Television is good for two things and two things only: Shows about food and shows about travel. So I was sorry to hear of the death of Anthony Bourdain this morning, because Bourdain was a master of both. Possessed of a healthy skepticism about the human race, he nonetheless found much in our character to admire as he travelled around the world, even though, on balance, the bad may have outweighed the good. And he was as honest about himself as he was about the world he took his leave of too soon. “Maybe that’s enlightenment enough,” he once said; “To know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom is realising how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” I’ll be raising a glass to his memory at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Brian Stelter’s obituary for CNN, Bourdain’s home network, can be found here.
Bourdain’s television career may be most remembered for a meal he shared with then-President Barack Obama in a small Vietnam restaurant in 2016. “He was funny, quick to laugh,” Bourdain wrote. “When I asked him if he ever missed being able to go out to a bar, sit down by himself and have a cold beer while listening to old songs on the juke, he smiled and said ‘in about six months.'” Bourdain went on:
When I asked him if it was OK that I get along with Ted Nugent, who has said many, many deeply offensive and hateful things about him personally, he responded “of course” — that that was exactly the sort of person we SHOULD be talking to: the people who disagree with us.
He was oddly resigned to and forgiving of his enemies. And when I asked him if — given the very likely ugly and frightening contents of the daily intelligence briefings to which he is privy — if it was “going to be OK” for my daughter as she grew up, he replied with confidence that on balance, it would.
And we all hope against hope that Obama was right. Until next week.
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.
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 ChromaticField 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.
A Higher Loyalty is the first big memoir by a key player in the alarming melodrama that is the Trump administration. Comey, who was abruptly fired by President Trump on May 9, 2017, has worked in three administrations, and his book underscores just how outside presidential norms Trump’s behavior has been — how ignorant he is about his basic duties as president, and how willfully he has flouted the checks and balances that safeguard our democracy, including the essential independence of the judiciary and law enforcement. Comey’s book fleshes out the testimony he gave before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 with considerable emotional detail, and it showcases its author’s gift for narrative — a skill he clearly honed during his days as United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Kakutani notes that a major figure hovering over the book is Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian popular in the 1950s; Niebuhr is also featured in a sidebar interview that accompanies the review. Per Kakutani:
[Comey wrote] his college thesis on religion and politics, embracing Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that “the Christian must enter the political realm in some way” in order to pursue justice, which keeps “the strong from consuming the weak.”
I paged through Niebuhr’s work a few years ago; clearly I’m in good company. His argument is duly noted, and I will ruminate further. And I lift a glass to his memory this afternoon.
Not long ago I sampled The Randy Newman Songbook, a three-CD set released in 2016 that covers the four decades of Newman‘s career. It is, though, not strictly a compilation — these are brand new recordings of many of his most (and least) recognized songs, recently performed by Newman alone at a piano. Lacking, then, are the often lush orchestrations and arrangements of the original album releases. But what we gain through these solo performances is a new respect for Newman as a consummate craftsman of American songwriting. Along with his contemporaries Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson, Newman represented perhaps the final generation of an American songwriting tradition that began in the early 20th century in Tin Pan Alley, reached something of an apotheosis in the Brill Building in the 1950s, then began to slowly decline until this kind of songwriting just about vanished in the 1980s.
While much of their music engages nostalgically with the American songwriting tradition, Newman, Parks, and Nilsson didn’t merely indulge in this nostalgia, but aimed it through the prism of an America that was radically changing in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the emotional and cultural certainties of these classic American songs were no longer relevant. While at first listen there are echoes of the Gershwins and Harry Ruby, dissonances (which are still jarring) rapidly appear, and the songs themselves become considerations of a lost world and its peculiar contemporary recollection. Below is a sample of this — an early Randy Newman song, “Vine Street,” which first appeared on the 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman — a peculiar collaboration detailed in the Wikipedia page about the album, which despite failing commercially won the Record-of-the-Year award from Stereo Review. This performance, an early demo recording, was included in the 1998 boxed set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, which is now out of print.