I have no idea what goes on inside Donald Trump’s head. Whatever it is, it’s apparently not coherent thought. The image of him from the other day giving his canned trade speech in front of stacks of garbage baled for recycling is symbolic on many levels but it doesn’t seem quite apt as a metaphor for his thinking. Sure, his head is full of recycled trash, but the stacks in the pictures are too neat and well-ordered. I used to think that whatever else there was going on under the weave, at least a part of him that knew what he was doing. Not about how to run for president, necessarily, but how to run a decent con.
Trump, I thought, had a side-show barker’s genius for sizing up a crowd, identifying the suckers, and making the right pitch to draw them in and part them from their money.
But he seems to have forgotten the flim-flam man’s first rule---Don’t let yourself get flimmed by your own flam---and fallen for his own sales pitch, which is: What this country needs to make it great again is to put a guy who knows better than anyone else how to get things done in charge and I’m that guy!
That notion, that Donald Trump is the guy who knows how to get it all done, as much as the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, is a major source of his appeal.
Before I barrel on: I know. I know. We’re not supposed to sneer at the rubes who’ve fallen for his sales pitch. They’re just a bunch of regular working Joes and Janes who’ve been battered by the economy and had their interests and concerns ignored by the political elites of both parties. Democrats especially should know better. These folks---white, working class---have always been a major constituency and the party needs their votes.
All right. Again. All working class people aren’t white. All white working class people aren’t Trump voters. All Trump voters aren’t working class.
Economic anxiety and frustration are at work among Trump voters because they’re at work among all voters, even among the rich. But not all of us are dealing with it by planning to vote for a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, ignorant, irresponsible bully boy and cheat who has no clear idea of how he’d govern except as essentially a dictator.
Yes, you bet they’re worried. For many the worry is how they’re going to buy groceries and get the furnace fixed and pay for their kids’ braces and if they’re going to have a job next week, if they have a job this week. But Trump’s voters also include a lot of people who are mad because they have to put off buying a boat. This is a core Republican constituency, people who think they should be rich and feel they’ve been done out of their due by THEM!
That THEM! Includes bankers and Republican Party establishment types doesn’t mitigate that THEM! to them are mainly black people, brown people, women people, gay people, liberal people, smart people, immigrant people, foreign people, and all NOT JUST LIKE US people.
What unites the truly struggling with the merely temporarily boat-deprived isn't economic anxiety. It's a sense of having been robbed of their due by THEM! They're united in their resentment of and their blaming of THEM! And they're not going to be persuaded to vote Democratic because the Democrats are the party of THEM! Which is fine with the Democrats and fine for the Democrats because THEM! is the the majority of Americans as well as the Democratic base.
I'm willing to believe that not all Trump voters are racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and other types of haters and bigots---although you have to wonder why those who aren't aren't repulsed by Trump's racist and bigoted demagoguery enough to vote against putting the racist and bigot in the White House. Do they think he doesn't mean it and that somehow makes it all right? Or do they not hear it? Or does it just not bother them? And if it doesn't bother them then what makes them better than the outright racists and xenophobes who are their fellow Trump voters?
Questions for another day.
I am not just willing to believe, I in fact do believe that not all of Trump's appeal is his racism, hatreds, and bigotries.
As I and plenty of others have pointed out again and again, all of Trump’s primary opponents were making the same appeals to the worst of the Republican base. He wasn’t saying things any of them weren’t saying either individually or in chorus. He just said it with more passion, force, style, and seeming conviction.
But all that passion, force, style, and conviction added up in his voters’ minds to the sense that he was the candidate who would get things done. And this is what they were looking for.
Someone who could get things done to make America great again, with the main thing needing doing being sticking it to THEM!
It’s a depressing or amusing fact, depending on how tragic or ironic view you take of human beings and their nature, that people have a tendency to think that all problems have a simple and obvious solution and that’s “The world would be a better place if everybody just did things my way way.”
When it comes to solving problems and getting things done, we don’t put our faith in intelligence, or education, or expertise. We put our faith in our own common sense. And that’s what common sense is: what I have and (fill in the blank with your preferred THEY) don’t.
We persist in believing this even when all the evidence adds up to our not possessing an ounce of common sense and our way being most definitely the wrong way. And rather than accept the evidence we decide that the reason our way isn’t working is that someone else is to blame. We’re not the ones who lack common sense. It’s HIM! Or HER! Or THEM! Someone else is screwing up or causing us to screw up. The system is rigged! The people running the rigged system are corrupt or stupid or perverse. The trouble isn’t we’re the screw-ups. The trouble is we don’t have the power to force people to do it our way, the right way, the unscrewed-up way. So that’s what’s needed. Somebody smart enough to see the problem for what it is and know what needs to be done to fix it. Somebody who thinks just like us but who’s tough enough and powerful enough to force them to go along or get out of the way. Somebody who knows the angles, knows the score, knows their tricks. Somebody who can beat the bastards at their own game.
Solving problems is always a simple matter of knowing how to get things done and taking charge. Everything is easy after that,
What the country needs, then, to make it great it again is somebody who will take charge. Not a dictator, necessarily. Not even an authoritarian in a literal sense of the word. But a boss! Somebody THEY! have to listen to or else. Somebody who’ll tell THEM! what do to do and make them do it.
Somebody like Donald Trump.
And that’s what Donald Trump has been selling himself as for years.
Somebody like Donald Trump.
The thing is that, like I said, I in my innocence assumed Donald Trump himself knew he was running a con. I assumed he knew that what he was selling, somebody like Donald Trump was a fraud and he knew he was nothing like Donald Trump because there is nobody like Donald Trump. Nobody like that Donald Trump, at any rate.
That Donald Trump is always and everywhere what the real Donald Trump boasts he is, the smartest, most getting-it-done man in the place. That Donald Trump operates in a world where there is a simple, commonsensical solution to every problem including problems that arise from running a country of 300 million people with a multi-trillion dollar economy trying to get along in the world with 6 billion other human beings.
I assumed he knew that, however smart he believed he was and on whatever evidence, there were plenty of people who were smarter. I assumed he knew that often when he got the better of people in a business deal it wasn’t because they weren’t smart or as smart. He’d simply outsmarted them on that one, the way he was sometimes outsmarted. I assumed he knew that often he hadn’t gotten things done as much as he’d just gotten away with it.
