarah Ruden’s new translation, “The Gospels.” Yeshua ben Yosef – otherwise known as Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, the Christ – spoke a different language than I do. He lived on another continent in another time. The Jesus I know through my church has passed down through two millennia worth of cultural and linguistic compromises – some would say distortions. The fellowship he enjoyed with his followers is utterly alien to my experience, and that of many in the 21st century church. Jesus didn’t go to covered dish suppers. He wasn’t taught with felt boards at Vacation Bible School, then offered a cookie and Kool-Aid. He took few recorded political stands and never needed to tell someone who to vote for. He told his followers they had to be willing to give up their mothers and fathers, and even hate themselves, to be his disciples. 

Some people reject this outright. Others are fine with the spirit of the message but not at all at home among Jesus' professed followers. Some people try a compromise – and listen to the parts of the Gospels that make them feel better. Some are uneasy not just with the words, but how we received them and how they’ve been passed down. Others are OK with the idea of Jesus but made uneasy by the actual words on the page, regardless of how we got them.

What Ruden does is go back to the actual words on the page – the Greek manuscripts settled on by scholars from surviving copies, and translate them into a rough, readable English. The result is a reminder that the Gospels are undeniably the most successful persuasive texts in human history. It’s also a reminder that they succeed largely because of their subject matter, and not because of their authors’ particular gifts. 

To begin with, the Gospels are a weird quartet of books. I say weird because they are written in Greek and recount moments that happened among people who spoke Aramaic. Their four authors come from different cultural backgrounds – Jewish, Greek and Roman. They purport to mix eyewitness accounts with recounted stories. We aren’t sure when they were written. Some scholars date them within 50 years of the events recounted. I’m no scholar, but I tend to agree with those who date them earlier. Full disclosure – I am not a Biblical scholar but a believer in every aspect of the Nicene Creed. So if you ask me how I feel about the Gospels, I will say that they are real and I believe what they report is genuine. 

Ruden's translation is not for everybody. Her decision to render God in lowercase, to reflect the way the word appears in the original manuscript, may rub many as irreverent. Reviewers have also called attention to her decision to give us the names in the original Greek. Thus, Jesus is “Iēsous,” John the Baptist is “Iōannēs the Baptizer,” and so on. Instead of Apostles, they are “envoys.” Mostly, they are “students” instead of disciples, which I kind of prefer. Some readers will stumble over this. I found it slightly liberating. It renders the story as practically new, and no matter what name the Savior has, He is instantly recognizable.

Ruden states in her introduction that her aim is preserving the text’s style and content. Any translation is a negotiation, especially one over 2,000 years. Taking the actual words and transferring them into another language is a tricky business, especially in accurately capturing idioms that no longer exist. But she understands, on one level, what she’s working with. The point of the Gospels, she says, is Jesus.

“The Gospels are an inward-looking, self-confirming set of writings, containing some elements of conventional rhetoric and poetics but not constructed to make a logical or aesthetic case for themselves; the case is Jesus, so the words don’t stoop to argue or entice with any great effort, as if readers are supposed to have the choice to yawn or say “what?” or turn up their noses in the manner of an ordinary audience.”

As I said earlier, the Gospels success has not been largely because of how the message is conveyed, but the message itself, and the One giving it. There are moments of eloquence in the prose, but the memorable passages are almost solely the words of Jesus. But where the text itself is memorable, Ruden concerns herself with rendering the words as plainly and simply as possible. Accordingly, the opening of John’s Gospel, rendered in the King James as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God,” becomes, “At the inauguration was the true account, and this true account was with god, and god was the true account.” Instead of emphasizing Jesus as being one with God in speaking creation into existence, the sentence instead makes it clear that Jesus was also the ultimate truth of existence, and nothing exists without Him. The reader will have to decide if this is better, worse, or just different.  

To test her work, I read Ruden’s “The Gospels” largely aloud to myself, to pick up on any rhythms in the language. Some were recognizable as existing in other translations. But the best thing about this translation, for me, is how it takes very familiar passages and renders them almost new. The picture that emerges feels less polished, more human, more accessible, with the meaning unchanged. "Be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect" becomes "So be what you were meant to be, be complete, as your father in the sky is complete!" As she said, tone and point of view can depend sometimes on a single word. That, to my mind, is God dwelling in every "jot and tittle," to employ the King James language. As with everything else, the meaning, the severity, the importance of every word rests on how much faith one is willing to invest in the word.

