January 20, 2015
YOU’RE NOT BUYING A NEW FRIEND, YOU’RE HIRING A BEST MAN: Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart, left) warns Doug Harris (Josh Gad) about expecting too much from their developing friendship because, after all, Doug is hiring Jimmy to be his best man at his wedding. But in spite of Jimmy’s warning, the two do become friends.(Photo by Matt Kennedy - © 2014 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

YOU’RE NOT BUYING A NEW FRIEND, YOU’RE HIRING A BEST MAN: Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart, left) warns Doug Harris (Josh Gad) about expecting too much from their developing friendship because, after all, Doug is hiring Jimmy to be his best man at his wedding. But in spite of Jimmy’s warning, the two do become friends. (Photo by Matt Kennedy – © 2014 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Doug Harris (Josh Gad) and Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) are putting the finishing touches on their impending wedding festivities. However, the groom has yet to find a best man, even though he’s going to be married in ten days.

Doug has been rejected by every acquaintance he’s approached, receiving rude responses ranging from “I thought you died” to “I didn’t even invite you to my wedding.” So, since he’s too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t have any friends, Doug decides to hide his predicament from his fiancée.

Instead, he hires a professional best man, Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) — along with seven other strangers — to serve as his groomsmen. Can they get to know Doug well enough in a week and convince Gretchen and members of the wedding party that they’re long-lost friends?

That is the point of departure of The Wedding Ringer, a comedy that is the directorial debut of Jeremy Garelick. If you are not offended by the farfetched setup, and are willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy the hilarious hijinks that ensue.

Most of the laughs emanate from the attempts by the assortment of unsavory characters to impersonate refined white-collar stereotypes such as a podiatrist, a principal, a lawyer, and a professor. The so called best man adopts the alias “Bic Mitchum” and poses as a priest.

And although Jimmy proves convincing at faking his friendship with Doug, he warns Doug that “You’re not buying a new friend. You’re hiring a best man.” But despite this strictly business understanding, coldhearted Jimmy gradually warms to Doug and the two somehow bond.

That unexpected development is what ultimately redeems The Wedding Ringer’s otherwise ridiculous premise. After all, how much hope could there really be for a marriage if the groom stages such an elaborate scheme rather than simply explain the situation to his bride-to-be?

Check your credulity at the box office and the talented cast of seasoned comedians will keep you in stitches in this lowbrow politically incorrect movie.

Very Good (***). Rated R for crude humor, pervasive profanity, coarse sexuality, and brief nudity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Screen Gems.

January 14, 2015

book revEven if you work for a small, essentially well-meaning weekly, you don’t have to wear a Je Suis Charlie pin to connect with the fellow journalists who died in last week’s terrorist attack in Paris. Whatever the content, circulation, or point of view, the staff of a regularly published magazine or newspaper consists of editors, writers, designers, compositors, advertising and business staff, working together for a common cause, in our case, to ensure that Town Topics makes an appearance every Wednesday, which, as it happens, coincided with the day of the January 7 massacre.

As the story unfolded, I was already well into a column about Paul Muldoon’s new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Farrar Straus & Giroux $24), and my point of view was strictly apolitical. It was the music, wit, scope, playfulness, and sometimes challenging allusiveness of the poetry that engaged and intrigued me. I was glad to feel no obligation to contend with the moral and political complexities of a terrorist atrocity. My original focus was on the contrast between Muldoon’s sheer shoot-from-the-hip inventiveness and the nightly bloodbaths of cable television my wife and I have been watching for the past months, up to our vicarious necks in Homeland (a jihadist massacre at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad) and The Americans (Cold War sex, married KGB spies living a double life of family values, and cut-throat espionage). In fact it was BBC America’s Orphan Black and its delirious pleasure in its own improbabilities (sex, urban violence, and kinky domesticity involving embattled clones in Toronto) that helped get me into the mood for Muldoon’s new work. I was playing around with the show’s impact on our mutual suspension of disbelief and how that related to what used to be quaintly termed “poetic license,” as in the free flow of fancy and other serious, sometimes strenuous fun and games going forward in Muldoon’s aptly titled volume, which was formally published yesterday, January 13.

Look at the Cover!

All this time, the cover of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing has been staring me in the face, and even so, I was ready to wrap up this week’s column without a word about it or about Muldoon’s poem, “Rita Duffy: Watchtower 2,” which originally appeared in Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean 2014). Rita Duffy is the Irish artist whose painting gives the poem its title and the book its cover image, which is repeated something like 60 times front and back, no doubt to complement the “thousand things” concept.

A look at the painting as it should be seen, 180 x 120 cm, oil on linen, has an impact that can’t be fully appreciated in postage-stamp-sized multiples. Instead of a small, distant, vaguely odd-looking contraption overlooking green hills, what you see resembles a prison guard tower crowned by a surveillance camera aimed like an immense weapon at the countryside beyond a corrugated metal wall. The only human you can imagine walking up the iron stairway to look through the thing on top would be armed and uniformed, not someone there to admire the view that Muldoon presents “as if the whole country is spread under a camouflage tarp/rolled out by successive British garrisons/stationed in Crossmaglen.”

Explaining what gave her the idea, Rita Duffy mentions how she was on the way home after attending a lecture by Muldoon’s mentor Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) about his mentor Paddy Kavanagh (1904-1967) when she noticed the watchtowers and came up with the idea that she might transform one of them “into a work of art.” Upon writing to the Northern Ireland Office, she got a call from a colonel who asked her which tower she wanted. She “managed to get inside” the one that “looked down on the main Belfast-Dublin road, which sat on the hills that Cú Chulainn defended Ulster on,” but just when it was looking as if the tower project might happen, it stopped (“it is very hard to get anything done in Northern Ireland”). She is “still hopeful that some day the project will re-emerge.”

Never Too Late

If you agree that “It’s Never Too Late for Rock’n’Roll,” the title of Muldoon’s lyric for the lead track on Wayside Shrine’s album, The Word On the Street, your immediate association with Duffy’s image will almost certainly be with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, who share a stake in Dylan’s composition, “All Along the Watchtower.” Nothing on the page or the canvas can match the excitement of either version when “the wind began to howl,” Dylan singing raw and true, Hendrix wailing into eternity. But Muldoon’s poem actually, quietly covers more ground, with the camouflage imagery and the memory of teenagers whose “vision of Four Green Fields shrinks to the olive drab/the Brits throw over everything.” The second part of the poem begins with reference to how a neighbor’s internment alerted the teenagers to the fact that “we’re not the first tribe/to have been put down or the first to have risen/against our oppressors. That’s why we’ve always sided with the Redskin/and the Palestinian.”

So here it is, staring me in the face again, not only one of the most openly political sentiments in a book that begins with a tour de force of eloquent denial dedicated to Heaney and ends with a 19-page-long bravura performance called “Dirty Data” starring Ben Hur, Ben Hourihane, and Billy the Kid, but one that offers additional insight into the poet’s lifelong fascination with the American west. Asked once about how he came to write his Wayside Shrines lyric “The Youngers (Bob and John and Jim and Cole),” Muldoon mentioned growing up immersed in The Golden Book of California, movies about Jesse James and the Great Northfield Minnesota raid, and an illustrated history of the James/Younger gang. Look at the lyric itself, however, and you’re hard put to find a word about the Troubles or “our oppressors.” Listening, you hear a clever, charming, hard-rocking song about a relationship gone south. You’ll find elaborate variations on similarly evocative material in fast and loose interplay with profundities all through One Thousand Things. If you keep your wits about you, you may detect occasional traces of the Princeton faculty member, New Yorker poetry editor, now an inhabitant of the metropolis after two decades as a local resident. The verse will be light and larky and downright silly one minute, only to dazzle and daze you with in-flight references requiring visits to the archives of Google, from which you emerge with enough esoteric information to fill ten pages of footnotes.

Catch Phrases

I love clichés,” Muldoon admits in a 2004 Paris Review interview. If you’re at all familiar with his lyrics for the “3-car garage band” Rackett and the still active musical collective Wayside Shrines, you’ll see common cause between the poetry on the printed page and the lyrics ringing changes on familiar pieces of the present like Pathmark, Jiffy Lube (which also turns up in One Thousand Things) and “Employee of the Week” parking spots. Muldoon has a hunger for everyday words, standbys of the culture, catch phrases, slogans, brand names, not to be patronized or mocked but put in play, sometimes as titles of Wayside songs like “Cleaning Up My Act,” “Feet of Clay,” “Dream Team,” “It Won’t Ring True,” and “Julius Caesar Was a People Person,” and now in the new poetry: “a little meet and greet,” “the elephant in the room,” “at daggers drawn,” “hell for leather,” “a smear campaign,” along with references to a McDonald’s Triple and a Port-a-John, and couplets like “We’ll swear this is the last time as we swore the rain/would never darken our doors again.”

It Really Happened

In the opening poem, “Cuthbert and the Otters,” you’re taken all over the place, from Durham to Desertmartin to Delphi, while “An altar cloth carried into battle/by the 82nd Airborne” shares a stanza with “A carton/of Lucky Strikes clutched by a G.I. on the bridge/at Toome.” It’s all swirling around Muldoon’s stint as a pall bearer at the funeral of the man whose death he finds intolerable, but rather than say so in plain terms, he twice distances himself and the reader from the reality by using an archaic verb: “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead,” end-stopping the line to close the third stanza and sounding and end-stopping it again to close the 22nd. If you check the facts all through One Thousand Things, you’ll more likely than not find that the things you thought he might be making up really happened, if not in quite such far-fetched combinations. In “Pip and Magwitch,” for one, it turns out that what sounds improbable, Anwar al-Awlaki leaving a paperback of Great Expectations “all bundled up with a printer-cartridge bomb,” is well documented, unlike Magwitch’s attempts to mask his breath with a Polo Mint, “his cigar twirling in its unopened sarcophagus/like an Egyptian mummy.”

Cheering Stuff

While Muldoon keeps company at length with Lew Wallace and Ben Hur, he finds Keats “for sure” in a short Civil War poem by Whitman; all he needs is the one word “loitering” (an echo of “alone and palely loitering in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Mercy’”). As it happens, the same day the television set in a doctor’s waiting room was covering the scene in Paris as the net closed round the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, I was reading at random in a pocket-sized volume of Keats’s letters. Call it imagination, or fancy, depending on the depth of thought or feeling, it was cheering stuff. Even when writing of his brother’s death a mere two years before his own, Keats is unstoppable, irrepressible. On his joy in drinking a glass of claret, he appears to have sketched out notes for “Ode to a Nightingale”: “It fills one’s mouth with a gushing freshness, then goes down cool and feverless” — whereupon his fancy takes flight as “the more ethereal part mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments, like a bully looking for a trull, and hurrying from door to door, bouncing against the wainscot, but rather walks like Aladdin about his enchanted palace, so gently that you do not feel his step.”

Reading, smiling, you wonder “Where’s it coming from?” Never mind. What matters is it’s coming and it keeps coming. The same thing happens reading Muldoon at his best, whether in, above, or beyond politics. Never mind, it’s cheering stuff, like Keats’s claret bullying its way through the cerebral apartments to Aladdin’s palace. That’s how it is in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing.

Speaking of Keats, Paul Muldoon will be reading at the Keats House in London next week, January 20, and will be back in Princeton March 4 at Labyrinth Books. And next week I’ll be writing about Paris before, way way before, Charlie Hebdo.

DRAPEAU VODOU: These sequin-covered flags are part of a display of Haitian Art in the Considine Gallery at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, 1200 Stuart Road. The two-part exhibition, which opened January 12 and runs through February 12, features Haitian flags from the private collections of Bucks County resident Jill Kearney and Indigo Arts in Philadelphia as well as drawings by the Haitian artist Edens Cathyl. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. when school is in session. There will be an opening reception on Friday, January 23, from 5 to 7 p.m. and a talk by exhibition curator Madeleine Shellaby on Tuesday, January 27 at 11 a.m. For more information, call (609) 921-6105, or visit www.stuartschool.org.

DRAPEAU VODOU: These sequin-covered flags are part of a display of Haitian Art in the Considine Gallery at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, 1200 Stuart Road. The two-part exhibition, which opened January 12 and runs through February 12, features Haitian flags from the private collections of Bucks County resident Jill Kearney and Indigo Arts in Philadelphia as well as drawings by the Haitian artist Edens Cathyl. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. when school is in session. There will be an opening reception on Friday, January 23, from 5 to 7 p.m. and a talk by exhibition curator Madeleine Shellaby on Tuesday, January 27 at 11 a.m. For more information, call (609) 921-6105, or visit www.stuartschool.org.

Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart’s winter gallery exhibition in the Considine Gallery has two parts to it. Both concern the art and culture of Haiti. One is a display of black and white drawings by the Haitian artist Edens Cathyl, the other is a striking collection of vividly colored Haitian flags from the private collections of Bucks County resident Jill Kearney and Tony Fisher of Indigo Arts in Philadelphia.

An opening reception is scheduled for Friday, January 23, from 5 to 7 p.m. and a talk by the exhibition’s curator Madeleine Shellaby will take place on Tuesday, January 27 at 11 a.m.

Ms. Shellaby is the co-founder of the non-profit Princeton Haiti KONEKTE (www.konekteprincetonhaiti.com), which supports educational initiatives in Haiti, and the exhibition commemorates the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake in that country. A fund raising event at Stuart will be held on January 25, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Titled “Stories from Haiti,” Mr. Cathyl’s series of drawings depict his life there. A member of the Art Matenwa community on the island of Gonave, Mr. Cathyl began his artistic journey as a “restavek” or indentured servant who was “given away by his mother to his uncle” as a boy.

According to the Art Matenwa website, Mr. Cathyl’s is one of the organization’s success stories (see: http://artmatenwa.org/life-in-matenwa/) having arrived “as an undernourished 13-year-old with enormous eyes and serious demeanor. Long and thin, with the dry skin of an old man, Edens had been abandoned by his mother to his uncle’s family. In spite of his quietness, the school principal recognized his intelligence and artistic ability and sent him to us to learn to make art which he practiced with energy and concentration.”

“First I learned how to make silver jewelry with two other students. When that stopped I learned how to paint and make prints and now I make my own drawings,” said Mr. Cathyl, who has expressed his desire to go to art school. “I want people to love my drawings so I can live,” he said.

Now 26, the artist channels his own experiences through the story of a boy’s life in rural Haiti; several of the drawings are from a book that he is working on. The book will feature images such as Country Boy Leading Goat, which shows a slim figure clad in shorts striding ahead of several goats and donkeys. The drawing, which is black and white ink on gesso board, conveys an almost timeless scene with details suggestive of narrative. The thick rope is slack, its frayed end loosely held by the boy’s hand.

As a developing artist, Mr. Cathyl learned the technique that has allowed him to create such elegant and bold compositions from the artist Ellen LeBow, who divides her time between the Haitian artistic community and her Massachusetts home. He credits Ms. Lebow’s tutelage for helping to develop his keen eye for detail and for teaching him how to use materials such as the India ink he brushed onto the surface of a hard board coated with soft white kaolin clay in order to create images like Country Boy Leading Goat. The artist used a blade to “draw” into the ink-covered gesso board and carve away the ink to reveal the white beneath.

Vodou Symbolism

That part of the exhibition devoted to Haitian flags is a display of traditional sequined cloth festival flags with images of the Haitian Iwa, or spirits.

Known as Drapeau Vodou in Kreyol (or Haitian Creole), the flags constitute a spectacular Haitian art form. Created originally as sacred ritual objects within the Vodou religious community, the flags welcome a pantheon of spirits to temple ceremonies. Once objects of interest primarily to anthropologists, the flags have captured the attention of tourists in recent years and are now being made for the art market.

According to a press release from Stuart, “with this new purpose, the artistic imagery of the flags is changing from a strict adherence to tradition to a freer, more expressive form.”

The exhibition, which includes recent works by contemporary artisans, will be on view at Stuart Country Day School, 1200 Stuart Road, through February 12, when school is in session Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For more information, call (609) 921-6105, or visit www.stuartschool.org. Tickets ($60) for the January 25 KONEKTE fund raiser include presentations on the life and work of Edens Cathyl by Ellen LeBow and on the creation and significance of Haitian flags by Tony Fisher. For tickets, visit: www.konekteprincetonhaiti.com.

Princeton University Opera Theater brought together the late 17th and 20th centuries this past weekend with a presentation of two operas separated by 300 years, but both representative of their musical times. Conductor Gabriel Crouch drew from past and contemporary British operas in Friday night’s Richardson Auditorium performance of Henry Purcell’s 1688 Dido and Aeneas and Jonathan Dove’s 1999 Tobias and the Angel. Both operas were conceived compositionally for non-professional singers, and this past weekend’s presentations (the operas were performed both Friday and Saturday nights) called upon the wide range of performing ensembles in the Princeton area.

The music of Dido and Aeneas captures many commonly-used compositional devices of the 17th century. Mr. Crouch compiled a small instrumental ensemble fitting for the period — strings, recorders, theorbo, baroque guitar, and harpsichord. All these instruments could easily be heard from the orchestra’s position partially under the stage, and throughout the opera, vocal lines were colored by delicate textures of lightly-bowed and plucked strings. From the opening Overture, Mr. Crouch kept the music well accented and nuanced in Baroque style.

Dido is a showcase for women’s voices, and some of the University’s more exceptional female singers were heard in this production. Three central characters carry the opera’s plot — Dido, her handmaiden Belinda, and the Sorceress. As Belinda, Stephanie Leotsakos warmed up well to her role, singing comfortably in the higher register. Senior Sophia Mockler has grown musically every year of her time at Princeton, and her performance of the title role of Dido showed a rich and full sound from top register to bottom, often gracefully accompanied by Beiliang Zhu on viola da gamba and Charles Weaver on theorbo. Ms. Mockler sang Dido’s signature aria, which closes the opera, with particular drama and plaintive longing.

A vocal surprise of the evening was Saunghee Ko, who sang the role of the Sorceress. Ms. Ko has been performing in University ensembles, but showed in her performance that she is thoroughly capable of commanding a stage as a soloist. Ms. Ko was saucy and sinister, not missing a vocal step with a voice which seemed mature beyond her years. The two male roles of the opera belonged to James Walsh, singing the role of Aeneas; and Zach Levine, who played a solo Sailor. Mr. Walsh sang with charm and lyricism and Mr. Levine sang with a great deal of spirit, joined by the men of the Princeton University Chamber Choir for a rousing “ship” scene. Choruses play a key role in Purcell operas, and the University Chamber Choir, prepared by Mr. Crouch, was exact in rhythm, with close attention to dynamics and text.

London-born composer Jonathan Dove has been called one of the most significant British opera composers since Benjamin Britten. Dove composed Tobias and the Angel, based on one of the books of the Apocrypha, as a “community” opera — able to be performed and enjoyed by non-professionals. The vocal requirements of Tobias, however, were anything but amateur, and the Princeton University students were well up to the challenge.

The opera is divided into two simultaneous scenes, in Nineveh and in Ecbatana, whose characters eventually come together. A key role of Tobit was sung by seasoned professional Jacob Kinderman as a full and dramatic narrator in a role requiring a mature voice. As his son Tobias, who carries the key plotline of meeting an angel without knowing he is an angel, tenor James Walsh made his second appearance for the evening. Mr. Walsh fit the youthful role well, and was very comfortable with Dove’s contemporary and often difficult vocal lines. In the role of Angel, initially masquerading as a “stranger,” counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen revealed why he is yet another Princeton University musician well on his way to a professional career when he graduates. Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen sang with lyricism and vocal strength (with particular warmth in the upper register), and showed that his recent appearances in Europe have given him all the more stage presence. Gabriel Crouch wisely incorporated another talented counter-tenor on Princeton’s campus by obtaining permission from the composer to cast the role of the demon Ashmodeus for Michael Manning, who was deliciously spindly and ominous as he wended his way through the characters, casting evil about.

The women’s roles called for very strong voices, and the students who sang were well up to the task. Stephanie Leotsakos sang with a full voice, but was a bit hard to hear over the orchestra at times. Varshini Narayanan and Alyson Beveridge also sang with strong voices, in Ms. Narayanan’s case for a role that was extremely dark. Choral commentary on the action was provided by an ensemble of American Boychoir and Princeton Girlchoir singers, well trained by Fred Meads and cleverly dressed as fish and sparrows by costume designer Marie Miller. This production spared no expenses in costuming, with bright colors contrasting well with Dale Simon’s geometric set design.

The production of these operas was a dynamic way to start the new year, and the University seniors in the cast in particular had a great event to launch their final semester.

DIDN’T I TELL YOU THAT I WOULD BE ALRIGHT?: Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is hugged by his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) when he returns home from his fourth and final deployment as a sniper in Iraq.(Photo by Keith Bernstein-© (c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC-U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda(c)

DIDN’T I TELL YOU THAT I WOULD BE ALRIGHT?: Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is hugged by his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) when he returns home from his fourth and final deployment as a sniper in Iraq. (Photo by Keith Bernstein-© (c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC-U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda(c)

Navy Seal Chris Kyle served four tours as a sniper in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. Over the course of his dangerous deployments to Ramadi, Sadr City, Fallujah, and other hot spots, he became the most lethal sniper in the history of the U.S. military. Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper is a biopic that chronicles the sharpshooter’s exploits.

The film is based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, and stars Bradley Cooper in the title role. Besides highlighting battlefield heroics, the movie mixes in poignant flashbacks from Kyle’s formative years.

For instance, in those early childhood scenes we see Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) teaching him how to shoot; a scene where he protects his little brother Jeff (Luke Sunshine) from a playground bully (Brandon Salgado Telis); and another time where he brings along his dog-eared copy of the Bible when he attends a church service. These scenes are clearly designed to show us how his character and skills influenced his future duties as a Seal.

Another focus of the picture is Kyle’s relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). While she’s raising their children in the States, she often finds her phone calls with Kyle interrupted by everything from IED explosions to enemy fire. However, Kyle always calms her fears with reassurances that he will survive the ordeal.

This depiction of Kyle as a tenderhearted family man is what sets American Sniper apart from other recent war films like Lone Survivor and The Hurt Locker. As a result, we really care whether he will ultimately return home safe and sound.

Kudos to Clint Eastwood for fashioning such a moving and well-deserved tribute to a true American hero.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, sexual references, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

January 7, 2015

DVD rev

On the last afternoon of 2014 I drove to Doylestown, our sister city in cinema now that the Garden and the County share the same management. As we crossed the Delaware to New Hope, I fed the stereo a CD of Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, produced in 1969 by Princeton’s own Joe Boyd. It took us five songs or about 20 minutes to reach a metered parking place on State Street across from the County. As I put the CRV in park, Sandy Denny was finishing her for-the-ages rendering of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” arguably the best cover of a Bob Dylan song ever recorded.

One of the many things to like about living in Princeton (if you can forget the property taxes) is knowing that an easy drive away there’s a bridge across a river into another state and then half a Fairport album’s distance to a hilly old market town with a gem of a movie theatre, three bookstores, a record store, an ice cream parlor, and a museum with exhibits ranging from intelligent design to the imagery of a Princeton-born watercolorist to woodcuts of river towns to astrophotography.


On the first day of 2015 my wife and I hiked along the upper path of the thickly wooded lakeside hill between Harrison and Washington Street bridges. Through the trees the blueness of the water had a cold Canadian clarity, gulls were performing amazing maneuvers overhead, fishing on the fly, splash-dancing on the water, and out in the middle of the lake a raucous congregation of geese had settled down and were engaged in an orgy of honking that prompted thoughts of the new Congress. Mainly, I was thinking about wishes and resolutions and how J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) had been born on New Year’s Day. Speaking of Salinger, my wish for 2015 is that the rumored publication of the work a world of readers has been waiting for since 1965 will finally happen.

Echoes of Luise Rainer

In a 2010 column about Fay Wray and Luise Rainer, who died December 30 at 104, I quoted Graham Greene on Rainer’s Oscar-winning performance in The Good Earth, which not only “carries the movie” but makes him think of Shakespeare, for “in acting like Miss Rainer’s we become aware of the greatest of all echoes.”

Coming to Hollywood in 1935 from Vienna, where she was part of Max Reinhardt’s company and played Joan of Arc at the Josefstadt Theatre, Rainer was billed as “the Viennese Teardrop.” Most obits portray the back-to-back Academy Award winner (her first was for The Great Ziegfield) as a victim of the Curse of the Oscar whose career tanked after she alienated studio boss Louis B. Mayer by marrying leftist playwright Clifford Odets. That her Hollywood work was essentially confined to the years 1936-1938 can be blamed on, among other things, the death of M-G-M’s head of production Irving Thalberg; Mayer’s vindictiveness in denying her roles that lived up to the Oscar-winners; the break-up of her marriage; and her impatience with the studio system and the way its money-is-everything ethos pervaded Tinseltown society.

Working with Borzage

While the obituary storyline suggests that Rainer’s other M-G-M assignments were no match for the Oscar-winning roles, she must have been looking forward to being directed by Frank Borzage in Big City (1937). Quoted shortly after her arrival in Hollywood, she said that she’d had no interest in pictures until she saw Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932), “and right away I wanted to film. It was so beautiful.” Her remark decades later that “working with Borzage was a perpetual joy” is borne out by the energetic, uninhibited interaction between Rainer’s Anna and her cab driver husband Joe, played by another Oscar winner Spencer Tracy.

Though Rainer scorned Big City as “idiotic” in a 2009 interview with the Telegraph, she has at least one moment equal to the jilted-wife’s-smiling-through-her-tears telephone call in Ziegfield that clinched her first Oscar. The sequence occurs during a surprise birthday party where Anna is encircled by friends, husband and brother, her face illumined in the glow of the candles on the cake as she reveals that she’s going to have a baby. The true-to-life quality of the moment is complemented by the music coming from a new radio, her birthday present from Joe and her brother. Rainer’s delicately felt response, touched with warmth and wonder, as if the music had come by magic out of nowhere, lives and breathes in the subdued spell Borzage has created around the glow of the candles. Like the scene it’s haunting, the music is simply, quietly, softly low-key. After the luminous birthday moment, the darker, more simplistic (if not quite “idiotic”) forces of the plot take over when Anna’s brother is killed by thugs working for a rival taxi company and she’s framed for the staged explosion that accompanied the shooting. Forced into hiding in the homes of various friends, she eventually calls the mayor and nobly turns herself in, having learned that the people harboring her could go to prison as accessories after the fact. She’s about to be deported when a star-studded assortment of athletes led by Jack Dempsey and Jim Thorpe comes to the rescue.

Beyond Hollywood

Luise Rainer’s life before and after Hollywood has levels of interest the obituaries could only begin to suggest. In addition to the doomed marriage with Odets and her later happier union with a British publisher, Rainer was for a time friends with Anais Nin, who refers to the difficulties with Odets in her Diaries and in her novella Stella, which opens with the title character, inspired by Rainer, sitting in “a small dark room” watching and unable to recognize “her own figure acting on the screen.” The image is “imponderably light, and moved always with such a flowering of gestures that it was like the bloom and flowering of nature.”

The passage echoes an entry from Diaries Volume 2 (1934-1939), where Nin is sitting in a cafe with Henry Miller after seeing Rainer in an unnamed film: “Henry, who likes her so much, began to talk about her. ‘She has wonderful gestures and bearing, such a gracious way of carrying her head, such delicacy. She is very much like you. Her gestures are so light, like wind almost, and she moves so gracefully.’”

Luise Rainer Was Here 

Although Scott Fitzgerald had left Princeton a few years before the Garden Theatre opened in September 1920, with Civilian Clothes, a comedy starring Thomas Meighan and accompanied by a live orchestra on a stage decorated with ferns and palms, it’s likely he saw some films there, and more than likely that Jimmy Stewart did during his student years between 1928 and 1932. As for the clientele at the Doylestown’s County, which opened on September 1938 with Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway, you can figure Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and James Michener, not to mention stars doing summer stock through the years at the Bucks County Playhouse, as did Luise Rainer when she starred in the title role of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine for a week in August 1947. She reprised the role a year later in a different production by Harold J. Kennedy and Herbert Kenwith at the McCarter Theatre as part of the Princeton Drama Festival.

Apparently the only way to see Rainer as Joan of Arc, a signature role rarely mentioned in the obituaries, is to Google “The Brilliance of Luise Rainer,” which offers clips from her last M-G-M film, Dramatic School (1938), where, after a struggle against odds, she wins the part and gives a wildly applauded performance. She first played Joan in her teens in Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, and during the twenties and thirties she’s said to have played the part over 400 times. Probably her most unusual public appearance as Joan was in costume riding a white horse at the head of a march to the White House to open the American Youth Congress Citizenship Institute.

Luise and Einstein

The story goes that the failure of Rainer’s marriage to Odets can be partly blamed on his jealous tantrums about her relationship with another man. Would you believe Albert Einstein? Though Luise and Einstein were “only good friends,” Odets was “so consumed with jealousy that he savaged a photograph of Einstein with a pair of scissors.” In the 2009 article in the Telegraph, Rainer tells the interviewer, “I mustn’t talk of Einstein, too much is made of it. I was very young, full of life, full of nonsense, and he liked my vivaciousness.” At this point, she has her maid bring out a framed photograph taken with Einstein in Princeton in 1939. You can see the photo online. Under his cloud-mass of white hair Einstein is wearing a tee-shirt, his pants are rolled up to his knees, and his feet are in sandals. All in white, Luise is giving him a look — you could fairly call it the Gaze — that might well have fueled Odets’s suspicions. According to Rainer, Einstein “was probably smitten with a lot of females. He was a very simple man. When I say simple, I mean he had humility.”

So it seems at least within the bounds of reason to imagine Rainer and Einstein going to the Garden on a movie date in the summer of 1939. There’s another photo of Einstein rowing with Luise smiling impishly behind him. Online sources say the scene took place on Lower Saranac Lake. I prefer to think it’s another lake, the one right here in Princeton that Einstein famously loved rowing on.

Though Big City is available on DVD as part of Warner Archive’s 3-disc Luise Rainer collection, my wife and I watched it on a tape I made from a showing on Turner Classic Movies. For information about Starstruck and other exhibits currently at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, visit MitchnerArtMuseum.org.


ISLAND LIGHT: The light of Cuba is captured in a series of photographic portraits by John Clarke at Hopewell’s Gallery 14. Works by fellow photographer Samuel Vovsi will also be on display. Gallery 14 is located at 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell N.J. 08525. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: http://photogallery14.com.

ISLAND LIGHT: The light of Cuba is captured in a series of photographic portraits by John Clarke at Hopewell’s Gallery 14. Works by fellow photographer Samuel Vovsi will also be on display. Gallery 14 is located at 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell N.J. 08525. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: http://photogallery14.com.

A new exhibition of work by members of Hopewell’s Gallery 14 opens January 9 and runs through February 8 with an opening reception Friday January 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. In addition, the Gallery will hold a “Meet the Photographer” event on Sunday January 11, from 1 to 3 p.m.

The show features local photographer John Clarke, a new Gallery 14 member having his first exhibition at the gallery. Titled “Portraits of Cuba,” the exhibition in the main gallery space features images that capture the rich colors and warm light of the island.

Mr. Clarke is the retired founding partner of Clarke Caton Hintz, an award winning architectural and planning firm based in Trenton. Having spent his professional career immersed in architectural and urban design issues, since retiring, he has devoted his artistic talents to photography.

According to a statement by the artist, “the photographer’s background in architecture is evident in the organization and structure of ‘Portraits of Cuba,’ which were shot during a week-long visit to the island in the spring of 2014. The images from the streets and markets of Havana, show people who appear happy and not shy or displeased about being photographed. An amputee does his exercise on a sea wall in the early morning light, not in a gymnasium. A cab driver pedals a bicycle outfitted to carry passengers rather than driving an auto. Grand old buildings are decaying but their strong character remains. A man wearing the image of Che Guvara salutes the photographer and seems to say, ‘Long live the revolution.’ The photos show a country that is extremely poor by U.S. standards, but one whose people have a vibrant spirit.”

Mr. Clarke used a hand held Nikon d800e with a 24-70 mm lens to produce digital prints on fine art Baryta 325 archival paper.

In addition to “Portraits of Cuba,” Gallery 14 will also display the exhibition, “Twos,” by local photographer, Samuel Vovsi, who has shown at the gallery previously and elsewhere.

Mr. Vovsi has described the works on display in the Jay Goodkind gallery as “not directly related: they were taken at different times and in different places, but they all have one unifying feature: each has precisely two main characters.”

“Sometimes it could be two friends, sometimes two lovers, sometimes a parent and a child, sometimes even a man and a pet,” said the artist. “The whole in such images is bigger that a mechanical sum of parts because not only do they show one character plus another character, but also a relation between them. And sometimes this relation is not clear, which is especially interesting, because it provokes your curiosity and it draws you in, wanting to figure out what the relationship is.”

Gallery 14 is located at 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell N.J. 08525. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: http://photogallery14.com.

LUCK BE A LADY TONIGHT: Professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) compulsively returns to the casino in the vain hope of winning more money than he loses. Unfortunately he finds himself falling deeper and deeper in debt. Finally, the casino owner, who is a mobster gives him a deadline to repay the debt, or else.(Photo by Claire Folger — © 2014 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved)

LUCK BE A LADY TONIGHT: Professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) compulsively returns to the casino in the vain hope of winning more money than he loses. Unfortunately he finds himself falling deeper and deeper in debt. Finally, the casino owner, who is a mobster gives him a deadline to repay the debt, or else. (Photo by Claire Folger — © 2014 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved)

By day, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is an English literature professor whose questionable teaching method involves berating his students by suggesting that none of them will ever amount to anything. He reserves all his praise for the only person in the class who exhibits any promise of being a writer — the brilliant, beautiful, but modest, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson).

Amy also works part-time at a gambling casino that her teacher frequents. Sadly, Jim is a high roller in need of Gambler’s Anonymous who has forgotten that the odds are in favor of the house, so that the more you play, the more you lose.

Compulsively, Professor Bennett pushes his luck at Black Jack and Roulette and loses more than he could ever afford to repay. He eventually finds himself $250,000 in debt to Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the casino owner who has extended a long line of credit to Bennett.

After being told that he had seven days to pay off the I.O.U. before having his kneecaps broken by Lee’s goons, Jim approaches everyone from his mother (Jessica Lange) to a loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) and to a mobster (John Goodman) for an emergency loan. Unfortunately, rather than paying off his debt with the cash he’s borrowed, Jim heads right back to the casino tables.

The Gambler is a remake loosely based on the 1974 movie that starred James Caan. Mark Wahlberg deftly handles the title role in this witty overhaul of the original thanks to a well crafted screenplay by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed).

The movie describes the gradual slide into depravity of an unrepentant loser in denial. Along the way, Jim is helped by several of his students, including Amy, basketball All-American Lamar (Anthony Kelley), and tennis prodigy Dexter (Emory Cohen). The only question is whether Bennett will be able to pull out of the downward spiral before crashing and burning.

The film unfolds against a variety of Los Angeles locales ranging from the seamy to the posh, and is helped by an appropriate soundtrack. Director Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) was helped by the supporting cast featuring Oscar winners George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) and Jessica Lange (Tootsie and Blue Sky), as well as John Goodman, Leland Orser, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

Very Good (***). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

TWO GUITARS, TWO STYLES: Italian guitarist Beppe Gambetta (left) and Scottish musician Tony McManus will join forces Friday in a concert at Kingston Presbyterian Church.

TWO GUITARS, TWO STYLES: Italian guitarist Beppe Gambetta (left) and Scottish musician Tony McManus will join forces Friday in a concert at Kingston Presbyterian Church.

In a bit of larger-than-life advertising, local musician Bill Flemer has been promoting a concert coming to Kingston Presbyterian Church this weekend. A giant guitar on a platform, towed by a van, has been seen around town plugging “An Evening with Beppe Gambetta and Tony McManus,” taking place at the church Friday, January 9 at 8 p.m.

“It was originally supposed to be a little house concert,” said Mr. Flemer, a guitarist and lifelong Princeton resident whose own band, Riverside, is familiar to local bluegrass fans. “But it grew and grew and so we decided to have it in the larger venue of the church. We’re all just friends and admirers of Beppe.”

Mr. Flemer is among several local fans of Mr. Gambetta, a versatile Italian guitarist from Genoa who plays in the flat-picking style of Doc Watson. Equally enthusiastic is John Weingart, host of the WPRB-FM radio show Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio. 

“Beppe is technically a terrific guitarist,” Mr. Weingart said. “What makes him special is his deep knowledge and respect and feeling for both Italian and American traditional acoustic music. Plus, he has a wonderful, charming sense of humor and stage presence.”

Guitar players watch Mr. Gambetta closely because of his extraordinary facility. “They follow him note for note, trying to figure out how he does what he does,” Mr. Weingart said. “At the same time, many people who are not necessarily fans of folk or bluegrass or Italian music just get captivated by his performances. Part of what’s fun about his concerts is the audience, which is broader and more diverse than usual, and you frequently see people who heard him once bringing their friends to these concerts.”

Mr. Weingart, who has hosted his radio show for more than three decades, doesn’t often have live performers. Mr. Gambetta has been an exception. “It has been a real gift to have him on the show,” he said.

Through their friendships with Mr. Weingart and Mr. Flemer and their families, Mr. Gambetta has come to love Hunterdon County. He and his wife own a house in Stockton. “He often says at concerts that he’s been all over the world, but New Jersey is where he wants to live. People laugh, but he’s not kidding,” Mr. Weingart said.

According to Mr. Flemer, Mr. Gambetta found his calling when he fell in love with the bluegrass style guitar-playing of Doc Watson. He has performed as a solo artist in North America and Europe. He learns from other cultures and is particularly interested in forgotten music from the past. Tony McManus is a Scottish guitarist whom Mr. Gambetta met while touring Australia.

“He is a leading guitarist in Celtic music,” Mr. Flemer said. “So you could say this concert is Celtic meets Italian in the Appalachians, or something like that.”

Mr. Gambetta will also perform in concerts produced by Mr. Weingart at Prallsville Mills in Stockton in March. In the meantime, Mr. Weingart looks forward to this Friday’s event. “Beppe has a deep feeling for the tradition and continuing it,” he said. “But he always adds to it — as he is doing with Tony McManus — so that each concert is something new.”

Tickets are $25 at the door (students with ID pay $10). Kingston Presbyterian Church is at 4565 Route 27.

December 31, 2014

book revthe brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.

—Sir John Falstaff

Shakespeare did not become real to me until I was out of college and reading the plays on my own. The breakthrough came when I read Falstaff’s words aloud and felt for the first time that I was not merely in touch with a character but with the author himself. Here he was coming to life for me in the form of a hugely fat, scheming, whoring, lying, wine-guzzling rogue whose boozing makes his brain “full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” It also “warms the blood” and makes it “course from the inwards to the parts extreme” and “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart.”

Reading and rereading passages like the above excerpt from a lengthy exhortation in Part 2 of Henry IV or the speech from Part 1 that ends with Falstaff saying “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men,” I had no doubt that what might sound like the drunken ravings of a tavern degenerate to the critics and scholars who think Falstaff is overrated was nothing less than the sublime arrogance of the author himself speaking from the heart of his excitement in the act of writing.

Bloom’s Falstaff

In the third month of the Bard’s 450th anniversary year — which this column’s new year’s resolution for 2014 defined as “the year of reading Shakespeare” — I found Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. Writing in the  New York Times (“Soul of the Age,” Nov. 1, 1998), James Shapiro suggests that “While few readers will disagree with Bloom’s choice of Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s two greatest creations, many may be puzzled by the other: Falstaff, ‘the mortal god’ of Bloom’s imaginings,” a choice in which Shapiro finds “more than a little projection going on” since both character and critic “are aging, charismatic, brilliant teachers, masters of language.”

