“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”: Someday My Prince Will Come

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When I was four, I lived in Tokyo, in a white building that had a rooftop deck with a sundial and a swing set and where I first experienced snow. On that morning, my parents summoned my brother, sister, and me out of our beds to the winter wonderland that had formed overnight above. The vision that awaited us was new to my parents, as well, we being a family from the Philippines: a flurry of marshmallow ice balls sweetening the sky; a floor so white and soft that it seemed the world were adrift on a cloud. Songs and stories about the crystalline flakes that fall from heaven have it right – snow is lovely. I took to snow more willingly than I ever have to the sun, the coldness not a problem even though I was in sneakers instead of boots. Like newborns, the five of us gazed at and touched the whiteness around as if it were one more gift life presented. What a marvel it was to be in a scene that until then had been a mere tableau in a storybook. Since snow is real, I wondered, what else of make believe could come true?

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The answer was the movies, and one movie in particular that is intrinsic to our childhood: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). Actual snow does not equate into my memory of the classic. The screening was held on a clear day at the American Club, a sporting and social facility in Tokyo for expatriates and their families. A poster of the evil queen, gold crown on black head covering and Bette Davis eyes, stood on sun-dappled ground by the entrance. In the darkness of the theater, as a face part mask and part gargoyle appeared in the evil queen’s mirror to pronounce Snow White the fairest of them all, a rush ran through me. A princess, her face as pale as the moon, trills that someday her prince will come… Hi ho hi ho, it’s off to work we go… A poisoned apple on the floor, free from the grip of a lifeless hand… A witch meets her fate as she falls off a cliff amid thunder claps and lightning streaks… Resurrection by a kiss… A castle in the sky… By the end of the film, my head was awhirl with questions about the human condition from love to mortality.

“Are you going to die?” I asked my mother. She was in the kitchen, dressed in a yellow robe and white puffy slippers, holding a grill with which she was making a pancake that we called flying saucer. They say that as children, we learn of the ultimate end at the age we enter nursery school. We learn from cartoons such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In princess fairy tales, death is never dignified. Death is an agonizing exit that happens to villains. Yes, Snow White is an orphan under the care of a madwoman, but if her parents’ final moments had been peaceful, we are never told. Where would be the melodrama in that? “No,” my mother said. That was all, and it was an appropriate answer. I would know the truth with age. Until then, my mother allowed me to believe that we five were inseparable forever. She took the same stance with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; to tell me they don’t exist would have been to rob me of my childhood.

RS-04However, my mother’s comforting didn’t silence the stuff I envisioned. Although all kids have an imagination that runs wild, mine would have made El Greco and Ingmar Bergman proud. Death was skeletons in black cloaks, the sky gray as they wallowed in a pit surrounded by barren trees and parched earth. I would lie on my bedroom floor, where I’d shut my eyes and hold my breath. So this is what it is to be dead, I’d think. Blindness became another one of my curiosities, though I doubt it was Disney induced. We’ve got Disney characters who are handless, wooden, sneeze ridden, and goofy, but none who is visually impaired. I would wander the living room with eyes shut, my arms outstretched in front of me. That came to a stop when my mother caught me and noticed a bruise on my forehead from my having bumped into a wall.

As for love, this was an intangible subject, more a feeling than an image. Because of the security family provided – occasional after school surprise gifts from my mother (a box of clay, pez sticks), my father’s piggy back rides, sharing stickers of scented strawberries with my sister, and evenings in my brother’s room as he’d build models of war tanks while I nibbled on the styrofoam packaging the parts came boxed in – I never questioned the feeling. Those moments were the norm. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” offers its own semblance of normalcy that reproduced my own. Animals flock to our heroine as birds do to a nest, and little people who reside in a cottage around which flowers are in bloom and the grass is green look upon her as a mother. Love is a song and dance, the tweeting of birds, and a smile that squashes all things troublesome. What I already had required no imagining.

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That is with exception to the prince. As grown-up as we become, the concept of a mate born for the purpose of someday intertwining his or her destiny with our own remains. The union is called marriage. My sister had a husband who lasted for a mere two years. “I married him for all the wrong reasons,” she said. Those reasons included wealth and luxury. Beneath the comfort, she might have known immediately upon tying the knot that divorce would be imminent. Already I had detected friction between them when I accompanied her to decide on which of his furniture to keep for the house they were to move into. “That’s ugly,” she’d say of a vase. “It’s expensive,” he’d rebut. Then she’d turn to me and ask, “Don’t you think it’s ugly?” My sister-in-law was involved in another conversation in the aftermath of my sister’s separation from her husband, and her input was that a partner could be a disappointment when endowed with a potential that he or she exerts minimal effort to achieve. A discussion followed on the ideal match, the circumstances under which relationships form, and the redefinition of Mr. Right in accordance to a stage in life, terminating with both women stating, “Mommy was lucky to have found her Prince Charming.”

