Movie review

Little Women

Watson-Pugh-Ronan-Scanlen-Little-Women

It took two daughters and one trusted Alcott-phile friend to convince me to see this latest screen adaptation by Greta Gerwig of my much-beloved Little Women. And — unlike the 1994 version, during which I finally kicked the back of the chair in front of me, crossed my arms, and said “well okay, FINE,” so betrayed did I feel by the filmmakers’ abandonment of core Alcott messages — Gerwig does get some things very very right, righter than in fact I would have thought possible. But she also makes some questionable choices, jarringly elides several sequences in an effort to cover multiple plot points, and narrows Alcott’s humanist message to simply a feminist one; further, her meta take on the ending broke much of the spell for me.

Some upfront quibbles: Combining Mr. Laurence’s gifting Beth with the piano on the same day she returns from the Hummels with scarlet fever piles on too many emotional notes in too short a span. There are too many similar scenes of Laurie and Amy in Paris; it would have been more useful I think to have substituted a scene or two of their earlier connection when Laurie visited her daily during her exile to Aunt March’s when Beth had scarlet fever. I was frankly shocked when Marmee said she was ashamed of her country while she was volunteering at a soldiers’ charity; such a sentiment would never have occurred to the Alcotts or the Marches, and in fact, in the scene from the book, Marmee says she is ashamed of herself for not properly appreciating her blessings when so many others have lost and given so much during this war. Aunt March is the widow of Mr. March’s uncle, not Mr. March’s sister — which really doesn’t make much sense, generationally or economically speaking — and her character’s needling in the book spurs the others to make more noble choices, whereas in the film she only comes off as nasty, criticizing after the fact. And I missed Meg’s “The first kiss for Marmee!” after “she was fairly married.”

But to savor the good. I spent a long time looking for an image that would capture what I loved about this film: its energy, its hustle and bustle, its zest and vitality, its blunt innocence. Through overlapping dialogue, constant uncoordinated natural movement, and speeches and performances that ring with the unself-conscious confidence of the young, Gerwig makes the scenes of the girls’ youth thrum and throb. Their words, actions, thoughts, hopes, jokes, quarrels tumble delightfully across the screen, as this clip shows when Laurie first meets the family after escorting Meg and Jo home from a party:

Their plays in the attic, their aborted Christmas breakfast, their day at “Camp Laurence” playing on the beach, their visit to the Laurences’ home, and, absolute best of all, the Pickwick Club meeting — these evocations of a happy childhood filled with creativity, comradeship, and laughter are every bit as effective as the book, compensating for their brevity by being note perfect.

And another thing Gerwig — and Florence Pugh — gets dazzlingly right is the character of Amy. Pugh delivers a fully comprehensible, utterly well-realized Amy — with all her little vanities and insecurities and energy and graciousness and charm. I had forgotten, and newly appreciated on hearing today, her ruthless honesty in assessing her artistic gifts: “…talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try any more.” Pugh’s Amy threatens, with her wisdom and charisma, to overshadow Saoirse Ronan’s more dour, less colorful, Jo.

Gerwig’s film, for me, floundered once she left their childhood behind, as the girls struggle to become women. Here, Gerwig diverges from the text — or, more accurately, leaves a big chunk of it behind. What grounds and grows the girls, besides their love for each other and for Marmee, is their earnest desire to become better, to overcome temptations and vanities and selfishnesses. This “Pilgrim’s Progress” aspect of Little Women is its spiritual and moral backbone, stemming from Louisa May Alcott’s transcendentalist upbringing. But it doesn’t fit easily with Gerwig’s message — nor, I daresay, a modern orientation in any wise — of independent self-actualization, which is also, most assuredly, evident from the text, and so it is acknowledged only by Marmee’s confession to Jo of struggling with her temper every day. Tellingly, in the book, Marmee explains that Jo’s father, Mr. March, has been pivotal in helping her become more patient. This is a recurring theme of the book: pairs of people — husbands and wives like John and Meg and Laurie and Amy, sisters like Jo and Amy and Beth and Jo, opposite-sex friends, like Laurie or Mr. Bhaer and Jo, and mentors and disciples like Old Mr. Laurence and Beth — help each other, consciously or unconsciously reinforcing each other’s strengths and gently or sometimes chidingly calling the other to task. Gerwig discounts this dynamic in her eagerness to unmask and extol the independent author herself, Louisa May Alcott — and her long-put-upon mother, Abigail Alcott. Recent scholarship, such as Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, brings to light the tough life Bronson Alcott, wittingly or un-, ensured for his wife and daughters, destabilizing their home life and decimating their savings and credit in his Utopian pursuits. Gerwig’s choice of the affable, and yet somehow ever so slightly off, Bob Odenkirk to portray Mr. March is a very deliberate one. He becomes the genial punchline to Laura Dern’s un-Marmee-ishly acerbic response to his naïve and passing enthusiasm for moving cross country.

