January 2, 2013
“WANTED — DEAD OR ALIVE”: Bounty hunters Dr. Schulz (Christoph Waltz, right) and freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) are tracking down criminals who have eluded the justice system in the wild west of yesteryear. Along the way, Django takes advantage of his position to even the score with the people who tortured him when he was a slave.

“WANTED — DEAD OR ALIVE”: Bounty hunters Dr. Schulz (Christoph Waltz, right) and freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) are tracking down criminals who have eluded the justice system in the wild west of yesteryear. Along the way, Django takes advantage of his position to even the score with the people who tortured him when he was a slave.

There’s a good reason why nobody ever wanted to be an Indian whenever we played Cowboys and Indians as kids. That’s because the white man was invariably the hero of the Westerns which we’d seen, while the red man had always been presented as a wild savage dismissed by the dehumanizing declaration that, “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”

True, a few films, such as Apaches (1973), The Sons of Great Bear (1966) and Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967), portrayed Native Americans as the good guys and the European settlers as the bad guys. But those productions were few and far between.

Hollywood has also promoted a set of stereotypes when it comes to the depiction of black-white race relations during slavery, with classics like The Birth of the Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) setting the tone. Consequently, most movies have by-and-large suggested that docile African Americans were well treated by kindly masters, as long as they remained submissive and knew their place.

However, Quentin Tarantino has put a fresh spin on the genre, similar to what he did in the World War II movie Inglourious Basterds (2009). In Django Unchained, the writer/director rattles the cinematic cage in an irreverent adventure that turns conventional thinking on its head.

Set in the South in 1858, the picture is visually reminiscent of the Spaghetti Westerns popularized in the 60s by Italian director Sergio Leone, replete with big sky panoramas and cartoonish villains who are the embodiment of evil. But, in this movie instead of fighting cattle rustlers, it’s racists who are being slowly tortured or executed.

The movie stars Jamie Foxx in the title role as a slave who was liberated by a German dentist who became a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). Dr. Schultz altruistically takes Django on as an apprentice, and teaches him how to ride a horse and handle a gun.

As a bounty hunter who tracks down outlaws who are “Wanted Dead-or-Alive,” the freed slave has many opportunities to exact revenge upon the people who were responsible for torturing him in his former life. The ones who gave him the scars on his back, or the “R” for “Runaway” branded on his cheek, or separated him from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The action gets pretty gruesome, as is par for the course for any Tarantino movie.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, ethnic slurs, and graphic violence. Running time: 165 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company

December 26, 2012

You read me Shakespeare on the 

rolling Thames, 

That old river poet that never, ever ends

– Kate Bush

“The new year belongs to England” is how I began the column (Jan. 11, 2012) marking the Charles Dickens (1812-1870) bicentenary, my first subject being PJ Harvey’s brilliant album, Let England Shake. Harvey’s song “England” was wrenchingly emotional, the message “Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” If you have close ties to the U.K., that song should remind you that you love the place in spite of the politics and politicians, the surveillance cameras, the crazed drivers, and the unthinkably bad weather (even for England) they’ve been enduring lately. A quite different song, Kate Bush’s “Lionheart” from her 1978 album of the same name, is guaranteed to put you back in touch with the England of the White Cliffs of Dover, that “old river poet” the Thames, “London Bridge in rain,” air-raid shelters “blooming clover,” and at this time of year, of course, A Christmas Carol.

And since Dickens’s 200th year is coming to an end, it feels right to travel back to the time when he began laying claim to the hearts of his countrymen, on his way to capturing hearts around the world. He was all but unknown when his first full-length work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers, began appearing in monthly installments in 1836. Sales were sluggish until the noble-souled if unworldly Mr. Pickwick met his Cockney servant and saviour Sam Weller in the fourth installment, at which point monthly sales rose from 400 to 40,000. The moment Dickens conceived Sam was as significant for his work and for the world as the moment Chaplin created his Tramp. Sam’s charm is on another level, however, even though almost everything he says is funny or wise or both. Sam’s a true hero, tough, charming, infinitely resourceful, and, like the best characters in Balzac and Shakespeare, he’s been touched with the glow of the author’s genius, so that the humble task of tending to the boots of an Inn’s various guests (as he’s doing when he makes his first appearance) becomes in his hands an admirable endeavor.

Once Sam arrived, Pickwick “was read upstairs and downstairs,” according to Wolf Mankowitz’s Dickens in London, “by judges on the bench and the cleaners after them,” by boys and girls who talked Sam’s talk and by critics who spoke of Dickens as another Cervantes. “Poor people shared a shilling copy and read it aloud in groups …. No hat or coat, cigar or cane, plagiaristic paper or play could be sold but with a Pickwick tag.” There were novelties flogged in Sam’s name, and Sam Weller joke books, and the publishers were selling the back numbers in the thousands.

At the age of 24, Dickens had the 19th Century equivalent of rock star fame and fortune. And he had the looks, “with long brown hair falling in silky masses over his temples” and “eyes full of power and strong will.”

“The limelight never left him,” Mankowitz writes. “The Pickwick mania was unparalled.”

True enough, but there are definite parallels to another mania of once-in-a-century dimensions that swept England and the world 130 years later in the form of four guys from Liverpool who were roughly the same age as Pickwick’s Dickens. While Sam was neither singer nor songwriter, his lively, virile, down-to-earth wit had something in it akin to that flashed by John Lennon and the other Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. No less than Sam’s, their sassy upbeat attitude attracted all levels of society, rich and poor, upstairs and downstairs. That Sam was a rock star a century ahead of his time is clear to see in the 1985 BBC version of Pickwick (the DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library) where he’s slyly, appealingly played by Phil Daniels, who did the Cockney rap on one of the great rock singles of the 1990s, Blur’s “Park Life” (“I get up when I want except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen …. I put my trousers on, have a cuppa tea and I think about leaving the house …. I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too, it gives me a sense of enormous well being”), not to mention his iconic Jimmy the Mod, the main character in the film version of the Who’s Quadrophenia.

The Joys of Jingle

My reaction to the BBC Pickwick followed a pattern similar to what happened in England when the first serial installments were released in booklet form in the spring of 1836. The first episode almost lost me (it did lose my wife), with its clubby 18th-century atmosphere. Who among this group of antic, quaintly convivial twits called Pickwickians could possibly be worth sticking around for? The reason I kept watching was a fast-talking charlatan whose rushed, manic, non-stop speechifying creates an effective cover for his scheming. Bearing the fine Dickensian name, Alfred Jingle (and played to a T by Patrick Malahide), he stole the show the first time I read The Pickwick Papers. It was as if Dickens had set his fancy loose in its purest state, unfettered, exposed in the quick of creation, raw wit gushing forth, as here, in one of Jingle’s first (to use Dickens’s own word for it) “stenographic” effusions, rattled off while riding atop a coach:

“‘Heads, heads — take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place — dangerous work — other day — five children — mother — tall lady, eating sandwiches — forgot the arch — crash — knock — children look round — mother’s head off — sandwich in her hand — no mouth to put it in — head of a family off — shocking, shocking!’”

With Jingle’s stream of consciousness riffing, Pickwick seems to look miraculously ahead to the madcaps of the Goon Show, John Lennon’s wordplay, and Monty Python. Here in the free-flowing speech of a single character, Dickens is tapping the vein of comic eloquence that six years later will enliven the language of fabulous creations like Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. The jaunty elliptical nature of Jingle’s word jazz also harks back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

The Soul of Christmas

In fact, Dickens was working on Martin Chuzzlewit when he took time off to write the work Thackeray called “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.” If Dickens laid claim to England’s heart with Sam and Pickwick, he sealed the deal with the tale of Scrooge’s ghost-driven voyage from misery and morbidity to joy and glory. A Christmas Carol was written in six weeks, just in time for the Christmas of 1843. By Christmas Eve the first edition of 6000 had sold out. In his study of Dickens, George Gissing call it “a book no one can bear to criticize.”

John Forster, Dickens’s friend and first biographer, describes the author’s infatuation with A Christmas Carol: “how he wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree, and how he walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London, many and many a night after all sober folks had gone to bed.”

Looking Back

After Let England Shake, with its fixation on war and soldiers (“So our young men hid/with guns, in the dirt/and in the dark places”), my next column moved on to Cary Grant and the bombing of Bristol, then Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Wordsworth, Keats and Constable on Hampstead Heath, April with Robert Browning and late lamented singer songwriter Clifford T. Ward (“Home Thoughts from Abroad”), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, two columns on the Beatles and three on Dickens, including one about his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), left unfinished (yet subtly finished) at the time of his death.

So, there’s finally nothing left to say in England’s year but Hail Britannia, God Save the Queen and the Kinks and beautiful Kate Middleton, and to quote Ray Davies, the true poet laureate of the British Isles, “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity.”


Art for Healing Gallery, University Medical Center of Princeton, Route 1, Plainsboro, is showing watercolors by Joel Popadics through January.

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. Visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

Bank of Princeton Community Art Gallery, 10 Bridge Street, Lambertville, is showing art by The Arc of Mercer and James Fanciano through January 15. A reception is January 11, 5-7 p.m.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has works by political artist Marcia Annenberg through February 14. A reception and artist talk is February 3, 3-5 p.m.

Bray Gallery, 202 North Union Street, Lambertville, shows recent paintings by Joseph Bottari and Malcolm Bray, and photography by Andrew Wilkinson through January 6. Call (609) 397-1858 for information.

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.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, is showing “James Rhodes, Trenton Stoneware Potter, 1773-1784” and “Contemporary Art from the TMS Collection” through January 13. On view through January 6 is “Over the River: The Artists of Yardley,” a juried exhibition. From January 12-February 24, “In My View: Stephen Smith, Florence Moonan, William Hogan” is on view. The reception is January 19, 7-9 p.m., and an artists’ talk is February 10, 2 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has in its Milberg Gallery “Woodrow Wilson’s Journey to the White House,” through December 28. “First X, Then Y, Now Z: Thematic Maps” runs through February 10 in the main exhibition gallery. “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” shows in the Mudd Manuscript Library Cotsen Children’s Library through July 31. “Into the Woods: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Brothers Grimm” is on view through February 28.

Gallery and Academy of Robert Beck, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, presents paintings by Alex Cohen through December 28. “Small Captivations” is the title. Call (215) 603-6573.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, has Dan Fanaldi’s oils, “People in My Life,” January 3-13. February 4-28, “Images: Reflections of Adventure” features artists Connie and Ken McIndoe. The reception is February 6, 5-7 p.m. Call (609) 924-7206.

Gourgaud Gallery, Cranbury Town Hall, 23-A Main Street, Cranbury, hosts “Cranbury Art in the Park X” through December 30. From January 6-26, “Art to Curl Up With” is the exhibit, and the reception is January 6, 1-3 p.m. Visit www.cranbury.org.

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, is showing “Einstein at Home” and “From Princeton to the White House,” which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson, through January 13. On December 28 at 11 a.m., “Happy Birthday Woodrow Wilson!” family program includes stories and activities. December 29 at 11 a.m., the family celebration is “USS Constitution,” focused on the story of “Old Ironsides.” For more information visit www.prince
tonhistory.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “Creative Hand, Discerning Heart: Story, Symbol, Self,” through December 30. “Suspended Harmonies: Fiber Art by Ted Hallman” is exhibited through March 3. “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” is January 19-April 28. Visit www.michenerart
museum.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, 2013. Through January 6, “Art=Text=Art: Works by Contemporary Artists” will be on view, from the collection of drawing collectors Wynn and Sally Kramarsky. “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 January 26-July 14.

Mariboe Gallery at the Swig Arts Center of The Peddie School, Hightstown, presents “Score,” an exhibit by Shanti Grumbine, January 1-February 8. The opening reception is January 11, 6:30-8 p.m. Visit www.ped
die.org/mariboegallery.

Mercer County Community College Gallery, West Windsor campus, CM Building, presents a show of mostly recent paintings by faculty member Mel Leipzig through December 27. Visit gallery@mccc.edu or www.mccc.edu/gallery.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of New Jersey, 1761-1898” through January 13. Museum hours are Wednesdays-Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. 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, has “Size Matters: Small Works from the Fine Art Collection” through December 30. Visit www.newjerseystatemuseum.org.

Plainsboro Library Gallery, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro, presents the clay monoprints of Priscilla Snow Algava through January 2. From January 5-30, oils by Vimala Arunachalam, inspired by architecture, will be on display. The reception is January 13, 2-4 p.m. Call (609) 275-2897 for more information.

Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, is showing photography by Mary Cross (“Egyptland”) and painter Ifat Shatzky through December 31 as part of “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society” series taking place in nine area venues. (609) 924-9529 or www.prince
tonlibrary.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has works by Parastou Forouhar, Mona Hatoum, Sigalit Landau, Shirin Neshat and Laila Shawa on view through January 13 as part of “The Fertile Crescent” project. “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom” is on exhibit through February 17. “City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus” is on view through January 20. 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, February 10-March 28. A reception is February 10, 3-6 p.m. Artists are invited to submit one original painting in all media; subject must be of Lambertville and environs. Call (609) 397-0951 for details.

Straube Center, 108 Straube Center Boulevard, Pennington, presents an exhibit of Ebu-Arts work through January 12. Australian artist Guy Whitby is among the artists. Visit www.ebu-arts.org.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, presents “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” with work by 18 artists from the local area, January 13-February 24. The opening reception is January 13 at 4 p.m. Call (609) 716-1933.

