Saturday, August 21, 2010

"South Pacific", "Bound for Glory", and Kodachrome

In 1949 I would turn 15 and was just old enough to read, and begin to understand, Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”. I had been listening to the Texaco (of beloved memory) broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera since 1945, the same year as we also had broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera. Besides the tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini, I had a terrific crush on the voice of Ezio Pinza. That is to say, the first post-WW II decade was the time when I began to grow up, when I saw that a wartime mentality was not the only kind, when I listened on the radio to broadcasts about the founding of the United Nations, and read about it in Life and Time, when we could even order European recordings direct from overseas if we wanted them enough.
And then the musical “South Pacific” opened.
Of course, I didn’t actually see it, but between war movies and the Movietone News and Life I could imagine the Pacific Theater of War perfectly well. We knew, among our friends and neighbors, ex-sailors and ex-nurses. We still venerated our still-living Admiral Nimitz, too, where I lived. We had had as a childhood treat going down to the Naval Air Station to watch the pontoon planes landing on the Bay.
For more than sixty years I’ve known all the words to all the songs in “South Pacific” (and those in “Kiss Me Kate” for nearly as long). I didn’t like the movie, which I didn’t even see until AMC broadcast it. Too much real landscape.
How could I like it without Pinza and Martin? The semi-staged version from Carnegie Hall broadcast on PBS, settled the problem so far as Mary Martin was concerned; Reba McEntire was perfect. The rest were merely all right (well, Alec Baldwin was excellent), and it wasn’t complete. It had been years since I’d read Michener, too.
The great thing about being retired and having PBS HD is that I can, if I wish, stay up almost all night and watch Live from Lincoln Center as much as four times over. It took me most of the initial viewing to accept Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush, though she really can sing and she sang just right. And Paulo Szot is wonderful. Not Pinza, but just the right kind of voice, and a great Emile. The second and third time, concentrating also on details, I noticed the costuming: Bloody Mary dressed like New Caledonia and looking like a real Tonkinoise. The chorus of nurses coiffed just right and dancing what didn’t even look like choreography (viz, was really good choreography), a casual-seeming mixture of jitterbug and movie-version Rockettes and bits of half learned Charleston and simple tap dance from when they would have been about ten years old. The Seabees basically doing ordinary guys’ jitterbug. And the clothes! Nellie’s are just what a nice young woman in middle America would wear (with a girdle!) even overseas, stationed in New Caledonia or perhaps the New Hebrides: those are the islands where French is spoken, and Lieut. Cable has been flown in from Guadacanal, where it isn’t. Clothes that had to be starched and ironed (linen, or for the stage a linen-look-alike). And everybody walking and moving “period”, too. Szot even can sing “This Nearly Was Mine”, a killer song written for a unique lyric bass, all in the part of the voice hardest to support and control.
I am sure that, though the audience evidently loved it, too, this musical has special comfort and special importance for persons just my age, for whom Petty girls (see the opening of Act II) were current pin-up types.
And then, something that at first seems different, yesterday I received in the mail a picture book I had ordered, hardly daring to hope that Abrams and the Library of Congress would have succeeded in getting the color right. But they did. Kodachrome I, ASA 10, and of the first generation, was quite different from not only digital color (which I admit is the truest, now) but from the direct positive color films both from Kodak and from competitors that almost any shop could process. Kodachrome I was extremely dense. In very strong light, it was intense and produced what we used to deplore as Mexican-blue skies. Its shadows ranged from dark to utterly opaque. I have one taken in late afternoon in 1959 on Mykonos and another near Sparta, and I processed them very carefully after scanning the slides with the special Kodachrome setting on a Nikon 4000 scanner. Since old Kodachrome has excellent drawer life, but rather poor life with exposure to ultraviolet light (or to heat in projectors), these are among my best preserved ones; even so they are 17 years younger than the latest ones (1943) in my beautiful new book, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress. Fully 20 years ago, as I recall, LOC on its web page with FSA photography, had included some by Marion Post Wolcott Kodachrome up by Lake Providence, LA, and elsewhere in the south. Although the on-line images at that time were rather sad, I downloaded several just because they were taken in Louisiana, where I was teaching. That is why, when someone in an interview mentioned the book, I made haste to order it. I rejoice to report to anyone that loves this photography that the book is revelatory. Fully half of the government agency photographers, including some of the all-round best, such as Lee and Delano, accepted the new film and mastered it, and the LOC has kept splendid care of these 35mm slides from an era that probably has lost most of them (Autochrome, for all its relative difficulties—no good in a Leica, for example—was fairly permanent).
Now, here is why “South Pacific” and Bound for Glory are complementary for me; they both record the America that is still, for me, the normal America, the normal children’s clothes, the normal roads and streets and downtowns, the normal barns, even after 1941 the normal war. They both record a life that looks quite poor nowadays. Of course, early FSA did record appalling poverty, but it is worth remembering that by 1939 even Dorothea Lange had to hunt for subjects that really needed both compassion and attention: I know; I remember; I knew Nipomo as well as she did, though I was never taken out into the fields; my fellow kindergartners of 1939 and I had hand-me-downs which were still good, but we weren’t hungry or without shelter, not any of us. Ordinary cotton-wash dresses most often sewn from Simplicity patterns were the norm, and why not?
Also, the editor who wrote the introduction to this book, Paul Hendrickson, assumes (just as my students of 1989–2005 did in History of Photography) that the Depression was a world of grayscale, of black-and-white. Because it is important to understand what is inherently black-and-white photography, and not all of the FSA is, I tried to tell them what the colors were like, the colors that I remembered perfectly well, but I don’t think most of them could manage ‘mental colorization’ (perhaps knowing how bad the colorization of movies was, how obscenely unreal and unjust to the photographers in Hollywood), and I know, too, that I am one of those persons who remember colors quite exactly, and remember subtle differences of hue. In any case, to me the world of FSA photography, fond of the art of gelatin-silver photography as I am, was not a grayscale world, only my world rendered permanent in grayscale. And in his interview with Alan Alda, Bartlett Sher (born 1959) said that he had never seen “South Pacific” on stage, that he started with the printed play (or was it with Michener himself?), and worked from there. Think of that! Someone who hasn’t had “South Pacific” all his life. He and his colleagues certainly have made a very good new job of it, faithful to everything that wants fidelity, and without any bleeping of Seabee talk, and without any fussing about its point of view.
They have made me very, very happy these last two days, and so has my new book. Perhaps after all people born after I was grown up can see their way into my world. Sometimes I stop and think: today and the end of the War between the States, in 1865, is 145 years, and at the end of World War II, in 1945, was 80 years since 1865, which seemed very long ago to me then. Yet from 1949 to 2009 is 60 years. I think: perhaps photography and sound recording and radio/television and now the machines that permit blogs and all make all the difference. They do, provided that my juniors avail themselves of it all, and fully, but youth is a time (as “South Pacific” keeps saying) when living takes precedence over remembering. I must use my imagination to see this world as they live it, for my part.