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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Where Did Old South High School Go?

One of my best friends attended South High School in Salt Lake City. I mentioned to my friend recently that I had been hanging around that campus; Salt Lake Community College now owns it. I walked all over the campus today taking photographs, and when I got home, I looked online to compare what I had seen with any images of the campus as it was when it was still a high school.

Disappointment!

There are very few online photographs of the high school at all, and I saw none from the interior that are from the period. According to an article on Wikipedia, the high school was inaugurated in 1931 and closed in 1988. The photographs for that article were all taken in 2013, so what you see is what Salt Lake Community College did with the old campus. I am puzzled. With more than 50 years of service as a high school, why are there so few photographs online? Are all the former students still mourning and unable to face the task of scanning and uploading pictures from their high school glory days? Or was the time spent there so bad that they prefer not to memorialize it? Oh dear.

Is there anything left my friend would recognize, I wondered. Here are a few things I think are timeless, followed by the major changes.
I think this northeast corner must be unchanged from its original look. I can’t say the same for how big the tree is now, nor for where the paving and grass may have been altered. The overall look of the school is one of a modified fortress. It is a long, high brick building with tower-like effects and sort of crenellated effects.

Look at this decoration. The school was built in the 1920s and early 1930s, so it had all sorts of pretty art deco details in its construction. I’ll show you some of the interior decor a little later that continues the same theme.

This view is of the front of the school from the extreme north end. It is a long school! It stretches almost two blocks, so a walk from one end to the other I think might be almost a quarter of a mile. What a way to keep the student body physically fit: make them have classes at each extreme end, with only ten minutes between classes! That’d get them running.
On the front of the building are three huge concrete panels saying “South City Campus”—the few old photographs I did see show that these panels, if you couldn’t already guess it, used to say “South High School.” I wonder how different the landscaping is now from what my friend remembers. I do like what they have done. A lot of water-wise planting is mixed with geometric shapes and beautiful old and newer trees.

On the south end of the building an addition was put on. This houses the Salt Lake City School District’s Innovations Early College High School Career & Technical Center. I have little idea of what that all entails, but I do see these students a lot, changing classes and shrieking as high schoolers do about whatever-it-is that excites them these days—the opposite sex, technology toys, clothes, gossip and social life. With the exception of the modern toys, not much has changed about the behavior of high school students forever.


Here is my composite of how the south end of the school looks these days. I sort of wish the architects had used some of the decorative elements of the original: brick with some cool colored stone patterns. Ah well. At least it isn’t truly awful. At least, I don’t think it is.




That takes care of the south end of campus.



On the east side where I understand there used to be a football stadium are now parking lots and other landscaping features. There also happens to be a huge building addition, three stories high and stretching from the south end to the Grand Theater. Here are my views of these things.
On the extreme southeast corner, this little patio area is tucked away behind walls. I think it needs more garden greenery to be anything charming, but perhaps it is just getting started.

This is the huge addition on the east side, south of the Grand Theater.

Here is the east side of the campus from the Grand Theater and northwards. Sorry my composite is so rough! I don’t have access to Photoshop right now. Maybe later in the summer!


Whittier Elementary School is behind the east side fence. I wonder if anyone I knew went to Whittier back in the day. I have no idea how long it has been there. There does not seem to be any historical information on the school website.

This church is tucked into a slot on the north side of campus on Kensington Ave. It belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and serves congregations in the Sugarhouse area. I was going to look them up and tell you exactly what wards and when they meet, but that website was down for maintenance when I was writing this, so if I remember to update it, you will see that information here. It looks like a pretty old building; I bet it is more than 60 years old. (Okay, I know that is not very old in terms of churches throughout the world, but in Salt Lake City that is sort of middling old.)


We are entering the building through the back door to the Grand Theater. This actually lets us access that big new addition on the east side of the campus. That is where most of the art and communications classes are held for Salt Lake Community College.

As you can see, the panels in the entrance foyer change color constantly. It is a peaceful space, but everything echoes in it.

So just to the left of the colored panels we go through this doorway and turn right.

