Archive for November, 2015

Some Thoughts on Mark Twain

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, ME with tags , , , , on November 30, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain (1835-1910).

He’s an important writer for me in many ways, as he is for everybody, though I couldn’t call him my very favorite American writer or the one I esteem the most. I would have to give the highest slots to some combination of Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe, and probably in that order, with Whitman and Twain about neck and neck somewhere behind that leading pack — and somewhere in front of most others.


But unlike the others, Twain has been there nearly my entire life. I wasn’t more than four or five when my father gave me one of my first books, an illustrated copy of Huckleberry Finn (Grossett and Dunlap edition). I don’t think he understood that it wasn’t exactly for very small children, or that it was preceded by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was undoubtedly the second Twain book I came to know, although I may have watched movie versions first. As I wrote in No Applause, the story of Huck Finn is important to me, not just because of the theatrical mountebank characters of the Duke and Dauphin…but I was early on enraptured by that idyllic image of running away, floating from place to place on a raft, and having adventures.

It’s curious I should love these books so much, given that I was just the sort of kid that Twain hated and made fun of all the time. I went around with a halo over my head all the time, I LOVED both school and Sunday-school, and I scorned and detested rebellious, trouble-making kids. That said…all kids play imaginative games and, more importantly, all kids get into trouble. Twain wrote these children so well…gave them credit for being people not poppets…they have feelings and thoughts, and they are generally good (morally) even if they frequently misbehave according to society’s artificial constructs. And in all honesty I did plenty of downright wicked things, I just tried not to openly defy authority, and there’s the difference. Tom and Huck and Jim (and to a lesser extent, Becky) dare to operate outside the law, hang the consequences. And they are good people — about as good as we are, at any rate. So their exploits make for highly attractive fantasy.

Twain’s heart was in this of course — the characters and the setting were based on his own memories of his childhood in Missouri. The broadest blanket statement I would make about Twain is that his writing is best the closer he sticks to himself and first hand observations. Journalism, memoir, commentary, humor, essays, semi-autobiographical fiction and lectures…this is where he excels. The farther he strays from that, the worse he gets. When we get to Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, for example, we have Jumped the Shark. The magic is gone. He has gone too far.


Believe it or not, I had not read Life on the Mississippi until this year. I’m not sure why I thought it wouldn’t appeal to me (I had read almost all of his major works by this point and still hadn’t gotten to this major one). I suppose I felt that I had read his autobiography (I read an early, three volume, unfinished edition as a teenager) and I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and those gave me so much pleasure — why would I want to read some non-fiction book about a river and riverboats?  Because Mark Twain wrote it, that’s why! I heard I was was related to some people Twain wrote about in the book (I have since learned I am also distantly related to Twain himself!) so I finally picked the book up for purely selfish reasons. I am now inclined to think of it as Twain’s masterpiece. Like many of of my favorite American books (Moby Dick and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are two examples) it defies categorization. Humor, history, science writing, autobiography, travelogue, current events…and his voice so strong throughout. Yeah, I think this may be his best book.


Other than the books I’ve mentioned, I think his best writing is in his humor pieces and short stories. Interestingly, that writing kind of spans his career. The humor squibs I associate mostly with the beginning of his career in the Far West in the 1860s (his “Jumping Frog” period as it were), when he would contribute to newspapers from San Francisco and Nevada (Roughing It covers that period as well). As for the short stories, some of his masterpieces date from what I call his “Mean Old Man” period, his bitter satires, so sour and dark because he just didn’t give a damn any more. Stories like “”The ₤1,000,000 Note”, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”, fit this description, and pave the way for later literary misanthropes like H.L. Menken and Kurt Vonnegut. One of my all time favorites dates from the early period though. In “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868), a train carrying a group of U.S. Congressmen gets snowed in while crossing the Rocky Mountains and the politicians use parliamentary procedure to determine the order in which they will eat each other. Now that’s what I call comedy!

I am so seldom tempted to quote Jim Morrison, but on this occasion it fits so nicely. When it comes to the writing of Mark Twain, “The West is the Best.” He is a genius when writing about his boyhood and young adulthood in Missouri, or the years that followed in the western mining camps. But like so many writers from the American West, he had an apparent inferiority complex. He seems downright obsequious in his awe for America’s Eastern Establishment, and for that of Europe. Unfortunately, he makes that the subject of his writing A LOT.


Okay, yeah, this is what I’m NOT looking for from Mark Twain.

Like so many writers, poets and visual artists of the late 19th/early 20th century, Twain was an amateur Medievalist. He seems to have a lot of fun writing in that voice, but he doesn’t know it as well, and it doesn’t quite land. Still, these are some of his more popular works — mostly because they are inspired ideas even if they fail in execution. These works include The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and (even less successfully) Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. If these have the power to make you cringe from time to time (they do me, anyway), I find his West-East culture clashy things the least bearable of all. These would be works like The Gilded Age, The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad. The irony of these works is that our Great Satirist and Hater of Hypocrisy is himself guilty of pretension. It doesn’t suit him but he seems to be striving for this badge of legitimacy ALL THE TIME. But it’s mixed. Like Ben Franklin before him (who stormed Paris high society wearing a coonskin cap), Twain gained a lot of attention by crashing the parlors of sophisticates bearing the earmarks of the roughneck — messy mop of hair, omnipresent cigar, and the white suit of a Southern plantation owner. But where does he go to live the instant he becomes established? Hartford, Connecticut. We don’t want sophistication from Mark Twain, we want “Americana” – – but he’s pushing his sophistication at you all the time.

Then again, he had something to prove. WE think he’s a genius, but mostly because he redefined the word. Those writers at the top of this post whom I mentioned that I love: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe…those are all pre-Twain. Their language is rich in allusion, highly wrought, and reflective of the influence of religion and the King James Bible. Before Twain there is Thanatopsis. Twain was an empiricist, not a metaphysician. The discipline of journalism taught him to be direct and immediate and to scrape off all filigree and gratuitous adornment. Twain’s writing embodies certain American principles: truth, clarity, simplicity. His primary acolyte was Hemingway —  the two of them cast a mutual shadow over American writing over the entire 20th century. While I recognize and appreciate Twain’s genius, stylistically I’ve always preferred the writers who’ve gone against that grain, writers like James Agee and Thomas Wolfe. I contend that it is legitimate to at least attempt to peer beyond the veil of reality. Words as ceremony rather than anecdote. I’m somewhat bored with the aesthetics of the 20th century.

