Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

Spahn Ranch | Yasgur’s Farm | Shaggy Dog Stories of 1969

Today, in August 2019, I am older than three of my four grandparents were in summer 1969. My oldest grandfather, Leonard Harbison, was only a year and a half older than I am now.

Back then, of course, they all seemed ancient to me. I keep that in mind as a college professor, surrounded daily by 20-year-olds.

The summer of ’69 is being talked about throughout this, the 50th anniversary. It seems that each week is the golden anniversary of some significant, grand, or unsettling milestone. The Who’s brilliant and pretentious “rock opera” Tommy was released in May 1969 and formed a significant part of the soundtrack of that summer. So did Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” recorded by Glen Campbell – which most of us didn’t realize was an anti-war song. The counter-culture biker movie Easy Rider was in theatres, as were John Wayne in True Grit and the X-rated Midnight Cowboy.

The Stonewall uprising occurred in June, signaling the birth of an organized gay rights movement. And Chappaquiddick, an event that forever stained Sen. Ted Kennedy’s reputation, occurred in July. But the first manned moon landing was the most significant event of July, and of the year.

Since I currently live in Huntsville, there has been a certain level of Huntsville-style hoopla in celebration of the first manned moon landing in July 1969. The Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo missions was created in Huntsville and there is justifiable pride in the accomplishments of NASA that pervade the community all the time, regardless of the year. What Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is to Tuscaloosa, the Saturn V is to Huntsville.

Back then, my interest in the myth of the “final frontier” was peripheral at best. It was exciting to watch launches from Cape Kennedy on classroom televisions in the 1960s, and it was exciting to watch the capsules’ safe splash-downs in the Atlantic afterwards. The whole country grieved when the three Apollo 1 astronauts were killed in a fire during a pre-flight launch pad test in 1967.

Two and a half years later, my family was living in Nashville when Neil Armstrong made that first “small step” on the moon in that grainy video transmitted back to Earth. My memory of that moment is vivid still. I remember that when the satellite transmission ended on broadcast television, I walked out into our front yard and looked up at the moon. The fact that two Americans were sitting there, and that another was orbiting to facilitate their return, is still daunting, inspiring, transformational to think about.

August of 1969 is particularly memorable for two tragedies – Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the Tate – La Bianca murders perpetrated by the “Manson family” in the hills of Los Angeles. Some say that the gruesome Tate – La Bianca slayings signaled the end of the 1960s, while others make the case that Nixon’s defeat of McGovern in 1972 was the end of the ’60s era. Either way, the Tate – La Bianca case signaled an end to a certain optimistic innocence that characterized large chunks of that decade, despite the war protests and social and political upheaval that fomented throughout those years. August 1969, of course, is also remembered for a slipshod celebration that became an enduring legend – the Woodstock music festival, held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York.

My first memory of Hurricane Camille is a strange one. My family was traveling from Six Flags in Atlanta to Birmingham and made a rest stop in Anniston late in the night. While we were waiting for Mother, Dad struck up a conversation in the parking lot with another man traveling with his family; they began to talk about the massive hurricane that was then bearing down on the Mississippi coast. Somehow, that conversation conjures a memory of the animated neon Goal Post Bar-B-Q sign, an iconic Anniston fixture depicting a football player kicking a football through a goal post. Our rest stop was down the highway from the barbecue joint and I was watching that sign as the two grown-ups chatted, we waited for my mother, and my brother slept in the back seat.

These distant memories are stimulated by a recent viewing of fanboy Quentin Tarantino’s latest ultra-violent fantasy, Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, set in the summer of 1969. The film focuses on two fictional characters, a fading western star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt man, best friend, and jack-of-all-trades, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). A presence throughout the film is the very non-fictional Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who, with her husband, director Roman Polanski, rents the house next door to Dalton. Tate, who is 8½ months pregnant at the movie’s end, floats through the proceedings with a serenity and presence that are exhilarating to watch. Another recurring presence throughout the movie is members of Charles Manson’s hippie cult, skulking regularly on the edges.

Tarantino weaves a shaggy dog story with many loose ends and an entertaining jumble of real-life and fictional characters. The movie begins on February 9, 1969 (my 14th birthday), sets up the characters, and jumps, later, to August 9 of the same year. Tarantino assumes that the audience knows its 1969 pop culture history and throws teases and period references in with the imaginative fictionalization. Quick appearances are made by actors playing Steve McQueen, James Stacy, Sam Wanamaker, and other real-life personalities of the era. We briefly catch a bit of a car radio news broadcast announcing the sentencing of Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968.

In a lovely, carefree interlude, the camera follows Cass Elliott, Michelle Phillips, and Sharon Tate as they hold hands, running through a party at the Playboy mansion, and begin to dance. In another scene, three Manson girls are seen holding hands, smiling like Moonies, singing and skipping down an L.A. sidewalk.

It’s a fascinating and enjoyable movie, made moreso by its frequent dips into a splashy late-60s reality, but always tempered by the very real presence of the darkness that lurks at the Spahn Ranch, the former western movie lot that has been infested by Manson’s followers and hangers-on. In a tense scene, Cliff goes to the Spahn Ranch – a place he knows from past film and television shoots – with a hitchhiker he’s picked up in Hollywood. When he insists on seeing George Spahn, an old friend who is now the blind and aging owner of the ranch, the mood shifts. We worry for the safety of Cliff, and for the foreboding scenarios still to emerge.

I have never warmed up to DiCaprio as an adult actor, but his portrayal of a washed-out, whiny former tv star is effectively irksome and desperate. Brad Pitt, who is aging gracefully, has rarely been as appealingly authentic as he is in his role as Cliff – who might have murdered his wife, but moves through the world with a carefree and amused attitude.

Sharon Tate, who was only 26 when she was murdered, is most remembered now for the last day of her life. In Tarantino’s movie, there is a celebration – through Robbie’s performance – of Tate’s joie de vivre and potential. We follow her as she goes through her day, and discover a complex, upbeat woman far removed from the tragic headlines that have become her legacy. Tarantino’s camera worships Pitt and Robbie in this film, and doesn’t hesitate to linger and marvel at each of them when it has the opportunity.

Obviously, since this is a Tarantino film, there is violence; sometimes, that violence seems gratuitous. Here’s my stance on Tarantino and violence, and I realize there will be those who disagree: To me, Tarantino’s violence is so over-the-top and wild that I find it hard to take seriously. One stifles the urge to laugh at the outrageous excess; the filmmaker does not glorify or even endorse violence, it seems to me, but uses it as a device to celebrate the absurdity all around us to which he seems so drawn.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov referred to his plays as “comedy” and many find that hard to wrap their mind around. I think I get it with Chekhov. He explores and revels in the absurdity of our surroundings and everyday lives. I don’t think of Tarantino as “Chekhovian” by any stretch, but I think his prankish and warped world-view enjoys taking his audience to the extremes of a violent society.

For those who think they know how Once upon a Time in Hollywood must inevitably end, and are avoiding it for that reason, I suggest that you see for yourself. Without going into detail, I think the final image of this movie is one of the sweetest images I’ve seen in a movie in years. It’s a moment that portends a whole new trajectory for the end of the ‘60s – an ending that was earned, but, sadly, was never achieved.

“Oh, Masha, Masha, Masha …!”

IMG_0843    One of my favorite opening lines in all of dramatic literature comes from Masha in Chekhov’s The Seagull. At the beginning of that play, Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black. “I am in mourning for my life,” she says. I was thrilled recently when I stopped by a neighborhood shop on my way home from work. I was wearing a black shirt and black trousers and the shopowner, a friend, asked me why I was dressed all in black. It was the perfect opening for a literary quote and I grabbed it.

I am a man with strong opinions on many things and many of those opinions were formed relatively early in life. I was fortunate to have a high school English teacher who was not intimidated by the Russian master Anton Chekhov and I remember loving Chekhov’s The Three Sisters the first time I studied it in a high school lit class. It was then that I decided that Chekhov was my favorite playwright and he is still my favorite playwright to this day. I must admit that Sam Shepard is a close second. And I will direct a Chekhov or Shepard play at any opportunity.

Chekhov referred to his plays as “comedy.” That fact still baffles many people familiar with the work. It never baffled me. As a Southerner, I have always felt a kinship with the playwright’s sly and droll sense of humor.

Chekhov’s plays examine the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the human condition and he seems on occasion to wince patiently and lovingly. This is what we mortals are, Chekhov seems to assert, as ludicrous as we may be. Chekhov was trained as a physician and examines his characters fairly and humanely but with clinical detachment.

Chekhov’s down-to-earth sense of humor reminds me of my favorite quote from William James: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

I once congratulated a friend on her performance in Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard. “Oh please,” she snapped. “I hated that performance and I hate that play. He’s so damn depressing!” I realized that her cluelessness about the play and the character may have been what contributed to her excellent and amusing performance as a headstrong woman who couldn’t see the forest for the (cherry) trees.

I have had the opportunity to direct Chekhov plays a couple of times, to act in a couple, and to see many productions over the years. When I directed The Seagull, I played up the abundant humor of the piece. Audience members thanked me for it afterward. An actor friend who drove a hundred miles to see the production grabbed me at intermission and said, “Thank God. Finally a performance of The Seagull where an audience is actually laughing at the funny parts!” (one of my favorite reviews ever).

As the various characters struggle through their various issues – loveless marriages, aging and decay, lack of talent, greed and ruthless ambition, fickle lovers, loss – they often make bad choices and those bad choices are often accompanied by overwrought and over the top overreactions. We smile to ourselves and I think we recognize ourselves in much of what transpires on stage.

I have dealt with The Seagull in many stages in life. When I was a college student, I thought it was the perfect play for college students as it examined our need to define ourselves, set our goals, and perhaps overreach beyond our capabilities. Now that I’m older, the play speaks directly to me on a profoundly different level but with the same intensity. And much of the journey of the play is still very touching and funny.

Konstantin, one of the major characters, does commit suicide in the end. Oh well, there’s that…

Chekhov’s characters are often in turmoil and despair. He does not make fun of them, but he does handle them gingerly and allows an attentive audience to smile at their overwrought reactions to situations that might often be easily remedied with a little common sense and effort. Often it seems his characters are frozen in inaction and ennui simply because they can’t stop talking about their despair. One thinks Just go to Moscow and stop whining about it after listening to the title siblings of The Three Sisters long for Moscow for four acts. To me, that’s funny.

Anton Chekhov died in 1904 at the age of 44. He died of tuberculosis but almost until the end he was writing letters assuring his correspondents that he was well on the road to recovery. Chekhov was a doctor; he knew better. At the end, a doctor who was attending Chekhov ordered a bottle of fine champagne with three glasses. He poured full glasses of champagne for Chekhov, Olga – Chekhov’s wife, and himself. According to Olga, Chekhov finished his glass, smiled, and said, “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” Then he rolled over in his bed and quietly died.

(The image is Mandy Erbes and Joseph C. Wilson as Masha and Dorn in The Seagull, directed by Edward Journey, at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, in September 1993.)