Thursday, August 8, 2019

Funny Man Not So Funny

Just finished reading a bio given to me as a present, Funny Man, by Patrick McGilligan, which is about Mel Brooks. It definitely holds your interest and even provides a laugh or two every so often. But while Brooks, still kicking in his early 90s, does not fit the sad clown-comedian profile perhaps most famously depicted in Leoncavallo's always delightful opera, I Pagliacci, the story does bear a resemblance to Billy Crystal's film, Mr. Saturday Night.

I always enjoyed Brooks's movies because he tended to push at the edges of being outrageous. The bio confirms that he only succeeded in producing top-flite films a few times. To me, The Producers will always stand apart, and I mean the original movie, not the musical, which I've not seen (the film of the musical did not get the raves received by the stage version). One reason it was so good was the perfect casting--Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars. 

Young Frankenstein, which I hadn't known was Gene Wilder's conception, had great moments, again with players including Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn making it work. And "The Inquisition" number in History of the World--Part I, performed by Brooks, offends a whole lot of people with panache and severely black humor.

He did produce 12 films altogether, not that many for a long career and there are other episodes in movies I've never seen in full, like the great song-and-dance scene in his re-make of To Be or Not to Be, where he and wife Anne Bancroft perform "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish. His marriage to Bancroft, which lasted more than 40 years until her death, was his second and seems to be one of the few really happy aspects of his life. 

It's also highly satisfying to compare Bancroft's career--always a fantastic actress, who was recognized as such, and who wisely kept her career separate from Brooks's until that song and dance late in both of their stories. One of the most moving events I read about for the first time was that Paul Simon sang "Mrs. Robinson" with acoustic guitar at a memorial for Bancroft at the Shubert Theater. She had many great roles but that's the one most will remember.

And last but definitely first, is the routine developed as a party piece by Carl Reiner, the perfect straight man (also still going strong, at 97), and Brooks--The 2,000-Year-Old Man, which provided Brooks with a continuing source of support--emotional as well as, ultimately, financial. Brooks always had limitations as a performer, eventually learned to direct without having to terrorize everyone on the set, and even had to get educated in writing comedy when he started out barely out of his teens as the junior on one of the greatest assemblage of writers ever--the gang that created Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. 

To me, what the book leaves you with is the recognition that Brooks missed enjoying much of his colorful career because he was so focused on making money. Many of his projects did not rake in profits, which of course is a sad truth prevailing in show business. But the story is full of occasions where he stiffed people and was chintzy when he didn't have to be, including to the three children from his first marriage.

It's encouraging that in his later years Brooks acknowledged that he had sacrificed a lot of enjoyment--especially with his children by his first marriage--by focusing almost entirely on his work. It's an object lesson because in many ways,he maximized a bunch of mid-range abilities--writing, singing, directing, producing--with the amazing comic inspiration of a truly great clown. It didn't always appear but we should be grateful for the handful of absolutely hilarious occasions when it did.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Stevens and Elephants

Justice Stevens was one of the finest members of the Supreme Court ever because he was likely the last to approach every case with an open mind. He came to the bench from a privileged background and an antitrust practice with a major law firm. Of course, his family had suffered during the Depression when their hotel business failed and his grandfather and uncle went to early deaths and his father was imprisoned for fraud. That his father was later exonerated and freed did not erase the experience from the teenage son's consciousness.

Gerald Ford, who had been a partisan minority leader in the House and will be remembered for the disgraceful Nixon pardon, which at least cost him election to the Presidency, did act presidentially with regard to this Supreme Court appointment. Then-Judge (7th Circuit) Stevens's name was advanced by Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, the kind of moderate Republican with a strong business background who no longer exists, and cleared by Ford's finest appointment, the distinguished former Dean of the University of Chicago law school and President of that university, Attorney-General Edward Levi. He was confirmed, 98-0, in those calmer times.

Stevens did strike observers when he was appointed as likely to follow a center-right trajectory on the court. Instead, his bow ties signaled someone who was independent if not maverick. He seemed to take each case as it came, without a prefixed position. This country has always been more tolerant of far-right positions than far-left ones: Stevens was in reality a moderate; he has been described as a liberal because our media and politicians have moved the center so far to the right. His mentor, Wiley Rutledge, for whom he clerked, was a liberal. So was William O. Douglas. We haven't had any on the court since then.

