July 8, 2015

DVD rev

“That was the greatest entrance there ever was,” Orson Welles tells Henry Jaglom in My Lunches with Orson (Metropolitan 2013), referring to his first moment as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).

For me, at 11, it was more than an entrance. It was a revelation. Until then, most heroes on the screen were stock figures going through amusing motions, cowboys, villains, good guys, bad guys. This was something fascinating and new. Harry Lime was dead and buried, for one thing. Everybody in Vienna said so. He’d been hit by a car. Or had he?

What heightened the moment was the bombed-out European city of night surrounding it, the stark vistas of crumbling terraces, deep shadows, the blackest deepest blacks I’d ever seen, the way light gleamed on cobblestone pavement, the sense of menace in the war-haunted metropolis, the excitement of the name, Vienna, and the zither music that seemed to anticipate and express every last nuance of intrigue.

The fact that Joseph Cotten was playing Harry’s best friend immediately drew me in because I’d recently identified with the same actor as an artist in love with a mysterious girl who transcended time and space in A Portrait of Jennie. It was as if Joseph Cotten and I had already shared a romantic adventure and were together again trying to find out the truth about what had happened to Harry, who the police claimed had been involved in some nefarious business on the black market. He also had a girl friend, a sullen beauty named Anna whose cat was fond of Harry. And late one night, outside her building, we’re walking, footsteps echoing on the pavement, when we see the cat that liked Harry in a pool of light at the base of a dark doorway someone is standing in. The cat is grooming itself, very much at home. Suddenly a window in the building opposite opens and a light falls on the face of the man in the doorway. It’s Harry Lime back from the dead, slyly almost smugly alive, his face bright and strange, lit with  a kind of cold radiance. The zither takes a run up my spine to give me the moment, putting a chill on the chill already climbing the back of my neck. Harry’s smiling, he seems about to speak, as if to say, “Yes, old friend, it’s me, and I’ve seen and done things you’ll never know or want to know.”

In his biography Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Knopf 1996), David Thomson gets the impact of the moment, Lime’s “grin is ineffably sinister but sweet, and it goes into the camera like charm’s knife.” Only Orson Welles could have filled that moment, made it magical, with help from director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker. As Welles says to Jaglom, referring to the film’s success overseas and his sudden fame, “In Europe Harry Lime represented their past … the dark side of them. Yet attractive, you know …. It was a kind of mania. When I came into a restaurant the people went crazy. At the hotel I was staying in, police had to come to quiet the fans. It was my one moment of being a superstar, a traffic-stopping superstar … I could have made a career out of that picture.”

The Power of His Presence

Orson Welles was born 100 years ago, May 6, 1915, and died 30 years ago, October 10, 1985, only hours after taping an interview with Merv Griffin. On a YouTube video he tells Griffin how it feels to be 70 and looks back on his life and career (“I was awful busy and awful lucky”). Such is the power of his presence, there’s no sense of a declining force; if anything, he gives the impression of entering his eighth decade still busy and still lucky. Nothing in his manner, his way of speaking, his frankness and clarity and his sense of humor about himself, would suggest that this is his last public appearance.

And busy he was, right up to the end. After taping the Griffin show, he put in some time at the typewriter working on stage directions for the television special, Orson Welles’s Magic Show, then to bed never to wake.

The Big Chill

My son just urged me to do a good job on Falstaff. It’s a Christmas Eve tradition for him to watch Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966) on tape/DVD; he’s been doing it for the past 14 years. There’s a warmth in Welles’s Falstaff that’s lacking in much of his other work. Citizen Kane begs for superlatives, it’s a phenomenon, a miracle, a triumph, but what, for me, keeps it from being as great as it’s cracked up to be is its lack of warmth. One obvious problem is in the boorish, unsympathetic aspect of Kane, a side-effect of the fact that he’s based on an unsympathetic, to put it mildly, model, W.R. Hearst. However vivid and energetic the visuals and the pace, however brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland, with superior performances by Welles and his players, notably his close friend and fellow centenarian Joseph Cotten (1915-1994), it’s an essentially cold piece of work.

There’s also a hint of the chill in the Welles aesthetic: the way people seem to talk at cross-purposes, one voice on top of another, and the sense of distance in the interiors, almost as if Welles had discovered the visual equivalent of the echo, the seen music of chilly echoing spaces. Like the brilliant early scene that has Kane as a boy shouting and playing in the snow outside the window while his future is being coldly decided. The magnificently gothic opening credits and the closing moments crowned by the “Rosebud” revelation are thrilling. But then so was the great hoax Welles pulled off three years before Kane with his radio broadcast of an invasion from Mars that sent a chill of fear up the spine of the nation (especially central and northern New Jersey). Then there’s Touch of Evil (1958), one of the craziest great films ever made, and as cold at the center as Welles’s Hank Quinlan, the dead mountain of corruption Marlene Dietrich absurdly eulogizes (“some kind of a man”) at the end; thrilling, too, as pure cinema, is the famous hall of mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai; and any number of other virtuoso moments in The Stranger and Mr. Arkadin, not to mention Othello and Macbeth.

There are moments of warmth in The Magnificent Ambersons (most of them, as I remember, centered on Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello), but, as with so much of Welles’s work, the material has been so thoroughly violated by the studio, it’s not fair to Welles to assume the finished product is as he intended it. In Chimes at Midnight, however, he has the benefit of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character as rich and warmly eloquent as any in literature. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie,” he said in 1982, “that’s the one I’d offer up.”

The Voice

It’s clear that Welles also feels close to his last completed film F for Fake (1976), which is, as he tells Henry Jaglom, “the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane.” David Thomson agrees, praising its “utmost originality, delicacy, and sly personal insight,” while finding it “flawless” and “unlike anything anyone had ever done before.” In spite of insisting, again speaking to Jaglom, that the film is “a fake confessional” and that “the fact that I confess to being a fraud is a fraud,” Welles inhabits the project companionably, and, more to the point, warmly. As he walks through the film, sometimes garbed in magician’s regalia of black cloak and broad-brimmed hat (in the opening scene he quotes Robert Houdin to the effect that “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician”), sometimes in his customary attire, at his ease, at table, he’s at once the director, the central presence, the narrator, and the reader, as when he recites poetry, not in the manner of an actor declaiming verse on the stage, but as he puts it, “by the fireside,” as if he were sitting side by side with you saying, “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures, and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’”

True Friends

Back in June 2013, I did a column about visiting Vienna on a summer tour (“Light and Dark: Themes and Anthems for a European Tour”). For the image I used a still from The Third Man showing the Joseph Cotten character in the shadow of the great ferris wheel at the Prater, waiting for what would be his one and only encounter with his old friend, Harry Lime. In that odd entity called “real life,” Cotten and Welles, who were born in the same month, same year, May 1915, enjoyed a friendship worth mentioning here, on their joint centenary. As Cotten recounts in his 1987 autobiography, when he suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke that affected his speech center, he began years of therapy that eventually made it possible for him to speak again. As he began to recover, he and Welles talked on the phone each week for a couple of hours: “He was strong and supportive,” Cotten wrote, “and whenever I used the wrong word (which was frequently) he would say, ‘That’s a much better word, Jo, I’m going to use it.’” One of the last things Welles read before he died was the manuscript of his old friend’s autobiography.

It can be hard for a European music ensemble to compete with American independence. The Vienna Piano Trio, a well established and refined ensemble of musicians originally based in Austria, came to Princeton last Thursday night on the cusp of the 4th of July holiday weekend to present a concert of wide-ranging chamber music. Accompanied at times by the sound of nearby fireworks, the Trio nevertheless captivated a full house at Richardson Auditorium, and demonstrated a diverse performance skill set in music which crossed nearly a century and a half.

The Vienna Piano Trio was founded in 1988, and has made a worldwide name for itself playing music of composers closely associated with Austria. The program last Thursday night expanded that range into early 20th-century Spain and late 19th-century France. In keeping with the initial concept of the ensemble, violinist Bogdan Božovic´, cellist Matthias Gredler, and pianist Stefan Mendl began the concert with an elegant performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Trio in C Major, K. 548. Composed late in Mozart’s life, this work was both playful and complex, and the Vienna Trio showed immediate command of this three movement intimate conversation among three instruments. Pianist Mendl led the first movement with sharp dotted rhythms and a very even right hand in the flowing passages, showing an ability to switch musical gears easily. Mr. Gredler accompanied piano and violin subtly in a lighthearted second exposition of the first movement.

Both Mr. Gredler and Mr. Božovic´ played instruments of Mozart’s time, with Mr. Božovic´ playing a 1685 Stradivari violin, and Mr. Gredler playing a 1752 Guadagnini cello. These instruments did not generate overwhelming sound, although they were well up to the task of the late 19th century music heard later in the program. Mr. Gredler was particularly able to play both decisively and delicately, and Mr. Božovic´ provided a consistently sweet sound throughout the concert.

Early 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Turina was overshadowed by the more towering Spanish composers of his time, but as his 1926 Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major showed, Turina’s music is fresh and melodic, reflecting his cosmopolitan musical life in Paris and Madrid. Turina named the three movements of this work with titles drawn from music history, but the traditional forms were infused with the outdoor feel of a Paris café and the jazz flavor sweeping France during the early 20th century.

In the opening “Prélude et Fugue,” Mr. Gredler’s cello accompaniment was much more dramatic than in the Mozart work, and Mr. Božovic´ played a violin melody recalling a stroll along Parisian streets. The Vienna Trio was able to pick up speed and intensity uniformly, communicating well with one another. In both the second and third movements, Mr. Gredler provided cello melodies which were exceptionally rich, from an 18th-century instrument. Throughout this impressionistic and somewhat jazzy work, Mr. Mendl played with a great deal of flow.

The closing five-movement Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns offered a much richer piano part than the previous two works, accompanied by a much darker cello line. A duet between violin and cello was almost Russian in its opulence, with steady chords provided by the keyboard. Using significant pedal, Mr. Mendl played with nonstop Romantic flow and particular fierceness in the upper octaves of the keyboard. Mr. Božovic´ played contrasting chipper melodic fragments and motives, also participating in a lyrical conversation between cello and violin in the third movement. One could easily hear Bach’s structure and musical construction in this work, with a touch of Beethoven as an exacting coda brought the piece to a glorious close.

LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF OUR DADS IN VIETNAM: One of the two sons, whose fathers were close buddies during the Vietnam war, holds up a picture of their parents in full battle gear during the war. Edward Adams (Scott Whyte, right) poses for the camera with Steven George (Sean McGowan). In spite of their differences in religious beliefs, the two formed a close bond during the war.

LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF OUR DADS IN VIETNAM: One of the two sons, whose fathers were close buddies during the Vietnam war, holds up a picture of their parents in full battle gear during the war. Edward Adams (Scott Whyte, right) poses for the camera with Steven George (Sean McGowan). In spite of their differences in religious beliefs, the two formed a close bond during the war.

While serving behind enemy lines in Vietnam, GIs Steven George (Sean McGowan) and Edward Adams (Scott Whyte), became best friends even though the former was a devout Christian while the latter was a Doubting Thomas. Sadly, they both perished in battle in 1969, and each left behind a child that neither ever got to know.

Fast-forward 25 years and we discover that the soldiers’ children have followed in their fathers’ footsteps. Steven’s offspring John (Kevin Downes) is also a devout Christian like his late father, and Edward’s son Wayne (David A.R. White) inherited his father’s disdain for organized religion.

John has grown up to be stable and successful and is planning to marry his fiancée, Cynthia (Candace Cameron Bure). In contrast, Wayne has grown up to be an underachiever who has had more than his share of run-ins with the law.

Since John lives in California and Wayne is in Mississippi, the two have never met. However, John informs his fiancée that, before he marries her, he wants to learn everything he can about his late father. That quest leads him to Wayne, who has saved the letters that his father mailed home during the war in Vietnam.

The two decide to read the letters en route to Washington, D.C. where they plan to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. What ensues is an eventful road trip in which Christ and the Devil do battle for Wayne’s soul. Using flashbacks, the film alternates between the sons’ arguments over faith during their trip and portrayals of their fathers’ discussions about Christianity during their fateful tour of duty overseas.

This is the basis of Faith of Our Fathers, a modern parable directed and co-written by Corey Scott (Hidden Secrets). While the movie does feature wholesome family fare, it’s occasional proselytizing (“Know that Jesus loves you and that you can trust Him.”) is distracting, but not so overpowering that it spoils the movie.

Look for Born Again Stephen Baldwin in a scene-stealing performance as Sergeant Mansfield, the only character to appear both in the flashbacks and the present-day scenes. In 1969, we find him chastising Steven for preparing the men in his unit to die. But, he’s singing a different tune 25 years later when he conveniently intervenes in a critical moment in the picture.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for brief violence. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment.

July 1, 2015

book revAfter the outbreak of war in April of 1861, students at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) raised the Union flag over Nassau Hall. According to the Mudd Manuscript Library blog, two-fifths of the class of 1862 left campus for the South within a three-week period. Students had begun leaving as early as January 1861 due to what college President John Maclean called “the unhappy condition of the country.” Although the administration took the flag down, it would be raised again and remain there for the duration of the war.

Of the 70 Princeton students who died in the conflict and are remembered on a plaque in Nassau Hall, 34 fought under the Union flag and 36 under the Confederate. The plaque does not divide them accordingly, however. They’re honored together as Princeton students.

Baldwin in Princeton

Writing in the November 1955 issue of Harper’s, African American essayist and novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) recalls visiting a Nassau Street restaurant in 1942: “I knew about jim-crow but I had never experienced it. I went to the same self-service restaurant three times and stood with all the Princeton boys before the counter, waiting for a hamburger and coffee…Negroes were not served there, I was told…Once I was told this, I determined to go there all the time. But now they were ready for me and, though some dreadful scenes were subsequently enacted in that restaurant, I never ate there again.”

True enough, although Baldwin’s friend and biographer David Leeming describes a 1965 visit to Princeton during which Baldwin suggested that they stop at a local restaurant: “He seemed angry, as standing in front of the counter with the usual crowd of Princeton students, he ordered a hamburger, left it on the counter when it was delivered to him, and announced that we were leaving.”

