Thursday, July 24, 2014

Roger Ebert at the Movies

Roger Ebert was my favorite film critic because, first of all, I tended to like movies I saw after reading his positive reviews, or alternatively, I found that when I read his reviews after seeing a movie, I usually agreed with his views. He possessed a deep knowledge of the medium and had a fine ability to perceive what kind of audience would enjoy a particular movie.

So last weekend we saw the bio film on his life, entitled Life, Itself.  While the picture seemed to spend more time on his last days in a rehab hospital, after losing most of his jaw to cancer, it told me things about him that I'd not known. He was editor-in-chief, for example, of the Daily Illini at the Univ. of Illinois and after securing a foothold at the Chicago Sun-Times as an intern, more or less fell into the movie critic's chair where he remained and thrived and developed an international reputation for the next several decades.

He made his encounter with illness in his last years public partly, it seems, because his partner on public tv, the late Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, had kept his final illness a secret. Siskel and Ebert (the order of billing was determined by a coin toss) had their differences but each apparently disclosed at the end of each of their lives how much they respected the other. They were a good match. Siskel was a bit of a highbrow, having majored in philosophy at Yale while Ebert liked to style himself as a man of the people who grew up in Champaign-Urbana as the son of an electrician and a schoolteacher and went to the home-town school, Illinois. 

It was also delightful to see that although Ebert was able to pal around with movie stars at Cannes and elsewhere, he retained his sense of himself and place, rejecting offers to leave Chicago. After all, it took some years for Siskel and Ebert to get their public tv show shown in New York and L.A. but ultimately they became the two best-known critics in the country.

I thought of how he is missed--despite his having trained a cadre of young critics who carry on his work as reviewers at RogerEbert.com.  I was reading a review in the Baltimore edition of the City Paper of the classic Sunset Boulevard.  The critic found the movie compelling despite his visceral dislike of most everything about it. He missed appreciating how Gloria Swanson had really been a silent star, how Erich von Stroheim who played her butler had truly been a great director in the 20s, and the irony of the tyrannical Cecil B. DeMille, whose extravaganzas are mostly ludicrous today, comes off in the picture playing himself as a kindly veteran who tries to let Swanson down with affection.Ebert doubtless would have remarked on most of these aspects, as well as the delight in seeing true silent stars such as H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton as companions of Swanson at a card-playing evening.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two Traviatas in One Day--Neither in Lisbon

[This entry should have appeared two weeks ago--for which, apologies.]

Yes, this past Saturday, I managed to attend two performances of La Traviata: one was a video relay shown in the Bethesda Row movie house of a production at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, with Renee Fleming, Joseph Calleja, and Thomas Hampson; the second, that night at the Gala Hispanic Theatre (nee Tivoli) on 14th Street in DC, was The IN Series production, with string ensemble and two stirring, totally able lead singers.

The IN Series production may have been the best operatic performance this series has yet produced, and that includes the modernizations of two Mozart-Da Ponte gems: Don Giovanni: the Long Island Version and Marriage of Figaro: the Vegas Version, in the first of which, the title character is truly a Mafia don, while in the second, the Count is a Wayne Newton type in the Vegas nobility. 

Traviata always gets to me, beginning with the prelude, which usually brings the tears right at the start. The first act is absolutely perfect--musically it moves from one high point to another, ending with Violetta's two glorious arias, finally Sempre libere, the significance of which remains a wonderfully arguable issue.

The position of the late Alberta Masiello, told during one of those wonderful old-time Met intermission lectures on the Saturday radio broadcasts, was that in this aria she has decided she will not go off in love with Alfredo but will continue to live her life as a high-priced Parisian courtesan and enjoy joy after joy for however she endures (which in any case will not be for long).

I always have found this a worthy position to take, except that her expressed love for Alfredo in the very next act and her horror at having to give him up both tend to go against the point of the imperious if delightful Miss Masiello.

Renee Fleming was superb in her rendition, of course, and the Royal Opera's production was magnificent.  In recent years, though, I've seen all kinds of Traviata productions--the trend is to stark, modern ones--and they all can work with this seemingly indestructible vehicle.

