Tuesday, April 10, 2012



Table of Contents

Statement of Purpose

A Battle with Both Sides Using the Same Tactics
Eudora Welty Losing Battles (1970) [fiction]

Exaggerated Realism
Charles Burnett Killer of Sheep (1977) [film]

Burying the Dead
Alfred Hitchcock The Trouble with Harry (1955) [film]

Distribution and Equilibrium in Stein's Three Lives
Gertrude Stein Three Lives (1909) [fiction]

Between Heaven and Hell
Richard Bruce Nugent Gentlemen Jigger (2008) [fiction]

Screwing Things Up
Robert Rauschenberg Canyon (1959) [art]

Archetypal America
Thornton Wilder Our Town (1938) [drama]

Capote's Cold Blood
Truman Capote In Cold Blood (1965) [non-fiction novel]

The Poetics of In and Out
Toby Olson The Bitter Half (2006) [fiction]

The Novel Against Itself
Gilbert Sorrentino Aberration of Starlight (1980) [fiction]

The Voice from the Body Lying Face Down in the Pool
Billy Wilder Sunset Boulevard (1950) [film]

Common and Uncommon Sense
Thomas Paine Common Sense (1776) [essay]

Up in Smoke
Leonard Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti (1952) [opera]

A World Detached
William Carlos Williams Spring and All (1923) [poetry/manifesto]

A Way Out
George Abbott, Douglass Wallop, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross Damn Yankees (1955) [musical]

In the Middle of Nowhere
Budd Boetticher The Tall T (1957) [film]

Hiding Out
Don DeLillo The Body Artist (2001) [fiction]

Anatomy of Self
Bernadette Mayer Eruditio ex Memoria (1977) [autobiographal writing]

A Necessary Remedy
Jane Bowles In the Summer House (1953) [drama]

Three Children of the Fifties
J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (1951) [fiction]
Vladimir Nabokov Lolita (1955) [fiction]
James Purdy Malcolm (1959) [fiction]

The Dreadful Hollow
William Faulkner As I Lay Daying (1930) [fiction]

State of Uncertainty
Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers Oklahoma! (1943) [musical]

Life Force
John Hawkes The Beetle Leg (1951) [fiction]

Abandonment, Involvement, and Surrender
Djuna Barnes Ryder (1928) [fiction]

A War Against Death
Marianne Hauser The Collected Short Fiction (2004) [fiction]

Creatures Afire
Jack Smith Flaming Creatures (1963) [film]

What Have We Reaped?
John O'Keefe Reapers (2005) [drama]

Answering the Sphinx
David Antin i never knew what time it was (2005) [talk pieces/performance]

Out of Step
Donald Ogden Stewart Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind (1923) [fiction-satire]

Starting Over
Stacey Levine Frances Johnson (2005) [fiction]

Making the Mind Whole
Charles Bernstein Controlling Interests (1980) [poetry]

A Homespun American Proust
William Christenberry (1954-2006) [painting, photography, sculpture]

Love, Guilt, and Consolation
Martha Graham and Aaron Copland Appalacian Spring (1944) [ballet/music]

Independent Dependents
Tennesse Williams (1947)/Eliza Kazan (1951) [drama/film]

The Gang's Still Here
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang's All Here (1959) [drama]

Between You and Me
Edward Albee Me, Myself & I (2008) [drama]

Reasonable Doubts
Reginald Rose and Sidney Lument 12 Angry Men (1957) [film]

I'm Still Here: Two Valentines
Betty Garrett: Closet Songwriter and Elaine Stritch: At Liberty at the Carlyle (2007 and
2008) [revues]

Our Wonderful Lives
Harry Mathews My Life at CIA (2005) [fiction]

Pondering the Struggle
John Singleton Copley Paul Revere (1768) and Watson and the Shark (1778), Gilbert
Stuart Paul Revere (1813) and Grant Wood The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)

On Alien Land
Violet Kazue de Christoforo May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow—An Anthology of
Japanese-American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku
(1997) [poetry/cultural history]

Between Visions
John Wieners Ace of Pentacles (1964) and Selected Poems (1972) [poetry]

Mirror Image
George Axelrod (screenplay, based on a novel by Richard Condon), John Frankenheimer (director) The Manchurian Candidate (1962) [film]

Flags and Letters
William Broyles, Jr. and Peter Haggis (screenplay, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers), Clint Eastwood (director) Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Iris Yamashita (screenplay), Clint Eastwood (director) Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) [film]

Wearing the Grin
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Rabbit of Seville (1950), Wearing of the Grin (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), Duck Amok (1953), and One Froggy Evening (1955) [animated cartoons]

Looking for Love
Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) [fiction/satire]

A Torn Curtain
Brian Evenson The Open Curtain (2006) [fiction]

Thomas Eakins and Cathy Opie
Thomas Eakins Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins and Cathy Opie Figure and Landscape (at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) (2010) [art]

