Monday, December 3, 2018

'Green Book'

Have only good things to say about Green Book, the movie I saw last night. One rarity was that everyone whom I know who has seen it has exulted about how good it is. This time they were all correct. It is a gem.

The two leads--Viggo Mortenson and Mahershali Ali--are not exactly household names. Mortensen was making some good pictures a few years back but has been less prominent of late. This superb rendering of an oft-presented character--the prototypical Italian-American from the Bronx--should get him award attention, as should also be the case for Mahershali Ali, who's appeared in Moonlight and the final Hunger Games film, neither of which I happened to see.

Mortenson has been in a bunch of pics I also have not seen, except for a small supporting role in Witness, some years back. I didn't recognize most of the rest of the cast, but all performed well. 

The key to the success of this movie, however, as is almost always true, is the writing. Director Peter Farrelly is one of the three writers, along with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie. They all deserve huge credit for providing a top-notch script. I did want to see this picture but was also worried that its subject would be sentimentalized or simplified or exaggerated or any one of numerous ways it could have been messed up.

Instead, this tale of a brilliant black musician who's been everywhere and knows multiple languages and a parochial white driver clicks astoundingly well as they move along on a road tour that winds its way toward the Deep South. Each stop brings forth a different aspect of the racism prevailing there in 1962, in case we forget how recently this was the way things were when you travelled not very far past the Mason-Dixon line.

The incidents are presented effectively, without needless exaggeration because what happens is bad enough when played straight. And the picture is not preachy, but filled with plenty of humor, and avoids what I would regard as obvious and demeaning joking between the black and white pair. Done this way, a movie can provide terrific entertainment and carry a valuable message that is more likely to prove effective.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lincoln and the Jews

Attended a lecture tonight sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies by Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University on "Lincoln and the Jews," which turned out to be a highly entertaining as well as informative experience. Prof. Sarna is a top-notch lecturer and I was already familiar with his subject from having seen an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society on the subject, which in turn was based on his book that bears the same title as his lecture.

My general interest in the Civil War and Lincoln, in particular, has grown over the years, sparked to some degree by my giving more attention to my grandfather's extensive writing on Lincoln. He was both an historian and a collector--in fact, he seems to have spent much of his fortune earned from successful law practice on collecting Lincolniana.

One of his books was a compilation of eulogies delivered by rabbis in the U.S. following Lincoln's assassination in 1865, entitled Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of the Synagogue. At the question time after the lecture, I asked Prof. Sarna what he might be able to say about contacts between Lincoln and Jewish leaders, rabbis in particular.

Prof. Sarna's reply was comprehensive in his noting that Lincoln definitely had met several prominent Jewish clergymen, including Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, who was the principal founding spirit of the Reform movement in the U.S. And he also referred to the massive gathering of rabbis who travelled to Washington to protest General Grant's notorious order expelling Jews from a war zone in Kentucky.

He has written an entire book about this incident, and did observe that Lincoln had revoked Grant's order before the rabbis even managed to descend on Lincoln at the White House--this was a time when visitors were able to get to see the chief executive much more easily by just going to the White House.

There was much of interest in Prof. Sarna's talk, including accounts of individual Jewish friends and colleagues of Lincoln. He also referred to Lincoln's extraordinary familiarity with the Bible and his inclusion of Biblical references in many of his speeches and writings. He also noted that Lincoln cleared the way for the first Jewish chaplain to be appointed in the U.S. Army and would have named the first female chaplain had he not felt constrained by existing law.

One of Lincoln's most effective uses of Biblical sources was in the Second Inaugural. Perhaps Prof. Sarna might have mentioned it had he more time because many are unfamiliar with the major part of the address that precedes the famed "With malice toward none..." concluding paragraph:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Fourth 'A Star in Born' Movie

The newest  A Star is Born movie is surprisingly good. The story is obviously a good vehicle that can be adapted to suit the different times when each film was made. I have never seen the first one--starring Frederic March and Janet Gaynor--but the early 1950's production with Judy Garland and James Mason was definitely a classic, both for the acting and Garland's peerless singing. The Barbra Streisand--Kris Kristofferson 1976 version, which I also did not see, sounds like it was all right as a vehicle for both leads, who of course emphasized the singing. 

