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

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

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

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: 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: (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:

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

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

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


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

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.


THIS PLAY HAS GOT TO SUCCEED: Underneath the Broadway marquee that is advertising the short story he has adapted to the theater, Riggan (Michael Keaton, left) discusses his plans for promoting the show with Mike (Edward Norton) one of the actors in the production. Riggan has sunk all of his savings into the venture.(Photo by Alison Rosa - © 2014 - Fox Searchlight)

THIS PLAY HAS GOT TO SUCCEED: Underneath the Broadway marquee that is advertising the short story he has adapted to the theater, Riggan (Michael Keaton, left) discusses his plans for promoting the show with Mike (Edward Norton) one of the actors in the production. Riggan has sunk all of his savings into the venture. (Photo by Alison Rosa – © 2014 – Fox Searchlight)

A couple of decades ago actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was on top of the showbiz food chain. However, the former box office star’s stock has been declining after playing the popular superhero “Birdman” character in three films. However, today he’s so closely associated with the iconic character that nobody wants to hire him.

With his career fading and no roles on the horizon, Riggan decides to orchestrate his own comeback. He decides to mount a Broadway production — with what’s left of his savings — of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”.

He adapts the story to the stage and plans to not only star in, but also direct the production. He also enlists the assistance of his skeptical attorney/agent Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his drug-addicted daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and rounds out the cast with his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), fellow actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), and her matinee idol beau, Mike (Edward Norton).

Will the washed-up actor manage to make himself over with the help of this cast? Unfortunately, Riggan is a troubled soul with more on his mind than the intimidating challenge of putting on the play.

Unfortunately, he is haunted by a discouraging voice in his head that tells him he’s going to fail.

Written and directed by Oscar-nominee Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel), Birdman is a bittersweet portrait of a Hollywood has-been who is desperate to remake his career. The sublimely scripted dramatic comedy paints a plausible picture of life on the Great White Way.

The movie has several praiseworthy performances, starting with Michael Keaton (Batman) who will likely earn an Oscar nomination in a thinly-veiled case of art imitating life. Also impressive are Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, brief violence, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

November 26, 2014

book revA nondescript sign hanging above an uninviting door on a street in Philadelphia says ART, BOOKS. The door opens easily and what you see on the other side makes it feel like you’ve walked into a movie.

There are all kinds of interiors, some dull, some posh, and then there are vistas like the one extending into the far distance. Books and art are here, as promised. Piled on top of floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with volumes from the era before ISBN numbers are paintings, jumbled, tumbled, balanced, constructively haphazard, as if arranged by a Hollywood set designer on a roll, canvases framed and unframed, original artworks, some of it shrill and chaotic, like hieroglyphics gone wild, graffiti that couldn’t find the right wall. As you venture farther back, past immense, picturesquely faded 19th-century French posters advertising livraisons partout gratis by Paul de Kock, you find boxes of old records, sheet music, postcards, vintage magazines and newspapers, auction catalogues, and, filling the last long stretch of the vista, antiques with enough charisma to suggest that a Maltese Falcon or Brasher Doubloon might be found on the premises.

So if this is a movie, what’s it about, where’s it coming from, and where’s it going? The genre that makes the most sense for such a murky, intriguingly disordered setting is film noir. Except that doesn’t fit with my idea of Philadelphia, even though literary historians say Poe invented the detective story here, writing “Murders in the Rue Morgue” a few years before George Lippard produced The Quaker City … A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1845), one of the wildest, weirdest Gothic mind-benders ever written. It’s also true that the City of Brotherly Love is where two bop piano geniuses suffered brain-damaging beatings in the 1940s, Bud Powell at the hands of the police, Dodo Marmarosa attacked by a gang of sailors who dumped him headfirst on the dockside railroad tracks. You could fashion a tragic noir around either man, both of whom never fully recovered.

The idea of a movie about an embattled pianist brings to mind François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which was based on a novel by what’s-his-name, the writer of the book behind one of my favorite noirs, Dark Passage. I’m thinking of the scene where Bogart goes out in the middle of the San Francisco night to find a plastic surgeon because he needs a new face. The doctor who does the job is philosophical, telling Bogart “There’s no such thing as courage, only the fear of getting hurt and the fear of dying.” For some reason that line gives me the name I was looking for, David Goodis. Because Dark Passage was set in San Francisco, I always thought Goodis lived out there. In fact, he’s right here, right where he belongs, with these thoughts of beatings and piano players in this vast curiosity shop in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finding David Goodis

Looking him up online that night, I learn that David Goodis was born and grew up in Philadelphia, studied for a year at my alma mater Indiana University before transferring to Temple, where he graduated in 1938 with a journalism degree, moved to New York City, worked in advertising, wrote for pulps like Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Mystery, published Dark Passage in the Saturday Evening Post, sold it to Hollywood, knew the stars (there are photos of him with Bogart and Bacall). Then back to his hometown for good to become the poet laureate of Philadelphia noir, turning out Gold Medal paperbacks like The Moon in the Gutter, Nightfall, Cassidy’s Girl, Of Tender Sin, Street of the Lost, and Down There, the book that went to Paris and became Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste.

