Milestone: “Klute” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

It is more than a truism that movies (and men) often locate women within an inhuman bifurcation: Madonna or Whore. Klute‘s Bree Daniels is perhaps the ultimate hooker role — sharp, intelligent, cool, and, however frightened she is by the unknown stalker who may or may not be threatening her life, in control.

Or is she? As portrayed by an astonishing Jane Fonda, Bree’s nervous energy constantly smolders just under the skin, until it periodically bursts through in justifiable rage. She’d rather be a model, or an actress, than a call-girl, but as we see from her attempts to enter either profession, the control belongs to others. Mostly men, but not entirely: At a fashion ad cattle-call the woman in charge (Mary Louise Wilson) sees Bree and the other hopefuls solely, and entirely, as the various facets of their bodies the creative team wishes to exploit; when Bree is asked to show her hands, Wilson casually rejects them as “funny” before going to the next aspirant. Similarly, when Bree visits an actors’ agent (Anthony Holland) he pushes the hair of her shag cut off her forehead and tells her not to hide her face. Since Holland was gay and his on-screen persona reflects that, the implication is that even men who aren’t interested in Bree sexually feel they have the right to touch her without permission.

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The elegant meat-rack at the high-fashion magazine.

Klute’s screenwriters, the brothers Andy and Dave Lewis, were television scribes desperate to break away from the small screen, and they fashioned in their script a curious hybrid. Their eventual director, the redoubtable Alan J. Pakula, later remarked upon Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that a melodrama cannot also be a character study, yet this is precisely what the Lewises devised, what interested Pakula, and what has made Klute so well-respected, and so memorable, for nearly a half-century; whatever the movie’s virtues or weaknesses as a thriller, there had never been a more fulsome, detailed, and honest, study of a whore in American movies when the picture opened, and there hasn’t been another to touch it since.

It has been suggested that the eponymous figure, played with both enormous restraint and great, if minimalist, feeling by Donald Sutherland, is a supporting character in the movie, and it’s difficult to argue, although calling it Bree, as Roger Ebert suggested, would have been wrong; a thriller needs mystery, and the name “Klute” is just odd and mysterious enough to be intriguing to a ticket-buyer. I know it was to me when, as an adolescent, I caught the movie on television. Still, once the picture moves past its opening sequence, Bree is in nearly every scene, and Klute is more involved in her actions and behavior than in the intrigues the suspense format requires. In this way the movie is the polar opposite of Pakula’s subsequent masterwork, All the President’s Men, which is almost entirely unconcerned with the private lives of its protagonists. Not that the plot is by the way; John Klute’s search for his missing friend and for the man whose unnerving anonymous calls to Bree strand her on the knife’s edge, are what the narrative is nominally about, and without them the lives of Bree and Klute would never intersect. But the filmmakers see Bree Daniels whole, and not merely as a technical contrivance.

27b71be408a63359fe6037c9b316bf23For all that it is concerned with sexuality, Klute is almost chaste in its presentation of Bree. There is a moment, early on, in which we see how she operates with a john, where for a brief moment one of Fonda’s breasts is exposed. But while we see the pair in bed later (and, as when Klute finally succumbs to Bree’s blandishments, Pakula shoots it from the shoulders up) the camera is focused on Fonda, seen in a tight close-up as she feigns passion, and takes a surreptitious look at her watch. Pauline Kael found this moment the only false note in Fonda’s performance, observing that Bree’s looking at her wrist before or after she coos encouragement into her client’s ear would have been valid but that to do so during it was indulging in a cheap laugh. I disagree. Part of Bree’s sense of control is being on top of every aspect of her paid trysts, and a prostitute is always aware of the progress of time. Time after all is her (or his) ultimate enemy. Other than child stars, models, dancers and athletes, no one ages out of desirability faster than a whore.* As the fashion writer Amy Fine Collins notes on the new Criterion edition of Klute, Fonda’s wardrobe in the picture constitutes a curious split. On the one hand, she usually wears high collars, but just as often revealing skirts, and her breasts are unfettered by brassiere whether she is at home, on the job, or in the streets. Bree parades her sexuality openly, yet she’s protecting some part of herself. Her outfits are both a come-on and a holding back.

Klute is one of those time-capsule movies, like The French Connection, Born to Win or Marathon Man, that capture in amber the look and feel of New York City as it was in the 1970s, after white-flight reduced its tax revenues and before gentrification began to push its poorer (and darker) residents out. And while she is reduced by circumstances into living in a hovel next to a funeral parlor, Bree behaves as if she’s still ensconced on Park Avenue; the Mermaid dress she sports with a feather boa when she visits the elderly garment merchant (Morris Strassberg) is clearly a remnant from palmier days and must once have set her back several thousand dollars.

Fonda in Mermaid dress

Bree in the mermaid dress

There is despair around the peripheries of the picture’s action, and while it is palpable — the scene in which Bree and Klute inadvertently foil two strung-out junkies’ attempt at a heroin connection is, in the couple’s mute, stunned anguish, nearly unbearable — it never overwhelms the movie. The marginal existence of Klute’s whores, johns and junkies is neatly offset by Gordon Willis’ lighting of the perfectly appointed office in which the psychopath (Charles Cioffi) is seen in his natural milieu. With its huge sliding panel (a photo of Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk) it becomes a kind of dark sanctum, accessible only to the man whose wealth and insularity imply a control he barely hangs onto. Although we don’t quite know what Cioffi is up to, the filmmakers telling us who the killer is before the mid-point points out the difference between a suspense movie and a mere mystery.

