Roundup: Eliot, Gaddis, Feldman and Fields

W.C. Fields

This week I took a quick look back at T.S. Eliot and William Gaddis, and looked forward to an unmissable Mother’s Day concert featuring music by Morton Feldman. Who, I’m pretty sure, loved his mother.

I attended a class taught by William Gaddis back in my undergraduate days, and although he has little in common with W.C. Fields, the two men did share a nasal drawl suggesting that they had little patience with the stupidities of the human animal. On Wednesday, June 27, the National Arts Club here in New York will present the eminently worthwhile A Celebration of Comic Genius W.C. Fields. In attendance will be Fields’ granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields, Columbia University Prof. Rob King, and the similarly eminently worthwhile Dick Cavett. You can be in attendance too; the program, which will feature clips from Fields’ career, is open to the public, and it’s free. More information at the National Arts Club web site here.

This might be a good time to remind you that just a few months ago Kino Lorber released restored, blu-ray editions of two early, silent W.C. Fields features, neither of which has been available for some time: the 1926 It’s the Old Army Game and the 1927 Running Wild. True, they lack Fields’ inimitable verbal delivery, but on the other hand, anyone who’s seen his performance in D.W. Griffiths’ 1925 Sally of the Sawdust, based on Fields’ Broadway success Poppy, will note that Fields was an excellent physical comedian as well — and a better actor than he’s often given credit for, among the great screen comedians ranking second only to Chaplin, and even that’s arguable.

I’ll be raising a glass to the Great Man at Cafe Katja later this afternoon. I last wrote about Fields in December 2016; my essay on the comedian is below.


Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. Most of his best films are available on this DVD set from Universal.

This Sunday: Morton Feldman’s “Patterns” at St. Bart’s

Morton Feldman.

You have only a few more days to purchase your tickets for Morton Feldman’s landmark Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), which Stephen Marotto (cello) and Marilyn Nonken (piano) will perform as the last concert of this year’s Great Music at St. Bart’s series this Sunday, May 13, at 3.00pm.

Morton Feldman, the Queens-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, is on anybody’s short list of the great American composers of the 20th century, and I’d rank him way above even John Cage; Tom Service has a pretty good “guide to Morton Feldman’s music” at the Guardian. “My compositions are not really ‘compositions’ at all,” Feldman said. “One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of music.” The 80-minute Patterns is one of his late-period, long-duration compositions; it was immediately followed by Triadic Memories of similar length (and which Marilyn recorded for Mode Records some years ago). In a 2006 essay for the New Yorker, Alex Ross shared an anecdote that I do hope is not apocryphal; comparing Feldman’s burly, loud girth with the not-so-simple elegance of his music, Ross wrote:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. … In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

I told you he was from Queens.

Sunday’s concert begins at 3.00pm; more information and tickets here.  A few years ago, Arne Deforce collected several of Feldman’s own comments on Patterns into a convenient anthology of sorts; that can be found here.

From the archives: “I think this is a shattered time”

William Gaddis. Photograph by William Gass.

As I follow the rather discouraging headlines, I’m reading (among other things, not least the Gospel of Luke, most suitable for these times with its emphasis on the poor, the marginalized, and the sick) Kenneth Paul Kramer’s Redeeming Time, a book-length study of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Last year on May 1 I published the below post, which touches on Eliot’s poem and Gaddis’s pessimism, suggestive of my own, I suppose.


From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”

Roundup: Funny ha ha

Cafe Katja: Your Austrian home away from home.

This week I nearly signed up for the Michelle Wolf fan club; looked back at Mad magazine; and suggested a few possibilities for your cinematic pleasure.

And a reminder: If you haven’t made your Mother’s Day plans yet, you can always treat dear old Mom to the best of contemporary music. As the Brooklyn Rail suggests, there’s no time like the present to purchase your tickets for Morton Feldman’s landmark Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), which Stephen Marotto (cello) and Marilyn Nonken (piano) will perform as the last concert of this year’s Great Music at St. Bart’s series on Sunday, May 13. Says the Rail, “With the quiet and stillness that Feldman is famous for, Patterns in a Chromatic Field weaves what is at times a mind-bending complexity and mesmerizing beauty.” The trouble starts at 3.00pm. More information and tickets here.

I’ll be enjoying a comparative quiet and stillness myself at Cafe Katja this afternoon. You have a good weekend too.

Coming soon: From the sublime to the ridiculous

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf,” written and directed by Ms. May.

You’ll be able to catch Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times on the big screen at Metrograph this weekend. It screens Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, at 11.00am, so don’t forget to bring the kids. Or just go yourself; it’s among Chaplin’s best films, and worth seeing in a theater.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an essay by Manohla Dargis about the upcoming series “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967-1980,” a 42-film retrospective that starts at the BAMcinématek tomorrow and runs through May 20. The retrospective will screen some old favorites from the period, including Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, and Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, but they (and Dargis) are giving extra props to Elaine May, two films from whom will be featured at the festival. Her first film, A New Leaf (1971), is a comedy that concerns an aging playboy (Walter Matthau) who marries a clumsy but wealthy botanist (Elaine May), scheming to kill her for her money; Mikey and Nicky (1976) is a scabrous anatomy of machismo and male friendship between two petty Philadelphia gangsters (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes). About May, Dargis writes:

[Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood] doesn’t mention Barbara Loden (Wanda) and refers to Elaine May (A New Leaf and Mikey and Nicky) only in passing. He notes that Ms. May wrote Heaven Can Wait and also that she dated John Calley, a Hollywood power player. Ms. May deserved far better, of course, and not only because she was at that point one of only a few women since the 1920s hired to direct by a studio. “I pitched very hard,” her producer said, “that having a woman director would be of consequence.”

Although Ms. May repeatedly clashed with Paramount while making A New Leaf — she later sued the studio — the movie is flat-out great. In one of his best performances, Walter Matthau plays a bankrupt snob who schemes to marry a clumsy heiress and botany professor played with sneaky charm by Ms. May. Paramount took the film away from her, softening it (in her version, the Matthau character kills several people), but its genius remains. John Cassavetes was such a fan of Ms. May that he appeared alongside his frequent collaborator Peter Falk in her fantastic Mikey and Nicky, about a small-time hood in trouble who calls an old friend for help.

To grasp how women and men are treated differently even in movie histories all you have to do is read about Ms. May. Her problems with Hollywood — she went over schedule, shooting miles of film — are legendary but rarely, if ever, are they framed as a matter of her auteurist prerogative, as they often are when male artists take on the Hollywood barbarians. (The author of a monograph on The Godfather — its director, Francis Ford Coppola, also famously fought Paramount — deems Ms. May’s three-hour cut of A New Leaf “un-releasable,” thereby siding with the studio, and describes her character as “homely” and Matthau’s as “an aging ‘gentleman.’”)

The decidedly wonderful Ms. May will return to Broadway in The Waverly Gallery in September. In the meantime, I recommend catching up with her excellent body of film work.

Finally, the Times also posted yesterday this “oral history” of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its 1978 release this year; it’s one of those films that’s great by accident rather than by design. The comedy, set at a small college in 1962, inspired a host of crude imitators and is a bit guilty of crudity itself — it ends with the rude, glorious, Dionysian destruction of a small American town — but it’s just as funny now as it was then. Unlike those imitators, Animal House used its plot as a pot to hold a stew of satiric observations about race relations, sexual politics, corruption, higher education, politics, class, anti-Semitism, and hypocrisy — and those issues haven’t gone anywhere. So far as the Deltas themselves are concerned, they’d be as out of place at Columbia University in 1968 as they were at Faber College in 1962, and they’d be out of place now (even if one of their number ended up a United States Senator). The film is available on blu-ray from Amazon.

Below, a short clip from Elaine May’s A New Leaf. Put the popcorn in the microwave and let’s get started.