Beverly Hills Housewife
Betty Freeman (1921-2009) [philantrophist and photographer]

Flopping Around
Preston Sturges The Palm Beach Story (1942) [film]

Six Degrees of Insanity
Alice Goodman, Peter Sellars, and John Adams Nixon in China (1987) [opera]

The Company Way
Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, Willie Gilbert, and Frank Loesser How ot Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961) [musical comedy]

Anything for Love
Frank Pierson and Sidney Lument Dog Day Afternoon (1975) [film]

Born Again
George Seaton and Valentine Davies Mircale on 34th Street (1947) [film]

Locked Up
Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein (based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kafman), William Keighley The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) [film]

The Dark Side of the Moon
Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail (screenplay), Alfred Hitchcock (director) The Wrong Man (1956) [film]

On Credit
Eleanor Antin (Eleanora Antinova) Before the Revolution (1979) [performance]

Monday, April 9, 2012


on credit
by Douglas Messerli

Eleanor Antin Before the Revolution, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 29, 2012 / I saw the matinee performance of this work

Of all of artist Eleanor Antin's numerous personae, Eleanora Antinova, the Black American dancer attempting to be a leading ballerina in Diaghilev's famed Ballets Russes, is the most endearing. Somehow the very idea of the somewhat short, dark complexioned Antin—a woman who makes no claim to being able to dance in "real" life, and certainly has not trained for ballet—joining the tall "all-white machine" of Diaghilev's company goes beyond absurdity into the world of a touching fantasy, when Antin as Antinova plays out again and again her several Eleanora Antinova Plays, performances enacted by the artist from the mid-1970s through the next decade, works that my own Sun & Moon Press collected into a book of 1994.

     Of these works, perhaps the most significant was the 1979 Before the Revolution, in which, performing numerous characters—from Antinova, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, to balletic beings such has Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI—Antin develops her "Historical Prophecy and an Interlude and an Interruption." Although I have seen most of Antin's performances when they first appeared, I did not witness the 1979 premier of Before the Revolution at The Kitchen in New York and its later manifestation at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. So I was delighted to be able to attend what she has described as a  "re-performance" of the piece, this with several actors, on January 29, 2012.

     The work is divided into six sections: I. The Lesson, II. The Argument, III. The Vision, IV. The Rehearsal, V. The Interruption, and VI. The Truth, each loosely connected with the actions conveyed in their titles. The overall arc of this disjunctive narrative is Antinova's insistence that she dance a major role in the Ballet Russes instead of playing merely ancillary and exotic figures such as Pocahontas, etc., her arguments with Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and others about permitting her these roles, her insistence on choreographing her own ballet—wherein she plays a ridiculously overstated Marie Antoinette—her rehearsals for that performance, and her personal relationships with other figures of the company, particularly the disturbed Nijinsky.

     At the heart of this work, however, is Antin's personal "Interruption," wherein Antin states the major themes of her piece, and argues for an art that not only "borrows" or builds upon the past, but, in a Brechtian manner, creates a space between the artist and the figure she portrays, that must be joined through the imaginations of the audience. Beginning with a discussion of Diaghilev, accused by several as being a borrower, Antin brings several of these issues together in a monologue that might almost be stated as a kind of manifesto of her art:

And who is not a borrower? Didn't we get our face and our name from our parents, the words in our mouths from our country, the way we say them from the children on our block, our dreams and images from the books and pictures other people wrote, painted, filmed? We take from here, from there and give back—whatever we give back. And we cover what we give back with our name: John Smith, Eleanora Antinova, Tamara Karasavina, Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, and somewhere each one of us stands behind that name, sort of.

     Sometimes there is a space between a person and her name. I can't always reach my name. Between me and Eleanor Antin sometimes there is a space. No, that's not true. Between me and Eleanor Antin there is always a space. I act as if there isn't. I make believe it isn't there. Recently, the Bank of America refused to cash one of my checks. My signature was unreadable, the bank manager said. "It is the signature of an important person," I shouted. "You do not read the signature of an important person, you recognize it." That's as close as I can get to my name. And I was right, too. Because the bank continues to cash my checks. That idiosyncratic and illegible scrawl has credit there. This space between me and my name has to be filled with credit.

     What of me and Antinova? I borrow her dark skin, her reputation, her name, which is very much like mine anyway. She borrowed the name from the Russians, from Diaghilev. I borrow her aspirations to be a classical ballerina. She wants to dance the white ballets. What an impossible eccentric! A Black ballerina dancing Les Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake. She would be a "black face in a snow bank!" The classical ballet is a white machine. Nobody must be noticed out of turn. The slightest eccentricity stands out and Grigoriev hands out stiff fines to the luckless leg higher than the rest. So Antinova designs her own classical ballet. She will dance the white queen Marie-Antoinette. She invests the space between herself and the white queen with faith...."