In between the late morning and evening shows, I also managed to take in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Private Lives, probably Noel Coward's finest play. It remains a delight of his sharp comedy and he maintains the high level of dialogue through three strong acts. The players here were also fine, although seeing the company do Design for Living a couple of seasons ago makes me yearn for the impossible: the original cast of design, for whom Coward wrote the show: the Lunts and himself.

Two Fine French Flicks

Seeing two good French pictures within a few days' spread makes me realize how much I've missed seeing them. Saturday we went to the Eric Rohmer--A Summer's Tale--released in the U.S. finally 18 years after he made it. It suffered not at all from the wait, although Rohmer died, at 89, in the interim. It's a slight story about a slightly goofy guy who goes to the beach, hoping his travelling girlfriend will join him.

Meanwhile he encounters the still-charming Aurelia Langlet, who was Pauline in Pauline at the Beach, another Rohmer seaside feature, who is the improbable waitress at her aunt's restaurant for the summer, until she returns to working on her PhD in ethnology.  She intros him to yet another friend and suddenly he has to balance three relationships and begins to falsify just enough to keep all the balls in the air.

Eventually his girlfriend turns up and you can see how he is drawn to her even if she is unpredictable and sometimes downright mean to him.  The beach scenes at St Lunaire and Malo and other Breton spots are delightful and the whole story leaves you with a satisfying feeling.

Last night was a much more serious film, both at the wonderful Avalon in Chevy Chase, D.C., Diane Kurys' Pour Une Femme, or For a Woman. The Avalon's promo material emphasized that the picture had some relation to people having been in the Holocaust. This did not serve to attract me, but perhaps it does for some. Had they bothered to mention that it was a Diane Kurys film, that would have clinched it for me, though.

She has made several memorable films, one was One Sings, the Other Doesn't, and often she deals with her own life, which is all the more timely today as she frequently explores lives of Jews in France. This one is the story of a marriage--he saves her by getting her out of the French concentration camp with him and she marries him in return; alas, this is not necessarily the basis of a loving life together. Then some mysterious "relatives" appear with a totally different agenda from his somewhat contradictory goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the bourgeoisie, while maintaining full identification with the French Communists.

The picture explores how the couple cope with the challenges they face, through a long series of flashbacks told by their daughters.  Kurys always seems to identify with one of the daughters, as she did in one of her earliest films, Peppermint Soda. French pictures often deal with working class characters more meaningfully (when was the last American picture to deal with them at all?) as in the 2010 picture, Potiche, where Catherine De Neuve is the seemingly incapable wife who takes over a company and deals with Gerard Depardieu as the union leader with whom her husband had come to a standstill.

That picture also demonstrated how "aging" stars like those two could appear as leads though in their 60s--and even though a rather huge Depardieu didn't look as well as De Neuve, who was definitely une femme d'une certaine age. Lastly, these pictures actually treat Communism seriously, including making fun of the Party while appreciating its role in the French society of the postwar 1940s.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jersey Boys Again

I may have written something here when I saw Jersey Boys in Washington on tour.  At the time, I was pleasantly surprised, having gone to the National Theater with low expectations. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was just enough of a plot to carry all the fabulous musical numbers. You also had the feeling that you were right there with the performers in whatever venue they were on stage, much as the Broadway production of Master Class some years ago re-created Callas singing in La Scala.

It permitted me along with much of the rest of the audience to walk out of the theater humming, in this case, quite familiar rather than new-found tunes.  Last night I saw the new movie of the same name in a perfect venue, the wonderful Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC.  It was fun, and for the most part, moved well, but it didn't strike me that it was as well-assembled as the stage show had been.

Now we are not as willing to accept the scrubbed scenes in movie musicals the way we were when such classics as Singin' in the Rain were appeared. Director (and producer) Clint Eastwood seemed to have unbelievably stagey sets for even locations in not-so-pristine locales, such as, well, New Jersey, and downtown New York too, for that matter. The story did take too long getting going, until it takes off when the group finally encounters Bob Crewe, who will be their producer and songwriting support for group composer and singer Bob Gaudio, for the first time in the Brill Building.