That paradigm seems to be Gerwig’s commentary on Alcott’s celebration of pairings: couples and coupling are all very well, but you give up something of yourself when you partner. Meg must swallow her pride to ensure John retains his; Marmee must content herself with the occasional jab at her feckless mate; and Jo must set aside her writing to care for others.

Which is why, I suppose, Gerwig makes her big meta play towards the end of the film, when Little Women the book — the cover of which we saw briefly and a bit mystifyingly at the very beginning of the movie with Louisa May Alcott’s name on it — now is the subject of tense and complex negotiations between Jo and her publisher. So Jo is the author of her own book. After settling on rates and rights and percentages (a thinly veiled analogue, no doubt, of Gerwig’s and other female artists’ own struggles with the money men who stand between their creations and their projected public), Jo is told she must marry her heroine off or the deal is null. This same request was made (by fans as well as publisher) of Alcott; as she wrote a friend: “I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.” But in the movie, Gerwig has it both ways, or maybe even three or four ways. She has already introduced a dashing and glamorous Professor Bhaer (no homely old German this) and now we fade from the publisher’s office to a scene with Professor Bhaer arriving at Jo’s home, charming her family, leaving, them urging her to pursue him, Amy fixing her up, Laurie hitching the horses, and the sisters driving her in the pouring rain to chase down her lover, which she does, and they meet, and they kiss under his umbrella, and we hear the publisher remark that that’s romantic.

A new meaning of an earlier scene came to me at this point: Jo had inherited Plumfield out of sequence from the book. Was Gerwig saying that Jo never married? That she is running the school shown at Marmee’s party at the film’s end on her own? And what about all that agonizing on Jo’s part about turning Laurie down and actually writing a letter to him recanting? How does that fit into this alternative universe of Jo as Louisa? This meta musing took me out of the movie’s reality. What reality am I seeing? Alcott’s? Jo’s? Gerwig’s? Can I trust Gerwig’s respect for Alcott and her creations when she is manipulating them in this way? This did not sit well. If you want to make a movie about Louisa, go right ahead. But if you’re doing Little Women, you need to do Little Women.

Ah well. Steve asked if I liked the movie, and I told him I was about 65 percent satisfied with it. At its best, and I found it very satisfying for long stretches, it made the book and its characters live and breathe. And even in a couple of places where she took liberties with the book, I felt Gerwig made some really good choices. For example, when Jo cries over her cut hair, Gerwig has Amy comfort her, not Meg, as in the book. And that is very fitting, and binds those two sisters tightly together. I loved the sly audacity of having Amy in Paris painting alongside other artists in the open air with models that looked much like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe –– particularly since the model for Amy, May Alcott, did paint with the Impressionists when she was in Paris. And Laura Dern is flawless as Marmee. So there is much much to savor in this adaptation; I will put aside the, for me, problematic 21st century injections.

Movie review

2020 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

And then, oh my God, there were this year’s animated shorts.

I have urged friends and family to go see these — and to bring three boxes of Kleenex. Touching, creative, humane, beautiful in spirit and sensibility. I could gush on, but instead I will try to give a sense of each. And the real treat is that in addition to the five nominees, the film also features four honorable mentions, a couple of which pile on the poignancy, and a couple that provide some much-needed humor and quirkiness.

The most marvelous aspect of the program is that several tell their tales absolutely wordlessly. While classic cartoons have always done this (I’m looking at you, Road Runner), and a couple here function like those, as silent films whose heroes, actions, and point of view are utterly unambiguous, two in particular — Daughter and The Bird & The Whale — immerse us in pure imagery with extended visual metaphors that sweep us —even literal, word-driven me — to a place of intuitive acceptance and understanding way beyond and without any need of language, logic, and linearity. (Mémorable does this as well, even though it uses dialogue.)

In order of presentation:

I understand that Hair Love is favored to win in this category. It is a very heartfelt, rich, warm, and touching film (which you can see in its entirety below) about an African American father learning to do his daughter’s hair. My small quibble was that I think that alone would have been a sufficient story to tell; the destination the newly coiffed girl and father arrive at in the short’s “second act” might undercut or even negate the preparations of the first act if you think about it too much.

The movie is written and directed by a former NFL player; see more here; I totally did not know this:

Daughter took me through so many emotions, and of course to one inevitable memory. My analogous experience lacked the tragedy this film depicted of words not said, thoughts not shared, communications missed and opportunities lost. But the sorrow it evoked made the loss fresh and raw. And the thing with feathers made it bearable.

Daughter (official trailer) from Daria Kashcheeva on Vimeo.

Sister continues the thread of female-dominated narratives. But this story is told through the brother’s eyes, and it is a lovely one of sibling-ness and alone-ness. And the Chinese art is glorious throughout; I particularly loved the Sumi-style goldfish in the bowl.

妹妹 / SISTER by Siqi Song – Trailer from Siqi Song on Vimeo.

Mémorable, like Daughter, contemplates loss of a loved one. But a different kind of loss: a loss of sentience. Louis is an artist, and we watch as his world swirls away with his memories, until there are only the barest connecting threads holding shapes and life and love together. But then, we dance. Oh this one’s a killer. The filmmakers use Louis’s artistic grounding to create his mileau:  he and his surroundings morph into Van Gogh’s Starry Night; his psychiatrist inquisitor channels Giacometti. It is a sad state that Louis is descending into, but oh what marvelous company.

