As Their Own Words: The "Colorless Green Ideas" of Sleep Furiously

How strange, I thought, sitting in the darkened auditorium of our local art house movie theater. Here I am, watching a film capturing the world around me—my immediate environs, the people who are now, in terms of proximity, though not, generally, of propinquity, my neighbors. Looking on once again brought home just how removed I am from the lives and experiences of the people shown on the screen, insisting instead on reliving my recent trip to New York, city and state.

That one of them is a friend, and that the film’s director is her son, only added to the sensation of not being truly part of the networks of people among whom I now happen to reside, that I seem to be less part of the land than our terrier, Montague, leaping through the fields.

The film was Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously (2007), one of the official selections screening at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. You might call it a documentary; but it really is more precisely a document, meaning that no documentarian vision is imposed on what we are being shown. While the images of rural life in Wales are reminiscent of Humphrey Jennings’s aforementioned Silent Village, Sleep Furiously does not extract a message from what it examines, other than articulating an apparent respect for the life depicted. It captures what some argue to be endangered; it preserves what some fear to be fading. Beyond that, however, the film does not so much as construct a syntactic unit from the words it permits us to overhear.

The seeming randomness of Sleep Furiously (whose title is derived from Noam Chomsky’s famous grammatical yet nonsensical sentence) invites us to study each moment, each figure in the landscape as so many nouns and verbs. It is an encyclopedia of a place, not a social commentary.

The camera is mostly static. It is the people, the landscape and the living things in it that are in motion; and it is this movement within the frame that compels us to keep watching: a library van creeping up and down narrow countryside lanes, people busy at their day’s work, farm animals giving birth, raindrops gliding along a washing line. We are encouraged to look at snapshots, rather than judge or ponder the judgment of a curator who, by comparing and setting aside, is out to assign a definite space to each artifact with the intention of fixing a meaning beyond that each shot may either have intrinsically or hold for us, the individual spectators. Instead, the people we meet speak for themselves without posing or being imposed upon.

Freed from the burden of being representative types, mere manifestations of a director’s position of manifesto, the individuals we meet come alive; and however insignificant they might be to the world at large, their words and image become memorable. It is the lens and the microphone that communicate and let communicate, that extend the hidden community in which they dwell.

For once, I got to see the life in the cottages and farms all around me, disconnected as I remain from most of them and they from me. And, next time I see our friend, I can tell her: hey, I never knew that about you—that you put a dead owl into your freezer and mailed it off to a taxidermist; that you renewed your library copy of Glorious Cakes; that you introduce children to the art of pottery; or that you place stones upon your husband’s grave . . .

I sensed that, beneath the syntax those who look on or judge without bothering to look construct out of our lives, we are all word made flesh. Most of us aspire to being nouns, to being somebodies, while others are adjectives, enriching or changing the lives of those on whom they depend for their own meaning.

The lucky ones are verbs: those who make, who mean, who matter without being mere complements of someone else’s sentence. Unless we are prepared to remain a question answerable to others—Happy? Misfit? Either . . . or?—we had better work at being and creating. Try! Continue! Change! That, not simply syntactically speaking, is imperative!

Secondary Childhood; or, Pandas to Ponder

Wili and Wali at Penrhyn Castle

It is not dotage but a momentary state of doting. Not the reliving of one’s own youth, however romanticized, but an imagining—or experiencing—of what it means to be very young while looking at objects or confronted with performances not created with me in mind. Not reverie, in short, but empathy. That is what I call “secondary childhood”—the state of being elsewhere in time and space, being young there while being here and quite otherwise. Listening to so-called old time radio programs produced in the US, for instance, I am keenly aware that I am entering worlds once inhabited by millions of children born in a country other than my German birthplace, past generations whose reflections are lost to us and, all too frequently, even to them—worlds the passage to which might have been blocked and obscured over time, but that might nonetheless be recoverable.

This recovery effort is quite distinct from the nostalgia of which I am so wary, the attempt of forcing oneself back through that passage and, failing to do so, creating one through which one may yet squeeze wistfully into a niche of one’s own making. It is quite another thing, to me, to set out to gain access to the worlds of other people’s childhoods, to tune in with one’s child’s mind open. I try not to make assumptions about audiences and their responses; instead, I try to become that audience by permitting myself to be played with so as to figure out how a game or play works.

Penrhyn Castle

As I have had previously occasion to share after a trip to Prague, I enjoy looking at old toys. Visiting the grand and rather austere neo-Norman castle of Penrhyn last weekend, on an excursion to the north of Wales, I was surprised to find, housed in that forbidding fantasy fortress, a corner devoted to a collection of dolls. Now, it seems perverse to be so drawn to the two stuffed animals pictured above, stuffed as Penrhyn is with exquisite furniture and impressive works of art (a Rembrandt, no less). I gather it was the bathos of it, the relief after having had greatness thrust upon me to be surprised by these unassuming and, by comparison, prematurely timeworn objects.

