December 21, 2011

The best picture I ever made in my life.
—Ernst Lubitsch
I don’t like any holiday movies.
—various people

I walked into a silent movie at a loud and lively holiday party the other night. It wasn’t like what happens when Buster Keaton walks out of the audience right into the screen to save a damsel in distress in Sherlock Jr. Buster wanted to be in the picture. Not me. I’d just hung up my coat and was on my way into a new downtown office space I’d never been in before and straight ahead of me filling an entire wall was an enormous image of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile the people at the party were talking, drinking, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres, and nobody seemed to be aware that looming on the wall behind them a larger-than-life George Bailey was having words with a monstrously enlarged version of the ruthless banker Mr. Potter, and no wonder, since you couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s odd, but when you turn off the soundtrack, it drains the meaning from the film, cuts it loose, so that it becomes another element, a sort of fluid filmic wallpaper where it no longer really matters that Mr. Potter is evil and George Bailey is good, or that the good man is so deep in despair that he’s about to kill himself, all because of some missing moneyDVD rev. Without sound, without the ballast of an audience’s attention to it, even if you know the movie by heart, as I know this one, it turns into a ghostly dream from 1946 floating meaninglessly around in the background of real-life party circa 2011.

Sorry, I forgot, this is supposed to be a cheery Christmas column about films of the season where good conquers or simply ignores evil, Scrooge is transformed, George Bailey is saved by an angel in need of wings, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” and Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak, the feuding employees of Matuschek & Company known in real life as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, discover true love on Christmas Eve.

This week’s Town Talk question elicited the usual answers, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the happy exception being the person who simply said, “I don’t like holiday movies.” The truth is, most of the best films from any period in the past 100 years have not been conceived of or even promoted as holiday movies. The whole notion suggests warm and fuzzy, bright and sane films to feel good about. So what are the movies getting serious play in the December 20 New York Times? The David Fincher-Rooney Mara version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and that September 11 Christmas Carol, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

A City Lights Ending

If you put the climactic moment of recognition from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) on the wall at a Christmas party, the meaning might remain intact even if the sound were off. Except of course that you’d be missing two of the most appealing voices ever to come out of Hollywood. Margaret Sullavan’s is rare enough to justify all by itself the advent of motion picture sound (“strange, fey, mysterious,” in the words of another rare star, Louise Brooks “like a voice singing in the snow”). In the denouement of this Budapest fairy tale, Sullavan’s stunned expression behind one word (“You?”) says it all. Jimmy Stewart has finally gently revealed that the person she’s fallen in love with through the eloquent anonymous letters he’s been writing her (with some help from Victor Hugo) is he, Kralik, the quarrelsome fellow worker she’s insulted (he’s bow-legged, has a “hand-bag” instead of a heart, “a suitcase instead of a soul,” and “an intellect like a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work”). It’s not as overwhelming a moment as the one it somewhat resembles, the shattering ending of Chaplin’s City Lights when the flower girl realizes that the silly little tramp (“You?”) is the rich handsome savior who paid for the operation that restored her sight. When Sullavan makes the adjustment from misery to doubt to luminous joy, it’s as if the bow-legged jerk has turned into a handsome prince and who else but Ernst Lubitsch would end a romance with the handsome prince hiking up his trousers to show that he’s not bow-legged?

Behind the Scenes

The back story to The Shop Around the Corner is worth telling. For one thing, Margaret Sullavan was by all accounts the love of Jimmy Stewart’s life (even his wife, Gloria, has admitted knowing that he was “always madly in love” with Sullavan “and she with him”). A year ago, I described a scene between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) in which Stewart’s passionately delivered speech about “the tiny engine” in a blade of grass shows “a true American idol coming into his own.” In fact, it was Margaret Sullavan who, more than any other person, helped Stewart develop his unique style as an actor. Only two years earlier, he’d been going nowhere in minor roles at M-G-M. According to Lawrence J. Quirk’s 1986 biography Margaret Sullavan Child of Fate, when she was a top star at Universal, she insisted on having Stewart play the lead opposite her in Next Time We Love (1936), and when he struggled under the direction of Edward H. Griffith, who complained that the gangly young actor was “wet behind the ears” and “going to make a mess of things,” Sullavan spent the evenings “coaching him and helping him scale down his awkward mannerisms and hesitant speech,” the very qualities that were destined to be central to his appeal. Later, Griffith himself was among those who gave Sullavan credit for making Stewart a star.

You can see Next Time We Love in all its disappointing entirety on YouTube. Like so many films from the period, it begins charmingly enough with Margaret Sullavan as a college girl who goes to “junior proms with little boys from Princeton.” She and Stewart are at Penn Station, where she’s returning to school  via a 1936 version of Jersey Transit (“Princeton Junction” the third stop called out) until a goodbye embrace with Stewart convinces them to get married instead; she’s a budding actress, he’s a foreign correspondent whose job will put a fatal strain on their marriage. The love scenes, which are mostly centered on close-ups of her face, reveal the real-life emotional bond between the two actors.

Sullavan and Stewart co-starred again two years after Next Time We Love in Shopworn Angel, but it’s not until The Shop Around the Corner that they share a film as true equals, both major stars. Only ten years before, Stewart had been a sophomore at Princeton and Sullavan was working at the Harvard Coop.


I’ve seen neither The Shop Around the Corner’s 1949 turn-of-the-century musical remake, In the Good Old Summertime, with Van Johnson and Judy Garland, nor Nora Ephron’s 1998 version, You’ve Got Mail, which takes the medium of communication from snail mail to email and moves the story to the Upper West Side with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I can’t say that I’ve avoided either film out of any particular devotion to the original, but after a YouTube tour of each of the concluding recognition scenes, I think my instincts were right. The 1949 version of the last scene follows the script almost word for word and move for move, but Van Johnson’s charm is a long, long way from Jimmy Stewart’s. When she’s singing, Judy Garland can light up the dimmest of movies, but she has no song to sing in the last scene and even if she had, it couldn’t have given the moment the magic it has in The Shop Around the Corner. In fact, Garland’s signature song is used to provide some emotional heft to the conclusion of You’ve Got Mail, with Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack to help Meg Ryan suffer the touching revelation as Tom Hanks approaches amid the flowers of Riverside Park with his dog, Brinkley.

A Bergman Holiday

Imagine a Woody Allen scene where for an upbeat holiday date, he takes a warm-and-fuzzy type girl to an Ingmar Bergman double feature of The Seventh Seal and Through a Glass Darkly. The idea started me wondering what the great European directors have done with the holiday. Fellini for Christmas? Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol? Can you think of a French Christmas movie this side of Desplechin’s not very joyous Christmas Tale? How about Germany? Christmas with Pabst and Murnau? A Fassbinder noel? Herzog for the holidays?

Strangely enough, that gloomy Swede, Ingmar Bergman has made not one but two great holiday films, The Magic Flute and Fanny and Alexander, which I just revisited on YouTube. As fine a Christmas scene as you’ll ever see begins with a gift exchanged between the grandparents followed by a kiss with a newly wed glow to it. Then, when they open the window and the sounds of the street come in, the grandmother peers out smiling at the children cavorting in the snow, and says, “Here comes my family.” True, things do get very bleakly Bergman before his autobiographical epic comes to a close, a possibility introduced in the title sequence, which is set to some of the most beautiful and funereal music ever written (the second movement of Schumann’s piano quintet in E flat major), life and death and love, as Alexander wanders through empty rooms that will soon be filled with festive life, calling the names of family members who are no longer there.