The fact that Baldwin felt compelled to return to the scene more than a decade later bears out his claim in the same essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” that the year he lived in New Jersey (working in a Belle Mead defense plant) “had made a great change” in his life. Having grown up in Harlem, a recent graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School, with white mentors and friends, he “knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave.” But “it had never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way. I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.”

According to Leeming, Baldwin’s anger after reliving the scene in the restaurant was such that he subsequently became “argumentative, even abusive” at a faculty dinner party.

“Informed Conversation”

Media commentary about race and racism in the aftermath of the Charleston shootings and the debate over the Confederate flag inspired Brandeis Professor Chad Williams and colleagues at Wayne State and the University of Iowa to create a hashtag, #CharlestonSyllabus, to crowdsource books, films, and educational materials as a basis for an “informed conversation.” BBC Trending’s report (“Charleston Syllabus Builds Book List of Tolerance”) is accompanied by an image showing a dozen recommended books, three of which are by James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and the first and most influential collection, titled after that seminal essay with its Princeton epiphany, Notes of a Native Son (1955).

Meanwhile Baldwin’s 90th birthday has inspired Harlem Stage’s The Year of James Baldwin, a 14-month, citywide celebration presented in partnership with Columbia University School of the Arts and New York Live Arts, and numerous other collaborators. Singer songwriter Stew, leader of a rock group called The Negro Problem, paid homage last month in “Notes of a Native Song,” a song cycle in which he presents Baldwin as a bluesinging literary rock star who, like Stew, ultimately came into his own as an artist in Europe.

The phrase that inspired the name of Stew’s band occurs five times in the five page preface to Notes of a Native Son, where Baldwin observes that “one of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes.”

Baldwin’s life as a professional writer began when he was  “writing book reviews—mostly, it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” Referring back to “traditional attitudes,” he notes that the “change from ill will to good will” is “better than no change at all….But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.”

Fiction’s Special Appeal

Although Baldwin’s essays are generally considered to be superior to his fiction, there’s no doubt that his first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain (1952) “taps the source” and belongs in the Charleston syllabus. However commendable the desire to get people reading and talking about race, if the great underlying dream objective is to reach supposed lost causes like accused killer Dylann Roof, strongly plotted and written fiction would make a more potent weapon than expository prose. In Go Tell It On the Mountain Baldwin is exploring his own history with a sense of personal and aesthetic purpose that gives the story a compelling universality. The opening pages describe a situation in which the protagonist feels like an outsider in his own family, alienated, in particular, from his father. That it’s a black family struggling to get by is secondary to the universal theme of embattled families.

When he left Paris for Switzerland, “armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter,” Baldwin’s goal was “to try to create the life” that he had “first known as a child” and from which he had “spent so many years in flight.” Even after reading Balzac, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, and Walt Whitman, among others, his true mentor in the “absolutely alabaster landscape” of Switzerland was the Empress of the Blues: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken” and “to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America.”

Personal History

Watching President Obama lead the singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the shooting victims in Charleston, I found myself focusing on the words African Methodist Episcopal on the purple banner draped over the podium. I was remembering two quite different race-and religion-based experiences. In the first incident I was 15, on a train somewhere between Tottenville and St. George on Staten Island. It was a Sunday and at one stop a number of black women in their Sunday best came aboard. The tambourine-bearing lady who sat down beside me was the oldest and most diminutive of the group. Right away she began asking me questions about my religion. Was I believer? Was I a sinner? Uh, well, er, what to say? Brandishing the tambourine in the direction of my hemming and hawing, she asked what my church was. Though it had been some years since I last dutifully attended Trinity Episcopal, where my father played the organ, I felt within my rights to say “ Episcopal,” but as soon as the word was out of my mouth, the old lady yelled “Episcopals is Catholics!” and began banging her tambourine and shouting “Save this sinner! Help this poor sinner!” The tambourine banging and the shouting continued until the next stop, where she got off with the others. One of the women came over, patted my shoulder, and said, “She’s old and cranky. Don’t pay her no mind. You believe whatever you want to believe.”

The second incident occured in the fall of the same year when I went with a friend to a black church in Indianapolis. We were two white boys who had come to the capital city to find blues and jazz records and to see if what an older friend had told us about this church was true—that people had “the time of their lives” there. What a thought. To have the time of your life in a place that, for me, was associated with squirming through endless dull sermons and being bored, literally, to tears. The atmosphere of friendly, unforced good feeling we found ourselves in could be seen again in the faces and attitudes of the people sitting behind President Obama and, in effect, cheering him on at the Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston. At the church in Indianapolis we were not only made to feel at home, we were treated as if we were children of the congregation. It was something better than what I thought of as “having the time of your life.” When all the males were called to stand in front of the altar and join hands to sing a hymn, a woman like the one who patted my shoulder that day on the train urged us to go up and join in and we did. We sang a hymn. It was called “Somebody Touched Me” and the tears in my eyes were not from boredom.

The Princeton Festival has been exploring some new performance genres this year, including Indian music and dance, and country music. The Festival presented an evening of Baroque music last Wednesday night with a high-level of playing and a bit of audience education from the musicians. The performance by the Festival Baroque Orchestra in Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel proved to be both entertaining and informative.

For Wednesday night’s performance, Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a chamber orchestra of young players, all with a connection to the renowned music school at Indiana University. Dr. Tang Yuk also cast himself in a rarely-seen role as continuo harpsichord player. The nine string players and one oboist in the Festival Baroque Orchestra focused their performance on works of 18th-century masters, as well as two lesser-known but equally as important composers. Concertmaster Juan Carlos Zamudio, together with Dr. Tang Yuk, transformed the performance into more of a lecture/recital with a brief discussion beforehand on Baroque performance practice, instruments, and tuning. These introductory remarks gave the audience some insight into the challenges of the music heard, as well as an appreciation for how well the players, who live throughout the United States and came together for this performance, presented a cohesive and well-executed program.

Composer Heinrich Biber is not one of the most well-known of the early Baroque, but this Austrian performer and composer was one of the most important creators of music for the violin of his time. Composers of this era often interpreted events in musical forms, including Biber’s Battaglia á 10 in D Major, a multi-movement piece depicting the action and atmosphere of a battlefield. Recreating the noise of battle in an ensemble without brass might seem like a challenge, but Biber’s eight-movement work used effects from the strings to replicate cannon fire, drums and trumpet calls. The string players of the Festival Baroque Orchestra followed concertmaster Mr. Zamudio well, playing with unified strokes as soldiers marched, and long melodic lines in reflective passages.

Throughout the concert, the upper string players reshuffled themselves into different combinations of players, creating a solid overall sound for Georg Muffat’s Florilegium Primum: Fasciculus I – a set of six dance movements introduced by an Overture. The Baroque Orchestra easily captured the energetic dotted rhythms and lilt of this late 17th-century work, as well as demonstrating well-executed ornaments from the upper strings.

The two undisputed powerhouses of the Baroque – Georg Friedrich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach – were rooted in similar compositional techniques, but at the height of their careers, these two composers were writing very different music. Handel took the concerto form and expanded it to juxtapose not only soloists but also small ensembles of players against full orchestra, and Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 10 was a consummate example of a mature 18th-century instrumental concerto. For this work, the strings of the Festival Baroque Orchestra were joined by oboist Sarah Huebsch, whose playing made a significant difference in the orchestral color.

The Baroque Orchestra easily executed the rhythms of the opening Overture, achieving a wide range of dynamics. The players also found the varied characters of the seven different movements, including the stateliness of an Allegro which reflected Handel’s choral writing, and the precise articulation of the faster movements. In a courtly Allegro, each violinist had a chance to take the lead.

In contrast, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins featured soloists Mr. Zamudio and Reynaldo Patino in a complex battle of strings. Each half of the orchestra was uniform among its players, with the sequential passages well interpreted. Both Mr. Zamudio and Mr. Patino were confident players, with Mr. Patino a particularly decisive musician as each solo violinist answered the other. In the second movement Largo, Mr. Zamudio introduced the melody without vibrato, creating a more majestic effect answered by Mr. Patino. The Orchestra as a whole built intensity and dynamics well, providing graceful cadences. The third movement Allegro was marked by little motives traveling around the ensemble as the Orchestra controlled the busy activity, coming together to close the movement well.

The upper strings were featured in each of the four works on Wednesday night’s program, but no less key to the success of the concert were cellist Brady Lanier and double bassist David Casali. These two players provided consistent underpinning to the other instrumentalists, enabling the music to flow within a solid structure. A very sprightly and historically accurate playing of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D as an encore showed the ensemble’s ability to develop motives from short and dry phrases to long melodic lines, bringing the concert to a well-appreciated close.

 

FRIENDS: Best Friends Forever (from left) Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and Earl Johnson (RJ Cyler) switch from filming clownish parodies to make a serious documentary about cancer victim (far left) Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from the young adult novel by Jesse Andrews. © 2015 Fox and its Related Entities

FRIENDS: Best Friends Forever (from left) Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and Earl Johnson (RJ Cyler) switch from filming clownish parodies to make a serious documentary about cancer victim (far left) Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from the young adult novel by Jesse Andrews.
© 2015 Fox and its Related Entities

High school seniors Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and Earl Johnson (RJ Cyler) are not only best friends, they’re each other’s only friend, unless an empathetic history teacher counts. Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) has taken pity on the pair, letting them eat their lunch in his office to spare them the humiliation of being teased in the cafeteria on a daily basis.

Terminally-insecure Greg rationalizes their “carefully-cultivated invisibility” with the insight that, “Hot girls destroy your life.” So, instead of looking for love, the ostracized social zeros spend most of their free time shooting clownish parodies of memorable screen classics. But the 42 spoofs, sporting titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “Brew Velvet,” “A Box of Lips… Wow!” and “2:48 PM Cowboy,” suffer from such low-production values, that the amateur filmmakers are too embarrassed to share them with anybody.

At the start of the semester, we find Greg being pressured by his mother (Connie Britton) to visit the suddenly cancer-stricken daughter of one of her girlfriends (Molly Shannon). He agrees to do so rather reluctantly because he barely knows Rachel (Olivia Cooke), even though, until recently, she also attended Schenley High.

However, the two soon hit it off, since they’re both artsy types given to an ingratiating combination of introspection and gallows humor. Greg returns to her house again and again, doing his best to prop up her spirits during a valiant battle with leukemia in which she loses her strength and her hair as a consequence of chemotherapy.

Eventually, he enlists the assistance of his BFF in making their first documentary, a biopic dedicated to the now bed-ridden Rachel. Throwing himself into the project with an admirable zeal, he marks the production with meaningful touches like get well wishes from the patient’s family and friends, including his own repeated assurances that she’s going to beat the disease.

The only problem is that the attention paid to Rachel leaves little time for academics; and Greg’s plummeting grades have a negative effect on his college prospects.

Adapted from the Jesse Andrews young adult novel of the same name, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a bittersweet coming-of-age adventure directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown). The film was very warmly received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it landed both the Audience and Grand Jury Awards.

A refreshingly exhilarating, emotional and ultimately uplifting examination of youngsters forging an unbreakable bond in the face of a malignant force far beyond their control.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, drug use and mature themes. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

June 24, 2015

DVD revTake a walk with me down by Avalon… — Sir Van Morrison, from “Summertime in England”

According to the June 17 New York Times, the Season Five finale of Game of Thrones drew eight million viewers, making it most watched HBO series ever. The death of one of the major characters was front page news the day after, at least in certain New York tabloids. Also in the news were reports that longtime viewers of the show like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill had had enough. “Ok, I’m done,” she tweeted. “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended.”

It’s a rocky ride, for sure. But I’d tweak the phrasing. This ride isn’t just rocky, it rocks. How hard and relentlessly it rocks its audience reminds me of seeing Cream live in a small venue, amps up all the way, Ginger Baker satantically attacking the drums, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce riding out on “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” while “our naked ears were tortured” and you could say the same for the “naked eyes” of the audience assaulted by the scene that upset the senator. But we’re staying on board. We’ve been there before. To be stunned, shocked, repelled has been the name of the Game from day one. You can see for yourself in the home videos on YouTube of people reacting, hands over eyes, recoiling in horror, screaming, totally at the mercy of the Red Wedding sequence.

Enter Sir Van

So, how is it, speaking for my wife and myself, that at our advanced age we not only put up with but actually find pleasure in the dark world of Westeros where no one is safe and innocent children are sacrificed, burned alive by their own fathers? Is it that people who came of age in the rock and roll renaissance of the sixties are more receptive to a television series fraught with the outrages and excesses that have led others to jump ship?

I found one answer in the Arts section of Monday’s New York Times where Jon Pareles has the “newly knighted” Van Morrison taking “a song from way back when” and “living it anew” during a concert at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. Two months short of his 70th birthday, Sir Van’s singing a song called “Magic Time” that begins “Don’t lose the wonder in your eyes” before a crowd of ecstatic fans shown in the picture at the top of the story, arms high, wrinkles in evidence along with glimpses of hair touched with white and grey. You know that many of those shown blissing out en masse lived through the wildness and wonder of the years of Woodstock and Altamont, “Helter-Skelter” and Manson when the airwaves were dominated by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, and magical albums like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. 

Somehow the titles Sir Paul and Sir Mick don’t signify much beyond the prestige of knighthood. Think of Sir Van, however, and you can see a knight on horseback riding through the gates into Arthur’s Court “down by Avalon”— or into the domain of the Iron Throne at King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Over the years the limitless realm of rock has permitted Van Morrison to move freely through time and space and context, bringing Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge together with Mahalia Jackson and Yeats and Lady Gregory singing and dancing in the summertime in England. Or else he’s taking us “up the mountainside/With fire in our hearts” walking “all the way to Tir Na Nog.”

And remember where Sir Van, also known as the Belfast Cowboy, is coming from. When asked why Northern Ireland was “the ultimate choice for the bulk of the shoot and The Game of Thrones base of operation,” co-creator David Benioff mentions “windswept hilltops, stony beaches, lush meadows, high cliffs, bucolic streams — we can shoot a day at any of these places and still sleep that night in Belfast.”

