Archive for May, 2017

Cooper’s London

May 29, 2017

 

Books/Music

Stop, Read, Listen:

Glenn Frankel, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, 379 pp, Bloomsbury.

This book is a fascinating companion to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, which was a fairly comprehensive general history of that era of scoundrels and evil opportunists thought of as McCarthyism. But, at its centre, there remained the appallingly blinkered and self-righteous House Un-American Activities Committee (affectionately known as HUAC)a Senate tribunal that rode roughshod over the US Constitution much longer than McCarthy managed to. Glenn Frankel’s compelling book, nicely produced and published by Bloomsbury, focuses mesmerizingly on the relationship of HUAC to Hollywood, and also on the impact this had on the making of the classic Western movie High Noon and its gripping subtexts. Frankel sees the script of High Noon as a clear reflection of the climate of the Red Scare in Hollywood at the time. The hero of the book is Carl Foreman, who conceived the story and then adapted it as he came under increasing pressure from HUAC to testify and to name names. Indeed, in the end Foreman had to flee to England to work.

Featured players include Gary Cooper, the ailing star of the film, who took on the project at a time when he felt a strong need to resurrect his reputation as an actor; director Fred Zinnemann, whose commitment to the project was in itself bold; and the producer, Stanley Kramer. You get the full background story of each of these men, and many more involved in High Noon and in the persecution of Hollywood’s left wing.

Frankel’s work is well-written and a real page-turner, probing the background of the Hollywood film industry itself to show why Hollywood was so vulnerable to the pressures of HUAC in the late 1940s. This book is also a superb companion piece to the recently filmed Trumbo; certainly all the people who figure in that tale turn up as major or minor characters in this one, too, So you get to revisit the self-serving bigotry or narrow-minded pusillanimity of people like Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, Richard Nixon, and all the senators who contributed to the insanity that was the Blacklist. High Noon clearly delineates how the Blacklist happened and its fallout—yet some people still insist it wasn’t as bad as all that, or even that it never really existed at all. And High Noon mounts an attack on the Blacklist Deniers and takes a significant stand based on the actual facts, not the alternative ones. You also get sound and thought-provoking insights into how much people thought they were acting for the good of the country, fighting to save America from being overthrown by the Red Menace. The paranoia, at times, seems almost to leap off the page but so does some strong sympathy for the gulled and a great deal of understanding for both sides.

By the end of the book, you have the complete story of the making of High Noon, seen very much through the prism of the HUAC investigations of Hollywood. The book serves its double interest fully and convincingly throughout. There isn’t a dull or unnecessary page; the tale is told tautly, like a thriller.

Informative, well-written and still relevant, this is an excellent study of the impact on Hollywood and the arts of the mentality that drove HUAC and overcame the protests of people who could see through it, but had little hope of doing anything substantial about it. Those who tried to combat HUAC and the Blacklist include some pretty bold-face and surprising names: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck, among others. And then there are the tragedies of people like John Garfield. You are made both to understand and to feel their frustration.

I learned a lot from High Noon. I ended up, to my surprise, developing more comprehension of and of and even sympathy for Gary Cooper, who is usually labelled as an arch-Conservative; even greater admiration for Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman in particular than I had had before; and some disappointment about Stanley Kramer and how he behaved during the worst years of the crisis.

This is a book that manages to be informative, infuriating, educational, dramatic and entertaining all at the same time. It also gives you a wonderful journey through the background of Hollywood from the silent era onward. I recommend it highly to anyone who relishes being surprised by how much richer the subjects at hand were than they might have suspected.

Fearless Prediction:
MAKI SEKIYA, Future Perfect

What can you do to promote a completely unknown musician who, you think, is world class and ready for a world-conquering career? At the insistent invitation of a friend, I went to a piano recital in Oxford in an out-of-the way church, to hear some of the most astonishingly wonderful playing in every way that I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like hearing Emil Gilels or Sviatislav Richter or Artur Rubinstein for the first time; an artistry that went beyond the instrument and its limitations. Maki Sekiya is surely the Clara Schumann of our era! Yet this artist is a tiny woman, very self-effacing, able to charm the audience with little spoken introductions. And absolutely a giant at the piano.

