Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Marilyn C. Szalay (1950-2012)

“Life Drawing went exceptionally well today. Not once did the teacher berate or mock my drawings, as she is often inclined to do.” – Journal entry, Tuesday February 2, 1990

Marilyn Szalay could mock and berate, and frequently did, but she was also quick to offer praise when it was due. As one of her Life Drawing students at Cuyahoga Community College throughout 1990, my work was mocked and praised in equal measure.

The mockery was deserved. Even though I had been drawing since I was old enough to be trusted with a pencil, I had, even at age 32, a habit shared by most of my classmates. After completing a drawing, I would take my pencil and add a bold outline to every object in my composition. Szalay was not a fan of lines (“There are no straight lines on the human figure”) or line drawings ("Lines are for coloring books," she cracked), and her criticisms were rarely stated gently. Her comments broke my bad habit immediately and I never again added a silly, and unnecessary, outline to one of my drawings. “Stick with me, Brian,” she once told me, “you’ll learn a lot.” Indeed, I learned everything I know about drawing from her, and much of what I learned went beyond drawing and served me well in other areas. She taught me how to draw. More importantly, she taught me how to SEE – shapes, variations in light and dark, and to regard the human figure as something other than a series of isolated parts.

Szalay could be abrasive and rubbed some students the wrong way. I was one of them at first. “This is beautiful,” she said of a drawing I did of a female model. Then, pointing to the stool on which the model sat, “but this is awful. It’s like two different people worked on this drawing, one sensitive and the other a klutz.” As she pointed out the shortcomings in my work during the weekly homework critique, I would stand there, speechless and embarrassed. She was right, of course. She was always right, and my work improved after every such thrashing. I quickly grew to love her as much as I respected her talent. As I noted in another journal entry, this one dated April 14, 1990:

“She had things to say, good and bad, about everybody’s drawings but she said nothing to me. That may mean she thought I was doing well – I don’t know – but I do know I felt kind of hurt by the lack of attention. Earlier in the day, she said, ‘Oh yeah, Brian is getting good’ in response to another student’s remark about one of my drawings . . . Later, while I drew a second portrait, she did have a few words, most of them good. Maybe I’m too sensitive. As I made my way out of the class and passed her in the hall, she said, ‘Good going, Brian.’ That was nice. I guess I’m becoming rather fond of this woman and want her attention.”

When the attention was positive, I was euphoric. “Look at this hand!” she exclaimed to the class when holding up an ink drawing I had done as a homework assignment. “Now this has drama!”

Except for the F's I routinely received in Algebra, I was a straight A student until Szalay gave me a B in that first Life Drawing class. However, when she gave me an A the next quarter, and the quarter after that, they were the most gratifying A’s I would ever receive. She was strict about grades, and warned her students that they had to earn them. Simply showing up for class and completing assignments might guarantee a C at best, but not the A or B that more lenient Art teachers were known to give. This came as bad news to the EMS student who took Drawing in fall 1990 only to meet a college requirement in Humanities. As for my A, I earned it because I learned it – from her.

She often teased me about my quiet manner even as she enforced a rule against talking while drawing. One talks with the left side of the brain and draws with the right, she told us. To engage in left brain activity while drawing might interfere with the right brain’s ability to think creatively. It was one lesson that she never had to teach me. I recall the time that she sent the class into the hallway for a perspective assignment. She was annoyed at all the chatter she heard. After making her displeasure known, she threw a sort of compliment my way:

"I don't have to worry about Brian," she said. "He never talks. He just grunts."

Marilyn Szalay passed away on November 3, 2012. She was only 62 and spent her last decade battling scleroderma. The news makes this season of Thanksgiving a downer. However, it also reminds me to be thankful that my life was touched by her intelligence and talent.

Another journal entry, this one from Tuesday October 23, 1990:

“In Drawing III, we resumed work on the still life that we started last Tuesday. Things went much better today than they did then, although Szalay complained about a lack of drama in my drawing. ‘You could have the world if you just pushed a little harder,’ she said. ‘Do you want it?’”

The world was certainly worth having when she was in it. Its value is diminished now that she's gone.

Goodbye, Teacher, and thank you.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, November 15, 2012

"A cinch . . . the Perfect score"

Fifty-three years ago on this date, a Kansas farmer named Herbert Clutter was awakened sometime after midnight by two intruders who let themselves in through an unlocked door. In 1959, especially in the tiny town of Holcomb, population 270, any threat to one’s safety came from outside the community, from the Communists maybe, but not from the neighbors. The young men who came to the Clutter farm armed with shotguns and a flashlight had recently been paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary. It was there, while sharing a cell with a petty thief named Floyd Wells, whom Herbert Clutter once employed as a farmhand, that Dick Hickok concluded that the Clutter home held a safe stacked with cash. It was, as Hickok said in a note to accomplice Perry Smith, a “cinch, the Perfect score . . .”

But there was no safe. Instead of the fortune they had anticipated, Hickok and Perry left the Clutter home with a small amount of cash and a radio taken from Clutter’s office. It may have been a “cinch,” but it was not the “Perfect score.” If he exaggerated the financial rewards of their criminal undertaking, Hickok was accurate in his promise to leave no witnesses. “I promise you, honey,” he told Smith, “we’ll blast hair all over them walls.”

Horrific as the murders were (Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, son Kenyon, and daughter Nancy, were bound, gagged, and killed at close range by blasts from the shotgun), they would almost certainly not be remembered outside of Kansas itself more than a half century later if not for Truman Capote who, reading a brief account of the murders in The New York Times, departed for Kansas with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had yet to be published. Capote was to write an article for The New Yorker, described by Brendan Gill, a fellow scribe for the periodical, as “the effect of a murder – a story of a small Midwestern town responding to an unprecedented catastrophe in their midst.” Lee was present not to write but because she was, in John Barry Ryan’s words, “a fairly tough lady, and Truman was afraid of going down there alone.”

According to Charles J. Shields’ Lee biography, I Am Scout, Lee was put on salary as Capote’s “assistant researchist,” and wrote copious notes, enough of which would end up in what became the novel, In Cold Blood, to justify her receiving more than the dedication in the opening pages.

“Nelle was very hurt that she didn’t get more credit because she wrote half that book,” a friend, R. Philip Hanes, recalled. What originally began as an article for The New Yorker evolved into the enormously successful In Cold Blood which started a wave of “true crime” books that has not abated since Capote’s book reached stores in early 1966. Although Capote’s technique, using the tools of the fiction writer to tell a true story, make it controversial, and the debate concerning whether it was fact or fiction which continues to this day, may have cost him the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, the book was a phenomenal success on every level, guaranteeing that the Clutters would be killed again and again when the book became a much praised 1967 film, and a rather obscure 1997 TV mini-series. In 2005, Capote’s experience researching the book became the basis for two films, Capote and Infamous, both of which recreated the brutal slayings. When the Clutters went to bed on Saturday November 14, 1959, they had no idea that they wouldn’t live to see another morning, and their killers certainly did not realize that someone other than themselves would walk away from the scene with the fortune that was denied them. In Cold Blood became Capote’s masterpiece and the royalties kept him rich even as his pen went dry.

If the films are accurate, the book ultimately destroyed him. In Infamous, Capote is portrayed as being in love with one of the killers, Perry Smith, who had artistic ambitions of his own. Watching Smith die by hanging, and secretly wishing for his demise so as to conclude his book with a dramatic execution, traumatized the author. That’s one theory. The same film suggested that his excursion to Kansas and exposure to the hard realities of life that he was protected from when hobnobbing with New York society and Park Avenue life, changed him and made him more fearful, paranoid, and hopeless. Piedy Lumet, wife of the director Sidney Lumet, told George Plimpton of a trip she took to Oregon with the elfin author. She stopped the car to take a walk through a path of redwood trees leading to a state park while Capote waited behind in the car. “This was a year after Perry and Dick had been executed. I heard this piercing call of alarm from Truman: ‘Come back! Come back! Perry and Dick are down there!’ It wasn’t a joke. A terribly, poignant intensity. He just got frightened. It didn’t make any sense and I never made any reference to it.”

Author John Knowles thinks it was simple a case of too much success. “I think he lost a grip on himself after that. He had been tremendously disciplined up to that time. . . A lot of his motivation was lost. That’s when he began to unravel.” Capote died August 25, 1984 at age 59 in the Los Angeles home of Joanne Carson, former wife of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson whom Capote met when the couple lived in the United Nations Plaza where the author moved following the windfall of In Cold Blood. He had published the short novella, The Thanksgiving Visitor in 1968 and a collection of stories and essays, Music for Chameleons, in 1980, but had not written another major work. His long promised epic, a roman a clef called Answered Prayers, materialized after his passing, but it was hardly an epic. A short book with four chapters, two of which had been published in the pages of Esquire in 1975, alienating the New York society crowd, it was either never as close to completion as Capote claimed or pages were stolen after his death. Carson was worried about his health during his stay. His pulse was weak and his complexion pale. “I’m tired,” he told her. “I don’t want any more hospitals, any more doctors, any more IVs . . . I’m very, very tired. I just want to go in peace.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The new Bond movie

Skyfall, the latest 007 opus, is getting raves. “It’s the greatest Bond movie ever!” I heard someone exclaim. After catching it the other night, I beg to differ. I’d rank it somewhere in the middle, not in the same league as Thunderball (still the biggest grossing Bond film when inflation is taken into account, as it rarely is) or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but several flights of stairs above The Man With the Golden Gun. Nonetheless, it is a terrific entry in the now 50-year-old film series (you won’t hear the word “franchise” from me). I can’t claim to be objective though. No matter how good, or how technologically advanced, no Bond film after 1971 is going to compare in my mind with those first seven films, six starring Sean Connery and one with George Lazenby. That was Bond’s cinematic heyday.

Skyfall is Daniel Craig’s third go-round as Ian Fleming’s secret agent, and it sure has it over the disappointing Quantum of Solace. The story has the identifies of MI6 agents being revealed when a computer file goes missing, but what does it matter? There are several spectacular action scenes, and a nail-biting moment when Bond, on the trail of an enemy, clings to the bottom of an elevator that rises high above Shanghai. The film’s climax takes place in Bond’s rustic childhood home (the “Skyfall” of the title) where he and M have an almost Western-style showdown with the bad guys led by chief villain Javier Bardem. The Spanish actor goes blonde for his Bond baddie (as Robert Shaw did in From Russia With Love and Christopher Walken did in A View to a Kill), and plays it kind of fey. He makes for a very formidable foe.

Skyfall has one of the most high profile casts to ever appear in a Bond film. In addition to Judi Dench returning as M, and Oscar winner Bardem, there’s Ralph Fiennes who we’ll obviously be seeing again, and Albert Finney, burly and bearded, as the man who raised Bond as a child. The music score by Thomas Newman includes occasional snatches of “The James Bond Theme,” and the legendary gun-barrel opening, missing from recent films, is tacked on at the end. A good show all around.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks