January 22, 2014
Theater rev 1-22-14

SINNED AGAINST AND SINNING: Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett), former Negro League baseball star, confronts death and an abundance of domestic and social adversities in McCarter Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” through February 16.

James Earl Jones was the star of the original production of Fences, at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play. Then it was Denzel Washington, in a 2010 Broadway revival, in the larger-than-life role of Troy Maxson, his name itself evoking the grandeur and tragic fall of the unforgettable protagonist of Wilson’s drama. But in McCarter Theatre’s searing, deeply moving production of this masterpiece, it’s August Wilson, the playwright himself, who emerges as the star of the show.

This poetic drama is set in 1957 in the early years of the civil rights movement and focuses on the struggles of a former Negro League baseball player, now a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, and his family. The dialogue is at the same time natural and poetic, and so powerful, humorous, and moving. Wilson, who died in 2005 after completing his highly acclaimed Century Cycle of plays set in every decade of the twentieth century, frequently cited the influence of the blues on his work, and Fences — in its sympathetic, suffering characterizations, in its bitterness and solace in alcohol, humor, language, music, and humanity — resonates with the rich life and tone of a blues song that sticks in the mind and soul.

Fences depicts a family in conflict. Troy (Esau Pritchett), the middle-aged patriarch, is at odds not just with the society that barred him from the major leagues through the 20s, 30s, and 40s and consigned him to a job carrying garbage, but also with his wife Rose (Portia) and sons, 34-year-old Lyons (Jared McNeill) from a failed earlier marriage and 17-year-old Cory (Chris Myers). Troy is indeed a victim of the racism of his time and environment, but he is also a victim of his own bitterness, his personal excesses, and his wary detachment from family and friends.

Early in the first of two acts Troy and Cory clash over Cory’s hopes of gaining a football scholarship to college. Troy, who hit 43 home runs in one season in the Negro League but was born too soon to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, distrusts the white man’s enticements for Cory and also harbors his own resentment and jealousy over this opportunity that he never had. The conflict grows increasingly hostile as Cory attempts to assert his independence from Troy’s influence, and Troy, seeing his authority and control challenged, fails to accept the changing world of America on the cusp of upheaval, along with his son’s entrance into adulthood and his own aging.

The shattering of the fragile family is complete when Troy comes home, early in the second act, to announce to Rose that he has fathered a child with another woman.

August Wilson and his characters are brilliant storytellers. In the tradition of Arthur Miller — Death of a Salesman in particular — where intense family conflict plays out its tragic drama of the common man against a background of powerful destructive social forces, Fences is a story about families, a marriage and, especially, through the generations, fathers and sons, with the sins of the fathers repeatedly being visited on the sons. It is also a play about the power of speech as our greatest weapon in shaping our stories and our lives and in battling against oppression and death.

In McCarter’s production, in association with Long Wharf Theatre where it opened last month, Mr. Pritchett as Troy is convincing, powerful, charismatic — as a man past his prime, finding himself in a new world, on unfamiliar ground with wife and sons. He’s a storyteller, angry but loving his family, his friends, his life, and fighting, as a great athlete fights to win the game, his battle to turn back mortality. Mr. Pritchett, of course, lacks the physical magnitude of James Earl Jones (Rose describes Troy: “when (he) walked through the house he was so big he filled it up”) and the instant star- recognition of Denzel Washington, but Mr. Pritchett thoroughly engages the audience in his joy and loves, his frustrations, and his anguish. He radiates a gift for spell-binding storytelling, a warm humor and a virtuoso musician’s gift for delivering the music of Wilson’s rich poetic language.

Portia establishes Rose as a worthy counterpart and counterbalance to Troy. She is enormously sympathetic as she moves through the rich territory of emotions required as wife and mother in her fight to keep her family together. Troy and Rose may be the most finely, fully, and convincingly developed husband–wife portrayal in all of Mr. Wilson’s ten plays.

“Jesus, be a fence all around me every day,” Rose sings as she hangs out the laundry at the start of the second scene. The fence that Troy and Cory are building emerges on both sides of the stage as the action progresses. It becomes a symbol of the security and protection — from white America, from his own inner demons, from death itself — that Troy seeks. And it also represents Rose’s struggle to keep the family together against the forces that threaten to pull it apart.

Mr. Myers’ Cory provides the third side of the immediate family triangle, and, though not as fully developed as the character of Troy, Cory faces many of the strains, aspirations, and frustrations of his own generation. Growing up in the shadow of his formidable father, Cory, though in many ways his father’s son, strives bravely, in Wilson’s version of a classic oedipal battle, to break out and achieve manhood on his own terms.

As Troy’s friend Bono, Phil McGlaston creates an engaging, credible, and interesting character foil, a grounded follower in contrast to Troy and his high-energy rashness. He is a worthy confidant, a sharp, funny, sympathetic listener and counterpoint to Troy’s tales, and a concerned friend.

Jared McNeill’s portrayal of Lyons, Troy’s musician older son, vividly and effectively provides yet another dimension in the play, as well as another perspective on the father-son dynamic, with son fully adult and clashing with his father in both values and life style.

In the magnificent role of Gabriel, G. Alverez Reid creates this wounded World War II veteran with great sensitivity and winning, loving detail. Having lost a significant part of his brain in the war effort and often needing help from his brother Troy, Gabriel is a sort of peddler, prophet, and angel of St. Peter, making sporadic appearances at key points in the story. With the character of Gabriel, as with Troy himself in his dark musings on death and the devil, this play, though never leaving its firm grounding in particularities of time and place, does at the same time transport its audience to a realm of spirituality where devils and death, St. Peter and the angels are brought to life.

Appearing in the final scene of the play, set in 1965, eight years after the first eight scenes, Taylor Dior as the seven-year-old Raynell, delivers a spot-on characterization of Troy’s youngest offspring and an appealing hope for a new generation.

John Iacovelli’s dirt back yard, back-porch, worn house setting in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1957, pre-television, pre-electronics, provides the ideal locale for the action of the play. A big tree stands on stage right with a bat leaning against it and ball made of rags tied to it for batting practice. Vivid warm lighting by Xavier Pierce, realistic costumes by ESOSA, and sound by John Gromada contribute rich background and resonance to the characters and concerns of the play.

Though this production does gain great strength from its focus on the ensemble, rather than risking the distractions associated with casting a big-name star, the director of this production is indeed a big star, Phylicia Rashad. An accomplished Tony Award-winning actress, experienced performer and director of Wilson’s work (including Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004 and at McCarter the following year) as well as the acclaimed Claire Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” on TV for many years, Ms. Rashad possesses an extraordinary list of accomplishments on stage and screen, and, in recent years, as director. Her direction here brilliantly manifests her respect for the play and the playwright, bringing out powerfully and vividly the music and meaning of Fences and its characters.

In 2007, in a foreword to Gem of the Ocean, Ms. Rashad commented on Mr. Wilson, “He understood the power of sound and rhythm inherent in words, speech and music. He worked in alignment with that power …. August’s characters are defined by speech — the rhythms of speech serve as emotional building blocks that support the progressive movement of the play.”

In this exciting production of Fences at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Ms. Rashad, with her top-flight design team and ensemble of seven fine actors, has faithfully and imaginatively brought to life the power, beauty, and value of August Wilson’s great drama. McCarter has just announced a one-week extension of this run of Fences, to February 16. It’s a dazzling production of one of the great plays of the 20th century. Those additional seats will fill up fast. Don’t delay.

 

 August Wilson’s “Fences” will run through February 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

 

A floral supplies store would seem an odd place to shop for musical instruments, but in preparation for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) recent North American premiere of Tan Dun’s Earth Concerto, members of the ensemble’s percussion section found themselves looking at planters of varying sizes and materials to serve as drums. Audience members at NJSO’s concert last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium peered with great interest at the three sets of multiple planters, not necessarily realizing that the three percussionists were creating amazing music on items available at the neighborhood gardening emporium.

NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed Friday night’s concert of the Tan Dun concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as part of the orchestra’s Winter Festival theme of the relationship between music and the elements of nature. Both the Tan Dun and Mahler works were “songs to earth” concerning man and nature. In a type of “chicken and egg” cycle, Chinese composer Tan Dun drew his inspiration for Earth Concerto from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, while Mahler found inspiration for this work in Hans Bethge’s poetic translation of Tang dynasty poetry.

NJSO programmed Earth Concerto as a closing bookend to Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, performed in the Winter Festival of 2011. The complete title of the work is Earth Concerto for Stone and Ceramic Percussion With Orchestra, and the three-movement work is scored for 99 ceramic and stone instruments with large orchestra. The concerto had its premiere in 2009, and what made NJSO’s North American premiere unique was its use of local instruments. The terra cotta, ceramic, and metal planters played by David Cossin, James Neglia, and James Musto provided scales, bell-like tones, and a somewhat rustic effect which Mr. Cossin noted “brings people back to a quieter and less distracting time.”

Understandably, most of the focus during the performance of Earth Concerto was on the three percussionists, as well as guest artist Zhang Meng, who played three traditional Chinese instruments — ceramic horn, xun, and flute. The most melodic of these instruments was the xun, a globular ocarina-type instrument providing a rich and mellow sound, especially when accompanied by harp. Adding to the percussive effects of the piece was the ceramic horn, which Mr. Zhang blew into, not unlike the indigenous Australian didgeridoo. The ceramic flute, used primarily in the third movement, contrasted with the ostinato played by the three percussionists and a slightly tipsy string sound to match the movement’s title: The Drunkard in Spring.

Tan Dun’s concerto was a work of innovation, as was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in its time. Composed in 1907-08, the six-movement work straddled the genres of orchestrated song cycle and symphony, while musically addressing Mahler’s obsession with mortality. Beginning with the trademark Mahlerian horn calls, Mr. Lacombe and the NJSO kicked off the piece majestically. Mahler changes musical moods on a dime, and throughout the work the players had no trouble navigating the composer’s very complex and evolutionary imagination.

American tenor Russell Thomas, who presented the first, third, fifth and final movements, sang with bright and sometimes fierce sound which was necessary to be heard over the thick orchestration. A nice Viennese flow from both singer and instrumentalists marked the reflective third movement, and like its companion third movement of the Tan Dun concerto, the fifth movement of the Mahler was sufficiently tipsy.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop displayed exactly the rich vocal tone and sensitivity to the text required for Mahler’s pensive approach to Bethge’s poetry. Both of these vocal soloists were necessarily operatic, and Ms. Bishop was in no hurry to rush the text, providing a bit of sauciness in the fourth movement. In the closing movement, in which both soloists sang, Ms. Bishop floated text describing the peaceful earth as Robert Ingliss’ oboe solo combined with undulating violas to depict a brook that “sings loudly through the darkness.”

The mid-19th century was a heyday for horns, and the horn section of the NJSO showed clarity and unified sound throughout. Mahler exploited almost every instrument of the orchestra in his larger-than-life musical concepts, and NJSO’s wind players in particular demonstrated both grace and strength. A pair of clarinets “wandered” through eternal love and English hornist Andrew Adelson provided supple melodic lines periodically throughout the movements. Mahler’s unique orchestration of piccolo solos, played by Kathleen Nester, added to the playfulness of the Drunk in Springtime fifth movement, and Bart Feller’s sensitive flute playing added to the pathos of the final farewell. Mahler’s underlying optimism was conveyed by the celeste, played by Elizabeth Difelice, as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought the substantial yet poignant work to a close.

 

WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE: Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is one of a team of four SEALS who were caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. The unfortunate unit, who were on their way to locate a Taliban leader in a nearby village, was surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters after their presence in the area was reported by seemingly innocuous shepherds. As the title of the film suggests, only Lutrell survived the ordeal and later wrote a memoir about the incident.

WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE: Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is one of a team of four SEALS who were caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. The unfortunate unit, who were on their way to locate a Taliban leader in a nearby village, was surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters after their presence in the area was reported by seemingly innocuous shepherds. As the title of the film suggests, only Lutrell survived the ordeal and later wrote a memoir about the incident.

On June 28, 2005, a team of four Navy SEALs based in Afghanistan were issued orders in accordance with Operation Red Wings to locate and terminate a Taliban leader whose militia had been targeting coalition troops in the Kush Mountains of Kunar Province. The four were dropped by helicopter line into rugged terrain outside the tiny village that was suspected of harboring al-qaeida sympathizers.

Soon the soldiers encountered several shepherds and, against their better judgment, allowed the seemingly innocuous civilians to continue on their way in accordance with the U.S. military’s rules of engagement. Unfortunately, about an hour later, the SEALs found themselves ambushed by over a hundred Taliban fighters who had apparently been tipped off as to their whereabouts.

The ensuing battle is the subject of Lone Survivor, a gruesome war film based on Marcus Luttrell’s (Mark Wahlberg) memoir of the harrowing ordeal. Adapted and directed by Peter Berg (Battleship), the picture is reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, that was another film about an American, overseas helicopter operation gone bad.

Given the movie’s title, there isn’t any suspense about how the disastrous misadventure ends. Consequently, the movie amounts to little more than watching members of Luttrell’s unit — and over a dozen of the reinforcements sent to try to rescue them, perish — as well.

Good (**). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 

Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has its annual holiday group show through February 2. “Lyrical,” a group show, is February 6-March 2. Visit www.lambertvillearts.com.

Arts Council of Princeton, 104 Witherspoon Street, shows “Terrace Project: Ayami Aoyama” until April 30. Through March 8, “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works” is on view. (609) 924-8777.

Artworks, Everett Alley at Stockton Street, Trenton, has “Transitions,” works by Colleen Gahrmann, on view through February 15. “The False Mirror: Surrealism Forward and Back” runs through February 22. (609) 394-9436.

A Space Gallery @ New Hope Arts, 2 Stockton Street, New Hope, has “I’ll Explain Later-Works by Guy Ciarcia” through January 31.

Bank of Princeton Art Gallery, 10 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has the work of Jody Furch through February 15.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Arts and Interactive Media Building, Route 31, Ewing, has paintings and prints by Ruane Miller January 22-February 20. (609) 771-2633.

D&R Greenway Marie L. Matthews Galleries, 1 Preservation Place, has “Wild Creatures: 40 Years Protecting Endangered Species” art exhibit January 29-March 21. The opening is January 31, 5:30-7:30 p.m. www.drgreenway.org.

Ellarslie, Trenton’s City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, presents “Adopted: Restored, Art, Artifacts and Books from 2012” and “Frank Applegate, George Bradshaw and the School of Industrial Arts” through February 9. The Trenton Public Schools Biennial Student Art Show runs through March 2.