Crewe, incidentally, didn't come off half so swish in the show as he does in the picture.  A point for accuracy here, I presume. The two best acting jobs are turned in by the amazing Christopher Walken as the reigning Mafia don, and Vincent Piazza as the least-talented member of the group but the most assertive and ultimately failed leader. John Lloyd Young was Frankie in several of the stage companies--possibly the original--and he's passable. In that the songs themselves are the original recordings, I believe, it's hard to tell how much his singing falsetto is truly at the level of the real Frankie.

So once again a movie has opened up a stage show, and I for one found that the result was all right but didn't generate for me the excitement of the live performance.  I haven't seen all that many of these "music musicals" but did take in Million Dollar Quartet last year, I believe, on Broadway. This thinly-plotted vehicle drew on one real day when Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins happened to turn up at Sam Phillips's Sun Records studio in Nashville. The plot focuse on how all of them, including Sam, was figuring on where their next main chance would come from and how they would seize it.

In the end, this show was mainly a vehicle for the music and at the end of the show, the music went on past the finale for quite some time. I'm not sure of the other similar shows but I still favor some more of a play in the theater and when we get to the movies, alas, the flimsiness of the plot may detract from even as musically delightful an outing as Jersey Boys.

Monday, June 23, 2014

World Cup and World Series

I spent an absolutely delightful day Saturday at Yankee Stadium. Not bad, since I've never been a Yankee fan. Not really a true Yankee hater, either. But I still have some liking for the O's, built up during my ten years of driving up to Baltimore to see a few games a season on a shared series. Alas, I did pick the really bad years for the franchise, but I still enjoyed their coming back after losing the first two to the Bombers and leading right from the start. (They even went on to shut out the Yanks Sunday.)

Baseball on a nice -- actually, perfect -- day is wonderful. You watch for the good plays, the exciting turnarounds. They also honored Tino Martinez with a plaque in what is now called Monument Park -- it had so much more significance when the three monuments--Ruth, Gehrig, and Miller Huggins -- were right there in center field and Joe D (never saw him, alas) or the Mick had to retrieve a ball from behind them. I'm also not sure that anyone but the true greatest belong there and to me, that would be the Babe, Lou, Joe D, and the Mick.

It was also great to see a lot of O's shirts--some for Manny or Adam or Wieters--but more than a few Cals and Brookses.  Lots of Orange in the crowd, as it turned out, because it was Syracuse U day at the park. The O's played well, as they have been capable of doing for the past two or three seasons. Manny hasn't settled down, he's still only 20. But they have the makings of a steady club--Adam Jones, Markakis, JJ Hardy, Witers when he comes back, next year, I think.

The exciting part of the weekend was having the Nats turn it around mid-series against their tormentors, the Braves, and take the last two games after suffering painfully close losses in the first two. It would be great to have two contending teams right around here.

So then I watched the U.S. v. Portugal encounter in the true jungle. Getting beyond the World Cup environment--the FIFA sleazebags who almost make the Olympic Committee look good, the horrible waste of Brazils' building all those needless stadia--the match was wonderfully enthralling to watch. Lots of good play--plenty of room for improvement on the U.S. side although they did play well enough for most of the game. 

I was surprised that after playing total defense for the last few minutes, that they had no one around the defense area in front of the goal when the Portuguese attacked. Did they forget about keeping a close watch on Christiano Ronaldo because he had been "not a factor" until the very final seconds? I would berate Klinsmann for that egregious and disastrous oversight, or maybe the team captain, too.

The organized attack that Portugal mounted was also impressive; I was amazed that for most of the game, it was more or less ineffective. I'm afraid that the wrenching tie (which the U.S. would have readily settled for before the match) may still inspire overconfidence among U.S. supporters. Anyone is crazy should they underestimate everyone's most traditional opponent: the Germans.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fathers and Sons

Yes, it is the title of a fine novel by Turgenev, which I did read quite some time ago, but it merely provides a title for my ruminating about my father this Father's Day. (This novel is likely the only place where you will find yourself having to learn what nihilism means.) A weekend visit to my uncle, now nearly 96, made me think back about so many things, including my father. As for my father, I took his presence for granted for years on end, until one day he wasn't there any more. And that, amazingly, was 27 years ago, since he still looms large in my sights.

