January 8, 2014
BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 2, 2014

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

—John Lennon

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

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

Enter O’Toole

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

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

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

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

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


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

Remembering a Librarian

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 26, 2013

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

—Audrey Totter (1917-2013)

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

A Recent Noir Romance

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

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

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

A Christmas Film Noir

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

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

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

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

Noir Is Where You Find It

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

The Femme Fatale at 90

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman of a Thousand Faces 

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

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

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

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

The Anti-Hero

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

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

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

Falling Stars

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 11, 2013

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

—said by Zanuba, the lute player

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

A Half-Open Window

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

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

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

A Half-Open Door

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

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

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

Pulling Out All the Stops

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

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

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

A Very Special Editor 

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

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

Tahrir Square

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 4, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Salinger

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

The Necessity of Rain

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

The Rilke Connection

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

From the Cutting Room Floor

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

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


Black Friday is principally known for early Christmas shopping, but music has its own post-Thanksgiving tradition in Princeton with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Black Friday” concert. Starting within just a few minutes of the packed house at the Palmer Square tree-lighting, Friday night’s NJSO performance at Richardson Auditorium was no concert of holiday fluff — Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed an evening of demanding piano and orchestral music, including a world premiere.

The NJSO New Jersey Roots Project has become an integral part of the organization’s commitment to bringing the works of the state’s composers to the forefront. Lowell Liebermann found inspiration for Barcarolles for a Sinking City in the city of Venice, but the four-movement work began with a somewhat dark view of the “Floating City.” The barcarolle, a song of the Venetian gondoliers, rolls along in a motion depicting a boat on waves. The opening Funeral Gondola of Liebermann’s work maintained the smooth roll, but dark melodies from solo instruments and sectional violins made it clear that this was not a sunny ride through canals.

The second movement paid direct tribute to the most well-known barcarolle in music with Liebermann’s incorporation of Jacques Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann into a hymn-like orchestral fabric punctuated by unusual instrumental effects. Throughout the Quodlibet movement, refined instrumental solos came through the texture, including from trombonist Charles Baker, bass clarinetist Lino Gomez, and English horn player Andrew Adelson. The carillon effect of the third movement Ostinato/Carillon was created by the scoring of marimba and xylophone, contrasted by Alexandra Knoll’s eloquent oboe solo. Like Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra closed the concert program), Liebermann likes to explore all instruments of the orchestra, and Barcarolles for a Sinking City created a palette from a myriad of instrumental combinations and abrupt shifts in dynamics which were well-handled by the NJSO.

Mr. Lacombe turned his attention to virtuosity in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, featuring a dazzling pianist in Texas native Adam Golka. Although only in his mid-20s, Mr. Golka has amassed an impressive array of credits, both as a recitalist and concerto soloist. Ravel’s concerto is short by concerto standards, but full of technically demanding passages within an impressionistic palette. The key to this performance was precision, beginning with the percussive snap which opened the first movement. Mr. Golka excelled in both languid and technically quick passages, showing very fluid playing against the orchestra’s light and crisp sound.

Ravel patterned the middle movement Adagio after the music of Mozart, leaving great opportunity for Mr. Golka’s sensitive playing. The steadiness of his left hand never stopped, with graceful counter melodies provided by flutist Bart Feller and English horn player Mr. Adelson. The NJSO brought out the jazz influences in the work with klezmer-like winds and fierce percussion in the closing passages of the work.

Bartok’s five-movement Concerto for Orchestra showed the capabilities of almost all the players in the orchestra, with solid lower strings in the opening movement and wind scales going in many different directions. This piece required vigorous playing from the strings, complemented by sweet timbres from the English horn, bass clarinet, and a pair of harps. Winds were kept busy with solos, including from Ms. Knoll and clarinetist Karl Herman, and pairs of winds effectively brought out the Eastern flavor of the work. A rare movement of double bass exposure in the third movement was contrasted by clean piccolo playing from Kathleen Nester as Mr. Lacombe gently tapered phrase endings amid the full sound of the orchestra. Mr. Lacombe also worked hard to build dynamics slowly, effectively closing the concert with the orchestra in robust form.


HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is stuck in a dead-end job at a rural Pennsylvania steel mill that is rumored to be closing soon. However, he’s not in a position to leave the area in search of greener pastures because he has to care for his terminally-ill widowed father (Bingo O’Malley) and a younger brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Rodney, a military veteran, hasn’t been able to make the adjustment back to civilian life after having served several tours of duty in Iraq. In fact, he hasn’t been the same since their mother died.