Pakula’s direction is remarkable throughout. Being more interested in actors than in flash, his style is mutable. Yet it’s never dull, or ostentatious. All that connects Klute and All the President’s Men are their sense of comprehensible paranoia — a third Pakula picture during this period, The Parallax View of 1974, completed a disturbing triptych on American themes — their intelligence, and the presence of Willis as the cinematographer. Pakula is the auteurist’s despair: A filmmaker whose approach is dictated not by identifiable touches recycled with variation from movie to movie but by the material in them. The look of Klute is nearly documentarian, which is as it should be; even within the contrivances of the thriller plot, the picture captures a life as it is lived, in all its messy contradictions.

The editing, credited to Carl Lerner, is crisp and pointed; there is a striking moment early on when Klute’s friend literally disappears from the picture. Michael Small’s music is, like his score for Marathon Man, eerily unsettling, all the more so in his use of Sally Stevens’ ethereal vocalese, so effective that Lalo Schifrin included her in his music for Dirty Harry later in the year. Willis’ cinematography is, as always with this painter of light, masterly, the bright sunlit streets contrasted with the nocturnal darkness that conceals, enshrouds, and threatens. The Lewis’ screenplay is taut and judicious, doling out no more information than is necessary for us to comprehend the basic set-up and to follow as it unwinds, and their dialogue never makes a misstep. It’s sharp and, occasionally, pleasingly elliptical, as when Bree, thinking she’s seen the last of Klute, taunts him. When he refuses to rise to the bait, all she’s left with is an angry, “Fuck you!” She thinks she and her underground compatriots have “gotten” to Klute, but he gets to her by dismissing her cynicism as empty posturing. There’s no need to go any further into it. Writing well is sometimes knowing when to stop.†

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The Lewises also give Fonda a classic monologue. When, during his first interrogation of her Klute makes reference to the old gentleman, Bree laces into what she reads as his judgmental attitude with barely controlled fury:

You saw that? Goddamn you! He’s 70 years old! His wife’s dead. He’s cut garments since he was 14. He’s maybe in his whole life had one week’s vacation, and I’m all he’s got! And he never lays a hand on me! What harm is there in that? What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak? Like to have your chest walked around with high-heel shoes? You like to have us wash your tinkle? Or do you get it off wearing women’s clothes? Goddamn hypocrite squares!

And indeed, the scene between Fonda and Strassbreg is, in its way, the gentlest and most revealing in the picture. While he plays an old recording of a cimbalom-laden waltz, she spins out the fantasy of erotic Continental romance she knows he wishes to hear as she slowly begins removing her clothing. It illuminates at once how quick-thinking Bree is, how much she relies on her acting ability to ply her trade, and how in control of the scenario between herself and her client she really is. If Klute was less disgusted by the mere idea of prostitution, he might notice these things.

In the large supporting cast, Roy Scheider has a good, if brief, early role as Bree’s one-time pimp. Although the character is repellent, Scheider soft-pedals him, making him seem eminently personable and reasonable, yet the actor never lets us forget how dangerous he is, especially to Bree. Cioffi is disturbingly normal, pretending to be concerned about the disappearance of Klute’s friend (and his employee), stringing Klute along and, at the climax, calmly playing for Bree a tape recording of his horrific murder of the junkie as she silently weeps; that he is so disengaged from this event, and that we don’t know what he was doing to the girl as she screams in anguish, make the thing twice as chilling.

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Fonda and Scheider. Note the proprietary hand on her shoulder.

Aside from Holland and Strassberg there are also good roles for Dorothy Tristan as the junkie whore; Rita Gam as an angry, jilted Lesbian; Nathan George as a police detective; Shirley Stoller as a repulsive madam presiding over a joyless collection of bored whores and middle-aged johns; and Jean Stapleton, by the time of the picture’s June release an instant television star on All in the Family, as a comically harassed secretary. Candy Darling shows up as a club patron, Veronica Hamel is one of the models dismissed by the advertising team and Richard Jordan is a victim of Bree’s drug-addled flirtatiousness. Rosalind Cash has a tiny role in a nightclub. Richard Schull and Sylvester Stallone also allegedly appear, although when I see the picture I never notice either of them.

aSpeW79Sutherland, one of the most interesting actors of his generation, gives a performance of unerring exactitude, reacting in an understated manner to almost everything he sees and never pushing for effect. It’s a self-effacing performance, all the more so for the actor’s being willing, at that stage of his career (he’d just appeared as Hawkeye Pierce in MASH) to submerge himself in a secondary lead opposite the woman with whom he was romantically involved. Sutherland’s Klute is never snide or insinuating — although Bree perceives him as both — just quietly dogged. He cares about his missing friend, and while he doesn’t wish to believe the man capable of brutalizing women, it’s an idea he’s willing to accept if it gets him closer to his goal. Having unintentionally gotten a woman killed, Klute takes pity on her junkie boyfriend, slipping him some bills from his wallet; it’s a gesture the man is too zonked to do anything but accept, yet we sense that, for Klute, however much it was, it could never be enough. His essential decency is never far from the surface as when, trying to comfort Bree, his hand hesitates before making contact with her body.

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There’s also a nice switch on domestic roles late in the picture, when he and Bree stop at a sidewalk vendor’s stalls and she watches with relaxed amusement while he tests the fruit with his long fingers. As in the sequences in which he watches over her as she sleeps or attempts to soothe her fevered brow, it’s as if he’s perfectly happy to accept a more traditionally and stereotypically “feminized” position, performing as mothers do without thinking. It speaks to Sutherland’s thespic gifts that he never makes a show of these moments, or comments on them with either his face or his gestures.

