September 18, 2013
FATHER-DAUGHTER TIES: Catherine (Kristen Bush) and her father Robert (Michael Siberry) struggle with problems of mathematics, insanity, and affection in McCarter Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof,” running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place through October 6.(Photo by Richard — Termine)

FATHER-DAUGHTER TIES: Catherine (Kristen Bush) and her father Robert (Michael Siberry) struggle with problems of mathematics, insanity, and affection in McCarter Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof,” running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place through October 6. (Photo by Richard — Termine)

How do you make a play about mathematicians and a mathematical proof comprehensible and interesting to a general audience? Ask David Auburn the playwright and Emily Mann the director of McCarter Theatre’s exhilarating current production of Mr. Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer and Tony winner, Proof.

The “proof’ of the title refers most directly to an apparent groundbreaking proof of a mathematical theorem, and that proof is discovered near the end of the first of two acts. But the meaning of the title expands to the question of whether the young protagonist Catherine, inheritor of her father Robert’s genius as well as his mental instability, can prove that she, not her deceased father, actually devised and wrote that proof.

At the same time, Catherine is seeking proof of the affections of Hal, young math professor and protégé of her father; proof of her sister’s questionable intentions; and proof of her own ability to overcome her depression, doubts and fears, so she can move beyond her father’s death.

So, despite initial appearances, Proof, turns out to be more about human relationships than about mathematics, and the engrossing dialogue, even when mathematicians are talking about mathematics, is accessible and engaging.

This intellectual drama, seasoned with a rich dose of warm, entertaining humor, may provoke thought and discussion about frighteningly close connections between genius and insanity, and it may instigate further provocative commentary on the scarcity of women at the higher levels of mathematics. But the most important issues of this play, the ones that lay claim most dynamically to the audience’s attention and emotional engagement, focus on the 25-year-old Catherine — her relationship with her recently deceased father, her growing affection for Hal, and her bitter clashes with her successful, domineering, sister Claire.

Proof, originally at the Manhattan Theatre Club for five months in 2000, then on Broadway for more than two years, with Mary-Louise Parker and Larry Bryggman in the starring roles, before becoming a 2005 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, is most essentially the story of Catherine’s coming of age.

Played here with great sensitivity, fragility, and charm by Kristen Bush, Catherine battles with depression, deepened by the death of her father, whose caretaker she has been during his long period of mental instability. She becomes edgy, defensive, even paranoid, alternately angry, suspicious, distraught, then loving and hopeful. Her body language speaks volumes as she wraps herself in her father’s too-large sweater or folds herself up, hunched over in a large chair. Her face glows with love and sadness as she confronts and comforts her father. Her eyes sparkle with laughter and hope as she emerges from her cocoon in connecting with Hal. She bristles with bitter sarcasm in her rancorous quarrels with her sister. The dialogue is spot-on credible, and the characters are richly sympathetic, believable, and appealing.

The action of the play spans a period of about one week, starting from the night before the funeral of Catherine’s father (Michael Siberry), but in nine scenes the play skillfully interweaves the present-day narrative with episodes involving Catherine and her father from the past and from Catherine’s imagination. The play itself is artfully, carefully crafted to make the most of each secret that is revealed, each revelation and twist in the plot, and Ms. Mann’s direction perfectly complements the high-suspense plotting and the fascinating development of characters and relationships. The result is a moving, memorable human drama — funny, touching, and powerful in its impact, especially perhaps for mathematicians, but also for anyone who can reflect on a relationship with father, daughter, lover, or sibling.

The plot here does seem thin, but the suspense is genuine and gripping. Hal (Michael Braun), with dual motivations, encroaches on Catherine’s world. He hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that Robert left behind and also he is starting to fall in love with Catherine.

Catherine’s older sister Claire (Jessica Dickey) has flown in for the funeral from New York, where she works as a Wall Street currency analyst. A pragmatist and successful businesswoman, she is a striking contrast to her late father and sister. Claire wastes no time in announcing that she’s selling the house and proposing her plans for her troubled sister to move to New York and seek psychiatric help.

As the romance between Catherine and Hal develops, along with conflict between the two sisters, Catherine directs Hal to the notebook containing the historic, earth-shattering proof. The handwriting looks like Robert’s, but he had done no new creative work since his 20s, when the creative spark faded and the madness began to set in. Suspense rises, as the mystery deepens and, in a stunning act-one curtain line, Catherine claims that she wrote the brilliant, barrier-breaking proof.

Mr. Siberry is consistently convincing as the rumpled, white-haired University of Chicago genius mathematics professor. He is funny in his irascible impatience and eccentricity; endearing and sympathetic in his loss of contact with reality and his deeply loving relationship with his self-sacrificing mathematician daughter.

Mr. Braun, the source of many of the witty math jokes in the play, is credible, both as a young, earnest mathematician, with a winning humility and self-awareness, and also as a viable love interest for Catherine.

As the antagonist sister, interloper from another world, trying, it seems, to do the right thing, Ms. Dickey provides a strong voice of “normality” and a formidable obstacle for Catherine to battle as she strives to shape her own life.

Eugene Lee’s inspired set design combines realism with surrealism: a beautifully specific, large, realistic Chicago back porch in early fall is surrounded on the upstage wall by a huge blackboard full of advanced mathematical problems and equations. Thoroughly in-character costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and nuanced lighting by Stephen Strawbridge enhance the realistic effect and help to fully create the world of this play, while Mark Bennett’s creative sound design highlights the drama and supports the varied tone of the proceedings.

Ms. Mann, whose own father was a University of Chicago professor, has directed with loving care, attention to detail, and uncanny ability to highlight the most important moments in the relationships of these four characters and to bring out the rich humanity in this entertaining and emotionally satisfying tale of mathematicians, madness and love.

 

SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND THE CHILDREN: Anguished mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) beseeches her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) to do something to find their missing daughter Anna and her friend Joy, who were abducted on Thanksgiving day, since the local detective seems to have put the official police investigation on the back burner.

SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND THE CHILDREN: Anguished mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) beseeches her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) to do something to find their missing daughter Anna and her friend Joy, who were abducted on Thanksgiving day, since the local detective seems to have put the official police investigation on the back burner.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a rugged outdoorsman and a family man with deep roots in rural Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), are raising their children, 6-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and teenager Ralph (Dylan Minnette), in the tiny town of Dover, an idyllic oasis far removed from the problems of big cities.

It is Thanksgiving morning, and Keller has decided his son is ready to shoot his first deer, a rite-of-passage he’d shared with his own father upon coming-of-age a generation earlier. And after a tableau with Christian symbolism represented by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a cross dangling from their pickup truck’s rearview mirror, we find the two deep in the woods where the boy bags his first buck.

“Be ready,” Keller ominously advises Ralph on the return trip, not because he has a premonition about any impending disaster, but because of the sense of paranoia he has cultivated over the years as a survivalist. Still, their basement, that is stocked with provisions, would prove to be of no use in the calamity that was about to unfold later that day.

The Dovers go to the home of their neighbors Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), who have two children around the same age as the Dovers. However, after enjoying a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, the youngsters Anna and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) vanish without a trace while playing outside.

The only lead is a suspicious RV parked down the street which the police trace to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a local resident who is mentally-challenged and presumably incapable of abducting the children. With no other clues to follow, the investigating officer (Jake Gyllenhaal) puts the case on a back burner, much to the chagrin of the missing girls’ anguished parents.

Since time is of the essence, it is no surprise when a desperate Keller takes the law into his own hands, and his manic behavior is in sharp contrast to the measured approach of Detective Loki. Will the frustrated father or the laid-back cop solve the case first, or will they join forces and pool their resources? Will Anna and Joy be rescued alive, or found too late to save them? Or will the abduction simply be unsolved.

That is the mystery at the heart of Prisoners, a mesmerizing, multi-layered masterpiece brilliantly directed by Dennis Villeneuve. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski deserves equal credit for the film’s intricately plotted script which slowly ratchets up the tension in a compelling fashion that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The movie is a compelling study of the emotional toll exacted by a kidnapping on the psyche of both lawmen and the victims’ loved ones.

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity and disturbing violence. Running time: 153 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

MCCC FACULTY SHOW: The current exhibition of work by Mercer County Community College faculty includes Paul Mordetsky’s 30” x 48” oil on panel painting titled, “Transfusion.” Among the other featured artists are Yevgeniy Fiks, Lucas Kelly, and Tina LaPlaca of Princeton. Gallery Hours for this show are Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Gallery is located on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road and the show runs through October 3. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

MCCC FACULTY SHOW: The current exhibition of work by Mercer County Community College faculty includes Paul Mordetsky’s 30” x 48” oil on panel painting titled, “Transfusion.” Among the other featured artists are Yevgeniy Fiks, Lucas Kelly, and Tina LaPlaca of Princeton. Gallery Hours for this show are Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Gallery is located on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road and the show runs through October 3. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

 

POST INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPE: This 24” x 18” watercolor, titled “Flip,” by Kate Graves is one of several sculptures and paintings by the artist currently displayed in the exhibition, “Trenton: A Post Industrial Survey,” in the Gallery at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike through September 27. The exhibition can be viewed during school hours by appointment. For more information, call (609) 924-7206.

POST INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPE: This 24” x 18” watercolor, titled “Flip,” by Kate Graves is one of several sculptures and paintings by the artist currently displayed in the exhibition, “Trenton: A Post Industrial Survey,” in the Gallery at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike through September 27. The exhibition can be viewed during school hours by appointment. For more information, call (609) 924-7206.

 

THE ARTIST’S STUDIO: Artwork by the late John Sears will be on display from Thursday, September 19 through Sunday, October 13 at Rider University Art Gallery. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. There will be an opening reception, Thursday, September 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. In conjunction with the exhibit, Gallery Director Harry I. Naar will lead a panel discussion on “The Creative Spirit” with artist and teacher Cynthia Groya, Rider University professor of psychology John Suler and Anne Sears on Thursday, September 26, at 7 p.m. For more on the artist, visit: www.johnsearsartist.com.

THE ARTIST’S STUDIO: Artwork by the late John Sears will be on display from Thursday, September 19 through Sunday, October 13 at Rider University Art Gallery. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. There will be an opening reception, Thursday, September 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. In conjunction with the exhibit, Gallery Director Harry I. Naar will lead a panel discussion on “The Creative Spirit” with artist and teacher Cynthia Groya, Rider University professor of psychology John Suler and Anne Sears on Thursday, September 26, at 7 p.m. For more on the artist, visit: www.johnsearsartist.com.

 

SMOKEY MOUNTAIN FALLS: Work such as this black and white image by photographer Terri Hood is part of an exhibition of her work currently on view in Gallery 14 at 14 Mercer Street in Hopewell. The exhibition also features Ms. Hood’s still lifes as well as a series of photographs by Charles Miller, titled “Waterlilies – Monet’s Flower.” The show runs through October 6. Hours are Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

SMOKEY MOUNTAIN FALLS: Work such as this black and white image by photographer Terri Hood is part of an exhibition of her work currently on view in Gallery 14 at 14 Mercer Street in Hopewell. The exhibition also features Ms. Hood’s still lifes as well as a series of photographs by Charles Miller, titled “Waterlilies – Monet’s Flower.” The show runs through October 6. Hours are Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

VINTAGE NJ SHORE: “At Play Barnegat Bay” by Carl Buergerniss (1877-1956), c.1912, oil on canvas from the collection of Roy Pedersen is on view as part of Morven Museum and Garden’s current exhibition, “Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1880-1940,” which has just been extended to run through October 27. Through the works of Edward Boulton, Wyatt Eaton, Albert Reinhart, Julius Golz, Charles Freeman, John F. Peto, Thomas Anshutz, Hugh Campbell, and Carrie Sanborn (to name a few), the exhibition illustrates the history of artists who lived, worked and drew inspiration from the New Jersey shores. For more information, call (609) 924-8144; or visit: www.morven.org.

VINTAGE NJ SHORE: “At Play Barnegat Bay” by Carl Buergerniss (1877-1956), c.1912, oil on canvas from the collection of Roy Pedersen is on view as part of Morven Museum and Garden’s current exhibition, “Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1880-1940,” which has just been extended to run through October 27. Through the works of Edward Boulton, Wyatt Eaton, Albert Reinhart, Julius Golz, Charles Freeman, John F. Peto, Thomas Anshutz, Hugh Campbell, and Carrie Sanborn (to name a few), the exhibition illustrates the history of artists who lived, worked and drew inspiration from the New Jersey shores. For more information, call (609) 924-8144; or visit: www.morven.org.

 

 

 

September 11, 2013

review dh awrenceDavid Herbert Lawrence was born on this day, September 11, 1885, in the mining town of Eastwood, near Nottingham. He died March 2, 1930, some seven decades before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With most writers, you would note the birthday coincidence and move on, but that’s not easily done with Lawrence. Writing in 1956, his sometime friend John Middleton Murray said, “Lawrence was alone in the depth of his prescience of the crisis of humanity which has developed since his death.” In fact, Lawrence wrote and thought so freely and fiercely about so many issues that it doesn’t take much looking to find passages that could be used to describe, among other things, the political reality stateside before and after 9/11, as in this sentence from Part IV of Apocalypse, his last work: “They will only listen to the call of mediocrity wielding the insentient bullying power of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferior and even base politicians.”

A few sentences later he seems to be casting his line in the direction of the Bush administration’s coded terror alerts: “Society consists of a mass of weak individuals trying to protect themselves, out of fear, from every possible imaginary evil, and, of course, by their very fear, bringing the evil into being.” However horrifically un-imaginary September 11 was, it brought into being war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Raw Genius

No other writer I can think of so thoroughly saturates the page with his personality. Lawrence is prickly, rude, boorish, and vindictive, arrogantly declaiming about everything under the sun and moon because everything fires him up, pulls at him, agitates, fascinates, and challenges him. His is a force of raw genius like an engine plowing through and scattering to the wind everything in its path.

Who else but Lawrence would begin a poem with a chip on his shoulder? “You tell me I am wrong?/Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?/I am not wrong.” What’s the poem about? A pomegranate. Who’s he arguing with? Someone who has “forgotten the pomegranate-trees in flower, /Oh so red, and such a lot of them.” Or he could very well be addressing the pomegranate itself, holding it in one hand like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull. What does Lawrence see in the pomegranate? The Doges of Venice, for a start, and “crowns of spiked green metal/Actually growing,” and “if you dare, the fissure!” But wait: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?/Do you prefer to look on the plain side?” By now, you’re asking yourself “What fissure? What’s he on about?” No matter. It’s all enroute to the “setting suns” and “drops of dawn” when the “end cracks open with the beginning:/Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure” and the closing couplet: “For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,/It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”

If Lawrence had witnessed the nightmare of 9/11, he might have been one of those chastised for daring to see a beauty in it beyond the loss of life, something actually accomplished in March of 2002 when the towers were resurrected in the form of two soaring shafts of blue light, almost as if the planners of the spectacle were borrowing ideas from one of Lawrence’s poems about blueness. The thought behind that magnificent gesture might also be read into Lawrence’s introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious, where “The living live and then die,” passing away “as we know, to dust and to oxygen and nitrogen” and perhaps “direct into life itself … direct into the living.”