The only thing by Goodis I could find locally is a paperback of Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the first paragraph:

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

That’s an irresistible opening, word-music and articulated atmosphere as mood-making as Charles Asnavour’s beyond worldweary face glooming above the piano in Truffaut’s film, which brings the melody of feeling to life much as Goodis describes it: “a soft, easygoing rhythm, somewhat plaintive and dreamy, a stream of pleasant sound that seemed to be saying, Nothing matters.” As for the piano player, he’s “slightly bent over, aiming a dim and faraway smile at nothing in particular.”

Where fiction most impressively surpasses film and makes you understand why Henry Miller said the novel was “even better” than the movie is in the love story between the piano player and the waitress. In the film Lena is played by Marie Dubois, whose charming wholesome beauty and lovely smile make it a foregone conclusion that Aznavour’s Eddie would be instantly infatuated. Gaddis’s depiction of the awkward evolution of a deeply felt relationship is so tensely and determinedly understated that it takes on a force greater than all the violence in a violent book. Dubois’s youthful charm is no match for the presence and power of Gaddis’s waitress. This is why the end of Down There has an emotional impact beyond anything in the film. After seeing the woman he was afraid to fall in love with shot dead in the snow, the piano player goes back to the refuge he found after his fall from concert hall glory, a dockside dive called Harriet’s Hut, where Lena worked. One way he tries to resist loving her is to think of her not by name but as “the waitress” right up to the moment of her death — “down there” in South Jersey.

“Less is more” is the line Gaddis follows from the cold wind of the opening paragraph to the deliverance of the conclusion, with Goodis, like a pianist himself, at his own keyboard. People in the bar are urging him to play, they all but lift him onto the stool, but he’s “got nothing to give them,” until a whisper comes “from somewhere” telling him he can try. When, with eyes closed, he hears the sound, “warm and sweet,” coming from a piano, he thinks, “That’s a fine piano …. Who’s playing that?” And as the story ends: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Earlier, when he heard jazz coming over a car radio, the piano player said something similar to himself, “That’s very fine piano … I think that’s Bud Powell.”

It’s said that during his year and a half confinement at Creedmore after the Philadelphia attack, Bud Powell drew a keyboard on the wall of his cell, so he could open his eyes and see it there and imagine his fingers moving on the keys.

The Writer as the Player

The cover of La vie en noir et blanc, the biography of David Goodis by Philippe Garnier (Editions de Seuil 1984), has a photograph of Goodis at the piano, a cigarette in his mouth. After reading his way through Goodis’s dark world, Garnier commented, “I find it very difficult to imagine springtime in Philadelphia.”

Julian Rackow, Goodis’s lawyer in the suit he brought against the hit TV series The Fugitive for allegedly stealing ideas from Dark Passage, found it no less difficult to put his impression of Goodis into words, at least until he saw Shoot the Piano Player: “Upon leaving the theater, my wife said that I looked as pale as a ghost. I was shaken because it was as if I had seen David Goodis.” Besides observing that the Aznavour character had “many of the personality and physical traits of David Goodis,” Rackow felt that both men were versions of “the quintessential loner.” The piano player was the writer, “all wrapped up tightly within himself … far more comfortable within his own shell.”

Streets Given Meaning

On the same day that began at the emporium behind the ART/BOOKS sign, my son and I drove to a used record store called Sit & Spin on South Ninth in the Italian market, a part of the city I’m not very familiar with and at the time had no desire to know better. On our way, we covered a lot of ground, crossing innumerable four-way-stop intersections of streets that had no particular significance for me.

At home, after discovering a fantastically informative web site called “Shooting Pool with David Goodis,” I learned just how wide a swath of urban territory his novels encompass. Those insignificant street names I’d passed earlier that day were now charged with meaning, fiction and real-life merging in an area the web site calls Goodisville: “The majority of the novels were set in Skid Row, the Delaware River docks, Kensington, Southwark, and Port Richmond. Three of these areas are truly lost to contemporary Philadelphians. Working class Southwark is now Queens Village, most of which is increasingly upscale. Dock Street, overlooking the waterfront and once the center of a sprawling and cacophonous produce market, is now the location of independent film theaters, and of the Society Hill Towers apartments. Skid Row fell to redevelopment plans over 30 years ago; the derelicts, the fleabag hotels, and the Sunday Breakfast Association have long been unlamented.”

