June 18, 2014
WE FINALLY HIT THE BIG TIME: The quartet The Four Seasons (from left Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito) are shown here performing in a television studio. The group quickly rose to superstardom thanks to Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

WE FINALLY HIT THE BIG TIME: The quartet The Four Seasons (from left Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito) are shown here performing in a television studio. The group quickly rose to superstardom thanks to Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

Francesco Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) was born on the wrong side of the tracks of Newark, New Jersey where he was raised in a public housing project that was controlled by the mob. As a rebellious adolescent he started hanging out with the hoodlums in his Italian neighborhood in spite of his mother’s (Kathrine Narducci) objections. She was afraid that her son was either going to wind up dead or in jail.

Even though Castellucion was eventually arrested for burglary, he managed to evade imprisonment at age 16 when a lenient judge let him off with a stern warning. His saving grace would turn out to be that distinctive falsetto that in 1962 catapulted him to the heights of superstardom as Frankie Valli, the front man of The Four Seasons.

His meteoric rise, self-destruction, and resurrection are the subject of Jersey Boys, a scintillating spectacular with a jukebox soundtrack featuring all of the group’s hits. Directed by Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood (for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), the entertaining biopic is based on the play of the same name which won four Tonys in 2006, including Best Musical.

The picture stars Tony winner John Lloyd Young (for Best Actor in a Musical) who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway. The rest of The Four Seasons are played by Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi.

Other pivotal cast members include Renee Marino as Frankie’s long-suffering wife, Freya Tingley as his neglected daughter, and Joey Russo as his childhood pal Joe Pesce. Oscar winner Christopher Walken (for The Deer Hunter) steals every scene he’s in. He plays Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, the mafia don who ran the Genovese crime family’s loan sharking operations back in the 60s.

However, the real appeal of the movie is in the tunes, whose derivations are often implied or expressly explained. For example, Bob was presumably inspired to compose “Big Girls Don’t Cry” after watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling in the face in the film, Ace in the Hole.

The cast performs all of the songs themselves, from “Sherry” to “Dawn” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to “Rag Doll” to “Who Loves You?” to “Working My Way Back to You” to “Walk Like a Man” to “Oh, What a Night!” and beyond. Who knew The Four Seasons had so many hits?

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

June 11, 2014

dvd revI fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

—Maureen Dowd

Like Maureen Dowd, who gave a shout-out for Game of Thrones in her April 6 New York Times column (“Bring Me My Dragons!”), I came to the HBO phenomenon reluctantly. Besides being generally indifferent to the fantasy genre, I’d heard nothing about the series to suggest that it would become as addictive as Breaking Bad was last year.

There was a moment in the saga of Walter White when he went over to the dark side as surely as though a bell had tolled his passage, and we began to care less and less about what happened to him even as we continued, fascinated, to follow him to his fate. With Season Four of Game of Thrones approaching its final episode, we’re caring more and more about Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who was born on the dark side and is staying there, as he tells the love of his life when explaining why he can’t abandon the Lannisters: “These bad people — it’s what I’m good at, out-talking them, out-thinking them.” Now that his fate is in the hands of his father and his sister, who both loathe him, viewers have reason to wonder if Tyrion will survive the season, especially in view of what’s happened to other seemingly indispensable players in the series. While it’s true that the word of mouth about last season’s penultimate shocker, Red Wedding, brought many new viewers into the fold, it isn’t gore alone that’s lifting HBO’s Game of Thrones above mere sports events in the cable ratings, it’s the ongoing mortal threat looming over this witty, snarky, supremely articulate dwarf. If anyone is carrying the series these days, it’s the show’s most diminutive character, its imp genius, bastard prince, and most charming rogue.

The June 11 Club

Peter Dinklage will celebrate his 45th birthday today, June 11, 2014. While other members of the June 11 club are an illustrious lot that includes the likes of Ben Jonson, John Constable, Richard Strauss, and William Styron, Dinklage is happening here and now, a man of the moment coming into his own as an actor and a star, and if that weren’t enough, he’s a New Jersey native, born in Morristown. From all indications, Dinklage’s Tyrion is a Renaissance man who belongs in the company of his great birthmates. Given his talent as an actor, his mastery of abusive phrasing, he could do wonders with Ben Jonson’s comic invective. As someone who conceived and drew up the plans for an apparatus to make it possible for the crippled son of a rival family to ride a horse, he might have more in common with DaVinci than with Constable, although since he’s a man of vision and imagination with a gift for the grotesque (witness his disquisition on beetles in a recent episode), he might have more in common with Hieronymous Bosch. As for Strauss, who else but Tyrion is capable of an opera based on the Lannisters?  And in the unlikely event that he lives to a ripe old age, imagine the novel he could write (call it Tyrion’s Choice), he who when asked why he’s always reading a book, says that his brother, Jaime, has his swords “and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”

Saver of Lives

Match Jaime’s warrior’s heart with Tyrion’s cutting-edge mind and nimble tongue and who knows, they may well prevail against odds in the latest crisis. You could lose count of the number of times Tyrion has saved his own life with his wit and cunning, but then he’s already saved more than his share of lives in Game of Thrones. Besides saving various members of that despised rival family such as Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow and wife Lady Catelyn Stark, he rescues Ned’s sweet, virginal daughter Sansa from torture at the hands of the monstrous boy-king usurper Joffrey; saves his own bodyguard the sellsword Bronn; he even saves his horrible nephew, father, and sister by shrewdly and heroically (in his own bizarre way) commanding the defense of King’s Landing against the army of Stannis Baratheon. Though he may whore and drink and discourse obscenely and outrageously, even at the point of death (as he does with devastating effect in the first of two trumped-up trials), all in all, he’s a true knight.

Tyrion’s secret, as he confides to Jon Snow, is to be himself. “Let me tell you something, Bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” When Jon asks him what he knows about being a bastard, Tyrion replies, “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Quite a Large Man

The essential ironic dynamic of Game of Thrones is that its largest character is a dwarf. Dipping into the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic, which I may yet actually read, I found a passage where Lord Tyrion is visiting the Night Watch at the Wall, showing off his wit to the point where some members of the Watch think he may be mocking “their noble purpose.” After saying “We all need to be mocked from time to time,” Tyrion asks for more wine; when someone observes that he has “a great thirst for a small man,” Aemon Targaryen, the ancient blind maester of the Watch, declares that Lord Tyrion “is quite a large man … a giant come among us here at the end of the world.” Surprised, Tyrion says he has been “called many things, but giant is seldom one of them.” Looking in the direction of Tyrion’s voice, Master Aemon repeats, “Nonetheless, I think it is true.”

Aemon only says what he hears, and he hears a man who can out-talk and out-think (and out-act) anyone.

If Tyrion is a giant among those playing the Game, Peter Dinklage is becoming a giant among actors, with both a Golden Globe and an Emmy to his credit. True to Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow, Dinklage wears the fact of his stature proudly, which means that in the course of his career he’s turned down dwarf-for-dwarf’s-sake roles and crass career moves (no leprechauns need apply); in his first screen role, in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), he vents on the subject. Cast as a blue-suited, blue-top-hatted dwarf in a dream sequence for the film-within-a-film being directed by Steve Buscemi, he goes after the harried director: “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? I don’t even have dreams with dwarfs in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this!”

On the Way to Tyrion

The most significant role Dinklage played on his way to Tyrion Lannister was Finbar McBride in The Station Agent (2003), directed by fellow New Jerseyan Tom McCarthy, and set, where else but in Newfoundland, N.J. One feature of this film likely to catch the attention of seasoned cable viewers is that, like Dinklage, the actors playing Fin’s friends Olivia and Joe had HBO in their future, Patricia Clarkson as Ruth Fisher’s hippie sister in Six Feet Under and Bobby Cannavale in an Emmy-winning performance as the mad mobster Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will also notice John Slattery/Roger Sterling’s brief but vivid turn as Olivia’s estranged husband. A star-in-the-making lighting up the film is Michelle Williams as a pregnant librarian with an obnoxious boyfriend.

The first third of The Station Agent is dominated by Fin’s somber unsmiling presence. I was tempted to say “dwarfed by”  because it’s more than gimmicky wordplay when you turn that noun into a verb; the double meaning perfectly describes the scope of Dinklage’s cinematic presence. McCarthy plays on extremes of scale by balancing long shots of the tiny figure trudging purposefully along the railroad track with nuanced close-ups of his remarkably expressive face. As determined as he is to keep to himself, remote and closeted in the abandoned depot he inherited, the film won’t leave him alone; the camera loves his face, much as the close-up cameras of Hollywood’s golden age loved Garbo and Bogart and James Dean. All Dinklage has to do is cast his eyes moodily upward and you’re seeing a star who could hold his own in a love scene with any actress anywhere, including Michelle Williams’s needy librarian, who is already clearly falling for him, thus the kiss when she comes to visit and chastely spends the night.

The upside of Fin’s grimly resolute withdrawal from the world and his grudging resistance to the friendship offered by Joe and  Olivia is the beauty of the moment when he finally smiles in spite of himself at Joe’s joyously uninhibited way of going at life. In this warmly human film, Dinklage’s first smile is an event, like a sunset breaking through a cloudy sky.

The same expressive power is in force in Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. For Fin the definitive coming out — the moment that finally releases the tension created by the cumulative effect of days of being a one-man freakshow under the community gaze — is when he gets drunk and climbs up on the bar, turning this way and that, both arms extended, displaying himself, and yelling to the bar crowd that had been gawking, “Here I am! Take a look! Take a look!”

The way Dinklage growls the last “Take a look” may remind Game of Thrones viewers of Tyrion’s passionate “confession” in Season 4, probably the actor’s most intense, unguarded, Emmy-worthy moment so far; wounded and infuriated by the betrayal of his lover Shae, he dispenses with the cynical persona, confessing that he’s guilty only of being a dwarf: “I’ve been on trial for that my whole life.”

Viewers who would like a sample of what Peter Dinklage and Game of Thrones are all about will find a strong selection on YouTube, which features several compilations of Tyrion’s Best Moments. The Station Agent, a feel-good classic, is available at the library, as are DVDs of previous seasons of Game of Thrones. Also on YouTube, you can see Dinklage addressing the graduating class at his alma mater, Bennington College, where he deliveres a free-form commencement address that has the class of 2012 cheering as lustily as the armies of King’s Landing when Tyrion rouses them to action.

 

KISSIN’ THE BOSS: Mike Gordon, bass guitarist and founding member of the rock band Phish, couldn’t resist bussing the cheek of his idol, Bruce Springsteen, albeit a scuptured version by Princeton artist Stephen Zorochin. The sculpture, shown here when it was displayed in Long Branch, is now at the corner of Faculty and Alexander Roads. It is featured in a newly published Rock Atlas: “The Musical Landscape of America” by David Roberts, a guide to great music locations across the country.(Image Courtesy of the artist).

KISSIN’ THE BOSS: Mike Gordon, bass guitarist and founding member of the rock band Phish, couldn’t resist bussing the cheek of his idol, Bruce Springsteen, albeit a scuptured version by Princeton artist Stephen Zorochin. The sculpture, shown here when it was displayed in Long Branch, is now at the corner of Faculty and Alexander Roads. It is featured in a newly published Rock Atlas: “The Musical Landscape of America” by David Roberts, a guide to great music locations across the country. (Image Courtesy of the artist).

Commuters to and from Princeton using the Alexander corridor will have noticed new artwork at the corner of Alexander and Faculty Roads. Sited at Larini’s Service Center and gas station, the bust of famed New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen is drawing the interest of local residents and tour bus visitors alike.

Titled, “Bruce Springsteen, Soulful Humanitarian,” Steve Zorochin’s sculpture has placed Princeton on the map of rock music history through its appearance in a newly published book, Rock Atlas USA: The Musical Landscape of America by David Roberts, which pays homage to legends of American music. Mr. Zorochin’s sculpture is featured inside and also prominently on the back cover between photos of Janis Joplin and a pink Cadillac.

The cast cement sculpture, which has a hand-patinated finish that gives it the look of bronze, was previously displayed in Asbury Park and Long Branch, places of significance in Mr. Springsteen’s life. Its current location recalls the first day of November 1978, when “The Boss,” performed at Jadwin Gymnasium on the Princeton University campus.

“I really admire Bruce as a humanitarian. He’s keeping it real, man, there’s nothing pretentious about him,” said Mr Zorochin, in a phone interview from his home on Jefferson Street. “I’m grateful to Ken Larini for giving me a location for the Springsteen piece, even though I’m sure he’d probably prefer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Here it is on the corner of what will be Princeton University’s newest arts campus.”

Born and raised in Princeton, where he graduated from Princeton High School in 1970, Mr. Zorochin lived for a while in Manasquan. But when his home was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, he moved back to Princeton where he is currently recovering from a fall in February on the ice outside his home. He suffered a massive haematoma and credits neurosurgeon Seth Joseffer of the Princeton Brain and Spine Institute for saving his life. “As soon as Dr. Seth saw me, he told me to call my wife. His prognosis was that I had to have immediate surgery, but after five days, I walked home,” he said.

Inspirational Mentors

The artist also credits two major influences on his life and work, his former Princeton neighbor, the folk singer Cynthia Gooding (1924-1988), and noted figure sculptor Joe Brown (1909-1985), a professor at Princeton University until retiring in 1977.

Born in Minnesota and brought up in the midwest, Ms. Gooding moved to New York City, to develop her musical career. She performed there in the mid 1940s, including long standing appearances at the Club Soho in Greenwich Village. One of the first musicians to appear on the Elektra label, she is remembered for a 1962 interview she did with Bob Dylan on the radio show she hosted for WBAI.