This profound statement of the separation of art and artist who must be given credit by both the artist herself and the viewer to make meaning, is at the heart of Antin's oeuvre, which, like a Kiekegaardian leap into faith, transforms simple desire into an almost sacramental act.

     The "Interruption" was even more poignant at the Hammer Museum performance I witnessed because Antin read these words on a small I-pad whose images disappeared as she spoke them, forcing her to ask her son Blaise to help her recover the message she was attempting to repeat.

     It was also interesting to have Eleanor Antinova played throughout by a Black actress (Daniele Watts), who certainly frees Antin from being seen as a white actress in Black face which some critics accused her of being the first time round.

     Actor Jonathan Le Billion was also very effective as the slightly mad Nijinsky railing against  Diaghilev, as the great dancer did in real life. But overall, the acting was mixed, with some figures unable to completely realize their roles. In part, that is simply due to the fact that in life these personalities were exaggerated and that Antin's work is not, at heart, a drama. To say what Before the Revolution is, exactly, is difficult. Perhaps it is easier to say what it isn't: it is not truly a play, an historical performance, a monological statement, a ballet-in-the-making, a personal encounter with a Black ballerina. It is all of these, but in its radical genre-bending elements, it is so much more!

    Although, as I mentioned previously, I did not see the original, it seems to me it is essentially a work for one person. Eleanor may not have been a greatest of actresses in that original, but given the "credit" we must grant to bring her art into life, the slightly mad ramblings of a single person, sometimes hiding behind cut-outs of her characters, seems the most appropriate rendering of this fascinating performance. Despite the separation of name and character, Antin becomes Antinova, becomes even the figures inhabiting Antinova's imagination in the original, and that, it seems to me, is the true miracle of this art. What we witness is a kind of madness, a madness, like Nijinsky's, that becomes transformed into something of significance. The artist in this work is almost like a child, a child so intent upon imagining other existences, that she truly creates them, bringing viable others into that envelope between the creator and the creation. If that act demands credit, it reflects back upon the audience for their commitment to the creative act, coming as a kind of unexpected reward for their faith. Art, for Antin, is almost always—despite its seeming focus on the various aspects of self—a communal act. Her King of Solana Beach could never have been a king without willing (even if unknowing) subjects. Antin's Nurse Eleanor Nightingale could not have survived the Crimean War without her imaginary patients, just as Eleanora Antinova is nothing without her willing claque. So too did the audience of Before the Revolution enthusiastically applaud this dramatic presentation of the dilemmas of Antinova's life.

     I was at Eleanor Antin's side after the 1981 performance, Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev at the Museum of Modern Art, when an enthusiastic attendee, with great reverence and respect, gushed, "Tell me, being so close to Diaghilev, what was it really like?" Eleanor was a bit abashed; she would have had to be in her mid-70s (she was currently in her 40s) to have actually performed with Diaghilev's company. Yet I perceived that never before had "credit" been so innocently and completely proffered!

Los Angeles, March 15, 2012
Reprinted from USTheater (March 2012).


the dark side of the moon
by Douglas Messerli

Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail (screenplay, based on a story by Maxwell Anderson), Alfred Hitchcock (director) The Wrong Man / 1956

 It is strange to think that only two years after making one of his greatest films, Rear Window,  and in the same year that Alfred Hitchcock directed The Trouble with Harry—perhaps his most joyful film of this period—as well as the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, that the 1956 black and white movie The Wrong Man, was a dismal box office failure.

      Several reasons are generally cited for this fact, the most obvious being simply that the film, based on a true story with few of the original facts altered, was simply too bleak. Moreover, in its documentary-like tone and structure, the film does not seem like a Hitchcock product. It has little of the gruesome wit and irony of most of his movies, and lacks, at least superficially, the cinematographic brilliance of the other films mentioned. The director himself seems to back away from the work, appearing in a brief shot before the film begins to tell the audience the movie is based on real events, instead of appearing in a tongue-in-cheek cameo, as he usually does, within the frame of the story. Even the phenomenal composer Bernard Herrmann seems to have become more somber, certainly less flamboyant in this film—although his stunning jazz piece (Manny works as a string bass player in a jazz group performing at the Stork Club) interrupted by almost sickening moans of the instruments, is highly memorable.

     To see the hard-working, good family man Manny Balestrero (intensely played by Henry Fonda) be systematically destroyed by the American justice system is so painful that it is a hard movie to watch. In some ways, The Wrong Man combines all of the fears and paranoias of the mid-1950s, a period where the whole country was, in a sense, put on trial, everyday men and women accused of anti-American sentiment and actions. Although I have often suggested that the 1950s was far more interesting than the decade is usually presented, this particular aspect of the period, along with the angst of nuclear destruction, put everyone on edge. It is little wonder, accordingly, that people did not flock to Hitchcock's dour film. Even a critic writing as late as 2004,  Christopher Null, describes it as one of Hitchcock's "most forgettable works of his mature era."