MÉMORABLE le making of from Nicolas MARTIN on Vimeo.

The final nominee is the Pixar crowd-pleaser Kitbull (this too is available in its entirety). A throwback to long-honored cartoon tradition of natural enemies setting aside their differences to play and share and help and love — but set against man’s inhumanity and abusiveness. And damn if it doesn’t work.

The weakest, and one of the longest, pieces is the first Honorable Mention, Henrietta Bulkowski. It simply has too much story and could have used a few more drafts to tighten it up.

Henrietta Bulkowski Trailer from Rachel Johnson on Vimeo.

But then we come to another beauty, The Bird & The Whale. This fragile, lovely work was constructed on glass, of over four thousand separate paintings. The fluidity and immediacy of the technique infuse and inform the work. See more and learn about the technique here.

The Bird and the Whale – Teaser Trailer from Paper Panther on Vimeo.

Hors Piste is great slapstick fun, of a rescue mission gone so very, very awry but it all seems to work out (for now) in the best Bugs Bunny tradition.

Hors Piste by Léo BRUNEL, Loris CAVALIER, Camille JALABERT, Oscar MALET from Miyu Distribution on Vimeo.

Maestro is also a delight. Short and charming and silly and sweet: how all can come together just for a moment to make something lovely. What a nice message to end on. This is the entire short:

Maestro from Bloom Pictures on Vimeo.

And if you liked that, here are some more short shorts from Bloom Pictures.

Such a rewarding and wonderful selection.

Movie review

2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

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As Colonel McKean says in 1776 on hearing another of George Washington’s dispatches from the front, “That man would depress a hyena.” And so too would this year’s batch of live action shorts. Now, it must be said they are nowhere near as bleak and hopeless as last year’s. But they are depressing and — I must say this — not particularly engaging. One does have a bright touch of humor; one is fraught and taut; one is a family tragedy; one is a societal tragedy; and one is a literal exercise in seeing how the other half lives. Or, using that last as a touchstone, one is a first-world exploration of discontent, and the other four tonal variations on coping (or not) within limited options, three of which are set in third-world communities (and two of which are in Tunisia).

I think the strongest piece, the one that has the most sincerity, heart, and earnest desire to make an impact for good, is Saria. Based on true events in March 2017 at a Guatemalan orphanage where forty-one girls burned to death following an attempted escape, the film is affecting and effective in its evocation of a world beyond Dickensian in its suffering and grinding poverty. Notwithstanding their grim surroundings, the young inmates are portrayed as smart and hopeful and resolute — even if we know what they don’t, that their planned effort to reach America is doomed at both ends of the journey. And apparently the film has achieved its aim to an extent: a New York congressman last month called on the Justice Department to investigate. This effort is likely as doomed as the children’s, but even so.

Also inspired by a true event — knowing which makes the piece more satisfying for me — is A Sister. This tense Belgian film puts us in the midst of an unfolding emergency, whose exact nature we never know. Which is completely fitting, because the sister of the title is not a sibling, but an anonymous 911-type operator, who takes the call from our protagonist as she rides in a car with a very distraught, very scary man. The tag line at the end of the credits thanks the two women whose stories passed in the night. I am paraphrasing that sentence, but for me, it made the film.

I had trouble connecting with the worldviews of either Brotherhood or The Neighbor’s Window. The former involves a family whose oldest son has returned from fighting in Syria (with Isis?) with his pregnant child bride. The film is set is in a very harsh reality of rural poverty; it opens with a wolf depredation on the family’s flock and closes with a human depredation on same. In between, it shows us a father who cannot move past his resentments. Similarly unable to move past resentment (or at least for most of the film) is the protagonist in The Neighbor’s Window, a film I found to be manipulative and out of place. Essentially, a woman of privilege comes to realize her blessings of family and health because the neighbors she’s been voyeuristically resenting lose theirs. I so could not buy into this.

The final film, which Steve thinks might win, is Nefta Football Club. Its ending was a refreshingly whimsical response to the questions of morality, corruption, and greed surrounding illegal drugs. It made for a nice palette cleanser, but I did not find it to be a soaring, swelling, inspiration.

So that’s what’s on the Academy’s mind: more optimistic pictures than last year, but still shy of inspiring.

 

Book review

Random Harvest (James Hilton)

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John Singer Sargent, Gassed

James Hilton writes about loss. Ineffable, all-pervading, devastating loss. A loss that hollows out his protagonists, leaves them shells of their former selves, blinded and aimless like Sargent’s soldiers. I’m thinking of Reverend Howat Freemantle in And Now Goodbye, of Hugh Conway of Lost Horizon, and of Charles Rainier of Random Harvest. But the loss delineated in Random Harvest is deeper, systemic. It’s the loss not just of what Steve would call Rainier’s “driving wheel” and what Rainier himself describes as a “sense of bewildering, pain-drenched loss,” but also of a world and a way of life—and with it, a realization of just how inadequate and foolish that world and way of life was.