Sutherland in Klute

As Bree, Jane Fonda’s acting is so spontaneous it almost seems to be observed by a hidden documentary camera, yet you’re never in doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing. Pakula observed to Dick Cavett (in an extra on the Criterion disc) in 1978 that she couldn’t have given the same performance in 1971 had she been the woman, and the actress, she later became — that her nervousness and her uncertainties, about herself and her off-screen activities, bled into her approach to the part. (She tried to get out of playing Bree, thinking she was wrong for the role, but Pakula knew it was her nerves speaking.) As with Sutherland, there is not a moment in her performance that reads as false, or “acted.” She’s beyond acting here, and she never censors Bree Daniels or tamps down on the less pleasant aspects of her personality. She can be cruel, as when she seduces Klute only so she can dismiss his ardor afterward, yet you don’t hate her, no matter what she says, or does.

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Pakula directing Fonda. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fonda’s line readings, always unusual, seem exactly right even (especially?) when they’re a little off-kilter or she places the stress on a different word, or even on a different syllable, than you expect. It’s part of what makes her performance so astounding, and so fresh, no matter how many times you watch it. Although some lines were changed during shooting, as is nearly always the case, only the sessions between Bree and her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan, in a nicely calibrated performance) were actually improvised. It was a clever notion of Pakula’s, forcing Fonda to confront her feelings about the character, about what she does for a living, and how she feels about it. Bree becomes more complex, more vulnerable and interesting — more alive — as a consequence, especially when she speaks with trepidation about her growing feelings for Klute. That’s a complication she never counted on, and being vulnerable to and with another human being shakes her.

Nor is Fonda afraid to let herself look slovenly, or zonked-out, or, as in the climax, notably moist; while Cioffi plays that hideous tape, you become aware not only of the tears falling down Fonda’s cheeks but of the thin strings of mucous hanging from her nose. That’s partly what I mean by her being, in Klute, beyond acting. What she does with the role is as powerful now as when the movie was new; Jane Fonda’s performance as Bree Daniels is one of the finest, of any kind, ever committed to film.

No, I’ll go further: It’s the single greatest performance by an American screen actor in the past 50 years.


*By “desirability,” I do not necessarily mean erotic attraction; I’m referring to professional limitations, artificial or otherwise.

†In the shooting script, Bree does later ask Klute what he meant by “pathetic,” but he doesn’t answer.

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Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Maggie: A Girl of the Screen

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(Written for another, now defunct, blog in January of 2006.)

By Scott Ross

The shade of Stephen Crane will I hope forgive me, for I come in praise of Margaret Dumont. Arguably the greatest “straight-man” in the business. That paragon of public virtue who stood more abuse — verbal and physical — from Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (not to mention the likes of W.C. Fields) than any one woman should ever have to shoulder alone.

Now, Groucho always maintained that she never understood any of the jokes or why their audiences laughed (an image even Dumont was happy to feed the press). But I challenge you to watch any scene in which she appears opposite the Bros. Marx and convince yourself that’s a true picture of her. It’s possible — just barely — for an actor to get by on that sort of thing maybe once, if the director is clever enough to elicit a performance out of confusion or wooden-headness. But try making a career of it.

Animal Crackers - Groucho and Dumont

No, she got the jokes and then some. No one who was that much of a thickie could have performed so knowingly and with such grace and comedic polish. Imagine building an entire performing life out of being the butt of the joke. (And a bigger butt there never was, so to speak; cf. the “stateroom scene” in A Night at the Opera.) Was anything meaner ever said of a dowager than Groucho’s “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did” in Duck Soup? Dumont’s reactions are models of comic timing, and if they’re a little broad, as though she was still playing to back of house on Broadway, that doesn’t detract from her charm. After all, was Groucho subtle? Was Chico? How about Harpo?

I was trying to resist the urge to quote endlessly from the movies themselves, but I find I’ve had to succumb to temptation. After all, it’s the only way to illustrate what that sainted woman had to bear from the lips of the Great Grouch.

In Duck Soup:
Groucho: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Dumont: Why, he’s dead.
Groucho: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Dumont: I was with him to the very end.
Groucho: No wonder he passed away.
Dumont: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho: Oh, I see, then it was murder!

Dumont: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Groucho: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

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Groucho: I suppose you would think me a sentimental old fluff, but, uh, would you mind giving me lock of your hair?
Dumont: A lock of my hair? Why, I had no idea—
Groucho: I’m letting you off easy: I was going to ask for the whole wig.

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In A Night at the Opera:
Groucho: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Dumont: Really?
Groucho: Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (Aside to the audience) If she figures that one out, she’s good.

A Night at the Opera - Dumont and Groucho

But she could take it — luckily for us. A Marx Bros. movie without her is a poor thing indeed. (Well, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers had Thelma Todd, but that’s a wholly different animal, if you’ll pardon the expression. Todd, a spunky comedian in her own right, could more than hold her own, especially with Groucho; their demented tango on the balcony in Horse Feathers is a thing of comic beauty.)

Maggie even has a fan club. And it may give you a measure of the affection and esteem with which Groucho regarded her that, despite his public pronouncements about her alleged lack of humor, he hired her to do a dialogue sketch with him on a comedy show in the mid-1960s. She died a few days later — happy, one hopes, in the knowledge that she still had it, and that someone wanted to see it.

Even if Dumont didn’t get the jokes, she was herself funny as hell. Aside from Toddy, Groucho never had a better foil. That alone cements her place in movie history. And if only for that, she is, quite properly, immortal.

Non-Marx Text Copyright 2006 and 2019 by Scott Ross

The world is full of beautiful things…

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(Written for another, now defunct, blog in September of 2005.)