“She was a national treasure, pre-Joan Baez,” said Mr. Zorochin. “I had a chance to meet a lot of interesting people who came to her house.” Although inspired by Ms. Gooding, Mr. Zorochin didn’t follow her lead into folk music. When he sang, it was classical music, performed with Princeton Pro Musica.

Professor Brown specialized in sculptures that depicted athletes, which is no surprise, since he had been one himself. The son of Russian immigrants, he grew up poor in South Philadelphia He won a football scholarship to Temple University but left before graduating to work as a professional boxer before turning to the arts. He was the boxing coach at Princeton University until the late 1960s and a professor of art from 1962. His works are featured on numerous college campuses and in collections that include the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His monumental Benjamin Franklin-Craftsman (1981) sits at the corner of Broad Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Philadelphia. “Joe Brown took a kid wandering around campus and gave me direction,” remembered Mr. Zorochin, who went on to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Boston Museum School.

Springsteen

Mr. Springsteen lives in Colts Neck and is known for guarding his privacy. So how did the sculptor work without a sitter? “Though it’s always great to model from life, I used shots from movies to inform the work, in particular Bruce as he appears singing ‘One Trick Pony,’ the song he wrote for the Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler,” said Mr. Zorochin.

“Bruce Springsteen uses his art to help people and that’s what art is all about,” said Mr. Zorochin. “When he played Jadwin Gym, I wasn’t so much a fan of his then, I was more interested in blues and had my own garage band for a time.” Still, the artist is planning a full length portrait of the New Jersey rocker as a way of “paying respects.” “When I showed the head to Springsteen’s first drummer, Jimmy Lopez, who was playing in Freehold recently, he told me: ‘Dead on, man, beautiful.’”

He’s also at work on a portrait of Sid Bernstein, the man who brought The Beatles to Shea Stadium and the Rolling Stones to the Academy of Music in Manhattan.

According to the sculptor, his “real anchor piece,” is a monumental tribute to Captain John T. Dempster that stands outside the Mercer County Fire Training Center on Basin Road. “Dempster, who was know as ‘Cap’ was quite a character in the Trenton Fire Department; he was 85 when I did this life-size portrait of him.” The sculptor was later commissioned to create the bronze award presented to recipients of the David N. Kershaw Award in commemoration of the first president of Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton. In addition, he has created two crosses, one Catholic and one Protestant, for the Princeton University Memorial Chapel, and numerous bronze commemorative plaques.

 

Over the past decade, Princeton Festival has grown to include a wide range of performance genres, from orchestra, to opera, to jazz. Just as diverse is the music presented by the ensembles which are part of Princeton Festival. The Festival kicked off its month-long jam-packed season this past weekend with the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra’s (GPYO) concert of operatic, vocal, and orchestral selections Saturday night in Richardson Auditorium. The annual spring concert of the Youth Orchestra featured the Concert and Symphonic Orchestras, with an evening clearly about the young musicians who take part in the GPYO program.

Dr. Arvin Gopal, conductor of the middle through high school level Concert Orchestra, presented works that capitalized on the army of violins in the Concert Orchestra. Following a humorous start in which Dr. Gopal sang along with an unanswered cell phone in the audience, the Concert Orchestra launched into the 20th-century Chant and Joyous Dance of American composer Eliot del Borgo. The unison strings provided a heavy and dark sound against well-unified and pulsating trombones. Dr. Gopal maintained a solid driving rhythm through the piece and showed himself to be a steady and easy-to-follow conductor.

Modest Mussorgsky’s fantasia Night on Bald Mountain featured impressive lower trombones and tuba from within the Concert Orchestra, and Dr. Gopal was able to find numerous tempi within the one-movement piece. A pair of flutes demonstrated clean tuning, with Shannon Lu playing graceful solo lines.

The more advanced young musicians of the GPYO perform with the Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe. The Symphonic Orchestra focused their portion of the program largely on opera, with two orchestral selections from 19th-century operas and four arias featuring tenor Jon Darios. The two operatic orchestra excerpts — the overture from Johann Strauss’ Der Zigeunerbaron and an intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana featured numerous oboe solos, elegantly played by Kaitlyn Walker. Ms. Walker showed a great deal of physicality in her playing, taking her time on the long Alpine-like lines. The horn section of the orchestra showed a very smooth blend in the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, with clean melodic lines played by the clarinets.

Well-blended upper strings marked the intermezzo, as extended string melodies were spun out against pizzicato playing from the double basses. A very nice touch was added to the end of the piece by harpist Alyssa Caffrey. Tenor Jon Darios, a veteran of musical theater and opera, sang arias of 19th-century operatic composers Donizetti, Tosti, and Califano, showing himself to be a more decisive singer in the faster selections. He wore a microphone on stage, which probably was not necessary and did not seem to match the acoustic palette of the players, but he was nonetheless entertaining as a performer.

An internal star of the Symphonic Orchestra stepped out in front with a movement from Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in G Major for Flute and Orchestra. Katarzyna Dobrzycka, heading to Rutgers in the fall, played a chipper solo line with clean scales as the reduced orchestra of strings, oboes, and horns accompanied her. One could hear every turn in the melodic line, and the episodes within the rondo were evenly played with detached effect as if in an 18th-century court parlor.

The theme of Princeton Festival this year is “The New World: Voices of the Americas.” Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra’s concert Saturday night fit right in with not only repertory of the Americas but also the “voices” of its young musicians performing together.

 

MAYBE THIS TIME WE WILL PREVAIL: William Cage (Tom Cruise, right) and Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) reconnoiter the landscape while trying to devise a strategy that will enable their army’s forces defeat the alien Mimics, who are trying to take over planet Earth. Fortunately, the pair have all the time they need, because each time William is killed, he immediately comes back to life and, together with Rita, the pair are given another chance to defeat the enemy.

MAYBE THIS TIME WE WILL PREVAIL: William Cage (Tom Cruise, right) and Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) reconnoiter the landscape while trying to devise a strategy that will enable their army’s forces defeat the alien Mimics, who are trying to take over planet Earth. Fortunately, the pair have all the time they need, because each time William is killed, he immediately comes back to life and, together with Rita, the pair are given another chance to defeat the enemy.

William Cage (Tom Cruise) has risen to the rank of Major in the U.S. Army without ever seeing any combat, which is fortunate since he can’t stand the sight of blood, not even from a paper cut. So, you can imagine his surprise the day that he’s informed by his superior (Brendan Gleeson) that he’ll be shipping out soon to England to lead a D-Day style invasion of France. The aim of the mission is to take back Western Europe from an army of intelligent alien invaders called Mimics who have an uncanny ability to stage sophisticated counterattacks.

When Cage tries to decline the dangerous assignment, General Brigham explains that he’s just been given an order, not an offer. And when he still proves reluctant to obey, he is summarily demoted and forced to join a unit of troublemakers known as the J Squad, whose members operate under the command of a no-nonsense sergeant (Bill Paxton) who keeps the squad’s soldiers in line.

Shortly thereafter, they ship out aboard a plane as part of an international squadron of troops and are parachuted onto a beach that looks like a slaughterhouse. The allies are easily overmatched by the enemy, and it isn’t long before Cage receives a fatal shot to the chest.

However, he is dead only briefly and finds himself transported back in time to the moment he met Sergeant Farrell a few hours before, when he was roused out of a stupor by the Southerner’s thick drawl of “On your feet, maggot!” Somehow, Cage has been given a reprieve and a second chance to exhibit expertise and heroics on the battlefield. In fact, he is killed again and again and, like your typical computer game, has umpteen opportunities to start over and improve his strategy against the seemingly invincible Mimics.

Cage is assisted by Special Forces soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the only other person who is aware of his ability to reincarnate. Therefore, it falls upon the pair to save the planet from the alien scourge that is bent on world domination.

Thus unfolds Edge of Tomorrow, a science fiction movie based on All You Need Is Kill, a graphic novel originally published By Hiroshi Sakurazaka in Japan in 2004. Directed by Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), the movie uses the same plot device that was explored in both Groundhog Day (1993) and Source Code (2011).

Nevertheless, Liman has put a refreshing spin on the time machine genre, and keeps you enthralled as he keeps you guessing about the series of thoroughly unpredictable developments that transpire.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, and brief sensuality. Running time: 113 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

June 4, 2014

Bliss. Feeling like a kid up past his bedtime, I’m stretched out on a cushioned window seat on the ninth floor of a century-old Beaux Arts hotel gazing at the Hotel Belleclaire, Broadway at Seventy-Seventh Street New Yorklights moving up and down after-midnight Broadway.

We checked into the Hotel Belleclaire after spending Saturday afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Gatsby to Garp exhibit of 20th century American literature rarities from the Carter Burden collection. Since one of the Belleclaire’s claims to fame is that Babe Ruth and Mark Twain once stayed there, the hotel offers suites named for the Sultan of Swat and the author of Huckleberry Finn. Asked about the Mark Twain Suite, the man at the desk says, “Somebody already lives there.” After I mention that I’m planning to write a column about our stay, he says the best he can do is an “upgrade.” He and his female co-worker are smiling as they send us up to Room 903, which turns out to be, ta-dum, the Mark Twain Suite, and here he is, large as life, white-maned and white-suited in three framed, hugely enlarged photographic reproductions — wearing a top hat in the entry hall; looking out a window with his pipe in his hand on the wall of the sitting room, along with framed sketches of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer; and seated as if waiting for us in the second room, which has a replica of a vintage bed with cast-iron curtained head board within easy reach of a replica of a Twain-era telephone.

A knock at the door and in comes a man bearing a bottle of Merlot and two wine glasses. A minute later he’s back with two bottles of water and some Dean & DeLucca snacks. On shelves beside the sofa are facsimile first editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the lavishly illustrated volume that accompanied the Ken Burns American Lives documentary about Mark Twain.

At the Morgan

On days like this New York is in its glory. As we walk crosstown from Penn Station, everything’s falling into place, as if the whole city has achieved clarity, it’s all working, even the balance is balanced, and after sharing an upscale cheeseburger lunch at the Morgan’s courtyard cafe, we’re ready for the Burden exhibit. My wife indulged my craving for a burger and fries without my having to convince her that nothing else on the menu went as well with a visit to 20th century American literature. It’s true that the exhibit begins with Henry James, who most likely would have scorned such an unseemly delicacy (though he did partake of donuts and there’s a photo to prove it). In fact, James is treated as an outlier, an island unto himself in an anteroom, where he’s represented by an American first of Portrait of a Lady; the doomed play he made from his novel, The American; and a post card of a church. James is there because Burden’s collection had its “foundation” in the Master, “the only nineteenth century writer who being an American felt the method of the twentieth century,” according to Gertrude Stein.

Sorry, but if anyone “felt the method ahead of the century” it was New Jersey’s own Stephen Crane, not to mention our roommate Sam Clemens, neither of whom are on the premises. Ask Hemingway about his debt to Crane and he’ll be even more vocal on the subject of the man the Belleclaire named a suite for, witness his declaration in The Green Hills of Africa that “all American literature comes from one book … called Huckleberry Finn.”

No more carping, it’s a fascinating show, and one of the highlights is Hemingway’s expansive, playful, if not downright nutty inscription in The Sun Also Rises. Of course seeing the dust-jacketed first edition of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a thrill; no matter how often you may have seen the cover reproduced, it’s still the most charismatic image in American literature. Other highlights: Fitzgerald’s heavily annotated proof sheet for a Civil War story; the first editions of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, along with the shooting script for The Thin Man and Knopf’s publicity sheet (“In 1929, we gave you Hammett, in 1934 we gave you [James M.] Cain, in 1939 we give you Chandler and The Big Sleep”), not to mention Little Brown’s flyer for The Catcher in the Rye (“This book is going to click!”) and Salinger’s polite letter to a Little Brown copy editor about Franny and Zooey. Of all the letters, the most striking is the long, eloquent, typically selfless and apparently futile one Allen Ginsberg wrote to John Ciardi explaining the art of Jack Kerouac.

book revGorky Scandal

For several days I’ve been trying to find out when, why, or how Mark Twain, who had a home of his own on lower Fifth Avenue, ever resided at the Belleclaire. The one piece of evidence I’ve found concerns the Russian novelist, playwright, and revolutionary, Maxim Gorky, who stayed at the hotel in April 1906, presumably at Twain’s urging. The Belleclaire was only three years old at the time and still an architectural showpiece, the first “skyscraper” hotel (it was all of ten stories high).

Gorky’s arrival in America was front page news. A long story in the April 13 New York Times about his adventures in the city (he visited Grant’s Tomb, among other tourist sights), offers the clearest evidence of Twain’s presence at the hotel: “Mark Twain and W. D. Howells called upon Gorky at his apartments in the Hotel Belleclaire last evening. They remained with him for about half an hour discussing literature, and invited him to attend a literary dinner about a fortnight from now.”

The dinner never happened because it was discovered that the charming woman referred to in various news stories as Mrs. Gorky was an actress with whom the writer had been living ever since his separation from his wife a few years before. The press-fueled out-of-wedlock scandal was unacceptable to the Belleclaire’s owner, who evicted the couple and huffily told the Times, “My hotel is a family hotel, and in justice to my other guests I cannot possibly tolerate the presence of any persons whose characters are questioned in the slightest manner.”

After two other hotels turned them away, Gorky and his mistress left the city; he told reporters, “The publication of such a libel is a dishonor to the American press. I am surprised that in a country famed for its love of fair play and reverence for women, such a slander as this should have gained credence.” Only the day before, the Times story had quoted him saying, “This is a wonderful country, surely the Promised Land. I hope I shall live to see the day when things are this way in Russia.”

Later that same year, back in his homeland, Gorky wrote a nightmarish account of “the wonderful country” titled “The City of the Yellow Devil” where the buildings “tower gloomily and drearily,” there are “no flowers at the windows and no children to be seen,” and the city is “a vast jaw with uneven black teeth” breathing “clouds of black smoke into the sky.”