This hallway cuts through the building from back to front, leading us to the main foyer on the west side of campus.

I promised you more Art Deco details, and here they are: the Grand Theater box office window, next to the main entrance foyer.

This would be the main entrance to the school as well as serving as the lobby for the Grand Theater. You can imagine crowds here decades and decades ago, especially on a snowy or rainy day, checking to see if the bus or Mom with the car were out front yet.

I think because of the design that these may be modern art glass, but I don’t really know. The “Prisoners of Conscience” window in Salisbury Cathedral in England dates to post-World War II, and this style is a little like that. I like it a lot.

The stairwells have to be original. At least I hope they are! I love them. They are very lovely. Besides this wide staircase, on the other side of the theater is a similar space but not a staircase. It is a wide, wide, ramp leading to floors above and below. I wish I had photographed it, but I thought, Oh, that must be new, must be in keeping with the ADA . . . . But I think now it was original with the building. Maybe my friend can tell me.

This staircase had an element that caught my eye.

See this lovely decorative brick-tile work on the ends of the stair rails? They are not properly stair rails, but what do you call them when they are solid little walls that you can hang onto? Whatever they are, I love them.

Isn’t this interesting? On the south end of the building where the addition joins, the whole add-on is revealed in the stair landings with their original windows, all blocked up. I think this would be a poignant reminder to anyone who used to go to school here, about what has changed and what has been lost. A view is lost, for one thing.

I stood at the south end doorway to the new section and looked back along the very long hallway toward the north end. You cannot even see the north end! Now that is a long hallway. All one has to do for a daily workout is to walk this hallway from end-to-end, then up the stairs, traverse it the other way, then up the stairs to the third floor and do it once more. That would be a great workout!

This is the view out the front windows on the south end, near that doorway to the new section. State Street has surely changed a lot in the years since South High School was in session!

This is the view through that doorway to the south addition. Oh, did I forget to mention that I had climbed one of those staircases to the second floor? Well, that will explain why the view out the front windows was from much higher up than I am tall. Because I am quite short, as some of these pictures have revealed, if you look carefully.

I headed back through the building from west to east, entering the new part on the second floor so as to show some of the lovely open space designed into the classroom blocks and study hall blocks.
On either side of the open spaces are blocks of classrooms. Because this is a high-tech communications school, some of the rooms are filled with equipment for making and editing video, audio, and other kinds of communication media. People are always wandering around with laptops, or else they are part of the arts programs and have musical instruments under their arms, or giant portfolios containing, one imagines, Great Art. Every week on certain days you hear the jazz band practicing, trying to sound exactly like the Glenn Miller band sometimes, or a saxophone or clarinet wailing out a new jazzy riff. As you pass down narrow hallways between the two sides of the school, a piano might be pounded on behind a door. In the airy spaces of the new building, you can hear one of the professors with a booming voice one hallway over, and you imagine that before the class is out the next hour, that teacher will be hoarse. But it never happens. Strong vocal chords are fostered in this school, apparently.
Through this upper window we are looking down into the library for this campus. It looks pretty small, but every campus of this school has its own library, and of course all the materials are available to order at any one of the 13 or 14 campuses around the valley. The two stories of open space gives a feeling of expansion, a symbol, surely, of what one hopes is happening to the mind while it is being educated here.
Out the south windows here is the balcony above and next to that little patio garden we saw earlier.
As we stand next to the windows of the balcony on the south end looking west, we see the second story classrooms of the alternative high school housed in this building. As the sign says, no college students are supposed to invade their space, and all visitors are supposed to sign in at the office on the left. Probably a similar sign is posted downstairs. There is very limited access to this part of the building, for the protection of the high schoolers (and maybe to the relief of the rest of the campus?)
But here come three of the high schoolers back up to their space, probably having run downstairs to the college bookstore for a snack or something. You can see the open doors to the little branch bookstore down there across from the bottom of the stairs.
It is time to leave through the same doors we came in, the east door opposite the Grand Theater. Another time I will come back and photograph the theater itself. It is an incredible sight! If you hear of any productions that interest you being put on in that theater, it is worth going just to see the place itself. But more about that another time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Final Fourth of Moby-Dick: or, The Whale

I did not think to finish Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, as you could tell from my last post about it, but as if in the final sucking whirlpool round the Pequod, I was pulled in until Ishmael drifted away into the Epilogue and was found an orphan.

