TV review

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–75)

The Edwardian era Bellamy household.

A most pleasant preoccupation during these decidedly unpleasant times has been revisiting the classic British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. Steve and I, latecomers to the show, first watched the sixty-eight episodes about five or more years ago, and rewatched them over the past several months to introduce them to our pandemic housemate Sarah. She was as captivated by the Bellamy household as we continued to be.

The attraction lies first and largely in the rich, multifaceted characters who comprise the two domains of 165 Eaton Place: the masters and the servants. But the fascination comes from watching their reactions and responses as the world — slowly at first, then at steadily increasing speed — roils and shifts around them, tumbling them headlong into a future none of them could foresee, anymore than can any of us now, I suppose. But watching them, we know what they do not: that it’s all going to end, sometimes quite badly. On reflection, this is the same appeal as with Mad Men: clearly delineated characters moving with or against the currents of their time. But where Don, Peggy, Joan, and the rest dealt with the upheavals of a single, albeit tumultuous, decade, the 1960s, the Bellamys move through almost thirty years from the Edwardian period to the beginning of the Great Slump.

The pre–World War I household configuration.

The social and technological changes realized during the 1903–30 time frame are immense, and the discrete historical events that punctuate the period are huge. The sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, the stock market crash, and more, visit the inhabitants of Eaton Place — and hit hard. To say nothing of the human-scale milestones that test and mark the characters: like any good soap opera, and some well-lived lives, Upstairs, Downstairs is replete with weddings, deaths, divorces, extramarital affairs, unrequited love, suicides, kidnappings, drunkenness, disability, madness, extortion, and scandal. Tellingly, there are relatively few births on the show: only two, by my count, and only one of those children survives. I think this is because the story of the Bellamys is one of gradual extinction. Like E.M. Forster’s Howards End and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Upstairs, Downstairs tells of a time and a class on its way out, as the assumptions and circumstances that underlie the British empire rot away.

Class is an obvious and uppermost theme throughout the series. There are the nobility and the gentry who live upstairs — prominently Lady Marjorie, born to a title, and Lord Richard Bellamy, later bestowed his title, their children James and Elizabeth, and a set of spouses and extended family — and there are the below-stairs servants. These, as James’s wife Hazel — who, like Richard, comes from the middle class, and thus strictly speaking belongs neither upstairs nor downstairs — observes, make up a second family living in the Bellamy home, with “father” Hudson, the butler; “mother” Mrs. Bridges, the cook; and an assortment of “children” consisting of the flower-named maids (Rose, Daisy, Violet, Lily), the chauffeurs, footmen, and scullery girls. But interestingly and perhaps unusually, they don’t really live downstairs, only work there. Their rooms, like the Bellamys’, are mostly on upper floors, meaning that the entire household uses a single common staircase. And a good many significant scenes of transition are played out on those stairs, peering over banisters, hunched up in tears, or seated expectantly or unexpectedly.

The Bellamy household of the early 1920s.

A thought about the housing arrangements. It occurred to me that James, particularly when back home after his time at the front during the war, and both Elizabeth and Bellamy ward Georgina, in between impetuous and sometimes scandalous sallies into the broader world, spend almost entire episodes in their own rooms or in the morning room — smoking, sulking, and periodically summoning or dismissing the staff. But below stairs, except for their rarely seen bedrooms, most of which are shared, and Hudson’s pantry, a private and sacrosanct retreat, all is communal space. The staff cozily eat, confer, connect, clash, and recreate together, all while drinking endless cups of cocoa and tea: in stark contrast to the lonely, solitary lives led above stairs. I wonder what were the impacts of the myriad opportunities available to the lower classes to thus exchange thoughts — and all-too-frequent misinterpretations — versus the long stretches available to the upper classes for introspection and solipsism.

Upstairs, Downstairs differs from its predecessor prestige period piece The Forsyte Saga of 1967 in that the latter is based on a book by John Galsworthy and its characters stay, well, more or less in character. In contrast, over a dozen credited writers created Upstairs, Downstairs. I do not know to what extent character and season arcs were deliberately developed, and to what extent the writers had free rein to go where and how they wanted. But it is apparent that writer conceptions of the various characters differed widely and wildly. So, Mr. Hudson may be petty and peevish in one episode, and wise and preternaturally cool and collected in another. Rose too rockets from wide-eyed innocence to tart bitterness. Richard is an almost insufferable and clueless stuffed shirt in some episodes and a sly, subtle rake in others. The actors did their best to elide these contradictions. And in some episodes, this sense of character as filtered through an individual writer’s perspective, yields real riches. Noted novelist Fay Weldon’s “Your Obedient Servant” episode sets up a wonderful parallel between Richard and Hudson as they confront their respective brothers — and each other, in unfamiliar surroundings — resulting in a keen appreciation of character and a warm shared humanity; such insights might not have been possible with a single guiding narrative voice.

