March 26, 2014

It has been a season of musical birthdays in Princeton, and the Dryden Ensemble added to the mix with two concerts celebrating Bach’s 329th birthday this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s venue in the Dryden Ensemble’s Trinity Church, Solebury home (the concert was also performed the night before in Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel) proved to be both an intimate chamber performance space and equally as musically appropriate a site for the ensemble as its Princeton base. 

The four members of the Dryden Ensemble — violinist Vita Wallace, viola da gamba player Lisa Terry, oboist Jane McKinley, and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins — clearly found Trinity Church a space in which it was easy to communicate, and all four of their instruments spoke well in the sanctuary. Sunday afternoon’s concert, dedicated to the memory of long-time Dryden supporter Mardi Considine, principally featured music of J.S. Bach, as well as that of his son and a predecessor.

The Dryden Ensemble explored two works of Bach originally composed for organ and transcribed for chamber string and wind ensemble. The players of the Dryden themselves transcribed BWV 525, originally an organ sonata in E-flat, to feature oboe d’amore and violin, accompanied by viola da gamba and harpsichord and retitled Trio in D Major. The Baroque oboe d’amore is not as rich and mellifluous as its modern counterpart, but Ms. McKinley was able to achieve both a smooth melody in the second movement and clean rapid lines in the closing passages. Ms. Wallace provided a crisp second voice in this instrumental dialog, and all four players maintained Bach’s intricacy within complex Baroque counterpoint.

Bach was preceded in history by Dietrich Buxtehude, primarily known for his keyboard works, but also a big fan of the viola da gamba. Gamba player Lisa Terry capitalized on the great musical variety found in Buxtehude’s instrumental sonatas, in this case Sonata in G minor for violin and viola da gamba. Crisply accompanied by Mr. Wiggins, Ms. Terry and violinist Ms. Wallace sustained both the rhythmic drive of the fast movements and the sensitive lines of the slower sections. In the penultimate Grave, Ms. Terry especially showed that she had complete control over the entire range of her instrument.

Mr. Wiggins introduced a new member of his keyboard family to the Dryden’s audiences this past weekend in a harpsichord built by William Dowd on the model of early 18th-century German builder Michael Mietke. Mr. Wiggins’ new harpsichord was a large instrument with a particularly rich lower register and capable of producing a substantial sound for what one thinks of from a Baroque instrument. Interpolated into Sunday’s program was a keyboard suite of Buxtehude, featuring Mr. Wiggins showing off the William Down harpsichord. As two voices chased each other on the keyboard in one of the quicker movements, the upper register of the harpsichord showed a well-rounded sound. Mr. Wiggins ably handled the challenge of the very fast lines, and was more than successful in finding sensitivity and lyricism in an instrument primarily heard accompanying or in continuo style.

In the closing work of the program, Bach’s Sonata in D Major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, Mr. Wiggins’ quick right hand matched the elegance of the melodic lines drawn out by Ms. Terry. Throughout this work, repeating sequences were exactly timed, and as the two instruments traded roles in a question-and-answer dialog, Mr. Wiggins and Ms. Terry seemed to enjoy the musical repartee.

 

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

Fast food waitress Lytia (Cocoa Brown) lives from paycheck to paycheck and has to rely on public transportation in order to get around. By contrast, Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is an ambitious executive at a prominent publishing company who can afford many amenities and drives a luxury car. 

May (Nia Long) is unemployed but dreams of a career in journalism. Hillary (Amy Smart) is a recent divorcée who’s a bit overwhelmed because she is raising her kids alone in suburbia. And, Esperanza (Zulay Henao) cowers and hides from her abusive ex-husband (Eddie Cibrian) who continues to threaten her long after their separation.

At first blush, it sounds like these five women would have little in common, let alone a reason to cross paths. But they do when they’re all summoned to the principal’s office at West Merryville Prep where they each have a child who has just been put on probation after they were caught smoking and spray painting graffiti.

At the meeting, Principal Walters (Carrie L. Walrond) leaves the parents no choice but to co-chair the school’s annual fundraising dance. They grudgingly agree to organize the affair, but can these black, white, and Latino women get past their considerable class and cultural differences? That is the question raised at the outset of The Single Moms Club, a humorous story of female empowerment.

Written, produced, directed, and co-starring Tyler Perry, the picture first pits the protagonists against one another and then has them gradually see their similarities as overburdened sole providers. At that point, they create an informal association which functions as a babysitting support group and provides them with a weekly girls’ night out where they decompress by singing karaoke and trading relationship advice about their experiences with men.

Perry tones down the sermonizing in this movie in favor of more humor. Of course, before the closing credits roll, he makes sure his heroines bond into a tightly knit band whose lovers and children are all behaving.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

March 19, 2014

book revTen years ago, in the March 31, 2004 issue of Town Topics, I wrote my first column about the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale (BM-W), “Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr.” By “homeless poets” I meant the ones whose books were left behind when the dust of the sale had cleared. Being the rare poet whose books sell well, Billy Collins was, and presumably still is, the obvious exception, as are collectible poets like Wallace Stevens. Yet here’s the storied, much anthologized Edgar Allan Poe, a perennial player in the American narrative whose market value is the gold standard of literature, and somehow the “homeless” idea applies. 

What is it about Poe? What makes him seem to this day somehow disreputable, unstable, not quite to be trusted or taken at his word, the uninvited guest rapping at the door we’re not sure we want to open? Even now, he’s one of the most useful reference points to be cited or consulted whenever weird or unearthly or inexplicable events occur, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. If the author of Tales of Mystery and Imagination were around he’d be taking notes and perhaps already working out an updated sequel to that bizarre epic of death ships and disappearances, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which ends with the narrator and his swarthy companion in a canoe with a dead native rushing “into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.” And what do they see at the final moment but “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Lusting for Gold

When the doors open at 10 a.m. on this year’s Preview Day, Friday, March 21, the collectors in the crowd will be pursuing a dream volume or volumes while the dealers continue their high-stakes business mission, some having come from great distances looking for stock that could make a serious financial difference for them in the year ahead. At the same time, any book-wise, market-savvy dealer or collector who has paid $20 for the preview equivalent of a lottery ticket is hoping that this sale may finally prove to be the grand prize winner, the route to buried treasure, the “gold in them thar hills.” And of all authors, who do enlightened book folk think of in association with treasure and riches? Who is the “shrouded human figure” they see “at the final moment?” Who else but the author of “The Gold Bug”?

Consider the against-all-odds likelihood of a Poe first edition somehow slipping between the cracks in the form of a shabby ne’er do well, the tattered equivalent of the troubled, storm-wracked author himself, dying down and out on the streets of Baltimore. Let’s say you stumble on a copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, the two volume collection of Poe’s stories published by Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1840. Because of its condition, covers worn, spine faded, title all but illegible, a stain covering the author’s name on the title page, let’s imagine that the beggarly twosome turns up on the Old and Unusual table marked for $10. If you have even a clue as to the value of the decrepit item, your telltale heart will begin pounding, your hands will get moist, and your manner will become shifty and suspect even though you’ve done no wrong; the prize is in your hands, you fully intend to buy it, so pay no mind to the nagging of your conscience. If your life seems a constant scuffle after money, as Poe’s was, you’ll be morally within your rights. Better you than some billionaire bibliophile, you’re thinking.

But when the time comes to pay, it’s a challenge to appear casual. Twinges of dread and guilt undermine you. You may even sense the presence of a spectral Poe leering over your shoulder at the friendly female volunteer tabulating the cost of your various purchases (for even should you find nothing else worth buying, you need other ordinary books for cover, to dim the glow of the nugget, as it were.

What a moment when the volunteer opens the first volume of the treasure, sees the price, hesitates, ponders, furrows her brow — oh no! does she —, is she —, will she call on some higher authority for a price check? Poe’s definitely by your side now, whispering fancies of deception in your ear, urging you to prevaricate; if you have a veteran book dealer’s chutzpah, you’ll ask the lady if maybe she could take a dollar off, I mean look at the condition!

You die and come back to life as the volunteer closes the second volume and writes $10 on your tab, which for, say 12 books, comes to a total of $54, not a bad day’s shopping, seeing as how your ten-dollar purchase is being offered, in lesser condition, for $40,000 online.

“Got some nice bargains today, I bet,” says the smiling volunteer. To which you have all you can do to stifle an outburst of maniacal laughter. Poe is tickling your ribs and cackling. And so with a brave new world of possibility swelling in your breast, you take your time (easy, slow down, don’t run, you haven’t done anything wrong, you’re no thief) walking out the door into a mad, mad, mad new world.

What gives the imaginary situation a peculiar and uneasy moral resonance is knowing that Poe was paid nothing, not a cent, no royalties, for the book you will sell at auction for at least 20 grand after taxes. All the author got was 20 free copies. His hopes had been high. Writing to Washington Irving, the monied master of Sunnyvale, he humbly begged an endorsement he never received (“If I could be permitted to add even a word or two from yourself … my fortune would be made”).

It’s beyond irony. Poe’s fortune is made all right, but not for him, he whose first book Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page pamphlet authored “by a Bostonian” in 1827, sold at Christies in 2009 for $662,500.

How does it happen that in 2014 the name Poe means spectacular numbers on the antiquarian market? Why this perversion of the typical American rags to riches story leading to no riches, nevermore, only the phantom semblance of literary glory and immortality? While small print runs of the original volumes can be factored into the equation (it’s said that only 12 copies of Tamerlane have survived), the reason Poe’s books command immense sums is the immensity of his legend, his tragedy, his fate, the depth of his misery, the curse and blessing of his greatness. The irony is embedded in his very identity — a poet without a “t” whose name in certain dialects can be mistaken for another mockingly pertinent word. In David Simon’s portrait of Baltimore, The Wire, “Poe” is heard as “poor,” one of the real-life public housing projects bears his name, and in Season Two a white tourist asking directions to the Poe House is told “Look around you — all the houses ‘round here are po’ houses.”

There you have him — homeless, down and out, poor, misunderstood, and worth his weight in gold.

A Preview’s Preview

Since this is a preview of the upcoming March 21-25 BM-W sale rather than a report after the fact, it was necessary for me to visit the PDS gym as the stock was being unboxed and assembled, a process that had only just begun when I stopped by last weekend. Fortunately, the tables devoted to the last half of Peter Oppenheimer’s extraordinary donation were already being filled. And what do you suppose was the smallest, shabbiest, most despondent, most truly forlorn-looking volume I found among the otherwise solid, weighty, well-taken-care-of, seriously scholarly ranks? Yes, here he is again in all his grubby glory, our creepy Kilroy, a rubber band holding him together since the front cover bearing his signature in gold is about to become fully detached. On the spine, the gold lettering stands out, clear, unfaded, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Down the spine also in gold is a William Morris-style arts and crafts embellishment. Across the bottom of the spine are the words “Plymouth Publishing Company.” In all the years I’ve been going to book sales and secondhand bookshops, I’ve never seen the name of that publisher, which is located, says the title page, at 7 West 42. If you know and love New York, you will try to picture what such an address would look like around the turn of the previous century, in the days before Times Square, when midtown was uptown.

At the top of the title page are three words that say it all for Poe, as good as singing his dark song: The Midnight Edition. Curious to see if any of the Plymouth Poes are available online, I could find only two, the first one from Old Church Books in Webster, N.Y., which is asking $30 for a copy “bound in burgandy [sic] leather with guilt [sic] paper edges.” That’s what it says, guilt paper in a volume of Poe. The text is “clean and mark free,” but “the top third of spine has been chewed on and is partly missing.” (Who or what did the chewing is best left to the imagination.) The only other copy in abebooks.com comes from Banks Books & Etc in Palmetto, Georgia. This one is a black hard cover, same size, gold on the top edge but “fly-specked on the other two.” Ah, but there’s a vertical crease in the backstrip; sounds very like the crack running through the House of Usher. This one is $70. Byrn Mawr is asking $6.

More Oppenheimer

The first box I saw being opened in Collector’s Corner contained some familiar volumes from the magnificent Princeton University Press/Bollingen edition of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, something Peter Oppenheimer and I had talked about more than once in the bank vault housing Witherspoon Books, where Peter used to work. Speaking of the author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the prizes of the Oppenheimer donation is a 20-volume set of Purchase His Pilgrimes, which was among the chief works inspiring both the “Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Other volumes from Peter’s massive library include a three-volume set of Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica; John von Neumann’s Theory of Self Reproducing Automata; and a two-volume set of William of Tyre’s A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.

Based on the concluding image of Arthur Gordon Pym, the illustration shown, from 1864 is by Yan’ Dargent.

 

TARASCON STAGECOACH: “La Diligence de Tarascon” by Vincent van Gogh is just one of the masterworks on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation that museum visitors will have to wait for some time to see again. The 1888 oil on canvas, along with the rest of the collection, began a five-venue international tour when it opened at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford last week. It won’t be back in Princeton until September 2015.(Courtesy of the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection).

TARASCON STAGECOACH: “La Diligence de Tarascon” by Vincent van Gogh is just one of the masterworks on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation that museum visitors will have to wait for some time to see again. The 1888 oil on canvas, along with the rest of the collection, began a five-venue international tour when it opened at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford last week. It won’t be back in Princeton until September 2015. (Courtesy of the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection).

A collection of major modern artworks in the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) has been carefully packed up and sent to Europe where it will be seen by art lovers in England and France before returning to the United States later this year. Then, the collection, including paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Modigliani and Van Gogh, will go on show in Atlanta and Vancouver before coming home to Princeton in September of 2015. 