December 20, 2011

The Art Way Gallery at Princeton Allliance Church, Schalks Crossing and Wyndhurst roads in Plainsboro, is showing “Seen & Unseen,” a show of photography by Deborah Land and Jeff Currie, through January 21, 2012. The opening reception is Friday, January 6, from 5-8 p.m. (snow date January 13).

The Arts Council of Princeton at Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, is holding the annual “Sauce for the Goose” holiday show and sale through December 22, with work by regional artists, artisans and crafters for sale. A mix of art and crafts, including paintings, drawings, functional and decorative ceramics is included. Registration for winter classes for all ages in the visual, literary and performing arts is now open. Twenty new instructors have joined the faculty. Classes begin January 9.
For more information call (609) 924-8777 or visit

D&R Greenway at 1 Preservation Place in Princeton presents “Friends in Field and Forest,” which has winning student art and essays by fifth graders in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery. One winner from each county created art on threatened and endangered Garden State wildlife. The show is open through December 31. “Textures and Trails,” an exhibit of landscape quilts, metals, textiles, and objects from nature is on view through February 10 and celebrates the many paths that wind through the New Jersey landscape.

Dorothea’s House at 120 John Street will present a program on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art Sunday, January 8 at 5 p.m. Veronica White of Columbia University will talk about a unique collection of art by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, a 17th century Italian baroque painter best known as “Guercino.”

Firestone Library is presenting “George Segal: Sculptor as Photographer” at the Milberg Gallery through December 30. “Sin & the City: William Hogarth’s London” will run through January 29. Recently rediscovered watercolors by British painter Gwen John are on view through December 31 in the 18th Century Window of the Main Gallery.

Gallery at Chapin, 4104 Princeton Pike, presents “Birds and Beast,” showing paintings of Charles David Viera, from January 3-27.

Gallery 14 presents three photography exhibits through December: “African Children” by Larry Parsons, “High Water” by John Blackford, and “Travels in Iberia II” by Martin Schwartz. The gallery is at 14 Mercer Street in Hopewell and is open Saturdays and Sundays, 12-5 p.m. and by appointment.

Gourgaud Gallery at Cranbury Town Hall, 23-A North Main Street in Cranbury, is showing “Cranbury Gardens IX: Works from Art in the Park 2011,” a plein air series that this year included 30 artists capturing scenes at local farms, gardens, and historic homes, through December 26. From January 2-30, the gallery will exhibit “Winter Light,” the third annual January Open Call for Artists. All art will feature the theme and media will include oils, pastels, acrylics, watercolors, photography, and collages. The “Celtic Tea” reception is Sunday, January 8 from 1-3 p.m. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 1-3 p.m. Sunday.

Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton had to postpone the opening of The Meadow, the new seven-acre outdoor gallery, as a result of Hurricane Irene and other weather events. The inaugural exhibit, “Aerial Roots” by Steve Tobin, will run until August. On the main floor of the Museum Building GFS is presenting “White Hot: Expressions in Iron,” an exhibition of contemporary work from nine artists working primarily in cast or fabricated iron and revealing the range of versatility the medium permits. The mezzanine will host “Creating Steelroots,” an illuminating exhibition of maquettes and drawings by Steve Tobin, the featured artist in The Meadow. In the Domestic Arts Building: on the main floor are the cutting-edge works of the young up-and-coming sculptor’s to watch—winners in the International Sculpture Center’s 2012 Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Awards. On the mezzanine is “Instrumental Transitions” composed of 14 small-scale machinist works by Michael A. Dunbar. These exhibitions will remain up until April. For detailed information, visit

Historical Society of Princeton at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, Princeton, is presenting “Einstein At Home,” an exhibit featuring home furnishings, personal memorabilia, and photographs of Albert Einstein with family, friends, colleagues, and national dignitaries, through January 16. Suggested admission is $4 per person; free to HSP members. The Updike Farmstead on Quakerbridge Road is open to the public on the first Saturday and third Wednesday of every month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 921-6748 x100 or visit

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., is hosting “Quilt Art: International Expressions,” through December 31 in the Fred Beans Gallery. “Transmutation and Metamorphosis: The Painterly Voice: Bucks County’s Fertile Ground” will feature more than 200 works of art by Bucks County’s best-known historic artists through April 1. “Learning to See: Photographs by Nancy Hellebrand,” a series of large-scale photographs combining individual pictures of tree branches will be on view through February 26.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick is hosting “at/around/beyond: Fluxus at Rutgers” through April 1, 2012; “Two Venetian Masters,” an exhibition of etchings by Canaletto and Tiepolo through January 8; and a series of original children’s book illustrations that will be on view until June 24.

The Mariboe Gallery at Peddie School, Hightstown, presents “Midwest Filipino,” photography by Daniel Ballesteros, January 6-February 2. The exhibit investigates what it means to be Filipino-American. An opening reception and artist talk is Friday, January 6 from 6:30-8 p.m.

The Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, presents the paintings of Mavis Smith from January 14-May 20. The artist is a Bucks County native who began as a children’s book illustrator and uses egg tempera. She will do a gallery talk Sunday, January 22 at 3 p.m.

Morven Museum & Garden’s “Stars and Stripes: Fabric of the American Spirit,” featuring 100 flags from The Pierce Collection of American Parade Flags, has been extended through January 8. More information is available by visiting or calling (609) 924-8144, ext. 106. 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. There is free on site parking.

Mudd Manuscript Library at 65 Olden Street, Princeton University, is presenting “She Flourishes,” showcasing the history of women at Princeton, through August 31. The show documents the struggles and accomplishments of women scholars, students, staff, and other women associated with the University.

Plainsboro Public Library’s Gallery hosts works by Tamara Woronczuk, Plainsboro resident, through December 28. The gallery is at 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro.

Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery is presenting “Say It With Flowers,” featuring artwork by alumnus Lily Stockman ‘01, January 9-February 2. An artist’s reception on January 14 is open to the public from 6-8 p.m.

Princeton Brain and Spine Care Institute at 731 Alexander Road, suite 200, presents Art Times Two’s “Eyejinks,” an exhibition of recent works by Princeton area artists John Franklin, Rory Mahon, and Andrew Wilkinson. The exhibit will be up through March 31.

Princeton High School’s Numina Gallery hosts “Dream,” a collection of work by students in media that are individual interpretations of dreams. The show runs through December 23.

The Princeton University Art Museum is presenting “Multiple Hands: Collective Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Japanese Painting” through January 22. Mark Rothko’s painting Magenta, Black, Green on Orange (No. 3/No. 13) is on view through January 8. The spiritual lives and religious customs of late medieval Christians are the subject of “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum,” through February 12, 2012. Two photo shows are on view through February 5: “Lee Friedlander: Cars and The New Cars,” 14 prints from the recently rediscovered “The New Cars 1964;” and “Pattern/Picture,” from the Museum’s collection of 15 works from the archives of the Clarence White School of Photography. “John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum” will run March 17-June 10. 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. For further information, call (609) 258-3788.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, will exhibit “Recyclone!” featuring the work of Eva Mantell, Ina Brosseau Marx, and Eric Schultz. The opening reception is January 13 from 4-7 p.m.

Sherlock Holmes 2

WATSON, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?: An unhappy looking Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr., left) is witnessing the marriage of his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law, center) marry his bride Mary (Kelly Reilly). Little does Holmes know that soon he and Watson will be on a trans-European escapade trying to foil the evil plot of the nefarious Professor Moriarty (not shown).