Indeed, “lucky” is the best word to describe the outcome of the dice my mother rolled in her selection of a husband, a factor that is absent in fairy tales. She made a gamble at 22 to marry my father, a bank clerk with high goals, over suitors established in their financial standing. In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” true love is preordained. Certainly, my parents have had their rough patches – disagreements over expenses and insecurities over fidelity, typical issues that arise in the course of being together for nearly 60 years – yet together they are. The reality of a fairy tale is that while it shows the magnificence of a meeting, “happily ever after” is open to interpretation. Notice the trials Prince Charming duels with in order to reach Snow White. Even in a story with a predictable outcome, conflicts abound, all as innuendo that the castle in the sky offers its own set of challenges for husband and wife to overcome so that happiness can prevail to the grave.

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Call me a fool, but I continue to believe in fairy tales. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has more verity than we’d like to acknowledge it for. Life is a cycle of evil queens and losing our way in a forest, of poisoned apples and suffering a form of death. And out of the woodwork, someone comes to our rescue. Although the person may not always be Prince (or Princess) Charming, that a savior appears when least expected yet most needed give us hope that someday… someday…

An Eye Hole to the World: The Narrative of a Photograph

Photo1This is one career misfire my mother cannot put to pasture: I could have been the next Robert Doisneau or Milton Greene. In the summer of 1987, I roved Boston for a job as an apprentice to a photographer, a portfolio in tow of pictures I had taken in the Philippines following the People Power Revolution a year earlier that had ousted Ferdinand Marcos from his 20-year dictatorship. The pros welcomed my knock on their door (they must have been impressed by this 20-year-old’s moxie), and they provided me advice and compliments (“you have a good eye”).

The best response came from The Boston Globe. I dropped off my portfolio with the guard at the front desk, instructing him to deliver it to the photo department. Three days later, I got a call from the newspaper. “We got your portfolio and we’d like to talk to you,” the woman at the other end of the line said, to which I responded that I only wanted to work on certain days and at my chosen hours. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t help you.” The truth was that I was so lazy that I didn’t want to work at any hours on any days; thus, I dismissed the Globe’s rebuff of me as minor. I can try next year, I thought. The second time around brought no such luck with either the Globe or anywhere else. “And you thought it would be easy,” my sister said. Some life lessons are a hard learn, and this is one of them. I blew a once in a lifetime chance; not every kid gets an employment summon from a major newspaper. “You should have…” my mother says to this day.

I do wonder how my future would have been different if I had. I would have been a storyteller, albeit with images rather than with words. The narrative of a picture is what got me interested in the medium in the first place. I’ve always been a visual person. Before writing, I drew, and it had been for this art form that I was rewarded in high school. People were my subjects, specifically women from the pages of fashion magazines. I was attracted to the quixotism a model embodies. A heroine to a story played out in clothes and make-up, she is not unlike an actress, only in her case, the viewer supplies the dialogue and the plot; I could shape her in accordance to my mood and my whim. Photography was a rational next step. As the person behind the camera, a shutterbug possesses power in the role of a director. With a single shot, he or she could capture an emotion. A skirt is never more provocative, a handbag never more romantic, than when captured amid a misty sunset, smoke in the background spiraling upward from a cottage chimney, on a woman who channels Veronica Lake.

AnnaSeatedPhotography was my method of creating my own Hollywood classic. I purchased my first 35mm camera for an introductory course during my freshman year at TuftsmUniversity. My sister herself had just entered the architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which was a 20-minute bus ride away from me, and on a few occasions, I would use her as a model. For direction, I’d mention studio portraits of Greta Garbo et al. Since my sister and I along with our mother used to watch old movies together, my sister didn’t need clarification when I’d say, “Frame your face with your hands like Garbo… Give me a profile like Grace Kelly on the cover of Life… Like Rita Hayworth… Like Vivien Leigh…” She was aware of each pose I was referencing. So natural was she that after a click, she’d sway her arms into another star pose, her expression a composite of daring and aloof.

