BRITFILM – “The V.I.P.s” (1963)

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The ironic thing about “The V.I.P.s” is that what was the big selling point for the film at the time it was released – the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – is by far the most tedious, ill-conceived and even embarrassing thing about it. Terence Rattigan was a very popular British playwright in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and his plays are undergoing a revival in England this year (2011), but the entire Liz-Dick-Louis Jourdan love triangle is soap opera at its worst. The dialog is brittle and stilted, and the actors (Burton especially) are encouraged to suffer amidst luxurious surroundings. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the final shot, which I assume was meant to be a happy ending, reminds me of the brilliantly ambiguous final shot of “The Graduate”, which was not.

It’s a shame, too, because the other major plot line of the film, involving an Australian businessman trying to save his company with the help of his silently adoring secretary, is actually quite well done, despite the fairly clichéd plot line. The dialog is less artificial, and the performances by Rod Taylor and particularly Maggie Smith are superb. Rod Taylor was an under-appreciated actor, I think, much better than many of the vehicles he starred in. Maggie Smith is just one of the greats – it was when, as a teenager, I saw her in this and “Hot Millions” that I fell in love with her. In fact, the most electrifying and beautifully acted (and directed) scene in the film is the short but absolutely pivotal encounter between Smith and Burton.

The Orson Welles storyline about a film producer trying to get out of England to avoid taxation is, frankly, a waste of time and film. Welles is entertaining, but nothing about the scene or his performance is anything more than skin-deep.

Margaret Rutherford won her Oscar as a befuddled and broke old noblewoman trying to save her ancestral home. There’s nothing in her performance that she hadn’t done many times, and peerlessly, before, but she is very funny and, by the end, quite touching.

The production values are sky-high, and there is a platoon of first-rate British character actors (and David Frost) in support of the elegant stars, but it’s all a little like biting into a beautiful chocolate and finding the center to be stale and inedible.

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BRIT TV – “VICIOUS”

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I’m an Anglophile.  I love British literature, British music, British theater, British films, British food (well, some of it) and British television series.

I’ve seen Sir Ian McKellen in two stage productions:  one, which I saw in London, was an Alan Ayckbourn play named “Henceforward”; the other, which I saw in Boston, was a one-man show about acting Shakespeare.  He was brilliant in both.

I’ve never actually seen Sir Derek Jacobi live on stage, although I have seen a National Theater Live filmed production of “King Lear” in which he played the title role.  He was brilliant.

I’m also a heterosexual male who has spent his entire adult life in the world of the theater and classical music, so a hefty percentage of my friends are gay men.

WGBH-TV in Boston broadcasts an English sitcom (or, to put it tweely, Britcom) called “Vicious.”  It stars McKellen and Jacobi as two elderly gay men who have been living together for decades and who spend most of the episodes I’ve seen insulting one another.

It’s possibly the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen on television.

I have a relatively low threshold for comedy, in the sense that almost anything will make me laugh.  (Well, the new “Odd Couple” series is a laugh-free zone, but the original play is a classic and the first series, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, was reliably funny.)   “Vicious” has two of the greatest actors in the English language – three, actually, because Frances de la Tour is also in it, in the spectacularly thankless role of the couple’s sex-starved middle-aged female friend – and none of them could get a smile out of me.

The writing is partly to blame.  After a while, the constant stream of furiously bitchy one-liners (and the dialogue consists of practically nothing else) loses its ability to shock or amuse, and there’s virtually nothing else going on in the characters to maintain one’s interest.

There’s also the fact that McKellen and Jacobi, both of whom are gay, play these characters as the most grotesque, offensive, over-the-top screaming queens imaginable.  Straight actors could never get away with it.

Finally, there’s the sheer waste of talent.  McKellen and Jacobi are justifiably giants in their field; it’s hard to believe that either one of them is so hard up for cash as to appear in a witless comedy series that can only make them look like pathetic old fairies.  Getting them to appear in “Vicious” is like using two vintage Rolls-Royces as garbage trucks.

