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Holidays 2005: Easy to Overlook

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2005
Category: Beyond Classification


Deals are made with great excitement. The future is always champagne and caviar. Fame and fortune await. Helpers get enlisted. Art is created or acquired. The writer/singer/filmmaker thinks something is really going to happen.

But it takes a confluence of forces for culture to succeed. As I write, Joan Didion’s new memoir about the death of her husband — The Year of Magical Thinking — is #2 on the bestseller list.

This sort of commercial success is unfamiliar to Ms. Didion.
Her explanation: "I think a lot of it is demographics, There is that huge bubble of the population that is now hitting an age where their parents are dying. They’re looking at mortality themselves in a way they hadn’t. I think that right now the country is more receptive to thinking about death and dying. I also think there’s a lot of anxiety abroad in the land. And this is a much more accessible subject than I usually write about."

In short, things come together. Success is often a matter of…luck.

And what of great things that have less luck? It’s easy to overlook them — indeed, to never see them. They don’t call attention to themselves, they lack ‘plumage.’ But they’re no less great.

But do look at these. And read more about them. And know that if you try them and like them, you get the pleasure of being the one to ‘discover’ them. Of course Butler helped. But being a discreet type, of course he’d never say.

Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet, by Xinran

Wen and her future husband, Kejun, were Chinese medical students in the mid 1950s. They married when they graduated. Wen was 26. Kejun was 29. They were blissfully happy. Three months after they were married, Kejun was sent to Tibet with the Chinese Army. Soon afterward, Wen received notice that he had "died in an incident." Impossible, she thought. He’s not dead. And if he is, I cannot leave him in Tibet. And so she set off on an impossible mission: to reclaim her present, her future, her one and only love.

This is a love story like no other. For one thing, her quest takes three decades — in essence, her search for her lost husband is her life. For another, what happened to him is nothing you could predict. Or even, with a novelist’s cunning, plot — it is simply beyond our Western limits of understanding.

Living Under June, Jann Arden

Her heart holds the pen. That process bypasses the mind, delivering the emotions fresh and pure. And what emotions! When she loves, she’s right out front ("Could I be your girl?). And what range! There’s praise for her mom ("I’ve got a good mother/and her voice is what keeps me here"), a look at her spiritual search ("I lost the truth, I lost my way/but I am looking for it") and a terrific sense of humor about her living arrangements ("Living Under June" is literally about living underneath a woman named June; "sexual atrocities are happening right over me/and I can’t sleep").

Here’s how the CD starts:

Hide your heart under the bed and lock your secret drawer
Wash the angels from your head won’t need ’em anymore
Love is a demon and you’re the one he’s coming for
Oh my

He’s bringing sweet salvation, let temptation take him in
He’s every fear and every hope and every single sin
He is the universe, the love you’ve been imagining
Oh my lord

If you can resist that — delivered against a lovely melody, played by a first-class band, and sung with passion — you’re tougher than this listener.

L’Atalante directed by Jean Vigo

This film is on almost every critic’s list of the "best 100 movies of all time." And not near the bottom — I’ve never seen it ranked lower than #15. After Renoir’s "Rules of the Game," it’s the highest ranked French film. But although it was brilliantly restored in 1990, few Americans know about it. Fewer have seen it. And the director? He died right after finishing the movie — at 29.

The story is so simple you may wonder how Vigo filled 87 minutes with it. Jean is the young captain of L’Atalante, a barge that goes up and down the Seine. He marries Juliette, a country girl who has never left her village. Now she’s on a boat making its slow way to Paris. And she’s the only woman — the crew is a colorful old salt named Pere Jules and his son.

For someone as provincial as Juliette, married life and barge life are a double shock. When the barge reaches Paris, Jean and Juliette quarrel. She runs off. He can’t find her. They miss each other horribly. They’re reunited. End of movie.

Why is "L’Atalante" so highly regarded? To see it is to know.

The Fabulous Sylvester, by Joshua Gamson

Sylvester was the disco singer with the church-bred voice that ranged from a rich baritone to the stratosphere. "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" — that was the big hit. Talk about propulsion! Anticipation! Heat! It’s not the silly lyrics ("And the music’s in me/And I feel real hot/Then you kiss me there/And it feels real good") that burn into you, it’s Sylvester’s gospel refrain — "Woooh, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real."