According to a museum press release, this is the first time in 40 years that the works will go on tour. Titled “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” the international touring exhibition is now on view at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Amassed by the American entrepreneur Henry Pearlman (1895–1974), it includes 16 Cézanne watercolors that have been described as “the greatest collection outside of France,” as well as some 50 modern masterworks from the late 19th through early 20th centuries.

“We at Princeton are delighted to share the Pearlman collection with a wider international audience on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Henry Pearlman’s death,” said Museum Director James Steward. “This spectacular collection is a testament to Henry Pearlman’s dedication to the transformative power of the creative avant-garde, to his passionate engagement with artists, and to his self-taught discernment.”

Formally known as the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection, the paintings have been on long term loan at the Princeton University Art Museum since 1976. Paintings from the collection, which is regarded as a critical research and teaching tool, are regularly on display. Half of the artworks are by Cézanne, and the collection offers insights into the development of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as well as the history of collecting avant-garde art in the United States.

Among the highlights are Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (ca. 1902), Vincent van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach (1888) and Amedeo Modigliani’s portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916–17). Other artists represented in the exhibition are Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lembruck, Jacques Lipchitz, Édouard Manet, Camille Pisarro, Alfred Sisley, Chaïm Soutine and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Co-curated by Betsy Rosasco, PUAM’s research curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Laura Giles, PUAM’s Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings, the exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions by more than a dozen members of the Princeton University community as well as a personal narrative, “Reminiscences of a Collector,” by Mr. Pearlman.

A lifelong New Yorker, Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Company in 1919. He began seriously collecting avant-garde art in the 1940s with purchases of work by Soutine and Modigliani and by some of the artists who influenced them, including Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne. He built close relationships with a number of art dealers in the U.S. and abroad, and befriended artists directly. Over three decades, he assembled one of the finest collections of European art remaining in private hands.

Residents of Princeton will have to wait for some time before seeing the collection on its return from its travels. After the Ashmolean in Oxford, it goes to the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence (July 11 through October 5); to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (October 25 through January 11, 2015); and then to Canada’s Vancouver Art Gallery (February 7 through May 18, 2015). It will be on display at PUAM, from September 12, 2015 through January 3, 2016.

 

THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE: This poster for a new short film by Princeton resident Charles Evered shows actors Marty James and Joshua Fardon. The film will have a free screening on Saturday, March 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton before it premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles next month.(Courtesy of Charles Evered)

THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE: This poster for a new short film by Princeton resident Charles Evered shows actors Marty James and Joshua Fardon. The film will have a free screening on Saturday, March 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton before it premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles next month. (Courtesy of Charles Evered)

Out, a 19-minute long comedy begins as its main character, Raymond Bilotti, arrives home to find the County Sheriff knocking on his door, and progresses through a series of bizarre scenes to what shall be called a satisfying conclusion, so as not to give away too much and spoil the fun. Out will screen at the Arts Council of Princeton this Saturday, March 22, at 3:30 p.m. 

“The screening is free and there is bound to be a party atmosphere,” said playwright, director and screenwriter Charles Evered. “There will most definitely be Bundt cake.”

If you are wondering why Bundt cake, you’ll have to see the film to find out.

“Marty James plays Raymond, a down on his luck ‘everyman’ who in less than twenty minutes faces the prospect of losing his home, his mother, and his most closely held secret, not necessarily in that order,” said Mr. Evered, who lives in Princeton with his wife Wendy and their two children, and works in Los Angeles.

“I have the longest commute but it’s worth it to have my kids grow up in Princeton,” said Mr. Evered, in a telephone interview, Monday. “We love the schools and we love the history and all that the town has to offer and when we had our kids, John is 13 and Margaret is 14, we didn’t want to raise them in Los Angeles. Besides I have family here,” said the filmmaker who grew up in Bergen County.

Mr. Evered is no stranger to the Arts Council where he was an artist in residence 2006/2007.

Out, which Mr. Evered wrote and directed and his wife Wendy produced, was shown to the cast and crew at Disney Studios in Burbank last month and will premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles in late April.

Like most short films, it was made on spec, with professional actors. “Shorts are made for the love of it. They are great fun to make. Out was shot in four days with a budget of $6,000,” said Mr. Evered.

Written shortly after Mr. Evered had completed a much darker feature film, the thriller, A Thousand Cuts, which was nominated for a Saturn Award and starred Academy Award nominee Michael O’Keefe, Out riffs on several meanings of the word “out.” Beside the “gay” connotation of coming out, and the rather charming almost defunct usage of having a gay old time, there’s also being “kicked out,” being “out on a limb,” and being “found out.”

The character Raymond just happens to be gay, said Mr. Evered, who acknowledges that while this features in the film’s plot, it is not what he would call “integral” to the machinations of the story. “We all have secrets, we all face pressures and each and every one of us will end up having to deal with loss,” said the filmmaker who eschewed pressure from one publicist to label the film as a “gay” film and market it as such.

“That struck me as kind of funny at first,” said Mr. Evered, who feels that his film is much more in tune with having a “gay old time” with a few laughs as well as a few moving moments. “But the idea of ‘labeling’ the film itself in a marketing strategy seemed at odds with the spirit in which we made it in the first place. Because our film isn’t about being gay, it’s about being human. Our hope was it would be a non-issue. And I’m pleased to say that thus far, it is. At the screening at Disney, it never came up. In various private screenings on both coasts, no one bothered to mention it. It’s a new film rather than a new gay film.”

“If I continue to have any control over the film at all, I will never let it be ‘categorized’ or cornered or swept under the rug and into a marketable niche. Because to me, it’s a story about all of us and any of us, at any time in our lives. The fact that we don’t feel compelled to create special categories or marketing strategies seems to me to imply nothing but progress. And a kind of progress we can all be proud of,” said Mr. Evered.

Out was shot using a digital camera which allowed for exactly the sort of intimacy the filmmaker was aiming for. “I come from a background in the theater so I like to stay close to my characters,” he explained. “Besides being less expensive, a small digital camera requires a small crew and is easy to maneuver.”

He credits his wife for finding the veteran actress Gloria Leroy, who plays Raymond’s mother. “Gloria is not all that mobile and had to be persuaded into the part,” said Mr. Evered. “I told her that she would have to stay in bed for two days and that we would supply everything she could want. She was doted on by everyone.”

Other films by Mr. Evered include Adopt a Sailor, starring Emmy winners Peter Coyote and Bebe Neuwirth.

Why doesn’t the public see more short films? “Not all festivals have short films and they are not all that easy to see, although You Tube has changed that,” said Mr. Evered. After Out has been shown at festivals, it will be made available via You Tube, he said.

The Arts Council’s showing is the east coast premiere of Out. The screening is free and open to the public. For more information, please go to: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

 

Superstar instrumentalists rarely come to Princeton, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a real treat to the community this past weekend with violinist Hilary Hahn. Playing Johannes Brahms’ demanding Violin Concerto in D Major, Ms. Hahn brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium down to pin drop level several times with her fiery playing, tempered with lyrical melodic lines.

Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, himself a violin prodigy as a child, seemed to be from the old school of conductors, taking command of the podium with little fanfare, but at the same time maintaining absolute control over the performance. Mr. Tortelier began Friday night’s performance of the concerto by immediately building drama with the horns in sync with the celli and violas, and winds nicely enmeshed in the orchestral texture. Ms. Hahn’s violin solo emerged from this palette with fire, and Ms. Hahn proved from the start that she is one fierce, intense, and powerful performer.

Ms. Hahn was able to create graceful cadences amidst continuous action for the soloist and mesmerized the audience with extended solo passages and a cadenza during which one could hear a pin drop in the audience. She used the full weight of her body while playing, while the musicians of the NJSO were perfectly timed with her. When not playing, Ms. Hahn often watched the orchestral players, showing that she was never for a moment disengaged from the music. Several players excelled at solo passages during the concerto, including oboist Robert Ingliss, bassoonist Robert Wagner, and concertmaster Eric Wyrick. Throughout the work, Mr. Tortelier wisely allowed Ms. Hahn to lead the way, with the musicians perfectly in tandem. Following the concerto, Ms. Hahn further delighted the audience with a solo encore of a “Loure” from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.

Mr. Tortelier paired the Brahms work with two smaller 20th-century works. Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has turned his attention to composing in recent years. His 1981 Giro (which he revised in 1997) combined many small instrumental parts into a cohesive musical whole, with coloristic effects provided by solo instruments. The title of this symphonic poem can be translated as “turn,” and the work showed many twists and turns as the musicians seemed to be in their own worlds but clearly part of something larger. English hornist Andrew Adelson provided elegant solo lines, as did oboist Mr. Ingliss, bassoonist Mr. Wagner, E-flat clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and violist Frank Foerster. An unusual orchestral palette was added with the extensive use of harp and marimba.

Igor Stravinsky composed several versions of the Suite from the ballet The Firebird, the last of which was in 1945. The ten movements of the Suite flowed together well, as conducted from memory by Mr. Tortelier. Musical effects such as the “walking-like” ostinato from the celli and double basses reminded the audience that this music was originally composed for the dance, and the characters of the Russian Firebird folktale could be heard in the melodic wind fragments. Mr. Ingliss was kept very busy on Friday night, as he provided graceful solos in several movements. Flutists Bart Feller and Kathleen Nester played crisply against precise pizzicato writing in the strings, and clarinetists Karl Hermann and Mr. Lamy added a silky color to the “Pantomimes” which glued the movements together. Piano accompaniment, played by Elizabeth DeFelice, was well-timed with the winds, and hornist Lawrence DiBello provided a comforting melody following the chaos of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei.” Conducting this work from memory, Mr. Tortelier showed himself to be a very energetic conductor, tying the movements together well with effective builds of intensity.

Usually in the spring, the NJSO takes a moment to acknowledge the educational component of the orchestra’s activities. At the start of the concert, a string quartet of NJSO’s Greater Newark Youth Orchestra — violinists Rachel Seo and Winifred Waters, violist Melissa Holfelder, and cellist Danielle Lee — proved, with their performance of an excerpt from Antonin Dvorak’s American String Quartet, that they could hold the stage and the audience’s attention as well as the professional NJSO members behind them.

 

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

The epic movie 300 (2007) chronicled the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when an outnumbered band of 300 soldiers were sent on a suicide mission to defend Sparta against a horde of more than 100,000 Persian invaders. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, that minimalist, monochromatic adventure was shot almost entirely against blue screens on assorted soundstages. 

300: Rise of an Empire is a rare sequel that actually is better than the original movie. This film has sweeping seascapes and panoramic mob scenes. By exploiting the visual appeal of Eva Green the film also increases the sequel’s sensuality.

At the point of departure, we find triumphant King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) plotting to lead the Persian army against forces led by the Greek General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). The play-by-play action is narrated by Sparta’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) who devotes considerable time to a detailed explanation of ancient history in order to set the table for the ensuing story.

We learn that the commander of the Persian 1,000 ship armada is the warrior Artemisia (Green), a Greek traitor who turned against her own people for good reason. In her youth, she’d been brutally raped and sold into slavery after being forced to witness the murder of her entire family.

The orphan was freed and raised as a warrior by Xerxes’ late father, Darius (Yigal Naor). In the film, she has matured into a ravishing fighting machine who is as likely to subdue an adversary with her womanly wiles as with her sword. In perhaps the movie’s most memorable moment, she decapitates a foe and then plants a kiss on the skull’s lips.

Such gruesome displays are the norm for the movie, as scene after scene shows either sensuality or stomach-churning depictions of torture and gore.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and violence. Running time: 102 minutes Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

 

 

March 12, 2014
MAKING MUSIC: Sheila Bodine’s black and white photographs of musicians’ hands playing instruments are complemented by her 17-year-old granddaughter Grace Glovier’s shots of abstract architectural patterns in an exhibition titled “Generations” at the RWJ Hamilton’s Lakefront Gallery. Both photographers are members of the Princeton Photography Club. The exhibition features members of the club and opens with a reception on Thursday, March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 584-5900.

MAKING MUSIC: Sheila Bodine’s black and white photographs of musicians’ hands playing instruments are complemented by her 17-year-old granddaughter Grace Glovier’s shots of abstract architectural patterns in an exhibition titled “Generations” at the RWJ Hamilton’s Lakefront Gallery. Both photographers are members of the Princeton Photography Club. The exhibition features members of the club and opens with a reception on Thursday, March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 584-5900.

Lakefront Gallery will debut “Generations,” an exhibition of photography by members of the Princeton Photography Club with an opening reception on Thursday, March 13 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibition will continue through June 12.

The generations featured are: mother and daughter Sandy and Rachel Shapiro; grandmother and grandson Janet Hautau and Sam Klein; brother and sister Michael and Lynn Padwee; father and son Daniel and Adam Goldberg; grandmother and granddaughter Sheila Bodine and Grace Glovier; father and son Richard Trenner and Winslow Radcliffe Trenner; fathers and daughters: Irwin Vogel and Karen Neems; and Randy and Taylor Koslo; and the three-generation, father, daughter and granddaughter John (Jack) Diehn, Ellen and Caitlin Rogers.

It stands to reason that the basic rule of organization would dictate placement. But simply grouping like items together just didn’t seem right to Princeton curator Sheila Geisler. As she plotted the layout for the upcoming juried exhibit at Lakefront Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton (RWJ Hamilton), she knew it called for something more.

“They all had a flow so much so that I didn’t have to group them by individual artists,” Geisler said of “Generations” an exhibit of photographs taken by generations of nine families. “It must be in the genes,” she said.