Erdman Gallery, Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, has “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” watercolors by Suzanne Mahn Hunt, January 25-March 31. The opening is January 25, 5-7 p.m.

Gallery Art Times Two, Princeton Brain and Spine Care Institute, 731 Alexander Road, has “A View Within,” fiber art collaboration by Paula Chung and Karen Rips, through April 25. (609) 921-9001.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, shows works by sculptor John Spedding and painter Kathleen Wallace, “When Paint Meets Stone,” through January 29. February 3-28, the gallery shows “Patterns of Nature” by Charles McVicker. (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” photos by Richard Trenner; “One Heart One Mind” by Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, through February 2.

Gourgaud Gallery, Town Hall, Cranbury, has “Winter Dreams,” an open call exhibition, through January 31. www.cranburyartscouncil.org.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, has “Edwina Sandys: Provocative and Profound” and “William Knight: Out of Context,” through April 13. Visit www.groundsforsculp
ture.org.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” and “Einstein at Home” are also on view. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington, has “Common Threads 2,” work by six Trenton area artists, February 1, 12-5 p.m. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly, Beyond the Icon,” through January 26. “Local Mill Makes Good: Celebrating 75 Years of American Theater at Bucks County Playhouse” is on view through March 2. Visit www.michenerartmu
seum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Staging Symbolism: Programs for the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris” through February 2. “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture” is January 25-July 13. “Stars: Contemporary Prints by Derriere L’Etoile Studio” is exhibited through March 2. Historic Japanese photographs, “Meiji Photographs,” are exhibited through July 31. “A gift in Honor of Tyler Clementi: Dale Chihuly’s Riviera Blue Macchia Chartreuse Lip Wrap” is on view through July 31. “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture” runs January 25-July 13. Visit www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

Lewis Center for the Arts, 701 Carnegie Center, has a sculpture exhibition of work by Princeton University students through January.

Lucas Gallery, Princeton University, 185 Nassau Street, has an exhibition of student work featuring drawing, painting, photography, graphic design, sculpture, and other media, through January 31.

Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, has “Zara Stasi, Lynnette Hesser and David Bair,” an exhibit by three alumni, through February 4. (609) 944-7551.

Mercer County Community College Gallery, Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, has “Left of Central: Later 20th Century Visual Arts in the Capital City” through February 20. Visit www.mccc.edu/gallery.

Plainsboro Public Library Gallery, 9 Van Doren Street, has watercolors and silk paintings by Shaomei Zhong Wan January 25-February 26. The opening is February 8, 1-3 p.m. (609) 275-2897.

Princeton Day School Anne Reid ‘72 Gallery, 650 Great Road, has an Origami exhibit through January 30. The opening reception is January 23, 12:30-1:30 p.m. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Man” and “The Kite That Never Flew,” sculptures by Alexander Calder, on view outside the museum through June 15. From January 25-May 11, “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum” is on view. “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print” runs February 8-June 8. Call (609) 258-3788.

Princeton University Mudd Manuscript Library has an exhibit to mark the centennial of the Graduate College, “Building the House of Knowledge: The Graduate College Centennial” through June 6. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.

Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, has “Basil Alkazzi: An Odyssey of Dreams – A Decade of Paintings 2003-2012,” February 6- March 2. A reception and program is February 20, 6 p.m. (609) 921-7100.

Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, has “Grand Blooms,” paintings and drawings by artists from Princeton Senior Resource Center, through February 4. The store at 14 Witherspoon Street has works by students from The Waldorf School of Princeton, “Sacred Geometry,” through February 4.

West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, shows “Out of the Blue” through February 28; works by 39 artists. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

January 15, 2014

book rev Amiri“Amiri Baraka, The Last Poet Laureate of New Jersey.” This is how Baraka, who died at 79 on January 9, signed the introduction to his 2007 short story collection, Tales of the Out & the Gone (2007).

In the headline above the photograph on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Firebrand Poet, Playwright, and Activist.” Inside, in the headline over the full-page obituary by Margalit Fox, he’s “Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright.” The first sentence describes him as a writer of “pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others” — which is what Fox News might call a Fair and Balanced Farewell.

The terms would probably have been less extreme or at least differently phrased except for a few lines toward the end of a long poem Baraka read at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival called “Somebody Blew Up America.” Unless you read the whole poem, you might assume, as I did, that the central thrust builds toward the six lines echoing the hateful, ludicrous, and much-denounced rumor about Israel’s possible foreknowledge of September 11. That’s what set off the uproar leading then-Governor McGreevey to attempt to remove Baraka as poet laureate. What followed was a stunning example of poetic justice. When the poet predictably refused to be removed, the position of poet laureate was abolished, giving Baraka the opportunity to justly refer to himself as the last poet laureate of New Jersey. In effect, the poet himself wrote the last line of that particular piece of public poetry.

Harsh and Bluesy

Search for Amiri Baraka on YouTube and you find a long scream of a poem from the 1970s called “Dope,” performed with theatrical, at times evangelical, gusto and a harsh, bluesy, jazzy fervor. This verse exorcism, which in its litany of evils is not unlike the poem that blindsided the laureateship, puts in play what Baraka once said of jazz great Charlie Parker, “who would literally imitate the human voice with his cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs.” Written in 1963 when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, the observation comes from his book Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed From It. “Parker,” he goes on to say, “did not admit there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.” The same is true of Baraka and his poetry. The big difference is, to use the terms from the Times, that Parker’s playing is incandescent and Baraka’s writing, at least in “Dope” and “Somebody Blew Up America,” is incendiary.

Remembering LeRoi Jones

When I read Baraka’s Black Power/Third World Socialist/Marxist narrative in the Times obituary, I was remembering a slightly built, neatly bearded man in a three-piece suit named LeRoi Jones. Working in a bookstore in the heart of Greenwich Village in the time period recently reprised by the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I saw someone whose dapper attire seemed a marked departure from the customary who-cares attitude of the Beat scene in which he was active as a poet and founding editor of the journal Yugen. Jones’s first book of poetry, Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note, was published, as was Yugen, by Corinth, the small press run by my employer, the Eighth Street Bookshop. Having heard just the other day, out of the blue, that Jones was employed there himself at one time, I assume he dressed more casually when he was working the cash register, helping customers, or unpacking books.

Baraka’s Autobiography of LeRoi Jones lends credence to my memory of the serious dresser, however. Around the time he transferred from Rutgers to Howard University in 1952, he frequented a “kind of English store the likes of which are found no more in Newark …. With saddles and riding boots and crops for decoration, cloth laid about. Very traditional and English and it impressed the hell out of me …. And the clothes now I began to buy out of that mold. The English conservative clothes that the Ivy tradition is the natural extension of.”

He must have been 18 at the time. Aspects of his sartorial evolution can be seen in the photos accompanying the Times article: dashiki-clad in one from 1968, looking Thelonius-Monkish in performance with jazz bassist Reggie Workman in 1999, clad in a suit and dancing with Maya Angelou in 1991, and appearing the thoughtful, pinstripe-shirted scholar poet at home in Newark in 2007.

Baraka and King

When I realized that this issue of Town Topics would be coming out on January 15, Martin Luther King’s 84th birthday, I went to YouTube again and found a video of Baraka’s address at the 2011 Community Celebration of King at the University of Virginia.

Of all the tributes and remembrances on Martin Luther King Day 2014, you’re unlikely to find any to equal Baraka’s from January 28, 2011. In his hour and twenty minutes he hits all his personal flash points, reads “Somebody Blew Up America,” answers questions, and makes it clear that he’s still angry about the 2003 murder of his daughter. Nevertheless, the heart of the talk — and “heart” is the word for it — is Martin Luther King, Jr. At 77, Baraka still shows flashes of the firebrand when he refers to people not knowing “why Christ got iced.” As that piece of street talk suggests, Baraka isn’t attempting to mimic King’s inspirational style in his toned-down paraphrasing of passages from the best known speeches. He mutes his angry muse even as he’s subverting the benign stereotype of King, who was not, as Baraka puts it, “the passive individual that the McDonald’s commercials suggest.” You could almost say that he’s remaking King in his own “incendiary” image, stressing the man’s toughness and stamina, his moral courage, the fact that he was jailed 16 times, that he put his life on the line every day.

About 45 minutes into the video, Baraka appears moved as he offers his version of King’s eve-of-death “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis. Baraka begins by pounding out a beat on the lectern as he softly half-sings half-chants “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the protest song King and  six thousand protestors were singing as they marched in downtown Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. Stressing the life-on-the-line theme, Baraka puts his more informal language in place of King’s rhetorically heightened account of the incident in New York when he suffered a near-fatal stabbing and was later told by doctors that if he had “merely sneezed” he “would have died.” Even a genius orator would be hard put to bring off King’s “If I had sneezed” mantra, surely not one of the high points in any King documentary. Still speaking as King, Baraka simplifies and quietly underplays the incident, reducing it to a sentence, “Only a few years ago a woman they said was crazed plunged a knife into my chest and the doctors said if I’d sneezed I would have died.” Keeping it low-key while quietly building to the emotional peak of the speech, Baraka tamps down the rhetorical dynamite of the mountaintop and the promised land, so that the emphasis falls on the simplest but most powerful line in the speech: “I may not get there with you.” Baraka’s King says “wit” instead of “with” and it’s effective. He’s singing King’s song in his own way. For the last lines, though, Baraka stays with the text, letting the passion surface but still without attempting to match King’s glorious, ringing “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

King Comes Calling

The warmest part of Baraka’s 2011 tribute comes in the context of King’s visit to Newark to lead “the poor people’s march” in late March 1968. Baraka describes looking from his front window at the crowds coming down the street, the sound of helicopters overhead (“I thought we were about to get busted”): “The doorbell rang. I opened the door, There’s Dr. King standing on the doorstep. A photographer took a picture of me with my mouth hung open …. Dr. King came in my house, he says, ‘Hello, Leroy.’ [Baraka chuckles at the “Leroy”] You don’t look like such a bad person.’ [another chuckle] People told me you were a bad person.’ [one more chuckle] Here’s King came with stubble on his face, open shirt, poor people’s march, the next week he was dead.”

Baraka says the photograph he mentions hung for years in Newark’s City Hall — until it was moved by Mayor Cory Booker, perhaps a variation on the removal of the title of poet laureate. Baraka has his own ideas about that. He figures every time the mayor walked past the picture it was “making noise” about issues Baraka had with Booker.

Amiri Baraka’s funeral will be held at Newark Symphony Hall at 10 a.m. on January 18. Metropolitan Baptist Church will hold a viewing on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Carl Faith

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I received a nice message from Carl Faith, who died January 12 (see this week’s obituaries). In his response to my piece on George Kennan, he recalled talking with Mr. Kennan at tea and lunch during Mr. Faith’s tenure at the Institute. I remember him not only as the first reader to write me but as a fellow book lover and devoted customer of John Socia’s Old York Bookstore in New Brunswick and later of the ongoing used book sale at the library.

 

The academic year goes by quickly, especially with a holiday break half-way through. The Princeton University Opera Theater always takes on a challenging opera to be presented shortly after the winter break, but it is hard to imagine Princeton’s operatic students and faculty undertaking a production as testing as Claudio Monteverdi’s TheCoronation of Poppea so soon after break. Fifteen singers, accompanied by harpsichords, strings, lutes, and theorbo presented Monteverdi’s final opera this past weekend, demonstrating the depth of vocal and instrumental talent in an opera which even the Metropolitan Opera would find daunting.

Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the opera was repeated on Saturday night) was staged with pairs of musicians on either side onstage and a small string ensemble in the pit. The directorial team led by conductor Michael Pratt and director Ethan Heard sought to complement a production of the same opera in 2001, featuring countertenor and Princeton student Anthony Roth Costanzo, now on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. This year’s production featured a number of University singers also headed for promising careers in music.

The Coronation of Poppea harks back to opera’s beginning; with an Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, it was one of the first operas to use historical events and real people as subject material. Princeton University’s production was primarily in English (with translation by Peter Westergaard, Wendy Heller, and Arthur Jacobs), with the original Italian retained at specific moments, such as in a late duet between Nero and Poppea. The singers were accompanied by an appropriate combination of harpsichords, played by Nicholas Lockey and Jason Nong; as well as lute and theorbo, played by Charles Weaver and Daniel Swenson alternating among instruments. All of these period instruments spoke well in the hall, with the lute and theorbo accompaniment easily balancing the singers as solo instruments.

The description of the opera’s Prologue could easily be used to describe the state of the world today: “Fortune and Virtue argue about who holds the true power of the world; Love proclaims his supremacy.” Accompanied by a nice light touch from the strings, Fortune and Virtue, sung by Allegra Wiprud and Sarah Cooper, respectively, solidly opened the production. Ms. Wiprud, costumed a bit like Lady Gaga, showed a voice with a good ring in the hall and well handled the extensive recitative text. Ms. Cooper deftly handled the extensive runs of Virtue’s role. Varshini Narayanan joined Future and Virtue onstage as the character of Love, bringing an energetic and nymph-like interpretation to her role throughout, with consistently impressive movement and singing.

The Coronation of Poppea revolves principally around the illicit love affair between Nero and Poppea, both married to others. Contrary to Italian morality of the time, the adulterous relationships prevail, with Nero’s wife Octavia and Poppea’s husband Otto banished in exile. The two students cast as the leads Nero and Poppea have worked very hard toward probable careers in singing. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has proven his scholarly and performance command of music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and soprano Katie Buzard has been refining her vocal skills both at Princeton and the Royal College of Music in London. Mr. Cohen took command of the stage immediately, showing that the extensive vocal runs (precursors to the coloratura fireworks of the subsequent decades) were squarely in his wheelhouse, showing no trouble at all with the vocal demands of Nero’s role. Ms. Buzard demonstrated a sparkling top register, also keeping the 17th-century Italianate style well in hand. Monteverdi’s music, revolutionary for its melody and humanism, served the text and the emotions conveyed by the singers, and both of these performers never lost sight of the connection among these elements.

The two hapless spouses of these conniving individuals were also well performed. Countertenor Michael Manning sang the music of Otto, deliberately composed to show Poppea’s husband as tentative and timid, lyrically, and demonstrating despair well. Marie-Gabrielle D’Arco, singing the role of Nero’s wife Octavia, sang with incredible richness and maturity and showed that she will have no trouble pursuing her chosen career in opera as she powerfully executed the almost exclusively dramatic recitative-style. Operas of the early 17th century feature upper voices, and the one significantly lower voice in this production was Jonathan Choi’s interpretation of the philosopher Seneca. Seneca’s music is bold and wide-ranging, and Mr. Choi was especially effective in the extreme lower register. In addition to the onstage Baroque instruments, conductor Michael Pratt effectively led a small ensemble of strings to support the singers. Most impressive among the strings was cellist Nathan Haley, who provided a great deal of specific accompaniment to arias and extensive solos.

