Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dutch Class Distinctions

One nice part of spending a long weekend in Boston, ostensibly for my 45th law school reunion, was seeing the Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Museum of Fine Arts. The show was organized to show how the great Dutch painters recognized the class lines in 17th century Holland. 

First there were the nobility then the merchants and artisans and then the working class and the impoverished.  Rarely did they mix. Perhaps the most amazing fact I picked up was when Rembrandt painted a portrait, full-length which was rare there then, of one of the most powerful men in Amsterdam. This worthy didn't go for Rembrandt's little touches such as showing one glove thrown on the floor, so he held off paying the master. 

It's delightful to think about a man who now is only remembered in history because he tried to stiff Rembrandt. A bit like the then-famous Viennese music critic, Edouard Hanslick, who was satirized by Wagner as the unpleasant (to say the least) character in Die Meistersinger, Beckmesser. Of course, that is the only reason he is recalled today at all.

There were two Vermeers, which of course is always an occasion, one I hadn't previously seen from the Louvre, and the other, one of the five usually found at the Met in New York. As is the case with Vermeers, the light is extraordinary. The many other paintings of that grand age are also worth the visit. It is a formidable show.

My reunion also surprised me, I expected little from a 45th, law school no less, but those who showed up were enthusiastic and it was amazing to see how the place has changed. A classmate of mine, now deceased, funded the construction of the major new building in which most of the proceedings occurred. And it was especially fun to hear Neil Chayet, who graduated a few years before I did, speak early one morning about his Looking at the Law radio spot and conflict resolution as well.

The program on the future of the legal profession was also enlightening and not at all defensive, except for the dean noting earlier that day that 96 percent of the graduates leave with jobs in hand.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mr. Court Administration

A man whom I worked for a good many years ago and who was one of the two most important figures in establishing the field of court administration passed away in August and was memorialized last week at the National Center for State Courts. He was Edward B. McConnell and he was 95 and had led a long and impressive life.

He became the State Court Administrator of New Jersey in 1953, the first significant American state court administrator. The two outstanding chief justices with whom he worked. Arthur Vanderbilt and Joseph Weintraub, recognized Ed's skill and gave him support so that he did administer the courts. He was no backroom manipulator or paper-pusher. In 1973, he was recruited to become the National Center's second head. 

I went to work for the Center the following year and found that Ed was a hands-on leader. I worked in a regional office but when I was involved in drafting any project report that would go to a court or be published, you could be sure that Ed would review it personally and call you with his comments. He didn't mince words and he told you exactly what he thought about the draft and about all the people with whom you were involved and dealing with in the courts.

Suffice it to say that I learned an incredible amount from him. He had gone through Harvard Business School right after World War II but I sensed immediately that Ed had a natural sense of how organizations run and how they should be run. He inherited an organization--the National Center--that was struggling in its early years after Warren Burger had founded it and he turned it around into the dominant organization in its field. Other competitors fell by the wayside.

I also saw how Ed operated in meetings. At times, he seemed like he was sleeping. A sleeping cobra, however. He wouldn't pop off and didn't get involved until he carefully assessed the tenor and tempo of the proceedings and then when he gauged it to be exactly the right moment, he made his move and usually succeeded in getting precisely what result he had been planning to achieve.

Ed established a remarkably adept administrative operation in New Jersey. When I first worked in the state in 1970, I could see immediately that he had become a major figure and achieved a level of respect that few state court administrators or any court administrators have ever gained. In court administration, the other leading giant of the field and the only one comparable to Ed is Ernie Friesen, with whom I've also had the privilege of working. Ernie now is nearing 90 and still out there doing his fine work but we truly are witnessing the passing of the greats.

Two good pictures

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Black Mass and Bridge of Spies. The first is set in Boston, and seems to have been filmed there, mostly in Southie. It is the story of James (Whitey) Bulger and how he more or less flimflammed the FBI for years by giving them some info about the rival Mafiosi in return for the feds leaving him and his gang free to engage in their wide run of illegal activities. 

Johnny Depp does a great job playing "Jimmy" Bulger and Benedict Cumberbatch is even better as his respectable brother, Billy, who was President of the Massachusetts State Senate and then Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts until it turned out that his claim that he had no knowledge of what his brother Jimmy was up to fell apart near the end of Billy's career and he was forced to resign as head of the university.

The whole sordid story--including how an FBI operative who had grown up with the Bulgers set up the special relationship and in the end was consumed by it--comes across through realistic portrayals of all the players, both gang members and federal agents. 

