Friday, June 8, 2018

'Book Club' and 'R.B.G.'

Two movies we happened to catch lately provided good entertainment and RBG was a very worthwhile experience. Book Club features four actresses d'une certaine age, viz., Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenbergen, and the male component isn't bad either: Craig T. Nelson, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, among them. Not a very great plot and not very well written, but the women are delightful to watch, and I didn't find myself checking my watch.

R.B.G. presents the life story, more or less, of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It's definitely well done. We see her from her Brooklyn origins, her school days at Cornell and Harvard Law, two places I have some familiarity with, and then her legal career and her ultimate appointment to the high court by Bill Clinton. Next time you're tempted to accept some derogatory remark about Bill, remember his Supreme Court appoiitnments compared with what we got from Bush II and the present incumbent.

The filmmakers gathered material from a lot of sources and they assembled it skillfully. This kind of documentary can drag but this one doesn't. I'm not sure the Justice is that fascinating in her own right but the picture presents her in a highly attractive and enjoyable manner. It also focuses on the major cases--both those she argued as a women's rights advocate and those she decided as a justice.

It cleverly presents Supreme Court arguments, which is a challenge, since they are not videotaped or otherwise recorded visually. This is the first film or TV show I've seen that actually shows you the Supreme Court courtroom as it really is, and then runs the soundtrack over those shots. The picture leaves you not only a fan of RBG's if you weren't already, but offers a fine picture of her entire career to support the highly positive image it provides.

One note on the always-mentioned surprising friendship between Justices Ginsburg and Scalia: I heard them both speak at a D.C. Circuit Judicial Conference some years ago. Both had served as judges on the circuit. Scalia was already on the Supreme Court. Both followed the standard practice of both justices and judges until quite recently: neither talk contained any content that related to pending cases, or any matter of current or past public interest. Scalia focused on one of his favorite topics: language. Ginsburg had been the chair of the conference and she spent most of her talk thanking her husband and "life partner," Martin, for his support.

Rather than feeling totally disappointed by the lack of content in these remarks, as I was then, I now appreciate that it was a really good idea for judges to stay out of involvement in current issues and controversies. It's better for them to bore you than to sacrifice at least their appearance of disinterestedness.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Waiting for Godot and Saint Joan

These were two marvelous evenings in the theater because both are wonderful plays. This was the third or fourth time I've seen Godot and each time, I feel I get more out of it. I catch more of what the characters are trying to say or trying to convey. This production was by the Druid company, of Galway, in Ireland. We almost saw them there last year as they were doing O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, a classic that holds its value, too.

The actor playing Vladimir or Didi had a beautiful West-of-Ireland accent, and as all four of the principals spoke, I felt more and more of what Beckett was doing came across. Existentialism and l'absurde as well, but it's not as cold and analytical as this play is sometimes thought to be. You do get to see people acting on their impulses rather than thinking anything out, even as they have all the time in the world to do that, but they do not choose to.

Saint Joan, which Shaw wrote in 1923, only three years after the Catholic Church got around to canonizing Jeanne d'Arc, is one of his best-written plays. There is the usual Shavian talk but it is more to the point here and he devotes much of it to making you understand all of the different motivations that made it in almost everyone's interest to burn the future saint at the stake for heresy. Political necessity was regarded highly then by both the English and the French.

This was presented at the Folger by the Bedlam company out of New York. Four players covered all the 27 parts, and the actress playing Joan only played her. They were magnificent. The play came across in all its power--its "six scenes and an epilogue" which played for about 3 1/4 hours. I always love the epilogue where Joan gets to appear in Charles VII's dream, along with the other major characters. How they all flee or run for cover when she suggests, now taking account of her status as a saint, that she should return to earth as a living being.

"When will this beautiful green earth be ready to receive its saints? How long, O Lord, how long?" is her closing line. Saint Joan was the second play I ever saw, in the '50s on Broadway with Siobhan McKenna. My first play had been Julie Harris in The Lark, by Jean Anouilh, translated by Lillian Hellman, with Boris Karloff as the Archbishop, also a play about Joan of Arc. I might have been pardoned then for assuming that all dramas featured Joan of Arc.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The 23rd Psalm

Psalm 23. 

A Psalm of David. 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; 
He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; 
He guideth me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. 

That is the 23rd Psalm as it appeared the copy of the Holy Scriptures, i.e., the Old Testament, when I was growing up. It is translated from the Masoretic text, and is very similar to the King James Version. It is absolutely beautiful and yet, you rarely get to hear it read aloud in this version. You will hear one or another so-called modern translations that might indeed be more accurate but are leaden and, frankly, awful.