Following its premiere in the mid-17th century, The Coronation of Poppea was neglected until the late 1800s and achieved new popularity in the second half of the 20th century. For a university opera company to take this production on could have been an invitation for difficulties and frustration, but the Princeton University Opera Theater provided itself to be more than up to the task.

 

HOW CAN WE GET THESE CROOKED CONGRESSMEN TO INCRIMINATE THEMSELVES?: Flamboyant FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, left) confers with small time con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) about how to entice the seven corrupt politicians to allow themselves be bribed by FBI agents disguised as wealthy Arab sheiks.

HOW CAN WE GET THESE CROOKED CONGRESSMEN TO INCRIMINATE THEMSELVES?: Flamboyant FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, left) confers with small time con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) about how to entice the seven corrupt politicians to allow themselves be bribed by FBI agents disguised as wealthy Arab sheiks.

In the late 70s six U.S. Congressional House Representatives  and a United States Senator were caught on camera taking bribes from FBI agents who were posing as wealthy Arab sheiks. The elaborate sting in which the disgraced Congressmen became ensnared was code named Abscam, a contraction of Arab Scam.

American Hustle is a fictionalized account of that embarrassing chapter in the nation’s history. Set in New York and New Jersey in the Disco Music era, the film was written and directed by David O. Russell, who has been blessed with the golden touch in Hollywood in recent years.

His earlier movie Silver Linings Playbook received eight Academy Award nominations, including 2013’s Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence. That picture arrived close on the heels of The Fighter, which had earned seven Oscar nominations which included trophies for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in acting categories.

In this film, Russell has produced another engaging and entertaining production featuring a plethora of powerful performances. The movie co-stars Christian Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as his mischievous British mistress, Sydney. They play a pair of small-time crooks who help the Feds catch bigger fish in exchange for avoiding prosecution.

Reluctantly, they cooperate with Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a flamboyant and ambitious FBI agent who draws attention to himself by curling his straight hair and wearing trendy clothes. Sydney flirts with the fashionable G-man, feeling little loyalty towards her partner Irving, who’s dragging his feet about filing for a divorce from his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

But when Rosalyn realizes that her husband has been cheating, she decides to get even by seducing a shady character (Jack Huston) who, unbeknownst to her, is under government surveillance. Generating great hilarity, these tawdry love triangles escalate into attention-grabbing distractions that threaten to ruin the FBI’s covert operation.

Meanwhile, the naive Mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner) is being manipulated by Irving to introduce a notorious mob boss (Robert De Niro), as well as the aforementioned corrupt politicians, to Sheik Abdullah (Michael Pena). However, the FBI looks more like the Keystone Cops when the agent trying to pass as an Arab can’t even speak his native language.

Who knows whether any of these ridiculous incidents shown here ever actually transpired? But you don’t really worry about the truth when the laughs just keep coming and the witty repartee remains so inspired.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, pervasive profanity, and brief violence. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

January 8, 2014

book revI kept thinking of Shakespeare as I watched the eleven-minute BBC video of London’s spectacular New Year’s fireworks display. All that celestial excitement exploding above his river, his city, his Globe — the show was worthy of a stage direction like the one in the last act of Cymbeline: “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The Apparitions fall on their knees.” Or the Soothsayer’s image in the last scene of the same play, “The fingers of the powers above do tune/The harmony of this peace.” Or in the play’s last speech, King Cymbeline’s “Laud we the gods;/And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils.” 

It was all there in the first half hour of 2014, Jupiter’s thunderbolts and apparitions (except they weren’t on their knees, they were flying like drunken angels), “crooked smokes” ascending and descending, the fingers of the powers above (and below) tuning all that glory, and why not? What better word for the fantastical audacity of the phenomenon than Shakespearean? Admittedly, literature had nothing to do with it, the display having been billed as a “multi-sensory” event featuring clouds of apple, cherry, and strawberry mist, peach snow, thousands of bubbles filled with Seville orange-flavored smoke, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. This looney idea nevertheless created a unique concatenation of visual delights that evoked Hamlet’s “brave o’erhanging firmament, this Majesticall roofe, fretted with golden fire.” Such, at least, were my thoughts as I wondered what was so special about 2014 that the city and its Tory mayor should launch so fabulously excessive a celebration.

With the big number staring me in the face, I finally figured it out — Shakespeare’s birth year is 1564, which means 2014 marks his 450th anniversary, which explains the over-the-top New Year spectacle. Or does it? Not a word about Shakespeare could I find ahead of the event, nothing but references to the edible aspect, like the headline in the Express: “Willy Wonka to take over Boris Johnson’s fireworks display.”

Meanwhile, London’s golden fire had inspired a New Year’s resolution, which begins with this column. During the next 12 months I’m going to binge on Shakespeare, starting with Cymbeline.

Why Cymbeline?

On my first summer in Europe, a friend introduced me to the first verse of the funeral song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,/Nor the furious winter’s rages;/Thou thy worldly task hast done,/Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:/Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” All these years later in the hour after midnight, 2014, I remembered the song and decided it was time to read the play it came from, as a sort of down payment on my New Year’s resolution. Why hadn’t I ever read it? Perhaps I’d kept my distance until now because of something negative I’d read or heard, most likely the suggestion that other playwrights had had a hand in its creation. And what is it anyway? Surely not a comedy, with all its evil, passion, rage, and vile deceit, not to mention a beheading, with the headless corpse in view at the center of the play’s supreme dramatic moment. Is it a romance? A tragedy? A problem play? Hazlitt called it “one of the most delightful” of Shakespeare’s histories. Samuel Johnson couldn’t abide it: “To remark the folly of the fiction,” he wrote, “the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”

The intensity of Johnson’s dismissal made me curious. Here was a work by the greatest writer in the world that could not be fitted into “any system of life.” And suppose Johnson was even a little bit near the truth, how could that peerless lyric “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” possibly make sense amid “unresisting imbecility”?

My reading of Cymbeline began as a search for the song. It went badly at first, with a tedious account of the background of the ostensible hero, Posthumus, from Sicilius to Cassibelan to Tenantius to Leonatus. The names piled up, the movement of the language seemed awkward, halting, perfunctory. Looking for the music, I prowled through a series of bizarre episodes dominated by intemperate kings, evil queens, and devious Italians. Where was the song? For that matter, where was Swinburne’s “heavenly harmony of Cymbeline”? And Hazlitt’s “tender gloom” that “o’erspreads the whole”? How could Keats celebrate it as an example of the “poetical Character” that has “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”?

Imogen in the Flesh

It was Imogen who drew me in, dazzled and seduced me. Swinburne ends his Study of Shakespeare with reference to “the name of the woman above all Shakespeare’s women … the name of the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time … the name of Shakespeare’s Imogen.” Shakespeare allows us a remarkably intimate view of Cymbeline’s daughter asleep, half naked; thanks to the wily Iachimo’s clandestine visit to her bedchamber we know that her body is “whiter than the sheets” of her bed and that there’s a mole on her left breast, “cinque-spotted: like the crimson drops/I’ th’ bottom of a cowslip.”

It made sense, then, that Imogen would be there when I found the song about the golden lads and girls. Where in this bizarre “system of life” could lines of such depth and simple beauty turn up? Where else but in Act IV, scene 2, one of the most outlandishly brilliant sequences in all of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Magnaminity

Act IV begins with a travesty of a soliloquy spoken by an idiot signifying nothing more than his almost sublime cluelessness. Here in the character of Cloten, the evil queen’s son, is the embodiment of the “imbecility” that must have encouraged Johnson’s use of the term.

What Baudelaire said of the author of the La Comédie humaine — “Everyone in Balzac has genius — even the door-keepers. All his minds are weapons loaded to the muzzle with will” — can also be applied to characters in Shakespeare since almost every character is invested with the essence of his brilliance, fools and kings, rogues and killers, whether speaking in blank verse or earthy prose. But Cloten? You can’t help feeling that having created so deeply obnoxious a character, Shakespeare decided not to provide so much as a fig-leaf of intelligence or style to hide his naked worthlessness. Cloten can’t even, in effect, “speak Shakespeare.” His tasteless attempts to woo Imogen, who has already been wed to her true love, the banished Posthumus, are met with eloquent scorn by the object of his absurdly cloddish advances. At one point, having already torn him verbally to tatters, Imogen plants with one word the seed of his doom by declaring that he is not worth the “meanest garment” worn by Posthumus. The word garment seems to clutch Cloten by the throat. He’s invaded by it, addled by it, stupefied by it, idiotically repeating it to himself, four times over, “His garment!”

Cloten’s idea — an imbecilic stroke of literal-minded genius — is to steal an actual garment belonging to Posthumus so that he can be seen wearing it by Imogen while he carries out his doomed plan to kill his rival while she looks on, after which he will have his way with her before dragging her back to court and marriage. You know he’s doomed because everything he says falls as flat as the philosophical flourish with which he prefaces his boast, Cloten’s dumbed down version of “To be or not to be”: “What mortality is! Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her father; who may haply be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.”

Cloten is still plagued by the g-word. Even though the head is off, the face of his victim will be watching as the hateful garment is cut to pieces. And the king will be a little angry? Please. Cymbeline is never “a little angry.” It should be obvious by now whose head will “within this hour be off.”

Thus the masterful sequence that follows is prefaced by a fool who lacks even the literary charm with which Shakespeare endows his silliest clowns. And how gross is his fate, to have his severed head displayed a mere minute after he goads his killer “When I have slain thee with my proper hand,/I’ll follow those that even now fled hence,/And on the gates of Lud’s-town set your heads.”

The rest of the scene has to be read to be believed. Imogen, who has found refuge disguised as a boy in the cave of the “mountaineers” (her lost brothers, it turns out), wakes from a drugged death-like state to find herself lying beside Cloten’s headless corpse, which because it’s dressed in Posthumus’s garment she thinks is the mutilated body of her beloved. This gruesome situation follows directly upon the performance of the funeral song, the object of my quest, which her still-unrecognized brothers, thinking her dead, sing over her body. Shakespeare then magnanimously allows the slain Cloten to share the afterglow of this tender moment; he’s a queen’s son, after all. His head having been tossed in a stream, his body is ceremoniously placed beside Imogen’s.

The 1982 BBC film of Cymbeline is labeled a comedy. And no doubt the groundlings would roar with laughter should the scene be played poorly. How cruel, how dreadful is our knowledge that the body Imogen laments over so passionately and movingly, embracing it, wiping her face with blood from the gaping wound, is not her husband but the man she loathes, the despicable Cloten. Yet this ugly irony in no way distracts from the emotional impact of a speech that Helen Mirren delivers with hair-raising intensity in the BBC film — you seem to see her reaching out to touch the master overlooking the scene, he who gave her these words, ignited these extraordinary theatrical fireworks. What makes it sublime is Shakespeare’s understanding that for the sake of the play, the integrity of his vision, the hideous delusion will be redeemed by the harmony of a happy ending she alone has the force to make possible, she alone great enough to comprehend it. It’s the infectious genius of her character, the very electricity that created her, that Cymbeline observes, in the play’s final moments, Imogen reunited with Posthumus and the others, as “she, like harmless lightning, throws her eye/On him, her brother, me, her master, hitting/Each object with a joy.”

Cymbeline the Film

Believe it or not, Cymbeline has been updated to the present and filmed, only this past fall, with Ed Harris as the title character, leader of a biker gang, and Princeton’s own Ethan Hawke as the devious Iachimo, Mira Jovovich as the evil queen, and as Imogen Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. The film will be released in the new year — if a distributor can be found. 

 

MOONRISE OVER MANSET: Trudy Glucksberg’s 24”x36” acrylic on canvas work will be on view as part of the Arts Council of Princeton exhibition “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works,” which opens with a reception on Saturday, January 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Center. The exhibition is part of the overarching project,“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey” that includes several art exhibits, as well as film, gallery talks and panel discussions.

MOONRISE OVER MANSET: Trudy Glucksberg’s 24”x36” acrylic on canvas work will be on view as part of the Arts Council of Princeton exhibition “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press, Contemporary Works,” which opens with a reception on Saturday, January 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Center. The exhibition is part of the overarching project,“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey” that includes several art exhibits, as well as film, gallery talks and panel discussions.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey” is a series of art exhibits, film, gallery talks, and panel discussions focusing on notable art communities that developed in central New Jersey beginning in the late 1930s. The project explores the role New Jersey has had as a creative cauldron since the mid-20th century and it opens at the Arts Council of Princeton, the Historical Society of Princeton and the Princeton Public Library on January 18. It will also open in the Gallery at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) on January 21, and at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton on February 15. 

Much of America’s creative activity took root in small but important enclaves all across the country. Beginning in the mid-20th century, central New Jersey became one such hotbed, and played an important role in American cultural life of the last century. The accomplishments of the artists who lived and worked here are documented in the paintings, drawings, and sculpture they produced.

Among the groups being explored are the original Queenston Press artists; the artists of Roosevelt; Princeton Artists Alliance; the Trenton Artists Workshop Association (TAWA); and the Princeton Art Association (now ARTWORKS in Trenton).

Original artwork and portfolios, featuring both historical and contemporary works, will be displayed in participating venues in Mercer County and its environs now through spring 2015. Concentric Circles overlaps with “New Jersey as Non-Site,” an independent exhibition organized by the Princeton University Art Museum that focused on experimental artists of the postwar era, another group of artists in central New Jersey.

Concentric Circles organizers Ilene Dube and Kate Somers originally set out to celebrate a group of women artists who came together in Princeton in the 1960s to learn printmaking from Judith K. Brodsky. From this small group, along with other artists who established the Princeton Art Association during the same period, many other art groups eventually formed. Just as interests during this period began to overlap as artists joined multiple groups and influenced one another’s work, the original project grew to encompass more of these “Concentric Circles.”

“We discovered that not only had the women artists’ group come together at this time, but other important artists in the area were taking classes with each other, interacting, and influencing each other,” says Dube. “Although the artists of Roosevelt had formed in the 1930s, many were still active in the 1960s and 70s, and knew the artists of the Queenston Press. In addition, there were connections to artists who had taught at Mercer County Community College, as well as the artists who formed the Trenton Artists Workshop Association.”

