In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. Here is one, from Dec 31, 2016 slightly updated and rewritten.

Who is this man?

This is arguably the most recognizable face of the 20th century; you may recognize him without his most iconic feature. But probably not. Without it, he looks like any anonymous businessman or bourgeois politician of his time. Yet, give him back that one little caterpillar curling under the shade of his nostrils and you can recognize him instantly.

In fact, you don’t really need the rest of the face. Even an abstract diagram can be given its name without much puzzling. That mustache defines the face of the single most evil person of the previous century (nominations are now open for the current era). Before the middle of the last century, there were many who bore a similar fungus on their lip, but since then the so-called “toothbrush mustache” has gone understandably out of fashion, save for a few copycat dictators and a comedian or two attempting irony.

Yet, before its demonization, the lip tonsure was famous for defining the Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin. It was also worn by Oliver Hardy (“Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) One would be hard pressed to understand the thing in any way but comical, until it occupied the philtrum of the Great Dictator. It’s hard now to realize that it could grace the passport photo of Eric Blair on his way to Burma to shoot an elephant, later to write about it as George Orwell.

Then, there is precedent for the little fuzz as popular with strongman rulers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, before he was still dead, bore the little bristle. So did pre-war Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. And, of course, Peter Parker’s boss in the Spider-Man comic books is J. Jonah Jameson. The scant inch-of-hair has a long pedigree.

Even now, there are those willing to sport the growth. Former Ecuadoran president, Abdala Bucaram, known to his voters as “El Loco,” sported it before he was impeached. Zimbabwe “president for life,” (now deposed and buried) Robert Mugabe wears one so tight and slender, it barely fills the space between his two nostrils.

Michael Jordan tried one on for a series of ads he made for Hanes underwear. It won him the title of “Herr Jordan.” His friend, Charles Barkley admitted, “I don’t know what the hell he was thinking and I don’t know what Hanes was thinking. I mean, it is just stupid. It is just bad, plain and simple.”

It has fallen on hard times, this innocent little bushlet. Irony is its constant companion. It is a meme on the internet; it is a joke in a Mel Brooks movie; it is even a phantom that bedevils Michael Grave’s teapot design for J.C. Penney (now off the market after too many people saw the evil one’s face in its handle and lid ball, with the spout as a Nazi salute).

But, where did this odd thing come from? And how did it make its way onto the facial undercarriage of der Führer?

The first surprise is that early commentators tell us the style was originally American. It was American tourists who brought it with them to Germany, where, in the early years of the past century, it spoke of Modernism and efficiency. Back then, the style, especially among military officers was the broad, spreading eagle of the “Kaiserbart,” or Kaiser mustache. All the most Erich von Stroheim cavalry men sported them. It was described in a New York Times article on Oct. 10, 1907 as something like a handlebar mustache, with its tips “elevated upward and the rest fashioned something after the form of the wings of the Prussian eagle which one sees on National standards and postage stamps. It is more or less popular all over Europe, particularly in military circles.”

The piece goes on to say, “The ‘toothbrush’ mustache, which is  considered an American importation, is a bristling appendage claimed by its possessors to have the advantage of being hygienic and convenient — virtues which should make a particular appeal to the Germans.

“That it did make such an appeal is revealed by the fact that many German swells have of late applied the scissors to their ‘Kaiserbart’ and discarded the use of the ‘frixe mustache.’ The substitution, however has met with widespread resentment on the part of the fair sex. One German lady writes to the Berliner Tageblatt that she will no longer recognize her male acquaintances who wear ‘a toothbrush on their upper lips.’

“ ‘Man is naturally very ugly,’ writes another. ‘The only natural adornment he ever had was his mustache, and that he is now ruthlessly mutilating. Instead of the peaceful hirsute ornament of the past he is marring his face with a lot of bristles.’ ”

The fashion was certainly helped along by celebrity. A year before the New York Times story about the “American mustache” that had become all the rage, the newspaper chronicled the heroics of a young German military officer who won the “New York to Paris” round-the-world automobile race (he was later disqualified for cheating). Hans Koeppen was described as “31-years-old and unmarried. Six feet in height, slim and athletic, with a toothbrush mustache characteristic of his class, he looks the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”

The ‘stache acquired nicknames. It was called the Rotzbremse, or “snot brake.” It was called the Fliege (fly),Zwiefinger (two-finger), and Chaplinbart, after its most famous wearer before it gained infamy on the lip of the Führer.

This was before the start of the War to End All Wars. When the war changed everything, it seemed to have changed the upper lip of a certain German corporal along with it.

It would be understatement to say that the nose-blot mustache has lost its appeal, except to would-be dictators, but the aversion can extend beyond the actual bush above the bouche. Amazon-dot-com had to change its phone app icon because some people read into the design a spectre from history. 

There is no certain documentation as to when Adolf Hitler first adopted the wooly-worm balanced above his lip. There are several stories, none of which is certain.  The most common is that his broad-winged Kaiserbart could not fit efficiently into the gas mask he was required to don in the trenches of the Western Front, and so he was forced to snip it down to something that could squeeze in. There are several photographs of the corporal with a wide snifflebuster across his face. Post-war, it is gone.

In her suspect autobiography, Hitler’s sister-in-law Bridget Hitler claimed that she couldn’t stand his spreading Kaiserbart whiskers and, in 1912, made him snip off its ends. But in doing so, she wrote, He went — as he did in most things — “too far.” The problem with this version is that photographs show him after 1912 with the handlebars on his cheeks.

In all likelihood, he just picked the mustache because it was fashionable. He, too, could look “the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”

Not that everyone liked it. In 1923 fellow Nazi party member Ernst Hanfstaengl claimed “the ridiculous little smudge … made him look as if he had not cleaned his nose.” He attempted to persuade Hitler to change it, telling him the style was by then unfashionable. Hitler’s answer: “If it is not the fashion now, it will be later,” he said, “because I wear it.” Boy, did he get that wrong.

 In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. Here is one, from Sept. 30, 2015 slightly updated and rewritten.

Every few months or so, I look around the house and declare, “We have too many doo-dads.”

And there are many, on every flat surface in the house: dolls, teacups, teapots, candlesticks, perfumed candles, a Ganesh here, a Shiva there. Hopi posts and Chi-wara antelope carvings. I have a Zulu basket full to the brim with Zulu beadwork, collected on a trip to South Africa. We have collected so many little bear effigies, from Zuni fetishes to Bavarian drapery-rod supports, that you would think we’d set up business as an ursery. But crockery was my late wife’s real downfall: old plates collected from thrift stores, old-flow platters, flour-sugar-coffee-tea canisters — they overflow the cabinets and pile onto the counters in topple-prone stacks.

 “I’m going to go through them and pack them up,” she used to promise. But it never happened.

But it wasn’t just her. I collect too: books and music. Every room in the house, including the bathroom, has bookshelves. The walls of my study are lined, from floor to ceiling with shelves stuffed with CDs. At one point I had 17 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas. Even after our move to the Blue Ridge, when I culled the collection and eliminated two-thirds of my CDs, I have still managed to retain 12 sets of Beethoven symphonies, recorded from 1926 to last year. 

“It’s not fair,” my wife complained. “It’s not my fault that my collections are bulky, but yours are flat.” And therefore do not take up as much space: bunched together neatly on bookshelves. 

Ah, but we are all collectors. It seems to be one of the things that define us as a species: that is — us and packrats. And we place on racks these trifles we have gathered and show them, either the glass shelves of wall-mounted displays or behind glass in cabinets or in shadow boxes made from discarded printer’s type cases. They are souvenirs of travels or they are merely clever little stones we have picked up on beaches we have visited, or shells or pine cones or feathers. This will to gather is ancient; so is the desire to show off what we have collected.

The Roman historian and gossipmonger Suetonius wrote that Caesar Augustus “had his houses embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of monstrous beasts which had been discovered on the Isle of Capri, called giants’ bones or heroes’ weapons.”

By the Renaissance, those who could afford it arranged their varied collections in “cabinets of curiosities” or, in German, “Wunderkammer.” There are paintings and engravings of some of these collections, full of mastodon teeth, stuffed crocodiles, two-headed calves and shark jaws. These aristocrats seemed just as proud to show off these side-show wonders as to show off their “Kunstkammer” art collections. The natural world seemed as diverse and prodigal as any lunatic’s fantasies. What, after all, could be more peculiar than an elephant? Or a narwhal? We all remember Albrecht Durer’s wood engraving of a rhinoceros: more curiosities from the natural world. 