As Dwight MacDonald said in his review of the Revised Standard Version in The New Yorker (and later, the New English Bible) many years ago, they have taken the poetry out of it. He noted that the King James was produced at a time when English was a language in which some of the greatest poetry was written--viz., Shakespeare and Milton, just to name two. Moreover, think of how many titles of all kinds of books--novels and plays especially--have been taken from these words, and not from the currently published revisions.

So every time I hear this great psalm read aloud or written, usually at funerals, unveilings, or memorial services, I cringe. The poetry is gone and no one seems to care. The officiants--be they Christian or Jewish--do not question the sorry text they are intoning. They do not notice that many in the congregation did grow up with the version based on the King James, and I suspect many find the new renditions as ugly as I do. 

When you get a chance, tell your pastor about this and tell him or her that it matters. Some in the Jewish world might take umbrage at adhering to something labelled the King James Version. However, the editions handed out at every bar or bat mitzvah reflected use of the translation based on the Masoretic text--the only recognized or extant version of the Old Testament--and that text was translated then in a form--around the turn of the 20th Century, I believe--that was almost entirely the same as the King James. 'Tis a glorious thing, indeed.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Three in the Air

On my thirteen-hour flight I managed to watch The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mo., and The Party in a marathon movie extravaganza. Best first. Three Billboards was a much more powerful picture than I had expected. Frances McDormand is the real deal, a strong actress who commands the screen. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell gave fine performances, too. I liked how the film showed the attitudes of the townspeople and the indomitable nature of McDormand's character, even when she is off on a crazed pursuit. As a drama, it was gripping, with one big scene after another. A true movie movie. I would've nominated Sandy Martin for Best Supporting Actress--she turns in a bravura turn as Rockwell's mom.

Shape of Water is no more than a fancier rendition of a traditional monster picture. Sally Hawkins plays an interesting version of the girl who falls for the monster and Octavia Spencer gets into her role as the friend at work who watches out for the girl. But: monster warms to girl, monster escapes, monster shows a few human touches, monster is pursued by Russian spies, chase is the last climactic segment, all predictable. Since the monster doesn't speak, Boris Karloff still is the standout in this kind of role. Best picture? They had to be kidding. Some clever lines and photography and nice use of 1950s settings.

The Party is a Brit black-and-whiter with lots of talk. Kristin Scott Thomas and Cherry Jones are always worth watching--since they remain two of our finest actresses. Jones usually is a stage standout so it's good to get a chance to see her on screen. Last time I had seen her was as a powerful Amanda in a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. It was fun seeing Bruno Ganz as an older guy--I remember him as the lead in Wim Wenders's The American Friend, drawn from one of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels. Timothy Spall just seems to stare at the camera. Patricia Clarkson is fun in a way as a real bitchy friend. But it all is a blur and adds up to a whole lot of nothing. These people have the problems all coteries have and their's are not all that enthralling.

Usually I like to relax on long flights with some classics. This time it was the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn Funny Face. It is a classic Hollywood musical, set in Paris, with a collection of Gershwin songs and directed by Stanley Donen. Yes, it's fun but it is so 1950s that I started to have trouble sticking it out. Tried to decide whether Audrey Hepburn was doing her own singing or dancing. If she was, it was very good. Astaire always holds the attention and it is deservedly so. But the silly thin plotting here gets grueling. I kept thinking of the wonderfully titled (and delightfully written) John O'Hara story, Your Fah Neefah NeeFace, in which the characters remember a couple who would do wonderful imitations of Fred and Adele. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Three on Broadway

Had a nice long weekend in New York and saw three shows--Admissions, Come From Away, and Farinelli and the King. All were worth seeing. 

Admissions is at the Mitzi Newhouse under the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center. Drama by Joshua Harmon, who wrote the excellent and very funny Bad Jews which we saw here in DC a couple of years ago. This one has a director of admissions, the wife, at an elite New England private school where the head is her husband. She's big on diversity but then she is hit with it seeming to work against her son's applying to elite institutions.

This play raises good issues of hypocrisy and values. They are well presented by the players, although the burden here to me always rests on the playwright to make it work. I think it does, although I wasn't always sure we had been given enough about each character to make us accept everything that follows. 

Come From Away is a musical--the current style which is steady music all through but which sounds basically the same. I liked it as a show--it moved, the cast was energetic, and they made the concept of the mob of air travellers who were stuck in Gander, Newfoundland, after September 11 work. The theme is the encounters between the air passengers and the locals. Lots of laughs and enjoyable, although, as noted, the music did not strike me as especially interesting.

