YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 10, 2013

The pursuit of happiness, co-counseling, and reality-testing

happinessTimeThe following links are relevant to this blog. I especially recommend the song “A Sunny Disposish” available on YouTube, lyric by Ira Gershwin.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/fashion/After-a-Parents-Death-a-Rush-of-Change-modern-love.html?_r&_r=0.

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146449,00.html

http://historypsychiatry.com/2013/11/10/the-geography-of-depression/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/11/07/a-stunning-map-of-depression-rates-around-the-world/?tid=pm_world_pop

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co-counselling

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJEWLnblbzc  (“A Sunny Disposish”)

Why do you suppose that the ever popular Over the Rainbow was nearly dropped from The Wizard of Oz? Could some mean-spirited Republican have sensed that Yip Harburg the lyricist was a Red, pushing utopias? Or could the song have contradicted the major message of the film: that rural life on the farm was filled with attachments that surpassed those of the Emerald City? Why, after all, did Judy Garland want to get away and pursue happiness elsewhere? (See comment below that argues I am wrong, that she always wanted to get home. But the lyrics betray a yearning for something else: some earthly or heavenly utopia? Maybe that is why it was nearly dropped, assuming that my facts are correct.)

I could ask the same question of the song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, a Vaudeville song from 1918 suggesting disillusion with the promise of American life. (See lyrics here: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/ retitled Film Noir, decoded.) The bluebird of happiness motif is reproduced in the Harburg-Lane hit song, first heard in the Depression year of 1939.

The Declaration of Independence built its polemical foundation on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but never guaranteed that such an outcome of universal happiness would be the case for everyone. Hence, the popular culture emphasis on romantic yearning, laments for lost loves, or admonitions to be happy, lest you lose the regard of your friends and family, not to speak of success in “the community.”

Life is hard, attachments are fraught with ambivalence, and frequent sadness should not be diagnosed as a personality disorder. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysthymia.  Or perhaps I am mistaken and am really a neurotic (formerly called a melancholic), in danger of sinking into a serious depression that could fill my horizon with utter darkness.

Anyone can play.

Anyone can play.

I don’t mean this to be a long blog, so let me end with this anecdote from my two years as a volunteer faculty member at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where I spent a lot of time after my divorce in the early 1970s. It was rather a hippie outfit, very counter-culture with revolution in the air, along with marijuana smoke, faculty sanctioned jerking off, critical theory, and Kierkegaard. “Co-Counseling” was all the rage. The idea was to cut out professionals, and engage each member of the dyad (male-female pair only) with another suffering person. You would hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes, and take turns in talking about earlier traumas to your partner. Then after an hour of spewing forth painful memories, the partner got a turn dredging up the past and you had to focus on what you were hearing. This was considered to be revolutionary and a substitute for “the talking cure.”

Several faculty marriages broke up during that time, while a few partners in co-counseling married each other. My theory: no one had ever listened (or pretended to listen) to the co-counselors for such an extended period before, and without interruptions or otherwise cutting them short, changing the subject, or falling asleep. The partners (supposedly) never lost focus, or at least that was how they were perceived.

I told this story to my son-in-law and he laughed his head off. It is so true. Changing the subject is what we do and what we experience evermore as a result of the internet, mass media, and the Progressive imperative to be optimistic, to maintain “a sunny disposish” at all times, lest we found ourselves “All Alone” like those hapless Americans who have had their health insurance cancelled by Federal fiat.

Bless you, Irving Berlin and every other songwriter who reminded us to “Remember.”

For more on this subject see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/03/eros-and-the-problem-of-solidarity/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/05/10/losing-focus-and-mass-media/.

positive state

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May 18, 2012

“Smash” and the demonic

Theresa Rebeck and Jess LynnI will get to Smash in a minute. I watch a lot of television, and have previously blogged about some of the ‘classier’ series, noting how the same intertwined themes are reiterated that have occupied culture in the West since the invention of the printing press:

  1. The authority of science and empiricism versus the claims and ordering of religious belief.
  2. Worldliness versus other-worldliness, sometimes expressed as the conflict between the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Nouveaux riches, like advertising men, are the devil’s disciples. Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist plays with this theme constantly, see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)
  3. With Promethean romanticism, the lure of fame and hyper-individualism as a threat to “traditional family values”.
  4. And flitting and in and out of all of the above, the thrill of the “demonic” as allied to “the  mob.”
  5. The role of the Broadway stage, movies, and television, now the internet in star-making or  conversely, dethroning or debunking “authority” and/or religion. The health-conferring country versus the crazy-making city, that unleashes  illicit ambition and Faustian bargains.
  6. How the social movements that accelerated in the 1960s have plunged American culture into heightened conflict regarding all of the above.
  7. Fat people versus thin people, and the health effects therein.

On to the super-expensive NBC-produced backstage musical, Smash. Theresa Rebeck, artistic creator, has left the show, for reasons that are not publicly stated. Rebeck is illustrated above, with a colleague, Sam Gold.