“Today our region continues to flourish in the arts with artist groups such as the Princeton Artists Alliance and MOVIS,” says Somers, who has curated exhibitions of most of these artists.

Exhibitions will take place as follows. “Concentric Circles of Influence: the Queenston Press, The Woman Portfolio” at Princeton Public Library, January 8 through April 15, with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. For more visit: www.princeton
library.org.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Bicentennial Portfolio” at Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, January 18 through July 13 with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. For more information, visit: www.princeton
history.org.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Ten Crucial Days Portfolio” at Historical Society of Princeton, Updike Farmstead, January 18 through July 13, with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m.

For more information, visit: www.princetonhistory.org.

“Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press Contemporary Works” at Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, Taplin Gallery, January 18 through March 8, with a reception Saturday, January 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. For more information, visit: www.artscouncilof
princeton.org

“Left of Central: TAWA, Artworks and Art in the Capital Region” at The Gallery at Mercer County Community College, January 21 through February 20, with a reception Saturday, January 25, noon to 2 p.m.For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery

“Artists of Roosevelt” at New Jersey State Museum, February 15 through May 25. For more information, visit: www.statemuseum.nj.gov

“America: Through Artists’ Eyes” at New Jersey State Museum, October 25, 2014 through April 5, 2015. For more information, visit: www.statemuseum.nj.gov

The PNC Foundation is the generous Lead Funder for the 2014 Concentric Circles of Influence: The Queenston Press exhibitions at the Arts Council of Princeton, Historical Society of Princeton, and the Princeton Public Library.

The Arts Council of Princeton and The Gallery at MCCC are supported, in part, through a grant from the Mercer County Cultural & Heritage Commission, in partnership with the NJ State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

Princeton philanthropist William H. Scheide, known affectionately as “Bill,” turned 100 on Monday. For the past six years, the ever youthful music lover, Bach scholar and bibliophile, whose name is associated with numerous educational institutions, has celebrated his birthday with an annual concert of music conducted by former music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra Mark Laycock. 

This year, “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” will take place Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, on the campus of Princeton University.

As befits the special occasion, the concert will feature a stellar line up that includes the local and the international: Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (Wiener KammerOrchester), soloists Ah Young Hong (soprano), Leah Wool (mezzo-soprano), William Burden (tenor), and Mark S. Doss (bass-baritone), and pianists Mariam Nazarian and Andrew Sun.

Several of the performers have strong connections to the Princeton area. Ms. Wool received her Bachelor of Music magna cum laude from Westminster Choir College and Mr. Sun, who is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at New York University, was born in West Windsor.

Many local residents will recall a small recital held at Jasna Polana in which Mr. Scheide joined Ms. Nazarian at the piano. Ms. Nazarian made her U.S. debut in 1995 with a solo recital in Princeton as well as in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. At age 16, she was the youngest pianist in the history of Carnegie Hall to have performed J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. She is associate director of the Scheide Fund and has also served as programming advisor to the Arts Council of Princeton (incidentally, she recently coached Elijah Wood for his role in the upcoming thriller, Grand Piano).

The concert, which Mr. Scheide will attend, pays tribute to his love of Bach by opening with the composer’s “Gloria sei dir gesungen” from Cantata BWV 140. Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (Op 80) will follow and then a work composed by Mr. Scheide in his student days: Prelude for Piano Four Hands. The evening will culminate with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Choral,” with Mr. Laycock conducting the Wiener KammerOrchester for the third time at a birthday celebration for Mr. Scheide.

Known for his work with Opera New Jersey, especially a concert of Mendelssohn’s rarely performed Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang, with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Laycock was music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. He is credited with transforming what was a small chamber orchestra into a full and critically acclaimed professional symphony orchestra.

Westminster Symphonic Choir, led by conductor Joe Miller, is considered among the world’s leading choral ensembles and is composed of all juniors and seniors and half of the graduate students at the college.

Each year, proceeds from the annual Scheide birthday concert go to a worthy cause. In past years, lsles, Centurion Ministries, The Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton HealthCare Foundation, Princeton Public Library, and the Princeton Recreation Department have benefited. This year, Westminster Choir College of Rider University has been chosen as the local institution to receive funding that will be used for renovations to rehearsal space that has seen some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Simon Rattle.

“I have a deep and abiding belief in the critical role that Westminster Choir College plays in our community, bringing the joy of music into our lives,” said Mr. Scheide in a letter that accompanies the concert program. Mr. Scheide has had long and faithful relationships with Westminster Choir College where he served on the Board of Trustees.

Born in Philadelphia on January 6, 1914, Mr. Scheide is the only child of John Hinsdale Scheide and Harriet Hurd. He grew up in a household that was passionate about music, culture, rare books, and the well-being of humanity. His father played the piano, and his mother sang. At the age of six, he began piano lessons.

In a “This I Believe” essay broadcast in New York during the 1950s, Mr. Scheide said that his early love of music has made him “sensitive to values that cannot be expressed in language.”

Mr. Scheide attended Princeton University (Class of 1936) where he majored in history simply because at that time there was no music department. He went on to earn an MA in music at Columbia in 1940 and became the first American to be published in the Bach Jahrbuch journal of Bach scholarship. In 1946, he founded and directed the Bach Aria Group, a vocal and instrumental ensemble that performed and recorded for 34 years.

The Scheide Library, now housed in Firestone Library at Princeton University, contains books and manuscripts that Mr. Scheide, his grandfather, Willam T. Scheide, and his father, John H. Scheide (Class of 1896) acquired. It holds copies of the first four Bibles ever printed; materials on the invention and history of printing; books and manuscripts on the early voyages to the Americas; and musical manuscripts of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and many others.

Mr. Scheide’s long life has been dedicated to fostering the arts, education, civil rights, health, and poverty relief programs. In his “This I Believe” essay he stated his own credo: “When Bach set to music the words “Credo in Unum Deum,” — I believe in one God — he did not express a pious ideal or a devout or romantic aspiration. The here and now poured out of him. What inspired was simply the basic material of his life. That, he recognized, was his belief. And that, I think, is any man’s belief if the word is to have any actual substance that can be grasped.”

His own words from over half a century ago bear repeating in this his centennial year. “I believe that a democratic society must be ultimately founded on love for enemies, real and fancied enemies, who daily and inevitably trample our personalities and threaten to destroy our innermost beliefs — that is, our essential natures. I believe also that a love for enemies, as I conceive it, is impossible without that vague but deep thing which is usually called belief in God …. Belief in an ultimate absolute makes love and tolerance possible in a group of creatures seen through a glass darkly …. My faith is both that which I am and that which I feel I ought to be. It represents the energy — sometimes more, sometimes less — with which I cling to life, but which also confers the apprehension of a higher and more perfect life. When I am at my best, I work on the problem of bringing this higher life to realization.”

Mr. Scheide’s essay can be heard by visiting: http://thisibelieve.org/essay/16961/.

“Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” will take place Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. General admission tickets are $35 each from University ticketing, (609) 258.9220, or online from www.scheideconcerts.com.

 

O MAMA, DADDY WILL COME HOME SOON, YOU’LL SEE: Barbara (Julia Roberts, top) tries to console her mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Barbara and her two sisters Ivy and Karen (not shown) all returned home to be with their mother when they heard that their father had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

O MAMA, DADDY WILL COME HOME SOON, YOU’LL SEE: Barbara (Julia Roberts, top) tries to console her mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Barbara and her two sisters Ivy and Karen (not shown) all returned home to be with their mother when they heard that their father had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

In 2008, the play August: Osage County not only won a Pulitzer Prize, but it also received five Tony Awards, including Best Play. However, the screen version of Tracy Letts’ haunting story about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family is unlikely to be as well-received because of the story’s morose plot. Who goes to the movies to get depressed? 

Nevertheless, the picture has a stellar cast headed by Meryl Streep, who turns in an Oscar-quality performance as Violet, the substance-abusing, cancer-stricken matriarch of the Weston clan.

The film is about Violet’s three daughters, who come home when they hear about their suicidal father’s (Sam Shepard) sudden disappearance. As the action unfolds, we find each daughter involved in a bizarre relationship.

The eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), a philandering college professor who is dating one of his students, and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Jean is a sullen drug addict who is upset about the state of her parents’ disintegrating marriage.

The youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis), arrives with her fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a successful businessman who is also a pedophile. Meanwhile, the middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), is having an incestuous affair with her first cousin, Charlie, Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), is a shrew who openly abuses both her son and her husband. She has a humdinger of a skeleton hidden in her closet that just might trump everybody else’s shocking situations.

A movie with so many sensational storylines certainly lends itself to melodrama, which is an accurate description of August: Osage County. The film often feels more like an adaptation of a dime-store romance novel than a film version of an award-winning Broadway production.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, and drug use. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company

 

January 2, 2014

DVD rev“In My Life” started out as a bus journey from my house to town … and it wasn’t working at all …. But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.”

—John Lennon

For the first time in the 10 years that I’ve been writing for Town Topics, we’re printing on New Year’s Day and I’m thinking about the words and music people all over the world still sing at the chimes of midnight. The earliest known manuscript of Robert Burns’s poem “Auld Lang Syne” is in the permanent collection of the Lilly Library in my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, a place that for me is synonymous with “old long since” or “long long ago” or “days gone by,” among the numerous listed English versions of the three-word title of the poignant New Year’s anthem.

This year of columns began with Ravi Shankar, who died December 11, 2012, and now 2014 begins with Peter O’Toole, who died December 14, 2013. It’s been my good fortune to see both the musician and the actor in live performances in India and Bristol, two of “the places I’ll remember,” a line John Lennon claimed for posterity when he wrote “In My Life,” which is, if you think of it, a perfect Beatles “Auld Lang Syne” — “All these places have their moments/With lovers and friends I still can recall/Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all.” It’s fitting that Paul and John were not in complete agreement about whose song it is. No one doubts that John wrote the lyric, but as he admits, the “middle eight melody” was Paul’s contribution. John sings it with such feeling that ownership is not an issue. Paul is in the spirit of the song. So are all four. Listen to it now, with John and George gone but never forgotten, and take “a cup of kindness for old time’s sake” those of you were fortunate enough to be alive when the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul and began their all too brief Golden Age only three years after Peter O’Toole made what must be the greatest debut in motion picture history.

Enter O’Toole

Memory being the subject of both “Auld Lang Syne” and “In My Life,” I’m recalling the most memorable theatrical entrance I ever saw, 40 years ago at Bristol’s Theatre Royal. By “memorable” I don’t mean most moving, dramatic, or grandiose. “Impressive” won’t say it either. Even “eloquent” doesn’t describe the moment Peter O’Toole took the stage as the title character in the Bristol Old Vic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. A decade after Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was performing for the first time in 20 years on the stage where his career took off with a Hamlet that brought critics like Kenneth Tynan hurrying over from London to see for themselves what all the excitement was about.

The stage direction for Vanya’s entrance is not complicated: “He has been asleep after dinner and looks rather dishevelled. He sits down on the bench and straightens his collar.” While the right costume can replicate “rather dishevelled,” the instant O’Toole crept limply, brokenly, decrepitly into view, a one-man theatre of the absurd, he delivered the character. It was a “To Be Or Not To Be” of head-to-toe, benignly disordered body English. As he took several breathlessly unsteady steps forward, everything about him, every inch, was skewed, untuned, amiss, his face in a transport of uneasy lassitude, eyes lost, at sea in a dream world, a Chaplinesque loser you can’t help hoping will carry the day in the end; you feel for the actor and character as one being, you’re on their side, they have you. The applause that erupted the instant O’Toole made his gracefully ungainly entrance may have been inspired by the movie star who had come home to the theatre and the city where he’d found himself as a young actor, but when the ovation soared toward a cheer, it was for the Vanya he’d delivered without a word, the dreamer, at once closeted poet, cosmic victim, fool, and indolent prophet. It was as if Chekhov himself had slyly taken the stage.

When asked if he has any news, Vanya says “I don’t do anything now but croak like a raven.” When the beauty he’s futilely in love with observes what a fine day it is, he says, “A fine day to hang oneself.” The play’s barely begun and you already know Vanya is its embattled Hamlet.

That our year and a half in Bristol coincided with Peter O’Toole’s season of three plays and one reading at the Old Vic was one of those rare strokes of good fortune. I made passing mention of the actor’s fondness for the city in my October 30 column about a recent return visit. The pleasure of seeing plays in the Theatre Royal wasn’t just the low cost ($1.75) and the quality of the staging and performances, it was the cozy old place itself. As O’Toole told an interviewer, “the ships come right to the stage door of the theatre in Bristol. It’s a jewel … a little 1760 affair built without a facade, built in a corn merchant’s house. The Puritans had closed it, but with the issue of a little silver coin you entered into magic. You would go through the corn merchant’s front door, then his bed room, and after that — Paradise. The Paradise the Puritans tried to forbid …. It’s the most beautiful theatre in the world …. But I’m rambling. Such a fixée for me, Bristol is.”

Think of the Auld Lang Syne midnights when O’Toole raised a glass to those early days at the Bristol Old Vic, especially after the triumph of Lawrence: “Bristol became my home,” he told the interviewer. “I was accepted there and it’s where I became me. You see, when I left Bristol, I was famous, and the city haunted me.”

2013

No doubt about it, the past year of columns has a certain Auld Lang Syne quality, with prose cups of kindess to the memory of giants like Wagner and Verdi in their bicenentary years and to Richard Nixon on his centenary; birthday toasts to Grand Central Station on its 100th, Proust, Kafka, C.F. Cavafy, D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Agee; farewell toasts to stars like Deanna Durbin, Julie Harris, James Gandolfini, Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, and Joan Fontaine; to Princess Grace and rocker Lou Reed, Spenser scholar Paul Alpers, and Dostoevsky biographer and longtime Princeton resident Joseph Frank, not to mention conductor Colin Davis. Even fictional characters like Walter White and Nicholas Brody have come and gone and been remembered.

Remembering a Librarian

The death of a Joseph Frank or a Peter Lewis is major local news and so reported, but every now and then, as happened this year with bibliophile Peter Oppenheimer, you begin to wonder why you haven’t seen an “old Princeton acquaintance” on the street only to receive the shock of the news off the record, without benefit of an obituary. This is how I learned about reference librarian Terri Nelson, who retired in 2010 after 22 years at the Princeton Public Library and died this past July at 66.

