Showing posts with label Menschlichkeit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Menschlichkeit. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Elie Wiesel, 1928 - 2016

It's late to say, but Elie Wiesel passed away over the weekend.

There's little I can add to what's already been said about him, even during his lifetime. My introduction to him was reading Souls On Fire ("When I am asked about my Jewish affiliation, I define myself as a Hasid, " Wiesel once wrote. "Hasid I was, Hasid I remain"), which contains one of my favorite thoughts about the power of writing and belief. 

The great rabbi Baal Shem-Tov loved his people, Wiesel wrote. Whenever he sensed they were in danger, he would go to a secret place in the woods, light a special fire, and say a special prayer. Then, without fail, his people would be saved from danger. Baal Shem-Tov passed on and his disciple, Magid of Mezritch, came to lead the people. Whenever he sensed his people were in danger, he would go to the secret place in the woods. "Dear God," he would say, "I don't know how to light the special fire, but I know the special prayer. Please let that be good enough." It was, and the people would once again be saved from danger. 

When Magid passed on, he was succeeded by another rabbi, the Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, and whenever he heard that his people were in danger, he would go to the secret place in the woods. "Dear God," he would say, "I don't know how to make the special fire, I don't know how to say the special prayer, but I know this secret place in the woods. Please let that be good enough." It was, and the people would once again be saved from danger. 

When Rabbi Moshe passed, he was succeeded by Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, and whenever somebody told him that his people were in danger, he didn't even get out of his armchair. He could only bow his head and shrug his shoulders. "Dear God," he would pray, "I don't know how to make the special fire. I don't know how to say the special prayer. I don't even know the secret place in the woods. All I know is the story, and I'm hoping that's good enough."

It was, and his people would be saved.

Then (Wiesel adds), the moral of this is, God made man because He loves stories

Now he knows what we do not. Another Mensch leaves us; and as I do not tire of saying, we live in a world with a very limited supply of Mensches.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


Israel Kristal, The Confectioner Of Lodz

(Photo: New York Times; Dvir Rosen/Guinness World Records, via AP)
The New York Times published an article in yesterday's edition that is enough to make you cry and dance at the same time. Israel Kristal, a confectioner from Poland, "lived through the tumult of two world wars, lost his family in the Holocaust and escaped death in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He then built a new life in Israel. On Friday, at the age of 112 years and 178 days, he was declared the oldest man in the world."
“There have been smarter, stronger and better looking men then me who are no longer alive,” he added. “All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, Poland, said... that the announcement of Mr. Kristal’s longevity was “a very symbolic fact considering his personal story.”
I keep saying we live in a world with a very limited supply of Mensches. You know what being a Mensch is when you see it. We do tend to put people who have heart and talent, or insight and popularity, people who move us, up on a pedestal. We respect the suffering of who survived the unimaginable.

Our heroes are human beings; they have (or had) lives, and are as human and fallible as anyone, including Mr. Kristal. But I would argue that it is being imperfect, surviving and going forward, Hallelujah Anyway, recognizing "time is so short /and love so brief", that makes being a Mensch possible.

In life, we need examples of others who survive, and live -- not just through days of the worst our species can do to each other; but living through the other thirty-eight thousand days when life must be lived, for better or worse, in the small gestures: ecstatic, boring; the losses and failures and small victories. And to be grateful -- to what or whom, I can't say, but grateful nonetheless.

The Israel Kristals of the planet allow us to remember that. They remind us to live right at the edge of the black curtain, that border between the Human and the Sacred (if there is any such thing), and proclaim that we are alive -- and that we can rise, cry, laugh, and dance.

Mazel Tov, Mr Kristal: A Mer Leb'n.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Plastic Soul

David Bowie (1947-2016)

(Photo: Leonhard Foeger / Reuters)

Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on ... For here am I sitting in my tin can. Far above the world. Planet Earth is blue. And there's nothing I can do. 

Now he knows what we do not.  So turn and face the strange.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Still Missed

John Lennon: October 9, 1940

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass; they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind,
Possessing and caressing me
Jai guru de va om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
That call me on and on across the universe;
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box
They tumble blindly as they make their way,
Across the universe
Jai guru de va om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.

Sounds of laughter shades of earth are ringing
Through my open views; inviting and inciting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me
Like a million suns; it calls me on and on
Across the universe
Jai guru de va om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.

Across The Universe (Lennon / McCartney, 1969)

We don't care what flag you're waving,
We don't even want to know your name,
We don't care where you're from or where you're going,
All we know is that you came;

You're making all our decisions,
We have just one request of you,
That while you're thinking things over,
Here's something you just better do:

Free the people, now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people, now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.

Well we were caught with our hands in the air,
Don't despair paranoia is everywhere,
We can shake it with love when we're scared,
So let's shout it aloud like a prayer:

Free the people, now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now

We understand your paranoia,
But we don't want to play your game;
You think you're cool and know what you are doing,
666 is your name;
So while your jerking off each other,
You better bear this thought in mind:
Your time is up you better know it,
But maybe you don't read the signs

Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.

Well you were caught with your hands in the kill,
And you still got to swallow your pill,
As you slip and you slide down the hill,
On the blood of the people you killed

Stop the killing now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Stop the killing now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now...

Thank BLCKGRD for the reminder; normally, I put up a memorial on December 10th. Better, I think, to celebrate someone's birth.

Even though I was around when their music was brand-new, and have a perfect memory of hearing She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, terrifically stoned while standing on top of a sandbagged bunker on VCM359 outside Nah Trang, I can't say I listen to Beatles music too much myself, these days (though I did listen to the Magical Mystery Tour album last weekend, by chance, while padding through the Haight).