In the early years of the American republic, the painter Charles Willson Peale assembled one of these curiosity cabinets. His self portrait shows him lifting back the curtain on a room filled with gee-gaws — including a mastodon skeleton — to astonish his visitors. It is notable that after his death, the collection devolved, half to P.T. Barnum and the rest, eventually, to reside at the Boston Museum of Barnum-wannabe Moses Kimball. 

In a newspaper ad run in 1843, he claimed, “This museum is the largest, most valuable, and best arranged in the United States. It comprises no less than Seven Different Museums, to which has been added the present year, besides the constant daily accumulation of articles, one half of the celebrated Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, swelling the already immense collection to upwards of Half a Million Articles, the greatest amount of objects of interest to be found together at any one place in America.”

Such collections weren’t always as bogus as the so-called “Feegee Mermaid” (a famous fraud: half stuffed orang-utan, half taxodermied fish) that Kimball showed among his wax statuary and theatrical “entertainments.” 

If you visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Va., you will find the third president’s collection of moose heads and odd clocks — his very own cabinet of curiosities. This Barnum influence can be seen in more recent collections, such as The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (now part of the Science Museum of Minnesota) in Saint Paul, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. 

But these collections spawned more serious progeny. Just 28 years after Kimball opened his Boston Museum, more sober men founded, in New York City, the American Museum of Natural History, which houses some 32 million specimens and is the largest such museum in the world. It is also my spiritual home.

I spent many hours, many days at the Museum of Natural History and the attached Hayden Planetarium. I still go there whenever I get to visit New York. At least a day must be planned for the museum. If I’m in Los Angeles, I visit the natural history museum there; if I’m in Chicago, I go to the Field Museum. And when in D.C., there is the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, second only to the New York version. These are the natural heirs to the cabinets of curiosity of the past.

But there has been a change in such museums over the past 60 years, since I first started going. When I fell in love with these museums, they were vast warehouses of wonders: bones, stones and dioramas. I marveled at the vastness of the natural world, how there could be so many different examples of, say, feldspar, each with a tag telling us where it came from. “Haddonfield, N.J.,” “Thetford, England,” “Gobi Desert, Mongolia.” (As a young mind, this opened up my idealistic little heart to the sweep and scope of the planet, and that my little point on the globe was one of a million other points on the globe, and if those places seemed exotic and remote, well, my place was exotic to someone else; made New Jersey marginally more bearable). It was a romantic notion: The world is vast, varied, prolific, immense, incalculable and ultimately bigger than anyone’s schema. Any story we told, or were told, about the world, whether from Bible or textbook was bound to be insufficient. There was always more. There was always another way of looking at it. Always another way of organizing reality. 

The museum collection gave us the raw material. We were left to figure it out for ourselves. 

But that has changed. 

Museums have three primary purposes, and while all three continue to be important, their rank has switched over time. Originally, museums were collections. Little was done to catalog or organize the material. 

But the second job of the collections was scholarship. Specialists studied the fossils, the rocks, the birds. Doctoral dissertations were written, books were published. New bones were dug up somewhere and theories had to be altered: It was a constant process.

Thirdly, museums were educational. The public came in to see the dinosaurs, the reeboks posed in front of dioramas painted by artists of genuine talent. As this educational mission gained primacy, the collections were sorted, thinned and put into storage. Instead of a room full of vitrines showing all those feldspar samples, and now, a single example has been put on black velvet under a spotlight, and a little sign next to it explains what feldspar is and what its economic importance is.

There is nothing wrong with this educational component; if a kid nowadays even knows what feldspar is, all too the good. But I miss being overwhelmed by the variety and vastness of it all. 

And less benign, when it is all explained for us in a graphic, we are led to believe that we now know all there is to know about feldspar. It is a closed subject, and young minds no longer are challenged to engage with the material and discover for themselves what they can. Museums too often give us only the received wisdom. What I miss is the sense of “Here is a lot of stuff, there is mystery here, enter at your peril: You may spend the rest of your life trying to parse it all out.”

So, when I go to the American Museum of Natural History, I tend to find the old exhibits, not yet updated. The “Soil Profiles of New York State.” They have the mystery still, the sense they are doors to the universe. 

The difference is between passive and active learning. Too often, we think of education as filling young heads with the information they need to get and hold jobs. But real education is when the student seeks out and learns for himself what he finds interesting. Museums should be about curiosity, not about authority. 

Surely curiosity is what the mess cluttering the house is about. When we used to travel across the country in the car during summer vacations, we’d pick up interesting trinkets: seashells, pinecones, and once a full-size tumbleweed that blew across the road in front of us. We took it home and kept it for years. We specialized in pebbles and stones, with a bright color here, a streak of white across the blue-black there. There was sandstone from Alabama and gneiss from New Hampshire. It was our very own curiosity cabinet. I’m afraid that over the years, and household moves, the rocks have become unmoored: I no longer remember where each specimen hails from. They remain, however, unutterably beautiful. 

I have seen a boatload of movies over the span of my life, some more significant than others. Those few important ones are outweighed by those that are completely unmemorable, even when perfectly enjoyable while sitting through them. That describes most movies and that’s fine. Not every film needs to be Citizen Kane

This is my list of significant films, listed decade by decade. It is a personal catalog and limited first by including only movies I have actually seen. There are significant films I have not yet been able to view. Further,  the list tends to reflect my own tastes, although it is not a list of my favorite films or of the “best” films, but of those that I believe have some significance in the history of cinema. You should make your own list. It would undoubtedly be different from mine. 

 

What makes them significant? Here are my criteria: In order to make my list a movie must hit one or more of these markers: 1. Be of historical importance; 2. Advance film grammar or technique; 3. Be influential on other films and filmmakers; 4. Have something profound to say about existence and humanity; or 5. Simply be so memorable as to be missed if not included. That’s a pretty wide and pretty loose range of qualities. Most films on this list hit more than one of them. And for my esthetic, No. 4 counts above all the others. 

Most movies, whether from Hollywood, Bollywood or Cinecittà, seek only to tell a good story and keep our attention. Many of these are truly enjoyable, but their making is merely efficient, using the tried-and-true techniques which remain invisible to the average moviegoer. The vast majority of films created never attempt to do more — nor should we ask them to. The old Hollywood studios were brilliant at this: perfect camera work, lighting, editing, sound recording, etc., but with never a thought to making us see these techniques. If we had noticed them, they would have felt that they had failed at their job. Others, like Citizen Kane, dance and sing their innovations. The significant filmmakers, for me, are those that do something above and beyond the call of duty. 

I make this apology: My taste tends toward the more arty. That’s why you should consider making your own list. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand. The way some readers read not books, but authors, so some filmgoers watch not individual films, but filmmakers: all of Bergman or all of Almodovar. I could not include all of their films in this list without it becoming more cumbersome than it already is, and so have whittled their works down to a few exemplars. So, for each of the big names, I have included mostly just the first important film they’ve made (a film that defined their style or themes), or when including more than one, when subsequent films meaningfully expanded their work. 

Some of these films might lead you to scratch your head. But I can justify any one of them. Or try to. 

Among the earliest films are the shorts made by the Lumière brothers in France in the 1890s. They are each under a minute long and show everyday scenes. They astonished their original audiences, but are of mostly historical interest now. The first filmmaker to create something we might still want to see and enjoy was the P.T. Barnum of early filmmakers, Georges Méliès, who used trick photography and surreal plots to draw his ticket-buyers in. 

When we get to 1915, we have to take a deep breath and watch Birth of a Nation, which is so blatantly and obscenely racist, I feel dirty even listing it. But it is, apart from its story and acting, so important in the development of cinema and film language, you kinda have to hold your nose and see it. 

Film really took off in the 1920s — the first “golden age” of cinema. A language and grammar of filmmaking developed that could tell a story with a minimum of words in intertitles. So many films are lost now, but many of those that remain are classics, including the amazing five-hour Napoleon by French director Abel Gance. It has been difficult to find commercially for years (blame Francis Coppola), but now is available on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray from the British Film Institute in a magnificent restoration by Kevin Brownlow. It’s worth it to buy a region-free player just to see this film. (You can also find things on Amazon UK that are otherwise not available in the U.S., and Region 2 versions of some films that are cheaper than their American counterparts. A region-free player is a treasure.)

 

The 1930s were another “golden age,” when the studios ran things and did it right. Even the lowliest of studio B pictures was made with a professionalism that is hard to credit. Everyone was on top of his game. 

But Hollywood was interested more in melodrama and comedy than in searching explorations of the human condition. They were really, really good at it. But in Europe, the darker tides of history were leading to more textured work, as in the work of Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol. In the U.S., we had Ernst Lubitsch, who could be more sophisticated than the Hollywood norm, but then, he was born in Berlin. 