Because of a burgeoning gambling debt, Rodney has agreed to participate in street fights — that are fixed — that are being staged by the bookie (Willem Dafoe), to whom Rodney owes a lot of money. Trouble is Rodney becomes so blinded with rage after being punched, that he can’t be relied upon to throw the fight as promised.

Russell is so desperate to help his brother that he’s even willing to pay off Rodney’s I.O.U. in increments on his modest salary. But even that plan goes up in smoke after Russell is arrested for manslaughter when he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

By the time he’s paroled, Rodney has disappeared and is rumored to have been abducted out of state by a ruthless gang of drug dealers who are led by a sadistic Ramapo Indian (Woody Harrelson). The local police chief (Forest Whitaker) is sympathetic, but has no jurisdiction in New Jersey, which leaves Russell no choice but to take the law into his own hands with the help of his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).

Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Out of the Furnace is a gritty thriller that unfolds against the backdrop of a decaying American landscape. Thus, almost overshadowing the desperate search at the center of the story, is the background behind the film of an aging national infrastructure that is irreversibly past its prime.

While the violence occasionally goes over the top, the film nevertheless remains highly recommended, because the cast is as adept at delivering dialogue as it is in dispensing street justice.

The movie is a gruesome showdown between warring clans that is reminiscent of the backwoods feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, drug use, and graphic violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.


November 27, 2013

New York City, how I love you, blink your eyes and I’ll be gone

just a little grain of sand.

—Lou Reed (1942-2013),

from “Nyc Man”

If anybody starts using me as scenery, I’ll return to New York.

—Grace Kelly (1929-1982)

dvd rev1Writing shortly after he’d moved to New York in August 1932, James Agee, who was born on November 27, 1909, describes listening at night to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a phonograph in his office on the 50th floor of the Chrysler Building: “An empty skyscraper is just about an ideal place for it … with all New York about 600 feet below you, and with that swell ode, taking in the whole earth, and with everyone on earth supposedly singing it …. With Joy speaking over them: O ye millions, I embrace you … and all mankind shall be as brothers beneath thy tender and wide wings.”

Typically, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family balances his swelling rhapsody with some topical reality, referring to “all this depression over the world” and of two feelings the city inspires, “one the feeling of that music — of a love and pity and joy” for people and the other for the “mob of them in this block I live in … a tincture of sickness and cruelty and selfishness in the faces of most of them.”

Coming to the City

Until I started relistening to Lou Reed’s music, I hadn’t intended to write about the singer songwriter and self-described “New York City man” who died at 71 on October 27. My plan, after a birthday nod to Agee, had been to focus on Grace Kelly, whose life is the subject of “Beyond the Icon,” the lavish exhibit that will be at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown through January of next year. Although I’m still absorbing Reed’s music, his identification with New York is reason enough to bring him on board. Some 40 years after Agee came to the city, Reed released his best-known solo album, Transformer, featuring  “Walk On the Wild Side,” an edgy ode to people drawn to Andy Warhol’s Manhattan domain, namely Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe Dallessandro, Sugar Plum Fairy Joe Campbell, and Jackie Curtis. Joining them in two other great Lou Reed songs are “Sweet Jane,” who knows “that women never really faint/and that villains always blink their eyes,” and seven-year-old Jenny in “Rock and Roll Music” who “one fine mornin’ puts on a New York station” and “starts dancin’ to that fine fine music. You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”

New York was also 18-year-old Grace Kelly’s destination in 1947 when to the chagrin of her well-heeled Philadelphia family (her father saw acting “as a slim cut above streetwalker”) she decided to devote herself to a career in the theater. Living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women might not exactly be a walk on the wild side (men were denied access above the street level foyer), but there were lovers to come, and it’s fitting that her two most memorable performances are in movies with Manhattan settings, The Country Girl, for which she won an Oscar cast against type as the nagging adulterous muse to a drunken actor played by Bing Crosby, and Rear Window, which gave her the sexiest role of her brief career thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s talent for turning his erotic fantasies into cinematic art.