The circumstances of David Goodis’s death at 49 in March 1967 have a noirish aspect. While the official cause is given as a “cerebral vascular accident,” the consensus seems to be that it resulted from the beating Goodis suffered while resisting a hold-up attempt.

Down There can be found in the Library of America’s anthology American Noir of the 1950s. Gaddis has a volume all to himself in Five Noir Novels.The 2nd Street emporium is Jules Goldman Books and Antiques.

movie rev

WHAT’S HAPPENING TO PEETA?: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been pressed into service to help quell the insurrection in Panem. Nonetheless, she worries about the fate of her friend Peeta, who is under the control of Panem’s president Coriolanus. (Photo by Murray Close – © 2014 – Lionsgate)


In recent years movie studios have split their adaptations of finales from young adult book series — most notably, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Twilight: Breaking Dawn — into two movies. The ploy is apparently an attempt to milk the last dollar out of the end of movies about the series of books.

The Hunger Games is no exception as it divides in half Mockingjay, the last book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling science fiction trilogy. Unfortunately, the movie treads water while it is setting the stage for the dramatic conclusion that will occur in the final film.

Directed by Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), the movie again stars Jennifer Lawrence (as protagonist Katniss Everdeen) with a support cast featuring Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee.

At the point of departure, we find the country of Panem in chaos and on the brink of revolution. Hunger Games victor Katniss reluctantly allows herself to be recruited by the leader of the rebellion, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), to appear in propaganda videos that are designed to foment insurrection.

However, except for Katniss fretting about the mental state of her pal Peeta, who is in the clutches of Panem’s ruthless president, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), not a lot transpires in this anticlimactic film. And — we will have to wait another year for the denouement.

Fair (H). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, disturbing images, and mature themes. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.


Richardson Chamber Players is moving into its second decade, and the ensemble has settled into a smooth-running chamber music machine. Sunday afternoon’s performance at Richardson Auditorium reaffirmed the ensemble’s mission to present, as co-founder Michael Pratt described, “Unique pieces that are well-known but rarely heard live.”

The Chamber Players devoted the first half of Sunday’s concert to the late 18th and early 19th century. The chamber music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is well-researched and performed, but the early 19th-century Italian guitarist and composer Mauro Giuliani (who had almost as short a life) is a little-known treasure in chamber music repertory. Giuliani was considered a virtuoso in his time, joining a rich musical tradition and history when he moved to Vienna in the early 1800s. Giuliani’s Gran Duetto Concertante for Flute and Guitar, Opus 52 was full of the light and crystalline clarity of the late Classical era, and one can easily envision listening to this work in a Viennese salon or outdoor concert. Guitarist Laura Oltman and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld maintained a consistently crisp dialog, with both instruments speaking very clearly in the hall. When accompanying, Ms. Oltman’s guitar chords were supportive of the lyrical flute melody, and Ms. Rosenfeld varied sequential passages well in dynamics. The third movement in particular resembled a youthful Mozart, with precise dotted rhythms in the flute and extremely quick fingering from both instruments.

Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 452 was called by the composer the “best thing I’ve ever written,” and came during his highly prolific decade of the 1780s. In this work Mozart experimented with innovative forms of instrumentation, compositionally pairing up oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn in different combinations to create a wide range of sonorities. Oboist Matthew Sullivan and bassoonist Robert Wagner sat across from clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg and hornist Chris Komer, passing musical thoughts and melodies across and diagonally to one another, all ably accompanied by pianist Margaret Kampmeier.

Throughout the three-movement work, the instrumentalists punctuated the piano phrases well, as Ms. Kampmeier conveyed fluidity from the typically Mozartean piano accompaniment. Mr. Komer provided consistently clean and solid horn playing, and duets among all the instruments were well timed and lyrical. There did not seem to be a real leader among the players; they all seemed to work together with ease. By the 1780s, Mozart had many coloristic choices in continually evolving orchestra instruments, and unique sonorities continually held the audience’s attention, especially delicate passages from the flute and upper register of the piano, and oboe and clarinet colors that were almost interchangeable.