Our favorite actress to emulate was Audrey Hepburn. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/breakfast-at-tiffanys-sunshine-through-rain-clouds/) Although we had both watched “My Fair Lady” (1964) as kids, it was our viewing of “Sabrina” (1954) the year my sister returned to Manila after graduation from Columbia University in New York that made us fans. The actress’s ramp model physique is relatable to every generation of fashion aficionados, and this my sister and I certainly are. The peacock dress, the pixie cut, the opera gloves… “Sabrina” is an instruction on style. “I keep telling you, it will be too much,” my sister insisted upon my insistence during one session that she darken her brows in Audrey manner. I was in no position to argue, she being the expert on eye pencils and lipstick, and I was only too thankful that she was willing to be my guinea pig. Amateurs, we both had to make do with whatever equipment was available: a black dress, a black TV stand, table lamps, and a backdrop of a gray blanket draped on closet doors. In the darkroom, classmates hovered around me, amazed at the girl whose image was materializing on the print sheet. “Jesus,” my sister said as I presented her her portraits. “Do I really look like that?”

ReaganAlong with movie stars and models, I was keen on the regular folks on the streets, the truth of their stories in contrast to the escapism of a beautiful woman. I eschewed staged shots. They had to be candid, caught in the midst of an individual engaged in one’s routine of living. If a subject were smiling into my lens, then it was a pose caught by happenstance. Of this hold humanity has on me, I have dedicated a section to it in a novel I would write some 25 years later that I’ve entitled “My Wonder Years in Hollywood”:

With a camera, I learned that the world was mine for the taking. I could capture the image of any person on the street, any building, any car, and any tree, and in so doing, claim them as my own. The adage “beauty surrounds you if you look hard enough” was no longer a cliché but a truth. How could I not have seen it before? The films “Gone with the Wind” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/), “Dr. Zhivago,” and “The Killing Fields” depict the ravages of war, and there is nothing uglier than war. Yet when viewed through the lens of an artist, the silhouette of a man and a woman and a galloping horse against a city in conflagration adopts an operatic grandeur. That is what the world is: a film in the making, each of its seven billion people cast in the roles of writer, director, and actor.

I couldn’t get into still life photography as a result. Just as with drawing, I preferred people. You could argue that an object has stories to tell. We see those stories from the moment we awake every morning in the objects that surround our room, in the very bed we lie on. Nonetheless, an object would be devoid of its stories if it weren’t for the human hand that had touched it. That was why of all the photographers whose works Peter introduced in class, I responded to those who focused on people: Steichen, Salgado (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/the-salt-of-the-earth-through-the-lens-of-love/), Eisenstaedt… Gloria Swanson’s diamond luminous eyes behind a butterfly veil; Amazonians, clothes tattered and soot capping hair, numbering in the thousands as they toil in mountainous terrains like Babylonian slaves in a shot reminiscent of “The Ten Commandments”; a sailor and a nurse in Times Square embraced in a Liberation Day smooch – these images haunt me still.

GreekLoversI could have been the next Robert Doisneau or Milton Greene. My name might have been in bylines beneath pictures in Time and Newsweek. I could have been awarded a Pulitzer for a photo essay on Typhoon Haiyan published in The Washington Post. Not only did I have a good eye, but I also had the patience. In the pre-digitalized age of the 1980s, producing a print required hours in the claustrophobic environment of a darkroom, with as long as 45 minutes in a cubicle spent yanking a film out of its shell, adjusting it on a spool, and enclosing the spool in a canister. As easy as the procedure sounds, it was not. Getting the film onto the spool was a tactile enterprise; exposure to light, no matter how faint, destroyed the roll of celluloid. In addition, I had to ascertain that no part of the film was in contact with any other; a pair of images could be damaged when stuck together while submerged in chemicals. Even so, what a bounty when I got it right, a feeling like no other. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about: nothing is ever a win unless we slave over it.



“Love and Mercy”: The Angst of Genius

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California conjures sun and sand, Speedos and surfboards, and yearlong summers high on weed. Girls are blonde. Guys are buffed. Flip-flops drag on pavements, and tank tops show off tans. It’s a utopia of indolence. Ever since the Gold Rush, the American West has been portrayed as the epicenter of bacchanalia. When the earthquake and fire of 1906 razed San Francisco, the East Coast old guards tagged the destruction a retribution for the city’s fabled whore houses, and 60 years later, the land where the Golden Gate shines was again the subject of judgment for its Flower Power Movement. Protesters of the Vietnam War wielded peace signs in the sky. Hippies packed streets, jobless and strung out on acid. Somewhere in the pandemonium, a new sound was born, music that was a scream for rebellion, though not with the brand of activism associated with the tunes of Bob Dylan. For The Beach Boys, being young was a dance by the ocean. “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”… the song titles alone intimate the spirit of effervescence. Don’t let the frivolity fool you. Brian Wilson, songwriter and lead singer to the band, went through angst to create all that we hear today as The Beach Boys.

