Monday, December 15, 2014


As a publisher of international literature and a promoter of arts throughout the world, I also love (and on occasion am angered with) my own country. After long consideration I have determined to express that joy and sorrow in the form of an ongoing consideration of cultural artifacts, including fiction, film, poetry, dance, theater, visual art, performance, television, and other mediums, celebrating what I feel to be our cultural treasures from the founding of our country to the present day. I will regularly post pieces on these works (each one a consideration of a single work or anthology) which express the American landscape, invigorating and challenging our notions of what it means to be a citizen of the USA.

I invite others to contribute essays devoted to single works that they feel are American Cultural Treasures. Essays (of any length) should be sent to me at for consideration. I reserve the right to pass on works that I feel are weakly expressed or represent cultural values unequal to being described as "treasures." All published works are copyrighted in the name of the contributors.

Finally, I want to make it clear that this should not be seen as a compilation of the "best" of American culture, but understood as statements that help reveal some of the most interesting contributions to our culture, a culture which is diverse and multiplicitous in its expressions.

Douglas Messerli



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]
Oh Brave New World!
Gertrude Stein Brewsie and Willie (1946) [dialogue fiction]


o brave new world!

by Douglas Messerli

Gertrude Stein Brewsie and Willie (New York: Random House, 1946)

In 1946, the same year as Gertrude Stein’s death of pancreatic cancer, Random House published what was to be her last book—with the exception of the numerous volumes published by Harvard University Press as part of the deal to house her archives. Brewsie and Willie stands almost like a comically effervescent Tempest when compared with the darkly brooding works of her other war-time writing.
     The intense conversation Stein had with American soldiers described in her Wars I Have Seen continued during the following year back in her Paris apartment, discussions which make up the entire of this dialogue fiction. Like many of such dialogue works, moreover, Brewsie and Willie is inherently dramatic—which I have already attested to in the wonderful production of Stein’s intense conversations between very young and somewhat older soldiers and WACS in the Poor Dog Production in Los Angeles of a dramatic treatment by Marissa Chibas, Erik Ehn, and Travis Preston in 2010 (published in that My Year volume)—becoming, as I put it, “a poetic chorus of fearful and thoughtful voices that links this [piece] to her most challenging work.”  
    But despite the serious doubts expressed by the all the soldiers, and, in particular, their lead spokesman, Brewsie, Stein’s work is a testament to the American future, particularly a future with will embrace the thousands of GIs about to be “redeployed” back to their home country. As Stein had made clear in Wars I Have Seen, there was something “different” about the soldiers she encountered after World War II from the former doughboys of the First World War. These soldiers of 1944 and -45, unlike their silent, more drunken, and ruminative World War I brothers, these sons and daughters growing up in the Great Depression were open to their European experiences and interested in the post-war citizens of France, German, England and other countries. But most importantly, these men talked and listened; rather than simply accepting their new experiences and their collective re-internment to the country of their birth, they questioned and even challenged the world their face upon their return. Although, in Stein’s telling, they were nearly all eager to get back home in order to start over again, they were also afraid, worried by changes in their country’s economy and politics, and in how they might fit among the others who had not had gained their war-time experiences.    
     Convincingly using the language of the soldiers, sometimes so eerily on spot that it is difficult to imagine that behind these young voices is a woman of 73 years of age, Stein is not afraid to breach a wide range of issues, some of them quite controversial, particularly given the fact that these were men and women who even decades later would be described as “the greatest generation.” Stein projects these soldier voices to discuss edgy issues of race, cultural identity, immigration, religion, history, economics, and politics, and the failures of the American imagination. 
     One may certainly wince at hearing Stein’s lead character, Willie, ruminating about Blacks:

It’s funny, said Willie, the way a nigger always find
some little nigger children to talk to, you’d think there
were no niggers anywhere and there he is, he just is
sitting on a chair in a garden and two darky little boys
talking to him and they talking French and he talking
to him and they talking French and he talking and go
on talking French and does talk the same to them, and
I do think it is funny. (p. 28)

But one quickly recognizes that that is precisely the way soldiers, particularly several of them being Southern soldiers, might have spoken; and, more importantly, what is really being described throughout this section (part “Five”) is that fact that fighting alongside with Blacks throughout the War, these men are no longer surprised to see Black soldiers dining among them, talking with the French (even possibly in French) and doing everyday things alongside them that will not be permitted for many years in some of their states back home. 
   Even the everydayness of living and being with Blacks suddenly begins to make these G.I.s think of a very different world that the one they are about to return to.

