Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner does not disappoint you by trivializing its subject but it does not try to penetrate beneath the surface of the last third of his life very deeply. Frederick Spall turns in a nice performance as the often grunting, mumbling painter who to my mind was the most direct precursor of impressionism. The strongest feature of the film is its rendition of fabulous scenery that looks as it had emerged directly from a Turner painting.

The mid-19th century setting--in London and the seaside at Margate--realizes the still-primitive life even reasonably well-off people like Turner lived then. Turner was apparently regarded as acceptably skilled and thus admitted to the Royal Academy, where he was treated as eccentric by even great realistic painters such as Constable. The young John Ruskin, seen in the picture as a critical prodigy, seems to realize Turner's excellence.

Turner's marine paintings often highlight the flash of sunlight against water. As he grew older, the paintings became more and more akin to the impressionist works that would soon follow from the likes of Monet as the light and sea almost merge in gauzy colors. The film makes it clear that he knew what he was about although he never expounds on his art or his intentions.

This is not a film for action-picture fans but I thought it presented a rewarding view into the life of one of the most important painters. By framing it scenes in Turner seascapes, it extends its impact by drawing you even more totally into his world.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Intense Theatre

The last wonderful drama I saw that ran 90 minutes straight without an intermission was David Mamet's superb Glengarry Glen Ross, which starred Joe Mantegna and the late Robert Prosky on Broadway. Mamet's conniving salesmen were incredibly alive and emblematic of a society but it was the intensity of the play that drew you in and held you for the hour and a half that seemed even shorter. 

Last week we saw another 90-minute fest of fast talkers--Bad Jews, a play by a new playwright, Joshua Harmon, at the Studio in DC after it's debut last year at New York's Roundabout.  Washington's City Paper informs me that it "has already become one of the top three most-produced plays in America this year."

The play raised all the long-argued issues of assimilation and meaning of religion in the context of a family elder's passing. In one dimension it even conjured up memories of Arthur Miller's amazing late work, The Price, in which two brothers debate the value of their lives in the context of disposing of their late father's worldly possessions. But here, you have the classic dramatic design of four characters--think of Streetcar Named Desire, for example--with two leads: one cousin who overwhelms almost everyone with her seeming passion for tradition and incredibly overbearing air that hides a hungering for respect and affection, and another who is almost too cool in his comfort with becoming completely ensconced in a world shorn of ethnicity.

There's even a MacGuffin they struggle over--even physically--and two quieter characters who surprise everyone when they play major roles in the outcome. The play, however, raised more penetrating questions that go well beyond the charge of phoniness so beloved by Holden Caulfield: here, both leading characters have degrees of insincerity so you find yourself caught in this maelstrom of always-heated argument.

So the dialogue is quick, piercing, screamingly funny, and penetrating, but beneath the absolutely roaring sound and fury, there's a gradually discernible reality of the essence of these mostly unlikeable but most definitely realistically-drawn characters. The playwright apparently is fresh out of Juilliard and the actors look just right for their ages and lend support to the desirability of casting Equity members by the professional performances they deliver.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Skylark from National Theatre

Courtesy of Washington's Shakespeare Theater Company, we saw a broadcast of the Royal National Theatre's production of David Hare's play, Skylight, at Sidney Harman Hall Monday night.  The performance was in London this past July, so this was a tape delay, ostensibly broadcast in HD. The play is scheduled to open on Broadway in a few months.

Carey Mulligan starred, opposite Bill Nighy. I've liked both of them in the past and Miss Mulligan definitely rose to the occasion. She plays a teacher living in a scruffy part of London, having fled after six years' service as caretaker for the son of a successful restaurant entrepreneur. Now she is visited, for different reasons, by both the son, and his father, with whom she had an affair.

Carey Mulligan makes the part of the thirtyish teacher come alive. You sense her bright mind and her need for independence that drove her away from the restaurateur, even though her departure was ostensibly brought on by the discovery of the affair by his dying wife. Bill Nighy, a good actor, whom I first saw in the movie Love, Actually and then on Broadway in Hare's The Vertical Box, seemed miscast in the first act but grew into the part in the second. The original Tom in 995, when the play debuted, was Michael Gambon, whom I would have loved to have seen in it.

One big problem with the show was the lighting. We did have seats in the gallery, where I hadn't previously sat, which may have affected our perception of light, but the stage seemed so dark at the start that I couldn't even make the faces out. I'm accustomed to the excellent production values of the Metropolitan Opera's movie house broadcasts in HD; this lighting may have suffered from being in an old London playhouse, even older, of course, than the Broadway legit houses, and unlike the relatively modern National Theatre complex.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Always a Friend

It's starting to get too close, people I know well, and now someone my age, starting to fall. Word came today that my law school roommate and later the best man at my wedding, Guy Blynn, collapsed of what turned out to be a pulmonary embolism and never regained consciousness. We had stayed in touch the way old friends and comrades do, but it had often been a year or so between get-togethers.  Nevertheless, it was like old times when we did see each other.