Sekiya deserves to be heard by everyone, everywhere. She played music from William Byrd through Beethoven, contemporary Japanese music, Debussy, and Guido Agosti’s transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and in every case she seemed to be channelling the composernot in any way getting between the audience and the music—while creating unique interpretations that were totally fresh and gripping. In every case she had a sure sense of the style, of the idiom of the individual creator. She has her own voice as a musician that is recognizable and remarkable without, somehow, in any way imposing herself on the music. She simply is the music when she is playing it.

Technically, it was an outstanding performance in every way. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 21 in C Major, Op 53 (the Waldstein), Sekiya started at speeds that were faster than I’ve ever heard but still with a and energy that demanded attention. Though the Adagio was a spiritual dream, in the Prestissimo she somehow tied the whole thing together, referred back to the beginning, and put the final polish on a flawless jewel. Her touch is defined by the complexity or simplicity of what she is playing, and she deploys both the sustaining and loud pedals to burnish her interpretation; she is a mistress of nuance. This artist has a rare sense of the architecture of every piece she plays and enables you to hear it as a coherent, complex whole. In the quiet passages she can take the huge risk of playing so delicately that you almost fear the notes will not sound; yet she is able to play louder and more forcefully than seems possible when the music requires it. Also, I have rarely been in an audience that was seduced into paying such rapt attention to every note, every pause, throughout the evening. Without flamboyance, without showing off for a moment, this was absorbing and completely compelling music-making. We were in the presence of someone very special, and we all knew it.

Sekiya has studied at the Purcell School in the UK and also in Russia, and she has managed to blend perfectly Japanese delicacy and attention to detail, Western urgency and Russian energy. The playing was both emotionally affective and brilliantly intellectual all at once. The lapidary sheen of her pianism is astonishing; the wit and intelligence breathtaking.

The concert was at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was turned into an arts centre not long ago, with fine acoustics,worthy of the evening’s program. But Sekiya’s talent demands a world stage – Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Bunkamura in Tokyo. For the moment she is living the life of a wife and mother in Oxford and teaching piano there, and we are very fortunate to be able to share such astonishing and inspiring musicianship. She is developing a local reputation. The church was packed out; and of course, she got a standing ovation at the end of her recital and again after playing a breathtaking, magical Debussy Claire de Lune for an encore. Again, it sounded totally fresh, almost as if I was hearing it for the first time, familiar yet original.

So make note of the name Maki Sekiya, pianist extraordinaire. I am going to see if I can find a few samples of her playing to put up on this web site from the concert I heard (because it was recorded), and possibly also do an interview to discover Maki’s plans for the future. Keep watching this space! Meantime, here’s a preview of things to come:

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Apollo’s Girl

May 24, 2017

Film/Theatre

 

Dead or Alive:
Afterimage; Obit; A Doll’s House Part 2

Afterimage (Dir.: Andrej Wajda)
(Opens May 19 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
May 26 in LA at Laemmle Playhouse 7;
May 26 in Chicago at Gene Siskel Film Center)

The Polish film schools were always spoken of in hushed terms when I really began looking at foreign films. Their graduates seemed to have absorbed technical virtuosity in order to express a profound understanding of human nature; the films were as rich as they were beautiful, the scripts dimensional, the characters endlessly fascinating. And, no matter what kind of story they were telling, their was an element of realismus that made immersion a foregone conclusion. The very first Polish film I saw was Landscape After Battle, Andrej Wajda’s Palme d’Or Cannes nominee in 1970; I was permanently hooked.

No filmmaker’s art has imitated life as often as Wajda’s, but his 56 works reflect his long and complicated life rather than imitate it, and Afterimage (his final film) premiered at TIFF in 2016, a month before Wajda died at 90. It is one artist’s uncompromising look at another uncompromising artist, Władysław Strzemiński, Poland’s giant of the avant-garde, founder of the country’s museum of modern art, revered teacher and thinker, and author of Theory of Vision. But a listing of his achievements in no way represents the power of Wajda’s portrait, or of Boguslav Linda’s turn in the role. You can’t stop watching him, or listening to his ideas. The Communist officials detest him as much as his students love him, taking great risks in order to help him finish his book before the apparatchniks shut him down, one increasingly cruel step at a time. But the artist refuses to give way.