Does it make one mad or doesnt it make one mad, said
Willie. What you mean, asked Jo. Well, said Willie, I
saw a Negro soldier sitting on a bench just looking out
into the street, and next to him were three white women,
not young, not paying any attention to them and I didnt
know whether it made me mad or didnt make me mad.  
(p. 41)

Jo rightfully argues that it “doesn’t make ‘em mad not even when they see a white woman walking with one of them, the boys like to think it makes ‘em made but it doesnt really make’ mad not really it doesnt.
     These are Americans quite quickly coming to terms with racism almost without them quite comprehending the significance of what they see and hear. The character Brock (one of the most unforgettable figures in the early part of Stein’s dramatic conversations) expresses a statement by another Black soldier that is so searing in its critique of American race relations that it seems to have pulled out of today’s headlines: 

You know the other day I heard a colored major say, he
hand no children, although he was married nine years and
I said, how is that, and he said, is this America any place
to make born a Negro child. 

     It’s clear that much of the central figure, Brewsie, expresses ideas that, as he puts it, come from being “kind of foggy in the head.” For one wonderfully comic instant, Brewsie even ponders the idea of a transgender existence:


I wish I was a girl if I was a girl I would be a WAC and if
I was a WAC and if I was a WAC, oh my Lord, just think
of that. (p. 11)

     More intently, Brewsie, his G.I. friends and nurses explore cultural stereotypes by throwing out pejorative terms such as “Frog” (for the French), Heinies (for the Germans), and Limies (for the English) while simultaneously questioning their own prejudices, wondering why for example they enjoy drinking with German men, that they more highly admire the French women for basically refusing to fraternize with the Germans, while the German women readily slept with Americans and Russians. One young soldier is determined to stay in Europe instead of returning home, to allow him, quite obviously, more time to consider the differences between the European cultural ideas and those of his homeland. Others find some aspects of European life far more “up-to-date” that the “old-fashioned” constructions and the concepts behind them of the United States:


Jo said, what do you think, one of those frog girls said, I
showed ‘em a picture of my wife and the baby in the baby
carriage and she said, what, do you have those old
fashioned baby-carriages with high wheels and a baby
can fall out, no we French people, we have up-to-date
baby-carriages, streamlined, she said. (p. 25)

Jo immediately wants to get home and buy himself one of the new baby-carriages. But much of the conversation between these soldiers, especially as Willie projects Stein’s ideas, is that the U.S. is doomed in its reliance on Industrialism. Like England and other countries who have already gone through vast industrial growth, the U.S., he argues, will eventually use up so many of its resources that it too will fall into decline. The very thing they all look forward to, to find a decent job that will permit them to buy new goods, will, in fact, give them no time to talk and think, to embrace the very activities they have now begun to enjoy and that have offered them new ways perceiving. They will become subjects to a system that ultimately steal away their possibilities for exploring the new potentialities with which they have just begun to come into contact. And it is these complex ideas that take up much of Stein’s dialogue, particularly since Willie is slow to intelligently express them. Speaking of the English, Willie begins a long spiel which we will continue and expand upon from time to time:

Well anyway they had lots of coal and iron ore and tin right
there on that island and they just made and made, and every-
body gave up every kind of way of living excepting jobs in
factories and mines, even little children, and they made all
their colonies and empire buy them, and it was swell just like
us and they got richer and richer. Well we horned in after our
Civil War we went industrial and we got richer and they got
poorer and their market that is the people in their empire
slowed down in buying and they used up their raw material,
and then they tried to take new places to sell to, like
Egypt which they took from the French and Africa from the
Dutch. The lousy Limies, said Willie. You just wait Brewsie,
and there we were getting richer and richer and why be-
cause we had our outside market right at home that is we had
emigration, thousands and millions in every year into our
country…(pp 35-36)

After a discussion of the developing Industrialization in Russian, German, and Japan as well, he continues:

