Notes on Literature: Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes!

Happy 114th birthday to my favorite American modernist poet, the great Langston Hughes!


And, for good measure, here is one of my all-time favorite Hughes poems.

The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)

No, make it
corn. You like
don’t you, honey?
Sure. Kiss me,
I’m your
sweetie, ain’t I?
Then let’s
do it!

Notes on Popular Culture: Great Moments in Bargain Vinyl #2


Francoise Hardy, Greatest Hits (Disques Vogue, 1970) [Cost: 50 cents]

Everybody who has seen Wes Anderson’s 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom knows at least one song by the moody post-war French chanteuse Francoise Hardy–namely, this one, “Le Temps de L’Amour,” which the film’s adolescent protagonists dance to on the beach as they try to elude the various adults looking to sabotage their romance:

A year before I saw that film, I’d already been lost in Francoise Hardy thanks to the good fortune of finding this record at the Goodwill Store around the corner for half a dollar.  I was already vaguely familiar with her from an earlier period when I’d been briefly obsessed with the yeye style that dominated French popular music in the 1960s and had listened constantly to a couple of compilations I’d downloaded.  Immersing myself in all of Hardy’s greatest hits from the 60s in this sumptuous LP compilation though was revelatory, less a quirky tour through the kitsch of swinging European novelty tunes than a full-scale journey into my most romantic conception of France in this period.  Her music sways seamlessly between a number of different genres: Gallic acoustic folk, American rock and roll, the echoing twang of Ennio Morricone’s Italian soundtracks…   Like Michel Legrand’s compositions from the same era, Hardy’s music transports me to 1960s France.  But it’s not the geography or historical concreteness of the place we can find on the map; rather, it’s the stylized romantic milieu of films like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) or Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro (1960).  It’s no wonder Hardy’s sound would have appealed to a cinematic worldbuilder like Wes Anderson.  Songs like these are so evocative as to change the place where we are, each time we put the needle to the vinyl and let them.

Notes on Popular Culture: After David Letterman, The Long 80s Conclude and We Say Goodbye to Television


A few weeks ago, I was in a committee meeting here on campus and misremembered the date of a movie to which I was making reference, calling it “a representative 1980s film,” when, as a colleague corrected, the movie in question had come out in 1991.  He then tried to save my embarrassment by joking, “It’s okay.  You work on the long 1980s.”  (For those not hip to contemporary academic debates in the humanities, his quip played on how scholars have come to trouble the old rigidity of historic periods, discussing what we think of as “the Sixties” less as 1960-1969, and instead as, maybe, 1963-74.  Historians and literature scholars speak of “the long Eighteenth Century,” by which they mean a series of political and cultural events that span from 1660-1800.)

While I don’t study “the long 1980s,” I certainly live them.  I love Lacoste polo shirts and Clark’s desert boots and Levi’s jeans and my New Balance 501s.  Films like WarGames, Ghostbusters, and The Breakfast Club are my cinematic comfort food.  As I write this, I am listening to Talking Heads’ Fear of Music on vinyl.  The 1980s–that is the literal decade, from 1980-1989–marked the emergence of my cultural consciousness, beginning with a nascent awareness of Top 40 radio and an alarmed curiosity about the Iran hostage crisis as garnered from the back issues of Time magazine my parents left lying around the house, and finishing with a studied interest in hip-hop, the Central Park Jogger case, and the novels of Bret Easton Ellis by my senior year of high school at decade’s end.  And if there is a televisual objective correlative in how I conceive of this period in my mind, it is most definitely David Letterman’s late night talk show, which came to a close last week in its later iteration on CBS.

