March 13, 2013

book rev 2In Beat Generation scripture Carl Solomon asks Allen Ginsberg, “Who are you?” to which Ginsberg instantly replies, “I’m Prince Myshkin,” asking the same of Solomon, who says, unhesitatingly, “I’m Kirilov.” The two poets identifying themselves as the holy fool and the nihilist from The Idiot aren’t delusional, they’re just living in Dostoevsky. So was Jack Kerouac, who called him Dusty, and so are generations of readers, who, like actor/writer Stephen Fry, put him foremost among those great writers who were “not to be bowed down before and worshipped, but embraced and befriended,” and who “put their arms around you and showed you things you always knew but never dared to believe.”

It Began in Princeton

Award-winning Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank (1918-2013), who died in Palo Alto on March 3, wrote the first volumes of his magnum opus in Princeton, where he lived at various times during the 1950s and from 1966 to 1985. Early in his preface to Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (2010), the one-volume edition of the five-part work published by Princeton University Press, Frank pays his respects to “the much lamented and gifted novelist” David Foster Wallace, “the most perceptive reader of my first four volumes.” The only sentence quoted from Wallace’s essay, however, is the one in which he contrasts Frank’s approach to that of James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman, who “doesn’t go into anything like Frank’s detail on ideology or politics or social theory.”

Enter David Foster Wallace

Intrigued by the appearance of the Generation X author of Infinite Jest in the preface to what was for all purposes the swan song of Frank’s great work, I sought out the essay in question, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” which originally appeared in 1996 in the Village Voice Literary Supplement as “Feodor’s Guide” and can be found in Wallace’s 2005 collection, Consider the Lobster.

The first thing that caught my attention in Wallace’s quirky, refreshingly candid, and highly personal essay was the way his presentation of the genesis of Frank’s book clarified Princeton’s place in the story, something the New York Times’s notably skimpy obituary failed to do: “In 1957 one Joseph Frank, then thirty-eight, a Comparative Lit professor at Princeton, is preparing a lecture on existentialism.” The text Frank is “working his way through” is Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, “a powerful but extremely weird little novel” whose protagonist’s “disease” is “a blend of grandiosity and self-contempt, of rage and cowardice, of ideological fervor, and a self-conscious inability to act on his convictions.”

After describing how Frank comes to realize that Notes from the Underground and its Underground Man “are impossible really to understand without some knowledge of the intellectual climate of Russia in the 1860s,” Wallace caught my attention again by expressing concern for Joseph Frank’s physical health: “The amount of library time he must have put in would take the stuffing out of anybody, I’d imagine.” He’s responding to the photo of Frank on the back jacket of The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, observing that “he’s not exactly hale, and probably all serious scholars of Dostoevsky are waiting to see whether Frank can hang on long enough to bring his encyclopedic study all the way up to the early 1880s.”

Of course Frank, who must have been amused by the younger writer’s solicitude, not only hung on until 2002 when he delivered the final volume, The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, he was still around eight years later for the single-volume edition that gave him an opportunity to acknowledge “the much lamented and gifted novelist” who, a victim of chronic depression, had taken his own life in 2008.

What Wallace Needs

After getting marginally personal on the subject of Frank’s photograph, Wallace goes all the way to the other side of objectivity with the first of a series of intimate asides so much in the style of Notes from the Underground that if it were not for the double asterisks surrounding the paragraph, you might almost think he was quoting from Dostoevsky. By now Wallace definitely has my attention. What’s going on? Frank would surely have been asking the same question even as he recognized the obvious resemblance between Wallace’s manner and that of the Underground Man. Meanwhile, readers who think of Wallace as an ironist would be rolling their eyes or at least scratching their heads. In a 1996 interview with Laura Miller, Wallace mentions the conflict between “the part of us that can really wholeheartedly weep at stuff, and the part that has to live in a world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people, and wants very much to be taken seriously by those people.”

No doubt about it, the intimate questionings inspired by Dostoevsky’s Notes were not written for “those people.” Asking himself whether he’s “a good person,” Wallace wonders does he even “want to be a good person” or does he only want to “seem like one,” and does he ever actually know whether he’s morally deluding himself? Another aside on the meaning of faith is no less naked, for “Isn’t it basically crazy to believe in something there’s no proof of?” or “is needing to have faith sufficient reason for having faith? But then what kind of need are we talking about?” At this point, it begins to seem that Wallace is no longer writing for the general reader but is deliberately, “wholeheartedly” laying himself open for Frank’s benefit: “Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? Isn’t this a selfish way to live? Forget selfish — isn’t it awfully lonely?” Then: “But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain?”

What’s striking about these heartfelt soliloquies is the sense that Wallace feels the closest he can come to communicating with Dostoevsky is through Frank since it’s Frank who is most intimately committed to the life and the work, so it’s to Frank that Wallace bares his soul. A decade later, when the biographer picks up the essay again while working on a preface for the one volume edition in the all but immediate aftermath of the young writer’s suicide, how could he not help but see a foreshadowing of Wallace’s fate in the naked need expressed in those anguished asides?

Two Wives

Any writer who depends on a partner for editorial and moral support will have a special interest in the relationship between Dostoevsky and his second wife, Anna, who came to him as a stenographer and a sympathetic reader. At the age of 15, as Frank relates, Anna had “tearfully pored over installments of The Insulted and the Injured,” with special sympathy for “the tenderhearted but hapless” narrator, whose “deplorable fate” she identified with “that of the author.” Frank suggests that even before Anna became Dostoevsky’s wife, she was an invaluable aide to his life and work: “Encouraged by Anna’s cool determination, Dostoevsky settled down to a regular routine … was much calmer … and became more and more cheerful as the pages [of his short novel, The Gambler] piled up.”

After acknowledging the “arduous” two-year task accomplished by editor Mary Petrusewicz in compressing five volumes into Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank takes the customary conjugal statement of gratitude to another level. Previous volumes had acknowledged Marguerite Straus Frank’s “linguistic and literary sensitivity,” and a draft of the fifth volume was actually withdrawn and rewritten in the light of her suggestions. Ahead of the one-volume edition, Frank explains that because she was dissatisfied with his treatment of “perhaps the most complex of all the female characters in Dostoevsky’s novels, the beautiful and ill-fated Nastasya Filippovna of The Idiot,” his wife had “so much altered and enriched” his own initial views that he “asked her to express them herself,” thus the pages devoted to Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time, “come from her pen.”

Marguerite Frank explained the difference of opinion in a 2009 interview with Cynthia Haven in the Stanford Report. “Joe’s not interested in Nastasya — he’s interested in the ‘Idiot,’” meaning Prince Myshkin. While Dostoevsky, like other great writers of the period, was “fascinated by fallen women,” Natasya is no fallen woman: “She’s an absolutely pure victim.”

book rev 1

Photo courtesy of L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service.

Joseph Frank’s first book, The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature, was published in 1963 by Rutgers University Press, whose then-director William Sloane encouraged him to edit the Selected Letters of Fyodor Dosteovsky, which was eventually published by Rutgers in 1986. Though Frank taught at Rutgers, the definitive appointment (not counting his 1953 marriage to Marguerite) came in 1954 when he arrived in Princeton to give the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism, a program he would later direct for 18 years. In 1976, Princeton University Press brought out the first volume of the biography, The Seeds of Revolt. 1821-1849 (1976), which won both the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award in criticism. Volume Two, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, won the National Critics Circle Award, the first Princeton University Press book to receive that honor.

One thing the Princeton University campus has no shortage of is talented student musicians. In the second performance of concerto winners this season (winners of the 2013 Concerto Competition), the Princeton University Orchestra presented a concert this past weekend of two student pianists and a bassoonist who demonstrated the ability to maintain a high level of performance throughout an entire concerto. The three soloists — pianists Paul von Autenried and Jeff Li, and bassoonist Louisa Slosar, no doubt have been heard in smaller venues on campus (and in Ms. Slosar’s case within the University orchestra), Saturday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Friday night) in Richardson Auditorium placed these three individuals front and center with an audience thrilled with every note coming from the stage.

Freshman Paul von Autenried has not been on the University campus long enough to decide a major, yet his keyboard skills and intelligent exuberance at the piano place him way beyond his academic grade. Mr. von Autenried’s concerto with the orchestra was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056, a work composed for the harpsichord, but Mr. von Autenried’s interpretation on the piano brought out drama which Bach may well have intended but did not have the instrumental technology to achieve. Conductor Ruth Ochs led a small orchestra accompanying the concerto, which Mr. von Autenried opened with dynamic effects difficult to realize on a harpsichord, with a cleanly ornamented line in the right hand and even running notes. Throughout the work, Mr. von Autenried clearly enjoyed playing, always in control of the music and communicating well with Ochs.

The second movement Largo provided a delicate melody against pizzicato strings providing a typically Bach “walking” bass. Mr. von Autenried found a great deal of expression in the music, always playing with a bit of a smile which permeated what was coming from the keyboard. Strings and piano came together for a lively third movement Presto full of well-executed running notes in the left hand of the solo part.

The other pianist featured on the program, senior Jeff Li, brought a seasoned performing background and four years of varied University musical experience to his interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Mr. Li’s University musical background ranges from the Princeton Composer’s Collective, to the Opera to the Laptop Orchestra. This broad approach to music, as well as clean technical proficiency, enabled Mr. Li to find the breadth of musical innovation into which Beethoven was just beginning to tap when he composed this concerto.

Conductor Michael Pratt opened the symphonic extended orchestral introduction in a crisp Viennese style, and Mr. Li began the solo line gracefully, effectively bringing out the sforzandi of the first movement. A smoothly rolling left hand marked a more lyrical section, and Mr. Pratt returned to the opening statement boldly. Mr. Li’s cadenza to the first movement was a piece unto itself, clearly transcending the early 19th century with its length, drama, and improvisatory nature. Mr. Li essentially toyed with the audience in extending the cadenza with dynamic variation and melodic force.

This was a substantial concerto for a college-age student, but Mr. Li had no trouble with the technical difficulties, musical stamina, or the elegance required to perform a Viennese work of this period. The closing Rondo was marked by chipper thirds and graceful arpeggios in the keyboard solo line against perfectly-matched flute scales played by Marcelo Rochabrun and a pair of oboes played by Katrina Maxcy and Alexa McCall.

The bassoon soloist for the evening provided a different musical experience than the two piano soloists, but showed no less stamina and command of technique. Sophomore Louisa Slosar has provided solos within orchestral works with the orchestra in numerous performances, but demonstrated the true range of her playing in Antonio Vivaldi’s 18th-century Bassoon Concerto in E minor. Vivaldi wrote close to forty concertos for the bassoon, yet one does not often hear this instrument in a substantial solo work. Under the leadership of Ruth Ochs, the strings allowed the music to essentially play itself, while Ms. Slosar offered seamless yet difficult coloratura lines with ease. Ms. Ochs cleanly played the harpsichord to accompany the solo bassoon, as Ms. Slosar played the long melodic lines with musical direction and sensitivity.

Mr. Pratt brought the full orchestra together for the closing excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, eliciting a full and rich sound among a large group of winds. Clean horns and especially lush lower strings provided a contrast to a light timpani accompaniment by Karis Schneider and wind solos by clarinetist Ryan Budnick and oboist Bo-Won Keum. From light airy Baroque to opulent 19th century, this concert not only brought out students in droves to support their own but also community residents supporting a University orchestra always playing at a high level.

Arts Council of Princeton,
Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. From March 16-April 13, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits” is on display. The opening reception is March 16, 4-6 p.m. A talk by artist Barbara Warren and curator Ricardo Barros is April 6 at 2 p.m. Visit www.artscouncil
ofprinceton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, through April 4.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. (609) 921-3600.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth” March 20-April 18.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Sky Gazing,” with works by several artists including Lucy Graves McVicker, Charles McVicker, Deb Brockway, Lora Durr, and others, through May 2. “Perspective,” a photography show, is in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery through April 4. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School.” Through April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. A Chinese painting lecture demonstration by Grace Ju Miller is April 7 at 2 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” is on view through August.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Dancing Lights” by Larry Parsons and works by Samuel Vovsi, March 15-April 14. Visit photogallery14.com.

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

Lucas Gallery, Princeton University Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, has “Prosthetic Gods,” prints, photography and assemblage by senior art students Leana Hirschfeld-Kroen and John O’Neill, through March 19.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. On March 21 at 7 p.m., Amy Karpati lectures on “From Flora to Fire: The Ecological Story of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.” Tickets are $12 ($10 for Friends of Morven). Visit www.morven.org.

New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope, Pa., presents “Continuum: The Emerging Image,” master and emerging artists, through March 23. Call (215) 862-9606.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is on view through June 30. Museum hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Call (609) 258-3788.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, hosts “Energy in Motion,” a photography show, through April 27. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

Back in 2003, Jim Carrey was upstaged as the title character of Bruce Almighty by scene-stealing Steve Carell who was the TV newscaster Evan Baxter. Consequently, Carrey wasn’t even around for the sequel, Evan Almighty, a spinoff which was all about Carell’s expanded role.

Turnabout is fair play, and a decade later we find Carell overshadowed here by a rejuvenated Carrey. The viewing public benefits, because the two have reunited and they’re better than ever as magicians who are competing to outdo each other in an escalating game of one-upmanship.

Directed by Don Scardino (NBC-TV’s 30 Rock), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone also features a stellar supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Brad Garrett, and Jay Mohr, as well as amusing cameo appearances by David Copperfield, CNN’s Erin Burnett, and MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe.

The picture’s premise is easy to follow. Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have been doing magic tricks together since childhood, when they first teamed up to entertain their classmates. Thirty years later, they are sharing top billing on the marquee as “Burt & Anton: A Magical Friendship at Bally’s in Las Vegas.”

However, they’ve come to despise each other, primarily because of Burt’s massive ego. As a result, their act has grown stale, and this gives the street performer Steve Gray (Carrey) a chance to steal their thunder with his bizarre stunts, such as not blinking for days on end.