I felt that the book was a nineteenth-century voyage in itself. The structure of the novel was like the whaling journey of the Pequod: fast-moving when a favorable wind blew, becalmed at times, almost backwards-moving when it suited Melville to discuss one of the many discursive-but-related topics; stormy, placid, beautiful, and horrible by turns; ending in a grandly sublime tragedy.

Here are my favorite passages from the final fourth of the book:

Chapter 96: this one is wonderfully full of portent:
“As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.”

Chapter 104: such style!
“Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan—to an ant, or a flea—such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered.”

From the same place, with irresistible whimsy! And because I bought my own edition of Johnson’s Dictionary when in college because His dictionary is a marvelous thing to read:

“Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.”

Same chapter: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” No kidding!

Chapter 105: the culmination of all the precocious environmentalist statements in the novel:
“Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whaleships, now penetrating even through Behring’s straits, and into the remotest secret drawers and lockers of the world; and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all contintental coasts; the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
“Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with their thunder-clotted brows upon the sites of populous river-capitals, where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such a comparison an irresistible argument would seem furnished, to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.”

Melville goes on to say that the whale will not go extinct like the American bison because there cannot be so many taken by each hunter as there were of the bison. Little did he know how much more efficient the whalers would become at killing!

Chapter 111: This expresses my feelings about my ocean:
“It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian ocean and the Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built California towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.”

Chapter 124: this makes me want to be right there:
“Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod’s gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place; where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat.”

Chapter 132: I like the allusive allure here:
“It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.”

Later in that same chapter occurs a two-page speech of Ahab to Starbuck, reading like King Lear, or like something Miltonian, crying his fate and yet powerless to change to what ends he is heading: “I feel deadly faint, bowed, humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery!” At the end of the speech, as at the end of the novel, one feels pity, grief, and a curious catharsis.

How glad I am that I finally read Moby-Dick!

Illustration of the Voyage of the Pequod from the 1851 First Edition.

Monday, April 20, 2015

“To Caunterbury they wende . . .”

Canterbury Cathedral by L L Raze
This is the time of year that the Chaucer pilgrims started on their journey to Canterbury. I saw in Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English calendar that April 13 was the week, but I think they would have waited another week until the weather was better. Not that you can ever guarantee a pretty day in ever-changeable April, but the 20th seems a nice, round number to start with. And so, as old Geoffrey Chaucer began it:
Chaucer as a pilgrim
(Ellesmere mss.)
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

I saw a lovely modern translation by Neville Coghill, who created a new rhyme scheme for it:
The Pilgrims Feast in Southwark
before Starting
by William Caxton, 1483
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye,
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially from every shires’ end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
The holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick

Canterbury Cathedral window, circa 1180, King Henry and Archbishop Thomas a Becket
The present Canterbury Cathedral was built about 1070 through the next few centuries. One hundred years after the rebuilding was started, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Thomas a Becket, a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry is supposed to have said one late December day, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights who heard him took him literally and rode down to Canterbury and killed Becket. Very soon Becket was popularly held to be a martyr with special healing powers for any who would visit his shrine at the place in the cathedral where he was struck down. He was sainted by the Church. The Cathedral was rebuilt, enlarged and made very beautiful by all the money that poured into the church's coffers from the pilgrims.

In the high summer of 1982 a group of us went on a Canterbury pilgrimage. I had awakened sick with allergies or something like them, probably clogged up with dirty London air. Staying in our hotel room was not an option, so I dragged myself out to the van and huddled in my seat, miserable as could be. But the fresh air of Canterbury was wonderful. Or maybe it was the magic of the hooly blisful martir who healed me. I wrote a rather silly poem about it afterward:
Wife of Bath
(Ellesmere mss.)