LOVE IN BLOOM: Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, right) discovers that with the right woman, in this case Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), and the right circumstances, the pair can find true love and happiness together.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) completely lost his temper one day when he came home early from work to find his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) naked in the shower with one of her colleagues (Ted Barba). In fact, he proceeded to beat up her lover so badly that the only way he avoided a prison sentence was by agreeing to enter a mental hospital.

That was eight months ago and now that he’s being discharged he’s eager to reconcile and reunite with Nikki. However, she’s so afraid of his temper that she sold their house and got a restraining order issued against him.

She has good reason to be concerned, since Pat has been diagnosed as bipolar, and having depression and anger management issues. Consequently, with no wife, no job, and no home to return to, the state releases Pat to the custody of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver).

While suffering under the delusion that Nikki will come back to him soon, he is introduced to a recently widowed neighbor (Jennifer Lawrence). As luck would have it, Tiffany is afflicted with a set of neuroses that are somehow compatible with Pat’s problems.

She confides in him that she’s been very promiscuous as of late, and that she was fired for sleeping with just about everybody in her office. A platonic friendship is gradually forged between the two, with Pat chivalrously protecting Jennifer instead of exploiting her weaknesses. For her part, Tiffany agrees to secretly deliver forbidden letters to his estranged wife so long as he promises to be her dance partner in an upcoming ballroom competition.

Adapted from the Matthew Quick novel of the same name, Silver Linings Playbook is a tenderhearted tale about two terribly wounded souls who survive by leaning on each other for support. Written and directed by Academy Award nominee David O. Russell (The Fighter), this charming film has earned four well deserved Golden Globe nominations for best picture, screenplay, lead actor, and lead actress.

The protagonists Bradley Cooper and Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) exhibit an impressive acting range in emotionally demanding roles. The stellar supporting cast is at its best when providing comic relief, especially Anupam Kher as Pat’s eccentric psychiatrist, Chris Tucker as his pal, and Robert De Niro as his obsessive-compulsive father.

Director Russell deserves credit for keeping the audience captivated and in suspense with the help of a clever script and a crew of colorful characters. The movie is a romantic story about two unstable misfits who take forever to realize that they’ve found one another.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company


December 19, 2012

“I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did,” says Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, “because the love for them — even at the price of this pain — has been the single greatest joy of my life.” People looking for answers or at least insights in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School shootings might begin by reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner $37.50), which includes a long, timely, in-depth conversation with Klebold’s parents. In the decade Solomon spent gathering material for this bible of “differentness” (702 pages, 130 pages of notes), he spoke with some three hundred families, including my own.

The Word

When Andrew first contacted us (from now on it’s “Andrew,” since that’s how we know him), he was calling the book A Dozen Kinds of Love. The change from a primarily descriptive title to the more didactic, agenda-driven Far From the Tree is reflected in the almost Emersonian assertiveness of the first sentence — “There is no such thing as reproduction.” The idea that “two people are but braiding themselves together” in “an act of production” is “at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads …. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.”

As the parent of a child who is as close to the tree as he is far from it (this has never been an either/or situation), I’m sympathetic to the working title, if only because the final one lacks a crucial word, and the word (as the Beatles sing in “The Word”) is “love.” It might be an awkward fit, but you could put Love after Children in the subtitle. That one word and everything it stands for is behind the force that drives parents to bravely make the best of — or else to be unmade by — a dire situation. And it’s the word parents bet everything they have on, emotionally and materially, in hopes of saving a life or a mind or at least sustaining the day-to-day reality of a family that could fall apart forever with the next 9-1-1 call.

Love Hurts

Before and after chapters on deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, severe disability, prodigies, rape, transgender, and crime, Andrew tells his own story, first as a gay son whose sexuality alienated his parents, and then, in the concluding chapter, as a gay father suddenly dealing with a new son and an extended family so diverse and complicated as to make the very issues of parenthood he highlights at the outset seem almost trivial.

In the last sentence of the book’s first paragraph, Andrew claims that “Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.” As many of the heartbreaking stories in Far From the Tree suggest, parental love actually blindsides the imagination; it’s a visceral experience, it hurts, it doesn’t have time or space to think or imagine, it’s a sensory ground zero, as can be seen in Andrew’s own response to childbirth.

On learning there may be serious medical issues with George, his newborn son, Andrew writes, “I felt the inside parts of my body that are usually warm go cold, while the parts exposed to the air suddenly seemed to be on fire.” Earlier, though his partner John had been “instantly enraptured” by the baby, Andrew was imagining birth as “so mysterious and so much weirder than sorcery or intergalactic warfare that it humbles you instantly.”

When, however, it begins to look as though George may have bleeding in the brain, a symptom necessitating surgery, Andrew thinks “how ironic it would be if, in the midst of writing about exceptional children,” he “were to produce such a child.” He may also have been thinking how ironic that with his powers of empathy, and the enormous effort he’s made to understand and appreciate what so many suffering parents have gone through, he’s about to experience the real thing. But “imagination” leaves the room when he looks at his son as a victim: “I knew I loved him by how hard I suddenly tried not to love him. I remembered all the parents who had described spreading the news about their thriving baby and then picking up the phone a day or two later to report a different tale.” At this point, it gets intense: “A terrified piece of me was contemplating giving him up into care. My strongest impulse was to hold him tight and not let him go for the tests at all. I wanted him to be well, but I wanted me to be well, too, and even as I formulated that divide, it collapsed, and I saw that one thing could not be true without the other.”

When the brain scan is completely clear, Andrew realizes “that George, who had done nothing more admirable than cry and feed, was richly and permanently human to me, possessed of a soul, and no alteration could change that.”

Accepting Columbine

It’s only because of the debacle in Newtown that I’ve singled out the Columbine mother’s story from among the many gathered in this invaluable book’s “epic narratives of resilience,” as Andrew puts it after describing the birth of his son (“no other optimism is so great as having a child”). When you meet Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, in these pages, you get at least some small notion of what Nancy Lanza would have been facing had she not been her son Adam’s first victim last week. “After Columbine,” Sue tells Andrew, “I felt that Dylan killed God. No god could have had anything to do with this, so there must not be one. When everything in your world is gone, all your belief systems, and your self-concepts — your beliefs in yourself, your child, your family — there is a process of trying to establish, who am I? Is there a person there at all? …. I sat next to someone on a train a while ago and we had a really wonderful conversation, and then I could feel the questions coming — ‘So, how many kids do you have?’ …. I had to tell him who I was. And who I am forever now is Dylan’s mother.”

On another occasion, Ms. Klebold, whose job involved counseling victims of disabilities, was talking with a client “who was blind, had only one hand, had just lost her job, and was facing trouble at home.” When the woman told her, “I have my problems, but I wouldn’t trade places with you for anything in the world,” Dylan Klebold’s mother could only laugh: “All those years I have worked with people with disabilities and thought, ‘Thank God I can see; thank God I can walk; thank God I can scratch my head and feed myself.’ And I’m thinking, how funny it is how we all use one another to feel better.”

That last thought suggests one of the many virtues of Far From the Tree. Regardless of any reader’s particular situation, from the parent of a “perfect child” to the parent of an unending human challenge, reading this book, using, in effect, “one another to feel better,” we know more and we care more.

Beginning in Venice

I can’t resist mentioning “Welcome to Holland,” the popular fable (5000 postings and counting on Google) Andrew quotes in full to open the chapter on Down Syndrome (DS). Briefly stated, the idea is that expectant parents who have been looking forward to childbirth as to “a fabulous vacation trip to Italy” (“you buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans”) end up, alas, in poor little Holland. The parents are upset (“All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy”) but since the change in the flight plan is beyond their control, they make do with the thought that it could have been worse, could have been some “horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease.” But hey, it’s “just a different place,” and all you need is a new set of guidebooks.

It’s hard to believe that “Welcome to Holland” has been recommended by doctors and therapists to parents of disabled children. For a start, the essence of the premise is thoroughly absurd. To equate a lifetime proposition like raising a disabled child with a vacation! But I’m a sucker for crazy analogies, so let’s try it my way. If the birth and beauty of the child is as thrilling and as engaging as, say, ours was, Holland and Italy have got nothing to do with it. Our plane lands in Shangri-La, or, to be faithful to the original, Venice, since that’s where my wife and I actually began the hitchhiker’s honeymoon in reverse that led to marriage and a baby and a place in Andrew’s book.

Okay, so there we are in our metaphorical Venice, living humbly but happily in a pensione off Piazza San Marco with the most beautiful baby in the world. For the first few weeks we spend every evening at Caffé Florian on the Piazza pigging out on silver saucers full of chocolate gelato, but then we start hearing from Italian pediatricians about conditions like “failure to thrive” and “renal tubular acidosis” and “possible dwarfism” (precursors to the “perfect multitude of psychiatric symptoms” listed for our child in Far From the Tree) and all of a sudden Venice is threatened with flood and famine and plague; in fact, it’s sinking, possibly to its doom, and we have no choice but to head back to the U.S.A. and an apartment on Patton Avenue in Princeton. Jump ahead three decades and here we are having lunch with Andrew on the back deck of the house we now own and have been living in since 1986. And when Andrew tells our son goodbye, saying, “I know it can be hard having a total stranger come into your house and ask you all these questions,” our then-33-year-old son gives him “a warm hug,” looks him in the eye, and tells him, “You don’t seem like a stranger to me.” For a brief moment, Andrew senses “a deeply touching capacity for connection” and a “self beneath the illnesses.”

The truth is, in this relationship there are no strangers and the work of love goes on and on and on.


“It’s so fun to be reading with Gerry,” said poet Alicia Ostriker on Saturday afternoon at Labyrinth Books.

“Gerry” was another poet, Gerald Stern, a Pittsburgh native who has written 17 poetry collections and won the National Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among others. He currently lives in
Lambertville.

Ms. Ostriker, a former English professor at Rutgers University and current resident of Princeton, was born in Brooklyn. Her writing includes 14 poetry collections as well as several books on the Bible, and her prizes include the Paterson Poetry Prize, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, and the National Jewish Book Award.

The two are good friends, and on Saturday they complemented — and complimented — each other with their introductions, rapt attention to the others’ readings, and easy banter. It is not surprising to learn that they are currently sharing an “Arts of Respect” residency at Drew University.

Introducing Ms. Ostriker, Mr. Stern noted that her latest collection of poems, The Book of Life, is a reference to the Jewish belief that, on Yom Kippur, people’s fates for the coming year are sealed in a heavenly book. “Jews are so obsessed with books that their God is even a librarian,” he joked.

Ms. Ostriker described the volume as a “diaspora of poems” that “speak to each other” about what it means to be Jewish, female, and a poet, “yesterday and today.”

Her selections on Saturday afternoon included a poem about being with her relatives Becky and Benny in Far Rockaway, a place that “is past the last subway station” where aging Jews, “warty like alligators,” soak up the sun “as if it were Talmud.”

Segueing from that first generation that was “so full of yearning for the young ones,” she read poems about the joys of being with a grandchild; Allen Ginsburg’s saintliness; being in Israel; and, more than once, arguing with a God who allows tragedies like the bombing of Kosovo to take place. “Judaism is at a turning point,” she observed as she finished. Although we “don’t know how yet,” she suggested that these differences would occur because “women will help imagine it.”

Ms. Ostriker transitioned to her role as introducer, by walking around the podium three times. She described Mr. Stern as “our mad poet … a cross between Whitman and Rimbaud,” who deserves his many prizes.

Reading from a recently published book of essays, Stealing History, Mr. Stern cast an eclectic net as he considered everything from dragonflies to Turkish restaurants in Paris.

Wearing a cap and well-worn jeans, Mr. Stern explained that rather than being “essays,” the works in Stealing History were divided into “sections” that reflect the “chaos you will encounter” in life. “Essays would be more meditative,” he observed. “This gets right to it.”

One reviewer described the book as “patient and wise, but also frenzied, angry — kind of wild. It’s loose and free, but also elegantly written. The work is a trip, full of humor, wit, and wisdom.”

The essays are very personal, as is Mr. Stern’s poetry. A poem about Eleanor Roosevelt in In Beauty Bright imagines Mrs. Roosevelt meeting Vice President Henry Wallace for lunch at One Fifth Avenue so that they can plot on ways to get Franklin to do good. Briefing the audience on Saturday about the poem, Mr. Stern said that as a young man, he regularly read Mrs. Roosevelt’s column, “My Day,” and that he kept a photograph of her next to one of his grandmother. “’Did you know her?’” he reported someone asking. “’Sure,’” he replied. “’But you didn’t,’” said the other. “’Sure I did,’” responded Mr. Stern. “’I wrote a poem about her.’” Other poems were about Whitman in Camden (“Broken Glass”), a little white Fiat (he had to run with it and then jump in to get it started), and Nietzsche (“he suffered from shame and sadness in different cities”).

“I’m a spy on myself,” said Mr. Stern. In their awareness of what’s human, unjust, inexplicable, and very funny, Mr. Stern and Ms. Ostriker are members of the same ring.


Art for Healing Gallery, University Medical Center of Princeton, Route 1, Plainsboro, is showing watercolors by Joel Popadics through January.

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. Visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has works by political artist Marcia Annenberg through February 14. A reception and artist talk is February 3, 3-5 p.m.

Bray Gallery, 202 North Union Street, Lambertville, shows recent paintings by Joseph Bottari and Malcolm Bray, and photography by Andrew Wilkinson through January 6. Call (609) 397-1858 for information.