Never the Twain

I have no reason to doubt that Twain himself stayed at the Belleclaire, if only because it was “the thing to do” when the hotel was a unique addition to the city. But since I’ve been unable to pin down an exact time and place, I can only resort to Twain’s own rationale, stated in Eve’s Diary: “If there wasn’t anything to find out, it would be dull. Even trying to find out and not finding out is just as interesting as trying to find out and finding out; and I don’t know but more so.”
Remember this is the author who threatened to prosecute, banish, or shoot persons attempting to find a motive, a moral, or a plot in his most famous novel. As Huck himself says, “there was things” that the author “stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

It’s also true that “Gatsby to Garp: Modern Masterpieces from the Carter Burden Collection” will be at the Morgan Library and Museum through September 7.

 

When Princeton resident Robert Ross decided to donate his priceless collection of medals and honors to his alma mater Princeton University, he wanted to be sure that the items would be seen and studied by more than a select handful of numismatic experts.

The exhibition “From a Thankful Nation: Latin American Medals and Orders from the Robert L. Ross Collection at Princeton University” displayed in the gallery just inside the door of the University’s Firestone Library in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections does just that.

An enthusiastic collector since he bought his first World War II medal at the age of 13, Mr. Ross has learned over the years that even the simplest of objects has a story to tell.

Take, for example, one tiny medal struck to commemorate the first battle fought in a river by steam ships iron clad for war, “the most technologically advanced warfare at the time,” said Mr. Ross. Or the touching tale associated with a somewhat dull looking metal wedding band created by the government of Paraguay as a token of gratitude to soldiers’ wives who had given up their gold wedding bands in support of the effort during The Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, considered one of the bloodiest of South American conflicts.

Little known characters from history also step into view, such as William Walker (1824-1860), the American adventurer from Nashville, who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America, intent on carving out his own English-speaking colony. Walker ruled the Republic of Nicaragua from 1856 until 1857 until he came to a bad end. Defeated by a coalition of Central American armies, he was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) makes an appearance for his support of the Panama Canal. And there are Brazilian Air Force medals for service during World War II and orders of the Latin American Red Cross orders.

“Some of this history has yet to be written,” said Mr. Ross. For history buffs interested in Latin America and its evolution, the show is a magnet. Displayed chronologically, the exhibition relates a history that began in Europe around the time of the Crusades before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play out in Brazil, Haiti, and Mexico under the Emperor Maximilian.

Some of the medals and honors were struck to influence power, others to hold on to it, by heads of state eager to encourage and reward loyalty.

Besides plain coin-like medals there are jewel-encrusted and enameled star-bursts on elaborate silk ribbons and bows, the outward manifestations of bravery, self-sacrifice, and hope for freedom as well as self aggrandizement.

THE ORDER OF THE ROSE: This Imperial Order from Brazil is on display as part of the exhibition “From a Thankful Nation: Latin American Medals and Orders from the Robert L. Ross Collection at Princeton University” in Firestone Library. Spanning two centuries from the rise of movements for political independence through to the present, the exhibition includes Spanish religious-military orders that had their origin in the Crusades and the Reconquista; the first medals issued in colonial Latin America; the many decorations awarded during the 19th-century; and a new generation of 20th-century republican orders for diplomatic, military, political, and cultural achievements. For more information, call (609) 258-3184 or visit: http://library.princeton.edu/about/hours.(Photo by John Blazejewski)

THE ORDER OF THE ROSE: This Imperial Order from Brazil is on display as part of the exhibition “From a Thankful Nation: Latin American Medals and Orders from the Robert L. Ross Collection at Princeton University” in Firestone Library. Spanning two centuries from the rise of movements for political independence through to the present, the exhibition includes Spanish religious-military orders that had their origin in the Crusades and the Reconquista; the first medals issued in colonial Latin America; the many decorations awarded during the 19th-century; and a new generation of 20th-century republican orders for diplomatic, military, political, and cultural achievements. For more information, call (609) 258-3184 or visit: http://library.princeton.edu/about/hours. (Photo by John Blazejewski)

Commemorating the bicentennial of the beginning of the movements that would bring about independence in several Latin American countries, the exhibition features selections from Mr. Ross’s definitive collection.

A treasury of history and politics, the exhibition reveals much about the ambitious leaders who bestowed such honors, like the 20th century dictators Rafael Trujillo (1891 -1961), Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) and Fidel Castro.

“You can learn a lot about a leader by looking at the orders he created,” said Mr. Ross, pointing out that Trujillo’s was a personal dictatorship while Pinochet’s was a military junta. The former created four orders, one for each branch of the military, the army, navy, air, and the militarized police, in contrast with Castro. “In Cuba, you won’t find a street or city named for Fidel Castro. His isn’t a personal dictatorship like Trujillo’s,” said Mr. Ross.

“No modern Latin American country has done more to exploit the traditional medium of the awarded medal as a tool for promotion of its governing regime than Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” commented exhibition curator Alan M. Stahl, in reference to Cuba’s Order of Che Guevara. “Dozens of medals and orders have been created and distributed to recognize efforts on behalf of literacy and agriculture, as well as military and political actions. The Order of Che Guevara is especially emblematic in depicting one of the iconic martyrs of the Cuban Revolution to reward individuals ‘for exceptional military merit in the fight against imperialism and colonialism.’”

Latin America’s political independence is most commonly associated with Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the Venezuelan revolutionary general who led republican armies to liberate Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru beginning in 1813. Venezuela awards an order named exclusively for him, The Order of the Liberator, which is traditionally worn by the Venezuelan president to symbolize sovereign power and comes in six grades, of which you can see the Collar, the Grand Cross, and the Officer grade on display.

As Mr. Ross led a small group through the exhibition recently, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge, relating stories as he went.

“The origin of these orders goes back to the 11th century in the Holy Land,” he said before going on to explain that an order is a confraternity approved by Papal decree, or “bull.” Besides hospital and military orders, religious/military orders were formed to fight Muslims during the Crusades. Today, many such orders have evolved to have humanitarian purposes, like the U.K.’s St. John’s Ambulance Service. Many were founded by kings, although The French Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon.

Also interesting are the indigenous adaptations such as Guatemala’s Order of the Quetzal, named after a beloved local bird. Given to nationals and foreigners for international, civic, scientific, literary, or artistic services of benefit to the nation, according to Mr. Stahl, “it is is one of the few Latin American medals to incorporate indigenous art motifs.”

Asked how he had kept his collection before he donated it to Princeton, Mr. Ross responded “nervously.” It’s easy to see why. While some are worth more in terms of historic interest than monetary value, others are masterful creations of precious metals and stones.

Purchased by Mr. Ross at auctions in Europe, the collection now has a safe home in the Firestone Library where it has been documented by a thoroughly researched and fully-illustrated 700 page catalogue with 969 color photographs, and is being made available for study. The catalogue can be purchased for $125 from the office of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

“From a Thankful Nation: Latin American Medals and Orders from the Robert L. Ross Collection at Princeton University” will be on display through August 3. Admission is free. For more information and gallery hours, call (609) 258-3184 or visit: http://library.princeton.edu/about/hours.

 

The Princeton Girlchoir pulled out all the stops this past weekend for its 25th Anniversary concert. Founded by music educator Jan Westrick and currently under the leadership of Artistic Director Lynnel Joy Jenkins, the Princeton Girlchoir (PGC) has provided an incomparable performance outlet to hundreds of Princeton area girls in its history. All six choirs of the PGC program performed in Sunday afternoon’s concert at Trenton War Memorial’s Patriot’s Theater, with all conductors and accompanists also taking part. There were 30 selections on the program, which may seem like a large number, but the range of repertoire both covered the varied musical taste of PGC’s history and captured the overriding message of PGC throughout the years to celebrate the power of girls’ voices.

The 250 girls of the PGC program are divided into six choruses ranging from youngest to oldest, and the training ensemble Grace Notes started things off Sunday afternoon. Conductor Melissa Malvar-Keylock introduced the clear and youthful sound of this younger choir with her own co-arrangement (with Jill Fridersdorf) of the technically difficult “Laudamus Te” from Mozart’s Mass in C minor. This aria is a hard enough piece for an accomplished soloist, but this arrangement removed some of the tougher coloratura and left Mozart’s long melodic lines to the chorus, accompanied by pianist Todd Simmons and flutist Jessica Renshaw. These young singers showed in their selection’s crisp endings an open and free sound.

Each chorus in the PGC program sang a few selections, some in combination with each other, with pieces showing technical difficulty and supporting the goal of fostering in the choristers a lifelong love of music. The Quarter Notes, conducted by Fred Meads, reaffirmed a message of youth in Mac Huff’s arrangement of David Mallet’s “The Garden Song,” made famous in the folk music world by Pete Seeger. Accompanied by Ms. Renshaw’s obbligato flute, the choristers of the Quarter Notes sang with the trademark PGC clear sound, easily maintaining two separate parts.

The complexity of music for Sunday afternoon’s concert proved to be commensurate with the age of the chorister. Ms. Malvar-Keylock returned to the stage with the Semi-tones, showing the same clarity of tone which runs through all the ensembles. Tom Shelton, conductor of the upper-high school age Cantores, showed himself from the outset to be a clear and demanding conductor, leaving no doubt as to what he wanted from the singers. He drew a strong sound from the Cantores, with a rich and pure sound from the top sopranos and exact tuning in the arrangement of Schumann’s lieder “Widmung.” The Hungarian “Fülemüle” was sung with typical Eastern European speed of text and precision more characteristic of a college choir.

The older choristers in the PGC family perform in Cantores, as well as the more advanced Concert Choir and the select Ensemble, both conducted by Lynnel Joy Jenkins. With the Ensemble, Ms. Jenkins showed her choral pedagogy to be a shared experience between conductor and singer by standing not in front of the chorus but to the side, joining the choristers in singing the music. Ms. Jenkins sang alto with the Ensemble in Duruflé’s motet “Tota pulchra es,” stepping in only to close the piece, and the Ensemble showed particular vocal independence in Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love.” The Concert Choir showed pure intervals with the “Flower Duet” (“Dôme Épais”) from Delibes’ opera Lakmé, and Ms. Jenkins showed that she has clearly imparted a good sense of rhythm to the singers in a saucy performance of Leadbelly’s “Bring me Little Water, Silvy.”

As with many Princeton Girlchoir performances, alumnae join the Girlchoir for final selections, in this case, a piece commissioned from PGC accompanist Ryan Brechmacher for the 25th anniversary. “A Life of Song,” sung by the all the girls in the Girlchoir and the Alumnae Choir, summarized the PGC mission in its text “I want to live a life of song,” and as conducted by Ms. Jenkins, showed the precision and choral blend of the choirs. A performance of the duet “For Good” from the musical Wicked, conducted by founding director Jan Westrick, was also an appropriate choice to acknowledge the bonding experience of being part of the Princeton Girlchoir.

 

HOW CAN NOT KILLING THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SENTINELS SAVE THE FUTURE?: In the past, the superhero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not shown) was assigned by the X-Men to murder Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinel robots, shown here in the process of creating the robots in the past. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, not shown) was sent back from the future to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission.

HOW CAN NOT KILLING THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SENTINELS SAVE THE FUTURE?: In the past, the superhero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not shown) was assigned by the X-Men to murder Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinel robots, shown here in the process of creating the robots in the past. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, not shown) was sent back from the future to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the 7th episode in the series, and is the third one directed by Bryan Singer, who also directed X-Men 1 and 2. This film is loosely based on the 1981 Marvel Comics (issues #141-142) of the same name, a convoluted tale in which a superhero is sent back in time to prevent an impending disaster that is threatening their present.

The story unfolds in a dystopian future where we find robots, called Sentinels, slaying mutants and subjugating humanity. X-Men founder, leader, and the brains behind the group — Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) — summons the surviving members to a meeting in a monastery in China to hatch a plan to preserve the planet.

With the help of “phasing” Shadowcat’s (Ellen Page) quantum tunneling ability, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) slips through a portal to a parallel universe in 1973. His mission there is to stop fellow mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering Trask (Peter Dinklage), the diabolical genius who invented the Sentinels.

Why would you want a vanquished villain to be reincarnated? Don’t ask. After all, that’s one of the easier leaps of faith this film’s plot expects you to make. If you need a plausible plot, then you might be too close-minded for this imaginative science fiction.

But I digress. Fortunately, you will be richly rewarded for taking flights of fancy — provided you suspend your disbelief. Don’t try to make sense, for instance, about how you go back in time, reverse a long-deceased person’s demise, and yet not simultaneously unravel myriad aspects of reality which have already transpired.

Instead, simply sit back and enjoy a sophisticated movie unfolding against a nostalgic backdrop littered with staples of the 70s, ranging from lava lamps to waterbeds. This adventure even brings out a number of characters we haven’t seen for awhile, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Cyclops (James Marsden), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore).

Don’t forget to sit through all of the credits for a teaser about the next X-Men: Apocalypse, coming in May of 2016.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for nudity, profanity, suggestive material, and intense violence. In English, French, and Vietnamese with subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

 

May 28, 2014

bk revThere’s a rapping at my study door, a soft persistent tapping, with a hint of claw in the sound. The door is gently banging back and forth in the frame as I sort through ideas for a May 28 column. When the rapping intensifies, it inspires thoughts of a famous Raven at a famous chamber door. Even in the age of Rap the word “rapping” belongs to Poe.