Bridge of Spies is the story of how New York lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, agrees to represent a captured Russian spy, Col. Rudolf Abel, in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn during the late 50s when anti-communism was rampant. He even took what seemed like a good legal case for a clearly guilty defendant all the way to the Supreme Court and was complimented for his willingness to take the case by Chief Justice Earl Warren, one of the dissenters in Donovan's 5-4 loss before the high court.

Hanks does a fine job especially in the Berlin phase of the picture, where Donovan, unofficially working for the CIA, negotiates Abel's exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot captured by the Russians when they took his spy plane down. Donovan comes across as braver than I recall because clearly the judge, the prosecutor, the CIA, and Donovan's own law firm expected him to put in a pro forma appearance, not really engage in zealous representation.

In real life, Donovan's notoriety from this case led to his success--mentioned in the movie at the end--in negotiating the release of thousands of Cubans after the Bay of Pigs disaster. But the film did not mention that he also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against the popular incumbent, Jacob Javits, and served as president of the New York City Board of Education, a somewhat thankless job that did not add any lustre to his record.

But he did deserve a lot of praise for his bravery in upholding the finest standards of the bar in defending Abel and then negotiating his exchange. Hanks also confirms his status as the greatest living portrayer of "everyman" in U.S. films.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Flick

It's appearing at one of those minimal Off-Broadway theaters in the Village, this production of Annie Baker's The Flick, which won last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. There has been a new cast taking over from the originals who started this second New York production, but this play proved its worth over the long run: three hours and ten minutes, that is.

Some have compared the pacing, with pauses and empty stage set, to Pinter but it struck me as the opposite of Mamet and La Bute, the two contemporary playwrights who specialize in crackling, staccato dialogue. Baker takes her time in enabling you to grasp where her characters are coming from. 

The three principals (there's a fourth performer who plays two small parts in fine fashion, too) are representative of young people stuck in dead-end jobs in a society and milieu that deny any chance, it would seem, to escape into any kind of satisfying work. Instead, they soldier on in a movie house in Worcester, Mass., with outdated technology and few prospects.

Gradually the characters interact on deeper and deeper levels, though this process is characterized by misunderstanding and the immediate realization that nothing will turn out right. Overlaying this is the small talk and the banter of any workplace, especially one where there are those who are clearly heading toward a dead end and the others who are usually younger but retain the slim likelihood of escape, if not assured success.

Not many plays capture this scene effectively. One that I recall fondly was Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays, a marvelous chronicle of a young man spending a summer in an urban supply house, knowing that he will be leaving for college in the fall but that the others are there for their lifetimes.   I had jobs like this when I was a teenager, and felt I learned an incredible amount from my immersion into the working world.

Just as Miller did, Baker captures the sense of outsiderdom that the new hire has, yet he is there on a break from college, so his prospects remain far more exciting than those facing the experienced hands. Baker captures the subtleties as the three in this triangle feel each other out or expose themselves -- in the case of the two veterans -- to each other unsuccessfully from all sides.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Master Sculptor

On the way to see the major exhibit of Picasso's sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I wasn't sure as to how I would react. One reason my familiarity with Picasso's sculpture was limited is that almost none of the objects on display in this major exhibition have been shown in public previously.

But there was one Picasso sculptural work with which I was familiar. It is the massive concrete version of Sylvette that is located near New York University in New York's Greenwich Village. Eileen and I were surprised when we first saw this large work, not because we didn't like it, because we did, but because we had apparently met the woman who had been Picasso's model for the sculpture.

Years back, when we spent most of a year in Britain, Eileen worked with a colleague there who was married to a French woman. She had been recruited as a model for Picasso in her younger days, she said, and, her husband observed, had been known as Sylvie to her friends, one of whom was Picasso. Not too surprisingly, the master invited her to come away with him, which offer, she, as a fairly level-headed late teenager (he was then in his 60s), declined.

Perhaps as a result of that decision, her career as a model for him was curtailed. I have a print of his painting of her and today, we saw the original sculpture from which the massive  version at NYU was made. All in all, my reaction was similar to how I react to paintings, collages, sculptures, and other art that the man produced throughout his long life--the quality of all of it was incredibly high.

I'm adding nothing to the volumes of criticism that have been devoted to analyzing Picasso, probably the premier artist of the 20th century. Yet it continues to amaze me that he had so much creativity and so much imagination to anticipate in most instances ideas that others would have later, they possibly never realizing that he had done it first. He began the experimenting in cubism with Braque; while Braque never achieved the significance in his later work that he had when engaged in developing cubism, Picasso went on to several further periods of major productivity and so much of the work he produced is truly fantastic.

Seeing this at the Museum of Modern Art, where several of his major paintings hang and many exhibitions have profiled his various creative periods, I thought back to his magnum opus that was there on loan for years when we were growing up, the huge canvas Guernica--probably the ultimate antiwar statement. In those days no one ever thought it would return to Spain since that return was conditioned on Spain abandoning Franco's fascism and returning to a democratic government.

There was a small sculpture of a bull's head and horns on one wall that conjured up recollection of Georgia O'Keeffe's many paintings on this theme, many of which we had seen recently in Santa Fe. As always, though, it seemed to say that Picasso was invariably there before anyone else. And, moreover, it also struck up wonderful memories of what I still think was his finest and most piercing work: Guernica.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Noel Coward's Hay Fever

Noel Coward's 1925 play, Hay Fever, which he purportedly wrote in three days, drew us to the Olney Theater today to see it performed by a sterling cast and a fine production. It's early Coward (he was all of 25 or 26 when it opened) and is a country-house comedy where the residents are a "bohemian" family led by a not-quite-retired leading lady of the stage.  They are all prone to be "rude" in the English sense, which means that guests visit for a weekend at their peril.

My first reaction was that there weren't enough good lines exemplary of the wit that Coward infused into such perennials as Private Lives, or in my view, even better, was Design for Living, based on a vision Coward may have once had of living together with the Lunts--Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne--the doyens of the American theater in the 1920s and 30s. There were dead moments when pairs of characters exited the stage and it took a while for the next scene and its characters to get going.

Apparently, in his early days, Coward was delighted by his trips to New York and spent time at a country house inhabited by the leading actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, who were the models for this cast.  Too few recall that Taylor, in her waning days on stage, produced a masterful characterization as the original mother, Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, when that classic premiered in 1945. 

Taylor's story is worth recalling because it was one for the books. She apparently overcame what had been years of alcoholism to record what was her greatest theatrical triumph. In Hay Fever, however, we see an eccentric actress trying to dominate her family and everyone else, producing nothing but conflict and distress for family and visitors.

Coward's being gay was never disclosed during his lifetime and his supreme archness and charm became legendary. The man was unstoppable from childhood in his love for performing (his autobiography was entitled A Talent to Amuse) which he carried on by putting on cabaret shows in which he sang his own classic songs in his late years. He staged patriotic morale-boosting shows in London in World War II and deserves to be remembered as an ornament of the theater.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Great Bert Williams

Two nights ago at the Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, we saw a screening of a silent film from 1913 called Lime Kiln Field Day, starring Bert Williams.  Doesn't ring a bell? I'm not surprised, because Bert Williams may be one of the greatest figures of American show business, but sadly, we have few chances to see what all the shouting was about.

He was a black comedian who starred in The Ziegfeld Follies, wrote and performed many highly popular songs, and has been lauded as the greatest performer ever in vaudeville. I've heard him sing one of his most famous songs, Nobody, transferred at the National Portrait Gallery from cylinder recordings. He worked in blackface, which was virtually mandated for black comics around the turn of the century, right at the time--not right after the Civil War which we would otherwise assume until C. Vann Woodward exposed the real history--when Jim Crow reigned supreme in American race matters.

Lime Kiln Field Day was intended to run for about 35 minutes as a feature film produced at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, where many famous silent pictures, such as Mack Sennett's comedies, were shot.  The Biograph vaults turned up the old film a few years ago and talented professionals at New York's Museum of Modern Art restored them and figured out who the players were, often relying on sheet music covers.

Bert Williams stars, and shows all his talents, many very subtle, in the film. He was a master of facial expressions, slowly reacting to action with a look perfectly responding to the cue. We have to figure out exactly what he and the other actors are saying and doing because this film was never edited for distribution, when titles would likely have been inserted. The ease with which you can figure the story out attests to the truth of that great line Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond uttered in Billy Wilder's marvelous tribute to the silents, Sunset Boulevard: "We had faces!"

The other actors, especially the female lead, Odessa Warren Gray, who later opened up a successful fashion and millinery store in Harlem, and Henry Troy, who plays Bert's rival for her hand, demonstrate their own excellence, too. The whole picture is highly sophisticated for its time, much more interested in characters than the great Mack Sennett comedies, but in many ways, reminiscent of the silent star who was most similar to Bert Williams in talent: Charlie Chaplin.

The tragedy of this picture's not being released was apparently caused by the release shortly after it was shot of Birth of a Nation, the D. W. Griffith epic that enshrined the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, and helped shaped American culture toward favoring the South as the Lost Cause, perpetuated, of course, in 1938, by the novel and movie, Gone With the Wind. We are finally beginning to rid ourselves of the accepted Southern version of the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the demise of the stars and bars and the recognition that the Civil War was indeed all about slavery. The reappearance of this silent movie should awaken us to the existence of the very strong theatrical tradition in the U.S. carried on by black performers and theatrical producers during those trying times.