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“Love and Mercy” (2015) chronicles to what degree Wilson struggled with both mental and emotional ailments, and they were intense. We’re talking child abuse and hallucinations. As a boy, he lives in a house where violence echoes within its walls. His father, Murry (Bill Camp), would punch him senseless, sometimes in the ear, which leads to his being partially deaf, and later, as a rock n’ roll legend, Wilson falls under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who pumps him with pills meant to medicate his alleged schizophrenia when, in truth, he is of sound mind. The drugs are a method of manipulation, allowing Landy access to the musician’s will for him to amend so that he would be the inheritor of a massive estate. “Love and Mercy” alternates between a young (Paul Dano) and a middle-aged (John Cusack) Brian Wilson. This so we see that despite the years of treachery, his star ascends and his genius evolves, proof that creative diligence cannot be squelched.

For those of us who lacerate over a part of ourselves that we’d like to share with the world, “Love and Mercy” offers assurance. To make greatness look easy isn’t easy. So deceptive is the effort that the most profound message can come in the sparest package. It’s like a diamond ring in a small box versus a vacuum cleaner in a big box. As the Brian Wilson biopic shows, The Beach Boys repertoire was a product of grueling hours in the recording studio, Wilson’s genius notwithstanding. One scene has Wilson perfecting the string instrumentals to “Good Vibrations,” the musicians driven to exhaustion by his whip cracking of “again… again… again…” and in another, he proves that more than lyrics to a pop/rock number, the words “good vibrations” encompass a life philosophy when he cancels a session because the venue gives him bad vibes, a decision that costs him $5,000 for each musician present. A poignant moment occurs with a backup player. The man claims to have performed with the best, including Sinatra, but it is the numero uno Beach Boy whom he considers “touched”; Wilson is a vessel of melody, one of such transcendent talent that he stands above the others in a category of his own. Still, our hero works his ass off.

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This creed of applying our all to produce the best that we can by the grace of simplicity has been ingrained in me over the years as a writing student. In high school in the Philippines, I suffered from verbal diarrhea. I wrote essays that were a jumble of highfalutin words plucked from the Thesaurus, believing that only by simulating the tone of a 19th century scrivener was I able to create anything of substance. I suppose this happens to all of us once we discover the command of words, especially when the reading syllabus consists of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The denseness of language might have worked during their time; journals that serialized their writings paid them by the word. For my generation and my culture, and for the sake of being myself, subscribing to the dictum “less is more” would have been to my advantage. College ultimately taught me to trust in my own voice, which presented its own set of difficulties. What a hard task it is to scratch off all the guck in order for me to surface. I’ve often been stuck with a paragraph that has left me in doubt of whatever message I’m attempting to impart. This is why workshops and seminars exist. Even then, they offer no solution given the number of attendees, each with one’s own opinion. Writing remains a stumping experience.

Herein lies Brian Wilson’s gift. A tune needs to be catchy, its accompanying lyrics quick to pick up yet reflective of ourselves, a story of a universal emotion:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong… Maybe if we think and hope and pray, it might come true. Baby, then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do. We could be married and then we’d be happy. Wouldn’t it be nice. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it, but let’s talk about it. Wouldn’t it be nice. Good night, my baby. Sleep tight, my baby.

No space for verbal diarrhea here. The hankering of a young couple to be free to love is straightforward, infused with a desperation that invokes Romeo and Juliet. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) “Good night” and “sleep tight” seem to allude to an eternal union in another world. Whoever thought a commonplace nightly greeting could bear such an implication?

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The challenge of composing a simple and memorable song is tantamount to the challenge a novelist faces in composing a simple and memorable first sentence. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins Vladimir Nabokov begins in “Lolita” and in so doing introduces us to a story of lewd and emotional obsession. In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rather like a ship captain detailing in one breath the course of a voyage, wastes no time in filling us in on the 350-page journey to follow: It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Here’s one first sentence so elementary that any of us could speak and write it at any moment: In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This belongs to William Styron in “Sophie’s Choice.” Plain as it is, it sets the stage for a tale of madness, passion, and suicide surprising even to the narrator given that the tragedy happens in a neighborhood we more associate with domestic monotony than with drama.