When the newcomer captures the public’s imagination, attendance at Burt and Anton’s shows declines, and it’s not long before they feel the pressure to match Gray in outrageousness. But after Anton breaks his ankles and some ribs during their first dangerous stunt, Burt is forced to go up against Gray by himself.

The ensuing competition in illusions contrasts Carrey’s over-the-top antics with Carell’s droll tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and in this critic’s opinion, Carrey’s sight gags are much better than Carell’s dry wit. The battle of competing comedy styles is won hands-down by the rambunctious rubber-faced Carrey!

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, dangerous stunts, and a drug-related incident. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

March 6, 2013

book revIf this column were a film, I’d begin with a close-up of Robert Mitchum’s hands in Night of the Hunter (1955), where he plays a psychopathic preacher who has LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the knuckles of the other. Then I’d cut to the bizarre scene in Gilda (1946) between estranged lovers, Glenn Ford’s Johnny and Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, where they express their deep mutual detestation, Gilda saying, “I hate you, too, Johnny,” as they move closer to one another. “I hate you so much,” closer, closer, “I think I’m going to die from it.” As they kiss, passionately, she repeats in a voice that makes you feel that she means every word, “I think I’m going to die from it.”

The protagonist of Alexander Theroux’s vast, rich, diabolically labyrinthine enterprise, Darconville’s Cat (Doubleday 1981, 704 pages) dies from an overdose of both emotions. This Divine Comedy plumbing the circles of love and hate was included by Anthony Burgess in Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. Besides being nominated for a National Book Award, it also made the Good Reads list of the 100 Top Literary Novels of All Time.

For almost five years I scoured secondhand bookstores and book sales looking for Darconville’s Cat, my interest aroused by Theroux’s massive tour de force Laura Warholic: or the Sexual Intellectual (2007), which I wrote about here in February 2008. In spite of Darconville’s stature, not a single bookseller I asked in the U.S., Canada, or England had heard of it; the only Theroux they knew was Alexander’s brother Paul. Last October I gave up the quest, ordered the novel online, and began reading.

Five months later here I am still in one piece and thankful that in spite of some dicey moments amid the cliffs and crags along the way, I achieved the summit of Mt. Darconville last week. If I could give a pep talk to the exhausted, fainthearted readers I saw cowering and panting in shelters along the way, I’d urge them to struggle to their feet and soldier on, for it would be a great loss to miss out on the inspired last chapters of the doomed romance of Alaric Darconville and Isabel Rawsthrone, two names Poe would admire. In truth, you can feel the shadow of the divine Edgar hovering over Darconville’s conclusion, which takes place in the drafty ancestral palazzo in Venice where the dying author is writing his love-hate epic.

Is It Unreadable?

By now it goes without saying that reading Darconville is a challenge. It takes time, patience, and stamina. If you need encouragement, look at the reviews by people on the Good Reads blog suggesting a “best-book-ever” level of enthusiasm. Some recently posted comments: “seductive by nature and intellectual by design”; “there was not a moment when I wished it was over, not even when it really was over”: “haven’t read anything like this … a rarity of rarities, of which there is a huge dearth in the world of literature”; “a stupefying triumph of superhuman eloquence”; “my favorite book of all time”; “among my top ten all-time favorites.”

One reader speaks for many when mentioning the need to “pull out my dictionary on almost every page,” and an industrious individual on the Good Reads blog has searched for and defined, everything from “alloplasts” on page vii of the introductory Explicitur to “vulnerary” on page 698. However, my advice to climbers attempting to ascend this storm-wracked mountain is to hold tight to the rope-line of the Darconville-Isabel relationship, keep it firmly in hand against all unearthly, ungodly, sublunary distractions, and don’t stop to look up every single word along the way (you’ll never make it out of the base camp), just enjoy the blighters in the abstract, or else for the crazy poetry, the way you enjoy the names Theroux invents for his characters, like those of Darconville’s colleagues at Quinsy College for women, Miss Dessicquint, the assistant dean who looks like Nosferatu, or Miss Throwswitch, the drama teacher, not to mention the students in his class, including Scarlet Foxwell, LeHigh Hialeah, Hallowe’ena Rampling, and the ravishing Hypsipyle Poore, who at one point early on seems to be being groomed to be the object of Darconville’s passion.

Glorious Vengeance

Apparently there was a real-life Isabel who actually abandoned the real-life Alexander Theroux at the altar, which motivated him to take revenge by writing the novel that became Darconville’s Cat, or so he claims in a 1978 New York Times Magazine article. Theroux calls revenge the “single most informing element of great world literature,” transcending even “love and war.” As an example, he cites George Orwell’s claim that among a writer’s primary motivations is “to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood.” Darconville teems and pulses with the power and glory of vengeance writ fantastically large. No other novel from any time or place that I can think of comes close for sheer excess of payback accompanied by literary bonuses, sideshows, thrill rides, and special features. The compulsively satirical scope of the production suggests that Theroux was also settling some scores and righting some wrongs that related not just to the girl and her lover or lovers but to the entire community, the college, the town, the region, and the world. Of course he was also simply having a lot of writerly fun.

Come to think of it, how much fun would it be to imagine reading the novel over Isabel’s shoulder? Judging from the 1969-1973 span of his stint at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, Theroux would have been 29, the original Isabel 18, when they met. Which means that by the time she first held the published book in her hands she’d have been married eight years and would be pushing 30 and perhaps raising children. One thing Theroux counted on was that the dimensions of his revenge would be reflected in the magnitude of the vehicle. Merely opening the mighty volume, she’d be hard put not to feel some awe at the tangible enormity of the thing. Doubleday presented it in a form worthy of a work of lasting worth. The pages alone have an elegance relative to the norm, the edges evenly uneven, not dull and flat, and, more important, the cover, from a painting by the author himself, exudes an 18-19th century patina worthy of the protagonist’s noble d’Arconville pedigree. The handsome, slightly flushed face could represent any number of doomed romantic heroes including Goethe’s Werther, Poe’s Roderick Usher, Theroux himself in a self-portrait as protagonist, or John Keats, whose sonnet “Dark Star” Darconville amusingly teaches to the girls of Quinsy College.

Isabel Reading

A glance at certain chapter titles scattered throughout the voluminous contents would have alerted Isabel to the devious intentions of her old flame. But how could she resist a love-hate letter 704 pages long containing eloquent, stirring rhapsodies on her beauty and deeply felt accounts of the idyllic splendor of the relationship? And how would she deal with the section where Darconville’s satanic Harvard mentor Dr. Crucifer delivers his brutal, unabated, protracted, and definitive condemnation of the female sex. Her hair would surely be standing on end as she read, in spite of herself, the nine-page chapter brimming over with Crucifer’s manifold schemes for ways that she, Isabel, could be tortured, mutilated, or exterminated (“Drill holes into each of her teeth. wire them, and drag her over miles of steaming bitumen! …. Strip off portions of her skin, paint them, and then use them for tiny kites”). And how gratifying for Theroux if the distracted woman finds herself inexplicably, perversely engaged by the horror of it all, given the audacity and witty felicity with which her former lover sets his madcap love-hate goblins dancing and raving.

Better yet when Isabel lets herself be drawn into the chapter titled “The Supreme Ordeal,” where Theroux is able to move from the mode of Cruciferian overkill to a fully felt, devastatingly graphic and real account of Isabel’s rejection of Darconville, she may even find herself hurting for him as she refused to do in real life. Tempted still further into the dark woods of the narrative, she would tiptoe behind Darconville, who has a gun in his pocket and Crucifer’s misogynistic admonitions screaming in his brain, until she came up against the moment where her fictional alter ego’s life was on the line. Here, with everything turning on a single word, the author has her (and has us). She’s his, the reader-victim weeping, ravished, emotionally undone by his ardent and malevolent genius. Meanwhile Theroux is setting up the Venetian denouement to ensure that she will suffer with him, again in spite of herself, looking over the shoulder of the man dying for love of her, as he lays his magnum opus at her feet, “a past, a memory, calling him back to search and remember what in the knowledge that is revealed at the heart of all violation can be transfigured by the hand of art.”

About the Cat

I knew my quest for a copy of Darconville’s Cat had tipped into obsession when I found myself hopefully scouting the Pets and Animals sections of various secondhand bookshops in case some incompetent clerk had carelessly filed it there. As his name suggests, Spellvixit has little in common with the cat that will be appearing on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; this is no “poor slob without a name,” no sentimental deus ex machina, this is Darconville’s true mate (always  a “he,” never an “it”), his spiritual companion, and you know he’s doomed when Spellvixit runs away as he’s rushing to catch a plane that will take him to his “supreme ordeal” with Isabel. When he returns to the ancestral palazzo on Corte del Gatto (where else?) to write and die, he’s in Spellvexit’s city, for the cat grew up there with Darconville’s grandmother. It would take another column to begin to fathom the cat’s significance in the haunted chambers of Theroux’s masterpiece; suffice it to say that in his last moment of life, Darconville cries out “desperately and loud, “My cat! My cat!” 

Ryan James Brandau’s concerts with Princeton Pro Musica up to this point have been a process of adjustment — masterworks with which the ensemble is comfortable and performs well to solidify a new relationship between chorus and conductor. Pro Musica’s performance Saturday night in the Princeton University Chapel was a sign of the new direction Dr. Brandau has chosen for the chorus — one which includes early music outside of the ensemble’s usual scope of repertory. Pro Musica’s concert was billed as Poulenc, Faure, “and more,” and it was the “more” which provided some of the most interesting music of the evening.

Dr. Brandau programmed several anniversary pieces on this program, including works of Poulenc (for the 50th anniversary of his death) and a piece by 20th-century composer Arvo Pärt in honor of the death of Benjamin Britten. Dr. Brandau has created a 24-voice chamber chorus out of Pro Musica’s roster of 100, and used this ensemble to perform the Pärt work with two other pieces linked by Gregorian chant.

Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is built on a single scale, much like a phrase of chant. Dr. Brandau split the chorus on either side of the small orchestra, beginning the work with almost imperceptible upper strings. Pärt’s one-movement work builds in intensity in the same manner as Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio For Strings, effectively jarring the audience with a loud chime to move the piece to its high point. Dr. Brandau moved through the first three pieces on the program without pause, following Pärt’s Cantus with an extended 12th-century Gregorian chant sung from the back of the chapel by four women. Pro Musica has not ventured often into this period of music, and the singers surely appreciated the chance to sing in smaller combinations.

In Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s setting of the same “Salve Regina,” the two halves of the Chamber Chorus answered each other well (with three men providing chant from the back of the hall), effectively handling the chromaticism which marks music of the early Baroque. Through this piece, the University Chapel proved to be a good space for antiphonal singing.

Dr. Brandau pulled the whole chorus together for works by two composers crossing paths in the same century but writing in two very different styles. Francis Poulenc’s Motets pour Un Temps de Pènitence, appropriate for the season of Lent, contain great intensity in dissonance and dynamics, and Pro Musica took an edgy and decisive vocal approach to the text. With the whole chorus singing at full volume, the upper sound was a bit strident at times, with vibrato that seemed a bit out of control in the space. The second motet had more flow, with the reprise of the opening text showing the best choral blend. The soprano sound was more under control in the third motet, with the lower three voice parts particularly well blended.

The seven-movement Requiem of Gabriel Fauré showed Pro Musica at its vocal best. Dr. Brandau kept the opening Kyrie moving right along, with a light but clean sectional tenor sound and an overall choral effect that matched the violas well. It was clear from his previous performance with Pro Musica that bass-baritone Dashon Burton would have no trouble filling the hall with a rich resonant sound. In both the Offertorium and Libera Me movements, Mr. Burton showed great strength in vocal sound, calling especially well for the “dreadful day” of reckoning in the Libera Me.

Soprano Clara Rottsalk also filled the University Chapel’s vast space well with a voice that had a solid core of sound, displaying particular sensitivity to the text. Concertmaster Owen Dalby provided a sweet top to the sound in two movements, especially when joined by harpist Sarah Fuller. A fourth “soloist” was the viola section, which played a consistently rich sound through the entire Requiem.

As in many Pro Musica concerts, the performance included a strictly instrumental work, and Dr. Brandau took full advantage of Pro Musica’s time in the chapel by programming Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. University Organist Eric Plutz showed the full effects of the five-manual chapel organ with the help of a multi-media screen, apparently the wave of the future in organ performance. Mr. Plutz showed both a light touch in the later part of the concerto and precision in timing the organ with the strings. Dr. Brandau led the orchestra well in lush melodic passages, with elegant solos provided by violist William Frampton and cellist Elizabeth Thompson.

Ryan James Brandau seems to be settling well into his position as artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, and the chorus is responding in similar fashion. With the final concert of his debut season coming up in May, Dr. Brandau has had no trouble proving that he can take the ensemble into a new era of performance.

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. “Structure and Flow: An Exploration of Contrasts in Abstraction” runs through March 9. A panel discussion with participating artists is March 7 at 7:30 p.m. Works by Al Aronson, Benjamin Colbert, Nancy Cohen, John Franklin, and Alyce Gottesman are included. From March 16-April 13, “Perseus Slays Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold as Self-Portraits” is on display. Visit www.artscouncil
ofprinceton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, through April 4.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. (609) 921-3600.

Cafe 44, 44 Leigh Avenue, has “Water, Water, Everywhere…”, photographs by Tasha O’Neill and paintings by Mary Walthan, March 15-April 15. Meet the artists March 17, 3-5 p.m.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth” March 20-April 18.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Sky Gazing,” with works by several artists including Lucy Graves McVicker, Charles McVicker, Deb Brockway, Lora Durr, and others, through May 2. The opening reception is March 8, 5:30-7:30 p.m. “Perspective,” a photography show, is in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery through April 4. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School.” Through April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. A Chinese painting lecture demonstration by Grace Ju Miller is April 7 at 2 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” is on view through August.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, has works by painter Thomas Kelly, April 1-30. Call (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Exposed,” a member exhibit, through March 10. Visit photogallery14.com.

