Friday Feb. 5, 2016

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In Space

In space
(the experiment
suggested by two fifth graders),
a Canadian astronaut
wrings water out of a towel.

It stays by the towel,
transparent isinglass,
a hyaline column.

Then begins to cover his hands,
his wrists,
stays on them
until he passes it to another towel.

On earth
some who watch this
recognize the wrung, irrational soul.

How it does not leave
but stays close,
outside the cleaning twist-fate but close—

fear       desire       anger
joy       irritation

wet stuff
that is shining, that cannot go from us,
having nowhere other to fall.

“In Space” by Jane Hirshfield from The Beauty. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the playwright John Guare (books by this author), born in New York City in 1938. His best-known work is Six Degrees of Separation (1991), which contains the monologue by one of the main characters, Ouisa, who says: "I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that a) extremely comforting that we're so close and b) like Chinese water torture that we're so close."

It's the birthday of writer and director Christopher Guest, born in New York City in 1948. He worked for National Lampoon's "Lemmings" and Saturday Night Live. Then he landed a part in Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap (1984), which follows the tour of a fake heavy metal band. Christopher Guest was one of the stars, and he helped with the music and dialogue, most of which is improvised.

After that, Guest began directing, writing, and acting in his own mockumentaries, including Waiting for Guffman (1997), about a community theater production in a small Missouri town; Best In Show (2000), about competitive dog shows; A Mighty Wind(2003), about aging folk singers who come together for a reunion concert; and For Your Consideration (2006), about actors who become obsessed with the buzz surrounding their potentially award-winning performances.

It is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Hofstadter, born 1915 in New York City and best known for his research on the nucleus of the atom. He was the son of a salesman and attended the City College of New York. Hofstadter wanted to major in literature and philosophy until a physics professor told him, "the laws of physics could be tested and those of philosophy could not." He won the Kenyon Prize for outstanding work in physics and mathematics in 1935.

Hofstadter went on to measure the precise size and shape of the proton and neutron, the particles of the nucleus, winning the Nobel Prize on December 10, 1961, for presenting the first reasonably accurate picture of the structure and composition of atomic neutrons and protons. Hofstadter's discoveries played an important role in medicine, astronomy, military defense, and many other fields.

On this date in 1936Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times opened in New York City. It was the last film in which his beloved and iconic character "the Little Tramp" appeared, and it was the only film to include the Tramp's voice.

"Talkies" had been around since The Jazz Singer in 1927, but Chaplin had held out. His films had been internationally successful in large part because there was no language barrier in silent films; his comedy was physical, and it was a simple matter to replace English title cards with those in the local language. Chaplin knew that giving the Tramp dialogue meant losing all the audiences that didn't speak English. In 1931, he had released City Lights, which was silent in defiance of the new mania for sound, and had gone so far as to say that talking pictures were a fad that wouldn't last. He told an interviewer, "Dialogue may or may not have a place in comedy ... dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make." The interviewer asked him if he had ever tried including dialogue, and he answered, "I never tried jumping off the monument in Trafalgar Square, but I have a definite idea that it would be unhealthful." City Lights was a critical and commercial success, and one reviewer said: "Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called 'audience appeal' in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk."

By 1934, however, Chaplin had realized that the days of the silent movie had passed, and he was worried about being seen as old fashioned and outdated. He wrote a dialogue script for Modern Times, but in the end, used almost none of it. He used sound effects, and human voices carried through radios and loudspeakers, but the Little Tramp did not speak. He did, however, sing: at one point in the story, he gets a job as a singing waiter, but loses the lyrics to the song he's meant to sing. He sings a language of gibberish instead — no translation required.

Modern Times reflects the anxieties of its age. Chaplin had spent the past year and a half touring Europe, witnessing the rise of nationalism and the effects of the Great Depression. He describes how he got the idea for the film: "I was riding in my car one day and saw a mass of people coming out of a factory, punching time clocks, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that the theme note of modern times is mass production. I wondered what would happen to the progress of the mechanical age if one person decided to act like a bull in a china shop." The movie portrays a very different reality from the pre-World-War-I world into which the Little Tramp character was born. Workers were being replaced by machines, and — even worse — assembly-line labor was turning them into machines themselves. Humanity was second to progress and efficiency, and Chaplin turned anxiety into comedy. When the movie opens, the Little Tramp is working in a factory, but his mindless and repetitive task — which he must perform faster and faster to satisfy the foreman — drives him mad and he literally becomes a cog in the great machine of industry. He spends the rest of the movie in a series of jobs, and tries to get arrested so he can have three meals a day and a place to sleep. Eventually, he finds happiness in an anarchist lifestyle with his co-star, Paulette Goddard, who plays "the Gamine." They walk off into the sunset to the strains of the song "Smile," which was composed by Chaplin.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®