And it’s all because everybody just greedy wants to manufacture
more than anybody can buy, well then you know what happened
after the last war we cut off immigration, we hoped to sell to 
foreign countries, foreign countries didnt want to buy and we had
the depression. …Yes and then we had to fight, and yes we wont
but we used up a hell of a lot of raw material and now we got to
make a club to make those foreign countries buy from us, and we
all got to go home of make some more of those things that use up
the raw material and that nobody but own little population wants
to buy. Oh dear, said Brewsie. (pp. 36-37)

     Oh dear, we might all proclaim, for whatever one thinks of Stein’s and the soldier’s quick summary of early 20th century economics, there is little question that the author and her characters was right in predicting that the soldiers of World War II would be destined to return home to buy up industrial goods, homes, and other possessions that would affect their lives and ultimately would result in the end of American industrialism. Today we are a country whose industrial goods are mostly manufactured elsewhere.
     But how can they effect a change back home? A first Brewsie and others suggest an active participation in unions; and in connection to that, one of the Red Cross nurses, Janet, argues that together as a generational force, “we got to make a noise, a loud noise, a big noise, we got to be heard” (p. 89).
     Brewsie and others soon recognize, however, that, in the end, they will be unable to change the course of American economics. As an alternative they suggest the possibility of “pioneering,” of each going their own way, living in a world apart from the corporate-dominated factories in which they are expected to find jobs. What their concept of “pioneering” might be is a little vague, at times sounding a bit like the alternative choices some of their own children would make in the 1960s—a kind of perpetual hippedom, a life lived apart, at least, as Lawrence suggests, from being middle aged:

I tell you old and young are better than tired middle-aged,
is so dead dead-tired, dead every way as middle-aged, have
got the guts to make a noise while we are still young before 
we get middle-aged, tired middle-aged, no we haven’t, said
Willie, and you know it, no we haven’t, said Willie. (p. 90)

Their fears of what they believe will be their future are so bleak, even frightful that it makes another nurse, Pauline, want to cry. All look to Brewsie for some sort of solution, but the more they wait for him to speak, the less he has to offer, and the more the others finally do speak out.
     The marvel of Stein’s dialogue is that, if it begins as a kind of one man-dominated monologue, it quickly grows into a chorus of contradictory voices, some throwing out ideas, others dismissing them, while others try to suggest various points of compromise. By the time they finally get their orders to move on, they have all changed from passive beings speaking in clichés to somewhat articulate individuals who no longer want to speak only yes or no like the questions in the Gallup polls, but to challenge their worlds, to speak out, and, most importantly, to listen. As future job-hunters, however, they doubt they will ever again be able to join others in such intense discussions in the future:

And tell me, said Janet, wont you miss talking when
you get home, you do know dont you all of you nobody
talks like you you were boys were always talking, not
back home. Yes we know, said Jo. Yes we know, said
Jimmie. Not Brewsie, said Willie, he’ll talk but, said
Willie, Brewsie will talk but we wont be there to listen,
we kind of will remember that he’s talking somewhere
but we wont be there to listen, there wont be anybody
talking where we will be. But, said Jo, perhaps they will
talk now, why you all so sure they wont talk over there,
perhaps they will talk over there. Not those on the job
they wont, said Willie, not those on the job. (p. 110).


     It depends on you read the 1950s and the history that followed upon which side you might join in their argument. Did the American soldiers, my own Air Force-serving father waiting in Naples, for example, and the thousands of others who soon returned home give up their voices to live out “quiet lives of desperation” that writers and cultural observers critical of the next decade use to characterize their behavior. Like Brewsie, some spoke, people like John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger, and Jane Bowles, among hundreds of others. These men and women, as well as their contemporaries, like the numerous jazz musicians of the 1950s, “pioneered” instead joining the industrialized systems into which most G.I.s were swallowed up. My own father—a rube from Iowa if there ever was one—returned after World War II to become a noted educator in his home state. 
    Stein saw the moment as a precipitous one:

…I am sure that this particular moment in our history is
more important than anything since the Civil War. (p. 113)

We have to find a new way, she argued, or we will go poor like other industrial countries before us. “Don’t think that communism or socialism will save you,” argued the conservative but perhaps prescient writer: “you have to find a new way out” (p. 113).
     If there was ever moment to care about one’s country, to be truly “patriotic,” Stein insisted, it was at this moment. “I have always been patriotic,” insisted Stein. And ever she revealed it more it is in this loving and moving document in which her beloved G.I.s speak up for themselves.

Los Angeles, February 4, 2015



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).