Gourgaud Gallery, Town Hall, Cranbury, has a show of “United Federation of Teachers Painting Group” through March 29.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, showcases Robert Taplin’s “Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch” in the Museum Building through April. “Mapping Memories,” an installation by Mark Parsons, is on the mezzanine of the Domestic Arts Building through March. Ming Fay’s “Canutopia” is in the East Gallery through July. In the Meadow, “THRE3” and “MYTHOS” are on view. Visit www.groundsforsculp
ture.org.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” opens with a reception March 7 from 5-8 p.m. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” through April 28. Visit www.michener
artmuseum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Lynd Ward Draws Stories: Inspired by Mexico’s History, Mark Twain, and Adventures in the Woods” through June 23. “Henri-Gabriel Ibels” is exhibited through September 8. Works by Russian artist Leonid Sokov are displayed through July 14.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. Museum hours are Wednesdays-Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. on. Group tours of 10 or more can be arranged any day by advance reservation. Visit www.morven.org.

New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope, Pa., presents “Continuum: The Emerging Image,” master and emerging artists, through March 23. Call (215) 862-9606.

New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, displays “Jon Naar: Signature Photography” through May 4. Visit www.nj.gov/state/museum.

Phillips Mill, 2619 River Road, New Hope, has its Photographic Exhibition March 10-31. An awards ceremony is March 9, 6 p.m. Visit www.phillipsmill.org.

Princeton Day School Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery has “Wabi-Sabi” featuring works of PDS art department faculty members Stephanie Stuefer and Chris Maher, through March 7. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Two Views” Atget & Friedlander” through March 10. “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” runs through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is March 9-June 30. Museum hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Call (609) 258-3788.

Robert Beck Gallery, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, hosts the 32nd Annual Juried Art Exhibit, “Lambertville and the Surrounding Area,” by the Lambertville Historical Society, through March 28. Call (609) 397-0951 for details.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, hosts “Energy in Motion,” a photography show, through April 27. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a homeless street hustler barely eking out a living in his native Belgium when he is unexpectedly given custody of his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). Overwhelmed by the unanticipated extra responsibility, he moves to Antibes in the South of France to give the boy he barely knows to his obliging sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), to care for.

Buff, imposing, and blessed with formidable strength, Alain soon lands part-time work as a bouncer in a trendy nearby nightclub. He also starts taking advantage of his good looks and enters into lustful, brief liaisons with the attractive customers of the club.

Elsewhere in the seaside resort town, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an attractive young woman, works at an aquarium where she trains Killer whales. She meets Alain one evening after he rescues her from a nasty brawl inside the cabaret.

Stephanie takes his phone number, but before she has a chance to call and thank him, she loses the use of both of her legs in an unfortunate accident when she is crushed against the side of the pool by an Orca. When the two finally meet again, she is confined to a wheelchair, and terribly depressed by the change in her life caused by the accident.

Will Alain befriend the handicapped Stephanie, or will he go right back out on the dating circuit? That is the crux of the question at the heart of Rust and Bone, a romance drama written and directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips).

This love story ultimately proves far more poignant than one might expect of a picture that starts out with such an apparent boor as a protagonist. Fortunately, his character undergoes considerable development over the course of the movie.

Alain gradually gets in touch with his sensitive side to the point where he’s ready to abandon his womanizing ways and also to spend time with his neglected son. In addition to the movie unfolding against an array of beautiful backdrops, Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard give tour de force performances in Rust and Bone.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, graphic sexuality, and nudity. In French and English with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

February 27, 2013
LADY OF LEGEND: This 24” x 36” oil on canvas, “Queen Maeve,” by artist Rita Stynes Strow, depicts the legendary Queen of Connacht who, according to Irish lore, initiated the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Part of the Ulster Cycle, the story is an epic tale of war involving the theft of the King of Ulster’s prize bull and the youthful exploits of the hero Cú Chulainn. The painting and others by Ms. Stynes Strow will be on show in the gallery of the Princeton Charter School, 100 Bunn Drive, from March 7 through March 22.

LADY OF LEGEND: This 24” x 36” oil on canvas, “Queen Maeve,” by artist Rita Stynes Strow, depicts the legendary Queen of Connacht who, according to Irish lore, initiated the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Part of the Ulster Cycle, the story is an epic tale of war involving the theft of the King of Ulster’s prize bull and the youthful exploits of the hero Cú Chulainn. The painting and others by Ms. Stynes Strow will be on show in the gallery of the Princeton Charter School, 100 Bunn Drive, from March 7 through March 22.

Rita Stynes Strow has been painting since “time immemorial,” laughs the former art teacher who lives in Kingston. Inspired by her own Irish origins and tales from the Bible and Celtic mythology, Ms. Stynes Strow works magic in oil and canvas.

Her lively and colorful work will be among those shown in an upcoming exhibition at the Princeton Charter School (PCS). The exhibition is to be the first of a series of annual art shows featuring the work of local artists as well as paintings by Charter School students. It opens with a a vernissage or opening reception next Thursday, March 7 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and continues through March 22.

In addition to several canvases by Ms. Stynes Strow, works by Catherine Arnoux, Heather Barros, Jean Becette, Mojgan Salehi, and Jannick Wildberg will be on display

The work featured has been chosen to represent different styles and methods. The idea is to emphasize the importance of artistic individuality and subjectivity to the school’s students. “We wanted to bring local artists to the campus and involve our students from kindergarten through eighth grade,” says Amanda Castner, the PCS art teacher for the school’s 348 students, 100 of whom are participating with the artists.

Ms. Stynes Strow, who has two grandchildren at PCS, Zoe and Cassian Obierne, was delighted to be asked to participate in the exhibition. Her oil paintings, she says, strive to evoke the historic and the mysterious emotions of the Celtic people. “The traditional knot work I use has the inherent strength of design well suited to this goal,” she says.

Using acrylics, Catherine Arnoux seeks to reproduce the colors of nature or invent colors of her own. Unlike the illustrative paintings by Ms. Stynes Strow, Ms. Arnoux’s work is abstract. Both artists, however, began painting at a young age. Ms. Arnoux still has her very first paint box, bought in the Quartier Latin in Paris when she was 12-years-old. “My grandmother always had dahlias in her garden and I was amazed by their colors and their intricate patterns, especially the heart of the flower,” Ms. Arnoux recalls. “For me, painting is more about showing colors, either reproducing the ones nature decides for us, or inventing the ones we decide to master in an abstract painting. But always, you mix it and it suddenly appears on the canvas as magic.”

Flowers also provide inspiration for Mojgan Salehi, who moved toward art at an early age as well. The artist describes art as a “magical process” she uses to express her love of gardening and flowers. “Painting is my key to the secret garden, my way down the rabbit hole, my looking glass,” she says. “It fills me with a sense of accomplishment and integrity, and has proven to be a most amenable vehicle for translating inner vision to outer reality.”

Through mixed media including including charcoal, oil, ink, and clay, Heather Barros creates landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Besides being a working artist, Ms. Barros is an accomplished teacher, running her own art school, Art Collaborations, at Princeton Academy.

Before moving to Brittany, Jean Becette taught art for four years at the Princeton Junior School and for 12 years at the Princeton Friends School. In France, he paints the lush seascapes of the Cotes d’Armor (formerly known as the Côtes-du-Nord on Brittany’s north coast).

Jannick Wildberg creates abstract paintings in oil, plaster, fabric, and pigments to create texture and evoke the elements of nature. Her realistic portraits are intended to capture the physical uniqueness of her subjects while representing the inherent energy and vibrancy of life inherent in each. Ms. Wildberg says of her art that it “springs from a desire to communicate about the intense experience of being in this world, about our need to slow it down perhaps, or to gather ourselves and seek tranquility.”

Besides large-scale oil portraits, the exhibition includes abstract works by Ms. Wildberg, who uses plaster, fabric, and pigments to create texture and to engage on a more visceral level.

Besides the eclectic artworks on view by these adult artists, the PCS exhibition will also include work by Princeton Charter students who collaborated with Ms. Barros and Mr. Becette.

The public is invited to attend the opening reception at which light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact PCS art teacher Amanda Castner at (856) 217-4922 or acastner@princetoncharter.org.

DVD revWhile channel-surfing the other night, I found myself watching the beginning of a film I’d already seen and had no intention of seeing again. That’s Fred MacMurray slumped at a desk in the film noir shadows of the headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s talking into a dictaphone, about to confess to his boss his part in a sordid tale of claim-rigging, murder, and betrayal. The room onscreen is so deep in the murk of its mood it seems to be glowering at me from the third dimension. Never mind that the man slowly bleeding to death is being played by one of my least favorite actors, he’s sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, a mortally wounded insurance salesman named Walter Neff mouthing the hardboiled poetry of Raymond Chandler, with contributions by director Billy Wilder, from a novella by James M. Cain. That’s all she wrote, I’m stuck, can’t turn it off, can’t stop watching, can’t change the channel, Turner Classic Movies scores again.

As the scene shifts to a daylight flashback that shows Neff driving up to a nifty little Spanish colonial hillside chateau, I shout out, “It’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Los Felix!” and my wife, who grew up in L.A. and loves this movie, comes running.

The house is still there, though according to underthehollywoodsign.com, the reality is not in Los Felix but in the Hollywood Dell. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” Neff is telling us. The interior, according to the screenplay, is “Spanish craperoo in style” with a wrought-iron staircase curving down from the second floor.

And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.

By now my wife’s sitting in her usual place beside me to enjoy one of the seminal moments in film noir played to tawdry perfection by a woman we feel as close to as we would to a glamorous beloved relative who’s been dead for 22 years. We’re familiar with every nuance of her voice, with the way she walks, and moves, and we can imagine her having a laugh with the crew about that big blond wig she’s wearing and the ankle bracelet or “anklet,” as Walter Neff calls it, his eyes fastened on the ankle it’s fastened to while he snidely fields sinister queries from the shady lady about her husband’s life insurance policy. Call it what you will, the effect that little adornment has on Walter is devastating. Stanwyck’s anklet is to Double Indemnity as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, everything evolves from it, and Walter’s a goner the moment he sees it, as is Stanwyck’s about-to-be-double-indemnified husband.

According to Shadows of Suspense, the documentary accompanying the Universal Legacy Series 2-Disc DVD of Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray was offered the part, his are-you-kidding-me response was, “I’m a saxophone player. I do light comic stuff with Claudette Colbert.” Barbara Stanwyck was afraid the film would ruin her career. The beauty of casting a “regular guy” like MacMurray was that audiences would be fascinated by the there’s-a-killer-in-all-of-us aspect, and as a result the glib, regular-guy insurance agent Walter Neff has become one of the rare characters from vintage Hollywood whose name is as much a part of movie lore as the name of the star playing him. If the same can’t be said for Phyllis Dietrichson, the name of the scheming wife, it’s because Stanwyck’s allure overwhelms the impersonation. MacMurray is a mere mortal transcending himself in a killer role. Stanwyck is a luminary from a loftier realm who in 1944 was said to be the highest paid woman in the United States.

Academy Awards 1944

Besides being the only film noir to come close to winning a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to the upbeat, feel-good, priests-can-be-charming box-office smash, Going My Way), Double Indemnity also fits the sub genre of the so-called “buddy movie” most recently represented by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The affectionate rapport between Neff and his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in his prime) creates a sympathetic contrast to the cold-blooded bond between the lovers. Whenever Keyes fumbles to find a light for his cigar, Neff is there to light it for him with a playful but caring “I love you too.” Walter and Phyllis consummate the relationship by killing one another; but when Neff is dying in the hall outside the office where the story began, it’s Keyes who lights his cigarette.

The various talking heads in Shadows of Suspense all agree that the Academy’s recognition of Double Indemnity (seven Oscar nominations), along with its box office success, helped ignite the film noir boom that took place between the mid-1940s and the advent of CinemaScope ten years later. While the wartime American public “had lost its innocence and wanted more adult stories,” according to film noir authority Eddie Muller, the Motion Picture Academy couldn’t stoop to honoring so disreputable and nascent a genre with an actual Oscar. Probably the most deserving of the nominees, along with Wilder as Best Director, was the cinematographer John F. Seitz, who steeps scenes in lavish depths of darkness that are remarkable even for film noir. While Barbara Stanwyck was at least nominated for Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight), MacMurray and Robinson did not even make the cut for the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars, which went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the Going My Way landslide.

My only quibble with Shadows of Suspense is that it opens with Muller’s declaration that film noir “for all intents and purposes began with Double Indemnity.” This is a shaky generalization at best when you consider that Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady was released eight months earlier in February 1944 and that Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window also appeared the same year. As far as that goes, noir themes can be dated back to films like Stranger On the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kid Glove Killer and This Gun for Hire (1942), to mention only a few.

Oscar Night

I’ll come clean: we skipped the Oscars this year to watch David Hare’s two-hour-long Page Eight on PBS because we liked the cast, especially Bill Nighy. While I’m all for one night every year being set aside to celebrate the movies, I have a low tolerance for all the glitzy scripted back and forth, the unbelievably tasteless jokes (like the cute one about the assassination of Lincoln), and I have a lifelong aversion to watching “beautiful people” embarrass themselves in public. If there were an over the counter drug that prevented cringing and squirming, I would need half a bottle to get through an hour of Oscar night. Argo was a worthy winner, but I doubt I’ll ever see it again, except maybe to enjoy the great lines dished out by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who also lent his inimitable presence to Flight. The fact that Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, particularly for the role that launched a thousand quotes, exposes an essential and enduring Academy blind spot. Fifty years from now somebody somewhere will be streaming The Big Lebowski and laughing at lines from Walter and Donny and the Dude they know by heart, but will anyone be visiting this year’s big winners? I doubt it. The Dude abides and so does Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

Born February 27

When you look at who was born on this date, you might be forgiven for thinking Oscar himself first saw the light on the 27th of February.

