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Art at the end of one year, start of another: Ballet, literature, music, film, radio

Monday 1/1/24

Closed out the year by attending Boston Ballet's penultimate performance--which is to say, the matinee--of The Nutcracker for 2023. Going to the ballet just does my soul good. I can lose myself in the ballet in a way that I can't with much else.

Listened again to that radio adaptation of M.R. James's "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," that was broadcast on December 24, 1963, with Michael Hordern as Parkins. Hordern has three "Whistle"-related works: This one, the 1968 TV film that essentially initiated the Ghost Stories for Christmas series, and a reading he did of the story, too.

I love Michael Hordern, but as an actor, I don't think he was the person for Parkins. The professor really ought to be in his twenties, or somewhere around thirty. He's this guy with limited life experience who thinks he knows it all, and that's a big part of the story. He's not a bad guy, which James takes pains to make plain to us. As James writes, Parkins deserves respect, despite being hen-like. This is a story I think very highly of. I think more and more of it as time passes. It's a great story. I like this 1963 radio adaptation, though it gets silly--the apparition not only talks--"It's me!"--but does so in a ridiculous voice that makes you think someone's pulling a joke. Hard to stage on the radio, that part--but, still, there was a better way to do it. Something about it makes it fitting for New Year's to me.

Reading more of Henry James's nonfiction. He writes well about Concord and the writers from there, even when he's wrong, as he is with Thoreau, whom he thinks well of, but as this provincial savant, like Thoreau is some amateur thinker and writer with this raw essentiality, you might say. That's inaccurate. I would suggest that no one has ever traveled more--truly traveled--across the whole of the globe than Thoreau traveled in the richer sense. James treats him as this elemental force, lacking control and finesse and polish, but these things aren't accurate either. That's fine. I don't need Henry James to be correct about Thoreau any more than I need James Agee to be correct about Out of the Past. I still want to read.

What's cool about James is how into neat things that he got. For instance, he loves the letters between Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, and the European journals of Hawthorne. This is the good stuff, right? It's like being especially into a bootleg of the Beatles performing on Swedish radio in October 1963 or Orson Welles's Making Othello or F. Scott Fitzgerald's notebooks, things I love so much. But they're things for people "in the know," of true, organic passions. For seekers.

Listened to the Grateful Dead play Winterland on 12/31/72, which I guess was really 1/1/73, because they came on at exactly midnight, following a countdown. Isn't that neat? The new year began and they were off playing Chuck Berry's "Around and Around." They did no less than three Berry songs at this gig--the others being "Promised Land" and "Johnny B. Goode." Are there any better interpreters of rock and roll's true bard than the Grateful Dead? I'm not sure there is. Grateful Dead New Year's shows were such swinging, dance-y affairs.

If I get enough done today maybe I can go see a Marx Brothers picture at the Brattle. Despite what I said about Alfred Hitchcock's American pictures the other day, I was impressed when I caught The Birds on TCM the other night with the scene at the school. I had talked about efficacious use of diegetic sound in It's a Wonderful Life, and the Hitchcock film makes excellent use of it as well with the school children singing "Risletee, Rostletee," which is based on the Scottish folk song, "Wee Cooper O'Fife," about a man who beats his wife because she doesn't perform what he has determined are her household duties. There's real menace in the ditty, and I think that comes across in the film.

The effectiveness of the scene is largely about the editing and the pacing. Tippie Hedren takes her seat outside, lights a cigarette, there's one bird, life is happening, life is happening, life is happening, and then...oh dear. Editing can pull forward so much terror when it's done well. Think about the Marley-visitation scene in Scrooge, or the creation scene of Frankenstein. Angles, pacing, the rhythm of the cuts. These scenes would be so different if they were done as master shots, with total camera coverage. We're also not fixated on the cutting, the editing, the compositing of meaning. But nor are we in life--we look here, we look there, we blink, we look down, our eye--and our mind--put certain things together, leaves others separate. Hitchcock's celebrated idea of "pure cinema" was often clumsily realized.

For instance, at the start of Rear Window, when we get shown a busted camera, photographs, magazines. I feel like that's lazy. Contrived. It's not terrible, necessarily, but it's not natural nor cinematically natural. But that sequence from The Birds is. Hitchcock also makes a greater effort to develop character in the picture. Just prior to this scene, we have that other one between Hedren and her potential beau's mother, when the latter is in bed. Hedren actually turns ninety-four on January 19.

Listened to Simon Callow's An Audience with Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol from 1996. That's good stuff. He's someone I admire. One of the few people with range. Writes a book on Wagner, writes a multi-volume biography of Welles, which is one of the very best biographies I've ever read--perhaps the best. And acts. Today I'll listen to radio adaptations of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man from 1936 and 1940 respectfully with William Powell and Myrna Loy reprising their roles as Nick and Nora. Good at all times of the year, and highly recommended for Christmas and New Year's.


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