By Scott Ross

Butterfly wings, fairy tale kings…

So sang Doctor Dolittle, anyway. The Leslie Bricusse one, not the Hugh Lofting. And anyway, it wasn’t the doctor, it was Matthew Mugg. Or Anthony Newley as Matthew. But I’m getting further away from the subject. Which is:

Sitting on the back porch of the office this afternoon, reading Son of a Witch and indulging in the twin perversions of caffeine and nicotine, I noticed a fluttering off to my right. Looking over I saw a butterfly. Late in the season, it seems to me, but it was a beautiful thing. The portion of wings closest to the body a purple so deep it seemed black, and on the tips a pattern in navy blue. There was no light to catch it today, but I thought that if there had been the blue pattern would have sparkled like the rarest of gems.

It flitted about aimlessly, in circles from parked car to asphalt and concrete, and over again. Now and then it paused on the ground to raise and lower its wings slowly, and I wondered if perhaps it was newly born. (Or newly chrysalized?) With its dark coloring and its flitting movements, it resembled a small bat — another creature I can watch on its rounds with great pleasure.

Several weeks ago I came out in the morning to find that someone, during the night, had deposited a small tub of colored goo bearing a Smoothie label on the porch. I found its lid and attached it. Eventually, tiring of the constant swarming of flies and ants, I moved it to the ground. At my touch the lid flew off — propelled, I assume, by the pent-up gas. There it has sat, turning rancid and vinegary, and a spider has set up her web nearby to catch the odd errant fly.

After a time, the butterfly began wending its way toward this monstrosity. Becoming fearful it would somehow either fall into the tub, or brush the web and, in either case, become hopelessly enmeshed, I knelt nearby to … right it? save it? I’m only sure that, had it somehow slipped and fallen into that putrid vat, I’d have found some delicate means of extricating it. Each time the butterfly wrested itself away from the lure of the tub and flit about, I held out my arm, palm down, as a resting place. Something in me wanted this creature to land on me, however briefly. To be, for a moment, a part of its beauty.

It never did, but I was relieved when, after falling into the tub and quickly righting itself again, it flew away, very rapidly now, to the east. I was reminded of how, a couple of weeks ago on a warm, sunny afternoon, I was gifted to witness the progression down our sidewalk of a pair of Buddhist monks. The deep saffron wraps trimmed with sumptuous orange, the cheerful silence even as they conversed quietly, was a kind of benediction on the day.

So it was with the butterfly: A measure of grace, unexpected, as grace always is, to bless a surly, sunless afternoon.

Text (other than Bricusse’s lyric) Copyright 2005, 2019 by Scott Ross

On Completing “Bleak House”

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By Scott Ross

Written for another, now defunct, blog in April of 2007.

This morning over coffee I finished reading Bleak House, Charles Dickens’ great, dark satire on the Court of Chancery. What a truly satisfying experience it’s been, reading this novel: Seldom have nearly 1,000 pages of narrative prose passed through my eager fingers with such ease and enjoyment. The book places neatly with titles like The Magnificent Ambersons, East of Eden, The Eighth Day, The Great Gatsby and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie among the great readings of my life. I have seldom encountered a novel I loved in quite this way; I am wholly sated, as opposed to completing Nicholas Nickleby and feeling, however emotionally moved, rather over-fed.

Dark, sometimes brooding, often wonderfully comic, and shot through with a feeling for people and their essential humanity, so that even such a redoubtable figure as the ornately and foolishly pompous, stern, dragon-like Lord Dedlock winds up surprising us, and himself, with real and unexpected compassion… awoken too late, alas, to stop the dire fate of Lady Dedlock, who (I presume) thinks she knows him so well that she can never find forgiveness in him, which shows (again, I think) that he has hidden his true feelings so well that even his wife cannot guess at them. And then there is Richard Carstone, driven to a kind of hopeful madness by that dread legal joke of the Chancery court, the case of “Jarndyce & Jarndyce”— the very name itself  so close to “jaundice”— and utterly defeated when, at its close, there is only a void, legal costs having eaten the principle to nothing; the harried Mr. Snagsby, decent and kind-hearted but weighted down by his harridan of a wife; poor Jo, the young crossing-sweeper, so ill-used by society and so unwittingly the cause of Esther Sommerson’s facial disfigurement; Mr. Krook, whom one never quite gets the measure of and who is done in at last though Spontaneous Combustion(!); Mr. Gridley and Miss Flite, each driven insane by the court of Chancery, Mr. Gridley to the extreme of breaking down entirely, Miss Flite to a genteel, kindly (yet all-too-knowing) madness; and of course, Lady Dedlock, shutting away all lightness and feeling to hide her guilt.

Then, too, the unsavory (or at least, questionable) characters: Horace Skimpole, who does so much damage to others in his studied “infancy,” proclaiming he is wholly a child yet blithely and calculatedly taking as much from anyone as he can get; Mr. Vholes, ever with his “shoulder to the wheel,” grinding someone into dust; Mr. Guppy, who has no compunction against attempting an advantageous marriage or even blackmail as it suits him; Mr. Turveytop, so wholly concerned with his legendary (in his own mind in any case) “Deportment” that the world must owe him a living (or at least, his poor wife, done to death by work, and his son Prince and daughter-in-law Caddy, equally yoked to his dancing school and the perpetual upkeep of his noxious self); Hortense, the haughty French maid — is there any other kind? — whose hatred undoes so many; Mrs. Snagsby, so determined to be injured by something her husband has done she becomes convinced he deceives her at every turn; Mr. Chadband the orating minister (whom the reader may be forgiven for wishing to strangle every time he speaks); Caddy’s mother Mrs. Jellyby, concerned only with her endless correspondence on Africa, to the complete ignoring of her distracted husband and house full of children perpetually falling down stairs; the miserly, decrepit Mr. Smallweed, who bounces pillows off the head of his senile old wife and whose grasping claws are into any and everything that can give him even a little profit; and finally the serpentine Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is responsible in one way or another for everything that occurs and for whom no one weeps when he is found murdered.