For instance there’s William Demerest (1892-1983), one of the best character actors of his time, a man who performed pratfalls elaborate enough to convulse the comic gods. His one Oscar nomination was for Best Supporting Actor in 1947’s The Jolson Story, but he’s at his best in Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Another member of the 27 Club is Franchot Tone (1905-1968), who netted a Best Actor nomination in 1935 for Mutiny On the Bounty.

Perhaps the most unlikely nominee ever for a major award was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (born 2/27/23), whose rollercoaster career included jazz stardom, drug addiction, prison time, comeback as a dominant player, and then, five years before his death in 1990, being cast by Bernard Tavernier as the tenor legend in Round Midnight, for which Long Tall Dex landed a Best Actor nomination and a seat at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.

One of two well-known writers with Hollywood credits born on this date, Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was nominated as co-writer of the screenplay for Talk of the Town, but the single most prodigious generator of Oscar-winning product was John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Besides scoring nominations for writing Viva Zapata, A Medal for Benny, and Lifeboat, he produced a series of novels that Hollywood feasted on to a degree unmatched by his peers, the biggest winner being Grapes of Wrath, which took two Oscars out of seven nominations in 1940.

Of the three actresses born on February 27, four-time nominee Joanne Woodward (1930 —) won a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for Three Faces of Eve. Joan Bennett (1910-1990) never won an Oscar, nor was she nominated, but any time you talk film noir, she comes into the conversation as a femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Last but definitely not least, there’s the two-time Best Actress winner James Agee greeted with a notice in The Nation she must have cherished from the age of 12 on. Writing in December of 1944, Agee admits, “Frankly, I doubt that I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.” Later, after giving her performance in National Velvet a more objective analysis, he adds, “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful.” Taylor, who died in March 2011 at 79, was nominated five times for Best Actress and won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

The two-disc Double Idemnity DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

Inspired by her brother’s death from AIDS and his unfulfilled request near the end of his life that she join him on an excursion to Europe, Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989. It’s a play, Ms. Vogel stated in an interview, “about processing grief. It’s about love between brothers and sisters. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

And, she might have added, there can be a lot of confusion in grief, which this play manifests through the troubled fantasies of Anna, its mostly autobiographical protagonist. Fortunately, Theatre Intime and talented director Emma Watt have assembled an exceptional trio of actors to ensure that the wildly farcical elements hit home, the tenderness of this brother-sister relationship comes across, and the entertainment value here prevails over confusions in plot and tone.

The entire play actually takes place in a hospital in Baltimore, but, more significantly, the action of this play is set in the mind of Anna (Savannah Hankinson), as she envisions the trip to Europe with her brother. First major confusion arises as Anna imagines herself, not her brother, as the terminal patient, and the illness she imagines is ATD, acquired toilet disease, apparently contracted from sitting on the toilet seats used by the children in the elementary school where she teaches.

Her brother Carl (Daniel Rattner), wearing his pajamas with a pink triangle over the pocket throughout the play, has just been fired from his job as children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Carl decides they will seek a cure for his sister in Europe. After a comical scene of defiant departure from the library and a scene of frustrating medical mumbo-jumbo with the doctor (Billy Cohen, who also plays more than a dozen other parts throughout the evening), they are off to the continent.

The scenes speed by at a feverish pitch — thirty in all, during the hour and forty minutes without intermission — as Anna and Carl travel through France, Holland, Germany, and eventually to Vienna to find the mysterious Dr. Todesrocheln, a urine-drinking urologist. Amidst Anna’s frenetic quest to have as much sex with as many different men as possible and Carl’s entanglement in what seems to be a cloak-and-dagger intrigue out of the 1949 Graham Greene-Joseph Cotton-Orson Welles movie classic The Third Man, the comedy is hilarious and the farcical tone prevails, despite nostalgic reminiscences about the past and fears for the future.

The Baltimore Waltz is replete with bawdy humor, clever movie allusions, sardonic medical satire, and a feast of language. The nature of the subject matter here, as well as the 24-year gap between the world of the AIDS crisis in 1989 and the world of contemporary audiences, accounts for some disjointedness in tone in this play, but the three well cast, energetic, and dynamically engaged actors prevail over all confusions and the script’s occasional excesses in plot and cleverness.

At the center of the play, Ms. Hankinson’s Anna, alternating between trench coat and negligee, is focused, in character, and appealing throughout all the vicissitudes of action and emotion during the course of the evening. She undergoes the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and much more, creating a sympathetic, warm, credible character in her relationship with her brother and with the vast range of others she meets on her bizarre journey.

Mr. Rattner’s Carl provides a worthy counterpart to his sister Anna. He is thoroughly believable, articulate, and appealing in his affection for his sister, his attempts to help her and his peculiar “Third Man” intrigues—stuffed rabbit (a sexual symbol?) in hand — through their European travels.

Mr. Cohen’s versatility and gift for comedy serve him well as The Third Man, Doctor, and numerous other roles of widely ranging ages, nationalities, and dispositions. With a vast array of costumes, hats, props, and wild wigs, Mr. Cohen delivers a high-powered dose of humor and helps to set the prevailing tone in every scene where he appears. Ms. Watson has directed this abundantly capable, committed trio with a fine sense of pacing, a rich offering of humor, and a deeply intelligent understanding of the right balance of celebration and mourning to bring clarity to much of the confusion in the text.

Set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer establishes an appropriately simple space for this frequently changing, surrealistic comedic drama. A hospital bed is the major set piece, with a rolling hospital curtain, a chair, a table, and a platform upstage. A colorful, scenic backdrop represents highlights of the European sites Anna visits in her fantasy.

Marissa Applegate’s nuanced lighting contributes significantly to the shifting moods and scenes of the play, also to the shocking contrast — most evident at the play’s end — between Anna’s vivid fantasy journeys and the starkly-lit reality of the Baltimore hospital. (A slide show, supposedly of scenes of Europe but actually of scenes of Baltimore, should have appeared mid-way through the play, but apparently misfired on Saturday night. The actors covered skillfully with no apparent disruption in the action.)

Erin Valentine’s costumes and Jack Moore’s props help to create the multiple characters and the whimsical, often exaggerated atmosphere of the play, as the tone fluctuates from hospital sterile to child’s-nursery playful to Third Man noir.

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about family and sexual abuse, will probably always be the play she is best remembered for, but Theatre Intime’s superb production of The Baltimore Waltz provides striking evidence of the enduring power and humor in this earlier gem.

There has been a great deal of Handel scholarship going on in Princeton recently. The University’s department of music hosted events of the biennial American Handel Society Conference and Festival, which included presenting concerts of Baroque music and lectures on 18th-century performance practice. As part of the conference, University Director of Choirs Gabriel Crouch pooled the resources of the University Chamber Choir with the Westminster Kantorei to present a concert centered on the music of G.F. Handel. The full house in Taplin Auditorium included not only conference attendees, but also members of the community who were just in the mood to hear great music.

The Princeton University Chamber Choir is comprised of 30 students, and Mr. Crouch pulled ten of them in a select choir to perform a motet of Domenico Scarlatti, a composer more known for his keyboard works. Mr. Crouch drew a connection between Scarlatti and Handel in their same birth years and towering reputations, and linked Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa with the Handel works performed through its continuo orchestration.

Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater was performed essentially one singer on a part, and these ten members of the Chamber Choir demonstrated great poise and command of the music. Abigail Kelly and Stephanie Leotsakos blended well together on the top soprano parts, and Megan Conlon and Emily Sung handled well alto parts that were likely composed for men. The ten voices worked well together in the Taplin space, and Mr. Crouch brought out well an expressiveness recalling early Baroque opera. The piece included interesting shifts from minor to major keys. Continuo accompaniment was provided by Daniel Swenberg playing the stringed theorbo, and Kerry Heimann expertly provided organ keyboard support to the bass line.

Westminster Kantorei is Westminster Choir College’s choral ensemble specializing in early and contemporary music. Conductor Amanda Quist led the 22-voice chorus in four excerpts from Handel’s Chandos anthem Let God Arise, a piece full of quick-moving lines and musical drama one finds in Handel oratorios and operas. Let God Arise dates from 1718, near the height of Handel’s career, and the Westminster Kantorei and accompanying chamber orchestra filled the hall with deliberate choral articulation and a smooth and even ensemble tone. The small orchestra of strings, oboe, and continuo played with clean phrasing, with Jane McKinley’s oboe line speaking well through the string texture. Dr. Quist kept the choral parts precise, closing the anthem with crisp Alleluias.

The attendees of the Handel Society Conference no doubt came to hear Handel at his choral best, and the University Chamber Choir complied, with a full choral sound in a dramatic work. Handel may have composed the nine-movement Dixit Dominus at a young age, but it is no easy work of a youthful composer. Mr. Crouch took the preparation of this piece as a study in Baroque performance practice, aided by members of the Baroque specialty orchestra The English Concert, which had performed earlier in the week. The Chamber Choir used the hall’s acoustic to maintain the vocal lines, which were both difficult and fun to sing. The soprano section in particular sustained the high lines well, and the men maintained a well-blended sound.

A number of singers sang impressive solos, including soprano Anna Zayaruznaya, alto Megan Conlon, and tenor James Walsh. Mezzo-soprano Tessa Romano sang a very smooth rendition of the second movement alto aria, showing exceptional breath control in lines that crossed among registers. With similar poise, soprano Sophie Mocker perfectly matched triplets from the strings in another aria with long lines and little room to breathe. Sopranos Tara Ohrtman, Varshini Narayanan, Diana Barnes and Katie Buzard displayed solid vocal technique in solo ensemble sections, joined by tenors James Walsh and J.J. Warshaw, and bass Elliot Cole.

The overall performance of Dixit Dominus featured very interesting and engaging dynamic shifts, especially the closing “et in saecula saeculorum,” when one was not expecting a piano effect. Mr. Crouch kept the endings to the movements on the dry side, with the orchestral ensemble playing crisply. The tension of the text was well brought out, especially in the “conquassabit” verse in which “He will crush the heads of many on earth.”

A conference of the magnitude of a national American Handel Society meeting demands the highest level of scholarly performance, and the Princeton University and Westminster Choir College ensembles were well up to the task. For those interested in this period of music, the conference sessions open to the public were well-hidden gems of musicology on the University campus.

Gabriel Crouch will conduct the Princeton University Glee Club on Sunday, March 3 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Featured in this performance will be Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting the “Music at Princeton” calendar website at www.princeton.edu/music/events.

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!: Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a common farmer, has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Isabelle (not shown) and is determined to rescue her. He is climbing a giant beanstalk that has carried his house and the missing princess a mile high into the sky. Jack did not realize that the beanstalk had connected the world of the giants who lived high in the sky to the earth below. As a result, the giants descended from their heights and attempted to conquer the kingdom on earth. So in addition to rescuing the princess, Jack will have to defeat the giants as well.

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!: Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a common farmer, has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Isabelle (not shown) and is determined to rescue her. He is climbing a giant beanstalk that has carried his house and the missing princess a mile high into the sky. Jack did not realize that the beanstalk had connected the world of the giants who lived high in the sky to the earth below. As a result, the giants descended from their heights and attempted to conquer the kingdom on earth. So in addition to rescuing the princess, Jack will have to defeat the giants as well.

When Jack (Nicholas Hoult) was a little boy, his imagination was inspired by a bedtime story about a mythical war that was waged ages ago against a fearsome race of giants who had descended from the sky. Before his mother (Caroline Hayes) died, she suggested that he might even be related to Erik the Great (Craig Salisbury), the brave monarch who had led the valiant defense of Earth against the gargantuan invaders.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the peaceful kingdom, young Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) was being told a similar tale about an epic showdown between good and evil.

A decade later, we find the farmhand’s path crossing that of the future queen when the princess, now a headstrong teenager, sneaks out of the castle to learn about the life of the commoners. When she is accosted by a menacing gang of ruffians at a puppet show, Jack rushes to her assistance.

The damsel in distress becomes so smitten with the gallant lad that she informs her father that she wishes to break off her arranged engagement to the insufferable Roderick (Stanley Tucci), an effete lout who is twice her age. Nonetheless, King Brahmwell would rather have his daughter marry someone she doesn’t love but who is a blue-blooded member of the Royal Court, than marry a commoner.

Fate intervenes in the form of a monk (Simon Lowe) who hands Jack a few mysterious beans. During a secret visit from Isabelle, one slips through the floorboards under Jack’s house, takes root, and starts to grow rapidly, sweeping the humble abode with the princess in it way up into the heavens.

Soon both of her suitors start to search for the missing princess and begin by scaling the mile-high beanstalk  that leads to the other world in the clouds. Jack has no idea that the mammoth plant has also reopened a gateway to the ground for an army of gigantic adversaries. And it’s not long before ancient hostilities are reignited over Isabelle and the fate of the planet below.

Directed by Bryan Singer, Jack the Giant Slayer is an enchanting and often eye-popping adventure which must be seen in 3-D to be appreciated fully. Between the breathtaking panoramas and the derring-do, the picture is a captivating cinematic treat guaranteed to enthrall anyone interested in seeing a classic fairytale being brought to life.

Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell a hit with the little ones!

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for frightening images, brief profanity, and intense violence. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers

February 20, 2013

book revPeople on their busy way across Grand Central’s main concourse the evening of February 1 stopped and looked up, struck by the sudden appearance of rows of lights dancing in the great arched windows on the west wall. Though the lights seemed to be appearing sequentially, changing color as they moved up and down and back and forth, there was nothing remote-controlled or digital or otherworldly about the behavior of these white, red, and green flarings and flashings. This was no manufactured Times-Square-type display. These dancing lights were dancing people.

