A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 256

Too hip to last.

Sunday, February 27

On a metal fence that runs along the Bowery between 4th and 5th Streets, there is a sign reading “The Hippest Place on Earth.” Nothing looks very hip: the fence borders a nondescript, even ugly, urban-renewal-era apartment building. But the reference is to the Five Spot Jazz Club, which stood there between 1956 and 1962.

This was the place where pathbreaking composer and pianist Thelonious Monk played two extended bookings in 1957 and 1958. The following year, the legendary free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman appeared with his group that included Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden. (One member of the fascinated crowd: Leonard Bernstein.)

Also not far away on Bowery: the site of the Tin Palace, a jazz club where many top-flight musicians (David Murray, James Blood Ulmer) of the 1970s appeared; and CBGB, a punk-rock club famous for its exceptional grime and as a venue for the likes of Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie.

All over lower Manhattan there are ghosts of once-vital music venues. On 14th Street near Third Avenue today stands a New York University dormitory called Palladium. That’s on the spot where there was once a large music hall of the same name. Before that, the building was known as The Academy of Music, which became an important hot-spot for Latin jazz and dance bands.

Across 14th was Max’s Kansas City, located first on Park Avenue South and, in a later incarnation, on Third Avenue. The first of these was a hangout for the Andy Warhol crowd, while the second was, like CBGBs, a punk-rock venue where Debbie Harry once worked as a waitress.

And on East 11th Street there’s Webster Hall, which was briefly known as The Ritz during the 1980s. Built in 1886, it was at one point a meeting place for leftist and anarchist gatherings before becoming, in the 1910s, a locus for bohemian masquerade balls that drew the likes of Marcel Duchamp and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Today, it’s a large rock music club.

I look forward to going to hear live music again…someday.

I wandered past several of these places on Tuesday as I strolled down to the sporty clothing store REI, which is located in the Puck Building south of Houston. They didn’t have the socks I wanted but at least I got a chance to survey and photo a lot of previously unseen murals now gracing the walls of downtown buildings.

Dinner: beef stew and a green salad.

Entertainment: Harold Lloyd silent shorts and episodes of the Scandi thriller Conspiracy of Silence from streaming service Topic.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 255

Near Astor Place in Manhattan.

Monday, February 21

“…to facilitate her near-constant pogoing, [Eilish] sported sneakers, bike shorts, and a punky oversized graphic tee. The effect was a cross between Harley Quinn, Minnie Mouse and Glenn Danzig.”

Pogoing? And who are Harley Quinn and Glenn Danzig? (Minnie Mouse I remember.)

The New York Times, responsible for the first sentence above in a review of a recent Billie Eilish concert, seems to be part of a conspiracy to make me feel hopelessly over-the-hill. “Pogoing” was what stopped me—but I guess that refers to bouncing up and down, derived from that toy of yore, the pogo stick. My word-processing system balked at “punky,” trying to change that to “pinky.” It’s even more out-of-date than I am.

Eilish is, of course, one of the faves on the current pop scene. I’ve never heard her music, but she is to be congratulated for apparently doing a lot with a little: much of her success is due to the efforts of herself and her multi-instrumentalist brother.

But Eilish is too flash or whatever the au courant term might be to get any airplay on Radio Paradise, my own current fave. RP as it calls itself instead favors the likes of Zero 7 and The War on Drugs…neither of which is familiar to me either.

I’m listening to more online music thanks to resolution of a technical problem. After getting a new battery installed in my Mac Book Pro in September, the machine’s internal speakers seemed broken. Whenever I listened to music, there was lots of static—and ultimately this proved intolerable. I took the Mac to Best Buy’s tech-fixit types, the Geek Squad, where I was told that it would be cheaper to buy a new machine than to replace the internal speakers, which Apple no longer makes anyway.