Late Night with David Letterman was one of the first shows designated for adults to which I was given access as the 1980s progressed and I came into adolescence.  (The other notable example is Saturday Night Live, which I also adored, but still always seemed–especially in the way my parents spoke of its 1975-78 golden age–as a historical legacy of the 1970s rather than “of my time.”)  The Letterman show was a past-the-usual-bedtime treat for me on Fridays, at the end of the school week, and more importantly, it was a mainstay of my blessed, stay-up-late-sleep-till-noon teenage summers.  Letterman and his staff thrilled me to no end with their incorporation of the quirky context of 1980s New York into the “entertainment,” offering man-on-the-street bits that became part of the host’s frequent playbook.  Its in-studio set-pieces were pleasantly surreal: the MonkeyCam, Stupid Pet Tricks, Chris Elliott as Marlon Brando.  Of course, as a music-minded guy, I dug Paul Shaffer and his band.   (In fact, I have searched in vain for years on YouTube for clips I remember of impromptu guest spots by other famous musicians, like when Branford Marsalis sat in and played Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” on soprano saxophone.)  But, of course, like most people, it was likely Letterman’s style that left me most enamored.  While I couldn’t have named it as such when I was an adolescent, I was drawn to the parody of form he offered–that is, his ongoing sly subversion of what had been the entertainment world’s primary mode in the previous generation: sycophantic, inoffensive to sponsors, faux sincere.  Dave, by contrast, was ironic, aggressive on-air to television’s corporate facilitators (as with his frequent jokes about NBC’s parent company, General Electric), and unsettling to milquetoast celebrities trying to peddle their latest efforts.  (His later rival, Jay Leno, by contrast, handily reversed all of these innovations, choosing instead to make ass-kissing the hallmark of his on-air persona.)   In short, Letterman’s style made him in my mind an analogue to David Byrne (pictured above with Letterman in 1983), lead singer of Talking Heads, who, in the ironic juxtaposition of his jerky animated delivery and deadpan lyrics about apartment building conveniences, marriage, television, and real estate purchases, offered a running critical commentary on all of the nonsense middle-class America had prioritized with enthusiasm after the Second World War.

But just as Letterman proposed a subversion of the television personalities who preceded him, and effectively set the tone for many, many personalities to follow (you’re welcome, Jimmy Kimmel), he has come to be supplanted himself to a degree by the changing way we consume television.  Few people I know watch television now in the manner I did back in those salad days summers of the 1980s: live, over broadcast television, on a schedule the network sets.  Instead, we consume our television either in online binges, or in bits and pieces, on mobile devices where we watch excised clips someone has emailed to us, of parents being cruel to their children as urged by Kimmel, or of Jimmy Fallon doing clever, self-contained musical numbers with Justin Timberlake or Michelle Obama.  Letterman, whose great talent was less the humor of “the bit,” than the triumph of his ongoing wiseacre tone, is less easy to anthologize for our inboxes.  His personality doesn’t lend itself well to the culture of the viral video, and as so many pundits have suggested over the past year, Dave has become, well, somewhat antiquated in the twenty-first century.  (Even that cringe-worthy fossil Al Roker, the morning weatherman on The Today Show, maintains an active Instagram account as a concession to the changing cultural paradigms of new technology.)

So, ultimately, what I’m saying here is: that’s it.  In one week, with the Letterman finale, the long 1980s more or less came to a conclusion, and television as I remember it, pretty much died off.  It was a good run for both, and I’ll look back on the pair fondly.

Notes on Popular Culture: Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jazz

Note: Toward the end of my tenure as a regular writer for the jazz periodical Coda I was contributing a regular column entitled Swinging Celluloid, devoted to meditations on jazz in film.  This was the last of the columns I wrote for the magazine, before its untimely demise, and the piece didn’t make it to print.  After watching The Talented Mr. Ripley again this weekend, I decided to post it here.

Few films of the past twenty years are as rewarding to lovers of jazz and film alike as Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, a lush adaptation from 1999 of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 crime novel.  Depicting the twisted machinations of the impoverished but brilliant sociopath Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) as he exploits a privileged set of American ex-pats in mid-century Italy, Minghella recreates the sweet life of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita with stunning fidelity.  Damon is the perfect picture of retro Ivy League aspirations, in horn-rimmed spectacles and Oxford shirts; his co-stars Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, by contrast, embody the bygone voluptuousness of post-war American entitlement abroad, with their tanned skin and tailored Italian clothes.  (And while the film evokes the opulence of Fellini’s jet-setters in its sartorial detail and lavish apartments, it also employs coy stateside filmic references as well: in a number of scenes, Law, as the spoiled and selfish Dickie Greenleaf, tours the streets of Italy on a Vespa scooter that recalls Gregory Peck’s in 1953’s Roman Holiday.)