And yet it is a book of lightness, too: Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlock housekeeper, who adds up to a great deal more than simple devotion to her employers; Mr. Bucket, the indefatigable police Inspector, whom one begins with liking, moves to distrusting, and ends by appreciating enormously, despite his unwitting hand in the eventual death of young Jo; Mr. George, never worthy in his own eyes yet a fountain of solace to others; the wonderful Bagnets — “The Old Girl” who always sees the right path, and her husband, who declaims her worth behind her back, swears he never tells her to her face because “Discipline must be maintained!” yet is constantly doing exactly that because he can’t help it… and meanwhile asking the Old Girl to give out with “his” opinion on every matter; the occasionally apoplectic Mr. Boythorn, ever ready either to laugh or to damn; Charly, the orphan girl who takes on monstrous amounts of work without complaining and finally comes into grace; Mr. Woodcourt, the gentle doctor who quietly dispenses a healing balm of dignity and affection to everyone he touches; Esther, who loves without restraint and yet is wholly unable to see how much love she inspires in others; and dear, kind John Jarndyce, master of Bleak House — a deliberate misnomer if ever there was one — ready to flee at the first sign of thanks for any of the (multitudinous) good deeds he dispenses without a thought.

In all, an almost incredibly rich gallery of characters, painted in marvelous hues of complexity and, occasionally, sheer giddy delight. I almost wish I had held off reading it, because there are so many other Dickens novels I hope to crack, and it would have been a lovely benediction to have beheld this one only at the last.

Text copyright 2007, 2019 by Scott Ross

Network for Sale; integrity not included

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

The one fixed point in a changing world was once, for this listener, Scott Simon. Despite the increasing conservatism and corporate viewpoint of his employer, Simon could generally be counted upon for his decency, thoughtfulness, intelligence, compassion and — when necessary — a dignified anger.

All that changed for me this morning when, to discuss Donald Trump, Scott Simon welcomed…

Glenn Beck.

Glenn Beck

And treated with him, moreover, as if he was a genuine political savant, like Gore Vidal or Katrina Vanden Heuvel, quietly and reverently lobbing softball questions and engaging with this wingnut as though he were some sage of the political arena and not a snake-oil-selling clown of minimal interest and even smaller consequence.

This, from the man who once reported, in four riveting, inexpressibly and almost unbearably moving 30-minute segments, on the poor of India. This, from the network that once had the respect even of its commercial rivals, for its innovation, thoroughness and integrity.

First Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me invites Kim Kardashian on as its “celebrity” guest, and now this.

NPR has in recent years repeatedly broken faith with me — ignoring Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign being the most pertinent recent examples — but this is altogether too much. The network is now as relevant as Fox News.

And takes advertising while telling us it doesn’t and begging for our money.

Why does anyone still listen to these shills?

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

Pushing the button: Panic attacks

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

One of the lovelier aspects of chronic high anxiety are periodic panic attacks. I’ve been having these for years but, as they have always accompanied emotional unexpected trauma, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve realized that is indeed the name for these episodes. In my case, it begins with being broadsided by another person. After the initial shock, my face becomes numb, my entire body begins to tremble violently and I experience a state very close to what I imagine disassociation must be like: My mind is sharply focused on the violation, but the world around me disappears — and with it, any possible rational verbal response. Later, when I’m calmer, I think this must be very close to the way people feel when they commit sudden, unplanned violence. If the prompting incident is a direct physical confrontation (as opposed, say, to a telephone conversation, e-mail or instant message) I will likely end up screaming at the source, and the only possible recourse for me is a hasty exit from the scene.

(Panic attacks are not necessarily the same as hyperventilation, although I’ve experienced that as well. The first time was when, in 1979, I saw Alien in a theatre during its opening weekend. I knew nothing about it. When that thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I hyperventilated for five minutes.)

The first panic-inducing event happened when I was 15. Thinking about it in later years, I used to believe I possessed a long use, and a very short one, and perhaps that is so. I now realize it’s not necessarily the case, but the long build-up to this particular explosion certainly lent itself to my making that assumption. I’ve written elsewhere that what we used to call junior high school was three years of howling pain for me. To be at all sensitive — or, as I also was, bookish, shy, introspective and un-athletic — in early adolescence is to wear a perpetual “Kick Me” sign on one’s back. Mine was pretty much permanently etched to my clothing. In the spring of my 9th grade year, one of the perennial bullies who dogged my existence chose a moment in gym class, during which we were to attempt making free shots, to ride me one time too often. My face went numb, my limbs shook, my head roared like a white-noise machine and I heard myself saying, “Eddie… Get. Off. My. Back!” My voice began low; by the end of my brief outburst, I was shouting.

The second such occurrence was a little over two years later. I had been working since 16, on a part-time basis, at a two-screen movie complex in Raleigh (how quaint that then-new concept seems now, in this era of googolplexes!) The owner was one of the meanest little men it has ever been my disagreeable misfortune to know, much less work for: Stingy, piggy-eyed, a petty martinet who smiled only at own, sour humor and who never looked anyone in the eye while speaking. His eyes moved either to the left, or the right, but were never focused on the other person. Ray Nance was almost a parody of the humorless, un-pleasable employer, so much so that we often said to each other that, had he been a character in a movie or a book, no one would accept him as anything but a caricature. His approach to Mr. Lynch, the kind, decent, gentle theatre manage was to belittle him consistently… and behind his back, naturally. (The assistant manager was Mr. Nance’s son, who, having learned well at his father’s knee, made it known to us all that Mr. Lynch was “an alkie.”) On one immemorial occasion, Mr. Nance had come to the theatre during a typically hectic opening-weekend Friday evening of a new and popular movie. The start-times for the movies we showed on either side of the complex were usually staggered only very modestly, and we often found ourselves coping with hordes of customers on both sides at the same time. Frantic but professional, a half-dozen of us had nonetheless performed behind the concession counter with our standard mix of politeness, good grace and humor — and it’s worth noting that we had no cash registers behind the concession stand; every order had to be remembered, the cost totaled up in our heads and the change given back to the customer without recourse to any accoutrement beyond that of our own nimble brains.