The Miller’s Tale

Another force from the rock renaissance evoking the world of Game of Thrones is Procol Harum in albums like Home from 1970 and the chart-topping 1967 single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” where “As the Miller told his tale … her face, at first just ghostly,/Turned a whiter shade of pale.” Though the group’s out-there lyricist Keith Reid has denied consciously channeling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there’s no denying the “magic time” of myth and legend haunting that lyric and the songs on Home: “Light a candle up in kingdom come…A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down.” Or: “I beheld that flaming chariot and I saw the sacred bride,” or “God’s aloft, the winds are raging/God’s aloft, the winds are cold.” Or, given the revenge theme running through the Season Five finale, you have Gary Brooker belting out “Still There’ll Be More,” a deliriously jubilant serenade of unending vengeance: “I’ll waylay your daughter and kidnap your wife/I’ll savage her sexless and burn out her eyes/…You’ll cry out for mercy. Still there’ll be more!”

Drawing the Line 

The underlying issue in the blogosphere debate about Game of Thrones is where do you draw the line? Or where or when should the producers draw it? In fact, the secret of cable’s success, HBO in particular, has been to ignore the line networks have had to live on the other side of from the inception of television all the way back to Hollywood and the reign of the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency. Explaining why compressing Martin’s massive work into a feature film was impossible, David Benioff says that besides being forced to discard “dozens of subplots and scores of characters,” such a film “would almost certainly need a PG-13 rating. That means no sex, no blood, no profanity.” To which he added: “[Profanity] that!”

Those who claim to be abandoning Game of Thrones because of the violence and sex should consider the ultimate dramatist. When did Shakespeare draw the line? Even if you dismiss the crazed, cannibalistic bloodbath of Titus Andronicus as a parody of Marlowe or the work of another hand, what about, for a start, the Macbeths, and Goneril and Regan in King Lear, and the ultimate protagonist Hamlet (“my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth”), who skewers his true love’s father and when asked where the old man is, says “At supper…Not where he eats but is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet.”

Heroes and Villains

While Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf Hamlet of Game of Thrones, pictured in the graphic above and memorably played by Peter Dinklage, might not be a match for the Dane verbally, he has Shakespearean dimensions, as do most of the major characters. Interviewed in Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones (Chronicle Books 2012), Dinklage speaks of the way the show “crosses genres” and finds the characters “as vibrant and real” as anything he’s come across in “more traditional great fiction.” Lena Headley, who plays his deadly, diabolical sister Cersei, finds that the characters “never stop moving, growing, changing. No one ever remains what you think they are.”

Audience Awareness

Referring to the show’s source, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, co-creator D.B. Weiss mentions always being “on the lookout for deep characters, a beautifully crafted and compelling story, passion, violence, intrigue, humanity, and all the ambiguities that come with a fully realized world … and you never find them all in the same place. Except we did. It was exhilarating and terrifying.”

Using terms like “exhilarating and terrifying,” Weiss already understands the dimensions of the challenge facing not merely the producers of the show but the audience. For one example, there’s the wedding night rape in Season Five that led Senator McCaskill, among others, to say “I’m done.” It’s important to mention that there’s an audience within the scene in the person of the man being forced to watch it; he and the victim were childhood friends. Well aware of the previous relationship, the husband says, “You’ve known her since she was a girl, now watch her become a woman.” The viewer doesn’t actually see the rape except as it’s reflected in the person standing helplessly by watching it. We know that he himself has been violated, and worse—beaten, tortured, emasculated, and dehumanized—by the perpetrator. We hear her cries but watching him watch, shaken, torn, sobbing, is where the rape is most vividly manifested. The act is as much a violation of the witness as it is of the victim. And there’s reason to believe that the scene was conceived with an awareness of what the audience to Game of Thrones has been going through. Remember those videos of horrified witnesses to the Red Wedding. They don’t want to see it, they hide their eyes, but they have to look.

Slapping Joffrey

For detestable characters, it’s hard to equal Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the horrific brat who steals the throne and orders the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the true hero of Season One. Thankfully, there’s a scene before Joffrey becomes king where his Uncle Tyrion gives him the slapping he more than deserves, a moment to be savored that has been posted on YouTube and extended to ten minutes by a viewer who appreciates Game of Throne’s rock and roll undercurrent. As Peter Dinklage unloads, again and again, the music playing is Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.”

SEWARD JOHNSON ON BROADWAY: Famed sculptor and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson will be in New York City’s Garment District today, Wednesday, June 24, to open an exhibition of of 18 of his most iconic and popular pieces, selected from Grounds for Sculpture’s “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective,” which was scheduled to close last September, but has proved to be so popular that it has been extended to July 1 of this year (www.groundsforsculpture.org). “Seward Johnson in New York, Selections From the Retrospective,” can be seen in Garment District plazas on Broadway, between 38th Street and 39th Street until September 15. (Image courtesy of Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc.)

SEWARD JOHNSON ON BROADWAY: Famed sculptor and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson will be in New York City’s Garment District today, Wednesday, June 24, to open an exhibition of of 18 of his most iconic and popular pieces, selected from Grounds for Sculpture’s “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective,” which was scheduled to close last September, but has proved to be so popular that it has been extended to July 1 of this year (www.groundsforsculpture.org). “Seward Johnson in New York, Selections From the Retrospective,” can be seen in Garment District plazas on Broadway, between 38th Street and 39th Street until September 15. (Image courtesy of Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc.)

If you’ve strolled down Broadway through New York City’s Garment District in recent months you will have observed some intriguing public art on display in the city streets. Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein’s colossal bird sculptures constructed out of maple saplings stopped pedestrians in their tracks between 36th and 41st streets.

The latest artwork to be unveiled there promises to do the same. Eighteen life-size sculptures by J. Seward Johnson will be on show on Broadway between 38th Street and 39th Street.

Mr. Johnson will open the exhibition, today, June 24, between 11 a.m. and noon, at a reception at which he is expected to reflect on a lifetime of creative achievement. The New Jersey artist has been paying homage to American society through realistic bronze sculptures for almost half a century.

The artwork on display has been selected from the retrospective of Mr. Johnson’s work at Grounds For Sculpture (GFS), the sculpture park and arboretum he founded on the site of the old New Jersey Fairgrounds in Hamilton.

Mr. Johnson led the team that transformed the once derelict site into a showcase for prominent and emerging artists. The park evolved as an offshoot of Mr. Johnson’s foundry, The Johnson Atelier.

The renowned sculptor and philanthropist has dedicated his career to public art. His life-like bronze and monumental figures are familiar sights throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. His best known works are lifelike sculptures in his “Celebrating the Familiar” series, which draws attention to the details of ordinary life: a nap on a park bench, a trip to the grocery story, the pleasure a child takes in an ice cream cone.

GFS opened its doors to the public in 1992 with works by Mr. Johnson and contributions from notable artists such as Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, George Segal, and Isaac Witkin. “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective” opened there in May of last year. Although it was scheduled to close last September, the show drew so many visitors that it was extended to July 1 of this year.

“There has been a remarkable response from both the media and the continuing flood of visitors to the park, local and international,” said Paula Stoeke, the exhibition’s guest curator. “This gathering of sculptures will never be seen all together again and I encourage everyone to plan a visit.”

The GFS exhibition sculptures chosen to spend their summer in the city include several of the artist’s signature “man on the street” bronzes. Princeton residents are familiar with such works. One of the artist’s first public pieces, The Newspaper Reader, was made for the municipality and sits outside Monument Hall. Another, Out to Lunch, is in Palmer Square. Both were created in the 1970s, when Mr. Johnson hoped to encourage people to “get back out-of-doors” at a time when a crime wave had them avoiding public spaces. “I wanted to put sculptures into parks to act like decoys and entice people back to parks,” he explained in a 2012 Princeton Magazine interview.

In addition, tourists and New Yorkers alike will be able to enjoy one of Mr. Johnson’s most charismatic trompe l’oeil painted bronzes, a three-dimensional version of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York’s Times Square on VJ-Day at the end of World War II. Perhaps his most famous work, Unconditional Surrender, has been displayed in Times Square, San Diego, Sarasota, and Rome.

Incidentally, owners of the copyright to the image, made famous by LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, refused Johnson permission to use it, so Johnson based his work on a slightly different photograph of the kissing couple taken by another photographer and in the public domain.

Among the iconic pieces on show in the Garment District is his Forever Marilyn, a three dimensional version of a photograph of the star with her white skirt billowing around her legs from the updraft of an air vent from the New York subway; a scene from the movie, The Seven Year Itch.

Also on view on Broadway will be some of Mr. Johnson’s well-known 3-dimensional life-scale tableaux of paintings by the French Impressionists. Visitors to GFS are fond of inserting themselves into his take on Renoir’s The Boating Party, titled Were You Invited, from his “Beyond the Frame” series. The park also boasts the artist’s rendition of Claude Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Addresse and Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. 

The general popularity of these works stands in marked contrast to the reception that met Mr. Johnson’s first major show at the Corcoran Gallery. “Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited,” was panned by critics, one of whom likened the feeling it gave him to that of riding a Ferris Wheel after eating a sardine milkshake.

The artist relishes the memory of that response and credits the critic for doing him an enormous favor. “People flocked to the show to see what all the fuss was about,” he once said.

At 85, Mr. Johnson has more than 450 life-size cast bronze works featured in city parks and museums worldwide including in London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Kiev, Sydney, and Osaka. Often hailed as “America’s most popular sculptor;” he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2013.

The retrospective at Grounds for Sculpture includes works indoors and out. One of the most monumental pieces is The Awakening, a 70-foot long giant emerging from the earth whose 17-foot arm extends dramatically into the sky. For this and other works such as his interactive rendition of Mona Lisa called A Reason to Smile, and Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring á la Johnson titled The Nature of Obsession, you will have to visit Grounds for Sculpture before the show ends on July 1. For more information, visit www.groundsforsculpture.org.

“Seward Johnson in New York, Selections From the Retrospective” at Garment District plazas on Broadway, between 38th Street and 39th Street, will run until September 15.

 

TREACHEROUS SEAS—Ceyx (Ross Baron) stands tall on deck, sailing far from home, as his wife Alcyone suffers alone waiting for him, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998),  based on Ovid’s tales of Greek myths, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 28.

TREACHEROUS SEAS—Ceyx (Ross Baron) stands tall on deck, sailing far from home, as his wife Alcyone suffers alone waiting for him, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998), based on Ovid’s tales of Greek myths, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 28.

Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s 1998 theatrical updating of Ovid’s 8 AD fifteen-volume poetic masterpiece based on Greek myths, is, as the title indicates, all about changes. The ten tales featured in Ms. Zimmerman’s 75-minute narrative drama, opening the Princeton Summer Theater season at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, range widely from the most familiar (King Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice) to the most obscure (Erysichthon, Myrrha) and from comical to deeply somber. Often it is death that brings about the transformations here.

The transformations are sometimes literal, as characters turn into gold, into birds, into flowers and trees or literally dissolve into tears, but also psychological, as characters learn how to love, how to forgive, how to live through the pain and suffering to experience a catharsis, a purging of emotions. The play is also about the transforming power of story-telling and theater, as characters and audience find meaning, understanding and redemption in the telling and performing, the hearing and seeing of these stories.

The staging, as Ms. Zimmerman points out in her notes to the script, should “provide images that amplify the text, lend it poetic resonance, or, even, sometimes contradict it.” The myths from Ancient Greece are rich in the textures of life and psychology, timeless in the human passions, joys and sorrows that they evoke.  The challenge here is to communicate this richness to contemporary theater audiences.

This Princeton Summer Theater ensemble, under the direction of Maeli Goren, is abundantly creative, imaginative and talented, and they do succeed—albeit unevenly—in finding visual metaphors for the ideas and emotions embedded in these powerful stories and bringing this text to life. Made up this year mostly of recent Princeton University graduates, the PST Company of three men and three women, shows extraordinary energy and flexibility in taking on numerous different roles, shifting rapidly from scene to scene, and collaborating seamlessly as a unit.

Each actor assists in telling the stories and must also convincingly embody many different characters. The evening is replete with humor and emotion. Memorable characters come to life, and unforgettably moving moments—King Midas with his daughter who has turned to gold, the beautiful reunion and transformation of Alcyone and Ceyx into seabirds, the moment of Eurydice’s final farewell and return to the Underworld, the shocking realization and confrontation between incestuous father Cinyras and daughter Myrrha, a cocky, brash, contemporary Phaeton out of control behind the wheel of his father Apollo’s sun chariot, and the eternally loving (“Let me die the moment my love dies”) Baucis and Philemon transforming into trees with branches intertwined—leave no doubt about why these myths have survived,  stirring human hearts and souls for thousands of years. Some of the staging here, however, (Narcissus, Pomona and Vertumnus, Eros and Psyche) is less clear and effective.

Beginning with her colorful retelling of The Odyssey in 2000, Mary Zimmerman has brought several plays to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, including also The Secret in the Wings, Argonautika and The White Snake, all featuring captivating storytelling and dynamically visual, inventive staging, Winner of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, aptly called “the genius grant,” Ms. Zimmerman is as renowned for her directing as for her playwriting. Her magic touch would be helpful here.

All these plays rely heavily on the versatility and imagination of actors, director and designers, with minimal set, props and costuming, but this PST production is at times too minimalistic to deliver these stories in their full power and clarity. Audiences, even those well versed in Greek mythology, will have some difficulty following two or three of these tales.  Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set and props include ingenious use of several bedsheets hoisted and lowered, six colorful chairs employed for numerous purposes, seven multi-purpose hula hoops, a collection of buckets with an ocean-blue floor and sky-blue backdrop, admirably complemented by Alex Mannix’s dramatic and nuanced lighting design, Steven Tran’s indispensable musical composition and piano playing, and Keating Helfrich’s all-white costume design.

But a bit more color and a few more props and costume pieces would help greatly in activating the audience’s imagination and clarifying, enlivening these characters, situations and stories. How about an actual plant to help illustrate Narcissus’ transformation from self-absorbed young man to flower? And for Vertumnus, whose courting of Pomona is all about disguises, how about a couple of costume pieces, maybe a wig and hat, to help the actor to embody this contrast between his disguised and real selves?

In her director’s notes in the program, Ms. Goren describes how in staging the action of the play her collaborative company has departed from the traditional large pond on stage and “decided to ditch the pool in favor of a grown-up surrealist playground that shifts and changes along with the stories we present.” This is a smart, creative director with a highly talented ensemble of actors and a first-rate professional crew, all making the most of the Hamilton Murray performance space. But we do miss the pond, which brilliantly would highlight so many details and themes of these stories, and was such a strikingly memorable feature of the original production at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 1998, then in New York, eventually, where I first saw it in 2002, at Circle in the Square on Broadway.