In Your Face

“Peach,” another poem from Lawrence’s collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, begins, “Would you like to throw a stone at me?/Here, take all that’s left of my peach.” As the poem ends, after a battery of nagging questions, the poet supposes, perhaps rightly by then, that “you would like to throw something at me,” and says, “Here, you can have my peach stone.” It’s poetry in-your-face, he’s standing in front of you, practically stepping on your toes, looking you in the eye as he dares you to throw the peach stone. But he’s standing too close, there’s no room, and he won’t back up. Lawrence never backs up.

The next poem in the series, “Medlars and Sorb-Apples,” moves from the “morbid” taste (“I love you, rotten, delicious rottenness”) to the Orphic Underworld, taking you “down the strange lanes of hell, more and more intensely alone,/The fibres of the heart parting one after the other,” as the soul continues “ever more vividly embodied/Like a flame blown whiter and whiter/In a deeper and deeper darkness.”

In the arrogance of his greatness (or the greatness of his arrogance), Lawrence almost makes it possible to imagine he’s envisioning the shadow of a future event in which thousands could die in the same moment, “Each soul departing with its own isolation/Strangest of all strange companions,/And best.”

Doing the Dishes 

Lawrence’s friend Cynthia Asquith once said that he could make washing dishes an adventure. It’s an appealing thought, standing side by side with Lorenzo, he with his sleeves rolled up doing the scrubbing, talking your ear off while you do the drying. In the Lawrentian overflow there’s a clarity to everything, the cups and saucers gleaming like porcelain hallucinations. Suppose he spots a lady bug on the window sill directly in front of you, the window being open to the summer night (he always had to have the windows open), he would tell you more than you ever knew or wanted to know about that insect before using it to weave a whimsical account of the Creation like the one in his introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious (“In the very beginning of all things, time and space and cosmos and being, in the beginning of all these was a little living creature”).

A Period of Crisis

In his introduction to the 1919 edition of Women in Love, Lawrence speaks of being “in a period of crisis” where “every man who is acutely alive is acutely wrestling with his own soul. The people that can bring forth the new passion, the new idea, this people will endure. Those others, that fix themselves in the old idea will perish with the new life strangled unborn within them. Men must speak out to one another.” Tweak the phrasing a bit and it sounds like politics U.S.A. in 2013.

But the most interesting thing in the introduction is when Lawrence confronts critics who complain about his free-swinging, repetitive rhetoric. After noting how “fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition,” he resists throwing peach stones and simply points out that his style “is natural to the author; and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination.” The introduction is dated 12 September 1919.

Having just watched the opening scenes of Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), I can appreciate how well cast and costumed are Gudrun and Ursula (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) and Gerald and Rupert (Oliver Reed and Alan Bates), not to mention Hermione (Eleanor Bron). There’s even something like a credible, unforced Lawrentian undercurrent in play — until Russell begins attacking the audience with the cinematic equivalent of purple prose. Lawrence at his most excessive is hard enough to take, but put Lawrence and Russell together in the same building and it’s time to head for the exits.

Working Class Hero

In Ford Madox Ford’s piece on Lawrence in Portraits from Life (1937), he admits feeling “a certain trepidation” as he awaited his first meeting with the then-unknown young writer. “If he was really the son of a working coal-miner,” the high-born Ford wonders, “how exactly was I to approach him in conversation? Might he not, for instance, call me ‘Sir’ — and wouldn’t it cause pain and confusion to stop him doing so? …. A working man was so unfamiliar a proposition that I really did not know how to bring it off.”

The comic potential of Ford’s expectations colliding with the reality is worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Lawrence’s first words as he walked into the office of the journal Ford edited were airily dismissive: “This isn’t my idea, Sir, of an editor’s office.” Needless to say, the coal miner’s son’s “Sir” was not the one Ford was contemplating. And as Ford first saw him, before a word was spoken, the “russet-haired” Lawrence’s appearance had nothing to do with either officers, authors, or working men: “And suddenly, leaning against the wall beside the doorway, there was, bewilderingly … a fox. A fox going to make a raid on the hen-roost before him.”

Even when he’s attempting to describe Lawrence’s writing, Ford keeps placing him in the wild, because “Nottingham, for all its mining suburbs, was really in and of the country” and the “nature passages of Lawrence run like fire through his books …. So that at times when you read him you have the sense that there really was to him a side that was supernatural.”

Birthday Month

Presumably the almost month-long celebration of Lawrence’s birthday (September 6-24) in and around his birthplace, Eastwood, will pause on September 11 long enough to remember the 12th anniversary of the attacks. There will be a September 11 birthday lecture as well, “D.H. Lawrence as a Philosophical Novelist.” The emphasis this year is on the centenary of one of his best-known works, Sons and Lovers. There are Sons and Lovers country walks, museum tours, photo scavenger hunts, and of course a showing of the film.

It took his hometown a long time to accept the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and a long time to forgive him for portraying townspeople (sometimes under their real names) in his work. Now there’s a Lawrence museum, a White Peacock Cafe (after his first novel), and a Phoenix snooker hall. You can see photos and such on the Lawrence Heritage facebook page www.facebook.com/dhlawrenceheritage.

 

 

“EL MIGRANTE:” Elsa Medina is considered among the best of Mexico’s photojournalists. Besides reporting on Guatemala, Haiti, and Nicaragua, she has recorded the plight of Mexicans crossing the border into the United States. The photograph shown here was taken in the dry dusty desert of Cañon Zapata, Tijuana, in 1987. A 2011 gelatin silver print, it is on view as part of the exhibition, “The Itinerant Languages of Photography,” currently on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. For more information, call (609) 258-3767, or visit: www.princeton. (Courtesy of the Artist)

“EL MIGRANTE:” Elsa Medina is considered among the best of Mexico’s photojournalists. Besides reporting on Guatemala, Haiti, and Nicaragua, she has recorded the plight of Mexicans crossing the border into the United States. The photograph shown here was taken in the dry dusty desert of Cañon Zapata, Tijuana, in 1987. A 2011 gelatin silver print, it is on view as part of the exhibition, “The Itinerant Languages of Photography,” currently on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. For more information, call (609) 258-3767, or visit: www.artmuseum.princeton.edu
(Courtesy of the Artist)

With a camera in every cell phone and a cell phone in practically every pocket, photographs are no longer what they used to be. An individual image can take on a life of its own as it travels beyond the traditional photo album to all corners and cultures of the world. The meaning of the photographic images in relation to changing context is examined in a new exhibition that opened Saturday at the Princeton University Art Museum.

“The Itinerant Languages of Photography,” traces historical modes of photographic itinerancy from its origins in the 19th century as a shifting archival record to its conceptualist manifestations in the present.

On view are rare black and white photographs by masters as well as lesser known and emerging photographers: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Marc Ferrez, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, Joan Colom, Graciela Iturbide, Susan Meiselas, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Joan Fontcuberta, and Rosângela Rennó.

“This exhibition asks us to consider the photograph as a globally transmitted, continually translated and annotated document — reinterpreted and re-animated through the lens of our shared histories, memories, and experiences,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward.

The image that opens the show is a “Googlegram” by the Catalan photographer Joan Fontcuberta who was born in 1955. Titled Niépce, the work takes inspiration from the earliest-known photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, circa 1826. Mr. Fontcuberta created his tribute by processing the results of a Google image search for the words “photo” and “foto” through photomosaic software.

The result is a huge composite comprised of some ten thousand pieces from all over the world that brings the past and the present together and sets the stage for rest of the exhibition, which is arranged in four sections. The dizzying artwork suggests that every image is laced with multiple connotations.

Mr. Fontcuberta received the prestigious Hasselblad Award this year and will deliver the keynote address at a symposium on Thursday, November 21, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

The show’s first section, “Itinerant Photographs,” features work from two Brazilian collections, one assembled between 1891 and 1925 and held in the National Library of Brazil, and the other from a similarly early collection of work by the itinerant photographer Marc Ferrez and others.

The second, “Itinerant Revolutions,” presents several modernist photographers working during and after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), including locals Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo as well as pieces by Tina Modotti, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand.

Don’t miss Hugo Brehme’s portrait of Emiliano Zapata and his marvelous mustache with his sash and sword; Gracielo Iturbide’s cemetery with flocking birds; the iconic image of Adelita the Soldadera; and photojournalist Enrique Metinides’s sorrowful images among others depicting mourning mothers, murdered men, and dead children.

Almost all of the photographs in this small show of some 90 works from public and private collections in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and the United States, are black and white. The exhibition is detailed and well-presented, informative and thought-provoking. Curators Eduardo Cadava, of the department of English, and Gabriela Nouzeilles, of the department of Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures, offer a privileged look at this material and have authored an illustrated 240-page catalogue that includes an essay by Mr. Fontcuberta.

The third section, “Itinerant Subjects,” examines ways in which photography approaches moving subjects with scenes from the streets of Spain and Latin America. Here is the work of street photographer Joan Colom and surrealistic photo-essays by Mexican photojournalist Nacho López as well as work by Eduardo Gil, Graciela Iturbide, Elsa Medina, Susan Meiselas, and Pedro Meyer.

“Itinerant Archives,” the last section of the exhibition, explores ways in which photographs are used and reused, quoted and revitalized. The highlight here is a stunning piece that is an aerial perspective of a crowd, “Multiples: it is us (people),” by Cassio Vasoncellos. Everyone is wearing a hat and the effect evokes an organic form like moss or lichen.

Highlights include Marcelo Brodsky’s The Undershirt / La Camiseta, shot in 1979 and reprinted in 2012; Joan Colom’s Fiesta Mayor, 1960; and Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Striking Worker, Assassinated (Obrero en Huelga, Asesinado), 1934.

According to a press release, “Latin America has been at the forefront of the development of new aesthetic paradigms in modern and contemporary photography and the exhibition calls attention to “significant but often neglected histories of photography beyond the dominant European and American canon.”

The digital revolution has created an explosion in the production, circulation, and reception of photographic images. Attending this exhibition brings fresh perspective to the activity of taking and/or making photographs.

“The Itinerant Languages of Photography” is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 19. For more information, call (609) 258-3767, or visit: www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.

 

IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET RID OF RIDDICK: The elusive antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is pursued yet again in this third sequel in the series. In this episode, the superhuman alien is able to elude two teams of bounty hunters who are desperately trying to claim the reward for capturing the antihero.

IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET RID OF RIDDICK: The elusive antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is pursued yet again in this third sequel in the series. In this episode, the superhuman alien is able to elude two teams of bounty hunters who are desperately trying to claim the reward for capturing the antihero.

When we first met Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) in Pitch Black, the notorious criminal had been arrested by a bounty hunter and was being transported to prison when the spaceship encountered a comet and had to make a crash-landing on an uncharted planet. Riddick escaped, and proceeded to elude his captors in a gruesome struggle for survival that would consume most of their lives.

This sequel has more of the same, as we find the title character still at large but marooned on another desolate planet. Now he’s being hunted by two teams of mercenaries, one of which is led by the father (Matt Nable) of the bounty hunter Riddick had killed in the original film.

Although Riddick is wanted dead or alive, the reward is double if he’s brought back in a body bag. Of course, that’s easier said than done, since this indomitable alien from planet Furya has superhuman strength, intuition, willpower, and night vision; traits which make him a formidable opponent, even when outnumbered by pursuers who are armed to the teeth.

So, this movie is an intergalactic posse’s attempt to apprehend Riddick as he tries to hijack one of their rocket ships in order to return to his faraway homeland. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters of this boring film ran out of new ideas for this sequel.

Consequently, the movie does little more than generate a sense of déjà vu because of the barren backdrop (except for a swarm of voracious critters) and the familiar ways in which the elusive antihero’s adversaries are killed. After all, how many different ways can you lop off a head or gut a guy so his entrails spill out?

The job of tracking down Riddick with the assistance of “futuristic” technology might best be described as pseudo-scientific nuttery. The movie is more of an uninspired remake than a interest-catching sequel.

Fair (*). Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexuality, and graphic violence. Running Time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

September 4, 2013

DVD_Review_Annex - Dean, James (East of Eden)_03I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden (1955) except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic.

–Elia Kazan, from A Life

Kazan was on the money about Julie Harris. The five-time Tony-Award-winning actress, who died at 87 on August 24, was the heart and soul of East of Eden, the film that gave the world James Dean. When you see his moody, spectacularly conflicted character Cal through the eyes of Harris’s Abra, your affection for her fuels your fascination with him. It’s the quality of Abra’s eventual devotion to Cal that lends credibility to Dean’s over-the-top performance.

When studio head Jack Warner wanted to dump Harris for a “prettier” girl, Kazan insisted on casting her. He counted on the special presence she would bring to the film and she gave him even more than he expected: “As a performer, she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving.” She also had “the most affecting voice” he’d ever heard in an actress, one that “conveyed tenderness and humor simultaneously.” Kazan ends by admitting, “She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him.”

It’s not just that Julie Harris becomes Dean’s muse, shining the light of her sympathy and understanding on his theatrics, she gives warmth, humor, and unspoiled loveliness to a big, sprawling, sometimes off-puttingly histrionic film, with music by Leonard Rosenman to match its most florid passages. No surprise, the best thing in the score is the love theme that plays whenever Cal and Abra are together.

Dealing With Dean

Harris clearly knew how to approach her notoriously difficult and unruly co-star. When they first met, he tried to get a rise out of her by making a comment about her age (“Do you think you look too old for me?”), which she laughed off, pointing out that she was only five years older. Although she was already a seasoned, award-winning actress, she was also “utterly lacking in airs or affectation,” as Donald Spoto’s Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996) points out. Instead of treating him as a nemesis, she saw him as a character out of classic American fiction: “He reminded me of Tom Sawyer, always looking for adventure, always looking to mix it up.”

According to Kazan, Dean enjoyed antagonizing Raymond Massey, who played Cal’s father, Adam (“They hated one another”). Instead of trying to smooth things over, Kazan let the hostility simmer, rightly figuring that it would contribute to the tension he wanted. Based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, with its allusion to the Cain-Abel story, the film is centered on Cal the “bad” son, Aron (Richard Davalos) the good son, and Aron’s girl Abra; the plot is driven by Cal’s move from defiance of Adam to a struggle to win his love and acceptance. While Massey fumed about Dean’s unprofessional behavior on and off the set, Harris, much like her character Abra, let Dean be what he was. As she told Spoto in a 1995 interview, “The raw material of our work is people, and I’ve always thought it’s wrong to say, ‘Why can’t you behave?’ If somebody’s not behaving, you just say, ‘Well, he’s not behaving,’ and you deal with it.”