Since he was an outsized personality--literally and figuratively--it's taken some time for me to wrestle with both him and his image. Over time, I understood that I had been conditioned to hold the view of him that the world saw: he was engaging, funny, charming, a man's man, and impossible to equal. At least, that was how I saw him as I grew up and until I was forced to gaze more deeply much much later, as Frank Sinatra was brainwashed by the North Koreans in The Manchurian Candidate to regard Raymond Shaw, as played by Laurence Harvey, as a hero when in reality he was anything but.

I'll start with his having been a head counselor, a role he easily filled for life. That meant he assumed he was in charge. He was strong and confident--I always felt that this persona resulted from his early success as a swimming champ. (That was even more of an accomplishment because he apparently took to the water at an early age to overcome an early and blessedly light case of polio.) He had a good sense of humor--though it did include plenty of teasing that could get on you. He was incredibly popular, in that high school definition of the word. Very few didn't like them, and I have to admit that those few--when I happened to meet them, which was rarely, because they were few--were not a very likeable bunch.

Although he loved comedians, including W.C. Fields, he was the opposite of WC in that he enjoyed both kids and dogs, and his liking was invariably reciprocated.  Actually, he liked animals of all kinds, and I remember my Uncle Bill telling me how they had rabbits and other animals at the old house where they grew up at 68 Buena Vista Ave., Yonkers. When he returned to Yonkers, he remained something of a mythic figure. There he would always be "Hooks"--who retained a perfect crawl stroke in the water, had directed amateur shows at the JCC, was a respected member who occasionally attended his Masonic lodge, and would likely have been even more involved in that community had we not moved to Mt. Vernon when I started school. He did abjure titles--he might've headed a number of boards and organizations, including the lodge, had he been willing to spend any major amount of time at it. In this, I would like to think I've at times emulated his example.

That move to Mt. Vernon was something for which I was always grateful. The schools in MV were way better than those in Yonkers and I had great experiences growing up. Harold commuted to New York--he always worked within three or four blocks of Grand Central--and never got that connected to MV, except for when they got him to serve on the temple board. In that he was unlike many of his friends in not being well-off, he served one short term and quickly exited that board. Afterward he warned me never to join a shul until I found out if they had building plans.

He was Groucho's kind of clubman in a way, since he rarely sought out membership but was sought after by members of the Lambs and Players, as well as the N.Y. Regional Board of the Anti-Defamation League. (He fit a slot they needed--a board member who was not a member of B'nai B'rith.) That he resembled an Irish cop probably enabled him to escape being ticketed several times, and allowed him  to be invited to join the New York Athletic Club, which he declined, not liking any possibility that he was a token.

He travelled to California often, during his many years with both AFTRA and SAG (they merged about two years ago, only about 50 years after the idea was first broached and only when merger became critical to the survival of both actors' unions). This made it possible for him to keep in touch with the several parts of his family located in Southern California, including my imperious Aunt Ruth, who invariably assumed that the purpose of his being in L.A. was to visit her, and two of my several grown-up (when I was in grade school) first cousins, Bob, a savvy doctor then living in Malibu Beach in high style, and Herb, a sage lawyer who had gone from the Atomic Energy Commission in DC to working for a nuclear reactor builder based in San Diego.

He maintained contact with many members of his family, something in which I've followed his example. As with so many of his generation, he never spoke of what must have been searing experiences in both the Depression (he graduated from law school in 1932, in case today's grads think they have it rough) and World War II. To use one of his lines, he "came on like Gangbusters" because you never failed to notice when he entered a room. He encouraged me to study rather than go out for sports, which in retrospect was wise in view of my limited athletic prowess.  He was stalwart in supporting my mother, who developed MS, which limited her mobility for 30+ years. He made sure she accompanied him on many of their trips.