     Having recently watched the film again, however, I now think it, along with Shadow of a Doubt, is one of his most excellent, if frightening, depictions of American life. Films like Vertigo, North by Northwest, and even Psycho are much closer to European cinema-making than either Shadow of a Doubt or The Wrong Man, the latter of which is as grounded in the streets of New York as many of the 1940s film noir, and, as we now perceive, highly influenced artists like Scorcese in Taxi Driver.

     It is not that the police in this film are villains, or that they are even particularly insensitive enforcers. Indeed the dilemma of this film is not that any group of men or women torment Manny, but that—once he has visited the local insurance office to see if he might get a loan to pay for his wife's upcoming dental bills—the whole world order crumbles, truth and memory slipping away into nightmare reality. He is identified by women of the insurance office as a man who twice before held them up, women can hardly bear to look at the accused themselves, one of them almost sickening to even glance in his direction.

     The police quickly create a line-up made up of persons, among whom the women might have previously seen in uniform, as justice continues to crack, leaving Manny Balestrero to face the shattering effects upon his life.

     In this world turned upside down, coincidences predominate. When asked to write the words that appeared in one of the hold-up notes, Manny makes the same spelling mistake as did the criminal, reinforcing the police's belief in his guilt. His simple statement, "I made a mistake," echoes in a Kafka-like cry of existential guilt, repeated later in his wife's fractured vision of reality that it is she who has made the mistakes by needing dental care or through simply not being a good enough wife. Even Manny's two innocent sons mope about as if they have helped to create the mountain of evidence that appears to insure Manny's imprisonment.

     Truth has little significance in this dark world. The fact that during the first robbery the couple had been away on vacation and during the second robbery Manny had a swollen cheek seems to matter little. None of his fellow vacationers can be found, some having died, others disappearing into oblivion. The young lawyer (Anthony Quayle) to whom Manny and his wife are recommended is well-meaning but inexperienced (in this instance, Hitchcock did change the facts, since originally he was a New York Senator at the time of the trial).

      As his wife Rose (Vera Miles) slips into insanity, it is as if Manny, a religious believer, were suddenly suffering the trials of Job. The only bit of luck he receives, if one can call it that, is that a juror screams out early in the trial concerning the mundaness of court room details, apparently in the belief that Manny's guilt is obvious, thus assuring a retrial, and giving the defense more time to prepare.

     One cannot imagine the final events to be anything but fiction, so perfectly do they fit with Hitchcock's sense of moral outrage against institutional systems and individual fate: quite by accident the head detective in this case encounters another recently arrested man in the precinct hall who looks vaguely like Manny, and turns back from his exit to further investigate, discovering that he is responsible for the robberies for which Manny has been accused.

     In the frame of the movie, however, Manny's new freedom seems hardly to matter. His wife, locked away in an asylum, apathetically ignores his claims that everything will now be all right. She, so the doctor proclaims, is still "on the dark side of the moon."

    Only a written after-note tells us that two years later Rose recovered, allowing the family, perhaps, to return to some normalcy. But one doubts, after all they have been through, that everyday life was ever possible again.

Los Angeles, September 3, 2011
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (September 2011).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


locked up
by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), William Keighley (director) The Man Who Came to Dinner / 1942

Every year at Christmas time at our home we watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, the wonderful comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Even though this film takes place at Christmas, however, the movie has very little to do with the holiday, and is almost as far removed from the happiness of the season as it could be.

    In fact, this time viewing the film I was struck at just how removed this comedy is from any joy. Although it often howlingly funny, underneath, it is more of dark comedy akin to Buñuel's  The Exterminating Angel than it is to the family farce of this play righting pair, You Can't Take It with You! The movie is so popular that I need not, I hope, repeat the plot. Although the film is filled with numerous plot complications, it actually has only one major event, repeated at the film's end: Sheridan Whiteside (inspired by Alexander Woolcott) comes to Medalia, Ohio, presumably to give a lecture, but falls on the ice-filled stoop of the Stanley family's home, whereupon a local doctor declares that he must be wheel-chair bound until he heals some days later.

     Although extremely popular in the media, having a weekly radio show, Whiteside (wonderfully played by Monte Woolley in large, campy gestures) is a tyrant who puts his own welfare over concerns for anyone else; so monstrous is his surface behavior that it is almost impossible to imagine how a sweet woman like Maggie Cutler (played against type by Bette Davis) can stand to be in his employ. As she, herself, comments: "You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You've never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside." The poor Stanley family, Ernest, Daisy and their two children (the parents acted by Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are horrified by the situation, as Whiteside threatens to sue them, and insists upon taking over their library, living room, and front entrance, while they are assigned a back stairs and confined to their own bedrooms.