So:  Absent Friends -- Happy Birthday, John.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Henning Mankell, 1948 - 2015

Case Notes

Henning Mankell (Photo: Munro McLeod For The UK Guardian)

At the end of Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell's first crime novel, his main character, police Detective-Inspector Kurt Wallander, sits in the dark talking with his mentor, retired Inspector Rydberg, who is dying of cancer. A murder investigation is over, the killers are apprehended, and Wallander talks with Rydberg about the case.
     "We made lots of mistakes," Wallander said thoughtfully. "I made lots of mistakes."
     "You're a good policeman," Rydberg said emphatically. "Maybe I never told you that. But I think you're a damned fine policeman."
     "I made too many mistakes," Wallander replied.
     "You kept at it," said Rydberg. "You never gave up... that's the important thing."
     The conversation gradually petered out. I'm sitting here with a dying man, Wallander thought in despair... The incantation flashed through his mind: a time to live, and a time to die.
     "How are you?" He asked cautiously.  Rydberg's face was unreadable in the darkness.
Henning Mankell died yesterday at age 67, roughly eighteen months after being diagnosed with cancer. He was a playwright and director who married the daughter of film director Ingmar Bergman, and served for several years as Director of Sweden's national theater. He was most prolific as an author of fiction -- including thirteen stand-alone novels and eight novels for children.

But Mankell will be remembered in Europe and America primarily as author of twelve more novels, "Krimis", featuring Swedish police Detective-Inspector Kurt Wallander -- as vibrant, individual and human a detective as Simeon's Inspector Maigret, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, or Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe.

Detective fiction as a genre had been popular in Europe since the end of the First World War, but  publishers considered them entertaining diversions with formulaic, predictable characters and plots. Agatha Christie, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Georges Simeon, Erich Kästner, 'S.S. Van Dine', Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler all sold well enough, but detective stories were not taken seriously by publishing houses in Europe or America.

Neutral Sweden was untouched by WW2. Trading with Allies and Axis, it remained secure and became rich. After the war, a wealthy Swedish society could afford to provide all basic needs for its citizens -- a social safety net that was the envy of the world. But by the late 1960's, the open State was experiencing everything from rock music and antisocial teenage behavior, to drugs, organized crime; corporate corruption; and, as increasing numbers of refugees poured in from around the world, a right-wing backlash from some who wanted to end Sweden's its traditional open-door asylum policy.

The quiet, isolated northern country which had escaped the ravages of a world war found itself unsure of its future, and the problems imported from a larger world. At roughly the same time in the 1960's, a Swedish couple, Maj Söwall and Per Wahlöö, wanted to write novels exploring those issues -- and used the format of the crime novel as their vehicle.

Söwall and Wahlöö's stage was Sweden's capital, Stockholm, with a cast of police detectives led by a senior investigator named Martin Beck. Their framework was what we now refer to as the "police procedural": we follow the detectives as they piece together evidence, using the same methods, systems and protocols as real Swedish police.   

And, the two authors were among the first to present their policemen as all-too human -- they were cynical and idealistic by turns, and driven by a sense of duty. They had drinking problems, money problems; marital problems (one moves in with a barely above legal age girl). They argued with bureaucracy, complained about their pay, and fought with each other in petty rivalries around office politics. They had political positions (for or against America's war in Vietnam), and might occasionally smoke pot.

The novels immediately became popular in Sweden, then across Europe. Söwall and Wahlöö's Martin Beck and his squad were immediately accepted by Constant Reader, the person in the street, as valid, three-dimensional characters.  These Swedish cops reflected the world that the readers lived in. Publishers saw money to be made and began trying to find the "next  Söwall and Wahlöö".

Within a few years, a new niche publishing industry developed:  Krimis, from the German, Kriminalroman (crime novel).  It's no exaggeration that Steig Larson, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Ian Rankin, and a large number of other Krimi authors would not have been as successful without Söwall and Wahlöö's work -- and that includes Henning Mankell.

By the time Mankell began writing his crime series, the Krimi industry had been developing for over twenty years; as a market, it was arguably over-saturated. What made Mankell's work stand out and succeed is, simply, his talent as a writer. He tells (as best we know through the translations of his works) a good story; the voice of his narrator is reliable.

His characters are believable; the pacing and the action in his plots follow the typical rising-action-to-resolution framework, but none of the details about his characters or events in the story lines disturbs our suspension of disbelief. And most important -- the character of Kurt Wallander is immediately familiar.

Divorced, diabetic, self-doubting, Wallander worries -- about his daughter, who can't seem to find her place in the world; about his father, a curmudgeonly artist who only paints one basic theme (with or without the Grouse) and who begins suffering from Alzheimer's. He tries to figure out how he might find the money for a dream of a small house, and a dog. We've met him, and whether you're male or female it's not hard to imagine being him. At a minimum, we find ourselves emphasizing with him, and caring about what happens to him.

He listens to opera, keeps buying one Peugeot after another, and worries about his connections to the world, about dealing with his superiors and peers -- but when Wallander is presented with a case, his self-doubts recede and he is focused, driven, and decisive. We like our heroes to resemble us, and we want them to be better, to rise to challenges as we always hope that we could; Mankell gave his readers a character which did both.

And, like Söwall and Wahlöö, the crimes in Mankell's novels spring from changes in Swedish society, brought on by events in a larger world. Faceless Killers, the first in the Wallander series, is about a brutal double murder seemingly involving non-European refugees. Firewall explores terrorism through digital technology; themes in The Fifth Woman and The White Lioness touch on modern Africa; "The Man Who Laughed" involves corporate piracy and a self-assured Oligarch figure above the law. Before The Frost is a look at religious extremism, an echo of Jonestown and the People's Temple.

Wallander became a worldwide phenomenon; two Swedish television series based on the character in the early 2000's were followed by the BBC version in English, starring Kenneth Branagh. Mankell had been involved with the Swedish production company, Yellow Bird, in developing scripts for stories not connected to his novels. There's more to that story; I've written about it here.

Mankell, like Oliver Sacks earlier this year, had written publicly about his battle with cancer, and had just sent a brief article to the UK Guardian before he passed away:
Eventually, of course, the day comes when we all have to go. Then we need to remember the words of the author Per Olov Enquist: “One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Leonard Cohen At Eighty-One

(Sorry; I Do Not Know The Credit For This. It's A Great Photo)
 Actually, he was 81 on September 21st.  I'm late, lighting this match lit in the wind, saying remember, remember; while he's still here.

I knew him as a poet before hearing him sing, then realized I'd already been listening to his music and didn't know it. Years on at college and I knew the lines of every song, on his albums -- but his poetry is what originally slipped into my pocket and stayed; it was that comfortable and familiar. And almost forty years on, he's still working; he still gives back.

