Monday, February 6, 2017

Enjoying Some High Notes

Every so often I like to pull up some selections from YouTube to enjoy some singing, mostly opera but some Broadway, that I might not have ever heard. Today I started with Joan Sutherland in the last two pieces from Act I of La Traviata. She has always been a favorite of mine, and in this selection, which shows her nicely dressed and more attractive than she usually appeared on stage, it is not so much the high notes, which needless to say are superbly done, but the trills, that she just seems to handle so effortlessly, that blew me away.

Sutherland always made it all sound easy. I also watched her do the Si, vendetta ending of Act II (used to be Act III when they did the brief Act I as a separate act) of Rigoletto with Sherrill Milnes. She goes up for the high note at the end, followed by his, and both are magnificent, but as usual, she holds it right along and makes it seem so easy. She also hits the high note at the end of the Quartet with no less than Luciano Pavarotti as the tenor, and there is no question that she is the dominant voice as it ends gloriously. By the way, she looks absolutely awful and makes Gilda, who I believe is supposed to be in her late teens or maybe just 20, look like she's 70 or so.

I listened to several Rigoletto Quartets and Gigli probably had the sweetest tenor, while Caruso's recordings, which helped create his legend in the early days of sound recording, show how mellifluous his voice was. In the Quartet I heard, however, it was thrilling to hear Amelia Galli-Curci produce the beautiful high notes at the end to keep pace with Enrico. 

Not to be ignored was an Act II finale with Leonard Warren and Bidu Sayao. She also had a lovely, sweet tone and Warren may have been the finest baritone of all time, although I did enjoy a Cornell MacNeil rendition which one commentor referred to as "Big Mac" coming on strong. Tito Gobbi also gave Maria Callas a good match in both the Act II finale and Quartet.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

German Oscar Nominee

Enjoyed a charming German film over the weekend entitled Toni Erdmann. It has been nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and had been submitted by Germany. It is unusually long--2 hrs, 40 mins--and drags at times. But it is highly entertaining and enjoyable in a way that European films can be.

I won't give too much plot away but it focuses on a man who is essentially retired after a checkered career who decides to follow his coldly business-oriented daughter, a management consultant, back to her ongoing project in Bucharest, Romania, after she came to Germany for his birthday and spent most of her visit on her cell phone.

He dresses up as different characters--the title of the film is one of them--and turns up at her management meetings with clients and social occasions as well, including a reception at the American Embassy. This all results in both embarrassing and uproarious scenes with plenty of good supporting players. The two German leads have both been in previous pix but were new to me.

The film is incredibly funny and recommended if you don't mind a picture that gives its characters and plot time to develop and play out. It has several scenes that earned it an R rating, none of which is in any way objectionable, but if made in the U.S., it probably could have received a full X rating. Somehow the Europeans manage these scenes without your feeling that it is at all exploitative. 

This picture also bears a message in terms of how we live our lives, and while fortunately it is not made so as to hit you over the head with a ton of bricks, it fulfills its goals of making you think as well as laugh.


Friday, December 23, 2016

The Man I Knew Who Did the Most Good

There was a memorial service last weekend at the Hay-Adams here in DC for a man who made a difference. His name was Clarence M. Ditlow and in this town of constantly shifting personalities and revolving-door careers, he stayed at the same job for 43 years. He was a lawyer as well as an engineer who directed the Center for Auto Safety.

Because of Clarence, all of the safety improvements in our automobiles made over the past few decades happened. The auto companies didn't put in airbags or seat belts or a lot of devices you aren't entirely aware of out of the goodness of their hearts. Clarence testified on the Hill, in the states, and on TV and radio so that laws were passed making them make these improvements for safety. He also was responsible for getting many "lemon laws" passed that allow people to go to court to get back the money they paid for a bum car.

He came from an auto dealer family, as Ralph Nader noted in his talk at the service. Clarence understood cars but even more, he understood people and Washington. He did his homework. He knew the records of problems reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration better than the people who worked there.

He always kept his cool. The auto lobbyists would show up and scream and yell about how much this or that needed fix was going to cost them. Clarence refused to be provoked. He just went back to his office and did some more research and preparation, because he also went to court against them when he had to.

I wish I had seen Clarence more often or knew more people like him. There never are enough people like him. Nader said Clarence was responsible for saving millions of lives. How many people do you know about whom you can say that? I'd see him now and then at a farmer's market we both stopped at on Saturday mornings and sometimes with Marilyn, now his widow, whom we had known forever, or so it seemed. 