The Plot Thickens

As for Andy Warhol himself, he came to New York from Pittsburgh two years after Grace’s arrival; meanwhile Brooklyn born Lou Reed grew up on Long Island and definitively entered the life of the city in 1964 after graduating from Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz (“the first great person I ever met”). Reed showed his appreciation by dedicating the Velvet Underground song “European Son” to his mentor and later by composing a tribute called “My House” (“to find you in my house makes things perfect”). Another Brooklyn native, Schwartz had settled in Manhattan in the late 1930s and just as Reed would find himself as an artist in the Warhol/East Village scene, Schwartz flourished through his connection with the Partisan Review, where he befriended the wildly talented, driven, reckless human being laboring for Fortune and Time 50 floors up in the Chrysler Building. As it turned out, James Agee would make his name writing the column on film for The Nation that W.H. Auden dubbed “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism.” Had Agee’s hell-bent heavy-drinking lifestyle permitted it and had he stayed on as a film reviewer into the 1950s, we might have known his thoughts on Grace Kelly and Rear Window, which was released the year before he died and a mere two years before Grace became a princess, an event that Hitchcock helped make possible by casting her in the film (To Catch a Thief) that took her to Monaco.

By now it seems that once New York becomes the common denominator, all bets are off and the plot fantastically thickens. Though he lived outside Manhattan over the years (in Hollywood and up the Delaware River in Frenchtown), Agee was, like Reed and Schwartz, a New York City man right up to the day he died, stricken with a fatal attack of angina in a taxi in May 1955. What more Manhattan-centric place to make your quietus than in a Yellow Cab, commanded in this case by a driver who knew to rush his passenger to Roosevelt Hospital, the same facility to which an ambulance brought another New Yorker of note named John Lennon 25 years later on December 8, a day that coincides with the date of Delmore Schwartz’s birth — a hundred years ago this year.

Hitchcock’s New York

You might say that Hitchcock has “done” New York. There’s Cary Grant in Grand Central Station in North by Northwest (1959), Robert Cummings in the crown of the Statue of Liberty as the villain goes screaming to his death in Saboteur (1942), Grace Kelly as the victim in a New York apartment in a lesser film, Dial M for Murder (1954), Henry Fonda falsely accused in The Wrong Man (1956), Jimmy Stewart in a Manhattan apartment where a murder has been committed in Rope (1948), and most significantly in relation to the myth of Grace Kelly, Stewart is the central character in Hitchcock’s salute to the voyeur in all of us, Rear Window, where he’s in a wheel chair, his leg in a cast, observing with morbid fascination the play of life going on in the windows of the apartment building across the way. The scenario even provides a street address to help situate you, 125 West 9th, but this is strictly a Hollywood Manhattan made on a Paramount sound stage and the most New York thing about it is the voice and vigor of Brooklynite Thelma Ritter.

dvd rev2All Grace

Rear Window is adored by Hitchcockians and film buffs in general for exploring the act of seeing, the voyeur as audience; it’s also appreciated for its automat-style tableau of city life (each little window a movie screen featuring the newlyweds, the quarrelling couple, the lonely woman, the composer at the piano, the party, the lady with the dog, the losers and winners, and the act of murder deduced by Stewart’s prying photographer), but the film’s most memorable, most glamorously cinematic moment is all Grace. Nowhere else in her career does the legend so enchantingly shine forth.

Hitchcock takes pride in having deliberately subverted the decorous Princess Grace stereotype. “I didn’t discover Grace,” he has said, “but … I prevented her from being eternally cast as a cold woman.” In an interview with Oriana Fallaci, after nastily disposing of Kim Novak and Vera Miles, Hitchcock has nothing but kind words for Kelly: “She’s sensitive, disciplined, and very sexy. People think she’s cold. Rubbish! She’s a volcano covered with snow!”

That oft-quoted metaphor is unworthy of what happens when we first see Grace Kelly’s Lisa Carol Fremont in Rear Window. This is an appearance, not an entrance, and far more subtle, stylish, and erotic than a snow-covered volcano would suggest. The sequence begins with the camera panning across the vista of windows Stewart has been inspecting; you hear a woman singing scales and you can see people walking and traffic moving on a portion of Ninth Street through a space between the buildings opposite. The disabled photographer in the wheelchair is dozing when a shadow falls over him. The shadow is characteristic Hitchcock, a sly tease leading you to imagine for a second that some malign force is about to descend on the helpless man. After all, this is an exposed first-floor apartment on a steamy Greenwich Village summer evening. But instead of the fearsome source of the shadow bending over its victim, a beautiful face is coming toward us, right at us, filling the screen (still with a hint of the sinister, could be a green-eyed vampire in a nightmare Stewart’s having, red lips parted, lusting for the bared throat), there’s the shadow again flowing over him as his eyes open, he looks up, and sees the luminous face of his lover bending close to kiss him, she in a swooning motion; shown in profile, it’s the epitome of a kiss, promising everything but only promising, as she asks, her lips touching his, kissing each question, how’s his leg, how’s his stomach, and then, smiling sublimely, “And your love life?”