Regardless of these episode-to-episode character inconsistencies, what offered me the most food for thought was seeing how stuck so many of the characters were. Stuck in preconceptions, societal expectations, notions of fitness and rightness. How curtailed their freedom was by their times and class, regardless of whether they lived upstairs or down. James, whose tragic life is the central arc of the series, is irrevocably hemmed in: by his class, by his connections, by available opportunities, by what he’s seen and done in the war, by what he wants and needs — which he really doesn’t know and couldn’t express even if he did, because of yet another limitation in his character: James is ultimately not very perceptive. He is a clumsy, and spoiled, creature of impulse, of a genetic piece with his sister Elizabeth. He is not a bad man, not at all; just one who has no “driving wheel,” as Steve and David Bromberg would put it. To some extent, his inability to find meaning, his frustrated, restive nature, is a product of the Great War. But really, the seeds were sown years before by an indulgent set of parents and a class system that encouraged idleness and precluded so many avenues to relevancy.

At the other end of the spectrum of societal expectation is Mrs. Bridges. Where James floats purposelessly, not knowing where or how to land, Mrs. Bridges knows exactly who and what she is, was, and always will be.  She never changes her hairstyle or her hemline, but stays firmly rooted in Edwardian era domestic service attitudes and fashion (see black and white photo of a 1907 Mrs. Bridges doppelganger). Even more than Mr. Hudson, who senses and fights against evolving attitudes toward domestic service, she seems impervious to changing times and mores. But Kate Bridges has an advantage even over Hudson, which I found quite revelatory and intriguing, and which perhaps could explain her confident certitude. As the cook, provider of food and sustenance, Mrs. Bridges has certain powers and privileges unavailable to the others below stairs. When sufficiently vexed with uncertainty or capriciousness emanating from the master, mistress, or other family members, she can go upstairs and press her case. And she does — not often, but only when pushed — and she is generally pacified or at least mollified. Mrs. Bridges is, after all, not just a cook, but a very good fancy cook. She also has a special relationship with the children of the household. I was struck when Victoria, Richard’s second wife, brings her children downstairs after their first visit to Eaton Place, so they can thank Cook personally for their tea. Certainly, no one ever thanks Rose or Daisy or Edward the footman for their ceaseless, invisible labor.

Most of the staff, like Mrs. Bridges, like Hudson, know their place. But as the years go by, the newer and younger staff evince a bit of the same rebelliousness as Sarah (pictured at left), who enters service in the very first episode and leaves no member of the Bellamy household unscathed in her relentless quest for a better, freer, less constrained life. After the war, this spirit is much more pronounced among the junior staff, several of whom leave service altogether — much to Hudson’s dismay and disappointment. But these servants, beginning with Sarah, are actually able to do what James cannot: break free of societally imposed constraints. They can pursue what earlier generations of domestic servants could not: upward mobility.

Beyond the social issues, the key to the show’s enduring interest and appeal is the decency, the humanity, of its main characters. We come to care deeply for Hudson and Hazel, for Rose and Richard, for Marjorie and James, for Edward and Daisy, for Mrs. Bridges and Ruby — particularly in season 4, when they are buffeted, bewildered, and beat down by the war. Almost every character gets a chance, sometimes several, to reveal their grace and grit, their compassion, their honor. It was a joy being in their presence for all these months; I shall miss them.

It appears that all the episodes can be streamed on YouTube; I am not sure of the copyright considerations entailed. They are also available on Britbox. And a lovely resource for all things Upstairs, Downstairs is maintained online by Steve Phillips: click here.

Book review

An American Story (Christopher Priest)

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Pakistan International Airline print ad 1979

When late-night Internet surfing led me to the fact that Christopher Priest, author of the absolutely-can’t-put-this-down The Prestige, had published a book in 2019 about 9/11, I promptly bought and then promptly read it. In the intervening decades, I had tried to get through other Priest efforts, but maybe only one, perhaps two, had spurred me to completion.

This one is different, this one is truly compelling, with a fascinating story and an equally interesting narrative method. But — and please forgive me, Professor Grumbach, with your exhortation to leave the author his donné — I had wanted the book to be about something other than it was. I saw it as a window on today, but Priest firmly roots it in and maintains its focus on 9/11.

Even so:

I assumed that in an enlightened civilized society…there was no danger from the people we elect into positions of power… We assume that a government is essentially on our side, even if we did not vote for the party who takes power or the president who wins the election.

The story is simple: Benjamin Matson, a scientist by training and a journalist by profession, met, loved, and planned a life with a captivating and complex woman who is then presumably killed in the plane crash at the Pentagon on 9/11 — a scenario he becomes increasingly suspicious of as the years pass and contradictory information comes to light.