NOW IT BEGINS

Most people I know have more or less intense nostalgic memories of the days of their youth, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that I don’t remember a great deal of it very clearly. I rarely think about my own past. There were no emotional traumas or upheavals.

I was born in 1955 and spent the first seventeen years of my life in the town of Kearny, New Jersey, which sits next to Newark and is about ten miles due west of Manhattan. Much of the town has a great view of the New York skyline, particularly the panoramic one from the rear of the high school, which is perched on a hill overlooking the Meadowlands (at the time I was growing up, mostly swamp and dumping grounds) that stretch from there to Union City and the Hudson River. Many of my most boring high school classes I spent gazing out the window, watching from a distance as the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were being constructed – one would rise to a certain level, then the other one would catch up and overtake it.

Kearny was a working-class town, almost entirely white in those days, largely settled by Scots and Irish immigrants. My mother was born in Paisley, Scotland, and brought here as an infant by her parents in the mid-1920s. My father’s parents were both from Belfast, Ireland; his mother was Catholic, his father was Jewish. Dad was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which was then (the late 1920s) primarily Irish, and where his mother was working as a lady’s maid. Within a couple of years they had moved to New York, where his father had found a job, and my Dad grew up in Brooklyn and, a few years later, Kearny.

I began reading when I was two-and-a-half years old. I don’t know how I learned or why; my parents didn’t make any particular efforts to teach me, because they were just as surprised as anyone else when one of them began reading a new book to me at bedtime and heard me reading the words aloud just ahead of them. It made me an unexploitable prodigy: after you’ve heard a tiny boy reading a few lines from the Bible or that day’s newspaper a couple of times, the novelty quickly wears off.

I read a lot when I was a kid. I was probably four or five years old when I got my first library card. I even remember the first book I withdrew: Space Cat. A science fiction story for kids, it had only a few pictures and was mostly text, and the librarian tried to dissuade me from taking it out. My parents talked her into it, and I brought it home and read it through a few times before returning it a week later. From then on, the librarians let me read pretty much any book that interested me, even those in the Adult section.

My precocity caused a little difficulty in school. After a week of kindergarten, I was moved up (along with a couple of other students) to first grade. The books from which we were supposed to learn reading – the “Dick, Jane and Sally” books with their endless variations on “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run” – I found incredibly boring, especially since everyone else in the class seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to pronounce every word. I would start reading ahead, hoping that one of the later stories would be more interesting, and then would sometimes get caught out when the teacher called on me to read. Often, so that I wouldn’t stick out too much – especially when you’re young, nothing is worse than being different in any way from everybody else in your class – I would pretend to have difficulty reading a simple word.

Eventually, the teacher figured me out and cut me some slack during reading sessions. For a while, in second grade, she even asked me to help her grade some of the quizzes we took. The first couple of times, that seemed a great honor. By the third time, I realized the other kids were growing suspicious of my apparent friendliness with the teacher, and I gave up my paper-grading career.

I must have begun writing stories for myself in first grade, at least partly because the Dick, Jane and Sally saga was wearing very thin. None of those early stories has survived, as far as I know, and I don’t remember much about them. I do remember writing my first play in third grade. It was about Columbus discovering the New World, although it was heavily influenced by the Westerns I watched on television and climaxed with a fight between Columbus and the Indians. Miss Goodman, our teacher, was impressed by it (hey, I was eight); she had copies made of it and a group of us performed it for the rest of the class.

When I was about twelve, I became a minor celebrity in Kearny by becoming the first (and so far, I think, the only) Kearnyite to participate in the National Spelling Bee. My father and I flew down to Washington (nobody in our family had ever been on an airplane before; I remember we each wore a jacket and tie, because in the 1960s you wore business clothes when flying) and stayed at the Mayflower Hotel, where the spelling bee was held. (Remind me sometime to tell you of the time I met J. Edgar Hoover.) A young reporter from the Jersey Journal, Walter Wisniewski, covered the event, and although I only lasted a few rounds, I wrote a short article about the experience that Walter edited lightly and convinced the newspaper to publish – my first appearance in print.