Holmes and Moriarty Match Wits in Action Packed Sequel

Guy Ritchie has once again created an interpretation of Sherlock Holmes that will undoubtedly have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purists squirming in their seats. Nonetheless, the movie is a cinematic treat that is both cerebral and visually captivating.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, and Jared Harris is the pair’s diabolical archenemy, the evil Professor James Moriarty.

At the point of departure we find Holmes throwing a bachelor party for Watson who will be getting married to Mary (Kelly Reilly) the next morning. However, after the wedding, the newlyweds’ travel plans go awry due to a series of errors that result in the bride being unceremoniously thrown off the train. As a result, Watson and Holmes find themselves sharing the honeymoon suite aboard the Trans Europe Express.

It’s just as well, because Holmes has been the only detective who is able to connect the dots among a series of recent murders of, among others, an Indian cotton tycoon, a Chinese opium trader, and an American steel magnate, as well as some suspicious bombings in Strasbourg and Vienna. Holmes has figured out that it must be the work of his archenemy Moriarty, and that the maniacal madman is trying to create an international incident.

From this point on, a frenetically paced cat-and-mouse mystery unfolds in which the protagonists chase the professor through France, Germany, and Switzerland. Along the way, they are assisted by Holmes’ brother (Stephen Fry) and a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace), who has a proverbial heart of gold.

Prepare yourself for the stylized high impact fare for which director Ritchie is best known. Aside from the bravado and over-the-top derring-do, the movie also has intellectual interludes during which Sherlock and his Moriarty match wits.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for drug use and intense violence. In English and French with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

December 15, 2011
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

PLAYING A DEADLY CHESS GAME: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been assigned the task of ferreting out the Soviet double agent who has infiltrated the highest echelon of Britain’s famed MI6 agency. To make the job even more difficult, he must work alone in order to avoid tipping off the mole.

Dateline: Budapest, 1973. It is the height of the Cold War, and British spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent behind the Iron Curtain on a covert anti-Communist mission. But when the operation is badly botched and blood is shed, there are consequences back in London at MI6 headquarters where both the head of the organization (John Hurt) and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced to resign in disgrace.

However, it isn’t very long before Smiley is secretly rehired by Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet responsible for overseeing the intelligence agency. It seems that there is good reason to believe that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the “Circus,” the government’s name for MI6’s highest echelon. As it turns out, Prideaux was in Hungary in search of the double agent whose identity has been narrowed down to four suspects referred to by their codenames Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), and Poor Man (David Dencik).

It falls to the wily Smiley to match wits with a savvy and inscrutable adversary. What makes the task particularly perilous is that Smiley dare not risk suspicion by confiding in any of his contacts inside MI6. Instead, as a lone wolf, he must rely on a combination of experience and his finely-tuned personal radar to ensnare his elusive prey.

Is the traitor the ambitious Percy Alleline (Tinker), the unflappable Bill Haydon (Tailor), the rough-edged Roy Bland (Soldier), or the officious Toby Esterhase (Poor Man)? The result is a spellbinding espionage thriller.

It should be no surprise that the multi-layered mystery is so intriguing, because it’s based on the bestseller that many fans of the genre consider to be the best spy novel of all time. Author David John Moore Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, who wrote under a pseudonym as required by MI6 of its former agents, appears in a cameo in the picture as a guest at a Christmas party.

This adaptation is considerably denser compared to the miniseries the BBC shot in 1979 that starred Sir Alec Guinness. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has distilled the 400-page opus down to its essential elements while remaining faithful to the source material.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running Time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

In his more than twenty-five years conducting the Princeton University Orchestra and directing the Program in Musical Performance, Michael Pratt has no doubt seen a number of his students go on to undertake careers in music. One of the department’s early success stories has been Hobart Earle, a 1983 graduate of the University (only six years after Pratt’s arrival) and now an international conductor with a long-term post in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Mr. Earle returned to Princeton this past weekend to conduct his alma mater’s orchestra in a program of expansive symphonic works.

Mr. Earle programmed three works composed within twenty years of one another, and each one painted a picture of a geographic region or musical era. The selections from Edvard Grieg’s music from Peer Gynt were likely more familiar to the audience from their piano transcriptions, and effectively told a story from Norwegian folklore. This music was characterized by the playwright as reflecting “apathy,” but there was nothing apathetic about the orchestra’s performance on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated on Saturday night). Mr. Earle proved right off to be a very decisive conductor, conducting without the score but with very broad conducting strokes. In the opening excerpt, he focused on the lament, emphasizing that it was clear something had happened beforehand. Steady timpani provided by Karis Schneider kept the rhythm moving forward, aided by clean upper flutes, cellos, and double basses. The melodic “Morning Mood” tune was well played by the flute, answered by oboist Drew Mayfield, and kept instrumentally lush by Mr. Earle. Flexibility was the key in the “Hall of the Mountain King” excerpt, with the staccato passages played cleanly and with direction by the ensemble.

Erik Satie’s three Gymnopedies were also originally composed for piano, with two later orchestrated by Satie’s great friend Claude Debussy. Being Debussy, one might expect a multi-palette orchestration with many winds, but in fact, the pieces are scored for strings, one oboe and two flutes. In presenting these works, Mr. Earle kept the focus on simplicity and a gentle approach, allowing the sound to float along. Crucial to Friday night’s performance was the exemplary oboe playing of Alexa McCall against a pair of horns. The second Gymnopedie was titled “Lent et grave,” with subtle shifts in effect that were well brought out by Mr. Earle and the orchestra.

Mr. Earle brought the orchestra to full volume with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F Major, a monumental work with a great deal of dynamic variety in the writing. Conducting from memory (as he did all the pieces on the program), Mr. Earle maintained an easy flow to the music (aided by very subtle and precise brass), bringing the dynamics up at the end of the movement to be solid but not overwhelming. Clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes delivered an elegant melody in the first movement, in conjunction with very smooth flute playing by the section.

The second andante movement opened with very delicate playing by Mr. Hodes and fellow clarinetist Matt Goff and bassoonists Louisa Slosar and Tiffany Huang. Wind playing excelled in this movement, especially from the four oboes and perfect unison playing between Mr. Hodes and oboist Lija Treibergs. Mr. Earle kept the melody of the third movement flowing with emphasis on the offbeat phrasing, bringing out the warmth of the movement with well-blended instrumental solos. Throughout the concert, Mr. Earle held a baton, but often put it aside to move the music more effectively with his hands. This was especially the case in the allegro fourth movement, in which he allowed the orchestra to play almost on its own.

In his 19 years with the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra in the Ukraine, Mr. Earle has been credited with introducing the region to the great symphonies of composers the rest of the world may take for granted but which may have been unknown to the closed musical circles of Ukraine. Mr. Earle seems to be one of the unknown conducting gems in this country, and as a representative of Princeton, the University could not ask for a better musical ambassador.

December 14, 2011

On Conan DoyleMy father was easy to shop for at this time of year. “Anything to do with Sherlock Holmes” was the Christmas mantra. As December came around, some publisher always had a book to offer, although nothing could top William S. Baring-Gould’s boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes published in 1970 by Clarkson Potter. Any time I want to commune with my taciturn father, who died in 1986, all I have to do is browse in either volume, looking for his pencilled notes. Another way of getting in touch with him is to take out the bound typescript of his dissertation, an editing of the first three books (“which treat of Incorporeal Substances”) from the medieval encyclopedia that I cannot, to this day, pronounce without a hitch (De Proprietatibus Rerum), every word of it typed by my mother on a Royal portable.

My father’s scholarly fondness for Sherlock Holmes is not atypical. Michael Dirda, for one, pursued medieval studies, among other subjects, as a graduate student at Cornell before becoming a book critic for the Washington Post, a bibliophile, and a member of The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI). That society of true believers spearheads the complex Sherlock Holmes subculture described in Dirda’s contribution to Princeton’s Writers On Writers series, On Conan Doyle: The Whole Art of Storytelling (Princeton University Press $19.95). In the realm of the BSI, fiction is truth and truth fiction, and if this playfully serious merging of reality and make-believe resembles a child’s game for adults, what else would you expect of a group named for the street urchins Holmes enlisted at a shilling a day in his quest for clues?

Salinger and Sir Arthur

There are moments in Dirda’s account of the inner workings of the Irregulars when the tone verges on becoming too “clubby,” as in his reference to the “absolutely wonderful time” he had at his first BSI weekend (an evening “for fraternal refreshment and for harmony”), where he felt “connected to an otherwise vanished era of literary bonhomie and frivolity.” While language like “literary bonhomie” rouses my inner Holden Caulfield, the fact is that Holden’s creator, the late great enemy of all things phoney, J.D. Salinger, had a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes.

Consider Conan Doyle’s place on the daunting list of books for summer reading at Camp Haworth that five-year-old Seymour Glass requests of his librarian, “the incomparable Miss Overman,” in Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. After requesting that he be sent the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and Proust “in their entirety,” among many others, Seymour asks for “the complete works, quite in full, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the exception of any books that are not utterly concerned with Sherlock Holmes.” (By the way, Dirda celebrates some of the books Seymour takes exception to.) At this point in the prodigious letter Seymour recalls how, while he was swimming in the lake, “It was suddenly borne in upon me, utterly beyond dispute, that I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but do not love the great Goethe!” The essence of Seymour’s revelation is not only what “Hapworth 16, 1924” is all about, it’s what Dirda and groups like the Baker Street Irregulars are all about; it’s the difference between admiration and adoration. Says Seymour: “As I darted through the water, it became crystal clear that it is far from an established fact that I am even demonstrably fond of the great Goethe, in my heart, while my love for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, via his contributions, is an absolute certainty!”

The equally buoyant enthusiasm at the heart of Michael Dirda’s appeal as a writer demonstrably in love with reading is underscored by the quotes on the back cover of his book, one of which declares that Dirda’s “life’s work” is to “declare his adoration for some literary gem” (“On Conan Doyle traces the arc of one such love affair”) while another uses the word “love” three times to explain why Dirda makes you feel “as if you’ve been inaugurated into a secret society of people who love what can be done with words.”

Living the Book

Although “love” may be the word of choice, it’s not really Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers adore, it’s the act of reading itself, the moment of complete submission as you settle into the motion of the narrative and can feel the creaking of the horse-drawn coach, taste the fog, or, the ultimate reward, when you actually for the first time in your life experience the names, Charing Cross Station, Victoria, Marylebone Road, and Baker Street, and all those places you’ve known in the company of Holmes and Watson. It’s as if until that moment London had been a wonderful fantasy, something in a storybook co-authored by Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. In James Joyce’s Dublin, another fictional character with a devoted following in the real world, Leopold Bloom, guided me on the night walk I described in a June 16 Bloomsday column last year. Whether it’s London or Dublin or Balzac’s Paris, the authors of the books you love seem to hover watchfully over the cities you’re exploring.

In Person

Imagine for a moment what Sherlock Holmes could do online. Out of all the scholar geniuses of fiction, he’s the one easiest to imagine conceiving the internet, or at least dreaming it up during a cocaine high. In fact, we can all scan the internet the way Holmes scanned the agony columns in The Times. Search for clues in this Byzantine universe and, if you like, you can spend ten and a half minutes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his dog. You don’t need a seance. Forget the ectoplasmic mist. Here he is in the flesh, for real, looking and sounding at age 68 pretty much as you’d expect Dr, Watson would. It’s clear that he dotes on his dog — a sprightly, happy, loving little terrier he calls “good old boy” as he walks toward us with a book in his hand. The year is 1927 and the author is being filmed for Fox Movietone News. After setting down his book and putting his hat on top of it, Conan Doyle explains his conception of Sherlock Holmes and celebrates the veracity of his psychic explorations. His voice is pleasant and throaty, with that Scots burr, becoming most assertive on the subject of the spirit world: “I am not talking about what I believe. I am not talking about what I think. I am talking about what I know. There’s an enormous difference, believe me, between believing a thing and knowing a thing.”

So saying, Conan Doyle expresses the determined act of sympathetic imagination that gives an almost spiritual force to groups like The Baker Street Irregulars. But that’s not all. When he utters his last words to us, about all the people his psychic views have comforted — “how they have once more heard the sound of a vanished voice and felt the touch of a vanished hand” — I find myself having a Sherlock Holmes moment. The guise of the aging writer begins to dissolve around another, most unlikely image but one that makes sense and can be captured with a few taps on the keyboard, yes, here he is, Shri Lahiri Mahasaya, disciple of Babaji, teacher of Shri Yukteswar, who was Parmahansa Yogananda’s guru. As I foresaw, there is a definite resemblance between the avuncular, white-mustached Scotsman petting his dog and the bare-chested, dhoti-clad, white-mustached sadhu who revived the science of Kriya Yoga while marrying, raising a family, and working as an accountant for the Military Engineering Department of the British Indian government. How did I get from Sir Arthur to Shri Mahasaya? Elementary, my dear Watson!

When I open my eyes and return to reality, Sir Arthur puts on his hat, picks up his book, bids us goodbye, and softly tells the dog to “come on,” as he goes back into the house.

In the Margin: Yes

My reclusive father’s copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes occupied the place of honor in his study. Reading “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” in his copy of the second volume just now, I found a “Yes” lightly written in the margin next to the following paragraph:

“It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-colored houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet. Sherlock Holmes had been silent all the morning, dipping continuously into the advertisement columns of a succession of papers until at last, having apparently given up his search, he had emerged in no very sweet temper to lecture me upon my literary shortcomings.”

As far as I can tell, that’s the only “Yes” my father permitted himself in the whole 1500-plus pages of the two-volume tome. This is someone whose highest compliment was “That’s fine,” and whose marginalia consists primarily of technical signals such as “false lead” or “plant” or “hint” for passages pertaining to the solution of a case. So why this “Yes” for a paragraph where nothing remarkable appears to happen? I deduce that this is, in fact, a clue — my father’s way of signaling that here is the essence of what he loved about these stories, though he would never have been so forthcoming “in real life.” It’s all there, the cheery morning, the thick fog, the ominous presence of “dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths,” the gaslight, Holmes’s silence, and his scouring of the papers. That’s what it’s all about, the mood, the ambient essence, or what Henry James would call “the real thing.”


Michael Dirda will be in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library tonight, Wednesday, December 14, at 7 p.m. On December 15, also at 7 p.m. in the Community Room, there will be a showing of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

December 8, 2011

The PavilionCraig Wright’s The Pavilion, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is a play about time. At their 20th high school reunion, Peter (Matt Seely) and Kari (Katherine Ortmeyer), who were voted “cutest couple” before she got pregnant and he left while she stayed in town and settled down, encounter each other for the first time since graduation.