Mr. Nance’s usual practice was to arrive between screenings, when the lobby was deserted, leaving us all suddenly left scrambling to find some busy-work to do. The fastest ones made for the sanctuary of the theatre auditoriums. The rest had to improvise. Ashtray urns already clean? Sift them again. Carpet swept? Sweep it one more time. It was ludicrous, but such is the game these types play; Mr. Nance knew his own movies’ schedules. He knew his presence would inspire this sort of mild panic. On this particular evening, and faced with the evidence of how well we had performed, individually and together… with what a bright and resourceful bunch of kids we were… during the lull that followed this explosion of hectic activity, Mr. Nance’s only comment was to lecture us, with the immortal (and, for him, all too typical) words, “I don’t want to see you enjoying yourselves while you’re working.”

In late spring of that year I had been offered a position elsewhere and was on the verge of giving a week’s notice, as, if I recall correctly, my mother believed that was the very least a person should do when leaving one job for another. The manager, a man I liked and had respect for, had called the day before to ask me if I would come in an extra evening that week, and I had initially declined. After reconsideration, I called him back and said, sure, I’ll be there. After all, I thought, while I didn’t really want to be there, I could use the extra cash. When I called him back he said he’d already gotten someone, a new young employee (we were all either high-schoolers or college students) to take the shift, but that if I still wanted to come in., I would be welcome. After I’d been there perhaps half an hour that evening, the owner came into the lobby. He asked me why I was there. I told him. He ordered me to go, making a point of telling me how much more reasonable the new kid was. “You said you didn’t want to come in,” he smirked at me, “so leave.”

Despite enduring the unpleasantness and absurdities of this petty little gnat of a man for a year, I had shown him every respect and courtesy. An entire year of his absurd mean-spiritedness welled up in that moment. Again, my face was numb, I was trembling uncontrollably and, as I stormed to the big metal door off the lobby I shouted (something I almost never do) at him to shove his goddamn theatres up his ass! and slammed that door as hard as I have ever closed any portal, before or since. The manager later told me that everyone on the staff had to run off in a big, tearing hurry to some task or other. Anything would do, just so Mr. Nance would not see them all laughing. I suspect I said that night what all of them had at one time or another wanted to, and after the shock of it had abated, they were giddy with it. I should stress that I was not proud of this moment. I’d lost my cool, shouted at another human being, and suffered a debilitating state that, however brief, was deeply unsettling. I remember standing outside that door and leaning against it, shaking from head to foot, unable to believe what had just happened, or how I had responded. When I could collect myself I called my mother, gave her an abridged version of the confrontation, and after a walk and a cooling can of soda, somehow found the serenity to at least drive myself back home.

As I get older these attacks hit me, when they occur, with no less alacrity, and are generally spaced further apart. But getting over them takes considerably longer. After decades of chronic major depression and high anxiety, I suspect my resistance is far lower. (To panic attacks, and to so many other little goodies, thanks to years of unrelieved stress.) In the past few weeks, the wonder that is Facebook has been the staging ground for not one but two such attacks. The first I elide over to a large degree, as it’s too personal and painful to go into publicly, but the appalling nature of it, from a woman who, although we never spent a moment in the same room I considered a close friend, was dismaying. Her betrayal of my trust in her, and the way in which she went about flouting it, were as close to evil as a human being gets without actually being a serial killer. (I understand from a mutual friend that she now feels it was “the worst thing she’s ever done.” Well, yeah. I sincerely hope so. But that doesn’t mean I can forgive such deliberate malice.) And the panic attack I got from what she did was certainly real enough.

The most recent event occurred last a week ago. The work-day had been such that by Friday my nerves were stretched taut by the time I got home. A nap helped, dinner made it a little better. (My choice of a movie did not, but that’s my own lookout; I knew when I opted for it that Salvador would very likely upset the hell out of me. That’s why I’d put it off for so long.) Taking a cup of coffee into my home-office and logging on to Facebook, I immediately discovered an instant message from a former friend. This, if my memory is to be trusted at all, was a man with whom I had a mutual friend, and who had requested that I “friend” him. And although I found his obsessive attacks on a certain former television actress a bit dismaying (what the hell had Bonnie Franklin ever done to this guy to make him institute on his home-page a weekly flaying of her?) I had not voiced any opinion on the matter; as with a television’s channel-changer, the virtue of a social networking site is that one can simply scroll past that of which one has no interest. Somewhere along the way, however, began annoying him. I began receiving chiding notes from him in my instant-messaging in-box and ultimately decided (o being told how “hateful” I was) that, rather than continuing to argue with him, the better part of valor would be to remove my irritating presence from his life. So I “un-friended” and blocked him. End of story.

Or so I believed. Until I found this, unbidden and un-asked-for (and, initially, un-capitalized):

“after 3 years I unblocked you and you’re still an asshole. How the fuck did you hone in my friends? Go away.”

Face numb? Check. Limbs trembling uncontrollably? Check. Laser-like intensity of focus? Check. Complete loss of time and moment and external world? Check. Urges to scream and do physical violence? Check, check, check, check and check.