Still, Twain is who we all want to be, isn’t it? And I have to acknowledge that I am not above that adolescent aspiration. Like him, I gave myself a nom de plume. Like him, I like to perform my writing, live and in person, wearing a costume. Like him, I want to run away and see the world and write, write, write about it, with a snarl, and a wink, and maybe even give the reader an Indian sunburn.


Happy Thanksgiving from Harrison Cady

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Thanksgiving, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on November 26, 2015 by travsd

Some charming Thanksgiving cartoons by my first cousin thrice removed:






Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History, Thanksgiving with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by travsd


Fear not, Pilgrims. I have a stake in this venerated holiday. By “carve” I don’t mean “hatchet job”. More like a dissection, a picking apart for the purposes of examination (and yes to decide what parts to keep, if any, and what parts to retain, devour or chuck in the bone heap). This is what a critic does, even a critic who (like me)  is 50% Puritan stock, and descended from half of the Pilgrims who made it through the first winter at Plymouth. Perhaps especially us, for I come from a long line of theologians who fought and argued and quibbled about MINUTE differences of opinion over doctrine the rest of us can’t even perceive nowadays.

Thanksgiving, like all holidays, is a complex cultural folk practice, devised by many hands, and imbued with many meanings. Like all religious or quasi-religious human folk practices, it doesn’t serve just one function but many. Some of these functions overlap, some are quite distinct. Among them:


First, as suggested by the name, a ceremony of thanks to God for our own blessings, whatever they are and whoever we are. This is a good thing, especially in America where even the least of us has a great deal more than the poor around the world. Indeed, most of us on Thanksgiving are actually giving thanks for having TOO much. Theoretically, this ritual needn’t be tied to Pilgrims or Plymouth or 1620. This aspect can stand on its own (just as it did in the mythologized “First Thanksgiving”) as a prayerful moment of “whew!” (Note the timing of the institution of Thanksgiving as a national holiday — the middle of the Civil War). There is a very “here and now” aspect to it, or there ought to be.


Secondly, the holiday as a ritual re-creation of the mythical “First Thanksgiving”, with implied thanks for the safety of the original Pilgrims. As a national festival, this aspect made the most sense when America was more homogeneous. America has never been completely homogeneous (and has been increasingly less so since the mid 19th century) but in the century or two or two and a half when the nation was in large majority white Anglo Saxon protestant it made much more sense to talk about “Our Forefathers”. Today, nearly 90% of Americans aren’t genetically related to a single Pilgrim, and a majority of Americans aren’t even WASPs, and no one lives according to the Pilgrim’s political or religious laws (or no appreciable number at any rate, although I wouldn’t bat an eye to learn there is some very tiny number of people who try to. Even Anabaptist groups like the Amish and Mennonites are wild ‘n’ crazy party hounds compared to the Pilgrims.) Still, because I AM a literal descendant of the Pilgrims, I will always think of them on this day with a certain amount of qualified reverence. If my ancestors had died I wouldn’t be here and I like being here. As do you, I imagine, otherwise you would move away.  But I can’t see how it makes any sense to celebrate this story if you don’t really want to, if they aren’t your literal ancestors. Like, if you’re Native American, I can see your maybe wanting to opt out

Which brings us to the third aspect of the holiday. Thanksgiving is also often presented as a ritual celebration of amity between English and Indians. This aspect has always been less than truthful to put it mildly. This is essentially how we present it to children. Think of the iconography. This coloring book picture is typical, right?


Okay, it’s not always that perverted. That Indian boy is a lech.

In school I recall learning the names Squanto, Samoset and Massasoit, alongside Jon Carver, Miles Standish, William Bradford, William Brewster, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. And at a young age — first grade, maybe? Basically what we learned is that “the Indians helped the Pilgrims”. The reality is more complex than white and red people sitting at a table breaking bread together. They may have done that on a particular occasion, but the day to day reality was one of mutual suspicion, a pattern of treachery, and eventually a series of decisive wars. Now that this is fairly common knowledge, this aspect of Thanksgiving looks like a lot of hypocritical self-congratulation for historical virtues we have not possessed. This is not to say we need to jettison this aspect, however, but that we should tweak it. It may be worthwhile to twist the knob 180 degrees and turn it into a COVENANT, a day of contemplation and commitment to the FUTURE day when the echoes and attitudes of colonialism are behind us. How about we work towards a lot of happy smiling Indians right now, rather than drawing smiles on the faces of the ones whose lives we’ve ruined?


“Mama? Why Is Plymouth Rock in this cage?”

The final and primary aspect of Thanksgiving I want to discuss is the idea of the “Pilgrims Landing at Plymouth Rock” as our National Origin Myth. Now, many nations have their myths of national origin and I think they are healthy things. Israel has Abraham. Rome had the story of Romulus and Remus. England has King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. One can see the appeal of our particular myth — the strong religious component makes it seem almost like a Biblical event. The land and the people are blessed and anointed in this scenario. Like the church of St. Peter, Plymouth (and therefore America) is founded upon a rock. And (the thing we should all be proudest of) there is the not inconsiderable element of the Mayflower Compact. It was not yet the Age of Locke, but it was the Age of Hobbes. There was a certain amount of belief in the Rule of Law. They drew up a founding document and made it the basis of their government. They elected their leaders democratically. And they essentially did things by committee. They talked things out. For the most part, it was not government by tyrant (though many of the laws of that government may not harmonize with modern ideas of human rights). Democracy and Rule of Law are American ideas, and are to be celebrated.