“Love and Mercy” sheds insight into the mind of an innovator and an artist, and it is frightening to see what cruelty Wilson endured. He reached his zenith with “Good Vibrations” in 1966, after which he spiraled into a pit of drugs and alcohol, culminating in 17 years under Dr. Eugene Landy’s thumb from 1975 to 1992. Wilson could have spent the rest of his life in the shadow of his former glory if not for Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car salesgirl in whom Landy meets his match; she slaps him with a subpoena upon discovering Wilson’s papers that the doctor has been counterfeiting.

Ledbetter and the genius have now been married for 20 years. Though the man always had drive, through his wife’s love and mercy, he resumed his creative calling. Brian Wilson continues to write songs to this day, and just as it was when The Beach Boys were a chart topper, his productivity is a matter of labor.

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“Bus Stop”: Stardom in the Hollywood Night

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Here’s a familiar story:

Chérie (Marilyn Monroe) is a saloon singer from the outback with a big dream. Her destination is Hollywood. To earn money so that she could complete her journey, she has taken a detour in Phoenix, Arizona. With the one exception that automobiles now own the streets in lieu of carts and carriages, Phoenix in the 1950s hasn’t developed much since the days of the Wild West. It remains a red neck county where men behave like men. Chérie’s boss bullies her. Her audience ignores her. The siren’s sexiness has run dry with the regulars. But she’s got nothing else to offer. Dressed as a mermaid in black net stockings, she performs “That Old Black Magic” with a voice that sounds more like the whining of a four-legged bitch than the treble of a chanteuse. Enter Bo (Don Murray), a yokel from Montana. He participates in a rodeo, where he rides a galloping bronco and lassoes goats, and because Chérie’s bosom wiggling the previous night at the salon upstages her inability to carry a note, he decides he wants Chérie for a wife, so he lassoes her, too, as he spots her at a bus terminal attempting to run away from him. That’s not how to catch a lady, Chérie tells him; ask with respect. Bo does, and Chérie gets what she has absolutely wanted all along – love and respect.

It’s no coincidence that Marilyn Monroe is Chérie. Although “Bus Stop” (1956) could be any girl’s story, it is specifically that of its star. How many articles have been written about Marilyn Monroe infuriated with studio heads over their disrespect of her? How many about her emotional frailty? About her? Too many. Whenever we read about Monroe, the word “vulnerable” is certain to appear. To be called such isn’t flattering in this age of feminism. No matter. When it comes to our movie goddesses of the studio system, politics fall to the wayside. Vulnerability is the quality that makes the most memorable of them – from Louise Brooks to Deborah Kerr – reach out to us from across the generations. “Hold me. I’m lonely just like you,” they declare with pleading eyes and trembling lips for the two hours that they are resurrected on the screen. We can’t resist. Nobody has ever said no to the pull of beauty. What makes Monroe’s irresistibility perdurable is that she wasn’t altogether acting. We all know her life story. What a mess.

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I’ve seen many Marilyn Monroe films, but “Bus Stop” is my favorite, and it seems to be those of other Monroe viewers, as well. “She just shines in it,” I overheard a girl say in art class when I was still in college at Tufts University. She was conversing with another girl, and though both stated that they weren’t fond of the actress, in this movie, they saw she possessed something. In a film and society course I was enrolled in that same semester, the instructor honed in on the scene in “Bus Stop” where Chérie expresses her ideal mate to a fellow female passenger: “l want a guy l can look up to and admire, but l don’t want him to browbeat me. l want a guy who’ll be sweet with me, but l don’t want him to baby me either. l just gotta feel it. Whoever l marry has some real regard for me aside from all that loving stuff.” The instructor’s lecture was on the pertinence of a role in establishing the image of a star. “Bus Stop,” he said, is pure Marilyn – the loneliness, the idealism, the desperation to be viewed as something deeper than an object.

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Drag queens glee in playing Marilyn Monroe. They don a platinum wig, pucker red lips, and half close their eyes in bedroom sultriness. They wear a pink gown reminiscent of Monroe’s rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) or a white dress a replica of the one she made famous in that moment in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), where air that emits from a passing train beneath a subway grate sends its skirt billowing above the knees. They vamp. They lip sync. They ham up the gyration of the derriere and tilt of the head. I do not find their parodies entertaining. While it can be a salute to an actress to be so iconic that she is a favorite of female impersonators, when done to an excess, the parodies detract from her value. It would be impossible for camp to capture the profoundness of the Marilyn Monroe who said this: “I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night, There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/marilyn_monroe_499735)

I first came across the quote 25 years ago while browsing a coffee table book on Monroe. The anthem of every aspiring artist, it has stuck with me ever since. I know the kind of night she refers to. I would have them when strolling across the Tufts campus on a weekend, everyone except me on one’s way to this dorm party or that, and on the steps of the Sacré Coeur when I lived in Paris, with the cathedral domes in front of me shaped like gargantuan white turbans radiant in the evening sky. I miss those nights. Nothing about the future is impossible in our teens and twenties. My name on a book binding and my profile on a book jacket were a certainty. Not that my confidence has abated; it has merely been put to the test with age. Someone who had worked in a literary agency told me that even representation by an agent doesn’t guarantee publication; only 5% get a book out. My response was that I don’t give a damn about the 95% that don’t make it. Otherwise, why even bother with this? Until I am a part of this select group, I gaze in the late hours at the wide expanse of stars and wisps of lavender clouds, and I hope.