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.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, is showing “James Rhodes, Trenton Stoneware Potter, 1773-1784” and “Contemporary Art from the TMS Collection” through January 13. On view through January 6 is “Over the River: The Artists of Yardley,” a juried exhibition. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has in its Milberg Gallery “Woodrow Wilson’s Journey to the White House,” through December 28. “First X, Then Y, Now Z: Thematic Maps” runs through February 10 in the main exhibition gallery. “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” shows in the Mudd Manuscript Library Cotsen Children’s Library through July 31. “Into the Woods: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Brothers Grimm” is on view through February 28.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, is showing “Einstein at Home” and “From Princeton to the White House,” which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson, through January 13. On December 28 at 11 a.m., “Happy Birthday Woodrow Wilson!” family program includes stories and activities. December 29 at 11 a.m., the family celebration is “USS Constitution,” focused on the story of “Old Ironsides.” For more information visit www.prince
tonhistory.org.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of New Jersey, 1761-1898” through January 13. Museum hours are Wednesdays-Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. 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, has “Size Matters: Small Works from the Fine Art Collection” through December 30. Visit www.newjerseystatemuseum.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has works by Parastou Forouhar, Mona Hatoum, Sigalit Landau, Shirin Neshat and Laila Shawa on view through January 13 as part of “The Fertile Crescent” project. “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom” is on exhibit through February 17. “City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus” is on view through January 20. 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.

Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, is showing paintings by Maxine Shore through
December 21.

IN THE MOOD: Pete (Paul Rudd, left) and his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) are enjoying a rare romantic moment, which Pete will undoubtedly dispel later on with inappropriate behavior, such as flossing his teeth at a critical moment.

We first met Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in Knocked Up (2007), when the couple was in crisis, primarily because of her controlling behavior. She unreasonably suspected her husband of cheating on her because of the odd hours he kept as a rock and roll talent scout.

Their subplot was an amusing diversion from the main story about the farcical plight of a popular TV host. In This Is 40, Pete and Debbie, who we learn are in an unhappy marriage, have become the protagonists of a battle-of-the-sexes comedy.

At the point of departure, we find them both on the verge of turning 40-years-old. Debbie’s in denial, still trying to pass for 38, and is dreading the impending arrival of her birthday.

Meanwhile, Pete has regressed behaviorally, and routinely undermines any potential romantic mood by inappropriately flaunting unappetizing behavior such as flossing, among others, thereby ruining the mood. So, it comes as no surprise that the spark has gone completely out of their relationship.

This sad state of affairs is established during the picture’s opening tableaus when we see how, between their demands of work and raising two daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow), Pete and Debbie are too drained by the end of the day to even think about lovemaking. In fact, the most passion either exhibits is for their jobs.

He’s the CEO of a struggling retro record company that represents obscure has-beens like Gram Parker, and she owns a trendy boutique that is in financial trouble because of embezzlement on the part of a trusted employee. In addition to their marital problems, they may also lose their multimillion-dollar McMansion.

It’s important to note that This Is 40 was written and directed by Judd Apatow, who is the master of the shock and exploitation genre, whose productions have glorified profanity, potty humor, graphic sexuality, and nudity. This offering won’t disappoint his diehard fans in that regard, and even has the rudiments of a plot that may be of interest to people whose IQs are in the room temperature range.

Very Good (**½). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, crude humor, drug use, and profanity. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.


December 12, 2012

The word is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out melodies for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will move the stars.

—Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

When I’m bombastic I have my reasons.

—Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Dave Brubeck, who died at 91 on December 5, once said he liked to play “dangerously” close to “where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.” The news of his death has altered my plan for a column on Gustave Flaubert’s birthday, which is today, December 12. What Brubeck was “dangerously” trying to accomplish on the piano, and his defense of being “bombastic,” seems not incompatible with Flaubert’s remark about the cracked kettle of the word, except that Brubeck wanted to do more than move the stars; he wanted to make them shout. As Gary Giddins suggests in his 2004 collection Weather Bird, Brubeck “elicits a bellowing roar rarely heard at concerts any more. In a time of rampant jazz politesse, the bursts of applause when a solo peaks and elated cries when it finishes are intoxicating.”

Flaubert is primarily known for Madame Bovary (1856), a landmark of world literature. Brubeck is known for a landmark album, Time Out (1959), and for helping, in the words of the New York Times obituary, “make jazz popular.” While I enjoyed watching Brubeck perform long ago, I was never a fan. Flaubert and his translator Francis Steegmuller, on the other hand, sealed my fate. For better or worse, published and unpublished, I’ve been walking the writer’s walk ever since.

In Flaubert’s Study

The first and only time I saw the Brubeck Quartet in concert, I was a high school junior covering the event for my entertainment column in the student newspaper (some things never change). Three years after seeing Brubeck, I received an unexpected Christmas gift from my parents: a copy of Madame Bovary in Steegmuller’s just-published translation, along with the Vintage paperback of Flaubert and Madame Bovary, his book about the writing of the novel. This puzzling gift was probably my writer mother’s doing, her favorite characters in literature being Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. I had no special interest in Flaubert, had never read a word. I was busy being a college sophomore, keeping up with my classes, and working on my first novel, which at that point was going nowhere. The part of Steegmuller’s book that changed my life was in the appendix, which included Flaubert’s detailed plot outline for Madame Bovary. As an 18-year-old constitutionally opposed to the idea of planning anything, I found myself responding to Flaubert’s outline as if the author had invited me into his study, allowing me access to his intimate thoughts, each chapter a paragraph of primed impressions, key words, fragments, and ideas separated by dashes. Being already “half in love” with easeful dashes, I sat down at the keyboard of my trusty Olympia (a high-school graduation present) and executed with bombastic Brubeckian intensity a ten-page outline for my novel in the same form. Until then, all I had in the way of a plan were some notes scribbled during an ROTC lecture. The outline was my Open Sesame. The following spring I finished the novel and by July it had been accepted for publication. Without going into the admitted defects of the finished product, I have no doubt that its publication would not have been possible without my reading of Steegmuller and Flaubert.

The Ideal of Empathy

My approach to most of the subjects of this column over the past nine years has been to put myself in the writer’s or director’s or artist’s or performer’s place, doing my best to comprehend and appreciate what they’re trying to achieve. Baudelaire’s uncannily prescient response to Madame Bovary, which is included in Flaubert and Madame Bovary, still represents, for me, an ideal of enlightened empathy. At a time (1856-57) when the book was being prosecuted in the courts for obscenity (just as his own Fleurs du mal would be), Baudelaire became Flaubert’s alter ego, divining his true, deepest intentions: “We shall stretch a nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style over a banal canvas. We shall pour huge feelings into the most trivial adventure. Solemn, decisive words will escape from inane mouths.” Baudelaire also perceived how the extent of Flaubert’s impersonation of his heroine and the depth of his devotion to her fantasies of a superior world “would suffice to make her interesting.” In response, Flaubert said, “You entered the arcana of the work as if our brains were mated. You’ve felt it and understood it thoroughly.”

Building the Hat

Flaubert’s outline and Baudelaire’s critique opened the palace gates of Madame Bovary for me. The notion that something subtly subversive was hidden inside a novel subtitled Provincial Ways gave me an incentive to read with an eye to instances of what Baudelaire was talking about. In fact, that “nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style” is not merely present early in the opening chapter, it’s in your face, you can’t miss it. After a relatively conventional description of Charles Bovary entering the study-hall, a new student “in the last year of the lower school,” Flaubert creates a hat that would delight Dr. Seuss, who alone might be qualified to draw a “headgear of a composite order, containing elements of an ordinary hat, a hussar’s busby, a lancer’s cap, a sealskin cap, and a night cap.”

These hats within hats lead to a cadenza of the sort that makes young writers swoon, in which the hat was “one of those wretched things whose mute hideousness suggests unplumbed depths, like an idiot’s face.” The italics are intended to communicate the impact those 15 words had on a college sophomore who had only begun to comprehend the potential of the almighty simile. Meanwhile Flaubert is still constructing his magnificent hat: “three convex strips” are “followed by alternating lozenges of velvet and rabbit’s fur, separated by a red band; then came a kind of bag, terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon intricately decorated with braid. From this hung a long, excessively thin cord ending in a kind of tassel of gold netting.” The passage ends with a concise, snappy “The cap was new; its peak was shiny.”

The translation I quoted, the one that amazed and delighted my sophomore self, is Steegmuller’s. In the acclaimed 2010 translation by Lydia Davis, the bravura line emerges as “one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile.”

Davis is actually closer to the original French (“une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’ex-pression comme le visage d’un imbécile”), and so is the first English translation, by Eleanor Marx-Aveling: “one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face.”

Steegmuller’s departure from the original makes all the difference. Neither of the other versions puts the charge into the act of reading that his did. The rhetorical “indeed”/”in fine” interferes with the momentum of the description, as if Flaubert has appeared on the stage of his narrative to perform an introductory flourish. It’s true that Steegmuller imposes a hackneyed phrase when he makes the depths “unplumbed,” but even so, his is the more effective translation; the idea is not to stop to analyse or even pretend to analyse; it’s to strike the dominant note, sound it, ring it, or, to quote Brubeck, play it “dangerously” close to risking a mistake.

Emma’s Death

For all his devotion to “le mot juste,” Flaubert accomplishes another bravura, risk-taking coup in his description of Emma’s rush to death upon being rebuffed and humiliated by both her former lovers: “It suddenly seemed to her that fiery particles were bursting in the air, like bullets exploding as they fell, and spinning and spinning and finally melting in the snow among the tree branches.” Once she perceives the “abyss” of “her plight,” she knows what has to be done, and “with a heroic resolve that made her almost happy,” she runs “down the river path” on her way “to the pharmacy,” where she makes the pharmacist’s assistant give her the key to the cupboard in which the poisons are kept. Here Steegmuller once again adds something to the original. The translations by Davis and Marx-Aveling have Emma thrusting her hand into the blue jar, removing it full of white powder, which “she began to eat.” In Steegmuller she “seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand, withdrew it full of white powder, and ate greedily.”

As before, Steegmuller stresses momentum and intensity over faithfulness to the original, which lacks the word “greedily” that so effectively catches the sense of Emma’s crazed urgency and once again makes Steegmuller’s reading the most powerful.

Life Imitates Art

Eleanor Marx-Aveling, by the way, was Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Jenny Julia Eleanor “Tussy” Marx (1855-1898), who became her father’s secretary when she was 16, accompanying him to socialist conferences around the world, nursing him in his last illness, and publishing his unfinished manuscripts and the English language version of Das Kapital. An executive with the Social Democratic Federation, she supported various strikes, including the London Dock strike; she also organized the Gasworker’s Union and the International Socialist Congress in Paris, not to mention becoming an actress. Among other roles, she played Nora in a staged reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. After finding out that her partner, Edward Aveling, had secretly married a young actress, Eleanor chose to end her life in the manner Flaubert devised for Emma. She sent a maid to the chemist for padiorium and prussic acid, which she swallowed after writing two suicide notes. She was 43; Emma, according to most surmises, was not yet 30.

“When I described Mme Bovary’s poisoning,” Flaubert wrote long after the book was published, “the taste of arsenic in my mouth was so strong … that I vomited my dinner.”

With all the attention I’ve given to translations of Flaubert, I’m trusting the footnote in Frederick Brown’s 2006 biography for “vomited.” Brown is quoting from volume 3 of the Pléiade edition of the Correspondance. I wonder what Steegmuller would have come up with (no pun intended). I’ve been consulting the Gutenberg edition of Madame Bovary and some other online sources to check the various translations (or interpretations) of the original French. The “cracked kettle” fragment at the top is based on comparing different versions with Flaubert’s own by someone with nothing more than two years of college French, a love of Balzac, and a lifetime of subtitled French movies to go on.

The latest attempt to bring Madame Bovary to the screen is set to begin filming in Europe this spring, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) in the title role. The Steegmuller translation was most recently available in a Vintage Classics paperback. The epigraph from Brubeck is from the liner notes of the 1993 box set Time Signatures — A Career Retrospective.


The Princeton University Music Department is accustomed to showing off its orchestra, but it is not often the community gets the chance to hear from the composition program. The University Orchestra, led by conductor Michael Pratt, presented an unusual collaboration with a University composer, combining vocal and orchestral performance with imaginative literature to create a full evening of music. The University Orchestra’s concert on Friday night (the program was repeated Saturday night) linked an innovative theatrical piece with three late 19th and early 20th-century giants.

Gilad Cohen, whose world premiere Dragon Mother opened the concert, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in composition at the University. It was fitting that the orchestra’s concert was started a bit earlier than usual to accommodate Dr. Cohen’s participation in the nearby Lewis Center for the Arts production of Kiss Me, Kate, as it was quite evident from the start of Dragon Mother that Cohen has a way with musical theater. The term “Dragon Mother” conjures many images these days, most recently as a mother pushing children to succeed at any cost. This was not at all the type of Dragon Mother librettist Sean Patterson had in mind; the fierce mother portrayed by soprano Martha Elliott was more over-protective than driven, surprised at her own overly-defensive qualities. Mr. Patterson’s text was very visual, and Ms. Elliott sent the text to the back of the hall, showing no trouble with the extensive and dramatic musical scenes. Uncharacteristically miked, Ms. Elliott sang with her usual clarity of tone and command of contemporary music, accompanied by a very rich orchestration. Especially at the end of the first section of text, one could imagine “spinning” visuals as the mother reflected back on her life and raising her daughter.

Cohen’s somewhat jazzy orchestration required precision from the instrumentalists, especially the winds. Principal oboist Bo-won Keum played an introspective solo in the opening section of the text, and lyrical trombone playing contrasted the more intense third section of text. Cohen gracefully depicted the passage of time on an English horn, played by Katrina Maxcy.