A short but jewel-like piece allowed Ms. Oltman to show the full range of the guitar, playing Francis Poulenc’s Sarabande for Solo Guitar with every note resounding in the hall. This 1960 work, composed a few years before Poulenc’s death, incorporates early 20th-century impressionism into a 17th-century form. Using the slightest amount of vibrato, Ms. Oltman brought out both melody and poignancy. Poulenc’s Sextet for Winds and Piano, composed significantly earlier than the Sarabande but far more complex, seemed to divide the participating instruments into two forces — flute and oboe versus clarinet, bassoon, and horn, all again accompanied by Ms. Kampmeier. When playing together, the instrumentalists’ collective sound was jarring, and the players brought out a great deal of drama from the work. Both bassoonist Mr. Wagner and hornist Mr. Komer provided very lyrical melodies, while flute and oboe passages in thirds from Ms. Rosenfeld and Mr. Sullivan were haunting in sonority. This three-movement piece covered a wide range of moods, with the six players working together well to shift musical gears quickly.

Richardson Chamber Players seems to have programmed the current season around musical “treasures” and “jewels.” The roster of players who comprise this ensemble are no doubt enjoying this season’s journey into the more unknown chamber works in the repertory.

Richardson Chamber Players’s next performance will be on Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 3 p.m. Titled “Pierrot’s Stage,” the concert will feature Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” and other chamber works. For information visit



Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery, Princeton Day School, 650 Great Road, has film drawings and a continual film screening of works by Jerry Hirniak through December 18.

Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has “Ideal Forms: The Art of Alan J. Klawans and Andrew Werth” through November 30. From December 4-February 1, the 19th Annual Holiday Exhibition will be on view. www.Lambertville

Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, has “25th Anniversary Celebration for the Princeton Artists Alliance” through November 26, and “Terrace Project: B Homes by Peter Abrams and Graham Apgar” through May 4. www.artscouncilof

Artworks, Everett Alley off Stockton Street, Trenton, has “Art all Day” exhibit through November 29.

Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, features photography by Jon Lowenstein through December 4. (609) 497-2441.

D&R Greenway Marie L. Matthews Galleries, 1 Preservation Place, “Botanicals Illuminated” through January 9. (609) 924-4646.

Don’t Toss It Gallery, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, has works by upcycling artist Steve Venuto through December 31.

Ellarslie, Trenton’s City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has “Splash! Promising Watercolorists” through January 18. “Ties That Bind: The Aprons of Trenton” runs through March 1. Through January 9, The Ellarslie Victorian Room Christmas is on display. (609) 989-3632.

Gallery Art Times Two, Princeton Brain and Spine Center Institute, 731 Alexander Road Suite 200, has “portraits/ 8 artists” from December through May. The reception is December 5, 5-7 p.m. (609) 921-9001.

Gourgaud Gallery, 23-A North Main Street, Cranbury, shows Art from the Gourgaud Gallery Committee through November 30. “Cranbury Art in the Park” is December 7-28.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, has “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective,” through July. “Michael Graves: Past as Prologue” is on view through April 5, celebrating 50 years of the architect’s design firm. The International Sculpture Center’s 20th Annual Student Award Exhibition is also shown through April 5. Visit

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has “Princeton’s Portrait: Vintage Photographs from the Historical Society of Princeton” Wednesday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m. The show is also on view at the Updike Farm location, 354 Quaker Road, every first Saturday, noon-4 p.m. $4 admission.

Hopewell Branch, Mercer County Library, 245 Pennington Titusville Road, Pennington, has paintings by Tim Parris through December.

Hopewell Valley Community Bank, 280 Route 31, Hopewell, has drawings and paintings by Paul Mordetsky and Kyle Stevenson through December.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “Wendy Patton: Nuit Blanche” through December 7. “Starstruck: The Fine Art of Astrophotography” runs through February 8, and “A Sense of Place: Paintings by Ranulph Bye” is on view through March 1. Visit www.michenerart

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Bugs & Frogs & Toads! Oh My! Original Children’s Book Illustrations” by Nancy Winslow Parker, through June 21, “Odessa’s Second Avenue Avant-Garde: City and Myth” through April 19, works by George Segal through December 31, and the first posthumous show of Russian contemporary artist Oleg Vassiliev through December 31. Visit www.

Lewis Library, Fine Hall Wing at Princeton University, has an exhibit, “The Mapping of Tibet from the 17th Century” through December 31. (609) 258-6804.

MCCC Gallery, Mercer County Community College, West Windsor, has “Ice Next Time,” textiles and artifacts, through December 4.

Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street, has docent-led tours of the historic house and its gardens, furnishings, and artifacts. “Hail Specimen of Female Art!” runs through March 29. (609) 924-8144 or

Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street, has “Color Windows,” paintings by Jane Adriance, through January 4.

New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope, Pa., has “Works in Wood” weekends through December 14. www.

Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, has “Princeton Underground: 2020;” an exhibit of photos by Alan Chimacoff urging the placement of electrical wires underground, through January 3.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan” through February 1. “Kongo Across the Waters” runs through January 25. Call (609) 258-3788.