The show created by over a hundred members of the Improv Everywhere troupe using a combination of LED flashlights, camera flashes, and body English began at 7:13 p.m., according to the legendary golden clock atop Grand Central’s information booth, one of Manhattan’s favorite meeting places. It was the first evening of the terminal’s year-long centennial celebration. In railroad time, 7:13 is 19:13, which with a simple subtraction becomes the birth year, 1913.

The formal ceremony, complete with a giant cake and the singing of “Happy Birthday,” featured a tribute from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called Grand Central “a symbol of all that is great about our city, “an innovative and visionary place” that has the “power to inspire awe and wisdom” and “beauty and art” as well as “commerce and industry.” Billy Collins read his poem, “Grand Central,” Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon observed that “Grand Central is everything that New York is,” and Caroline Kennedy spoke of her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who helped set in motion the process that saved the terminal from the wrecking ball. In his new book Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America (Grand Central $30), Sam Roberts quotes from the letter Jackie sent to then-mayor Abe Beame: “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?”

Wide-Eyed Kids

If you want to see children of all ages inspired by beauty, watch the YouTube video of Improv Everywhere’s smile-making spectacle that turned a crowd of grown-ups into wide-eyed kids. In addition to all those delighted adults, you’ll see a young boy being held high by his mother so he can see the living aurora borealis in the west windows. You’ll also notice another boy, about ten, gazing in wonder at the immensity of the scene. I know the feeling. Long long ago, I was there. My fascinated attachment to Manhattan as the place where people are capable of simply suddenly performing, out of the blue, like Gene Kelly merrily splashing about singing in the rain, began when I walked wide-eyed into the main concourse of Grand Central at the age of ten and saw a glamorous lady in an evening gown singing Christmas music on a balcony very like the one Mayor Bloomberg and the other dignitaries would be celebrating the centennial on more than half a century later.

Fresh off the train from Indianapolis with my parents a few days before Christmas, I was already punchy and highly susceptible after sitting up all night watching the heavy snow make cinematic wonders of the bright lights of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower and the snow-laden platforms of Buffalo and the smaller stations along the way. When you come to the city from the midwest for the first time, Grand Central is the opening chapter in the book of New York, or the first scene in New York, the movie. And what a beginning was the main floor, the marble railing of the balcony trimmed in the colors of the season and hung with massive red-ribboned wreaths. No doubt there was a huge, dazzlingly lit and decorated Christmas tree somewhere, but my memory has retained only the singing woman and the sense of luxurious enormity, the subdued, stylish majesty of the cream-colored stairway and balcony, the hum of milling multitudes. Perhaps the most striking thing of all was that the mellow grandeur of the space conveyed something like warmth instead of the chill I felt a few days later in the supremely majestic and long-lost vastness of Penn Station.

The Grand Central Awards

It took me less than a New York minute to realize that this column about the great terminal at the heart of the city I love makes sense sandwiched between Valentine’s Day and Oscar night. Besides being concerned with the way movies and books enter into the “Grand Central of the Imagination,” to quote a chapter title from John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton’s big, spectacularly illustrated Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives (Norton $50), my subject necessarily embraces Hollywood because Hollywood embraces New York. From the dawn of the silent era to the present, from Douglas Fairbanks in Manhattan Madness (1916) to the Madagascar films (2005-2012), thousands of movies have been set (and/or filmed) in New York City, way more than any other specific locale. By all rights, the Academy should give New York a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Now that I think of it, DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar, with its Central Park animals and Grand Central locations, deserves some kind of award for animated features, what with scenes like Melman the giraffe getting his head stuck in the Information Booth clock and an old lady attacking Alex the Lion as he’s coming up the escalator from the subway to the terminal.

After reading about the legal battle to save the station in Sam Roberts’s Grand Central, I’m thinking maybe the GC award could be called a Brendan for Brendan Gill, the architecture critic for The New Yorker. Gill is hailed by Paul Goldberger, his successor at the magazine, as the person who did as much as anyone “to establish the climate” that made possible the saving of Grand Central “through his writing and his civic activities and his behind the scene wheeling and dealing.”

Grand Central Moments

Among the contenders for Best Grand Central Moment in a Motion Picture, the most famous occurs in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest when Cary Grant calls his mother from a phone booth before fleeing the FBI and assorted heavies to board the 20th Century Limited for Chicago and his near-fatal encounter with a crop duster. However, being mindful of Goldberger’s appealing concept of the space at the heart of Grand Central as “not a hectic passageway but an immense dance floor,” I would award the Brendan to Terry Gilliam for the beautiful moment in The Fisher King, wherein Robin Williams’s antic imagination transforms the crowd hurrying across the concourse into a Cinderella’s Ball fantasy of dancing couples. As for the best GC moment in a musical, it has to be Fred Astaire dancing along the Track 34 platform in The Band Wagon, “reminding viewers,” as Sam Roberts puts it, “that simply entering Grand Central is exhilarating.”

For Best Comedy Mystery, the award goes to the ensemble of suspects in Grand Central Murder, the only film I know of that spends much of its running time below ground and in behind-the-scene nooks and crannies of the terminal where Sam Levene’s embattled, soft-drink-guzzling police detective is busy trying to figure out who killed a Broadway diva everybody despised.

Holden’s Refuge

In the literary category, the Brendan for Best Writer using a GC setting goes to J.D. Salinger for two scenes in The Catcher in the Rye, and the award for Best Performance by a literary character goes to Holden Caulfield who twice seeks refuge in Grand Central at desperate moments, first after being roughed up by the bellhop from hell, “old Maurice,” and again when an alarming and disillusioning encounter with his favorite teacher forces a flight to “that crazy waiting room” at Grand Central, where he spends the rest of the night sleeping on a bench and wakes up feeling more depressed than ever. During his happier first time in the terminal, he checks his bags in a luggage locker and breakfasts on ham and eggs in a little sandwich bar while conversing with a nun about literary types like “old Grendel,” “old Eustacia Vye,” and “old Mercutio.”

Runner up in the Best Writer category is John Cheever for his stories “The Five-Forty Eight” and “O City of Broken Dreams,” and for the passage in his novel, Bullet Park, where a character talks about cleaning the Grand Central toilets “eight hours a night, five nights a week,” mopping the floors, and “wiping off the walls the writing people had put there.”

Magnificent Windows

The ultimate Grand Central image is the one on the cover of Sam Roberts’s book that shows shafts of light streaming down through the cathedral-scale windows onto the concourse. It’s an image that seems to be waiting for a film worthy of it, or a work of literature, or a painting or a poem, or even a religion. One star worthy of the light coming through those magnificent windows is Margaret Sullavan, who never played a scene in Grand Central (she plays one in Penn Station when she sees Jimmy Stewart off to Princeton in Next Time We Love) and who never won an Oscar. This great actress’s endgame connection with Grand Central is recounted in Haywire, a memoir by Brooke Hayward, who learns of her 51-year-old mother’s death during a phone conversation:

“The vast dome of Grand Central Station closed down over me in the glass telephone booth, so that I seemed to go deaf [Sullavan herself actually did begin going deaf in middle age]. There was absolute silence … and even when I pushed open the door for air, no sound anywhere in the entire huge space of the station … filled as before with people, but people moving noiselessly, without echoes. I moved with them, my own footsteps on the worn marble floor …. My mother, my very own mother, beautiful, warm, always more alive than anyone else in the world — alive in ways that nobody else dared to be — my mother, with her special gift for living and for giving that life to all the people who knew her and many who didn’t, dead.”

Improv Everywhere

To see the same great windows coming to life with Improv Everywhere’s human light show while the passersby below beam like happy children, check out grand-central-lights at improveverywhere.com.

RECENT FIND: This poster dated April 20, 1865, advertising a reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was found among other items in the library at Princeton University. It will be among almost 100 historic pieces on view in the exhibition “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” opening this Friday, February 22 at Firestone Library. (Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University)

RECENT FIND: This poster dated April 20, 1865, advertising a reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was found among other items in the library at Princeton University. It will be among almost 100 historic pieces on view in the exhibition “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” opening this Friday, February 22 at Firestone Library.
(Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University)

The serendipitous “rediscovery” in the Princeton University Library of a wanted poster offering a $100,000 reward for Lincoln’s murderer “couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time,” says Curator of Manuscripts Don Skemer. The poster was found as Mr. Skemer and his team were completing descriptive labels for a new exhibition, “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox,” opening this Friday, February 22 in the main gallery of the University’s Firestone Library.

The important historical artifact will be among almost 100 items on view. “It’s a wonderful item that came to us with the Livingston and Delafield Family Papers in the mid-1980s,” says Mr. Skemer: “Because of its size, it was housed in a flat file, separate from the rest of the papers when they were being arranged and described; we rediscovered it in December when rehousing collections as part of the ongoing renovation of Firestone Library.”

According to Mr. Skemer such “discoveries” are by no means unusual. “The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has very rich and extensive collections, so we regularly discover or rediscover important items, especially in large collections that can contain hundreds of document boxes, cartons, and other containers,” he says.

Debuting on George Washington’s birthday, the free exhibition, which traces the American experience from 1607 to 1865, is open to the public through August with special events planned for Tuesday, March 5, in commemoration of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.

Items on display, several for the first time, are drawn from the library’s holdings of American historical manuscripts and include: autograph letters, rare books, maps, photographs, and other materials from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) and the Scheide Library. Besides the wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, there is a first-hand account of Colonial life in Jamestown.

Also on display will be such notable items as English writer William Strachey’s 1612 account of the early American settlement in Jamestown, Virginia; George Washington’s land surveys; John Trumbull’s final sketch for his painting of the Battle of Princeton; pages from Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book; a letter on slavery by abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass; Abraham Lincoln’s manuscript draft of a speech on sectionalism; and General George McClellan’s collection of Civil War photographs.

“The exhibition represents the growth of the American nation, from European colonization to the American Revolution, and from westward expansion to the end of the Civil War, against the background of an evolving natural and man-made environment,” says Mr. Skemer. “It bears witness to the diverse peoples and defining events that helped shape America and created an enduring political union.”

According to Anna Chen, assistant curator of manuscripts, it took more than a year to select items from the thousands in the RBSC and Scheide Library holdings. “We have a wonderful and deep American historical collection, but it’s rarely exhibited because there is just so much from which to choose,” says Mr. Skemer.

The exhibition title, “A Republic in the Wilderness,” was inspired by the 1866 writings of American historian George Bancroft, who summarized the nation’s previous 250 years thus: “In the fullness of time a republic rose up in the wilderness of America.”

“One of the themes that connects the pieces in the show is the importance of the land and the environment to America’s understanding of itself and the many cultures it comprises,” says Ms. Chen, citing examples such as a 17th century land deed of New Jersey signed by English settlers and Lenape Indians, and views of landscapes and wildlife by artists George Catlin and John James Audubon.

The exhibition also tells the stories of African Americans brought here as slaves, including a broadside diagram of a slave ship. Encounters between Native Americans and European settlers are also included. “The exhibition recognizes what happened to the indigenous people in America, as well as the history of slavery in this country,” says Mr. Skemer.

On March 5, there will be a one-day display of rare items from the Civil War, such as souvenir copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, both signed by Lincoln. Civil War expert James McPherson will give a public talk, “The Civil War and the Transformation of America,” at 5 p.m. in McCormick Hall, Room 101. On May 5, Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, will give a special exhibition lecture in McCormick Hall, Room 101. Both events are co-sponsored by The Friends of the Princeton University Library.

For more information on Firestone Library gallery hours, visit: www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/exhibitions/main.html.

The Richardson Chamber Players has always been an ensemble exploring the outer edges of chamber repertoire. Now more than 15-years-old, the Players has become a presenter of music audiences may not hear anywhere else. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Richardson Auditorium focused on two decades of European and South American music, presenting works rarely heard in general, much less in Princeton.

Sunday’s concert featured a comparatively large number of instrumentalists and singers, both professionals and students. The cover of the concert program referred to “this exaltation, this splendor, this bliss,” but Richardson Chamber Players co-founder and conductor Michael Pratt labeled the four pieces on the program as “fun.” Bassoonist Robert Wagner, principal bassoonist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and Jayn Rosenfeld, principal flutist with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra started off the “fun” with selections from the Bachianas Brasileiras Suite No. 6 of Heitor Villa-Lobos. In the opening Aria, Ms. Rosenfeld took her time on the long melodic line, with Mr. Wagner complementing the flute line with a subtle but steady bassoon. Reflecting the work’s Bach influence, Mr. Wagner’s bassoon playing was as solid as any Baroque continuo, closing the movement with Ms. Rosenfeld in a tapered unison.

Music of Villa-Lobos also closed the afternoon’s program, but in between were two works linked by their roots in 1920s and 1930s Europe. Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith were composing in a similar political climate, yet these two works were very different. Weill is most known for his music for the stage, and his sets of vocal songs are just as interesting. Soprano Martha Elliott sang the seven-movement Frauentanz, a setting of poems from the Middle Ages. Ms. Elliott always maintained a saucy approach to the teasing and romantic texts, singing with innocence yet a smile of knowing something secret behind the words.

Ms. Elliott was accompanied by solo flute, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, in varying combinations and music effects. Hornist Chris Komer and Mr. Wagner provided a chipper accompaniment to the first song, while clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes (a recent Princeton graduate and veteran of the University Orchestra) played a smooth dancing obbligato to the second song. Especially nice to hear was Danielle Farina’s elegant viola playing, especially against the wind ostinato in the third movement. Ms. Farina also accompanied Ms. Elliott in an expressive interpretation of a haunting text in the fourth song. Throughout this set, Weill’s unique orchestration and combination of instruments created a unique musical palette and made Ms. Elliott’s conveying of the text that much more accessible.