I have heard how pilgrims rode on down
In April’s early days to Canterbury town,
Some for blessings, some in thankfulness,
Some to seek excitement, more or less . . .
But that was ages past, and now we go
To tour the church and watch the endless show
Of life in English towns. We do not seek
A martyr’s healing gift—perhaps we’re weak
In faith these days—we don’t believe
St. Thomas can effect our souls’ reprieve.
We told no stories as we rode along,
Nobody lifted up a voice in song.
One student, sick that day, had thought
She’d rather die than tour there to be taught
About the Cathedral as the ancient shrine
Where Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed in their time.
When at Canterbury, she dragged inside
And paused there where they said the martyr died.
If ever pilgrims found the boon they sought,
This pilgrim, in a sudden thought,
Begged the powers that rule to hear a plea
And grant a boon of health, taking for the fee
That she had come there, as some used to do,
Without desiring to begin anew,
But somehow, seeing something, thought again,
And asked as pilgrims did, to leave the pain,
Exchanging it for deeds that ever raise
Such glory to the King as hymns of praise.
Her plea was granted, healthy now I tell
Her tale as ranks of Chaucer-pilgrims swell.
Thirty-some-odd years later I have a monstrous ache. Anyone for a Canterbury pilgrimage? We shall not be riding on saddles of any kind . . . but we could tell some tales along the way.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Humor Doesn’t Travel Well

When I was in college taking German classes to get a minor in the subject, I remember one class concentrated for a time on the jokes of Dr. Sigmund Freud. We were reading his 1905 book, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum UnbewuƟten (Wit and Its Relationship to the Unconscious). After having to read so many explanations of what makes something witty, none of us, except our professor who was a German by birth, thought they were funny—most of them were so old that we had all heard them too many times, and for some the humor was too well explained to be funny anymore. A good example is this excerpt:
  Two Jews meet near a bathing establishment. “Have you taken a bath?” asked one. “How is that?” replies the other. “Is one missing?”
  When one laughs very heartily about a joke he is not in the best mood to investigate its technique. It is for this reason that some difficulties are experienced in delving into their analyses. “That is a comic misunderstanding” is the thought that comes to us. Yes, but how about the technique of this joke? Obviously the technique lies in the double meaning of the word take. In the first case the word is used in a colorless idiomatic sense, while in the second it is the verb in its full meaning. It is, therefore, a case where the same word is taken now in the “full” and now in the “empty” sense (Group II, f). And if we replace the expression “take a bath” by the simpler equivalent “bathed” the wit disappears. The answer is no longer fitting. The joke, therefore, lies in the expression “take a bath.”
  This is quite correct, yet it seems that in this case, also, the reduction was applied in the wrong place, for the joke does not lie in the question, but in the answer, or rather in the counter question: “How is that? Is there one missing?” Provided the same is not destroyed the answer cannot be robbed of its wit by any dilation or variation. We also get the impression that in the answer of the second Jew the overlooking of the bath is more significant than the misconception of the word “take.”
Mostly we joked amongst ourselves about what a terrible sense of humor they must have had to laugh at jokes such as:

   In his distress a needy man borrowed twenty-five dollars from a wealthy acquaintance. The same day he was discovered by his creditor in a restaurant eating a dish of salmon with mayonnaise. The creditor reproached him in these words: “You borrow money from me and then order salmon with mayonnaise. Is that what you needed the money for?” “I don’t understand you,” responded the debtor, “when I have no money I can’t eat salmon with mayonnaise. When I have money I mustn’t eat it. Well then, when shall I ever eat salmon with mayonnaise?”

Even speaking somewhat the same language, people of different cultures do not always appreciate each other’s humor.

One New Year’s Eve my mother, my sister, and I were traveling on a ferry boat across the English Channel toward Dover. We had been walking about the deck, blessing our good fortune in the clear, calm weather with its full moon. But it was very cold. We went into the lounge of the boat and found a group of women and their children watching cartoons on a little television set. We sat down in the back to watch—the cartoons were from Hollywood, the mid-1950s through early 1960s. We recognized Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. These were the cartoons of my sister’s and my childhood. We began to laugh, finding the antics of these characters as funny as we thought them when we were little. And the women and children turned to look at us. They were not finding any of this the least bit funny.