Princeton University Firestone Library has “Nova Caesarea: A Cartographic Record of the Garden State, 1666-1888,” through January 25.

Rago Arts & Auction Center, 333 North Main Street, Lambertville, hosts a talk on Art Nouveau by Benjamin Macklowe on December 2, 6 p.m., during the preview week for Rago’s Great Estates, Jewelry and Silver Auctions. Visit

University Medical Center at Princeton, Plainsboro, has in its gallery “Paintings and Works on Paper by Jean Burdick” through February 28.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, has the “Off the Wall” exhibition through January 3. The opening reception and artisan market is December 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (609) 716-1931.

The Artists’ Gallery at 18 Bridge Street in Lambertville will hold its 19th annual Holiday Exhibition featuring artwork by its 16 member artists from Thursday, December 4, through Sunday, February 1, 2015. There will be a free opening reception for the artists on Saturday, December 6, from 4 to 7 p.m.

Each year, Artists’ Gallery, one of Lambertville’s longest running art galleries, celebrates the holiday season and the beginning of the new year with a group show. “Our Holiday Show is an excellent opportunity both for collectors and art lovers to meet the gallery artists and for the artists to offer a selection of work they are especially excited to present,” said gallery artist Beatrice Bork. “It is a fun event with serious artworks but at a variety of price points just in time for the holidays,” said fellow gallery artist Paul Grecian.

For the show, each gallery artist will offer personally selected pieces or work. Besides Ms. Bork and Mr. Grecian, the artists include Jane Adriance, José Anico, Gail Bracegirdle, Richard Harrington, Joe Kazimierczyk, Alan Klawans, Patricia Lange, Alla Podolsky, James Pryor, Eric Rhinehart, Carol Sanzalone, Michael Schweigart, Charles David Viera, and Andrew Werth.

Since its inception in 1995, Artists’ Gallery has exhibited the work of area artists in a variety of styles and media. This diversity of styles is a point of pride for the artist-run gallery and means collectors of all types can enjoy exploring the gallery’s many different rooms. Visitors will find paintings, photography, digital prints, sculpture, and more in media that include oil, watercolor, pastel, acrylic, ink, and ceramic.

Each of the artists on the gallery’s roster was juried by their peers based upon the quality and style of their work. Because Artists’ Gallery is run by the artists, visitors benefit from being able to speak with at least one exhibitor during each visit and may meet several artists during a group show. The artists are always pleased to speak about their materials, techniques, and motivations.

Artists’ Gallery hours are Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., or by private appointment. For more information, visit:


November 19, 2014

DVD revI suggest that Hitchcock belongs —and why classify him at all? — among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Poe. —François Truffaut

According to a 2012 critics poll in the British film journal, Sight and Sound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is “the greatest film ever made.” You can be sure that enlightened movie watchers around the world dispute that declaration, and with good reason. Even if I believed in the legitimacy of film rankings by “authorities” in the field, Vertigo would be nowhere near the top of my list. But when the late Robin Wood, whose writings on Hitchcock are classics of film criticism, demonstrates in eloquent and convincing detail why Vertigo is “one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has given us,” I’m moved to reexamine my feelings about it, especially when a remastered print is available on DVD.

Having now seen the film twice in a three day period, I’m less appalled by the idea that people new to the medium or with limited knowledge of it will take the poll seriously enough to assume that Vertigo somehow sets the standard for  film greatness. In the context of its era, it stands alone, a fascinating creation, ahead of its time, daring, inventive, and uncompromising. What sets it apart in addition to Hitchcock’s predictably masterful direction is Robert Burks’s cinematography, Bernard Herrmann’s score, and Jimmy Stewart’s performance as a man doomed to fall in love. Only Hitchcock could film a love story that takes the romantic metaphor to a morbid extreme. At the same time, as is frequently the case with Hitchcock, the picture suffers from the same lapses and  excesses associated with the pop culture legend he crafted for himself as cinema’s rotund “Imp of the Perverse” — excesses he shares with the “Imp’s” author, that other morbid genius and master of the macabre, of whom Hitchcock has written: “… it’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