Spoto thinks the scenes between Harris and Dean “bring the film to life as do no other moments.” The first such scene takes place in a field when Abra encounters Cal as she’s bringing Aron his lunch. Up to that point, her response to him has been wary, even fearful, but curious, interested. Now there’s no doubt that she’s attracted, and emboldened, drawing him out, moving beyond casual conversation as she charmingly relates how in a fit of anger she threw away her stepmother’s engagement ring. To get his attention she blurts out, “I threw away three thousand dollars once!” What she wants is to show that he’s not the only person who ever behaved irrationally at the expense of a parent. The remarkable thing about the scene is that it’s essentially all Harris. Dean enjoys it, says very little, laughs a bit, his low-key response charming in itself in the way it shows his awareness of the delicate balance of the flirtation they’re engaged in.

The Kiss

For 17-year-old males, and presumably females, the key love scene — the one most likely to lead to misery and humiliation when imitated in real life — takes place on a ferris wheel. As a childhood devotee of Saturday matinee westerns who shouted “Mush!” whenever a kiss between cowboy hero and comely maid was in the offing, I can testify that the kiss on the ferris wheel is beyond reproach. It’s not mushy, or corny, or silly, or anything but what it should be. We want it to happen; all of us vicarious Cals and Abras in the audience are hoping hoping hoping it will happen, and when it does, it’s like a line of perfectly imperfect poetry falling into place almost in spite of itself  — he leans toward her, she leans toward him, they kiss, but without embracing. Both begin to make a move in that direction but it’s a passionately inconclusive gesture and as he’s about to take it further, she pulls back and begins to cry, insisting miserably that she loves Aron.

Later the same night, after a riot erupts around a German American man who is set upon when he denounces the wartime propaganda (it’s 1918), Cal and Aron have it out, Cal explodes, knocking Aron down. Abra knows who’s really hurting, however, and goes to comfort Cal, and from then on, she’s determined to save him, heal his wounds, and bring together father and son. Which is another way of saying Julie Harris saves James Dean and the movie by helping bring him together with the audience.

Dean’s most extreme piece of acting, possibly the most extravagant moment of his short career, occurs after he and Abra arrange a special birthday celebration for his father. All goes well until Aron shows up and announces that he and Abra are going to be married (not having told her or anyone else in advance). Adam says this is the best possible present, nothing could be better, a blow to Cal even before he has a chance to offer his own gift, which is the money he made by taking advantage of the wartime rise in the price of beans. Adam, who serves on the local draft board, huffily condemns this as war profiteering, and hands back the money with a forced, hollow, thanks-for-the-thought brush-off far more hurtful than an angry rejection would have been. To say that Cal is devastated doesn’t come close. His naked agony is embarrassing to behold, as Kazan knew it would be; although he doesn’t comment on it in his book, the painful, cringe-inducing excessiveness of the scene must have aroused serious debate in the screening room. Presumably Kazan left it in the film because such extremity of misery is rarely seen, not to mention being a graphic example of Actors Studio acting.

Cal’s sobbing meltdown is hard to watch. It certainly wasn’t easy for Massey, who was shocked and repelled because he didn’t know it was coming. The son’s groveling, wretched travesty of an embrace as he sinks to the floor at his father’s feet was not in the script. Today’s audiences may laugh at the scene or wince or roll their eyes, while others may still respond the way those of us guided by Abra’s loving understanding did. Julie Harris had our hearts in her hand and her heart was with Cal. If she hadn’t felt for him in that horrible moment, neither would we, so that when he hurls himself into the night baying like a wounded animal, we’re with her as she goes to console him, and though we can’t see them in the shadows, we can hear her sweet soothing loving voice and his moaning misery. Kazan keeps the scene hidden, reflecting Aron’s point of view, but we know what’s happening, that this love will be taken to the limit now, she’s his, he’s hers, and Aron knows it.

Loving Her Again

The few films Julie Harris made reveal her range and her genius, from the vulnerable adolescent in Member of the Wedding to the vivacious Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, parts she also played on the stage. I was glad that she made so few movies. I didn’t want to see her in anything else. I wanted Julie Harris to keep being Abra forever. It’s only now, with the news of her death, that I realize how much her Abra meant to me. It was the first time I ever cared that much about someone in a film.

Over the years friends have told me “You must see Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst,” a suggestion I had no interest in taking up, again perhaps partly because I felt so protective of my teenage ideal. Also, much as I admire Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the idea of a one-woman show left me cold. Even if easy access to The Belle of Amherst had been available, I’d have foolishly stayed away. Now that she’s gone — the saddest of excuses — I find the complete performance is available online and there she is — Abra 20 years later, and if anything, even lovelier now because she’s infused with the genius of a great poet and what a joy she is, what a funny, infinitely charming person. How thankful I am to be able to see her now. And how stupid I feel, to have waited this long.

The special edition DVD of East of Eden I watched was purchased at the Princeton Record Exchange. In the still from the film shown here, Abra (Julie Harris) and Cal (James Dean) are about to get on the ferris wheel, where they will share “a passionately inconclusive kiss.”

—Stuart Mitchner

 

BOUNTIFUL HARVEST: Inspired by the still lifes of the Dutch 17th century masters, photographer Terri Hood takes great pains to create a composition that invites the eye, and in this case, the palate. Her “Bountiful Harvest” will be part of an exhibition of her work opening this Friday in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. Work by Charles Miller will be featured in the Jay Goodkind Gallery. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

BOUNTIFUL HARVEST: Inspired by the still lifes of the Dutch 17th century masters, photographer Terri Hood takes great pains to create a composition that invites the eye, and in this case, the palate. Her “Bountiful Harvest” will be part of an exhibition of her work opening this Friday in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. Work by Charles Miller will be featured in the Jay Goodkind Gallery. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

Gallery 14 in Hopewell begins its fall season, its 13th annual, with an exhibition of work that will transport viewers to another time. Theresa (Terri) Hood’s color photographs conjure up the still lifes of the Dutch masters of the 17th century, painters like Willem Kalf (1619-1693) whose work is much admired by Ms. Hood. Her black and white landscapes are evocative of Ansel Adams (1902-1984).

That Ms. Hood has chosen her influences well will be shown by an exhibition of 26 of her photographs, (13 color, 13 black and white) opening this Friday, September 6, at Gallery 14 with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m.

“I fell in love with still lifes when studying the Dutch masters,” said Ms. Hood in a phone interview. “They studied light and that is what photography is all about. I’ve been working on still lifes for some five
years now and I craft them painstakingly.”

Ms. Hood’s attention to composition results in gorgeous images of pottery and drapery with artful placement of gourds and grapes, a wine glass, ferns, fruits, and flowers.

But while the Dutch painters infused their compositions with symbolic meaning, Ms. Hood focuses on beauty and light. “Sometimes I am able to use natural light from a window but more often than not I use studio lighting to mimic natural light,” says the artist for whom photography is not only a passion, it’s something of a second career.

Before turning serious attention to the camera some seven years ago, Ms. Hood had her own title insurance agency. “Now I have another life,” said the art photographer, who is in her 50s and works from her home studio in Glen Gardner, Hunterdon County.

The seeds of her present passion were sown when Ms. Hood took a college course and was introduced to the work of the great American photographer Ansel Adams. “Now, I embrace it with unbridled joy,” she said. “When I am working in my studio I am totally absorbed and unaware of the passage of time. There is so much beauty around and that’s what I am hoping to make people realize. Everybody has digital cameras in their phones today and go around taking pictures all the time, but there is a difference between taking a photograph and making a photograph. I make photographs.”

Besides Gallery 14, which she joined less than a year ago, Ms. Hood is a member of the Hunterdon County Photography Club and the Photographic Society of America where she serves as a commentator for a digital study group program on Nature. She co-manages the Exhibition Committee and the Contemporary Arts Group of the New Jersey Photography Forum.

Her work has previously been exhibited in the Hunterdon County Library; Mayo Performing Arts Center; Crane’s Mill Gallery; Overlook Hospital, Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission, and the Watchung Arts Center where she received an award of merit for her “Shabby Chic” portrait of a house.

She’s been in the New Jersey Photo Forum Juried Show for the past three years and has participated in the Grounds for Sculpture Focus on Sculpture juried show two years running. In 2012, her black and white image Ocean Zen received Best in Show award there.

According to Ms. Hood, black and white photography is very different from color photography. The latter forces you to look at content. “Anyone who sees a black and white photograph develop in a dark room witnesses something magical and will be transported by it, as I was.”

Her solo exhibition “Life Along the River” is currently being displayed at the Musconetcong Watershed Association Gallery.

The works in her Gallery 14 show are either 16 x 20 or 16 x 24 inches. Prices for the former at $145, and for the latter, $175.

Also featured at Gallery 14, alongside Ms. Hood’s work, will be photographs by Charles Miller of Ringoes. “Waterlilies — Monet’s Flower” in the Jay Goodkind Gallery includes traditional photography as well as images printed on fabric as large wall hangings, photographs on watercolor paper, and macro images. Mr. Miller has exhibited throughout New Jersey and has won several best in show awards.

Both exhibits open on Friday, September 6. There will also be an opportunity to Meet The Artists on Sunday September 8, from 1 to 3 p.m.

The exhibit runs in Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street Hopewell, through October 6. Hours are Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND LEARN FROM THE MASTER: Grandmaster Yip Oi-dor (Tony Leung) demonstrates some of the moves that made him the Grandmaster of martial arts in all of China. He developed techniques which were fewer in number than the 64 moves employed by his predecessor Gong Yutian (not shown).

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND LEARN FROM THE MASTER: Grandmaster Yip Oi-dor (Tony Leung) demonstrates some of the moves that made him the Grandmaster of martial arts in all of China. He developed techniques which were fewer in number than the 64 moves employed by his predecessor Gong Yutian (not shown).

Yip Oi-dor (1893-1972), aka Ip Man, was a legendary martial arts teacher best remembered for some of the prominent protégés who attended his kung fu school, most notably, Bruce Lee. This influential instructor has finally been getting his due in recent years as the subject of several biopics.

The latest, The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), is a majestic epic chronicling Ip Man’s life, who’s very capably played by Tony Leung, from the womb to the tomb.

At the picture’s point of departure, we learn that Ip came from Foshan, a city in Guangdong province where he started studying martial arts at an early age. By the time he was a young man, he had developed a reputation as a formidable fighter, and was enlisted by his region’s elders to represent all of southern China in a match against Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), the best man from the north.

Yip prevails in the match by employing an innovative combination of his trademarked “Spade,” “Pin” and “Sheath” techniques which prove to be far simpler than the 64 moves relied upon by his aging opponent. Soon thereafter, Gong finds himself dealing with dissension in the northern ranks as he is betrayed by a disloyal heir apparent (Zhang Jan) and disappointed by his daughter’s (Zhang Ziyi) decision to practice medicine rather than follow in his footsteps.

That enables Yip Man to fill the void and eventually emerge as the greatest grandmaster in all of China. Director Kar-wai resorts to flying harnesses, slow motion, and other state-of-the-art trick photography to showcase his hero’s considerable skills. If you’re familiar with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you have a good idea of what to expect in terms of gravity defying kick and fisticuffs.

The production’s only flaw is its occasionally confusing editing, which unnecessarily resorts to flashbacks in order to recount the decades-spanning tale, when the movie might have worked just as well if allowed to unfold chronologically. Regardless, this comprehensive combination history lesson, love story, and action film features everything necessary to entertain any fan of the martial arts.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, smoking, and brief drug use. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 28, 2013
NEW YORK MOVIE (1939): Viewing this oil on canvas by Edward Hopper (1882–1967), you may think the usherette is holding a cell phone. In fact, it’s the artist’s wife Josephine, deep in thought. The original work and the many drawings that led up to it can be seen through October 6 in the Whitney Museum’s exhibit, “Hopper Drawing.” The painting, 32 1/4 x 40 1/8 in. (81.9 x 101.9 cm), on loan from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, was given anonymously. 396.1941© Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Digital Image© The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.

NEW YORK MOVIE (1939): Viewing this oil on canvas by Edward Hopper (1882–1967), you may think the usherette is holding a cell phone. In fact, it’s the artist’s wife Josephine, deep in thought. The original work and the many drawings that led up to it can be seen through October 6 in the Whitney Museum’s exhibit, “Hopper Drawing.” The painting, 32 1/4 x 40 1/8 in. (81.9 x 101.9 cm), on loan from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, was given anonymously. 396.1941© Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Digital Image© The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.

When I was 15 I used to walk from Washington Square North across Sixth Avenue and down Greenwich Avenue for a midnight snack at a cozy little White Tower hamburger joint located where Greenwich meets 7th Avenue South and 11th Street. Quoted in Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (Rizzoli 2007), the artist says the setting of his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942), was “suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” At least half a dozen websites have been dedicated to determining the identity and actual location of the place Hopper’s referring to, the consensus being that it can’t be found. However, the only actual late-night eatery shown to have occupied the triangle formed by that three-way intersection is the humble White Tower (you can see it in various online photos including the one on shadeone.com/nighthawks); while the tiny building — it looks like a white toy next to a toy gas station — has little in common with the spacious, streamlined structure in the painting, it sits in the only locale that could have accomodated the Flatiron shape of Hopper’s nighthawk’s cafe.

All I know is that I was enjoying those little melt-in-your-mouth hamburgers on the piece of Manhattan geographically aligned with one of the landmarks of 20th century art, the iconic image that has been alluded to, celebrated, and improvised upon by generations of artists, writers, filmmakers, and poets. It’s also nice to know that Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was still alive and well and painting at the time in a studio on the other end of the block at 3 Washington Square North.

Nighthawks has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Of course this is true of just about any accomplished work of art, but the only way to comprehend the magnitude of this painting is to stand in front of it. You can see Nighthawks, along with other key works like New York Movie (1939) and Office at Night (1940), in the Whitney Museum’s “Hopper Drawing,” which is billed as “the first major museum exhibition to focus on the drawings and creative process of Edward Hopper.” Organized by curator of drawings Carter Foster, the exhibit will be on view through October 6.

The Power of the Painting

It’s a tribute to the power of Nighthawks that admirers have gone to such lengths to determine the real-world model and location of a place that is so obviously a composite developed in the artist’s imagination. One feature that strikes you when you stand before it is the color and smoothness and sweep of the pale green sidewalk comprising almost half the painting. It’s safe to say that you will not find pavement that immaculate nor of such a subtle shade of green anywhere on the island of Manhattan or indeed anywhere this side of The Land of Oz. The countertop in this extraordinarily roomy “coffee stand” is, according to the notes in the artist’s ledger, made of “cherry wood” rather than the standard greasy spoon formica. Also painted as if they were things of rare worth are the sugar sifters, salt and pepper shakers and napkin holders, and, noted in the ledger under “bright items,” two “metal tanks” more familiarly known as coffee urns.