We were embarrassed to be the focus of a little scene. We stifled our laughter. And I suddenly saw the scenes from the point of view of strangers to the United States. They were violent, tapping into the American stock cartoon theme that such characters cannot truly be hurt or killed. They were filled with puns and sly references to American life and culture. Maybe they weren’t funny after all.

But as we kept watching, we found it harder and harder to stifle our giggles. They were funny!

Even between families, humor sometimes does not translate. My family has had to become slowly accustomed to my husband’s very dry sense of humor. I like it very much, of course, but at first my siblings did not understand when he was or was not joking.

One family may love to pull practical jokes that another family finds appalling. My mother tells me that her mother was constantly having her apron strings tied to her chair during Sunday dinner, and then somebody would ask her to fetch something else from the kitchen. She’d jump up with a chair stuck to her. If anybody at that dinner table said, “Pass the peaches, please!” you might have to watch out, because one of the boys would take the dish and pass it like an American football, through the air!

One Sunday after my mother and father became engaged, he arrived for dinner with his former guardian, his very proper Aunt Ruth. She was horrified at the antics and jokes all around her.

Humor, I fear, is best left at home when you travel.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hitchcock Humor

Humor is a delicate thing. Like blowing on a thistle blossom, one whiff of analysis makes it dissipate into the wind.

But theories of humor abound. Plato and Aristotle maintained that humor was rooted in a sense of superiority over the object of laughter. This kind of humor doesn’t interest me one bit, and it really is not what Alfred Hitchcock used in his movies either. Two other theories are more satisfactory when you think of Hitchcock films. One is the laughter of relief.

This is definitely one of the devices used by Hitchcock. Think of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the second version starring James Stewart. Remember when he is walking on nearly deserted streets in London, going to meet the mysterious Ambrose Chappel, and footsteps are heard behind him? The footsteps gain on him and gain on him; the camera shots are close in to James Stewart’s face, registering his fear and building the tension that he is about to be attacked. Camera shots show only the feet of his pursuer until he comes up even with Stewart, and then the camera draws back to show an innocuous-looking, tall, thin man passing Stewart and giving him a puzzled sort of look, sort of, “Why do you keep looking back at me?” Whew! We let out a nervous giggle and wait for the next wave of tension to build.

In this case the footsteps set up the next scene, in which Stewart encounters the man again inside the “Ambrose Chappel” business. And that scene is a perfect representation of the second theory of humor, which is that of a sense of the ridiculous, used often by Hitchcock.

James Stewart is trying to rescue his kidnapped little boy. He knows “Ambrose Chappel” has something to do with the kidnapping. He has tracked this person down to an address in London and he goes there to try to negotiate. But Ambrose Chappel turns out to be a taxidermist, without an idea in the world of what James Stewart is going on about. James Stewart in turn thinks Chappel is trying to stall, trying to get a bigger ransom. The man who had been walking behind Stewart in the street is Chappel Jr. [And he is played by a friend of mine, the late Richard Wordsworth.] Suddenly James Stewart reaches his limit of frustration and begins to try to fight with all the workers in the shop, and they scramble to and fro with parts of animals in their arms, trying to protect their taxidermy projects from this madman. It is hilarious (you have to see it—like I said, an analysis ruins the laughter). The scene is ridiculous in the extreme. It is exactly what Hitchcock excelled in.

Think of the handcuffs scene in The 39 Steps when Margaret Lockwood’s and Michael Redgrave’s characters tie themselves in knots trying to maneuver in a cramped space. It is silly—absurd—and it works beautifully.

Hitchcock turned taxidermy to even greater ridiculous effect in the black humor of Psycho, in which the audience is made to think Norman Bates’s mother is a vicious murderer, hiding in the basement. So where does the snoopy investigator go? To the basement! The audience is shrieking, “Don’t go in the basement!” but he goes anyway. And Mother rushes out and stabs him. Near the end of the film, another investigator goes in the basement. He sees the old woman sitting in a chair facing the corner. The tension is high—surely she will jump up and rush him with a knife! He slowly turns the swivel chair around. The old woman has been stuffed! Norman has practiced his taxidermy on his own mother! But the taxidermy is terrible! Norman is the worst taxidermist imaginable! And Hitchcock is the master of black humor!