The Cohen piece in itself was a major accomplishment for the orchestra, but the ensemble did not stop there. Also featured in this performance were winners of the orchestra’s 2012 concerto competition. The concerti selected by the two winners, horn player Max Jacobson and violinist Caitlin Wood, were also challenging for the players and spellbinding for the audience. Mr. Jacobson, a senior at the University, played Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major as if he had known the piece all his life. With a father who was a horn player, Strauss composed well for the instrument, and the horn plays major roles in his tone poems. Mr. Jacobson started the concerto with clean hunting calls, following up with a lyrical, almost Mozartean melodic line. Ruth Ochs guest conducted this piece and she kept the tempo moving along, maintaining a triumphal character as light strings provided a subtle accompaniment. Mr. Jacobson played the solo line seamlessly as principal cellist Nathan Haley led the section in elegant playing which added to the orchestration. The solo line required a tremendous amount of air, but one would never have known it from Mr. Jacobson’s effortless playing.

Strauss’ orchestration can be bombastic in its rich Romantic texture, but not in the case of this concerto. The second movement in particular was marked by clean winds against pizzicato strings and a clean sectional cello line. In the third movement Allegro, Mr. Jacobson moved well through the quick solo line against playful interplay between two flutes.

The second soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Caitlin Wood, who played Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, commanded the stage like a real pro. Pratt started the concerto with a low rich sound in the violins and steady harp playing. The solo violin lines were disjunct, but did not sound it as Ms. Wood played with confidence. A gracefully climbing bassoon line was played by Louisa Slosar, with equally as agile lines from English horn player Drew Mayfield and hornist Kim Fried. The close of the first movement featured an impressive solo cadenza which picked up speed as Ms. Wood executed clean double stops.

These were two hefty concerti for the evening, and Mr. Pratt wisely chose to close the evening with a musical chance for the players to relax a bit in Copland’s El Salon Mexico. The trumpets had their chance to demonstrate crisp playing to infuse the work with its Mexican flavor, as the clarinets and bassoons played the rhythmic lines cleanly. As with any Princeton University Orchestra performance, the audience was heavily cheering on their friends, especially the soloists, as Mr. Pratt and the players brought this evening of challenging works to a close.


HERE’S TO THE SUCCESS OF “PSYCHO”: Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, center) toasts the completion of the the film “Psycho” at a dinner with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren, right) and leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johannson). All was not right in tinseltown, when Hitchcock flirted with the women on the movie set and Alma left him and moved to a beach house. To see if the pair were reconciled, see the movie.

It wasn’t long after the Hollywood premiere of North by Northwest in July of 1959 that Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) began searching for his next project, since he was happiest when he was making movies. After passing over all the scripts being pitched by Paramount, the master of suspense became curious about a recently published novel inspired by the gruesome exploits of a Wisconsin serial killer (Michael Wincott).

Hitchcock found the book Psycho captivating, and acquired the rights to the novel over the objections of his agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), accountant (John Rothman), assistant (Toni Collette), and the studio’s president (Richard Portnow). He even had a hard time convincing his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), whose support was always critical because she was his longtime collaborator and sounding board.

After the couple decided to finance the picture themselves, they turned their attention to casting. They settled on relatively unknown Anthony Perkins (James-D’Arcy) in the pivotal role of Norman Bates, while opting for Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) over a fading star (Jessica Biel) as their ill-fated leading lady.

However, pressures continued to mount after the filming got underway, with concerns ranging from the director having to massage actresses’ egos to figuring out how to get the graphic shower scene past the censors. Unfortunately, Hitchcock’s flirtatious behavior on the set took a toll on his relationship with Alma, who disappeared with a friend (Danny Huston) to a beachfront pied-a-terre.

Will Alma cheat on him or reconcile with Hitchcock despite his roving eye? That is the real tension at the heart of the movie, since everybody knows that Psycho was completed and went on to become a cinema classic.

Directed by Sacha Gervasi, this delightful docudrama is based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. What makes the movie so compelling is the badinage between Alma and Alfred as ably portrayed by Oscar winners Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs).

Who knows whether their alternately acerbic and admiring interaction is accurate or pure fabrication? It almost doesn’t matter when delivered so convincingly, thereby allowing the audience a rare “fly on the wall” opportunity to watch how a genius and his wife made movie magic together.

A cinematic treat that offers rare peeks behind the scenes and behind the closed doors of a legendary director and the love of his life.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violent images, and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.


December 5, 2012

If you think of “holiday” as an enhanced departure from routine, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (Apple Blu-Ray DVD) qualifies as the ultimate holiday movie, in spite of what happened when it was first shown on the BBC, Boxing Day, December 26, 1967. Besides being savaged by critics as “tasteless nonsense” and “blatant rubbish,” the 50-odd minutes of surreal psychedelic vaudeville appalled and alienated the British public. “Beatles mystery tour baffles viewers” was the headline in the Mirror. The show scored the lowest-ever rating (23 out of 100) on a viewer’s survey known as the BBC’s Reaction Index. Thousands actually called in to protest. Of course it didn’t help that a film made in color had been shown in black and white. (There was at least one positive notice, from the Guardian, which called it “an inspired freewheeling achievement.”)

“We got hammered mightily,” Sir Paul McCartney admits near the end of his commentary accompanying the new Blu-Ray edition, where his closing remark is a cynical “thank you” to the critics for their “kind reviews.” Forty-five years after the fact, the original rejection apparently still rankles, casting a shadow on a work McCartney values not only as a free-form adventure shared with his mates but as “a snapshot of the times,” and “an interesting document of where we were at.” Without it, no one “would have seen this side of the Beatles. Someone would have put us in a bag and made sense of it. A lot of what we were doing then didn’t make sense.”

Good as Gold

The unmagical BBC fiasco prompted NBC to cancel an agreement to broadcast the film, which was not widely shown here until 1974, four years after the Beatles had broken up. While this suggests one reason why Magical Mystery Tour never really registered as a debacle stateside, a more likely explanation is that before American listeners could be exposed to any negative feedback from England, they were blissing out to the truly magical album Capitol had released a month earlier. In England, people had to make do with an EP containing only songs from the film. The American version had those five tracks, plus the singles, “Hello Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” and two unmitigated masterpieces, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As far as people on this side of the Atlantic were concerned, everything the Beatles touched was still turning to gold.

Consider the heady state of Beatles affairs at the time of their escape in a psychedelicized Bedford tour bus on a wholly irresponsible spur-of-the-moment lark with a cast of friends, fan club leaders, technicians, character actors, comedians, dwarfs, and cameramen. In the aftermath of the storied summer of 1967, they can do no wrong, Sgt. Pepper having exploded on the scene in May, with songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” a hallucinatory anthem, and the closing track, “A Day in the Life,” which blew a hole as big as Blackburn Lancashire through the conventions of rock and roll.

On June 25, 400 million people in 26 countries would see the live feed of the Beatles’ debut performance of “All You Need Is Love” broadcast worldwide as the U.K.’s contribution to Our World, the first live global television link. A fortnight after the August 27th death of the group’s guiding light, Brian Epstein, the lads from Liverpool take off for the West country on their holiday adventure with no plan, no script. In the DVD commentary, McCartney says he simply suggested they each “come up with some ideas and go somewhere and film them.” They would make up the movie as they went along. Like putting a childhood fantasy into play. In one sense, as hard as Epstein’s death was on them, it symbolically set them free: “We wanted to have control over what we were doing. We were fed up with everything taking so long.”

As Paul admits in the commentary, the result led to a nightmare in the editing room. He thought they could shape a film from all that footage in one week; it took eleven.

Surreal Chaos

Sometimes I think a library angel is looking out for me, putting the right thing in the right place at the right moment. As soon as this week’s Town Talk question was decided on (that old standby, “What’s your favorite holiday movie?”), I went to the “community’s living room” figuring I might check out White Christmas or anything that struck the right note for a holiday theme. Then there it was displayed atop the Blu-Ray shelves, looming bold and bright with its fanfare rainbow and yellow stars, and Paul, John, George, and Ringo disguised in “I Am the Walrus” regalia.

After two viewings of Magical Mystery Tour and its special features, I put Irving Berlin’s White Christmas in the DVD player. When Paul says in his commentary that “what happened with the Beatles had to do with our memories,” he’s not just talking about growing up with the BBC, or acts like Morecombe & Wise, the Goon Show, and the ambience of the music hall, but of the enlightened affection he and John Lennon shared for classic American songs and songwriters like Irving Berlin. This becomes clear when Paul is discussing the making of the concluding number, “Your Mother Should Know,” an evocation of grandiose Hollywood musicals in which the Beatles, attired in white tuxedos, descend a grand stairway while dancing couples spin and twirl below, the girls’ skirts whirling and flaring. It’s an exhilarating sequence, the atmosphere is both formal and free like the spirited, buoyant music that makes this arguably Paul’s most effective homage to “the songs that were a hit before your mother was born.”

The surreal chaos of Magical Mystery Tour, even at its sloppiest, has a Cinéma vérité panache. In White Christmas, the highest grossing film of 1954, the gloss of the production is so polished and insistent it offends the eye. It’s all surface and the opening scene on the front lines in 1944 looks as staged and static as a display in a department store show window with mannikins dressed as soldiers. It’s a relief when the film leaves the war zone for the familiar show biz milieu of a musical comedy team (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) with love interest in the form of two sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen), who were singing “Sisters” at the point when I turned it off to go back to Magical Mystery Tour for another look at the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band performing “Death Cab for Cutie.”

Wizards

I keep hearing “Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday,” from the song of the same name, one of the most irresistible melodies ever recorded by the Bee Gees. What appeals to me is the idea of a human holiday, and given the pleasure they’ve brought to millions of people around the world for the past 50 years, it’s safe to say that the Beatles are a holiday. Which means this resplendently revised film of a trip they once took (a holiday’s holiday) is worth going along on for any number of reasons, including the wonders performed on a hitherto shabby print by high-definition Blu-Ray production. Another reason: the special features, notably the one on the making of the film with appearances by 70-year-old Sir Paul looking magisterial and saggy about the jowls and Ringo who seems in fine fettle watching his 27-year-old self bickering with his fat Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins). In the fast and loose fluidity of the film, 2012 and 1967 interact in an element open to the old and young Paul (his wide-eyed Dorian Gray charisma on display in the “Fool on the Hill” sequence) and the old and young Ringo. Plus George and John, alive again, commenting on the film years after its fraught release and present in the moment it’s being made, passengers with the rest of the oddballs from the 20th century British vaudeville of fat and lean, freak and clown, and little kids like the girl sitting next to John on the bus, the two of them playing with a red balloon in one of the film’s most charming moments (showing, as Paul says, “a side of John you never really saw”). George may seem at times to be enduring the ride, dour in shades and a wide-shouldered gangster suit jacket two sizes too big for him, but he lightens up, having fun, singing along when everyone on the bus is bellowing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (one of the special feature highlights is Ringo’s tomcat-on-the-fence version of “Yesterday”).

No doubt we could do without Victor Spinetti’s stacatto top sergeant gibberish and the love scene on the beach with Aunt Jessie and Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler). But after all, it’s only 53 minutes long, and there’s easily enough charm and color and movement to make up for the longeurs. Blu-Ray does amazing things with the Beatles’ richly hued magician’s regalia, worn while they’re cooking up spells and exchanging Hard Day’s Night-style one-liners. Only now there’s no Richard Lester telling them what to do, and no one’s feeding them lines. Remember, they’re on a lark, “at liberty to play,” as Paul says.

The main reason to see Magical Mystery Tour, no surprise, is the music, most of all the “I Am the Walrus” sequence, captured in one of the greatest music videos ever (and accomplished before MTV was a gleam in anyone’s eye). Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are wonderful performers, Irving Berlin a great songwriter. But the Beatles do it all. They write the songs they sing. They make the moves and carry the movies. As Paul says near the end of his commentary, “We did the trip and we came back singing songs. Who were the wizards? The wizards were us.”


REPEAT THE PAST?: Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) visits his former lover Patricia (Rachel Saunders) after fifteen years, as he tries to understand and recover something he has lost, as an artist and human being, in Theatre Intime’s production of Donald Margulies “Sight Unseen” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through December 8.

It’s about lost love, the role of the artist, and anti-Semitism. It’s about an identity crisis that strikes as middle-age approaches and brings with it the inevitable compromises of life.

Jonathan Waxman is a rising mega-star in the international art scene of twenty years ago. His controversial modern paintings are sold “sight unseen,” even before they are completed, to wealthy patrons in New York City and throughout the world. In Sight Unseen, Donald Margulies’ 1991 Off-Broadway hit, Jonathan, in London for the first overseas exhibition of his work, journeys out to the country to visit his former lover Patricia and her husband Nick.

Throughout the ensuing eight scenes of Sight Unseen, currently playing in an uneven, though at times luminous and engaging, production at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) and Patricia (Rachel Saunders) seek resolution to a welter of interwoven issues, romantic, aesthetic, and personal. These include their abruptly-terminated relationship of fifteen years earlier, the artist’s role as a public figure in a commercial world, and disputes over anti-Semitism.

Patricia, now an expatriate and her British husband Nick (Peter Giovine) live a modest life in their cold farmhouse, pursuing their archeological explorations of Roman ruins. Jonathan comes upon his painting of Patricia, a gift to her, from 15 years earlier, now hanging prominently in Patricia and Nick’s house. Jonathan recognizes in that painting the inspiration and integrity that, amidst all his success and fame, he has lost. Patricia is still bitter over Jonathan’s rejection of her. Nick, socially awkward and hostile both to Jonathan and the art he creates, clashes with Jonathan over his relationship with Patricia and over the very nature of his artistic work.