Terri started out as a children’s librarian around the time my son turned 13, let his hair grow long, began wearing army jackets with peace buttons, and listening to sixties music. Like all Princeton kids of various ages, he was fond of Dudley Carlson, but the sixties person who knew what he was feeling and where he was coming from was Terri Nelson, who had gone to school at Berkeley and had opinions about politics, race relations, and rock and roll. While I got to know Terri, a fellow Hoosier, through volunteer work with the Friends of the Library Book Sale (I regularly set aside Princeton-related materials for her), my son knew more of her Vietnam-impacted story than I ever did.

According to Ellen Gilbert’s Town Topics article (“A Passion for Genealogy Inspires Princeton Librarian’s Seminars on the Past”), Terri’s fascination with genealogy was inspired by the discovery that her family could be traced back to the Starbucks of Nantucket — meaning, of course, the family of Captain Ahab’s steadfast first mate, not the coffee makers. In July 2008 when the article appeared, Terri was not only overseeing the Princeton Room and numerous online resources on Princeton and African American history (including a site devoted solely to Paul Robeson), she was teaching classes on genealogy whose students included two Mayflower descendants. According to Library director Leslie Burger, Terri was also instrumental in designing and maintaining the library’s “very first website.”

The comment from one of Terri’s colleagues at the library, who remembers her as “a brilliant person whose life was tragic,” reflects the complex story behind the familiar figure seen over the years by people driving down or idling on Sylvia Beach Way behind the new library. As John’s song says, “All these places have their moments.” Perhaps you remember her as the lady on the bench, smoking a cigarette, a lonely community cameo worth a special thought at this time of the year, a special cup of kindness. 

The Peter O’Toole quotes are from an interview with Roy Newquist in the collection, Counter Point (Rand McNally 1964). The story about Terri Nelson can be found at www.towntopics.com/jul3008/other2.php. The John Lennon quote is from the Playboy interview.

 

“LAUGHTER IN THE DARK:” Portraits such as the one shown here by local photographer Richard Trenner will be in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell, where images by his son, Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, 16, will also be shown in a exhibition that opens with a reception this Friday, January 3, from  6 to 8 p.m. and a meet the artists open house on Sunday, January 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333 8511, email: galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www. photogallery14.com.                                        (Photo Courtesy of R. Trenner)

“LAUGHTER IN THE DARK:” Portraits such as the one shown here by local photographer Richard Trenner will be in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell, where images by his son, Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner, 16, will also be shown in a exhibition that opens with a reception this Friday, January 3, from
6 to 8 p.m. and a meet the artists open house on Sunday, January 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333 8511, email: galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www.
photogallery14.com. (Photo Courtesy of R. Trenner)

Photographers Richard Trenner and Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner will be showing the best of their recent work at Gallery 14 in Hopewell this month when their two-man show opens with a public reception this Friday, January 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. 

There will be an opportunity to meet both photographers on Sunday, January 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. In addition to being a photographer, Richard Trenner is a writer, teacher, and consultant. He runs his own Princeton-based company, Advanced Communication Training, and he’s written and co-written books on communication and edited some 20 titles for the Lodima Press, a publisher of fine art photography books.

His part of the two-man show, titled “People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” includes portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, as well as the intriguing image that inspired the show’s title: a picture of “a wise-looking parrot contemplating a beautiful woman’s knee.”

Mr. Trenner’s work comprises the main part of the exhibition and, as such, will be displayed in Gallery 14’s main gallery. Images by his 16-year-old son, known as “Win,” will be displayed in the Jay Goodkind Gallery that is attached to the main space. A junior at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he boards, “Win” is named after the painter Winslow Homer.

The Gallery 14 exhibition is not the first for the father and son photographers who might be said to have image-making in their genes. Their first joint show was last spring, also at Gallery 14. That show was Win’s debut and the beginning of his part in a family tradition that goes back to his great-grandfather, George L. Trenner, a Londoner by birth, who arrived in New York City around 1894 at the age of 20. His grandfather, Nelson R. Trenner, was a serious amateur who fostered Win’s father Richard’s interest. This makes Win the fourth generation in this family of keen photographers.

Richard Trenner began making photographs when he was 12 and in recent years has had several solo and group shows. He has won a number of awards, and had several of his photographs published in magazines and books. His first solo show was sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton at the Princeton Public Library in 2009 was followed by a second at the Chapin School Gallery in 2010.

Last year’s exhibition at Gallery 14 was titled “Where The Land and Water Meet” and featured mostly landscapes. Those by Richard, shot mainly on the coast of Maine but also in coastal areas of New Brunswick, Canada; Cape Ann and Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Europe. Win exhibited photographs from a school trip to Chile, Argentina, South Georgia Island, and the Southern Ocean (weather kept them from reaching Antarctica).

This year, Win is showing images gathered on two recent study trips to Shanghai and Beijing. His section of the display is titled “One Heart, One Mind,” and pays tribute to a Chinese philosophy to which he found a deep response. “The Chinese idiom ‘one heart, one mind’ is the driving force behind my decisions in life,” said the young photographer. “It means to have the undivided attention of the spirit by linking what your heart and your mind want.”

As with all Gallery 14 shows, the work on display is for sale. Last year Win out-sold his father by a large margin. Did he mind? “Intensely, for about ten minutes,” laughed Trenner. “Win’s success reminded me to get out there with my camera, which was no hardship because I’m a photography addict.”

Almost all of the recent works by Mr. Trenner were taken on travels in New York, Philadelphia, Princeton, as well as Castine, Maine, and St. Andrews, Scotland.

Mr. Trenner has been a full member of Gallery 14 for three years. The group meets regularly for member to critique each other’s work and provides exhibition space once a year in the main gallery and once in the Goodkind Gallery. The former holds about two dozen images, the latter about a dozen.

“People, Places, and a Parrot Called Pancho,” photographs by Richard Trenner and “One Heart, One Mind,” photographs by Winslow Radcliffe-Trenner will be at Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell N.J. 08525, from January 3 through February 2. Gallery hours: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call (609) 333 8511, email: galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

WHEN A ROCK MEETS A HARD PLACE: Gregarious and sociable Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, left) takes a sceptical and reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disney World in an effort to obtain the movie rights to one of the “Mary Poppins” books that Travers had written. Travers does her best to thwart Disney’s efforts to woo her, however, the irrepressible Disney prevails in the end and she signs over the right to the book.

WHEN A ROCK MEETS A HARD PLACE: Gregarious and sociable Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, left) takes a sceptical and reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disney World in an effort to obtain the movie rights to one of the “Mary Poppins” books that Travers had written. Travers does her best to thwart Disney’s efforts to woo her, however, the irrepressible Disney prevails in the end and she signs over the right to the book.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was the pen name of Helen Lyndon Goff (1899-1996), the creator of the children’s classic series of Mary Poppins books. When his daughters were young, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) promised to turn their favorite book into a movie, since they were so enchanted by the British nanny with magical powers.

Little did he know that the effort to secure the film rights would drag on for 20 years due to the uncompromising author’s inflexibility and insistence that any adaptation remain faithful to the source material. The protracted courting process finally proved fruitful in 1961, when Walt wined and dined the reluctant writer at his Hollywood studio and made an elaborate sales pitch to turn the story into a musical.

He succeeded in wooing Travers with the assistance of the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting team (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and the deferential chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), assigned to drive her around during her stay, would also play a pivotal role.

That productive two-week visit is revisited in Saving Mr. Banks, a dramatization directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). The picture’s title is a reference to Mary Poppins’ employer George Banks, who was among the many characters Travers was trying to protect.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson portray their roles in such a convincing fashion that a period piece about a contract negotiation actually proves entertaining. Hanks pours on the folksy charm impersonating the legendary Disney opposite the chameleon-like Travers who requires time to soften from being skeptical to enthusiastic about the proposed project.

Although Saving Mr. Banks waxes sentimental and ends on an upbeat note, a Mary Poppins sequel was not to be, despite the fact that the original won five Academy Awards. Travers and Disney had such a big falling out prior to the picture’s release that she wasn’t even invited to the premiere.

Furthermore, she was so enraged about her book’s mistreatment at the hands of the studio that she went to her grave refusing to turn over the rights for another adaptation, and even wrote that refusal into her will. However, the truth does not get in the way of a syrupy movie with a stock, “happily ever after” ending.

To paraphrase Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps revisionist history go down in a most delightful way.”

Excellent (***½) Rated PG-13 for mature themes and unsettling images. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

 

December 26, 2013

DVD rev“The bad girls were so much fun to play …. Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.”

—Audrey Totter (1917-2013)

When actress Audrey Totter died December 12, the obituaries all but unanimously labeled her a “femme fatale of classic film noir.” There’s something darkly addictive about the term “film noir,” two words that, along with “noir,” have spectacularly transcended the genre of American film French cinephiles gave a name to in the mid-1940s. Whether you think of it as a mood or a state of mind or a way of putting a convenient handle on something that challenges description, film noir has, in the internet sense, gone viral. It’s infinitely adaptable, one of those so-called “winged words” that fly well beyond their origins. Sometimes it seems we’ve been looking for film noir, waiting for it, ever since Cain slew Abel, Mephistopheles signed up Faust, and Macbeth heeded the witches and his femme fatale wife.

A Recent Noir Romance

Cain and Abel aside, the original noir couple is Adam and Eve, and right now I’m thinking of a couple whose last night together was recently watched by millions of cable television viewers. In this case, the man is a killer on the run and the woman hiding him out and risking her life on his behalf is complicit in the murder, which was done on assignment, in a justified cause (the “service of their country”), but guilt or innocence has nothing to do with it. That’s the beauty of this fantastically star-crossed couple. Theirs is so improbable a romance that we know from the start it has to be doomed; that’s what makes it so fascinating. Everything about these two has been ambiguous. He enters as an instrument of evil, which the woman has figured out long before anyone else suspects it, and one reason she knows is because she’s already begun to fall in love with him. They have sex, make love, know love, express it unconditionally, the “bigger than both of us” sort. This is what it’s all about, life and love, love and death, duty and country.

One of the tropes of film noir is the man of action wounded, embattled, in need of help, finding safe haven for a time in the arms of the woman who may betray him or protect him or bring him to his fate, which is sometimes beyond her control, as it proves to be here. She’s hustled him undercover and against all odds to a desolate refuge where they are to be rescued from the forces pursuing them. Alone together at last in that bleak sanctuary, they make no explicit avowals of love — they don’t need to, it’s understood — and they have no time for lovemaking; they’re both exhausted, both beyond it. Later we see the man nestled asleep with his head in her lap. This again is pure noir romance. She has him to herself and she has his child in her womb. But it’s folly to imagine for a moment that they can actually have a life together. It’s not, to put it crudely, in the script. He’s doomed and she will be a helpless witness to the moment of his death, screaming his name as he dies so that he knows she’s there for him right up to the end.

If you were watching Homeland on Showtime a couple of weeks ago, you’ll have recognized the story I’m describing. Three seasons of this award-winning series have taken viewers through all kinds of issues and actions and relationships, plots and counterplots, and innumerable graphic violations of probability. And it all comes down to the last night the doomed couple spend alone together. Bloggers may quibble about how tired they are of Carrie and Brody, but without that romance and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, Homeland is little more than an updated, poor man’s 24, minus Jack Bauer.

A Christmas Film Noir

This was supposed to be a Christmas column. After all, we’re printing on Christmas day, at least according to the masthead (we actually put the paper together on Monday). So what does Christmas have to do with film noir? Doesn’t the very nature of the phenomenon resist such niceties as Christmas Eve, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, stockings hopefully hung by the chimney with care, stock images of the Nativity?

Most of the obituary summaries of Audrey Totter’s career single out Adrienne Fromsett in Lady in the Lake (1947) as her “breakthrough” role and give special notice to actor-director Robert Montgomery’s unique use of the subjective camera, the “You be the Detective” point of view, where all the action is seen through Philip Marlowe’s eyes. Perhaps because it makes such an odd match with the noir-flavored headlines, the obituaries ignore the key role Christmas plays in the story. Lady in the Lake offers a full serving of the holiday right from the opening credits, which are all decked out in holly and other seasonal trappings, plus images of the three wise men and the guiding star, and a Christmas choir singing carols. The wordless a cappella choral singing suspensefully interspersed throughout the action creates a transitional undertone of “warm and fuzzy” menace between scenes of violence and depravity, murder and mayhem. It was not Raymond Chandler’s idea to put Christmas into the mix; nor was it his idea to give Adrienne Fromsett so central and romantic a role and to turn the company she works for from “Gillerlain Regal, the Champagne of Perfumes” into a sleazy publisher of pulp magazines with titles like Lurid Detective and True Horror. These changes were the work of Montgomery and screenwriter Steve Fisher. Chandler hated the film and tried to take his name off it, but he’d already sold the rights to the novel, which, however loosely, was based on his story, with his characters, including of course, Philip Marlowe, who still has the benefit of Chandler’s infectious language.

Chandler’s portrait of Ms. Fromsett is true to style: “She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread …. She had smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and right place.”

Granted, Audrey Totter and the costume department at M-G-M can’t produce anything to equal Chandler’s sliced bread, but the woman we see through Marlowe’s eyes is in some ways an improvement on Chandler’s sketch. I omitted the novel’s account of her hair’s “loose but not unstudied waves” because the filmmakers style her hair to the “smooth” and “severe” nuances of the original: it’s pulled up in back and coiled on top to give a no-nonsense effect. The film’s one true femme fatale is played by Jayne Meadows (to get an idea of her first ditzy appearance before Montgomery’s relentless stare, imagine Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall with a gun in her hand). Totter’s character appears devious enough to be a suspect, all the while being groomed to be Marlowe’s loving protector; in the cozy Christmas Eve scene after she’s gathered him up, taken him home and healed his wounds, they’re listening to the happy ending of a radio performance of A Christmas Carol — a work, when you think of it, that Dickens steeps in noirish atmosphere replete with rattling chains, ghosts, fog, and death.

Noir Is Where You Find It

In the past few months of cable viewing we’ve found elements of film noir not only in Homeland but in Harlan County, Kentucky (in Justified, an amazing series with a for-the-ages performance by Walton Goggins), Atlantic City (Boardwalk Empire, with Gretchen Moll as the classic femme fatale Gillian Darmody), and, most recently, in Washington D.C. (Netflix’s House of Cards), where Kevin Spacey, whose face is a film noir all by itself, holds everything together. As he delivers his sinister Shakespearean asides, the House majority whip conjures up the primal noir of Richard the Third, Iago, and the Thane of Cawdor, with Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth.