So a nuanced and complex book, this, and with echoes backward to the half-remembered Paradise of 1933’s Lost Horizon  and forward to 1947’s war-themed Nothing So Strange. And, as in Time and Time Again, Hilton’s descriptions of ordinary people in extraordinary war times are wonderfully vivid.

Mostly, though, I think the 1941 book — which ends on the day of Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland, when the need for England to go to war is inevitable, irrevocable — is angry.

On Armistice Day 1937, Charles Rainier — impenetrable, insouciant, unsettled— tells our narrator a shocking war story of cold, ruthless calculation: a young officer and his unit had been set up by their commanders as a sacrifice so the Germans would trust intelligence from a spy placed in their midst. The officer figures this out just before his unit is shelled because he speaks German and hears the enemy talking in the trenches. Notes Charles, “It’s curious to reflect that one’s death was planned by both sides.”

After this episode, Rainier loses his memory, and the consequent three-year gap in his personal narrative and subsequent strange sequence of twists in his family’s fortunes, changes him from what one of his professors at Cambridge describes as “one of the rare spirits of our time” to an empty, superficial success presiding over the resuscitated Rainier steelworks, serving in Parliament, avoiding his wife’s grimly relentless and socially triumphant dinner parties. Charles has done what’s needed to be done, but without passion, conviction, desire, or belief. His life, over the twenty years portrayed in flashbacks and dialogues in the book’s five parts, has largely been that of a disengaged sleepwalker going through the motions. When Harrison, his confidant and the book’s narrator, reminds him that he’s done what he set out to do, Rainier replies that the thing that’s more important than that is “to feel that it’s been worth doing.”

It slowly becomes clear that Charles’s affliction is England’s as well. This is an England numbed by the experience of World War I and easily lulled and sated by the ensuing material success, security, peace. “Ah well, these things will probably right themselves in time,” Harrison summarizes the prevailing attitude. It’s the aimless drifting Christopher Isherwood captures in his Berlin Stories; the decay genteelly powering Shaw’s Heartbreak House. One character explains:

We missed our ways years ago and found a wide, comfortable road, fine for sleep-walkers, but it had the major drawback of wandering just anywhere, at random.

There’s also a dim awareness that this moment will not last, that the zeitgeist is shifting, that the world is bored by English domination, that the future is bleak. Notes a nobleman, late in the book:

Look at those trees — planted two centuries ago, deliberately, by someone who thought of a time when someone else would see them like this. Who could do such a thing today?

The way out of this passivity, this anomie, is passionate commitment, a sense of belonging to something bigger and better than oneself. A telling early episode that moves and saddens Rainier is of a “warm small room”:

But that room — the feeling I had in it — of comfort, of being wanted there…

Random Harvest, like its protagonist, takes a convoluted path to resolution. It is full of meanderings and odd emphases and reiterations; it doubles back and sprints forward, and then lingers in odd places where, narratively speaking, we really have no right to be, as when we are told compelling anecdotes by one character of another, a rather extraordinary person who will remain unseen and unmet. It’s all decidedly odd, and made me a bit fearful for the book’s overall structure and success as I was reading. But Hilton is firmly in control and the last breathless pages tumble into place confidently — albeit with a quite chilling undercut by major-domo Sheldon a dozen pages from its end. Depending on one’s belief in Sheldon’s omniscience, that sentence can severely alter one’s perception of the finality of the ending.

Ultimately, Random Harvest is a love story about a fascinating character in deeply disturbing times. What clinches its relevance is Hilton’s deep appreciation for outsiders, misfits, oddballs, nonconformists. As Harrison remarks to a young writer employed by the Rainiers, “One healthy symptom of so-called English society — its inside is full of outsiders.” But Hilton’s regard is most specifically for a particular kind of outsider: “dangerous” people “thinking proudly.” As one character sums up:

We’re both impervious to sentimentality and mob optimism, and both of us also, if I may so express it, are accustomed to think proudly… Both of us have the same aim in view —the cure of the thousand-year-old European disease; both methods have succeeded at various times throughout history—his, I admit, more often than mine. Either might succeed today. But what will NOT succeed, and what we both know will not succeed, is the unhappy mean between the two —the half-way compromise between sentiment and vengeance—the policy of SAFE men playing for SAFETY.

A stirring message that has not gone — and hopefully, will never go — out of style.