The scenes jump forward and backwards in time, from the farmhouse in the present to an interview between Jonathan and a German journalist four days later in London, then back, 15 years to the break-up of Jonathan and Patricia’s relationship, and finally to the college painting studio where the relationship began. The fragmented chronology provides fascinating perspective on the relationship between Jonathan and Patricia, life compromises of both protagonists, and on Jonathan’s controversial evolution as an artist.

Under the direction of Princeton University junior Eric Traub, this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen effectively brings out much of Mr. Margulies’ sharp, provocative dialogue, his intriguingly complex characterizations and his troubling themes.

The four–member ensemble is generally well rehearsed, but an emergency session on projection and diction would be helpful. Ms. Saunders, when playing the settled, married, late-thirties Patricia, is so subdued that she is difficult to hear. Also problematic is Ms. Erin O’Brien’s German-accented, rapidly articulated dialogue with Jonathan, as she spars over his Jewishness, his commercialism, and his authenticity as an artist in the second scenes of both acts.

Ms. Saunders is at her best in the two powerful flashback scenes with Jonathan — their meeting in the painting studio at a New York college and their break-up soon after graduation, as Jonathan is mourning his mother’s death. Thoroughly convincing and in character in these scenes, Ms. Saunders offers a striking, warmly human stage presence and a worthy artist’s muse. It is not surprising that these undergraduate performers would have a less firm a grasp on the more ambiguous and disillusioned late thirties versions of these characters.

Mr. Adelson’s Jonathan is focused, articulate, and expressive in showing his range of emotions, from desire and confidence to frustration, regret and sadness, as he struggles in his quest to understand and reconnect with his past.

Mr. Giovine, as the ill at ease British archeologist, successfully portrays an eccentric, angry presence — resentful of Jonathan’s past relationship with Patricia and scornful of Jonathan’s artistic accomplishments. He becomes strongly outspoken and manifestly hostile when he goes on the attack in the second of two acts.

Ms. O’Brien presents the aggressive journalist, who puts Jonathan on the defensive, artistically and personally. Her complex interrogations, complete with heavy German accent, do need to be delivered more slowly and clearly.

Michaela Karis’s set design, with lighting by Laura Hildebrand, is efficient and successful in portraying the four different locales represented in the eight scenes — farmhouse, London art gallery, Jonathan’s family home in Brooklyn, and the college art studio. Mr. Traub has staged the action clearly and intelligently, with necessary scenery sliding on and off swiftly. A screen at far stage right with brief film footage and labels for dates and times helps to create the world of the play and clarify the shifts as the action moves back and forth between city and country, 1990s, and 1970s.

Despite frequent moments of humor, Sight Unseen is ultimately a poignantly sad story of loss. “You’re an artist! An artist has to experience the world!” Patricia exhorts Jonathan during their first romantic encounter, finally presented in the closing moments of the play. “How can you experience the world if you say ‘no’ to things you shouldn’t have to say ‘no’ to?!” Seventeen years later they may both have experienced the world. They may both be wiser. But the loss has been greater than the gain. Mr. Margulies and this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen invite their audiences to engage with these interesting characters in this exploration of their tangled lives and their uneasy world.


In every musical community there are unsung heroes who do not necessarily take the spotlight, but who, through their teachings over a long period of time, influence countless musicians. The Westminster Community Orchestra honored one of these individuals in a performance this past Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium. Led by Conductor Ruth Ochs, the Community Orchestra presented music of Mozart and Brahms and paid tribute to long-time Westminster Choir College faculty member Phyllis Alpert Lehrer. A member of the Westminster piano faculty for the past 40 years, Ms. Lehrer showed her impressive performance capabilities in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.

Throughout her 40-year association with Westminster Choir College, Ms. Lehrer has surely taught exactly the kind of musician who plays in the community orchestra. Often trained as professional musicians and working in other fields, these players rise to the challenge of the great orchestral masterworks. The collaboration between the orchestra and Ms. Lehrer brought out the best in everyone.

Ms. Lehrer began the first solo lines of the C minor concerto thoughtfully, with clean phrasing and chords. Deceptively delicate and reserved at the keyboard, Ms. Lehrer took off with the music in short order to display even fluidity in both hands over very rapid passages. Every note of the rolling lines was clear and audible, with elegant ends to phrases. Ms. Lehrer’s freely-composed cadenzas to the movements showed strength of hands, building drama through lyrical passages and interpolating a harmonic flavor leaning clearly toward Beethoven.

Ochs led the orchestra in an exacting accompaniment in which the players were exactly in time with the piano soloist. The wind sections gained confidence as the first movement progressed, with especially graceful playing from oboists Helen Ackley and Sandra Moskovitz and bassoonists Greg Rewoldt and Linda Balavram. Ms. Ackley and Mr. Rewoldt also had a number of solo passages which were well executed.

Ochs paired the Mozart work with another piece of celebratory nature, as well as a classical orchestral piece which the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing. Olga Gorelli’s Celebration was a one movement piece on an appropriate theme from a local composer, but was probably the hardest for the audience to grasp. Seemingly in two keys at once at times, Celebration had a joyous feel well conveyed by Ochs to the players. The more substantial and familiar work was Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a piece which the orchestra could sinks its collective teeth into with vigor.

Opening with a nice pastoral pair of horns played by Deborah Crow and Jan Fish Lewis, the Brahms symphony was full of rich melodies and Viennese lilt. In the first movement, the violas and celli presented the third melody smoothly, with a well-handled transition to passages of clean wind and pizzicato strings. Brahms symphonies require a great deal of musical intensity and stamina, and tuning did start to fade a bit in the middle movements, but the orchestra came back to life in the closing Allegro, taking the con spirito marking to heart. Throughout the symphony, the winds were very solid, ranging from oboes and bassoons to flutists Judy Singleton and Alexander Lissé, and clarinetists Daniel Beerbohm and Russ Labe. Ms. Singleton had a number of solo passages well played on the flute, joined by hornist Ms. Crow playing long Brahms melodies.

The Westminster Community Orchestra gives local musicians a chance to spread their wings a bit as a musical reprieve from their other lives. The chance to perform with a classic performer like Ms. Lehrer no doubt made the afternoon that much more special.


SHALL WE DANCE?: Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley, right) finds herself falling hopelessly and shamelessly in love with the young and dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The initially giddy attraction between the lovers ultimately results in Anna descending into madness as the pressures exerted by society on her forbidden love affair take their toll.

First published between 1873 and 1877 as a series of installments in a literary magazine, Anna Karenina is a more than one thousand page opus about the ill-fated affair between a St. Petersburg socialite and a young soldier. Despite the soap opera at the heart of the story, the novel is actually much deeper because it explores many motifs, including feminism, family, forgiveness, and fate.

Leo Tolstoy’s tale of forbidden love has been brought to the screen over 20 times, most notably starring Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948) in the title role. Here, Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley (for Pride & Prejudice) delivers a fresh interpretation of the flawed heroine in a bold adaptation directed by Joe Wright.

The movie is the pair’s third collaboration, which includes the critically acclaimed Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), costume dramas which together received a total of 11 Oscar nominations. Similar accolades are likely in store for this movie as well, primarily as a consequence of Knightley’s powerful performance and Wright’s daring and dazzling interpretation of the Russian classic.

The highly stylized production has a stagy feel to it rather reminiscent of Moulin Rouge! (2001). Most of the film unfolds in a dingy dilapidated theater, which might sound at first like a disappointing downsizing of the sweeping source material. But this surreal treatment, replete with stampeding horses and a host of other surprises lying in wait in the wings and up in the rafters, is nothing short of magical without diminishing the Tolstoy epic one iota.

At the point of departure, we find unhappily married Anna falling in love with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bachelor serving in the cavalry. The two proceed to carry on shamelessly, much to the chagrin of her older cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who is a boring government bureaucrat.

In addition, the picture devotes its attention to a couple of lesser-developed subplots. One involves Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfadyen), a womanizer who has been cheating on his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). The other is about wealthy Konstantin Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) pursuit of Dolly’s teenage sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a debutante who has hopes of being courted by Vronsky.

Ultimately, Anna’s mind gradually unravels, as she is tragically undone by a mixture of jealousy, bitterness, and assorted social pressures. All of the above transpires before a visually arresting backdrop as envisioned and brilliantly executed by the gifted Wright.

A sumptuous cinematic feast!

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and violence. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.


November 28, 2012

For the long hard slog through the eight years of the Bush presidency, it helped to have Paul Krugman’s Op Ed columns in the New York Times, and Frank Rich’s meditations in the Sunday Times Week in Review. While Krugman and Rich were trying to make intelligent sense of an ongoing national calamity, the poet C.K. Williams offered another, more deeply felt level of understanding. The columnists were like sentries in the watch tower. The poet was a troubled citizen speaking in a low compelling voice one-on-one to troubled readers in poems like “The War,” “Night” and “The Hearth,” which I read as they appeared in the New Yorker and again in The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Grioux 2003), the subject of my June 9, 2004 column (“A Book to Live With”). Remarking on the “intimate and companionable” qualities of the collection, I ended by saying it would take a separate review to do justice to “these wartime dispatches from the homefront” by a poet “who is seeing and feeling this grim time for us as bravely and lucidly as he can.”

My sense of Williams as a one-on-one poet writing for us, with us, as though on our behalf, a quality also expressed in my review of his Collected Poems (“Look, He Has Come Through,” Dec. 6, 2006), began with a reading of “The Hearth” in the March 3, 2003 New Yorker, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq. While the image of a hearth suggests something comfortable and inviting, what you find when you enter the poem is a “recalcitrant fire” the poet (alone “after the news”) is “stirring up” as he follows a course of dark thought (fire blinding and maiming someone, nature devouring its prey) that leads to the war and the “more than fear” he feels for his children and grandchildren. Once he has the fire blazing, “its glow on the windows makes the night even darker but it  barely keeps the room warm.” By the time you come to the last line (“I stroke it again and crouch closer”), you’re there in the chilly room with him holding your hands toward the same fading fire.

Changes

A decade later there are two new books, both published this month, Writers Writing Dying (FSG $27.50), a collection of recent poetry, and In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest (University of Chicago Press $27.50), a collection of prose writings and interview excerpts containing an essay, “On Being Old,” in which he discusses some developments in his later poetry. Referring to poems “unlike any” he’d written before, he notes that there “seemed to have arrived in them an element of not only the irrational but also the absurd, a willed goofiness.” After addressing the possibility that maybe he “was tired of being logical, rational, lucid, ‘mature,’” he admits that when he “hit seventy” he realized he “hadn’t changed a bit” since he was eighteen, still “chartless,” still “meandering through the world.”

While the poet of the dark time expressed in “The Hearth” has gone through some exciting changes in recent years, perhaps inspired in part by the election of Obama in 2008 and the accompanying surge of relief, hope, and irrational exhilaration (renewed several times over three weeks ago), it’s not so much that he’s less lucid and rational, just that his recent manner tends to be more daring, headlong, and aggressive, as if he’d received a charge of adolescent energy to go with a turn toward all-out, no-holds-barred performance that would seem to be somewhat at odds with his former companionableness.

Negative Impetus

After providing a stern if generally appreciative assessment of Williams’s Collected Poems, Dan Chiasson concludes his Dec. 24, 2006 New York Times review by disparaging the later work, where “the contest between comfort and distress feels rigged for comfort” and the poems “tip from too much sentiment.” The suggestion is that the poet who once “tested poetry against ugliness, the imagination against the world,” has given way to Williams the doting grandfather (“There are hazards to being around one’s grandchildren, and one of them is that a person’s poems will suffer”). At the end, carried along by the negative momentum he’s riding, Chiasson reduces the poet whose entire career was the ostensible subject to someone who “settles for the dreary, flummoxed middle zone of life where the rest of us are consigned to live: really loving our ‘children, and their children,’ really hating the president.”

It’s tempting to think that Williams profited from the negatives of that high-profile notice while avoiding inane advisories about the “hazards” of grandchildren. In that sense, perhaps Chiasson indirectly contributed to the edgier, more adventurous, more combative manner of the later poetry (a quote from the same review is featured on the dust jacket of In Time).

Far from being wary of the grandchildren, Williams brings all three of them into the new collection’s penultimate poem, “The Day Continues Lovely.” Thus the undaunted poet manages to test “poetry against ugliness, the imagination against the world” in the same room with children “more golden than gold” and a beloved dog asleep on the floor even as he’s summoning Kierkegaard, Buber, and some full-throated shouting from the voice of God. Plus he’s riffing and rapping on the notion of prayer, because he “Can’t. Pray.” So he conjures up “the Binary Kid” and instead of praying on he plays on “God, not God”; “Good, bad./Hate love”; “Galaxy on. Galaxy off.” But then, when he’s through dancing from switch to switch in the “space between on and off,” singing the mind-body electric, going expansively and allusively nuts, he companionably opens the door and lets us into his children-golden room as one of them wakes up, the dog, too, and comes to see what he’s doing, “Turner leans his head on my shoulder to peek./What am I doing? Thinking of Kierkegaard. Thinking of beauty. Thinking of prayer.”

So there we are again, with Williams in the moment.