Whether it is nature or nurture, this collection of images captured by grandmothers and granddaughters; mothers and sons; fathers and daughters will express the differences and commonalities that are present in all families. These expressions, Geisler thinks, connect people to the art and help people connect to each other.

That’s not only true for the patrons, but also for the artists.

Princeton’s 76-year-old Sheila Bodine whose black and white photographs of musicians’ hands playing instruments were paired with her 17-year-old granddaughter Grace Glovier’s shots of abstract architectural patterns. It was Bodine who brought the idea of the “Generations” exhibit to Geisler after seeing a similar show elsewhere. Both women belong to the 287-member Princeton Photography Club that has been supplying some of the subject matter for Lakefront and other local galleries. Geisler, whose husband Carl has been president of the club for the past eight years, said members are always looking for ways to bring the community together.

As for Bodine, she said she is certainly excited about displaying her family’s work. While she and her granddaughter both enjoy photography, they have never collaborated together. “I wanted to do something I’d never done before and I thought it would be great to do it with her.”

“That’s what art is all about,” Geisler said. “Involving the community around us — so that the community will walk into RWJ Hamilton before they need it and see what else is there and have them excited about what they can come in for before they need hospital services.”

Ilya Genin, a Hamilton cardiologist and director of Lakefront Gallery, agrees. “The gallery brings original photographic art to the walls of the hospital, enriching the patient, visitor, and staff experience.”

For more information, call (609) 584-5900.

 

dvd revHiroshima is a film about which you can say everything.

—Eric Rohmer

Coming out of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) into a sunny summer day in Manhattan, still deep in the film, you look over at your best friend. It’s one of those essential check points of a relationship. Have we connected? Did the movie do to you what it did to me?

Your friend is frowning. Wherever you were, he was somewhere else. While you were fascinated, he was squirming and groaning (you wouldn’t have noticed, you were so locked in). You can think of more than one relationship that came unravelled after a difference of opinion about a movie. Not to worry. You and he have passed plenty of check points and moments of truth and you move through this one without a hitch.

A Resnais Moment

The memory of that first college-age viewing of Hiroshima mon amour was still potent, still so much a part of my life in film, that when I learned of the death of Alain Resnais ten days ago, I felt something like the conflicted uneasiness of that moment walking out of the theater realizing that instead of sharing a special experience, my friend and I had seen a different movie. I also felt the way I had sitting cluelessly through Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which left me feeling as disoriented as I did on March 2, Oscar night, when I saw his name appear during the In Memoriam segment of the telecast. For a second I was thinking that he’d died earlier in the year, otherwise wouldn’t I have seen the story in the papers sometime before the Academy’s formal roll call of the dead? Maybe I’d been out of town, away from the internet and the New York Times. How else could I have missed it? Or was my failure to remember the death of the cinema’s poet laureate of memory a sign of creeping dementia? Appearing out of sequence, seemingly after the fact, the next morning’s Times obit with its reference to the “nonlinear” narratives of the “acclaimed filmmaker who defied convention” created further confusion; it was as if the director’s reputation for subverting time had subverted the presentation of his own death. And what a story — the most elusive and enigmatic of filmmakers dying on the eve of the film industry’s signature event. Any way you looked at it the news of his passing had become, itself, a Resnais moment.

Taken In

When you walk into a film with Hiroshima in the title, whatever the other words are, there’s no escaping the magnitude of the context, as the voice of Emmanuelle Riva intones, “Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds.” Abbreviating the title in a discussion of the film inevitably underscores the catastrophe. Yet the grisly images of the aftermath occupy only a half a dozen of the film’s 90 minutes or about half of the 15 minutes preceding the love affair at the center of the film. If this had been a short documentary — as originally planned — Resnais might have produced something comparable to Night and Fog, his then-and-now 1955 film on the Nazi death camps. Instead, he and novelist Marguerite Duras joined forces to create a seductive, profoundly suggestive work.

The instant the title and credits appear, a subtle, sinister music is probing at you with the piping of a single note, alien, eerie, both surreal and intimate, as if the film were already reading your mind, scanning your susceptibilities; when the sound of a piano enters in atonal freefall, the effect is otherworldly. The credits are superimposed on a scarred landscape, a ragged stitch leading into a nexus of agitated lines indicating the center of the explosion, ground zero.

The actual opening image resembles a landscape formed of human flesh, two torsos striving together, sprinkled with glittering dust, a signifier of atomic ash, radiation, fallout. Faceless human forms seen at close range, neither one clearly male or female, appear dehumanized, fragmented, the opposite of erotic, until you see the woman’s hands moving over the man’s back as she recites a toneless, unnatural, oddly inflected narration to accompany the horrific images of the explosion’s human toll. Driven by a score that ranges from somber melodic intervals to jaunty, quasi ragtime dance music,  the sequence is a counterpoint of sight and sound, the female voice dominant (“I saw everything …. I saw the hospital … the museum … the anonymous masses of hair”), the male voice confined to a monotone chorus of denial (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima”).

The fugue-like opening ends abruptly when the camera finally reveals Emmannuelle Riva’s lovely face smiling up at us and at the man (Eiji Okada) as she says, playfully, naturally, romantically, a long way from the spaced-out narration, “You!” They both then laugh, and from that point the conversation follows the obvious conventions of the situation. She asks if he’s “all Japanese” (perhaps because he has, as Duras’s screenplay suggests, “a fairly Western face”) and he tells her she’s “like a thousand women in one.” If you were to begin the film at this moment, without the hypnotic prelude, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a cliched inter-racial love story with a provocative background.

Excluded at Cannes

Hiroshima mon amour was excluded from the official selection process at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival to appease the U.S. government, according to online sources. It seems that some 15 years after Hiroshima, the bomb was still “a taboo subject.” The Special Jury Prize that year went to a forgotten film by a forgotten director, Konrad Wolf’s Star (Sterne), which was about a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl while escorting prisoners to a concentration camp. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows opened the festival, where its young star, Jean Pierre-Leaud, was cheered. Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or.

By July of 1959 Resnais’s film was deemed worthy of a round-table discussion in Cahiers du Cinema that included directors Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette. During the dialogue, Rohmer speculated that “in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema, or whether it was possibly less important than we thought.” In 2002 the international contributors to the 50th anniversary issue of Positif, another French film journal, answered the speculation by naming Hiroshima mon amour one of the top ten films produced between the years 1952-2002.

Enter Duras

The way Resnais tells it in an interview included on the Criterion Special Edition DVD, he’d been assigned to make a film on the atomic bomb. In the beginning no one was ready to touch so daunting a subject (Resnais notes with obvious amusement that Françoise Sagan was among the writers approached); the subject was considered “unfilmable.” Finally, Duras, a writer whose work Resnais admired, was enlisted. Working closely with Resnais, she produced a finished script in two months. According to Kent Jones’s essay accompanying the DVD, D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance was the model Resnais and Duras had in mind: the idea, as Resnais puts it, of “working in two tenses,” the present and the past, but “the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” The possibility that everything Riva tells her Japanese lover — the story of her affair with a German soldier in France during the Occupation, his death, her despair, and her humiliation at the hands of the townspeople of Nevers — might be a fiction was a potential “ambiguity” that Resnais admits finding formally “interesting.”

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance in Hiroshima mon amour stood out even at a time when female characters of range and depth were being played by actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, and Stephane Audran, among others. In the July 1959 Cahier du cinema discussion, Jacques Rivette describes Riva’s character: “She doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t analyze herself …. [she’s] a woman who no longer knows where she stands, who no longer knows who she is, who tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to the Japanese man …. In the end she is a woman who is starting all over again, going right back to the beginning … as if she were once more unformed matter in the process of being born.” Rivette goes on to say, “In the same way that Hiroshima had to be rebuilt after atomic destruction,” she “is going to try to reconstruct her reality,” which she can achieve only through “what she herself has discovered at Hiroshima and what she has experienced in the past at Nevers.”

While Riva’s character is tormented and nearly undone by what happened at Hiroshima, it also holds an element of fascination for her, to be acting in a film “about peace” at the site of the unthinkable event while making love to a man who grew up there. The handsome Japanese architect is her audience and her accompanist, and though she may truly be “a thousand women in one” to him, what he finds most exciting and gratifying is not so much the story of forbidden young love and punishment in Nevers but the fact that she has never told it to anyone else. When she admits as much, he reacts like a delighted child, hugging her, exclaiming “I’m the only one who knows!”

If you substitute “understands” for “knows,” the man’s enthusiasm could be translated to express the enthusiasm felt by those who were so intensely engaged by the challenge of the film that they felt that he was directing it for them alone. All these years later I’m still in touch with my friend, by the way. He remembers our difference of opinion and promises to tell me one day what that was all about. So here we are, another enigma wrapped in another mystery. Another Resnais moment.

 

The Princeton University Orchestra concerts this past weekend had something for everyone, featuring two student instrumental soloists, one faculty vocalist, and two conductors. The music spanned close to 200 years, with a variety of ensemble combinations.

Saturday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Friday night) focused on student talent in the first half, with two exceptional underclassmen who were winners of this year’s University Orchestra Concerto Competition. Australian junior Nicholas Stead took on one of the most difficult piano concerti in the repertory — Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Composed as a single movement concerto for a performer who had lost his right arm, this work presented Mr. Stead with the unique challenge of avoiding the temptation to add his right hand to the full keyboard range of the music. The strength required of the left hand was substantial to sustain the slow and intense dynamic and harmonic crescendo as the piece seemed to rise from the sea.

Conductor Michael Pratt led a smooth and flowing Allegro, emphasizing the many coloristic effects and percussive orchestration. The solo piano part required the same dexterity from the left hand as the most difficult works for two hands, and Mr. Stead showed no difficulty handling the intricate lines. Timing between piano and clarinets was exact, and the concerto was enhanced by elegant instrumental solos from English hornist Tiffany Huang and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. No one created musical sunrises better than Ravel, and as the University Orchestra reached full force at the end of the piece, the effect was dramatic.

Sophomore violinist Jessie Chen selected his solo challenge from the late 19th century, with the four-movement Scottish Fantasy of Max Bruch. Each movement incorporated a different folk song with its own unique character. The late 17th-century tune “Auld Rob Morris” was set for plaintive violin solo and orchestral accompaniment, giving the impression of the broad landscape of Scotland. Mr. Chen maintained a very folk-song style while conveying the tuneful theme against the broad string strokes of the orchestra. Mr. Chen was decisive when he needed to be, as the orchestra, led by Ruth Ochs, built the intensity of the movement well. The second movement country dance included numerous double stops for the violin soloist, and Mr. Chen was joined in a playful duet by flutist June Yoon. The most virtuosic passages for the violin solo came in the fourth movement, which Mr. Chen played against an elegant harp accompaniment.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the University Orchestra presented the composer’s dramatic cantata Phaedra, based on the mythological story of the daughter of Minos of Crete. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick, a member of Princeton’s voice faculty, dramatically conveyed the text with its minimalistic accompaniment provided by a small orchestra including harpsichord. Britten sought a Baroque approach to this piece, but the harpsichord in this case had a more percussive and pointillist effect than the usual accompanying chords heard in Baroque music. Ms. Rearick worked effectively to present a vocal line that was not always melodic, accompanied by graceful accompaniment, especially from cellist Bradley Berman. Mr. Berman played an especially poignant melody toward the end of the work, as a commentary on the death of Phaedra, as conductor Mr. Pratt allowed the piece to fade away. The concert closed on a chipper note, with a spirited performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major. The University Orchestra had no trouble finding the drama in Mozart’s music and the six wind players providing flute, oboe and bassoon accompaniment were especially strong in the Finale.

 

IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

Veronica Mars was a critically acclaimed TV series that ran from 2004 to 2007. Kristen Bell starred in the title role as a teen age detective who solved crimes committed in her mythical hometown of Neptune, California. 

Fans of the series will be delighted to learn that Kristen and eight other principal cast members have returned for the movie version of the program. Written and directed by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, this faithful reincarnation was substantially funded by a Kickstarter funding campaign.

At the point of departure, we find Veronica happily living in New York City, where she’s preparing for the bar exam, having recently graduated from Columbia Law School. She’s also now in a long term relationship with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and expects to be offered a job with a prestigious Manhattan firm.

However, fate intervenes when pop singer Bonnie De Ville’s (Andrea Estrella), body is found in her bathtub and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring), is the prime suspect. So, Veronica returns to Neptune to help him find a good attorney, since she’s convinced that he’s innocent.

Not surprisingly, her detective instincts kick-in and, just like old times, she’s uncovering clues with the help of her father (Enrico Colantoni), who is a private investigator. Veronica’s arrival back in town conveniently coincides with her 10th high school reunion.

The gathering proves to be the best place to interrogate persons of interest in the unsolved murder. It turns out that Bonnie had attended Neptune High, and several alumni seem to have had reasons to want her silenced. That’s as far as it’s fair to go without spoiling this nostalgic whodunit that is laced with surprising plot twists.

Consider this movie compelling enough to even hold the attention of folks who are unfamiliar with the original TV show.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and drug use. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

March 5, 2014

DVD revIn the afterglow of the Oscars, with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday approaching, the time is right for a column about actors and acting, not just on the stage and screen, but in so-called real life. Shakespeare lays it out for the ages in As You Like It when Jacques says “All the world’s a stage,” and we’re all of us “merely players.” Skip ahead 400 years and you’ve got reality TV and the 2014 Academy Awards.