Needless to say, I’m not in the least puzzled by Bloom’s choice of Falstaff, whose claim about inventing and being invented is echoed in the title of his book. Once you’ve found your access to Shakespeare through Falstaff, you know whose side you’re on in the battle outlined in a Nov. 9, 2003 New York Times article by Ron Rosenbaum (“Corrupt Buffoon or Joyous Inspiration?”). The so-called Falstaff Wars of that period centered on Jack O’Brien’s Lincoln Center production of both parts of Henry IV in which Kevin Kline played the character at the center of the controversy. To O’Brien’s complaint that Bloom’s reading of Falstaff was “over the top” (“You can’t have him, Harold!”), Bloom stood firm: “You can do a hell of a lot worse than go over the top over Falstaff. I am very over the top over Falstaff.”

When you read The Invention of the Human, you find that “over the top” doesn’t begin to describe the dimensions of Bloom’s awe (as if the title itself didn’t already express it) in the “pervasive presence” of Shakespeare “here, there, and everywhere at once,” as of “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” The plays “abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” These claims sound less and less extreme the more you read of “an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”

A Christmas Walk

Driving down Bridgepoint Road through the sunny clarity of Christmas Day, a pleasant shock after Christmas Eve’s rain and gloom, I find “the pervasive presence” in the vastness and blueness of the sky ahead of us and all around us, masses of storybook clouds, each a world in itself. What can I say? It’s a Shakespearean sky.

During our walk along the path that begins near Pike Bridge, I’m thinking of Bloom’s reference to the ways Shakespeare’s characters connect with or affect our reality (a word that has become a genre in itself in the years since the millennium) and his seemingly out-there notion that the plays read us better than we read them. At one point near the end of the introduction, Bloom reminds himself and the reader that he once claimed “Falstaff would not accept being bored by us” if he deigned “to represent us.”

What a thought, that our behavior as readers may be subject to the watchful eye of he who is not only witty in himself, “but the cause that wit is in other men.” Instead of God judging us according to the merit of our actions, we’re being judged according to how interesting and amusing we are. It made me think of Keats’s letter in which he imagines “superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude” his mind “may fall into,” as he is “entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer.”

Two Horses

Not long after the paved trail gives way to a boardwalk, my wife and I find ourselves looking over a fence into a field where a mother and her teenage daughter are coaxing two horses to pay some playful attention to their Christmas presents (a pair of glorified beach balls). Instead, the horses come over to the fence, hoping we might have something edible to offer them. I like to think Falstaff would not be bored by us at this moment, eye to eye with the immense animal reality of a horse 18 hands high, and then to touch the solid, sturdy, burr-rough brow, to flinch from a sudden prodigious snort. The moment feels even worthier if you’ve been reading that same morning of Sir John’s reaction to the theft of his horse (“Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore and ten miles afoot with me”) or the night before watching Hotspur’s steed rearing under him as he bids goodbye to his comely Kate before riding brashly, boldly off to die on the point of Prince Hal’s sword in Orson Welles’s celebration of Falstaff and life in Chimes at Midnight (1966).

Welles’s Falstaff

One way to appreciate Falstaff is through the process of elimination. After imagining the Works without certain major characters, a Mercutio here, a Cleopatra there, it soon becomes clear that Hamlet and Falstaff are ultimately and equally indispensable, though losing the inventive energy and street-wise wit of Falstaff might be even a greater loss than Hamlet. In an online interview, Orson Welles, whose centenary looms in 2015, calls Falstaff a “gloriously life-affirming good man … defending a force — the old England — which is going down. What is difficult about Falstaff … is that he is the greatest conception of a good man, the most completely good man, in all drama. His faults are so small and he makes tremendous jokes out of little faults. But his goodness is like bread, like wine.”

The review of Falstaff/Chimes of Midnight by Pauline Kael reprinted in James Shapiro’s excellent anthology, Shakespeare in America (Library of America 2014) is characteristically well-written and wilfully misguided: Welles has an “inexpressive” voice,” she claims of one of the 20th century’s most compelling voices; “there was no warmth in it, no sense of a life lived,” and Falstaff is “the braggart with the heart of a child who expects to be forgiven everything, even what he knows to be unforgivable — his taking the credit away from Hal for the combat with Hotspur.” It’s true, this would seem to be a moral low point for the play’s dominant life- and word-force, to take boastful possession of the body of a slain hero as if he and not Prince Hal had done the deed. In the strict bounds of the plot, Falstaff pays for his sin through the royal banishment he and Hal have already comically rehearsed in one of the play’s most memorable scenes. But if you’ve heard the voice of Shakespeare speaking through Falstaff, again and again whenever he holds forth, never mind the exact nature of whatever knavery the character is performing, you know that the true slayer of Hotspur is in fact the playwright, and that no one is closer to Shakespeare than Falstaff.

Keats as Falstaff

One of the joys of reading Keats’s letters is the way the young poet’s diction and playful allusiveness signals how deeply and happily he, as Bloom might put it, has read and been read by Shakespeare, and by Falstaff, in particular. Keats takes the identification to the limit, writing on his death bed, “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the natural world impress its beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields.” As R.S. White notes in Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare, “there is a comic twist in the diminutive Keats’s semi-identification with the corpulent Falstaff.” Surely this is the ultimate instance of being one with the reality of the character, which “was so immediate for Keats that he feels on the pulses experiences Shakespeare depicts Falstaff going through.” In other words, Falstaff is as “real” to Keats as a friend, or an alter ego, or as his very self, the way an actor feels the reality of a role.

As Big Ben tolled midnight last New Year’s Eve, London launched a fireworks display that transcended all superlatives. Almost all, anyway. What else could you call all that glorious imagery exploding in the skies above the Thames but Shakespearean? Though it’s true that those partial to another supreme source of creative energy might as easily call it Homeric or Miltonic, there’s simply nothing else with the overarching magnitude of Shakespeare.

HUMOR AND MENACE BY THADDEUS ERDAHL: Titled “Op One,” 2014, this 33 by 20 by 16 inch ceramic work by Princeton Day School faculty member Thaddeus Erdahl is on show in a solo exhibition by the artist in the school’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery. The exhibition “Yes Sir No Sir This Way That” runs from January 12 through January 29 with a public reception for the artist Friday, January 16 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. For more information call (609) 924-6700 extension 1772 or visit:www.pds.org.

HUMOR AND MENACE BY THADDEUS ERDAHL: Titled “Op One,” 2014, this 33 by 20 by 16 inch ceramic work by Princeton Day School faculty member Thaddeus Erdahl is on show in a solo exhibition by the artist in the school’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery. The exhibition “Yes Sir No Sir This Way That” runs from January 12 through January 29 with a public reception for the artist Friday, January 16 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. For more information call (609) 924-6700 extension 1772 or visit:www.pds.org.

The Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School will present the work of faculty member Thaddeus Erdahl in an exhibition titled “Yes Sir No Sir This Way That.” The show, which opens on January 12 will continue through January 29. There will be an opening reception with Mr. Erdahl on Friday, January 16 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Mr. Erdahl has exhibited throughout the United States. After receiving an MFA in ceramics from the University of Florida, he was the artist-in-residence and program manager at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. More recently, he was artist-in-residence at the Arts Council of Princeton and a visiting artist at Princeton Day School, where he is currently a member of the art faculty. He also recently had a solo exhibition at Greenwich House Pottery in New York City.

Mr. Erdahl uses ceramic sculpture and portraiture as visual narrations to document what he sees around him. He often uses an artifact or imaginary person to allow the viewer to disconnect from the present and look into their own personal histories. His work evokes the humor in human behavior; he uses humor to get through tragedies.

Of his work, Gallery Director Jody Erdman has said: “his manipulation and mastery of ceramic materials is only trumped by his ability to accentuate the human condition in both humorous and menacing ways.”

Mr. Erdahl is represented by the Obsidian Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, and the Signature Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Yes Sir No Sir This Way That” is open to the public at Princeton Day School, an independent, coeducational school educating students from Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call Ms. Erdman at (609) 924-6700 extension 1772, or visit:www.pds.org.

December 30, 2014
WE SHALL OVERCOME: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo, right) meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and convinces him that the civil rights of African Americans are being abused. As a result, the president and Congress enact legislation that significantly improves the civil rights of Americans.(Photo by Atsushi Nishijima-© 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved)

WE SHALL OVERCOME: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo, right) meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and convinces him that the civil rights of African Americans are being abused. As a result, the president and Congress enact legislation that significantly improves the civil rights of Americans. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima-© 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved)

I was born in the early 50s, which means the civil rights movement unfolded during my formative years. And, like the average black kid growing up in that tumultuous era, I can recall having a visceral reaction to the nightly news coverage, since I had a personal stake in the outcome of the events.

One of my most consequential memories was when three voting rights marches were staged in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Launched by locals with the help of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the first demonstration came to be known as Bloody Sunday because of the way the police viciously attacked the 500 plus participants with tear gas and billy clubs at the direction of the racist sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston).

Fallout from the media coverage attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) who agreed to get involved. And after an aborted second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the controversy blossomed into a nationwide cause as 25,000 people, who were willing to risk their personal safety, descended upon Selma — including Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter, Paul and Mary.

The third march went off without a hitch, although participant Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), a mother of five from Detroit, was murdered by four Ku Klux Klansmen just a few hours later. A couple of other martyrs also made the ultimate sacrifice in Selma; Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and Reverend James Reeb (Jeremy Strong). However, they did not die in vain because, in August, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signed historic voting rights legislation into law.

All of the above has been evocatively reenacted in Selma, a civil rights story directed by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere). The picture’s release is timely in light of the resurgence of political activism all across the U.S. after grand juries did not indict the police officers responsible for the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Believe it or not, this biopic is the first full-length feature made about Dr. Martin Luther King. It is significant that the film will be released nation wide right before Dr. King’s birthday and the awards season.

The movie is an overdue tribute to a revered icon and to the unsung foot soldiers who played a critical role in the African American struggle for freedom and equality.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

December 24, 2014

book rev

Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans.

—Charles Dickens, from A Christmas Tree

Through four decades of marriage, we’ve always had a Christmas tree. The year we lived in Bristol, U.K., we bought a small one and covered it with ornaments made out of tinfoil. Our first Christmas in Princeton the tree lights malfunctioned, necessitating a last-minute visit to the lone store open in the shopping center on Christmas Eve where all we could find was a set of tiny Japanese lanterns that looked nice once you got used to it. But then almost anything looks nice on a Christmas tree.

By Sunday it seemed this might be our first treeless Christmas. After a series of domestic crises, no one had energy to go through the process of picking a tree, getting it into the stand, and trimming it. The motivating force may have been the sight of Nick and Nora, our two Tuxedo cats, sniffing and mewing around the empty place in the living room where the trees of Christmas past have stood. This housebound brother and sister, who like nothing better than hanging out under the tree and drinking their fill from the water in the stand, seem to consider it their due for being denied access to the great outdoors.

Now there it is, the smallest tree on the lot with half as many lights as last year (one strand gave up the ghost), but no less amply decorated and the cats have their make-believe habitat of woodland and stream.

By the Window

First thing every morning Nora comes into my study looking for some company on the book-littered chaise by the window. So we settle down, she curls up between the books and me, and I open, more or less at random, a novel about Shakespeare called Gentleman of Stratford. Published in 1939, its cover labels it A Harper Find and bears a blurb by novelist Hugh Walpole (“The best novel written about Shakespeare”). The novel’s presence in the pile of volumes by the window concerns my wish to bring Shakespeare into a Christmas Eve column as his 450th birthday year, which began with Shakespeare-worthy fireworks lighting up the skies over London, draws to a close.

The problem is there seems at first to be no clear Christmas connection, in contrast to Dickens, the obvious choice to build a Christmas Eve column around. Dickens and Christmas are, needless to say, synonymous. There’s even a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas. “Invented” is a stretch, but there’s no doubt that Dickens staked his claim with A Christmas Carol in December of 1843, and the spell cast by that story is as potent as ever 171 years later. Search online with the tag “Shakespeare and Christmas” and you find that there are only three explicit mentions of Christmas in the Works, two of them in Love’s Labor’s Lost, which was performed before Elizabeth’s court on Christmas Day 1597.

Shakespearean Serendipity 

Close your eyes and open Gentleman of Stratford and what do you know, the magic word leaps up at you from page 203: “Christmas was a season of hard frost, of winds that nipped inside the sleeves and set the flesh shivering.” After a nicely rendered account of London weather in late December 1598, Brophy sets about describing the process of deconstructing The Theatre in Shoreditch and using the remains toward the constructing of The Globe in Southwark. Thus it’s fair to say that the Christmas season in the penultimate year of the 16th century coincided with the building of the theatre most intimately associated with Will Shakespeare, whose presence, above and beyond all holidays and festivals, is far more prevalent in the culture than that of Dickens.

Christmas in Elsinore

However, most of us, whether we’re 7 or 70, have been with Scrooge when he follows Marley’s ghost to the window and looks out at the night “filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste.” And we’re with him when he looks out on the brightness of Christmas morning in an ecstasy of light and warmth and hope and good cheer after the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future have transported and transformed him.