As for the nighthawks of the title, there’s the man with his back to us, hunched over the counter, described in the ledger as a “figure dark sinister.” Faces lit with a caffeinated intensity, the man and woman, posed for by Hopper (using a mirror) and his wife, are described in the ledger’s shorthand: “night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette,” the brunette in “red blouse” looks venal and lively compared to Hopper’s generally passive, lost, spaced-out females; this one’s wide awake and hungry for action, ready to take a bite out of the counter man once she finishes her sandwich. The dark figure whose face is hidden could pass for (and might even have been inspired by) one of the title characters in Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story, “The Killers.” An admirer of Hemingway, Hopper actually wrote a letter to Scribners Magazine praising the story in contrast to “the vast sea of sugar coated mush that makes up most of our fiction.”

As Hemingway does in “The Killers,” Hopper presents a situation and some characters and leaves it to us to imagine the rest. The hypnotic image inspired a poem by Joyce Carol Oates and five different dramatizations in a special issue of Der Spiegel; has surfaced as a favored setting in The Simpsons; in a film-within-a-film in Wim Wenders’s End of Violence; and in a parody, Nighthawks Revisited, by Red Grooms, who calls himself “a jester to the great sage” in the National Gallery Hopper documentary narrated by Steve Martin.

The timing of Nighthawks is a story in itself. Unfazed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and FDR’s declaration of war, Hopper remained tenaciously focused on the immense canvas while his wife Jo feared “the very likely prospect of being bombed” (“we live right under glass sky-lights and a roof that leaks whenever it rains”). Jo wasn’t alone. Hopper’s gallery thought he should take the precaution of moving some of his paintings to a storehouse for safekeeping. Clearly the artist knew he was on to something special. “E. doesn’t want me even in the studio,” Jo complained. “I haven’t gone thru even for things I want in the kitchen.”

According to Gail Levin’s biography, Jo was “short, open, gregarious, sociable, and liberal” while Hopper was “tall, secretive, shy, quiet, introspective, and conservative.” Both were in their early forties when they married in 1924. A painter of real gifts, Jo was Hopper’s model and his advocate, but she resented the fact that her career was secondary to his. Of all her “roles,” the most warmly, sympathetically, and interestingly rendered was as the blond usherette in New York Movie.

At the Movies

Ask any film buff about Hopper’s influence on film noir and they will likely start talking about Nighthawks. Bring up film in general and they will mention New York Movie. Hopper was an ardent filmgoer. At the time of the painting, while there had been only intimations of noir like 1940’s The Stranger on the Third Floor (where someone is murdered in a diner), Hopper had seen and absorbed gangster flicks like Scarface (1932), Public Enemy (1930), Little Caesar (1931), and Bullets or Ballots (1936). Meanwhile he’d also discovered an appealing subject in moviehouse interiors like the one in New York Movie, which Hopper researched by taking his sketchbook to Times Square theatres like the Globe, Republic, Strand, and his primary model the Palace. Before it was finished, New York Movie required 54 drawings, more than any other painting in his career.

For the thoughtful usherette standing in an alcove out of view of the screen, Hopper posed his wife in slacks in a lighted corner of the studio. As he’d done with the diner in Nighthawks, Hopper added a touch of elegance that in this case makes the word “usherette” seem too workaday for the pensive blonde in the lustrous blue uniform and the stylish shoes (in one of the drawings, he pencils in “flesh-colored feet in black sandals”). Though Jo was in her mid-fifties at the time, Hopper painted her as a young woman in her twenties. Like the female in Nighthawks, the usherette is a departure from the lonely, abstracted, lost-looking individuals Hopper customarily depicted. There’s a benignly encompassing warmth about this person, enhanced by the yellow light all around her, that tempts you to guess at her thoughts. She may only be listening to voices on the soundtrack of the film, but what makes her so sympathetic and interesting is that you can feel the intelligent presence of the artist’s wife. She was a painter, too, remember, who might well be thinking, as she holds the pose, that she should be doing her own work. Or she might be pondering a new project as she stands there locked into the image of the thinker, chin propped on hand, her time and her art at the mercy of her artist husband. The positive side of the tension that makes her so much worthier of our notice than even the beautifully crafted interior of the theatre is in what we know to be her absolute devotion to Hopper’s work, her confidence in its greatness and superiority to her own, in spite of her sense of herself as an artist, an intelligence, a creative individual in her own right.

In the Office

In Office at Night, the curvaceous secretary standing by the filing cabinet offers yet another alternative to Hopper’s less forthright females and once again, the 20-something brunette secretary is being impersonated by a 50-something Josephine Hopper in a form-fitting skirt that reveals a shapely hip and leg that you know will eventually catch the eye of her boss, who is seated at his desk intently reading a letter. Of all the stories to develop from Hopper’s images, this would be the oldest, easiest, and most obvious to imagine. A better story, however, concerns the painter and his wife, who writes in her journal, of the young woman “fishing in a filing cabinet” that “I’m to pose for … tonight in a tight skirt — short to show legs. Nice that I have good legs and up and coming stockings.” A few days later Hopper is still working on Office at Night when a Viennese waltz comes over the radio. Edward “left the easel and came to waltz with me — and did very nicely …. The music got E. and about he went. He’s amazingly light on his feet when he dances.”

 

BLOCK PARTY: Crowds enjoyed a selection of festive activities and foods from local eateries at McCarter Theatre’s third annual outdoor Block Party last Wednesday as they listened to the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra.(Photo by Emily Reeves)

BLOCK PARTY: Crowds enjoyed a selection of festive activities and foods from local eateries at McCarter Theatre’s third annual outdoor Block Party last Wednesday as they listened to the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra. (Photo by Emily Reeves)

Rain stopped long enough last week for throngs of local residents and visitors to attend McCarter Theatre’s third annual block party. The event took place under festive lantern-lit trees on the lawn in front of the Matthews Theatre.

The free three-hour event, from 5 to 8 p.m., drew a crowd of all ages. Children took part in tot-sized versions of carnival like games such as the high-striker (also known as the strongman) as well as spin art, a scavenger hunt, and activities from JaZams. There were also ticket giveaways and, for the first time this year, stage tours.

People brought picnic blankets and lawn chairs and their pet dogs too. After buying food, they settled down at the tables and chairs provided or on the grass to enjoy music from the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra.

The orchestra, which was also at the event in previous years, is made up of high school and college performers from New Jersey and Greater Philadelphia. It was led by founder Joseph Bongiovi, who also directs the Princeton High School band. Vocalists Emily Zetterberg and Caitlyn Bongiovi (Mr. Bongiovi’s daughter) wowed the crowd with renditions of jazz standards.

Food ranged from gourmet pizza and paella to hotdogs from Nomad Pizza, Mediterra, Mistral, Terra Teatro, elements,4 Daughters Franks, Bitter Bob’s BBQ + Comfort Food, D’Angelo Italian Market, among others. Sweet dessert treats were to be had from Chez Alice Catering, Gil & Bert’s Ice Cream, and Maddalena’s Cheesecake & Catering.

Christine Murray, special events manager at -McCarter, said the block party “welcomes the community into our doors in a different way.”

In past years, as many as a thousand people have turned out for the event, which makes Wednesday evening’s count something of a record. “We didn’t get an exact count but I would say we had somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people,” said Christine Murray, who was in charge of the event. “I am very grateful to the 80 staff and volunteers who helped make the evening run smoothly. Without the help of these fabulous people the event would not be possible.”

In addition to informative stage tours led by Stage Supervisor Stephen J. Howe, teaching artists Jillian Carucci and Stacy Horowitz presented classes throughout the day for children in grades K through 2nd and 3rd through 5th in the theater lobby.

“All of us at McCarter are thrilled by the Block Party’s growing success,” said Ms. Murray. “We feel it’s important, as a member of the Princeton community, to have an event that kicks off our new season and brings together young and old for a great night of food, music, and activities. A fun time was had by all.”

McCarter’s upcoming season includes five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, Grammy winner Chris Botti, standup comedian Lewis Black as well as a joint recital by Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman. Plays include Proof by David Auburn, The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman and August Wilson’s Fences and two by Beaumarchais, directed and adapted by Stephen Wadsworth: The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. 

For more information, call (609) 258-2787, or visit: www.mccarter.org.

 

ArtRev2

TANG DYNASTY POETRY FOR TODAY: This illustration by the Long Island husband and wife team Jean and Mou-sien Tseng is on view from September 1 at the Zimmerli Museum as part of the exhibition “Maples in the Mist: Chinese Poems for Children Illustrated by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng.” It is the Tsengs’ visual expression of the poem “Traveler’s Song” by the Tang Dynasty poet Meng Jia.

The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University reopens September 1, after an August hiatus, with an exhibition of work by beloved children’s book illustrators Jean and Mou-sien Tseng.

“Maples in the Mist: Chinese Poems for Children” in the museum’s Duvoisin Gallery brings together art and children’s literature. 

Earlier in the year, the Zimmerli presented this exhibition in a curator-led Art After Hours program and musical performance. At that time, Marilyn Symmes, director of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and curator of the museum’s prints and drawings presented vibrant images by the Taiwanese husband and wife team whose illustrations have introduced some of the celebrated poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) to a contemporary audience. “These are poems that have been popular since the 18th century and many Chinese children today learn to read by reciting these poems,” she said. The poems were translated into English by Minfong Ho with the aim of introducing her own children and those of others to traditional Chinese culture. Each image in the exhibition is accompanied by the poem that inspired it.

“The Tang Dynasty is known as the golden age of poetry in China’s 2000-year literary history and the Tsengs’ illustrations are a captivating introduction to that rich heritage,” said Ms. Symmes who organized the exhibition with Beth McKeown, former assistant curator of prints and drawings.

The 22 original watercolors on view were chosen from the Zimmerli’s extensive collection of original artwork for children’s books. The Tsengs’ book was published in 1996; they donated their original watercolor illustrations to the museum in 1998. Each image demonstrates the Tsengs’ mastery of composition and color.

The illustrators capture the coziness of traditional customs against a rural backdrop to yield glimpses of domestic life with some nostalgia. In their illustration of “Traveler’s Song” by Meng Jia we see a mother mending her son’s coat by candlelight before he leaves home. Their image for “Quiet Night” by Li Bai, shows a young man in bed, gazing at the moon and longing for home.

The Tsengs’ feeling for nature finds expression in their illustration to “Symmetry” by Du Fu in which a flock of white egrets fly between willow trees in the foreground and majestic snow-capped mountains in the distance. See also their tender treatment of sunset for “Climbing Stork Tower” by Wang Zhi-Huan.

The exhibition uses three preliminary sketches by the Tsangs to show their creative process in working toward an illustration for Wang Jian’s poem “Little Pine.” The working drawings document the artists at work in developing the pose, clothing, and gesture of a little boy tending a sapling.

According to Museum Director Suzanne Delehanty, the images “demonstrate the craft and process of designing books before computer-generated illustrations became common practice.”

Born in Taiwan in 1940 and 1935, respectively, Jean and Mou-sien Tseng met while studying art at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. Since the couple immigrated to the United States in 1974, they have illustrated more than 30 children’s books, including The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy (Scholastic, 1990), Kenji and the Magic Geese by Ryerson Johnson (Simon & Shuster, 1992), and Fa Mulan by Robert D. San Souci (Hyperion, 1998). In 1999, they illustrated White Tiger, Blue Serpent (HarperCollins) by their daughter Grace. They now live on Long Island, New York.

“Maples in the Mist: Chinese Poems for Children Illustrated by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng” is at the Zimmerli Art Museum at 71 Hamilton Street at George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission: $6 for adults; $5 (65 and over); free for museum members, children under 18, and Rutgers students, faculty, and staff (with ID), and on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call (848) 932-7237 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

 

HOW WILL WE EVER GET OUT OF THIS?: Surrounded by police cars, retired racecar driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, right), accompanied by the kid (Selena Gomez), uses his driving skills to outmaneuver the two police cars and continue on their quest to locate and rescue Brent’s kidnapped wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig, not shown) from her abductors.

HOW WILL WE EVER GET OUT OF THIS?: Surrounded by police cars, retired racecar driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, right), accompanied by the kid (Selena Gomez), uses his driving skills to outmaneuver the two police cars and continue on their quest to locate and rescue Brent’s kidnapped wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig, not shown) from her abductors.

Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver who recently moved, with his wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig), from the United States to her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. But their plans for a quiet retirement are rudely interrupted when she is kidnapped at the height of the Christmas season.

Brent gets a call from a mysterious madman (Jon Voigt) who tells him that the only hope of seeing her alive is to follow his instructions without calling the police. Then, Brent is ordered to steal a specific custom-built Ford Mustang that is parked in a nearby garage.

After he gets behind the wheel, he realizes that the auto has been outfitted with cameras and microphones. Soon, he finds himself being ordered by the kidnapper to execute a series of dangerous maneuvers, at high speed, through a crowded market place, across a rink filled with skaters, up onto a stage, and down a flight of steps.

Of course the car’s maneuvers attract the attention of the cops, who set up a dragnet to put an end to the dangerous shenanigans. Brent, however, relies on his professional skills to elude the authorities, although he still has no idea of his wife’s whereabouts — or what crazy stunt is next on the inscrutable abductor’s bizarre agenda.

Getaway is a thriller that borrows popular elements from Taken, Speed, and Ransom. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, since the picture is an hour and a half of chase scenes that are punctuated by crashes and pyrotechnics.

For some reason, director Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) ignored character development in favor of incessant action and spectacular special effects. Hence, the audience is never able to invest emotionally in the plight of the anguished protagonist or his imperiled spouse. Instead, we repeatedly watch careening cars crashing, rolling over, almost hitting pedestrians, and (this reviewer’s personal favorite), flying off a bridge in flames.

Along the way, Brent encounters the hijacked car’s true owner (Selena Gomez), a spoiled rich kid who wants her graduation present back. Fortunately for Brent, the tech-savvy kid sympathizes with Brent’s plight, and decides to use her laptop in order help him find his spouse.

Unfortunately, the dialogue never rises above trite lines like “Why is this happening?” “You’re running out of time. Tick-tock!” and “You don’t have to do this.” The movie is a frenetically-paced Selena Gomez vehicle that is full of sound and fury and ultimately signifies nothing.

Good (**). Rated PG-13 for profanity, rude gestures, mayhem, and pervasive violence. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 21, 2013

book revWhat’s not to like when two giants of English literature are making news in the 21st century? What’s not to like about seeing a portion of Shakespeare’s handwriting on the front page of the New York Times and Jane Austen’s face peering out from the 10 pound note the Bank of England will put into circulation in 2016?

Shakespeare made page one of the Times last week (“Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare”) because a scholar in Texas has claimed that the Bard is responsible for 325 lines among the “additional passages” included in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play, The Spanish Tragedy. This claim has some residual merit, if only because Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb noted the possibility in 1833. It does seem odd that it’s taken 180 years before the news was deemed fit to print. Not that I don’t enjoy seeing Shakespeare’s name first thing in the morning in bigger type than Christie’s or Weiner’s or Bloomberg’s.