As full of mischief and wicked energy as Puck in an Oscar-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ellen DeGeneres gave a theater brimming with glitzy unreality a spin toward the real by darting in and out of the star-filled audience as if all that seated glittering glamour was a comedy waiting to happen; she wisecracked and kidded in an infectious “What fools these mortals be” style that stirred things up nicely and made for the first watchable-without-nausea Oscar night in my memory. Well aware that stars are humans whose stomachs would be growling because of the timing and length of the event, she waved her puckish wand and ordered pizza, and not just for laughs. When a real-life pizza delivery man showed up, she handed out slices that were devoured (reality bites!) and then hit on a real-life Mr. Moneybags Harvey Weinstein for the tip — “No pressure, only a billion people are watching, whatever you feel is right!” In that intensely artificial, self-conscious environment wherein spontaneous behavior is so rare that even the genuine article comes off looking staged, she created moments everyone everywhere could identify with, like the group-photo tweet fest that began as a selfie with Ellen and Meryl Streep and just kept growing (1.7 million retweets in less than an hour).

Without actually altering the hallowed, hackneyed ritual of the reading of nominations and calling out of winners, this mercurial emcee brought the ceremony down to earth and made the streamlined machinery of the show seem less ponderous and absurd. Above all, she shortened the distance between the folks at home and the event, turning the elites in the seats into photo-taking, pizza-eating mortals. It would have made Shakespeare smile. Hadn’t he been doing a version of the same thing when he had Queen Titania fall in love with a donkey? His Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been performed for the swells and the monarch, but you can be pretty sure he brought the donkey in knowing it would delight the groundlings no less than the swells.

Audience Participation

Years ago I went to a Megan Terry/Tom O’Horgan  production called Massachusetts Trust at Brandeis University. It was a free-form, deliberately incoherent, heavyhandedly “uninhibited” piece of work where the actors ran through the aisles and invited members of the audience to come mingle on the stage. For all the strenuous pretending that somehow the players were dashing the membrane between art and life, theatre and reality, the whole thing was totally bogus, as I found when I went onstage (a frustrated actor at heart) and found the actors all had scripted gimmicky phrases; when you tried to engage them in playful conversation by tossing out some inspired nonsense of your own, their eyes went blank and so did their minds as they said their prearranged piece.

If Midsummer Nights Dream is the most popular and most frequently reinvented comedy in the repertoire, there must have been occasions when the players spilled into the audience to breach that boundary between the stage of the theatre and the metaphorical real-life-and-death stage Shakespeare is outlining in Jacques’s soliloquy. No doubt Ellen DeGeneres had it all worked out in detail, but she made it feel real and fun. Whether she was wearing white or black or camping it up as Glinda the Good, she actually seemed to be enjoying herself.

50 Years Ago

Theater was the dominant presence 50 Years ago at the 1964 Awards, with a filmed musical, My Fair Lady, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison) and Best Director (George Cukor). Even the Best Actress pick had implicit reference to the Lerner-Lowe original in that it went to Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle, for Mary Poppins; there had been much debate about whether Andrews should have been cast in the film instead of Audrey Hepburn, and others resented Hepburn’s being passed over when the nominations were made because her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon, which made it only “half a performance.”

It was at the 1964 ceremony that Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern’s hilarious black comedy Dr. Strangelove (with its spurious subtitle) actually crashed the high end of the party, copping nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Peter Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his virtuoso triple-play as an understandably frantic British officer, a mild-mannered president, and the madman of the title. While the film was a comic field day for Sellers (not to mention George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens), the purest movie acting in the picture was done by Sterling Hayden as Col. Jack D. Ripper, the supremely convincing supreme commander of precious-bodily-fluid paranoia who sets doomsday in motion. Hayden took it beyond caricature, in part thanks to the lines Southern gave him and the way Kubrick filmed him, in looming close-ups. Hayden is the most filmically effective actor in Strangelove because he plays it straight, resisting the sort of overacting Hamlet advised against in his instructions to the acting troupe performing the play he wrote to “catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare’s criteria are still valid: to let “your own discretion be your tutor,” to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” for “the purpose of playing” is to hold “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” What makes Strangelove not only the best film of the year but one of the best films of the sixties is the audacity with which it expresses the “very age and body of the time.” In a lighter but equally fitting sense, the same could be said of the Beatles and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which was released in the summer of 1964.

This Year’s Best

The Shakespearean criteria are also relevant to the two Oscar-winning actors in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. If you can humor me and imagine the Bard in his celestial den streaming this year’s flow of film, including not only the best of Hollywood but the best on cable, it’s likely that these two players would command his particular attention as lean and hungry humours of lust and loss, life and death and death in life, and wounded male beauty. In McConaughey’s AIDs-stricken wild man Ron (a Texas Christopher Marlowe), he would see a player suiting the word to the action in a situation where the stakes are as high in their way as they are in Hamlet. McConaughey’s wasted warrior’s physique is a soliloquy in itself, and his antagonist, rather than a fratricidal king, is the disease that turned his life around, making a homophobic substance abuser into a focused student of the plague. And the “conscience” of AIDS-the-king that he catches is the soul of the film, which is the endgame relationship developing between Ron and the transgender AIDS-stricken Rayon.

Being in heaven, with access to HBO, Showtime, FX, and Netflix, and no need to make distinctions between a feature film and a 12-part series, Shakespeare would also have access to the dark and driven extremes experienced by Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. What else can you call the arc followed by Walter Heisenberg White — from classroom to meth lab, science teacher to crime lord — but Shakespearean? That Dinklage is a dwarf, so much the better for an actor playing clown and witty prince, lustful warrior, hero, and villain, all in one. Claire Danes at her best is hair-raisingly expressive, but then so is the wide-eyed self-astonished fantastically verbal Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in Justified. Of course the most openly Shakespearan performance currently on view is Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards, with his dark asides and Robin Penn Wright as his Lady Macbeth.

Spacey was also one of the most visible presences on Oscar night. He even gave the audience a Frank Underwood moment, a clear reminder of the power and glory of the television series as an art form. So did television’s Ellen DeGeneres, for that matter. I haven’t watched her show but apparently her interaction with  Sunday night’s Academy audience was a more ambitious version of what she does for a living.

“All Human Souls”

Fifty years ago Rex Harrison, who was born on this day in 1909, stepped onstage to accept the Best Actor trophy from Audrey Hepburn, the Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. With the human touch Ellen DeGeneres gave this Oscar Night in mind, here’s a Henry Higgins quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that probably didn’t make it into the film: “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.”

Puck says something similar when addressing the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends.”

 

TENDERNESS CAPTURED: “Ternura,” the title of Miek Boltjes’s photograph showing graffiti art in Miami is intended to evoke not only the tenderness so obviously shown in the mural but also the vulnerability of the artists who painted it. A series of photographs of street and graffiti art and artists by Ms. Boltjes will go on view at Gallery 14 in Hopewell next week, Friday, March 14, alongside a collection by fellow Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac. For more information, visit: www.photogallery14.com.

TENDERNESS CAPTURED: “Ternura,” the title of Miek Boltjes’s photograph showing graffiti art in Miami is intended to evoke not only the tenderness so obviously shown in the mural but also the vulnerability of the artists who painted it. A series of photographs of street and graffiti art and artists by Ms. Boltjes will go on view at Gallery 14 in Hopewell next week, Friday, March 14, alongside a collection by fellow Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac. For more information, visit: www.photogallery14.com.

Hopewell’s Gallery 14 will showcase the work of the Dutch photographer Miek Boltjes in an exhibition opening next week. Ms. Boltjes is a relative newcomer to Princeton. Her “Street Art Portrait(s)” will be displayed in the main gallery alongside an exhibition of work, titled “Autumn’s Beauties,” by longtime Gallery 14 member Rhoda Kassof-Isaac in the Jay Goodkind Gallery.

Both shows will run from March 14 through April 13, with an opening reception on Friday, March 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. and a “meet the photographers” event on Sunday, March 16, from 1 to 3 p.m.

“Miek Boltjes presents eye-catching photographs that intrigue and make you smile,” said Gallery 14’s Martin Schwartz. Her 17 framed color prints record artwork as painted on buildings together with the artists who produce it; passersby and posing models are also shown in their environment. The end result is a portrait of contemporary street art painted within the past 18 months.

Taken together, Ms. Boltjes’ photographs form a contemporary portrait of street art culture. They also shine a spotlight on the significance of eyes in street art. “The focus of everybody’s immediate attention, well executed eyes are the artist’s signature and pride,” said Ms. Boltjes, for whom this work has become an ongoing exploration of the street art and graffiti writing of Wynwood, Miami. She plans to publish a book of her photographs in the near future.

Ms. Boltjes came to Princeton from the Netherlands two years ago when her husband took up a position at the Institute for Advanced Study. By profession, she is a mediator in intra-state conflicts and an editor of publications on that subject.

Her photograph “Ternura,” for example, was shot last December in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood that Ms. Boltjes describes as “formerly a rough warehouse area that is being transformed into a hip and happening destination” primarily because of commissions to famous street artists who have been asked to express themselves on its walls.

Art Basel is the Miami event by which this transformation is being wrought and the two artists in Ms. Boltjes’s photograph, “Ternura,” are known jointly as EntesYPesimo. “They flew in from Peru for the week of Art Basel, which attracts visitors to the many galleries that have moved into the neighborhood,” said the photographer. “Ternura translates as ‘tenderness’ in English, and is both a reference to the expression of warm and affectionate feelings and to the quality or state of being vulnerable,” she explained. “It speaks to the gentleness and care with which the man holds the woman and the couple holds the bird, but it also hints at the relationship between the artists and their art, both imagined and real,” she said.

“At first sight we are taken by the contrast between the tough-looking tattooed man in the foreground and the soft loving scene in the background. A closer look at the tattoos on both establishes the man as one of the artists and reveals that he has put a part of himself into his art,” said Ms. Boltjes, whose photograph allows the viewer to see both graffiti writer and his work in a new way, not juxtaposed but connected. “Looking at the art is seeing part of the artists,” she said.

The images in her exhibition provided the photographer with a revelation of sorts. “After a week-long immersion in the street art and graffiti writing scene in Wynwood, I came away with the realization that the artists care intensely about their creations both in terms of the subject matter and the execution; they really put their heart into it, making themselves vulnerable to all of us.”

“The beauty of our brain is that it allows us to ‘see’ the woman in the mural looking affectionately at her creator, who is sweating in the midday heat. This touch, together with the reflection on the car and the way the temporary fence happens to complete the bird cage, both firmly placing the art in its environment, make this photograph stand out among others,” she acknowledged.

For more information on Ms. Boltjes’s work, visit: miek-boltjes.artistwebsites.com.

Fall Foliage

The images on show in “Autumn’s Beauties” were inspired by brilliantly colored autumnal leaves gathered by Ms. Kassof-Isaac, who is both photographer and painter. “These fallen leaves are jewels dropped,” said Ms. Kassof-Isaac in her artist’s statement. “The colors are blindingly beautiful. The reds run from blood red to glowing fire. Orange vies with red for superiority with yellow gold not far behind. The yellows move in, either turning to greens or brown.”

According to the artist, each leaf has its own finger print. She gathers and rearranges her finds into new patterns and combinations. “By turning a leaf over, we find colors faded, but still lined with delicate veins,” she said. “With light coming from above or below, the opaque or transparent quality is seen.”

The long-time resident of Princeton has been an artist for most of her life. Living in Switzerland and Italy for many years, taught her to “value the almost hidden secrets when looking at tiny veins, lines, cracks, breaks, textures and other messages in objects and things that surround us.”

While living in Europe, she graduated as a Jungian psychotherapist and is well versed in the healing values of the arts. She has worked as an art teacher, given seminars, and exhibited her art, and trained in art therapy. “Her photography is unique,” said Mr.Schwartz. “Since she paints on every photograph, each is a ‘one of a kind’ piece of art.”

“Autumn’s Beauties” is described as combining the art of the camera with the art of painting to make the lasting visions of the brilliant colors of fallen Autumn leaves.

Gallery 14 is at located at 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, N.J. 08525. Hours are Saturday, Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For an appointment, call (609) 333-8511.

For more information, email galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

Richardson Chamber Players presented a concert this past weekend entitled “Quiet City,” named for incidental theatrical music by Aaron Copland, but devoted to the music of several 20th-century composers. The Sunday afternoon concert at Richardson Auditorium featured regular Richardson Chamber Player performers, and also included a number of Princeton University students who added great depth to the performance of the final Copland piece. In his introductory remarks, Music Director Michael Pratt commented that the five composers represented on Sunday’s program all lived at the same time, but “each could not have had a more different voice.” The musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players had no trouble finding the uniqueness in each composer.

No one is more identifiable in 20th-century American music than Leonard Bernstein, who composed some of the most recognizable tunes of the century. Bernstein composed Sonata for Clarinet and Piano on the edge of World War II and at a very young age, and the work clearly showed the beginnings of the innovative musical ideas which emerged in his musicals and orchestral music throughout the mid-20th century. Clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg and Elizabeth DeFelice both worked with Bernstein during his lifetime, and each had a good command of the composer’s rhythmic drive and jazz influence. Ms. Sternberg played with a mellow instrumental sound, finding direction in the very melodic lines and bringing out the tenderness in the lyrical melodies especially well.

Ms. DeFelice and Ms. Sternberg moved exactly together into the faster sections, and created quite a substantial sound in certain sections. One could hear in the piano accompaniment that Bernstein was quite a keyboard artist, and Ms. DeFelice executed well the precision required in the accompaniment, especially in the second movement.