It is only on a second viewing of Psycho that most of us can afford to laugh. The first viewing is filled with squirming tension, starting with those shrieking violins and the juxtaposition of ultra-normal things suddenly turning terrifying. But that is the genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s humor: the same things that turn suddenly from normal to scary turn also to laughter.

Think of the scene in Notorious when Ingrid Bergman is clutching the key to the wine cellar as she greets her party guests, all of whom are enemies to her and Cary Grant, to whom she needs to pass the key. The camera pans from high above the party scene down to her nervous hand with the key in it. The audience is made to feel that terrible things are just about to happen, but this is a party and parties are supposed to be enjoyable.

The normality of the party turning to tension is turned to a laugh of relief and back again in a cycle when Cary Grant gets the key, finds the wine cellar, hides from the servant, breaks a bottle, and discovers it’s the uranium they were after. But none of this matters!

The real drama is whether Ingrid Bergman will escape from Claude Rains and his mother and their henchmen, or whether they will succeed in killing her by slow poison. So the whole discovery of the uranium becomes an absurdity that we can laugh at in our second viewing of the film while we concentrate on how Devlin gets Alicia out of the trap he’s put her in.

The ending of Notorious is replete with the humor of relief. Devlin and Sebastian supporting Alicia down the long, long staircase, with enemies above and below, brings the tension to its height. In addition, Claude Rains has made his portrayal of Sebastian sympathetic enough that we are both relieved and shocked when he’s left behind to deal with his forced betrayal.

Hitchcock used a lot of humor of the absurd in Rear Window. Because every shot in the film concerns the point of view of James Stewart’s photographer character (Jeff), Hitchcock could and did use considerable humor in disclosing the other occupants of the apartment block across the central courtyard. That way he could suddenly switch to one or another of them during suspenseful moments in the ongoing mystery of whether there was or wasn’t a murder in the Thorvaald apartment, thus introducing a light-hearted or silly or sad change of mood to relieve the immediate tension and heighten the overall suspense.

When Hitchcock sends Grace Kelly’s character to retrieve Mrs. Thorvaald’s wedding ring, the tension is extreme, and our laughter very nervous with relief when she safely gets away from the menacing Mr. Thorvaald.

An unintended point of humor in that film is in the casting of Raymond Burr—how could our beloved Perry Mason be a villain? But up to then Burr had made a career of bad guys.

I could go on and on. There are funny scenes and relieved laughter throughout all of Hitchcock’s works. Look for them next time you watch Rope, or Suspicion, or The Trouble with Harry, and especially when you watch Vertigo.

And have fun convincing your friends that Hitchcock’s movies could be filed in the comedy section.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Born Too Late to Read Moby-Dick

You may recall that I posted last December that I was finally reading Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick: or The Whale. I said I had waited all my life to read this book, that it was a great book, and that I was enjoying it hugely. That’s all true.

There are all these funny, beautiful, thought-provoking, amazing things in the novel, such as this description of Ishmael’s first sight of an albatross:

“. . . during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas . . . there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. . . . Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God.” [Chapter 42]

The introduction of Captain Ahab is wonderfully portentous:

“He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”

. . . .

“And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” [Chapter 28]

Later on is a comparison of Ahab to a grizzly bear: “And as when Spring and Summer had departed, that wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!” [Chapter 34]

The further I read, the greater the doom connected with any description of Captain Ahab: “While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.” [Chapter 51]

Being long addicted to the black humor of Alfred Hitchcock, I could not resist smiling and copying these types of passages:

“It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.” [Chapter 49]

“All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.” [Chapter 60]

But I kept finding things that struck through my Songs of the Humpback Whale-informed soul, things I had to consciously suppress thinking too much about:

“So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water rat . . . .” [Chapter 27]

Chapter 32, Cetology, contains distinctly uncomfortable reminders:

“The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: ‘On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,’ and finally, ‘ex lege naturae jure meritoque.’ I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.”