I assumed that the disarray of his campaign, the lack of staff and a field organization, the lack of money, his refusal to control himself, the things that looked as if he was flailing and floundering as the fun and games of the primaries were over and he suddenly found himself facing a serious and formidable opponent were due to his faith in the con. Why should he control himself? Why should he give up his clown act? It works! Works with his base, at any rate. And his business career was based on getting other people to pay the bills and do the hard work and then taking all the credit and pocketing as much of the loot for himself as he could. He was simply running for president the way he’d run his businesses. He was counting on the GOP establishment his base loathes to step in and put together a field organization and pay to staff it. He was confident the party’s regular big donors would pony up. And he was laughing up his sleeve as he bided his time.
But I’ll say it again, I assumed he knew.
Now I’m not so sure.
I forget what it was---a random tweet, a remark during a speech, something I read he’d said, or a sudden inspiration on my part---but something struck me and caused me to think, Oh my God! He really believes he’s DONALD TRUMP!
All through the primaries up until he clinched he gleefully called out his opponents for what they were, empty suits and lightweights, second and third raters, fools and dolts. I thought that was Trump’s one great political insight, that the Republican clown car was a clown car. The political media was dutifully taking the GOP establishment’s word that this was the deepest bench the party had ever had but Trump, with a bully’s talent for identifying others’ weaknesses, sized them all up, figured them all out, and seized his opportunity. When after he’d won the adjective presumptive he began talking about them as if they were each worthy challengers he’d had to take on and knock out one by one, like a prizefighter working his way up to a championship bout, I took it at face value, as an opportunistic line of attack on Hillary. Here he was, with 15 KOs to his credit, and she was still desperately trying to put away a bum like Crazy Bernie, so who was the real champ in this fight?
But now I think he really believes he was the political equivalent of his “friend” Muhammad Ali taking down George Foreman on his way to Manilla to fight Joe Frazier, except that Crooked Hillary would turn out to be a lot less tough an opponent than Smokin’ Joe.
In his own mind he truly is the Greatest!
Trump is a clown. And he’s a con artist. But what he mainly is is a salesman. And a good salesman has to believe in his product. So maybe instead of saying he’s fallen for his own con, it’s better to say that he’s bought his own product. He’s sold himself DONALD TRUMP.
The deluxe model with all the options.
He’s his own best customer.
He’s sold himself the belief that he is the smartest guy in the place, the only one who really knows how to get things done. He’s bought the conviction that all he has to do to win the election and go on to being a great president is to be show up on TV, at rallies, and on Twtter and be what he is. He’s going to win and govern on sheer force of personality and strength of will.
I don’t know if there’s much difference between his being an extremely satisfied customer or a complete sucker. Either way he’s a less interesting and more ridiculous character than if he’s a clear-eyed, calculating, cynical villain. But it makes him even more dangerous.
Trump seems motivated mainly by appetite, ego, vanity, and whim, but if that’s all there is to him, if there isn’t at least a cynical intelligence at work as well, if he has no common sense, then he has no inner restraint at all and that makes him a madman. I know people are saying he’s a madman. I’ve called him a racist lunatic. But I thought I was being hyperbolic with the lunatic part.
Updated July 19, 2016. I wrote most of this at the end of June before the Star of David horror and the farcical choice Mike Pence for VP. In the weeks since, Trump has shown himself to be more appalling and more resilient than he was looking at the time, although neither is surprising anymore. I probably should revise the post taking recent events into account and making use of Josh Marshal’s ongoing analysis Trump’s political and psychological pathology, this BuzzFeed article by McKay Coppins, and especially Jane Meyer’s interview at the New Yorker with Trump’s ghost writer, all of which work to confirm my suspicion that Trump is his own first and most completely conned sucker. A post for another day.
Over there, across the room, below Moonrise Kingdom but just above Darjeeling Limited.
For some reason, the Coens decided to make a Wes Anderson movie. Maybe just because it seemed like it would be fun.
There are scenes and characters that could have come straight out of Anderson’s imagination. There’s a dollhouse-building artificiality to much of the film and the Coens allow themselves moments of very un-Coen Brothers-like whimsicality. Casting Tilda Swinton in a dual role as feuding gossip columnist twin sisters seems like an Anderson touch not least because Swinton has become one of Anderson’s stock players. George Clooney is a longtime member of the Coens’ stock company but he’s also Anderson’s Fantastic Mister Fox. Ralph Feinnes starred in Anderson’s most recent and best film to date The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a sequence involving a dory full of communist writers in identical black sou’westers rowing out to a rendezvous with a Russian submarine that looks like a live-action recreation of a stop-motion capture cartoon that Wes Anderson himself might have made and might yet make if he sees Hail, Caesar! and gets inspired.
The Coens’ idea of fun is different from Anderson’s. In fact, sometimes I think their idea of fun is closer to that of scientists’ or mathematicians’ than to other artists’. Seems as though they like devising problems to solve and then coming up with the proofs. They’re like moral physicists.
There’s a word for people who do that for a living. Philosophers.
The problem they’ve set themselves to solve in Hail, Caesar! is one they’ve been working out through many of their movies---maybe even all of them:
There is no God.
Life has no meaning or purpose.
If there is no God, then was Dostoevsky right, are all things permitted? If life has no meaning or purpose, what do we have to live for? What gives us hope? What makes life worth living? How can be be good without God?
In various movies, the Coens’ answers to those questions have been Yes, Nothing, Nothing, Nothing, and We can’t.
In other movies, their answers have been Yes, Nothing, Nothing, Nothing, and We pretend.
We pretend that life has meaning and purpose. We act as if we matter. We act as if God is watching. And we help each other out with that.
Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and True Grit are movies that offer those answers to those questions.
In Hail, Caesar! the same problem is put in the form of the same questions, and the answers turn out to be the same as in Raising Arizona, Fargo, and the other two but with one addition, summarized in one short declarative.
If life has no meaning or purpose, what do we have to live for? What gives us hope? What makes life worth living?
Why, the movies, of course!