There are little moments throughout the Gospels where small details, usually glossed over in other translations, emerge. As when Jesus says to Judas in the Garden, "Do what you came for, pal." By taking what's usually rendered "friend" and converting it to "pal," it's possible to see a Jesus who is resigned, disappointed, and unwilling to countenance any deceptions about what is happening to Him. I kept thinking to myself that, if the language was made even more contemporary, Jesus would have said “bruh” instead of pal. Instead of "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" Ruden gives us "You have it coming, scholars and Farisaioi, play-actors!" which sounds less formal and more menacing.

Ruden presents the Gospels in the order that scholars now think they were written – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. This allows you to see how the three Synoptic Gospels share episodes, and how they elaborate on them. I felt some of her footnotes were either unaware, or unwilling, to rely on the bulk of Biblical contextual thought to explain certain episodes, which leads her to cast doubt what is being recounted in relatively routine passages, such as the presence of troops when Judas betrays Jesus. 

Reading the Gospels can be a frustrating experience because of what the text doesn't say. For example, I would like to know more about the dynamics among the Apostles. Which one was the jokester? We know that a few had nicknames (The Twin, Sons of Thunder, the Rock) but what about the others? What were their backgrounds? We know one was a tax collector, and another was a Zealot - representing the two political extremes of the time. Were there any other indications about Judas before the end? There are other mysteries, of course - what happened to Jesus during his childhood? From the time in the Temple to the beginning of his ministry? Why does Joseph disappear from view after Jesus' adolescent episode? What about the individual stories of the people He healed? Matthew tells us that, when Jesus died on the Cross, "many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many." And that's it? No names? No details? The reason, though, is that the story is about Jesus. The story is always about Jesus. We are only told as much as we need to believe.

A personal confession here: The Gospel of John, of course, stands out from the other three as being the more personal reflection on Jesus, the most theologically bold, and the one with the longest passages of Jesus’ recorded teachings. I love the language of it, but there are parts of it that challenge me. The chapters toward the middle, where Jesus antagonizes his adversaries with long, complicated teachings, and his long goodbye to the disciples at the Last Supper, are sometimes hard going for me for reasons I haven’t been able to work out for myself. Jesus’ elaborations on how He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him, while not confusing, sometimes feel repetitive and I perceive I’m missing something. But I wouldn’t sacrifice a syllable of it all, because it reminds me that the text isn’t there for me to like. It renders Jesus to me in a way that challenges me, giving me only the barest idea of how challenging He could be in the flesh to his followers. The passage in Luke where Peter falls to Jesus’ feet and begs Him to leave, “Get away from me, because I’m a wrongdoer, master!” seems right on the money, for both the fisherman and me. 
 
The Jesus in John is not bashful about who He is - He is the Way, the Truth, the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the Resurrection and the Life. And just like my experience in front of the ossuary box, John corrects me with the knowledge that Jesus is infinitely more than I can imagine - not some vague cosmic force, but a personality, with ultimate wants and aims that I would be foolish to ignore or fight, even though I really give it a good try.

That’s why Ruden’s version of John - “The Good News According to Iōannēs” - is so welcome. She renders Jesus' grief at Lazarus' tomb in all of its pathos. For example, in a footnote, Ruden explains that the shortest verse, usually rendered as “Jesus wept,” employs a verb that depicts tears on the face. But in the surrounding verses dealing with his response to the death of Lazarus, Jesus “howled within, with his very life-breath.”

And the gentle kidding of Jesus in the 21st chapter of John when he asks the disciples from the seashore, "You don't have anything to nibble, youngsters?” This is the resurrected Jesus, playful, just before he needles Peter, while at the same time rehabilitating him after his denial, equipping him for the work ahead in leading the disciples.  