     In short, the Stanley family is locked away in their own house, just as Whiteside is locked up in a small hick town which he has not even wanted to visit ('I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians. I think too highly of my digestive system.") The house, in fact, has become a kind of penitentiary, reiterated by the behavior of the completely flustered Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) and the Stanley children, who, each for their own reasons desire to leave home, the daughter being in love with a union agitator whom her businessman father detests, and the would-be photographer son desiring new scenes and subjects for his art.

      The theme of imprisonment is played out again and again in this work. Whiteside, it is suggested, is fascinated by criminal activity, and invites several inmates from a nearby penitentiary for lunch—much to the horror, of course, of the locked-away Stanleys. Throughout the movie, Whiteside is sent presents—penguins, an octopus, and a mummy case—the first two contained in crates while the latter is itself a kind of coffin.

     Meanwhile, Maggie becomes involved with the local editor of the town newspaper, the affable Bertram H. Jefferson (Richard Travis), and for the first time after years of exciting travel, suddenly seeks to settle down into this small town and marry, another kind of imprisonment—at least to Whiteside's way of thinking. Jefferson has also written "the great American play," which helps Whiteside lure Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) from vacationing in Florida to Ohio, hoping she will bollix up Maggie's plans. By the end of the film, having caused a series of disastrous situations, he must also lock away Lorraine and ship her off in a plane.

     Finally, the Stanley home has itself another kind of prisoner, Harriet, an aunt who, as a young woman, killed—like Lizzie Borden—her mother and father. She is also imprisoned in the family secrecy of her past.

     When the penguins escape their crate, they are quickly rounded up and impounded once more by the doctor and nurse. When the children both bolt the home, Ernest Stanley quickly tracks them and returns them home. Suddenly one can comprehend, perhaps, Harriet's childhood actions, and may help explain her strange behavior.

     Only two people, it appears, can come and go at will, but both these, like Sheridan Whiteside, are so self-centered that they cannot escape themselves. Carlton Beverly (based on Noël Coward, performed by Reginald Gardiner) drops by to see Whiteside, but talks of hardly anyone but himself:

 I have very little time, and so the conversation will entirely be about me and I shall love it.

Banjo (inspired by Harpo Marx, wonderfully played by Jimmy Durante) can barely sit still for more than a moment, "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay," imitating the "I must be going" phrase of Groucho in Animal Crackers. Both visitors conspire to help Maggie to escape Whiteside's grasp so that she might enter matrimonial bonds.

     Even the two servants, cook and butler, hoping to escape the Stanley household by taking up service in Whiteside's home, remain locked away, as Whiteside, finally leaving the Stanley mansion, once again falls on the ice. Like the figures in The Exterminating Angel, no one in this work can leave his self-imposed entrapment.

     With such a marvelous cast, however, who cares? Even though director William Keighley has done little to transfer this stage-bound work into film, we might wish to watch these poor trapped beings play out their destinies again and again.

Los Angeles, December 18, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treastures (December 2011).

Saturday, December 3, 2011


born again
by Douglas Messerli

George Seaton (screenplay, based on a story by Valentine Davies), George Seaton (director) Miracle on 34th Street / 1947

 I’ll begin by admitting that I absolutely enjoy George Seaton’s and Valentine Davies’ holiday fantasy, Miracle on 34th Street. I have probably watched this film every year of my adult life on Thanksgiving day or during the Christmas season, and I get delight just imagining that I might have been able witness the premiere of this film as a 6-month old baby. 

    This year, watching it just before Thanksgiving dinner, however, I had a different, more contrarian view of the holiday chestnut, listed in the National Film Registry.

    Let me start by saying the obvious, a cliché spouted each year by thousands of religious Americans, particularly, one imagines, by those who describe themselves as “born again:” the Christmas season has increasingly become commercialized, and most Americans have lost the sense of the holiday’s true focus, the birth of Christ.

     Admittedly, I am not among those religious or “born again” Americans, but even I was appalled when the Christmas shopping season, it was announced, would began this year not on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, but at midnight. A local radio station began 24 hour programming of Christmas carols (most of them centered on the holiday festivities instead of the child in Bethlehem) two weeks ago!

     Generally recognized as the emblem of that pagan, commercialized Christmas is Santa Claus, the jolly, fat Dutch gift-giving Sinterklaas. You remember him, the one about whom your parents lied, leading you on to believe that he was the source of all of those lovely Christmas presents beneath the tree until you grew old to appreciate the loving care they had been secretly showing you for all those years? As I have written elsewhere, I came to that realization, almost miraculously one morning, at a far younger age than most of my peers; it didn’t bother me one little bit that there wasn’t any Santa Claus and that my parents had been so nice to me for all those years. But my revelation of that fact to a school friend, sent her off crying into her mother’s arms. I was told that I must never reveal the truth to anyone my age or younger. But even older children, I realized, might not like to hear my discovery.

