Archive for February, 2010

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

February 26, 2010

My Four Favorite Imaginary Friends

“In my experience, people get hurt and things get complicated no matter what you do”
–Fiona Glenanne

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

For the uninitiated, Burn Notice is a television show about love, vulnerability, friendship, pyrotechnics, loyalty, violence, family, duty, honor, deceit, murder, depravity, greed, sunglasses and yogurt.

But mostly it’s about decisions. A friend once chastised me for being “so damn existential,” but I’m practically a Calvinist compared to whoever writes Burn Notice.

For reasons related to my own mental health more than anything else, I am trying to figure out why Michael, Fiona, Sam and Madeline are my four favorite imaginary friends:

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is a near-perfect hero. He’s brave, loyal, handsome, and honor-bound to do good in this fallen world. Week after week, this ascetic Good Soldier is reluctantly enlisted to aid and protect the helpless and downtrodden, and he just can’t say no. My favorite thing about Donovan is the way he can make his mouth smile while the rest of his face is saying, “You got to be kidding me.”

“The essential function of art is moral,” argued D. H Lawrence. That is why I get so upset when violence, the ugliest and stupidest thing people do, is portrayed in a stylish and witty fashion. I can’t stand philosophically nihilistic and morally empty movies like Snatch, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill, no matter how elegant and clever they may be. Thus, I am troubled by my intense affection for Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), an extremely stylish assassin. I reconcile my love for Fiona with my feelings about cinematic violence by telling myself that Fiona (unlike, say, Beatrix Kiddo) is driven in equal measure by an appetite for both vengeance and compassion. But I can’t quite convince myself that this is true.

Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) is the carefree, fun-loving guardian uncle that everyone should have. (I’m embarrassed to admit how unhip I am, but I really didn’t know that Campbell was a B-movie legend until my friend Tim who knows about these things recently schooled me.)

I am less embarrassed about my previous ignorance of Sharon Gless’s estimable talent (The shapes a bright container can contain!). I never watched Cagney and Lacey because it’s the kind of show my mom would (and did) watch. (My loss) Gless plays Madeline Westen, a haggard nicotine addict who is interminably stretched to the limit. Without getting too maudlin, the Westens represent a compelling mother-son relationship due to their heroic efforts to attempt to negotiate beyond her hurt and denial and his deeply constrained psyche which is fettered by a monomaniacal sense of duty.

But the main reason I love Burn Notice so much is probably because the show somehow manages to take a stand against wicked things like torture, mercenaries, and dehumanizing corporate greed without ever losing its cool.

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies


Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray

Ain’t No Use in Keepin’ Score

February 20, 2010

Ain’t No Use in Keepin’ Score

I said and thought and did
Ever’thing that I could do
To convince you that I meant
Every word I said to you
Now you and I both know
This thing ain’t workin’ out
But that don’t mean we have to
Fuss and fight and shout

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do
To help you ease your pain
But make-believin’ nuthin’s wrong
Is driving me insane
If it makes you feel better,
I’ll gladly take the blame
Don’t forget that it’s our lives
And not some silly game
You can add up my trespasses
And subtract all of yours
But darlin’ just remember,
Ain’t no use in keepin’ score

Now you know I’ve said, “I’m sorry”
Forty-seven times
I’d say it forty more
If that would ease your mind
I never doubted for a second
That your love was true
And I’ll always cherish
The time I spent with you

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do
To help you ease your pain
But make-believin’ nuthin’s wrong
Is driving me insane
If it makes you feel better,
I’ll gladly take the blame
Don’t forget that it’s our lives
And not some silly game
You can add up my trespasses
And subtract all of yours
But darlin’ just remember,
Ain’t no use in keepin’ score

by Richard W. Bray

War-Junkie Worshipers

February 11, 2010

War-Junkie Worshipers

All who live to shoot and kill are really just one man:
Bonaparte and Patton, Alexander and his clan
Curtis Lemay, good ole Che, and the Son of Sam
Killers one and all. Why can’t you understand?

Glory, Glory Hallelujah–you can march and sing and shout
But an appetite for murder isn’t something one should tout
Don’t tell me that their cause was just. That ain’t what it’s about
‘Twas not for love of country Patton killed so many Krauts

It’s always a mistake to worship human beings
But idolizing killers is way beyond obscene
Actors, barons, rock stars, billionaires and queens
Should suffice for grownups who act like love-struck teens

Historians and novelists and tv talking heads
Reenactors and war-wankers who hail the happy dead
Are so quick to overlook so many who have bled
Perhaps they should revere blessed peacemakers instead

by Richard W. Bray

Nine Great Punchlines

February 7, 2010

Peter Sellers–The one and only Inspector Clouseau

#1 You had a bad week, so I should suffer?

Reb Nachum, from the play The Fiddler on the Roof

The town beggar says this to Tevye, demonstrating an absurd sense of entitlement

#2 Nobody’s Perfect

Man smitten by Jack Lemmon in drag in the movie Some Like it Hot

Final scene

#3 I’m thinking it over.

Jack Benny from The Jack Benny Show

Armed Mugger Says, “Your money or your life.”

Jack pauses (it’s all about the pause) and says nothing.

Mugger says, “C’mon buddy, I haven’t got all day.”

Jack pauses again and finally says, “I’m thinking it over.”

#4 WTF is moribund?

David Steinberg from classic collegiate routine.

Sorry, can’t find it on youtube, and it would be heretical to attempt to recreate it.

#5 We could sew the ends of our dicks back on.

Benjamin Siegel (played by Eric Roberts) from the HBO movie Lansky

Ben (don’t call me Bugsy) Siegel’s retort when famed (or notorious, depending on your perspective) Jewish mobster Arnold Rothenberg Rothstein tries to recruit the young Jewish hoodlums Siegel and Meyer Lansky by suggesting that they will never be allowed to rise up among the Italian crime organizations. (Screenplay by David Mamet.)

#6 I love wrong numbers

Danny Devito from the movie The War of the Roses.

You’ll have to watch the movie. (My mom reads this blog.)

#7 We’re against it, Ted

Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary’s response when asked by dim-witted newscaster Ted Knight what the network’s position is in an editorial about child abuse

#8 Zat iz not my dog

German man in hotel to Peter Sellers from the movie The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Does your dog bite?

#9 You slut!

Bill Murray from the movie Tootsie

My words cannot adequately describe this marvelous scene, so again, you’ll have to watch the movie.

by Richard W. Bray

What’s the Matter with Kids these Days?, Part 473—It’s all about the Music, Man

February 4, 2010

What’s the Matter with Kids these Days?, Part 473—It’s all about the Music, Man

(Disclaimer: I don’t think that all new music is execrable; from what I’ve heard, much of it is quite good. While many of my contemporaries are content to listen to the same Classic Rock standards over and over, I’m actually open-minded enough to watch Austin City Limits even when they feature so-called Indie Rock groups)

This headline, Young People and ipods have Utterly Destroyed Music, reflects a nearly ubiquitous conversation among people my age these days. The argument goes something like this:

When we were young, music really meant something, man. Our music defined a generation and helped to end a war. This is a stark contrast to today‘s shallow and meaningless music, which is all about bling, sex and superficiality, man. Music is so sucky because Kids These Days are so busy navel-gazing, playing video games, and updating their Facespace pages that they don’t have the same kind of passion for music that our own glorious generation once did, man.

(This imaginary disgruntled DFH reminds me of a roommate I had in college with Ray Manzerek Disease, a verbal tic wherein the speaker is unable to utter three consecutive sentences without saying the word man)

Of course, What’s the Matter with Kids these Days? has been a common complaint at least since the time of Aristotle. (And a healthy dose of Mike Males is always a good antidote for this type of specious thinking.)

But there clearly is a difference in the way young people listen to music today. Without getting into to whether or not music means as much to today’s adolescents as it did to previous generations (how could you possibly quantify such a thing?) I will briefly note a few ways in which technology has changed music.

Today music is cheap, portable, durable and easily transferable, but that wasn’t always the case.

Back in the day, the standard delivery system for music (LPs), were much bulkier and more fragile than, say, MP3s. Records were big and delicate. They were kept inside a paper sleeve inside a cardboard sleeve (and many people placed the entire album inside a plastic sleeve for extra protection.) Records were easily-broken and they could only be held by the edges because mere fingerprints could ruin them. Although portable record players existed, they were weren’t exactly high fidelity (a term which was once freighted with a sanctified resonance among music lovers.) A good record collection and stereo, often including gargantuan speakers, was not only expensive, but it could take up practically an entire living room.

So do young people appreciate music less than we did because it’s practically free and you can put it in your pocket?

I don’t know, man.

by Richard W. Bray