Wajda has created a fitting valedictory for his own life, and for Strzemińskis, the sadness of which is always outweighed by the power of the film and the magnitude of the portrayal. Don’t let this one get away!

Obit (Dir.: Vanessa Gould)
(In NYC at Cinema Village; Music Box Theatre, Chicago;
Laemmle Fine Arts, LA; wide release a/o 5/19/17)

No matter what you may think, Obit has nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life. Spend some quality time with its quirky crew of New York Times obituary writers; share their MO and deepest thoughts on the mortality they confront every day and often (when there’s late-breaking news) far into the night. It’s spellbinding!

Once a Siberia for writers, the department has been revitalized by a deep sea change: some of the Times’ best and brightest are at the machines and in the morgue there (I still treasure my fading copies of William Grimes’ forever fabulous chicken pieces*), doing battle with deadlines, word counts, reluctant sources and perfectionism with every tribute. In this passing parade, everyone—everyone— plays their part, from Poppa Neutrino to the man who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; from Pete Seeger to JFK. And don’t forget the guy who dedicated his life to repairing manual typewriters, as Margalit Fox recalls their sound, “It’s this music that this man who knows the old songs was helping to keep alive.” Or Jon Pareles paying tribute to a jazz great: “It’s a definition of why art and artists make us remember…..the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move any more. They’re talking to us, changing the way we think. You don’t want to think of them as perishable.”

The sheer mass of the resources is clear in the morgue…..aisles, shelves, cabinets bursting with the print and image fallout of lives going back to the 19th century (“If,” as archivist Jeff Roth observes, “you can find them.”) Roth is the fierce keeper of these many flames, the sole survivor of a department that once had 30 colleagues. The keys to the kingdom are in Roth’s head; wish him a long and healthy life…

You will find rue and joy in Obit—a little sorrow and a lot of hilarity— among the scribes who have a way­ with words and the ever-growing horde of characters they immortalize (without ever being able to meet them) as they struggle to make each one unique. The quotes are seductive as they speed by. How many treasures had to be abandoned on the cutting room floor? One can only imagine the pain that director Vanessa Gould and editor Kristen Bye must have known as they had to compress and delete one essential after another.

Seeing Obit made me think of George Stevens’ Jr.’s biopic about his father. It ends with a shot of Brandon De Wilde calling out after Alan Ladd, “Shane, Shane–come back!” The subjects of Obit won’t come back but, as one biographer explains, “We try to weave a historical spell—to enchant the reader– to do justice to a life. It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” You will meet them in Obit, a dazzling bunch, and soar in their company. That’s the takeaway.

(Meantime, read these. You will thank me…)
*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/dining/it-came-it-clucked-it-conquered.html

*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/04/dining/lost-one-black-chicken-owners-bereft.html

A Doll’s House Part 2 (Dir.: Sam Gold; Author: Lucas Hnath)

If you’ve been lucky enough to follow Lucas Hnath’s work, you will know that he just can’t resist a good argument and that most of his plays are built around at least one. Hnath is also a prodigious learner. Having ingested competitive athletics for Red Speedo; physics for Isaac’s Eye; religion for The Christians, he has now turned his gaze on gender issues by arguing up a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—that original battle of the sexes discourse—that simply raises the ante. This time, Hnath talked to some leading feminists to get it right read it here and this time everybody wins, especially the audience, who can see a spectacular cast (Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell and Condola Rashad) acting up a storm.

Despite the play’s darker, still-unresolved issues Hnath is serious about, his sly humor erupts at intervals; you’ve got to watch him like a hawk because just as you become embroiled in the follies of each character, Hnath (and/or director Sam Gold) will snatch you up with a giggle or a belly laugh. It’s always intriguing, and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. The bad news: it’s a limited run, set to close on July 23. You’ve got two months to do something about it.


