Monday, September 1, 2014

The Real Labor Day

I've come to the only sensible conclusion about how Labor Day should be observed: anyone who casually rails against unions, works for an anti-union organization, or supports elected officials who oppose a fair minimum wage and other benefits provided by just about every other country in the world, including some not-so-free ones, should go to work on Labor Day and stay there until they've put in a full eight hours, right, with the lunch hour not counting.

A perfect example of anti-labor vitriol can be found in the endless disputes about what kind of schools we need. Teachers unions are blamed for the idiotic administration by incompetent and politically-wired local school boards or state boards. Charter schools as a whole have not shown themselves to be any more effective at educating children than public schools, but the great and the not-so-good looking to make some quick bucks urge us to expand them without any proof of real success. They seem to be good only at turning over their complement of teachers almost annually instead of developing skilled, experienced teachers.

All the propaganda put out by corporate America has had an impact: people really feel that the market system is how to run anything. In many places, we once had excellent public schools. I went to them. Then when white people fled the inner city and the inner suburbs, the administrators stopped paying attention to the schools. Some of education's problems were brought upon it by reliance on trying to implement one faddish scheme after another with no time allowed for evaluation and assessment.

But the public as a whole has been conditioned to accept the outrageous pay of CEOs--who take it because they can,whether they are successful or not. We of course have a Congress, both parties, totally in thrall to major donors, who want tax breaks so companies can do better by moving overseas. And despite the excellent analysis of Paul Krugman and a few others, the conventional wisdom purveyers want our policymakers to focus more on inflation than employment. All the  deficit-cutting hawks were proven wrong but they still get treated more than respectfully.

People wonder why the middle class has been hit so hard and that the only people who benefit in our society are the rich. They should consider every time they've disparaged the idea of a union and start thinking about how none of the Wall Street scoundrels who brought us economic disaster have gone to jail, or even paid any significant price for their crimes against our society.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

World Gone Mad--or Just Biz as usual?

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the coverage of the 9-year-old shooting a range instructor and killing him with a fully automatic Uzi is that none of the stories questioned the absolute idiocy of a 9-year-old being given any real weapon to fire.  Until now--when the gun people have gone crazy with "stand your ground" laws that undermine centuries of careful delineation of the criminal law of retreat and other perversions of common sense, I have not been able to muster outrage about the NRA or gun laws. 

This incident, however, discloses how nuts so many people have become in this country. Actually, when I was a kid at camp, I loved firing a 22-calibre rifle. The range was carefully monitored, one shell at a time. Even in the Army, when we qualified on the range with the M-14, the control of weapons--loaded or unloaded--was one thing (one of the few) that the service appeared to take seriously. To me, the fanatacism of the gun people has now passed way beyond reason. 

And, as I said, I've never been against responsible use of guns. I found D.C.'s total resistance to allowing anyone to have a gun almost as extreme and ill-advised as the NRA's opposition to any regulation on gun ownership. Granted, D.C. lost in the Supreme Court by one vote and I dare you to read Stevens's dissenting (5-4) opinion and not agree that it makes Scalia's majority one appear ridiculous. But to some extent, D.C. got what it deserved for taking an extreme position. Perhaps we shall see the current idiocy exposed when we start hearing the nuts defend automatics for 9-year-olds.

I've been participating in a colloquy with some friends, one in particular, about two significant articles about Israel and Gaza that have appeared this week.  One by the former AP reporter Matti Friedman emphasizes how the world--Europe especially--holds Israel to a different standard than any other country and also tolerates anti-Semitism masked as anti-Israeli policy.  The other by veteran reporter Connie Bruck  in The New Yorker takes on AIPAC as a bunch of right-wing nuts who slavishly propound Netanyahu's hard-line positions and are essentially a Republican mouthpiece.

Both articles are right.  My good friend points out that even agreeing that Israel has adopted bad policies--encouraging the right-wing settlers and its right-wing policies in general--it palls compared with Hamas launching rockets from schools and civilian bases on Israeli civilians. True enough. And I'm willing to agree, too, that ill-advised or even perverse Israeli government policies have not themselves inspired anti-Semitism.

