Monday, February 28, 2011

February, you may be little, but you're small!

"February is pitiless, and it is boring. That parade of red numerals on its page adds up to zero: birthdays of politicians, a holiday reserved for rodents, what kind of celebrations are those? The only bubble in the flat champagne of February is Valentine’s Day. It was no accident that our ancestors pinned Valentine’s Day on February’s shirt: he or she lucky enough to have a lover in frigid, antsy February has cause for celebration, indeed."

Tom Robbins basically had it right, for in spite of its weeny meanness, this month can seem endless. But even March is a half-assed month, not really knowing what season it belongs to; and April is like an old bicycle seat: "just enough spring in it to give you a pain in the ass". (This one is from my father!).

But there are compensations, if fleeting ones. Yesterday my four grandchildren went bounding out into a rare late-February snowfall (rare because we basically live in a rain forest) and created like mad: snowmen, snow forts, snow girls, castles, angels, freeform sculptures, Easter eggs, hockey pucks. And their Grandma and Grandpa similarly frolicked, in up to their knees.

But the difference is, Monday brings preschool and kindergarten, which they like a lot, and for me. . . just Monday.

We've nearly broken February's back. That should be good news for me, and I guess it is. But it's the same old blues. Is the universe trying to tell me something? Like. . .to shut up?

It could be that I just don't know how to "work" my contacts. Do I seem too hungry? Not hungry enough? Whenever this particular rule book was passed out, I either didn't get one, or lost my copy somewhere.

It was noteworthy to me that Kevin Brownlow, with whom I recently/briefly exchanged emails, appeared on the Oscars last night, having received an honorary award for a lifetime of devotion to the then-nearly-lost cause of silent film. It was cool to see.

What wasn't so cool is that the four men receiving honorary Oscars for their lifelong contribution to the movies weren't actually presented with their statues, just trotted out (three of them, anyway) for a brief moment of applause, then whisked away. It was all done so briskly that it caused a bit of confusion.

Soooooooo. . . it's the last day of this interminable month, the snowmen are melting, the Oscar analyses are fulminating away, the best-and-worst-dressed lists dissected. Soon it'll all go away, as everything always goes away.

And I'll be left facing the glowing screen, and wondering what is next.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Kathy from Consort

I confess I am a recovering k. d. lang addict. Recovering, because I'm starting to think she's falling into her own cliches: the little groan at the beginning of the phrase; the breathless/breathy passages, the upswoop like a coyote or a cowboy yell, and (less frequently) the half-yodel. When she sang Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah at the opening of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver (a very big deal for us: we live there!), she was on a big pedestal and dressed in a baggy men's suit. My husband said, "She looks like Wayne Newton."

It was true. She looks sort of puffy, and she doesn't smile much. I never expected her to stay androgynously waiflike (if there is such a thing), boyish with knife-trimmed nails, and cheekbones to die for. But I never pictured her getting this bulky, stolid like a middle-aged businessman at a Shriner's convention, getting lost in her (always-ugly) clothes. Long ago she was in a Canadian-made movie called Salmonberries in which she appeared, for a split-second, in the nude, and everyone revelled in the fact that she looked like a woman. Well, she IS, folks, no matter how gay or lesbian or woman-loving she may be. The physiological underpinnings are the same.

So, how does this affect my feelings for her? I don't know when I started to get turned off. Nothing ever matched her breakout Ingenue album, which I listened to about a billion times. Still Thrives This Love was my fave (and I'll try to find it), though there were no duds in it at all.

She's not quite phoning it in now, but the lang cliches are wearing a deeper and deeper groove, so that something has fallen down in and gotten lost. I think. She still has that legendary flexible voice, but it doesn't seem to speak to me any more. She doesn't produce the overtones that make a voice jump alive, and God, that swooooooping up to every note. Once in a while, attack it head-on, will you?

Nevertheless, this one is pretty good.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lotte Lenya: We've lost our good old Mama

The Doors - Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)

So. This Alabama song has nothing to do with Alabama, surprisingly, but is the best-known ditty from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's dark vision of social corruption, Mahagonny. It's not exactly the kind of tune you can tap yer toe to.

When I found out the Doors had done it, I nearly fell over. The Lotte Lenya version isn't exactly what I remember either, but it's close. See, when I was a kid, I was a misfit, an outcast, a square peg (as in another brilliant song by The Doors, "When you're Strange"). I was just odd. But my sister, thirteen years older than me, was odder.