But some justices have demonstrated a willingness to change their world views. Earl Warren had been a solid conservative when Attorney-General and Governor of California. Now, it is hard to believe he was the Republican nominee for Vice President in 1948. He evolved or, more probably, was able to act on his long-held personal outlook when he joined the court. So did Stevens. He even did what hardly any of them have ever done, before or since: he acknowledged that some of his earlier decisions had been wrong.

I see his dissents in Bush v. Gore and in the Heller 2nd Amendment case as his shining moments. If you read his dissent in Heller, it destroys the spurious historical justifications Scalia managed to convince four ignorant colleagues to accept. The Bush v. Gore decision was fraudulent the moment it appeared and will haunt us by its naked power grab in inflicting someone who had not clearly won the election on us as President. Until now, he was the worst to hold that office.

A story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine convinced me to change, as it happens. It described in fascinating detail how keeping elephants in captivity, much less having them perform, is entirely alien to their nature and, it has now become clear, their very continued existence. This is not a conclusion that I arrived at easily. I always enjoyed the circus and I've found animal rights a dubious legal concept.

Having put the circus out of business--yes, some small ones persist but Ringling Brothers' fall truly sounded the death knell for this ancient survivor in the show-business world--the animal rights movement turned its attack machine on the zoos. This article showed clearly that the zoos have ignored doing the right thing, which would be to support and lead a movement to enable elephants to endure in their natural habitat. Instead, they have connived to evade export bans to increase their entertainment values by exhibiting elephants. Even if I'm still skeptical of animal rights as a legal theory, I do hate to see animals mistreated. The elephant story shows that the zoos have behaved abysmally and deserve condemnation.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Baseball, Art & Rock'N'Roll

Recently spent several days in Cleveland more or less at large. Had been there before--ages ago for a wedding and a few years previously when I visited the then-new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This time it was a pleasant outing to Progressive (née Jacobs) Field to see the Tribe host the Reds--an intrastate battle but in a non-existent rivalry, because these ancient franchises hardly ever played each other before the relatively recent inter-league era, as they were always in different leagues.

It was a fine afternoon for baseball, not too hot, sun shining. Lots of memories revived by various monuments both in a "legacy park" and around the stadium to famous Indians. Unlike at my home park, hot dog vendors circulate through the stands and the house mustard is excellent, sharp and tangy. Indians fell to Reds, in last place in their division. Indians are in 2d, 10 games out, and lost twice in a row last week to Orioles, 13-0 each time.

A good part of re-visiting the Rock'n'Roll museum is that they keep changing the exhibits, and not just for each year's new entrants, although they get plenty of attention. A half-hour video showed how just about every significant performer appeared at least once on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, which I recall watching in the 50s in black-and-white at my cousins' in Philly. Dick Clark was a graduate of my hometown high school and seeing this reminded me of the immense charm he exuded as well as his programming skill. 

Enjoyed a filling dinner at Sokolowki's restaurant, a venerable Polish establishment where we were invited to join a large cohort. Lots of sports pix on the walls, and I did spot Jim Brown's and Bob Feller's as well as--less predictably--Ted Williams, but missed seeing Hank Majeski, who may well have been there, as he should have been.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is major league all the way. An amazingly eclectic collection--from ancient Greek and Egyptian to excellent paintings from just about every era. Not only was the museum clearly a product of old money, much like the St. Louis Art Museum, but the curators through the years showed a lot of perspicacity in their selecting the art. Good representation of American art, too, from colonial to American impressionists to abstract and current. 

We passed up a boat ride on Lake Erie because a storm was coming and those who sailed returned to a torrent. I don't think I've ever gone on one of these excursions--usually, as this one was, organized by conventions--where the comestibles offered were any good. We ducked out after negotiating the dinner line, which led us to conclude that escape was the best route.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Giverny and Bayeux

In addition to visiting the beaches and the cemetery and St. Mere Eglise and Arromanches a week before the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we managed to see a lot of Normandy. Bayeux is the town closest to the beaches but it's best known for the Bayeux Tapestry, really an embroidery, which tells the story of the last successful invasion in the other direction, of England in 1066 by William the Conquerer. (He obviously undertook that campaign to acquire a new name to replace William the Bastard.)

The Tapestry tells the whole story, from the Norman point of view, of course. It ranks as perhaps the first example of propaganda but is absolutely fascinating in its almost cartoon-like appearance. It of course is amazing that it has endured almost a millenium. Bayeux is a charming town, almost entirely spared from the ravages of the World War II fighting. 