Hail, Caesar! Is a movie for people who love movies. All kinds of movies. Westerns, musicals, dramas, mysteries, biblical and historical epics, doesn’t matter. Good or bad doesn’t matter. From all we can tell, the movies we see being made in Hail, Caesar! Could be classics in the making or utter schlock. It’s hard to tell. They’re all pastiches.
The religious epic, the kidnapping of whose star by communists is at the center of Hail, Caeser!, has elements of Ben-Hur,Quo Vadis?, and The Robe. The Gene Kelly-esque musical owes a lot to the Kelly-in-a-sailor suit On the Town and Anchors Aweighbut it also borrows from South Pacificand its big dance number is set in a waterfront dive bar that I think is meant to evoke the movies-within-a movie numbers from Singin’ in the Rainand The Band Wagonbut looked to me more like the realistic dive bar settings of the private eye movies those movies were parodying. And a scene from the Roy Rogers-style singing cowboy movie that’s meant to be comedic looks like a quote fromThe Searcherswith a tangential reference to Shane or like as scene from The Searchers filmed against a backscreen projection of the set of Shane.
Hail, Caesar! ---the Coens’ movie itself not the movie with the same title being filmed within the movie---is a pastiche. It’s mainly shot in the style of a noirish detective film with the main character following in the footsteps of the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. But there are plenty of Hitchcockian touches with visual quotes from Vertigoand North by Northwest. But the Coens don’t limit their references to any periods, styles, or genres. I swear I caught allusions to The Player, The Last Tycoon, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,The Cheap Detective, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But I’m not sure they were intentional or if what the Coens intended was that the audience would make their own connections. There are scenes and shots, snatches of dialog and passages of background music that look and sound like they must be quotes or references to specific movies and might be or might be the Coens playing with our heads, tricking us into thinking I know that one! When there’s no particular that one to know. And characters and incidents are drawn from real life but the biographies and histories are mixed up. All the way through, the Coens had me ransacking the film library in my head trying to tag and sort out the references.
The point is, however, that the particular movies being alluded to are beside the point. The quality of the movies, the ones alluded to and the movies-within-this movie the Coens use to do the alluding, doesn’t matter. Even what any of these movies are about, even the type of movies they are doesn’t matter. What matters is that these movies are being made and that they are made things.
Set in 1951 (-ish. The Coens aren’t sticklers about the historical background), Hail, Caesar tells the story of two days in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio manager at Capitol Pictures (where the ill-fated screenwriter Barton Fink came to no good ten years before). Eddie's job is to make sure all the movies Capitol is making get made. Answering only to the the telephone presence of the unseen studio head, Mr Skank, Eddie oversees the practical matters of production, getting the individual producers and directors the budgets, stars, casts, designers, technicians, and stage hands they need. But another important part of his job is to see that the movies sell. And that isn’t simply a matter of convincing the ticket-buying public individual movies are worth the price of admission.
It’s supporting people’s need to believe that movies---all movies---matter, that the dream worlds they portray are in some vital and necessary way more real than the world we’re forced to inhabit.
“People don’t want facts,” Eddie tells one of the gossip columnist twins who’s defending a column that could ruin the reputation of Capitol’s biggest star on the grounds that it’s factual, “They want to believe.”
What they want to believe in is an illusion but that doesn’t mean they want to be under an illusion. They simply want to believe that the illusions movies purvey are can be realized, that beauty and nobility and decency are there if you look for them, that justice is possible, that love can triumph, that happy endings occasionally occur, that there’s reason to hope and things to hope for. They want to believe that life has meaning and purpose beyond merely surviving. They want to believe that most people are inherently good, that they themselves are good, that their existence matters. And this is the good movies do. Movies assure people it’s ok to believe in all that, most importantly that they matter.
Which is why it’s imperative that movies get made. Hail, Caesar! is a movie that postulates that making movies is a moral endeavor. Making movies---making art---is a practical necessity. There’s a character who doesn’t work in the movie business who sneers at moviemaking as a frivolous waste of Eddie’s time and talent but that character is the voice of the devil.
Except for that character, there are no out and out villains in Hail, Caesar!, no one determined to do anyone harm. The threat Eddie has to head off is existential and comes in the form of multiple temptations to other characters to shake the public’s belief and destroy their illusions, leaving them nothing instead except the tawdry facts of human nature and ugly and dispiriting realities of life in the world of un-make-believe.
The communist writers who kidnap the star aren’t villains, they’re just wrong-headed, their thinking warped by, well, too much thinking. They’ve theorized themselves into forgetting what movies are for. They see moviemaking as a purely economic and political enterprise. The twin gossip columnists are haughty, vain, and self-important bullies but they aren’t truly bad people. But they’re carried away by their self-serving conviction that what their readers want are those tawdry facts and dispiriting realities because that’s the truth. Meanwhile, another star’s out of wedlock pregnancy isn’t a subject for moral judgment. It’s just trouble because if the news gets out it could shatter her wholesome image and make it impossible for her to make any more of the kind of movies audiences need her to make, which would hurt the studio’s bottom line and make it difficult for Capital to make any kinds of movies.
Eddie’s biggest problems are his stars. His main task in life seems to be cleaning up messes made by actors in their personal lives and keeping the facts out of the news and so from the movie-going public. Unfortunately, this requires clandestine and routinely dishonest wheeling and dealing on his part and that weighs heavily on his devout Catholic conscience and sends him into the confessional on what appears to be a twice a day basis.
But Eddie faces his own temptation and it comes from that character I identified as the voice of the devil. He’s a headhunter for Lockheed Aircraft trying to recruit Eddie to come work as highly-paid executive for them. The job offer is a good one and very tempting to Eddie who has a family to provide for and whom he wants to spend more time with. But accepting it requires an implicit rejection of moviemaking as a serious endeavor, that is, as real work that has and provides meaning for those who do the work and those who need the work to be done. And Lockheed’s business is explicitly tied to the Military-Industrial Complex. In taking the job, Eddie would be contributing the growing gloom and doom of the Cold War. Instead of being in the business of making people’s lives brighter, he’d be going to work making death machines.
This all seems like a burdensome theme for what’s essentially a farce to carry.
I’m having my usual problem making a comedy sound funny.