Art review, Book review, Concert, Dance review, Movie review, Theatre review

2019 Round-up

Books (me)

  • No Ordinary Time — Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Home Front in World War II, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
  • Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
  • From the Dust Returned, Ray Bradbury
  • Your Turn to Curtsy My Turn to Bow, William Goldman
  • Starshine, Theodore Sturgeon
  • You Have Never Been Here, Mary Rickert
  • Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux
  • Less, Andrew Sean
  • Irresistible, Adam Alter
  • The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer
  • Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
  • Shortest Way Home, Pete Buttigieg

It was fun to read quick and easy Christies amidst the heavier tomes tackled, but the best fiction was by Mary Rickert: that woman can WRITE. Her worlds are strange, dreamlike places tinged by tragedy and melancholy, where ordinary people cope and hope. And of course, Bradbury: it is always a pleasure to visit his sunny, soaring, and strange shores. As to the nonfiction, Danubia was not as successful as Winder’s Germania, to my mind: an overwhelming mass of geography, history, and Habsburgs, tempered of course by Winder’s irrepressible humor. Ultimately, I am not sure of the takeaway: it seems to be that long-simmering nationalist tendencies can only be quelled or mollified within a sprawling, distracted empire or contained in separate ethnic nation-states. In any case, it inspired our seeing my favorite movie of the year. Mayor Pete’s autobiography is thoughtful and smart, as is he; I liked reading the lessons he’s learned about people, expertise, humility, and humanity. Shermer’s Believing Brain was depressing overall; its point is that our thought processes are corrupted by lazy shortcuts and myriad cognitive biases. It is useful, however, to recognize, as Shermer notes, “how our brains convince us that we are always right.” This explains a lot about people, a satisfyingly schadenfreude conclusion; more disturbing is the realization that it applies to me, too.

Books (Steve)

  • The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald
  • Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano
  • Five-Carat Soul, James McBride
  • Wild Bill Hickok, Joe Rosa
  • Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth
  • Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
  • L.A. Stories, Ry Cooder
  • The Italian Party, Christina Lynch
  • Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Trans Atlantic, Collum McCann
  • The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett
  • Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
  • The Expats, Chris Pavone
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus
  • Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler
  • The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The year’s standout was The Forsyte Saga, but Steve says he has a great appreciation too for James McBride and intends to read more by him. The noirs were a real pleasure, but by now, Marcus’s Mystery Train has already faded, which is a bit upsetting. And Chris Pavone — who might be a relative; Steve’s mother was a Pavone — was great fun. A nod too to The Sisters Brothers, a great Western adventure story.

Concerts

  • Alan Parsons, Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Arlo Guthrie, Paramount Asbury Park
  • Peter Mulvey, City Winery
  • David Bromberg, City Winery
  • Los Straitjackets, Wonder Bar

Standout for me was Alan Parsons; again, a superlative show. Parsons and company are in excellent voice, and his commanding presence is compelling and engaging. Steve liked Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets the best. And Arlo Guthrie came right next door to us with his son and daughter, making it a very low-key, comfy family evening.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • A Bright Room Called Day (Public)
  • A Christmas Carol (No.11)
  • David Byrne’s American Utopia (Broadway)
  • Let ‘Em Eat Cake (Carnegie Hall)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway)
  • The Michaels (Public)
  • Soledad Barrio and Noches Flamenco (Joyce)
  • Puppet Slam (La Mama)
  • Victor (Axis)
  • A Woman of the World (59 East 59th)
  • Asbury Dance Festival (House of Independents)
  • Lifespan of a Fact (Gloucester)
  • Height of the Storm (Broadway)
  • Round Went the Wheel (Michael Gnat; Broadway Bound Festival)
  • The Last Man Club (Axis)
  • Strangers in the World (Axis)
  • Feral (59 East 59th; puppets)
  • Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune (Broadway; Terrence McNally)
  • Gary, A Sequel to Titus Adronicus (Broadway; Taylor Mac)
  • Mary, Mary (United Stages)
  • The Tempest (Public Mobile Unit)
  • King Lear (Broadway; invited dress rehearsal)
  • City of No Illusions (La MaMa; Talking Band)
  • Madame Marie the Psychic/The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (staged reading; Sarah Congress)

What a fantastic year for high-end, high-quality theater! We were so fortunate to get to see so much lovely, haunting, thoughtful, and uplifting material. And legendary performers: Glenda Jackson, Lindsey Crouse, Jonathan Pryce, Kathleen Chalfont, Michael Shannon, Ed Harris, Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane. A privilege to see them. It is impossible to rate the plays we saw; each — from the tiny paper dolls making up the world of Feral to the mountain of gaudily rotting carcasses that comprise the blackly gleeful set for Gary; from the stark, dark, discomfiting Axis Theatre productions to the massive stage of Carnegie Hall chock full of musicians and singers — all, all had majesty and magic. The ones that stick most with me, though, are the poignant, naked, powerful performances of Michael Shannon in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm. And the wonderful, warm, vibrant, exciting, positive energy of David Byrne’s American Utopia. The lighting had to be the best and most innovative I’ve ever seen; the colors and patterns and shadows made in that plain white square of a stage were incredible. And I must also mention the wild flamenco at the Joyce. And a little theater friendship blossomed from Feral, where we sat next to a very nice lady who is a sculptor and devotee (as are we) of all things puppet; we later all went to La MaMa’s puppet slam.