The Femme Fatale at 90

When my wife was visiting her mother in the Motion Picture Home, a retirement community for people formerly in the film business, she met Audrey Totter, the “bad girl,” who was then 90 and knitting a sweater, not holding a gun. There’s a quirky poetry in the image of the former femme fatale as a little old lady knitting ice-blue sweaters that my wife says matched her eyes. It’s because Totter earned modest fees compared to the big stars that she ended life in the Motion Picture Home. Were it not for her noir connection she would be getting even less exposure in the press than Joan Fontaine, a bigger star who died December 15 with headlines labeled “Academy Award winner,” for her role as Cary Grant’s paranoid wife in Suspicion; while Fontaine’s best film was probably Max Opuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), she was in two noirs, sympathetic in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and profoundly nasty in Born to Be Bad (1950). Even as the devil’s bait in John Farrow’s mix of Faust and noir, Alias Nick Beal  (1949), Audrey Totter has a heart of gold, but in Tension, which was made the same year, she’s beyond-redemption bad and she has a gun.

 

WE’RE ON THE WAY TO FIND MY SON: Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are riding on an electric cart in the airport on their way from Great Britain to America. Investigative journalist Sixsmith has found out that Philomena’s illegitimate son Anthony had been adopted at the age of three by a family from the United States.

WE’RE ON THE WAY TO FIND MY SON: Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are riding on an electric cart in the airport on their way from Great Britain to America. Investigative journalist Sixsmith has found out that Philomena’s illegitimate son Anthony had been adopted at the age of three by a family from the United States.

Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) made a big mistake as a teenager. She had sex with a boy (D.J. McGrath) whom she had just met at a carnival and became pregnant, which was a serious issue in Ireland in 1952. 

To avoid disgracing her family with the shame of having an illegitimate child, she was sent to a convent that cared for young women in her situation. When she arrived, she was forced to sign a document relinquishing her parental rights and promising to never ask to see her son after he was adopted.

Three years after he was born and raised in the convent by the nuns — where he would spend about an hour a day with his mother — he was adopted by a wealthy family from the United States and taken away without being allowed to say good bye to his mother.

Meanwhile, Philomena remained at the abbey where she continued to work until she had paid off her debt to the convent for the costs incurred in having the baby. She eventually left the convent and became a nurse, however, she remained forever haunted by the absence of her son, whom she had named Anthony.

50 years after Anthony’s birth, Philomena wanted desperately to learn about his fate. So, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently-disgraced investigative journalist who agreed to help her look for her son. After being denied access to any of the convent’s adoption records, Martin found out that Anthony had been taken to America.

Directed by two-time Oscar-nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen and The Grifters), Philomena is a true tale based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Sixsmith’s account of their search for the missing son. Dame Judi Dench gives an inspired performance as a wayward woman from a humble background who summons up the strength to search for her son and confront the former Mother Superior (Barbara Jefford)  of the convent when Anthony was born and taken away from Philomena.

A poignant description of motherhood and a searing indictment of the Catholic Church’s attitude, at that time, about what were the best interests of an illegitimate child.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and sexual references. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 18, 2013
PHILADELPHIA CHRISTMAS 1945: Except for one of the most powerful combat sequences ever filmed, “Pride of the Marines” is set in Philadelphia. Returning from the war blinded and bitter, John Garfield, as real-life hero Al Schmid, has collided with the Christmas tree; here he’s getting the loving support of Ruth, “the girl he left behind,” played with warmth and spirit by Eleanor Parker, who died December 9.

PHILADELPHIA CHRISTMAS 1945: Except for one of the most powerful combat sequences ever filmed, “Pride of the Marines” is set in Philadelphia. Returning from the war blinded and bitter, John Garfield, as real-life hero Al Schmid, has collided with the Christmas tree; here he’s getting the loving support of Ruth, “the girl he left behind,” played with warmth and spirit by Eleanor Parker, who died December 9.

Here we go again, life or death on the dreaded Williamsburg Bridge. I know to stay in the far right lane but as I come to the Brooklyn moment of truth, I brace myself for the possibility of a hellbent truck shunting me off to Staten Island or darkest Queens. All it takes is a look at the date of this column and I know one reason I’m afraid of being forced onto an expressway to nowhere. On the early evening of December 18, 1978, taking an unfamiliar route to see my dying mother at a Melbourne, Florida hospital, I got trapped going the wrong direction on a busy expressway, panicked, and barely avoided crashing into a guard rail. When I finally reached the hospital I rushed to my mother’s room and found that an empty bed had already been made up for the next patient. 

Though she had her share of dark moods, my mother was a shameless enthusiast. It was always the best meal, the best trip, the most beautiful, most glorious this or that, which may explain why my point of view in these columns is essentially positive, my preference not to attack but to celebrate. Even now, rather than demonizing the Williamsburg Bridge (my mother loved bridges), I’m reminding myself, as I always do, that in addition to its straight-forward matter-of-fact magnificence, the way it simply rolls off Delancey Street like a Brooklyn-bound wayfarer’s dream made manifest, the bridge belongs to Sonny Rollins.

While the jazz legend may not legally own it, he laid claim to it five decades ago during his self-imposed retirement from the scene. Night after night for two years, he left his Grand Street apartment and hiked along the pedestrian walkway to the middle of the span, removed his tenor sax from its case, and blew to his heart and soul’s content a couple of hundred feet above the East River. Rollins did not set out to create a legend, though he had to know that it would make a great story for the press. It also made a great story to tell my mother to get her in the mood the first time I introduced her to his music, especially when I clued her in on his reason for the trek to the bridge, which was that “the lady next door had just had a baby,” and he didn’t want to disturb his neighbors.

When I saw Sonny Rollins in one of his first appearances after the sabbatical on the bridge, he had formed a new group including the somewhat off-puttingly professorial presence of a balding, bespectacled white guitarist. Like most Rollins fans, I soon came to appreciate Jim Hall, who died at 83 a week ago, less than a month after the November 25 death of his old bandmate from the 1950s, drummer Chico Hamilton. Though I haven’t heard Hall’s recent work and know his music mostly through the Rollins albums and his extraordinary collaborations with Bill Evans, a message from Visions of Jazz author Gary Giddins tells me that he was “one of the great old-school liberals who wore his politics on his sleeve,” and that “his playing got hotter during the Bush years, because he was so fired up with outrage.”

The news of Chico Hamilton’s death took some time to register because the lasting and even life-changing impression he made on my clueless 14-year-old self had little to do with his drumming or the records he made with Jim Hall or Buddy Colette or George Duvivier. No, what impressed, amazed, and enchanted me (here I go enthusing again, like mother, like son) was his singing, or humming, or whatever it is that he’s doing in the background of the moody Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.” That performance, with its Chico-Hamilton-haunted chorus, revolutionized my listening habits; it’s where jazz began for me.

Woman of a Thousand Faces 

It seems there’s no escaping the symbolism of the bridge. Life-spans, this side, That Side, the passing or the crossing, so that once I’ve run the gauntlet of the ramps and am navigating the streets of Brooklyn, I’m feeling like a survivor, if not exactly reborn (it’s no fun anticipating the chaotic rush-hour return across the bridge to Manhattan). While my son spends the afternoon at Academy Record’s newly relocated Oak Street store, I keep warm in the Greenpoint Public Library looking in vain for a biography of John Garfield (1913-1952) and thinking about Eleanor Parker (1922-2013), who died December 9, a day before Jim Hall.

If you love old movies, there’s always a birth or death rationale for searching out a certain film. It might only be the passing of an obscure actor who played a small but memorable part or it might be an all but forgotten actress like Eleanor Parker, who was, however, remembered in June as Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month. When we heard of her death, my wife and I turned to Comcast On Demand and found Pride of the Marines, where she plays John Garfield’s steadfast girlfriend. That’s it. Someone dies and you to bring them back to life On Demand.

Parker’s role as the rejected Baroness in The Sound of Music gave obit writers a point of reference most people could connect with. “She was wonderful in the part,” director Robert Wise said, “a sort of light ‘heavy’ who was also ultimately quite touching.” He should know, since her farewell scene is filmed so sympathetically you have to think the director was under her womanly spell. She would have been 43 at the time. Julie Andrews remembers her as “charming, elegant, and beautiful … one of the legends of Hollywood.”

Thanks to TCM, we saw enough of Eleanor Parker last June to comprehend the truth of the “legends” reference. What set her apart from other female stars was her ability to give herself up to a wildly different assortment of roles (the only biography is titled Woman of a Thousand Faces). She was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for Caged in 1950 (she should have won; it’s as touching and terrifying a performance as you’ll ever see), for Detective Story a year later, and for Interrupted Melody in 1955. What she accomplishes as Mildred in the rarely shown 1946 version of W.S. Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is more terrifying than touching; neither Bette Davis nor Kim Novak approach Parker’s uncanny blend of the abrasive and the pathetic, at once vulnerable, fascinating, hostile, arrogant, and seething with passion. You may be repelled by Mildred but you love the heroics of the actress. Talk about heroics — as a wide-eyed innocent, brutalized in prison in Caged, she steals your heart and breaks it, and she does it again playing multiple personalities in Lizzie, part shy thing, part slut, part good girl. She’s a wicked delight as the gorgeous, clowning knockabout mistress of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche and she gives warmth and light to The Voice of the Turtle, later retitled One for the Book, in which her quiet, quirky charm seems to rub off on Ronald Reagan, who is quite likeable as a soldier on leave finding romance with the adorably untogether girl played by Parker.

The Anti-Hero

Until we brought John Garfield back from the dead in Pride of the Marines and He Ran All the Way on successive nights, I hadn’t realized that 2013 was his centenary.  While Eleanor Parker lived into her nineties, the heart condition that kept Garfield from serving in World War II killed him at 39, even as the dogs of the Communist witch hunt’s spineless studio overlords were baying at his back. He Ran All the Way makes an all too appropriate title for the final picture from the actor some consider to be Hollywood’s first rebel, the precursor to Marlon Brando (Garfield turned down the role of Stanley Kowalski), Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and later the young Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

The Broadway role Clifford Odets wrote with “Julie” in mind, as the violinist/prizefighter on Broadway in Golden Boy, suggests the Garfield dynamic — you could imagine him as both a tough guy and an artist. The endgame intensity he gave to playing the hapless punk Nick Robey in He Ran All the Way — the combination of headlong force and desperate, wrenching anguish — is painful and moving to behold. His death at the end — the last shot in the gutter, his face fixed in close-up as it was in the extraordinary combat sequence in Pride of the Marines — is the epitome of the fallen anti-hero. A native New Yorker (he grew up fighting in street gangs), Garfield had a large local following, his funeral service drawing a crowd of more than 6,000, the largest such gathering since the death of Valentino.

According to Robert Nott’s biography, He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield (Limelight 2003), “The mourners came from all boroughs of the city and all walks of life.” Nott mentions businessmen, housewives with toddlers, “bobbysoxers … crying over their fallen idol,” and “working-class stiffs clad in their dirty trousers and weathered jackets, lunch boxes in hand, who came by to bid farewell to one of their own.”

Falling Stars

The body count is getting out of hand. Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Eleanor Parker, John Garfield, not to mention my mother, and now the news that even as we were watching her in Robert Montgomery’s noirish Christmas tale, Lady In the Lake, Audrey Totter had died, and now it’s Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine.

When I got back to my mother’s condo on that long ago December 18th, I found some extraordinarily revealing journals that she’d kept when she was in her mid-thirties, papers, letters, and drafts of stories I’d never seen before, written in her prime as a writer, mother, wife, lover, and working woman. I go back to those papers every year on this date, one more way of bringing her back, On Demand, which is why this day of all days in the year has always been more about life than death.

 

ICED BERRIES: Tasha O’Neill’s photograph will be on display at the D&R Greenway as part of the exhibition, “Artistic License and the Land,” from December 18 through January 15. For more information, call (609) 924-4646, or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

ICED BERRIES: Tasha O’Neill’s photograph will be on display at the D&R Greenway as part of the exhibition, “Artistic License and the Land,” from December 18 through January 15. For more information, call (609) 924-4646, or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

A new exhibition of landscapes by members of the Princeton Photography Club (PPC) opens today, December 18 and runs through January 15, 2014.

“Artistic License and the Land” showcases traditional and experimental images by 50 artists. The exhibition was created by the Club at the request of D&R Greenway President and CEO Linda Mead as a means to convey the importance of land use and land preservation.

All of the artwork is for sale with a percentage supporting the land trust’s preservation and stewardship mission in the Garden State. “We delight in our ongoing partnership with D&R Greenway Land Trust,” commented PPC President, Carl Geisler, who explained that the PPC holds regular meetings and workshops open to the public at the D&R Greenway, where members gather at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month from September through June.

Founded in 1982, PPC has almost 300 members, from beginners through professionals. It provides local photographers with community, as well as workshops, exhibits, group travel, and a series of talks by invited speakers. Its goal is to promote artistic excellence, while helping members enhance their expertise in photographic techniques.

This exhibition “is a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about PPC,” commented exhibition curator Sheila Geisler. “Our exhibition reception coincides with our January 8 general meeting, which is free and open to the public.”

Noted local photographer, Tasha O’Neill, joined in 2004 at the invitation of former Town Topics photographer Ed Greenblat, who will be among the participants. Born and raised in Germany, Ms. O’Neill credits her mother for teaching her to be a thorough and inquisitive observer. Her work displays this aspect of character in landscapes, blooms, cobwebs, insects, reflections, or shadows, captured from all angles and distances.

Ms. O’Neill came to Princeton in 1973 and tried her hand at many things: foreign languages, catering, being a licensed private pilot, running a small restaurant, until deciding on photography. “Nothing has held my attention more than being a photographer,” she said.

The largely self-taught photographer experienced an epiphany of sorts when observing “frost flowers” on the D&R Canal. The experience prompted her to study at the New York Institute of Photography. Nature is her mentor, said Ms. O’Neill, who enjoys summers in Maine, finding inspiration in dew, cobwebs, seaweed, rocks, water, reeds, waterlilies, flowers, marshes, and boats.

When the image of Ice Berries, shown here, was taken, Ms. O’Neill was on her way to Maryland. It was Valentine’s Day and she considered canceling her trip because of freezing rain but, since the roads seemed to be clear, had decided to go ahead.

“The further south we drove from Princeton, the more the trees were coated with ice. Dark stormy clouds and rays of sun transformed the landscape into a magical winter wonderland,” she recalled. At some point along the road, she spotted the tree and its red berries. “I consider myself an ‘opportunistic photographer.’ I know it when I see it. So I asked my husband to stop, got out with my Canon D40, walked around the tree and photographed it from every angle. I used a shallow depth of field to isolate the tree from the background and later cropped the image to focus more on the icy berries.”