Hail, Caesar! isn’t as funny as it should be or could be. The Coens let too much gloom seep in, tonally and visually. Colors are washed out, which seems wrong for a movie about moviemaking set in the days when Technicolor was the rage. Scenery and costumes look dingy, which is probably a thematic choice but doesn’t exactly help lighten the mood. The pacing lags from time to time. No movies from that period, not even the melodramas, were played with the lugubriousness of some of the scenes in Hail, Caesar! in which eliciting laughs not tears is supposedly the intention. And there’s a dearth of high spirits among the characters. None of them seems to be really enjoying their privileged and relatively carefree lives, with two notable exceptions.
One of the movie genres the Coens don’t make use of (or make fun of or have fun with) is romantic comedy. This struck me as an odd oversight on their part, considering their cast of characters includes a pair of very attractive potential young lovers who tentatively begin a romance played by a pair of very attractive young actors with great chemistry both sexual and comedic.
Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, the Roy Rogers-like cowboy star forced by the studio’s need to capitalize on his draw at the box office to change his image and become the sophisticated, tuxedo-wearing leading man of elegant melodramas and drawing room comedies, and Veronica Osorio plays a Latina comedienne and song and dance star famous for wearing fruit on her heads a la Carmen Miranda. Ehrenreich makes Hobie every bit the good guy as he appears to be in his westerns (It also looks like Ehrenreich himself can really ride horses and do rope tricks) and Osorio is quite frankly a living doll.
But the Coens give them just two scenes together (in which they appear to be having the time of their lives) and only Hobie is sent out to help Eddie solve the mystery. This is not just too bad it’s, again, an odd oversight, as there are long-established movie traditions of young lovers being brought together by older male leads and couples falling in love while solving a mystery together.
It’s still a funny movie, though, shot through with visual and verbal incongruities and absurdities and carried along by snappy dialog that’s often found poetry---”What’s his wife say?” “He’s not home. He’s never home. He’s a louse. Try one of his chippies.”---“God’s a bachelor. And he’s very angry.” “He used to be angry.” “What? He got over it?”---The cell of communist screenwriters, led by a cheerfully and enthusiastically pedantic Max Baker and including a pugnacious David Krumholtz looking like a Ben Shahn drawing come to life, is a scathing group portrait of people who’ve turned themselves into caricatures by defining themselves by their rigid ideologies. There’s a hilarious scene in which Eddie tries to get some clergymen to give their approval to the script for his biblical epic that’s an extended riff on every a priest, a minister, and a rabbi joke ever told with a Greek Orthodox patriarch thrown in for added measure. And the movie stars playing movie stars and other denizens of Capitol Picture’s studios and hangers-on deliver fine comic performances, particularly George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Ralph Fiennes.
As the vainglorious ham Baird Whitlock, Clooney does a variation on a type he’s played for the Coens before, in O Brother, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading, the vain, over-confident but not particularly bright charmer who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is. Whitlock has a habit of falling in love with every script he’s handed to the point that he can’t bear to have a single word of his dialog changed and he reacts to the writers’ explanation of why they’ve kidnapped him---something to do with taking over the means of production to serve the interests of “the little man”---as if they’re giving him a screenplay with a big part for him to play. He becomes an instant disciple of Karl Marx.
Johansson, as DeAnna Moran, the Esther Williams-like star of watery musicals, makes the most of her two short scenes. The joke is in the difference between DeAnna’s wholesome onscreen image and her real life gun moll persona. (Reminded that one of her ex-husbands was a minor gangster, she defends the bum: “Vince was not minah.”) Johansson has obvious fun being a tough, side-of-the-mouth talking dame and I suspect she was taking the opportunity to let fans and critics know what her career plans are for when she’s done being an action-adventure star and romantic lead---character actress.
Fiennes gets his laughs by playing his character straight. Laurence Laurentz is an Ernst Lubitsch manqué, an effete and pretentious director of elegant melodramas and drawing room comedies, who is every bit the artistic genius he thinks he is It’s his film that Hobie is shoehorned into by the studio and it’s his challenge to turn Hobie from a likable enough cowboy star into a serious actor.
I loved how in an almost throwaway moment the Coens reveal what a fine director Laurentz is and that Hobie is truly a talented actor.
Swinton, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, and Christopher Lambert (prosthetically, cosmetically, and tonsorially disguised) earn their laughs, and I think I made clear my fondness for Ehrenreich and Osario. But my favorite among the supporting players may be Heather Goldenhersh as Eddie’s jittery secretary Natalie.
Natalie is devoted to her boss, quick to deal with any task he assigns. But the job wears on her nerves. If Eddie takes on the sins of his wayward stars, Natalie takes on his worries and cares. It’s as if her chief duty is to be nervous on his behalf. Goldenhersh shows us Natalie’s determination to be cheerful, brisk, and dependable on the outside but also how on the inside she’s a nervous wreck. She’s brave and does what needs to be done, but we can see that she’s terrified to answer the phone because of who might be calling and in what sort of distress they might be in and how much trouble it’s going to mean for her boss.
Now about her boss…
Eddie Mannix is a part that could have been played by Clark Gable in his late middle age, which makes me wonder if the Coens had initially considered giving the role to Clooney. It’s also a part that would have been well-suited to the older James Cagney who, in fact, played a similar character in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (speaking of movies in which an older male lead brings a pair of young lovers together.), the schedule-obsessed Coca-Cola executive C.R. MacNamara trying to keep his own band of screwballs in line and facing his own Communist menace as he’s attempting to negotiate a business deal in Cold War Berlin, and there’s another movie I don’t know if the Coens were actually referencing or if I’m just making my own connections. Brolin gives his Eddie touches of both Gable and Cagney. There’s some of Gable’s rough-hewn, con artist’s charm and some of Cagney’s pugnacious impatience. But he’s more care-worn and self-doubting than I can remember ever seeing either Gable or Cagney and in that way he reminded me of Humphrey Bogart.
Brolin has shown himself a gifted impressionist, doing a more than passable George W. Bush in W. and an uncannily exact Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black III, but if those touches of Gable, Cagney, and Bogart are there, and it’s not just another case of the Coens tricking me into projecting, he isn’t doing an impression of any or all those Golden Age stars. Nor is his performance a pastiche. Eddie is all Brolin’s own and since Hail, Caesar! Is Eddie’s story, it’s Brolin’s movie. He’s in command of every scene. The perfect straight man, he gives his castmates lots of room to strut their stuff but sets the limits and keeps them grounded, giving them a reality they have to keep coming back to.