This is the woman in the print Andy Warhol made after Kelly’s death in 1982, less Princess Grace of Monaco than Lisa Carol Tremont, who has definite features in common with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Now imagine you’re 50 floors up in the empty Chrysler Building on James Agee’s birthday, it’s late at night, and instead of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy you’re listening to the long version of “Sweet Jane,” the one on Fully Loaded, the expanded version of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded, where everyone “who ever had a heart…wouldn’t turn around and break it,” and anyone “who ever played a part…wouldn’t turn around and hate it,”— and the restored lines, all Grace, “Heavenly wine and roses/Seem to whisper to her when she smiles.”

Books consulted were Letters of James Agee To Father Flye and Donald Spoto’s High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly.

The Westminster Conservatory, which houses the Westminster Community Orchestra, has within its ranks a wealth of musical talent not often heard on area public stages. The Community Orchestra and conductor Ruth Ochs have a long relationship with Westminster Conservatory pianist Phyllis Alpert Lehrer (who performed with the orchestra last season) and this past weekend showcased another conservatory colleague in pianist Ena Bronstein Barton. Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Community Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium featured a Beethoven piano concerto played by Barton with both lyrical classicism and a bit of dramatic fire. 

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major had an auspicious start at its premiere in 1808, sandwiched among at least five other monumental works by Beethoven, but has since found its place in concerto repertory. A concerto from this period should be  marked by classical sparkle, and a pianist of Barton’s caliber would no doubt bring drama to the piece, and neither aspect of the performance disappointed the audience.

Barton opened the concerto with elegant but strong chords, cleanly answered by the strings. Both orchestra and soloist brought out the dynamic accents heard to the extreme in late Beethoven. Subtle instrumental solos by oboist Helen Ackley and flutist Judy Singleton complemented Barton as she launched into keyboard runs in the middle of the first movement. Barton used a bit more pedal than some might be used to in a piece from the early 19th century, but she maintained exceptional clarity, especially among parallel thirds as her hands flew over the keys.

Throughout the concerto, the Community Orchestra matched Barton’s level of virtuosity, as Ochs watched Barton carefully to keep ensemble and soloist exactly in time. Barton found intense fire in the cadenza to the first movement, with shades of drama amidst the long melodic scales and false cadences.

Ochs paired the Beethoven concerto with an expansive symphony by Antonin Dvorak, whose works contain complex ideas within small spaces and require great orchestral stamina to maintain musical intensity. In the opening movement of Dvorak’s 1884 Symphony no. 7 in D Major, Ochs brought out the rolling drama of the music with trumpets and trombones which were always clean. The first and fourth movements of this symphony had an overall dark character, but Dvorak can also be nimble and airy, and the oboes, clarinets, and flutes of the Community Orchestra aided in creating contrasting lighter sections.

The orchestra achieved its fullest sound of the afternoon toward the end of the first movement of the Dvorak, with a trio of clean horns paying homage to Wagner’s orchestration. Throughout the symphony, wind playing was precise, including solos from flutist Ms. Singleton, clarinetist Daniel Beerbohm, and oboist Ms. Ackley, and the winds particularly came to the forefront in the Trio of the third movement. Ochs whipped the orchestra into a frenzy for the close of the third movement Scherzo, with the rhythmic motives of the movement clear. This is a work which grew more settled within the players as the movements progressed, with the back row of brass, including trumpets, trombones, and tuba, always accurate. The fourth movement in particular contained a myriad of musical ideas, and the orchestra always managed to hang onto their focus to convey the complex instrumental palette.

The Dvorak symphony was an especially challenging work for the Westminster Community Orchestra, and Conductor Ochs was deservedly proud of the players following Sunday’s performance. The Beethoven concerto held the audience’s attention for Ms. Barton’s exceptional playing, and the Dvorak brought the Community Orchestra together to reach a demanding and difficult new performance height.


FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

The Hunger Games book trilogy has so captured the collective imagination of children the world over that it has already eclipsed Harry Potter as the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic adventure is set in Panem, a dystopia in which the poverty stricken majority are brutally subjugated by the powerful, privileged few.

In the first film, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grudgingly participated in a winner-take-all death match against other teens, each representing his or her home district. Known as the Hunger Games, the annual competition is presented to the masses as entertainment designed to distract them from their miserable plight.