I have watched every episode twice. The actors and writers who have attempted to describe it have been mostly vague in their public pronouncements regarding their own characters, nor do they pretend to see deeply into the admitted complexities of Marilyn Monroe and/or her obvious predecessor the fabulous and similarly self-destructive Marilyn Miller, for whom she (no longer Norma Jean) was named. Rather, the series is organized around the conflicts I listed above: for instance, Marilyn, though a “bombshell” in the sex appeal department, has an underlying innocence, wholesomeness, and sweetness that the Jack Davenport character, director “Derek” (like JFK before him), sees in the Katherine McPhee character (Karen), in the series, a corn-fed Iowan with ordinary middle class parents, unlike her competition, the treacherous Megan Hilty (“Ivy,” the daughter of an aging Broadway star played by Bernadette Peters, who may expect too much of her daughter).  The country (as represented by “Iowa” Karen) wins the coveted starring role, partly because Derek has a hallucination in which she appears (more than once) in an entirely modest dress, of lavender with white trim; moreover she is not zoftig, unlike her rival Ivy (let alone size 14 MM), the easy urban girl, who, in her crushing defeat in the last episode is seen taking a full bottle of tranquilizers, rhyming with the death of MM from barbiturates and chloral hydrate.

The fact that Karen is living “in sin” with her (Asian) Indian boyfriend, does not detract from her purity, for she resists the temptation to sleep with Derek, unlike Ivy. Indeed, Karen is loyal to the play (still in workshop or previews) over temptations from a record producer who could make her famous without the slog through ensemble singing and dancing. In one of the funnier moments, Karen indignantly rebukes her lover in his proposal of marriage, for she exclaims that the show is “in tech!” and how dare he expect her to focus on anything outside the theater, though at that moment, she is only in the chorus.

On the fat versus thin battlefield, it is worth noting that tall and slender Katherine McPhee battled an eating disorder at one time, and that neither Marilyn Miller nor Marilyn Monroe was skinny. They were plump and shapely bottle blondes, and MM succumbed to a Hollywood makeover.

Marilyn Miller as brunette

One more item: the pilot for the show begins with McPhee singing Midwesterner Judy Garland’s signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Of course the romantic yearning these days is for stardom, which is not necessarily the same as fame. McPhee has a big voice, and I wonder if she is being promoted as another Judy Garland, whom she slightly resembles and perhaps imitates in her body movements. Is it only a coincidence that Judy Garland played Marilyn Miller in the 1946 MGM film, Till The Clouds Roll By, a movie whose chief theme is the supremacy of the “theater” over the whims of any individual, surely the ideology promoted by Smash. A nice collectivist touch that follows progressive ideology, such as the hopeful  “Look For The  Silver Lining,” Marilyn Miller’s most famous number.

There is really not much more to say about this musical, which I found compelling and well-acted despite the annoyingly weak book; anyone can see the conflict between traditional attachments and the bohemian lives of actors; Goethe laid it out in his contrasting Wilhelm Meister novels long ago. But anyone who expects music and lyrics of the quality of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Lerner and Loewe, or their antecedents in opera, operetta, or Gilbert and Sullivan, will be disappointed, for the music is at best, mediocre, signifying the general degeneration of middle class culture since the 1960s, and perhaps the decline of the singing actress with a large vocal range. (Though I must admit that I like McPhee’s singing and dancing. She does remind me of Judy Garland in a favorable way, and both were indebted to female black singers.)

Have we become a country of characters, over-identifying with fictional or fictionalized movie and television stars, whom we worship, neglecting our responsibilities to ourselves as striving, creative beings? Are we living our unique lives or are we hypnotized by the lives of others, fixated on “stars” and happily regressed so as to be ever more manipulated by celebrities who do not share our needs and interests? [Added 6-13-12: Everything I have written above can be applied to the better-written My Week With Marilyn. Michelle Williams, though slender, does a more convincing rendition of suffering Marilyn and she has the singing skills to be plausible.]

[Added Season two, as of 3-19-13]: The focus has shifted from rivalry over who is to play Marilyn Monroe to the ongoing debate in popular culture: “commercial theater” vs. “fringe”-type romantically defiant off-broadway theater. It is too soon to determine how the story will resolve the various triangles, but Katherine McPhee has returned with larger breasts, and there is a new love interest, indeed, a triangle between her, the director played by Jack Davenport (who so far has gone over to the Romantics), and the angst-ridden young offbeat genius played by Jeremy Jordan. The bad writing has not been amended, notwithstanding the addition of various guest stars designed to boost ratings. To one who grew up loving the musicals of the 20th century, with lyricists of the quality of Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Oscar  Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Yip  Harburg, and a slew of other artists, the deterioration in middle-class entertainment can only come as a shock and disappointment.

Internet sources consulted for this blog:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Miller. http://web.usi.edu/boneyard/miller.htm

http://www.squidoo.com/MarilynMiller?utm_source=google&utm_medium=imgres&utm_campaign=framebuster#module19718002

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresa_Rebeck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe. (the latter quotes JFK “sweet and wholesome” public characterization of Marilyn’s notorious Happy Birthday song)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smash_(TV_series)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Shaiman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Wittman  (life partners, previous hit Hairspray)

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