This was not the only time Shakespeare finds have been front-page news. In January 14, 1996, a professor at Vassar was toasted for having proven through computer analysis that a hitherto anonymous 578-line elegy was by Shakespeare. Six years later, when the dust of the ensuing debate cleared, the professor made news again by recanting his claim after overwhelming evidence showed that the elegy was by Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Ford.

Another bogus news flash in the name of the Bard lit up page one of the November 24, 1985 New York Times, to tell the world that Gary Taylor, a “32-year-old American from Topeka, Kan. has discovered a previously unknown nine-stanza love lyric” that “appears to be the first addition to the Shakespeare canon since the 17th century.”

An addition to the canon sounds exciting until you read the lyric in question, a piece of borderline doggerel that begins “Shall I die? Shall I fly” and features gems like “Suspicious doubt, O keep out” and “’Twere abuse to accuse,” “Fairest neck, no speck,” and “For I find to my mind pleasures scanty.” Besides being occasionally incoherent, it’s teeming with cliches like love/dove, fair brow, love’s prize, “gentle wind did sport” and so on and on.

Worse yet, the man from Topeka was allowed to include this embarrassment, this insult to Shakespeare, in the edition of the Works he was co-editing (don’t ask why or how). The only person quoted backing Taylor’s claim in the Times’ jump-the-gun story (“It looks bloody good to me”) was one John Pilcher of St. John’s College, whose position there is unstated, and no wonder. Meanwhile Taylor managed to insult yet another genius in the process of admitting that “while it’s not Hamlet,” it’s “a kind of virtuoso piece, a kind of early Mozart piece.” Taylor’s Wikipedia entry admits that his claim “has since been almost universally rejected.” Undaunted, unbowed, unashamed, the Florida State University professor is the author or editor of four of the volumes included on the Random House list of the 100 most important books on Shakespeare. In 2010, Oxford University Press named him the lead editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare, to be published in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The mind reels at the thought of what may be done in the course of, in Taylor’s words, “determining what Shakespeare wrote” in the ensuing “enormous, international frenzy of historical research.”

As Fats Waller liked to say, “One never knows, do one?”

It would take Terry Southern come back from the dead to do black-comedy justice to the tale of two sixties-styled Americans, one from Texas with shoulder-length hair, in 2013, and one from Kansas with an earring in his ear, in 1985, who managed to parlay themselves into page one prominence as Shakespeare heavyweights. It could be really funny, painfully funny.

The Ring

So what’s not to like about putting Jane Austen on the ten pound note? Don’t ask Mark Twain whose admission in a letter from 1898 — “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone” — would delight some of the bloggers who attacked Austen after the Bank of England broke the news. Never mind the shin-bone: two women who lobbied for Jane have been threatened with bombing, burning, pistol-whipping, and rape.

On a brighter note, there’s the saga of the Ring, not the Wagner Ring nor the Tolkien Ring but the turquoise and gold ring once worn by Austen and recently purchased at auction for £152,450 (about $230,000) by Texas-born pop singer Kelly Clarkson, whose worldwide hit single, “My Life Would Suck Without You” holds the record for the biggest leap to number one in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Perhaps the most famous member of the American wing of the Jane Austen Appreciation Society, Clarkson seemed to take it in stride when the government refused to let the ring leave the country. If you want to read some generally amusing back and forth on the issue, visit the Guardian blog (“Jane Austen Ring: would its sale to Kelly Clarkson be a loss to the nation?”), where Clarkson comes out on top in a poll (the “no”s have it, 65 to 35 percent) and the target of choice is the Tory government.

I don’t have a problem with the surfacing of Jane Austen in the regions of pop culture graced by Kelly Clarkson. In fact, the Jane Austen people busy raising money to buy back the ring see only good things for their cause in the pop star’s devotion.

What would Jane Austen make of her ebullient American fan? An impossible question, of course, but my guess is that she wouldn’t take long to warm to Clarkson, and that in spite of the title, she might actually tolerate “My Life Would Suck Without You,” with all its joyous emotional energy. More to the Pride and Prejudice point, how could she resist the singer’s latest, a jaunty, jumping wedding number called “Tie the Knot”?

While Austen would no doubt need another internet crash course to travel through time from John Dowland’s “Weep No More Sad Fountains” to Schubert to the Beatles to an appreciation of Clarkson, music is very much “the food of love” when Elizabeth Bennet’s singing and playing and dancing help put things in perspective with Mr. Darcy. Earlier in the narrative, during a gathering at which Darcy is present, Elizabeth experiences “the mortification” of seeing her younger sister Mary, “after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company” with a song. After unsuccessfully attempting to discourage Mary with “significant looks” and “silent entreaties,” Elizabeth suffers through the performance with “the most painful sensations” and “an impatience which was very ill rewarded” when Mary is asked to sing another song and happily does so. The problem for Elizabeth is that “Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected.”

Whether she’s singing “My Country Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s second inaugural or making the most of the cliched love-is-a-battlefield lyrics of “My Life Would Suck,” Kelly Clarkson’s considerable powers are definitely fitted for such displays.

A Delightful Creature

Published 200 years ago, in January 1813, Pride and Prejudice was Jane Austen’s “own darling child,” as she told her sister Cassandra. In the same letter, she called Elizabeth Bennet “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” and wondered how she “would be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least.” With those words, it’s as if the author were introducing one of her favorite characters into the society of the ages, where she will be liked and loved even into the 21st century, on the page and on the screen — and on the Jane Austen ten pound note, where you can see Elizabeth in the background above an image of Godmersham Park, home of Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. She’s at her writing desk, an image that also suggests the author at work. The drawing, pen and black ink, gray wash, over pencil, is by the American artist Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), from the edition of Pride and Prejudice (E.P. Dutton 1976) that features 20 illustrations of the 31 she contributed, all of which are now at the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s impossible to regard Bishop’s depictions of the novel’s female characters without thinking of the girl friends, shop girls, and working women she drew and painted for the better part of 50 years in her Union Square studio.

To know Isabel Bishop was to sometimes feel that you were in a novel that, depending on the occasion, could have been imagined by Jane Austen, or George Eliot, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Isabel would have been amused to find that the Bank of England had put her image of Elizabeth Bennet on the ten pound note. What would Jane Austen think? Writing to her brother Frank in September 1813 when Pride and Prejudice was being read and wondered over, she observes “that the Secret [of her authorship] has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now …. I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it — I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it — People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them.”

As for Shakespeare’s standing with the Bank of England, he’s got nothing to complain about. From 1970 to 1993 his was the face on the 20 pound note.

 

ROYAL COUPLE: An exhibition at the Michener Museum in Doylestown this fall will focus on the life and legacy of Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the Philadelphia girl and award-winning actress who became Princess Grace of Monaco when she married Prince Rainier III on April 18, 1956. Remembered as a screen legend and fashion icon, Ms. Kelly was also a United Nations advocate for children, and muse to director Alfred Hitchcock. For more information and hours, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org.(Courtesy of James A. Michener Museum of Art)

ROYAL COUPLE: An exhibition at the Michener Museum in Doylestown this fall will focus on the life and legacy of Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the Philadelphia girl and award-winning actress who became Princess Grace of Monaco when she married Prince Rainier III on April 18, 1956. Remembered as a screen legend and fashion icon, Ms. Kelly was also a United Nations advocate for children, and muse to director Alfred Hitchcock. For more information and hours, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org. (Courtesy of James A. Michener Museum of Art)

With its new Grace Kelly exhibition opening in just two month’s time, the staff of the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown held a press conference last Thursday to show just what all the fuss is about.

Lisa Tremper Hanover, Michener Director and CEO, described the contents of the exhibition, “From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon,” which aims to immerse visitors in the life and legacy of the Oscar-winning American actress and Princess of Monaco.

Besides items of designer clothing worn by Ms. Kelly, personal letters and memorabilia, there will be film clips and archival documents. The Michener is the sole U.S. destination for the exhibition, which was seen earlier in Canada.

According to Ms. Tremper Hanover, the exhibition sets out to relate “the real story” of the girl from Philadelphia who loved scrapple and adored raising her children as much as she loved clothes and culture. “Her real story isn’t a fairy tale as you will see from the exhibition’s intimate photographs, love letters from her husband, home movies and fashions that are as elegant today as they were 50 years ago,” she said.

On hand to raise the level of excitement were representatives of the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, the Consulate General of Monaco in New York, and other exhibition funders such as the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau.

Consul General and Minister Counselor Maguy Maccario Doyle described Grace Kelly’s lasting impact on Monaco through the theater and arts festival she founded there as well as the library that was created from her private collection of Irish literature after her death.

Ms. Kelly’s son, His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, spoke via Skype from his home. “Those of us who were fortunate enough to know my mother knew her to be a genuine, warm, and loving woman — a woman who always put her family first. I hope that through experiencing this exhibition you will be able to glimpse the real Grace Kelly,” he said. It was Prince Albert who provided the impetus for the exhibition’s North American tour.

The press conference, which was held, appropriately enough, at the Hotel Monaco in the heart of the actress’s hometown of Philadelphia, also featured short presentations by Regina Canfield of the PNC Arts Alive program which is funding the exhibition, and others.

Kristina Haugland, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and author of Grace Kelly: Icon of Style to Royal Bride and Grace Kelly Style, described Ms. Kelly’s iconic style and provided a perspective on her influence on fashion. “She was far from the typical Hollywood clotheshorse,” said Ms. Haugland. “Her signature style was timeless, simple and elegant, a classic look that is emulated today on red carpet runways and exemplified by brides like Kate Middleton.”

“This exhibition will benefit the whole of Bucks County as well as Doylestown,” commented Paul Bencivengo, Bucks County marketing and communications director, anticipating the regional economic impact. “Bucks county tourism provides some 11,000 jobs and brings in some $850 million a year,” he said, adding that Grace Kelly was a “simple sell” for the region and the state.

“The opportunity to bring together a comprehensive exhibition that focuses on the depth and breadth of Grace Kelly’s life is an important acknowledgment of her impact on so many facets of the 20th century,” said Ms. Tremper Hanover. “Throughout the years, interest in Grace — her compassion, her radiance, her dignity, and her individuality — has never waned. Her hometown of Philadelphia is eager to honor this spirit.”

Ms. Kelly’s nephew, Christopher Le Vine, provided a touching take on his relative. “Grace never lost touch with her family here in Philly, her children grew up much as she did,” said Mr. Le Vine as he recalled home movies of his aunt and his mother on the beach at Ocean City. Mr. Le Vine is the owner, of Grace Winery and Sweetwater Farm Bed and Breakfast in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley.

“From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon” will be accompanied by a series of events on Grace Kelly’s jewelry, fashion, style and impact as a royal bride, culminating with a screening of one of her most popular films High Society in December.

GRACE KELLY REMEMBERED: Another side of screen legend Grace Kelly was recalled when her nephew, Christopher Le Vine, shared memories of his aunt and his mother frolicking at the New Jersey shore at a press conference organized by the Michener Museum at the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia last week to promote its fall exhibition “From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon.” Mr. Le Vine is the owner of Grace Winery and Sweetwater Farm Bed and Breakfast in Glen Mills, Pa.(Photo by L. Arntzenius)

GRACE KELLY REMEMBERED: Another side of screen legend Grace Kelly was recalled when her nephew, Christopher Le Vine, shared memories of his aunt and his mother frolicking at the New Jersey shore at a press conference organized by the Michener Museum at the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia last week to promote its fall exhibition “From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon.” Mr. Le Vine is the owner of Grace Winery and Sweetwater Farm Bed and Breakfast in Glen Mills, Pa. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)

The Michener will also celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Bucks County Playhouse, where Ms. Kelly made her stage debut.

Jed Bernstein, the theater’s producing director spoke about Ms. Kelly’s early years and of the role that the Buck’s County Playhouse has played in the region and in American theater as a whole. Besides Ms. Kelly, those associated with the theaters comprise a veritable “who’s who” of American stage and screen in the 20th and early 21st centuries: Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, Helen Hayes, Walter Matthau, Angela Lansbury, and Tyne Daly, as well as renowned playwrights George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Neil Simon, and Terrence McNally.

The companion exhibition, “Local Mill Makes Good: Celebrating 75 Years of American Theater at the Bucks County Playhouse,” will be on view from October 26, through March 2, 2014.

“From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon” opens October 28 at the James A. Michener Art Museum,138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. For more information and hours, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org. The Michener will be using a timed ticket entry system for non-members. Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended, and available only at www.MichenerArtMuseum.org or by calling (800) 595-4849.

 

KEEPER OF THE KEYS: Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has the unenviable task of keeping out the destitute earthlings from overrunning the exclusive space station Elysium, which the wealthy Earth citizens have created as a haven from the miserable conditions on their home planet Earth which is over populated and polluted.

KEEPER OF THE KEYS: Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has the unenviable task of keeping out the destitute earthlings from overrunning the exclusive space station Elysium, which the wealthy Earth citizens have created as a haven from the miserable conditions on their home planet Earth which is over populated and polluted.

It’s 2154, and the planet Earth has become so polluted and overpopulated that anyone who can afford it has abandoned it to live in a luxurious state-of-the-art space station. Their decadent enclave, Elysium, looks similar to Beverly Hills, and is filled with palm trees and mansions with private swimming pools.

Meanwhile, down on Earth, the teeming masses of poor people struggle to survive, and escape to Elysium is their only hope for a decent existence. Of course, that’s easier said than done, since you have to be able to afford an expensive ride aboard a space ship to get there. And, even after arriving, you have to provide the authorities with proof of citizenship in order to stay.

The job of preventing illegal immigrants from entering Elysium falls to Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a heartless executive who has no qualms about shooting down unauthorized space shuttles. She takes her orders from John Carlyle (William Fitchner), the nefarious CEO of Armadyne Corporation, much to the annoyance of the space station’s president (Faran Tahir).

It turns out that it’s impossible for any politician to control the powerful defense contractor, a fact which Earth dwelling Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) learns the hard way. He only has five days to live after being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in an industrial accident.

After his request for medical treatment, that is readily available on Elysium, is summarily denied, he becomes determined to reach the space station by hook or by crook. He also wants to bring his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), and her young daughter (Emma Tremblay) who is suffering from acute leukemia along with him. Standing in their way, however, is Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a blood-thirsty heavily armed mercenary, deputized by Delacourt to patrol Los Angeles to make sure that no unworthy earthlings make it to Elysium.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is a disappointing sophomoric effort from the South African who had made such a spectacular splash in 2009 with the sleeper hit District 9. This film feels like he’s all out of ideas, because he uses similar themes from his earlier success, and has a cliché-ridden script filled with hackneyed lines like: “That’s what I’m talking about,” “You have no idea,” and “I’m just getting started.”

Fair (*½). Rated R for pervasive profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 109 minutes. Distributor: Tri-Star Pictures.

 

August 14, 2013

dvd rev“Ever go to the movies?”

“Once in a while.”

“You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.”