She was always going off to Munich as an exchange student, spoke fluent German (why? No one in our connection was even remotely German or Teutonic or anything), and wrote her Master's thesis in German on this strange, incomprehensible Mahagonny. It was plenty weird, but no weirder than the brick-and-board bookcases in the den that groaned under the weight of Schiller, Goethe and Freud.

In those days, everybody who was anybody had a hi-fi, and you played your hi-fi extremely loud. The louder it was, the more the bass rattled your teeth, the better your hi-fi was. When I brought friends home from school, the Moon of Alabama song would be on the hi-fi, and I'd have to try to explain.

But I didn't understand it myself. There was a lot I didn't understand, because nobody explained it to me. So I concluded that everyone else in the world already understood these things, and I didn't because I was feeble-minded and intellectually inferior (even though I was in a special advanced educational stream, for which I received no family praise at all). As a result, in order to compensate, I became very entertaining.

Things got even more confusing when my sister's drunken married friends groped me at adult parties, at which my glass of gin was always kept topped up. I was fifteen years old and they were something like thirty and it was supposed to be all right. My parents were sure it was all right: my older siblings were looking after me! They were doing me a favor, giving me a social life which I could never have on my own, and I was supposed to be grateful. It nearly destroyed me, but I figured I didn't understand that, either, and kept silent. Just as well, because if they didn't listen to me then, they sure don't want to listen to me now.

Oh, don't ask why. Oh, don't ask why.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Words from the master

In making inquries about my Harold Lloyd novel (The Glass Character), I scraped up my nerve and sent an email to Kevin Brownlow, who is without a doubt the world's foremost authority on silent film. Not only that: he knew Harold Lloyd personally.

I was quite taken aback that he responded so quickly, and with such detailed commentary, which I can't help but share here.

Dear Margaret Gunning

I am fascinated that you are so keen on Harold Lloyd. Me too, but it’s strange how people repeat the old cliches about his being ‘mechanical’ You will love John Bengtson’s book – it tells you so much about the places in which he worked.
You are a good writer, and it was a pleasure to read your extract. I would take issue with you on one subject – did they use obscenity when they swore in those days? T E Lawrence, in his account of barrack room life THE MINT, had his book banned because he repeated the swear words, which he was finally compelled to reprint like this; ---
But in talking to scores of silent film veterans, I heard plenty of swearing, but it was all profanity – ‘Jesus Christ’ – or ‘God almighty’ - presumably because of the strong Irish Catholic tradition in Hollywood.. When they got worked up it was ‘Son of a bitch’ I notice you use both for Hal Roach – ‘Jesus, Harold! Do you want to be fucking killed?’ (Roach’s family was from Cork, by the way.) You may be right, but I would be interested to know if you have any evidence.
I noticed, when I researched a script about silent era Hollywood (never made) how many words they used that have fallen out of fashion. ‘Everything’s jake!’ ‘Twenty-three skidoo’
By the way, motion picture makeup was yellow, not white. (The cameramen hated white )
As for the money earned by the top comics, Chaplin made three comedies to Lloyd’s eleven in the 1920s, but Chaplin’s still made more money overall.
Did you know there was a film magazine publisher and producer called Wid Gunning? Are you any relation?
I have written a book about making THE THIRD GENIUS, but as the rights for the documentary have lapsed, it won’t be possible to bring the programme out on DVD with the book as I did with the Chaplin and as I planned with the Keaton book. What a shame,
I wish you the best of luck with the book.
Warmest wishes
Kevin Brownlow

Ryan's Fifth

You wouldn't believe how long it takes (and how much experimental printing it requires) to make one of these little "Grandmark" cards ("Made with Love"). I got into it a couple of years ago, and now do it four times a year. Ryan is obsessed with cars. That's all you need to know!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Haunted, haunted (and haunted: the trifecta)

I want it to stop, but it won't. Today I found out about the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show: a Scottish deerhound named Hickory. But that wasn't the thing that grabbed me. It was the owner's name.

Angela Lloyd.

This news came almost immediately after I watched a story on Dateline NBC about a young woman brutally murdered by a military hero gone mad. But it was her name that grabbed me:

(From the news story)

Hundreds of people filled a Belleville, Ont., funeral home Saturday afternoon as the community came together to honour Jessica Lloyd, the 27-year-old woman whose body was found on a rural road on Monday.
Before the service began, several members of the Canadian Forces entered the funeral home in uniform and wearing black armbands.
Small groups of people clustered outside the funeral home during the service, with one group of young women carrying a sign that said: "Rest in peace sweet angel."
Col. Russell Williams is facing first-degree murder charges in the death of Jessica Lloyd, 27, of Belleville, Ont.
On Friday, long lines of people had waited patiently outside the funeral home to attend the visitation for Lloyd, one of the alleged victims of Col. Russell Williams, the former commander of CFB Trenton.
Lloyd's cousin and brother both spoke at the service Saturday, and her brother paused to thank local law enforcement officials for their work on the case.
(P.S.: Less than half an hour after I posted this, I was washing dishes with the TV on in the background. A newsmagazine show I almost never watch called W5 came on, and the host announced himself: "Hi, I'm Lloyd Robertson."
Three? Well, yesterday there were two. Only.