Shortly before Bernstein wrote his clarinet sonata, Samuel Barber composed String Quartet in B minor, Opus 11. Barber intended the piece to be premiered by a string quartet ensemble from his alma mater, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, but the work was not completed in time for the designated premiere event. When the String Quartet finally was premiered, the second movement Adagio exceeded Copland’s own description of it as a “knockout” — “Barber’s Adagio” has become one of the most beloved pieces in orchestral repertoire and certainly one of the most recognizable.

Following the first performances of String Quartet in B minor, Copland arranged the Adagio for string orchestra, and it became an instant hit through a national radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. However, as performed in its original form, this piece offered a more intimate and personal opportunity for string quartet musicians. Violinists Anna Lim and Sophia Mockler, violist Kyle Armbrust, and cellist Alistair MacRae presented a starker and less luxurious interpretation than audiences might be used to from hearing this piece in film scores, but one could clearly discern the counterpoint and dialogues among the players. The bulk of the musical drama fell on first violinist Ms. Lim, who played consistently with a light vibrato. This piece has many resting places, and the four musicians arrived at cadences together, making these points all the more poignant.

The Players moved into a more contemporary musical genre with Roy Harris’ Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, a “Cantata of Lamentation” setting the poetry of American poet Vachel Lindsay. The 1914 poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” links Lincoln’s torment of the tragedy of the Civil War with the horrors of World War I, and Harris brought both of these times to life through instrumentation of violin, cello, piano, and soprano voice. Ms. Lim, Mr. MacRae, Ms. DeFelice, and soprano Sarah Pelletier conjured numerous images of Abraham Lincoln through their collective performance. Ms. Pelletier sang with a rich and clear sound as if she were setting the scene of Lincoln’s life, telling the story well and paying particular attention to the poetic details of the text. One could hear Lincoln’s insomnia in the restless strings, and Ms. Lim and Mr. MacRae particularly achieved lyrical sonorities. Effectively accompanying the players was Ms. DeFelice, allowing the piano to “walk” through the score with harmonic chords.

Ms. Pelletier also performed Elliott Carter’s song cycle Tempo e Tempi, accompanied by oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello. Carter’s tribute to Italian culture was both song cycle and quintet, with all instruments being of equal importance. Premiered in 2000 when Carter was 90 (he was active through most of his incredible 103 years), Tempo e Tempi combined Carter’s settings of varied Italian poets into a work which explored a wide range of instrumental combinations and effects. Ms. Sternberg doubled on both clarinet and bass clarinet, and Matt Sullivan played both oboe and English horn as the other players handled syncopations and ostinato well. With instruments often in competing meters, this piece was described before the performance as “redefining what it means to play together,” and the Richardson Chamber Players’ performance found the complexities within the piece.

The Players closed the concert with Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, bringing together an ensemble of both professional and student musicians. Even though no longer connected to a play in its format as a concert piece, Copland’s work was programmatic in its dialogue between trumpet and English horn, played by Wayne du Maine and Matt Sullivan, respectively. The play for which the piece was written was not successful, but Copland’s depiction of a “nocturnal cityscape” was effective in capturing the broad spaciousness of music found in other Copland works. Mr. du Maine showed his vast experience in jazz, complemented by Mr. Sullivan’s lyrical English horn playing. Perfectly matched in pitch and timbre, these two artists, accompanied by the large ensemble of strings, painted a broad palette of colors and moods to bring the concert to a close.

 

IF THIS IS SOMEONE’S IDEA OF A JOKE, IT ISN’T VERY FUNNY: Anonymous air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a text message in a flight en route to London, in which the texter threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes unless a huge sum of money is deposited into an offshore bank account. Initally, Bill dismisses the text as a prank being played by his fellow air marshal, however, when the first body turns up, he realizes that the threat is very real.(Photo by Myles Aronowitz, © 2014, Universal Pictures)

IF THIS IS SOMEONE’S IDEA OF A JOKE, IT ISN’T VERY FUNNY: Anonymous air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a text message in a flight en route to London, in which the texter threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes unless a huge sum of money is deposited into an offshore bank account. Initally, Bill dismisses the text as a prank being played by his fellow air marshal, however, when the first body turns up, he realizes that the threat is very real. (Photo by Myles Aronowitz, © 2014, Universal Pictures)

Police officer Bill Marks’ (Liam Neeson) life went into a tailspin after his young daughter lost her battle with childhood leukemia. He looked for solace in a bottle of alcohol, an addiction which cost him his marriage and career. 

The ex-cop was lucky to be employed as an air marshal, a job he decided to take despite a terrible fear of takeoffs. On this particular evening, he’s been assigned to protect a packed transatlantic flight from New York to London.

The trip starts out uneventfully with Bill hiding his identity while making the acquaintance of the attractive passenger (Julianne Moore) sitting next to him. However, a crisis arises soon after he receives a text from an anonymous caller who claims to be in the cabin and is threatening to murder a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into an offshore bank account.

Initially, Bill dismisses the message as a prank on the part of his colleague (Anson Mount), who is also aboard the plane, since a breach of the supposedly-impenetrable federal network is almost impossible. However, once the first victim is found, Bill realizes he has an emergency on his hands.

Who might the hijacker be? The Muslim (Omar Metwally) sporting a skullcap? The black teenager (Corey Hawkins) who is reluctant to surrender his cell phone? Somebody else? Of course, the actual perpetrator won’t be easy to pinpoint in this deadly game of cat and mouse.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Non-Stop features Liam Neeson. The surprising success of Taken, has turned the rugged Irishman into an action star, as can be seen in subsequent similar movies such as The A-Team, Taken 2, Unknown, and the upcoming Run All Night.

In this film, Neeson stays close to the Taken formula, with his character portraying a broken soul who is in need of redemption. Again, he rises to the occasion in a tough, two-fisted fashion, while also exhibiting a vulnerability that will move you to tears during the closing credits.

Besides an engaging premise and a satisfying resolution, Non-Stop has an inscrutable plot which delicately ratchets up the tension as it winds its way towards the unpredictable denouement.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, intense violence, and drug use. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

February 26, 2014

DVD revFabulous creations, beings whose authority and raison d’être cannot be drawn from the code of common sense, often provoke in us an insane and excessive mirth, which expresses itself in interminable paroxysms and swoons.

—Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter”

It’s all there — the violation of common sense, insane and excessive mirth, paroxysms, and swoons — Baudelaire must have been looking over my 13-year-old shoulder as I watched Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. While I may never have actually swooned over the antics of Caesar and his team, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and, later, Nanette Fabray, there were times when I had to walk away, trying to keep down a full dinner of laughter, and now that I think of it, “swoons” comes pretty close to how it feels to be laughing so hard your forehead’s in a sweat and you’re close to passing out. 

Sid Caesar, who died February 12 at 91, seemed bigger than any other comedian. With those bull-moose shoulders, he towered over everyone; it was an instant sight-gag just to see him in close proximity to tiny mortals like Howard Morris and Imogene Coca (in his 2003 autobiography, Caesar’s Hours, he mentions making tailors rich “by ordering handmade suits with the broadest possible shoulders”). It seemed a minor miracle that our little TV with its eight-inch port-hole of a screen could contain him. He sprawled and swaggered and roared. Yet to leave it at that would be to misrepresent an artist whose touch could be as warm and human as Chaplin’s (Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, compared Caesar to the early Chaplin). His primary goal, as he puts it in Caesar’s Hours, was “to extract humor out of everyday life …. The guy in trouble is a very funny guy.”

The New York Times obituary, which listed Albert Einstein as well as Hitchcock among Caesar’s fans, rightly called him “a comedic force of nature.” There he was, week after week, performing live, without a net, thriving on the tension that infused his style: it was in his nervous cough, the constant clearing of his throat, you could almost smell his sweat; he didn’t just clown, he struggled, fought, lived, and died, throwing himself on the mercy of the audience. At times it was as if he and his accomplices were beating the laughs out of you.

He implies as much in Caesar’s Hours: “I was a very physical comedian and I needed a sidekick who was not only funny but was a person I could pick up with one hand.” Cue the imp of perverse delight Howard Morris; when Morris “first came to audition,” Caesar “reached out, grabbed him by the lapels, lifted him up, and did the scene.” The comedy of scale was played no less effectively with hulking Sid and petite Imogene. “Working with her,” Caesar recalls, “was like working with somebody you’d known your entire life from moment one …. Our instincts and timing were so well aligned that it was as if Imogene knew exactly what I was thinking.” The feeling was mut-ual, as the unholy ghost of Show of Shows Mel Brooks would put it decades later in Young Frankenstein (the old show lives on in Dr. F. and the monster’s song and dance rendition of “Putting on the Ritz”). Years after they went their separate ways, “Immy” is quoted by Sid to the effect that she “would run twenty miles in sheer joy” for the chance to work with him again.

Shared Laughter

When people remember the shows, they not only remember the comedy, they remember their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. They remember a time when everyone was together and everyone was laughing … whatever was going on at home, for at least an hour and a half on Saturday night, people got to laugh and they got to see their parents laugh.

—From Caesar’s Hours

When I read about Sid Caesar’s death, my first thought was of my father and his proclamation that he would never allow a television set to darken our apartment doorway. We were living in New York that year in a second-story walk-up in the 200 block of East 53rd Street. I finally wore out the austere, above-it-all professor by devising a mantra based on Hickory 6-4000, the phone number of Sunset Appliances in Brooklyn, which I knew by heart from commercials aired during radio broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games. I chanted the mantra several times a day throughout the month of August (“they’re giving it away! they’re giving it away! free delivery! Hickory 6-4000!”) until my dazed father picked up the telephone, dialed the magic number, and ordered the smallest, cheapest set Sunset offered. Because the “useless” object was not allowed into the living room, it was duly situated on a shelf at the foot of my bed, the idea being that no rational adult would come near it.

One Saturday night soon after the set’s arrival, the antics of Sid and his cohorts had me laughing so hard (think “paroxysms and swoons”) that my parents had no choice but to come make sure I wasn’t in need of emergency care (remember the Monty Python skit about the joke that kills?). From that point on, I had company. My father and mother  weren’t getting along all that well at the time, but at least for an hour and half on Saturday night “everyone was together and everyone was laughing.”

My mother’s laughter was a pleasantly familiar sound, mellow, throaty, redolent of whiskey and cigarettes. But to hear my buttoned-up father laugh was a revelation. Here was the stern professor my friends found so intimidating, with his dark-framed spectacles and severe expression. Here was a man who, to all appearances, kept his distance from life. But when Sid Caesar was on, whether it was Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour, the professor would be shaking, sweating, giddy with glee, besieged by a passion of laughter. Those were precious, amazing moments, my father and I laughing together, laughing ourselves silly to Sid Caesar.

Happy Birthday, Jackie

Part of the fun of watching television that year in New York was knowing that programs like Your Show of Shows originated just a few long blocks west of us at Rockefeller Plaza. I used to walk past the RCA Building and Radio City Music Hall on my way home from school, fondly hoping I might catch a glimpse of Sid or Imogene. In fact, my only celebrity sighting happened when I was walking up Central Park West from the subway one schoolday morning and encountered Sid Caesar’s most formidable rival Jackie Gleason, who was born 98 years ago today. As soon as he saw me recognizing him, he smiled and said, “Hiya, kid!” When I saw The Great One   at the CBS Theatre doing Ralph Cramden and Reggie van Gleason and “Awaaay we go” live on The Jackie Gleason Show, I was sitting so far back, he looked even smaller than he did on that pint-sized set. Since there’s not room enough in one column for two such giants, I’ll just say the obvious, that if Gleason had done nothing else (and he did a great deal, including giving Elvis his New York television breakthrough), he created and inhabited Ralph Kramden, one of the truly enduring characters in show business America’s human comedy. And don’t forget his dancing. If you ever need immediate cheering up, just google Gleason Dancing. As a tripper of the light fantastic, no one can touch him; tear up the list, it’s Jackie.

Some Highlights

Since The Sid Caesar Collection DVD at the Princeton Public Library has been checked out ever since February 12, my watching of Caesar and company was done on YouTube, where a goodly assortment of key episodes is available. Probably the most celebrated of the lot is the all-out, no holds barred take-off on the Ralph Edwards sobfest, This Is Your Life. The challenge was to satirize something that’s already the epitome of sentimental overkill. Some of the comic passion driving This is Your Story may be due to its being among the last programs before Show of Shows closed its run on June 5 1954, after almost 160 episodes. Call it what you will — the cast gone wild, emotional pandemonium, Carl Reiner the flailing, embattled host — it’s beyond “insane and excessive” when Howard Morris’s Uncle Goopy leaps into the arms of Caesar’s Al Duncey to be hugged and kissed and lugubriously manhandled by the reluctant guest of honor who had be dragged out of his seat and carried bodily to the stage by a troop of ushers; the madness keeps coming in waves, they can’t tear themselves away, as the howling little man and the roaring big man grovel and grope and slobber on one another and then Aunt Mary and Mr. Torch, the kindly fireman; it’s in your face, take it or leave it, there’s really no resisting the relentless bludgeoning assault on complacency, sobriety, and the code of common sense.

After a YouTube tour, I find that the topical parodies of films like From Here to Eternity, Shane, and On the Waterfront are less fun now than the skits featuring Sid and Imogene as a couple dealing with “the humor of everyday life,” like the battle of wills that develops after the wife cooks her heart out and the husband arrives bearing Chinese take-away. Since he refuses to eat her steak and she won’t touch his chow mein, the outcome is pure lunacy with Imogene offering her meal to the neighbor directly below and tossing the steak out the window, followed by the trimmings, while Sid counterattacks by inviting the next door neighbor (Carl Reiner) to dispatch the Chinese take-away, which he does in a gross delirium of gluttony, stuffing his face, chopsticks flashing.