But with Shakespeare at the top of my list I’m reminded of the most memorable and well-spoken ghost in all literature and it occurs to me that the fearful apparition in the first act of Hamlet might have been lurking somewhere in Dickens’s subconscious when he conceived of the ghosts of Marley and Christmas past, present, and future. It’s a notable coincidence, surely, that Scrooge and Hamlet both undertake adventures at the urging of nocturnal spirits, with the ghost of Hamlet’s father’s line “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night” echoed by the ghost of Marley’s “doomed to wander through the world.” No less notable are the lines of the sentry named Marcellus musing on the ramparts of Elsinore: “Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes/Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,/The bird of dawning singeth all night long,” for then “no spirit dares stir abroad,/The nights are wholesome …/So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

What inspires Marcellus to put the soul of Christmas into seven lines in the first scene of the play after twice witnessing “the dreaded sight” of Hamlet’s father’s ghost? Looking for sanity and sanctity in this uncelebrated, unwholesome, unhallowed, and ungracious situation, Marcellus turns his thoughts to the season of “our Saviour’s birth.”

Exuberant Fireworks”

You won’t find solemn references to Christmas in the blizzard of banter and virtuoso word-play called Love’s Labor’s Lost. The word-drunk Biron’s “At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth in the first act and his citing of “a Christmas comedy” in the last scene of the last act are tame compared to the verbal excitements and madcap energies driving Shakespeare’s most playful play, which has in it forces comparable to those of the season, the sense of abundance, the same flow of fancy that gave us A Christmas Carol and St. Nick’s airborne sleigh in “The Night Before Christmas.” Writing about the play in The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom suggests that Shakespeare “may have enjoyed a particular and unique zest” in the composition. Bloom also admits taking “more unmixed pleasure” from Love’s Labor’s Lost “than from any other Shakespeare play,” hailing it “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display.”

Shakespeare’s bounty is everywhere. Close your eyes and pick a passage. Here’s the page named Moth expanding on the ways to win love: “to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humour it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuffed up love by smelling love; with your hat penthouse-like o’er the shop of your eyes; with your arms crossed on your thin-belly doublet like a rabbit on a spit; or your hands in your pocket like a man after the old painting; and keep not too long in one tune, but a snip and away.”

Back to the Tree

Show Dickens a Christmas tree and he’ll give you the world. Less energetic writers might be content to retire to their corners after the opening round of “A Christmas Tree” (1850) with its “multitude of little tapers” illuminating the towering tree that “everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects,” such as “rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves,” real watches “dangling from innumerable twigs,” “French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks and various other articles of domestic furniture … perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping.”

But Dickens has only just begun. After the “jolly, broad-faced little men … full of sugar-plums,” there were “fiddles and drums … tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes,” and “trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises.” Dickens sums it up as “a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood” that sets him thinking of “all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth.”

Including, give or take 166 years, those two black and white creatures nestled under our Christmas tree.

For many years, Princeton Pro Musica maintained a musical tradition of presenting Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime in Princeton. Traditions shifted a bit this year; Princeton’s Messiah offering was presented by the New Jersey Symphony, and Pro Musica turned its attention to Bach. Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau and the more than 100-voice chorus performed two cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the complete Magnificat in D in Richardson Auditorium this past Saturday night, and as the musical accolades to William Scheide keep rolling in, this concert was a fitting addition.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas composed for the celebratory season between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany in 18th-century Leipzig. Parts V and VI, the portions presented by Pro Musica on Saturday night, were composed for the Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany, respectively. As in the oratorios of the time, the narrative is sung in recitative style, and as with Bach’s Passions, much of the narrative is sung by an Evangelist. Musical commentary on the drama is found in the arias and choruses. In Pro Musica’s performance, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson sang the Evangelist role with tight German diction and rhythm, and a clean vocal sound which projected well into the hall, especially when accompanied by a single instrument and keyboard. The two cantatas included arias for seven soloists, with mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lias and Luthien Brackett providing the most dramatic performances of the evening. Ms. Brackett sang arias with a silky tone among all registers (which can get quite low in Bach) with an especially rich tone on the lower passages.

Soprano Justine Aronson sang with a youthful sparkle and soprano Melanie Russell sang expressively, but both sopranos seemed to be more cut out for lush Romantic lines than recitative and the light flexible lines required in Bach. In the Magnificat, Ms. Aronson was able to add expression to the soprano aria in the text,“For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” Baritone Christopher Herbert provided dramatic singing in both the cantatas and Magnificat, with his interpretation of Herod in Part VI of the Oratorio laden with a bit of sarcasm, and the “Quia Fecit” aria of the Magnificat sufficiently regal.

Dr. Brandau kept a light conducting touch throughout the concert, leading a stylishly small orchestra in the Oratorio and an ensemble of period instruments in the Magnificat. Adhering to the 18th-century Kantorei tradition, Dr. Brandau placed the soloists within the chorus, which helped strengthen the already well-trained chorus. A good balance was maintained between the orchestra and chorus, and most notable among the orchestra solos was Geoffrey Burgess, who played most of the oboe d’amore solos in all pieces. A trio of trumpet players, who played valveless instruments, was exceptional in adding a joyous touch to the musical color.

Dr. Brandau assigned much of the Christmas Oratorio to the chamber chorus of Pro Musica, which sang with clean diction and precise entrances following the solos. The full choruses joined on the chorales of the Christmas Oratorio, creating a full sound to close the works. Some of the trickier coloratura passages in the Magnificat were sung by the Chamber Chorus, and throughout the piece, the entire chorus demonstrated effective lilt and phrasing. Conducting effectively without a baton, Dr. Brandau built the terraced dynamics well between the orchestra and chorus.

The Bach works performed Saturday night represented the types of works Pro Musica does particularly well. The concert was a tribute to William Scheide, and showed the exact type of Baroque scholarship and thoughtfulness which he advocated.

NOBODY EVER MADE A VALENTINE CARD JUST FOR ME BEFORE: Billionaire mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, right) is bowled over by the Valentine’s Day card Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) has made just for him to show her appreciation for rescuing her from the orphanage in Harlem.(Photo by Photo by Barry Wetcher-© 2014 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

NOBODY EVER MADE A VALENTINE CARD JUST FOR ME BEFORE: Billionaire mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, right) is bowled over by the Valentine’s Day card Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) has made just for him to show her appreciation for rescuing her from the orphanage in Harlem. (Photo by Photo by Barry Wetcher-© 2014 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Little Orphan Annie was a syndicated comic strip created by Harold Gray (1894-1968) which debuted in the New York Daily News on August 5, 1924. The cartoon described the adventures of an adorable 11-year-old girl with curly red hair who’d exclaim “Leapin’ lizards!” whenever she got excited.

The original strip also featured Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, the millionaire who rescued her from an orphanage; Punjab, his loyal manservant; and Sandy, her adopted stray dog. The popular serial was first brought to the big screen in 1932, and was adapted to the stage in 1977 as a Broadway musical.

Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A), this fifth film version is loosely based on that production. However, the story unfolds in the present at a foster home in Harlem instead of during the Depression at an orphanage located in lower Manhattan. And a few names have been changed, but the roles and motivations essentially remain the same.

At the point of departure, we find Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her fellow wards of the state caught in the clutches of cruel Colleen Hannigan, (Cameron Diaz), an abusive alcoholic with a mean streak who takes delight in exploiting the little girls entrusted to her care. This predicament inspires the mistreated waifs to sing about how “It’s the Hard Knock Life” for them.

Every chance she has, Annie sits in front of the restaurant where she was abandoned long ago, praying for the return of the parents who had abandoned her, singing the sun’ll come out “Tomorrow.” However, hope arrives when she crosses paths with mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), who invites the grimy orphan to move into his posh penthouse.

But did the billionaire make the generous overture merely for a photo opportunity to improve his image as a mayoral candidate? Will the cute kid be callously kicked back to the curb once the campaign’s over?

The outcome won’t be much of a mystery to the average adult, though it will probably keep youngsters and maybe even ’tweens glued to the edges of their seats for the full two hours. As for the lead performance, Quvenzhane Wallis is quite endearing as the latest incarnation of Annie, right from the opening scene where she takes the baton from a freckle-faced redhead (Taylor Richardson).

However, the film has a glaring weakness — a mediocre soundtrack. Jamie Foxx has the best singing voice here, by far. The rest of the cast members give it their all, but simply fail to deliver any show-stopping renditions of the familiar or the new tunes.

Good (**). Rated PG for mild epithets and rude humor. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

December 17, 2014
The five faces of Tatiana: From left, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel and Helena.

The five faces of Tatiana: From left, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel and Helena.

Friday afternoon I’m sitting in a parked car in south Philadelphia reading about the Spanish Civil War. It’s easy to imagine dark deeds brewing on a cold grey December afternoon on the corner of Reed and Ninth in David Goodis’s city. Every time I look up from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (all hell just broke loose in Barcelona), I imagine the piano player and the bouncer from Goodis’s Down There (filmed as Shoot the Piano Player) fighting to the death in the corner of the lot.

A day later, my wife and I are walking along the D&R canal from Kingston toward Rocky Hill when we come to a wooden marker saying Path to Rockingham. So we climb up the hill along a leaf-packed trail to the house on top. According to the sign beside the door, we’re just in time for the three o’clock tour; all we have to do is wait there and the door will open, but it stays closed. Someone’s in there. A single car is parked nearby. Suddenly a red pick-up truck goes skidding off in the distance. Did something terrible just happen? This could be the Jersey farmhouse in the shootout ending of Down There or the house of horrors in the woods at the end of HBO’s True Detective. Washington’s temporary headquarters in the fall of 1783 is beginning to take on a Gothic aura. When we peer in the windows, we’re able to see some shadowy furnishings, a Mrs. Havisham table set for George and Martha. But it’s like the Ship Without a Crew. Either someone’s dead in there or hiding in a dark corner, gone white-haired-crazy after viewing some unspeakable event. We walk around to the other side. Peering in again. No thought of knocking on a door we’re afraid to open. Anyway, who wants to know? Let the mystery steep.

Such are the moves your imagination makes after reading David Goodis, binging on film noir, and addictively watching cable series like The Americans, Homeland, True Detective, The Leftovers, Penny Dreadful, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire.

Not to mention two major stand-outs: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and BBC-America’s Orphan Black.

Tough Beyond Gender

At home I read perfunctory Best of the Year musings from New York Times television critics. Of the shows cited by Alessandra Stanley and Mike Hale the only ones I’ve seen are Homeland and The Americans.

Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA ace played by Claire Danes, and Elizabeth Jennings, Keri Russell’s KGB-agent-as-American-housewife in The Americans, are two tough, fearlessly inventive women. Either one is capable of doing serious damage to members of either sex with their bare hands, though from what I’ve seen, cold-war Elizabeth could deal with war-on-terror Carrie fairly handily should such a time-and-space-bending confrontation ever take place; Mike Hale is right to find Elizabeth “the most brutally uncompromising character in primetime.” Both women are devoted to their mentors, and Carrie risks a lot for Saul Berenson, but when the CIA assassinates Elizabeth’s beloved General Zhukov, she goes against orders, tracking down and seducing the official who ordered the strike (it takes her mere minutes: she’s irresistible when it serves her purpose), beats him senseless in an all-out fight, and then spares him for a death worse than fate from the KBG’s toxic “Granny” (Margo Martindale), whom viewers of Justified will remember as the equally lethal Mags Bennett.

The Comic Sense

One unenviable quality shared by Homeland and The Americans is an almost total lack of humor. Everyone and everything is dead serious. It’s as if too much is going on to allow more than a glimmer of humorous self-awareness. One of the pleasures of AMC’s Breaking Bad is its sustained sense of humor about itself in both dialogue and situations. The comic sense also elevates Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black. But to list Netflix’s compulsively viewable series about a women’s prison in upstate New York as a comedy, amid other Golden Globe nominations, is a bit bizarre, given that Season One, which has scenes as vile and vicious as anything this side of The Sopranos (another show with a sense of humor), ends with one inmate beating another half to death.

Other intimidating women are Gretchen Moll, who took her last bow as Gilian Darmody when Boardwalk Empire ended, and the electrifying Eva Green of Penny Dreadful, someone you should never invite to a seance unless you’re prepared for spectacular blowback from the Other Side.

The Amazing Maslany

Finally, there’s Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, all six of her. Or is it seven? Or eight? Apparently more clones are coming to join Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel, and Helena, the murderously delightful Ukrainian pork-rind gobbler (clones Beth and Katja are dead). Unless critics are blinded by the notion that playing multiple roles is somehow disqualifyingly gimmicky, it’s only a matter of time until Maslany wins a Best Actress Emmy. The Regina, Saskatchawan native has already copped the 2014 Critics Choice award over Claire Danes and Keri Russell. Far from a by-rote stunt, her performance in each role is masterly, complexly nuanced, and unforgettable, her two most most spectacular triumphs being the uptight soccer mom Alison and the terrifying, ultimately endearing, heavily accented bushy blonde enigma Helena (Maslany herself is of Ukrainian Polish, German, Austrian, and Romanian ancestry).

Orphan Black is set in a dark vision of Toronto encompassing a chillingly futuristic city of glass and a funky urban jungle. Clone protagonist Sarah Manning’s flaming gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), a painter, lives in a loft that could have been fashioned from a habitable graffiti dream out of Banksy. The series opens in a subway station where a woman steps out of her high heeled shoes, lays down her purse, and flings herself in front of an incoming train. The scene is witnessed by Sarah, who registers the fact that the woman is her identical twin only seconds before the suicide. A resourceful petty thief, she wastes no time grabbing the purse and when she learns that the dead woman has a large sum of money in the bank, Sarah decides to impersonate her. This immediately complicates her life since Beth is a police detective who has been temporarily relieved from duty pending an investigation into the possibly unjustified killing of a suspect.