Eddie is hard-headed without being cynical, moral without being judgmental, a truly decent man who makes only one demand on his wayward flock of screwballs and egomaniacs, that they keep the first commandment of his peculiar faith.
“Don’t forget why we’re all here!”
“The picture has worth,” he scolds Whitlock when the star returns from his time with the communists full of their politics and thinking himself some kind of rebel against the system, “And you have worth as long as you serve the picture!”
The picture is the movie being made at the moment, but it’s also the illusion. The illusion that life has purpose and meaning that art helps foster.
We’re all in this together, helping each other foster and maintain the illusion. We all serve the picture, and the picture has worth, and in that way we make sure that we have worth, to each other and to ourselves.
Hail, Caesar! written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Heather Goldenhersh, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Veronica Osario, Alison Pill, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum. Rated PG-13. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.
The late sixteenth century may have been the great golden age of English drama, but life for all but a few lucky Jacobean players was desperately precarious (the word ‘career’ in this period retained its older sense of something a horse does under you when it tries to bolt). A government statute of 1572 branded players as ‘rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars’, and, unless they could acquire the protection of a patron, they were exposed to the whim of the authorities. The Puritan City fathers in London detested theatres and all they stood for, and endlessly, bad-temperedly, angled for them to be closed down; breeding grounds for bubonic plague, incitements to sedition, lewdness, frivolousness, time-wasting. Between 1603 and 1612, London theatres went dark for nearly eighty months, often for long stretches of a time, forcing actors into other work or out on the road. In the harsh theatre closures of 1592-93 (when even Shakespeare attempted to find another job, as a courtly poet), as many as 200 players were cast out of work.
As Henry James had written of her after Bernhardt’s London debut in 1879, “she is a celebrity because, apparently, she desires it with an intensity that has rarely been equaled, and for this all means are alike to her.” These words were not intended by James as praise, but Wilde took them as career advice.
When Bernhardt returned to England in 1880, after touring America, he showed his fealty to his new mentor by casting an armful of flowers at her feet as she stepped off the ship and onto terra firma. The press coverage of this act of adoration was huge and, best of all from Wilde’s standpoint, as much about him as about her. Not that Bernhardt held a grudge. She was a regular guest at parties thrown by Wilde at Thames House, on one occasion leaving her autograph on a the paneling in the living room. (Bernhardt’s English was spotty, so she and Wilde conversed in French.) Wilde was euphoric about the autograph, his friendship with “the Divine Sarah,” his rise in society, and, most of all, the attention he was getting from the press. But he knew the next phase of his project [of making himself famous] would be even more critical to his future success: from now on he---not Miss Bernhardt or Mrs. Langtry---would have to be the work of art on display.
Sarah Bernhardt (left) as the Prince of Denmark in a short film of the duel scene from her 1899 production of Hamlet.
I was pretty proud of myself for suggesting to Mrs K that she could cast girls in some of the men’s roles. I didn’t think it was an original idea. I was proud of myself for knowing that it wasn’t an original idea. I knew all about Sarah Bernhardt and how she’d starred as Hamlet back in 1899. I don’t remember if I knew that it wasn’t an original idea when Bernhardt alased over poor Yourick’s skull. Fifty-four years before that, in 1845, in a production of Romeo and Juliet at London’s Haymarket Theatre, an actress and impresaria named Charlotte Cushman cast herself as Romeo to her sister’s Juliet. And this sort of sister act became a theatrical tradition. In a comment on the first part of this post George Roberts reported that in 1896 his great-great-aunt Esme Beringer played Romeo opposite her sister Vera, George’s great-grandmother, as Juliet.
So casting women in men’s roles is nothing new and nothing rare. A few years back, Helen Mirren played Prospero, gender-swapped as Prospera, in a film version of The Tempest directed by Julie Taymor.. The trailers and online clips didn’t make it look very good to me but not because of the gender-swap and certainly not because of Mirren. Too much weirdness, not the least sign of whimsy. But I don’t like the play much anyway. The Public Theater is staging Taming of the Shrewwith a cast of all women. That strikes me as either a stunt on the Public’s part or a statement by the director, and I don’t go Shakespeare’s plays for the directors’ statements. But a woman playing Pertruchio as Petruchio or Petruchia? Why not? (Well, except that a Petruchia makes Kate’s final speech quite a conundrum.) As far as I’m concerned, that’s the answer to Tina Packer’s lament that actress who love Shakespeare have been shortchanged by the Bard, and it’s easy enough to pull off. You don’t have to do any gender-bending nor, on the other hand, do you have to require actresses to play the parts as men.
There are male characters who could be played by a woman without her having to be a convincing male impersonator. I even recommend not bothering with beards and mustaches or attempting whatever’s the opposite of a falsetto. The younger male characters, particularly, could be played fairly straight. So to speak. Hal in Henry IV. Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra. Romeo. Whatever traces of her femininity she failed to hide would contribute to the character’s youthfulness. And then there’s Richard II who’s usually played with more than a trace of femininity. (Actually, often as effeminate, but I think that’s a mistake.) I’m not sure how I’d react to an actress as Falstaff, Macbeth, Othello, or Shylock, but it would be interesting to find out. You might need the facial hair and false baritones for them, though.
I could definitely accept a female Lear.
Or a Queen Lear.
And like I said, you don’t have to have your actress play the part as a man, if the play is taken out of period and set in the here and now or in a time and place that never really existed. Kent in King Lear would be a good candidate. These days a king’s top advisor, strong right hand, and chief bodyguard could be a woman but Game of Thrones provides an excellent model as well for a Lear set in a world of sword and sorcery in the form of Brienne of Tarth. And while I’m not particularly interested in casting as a political statement, I can be intrigued by casting for psychological insight, that is, as a way of exploring an aspect of the character’s character and affecting the dynamics of his/her relationships with other characters. Mercutio could be played by a woman as a man, easily enough, but a Mercutio played by a woman as a woman opens some interesting possibilities.