Princeton University faculty member Barbara Rearick offered a very different text interpretation and vocal approach in Paul Hindemith’s Die junge Magd, a set of six songs. Composed for mezzo-soprano to the poetry of Georg Trakl, this cycle is dark, with a six-instrument accompaniment of string quartet, flute, and clarinet. Ms. Rearick sang with a rich and plaintive character, emphasizing a musical lavishness which came from the playing of the string quartet: violinists Ruotao Mao and Dean Wang, violinist Ms. Farina and cellist Alberto Parrini. The instrumental ensemble created two characters, between the strings and the winds, with icy word-painting when appropriate. In the fourth song in particular, the strings played a “hammering” pizzicato while the winds and voice depicted the character and mood. Ms. Rosenfeld’s solo flute matched Ms. Rearick’s voice perfectly in the particularly disturbing text of the fifth song.

Ms. Elliott returned to the stage to close the concert with selections from another suite from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, singing the familiar vocalise introduction at a nice pace. Ms. Elliott’s difficult vocal humming was especially impressive in the closing of the cantilena Aria. The very quick-moving Dança was presented with rapid text from Ms. Elliott and effortless cello playing from Mr. Parrini leading an ensemble of seven other celli.

Sunday afternoon’s performance was a big undertaking for the Richardson Chamber Players, but by augmenting the ensemble with excellent instrumentalists from the campus, the ensemble proved more than up to the task, and a very appreciative audience came away with appreciation for some new repertoire.

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. “Structure and Flow: An Exploration of Contrasts in Abstraction” runs through March 9. Works by Al Aronson, Benjamin Colbert, Nancy Cohen, John Franklin, and Alyce Gottesman are included. Visit www.artscouncilof
princeton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, February 21-April 4. An opening reception is February 22, 4 p.m.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. Meet the artist February 21, 4-7 p.m. (609) 921-3600.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Fear and Folly: The Visionary Prints of Francisco Goya and Federico Castellon” through March 7.

Drumthwacket, 354 Stockton Street, shows photos from Wendel White’s portfolios “Small Towns, Black Lives” through March 5. Call (609) 683-0057 or visit www.drumthwacket.org.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through February 24, “In My View: Stephen Smith, Florence Moonan, William Hogan.” Through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School” is on view. From March 2-April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Exposed,” a member exhibit, through March 10. Visit photogallery14.com.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “Suspended Harmonies: Fiber Art by Ted Hallman” through March 3. “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” runs through April 28. Visit www.michen
erartmuseum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Lynd Ward Draws Stories: Inspired by Mexico’s History, Mark Twain, and Adventures in the Woods” through June 23. “In the Company of Women: Prints by Mary Cassatt” runs through March 3. “Le Mur’ at the Cabaret des Quat’z Arts is on view through February 24. “Henri-Gabriel Ibels” is exhibited March 2-September 8. Works by Russian artist Leonid Sokov are displayed through July 14.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Two Views” Atget & Friedlander” through March 10. “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” runs through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is March 9-June 30. Museum hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Call (609) 258-3788.

CAN TRUE LOVE CONQUER EVIL?: The local librarian Amma (Viola Davis, left), who is also a seer, shows the young couple Lena (Alice Englert, center) and Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) a display chronicling Lena’s family’s history. It seems that Lena will come into her powers as a witch  when she turns 16 and she will have to decide whether to put her powers to use on the side of good or evil.

CAN TRUE LOVE CONQUER EVIL?: The local librarian Amma (Viola Davis, left), who is also a seer, shows the young couple Lena (Alice Englert, center) and Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) a display chronicling Lena’s family’s history. It seems that Lena will come into her powers as a witch when she turns 16 and she will have to decide whether to put her powers to use on the side of good or evil.

Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) has lived only in Gatlin, South Carolina, a tiny town whose residents still deny that the South lost the Civil War. The community is so backwards that it has banned books such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

This frustrating state of affairs has left the curious  high school sophomore determined to attend a college far, far away from the Bible Belt. In the meantime, however, he is secretly reading as many of the censored titles that he can get his hands on.

For months Ethan has also been haunted by a recurring nightmare in which he attempts to approach a beautiful ghost, only to die right before reaching her. Consequently, he wakes up in a cold sweat every morning with a crush on an apparition he thinks doesn’t really exist.

However, a new transfer student, who’s the spitting image of the girl of his dreams shows up in Ethan’s class on the first day of the fall semester. Recently orphaned Lena (Alice Englert) has just been taken in by her Uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), head of the wealthy family who founded Gatlin generations ago.

Most of the locals know better than to trespass onto the forbidding Ravenwood Estate, but Ethan is too smitten by Lena to care. It’s not long before he and Lena fall in love, although the beautiful 15-year-old does her best to warn her new beau that she’s more than what she seems to be.

If Ethan had bothered to consult librarian/seer Amma Treadeau (Viola Davis), he’d know that he should steer clear of the entire Ravenwood clan. For, truth be told, they’re “Casters,” meaning otherworldly beings whose supernatural powers appear when they turn 16. With Lena’s 16th birthday rapidly approaching, the question is whether she’ll be a good witch or be drawn to the dark side by her cousin (Emmy Rossum) and late mother (Emma Thompson).

Thus unfolds Beautiful Creatures, a deliciously naughty adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s young adult novel of the same name. Directed by Richard LaGravenese, the picture’s plotline is a bit reminiscent of the vampire/human series Twilight, except with the human and non-human protagonists’ genders switched.

With its talented cast and a compelling script, Beautiful Creatures is bound to be popular with its targeted teen demographic with whom such cross-species romances seem to resonate nowadays.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, and scary images. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

February 13, 2013
SMITHSONIAN IN NEWARK: This headrest from the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dating to the mid- to late-19th century, is from a show organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art that will be included in “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” opening at the Newark Museum on Wednesday, February 27. For more information, call 973-596-6550 or visit: www.NewarkMuseum.org. (Courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Franko Khoury)

SMITHSONIAN IN NEWARK: This headrest from the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dating to the mid- to late-19th century, is from a show organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art that will be included in “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” opening at the Newark Museum on Wednesday, February 27. For more information, call 973-596-6550 or visit: www.NewarkMuseum.org.
(Courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Franko Khoury)

Two exhibitions opening in Princeton and Newark this month take a close look at art for discoveries of African cultural and scientific influence. Inspired by collections in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., respectively, each exhibition is designed to prompt discussion by visitors, students, and scholars alike.

In Princeton, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” which opens this Saturday, February 16, at the Princeton University Art Museum, examines paintings, sculptures, prints, manuscripts, and printed books from the Renaissance period to reveal the roles that Africans and their descendants played in that society.

In Newark, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” opening on Wednesday, February 27, focuses on the legacy of African astronomy as it is revealed in African art, both traditional and contemporary.

The Princeton show is described as providing a narrative for an often forgotten social group in Europe from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. One goal of the exhibition is to create an avenue for understanding the social issues of color, class, and stereotypes of the day. Africans living in or visiting Europe during this period were artists, aristocrats, diplomats, slaves, servants, and saints: witness St. Benedict, the Moor, who was not only widely revered in his lifetime, but is also one of the African-Europeans of the 1500s with an impact to this day. According to scholars, they came partly because of the European drive for new markets and diplomatic and trade initiatives by African monarchs. In exploring their hitherto little known presence and that of their descendants, the exhibition creates a new perspective on European art.

Originally organized by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the exhibition features some 75 works from the Walters collection as well as items from museums in the United States and Europe, and from private collections. It includes pieces by Rubens, Pontormo, Dürer, Veronese, and Bronzino depicting diverse views from street scenes to portraits created from life.

“We hope this exhibition will be a vehicle for conversations about cultural identity,” says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum. “Through great art, visitors will be able to make personal connections with Africans who lived in Europe 500 years ago.”

Among the exhibition highlights are scenes from daily life such as the Netherlandish painting, Chafariz d’el Rey in the Alfama District, circa 1570-80, showing a square in the city of Lisbon. At this period, people of African descent made up nearly 10 percent of Lisbon’s population, more than anywhere else in Europe and the diversity of their social positions is represented by a slave in chains and a knight on horseback.

Also featured is the painting that is considered to be the first formal portrait of a child of African ancestry in European art: Portrait of Maria Salviate de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, by Jacopo de Pontormo. Painted around 1537, Pontormo’s image shows the little girl Giulia de’ Medici enjoying an aristocratic lifestyle. Her image contrasts with Portrait of an African Slave Woman, attributed to Annibale Carracci in 1580, which shows a serving maid from a fragment of a larger picture. Although unnamed, the woman is a remarkable presence; her facial expression is ambiguous.

“Recognizing the African presence within Renaissance society opens a new window into a time when the role of the individual was becoming recognized — a perspective that remains fundamental today,” says Joaneath Spicer, the Walters’ curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art. “We are just beginning to understand the contributions of people of African ancestry in that society, so this exhibition raises as many questions as it answers.”

Such questions will no doubt be raised when Ms. Spicer joins several others for a panel discussion, moderated by Anthony Grafton, Princeton University’s Henry Putnam University Professor of History, on Thursday, April 25, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in McCormick 101. The other panelists will be Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian born British-American philosopher and novelist and Princeton University’s Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy, and Adam Beaver, assistant professor of history.

The exhibition will run through June 9.

Science Influencing Art

“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” opening at the Newark Museum, is described as the first major exhibition of its kind. The show originated with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art where it ran for six months before coming to Newark, its only appearance in New Jersey.

With more than 70 works from all corners of the continent, the exhibition captures Africa’s early engagement with celestial observations and their connections to the visual arts from the earliest of days. It moves chronologically from a selection of ancient Egyptian pieces by African artists Romuald Hazoumè, Gavin Jantjes, William Kentridge, Marcus Neustetter, and Karel Nel.

Highlights include Dogon sculptures and masks from Mali; chiefly regalia and other Akan arts from Ghana; Tabwa and Luba works from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and models of the cosmos created by Nigerian Yoruba artists.

“African Cosmos highlights the historical contributions of Africans to our knowledge of the heavens,” said Christa Clarke, the Newark Museum’s curator of African art and senior curator, Arts of Africa and the Americas. “The spectacular works on view demonstrate how this knowledge has informed and inspired the creation of art on the African continent for millennia, from ancient Egypt to present-day South Africa.”

As artist-in-residence, Mr, Hazoumé will be installing, Rainbow Serpent, a 12-foot construct of recycled containers used to transport gasoline, on February 21, 22, and 25. He is also scheduled to lead a master class for Newark school children on February 27. Mr. Hazoumé will lead a tour of the exhibit with a special focus on the artist’s large sculpture, followed by a discussion.

“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” will run through August 11 at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street in the Downtown/Arts District of Newark. Hours are: Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Suggested admission: $10 (adults); $6 (children, seniors, students with valid I.D.). For more information, call (973) 596-6550 or visit: www.NewarkMuseum.org.

DVD REVSome people wanna fill the world with silly love songs ….

—Paul McCartney from “Silly Love Songs”

By all rights, George Stevens’s 1941 film Penny Serenade should be to Valentine’s Day what Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. The season of silly love songs, candy, flowers, and date movies could do with a film about a couple struggling to honor the marriage vow, “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

Not that I’ve got anything against Valentine’s Day. If it didn’t exist, neither would I.

My mother was stone cold sober when she mentioned the occasion of my conception, a date later confirmed by my father. The revelation came when she was telling me the facts of life and my stunned response (“You and Dad did that?”) had less to do with pre-adolescent naivete than with my acute awareness of the lack of physical affection between my parents. Possibly the only reason I’m here in Princeton at this moment is because my father was living up to his part of a nationally accredited romantic situation. Otherwise, the most productive phase of the relationship took place when they were writing plays together the year before they got married. Two of their one-act farces, And Silently Steal Away and Mr. and Mrs. Uh-h, were published by Samuel French, and at the time of their divorce 37 years later they were still receiving small royalty checks. The plan was to move from Hutchinson, Kansas to New York City and write Broadway plays. To make ends meet, she would be a stenographer and he would play piano in a night club. On the way to the Bright Lights they ended up in Bloomington, Indiana, where my father became a Medieval scholar and my mother a legal secretary working for a Court of Appeals judge who put the make on her and later became the subject of a story in the Kenyon Review.

“It’s Love, It’s Love”

In the 1950s my father, of all people, filled the world with some pretty silly love songs of his own that I inherited in manuscript. Several of these ditties are so tuneful that I sometimes find myself whistling or humming the melodies. It’s hard to keep from smiling when I think of my reserved, undemonstrative father writing Tin Pan Alley lyrics like “It’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, I’m zoomin’/She caught my eye, I’m not so shy, we’ll multiply, we’re human!”

The period when my father was composing “It’s Love,” “The Magic of Love,” “It Can Happen,” and the others must have been like a reprise of the courtship year when they were collaborating on plays. My mother was actually sitting next to him at the piano singing along one night when some friends were over, an event I witnessed, amazed, from the top of the stairs. The most musically sophisticated and lyrically overwrought of my father’s compositions, “The Magic of Love,” begins, “If I wish, I could swim like a silvery fish,” and ends with four lines that my needy mother almost surely contributed: “Hold me tight! Keep me earthbound and still tonight./Lift your spell — let me breathe the air of the ordinary room we share./The enchantment is with you there/That’s the magic of love!”

Tucked in with the song manuscripts is a royalty statement for $229 showing that And Silently Steal Away was performed in 22 different towns in Minnesota between January and May of 1950 (with multiple performances in Olivia, Windom, and Thief River Falls).

Though this story doesn’t have a happy ending (what real-life story does?), my parents remained close after the divorce and were always there for each other, “till death did them part” fifteen years later.

Another Couple

In Penny Serenade, Roger and Julie, newlyweds played by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, struggle financially in a desperate attempt to adopt a child when the bureaucratic odds are stacked against them.