Photography out-of-doors has its own special challenges, one of which, said the photographer, “is that you see something you want to capture but it is difficult to get a clear view of it, or else it has a distracting background.”

Ms. O’Neill documented “Princeton Writers Block,”  “Healing through Creativity” and other nature, arts, and preservation efforts. Her work has been featured in newspapers and magazines, exhibited in regional shows in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maine and is in numerous private collections around the world.

She has served as vice-president of Hopewell’s Gallery 14 and is known for abstract flower portraits, reflections in water, notably at Ken Lockwood Gorge and Barbara Smoyer Park, and portraits of Frank Gehry buildings that “distill” the architect’s iconic style.

In 2012, she joined the newly-formed group ART+10, contributing photographic and organizational skills to painter colleagues. In addition, examples of her work can be seen year-round at Another Angle on Nassau Street, at the dental offices of Dr. Lekha Tull on North Harrison Street and in Gelavino’s at the Princeton Shopping Center.

Artistic License and the Land” is in D&R Greenway’s Marie L. Matthews Galleries, One Preservation Place, Princeton, on business hours of business days, through January 15. Call (609) 924-4646 to be sure galleries are not rented on the day of the prospective visit. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

For more about Tasha O’Neill, visit: www.tashaphotography.com. For more about the Princeton Photography Club, visit: www.princetonphographyclub.org.

The public is also welcome to the PPC’s January 8 open meeting, for a light reception followed by a presentation by Mike Peters who will speak on creating film-like digital images. This event begins at 7:30 p.m. No registration is required.

 

As a professor in Princeton University’s music department specializing in Russian and Soviet music and dance, Simon Morrison is an expert on the famed Bolshoi Theatre. The Moscow arts institution has been frequently in the news since the bizarre acid attack last January that left Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet company, nearly blind.

Mr. Morrison, who is writing a history of the 227-year old theatre, has been frequently called upon by The New York Times and other news outlets to comment on the volatile situation, especially since Russian dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was found guilty this month for his role in the attack. A Moscow judge ruled that the dancer and two co-defendants had intentionally caused grievous bodily harm to Mr. Filin, who had a jar of acid thrown in his face by a masked assailant.

Mr. Dmitrichenko, who maintained that he wanted Mr. Filin roughed up but didn’t expect acid to be hurled in his face, was sentenced to six years in prison. Yuri Zarutsky, convicted of carrying out the attack, got 10 years.

“The horrible part of Dmitrichenko’s defense is that he said what happened to Filin wasn’t so bad,” Mr. Morrison said during a recent interview in his office at the University’s Woolworth Center of Musical Studies. “But I was in Moscow in October and I met Filin, and what was done to him is ghastly. He has crimson lines on his face from the battery acid that was used.”

The attack last January left Mr. Filin writhing in pain in the snow outside his apartment building. The incident revealed the bitter behind-the-scenes rivalries that exist at the Bolshoi. Mr. Dmitrichenko was reportedly angry with Mr. Filin for denying him and his girlfriend, a ballerina, important roles in Bolshoi productions. Mr. Filin said that Mr. Dmitrichenko had spread false rumors about him having affairs with ballerinas. Defense witnesses portrayed Mr. Filin as imperious and Mr. Dmitrichenko as a champion of those afraid to speak out against the artistic director.

“The problems are multi-layered,” Mr. Morrison said. “It seems clear that there were favorites. There was no proper collective agreement. No union represented the dancers properly. So if you got sick or got pregnant, you were in trouble. That absence of a proper collective bargaining agreement is the cause of the problem, and it needs to be fixed.”

The Russian government dismissed the Bolshoi Theatre’s longtime director Anatoly Iksanov last July. The new director, Vladimir Urim, is trying to make things more equitable. “He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Mr. Morrison said.

Mr. Morrison has lectured and written articles on numerous topics related to Russian and Soviet music and dance. He is the author of the book Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, which was published by Random House this year. He plans to return to Moscow next month to do more research on his history of the Bolshoi Theatre. He has done extensive studies of the works of composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both of whom were involved in the Bolshoi.

“I’ve loved ballet for many years,” Mr. Morrison said. “I took some classes as an adult, just to know what I’m talking about. I’ve been involved in staging historic projects on campus. And it has become a real addiction, through research.”

Mr. Morrison said he was surprised that Mr. Dmitrichenko was sentenced to six years in prison instead of the 12 that Mr. Filin’s lawyer requested. “Given how volatile he is, he will have a hard time,” he said of Mr. Dmitrichenko. “He’ll go to a ‘strict regime’ prison, and he’ll be made to work a lot.”

The recent scandal will play a minor but important part in Mr. Morrison’s upcoming book. “It’s not the main part of the book, but something I have to mention,” he said. “And it’s relevant, because it’s reflective of the system of the past.”

 

I’VE STRUCK IT RICH!: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) holds the letter in his hand that he’s convinced has informed that he has won a million dollar grand prize in a sweepstakes drawing. In spite of his family’s attempts to eplain to him that he is mistaken, Woody sets out on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his prize.

I’VE STRUCK IT RICH!: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) holds the letter in his hand that he’s convinced has informed that he has won a million dollar grand prize in a sweepstakes drawing. In spite of his family’s attempts to eplain to him that he is mistaken, Woody sets out on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his prize.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a 77-year-old addlepated alcoholic whose brain is so damaged that he’s convinced that he’s struck it rich after getting a mass-mailed letter announcing that the recipient may have won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. As a result, he sets out, alone and on foot, from Billings, Montana to collect his grand prize in Omaha, Nebraska.

Once it’s clear that the cantankerous curmudgeon can’t be talked out of his foolhardy endeavor, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to drive his father there. This doesn’t sit well with Woody’s acid-tongued wife, Kate (June Squibb), who doesn’t want to waste her time indulging the old coot’s nonsense.

However, in spite of the futility of the quest, the pair’s ensuing trip across four states does prove fruitful. Not only does it afford father and son a chance to spend some time together, they also get to reconnect with long-lost friends and relatives whom they visit along the way.

Eventually, Kate and their elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them en route, and the long trip becomes a family affair. However, it’s hard for them to forget that the outing has been initiated by a fraudulent marketing scheme.

Still, sometimes getting there is all the fun, as is the case with Nebraska — a nostalgic road trip that unfolds against the barren backdrop of the heartland’s crumbling infrastructure. The film was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for writing Sideways and The Descendants) whose decision to shoot the picture in black-and-white was a stroke of genius.

The lack of color emphasizes the absence of hope in a rural region that has been devastated by the failure of its factories, farms, and subsequent deterioration of life in small towns. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the poor souls the Grants encounter along the way seize upon Woody’s pipe dream as a way of alleviating their own misery.

Bruce Dern’s performance is destined to be remembered during awards season. Nebraska is a lighthearted character study which, ironically, offers a cold sober look at the downsizing of America’s midwest.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

December 11, 2013

book rev“You should be serious about serious things and playful when you play. There’s an hour for your Lord and an hour for your heart.”

—said by Zanuba, the lute player

This is the 102nd birthday of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel-prize-winning author of The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library/Knopf $30). The book’s dominant character, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, is the stern, humorless, autocratic master of a household where his wife, two daughters, and three sons live in fear of his iron hand, the women confined to quarters while unbeknownst to his family Ahmad lives life to the limit, a luminary of the Cairo night who drinks and carouses and womanizes, loved by his friends for his stories, his wit, and his effervescent personality.

A Half-Open Window

Of Ahmad’s cloistered daughters, Aisha is “as beautiful as the moon” with “golden tresses and blue eyes” while Khadija is relatively plain, though she has a wicked tongue and a sense of humor about her big nose (a feature she shares with her father). The often combative interplay between the sisters is charming and true, and within a few pages, you feel you know them. One of the side-effects of this monastic home life is the romantic subterfuge practiced at the same hour every day by Aisha, who “peers out through the holes in the grille” of the balcony overlooking the street. As soon as the young police officer she’s looking for appears below, she heads for the window in the sitting room, turns the knob and opens “the two panels a crack,” her heart pounding as she waits for the officer with his “gold star and red stripe” to cautiously raise his eyes, his face shining “with the light of a hidden smile that was reflected on the girl’s face as a shy radiance.” For the man to have raised his head rather than his eyes was “not considered proper in such circumstances.”

After closing and nervously fastening the window, Aisha sinks into a chair, “roaming through the space of her infinite sensations, experiencing neither sheer happiness nor total fear.” It’s as if that brief moment by the window had encompassed an extravagantly sinful adventure. She stands where she does so that her clandestine Romeo has to strain his eyes to discern her because she loves to see him look up at the partially
closed window with “concern and longing.” She would then revel in the “light of joy” on his face as he begins to make out “her figure” through “the crack.” For her this exchange of looks is “a vision to enchant the mind and ravish the imagination.”

But when a marriage is suggested by the officer’s family, the offer is summarily rejected by Aisha’s by-the-book father, his excuse being that according to tradition, the elder sister, Khadiya, must be the first to marry.

A Half-Open Door

One of the great moments in Palace Walk, the Trilogy’s first volume, occurs when Ahmad’s grown son Yasin stumbles into the truth about his father’s nocturnal escapades after hearing of a man with his father’s name who plays the tambourine “better than a professional,” and “tells one gem of a joke after another until everyone with him is dying of laughter.” Yasin is thinking, “Who could this man be? His father? That stern, tyrannical, terrifying, God-fearing, reserved man who kills everyone around him with fright?”

As it so happens, his father is in the same house at that very moment carousing in a nearby room. Yasin begs the woman he’s been trying to seduce to leave the door partly open for a moment so he can see for himself. The image of the half-open door recalls the half-open window through which the young officer gazes in hopes of glimpsing Yasin’s beautiful sister.  During the moment the door is ajar, the son sees his father sitting next to the ample, voluptuous singer who is his mistress, his “wife,” in the night world: Ahmad has “removed his cloak and rolled up his sleeves,” he’s “shaking the tambourine” and gazing at the woman “with a face brimming with joy and happiness.” Yasin “had never seen him without his cloak … never seen him with his black hair sticking up … never seen his naked leg as it appeared at the edge of the divan …. Perhaps most of all he had never seen his face smile. It was glistening with such affection and goodwill that Yasin was stunned.”

“Stunned” doesn’t say it. “He awoke like a person emerging from a long, deep sleep to the convulsion of a violent earthquake.”

Pulling Out All the Stops

For the reader, this revelation is all the more powerful because we’ve already been permitted a full view of the father in action, having witnessed the headlong one-night courtship that led to the drunken mock marriage ceremony with Zubayda, the fleshy singer. We know the side of Ahmad that has been hidden from the family, and we’ve been wondering when and how the author is going to arrange this moment of astonished recognition. Although Mahfouz describes the two sides of Ahmad early on, he’s 14 chapters into the story before he shows the charismatic libertine in action, and when this happens, the author and the character nearly become one, so wild and free and mad with energy is the prose. In finally giving full range to Ahmad, Mafouz ratchets up the language and pulls out all the stops in a daring commingling of eroticism and religion, the tropes of faith and sex, so that when the singer opens the door to Ahmad upon his surprise arrival, she shouts, “In the name of God the compassionate, the Merciful! … You!” To which Ahmad says, “In the name of God. God’s will be done!” as he ogles her “prodigious body, its pronounced curves sensuously draped in a blue dress,” which inspires this deliriously Disneyesque image: “His eyes ran over her body as quickly and greedily as a mouse on a sack of rice looking for a place to get in.”

Later in the “festive hall” in Zubayda’s house, where the candelabras look “as lovely and intense as a beauty mark on a cheek,” Ahmad and his author are running on full throttle. A paragraph begins by claiming “He was not simply an animal” but was “endowed with a delicacy of feeling, a sensitivity of emotion, and ingrained love for song and music” and ends with Ahmad pursuing “all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull.” Later Zubayda asks, “Do you love being naughty this much?” to which Ahmad sighs and says, “May our Lord perpetuate our naughtiness.” When the music starts, “Echoes of many different melodies from a long era filled with nights of musical ecstasy burst into flame within him, as though small drops of gasoline had fallen on a hidden ember.” Ahmad grabs a tambourine and joins in, and as the woman sings “‘I’m an accomplice against myself/When my lover steals my heart,’” it’s again as if Mahfouz is as rapt as his character: “The inflection of her voice made the strings of his heart vibrate. His energy flared up and he beat the tambourine in a way no professional could match,” at which Mahfouz makes you hear the beating of the tambourine: “His intoxication became a burning, titillating, inspiring, raging drunkenness.” At this point Ahmad and the woman are so “agitated by desire they seemed trees dancing in the frenzy of a hurricane.” When the melodies vanish, it’s “like an airplane carrying a lover over the horizon.”

This is the sort of scene that sweeps everything aside, that has you thinking of Dmirti Karamazov dancing with the gypsies, of Natasha’s first ball in War and Peace, of Balzac in full orgiastic flight. Vanishing melodies in the form of an airplane? In Egypt in 1917? So be it! A great writer is soaring, drunk on his story, head over heels in love with his creation and its central character. It’s amusing to imagine the expression on the face of the translator attempting to do justice to this scene, not to mention the reaction of the elegant editor who made the English language edition possible.

A Very Special Editor 

After learning that Naguib Mahfouz had won the 1988 Novel Prize for Literature, a Doubleday editor with a face known round the world read The Cairo Trilogy in a French translation, talked the publisher into acquiring it, and then saw the book through to publication in 1990-1992. According to the primary translator William Hutchins, the three volumes were “edited in New York at Doubleday by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself, using a pencil on paper.” Hutchins considered her “an excellent, respectful editor and very thorough.”

Given the not so secret life of JFK, it would have been interesting to see Jackie O’s reaction to the account of Ahmad’s wild night, and to lines like this one: “Whenever desire called, he answered deliriously and enthusiastically.”

Tahrir Square

It’s worth noting here that the popular movement ousting President Hosni Mubarak began on the January of Mahfouz’s centenary and that one of those who helped ignite it was his 26-year-old namesake (if not blood kin) Aasma Mahfouz. When her four-and-a-half-minute Facebook video went viral, the four-person protest she was part of on January 18 became a prelude to the history-making mass demonstration of January 25. Among the events marking the Mahfouz centenary was the March 11 Emirates Festival of Literature and the announcement from Oxford University Press of plans for a 20-volume Centennial Library of his works.

Firsts

As Sabry Hafez points out in his introduction, Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Cairo Trilogy was the first modern Arabic literary work to appear in Everyman’s Library. The “grand narrative project took over six years (1946-1952) to accomplish, its completion coinciding “with the collapse of the old regime. Inspired by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks,” it was also “the first family saga in modern Arabic literature.”