This is essentially a record of Ben’s research effort, and it relies more on conversations and interviews than on actions and deeds. Told in the first person by this highly reliable narrator, the story spirals and loops through time, describing incidents from “then” — 2000, 1996, 2005, 2006–2011 — interspersed, seemingly randomly, with incidents from “now.” There is a certain amount of repetition. We are told about the same interaction multiple times as new information and perspectives are added. Thus, the storytelling method is the same as the story: the format perfectly matches the content as a gradual, iterative, accretion of impressions.

While the narrator may be reliable, narrative is not — a point Priest immediately makes with his opening epigraph from Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission:

In the rare cases when a historical event, especially a traumatic event, stirs emotions on a massive scale…it enters popular culture. Great numbers of people soon form beliefs about what happened and why — creating a historical narrative… People will try to make sense of the events that fit their prior understanding of how the world works.

Having thus primed us, Priest then very cleverly heightens our suspicions, putting us on uneasy alert to disinformation, dissonance, and distortion. His rejection of linear narrative in favor of repetitive iteration shows us time and time again that we — through our proxy Ben — often miss key information the first time around.

Further, Priest gives us three main characters Ben returns to at various intervals throughout the book; these function rather like a set of oracles with their respective totems: his current partner’s mother, Lucinda, and her unreliable memories (“I’m full of memories I’ve made up”); his dead lover Lil and her contradictions; the famed mathematician Tatarov and his proofs.  These three dispel, for both Ben and the reader, any remaining faith in knowable, objective reality.

The perspective is oddly bracing. We come to recognize with Ben that accepted wisdom is never the latter and so should never be the former. As he probes the circumstances of Lil’s death, he comes to find that

The story was shaped to fit into what few facts were known…

and that much of what we are left with is

…the vernacular history of 9/11… Based purely on hearsay — this loosely described event, unsupported by any evidence…

We must be on our guard and question everything, accept nothing.

For the price of complacency is high, and the possibility for manipulation via the democratized platform of free speech that is the Internet is very, very strong:

When the motive is malign, facts and known events are no longer empirical. They can be downgraded into theories, suspicions, lies, alleged conspiracies. They can be redacted. History itself falls into doubt.

Not to mention the future.

 

Book review

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)

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Stick a shovel into the ground almost anywhere and some horrible thing or other will come to light.

This is the story — stories, really — of narrator Iris Chase Griffen. Her unsettling, uncompromising younger sister Laura is dead in the first sentence of the book. By page 17, her husband is dead. And, completely hooked, we have 600 pages to go.

The deliberate idiosyncrasy of the book is that even though it covers over a century on earth, and untold eons on the Planet Zycron, and embraces a wide range of topics most notably including relations between classes, generations, and genders, we ultimately are told very little by Iris about Iris. Or, as her obituary terms her, “Iris Chase Griffen, a Memorable Lady.”

A lady of memories. As she observes about her wedding picture:

I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome, the result of the life she once lived headlong; whereas she, if she can be said to exist at all, is composed only of what I remember. I have the better view — I can see her clearly, most of the time. But even if she knew enough to look, she can’t see me at all.

Atwood presents Iris and her memories through three separate narrative devices juxtaposed within the book’s fifteen sections: a memoir Iris is writing about herself and her family at the end of her life, brief articles from an array of journals and newspapers reporting on matters about and around Iris and her family, and excerpts from Laura Chase’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin. This last is made up of a series of interludes between an unnamed woman and her unnamed lover who meet over a period of several years to share afternoons of lovemaking and storytelling in rented and borrowed rooms in and around Toronto. The stories he tells her are sad, savage mythically informed tales of the Planet Zycron. Featuring heavily in these stories are a blind assassin — one of the former child slaves who have gone blind from weaving the country’s fabled carpets and graduated on to become stealthy and sure killers — and the mute sacrificial virgin he comes to kill.

These segments were, to me, the least engaging.

The parts I liked best were Iris’s steady, dispassionate unfolding of her family history. Iris’s grandfather founded a button factory in the 1870s — stolid, practical buttons:

You could picture them on long underwear, holding up the flap at the back, and on the flies of men’s trousers. The things they concealed would have been pendulous, vulnerable, shameful, unavoidable — the category of objects the world needs but scorns.

Increasingly prosperous, Grandfather marries the genteel and cultured Adelia Montfort, who names the family estate Avilion — where Tennyson’s King Arthur went to die. They have three sons. I love how Iris describes how her father Norval proposed to her demure, teen-aged mother:

After they had skated around the pond several times, my father asked my mother to marry him. I expect he did it awkwardly, but awkwardness in men was a sign of sincerity then…All around them were the snow-covered rocks and the white icicles — everything white. Under their feet was the ice, which was white also, and under that the river water, with its eddies and undertows, dark but unseen. This was how I pictured that time, the time before Laura and I were born — so blank, so innocent, so solid to all appearances, but thin ice all the same. Beneath the surfaces of things was the unsaid, boiling slowly.