Mont St. Michel is the prime turisto spot in Normandy, and it's in Normandy by a hair, across the way from Brittany. The abbey atop the rock on the island that until a decade or so ago was separated from the mainland every high tide remains fascinating and a geographic and historical anomaly. Honfleur is another largely unwrecked town that was spared because its harbor, a mainstay of French sea trade in the 1500s, was no longer viable. Le Havre, the major port across the Seine, was 95% destroyed. It has a nice museum given by the painter Eugene Boudin, who drew wonderful pictures of beaches and clouds, as well  serving as a mentor for Monet, who started his career there.

Giverny is where Claude Monet moved in 1883 and established both his house and marvelous gardens. Today, it is a prime spot to visit, although the original red Japanese bridge recognizable from many Monet canvases, has been replaced. But when we were there, the nympheas--water lilies--were in bloom, along with toitally glorious irises and many other flowers. It is the ultimate artist's garden and Monet took full advantage of it.

Deauville remains a tony resort and its adjacent neighbor, Trouville, has much more of a raffish tone with its blocks of wonderful bistros. It was good to learn that it was the first spot Marcel Proust visited on this coast, as the one major omission in my trip was getting (or not getting) to Cabourg, which apparently was the model for Balbec in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, where Marcel meets Albertine.

Normandy is famous for apples and Calvados, butter and cheese, viz., Camembert, Pont L'Eveque, and Livarot, and perhaps most relevantly for dining: fish and seafood. The seafood restaurants are the places to go and so we went. Platters of oysters and mussels and whelks and shrimp as well as homard (lobster) and langoustines. Good cod and raie (skate) and probably as excellent fish and chips as are obtainable across la Manche (the English Channel).

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

In Advance of D-Day

We spent yesterday rediscovering D-Day in Normandy a week ahead of the 75th anniversary celebrations. The sheer audacity of the operation comes clearer from the vista of Utah Beach, our first stop on the visit and the most successful aspect of the U.S. attack on June 6, 1944.

The many memorials and stories reminded me of Gettysburg, the pivotal battle in an earlier war. So many individuals contributed to the success of the assault, and everyone, in those wonderful pre-social media days, kept their mouths closed long enough for the surprise critical to the amphibious surge's working. 

It also is stirring to visit St. Mere Eglise, the nearby village which still reveres the two American airborne divisions that freed the place from the Germans. The amazing story of the paratrooper who got caught on the church spire is still commemorated by a figure and parachute cloth atop the steeple. 

These were the days when we all pulled together: "the last good war" as it was often labelled. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died a few days after the landing of a heart attack, was the only general to actually lead his unit from the landing craft onto the beach and onward. He had despised and opposed FDR, who returned the dislike, largely because TR Jr. apparently felt that as Teddy's oldest son, he deserved to be the family's favorite. Interestingly, Teddy had gotten on warmly with FDR, as both admired each other's abilities. But TR Jr. went out a hero and did the right thing: when his unit's landing craft landed 1.5 km away from the target site, he immediately adapted the plans and helped ensure the success at Utah.

You can feel the anticipation of next week's celebration, minus the crowds and the road closures and all the security for the big names who will be here then. The memorials enable you to remember that this battle hinged on everyone doing his part. The man from Nebraska who designed the landing craft in New Orleans and managed to convince the Navy to buy it made a bundle and later lost it all--he's remembered on a memorial, as are the engineers who lost their lives clearing the way for the troops through mined waters.

Somehow the U.S., Britain, and Canada managed to function as a team to pull this off. Montgomery and Patton, inevitably at loggerheads later, both contributed, as did so many others, from generals to privates. Roosevelt chose well with Eisenhower, who kept this alliance together and even managed to handle Churchill, who saw himself as a grand strategist.

In our current world, the experience of seeing where D-Day happened is invigorating. Things can go right and governments can work together and accomplish great things when their leaders are capable, as they were then. Some day we may see their like again.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Oslo Redux

We went to see the play Oslo which was presented here in  D.C. by Round House Theater at the Lansburgh downtown, the older home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I'd seen the play in New York and have appended my comments then from this space below this entry. Eileen needed to see the show especially because of its focus on mediation technique.

