Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tear-Water Tea From Poetry

One of my favorite reading pleasures is the children's series consisting of Frog and Toad Together, and Owl (alone) by Arnold Lobel.
I never read them as a kid but as a grown-up father to my daughter Laurel; no matter, I can pick up one now on my own and while away the contented....minutes!

Owl at Home consists of 5 stories featuring the logically challenged, somewhat obsessive homebody, Owl. I especially like the one entitled "Tear-Water Tea". On a frosty night, Owl gets a hankering for tear-water tea; but to get it he must provide his own tears. So he thinks of sad things like "mashed potatoes left on a plate because nobody ate them.", "a beautiful morning that nobody saw because they were sleeping." and, for me, the topper: "spoons that have fallen behind a stove and are never seen again." Eventually, Owl works up enough tears to get a decent batch which is then boiled and enjoyed in quiet contentment.

While at my day job at the library in the periodical section, I often am reminded of the "spoons fallen behind the stove" but in my version it's "literary or poetry journals that never get read because most people prefer to read about Britney's twisted childhood in US Weekly and the like, while waiting to get on a computer.". So I take it upon myself to peak into them whenever I can and read at least one poem all the way through.

Tuesday i found this poem by Tony Hoagland in the November "Tri-Quarterly". As a jazz musician and lover of words and (reasonably) accessible poems, i thought this to be a find. It also has some invisible, etheric thread of relation to Tear-Water Tea!


I was driving home that afternoon
in some dilated condition of sensitivity
of the kind known only to certain heroic poets
and more or less almost everybody else

the sun of the six pm glaring orangely through the trees
as through the bars of some kind of cage
and the poor citizens of Pecore Street waiting for the bus
with their sorrowful posture and bad feet-

I admit when I'm in one of those moods I find it
a little too easy to believe the trees are suffering
to see the twisted branches as arthritic hands,
and the Spanish moss dripping from their scabby limbs
as parasitic bunting.

Someone had given me a jazz CD
he had thought I would enjoy
but the song unfurling on the stereo that day,
it seemed a kind of torture music,

played by wildly unhappy musicians
on instruments that had been bent in shipping,
then harnessed by some masochist composer
for an experiment on the nature of obstruction.

But of all the shrieking horns and drums
it was the passionate effort of a certain defective trumpet
to escape from its predetermined plot
that seemed to be telling a story that I knew:

veering back and forth, banging off walls,
dripping a trail of blood
until finally it shattered through a window and disappeared.

For some reason I didn't understand,
it had to suffer before it was allowed to rest.
It was permitted to rest before being recaptured.

That was part of the composition.
That was the only kind of feedom
we were ever going to know.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Few Drops of Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch began his career in Germany as a comic actor and later took up directing, developing an international reputation by the the 1920's. Mary Pickford brought him to the US to direct her and he soon became a citizen of Hollywood. His "ouevre" in these years had moved from historical epics to "relationship" dramas and musicals with a certain flair for irony and whimsy.

Although the "Lubitsch Touch" seems to have been a Hollywood studio-concocted catchword it began innocently enough, describing flourishes that introduced a "continental" touch counter to the heavyhanded American approach.
Here, an early description derived from a now-lost movie:

"'Kiss Me Again' has many deft and delightful touches, the outstanding one being where Mr Lubitsch depicts a rain shower in a natural way. The average director resorts to a deluge after a glimpse of darkening skies torn by streaks of lightning.
Mr Lubitsch craftily shows a few spots on the pavement, and even when the shower comes, it is pictured as ordinary rainfall and not as a cloudburst."

Another Lubitsch "waterscene", this from "Forbidden Paradise", caught some attention in 1924. Under the moonlight, two lovers meet by a pond:

"You see the reflection of the two heads in the water as the lovers gaze into each other's eyes. Slowly, very slowly, their lips approach and just as the kiss is about to be given, a dawdling fish shatters the reflection."

As Lubitsch films progressed into the talkies new dimensions of expression came naturally to him, and he continued to find ways to say more in the new medium with elegant economy.

In "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) Miriam Hopkins (Lily) and Herbert Marshall (Gaston), masquerading in Venice as world-weary "nobility", are not aware that each is actually a master thief. They arrange a dinner rendezvous and over the polite chit-chat and relishing of the cuisine (Lily is perhaps gobbling it down a little too enthusiastically for a countess!) they gradually voice their suspicions that the other one is not what they seem. Meanwhile, their fascination for one another begins to steam up the screen as mutual "pickpocketing skills" become evident. Roger Ebert likens this scene to a kind of strip poker game (on a higher level of course!)

Lily: I like you, Baron.
Gaston: I'm crazy about you. By the way, your pin. (He returns her brooch pin - after appraising it.)
Lily: (after suddenly noticing she's missing it) Thank you, Baron.
Gaston: Not at all. There's one very good stone in it.
Lily: What time is it? (She allows him to search for his pocket watch before looking startled. She hands it to him from her purse - after resetting it.) It was five minutes slow but I regulated it for you. (He pockets the watch with a smile.)
Gaston: I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter. (She checks her leg, under the table, and then Gaston holds the garter up high and kisses it to prove his expertise.)
Lily: Darling! (excitedly, she rises and kisses him, flinging herself into his arms) Oh now, darling. Tell me, tell me all about yourself. Who are you?
Gaston: You remember the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?
Lily: Monescu.
Gaston: Gaston Monescu.
Lily: Gaston!*

Unable to hold back any longer, Lily and Gaston are on their feet and in each other's arms. He leads her to the couch and declares his undying love, in the smoothest Marshall tones:
I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you. I'm mad about you. My little shoplifter. My sweet little pickpocket. My darling.

As Lubitsch dissolves the scene we see an empty couch in dimming light and a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
Only Lubitsch could carry off such a scene with the ABSOLUTE seamless ease despite the absurdity - no technological gimmickry or slapstick needed. He has the viewer poised in the palm of his hand.

Like a Lao Tzu description of the Tao, many could recognize the "touch" when they saw it, and it was undeniable that there was such a thing, but no one could conclusively define it much less pass it on or possess it.
The director Billy Wilder (along with Preston Sturges, and later, to some degree Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen) was much influenced by Lubitsch and had even worked with him in the 1930's.
Wilder on Lubitsch, "You know, if one could write Lubitsch touches, they would still exist, but he took that secret with him to his grave. It's like Chinese glass-blowing; no such thing exists anymore. Occasionally, I look for an elegant twist and I say to myself, 'How would Lubitsch have done it?' And I will come up with something and it will be like Lubitsch but it won't be Lubitsch. It's just not there anymore."

In Scott Eyman's wonderful book on Lubitsch* he includes an interesting commentary on a Wilder film related by Lubitsch's long-time scriptwriter,Sam Raphaelson. Again, a waterscene conveys the "touch".
"When Sam and Dorschka Raphaelson went to see Love in the Afternoon, they watched a scene wherein a water truck, dousing the early morning streets of Paris, soaks a pair of young lovers who fail to notice. Raphaelson leaned over to Dorschka and said,'What a mistake! Now if I were doing that scene with Lubitsch, we would have first shown the truck spraying water moving toward the lovers. But when the truck gets to them, the water shuts off. After it passes them, then the water starts up again. Now, that's the Lubitsch Touch'"

quotes above were gleaned from:
Dirks, Tim "Trouble In Paradise" see Tim's ABSOLUTELY MASTERFUL description of the movie at
Eyman, Scott "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter In Paradise".
Thompson, Kristin "Herr Lubitsch Goes To Hollywood: German and American Film After World War I"
Hall, Mordaunt "Appealing Touches In Film Directed by Mr. Lubitsch"