Tell me there are no coincidences.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Vincent, you're getting paint all over everything!

How many times have I seen this thing? Like Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, it just seems to come around.

Except that this one grabs me, every time.

Kirk Douglas excels himself, does better than he knows how, in portraying the awful and sublime life of Vincent Van Gogh. We all know Van Gogh's paintings from the coffee mugs and post cards and tea towels and various fripperies that bear his images. We have all heard reports of the multimillion dollars even his smallest canvases now command.

I didn't wanna do it, I didn't wanna do it. I had recorded it on my PVR a few days or weeks earlier and it was sitting there. It was on TCM, so I knew it wouldn't be carved up. I thought, after a shitty week, oh what the hell.

My husband has been away all week. Normally I use this sabbatical as a time for reflection, quiet, and going out to restaurants for one meal at 3 pm. This week was just - oh I don't know, it bored the piss out of me. Things went around and around in circles and some days I didn't even get out due to the wretched house-shaking monsoon outside.

I made fudge and I ate too much of really bad things, like back ribs and fries. I just felt discontent, as if I didn't fit my skin. THEN, early yesterday morning, the power went out, and I felt helpless. Not only was it cold and dark, but my lovebird began to shiver, and I realized with a shock that he wasn't going to survive dramatically dipping temperatures.

I panicked. I moved the cage all over the house. Is this warmer? No. It's already 63 F and dropping (when his usual room temperature is 72). I dithered around. I covered the cage with a tablecloth, wondering if he could breathe. He clung to the pointy roof of his palatial cage, silent and not moving.

Then I thought: what's the warmest room in the house? Our bedroom! During our rare Vancouver heat waves, it's absolutely awful, and sometimes I have to sleep downstairs. So I lugged his huge cage upstairs and gained purchase of 3 degrees, but it was not enough.

My mind spun around and around. Did we have any source of heat left? Should I stick him in my pocket or something? Then I thought: of course! Hot water. But my idea was not quite on-target.

I put a bowl of hot water on the floor of his cage, covered with a sieve so the dumb bird wouldn't try to bathe in it and scald himself. It bought me a couple more degrees. But it still wasn't enough.

Depressed and isolated, not wanting to go out because I had to look after this incubator baby, I phoned my daughter-in-law to ask if she had power. She did. She also had, right to hand, a number to call for info on power outages.

"But it'll take me hours. They'll put me on hold."

"No they won't. Try it."

They didn't. I got the information I needed in 30 seconds. The power would be on no later than 4:00 (and it was 1:00: would we squeak through?) She also suggested, instead of bowls of water that got cold in 2 minutes, to fill the bathtub with a few inches of hot water and wheel the cage into the bathroom and shut the door.

Within 15 minutes, I had set up the ideal sauna, and Jasper was thawing out, singing and chirping and ringing his numerous bells and acting like a bird again.

Anyway, all this shit ended at 2 pm, after 6 hours of blackout. It could've gone all night, in which case my bird would have died of hypothermia.

So, completely unrelated to this, or not, I was exhausted by the evening, lonely, sugar-logged, and just wanting any old thing to distract me. Maybe I shouldn't have picked Lust for Life.

Vincente Minnelli strove to make this movie as faithful to Van Gogh's paintings and life as possible. He dragged trees in to fill holes where they had been cut down. He put up a false front for the yellow house Van Gogh lived in with Gaugin (a bravura performance by Anthony Quinn, who likes his women "fat and vicious and not too bright"). Stories circulated about old women from remote places in Provence who gasped on seeing Douglas in makeup and exclained, "He has returned!"

A companion movie, a "making of" was shown after the main feature, and in it Douglas spoke fluent French to one of these elderly keepers-of-the-memory (who are all gone now). Why did it surprise me to see Douglas speak fluent French? He was the Ragman's Son (I read his auto-bio years ago, and he came up from such dire poverty that the family sometimes had nothing to eat). I associate him with powerhouse roles, Spartacus and the like,and that exaggerated growling voice beloved of impressionists (not the painters!) like Frank Gorshin.