Peter wants another chance. Kari, living in a loveless marriage, is still bitter and angry at Peter. “Listen,” Peter addresses the Narrator (Uchechi Kalu) of the evening’s events, “can you start the universe all over again?” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hopelessly romantic Gatsby in the 1920s — “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” — and Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber in You Can’t Go Home Again in the 1930s and countless others in fiction and life have wrestled with the same problem. Mr. Wright, writer for several TV series including Six Feet Under and author of Recent Tragic Events, presented at Intime last year, is a seasoned hand at mixing serious and light, the cosmic and the comic.

The Pavilion is the story of the 37-year-old Peter and Kari, but through the persona of its versatile and talented narrator this bittersweet romantic comedy also populates the stage with a rich assortment of eccentric old friends and classmates, including such colorful characters as Kent, the cuckolded police chief on a mission for revenge; the pot-smoking Cookie; Pudge, who mans the profit-making 900-number suicide hotline; and the tough-talking Carla, who readily offers Kari the unsolicited advice: “You want some words to live by? Here’s two: NEVER FORGIVE.”

Though two-dimensional, in many cases caricature-like, and almost, in some cases, too weird to be true, these characters add a generous dose of humor and humanity — resonating particularly for anyone who can remember living in a small town or attending a class reunion.

Ms. Kalu, casually attired in blue jeans, with bare feet, partially unbuttoned white shirt and a conspicuous pocket watch to chart the passage of time throughout the evening, fulfills her multiple roles with skill and strikingly energetic magnetism. As she observes and interacts with the two protagonists and slides seamlessly into and out of a dozen or more characters, she effectively commands the stage. Hers is also the philosophical voice of the play as she eloquently delivers lengthy poetic and philosophic reflections on mortality, missed chances, lost opportunities, and the inevitability of sorrow and regret.

The philosophy here is most effective when most down-to-earth and concise. At times it becomes long-winded and more pretentious than poetic — Mr. Wright’s fault not Theatre Intime’s. Ms. Kalu is at her best when bringing to life the odd menagerie of Pine City, Minnesota celebrators and moving along the engaging story of Kari and Peter.

Mr. Seely’s Peter, tall, dark and disheveled, is appealing — to the audience and, despite herself, to Kari too — in his genuine remorse, and his naive determination to turn back the clock and replay their past. Mr. Seely is convincing throughout, effectively in character in delivering the moments of pain, romance, and comedy, not to mention his moving performance, as part of the reunion evening program, of a guitar ballad, “Down in the Ruined World,” with original music and lyrics by Mr. Wright.

Ms. Ortmeyer as Kari provides a strong counterpart, austere and highly sympathetic as she reveals the details of her life and her sad marriage to the local golf pro. Ms. Ortmeyer is not always as clear, focused, and convincing as her two first-rate colleagues in this production, but she succeeds in creating a memorable characterization.

Set design by Elise Rise, with lighting by Will Gilpin, adopts an appropriately minimalist approach, with only two chairs and a table stage right, an additional two benches and an oval two-level platform center stage. The simplicity here is powerful as the multi-colored lighting complements the actors’ actions and words to create apposite mood shifts throughout the evening. A string of white lights above the audience to represent starlight and a disco ball for the final dance add a captivating touch to the proceedings. The apron of the stage signifies the lake’s edge in the second of two acts, as Peter and Kari sit together to work through the painful processes of memory, regret, and moving forward.

Emma Watt, Princeton University junior, has directed this production with taste and intelligence. The action moves swiftly, the interweaving movements of Peter, Kari, and the narrator are smooth and meaningful. Comic, serious, and romantic elements of the play all receive appropriate emphasis.

The pavilion that gives its name to this play is nothing more than an old dance hall, waiting to be torn down and replaced by a sports-entertainment complex, but that pavilion, holding many memories of high school dances of the past, resembles the past itself in its fragility and ephemeral nature.

“And so we have to say yes to time,” the Narrator reminds Peter near the end of the play, “even though it means speeding forward into memory, forgetfulness, and oblivion. Say “no” to time; hold on to what you were or what she was; hold onto the past, even out of love … and I swear it will tear you to shreds. This universe will tear you to shreds.”

The Pavilion, acclaimed by one critic as ”an Our Town for our time,” does indeed share many themes and concerns with Thornton Wilder’s 1938 American classic. Small town life, simple truths, and familiar romantic material predominate in both works. Our Town may provide a richer panorama of the world it depicts, but The Pavilion benefits significantly from its condensation, with only three actors instead of twenty-three, a more trenchant edge to the humor, and the entertaining virtuosity of Mr. Wright’s narrator, who must play all those other roles by herself.

William Makepeace ThackerayA big, fierce, weeping, hungry man, not a strong one.

— Thomas Carlyle,
in a letter to Emerson

Carlyle was attempting to describe William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), whose bicentenary has received little notice while the celebratory drums are already beating for Dickens 2012. The shelves of the Princeton Public Library are teeming with Dickens while Thackeray is represented by two paperback copies of Vanity Fair (1848) with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp on the cover, one battered, yellowed Penguin paperback of The History of Pendennis (1850), and a two-volume Everyman edition of The Virginians (1859); one copy of The Rose and the Ring (1855) is available in the children’s collection. As for biographical or critical works, I had to order Ann Monsarrat’s An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man (Dodd, Mead 1980) through interlibrary loan.

By now we should have had a BBC dramatization of the triumphs and travails of the author of one of the world’s great novels and the creator of one of literature’s great characters, Becky Sharp. Why don’t we know him better? Why isn’t he regularly taught and quoted? Surely his face deserves to hang in the Barnes and Noble-Starbucks cafe life pantheon next to Dickens and George Eliot, who thought him “on the whole the most powerful of living novelists.”

Thackeray’s first biographer was his colleague Anthony Trollope, who clearly shared George Eliot’s opinion of a writer who, in Trollope’s words, “sees his characters, both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s” and who “dissects with a knife and also with a needle.” Contemplating Dickens, on the other hand, Trollope found “the sale of his books … so great as almost to induce a belief that Pickwicks and Oliver Twists are consumed in families like legs of mutton.” While Dickens was “a literary hero bound to be worshipped by all literary grades of men, down to the ‘devils’ of the printing-office,” Thackeray, “the older man [by a year], was still doubting, still hesitating, still struggling.”

Thackeray and Brontë

Writing under the cover of her pen name Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray, giving him the lion’s share of a long, lavish preface, “a man whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears,” who “comes before the great ones of society” speaking “truth” with “a power … prophet-like,” the “satirist of Vanity Fair” hurling “the Greek fire of his sarcasm.” She “sees in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised.” After dismissing the commentaries comparing him to Fielding” (“he resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture”), she writes: “His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summer cloud, does to the electric death-spark hidden in its womb.”

Best to step back from that one. Give it space. No wonder Brontë was let down when she met the eagle in person. Instead of the prophet’s “Greek fire” and “sheet-lightning,” she found “an unwilling idol.” According to a witness in Monsarrat’s biography, “The more intense she became, the more mundane were his responses.” Still recuperating from a near-fatal illness, Thackeray saw “the trembling little frame, the great honest eyes” of “a little austere Joan of Arc marching in upon us and rebuking our easy lives and morals.” Brontë was looking for the man possessed of the audacity to conceive the heroine of Vanity Fair, whose first act is to toss the gift of Johnson’s Dictionary out the window of a coach at the feet of a Dickensian caricature of sentimental goodheartedness. In the words of the same observer of the Brontë-Thackeray conversation, Thackeray, “with characteristic contrarity of nature … insisted on discussing his books very much as a clerk in a bank would discuss the ledgers he had to keep for a salary.” Brontë was looking for a man with a mission while Thackeray, “with many wicked jests refused to recognize the mission.”