One line that keeps returning for me, with humor and rue , as the years move on and grow shorter: The future seems unnecessarily black and strong / as if it had received my casual mistakes / through a carbon sheet.

Remember; remember. And, Halleluja; anyway.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks (1933 - 2015)

End Of The Enlightenment

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”
“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.
-- Oliver Sacks, "My Periodic Table"; New York Times, July 24, 2015

In Jewish tradition, it's said that if you save a human life, you've saved the universe, whole and entire.  What happens, then, when a life goes out? Oliver Sacks, MD, passed away over the weekend; in his passing, I'm fairly certain not many people understand what we've lost.

Sacks was among a shrinking number of scholar-scientists, the last in a lineage of European --  men and women -- and (this, a bit of a trope) generally English intellectuals, educated in the tradition of the Enlightenment. Donnish, possibly eccentric, but clearly brilliant; frankly curious about the world and passionate about the why of a thing, driven to chronicle and understand it.

They were often polymaths, prodigious writers, frequently (unless it was their principal method of expression) also fair composers of music or art. They understood the importance of clear thought and speech, of how to argue and to reason and explain what they'd found in their exploration of the world.

(This same category of person could include Newton, Pitt, Einstein; Goethe; Mary Wollstonecraft or Jane Austen; William and Henry James, among others -- but Dr. Samuel Johnson pops into my memory for a moment: Language and clarity of thought was his obsession, and a lifelong struggle with what was most probably Tourette's Syndrome -- a condition caused by "dysfunction in cortical and subcortical regions, the thalamus, basal ganglia and frontal cortex", per Wikipedia.)

For Sacks, the mystery which captured his attention (Sacks described himself when working as 'obsessive') is what we carry in our skulls -- the electro-chemical seat of all pleasures and terrors, Bardo and Paradise: the brain --  and he knew well how much we do not know about that organ, or anything else.

In a series of books over roughly thirty years, Sacks presented popular chronicles of the scientific aspects of neurology by sharing tales of his patients. On one level, they were 'medical mystery stories' -- Why do these things happen to us? -- principally about his patients' rare or notable afflictions, and that often these same people developed gifts of insight or ability due to those same conditions.

But, while every tale noted the pathos of their circumstances (Sacks the physician used his obsessive intellect with a dispassionate eye), they were also stories which presented his patients' conditions with real compassion: Sacks the man never forgot that they suffered, laughed, were persons with lives both before and after they began to experience the world in an uncommon way.

Riding Kiddietown's public transit over those same thirty years, I've seen only three individuals which I could say with confidence had a neurological condition (as opposed to those with apparent psychological ones, including the drivers). Principally, the outward signs are motor tics or repeated hand gestures, some relatively subtle and others very manifest. We live in a culture that glorifies physical perfection, High School-like popularity, wealth, and youth -- and looks down with distaste upon or ignores anything less. By presenting rare and notable neurological conditions in his books in a way that made it possible to see the human beings they had happened to, Sacks made it more likely our response to the person on the bus, repeatedly touching the side of their face, or whose head spasms to the left every few seconds, would trigger that same compassion, in us.

A friend recently repeated to me something once said by their best friend, a physician: We're all just one blood test away from a reminder of mortality. Sacks' chronicles remind the majority of us of our luck in this Game, so far (There, But For The Grace Of God...), but also a momento mori that our lives are a Dice Game, and that at some point after thousands of throws at the table that luck will give out. We will not live on Sugar Mountain forever. We will suffer all that flesh is heir to.  Sacks understood that; and even if this is a Game where no one gets out alive, he was still grateful to be here.

Sacks discovered he had cancer in 2006, a rare form which echoed aspects of the human condition that had fascinated and driven him: an ocular tumor, a melanoma, in one eye. Nine years later, it reappeared as multiple metastases in the liver.  This past February, he published a short essay about it in the New York Times ("My Own Life"), and followed it with others in July ("My Periodic Table"), and a final word about Shabbat this past month."I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence", Sacks once wrote, "other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still 'speak' to people after my death."

Whether something else exists or not, Now he knows what we do not. I hope he was able to see the spread of the night sky again before leaving.

And, it's another Mensch that leaves us. As I've said before, we live in a world with a limited supply of Mensches.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Theodore Bikel (1924 - 2015)

On July 20th, Theodore Bikel -- actor, singer; activist; Mensch -- passed away at the age of 91. His career in acting stretched over nearly seventy years; he was another part of the world I'd grown up with, and taken for granted; another thing you don't notice, until it vanishes. He seemed timeless -- like his friend, Pete Seeger -- because he seemed to have enough energy for five men.

He was the Jewish grandfather you always wanted, someone who seemed always on the verge of dancing (because life can move sideways, in an instant; and so, dance), and whether you were Jewish or not was immaterial.

Bikel was originally an Austrian ( Aus Wein, in fact), and fourteen in 1938 when the Germans absorbed the country into the Reich and marched into its capital in the Anschluss. That resulted in the persecution and terrorizing of Austrian Jews, forcible expropriation of their property, physical assaults and public humiliations, so vicious and intense that the Germans were taken aback by it. Bikel and his family were able to emigrate to (then) Palestine, where they remained until coming to England, and then America.

On Stage: Bikel As von Trapp To Mary Martin's Maria
In Palestine, and then for a few years in London's West End (where he came to the attention of both Michael Redgrave, then Lawrence Olivier), Bikel grew as an actor, and also a folk singer -- someone whose heart was on fire, like a character out of a story by Sholem Aleichem, whose works he admired all his life.

He went on to star on Broadway, premiering the role of the dour but correct Austrian Kapitäin von Trapp in The Sound Of Music (the role Christopher Plummer would make famous in the film version) -- and, Bikel helped to create one of the show's signature tunes: During out-of-town tryouts for the musical, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wanted to include a song that would underscore the aristocratic von Trapp's sadness at being forced to escape the Austria he loved.

Bikel's ability with a guitar meant his von Trapp could play and sing; his personal history meant he understood (as Rogers and Hammerstein would not) precisely what it meant to lose your country by forced emigration. The three men collaborated on what became the song, Edelweiss.