I grew up in a church with several hundred members. I walked the halls and remember those musty smells and the faded print of Jesus as a shepherd hanging on the wall. I associate the Gospels with many things that don't have anything to do with Roman occupied Judea, such as old deacons fumbling the collection plates in the vestibule and grape juice in plastic communion cups and the old school bus that took us to summer camps. For others, their memories of Bible verses and the politics in the pews carry much darker, less divine associations. But the Gospels exist, and I read them regularly, to steer myself toward their subject. Too much time away, and the Jesus we create in our minds is either too forgiving or not forgiving enough. He either laughs too easily at our jokes or cocks a fist over our fallen spirits. That Jesus cheers us on to overturn the tables in our Temple without His help, or shuts the door to ignore our knocking. Opening up the Gospels, we are confronted with the true face - welcoming and challenging, forgiving and formidable.

From Craig Blomberg’s “Jesus and the Gospels,” which is one of the best one-volume resources on the Gospels in my opinion: “Jesus, like his earliest followers, was convinced that how one responded to him was the most important decision anyone could make in his or her life. On this response hinges one’s eternal destiny.” If Ruden’s work has done anything, it has brought us that much closer to the real figure who stole away to Jerusalem out of sight, only to shout to the crowd in the ancient capital, “You do know me and where I’m from!”

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Bob Dylan's Apocalyptic Carousel


It's a moment when billions on the planet are locked inside their homes, fearful of a virus that condemns only a portion of those who fall ill to die without their families, choking for breath in their own fluids. Nations fall silent. Global commerce is slowed to a trickle. For not the first time in history, the structures of government, business, entertainment and religion, insulated for so long in their own technology and assumptions about the world, lie helpless before a silent, microscopic killer. The citizens of the world are reminded once again that they are mortal, that they can be held prisoner by forces that seem impersonal and uncaring to their individual stories. Whatever their plans were weeks ago, the only reality now for billions is the steady accumulation of time, of living day to day, hoping that this moment will pass and they will still be alive. It's a moment that calls to mind prophecy, fable, stories going back before recorded time.

And into the middle of that comes the longest song in Bob Dylan's nearly 60-year catalog. At midnight Friday, Dylan released "Murder Most Foul," a rolling, kaliedoscopic meditation which begins with the 1963 Kennedy Assassination and veers off into the collective unconsciousness; it is a work at home in Dylan's oeuvre, timely and timeless, playful and tragic. It also illustrates the weird alchemy that recorded music has with moments in time. "Murder Most Foul" would seem to have nothing to do with the moment it bursts into, yet, because of Dylan's place in the history of popular music, and the character of his work, it seems to have everything to do with the moment.


Bear with me while I restate a few details to set up a point. Bob Dylan began recording in 1961, obviously, during the Kennedy Administration. He came clothed in the garb of a folk singer, but Dylan did not just record murder ballads, old spirituals, songs of war and romance, handed down. Dylan wrote his own fresh material, but what  he called "finger pointing songs," their details borrowed from newspaper accounts, and anthems of the time with their images pulled from Scripture. It was after the Kennedy Assassination that Dylan began drifting away from the traditional platform and migrated to electric rock and roll. The long, playful, abstract tracks on his early albums morphed into long, free-association meandering parables, where jokes sit side-by-side with bits of philosophy, apocalyptic humor and seeming pseudo-poetic nonsense. "Murder Most Foul," at first listen, would seem to call back to that beginning, and tempt one to see it as a summation of Dylan's career and the sixties era that he, among others, represents in the public consciousness.

Through that prism, "Murder Most Foul" would seem to be at home with those early murder ballads. But what one hears isn't that. A murder ballad usually adheres to almost reportorial recounting of the basic facts of whatever story is being recounted. Think, for example, of Dylan's version of the classic "Stack-o-Lee"

Hawlin Alley on a dark and drizzly night,
Billy Lyons and Stack-a-Lee had one terrible fight.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.


Though it is unnecessary, as the facts are more or less engrained in the American imagination, it might be worthwhile to look at the lead story on the front page of The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1963, dictated by a weeping Tom Wicker from Dallas:

 DALLAS, Nov. 22 - President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today. He died of a bullet wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy's, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy's death. Mr. Johnson is 55 years old. Mr. Kennedy was 46. 
Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, described as a onetime defector to the Soviet Union, active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing. Oswald, 24 years old, was also accused of slaying a policeman who had approached him on the street. Oswald was subdued after a scuffle with a second police officer in a nearby theater.