The biggest surprise of the current film is the discovery that Bradley Cooper can sing, and sing well. Lady Gaga's ability to act probably deserves equal billing here, too. Sam Elliott was excellent in a major supporting role, one that Gary Busey portrayed in the Streisand production.

It was delightful to watch Cooper and Lady G perform as singers and musicians, which lent the picture extra verisimilitude. After all, this is something of a threadbare plot that in lesser hands, should have been laid to rest. I'm not a great believer in remakes but the fact that there have been so many of this vehicle and that the latest is really good is the exception that proves the rule.

It was amazing that both leads here held my attention fully. In the most classic Garland-Mason film, one recalls Garland's singing and Mason's acting, both superb. That picture also had the "inside Hollywood" flavor which worked well for it that fortunately was not something the current movie even aimed to duplicate. Instead, it was geared to today's show business milieu.

The Democrats' Win

A commentator observed the other day that while a "blue wave" may not have characterized the election results, the election was a big win for the Democrats. He's right. The media, as usual, have failed to provide real analysis and instead decided to focus on a few elections -- Florida, Georgia, and Texas -- that fail to present the full national picture.

The Democrats gained seven governorships and at least 31 House seats, making the House gain one of the largest in history. They had the worst break in many decades in terms of how many of their Senate seats were up this time as compared with the Republicans so their modest loss there is less significant in depicting the tenor of the entire national result.

The Dems also gained hundreds of state legislative seats and started to make a comeback at that level that will help them in the redistricting and reapportionment following the 2020 census. The current party leadership deserves credit for this as they took a more active role than Obama's administration did, which is when many of the losses occurred despite the victories at the presidential election level.

Florida and Georgia got attention because the media is fascinated with the possibility of "first African American" officeholders in those jurisdictions. More attention should have been given to the apparent efforts by GOP incumbents to suppress voting, intentional failure by Republican governors of both states to make voting more difficult, and Kemp's refusal until the election was over to surrender his position in charge of administering the election. Note that former President Carter registered his complaint this obvious conflict of interest, which got minimal attention from the media.

Texas was a loss because O'Rourke ran a stronger campaign and did better than any Democrat had done state-wide for many decades. He did not win so it certainly was not a victory. However, he may have established himself as a potential player at both the state and national level anyway. 

Joe Manchin managed to win in West Virginia despite the massive Republican victory there in 2016. He did well because he understood his constituents and may have correctly decided to vote for Kavanagh because his vote was not critical. Heitkamp and McCaskill deserve a lot of credit for sticking their necks out to vote against Kavanagh. It is likely that in their states they were destined to lose anyway so it is unlikely that that one vote made a major difference.

So you might be influenced by the warped media coverage to regard the day as a draw, since the two houses are divided, or even as a GOP win, which appears to merit being regarded as an outright falsehood.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Puccini's 'Horse Opera'

Opera aficionados hear about Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, "The Girl of the Golden West," perhaps the only opera he composed during his most productive years that has not received the critical praise nor the huge popularity of the operas he wrote then: La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Manon Lescaut.  The three one-act operas he wrote that are often performed together as Il Trittico vary among themselves in their relative success as separate items: Il Tabarro is performed now and then, Suor Angelica less often, and Gianni Schicchi frequently, benefitting from being his only comic opera.

Despite Fanciulla's status as an oddball among his oeuvre, I'd been planning to see it for ages but somehow never got to the theatre until last Saturday when we saw it in a movie theatre as part of the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcasts in HD. True, its problem, as usually argued, remains that it lacks the many wonderful arias and duets of the popular Puccini perennials. This opera does have one major aria--a tenor one near the end--which was added by the composer at the "suggestion" of the original performing tenor at the premiere, one Enrico Caruso. Not surprisingly, it is a fine piece.

What was most surprising, however, is that the opera itself was delightful. It did gain, of course, from an excellent new Met production as well as a top-drawer cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann, probably the reigning active tenor today, and Eva-Maria Westbroek, whom I had previously seen in Wagner, notably as Sieglinde in Die Walkuire. The villain of the piece is the baritone, the sheriff, Jack Rance, played by Željko Lučić, who is a fine singer, too, whom I recall from playing the title role in the Met's "Las Vegas"-set production of Rigoletto.