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Chérie in “Bus Stop” may not have reached Hollywood, though that’s because she finds something better – a man who sees her as an angel despite her admission to having been around the block. That’s Monroe right there, a sex symbol in search of a guy who could love her as Norman Jean, only the actress’s dreams were too grand for her to dismiss, which is why she speaks to our ambitious nature. Monroe got what she wanted. As evidenced by what happened to her, superstardom isn’t everything glossy magazines and tabloids hype it up to be. Still, we want her dreams for ourselves, regardless of the danger entailed or the lives imperiled. Bad luck aside, the end result is undeniable: Marilyn Monroe is immortal.

Gene Tierney: A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

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When Otto Preminger offered Gene Tierney the lead to “Laura” (1944), she told him he was making a mistake. The film is about a detective who falls in love with the portrait of a New York socialite whose purported murder he is investigating. For the image of a woman to be that entrancing, the script demanded an actress of outstanding beauty, which Tierney felt she was not. She suggested Hedy Lamarr. With her European exoticism, Lamarr was compared to Greta Garbo, which would not have deemed her entirely right as Laura, complimentary as the comparison was. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) Laura is American, as was Tierney, and like Laura, Tierney was an East Coast Brahmin. She had attended boarding school in Switzerland followed by Miss Porter’s, spoke fluent French, and had dated a war hero by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She was also more beautiful than she gave herself credit for. Directors being the dictators that they are, Preminger was adamant with his offer. Lucky for us.

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Because it’s Tierney, we see why detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) can’t get a night’s sleep. What happened to the girl next door? he wonders. In inquiring the victim’s friends and relations about her life, McPherson attaches a story to the face above the hearth, and it’s a very American story: through connections that a combination of looks and brains garners, a starry-eyed youngster fresh off the bus rises above the crowd, her gowns slinky and her home a jewel box of a flat with furniture visions of pink and peach even when in cinema black and white. Nothing otherworldly about Laura. She could have been McPherson’s high school sweetheart. Girls from Alaska to Wyoming migrate year round to a megalopolis across the coast to have what she’s got. And it’s the ultimate tribute that when the girl is gone, men are still falling in love with her. One real-life Laura, Marilyn Monroe, regarded the film her favorite of all. Monroe had watched it at least 15 times. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/bus-stop-stardom-in-the-hollywood-night/) Over 50 years after her nude body was found lifeless from an overdose of sleeping pills, every written word, movie, and TV exposé on her continues to be a valentine.

How aberrant it is to be stuck on someone who is now ashes in an urn or in repose in a coffin. Is that even love? To admire a portrait on a wall or in a magazine is one thing… at least we know we are merely drawn to the comeliness of an image, and one most likely altered by the sleight of a paint brush or a camera… but when we decipher words to the image, the secrets behind those lips and the dreams behind those eyes, then we have a person. Affection arises; however, at our own risk. Whether the individual is of the past or of the present, a life story is often edited according to our fancies. Some parts are omitted and others are fabricated. Romancing someone who is alive but whom we know only through these secondhand accounts is no less surreal than romancing the dead.

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We cannot forget the hysteria over Elvis Presley. Footage of fans who scream upon each thrust of his pelvis is on youtube. In a concert later in his career, a woman interviewed choked with emotion as she broadcasted her “love” for Elvis. She claimed to own all of his records and to have photo albums filled with cutout pictures of him. I can only imagine her grief when he died. She probably shed more tears for Elvis than she would have a husband, the latter being a relation of whose fallibilities she would have been well aware. Allegations of substance abuse and sexual proclivity for underage girls have surfaced in the wake of Elvis’ passing, none of which are completely shocking given the King’s courtship of a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu and the carnival he later became with his puffed eyes behind dark shades and slips into narcotic-fueled rants onstage. The man was a walking pharmaceutical of barbiturates, amphetamine, and tranquilizers. On top of that, he drank and he smoked. Yet for all the signs of self-destruction, those who frenzied over Elvis only saw what they wanted to see: an arch angel from the stratosphere of celebrity, in sequined wings and chrome hair, who descended upon them to trumpet blasts that filled an amphitheater like clarions in the firmament.