The one thing America had that no one else seemed able to copy was the “screwball comedy.” I have only one on my list, but there could be dozens. I have My Man Godfrey because I think it is the most perfect one. But I love ’em all. By the war, they couldn’t make them anymore without seeming to be too self-conscious about it. A genre no longer possible. 

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film I have never cared for, but it is on my list for its score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as exemplifying the great movie music by European emigres. 

I have to apologize for Leni Riefenstahl being on this list. Like Birth of a Nation, there is a moral stink to her films, but one should see them anyway for their influential filmmaking. Yell at the screen while you watch if you want — I do — but see them at least once before washing your eyes with lye.   

Even the worst eras of filmmaking have their gems. After 1939, the high-water mark for Hollywood films, we hit a lull. The war is certainly one cause — so many actors, technicians and filmmakers joined up and spent the war in Europe or the Pacific. But John Wayne stayed home to fight the enemy on the screen. I watched tons of those films on TV when I was a kid. I can’t say how many times I watched Guadalcanal Diary on the Million Dollar Movie. 

I include Maltese Falcon as the closest a film has ever adhered to the book. If you read Hammett’s book, you will think you’re reading a novelization of the film. John Huston did a great job with it. Casablanca is there as proof that a committee can make a masterpiece. Grapes of Wrath is here for its cinematography, which so perfectly catches the tone of the FSA photographs of the Great Depression. 

Still, the majority of movies on my list are European. They deal with real things; they had to. 

The 1950s were the great age of European art film. When we think of an art film, we are likely to picture The Seventh Seal, Rashomon or Orphée. Hollywood could squeeze out an occasional great film, but mostly it was sinking into the doldrums with flat TV-style lighting, uninspired editing, and a dependence on big-name stars, often miscast. Yet, it managed to make On the Waterfront, Anatomy of a Murder and Some Like It Hot — the closest thing Hollywood ever made to a post-1930s screwball comedy. I wish I had room on the list for more Billy Wilder. 

Oh, and Godzilla is here, not as the kiddie monster movie that it was turned into with Raymond Burr added on, but as its original Japanese parable of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. If properly seen, Godzilla is a heartbreaking film.

The French New Wave hits full force in the Sixties, taking up the slack  from Hollywood, which, in the first two-thirds of the decade was practically moribund, making dreck like Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Cleopatra. Oy veyzmir. 

Things brightened up in the last years of the decade as the studios threw up their hands and let the young turks in to update the artform. (Don’t feel sorry for the studios, they have come back with a vengeance with superheroes and CGI, but for the time being, they were playing dead. Never count out Capitalism, while there is still money to be made.)

The one great studio film of the era is Lawrence of Arabia. I had not counted it much until I saw it on the giant screen (the 70-foot screen of the old Cine Capri in Phoenix, Ariz., in a 70mm print in 1989.) It was a wonder. I weep for the kids watching movies on their iPhones.  

What started in the Sixties continued for the next decade, but the warnings were there to be seen. Young turks grew in style and technique, but the worm in the apple had jaws, then it had Star Wars. Filmmaking mega-corporations saw where the big bucks could be had. 

 

Before le déluge, though, a cadre of brilliant auteurs were given money to make Chinatown, Nashville and Taxi Driver. And the crazed, driven Werner Herzog broke through consciousness with Aguirre. And who else, really, was der Zorn gottes

Filmmakers who first popped their heads above ground in the 1970s went on to be the grandmasters of the next several decades. 

A new generation of auteurs arose in the 1980s to again refresh the cinematic cosmos. Some had made earlier films, but they all hit their stride in the Reagan years: Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Errol Morris. 

There was coming problem, though: film schools. In the old days, directors learned their craft on the job. Increasingly, they learned it all in school and became ever so glib at the three-act script and the POV, the Final Cut Pro. They knew their B roll and their axial cut, their Dutch angle, their key light and post production color timing. Result: filmmakers more interested in technique than in content. But the full misery of all that happens after the ’80s, when these well-trained technicians were given the reins of a $200 million CGI and green-screen superhero epic, where they functioned more as field generals than as artists. 

The film-school esthetic was also the natural result of the rising Postmodernism: the knowingness that made the process of filmmaking its own subject, along with the expectation that the audience knew what you were doing and could nod their heads knowingly. The story became its own MacGuffin. 

For me, the ’90s is the Kieslowski decade. The Polish filmmaker had been working since the ’60s, but didn’t break out into international note until The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, following that with his masterpiece trilogy, Colors (Blue, White, and Red). His 10 shorter TV films, Dekalog, had come out at the end of the previous decade, but together, all his later work makes a case for film as art in the same manner as the films of Bergman and Fellini in the 1950s. They are one of the high-water marks of film as literature. 

New names appeared and stuck: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Richard Linklater, Baz Luhrmann, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Wachowskis. They all continued to make interesting films of lasting power. Pedro Almodovar finally won international fame after decades of making idiosyncratic films in Spain. And Martin Scorsese continued to up his game, becoming the de facto “greatest living film director.” (Not that there is such a thing, but if there has to be someone named, most agree Scorsese wears the badge.) 

 It’s hard to believe, but Peter Jackson made the first Lord of the Rings movie 20 years ago. With those films, and with King Kong, Jackson became the field general commanding the largest forces and a budget rivaling that of the invasion of Normandy. That the films were as good as they were proves Jackson could overcome the disadvantage of so much money. Not everyone given such a purse could. The major movies of the decade were also blockbusters, a form that took over the studios, leaving behind small budget indie films to the do-it-yourself crowd. Lucky for all, digital cameras and editing made it possible to make meaningful films with almost no budget at all. The bifurcation of the film industry was nearly complete. 

Outside Hollywood, however, worthwhile films continued to be made by directors who actually had something to say. Increasingly, they said it in Spanish. Since the shift in the millennium, four of the putative top 10 movie auteurs are either Mexican or Spanish (Cuarón, del Torro, Iñarritu and Almodovar). We’ve come a long way from those cheesy old El Santo movies. 

Among the others are two very peculiar directors: Lars von Trier and Guy Maddin, both acquired tastes that I have acquired. I had to narrow it down to a film apiece for this list, but I would love to have included Maddin’s My Winnipeg

I’m afraid that when I retired in 2012, my moviegoing dropped precipitously. So, my list for the past decade is incomplete. I leave it to younger eyes to see the future. 

So, that’s my list. If I had made it tomorrow or next week, it would likely be entirely different. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some I wish I had included, and I might change my mind about some of those I listed. If I had made the list when I was 20, or 30, or 40, it would have reflected a very different — and unfinished — sensibility. Now, at 73, I’ve pretty well rounded off my sense of taste and esthetic. 

The list is mine and no one else should be blamed for it. And your list would undoubtedly head off in some other direction. Vaya con los dioses.

I came late to film, but early to movies. Even before school age, I watched hundreds of movies on TV. At that age, there is no critical sense. They were just movies and I didn’t have any sense that one might be better than another. They wiggled on the screen and that was sufficient. I watched it all like drinking water from a tap. 

As I grew up, I decided I liked some kinds of movies better than others. First, from before I entered kindergarten, there were the Westerns from the 1930s and ’40s that ran in the afternoons. I loved Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson. When I became older, there were the science fiction movies from the 1950s. I gobbled them all up: The Crawling Eye, Gog, Rodan

And because so many of those I watched were on TV’s Million Dollar Movie, I also absorbed a surprising number of “kitchen sink” movies from England, made during the “Angry Young Man” phase of British cinema: The L-Shaped Room, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Did I know what they were about? No, they were just a fact of life. TV life. “A bit of a plodder, myself,” said Michael Redgrave. (“What’s a ‘plodder,’ ” I wondered, the word not yet in my vocabulary at the age of 7). Later, in my early awkward pubescent years, I became obsessed with classic monster movies, a period in my life that the less said, the better. But at one point, I could name you every actor who ever played the Frankenstein monster — including Glenn Strange.

Not that I understood these movies, mind you, but they were what was on. I may have been five or six and watching The Boy With Green Hair on the Million Dollar Movie, with neither an understanding of what the movie was about, nor the sense that I should understand what the movie was about. I was unaware of taste or choice; I just watched what was offered. 

My earliest memory of a movie is of watching King Kong from behind a chair when I was perhaps in first grade; I was terrified. I would peek out to see what was happening when I dared. My baby brother watched, too, but he just sat there, three years younger than me and I’m sure just happy to see things wiggling on the screen. (He later made a career teaching animation and filmmaking.) 

Nothing like a film education came my way until I entered college. I was young; I was ignorant. 