Some of Caesar’s most ambitious and extended work is on Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957), featuring Nanette Fabray, who talks about her Emmy-winning years on the show online at the Archive of American Television (www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/nanette-fabray). Her favorite number was “The Shadow Waltz” and anyone looking for insights into how it was to do live comedy with Sid Caesar should Google her account of all the things that went right and wrong with Sid and his disappearing mustache. Oddly enough, Fabray can’t remember doing one of their most celebrated numbers, the husband-and-wife argument mimed to Beethoven’s Fifth. The way they react to each nuance of the music is extraordinary — Chaplin would have tipped his bowler hat.

Although Imogene Coco died in 2001 and Howard Morris in 2005, two of Sid Caesar’s partners have outlived him: Fabray, 94, and Carl Reiner, who is 92, and calls Caesar “the ultimate … the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.” 

 

OH TO BE IN MAINE IN SUMMER: This pristine summer image by Tasha O’Neill, titled “Branching Out,” is part of the exhibition of her work, “Mainely Delights,” opening at the Nassau Presbyterian Church on Nassau Street this Sunday. The exhibition will be on display in the Conference Room during business hours, Monday to Friday. There will be a reception for the artist on Sunday, March 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more on Ms. O’Neill’s photography, visit: http://tashaphotography.com.

OH TO BE IN MAINE IN SUMMER: This pristine summer image by Tasha O’Neill, titled “Branching Out,” is part of the exhibition of her work, “Mainely Delights,” opening at the Nassau Presbyterian Church on Nassau Street this Sunday. The exhibition will be on display in the Conference Room during business hours, Monday to Friday. There will be a reception for the artist on Sunday, March 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more on Ms. O’Neill’s photography, visit: http://tashaphotography.com.

Since 1993, fine art photographer Tasha O’Neill has pondered the beauties of coastal landscapes on annual trips to Maine, where the Down East home she shares with her husband sits on the quiet wooded side of Mt. Desert Island in an area that is part of Acadia National Park.

“Mainely Delights,” an exhibition of iconic images, subtle and intimate, opens at the Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street this Sunday, March 2 and will be on view through March in the Conference Room. The exhibition will be open during business hours, Monday to Friday, and there will be a reception for the artist on Sunday, March 9, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Curated by Sue Rodgers, the show is a selection of some of the photographer’s best work and the images will be available for purchase. “The Nassau Presbyterian Church is pleased to open its space to local artists and the community at large and takes no commission on any of the work sold,” said Ms. Rodgers.

Ms. O’Neill is a member of the group Art+10 and it was a word-of-mouth recommendation from fellow member Meg Michael that led to the current exhibition. A 20-year resident of Princeton, Ms. Rodgers has been curating shows at the church for some 15 years and had previously mounted an exhibition of acrylic paintings by Ms. Michael. After viewing Ms. O’Neill’s images online, she unhesitatingly contacted the Princeton-based photographer to suggest a show.

Exhibitions at the Nassau Presbyterian Church change monthly from October through May and feature local artists working in a variety of media including oil and acrylic painting, pastel, watercolor, and photography.

With these shots of Maine, the photographer presents a distillation of summers spent exploring such places as Seal Cove. As soon as Ms. O’Neill and her husband arrive, they make for the rustic Bass Harbor restaurant, Mainely Delights, “where the warm welcome always makes us feel immediately at home,” she said. Hence the title of this exhibition.

Delight is clearly the hallmark of Ms. O’Neill’s time spent Down East where the artist speaks of finding certain moon phases that bring about extreme low tides and grant access to beaches otherwise inaccessible. Unique arrays of seaweed and rocks create natural abstractions which the photographer invites viewers to explore, alongside evocative images of gardens and seascapes.

The artist taps a poet’s sensibility for the titles of her images: Entwinings, Wending, Ripening, A Whispering of Sloops, Pasta of the Sea and Vanished Guests, to name but a handful.

“Mainely Delights” will feature 22 pieces in two sizes, 16 x 20 inches and 20 x 24 inches. For more on Ms. O’Neill’s photography, visit: http://tashaphotography.com, or http://tasha-oneill@artistwebsites.com.

 

COMMUNICATION GAPS: Mary (Erin O’Brien, left) leaves anonymous notes about “the fragility of their marriage,” as she prepares to leave her husband, and George (Chris Littlewood), a linguist, can’t find the words to convince his wife to stay, in Theatre Intime’s production of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 1.

COMMUNICATION GAPS: Mary (Erin O’Brien, left) leaves anonymous notes about “the fragility of their marriage,” as she prepares to leave her husband, and George (Chris Littlewood), a linguist, can’t find the words to convince his wife to stay, in Theatre Intime’s production of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 1.

The central dilemma and reigning irony of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, is that George, a linguist, scholar and preserver of dead and dying languages, can’t come up with the words he needs to say to his wife Mary to keep her from leaving him. 

Currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, The Language Archive, a 2010 off-Broadway hit, combines farcical humor with emotional depth, absurdity with poetry, and some thought-provoking reflections on love and language, eating, and Esperanto.

The five-member Intime undergraduate ensemble, under the direction of Princeton University junior Annika Bennett, is capable and, for the most part, up to the challenges of this wild, 20-scene play, but some problems with staging and diction need further attention in order to make all these whirlwind scenes clear to the audience.

As George (Chris Littlewood) struggles to deal with the sudden departure of his wife Mary (Erin O’Brien) he shares with the audience his despair and bewilderment. He also speaks eloquently of his dedication to recording and saving languages before they disappear. He is devastated by the loss of his wife, but until this point in his life, the death of languages — “we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life. It is the death of imagination, of memory.” — has affected him much more deeply than any human loss. The playwright, the child of Korean immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles and never learned Korean. Ms. Cho has stated that this play was inspired by her sense of loss at never having learned the language her parents spoke.

Meanwhile in the language laboratory, the Language Archive, George remains oblivious to the fact that his young assistant Emma (Emily Hornsby) has fallen deeply in love with him. Amidst these serious emotional tensions, enter Resten (David Drew) and Alta (Abby Melick) from somewhere overseas, long-time married couple and last surviving speakers of Elloway. This duo, in the tradition of the bickering Bickersons, the Honeymooners and Al and Peg Bundy of Married with Children, threaten to steal the show with their hilarious verbal sparring. To George’s chagrin, they insist on speaking in English, claiming that the language lends itself most effectively to the expression of their hostile sentiments towards each other.

As the plot proceeds in absurdist, rollercoaster fashion, it develops a sharper focus on Emma — in her Esperanto lessons with her histrionic instructor/confidante (also Ms. Melick); in an encounter with Mary, who has become a baker; in a fantasy meeting with the founder of Esperanto (also Mr. Drew), an eye doctor who tries to persuade her to fall out of love; and in her ongoing, unbalanced relationship with George. The plot also continues to follow Resten and Alta, and George and Mary.

Though at times difficult to understand with their heavily accented lines, Mr. Drew and Ms. Melick create vivid, larger-than-life characters in Resten and Alta and deliver the boisterous humor that carries this show. Their comic timing is excellent, as is their versatility in creating an array of additional supporting characters.

Mr. Littlewood portrays a convincing academic, passionate in his linguistic pursuits and mostly detached, becoming even pitiful, in his personal relationships. Ms. O’Brien’s frustrated, unhappy wife wins some sympathy in her separation from George and later fulfillment in her bake shop.

Ms. Hornsby’s Emma, despite some diction lapses when lines run together, develops as an interesting, appealing character, pursuing her true love with courage and dedication.

Set design by Michaela Karis proficiently provides six different playing areas to accommodate the multiple scene shifts during the course of the evening and to represent different locales: language lab, George’s study, train station (later becomes the bakery), hospital room, and language instructor’s office. The upstage areas, however, office and hospital room, are too far removed for optimum character projection and comprehensibility.

Ms. Bennett has directed this sweet, funny, intelligent play with understanding and sensitivity. Balancing humor and serious feeling is difficult here. The coolness of the protagonist, the multiplicity of scene shifts, and the often dominant farcical element do compromise the best efforts of this promising young playwright and the dedicated Intime ensemble to establish significant emotional depth. It is difficult to care as much as the play wants us to about the passions of George and Mary and even Emma, but The Language Archive provides an entertaining, stimulating evening, with some first-rate humor. 

“The Language Archive” will run for one more weekend, with performances Thursday and Friday, February 27-28, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 1 at 2 and 8 p.m. For tickets and information visit www.princeton.edu/utickets or www.theatreintime.org or call (609) 258-5155.

 

I’M OFF TO WORK HONEY, DON’T KNOW WHEN I’LL BE HOME FOR DINNER: Successful author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie, right) blithely bids his wife (Sanaa Lathan) farewell, little realizing that he would soon be imprisoned in hia patient’s basement where he would be sadistically tortured.(Photo by Patti Perret

I’M OFF TO WORK HONEY, DON’T KNOW WHEN I’LL BE HOME FOR DINNER: Successful author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie, right) blithely bids his wife (Sanaa Lathan) farewell, little realizing that he would soon be imprisoned in hia patient’s basement where he would be sadistically tortured. (Photo by Patti Perret)

Therapist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie) has just published a popular self-help book that is about the near death experience that helped him turn his life around. He is proud of the fact that, after almost perishing in a horrible car crash in his teens, he went on to earn graduate degrees in world religion and clinical psychology and also find and wed his soulmate, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan). 

Tommy has a happy marriage and a flourishing practice that is founded on a spiritual philosophy that combines faith and positive thinking. However, his successes are the opposite of his wayward brother Ben’s (Mike Epps) life, who was just released from prison.

After Ben was paroled, he was barely back on the streets when news of a $12,000 bounty on him spread around their native New Orleans. So, when Ben asks his brother for money to keep the bounty hunters at bay, Tommy decides to raise the money by extending the publicity tour for his best selling book.

At a local book signing, he is approached for an autograph by a reader, Angel Sanchez (Forest Whitaker), who is urgently in need of counseling. Against his better judgment, Tommy agrees to see Angel as a patient, because the $300/session fee definitely will help pay brother Ben’s debt.

Unfortunately, Carter decides to meet Angel, who is devastated by the death of his mother (Adella Gautier), in Angel’s home, Unfortunately, Carter doesn’t realize that Angel is at the end of his emotional rope because, in addition to his problem with his mother, his wife and daughter have become estranged from him.

The plot thickens when Angel takes Tommy hostage, and ties him up in his basement and then proceeds to torture him.

Directed by Philippe Caland (Ripple Effect), Repentance is a psychological thriller that establishes a compelling premise but then morphs into an otherworldly horror film. Over the course of this rudderless adventure, Forest Whitaker ultimately finds himself abandoned by an implausible script.

Fair (*½). Rated R for profanity, violence, and torture. Running time: 90 minutes Studio: Code Black Films. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

February 19, 2014
“DON’T WANT NO MUSH! TAKE IT AWAY! SCRAM!” No longer the polite little girl she was before she was adopted by a bunch of Damon Runyon types, Shirley Temple, as the title character in “Little Miss Marker,” is being advised on her manners by a night club singer named Bangles, memorably played by Dorothy Dell, who “burst into unrehearsed giggles, stopping the scene.” Fifty years later Shirley recalled her “special affection” for her “frolicsome cohort.”

“DON’T WANT NO MUSH! TAKE IT AWAY! SCRAM!” No longer the polite little girl she was before she was adopted by a bunch of Damon Runyon types, Shirley Temple, as the title character in “Little Miss Marker,” is being advised on her manners by a night club singer named Bangles, memorably played by Dorothy Dell, who “burst into unrehearsed giggles, stopping the scene.” Fifty years later Shirley recalled her “special affection” for her “frolicsome cohort.”

She totally disarms you — she lifts you off your feet.

—H.G. Wells, circa. 1934

Wells’s choice of words is curious, since Shirley Temple was usually the one being lifted off her feet. In her breakthrough movie, Little Miss Marker (1934), she’s lifted, held, hefted, pondered, and passed from one gambler to another as bets are made on her exact weight. When the only female present, a night club singer named Bangles Carson — played with exceptional warmth and verve by Dorothy Dell — tells the Damon Runyon sharpies to stop passing the kid around like a rubber ball, Shirley, in mid-toss, shouts “I like it!” and so she clearly does. The essence of her appeal is right there: she’s having a great time.

In Child Star: An Autobiography (McGraw-Hill 1988), Shirley Temple Black, who died at 85 on January 10, has fond memories of the fun she had with Dorothy Dell as they shared scene-stopping laughter, holding hands, “enjoying the sense of impromptu gaiety.” The 19-year-old Ziegfield Follies beauty playing the worldly Bangles treated Shirley as an equal and won her “special affection” through a positive attitude that made her feel “inches taller” than she was. In writing, however, about Adolph Menjou, who plays Sorrowful Jones in Little Miss Marker, she reports that “off-camera he treated me with the reticence adults commonly reserve for children, sometimes staring at me fixedly without comment.” When Menjou attempts to engage her in that “outgrown infant pastime” hide-and-seek, she humors him, playing the game “with only half a heart. Beyond that one instance, he spent little time directly with me, always preferring to watch me from a distance.”

Comments made by Menjou at the time of the filming and quoted in Child Star suggest why he was keeping a vigilant eye on Shirley: “This child frightens me. She knows all the tricks. She backs me out of the camera, blankets me, grabs my laughs. She’s making a stooge out of me. She’s an Ethel Barrymore at six.”

Nailing Menjou

There’s a remarkable moment early in Little Miss Marker when Menjou picks Shirley up with both hands, holds her close, face to face, and stares into her eyes. It’s his way of reckoning her value as collateral for her wretched, soon-to-be-dead-by-his-own-hand father’s $20 bet. She stares right back, no flinching, no flirting, no being cute: she’s nailing him. Seen in profile, Menjou is all business, and so is she. It’s a powerful shot. Though Sorrowful may not be visibly melting, you can tell the process has begun. It’s as H.G. Wells said, she’s lifted him up, even if he doesn’t quite know it yet.

More to the point, she’s daring him to take her on. Just before he hoists her up for a closer look, she says, “You’re afraid of me” and then “You’re afraid of something.” She observes this gently, holding him in her eyes, making it clear that she’s not the only one whose value is being weighed. As Menjou sets her down, he’s already showing signs of the slow melt. To noises of disbelief from his cohorts that the no-nonsense Sorrowful would accept a kid as a marker for a bet, he says, “A little doll like that’s worth 20 bucks any way you look at it.” Knowing as we do that the doll would prove to be a money-making phenomenon beyond all imaginable mortal reckoning makes this one of the greatest little-did-they-know lines in film history.

Far from “making a stooge” of Menjou, Shirley does what many stars, including even Barbara Stanwyck, could never do: she makes him sympathetic. The ray of Shirley’s light shining on Sorrowful enables his romance with Dell, who plays Bangles with a mildly Mae-West-like swagger that helps disguise the fact that she’s 19 and Menjou is 44. Otherwise it would be a stretch when the two marry at the end and become Marky’s adopted parents. What makes Dell so endearing in her scenes with Shirley is the way she seems at once wise dame, young mother, best friend, and loving sister.

Holding It Together

With all due credit to Runyon’s story and Alexander Hall’s direction, the person holding the film together is the child of the title. It’s not as if the grown-ups simply took it upon themselves to fashion a fantasy world as a way of distracting Marky from the loss of her father; she enlists them one by one as players in the creation she’s weaving according to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that her mother (“who went away and never came back”) used to read her. The names she gives the characters in her play-in-progress are all derived from or based on those bedtime tales, the first coming when she affectionately dubs Willie Best her “Black Knight” as if such things as racist comic relief simply didn’t exist; the sarcastic gambler Regret (Lynne Overman) becomes Sir Lancelot, Bangles is Lady Guinevere, and Steve, the wouldbe heavy who eventually gives “good strong blood” to save Marky’s life (Charles Bickford) is “the strong knight.”

A Special Freshness

Sample the numerous Shirley Temple films available in full on YouTube, as I did, and you may begin to feel that a little of her undoubted genius goes a long way. She’s an amazing tap dancer. Just watch her busking for trainfare to the White House with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in 1935’s Littlest Rebel. I’m focusing on Little Miss Marker because in addition to its easygoing Runyon ambience and the charming chemistry between the child and the other players, especially Dell and Menjou, Shirley’s gift seems purer, more true to life. There’s a special freshness to scenes like the one where she sits on the piano singing “Laugh You Son of a Gun” with Bangles. Instead of a tapdancing virtuoso, you see a happy little girl smiling out at Depression audiences, having a wonderful time singing lines like “I may be broke/But I take life as a joke” and “It doesn’t cost a thing/To buy the sun” and going heh-heh-heh, hee-hee-hee, and ho-ho-ho-ho on the chorus like any kid anywhere

The bedtime scenes are even better. When Marky begs for a story about King Arthur, Sorrowful settles down next to her and composes an Arthurian tale out of the racing form. Later, when Bangles comes back from a night on the town with a “good time Charlie” and wakes up the child, it’s her turn to take over the bedtime duties, and like a mother spelling a father, Dell curls up next to Marky, improvises a lullaby, and ends by singing both of them to sleep. Again, here’s a scene you know warmed and charmed Depression audiences, especially parents.

Another sequence guaranteed to shoot a St. Valentine’s arrow straight to the heart comes when Sorrowful is reading Marky a bedtime story, this one from the real King Arthur book Bangles has bought her. But by now she prefers the race track King Arthur because she thinks she’s “a bad girl” after picking up some racetrack slang from her new friends, which leads to talk of asking favors of “somebody named God.” The scene where Menjou teaches her how to pray should be an unwatchable embarrassment, except that it’s played with none of the standard bogus Hollywood piety; it’s also the moment when the rapport between Menjou and the child is most poignant. The appeal of the prayer lesson is equal to the Damon Runyon punchline that caps it: “Please God, buy Sir Sorry a new suit of clothes.”

Life and Death

It’s hard to watch Little Miss Marker without becoming fond of Dorothy Dell, referred to in Child Star as the “warm-hearted gun moll” and Shirley’s “frolicsome cohort.” It’s inevitable at some point that you wonder why such an engaging performer never became a star. A Miss Universe at 15, she sang in the 1931 Ziegfield Follies (filling in for Ruth Etting), performed on Rudy Vallee’s top-rated radio show, all before she arrived in Hollywood at 18 with her best friend, Dorothy Lamour. Why haven’t we heard of her? What happened to her career? A week after Little Miss Marker’s June 1 release, Shirley’s “special friend” was killed in a one-car crash described 50-plus years later in Child Star as “a gruesome nighttime automobile accident.” Because the two had become so close during the filming of Marker — an emotional attachment you can see taking place like a real-life subplot — the news was kept from Shirley. But while she was doing a scene from her next film, Now and Forever, that required her to be crying, Shirley overheard reference to the accident and “burst into tears.” While everyone on the set “milled around helplessly,” the director, Henry Hathaway, was quick to take advantage. As Shirley Temple Black recounts in Child Star, “he quickly called for a camera to focus on me where I lay slumped, sobbing away. First a close up, then a medium shot.” Shirley’s mother “observed the splendid performance, and remained watching while the camera continued to roll. Only I knew it was more fun to shed false tears than real ones.”

———

Due from W.W. Norton in May is John F. Kasson’s The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America, in which Kasson thoroughly and convincingly documents the impact of Shirley’s appeal to a mass audience in dire need of sweetness and light. There will be an eight-film Shirley Temple tribute on Turner Classic Movies on March 9 from 4:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Little Miss Marker and Now and Forever are available on a single DVD at the Princeton Public Library. To find out more about Dorothy Dell, visit mmortalephemera.com/16531/dorothy-dell.

 

DREAMS FOR THE WINTER WEARY: If the storms are getting you down, what better solace than a visit to Rider University’s latest art show: “Basil Alkazzi: An Odyssey of Dreams — A Decade of Paintings, 2003-2012,” currently on view in the Bart Luedeke Center on Rider University’s campus, 2083 Lawrenceville Road. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 895-5588.

DREAMS FOR THE WINTER WEARY: If the storms are getting you down, what better solace than a visit to Rider University’s latest art show: “Basil Alkazzi: An Odyssey of Dreams — A Decade of Paintings, 2003-2012,” currently on view in the Bart Luedeke Center on Rider University’s campus, 2083 Lawrenceville Road. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 895-5588.

Are contemporary artists eschewing the secular and returning to the metaphysical? For the philosophically minded, that might well be the question prompted by Rider University Art Gallery’s current exhibition of watercolor and gouache paintings by the Kuwaiti-born artist Basil Alkazzi.

“An Odyssey of Dreams: A Decade of Paintings 2003-2012” features 34 vibrant abstracts that, some think, speak to renewed interest in the metaphysical in art after a period of secular involvement.

The question will be discussed this Thursday, February 20, at 7 p.m. when Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) introduces a conversation by two leading art historians/critics, prompted by Mr. Alkazzi’s work.

In “From Secularism to the Mystical in Contemporary Art,” Donald Kuspit and Matthew Baigell will discuss the artist’s work within the broader context of a perceived turn from secularism to the expression of inner feeling, particularly the spiritual, among contemporary artists.

One of the most eminent art critics in the United States, Mr. Kuspit is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University and a senior critic at the New York Academy of Art. His writings appear in Artforum, Artnet Magazine, Sculpture, and Tema Celeste magazines, and he is the editor of Art Criticism. An influential author, his art criticism includes The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century; Psychostrategies of Avant-Garde Art; Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries; and The End of Art (and that just since 2000).

Mr. Baigell is one of the nation’s leading art historians. His books include A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s, and Artist and Identity in Twentieth Century America, which examines the work of such artists as Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, and Frank Stella, relating their art to the social contexts in which it was created, and identifying recurring themes, such as the persistence of Emersonian values, the search for national and regional identity, aspects of alienation, and their personal and religious identities as revealed in their works.

A public reception will follow the program, which was organized by Harry I. Naar, director of the Rider University Art Gallery and Judith K. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita at Rutgers and founding director of the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, who also curated the exhibition.

But one needn’t be an art historian or an art critic, to enjoy Mr. Alkazzi’s vividly colored large-scale works on hand-made paper.

Enigmatic and Mystical

The paintings are abstract in an organic rather than geometric way. Enigmatic and mystical, they conjure up warmth, pre-verbal memories, other-worldly landscapes; just the thing to transport the winter weary from the reality of snow shovels and slushy sidewalks.

They range in size from 13 x 18 inches to 40 x 30 inches and their titles convey a romantic and tender sensibility: Kiss of the Butterfly, Ascending Angel, Whispering Dreams, and Ascension in Beatitude II, on the cover of the full-color 136-page exhibition catalog.

Mr. Alkazzi has said that he hopes the show will inspire viewers with “a feeling of awe at the sublime soul within life and nature, and so, within themselves.”

In speaking of his work, Mr. Naar makes comparisons to Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko; Mr. Kuspit, who has written two books on Mr. Alkazzi and has been observing his oeuvre since the 1960s, speaks of Jung.

“My paintings of nature are the Life-Force embodied in nature, all of nature, and that includes mankind,” said Mr. Alkazzi, who describes himself as a man of faith rather than of any particular religion.

This traveling exhibition started at the Bradbury Gallery at Arkansas State University and traveled to The Anne Kittrell Gallery at the University of Arkansas before arriving at Rider where it will continue until March 2. After that it goes to the Rosenberg Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art and then to the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Long Career

The artist’s long career dates from 1973. He first discovered a talent for drawing and painting as a child at boarding school in Beirut. After attending art school in London, he spent time in Greece and then Crete and regularly exhibited his work at London’s Drian Gallery, from 1978 to 1987. Since 1985, he has lived on and off in New York and was granted U.S. residency as “an artist of exceptional ability in the arts.” Currently, he lives in Monaco.

A prolific and self-described “compulsive” painter, he has work in the public collections of museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

“An Odyssey of Dreams — A Decade of Paintings 2003 — 2012” is at the Art Gallery in the Bart Luedeke Center on the Rider campus, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, through March 2. Gallery hours are: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 895-5588.

 

IS IT TRUE LOVE OR JUST CHEMISTRY: Bernie (Kevin Hart, left) and Joan (Regina Hall) are involved in a very passionate love affair. However, neither of them seem to be interested in forging a more permanent relationship that is not based solely on their passion for each other.

IS IT TRUE LOVE OR JUST CHEMISTRY: Bernie (Kevin Hart, left) and Joan (Regina Hall) are involved in a very passionate love affair. However, neither of them seem to be interested in forging a more permanent relationship that is not based solely on their passion for each other.

Released in 1986, About Last Night was about two Chicago yuppies (played by Rob Lowe and Demi Moore) who tried to forge a solid relationship that began with a casual one-night stand. The movie was adapted from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a drama by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross).

Loosely based on the original, this remake is a romantic comedy that serves as a vehicle for the popular comic-turned-actor Kevin Hart. His character, Bernie, was the sidekick in the original film, and is now the leading man. Furthermore, the setting has been shifted to Los Angeles, and the principal cast members are now black.

Directed by Steven Pink (Hot Tub Time Machine), the picture co-stars Regina Hall opposite Hart as Joan, his love interest. Rounding out the principal cast are Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as Danny and Debbie, the aforementioned couple who are deciding to give serious commitment a go.

At the point of departure we are introduced to Bernie and Danny, best friends and co-workers at a restaurant supply company. Bernie recounts an escapade he had with Joan before he introduced Danny to Joan’s roommate. Danny is immediately smitten with Debbie, and the cinematic table is set.

Bernie and Joan can’t keep their hands off each other. By contrast, Danny and Debbie move in together, buy furniture, adopt a pet, and map out a future for themselves.

The plot thickens when Danny loses his job and ends up tending bar at Casey’s, a saloon frequented by his ex-girlfriend (Paula Patton). Bernie helps the plot along by pressuring his suddenly domesticated pal to go back to playing the field.

However, the resulting relationship tensions take a back seat to the lighthearted banter in this superficial adventure. Look for cameos by NFL great Terrell Owens as well as ones of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, via a clip from the original film.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 110 minutes. Distributor: Screen Gems

 

February 12, 2014

book revAbraham Lincoln (1809-1865) knew Shakespeare by heart. It wasn’t just that he could recite long passages from Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard III, or that he felt compelled to regale friends, associates, and secretaries with lengthy impromptu recitations, even in the White House. “By heart” is no mere figure of speech. The Bard was in his blood, and he knew when the speeches he loved had been violated or omitted, as was sometimes the case with the king’s soliloquy in Hamlet (“O, my offence is rank”) or with the glorious duel of invective between Falstaff and Hal in scene 4, act 2 of the first part of Henry IV, which was dropped altogether during a performance the president attended in March 1863.

One-hundred and fifty years ago today Lincoln turned 55. That his February 12 birth date falls in close proximity to a high-profile ceremony honoring the profession of acting — he who loved Shakespeare and died in a theater at the hands of an actor — is one of those coincidences poets, fatalists, and columnists enjoy taking note of; the same could be said of the fact that less than two weeks after Lincoln’s 154th birthday, the Best Actor Oscar went to Daniel Day Lewis for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Lewis, it’s clear, knew Lincoln “by heart,” having admitted “never, ever” feeling the same “depth of love” for a human being that he’d never met. Lincoln, he went on, probably has that effect “on most people that take the time to discover him.”

Last Days

This year the untimely February 2 death of Philip Seymour Hoffman will likely be acknowledged on Oscar night, as was Heath Ledger’s, also a month before the ceremony, in 2008.

As I write, the front section of the February 6 New York Times is on my desk along with Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy (2005); a 1904 collection of Lincoln’s Letters and Addresses; and a copy of Alec Wilkinson’s book-length profile of Pete Seeger, who died January 27. The Times is open to an article tracking Hoffman’s movements from place to place in New York (“A Complicated Actor in His Last Days”), playing with his kids in a Village playground, leaving the 92nd Street Y, landing strung out, looking like “a street person” at LaGuardia, having a four-shot espresso at Chocolate Bar, eating dinner at Automatic Slim’s, withdrawing cash from an A.T.M. at D’Agostinos. These glimpses of the actor — possibly the most familiar face on the screen for fans of sterner stuff than action blockbusters and tasteless comedies — going about his business in a familiar locale gave me a clearer sense of his stature, particularly in the way the desperate, driven, often unattractive roles he frequently played were reflected in the various eye-witness accounts of his appearance in those last days.

Sympathy for Seeger

It’s hard to resist remarking the contrast between Hoffman dying alone in New York and Pete Seeger, a beloved folk legend, dying in his nineties surrounded by family and remembered with a two-page obituary in the Times. On the Guardian tribute site someone who had seen Seeger at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 1967 wonders “Was this what it had been like to see Abe Lincoln speak? Seeger’s presence was simultaneously joyous and calming. His words, both spoken and sung were an absolute balm.” The more I read by and about Lincoln, particularly in Lincoln’s Melancholy, the less I can see in common between the man whose favorite Shakespearean play was Macbeth and the man who wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Reading Alec Wilkinson’s balanced profile of the singer, however, you find another, refreshingly less Lincolnesque Seeger. It’s hard not to like someone who can make fun of his skills as a carpenter, telling Wilkinson, “I put up some shelves to hold records and books right here, and the baby’s crib was under it. One night we heard a terrible crash, and the shelf and all the books and records had come down on her crib ….That’s the kind of stupid thing I’ve done all my life.”

You’re on Seeger’s side again when you read the transcript of his testimony during the HUAC hearings in 1955 when he took the first amendment rather than cowering in the fifth and went briefly to jail for it.

But in the context of Lincoln’s tendency for brooding and self-doubt, what most struck me about the coverage of Seeger’s death, also in connection with the coverage of Hoffman’s last days, was Jesse Wegman’s January 28 op-ed piece about Seeger protege Phil Ochs’s last night. The theme is “being there” for someone in distress. Nobody was there for Hoffman, though judging from an article in this Sunday’s Times (“His Death, Their Lives”), it’s touchingly apparent that the actor who died alone at night “with a needle in his arm” had been an inspiration to numerous others struggling with addiction. According to what Neil Young told Wegman, Seeger never forgave himself for not being there for Phil Ochs on an April night in 1976. Seeger had been in the city and was late for the train home to Beacon, an hour up the river. Ochs was in trouble, had been depressed and drinking heavily for a long time “and had reached out to Pete. ‘He really wanted to talk.’” Seeger had to choose between staying in the city to be with Ochs and taking the train home. To his lifelong regret, he’d taken the train. Ochs hanged himself that same night and “for 37 years the decision to leave that night ate at Pete.”

Brother’s Blood

Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offence is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be, or not to be.”

—President Abraham Lincoln,

17 August 1863

Lincoln was writing to the actor James H. Hackett, who had played Falstaff in the compromised version of Henry IV the president had seen some months before. Though he was writing to acknowledge receiving a copy of Hackett’s self-touting book on Shakespeare, he took the occasion to mention his favorite plays, with, again, Macbeth the most admired (“It is wonderful”). Meanwhile he neatly avoided mentioning his disappointment in a production that left out his favorite part, writing, “The best compliment I can pay is to say, as I truly can, I am very anxious to see it again.” When Hackett quoted Lincoln’s letter in a publicity broadside that generated negative press, the president responded more than graciously with a note saying that he’d “not been shocked by the newspaper comments” because such comments “constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule.”

Even as he was exercising his inner Shakespeare with the word play on malice, ridicule, and kindness in early November 1863, Lincoln was looking forward to the speech he would deliver at the dedication of the Gettysburg national cemetery later that month. No wonder, then, that he would favor the more fitting “offence is rank” soliloquy by the fratricidal Claudius, with its reference to “the primal eldest curse” of “a brother’s murder,” to “a man to double business bound,” to a hand “thicker than itself with brother’s blood,” and to the question, “Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?”

Looking for some mention of Lincoln’s 55th birthday in my 110-year-old edition of his letters and speeches, I found something from January 7, 1864, written on a letter from the governor of Ohio “regarding the shooting of a deserter on that day.” Lincoln calls the case “a very bad one,” since before receiving the governor’s message, the president had ordered the man’s “punishment commuted to imprisonment … at hard labor” for the duration of the war, “and had so telegraphed.” Lincoln explained the failed act of mercy in these words: “I did this, not on any merit in the case, but because I am trying to evade the butchering business lately.”

“The Greatest General”

The photograph of Lincoln used by Shenk for the cover of Lincoln’s Melancholy was taken in 1860, a year before he became president. The troubled expression on Lincoln’s already careworn face bears out Shenk’s subtitled premise (How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness). In a prelude, Shenk recounts the story Leo Tolstoy told a reporter a year before he died. Having found himself the guest of a Caucasian chief of the Circassians “living far from civilized life,” he was telling the chief and his “wild looking riders … and sons of the wilderness” about the Czars and the greatest military leaders, with particular emphasis on Napoleon. They were duly fascinated but they wanted more. What about “the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world,” the man whose name was Lincoln.” Tolstoy accordingly told them of Lincoln “and his wisdom, of his homelife and youth,” But they wanted to know more, “his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength,” surprised to hear that he “made such a sorry figure on a horse.” Finally they asked for a photograph of this hero who “spoke with a voice of thunder” and was “so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life.” To find a photograph, Tolstoy went to the nearest town with one of the young riders. As he handed the picture to him, Tolstoy was impressed by “the gravity of his face and the trembling of his hands” as he gazed” for several minutes silently … deeply touched.” Asked what had so moved him, the young man pointed out that Lincoln’s eyes are “full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow.”

Tolstoy no doubt embellished the moment, for he was as starstruck as the Circassians, telling the reporter that of all the great national heroes and statesmen of history, Lincoln was the only real giant … a saint of humanity whose name will live thousands of years in the legends of future generations.”

What a play Shakespeare might have written about such a man.

 

MUNCH AS PRINTMAKER: Edvard Munch’s woodcut “Two Women on the Shore”is among 26 works by the artist on display in a new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum. All of the works are from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Image Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

MUNCH AS PRINTMAKER: Edvard Munch’s woodcut “Two Women on the Shore”is among 26 works by the artist on display in a new exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum. All of the works are from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
(Image Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New Yorkopened Saturday at the Princeton University Art Museum. The show features 26 of the artist’s most powerful and well known compositions. But don’t look for his famous 1893 painting, The Scream. Instead, look for variations of his best-known painted compositions.

Highlights from the show are his woodcut/lithographs Madonna, Vampyr II, Two People: The Lonely Ones, and lithographs Anxiety and Death in the Sickroom. As their titles suggest, the themes here are typical of Munch, whose work is distilled from memories of his own troubled past and explores anxiety, sex, and death.

Curated by Calvin Brown, the University Art Museum’s associate curator of prints and drawings and organized by MoMA curators Deborah Wye and Starr Figura, the exhibition includes some of his most arresting images from MoMA’s Collection of Prints and Illustrated Books.

The exhibition focuses on the Norwegian artist’s works on paper in a wide range of printmaking methods. The selection demonstrates the artist’s innovation as well as his singular artistic vision. Munch (1863-1944) is well known as a Symbolist and Expressionist painter. He is less well known, at least outside of museum circles, for his prowess as a printmaker and this show reveals why he’s considered among the greatest printmakers of the modern period.

Born in a Norwegian village, Munch was raised by a deeply religious father. “From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born,” Munch wrote.

The artist’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did his favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. Munch was often ill and kept home from school. He occupied himself by drawing in an atmosphere where even the entertainment had a somber note (vivid ghost stories by Edgar Allan Poe, for example). It is any wonder he had macabre visions and nightmares?

One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age and Munch spoke of his two inheritances: consumption and insanity. Many of his early drawings depict miserable interiors and medicine bottles.

According to Mr. Brown, who has been at the Art Museum since 1997, the Munch show is a perfect companion to the current show of Italian drawings curated by his colleague Laura Giles.

Pushed to pick a favorite item from the show, Mr. Brown singles out the woodcut version of The Kiss, of which the exhibition has two versions: an etching and drypoint in which two lovers meld into one iconic figure and a nearly abstract color woodcut, coarsely carved and printed from a weathered pine board.

“Almost all of these prints were made as reproductions of Munch’s paintings. He made them to get his work out but he also used printmaking to experiment and explore themes and ideas that go back to key early memories,” said Mr. Brown. “It’s important to remember that Munch was a contemporary of Freud; you could say that he is trying to make sense of his own life while searching for something that is universal; his creative process involves revisiting important memories over and over again; he meditated on fundamental memories like the deaths of his mother and sister and crystallized his experiences to discover the universal conditions of modern existence.”

Asked whether he might enjoy the artist’s company, Mr. Brown said: “I think he would have been a difficult but engaging fellow. He was very well-connected to poets, writers, and painters so he must have been a good companion but he was was given to depression and he drank a great deal.”

If all anyone knows about Munch’s work is The Scream, then they would be missing out, said Mr. Brown. “The Scream is just one of a handful of images he produced around the theme of anxiety, and anxiety is just one aspect of his work.”

The Scream is the best known of Munch’s intensely psychological works and a version (there are several) was sold at auction for $119.9 million in May 2012, at the time the most expensive artwork ever sold at an open auction; another version was stolen and recovered from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994; and another version was stolen in 2004 from The Munch Museum in Oslo, but recovered in 2006.

The etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts are arranged according to the techniques that Munch explored, from the first etchings and drypoints that he made in Berlin in 1893, to the Frieze of Life: A Poem about LIfe, Love and Death that was shown at the Berlin Secession of 1902. The Frieze is a collection of works that examine the artist’s major motifs: the stages of life, the femme fatale, the hopelessness of love, anxiety, infidelity, jealousy, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.

Also explored are Munch’s collaborations with some of the finest printers in Berlin and Paris. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch’s work as “degenerate art,” putting him in company with the likes of Picasso, Klee, Matisse, and Gauguin.

“The visual intensity of these prints plumbs depths that may be even greater than Munch’s paintings due to the nature and immediacy of his graphic achievement,” said Museum Director James Steward. “His profound connection with audiences over the last century is a testament to his ability to fuse our shared human experiences with his own expressive vision.”

“Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New York” will be at at the Princeton University Art Museum through June 8. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.

 

SHALL WE DANCE: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) dances the night away with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). The two met when Peter broke into Beverly’s room one night and unexpectedly encountered her. The pair fell hopelessly in love and, because she was dying from tuberculosis, began a whirlwind romance to make the most of their short time together.

SHALL WE DANCE: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) dances the night away with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). The two met when Peter broke into Beverly’s room one night and unexpectedly encountered her. The pair fell hopelessly in love and, because she was dying from tuberculosis, began a whirlwind romance to make the most of their short time together.

Peter Lake’s (Colin Farrell) parents had hoped to immigrate to the U.S. but were turned away at Ellis Island upon their arrival early in the 20th century. Although they weren’t allowed into America, the Russian couple decided to leave their baby behind, and set him adrift in a tiny model of a ship called the “City of Justice.”

The infant was carried to the shores of Bayonne, New Jersey where he was found and raised by compassionate clam-diggers. Upon coming of age, he moved to Manhattan and became a mechanic until he was pressured into joining a gang of thieves led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe).

Peter learned how to be a thief under Pearly’s tutelage, but the two became enemies after Peter tired of taking orders from him. However, after severing his ties to the gang, Peter was fearful that Soames would avenge his defection from the group.

A moment of truth occurs when Peter is surrounded by his former colleagues but is somehow spirited away by a winged white stallion. Another turning point in his life happens the night he breaks into a mansion through a second floor window.

When he breaks into the room Peter encounters Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a sickly young heiress who is dying from tuberculosis. Despite her illness, he falls hopelessly in love with the frail philosophical free-spirited woman. Over the objections of her skeptical father (William Hurt), the lovers begin an otherworldly romance.

Thus unfolds Winter’s Tale, a delightful flight of fancy that is the directorial debut of Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of A Beautiful Mind. Akiva also wrote the script for this film which is based on Mark Helprin’s best-seller of the same name.

Does this movie measure up to the source material? Can’t say, since I haven’t read it. Nevertheless, I found this well crafted piece of magical realism quite imaginative and intriguing, though I suspect fans of the book might be a bit disappointed, given how much is invariably lost in translation when adapting a 700 page book into a movie.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sensuality and violence. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.