     Seaton’s work, however, begins almost at the opposite end of the equation. The young girl at the center of this story, Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), has been told by her level-headed mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara) that there is no Santa Claus, without any noticeable effect in the child’s demeanor. Mrs. Walker, who works at Macy’s, coordinating the all-important Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is apparently a strong-headed and practical woman, who has, one imagines, tried to remove almost all fantasy and myth from her young daughter’s life. She has told that there are no giants, and the girl is discouraged from reading “fairy tales.” Obviously, the mother has been hurt by what she perceives as the fantasies of her married life. One wonders how she has dealt with Christian myths, including the child born in a stable. But fortunately, for the survival of the film, Seaton has skirted that issue and, indeed, all issues having to deal with the real season’s purpose.

    The film begins with a seemingly pernickety old man scolding a young window dresser for putting the reindeer in the wrong places in relation to his store’s depiction of Santa and sleigh. The man, Kris Kringel (the marvelous Edmund Gwenn), we soon discover, is very particular when it comes to all things about Santa. After all he believes he is Kris Kringel, Santa. It is, as the doctor to the nursing home where Kris lives later assures us, a quite harmless delusion, one that only leads him to do good. But everything is soon made much more complicated when Kris accidentally encounters, during the early moments of the Macy parade, that the man hired to play Santa Claus—the traditional star of the event (even today, as I watched the parade, the bands, floats, balloons, and other theater and vaudeville events, the parade culminated with Santa’s arrival)—is absolutely soused! Reporting the man’s condition to Mrs. Walker, Kris seems a natural to replace the drunk Santa. After all, he even looks like a well-trimmed and tailored Santa. It is almost inevitable that Mrs. Walker should invite him to portray Santa, since, he declares, he has certainly had experience.

     Meanwhile, Doris’ daughter, Susan is watching the parade from a neighbor’s window, from what we might presume is a Central Park West apartment. Today we might worry about the fact that she is watching this with an adult male, Fred Gailey (John Payne)—although we have been reassured by the Walker’s maid that she has been keeping an eye on the girl—who occupies an apartment across the way. The Santa Claus, declares Susan, is quite convincing, far better than the one of the year before. Gailey is a bit troubled by her mature dismissal of Santa, as well as giants, but is not beyond encouraging her to invite him to dinner in the Walker home. Mr. Gailey may be a happy man (the old fashioned meaning of “gay”), but he is represented as bit disturbing in his forward behavior. His “move” on the daughter, clearly, is also a move on her somewhat cynical mother. Nonetheless, he is invited to dinner.

     Kris, meanwhile, not only looks the part of the perfect Santa, but is quickly hired by Macy’s to become their Department Store Santa. Kris is delighted to be able to return to his rightful place, and everyone seems happy with his “acting,” until it is discovered that he has been telling some parents to purchase their children’s gifts at competing stores—even Gimbels. The scene where Thelma Ritter (in one of her first film roles) stops to thank the floor manager for their unusual new policy, where they put the spirit of Christmas, so it appears, before their own financial gain, is one of the most delightful of the film.

       Such radical behavior is, expectedly, met with horror, until both the floor manager, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tongue) and Mrs. Walker, summoned to Mr. Macy’s office, are surprised to discover that their boss loves the idea, realizing that it will result in even more gift-paying customers. In another assault on the Walker family, Gailey encourages Susan to wait in line to see Santa, before dropping her off to her mother’s office. The girl is skeptical, until she hears Kris speak and sing to a young Dutch orphan in her original language. Doris’s response is predictable: “Susan, I speak French, but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

      To back her up, Doris summons their Santa, encouraging him to tell Susan that he is not really Santa Claus, but when he insists that he is, she demands his file, wherein she discovers that he goes under the name of Kris Kringel and declares his birthplace as the North Pole. A visit to the store psychologist is ordered for Kris, who passes all the tests with great aplomb, yet raising the ire of the psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who throughout the interview pulls at his eyebrows (a trait shared by his secretary), by suggesting that something may be problematic in his home life. In retaliation, Sawyer suggests that Kris may have a latent hostility that could break out at any time. A call to the doctor who heads the Long Island nursing home where Kris has been living, brings reassurances from Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who also suggests it may be easier if Kris can find a place to stay nearer to the store in Manhattan. Before you can say Kris Kringel, Gailey has invited the old man to share his bedroom, further insinuating his being into the Walker’s life.

      As the old gent speaks to Susan, he is saddened to learn that she does not believe in his existence and that she has been spurned by her playmates for being unable to imagine herself as an animal. “But I am not an animal,” she declares, after which he patiently teaches her how to pretend to be a monkey. It is clear that he has taken on the Walkers as a kind of test case:

 …Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind…and that’s what’s
 been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do
 something about it.

 Kris even repeats the sentiments I stated earlier in this essay, disparaging the commercialism of the holiday—a strange thing for that emblem of the commercial to do; but it is clear the director and writer want to both ways.