British film critic Mark Kermode talked on YouTube about the moment he first became fascinated by movies. It was when he was a kid and saw Krakatoa: East of Java, a 1968 disaster film (the volcano Krakatoa is actually west of Java, but you know: the movies). It was shot in Cinerama and starred Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith, Sal Mineo and Rossano Brazzi. 

It was 1968, a significant year in film, balanced uncomfortably between Cleopatra and M*A*S*H. It was the moment the big studios were dinosaurs and young Turks were meteors waiting to descend. Doris Day and Rock Hudson were leaving the building by the back exit while Dustin Hoffman and Gena Rowlands were breaking down the front door. The studios could still believe that making a Western with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot was a good idea, but in the wings were Francis Coppola, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, George Romero and Peter Bogdanovich. 

I’m grossly oversimplifying, or course. Hollywood continued to pump out high-budget pap in the following years — as it continues to do today in the age of Michael Bay and comic-book superheroes — but by the late ’60s, the studio apparatus was becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era of Easy Rider, Medium Cool, and Alice’s Restaurant (all just a year after Krakatoa). Although, to be fair, in the insurgent camp, there were plenty of well-meaning indie films that have been lost in the passing of their trendiness. Neither all good nor all bad. 

But in the midst of it, there, at age of five or six, was Kermode, blown away by the cheesy explosion of the volcano in Krakatoa. He says that it was then he knew he wanted to spend his life with movies. A single burst of “Eureka.” Kermode admits that he knows others, unlike him, came to movies more gradually. That was me he was talking about. 

(If you don’t know Kermode, he is movie critic for The Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, and counts as probably as close an English equivalent as you can find to Roger Ebert as “national movie critic.” Kermode is in print, on radio and on the tube. It was on the British TV’s The Culture Show in 2006, that filmmaker Werner Herzog was shot, while being interviewed by Kermode; Herzog continued the interview anyway, saying, “It was not a significant bullet.” Ah, Werner. The last time anyone did something like that was when in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee, only to shrug it off — “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” and went on to give a campaign speech for 90 minutes.)

And so, although Kermode knew at an early age that movies would be his life, I only gradually come to an appreciation of the art form. The thought that there was a film grammar, or that there was a crew of professionals assembled to construct the movie, or that there was a financial aspect to the business — the thought never entered my tiny little head. 

Then I entered college and all that changed for me with the film series offered. Unlike nowadays, when college film programs are chosen by students, and tend toward things such as Caddyshack and Animal House (yes, classics of a sort), the series I was given was curated by school faculty and featured Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. It is where I first saw The Andalusian Dog with its eye-slice, and Birth of a Nation, with its unbearable racism. 

It slowly dawned on me that movies could be as serious an art as poetry, opera or architecture. I had been slapped awake. 

It was also the year (1967) that Antonioni’s Blow Up opened in town, which I watched with my crazy college girlfriend in the commercial theater. Now that was art cinema. We came out into the sunlight considerably more pompous and intellectual than when we went in. I spent years analyzing and decoding the symbolism — that being the defining vice of the young and clever. 

But from then on, film became a significant part of my intellectual life. I haunted the local Janus theater that specialized in art films, and I saw so many: Ikiru, Virgin Spring, La Strada, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad — I mean, can I get any artier? These were movies to be seen, yes, but then, more importantly, to be talked about. O the symbolism — O the humanity. O Woman in the Dunes

I developed an unhealthy snobbery about cinema and dismissed pretty much anything that came out of Hollywood. I wuz a idiot. But, hey, I was a college student, which is pretty much the same thing.

Years passed, and the veneer of imbecility wore off; I saw thousands of films, from the earliest silents to the most recent offerings at the multiplex. The TV was set by default to Turner Classic Movies. (Just last week, I watched King Kong again, for at least the hundredth time. “How can you watch a movie you’ve already seen?” asked a friend. “How can you listen to your favorite song over and over?” I responded.)

By the early 2000s, I was writing for the Phoenix newspaper and, among other duties, was a backup movie reviewer. The regular critic tended to avoid foreign films, and so he gave many of them to me. Later, in 2006 and 2007, when there was an interregnum between film critics, I served as a temp. I got to see many good films, and many godawful ones, which always gave me the most fun to write: “Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place Love Stinks will not be opening.”

I took shots at art films, too. I really can’t stand the Masterpiece Theater genre of high-toned blather: “Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.”

You know, the 500-page classic Victorian novel brought to life (or not) on the screen: “If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with House of Mirth. It creases where it should drape.” 

I have over 200 entries in Rotten Tomatoes. When I look it up, I don’t remember seeing some of the films I reviewed. The were not all memorable. But the run as movie critic gave me a chance to become a juror at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in 2000, and learned what it was like to be followed, like a magnet pulling iron filings, by publicists. 

It was fun, but there comes a point when you’ve seen too many movies in a week and they all blur into an Eastmancolor smudge. There is something lost with the deeper awareness of cinema. When I was a wee bairn, all that mattered was the story. With increased knowledge, as any honest movie critic will admit, you notice things like editing and foley work. You are paying double attention, on one hand to the story, and on the other, to how the story is told. You can never unknow how Hitchcock turns time to taffy, or how Godard jump-cuts, or how Marcel Ophuls uses camera motion like a ballet dancer. 

With the coming of Postmodernism, almost everyone is now wise to the process. You can’t watch a film by Christopher Nolan or Charlie Kaufman without commenting on it: They foreground the filmmaking and subordinate story. Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure but that films were more immediately pleasurable before we knew that Alejandro Iñárritu filmed Birdman to look like one long, single take. 

I remember when I learned that Stanley Kubrick used a special f/0.7 lens to film a scene by candlelight in Barry Lyndon. When the Steadicam was introduced in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. When CGI bowed in on Flight of the Navigator (rather crudely by modern standards). When the crane shot was rendered obsolete by the invention of the aerial drone. Drone shots are everywhere now, and have become a visual cliche. In the old days, a movie ended with the hero riding off into the sunset; you can hardly end a movie, TV show or commercial now without the drone shot sweeping back away from the final scene into a wide landscape. (So now, establishing shots come at the end?)

By now, I’ve seen my thousand movies. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand (I haven’t counted recently). Among them are all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Pedro Amodovar, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen. (At least I think I have all of Herzog; it is impossible to keep accurate track). And nearly all the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Erich Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Agnes Varda. I’ve fallen behind with Quentin Tarantino. I wish I had more of Martin Scorsese, but my DVD purchases have lagged since my retirement (and shrinking of income). 

It’s been a lifetime of watching movies, learning from movies and about them, a lifetime learning to take them seriously. Even when they’re not serious. 

Next: The List

I opened the front door and stepped outside, where a choir of birds twittered and chirped. There must have been scores of them up in the still-bare trees of early spring, all blasting at once, and a kind of joy crept up in my chest at the sound, a sense that this was beautiful in a way that almost justified existence. 

It is another spring. I have seen 73 of them and the number I have left is dwindling. Now there is a sense, like Takashi Shimura at the end of Seven Samurai, talking to Daisuke Kato, saying: “Once more we have survived.” 

Another spring, another year. I see the bud tips on the maple tree spread and burst out in the million tiny sprays of maroon maple flowers. It is a moment I wait for each year. Another small moment of joy. Those moments are of immense importance. 

I want to avoid sounding like a Hallmark card here. For much of existence for much of the world is misery. People continue to bomb each other; children continue to die; famine spreads; refugees live by the thousands in makeshift tents; ethnic minorities are hounded and enslaved. Even in our so-called First World, otherwise comfortable people face death, betrayal, hate, disappointment and the hounding sense of their own meaninglessness. 

For much of history, we have lived through plagues, wars, superstitions and “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, you see children in those refugee camps playing soccer in the dust. They are laughing. Mothers find great love in their children. Above the camps, birds still twitter and peep. I don’t mean to downplay the misery being suffered, but to point out that even in the midst of suffering, there are sprints of joy. It is so to be human. 

What affords those moments of joy — which come upon us unannounced always — is that they give us a glimpse of connectedness. To our kin and childers, to nature, even to the larger city in which we live. 

I was reading in Ezra Pound’s Cantos a few days ago, through the Pisan Cantos section of that monstrous, abstruse, inchoate mass of culture-shard, written when Pound, after World War II, was imprisoned in Italy for having given intemperate radio broadcasts lauding il Duce and fascism. He was a cranky, possibly insane old man and he was kept in an outdoor cage with a concrete floor for a bed. He wrote the bulk of his Pisan Cantos there, full of the usual blatherings about economics and world history, mixed with bits of incomparable poetry and the language gave even the most pathetic of imbecilities brief moments of majesty of utterance. But, like most of Pound’s verse, it is almost all literary, with little sense of the poet’s actual life, at least outside of books. 