In recent years, the occasion usually was sitting as judges on a moot court for Guy's son Dan's legal writing class at George Washington Univ. law school, where my wife also continues to teach as an adjunct.  Guy was his old self on this bench, only mildly terrorizing first-year law students during oral argument, for their own good, as it always was broadcast to us from our own law school days.

Guy really was cut out to be a lawyer.  He became interested in trademark law right out of law school, when starting out at a big New York firm. His moving to Winston-Salem and going to work for RJR made seeing him less frequent but he became well-known in the trademark bar. He was a Stephen Colbert before his time, often taking a conservative position on anything for the sake of argument and yes, at the time, he probably even believed some of it.

When I heard of his death, I started googling him and so much more emerged. His enthusiasm for sports I of course knew--going back to his days as sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and wrestling manager at Penn. I'm a sucker for most sports--at least once--and he dragged me to wrestling meets at Harvard and left me with an appreciation for the fine points and those who love the sport, such as author John Irving. He also put up with my mediocrity on the squash court when we meet at prime time--lunch hour--only because he had bothered to give the desk guys a bottle of scotch at Christmas so we got on as Harvard Law professors stood by and wondered how those guys rated.

But now I learned that he had contributed a major collection of Holocaust materials to Forsyth Technical Community College where the Blynn Holocaust Collection resides. He chaired a committee that apparently was formed by the mayor of Winston-Salem to examine the fairness of a criminal proceeding and recommended that the defendant, convicted by a jury, be set free after 15 years in prison despite the local judge's having denied habeas based on untimely filing of the motion.

He was a benefactor of the arts in Winston-Salem and I recall his telling me he had acquired half of a season's ticket to Arsenal, the football club in north London to which I have always been partial. I once told him I'd meet him over there for a match and regret that we never got to do that. His three sons have all turned out fine. 

Many people who knew him or knew me would ask how he could represent tobacco, or as Guy inimitably put it, "I'm the guy (Guy?) who keeps the world safe for Joe Camel." That was part of Guy--and if you accept the view that everyone is entitled to be represented, which I generally do, that was his choice to live with.  Guy used to come up and see us and tell everyone that they hadn't proven that smoking was harmful--but then he had stopped smoking himself.

He had a real zest for life. I think I liked him partly because I could put up with his needling--which was amazingly similar to the same trait practiced by my father.  I met his dad once, and he was the same way. What was even more amazing was that we first met when I was in high school in Mt. Vernon, attending the New York State Key Club convention where Guy was running for the highest office, Governor. He didn't win, despite the efforts of the mighty Long Island bloc, which was overwhelmed by the mightier Upstaters. But as always, he made a lasting impression.

His last e-mail to me was about a month ago, asking the derivation of  Fenno, a humor column in the Harvard Law Record I had inherited from who knows how many predecessors (going back to the ancient days of 1946, I believe). "I'm doing well for someone almost 70 (yikes!!!!)   travelling a bunch since the kids are in good places to visit:  denver, miami and...d.c.," he related. 

Good-bye, Blynner--you were truly one of a kind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Signs of Incipient Curmudgeonly Tendency

We like to think that we don't fall into the trap of thinking and saying how good things used to be and how so much that occurs today is terrible.  Here's a quick rundown of some stuff in our 24/7-oriented media that aroused my ire recently:

1. LeBron James criticized for touching Kate Middleton. Since when do royalty have any right to expect that this country accepts the ridiculous protocols prevailing in their home nation which derive from the days when the royals asserted divine rights? We fought a Revolutionary War against the Brits following our issuance of the Declaration of Independence specifying the many offenses committed by the then-king, George III. It's bad enough that our media and the UK media assume that Americans are enamoured of the British royals and share the regard that some Brits have for them. These people are spongers who deserve very little respect much less deference. They have done nothing to deserve any special treatment.

2. Columbia Law School students demand and receive exam postponement because of the effect on their concentration of the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury results.  This egregious catering to law students ostensibly upset by the failure of grand juries to indict -- it should be noted that the facts of the two cases are very different -- is yet another instance of our academic institutions promulgating policies that accept the idea that students have a right not to be made to feel "uncomfortable"--whatever that means, in the phrase of my recently-retired criminal law professor.  Too often, this ersatz "principle" is used to justify restricting freedom of speech on college campuses. We need more recognition of the precept advanced by both Voltaire ("I may disagree with everything you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.") and Thomas Paine ("He that would make his own liberty secure must guarantee rights even to his enemy, for if he fails to do so, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself.").

3. Universities need to get out of the adjudication business. College panels of amateurs--when it comes to determining matters by any legal standard--have no place today in acting on charges of serious offenses such as rape. The criminal justice system surely is far from perfect, but we have devised a series of procedures that seek to guarantee the rights of both complainant and defendant.

4. Journalism needs to re-emphasize a focus on facts before and separate from opinion.  Rolling Stone discredited itself by only looking for one side of a story at the University of Virginia. Yet our media today are filled with simplistic opinions and refusals to pursue the underlying facts. We should not assume it was better in previous times--the vicious tone of journalism in the 1790s, for example, has not yet been equaled, fortunately. 