But the story of the Pilgrims is not America’s only founding myth nor is it our only possible one. There are others which bear examination and possibly even consideration for primacy.



What’s wrong with Plymouth Rock as our National Foundation Myth? Among other things, the Pilgrims were Separatists. They weren’t looking to found anything. They were running FROM something, not running TO something. In contrast with the larger group of Puritans who came later (see below), I don’t know that the Pilgrims of Plymouth were even looking to grow in size beyond their single congregation. Picture a church congregation over in England that’s somewhat intense, almost a cult. England is inhospitable (in point of fact, intolerant) so they go to Holland, but after a decade or so they become dissatisfied with that and seek some other place where they can do their own thing without being interfered with. So they go to the wilderness. Just their congregation. That’s all. This is essentially why there is not a Plymouth colony any more. They had very strict rules for belonging to their elite society. So they remained small and weak. There ‘s a kind of Law of the Jungle that prevails in organizations, whether you’re talking about polities or tv networks or religions or businesses. You may not be looking to grow yourself, but almost everybody else is, and sooner or later they will grow at your expense. Plymouth carried the seeds of its own destruction almost from the get-go. So nearby Massachusetts (see below) swallowed them up. And then other people with other values swallowed up Massachusetts.

So the Plymouth model was not efficacious or sustainable. I’d argue that it’s also not desirable nor any longer representative of what America stands for, although others may disagree. “Freedom of Religion” for most of us means something very different from what it meant to the Pilgrims. It’s not just a Negative Value, i.e., “Leave me alone to worship in my own way.” It’s also a Positive One: “I will leave YOU alone to worship in YOUR own way.” The Pilgrims were anything but tolerant of others’ rights to believe differently. They were a cruel theocracy, inflicting torture, harsh punishment, banishment, even the death penalty on non-conformists in their midst. If you were a Quaker, an Anabaptist, or accused of witchcraft you were persecuted. Really, the Pilgrims had more in common with Al-Quaeda than with modern America. There, I said it. They’re my relatives but I don’t have to agree with how they ran things! Today there may be many people, as much as half the country it seems, who would like to see a return to this, a return to America as some sort of theocracy as it was prior to the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution which is the foundation of our government. I would not. And thus the Plymouth Rock model doesn’t seem consonant with the idea of America as truly religiously tolerant.

Thirdly, Plymouth Rock doesn’t work completely as a foundation story because (as we always forget) there were several other American colonies prior to the one at Plymouth!

But if Plymouth Rock isn’t our Foundation story, what is? As it happens there are several existing American Foundation myths to compete with Plymouth Rock, as well as several potential ones. I’ll save my favorite for last.




This one is parodied and perpetuated almost as much as Plymouth Rock, and plays with the facts just as much. According to the story, Dutch Governor Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians for a handful of trinkets. It’s always related with a bit of a wink — America being founded as the result of a swindle, a sharp trade. There are ways in which this seems a more fitting, more accurate description of the eventual national character than Plymouth Rock. Peter Minuit as the Patron Saint of Wall Street and Madison Avenue. It fits. But at the back (or even the front) of our minds there’s something shameful about the anecdote, real or exaggerated. Many might privately make this their template for American behavior, but few would openly do so.



The Jamestown Colony was founded in 1607. English America truly begins THERE, not New England. But the English in Virginia didn’t even get a grace period in their relations with the local Indians. The tension and constant warfare began right away. And thus the best known myth of the Virginia experience: the love story about Captain John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas, culminating in her risking her own life in pleading with Chief Powhatan to spare Captain Smith’s. In reality, there was no romance, and Pocahontas later married a Native American husband. But again, this story seems to symbolize potential amity between the races, one that did not actually come to pass. You seen any Powhatan Indians lately?

The grim reality of the early history of the Chesapeake colonies is almost too much to bear. It is a story of the ugly side of capitalism. The New Amsterdam story is a least “whimsical”. It’s about capitalism, but only at the level of the “deal” or the “sale”, which at least has one foot in charm and art. But Virginia and nearby colonies — that narrative is about mass production, exploitation, and the birth of slavery, and all in the service of a product no more necessary and no less deleterious than tobacco. There is a way in which America was literally founded by Big Tobacco. The cultivation and sale of a poisonous product which enriched a very few, and enslaved and killed millions. There really is no other lesson to be drawn from what grew out of Jamestown. None. there is nothing — nothing — good or inspiring about it. No one’s ever going to adapt this and celebrate it as their “story” except perhaps a handful of corporate scoundrels, and then only in secret. But it is true.



This one is enticing to examine because it is the first English colony, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh on an island off what is now North Carolina. It continues to intrigue because it is a mystery. The colonists all vanished, leaving behind many of their belongings and some strange messages scrawled onto trees. Today we treat it as sort of a ghost story. More than likely they were captured by Indians, but solid proof of what happened has never turned up. It’s not a good ORIGIN myth, as there’s no better example of a colony that failed and thus didn’t become America, but it is a very good campfire story.




The oldest continuously inhabited North American city founded by Europeans is St. Augustine, Florida. But other than the citizens of St. Augustine, Americans aren’t likely to embrace the founding of this city as their national myth any time soon. Not so much because it was founded by Spaniards and America is ethnically “English”; that is increasingly no longer the case. But because it was not in one of the original 13 colonies, and thus gestated outside the American form of government. It became the 27th American state in 1845. Thus though it may have been founded in 1565, it didn’t join the rest of “America” until almost three centuries later.



This small island off Massachusetts was the site of a brief settlement lasting less than a month in 1602. This makes it the first English settlement after the abortion at Roanoake, although it too lived a very brief life. Read about it here.


POPHAM (1607):

This one shouldn’t be as obscure as it is — but it is. At the same time Jamestown was being founded, another colony was started in what is now Maine. Have you been to Maine? Well, it’s colder than Massachusetts, just one of several reasons, I imagine, that this colony lasted less than a year. (Although they grow excellent potatoes in Maine, and that’s not to be sneezed at). Another (probably decisive) reason the colony folded is that its leader, George Popham, died. But the colony made a mark of sorts. The first ship built in America was made at Popham. Read about the colony here. 