But AIPAC's long campaign to equate anti-Israeli policy positions with anti-Semitism and to silence Jewish critics of Israeli policy as "self-hating Jews" have besmirched the Israeli cause. Israel was moving along the right path when Rabin and Olmert engaged with the Palestinians. Yes, the Palestinians rejected even the reasonably decent Oslo-era proposals. Had Isreal continued along those lines, much opinion now massed against it would likely have been focused on the Palestinians' intransigence.

Netanyahu is akin to the right-wing Republicans pushed even further to the right by the settlers and their ilk--who may make the Tea Party look centrist.  These people exemplify the old adage of the extremes meeting--the Arabs who want to push the Jews into the sea and the settlers who want to push the Palestinians out of any territory the rightists claim.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Most Wanted Actor

Tonight it struck me after seeing A Most Wanted Man how much we will miss seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen or stage. He took what was a pretty good John Le Carre spy novel, made it a wrenching picture that held my attention, and left the story better than he found it.  That's saying a good deal because even a pretty good Le Carre is better than most people's best.

It was a masterful performance because in the Hamburg setting, Hoffman starts off with a little German to establish his bona fides and then turns to English with just enough of an accent to make it real. He makes you accept his character, too, as the author intended: a veteran in the cloak-and-dagger trade actually trying to do some good while doing what his job demands.

It's also good to see this picture because Le Carre has in his post-Cold War novels turned from casting the Soviets as the villains to putting the Americans in that role. The fine actress Robin Wright carries out that theme.  Le Carre now has the Brits--and in this instance, the Germans--wrestle with the values at stake. (At least the Germans have more than one view--and strategy--so much of the struggle is between their agencies and personnel.) It will be interesting to see if Putin manages to change Le Carre's current views.

What also jumped out from the screen is how Le Carre's characters are old school in one major way: they smoke and drink--well, Hoffman's character does--to abandon. In this story, the smoking and drinking merely emphasize the tension his character has brought upon himself. 

A few words to recall Betty Bacall. At 89, she may have been the last link with the old Hollywood she broke into when she was 19. She also lasted long enough to become more than Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, not that there was ever anything wrong with that or with the three pictures she will be remembered for co-starring in with him: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo.

 The Big Sleep was the best of those, helped by Faulkner's adaptation of Raymond Chandler--but she was the major reason that To Have and Have Not was better as a picture than it was when Hemingway wrote it. Bogart was stalwart in it, Walter Brennan overacted as always, but Lauren Bacall, all of 19, blew them away with her cool, she a model only just arrived on the West Coast, a New Yorker out of Julia Richman High School. Her singing wasn't terrific but she managed to do "How Little We Know" convincingly, too.

I never saw the Broadway stage productions for which she won the Tonys that took the place of Oscars on her shelf. But I did remember seeing the picture where she held her own as an acerbic, sarcastic, absolutely delightful and highly attractive woman when up against no less than Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable: How to Marry a Millionaire.

Although her marriage to Jason Robards ended in divorce, she did at least find in him a man who could hold his own when put up against the imperishable image of Bogart.  Best of all, she was a stand-up person who held her own, whether it be against the studios who made her movie career an endless roller coaster or the politicians who feasted off a usually supine Hollywood.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Roger Ebert at the Movies

Roger Ebert was my favorite film critic because, first of all, I tended to like movies I saw after reading his positive reviews, or alternatively, I found that when I read his reviews after seeing a movie, I usually agreed with his views. He possessed a deep knowledge of the medium and had a fine ability to perceive what kind of audience would enjoy a particular movie.

So last weekend we saw the bio film on his life, entitled Life, Itself.  While the picture seemed to spend more time on his last days in a rehab hospital, after losing most of his jaw to cancer, it told me things about him that I'd not known. He was editor-in-chief, for example, of the Daily Illini at the Univ. of Illinois and after securing a foothold at the Chicago Sun-Times as an intern, more or less fell into the movie critic's chair where he remained and thrived and developed an international reputation for the next several decades.

He made his encounter with illness in his last years public partly, it seems, because his partner on public tv, the late Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, had kept his final illness a secret. Siskel and Ebert (the order of billing was determined by a coin toss) had their differences but each apparently disclosed at the end of each of their lives how much they respected the other. They were a good match. Siskel was a bit of a highbrow, having majored in philosophy at Yale while Ebert liked to style himself as a man of the people who grew up in Champaign-Urbana as the son of an electrician and a schoolteacher and went to the home-town school, Illinois. 

It was also delightful to see that although Ebert was able to pal around with movie stars at Cannes and elsewhere, he retained his sense of himself and place, rejecting offers to leave Chicago. After all, it took some years for Siskel and Ebert to get their public tv show shown in New York and L.A. but ultimately they became the two best-known critics in the country.

I thought of how he is missed--despite his having trained a cadre of young critics who carry on his work as reviewers at  I was reading a review in the Baltimore edition of the City Paper of the classic Sunset Boulevard.  The critic found the movie compelling despite his visceral dislike of most everything about it. He missed appreciating how Gloria Swanson had really been a silent star, how Erich von Stroheim who played her butler had truly been a great director in the 20s, and the irony of the tyrannical Cecil B. DeMille, whose extravaganzas are mostly ludicrous today, comes off in the picture playing himself as a kindly veteran who tries to let Swanson down with affection.Ebert doubtless would have remarked on most of these aspects, as well as the delight in seeing true silent stars such as H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton as companions of Swanson at a card-playing evening.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two Traviatas in One Day--Neither in Lisbon

[This entry should have appeared two weeks ago--for which, apologies.]

Yes, this past Saturday, I managed to attend two performances of La Traviata: one was a video relay shown in the Bethesda Row movie house of a production at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, with Renee Fleming, Joseph Calleja, and Thomas Hampson; the second, that night at the Gala Hispanic Theatre (nee Tivoli) on 14th Street in DC, was The IN Series production, with string ensemble and two stirring, totally able lead singers.

The IN Series production may have been the best operatic performance this series has yet produced, and that includes the modernizations of two Mozart-Da Ponte gems: Don Giovanni: the Long Island Version and Marriage of Figaro: the Vegas Version, in the first of which, the title character is truly a Mafia don, while in the second, the Count is a Wayne Newton type in the Vegas nobility. 

Traviata always gets to me, beginning with the prelude, which usually brings the tears right at the start. The first act is absolutely perfect--musically it moves from one high point to another, ending with Violetta's two glorious arias, finally Sempre libere, the significance of which remains a wonderfully arguable issue.

The position of the late Alberta Masiello, told during one of those wonderful old-time Met intermission lectures on the Saturday radio broadcasts, was that in this aria she has decided she will not go off in love with Alfredo but will continue to live her life as a high-priced Parisian courtesan and enjoy joy after joy for however she endures (which in any case will not be for long).

I always have found this a worthy position to take, except that her expressed love for Alfredo in the very next act and her horror at having to give him up both tend to go against the point of the imperious if delightful Miss Masiello.

Renee Fleming was superb in her rendition, of course, and the Royal Opera's production was magnificent.  In recent years, though, I've seen all kinds of Traviata productions--the trend is to stark, modern ones--and they all can work with this seemingly indestructible vehicle.

In between the late morning and evening shows, I also managed to take in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Private Lives, probably Noel Coward's finest play. It remains a delight of his sharp comedy and he maintains the high level of dialogue through three strong acts. The players here were also fine, although seeing the company do Design for Living a couple of seasons ago makes me yearn for the impossible: the original cast of design, for whom Coward wrote the show: the Lunts and himself.

Two Fine French Flicks

Seeing two good French pictures within a few days' spread makes me realize how much I've missed seeing them. Saturday we went to the Eric Rohmer--A Summer's Tale--released in the U.S. finally 18 years after he made it. It suffered not at all from the wait, although Rohmer died, at 89, in the interim. It's a slight story about a slightly goofy guy who goes to the beach, hoping his travelling girlfriend will join him.

Meanwhile he encounters the still-charming Aurelia Langlet, who was Pauline in Pauline at the Beach, another Rohmer seaside feature, who is the improbable waitress at her aunt's restaurant for the summer, until she returns to working on her PhD in ethnology.  She intros him to yet another friend and suddenly he has to balance three relationships and begins to falsify just enough to keep all the balls in the air.

Eventually his girlfriend turns up and you can see how he is drawn to her even if she is unpredictable and sometimes downright mean to him.  The beach scenes at St Lunaire and Malo and other Breton spots are delightful and the whole story leaves you with a satisfying feeling.

Last night was a much more serious film, both at the wonderful Avalon in Chevy Chase, D.C., Diane Kurys' Pour Une Femme, or For a Woman. The Avalon's promo material emphasized that the picture had some relation to people having been in the Holocaust. This did not serve to attract me, but perhaps it does for some. Had they bothered to mention that it was a Diane Kurys film, that would have clinched it for me, though.

She has made several memorable films, one was One Sings, the Other Doesn't, and often she deals with her own life, which is all the more timely today as she frequently explores lives of Jews in France. This one is the story of a marriage--he saves her by getting her out of the French concentration camp with him and she marries him in return; alas, this is not necessarily the basis of a loving life together. Then some mysterious "relatives" appear with a totally different agenda from his somewhat contradictory goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the bourgeoisie, while maintaining full identification with the French Communists.

The picture explores how the couple cope with the challenges they face, through a long series of flashbacks told by their daughters.  Kurys always seems to identify with one of the daughters, as she did in one of her earliest films, Peppermint Soda. French pictures often deal with working class characters more meaningfully (when was the last American picture to deal with them at all?) as in the 2010 picture, Potiche, where Catherine De Neuve is the seemingly incapable wife who takes over a company and deals with Gerard Depardieu as the union leader with whom her husband had come to a standstill.

That picture also demonstrated how "aging" stars like those two could appear as leads though in their 60s--and even though a rather huge Depardieu didn't look as well as De Neuve, who was definitely une femme d'une certaine age. Lastly, these pictures actually treat Communism seriously, including making fun of the Party while appreciating its role in the French society of the postwar 1940s.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jersey Boys Again

I may have written something here when I saw Jersey Boys in Washington on tour.  At the time, I was pleasantly surprised, having gone to the National Theater with low expectations. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was just enough of a plot to carry all the fabulous musical numbers. You also had the feeling that you were right there with the performers in whatever venue they were on stage, much as the Broadway production of Master Class some years ago re-created Callas singing in La Scala.

It permitted me along with much of the rest of the audience to walk out of the theater humming, in this case, quite familiar rather than new-found tunes.  Last night I saw the new movie of the same name in a perfect venue, the wonderful Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC.  It was fun, and for the most part, moved well, but it didn't strike me that it was as well-assembled as the stage show had been.

Now we are not as willing to accept the scrubbed scenes in movie musicals the way we were when such classics as Singin' in the Rain were appeared. Director (and producer) Clint Eastwood seemed to have unbelievably stagey sets for even locations in not-so-pristine locales, such as, well, New Jersey, and downtown New York too, for that matter. The story did take too long getting going, until it takes off when the group finally encounters Bob Crewe, who will be their producer and songwriting support for group composer and singer Bob Gaudio, for the first time in the Brill Building.

Crewe, incidentally, didn't come off half so swish in the show as he does in the picture.  A point for accuracy here, I presume. The two best acting jobs are turned in by the amazing Christopher Walken as the reigning Mafia don, and Vincent Piazza as the least-talented member of the group but the most assertive and ultimately failed leader. John Lloyd Young was Frankie in several of the stage companies--possibly the original--and he's passable. In that the songs themselves are the original recordings, I believe, it's hard to tell how much his singing falsetto is truly at the level of the real Frankie.

So once again a movie has opened up a stage show, and I for one found that the result was all right but didn't generate for me the excitement of the live performance.  I haven't seen all that many of these "music musicals" but did take in Million Dollar Quartet last year, I believe, on Broadway. This thinly-plotted vehicle drew on one real day when Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins happened to turn up at Sam Phillips's Sun Records studio in Nashville. The plot focuse on how all of them, including Sam, was figuring on where their next main chance would come from and how they would seize it.

In the end, this show was mainly a vehicle for the music and at the end of the show, the music went on past the finale for quite some time. I'm not sure of the other similar shows but I still favor some more of a play in the theater and when we get to the movies, alas, the flimsiness of the plot may detract from even as musically delightful an outing as Jersey Boys.