The six actors provide a model of collaborative, ensemble performance, making it impossible to single out individual stars here. Ross Baron is a tall, strong, manly husband and sea captain as Ceyx, and certainly impressive in a range of roles from Myrrha’s father to the immature teenage dude Phaeton. Evan Thompson creates an affecting King Midas, who learns his lesson; a sympathetic Orpheus, with some fine fiddle playing; and an array of humorous supporting characters. Brad Wilson, from Bacchus to Hermes to Eros and Vertumnus, proves highly resourceful, adaptable and consistently engaging.

Maeve Brady, as Midas’s daughter, Eurydice, Psyche, and other narrative and character roles, is convincing, focused and appealing. Caroline Hertz is powerfully affecting as Alcyone, Myrrha and others.  And Bits Sola bravely overcomes crutches and bandaged foot to skillfully portray Pomona, Baucis, Phaeton’s therapist and numerous different narrators.

In her final commentary on the fatal Phaeton episode, the therapist reflects on the meaning of it all: “It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions.”

Dreams public and private come dramatically to life here in this Princeton Summer Theater opening production.  It’s important to consider the enigmatic, irrational and ambiguous in life as well as the rational and easily understood.   And remember, “love conquers all, so don’t scorn Aphrodite.”

Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998) will run at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for just one more weekend, Thursday through Sunday, June 25-28, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.  Call (732) 997-0205 or visit princetonsummertheater.org for tickets and further information.

One of the benefits of staying around Princeton in the summer is taking advantage of the Princeton University Summer Concerts series, which presents free chamber music performances in Richardson Auditorium.  This summer’s offerings include two string quartets, the first of which was featured this past Thursday night.  The Aeolus Quartet, currently Graduate Resident String Quartet at The Juilliard School, mesmerized a nearly full house at Richardson Auditorium with a concert of masterworks from the string quartet repertory. Violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson thoroughly entertained the audience with music of Fran Joseph Haydn, Bèla Bartûk and Antonín Dvorák, each introduced by informative remarks by a different member of the ensemble.

The Aeolus Quartet, named for the ancient Greek god of the four winds, was youthful, energetic and clearly interested in engaging with the audience. Opening with Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 71, No. 2, the Aeolus Quartet brought this work of the 18th century into the modern age, not only with musical exuberance and spirit, but also by the fact that at least two of the musicians of the Aeolus Quartet were playing from electronic devices, rather than printed scores. Haydn’s Quartet was full of Viennese gentility, with long melodic lines from the violins and clean underpinning from cellist Mr. Richardson.

In choosing its name, the members of the Aeolus Quartet sought to convey the idea of “a single spirit uniting four individual forces,” and each member of the Aeolus showed an individual musical personality. Concertmaster Nicholas Tavani was an earnest and sincere player, exhibiting clean fast fingering in Haydn’s “Allegro” passages. Second violinist Rachel Shapiro seemed to be always playing with a touch of a smile, while violist Mr. Luce and Mr. Richardson filled out the elegance and rolling accompaniments of Haydn’s music well.

Bartûk composed his final string quartet, String Quartet No. 6, in the fall of 1939, on the brink of World War II.  Bartûk built this quartet around a “Mesto,” a slow melody played “sadly,” which introduced each movement. Mr. Luce was very busy in this Quartet, introducing the melodic material and leading the rest of the players in unified intensity. The endings of each movement were particularly well executed, tapering away with unified bowings and dynamics which seemed to dissipate into the air above the audience.  Mr. Richardson led the jagged second movement “Marcia” with the “Mesto” melody played by the ensemble in controlled unsettledness, no doubt reflecting the times in which the piece was composed.

The Aeolus Quartet took a step back chronologically but further into Americana with the closing work on the concertó Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96. Composed during the composer’s time in the United States, this work resonated with 19th century pioneering and wide open spaces. Beginning with a broad melody from violist Mr. Luce, the first movement unfolded with a “prairie” feel to the texture and a wide range of dynamics from the players. Concertmaster Mr. Tavani gracefully introduced a gypsy-like melody in the second movement, mournfully answered by Ms. Shapiro on second violin and accompanied by rich playing through all registers by cellist Mr. Richardson. Sections of this work had a hoe-down feeling as the players brought out the fresh and open character of the music. An encore of a Beethoven “Cavatina” reminded the audience of the Aeolus Quartet’s proficiency in grace and elegant playing.

I’VE GOT JOY, JOY, JOY, JOY -  DOWN IN MY HEART: Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias, not shown) conjures up five figures that represent her emotions that are struggling to control her adjustment to being suddenly uprooted from her home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents. Joy (Amy Poehler), shown here, is constantly having a dialogue with the other four emotion avatars Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust to help Riley adjust to her new life on the west coast.(© 2015-Disney/Pixar)

I’VE GOT JOY, JOY, JOY, JOY – DOWN IN MY HEART: Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias, not shown) conjures up five figures that represent her emotions that are struggling to control her adjustment to being suddenly uprooted from her home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents. Joy (Amy Poehler), shown here, is constantly having a dialogue with the other four emotion avatars Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust to help Riley adjust to her new life on the west coast. (© 2015-Disney/Pixar)

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) was distraught when her mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) suddenly told her that the family was relocating from Minnesota to San Francisco. After all, she was leaving behind her home, her hockey team, and all her friends.

So, it’s no surprise that the uprooted 11-year-old feels lonely after moving to the Bay Area. And, as a consequence she does a lot of soul searching as she attempts to sort out her emotions — literally and figuratively.

With her active imagination, her feelings aren’t merely metaphysical experiences, but five actual little entities that live inside her brain. This anthropomorphic quintet, named Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), are constantly contending for control of Riley’s moods as she struggles to adjust to her new house, city, and school.

That internal conflict is the subject of Inside Out, the best animated film from Pixar since the balloon adventure film Up (2009). Don’t allow the premise about a melancholy child who’s having emotional problems adjusting to her new surroundings keep you from seeing this movie, because the material is handled delicately enough to be appropriate for a child of any age.

The picture is a touching tale that shows how a dramatic change in somebody’s life might temporarily affect a person’s psyche.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action and mature themes. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: Pixar Animation/Walt Disney Studios.

June 17, 2015

book revToday is Igor Stravinsky’s 134th birthday. The facts say that he died in 1971 but here he is on YouTube in a shipboard afterlife. While everyone else is assembling for a lifeboat drill, Stravinsky remains at his table with his drink, as if the deck were a sidewalk cafe. “I never am sea sick,” he leans over to tell us, tête-à-tête. “Never.” Leaning closer with a smile, almost singing the words, he says, Russian to the core, “I am sea drunk. Quite different.” With that, he toasts our good health. Where or when, which ship or which ocean, dead or alive, does it matter? We’ve been toasted by the maestro.

In Paul Horgan’s Encounters With Stravinsky: A Personal Record (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1972), the composer of orchestral dynamite in the form of Le Sacre du printemps (hereafter The Rite of Spring) denounces snobbery as “snobism oblige” and expresses his undying love for Chivas Regal: “My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Strawhiskey.”

What can you say? It’s a silly pun, beneath his dignity, but he could care less, he whose music savaged dignity and incited concertgoers to riot a little over a hundred years ago at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. So let’s take it in the spirit of the man, give it a shrug and a smile and move on. Otherwise, he’ll tell us “Thank you very much, go to hell,” his stock response to “opinions which seek to influence, discredit, or even for the wrong reasons, to praise.”

In the Vernacular

“First I heard The Firebird Suite,” Charlie Parker told Nat Hentoff in 1953. “In the vernacular of the streets, I flipped.” According to Howard McGhee, who plays trumpet on Parker’s Dial sessions of 1945, “Bird hipped me to, like, Stravinsky …. So, like The Rite of Spring, he brought it over to the house and let me hear it. And I said, “yeah, this cat … knows what he’s doing.’ I mean Stravinsky was a hip dude, you know, as far as writing music was concerned. He had this thing down.”

Jazz and Stravinsky have always had a relationship, but in the wake of Friday morning’s news of the death of Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), it’s impossible to mention this giant of 20th century music without reference to the loss of the man, who as the Times obit has it, “rewrote the language of jazz.”

A common language can be heard in the way the sinuously haunting phrase that begins The Rite surfaces in an exhilarating cycle of variations in “Sleep Talkin” on Coleman’s appropriately titled 2006 album Sound Grammar. You can also hear hints of Stravinsky in “Lonely Woman,” the anthemic opening track on Ornette’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

When I lived briefly at the Albert Hotel in my first year on my own in New York, I heard someone practicing scales in a room on the same floor. Asked about the saxophonist down the hall, the night clerk said, “It’s some musician named Coleman.” It took awhile for it to sink in that the guy on my floor was the wild man from Texas shaking the jazz world and being treated no less abusively (“tone-deaf,” “out of tune,” “a charlatan”) than Stravinsky had been (“a Parisian freak,” a “hoax”). Later that year I stood mesmerized in the presence of the man himself at the Five Spot listening to something piercingly new that didn’t ask you to like it or even to bear with the urgency of a sound that could be translated into Stravinsky speech, “Thank you very much, go to hell.”

A Marvelous Scandal

Paul Horgan’s encounter with Stravinsky began in 1920 when Horgan was a 17-year-old student at a military academy in Roswell, New Mexico, where an enlightened teacher who had never actually heard The Rite of Spring said that from what he’d read about it, “violent dissonances together with rhythms previously unheard in serious music, and described by everyone as primitive, even barbaric, were what had set off the work’s career in a marvelous scandal” in Paris in May 1913.

The account of the event Horgan quotes from at length is by Carl Van Vechten (also born on June 17), who described the battle between those “swept away with wrath” by “a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art” and those who “bellowed defiance” and “felt that the principles of free speech were at stake.” Such was “the potent force of the music” that the man sitting behind Van Vechten began beating rhythmically on the top of his head with his fists. “My emotion was so great,” Van Vechten admits, “that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music.”

Alone in the House

I read about the Paris riot in the liner notes of the Leonard Bernstein /New York Philharmonic recording I acquired as a member of the Columbia Record Club (a 17th-birthday present). Although the notes said something about the Paris riot, Nijinsky and Diaghilev, and the Russian folk tradition behind the ballet, nothing prepared me for what happened when I put the record on the turntable. Soon I knew I was not going to be able to listen to the music sitting down. Since I was still living with my parents at the time, I made sure I was alone in the house, drew the shades, put the cat out, and locked the front door, like Dr. Jekyll securing the lab before quaffing the formula that would transform him into Mr. Hyde. So overwhelming was the convergence of rhythms and clashing motifs and pagan fanfares, there was no room for anything but the storm of sound. If Van Vechten had been sitting in front of me, I’d have been dancing on top of him. At some point I seemed to be engaged in a spasmodic parody of conducting as I waved my arms and jumped around, in the grip of blind, helpless, hapless, idiot excitement. When it was over, I collapsed, out of breath, not knowing at the time, just as well, that the ballet ends with a dance to the death by the sacrificial maiden.

It’s odd to realize that I never equated the power and glory of Stravinsky’s Rite with my passion for Russian literature, which eventually led to a minor in Slavic Studies. After absorbing three different performances of The Rite (conducted by Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Michael Tilson Thomas), it’s possible to imagine the music scoring everything from Raskolnikov’s fevers in Crime and Punishment to the Siege of Moscow in War and Peace. Late one night I indulged in a fantasy of an orchestra composed of musicians resembling Dostoevsky’s clerks and drunkards and angelic prostitutes playing side by side with peasants and aristocrats out of Tolstoy, all conducted by who else but Chekhov, the steady hand, balanced and brilliant to the last note.

Remembering John Fischer

Having been submerged for days in Stravinsky, I came to the surface Sunday wondering what sort of music would be chosen for a memorial service at the University Chapel for our friend and neighbor John Fischer, who died on May 15. No surprise, there was Bach, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a singing of “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and “Amazing Grace,” a lovely but not unusual choice. The surprise was “Lord of the Dance,” a hymn by Sydney Carter. After a morning listening obsessively to The Rite of Spring, music written, after all, for dancers, how remarkable to be singing a hymn with a jaunty beat and a joyous chorus (“Dance, dance, wherever you may be”), a hymn in which we seemed to be singing along with Jesus (“I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth/At Bethlehem I had my birth”). Most hymns are like stately pageants. Here, in the austere, spacious, stained-glass wonder of the chapel we were singing lines like “I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun” to a catchy, folky melody that I recognized from many hours listening to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring around the time I was dancing myself dizzy to Stravinsky.

The Postlude for John’s service was “Sheep May Safely Graze” from Bach’s Cantata 208, music to melt a heart of stone, the same music on the tape I played again and again for my father when he was dying.

Books and Love

Later at the Arts Council, where friends and family remembered and celebrated John Fischer, a fellow scholar read Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poem John’s wife Panthea had been reading to him as he died. Best known for his writings on the poetry of Jonathan Swift, John once observed, in the context of Swift’s long poem “Cadenus and Vanessa,” that “a relationship that mingles love and books is possible and joyous.” He dedicated that essay, “itself about books and love,” to Panthea.

There is a line in the movie Amadeus, spoken by the Austrian Emperor, that the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has “too many notes.” One could easily apply this comment to Mozart’s 1786 opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro); with four acts filled with recitative and arias, Figaro is one of the most multi-layered operas in the repertory. Princeton Festival presented this operatic powerhouse this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Centre, leaving the audience wanting more of those “too many notes.”

Le Nozze di Figaro was revolutionary in its time for a variety of reasons. Operas up to the mid-18th century had focused primarily on safe heroic subjects, and in many cases were vehicles for singers to show off their virtuosic abilities. For Figaro, Mozart took on the controversial Beaumarchais play of the same name, which dismantled well-established class lines to create a comedic drama between servants and the aristocracy. Figaro was musically revolutionary in its emphasis on the ensemble, rather than the solo singers, and in its continuous forward movement with the music. Having a number of “hit” tunes in its score also did not hurt in achieving world-wide popularity.

Princeton Festival selected Figaro as its main stage opera for the month-long festival, with opening night last Saturday night at McCarter Theatre Centre’s Matthews Theatre. Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a cast with solid national and international credits, and all had the complex and intricate opera well in hand.