Playing

The post-2008-election changes in Williams’s work are actually already taking exhilarating form in “The Foundation,” which appeared in the New Yorker (March 23, 2009) two months after Obama was clumsily sworn in (it’s also the penultimate poem in the 2010 collection, Wait). “Watch me, I’m running, watch me, I’m dancing” — so Williams begins this “jubilant song of the ruins,” reliving and reimagining the memory of exploring the rubble of a Newark building site. Like a grown-up kid at play, he revels in the sheer fun of celebrating his heroes and mentors — “Watch me again now, because I’m not alone in my dancing,/my being air, I’m with my poets, my Rilke, my Yeats,/we’re leaping together through the debris, a jumble of wrack/but my Keats floats across it, my Herbert and Donne.”

“Play” and “playing” are among the operative words in “The Foundation” as well as in the poems in Writers Writing Dying that appear to be its descendants, whether the subject is death and work in the title poem, being a poet in “Whacked” or being a “cad” in “Salt.”

In “Whacked,” where Williams takes amused poetic possession of the slang for “kill” made famous in The Sopranos, some of the same poets he was romping with in “The Foundation” are all over him, not just the Yeatses and Herberts but whole tribes of younger poets and even the bad ones whose “whackless poems” can still “hurt you.” It’s a deceptively confessional poem (“I’ve read reams, I’ve written as many”) disguised as a spree in which the poet runs wild with a single word — in effect, the 6’5 Williams, a former basketball player at Bucknell, grabs the ball called whack and runs with it, weaving through the whack-whack-whacking opposition into the open, an all-out fast break taking him to some wondrous figures (“warm tangles of musical down as from the breasts of the choiring dawn-tangling larks”) on the way to a magnificently unlikely concluding image. In the second stanza, almost before we know it, he’s become a mustang “stampeding” through the “sweet-seeming” poems of Elizabeth Bishop on his way to becoming the last stanza’s “old racehorse.” Will they put him out to pasture? Not a chance, he’s too slippery, he’s as slyly shape-shifting as he ever was, “like a mare” now “giving birth, arm in my own uterine channel to tug out another,/one more, only one more, poor damp little poem, then I’ll be happy — I promise, I swear.”

There’s not much to say of such audacity except to be glad that somewhere between 2007 and 2011 Williams gave himself up to a more brazen, playful muse.

And the course he runs in “Salt” is no less wild and woolly, doing for the term “cad” what he did for “whacked” and putting “miniature mountains” of the salt of caddish deception in a Cornell box (Dali would love it) that also contains a flock of his former lovers, “their beaks open now not to berate but stereophonically warble forgiveness.” Again the zany moves of the uninhibited muse lead to touches like the “memory moon, still glowing” in a corner of the box, which brings him back to salt’s equivalent “anapests, iambs, enjambments” and the saving grace of verse. As in the title poem that concludes the collection, it’s ultimately all about the endgame. In “Salt,” he quotes Sir Thomas Wyatt, “which is why I can croon now, ‘My lute be still …” and why I can cry. ‘… for I have done.” But the last line of the last poem is no less infused with play: “and if you’re dead or asleep who really cares?/Such fun to wake up though! Such fun too if you don’t! Keep dying! Keep writing it down!”

The appropriately spirited painting on the cover of Writers Writing Dying is the work of the poet’s son, Jed Williams.


This season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has had a sponsorship partnership with Novo Nordisk, the Copenhagen-based pharmaceutical company. Given the location of Novo Nordisk’s home base in Denmark, it was fitting that the orchestra’s post-Thanksgiving concert would feature music from Scandinavia. Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium included the winteresque music of Norwegian Edvard Grieg and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, with a violin soloist who was anything but icy.

The orchestra set the scene for the Sibelius Concerto in D minor with a rich yet stark sound for Grieg’s In Autumn, a one-movement work depicting sighs of impending winter.  The winds in particular provided a warm sound, especially from oboist James Roe. Crisp rhythms from Mr. Roe and two flutes, as well as a trio of hunting horns, gave the impression of an open space of glacial scenery.

Young German violinist Augustin Hadelich took the Sibelius Concerto in D minor by storm, showing virtuosity and clarity in a performance which mesmerized the Richardson audience. Guest conductor Hans Graf began the concerto with a soft orchestral underpinning as Mr. Hadelich played a shimmering melody as if hovering over ice and snow. Playing a 1723 Stradivarius violin, Mr. Hadelich imparted a great deal of feeling into the first movement solo line, taking ample opportunity to put his individual stamp on the music. The solo violin was clearly the star of this concerto, joined by a very subtle clarinet solo by Karl Herman.

The grace and elegance of Mr. Hadelich was aided by the magnificent instrument he was playing. Clarity of tone rang up to the top of the register, allowing Mr. Hadelich to draw the audience into his web, especially during extended trills combined with double stops. When not playing, Mr. Hadelich intently listened to the music from the other musicians, closing the first movement with a lively and hypnotic cadenza. Through the rest of the concerto, pairs of instruments provided elegant contrast to the solo line, including from horn players Lucinda-Lewis and Andrea Menousek, clarinetists Karl Herman and Andrew Lamy, and oboists James Roe and Andrew Adelson.

Mr. Hadelich was popular enough with the Richardson audience to offer an agile Paganini encore, after which the orchestra moved on to a substantial piece in Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. The brass section announced the arrival of the symphony and Mr. Graf kept the tempo of the opening Allegro moving at a fast clip. The second iteration of the opening was stronger, contrasted by lighter and nimbler passages which showed Brahms’s Viennese roots. Mr. Graf closed the expansive first movement quietly, setting up well the pastoral Andante.

This second movement was mostly for the winds, with graceful celli and viola accompaniment. Mr. Graf and the orchestra brought out the familiar phrasing of this work well, taking little time between movements to keep the drama moving along. New Jersey Symphony closed the beloved Brahms work with crisp winds and horns in the quick-moving closing Allegro.

These day-after-Thanksgiving concerts by New Jersey Symphony have been as much a part of the holiday weekend as cranberry sauce for many years. For a brief couple of seasons, the orchestra chose not to present a Princeton concert on this weekend, but returned to the tradition, with great appreciation from the audience. It is clear that sometimes individuals just need a break from football and food to hear some great music.


WE HAVE JOINED TOGETHER TO FIGHT THE BOOGEYMAN: Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin’s voice), together with Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman have joined together to form the Guardians in order to prevent the nefarious Boogeyman from destroying the pleasures that children derive from their myths while they are still innocent believers.

When the Boogeyman (Jude Law) hatches a diabolical plan to eliminate the dreams of sugarplums dancing in tykes’ heads and to steal baby teeth that were left under their pillows at bedtime, it’s clear that something must be done. For, if left unchecked, it’ll just be a matter of time before the evil schemer will quash children’s beliefs in the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman.

Fortunately, these beloved mythical figures have already united to fight their longtime adversary by forming the Guardians, an association dedicated to the preservation of the innocence, imagination, and sense of wonder of children all over the world. And at the urging of their wise leader, the Man in the Moon, they become convinced that Jack Frost (Chris Pine) will be an indispensable member of their team.

Initially, Jack is reluctant to join because of he is so young and he also feels inadequate because he is invisible. But Jack ultimately yields to his confederates’ relentless pressuring and they convince him that “You cannot say no!” and “It is destiny!”

With greatness thus thrust upon him, will Jack rise to the occasion to spearhead the charge against the Boogeyman? That is the question posed by the Rise of the Guardians, an enchanting fairytale loosely based on The Guardians of Childhood series of best-sellers by William Joyce.

The animated adventure marks the directorial debut of veteran storyboard artist Peter Ramsey who makes uses of state-of-the-art 3-D technology in such a way that it warrants an investment in goggles in order to enjoy all the eye-popping special features. Nevertheless, at heart, the picture remains a sweet story with a universal message about the importance of protecting children’s innocence.

Although aimed at impressionable young children, Rise of the Guardians will resonate with children of all ages who still have a sense of wonder and awe. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; and a Tooth Fairy, a Jack Frost, an Easter Bunny, and a Sandman, too.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG for mature themes and scary action sequences. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Dreamworks Pictures.


Art for Healing Gallery, University Medical Center of Princeton, Route 1, Plainsboro, is showing watercolors by Joel Popadics through January.

Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, presents “Patterns & Meaning: Alan J. Klawans and Andrew Werth,” through December 2. Both artists use the computer as a tool in creating their work. Visit www.lambertvillearts.com.

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. Visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has paintings by Hanna von Goeler through December 6.

Bray Gallery, 202 North Union Street, Lambertville, shows recent paintings by Joseph Bottari and Malcolm Bray, and photography by Andrew Wilkinson, December 8-January 6. The opening reception is December 8, 6-9 p.m. Call (609) 397-1858 for information.

Cafe 44, 44 Leigh Avenue, shows “PLAYBACK! Paintings by James
Bongartz” through December 16. Call (609) 924-3900.

D&R Greenway Land Trust, 1 Preservation Place (off Rosedale Road), presents a Decoy Exhibit Lecture by Bob White, Dean of Delaware River Carvers, Jay Vawter Collection, November 29 from 7-8:30 p.m. Call (609) 924-4646 to register. On December 6 at 7:30 p.m., the Princeton Photography Club presents a slide lecture by Ricardo Barros, “Tone, Voice, Message and Photographic Visions.” Visit www.ricardobarros.com.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has in its Milberg Gallery “Woodrow Wilson’s Journey to the White House,” through December 28. “First X, Then Y, Now Z: Thematic Maps” runs through February 10 in the main exhibition gallery. “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” shows in the Mudd Manuscript Library Cotsen Children’s Library through July 31. “Into the Woods: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Brothers Grimm” is on view through February 28.

Gallery and Academy of Robert Beck, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, presents paintings by Alex Cohen, December 8-December 28. “Small Captivations” is the title. Opening receptions are December 7, 6-9 p.m. and December 9, 1-4 p.m. Call (215) 603-6573.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, has “Abstract Drawings and Paintings” by Pat Martin through December 14. Call (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, shows photography by Rhoda Kassof-Isaac and Barbara Osterman through December 16. Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. or by appointment.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, is showing “Einstein at Home” and “From Princeton to the White House,” which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson, through January 13. At the Updike Farmhouse on Quaker Road, “Call to Action: How a President Used Art to Sway a Nation,” World War I posters from the collection, and “A Morning at Updike Farmstead: Photographs by the Princeton Photography Club” are open through December 15, 12-4 p.m. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “Creative Hand, Discerning Heart: Story, Symbol, Self,” through December 30. “Parting Gifts: Artists Honor Bruce Katsiff” is on view through December 9. 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, 2013. Through January 6, “Art=Text=Art: Works by Contemporary Artists” will be on view, from the collection of drawing collectors Wynn and Sally Kramarsky. “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.

Lawrence Art & Frame Gallery, 2495 US1, Lawrenceville, presents new paintings by Bill Plank through December 9.

Lewis Center for the Arts’ Lucas Gallery, 185 Nassau Street, will feature work by those studying video, graphic design, and photography December 4-14. An opening reception is December 4, 4-6 p.m. Free public lectures by faculty members continue with filmmaker Su Friedrich on December 5. Visit www.princeton.edu/arts.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of New Jersey, 1761-1898” through January 13. 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.

Prallsville Mill, Route 29 in Stockton, holds a holiday exhibition and sale by Princeton Artists Alliance, to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy, December 8-22. Artists include Jim Perry, Richard Sanders, Margaret Johnson, Harry Naar, Lucy Graves McVicker, and others. Naar will give a gallery tour December 8 at 1 p.m. Charles McVicker will give a tour December 15 at 1 p.m. Call (609) 924-2660 for information.

Present Day Club, 72 Stockton Street, presents “From Oysters to Artichokes: a new look at still life paintings,” through December 20. Artists Heather Barros, Betty Curtiss, Meg Brinster Michael, Stephen S. Kennedy, and Mary Waltham are in this show. Call (609) 430-0897.

Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery will present “Secret Lives,” featuring art by faculty and staff, through December 19. Paintings, drawings, photography, video, ceramics, and sculpture are included. Visit www.pds.org for times.

Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, is showing photography by Mary Cross (“Egyptland”) and painter Ifat Shatzky through December 31 as part of “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society” series taking place in nine area venues. (609) 924-9529 or www.prince
tonlibrary.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has works by Parastou Forouhar, Mona Hatoum, Sigalit Landau,
Shirin Neshat and Laila Shawa on view through January 13 as part of “The Fertile Crescent” project. “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom” is on exhibit through February 17. “City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus” is on view through January 20. 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.

Rago Arts and Auction Center, 333 North Main Street, Lambertville, presents Newark Museum curator Ulysses Grant Dietz speaking on “The Lower End of Splendor: Middle Class Jewelry in Context,” December 4 at 6 p.m. A reception begins at 5 p.m. Call (609) 397-9374 to RSVP.

Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, Rider campus, Lawrenceville, presents “Alterations: A Retrospective,” sculptures by Joan B. Needham, through December 2. Visit www.rider.edu/arts.

Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, is showing photographs by Henry Vega, “Floral Still Lifes,” through December 3. Paintings by Maxine Shore are on view December 5-21. The opening reception is December 7, 5-8:30 p.m.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road in West Windsor, has “Off the Wall” affordable art available at its one-day sale on December 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jewelry, ceramics, fiber art, and more are included in this juried market. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

November 21, 2012

I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am carrying a volcano around with me. My salvation is in being loved.