Mad Love

Freely adapted from D’entre les morts, a lame thriller concocted by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau to catch Hitchcock’s attention, Vertigo is about a police detective named Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) who has retired from the force due to acrophobia brought on when he nearly falls to his death while pursuing a suspect. A college friend hires Ferguson to shadow his elegant, allegedly suicidal wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), who has been behaving strangely, brooding in cemeteries and communing with a museum portrait of her ghostly alter ego, Carlotta Valdes (a name that Poe would love). After saving her life when she jumps into San Francisco Bay, Ferguson falls in love with her and she with him, but when she jumped off the top of a Spanish mission bell tower to her death, he was unable to save her because of his fear of heights. The shock and the nightmares it engenders precipitate a nervous breakdown, from which he recovers with help from Midge, his former girlfriend who still loves him (a bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes). When he meets Judy, a sales clerk without an elegant bone in her body (Kim Novak again) but with a haunting resemblance to Madeline, he’s compelled to make her over in the image of his dead beloved. This he accomplishes, only to discover that Judy had pretended to be Madeline as part of a plot involving the murder of the old friend’s rich wife. Twice deceived, taking Judy-as-Madeline back to the tower, he forces her to the top while chastising her for her duplicity and at the same time proving to himself that he can overcome his acrophobia. At the top, startled by the appearance of a nun, the girl falls to her death. Staring down at her body, Scottie Ferguson is “cured.” We know better. For Hollywood in 1958, this is a remarkably downbeat ending.

Jimmy Stewart

Of all the epigraphs that could be applied to Vertigo, the most apropos might be from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “I have been half in love with easeful Death/Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,” except that for Jimmy Stewart’s love-dazed Scottie, Death is beautiful and her name is Madeline. What Hitchcock ghoulishly classifies as a “necrophiliac” romance reaches its psycho-sexual pinnacle when the shopgirl Scottie has transformed into Madeline stands before him, “as if she were naked,” says Hitchcock, who consecrates the moment with a dizzying, full-circle 360-degree-angle shot of an embrace of Wagnerian proportions (to the  Liebestod yet) between a madman and the corpse he’s created to satisfy his morbid lust (the level of discourse, again, typical of the master of the macabre). No one but an actor of Stewart’s stature, a star the moviegoing public absolutely believes in, could have preserved his integrity in so neurotic a role.

In the early scenes with Midge, in her apartment/studio (she’s an artist reduced  to designing bra/lingerie ads), you have glimpses of the familiar “waal, shucks ma’am” Jimmy Stewart whom comedians and certain schoolboys in the 1950s loved to impersonate. The actor remains at a bland remove from the character until the moment he drags Kim Novak out of San Francisco Bay. It’s surprising that for all his attention to the virtues of the film, Robin Wood neglects to mention the extraordinary medium close-up two shot of Stewart and Novak after he’s pulled her out of the cold water. The image is on the screen only a matter of seconds, but in it you see the man coming face to face  with his gorgeous fate for the first time. He’s shaking, out of breath, as he beholds, dazed, in a dream, the timeless beauty of the creature whose life he’s saved. An actor unsurpassed in believably and wrenchingly expressing extremes of anguish, Stewart makes you feel the man’s helpless plunge to the depths of his love for the unconscious woman in his arms; at this point his emotions are so exposed,  it’s as if he thinks she’s about to die at the very moment he’s discovering and adoring her. All he can say is her name. It’s his first declaration of love. It also may be Novak’s most beautiful moment, for she’s seen in profile, drenched, damply radiant, like Hitchcock’s version of the Birth of Venus. We still haven’t heard her say a word, which is just as well since she never seems comfortable speaking the language of the wealthy woman she’s impersonating. While that serves the director’s purpose well enough, you still can’t help wishing a more accomplished actress were playing the part.

Wrong Move

Probably the most famous instance of Hitchcock’s fetish for women in spectacles is in Strangers On a Train, when the strangling of Farley Granger’s bespectacled wife is reflected in the lenses of her fallen glasses. Hitchcock makes Midge’s glasses her essential feature, a way of at once defining and deglamorizing her role as the sane, sensible, loving alternative to Scottie’s fatal fascination with Madeline and the portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Aware of the power of that image over the man she still loves, Midge uses a copy of the painting to compose what Robin Wood calls “a parody portrait of herself” as Carlotta, complete with her own dark-framed glasses, which look ridiculous in the elegant period trappings of the original portrait. Wood sees nothing to complain about in the cringe-inducing scene where Midge shows Scottie the portrait; he treats  the embarrassment as if it makes filmic sense, as if she thinks she can render the obsession “ridiculous by satirizing it.” In fact, she humiliates herself, alienates Scottie by violating the image of his passion (he stalks out of the apartment), and worse yet, she violates the film’s credibility, having been forced by the Imp of the Perverse to make exactly the wrong move. When she tears her hair and berates herself (“Stupid! Stupid!”) she’s also voicing the sentiments of a large portion of the audience watching the irrepressible Hitchcock inflict a direct hit on his own creation.