Lectures and Readings

  • The Round Table 100th (Algonquin)
  • Selected Shorts: Comedy Tonight (Symphony Space; featuring Jane Curtin and Dick Cavett)
  • 400 Years of Manhattan (Noah Diamond; United Solo)
  • Abbey Roadshow (Newark Grammy Awards Center)

There were enough of these to list as a separate category; these were uniformly light, informative, and pleasant, although I wish the Algonquin had put more conviction into its centennial celebration. Noah Diamond’s excellent lecture was drowned out by bar patrons. We did get to sit at the ACTUAL Round Table, under the famous painting, which was a thrill. The fascinating Abbey Roadshow was a double dose of Beatles experts, Prof. Kenneth Womack and Scott Freiman of “Deconstructing the Beatles” fame, analyzing the nuances of the Beatles’s last album.

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Movies (in theaters* and first-run on TV)

We saw a lot of movies this year, and many of them were superlative. Steve cites as his favorites for style and substance The Irishman (can’t go wrong with gangsters), Roma, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (just getting to SEE that was a privilege: it only ended up playing the one day). My favorite is Sunset; there is something about how and what it evokes that has stuck with me all year: a world on the brink of collapse? The audacious Jojo Rabbit was a pleasant surprise for both of us; another collapsing world order saved by learning to know and accept the other. Two “girl” movies were catnip for me: A Simple Favor and Ocean’s Eight: both delicious, delightful; the former also notably balanced a wild mix of tones: dark twisty-mystery and bright suburban tale bordering on camp — a mix Soderbergh carries off in The Informant! and does not in The LaundromatSwiss Army Man, which we streamed, also somehow balances absurdity and existential crisis. Absolutely unbalanced, practically to the point of unhinged, are a trio of Grand Guignol epics: Suspiria, The Lighthouse, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Of the three, I think I prefer the first, which was honestly out there without anything to prove or show beyond being crazy. Tarantino’s earnest, violent revisionist history ended by restoring a very white, privileged world. And, aside from Defoe’s fantastic, fearless performance, The Lighthouse invested in no context that would justify its off-the-rails engagements.

Marriage Story was devastating and excellent. Other excellent older movies we watched this year were the surprisingly touching and powerful The Edge of the World, directed by Michael Powell; Lars von Trier’s innovative and inexorable Dogville; Rachel, Rachel, featuring a haunting Joanne Woodward performance; the literally haunting 2016 The Lighthouse, which we found far superior to the overwrought 2018 version; two very entertaining 1960s Brit comedies featuring, among others, Maggie Smith: Hot Millions and The Honey Pot; the moody and sophisticated Journey to Italy, directed by Rosselini and starring Ingrid Bergman and George Saunders. But I think my favorite of these was the 2002 French movie The Man on the Train, about a thief and a poetry professor; very smart and moving.

Aside from the touching 63 Up!, none of the documentaries were terribly exciting, although the Muhammad Ali was the most informative and absorbing. I can’t even remember The Great Hack, and we only watched it a couple of months ago. What I do remember, and which continues to irk me, was the manipulative, overripe Tell Me Who I Am. This highly regarded crowd-pleaser tells the story of a twin who, after a traumatic injury that erases his past, relies on his brother’s stories to reconstruct his own life — thereby losing any knowledge of the childhood abuse they both suffered. Like last year’s equally annoying Three Identical Strangers, Tell Me Who I Am has been carefully edited to promote a particular point of view, with huge chunks left out. A reliance on the cheesy faux-confessional tropes of reality TV destroys whatever authenticity might have remained, ruining both movies.

TV

My favorite TV for the year was Russian Doll, which I instantly found weirdly and utterly appealing and offbeat. Also highly appealing was the decidedly strange and plaintive and wonderful Fleabag, which at first repelled us and then totally won us with its irreverence, shocking humor, humility, and humanity. Good Omens, Gentleman Jack, and Stranger Things were all entertaining and humane; very pleasant to spend time with. We are slowly edging up on the last season of The Wire, which, like Mad Men before it, we never want to complete. All other dramatic TV shows dim by comparison: it brilliantly portrays the entrenched bureaucracies and senseless systems with their callous disregard of the ordinary people who alternatively challenge and sustain them. We also watched the original Forstye Saga, a wonderfully intricate and elegant realization of the novel — albeit without the keen distinctions of values so well clarified by Galsworthy. Steve also greatly enjoyed Ken Burns’s series on country music.

Museums and Field Trips

Only one art show this year, but it was splendid: the Escher Exhibition at Brooklyn’s Industry City, which is going to be quite the hip and happening place. The show was comprehensive and enlightening; among my favorites was Three Worlds:

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We went with Sarah to the Mütter Museum, which always delights me: its macabre and sometimes disturbing subject matter is always clinically and compassionately presented (and its gift shop is a riot). We saw a retrospective on Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Museum, which reflected its subject’s solemn and joyful character.

A trip to the Bronx Zoo in October and a magical day in September at Seaside Heights were peaceful and restorative, filled with quiet pleasure.

There were two wonderful trips: a Hudson Valley overnight featuring a walk through Beacon with Julie, a concert at Tarrytown, the Culinary Institute, Hyde Park and the FDR Presidential Library in April (coincidentally, on the anniversary of FDR’s death); and three days in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, with a side visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Both trips were well beyond our expectations, satisfying all senses and leaving us eager to return.