Wise beyond her years, underdog Katniss emerged triumphant at the end of the first episode by virtue of a combination of craftiness, compassion, and her skills as an archer. However, she did break a cardinal rule by sparing the life of her co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her friend and male counterpart from District 12.

At the second movie’s point of departure, we find the pair embarking on a government sponsored victory tour around the country. However, when their speeches stir up revolutionary fervor in the crowds, vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland) breaks a promise by drafting the pair to take part in the Quarter Quell, a tournament of champions comprised entirely of former Hunger Games winners.

So, it’s not long before they’re back in training for another life or death contest, this time against elite opponents with weapons and capabilities that range from fang-like teeth, uncanny intuition, chameleon-like camouflage, and the ability to harness electricity. Each of the entrants, known as tributes, is introduced by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the festivities’ unctuous master of ceremonies.

Once the pomp and circumstance of the opening ritual are out of the way, the gruesome main event begins. Alliances are forged, and bargains are made, followed by literal and figurative backstabbing in a desperate contest which ultimately forces a cruel betrayal of any loyalties.

In spite of all its frenetic action, this movie nevertheless suffers from a classic case of inbetween-itis, since it is a bridge to the third book’s conclusion.

Very Good (***). PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, frightening images, mature themes, and a suggestive situation. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.


November 20, 2013

book revI used to have the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through. It’s a funny thing that as long as you have that feeling you seem to get through. I’ve lost that feeling lately but as a matter of fact I don’t feel bad about it. If anything happens to me I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. 

—John Kennedy, from a letter to Inga Arvad

Written from the South Pacific following the August 1, 1943 sinking of PT-109, the long letter from Navy Lt. John Kennedy to his lover is worth a close look for what it says about a man in his mid-20s who already appears to have an enlightened sense of history and an interesting sense of himself. It’s one of the most revealing documents in The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury $30), edited by Martin W. Sandler and billed as the first such collection ever.

If Kennedy was satisfied with the quality of his life in 1943, what he achieved in the limited quantity he had left is astonishing, especially given what he was dealing with physically, day by day. As Sandler points out in the book’s last section (“A Triumph of Will”), here was a man who received the last rites of the Catholic Church four times, whose image of “glowing health and energy” (“vigor” a presidential buzz word) was “a well-orchestrated lie.” After mentioning how Kennedy “relied heavily on drugs and pills,” Sandler refers to the spending of “many days in bed,” which can be read two ways, given JFK’s legendary sex life. In fact, if he had been healthy, he might have graduated from Princeton, having actually enrolled at Old Nassau in 1935 “where he immediately concentrated on what was to become a lifetime obsession — the conquest of beautiful women.” We’ll never know how this need played out in the unlikely setting of pre-coed Princeton, for he soon “fell ill” with Addison’s disease, the sickness that would “continue to plague him for the rest of his life.” As a result, he missed most of the school year and enrolled at Harvard in 1936.

While most of the letters in this collection were written by the candidate or senator or president and will be of primary interest to historians, the exchange with Inga Arvad offers a teasing glimpse of the protagonist of the novel Norman Mailer imagined but never wrote, an existential adventurer with style and wit and a political agenda. Mailer tested the idea in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the Esquire essay on the 1960 Democratic Convention projecting candidate Kennedy as “‘your first hipster’ … a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or 12 years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old.”

Jack and Inga

Inga Arvad (1913-1973) was a Danish journalist who met Jack Kennedy (1917-1963) through his sister Kathleen when both women were working for the Washington Times Herald. Winner of a beauty contest at 16, she competed for the Miss Europe title a year later, around the time she eloped with an Egyptian diplomat, divorced him and in 1936 married Hungarian-born Paul Fejos, director of the silent classic Lonesome (in later life she married movie cowboy Tim McCoy, settled down in Hollywood, and raised a family). She was still married to Fejos when the romance with Kennedy began in November 1940. The FBI took an interest in the affair after the U.S. entered the war and it was discovered that Inga had conducted several sympathetic interviews with Adolph Hitler. That, and a photo of Inga and Hitler at the Summer Olympics, was all it took for her to be cast as a German spy. Hotel rooms were bugged, with FBI agents listening in, compiling transcripts indicating that besides making a whole lot of love, Jack and Inga took the relationship seriously, Kennedy with thoughts of annulling both her marriages so he could wed her in the Catholic Church, Inga with thoughts of carrying his baby (“you are the kind the world ought to swarm with”).