Mercutio is a brawler and a duelist. And a hothead. He accuses a friend of having a head as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat but he's describing himself. He dies because he provokes Tybalt into the duel Romeo's trying to avoid. This is no problem for an actress playing Mercutio as a man.
But it's really no problem for an actress playing "her" as a woman either, if she plays her as an ultra Tom-boy like Starbuck in Battlestar Galactaca or Black Widow in The Avengers and the production's set in a time and a place where she could go about swaggering and boasting and getting into fights she can win handily because she's faster with her fists and deadlier with a blade than any of the gang of men she hangs out with. Her quarrelsomeness and belligerence might stem from her feeling she has to prove she’s tougher than all the guys. Mercutio as written is a Roaring Boy but she could just as well be a Roaring Girl.
There's an interpretive question for any actor playing Mercutio, though. Why does he make so much fun of Romeo for being in love?
The simple answer is right there in the text. Romeo famously cries that he is fortune’s fool. But that’s later. At the start of the play he’s a fool for love. Falling in love is what he does. The play opens with him infatuated with a girl of the moment named Rosaline. There's no reason for Mercutio to take this romance any more seriously than the previous ten. And being in love makes Romeo boring company. He’s always “groaning for love.”
Add to this that Mercutio is young man and has a young man’s easy cynicism and sense of entitlement. As far as he’s concerned, life is meant to be fun and part of the fun is lots of casual sex. Undying love for one girl puts a damper on that.
But many actors and directors read more into it. They believe Mercutio’s jealous.
Their Mercutios are gay and in love with Romeo themselves. I can see it. I have seen it. I don’t think it’s there but why not?
The thing is that if your Mercutio is a young woman then it’s going to be there whether you want it or not---it being her unrequited love for Romeo---because audiences are trained to look for sexual attraction between pretty male and female characters, so you might as well run with it.
The ridiculous and incomprehensible and therefore nearly unplayable Queen Mab speech makes a little more sense if it’s played as Mercutio showing off flirtatiously for Romeo. There are different kinds of flirtatiousness producing different sorts of inherent sadnesses, depending on whether Mercutio is a man or a woman, but the flirtation and the sadness are still real and still true to life and therefore true to Shakespeare who was always true to life.
To make Mercutio’s story the story of his or her unrequited love for Romeo might be to put too much Mercutio into the play and there’s already close to too much of him as he is. There’s too much of everybody in all of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a part of his genius. Characters with just a single speech reveal their entire backstories and give you glimpses into the comedies and tragedies of their lives with that one speech. The point is that you could make the gender switch and the play would still be Romeo and Juliet. It would still be Shakespeare’s play.
You can play this game with just about every male character. What if, say, Iago was a woman? She’d be a lesbian, but that doesn’t have to mean anything. On the other hand, it might. Iago’s hatred of Othello seems so evil because it is motive-less or far in excess of its ostensible motivation, his (her) resentment at having been passed over for promotion. But at one point when asked by his stooge Roderigo why he wants to ruin Othello’s life, Iago says he suspects his wife of cheating on him with Othello.
Usually this is taken by directors and actors playing Iago as just something Iago says to shut Roderigo up. He doesn’t believe it himself and, considering how indifferent he seems towards his wife, probably wouldn’t care if she had. Which by the way raises the possibility he’s a closet case and his unacknowledged sexual attraction to Othello or Cassio or both is what’s twisting him up. Now imagine the complications if it’s a woman jealous of her wife whom she suspects of cheating on her with a man and that man, the manliest man in all the Mediterranean.
Then there’s the possibility that Iago is in love with Desdemona himself…or herself.
I like the idea of a nearly motive-less Iago, whether he’s a she or she’s a he. But I hope you can see where I’m going with this.
Casting women in men’s roles, even if you then swap the genders, doesn’t make the plays less or even all that different from what they already are, because there’s so much human in them. Whatever aspect of human nature you go looking for, Shakespeare’s put it there for you to find.
By the way, Mercutio never meets Juliet on stage which opens up an intriguing opportunity for doubling, with different effects depending on whether the actress playing Mercutio plays him as a man or a woman, but that would defeat the purpose of giving more good parts to more actresses.
Which is one reason I’m not keen on the idea of casting men in the women’s roles. Another reason is that there’s no reason to do it except to make some sort of statement and like I said I don’t go to the theater to hear the director make a statement.
Plus, men in drag are still something of a joke, even in our more enlightened day and age. (That was a sarcasm.) . A very good actor can make an audience forget that he’s a man in drag. Laurence Olivier is said to have made a fetching Kate in a production of Taming of the Shrew when he was fifteen. But why bother except to make the statement or the joke? And the statement has become a cliché and the joke isn’t funny to anyone but the Brits.
Anyway, that’s how I’d deal with it if I ran the world. Cast as many good actresses as I could in whatever roles they could do the best jobs with. And there are many male characters who could be played by a woman without the director or the actress having to worry about the gender or the politics, again depending on the setting, characters defined by their jobs or the role in the plot rather than by their sex or their romantic relationships. The gravedigger in Hamlet. The porter in Macbeth. Justice Shallow in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Jacques in As You Like It. Cassius in Julius Caesar.
There’s an old tradition of casting girls as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The great Victorian actress Ellen Terry got her start in the theater as a little girl playing Puck. But even earlier than that, in 1840, an actress and producer known as Madame Vestris cast herself as Oberon. But why not an actress as Bottom as well, played as either a man or a woman. What is bottom but a vain, self-aggrandizing, self-infatuated blowhard, and men don’t have a monopoly on those traits. If she’s played as a woman that adds some sexual confusion to Titania’s falling in love with her, but Titania’s falling in love with a donkey not a person and it almost doesn’t matter if the donkey’s male or female. The joke isn’t on her anyway. The joke is in how quickly and easily Bottom takes to being both a donkey and petted favorite of a queen. It’s perfectly natural to him for a weaver to be treated like a monarach and waited on hand and hoof by fairy servants of whatever sex.
The point is that it doesn’t matter how she gets to it, an actress has the great pleasure of delivering this speech:
When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows-mender? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life, stol'n hence, and left me asleep? I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom. And I will sing it in the latter end of a play before the duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
Ok, I’m done. I’ll let Puck, boy or girl, bow us out now
If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber'd here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend: if you pardon, we will mend: And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue, We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call; So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.