A Sort of Sisterhood

Maslany discusses her approach to the different characters in interviews with the Guardian and AV Club. Of Sarah, “I love playing her most; she’s my homegirl. There’s something primal about her …. What’s central to her is this inner conflict she has about motherhood: her daughter Kira is her entire life and yet she doesn’t feel like she’s fit to be a mother …. She has difficulty being intimate with people and she always feels like an outsider. When she meets the other clones she finally feels a sense of ‘being home’ — a sort of sisterhood.”

Of Sarah’s seeming opposite, Alison, the uptight soccer mom, Maslany tells AV Club: “She’s somebody who wants you to think they have everything together and is melting down inside …. As long as everybody thinks that she’s perfect, then it’s all good. As soon as people start to see the cracks, she starts to get really terrified.” By the second season, Alison also starts to spread her wings, becoming in her own ditzy, conflicted way wilder than Sarah.

Cosima, with her dark-framed spectacles and dreadlocks, is the only one of the clones with the technical intelligence and curiosity to explore the mystery of their origin. As Maslana puts it in the AV Club interview, “Cosima sees the world full of opportunity and potential and positivity and life, and Sarah sees it as something to defend herself against and something to be guarded against and something that she can’t trust.” The show’s science consultant, who is also named Cosima, “took us on this sort of two-hour clone seminar,” says Maslany, “and talked about cloning and … the very present nature of the science.” To the Guardian. she describes gay Cosima as “a sort of a hippy stoner …. She’s fine with how finding out the truth about the clones involves a lot of theorising and that there aren’t necessarily any answers. Intellectually, she’s on another plane.”

As for scary Helena, Maslana tells the Guardian, “We called her ‘the little monster’ on set. She’s part-child, part-trained killer; a saint and a demon at the same time. She’s not socialised. Like, she wouldn’t know that it’s not OK just to burp in someone’s face at the dinner table, which allowed me to play her with a measure of black comedy. The wig I wear to play her is amazing.”

Warmth and Depth

Black comedy is a defining term for both Orphan Black and Orange Is the New Black, which features one of the most impressively diverse ensembles ever seen on television (imagine packing a female version of The Wire into a “correctional facility”). Ultimately, what sets both shows apart is their devotion to the human comedy that gives warmth and depth to the high-risk, violently eventful narratives driving them.

One way you can appreciate the uniqueness of these two shows is in knowing it’s pointless to imagine real-life equivalents in city streets or around deserted houses. The lively, complex society in the prison is a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to watch the extraordinary goings-on in Orphan Black — like the dance of the clones that ends the second season — without channeling Shakespeare’s Miranda: “What brave new world is this that has such creatures in it?”

VILLAGE HOTEL: The hotel in Lumberville, Pa, that wood engraver Herbert Stewart Pullinger (1878-1961) depicts here brings to mind more tranquil days. Just under 10 by 12 inches, the image on paper is one of over 20 works by the artist in the exhibition “Spirit of the Everyday: Prints by Herbert Pullinger” opening at the James A. Michener Art Museum Saturday, December 20, and continuing through March 29. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: MichenerArtMuseum.org.(Image Courtesy of the Michener Museum)

VILLAGE HOTEL: The hotel in Lumberville, Pa, that wood engraver Herbert Stewart Pullinger (1878-1961) depicts here brings to mind more tranquil days. Just under 10 by 12 inches, the image on paper is one of over 20 works by the artist in the exhibition “Spirit of the Everyday: Prints by Herbert Pullinger” opening at the James A. Michener Art Museum Saturday, December 20, and continuing through March 29. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: MichenerArtMuseum.org. (Image Courtesy of the Michener Museum)

A small exhibition of works by one of America’s foremost engravers goes on display at the James A. Michener Museum of Art Saturday. For lovers of the wood cut and the art of wood-engraving, this show should not be missed.

Titled, “Spirit of the Everyday: Prints by Herbert Pullinger,” the exhibition showcases a select group of wood engravings and wood blocks given to the museum by Ann and Martin Snyder. According to the show’s curator, Constance Kimmerle, the artist was Mr. Snyder’s great uncle.

This will be the first time the collection has been shown at the Michener. It is perfectly suited to the intimate setting of the gallery space devoted to works on paper, the Bette and Nelson Pfundt Gallery, and a perfect fit for the Michener’s mission of collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American Art, with a focus on art of the Bucks County region.

Herbert S. Pullinger (1878-1961) emerged as one of America’s foremost wood engravers during the 1920s. Born and raised in Philadelphia, where he lived, he also spent many summers in Lumberville, Pa. He studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Arts (University of the Arts) and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught graphic arts and watercolor at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art. Several of his works, such as his 1934 engraving of Dock Street from Delaware Avenue, are in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, although not currently on view.

“It seemed appropriate to show this work in the wintertime because the collection includes several snow scenes,” said Ms. Kimmerle, the museum’s curator of collections, who had not been familiar with the artist’s work until the collection was donated to the museum in 2005.

Ms. Kimmerle, who has been with the Michener for some 14 years, is particularly fond of Mr. Pullinger’s snow scenes and country scenes. “The collection includes some very nice images of Bucks County and some of Philadelphia; they can be divided into urban scenes, country scenes, and scenes of heavy industry.”

The images depict everyday life, landscapes, houses, stores, barns, post offices, bridges, canals, lighthouses, coal breakers, and steel furnaces that the artist encountered in Pennsylvania and New Jersey during the 1920s and 1930s.

“Expressing the ‘spirit of the everyday’ was a genuine concern for many American artists at the beginning of the 20th century, and Herbert Pullinger was no exception,” commented Ms. Kimmerle. “As the works in the show reveal, whether he was rendering a snow scene in rural Bucks County or a dynamic industrial scene in Pittsburgh, Pullinger’s creations moved beyond the mere description of a place to fully capture its distinctive spirit and vital energy.”

Presented by Vivian Banta and Robert Field, “Spirit of the Everyday: Prints by Herbert Pullinger,” will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, from December 20 through March 29. The Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: MichenerArtMuseum.org.

A WIZARD HAS MANY RESOURCES AT HIS COMMAND: While travelling on a path through the inside of a mountain, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) finds a map engraved in the stone walls of the cave which provides him with the information he needs to complete his journey. Fortunately, Gandalf’s staff has a magic light the wizard can use to read the map.(Photo by Mark Pokory - © (c) 2011 New Line Productions, Inc.)

A WIZARD HAS MANY RESOURCES AT HIS COMMAND: While travelling on a path through the inside of a mountain, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) finds a map engraved in the stone walls of the cave which provides him with the information he needs to complete his journey. Fortunately, Gandalf’s staff has a magic light the wizard can use to read the map. (Photo by Mark Pokory – © (c) 2011 New Line Productions, Inc.)

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third and final chapter in The Hobbit series and is based on the fantasy novel of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien. The film is also the finale in the six Tolkien adaptations, directed by Peter Jackson, that include The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Picking up from where the cliffhanger of the last episode left off, the movie opens with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the dwarfs that are traveling with him, fretting over having unwittingly awakened Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). As a result, the ferocious fire-breathing dragon has left his mountain lair and begun venting his wrath upon the helpless citizens of Laketown.

Fortunately, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a skilled archer arrives and takes aim at the chink in Smaug’s protective scales. However, piercing the tiny bare patch of skin on the dragon’s belly opens the question of who gets the gold and priceless baubles that are inside Smaug’s lair in the Lonely Mountain.

As word spreads of the dragon’s death, assorted groups of individuals descend upon the area to stake a claim on the vast treasure. However, the arrival of a horde of evil orcs who are controlled by the Dark Lord, Sauron the Necromancer (also Benedict Cumberbatch), causes the groups to end their hostilities and join forces against their common enemy.

At 144 minutes, The Battle of the Five Armies is not only the shortest, but also the most entertaining of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. Between an engrossing plotline and many combat scenes, the movie is the perfect way to complete the series of fantasy films.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and frightening images. Running time: 144 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

December 10, 2014

rev BachOnce you reach a certain age, your catalogue of associations is so extensive and so many-sided that it’s possible to discover a personal connection to virtually any worthy subject that comes your way. Sometimes the connection is too tenuous or too far-fetched to pursue. Concerning medieval manuscripts, pipe organs, Bach, and William Sheide, who died November 14 and was recently remembered in a memorial service at Nassau Presbyterian Church, the connection with my father, an organist who studied Medieval manuscripts and requested that Bach be played at his funeral, is right there. So, in particular, is the reference to the acquiring of the Bartholomaeus Anglicus (1472) in Fifty Years of Collecting (2004), the Princeton University Library’s 90th birthday tribute to Scheide, the renowned bibliophile, benefactor, musician, founder of the Bach Society, and Princeton University graduate (Class of 1936). For some 20 years, until his eyes gave out, my father studied, edited, and for all purposes lived in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, which dates from the same period.

In one of the essays in Fifty Years of Collecting, Louise Scheide Marshall recalls growing up “surrounded by books of all sorts, sizes, and ages.” She remembers how eager her father was to show her “a special book or two,” one of her favorites being a calligraphic manuscript of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott bound in “lush blue morocco with inset opals.” She also admits to having “a special love for illuminated manuscripts,” and a love for “the sound and touch of the vellum.” Me, I grew up to the sound of my mother heroically typing my father’s 240-page heavily footnoted and annotated doctoral dissertation on the aforesaid De Proprietatibus Rerum.

In the Presence

Three years ago I found myself in the presence of William Scheide’s Bach. Painted in 1748, the Haussmann portrait is one of only two that the composer sat for in his lifetime; it hangs near the entrance to the living room of the Scheide home on Library Place. The day I was there on a magazine assignment, Mr. Scheide was seated with his wife Judith by his side. A massive Holtkamp pipe organ loomed at the far end of the room; perched within reaching distance of the keyboard, was a stuffed animal I recognized from a decade of bedtime-story-reading as Curious George. His owner’s impish smile left no doubt that this was a man who had room in his life for both the mischievous monkey and the intimidating presence in the portrait — not to mention Dennis the Menace, judging from what his children said during the memorial service. And although his fondness for word play was noted, it seems that he was, like my father, “a strict grammarian.”

After some conversation, most of it about the logistics of installing and maintaining the Holtkamp, Bill Scheide was induced by our photographer to “play something” on the magnificent object. Although I had a notebook and pencil in hand during the brief demonstration, I wrote nothing down and have no idea what he played — but it had to have been Bach. The magnitude of the sound prompted a memory of my father’s prize possession, a pipe organ a third the size of the mighty Holtkamp but no less capable of raising the roof. And of course the roof-raiser of choice was Bach.

Schubert’s Adagio

While Bach also dominates the memorial service planned two decades ago by Scheide himself, the program is structured around Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, which was created a few months before the composer’s death at 31 in November 1828. As soon as I saw the Town Topics reference to Scheide’s son John’s thanking the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players after the performance of “a movement from a string quintet by Schubert,” I knew it had to be the adagio that Arthur Rubinstein called the “entrance to Heaven.” In a biographical film, The Love of Life, the world-famous pianist struggles to express the depth of his feeling for Schubert’s adagio. “This is something that I love more than anything …. It might be the soul of humanity,” he says, making a slow sweeping gesture with one hand, “the soul of all of us together.”

Rubinstein is referring in particular to the opening measures where Schubert seems to have ventured into some region between worlds known and unknown, life and death. At this moment, about halfway through the movement, the music intensifies, suggesting a struggle, desperate, passionate, and abruptly resolved before returning to the mood of mystery and longing and wonder with which it began.

That day in 2011, at the house on Library Place, Judith Scheide said the first thing her husband asks for in the morning is music. “We usually begin with Schubert,” she said. “Bill loves Schubert. It centers him for the day.”

The Organist’s Dance

When Judith Scheide said the day began with Schubert, not Bach, I was pleasantly surprised. The depth of Scheide’s devotion to Bach is evident in the choices he made for the memorial service. If the “day” of the service began and ended with Schubert, the eventful essence of it was Bach.

During my amateur listener’s tour of great composers, I’ve steered clear of Bach, perhaps because I’m waiting for an excuse — some anniversary coincidence — to take the plunge. If there’s any one obvious explanation for why I may have shied away from the subject, it’s that Bach’s music is associated with my father’s death. The organist at St. Paul’s in Key West for whom he sometimes covered knew exactly what to play for the funeral service and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor was at the top of the list.

Taking advantage of an excuse to finally explore Bach, I looked online for performances of the numerous pieces listed in the Scheide memorial service program. Out of the lot the one that held me was “Alle Menschen müssen sterben,” BWV 643 (“All Mortals Must Die”), as performed on a Fratelli Ruffati pipe organ by T. Ernest Nichols, a student of Virgil Fox. The video was filmed in a chapel at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. What kept me going back to it again and again was the feeling that I was discovering how it would have been to stand behind my father as he played during the years when he was the regular church organist. Never a willing churchgoer, I always took his playing for granted, instead of proudly thinking how great that my austere father was producing the thunder that made the building shake. Perhaps it was because I was too far away. I couldn’t see his hands, only his face. Now and then he would look down at something, as if distracted.