In the only letter from Arvad in the collection, she sounds at once amorous, sisterly, and maternal when she describes “the young handsome Boston Bean” who “when you talk to him or see him you always have the impression that his big white teeth are ready to bite off a huge hunk of life.” Her advice to him has an almost Emersonian ring: “Go up the steps of fame. But — pause now and then to make sure that you are accompanied by happiness. Stop and ask yourself ‘Does it sing inside me today.’ If that is gone. Look around and don’t take another step till you are certain life is as you will and want it.”

Kennedy’s reference to “the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through” echoes the wording of an earlier letter to his parents describing the man in his PT-109 crew who “always seemed to have the feeling that something was going to happen to him …. When a fellow gets the feeling that he’s in for it, the only thing to do is let him get off the boat because strangely enough, they always seem to be the ones that do get it.” Kennedy refers to the same man’s fate more explicitly in his letter to Inga: “He told me one night he thought he was going to be killed …. He was in the forward gun turret when the destroyer hit us.”

A Ranch in Texas?

In view of the day in Dallas when the survivor who had lived with death finally failed to “get through,” the most curious reference in the letter is when he tells Inga “you said you figured that I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that. This thing is so stupid that while it has a sickening fascination for some of us, myself included, I want to leave it far behind when I go.”

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination looming (this year, as it did in 1963, November 22 falls on a Friday), the mention of Texas requires at least a moment or two of reflection. Without access to the other letters, there’s no way to track down previous references to the possibility that Kennedy might have considered going to Texas to write a book about his wartime experience. According to Michael O’Brien’s biography of Kennedy, he discussed presidential ambitions with Inga as early as 1941 and was “torn between postwar dreams of moving to a ranch out west or pursuing an extraordinary political ambition.” Inga was “quite convinced that he had it in him to become president if he set his mind to it.” She saw “the ranch out West” as an alternative to “the highway to the White House,” and “out West” presumably could mean Texas. Considering the labyrinth of coincidence and conspiracy surrounding the assassination, perhaps someone will do some research on whether Kennedy ever imagined a life for himself on a ranch in Texas.

In his preface to the letters from May-October 1963, Sandler cites the various warnings Kennedy received about a visit to Dallas in the third week of November. A member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas said that the city “simply wasn’t safe for Kennedy and should be avoided.” When Senator William Fulbright repeated the warning and advised him not to go, “Kennedy responded by saying that if any president ever reached the point where he was afraid to visit any American city, he should immediately resign.”

More Than a Celebrity

A month ago in the October 22 New York Times Book Review, there was a piece on “Kennedy the Elusive President” discussing the “Kennedy fixation” that has inspired “an estimated 40,000 books.” One of the biographers, Robert Dallek, told the Times that “the mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” seeing him “more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”

Kennedy was more than a celebrity, he was a star, which is one reason why even as history books are negatively reassessing his administration, he still enjoys the highest approval rating among presidents of the 20th-21st centuries.

The 60s had begun with the frigid weather of the inauguration, a bareheaded old poet reciting, a bareheaded young president declaiming. After the shots in Dallas, it was if the decade had been cut down in its tracks with the man who had symbolically set it in motion. A few months later, on February 7, 1964, four young men from Liverpool arrived in America and for many of us, the 60s, for better or worse, stood up and got moving again.


NEW WORK BY JUDY BRODSKY: Works by acclaimed New Jersey printmakerJudith K. Brodsky, including “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male),” shown here, are currently on view at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) in an exhibition marking the Center’s 40th anniversary. “Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” at PCNJ, 440 River Road, Branchburg, runs through December 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

NEW WORK BY JUDY BRODSKY: Works by acclaimed New Jersey printmakerJudith K. Brodsky, including “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male),” shown here, are currently on view at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) in an exhibition marking the Center’s 40th anniversary. “Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” at PCNJ, 440 River Road, Branchburg, runs through December 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

An exhibition at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) offers a rare chance to see works by two influential New Jersey artists who have shaped the development of printmaking in the state.

“Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” opened earlier this month at PCNJ and will continue through December 31. Marking the Center’s 40th anniversary year, the show celebrates the commitment of both of these artists to printmaking. Ms. Brodsky and Mr. Chapin were the moving hands behind two of New Jersey’s most important printmaking institutions.

Mr. Chapin was one of five New Jersey artists who founded the Printmaking Center back in 1973, when it was known as the Printmaking Council of New Jersey. Ms. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita of the Department of Visual Arts at Rutgers, is the founder and former director of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, renamed the Brodsky Center in her honor. This is the long-time Princeton resident’s first exhibition of new work since 2010.