Roger Conant’s famous statue in Salem is ominous and imposing and gives the false impression that he was a severe character. Those who don’t walk away with the impression that he was some sort of wizard, naturally think he was a scary Puritan. But by all accounts he was very much neither. Conant was one of the early Plymouth settlers; he arrived on the ship Anne in 1623. But he quickly decided he didn’t like the oppressive way the place was run so by 1624 he went off on his own, leading the settlement of a succession of locations: Nantasket, Cape Ann, and finally Salem, which he founded. Because they were located north of the Boston area which became the base of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (which had an official charter), Conant’s settlements were swallowed up. In 1628, Salem was taken over by John Endicott, an early representative of what would become the leadership of Massachusetts. Conant didn’t fight it. Conant is an early exemplar of what might be call America’s independent, pioneer spirit. He really had no agenda other than wanting to be left alone, and making a place for others who similarly wished to be left alone. Unfortunately his legacy sort of got gobbled up by history. Whatever it is he may be said to have founded was almost immediately taken over by others.


MERRYMOUNT (1625-1630)

I would say this one almost merits inclusion in the section of existing myths (it has that shape) but it isn’t well enough known by the general public. The best known account (by well read people anyway) is the short story about the incident which Nathaniel Hawthorne included in his Twice Told Tales (I adapted this story for the stage about ten years ago; it was produced by Metropolitan Playhouse). In a way, Merrymount was an early attempt to found an America which we weren’t truly to come to know until well into the 20th century — some still aren’t ready for it. Its founder Thomas Morton was what you might call an anti-Puritan: a free-wheeling businessman, a man of the world, fully invested in the cultural revival engendered by the Renaissance (with all of its paganism), and an exponent of mainstream English culture (i.e. a regular member of the Church of England, which — much like Catholicism — mixes Christianity with pre-Christian folk tradition. The sort of thing Puritans find very, very sinful).  Morton was persecuted at the hands of the Puritan authorities, and Merrymount passed into history. He was a fascinating guy, a kind of hero of mine, but maybe a little too “out there” for most Americans to embrace.



When I was a kid I didn’t understand the difference between this story and that of the Pilgrims. I’m sure I’ve always lumped the names of Winthrop and Endicott in with the Pilgrims etc and I’m sure a lot of people still do. It’s taken awhile for me to sort it out and learn the differences. The Pilgrims, a few hundred in number, were the radical of the radical. But there were tens of thousands of other Puritans back in England who held many similar views, but weren’t radical enough to advocate breaking completely with the established Church of England. Unlike the Pilgrims, they could stick it out a while longer. But around 1626, King Charles started making life very difficult for these people. In 1629 he dissolved Parliament. This is when some wealthy Puritan leaders applied (and received) a charter to start the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630 John Winthrop came with a fleet of ships containing close to 1,000 people and they settled the area around Boston.

There is a strong case to be made that this is the actual founding of America — at least of New England. It’s much mushier than the Plymouth story so its harder to mythologize. But the truth is that a decade after 1620 there were still only a few hundred people in Plymouth, but by 1640 there were 20,000 people in Massachusetts Bay (and the colonies that branched off it (Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and what would later be called Maine). You might say that if the Great Migration hadn’t occurred, what there was of Plymouth could scarcely be called a colony….just a little cult living in a compound not too different than numerous communes that have popped up across America in the ensuing centuries. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans DID come to found something. It was Winthrop who gave us that phrase “City on a Hill”. That’s what they were founding.

Still, the Puritans, like the Pilgrims before them, were intolerant of dissenters in their midst. And the dissenters are my idea of model Americans.



Okay, I swear this is not because I am FROM Rhode Island. But I think it’s almost certainly the case that I am AWARE of this story because I am from Rhode Island. The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was the first American colony (and surely one of the first places in the world) to have true religious tolerance as part of its mission. This meant not just that its founders were fleeing Massachusetts and Plymouth so they could worship as they chose, but also that, once they founded their settlements, they allowed others to do the same. The oldest synagogue in the United States is in Rhode Island — because Rhode Island was tolerant of Jews. They were also tolerant of Quakers. And anyone else. It wasn’t until the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that this philosophy became official and embraced throughout the rest of the United States, and it only became truly universal after 1818, when Connecticut, the last state to have an official religion (Congregationalism) stopped doing so. (Utah, of course, was also founded as a theocracy, but that changed when it joined the United States).

What complicates the mythologizing of the Rhode Island story is that it is actually two inspiring foundings. Much like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, Rhode Island was created out of the merging of two different settlements. Most people don’t even know Rhode Island’s official name — at least they seem dumbfounded when I tell them, but the name tells the story. It is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”. “Rhode Island” refers to the island of Aquidneck, where Portsmouth and Newport are located. And “Providence Plantations” refers to the area around the state’s capital city, which was founded first.

The Providence story has the better shape for a myth. Roger Williams, a forceful and charismatic minister arrived in Boston shortly after its founding, in 1631. And he was invited to be the teacher at the church there, but he turned it down, because it was not “separated” [i.e. from the Church of England”]. You would think this would make him a shoe-in for Plymouth, but he didn’t get along with leaders there either. He was invited to be the minister at Salem, but the offer was rescinded. So in 1636, he and his followers went into what is now Rhode Island, where the Indians are said to have greeted him with the phrase, “What Cheer, Neetop?”, which roughly means “S’up, Homey?”

Williams not only allowed freedom of conscience, but the separation of church and state, decided things through majority democracy, was not just fair but exemplary in his dealings with the Indians (he learned their language, he BOUGHT land from them rather than taking it), and tried to outlaw slavery. In the years after his leadership, the colony backslid on some of these things, but the fact remains — THIS is the founding of the kind of America I believe in. I have ancestors among pretty much all of these bunches (Plymouth, Massachusetts etc), but this is the bunch I choose, the ones who reflect my values.