"Murder Most Foul" begins with the scene setting, "It was a dark day in Dallas, November '63," and then meanders back and forth in time, Dylan scatting in and out of the moment, at least through the end of the first stanza (?), ruminating on the moment of the killing with observations (Greatest magic trick ever under the sun, Perfectly executed, skillfully done) and the thoughts of a faceless "we" either responsible for the crime, or responsible for the quick disposal of fate (We've already got someone here to take your place).
 By the second stanza, though, we're onto the Beatles, who released their second British album on Nov. 22 but wouldn't burst into the American scene until three months later. Then a few verses later Woodstock and Altamont, another six years down the road. Another few verses and we veer back, with mentions of the Grassy Knoll and "Don't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President" - the last words JFK probably heard in his life, uttered by Nellie Connally in the Lincoln limousine just before the first shot was fired. 

In a sense, the song is a cousin to "Tempest," Dylan's almost 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic, released in 2012. But that song was a more traditional folk ballad, which told the story of the ship and the passengers fighting for survival, with a few images from the James Cameron movie tucked in beside. But we see, on closer inspection, "Murder Most Foul" is not really a song about the Kennedy Assassination as an actual event. It might be more accurately described as a song about the Kennedy Assassination as a cultural event, with all of its funhouse of bizarre characters, conspiracy theories, memorable phrases, macabre imagery and pathos - tragedy as an moment of entertainment, sitting side-by-side with the movies, pop, soul and country music. What can one say about a lyric such as, "I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline" - an absurd, ridiculous phrase, so typical of Dylan's humor, that mixes Oswald's statement to reporters in the Dallas Police Headquarters with the doomed siren of country music.

It has become a lazy, shorthand explanation to say that the killing of John F. Kennedy was "the moment America lost its innocence." Some say the Sixties "began" with the killing, with all of the chaos and tragedy and societal change spiraling out of Oswald's Mannlicher Carcano rifle. Even Bobby Kennedy, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, was heard saying to one of his aides that he believed Oswald had unleashed something awful in the country. But a year before, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world stood under the very real possibility of global nuclear annihilation for almost two weeks. Two months before Dallas, the U.S. was horrified at the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Whatever innocence is mourned in retrospect did not disappear in the spray on Zapruder's film. 


Instead, almost 60 years in the past, the assassination is merely the tee upon which Dylan places his imagination, vaulting the president's motorcade into the ether so it can dwell in a kind of folk afterlife where Stack-a-Lee is always at Billy Lyon's throat, where Frankie and Johnny are poised for combat, where John Henry still swings his hammer and Tom Dooley waits for the noose. The song's final stanza has Dylan calling out from his own remembered list of great songs and memorable films, old movie stars and personalities, Houdini taking a place with Jelly Roll Morton, all toward a restatement of the title. 

"Murder Most Foul" is what the ghost of Hamlet's father, the slain Danish monarch, calls his own death in urging his son to avenge him. "Adieu, adieu, remember me," he says, before leaving his son to his dread purpose. In the film "JFK," the character of Jim Garrison likens Kennedy's killing to the murder of King Hamlet, that the country longs for a slain father figure. "Do not forget your dying king," he urges the jury, charged with wading into a conspiracy. By evoking Shakespeare, Dylan wraps his tale(?) in the words of the Bard. But it is his own, utterly unique vision, cranky and creaky and cryptic, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as viewed through a peep-hole in a tent at the county fair, when the viewer has just taken a puff from an exotic cigarette. Where Jacqueline Kennedy is the bearded lady, Oswald runs the target shooting booth, and Jack Ruby is the guy dickering with you over how big a stuffed animal you can ride home with. 