Though completely invented — totally synthetic — he was real. Back when everyone was pretending that all America could love disco, that it really had nothing to do with homosexuality, he was openly and proudly gay. "I want to destroy reality when I’m performing," he said, and he did. Call him a faggot? "That’s Miss Faggot, to you." But that was too narrow. As Gamson writes, Sylvester was "gay, black, a woman and a man." And that is why he was beloved: "His sound brought to mind a bright, soft, blue-skied world — one where race and gender no longer divide us and we love whom, when and how we want."

Why should we care about this seemingly ephemeral entertainer?

Because of what he knew: "Whenever you think you have on too much, you should put on more, just to be safe," Sylvester said.

Because of what he achieved: When Sylvester really rocked the house, he would say, looking back to his church background, "We had service." Yes, he did. And it was beautiful. Gentle. Absolutely free — and totally doomed.

Swimming Upstream, directed by Russell Mulcahy

Tony Fingleton, the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, literally swam his way to a full scholarship at Harvard. Yes, a scholarship, because Harold Fingleton was a dockworker, often unemployed, and at no time interested in the future of the second of his five children. His first thought was for Harold, Jr., and when Harold Jr. faltered as an athlete, he turned his attention to John, his third son. What about Tony, the second son? He played piano. He was his mother’s boy. He was weak, soft, "a poofter."

But in the pool, Tony had learned that "water kept you alive." In the pool, he felt safe. And so, with no one watching, he mastered the backstroke. Harold learns about Tony’s prowess by accident. He starts training him — and Tony, desperate for his father’s approval, responds.

You can’t live in water. And home is hell. Harold is volatile; you can’t predict his moods. And Dora can’t charm him out of every rage. Darkness is a never-ending cloud, a leaden heaviness, in this household — and you feel its weight on your heart. In part, that’s testimony to the spare, unvarnished screenplay. But even more, it’s in the interplay between Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. Their careers are a litany of great performances; "Swimming Upstream" goes to the top of their list of lifetime achievements.

The Very Best of Cesaria Evora

It was Cesaria Evora’s fate to be born on Cape Verde, an archipelago 350 miles off the coast of Senegal. These ten small islands are so wind-blasted and desolate that they were uninhabited until 1462. Four centuries of exploitation followed. Even now, the poverty is so severe that over a third of the country’s million citizens live abroad. Do not expect the islands’ greatest singer to fill her CDs with music that makes you want to dance.

In fact, Cesaria Evora’s specialty is morna, an intensely melancholy, minor-key music, sung mostly in Portuguese. But for Evora, Cape Verde’s musical tradition is only the first reason that her songs are odes to longing and regret. Although she was a local star by 20, she never left the islands until she was in her mid-forties, when she finally made her first recordings.

Now she’s in her 60s — and she’s the darling of the world-music crowd. But she still performs shoeless, to express her solidarity with her impoverished countrymen. She stares out at her audience from a round face that is testimony to an unending world-weariness. And at some point in every concert, she invariably sits alone at a small table, lights a cigarette and listens as the band plays on.

All in Good Time, by Jonathan Schwartz

His father was Arthur Schwartz, composer of ‘Dancing in the Dark’  and ‘That’s Entertainment’ and a hundred other classics. From an early age, Jonathan knew Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen and the stars of immortal musicals. But his mother was always ill, and then his mother died, and his father, broken and lost, didn’t know how to help his son.

And soon Jonathan was lost. In Beverly Hills, he slipped into neighboring houses and hid in closets, just to feel the presence of others. In New York, he rigged up his own radio station and broadcast onto Lexington Avenue. He learned to drink. He was a mediocre-to-bad student.

And then came Mary Gray, the wicked stepmother. The language she uses to Jonathan is vile, and, of course, he remembers it perfectly. He recalls his vile retorts with equally accuracy. Mary convinces Arthur Schwartz to send the troubled boy to live with others. Too young, he’s off to Paris, where he scratches out a living in jazz clubs.

He meets Sinatra. Has affairs, crazy romances that keep him on permanent edge. He runs into Bobby Kennedy. ‘You’ve caught me at a weak moment,’ he says, by way of greeting. No fooling — he is slowly losing his balance. But then he pulls it together. Gets a radio job and the start of a reputation.

It gets darker, then lighter. And you see — you knew this before, but one function of memoirs is to hammer it home — that successful adults have climbed more than the mountains of their profession. Almost more important, they’ve come to terms with their childhood. There’s no ‘closure.’ There’s just ‘living with’ and ‘getting through’ and ‘keeping on.’

At the heart of this book is a sad and lonely little boy. At its end is a man of a certain age and a hard-won sense of self. Welcome to the evening.