But in the middle of Canto LXXIX, there appear, popping up in the jumble of classical allusion, several birds on the power lines strung above his cage. “With 8 birds on a wire/ or rather on 3 wires.” They make a melody on the music staff of those wires. And later, “4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one.” Further on, “5 of them now on 2; on 3; 7 on 4.” The real birds keep breaking into his phantasmagoria of theory and the poet’s tirades about ancient China and Tallyrand seem vaporous in contrast with the physicality of those birds above his cage. Philomel and the Nachtigall give way to pigeons and starlings. 

And you sense, behind all the immense brickwork of culture and reference, that moment of real connection with an actual world. And in the misery of that cage, open to wind and rain, a brief moment of joy, left fleeting and unprocessed. 

Such moments are epiphany — the rending of a veil to see what is most essential. Joy is the ephemeral product of such an insight. 

Such moments come in a flicker; they cannot last long. No one is joyful all the time. We are not living in some Pepsodent commercial, skipping down the sidewalk with teeth so shiny they blind passersby. Indeed, we live the bulk of our lives in neutral, neither miserable nor happy, but plodding on. But then we have that glimpse, periodically, of a bliss that transports us from our own toad-like passivity. It is a seed waiting to sprout in our psyches. 

These moments don’t always stick, but sometimes they do, and inform the rest of our lives. I remember a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in the 1970s. In the basement at the time, there was a small exhibit of Cezanne still lifes. I had never much valued Cezanne, but I had only seen his work in reproduction or on slides in art history class. But here was the real thing. Who knew there were that many greens in the world? Infinite seeming gradations of blues and greens that glowed almost like fire, “fire green as grass.” And it was, for that moment, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I’ve since been to the big retrospective of Cezanne at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1996 and was bowled over. The color alone, glowing like neon, gave me intense pleasure.

Another time, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’ Don Juan and the palpability of the sound, especially from eight horns playing in unison and making the seat under me vibrate, let me feel the sound as a physical presence. Jericho would have shuddered. I know I did. 

Art has been at the root of much of my own experience of joy and epiphany. I could name dozens of concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions that have brought me to this afflatus — for that is what joy is. 

Other sources are family: my twin granddaughters when they were three, riding bouncy-horsey, each on one of my knees and laughing the way only three-year-olds can. Even such a trivial thing as one of them asking for seconds on the pot roast I have cooked for them. Seeing them enjoy what I have prepared is a constant source of joy. I imagine the same for some Syrian refugee in a tent making dinner for her children. These moments come to us as gifts. 

Nature is the third great source. I remember standing on the top of Roden Crater in Arizona, an extinct volcano being reshaped by artist James Turrell. It was dusk and the sun was setting. Turrell pointed out the now-obvious fact that night doesn’t “fall,” but rather, it rises. And you can see the edge of the shadow of the earth cast by the lowering sun against the sky forming a boundary between the light and the dark and as the sun drops, the line of demarkation rises until the night swallows all. It is an effect you don’t get to notice in the cities or suburbs, where the horizon is blocked by human busy-ness. 

I stood by the Rhine River in Dusseldorf at night, with the reflection of city lights flashing off the dark current like firesparks. The river flowed broad with a swiftness and power that felt almost as if it must be a god. This was the river Robert Schumann felt was worthy of writing a symphony about. 

On the plains of eastern Montana, at the Little Bighorn, I stood on a hill — one hill like a frozen wave peak in the ocean among many such peaks — and watched the wind curl the long grass in moving ripples across the landscape. The manifestation of Wakan Tanka, the great spirit that animates the cosmos. I had to stand very still among all the motion to absorb it as a moment of eternity. 

In the early ’70s, I visited Gaddys Pond, just east of Charlotte in North Carolina, which was home to tens of thousands of Canada geese, a midway stop in their annual migrations. And the sound of all of them honking over each other, the din of chaos, remains the single most joyful sound I have ever heard. Ever since I have sought to recapture that moment, my hound, bay horse and turtle-dove.

We talk about joy being an emotion, as if it were some abstract titillation of the neurons, but it is a physical effect: the chest swells to almost bursting. You can feel the inner pressure of the joy wanting to escape the confines of the meat that is your body. And you feel something rising in your throat and your eyes begin to tear and overflow. The experience surges inside you. It may last only a second, or even a fraction of a second, but in that moment, you know you are alive. You know that everything is alive, and that to be alive is everything. 

“What is the best sandwich?” Not, “What is your favorite?” but the more categorical “What is the best?” 

It is the first of 15 questions in the “Colbert Questionert,” a new segment on A Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which the host asks various celebrities, over Zoom, to answer spontaneously. 

It is a sort of down-market version of those queries made famous by Bernard Pivot and brought to American television by Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton. 

A similar set of questions was answered by Marcel Proust in 1890. It is where Pivot found his model. And it is a far cry from Colbert’s “best sandwich.” 

But it set me to thinking and I unequivocally can assert that the best sandwich is rare roast beef on a kaiser roll. A real Kaiser roll — something nearly impossible to procure outside the New York tri-state area. I wrote about this in a previous blog:

No doubt there are other excellent sandwiches. And you may prefer one of them. Why? I don’t know, but people have their quirks. 

The problem with the roast beef on a kaiser is that it is a regional specialty. I now live in North Carolina, and while I can find passable roast beef, sliced thinly, I cannot find a true kaiser roll. I couldn’t find one either when I lived in Seattle or when I lived in Phoenix, Ariz. They may have their regional prides, but a kaiser roll isn’t one of them. 

My father used to have a roast beef sandwich on a kaiser roll every day for lunch in his office. He got if from a nearby deli and ate it with a pint of cold milk. 

Many of us have something that yanks us back, in our minds, to where we grew up and became ourselves. The sandwich is one of mine. The yearning for a crusty kaiser roll loaded with paper-thin rare, red roast beef and a layer of mayo, salt and cracked pepper, is one of the rock-constants in my life. (Matched only by a sense of loss over the New Jersey pizza). 

Like I said, there are other very good sandwiches, and I will now rank them. Some, like the hot pastrami on rye, almost reach the heights of the roast beef. And others less transcendent still manage to fill some psychic hole that each of us suffers. 

The first is the pastrami on rye. I have found good versions outside New York, but that is only because you can find the necessary ingredients elsewhere in the country. Still, most outside New York fail by not piling the meat high enough or slicing it thin enough. A pastrami sandwich should not look so much like a sandwich but like a pile. The bread under and on top should be an afterthought. 

There is a problem, though, because in so many places — including in New York supermarkets — it is harder and harder to come across a real rye bread. Supermarket ryes are really just dun-colored bread. They might as well be Wonder Bread (or Merita, for you Southern readers). 

Real rye bread can still be found at some baker shops. It should have caraway seeds and a tooth-resistant crust. I remember going to a bakery at the Pike Street Market in Seattle that was a hole in the wall — literally: You spoke to the woman through a small window and made your request. “I’d like the toughest, darkest, nastiest thing you have,” I told her. “You’re looking at her,” she said. But the bread was wonderful. 

The pastrami can be responsibly had in several variation, and the one with melted Swiss cheese is chief among them. But pastrami’s close relative comes in at No. 3 on my list:

The reuben sandwich is another northern specialty. Ideally, it is corned beef, sliced thin, with melted Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye bread. My heart pines at the memory of it. 

You find the best in a good kosher deli, even though the reuben is not kosher — it mixes meat and dairy — but still, many a New York Jew is happy to tempt the anger of the deity just to bite into a heavenly reuben. Like its cousin pastrami, it also needs to be piled high and deep. And the sandwich should be thicker in the middle than at the edges, so much so that the bread drapes over the meat like blanket. 

Next on the list is ham and Swiss on rye. A good ham and cheese sandwich is a classic. There are those who make such a thing with muenster cheese or worse — Velveeta — but no self-respecting sandwich lover with a clear conscience would ever do such a thing. No cheddar, no American cheese, no provalone. 

This is the third sandwich in a row that requires a good rye bread. I’ve seen it done on white sandwich bread, but such people in countries more strict than our own have wound up in gulags or worse. 

A refinement that makes the sandwich even better is to melt the Swiss cheese. That will bring you the Great Leader’s commendation. 

While you are at the deli you can also get a bagel with lox and cream cheese. A good bagel is another New York specialty. Outside the tri-state area, you used to be reduced to the poverty of eating frozen bagels from the supermarket. Inedible. They are related to real bagels the way concrete is related to a grassy field in spring. 

Luckily, bagels have invaded other regions of the country in bagel shops. These are often quite good. And such chain bakeries offer decent salmon and cream cheese, too. A half-bagel with a schmear and some thin slices of red lox and maybe some chopped fronds of dill. That’s what I call breakfast.  