Turns out, the twin pandas in the straw hats are Wili and Wali, marionettes who co-starred in a long-running Welsh children’s program titled Lili Lon (1959-75). Upon returning to mid-Wales, where I now live, I immediately went online in search of the two; but, aside from a history of their creators, little can be found about them. I have become so accustomed to YouTubing the past that I was surprised to find no trace of Wili and Wali. No doubt, they still dwell in the memories of thousands who shared their adventures. I was not among them; yet, as is often the case when I come across titles of lost radio programs or fragments thereof, I imagine myself enjoying what is beyond my reach . . .

My Evening with Queen Victoria

Considering that it is St. George’s Day (as well as the anniversary of the birth of the Bard), I am going to stay a little closer to home this time and, forgoing a return to Budapest, report instead on my audience with the Queen. Victoria Regina, I mean, whom last I captured towering over Birmingham’s German Christmas market (pictured) and imagined listening to her Electrophone. Yesterday, we went to An Evening with Queen Victoria, a one-woman show in which British stage, screen, and television actress Prunella Scales, accompanied by a lyric tenor and a pianist (who is also the husband of the play’s creator and director), has toured the new and old world, including England, Australia, Canada and the United States. So, it was bound to make it to Wales, eventually.

Just in time, I might add. Ms. Scales, whose life now spans as many decades as the play, was called upon to read, in character, selections from the queen’s published reminiscences (Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highland) and personal correspondences, from her youthful comments on her German cousins to her reflections on marriage and motherhood, duty, loss, and old age.

Along the way, the star struggled with some of her lines and had to be prompted audibly at one point (Fawlty Powers, I could not help thinking), while the aged pianist, who at one time loudly cleared his throat as if he had quite forgotten that there was a performance going on, played pieces of classical pieces by Rossini, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, which were interpreted with much feeling by the tenor, who thus painted himself into the queen’s portrait. The three of them joined forces to sing “Duties of a Monarch” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers:

Oh, philosophers may sing
Of the troubles of a King,
But of pleasures there are many and of worries there are none;
And the culminating pleasure
That we treasure beyond measure
Is the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done!

The whole royal affair might have faired well on radio, I thought, since it is largely a first-person narrative involving little action, aside from the queen’s efforts to rise from her easy chair to pick up various letters and books, to fetch a cane or wrap herself up as she gradually ages before us. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that An Evening has indeed been produced for BBC radio.

It was on the air that the Her (Imperial) Majesty had been introduced into the living rooms of America, voiced by Helen Hayes, who inhabited the part on the Broadway stage in Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina (1934), a play initially banned in England for daring to impersonate British royalty yet living.

An Evening was based largely on actual reminiscences of the monarch, as this somewhat unfortunate line from the leaflet that served as a playbill informed me: “The words of this programme are compiled entirely from Queen Victoria’s own journals and letters, together with some additional material from contemporary sources,” which is like saying that a loaf of bread is whole grain, except for a few preservatives and added flavors, natural or otherwise, however difficult to detect.

A similar claim was made by radio announcer Ernest Chapell, who introduced the 2 June 1939 broadcast of Orson Welles’s Campbell Playhouse by declaring that in order to “complete the true picture of this great queen, Mr. Welles has used still another source, one which only a few years ago was still a closed book, locked away in the official archives of the royal family: the personal diary of Queen Victoria.”

Containing the same material and creating a similar effect, An Evening is essentially a non-dramatic version of Victoria Regina, which Hayes revived once again for her Electric Theater on 14 November 1948, the day the queen’s great-great-great grandson, Prince Charles, was born. Intimate without being indiscreet, informal without being vulgar, both sketches create the quiet sensation of familiarity by bringing alive, in her own words, a woman who is more often thought of as an institution or the name crowning an era.

In an age favoring uncompromising exposés and compromising snapshots, close-ups with which we distance ourselves, such personal introductions are a charming and welcome illusion.

Mining Culture: The Welsh in Hollywood

It was too pleasant an afternoon not to be warming to it. The outdoors, I mean. Though all thumbs (and not one of them green), I nonetheless tried my hands at gardening again, transplanting English-grown Californian Lilac into Welsh soil. Unless deterred by the vagaries of what goes for “vernal” here in Wales, I shall probably spend more time tending to the plants than to this journal next week, when the storm-frayed and patched-up telephone lines to our house are scheduled to be cut down and replaced, a spring renewal of telecommunications during which service is likely to be suspended.

No internet, no landline, and no traffic along the already quiet lane leading to this hermitage I call home—it’s “a proper place for a murder.” That is how the setting of Night Must Fall was described when on this day, 27 March, in 1948, the famous and oft revived thriller by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams was performed on the US radio thriller anthology Suspense.

Along with two members of the original (1935) London cast—Dame May Whitty (as Mrs. Bramson) and Matthew Boulton (as the inspector)—Robert Montgomery was heard in the role of Dan, the lady killer he had played in the 1937 film adaptation. As I realized after seeing it on stage, Night Must Fall is not your common crop of a crime melodrama. It goes beyond the question of whether or not the victim will die by asking us whether she ought to, by making us eager for the “must” of her demise and examine the decline and “fall” of our own civilized morality. As a psychological and ethical puzzler, it translates well into other languages and media.