The music of Mozart is deceptive. The lyrical melodies and rolling accompaniments look easy on the page, but the expressiveness and musical grace required are not for all singers. One singer in the Princeton Festival production who consistently aimed for Mozartean elegance and style was soprano Haeran Hong, who sang the role of Susanna. Ms. Hong was a sparkling voice from the outset, perfectly in time with the orchestra and even through the vocal registers. Her ariatic high point, and perhaps that of the entire opera, was her Act IV aria “Deh vieni, non tardar,” cleanly sung with refinement and plenty of time with the long lines.

Ms. Hong’s voice was particularly well suited to sing with soprano Katherine Whyte as the Countess, and their “Letter Duet” was full of Viennese sweetness. Ms. Whyte, although an edgier voice and character than other “Countesses,” brought out particular drama in her Act III aria “Dove sono,” and found a great deal of expressiveness in “Porgi amor,” which opens the second act.

The male counterparts to these two strong women were equally in control of their roles. Baritone Jonathan Lasch sang the role of Figaro with resonance and wit, especially in the Act I aria “Se vuol ballare,” and his vocal soliloquy in Act IV, warning the audience against the underhandedness of women was very appealing. Baritone Sean Anderson was imposing from the start as the Count, physically towering over other characters and convincingly making his point with commanding drama.

Pants roles were common in 18th-century operas, initially sung by castrati and later sung by women. The role of the page Cherubino was one of these roles, sung in this production by mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco. Ms. Velasco easily captured the adolescent yearning of the part, singing with quick and light coloratura, especially in the Act I aria “Non so più cosa son,” accompanied by light winds. The role of the gardener’s daughter Barbarina is small, but soprano Jessica Beebe sang it effectively as a saucy spitfire sashaying her way to accomplish her devious agendas. The Princeton Festival cast was filled out by solid singers, including Kathryn Krasovec as Marcellina, Ricardo Lugo as Bartolo, David Kellett as Don Basilio, Paul An as Antonio, and Vincent DiPeri as Don Curzio. A chorus well-trained by Robin Freeman added to the crispness of the ensemble scenes.

Figaro is a very long opera, and its length may have led to some of the breakneck tempi taken by Dr. Tang Yuk and the precise orchestra he had assembled, especially in the recitative sections. Recitative musically replicates spoken dialog, but the speed at which the recitatives were taken in Saturday’s production made it difficult to understand the conversational style. However as the opera went along, its innate lyricism emerged. The music was well enhanced by Peter Dean Beck’s set design and Norman Coates’s lighting design, and director Stephen LaCosse made excellent use of the stage with the singers. Despite Figaro’s length, the audience at Matthews Theatre was engaged until the last note, confirming that one cannot really argue with the music of Mozart.

HEY, THIS PLACE IS REALLY NEAT!: Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson, left) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are enjoying their ride around the dinosaur theme park in a “geo-sphere” made of bullet proof glass surrounded by harmless dinosuars until they encounter the hybrid dinosaur that was created by the park’s scientists. The monster dinosaur goes out of control and starts attacking everyone in sight, causing mayhem in the park.(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick-© 2015, Universal Pictures)

HEY, THIS PLACE IS REALLY NEAT!: Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson, left) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are enjoying their ride around the dinosaur theme park in a “geo-sphere” made of bullet proof glass surrounded by harmless dinosuars until they encounter the hybrid dinosaur that was created by the park’s scientists. The monster dinosaur goes out of control and starts attacking everyone in sight, causing mayhem in the park. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick-© 2015, Universal Pictures)

How do you revive an expiring film series that fell out of favor 12 years ago after audiences became jaded with visual effects that they no longer found spellbinding? In the case of Jurassic World, the writers created a sequel that is laced with allusions to earlier episodes and that even point out how dinosaurs don’t capture people’s imaginations to the degree that they once used to.

This is the fourth film in the science fiction series that is based on novels by the late Michael Crichton. Jurassics 1 and 2 were directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Crichton’s bestsellers (Jurassic Park and The Lost World). Jurassic 4’s creative team includes director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) and four writers who wrote a screenplay that remains faithful to the feeling of the source material.

The story is about two siblings — Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) — whose Christmas vacation goes bad off the coast of Costa Rica. As the film unfolds, the pair bid their parents a fond farewell, but not before their prophetic mother (Judy Greer) gives them an ominous piece of parental advice — “Remember, if something chases you, run!”

They are going to Isla Nublar, the same tropical resort where, in Jurassic 1, raptors ran amok during the christening of a dinosaur populated amusement park. The place has been renamed “Jurassic World” and is set to reopen under a greedy and inept management team.

Karen Mitchell isn’t all that worried about her sons’ welfare since she is sure that they’ll be under the watchful eye of her sister (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is the theme park’s operations manager. However, upon their arrival, instead of spending time with her nephews — whom she hasn’t seen in seven years — Claire issues them a VIP all-access pass and tells them to have a good time.

They roam around the park in a gyro-sphere made of bulletproof glass and run into the escaped Indominus Rex, a prehistoric hybrid dinosaur that was bred in a test tube. Unfortunately, no one in a position of authority — that is (BD Wong), who created the hybrid; the war profiteer (Vincent D’Onofrio), who has secret plans to sell it to the military; and Jurassic World’s owner (Irrfan Khan) — wants to destroy the creature until it finally goes on a rampage and starts attacking the park’s visitors.

As a result, thousands of tourists run for their lives, and Aunt Claire searches for her nephews with the help of her boyfriend (Chris Pratt). Overall, the movie is a riveting roller coaster ride with eye-popping effects and a satisfying resolution.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for peril and intense violence. Running time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

June 10, 2015

book revSaul Bellow, who was born 100 years ago today in a suburb of Montreal, began his breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March in Paris in 1948 and finished it four years later in Princeton, in an office at Firestone Library.

Besides winning the National Book Award, Augie March has been named by Time and the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels in the English language. Writing in 1995, Martin Amis declares it “The Great American Novel” and Salman Rushdie seems to agree (“If there’s a candidate … this is it”). In the context of the GAM, Christopher Hitchens compares Augie March to The Great Gatsby, another perennial candidate, observing that its great advantage “lies in its scope and its optimism” as “the first time in American literature that an immigrant would act and think like a rightful Discoverer, or a pioneer.”

On those terms, Bellow’s personal history as an infant illegally smuggled over the border from Canada clearly qualifies him. He stakes his claim in one of the great American opening sentences, a legend in itself:

“I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

No Turning Back

I’ve gone at Augie March numerous times over the years in one edition or another, including the Popular Library Giant with the sexy cover (“Ribald  … Vital … Virile”), but I never got much beyond that powerful opening paragraph; first to knock, first admitted, and each time I turn back. Why? I suppose it’s a combination of too much prose and too little plot. Even now, I might not have completed this 536-page expedition but for my determination to meet the 100th birthday deadline.

Big, complicated, densely written novels like Augie March offer a challenge comparable to a long trek in the mountains, with the goal of a literary Shangri-La shining somewhere on the other side of a No Man’s Land of devious challenges, the prose equivalent of deadly crevasses and threadbare rope-bridges that may scare you into turning back. And even if you slog it out and get there you may not last, if, say, things begin to go south after the golden arrival, the glow fades with a spell of lousy weather, a Himalayan air-inversion, the potential for a plague or an avalanche, until you panic and take the first helicopter out, only to find that right after you left an unheralded, unimaginable event cast everyone and everything in Shakespearean radiance, making poetry of the air and opening all the closed doors of the mystic city for the first time in a century.

With Augie March — and the word “adventure” in the title is more than a picaresque convention, it’s what happens to you the reader — the experience is a lot more subtle than that high-altitude analogy. Around about page 420, after a long sequence in Mexico vicariously training an eagle and losing a lover, you may make the mistake of thinking that Bellow is folding up his tent, winding things down, ready to cruise through the last 100 pages toward the dreaded Curse of the Denouement. Far from it — a torpedo blows your doubts at the moon as the curtain rises on a mad and masterful scene wherein two Chicagoans adrift in a lifeboat have an endgame conversation somewhere to the far side of Strindberg, Beckett, and Mary Shelley — “You didn’t create life!” “In all humility, that’s exactly what I did. Six universities have thrown me out for claiming it.”

A Sea of Prose

In his New Yorker review of Zachary Leader’s new biography The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune (Knopf), Louis Menand suggests that the first 200 pages of Augie March contain “the best writing Bellow ever did,” which is to say “the best prose” since a quick random count suggests that only around 40 of those first 200 pages appear to contain dialogue.

Writing in Advertisements for Myself (1958), Norman Mailer states the obvious when he calls Bellow’s style “self-willed and unnatural.” It’s easy enough to find examples of what Mailer’s talking about, like: “Before vice and shortcoming, admitted in the weariness of maturity, common enough and boring to make an extended showing of, there are, or are supposed to be, silken, unconscious, nature-painted times, like the pastoral of Sicilian shepherd lovers, or lions you can chase away with stones and golden snakes who scatter from their knots into the fissures of Eryx.”

As it turns out, the long paragraph in Chapter Six containing that passage is a journey worth taking, in spite of the borderline self-parody, you go from Eden and shepherd-Sicily to “deep city vexation” and studying Greek in Bogotá to temples, pool rooms, “musical milk-dreaming innocence,” fiddle lessons, and Robinson Crusoe. On top of that, Bellow’s “unnatural” prose seems to have driven Mailer off the rails into tortured equivalents (Bellow’s “narrative disproportions are elephantiastical in their anomaly”) and nonsensical declarations (“I do not think he knows anything about people or himself”)
culminating in a dismissal of Augie March “at its worst” as “a travelogue for timid intellectuals.”

A Bloody Genius

In Princeton, where his friendship with John Berryman seems to have coincided with the composing of the extraordinary lifeboat chapter, Bellow gave the poet the finished manuscript, and according to Berryman’s wife Eileen Simpson in Poets in Their Youth, Berryman spent a weekend “immobile for hours except to light a cigarette while he trained his intelligence on The Adventures of Augie March, giving it the kind of reading every writer dreams of having.” When Berryman finished, he announced “Bellow is it!” and went off to tell the author that he was “a bloody genius.”

Removing Restraints

“My earlier books had been straight and respectable,” Bellow said in a 1991 interview. “But in Augie March I wanted to invent a new sort of American sentence. Something like a fusion of colloquialism and elegance.” In the Winter 1966 Paris Review (Art of Fiction No. 37), Bellow admitted being afraid to let himself go in The Dangling Man and The Victim. “I was timid. I still felt the incredible effrontery of announcing myself to the world (in part I mean the WASP world) as a writer and an artist. I had to touch a great many bases, demonstrate my abilities, pay my respects to formal requirements …. When I began to write Augie March. I took off many of these restraints.” In 1991, he mentioned “reckless spontaneity” as he “began to write in all places, in all postures, at all times of day and night. It rushed out of me. I was turned on like a hydrant in summer. The simile is not entirely satisfactory. Hydrants are not sexually excited. I was wildly excited.”

Celebrating Mimi

You don’t have to read far in the reviews of Leader’s biography to learn that Augie and his creator have in common a compelling weakness for women. For all that might be said on the lofty theme of immigrants, discoverers, and pioneers, the point where I bonded with the novel is when Augie goes all out, against odds, to help a female friend through a botched abortion that might have proved fatal had he not been there for her. The most appealing of all the memorable women in Augie March, Mimi is a feisty waitress in a student hash house who had been expelled from the University of Chicago “for going beyond the bounds of necking,” which became “a favorite subject for her ferocious humor.” The beauty of her relationship with Augie is that being platonic, it’s free of “formal requirements,” developing outside the norm (everyone thinks they’re lovers anyway since they share rooms in the same boarding house); at the same time their life-or-death intimacy during the crisis has a sexual tension, so passionately does Augie give himself to the cause of her salvation.

More than any other character, “hard and spirited” Mimi, “editing her words for no one,” expresses the conceptual passion in which Bellow discovered and composed the book, the letting go, the freedom from restraint, she who “led a proclaimed life, and once she got talking … held back nothing,” with her “tough beauty,” her “large mouth, speaking for a soul of wild appetite, nothing barred; she’d say anything, and had no idea what could hinder her.” The sense of excitement and excess are in her “long and narrow hips,” her large bust, and “high heels that gave a tight arch of impatience to the muscles of her calves; her step was small and pretty and her laughter violent, total, and critical.” When she slams down the phone on the man who got her pregnant “it was as a musician might shut the piano after he had finished storming chords of mightiest difficulty without a single flinch or error.”

No wonder the novel rips itself open to make room for Mimi’s crisis, Chapter 12 sprawling for almost 50 pages while previous chapters, at their longest, rarely go beyond 20. Saving Mimi, Augie follows the courage of his heart and Bellow’s art, that “reckless spontaneity,” as he sacrifices his chance to marry into a wealthy family by breaking a New Year’s Eve date with his fiance, the heiress, to take care of this hash house waitress with “her round face of tough happiness.”

A Long Time Coming

It’s time to admit that I have a tough, intelligent, “hard and spirited” Chicago woman to thank for giving me this long overdue reading assignment. In an email exchange with an old friend who has lived most of his life in Chicago and recently began rereading Augie March, I reminded him that it was his mother’s favorite book, she who one day looked a certain high school senior sternly in the eye and told him to read The Adventures of Augie March. Now, a senior again, long out of high school, he’s finally done it and wishes he could call her up and talk about her favorite book.

———

By the way, Bellow’s was not the only famous Chicago novel to have been finished in Princeton. About 50 years earlier, out on Province Line Road, Upton Sinclair was writing The Jungle. 

CUBAN LIVES: Alina Bliach’s photograph of Ardelio is one of 45 portraits of Cuban immigrants from the past 50 years on display at the Mercer County Community College Gallery from June 13 through June 24. An opening reception with Ms. Bliach, a 2006 alumna of the MCCC Photography program, will be held Saturday, June 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

CUBAN LIVES: Alina Bliach’s photograph of Ardelio is one of 45 portraits of Cuban immigrants from the past 50 years on display at the Mercer County Community College Gallery from June 13 through June 24. An opening reception with Ms. Bliach, a 2006 alumna of the MCCC Photography program, will be held Saturday, June 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

A special photography exhibition featuring Mercer County Community College (MCCC) alumna Alina Bliach (’06) opens with a reception in the Gallery at MCCC on Saturday, June 13, from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibition will continue through June 24.