Bikel also went on to be one actor who defined the role of Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. Bikel's abilities as both actor and singer, combined with an understanding of Aleichem's stories, led him to play the character more than two thousand times during his career.

As opposed to Zero Mostel's interpretation (he premiered the role), Bikel's Tevye was dialed back -- Mostel's acting experience was rooted in Catskills vaudeville and comedy; Bikel came from a classical stage background, and he criticized Mostel for putting more schtick in the role than necessary.

His Teyve was just a man, but a man in community, en familie, and in a relationship with God, who in village life is a member of the congregation who is always treated as if he'd just stepped away for a moment.

"I now pronounce you man and wife. Continue with the execution."
In Hollywood, he became an in-demand character actor -- in 1954, the slightly-at-sea Kapitäin of the German gunboat who marries Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen", and then orders their execution to continue; Heini, the First Officer of the German U-Boat to Curt Jurgen's Captain in The Enemy Below (1957);  the Captain of the stranded Russian submarine in Stanley Kramer's 1966 comedy, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

Put all that together with the Austrian Kapitäin von Trapp of "Sound Of Music", and that's one heck of a lot of captains.

Bikel As Karpathy In 'My Fair Lady'
With Alan Arkin (R) In The Russians Are Coming
He was Zoltan Karparthy, the obsequious guest of Professor Henry Higgins ("Oozing charm from every pore / he oiled his way across the floor"), in My Fair Lady; and appeared in countless roles on television series through the Sixties, Seventies and into the Eighties. His face, his voice, was part of the texture of our culture.

Bikel In A Publicity Shot For Billboard Magazine, 1970
Bikel was also an unashamed Liberal -- and, like Pete Seeger, was generally to be found at a political rally with his guitar, leading people in song. Music, he knew, could move the human spirit more quickly than any impassioned political argument. He was an unashamed supporter of the State of Israel, and just as unashamed an activist, vocal critic of the acts of different Israeli governments towards the Palestinians.

He was an elder representative of a tradition of thought, argument, and passion, and a role model for anyone who considers what it must be to age. Even as he reached ninety, in a recent interview on the PBS program Democracy Now! Bikel appeared sharp, lucid and direct, his sense of humor intact with all its nuance and spirit.

As I've said: One more Mensch leaves us; now he knows what we do not. And we live in a world with a limited supply of Mensches.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tightrope Walker

James Horner  (1953 - 2015)

The best movies, and Hollywood films in particular, are more memorable for the soundtracks which underscore (no pun intended) and add emotional color to the action. In the heyday of the studio era, film music was big, bold and dramatic -- Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Hermann and Max Steiner, even Leonard Bernstein, are good examples -- and that music made obvious the story unfolding on the screen: Shock! Suspense! Action! Danger! Love! 

When film began to change as an art form after WWII, the supporting music became more nuanced, less obviously another supporting star in the cast. Some film composers carried on the traditions of the old-studio, bold-as-brass soundtracks; Vangelis (Blade Runner; "The Bounty") and John Williams ("Star Wars", A.I.; Saving Private Ryan and too many others to mention) are good examples.

Others began as big-studio composers, but developed another language for their work later in life -- Maurice Jarre started with Lawrence Of Arabia and "Dr. Zhivago", but also provided work like the soundtracks for "Witness", Jacob's Ladder and Dead Poet's Society.  Jerry Goldsmith could deliver  "In Harm's Way", The Blue Max, and Patton, but also A Patch Of Blue, "The Island", Chinatown and Papillion.

Other artists were less obvious in their composing styles from the beginning, and (at least, for me) more effective in adding the added dimension of emotional color to a film without being intrusive -- three I would mention are Michael Covertino (Children Of A Lesser God; Bed Of Roses), Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption), and James Horner.

Horner died over the weekend in a small plane accident in Southern California. He was capable of providing a bigger-than-life soundtrack (several "Star Trek" films, or Cameron's Titanic are the best examples), but also created specific scores that I enjoy as music, as evocations of particular emotions; as an analog in sound for what is sometimes difficult to define in words. He once described satisfying the demands of a specific medium, a director or producer, and maintaining artistic integrity at the same time was “like being a tightrope walker with one foot in the air at all times.”

Now he knows what we do not. Horner provided his own artistry in that extra dimension which music provides to film, and gave something to our collective culture. We won't move into the future and hear more of what he might have created; I'll miss that.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

More Than Met The Eye

Christopher Lee (1922 - 2015)

Leaving Dracula Behind: Lee As Scaramanga, Bond's Nemisis In Man With The Golden Gun

It's easy to make assumptions about anyone, even if you've seen them often -- around the office; on the street; even on a film screen or the Teevee -- based on what you think you know of them.

My favorite personal encounters with that were two people, living in my home town -- one, an Austrian immigrant who had come to America in the 1920's; after his death, it turned out he had been a young man, standing curbside, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, watching as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot by Gavrilo Princip.   The other was a friend's father -- a slight and unassuming man, gentle in his take on the world, who had been captured on the Philippine island of Corregidor in 1942 and was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. You never completely know what's behind the person you see.

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee passed away on Monday night, aged 93.  He was an Englishman out of a mold long broken, now: Born not long after the Great War to a Continental marriage -- his father a Colonel in the King's Royal Rifle Corps; his Italian mother the Comtesse di Sarzano, from a family ennobled under Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa but decaying over the centuries into more genteel circumstances.

There were many British families like theirs, before and after WW1 (read about Robert Graves' own in Goodbye To All That), solidly English but with Old Bloodline connections to the Continent -- however, with not so much by way of money. Never quite broke, yet never quite rich, but always conscious of who they are and where they came from.

His parents divorced when Lee was four; he and a sister were educated in Switzerland and private schools in England. His mother then married a banker, Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, the uncle of Ian Fleming.

In the arcane labyrinth of English "public" (read: exclusive) schools, Lee missed an opportunity to attend Eton and instead prepped at Wellington College, where with a small exception he did no acting-- which wouldn't become his career until after World War Two.