Throughout high school I kept writing. I thought a writer was what I was going to be when I grew up. I wrote stories and sent them off to science fiction magazines (most of what I read in those days was science fiction). They were returned. I wrote a novel, an adventure story about a young man who gets mistaken for a spy, when I was sixteen and submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, because they published the best-looking books. It was returned with a letter complimenting me on writing such a mature-sounding work. I wrote two more novels: one was a comedy about a traveling preacher in the 1930s; the other, never finished, was going to be an epic fantasy about a young man who gradually learns that he’s supposed to be the king of his country. And then I went to college.

I had been accepted to the only two colleges to which I had applied: Allegheny College, somewhere in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, and Boston University. Boston was closer and easier of access to Kearny, so BU it was. Yeah, that’s how I picked a college. I applied to BU because the son of some family friends was going there; also, I had been raised a Methodist, and BU had begun as a Methodist theological school. (I applied to Allegheny because of its alphabetical placement in the list of American colleges.) Apart from a daytrip earlier that year – we drove up to Boston in the morning, drove around the city and had lunch in the afternoon, and drove back that evening – I had never spent any time there. I fell in love with it pretty quickly, and especially with BU’s library, which had more books in it than I had ever seen.

Kearny had been a good place to grow up in, and a good place for a grown-up to leave – this grown-up, anyway. A few weeks before college, I had spent two weeks traveling around Scotland and England. For the first few weeks of college, I was intensely homesick – but for Britain, not for Kearny. My favorite place in the world is still London. Since 1976, I’ve made the Boston area my home.

Throughout college I still assumed that I was going to spend my life writing, even if I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to try to make a living at it. At Boston University I was lucky enough to get into John Cheever’s writing class. He was an interesting man and had nice things to say about the stories I wrote in his class, but in the middle of the second semester he announced that he was leaving for the Smithers Clinic in New York State to dry out. I came from a family of teetotalers, so even after my one visit to his apartment, where he offered me what looked like a large glass of water but was in fact a large glass of gin, neat, it had never occurred to me that he was an alcoholic. His replacement was John Updike, who was pleasant but distant – I gather he didn’t much like teaching.

During my second year of college, I joined the Chorus pro Musica. It had nothing to do with BU, or with any other college. It was an independent choral organization, professional in standards but composed entirely of amateurs, which had been founded in the late 1940s by Alfred Nash Patterson (everyone called him Bud) to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Its BSO days were behind it when I joined in 1973, but it was still a busy and well-respected musical group in the area, and I plunged into it. Most of my friends during my BU years were not to be found at BU but at CpM, and most of them were older than me, real grown-ups with grown-up lives and grown-up jobs.

I had learned to read music very young, as well as words. My mother played the piano, and she would often seat me next to her on the piano bench and point out the notes on the page and the corresponding notes on the piano while she played. I’ve never learned to play the piano at all well, but I’m a very good sight-reader of scores, which came in very useful in my penurious college years when I learned that some local church choirs hired section leaders/soloists with decent singing voices who could pick up a score quickly and help teach it to their fellow singers. This was a source of extra income to me for many years.

Partly because I could make fairly easy money at it, I spent the next ten years or so singing a great deal and writing hardly at all. Most of my writing came in the form of program notes for the Chorus pro Musica. At one point, when the group was about to celebrate its 30th anniversary, I spent an afternoon interviewing Bud Patterson, and from that interview and a lot of extra research I wrote a series of four articles about CpM’s history for that year’s concert program booklets. Years after I had left the group in the late 1980s, I rewrote and updated those articles into one longer, semi-official CpM history which, I think, is now on the group’s website.