“A Voyage of Many,” includes images and stories of 45 Cuban immigrants over the past half century in their new American homeland. Each photograph is accompanied by a printed excerpt from interviews Bliach conducted. The photos and narratives tell stories of forced exile, escape, loss, hope, and triumph.

Ms. Bliach notes that many of those who came to the United States in the 1960s are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and most of their stories remain unrecorded. “Since the 1960s more than one million Cubans have immigrated to the United States — the children of the Peter Pan flights, the people of Camarioca, the Freedom Flights, the Mariel Boatlift, the people known as the Balceros, and the Immigration Visa Lottery winners …. Their’s are the stories of sacrifice, perseverance, and survival in their ultimate quest for freedom. These are their portraits,” she said.

Ms. Bliach’s portraits are rich in detail that connects their subjects to their Cuban heritage. “Forced to leave their homeland, their love for family, art, religion, and music is often apparent throughout their homes. Photographs of loved ones, brightly colored art and religious relics are proudly displayed …. More than decorations, these objects reveal the deep relationship between these immigrants’ cultural background and the new lives they built for themselves in America,” she said.

The photographer’s work has won numerous awards and honors: as a finalist in Best of Photography 2013; First and Second Prize honors in the Pollux Awards; Merit Awards in the Professional Photographers of America International competitions; PPA Loan Collection honor; Hasselblad Photographer of the Month; and several International Photography Honorable Mentions. Her work has been exhibited at the Borges Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina; The Room in SoHo, N.Y.; Arts Council of Princeton in Princeton; Grounds for Sculpture; Phillips Mill in New Hope, Pa.; Artworks in Trenton; and Art Along the Fence in Hoboken.

The MCCC Gallery is located on the second floor of the Communications Building on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Gallery hours for “A Voyage of Many,” are Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, June 20, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

———

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) wrapped up its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a very full concert at Richardson Auditorium. Presenting three of the ensembles within the GPYO organization, the concert both showcased the graduating senior musicians and demonstrated ensemble musical expertise.

This past year, GPYO added a choral performance element to its activities with the GPYO Choir, for singers grades seven through twelve. Conducted by Jennifer Sengin, director of choirs at East Brunswick High School, the small but very effective vocal ensemble demonstrated good tuning and choral technique in their six selections.

Ms. Sengin is known for her knowledge of diverse and multicultural music, and the six pieces she selected for the GPYO Choir began with a Zambian arrangement and ended with a bit of Broadway. Ms. Sengin taught movement to the 14 members of the choir to go with Andrew Fischer’s celebratory arrangement of Bonsa Aba. Accompanied by drum, the GPYO Choir sang with a clean blend among all the voices. In the second selection, Z. Randall Stroope’s flowing setting of Omnia Sol, the alto section of the women’s parts was particularly strong, topped by a light soprano sound. Through all these selections, it was clear that Ms. Sengin can train voices and impart style. The choir shifted gears again with the Robert Shaw/Alice Parker arrangement of the Italian Renaissance Fa un canzona, in which the irregular accents and odd meters were well handled.

GPYO has two principal orchestral ensembles under its umbrella — the Concert Orchestra and the Symphonic Orchestra. The Concert Orchestra amassed a full stage of players for three unique works. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is usually heard outdoors at this time of year, complete with fireworks, but GPYO’s Concert Orchestra made the piece work well within the confines of Richardson Auditorium. Conductor Arvin Gopal kept musical phrases crisp, with a lean string sound and clean winds. A quartet of horns was especially clean, and it was impressive how well the triangle rang in the hall from the percussion section.

Joseph Jay McIntyre’s Ghosts of Antietam captures the atmosphere of the Civil War as spirits of the great battle come to life through music. Beginning with low cello, chimes, and swirling winds, this was a dark piece, which the Concert Orchestra kept precise. McIntyre’s symphonic work incorporates Civil War tunes, passed among instrumental solos. Trumpeter Marie Petitjean provided an effective rendition of “Taps” to close the piece. The Concert Orchestra closed its portion of the evening with a sprightly rendition of Ronan Hardiman’s Music from the Lord of the Dance. This piece, also replete with familiar tunes, was well played by the orchestra, with elegant themes in the flute and brass.

GPYO’s Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe, presented the winner of GPYO’s Concerto Competition in a movement from a challenging Chopin piano concerto. Seventeen-year-old Louis Petitjean has studied at some of the finest musical institutions in the country, and shares his talents with the Symphonic Orchestra as a member of the flute section. In the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in e Minor, the Symphonic Orchestra presented the long dark orchestral introduction with a very clean sound, emphasizing the sinuous Romantic melodies. Chopin wrote no full symphonies, but this work was so close to a symphony one forgot that there was a piano soloist waiting to enter the musical action.

And what an astounding piano soloist he was — Louis Petitjean showed himself to be a very composed performer, taking plenty of time on entrances. Mr. Petitjean was a very strong yet agile pianist, elegantly playing fluid passages with a quick and nimble right hand. Mr. Petitjean demonstrated very strong octaves against the symphonic orchestral accompaniment.

Through the two closing works on the program — an excerpt from Holst’s The Planets and several movements from Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade — the Symphonic Orchestra brought out the bright and chipper orchestration of the pieces, as well as rich playing of the familiar “I Vow to Thee my Country” hymn of Holst’s orchestral suite. Scheherazade in particular showcased a number of the graduating seniors in the orchestra as soloists, most notably cellist Michelle Zhou, clarinetist Anthony Wang and oboist Jennifer Park, as well as exquisite solo violin playing by concertmistress Dallas Noble. The graduating musicians joined the entire ensemble in closing the evening with a solid musical performance.

NOW HOLD MY HANDS WHILE I TRY TO CONTACT QUINN’S MOTHER: Elise (Lin Shaye, center) begins a séance in an effort to help Quinn (Stefanie Scott, left) communicate with her dead mother while her father (Dermot Mulroney) looks on. When Quinn’s attempts to contact her mother  on her own stirred up a host of frightening paranormal events, Elise agreed to come out of retirement to help Quinn communicate with her mother.(Photo by Matt Kennedy)

NOW HOLD MY HANDS WHILE I TRY TO CONTACT QUINN’S MOTHER: Elise (Lin Shaye, center) begins a séance in an effort to help Quinn (Stefanie Scott, left) communicate with her dead mother while her father (Dermot Mulroney) looks on. When Quinn’s attempts to contact her mother on her own stirred up a host of frightening paranormal events, Elise agreed to come out of retirement to help Quinn communicate with her mother. (Photo by Matt Kennedy)

The good news about Insidious 3 is that you don’t have to know what happened in the first two episodes in order to follow this movie’s plotline. This prequel does not involve the Lambert family that was haunted by ghosts in the series’ previous two films.

The best news is that, despite being rated PG-13, this harrowing adventure was so scary that I screamed louder than my wife! Guaranteed to have you jumping out of your skin, Insidious 3 evokes an earlier era when horror movie filmmakers subtly sowed the seeds of suspense instead of simply splattering the screen with gruesome scenes.

The movie is Australian Leigh Whannell’s directorial debut. She wrote and acted in Insidious 1 and 2. This film features Lin Shaye (There’s Something about Mary) as Elise Rainier, the gifted psychic who can commune with the afterlife.

As the film unfolds, we find Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) trying to hire the clairvoyant to help her contact the spirit of her late mother (Ele Keats). Elise declines the offer, explaining that she’s retired, but gives the grieving teen an ominous piece of advice, — “Don’t try to contact your mom on your own.”

Quinn returns home to the mythical town of Leland Park where she lives in an apartment with her father (Dermot Mulroney) and little brother, Alex (Tate Berney). Of course, she disregards Elise’s warning, and next thing you know paranormal activities begin; a waving apparition, here, a disembodied voice there, an unexplained crack in the ceiling, bloody footprints on the floor, and so on.

Quinn’s distracted dad does not give her much help in dealing with these phenomena, however, the boy next-door (Ashton Moio) is concerned about her welfare. Finally, the ghostly activities escalate to the point where Elise agrees to get involved and stage a séance.

Although the storyline reads like stock fright fare, trust me, Insidious 3 is an expertly edited horror movie that repeatedly shocks you when you least expect it. Again and again it makes you jump from your seat, then lulls you back into a false sense of security only to deliver another jolt.

The movie is a chilling spine-tingler that will generate lots of bloodcurdling screams.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for violence, profanity, frightening images, and mature themes. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features

June 3, 2015

book rev

Responding to the deaths of John and Alicia Nash in a May 23 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, Jennifer Connelly, the actress who won an Oscar playing Alicia in the Academy-Award-winning film version of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster 1998), calls the couple “an inspiration” and refers to “all that they accomplished in their lives.” Russell Crowe, who played John Nash in the film, refers to their “amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.” Both statements go straight to the spirit of the extraordinary six-decades-long relationship with a force lacking in obituaries that focused on the trials and triumphs of the husband. Having lived the roles, Connelly and Crowe were able to do justice to the couple by stressing words like inspiration, partnership, minds, and hearts.

A Hothouse Orchid

According to Nasar, the couple’s story began at MIT where the mathematics faculty included Nash, who had earned his doctorate at Princeton in 1950 with a 27-page thesis on game theory that would lead to a Nobel Prize in 1994. Alicia was a physics major hoping to become a nuclear scientist at a time when coeds at MIT “wore cocktail dresses and high heels while dissecting rats in the lab.” In that environment Alicia “glowed like a hothouse orchid …. Delicate and feminine, with pale skin and dark eyes, she exuded both innocence and glamour, a fetching shyness as well as a definite sense of self-possession, polish, and elegance” She carried herself like “an El Salvadoran princess with a sense of noblesse oblige.” It would seem that Nash never had a chance. Nor did she, as she admitted in the PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness (2002): “At the time, he was a little bit like the fair-haired boy of the math department …. And he was very nice looking.”

Princeton Junction

They were married in 1957 in Washington, D.C. By the time a son was born in 1959, Nash was undergoing the first of a series of involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals that would include Carrier and Trenton State, where he was hospitalized after the couple moved to Princeton in 1960. The strain of dealing with Nash’s psychosis eventually led Alicia to divorce him in 1963. Seven years later when she was living “literally across the road from the railroad station” in Princeton Junction, she offered to let Nash live with her, “moved by pity, loyalty, and the realization that no one else on earth would take him in.” Quoted by Nasar in a chapter epigraph, Nash admitted as much, “I have been sheltered here and thus avoided homelessness.” Besides contributing what he could to expenses, Nash helped his 12-year-old son Johnny with his homework, played chess, and rode the Dinky into Princeton, where he became known as “the phantom of Fine Hall” and “the mad genius of Firestone.”

Bartleby at Firestone

The man I saw day and night at the Firestone Library in the late 1970s seemed to be everywhere I looked. It would be hard to imagine a more unprepossessing person, always wearing the same yellow-brown plaid shirt, always with an almost surreal air of passive obstinacy, like a library-born version of Herman Melville’s live-in Wall Street clerk Bartleby whose answer to everything is “I would prefer not to.” Whether haunting the reference room or the card catalogue or the third floor stacks, he was somehow eternally in residence.

I had no idea who he was until I saw the photographs of Nash in A Beautiful Mind. There was the same plaid shirt, the same air of having wandered to the far side of reality, as if he were an inanimate object waiting to be moved to a position of conclusive significance on the cosmic chess board. In the womb-like recesses of Firestone’s third-floor, those cramped quarters teeming with “quaint and curious volumes,” it’s not easy to ignore the other inhabitants, and while I never exchanged greetings with the man in the plaid shirt, there were nods and looks of vague acknowledgment. The office where I worked during the day and had all to myself at night was located next to that of historian Charles Gillespie, who is quoted in Beautiful Mind to the effect that Nash “almost always headed for the third floor stacks, in a section of the library devoted to religion and philosophy,” where Gillespie “always said good morning” and “Nash was always silent.”

Last Words

In A Brilliant Madness, when Nash faces the camera, up close, he appears to have moved well away from the spookily intransigent Bartleby; he’s older, greyer, sadder and wiser, less guarded, more willing to appear vulnerable, and though he might “prefer not to,” he offers brief comments about the lost years and the years to come, admitting, that “in madness,” he saw himself “as some sort of messenger, or having a special function. Like the Muslim concept with Muhammad, the messenger of Allah.” Referring to his protracted remission, he says “I don’t really remember the chronology very well, exactly when I moved from one type of thinking to another. I began arguing with the concept of the voices. And ultimately I began rejecting them and deciding not to listen.” In other words, he preferred not to.

I can still hear an echo of Bartleby’s mantra at the end of A Brilliant Madness when Nash seems to startle himself with his thoughts about the future. “I don’t know what the future holds exactly,” he says; then, with a scarily revealing gesture, somewhere between a grimace, a shudder, and a graveyard laugh, he adds, “even if it’s not such a long future — for me.” As he goes on, putting some distance between himself and the subtle convulsion of the moment when he acknowledged in spite of himself that his might not be “a long future,” his words seem to trail off into a void, “Of course, the future in general is presumably long — unless things really go bad — or unless some miracle happens.”

Shortly before that last halting, one-on-one moment with Nash, A Brilliant Madness offers an alternate farewell in a video of the Nobel Prize ceremony when, after the presentation of the medal, he bows three times, to the front, the left and the right, holding the prize, a gesture at once formally precise and gently graceful, after which we hear the voice of fellow mathematician Princeton professor Erhan Çinlar on the soundtrack: “He shined very brightly as a young man. Then he had his illness. And he is now a very pleasant, accomplished gentleman. It feels right somehow.”

Together

They began as teacher and student, became husband and wife, then housemates, and in 2001 husband and wife again. In her last chapter, Nasar celebrates a marriage, “the most mysterious of human relationships,” summing it up (circa the late 1990s): Alicia is “strong-minded, pragmatic, and independent,” yet her “girlish infatuation has survived the disillusionments, hardships, and disappointments.” She takes her husband shopping for clothes, “frets when he travels,” spends four hours in the ER with him “when his ankle swells from a sprain.” Meanwhile he “sets his clock by her. Stubborn, reserved, self-centered, and jealous of his time (and money) as he is, Nash does nothing without consulting Alicia first, defers to her wishes, and tries to help her, whether it is by washing the dishes, straightening out a problem at the bank, or going with her to family therapy.”