Waiting on the other side is Nora, our glossy 11-year-old tuxedo cat who can’t abide closed doors. I put my thoughts on hold and clear a space for us amid the jumble of books piled on the chaise by the window. Stepping lightly over the rocky paperback-hardback terrain until she has a clear view of the street below, Nora casts a watchful eye on the commotion of a garbage truck making the Thursday pick-up. No birds or squirrels being in sight, she turns her attention to a battered paperback anthology of French poetry I found at the Cranbury Book Worm the other day, gives it a whiskery nuzzling, and then puts one white paw on Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, as if to say, “This is mine.” Then she curls up by my side and, as my maternal grandmother would say, commences purring.

With my free hand, I open the Baudelaire, a severely creased Boni & Liveright Modern Library edition from 1919, and start reading aloud from a prose poem about twilight madness and a man who would be sociable and indulgent during the day and “pitiless” in the evening, having once thrown at a waiter’s head “an excellent chicken, in which he imagined he had discovered some insulting hieroglyph.”

While I’m not suggesting that our Nora has a soft spot for Baudelaire, I can tell you that her ears perked up when I read the last part, she who in her wild youth performed feats equal to the throwing of chickens at waiters, if not the throwing of waiters at chickens. Remember that Baudelaire himself was partial to a “strong and gentle” cat, “the pride of the house,” beloved of “ardent lovers and austere scholars” and worthy of comparison to “the mighty sphinxes” with “particles of gold spangling their mystic eyes.”

In fact, it was “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth,” a poem by Robert Desnos, that took me to the Cranbury Book Worm and the paperback anthology of French poetry I’m reaching for when the “pride of the house” decides she’s had enough, slips off the chaise, and heads for the door.

The Book Worm

In its heyday, when it occupied the most imposing house on Main Street, the Book Worm had well over 100,000 volumes in stock, not to mention stacks of old Life magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, posters, paintings, and upstairs, along with more rooms of books, a substantial assortment of antiques — and fresh vegetables. Here, surely, was the only bookstore in the world that sold cucumbers and tomatoes grown in the mulch made from a compost heap of decaying books. Sadly, the Worm has been downsized to a shadow of its former self and installed in a cramped store front a block away, but as the Stones will tell you, while you may not always get what you want, if you try, sometimes you get what you need. I got Robert Desnos (pronounced Dez-nose) and Henri Rousseau.

Gateway to Rimbaud

Given the condition — spine cocked, page ends yellowed — Wallace Fowlie’s bilingual 1955 Grove Press paperback,  Mid-Century French Poets, should not be priced at $6. The catch is that it’s inscribed “Wishes to Marion and Francis for a blessed Xmas, love Wallace 1955.” Francis is Francis Fergusson, the author of Idea of the Theater (Princeton 1949), who taught at Rutgers, lived in Kingston, died at Princeton Hospital in 1986, and sublet our house in Bloomington one summer; on the subject of inscriptions, the Fergusson kids wrote their names in pencil on the wall of the closet in my room, and so did Leslie Fiedler’s kids when the author of Love and Death in the American Novel sublet the house for a year.

As for Fowlie, he was nothing less than the gateway to Rimbaud for Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. His translation of the Works is on my desk even now. He also wrote a book about Rimbaud and Jim Morrison called The Rebel as Poet, and his friendship with Henry Miller resulted in the publication of their correspondence.

With inscriptions and associations like that, and a nice selection of Desnos inside, how could I not buy this book?

Rousseau’s Dream

My other purchase at the Book Worm was a Museum of Modern Art monograph from 1946 about Rousseau (1844-1910), who was born on May 21 and might have been the subject of last week’s column if he hadn’t been competing with Fats Waller.

The reproductions in the Rousseau book are all in black and white, like Nora, and when she shows up again, nuzzling the leg of my desk, it happens that I’m gazing at a full-page detail of two wild felines prowling the dense forest in Rousseau’s The Dream, painted the year he died. As the title suggests, these creatures are moving wide-eyed and bewildered through the dreaming mind of the naked damsel on the couch. In the poem he attached to the painting, the painter imagines her listening to a snakecharmer’s flute. He’s given her face a stern touch of attitude, thinking perhaps of Léonie, the fiftyish widow with whom he was hopelessly in love at the time. Léonie worked behind the counter in a Paris department store Rousseau faithfully visited only to be unceremoniously rebuffed by her. Day after day, he would return home to paint himself deeper into The Dream. Same old story, he does it all for Léonie, leaves her paintings in his will, and she can’t be bothered to go to his funeral.

The Cat

Robert Desnos wrote “The Cat Like Nothing Else on Earth” for artists and dreamers everywhere, including of course,  Le Douanier, the former toll collector eating his heart out over a department store sales clerk. Desnos’s phenomenal cat goes to a doctor who listens to his heart and tells him it “isn’t doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” Then he goes to see “his lady, who examines his brain,” and tells him, “Your brain’s not doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” As if that isn’t enough, she adds, “It’s unlike anything in the whole world.” The poem ends with a sigh: “And that’s why the cat like nothing else on earth/Is sad today and doesn’t feel so well.”

Of all the photographs of 20th century painters I’ve ever seen, none come as close to capturing the spirit of “The Cat Like Nothing Else” as the one of Rousseau taken in his studio on December 14, 1908. The aging painter sits facing the camera, his elbow on a table, his chin propped on his hand, looking as if he’s just shuffled home after another slap in the face from Léonie, the muse from hell. Home is one room with a large window. There’s a violin on the table, a broom in the corner, lots of pictures on the wall, and somewhere out of camera range, the artist’s paintings, his easel and the usual accoutrements of his true profession. When someone asks him isn’t it uncomfortable to sleep in a studio, he says, “When I wake up I can smile at my canvases.”

At least he’s got company. On the floor near the broom there’s a bowl of milk.

Desnos Cheats Death

When Robert Desnos died on June 8, 1945, at the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, it was from typhus. Some time before he fell ill, he and a group of other internees were being marched to the gas chamber, so the story goes, when Desnos suddenly began reading the palms of the condemned, predicting a long full life for everyone. His manner was so convincing, so dismissive of all earthly doubt, that the victims began to believe him, and the guards became confused, lost touch with their mission, and ordered the people back into the truck, which took them back to the barracks.

If this anecdote sounds far-fetched, there are indications throughout Wallace Fowlie’s biographical sketch that if anyone could have performed such a feat, it was Desnos, who grew up believing in the existence of the marvellous and the exotic. In the 1920s he hung out with the surrealists, the only one “who could speak surrealistically at will,” according to André Breton; he “read in himself as in an open book,” practiced automatic writing, and seemed to “live within poetry.” During the sleep seances the others engaged in, Desnos proved to be the only genuine medium. As soon as he was asleep, “his power of speech was released and flowed abundantly.” He had discovered a way of translating himself into poetry without the help of books, without the need of writing, “in a state of constant inspiration.”

During the occupation of Paris, Desnos joined the Resistance and helped direct the underground publications of Les editions de Minuit, until he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally Terezin.

———

There’s that tapping at the study door. It’s after 2 a.m. and the Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth is waiting to be let in.

I have a friend from days on the road to thank for introducing me to Desnos and “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth.” This morning he sent me a poem he just finished, “The Shade of Robert Desnos,” which can be read on rogeryates.blogspot.com, at the top of a monthly roster of poetry very much worth scrolling through. 

 

MARK ROTHKO: This untitled 1968 (100 x 63.5 cm) oil on paper laid down on canvas by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) comes from the collection of Princeton University alumnus Preston H. Haskell (Class of 1960) and will be featured in the exhibition, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” through Sunday, opening Saturday, May 24 at the Princeton University Art Museum. (Image courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

MARK ROTHKO: This untitled 1968 (100 x 63.5 cm) oil on paper laid down on canvas by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) comes from the collection of Princeton University alumnus Preston H. Haskell (Class of 1960) and will be featured in the exhibition, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” through Sunday, opening Saturday, May 24 at the Princeton University Art Museum.
(Image courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Princeton University alumnus Preston H. Haskell III (Class of 1960), will discuss the process of collecting modern and contemporary art in conversation with Pulitzer Prize–winning author and art critic Mark Stevens (Class of 1973) this Friday, May 30, at 3 p.m. in the University’s McCormick Hall, Room 101.

The event follows a book signing at 2:30 p.m. and precedes a reception in the galleries.

Mr. Haskell’s talk, “Collecting Abstraction,” highlights Princeton University Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting From the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” which opened last Saturday.

The exhibition features 27 paintings by some of the most important artists of the 20th century and provides a window onto the evolution of process, mark-making, and abstraction in the second half of the 20th century.

Mr. Haskell is a long-standing Museum benefactor and former chair of its Advisory Council.

“Rothko to Richter,” features work by 23 pioneering American, European, and Canadian artists, including Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko and Frank Stella.

The work on display is drawn from the period between 1950 and 1990, an era whose commitment to artistic experimentation is rivaled only by the first decades of the 20th century, when abstraction was first introduced in Europe and America.

These 40 years were a time of extraordinary creative ferment, when the very nature of abstract painting was hotly contested. The world of abstract art saw some dramatic developments. Experimentation with various methods of applying paint to a surface was common, with results that sometimes emphasized and sometimes obliterated traces of the artist’s hand.

Part of the exhibition focuses on artists like Jack Goldstein and Robert Rauschenberg who examine abstraction and mark-making in a way that is self-conscious and with a considerable degree of irony. Such work examines notions of authenticity and expression.

Curated by Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the eponymous exhibition explores how changes in process and technique, specifically in mark-making, signal broader changes to abstract painting. It is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, published by the Museum. The catalogue has illustrations of all 27 paintings on view as well as contributions from Ms. Baum and essays on the artists.

The artists whose work Mr. Haskell collected represent movements as diverse as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimalism, Op art and Postmodernism. They sought to redefine abstraction for new social and cultural milieus.

“Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting From the Collection of Preston H. Haskell” will be on view through October 5. The exhibition will then travel to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, for an exhibition opening January 2015.

There will also be a lecture by Ms. Baum, titled “Mark, Maker, Method,” in the University’s McCosh 50, on Thursday, July 17, at 5:30 p.m.

Admission to the Princeton University Art Museum is free. Gallery hours are: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. In addition, the exhibition will be open on Sunday, June 1, and Monday, June 2, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 258-3788, or visit: www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.

 

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG: Jim (Adam Sandler, right) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) meet online and arrange to meet for dinner at a Hooter’s restaurant. That choice of venue appears to be fatal to the continued development of their relationship because Jim pays more attention to the waitresses and the big game on TV than he does to Lauren. Nonetheless, the pair and their children are thrown together after a series of improbable coincidences and love is given another chance to bloom between the pair.

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG: Jim (Adam Sandler, right) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) meet online and arrange to meet for dinner at a Hooter’s restaurant. That choice of venue appears to be fatal to the continued development of their relationship because Jim pays more attention to the waitresses and the big game on TV than he does to Lauren. Nonetheless, the pair and their children are thrown together after a series of improbable coincidences and love is given another chance to bloom between the pair.

Jim Friedman (Adam Sandler) is a widower who’s raising three daughters on his own. Since he is clueless about raising girls, he’s been slowly turning them into tomboys by giving them Prince Valiant haircuts and referring to them by masculine nicknames Larry (Bella Thorne), Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind), and ESPN (Emma Fuhrmann).

By contrast, Lauren Reynolds’ (Drew Barrymore) plight is just the opposite. The frazzled, very feminine divorcée is being driven crazy by her pubescent son Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and hyperactive Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein). Brendan is exploring his burgeoning sexuality while Tyler’s pyromania has his mother seriously considering starting him on Ritalin.

Neither Jim nor Lauren had been on a date in ages until they made each other’s acquaintance online. They agreed to meet for drinks, and the prospects looked promising, given how her sons’ need for a father figure conveniently dovetailed with his daughters’ for maternal guidance.

Unfortunately, rendezvousing at Hooters turned out to be a bad idea, because Jim paid more attention to the waitresses and the basketball game on TV than he did to Lauren. So the two went their separate way, never expecting to see each other ever again.

However, through an improbable series of coincidences, both of their families end-up booked on the same flight to South Africa for an all expenses-paid vacation where they’ll have to share a hotel suite at a luxury resort. Will Jim take advantage of this second chance to make a better impression on Lauren?

That is the quandary established at the outset of Blended, the third romantic romp about an Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore collaboration (The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates). Before the audience finds out the answer, the pair and their progeny indulge in the sort of comedy that has made Sandler famous.

The movie proceeds to throw anything up on the screen for a laugh (especially scene-stealer Terry Crews as the irrepressible local entertainer), regardless of whether or not the skit fits into the plot or furthers the storyline. As dumb as the jokes were (and they are often very dumb), I have to admit that I frequently found myself laughing in spite of myself.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, and crude humor. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

 

May 21, 2014

wallerAware that this issue will be appearing on Fats Waller’s 110th birthday, I’m listening to “Honeysuckle Rose,” the first track on If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a 3-disc CD set from RCA. The music is coming from the speakers of my Honda CRV as we pay our biennial visit to the Inspection Station near Dayton on Route 130. As the song plays, there’s no appreciable change in the performance of my 14-year-old alter ego, which seems to be off its game, almost as if it felt failure looming. But once Fats hits his stride-piano stride, we’re in business. The damage he’s doing with the left hand that Rudi Blesh compared to “heat thunder on a summer day” seems to rouse a bell-clear burst of cheering from the right hand, and when the big man’s gutsy, give-no-quarter vocal comes in, it’s a walking talking opera and we’re driving like a dream. At the DMV there’s only one car ahead of us, and ten minutes later we’re flying south on 130, me and my forest green millennial music machine with its good-till-2016 sticker shining like a medal on the windshield, yes, yes, we’re stridin’ high.