Now, the store functionaries always say stuff like that, since their racket is selling new stuff. But it had already occurred to me that I could solve my problem by buying a new, wireless speaker. So I just did that: It’s a Bose Soundlink Revolve II. Only a bit larger than a Campbell Soup can (remember those? or am I showing my age again?), it sounds great. The biggest problem so far is that, every so often, without warning, it barks out something like “battery charge is 30%…connected to MacBook Pro and Hardy’s iPhone.” 

I haven’t yet tamed the beast, it seems, but maybe I will.

Dinner: Braised chicken with lemon and olives, couscous, and a green salad.

Entertainment: We’re now watching the Netflix import Young Wallander, a prequel to the Henning Mankell series of books and movies. But we haven’t stopped enjoying silent films, so maybe we’ll also see the Chaplin classic The Gold Rush from 1925. We recently saw his The Circus, which was hilarious…despite a melancholy ending.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 254

Wednesday, February 16

We’re back in the city, having returned on Saturday. Except for a couple of negligible appointments, we have no profound reason for being here: As Emily said, we needed a change.

Really, we could be anywhere given that the high point of each day is watching streaming videos, primarily on the Criterion Channel. As I suggested before, a primary focus is on silent movies—Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and, surprisingly, Buster Keaton, whose work I now see is terrific. 

No silent star outperforms Chaplin, but, as a New Yorker article recently suggested, you can make a case that Keaton had a more profound influence since he really exploited the film medium. Much of what Chaplin did, he could have done on a stage. Keaton, on the other hand, demonstrated the magic of film…with surprising jump cuts, bits of prestidigitation, and amazing energy. We’ve seen Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., and The General—and for our money, Sherlock Jr. was the most surprising and most humorous of these. The much ballyhooed The General, on the other hand, shares with Birth of a Nation an off-putting affinity for the Confederate cause in the Civil War.

As for Chaplin, I have seen and enjoyed Modern Times more than once, and recently saw the odd Limelight. The Criterion Channel has both The Kid and The Gold Rush, neither of which have I seen. I suspect The Kid is a bit sentimental—just like City Lights and Limelight, but that seems to go with the territory.

Other non-silent options range from Mike Leigh to Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman and Jacques Rivette. Tonight we may well settle for Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.

Dinner: pasta Bolognese and salad.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 253

Thursday, February 10

In the mornings when we wake up now, the days are sunny and beautiful. One can almost imagine the coming of spring. But it isn’t here yet: Yesterday I went for a walk around Maidstone Park, and it was still quite breezy and cold. 

I wasn’t alone there. There were perhaps three other walkers. And there was this funny thing I have seen before: Someone drove his/her jeep around the park’s circular drive while a plumpish dog, getting its exercise, loped along dutifully behind. I wondered how they trained the dog to do this—and whether on the first occasion, the dog worried that it was being abandoned.

Last night at 3 a.m. we were awakened by a thumping noise in another part of the house. There have been signs before that we have a mouse/mice. This time, they appeared to be playing soccer, kicking around an acorn. It went on for a time, until I got up and turned on some lights and walked out to the kitchen. I think they find their way up from the basement through the walls and into the kitchen. This morning I was relieved that I could find no further signs of a mousy visitation…no damage or nibbling of food packages.

We are planning to go back to NYC soon—not for any reason other than that we need a change.  Bit by bit, the days are getting a little longer here, but it’s still very dark: One scarcely awakens before it’s time to go back to bed. 

Mask mandates are gradually being lifted. The Times says that New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island today became the latest states to announce that they would do away with mask mandates.  (Still,  more than 200,000 new cases are announced each day and the country is reporting more than Covid 17,000 deaths each week, the most since last winter.) In the city, I will still wear my mask and keep social distance; Emily will probably limit her trips out of the apartment. I want to go up to Zabar’s for some kitchen stuff, maybe even buying an Instant Pot, which everyone else already has. It’s like a combination pressure cooker and slow cooker and could be useful in making stews and sauces. Anyway, it would be another gadget to faff around with, providing novelty during this empty time. I’m also interested in a cooking thermometer and some potholders that actually work, ours being pretty worn out.

It will be strange to go into stores or elsewhere and see people walking around maskless. Out here in the stores and at the recycling center, no one does that. 