Vertigo in the Perverse 

All quibbling aside, I find the presence of Poe in Hitchcock appealing because it agrees with my sense of Hitch as a 20th century phenomenon in American culture comparable to Poe in the 19th century. Like Hitchcock, Poe inflicted perverse distortions on his own work, playing games, jesting, defying the logic of his creation with ornate, bombastic, melodramatic gambits of the sort that made T.S. Eliot observe that “The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights,” and that inspired Henry James to call an enthusiasm for Poe “the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Comparing Poe to Baudelaire, his champion in France, James found him to be “much the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.”

Finally, it’s worth noting the employment of vertigo as a metaphor in “The Imp of the Perverse” where Poe writes, “We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain.” The notion of the perverse, of knowingly surrendering to the fatal impulse, is developed at length in the same long paragraph as Poe elaborates on this moment on the brink, as if one were tempted by curiosity  to experience “the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height … for the very reason that it involves … the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge.”

In a 1960 article called “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark”, Hitchcock recounts his discovery of Poe. “When I came home from the office where I worked I went straight to my room, took the cheap edition of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and began to read. I still remember my feelings when I finished ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ I was afraid, but this fear made me discover something I’ve never forgotten since: fear, you see, is an emotion people like to feel when they know they’re safe.”

As always, I found Hitchcock’s most interesting remarks in François Truffaut’s collection of interviews, from which several quotes are taken, including the one at the top.

WHAT SHALL WE EAT? The title of Judy Brodsky’s painting brings to mind the old nursery rhyme, “If all the world were paper and all the seas were ink, and all the trees were bread and cheese, what should we have to drink?” It’s not known whether the esteemed artist had Mother Goose in mind, subliminally or otherwise. Perhaps her question relates to a more contemporary environmental problem. Or perhaps she’s just referring to the glorious abundance of the peaches, pears, plums, grapes, and apples that she renders here. Ms. Brodsky’s work, as well as paintings and drawings by Mel Leipzig and Harry I. Naar, are on view in the exhibition, “Rendering, Representing & Revealing” through December 13 in the Romano Gallery of the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts at Blair Academy in Blairstown. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or by appointment. For more information, call (908) 362-6121, or visit:

WHAT SHALL WE EAT? The title of Judy Brodsky’s painting brings to mind the old nursery rhyme, “If all the world were paper and all the seas were ink, and all the trees were bread and cheese, what should we have to drink?” It’s not known whether the esteemed artist had Mother Goose in mind, subliminally or otherwise. Perhaps her question relates to a more contemporary environmental problem. Or perhaps she’s just referring to the glorious abundance of the peaches, pears, plums, grapes, and apples that she renders here. Ms. Brodsky’s work, as well as paintings and drawings by Mel Leipzig and Harry I. Naar, are on view in the exhibition, “Rendering, Representing & Revealing” through December 13 in the Romano Gallery of the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts at Blair Academy in Blairstown. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or by appointment. For more information, call (908) 362-6121, or visit:

Paintings and drawings by three renowned local artists will be on display at the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts at Blair Academy in Blairstown.

The show is an opportunity to examine differences and parallels in the work and careers of Judith K. Brodsky, Mel Leipzig, and Harry I. Naar, all of whom have played significant roles in teaching and mentoring young artists in New Jersey.

Ms. Brodsky worked for many years as an artist, printmaker, and arts advocate. She is a distinguished professor emerita of visual arts at Rutgers University, where she established two art institutes — The Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions and The Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art.

For 45 years, Mr. Leipzig taught painting and art history at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) where he earned the respect and love of generations of young artists.

Mr. Naar began his teaching career some 30 years ago at Rider University, where he serves as director of the Art Gallery to which he consistently brings stellar and surprising artists and their work.

Besides their teaching roles, however, each of the artists featuring in the Blair Academy demonstrates a singular artistic vision.

“With a background in 20th-century modernism, the artists’ work also includes representational and figurative elements of a 21st-century perspective,” said gallery co-director Rita Baragona. “Though their work often reflects similar origins and motifs, Mr. Naar, Mr. Leipzig, and Ms. Brodsky create very individual artworks that often explore the intellectual, political, and social issues of our time.”

Ms. Brodsky, who has a master of fine arts from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, where she majored in art history, has organized and curated numerous exhibitions. Her work is in the permanent collections of more than 100 museums and corporations around the world, such as the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; The Stadtmuseum in Berlin, Germany; the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at the University of California at Los Angeles; the Rhode Island School of Design Museum; The New Jersey State Museum; and The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. She has also written extensively about women’s influence on the arts.

During his long career at MCCC, Mr. Leipzig maintaind his career as a painter, exhibiting his work in solo and group showings across the country, as well as in New Jersey. His paintings can be found in the White House Collection in Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum in New York City; the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut; the National Endowment for the Arts Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City, and closer to home in the the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. His work is regularly featured at the Gallery Henoch in New York City.