     Soon after Kris discovers that a beloved young janitor, Alfred (Alvin Greenman) has also been seeing the mean-spirited Sawyer, who suggests that Alfred has psychological problems simply for wanting to play Santa Claus at his neighborhood YMCA. Furious with the abuse of this good-hearted boy, Kris charges into Sawyer’s office, accusing him of malpractice and hitting him over the head with his cane. The violence Sawyer has predicted has, alas, become reality, and Kris is sent to Bellvue Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation, believing that Mrs. Walker has been behind the decision.

     Despairing of the lack of faith she has shown, Kris purposely fails the psychiatric examination, and is destined to be locked away. Almost everyone knows the rest of the story, how Gailey takes on Kris’s case, fighting to convince a disbelieving world and court that Kris Kringel is truly Santa Claus. Even Mrs. Walker and her daughter come round to support his cause.

      The case is miraculously won due, in part, to the political exigencies of court. As the Pol Charles Halloran (William Frawley) puts it to Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart):

All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State
Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers.
The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockiings. Now what
happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings.
Nobody buys them. The toy manufactures are going to like that; so
they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now
you got the CIO and AF of L against you and they’re going to
adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes. Oh, and the
department stores are going to love you too and the Christmas card
makers and the candy companies. Ho ho, Henry, you’re going to be
an awful popular fella. And what about the Salvation Army? Why,
they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune.

So much for Kringel’s dismay for the commercialism of Christmas! Perhaps no clearer statement of the relationship of the fat, jolly, fellow and money has ever been made. Harper’s children even hate him, and Gailey calls the young son of District Attorney Thomas Mara to testify that his father has told, assuredly, that there is a Santa Claus.

     Even more cynical are the US Postal employees, tired of all the unclaimed mail addressed to Santa Claus, who win the day for Gailey and Kris Kringel by forwarding dozens of sacks of letters to the courthouse, providing the Judge with an easy way out:

Uh, since the United States Government declares this man to be
Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.

So, insists Seaton’s film, Santa Claus, despite all evidence to the contrary, is alive and well. Yet Seaton and the original author go even further, demanding of even the adult characters and viewers their utter belief in the commercial emblem. When asked what she might like for Christmas, Susan pulls out an advertisement for a suburban Long Island home. Even Kris Kringel is a bit stunned by her demand, when he suggests, “…Don’t you see, dear? Some children wish for things they couldn’t possibly use like real locomotives or B-29.s.” Her retort is the stubborn insistence of any spoiled consumer:

 If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can’t,
 you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother said.

     The filmmakers hardly pause to take in the significance of what the child has just said, before Kris has sent the three traveling along a route that winds by the house of her dreams. Upon glimpsing it, Susan demands they stop and runs into the home as if she already owned it. How can Mr. Gailey and Mrs. Walker resist such a consumer dream, even if it means giving up their perfectly nice apartments, overlooking the parade route, and now probably worth millions of dollars? They will simply have to marry, move to the suburbs, and build on the little family with which they have begun. The discovery of Kris’s cane left near the fireplace convinces them surely—as “born again” Christian’s zealous rediscovery of Christ—of Santa Claus’ existence, just as the audience is bathed with consumer assurances that this is, in fact, the perfect house.

     Perhaps never in the whole of Hollywood productions was there a more central pitching of consumer products. Even movies with thousands of “product placements” cannot match, Nathalie Wood’s answer to Kris’ question of where she had found the lovely sweater she is wearing: “My mother got on sale it at Macy’s.”

     During an ad between events of this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Macy’s proudly quoted that line among other cinematic mentions of the august department store.

     As Susan chants to herself: “I believe…I believe…it’s silly, but I believe.”

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011


by Douglas Messerli

Frank Pierson (screenplay, based on an article by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore), Sidney Lument (director) Dog Day Afternoon / 1975

Sidney Lument's death this month, on April 9th, sent me back to review his 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, a work I remember with great fondness.

For the first half of the film, however, it appears that Dog Day Afternoon might be weighted down with the thematic concerns that are so dominant in his oeuvre, focusing on the moral, political, and social issues as in works such as The Pawnbroker, A View from the Bridge, Serpico, and The Verdict. These films are all admirable, and are well-directed. But for my taste there is something almost lugubrious about many of them, as they slowly uncoil, revealing their characters' moral fibre and the social conditions which define them. In some respects, many of Lument's works never seem to be completely transformed from stage plays into cinematic creations, although that is precisely what I love about his Long Day's Journey into Night.

Dog Day Afternooon begins simply as a badly bungled bank robbery, with one young participant abandoning his cohorts even before the two central robbers, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino*) and Sal (eerily played by John Cazale) can notify the manager and tellers what they are undertaking. When they do demand to be taken to the vault, they discover that there is no money, it having just been picked up for deposit elsewhere.