We figured we could polish off Hyde Park and the Presidential Library in a matter of a couple of hours, but not at all. FDR’s home was unexpectedly poignant, particularly the reminders of his methods to accommodate but not succumb to his disability, like the dumbwaiter he used to hoist himself up to his bedroom. As to the library (his desk there is pictured below), this was a wealth of information and history. Hours upon hours could be — should be, hopefully will be — spent soaking it all up.

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As to our Massachusetts trip, it was simply terrific. We explored Rockport, which really does seem like the absolute end of the world; this photo does not quite convey the sense you have of standing on the last little outpost of land before the immensity of the ocean.

rockport

Beautiful and unpretentious, filled with artists and shops, Rockport was so nice. And then a quick stroll though downtown Gloucester, not quite as tony as Rockport, but so friendly and filled with interesting shops and the sense of a working fishing community. Theater that night starring Gloucester resident Lindsey Crouse, whose work I’ve always admired. Wonderful seafood, particularly at the very local, down home Lobsta Land. And, coming home, a few hours at Orchard House, where the presence of Louisa and May Alcott is palpable, and not in a spooky way, but in a friendly matter-of-fact way. So fun to see May’s sketches on the walls, and the lovely calla lilies she painted for Louisa near her desk.

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My main reason for going to Cape Ann was to see whales. And oh my, oh my, oh my, did we. We were on a disappointing whale watch in San Francisco, where we both got slightly seasick and ended by seeing sort of-kind of a bit of whale, maybe. But here, the weather was perfect, the boat size sufficiently large to ensure against seasickness, and we encountered a pair of whales once we were out the requisite distance. It soon became apparent that one of the whales was in distress; apparently, its tail was entangled in a tuna net. Its companion stayed by its side — and so did we, for the ship alerted the Center for Coastal Studies to rescue the whale. We stayed watching, fascinated, worried, until they arrived.

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On the way back to shore, it was as if the good news about Nuke’s imminent rescue had been telegraphed to the undersea residents. We were treated to a show of wondrous activity, with whales, dolphins, and sunfish dancing and cavorting all around us. It was glorious, and the Cape Ann Whale Watch crew obligingly stopped for each new episode, with our trip extending well beyond the scheduled three hours as we reveled in the great mammals’ playfulness and majesty. It was beyond words to share in another species’ happiness, like being invited to somebody’s house to enjoy their hospitality.

 

Food and Restaurants

New restaurant find for the year was Cajun restaurant Drew’s in Keyport. In New York, we finally found two nice picks in the Theater District; long-running restaurants with very pleasant ambiance, extensive menus, and good food and service: Chez Josephine and Mont Blanc 52. And the Culinary Institute was a delight: so elegant but with this nice earnestness and occasional small blunder, reminding you that this is a student-run enterprise. Recipe-wise, Steve has successfully replicated (and improved on) the long hots featured occasionally at Christine’s, stuffing them with a ground turkey or chicken bolognese sauce. We made a pretty dish for Thanksgiving of multicolored sliced sweet potatoes. For crab season, we discovered another friendly seafood market: Ahearns, near Seaside Heights. And we finally ditched my old dinnerware set in favor of an assortment of dragon and/or phoenix plates and bowls. A symbolic gesture on my part: comprehensive no longer means as much to me as individual, eclectic pleasures.

Theatre review

To Kill a Mockingbird and The Michaels

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Picasso, Family of Jugglers, 1905

We had a theatrical double header this week, thanks to Julie. A completely unexpected opportunity on Wednesday to see To Kill a Mockingbird and today The Michaels at the Public. Both were moving, deep, rich, and satisfying. And both had realistic yet positive things to say about life lived humbly, domestically, and with integrity while hells not of our making rage and roil around us and threaten to swallow us up.

Both plays were exceedingly well written, well directed, and well acted. Both made me think and cry: two really good things to get out of theater, and the reason I’m writing this — so the messages they left me with don’t evaporate. Particularly in these days in which we live, and these nights through which we struggle, trying so often in vain to find the spark, the good, the right, the just, the way forward.

Mockingbird‘s spark is tolerance. Accept people without judging — but also, and most importantly, question everything rather than just accept. And in the light shone by tolerance and curiosity, prejudice and ignorance melt away.  These are tools Atticus passes on to his children. This was powerfully brought home by Nina Grollman’s Scout (in a truly wonderful performance) when her father is menaced by a mob of would-be lynchers as he guards his jailed client. Scout recognizes one of the hooded men and calls to him by name: a variation, it occurred to me, on the idea of humanizing yourself to an attacker by saying your name and not allowing them to make you an object. Here it served to harken back to Atticus’s explanation of mobs being made up of people. Scout calls the person out; he removes his hood and the mob disintegrates.