Had the big man (he was 6’4) assumed the Promethean dimensions of his “serious genius,” however, Brontë might have faulted him for arrogance, which seems to have been the case on another occasion, described by the same witness, when she treated him to a face-to-a-face litany of his shortcomings, against which he defended himself, as she puts it, “like a great Turk and heathen — that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself.”

You don’t have to read far in any account of Thackeray’s life before you once again wonder why Andrew Davies or some other BBC mainstay hasn’t written it up for a miniseries. The Brontë episode alone would make for fascinating theater, as would young William’s embattled school days, his adventures in Paris, and the poignance of his marriage to a woman who descended into madness after bearing their third child. (The coincidental resemblance of Thackeray’s doomed marriage to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre led to spurious gossip about a Bronte-Thackeray affair.)

Thackeray’s Doubts

In his preface to Pendennis (1850), the novel that followed Vanity Fair, Thackeray celebrated Brontë’s “vulture,” Henry Fielding: “Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our art. Many ladies have remonstrated and subscribers left me because, in the course of the story [Pendennis having appeared first in monthly parts] I described a young man resisting and affected by temptation.” The curious thing about Thackeray’s preface is that it anticipates opposition at the outset, alerting the reader, “I tell you how a man really does act, — as did Fielding with Tom Jones, — but it does not satisfy you. You will not sympathise with this young man of mine, this Pendennis, because he is neither angel nor imp. If it be so, let it be so. I will not paint for you angels or imps, because I do not see them. The young man of the day, whom I do see, and of whom I know the inside and the out thoroughly, him I have painted for you; and here he is, whether you like the picture or not.”

If Dickens was everyman’s idea of the forthcoming, ever-agreeable novelist, Thackeray would seem to have been a more demanding alternative, if not strictly speaking an anti-novelist. Trollope’s biography begins by discussing Thackeray’s indeterminate relation to his work and his audience: “He doubted the appreciation of the world; he doubted his fitness for turning his intellect to valuable account; he doubted his physical capacity, — dreading his own lack of industry; he doubted his luck; he doubted the continual absence of some of those misfortunes on which the works of literary men are shipwrecked. Though he was aware of his own power, he always, to the last, was afraid that his own deficiencies should be too strong against him.”

Like Becky Sharp, Pendennis is an anti-hero, but without Becky’s wicked allure. As Trollope observes, he is “weak, and selfish, and untrustworthy,” and Pendennis, along with Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-59), among others, has been ignored both by contemporary readers and the producers of programs like Masterpiece Theatre. Meanwhile adaptations of Vanity Fair have been staged numerous times in London and New York over the years (we may yet see Bad Becky, the musical), filmed seven times since 1911, most recently in 2004 when Mira Nair directed a heavily Indian flavored version starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky. The 1935 version, titled Becky Sharp and starring Miriam Hopkins, was the first Hollywood film shot in technicolor. The BBC has produced various miniseries, beginning in 1956 (with Joyce Redman as Becky) 1967, 1987, and 1998. In 1975 Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the adventures of another anti-hero, a sort of male Becky Sharp, and one of Kubrick’s most admired films.

Neither the 1998 nor the 2004 versions of Vanity Fair, which I watched this past week, explore the source as satisfactorily as numerous recent adaptations of Dickens, Austen, and Trollope, not to mention the BBC presentations of works by lesser authors like Mrs. Gaskell and Laura Riding. One day perhaps some digital magician will follow Thackeray’s lead by making an animated film based on his witty illustrations, which would at least produce something closer in scale and spirit to the puppet show cited in the Vanity Fair’s closing sentence, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

A Game of Authors

Speaking of children, I first encountered William Makepeace Thackeray while playing the card game called Authors. My early fondness for him had little to do with the stern image of his face on the cards. It was his name. Of all the three-part names of authors the rules said had to be pronounced in full when you were asking for cards from your opponent’s hand — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott — none felt as nice to say as William Makepeace Thackeray, who was, all the better, the author of what I felt to be the most intriguing and thus coveted card in the deck. Besides having a title I found fascinating in itself without really having any idea why, the Vanity Fair card sported the oddest image. Most of the small title illustrations in the upper left hand corner of the cards made sense — a knight on horseback for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulder for A Christmas Carol — but what was the point of the Vanity Fair card’s image of a woman and three air-borne books? Was she dropping them? Recoiling from them? Or had they just fallen upon her out of nowhere?

My parents never explained the “flying books” to my satisfaction, though they must have known the famous opening chapter of Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp unceremoniously disposes of the kindly meant gift of Johnson’s Dictionary. But why three books? You have to give the creators of the game credit. The extra books put a special spin on what was a defining moment for the character, and gave a touch of residual mystery to the stern looking author in the granny glasses — “a stout, healthful broad-shouldered specimen of a man,” according to someone present at one of Thackeray’s wildly successful American readings, “with cropped greyish hair and bluish grey eyes, peering very strongly through a pair of spectacles that have a very satiric focus.”

December 1, 2011
Movie Review: "The Descendants"

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Matt King (George Clooney, center) has finally realized how much he has neglected his two daughters Alex (Shallene Woodley, left) and Scottie (Amara King) and has promised not to let it happen again.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) can trace his lineage back to the 19th century marriage of the last Hawaiian monarch to a European missionary. Today, as the family patriarch, he’s very busy managing 25,000 acres of prime real estate on behalf of his extended clan.

Sadly, he has neglected his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), and they have drifted so far apart that he’s unaware that she is having an affair virtually right under his nose. Her partner is the local realtor (Matthew Lillard) who stands to make a fortune in commissions if Matt follows through with his tentative plans to sell all the property in the trust to a developer.

Unfortunately, Matt has also grown distant from his two daughters. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara King) has no qualms about disrespecting her father, and her teenage sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), is using drugs and dating boys who are a lot older than herself.

Everything changes when Liz is left in a coma after a boating accident. Shaken out of the doldrums by the tragedy, Matt vows to be a better husband and father. But when the doctor’s dire diagnosis indicates that Liz is unlikely to emerge from a vegetative state, the best he can do is to try to repair his relationship with his daughters.

This is the point of departure of The Descendants, a drama based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel of the same name. Directed and adapted to the big screen by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for Sideways), the film stars George Clooney as a parent filled with overwhelming regret.

Unfortunately, Clooney fails to demonstrate the requisite gravitas to convince you that his character Matt has been deeply affected by his wife’s imminent demise or that his decision to spend quality time with his childrens is heartfelt. The problem is that, as narrator, he often merely informs the audience of his feelings via voiceover, as opposed to portraying the emotions with his facial expressions and acting.

However, even if Clooney is the picture’s weak link, the rest of the cast turns in such splendid performances that they make up for his shortcomings. As an additional bonus, the movie unfolds against the visually captivating backdrop of Hawaii’s island of Kauai.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight

DVD Review: "Homicide"I have never been a fan of cop shows. At the time Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue were first aired on network television (NBC and ABC, respectively), I was busy watching Turner Classic Movies, which was launched in April 1994. I doubt that anyone back then could have convinced me to tune in to a couple of shows about detectives doing their job on the mean streets of Baltimore and New York. So why go back there now? Because those two programs were the antecedents of two of television’s greatest accomplishments, David Simon’s The Wire and David Milch’s Deadwood.

