I have lately become preoccupied with the desolate brown eyes of Jose Carreras. They star in this footage of his attempt to record the soundtrack to West Side Story under the pitiless direction of Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein, as Mahlerman showed us, is a real mensch. Also a bullying bastard. But who is the victim in this play, and who the villain? Bernstein is tortured by the gulf between the musical perfection he hears in his head and the feeble reality of the parping sounds produced by the world’s finest tenor. Carreras is tortured by his inability to hear what’s in Bernstein’s head so that he might try to reproduce it. His pathetic doll’s face and Nutella-coloured eyes fool you into thinking of him as a beaten pup, a scolded schoolboy in need of matron’s hug, but within he is seething and swearing and perhaps if his English was better it would all be pouring out in foul torrents. I’ll bet his hotel room copped a fearful smashing that night.
Bernstein has the face of a starving vulture. He claws at his lectern in his frustration, the meat is always just out of reach. He openly seethes and swears, but these outbursts are merely bubbles popping on the surface of the boiling ocean of rage and despair that constitutes his ageing composer’s soul.
No, it certainly ain’t easy, making a piece of popular musical theatre.
When I feared I was going blind two summers ago I had a lot of time to think and reflect and go a bit doolally, and I thought about how different the blind person’s perception of the human species must be without the benefit of seeing faces. The world would be like a radio play, where actors exist in hinterlands of shades and abstractions. Could you ever really trust anyone? Faces are windows and masks. Rik Mayall made an entire career out of classroom clown facial gymnastics. His stock face was the Supercilious Loon: screwed nose raised high, top lip withdrawn over jutting gums, tongue pushed into bottom lip, chin pulled into throat, eyeballs bulging madly. He wasn’t much of an actor but he did what he could to the utmost. A memorable face is good for an actor but bad for an impersonator. (That’s Alistair McGowan’s problem – he can do the voices but the face is always him. The best impersonator was Peter Sellars because he had no self and no true face).
Hollywood movies are unbelievable because the actors are either too good-looking or too much of a ‘character’. Real life is full of nondescript faces and people whose faces fall into categories, so that eventually everyone reminds you of someone you’ve met before.
There is a Bristol Face, just as there is a Liverpool Face (pinched perma-worried pugnose. The male Liverpool face is Steven Gerrard, the female is like a bottle-blonde Paul McCartney), and a Manchester Face (Noel Gallagher), and a Birmingham Face (puzzled diddy man), and a Welsh face (angry dwarf).
The Bristol Face is wobbly hardboiled egg painted with a broad guileless grin. Bristol is very rural for a city – you can stand on one of its hills and see green all around – and so its men have well-fed yokel faces that would suit farmer hats with flowers in them. The misogynistic paranoiac light entertainer Justin Lee Collins has an archetypal Bristol face although he’s not a good advert. In Bristol the tattooed football white working class bleeds into the alternative elongated-earlobe dreadlock class more fluidly than in some places, possibly because they drink cider rather than lager.
Just round the corner from us on Hillside Road there that was until a few years ago a very strange florist-cum-greengrocer’s shop called Marlene’s House of Flowers. The first time we went in we found it poorly lit and unclean-looking. Uninspiring bouquets were arranged on stands around the counter, behind which stood the proprietors, a husband-and-wife team of late middle-age. They beamed at us as we set off the door-jangle. We smiled back and dutifully examined the wares. There were boxes of softening carrots, and onions with wet bits. There was a box containing a single weary butternut squash. The man and lady continued to beam, hopefully. They were both quite large with strong hints of hippy. He had a Bristol face peeping from beneath a huge ZZ Top beard, and stood next to and slightly behind his wife. In panic and pity I bought a couple of apples and we made good our escape.
I don’t think we ever went in again.
A computer pretending to be a 13-year old Ukrainian bou called Eugene has apparently passed the Turing Test, meaning that in a text conversation it convinced 33% of judges at a Royal Society event that it was a human.
Here’s an extract:
[12:44: 29] Eugene: People call me Eugene. Or “Zhenya”. It is a short name for Eugene in Russia and Ukraine.
[12:45:17] Judge: Nice name. Are you from either area?
[12:45:41] Eugene: Agree Oh, what a fruitful conversation;-)
[12:45:52] Judge: Do you really think so?
[12:46:04] Eugene: No, your guess was wrong. I don’t think so. By the way, I still don’t know your specialty – or, possibly, I’ve missed it?
[12:46:56] Judge: What speciality? What’s yours?
[12:47:01] Eugene: Huh? And I forgot to ask you where you are from.
[12:47:51] Judge: The universe and you?
[12:48:01] Eugene: Is it your hobby to ask little poor Jewish boys such tricky questions they don’t have an answer for?
Hmmm. Surely the most you can confidently glean from the above is that 33% of the judges at this particular event weren’t very bright. If anything, the Judge in the script here could also pass as a chatbot, making it a sort of Reverse Turing Test: can a human being be sufficiently illiterate to convince a judge that he’s a machine?
Later we found out that the ZZ Top beard belonged to a man called Peter, who sang charismatically in a reasonably well-known local blues band. He and his wife Marlene lived next door to the Air Balloon – our nearest boozer, a dive. Their House of Flowers florist business wasn’t doing very well and Peter built up large debts. On 15 November 2011 the bailiffs were due to arrive, and in preference to telling her about the scale of their financial difficulties Peter strangled Marlene to death with a dressing gown cord. He left her body wrapped in a duvet in the living room then packed some clothes and two computers and his dog into his Fiat Ducato van and drove towards Cornwall. On the way he called the police and told them that he had murdered Marlene and that he was now on his way to put the dog somewhere safe before killing himself. The police stopped his car with a stinger device. As they arrested him he said: “I know what this is about. I was just going to take care of the dog and go off the bridge.” Peter was 63 and had been married to Marlene for thirty years. He was given a 13 year sentence, later reduced to 12 years on appeal. Marlene’s House of Flowers is now a hairdressers, my wife and daughters use it.
Following a meeting of the Dabbler editors, we have decided to make a significant investment in the site, which has outgrown its current format. Within the next few months there will be a spanking new design, plus a clever blog-within-a-blog feature that will allow for far more frequent short, sharp, off-the-cuff comment-able posts, in addition to the more considered daily pieces. Thank you all for your continued support, especially those who’ve been so generous in helping us to build this remarkable corner of the web we call The Dabbler. Onwards and upwards!