Lee turned age 17 just before the summer of 1939. His mother had just separated from her second husband, and Christopher suddenly needed a job. Unable to find one, he and his sister were sent to France -- and here, his mother's family connections opened doors to a particular layer of the world's culture: While in Europe, he watched the last public execution by guillotine in France; and among the exiled members of former royal families met Prince Felix Yussupov, who murdered Rasputin in 1917.

Portrait Photo Of Lee, Circa 1939

When war looked inevitable, Lee came back to England --  Germany invaded Poland on September 1; Great Britain declared war on Germany four days later.  Instead of heading back to school, Lee volunteered to fight with the Finnish army during its invasion by the Soviet Union, but was kept far from any fighting and after a few weeks was sent back to London. France had been invaded and surrendered to Germany; England had managed to save its men but not its guns at Dunkirk, and the Blitz was about to begin.

Lee found a job as a clerk because, under Britain's selective service scheme at the time, he had to wait to be 'called up' --  in which case he would have no choice over which branch of service he'd be placed in.  Unless he volunteered, which he did, and chose to go into the RAF. He did not qualify for pilot training, but was assigned to intelligence duties and posted to a squadron in the spring of 1941.

Long Range Desert Patrol Group In The Field, 1941

On the public record, Lee was posted to several different RAF squadrons as an intelligence officer, a role he held more or less for four years through the North African and Italian campaigns -- except for Burma and New Guinea, the only theaters of the war where Britain was active before D-Day. Lee also had four bouts of Malaria during the war (which I can guarantee you is serious).  And though he never discussed it, later in life Lee admitted that he had been a part of two organizations in the British army -- SOE, Special Operations Executive, and the Long Range Desert Patrol group.

While the LRDP did perform some commando-style raids deep inside German- or Italian-held North Africa to force their enemies to spend time and resources hunting them down, during 1941 - 42 they were principally long-range reconnaissance units,  small groups operating far behind the lines. Their job was to be stealthy, to observe enemy troop movements and positions, and report.

The SOE were the real commandos -- they blew things up, carried out assassinations and assisted local resistance organizations, and their job was to give the nazis hell. After 1942, SOE also sent agents into countries like Yugoslavia, people who (as Lee did) spoke multiple languages and could dress and act like a local.

The SOE agents ran exfiltration lines, moving downed Allied air crews, political refugees and other intelligence agents out of Europe from night pickups on the Dalmatian coast. It was dangerous work; the German security services in Yugoslavia -- or anywhere else -- were efficient and brutal.

 British 'Irregular' Detachment; Italy, 1944

It was rumored that this had been Lee's role for a time; he never denied it, or any other rumor about his wartime service -- including that he had been recruited to be a spy by his step-cousin and MI-6 officer, Ian Fleming, who would become the creator of James Bond. Once asked by a fan if he had been an undercover agent during the war, Lee smiled and asked quietly, "Can you keep a secret?" Of course, the fan said. "So can I," Lee replied.

When the role of 007 was being cast for the first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962, Fleming wanted the role of 007 played by his step-cousin, Christopher -- because, Fleming said, Lee had "done this kind of work", and would play the role more believably [Note: The BBC, in it's obituary notice, has reported Fleming wanted Lee to play the role of Dr. No, which went to actor Joseph Wiseman]

Flight Leftenant Lee In Vatican City, 1944, After The Liberation Of Rome
When the first Lord Of The Rings trilogy was being filmed in New Zealand, director Peter Jackson was filming the scene on the Tower, where Saruman stabs Wormtongue in the back; Jackson was directing Brad Dourif to shout or scream when Lee stabbed him; Lee demurred -- when someone is stabbed from behind, he said, reflex makes the victim draw in their breath.  Jackson pushed back, asking, How do you know that? "Because I know what it sounds like," he said -- and that was all.

It's possible Lee was 'playing the mystery' a little; he was an actor, after all; but I tend to think there was some truth to all the rumors -- and while he may have allowed that to play out in the imaginations of others, Lee came of age in an England where such things as discretion, and duty, and knowing how to hold one's tongue meant something, Official Secrets Act or no.

(Lee was, incidentally, the only member of the LOTR cast or crew who had actually met J.R.R. Tolkien, as a still-young man after WWII in an Oxford pub.  It was a brief, chance meeting; Lee enjoyed and admired Tolkien's work and was awe-struck at meeting the man, and so when introduced only managed to say, "Ah, hello, how are you?")

Sir Christopher Lee, 2012

For his career in film, there is plenty on the Intertubes for you to see. I enjoyed his performances; I'll miss his general gravitas and sense of sagacity or menace he could bring to a role. And beyond the general reserve of the English, I always got the sense there was much more about Lee beneath the surface (for example -- the man had two heavy metal albums out there. Ruminate on that for a moment).  He was rumored to have one of the largest private collections of manuscripts and printed material on the occult on the planet -- something he played down, but again, never denied.

In any event, now he knows what we do not. Go well.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Second Star From The Right

And Straight On 'Till Morning
Leonard Nimoy  1931 - 2015

Not all that many people affect a wider world; the number that have a positive influence are even smaller.

El Rog (that's pronounced "Raj") The Magnificent at my Place Of Witless Labor™ spoke over the Great Wall Of Cubicle a while ago and advised Leonard Nimoy has died. The visual image which immediately popped into my mind was the character he made immortal, Spock, as he'd appeared in the first JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise, and so my first thought was Spock, dead? No; that's not possible. It took a few seconds to remember Nimoy in any other way, and then the news seemed not only possible but not unexpected. Now He Knows What We Do Not.

As Lynda Barry tells it, television was role model, teacher, and refuge for several generations. It was all those for me, and due to an odd twist of pre-frontal cortex which allows me to recall the complete dialogue of specific films nearly intact, I would remember the faces of character actors who appeared in films and different television series (which would lead to posts like this, and this, and this one).

I watched Star Trek when it was new in 1966, and a new concept for television -- a science fiction episodic television program (the audience could 'get involved' with the lives of its characters, and their relationship with each other, to create a backstory to support the arc of the series).  It's true that 'The Twilight Zone' had appeared in 1959, and One Step Beyond not long after; then "Outer Limits" in 1964, but each of their episodes were separate presentations, a series of short stories.