Playing the God-Box

In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins calls him “a state of mind …. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask” that “consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”

Further insights on Thomas “Fats” Waller as “the clown who wants to play Hamlet” are offered by New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson, a longtime resident of Basin Street in Princeton, down by the D&R Canal. After mentioning Waller’s “consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ” and the depth of the “hurt” he felt when audiences rejected this side of him, Wilson describes the moment in Paris in 1932 when Fats “climbed up into the organ loft of the Cathedral of Notre Dame with Marcel Dupré, the cathedral’s organist.” Fats is quoted saying, “First Mr. Dupréplayed the God-box and then I played the God-box.” There seems to be some debate about whether Waller played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue or his own “Honeysuckle Rose.” Both, I would think, though RCA Victor declined to release any of his Bach performances, including the two fugues he recorded at Victor’s Camden studio in 1927. He also once recorded on the organ in the same Abbey Studio where history was made three decades later by the Beatles, who regularly performed their version of Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” at Hamburg’s Star Club.

The Life of the Party

Standing an inch short of six feet, weighing 285 pounds, and turned out in the style nicely nailed in Gary Giddins’s sketch, Waller “lit the place up like Luna Park” when he walked into a room, according to his son and biographer, Maurice. As much as he loved Bach (said to be third on his list of the greatest men in history, behind Lincoln and FDR), he also loved being the quintessential Life of the Party. It would be twisting reality to spin his story as that of a misunderstood giant whose inner church organist wept whenever he sat down to play something serious only to hear the audience, even at Carnegie Hall, losing patience and soon shouting for the dispenser of joy to do his thing.

Fats Waller didn’t die half a year before his 40th birthday from the stress of stifling his serious side. The life force loved to party, and his prodigious capacity for food and drink and late hours is well-documented. According again to his son, people would drop into the Waller home in St. Albans Queens at all hours of the night to hang out with Fats and hear him play. He never turned them away. Who could? These were people like Legs Diamond, Joe Louis, Humphrey Bogart.

One of the best-known Fats Waller stories, included in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes from the archives of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers, has Fats playing at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman circa 1925 when he was ordered into a car at gun-point and driven to a saloon in East Cicero to play at a surprise birthday party for Al Capone. After experiencing certain initial concerns for his well-being, Fats settled down and so totally charmed the partygoers that Capone kept him there three days, “shoving hundred dollar bills into his pocket with each request” before returning him to Chicago “several thousand dollars richer.”

Playing for Movies

In a minute and a half clip from a September 23, 1943, interview with Hugh Conover on WABC in New York, Waller jokes about being dragged “kicking and screaming” into the world, and then shows his kneejerk sensitivity to language when asked when he made his first professional appearance. “I was approximately 14 years old — that’s a good word approximately. I like that.” According to Murray Schumach’s New York Times interview from July 1943, which can also be accessed at handfulofkeys.com, Fats says that after dropping out school (“I hated algebra”) he found work playing organ accompaniment for silent movies in a Harlem theatre called the Lincoln, where he got in trouble for the sort of waggish improvising that would become his trademark. Like the time the silent movie cowboy, William S. Hart was on the screen: “He’s just been plugged and looks like he’s a cold mackerel. Pretty sad stuff. Next thing I know I’m playing ‘St. Louis Blues.’”

The Last Ride

The circumstances of Fats Waller’s death at 39 are worthy of a place in the national narrative if you can imagine a collaboration between, say, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, and Ralph Ellison: the stricken hero passing his last hours on the Santa Fe Chief, eastbound from the Zanzibar Club in L.A., after being laid up for weeks with a virus. You know that if people partying around the grand piano in the Club Car knew Fats was aboard, he’d have been summoned to perform, so it’s possible he didn’t get to his berth until he’d sweated out a set surrounded by the revellers while the train braved a blizzard, the winter winds of the plains howling outside. As the Chief pounded into Kansas City’s Union Station on the morning of December 15, 1943, Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, found the big man in his berth, unconscious and unresponsive. The coroner’s statement reports that “Acute left influenzal bronchopneumonia” was “the immediate cause of death.” The place of death was given as Union Station.

To die in Kansas City’s Union Station? As Fats was known to say, “One never knows, do one?”

In his book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University Press of Mississippi 2002), Dr. Frederick J. Spencer describes bronchopneumonia as “a patchy infection of the bronchi and bronchioles — the air passages that carry air into and out of the lungs.” Sounds very like the “intake and output” mentioned by Gary Giddins, whose account of that snow-blown endgame train ride features a jazz-flavored double entendre Fats would have appreciated even more than the notion of dying in your berth. When Waller spoke of the bitter winter wind to Ed Kirkeby (“yeah, hawkins is sure blowin out there tonight”), he was using a term for a cold wind “common among black midwesterners” and presumably unrelated to the blowing of the great tenor man who was born just up the Missouri River in St. Joseph. As things happen (“one never knows”), Kirkeby’s account of Fats’s last words in his biography Ain’t Misbehavin’ “created the widely repeated legend that Fats went out contemplating Coleman Hawkins.”

Another jazz-flavored touch is that when the Chief carrying Fats arrived at Union Station it coincided with the arrival of a train carrying Louis Armstrong.

Fats Waller would have turned 40 on May 21, 1944.

Waller’s Rose

I haven’t got the time, patience, or genealogical resources to prove it, but it’s not unlikely that Fats Waller is descended from Edmund Waller, the 17th-century poet and Member of Parliament (1606-1687). There are interesting possibilities online at houseofnames.com. Like Jo Waller,  age 17, who arrived in Barbados in 1635. Or Nicholas Waller, 41, who landed in Philadelphia in 1738. An Alfred Waller showed up in New York in 1845. The reason Edmund Waller is worth a closing mention in a column that begins with “Honeysuckle Rose” is “Go, lovely Rose,” the four stanza lyric for which he’s best known and which ends with a reference to the “common fate of all things rare …. How small a part of time they share/That are so wondrous sweet and fair.”

The Princeton Public Library provided the CD set mentioned at the top, though of course you can see and hear Fats Waller on YouTube, where I found the documentary from which the quotes by Maurice Waller were taken.

 

LET YOUR IMAGINATION PLAY: Fine art photographer Martha Weintraub hopes that visitors to her show at Gallery 14, opening this Friday in Hopewell, will provide their own narratives to work that has the feel of children’s book illustrations. Ms. Weintraub is joined by fellow photographer David Wurtzel for an exhibition that runs May 23 through June 22. An opening reception will take place Friday, May 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. and there will be an opportunity to meet the photographers at the gallery Sunday, May 25, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

LET YOUR IMAGINATION PLAY: Fine art photographer Martha Weintraub hopes that visitors to her show at Gallery 14, opening this Friday in Hopewell, will provide their own narratives to work that has the feel of children’s book illustrations. Ms. Weintraub is joined by fellow photographer David Wurtzel for an exhibition that runs May 23 through June 22. An opening reception will take place Friday, May 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. and there will be an opportunity to meet the photographers at the gallery Sunday, May 25, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

Gallery 14 in Hopewell features photography by longtime gallery member Martha Weintraub in the Main Gallery and by David C. Wurtzel in the adjoining Jay Goodkind Gallery from May 23 through June 22. There will be an opening reception Friday, May 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. and an opportunity to meet the photographers at the gallery Sunday, May 25, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Ms. Weintraub, who currently serves as Gallery 14‘s president, is a writer and editor of children’s textbooks and has long been involved with the use of photographic images in the course of her professional career. When a friend gave her a single lens reflex film camera, she became serious about her own photography. Digital photography, she said, is her medium. And while she would never want to give up being behind the camera, she admits that time at the computer has become equally important to her photo-based artwork.

Ms. Weintraub spends hours at the computer in order to create images that fulfill a vision informed by her vast experience as a creator of children’s books. Visitors to the Gallery 14 show will see this influence manifest in an exhibition aptly titled “Story Hour.” Jumping off from the reference to the reading sessions that are held for youngsters aged between two and five in libraries across the country, Ms. Weintraub has images on display that have the look of book illustrations.

Some will evoke memories of well-known children’s stories and poems. Others will tempt viewers to search for a forgotten narrative or even supply one. According to the artist, however, they come entirely from her imagination. She hopes that viewers will let their own imaginations supply stories to go with her photographs.

Many of the picture book illustration-inspired images include Ms. Weintraub’s granddaughters Natalie, 6, and Miranda, 3, as models. Both girls are lovers of stories and adventures, and the fun that they must have had working/playing with their grandmother comes across here.

The photographer has studied with David Wurtzel, Ernestine Rubin, Maggie Taylor, Nancy Ori, Ricardo Barros, and Rick Wright. Her work has been shown at Phillips Mill Photography Exhibit, Grounds for Sculpture Photography Exhibit, Artsbridge at Prallsville Mills Exhibit, and the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery; an entry in COLOR Magazine’s Portfolio Contest 2011 was selected for a Spotlight Award and her image “City of Books” was Best in Show at Philips Mill in 2012.

Jay Goodkind Gallery

David C. Wurtzel has been active in photography since the late 1940s. He began in his father’s darkroom and maintains one of his own to this day. The photographs he has chosen to display here continue the storytelling theme and are gathered under the title “Other Stories.”

“To me, photography is an art of observation,” said Mr. Wurtzel. “It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place …. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

The digital images in “Other Stories” also invite viewers to supply a narrative, sometimes over several photographs. All were created in the camera using a variety of techniques such as double exposure, and exposures that were either very long or very short. Recorded in color, they were printed in black and white. One image, “Ghosts Rising,” is a joint effort with Martha Weintraub.

Gallery 14 is located at 14 Mercer Street in Hopewell. Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

Godzilla made its debut in 1954 when the mythical man eating monster, accidentally created by an atomic blast, emerged from the Pacific Ocean to carve a path of death and destruction across Japan, which the country’s overmatched military was unable to stop. A couple of years later, Raymond Burr narrated a documentary-style, English language remake which was a dubbed version of the original with his lines spliced in.

Despite relying for decades on stilted scripts and a guy in a rubber suit towering over a scale model of a toy-sized Tokyo, the B-movie series has remained popular enough to spawn at least 30 sequels. This remake of the series, however, abandons campy dialogue and cheesy trick photography in favor of an emotionally engaging plot as well as state-of-the-art special effects.

In the 2014 edition, Godzilla still looks like a fire-breathing mutant iguana, however, it behaves more like an anthropomorphic ally of humanity instead of its evil adversary. The villains, here, are nuclear waste ingesting MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that are not only threatening to level San Francisco but are poised to unleash a litter of their hostile offspring.

In case you’re wondering, there’s plenty of precedents for Godzilla’s squaring off against fellow behemoths. Consider such classic showdowns as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), to name a few.

This film’s finale is well worth the wait, even though it takes some time getting around to the spectacular battle royale. In fact, we don’t even see Godzilla during the film’s first hour, which is devoted to developing characters and filling in the back story.

The picture was directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters) who assembled a sophisticated cast for an action packed summer blockbuster. The cast includes Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), and nominees David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai).

The adventure is about the Brody family. The widowed patriarch Joe (Cranston) is trying to learn the truth behind the catastrophe at a Japanese nuclear power plant that claimed his wife’s (Binoche) life 15 years earlier. Their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosives disposal expert, leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) behind in San Francisco, in order to accompany his father to the Orient.

Of course, all hell eventually breaks loose back home when Godzilla selflessly rises to the occasion to defend San Francisco. Will the MUTOs meet their match? Will the separated Brodys manage to survive the apocalyptic mayhem for a tearful reunion?

The picture is surprisingly haunting and panoramic, and explores universal themes like loss and yearning, but has all the fixings for first-rate action entertainment.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and scenes of destruction. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

May 14, 2014

book revIf you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

—George Harrison, from “Any Road”

First off, I didn’t know that last week’s trip to the Shady Dog Record Shop would lead to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t legend of roadside Americana celebrated in The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate (Norton $39.95). It wasn’t until the day after the trip that I found a perfect match for this column in Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williams’s book, where the introduction, “Mister Lincoln’s Highway,” stresses the “curving and bent, even sometimes warped” nature of the subject by quoting from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Improvement makes straight roads: but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.”

Road Music

Though I’m not looking forward to a drive to Berwyn in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, there’s a certain warped, crooked appeal in a destination called the Shady Dog. As usual, my son has brought along some CDs to listen to on the way, and since this trip to a never-before-explored second-hand record store is the coda to a never-ending birthday present, I’m okay with whatever the vinyl warrior wants to hear as we head out of town on 206. Without any apparent intention of playfully linking it to the name of our objective, he suggests The Dog That Bit People, a 1971 album by a group from Birmingham (U.K.). At the moment the only copy of the actual Parlophone original on the market is going for the tidy sum of $2,000. Besides being a reminder of James Thurber’s popularity in England (witness John Lennon’s In His Own Write), The Dog is a nice, solid, melodic, progressive album with a country flavor, it’s indeed easy to drive to, and it’s not worth $2,000.

On the Turnpike

The first time my parents and I drove to New York from Indiana, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened the way east for us like a dream unimpeded by stoplights and cross roads and frustrations like the pre-bypass endlessness of getting through Columbus Ohio on U.S. 40. Whenever I flash on turnpike moments, it’s night and we’re entering one of those tunnels that to adolescent readers of Ray Bradbury always had a smooth surreal quality closer to sci-fi or the twilight zone than the publicist’s “Magic Carpet Through the Alleghenies.”

But that was then. Today’s 25-mile stretch of turnpike is strictly functional, the best thing about it the poetry of place names like King of Prussia and Valley Forge and Tredyffrin.