And that was about the only writing I did for about a dozen years after I graduated from college. I did get one fantasy story published in 1977 – the first story for which I got paid. It was called “Nocturne,” it was about a young woman who experienced time in reverse, and it was published by a new science fiction magazine called Unearth, which was based in Boston and only lasted a few years. (Another author whose first story was published in Unearth was William Gibson, who wrote another story a few years later in which he coined the term “cyberspace.”) I wrote a couple more stories in the next year or so – one about a suicidal man who hires an organization to create a fantasy world in which he can die a heroic death, the other a horror story about a deserted summer resort – but neither of them was published, and with a little sadness and disappointment, I assumed that the writing part of my life was over.

In 1988, my friend Mike Turner became the musical director of Boston’s Publick Theater, an outdoor theater on the banks of the Charles River that performed three shows every summer. He called me one day to tell me that they were auditioning for a production of A Little Night Music and were having difficulty finding someone to play Frederik, one of the male leads. Mike had been my accompanist in many vocal recitals, many of which included a song or two by Sondheim; he knew I could sing, had no idea if I could act, but was I interested in auditioning?

I had loved acting in school plays when I was a kid, and I had plenty of experience performing in opera choruses around New England, but it had been years since I had appeared on a stage speaking dialogue. I’ve never suffered from anything even resembling stage fright, and I’ve always had a great deal of self-confidence, often in situations where it wasn’t warranted. So I auditioned. And I got the role.

And I got other roles. While we were in the final week of rehearsals for A Little Night Music, the Publick’s producer asked me if I was interested in appearing in the next month’s production of Much Ado About Nothing? I was, and I did. The acting bug, long dormant, had surfaced, and for the next few years I acted in whatever shows I could.

After a few years of this, I decided that, like most actors, what I really wanted to do was to direct, and I started directing. This led me back into writing, because my first directing opportunity was as part of an evening of one-acts at a local community theater. I would be one of three directors, and the play I was asked to direct was Moliere’s Sganarelle. The translation they gave me wasn’t very good, and I asked if I would be allowed to come up with my own. (I can read French and German pretty well, and I had done some translating before, mostly of choral texts.) I wrote it very quickly – it took me about three days, one of which was my 39th birthday – and updated it a lot, cutting a couple of characters and scenes. It turned out to be the most successful part of the evening. I won some sort of award for it, and Baker’s Plays published it, so for a few years it was providing me with my first tiny but symbolically precious royalties.

Meanwhile, my best friend, Jim Quinn, whom I had met when we performed together at the Publick, had become a theater professor at Bridgewater State College (now University). One of his duties was to direct the annual children’s play that was produced at the college for local schools to attend. Instead of selecting already published plays, he wanted to create new ones. He and I had already collaborated on a play for another outdoor summer theater, this time in Jamaica Plain; the play, called Mrs. Glenville’s Touring English Theatricals, was an attempt to recreate an evening in the theater in America during the 1860’s. We enjoyed working together, and he asked me to collaborate on writing the children’s play for the college. It was the first of over a dozen that we wrote and produced. So now I was a writer again: more accurately, a playwright.

Then I got a call from another friend, Mark Waldstein. He and I had met in a musical about the good old days of censorship in Boston. He was also the Boston correspondent for Back Stage, a weekly trade paper for actors and other theatrical types, and he had just published a book called Mr. Cheap’s Guide to Boston, which was about to become a series of volumes listing all the cheap shops, restaurants, etc. in various cities around the world. The series was going to take up much of his time; would I be interested in taking over the Back Stage gig?

For the next thirteen years, until the newspaper ran into financial difficulties and disposed of all its correspondents between New York and Los Angeles, I wrote a more-or-less monthly article for Back Stage, sometimes just describing what was going on in the Boston theater scene, more frequently reviewing productions that I had seen. Here at last, in my forties, I was getting paid regularly (if very little) to be a writer.

By the time the Back Stage gig ended, in 2006, I had taken on the job of running the John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Awards, which involved reading a lot of other people’s plays. I was reconciled to that. Writing could be an occasional thing.