Apollo’s Girl

May 14, 2017

Film

Exiles: Away From Home…

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
June 16 in LA at Laemmle Royal)

For a rich and deeply satisfying look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. Schrader has chosen a cool, objective approach to her subject, which frames the white heat of politics and culture threatening to burst into flame in every sequence, and hooks you from Scene One.

The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives, both of whom accompanied him abroad en famille), and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader, famous for her role in Aimėe & Jaguar, applies all her acting smarts to her cast’s talents and draws a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich.

Because the technical, aesthetic and dramatic elements are always in perfect balance, and the tensions between Zweig’s inner life and his public persona heighten the intensity of the portrait, it’s as close to total immersion as you can get without actually having been there. Surely you will be inspired to move on to Zweig’s novels and essays, which made him the most successful writer of his time and have continued to remain the basis of dozens of films right up to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014. (P.S.: Pay attention to the way the end of Zweig is shot. Fascinating choices!) Deservedly Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

ELIÁN
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Cinema Village;
June 2 at O Cinema Miami Beach)

Full of turbulence and moving at warp speed, Elián will keep you breathless and on the edge of your seat right up to the end of the narrative: Elián Gonzalez was only a little boy when he was found alone, clinging to an inner tube, in the ocean between Havana and Miami. The boat on which he had traveled with his mother, her boyfriend and dozens of Cuban refugees had sunk, and his mother had drowned. Overnight, the beautiful child became a sensation—television crews and reporters swarmed the house where he lived with the Miami aunts, great-uncles and cousins who had claimed him. The media circus exploded into a cause célèbre for Miami’s Cuban exiles, always at the boiling point, and for the many public officials who joined the efforts (pro and con) to grant American citizenship to Elián and to prevent his return to Cuba, where his father (who had learned he was gone only after the boy and his mother had fled under cover of darkness) had immediately sought to reclaim his son.

Photo by Shaun Best REUTERS

Eventually, members of Congress and Janet Reno (then Attorney General) determined Elián should live in Cuba with his father. The fire and brimstone that accompanied every twist in the story were shocking in their ferocity. There were daily confrontations on the streets of Miami and Havana; instead of cooling with the passing of time, the violence escalated, with demonstrators, police, Federal agencies, religious institutions and—always—hordes of media pouring accelerant on the flames. The ugliness lasted six months, until Elian’s father flew to Andrews Air Force Base to join his son after Federal agents stormed the home in Miami where Elian, hiding in a closet, was literally snatched from the arms of the fisherman who had originally found him. The entire affair could not be forgotten; its after-effects impacted the presidential election of 2000, and US foreign policy for over a decade.

Benefitting from a wealth of footage (which spares us none of the competing opinions and shameful frenzy of the many participants), Elián is still remarkably even-handed. Not only in exposing the disturbing zealotry of the exiles in Miami (which caused the INS the Border Patrol to stage the armed rescue raid that terrified the little boy), but in Cuba as well. Through no fault of his own, Elián had became a pawn in the United States as a symbol of “democracy”, and then again in Cuba where, after his return, he was “adopted” by Castro as a symbol of Cuban ideals.

Despite the heat of its subject, this film is told and made by experts who really know their stuff: Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden have, between them, filmed and written prize-winning material that is both intensely emotional and impeccably researched. As I discovered while digging through the internet, Golden published a piece in 1994 (it haunts me still) read article here about how the US destroyed the then-state-of-the-art Cuban health care system, several others about Elián Gonzalez, and a series on the abuses of Guantanamo.

There is no question that Elián will roil your heart and your mind as you are horrified by the brutality of the forces pulling at the traumatized six-year-old. The film also spends quality time with the grownup Elian, who seems to have weathered the storms of politics, just as he once weathered the shipwreck that left him without a mother and at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Whatever your feelings about the issues, you will be shaken by this chapter of very recent history whose ending still remains to be written. Don’t miss it.




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