Roadside Surprises

The shades-wearing mutt on the Shady Dog sign is just the sort of roadside novelty that used to make traveling fun in the days before turnpikes, interstates, and strip malls. There are other glimmers of roadside America along U.S. 30, which doubles as Lancaster Avenue, but for me the star attraction is the Anthony Wayne, an Art Deco dream of a movie theatre named after the fiery Revolutionary War general who was was born nearby. At first it’s so unlikely an edifice, so eerily out of time, that you can’t quite trust your eyes. Rush-hour gridlock gives me time to take it in. Atop the marquee two sand-colored pillars stand on either side of an elaborately shaped proscenium arch with a scalloped top. Wonder of wonders, it’s not a RiteAid or a CVS, it’s still in use, with five screens. According to cinematreasures.org, when the Anthony Wayne opened its doors as a movie house in 1928, the first feature was a silent, In Old San Francisco. Built and operated by one Harry Fried, the theatre was known for a time as “Fried’s Folly” because “such a grand movie palace” was located “on the edge of the suburbs.” (A sketch of the planned facade design was signed by a young Philadelphia architect named Louis Kahn.) 

While another after-the-fact search online tells you all you need to know about Mad Anthony’s tempestuous military career, I’m more interested to learn that the general’s last name inspired Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne; that he turns up in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as an ancestor of Dick Diver; and that in the opening chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, “old Spencer,” Holden’s history teacher at Pencey Prep, lives on Anthony Wayne Avenue. The great man’s greatest gift to American popular culture, however, involved the ultimate, the one and only iconic Wayne of all Waynes, who in 1930 was still known as Marion Morrison (imagine The Alamo or Red River starring Marion Morrison) when Raoul Walsh, his director on The Big Trail, pulled Anthony Wayne out of his hat, wisely dumping “Anthony” for “John,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Last Picture Shows

That Deco movie palace in Wayne sends my thoughts back again to the days before interstates and multiplexes when every little town had its own movie theater. On hot summer childhood drives through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and up and down in Kansas on the flattest and dullest of highways, the great treat for me was to check out the local cinema. Like all red-blooded American kids, I would beg the grown-ups to stop for a Coke and nag them with the eternal “how much longer till we get to so-and-so” mantra, but when it came to movie theaters, I had no shame. It wasn’t enough to simply drive by and look at the marquee and the name of the current attraction. I wanted to stop the car so I could feast my eyes on the posters and lobby cards. I found sustenance for another long hot stretch of road in titles like Johnny O’Clock and actors like Robert Mitchum, whose name in smalltown theater ads was sometimes misspelled as my father’s, Robert Mitchner in Where Danger Lives (there’s a clipping of that one somewhere in the family archives). Now and then you might get fortunate combinations like the Chisholm Trail Theatre in Newton, Kansas showing Fort Apache with, yes, John Wayne.

Looking for the Lincoln

As a college traveler for Norton, the publisher of The Lincoln Highway, I once drove from college town to college town across 11 states from Mississippi to North Dakota earning money for a trip to India. My last night on the American salesman road was spent sleeping in the company car in a Howard Johnson parking lot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Though nine months of living in motels left me with a sadder but wiser sense of “The Great American Road Trip” spelled out on the cover of The Lincoln Highway, the images of roadside nostalgia depicted there and the red line of the route still rouse all the old feeling. The charming graphics also suggest a benign variation on the earthy art of R. Crumb, who contributed a childhood memory to the book. As a kid in the 1950s, he lived in Ames, Iowa, in “a big old house right on the Lincoln highway … at that time still just a two-lane thoroughfare that went straight through the heart of town. My brothers and I used to sit on the front step of our house and watch the trucks go by. We each had our favorite trucking line and would point and shout its name as it went barreling by.”

Music to my ears. I know what Crumb’s talking about. It all goes back to summers with my maternal grandparents who lived in a house facing on U.S. 69 in Overland Park, Kansas. Some things never change. These days we live close enough to 206 that we can see the cars and trucks going past from our back windows. My wife rolls her eyes when I tell her how much I love the sound of the big rigs that can make conversation on the deck a challenge.

Lincoln’s Among Us

Princeton has a place in the book, by the way. The same Lincoln Highway that begins on Times Square runs right through the heart of town disguised as our own Nassau/Stockton Street and Routes 27 and 206. How odd, that it took a big lavishly illustrated tome to remind me that we can claim not only Nassau Hall and the Battlefield, but the great national road. All these years driving between Princeton and New Brunswick on Route 27, all those nighttime bus rides back from the city, and I never once thought to myself, “Hey, I’m on the Lincoln Highway.” And we were on it again and didn’t know it Thursday driving south on 206 and again, oddly enough, on U.S. 30 in Berwyn and Wayne. Yes, the Anthony Lane and the Shady Dog are on the Lincoln Highway. You may rightly wonder how that can be when U.S. 30 begins its run in Atlantic City before cutting through Camden and Philadelphia to the Main Line suburbs. All I know is after a day that began with us heading south on Lincoln’s route, we landed on U.S. 30 heading west, in the right place at the right time in the national road’s strange slapdash relay race to the Golden Gate.

It works fine if you let it, the idea of a shape-shifting phantom highway named for a martyred president who loved Shakespeare making its mysterious way relentlessly westward, absorbing numbered identities with a Lincolnesque laugh at mandated designations.

If you want evidence of just how devious Lincoln’s road appears to the Philistines, google “Route of the Lincoln Highway” and consider Wiki’s boxed notice declaring “This article or section is written in the wrong direction. U.S. road articles are generally written in a south-to-north and west to east direction in order to follow the order of their mileposts. Please help by rewriting the article in the right direction.”

Do you believe it? East to West the wrong direction? And North to South? Time to listen to George Harrison’s joyous song “Any Road,” which opens his posthumous album Brainwashed telling us “we pay the price/with the spin of the wheel, with the roll of the dice.” We may not know where we came from, may not know who we are, may not “have even wondered” how we “got this far” but here comes the chorus, all join in, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

 

BACK ON STAGE: Charles Wiley, center, who was in the original cast of “Our Town,” visited the cast of the current revival of the play at George Street Playhouse on May 3. He is pictured with Aaron Ballard, left, who plays Emily Webb; and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays the Stage Manager.(Photo by Jackie Brady)

BACK ON STAGE: Charles Wiley, center, who was in the original cast of “Our Town,” visited the cast of the current revival of the play at George Street Playhouse on May 3. He is pictured with Aaron Ballard, left, who plays Emily Webb; and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays the Stage Manager. (Photo by Jackie Brady)

He was in the cast of two Pulitzer-Prize-winning plays, performed during the golden age of radio, and entertained the troops at USO shows during World War II. But Charles Wiley has never rested on his show business laurels.

This 87-year-old, who splits his time between New Jersey and California, also spent years as a journalist and photographer, covering 11 wars in 100 countries and getting arrested eight times in the process. There was a stint in the life insurance field, too. And he once ran for Congress.

But Mr. Wiley’s 13-year show business career figures prominently in his extraordinary memory, even though he was just a kid when he was cast as Wally Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town 76 years ago. The play about an average American town in the early 20th century is currently being revived at George Street Playhouse through May 25. Its world premiere was at McCarter Theatre, and it went on to Broadway before winning the author a Pulitzer.

On May 3, Mr. Wiley traveled from his Sayreville home with his 13-year-old grandson to attend a performance of the drama at George Street Playhouse. After meeting the cast, he was moved enough to send a note of appreciation, writing, “It was a trip that brought tears to my eyes — from sheer emotion, not sadness. I was reminded: ‘There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.’ That’s easy to forget when you’re caught up in modern day-to-day living.”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Wiley has been asked to appear at a revival of Our Town. When McCarter Theatre marked the 50th anniversary of the play, he was invited to attend and was introduced after the show. “It looks like I’ll be doing this every 25 years,” he joked during an phone interview from his home in California.

“Ninety-nine percent of my friends don’t know I used to be an actor,” he said. “But I worked steadily for 13 years, from the time I first walked on stage at age seven until I joined the Navy. I was the only actor in the world in the original cast of two Pulitzer-Prize winners. The other was The Old Maid, in 1934. Very few people remember that play, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis.”

It all started for Mr. Wiley in vaudeville, where as a youngster he was part of a standup comedy routine with his father. “Vaudeville was already dying by then,” he recalled. “This was a period when they would have four acts and a movie. By 1933, it was over.”

The father and son transitioned into radio, where they worked constantly. By the time Our Town came along, Mr. Wiley was a seasoned show business veteran of 11. His recollections are what one might expect of a child that age.

“My biggest memory at the Morosco Theater was being adopted by the guy who owned the Piccadilly ticket office, who by the way was one of the Damon Runyon characters based on real people,” he said. “He used to see me coming to work all the time with my baseball glove. One day he said, ‘Hey Butch, what are you doing with a baseball glove half a block from Times Square?’ After that he kind of adopted me, taking me to ball games, and introducing me to the players. It was a kid’s dream world.”

Mr. Wiley also remembers the pre-Broadway tryouts of Our Town at McCarter, where the notoriously difficult director Jed Harris worked the cast so late into the night during rehearsals that they ended up sleeping on the floor underneath the seats.

Mr. Wiley’s parents were personal friends of Thornton Wilder. “We used to visit him in Connecticut,” he said. “I was a kid, so I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But I think Our Town is one of the great plays. It reminds me of Seinfeld, because it’s about nothing. It’s just life.”

After the Broadway run of Our Town, Mr. Wiley was among those in the cast to join the road company. “In those days, usually the original cast would stay for the road company, except for the top stars. And you’d go all over the country,” he said.

His show business career was over by the time he returned from the Pacific after World War II. “I never looked back, never thought of going back,” he said. There was one major opportunity to get back on stage, when he was offered the part of Officer Krupke in a production of West Side Story. “I had too many other commitments,” he said. “But that was fine with me.”

 

Princeton Pro Musica took a musical journey back to the world of George Frideric Handel this past weekend with a concert which was historically accurate, both in instrumentation and presentation.

Presented Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, Pro Musica’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was not programmed on the most spring-like of Mother’s Day themes (unless Mom is interested in plagues, pestilence and frogs), but the clarity of the performance and the orchestral music performed along with the oratorio certainly evoked the sprightliness of the season.

Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau programmed the concert to recreate a performance of Handel’s time, in which the two halves of the oratorio would be separated by an orchestral work, usually one of Handel’s own concertos. Israel in Egypt was first performed in 1739, and its oratorio form was a natural outgrowth of Handel’s very successful career as a composer of opera. This oratorio draws its text principally from the Old Testament’s book Exodus, with the chorus principally carrying the action of hailstones, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn in the first part. Accompanied by a period instrument orchestra, the singers of Pro Musica began with a well-unified choral sound, especially showing how the men’s sections have developed under Dr. Brandau’s leadership. The eight-part opening chorus had a good choral foundation in the bass sections, with a tenor section which has also developed impressively over the past few years. The sectional soprano sound started off a bit fuzzy, but certainly cleaned up as the piece went on.

There were two small solos in the first part, as the chorus was joined by mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney and tenor James Kennerley. Mr. Kennerley showed himself throughout the performance to be especially expert at recitative, telling the story well and balancing Ms. Maroney’s elegant singing well in their second part duet. Ms. Maroney had a tough job with the register of the alto solos (these solos are often sung by a counter-tenor), but presented smooth melodic lines and especially nice ornamentation as well as adeptly-handled runs.

Handel’s oratorios tend to be on the long side, and different conductors cut different things, depending on their taste. Dr. Brandau reversed the performing focus in the second part, allowing a number of solo and duet movements to flow together without choral interruption. Soprano soloists Melanie Russell and Sarah Brailey were well-matched, with Ms. Brailey showing an especially rich sound which rang with bell-like quality in the upper register. Ms. Russell added the icing on the vocal cake with a lighter sound, and the two colors blended together particularly well in a duet for two sopranos of equal register.

In “The Lord is a man of war” Handel may have composed the only duet for two basses in oratorio repertory, and Mr. Brandau brought together two bass-baritones who often sang the same musical passages in succession but with different vocal textures (Handel often composed for forces on hand — there must have been some great basses in early 18th-century London). Accompanied by a lithe pair of oboes in Priscilla Jerreid and Geoffrey Burgess, Christopher Dylan Herbert climbed well into the higher register of the duet, while Jonathan Woody demonstrated the richer and more defiant sound — when he sang of Pharaoh’s chosen captains, also drowned, one was certainly convinced that they drowned.

The interpolated Concerto Grosso in G Major proved to be a good contrast against the dark nature of the oratorio. The five movements flowed together well, and the string orchestra, accompanied by harpsichordist Raphael Fusco, played with a consistently light and clean touch. Suspensions between the two violin sections blended well, and the solo trio of violinists Owen Dalby and Nanae Iwata, joined by cellist Katie Rietman, provided seamless contrasting textures.

For those curious about how Dr. Brandau has developed Pro Musica’s trademark choral sound, the “horse and his rider” choruses were worth the price of admission. Dr. Brandau took these two closing choruses like the wind, and the singers of Pro Musica did not miss a note in the choral coloratura, bringing the work to a typically Baroque glorious close. This oratorio may have been a handful for a choral singer, but the members of Pro Musica never let on that they were anything less than ready for more.

 

AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

Allyson Field (Sarah Drew) really can’t complain. After all, her life is the epitome of the American Dream: she has a handsome husband who adores her and is an excellent provider; a beautiful home in suburbia; and her own minivan for shopping and shuttling around their children, Beck (Zion Spargo), Bailey (Shiloh Nelson), and Brandon (Michael Leone).

However, she’s still overwhelmed by her domestic duties, especially when Sean’s (Sean Astin) work takes him out of town. Consider Mother’s Day, for example, which Ally spent cleaning up messes rather than being appreciated as a mother.

Not alone in feeling frazzled, Ally hatches a plan with her best friends, Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) to treat themselves to an evening of bowling and fine dining in a fancy restaurant, while their husbands take care of the children for a few hours. However, a comedy of errors soon ensues after Sean and the other spouses (Alex Kendrick and Robert Amaya) run into a problem.