Home. At the moment, we are all trapped in our homes. Instead of the daily trickle of news, earthquakes, celebrity divorces, mass shootings, sexual scandals, we are witness to daily numbers, escalating exponentially, and the collective witness of mass spectacle. Celebrities and public officials urging people to stay indoors, to staunch the spread of COVID-19, give a phrase that calls back to war - "We're all in this together," even though we are all apart as never before. But in a strange way, that is what makes "Murder Most Foul" appropriate to the moment. Most people alive today did not live through the Kennedy Assassination, but they have experienced it in much the same way as the globe did in 1963 - through media. Most people who contract COVID-19 won't need hospitalization, or a ventilator. But those who don't get sick will long remember the television shots of corpses being loaded onto trucks, Twitter photos of exhausted doctors and nurses, and the long hours and shared terrors with friends and loved ones in their homes, waiting for it all to be over. 

I previously wrote about Bob Dylan here.
I wrote about the 50th anniversary of CBS's coverage of the Kennedy Assassination here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here. 
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here. 
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


Friday, January 17, 2020

The Hamlet Project: Richard Burton (1964)



Richard Burton’s Hamlet stands out amongst the “Hamlet” films as it is a filmed play – it was created during Burton’s 1964 run on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud. As such, it’s unique since it allows the audience to see the work as Shakespeare intended, on a stage, and with a great actor in command.

The film ran for a week in theaters and made an astonishing $6 million in that limited time. It survives because Burton kept a copy for himself when others were destroyed. It is not a conventional film, though it has different camera angles, close-ups, full stage views, but preserves the immediacy and intimacy of the stage. As the film opens, one can hear the crowd chatting before the curtain rises at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Some of them may be talking about Martin Luther King Jr. or President Johnson. The Beatles are in the midst of their first U.S. tour. And Burton is at the height of his fame, age 39, still basking in the aftermath of his affair with Elizabeth Taylor during the making of “Cleopatra.”Gielgud said Burton struggled not so much with the role as the suffocating nature of his fame as part of "Liz and Dick."

The play ran for 137 performances, and could have gone much longer except that Burton tired of it. The staging was reportedly the result of a bargain between Burton and Peter O’Toole, conceived during the filming of “Becket.” Burton appeared as the prince under the direction of Gielgud, but the play was staged in modern dress because of Burton's distaste for tights. The idea was to depict a “rehearsal” of the play, though the actors reportedly went through several variations before arriving at their “costumes.” Burton plays Hamlet in casual black. Gielgud “appears” as the ghost of King Hamlet, though only in a shadow projected against the wall, with a recording of his voice. There is very little staging, few props, a theater largely of the mind. 

It was the last time Burton tackled the role. He had previously played it to great acclaim in the UK, even for Winston Churchill at the Old Vic. Burton later said he could hear the old man's rumble from the seats, reciting the words with him syllable for syllable. "And I could not shake him off … in ‘To be or not to be’ he was with me to the death.” That was the same run where Gielgud supposedly came to Burton's dressing room to take him to dinner, but there were so many visitors that he begged off. "Shall I go ahead," Gielgud asked, "or wait until you're better - I mean, ready?" It was a story Burton loved to recount, a measure of respect for the actor. Unfortuntely, his turn as the ghost is our only filmed performance of Gielgud in the play. 

The film can only preserve so much. Cast member Alfred Drake, who played Claudius, said that Burton had a theory that Hamlet “could be played a hundred ways, and he tested every one of them. Within one scene, you might get Heathcliff, Sir Toby Belch, and Peck’s Bad Boy.” Knowing this, we must be aware that we are only getting this particular performance recorded. Yet Burton, showing what he could do on a stage, is playing to wake up the people in the cheap seats.

Acting on the stage is obviously different than film. To begin with, there's the presentation of the whole body. The stage actor has to be conscious of the face that the audience can take in the sight of their entire body - because of this, their body language becomes part of the performance in a way that does not always happen in film. The film of Burton's "Hamlet" makes this clear in several ways.

At the appearance of the ghost, he hunches over in fear. As the ghost describes his murder, Burton’s Hamlet clutches his ear as if to take out his father’s poison. He crosses himself repeating the ghost’s parting words, “Adieu, adieu.” At the moment he realizes what he must do – “Oh, cursed spite!” – his voice breaks in recognition of his inadequacy. Still, his presence in the play has some of the same problems as Olivier's – he is too old to convincingly play a student, his face too world-weary and weathered. When his knowing anger appears at the coming of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it’s hard to imagine him pausing in carrying out his father’s revenge.