Naturally enough, his act of aggression was a hit-and-run: Even had I the desire to respond — which, despite the need to scream, I didn’t — he’d made sure to block me again after depositing his charming little time-bomb. When I was able to recover some of my faculties again, I availed myself of the sole means of redress Facebook provides, and reported him for harassment. This, in case you’re ever in need of knowing, involves forwarding the conversation (and which, in this case, presumably included all of his previous screeds against my apparently limitless capacity for hatefulness.) There is, or at least has not been in this instance, any follow-up. Whether he was warned, or his account suspended, I have no idea. No more than I can discover just what it was that set this craven coward off; I went through at several weeks’ worth of my posts and saw there nothing that I could pin down. And in any case, no matter what action Facebook takes, if any, I feel reasonably sure it will simply, to his disordered mind, reinforce what an asshole I am. (The man attacks me out of the blue, and for no reason I can discern, and I’m the asshole?)

What astonishes me about both these incidents is the sheer unfeeling nature of how they were perpetrated. They were done with what seems to me ungovernable fury, and with no little relish. And they bring screaming back to me my own insupportable optimism at the beginning of the Internet Age when I thought, with stunning naïveté, that the act of writing, requiring thought and rationality, might make for a more literate, and perhaps more thoughtful, set of users. That I was spectacularly incorrect is self-evident. Moreover, in both cases, the individuals involved knew full well how anxious and depressed a person I am, and how easily my equilibrium — never especially sturdy at the best of times — can be shattered. I make no claims for perfection of self. I am as flawed, and as prone to solipsism, as anyone else. I have made a conscious effort in the past few months to refrain from comment when that statement is negative, or critical, or is aimed at a friend of a Facebook friend. So, while I try to govern my conversation, including my on-line comments, with some sense of propriety, I know I occasionally err on the wrong side of caution. How could I not? It’s just so damn easy to dash off a riposte! Still. To knowingly inflict that sort of psychic anguish on another person, as these two did, is beyond my rational ken. And it’s no good saying the sickness is theirs and not mine, no matter how much of a truism that may be; the panic attacks they engender are not lessened one wit by that caveat.

I have often said that the gravest of all human sins is a lack of imagination. The ability to empathize with creatures who are not our kind is one of the nobler qualities of the human, and one that sets us apart from the other organisms with whom we share the planet. The inability to empathize, however much it indicates a misalliance of intellect and emotion that borders on sociopathy, seems to me far more prevalent than it ought to be, and is and has been the cause of so much needless suffering throughout the history of our vain and self-regarding dominion over the earth. And nothing promulgates it as much as instant media. Things most of us would never dream of saying, or doing, to another soul if we were in his or her presence, we say and do at will, hiding behind our words, or our ability to hit-and-block, or whatever it is that allows us to inflict torment on another human being and sleep untroubled.

A friend whose anxiety is far keener than even my own has said more than once that he wished he possessed the ability to touch certain people with two fingers and make them feel what it’s like to be him, for 24 hours. I don’t think I would wish my panic attacks on anyone, even for a day.

It would be a lovely thing indeed if others didn’t wish them on me.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Where depression begins (Or, Spikes!)

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

I’ve been ruminating on this subject as essay-fodder for some time. The recent “apparent” suicide, as they say in criminological circles, of Robin Williams is coincidental but not, I don’t think, incidental. The single most concise (and most heartbreakingly apt) description of chronic depression I’ve ever come across is Dick Cavett’s:

“[…] when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.”

The roots of depression are, of course, not yet firmly fixed. That its presence indicates a chemical imbalance seems assured, but is the condition genetic, or in any case, purely genetic? At this point in my life, I feel as certain that my own chronic major depression, which has blighted most of my adult life, and indeed much of my adolescence, is a function of my father’s DNA. His father, whom he loathed, was an angry, violent man and one, I believe, who bequeathed that genetic curse to at least two of his children. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Peg, committed suicide when I was very young, and I recognize many of the behavioral symptoms of depression in myself as reflections of Dad’s own persona. My mother always resisted any such conclusions on my part (“He’s not depressed.”) but at my worst I see far too many similarities between us. (The high anxiety I also contend with comes from her side of the family, or at least from her mother’s.) It was in fact my screaming — literally screaming — at other drivers on the road that finally convinced me to seek a diagnosis. That rage was not the sole manifestation of my depressive symptoms, but it was the decisive one.

Riding in a car with my father was a test of nerve. Every other drive was an idiot, and at fault, and he could also be vindictive. More than once I clung to the armrest, terror-stricken, expecting to die at any moment while he passed a driver in a no-passing zone or even, memorably, while crossing a two-lane bridge. Interestingly, to me, while Dad despised his father for his bullying, he was incapable of seeing the ways in which his own behavior often mirrored that of my grandfather. Like the man we referred to as Grant, Dad’s temper was quick, and never far from the surface. And while he at least attempted to govern his hands, he did not always succeed. At least, not with his son. A cousin recently reminded me of just such an incident, one I’d completely forgotten but which made her extremely leery of him. Like Grant, Dad had always to be right. He could not seem to locate the proper angle at which to view himself as others saw him — a common enough failing but one which, I believe, inhibits one’s making the changes to one’s own personality necessary for self-improvement. My ex shared that blind-spot and, if confronted, made the excuse that people had to take him as he was. Everyone has to adjust to the man who will not adjust himself.