Farinelli and the King was a more complicated affair altogether. A famed castrato singing Handel's opera in London is recruited to come to Spain to raise the spirits and cure the ailments of the reigning king, Philippe V. The play, her first, was written by Claire van Kampen, who is married to Mark Rylance, who plays the king, and, incidentally, is probably the finest working actor in the world today. There's some good dramatic tension because Rylance and the two performers who play the singer--one delivers the lines as an actor and another, a countertenor, sings the singing parts, which are arias from Handel's operas. Two countertenors share this part, apparently each singing every other performance.

There's been some commentary saying that the play is no big deal but Rylance is always worth seeing. I thought the play was fine and that the two title characters (Rylance (the King) and the singer) play off each other well. Rylance has the biggest part and is always a delight to behold. Supporting characters are good--the institutional figures pressuring each of the lead: in the case of the King, his chief minister, and in the case of Farinelli, his producer/manager in London who wants him back there. There's also another good character, the Queen, who comes from a fine Italian family and understands all. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Unions: You Had to Be There

There are two reasons why unions are on the run in the U.S. One, of course, is the largely successful campaign by corporate America to weaken and destroy them. This has grown in intensity even as the power of unions has diminished. It has succeeded because of the huge funds expended on it and because people who preach against inequality don't really believe in having a strong voice for the working people in this country.

This is written as it looks like the Supreme Court, probably by a 5-4 vote, will end the fair-share rules that enable unions to collect from workers in unionized workplaces who want to be free riders. Too many people--rarely those who have ever worked in a union environment--think this is a free-speech issue. It isn't. It is part of a steady campaign by Republicans on behalf of their donors to wipe out unions.

The people who aren't working class--middle managers, academics, intellectuals--all kinds of people who think they are superior to working people, they talk about doing something about inequality but they won't defend the one institution that did the most to make this country less unequal. And it's because they, most of the Democratic Party, all of them from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, didn't find time to support unions and still haven't come forward now that the Supreme Court majority of reactionaries is about to do them in, that we are in this situation.

You haven't seen any newspaper editorials because media barons hate unions. There used to be powerful ones in the newspaper business and the barons have eventually kicked them out or weakened them. The Washington Post had a bad pressmen's strike years ago and has been anti-union ever since. The New York Times has never had a good word to say about unions nor have their "liberal" columnists.

Yes, I grew up in a family imbued with unions. I almost think you had to in order to recognize what they have done for middle America. No wonder the union members often turned to Trump: he meant none of his promises but he was the only candidate who bothered to at least affect an interest in working people. Hillary's managers figured they didn't need the unions. Great call that was. Bernie's people regarded unions as antediluvian. That's one reason why he couldn't have won.

So don't look to see great arguments for unions. The people who belonged and built them and still work for a living in this country--a small percentage still are represented by unions. The rest are mostly ignorant or suspicious. It's a shame that they are the ones who will suffer.

UPDATE (Feb. 27): Today the Times and the W. Post did publish editorials that favored the union position in the case argued yesterday at the Supreme Court. The Post's editorial supported a weaker position than the unions and their allies advanced in defense of a 40-year-old precedent.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Society

The second in this series of plays about LBJ which began with All the Way is now playing in D.C. at the arena and is titled The Great Society. Saw the first play in New York with Bryan Cranston starring. This production has Jack Willis in the lead, and he played the leading role when Arena did All the Way.

The theme of this play is more downbeat. LBJ starts enacting his domestic program but is consumed by Vietnam. Willis is good--he played the bartender in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, in which he excelled. The play, though, does not excite me the way the first one did and it wasn't just Cranston, who is a superb actor.

These plays do convey political history and there are good parts for Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover, especially. But to me, the major shortcoming, and not totally fatal because it was an entertaining evening, arises from the usual rule that sequels don't match originals. The playwright's method is the same, many of the players are the same even if I didn't see the Arena production of the first play.

What of course was fascinating was to see this play in Washington. The audience was older so many likely recalled Lyndon Johnson. I wonder how many younger people have much idea of what he was about. They are unlikely to have plowed through the four volumes (a fifth is forthcoming, we hope) by Robert Caro, now in his late 70s. 

Johnson made the Senate work. Until he let himself be undone by Vietnam, he also managed to get an amazing run of progressive legislation through Congress, at a time when he had to deal with reactionary Southern Democrats still controlling the committees in both houses. In the first play you were shown how he mastered the process. No one since has come close. It is worth remembering him and remembering what he did and what no one else could do, then or now.