My sandwich list is overbalanced in the favor of the American northeast. I do not question that this is because that is where the best sandwiches are created. But I have lived in the South at least twice as long as I lived in the North and I have come to acquire a tooth for several very Southern things. Most importantly is the barbecue sandwich.

Every region of the nation, it seems, has its barbecue chauvinism. In some states, the word, “barbecue” is even a verb. I pray for their souls. And even in the Carolinas there is contention between styles of barbecue. In South Carolina it is pork with a mustard sauce. In western North Carolina, the favorite is Lexington style, with a tomato sauce. But I learned on Eastern Carolina barbecue from Scotland Neck and I will swear to my grave on pulled pork from the whole hog — gristle and all — with vinegar and red pepper flakes. 

A sandwich requires — with as much strictness as a reuben requires a Jewish rye bread — a soft hamburger bun. Its sponginess is needed to sop up the juices. It is topped with coleslaw and eaten with a plate of hush puppies and a cold glass of sweet tea. And maybe a side of fried okra. 

If there is a sandwich that can wear the title “classic,” it must be the bacon, lettuce and tomato. Yet, here, too, there are regional differences. Where I was raised, bacon was not bacon if it wasn’t crispy. In the South, there are people who are willing to eat wiggly bacon. They get all the snap they need in a BLT from the lettuce. 

A good BLT sits on toast and has a thick layer of mayonnaise. I grew up with Hellman’s and every other brand I tried let me down. So, I ignored them all until last year, when the store was out during the pandemic and I was reduced to buying Duke’s, which turned out to be a revelation. Duke’s is now my mayo of choice. 

The South is also where I first tasted the tomato sandwich. No bacon, no lettuce. It would never have occurred to me, but one summer when I was working with the maintenance crew at college, the senior member of the crew, an ancient Black man named Horace, brought out a tomato sandwich one day at lunch. I marveled. He offered me a bite, and I was hooked. The magic was in the mayo and the salt and pepper. Lots of it. And the tomato cut into slabs thick as porterhouse steaks. Wow. 

There are other classic sandwiches that we can’t leave off our list. Perhaps most iconic is the PB&J. Peanut Butter and Jelly. The possibilities are extensive. Crunchy-style or smooth for the PB. Jelly or jam for partnering. The classic is grape jelly, but I have always preferred strawberry preserves. 

This is one of the few sandwiches where it is permissible to use puffy white bread. It’s better on bread with some texture, but really, the classic is just supermarket white bread. Maybe toasted. 

One of the most perverse variants I have come across was a favorite of my baby brother, Jack, who loved peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches. Chacun à son goût. I’ve also heard of peanut butter and pickles, but that is primarily for les femmes enceinte.

Then, there is the chilled grease sandwich. At least, that’s what we always called it in our house. It was my late wife’s absolute favorite and over the years I became a master at making it. I must have made thousands over 35 years of marriage. 

I seldom eat one myself, and if I do, I tend to make it with a better grade of bread and cheese. But the one my wife loved is the basic. Here is my recipe for the Best Chilled Grease Sandwich You Will Ever Eat. 

Toast two slices of white bread. Butter one side of each and layer with American cheese. Top the second slice on the first and butter the outside of the toasted bread, both top and bottom. Grill them in a hot pan until the bread develops a rich brown crust and the cheese begins to ooze. 

Another classic is the tunafish sandwich. I grew up with this one. In fact for eight years running in grade school, my mother made me a tuna sandwich every day for lunch, packed in wax paper and left in my lunchbox. 

It was the regular tuna salad, made with canned tuna, mayonnaise and chopped onion and maybe chopped celery, too. On white bread toast. Every few years, my mother would ask if I wouldn’t prefer a change, something other than a tuna sandwich. No, I said. I like tunafish. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That leaves us with hot dogs and hamburgers. They are so much their own thing that they hardly get thought of as sandwiches. But they are: meat wrapped in bread. 

Hamburgers and cheeseburgers are the real American ethnic diet. Forget all that talk about turkey at Thanksgiving or fried chicken or canned ham. What separates us from the rest of the world is the burger. 

We each have our model. For me, it is a burger with sliced onion and sliced tomato, with a squirt of ketchup. I’ve never warmed to all the special sauce, or the bacon or avocado, or any of the other salad ingredients so popular in fast food joints. A charcoal broiled patty is a great treat, but I like  ‘em just as well fried on the stove. 

If I have a nostalgia for temps passés, it is for the mini-burgers from White Castle, with their steamed buns and square-tile burgers with a half-teaspoonful of fried chopped onions. My grandmother used to take me to one in Manhattan, near where she worked. I can regenerate the aroma in my mind. A reverse Proust. 

The hot dog, or frankfurter, or wiener, is second only to the burger, but where the burger is made from ground beef, the hot dog is made from whatever you don’t want to know. Really, you don’t. The tube steak used to always come a bit shorter than the bun, leaving a bite of raw bread at the end. Bun-length franks have become more common. But there is still the problem of the buns coming in packs of eight and the dogs in packs of 12. Can’t they make the math come out even? 

I grew up with the kind of spicy sausage they sold at Nathan’s or at the Sabrett’s stands on the street, with its oniony red sauce. But in the South, those Hebrew National dogs are too spicy for many. A Southern hot dog is bland beyond belief. They also have a habit of coloring their franks with a blinding red dye to make “red hots.” Oy. 

It is also one of those food culture things that distinguishes regions from region. When I grew up in Jersey, you put ketchup on burgers and you put mustard on hot dogs. When I was five or six, this seemed like a condition of the universe. But when we took a vacation down to Washington, DC, when I was a kid, we stopped at a restaurant in Maryland for lunch and I was served a hamburger with mustard on it. I recoiled in horror. “Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.”

Now we get to the also-rans: the sandwiches that some people will eat, although I’ve never figured out why. Some are Southern favorites that I’ve never warmed to. Some are just wrong. 

Like fried baloney. Which is traditionally made with a single slice of balogna, fried in a pan. You cut slots into the edges so that when it cooks and curls up, it has somewhere to give. In the South in general, I have found that people tend to make sandwiches with way too much bread vs. meat. A single slice? You can you even taste it. I grew up with pastrami piled so high you threw your jaw out if you tried to get it all in. 

Then, there is the Southern penchant for pimento cheese, which is neither cheese by any real definition, or peppers. A thin smear of pimento cheese between two slabs of bland white bread counts as a meal in some parts. How? I ask. How? 

And there is the cream cheese and olive sandwich. I grant this one may simply be my own food aversion. I’ve never been able to abide olives. The way some people can’t stand cilantro, I can’t take olives. But the cream cheese and olive is a staple at Southern soirees. 

Finally, there is one sandwich I wish to publicly disavow: the club sandwich. It is a BLT ruined. First, turkey isn’t worth eating. It is both tasteless and it refuses to hold its form when sliced — it falls apart when you try to separate slices. Second, the ham is supererogatory. It just seconds the nuisance of the turkey. Finally, it is a three-level sandwich, which is just pretentious. A sandwich which requires a toothpick to hold it together is a weak sandwich. It is a sandwich for country clubs, not for real human beings. 

There are other sandwiches, I know. And most are some variant of avocado, mung bean, kale and tofu, but I am and have always been a classicist, and so stick with the tried and true. 

And so, we’ve moved from hard unassailable fact — the roast beef on kaiser roll is the best sandwich — downhill to mere personal taste — I don’t like the whole idea of a club sandwich, with various degrees of objective fact in between. And that, Mr. Stephen Colbert, is my answer.

__________________________________________

PS: I know. I know. I have left off the sub, hoagie, hero, grinder. Also the Philly cheese steak, the muffaletta, the Cuban, the po’ boy, the sloppy joe, and bruschetta. They are all worthy. Perhaps I’ll get around to these in the future.

It has been 50 years since I was a Yankee student at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. The day I arrived, as a tender freshman, a 20-foot banner hung from the front of my dorm that said, “Forget? — Hell!” I had never been any farther south than Washington DC. I didn’t know what that meant until someone told me. The South has a long memory — at least for a grudge. 

I have since come to love the American South, and have lived in it longer than I have lived in any other region of the country. I don’t share its politics, but I was at a Quaker college and its values were those I shared. I studied hard — not really true: I took lots of courses and wanted to learn everything, but I can’t say with any honesty that I was a hardworking student. I read constantly, but not always those things required for my courses. 

One day, another student, Big Jim McLarty, said, “I’m going hiking in the Smokies next week. Wanna come?” The Great Smoky Mountains National Park strides the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee with some of the highest peaks east of the Rockies. The Appalachian Trail balances on the top of its ridges. Big Jim wanted to hike the central portion of the range, to Ice Water Springs. 