As I was saying yesterday, mourning doves aren’t among my favorite birds, but they have their attractive qualities, not the least of which is their mournful morning cooing and who-who-whoooing. Grackles, on the other hand, have almost nothing to recommend them.
Eight a.m. and I’m hard at work in my summer office. That would be the front porch, for those of you new to Mannionville industrial and retail complex. Not much people activity, except for me, but lots of bird activity. No sign of the catbirds who live in our bushes but I expect one or more will be along shortly to remind me who really owns the place. But right now I’m being watched by a mourning dove perched on a telephone wire. He or she is busy with grooming its feathers but since that doesn’t seem to require studious attention, the bird’s keeping an idle eye on me as if I might somehow make myself interesting and interrupt the boredom. Mourning doves aren’t among my favorite birds mainly because even though I know better I think of them as just a kind of pigeon, and, while it’s unfair to call pigeons as they’re often called “rats with wings,” the phrase just pops into my head when I look at a mourning dove. Makes it hard to give them the admiration they deserve.
Pigeons, by the way, the gray and brown gluttons you feed in the park type, aren’t officially named pigeons. They’re rock doves. But they’re pigeons, not doves. Cornell’s Ornithology Lab doesn’t bother being polite about it. They flat out call them pigeons. Rock pigeons. Mourning doves, though, are doves, and being watched by this mourning dove reminded me I’ve been saving an article from the New York Times to share with you since March and this morning is a good time to finally get around to it. Here you go:
They’re almost never cast that way. They’re almost always all female. Usually they’re played by young women dressed like Tinker Bell. Often they’re played by young teens and even little girls. Which has resulted in the odd production in which, thanks to a director who refused to change a word in the script, Bottom addresses an obviously girlish fairy as Master Peaseblossom.
The reason for this gender rearrangement is that when Shakespeare wrote the play women were not allowed on stage. Female roles were played by boys and the number of boys who were good enough actors to play adult women like Rosalind or Lady Macbeth was limited. Shakespeare’s company seems to have had only two or three or at most four at any given time. There are four significant female roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Doubling on the part of all members of the company was routine but Midsummer requires one of those boys, whoever was playing Titania, to be onstage with the fairies. The popular conception of fairies in Shakespeare’s day wasn’t anything like Tinker Bell. It may have been that fairies were imagined as being like the elves in Lord of the Rings and middle-aged male faeries would have been easy for Elizabethan audiences to accept without a second’s thought. On the other hand, the play is set in ancient Athens and it’s likely that many people who knew their mythology, which naturally would have included ‘Shakespeare himself, would have equated the fairies with wood nymphs, so I think Shakespeare would have written them as all female if it had been practicable.
But ever since women were allowed to take the professional stage (in England that happened with the Restoration), directors who decided to cast strictly according to the script would have had casts of at least a dozen men and four women, which means explaining to a lot of actresses why they’d be out of work. It also means forgoing the box office appeal of having pretty young women onstage dressed like Tinker Bell or, as has been done in some more daring productions, not dressed at all.
But this post isn’t about about nubile actresses in a various stages of undress, or about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, specifically, or even about Shakespeare, exactly. It’s about this fact:
Only 17% of speeches in Shakespeare’s plays are by women.
Shakespeare’s ability to distil human nature into an elegant turn of phrase is rightly exalted – much remains vivid four centuries after his death. Less scrutiny has been given to statistics about the playwright and his works, which tell a story in their own right. Here we analyse [sic; British, donchew know?] the numbers behind the Bard[.]
Mostly the article is the reporters playing counting games. How many characters die by being baked into pies. (Two.) How many times Shakespeare uses the word “love” (1,640.) Which play is performed the most. (Looks like A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream: 2,058 productions between 1959 and 2015.) Which character’s the most talkative. (Hamlet. You didn’t even have to think about it, did you? He has 358 speeches.) And what percentage of all the speeches in all the plays did Shakespeare give to his female characters.
This is fun and the graphics are amusing, but it was something in this passage that caught my attention and sparked this post:
Shakespeare may have been widely championed as a visionary, but this description can’t be applied to his record on gender equality. On average men are given 81% of speeches, while 17% go to women and the rest are made up of unknowns or mixed groups, according to Open Source Shakespeare. Women tend to come off worst in his tragedies: Timon of Athens features just nine speeches by women, compared with 725 by men. And yet the population of Shakespeare’s England was roughly 53.5% male and 46.5% female. “It's been rough on women actors with a passion for Shakespeare these 400 years,” says Tina Packer, the actor and artistic director at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts.
I’ll give whoever wrote that a pass on trying to spice up a game of trivial pursuit with a bit of 21st Century gender politics, but the implication that Shakespeare was somehow being willfully sexist in excluding nearly half the population from his plays fudges the practical reality. The reason there are proportionately few speeches by women in Shakespeare’s plays is that there are proportionately few women characters and a main reason for that is what I was saying above. There are fewer women’s roles than men’s roles in all Shakespeare’s plays because he didn’t have enough actors who could play more of them them. The actual population of England at the time was irrelevant to his purposes. He had to write for the company he had.
Certainly sexism was at work. Shakespeare appears to have been less misogynistic than the average Elizabethan man, but he wasn’t enlightened to the point of being far ahead of his times in his attitudes about the roles women should play in life and on stage and the opportunities that should have been available to them. But it was his times more than his own attitudes that determined how many female characters there are in his plays.
Women were almost entirely excluded from public life (with one notable exception) and the majority of Shakespeare’s plays---the histories and the tragedies---focus not just on the public lives of his main characters but on the public life of England. (Every one of Shakespeare’s plays is set in England, just sometimes he calls it Rome and sometimes Venice and sometimes Illyria.) There are a plays in which characters’ private lives interfere with and determine public affairs, and it’s worth noting that several of those plays include some of Shakespeare’s strongest and most vivid female leads---Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Hamlet---but all his plays that aren’t comedies or one of the problem plays are heavily populated with military officers, government and church officials, soldiers, and the occasional king or prince who for one reason or another finds himself leading an army into battle.
(One of the saddest scenes in all Shakespeare is in a play in which we’re given a glimpse of things working the other with a character’s public life intruding tragically into his private life, Julius Caesar. It’s the scene in which Brutus’ wife Portia comes out into the garden where Brutus is brooding the night away as he hardens himself to assassinate Caesar. She tries to get him to talk about what’s so obviously worrying him but he pushes her away, breaking her heart. It’s a great part for an actress but it’s really just an extended cameo.The only other female character is Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and she’s a victim of the same exclusion from her husband’s public life and consequently also a cameo role.)
Shakespeare might have included a few more female characters if he’d had the actors but the they’d have been---like most of the male characters, actually---minor characters with little to say.
But, as with Midsummer and nearly naked actresses, explaining---never mind excusing---the sexism of Shakespeare’s times isn’t the reason I’m writing this post.
It’s that quote at the end of the passage from Tina Packer, the artistic director at Shakespeare & Company up there in Massachusetts:
“It's been rough on women actors with a passion for Shakespeare these 400 years”
Shakespeare wrote many splendid female leads. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, Rosalind, Katherine, Viola, Portia (the other Portia, from The Merchant of Venice. “A Daniel come to judgment!”), Juliet. It can be debated forever whether these characters are as iconic, as culturally influential, as dramatically interesting, as profound as their male counterparts like Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear, and whether sexism is at work in our seeing the men as the greater roles, more challenging and therefore career-defining in a way the female leads haven’t been for great actresses who’ve played them. Every great stage actor’s Hamlet is seen as a high---or low---point in his career. People whose parents and grandparents weren’t even born at the time will talk about Barrymore’s or Gielgud’s or Burton’s Hamlets. A great actress’ Rosalind is rarely even brought up in appreciations of her career. For the record, I would love to be able to go back in time and see Redgrave’s and Mirren’s Rosalinds,
(I left Olivier’s Hamlet out up there for the obvious reason. Everybody’s seen it or ought to have.)
But it’s when you get past the leads that the difference really shows.
There are no great female villains on the order of Richard III or Iago. (The Macbeths aren’t villains. No, they’re not. To start with, they both have consciences.) There are no significant second female leads and supporting characters. No female Mercutio, Horatio or Laertes. No Kent. No Enobarbus. No Philip the Bastard. The melancholy Jacques of As You Like It isn’t much of a character, he’s almost nothing more than an attitude, an annoying attitude, except that he is defined by that one speech, but it seems unfair that an actress shouldn’t get her moment in the spotlight pronouncing all the world a stage and all the men and women in it merely players.
There are very few show-stopping character parts for women. No drunken porters or cheerfully philosophical grave diggers. No clowns. No comic servants.
Shakespeare simply didn’t write enough female roles for all the actresses who love his plays and want to act in them.
This is something that bothered me back in high school.
I was a little over-eager in those days and overly ambitious on behalf of our drama club and I regularly pestered our wonderful and wonderfully patient teacher and adviser with ideas and suggestions for our next production. I was in thr process of reading my way through the drama sections of both our school library and the public library and I was full up to the back teeth with plays I thought we could do, all of them chosen because they contained parts I wanted to play, dramas, comedies, new plays, old plays, my favorite Shakespeares:
Macbeth. (I wanted to play Macduff.) Henry IV. (I wanted to play Hal.) Julius Caesar. (I wanted to be Brutus but would have “settled” for Marc Antony.) King Lear. (Edgar. Or Edmund. I was flexible.) Romeo and Juliet. (Mercutio.) Othello. (Iago.)
Mrs K didn’t point out that we didn’t have actors capable of playing Macbeth or Falstaff or Othello or Lear or, well, Brutus, Iago, or Mercutio. Instead she said what she said to some of my other suggestions like Mister Roberts (Ensign Pulver.), if we put on those plays, it would be unfair to the girls in the club. Too many would be left out.
It took a while for that point to sink in. But it did sink in and I eventually began looking for plays that had more than one or two good parts for actresses.
This wasn’t all due to a raised consciousness on my part. It dawned on me that if I’d wanted to spend a couple hours everyday after school in the company of mostly guys I’d have gone out for sports.
I found more than a few but I still wanted us to do at least one of my favorite Shakespeares.
And I hit on a solution.
Why not just cast some of the girls in the men’s parts?
Friday night. June 24, 2016. Posted Friday night, July 1.
At B & N. My favorite barista's working. She's a nice kid. That's how I think of her, as a nice kid, although she's in her early 20s. She's attractive, not a stunner, but pretty in her way. Not in the habit of wearing makeup at work that I've noticed, although I try not to notice these things anymore. Saves embarrassment all around. But tonight as she served me my coffee our eyes met and I saw that she was wearing heavy black liner and mascara and I...noticed.
She has absolutely beautiful eyes.
But I think I did a good job of hiding it and kept up my disguise as just a friendly but befuddled old man with nothing but coffee on his mind.
Reminded me though of when I wasn't a friendly and befuddled old man, back when I was a rookie college teacher and the young women in my classes didn't seem so much like kids.
I was determined from the first day not to...notice. And I was pretty good at not noticing. In fact I was proud of how I was able to keep my eyes to myself. But I hadn't yet learned the trick of taking my glasses off at the start of class, and one day in the middle of making some point I...noticed.
One of my students, a nice kid except that right at that moment I was suddenly not seeing her as a kid, had worn a skirt that day. A very short skirt. If she'd ever worn one to class before I hadn't noticed. But that day I did.
And I noticed she had gorgeous legs. I mean, gorgeous!
Stopped me in mid-sentence.
And she caught me!
And she smiled. She saw how embarrassed I was and found it funny. That was better than her finding it anything else but I was still mortified.
In those days I used to pace the front of the classroom when I lectured. I dropped my eyes and fled back to the podium where I buried my eyes in my notes for the determinedly short time it took me to regain my composure. When I had, I went back to pacing as if nothing had happened, although I was careful not to look her way and just as careful not to look as though I was being careful not to look her way.
Probably didn't fool her.
But that was probably the day I learned to take my glasses off.
Just went up to the counter for a re-fill. I was careful not to look the barista in the eyes and careful not to look like I was being careful not to look her in the eyes.
I think I pulled it off.
After all, these days I really am just a befuddled old man with nothing much more on his mind than his coffee.
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