Passing glances: Where Leonard Bernstein meets R.E.M.

This blog has been on vacation. If I had a greater sense of responsibility, I would’ve hung a sign over the image at the top of the landing page saying, “Gone fission—back sooner or later,” but making that look right would’ve taken some work, which is just what I’ve been trying to avoid lately. Are we still on vacation? The Magic 8 Ball prognosticator says, “Ask again later.” Meanwhile, there’s this.

Over the weekend I found myself thinking of how R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe gave a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein amid the rapid-fire, seemingly random patter of the band’s song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” released in 1987. Here it is, in context:

The other night I dreamt of knives, continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck
Right? Right!

It needs to be said that opinions differ on the exact wording in this song. In the section above, some people hear “I tripped a nice” rather than “I dreamt of knives” and “Mount St. Edelite” instead of “Mountains sit in a line.” No big deal; the sound takes precedence over the sense here. What Stipe—who apparently crafted the lyrics—may be aiming for is neither sense nor nonsense but something like the sound of sense, a rattling, clattering collage of verbal constructs. I wouldn’t call it “stream of consciousness,” though many do, because it’s more jumble than stream, but that too doesn’t matter. As for the four men whose initials are L.B., the Wikipedia entry for the song reports that Stipe dreamed of attending a party where those guys and everyone else possessed those initials. If you ask me, the words don’t read particularly well, but they’re not intended to. What matters is their role in the music—a critic once argued that many of Stipe’s vocal lines serve as merely another instrumental line, which isn’t exactly right but isn’t exactly wrong either—and this effect, while far from anything I know in Bernstein’s work, is something he might have appreciated.

I thought I’d mention this because Saturday was the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. If you haven’t heard the song, I suggest you give it a spin via the official music video, which includes a telltale nod to a conductor. And if you want a stellar example of Bernstein’s vocal writing, try “Glitter and Be Gay” (a worthy BBC Proms version is here), which comes from Candide, and which sticks in my mind even more tenaciously than R.E.M.’s nifty ditty.


‘The Americans’: Playing the game of Great Power politics in the 80s

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in a somewhat stylized promotional image for The Americans.

Killer looks: Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in a somewhat stylized promotional image for The Americans. (Photo: via FX)

The Americans, an FX drama about two undercover Soviet agents living with their two children near Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, is hurtling toward the conclusion of its sixth and final season. Though it has always kept its hand in the action and intrigue of the spy game, its recent seasons have become more moody, brooding, punctuated with anxious silences—one acquaintance of mine felt it lost its mojo and stopped watching—yet the action has recently picked up again as the show maneuvers its pieces toward a resolution. Continue reading

How ’bout them robot cowboys?! A few notes on ‘Westworld’

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Season 1, Episode 5, of Westworld.

Not the farmer’s daughter anymore: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Season 1, Episode 5, of Westworld. (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO)

In 1973, a movie called Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, was released. It’s easy to say what it was about: two visitors to an Old West amusement park that’s mostly populated by androids are terrorized by a robot gunslinger run amok. It was straightforward, so simple as to seem nearly crude now, and nearly mindless (in comparison to the sophistication of early modern robot tales such as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but it embodied a long-bubbling fear about machines, automation, and the dehumanizing effects of technology (many shots are devoted to the highly computerized control room and the inscrutable exchanges of the technicians), and it made potent use of the entertainment world’s oldest special effect, actors, in the form of Yul Brynner’s black-clad, glint-eyed, swaggering gunslinger.

In October 2016, HBO launched a series called Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. (Spoilers lie ahead.) Much remains the same, but much is different. Continue reading

Bedlam’s fresh but respectful take on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’

Say a male phonetics professor rescues a female guttersnipe from the gutter, teaches her to speak the English of the upper classes, and passes her off as a duchess—what then? As nearly everyone will recognize, this is the situation presented by the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady and, before that, by Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is currently being presented by the Bedlam company in New York. Nowadays the play seems more obvious than it must have when it was first presented, roughly 100 years ago, in part because the musical has made the story familiar, in part because the source myth—that of Pygmalion and Galatea—is itself still familiar, and in part because numerous debates have made us well aware of the role language and speech play in social distinctions. Yet, if Shaw’s play is obvious, it’s also subtly provocative, and it’s capable of resonating in ways not addressed by Shaw. Continue reading

A dazzling, puzzling, techno-philosophical SF mystery-thriller: Nick Harkaway’s ‘Gnomon’


If anything were needed to demonstrate the great plasticity of the mystery as a form, Gnomon would do it. In a future England where privacy has been all but abolished for the sake of greater social order, a woman dissident with the myth-inflected name Diana Hunter dies while resisting an interrogation. A woman police inspector, Mielikki Neith, is assigned to find out why she died and what if anything she was trying to hide. So begins a whopper of a tale by Nick Harkaway, published in Britain last fall and in America early this year, in which the contents of Hunter’s mind can be probed retrospectively, further mysteries unfold like origami flowers, and the controlled, rational, material world clashes with realms of magic and disorderly human desires as objective third-person narration butts up against first-person accounts.

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Update on a work in progress: my friend’s SF novel from the 80s

My friend Duncan was perhaps not really a polymath, but even back in high school he was something in that direction. He was interested in the history of firearms. As luck would have it, there was a shop in our area of University Park (one of the wealthy enclaves within the city of Dallas known as the Park Cities) that specialized in such things, a place called Jackson Arms, which he visited often; he owned an antique that, as I recall, he identified as a matchlock, rather than a flintlock, rifle; he could name all the parts of these devices and used to tantalize my ears with strange-sounding terms such as “frizzen” and “tang.” Continue reading

Who was George Orwell’s first wife? A new book may tell us.

In the spacious kitchen of a house in Houston occupied by a surgeon, his wife, and their children (one of whom was a friend of mine), I once saw a decorative sign saying, “Behind every great man there’s a woman telling him he’s wrong.” The man of the house was known in my neighborhood to be a surgeon and, I think, a member of the cardiac unit at Houston Methodist that did groundbreaking heart transplants. Less was known—at least to me as a young teenager—about the woman who stood behind him or, more likely, beside him. Continue reading