The flashbacks that tell the story of Penny Serenade are structured around songs associated with the relationship, each in the form of a record that Julie is playing on the victrola, beginning with “You Were Meant for Me.” The theme is set from the first meeting in a record store where she’s a sales clerk and he buys a big stack of records (78s in those days), which gives him an excuse to spend time in her company. He walks her home, and after admitting he owns no phonograph, invites himself into her apartment to listen to some silly love songs. The next scene, which begins with the playing of another record, shows them shyly talking around embarrassingly relevant fortune cookies (marriage, a baby); then comes a big, rollicking, brilliantly directed New Year’s Eve party where Roger proposes to Julie just before midnight. A newspaperman on his way to a two-year assignment in Japan, he wants her to join him three months after he gets settled. They have only hours before he has to catch a 3 a.m. train. With Hollywood serendipity on their side, they manage to get married that same snowy night and make the train in time. As they’re sharing a passionate goodbye embrace in his compartment (in the picture shown below), the train’s about to leave, she has to get off — but she doesn’t. Next shot shows the train pulling into a station, the camera lingering suggestively on the compartment’s frosted-up, snow-edged window. In case we don’t get the point, a sign says “To New York 115 Miles.” The nudge isn’t necessary; their goodbye kiss makes clear what’s taken place, and the next time Roger sees her, in Japan, she has big news to tell him.

Although Penny Serenade shifts abruptly from romantic comedy to the dramatic mode typed as a “tear jerker” when it gets to the struggle at the heart of the story, it’s one of George Stevens’s finest films, with memorable supporting performances by Beulah Bondi as a sympathetic worker in an adoption agency and Edgar Buchanan as a tried and true friend. Grant and Dunne are even better together than they were in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). In both those comedies, one of Dunne’s many charms is her knowing laugh, but the half-laugh, half sigh that emerges when she perceives what Grant is up to that first day with the records is so right that it makes you laugh, too. Grant is no less subtle, speaking soft and low when he proposes and then kissing her with words of love we can barely hear.

Roger is the confident carefree Cary Grant that film fans know and love until an earthquake brings the couple’s world down on top of them, destroying the unborn child and Julie’s ability to ever carry a baby to term. After she recovers, they move back to the States and a small town north of San Francisco where Roger uses all of a small inheritance to buy a weekly newspaper that doesn’t make enough money to satisfy the adoption agency’s regulations. Eventually, thanks to the caring employee sensitively played by Bondi, they are allowed a one-year trial adoption of a baby, a little girl “like no other child.” Anyone who’s ever gone through the first days and nights home from the hospital with a baby will be touched and amused by the scenes depicting the panic-stricken inepitude of the new parents. The crisis comes a year later when Roger, still struggling to keep the paper going, appears before an unsympathetic judge and is told that because they’re financially incapable of supporting the child they will have to return her to the orphanage. Grant’s passionate, choked-up, ultimately successful plea is painful to behold. As the New Republic’s Otis Ferguson observes in his wise, eloquent review, the scene is “one of the rightly moving things in the picture.”

Falling Star

The most beautiful moment in Penny Serenade, however, occurs when Roger and Julie’s little girl, Trina, now 6, plays the “Silent Night” echo in her school’s Christmas play. As Hollywood children go, Eva Lee Kuney is about as good as you could hope for in her brief, touching, ill-fated part. Her role in the pageant becomes a piece of cinematic poetry involving a cloud on a string and a falling star. As Julie sadly puts the last record on the phonograph, a letter to the woman at the adoption agency reveals that the child has died after a sudden illness. Rather than inflict a death scene on us, Stevens and screenwriter Morris Ryskind simply show the impact on the parents. There’s no fight left in this couple; the marriage is over. Or so it seems until their guardian angel at the adoption agency gives them a call.

As far as I know, the framing device of a character playing records to accompany the flashbacks composing the picture is unique to Penny Serenade. It’s also one of the most conspicuous examples of product placement I’ve ever seen. All the records have the RCA label and are played on an RCA victrola.

Though it’s in the public domain, Penny Serenade is not easy to find on DVD. You can see it in its entirety on YouTube.

Now if only there were a film of my father playing his silly love songs with my mother sitting beside him singing along.

In mid-19th-century Italy, when attending opera was as popular as going to the movies today, Gaetano Donizetti turned out operas at a remarkable rate. In his fifty-year lifetime, he composed more than sixty-five operatic works, with the comic Don Pasquale one of his most popular. Boheme Opera NJ, celebrating its 24th season, presented this comic classic at the Mayo Concert Hall of the College of New Jersey Center for the Arts this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s performance (the opera was also performed Saturday night) offered the audience an unassuming yet crisp production, which while maybe a bit low-tech, showed all-around solid singing with one clear break-out star.

The stage in Mayo Hall is indeed a concert hall, with no pit for the orchestra or apparatus from which to fly backdrops. Boheme Opera set the stage in a chamber-like atmosphere, with the orchestra onstage behind the singers, and minimalistic furniture dividing the stage into two “scenes.” The effect was that of seeing an opera in someone’s living room, with a chamber instrumental ensemble augmented by piano. Conductor Joseph Pucciatti led the small ensemble in a clean overture with an especially elegant cello solo from Katrina Kormanski.

With only four principal characters, Don Pasquale is a substantial opera to be carried by a few people. Bass-baritone Edward Bogusz had no trouble reacting to the small stage (and did not seem a bit surprised to find an orchestra in his character’s living room) and sang the title role with great animation and a very solid voice, especially in the lower register. Although there were times when the full orchestral sound overpowered the singers a bit, Mr. Bogusz sang the quick recitative sections well, projecting the English text to the back of the hall, and clearly seemed to enjoy himself.

The inherent trouble-maker onstage was Dr. Malatesta, sung cleanly by baritone Kevin Grace. Mr. Grace was also solid with diction, forming a good vocal combination with David Gagnon, singing the romantic lead role of Ernesto. Mr. Gagnon presented some of the most expressive music of the opera, including a lyrical first act aria and the refined and graceful Act III aria to his beloved. Mr. Gagnon commanded audience appeal with sensitive and thoughtful singing, causing members of the audience to comment after his arias on the beauty of his voice.

A continual pleasure to see onstage was soprano Sungji Kim, who found a strong depth of character in Norina, Ernesto’s intended who was always contriving to get her way. Ms. Kim played the role as a smart cookie who pulled out all the stops when necessary. With a voice that spun off high coloratura with ease, Ms. Kim was especially impressive with her ease with fast-moving passages, breath control, and dramatic vocal tone. Currently a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, Ms. Kim clearly has a future in 19th-century lead soprano roles.

Boheme Opera’s production of Don Pasquale was a model of elegant simplicity, and making the most use of the stage available. Mayo Hall’s wood paneling and solid color painted walls created a 19th-century backdrop, and unadorned furniture at the front of the stage made the audience quickly forget that there was an orchestra right behind. Costuming placed the plot in an unambiguous modern time (especially with Pasquale’s checking the time on his wristwatch), and the focus for the production was clearly on entertainment and good singing. Given that entertainment and singing were likely also the goals of Donizetti’s original productions, it seems that Boheme Opera’s Don Pasquale was a success.

Art Times Two Gallery, Princeton Brain and Spine Care, 731 Alexander Road, presents “Energy in Mind: Picturing Consciousness,” works by Jennifer Cadoff, Debra Weier and Andrew Werth, through April. View by appointment. Call (609) 203-4622.

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. “Structure and Flow: An Exploration of Contrasts in Abstraction” runs through March 9. Works by Al Aronson, Benjamin Colbert, Nancy Cohen, John Franklin, and Alyce Gottesman are included. Mr. Colbert gives a free talk February 15, 12-1 p.m. Mr. Gyampo gives a free workshop February 16, 1:30-4:30 p.m. Visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

Artsbridge at Prallsville Mill, Route 29, Stockton, presents the 19th Annual Members’ Show through February 24. Visit www.artsbridgeonline.com.

Artworks, 19 Everett Alley in Trenton, has “World Sampler,” a group exhibit curated by Frances Heinrich, through February 23. Visit artworkstrenton.org.

Bank of Princeton Community Art Gallery, 10 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has “Scenes from Cuba” by Maurice Harmon through February 15. Visit www.the
bankofprinceton.com.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has works by political artist Marcia Annenberg through February 14. “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, runs February 21-April 4. An opening reception is February 22, 4 p.m.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. Meet the artist February 21, 4-7 p.m. (609) 921-3600.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Fear and Folly: The Visionary Prints of Francisco Goya and Federico Castellon” through March 7.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Urban Landscapes” on view through February 15. Works by Louis Russomanno, Susan Marie Brundage, Jean Childs Buzgo, Wills Kinsley, Leon Rainbow, Thom Lynch, and others are included, along with art by the A-Team Artists from Trenton. Also on view is a photo documentary on dance by Edward Greenblatt. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Douglass Library, Rutgers, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick, has “Trans Technology: Circuits of Culture, Self Belonging” through June 3. The show is part of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series. On March 5 from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., a symposium on the show will be held. Visit womenart@rci.rutgers.edu.

Drumthwacket, 354 Stockton Street, shows photos from Wendel White’s portfolios “Small Towns, Black Lives” through March 5. Call (609) 683-0057 or visit www.drumthwacket.org.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through February 24, “In My View: Stephen Smith, Florence Moonan, William Hogan.” Through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School” is on view. From March 2-April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “Into the Woods: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Brothers Grimm” is on view at Cotsen Children’s Library through February 28.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, has “Images: Reflections of Adventure” through February 28, featuring artists Connie and Ken McIndoe. Call (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Exposed,” a member exhibit, through March 10. Visit photogallery14.com.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, presents Ming Fay’s “Canutopia” installed in the new East Gallery through February 15. Visit www.groundsforsculpture.org.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. On February 14 from 12-4 p.m., admission is free and a preview of the exhibit “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” is offered. That show opens with a reception March 7 from 5-8 p.m. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “Suspended Harmonies: Fiber Art by Ted Hallman” through March 3. “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” runs through April 28. Visit www.michener
artmuseum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Lynd Ward Draws Stories: Inspired by Mexico’s History, Mark Twain, and Adventures in the Woods” through June 23. “In the Company of Women: Prints by Mary Cassatt” runs through March 3. “Le Mur’ at the Cabaret des Quat’z Arts is on view through February 24. Works by Russian artist Leonid Sokov are displayed through July 14.

Lawrence Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike, has works by portrait artist Negin Mohseni during February. A reception is February 17, 2-4 p.m. Call (609) 989-6920.

Lawrenceville School Gruss Center for Visual Arts, Route 206, Lawrenceville, presents Priscilla Snow Algava’s “Life Dance: A Retrospective” through February 28. Visit www.lawrenceville.org.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. Museum hours are Wednesdays-Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. on. Group tours of 10 or more can be arranged any day by advance reservation. Visit www.morven.org.

New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, displays “Jon Naar: Signature Photography” through May 4. Visit www.nj.gov/state/museum.

Princeton Day School Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery has “Wabi-Sabi” featuring works of PDS art department faculty members Stephanie Stuefer and Chris Maher, through March 7. A luncheon reception with the artists is February 22, 12:30 p.m. A cocktail reception is that evening, 6:30-8 p.m. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom” on exhibit through February 17. “Two Views” Atget & Friedlander” is on display through March 10. “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” runs February 16-June 9. Museum hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Call (609) 258-3788.

Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, Rider University, Route 206, Lawrenceville, presents “Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye and Mind” through March 3. Gallery director Harry Naar leads a talk with the artist February 14, 7 p.m. Visit www.rider.edu/artgallery.

Robert Beck Gallery, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, hosts the 32nd Annual Juried Art Exhibit, “Lambertville and the Surrounding Area,” by the Lambertville Historical Society, through March 28. Call (609) 397-0951 for details.

Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, presents “The Love Show” through March 5. Works by more than 40 artists on the topic of love will be displayed.

Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street branch, has a show, “The James McPhillips Museum and Gift Shop,” through March 5. Visit jaymcphillips@earth
link.net.

Straube Center, 1 Straube Center Boulevard, Pennington, shows “Center for Creative Works” through March 15. Visit www.straubecenter.com.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, presents “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” with work by 18 artists from the local area, through February 24. Call (609) 716-1931.

AN IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, facing the camera) has placed her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an impossible situation when she made him promise that he would not return her to a hospital or place her in a nursing home, regardless of how ill she became. However, Georges found that he was not physically able to provide her the care that she needed at home. To find out how he resolved his dilemma, see the movie.

AN IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, facing the camera) has placed her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an impossible situation when she made him promise that he would not return her to a hospital or place her in a nursing home, regardless of how ill she became. However, Georges found that he was not physically able to provide her the care that she needed at home. To find out how he resolved his dilemma, see the movie.

Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) have been married for over 60 years. But the frail octogenarians’ love for each other remains as strong as it was the day they met.

The elderly couple lives in a Paris apartment surrounded by music and art and other indicia of an appreciation of culture. With Anne’s health in sharp decline, their days are now mostly spent attending to her host of medical issues.

Unfortunately, Anne’s been bedridden since a stroke left her right side paralyzed. Her biggest fear is not death but the prospect of returning to the hospital or being moved to a nursing home.

It’s clear that Georges would prefer to abide by his wife’s wishes. However, he’s no youngster either, and she’s gradually becoming more than he can handle as her health deteriorates. They do have a daughter, but Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is a travelling musician who can only visit occasionally because of her hectic touring schedule.

When it becomes obvious that Anne has passed the point of no return, Georges finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Does he abide by his life-mate’s last request and let her live out her days in the familiar confines of their home, or does he accept that he can no longer provide the quality care she needs to survive?

That is the critical question explored in Amour, a bittersweet drama which tugs on the heartstrings. Written and directed by Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher), the flashback film has deservedly been nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, foreign film, director, actress, and original script.

A poignant tale of undying love.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and brief profanity. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

February 6, 2013

DVD revLast week people all over the country were in mourning for Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). The brutal, shocking demise from postpartum eclampsia of the youngest and most lovable of the Crawley sisters was a scene worthy of a great or at least very good novel. Looking down from death-scene heaven, Charles Dickens might tip his hat, for not since Little Nell bit the Dickensian dust has a fictional demise had such an impact stateside. All the more impressive is the fact that the blow was so deeply felt in spite of many viewers knowing it was coming, thanks to leaks from the U.K. where Season 3 had already been aired. You have to hand it to Julian Fellowes and the cast for a truly bravura piece of theatre (the great strength of Downton Abbey is in the ensemble playing), as the titled doctor, oozing class, forces through his feel-good prognosis and everything seemingly bears him out, the baby safely delivered, joy reigns supreme, then wham!