Burton’s greatest gift as an actor was his incomparable voice, and he uses it to great effect throughout the play. "My whole concentration was on trying to remember the prose which is much more difficult than remembering the verse," he said. "I could recall the monologues with no trouble." 

But his performance threatens at times to overwhelm the rest of the cast. When Robert Milli’s Horatio says the ghost “harrows me with fear and wonder,” he hardly seems convincing. While Burton luxuriates in the rhythms of the language, some of the cast seem uneasy with the verses. Their movements, in the early going, seem stiff and reserved. Of course, the point of the play is not “realism,” but performance. It’s heightened reality, manic reality, “a fiction, in a dream of passion.” Gielgud later said his only help for Burton was to "show him how the more relaxed scenes were played so he wouldn't have to tear himself to shreds in scenes..."


The difference in cast members becomes more evident with the entrance of Polonius, played wonderfully by the scene-stealing Hume Cronyn. He ambles about the stage in business suit, leaning on his cane, flicking down his reading glasses, and spouting nostrums with self-satisfaction. His scenes questioning the would-be madman Hamlet (How say you by that?) ring all the comedy out of the lines. Cronyn isn’t treating Shakespeare as a holy text – he’s an actor embodying a role, not singing a song.

But there are times when Burton is. As Hamlet degenerates into his feigned madness, he struts and frets about the stage, slurs his words, holds his pauses, dances about in his own pleasure, and blows through the soliloquies occasionally at a speed that does not speak of reflection. This was particularly true of his “To be or not to be,” which seemed to come and go with hardly a ripple. Some of this is normal for a play, as an actor has to pace himself and hit the right moments, conserving energy. Perhaps this night, there were different areas where he wanted to hit the high notes.

I was particularly annoyed early in the play with Claudius, played by Alfred Drake. His presence seemed barely there to me, and his performance hardly rose at all to meet Burton through the first part of the play. But this was clearly his strategy, because he came to absolute life in his confession scene, and the character emerged in all three dimensions in a few seconds. Suddenly he wasn’t reciting Shakespeare with a cliched gravity but was a genuinely guilty, grieving man, confronted with the result of his crime. One can quibble with this direction though. Anyone with a knowledge of “Hamlet” knows what Claudius is up to from his first appearance. He’s of course, hiding in plain sight. Playing him as a man hiding his crime within the ceremony of office is one way to put a fresh face on the part. But I still felt Drake played it a little too nondescript in the beginning. His performance going forward until the end, though, redeemed some of the colorlessness of the early acts.

 And Burton kept finding ways to bring out the humanity in Hamlet as the play continued. His tearful scene with Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) showed the prince’s love for his mother with only a hint of the Freudian patina that mars so many mid-20th century productions. He puckishly kisses Claudius on the cheek as he leaves for England. And for me, his best scene was “How all occasions,” as his performance brought out all the shading and implications of the speech as a companion piece with “To be or not to be.” His Hamlet is now resolved, and ready to meet his fate. 

This reminds me of what Peter Ackroyd wrote of "Hamlet," that it is not necessarily a play where Hamlet declares who he is, but rather, who he is becoming. Burton's later speeches occasionally show flashes that Hamlet has emotionally moved from where he was at the play's beginning.

There was one interesting bit of staging in the final scene. Claudius retreats to the throne as Hamlet rushes at him with the poisoned cup. Claudius gasps and dies with his body sprawled on the throne. Hamlet, in his last lines, casts Claudius’ remains to the floor, points at his enemy, laughs in victory, and dies on his feet, slumping into Horatio’s arms. Horatio then places Hamlet's body on the throne, at last, just as Fortinbras enters to seize the kingdom, the unhappy rule of the turbulent prince ending before it could even begin.

And because of the film, we see an exhausted Burton, spent from his three-hour performance, noticeably heaving for breath on the throne when he’s supposed to be dead. The camera proves a more pitiless observer than the bored patron dragged to the theater by his wife for an evening on the town. 


Previously: Toshiro Mifune

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