The only takings that Pacino has for all his trouble are the teller's drawers, which he carefully empties, making sure that he does not pull all the bills out at once so that he will not trigger an alarm. When offered, by one teller, the wrapped new bills, he refuses, noting that they are marked. Yet for all his carefulness, he is soon called to the phone, where a policeman wants to talk to him, the bank having been already surrounded.

Suddenly we perceive the absurdity of the whole event. The inept robbers are now forced into a standoff with what appears to be, as Sonny later announces, "the fucking militia." Indeed, there are so many policeman, setting up camp across the street, blocking off cars, swarming the roof and the back of the building, and hanging from fire escapes that one would think they were responding to an international terrorist threat. Even though he is now forced to take the tellers and manager as captives, as he himself proclaims: "I'm a Catholic, I don't want to hurt anybody." Even the dense-minded Sal insists he doesn't smoke because "the body's the temple of the Lord."

Before long a large crowd has developed, and the movie appears that it will shift into a work dealing with police brutality, particularly when, on one of his sidewalk discussions with the police coordinator, Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), Sonny invokes the Attica prison riots of 1971, when, after days of negotiations, police killed and caused the deaths of over 39 prisoners. Pacino, brilliantly over-the-top, whips up the crowd for his cause—and assured safety:

Tell them to put their guns down! Put the fucking guns down!
Put 'em down! Put the fucking guns down! Put those guns down!
Attica! Attica! You got it, man! You got it, man! You got it, man!
You got it! You got it! (pointing to different individuals in the crowd
as they should ATTICA! ATTICA!)

Moreover, when Lument briefly inserts scenes showing Sonny's mother (hilariously played by theater director Judith Malina) and his overweight, beleaguered, and not very bright wife, we begin to fear that the film may attempt a psychological explanation for his acts.
But even early on, we suspect that the story has something important yet to reveal, particularly when, after being lied to by the Moretti, the two have the following interchange:

SONNY: Kiss me.
SONNY: Kiss me. When I'm being fucked, I like to get kissed a lot.

Everything soon shifts, in a delicious twist of reality, when we discover the wife Sonny has asked for the police to bring to him is another man, Leon Shemer (Chris Sarandon), and the reason for the bank robbery is Sonny's attempt to get enough money for Leon's sex-change.

Even stranger, it is not Sonny demanding the sex-change, who seems to be perfectly in love with Leon as two gay men, but the psychiatrist's idea:

LEON: I couldn't explain why I did the things I did. So I went
to this psychiatrist who explained to me I was a woman
in a man's body. So Sonny right away wanted to get me
money for a sex change operation: but where was he to get
that? 2500 dollars! My God, he's in hock up to his ears

Before long the gays have joined the crowds surrounding the absurd standoff, Sonny becoming a kind of ridiculous folk hero in an era in which police were hated for their abuse. And Lument has sent his film on a loony and, quite frankly, bravely outspoken path where I am sure some members of the original audience had not been prepared to go. One must remember that the only major American film that had seriously and openly dealt with homosexuality was William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band of 1970, a film so based on gay stereotypes that, even after I had served for a few nights as an usher during its New York run, Howard and I, along with other members of the newly formed gay liberation group at the University, picketed the film outside the Madison, Wisconsin theater where it was shown.

Lument was not only taking on the issue of homosexuality in Dog Day Afternoon, but transgender sexuality, and, even more complicated, the subject of bisexuality, since Sonny was also heterosexually married with two children! Yet Lument allows this subject to be treated seriously, by including the scene where Sonny dictates a will, leaving most of his money to Leon, with only a small amount going to his legal wife.

Even though he is, as he admits, "a fuck-up" and "an outcast," Sonny is also a caring and loving man. As he admits to Sal, "I got all these pressures!" and, at another point, "I got to have all the ideas!"

And strangely and absurdly, he takes those ideas to their logical extension, planning to use the hostages to get an airplane traveling, of all places, to Algeria! When asked to what country he might like to go, Sal replies, "Wyoming." We know, accordingly, that there can now be no turning back, and there will be no way of returning to whatever they might define as normality for these poor, sweet outcasts. The only element of the plot still unrevealed is whether the two will be brutally murdered or simply arrested.

Both happens, as the limousine driver pulls out a gun and shoots Sal, the police arresting Sonny.
In real life, John Wojtowicz served 14 years in prison for the attempted robbery. The $7,500 he received for the movie rights went to his lover, Ernest Aron, for the sex change. Aron became Elizabeth Eden, dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Wojtowicz died of cancer on January 2, 2006.

Los Angeles, Easter 2011

* I might note that there is a wonderful irony in Pacino's performance, for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. In real life, Wojtowicz and his co-conspirator Salvatore Naturile had seen The Godfather, in which Pacino also played, earlier in the day and planned their robbery based on events in the film. John Cazale performed alongside Pacino in The Godfather as Fredo.