The second group, the “Rhode Island” group led by Anne Hutchinson (take note: a woman!) and others, were branded Antinomians by the Massachusetts leaders. They founded their settlement in 1638. Roger Williams had founded what became known as the Baptist church, that’s largely what Providence was about. But in Portsmouth and Newport, Quakers and other way out religions flourished.

One thing I love about the Rhode Island founding is that it includes Native Americans in a much more positive and truthful way. And, as we said, the Freedom of Religion there was actual Freedom of Religion. These events may have happened later, but they happened better. This is when MY America was founded.  And when I want to honor my ancestors and our Founders, the ones who founded Rhode Island truly deserve pride of place. Just putting that out there. Happy Thanksgiving!


Plotz, Part 2: The Lisa Hammer Interview

Posted in Comedy, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by travsd


As we blogged here yesterday, a new feature length film of the popular web series The Sisters Plotz premieres tonight at Anthology Film Archives, presented by New York Women in Film and Television. The show and film are a kind of three way collaboration combining the celebrity power of The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb (my middle school crush, I’m not ashamed to say), the deadpan-slapstick direction of underground film-maker/actor/ musician  Lisa Hammer, and the sparkling retro-writing of screenwriter/ songwriter Lisa Ferber. As they roll out the movie, we’ll have interviews with the principals, including some great behind-the-scenes video of the (spoiler alert!) pie fight. Today, we continue with a Q & A with  Lisa Hammer, who directed the film and portrays the character of Ladybug Plotz.

You’ve created an amazing, voluminous body of highly distinctive work, and I am fairly dazzled. And watching a bunch of it helped me hone in on which aspects of the Plotz ouevre come from you, and which from the Ferb. The overlapping parts I notice are a love for the antiquarian and a love of style (not just clothes but other aspects of the mise en scene as well). One area of divergence one could point out might be a greater darkness, almost nihilism in your sensibility which I relate to and also identify with many artists our age. “Grunge-iness” for lack of a better word, deriving a lot of humor and freedom from bringing an irreverent “fuck it” to many aspects of the process. Maybe I’m tipping my hand a little, but them’s the beginnings of how I would grope toward describing your work. So the first question would be something like, can you speak to that — the interaction of your’s and Ferber’s sensibilities? Who contributes what? How are you the same, different etc?

I love your descriptions! I definitely bring a playful “fuck it” my work. I am guessing it’s from my punk/goth teenage years that I haven’t outgrown. Plus growing up on radically absurdist humor like Monty Python, etc had an influence. I also love the aesthetics of bygone eras. My grandfather, Bayard Stockton, had a huge collection of 78″ dixieland records which he would play for me, and just hanging around the Stockton house was like taking a time machine to the past. I grew up being obsessed with the 20’s, 30’s 40’s, even the 60’s- watching tons of silent movies and technicolor musicals. I wanted to live inside the films. While classmates had celebrity crushes on Sean Cassidy, mine were on Rudolph Valentino and Buster Keaton. When high school came around I added hotties like Dave Vanian to the crush-mix, and, well, here we are.

How’d you guys meet, how did all this come about?
Lisa Ferber and I met through a friend (who has been a great supporter of mine since the 90’s) Shade Rupe. He asked us to act in a film he was directing for the “It Came From Kuchar Film Festival” called Whimsellica’s Grand Inheritance, and we won the audience award. My husband and creative partner Levi Wilson acted in that frantically fun film as well, written by Lisa Ferber. We all hit it off immediately!

Talk about the creative team some, especially the ensemble cast. Like, who’s from the Hammer universe and who’s from the Ferber universe?
I think we brought the Plotz cast in about 50-50 hers and my contacts. All of them are the “cream-of-the-crop” as performers and as people. The crew was mostly from my end since I’m a filmmaker, and these were very bold kids who had emailed me that they were graduating from film school and wanted to help on my next film as interns. They all learned very quickly and rose to great positions in this film, from DP’s to Co-Producers. I’m so proud of them!

What do you like about Other Lisa’s writing?
I love Lisa Ferber’s style and her sense of whimsy. I never know what to expect from her dialog and I’m always pleasantly surprised! There’s a perfect mix of archaic phrases, absurdist humor, expert word-smithery (word?) and modern popular references that I have not seen in anyone else’s writing. I love to contribute story because I’m an idea person and I blurt out ridiculous ideas. Lisa F takes them and makes them come alive and make sense in such a beautiful way.

What’s the experience like of acting in this?
 Acting in this was a dream. I got to bring in my love of science and inventions and also my operatic vocal training and comedy timing. My years of acting classes have also been put to use, happily no money was wasted through years of “trying to make it look like I’m not acting”, by getting fed up with acting rules, throwing it all out the window, then just convincing myself that I’m really that person at that moment. Whew!

Talk about how Eve fits in. Your sensibility is SO underground, and here you have the ultimate mainstream tv star as one of your cast. Is there clash in approaches? Is the clash a good thing? 
Eve is SO funny, dark and twisted, just like us. She gets it right away. And she’s so pro on set it raises the bar of production to a new level.

Was it always the plan to turn the series into the feature?
No, at first Lisa asked us to perform in the staged reading in NY, then that night it dawned on me that we should film it, for fun. Then after we did that I put it online and we became a Funny or Die top 5 video, leading to some insult posts by confounded jocks, which only encouraged us to escalate. So then I thought it should be a TV series, but then I woke up one day and my heart screamed “feature film!” (I have voices in my heart.)

What are the plans for the film after the premiere?
After the premier we will do the festival circuit and then look for a distributor/sales agent.

What else ya got going on?
My next big project is Maybe Sunshine an original series about a 48 year old woman (played by me) in “Millennial-trust-fund-brat-haven” New York City, trying to restart her rock band. Based on my real life band Radiana and my countless absurd experiences singing in bands since the 1980’s. We are currently inviting people to get involved with our show, which will launch in early 2016. My character faces the funny little obstacles that come at women as they age. There are lots of quirky characters in the show as well, and some great guest stars like comedians and musicians, and music by several cool bands. It’s kind of like Louie meets The Monkees. I will also be collaborating on story with Lisa Ferber for her “Fondue Film” project!
For more information on tonight’s screening, go here.