Of late, Ms. Brodsky has been so focused on curating shows by other artists that she has had little time to devote to her own artistic endeavors. In conjunction with Ferris Olin, with whom she co-founded and co-directs the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art and The Feminist Art Project, a national program to promote recognition of women artists, she curated “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society” last year. The exhibition and accompanying events and book focused on women artists, filmmakers, writers, and composers of the Middle East.

Recently, Ms. Brodsky completed work on a catalog and traveling exhibition of a decade of work by painter Basil Alkazzi, which will arrive at Rider University in February.

“I wasn’t in my studio very much until the PCNJ asked me to have an exhibition there in celebration of its 40th anniversary,” acknowledged Ms. Brodsky. “It was wonderful because it gave me a deadline that would help me shift gears from curatorial and other organizational activities to concentrating on my own work again.”

In September, the artist worked “night and day to finish 10 large pieces that make up the PCNJ exhibition.” Half of them are etchings and the other half consist of digital collages and drawings, part of a new project called “The Twenty Most Important Questions of the 21st Century.” “I was inspired by a list I saw in the science section of The New York Times at the turn of the millennium and that has been on my mind ever since,” she explained.

On view here are the first 10 of Ms. Brodsky’s 20-piece series inspired by the millennium questions. They are large by print standards, one is five feet in length, and bear thought-provoking titles such as What Came Before the Big Bang, How Does the Brain Work, Why Do We Sleep, Can Science Prove There’s a God, and Will We Go to Mars. How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced, shown here is one half of a male/female a diptych.

Created using digital and traditional mark-making techniques, Ms. Brodsky’s visually provocative images strike a balance between content and formal qualities. They prompt the viewer to an intellectual as well as an emotional response. The artist has said that she has always thought of her work as “visual responses to, and documentation of, the defining elements of the era in which she has lived.” Always conscious of history she believes that people in the future will learn about our time through works of art.

For the exhibition, Ms. Brodsky shares space with fellow printmaker Peter Chapin. Originally from New Jersey, Mr. Chapin now lives in New Mexico. “Works by the two of us make a nice combination,” commented Ms. Brodsky, whose work is in the permanent collections of the New Jersey State Museum, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, the Library of Congress, the Zimmerli Art Museum, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and Berlin’s Stadtmuseum, among others.

Mr. Chapin’s drypoint prints, other works on paper, and acrylic paintings are in the collections of J. P. Morgan Chase, Prudential Insurance Company, and the estate of Elaine deKooning. He served as executive art director of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey and co-directed Skylight Conversations in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” runs through December 31 at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, 440 River Road, Branchburg. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.


Each year at this time, Princeton takes on Yale in a football game that, for more than a century, has been bringing out the best in student competition. Over the same century, the Princeton and Yale Glee Clubs have presented a joint concert to kick off the weekend of collective school spirit and friendly rivalry. Glee clubs have a long tradition of fostering camaraderie but collegiate choral singing is not just for drinking and football songs anymore. This past Friday night’s “Centennial Football Concert” with the Princeton and Yale University Glee Clubs in Richardson Auditorium featured a challenging mixture of choral works, together with a commissioned premiere.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch and his Yale counterpart, Jeffrey Douma each programmed a range of music reflecting a variety of anniversaries as well as their own personal repertoire specialties. Following works by Brahms and Victoria, Dr. Douma led the Yale Glee Club in music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including his own arrangements. In the Brahms piece, which opened the program, Douma found a Viennese flow to the music, showing off a light and clear sound from the sopranos in the Glee Club. In a refreshing piece by Mark Sirett, the 16-voice Yale Glee Club Chamber Singers demonstrated the same exact tuning under the direction of Yale Masters student Kathleen Allan.

Douma paid tribute to British composer John Tavener, who died this month, with a performance of Song for Athene, probably Tavener’s most well-known piece. Although the low choral drone was hard to hear from these young voices, the lone melodic lines were well sustained and harmonic shifts from major to minor were well executed. The singers achieved particular intensity on the text “Life: a shadow and a dream.” Douma closed his half of the concert with two of his own imaginative compositions, as well as a medley of football songs by historic Yale Glee Club conductor Fenno Heath, sung to the backdrop of the obligatory friendly heckling from the Princeton Glee Club members in the balcony.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch focused his half of the concert on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, acknowledging a myriad of anniversaries. Most significant was the choice of Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, composed for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, and the Carol (Maiden in the Mor Lay) who would have turned 100 on the same date as Kennedy’s assassination. Interspersed throughout the Glee Club’s program were other unofficial anniversaries, including 400 years since the death of Carlo Gesualdo and 70 years since the death of Sergei Rachmaninoff, both composers of works in the concert. With his choice of the jazzy I’m a Train, Crouch may also have inadvertently paid tribute to the legendary “Princeton locomotive” cheer heard so often in Richardson Auditorium over the past decades.

In their opening selections from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, the Princeton Glee Club presented large blocks of sound, with an effective flow to the music. Crouch kept the members of the nearly 80-voice Glee Club close together, allowing the solid chords to ring through Richardson as they would have resounded through spacious Russian churches. Commendable in the second selection Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda was mezzo-soprano soloist Saunghee Ko, who displayed a rich sound well beyond her years and complete ease with the low register of the solo.

Crouch’s conducting “bread and butter” is the music of late 19th-century and early 20th-century England, and he showed his mettle with the Glee Club in the music of C.V. Stanford and Herbert Howells. The harmonies in Stanford’s Beati quorum via unfolded luxuriantly from the women’s voices, and the difficult harmonies in Howells’ Take Him, Earth were well-handled by the chorus. Crouch showed a lighter side of the Glee Club Chamber Chorus in a double-chorus selection by Bach, with a polished and clear sound from the singers. He also gave a student the chance to lead the Glee Club, and Princeton senior Kamna Gupta showed that minimal conducting gestures can produce tremendous results in a crisp presentation of Britten’s Carol.

The two University Glee Clubs joined forces for a premiere of a work by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi commissioned specifically for this occasion. The Famous Tay Whale, led by both conductors (each conducted their own respective chorus in tag-team conducting) was a jazzy and homophonic setting of humorous text appropriate for the concert. Pianists Paul Noh and Min Joo Yi well handled a keyboard accompaniment which was entertaining in itself.

As one can read elsewhere in this paper, Princeton beat Yale in the football game Saturday and is on its way to an Ivy title. Friday night’s performance by the two Glee Clubs showed that the students from these two Universities were well capable of handling complex and difficult choral music while asserting their places in their respective scholastic histories. Equally as important, this engaging concert also proved that healthy competition in a choral setting can do as much as sports to create fine young individuals in a college setting.


MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) was informed that he had 30 days to live when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1986.

While pharmaceutical companies around the world were testing hundreds of chemical compounds in hopes of developing an antidote, the only one approved for distribution in America was AZT, a medication so toxic that it almost killed Ron. Rather than resign himself to a quick death, the tough Texan resolved to fight for his life.

First, he visited a clinic in Mexico that was promoting a cocktail of alternative therapies and purchased enough drugs to test the experimental regimen on himself. When the trial proved effective, he sneaked back across the border, posing as a priest, and smuggled a trunk full of pills out of the country.

Soon thereafter, the enterprising Woodroof founded the Dallas Buyers Club in order to skirt the law and distribute unapproved substances such as Interferon, Peptide T and Compound Q. A mere $400 per month would afford club members access to a variety of state-of-the-art AIDS remedies.

Because of his homophobia, the gruff good ol’ boy wisely went into business with a partner who had deep roots in the gay community. Flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV positive transsexual, played a pivotal role in attracting a clientele of fellow AIDS patients because Ron often used offensive slurs when referring to homosexuals. Together, the pair built the fledgling enterprise into an economic success that provided a service for patients who were frustrated by the FDA’s response to the epidemic.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Café de Flore), Dallas Buyers Club recounts Ron Woodroof’s desperate struggle to survive in the face of a governmental bureaucracy that appeared indifferent to people in his plight. The movie was inspired by “Buying Time,” an article by Bill Minutaglio which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on August 9, 1992.

Riddled with historical inaccuracies, the biopic frequently plays fast and loose with the facts in order to fashion an entertaining movie that fits the Hollywood success formula. In truth, the real-life Ron was apparently not as intolerant of homosexuality as depicted. Furthermore, he was initially given a two-year life expectancy by his doctor, in contrast to the picture’s one month fiction.

However, perhaps most important of all, some of the drugs he imported were banned for very good reasons. Nevertheless, the movie is a terrific tour de force that is likely, at last, to give Matthew McConaughey an Oscar nomination because he convincingly conveys the acute mental anguish of a person ravaged by AIDS.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, pervasive profanity, ethnic and homophobic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.