 

THE ART OF MEDITATION: “Being Still,” an exhibit of paintings imbued with Buddhist thought by local artist, S.L. Baker will be on view in the East Lobby Gallery at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike (Bus. Route One), Lawrenceville, through December 31. Ms. Baker works mostly in acrylic on canvas and uses her fingers instead of brushes. Her work is often influenced by meditation practice. Born in Princeton, Ms. Baker is a retired New Jersey public school teacher and also a published poet and lyricist. For more information and hours, call (609) 989-6920, or visit www.mcl.org.

THE ART OF MEDITATION: “Being Still,” an exhibit of paintings imbued with Buddhist thought by local artist, S.L. Baker will be on view in the East Lobby Gallery at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike (Bus. Route One), Lawrenceville, through December 31. Ms. Baker works mostly in acrylic on canvas and uses her fingers instead of brushes. Her work is often influenced by meditation practice. Born in Princeton, Ms. Baker is a retired New Jersey public school teacher and also a published poet and lyricist. For more information and hours, call (609) 989-6920, or visit www.mcl.org.

“Steel Ice & Stone: An Experiential Sensory Exhibition,” a multi-media interactive installation by Anita Giraldo, opens at the Artworks ArtLab in Trenton this Saturday, December 14, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. and runs through January 4, 2014.

The installation comprises nine suspended LED panels with sensor-triggered sound that is intended to create an environment for memory recall. According to Ms. Giraldo, “the work aims to open a discourse on how technology and abstract media can awaken nuanced memories in our lives.”

Sounds vary according to the presence of viewers in the exhibition space. Images plus sound plus viewer create an interactive environment with different sounds playing simultaneously in an impromptu composition that depends on the number and location of viewers in the room. The artist uses diesel engines in idle mode and bird calls for the mini-computer embedded sound units that are programmed to respond to visitors. When viewers are absent, there is no sound.

“I began work on “Steel Ice & Stone” as a ‘chapter’ of a larger work. But as I photographed the objects, the piece took on a life of its own and my commitment changed to the creation of an independent installation,” explains the artist on her website. Her previous installation, “See My Voice,” contained spoken word sound bites that accompany photographs of people’s faces. In “Steel Ice & Stone,” both images and sound are abstract.

This is the latest multi-media work created by the New York-based artist and it melds the latest technology in transmitted imagery and micro-controller sound playback.

Although LED technology is not new, thin, light-weight HD panels are, and Ms. Giraldo’s backlit photographic film prints are in vibrant, high-resolution color.

“Memory recall is at the heart of the piece,” said the artist. “I was thinking about fleeting events in my life and how I could make sense of what held them together. I had to share this experience: How could I get others to feel the same way I did?”

“To recreate the experience, I made photographic images of what I was sensing. I taped the sounds similar to what I heard inside and outside my head. I came up with an arrangement that would be confrontational yet allow passage through it. And, there had to be interplay only with those present in that environment. By adapting visual and sound technology, I layered sensory experiences to create a surreal environment and bring dormant subtleties to the forefront. A discourse opens on how technology awakens nuances in our lives.”

Ms. Giraldo grew up in New York City and has been a photographer since her teens. She earned a BFA from Cooper Union in 1982 and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in Photography and Related Media in 2004. She taught a seminar at the International Center for Photography and won a fellowship from The Puffin Foundation to continue her multimedia installation work in 2005. Her work has been shown in Germany, and Holland and she designed James Rosenquist’s catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“Steel Ice & Stone: An Experiential Sensory Exhibition” at Artworks is located at 19 Everett Alley, Trenton, N.J. 08611. For more information, call (609) 394-9436, or visit: artworkstrenton.org

 

There are numerous musical ensembles on the Princeton University campus which occasionally combine for joint concerts. An unusual musical collaboration took place this past week as the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble combined their efforts in Richardson Auditorium for a program celebrating the concept of freedom. Dedicated to the memory and legacy of Nelson Mandela, Friday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Thursday night) intermingled the musicians of both ensembles for a concert that was “about as American as a concert can get.”

Current events have influenced musical composition for centuries, and Princeton University Jazz Studies director Anthony D.J. Branker found inspiration and message in the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Dr. Branker composed Ballad for Trayvon Martin, that was premiered at these performances, as a “song of healing that speaks to the urgent need for all of us to continue to work together.” Featuring guest tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen, Ballad for Trayvon Martin honored victims of several civil rights incidents of the 20th century, and musically brought together members of the Jazz Ensemble with the string sections of the University Orchestra.

Branker brought a sprightly energy to the conducting of his work, creating a flowing lilt in the Bach-like canonic entries from the strings. He placed saxophonist Bowen within the orchestra and alongside a trio of piano, double bass, and drums, allowing Bowen’s smooth and rich sound to emerge from the instrumental texture as Branker finessed the colors within the strings. Throughout the one movement piece, Bowen changed tempo with the pace of the work, but never lost the sleekness of the line.

University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt added brass and winds for a second world premiere, demonstrating that American jazz is a continually evolving form. David Sanford’s Teatro de Strada was a more abstract piece than the Branker work and was commissioned by the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble to also feature tenor saxophone soloist Ralph Bowen. The one movement work was marked by the improvisatory sounds of street music and the urban musical environment, with conventional harmonies juxtaposed against the free playing of Mr. Bowen. The University Orchestra was joined in the piece by the complete Concert Jazz Ensemble, including trumpets, trombones, and a trio of double bass, piano, and drums. Pizzicato strings showed the work’s classical side, while a bit of “wail” in the saxophone solo and solo brass parts emphasized the variety of colors within the complex piece.

The Princeton University Orchestra continued the “freedom” theme with a piece composed for a theatrical production that was a play concerned with oppression. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont incorporated “the heroic triumph of good over evil” into crisp music performed with elegant wind solos by the University Orchestra players, especially oboist Katrina Maxcy, clarinetist George Liu, and flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Led by the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor J.J. Warshaw, the familiar thematic passages were played very cleanly, and Warshaw clearly had the piece well in hand.

These three one-movement works were preludes to the final symphony on the program, which fit into the overall theme. Antonin Dvorak composed Symphony No. 9 in E minor just as jazz was emerging from the American musical scene and as his own expression of American musical idioms and traditions. A rich and clear lower string sound opened the first movement and with crisp rhythms and subtle dynamic builds the orchestra was off and running. Conductor Michael Pratt allowed the sound to flourish on its own, with tunes that recall the open spaces of early 20th-century America. Clean horns and elegant winds, including from clarinetist Paul Chang, flutist Lila Xie, and oboists Alexa McCall and Ms. Maxcy, kept the lively themes at the forefront.

The second movement Largo featured an eloquent English horn solo played by Tiffany Huang which became more expressive as the movement progressed. Mr. Pratt and the players brought out the “Goin’ Home” theme gracefully from a number of instrumental solos and combinations, from pairs of clarinets and oboes against pizzicato double basses to a solo string quartet. A sensitive horn solo by Gabe Peterson and intense playing by the orchestra brought the broad symphony and challenging program to a close.

 

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela (Idris Elba) secretly started writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom while still serving what he had every reason to believe would be a life

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

sentence on Robben Island. The lawyer-turned-spokesman for the outlawed African National Congress had been convicted of treason for trying to dismantle South Africa’s racist regime.

However, he was freed, after 27 years, when a bloody civil war was on the brink of bringing an end to apartheid. At that point, Mandela assured the apprehensive white minority that despite the fact that, “Fear has made you an unjust and brutal people, when we come to power, there will be no revenge.”

Soon thereafter, he was democratically elected to be the nation’s first black president, and assumed the reins of power in 1994. And that transition to majority rule proved to be smooth — helped by pardons for crimes against humanity that were granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to guilty parties from both sides of the conflict.

Directed by Justin Chadwick, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a biopic chronicling the rise, incarceration, and ultimate redemption of the recently-deceased Nelson Mandela. Versatile British actor Idris Elba exhibits the requisite combination of outrage, dignity, empathy, and steely resolve needed to portray the late leader convincingly.

However, since Mandela is behind bars for most of the movie, much of the action revolves around his wife Winnie’s (Naomie Harris) efforts to raise their children while spearheading the anti-apartheid movement in her husband’s absence. Sadly, the decades-long separation eventually took a toll on their marriage.

This film easily surpasses a biopic covering the same subject called Winnie Mandela, that was released just a couple of months ago. That disappointing movie, co-starring Terence Howard and Jennifer Hudson as Nelson and Winnie, was marred by the protagonists’ atrocious accents as well as a disappointing script.

In contrast, this adaptation of Madiba’s autobiography does justice to his legacy as a freedom fighter and his role as a unifying figure for all of South Africa.

Excellent (****). PG-13 for sexuality, intense violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity. In English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa with subtitles. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 4, 2013

book revno one, not even the rain, has such small hands —e.e. cummings

This column began during one of those steady unthreatening rainfalls when you can imagine you hear the night thinking and you want to read something to complement the sound, something that does justice to the atmosphere. A year ago the same sound evoked dread and thoughts of flooded basements and power outages.

Looking ahead to the December 4 issue of Town Topics several days before I saw the news in Friday’s New York Times (“Salinger Stories Leaked Online”), I found a poet with rain in his name, Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born on 4 December 1875 in Prague, and died 29 December 1926 in Switzerland. I also found that the person who convinced him to change his first name from “René” to “Rainer” was his former lover and lifelong soulmate, the Russian-born author of The Erotic, psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937). In a letter from 1897, the year their affair began, Rilke calls her his “summer rain.” A year before his death, he refers to a “sheltering” letter from her that brought him “so much that ties in with earlier things.”

“Sheltering” seems the right word for a rainy night and the companionable presence of a poet who wants to “have someone to sit by and be with” and “softly sing” to in “To Say Before Going to Sleep,” which opens with “someone” and ends when “something in the dark begins to move.” In spite of the hint of menace, the line fits the rainy night mood where nothing has a name because everything is the rain.

The only poem of Rilke’s I could find with rain in the title is “Before Summer Rain” and though it was written years after Rilke called Salomé his “summer rain,” it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that he and she shared a special understanding of the title beyond the content of the poem. They were, after all, continually in touch up to the day he died. She was his devoted confidant, and his “stupendous letters” to her are, according to William H. Gass’s introduction to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Vintage International 1985), “the actual origin and early text” of that work. In fact, drafts of novel and drafts of letters were interrelated and “clearly come from notes, from prose trials and errors, so that when Rilke revises sections of them for inclusion in the novel, they are already in their third kind of existence.”

It’s only natural to wonder what this woman of the “summer rain” looked like. You have to think that any female attached to a name like Salomé has to be bewitching. The photographs online do not disappoint. This is a woman with beautifully intense, intelligent eyes, a sensual mouth, and a hint of sly humor in her expression even when she’s not smiling.

Enter Salinger

Appropriately enough, it was a leak that brought J.D. Salinger and his Esmé into this rainy night rumination on Rilke and his Salomé, with her exotic name and history, and her intimate connections to Nietzsche and Freud. I knew that Rilke was on Salinger’s list of the writers he most admired, and after a little searching I found the passage early in Franny and Zooey where Franny’s obnoxious boyfriend Lane is collared by another English major who wanted to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about.” The assignment creating the dilemma is the fourth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Lane’s reply was that “he thought he’d understood most of it.” Given the importance of letters in the work of both Salinger and Rilke (most famously his Letters to a Young Poet), it’s no coincidence that Lane had been reading a letter from Franny (quoted in full) when “this bastard Rilke” intruded seconds before Franny’s train pulls up to the platform of a station generally assumed to be modeled on Princeton’s embattled Dinky terminus.

The Necessity of Rain

A letter is also crucial to the denouement of Salinger’s “For EsméWith Love and Squalor,” a story in which the rain is absolutely essential. After looking at how rain is used in works by several different writers, including Chekhov (“Bad Weather”), Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Stephen Crane (George’s Mother, Maggie), I remembered that Esmé began with the narrator, Sgt. X, ducking out of “the slanting, dreary rain” of “a very rainy” Saturday in Devon into a church while children’s choir practice was underway. In the examples from Chekhov, Crane, and Hemingway rain is either metaphorical or impressionistic. In Esmé, it puts a glow on Salinger’s portrait of the title character when she and the narrator meet in the tearoom, where he notices “Her hair was soaking wet, and the rims of both ears were showing.” When she comes over to his table in her tartan dress, he finds it to be “a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day.” In the course of their conversation, there are references to her touching “the top of her soaking wet head with the flat of her hand” and again when she “raised her hand to her wet head again, picked at a few limp filaments of blond hair, trying to cover her exposed ear rims,” which is when the state of her hair actually enters the conversation (“I look a fright …. I have quite wavy hair when it’s dry”). Salinger sustains the self-conscious gesture of touching the wet hair right through to the end of the first part of the story. The last he sees of Esmé she’s “slowly, reflectively testing the ends of her hair for dryness.” The radiant image of the lovely child, daubed with rain, hovers in the background of the dark second half of the story where the war-damaged narrator finds healing solace in the letter from Esmé and the gift of her dead father’s watch.

The Rilke Connection

If you look online, you’ll find at least one site devoted to the Rilke-Salinger connection, plus links to papers such as “The Pattern of Withdrawal and Return in J.D. Salinger and R.M. Rilke,” ”A Source for Seymour’s Suicide: Rilke’s Voices and Salinger’s Nine Stories,” or “East Meets West: Zen and Rilke in Salinger’s Catcher,” in which the carousel scene from Catcher in the Rye is compared to Rilke’s poem “The Merry Go Round” (Das Karussell). Critics assume that the German poet Seymour wants his wife to read in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is Rilke, though he’s not mentioned by name.

From the Cutting Room Floor

Until the distraction of the Salinger leak, I had been exploring the rain theme to the point of referencing other media where rainy weather is a defining force. Of the innumerable films where this is true, one of the first that came to mind along with no-brainers like Singing in the Rain was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Try to imagine that film without the relentless rain that pursues poor Janet Leigh like the wrath of the fat god orchestrating her doom, which comes in the semblance of a downpour created by the shower in the Bates Motel.

Finally, I recommend an online search of quotes about rain, where you will discover pages of nuggets on the subject from, among others, Venus Williams who finds it “very calming,” Pablo Neruda, whose poetry “took its voice” from it, and W.H. Auden, who once said “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,” perhaps inspiring one of the most bizarre lyrics ever written, Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.”