5. The recognition of the dangers in football presented by the long-term effects of concussions will have more impact over time in changing the sport and perhaps ending it than the issue of the Redskins' name.  The concussion reports and analysis remind me of the barring of the dangerous "flying wedge" play after President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the major football powers to the White House in 1905 and told them that change was required.  It's almost humorous to recall that Harvard and Yale were those major football powerhouses in those days. Eventually, it may well turn out that the frequency with which players' careers and lives are shortened by head hits will cause the demise of the sport. As for the local gridiron eleven, the appropriate new name might be the Deadskins, based on their now-standard haplessness on the field and off.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rolling Stone Comes a Cropper at UVa

The Rolling Stone fraternity gang rape story at the University of Virginia has exposed many of the faults of the current trends in American popular journalism, garnished with an unhealthy helping of political correctness. First, the journalism part: the writer and the editors failed to follow the most basic rules of the trade, which have long mandated that reporters seek out all sides of a story and never rely on merely one involved party for a full picture.

Now it turns out that the woman may not have been assaulted by multiple men, nor that she was so attacked at the particular fraternity house she told the writer that it was where this all occurred, and that she may not have had the date correct.  Yes, the whole event may well have occurred but her credibility has been damaged severely, largely because the writer failed to check the facts.  That Rolling Stone said that fact-checking had occurred makes its role in this sorry process even less sympathetic.

Now, some will say we are missing the point.  They urge us to focus on sexual assault as a problem on college campuses and forget about the specifics. Not so fast, I would suggest. It has been said that rape is easy to allege and hard to disprove.  All the more reason why such allegations should be tested in a court where the rules of evidence are in full force. And all the more reason for the U.S. Department of Education's sorry campaign to lower the burden of proof should be resisted and ended.

Fraternities remain a malignant influence on American higher education. They inhibit students from associating with fellow students who may not share the same cultural background.  This is also true of ethnic-based living arrangements in Latino, African American, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical, or Muslim-oriented houses, whether these are secret societies, like fraternities, or not. It is also clear that fraternities are generally anti-intellectual and at best, neutral in their attitude toward learning. They encourage irresponsible drinking, which leads to worse behavior.

Nevertheless, the current attitude among bien-pensant types assumes that all fraternity men are guilty of sexual assault until proven otherwise. So writers clearly without experience in adhering to long-established standards of good journalism are encouraged to tell merely one side of a story when it comes to sexual assault. This--as we now have seen from the UVa case--serves neither victims nor defendants nor the institutions themselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New View of Rodgers & The H Men

I've had much more of a liking for Rodgers & Hart than for Rodgers & Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers probably was the finest melodist of all the great Broadway composers. That is a given. Larry Hart was one of the cleverest lyricists, rivalled only by Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg. If you know anything about Larry Hart, an immensely talented man whose personal frustrations led him to drink himself to death, you can never listen to "My Funny Valentine" without thinking of how much of himself he threw into that song.

As for Oscar Hammerstein II, I found him, from my vantage point as a child of the '60s, a total cornball. We cringed at "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific. And it struck me early and often that every good thing in Showboat comes from Jerome Kern's fantastic music rather than the often pedestrian book and lyrics. That show did change what musicals were--something Hammerstein also accomplished 17 years later with Rodgers in Oklahoma!--but I've seen one great production a few years ago on Broadway which brought out the strengths of the show, and one locally which seemed to go on desultorily at best forever.  It really does need a great, imaginative production to work today.

But listening to Robert Wyatt's wonderful presentation at the Smithsonian last week on Rodgers & Hammerstein, I did start to see some qualities in Hammerstein's words that I'd not noticed before. I'll never like "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" but even that doesn't ring as preachily as it used to do when I heard it.  And South Pacific--beyond that one song--has no bad numbers, none. It is a fantastic musical.

This summer I was lucky enough to catch a fine production of Carousel at Glimmerglass. That too is an absolutely superb musical, almost operatic in many ways. It was fun at Wyatt's program to see clips of the original Julie, Jan Clayton (remember her as the original mom in Lassie?) singing "If I Loved You" and "When You Walk Through a Storm".  Seriously, can you beat either of those two marvelous songs?

To me, The Sound of Music, their last show, was as it was parodied in a long-ago Broadway revue I saw starring Hermione Gingold--playing the Mary Martin/Julie Andrews leading role, of course--as she croaked out the lyrics in "The Sound of Schmaltz".  I'll never hear "My Favorite Things" without thinking of her rhapsodizing about "oodles of noodles" and "cute little babies, with runny noses". Yet even that behemoth of what the late Dwight Macdonald would likely have blasted as total kitsch seemed in the clips, especially of Mary Martin, fabulous--both her and the show--even though she was getting on by then. And apparently Hammerstein had thought she was too old for South Pacific--the clips proved to me that she was absolutely perfect.

But in the end, I have to give Hammerstein his due. He wrote a lot more good than bad.  Even The King & I holds up, much to my surprise. And I don't know if very many others enjoy hearing Yul Brynner sing "A Puzzlement"--Wyatt was good enough to play at least part of it.  The capstone of the evening came early when Wyatt was telling the story of both Rodgers and Hammerstein before they were Rodgers & Hammerstein. It was the clip of Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River"--it just doesn't get better than that.