Friday, June 16, 2017

It's Bloomsday

And for the first time, I'm enjoying June 16 in Dublin. Just returned from a walking tour of some of the locales in Ulysses, organized by the James Joyce Centre. If you're a Joyce fan, nothing in the book is too small--we learned some about how detailed some of his research was as he contacted people in Dublin he knew to check out specific details.

The woman who led the tour got into the spirit by reading appropriate selections from the novel at each stop. Memorable lines from Joyce--Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as well as Ulysses. Normally this kind of minute tracking leaves me cold but with Joyce, it all becomes fascinating. People get tied up in his plotting so that you think this is where Leopold Bloom walked and tend to forget that he and all the rest were fictional--except that so many of the characters, like the Citizen in the great scene in Barney Kiernan's pub, were closely drawn from real people Joyce knew. 

We passed Oliver St. John Gogarty's residence and recalled that as the marker says, he was a surgeon, writer, and statesman, but in fact he's remembered almost entirely because he was the model for Buck Mulligan, whose name begins the first sentence of Ulysses. This is like the powerful Viennese critic whom Wagner mocked as the character Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger but today is only remembered for that.

Yesterday we paid the obligatory visit to Trinity College's Old Library to see the Book of Kells. The Book is worth seeing, being an 8th century product of the monastery world, and you crowd around the glass-covered exhibit case in a darkened room (to protect the vellum) as everyone seeks to see it close up. To me, going upstairs to the Long Room, which is possibly the most magnificent classically-designed library I've ever seen, was far more impressive.

The tour of Trinity College was also fascinating. The tour guide had just graduated so she passed on inside info such as the true story about the once-highly-desired lodgings in classic old buildings that although occupied by the fellows--the faculty--and prize students, lack central heating and require one to wait outside to use the communal showers. The less historic, but still old, regular dorms have been renovated and are now preferred. I wonder what Samuel Beckett or Jonathan Swift thought, much less Oscar Wilde, who spent two years there and whose family lived nearby.

Later we went to another Joycean event--a panel discussion of the idea of Irishness in Ulysses by three writers, held in the General Post Office on O'Connell Street, site of the 916 Easter Rising. This was a good exploration of both the way Joyce viewed Ireland and the way the people he writes about saw the country.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Frank Deford

A good reporter would have figured that Frank Deford must have been in bad shape because he had been quoted as uttering pleasantries when he emerged confidently from the hospital a few days ago, only to die Sunday in Key West. Or else, he merely remembered that the reporter is never the story, one of many lessons he taught writers willing to pay attention to a sportswriter, and well beyond that limited category, he was best of breed.

Today he's recalled sometimes for his long pieces in Sports Illustrated, for which he wrote for a half-century, as well as having delivered more than 1,600 commentaries for National Public Radio, mostly early on Wednesday mornings, until last year when he cut back to once a month and then last month, when he stopped them entirely. He also researched and reported major stories on Real Sports, the Bryant Gumbel sports investigative cable program for years and for a wonderful two to three years, he edited The National, the first and only all-sports daily paper. And there were the twelve books: his wonderful memoirs published a couple of years ago and the incredibly moving first book he wrote, about the death of his first daughter at age 8 from cystic fibrosis. 

But I remember him from when he was a real, on-deadline reporter for SI, covering things like college basketball and hanging out, as he had done when editing The Daily Princetonian, at the great basketball temple, the Palestra, in Philly, and reporting on the many fascinating specimens who inhabited that shrine. Here's the greatest sportswriter of our generation and I loved his recalling how he was hired at SI because no one else from an Ivy League paper would deign to apply to be a sportswriter--he also added, tellingly, that the 50s were a great time to be a white guy looking for a job at Time-Life, where all sorts of minorities, not just black people, weren't even let in for an interview.

His long pieces in SI, of course, were what made his rep. I remember the great one--recalled by others today--about Billy Conn, and what his life was like after losing a great fight to Joe Louis in his prime. It was titled "The Boxer and the Blonde" and it showed how Conn managed to make the most of the brief moment he had in the limelight. Although Conn managed his life after boxing far better than Louis, which isn't itself saying much, Louis's line was marvelous, noting how he had taken quite a few rounds to get used to Conn's boxing skill: "I gave you the fight for eight rounds, but you couldn't hold on to it."

Deford also had an amazing ability to cut through the phoniness in sports and the pompousness of sports owners and officials. He looked for those nuggets that give you a real perception into a sports legend's personality, which at heart is what we all want to learn from sports writing. He didn't get trapped in focusing on the business of sport--except to point out glaring inequities in the way players were treated both before and after they formed unions. Most old-time sportswriters sided with management, from whom they got their free food and drink.

He never got hung up on all the ancillary stuff--agents, contracts, except to comment pungently on NPR about how ridiculous the competition among countries and cities for the sleazy International Olympic Committee and its trinkets was. But he never let that necessary corrective to the palaver put out by house shills divert him from spotting the extraordinary athletic performances that in the end are what continue to draw us to watch the Olympics. He will really be missed as sports pages increasingly ignore what we all yearn for and which he provided so well. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Hockey Business

Marvin Miller was the best thing that happened to baseball going back a few years. He brought the players, who are the game, out of the equivalent of indentured servitude, which is a fancy name for slavery. But as important as full coverage of sports as a business is, since we never should forget that sports is a business, the focus on the business side of sports has overwhelmed the media coverage of the games themselves.

For example, when the N.Y. Times gets around to including stories about major sporting events prominently  in its sports pages as contrasted with the oddball features to which it usually devotes most of its limited space, the stories often focus mainly on the business side--how much is the contract and who's making the most money. 

It has gone so far that we are no longer surprised when sports commissioners, who have generally ignored their original charge to look out for "the good of the game," emphasize money at all costs over integrity and good sportsmanship. People like Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, don't deserve to be called sportsmen. In fact, they probably would resent being called anything other than a businessman.

Bettman went to the same undergraduate institution I attended--Cornell's industrial and labor relations school--which now takes pride in training union- busting types like he is. But his greatest offense against the good of the game is his position that it is bad for the NHL to take a break so players can enjoy the international competition of the Olympics. His employers--the team owners--can't stand the idea of losing a couple of weeks of income. It's just business, as the Corleones would put it.

In Europe, football, i.e., soccer, teams have recognized that great players must be allowed to take the time needed to play on their national teams, if so honored, for the glory of their country. This is also true in international cricket competitions--which attract huge attention in all parts of the English-speaking world except the U.S. Sadly, however, the U.S. attitude of making the business not just the number one but the only priority is spreading.

Some European owners want to restrict the release of great players to play on their national teams. It will take some time before the U.S. approach corrupts European and international sport but just look at the International Olympic Committee's and FIFA's generations of corruption if you think that this attitude won't spread. In fact, those corrupt institutions are only defending release of players because if the teams and leagues didn't allow them to play, international competition would be killed.

Some baseball players appeared in the World Baseball Classic. Others were afraid of injury and passed it up. Those who watched said that the competition was superior to that offered by Major League Baseball, because the players had their heart and national pride in their play. Remember when the U.S. runner Jackson Scholz in Chariots of Fire told Charley Paddock that he'd better look out for Eric Liddell on the track, "because he's running for something bigger than the medal."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sacramento Museums

Spent a few days in Sacramento with the Horatio Alger Society but also managed to enjoy seeing two museums I had never visited previously: the California State Railroad Museum and the Crocker Art Museum. The rail museum is modern in design, as contrasted with the finest rail collection on the East Coast--the B&O Museum in Baltimore. It traces the development of rail in the U.S. and has a good deal of rolling stock as well as several locomotives.

Also featured is a train of the future designed by Siemens and possibly the prototype for use if and when the high-speed rail linking Northern and Southern California is completed. Enjoyed walking through a Canadian National "open sleeper" with berths and then a Santa Fe dining car. Lots of rail paraphernalia and was most pleased to see a special section on the Pullman strike of 1894. That great uprising was broken by Grover Cleveland but saw a young attorney resign from representing the railroads to sign on with Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union: the lawyer was none other than Clarence Darrow.

The Crocker features an extensive exhibition of contemporary California painting--many artists from the later 20th and current centuries. There's also good landscape and impressionist art from the 19th century, with some nice canvases from painters who opposed the luminists by focusing on much more intimate detail, like branches of conifers. The museum's more recent curators did what appears to be a good job gathering a wide range of new and often experimental art, better than their predecessors did in focusing, for the European part of the collection, on 19th century Dutch and 18th and 19th century German. 

The American sector of the museum--by far the largest--was notable for focusing on artists not renowned or world-famous. Yes, there are paintings by Childe Hassam, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, to pick out three recognizable names, but the other Americans provide a fascinating backdrop to California's emergence. 

This is a museum where those making the acquisitions likely had a good deal to spend, as one of the books in the museum shop about one of the Crocker heirs notes that at age 12, she inherited the equivalent of $250 million. Charles Crocker himself is depicted at the railroad museum where he was recalled as one of the "Big Four" who underwrote the Central Pacific, the Western component of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Their Finest; High Noon

If you haven't seen the British film, Their Finest, the novel from which it was adapted is entitled Their Finest Hour--and a Half. This should emphasize that the story, while seriously set during the World War II London blitz, has its comic moments. It's about making a propaganda film to boost British morale--and then gets ensnarled in starting with a real heroic story but making it more heroic by movie standards as well as adding characters--such as an American to appeal to the U.S. population, then still steadfastly trying to stay out of what was seen as a European war.

The leads are British players whom I hadn't seen before--Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin. Richard E. Grant, whom I had seen before in various British pics, plays an old-style bureaucrat. And Jeremy Irons appears for a cameo as the Minister of War. Ms. Arterton is well cast and does a fine job playing a secretary who wants to be a screenwriter and gets her chance, amid the even-more chauvinistic official world of World War II government in London.

She is superb, but the picture is almost stolen by the invariably magnetic Bill Nighy, playing an aging actor who still insists on the deference he believes is his due. It is, in a word, a charming picture, with a surprise twist near the end that will likely pull your chair out from under you.

Last night we attended a benefit to support our local non-profit community supported theater, the Avalon, with a performance of the classic High Noon, followed by a discussion featuring Glenn Frankel, the author of a recent book about the picture. It was delightful to see the great Western on the big screen. Seeing it confirmed my feeling that the lead was perfectly suited to Gary Cooper, the taciturn, rock-ribbed marshal who won't run.

The rest of the cast remains magnificent, from Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Jr., and yes, Lee Van Cleef in his first screen appearance, with no lines, but he does play the fabulous theme song, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, on his harmonica. I learned from the book that Howland Chamberlin, who plays the snarky hotel clerk who admits his disdain for the marshal to Grace Kelly's playing the marshal's new wife, was cast by Carl Foreman, who wrote the superb script.

Foreman was rousted off the picture by blacklisting but tried to take care of a few friends whom he knew would not be getting many pay checks for the same reason he wouldn't and Chamberlin was one of them. 

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Oslo

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
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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.



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Explaining Schubert

I'm not sure Schubert is a composer you can explain but if you can, Rob Kapilow is the guy to do it. He presents a program for the Smithsonian here in D.C. entitled "What Makes It Great?" in which four times a year he takes apart a piece of music or a group of musical pieces. Last time (the first time) I heard him he was analyzing Cole Porter's songs. He showed how they are made up of amazing key transitions and all sorts of musical legerdemain. 

Sunday he devoted his program to Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in Two Movements, well-known as the "Unfinished Symphony" to the world. He had the Peabody Orchestra with him to play each phrase, or for parts of the orchestra to play the phrase, and then after his hour's lecture, he led them in playing the entire piece. As an added lagniappe, at the very end of the show, after a question-and-answer session, he led them in what is the only part of a projected third scherzo movement Schubert finished--the first 20 bars. The student players were magnificent.

In that these 20 bars added little, I tend to go along with Kapilow in concluding that even if he didn't intend to conclude the symphony after the first two movements, it turned out pretty well anyway. He actually didn't finish a lot of things he started, and the man died at 31. This was written about six years earlier. The two movements might just be the most melodic symphony ever composed.

I don't think any other composer came up with the incredible range of melodies that Schubert did. My other favorite is the Quintet in C for string quarter and an added cello. It is not unfinished. In fact, it is long and yet you don't feel it ever lags or is padded. And I'd love to hear Kapilow expound on what Schubert intended with the strange couple of notes at the end. There were so many questions about the Unfinished that asking one about the Quintet would have meant changing the subject.

His usual inspirations were the mixture of love and pain, according to Kapilow. These also of course are the ideas behind the lieder for which Schubert is also renowned. The lieder, like Winterreise, make the sorrows of young Werther seem mild by comparison. And he was enthralled by Beethoven, too. Yet he composed in his own inimitable style, which does pay some tribute tio Beethoven but is in no way repetitive or even derivative. Just glorious in his own particular way.