In 2013, my health went awry. What seemed like an extremely long-lasting chest cold that refused to go away turned out to be congestive heart failure. This sounds more dire than it actually is, but it’s bad enough, and I was (and am) treated with many pills and the implantation of a pacemaker/defibrillator, all of which have helped immensely. Then, that summer, a few weeks of feeling rotten took me to the ER at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, where a five-day stay led to the diagnosis of acute kidney failure, which led to more pills as well as regular injections. I also had a cataract removed from my left eye. The cataract in my right eye was removed the following year, and now my regular vision, for the first time since I was a child, is 20/20, although I need glasses for reading and close work.

My health is now appreciably better. But the first few months of 2013 were quite depressing – for years my doctors had given my heart a clean bill of health, and now it had decided to betray me. Mortality suddenly became a fact rather than a philosophical consideration.

This is where Farsh Askari came in. He and I work together. He’s a good guy and highly intelligent, and I found myself drawn to his youth and energy and health – all things I could no longer count on within myself. And he’s a writer.

I forget exactly how I discovered that last bit, although I know that at some point the fact that he was taking creative writing classes at Harvard came up in conversation. I asked him to show me some of his work, and he did. It was good. It was, in fact, a great deal better than I had been expecting it to be. He had a compelling life story to tell, and he told it well, in imaginative prose, with humor and feeling and brains, and with an ability to maintain the reader’s attention that is less common even among professional writers than it should be.

Here’s how clueless I was: I read the first couple of his stories – most of them autobiographical accounts of his struggles with a severe emotional disorder – with the idea that I could be his mentor, that I could guide him along the true path to being a writer. As I read more, I realized that, as a writer, he didn’t need a guide; but that, as a writer, what I needed was a companion. Or, less admirably, competition. Or, more accurately, a kick in the pants.

At some point, Farsh created a blog on which he posted most of his autobiographical stories (I strongly recommend it to you; it can be found at farshaskari.com).   There were stories here I hadn’t read before, and they were all the more gripping because they were about a friend, someone I knew and loved. Usually he would show me the stories before they appeared on his blog. That I was seeing them before anyone else did I considered a great honor and a treat. (I also got to proofread them; like many very good writers, his approach to spelling and punctuation can be a little wayward).

But the fact that I had no recent writing to show him made me feel a little guilty. If nothing else, I wanted to show off a little to him, to prove that I really did have some idea what I was talking about when I was talking about writing. For a while, we tried to maintain a schedule: every two weeks, we would exchange our latest writing samples and critique each other’s works. That was the plan. It was a good, workable plan. It failed. We’re both Olympic-level procrastinators, so at any given deadline at least one of us would have nothing to give the other, and eventually we decided simply to give each other whatever we were working on whenever we’d gotten to the stage where we thought it was worth reading.

For twenty years I had written virtually nothing but theater reviews and children’s plays, and my storytelling talents had grown rusty, so as a way of segueing into a return to the short story form, I wrote a couple of ten-minute plays. It’s a subgenre for which I have no talent – I don’t quite understand how it’s supposed to work – but I showed them to Farsh anyway. He said some kind things about them, and some useful things.   I moved on to writing a couple of horror stories, which worked a bit better. Meanwhile, he was writing essays, a couple of them reworkings of stories that were on his blog, but also one hilariously attacking the loathsome but popular host of a series of television cooking shows. The essays were all subsequently published in online venues like Salon and The Huffington Post, and the critique of the television host elicited a very lively response, both favorable and un-.

At any rate, I was writing again. More precisely, I was thinking like a writer again. I doubt if I would be doing so if I hadn’t had Farsh to write for, and if he hadn’t had writings for me to read. I’d like to express my appreciation to him – whether he knows it or not, whether he admits it or not, he’s helped me in many ways that I can’t even express and that I doubt I could ever begin to repay. Thanks, Farsh!

But I’m also egoistical enough to want at least the possibility of a larger audience for my writing. Hence this blog. I don’t know for certain what it’s going to contain – more autobiographical ramblings, probably, maybe some stories, probably some reviews or discussions of books or films or music or plays, probably some political rants. Your guess is as good as mine. Please watch this space.