Star Trek was the first of its kind, and it made all the other series that followed, Star Trek-related or not, possible -- ST Next Generation; ST Deep Space Nine; ST Voyager; Starship Enterprise; Babylon 5; Stargate; Battlestar Galactica (original, and the remake); Space 1999; even the Saturday morning Thunderbirds! marionette series.

It also made possible a long string of other sci-fi and fantasy-related programs that we take for granted, today, from X-Files and Roswell to the SciFi Channel. 

The crew of the NCC 1701 were a family, and Leonard Nimoy's rendition of the science officer and XO was spot on, right from the beginning; I can't imagine another actor in 1966 who could have brought more to the role (Try and imagine it. Go ahead). The series was a popular success, but even with a large write-in campaign from fans, NBC cancelled it; episodes in the spring of 1968 were the last.

In the1970's Nimoy joined the cast of Mission: Impossible, replacing Martin Landau (who ended up as the star of -- yes; 'Space 1999', with his MI co-star and then-wife, Barbara Bain).  When Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, finally received financial backing to produce "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", Nimoy returned to his Spock role. But, the movie had a poor showing when it was released in 1979 and for a time it wasn't clear whether there would be any sequels. Nimoy began looking for other ways to reinvent his career -- as a writer, an artist, as a stage actor.

Four years later, with a different director and script, The Wrath Of Khan (with another decent character actor, Ricardo Montalban) appeared, and was a success -- even when the unexpected happened; Spock sacrifices himself to save his ship, its crew, and the officers on it that were his family.
 "I was, and always shall be, your friend." If you saw the film when it was released,
tell me you didn't feel just a little misty when he spoke that line. 

There would be another four star Trek films with the original cast  -- two of them written, and directed, by Nimoy. In 1987, he directed Three Men and A Baby for Disney Studios -- a big hit, financially. Nimoy continued directing other productions until 1995.

Over the last twenty years, Nimoy had been candid that as a person, it hadn't all been a bed of roses; he had suffered with an alcohol addiction since the late 1960's, but had conquered it. Even as he grew older he continued to do what he did best, to act -- his appearance as the reclusive Dr. Bell on the series, Fringe, and reprising Spock in the 2012 Star Trek reboot, were his last hurrahs as an actor.

Nimoy and Zachary Quinto at the opening of Abram's Star Trek (2012)

Through the original series and the motion pictures, Spock's character was about resolving inner conflict, the Path Of Logic versus human instincts. But Nimoy's character, which he did a good deal to shape, was also about loyalty, compassion, and Right Action.

For generations of people who grew up watching Nimoy as Spock, the character showed a bridge between our illogical selves and Something Larger, in a positive way.  The planet Vulcan may not exist, but that there might be a choice between instinctive or unconscious behavior, and some level of clarity achieved through discipline, does. No matter how that is internalized, it's a powerful message.

And, it's not a stretch to say that Nimoy's role as (arguably) Star Trek's most popular character helped to popularize science fiction on television. This was different from the B-Film sci-fi that was churned out in the 50's and 60's  -- it made science fiction acceptable as a dramatic form, The Human Dilemma in the vast reaches of space. Without Trek on television and in film, there might have been a very different and less nuanced 'Star Wars' (all six of them), or Blade Runner, Alien, or "Interstellar".

So, another Mensch leaves us -- I hope, for another continuing adventure.
Kirk:  I think its about time we got underway ourselves. 
Uhura:  Captain, I have orders from Starfleet Command. We're to put back to Spacedock immediately ... to be decommissioned. 
Spock:  If I were human, I believe my response would be, "go to Hell" -- if I were human.
Uhura:  What are your orders, sir?.
Kirk:  Second star on the right -- and straight on 'till morning.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Not Funny

Robin Williams, 1951 - 2014

Last night, I looked out at the sunset over The City as the marine layer slid in, thinking: Robin Williams doesn't get to see this. He doesn't get to see another one of these.

One more Mensch gone; what a world. At least we had him in it, for a while.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Pete Seeger (1919 - 2014)

©Andrew Sullivan / New York Times

I think he would want us to sing. And to resist -- not fight -- but to sit down in a place not far from Wall Street and decline to be moved; to stand in front of the tank; to call things that are happening by their right names -- and remember a lesson that The Few would like The Many to forget: That we are all family, trying to do the best we can, and that the highest thing we can do is make the journey easier for each other.

Now he knows what we do not. Stand up, and sing.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

More Than Meets The Eye

Jean Giraud / Moebius (1938 - 2012)

Le Bal (Limited Edition Serigraph print, 2002)

Jean Henri Gaston Giraud (known by his nom de plume, Moebius) passed away one year ago today in Paris.  He was one of the last Franco-Belgian illustrators of the bandes dessinées tradition -- literally, "drawn strips" -- whose most famous member was Belgian artist Hérge, the creator of 'TinTin'.

Giraud began his career in the 1950's, where he created, together with writer Jean-Michele Charlier, a daily strip and eventually full-fledged comics about Lieutenant Blueberry, a U.S. cavalry officer; Alan Delon meets the Old West.  Occasionally, he would illustrate  other Western tales Charlier developed outside the Blueberry story line -- which Giraud would sign "Gir".

 Original first page of "Missip[p]i River", 1967; 
Giraud's artistic style echoed pen and brushwork of American and
British comics in the mid-1960's (Click on image to enlarge. Easy! Fun!)

In America, the artistic style of mainstream comic illustration was bounded by DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Justice League) or the more recent Marvel Superheroes, and alternative-but-still-mainstream publications like MAD Magazine  -- specifically the pen-and-ink artist Mort Drucker.  Comics in the UK likewise had developed a distinctive style that borrowed from DC or Marvel, but also rooted in British-only comics like Bingo.

Comparison of styles between American Mort Drucker (left)
and Giraud's work in the mid-1980's on Blueberry (right).
Drucker used a nib pen, and was more inclined to caricature;
Giraud was a realist who favored brushes and Rapidograph technical pens.