Like my father, Nichols is slightly built, greyhaired, bespectacled, so here I am looking over his shoulder, in effect, for the first time, and now I know why he kept peering down. I always assumed the organ had only a few pedals, like the piano, not this array of wooden shafts, the equivalent of another keyboard to be played with the feet. It’s embarrassing to realize that I was as clueless and benighted about his music as I was about his scholarship. Funny, while his hands know right where to go, his feet are all over the place, he’s walking here, there, stepping this way, that way, his feet sometimes well apart only to slide side by side until they seem to be riding the same pedal; it’s like a slow thoughtful dance with comical overtones, the way the right foot suddenly shoots up to hit one of the higher pedals, a Charlie Chaplin move, like when he skates going around a corner, one leg out, a touch of slapstick for sure, but all the while the music being made is simple, lovely, consoling, perfect, and knows exactly where it needs to go.

And then at the end comes a sweet surprise, that playful little rolling repeat of the sad figure that’s been like a gentle chant all through, it feels improvised, as if the stern man in the portrait was smiling in spite of himself.

Note: In my Feb. 7, 2007, column on Schubert (“A Little Book Leads the Way: Celebrating Schubert’s Birthday”), I suggested that Toscanini once said that the music he wanted to hear as he died was the adagio of the String Quintet in C major. Apparently, that was not Toscanini’s request but Rubinstein’s, as he admits in the film “The Love of Life.” That was my error, though I would not be surprised if Toscanini had to pick a specific piece of music to hear on the way out, the adagio would be high on the list, if not at the top.

SHADOW COURT: That’s the title of this photograph by Mercer County Community faculty artist Aubrey J. Kauffman. An exhibition of Mr. Kauffman’s images of basketball courts, stadiums, soccer, and lacrosse fields is on display in the solo exhibition, “It’s Not About the Game,” in the Marguerite and James Hutchins Gallery in the Lawrenceville School’s Gruss Center of Visual Arts though January 23. A public reception with the artist will be held on Sunday, December 14, from 2 to 4 p.m. The Lawrenceville School is located at 2500 Main Street in Lawrenceville. Gallery hours are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon. and 1 to 4:30 p.m.; and Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The Gruss Center will be closed from December 18 through January 5. For more information, visit www.lawrenceville.org.

SHADOW COURT: That’s the title of this photograph by Mercer County Community faculty artist Aubrey J. Kauffman. An exhibition of Mr. Kauffman’s images of basketball courts, stadiums, soccer, and lacrosse fields is on display in the solo exhibition, “It’s Not About the Game,” in the Marguerite and James Hutchins Gallery in the Lawrenceville School’s Gruss Center of Visual Arts though January 23. A public reception with the artist will be held on Sunday, December 14, from 2 to 4 p.m. The Lawrenceville School is located at 2500 Main Street in Lawrenceville. Gallery hours are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon. and 1 to 4:30 p.m.; and Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The Gruss Center will be closed from December 18 through January 5. For more information, visit www.lawrenceville.org.

Photographic works by the Princeton-born and Lawrenceville-raised artist Aubrey J. Kauffman, are currently on display in the Marguerite and James Hutchins Gallery in the Lawrenceville School’s Gruss Center of Visual Arts.

The exhibition, titled “It’s Not About the Game,” will run though January 23. There will be a public reception with the artist on Sunday, December 14, from 2 to 4 p.m.

In this exhibit, Kauffman has created images of several sites including basketball courts, stadiums, soccer, and lacrosse fields. In all cases the images are devoid of activity and human interaction. “Urban studies have long been a major part of my photographic practice,” explained Kauffman. “My work extends from abandoned urban structures and shopping malls to building facades, parks, and ball fields.”

The artist has said that his interest “… lies not in the portrayal of teams, sports, or players but in the visual elements of where play takes place. For me, ‘It’s Not About the Game.’”

Now a resident of Ewing, Mr. Kauffman received his BA from Jersey City State College and his MFA in visual arts from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. He teaches photography at Mercer County Community College and is the gallery manager for Mason Gross Galleries at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

He was the creator and coordinator of “Trenton Takes: 24 Hours in the City,” a photo-documentary project featuring the work of 29 photographers who spent one 24 hour period photographing life in the city of Trenton, for which he edited the catalog. His work has been exhibited across the region in group exhibits in the Newark Museum, Philadelphia Photo Arts, New York’s Prince Street Gallery, and the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, Delaware, among others. His solo shows include the New Jersey State Museum, Mercer County Community College, the Southern Light Gallery in Amarillo, Texas, and New York’s 2nd and 7th Gallery.

Mr. Kauffman was guest curator for Rider University’s “Landscapes: Social, Political, Traditional” and was recently awarded the Mason Gross School of the Arts Brovero Photography Prize for Excellence in Photography and the New Brunswick Art Salon “Best in Collection.”

Founded in 1810, The Lawrenceville School is located at 2500 Main Street in Lawrenceville. The gallery is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Visitors are also welcome on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The Gruss Center will be closed from December 18 through January 5. The galleries are open to the public, free of charge. For more information, visit www.lawrenceville.org.


The Princeton University Orchestra is no stranger to Gustav Mahler — rarely have more than a few years gone by when the orchestra has not tackled one of the composer’s monumental works. Orchestra Conductor Michael Pratt has a well-known affinity for Mahler, and has also expressed that for the students who incorporate the orchestra into their busy Princeton collegiate lives, Mahler is music they “need to get to know if they are to develop a strong sense of the unfolding of musical history.” Last year was Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in the spring; this past weekend was time for Symphony No. 4. Mr. Pratt noted that there was not much distance between the two symphonies, but regardless of the apparent lightness and ease of Symphony No. 4, this work was as great a challenge to the orchestra players as any of the other Mahler works they have tackled over the years.

Many ensembles would think a Mahler symphony to be sufficient for a full program, but for Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Thursday night), Mr. Pratt expanded Mahler’s concept of music and literature by pairing the Mahler work with a set of pieces just as innovative in our time as Mahler’s compositions were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four Sean-nós Songs, a setting of four Irish folk songs for voice and orchestra, was a co-compositional effort between two Princeton music faculty members — Donnacha Dennehy and Dan Trueman. All of these folksong arrangements featured Irish vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird, who will join the Princeton University Orchestra on their upcoming tour to Ireland.

Opening with the text “I am stretched upon your grave,” Dr. Dennehy’s arrangement of the first song, “Taím Sínte,” was clearly not a light-hearted view of the world. The text was dark, yet the music had a lyrical and melodic sound not unlike the ethereal voice and orchestra music from recent epic films. Mr. Ó Lionáird expressively sang melodic lines full of indigenous ornamentation, aided by a light oboe line played by Tiffany Huang.

Dan Trueman showed a compositional style with heavier orchestration than that of Dr. Dennehy. A co-founder of the Princeton University Laptop Orchestra, Dr. Trueman has a vivid imagination of sound, and in his arrangements, one could hear such unusual instrumental touches as bowing the xylophone and a very sparse texture of second violins and violas on specific text. The three final arrangements flowed from one to another, as Mr. Ó Lionáird conveyed the strophic texts in both Gaelic and English. Dr. Trueman made full use of the orchestra, but not all at the same time, accompanying the voice at one point with two violas or holding the trumpets to emphasize the drama of the third song, “Siúl a Rún.” The ending of the entire set was impressive as the orchestra disappeared from under the voice without being noticed.

In his introductory remarks to the audience, Mr. Pratt noted that in the case of both of the works presented in the concert, the traditional language set was intended to be sung or read to a small group of people. In the case of Mahler’s symphonies using text, the composer raised this art form to a universal level. Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 closes with a movement for voice and orchestra, sung by Princeton graduate Katherine Buzard. With a colossal orchestral ensemble including thirteen celli, Mr. Pratt began the symphony with quick winds and light strings. Clean pairs of horns brought out accents well and pastoral melodies recurred from oboist Alexa McCall and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. Concertmistress Caitlin Wood easily switched back and forth in the second movement between instruments to play the “Devil’s violin” — an instrument deliberately played just out of tune enough to be quirky.

Throughout the symphony, Mr. Pratt maintained a joyous tempo and mood. Hornist Nivanthi Karunaratne played consistently sensitive lines, including a nicely sustained note leading to the coda of the first movement. The third movement was marked by hymnlike playing the lower strings, with the celli elegantly playing in the upper register, so unified one could not tell if it was a solo cello or the entire section. Against all these strings, Ms. McCall provided a refined oboe solo as the movement flowed along.

The fourth movement belonged to Ms. Buzard, singing texts from the 19th-century Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Gracefully accompanied by clarinet and Ms. Huang on the English horn, Ms. Buzard sang with a voice full of innocence, yet full enough to be heard over the lush orchestration. The English horn in particular provided the orchestral assurance that all would be well in Mahler’s exploration of some of life’s deepest questions.


Princeton University Orchestra’s next performance will be on, March 6 and 7 in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Respighi, as well as the winners of the Concerto Competition. For information visit www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.

SETTING OUT ON THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL: Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out on an 1,100 mile trek from the Mojave Desert in California to the border between Oregon and Washington state. Along the way, she is able to come to snap out of the depression that overcame her when her mother died unexpectedly and that pushed her into becoming a heroin addict.(Photo by Anne Marie Fox © 2014-Fox Searchlight)

SETTING OUT ON THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL: Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out on an 1,100 mile trek from the Mojave Desert in California to the border between Oregon and Washington state. Along the way, she is able to come to snap out of the depression that overcame her when her mother died unexpectedly and that pushed her into becoming a heroin addict. (Photo by Anne Marie Fox © 2014-Fox Searchlight)

Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) life went into a tailspin after the untimely death of her mother (Laura Dern). The grief stricken 22-year-old became emotionally estranged from the people closest to her, including her husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski), and her brother Leif (Keene McRae).

Several years later, when she had reached bottom, she found herself all alone and addicted to heroin. However, she summoned up the strength to set out on what would prove to be a transformational solo trek along the Pacific Coast Trail, which runs from the Mojave Desert in California all the way north to the border between Washington and Oregon.

The perilous 1,100 mile journey proved to be Cheryl’s salvation because it gave her the opportunity to purge her demons as she conquered the elements. That metamorphosis became the subject of her bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail, an Oprah Book Club selection.

The story has been adapted to the screen by Academy Award nominated scriptwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) that features Reese Witherspoon. The picture was directed by another Oscar nominee, Jean-Marc Vallee, whose Dallas Buyers Club won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Unfortunately, this film fails to generate the same sort of gravitas which made Dallas so effectively gripping. The movie unfolds more like Eat Pray Love (2010), a relatively lighthearted story about a woman who is finding herself.

Wild is an uneven movie that includes intermittent interludes of comic relief, such as when Cheryl’s overstuffed backpack repeatedly causes her to topple over. Hence, rather than ratcheting up the tension of her harrowing ordeal, the film simply recounts the assorted highs and lows of a poorly planned camping trip.

Nevertheless, Reese Witherspoon’s performance elevates an otherwise mediocre adventure to an entertaining movie worth recommending.

Very Good (***). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and drug use. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.


December 3, 2014
Mike Nichols on the set of "The Graduate" discussing a scene with his alter ego, Dustin Hoffman, while Anne Bancroft looks on.

Mike Nichols on the set of “The Graduate” discussing a scene with his alter ego, Dustin Hoffman, while Anne Bancroft looks on.

An audience is a ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn’t sense purpose then get out of its way, because it’s going to be difficult …. But when your purpose is high and strong and an audience can sense it, they’ll go pretty far with you.

—Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

When I heard about the death of Mike Nichols two weeks ago the image that came immediately to mind was of the title character played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967). It’s rare this side of Charlie Chaplin for a director and a character to merge the way Nichols and Hoffman do in that film.

Told during a 1999 Film Comment interview that he didn’t “seem to identify” with the title character and appeared to “view him from a distance,” Nichols had to point out that in fact his identification with Benjamin was “predominate” in what he “did with the movie,” adding, “By that I mean, I didn’t cast [Robert] Redford …. I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, and that was very much my take on that story. When I think of Benjamin, there are many things that come from my personal experience.”

That piece of casting and the self-styled way Nichols shaped Hoffman’s performance created the offbeat dynamic that, wonder of wonders, launched the film on its historic course as a classic of American cinema and a box office sensation, number one in the year(s) of its release, 1967-68, and number 21 all time, based on a figure adjusted for the inflationary cost of tickets.

Nichols’s “ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster” of an audience came out of The Graduate smiling and happy. As Stanley Kauffmann puts it in his Dec. 22 1967 New Republic review, “For once a happy ending makes us feel happy.” The last film that did that to an audience featured a British rock group with a funny name, cost relatively little to make (as did The Graduate) and came in at number 8 in 1964 behind three Elvis Presleys, a James Bond, a Sergio Leone, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins. Jump ahead four years from the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night to Vietnam, and you’re already up to your hips in troubled waters: LBJ’s resignation, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the murders in Mississippi, and the disaster of the Democratic convention that helped put Nixon and Agnew in command as the battle lines formed for what Richard Poirier was writing about in his essay “The War Against the Young.” Two years up the road you have the feel-good pinnacle of Woodstock, followed by Hell’s Angels Altamont, Manson, Cambodia and the killing of 13 students at Kent and Jackson State. Among other things.