—from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”

Last week’s Hemingway binge began with both the 1946 and 1964 film versions of his story, “The Killers,” on a 2-disc Criterion Collection DVD from the Princeton Public Library.

Meanwhile, to catch up on what’s been happening in the Hemingway marketplace, I went back to the library and checked out a copy of Paula McLain’s best-selling The Paris Wife (Ballantine 2012), still in the top 20 after 30-plus weeks on the New York Times trade paperback list. Right now I’m still recovering from two and a half hours of another library item, HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012), which I watched on the assumption that between a solid director like Philip Kaufman and an actress I admire, Nicole Kidman, it would be worth seeing, which it sort of almost was. Except that by the end, even the impressively replicated illusion of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and Kidman’s performance as journalist Martha Gellhorn had been fatally tainted by the humiliation visited on Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).

Assuming no one has organized a Hemingway Anti-Defamation League, we will have to make do, for now, with The Paris Wife. Although this novel offers one of the most sympathetic depictions of the young writer ever put between covers, it surely has Hemingway doing somersaults in his grave, outraged not only by the idea of a woman taking possession of his story but, to put it crudely, stealing his first wife Hadley’s soul. In spite of being sneeringly dismissed out of hand by some reviewers, McLain accomplishes her mission with grace and style. You may occasionally cringe or roll your eyes, but by the end, you feel that you know Hadley (1891-1979) as well if not better than you do in Hemingway’s end-of-life love letter to her in A Moveable Feast — and without the happier and nicer and smarter than thou smugness that sometimes infects his account of the relationship.

One reason to celebrate The Paris Wife’s extraordinary success is the hope that many more people will have encountered McLain’s Hemingway than the loutish travesty perpetrated by Hemingway and Gellhorn, where Clive Owen’s in-your-face blowhard suggests Groucho Marx on steroids crossed with Ali G at his most embarrassingly buffoonish. You rarely believe that this guy is capable of writing “the one true word” Hemingway said every story should begin with. Philip Kaufman seems to have sold Hemingway short in his eagerness to show why, as he says in an online Hollywood Reporter interview, Gellhorn is worth a great deal more than a footnote in the life of the 20th century’s most famous writer. And when Kaufman says that Gellhorn was “the only one of Hemingway’s wives who loved him,” you know he hasn’t read The Paris Wife. All the well-known character defects are there, but instead of making you think what a jerk he is, you see him as Hadley does and you suffer with her when he makes the same wrong moves that he himself ends up lamenting in the luminous memoir that was in his typewriter on the July morning he took the story of his life in his own hands and ended it on his own terms.

Thinking the Unthinkable

The first half of Hemingway’s most famous, most anthologized story, “The Killers,” is an entertainment. Think of it as gangster vaudeville. Al and Max, two hit men from Chicago, small in stature, wrapped in big tight-fitting overcoats and gloves, come into a suburban lunch-room, engage in a kind of tag-team taunting of George, the man behind the counter, and the sole customer, Nick Adams, Hemingway’s youthful alter ego. Al and Max are cracking themselves up even as they blithely admit they are there to blow away the Swede who is known to stop in at six every evening. The verbal bullying (“Well, bright boy, why don’t you say something?” “What’s it all about?” “Hey, Al … bright boy wants to know what it’s all about”) is not that far removed from Hemingway’s own approach to journalists, correspondents, and interviewers, including even “bright boy” George Plimpton in the Paris Review (“when you ask someone old, tired questions, you are apt to get old, tired answers”). After Al eats his ham and eggs and Max his bacon and eggs, which they do with their gloves on, they get down to business and tie up and gag Nick and Sam, the black cook, and when the Swede doesn’t show up, they go looking for him.

At this point, with Nick hurrying ahead to the Swede’s rooming house to warn him, entertainment becomes literature. As can be seen by the piece he wrote for the Oak Park and River Forest High School literary magazine in 1916 (“A Matter of Color”), Hemingway already had a knack for gangland dialogue at 17. Nick’s exchange with the Swede, who is lying in bed staring at the wall, is on another, more darkly suggestive level. Every dead flat toneless sentence the Swede utters in response to the news that two men have said they’re going to kill him (“There isn’t anything I can do about it …. That wouldn’t do any good …. There ain’t anything to do”) is hard core Hemingway, the haunting, hypnotic endgame edge and acid essence of his style. Here’s a man receiving word of his impending death without emotion, without the least sign of resistance to the prospect. Appalled at what he’s witnessed, Nick goes back to the lunch room, where he and George speculate about the Swede’s attitude and what he must have done to draw the death sentence. Nick is shaken. He can’t stand to think about the man “waiting in that room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.” What George says next seals the story, wraps it up, and leaves the reader in a hush.

“Well,” said George, “you better not think about it.”

That’s it. Neither motion picture version of The Killers replays that essential Hemingway advisory because it wouldn’t work. It was made for the page and nothing but the page. Imagine trying to end a film with someone saying “Well, you better not think about it.” No actor on the planet could make of that sentence anything remotely comparable to what Hemingway accomplishes by laying it out in cold hard type. This is where the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words just doesn’t cut it.

Two Movies

So how do you make a movie out of a short story that slams the door in your face with that last line? First you have to figure out what the Swede did to earn a death sentence (“I got in wrong” is all he tells Nick) and then you have to show why he doesn’t care (“There ain’t anything to do now”). Anthony Veiller and John Huston’s screenplay for the 1946 version directed by Robert Siodmak recreates the scene in the lunch room, with most of the Hemingway dialogue intact, along with Nick’s visit to the Swede. The flashback that fills out the 105 minutes of screen time is a well-done if routine film noir about a bungled heist, a femme fatale (Ava Gardner), a lovelorn boxer (Burt Lancaster’s Swede), and a crime boss (Albert Dekker). In Don Siegel’s 1964 technicolor version the lunch room scene with the Hemingway dialogue is gone, the doomed man is a race car driver (John Cassavetes) and everyone dies, including both killers (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager), the femme fatale (Angie Dickinson), and the crime boss (Ronald Reagan). If it weren’t for the title, you wouldn’t know that what you were seeing was based on Hemingway’s story. While the two hit men in Siodmak’s film are true to the original in being confined to the setting of the opening act, the killers in Siegel’s film behave like protagonists. With Gulager providing the entertainment by way of his sarcastic one-liners, Lee Marvin carries the weight of the story, for he wants more than the missing money. He wants to know why the Cassavetes character just stood there not caring when they killed him. Marvin is an amazing actor (as Gulager movingly testifies on the Criterion DVD), one of the few who could give a charge to the you-better-not-think-about-it line. But he doesn’t have to say it, he presents it physically. He is it, he’s the medium for that terse message.

Both films fall short of the story in the end because the reason for each victim’s indifference to death amounts to nothing more than a film noir cliche: betrayal by a woman. Hemingway doesn’t go there. No need to. As he once put it, “that story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote …. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.”

He also thought that the 1946 Killers was “the only good picture made of a story of mine.” When producer Mark Hellinger sent a publicist to Idaho with a print to personally screen for him, Hemingway watched it with a pint of gin and a pint of water handy so that he could numb the pain if the film got bad. After the screening, he held up the full bottles with a big smile.

The truth is, Hollywood served Hemingway well, at least when the directors were of the stature of Frank Borzage and Howard Hawks. The author was also fortunate that his close friend Gary Cooper was born to play the Hemingway hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and Borzage’s Academy-Award-nominated version of A Farewell to Arms (1932), which Hemingway considered a romanticized abomination. As for To Have and Have Not (1944), loosely based on a novel Hemingway himself made no claims for, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, least of all the author, could have a problem with the happy wonders Hawks and Faulkner, Bogart and Bacall did with that one.

Clearly, Hemingway had little respect for the medium, as the teasing reference in the “The Killers” quoted in this column’s epigraph indicates. In fact, hitman Al’s “the movies are fine for a bright boy like you” never made it into the 1946 film version of the lunch room scene. Given the twisted concerns of an industry that was always watching its back, perhaps the Hays Office and the custodians of the Code feared that audiences would think going to the pictures was endorsed by gangsters.

“Mrs. Hemingway”

Princeton native Mary Chapin-Carpenter puts the heart-in-the-right-place essence of Paula McLain’s novel into a six-minute ballad, “Mrs. Hemingway,” from her 2010 The Age of Miracles. Hadley is left out of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but then she’s used to that: Hemingway left her out of The Sun Also Rises. He more than made up for that in A Moveable Feast, of course.

One reason to see the Criterion DVD of The Killers is its inclusion of -Andrei Tarkovsky’s 20-minute student film version of the story.

 

CAN YOU HEAR THEM COO? Beatrice Bork’s watercolor “Lovie Dovie” conveys the characteristic peacefulness and loyalty of mourning doves in D&R Greenway’s current art exhibition, “The Feathered and the Field.” In addition to Ms. Bork, featured artists are Francesca Azzara, Bill Dix, Carolyn H. Edlund, Jennifer Hawkes, Brenda Jones, David Robinson, Rye Tippett, and Charles David Viera. Admission is free and the show runs through October 5. A percentage of each work sold supports the Land Trust at One Preservation Place, off Rosedale. For more information and hours, call (609) 924-4646 or email rsvp@drgreenway.org.

CAN YOU HEAR THEM COO? Beatrice Bork’s watercolor “Lovie Dovie” conveys the characteristic peacefulness and loyalty of mourning doves in D&R Greenway’s current art exhibition, “The Feathered and the Field.” In addition to Ms. Bork, featured artists are Francesca Azzara, Bill Dix, Carolyn H. Edlund, Jennifer Hawkes, Brenda Jones, David Robinson, Rye Tippett, and Charles David Viera. Admission is free and the show runs through October 5. A percentage of each work sold supports the Land Trust at One Preservation Place, off Rosedale. For more information and hours, call (609) 924-4646 or email rsvp@drgreenway.org.

A reception for the artists with works in the D&R Greenway Land Trust’s latest exhibition will take place Thursday, August 15 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibition, titled “The Feathered and the Field: Birds in Autumn,” features stirring images in many media with artists interpreting the transition from summer to autumn, a time when preserved habitat is particularly essential to migrating birds. It is designed to encourage people to preserve and to plant bird-friendly habitats and throughout the evening, native plants may be purchased from the Trust’s on-site Native Plant Nursery, to transform home gardens into bird-friendly habitats.

Artists include Francesca Azzara, Beatrice Bork, Bill Dix, Carolyn H. Edlund, Jennifer Hawkes, Brenda Jones, David Robinson, Rye Tippett, and Charles David Viera.

All the art is for sale, with a percentage supporting the land trust’s preservation and stewardship mission.

Guests are also encouraged to include a sunset bird exploration in Greenway Meadows.

Linda Mead, D&R Greenway CEO and president, suggests that guests treat this exhibition as a bird walk, even to the extent of beginning “a life list” of species represented in these diverse works, such as committed birders maintain. She reminds visitors to hike St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell, where D&R Greenway preservation is increasing sightings of rare and threatened species such as the meadowlark, the American kestrel, and the bobolink.

“This exhibit celebrates the diverse beauty of birds, particularly their vulnerability during migration to their wintering grounds,”

notes D&R Greenway Curator Diana Moore.

“The Feathered and the Field: Birds in Autumn,” is on view during business hours of business days at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road, through October 5. Admission is free. For more information and to register for the free reception, call (609) 924-4646 or email rsvp@drgreenway.org.

ART IN THE GARDEN: This handwoven artwork by Amy Turner also serves as a scarf and is among an abundance of arts and craft items for sale at the 14th Annual Art in the Garden at Paxson Hill Farm, Saturday, August 31 and Sunday, September 1 at 3265 Comfort Road, Solebury Township, across the river in Bucks County. Ms. Turner uses hand-dyed yarns, painted warps, tapestry inlay, and beads into her work. For more information, call (215) 297-1010, or visit: www.paxsonhillfarm.com.

ART IN THE GARDEN: This handwoven artwork by Amy Turner also serves as a scarf and is among an abundance of arts and craft items for sale at the 14th Annual Art in the Garden at Paxson Hill Farm, Saturday, August 31 and Sunday, September 1 at 3265 Comfort Road, Solebury Township, across the river in Bucks County. Ms. Turner uses hand-dyed yarns, painted warps, tapestry inlay, and beads into her work. For more information, call (215) 297-1010, or visit: www.paxsonhillfarm.com.

The 14th Annual Art in the Garden at Paxson Hill Farm will be held, Saturday, August 31 and Sunday, September 1. The event, which runs each day from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is held rain or shine, will feature an exhibition and sale of work by local artists and fine-crafters.

This is the first time Art in the Garden will take place over two days.

Sponsored by horticulturist Bruce Gangawer, owner/operator of the nursery at Paxson Hill Farm, the event brings together some 58 painters, printmakers, jewelers, photographers, wood turners, fiber artists, ceramicists, and others.

This year’s exhibitors include Sandy Askey-Adams, Mandy Baker, Kathy Barclay, Rob Barrett, Kristen Birdsey, Nurit Bland, Jen Brower, Karen Caldwell, Keppler Castano, Diana Contine, Sheila Watson Coutin, Lara Ginzburg, Bernard Hohlfeld, Deborah Holcomb, Michael Holcomb, Mickie Marshall-Jacoby, Brenda Jones, Sandra Jones, Susan Kern, Evelyn King, Carla Klouda, Donna Kudra, Carole Kyle, Nora Lewis, Leda Manfre, Denise Marshall, Sallie Marshall, Claudia McGill, Kim McGuckin, Janet Miller, Kelly Money, David Money, Mindy Mutterperl, Susan Nadelson, Isabel O’Brien, Rebecca Proctor-Weiss, Ron Prybycien, Michael Ressler, Robert J. Richey, Jr., Glenn Rile, Susan Rosetty, Cindi Sathra, Scott Schlauch, Gale Scotch, Kathe Scullion, Jane Stoller, Deborah Tinsman, Patricia Tolton, Sean Tucker, Amy Turner, Helena van Emmerik-Finn, John Wear, Dawn Weseman, John H. Williams, Katy Winters, Steve Zazenski, and Barbara Zietchick.

Since 2000, Art in the Garden has grown from 17 artists selected for the first event. The garden setting includes numerous sun, shade, Oriental, and water gardens. Visitors are encouraged to wander the gardens, greenhouse, and fish ponds.

The free event takes place at Paxson Hill Farm, 3265 Comfort Road, Solebury Township. For more information, call (215) 297-1010, or visit: www.paxsonhill
farm.com.

 

STAND BY YOUR MAN: Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, left) staunchly supports her husband Eugene (Forest Whitaker), who is at odds with their elder son Louis (David Oyelowo, not shown) about their views on Civil Rights issues. Louis wants his father to take advantage of his position in the White House to express opinions about the aims of the Civil Rights movement to his superiors at work, which would contravene Eugene’s terms of employment.