When a baby is discovered to be missing, the three mothers are recruited to join the frantic search party. With the help of a biker with a heart of gold (Trace Adkins) and an impatient cabbie (David Hunt), the girls put their night out on hold as they join the search for the missing child.

Co-directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, Moms’ Night Out is a wholesome PG-rated comedy that’s fun for the whole family.

At the madcap movie’s happy resolution, sanity and safety are satisfactorily restored. The wives are no longer taken for granted, but instead are elevated to the lofty status envisioned by William Ross Wallace when he proclaimed that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mild action and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

May 7, 2014

DVD revI started out just as a regular person, growing up in the Northwest ….

—David Lynch

Once upon a time during the reign of George I, on April 9, 1990, to be exact, TIME announced the debut of a television program “like nothing you’ve seen in prime time — or on God’s earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”

Never mind the “may be.” The New York Times called Twin Peaks “event television given a memorably wicked spin. Nothing like it has ever been seen on network prime time.”

A review in the Los Angeles Times (“TV You’ve Never Seen Before”) began with two questions. “Can this be happening?” and “Can this be happening on television?”

Considering how much genius-level, groundbreaking programming has been produced at HBO and elsewhere since the turn of the new century, it’s a tribute to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 30-episode ABC series that Twin Peaks remains as “hauntingly original” and “memorably wicked” when revisited in 2014 as it did in 1990 when it lured a network television audience into the dark forever-ominously-rustling north woods where “the owls are not what they seem” and FBI agents with second sight thrive on cherry pie while keeping a line open to other worlds.

Heralding the Golden Age

Last month during an interview with David Lynch at the International Music Summit in Los Angeles, the recording artist Moby suggested that Twin Peaks, the “first truly compelling idiosyncratic” TV show “heralded what we’ll call the weird, quasi golden age of television.” Moby made the statement in the course of asking the Twin Peaks mastermind if he’d ever been tempted to write or develop a new show.

Lynch preferred not to answer, dismissing the question as “awkward,” perhaps because he’s weary of denying rumors that he’s shooting new episodes when the only news of note is that a BluRay edition will soon be released. My quibble with Moby’s “golden age” reference concerns his use of the qualifier “quasi” in regard to an era that has witnessed giants of television art like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, among others, including the ongoing fourth season of Game of Thrones, which made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times (“Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role”).

To state the obvious, sexual violence has been endemic to the entertainment industry for generations and has been exploited not only in the media (i.e. the Times story) but in countless productions vastly inferior to Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks.

Loving Laura

In any case, sexual violence was not what addicted people to Twin Peaks. Rape and murder may have given the show its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” hook, but what made it a sensation was the way the question was augmented and amplified through the dynamics of visual style, unique characters, wildly imaginative writing, and, perhaps most impressively of all, the music of Angelo Badalamenti. From the first note, the mood created is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful. Right away you know that no matter what horrors are in store, the realm in which this film exists has a primal beauty, sad, mysterious, and infinitely suggestive. The mood is sustained as Badalamenti’s achingly poignant music follows the flow of feeling between a couple falling in love through their shared love of the murdered girl, as happens when James, the last of Laura’s boy friends and lovers, and Donna, her best friend and soulmate, confide in one another. The music is above all about loving Laura, so that you know that however sordid her secret life or the circumstances of her murder, she was adored, a darling of the community, its most beautiful child. The emotional chemistry of Twin Peaks is voiced by Donna the moment she and James are falling in love when she says “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once.”

More pervasive than the love theme is the subtle undercurrent of menace Badalamenti creates, an ebb and flow of dread that intensifies whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura’s home. Without that sinister undercurrent, the focus on an ordinary stairway with an ordinary ceiling fan slowly turning overhead might suggest something vaguely, uneasily off center; with the music it’s as if a demon’s hand were guiding the blades of the fan: something terrible happened here and is going to happen again, as it does at the end of the 14th episode when Laura’s lookalike cousin is brutally murdered in the adjoining room. The effect would be purely sensational except that the slaughter takes place as Badalamenti’s wrenchingly eloquent music fills the road house where James and Donna and other friends of Laura are watching Julee Cruise sing the song of love and death that sealed their relationship.

Who Killed Twin Peaks?

Somehow it made sense that a show “half in love with easeful death” should bring about its own demise. One problem had to do with the burden of the mystery; all the exotic possibilities put in play promised more than any denouement could conceivably deliver. The real killer, however, was ABC’s insistence that the iconic question be answered.

“The mystery was never supposed to be solved,” says David Lynch, still passionate on the subject 15 years later in the featurette accompanying the DVD. “That mystery was sacred. It held all the others. It was the tree and the others were the branches.”

Even without the network’s fatal interference, Twin Peaks would have had to survive Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the media blitz of the first Gulf War, which was underway as the show stumbled toward its conclusion.

The TP Effect

Just for fun, imagine something called, for lack of a better term, the Twin Peaks (TP) Effect, with the understanding that the single character who most thoroughly embodies it is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cheerful, upright, moral, supremely sane, and yet formidably quirky, he’s the unconventionally conventional presence wherein the magically real splendor of the show unfolds, from the basics of “damn fine coffee” to the Red Room and the dancing dwarf, extrasensory communication, and parallel universes.

The TP effect is alive and well in the Golden Age. It goes without saying that the Sopranos version of coffee and cherry pie is gabagool and Carmela’s ziti, and though Tony Soprano may seem miles to the dark side of Dale Cooper, what about the big guy going to pieces when a family of ducks abandons his swimming pool, and what about his dream at death’s door in which he envisions himself as a dorky traveling salesman?  And what else but the TP effect puts the Pine Barrens episode at or near the top of every fan’s list, the misadventures of Paulie and Christopher shivering, bitching, and hapless in the wilds of New Jersey? Welcome to Twin Peaks, Paulie Walnuts. And welcome to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Imagine the season of TP you’d have if he were teaching science at Twin Peaks High. Then there’s the silver-tongued flamethrower from Justified, Boyd Crowder. Imagine this lethally charming character coming on to the waitresses at the double R diner. And think of the season you could build around a gay holdup-man like Omar from The Wire. Another variation of the TP Effect, found in the avuncular, elegantly spoken person of David Lynch’s star-gazing Major Briggs, anticipates the rhetoric of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and the Dickensian hotelier E.B. Farnum.

And what about the ad man with the secret past? If this TP effect caper seems a bit, well, capricious, there’s a recognition of it online in the extensive Twin Peaks site, where Don Draper from Mad Men is shown checking into the Great Northern and flirting with the TP siren, Audrey Horne. Remember, Jon Hamm’s Draper comes from La-La Land, where his best friend was the wife of the man whose identity he stole. Finally, consider the aura of Twin Peaks in the parallel universes of Game of Thrones and its wittiest character, Tyrion Lannister. Who needs the dancing dwarf of the Red Room when you can have Peter Dinklage hunkering down in a booth with Dale Cooper at the Double R and digging into a big piece of cherry pie?

This fantasia could go on for a dozen seasons, but this is David Lynch’s show and so should end in Bob’s Big Boy in L.A. where, according to his book, Catching the Big Fish, he “used to go … just about every day” to “have a milkshake and sit and think: There’s safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.”

For the David Lynch-Moby interview and all kinds of Twin Peaks material, visit http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/moby-david-lynch-interview.

 

PRESSED: Bob Justin’s acrylic on canvas painting is one of 15 exploring his emotional responses to pain in a one-man show, “Out of Darkness” at Plainsboro Library through May 28. Eleven of the fifteen paintings on show are for sale with prices ranging from $75 to $225. For more about the artist, visit: www.bobjustin.com. A public reception will take place Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.(Image Courtesy of Plainsboro Library)

PRESSED: Bob Justin’s acrylic on canvas painting is one of 15 exploring his emotional responses to pain in a one-man show, “Out of Darkness” at Plainsboro Library through May 28. Eleven of the fifteen paintings on show are for sale with prices ranging from $75 to $225. For more about the artist, visit: www.bobjustin.com. A public reception will take place Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897. (Image Courtesy of Plainsboro Library)

Bob Justin is one of a kind, a man who didn’t expect to be an artist but just couldn’t help himself. The creative impulse has led this former Plainsboro resident to one-man shows at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, the Frank J. Miele Gallery in New York, and the Eisenhower Hall Theater in West Point, N.Y. His work has found its way to the Outsider Art Fair sponsored by the American Museum of Folk Art and into the Laumeir Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri.

Discovered over two decades ago as a “folk artist” whose compelling and life-affirming found object assemblages and “primitive” masks rarely fail to elicit a smile, Mr. Justin is now represented in the permanent collections of Plainsboro Township, Bloomfield College and the American Cyanamid Corporation in West Windsor.

Currently 15 paintings by the artist are on display in the Gallery at Plainsboro Library. The exhibition, titled “Out of Darkness,” presents acrylic paintings that are bold in execution and raw in expression. They represent the artist’s emotional journey through years of heart and lung ailments.

Unlike Mr. Justin’s whimsical primitive art, the paintings in the current exhibition come from a dark wellspring of pain.

“Bob has a special talent for creating pieces with personality,” commented the show’s curator Donna Senopoulos. “His intriguing and whimsical pieces have been shown periodically at the library and it is always a pleasure to exhibit his work. This time it was important to him to show paintings that are an emotional response to the pain he has had.”

Given the content of the paintings, Ms. Senopoulos thought carefully as to how they should be presented on the walls of the gallery space. “I decided that a simple straight line was the best way to handle this material. Such a uniform presentation is a departure for me, but I felt that it was needed for these graphically complicated images,” she said.

Describing the work on display, Mr. Justin said: “I find [these] pictures to be difficult to describe rationally, as they were done under the stress of emotions born of illness. Repeated episodes have always triggered renewed sessions of demons that are born of a dark side beyond silence. I leave the public to interpret, accept, or reject the work as they wish.”

Some have detected a West African influence in Mr. Justin’s work, most notably in his masks. It is also evident in these paintings rendered in dark elemental hues. Some are self portraits; some include hermaphrodite figures. A few, like the one shown here, include words and phrases.

A self-described “free spirited non-conformist,” Mr. Justin stands outside the mainstream. His road to art was prompted by illness. Born in 1941, he grew up in Keyport, Monmouth County, and worked in a variety of fields, though never for very long. He jokes that he’s had over 300 jobs, including stints as a real estate agent, Cadillac sales manager, and the head of his own executive search firm, among many others.

A heart attack forced him to retire in 1991, at which time he began selling his collection of tools and other items at the New Egypt Flea Market, where he now maintains a studio in an old Army barrack.

While handling vintage items, Mr. Justin rediscovered a childhood penchant for finding faces in everything. He began constructing what he affectionately called ‘critters” or “guys,” combinations of found objects inspired by tools, dolls, door knobs, discarded industrial and household objects that found new life in his hands.

His first artistic endeavor came about almost by accident when he adorned an old wooden chair with a broken pick axe. He called the assemblage, “Texas Longhorn” and placed it alongside his flea market table. His folk art career was born when someone came along and offered to buy it for $75.

Eventually, Dorothy Spencer, curator for the Arts America Program of the United States Information Agency (USIA), found her way to the self-taught artist. Her interest resulted in several of his pieces being shown internationally and locally. After he was discovered by a noted collector and board member of the American Museum of Folk Art, he had several one man shows.

Mr. Justin is the subject of a Cablevision documentary which can be viewed along with his portfolio at www.bobjustin.com.

A public reception for the artist will take place at the gallery on Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. “Out of Darkness” runs through May 28 in the gallery of the Plainsboro Library, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro. Hours are Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.

 

The clarinet does not often come out from its customary orchestral place behind the flutes and next to the bassoons. Mozart, as well as a few Romantic composers and Benny Goodman made the instrument a star in the “swing” world, but one does not often hear the range of musical styles from the clarinet heard from soloist Anthony McGill and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. NJSO conductor Jacques Lacombe programmed a concert on the theme of freedom and heroism, with clarinetist Mr. McGill representing the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a newly-commissioned work by American composer Richard Danielpour.

Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium was centered on aspects of heroism and continued a theme of the legacy of Dr. King which has been recurring throughout the season. The connection of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture to the freedom theme was immediately apparent; derived from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the overture reflected the hero Florestan’s emerging into the light for the first time after a long imprisonment. Mr. Lacombe began the overture with a stately walk by the strings, taking the music to its inevitable conclusion in triumph. Mr. Lacombe cleanly emphasized the sforzandi characteristic of Beethoven’s style, contrasting musical force with the delicate combination of flutist Bart Feller’s spool lines and light strings. Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe was able to focus on instrumental sections as necessary, moving quickly between sections and teasing with flute and oboe leading to the closing Presto.

Mr. Lacombe cited Richard Danielpour as one of his favorite American composers, and under his leadership, the NJSO has presented several of Mr. Danielpour’s works. The NJSO commission of Danielpour’s clarinet concerto From the Mountaintop was a three-way project, with the Kansas City Symphony and Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 taking part. Through this work, Danielpour depicted the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially centered on the “Mountaintop Speech” of April 1968.

In this programmatic concerto, the clarinet soloist was cast as a “minister in a Southern Baptist church” telling the life story of Dr. King. The soloist was expected to be a storyteller, and Mr. McGill clearly took the role very seriously. Beginning with a musical soliloquy, McGill evoked an atmosphere of mid-20th century jazz, with a seamless clarinet line amid Bernstein-esque rhythms. McGill demonstrated a solid feel for the music, which often pulsated among different instruments within the orchestra. His solo clarinet line was often in duet with percussion, including the unique color of the marimba and a cadenza duet with timpanist David Fein. With an ostinato from the harp and refined sound of English horn from Andrew Adelson, the music was often poignant and always in support of the soloist. McGill found a wide range of emotions from the clarinet, accompanied by varied orchestral colors, including a unified horn section and elegant cello solo commenting on the action from Jonathan Spitz.