In Princeton this past September to deliver the Belknap lecture, David Simon, the dominant creative force behind The Wire, described his transition from journalism to television, a medium for which he’d had little respect (“It was a paycheck”). Even though he was writing for a highly acclaimed program based on his own book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991), he felt constricted by the sponsor-mandated reality of network television. Then, in Simon’s words, “Something happened. Suddenly television changed.” The “something” was HBO and the emerging reality of pay-for-view cable channels. The “economic model” that had prevailed from the medium’s inception was transformed. No longer was everything subsidized by advertising. No longer was the programming “what they wrapped around the ads to keep you watching the ads.” No longer did a writer have to think of the objective in terms of devising “a teaser followed by four or five acts,” depending on whether the commercials came at 14 or 12 minute intervals.

Liberating the Writer

In his Princeton talk, which eventually addressed the larger issues suggested by the title (“The End of the American Century and What’s In It For You?”), Simon imagined the producers at HBO saying “What if we let the writers loose?” That, along with a relative indifference to the show’s audience share — “It’s a cute little number,” said Simon’s boss at HBO in reference to The Wire’s modest Sunday night rating — represented “a Magna Carta for writing on TV.” Simon was thrilled to find that he could say things about the war on Baltimore’s underclass he’d been unable to say as a journalist covering the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun.

The equivalent moment for David Milch came when HBO turned him loose on the muddy paths and alleys of Deadwood. He’d already been testing the limits of profanity, sex, and violence on NYPD Blue (1993-2005), which he created with Stephen Bochco. In a 2005 interview on Salon, Milch compares the limitations endemic to network television to those imposed on Hollywood by the sanitizing dictates of the production code: “You can spend your time … moaning about the strictures within which you’re forced to work, or you can try and find ways to neutralize the distorting effect of those strictures.” Milch’s way of doing this was to incorporate the conflict between authority and free will, repression and creative force into the program by developing characters who are struggling against adversaries comparable to the censors and the sponsors. In NYPD Blue, which was challenged by the American Family Association for its infusions of “soft-core porn,” Milch “tried to engage the theme that in order to administer the law, you have to break the law,” an idea he takes to the limit in Deadwood, where the Gem saloon’s foul-mouthed evil genius Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is “indissolubly associated” with sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a “murderous personality who embraced the idea of law as the only way he could control himself.”DVD Review: "NYPD Blue"

Fans of Deadwood will see a potent preview of Al Swearengen in NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who also has qualities in common with Seth Bullock regarding the use of law enforcement as a way to control his own inner violence. Like McShane’s cut-throat rogue Swearengen, Franz’s Sipowicz is the life-force driving the show. He’s explosive, funny, repellent, impossible, lovable, and immensely human, and he shares Swearengen’s mastery of colorful invective. In the Salon interview, after proclaiming Swearengen a “lineal” descendent of Sipowicz, Milch offers an aside on his inventively profane art: “You know, as they say, the devil always gets the best lines.”

There are no giants like Sipowicz or Swearengen in Homicide or The Wire unless you count Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gay stick-up man I compared to a psychopathic Robin Hood in my September 10, 2010 column on The Wire and its main character “an African American immensity called Baltimore.” It should be noted that an early version of Omar appears in the one episode Simon contributed to NYPD Blue (“Hollie and the Blowfish), where the gay title character, like Omar, holds up drug dealers, cooperates with the police, and wins their respect.

Quirky Relationships

Watching Homicide, with its divertingly varied ensemble of characters, you can see the prototype for the Baltimore police unit and municipal administration that will be more elaborately and provocatively developed in The Wire. The rapport or lack of it characterizing the different teams the unit is divided into is one of the most appealing aspects of Homicide, at least in the first three seasons, which are all that I’ve seen so far. Midway through the third season, the glow began to fade a bit after NBC’s concern about the ratings (the sort of thing Simon looks unfondly back on from the promised land of HBO) led the network to begin demanding action and sensation at the expense of character. Up to that point, the show had sustained a nice balance between the quirky relationships and the morbid, violent world the detectives work in without indulging in any of the strained sit-com clowning that sometimes mars Hill Street Blues, the landmark series that Milch began writing for in 1982.

Although Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio, and Barry Levinson are generally credited with sharing the primary creative responsibility for Homicide, Fontana suggests in the audio commentary for the show’s first episode that “by the end of six years, we had pretty much sucked every comma and question mark out of the book.” In fact, Simon, who didn’t actually begin writing for the program until Season Four, found a disconnect between the real detectives in his book and the television counterparts, with their tendency to discuss moral, emotional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual issues in relation to their work, something the detectives Simon wrote about had never done.

Among the great saving graces of Homicide are its humanity and sense of humor, which come to life in the interplay between characters like the appealingly eccentric and relentlessly irritating John Munch (Richard Belzer) and the partner he calls “big man” (Stanley Bolander as played by Ned Beatty). Melissa Leo’s detective Kay Howard, with her lovely smile and charming movements (she elevates swaggering to a fine feminine art) is especially memorable (she surfaces 16 years later as a middle-aged lawyer in Simon’s Treme, another HBO wonder), and no less memorable is Andre Braugher as the show’s most complex and troubled character, Frank Pembleton.

As his Princeton talk suggests, Simon’s commitment to the depiction of the lives of poor blacks in Baltimore’s inner city was such that such that when HBO “set him loose,” he could create a program like The Wire, which actually thrives by taking itself seriously, although the intensity is offset by the quality that works so well in Homicide: the interplay between the detectives.

Theme Music

A key component of the addictive pleasure we’ve been finding in NYPD Blue is Mike Post’s Emmy-winning theme music, which sweeps you into the excitement of the show with rock em sock em kettle drum dynamics behind the imagery of the elevated train pounding right at you, the swift sharp flashes of city scenes, then the human theme, a sudden, tender, beautifully timed interlude as the main characters are introduced, the music slowing, expressing something quiet, poignant, and subtly emotional, before the drums and city imagery come pounding back again and drive you headlong down the track to the big NYPD shield. The way we actually look forward to this credit sequence, which may have influenced the “woke up this morning, got myself a gun” Tony-at-the-steering-wheel dynamics of the opening credits for The Sopranos, has me thinking about the way theme music became the emotional signature of the radio and television shows that were like old friends whose company you looked forward to every week, the media equivalent of comfort food.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the viewing experience I’ve been describing was made possible by the absence of commercials. DVDs offer you a semblance of what you pay for on cable — in this case, decades after the fact. Between the Princeton Public Library, Netflix, and streaming online, no one needs to endure those “commercial interruptions” and the related constraints David Simon and David Milch had to put up with in the days before cable TV “turned the writers loose.”

If you want to read an in-depth study of these shows, I recommend Jason P. Vest’s The Wire, Deadwood, Homicide, and NYPD Blue: Violence is Power (Greenwood 2011); it can be sampled at length online. David Simon’s Sept. 20 Belknap lecture can also be viewed online. David Milch’s Salon interview is from March 5, 2005, and if you want to see him truly and fascinatingly holding forth, up close and personal, check out the MIT World interview (

November 30, 2011

timthumbReaders of Raymond Carver may recognize the variation on the title story from one of his most famous collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Roberta Smith used a version of the same title for a discussion of “the fashionably obtuse language of the art world” four years ago (New York Times December 23, 2007).