Mr. Naar’s work is also frequently exhibited in private and public collections throughout New Jersey, including The New Jersey State Museum, the American Council on Education, The Morris Museum of Arts and Sciences, Newark Museum, the Montclair Art Museum, Rutgers University’s The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, and The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in New York City. At the Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he won the Hassam, Speicher, Betts, and Symons Purchase Fund award and his numerous group shows include The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; The Canton Art Institute in Canton, Ohio; The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; and The Boca Raton Museum of Art in Boca Raton, Florida. Currently, Mr. Naar’s drawings are in the New Jersey State Museum’s exhibition, “America Through Artists’ Eyes.”

“Rendering, Representing & Revealing” will continue through December 13 in the Romano Gallery of the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts at Blair Academy in Blairstown. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. or by appointment. For more information, call (908) 362-6121, or visit:


One of Princeton’s most resilient instrumental ensembles is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — through all the economic ups and down over the past two decades, The Dryden Ensemble has continued to present concerts of 17th and 18th century works to Baroque music aficionados in the Princeton community. The Dryden opened its 20th anniversary season with a collaborative performance featuring more vocal music than the ensemble has presented in the past.

It is not unusual for the Dryden to feature a vocalist, and the inclusion of British counter-tenor Ryland Angel in Saturday night’s concert at Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel fit well into the Dryden’s mission of exploring Baroque repertoire. Mr. Angel has been making his mark in Baroque opera for a number of years, including on international stages and through more than 50 recordings. The Dryden Ensemble chose to center the performance on the music of Henry Purcell, a composer not celebrating any particular birthday, but not heard nearly enough in Baroque performance circles.

In the first half of the concert, Mr. Angel joined the ten members of the Dryden Ensemble in both free-standing songs and excerpted arias from Purcell operas. Mr. Angel used the space of Miller Chapel well to fill the hall with a well-rounded sound in the upper register and a rich tone on the low notes. Mr. Angel and violoncellist Lisa Terry brought out well the ground bass compositional style of “Musick for a While,” with Mr. Angel paying particular attention to the text. Mr. Angel seemed to find the aria “See my many Colour’d Fields” from The Fairy Queen easy to sing, communicating well with the strings.

With three strings and four winds, The Dryden Ensemble created good contrast in instrumental color in the pieces that were purely for chamber orchestra. Playing with an especially dry sound, the three strings (violinists Vita Wallace and Dongmyung Ahn and violist Fran Berge) created a great deal of tension in the music in the Chaconne from the play The Gordian Knot Untied. The wide selection of Rondeau’s and Aires played by the Dryden were conveyed with a well-blended collective sound, with solid underpinning by harpsichordist Webb Wiggins and theorbo player Daniel Swenberg, who also doubled on Baroque lute. Adding to the mellow and smooth color of the winds was Virginia Brewer playing oboe da caccia, an instrument (the “hunting oboe”) that is closely related to the modern English horn.

Where The Dryden Ensemble ventured into new territory was in its presentation of a significant portion of Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur, also known as The British Worthy. In the last six years of his life, Purcell composed incidental music for more than 40 plays, with many of the musical forms of the time represented in the scores. For this performance of King Arthur, the Dryden was joined by Mr. Angel and the Princeton High School Chamber Choir, which had been meticulously prepared by Vincent Metallo. Singing around the players in a semi-circle and performing mostly conductorless (Webb Wiggins led the chorus from the harpsichord in key moments), the 27-member Chamber Chorus sang with crisp diction and attention to detail, with a particularly bright sound from the women’s sections. Instrumentalists, singers, and soloists performed as a tightly-knit group, with Mr. Angel also helping lead the way.

Several soloists stepped out from the chorus, including a Shepherd duet well sung by sopranos Annika Lee and Blaine Rinehart. Soprano Alina Flatscher and bass Jai Nimgaonkar communicated well with each other as well as with the audience in their duet, with Ms. Flatscher singing with a clear and strong sound that carried well in the hall. The chorus was adept at changing style in the humorously titled “Chorus of the Cold People” in which the singers “chattered” and “trembled” effectively.

With so many performers onstage, the possibilities for new audience members were immense, and the almost full house at Miller Chapel no doubt included new potential friends to the Dryden. Artistic Director Jane McKinley and the Dryden Ensemble added a touch of poignancy to the performance by acknowledging the contributions of William and Judith Scheide over the years, including performing a Bach chorale as an encore. The type of collaboration seen Saturday night can only strengthen arts organizations, and Saturday night’s clearly successful performance will surely open new doors for all involved.