He had no patience so despite what most who knew us thought, he could not teach me to swim or to do anything else. As it turned out, his friends, many of whom were my counselors at camp, couldn't either, but I never figured out why I never learned to breathe correctly when swimming until I taught myself about 40 years later.  But I accompanied him to swim meets, where he was usually meet director, armed with the governing whistle round his neck, and comfortably in charge as always. In a way, this set me up to be a college sportswriter, and to a lifelong enjoyment of sports--both in running, a sport he disdained, and as a spectator, which he was incapable of being--yes, Harold Hoffman walked out of the 7th game of the World Series. Why? Because he was bored, as a spectator.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

No Going Home Again

Today was a day for me to take a spin around the two Westchester County (NY) cities where I spent the first two decades of my life:Yonkers, my birthplace, and Mount Vernon, the adjoining community where I spent all my public school years through high school.  I was in the area for a 70th birthday party at Saxon Woods, probably the premier public golf links in a county with six or so public (and many, many private) courses. So that afternoon, on my way to the gathering, I drove around the two towns which lie directly north of The Bronx.

Part of the reason I decided to check these places out was spurred by my meeting a woman on the trans-Canada train last week who related how her physician daughter was living right on the river in Yonkers by the pier where the Day-Liners used to stop in the summer. True enough, that area, once known as the destination of all the Yonkers trolley cars--"Foot of Main St."--has been revived and there are a few smart-looking restaurants and shops near the classic N.Y. Central-designed rail station, also by the Hudson. The old car barn is now a luxury apartment building and there are even streets that did not exist down by the river to provide upscale housing with fabulous views of the Hudson and the Palisades across the way on the New Jersey side. 
.
But I drove up the street by the old car barn where my dad grew up, Buena Vista Ave., always pronounced "Buna Vista" by locals, and most of the housing stock was in bad shape or torn down. On the river side the old sugar factory was being turned into upscale housing. The rest--including my father's old place, looked pretty bad. His old home had a "For Sale" sign slapped on it and it didn't look like one aimed at attracting anyone interested in doing anything but tearing it down and starting over.

So it was with almost all of the rest of downtown Yonkers. The kind of stores that you find in neighborhoods that are going nowhere. The old newspaper building for The Herald Statesman was there but was occupied by others as there now is a county-wide paper so neither Yonkers, the fifth-largest city in the state, nor Mount Vernon has its own daily paper anymore. South Broadway, once a bustling commercial avenue, was mostly forlorn and had some down-market enterprises.

Nor had Mount Vernon yet participated in the great revival lifting all of New York City's outer boroughs--Brooklyn has gone the farthest but the others are close in pursuit. The old Sears is a community college branch and the commercial streets again have discount clothing and cosmetic and other shabby emporia. The old YMHA in Mt. Vernon is boarded up, along with the Elks, and the Masonic Temple in Yonkers where my dad's lodge met. In contrast, the Yonkers YMCA, where my dad became a swimming champion, looked fine and much the same as it always had (it replaced my grandfather's fruit and vegetable store in 1915) although its environs were spare of much active enterprise. Perhaps it is close enough to the magical riverfront to benefit from patronage by the young successful types in that housing.

My 50th high school reunion was held at a White Plains hotel because there's no place in Mount Vernon to have such an event. White Plains isn't an unalloyed success story but Mamaroneck Ave., the main drag, has lots of prosperous-looking shops and snazzy restaurants and modern-looking bars as well. The county seat has always managed to keep itself alive as a going community, even if the new county courthouse was badly designed because of the traditional low-grade political corruption endemic to the county.

I found little to object to in the current White Plains, even if they had torn down the storefronts on Main St. next to where the courthouse once stood--the spot how houses a concrete-walled but at least functioning Macy's. Our old family friend's liquor store, aptly named Main Court Liquors, has been replaced by a small park. These are minor carping as White Plains comes off as almost entirely a success story, likely aided by both its status as county seat and its central location amid the major portion of the county that remains a high-status suburb or exurb.