At the time Nasar was writing and apparently right up to May 23, 2015, the Nashes found themselves sharing a familiar burden in the plight of their mathematically gifted schizophrenic son John Charles “Johnny” Nash, now 56, who would grow up to be treated with “the newest generation of drugs” that enabled him, “for the most part, to stay out of the hospital,” but “have not given him a life.” For his parents, it was “a constant disruption,” the way he both “drew them together and tore them apart,” generating “deep conflicts” that caused them to blame each other for his misbehavior — “when he destroys things in the house, attacks them, acts inappropriately in public.” There is the inevitable good cop/bad cop syndrome, but “they rely on each other. They agree every day on what one or the other should do. They also agree when it is time to hospitalize him,” and when it’s time to go to a pharmacy for his meds, they go together.

A House on Aiken

Watching the DVD of Ron Howard’s film version of A Beautiful Mind, I recognized the house the production staff used for the exterior of the home occupied by the Nashes when they moved to Princeton. Located on Aiken Street next to Harrison Street Park, it’s the same house my wife and I once considered renting. We’d been living around the corner on Patton Avenue with our infant son who spent many happy hours playing in the sandbox and on the swings at the park. You can see the park gate in the film and the sidewalk my son would run along, never in a straight line, always zigging and zagging, and of course now and then tripping and falling on the uneven pavement no matter how alert we were to his giddy, happy, random movements. There was no containing him, really. He was determined to pick things up, eat every berry in sight, smell every flower, pet every dog. All very normal, though looking back it’s easy to imagine that his fearless heedless way of going at the world might suggest early signs of the illness that makes us familiar with phrases like “drew them together and tore them apart,” and “good cop bad cop.”

In the end, no matter how watchful a parent or person you are, no matter how many hazards you anticipate, no matter how often you’re tempted to think the world makes sense, there’s not much you can do when things spin out of control, whether it’s a child’s mind or a taxi on the turnpike. Though she was writing some 20 years ago, Sylvia Nasar found a fitting epigraph for the Nashes and the rest of us in the lines from Wordworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” which accompanies her dedication of A Beautiful Mind to Alicia Nash: “Another race hath been, and other palms are won./Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

 

CHAIRMAKING IN THE GARDEN STATE: Morven’s latest exhibition “Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking” examines the chairmaker’s craft from the 1790s to the end of the 19th century. Guest curator Joseph W. Hammond documents the work of chairmakers who once worked in virtually every corner of the Garden State, with examples of their work, period photographs, and advertisements in four rooms on the museum’s second floor. The exhibition will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, through October 18. For more information, call (609) 924-8144, or visit: www.morven.org.(Photo by L. Arntzenius)

CHAIRMAKING IN THE GARDEN STATE: Morven’s latest exhibition “Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking” examines the chairmaker’s craft from the 1790s to the end of the 19th century. Guest curator Joseph W. Hammond documents the work of chairmakers who once worked in virtually every corner of the Garden State, with examples of their work, period photographs, and advertisements in four rooms on the museum’s second floor. The exhibition will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, through October 18. For more information, call (609) 924-8144, or visit: www.morven.org. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)

Where else but Princeton’s Morven Museum & Garden would you find an exhibition devoted entirely to the history of chair-making in New Jersey?

Even though the museum’s staff is currently working behind the scenes on what promises to be a landmark show this fall, they have brought in a guest curator for a small and informative exploration of the history of chair making in New Jersey that will run through the summer until mid-October.

In spite of its cumbersome title, “Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking(derived from an 1828 newspaper advertisement of Morristown chair maker J. D. Humphreyville), the exhibition showcases some of the most sleek and elegant examples of the chairmaker’s craft from the 1790s to the end of the 19th century.

The show came about after the museum was contacted by a New Jersey collector who offered his chairs for display. “We saw his collection and thought it was an excellent idea; to his items, others were added,” said Morven’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan.

Formerly of Winterthur and now engaged in New Jersey historic projects, guest curator Joseph W. Hammond was called in to review and make selections from the private collection and to seek out appropriate additions from sources across the state. About half of the items on display come from a single private collection and the rest from multiple sources. “It’s not just about chairs but about chair-making in New Jersey, including regional characteristics,” said Mr. Hammond. “Chairmakers once worked in virtually every corner of the Garden State, from large cities and towns to small crossroad communities and 35 examples are on display here along with chair-making tools and stencils, portraits and photographs, period advertisements, and plates from sales catalogs.”

Mr. Hammond has enhanced the display with period advertisements from the early part of the 19th century for some of the hundreds of craftsmen known today through census records, business directories, account books, and research conducted by furniture students and local historians. He will discuss the exhibition during a gallery talk on September 17.

The exhibition is presented in four rooms on the museum’s second floor and comprises sections on, “The Craft of Chairmaking,” “Windsor Chairs,” “Common and Fancy Chairs,” and “Factory Made Chairs.”

The first of these introduces visitors to the process of making 19th-century chairs, including the technique and tools for traditional rush seating.

Most of the equipment and tools on display have been drawn from an important collection assembled in the late 1920s by William H. MacDonald of Trenton. Period photographs illustrate how many of the tools were used.

Check out the chairmaker’s bench, a rotating stand for weaving rush seats, color grinders used in Allentown for preparing paint, and decorative stencils from several shops in the Allentown and Englishtown areas.

Replications of several stencils on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Collection are cut from scrap paper. “It’s amazing that they have survived at all, some of them are so delicate,” said Ms. Allan as she pointed out some for crest rails, some with corner designs and one bearing a chair-maker’s name. They’d be used to apply painted designs. Beside them are some patterns that would be copied by hand.

Eight Windsor chairs made between 1790 and 1835 range in form from fan-back and bow-back to rod-back styles, some with bamboo-shaped turnings popular in the early 19th century. They were made in Trenton, Pemberton, Moorestown, Salem, and Monmouth County by Ezekiah Hewes, William Bowen, Samuel Jaques, Samuel Roberts, William McElroy, Ebenezer P. Rose, and others. Brands were often stamped on the undersides of chair seats and can be used to identify the work of specific craftsmen.

Throughout the 19th century, a wide range of common and fancy chairs were made in all parts of New Jersey and there are 15 examples of these in the exhibition. Seven of them were produced by the renowned Ware family of South Jersey, who made slat-back, rush seated chairs in the Delaware Valley tradition in Cumberland and Salem counties. Nineteen Wares over four generations engaged in chairmaking from the late 18th century to the 1940s. The techniques passed down in the family remained so similar that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to tell the work of one craftsman from another.

After the Civil War, chair production in New Jersey shifted from small shops to factories. Three of the most prominent were the Gardner Manufacturing Company of Glen Gardner, Hunterdon County; the Tunis R. Cooper chair factory in Bergenfield, Bergen County; and the Collignon Brothers in what is now River Vale, Bergen County. Twelve examples from all three factories display the special characteristics developed by each, including the Collignan Brothers’s patented folding chairs.

Highlights include the hand-painted crest rail depicting a compote of berries on a Windsor side chair made by Ebenezer P. Rose, Jr., of Trenton, ca. 1815-25, and the graceful bow-back Windsor armchair made by William McElroy of Moorestown, N.J., ca. 1795-1810.

One period photograph shows Samuel Sloan Ware (1848-1920) on the porch roof of his second floor chair shop in Alloway, New Jersey, ca. 1875, which comes from the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library.

Another, by Edward W. Humphrey, records the interior of Dan Ware’s chair shop in Woodstown, Salem County, circa 1895.

Miniatures made between 1960 and 1985 by Ware family descendent Allen M. Loveland, Jr., of Camden, are on loan from the Salem County Historical Society,

“Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking” will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, through October 18. Hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission: $6, adults; $5, seniors/students; free to children 6 and under and Friends of Morven. For more information, call (609) 924-8144, or visit: www.morven.org.

And the landmark show coming up in the fall? “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age,” the first large-scale exhibition to explore the vices and virtues of this prominent couple, will open November 13. For a sneak peek, visit: www.morven.org.

THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California.
(Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

If you were afraid to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws, you might be reluctant to visit San Francisco after seeing this spectacular disaster movie. Directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2), San Andreas features a plot that is accompanied by riveting special-effects scenes.

The film stars Dwayne Johnson as Ray Gaines, a decorated helicopter pilot who has led more than 600 rescue missions. At the point of departure, we find the Los Angeles Fire Department chief risking his life to pluck an accident victim (Stephanie Johnston) from a car that is dangling precipitously over a deep canyon. For you or me, such a dangerous maneuver would be unthinkable, but to Ray, it’s business as usual.

Meanwhile, Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is delivering a lecture at the California Institute of Technology in which he discusses the incredible power of earthquakes. When his colleague (Will Yun Lee) detects some unusual seismic activity in the vicinity of the Hoover Dam, the two scientists rush off to observe the event firsthand.

They arrive in time to witness the considerable damage caused by an earthquake that registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. Worse, their instrumentation indicates that this event is a precursor to an impending earthquake of much greater magnitude.

The ensuing shift in the San Andreas fault wreaks havoc all across California. Chief Gaines jumps into action, plucking his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), from the roof of a teetering skyscraper and then flying to the quake’s epicenter in San Francisco.

They flew there because their terrified daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) had called them for help. Fortunately she was being helped by two young British friends (Art Parkinson and Hugo Johstone-Burt).

While searching for their daughter, the desperate parents run a perilous gauntlet — via air sea and land — to the Bay Area, and encounter turbulence, tsunamis, and landslides along the way.

San Andreas has a cast of readily identifiable archetypes; the musclebound hero, the effete coward, the damsel in distress, the nerdy professor, each of whom are played perfectly by the talented cast.

Nonetheless, the best reason to see this summer blockbuster is to experience the eye-popping panoramas in 3D.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense action, mayhem, and brief profanity. Running time: 114 minutes. Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures.

May 27, 2015
Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Mad Man begins and ends with Don Draper, formerly Dick Whitman, alone, and yet not alone. In the opening scene of the pilot, it’s the dawn of the sixties, he’s in a crowded, lively New York bar, people are drinking, smoking, laughing, talking, and at first all we see is the back of his head. We’re curious right away because he’s making notes on some cocktail napkins, and although he’s not actually sitting apart from the others, he’s a thoughtful island unto himself until he asks an elderly black waiter what brand of cigarettes he smokes and why. When the waiter admits how much he loves smoking, even though his wife has read somewhere that it “will kill you,” it’s obvious from Draper’s expression that this is an advertising issue he’s been seriously pondering. We know enough about the show at this point to intuit that his job is to sell people on a product that may be deadly. He looks around. Everyone’s smoking.

A decade later, the sixties is history and the same man is one of a group chanting Om at an Esalen-style retreat on Big Sur. The last words we hear from the group leader are “A new day … new ideas … a new you.” The camera moves in and this time we’re seeing Don Draper/Dick Whitman face to face, close up, though in reality we’re seeing a third person, the actor Jon Hamm, whose classic Hollywood charisma has anchored Mad Man from the beginning; he is the face of the series. During his on-the-American-road escape from Mad Avenue in the previous episodes, which the show’s creator Matthew Weiner says were inspired by the seminal TV series The Fugitive, Hamm conveys the rugged, hungover ambience of a taller, handsomer Humphrey Bogart.

The Real Thing?

So why end a seven season series about a Madison Avenue ad firm in the sixties with a Big Sur meditation session? As we stare into an immense close-up of the face that launched the show that saved AMC, we seem to be living out Dylan’s line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Matthew Weiner has left it up to his audience to figure out what’s going on with this deeply conflicted artist who discovered his genius in the most absurd and demeaning of professional endeavors. Is he happy? Has he achieved the big E? Or is enlightenment beneath him? A joke? Like the old one about the quest for the wise man of the mountain who tells you “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son.” Or maybe, “life is just an ice-cold bottle of Coke.”

But what’s going on with his mouth? Is that a smile, a half-smile, or is it, as some have suggested, a smirk? This isn’t the Mona Lisa we’re talking about, it’s our last look at one of the most complex and memorable characters to emerge from post-millennial television, along with Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Walter White. The last word comes from the realm of the absurd (“the best ad ever made,” says Weiner) as the angelic face of a young girl fills the screen singing “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” which segues into “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” while a we-are-the-world chorus of youths join in, each with the iconic bottle in hand, closing out the final season of Mad Men with three words dear to the heart of Henry James: “It’s the real thing.”

Thus, what for most mortals would signify the achievement of inner-peace is for Don Draper simply the return of his wayward muse. So much for the smirk. If anything, the half-smile is a work in progress, conveying a sense of pent-up inspiration, thoughtful urgency, if not impatience, to start putting the vision in play.

Bowing Out Early

For all its effectiveness (as Weiner notes, “it’s nice to have your cake and eat it too”), the ending didn’t make me regret bowing out of Mad Men two seasons earlier. Why did my wife and I give up when we did? Besides losing interest in the characters, the milieu, and the storylines, what put us off as much as anything was Don Draper’s second marriage (his first wife Betty’s second was no less yawn-inspiring). In an amusing bit of Esalen hilltop stream of consciousness on the New Yorker website (“What Don Draper Was Thinking in the Final Minutes of ‘Mad Men’”), John Kenney says it well, “Megan spoke French. Megan was annoying. God, she was annoying. Everything about her was annoying, even when she spoke French, which is rare, as French is so melodic. I don’t miss her. Why did I give her a million dollars?”

The Nuisance of Ads

The Sopranos ended brilliantly and controversially as Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a choice made with a push of the button by Tony Soprano, who is looking up watchfully when the screen goes black. Whether the abrupt cut-off suggests sudden death or a metaphor for the ways of the world (sadly played out by the untimely death of James Gandolfini), it was a great ending to a greater if no less flawed work of television art (and one in which Weiner was creatively involved). In another great series, Breaking Bad, Walter White also died accompanied by irresistibly upbeat rock and roll, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” However true to itself, Mad Men’s Coke commercial ending inevitably trivializes the moment and reminds us that all these hours of generally superior television have been about a phenomenon so unappealing that the audience numbers lifting the last episode above all others depend on TiVo estimates of people who prefer to watch a show about advertising without enduring the nuisance of ads. Don’s fate is to be a poet in an essentially crass and unpoetical profession. Imagine Keats or Shelley brainstorming ads or writing jingles.