And now we’ve got Bill Cosby. The most beloved father of 1980s sitcoms, he was Fat Albert to me during the previous decade. The cartoon aired on Philippine television. I would watch Fat Albert and his gang of ragamuffins find content in friendship no matter their dilemma. They were a dorky lot – faces in the shape of Mr. Peanut, buckteeth, and dazed eyes as if they were sleep walking through life. Fat Albert’s red sweater over a pachyderm belly identified him as a sun around which the gang orbited. Their odd appearance made me feel they were my buddies, too. Each episode ended with a trim and clean-cut Bill Cosby, himself in a red sweater (Fat Albert as an adult, perhaps) relate a moral learned from the story that had just transpired. Altruism, cooperation, respect, patience… he spoke of them all with a voice as soothing as a lullaby. A junkyard never seemed more fun. 40 years later, the media are exploding with revelations that the guy is a serial rapist. A mere month prior to the headlines, a female co-worker told me that as a girl, she had written a fan letter to Cosby asking him to adopt her because she thought he was the coolest dad in the world.

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Gene Tierney joins the list of famous personalities consumed by an image. That visual wonder of a countenance masked a reality of schizophrenia; institutionalization; 27 shock treatments; and birth to a daughter deaf, partially blind, and mentally handicapped. It also gave critics an excuse to undermine her talent. As Pia Lindstrom, the daughter of Tierney’s contemporary, Ingrid Bergman, said of her mother on the 60th anniversary of “Casablanca” (1943) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/casablanca-from-mess-to-masterpiece/): “When you are very, very beautiful like that, you don’t have to act quite as much in a certain sense. People read into your beauty their own emotions.” Lindstrom was not dismissing Bergman’s brilliance as a thespian; rather, she was stating a fact about an audience’s opinion of a beautiful woman – that she is decoration. Bergman’s artistry, said Lindstrom, usurped youth’s effulgence when the latter was no longer a viable option.

Unfortunately, health and psychological maladies prevented Tierney from proving herself in her later years. She did, however, win the praise of Martin Scorsese for a character she played while still in her prime. He pegged her the most underrated actress of her generation on account of her performance in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), the film for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to Joan Crawford for “Mildred Pierce.”) Tierney plays Ellen Berent Harland, a woman so jealous of her husband’s growing attachment to her sister that she orchestrates her own suicide to make it appear as a murder committed by the sibling. Ellen is a crackpot with the anatomy of a mannequin. Given what we now know of Tierney, we can’t help equating the role with her. She may not have been a killer, but it is disconcerting that such a heavenly creature could have had such a hellish life.

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So goes the spell of an image. They say a picture paints a thousand words. That’s about as long as this blog posting, and I’ve only scratched the surface of Gene Tierney.

Maria Callas: Prima Donna Dolorosa

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A scene in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) – the blockbuster parade of superheroes who, scene after scene, torpedo their way out of death’s grip – features scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) absorbed in a moment of calm, the music on his headphones a fortress against the furor that fulminates around him and that seethes within. Banner is an introvert, one so shy that he scarcely has a social life. Due to atomic contamination from a bomb blast at a test site, he transmogrifies into a green giant when losing his temper. This does not always make for pleasing company. As the Incredible Hulk, Banner experiences a 180 degree turn from his reclusive nature. He either lets loose on a rampage of ruination, throwing trucks and smashing building walls, or fights against a villain to save a life. He has no hold on his temper nor is he able to control whether it is the savage or the savior that surfaces. But he tries, and one effort involves listening to Maria Callas in her rendition of “Casta Diva.”

Why Callas? Why not Montserrat Caballé or Beverly Sills? Because of all the Bel Canto stars since Enrico Caruso whose voices have been immortalized in recordings, only Callas with notes immersed in tears can make us feel as if our own hearts are weeping. It is fitting that “Casta Diva” should be Banner’s aria of choice. It is the signature piece to “Norma,” the Vincenzo Bellini opera about a Druid priestess sentenced to burn at the pyre for desecrating her vow of chastity, the title role of which Callas performed 89 times onstage:

Ah, return to me beautiful in your first true love. I’ll protect you against the entire world. Ah, return to me beautiful with your serene sky. I’ll have life, sky and homeland in your heart. Ah, return again as you were then, when I gave you my heart then. Ah, come back to me.