—Woodrow Wilson, from a letter to Ellen Axson

When I saw the floodlit, misty, gloriously chaotic fountain facing the Woodrow Wilson School one night not long after we moved to Princeton, I didn’t know its name, but I had a notion of the story it was telling. I’d been learning about Wilson’s triumphs and tribulations while working on Alexander Leitch’s A Princeton Companion. I thought of it simply as Wilson’s fountain even after learning that its official name was the Fountain of Freedom and that its stated message was “to symbolize Woodrow Wilson’s vision of lasting world peace” or, according to another source, “to symbolize man’s quest for peace and freedom.”

While it’s possible to connect the quest for freedom with the force field of water splashing, jetting, gushing up and down and in and out of the craggy contours of the 20-foot-high bronze sculpture, it’s a real stretch to imagine a “vision of lasting peace” in all that tumult. Everything’s at cross purposes, like a massive celebration of disorder and conflict, with the jets coming and going every which way, some at angles, spilling mist and spray in all directions. There’s joy, poetry, and music in the play of light and the sound made by the water, but the total effect is best reflected in the title “Woodrow Wilson: A Complicated Man,” the election-of-1912-centennial site honoring the Princetonian who on the eve of his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910 said “men are not put in this world to go the path of ease; they are put in this world to go the path of pain and struggle.”

Speaking of pain and struggle, consider how Caligariesque the sculpture becomes when the water’s shut off. This bleak, twisted mass sculpted by James Fitzgerald (1910-1973) could just as easily serve to mark a battle scene where great losses were sustained.

Achievement and Adversity

It’s a short walk from Wilson’s fountain to Wilson’s top hat, which can be seen in Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery exhibit, “The Election for Woodrow Wilson’s America.” Too bad the display can’t be on the main floor where more people could view that lustrous black topper. It’s also worth a trip to the second floor to see a photo of a handsome 20-something Wilson sporting a mustache or maybe to read the letter from 1884 when he was courting Ellen Axson, in which he writes, “I’m making a fright of myself for your sake. I am letting my hair grow long for the sake of the look you want.” Jump ahead 31 years and there’s a more familiar President Wilson beaming, in his element, at the 1915 World Series between the Red Sox and the Phillies.

I keep coming back to the top hat. What a sheen it has, so dark, so deep, so rich. But it looks too somber, too grounded somehow. Too much J.P. Morgan, not enough Fred Astaire. It needs to be blown about or perhaps tossed into the fountain’s stormy vortex and set bouncing and bobbing until the topper’s dancing on the top. Though the exhibit commentary informs us that Wilson wore this hat when campaigning for the presidency, most photographs online show him wearing it or its mate in Europe, at Paris and Versailles with Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Wilson is glowing, the Great War is over, he’s signed, sealed, and delivered it, and put the U.S.A. on the center stage and now he’s got big plans for world peace.

(Dream on, says the fountain. Stay the course, says another spray. Keep fighting, says a jet shooting in from the side.)

James Chace’s book, 1912:Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs — The Election that Changed the Country (2004), begins with Wilson in his glory, enjoying a hero’s welcome in France, flowers raining down on him, the streets of Paris thronged with “the largest number of Parisians ever to welcome a foreign leader,” banners reading “Honor to Wilson the Just,” reporters writing “No one had ever heard such cheers …. Oh, the immovably shining smiling man!” All through December 1918 it was more of the same, cheered in England, treated like a king in Rome, where he was “met with near-hysterical demonstrations,” and “blew kisses to the crowd.”

Not so fast, says the fountain, don’t forget that back home the Republicans have won both houses of Congress and are denouncing the “shining smiling man” — “Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people.” Same old, same old, achievement blown to a mist by adversity. Think of what Senate leader Cabot Lodge and the Republicans did to Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations. The chapter, “Woodrow Wilson: The Conservative as Liberal,” in Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) is full of references to Wilson’s combative character, his volcanic intensity and need to be loved (as in the quoted admission from another letter to Ellen Axson). The chapter also features phrases from Wilson’s 1912 campaign that could be taken from media coverage of the campaign of 2012: “the middle class is being more and more squeezed,” “the interests that have squeezed out the middle class are the same that control politics,” “the laws do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak,” and “the business of government is to organize the common interests against the special interests” [Wilson’s emphasis].

In his way, Wilson seems nearly as unlikely a president in 1912 as Obama was in 2008. Even now, consider how improbable it would be for someone like Wilson to be elected and sworn in on Inauguration Day: a scholar, an intellectual, historian, author of numerous academic texts, a visionary who, in Hofstadter’s words, “learned to look upon life as the progressive fulfillment of God’s will and to see man as ‘a distinct moral agent’ in a universe of moral imperatives.” If anything, such a person seems as far out of the mainstream as an African American with a Harvard degree, two books under his belt, and a more practical, flexible concept of priorities and imperatives.

The Movie

My sense of Wilson, the flawed hero striving for the greater good (that star-crossed quest for peace played out in criss-crossing streams of his fountain), has little in common with the depiction of the 28th president in Darryl F. Zanuck’s wartime biopic Wilson (1944). As James Agee put it in his long, typically brilliant August 19, 1944 review in The Nation: “With the best intentions in the world, Hollywood took a character and a theme of almost Shakespearean complexity and grandeur, and reduced the character to an astutely played liberal assistant professor of economics.” What follows is a litany of similarly fatal reductions of themes and events: “the millennial, piteous surge of hope and faith which bore Wilson to Paris,” “the colossal struggles between Wilson and Clemenceau and Senator Lodge,” “Wilson’s terrifying, possessed trip around the United States,” all reduced to “a high-grade sort of magazine illustration.”

Wilson was the most expensive film ever made in Hollywood up to that point, costing even more than Gone With the Wind. In fact, Zanuck was so devastated by the resulting box office disaster (it lost millions) that he decreed that Wilson never be mentioned again in his presence. The film does include numerous Princeton touches (students serenading Wilson with “Old Nassau” after he’s been elected) that may move all but the most jaded alums. The rub is that a true Princetonian named Jimmy Stewart might have saved the day if he hadn’t been serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time. Instead of Alexander Knox, a little-known actor with minimal presence, you’d have had a major star who would have brought his tensely suppressed fire-in-the-belly ferocity to the part.

The Fountain Rules

The last image you see in the Milberg exhibit is an extraordinary piece of pointillist photography from 1918 by Arthur S. Mole in which 21,000 officers and men at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe Ohio have been assembled to form a “living portrait” of Wilson. The photographer climbed a 70-foot-high tower to shoot the picture of the human tide he’d shaped to the president’s approximate likeness. It’s a magnificent image, but it doesn’t really do Wilson or his story justice. For that, go to the fountain — or to the various Princeton exhibits and events marking the 1912 election centennial (http://wilsoncentennial.org/). On December 8 (2 p.m. and 4 p.m.), The Historical Society of Princeton is hosting a walking tour of places in the community that were a part of Wilson’s life as a student, faculty member, and president of the University. $7 adults; $4 children. To register, call (609) 921-6748 x102, or email eve@princetonhistory.org.

The Harper’s Weekly cover is on view in the Milberg exhibit, which runs through December 28. The man in the rear is Wilson’s vice-president, Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana, who during a Senate debate once famously announced, “What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

 

DO NOT FORSAKE ME IN MY HOUR OF NEED: Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) prays in desperation to his three religions to ask for help in surviving this terrible natural catastrophe which leaves him stranded in the middle of the Pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger. Pi and his parents were en-route to Canada with their family’s zoo, when their cargo ship capsized in the terrible storm which hit them.

Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) was raised in the Hindu faith before converting to Catholicism and Islamism all on his own. The 16-year-old’s parents reacted differently to the changes in the boy’s unorthodox behavior which included going to church and praying facing east five times a day.

His frustrated father (Adil Hussain) warned, “You cannot follow three religions at the same time,” while his more tolerant mother (Tabu) told him that “Science cannot teach what is in here,” touching her heart. Both shrugged it off as probably just a passing phase, since they were busy planning the big move of the family household and zoo from India to Canada.

However, tragedy strikes en route, when their cargo ship capsizes and sinks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving Pi, the sole human survivor, in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Will the religious believer remain true to his lofty ideals while playing out the faith-testing hand he’s suddenly been dealt?

That’s the pressing question posed in Life of Pi, a visually captivating tale of spirituality and survival. Directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), the movie was shot against a series of exquisite seascapes that look like glorious, hand-painted, pastel panoramas.

After the occurrence of the shipwreck, the picture is a one-man show, similar to Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000). However, in this film the protagonist has to figure out how to coexist peacefully in very close quarters with a tiger who’d probably prefer to make him its next meal.

The burden of carrying the film falls on the shoulders of first-time actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job of conveying the existential angst of the beleaguered, ever-exasperated title character.

This richly textured adaptation will undoubtedly be a hit with fans of the Yann Martel best-seller upon which it’s based, as well as with audience members of any age who are looking for an entertaining movie. Of interest is that during an opening sequence of this flashback film, the audience is told that what is about to unfold is a story that will make you believe in God.

For all its religious overtones, however, the thrust of the production is less about an attempt to convert disbelievers than around Ang Lee’s brilliant use of the screen as a cinematic canvas to narrate a compelling story. The film is a critic and crowd pleaser that will be impossible to forget when Academy Award season comes around.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes and scary action sequences. In English, French, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

November 14, 2012

I believe in Walter White, his family and his friends. They aren’t just objects of interest and curiosity and occasional sympathy …. I actually care deeply about whether they live and die.

—Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat’s June 15, 2010, New York Times piece turned up during an online fishing expedition baited with the tag, “Breaking Bad/Dostoevsky.” It’s not that I’m looking to put a Dostoevskian spin on Vince Gilligan’s AMC series about a cancer-stricken high school science teacher turned methamphetamine overlord; it’s just that Breaking Bad has elements and characters that the author of Crime and Punishment would find fascinating. Same for Balzac and Poe and Hawthorne, and don’t forget Robert Louis Stevenson, since anyone watching Walter White cooking up batches of crystal blue meth is sure to visualize Dr. Jekyll in his lab and the macabre fate he meets when the chemically induced Mr. Hyde takes complete possession of the good doctor’s soul.

I came late to Breaking Bad. No one tugged at my sleeve and said, “Don’t miss it.” I was unaware until recently that Bryan Cranston had won the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” Emmy three years in a row. One thing for sure, if I’d read somewhere of Vince Gilligan’s concept for the show — to turn his central character from protagonist to antagonist, from Mr Chips to Scarface — I’d have jumped on board a year or two sooner. The concept, not to mention the acting, writing, and cinematography used to explore it, is what makes Breaking Bad superior to any series since HBO’s Big Three, The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which recently launched its third season, is an impressive production but not in the same league as Breaking Bad, which will end its five season run next summer.

Breaking Through

My online search took me to a short essay by Corey Pung quoting Dostoevsky (“Without God, anything is possible”) on Walt’s reaction to the death sentence he receives in Breaking Bad’s opening episode. While his primary motive is to provide for his family (wife pregnant, baby’s arrival imminent, teenage son with cerebral palsy), as soon as he’s told he may have only months to live, he begins to challenge the reasonable, responsible limits that have ruled his life, struggling to make ends meet teaching high school science while moonlighting in a car wash. Most good providers (and Walt becomes a good provider with a vengeance) would still observe the limits, pursuing medical treatment (as Walt does), setting their house in order (this too), or looking for moral support in religion. Religion? Not Walt. He takes the anything-is-possible route. The spectre of death releases the genius seething inside him.

More Than Adrenaline

Writing on Good Reads, a blogger from India wants to know if there is any novel “as adrenaline pumping as the Breaking Bad TV series?” So far the only book that comes close, he says, is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He finds the thriller writers like Patterson, Grisham, and Ludlum wanting because “they seldom really make the scenes absolutely memorable along with keeping me on the edge of my seat.” He wants an experience that “stays with” him “long after” he reads it: “Just like Breaking Bad is doing to me.”

That says it: you don’t just watch Breaking Bad; it does things to you, it stays with you, stirs you, moves you, haunts you, and makes you care about the characters as life-and-death intensely as Ross Douthat suggests when comparing the show to AMC’s other hit series, Mad Men.

The Moment of Truth

At this point it’s necessary to announce a modified spoiler alert, since the scene I’m about to focus on concerns the death of a character, a sad, ugly, needless death that occurs late in the second season and could have been prevented. The sequence, in its subtle but stunning way, is one of the defining moments in this savage series where violence explodes, bloodily, outrageously, gruesomely, sometimes with gory black comedy overtones (like the notorious raspberry slushie sequence in the first season). Not to worry, nothing’s going to blow up in your face in this small, hushed room where a young couple lies cuddled together, spoon style, deep in a heroin stupor on a mattress at Walt’s feet. He intends them no harm. There’s even a sense that as he looks down on these two kids, he’s touched, briefly bemused, and a bit embarrassed to have invaded their privacy, for they really are like two children, innocent, helpless, vulnerable (“Shades of Romeo and Juliet,” was Gilligan’s comment in an interview about the scene).

Then the female, the Juliet, turns over on her back and begins softly coughing. She’s choking, and he knows that if he doesn’t do the right thing, the simple obvious human thing anyone else would do, she might die. Yet he’s hesitating, holding back, you can see the pressure of the thought closing in on him as he realizes that a solution to the problem that brought him to this place is at hand: a threat to his enterprise is about to be nullified. If he allows it. This death will be to his advantage. So he thinks, he hesitates, allows it, and watches, in pained amazement, as death happens. It takes less than 30 seconds. As he watches, he has to press his hand over his mouth to keep from crying out, tears spring to his eyes, he’s torn, hurting, because what’s left of the father, the teacher, the good provider is appalled and ashamed and sick with sympathy, as if he’s been standing by and watching, allowing, the death of his own child.