The Show’s Finest Hour

On the other hand, anyone who has a problem with the idea of ending one of television’s most celebrated creations with a Coke ad must have missed the Season One finale when Draper unveils his sales concept for the Kodak slide projector the company is calling The Wheel. Like a film director in a screening room, Draper turns down the lights and presents a slide show featuring images from happier days with his estranged family. As the images come and go, he defines nostalgia in terms that reflect his ambiguous personal history (“the pain from an old wound”), telling his clients that what they’re selling isn’t technology but memory. “This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine,” he says. “It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

If for nothing more than that moment, Matthew Weiner and everyone involved in the series has earned the acclaim and awards. As for describing Don Draper as an embattled poet, who else would notice someone in a bar reading Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and be curious enough to read it? You knew Mad Men was something special when Jon Hamm read from O’Hara in voiceover, “Now I am quietly waiting for/the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern.”

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A review of Mad Men following the second season (“Jon Hamm Unforgettable as Mad Men’s Don Draper, the Soul of a Great Series”), echoed here, appeared in Town Topics, July 29, 2009.

SUMMER SUN: Work such as this by the Pennsylvania Impressionist Albert Van Nesse Greene (1887-1971) will be on show in the exhibition “Impressions of Life” at the Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio, 5230 Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, from May 30 through August 31. There will be an opening reception Saturday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The show of over 60 pieces, will be one of the largest offerings of A.V. Greene’s work in recent years. It showcases a number of Pennsylvania landscapes and Maine harbor scenes, as well as some beautiful depictions of Europe. A color catalogue will be available for purchase and all featured works will be available on the gallery’s website a week prior to the opening. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. For more information, call (215) 348-2500 or visit: www.gratzgallery.com.

SUMMER SUN: Work such as this by the Pennsylvania Impressionist Albert Van Nesse Greene (1887-1971) will be on show in the exhibition “Impressions of Life” at the Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio, 5230 Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, from May 30 through August 31. There will be an opening reception Saturday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The show of over 60 pieces, will be one of the largest offerings of A.V. Greene’s work in recent years. It showcases a number of Pennsylvania landscapes and Maine harbor scenes, as well as some beautiful depictions of Europe. A color catalogue will be available for purchase and all featured works will be available on the gallery’s website a week prior to the opening. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. For more information, call (215) 348-2500 or visit: www.gratzgallery.com.

The Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, at its new location, 5230 Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, is pleased to announce “Albert Van Nesse Greene (1887-1971) Impressions of Life,” an exhibition of paintings by the Pennsylvania Impressionist.

This inaugural exhibition at the gallery’s new space, will run from May 30 through August 31. There will be an opening reception at the gallery and studio on Saturday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Born in Jamaica, New York, Albert Van Nesse Greene, often referred to as A.V. Greene, grew up in Washington, D.C. and studied at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He furthered his studies at the Art Students League, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, under Daniel Garber. While serving during World War I, the artist was seriously injured. After recovering he moved to Philadelphia in 1917. He began part-time work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s Country School in Chester Springs (now Historic Yellow Springs) and ultimately settled in Chester Springs; choosing the area’s beautiful landscapes at the subjects of many of his compositions.

Mr. Van Nesse Greene was strongly influenced by the French Impressionists. His early work is highly impressionistic and embraces a palette more aligned with French painters than his American counterparts. Although his subjects tend to favor Pennsylvania landscapes, he also painted in Booth Bay, Maine and throughout Europe; creating a diverse and varied range of compositions. He was also an adept draftsman known for his beautiful pastel compositions. Greene’s artwork was exhibited extensively throughout the United States and France during his lifetime.

The forthcoming exhibition at Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio will be one of the largest offerings of A.V. Greene’s work in recent years. The exhibition features over 60 pieces by Greene; a culmination of 30 years of collecting the artist’s finest works. “Impressions of Life” showcases a number of Pennsylvania landscapes and Maine harbor scenes, as well as some beautiful depictions of Europe. Mr. Van Nesse Greene enjoyed transcribing the landscape as it changed throughout the seasons; therefore, the exhibition includes a number of sunny springtime and crisp winter compositions.

In celebration of the forthcoming opening Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio will be donating a portion of its proceeds to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. Gratz Gallery salutes the work the museum has done since it opened its doors in 1988, and would like to thank them for their dedication to the arts.

A color catalogue will be available for purchase throughout the exhibition. All featured works of art will be available on the gallery’s website a week prior to the opening.

The Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio specializes in 19th and 20th century American paintings, with a focus on painters from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In addition to art investment Gratz Gallery also offers custom framing and fine art conservation services. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. For more information, call (215) 348-2500 or visit: www.gratzgallery.com.

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WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas.(Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas. (Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

As the notorious kingpin of a drug cartel that is terrorizing Texas, Vincente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio) has orchestrated over a hundred murders. However, he’s never been convicted because the witnesses mysteriously disappear before they can testify against him.

Therefore, the authorities decide to take special precautions with the Rivas couple, the Cortez confederates who agreed to become state’s witnesses in the latest case against him. When the police escort arrives to place them in the witness protection program, the husband is killed in an ambush but his wife Daniella (Sofia Vergara) and policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) barely escape in a hail of bullets.

As they drive away in the Rivas’s Cadillac convertible, they realize that they’ve been targeted by mobsters and crooked cops. So, with no one but each other to lean on, the police officer and outlaw grudgingly join forces during their trip to a safe sanctuary in Dallas.

Of course, cooperating is easier said than done, because they’re polar opposites in almost every way. Daniella is a striking, statuesque chatterbox as oppposed to Cooper’s plain, diminutive, straitlaced personality. Nevertheless, the pair gradually bond during their road trip in which they have a close brush with death every five miles or so.

Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Hot Pursuit is a mindless diversion full of the staples of the unlikely buddies genre, such as car chases and accidental drug use. Although the movie fails to break cinematic ground, it provides enough laughs to for this critic to recommend it.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, violence, and drug use. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 20, 2015

record revThe other night I found John Lennon alive and well online singing “There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu” from “Nobody Told Me,” a song brimming over with the Lennon spirit, funny, straight-ahead, full of life, kick up your heels and let it roll. That slightly altered quote (“little” instead of “one-eyed”) from the old sidewalks-of-London busker’s delight, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” was a happy surprise.

In the aftermath of the earthquakes, I’d been searching for material for a column about Kathmandu, and the Google genies had given me one of Lennon’s most engaging post-Beatles songs, with the subtle negativity of lines like “Everyone’s a winner and nothing left to lose” harking back to the passionate positivity of “nothing you can do that can’t be done, no one you can save that can’t be saved” from “All You Need is Love,” the song he sang to the world in the summer of 1967. While the other Beatles were performing at that worldwide television event, with a host of rock luminaries joining the chorus, it was John’s song, his words, his voice sending the message. In the best and most impossible of all worlds he would be at Abbey Road right now with his three mates recording a special song to raise much-needed money for Nepal Earthquake Relief.

The Himalaya Hotel

In his account of a journey to India and Nepal, poet Gary Snyder describes coming into Kathmandu at night and stopping at the Himalaya Hotel, which was “so filthy and rat-infested” that he moved next day to a hotel “a cut better.” Some years later, on Christmas Day, delirious with fever, I found refuge in the same hotel. In the almost three weeks I was laid up there, alone, I never saw any rats, but I could hear them in the wall.

The night Gary Snyder arrived, Kathmandu “was very quiet, and most shops were closed, because everyone was inside awaiting the end of the world,” since “at 3 p.m. that afternoon … all the visible planets plus the moon and sun went into conjunction and the whole Indian nation was convinced the world would be destroyed.”

On May 20, 2015, it’s impossible to read that passage without recalling images of the devastation inflicted on Nepal on April 25 and again on May 12. Maybe the astrologers Snyder refers to were weighing cosmic conjunctions with the geophysical odds, given that the magnitude 8.0 earthquake of 1934 had caused more than 10,000 deaths and that, according to Geohazards International, the Kathmandu Valley was the most dangerous place in the world in terms of per capita earthquake casualty risk.

If you could measure events in the timeline of a life according to seismic numbers, the three weeks in Kathmandu would measure around 7.8 to 8.0 magnitude on my personal Richter scale. For a start, I was coming down with a bad cold when I landed in the center of the city, still reeling from a skidding-and-sliding-on-the-edge-of-the-abyss journey from the Indian border in the back of a truck, an experience Snyder describes as “a 12-hour ride up to 9,000 feet and back down again on the wildest, twistiest road” he’d ever been on. Having eaten nothing since the previous morning at Raxaul on the Indian border, I didn’t hesitate when a welcoming party of stoned-out fellow hitchhikers urged me to sample a concoction they called Djibouti Roo from amid an array of fat chocolate goodies displayed on an elaborately embellished silver tray. Only after I’d wolfed down one of the biggest pieces did I learn that Djibouti Roo’s street name was Mad Dog Pie, and that in addition to several melted Cadbury fruit and nut bars, it contained a super group of mind-benders, including ganja, hash, morphine, opium, cocaine, and LSD.

Falling Down

The place we were sitting in as the Mad Dog began biting me had a wildly overblown reputation in the hitchhiker interzone. Time and again on the way east we heard that the Globe Cafe was the place to head if your goal was Christmas in Kathmandu. With Shakespeare’s playhouse in mind, I fantasized a Globe-like structure surrounded by streets as narrow, winding, and funky as those of Elizabethan London. While the streets lived up to my fantasy, the Globe itself was little more than a dingy, smoky, low-ceilinged room full of westerners Getting High and Being Cool. Upstairs was a sort of flophouse dormitory where I spent the next 12 hours, “hanging on for dear life,” as the saying goes, while everything fell to pieces around me.

Getting upstairs had been an epic undertaking. As soon as I tried to stand I fell down. Stood up, took two steps, fell down again. A grim-faced Nepalese woman was showing me to the staircase, which was outside the building. Every time I toppled she glared over her shoulder, waiting for me to get back on my feet. It was beyond “if looks could kill.” Such was the depth of dismissal in her stare, this dark lady of the Globe, that hers became the face plaguing long nights and days of fever in my freezing cave of a room at the Himalaya Hotel.

Loud Mouth Lime

Among the jumble of things on the bulletin board above my desk at home is a clipping of a grinning green face with a big blue mouth and above the silly creature the words Loud Mouth Lime in purple letters. On my desk as I write is a pile of ancient Indian aerogrammes postmarked Calcutta, Benares, Allahabad and New Delhi filled to the brim with leaky ballpoint messages from me intermingling with a number of neatly written-with-fountain-pen letters on pale blue crinkly stationary with matching envelopes postmarked Berkeley, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles from a girl I’d met three years before at a party in a Haste Street apartment house (since destroyed) in Berkeley.

Loud Mouth Lime appeared in one of the two California letters that found me in Kathmandu sweating out the nightly fevers in a U.S. Army sleeping bag laid on a charpoi in the Himalaya Hotel. My only medicine was a bottle of Aspro aspirin I bought at a nearby shop along with a packet of British arrowroot biscuits, which was all I had to eat in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I had nothing to drink but the cold jars of water — “Kathmandu water is full of mica and gives everyone the runs” says Gary Snyder, though luckily for me it had just the opposite effect — and glasses of hot milky tea brought to me several times a day by a Nepalese boy no more than 10 who was only slightly less coldly indifferent to my humanity than the dark lady of the Globe had been. The way this lad scrutinized me you’d have thought that a giant green sleeping-bag caterpillar (Gregor Samsa comes to Kathmandu) had crawled into view from the rat-infested shadows. It wasn’t until around January 2 that I managed to make it half a block down New Road to the Indira Cafe to put some scrambled eggs in my stomach and to ask people who knew my friends to tell them where I was.

The low point came in the first week of January when I began to doubt that I’d ever get well. I was weak, exhausted from the strain of holding back a coughing fit I was sure would be the end of me. To this day I have no memory of picking up mail at the U.S. Embassy. All I know is that two letters from California dated December 10 and 21 showed up when my morale was in free fall. The first letter is bright, cheerful, playful, with some local color: “Buddhism is all the rage as are all mystic cults. Berkeley looks like Trafalgar Square all the time — the English beat look is in.” After apologizing for complaining about “non-thinking conformists” and “the nuts on Telegraph Avenue,” she stops writing to “go put on a Beatles record,” which makes her feel “cheery and crazy” while apparently inspiring her to clip the funny face off a packet of Kool Aid, tape it to the page, and end the letter thus, “Below is my most recent photograph which accompanied an interview which the editor of the New York Review of Books had printed last month. The interview pointed out the long winded but smiling-sardonic quality of my prose works, of which you have an example in your hand. Hoping my picture will encourage you to write, I am, as I have always been, Loud Mouth Lime.”

Strange and wonderful (“Strange days indeed,” as John sings in “Nobody Told Me”) that this grinning green face should have the power to lift me out of the endgame doldrums, even becoming a kind of comic keepsake, a joy-making version of the Green Eye of the Little Yellow God pinned on the bulletin board above my desk. Little did I know I was hooked, caught, my future foreshadowed in that silly smiling face, and in case I doubted my fate the letter from December 21 suggests that if I didn’t “freeze in the Himalayas, or get eaten by the abominable snowman, and if we get on well would I mind if we were together for most of the summer?”

Five months later in Venice we were together, and we’ve been together four decades and counting, for better or worse, ever since.

Sidewalks of London

Wondering what inspired John Lennon’s quote from “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” my guess is that while watching The Late Late Show with Yoko one New York night, he had seen Charles Laughton reciting the J. Milton Hayes poem about Mad Carew and the yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu in St. Martin’s Lane (or Sidewalks of London), a film celebrating buskers and the beauty of Vivien Leigh that my wife L.M. Lime and I saw on a rented TV in Bristol in the early 1970s.

I read Gary Snyder’s “Now, India” in the October 1972 number of the journal, Caterpillar, which can be found in Snyder’s book Passage Through India (Counterpoint paperback 2009). “Nobody Told Me” is on the posthumous album, Milk and Honey (1984). As a single, it was Lennon’s last to reach the Top Ten in both the U.K. and U.S.