Minghella’s faithful evocation of the period turns on a studied attention to jazz music’s decadent associations among rebellious young Americans—especially those of the rich, white variety—who sought to unburden themselves from the moral rigidity and drab homogeneity of American life by losing themselves in more momentary, sensuous pleasures.  Early on in the plot, the uptight shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf decries jazz as “insolent noise” in a curmudgeonly rant, but that supposedly impudent music represents a kind of lifeblood to his restless son, Dickie, in subsequent scenes.  Amid a lazy life of afternoon cocktails and all-day sailing ventures, the younger Greenleaf also fills his European days by practicing the saxophone.  (Indeed, it’s his preferred mode of expression in moments of angst.)  It’s Dickie’s love for jazz that Ripley exploits in order to insert himself among the prodigal heir’s affluent milieu.  Aware of Greenleaf’s fondness for bebop and cool jazz, Damon’s bookish sociopath goes to work with his turntable and a stack of classic LPs.  Enacting a determined, if perverse, variation on Leonard Feather’s famous Blindfold Test, Ripley listens to records by Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker until he can identify each artist effortlessly and rhapsodize about their respective styles at will.  In private, Ripley mutters to himself in frustration that he can’t tell if Baker’s vocals come from a man’s voice or a woman’s, but later, he offers an eerie recreation of Chet’s version of “My Funny Valentine” while sitting in with Dickie in an Italian nightclub.  Here, Minghella’s slight alteration of the story’s temporal setting—moving the action from 1955 to 1958—has immense benefits; his soundtrack makes pointed use of some of the most recognizable recordings in post-war jazz, many of which came toward the close of the Eisenhower decade.

Minghella’s turn to period jazz enables the historical verisimilitude that makes the film such a consistent delight, but it also provokes other contextual resonances, as well.  Among the thematic terrain the film explores, for instance, is the contrast between Dickie’s jazz-informed sensibility and Ripley’s more conservative attraction to classical piano.  When we first meet Damon’s character, he’s accompanying a soprano in a chamber performance for wealthy New Yorkers.  It’s in that context that he ingratiates himself to the senior Mr. Greenleaf, who regards Ripley’s piano talents as a sign that Tom’s “an exceptional young man,” and thus worth financing on a trip to Europe to bring his playboy son back to the U.S.A.  Thus, it’s Tom’s immersion in classical music that enables his opportunistic ascension up the social hierarchy.  But that’s not to say that DIckie’s trajectory follows in opposite terms.  Instead, as the story moves to Europe, and we meet Dickie in Italy, we see that the rich boy hasn’t renounced his inheritance to devote himself to the music of African Americans and bohemian whites, but rather, that he regards jazz—like the luxurious house he rents, or the local peasant girls with whom he has private affairs—as just another sensual object available for consumption, and always within reach of his privileged grasp.  He’s, indeed, a flippant jazzman, as we discover, when abruptly he considers giving up the saxophone to pursue the drums instead.

Furthermore, the stark division between the two men’s musical preferences also contributes to the narrative’s dense sexual subtext.  That is, it’s not just that their differing tastes represents—as Minghella says on one of the commentaries on the DVD release—Dickie’s liberated personality and Tom’s uptight demeanor.  Dickie is liberated, for certain, in his philandering, voluptuous movement through Italy.  But Tom is more than merely uptight; he’s a repressed homosexual, frustrated in his desire to the point of shocking violence at times.  Dicky’s jazz-themed freedom of sexual conduct—kissing Italian women in Roman nightclubs, or making love to his fiancé, Paltrow, below-deck on the sailboat while Tom, disgusted, overhears—makes the reckless rich boy not just the embodiment of repressed Ripley’s envy, but also, the unattainable object of his secret desire.  The tension at the heart of their relationship precipitates the ghastly murder at the center of the film’s plot, and the grotesque scheming to which Ripley resorts to facilitate his escape in the story’s second half.  Ultimately, then, Minghella’s use of jazz takes a dark, ironic turn.   As we see, the resourceful Ripley, a man of musical and criminal talents equally distributed, looks to improvisation when the ethical world from which he feels alienated doesn’t allow him merely to play the score as it’s composed for the page.