Even as the divisions deepened, people of all backgrounds and ages were cheering The Graduate, with its unknown and unhandsome hero and its unsavory plot line about a predatory married woman (Anne Bancroft, as Mrs. Robinson) seducing Hoffman’s borderline comatose youth who then falls in love with her daughter (Katherine Ross as Elaine) and finds something in life worth fighting for. Pauline Kael faulted The Graduate for making Benjamin “a romantic hero for the audience to project onto,” one who stood for “truth” while “older people stood for sham,” which perpetuated “a ‘generation gap’ view of youth and age” that “entered the national bloodstream.”

Making the Move

Politics and polarization aside, it was the high-energy denouement that had everyone rooting for Hoffman’s unlikely knight errant as he drove his college-graduation-present Alfa Romeo from L.A. to Berkeley and back until it ran out of gas in Santa Barbara, which left the college track star running to the church to rescue fair Elaine from the prison of a forced marriage, except that, contrary to the usual Hollywood snatched-from-the-jaws-of-wedlock script, he gets there too late, the vows have been exchanged, the nuptial kiss kissed. Ah, but it’s the shock of realizing the deed is done that inspires him to start shouting her name until she looks up and there he is high above the scene in a glass-partitioned balcony, arms outspread as if he were about to take flight and swoop like a superhero to the rescue.

What follows may be the most exhilarating three minutes in cinema since the Beatles descended on an open field to leap about to the full-speed-ahead euphoria of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” With the hand-held camera working its magic, the chaotic escape is so brilliantly enacted, you’d think some mad genius had choreographed the whole sequence (the genius being a combination of Mike Nichols, cinematographer Robert Surtees, and “the magic hand of chance”). Down comes Benjamin, drunk with adrenaline, pushing past the howling, infuriated father of the bride (“you crazy punk, I’ll kill you!”), leaping over the stairway with the ease of Douglas Fairbanks vaulting parapets as the thief of Bagdad, elbowing the murderous Mr. Robinson in the gut while grabbing the nearest cross and flailing away with both hands like a hammer-thrower with a scimitar as the enraged wedding party tumbles backward, parents, relatives, the blond blue-eyed groom (“the makeout king”) and his blond, walking-surfboard frat brothers. Who’d have thought that the dorky character first seen being moved along the moving sidewalk at LAX like an object on an assembly line could pull off the coup of the last movement, spiriting himself and the bride safely through the glass doors he then locks against the mob by using the cross as a wedge. The effect is of staving off a shouting cursing microcosm of straight America, all the outrage muted, buried in silence, as the lovers break into a run.

Feeling It

Compared to the prolonged dance of death that ends Bonnie and Clyde, 1967’s other cinema landmark, the escape from the church and the world of loathing locked behind the glass doors has an even more violent undercurrent, something deeper, uglier, more menacing. Elaine saw it in her parents and the groom as Benjamin shouted her name; that was her moment of truth: to see the hatred twisting and distorting the faces of the people who thought they had her future locked up, and here was this creep in a parka ruining everything. Nichols makes you feel it. He puts you at the emotional epicenter — you feel it all, you feel with the girl, her face uplifted, eyes wide, taking in the reality of her lot, and you feel the joyous rightness of it when she knows what she has to do, screams his name, and makes her move. And you feel it with them as they take off, running hand in hand, literally running for their lives, she in her wedding dress, smiling, laughing with the giddy joy of release, and then the seemingly perfect meshing of the possibilities as they catch the bus that appears at just the right moment and hurry down the aisle in their glory to one of the most memorable moments in cinema, the couple in the back of the bus, winded, triumphant, at first all smiles as Hoffman gives a shout we can’t hear, like an athlete in the ecstasy of winning; after exchanging one loving look, they face forward, stunned by what they’ve done and sobered by the awareness that they are on their way to the unknown as the music that has haunted the film from the beginning brings it to its conclusion, Simon and Garfunkel singing of sounds of silence, darkness, restless dreams, narrow streets, and the cold and damp.

Nichols and May

The other image I saw the moment I heard the news about Mike Nichols was the way he looked at the dawn of the sixties when he and Elaine May were in their prime, making records and appearing on Broadway. As Nichols notes in the commentary included with M-G-M’s 40th anniversary DVD, he learned a great deal about directing while developing and perfecting his routines with May. The experience also enabled him to remake the character of Benjamin in his own image. If you revisit Nichols and May on film or online, you’ll find him employing intonations and inflections predating Hoffman’s performance, his constricted speech patterns and occasional broken whimpers of confusion and distress. All through the film, there are instances where Hoffman is doing Nichols in modified Nichols and May routines, not just with Bancroft but with various other characters, including Mr.Robinson and Benjamin’s parents. Watching himself in one such scene during the DVD commentary he shares with co-star Katherine Ross, Hoffman exclaims, “I can see Mike so much now! That was Mike!”

MEET DANNY SIMMONS: Brooklyn-based abstract painter Danny Simmons will read from his latest book “The Brown Beatnick Tomes” at the Princeton Public Library this Sunday, December 7, at 3 p.m. Mr. Simmons is the older brother of hip hop impresario Russell Simmons and rapper Joseph Simmons. In addition to being a visual artist Mr. Simmons originated and co-produced the hit HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” His appearance marks a collaboration between the Library and the Baker Street Social Club, founded by Taneshia Nash Laird.

MEET DANNY SIMMONS: Brooklyn-based abstract painter Danny Simmons will read from his latest book “The Brown Beatnick Tomes” at the Princeton Public Library this Sunday, December 7, at 3 p.m. Mr. Simmons is the older brother of hip hop impresario Russell Simmons and rapper Joseph Simmons. In addition to being a visual artist Mr. Simmons originated and co-produced the hit HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” His appearance marks a collaboration between the Library and the Baker Street Social Club, founded by Taneshia Nash Laird.

Danny Simmons is known primarily as an artist but it is as a poet that he will appear at the Princeton Public Library this Sunday, December 7, to read from his latest collection of prose and paintings, The Brown Beatnick Tomes.

As an American abstract painter, he’s been lauded for “meticulously rendered and decoratively impressive” work, which hangs in the Smithsonian Institution and is owned by the likes of music industry executive Lyor Cohen and actor Will Smith.

In addition to an impressive portfolio of what he calls “neo-African Abstract Expressionism,” Mr. Simmons also originated and co-produced the hit HBO series Def Poetry Jam. The Broadway version of the show earned him a Tony Award.

According to a recent article in the International Review of African American Art, the Queens, New York native is number three on its list of movers and shakers in the African American art world.

Along with his equally famous brothers, music mogul Russell Simmons and hip hop legend Joseph Simmons (aka “Rev Run”), Danny Simmons co-founded the Rush Arts Gallery and serves as vice president of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation which provides arts exposure and access to the arts to disadvantaged urban youth.

Mr. Simmons holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from New York University, a master’s in public finance from Long Island University, and is the recipient of an honorary PhD from Long Island University. Currently a resident of Brooklyn, New York, he comes to Princeton at the invitation of Taneshia Nash Laird, founder of the newly formed Baker Street Social Club (BSSC), which is co-sponsoring the event with the Princeton Public Library. His visit is the second such event from the BSSC, which was formed to promote African American art and artists in the Princeton area. The Club is an event-driven initiative focusing on music, theater, art openings, and film premieres.

Originally from White Plains, Ms. Laird lived in Brooklyn with her late husband Roland Laird until moving to the Princeton area. She lived in Trenton for some eight years and in West Windsor for about the same amount of time. Today, West Windsor is where she’s raising her two young daughters, Naima, 4, and Imani, 8.

Baker Street Social Club

Named for the Baker Street that was once part of the African American neighborhood in downtown Princeton until it was removed in 1929 to make way for the expansion of Palmer Square, the Baker Street Social Club aims to honor past history by supporting fine arts and film from the African Diaspora.

Ms. Laird acknowledged Princeton’s rich African American community and the writings of the influential Trenton Central High School (TCHS) teacher Jack Washington as inspiration for her founding of the Club. Known as “a keeper of the African-American legacy,” Mr. Washington has taught American history at the TCHS Chambers Street campus for decades. HIs books include In Search of a Community’s Past: The Black Community in Trenton, New Jersey, 1860-1900 and The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community 1890-1965.

The BSSC, said Ms. Laird, will also support black artists in nearby Trenton, which has a resident population that is predominantly African American and Latino, as well as the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick. Membership in the club in its first year is free.

“Our goal is to group like-minded individuals who not only share a love of black arts, but a passion for uplifting the community. In the future, we anticipate trips to the African American Museum in Washington, D.C., the Studio Museum in Harlem, Philadelphia African American Museum, and wherever black arts can be found,” said Ms. Laird, who is a trustee for the Art Pride New Jersey Foundation and the Advocates for New Jersey History. She is a Senior Fellow in the Eastern Regional Network of the Environmental Leadership Program and formerly served as director of economic development in the Douglas H. Palmer administration and later as the executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association.

In 1997, with her late husband, she co-authored Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans. The book was updated and re-published in 2008.

“My late husband had created My Image Studios (MIST), a 20,000 square foot, $21 million entertainment center in Harlem that focuses on cultural offerings–including film, live music, and theater — from the African and Latin Diaspora. He co-developed MIST with real estate developer partners Carlton Brown and Walter Edwards.”

A week after MIST opened officially in January 2013, Mr. Laird died in the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro just two days after his 52nd birthday.

“The mission of the BSSC, to support fine arts and film from the African Diaspora, aligns with the type of programming we do all year round at the library,” said Library Program Coordinator Janie Hermann, whom Ms. Laird credits for helping to get BSSC events off the ground.

“After I had taken my daughters to the Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibition on the African American Presence in Renaissance Europe and to the Princeton Symphony’s performance of a piece inspired by the work of Jacob Lawrence, I wanted to do something to put my arms around what was happening locally and bring it all under one umbrella,” recalled Ms. Laird. “Janie Hermann at the Princeton Public Library has been a fantastic help.”

“I first met Taneshia in March 2009 when she and her late husband Roland gave a reading at the library of their book Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans,” said Ms. Hermann. “We kept in touch over the years and when Taneshia approached me with the idea of having the library be the first venue to co-sponsor events for her fledgling Baker Street Social Club I knew immediately that we would be able to create unique programming that would fill a much needed gap in town.”

“I didn’t want to have to take my kids all the way to Philadelphia or Manhattan for cultural activities so I thought it would be great to develop an audience for African American related material and bring African American artists to the Princeton area,” said Ms. Laird. “This event marks my second collaboration with the Princeton Public Library as part of the Baker Street Social Club and I am thrilled that Danny Simmons is able to be here.” said Ms. Laird. “I have found a lot of support in Princeton and I look forward to bringing some stellar speakers, artists and performers here.”

Mr. Simmons will read in the Library’s Community Room between 3 and 5 p.m. Admission is free.


New Jersey Symphony Orchestra programmed only two works on this year’s post-Thanksgiving Day concert in Princeton, but what monumental works they were. Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium may have drawn an audience laden with holiday feasting, but no one was sleepy during pianist Inon Barnatan’s performance of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Guest conductor Stefan Sanderling led both the orchestra and soloist in a riveting display of elegance combined with precise virtuosity.

Mr. Sanderling scaled down the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for Chopin’s 1830 concerto, composed hot on the heels of the great 18th-century Viennese keyboard concerto tradition. Conducting without a baton, Mr. Sanderling began the long orchestral introduction of the first movement with a bit of a peasant flavor. Unlike a Mozart concerto, in which the upper winds would rise above the orchestral texture, the winds in Chopin’s work blended into the musical fabric, until a delicate flute solo played by Bart Feller combined with lower strings to change the color. With a clean underpinning of horns, the orchestral accompaniment contained both the clarity of previous decades and the pathos of the later 19th century.

Just as the audience was beginning to forget this was a concerto, Mr. Barnatan embarked on a piano solo which exhibited tremendous give and take, holding notes until the last minute before releasing a cascade of descending scales and close hands precision. He played the second theme of the first movement in the aria-like style in which the music was likely conceived, accompanied by Chris Komer on a single horn. Mr. Sanderling clearly felt the drama in partnership with Mr. Barnatan, and the orchestra and soloist were easily able to change the musical mood on a dime.

Throughout the concerto, Mr. Barnatan proved a master of musical suspense, with lyrical melodies, often accompanied by bassoon soloist Robert Wagner. Chopin revealed his Polish roots in the third movement krakowiak passages, based on a heavily syncopated dance popular at the time, and Mr. Barnatan brought out the humor and vitality of the music well.

NJSO’s performance of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor was played with a much fuller orchestra, marked by clean but lush strings. Mr. Sanderling took a somewhat methodical tempo to the first two movements (with an appropriate waltz feel to the first movement), but the third movement “Allegro giocoso” and closing “Allegro” showed a great deal of orchestral flair and a more broad approach to the music. Mr. Sanderling’s emphasis was on a clean performance, with the horns particularly solid. Similar to the Chopin concerto, there were very few instrumental solos in the Brahms Symphony, but solo winds, including from Mr. Feller and clarinetist Karl Herman, added a lighter color to the texture, and a regal trio of trombones helped close the work majestically.

Friday night’s performance may only have contained the two major works of these 19th-century composers, but the audience’s attention was unwavering, as the players of the New Jersey Symphony found drama in the music, and Mr. Sanderling clearly enjoyed his collaboration with all the musicians on the stage. These Thanksgiving weekend concerts have long proved to be a convincing way to begin the holiday season.