This is someone who will be missed. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Manchester-by-the-Sea

When we last lived in Massachusetts, I recall visiting the very scenic seaside town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. That, it turns out, was no preparation for the movie of the same name we saw the other day. It takes place in the winter--the off-season--so no beaches, no Fourth-of-July parade, no light-hearted summertime fun.

It's dour, gray, gloomy--you can feel the cold. The performances by the leading players are excellent, especially Casey Affleck, who is not off-screen at all. Cinematic stalwarts like Michelle Williams all don the requisite Bay State accents to good effect. The story, which explores Affleck's facing the responsibility of serving as guardian for his late brother's teenaged son (well played by Lucas Hedges), is fine but the picture turns out to be slow without redeeming value.

The same ground seems to be covered again and again. Affleck's character has shut down emotionally and cannot relate to any of the others because of a major disaster for which he has some responsibility. The plot is believable in the way it proceeds to what turns out to me to be a very reasonable ending.

Without criticizing Affleck, I found myself unable to empathize with his character. In fact, he's behaved in what is so clearly an antisocial manner that I wondered why his brother had continued to rely on him to be the guardian, given that the brother's death, although anticipated, was not sudden.

So is this a good depiction of the working-class society of this kind of New England town, with its many warts on full display? Probably yes, but there's not much to show for all the sturm und drang after two-and-one-quarter hours of immersion. Everyone tends to behave predictably; there's some good use of both flashback and sudden flashes.

But does this picture have the kind of major theme or themes that you expect from what is being heralded as one of the year's best? It didn't seem to have any of that.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Ironies of the Law

Not mentioned in accounts of Trump's statements calling for prosecution of flag burners is the concurrence of the late Justice Antonin Scalia in Justice Brennan's majority opinion in Texas v. Jackson, the 1989 flag-burning decision. Scalia did not write himself but apparently supported this decision in one of the occasional instances of his libertarian spirit emerging from his usual originalism which generally was synonymous with conservatism. This put him at odds in that court with dissenters Rehnquist and Stevens, both of whom in this instance put patriotism above freedom of expression. 

We also have been invited to review Scalia's majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller, the gun rights decision. I suggest that if you place Scalia's text up against Stevens's dissent, which was the principal dissent in the case, Scalia's analysis of the history of 2nd Amendment interpretation comes up as thin and unconvincing compared to Stevens's solid presentation of more than 200 years of clear understanding that was now being ignored. Some of Scalia's partisans have compared his majority opinion in this case to Breyer's dissent, which called for balancing. I find myself in agreement with the critics of balancing, for Scalia did have that right in arguing that any time a judge calls for use of a balancing test, the balance seems to come out along the lines the judge prefers.

While no one can doubt Scalia's clear conservatism, his libertarian streak makes me feel that the way Supreme Court justices now are selected, especially by conservative, i.e., Republican, presidents, makes it less likely that we will have strong-minded justices who are not bound to one side or one theory. 

Obama's behavior in appointing or trying to appoint justices stands in stark contrast to the GOP practice. He selected Sotomayor and Kagan, who while clearly tending to emerge on the "liberal" side of the bench, are not entirely predictable in their views. Garland, of course, was the perfect nominee from the standpoint of those who want a fair, even-handed justice, who may have tilted slightly toward the progressive side but also whose temperament was tempered by his many years as a Justice Department attorney representing the government.

We are likely to get more predictable appointments like those of Alito or Thomas. Justice O'Connor reportedly was dismayed by Alito's being named to replace her; she sensed he was a doctrinaire conservative but she had precipitated the situation by adhering to the party loyalty rule of retiring during an administration of her party. The most egregious act in Alito's appointment was the appearance before the Judiciary Committee of a legion of Third Circuit judges rounded up by the late Chief Judge of that circuit, Edward Becker, who was an outright Republican even when on the bench.

Now we may get appointments from the somewhat notorious list of judicial conservatives put together by Trump's campaign. Given the partisanship that has now subsumed the process--Clinton and Obama tried to name justices closer to the center, which means that the center has moved rightward as Republicans named solid right-wingers: Breyer and Kagan, for example, are no Brennan or Marshall--we should expect to see judges in lockstep with right-wing opinion being named. 