I was reading online just now about how Aaron Sorkin’s Atticus Finch differs from Harper Lee’s — that, as the play’s protagonist (rather than the novel’s Scout), he changes, moving from being an uncritical apologist for the inherent racism of his society to the steely, clear-eyed Atticus we know from book and movie. I have to say that that did not spark with me; if it made the play more relevant and timely for other viewers, that is all well and good. But what worked for me was how this family — Atticus and his two children, and the heartbreakingly poignant Dill (modeled here, apparently, on Lee’s own childhood friend, Truman Capote), and the resolute and impassioned Calpurnia (I cannot remember if in the book her relationship with Atticus is described by Scout as being like her own sibling relationship with Jem) — exchanged ideas, taught and nurtured each other, grew and respected and loved. I admired the values they shared with a small — but I hoped maybe someday growing — number of members of their community: tolerance, compassion, and a commitment to truth. And I loved, and took heart from, Atticus voicing a line Sorkin wrote in an opinion piece right after Trump was inaugurated: that our finest hour always follows our darkest.

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is a very different piece, but comes down — at least for me — to the same virtues of family and shared community. The threat to their status quo is the imminent death of the imposing matriarch Rose Michael, members of whose dance company and family have gathered to spend some time together. During the course of the two-hour, intermission-less play, the characters cook and eat (with intoxicating smells of baking bread and rosemary filling the small theater), talk and laugh, reminisce and plan, hurt and help, dance and sing. Conversations overlap, points are introduced and dropped and lost and picked up and lost again, with no particular aim; just the pleasure of chatting with old friends. Each character’s blind spots and weaknesses — and strengths and quirks — are lightly exposed and just as lightly accepted.

Near the play’s end, Kate, Rose’s partner, shares Rose’s plans for her funeral. She wants everyone to gather for a day and talk about her, share their memories and sing and dance and eat. And of course, that’s what the characters have just done. They do not resolve any of the conflicts or problems presented during the play’s course — any more than any of us do during a family gathering.

The takeaways: We cannot perhaps change the world, but we can question and challenge it. We cannot perhaps change each other, but we can touch and try. And we cannot perhaps change fate, but we can meet it clear-eyed knowing that we are and have loved.

* * *

I like to fix an image to my writing to set the tone and widen the perspective, and I spent a good half hour searching for something appropriate to cover these cathartic dramas, only to realize that quiet scenes of peaceful family life were too small and serene; the keyword “tolerance” yielded hokey posters of clasping hands and dove wings; my go-to impressionists and expressionists were, respectively, too airy and too troubled. Leaving me, and leading me, to Picasso. His Rose Period jugglers hit the note I wanted: a created and creative family, bound together by creed even more than by blood. All colors, all ages. Engaged and industrious, teaching and learning. The symbolism of flaming trees offset by a pure white horse. And against all this a dominant figure balanced precariously yet effortlessly on a spinning globe.

Theatre review

Victor

 

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A word you hear a lot these days, it seems to me, is “transactional,” which my online dictionary defines as “relating to the conducting of business, especially buying or selling” and cites the example of “a purely transactional relationship.”

We seem to be in a particularly transactional moment in time: everything seems to be for sale and few things seem to have intrinsic value. So much has been coarsened or disparaged as a consequence.

It was thus a relief and a refuge and a revelation to visit tonight for about an hour at the Axis Theatre with poet and performance artist Edgar Oliver — and, through him, a community of people overlooked and eccentric, strange and sad, proud and profound. Victor Greco is one such. Victor is a muscular short order cook whom Oliver likens to Popeye who loses job, home, and perhaps sanity, to die at age fifty — last February — alone but not unmourned. Victor perhaps courted the fiercely shy, passive, and melancholic Oliver, stuffing the mailbox of his former East Village neighbor every day with poems, letters, and illustrations; Oliver perhaps loved Victor, visiting him in Tompkins Park, sitting with him at a nursing home during one of his last illnesses, dancing with him in better days to a gypsy-style street violinist in front of St. Marks.

“Those were happy days. Why do we survive them?”

This is the central relationship Oliver traces. But he introduces us to other denizens of this world: a towering black Amazon who, after Oliver has belatedly summoned the police to chase off a cadre of undesirables who have taken up temporary residence for the evening in his subbasement, brazenly knocks on his door to retrieve something she had left behind in her hasty departure. Dazed and accepting, he lets her in, noting that sometimes that’s what you do: let the darkness in.

And Oliver tells us about Joe Meeks, the Mayor of 10th Street, who dies in Victor’s arms. And of the roaches, whom he treats kindly — until the day he doesn’t.

This is not a sentimental piece, and there are no easy judgments we can make about these characters. Oliver muses on why he never asked the homeless Victor, his friend of twenty years, to move in with him. The answer seems to lie in the fact that Oliver gave what he could, and Victor — like the Amazon, like Joe Meeks, like the roaches, like Oliver himself — didn’t ask for more from their fellows.

It is a strange world, and I don’t think most of us would want to occupy it. But the humanity at its core, and the tolerance that drives it, makes this a very different place from where we are now.

[An early, twenty-minute version of Victor is online at Vimeo; here is the link; the play runs at Axis through October 26.]