STAND BY YOUR MAN: Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, left) staunchly supports her husband Eugene (Forest Whitaker), who is at odds with their elder son Louis (David Oyelowo, not shown) about their views on Civil Rights issues. Louis wants his father to take advantage of his position in the White House to express opinions about the aims of the Civil Rights movement to his superiors at work, which would contravene Eugene’s terms of employment.

Eugene Allen (1919-2010) served eight presidents during his career in the White House where he rose from the position of Pantry Man to Head Butler by the time he retired in 1986. In that capacity, the African American son of a sharecropper was privileged to be an eyewitness to history, since his tenure coincided with the implementation of most of the landmark legislation that dismantled the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.

Directed by two time Oscar nominee Lee Daniels, The Butler is a father-son biopic relating events in Allen’s life as they unfolded against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. This fictionalized account features Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker in the title role as Cecil Gaines, and a supporting cast of Oscar winners Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, and Melissa Leo, as well as Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey.

The movie begins in a plantation in the deep south, where Cecil witnesses his father’s (David Banner) murder in a cotton field for protesting his mother’s (Mariah Carey) rape by an overseer. Because the perpetrator was never brought to justice, the youngster gets the message at an early age that “Any white man could kill us at any time and not be punished for it.”

Therefore, to avoid the same fate as his father, in his teens, he skips town and settles in Washington, D.C. where he lands steady work as a bartender in a hotel that caters to an upscale clientele. There he also meets Gloria (Winfrey), the maid whom he marries, and starts a family.

Cecil’s reputation as a polite and deferential black man leads to a position in the White House, where he is hired on the express understanding that “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.” Although he maintains an apolitical façade on the job, the same can’t be said for his home life, where current events are freely debated.

As a result, Cecil finds himself increasingly at odds with his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), a civil rights activist who participates in voter registration marches, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and freedom bus rides. The simmering tension between the two builds over the years to the boiling point when Louis derisively refers to his father an Uncle Tom.

At that point, Cecil’s wife slaps her son and then delivers the moving line that is likely to earn Oprah Winfrey another Academy Award nomination: “Everything you have, and everything you are, is because of that butler.” However, Forest Whitaker is even more deserving of accolades, thanks to his nonpareil performance as a humble provider who is understandably reluctant to rock the boat.

Kudos to Lee Daniels for crafting a gut-wrenching tour de force that never hits a false note and chronicles critical moments in the African American fight for equality.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, smoking, profanity, ethnic slurs, disturbing images, and mature themes. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 7, 2013

book revIf you want to know India, study Vivekananda. 

—Rabindranath Tagore to Romain Rolland

The song really came from Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘If there is a God, we must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it.’

—George Harrison on the origins of “My Sweet Lord”

T he first chapter of Phillip Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation; How Indian Spirtuality Changed the West (Doubleday 2010) opens by suggesting that the Beatles’ “extended stay” with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968 “may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.” Goldberg goes on to say that the resulting “media frenzy over the Fab Four made known to the sleek, sophisticated West that meek mysterious India had something of value. Our understanding and practice of spirituality would never be the same.”

While there’s no doubt that the Beatles played a major role in alerting American culture to the manifold riches of the subcontinent, I have a problem with Goldberg’s choice of words. “Something of value” doesn’t begin to say it, “mysterious India” is for travel brochures, and, above all, what does a word like “meek” have to do with the land associated with riots, juggernauts, and sadhus who can decapitate you with a look? Probably the best thing anyone said about the Beatles’ Indian venture was Ringo Starr’s comparison of the “momentous spiritual retreat” to “a Butlin’s holiday camp.” George Harrison, the one Beatle who found something  of lasting value in India, went beyond the Maharishi to the teachings of Vivekananda (1863-1902), the man who truly did bring India to the west.

Born Narendra Nath Datta in Calcutta 150 years ago, January 12, 1863, Vivekananda is the subject of A.L Bardach’s Wall Street Journal Magazine piece “What Did J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, and Sarah Bernhardt Have in Common?” wherein she takes the Beatles analogy full-circle. When Vivekananda greeted the audience at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair as “Sisters and brothers of America,” the response presaged “the phenomenon decades later that greeted the Beatles” as the “previously sedate crowd of 4,000-plus attendees rose to their feet and wildly cheered the visiting monk.”

“No doubt the vast majority of those present hardly knew why they had been so powerfully moved,” Christopher Isherwood writes some 50 years later. “A large gathering has its own strange kind of subconscious telepathy and this one must have been somehow aware that it was in the presence of that most unusual of beings, a man whose words express exactly what he is.”

Unknown

While the Beatles came to America in February 1964 atop a tidal wave of music and media, Vivekananda arrived in Chicago in July 1893 wholly unknown, with no credentials and very little money. Only after finally finding the entry bureau did he learn that the Parliament of Religions wouldn’t open until September, that it was too late to register, and worse yet, that he was not qualified to take part because he belonged to no known group. Using the last of his money, he took a train to Boston, where, being an imposing presence in his red turban and yellow robes belted with a scarlet sash, he caught the eye of a retired literature professor at Smith who invited him to her home; there, she introduced him to a professor at Harvard who wrote to the president of the Committee that Vivekananda should represent Hinduism at the Parliament. He then gave the 29-year-old pilgrim a ticket back to Chicago, where he landed dazed and disoriented, having lost the address of the Committee. When he asked for directions, he was rebuffed because of the color of his skin. Doors all over Chicago were slammed in the face of this bizarrely-attired “negro.” He was sitting in the street when he was noticed by a woman who gave him refuge, took him to the Parliament, where, as 1915 Nobel laureate Romain Rolland writes in Prophets of the New India (Boni 1930), “The unknown of yesterday, the beggar, the man despised for his color by a Mob” imposed “his sovereign genius.”

There he stood, “the young man who represented nothing—and everything—the man belonging to no sect but rather to India as a whole.” The newspapers swooned over his “fascinating face, his noble stature and gorgeous apparel,” and “the raven black of his hair, his olive complexion, his dark eyes, his red lips.” The New York Herald called him “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament” and  the Boston Evening Post said he was “the great favorite” who “received acclamations every time he crossed the platform.” During the two week duration of the Parliament, he spoke 10 or 11 times and “the only way of keeping the public at the meetings … was to announce that Vivekananda would speak at the end.”

The simple power of his message sent a charge into the event, burning through all the scripted rhetoric, “his thesis of a universal Religion without limit of time or space uniting the whole Credo of the human spirit … into a magnificent synthesis, which … helped all hopes to grow and flourish according to their own proper nature.”

No internet was needed to spread the word. He was famous, if not overnight, within a matter of weeks. “Having nearly succumbed to poverty,” Rolland writes, “he was now in danger of being overwhelmed by riches. American snobbery threw itself upon him, and, in its first flush, threatened to smother him with its luxury and vanities.”

Again, it’s almost too easy to find a parallel to the experience of the Beatles when they toured America (and the world), where only the rich and famous could get near them. In order to free himself from his privvileged protectors, Vivekananda went on a speaking tour of the East and Middle West, but the more he saw of the country, and the disparity between rich and poor, the more outspoken he became about “the brutality, the inhumanity, the littleness of spirit, the narrow fanaticism, the monumental ignorance, the crushing incomprehension” of a people who thought themselves “the paragon nation of the human race.” In Boston he inveighed against a civilization of monied “foxes and wolves” whereupon hundreds of people “noisily left the hall, and the Press was furious.”

Even as Vivekananda was attacking the country at large, false Christianity and religious hypocrisy among his favorite targets, he  found pleasure and amusement in the company of American followers, many of the most devoted of whom were weathly, well-born women of a certain age. Since the inadvertenty absurd juxtaposition of such a personage with ordinary people is all but made for mockery, it’s important to keep in mind that in addition to George Harrison, Vivekananda’s admirers included Tolstoy, William James, Sarah Bernhardt, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Nicolas Tesla, Gandhi, Jung, Santayana, Stravinsky, and, not least, J.D. Salinger, whose long relationship with the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York extended from the early 1950s until his death in January 2010.

An up close and gushingly personal view of Vivekananda can be found on www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info, provided by a Detroit woman who spent time with him in 1894 at the compound on Thousand Island Park that Salinger would visit some six decades later. Among the profusion of adoring quotes: “We take long walks and the Swami literally, and so simply, finds ‘books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good (God) in every thing.  And this same Swami is so merry and fun-loving. We just go mad at times.”

When the woman from Detroit asked Vivekananda how some of the “beautiful society queens of the West would appear to him — especially those versed in the art of allurement,” he looked at her “calmly with his big, serious eyes and gravely replied, ‘If the most beautiful woman in the world were to look at me in an immodest or unwomanly way she would immediately turn into a hideous, green frog, and one does not, of course, admire frogs!’ “

“Meek, Mysterious India!”

That word meek is still crawling around like an ant in my brain. It’s hard to imagine a more grossly misguided association than “meek” and “India.” One of the most off-putting things about the spiritual stereotype implicit in the Maharishi is the travesty of humility skewered in John Lennon’s song “Sexy Sadie” (“We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table”), which he told Playboy he wrote “when we had our bags packed and were leaving.”

My negative reaction to “meek” is due to the intensity of my own experience during the six months I spent in India, undoubtedly the most significant, exciting six months of my life. What happened to me there on more than one occasion can be compared to a dumbed down version of the early moment with Ramakrishna described by Vivekananda. On one of his first visits, “Ramakrishna had placed his right foot on my body. The contact was terrible. With my eyes open I saw the walls and everything in the room whirling and vanishing into nothingness….The whole universe and my own individuality were at the same time lost in a nameless void.” When that happened to Narendra he wasn’t aware of anything cosmic or spiritual. He was terrified and repelled, thinking himself “face to face with death,” crying out like a frightened child, “What are you doing? I have parents at home.” Which comes close to describing what went through my mind whenever India lowered the boom. It would be nice to think that the heavy things that happened to me there were spiritually valid, but the charge was almost purely sensory: like being turned upside down by a roller coaster. Sharing sunrise on the Ganges at the Kumbha Mehla in Allahabad with seven million Hindus is a magnificent memory, but in the actual roar of the moment I was stunned, embattled, and disoriented. It was the ultimate manifestation of being “out of my depth.”

September 11, 1893/2001

The conclusion of Vivekananda’s opening address at the Parliament of Religions is worth repeating, if only in view of the date:

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism.”

 

—Stuart Mitchner

 

Ann Louise Bardach is working on a biography of Vivekananda. Philip Goldberg’s book, which was helpful as a back-up to Rolland’s Prophets of the New India, is available at the Princeton Public Library and should not be dismissed out of hand because of his unfortunate use of the word “meek.”

ART PHOTOGRAPHY AT ELLARSLIE: Peter Cook’s silver gelatin print portrait of Cowboy Larry will be on display as part of the “Camera Work 2013” exhibiton at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park, Trenton. The show features a dozen local photographers whose exceptional art work was part of the Ellarslie Open earlier this spring. The show opens this Friday and will run through September 22.

ART PHOTOGRAPHY AT ELLARSLIE: Peter Cook’s silver gelatin print portrait of Cowboy Larry will be on display as part of the “Camera Work 2013” exhibiton at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park, Trenton. The show features a dozen local photographers whose exceptional art work was part of the Ellarslie Open earlier this spring. The show opens this Friday and will run through September 22.

For six weeks, beginning on Friday, August 9, the entire first floor of the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park will play host to twelve talented area photographers who have been invited back to the museum after they had taken part in the recent Ellarslie Open exhibition. According to a recent press release, a survey of photographs included in the Ellarslie Open revealed an immense diversity of styles, technique and printing.

The twelve photographers will display their work in an entirely new exhibition titled, “Camera Work 2013,” which will run through September 22. There will be an opening reception this Friday from 7 p.m to 9 p.m. following a members and artists only reception from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The show takes its name from the publication, Camera Work, that was edited by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) from 1902 to 1917. It features contemporary photographers Bill Hoo, Peter Cook, Richard DeFalco, Joseph Gilchrist, Dwight Harris, Mary Leck, Ed Nyul, Martin Schwartz, John Slavin, Igor Svibilsky, Kristina Tregnan and Kevin Hogan and pays tribute to Stieglitz and other early 20th century photographers who took photography into the realm of art.

The American born Stieglitz championed the idea that photography was on par with accepted mediums of painting and sculpture in its ability to convey artistic expression. He promoted the idea in Camera Work, the publication of the Camera Club of New York.

The cross-section of works on display in “Camera Work 2013” represents how Stieglitz’s original concept of a photograph being able to convey mood and evoke emotion has been passed down, re-interpreted, and refined over the last century. The installation includes several selections on subjects ranging from people to places, including Classical Italy, Europe, Route 66, and the natural world.

For more information, call (609) 989-1191, or visit: www.ellarslie.org. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays and municipal holidays.

COMFORTABLE LIFE OR COMMITTED LIFE?—Convalescing photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Maeve Brady) contemplates her choices in life as she prepares to head back to the war zone, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (2009) at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

COMFORTABLE LIFE OR COMMITTED LIFE?—Convalescing photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Maeve Brady) contemplates her choices in life as she prepares to head back to the war zone, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (2009) at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

In the midst of an increasingly heated argument over the question of the individual’s responsibility to reject the comfortable life and to try to make a difference for those who are less fortunate, Mandy confronts photojournalist Sarah and foreign correspondent James. “I wish you’d just let yourselves feel the joy. Y’know? Otherwise…what’s the point?”

The questions hang in the air and remain the central concern of Time Stands Still (2009), Donald Margulies’ engrossing examination of two contemporary couples struggling with the personal, marital and moral choices that will define their lives and relationships. Nominated for a 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, Time Stands Still is a serious, intelligent, fascinating drama, and this extraordinary Princeton Summer Theater company provides an engaging, thought-provoking evening — a theater experience that audiences want to talk about afterwards.

In the past two months the abundantly talented PST troupe has taken its audiences on an adventurous, brilliantly successful journey with four strikingly different shows, each posing its own significant intellectual and theatrical challenges.

From its opening with an exquisite production of the much loved, intimate musical She Loves Me (1963), to a heart-warming presentation of Beth Henley’s hilarious, southern gothic masterpiece Crimes of the Heart (1978), to the wildly farcical, Monty Python-esque murder mystery spoof The 39 Steps (2005) and now the disquieting, contemporary drama Time Stands Still — this youthful, impressively professional contingent of college undergraduates and recent graduates from Princeton University and elsewhere has offered one of the finest seasons in the 45-year history of Princeton Summer Theater.

With only four characters and just one setting, in the Brooklyn apartment of the two protagonists, Time Stands Still is deceptively simple — in some ways the most challenging production of the summer for PST. Though it seems like a small world here, Mr. Margulies, with seven scenes in two acts spanning a period of almost a year, draws his characters in rich, three-dimensional detail. The dialogue is realistic, intellectual, engaging and entertaining.  With the two main characters, James and Sarah, in their late 30s or early 40s, approaching the most difficult stage of their relationship and the unresolvable existential questions of middle age, and the two supporting characters, 25-year-old Mandy and 55-year-old Richard, with no less thorny character dilemmas and relationship issues to grapple with, the requisite stretches here are huge for these actors in their early 20s.