Why You Care

I found the loss of this character, this Juliet, truly hard to accept even after I’d moved on to the third season. This is the “caring deeply” that Douthat’s talking about. The loss hurts not just because you liked her, cared about her, and even valued her as a rare glimmer of sweetness and light in her lover’s life, but because you know her death is going to devastate if not destroy a character you care about a great deal more — Walt’s partner in meth cooking, Jesse Pinkman, who is played with an intensity second only to Bryan Cranston’s by Aaron Paul (winner of two Supporting Actor Emmys). By this point in the second season you can’t help but share some of Walt’s quasi paternal/fraternal feelings for this seemingly hapless loser, the F student forever even though he’s earned his half of a fortune, survived brutal beatings and unthinkably dire near-death dilemmas with the science teacher who flunked him years ago. One of the most lovable things about this series, which may be the most bizarre buddy movie ever made, is that after all they’ve been through together, Jesse still calls Walt “Mr. White.”

The repercussions from this same scene are immense, and it’s here that Breaking Bad does what great shows do, it transcends probability, defies reason, takes an already shameless coincidence (a meeting in a nearby bar between Walt and his victim’s father) one giant step forward. With the wound of that silent death scene still smarting, the consequences of Walt’s moment of deadly hesitation explode like an action-movie version of God’s wrath writ large on the bright blue sky as a passenger plane collides with a private plane, hundreds die, and all of it, the bodies and body parts and personal odds and ends in effect descend on the man who stood by while someone’s child died, and in case you doubt that he’s culpable, you’re taken up to the sky, to the point of impact, and sent down down down with the debris of the explosion, the target below a small blue rectangle: the swimming pool in the Whites’ back yard where the man responsible is standing, staring upward, once again watching death happen.

Investments

By the time a dead child’s stuffed dog falls from the fiery collision into Walter’s swimming pool — the charred toy, one eye out, an image that has been flashed ominously forward from the first episode — you’ve been hammered by explosions, shootings, stranglings; you’ve been dazzled by the cinematographer Michael Slovis’s artistry; you’ve enjoyed the sleazy ingenuity of one of the most charming shyster lawyers you’ll ever see, Saul “Just Call Saul” Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). You’re half in love with Skyler, Walt’s beautiful resourceful wife (Anna Gunn) and handsome disabled son (RJ Mitte); you have an insider’s knowledge of his extended family, including his blustery Drug Enforcement Administration brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and Skyler’s ditzy kleptomaniac sister Marie (Betsy Brandt). For four seasons, you’ve been horrified, shocked, touched, and amused by these people and the things they do. To quote Douthat again, from his column explaining why he thinks Vince Gilligan’s creation outranks Mad Men as the best show on television (and why I think it ranks with the best shows ever), “what’s struck me watching Breaking Bad is how much more invested I am in its characters as human beings.”


DEADLY DECEPTIONS: Terrorized by three con men in her Greenwich Village apartment, Susy (Sarah Cuneo, right) uses her blindness to advantage and teams up with her young neighbor Gloria (Anna Aaronson) to foil the villains’ plans, in Frederick Knott’s 1966 thriller “Wait Until Dark,” currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus.

If, after Halloween and Hurricane Sandy, you still have an appetite for breathtaking moments and frightening drama, for tense periods of waiting and surprisingly long stretches of darkness, then Frederick Knott’s classic 1966 thriller, Wait Until Dark, currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, might be just the show for you.

There is something reassuring about dealing with such matters in a fictional setting, in the confines of a theater, and murder mystery enthusiasts will especially enjoy this intricate, high-suspense thriller. Wait Until Dark starred Lee Remick and Robert Duvall in its original 374-performance Broadway run, then Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in the acclaimed movie adaptation a year later (1967).

An ingenious set-up, some interesting character development, and no fewer than three formidable, contrasting and complementary villains here enrich the proceedings. The build-up to the central clash between a blind woman, aided by a young girl neighbor, and the ruthless con men looking for a mysterious doll filled with heroin is at times overly complex and confusing, at times lacking in verisimilitude. But the wild finale, when utter darkness levels the playing field for a duel between this blind woman and her adversary, provides abundant suspense and entertainment. The audience response of shocked terror was audible last Saturday night during the climactic scene, which, at least in the screen version, has been ranked tenth on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

Under the thoughtful, capable direction of Princeton University sophomore Michael Pinsky, Intime’s production of Wait Until Dark delivers an interesting, engaging evening with what Mr. Pinsky describes in his director’s note as a challenging, “technically adventurous piece of theater.” The undergraduate cast is generally strong, especially so in the villain department.

Misha Semenov’s sturdy, functional, detailed set — complete with period refrigerator and telephone, photography equipment for the protagonist Susy’s husband Sam, a safe, Venetian blinds — along with Collin Stedman’s lighting design, sound by Ben Schaffer and props by Jack Moore, successfully creates the 1960s Greenwich Village basement apartment and brings all the requisite details together for fulfillment of the complex plot.

Sarah Cuneo, in the central role as Susy, projects both beauty and strength, vulnerability, and an intrepid spirit, as she gradually realizes she is being conned, then struggles to concoct and carry out her plan to outwit her ruthless adversaries. Believable throughout as the blind woman trapped and terrorized, Ms. Cuneo displays a wide range of emotions and readily wins the audience’s sympathies, despite occasional lack of clarity in action and word, especially during her most panicked moments.

Mark Walter as the icy cool Roat leads the criminal trio. In black leather jacket, with a chillingly sing-song voice and a smooth, detached, sinister demeanor, this psychopath commands the stage, and his two henchmen, with authority. From start to finish the character leaves no doubt of his deadly determination to get what he wants.

Cody O’Neil as a smooth-talking, charming Mike, and David Drew as the physically imposing, slow-witted Carlino are both convincing in joining the team of crooks looking to get rich by finding the heroin-stuffed doll, which is supposedly in the possession of Susy and her husband Sam. As Sam, absent during most of the terrifying proceedings, Mike Freyberger is adequate, though there is little development or three-dimensionality to the Susy-Sam marital relationship.

Anna Aaronson’s Gloria, the young girl neighbor from upstairs, contributes some humor and proves crucial to thwarting the villains’ plot, though the age stretch — Gloria was written to be nine years old, and Ms. Aaronson must be at least twice that — is problematic and confusing in distorting both tone and characterization here. Blake Edwards and Mitch Shellman provide effective support as patrolmen, arriving at Susy’s apartment in the final moments of the play.

Wait Until Dark and Dial M for Murder (1952) are Frederick Knott’s two masterpieces in the thriller genre. For carefully calculated plot twists and roller coaster rides of fear and intrigue, they are hard to beat.


AT THE BATTLE MONUMENT: Artist Jean Lareuse’s 1998 ceramic with portraits of Generals George Washington and Jean Baptiste Rochambeau, is at the foot of Princeton’s Battle Monument.

Artist Jean Lareuse was born in 1926 to Catalan parents in French Guiana, Africa, and while his career has been international in scope, he has left his particular stamp on one of Princeton’s favorite historic sites: the Princeton Battle Monument adjacent to Morven and Borough Hall.

A ceramic frieze created by Mr. Lareuse in 1998 and located at the foot of the Monument, commemorates the August 31, 1781 meeting in Princeton of the army of King Louis XVI, commanded by General Rochambeau, and the army of General Washington, during their march to victory in Yorktown. The work was commissioned by the American Society of Le Souvenir Français, and French officials were present at its dedication. Mr. Lareuse’s wife, Caroline, was included in the day’s celebration, having been invited to join the Honorary Committee of the French Consulate in New York City.

Longtime residents of Princeton, the Lareuses live in an art-filled house on Shadybrook Lane. Chagall, Mr. Lareuse’s favorite painter, is well-represented along with Miró and Picasso, who was friends with Mr. Lareuse’s father. Other shelves are lined with sets of books handed down by Ms. Lareuse’s family, which included several Princeton alumni.

Mr. Lareuse continues to paint — at an admittedly slower pace — in a well-lit, back room of the house. An area of the garage has been designated for packing and mailing paintings, as well as copies of Mr. Lareuse’s books. These include a heavily illustrated catalog, Jean Lareuse: Le Plus Catalan des Peintres Américains (The Most Catalan of all American Painters); a tribute to his adopted country called L’Amérique, la magnifique (in French); and a children’s book, Devils in the Castle (in English). The artist is looking forward to a new show of his paintings in Toulouse, France, this spring.

Mr. Lareuse’s subjects cast a wide net. His early youth was spent near the Longchamp Racecourse in France, and scenes of jockeys tensely poised above their competing horses is a favorite theme, along with depictions of well-dressed men and women watching in the stands. A later childhood experience, growing up among priests to whom he was sent after his mother’s death, is reflected in a variety of religious images, and include work in stained glass. Still later, the colors used by Impressionists appealed to Mr. Lareuse’s Catalan sensibility. A recent cataract procedure has restored his passion for bright color after an interval of painting darker pictures.

Mr. Lareuse reported that he actually began painting at the age of 13, and studied in the south of France. He eventually attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. His first one-man show, in 1948, was in Paris at the Galerie Ariel, and his second, also in Paris, at the Galerie Drouant-David in 1952. Since then, he has taken part in many group shows, including the Biennale de Menton and the salon d’Automne. His paintings hang in galleries in London, Caracas, New York, Montreal, and Washington, D.C., among others.

There’s sadness when Mr. Lareuse talks about his mother’s early death (he was six), and when he talks about publishing his children’s book — which is actually related to his mother’s death. While he was sent to a school run by priests, Mr. Lareuse’s sister was sent to a convent school, and Devils in the Castle was inspired by her experiences there. Unfortunately, he said, when it was published in 1979, critics suggested that his images of uniformed girls were based on Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine stories. Since the stories that inspired it took place long before Madeleine, perhaps, Mr. Lareuse suggests, Bemelemans copied him.

Mr. Lareuse will be appearing at Labyrinth Books next spring at a time to be announced. In the meantime, signed copies of Jean Lareuse: Le Plus Catalan des Peintres Américains are available by calling Labyrinth at (609) 497-1600.


The Westminster Choir spends much of its time on the road, and Princeton concerts of the select chamber ensemble from Westminster Choir College are rare treats. Conductor Joe Miller and the 40-voice chorus presented a diverse concert this past Sunday afternoon in their home base of Bristol Chapel on the Choir College campus. This year’s roster of the Westminster Choir showed that the ensemble is as precise and well-balanced as ever and showcased some talented soloists, but also showed that the vocal power of the chorus may be outgrowing the acoustics of Bristol Chapel.

November 22 is the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Dr. Miller chose as a tribute one of the best settings of Cecilian texts in Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia. As Dr. Miller explained in his introductory remarks, the tripartite piece reflects Britten as organist, choral composer, and orchestrator, and the Westminster Choir conveyed all three of these musical personalities well. The women’s sections were well-tuned from the start, with pure octaves between sopranos and tenor on the “Blessed Cecilia” refrain which divides the sections.

This piece includes five solos, the most extensive of which was sung by soprano Madeline Apple Healey with a clear sound floating above the soprano and alto parts. Soprano Anna Lenti had the honor of singing the highest solo, lightly reaching up toward high “Cs” with ease. Bass Brandon Waddles and alto Mary Hewlett sang with confidence and assurance, and tenor Jeffrey Cutts displayed an impressive body of sound. Throughout Britten’s Hymn, the chorus showed precision in text and nice dynamic touches, although the bass sectional sound was just a bit unrefined in the lower registers compared to the other sections (this sound smoothed out in later selections on the program).

The Westminster Choir warmed up for the Britten on pieces well within the ensemble’s choral wheelhouse. An emphasis on consonants and well-matched soprano sections marked Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Kyrie” from Missa Alma Redemptoris, which flowed seamlessly into Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis. The highest notes of the Holst piece were sung with such vocal force that one got the impression that maybe the choir could use a venue with more spacious acoustics (certainly one with more seating, based on Sunday’s turnout). The choir’s performance of Bach’s motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf sustained a nice flow, aided by John Hudson playing the continuo part on the piano.

Despite all the professional engagements of the Westminster Choir, these are college students, and students like to have fun. Dr. Miller gave the singers a chance to let their hair down in a set of French pieces which provided opportunity for a bit of acting. In the set of six French songs by four diverse composers from different ages, the choir created a storyline, dividing themselves into three different groups and interpreting the text with humorous characterization. Sung from memory, all of these pieces were performed with well-tapered phrases and crisp diction, with the Lauridsen “En Une Seule Fleur” and familiar Renaissance “Mon Coeur se recommande à vous” smoothly performed. In the closing Jean Rivier piece (arranged by Dr. Miller), Myles Glancy provided a suave baritone to convey the 16th-century text. The choir closed the set with a lively arrangement of a 1920s cabaret tune.

Westminster Choir programs tend to close with very upbeat selections, geared toward leaving tour audiences something high-spirited with which to go home. The most unique of the closing selections on Sunday was Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume’s “Kalinda,” a rousing song designed to incite the crowds to dance. Haitian choral arrangements tend to include a great deal of text and instrumental effects and the choir demonstrated both effectively. Most impressive about the last number on the program was its composition by a Westminster student; Brandon Waddles’ Ride in the Chariot was an uplifting and spiritual arrangement sung with great enthusiasm to audience response akin to a football game. Tenors Kyle von Schoonhoven and Justin Su’esu’e led the chorus with full and rich voices to close the concert in a more than upbeat mood.