“The Sisters Plotz” Premieres Tomorrow at Anthology

Posted in Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by travsd


Nu, I should kvell about Plotz?

Well, I predict that I will. A new feature length film of the popular web series The Sisters Plotz premieres tomorrow at Anthology Film Archives, presented by New York Women in Film and Television. The show and film are a kind of three way collaboration combining the celebrity power of The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb (my middle school crush, I’m not ashamed to say), the deadpan-slapstick direction of underground film-maker/actor/ musician  Lisa Hammer, and the sparkling retro-writing of screenwriter/ songwriter Lisa Ferber. Surrounding this trio are a magical ensemble cast of top notch character actors including Hammer’s hubbie/collaborator Levi Wilson, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson (Boardwalk Empire) and our old buddy Stephen Heskett, whom we’ve had the pleasure of acting with in shows such as Spacemen from Space and The Strange Case of Grippo the Ape Man (Who can forget?) as well as the upcoming The Moose Head Over the Mantel. 

As they roll out the movie, we’ll have interviews with the principals, including some great behind-the-scenes video of the (spoiler alert!) pie fight. Today, we begin with a Q & A with Ferber, who wrote the screenplay and portrays the character of Whimsellica Plotz.

What was the genesis of The Sisters Plotz web series?

When I had the chance to write a short play for a yearly reading series, I knew I wanted to use the word “buttle,” which a friend had just taught me was the verb for what a butler does, and that I wanted to work with Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer. So I figured I’d write something where we all play heiress sisters and we have a butler, and then I’d get to live my dream.

How did you meet your two main cohorts [Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer]? What was the evolution of getting them on board? 

I met them both within the same few months, in early 2010. The director doing my short film Whimsellica’s Grand Inheritance was casting for the role of Cookie Weinglass and sent me a photo of Lisa Hammer. I thought, “Sure, she’s cute, why not!” The second I saw her in real life, I thought, “Friend.” We spent the day shooting with the other cast members, and I loved how sparkly and sweet and funny she was, and I thought, “She’s a keeper.” I met Eve when I went to an art show she was doing at an Upper West Side gallery. I’m interested in other multidisiciplinary people since I paint, write, and perform, and I wonder what makes other people branch out and not feel limited to one definition. We talked a little and I just found her so earthy and present, so I asked her if she wanted to be in an art show I was doing at the National Arts Club. That happened a few months later, and then she asked if I wanted to hang out, and we had dinner at a local, low-key Italian place. It was such a natural first-friend-hang, and there was just this comfort and trust thing–plus we crack each other up. I really lucked out with those two. In both cases, I told them I was writing this short play and asked them to be in it, and we went from there.


What was the impetus for a feature (as opposed to the series?) 

I owe this all to Lisa Hammer trusting my voice and my work. After the short play reading, she said, “Let’s film it!” So we divided up what we had and put on the web as a series (we debuted as a Top Five Most-Viewed Video on Funny or Die), but I never wrote specifically for the web. Then she suggested I write a 40-minute segment as a potential TV pilot, which we showed in a few theaters, and then she said, “Let’s make it a feature!”  I mean, who’s going to say no to any of this? I can’t even deal with how magical and unexpected this whole thing has been and continues to be. My gratitude level is bursting these days, and periodically I think, “OK, world, we’re on.”

What were the challenges/ differences of the feature, as opposed to the series?

The only real challenge, although it’s also a joy, was finding more stuff for the characters to do. So I threw in some duplicitous maids who are stealing from the sisters, a councilwoman who wants to end all scientific experiments and turn the Plotz home into a carnival, and some romantic suitors including the wealthy scion of a family that made its fortune in only slightly illegal ways, and there we have a feature.

You’ve got such a strong, clear voice — it carries over across media, whether its your humor stories (fiction), plays, paintings, or films. Where did it come from? Who inspires you? Who influenced you? And did you have any mentor or teachers who influenced you IRL (as opposed to famous people whose work you enjoy?)

Thank you! How kind. I think the best feeling for an artist is to know that their voice is heard and appreciated. I’m sort of the product of 1970s sitcoms, which is what I was raised on,1930s screwball comedies and 1940s film noir, though I also know I had this voice when I had only just started watching the ’30s and ’40s stuff. So maybe all those episodes of The Odd Couple and Barney Miller made me the artist I am today. With 1970s sitcoms, a lot of it is really high-energy, drawing-room theater based on witty exaggerated personalities, which is how I write. I also think if you X-rayed my brain there might be some episodes of Lidsville and Sigmund & the Sea Monsters in there—that whole unfettered madcap nuttiness of the era. And I think the TV special Really Rosie made me feel like I could do anything. I’ve also read a fair amount of 19th century novels, and the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Feydeau.

As for real life influences, absolutely my father. I feel like he didn’t know how hilarious he was but I’m sure he could go one-on-one with S.J. Perelman. He made up this character named Farfel Noodnick, who turned out to be the first subject of an illustrated novel I wrote for my parents when I was 7. He used to sing funny songs with my sister and me on my parents’ bed when we were growing up, and he played Scrabble with me and really encouraged a love and understanding of words. He was also a master of gentle sarcasm and when I would complain about some horrible affront to my 10-year-old sensibilities, he would say, in full Bronx accent, “My heart bleeds for you, kid” or “Things are tough all over.” My father also had a way of making me feel like I was darling, and I think as an artist, it’s so helpful to feel like you have someone in your corner; someone who just wants to hear you sing your song. Humor was a constant theme when I was growing up, and by now I consider it one of my essential nutrients. My mom had the kind of dry, dame sense of humor that I only appreciated when I grew up. She wasn’t playful like my dad, but she could wield it. One of the sage bits of advice she gave me was, “You should always go to a party. If the man is a letch, or the woman is a bore, you can always go get another drink.”

Allen Lewis Rickman on "Boardwalk Empire". I'd watch the film just for HIM!

Allen Lewis Rickman on “Boardwalk Empire”. I’d watch the film just for HIM!

Talk a little about your awesome ensemble. One thing that’s very cool is that there’s a large number of people all enthusiastically on board for this common vision.

We pulled a bunch of glamorous eccentrics from all areas. Most of them are seasoned actors, but then there are people like Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who plays Petula Feather, who isn’t a professional actress but she’s the friend who taught me the word “buttle” and I knew she’d be elegant on film, and my friend Katie Gilbert, who tears it up as the innocent-looking but totally scheming maid Rosie. It’s fun to cast actors who you know have their own magic to bring, where it’s like, “Let’s play together.” A lot of this experience felt like being a little kid, but with a lot more freedom and power. We’re just getting all dressed up and pretending, and it’s so much fun. The stuff I write isn’t about looking deep inside yourself and getting serious with it; it’s about combining your own sparkle with the dialogue and letting your beauty shine and having a ball. And of course, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, both of whom had recurring roles on Boardwalk Empire and were in the Coen Brothers film A Simple Man, were a tremendous gift to the film. I’d seen Allen on stage some time ago, and I mean, it’s so obvious he could play any lovable curmedgeonly baker, policeman, or butcher in a 1930s film that features a pie fight (which ours does), and that he has a love for the period and the style. So I walked over to him after the first time I saw him perform, handed him my card and said, “Hi, I’m Lisa Ferber, I’m a writer and I’d like to work with you someday.” I kept seeing him in stuff around town, and then Mary Feinsinger, who ended up being our composer but at that time was just a friend and BMI colleague, asked if I’d like to go go see her friend Allen and his wife Yelena in a Yiddish-themed production downtown. So I got to meet Yelena, who is just so marvelously demure and warm, and when it came to shoot Plotz, I thought, “Please, pleeeeaaaaase let them work with me.”  Let’s just say Margaret Dumont would give Yelena’s performance in Plotz a long-distance thumbs-up. When I first met these two, I wasn’t even performing, so to then get to act in a movie with them, well, something I love in life is that you really never know that dreams you weren’t even consciously working on will come true.  I think in the entertainment world, we form little families, so I was happy to have the two of them become Plotzniks.

 What are the plans for the film?

Ultimately, I’d like to take over the world with Plotz. Directly after the debut, we’ll be exploring festival opportunities, and from there distribution. It’s all pretty new to me, so I suspect getting into some good festivals will help us attract a distributor. I’d love a run at an art house in New York City, like Film Forum, or the Quad, or a run at Anthology. There’s a lot of research and reaching out coming up, and I’m psyched for it. Also, I have to admit that the word Plotz is funny every single time. I’m so glad I didn’t call this The Sisters Smith. You’re just not going to have a bad day if you’re saying things like “Let’s try to get Plotz to Cannes.” I’d also love to show this on TV; ideas come to me all the time and I’d like to keep living the Plotz experience. It’s been very hard since filming ended and I have to confront not really having a butler, so I’d like to continue this for a few more years. Plus, the Tina Fey’s  film Sisters comes out in December, and Amy Schumer is writing a sister comedy with Jennifer Lawrence, so I kind of think we’re on to something.

For more information on tomorrow’s screening, go here.

“Saints and Strangers”: Verdict at the Mid-Point

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Television with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by travsd


Just following up on yesterday’s enthusiastic plug for Saints and Strangers to pull back a little. I’ll probably watch part two tonight, but I’m indifferent as to whether I see it or not, as what I’ve seen so far isn’t what I would call up to the mark.

The aspect of the show that I am most enthusiastic about (and it’s not insignificant) is the visual. It looks gorgeous, and near as I can tell it looks correct, in terms of sets, props, costumes and so forth. A major thing one seeks from such historical dramas (at least I do) is a kind of immersive virtual reality fantasy. You want to be “taken back”. If it weren’t moving so fast (more on that below) this film would achieve that.

I also approve highly of the casting. This is in some senses an all-star cast, or at least a B list cast of cult favorites, and I’m real happy with the actors and the acting I see on screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell from Mad Men) as William Bradford is not only terrific, he looks terrific (shaggy hair, whiskers and all). He’s even better in this role than he was as Pete, and I hope it bodes well for his future career. Ron Livingston (whom we always call “the guy from Office Space but he’s had a lot of other great roles, but that one is indelible) is Jon Carver, Plymouth’s first Governor — also great. Ray Stevenson (whom I loved as Titus in Rome) is very well cast here as  the trouble-making John Billington. The first half hour or 40 minutes virtually belongs to the lovely Anna Camp (fresh in my mind from her recurring role on The Good Wife, which we’ve been binge-watching, but she’s also on True Blood) as the despondent Dorothy Bradford. In a BRILLIANT bit of stunt casting Tatanka Means, son of Native American actor/ activist Russell Means plays the suspicious Hobbomock, advisor to Massasoit. And there are several more like this. It’s very strange that the National Geographic Channel isn’t promoting the involvement of these people more, as it would attract viewers I should think. But they seem to have made the decision to make the Mayflower Passengers “the stars” of this movie, and that’s laudable as far as it goes (we’ll address where they fail on that score below as well).


So it looks great, and is well acted, so what’s the problem? Well, there’s the minor issue of the script. The main problem is that the creators have bitten off way more than they can chew. It’s really an unwinnable war, trying to cram these events into two 2-hour telefilms, with breaks for commercials. As it is, they truncate it in truly harmful ways. The story begins when the Mayflower is halfway across the Atlantic, and so we don’t get ANY important context about who these people are, what they believe, or what they have already gone through prior to the voyage (it was a lot). I’m sorry, but religion is a SLIGHTLY important aspect of this story, don’t you think? The film-makers attempt to tell this slice of the story on the fly, as the “Saints” squabble with the “Strangers” (i.e. the half of the ship’s company who weren’t Pilgrims) throughout their travails. But that doesn’t begin to do it. Who are these people and what did they believe? I still don’t know, halfway through the movie. (Well, of course I know — but not from watching this movie).

A small portion of our main characters

A small portion of our main characters

Then, on top of that, given the time constraints they try to squish SO much in, and it’s still far from sufficient. There were 102 passengers on the Mayflower and 30 crew. You can’t tell ALL of their stories, although that’s what tv docudramas always try to do. Thus, really, NONE of their stories get told, because every character gets two seconds here, five seconds there. People die but I have no idea who they were because I never met them. I STILL don’t know if William Brewster is in the story at all. He’s somewhat important to the story of the Pilgrims, yah? I noticed most of the other key Mayflower characters in the film last night, but if Brewster was in it, it slipped by me and the character isn’t listed on the IMDB page (many of them aren’t). THEN, on top of that, the script has to accomplish so much of a factual nature that every single line is an on-the-nose, expository factoid designed to communicate with the audience far more than to the other characters. Even so, important events drop out, or are given far too little weight as they whiz by at breakneck pace. I know the story quite well by now, thanks to this book and others, but I swear if you didn’t, I’m not sure what you’d get out of this.


But that’s not all! Because for a story that’s ostensibly about the Mayflower passengers, (in the title, in all of the promotions), the film ALSO takes on the additional story of the Native American leaders. And may I say, seems to care more about them in the bargain, as they are easily the most compelling, focused and interesting characters, as written. There are fewer of them, their motives are clear, and we can easily tell them apart, which is more than you can say for most of the Pilgrim characters. And that’s fine. In fact an ENTIRE movie from that perspective would be cool. But it’s taking too much on for a movie that probably clocks at about three and a half hours.

The bottom line is that the story they want to tell ought to be a mini-series at least. And it would be the coolest! But I’m telling ya, you need a week’s worth of episodes at the minimum: 1) Scrooby, 2) Holland, 3) Mayflower Voyage, 4) Landing, etc etc etc right on through the First Thanksgiving. That television event awaits – -I hope somebody does it! What’s more I hope somebody does it with THIS cast, director (Paul A. Edwards) and design staff!

Moran and Mack are “HYNPOTIZED”

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on November 22, 2015 by travsd

Hypnotized 1-sh

Today is the birthday of Charles Mack (1887-1934), the senior and more comical member of the blackface vaudeville comedy team “Moran and Mack”, a.k.a. “Two Black Crows” (for more on the team see my original post here). In observation of the day (we can hardly say “honor”) we dredge up the team’s 1932 feature Hypnotized. (The offensiveness of blackface is a given. We write about that aspect of the practice here frequently. All the more reason for it to be evaluated and studied as a bellwether of the attitudes we hope to extinguish).

This is Mack Sennett’s last feature, and to watch it is to watch the reason why. Sennett was a great, even inspired producer and studio chief, and the Godfather of the American Comedy film, so I am of course saddened that his studio went out of business in the mid ’30s. But that he stopped directing? I’m okay with that. Normally his thing was shorts (i.e., short films, not underwear, although the latter could occasionally be pressed into play in the service of the former). But occasionally he did pull together the wherewithal to make a feature and some of them were fairly significant and have aged as well as can be expected: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), A Submarine Pirate (1915), Mickey (1918), A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919), A Small Town Idol (1921), and The Shriek of Araby (1923). But by 1932, Hollywood studio product had gotten pretty slick, and Sennett, who had learned his craft around 1910 hadn’t really progressed as a director to match the times. If he had continued directing, my guess, based on this film and others, like The Timid Young Man (1935) with Buster Keaton, is that later films with Sennett at the helm would have been something like those of guys like Jean Yarbrough, William Beaudine or at best Norman Taurog: butchery-hackery in the service of good-natured but idiotic dreck.

Hynotized has a top flight cast (in addition to the titular stars there are Wallace Ford, Charlie Murray, Ernest Torrence and Marjorie Beebe), a fairly good script, and professional (expensive looking) sets and settings. But the direction and editing are très primitive; it simply looks and sounds technically shabby. At this juncture (money woes caused by the Great Depression combined with a critical attitude on the part of the audience towards film folks from the silent era), Sennett couldn’t afford reputation-wise to put this sort of product out.  It can’t have helped him any to secure directing work when his studio folded. (And it didn’t. He got to direct some shorts at low rent Educational Pictures, then they too went out of business. After that, Sennett couldn’t even get arrested.) So you can see why this movie is so obscure today. The ineptitude, combined with the now socially disfavored blackface, render Hypnotized unwatchable by most contemporary standards as anything but a historical curiosity. (I was amused to see that a company that sells the film on DVD uses the attractive lure, “It’s not nearly as bad as people say it is!”) But as a historical curiosity, it is well worth watching.

Anyway, it’s set in a circus. Ford plays an elephant trainer who falls in love with a gypsy princess singer (Maria Alba). At first he’s nasty and surly but then he wins a horse race and now he’s emboldened to tell the girl how he feels. Charlie Murray is the circus owner and ringmaster. He arranges big public circus wedding and sells tickets to it. Then Ford never shows up. The girl is devastated. Murray escorts her back to Europe on an ocean liner. Then they spy Ford and his sidekick (Charlie Mack. Though this is billed as Moran and Mack vehicle, the former is scarcely in the film at all, a factor of their constant squabbling). It turns out Ford and Mack were hypnotized and enslaved by an unscrupulous hypnotist (Torrence) and employed as his assistants. (Vaudeville trivia: That line which the hypnotist uses when he mesmerizes someone, “Rigid!” would have been recognized by audiences at the time as the signature of stage hypnotist Pauline.) Now that Ford and Mack are found, there is all sorts of running around the ship business, it gets quite crazy. People keep falling into swimming pools. Finally it all sorts itself out as comedies do.

The irony is that Hypnotized fails at the main thing we’re hoping to get out of all this, which is a proper peek at the vaudeville team of Moran and Mack. Like many a desperate producer, Sennett hired the team to exploit their fame without adding to it. The movie needed to be as good a showcase for the their reputed talents as their comedy records. In the end, it is only a curiosity.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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