My passivity in the face of brutality, psychic or physical, is, I suspect, a result of the dictum handed down to my father by his. More than once in my pubescence and adolescence I heard the “Fight your own battles. Don’t come crying to us” speech. As a result, and because I was unable to fight, I held my torments inside. I vividly remember one pleasant autumn evening at around 14 or 15, sitting with my mother on the front stoop, and her saying, the previous two years had been a waking nightmare, that screaming hell we once called junior high school. “You used to be such a happy-go-lucky kid,” Mom observed sadly. “I don’t understand what’s happened. Why you’ve changed.” I was, as always, silent. How could I tell her, even if I’d had the words then, which I surely did not, that living in hell, and being told not to whine about it, can turn the happiest child into a diffident, interior-dwelling emotional recluse?

Depression becomes manifest, we’re told, following a trauma. It may be physical or emotional. In my own case, I date the onset of my depression from the age of six or seven, when I broke my wrist in a fall from a tree. (Well, from a tree limb, to be more precise; it was a dumb stunt, and a disaster waiting to happen. Had it not been me, it would have been my sister, or one of my cousins.) In any case, I can recall sitting in a dark Canton, Ohio hospital corridor after my near-compound fracture had been X-rayed, waiting to have it placed in a cast. Was my mother with me, or had she gone off to look for a nurse, or a doctor? I no longer recall anyone near me, only the dark pall, the body-size net that cocooned me with almost as rapid a descent as the fall from that tree branch. The ensuing days are shrouded by that caul. Each time it recurred as I grew older, it was always with that same, terrible, all-encompassing swiftness. The climb back up, as anyone who’s ever been depressed, let alone depressive, can tell you, is nowhere near as swift.

Far too many people, even well-meaning people, mistake “sadness” for depression. Everyone has known sadness. Almost everyone has experienced depression, even if only for a day. And “sad” is to chronic depression as “happy” is to acute mania. I liken my depression to walking under water, every moment of every day. I smile at times, I even laugh, on occasion. But what a friend describes as feeling like a weight that will not leave her, remains. I rise, although never easily, and never with the sensation of sleep having refreshed me. I go to work. I function. But if I gave in to impulse, I would not rise. I could not function. Those who refuse to “believe there’s such a thing as depression” (and there is a shocking number of such people, most of them, in my experience, highly educated and otherwise intelligent) should take up residence in my skin for an hour. If they did not instantly change their thinking (and I ennoble such purblind obtuseness with the positive noun) I should be amazed. A co-worker, whose anxieties and attendant neuroses make mine look like the proverbial walk in the woods, says that he wishes he could touch such doubters on the shoulder and transfer how he feels to them for 24 hours. Because, outwardly, we do not appear to be suffering, our illness is not generally perceived, even when we give every indication of it. We’re “difficult.” We’re “self-involved.” We’re “unpleasant.” “Unproductive.” More than one friend has told me I have “an edge,” never quite understanding that it might be because all of my interior edges have been ground to the nub.

For far too many of us as well, the combinations of therapy and medication simply do not work. When I was first diagnosed, in the mid-1990s, I was placed on Prozac, the “miracle” of the moment. Within six weeks, I had regained that “happy-go-lucky kid.” I felt as I hadn’t since the age of 12. But one-third of Prozac users will cease to respond to the drug over time, and I, unhappily, was in that statistic. Within six months, the pall was back, and blacker than before. Because I knew then that it was possible for me to feel better. In this way, that experience is almost worse than the disease itself: I’ve been through a veritable pharmacopeia since then, and nothing I’ve taken since has had the slightest positive effect. Ketamine, if and when it is ever placed on the market, might be the answer. It has the virtue of taking effect, not in weeks, but in hours or even minutes. If all else fails, there is always electroconvulsive therapy, but that is extreme, and requires so lengthy a procedure I’m not sure my medical insurance even covers it, or even if I could take the necessary time away from the office to effect it.

Severe depressive episodes are known as “spikes.” I was trying to remember when my depression mutated from occasional spikes to a chronic condition. I’m not sure, but I suspect it was in my late 20s; before that, I endured the spikes but had the wherewithal to work both full-time and part-time jobs simultaneously, and (at an age very close to 25) to enroll myself in college, arrange for Pell Grants, and drive myself from North Carolina to Vermont. Further, after that particular disaster, to arrange for a transfer to a different school, come back home, work for a year and a half, take on the editorship of an Arts Council newsletter to pay for my matriculation, and somehow, get myself to Amherst, Massachusetts. The slowly accumulating exhaustion, the sense of someone constantly twisting a rubber band around my temples, the increasing incidents of emotional spikes… all of that came some time during my otherwise rather happy years at Hampshire College. So it was after my return, at 29, that the condition gradually became so debilitating it forced me to seek diagnosis, and therapy.

The spikes, however, remain.

Worse, they come with increasing frequency. And each subsequent plunge into the abyss takes longer to climb out of, requires a greater pull on my diminished — and diminishing — reserves. The recent death of my mother after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, notwithstanding its being in a way a relief, for her and for her family, especially my sister, who cared for her the last three years of her life, still served to spike my depression in unexpected ways, and with astonishing swiftness; I could feel it wrapping me in its insidious embrace on the drive back from seeing Mom the last time, and only in the last few days has it retreated sufficiently to take me from deep slough of despond to what I am accustomed to: My usual, plodding, exhausting, “norm” of chronic depression.

Some know-nothings and professional reactionaries have, typically, taken the occasion of Williams’ suicide to bloviate upon the matter of courage versus cowardice. And while I hold suicide as a perfectly reasonable response to insupportable pain, and reserve the right myself to exit at a time of my choosing should my depression prove endless and intractable, I would also say this: No one who survives, day after weary day of this condition can remotely be called a coward. As Seneca noted, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” So is reserving judgment, or at least, governing one’s tongue when one is a smug ignoramus.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross