I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.
When I came downstairs on the afternoon of April 1, 2020, the flip chart had not changed from the previous day because Wednesday has become the morning to chill and watch episodes of The Blue Planet.
In that same vein, our daughters and I began to discuss the history of those two profoundly American art forms: jazz and rock. From 3 pm to 4 pm, we watched the first hour of the first episode of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I had first watched it six years earlier, so I knew how broadly entertaining and informative it could be.
After a 36-minute-break, we reconvened to watch the end of the 87-minute episode. We then moved ahead in time a few decades to watch a short video about “The Godmother of Rock-and-Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Once that ended, our older daughter vanished into her pre-teen bedroom. Our younger daughter, however, having burrowed deeply under her dark blue quilt on the blue sofa, wanted to watch something else. And by “something else,” she meant an episode by “the boys,” our nickname for BuzzFeed Unsolved’s Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej. This being a lazy day—as many days are these days—I pulled up the most recent episode, one Nell and I had watched a few nights earlier: the mysterious death of Thelma Todd.
About an hour later, I knocked on her bedroom door to get her attention. When she removed her headphone, I told her in my best deadpan voice her mother and I had just decided we would watch five more hours of Jazz that evening. Before she could complete the indignant protest forming in her throat, I yelled “April Fool’s” in my most absurd voice. I repeated the process with her older sister, who barely deigned to roll her eyes at me.
In reality, what Nell was doing was cooking some exceptionally delicious chicken parmigiana. I consumed a hearty portion as we watched All In With Chris Hayes. Offered seconds, I hungrily accepted essentially what remained in the casserole dish, leading our younger daughter to observe I do “not know what no means” when it comes to second.
Thanks, kid. Thanks a lot.
For all that, I had to stop eating about 2/3 of the way into my seconds so as not to get sick, though I did finish it over the course of the evening.
By 10:45 pm, I had finished cleaning the kitchen, and I decided to tackle aspects of the living room. First, as I watched the most upbeat segment I have seen on television in weeks, I thoroughly scrubbed our glass coffee table with Windex. Even before our actual dining room table became a centerpiece of our “classroom,” the coffee table had become the predominant dinner-eating surface. Once the coffee table was clean, I turned to the pile of clean laundry on the blue sofa crying out to be folded.
In general, Nell is the laundry maven—she finds great satisfaction in working her chemical magic on piles of dirty clothes using Mrs. Meyer’s detergent and OxyClean. Folding, however, is another matter entirely. I am perfectly happy to fold all shared linen and towels, as well as my own clothes. Theoretically, she and the girls fold their own clean laundry. In reality, however, their clothes take longer to fold, leading me to step in on occasion.
Turning lemons into lemonade, I pulled out my old VHS copy of the Yello Video Show; we still have a dual VCR/DVD player. The upshot: I may also have done something akin to dancing during the 30 minutes it took me to fold those clothes. I freely admit to singing, but the rest is between me and the living room windows.
Later that night—early that morning—I returned to my computer. For reasons that escape me now, I located the “Sun City” video for on YouTube and watched it a few times. And as it has for more than 30 years, it made me weep silently.
But then it was down to business: deciding which film noir I would screen in class Thursday afternoon. The first question was whether I wanted to zero in on a key author—Cornell Woolrich—or a key cinematographer—John Alton. If the former, would we watch Phantom Lady, Black Angel or Deadline at Dawn. If the latter, would we watch Border Incident or He Walked By Night—or perhaps even Raw Deal?
I eventually made a decision, as you will see.
Perhaps it was all the folding and dancing the evening before. Or perhaps it is my current—some may call it absurd, though as a lifelong night owl who relishes the peace and quiet of the dark night, I refute that description—sleeping schedule:
- clean the kitchen/take out our golden retriever/take out garbage and recycling
- work until 3 am or so,
- soak in a long hot bath or revel in a quick hot shower,
- take my 5 mg melatonin and over-the-counter sinus medication—I am particularly fond of half doses of CVS brand Severe Allergy and Sinus Headache, though I also like half does of DayQuil combined with a dose of CVS brand chlorpheniramine maleate
- sack out on the white sofa to watch YouTube videos
- drowsily turn off television to fall asleep on white sofa
- wake one or two hours later to wander upstairs to brush my teeth and get in our actual bed
Whatever the reason, I had a more difficult time than usual rousing myself on afternoon of Thursday, April 2, 2020. And when I went downstairs and hour or so later, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:
Technically, what I first saw was both of our daughters sitting in their usual classroom seats, attentively waiting for “school” to begin—or perhaps it had already begun? Almost before I could ask Nell why our daughters, who usually require some nominal cajoling to begin their afternoon classes, were already there, she said, “Maybe you should go look for yourself.”
So, I did.
Our younger daughter was now in stitches; she had been plotting this since my “April Fool’s” prank the night before. The piece of paper in front of “Dr. Dobby,” meanwhile, was written by our older daughter to attest to the pedagogical excellence of my temporary replacement.
Once Dr. Dobby and I had agreed I would teach this particular class, I opened some of the PowerPoint slides I had used to teach an adult and community education film noir course in the fall of 2018. First, I wanted to make the point—using my LISTS and POINTS system—that while film noir certainly peaked between 1944 and 1953 in the United States, it was and is an international film type that continues to this day.
Second, and more important, I presented the tragic life of Cornell George-Hopley Woolrich, who sometimes wrote as William Irish. As you can see from the slide, more films noir have been adapted from Woolrich stories than from any other author; this slide only lists the 15 films released between 1942 and 1954 which have at least 10.5 POINTS.
This quote from a 1988 biography perfectly distills Woolrich’s noir fatalism:
“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’”
One thing I forgot to tell the girls was how I opened the eulogy I delivered for my mother—their grandmother—on March 2, 2004. Observing that Woolrich was a renowned writer who had essentially invented the psychological suspense story, I noted only four people attended his funeral in September 1968. By contrast, I continued, there were twice that many people in attendance that morning who had never even met my mother, primarily my coworker “family.”
And with that, we settled down in the living room—note the blue sofa devoid of clean unfolded laundry—to watch Phantom Lady. I chose this film because it…
- has the most POINTS (42.5) of any Woolrich adaptation, tying it for #27 with The Naked City,
- features a strong heroic female lead in 23-year-old Ella Raines,
- was directed by the man I most strongly associate with classic film noir, Robert Siodmak and
- includes some of the most famous scenes in classic film noir
Just before we started to watch Phantom Lady, there was a brief conversation over whether the girls could use their Nintendo switches at the same time. I started to say no, but then gambled the movie would be compelling enough to draw then in. I knew I was correct when, about 15 minutes in, our older daughter showed me some green animal on Animal Crossing, adding “It’s a good movie, though.”
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, that same daughter had had something of a meltdown that morning over the fact she could not see her ribs; we seem to deep in that phase of pre-adolescence. But that makes the exchange we had over Ms. Raines—who I confess I find very attractive (those clear blue eyes…), but who also strikes me as too thin—that much more cringeworthy.
While agreeing Ms. Raines was attractive, she took exception to my fancying her, crying “She’s 20 years older than you!” Learning Phantom Lady was released in 1944, she amended her outrage to note she was 22 years older than me—not counting that she was in her 20s when she starred in it. To this, I unhelpfully added that she was also dead.
Strangely enough, these conversations never took place with my six “What is Film Noir” students. Nonetheless, as a teacher I did pause the film a number of times to point out something about Woody Bredell’s lighting scheme or to comment upon Woolrichian coincidence.
Meanwhile, when Elisha Cook, Jr. first appeared on screen, our younger daughter immediately said, “He was in that other movie,” recalling his key role in Stranger on the Third Floor, which she and I had watched the previous Sunday. This is the same daughter who sliced open an avocado for a snack, somewhat raggedly using her child-safe white plastic knife, while her father instead had a toasted whole wheat bagel with cream cheese.
In the end, both girls enjoyed the film, although the intensity of the penultimate “damsel in distress” scene could be why our younger daughter had her own teary meltdown around dinner time. Being her, however, she recovered within five minutes.
A short time earlier, I had taken the dog out into the backyard. Ten or 15 minutes of frolicking in the mud later, I trotted her upstairs and into our walk-in shower for a long-overdue bathing. Wrestling a wet 50-pound dog in such a confined space is a serious aerobic workout—never mind toweling her off afterward—but on this occasion I punctuated with the loud shrieks of a cooped-up maniac—not unlike the noises Mr. Bergara made when he and Mr. Madej returned to the “Winchester Mystery House.”
When I suggested to Nell, who had overheard my chorus of madness, that such vocalizing was an expression of stir-craziness, she observed “this is only the beginning.”
A short time later, as Nell was preparing Trader Joe’s chili and cornbread, she noted that when she spoke to her friend in Chicago it was 65 degrees and sunny, so that weather should be here soon.
“No,” I replied, “All of Chicago is on lockdown. The weather can’t leave.” She found that genuinely amusing—unlike the usual “that joke never gets funny” response my quips merit—saying, “That’s…that’s funny.”
Thanks, Nell. Thanks a lot.
Later that evening—early that morning—I wrestled with how I wanted to teach the girls about the early history of rock and roll, which I realized was not my strongest area. Girding myself to prepare a set of PowerPoint slides with links to YouTube videos, I quickly found this hour-long documentary from 1984. I watched it and decided it would be good enough.
Which it proved to be.
I may only have been joking about the weather, but I did not expect to wake on Friday, April 3, 2020—thanks to Nell, since I had neglected to set my alarm—to a near-nor’easter. An hour-plus later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:
Dr. Dobby was back as well, albeit willing to stay in a supportive role:
I had briefly debated offering the girls the choice between Episode 2 of Jazz or the rock and roll documentary, but I realized I had already set up the latter with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe video. The girls liked the documentary, although our older daughter had a difficult time with Elvis Presley’s slicked-back hair, finding Jerry Lee Lewis much more attractive—well, at least until she realized he had married his 13-year-old cousin.
Her younger sister, meanwhile, quietly watched a few tears roll down my cheek when they showed footage of the February 3, 1959 plane crash which effectively ended the first phase of rock history. Later that night, in honor of Buddy Holly, I finally purchased 18 of his songs on iTunes.
After a 30-minute or so break, the three of us gathered in the classroom, where I “lectured” from these notes (which I admit are mostly cribbed from the Internet minefield which is Wikipedia):
Three observations I neglected to include in my notes, but which I improvised:
- An oversimplification of the Hegelian dialectic
- The replacement of the aging Dwight Eisenhower with the much younger John F. Kennedy in 1961
- How the emerging songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David found their muse around 1962 in the person of a New Jersey gospel singer named Dionne Warwick.
My point was that far from “dying,” American music other than rock and roll thrived between February 3, 1959 and the first appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. While there was no guarantee rock and roll would reemerge in those five years—let alone become the dominant pop music for generations to come—it is only with a particularly rock-centric hindsight we say “the music died,” with all due apologies to Don McClean.
And with that, at 5:12 pm, week three of home schooling came to a successful end.
Which Nell and I celebrated by watching the first three episodes of season two of Broadchurch, after consuming her scrumptious steak fajitas.
On March 30, at 10:53 pm, I replied to a tweet to the effect one’s “pandemic” song is the #1 song on your 12th birthday:
Oh oh OH DEAR.
“Kiss You All Over” by Exile
So inappropriate in so many ways.
The Billboard magazine week began on my birthday in 1978, so I could have fudged the issue by going with the previous #1: “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. To be fair, I love both songs.
Meanwhile, when I explored the 20 number ones single of 1978 (accursed Wikipedia again…I am slipping), it was hard to miss the fact five were by the Bee Gees or their younger brother, Andy Gibb, and that they occupied the top spot a combined 22 weeks.
Despite being inundated by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack when I was 11 and 12 years old, I have long since come to appreciate the excellent Bee Gees tracks of the mid- to late-1970s. However, I had continued to dismiss the younger Mr. Gibb for decades, despite his tragic death from heart failure in 1988.
And yet as I looked over those song titles—“(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing” among them—I found myself mentally humming them, surprised how good I recalled them being. I played snippets of them on iTunes, realizing I had forgotten he had had performed some of them—or I had never known it in the first place.
On Friday afternoon, as I discussed the formation of The Beach Boys—the American yin to The Beatles’ yang—our older daughter half-disgustedly proclaimed them the first “boy band.” I indignantly shot down that comparison, repeating my contention one of the hardest things in all of art to do is write a memorable, three-plus-minute pop song. The Beach Boys did it many times…
…and so did Andy Gibb, I realized to my chagrin.
Which is why, before I purchased those Buddy Holly tunes, I bought six Andy Gibb tunes; I am enjoying them immensely.
Rest in peace, Mr. Gibb. Your songs remain your greatest legacy.
Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…
 Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.