I don't know what happened here. Some kind of transubstantiation. He - became. He felt this man. He slipped into his skin, his uneasy incendiary brain. The thing is, Van Gogh painted innumerable self-portraits, and all of them had something of Kirk Douglas in them. In some cases he could have been the model.

I don't know what my point is here, and I guess I don't have one. Life is a mess, and right now I'm a mess, full of sugar, lonely, completely stalled and discouraged in my work, yet still blown away by a couple of things.

The sun is shining right now. Shining on the high cedar boughs that garland my upstairs office view. The light is dappled and various, a Gerard Manley Hopkins light.

The sun is out. I never thought I'd see it again.

I don't know why we keep on. Sometimes it's wretched. Ask any genius. We have a spark of life in us, like a candle inside a blubberous whale. Van Gogh had to paint quickly because he knew he didn't have much time. "You paint too fast!" Gaugain roared at him. "You look too fast!" he growled back.

I'm not even going to try to tie all this together because life, as it is, isn't tied together very well. It's sloppy and hard to navigate. For me, anyway. It's better and worse. Some suffer more than others.

But I'm glad my little bird made it back into the light.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A three-Lloyd day

I don't know how someone
can love across the ages
or even haunt

coz I guess in strict terms
you really are a ghost
or maybe just a friendly spirit
who's decided to come around for a while

When you came into my life,
I hardly knew
you'd be everywhere I looked:
on street signs
in magazines
on the radio
and especially on TV

like last night
with that stupid Stephen King movie
about the Pet Semetary
when the guy turned out to be named (you guessed it!)

and like most days, there were others too
that popped out at me from my readings
(even when I wasn't looking
but, stranger yet, even when I was)
I tried to mind my own business
but my heart had been stolen
Harold, listen
send me a signal flare:
are you really there?

I feel you
I know it's weird
I sense you like heat in the room
and if I had those night-vision glasses
I think I could even see you

because now you live fully
in that world you half-inhabited when you were here:
full of shadow
and shine

it's said the stars
from the early screen
carried a spotlight around inside them
but the way you faced fame was different
you were just doing your job

sometimes with grim obsession
creating someone new
who stood out from all the grotesques
just an ordinary
jaunty fellow
with a bruised heart
and unexpected courage
an ordinary soul
that people couldn't get enough of
because they saw him in the mirror

Harold, I
I don't know where to start
I tried to write about you
I tried to write a story, put you in a story
and now I don't know where it'll end
Maybe nowhere
the fate of my (usual) work

This howls within me
for I wish sometimes
I had not had this inspiration
if my story goes nowhere.

It needs to be
for if pictures can be silent,
words cannot be

and I can only make story
in words.

Monday, February 14, 2011

JOAN BAEZ "The Greenwood Side"

Bear with me, here. There's method in my madness.

Today I got writing about Songcatcher, a haunting movie about a woman professor's attempts to collect and capture folk music from the Appalachians in the early 20th century. That got me going, of course, on folk music.

I thought of one that my sister used to do (my sister, my sister), a harsh, dissonant thing called Down by the Greenwood Side (i-o). This was the version Ian and Sylvia made popular, sung in fifths I think, harsh and shivery. But today I found another version that shone with wonder and grief, sung by Joan Baez. The essential story is the same, though much more drawn-out. The tune, however, couldn't be more different, and it reminded me of something else.

I puzzled over this. Then I remembered. In the early '60s there was a song by Ewan MacColl called The First Time Ever I Saw your Face, and Gordon Lightfoot recorded a memorable version of it. It's hard to recognize here because the Roberta Flack version that came out a few years later kind of drowned it. Hers was drawled and drawn-out, smokily sexual and completely different from this more compact, folky (but no less heartfelt) version.

But the resemblance between the two, between Lightfoot's version and Baez's Greenwood, was what made my skin prickle. I wonder if MacColl even thought about it as he wrote his paean to erotic love. But the melody, those magic intervals that make up a tune, are so much the same, so full of mystery and ache.

So, listen to these two, and you tell me: do they sound the same?

GORDON LIGHTFOOT ~ The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face ~

Frail wildwood flower

Certain things, movies, books, people, lovers, are somehow relegated to the back of your mind. Or perhaps they sneak back there, or roll like nuts on a tilted surface. . . or stones, or. . .

A long time ago, it seems, I saw a movie that totally enchanted me. But for some reason, very little of it stuck with me except the bare subject matter: a musicologist tramping around the backwoods of Appalachia in the early 20th century, lugging a Gramophone to record the ancient ballads passed down since time immemorial. This much I remembered. But, shockingly, the rest was lost. No title, no characters, no plot, no year: just that mountain music, that sere and strident singing that a critic once said "would make thin glass rattle".

It would pop into my head, then sort of disappear again. I'd say to myself, I'll try to look it up on Google. Then I'd forget. Then, today, for some reason, I pounced. I had no idea where to start, so I entered search terms like "movie with Appalachian folk music on gramophone" and things like that. I knew that if the title did pop up, I would recognize it immediately.

It didn't take too long (God bless the internet!) until the title did pop up: Songcatcher, a 2000 film about a woman professor collecting folk music while living in her sister's backwoods school.

I haven't seen it yet, have happily ordered it from Amazon and hope I'll enjoy it twice. We'll see. Movies have a way of changing, over the years.

Peeping into it on YouTube, I see a lesbian relationship I had forgotten all about. I was kind of shaken by the harshness of the singing, with a sharp yodelly end to each line. These felt like authentic singers to me, so they must still be around. Yes, we have heard such strident sounds in the voices of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, but somewhat watered down. Most of these mountain songs, often called Child Ballads for some reason (let me look that up!), were composed by Henry VIII or somebody like that: I mean, somebody had to write them, didn't they? They didn't come out of the thin air. But they have that feeling of always having been there.

This started a flood in my mind: memories of the folk boom of the early '60s, when my older brothers came home from university toting guitars. They sang such weird old numbers as Cape Breton Mines, Geordie, Down by the Greenwood Side (ee-oh), In the Hills of Shiloh, Corn Whisky ("you killed all my kinfolk and sent them to hell"), and a truly awful number my sister sang called Poor Old Horse, Poor Old Mare ("the dogs will eat my rotten flesh, and that's how I'll decay"). She stuck to really morbid, hopeless things ("Wide and deep my grave shall be/With the wild-goose grasses growing over me") and seemed to relish them, singing them in an trained operatic soprano while plucking her guitar, which she held between her knees.

My brother Arthur, the one who died so young, was the best guitarist and the best at interpreting Cohen and Dylan. Especially Dylan, who could write songs that seemed like they were written generations ago: The Hour the Ship Comes In being my favorite.

What's the point of all this? There is no point. Music falls on the air, disappears. For millennia, none of it was recorded anywhere. An echo from some holler was the closest anyone came. Now we have it all, and most of it is lousy. It all sounds like that quasi-soul stuff made up of melismatic riffs and doorknob-rattling high notes rather than melody. Sucks.

Just let me hear some-more-that gram-o-phone music. . .

Songcatcher: at last I've found you!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

80 years young(er)

These aren't representative of the whole clan, I'm afraid, but they did turn out nice. The occasion was my daughter-in-law's stepfather's 80th birthday (not as complicated as it sounds!). The pics of little Lauren came out the best. She's a gifted photographer at age three, and took that great shot of the other grandpa (in the grey shirt), Papa Gunning!
(P. S. The birthday boy, Aime Therrien, isn't really a Shriner. He just looks that way.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I don't understand this at all: Harold Lloyd synchronicity

When I started this blog some months ago, I had a sort-of theme in mind.

I wanted it to be basically an ad for my fiction, so maybe, just maybe, somebody-out-there might see it and take some sort of an interest.

I mean, somebody who might be able to help.

This didn't happen. Instead, I became more close-mouthed than ever about the subject of my latest (unpublished) novel, The Glass Character, a fictionalized account of the life and times of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd.

You know: that Harold Lloyd. The ordinary fellow, looking a little geeky in his hornrimmed glasses, who ended up doing daredevil stunts such as hanging off the hands of a huge clock 20 stories up.

I can't get into the complex, often paradoxical life of Lloyd right now. Instead, I want to write about some (many!) examples of synchronicity I've experienced since I began to research and write about this man a couple of years ago.

Synchronicity being, as I understand it, coincidences that don't seem like coincidences because of their existential/emotional significance. Or, in this case, sheer numbers.

It started small. I'd see the name Lloyd on a street sign, on the side of a truck or train, on a realtor's sign, in movie credits, in novels, in magazine pieces, in - well, it could be anywhere.

This escalated over time. It became routine to get at least one Lloyd-sighting somewhere, every day. I mean, every day. Sometimes, there were two or three.

"Oh, you're just noticing it because that's what you're writing about," my friend claimed. Ahhhh, maybe. But when I watched an odd little British comedy called The Wrong Box, I counted, not one, not two, not three. . .

There were five references to the name Lloyd, in the credits (2), in the cast (2), and even in a list, the Tontine, which was the pivotal subject of the movie. When people got bumped off, their name was crossed off the list. One of those names was Lloyd.