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Norma is mobilizing her countrymen to regain their land that the Romans have invaded. Unbeknownst to warriors and worshipers alike, she has a double life. She was once the lover of an enemy soldier named Pollione, father of her two sons whom she keeps hidden in her dwelling. The Druids later capture Pollione, and as they are about to immolate him as an offering to the god of war, Norma orders them to throw her in the pyre instead. Spare Pollione, she begs, and spare her children. They are as much victims of her treason as the Druids. What occurs is a dual sacrifice: Norma dies for love of country and for love of a man.

Bruce Banner is himself a man stripped of a nation. He is on the lam, not because he is a renegade but because no government understands the Incredible Hulk any more than Banner does. Upon each episode where he hits the roof, his body swells into the dimension of a boulder, his eyes flare with the wrath of lava, and a volcanic roar replaces the coherency of words. He grows so large that his sleeves tear and pants rip. When he reduces to normal size, he is unconscious then divested upon awakening of memories of what just happened. He has only tattered clothes to clue him in, and so he shops (or shoplifts) at the nearest outlet to cover his top and bottom before he flees undetected to the next town. Friendless, loveless, Banner is as alone as a stray dog, running his sole recourse from causing any more trouble.

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The parallels our tormented scientist has to Maria Callas are not remote. Watch footage of the latter in performance. The incendiary of emotions that glazes her eyes, the thunder in her voice as though she were fighting for her soul, a lightning from within that electrifies the stage… she may be present before us in grainy black and white, but we see color. The woman wasn’t born that way. Something must have happened to her for a diva to emerge. Playwright, Terrence McNally, uncovers in “Master Class” a resumé of personal afflictions: obesity; romance with a shady Greek billionaire; the barrage of critics; seclusion; and young death. The circus the paparazzi made of her dolor over Aristotle Onassis portrayed her as a real life Norma. In wanting what any other woman wants – a husband and a child – she betrayed her art. To pay for her crime, she lost not only the man she loved, but also her voice and then her life at 53 from a heart attack (or, as sentimentalists like to think, a broken heart). Like Bruce Banner, she spent a number of years aimless and drifting. Had her role as a tragic heroine been limited to the stage, then we would not have the definitive interpretation of “Casta Diva.” This distinction could have been a consolation to her, though it does raise the question of its worth the suffering.

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The answer is yes. History has already been made and so we must accept it. Terrence McNally would not have written his most famous play otherwise; Bruce Banner in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” would be a different character; and I would be a different person. Although no Incredible Hulk lurks inside of me, the Callas scene in the movie is a case of déjà vu. The first time I heard the soprano sing “Casta Diva,” I was a 20-year-old student in Paris, lying in bed on a sunny morning while surfing the Walkman. I had chosen not to live with a family, the standard mode of residence for a foreign student, because I didn’t want to abide by anybody’s rules. Owing to my father, I had my own apartment. A high school was across the balcony, where trumpets to the triumphal march to Verdi’s “Aida” filled the street for the commencement ceremony at year’s end, and on the wall beside my bed, an oil painting of flowers as plasticized as tupperware jazzed up the pastel upholstery with a touch of the bordello. Withal the tacky décor, I was in the most romantic city in the world. As I gazed at an outstretched arm in disbelief at my physical presence in Paris, I thought: This is real. I am here. This is now. In ten minutes, this will be the past. What next? And that’s when Maria Callas came on.

I caught Callas halfway through “Casta Diva.” I was not familiar with her voice, yet I knew it was hers. I had read enough about her for a bell of recognition to chime in my ears. Music historians elaborate on the texture and coloring of a voice. I have no inkling as to what any of that means. I am aware purely of the visceral. I was already in a nostalgic mood over the passing of time. Hearing Callas made me mournful for it. Young as I was, I wasn’t so young that I was ignorant of heartbreak. Callas seemed to empathize with my longing for an innocence lost when love was a given, rather than my reality of unfulfilled yearnings, because that is how films portray it.

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The impact of her music compelled me to learn about her life, for which I simply needed to turn on the TV. Documentaries on Callas were plenteous, Paris having been where she spent her last days. “Every year brings me closer to the end,” she has said. That was how unhappy the woman was. Nevertheless, all that unhappiness was integral to an artist in the making, and though Maria Callas has been dead for 38 years, she will never be silenced. So profound is her presence that she has a cameo in an action flick as an auditory angel, one who soothes the soul of a left-brain genius with anger management issues that metamorphose him into something big the hue of mold.

Yes, her life had to be the way it was. No life is free of fire and brimstone. Just as Phoenix rises from the ashes, so too does beauty from the embers of tragedy.