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.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

There's Only One New York

We opted to slip away to New York City for my birthday and it's been a wonderful day. Started out at the New-York Historical Society seeing the sampling of objects from Sam Roberts' A History of New York in 101 Objects, which was both compelling and enjoyable, even if they should have done all 101 of them. Then we took in The Two Faces of January, a new film based on a Patricia Highsmith novel hitherto not known to me and here I thought I'd read all of her deliciously weird tales. Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst were the leads along with Oscar Craig and the locations--all the real ones--in Athens, the Greek islands, and Turkey were well utilized too.  These are mostly antiheros of the Tom Ripley ilk and the picture holds your attention.

High point came with The Country House, a Donald Margolis play put on by Manhattan Theater Club and previewing on Broadway before it opens next week.  Margolis has lots of great lines, much like his Dinner With Friends some years ago. Blythe Danner leads a fine cast of six. The play has much fun with throwaway lines enjoyed by anyone who recalls a tad of theatrical history and the underlying plot holds up through three acts and one intermission. A first for me was four members of the cast coming out on stage after the show to participate in a feedback session run by an assistant director. 

We grabbed dinner at Eataly, a sprawling combination of dining spots, grocery store, and bookstore at 23rd and Fifth, that has you choose to dine in a dining area devoted to fish, vegetables, meat, pasta, or pizza. The idea is good and the place is packed although you can get seated if you arrive early. The fish, which we chose, was good but not great, even if cooked to order.

Then on to the Village where I again returned to hope for a home run from Neil LaBute, who, alas, has come up short ever since reasons to be pretty a few years back, which sadly just missed taking a Tony during its run at the Lyceum. This outing is entitled The Money Shot, about two fading Hollywood stars and their mates as they embark on a foray to get back in the hit column and never really get to discussing whether they will do an all-out sex scene. LaBute seems to have lost his direction because despite a few decent lines, the characters were rarely believable. 

Couldn't quite make it to the Museum of Modern Art for a show of posters and prints by Toulouse-Lautrec, always an enticement for me.  Then I happily recalled that I doubtless saw the same show a while back when it was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's likely been travelling the country ever since then.

Had we had a few more seconds to stop for breath, might have walked in Central Park when we left the Historical Society, but we made up for that by walking from 23rd and Fifth--well, actually we started at 28th & Broadway but that's another story--to the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street. One thing I noticed was that New York still has plenty of non-Starbucks coffee joints and their coffee is just about as good which means it's all right.

It was just a gorgeous day to be in Manhattan and I think we made more than the most of it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Last Prof Retires

It made me realize how much time has gone by since school days when the last professor I had in law school retired quietly this summer. Next year I might make it to my 45th law school reunion--there are a few of my old friends who now are making an effort to turn up at these occasions--but it will be different knowing that no one on the faculty in my day is still teaching.

Lloyd Weinreb, as with so many of his colleagues, became nationally known--at least in the law school world--as a master of teaching and writing in the field of criminal law and procedure, both of which courses, one required, the other not, I took when a student.  He'd only been teaching for a couple of years then but his casebooks in both courses were already written and in use--in loose-leaf form.  By the time I graduated they were in print and probably used all over the country.

Despite the usual law professor wunderkind background--law review, Supreme Court clerkship, and in his case, practical experience consisting of a couple of years in the U.S. Attorney's office for D.C. and, more exotically, as a staff lawyer on the Warren Commission--he seemed to lack the pretentiousness of so many of the law school faculty.  It was clear from the first day that he actually enjoyed teaching criminal law and procedure.  

He challenged everyone's thinking the way good law school professors should.  When someone was unable to come up with a solid reason for prosecuting a putative defendant, he would push them to supply a good basis or else admit that the prosecution rested on the mere assertion: "because he's a bad man."  He would press the class to define accepted terms meaningfully by re-stating the term--reckless endangerment, for example--and then appending "whatever that is."

While he imparted some of the aspects of criminal practice he learned as a line prosecutor, he drew more shrewdly on the traditional limited-span immersion in the world of practice most law professors have. He would refer to particular instances of decision-making that confronted him or to the decisions every prosecutor, including him, had to make every day as to which cases to proceed with and which to resolve summarily by plea agreement.

It was heartening to read that he was even more of a Renaissance man that most of the law professors seemed to be then and now. He apparently spends his mornings learning ancient Greek and has both taught courses outside his central area of criminal law, such as copyright, with the aim of expanding his horizons, and written some major work on legal theory; no, I haven't read it but I'm more likely to look at something like that because he wrote it, and he probably wrote it just because it seemed like something interesting and worthwhile. 

He's really the only law professor whom I still had plenty of regard for after taking two courses with him. Since he's not that old, I do hope he enjoys many more years of making fine use of his amazing and wide open mind.

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.