Now, Night falls in Essex, England, rather than the wild west of Britain; but according to Williams’s stage directions, the character of “Baby-face” Dan “speaks with a rough accent” that, unlike Montgomery’s, is “more Welsh than anything else.” On Broadway as on the London stage, this “sort of Welsh” Dan (as his girlfriend describes him) was voiced by the very Welshman who created him. In an acting career spanning six decades, Williams was a frequent player in (mainly British) film, on stage and television; on US radio, he was heard in one of Norman Corwin’s plays for the United Nations. I recently spotted him in The Citadel (1938), his voice lending authenticity to the depiction of life in a Welsh mining town rendered unconvincing by the casting of Hollywood productions like John Ford’s Academy Award-winning How Green Was My Valley (another cinema classic I caught up with this year) or The Corn Is Green. The latter is based on an autobiographical play by Williams; but with stars like Bette Davis (on screen) and Claudette Colbert (on radio, nearly a decade later) taking on the role of a Welsh schoolteacher, it is the audience who is expected to be green.

Having lived in this country for well over two years now, I am all ears for representations and representatives of Wales in popular culture, whether in British cinema or American radio drama. What remains of this country once its landscape, language, and lore are forced through the filter of the camera or microphone, once it is translated by a popular medium like film and transferred to an international audience? During the next few months, leading up to a Welsh film festival hosted by the National Screen and Sound Archive here in Aberystwyth, I am going to mull over such matters from time to time.

To be sure, the landscape and culture of Wales have changed considerably since A. J. Cronyn’s Citadel and Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley were bestsellers in the US back in 1937-38 and 1940, respectively. Prominently featured in 20th-century popular culture (including the previously discussed “Comedy of Danger,” the first play written for radio), the mines have been shut down years ago and wind farms have replaced collieries. Today, however, the BBC reported that coal mining is making a comeback here, as the first “deep mine” is set to open in over three decades. Could this mean that Ms. Zeta-Jones is going back to her Welsh roots for a Hollywood returns to the Citadel, the Valley or other recycled Corn?

We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Life

It has been a week of local excursions here in Wales, days spent sunbathing and splashing in the radioactive sea, bookhunting in Hay-on-Wye (the world-renowned “Town of Books”), dining al fresco, stargazing outdoors and on screen, playing with Montague, our unruly terrier, and being among friends (even after having been critiqued with the candor I reserve for those who matter to me). The occasion of it all was a weeklong visit by my closest if mostly long distance friend, the fatherland I haven’t set foot on for seventeen years. It is to him that I owe the wonderful book pictured above, a splendid addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia.

Whenever I venture out to Hay, I return home with a few treasures. This time, I added a book on Harold Lloyd (my favorite silent screen comedian, whose films The Kid Brother, The Cat’s Paw and Girl Shy we screened during the past few days), as well as a coffee-table topper on screwball comedies (a book which I had previously gifted to abovementioned best pal, but with which I was pleased to get reacquainted). However convenient and economic it might be to browse and shop online, the thrill of the hunt (as previously described here), is something a carnivore of a booklover like me does not like to go without.

Now, the people of Film Pictorial, a British publication, are full of it. Legend, I mean, which is a term I much prefer to trivia when it comes to describing pieces of nothing from which to weave whatever your mind is up to at the moment. Trivia is for the mercenary; legend for the mercurial. I shall raid said volume from time to time here on these virtual pages. Where else might you learn whether or not you have a “Film Hand” from a writer who examines the “long little finger on the hand of Katharine Hepburn” or the “thickish fingers” of John Boles and Warren William to tell their temperament and acting skills?

The book also contains longer articles on “The Gallant Life of Norma Shearer” and takes readers to the homes of stars like Harold Lloyd, Bette Davis, and . . . Gordon Harker? Robert Montgomery, meanwhile, debates, along with Jeanette MacDonald, “At What Age Are Women Most Charming” and Myrna Loy reveals her “Own Ideas.” It’s all glossy but telling gossip, which I am looking forward to sharing, along with old news from , over the next few days.

Of course, my week was not without pain and what there is of sorrow in my life, among which my tumble down the slippery steps to my room and the breaking down of our car are the most dramatic examples. My lower back and my left toe still ache; the car might not be salvageable at all. In a matter of weeks, I reckon, such woes—which led to dipped feet in cooling springs and a ride through Wales in an Auto Club truck—will be nothing but cheerful anecdotes to be shared among chums. For now, they are inconveniences, at most.

As I have mentioned before, the weeks to come will be somewhat less than regular. On 7 August, I shall return, however briefly, to my old home in New York City. In the meantime, I resume my journal, hoping it will be appreciated by those who make it a habit to keep up with someone as gleefully out-of-date as yours truly, broadcastellan.