And then they arrived in the Indian Ocean where they began to kill whales. The narrative is exciting, but my sympathy lay with the whale. I tried in vain to stamp down my feelings about whales as intelligent, compassionate, family-oriented creatures. Back in Melville’s day, whales were still seen as monsters; not only that, they were incredibly useful, down to the last drop of oil and inch of material in their makeup. The industry was not only lucrative to the American economy, it provided many useful and life-easing articles for people living basically hard lives. One of my own family had been a whaler and was killed in the Pacific Ocean on a whaling voyage in the mid-1850s. I tried to see things from his point of view; from the point of view of the family he had left behind. In vain. I am a product of my times. Not even the appeal to the romantic literature of which I had become something of a connoisseur could sway me:

“For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:—
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.” [Chapter 35]

But scenes like these were too much in the end to take:

“And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!” [Chapter 61]

So although I am only a little more than halfway through, and although I would like to see Ahab “get his,” and although I almost never leave a book unfinished even if I don’t like it particularly, I can’t finish reading Moby-Dick. It’s too hard! I should have been born before environmentalism could have made its way into my bones.

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” [Chapter 32]

Read another way, many of these quotes suggest that Melville himself was consciously undercutting the romance of the  “craft.” Was he secretly planning to use this novel to found a very early Save the Whales campaign? Maybe I will have to finish just to see if a new theory of the novel is in the offing.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Stop Silencing Cheery Voices!



Are you a morning person, or a night owl?

I’ve been both in my life. It depends on where I’m living, what’s happening around me, and whom I’m living with which kind of person I am at any given point. 

When I was young I loved to read late at night. I would stay up all night long to read if I could. I did sometimes read all night, but not too often. New Year’s Eve was my traditional time for reading some good book that lasted until dawn. When the Harry Potter books came out, it was very hard for me to put them down. Lately when I’ve been plagued with insomnia, which has become more frequent as I age, I have been known to read all night again. Books by P.G. Wodehouse do not induce sleep. I sometimes can’t stifle my laughter and wake up other people if I’m reading Wodehouse late at night. 

When I first arrived at college and moved into an apartment of six girls, I had been a morning person for the two years I had been living on my own and working to save money for school. I would get up feeling like singing. Very soon my roommates let me know that anyone who arose cheerful and unwise enough to display said cheerfulness, especially in song, was worthy of death or at least torture of a particularly unpleasant nature. I could not understand it. What was wrong with awaking and feeling cheerful?

I understand the feelings now of people who resent those who are cheery, but I suspect it is a lot harder for those who are naturally in need of something to help them upon waking to face the world to ever understand people who love mornings. 

Similarly, it is hard for people who cannot understand why some people take pleasure in the things they do. It is equally hard to be the person whose innocent pleasure in something is spoiled by someone who cannot appreciate the same thing.

In a movie in the series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the great detective sits on a terrace beside Lake Windermere reading a book, and he makes a noise of the most complete disgust:

“This Monsieur Wordsworth, the poet of these parts,  he annoys me, Hastings! Clearly he is a slave to depression, but do you know what cheers him, mon ami? A good wine? A large beefsteak? The company of a woman who is enchanting? No. A daffodil!” Poirot practically spits the word out and has to make an effort to continue, “Who is ‘beside the lake, beneath the trees . . .’” and then Hastings interrupts, finishing the quote for him and smiling at his friend’s inability to comprehend such simple cheer. Poirot rolls his eyes.

A classic character who focuses on the bleakness of life, even when he tries to be positive, is A.A. Milne’s Eeyore:

            “It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
            “So it is.”
            “And freezing.”
            “Is it?”
            “Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”

It’s Eeyore’s best effort, and while he’s amusing, he’s definitely the dampener at the picnic.

Can one look on the sunny side of life without encountering someone’s shoe thrown at one’s head? 

I recommend that all the grouches in our midst start reading P.G. Wodehouse in an effort to cheer up. It may be hard, but one must make an effort. Golden Rule and all that.