We are also likely to be stuck with the practice of naming judges to the court rather than some others with legitimate practical experience gained from being legislators or practicing lawyers. O'Connor was the last legislator and Marshall the last justice with a distinguished background in practice.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Back on Broadway

Two shows I caught this holiday weekend--umpteenth revival of The Front Page and Manhattan Theater Club's Heisenberg. Latter is a two-character, minimal set drama about a May-December encounter--she American, he English--with some unexpected twists. Mary Louise Parker, whom I've seen before in Proof, is the extroverted Georgie and Dennis Arndt, the older introverted Alex, who is actually Irish but is essentially British in his manner.

Yes, it concerns uncertainty which is the only connection to the title. But it also tries to open up all kinds of avenues of thought without really opting to follow any of them. To me it was unsatisfying, never seeming to get to the heart of what is going on between the two. Simon Stephens, the playwright, is doodling with the concept and I felt it all came up short.

The Front Page is a cornerstone of the American theatre. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur caught the romance of the newspaper game in this fast-moving, repartee-filled gem from 1928. There's likely few alive who got to see the legendary Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony of Psycho fame) and Lee Tracy, the original leads.

As a whole, the production is beautiful. The shabby press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building and its inhabitants are marvelously presented. John Slattery is the star reporter who is the co-lead, ably supported by the likes of John Goodman, Lewis J. Stadlen, and the still-extant Robert Morse in a delightful, small, but key role.

One review, however, pinpointed the mid-second-act arrival of Nathan Lane as the co-lead, everyone's most iconic man-eating managing editor, Walter Burns, as the moment that sends the play into orbit. And it is. However, that's not to demean the first act and a half, which set the scene in fine fashion.

It's hard to think that anyone doesn't know this show: Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau did it in the movies (so did Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brian, which takes you back a few more decades). Heck, Howard Hawks re-made it in the late 30s with Cary Grant as the m.e., and Rosalind Russell as His Girl Friday, the star reporter. 

I do vote for Lane as the Walter Burns for the ages. He's absolutely magnificent. And the 88-year-old drama still has plenty of laughs and maybe even a bit of wisdom to convey to us in a very changed era for the newspaper business. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

After the deluge

It was tempting to refer back on election night to Murray Kempton's memorable column in the '50s (I think it was '56) when writing in the late, lamented New York Post of those days about another Republican triumph: Eisenhower over Stevenson. His theme was "Don't tell me things will get better. Yesterday, the sun didn't shine on me, brother." He was taking the occasion to show his profound disappointment. (In retrospect, it's extremely ironic that Eisenhower turned out much better than expected.)

Yes, I wanted Hillary to win, more because the Republicans are always worse every time than they were the last time than because Hillary was so wonderful or even that Trump was so awful. He's a pragmatist, and likes to negotiate deals. The worst thing about his victory is the GOP flotsam and jetsam he brought in with him--tell me that Giuliani, Christie, and Gingrich aren't far worse than Trump any day.

I wish that this disaster for the pollsters would decrease the huge emphasis on polls in all of our news coverage. They blew it, pure and simple. But we will still see them prominently positioned every day because the broadcasters and reporters love a horse race, far easier to cover than discussing serious issues. 

I hope the Dems will shed some of their wimpish behavior and be prepared to fight this time when the usual GOP horrors are put up for the Supreme Court. Cries for unity are ridiculous--coming from McConnell and Ryan who admittedly did everything they could for eight years to frustrate everything Obama aimed to accomplish? And Obama too now talks that unity rot because he's more interested in his legacy than rebuilding the Democratic Party--showing how he blew the midyear elections twice under his watch. 

Chuck Schumer has the rep of being a fighter. Too often, of course, he fights for the interest of Wall St. But he needs to lead his troops effectively. If we get a Clarence Thomas this time, the nomination must be fought all the way--Joe Biden is the culprit for Thomas's making it on the court because the Republicans ran rings around the then-hapless Biden. Make them use the nuclear option. They'll regret it.

Obama disappointed me. He didn't really care about fighting hard. He let the pols write Obamacare and ended up with a mess. He let himself be held up by the two-bit insurance mouthpiece Joe Lieberman and should have denounced that pompous windbag owned by Hartford. In the end, Obama was afraid to push real change. And Hillary failed to give people a reason to back her. She played identity politics and yes, negative campaigning.

I liked Bill Clinton and recognize that when he was running, a Democrat had to look like he wasn't a wild-eyed radical to win. Clinton was a natural politician who related to regular people. Hillary never has been like that. Bill Clinton has done too much to soil his image and made too much easy money to be credible now. I was skeptical of Bernie Sanders but on most things, it turns out he was right. If he had won the nomination, they would have red-baited him but maybe it would've been better to go down that way.