Dinner: risi e bisi and a green salad.

Entertainment: We have now subscribed to the wonderful Criterion Channel, which has perhaps 80% of the art films you have ever wanted to see. Now admittedly, many of these are a bit aged: Bergman, Goddard, Truffaut, Fassbinder, Varda, Rivette, Chabrol, etc. We’ve now watched three Charlie Chaplin flicks (two were silent shorts), and two Jacques Tati (he only made six films). It’s such an embarrassment of riches that one is tempted to change plans at the last minute. Tonight, we may watch something newer–Terence Davies’ 1992 flick The Long Day Closes plus something else. Only time will tell.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 252

Saturday, February 5

The beach was approached via a patch of jungle-like palm trees which grew, however, out of the inevitable sand. There was a footworn path which he followed. A few metal poles, perhaps from an abandoned children’s playground, stuck up out of the sand and were encrusted near the top with small white snails fastened tightly like barnacles. The metal was so hot, he could barely touch it….He went into the water, swam out until he felt slightly tired, then turned back. The water was shallow quite far out.

What a pleasure amid all this wintry weather to read about someplace warm. The above is from Patricia Highsmith’s 1993 novel The Tremor of Forgery, which is set at a beach resort town in Tunisia. Previously, I read Andrea Camilleri’s final Inspector Montalbano mystery, Riccardino, also set in a warm place, Sicily. I think I’ll keep up this trend through February, staving off the cold at least mentally. 

Unlike Highsmith’s more famous works, The Tremor of Forgery is not diabolical, nor does it involve sociopathic characters. I keep waiting for such folks to appear, but 200 pages in, they have not.

In other reading, the current issue of The New Yorker (February 7) contains a review essay on “the Method,” the style of acting that became popular in the 1950s. I well remember television talk shows during which Johnny Carson or some such host would ask one of his celebrity guests to explain method acting. And of course they would try. What Alexandra Schwartz’ article reveals is that no one can really explain it: Its practitioners and teachers had as many doctrinal differences as psychotherapists or Marxist revolutionaries. 

The whole thing began with Russian guru Konstantin Stanislavski, who set out to reform his country’s stage actors, who he thought were bombastic and stiff. New Yorker Lee Strasberg, a bookkeeper and theater aficionado, was exposed to Stanislavski’s handiwork via a New York performance of the Moscow Art Theatre. He enrolled in an acting school where Stanislavski disciples taught—and by 1930, Strasberg himself was delivering lectures on thespian-hood. Others, including Stella Adler, thought that Strasberg was imperious, “sick and schizophrenic.” So, she too, attracted acolytes and began teaching the craft…but of course differently from Strasberg.

Strasberg, famously, wanted his students to comb through their lives for deep emotional moments—and use these, when appropriate, on stage.  Instead, Adler said they should just use their imaginations.

Schwartz doesn’t neglect two figures who she says really put the Method on the public map: Marlon Brando, an Adler student and actor now known to everyone who ever saw a movie, and Elia Kazan, who won fame as the director of On the Waterfront and as an anticommunist, name-naming witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ultimately, the Method’s students were legion: James Dean (who Marlon Brando regarded as a copycat), Montgomery Clift, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Anne Bancroft, and tons of others.

What begins as a revolution can become a conventional practice—and mere fodder for possibly apocryphal anecdotes. The 1976 film Marathon Man pitted two cinema legends—each an embodiment of a different approach to acting—against each other: the second-generation Method sensation Dustin Hoffman and the traditionalist legend Laurence Olivier. It is said that, to prepare for a scene in which he was to appear exhausted, Hoffman went out for a strenuous jog. Olivier found this curious, prompting Hoffman to ask what he did to get in character for a role. “I pretend,” Olivier is said to have responded.

Dinner: an Amy’s frozen pizza, salad, and the addictive tapioca pudding.

Entertainment: The Bertrand Tavernier movie The Clockmaker of St. Paul on Kanopy.