Monday, June 13, 2005

On The Highwire

While reading the newspaper and drinking my cup of coffee this morning, I watched the last half of an old Cary Grant movie that isn't one of his better known ones these days, "People Will Talk". Basically, Grant is Dr. Noah Pratorius, a doctor at a small, Midwestern medical school/college. He saves the life of a young woman who'd tried to commit suicide because of an affair gone wrong that resulted in her pregnancy. Dr. Pratorius meets up with her father, a failed businessman, living along with his daughter on the farm of his hypocritical brother (who talks a lot about being self-sufficient and whines about having to pay taxes to the bloated government on one hand, while, as Dr. Pratorius points out, taking crop subsidies from the self-same bloated government). There's also a "bad" dog, whom Dr. Pratorius' mysterious companion, Mr. Shunderson, manages to tame in a very short period of time. Pratorius marries the girl, gives his new father-in-law and the formerly "bad" dog a new home and gets in trouble with a fellow professor who wants nothing more than to sully the good doctor's name and reputation. A faculty hearing is convened in which Pratorius is vindicated, Shunderson's secrets are revealed and the evil little professor is shown up for the vicious little weasel that he really is. Pratorius, who on the side is also the conductor of the college symphony, goes out to conduct Brahms' "Academic Overture" with excitement oozing out of every pore, while his wife is feeling the first kicks of the unborn child that Pratorius has no problem in raising as his own.

What the heck is my point, you ask? Well, there are a number of them that I could get into, like the fact that Pratorius is a nice guy with good friends who stand by him no matter how ugly the situation gets with the evil Dr. Ellwell, which is probably unrealistic in this day and age (unless you're a Republican who really likes Tom DeLay). I guess I could talk about how this is probably the ultimate Cary Grant movie, showing the difference between the guy on the screen and the real Cary, who wasn't probably nearly as nice or respectable (and who is?). If you were an anti-abortionist, you would probably point out that Pratorius never suggests that his wife get an abortion to rid herself of a child that will never have any of his DNA, but rather encourages her to keep the child with the understanding that he'll love it as his own, something you hear a lot of these days from those who want to outlaw abortion on demand (if you want to know my feelings about it, look back at my "Preferences" blog a while back). One could even talk at length about there being no "bad" dogs, just mistreated ones. No, I'd rather talk about being on the highwire.

As I pointed out earlier, Pratorius' second job at the unnamed Midwestern school is that of conductor of the student symphony, and his expression while leading them through the "Academic Overture" is rapturous, because he knows that they're doing a good job, he's doing a good job and, as a result, the audience is having a good time. It could have been worse; someone, like his Germanic professor friend who plays the bass fiddle (a wonderful character actor named Walter Sleazak; oddly enough, he was in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" with the same actor who plays the evil Dr. Ellwell in "People Will Talk", with the moral roles reversed. In "Lifeboat", Sleazak was the evil U-Boat commander, plotting to bump off all the remaining castaways and the little guy was the naive young Merchant Marine officer. Cary Grant, about the same time, was playing an American submarine captain in "Destination Tokyo" in which he talks knowingly about how Japanese men don't understand our love for our women, among other things) could have messed up the tempo or flipped to the wrong page and played the wrong part in the wrong place, but no, everyone does what they are supposed to in the right way and everyone has a good time as a result. That is why live performances are so wonderful: if they go right, the excitement is palpable and the audience will go nuts and give a standing ovation; if things go wrong, everyone will look around stunned, like an artillery shell went off in the middle of things.

In the act of being creative, no matter what it is, the excitement and anxiety of the uncertainty of what might happen next is what makes the immediate act both fun and nerve wracking. You MIGHT succeed; you MIGHT fail. I did that in a recital once in Boy Scouts; when we had parents come to one of our weekly meetings at a Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, I decided to play the first movement to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. I got a bad case of stage fright and rushed it to the point where it certainly wasn't moonlight coming our of the old grand piano I was playing, it was more like a laser beam. Much later in life I was the song leader for our church up here in North Florida; why I was chosen is still a mystery to me, since my voice was certainly nothing to brag about and I had no experience in leading a vocal group. I was terribly nervous, since I was the one who generally opened and closed out the services, but I could always tell when I was "on" and when I was "off". The emotions I felt when I was "on" and the congregation was also "on" were wonderful and nearly rapturous and I even felt confident enough to hold out the last note a little longer on a good song. Unfortunately, most of the time I was saddled by the preacher with some of the most horrible hymns to lead, somewhat akin to someone who is tone-deaf trying to sing the National Anthem at a baseball game.

Courtroom work is like that. You can tell during a trial when your case is going down the tubes, you can just feel it in the expressions of the jury. It is exhilarating when things are going right and your witnesses have said the right stuff with the proper expression in their voices. There isn't a feeling much worse, however, than when you know from the opening minutes of the trial or hearing that you're going to lose; I've been there too. The experience, however, good or bad, beats just sitting around not experiencing anything.

Maybe that's why listening to good music on a CD just isn't the same as listening to it in person; on a CD recording, you know that, unless you're listening to a live recording as opposed to a studio session, everything will be fine, every note hit correctly and with proper interpretation. It might not be the best you've ever heard, but it is safe. If you're in the audience with the performer live, however, you're never quite sure if the performer is going to somehow royally screw up or hit a once-in-a-lifetime, over the wall homerun. The tension is part of what makes a live performance exciting, since you never know what's coming next. Karl Wallenda probably had that sensation during his last performance in that long fall to his death off the highwire; at least the audience had a good show.

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