The cast here played well, although I felt the production lacked the sharpness of the Lincoln Center version. Everyone had fewer hard edges: for example, the Israeli official who is first sent in response to the demand for an upgraded presence came onto the Beaumont stage in a black leather jacket and exemplified the image of the tough character replacing the two accommodating academics who had initiated the discussions with the PLO finance minister and another high-level Palestinian. Here, he seemed like a usual pleasant diplomatic type. I also thought the leading man, the Norwegian academic-think tank leader who gets this all started, was played a bit too hammily.

But the play still packs a punch and is always worth seeing. There are few plays other than the classics that I could stand seeing more than once, but this proved to be one of them.

Here's my comments in this space a couple of years ago in April 2017:


Managed to get to see the remarkable play, Oslo, at the Vivian Beaumont, Lincoln Center, when in New York last weekend. I had heard of two of the leads, Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, before but not much and not anything about the others in this excellent ensemble cast. The play is based on how two Norwegians with foreign policy backgrounds initiated and facilitated the talks between Israelis and Palestinians that led to the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

Mays plays a policy think-tank head who has met leading Palestinians and Israelis through his contacts in the foreign policy world. One is the finance minister of the P.L.O. and the other is a right-hand man of Shimon Peres, the legendary Israeli politician who was described upon his death last year as the last of the Israeli founders.

He manages, with the help of his wife, an official in the Norwegian foreign ministry, to bring these Israelis and Palestinians to Norway to meet. (Later, when they warm to each other, they agree that it was a shame they had ended up meeting in Norway: "It's so cold!"). But his approach proves successful: he places the men in a room together and does not join them to facilitate, mediate, or try to drive a bargain. Instead, he wants them to speak directly to the other and he makes sure they are plied with superb local cooking
It works. There are further meetings and eventually, Israel upgrades its representative and finally, a Washington lawyer is brought in to ice the deal in precise terms that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, will approve. Although it all seems likely to collapse at any moment, all persevere and the Oslo Accords are signed off by both sides, in Washington, despite the steady dismissal of the American efforts to broker a deal through traditional interventionist tactics.

The performances and the play are both top-notch. It is a thrilling experience to see this play which captures why this unusual event occurred. At the end, each character states what happened to him or her after the Accords were agreed to, and many had unfortunate ends. So did the Accords, rendered mostly ineffective when Israel's government turned to the right after the rightist assassination of Rabin.

Aside from its dramatic power, the play and its performers convince you of what might have been.

There's Always Tosca

Last week at the Washington National Opera's dress rehearsal of its new production of Puccini's Tosca,  I realized why this story turned out to be perfect for opera while it comes up short as a play, which it originally started out as.  The events in the plot are so out-sized as to be over the top for anything less than opera. But they are also perfect as a backdrop to some glorious singing.

Washington Opera put together a nice production with a cast of good singers who haven't been heard here before. Keri Alkema was a good Floria Tosca, the diva of the title. She's even a graduate of the opera's Young Artists Training program. This is one of those rare operas where the soprano plays an opera star--I think Andrea Lecouvrer is an quite lesser-known other example. Riccardo Massi, making his debut with the company, was a solid-voiced Cavaradossi, the tenor and her lover. 

Veteran Alan Held, who specializes in all kinds of operatic villains, having sung Hagen in Wagner's Goetterdaemerrung, plays a properly evil Scarpia. I had not remembered how big his part was. Held started out a bit low-powered but rose to the demands of the role in the crucial second act.

Everyone else is at a secondary level, including Wei Wu as the Sacristan, a traditional role for the indulgent over-acting that Puccini seems to expect from some oif his roles.

Tosca is famous for Puccini's use of chords, especially the dark ones that always symbolize Scarpia's presence or looming nearness. I've always regarded it as significantly different from Puccini's other major works, such as Boheme and Butterfly, because of the chords and the sheer drama, or perhaps more accurately, melodrama.

However, it provides wonderful occasions for good singers: Tosca's famed vissi d'arte ("I have lived for art")in the second act before she plunges the knife into Scarpia and Cavaradossi's e lucevan le stelle ("the stars were shining") in the last act, which offers the tenor a chance to shine in his recollection of his meeting Tosca. 

My favorite memory of this opera is seeing a clip in a video bio of Maria Callas after she sings vissi d'arte and murders Scarpia, when she lights the candles and places them around him, creating a bier, and in so very formal fashion, walks off with her dignity intact. When it's done well, this is a delightful operatic experience, and it was done well at this dress rehearsal, led by conductor Speranza Scappucci.,