The play begins as James (Brad Wilson) is bringing Sarah (Maeve Brady) home to their New York apartment from the overseas hospital where she has been recuperating from injuries sustained in the war zone on a photography assignment in Iraq. Sarah, strong and determined, though visibly suffering with scars, leg brace and crutches, and James, energetically solicitous and concerned, are obviously together (married by act two) and in love, though frequently in conflict.

Their future, individually and together, hangs in the balance, as the issues proliferate. James is still suffering from the traumas of reporting the Iraq war. He feels guilty because he came home early, leaving Sarah in Iraq. James is eager for a more conventional, less public life—marriage, family, stability. He is working on an article, not about devastating current events, but about horror movies. “I just want to be comfortable,” he tells Sarah later in the play. “Does that make me a bad person?”

Sarah, however, remains unwilling to give up her career. She is committed to her larger sense of purpose. Determined and uncompromising, she is eager to return to work, to the front lines, despite her severe injuries.  Does she need James and the security, comfort and “normalcy” of life in Brooklyn more than she needs the excitement and the moral commitment of her life on the barricades?

These issues and others are brought to the fore and further developed with a visit from their friend Richard (Evan Thompson), a 55-year-old photo editor, and his 25-year-old girl friend Mandy (Sarah Paton). Mandy, from a different generation and seemingly from a different world, exposes the conflict most starkly. Though she admires and remains in awe of Sarah, and they even bond in their mutual respect and understanding, Mandy provides a completely antithetical perspective, as she is ready to give up her job to pursue a conventional marriage, family and life style with her much older spouse.

Ms. Brady in the central role is strong, focused and convincing in her physical fragility, as she contends with her injuries, and in her mental steadfastness. This character is clearly set apart, heroic in her life choices and her ability to stay true to those choices, and Ms. Brady communicates that commitment with powerful presence and delivery. Mr. Wilson’s James effectively displays a wider range of thoughts and feelings as he deals with his trauma, his desire for a more conventional life, his love for Sarah and her adamant dedication to her career.

As Richard, Mr. Thompson plays with assurance the role of authoritative photo editor, older friend and partner to his much younger girlfriend/fiancée. Ms. Paton’s Mandy, though the most accessible role for this quartet in terms of age (25), is the most demanding characterization in terms of dialogue and tone.  Mandy’s youth, inexperience, provincialism and orthodox attitudes clash sharply with the mindset of Sarah in particular and at times of the other characters too. Her girlish attire, the balloons she brings to the ailing Sarah and her patterns of speech and her demeanor all bespeak another generation with more traditional priorities than those of the other three characters.  And yet — and here is where Mr. Margulies’ dialogue may have created an impossibly inconsistent tone and character — Mandy’s character demands to be taken seriously. Sarah may be the praiseworthy heroine of the play, but Mandy’s assertion of the values of marriage, family, children and conventionality resonates strongly and clearly, in a manner that none of the others, not even the stalwart Sarah can ignore or deny.

These four skillful, experienced performers have all distinguished themselves in two or more major roles in previous productions this summer, and here, under the wise, capable direction of Emma Watt, they explore these complex characters and the troubling terrain of this play with energy and focused seriousness of purpose.  These characters have proven their abilities to effect dazzling theatrical magic and convincing character stretches, but here some credibility and chemistry are missing at times as these 20-something actors grapple with their characters’ big questions of middle age or when actors of the same age are working out an age gap of 30 years in their characters’ relationship. Mr. Margulies’ occasionally elusive tone and the plethora of issues here — political, moral, marital, personal, career — further complicates the challenge.

But my quibbles arise partly from the fact that PST’s extraordinary season may have raised unrealistic expectations. Mr. Margulies’ play is rich, intellectually stimulating and entertaining — among his best, dealing with some of the same issues as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends (2000) and the Pulitzer finalists Collected Stories (1996) and Sight Unseen (1991). And Ms. Watt’s production features four superb performers and first-rate production values manifested in Jeffrey Van Velsor’s detailed, thoroughly realistic Brooklyn apartment set, Alex Mannix’s adroit lighting and Annika Bennett’s spot-on costumes.

In discussing his aims in Time Stands Still, Mr. Margulies described his desire “to capture a sense of the way we live now, to dramatize the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with.” He accomplished that ambitious goal and more, and Princeton Summer Theater brings it all to life in this dynamic culmination to their exciting 2013 season.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?: The wolf in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “We’re the Millers” is drug kingpin Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), who needs $44,000 from small-time dealer David Burke (Jason Sudeikis, on right). Members of Burke’s emergency “family” are a stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston) and a teenage runaway named Casey (Emma Roberts).

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?: The wolf in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “We’re the Millers” is drug kingpin Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), who needs $44,000 from small-time dealer David Burke (Jason Sudeikis, on right). Members of Burke’s emergency “family” are a stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston) and a teenage runaway named Casey (Emma Roberts).

David Burke (Jason Sudeikis) is a small-time pot dealer with a big problem. He’s just been robbed of all of his cash and stash, leaving him indebted to Brad Gurdlinger, an impatient drug kingpin (Ed Helms) to the tune of $44,000.

Now, David’s only hope of wiping the slate clean rests with accepting a proverbial “offer you can’t refuse” from skeptical Brad, namely, to smuggle a couple of tons of marijuana across the Mexican border. Figuring a family in an RV would look a lot less suspicious trying to get through customs than a single guy with a panel truck, he starts looking for folks down on their luck willing to pose for a few bucks as his wife and kids.

All he can find on such short notice are Kenny (Will Poulter), a naïve, home alone kid who lives down the hall; Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a struggling stripper at the local gentlemen’s club; and Casey (Emma Roberts), a streetwise teen runaway. But will the faking foursome be able to pass themselves off as a typical suburban family over the course of their 4th of July weekend jaunt?

That is the intriguing premise of We’re the Millers, a raunchy road comedy directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball). Of course, the faux family has a really hard time maintaining their cover, such as when supposed mother and daughter are spotted making out by a DEA Agent (Nick Offerman) they unwittingly befriend en route.

While certifiably funny in spots, consider this a fair warning: much of the movie relies on a coarse brand of humor apt to shock fans of co-stars Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, given the relatively-tame, TV fare they’re known for. For instance, there’s the hilarious, if graphic, sight gag featuring a swollen testicle that’s been bitten by a tarantula.

The dialogue can be crude, too, especially when characters discuss their sexuality and bodily functions. But betwixt and between the bottom-feeding jokes, director Thurber continues to ratchet up the tension as we watch the Millers do their best to deliver the weed despite alarming the authorities and being trailed by a vicious mobster (Tomer Sisley) with a claim on the contraband.

Picture Cheech & Chong on a National Lampoon Vacation!

Very Good (***). Rated R for pervasive profanity, crude sexuality, drug use and full-frontal male nudity

 

July 31, 2013

BookReview1Everything good about Detroit is available on iTunes.

—post on New York Times blog

“When the nation catches a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia,” people would say during the Depression, with auto sales dropping so drastically that by 1933 almost half the city’s autoworkers were unemployed. That infectious epigram, from Lars Bjorn’s Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960 (Univ. of Michigan Press 2001), has been in my thoughts the past week, or ever since I read the story in the July 18 New York Times (“Billions in Debt, Detroit Tumbles Into Insolvency”).

Being the worst sort of cockeyed optimist, I responded to the news by immediately flashing on positive personal associations with Detroit, at one time my favorite city outside New York and home of the most glorious skyscraper this side of the Chrysler Building. The iTunes remark posted on the Times blog contains a large grain of truth, however. The first singer I turn to when I’m feeling Melville’s “damp drizzly November in my soul” is Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops belting out “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” which Detroit’s emergency manager should put on PA systems all over the city every day at dawn and dusk, a Motown muezzin calling the faithful and unfaithful to aim high, not low. Stubbs was born in Detroit in 1936 and died there in 2008. He’s buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, as is Rosa Parks — and as are Edsel Ford and his son, although there have been reports that some of the monied dead have been transplanted to cemeteries in the suburbs. The tombstone for Levi Stubbs is shaped like a shiny black valentine with the legend Two Hearts Beat As One, waiting for the day his wife joins him.

BookReview2Another soul-saver buried at Woodlawn is the legendary jazz tenor Wardell Gray, who grew up in the Detroit area and attended one of the great American schools, Cass Tech, among a multitude of others including Donald Byrd, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Lucky Thompson, Alice Coltrane, Ellen Burstyn, Lily Tomlin, Kenny Burrell, and Diana Ross. Now that I think of it, they should put that Motown mantra, ”Where Did Our Love Go,” on the city-wide PA, let it play and play and play, it’s a song that never ends, the beat says so, it just goes and goes past death and time and taxes, you can’t stop it by turning it off. It’s the beat that never gives up and riding it is a voice you hear once in a lifetime, somewhere between Billie Holiday and Lata Mangeshkar. I’ll never forget the first time I heard that sound on the car radio driving into the depths of Brooklyn, thinking “Detroit!”

While the Supremes were seducing the world in the late 1960s, another Detroit-born singer whose father had come to the city in the 1920s from Mexico wasn’t faring so well. His two albums had gone nowhere, so he went to college, got a degree from Wayne State, worked in demolition, and one day Sixto Rodriquez woke up to find himself famous and beloved in another land, the fairy tale told in the Academy-Award-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. Detroit needs another fairy tale. It was looking for one in May, not long after the emergency manager took over, when Rodriguez played to a capacity crowd at the Masonic Temple theatre. Tickets for the event had sold out within minutes and were fetching $200 on Craig’s List.

The Anti-Hero

A key figure in my boyhood vision of Detroit was Ty Cobb, the ultimate anti-hero, a racist scoundrel who carved out his career in the Motor City, tearing up the base paths, spiking infielders and pitchers covering first, and making himself a pariah while building a reputation as the greatest hitter and most exciting player ever. Though Cobb had long since retired when I was a 12-year-old St. Louis Cardinals fan, it was because of the Georgia Peach that I favored the Tigers over the other teams in the American League. Since I tended to identify cities with players, it was Good Guy St. Louis (Stan Musial) and Bad Guy Detroit (Ty Cobb). The bad guy ended his career in 1928, the same year a 47-story-high Art Deco skyscraper branded with the name of an Indian tribe in Maine was erected in the financial heart of downtown Detroit.

Detroit Noir

In a postcard of the Detroit skyline at night that I’ve had ever since a summer visit with my father when I was in seventh grade, the Penobscot Building looms in the center dominating everything, like some fantastic hall-of-the-mountain-king eminence with a red beacon blazing on top. For the past 85 years, with a headdressed Deco-style caricature of a stoic Indian chief carved above the arched entry, the mighty Penobscot has been looking down on the city. The year it went up it was the tallest building in the U.S. outside New York and the eighth tallest in the world. The Penobscot was also the star attraction of our trip to Detroit. At night we went for a walk, took in a Penny Arcade, and saw a sinister B movie that left me feeling uneasy and vulnerable as we walked around afterward. There was a hint of menace in the shadows between the street lamps on “the Main Street of Detroit,” Woodward Avenue.

What was there to fear from a street with a name as dull and ordinary as Woodward? All these years later I’ve figured it out. One day when I was maybe 10 looking through bound volumes of back issues of Life in the school library, I was startled by photos of the 1943 race riot, images of blacks being beaten and of a black kid my age being chased across Woodward Avenue by a mob of whites; another picture showed a streetcar on Woodward burning. Thirty-four people were killed in the three days of violence, 25 of them African Americans. During the riots, according to Before Motown, “whites claimed Woodward Avenue as theirs by attacking black moviegoers at the all-night Roxy and Colonial theaters, just a few blocks from the Near East Side ghetto.” Also on Woodward was the Paradise, Detroit’s “most important venue for black musical entertainment” through the 1940s. A number of jazz and rhythm and blues clubs were nearby in a neighborhood known as Paradise Valley, where buildings and shops were burned and looted during the riot.

Levi Stubbs would have been seven at the time. Less than a year later Diana Ross was born. Rodriguez was a year old. At 22, Wardell Gray had his first break in June 1943 and was touring with the Earl Hines big band, which played at the Paradise.

Crazy Numbers

The 1943 riots happened when Detroit was booming. Attracted by the humming defense industries, as many as 50,000 blacks and 300,000 whites, most from the south, converged on the city. Earlier that same month, when Packard promoted three blacks to work with whites on the assembly line, 25,000 whites walked off the job.

In 2013 the payroll for the Detroit Tigers — who play before an average crowd of 37,000 fans in a bankrupt city — is the fourth highest in the major leagues at $148,414,000. The highest paid member of the team, Prince Fielder (an African American), is making $23 million a year. Meanwhile, the city is planning to spend more than $400 million on a new hockey rena for the Red Wings.

Pequot and Penobscot

Tomorrow, August 1, is Herman Melville’s 194th birthday, and while it would be a stretch to find a Detroit connection for the author of Moby Dick, readers will remember that Melville named Ahab’s doomed ship the Pequod, which, with its craggy masthead, shared certain obvious generic Indian design elements with the Penobscot Building.

But who named it the Penobscot and why? According to historicdetroit.org, the lumber baron Simon J. Murphy, who made his fortune before settling in Detroit, spent his youth working the logging camps along the Penobscot River in Maine. So it was nostalgia for the river that gave the great tower its name. Penobscot, which means “the place where the rocks open out,” was Murphy’s version of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. Another odd twist worth pointing out is that Melville chose to name Ahab’s ship after the Pequot because, as was thought in 1850, the tribe had been annihilated during the Pequot War and, writes Melville, “now are as extinct as the ancient Medes.” Truth once again outdoes fiction and the shapings of history as the Pequots reappear in the tribal casino culture of New England where online sources report that the Penobscot tribe in Maine taught the Pequots in Connecticut how to make big money from high-stakes bingo.

Then and now, ever and again, that’s what the deal comes down to.

The Right To Be

Detroit has no homegrown Melville, nor even a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. Louis Ferdinand Celine worked in the Ford plant and wrote about it in Journey to the End of the Night (1932). In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), Henry Miller called Detroit “the capital of the new planet — the one, I mean, which will kill itself off.”

Detroit does have a homegrown poet, Phillip Levine, who was born in 1928, the year Ty Cobb hung up his spikes and the Penobscot Building made its debut. Levine’s father sold used auto parts, his mother sold books. By age 14 he was working in automobile plants. After earning his BA at Wayne State (then Wayne University), he worked nights in the forge room at Chevrolet gear and axle before going to the University of Iowa, where he studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. In 2011, he became America’s poet laureate. In a Paris Review interview, he talks about going back to Detroit in 1987: “Much of what’s in the city was absent; there were no stores around, very few houses, no large buildings. Lots of empty spaces, vacant lots, almost like the Detroit I knew during the war …. [The poem, “A Walk With Tom Jefferson”] came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”