Besides its well-known connection to Beethoven, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor of Johannes Brahms fit well into the theme of the concert with the sense of liberation conveyed in the Finale. Lacombe began the work with a commanding introduction to the first movement, marked by a steady timpani and an oboe solo from Robert Ingliss which built in intensity. The Allegro of the movement settled into a gentle flow, as the influence of Beethoven on Brahms became more evident.

Ingliss was featured again in the hymnlike and stately second movement, rising over the rest of the orchestral sound. This movement maintained a great deal of flow, led by the sensitivity of the winds. Clarinetist Karl Herman and concertmaster Eric Wyrick were also featured in the gentler inner movements. Mr. Lacombe brought out well the great string melody in the final movement, bringing the symphony to a triumphant Finale. A brisk performance of Brahms’ famous Hungarian Dance No. 5 as an encore reminded the audience at Richardson of what a spirited year it has been for the New Jersey Symphony as the orchestra’s Princeton season came to a close.

 

I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

If the idea behind a sequel to a summer blockbuster is to up the ante in terms of bombast and intensity, then The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly fits the bill. This movie is bigger, better, louder, longer, and features more villains, the next generation of special effects, more captivating action sequences, and a romance between Spidey’s alter ego Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

The picture opens with a flashback that fills in the back story about how Peter became an orphan. We learn that his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) died aboard a doomed private plane that was hijacked by an assassin (Bill Heck). However, Peter’s scientist father managed to email an explanatory message and critical computer file.

Fast-forward to Peter and Gwen’s high school graduation day. Gwen is anxiously searching the audience for her boyfriend as she is delivering her valedictory speech.

It turns out that Peter has been delayed in Manhattan where, as Spider-Man, he’s trying to retrieve a shipment of plutonium that was stolen from a Russian mobster named Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). During the course of the chase, he also saves the life of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an engineer at Oscorp, the company that supplies the city with electricity.

After securing the plutonium and turning the perpetrator over to the police, Peter rushes off to his commencement ceremony and arrives just in time to receive his diploma. However, he has no idea that he hasn’t seen the last of Aleksei and Max who are fated to return later in the adventure after a combat suit of armor and a freak accident enable them to morph into the villainous Rhino and Electro, respectively.

After the graduation ceremonies, Peter reluctantly ends his relationship with Gwen in deference to her father (Denis Leary), who doesn’t want his daughter dating a trouble-seeking vigilante. Next, Peter is summoned to the offices of his childhood pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who has just inherited Oscorp Industries. It turns out that Harry is suffering from the same hereditary disease that killed his recently-deceased father (Chris Cooper).

Harry futilely asks Peter’s help in locating Spider-Man, hoping that a blood transfusion from him might cure his affliction. However, Peter convinces him to settle for an injection of the venom of genetically-altered spiders, which then transforms him into the Green Goblin, another diabolical nemesis.

That makes three adversaries for the webslinging superhero to deal with before the movie ends. If you’re patient enough to sit through the closing credits after 2½ hours, you’ll see a teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, that will open later this month.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action and science-fiction violence. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

April 30, 2014

book dream palaceWhere was the place after all …. Was it ‘on’ Third Avenue, on Second, on fabulous unattempted First? Nothing would induce me to cut down the romance of it, in remembrance, to a mere address, least of all to an awful New York one.

—Henry James

James’s musings on the mundane nature of numbered streets close out his conflicted appreciation of “Remarkable, unspeakable New York!” in The American Scene (1907). Driving back and forth across Manhattan on two of those numbered streets — from Hudson Street to Avenue A on 12th and to an art gallery near the Chelsea Piers on 23rd — I’m picking up the pieces of a column as they flash into view along the way.

St. Vincent’s

The notion of focusing on my associations with a particular street comes to mind as soon as I decide to take 12th the whole way east to Academy Records, just off First Avenue. The cobblestone stretch between Hudson and Greenwich gives the crossing a time-frame, like a 19th-century soundline rumbling under the wheels until I make a sharp right across Greenwich and 7th Avenue South past the site of the grand old hospital that gave Edna St. Vincent Millay her middle name, the building where Dylan Thomas breathed his last, and where in May 1981 I said goodbye to my surrogate father, the painter whose mural The Story of the Word fills the great rotunda of the main branch of the N.Y. Public Library.

The Dumbwaiter

Shortly after crossing Fifth Avenue I pass the niche once occupied by a small hotel called the St. George, where the elevator in use was (I swear) an over-sized dumbwaiter and where the saddest man I ever knew lived out his days. I was 18, Nick must have been 50 the summer we worked together at a waterfront hiring hall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. On the long subway rides back to Manhattan, in between daily jeremiads about the bullies in the office who tormented him, he told me the story of his childhood in Denmark, how he saw the king once, and was happy for the only time in his life. He had a strawberry-colored birthmark on his chin that his antagonists never stopped teasing him about; and so it was that this most harassed of men came home from hell five days a week to pull himself to his room in a dumbwaiter.

The Albert Hotel

Crossing University Place I’m looking a block south toward the ghost of the Albert Hotel, where Thomas Wolfe lived when he first came to the city and was teaching at N.Y.U. That’s why I stayed there when I came to New York after college. One day I asked the desk clerk if he knew who was practicing on the alto sax down the hall from my room.  “Some guy named Coleman.” he said. Ornette Coleman, it turned out. Once upon a time if you looked in the Albert’s direction from 12th you’d have seen tables set up for the outdoor cafe of the hotel’s French restauarant, which was frequented by people like Andy Warhol, Anaïs Nin, and Rocky Graziano. “The Mothers of Invention stayed there,” says my son, the reason I’m bound for a record store. “So did the Mamas and Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote ‘Do You Believe in Magic’ there.”

The Last Vestige

At Broadway, memories of a city where books once held sway haunt the sale tables lining 12th Street outside the Strand, the last vestige of the legendary Book Row that used to be around the corner on Fourth Avenue. When the Strand opened on Fourth in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, there were 48 secondhand bookstores on Book Row. The first book I ever bought from one of those shops, at age 10, was a Hardy Boys mystery called A Figure in Hiding, along with a 1932 Baseball Yearbook. Today even tiny rental spaces for bookstores on the Upper West Side cost $40,000 a month, as one book dealer reports in a recent New York Times story about how the situation is “threatening the city’s sense of itself as the center of the literary universe.”

The First New Yorker

After dropping my son off at Academy Records, another dying breed in a city where not long ago you could visit a dozen secondhand vinyl outlets below 14th Street, I take a left on Avenue A and head over to James’s “fabulous unattempted First” and from there up to 23rd, for me the most storied of crosstown thoroughfares, including 34th and even 42nd, two “mere addresses” that turn up in the titles of classic Hollywood films. The first true New Yorker I ever met was the daughter of a renowned abstract expressionist who lived on East 23rd between First and Second. Until I met this 16-year-old girl at a party in Indiana one summer, New York was the domain of my elders, like the man who died at St. Vincent’s after living and working in the city since 1920. Here was someone a year younger than I was who could talk about poetry, art, literature, and jazz, and who clearly knew considerably more about those things than I did. It was a happy day when she sent me a letter in response to my carefully worded (ten drafts) overture of undying friendship (I had written pages upon pages of unsent poetry about what she meant to me); better yet, she enclosed a snapshot someone took of her smiling as she put the envelope into a 23rd Street mailbox. I still have the photo. When I compare it to the one online of a handsome gray-haired woman, an artist herself now, the smiling girl is clearly there. How special is she? She changed my life. She’s why I wanted to be a writer.

Kenmore Hall

A few blocks down the street between Third and Lexington (finally a street name, no number) is the Kenmore Hall Hotel, where I stayed because my father liked it and it was near Gramercy Park and O’Henry’s neighborhood, one of my favorite parts of the city. I didn’t know at the time that Nathaniel West, the author of Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, had once worked at the front desk and given free room and board to writer friends like Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett, who allegedly finished The Maltese Falcon at the Kenmore. The hotel came to an unhappy end in the 1990s when criminal activity involving prostitution and narcotics led to its seizure by the U.S. Marshal Service.

Heading west on 23rd, I have Charlie Parker on the stereo playing “Now’s the Time,” and as always the city seems to know this music, and here we go, past Madison Square, past the Flatiron Building, except the real surprise is a jolt of Renaissance Revival beauty in the white palace that once housed the Stern Brothers Department Store and is now the only Home Depot where you enter under the head of a roaring lion.

Chelsea Dreaming

If you think of the Albert and Kenmore Hall as the overture, the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd near Eighth Avenue with its wrought-iron balconies, Gothic aura, and clientele of artists and writers is the full opera. According to Sherill Tippins’s Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin $30), Leonard Cohen wrote “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” after a one-night stand there with Janis Joplin. Another famous Chelsea tryst involved strange bedfellows Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac.

If no other work of art was composed there, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” would be enough to lend the place rock and roll immortality. The night I spent in room 118 in February 1996, I didn’t hear Dylan’s “heat pipes just cough,” I heard the radiator knocking and hissing, dogs barking in the hall, a whirling sound like a theramin coming and going, a swing door that kept opening and closing with a sound like a gunshot followed by a screech, then a whine, then a crash. When a series of heavy thuds sounded just outside the door I blocked it with the room’s only chair. The black and white TV got only one channel, which came in crazed with interference, and when I finally went to sleep I dreamed of eating toasted cheese sandwiches with Madonna, who once stayed at the Chelsea, though I doubt it was in room 118.

Anne Elliott’s Eruption

My reason for driving way west is to visit “Fire and Ice,” my friend and former Town Topics colleague Anne Elliott’s exhibit at Soho20/Chelsea. Friday was the show’s last full day, which is a shame because the art is spectacular and deserves more than this brief mention. “Over the years,” the artist says, “I have returned again and again to volcanoes and glaciers, nature’s most extreme instruments for shaping the Earth.” As she “continues to explore these subjects,” she hopes that “this time” she will “get it right, catch it whole.” And she does. Keep in mind that she doesn’t go to books to see glaciers, caves, and volcanoes; she goes in person, gets close, and comes home to construct elaborate immensities like the giclee print, Volcanic Field, the wall relief Mauna Loa, and above all, the vast, elaborate aluminum mesh formation Caldera, with its subtle nuances of color and light, a great work, at once sprawling and shapely that turns an ordinary wall into a cyclotron.

So it goes in this “remarkable, unspeakable” city, where you can find a perfect storm of art on the third floor of a building at the “awful New York address,” 547 West 27th.

 

TOWERING TALENT: Young members of DanceVision, which is based at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, are appearing on a program of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Graduation Ball,” (shown here) this weekend and next.

TOWERING TALENT: Young members of DanceVision, which is based at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, are appearing on a program of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Graduation Ball,” (shown here) this weekend and next.

Among the many performances at Communiversity last Sunday was an excerpt from the ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under a tent on Witherspoon Street just

outside the Princeton Public Library. The young dancers, from the DanceVision Performance Company, made a few concessions due to the asphalt that was serving as a stage floor, scrapping the traditional pointe shoes in favor of less precarious soft-soled footwear.

Injuries would have been especially unwelcome, since the company is set to appear this weekend at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, and the following Saturday in Neptune. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is artistic director Risa Kaplowitz’s take on the Shakespeare play. Also on the program is her version of the comedic ballet Graduation Ball.

The double bill is a repeat of one that debuted last spring. But those who were in the audience last year can expect to see some changes, according to Ms. Kaplowitz. “When you write something, you get to reread and edit it. When you are choreographing, you don’t get to see it until everybody else does,” she said last week. “Until you actually see it on stage, you don’t even know what you have yet. So the first year is always challenging. The second is relief, because you are able to tweak and edit and fix. It’s so much better this year.”

Joining the production as guest artists are Rickey Flagg II, from the professional training program of Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Charles Way, a member of the Lustig Dance Theatre Company. Ms. Kaplowitz is just as enthused about the dancers she has trained at the company’s Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, which she opened with former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) star Susan Jaffe in 2005. She is especially proud of 15-year-old Max Azaro, who recently won a full scholarship to ABT’s Jackie Kennedy Onassis School in New York City.

“I’m so happy for him,” she said “I’ve been teaching him since he was four-and-a-half. He’s so talented, and so are the other dancers. It’s really the cream of the crop of pre-professional dancers in this area.”

Set to Mendelssohn’s score, the one-act A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens the program. “I pieced it together so that it really follows the text,” Ms. Kaplowitz said. “A lot of middle school kids will be coming, and I think the way I’ve done it makes it understandable for them. It’s very, very funny. Thankfully, our guest artists know how to be funny without being silly — how to make it real and authentic. It’s hilarious.”

Graduation Ball, which has music by Johann Strauss II and was originally choreographed by David Lichine in 1940, “… is also very funny,” Ms. Kaplowitz said. “It’s a really fun dance, not your typical ballet.”

DanceVision members recently performed with Boheme Opera Company, and Ms. Kaplowitz has presented them in choreography she has created for programs with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She recently spoke at a meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association, using visual aids to demonstrate her dancers’ abilities. “They were blown away,” she said. “Whenever we have professional dancers appearing with our [pre-professional] dancers, people always want to guess which ones are the professionals. And they always guess it wrong. It happens all the time.”

Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Graduation Ball are Saturday, May 3 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 4 at 2 p.m. at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing; and Saturday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at Neptune High School Performing Arts Center, 55 Neptune Boulevard, Neptune. Tickets are $20-$25 in Ewing; $15 in Neptune. Visit www.DancevisionNJ.org or call (609) 520-1020.