In terms of scale, “The Painterly Voice: Bucks County’s Fertile Ground,” which will be at the James A Michener Art Museum through April 1, 2012, is epic, with 200 works by more than 40 artists in three galleries. Curator Brian Peterson’s stated wish is to avoid “stuffy and obscure exhibit labels,” and his casual, person-to-person presentation of this massive exhibit is a refreshing departure from artspeak and the standard curatorial rhetoric, even though he sometimes risks a dumbing down of his subject. After confiding, for example, that from the beginning of his 20 years at the Michener, he’s “dreamed of doing this exhibit,” he ends by reducing “something special” to “a whole heckuva lot of really good paintings.” In his well-meaning attempt at down-to-earth diction, the curator inadvertently brings to mind George W. Bush’s notorious backslap to the incompetent FEMA chief after the debacle of Katrina (“Heckuva job, Brownie”).

The Show Online

Doing anything like full justice to a show of this scope is impossible. That’s why the Michener has put a large portion of the exhibit online, complete with commentaries and a world of information and imagery ( At the museum, QR codes are available for scanning.

The online format makes possible another look at some of the works that held me when I was there in person, including highlights from previous shows, such as Robert Spencer’s cityscapes, and Harry Leith-Ross’s Nightfall on Union Street and The Fair. One piece that kept me gazing beyond a minute was Goldie Peacock’s House, an oil on canvas from 1935 by Charles Ward (1900-1962). In its free-form feeling and sense of fun, it stands apart. There’s no reason why talking about this work shouldn’t be fun as well, and Mr. Peterson catches the spirit of the piece by citing George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (“those buildings are dancing, the trees are dancing, with each other, with themselves”).

Garber’s Light

If any single artist is the star of this show, it’s Daniel Garber (1880-1958), who was born in Indiana and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts and in Europe before settling down a few miles north of New Hope in Lumberville. The work that opens the exhibit is Garber’s 1935 painting of his mentor and colleague, Bucks County artist William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938). Also given a prominent place and featured on the cover of the museum’s Guide to Events and Programs is Garber’s 1915 portrait of his nine-year-old daughter Tanis.

“Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.” Although these lines from Emerson are in the commentary accompanying Garber’s landscape, Willows – Noonday (1955), they are even more applicable to what the painter does with the interiors featuring his wife and daughter. Works like Tanis (1915) test the notion of “what we talk about when we talk about art.” How do you react to the blatant beauty of this image of a lovely child wrapped in a sort of diaphanous cloud while spring explodes around her with a brilliance that is almost painful to contemplate? The curator chooses to talk in vivid extremes, “her hair and blouse are lit up like fiery spotlights, as if their very molecules are on fire,” as if “a fairy has touched them with a magic wand …. This is the morning of the day the world was born [Peterson’s italics].”

The curator’s enthusiasm is understandable. It’s a stunning painting. Keeping the notion of talking about art in mind, I emailed the image, along with the other Garbers, to a friend I thought might enjoy seeing them. I made my own feelings abundantly clear (“The way he uses light is amazing!”), assuming she would feel the same way. Not a chance. “It’s a little twee for me, if you know what I mean” was her response to Tanis. If we’d been standing together in front of the painting, I might have tried to downgrade or justify my use of “amazing” by admitting that I felt sympathetic to the idea of the painter’s child, who was born in Paris, died a resident of Bucks County in 1990, and can be seen as a 17-year-old beauty in Garber’s serenely lovely Morning Light, Interior (1923). I might also have admitted that while “twee” wasn’t the word I’d have used, I could see a commercial touch in the soft, smooth, cleanly lighted image that gave it the overtones of a Maxfield Parrish illustration in a story book.

When we talk about art, we’re often talking outside or beyond or beneath it. How important is what we say? What difference does it make? And in the face of great art, what can be said that doesn’t sound either simplistic (“Wow, that’s amazing!”) or pompous? People conversing in the presence of the work will often temper their opinions for the sake of being agreeable, however much they may disagree. Or they may have other things on their mind. The day I was at the Michener most of the talk was not about the art but the effects of the previous weekend’s freak October snow storm. As I admired Garber’s The Studio Wall (1914), which my friend liked, too, someone was talking about the power outage. They were still without electricity and I was thinking, “Here’s power! Here’s electricity!” The Studio Wall is pure enchantment: the sunny day delicately reflected in muted tones of lilac and yellow, the classic beauty of the pose struck by Garber’s wife as she holds a small vase while wearing a vision in the guise of a kimono. Voice or no voice, the painting speaks in colors and images and effects, a form of communication that bypasses language, goes straight to the senses, and stops the conversation cold.

The Human Touch

In Daniel Garber’s painting of his mentor and colleague William Langson Lathrop, completed three years before Lathrop’s death in 1938, Lathrop is shown standing at close range, holding a pipe, his other hand thrust in the pocket of a comfortably lived-in looking jacket burnished in shades of brown and reddish gold somewhat like the hues in the forest floor of Lathrop’s work, The Forest (1918). In fact, the elderly painter might be dressed in one of his own land- or sky-scapes, his vest a field of flowers touched with the pearly pastel light of the sky in Evening Before the Storm (ca. 1898), his trousers showing the mottled pastel shades of the sky in Burning Fields, Bucks County (1898). Blazing behind the handsome, white-bearded man with the faraway look in his eyes is a wild, dark, free-form background, streaked and shot with vivid skeins of purple, orange, and red as intense as a nocturnal psychodrama out of Van Gogh.

Garber’s mastery of light, so brilliantly expressed in the paintings centered on his daughter and wife, becomes a subtle secondary presence in the portrait of Lathrop, touching the hand holding the pipe, the sleeve, the pocket of the coat, and as if attracted by the quiet thoughtful intensity of Lathrop’s gaze, the face, the white beard, the hair, and, the deepest, most telling touch, the faint semblance of light on his forehead. Stand in front of this work long enough and it’s possible to imagine that the man’s spirit, his thought, his art, his humanity, his vulnerability, everything he is, has been serenely, definitively illuminated. But then, as if to counter all that lofty verbiage, you have Lathrop’s nose, which appears to be inflamed, irritated, perhaps from a cold, a rash, the rubbing of a pair of spectacles. That suggestion of inflamed flesh is a deterrent to aesthetic overstatement. It says, “Keep things real, on the human level, where noses are blown, eyes get rheumy, and knuckles chapped, and where a pipe, like a paintbrush, can be an old friend.”

A Note on the Curator

Brian Peterson makes his priorities clear at the outset by invoking artist Marianne Werefkin’s observation as the epigraph for “The Painterly Voice,” (“There is no history of art — there is the history of artists”) and by placing Garbers’s painting of Lathrop at the entrance of the show. Curious to know a bit more about the chief curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum, I came upon some information I think is worth sharing. Four years ago, Mr. Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to putting together this magnum opus of Bucks County art, and coming to terms with a devastating illness, he’s published a memoir, The Blossoming of the World: Essays and Images, illustrated with his own photographs.

Note: I’ve never dedicated a column to anyone until now. In one sense, every piece I write is dedicated to an ideal reader or readers, and one of my ideal readers was Everett Dale Gross, the contractor who for all purposes rebuilt the interior of the house we’ve been living in since 1986. Though he was known to most of his longtime customers and friends as Dale, we have always called him Everett. Of all the people I know, writers, poets and academics, doctors, lawyers, and librarians, this rugged Vermonter came closest to actually speaking in the direct, down to earth, no-nonsense voice Curator Brian Peterson seems to be striving for in his commentary. Everett died last week at 80, and I know we aren’t the only homeowners in Mercer County who are living in and appreciating every day of our lives the interior he built. All the moldings, doors, bookcases, closets, from the frames on the windows to the tiles on the kitchen floor are due to his handiwork, works of his straightforward art.