Big Jim was the son of a noted Methodist minister from Asheville, and the baby brother of the actress whose stage name was Eileen Fulton. (Birth name: Margaret Elizabeth McLarty). For 50 years, she was a fixture on the soap opera, As the World Turns, where she played Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn, wife of six husbands, divorced three times, widowed four times, participant in more than 30 love affairs and victim of amnesia, kidnapping, hysterical pregnancy and auto accidents.

Big Jim had a “stage name,” too. He was the Nunny (more properly, The Noney.) When he first came to Guilford, he had to fill out a form with personal information and in the box for “church preference,” he wrote: “None.” It caused a kerfuffle at the time (We’re talking the late ’60s in the South, where there is a church on every other street corner) and he became known for his freethinking answer. (I came a few years later, and when I had to answer the same question — church preference — I put down: “Gothic.”)

Anyway, The Noney said just to pack sleeping bags. He would bring the food for the trip. “I have lots of stuff left over from earlier camping trips,” he said. 

And so, we drove up U.S. 421, U.S. 64 and U.S. 70 to Asheville, where we stopped at The Noney’s ancestral home to pick up his gear and then drove down past Maggie Valley and Lake Junaluska to the Smokies. The sunny day turned cloudy and The Noney explained that the mountains sometimes make their own weather. This was a new concept to me and I was suitably amazed. Nothing like that happened in New Jersey, where I grew up. The turnpike never made its own weather, although perhaps the Monsanto plant did. 

We parked in Newfound Gap and began the hike about three miles north on the Appalachian Trail and stopped for the night at a lean-to at Ice Water Springs. 

The woods were thick around us, but you could see parts of Tennessee to the west. There was a wooden lean-to in a clearing. It had eight bunks along its back wall, in double decker, and with a chain link fence across its front. 

“Are there bears?” I asked, with some thought to my own safety. We didn’t have any bears in New Jersey. My only experience with a real bear had been at the Bronx Zoo. Other than that, there was Yogi Bear on TV and when I was an infant, a giant stuffed panda bear. But there were actual bears in these woods. 

“Don’t worry,” said The Noney. “You just treat ’em like a big dumb dog.” This pretty well capsulized The Noney’s approach to life in general. He was one of those sparkly people that nothing bad ever touches — or who remain unaware that bad things are even a possibility. 

It remained overcast and by late afternoon, I was standing just outside the lean-to making photographs, when a bear crossed the path about 30 feet away. It spotted me, hesitated a moment and then charged. It lumbered (as bears do) straight at me and got to within a few feet of me before turning away and running off into the woods. Big Dumb Dog. Big Dumb Me — I stood there and took a photo of the bear charging. Maybe it wasn’t the biggest bear in the woods, but it was big enough. And I snapped the shutter instead of ducking.

Come dinner time and the dusk, and The Noney scrounged around in his knapsack and pulled out a handful of tinfoil bags, looking for a dehydrated dinner. But there was nothing but dehydrated strawberry milkshakes. “I guess I must have already used up all my dinners,” he said. We were hungry after a day’s hiking and bruin-dodging, but the cupboards were bare. Lucky for us, some other campers in the lean-to were generous and offered us some of their food. The Noney just laughed it off. 

And so, in the middle of the night, sleeping behind the wire-mesh fencing that protected the lean-to inhabitants from the creatures of the woods (although not from the mice), a noise woke me up. The knapsacks hanging on the wall were rocking back and forth, the fencing was jangling. A bear — rather larger than the one I photographed — was attempting to steal our bindle, reaching between the fencing and the wall, stretching out its paw to get the goodies. It was pitch dark. I didn’t know what to do.

Then The Noney flew from his sleeping bag as if he were shot from a cannon, and screaming at the top of his lungs with his arms flailing, running toward the bear. The bear was stopped short and the half-dozen campers in the other bunks were jerked awake not knowing what all the noise was about. The Noney screamed and flailed; the bear withdrew judiciously and everyone else’s flashlights turned on. The Noney stood in the spotlight and smiled. “Big dumb dog.” 

“I’ve been thinking about numbers.” Stuart poked his fork into a pile of pasta in front of him and twirled. 

“Mostly, we think of numbers in terms of mathematics,” he said. “Or arithmetic. All very abstract. But I’m looking at them in terms of the humanities.”

Genevieve had spent the afternoon cooking up a Pasta all’Assassina, something she had just learned from YouTube. It piled up on our plates in small pyramids of spaghetti. 

“You know how there are these sequences of numbers in math? Like 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 and so on. Or the Fibonacci Series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 — you know. Logical sequences that seem to have some meaning outside mere math.”

“You mean like the spiral in a seashell or the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower…”

“Exactly. Well, these patterns, as patterns, are purely mathematical, in other words, they only exist in the Platonic ideal of mathematical thinking. I was looking for a sequence that made sense without arithmetic, that English majors could grasp at a gander.”

“And did you find one?” I asked.

“Absolutely. I considered the mythic or symbolic punch of numbers and came up with a sequence something like: 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 12, 21, 40, 42 — that’s kind of a ringer in this — 101, 1,001, one million, and finally, ‘billions and billions.’ That last, thanks to Carl Sagan.”

“If I understand you, these numbers carry significant weight in folktales, mythology, religion and popular culture. But don’t all numbers carry some kind of baggage? I mean, you left out eight from your list, but there is the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.”

“You are right, most numbers have something, but my list considers only the big boys in the number-myth world. The ones that carry the heaviest weight. 

“One, of course, is the unity. It is the prime singularity out of which all else evolves or explodes, like in the Big Bang, or the One-True-God. Two is the duality of yin and yang, of pairs of opposites, of Yoruba twins, of Castor and Pollux, of the Navajo twins Monster-Slayer and Born-of-Water. Or of the salt and pepper shaker or even the right and left hands. Two is big in the Sequentia Stuartii. Yes, that’s what I’m calling it.” 

“Three is a quantum jump, though, I think,” I said. “Three is everywhere, from the Three Little Pigs to the Holy Trinity. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in Greek mythology, the three Furies, Graces, and in Norse, the three Norns. In joke telling, there is the rule of threes, and in photography, we hear of the rule of thirds. Omni Gallia en tres partes divisi est.

“Yes, three is big,” said Stuart. “Four is a little smaller in the mix, but still, there are the four seasons and the four directions, the four Classic humors and elements, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism…”

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Let’s not forget my favorite. But I notice five and six don’t make your list.”

“Again, there are some references, but they thin out with five and six, and thus fly under my significance bar. Five has the pentagram, but most other associations are a bit more arcane, and therefore don’t have the currency of the big-number power. Six has what? Six sides to a die. Or if you want to go really esoteric, the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda has Six Immortal Holy Ones to attend him. I had to look that one up.

“Ah, but seven. Seven is king. It is the big kahuna of numbers. If I make a graph of number significance, seven is off the charts. The home run of numbers. Seven days in a week; seven seas; seven continents; seven hills of Rome; Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”

“Seven Deadly Sins, again, let’s not forget my favorites.”

“And the Seven Cardinal Virtues,” said Stuart. “Seven planets in the Ptolemaic universe, seven notes in the diatonic scale. The seven liberal arts. Break a mirror and get seven years of bad luck.”

“And the number is so persuasive, someone decided there were seven colors in the rainbow. What is ‘indigo,’ after all, but just another blue. They added it so they could have seven colors.”

“God created the world in seven days. Six plus a day of rest. The Bible is full of sevens. Seven years of fat and seven of lean in the Pharaoh’s dream. Seven days of Passover. Seven year Jubilee cycle. Jericho was conquered on the seventh day after seven priests with seven trumpets marched around the city seven times. King David had seven elder brothers. After Elisha raised the child from the dead, the kid sneezed seven times. There are seven pillars in the House of Wisdom. 

“In the New Testament, seven demons are cast out of Mary Magdalene, seven loaves to feed the multitude in Mark and Matthew, the seven last words of Christ on the Cross. And Revelations is filthy with sevens. Seven golden lampstands, seven stars, seven torches of fire, seven seals, seven angels and their trumpets, seven last plagues, seven golden bowls, seven thunders, horns and eyes, diadems and kings.”

Genevieve had been mostly silent through all this, letting the boys blow their steam, but she joined in. “I was raised Catholic,” she said. “And I was brought up with seven sacraments, the Seven Joys of the Virgin and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. There were Seven Corporal and Seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy.”