Meanwhile there are reports of binge viewers planning weekend marathons of The Wire and The West Wing or viewing a whole 12-episode season of Homeland in one sitting. Denizens of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre at least have the decency to wait a week for the next episode of Downton Abbey, allowing the plot to steep, as it were, while they quote their favorite lines from Maggie Smith’s undaunted Dowager Countess of Grantham and ponder the future for Upstairs’ Mary and Matthew and Downstairs’ Bates and Anna. No doubt when Downton fans get together, their dinner parties or high teas are more civilized than the Soprano-themed evenings we shared with our neighbors where we ate gabagool and ziti a la Carmela and speculated on great issues like who would get whacked next week. But what a great foil all that Downton decorum is for subtle, nasty little twists like the bar of soap put where a pregnant Lady Grantham will step, or the not so subtle outrages like the dead Turkish diplomat dragged out of Lady Mary’s bed.

Raising the Stakes

Along with as many as 7.9 million other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying Season 3 of Downton Abbey on PBS and have just finished all of Season 2 of Showtime’s Homeland On Demand, firmly limiting ourselves to two episodes a night until indulging in a minor binge watching the last three straight through. We became curious about Homeland when we were in the midst of the Breaking Bad addiction described here late last year (“Investing in Breaking Bad: A Matter of Life and Death,” Nov. 21, 2012) and learned that a 24-style CIA series (same producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa) had swept the top three Emmys, Best Series, Best Actor and Best Actress. After being mesmerized by 24 for 5 seasons, we fell off the back of that runaway train from sheer exhaustion.

As soon as we were able to get to the top of the library’s DVD wait list, we found that Homeland indeed offered more of the same with its crazily convoluted, high-stakes, terrorism-driven plot, but there were several stunning differences that lifted it to a level above both 24 and Downton Abbey. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack was a very human superhero but his feats demanded a formidable suspension of disbelief and his love life was a mess. Homeland’s version of Jack, Claire Danes’s CIA agent/analyst Carrie Mathison, performs wonders on a slightly more believable level and her love life is what people have come away talking about. Carrie’s obsessive affair with ex-Marine Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), the terrorist disguised as war hero that she’s stalking, creates a fascinating emotional dimension all its own. There’s been nothing like this unique romance in any of cable television’s landmarks from The Sopranos on. It’s in their scenes together that Danes and Lewis earn their Emmys and put the series over the top.

Carrie

Carrie is played to the hilt, taken to the limit, name your superlative, by Claire Danes. Brody is a human conundrum who, as good as Damien Lewis is, could have been played by any number of actors, probably even including Kiefer Sutherland. Lewis’s greatest moments are drawn, coaxed, caressed from him by Carrie, notably in their cozy idyll in a lakeside cabin where she spent childhood summers (“The Weekend,” episode 7 from Season 1) and ultimately and most movingly in episode 5 of Season 2 (“Q and A”), where she, in a manner of speaking, saves his soul, takes the terrorist apart, and puts the real Brody back together again. That’s the calm caring conflicted but ever resourceful Carrie, on task even when she’s turning the love of her life into a double agent.

Saul

What makes Homeland remarkable is not just the improbable Carrie-Brody romance, it’s also the bond between Carrie and her professorial mentor at the CIA, Saul Berenson, played with just the right balance of heart and mind by Mandy Patinkin. Here’s this wild woman passionately devoted to her task as a spy who also manages to be deliriously engaging, silly, slaphappy, hard as nails, funny, fascinating, frantic, disaster-prone, and infuriating. Saul is the falconeer to Carrie’s falcon, the eye of her hurricane, and in the devious world of Homeland, he’s also the emotional and intellectual mean. When everything else is descending into chaos, especially bipolar Carrie minus her meds, only Saul has the patience to sort it out. One of the reasons “The Weekend” is, along with “Q and A,” among the best episodes ever on cable television is the way the cabin scenes with Carrie and Brody are interwoven with the scenes between Saul and Aileen, a member of the terrorist cell plotting the attack that the CIA is scrambling to circumvent. Nicely played by Marin Ireland, Aileen was captured at the Mexican border but deep down she’s a Princeton girl (really) who fell in love with a young terrorist, and while it’s true that Saul is masterfully endearing himself to Aileen in order to secure information, he also is clearly becoming paternally attached to the girl and will weep for her in Season 2.

Mainly, Saul has his hands full with Carrie, who breaks all the rules. When a national catastrophe is prevented only thanks to her last-ditch, frantically determined efforts, she’s scorned, despised, and treated as a nut case. By all rights she should be hailed as a hero (at least within the CIA); instead she’s ousted from the agency, and at the end of Season 1 voluntarily receives shock therapy.

Chemistry

One thing that drew people to Downton Abbey and kept them watching was the teasingly thwarted, drawn-out romance of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). The positive negative chemistry of attraction was there from the beginning and carefully processed and developed until it produced the wedding that opened Season 3. By comparison, the force of attraction binding Carrie and her quarry, Brody, is complex and explosive, with two wounded people bonding in endgame situations. As Carrie’s professional obsession with Brody becomes personal, you have the feeling that if he hadn’t existed, she’d have invented him.

Real Love

For a bizarre take on Homeland, see Lorrie Moore’s piece in the February 21 New York Review of Books (“Double Agents In Love”), where, besides contradicting her own title, she claims that the “main problem with the show is that the love between Carrie and Brody” (pictured here) is “unconvincing for many reasons having to do with common sense,” that “viewers will sense a lack of chemistry between Lewis and Danes,” that the actors “project only a cold canned heat,” that “this is too tense-making for what purports to be a love story,” that they “lack mutual trust or any palpable erotic vibe,” and that “they are not bonded and they part without any persuasive anguish.” If you turn each of these observations upside down, you will understand why Danes and Lewis and Homeland swept the Emmys. This love story is, as Carrie might say, for real.

LET’S TALK ABOUT ART: Artist Geoffrey Dorfman (left) discusses his upcoming exhibit at Rider University’s Art Gallery with gallery director Harry I. Naar. There will be an opening reception Thursday, February 7 from 5-7 p.m., and Mr. Naar will lead a talk with the artist on Thursday, February 14 at 7 p.m. For more on Mr. Dorfman’s work, visit: geoffreydorfman.com.(Photo by Jon Naar, 2012.)

LET’S TALK ABOUT ART: Artist Geoffrey Dorfman (left) discusses his upcoming exhibit at Rider University’s Art Gallery with gallery director Harry I. Naar. There will be an opening reception Thursday, February 7 from 5-7 p.m., and Mr. Naar will lead a talk with the artist on Thursday, February 14 at 7 p.m. For more on Mr. Dorfman’s work, visit: geoffreydorfman.com. (Photo by Jon Naar, 2012.)

Geoffrey Dorfman describes the paint he works with as holding everything necessary to “create a world that … unlocks the sensation of being that lies at the root of our existence.” As an abstract painter, Mr. Dorfman imbues his work with color, texture, and light.

An exhibition of 18 of Mr. Dorfman’s paintings and six monotypes opens at the Rider University Art Gallery tomorrow evening, Thursday, February 7, with a reception for the artist from from 5 to 7 p.m. Titled “Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye and Mind, the exhibition continues through Sunday, March 3. Gallery Director Harry I. Naar will lead a discussion with the artist on Thursday, February 14 at 7 p.m.

In an interview with Mr. Dorfman in the Gallery, the artist described his process: “Every stroke gives you an indication of your next move. If things are working well, a painting can be done quickly but if not, the effort can be futile.” He doesn’t work from a prior sketch. He doesn’t spatter or throw paint. It’s a misconception, he says, that abstract artists work in a frenzy, throwing paint around in drugged abandon. “I’m not an athletic painter. If anything, I have a strong classical streak.” His antecedents are Willem De Kooning and Milton Resnick but there’s also a dash of French influence.

“Dorfman comes out of a long and strong tradition of painting out of ‘discovery,’ searching and finding and developing images. He pushes, pulls, and twists the paint, across and through the surface of the canvas with rhythmical, gestural forms, and calligraphic marks,” says Mr. Naar. “Spend time looking at his paintings and you’ll begin to discover a world of strong feelings and sensations. Some are dramatic and bold while others are soft and quiet. His work is strong and quite beautiful.”

The result of 45 years of putting paint on canvas, Mr. Dorfman’s paintings are all different and yet they are his paintings. “You are not going to see work like this anywhere else,” he says. The artist has no affectations about his art. He doesn’t call himself an abstract expressionist and he doesn’t care to be compared to Kandinsky, whose work he regards as cerebral. “My work is more felt,” he says.

He’s an intuitive artist and while his starting point is always the same, the paintings he creates are endlessly varied. First, he “activates” the canvas by applying paint in an arbitrary way. He likens his process to chess, which has well-defined moves at the start that require little thought. But as his work develops, there’s a lot of movement. It’s not all additive, he says, a lot of paint gets taken off and elements get moved around. “My paintings expand, although there are moments of concentration within the whole.”

“Art is a form of play and always has been,” he says. That’s not to trivialize it, on the contrary, play is a fundamental part of the creative process.

How does he know when a painting is finished? “That’s the most important aspect of a painting; sometimes I realize I stopped too early and go back into it. There is a moment when it just ‘comes together.’ Cezanne described it thus, says Mr. Dorfman linking his fingers together in demonstration.

“The hard task of any art is bringing unity and variety together. That’s the play of art, abstract or representative,” he says. “Achieving either one alone is easy but bringing them together is not.” Unlike Rothko who stained the canvas with paint, applying it in a way that erases its substance, Dorfman embraces the substance of his medium. “I like to be frank about the way a painting is made. I like the idea that people might feel it’s available to them, that they could do this themselves.

“Some paints are grainy, mineral, and weigh a ton; some are honey and vegetal; some offer friction to the brush; some apply with ease. The oil, the color, the brushwork; all of that is the sensuous aspect, the feeling part. Over time the surface gets increasingly complex and catches light rather than reflects it.”

He uses housepainter’s brushes and applies paint in a way that he says is “straightforward, prosaic rather than poetic.” Which is not to say that the end result is prosaic. Anything but, as the Rider exhibition demonstrates.

The majority of the work included is recent and each is titled. “The idea of numbering my paintings, as Jackson Pollock did, is too dry for me. Besides it can be confusing. Even in music this type of numbering can be confusing. A poetic or imagistic title sticks in your mind.”

The reference to music comes naturally to Dorfman, who is also a concert pianist. Having pursued composition at the Manhattan School of Music, he has performed in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Bechstein Hall, the Marjorie Deane Little Theater at the Westside YMCA, Columbia University, the Cooper Union, and at Great Britain’s Marlborough Summer Festival. But classical music has scores to be followed or interpreted. Dorfman decided on painting instead. “Art isn’t a discipline in the sense that music is,” he says.

When asked about the exhibition’s title, “Eye and Mind,” Mr. Dorfman launches into a discussion on perception. “What makes something complete is a matter of mind,” he says. “Perception involves interpretation by the mind; fragments don’t interest me, in abstract art this is crucial, fragments just show the activity of the brush; to create a whole in abstract expressionism takes a great deal of work.” Dorfman may work for weeks or months on a painting, often going back again and again to a piece over time. In a “good” year, he’ll created around 16 paintings, half of that in a “bad” year.

Mr. Dorfman lives in the historic Mill Hill district of Trenton. He received his BFA from Cooper Union and his MFA from Syracuse University. Since 1978, he’s taught at the College of Staten Island/CUNY and he’s the author of several articles on painting for ArtForum, as well as the book Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School, published by Midmarch Arts Press in 2004.

He received the Henry Ward Ranger prize from the National Academy of Design and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship Grant, and he has curated numerous exhibitions, most recently “Hans Hoffman: The Legacy” at The Painting Center in New York City.

In the conversation with Mr. Naar that is included in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Dorfman describes the effect that the 1969 New York Painting and Sculpture show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had on him. “The Hans Hofman room just knocked me out,” he says. “The mountains of saturated pigment made the pictures look like slabs of chroma; it was quite dazzling. The paintings spoke of an ecstatic state. Frankly there was nothing in figurative painting of that time that could compete with it.”

Appeal of the Abstract

“Abstract art is not appealing to everyone,” says Mr. Dorfman. “In art as in literature, there’s been a retreat from Modernism, and Abstract Expressionism appeals to a particular kind of person: one who is intrigued by complexity, who is is not discouraged if they don’t get an immediate sense of what something is about and who doesn’t dismiss something out of hand if it doesn’t immediately speak meaning to them.” According to Mr. Dorfman, vision and understanding are not identical, even though we often conflate the two as when we say “don’t you see,” when we mean “don’t you understand.”

Abstract art works at a more visceral level than representative art, says Dorfman. “It has to do with feelings and a kind of recognition that is basic to knowledge.”

Mr. Dorfman isn’t one for neat predictable endings. He prefers to be kept in suspense. Of his upcoming discussion with Mr. Naar at the Gallery on Valentine’s Day, Mr. Dorfman says he prefers not to know what the gallery director has in mind to talk about in advance. “That way it will be much more interesting.”

“Art is a constant joy,” he says “Sometimes I get so excited that I have to leave the studio. If people feel a sense of ebullience when looking at my paintings that’s wonderful, but it’s not something I set out to achieve, I wouldn’t know how.”

“Geoffrey Dorfman: Eye and Mind,” will be on view at The Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville through March 3. All except one of the paintings is for sale. Gallery hours are: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 895-5588, or visit: www.rider.edu/artsgallery.