In the Counterculture of the middle Sixties to the mid-70's, America's 'Underground' comics developed their own artistic styles far removed from those of DC or Marvel. They were a Fuck You delivered to America's Puritan cultural traditions around sexuality and materialism, first, and only secondarily an attempt to push the boundaries of illustration. It would take the development of graphic novels, and the work of American artists like Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, the Brothers Hernandez and Art Spiegelman to change that.

Meanwhile, in Europe, artists like Giraud saw their medium as dominated by America's "Superhero" format, and hidebound with traditions established before the First World War.  More than in America's underground comics, European illustrators were producing images influenced by the 'psychedelic revolution' -- expanding personal consciousness to touch the Universal; having experiences which provided glimpses of 'other', alternate realities.

 Jimmy Hendrix's Psychedelic Lunch (Virtual Meltdown, 1976)

The most accessible, commercial version of these visions was exemplified by Peter Max -- his colorful deconstructions of reality were simple, beautiful; but not too complex or ambiguous for the viewer.  It didn't really challenge their preconceptions of reality, just enhanced them in a non-threatening, cartoon manner -- as in Yellow Submarine.

In 1974, Giraud joined two other French artists -- Phillipe Drullet and Jean-Pierre Dionnet -- and a businessman, Bernard Farkas, forming Les Humanoïdes Associés (The United Humanoids), to publish a quarterly magazine of cutting-edge 'adult' illustration, Metal Hurlant (literally, "Screaming Metal").

Metal Hurlant, Issue No. 1, December 1974 (Wikipedia Commons). 

The first issue was released in December, 1974, and included work not just by Giraud and Drullet but included work by American Richard Corben. Later issues would feature another American cartoonist, Vaughn Bodé (creator of Cheech Wizard, and Junkwaffel), along with Brazilian Sergio Macedo, Swiss artist Daniel Ceppi, and the Dutch illustrator Joost Swarte,whose work carries on the traditions of the bandes dessinées and 20th-century Dutch design (Swarte's work appears heavily influenced by Herge's TinTin). 
Not in Mort Drucker's style: Before the first Star Wars,
Giraud was creating pen-and-ink aliens in France's Metal Hurlant.
This 1975 illustration, 'The Usual Suspects', shows some Moebius standards -- 
Arzach [center, back row], Major Grubert [second row left, in spiked helmet],
and Malvina [second row, far right, with rifle] of The Airtight Garage;
and Giraud [front row, right], with glasses (Click on image -- yes; for the Fun).

Metal Hurlant published stories with science fiction or fantasy themes -- the most natural channels for this new imagery.  But Giraud's work was so singular and unique that it took the reader / viewer into places where space, time, and scenery twined around each other: Part Oz, part Yaqui Way Of Knowledge, and part comic strip.

Giraud's major illustrated works include Arzach, the adventures of a humanoid with a tall hat, who rides the back of a creature like a prehistoric Pertodactyl through landscapes that resemble Bryce Canyon, or the mountains of Morocco. Like the rest of Giraud / Moebius' creations, there is spare dialog but no sound effects; Arzach's world is starkly beautiful, populated by strange beings and amazing beasts, but often silent.

First episode of Arzach; Metal Hurlant, 1975-76
(Click On Image to Bigger Buh Buh Buh Bleep.)

In the episodic "Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius", Giraud presents a world existing in different dimensions, like interlocking computer simulations, each of which can be accessed if you know the secret passages. Each lower level is unaware they are part of that chain, yet still affecting (and affected by) the others. 
 Major Grubert, guest of the Wascally Wabbits and their Big Crystal Skull.
(Clickety Click Click Click.)

Major Grubert, an agent for the first level, is trying to thwart a plot to unify all levels. A resident of a lower level, Jerry Cornelius, appears to be central to the plan; Grubert keeps looking for but never quite catches him, all the while threatened by conspiratorial forces, wacky rabbits, and The Bakelite.

Grubert survives an assassination attempt while meeting an agent
in a crowded 2nd level bar (The Airtight Garage, 1975)

The Incal was an episodic story written by Alejandro Jodorowsky, with a group of adventurers moving through an Oz-like universe, batted about over the fate of the Light Incal and Dark Incal, crystals of enormous power.

 The Incal, volume 4

(Note:  Moebius and Jodorowsky sued Luc Besson, director of The Fifth Element, claiming that the film used aspects of The Incal in the script without permission; they lost the suit.)

Giraud's last major works were Inside Moebius (titled in English for the French original), and 40 Days dans le desert B (Forty days in desert B).  Inside was several volumes of autobiographical writing and illustration.

Moebius' perception of Disney's effect upon culture:
The Wrath Of The Mouse (Click To See Larger Horrible Mouse)

"Forty Days" depicted a number of Giraud's themes about the effect of our consciousness on the world around us. The meditating traveler in 40 Days certainly does that.
I began looking at Giraud / Moebius' work in 1975, when the company which published 'National Lampoon' began reprinting Metal Hurlant in the United States, with English translations, as Heavy Metal. I was stunned at how good, how imaginative it was -- incredible, rich, detailed and sure; there wasn't a sense of hesitation in a single line.

The worlds he created were complete -- from its architecture and equipment, to strange little creatures or background flora, down to the rubbish in the street. It was like looking at sketches, made while on vacation in another dimension, which Giraud had brought back to show us.  And it wasn't a terrible or totally unfamiliar, nightmarish place. Even the incredible events he depicted seemed completely comprehensible, given where we were. They were places that vibrated with a sense of adventure and amazement.

And the best art does that -- surprise and amaze; show us something we only dimly and incompletely saw, like furniture in a dark room. That kind of art literally brings some new thing into the open, and changes how we perceive the world, and what's possible in it.  Moebius' work did all of that.


Friday, July 13, 2012

I Dunno; Whadda You Wanna Do Tonight?

Ernest Borgnine (1917 - 2012)

The Legendary Drew and Josh Alan Friedman's Any Resemblance
To Persons Living Or Dead
, 1986 (Fantagraphics)

Ernest Borgnine, born Ermes Effron Borgnino, passed away earlier this week. In case no one noticed.

It would have been different if Borgnine believed himself to be a towering talent, his career frustrated by lesser mortals (god knows there are plenty of card-carrying SAG and AFTRA members today who think that's true for them) -- but Borgnine was more realistic than that, about himself and his career.

Borgnine with a copy of Josh Alan Friedman's 2011
Autobiographical "Black Cracker" (Borgnine)

It's not easy to play a heavy; ask the actors who've made a living doing it. But in the Best Picture Oscar-winner for 1953, From Here To Eternity, Borgnine made Master Sargent "Fatso" Judson, the brutal stockade NCO (he beats Frank Sinatra to death in the third reel) into a believable figure -- the sort of man you hope you never find yourself at the mercy of.

And he made you suspend your disbelief enough that when he loses that knife fight in a Honolulu alley to Montgomery Cliff, you watch the narrow, sadistic character Borgnine created roll over, and lie still, and find yourself thinking Good; that asshole had it coming.

Judson Brandishes His Knife: Borgnine's First Career Move
In Fred Zinneman's From Here To Eternity (1953);
George Reeves Of Teevee 'Superman' Fame In Background

He followed Eternity up by playing in the sword-and-sandals 1954 costume drama, "Demetrius and The Gladiators", but his portrayal of Judson led director John Sturgis to cast Borgnine as another supporting heavy in the 1955 Bad Day At Black Rock. His Coley Trimble is another sadistic bully, one of three men in a tiny desert town who murdered a local Japanese man after Pearl Harbor -- but unlike Fatso Judson, this character is deeply disturbed, barely held together by bad dreams and manic laughter.

Little More Hot Sauce For Your Coffee; Borgnine And
Spencer Tracy In Bad Day At Black Rock (1954)

In 1953, Playwright Paddy Chayefsky's television screenplay, Marty, was broadcast with a rising star, Rod Steiger (later of The Pawnbroker), in the title role as a blue-collar butcher and lonely bachelor in Yonkers, battling his own self-image and family ties to break through to happiness, and a stronger sense of himself. When casting was being done for a film version in 1955, Borgnine was chosen for the title role, and it led to his being awarded the Oscar for Best Actor in 1956.

Any actor will tell you that the Craft is also a Job, and if you're not making a paycheck it doesn't matter how talented you think you are. Borgnine worked steadily in film and television in the next fifty-six years following his only Oscar (when he died, he was the voice of Mermaid Man on Spongebob Square Pants), and it was steady work -- I remember him in Flight Of The Phoenix; The Poseidon Adventure; The Dirty Dozen; The Wild Bunch; Escape From New York, among others. As a character actor, he was a fixture.

And naturally, I remember him from McHale's Navy (1963 -1967) -- his real signature role, much as Andy Griffith (who died a few days before Borgnine) will always be known as the television sheriff of Mayberry.

My Cartoon Tribute To Borgnine (1995)

Borgnine did not have a wide range, but he was a decent actor. The proof was in his portrayals of Fatso Judson and Coley Trimble -- evil, but not completely two-dimensional characters whom we recognized -- and distinct opposites from Ernest Borgnine the man, who from all reports was kind, engaging and genuine.

Borgnine the actor persuaded us to accept the likes of Judson and Trimble. You wouldn't cast him as Thomas Moore in 'A Man For All Seasons'; you wouldn't find him in a play by Stoppard or Beckett or O'Neill, but he might have done justice to Willy Loman. He would have been a decent Coach Bob in Hotel New Hampshire, and Borgnine definitely could have played Don Ciccio, the Sicilian mafioso who kills the father of the young Don Corleone, in The Godfather, Part II.

He was a perfect choice to play Chayefsky's Marty because the character could have been Borgnine's next-door neighbor, back in the day. He knew Marty's neighborhood, because he had grown up in one almost identical to it, leaving it during WW2 as a seaman and returning to it after VJ Day. But for different life choices, Borgnine might have gone on to become a regular in that neighborhood much like Marty, and he probably knew it.

Where life did take him were places nearly everyone he grew up with in his old neighborhood had never gone and could never go; he knew he'd been lucky, and never pretended otherwise -- in the 1980's, he made a film, Borgnine On The Bus, about driving across America in a Winnebago; no matter how painful it may be to more sophisticated tastes to watch, it was Borgnine's celebration at being alive, and he gently mocked his own 'stardom' in the process.

It's easy to be cynical; believe me, I know -- but Ernie was a Mensch, and a class act.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

John Neville (1925-2011)

The Age Of Reason: Tuesday

Neville As Karl August Friedrich Hieronymous, Baron von Munchausen
The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson: It seems to me, sir, that you have rather a weak grasp of reality.

Baron von Munchausen: Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash -- and I'm delighted to say I have no grasp of it, whatsoever!

--  Johnathan Pryce, John Neville, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Dir: Terry Gillam

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peter Falk, 1927 - 2011

I can't see ya, but I know you're here.

Ex-Angel: Falk As Himself In Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire (1987)
(Photo: The Unstoppable dvdBeaver: Sing 'O Canada'. Right Now.)

He's on the other side of the fence, now, and for real. Those writing his obituary can fill in details of his career. I'll remember Falk for Columbo (which made him a household name, after nearly twenty years of paying his dues as an actor). But I also remember him for cameos, like the grandfather in The Princess Bride; and, particularly since he appears in one of my favorite films, Wings Of Desire.

Falk's appearance was a bit like Columbo's, an Everyman conjured up out of clay as common as yours or mine. He always seemed to pay his audiences the best compliment through characters that reminded us of our humanity -- that we face the same struggles in a world we don't know the meaning of; rumpled and preoccupied, but in a self-mocking, genial way.

Spazieren; that's what grandma would've said; 'Go spazieren'...

And, frankly: In a film, who else would you cast to portray a former angel but someone who seemed to have knocked about (and been knocked around) a bit; trustworthy, streetwise, but not cynical: Look, pal; we're all just tryin' to get by, here; so don't worry. We'll take care of it, whatever it is. Now, where did I put -- oh, it's here ; ah, good. Yeah. Now; where were we? Oh, right...

So another Mensch leaves us. And as I've observed before, the world has a limited supply of Mensches.
“This is, perhaps, the most thoroughgoing satisfaction ‘Columbo’ offers us,” Jeff Greenfield wrote in The New York Times in 1973: “the assurance that those who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the very best, do not deserve it.”