“Sevens out the wazoo,” Stuart said. “And it isn’t just Christianity. There are seven chakras in Hinduism. And seven great saints, seven worlds in the universe and seven gurus. Agni, the fire god, has seven wives, seven mothers and seven sisters and can produce seven flames. The sun god has seven horses to pull his chariot. In the Rig Veda, there are seven parts of the world, seven seasons and seven heavenly fortresses. I could go on.”

And he does. 

“In Islam, there are seven heavens and seven hells. You make seven trips around the Kaaba. A baby is named on the seventh day of life. The seven sins of polytheism. 

“In the Baha’i faith the text is The Seven Valleys the soul traverses. It is the number of islands in Atlantis, the Seven Cities of Gold that the conquistadors searched for.”

“Gandhi had his list of the Seven Blunders of the World that cause violence,” said Genevieve. “Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, and — “

“I know this one,” said Stuart. “It’s in the news daily: politics without principle.” (And “men without shutting up,” thought Genevieve, but who was too polite to say it out loud.)

 

 “In China, there are the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” Stuart went on. “There are the seven lucky gods in Japanese mythology, and the seven-branched sword. The Buddha supposedly took seven steps at his birth. And believe, me, we’ve only scratched the surface of seven.”

“There are seven holes in the human head,” said Genevieve.

“And my favorite,” I said. I have a lot of favorites. “The seven directions. Some American Indian mythologies recognize seven: the four normal ones, plus up and down, and most importantly, the seventh direction — in. The inner world is one of the directions.”

“Let’s not forget The Seven Samurai and Bergman’s Seventh Seal,” I said. “Or Se7en.”

“Or Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Or the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.”

“Or The Magnificent Seven,” I said. “Or Seven Years in Tibet or Six Days and Seven Nights. Or The Seven Year Itch.”

It was becoming a contest. 

Return of the Secaucus Seven,” Stuart added. “And Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Seven Days in May. House of Seven Gables…”

The Seven Little Foys. The Seven Percent Solution. Seven Up! from Michael Apted’s Up series…”

“Stop it. Stop it now,” Genevieve said. “Boys,” she spit out, as a short summing up of an entire gender. 

“Eight pretty well disappears,” said Stuart, “but nine makes up for it. A stitch in time saves nine. Cloud nine is the ultimate in happiness. A cat has nine lives. Possession is nine points of the law. There are nine muses. The Norse god Odin hanged himself on the World Ash Tree for nine days to gain wisdom. In Christianity, there are nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Aztec and Mayan underworlds both had nine levels. Nine justices on the Supreme Court. Nine circles in Dante’s Hell. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, there are nine rings of power given to nine ring-wraiths. Buddha had nine virtues.”

“There used to be nine planets,” I said. 

“Pregnancy lasts nine months,” said Genevieve.

“Nine players on a baseball team and nine innings in a game,” said Stuart. “And classical composers often had a superstition that their ninth symphony would be their last. Yes, nine is a pretty full number, contrasted with ten — the most bureaucratic of numbers. Yes, there are the Ten Commandments, but the number 10 is the least charismatic of numbers. It is the basis of the decimalization of the world. And you both know how I feel about that. Base 10 — Pfui.”

We both knew the antipathy Stuart harbored for metrification and the inhuman procrustification of the division of things into tens. Everyone familiar with Stuart knew. The next number in his sequence is 12.

“Twelve is a dozen,” he said. “It is 12 signs of the Zodiac, 12 hours of day and 12 of night. There were 12 disciples of Jesus and 12 tribes of Israel. Hercules had 12 labors. There are 12 Olympian Gods, 12 months in a year. Twelve notes in a dodecaphonic tone series. Twelve days of Christmas. Twelve jurors in a panel. Twelve knights of the Round Table. Twelve steps for Alcoholics Anonymous. Paradise Lost is in 12 books.”

“I can think of a bunch of movies with 12 in the titles: 12 Angry Men; Ocean’s  Twelve; 12 Monkeys; The Dirty Dozen; Cheaper by the Dozen; Twelve Years a Slave.”

“And Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,” said Genevieve.

“Thirteen has plenty of mojo,” said Stuart, “but it is negative. Bad luck. There are at least three numbers with bad magic. Thirteen is one everyone knows. And 666 is the “mark of the beast.” And poor number 17 used to have no juice at all — one of the emptiest numbers, but now has quickly dropped from null to negative with the advent of Q. Nutjobs are going bananas every time they hear a number 17. 

“Then, there is 21, the points of blackjack and the minimum age to enter a casino and play blackjack. In many places, it’s the minimum age for a lot of things. The 21st Amendment ended prohibition, and when it did, you had to be 21 to buy hooch. Which you could do at the 21 Club in New York.”

“There are 21 guns in a 21-gun salute,” I said. “And the TV game show that was rigged, Twenty-One. There have been four movies with that name. Add up the dots on a die and you get 21. It’s the number of shillings in a guinea. Or was. 

“And according to Duncan McDougall in 1907, the human soul weighs 21 grams. I didn’t know they used metric back then.”

“Next is 40,” said Stuart. “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Christ spent 40 days in the wilderness. There are 40 Norse Valkyries and ‘Life begins at 40.’ Muhammad was 40 years old when he received his revelation. For Russians, the ghosts of the dead remain at the site of their deaths for 40 days. We listen to ‘Top 40’ radio stations. A short nap is ’40 winks.’ The number of Ali Baba’s thieves. ’40 acres and a mule.’ And the average work week, in hours.”

“I take it that 42 is in your list as a nod to Douglas Adams.”

“Absolutely. It is also Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, the number of lines in a page of the Gutenberg Bible, and the number on the back of the spider who bit Miles Morales, turning him into Spider-Man. It is also the number of the third most famous street in Manhattan (I give primacy to Wall Street and Broadway).

“A hundred is a useful number, but doesn’t carry much mythological weight,” Stuart continued. “But a hundred and one rises in power. It is the college course number of introduction. It is a book title more popular by far than ‘100.’ There are 101 Dalmations and the 101st Airborne Division is ‘the tip of the spear.’ There was a sappy recordings of the 101 Strings. Simon Bond’s 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. The George Orwell’s truly horrifying Room 101.” 

“Doesn’t that mean that 1984 is a number in your sequence?”

“Yes, I guess so. I hadn’t thought of it. My next number is 1,001. From the Thousand and One Nights of Scheherazade.  It is one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Buckminster Fuller called it a Scheherazade number in his book, Synergetics, meaning it is palindromic and a factor of any other Scheherazade number. But that is math, and my galoshes get stuck in the mud of math. Don’t ask me about it.” 

The number, million, said Stuart, used to have more meaning, when it was the largest number most people thought in terms of. Being a millionaire meant something back then. 

“But it still has some cache. In popular usage, a million means a lot. ‘You’re one in a million,’ ‘a million-dollar smile,’ ‘not in a million years,’ ‘a million-dollar question.’ And ‘I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles.’ 

“The million has largely been replaced the the billion, ‘with a B.’ To be rich nowadays requires being a billionaire. Everett Dirksen reportedly observed, ‘A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.’ Although he denied ever saying that, it was quoted in The New York Times in 1938. Also, Carl Sagan never actually said ‘Billions and billions,’ he did use it for the title of his last book. It was actually coined as a catchphrase on the Johnny Carson show. But the concept has now become a  name for a vague but large number, the Sagan. It joins other ‘indefinite hyperbolic numerals’ such as ‘gazillion’ ‘bazillion,’ and ‘umpteen.’ Since it is ‘billions’ plural and ‘billions’ plural, logically that would require that ‘billions and billions’ be at the very least four billion whatevers.”

At this point, Genevieve brought out the Ile Flottante and after we ate it, we sat at the table for a moment and looked at all the empty bowls and dishes. And the wine glasses calling out for refills. 

“We forgot the sequel, Guns of the Magnificent Seven,” said Stuart.

I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German. 

And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection. 

Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.

Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of  Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly. 

And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.

Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now. 

These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle. 

It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate  Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo. 

I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step. 

Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections. 

Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.

—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.

That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe. 

And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma. 

And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line. 

Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean. 

In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. 

We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out. 

But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale. 

No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot? 

So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners. 

Desert Island book

The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul. 

My nominees for Desert Island Book are:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book. 

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again. 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me. 

À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty. 

Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship. 

And the award goes to:

Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry. 

Desert Island Music

This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture. 

My nominees for Desert Island Music are:

 —Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into. 

—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.” 

—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle. 

—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out. 

—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time. 

And the winner is: 

St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!

Desert Island Film

Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.

My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are: 

Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen.  I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love. 

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you. 

Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon. 

And my choice is:

Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life. 

Bonus 

I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play. 

Opera

An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite: 

Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino

Epic poem

There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year: 

The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad. 

Live theater

What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember? 

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules. 

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And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.