The dialogue, as translated in subtitles in the theatre, was not at all embarrassing in the way operatic language often can be. The plot of this operatic western was pretty decent, too, especially in the world of opera stories, which admittedly do not set a very high standard for verisimilitude. Not only that, but the title-role soprano, Minnie, played by Miss Westbroek, did pull off the poker game scene, in which she wins by cheating, with plenty of aplomb.

There are several major supporting role and the overall chorus of miners performed well and convincingly. Kaufmann's performance was no less than superb--he possesses and knows well how to use his beautiful vocal instrument. I thought that Westbroek and Lučić also sang well and portrayed their characters well. The attractive Miss Westbroek also has the signature golden hair suggested in the English translation of the title.

So this turned out to be a satisfying operatic experience. I will confess that one cannot take the story any more seriously than Puccini's other plots and in that vein, I'm somewhat pleased that the opera actually--and rarely for opera--has a happy ending. Walking out of the theatre was definitely a pleasure because of the enjoyment engendered by the show.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Great Danbury Railway Fair

When I was growing up, one major attraction not too far away that almost everyone I knew wanted to visit was the "Great Danbury Fair." Danbury was not that far away in Western Connecticut and the fair, held in the autumn, was described in glowing terms that later were rekindled in me when I first read James Joyce's story, Araby, in which a boy longs to make it to a highly-touted fair and ends up being completely disappointed when he finally gets there.

In this case, I never managed to join up with some friends to go, and my father made it clear that he regarded this fair as a total tourist trap, which, who knows, it may well have been. I never even passed through Danbury until last weekend when we were staying there over a weekend when we were attending a nice family wedding out in the country about 20 miles north of Danbury near Candlewood Lake.

Having some free time on Saturday, I paid a visit to the Danbury Railway Museum, located in the heart of town where there is a large loop of tracks alongside a great old New Haven station. The old station, well-preserved, is now the museum and includes a large railyard in the middle of the loop where the museum maintains in various states of renovation a fleet of about 20 engines and other rolling stock.

Along the loop also stands a modern rail station that serves as the terminus of a Metro North branch line inherited from the New Haven, excuse me, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad,  which maintained two stations in Mt. Vernon, where I grew up. This Danbury branch, which breaks off from the main Shore Line at Norwalk, once extended as far as Pittsfield, Mass. It is mentioned in a very good John P. Marquand novel, B.F.'s Daughter, in which a character boards a train on the now-abandoned stretch for Grand Central.

The museum in the old station has a good range of mainly New Haven memorabilia, especially good old maps. There are several layouts and dioramas of model trains and a gift shop featuring a wealth of old railroad books for sale at very reasonable prices. And on the platform where they were running brief three-car trips around the railyard ferrying passengers, mostly kids, to a pumpkin patch, a charming hot dog vendor was selling decent dogs with your choice of yellow or brown mustard and several other condiments. It's the first place I've found in years where he puts the mustard on and then the sauerkraut. It's those simple things that no one seems to know how to do any more.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Listening to Lepore

Jill Lepore's essays in The New Yorker have been an adornment there for some time. She is of course a prominent historian, holding a chair at Harvard as well as a staff writer position on the magazine. Perhaps this demonstrates how her writing style is wonderfully enticing, but is accompanied by a piercing capacity to look at history from a different direction and provide enlightenment in areas previously undisturbed for eons.

She spoke at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC recently and accompanied her lecture with slides that illustrated how much of what we assume is totally new in American life, especially politics, has occurred before, or as she said, our history offers multiple precedents. I've started reading her lengthy new history of the U.S., These Truths, which expands on her essays but essentially focuses on the parts of American history she deems important and often previously ignored.

The overarching theme of the first section, for example, is the conflict between liberty and slavery that dominated the entire "discovery" and colonization of the New World. Examining the events of those centuries through this viewpoint gives new meaning to what were previously mere statements of what happened.

I've found her essays always stimulating. In several pages, she covers an amazing amount of ground, usually penetrating to the core of her subject. I've read several biographies of Clarence Darrow, including his own, but her short summary of his life, career, and significance did a better job of explicating the story of America's greatest lawyer than any of the longer works.

She wrote not long ago about the crime victims' movement in the U.S., something with which I've been involved now for several years. It struck me that she was the first analyst I've encountered who wrestled with the continuing tension between the rights of defendants and victims. This has not been easy to resolve nor should it be. Lepore forces us to confront these competing interests and strive to find ways to reconcile them.