All this foreshadowing and sense of dread is paid off with World War I, which kills two of the Chase brothers and maims Norval, who loses an eye and gains a bad leg. Meanwhile, his young bride has become a nurse and is overseeing the family business after his father’s stroke. So Norval and Liliana have both seen and been and done too much and are unrecognizable to each other at war’s end. Moreover, she realizes that he has had others:

She must have been able to tell, the first time he laid a hand on her: the timidity, the reverence, would have been gone.

But:

She did understand, or at least she understood that she was supposed to understand. She understood, and said nothing about it, and prayed for the power to forgive, and did forgive. But he can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy.

It is this strained marriage that Iris grows up in and Laura is born into. Then, it all ends a few years later when their mother miscarries and dies. The girls grow up, essentially neglected, emotionally stunted, haphazardly educated and then increasingly impoverished as the Depression destroys both the family business and their father, who turns to alcohol to deaden his pain.

I’ve lingered long on their childhood, because I found the keen observation of manners, mores, and personalities here particularly spell-binding. The gradual unspooling and reseeding of the family is the focus of most of the rest of the book, and introduces the revolutionary Alex Thomas who may or may not have burned down the button factory in a labor protest, but certainly captured the imaginations and hearts of the Chase girls. It also features the rich and rapacious Griffens: the spiteful Winifred and her brother Richard, who will marry Iris and attempt to subjugate Laura:

He was ruthless, but not like a lion; more like a sort of large rodent. He tunnelled underground; he killed things by chewing off their roots.

As the years unfold, it becomes evident that the unnamed woman in The Blind Assassin excerpts is someone we know very well and that Laura’s novel is not really a fiction. I figured out the identities of the lovers pretty early on, and I think this might have diminished some of the magic of the book for me — rather like watching a mystery where you know whodunnit, and you are thus more aware of the setups and subterfuges and distractions and red herrings. This did not, however, dull the pleasure offered by Atwood’s thoughtful prose and Iris’s diamond-hard perceptions. A few samples:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

They were fearful of him, a little deferential. I gathered this from the play of the cigarette lighters: who lit what for whom, and how quickly.

But why bother about the end of the world? It’s the end of the world every day, for someone. Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.

And my favorite, this lovely extended metaphor that perfectly pairs opposites to convey the regularity of seasonality in a most unexpected, quietly distorted manner:

The season is turning on its hinges, the earth swings farther from the light; under the roadside bushes the paper trash of summer drifts like an omen of snow. The air is drying out, preparing us for the coming Sahara of centrally heated winter.

Iris notes toward the end of the book:

I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted.

And that is true. She has withheld important information, and we must make the requisite leaps of logic or intuition at the ends of many chapters to fill in what Iris never speaks. And too, we realize, as I noted at the beginning, that when all is said and done, there are huge chunks of unspoken or only so briefly hinted-at incidents — which in fact comprise most of her years on earth — that we know nothing of.

Which calls our attention directly to how this story has been told us. And I wondered who is the architect who put together the memoir, the novel excerpts, and the helpful news bulletins. It can only be Atwood, which means we see the wizard quite clearly behind the curtain. And makes some of the lag in the book’s later sections and the discursive meanderings a bit less forgivable.

The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise, there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.

Presumably, that is what we are to get from all this. That Iris had a twisted road of a life. Which seems a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion once the mystery is resolved.

But I should not be churlish. There is wondrous richness in this book, achingly elegant prose, a most singular narrator, and an exceedingly well-researched and cleanly conveyed encapsulation of the turmoil of the twentieth century. The Blind Assassin made for a smart and engaging companion for many, many days.

Uncategorized

A Dream Fragment from May

I had originally planned to post this well over a month ago, under the title “From Fear to Knowledge: Coming to Grips” or some such, and building from the dream that follows into a discussion of Cartwright and Biddiss’s 2006 edition of Disease & History, a Sutton History Classics volume originally published in 1972 (which has now been superseded by a third edition from 2014). I found this book oddly comforting, as it essentially demonstrates, through quick and efficient encapsulations of past epidemics and pandemics — bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus — that we have been here before and come out the other side.

But somewhere between then and now, the post just didn’t happen. Like so much else. And all that remains of it is the dream.

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A wild panoply of vivid, rich, crazy dreams ultimately filled with hope. The image I’m remembering best is being in the street, not any street I’ve known, but it was where home was, and a cart in front of the house, with two unconscious males, a man and a boy, naked and undernourished and covered with flies. They later arouse and were up to some unspecified unpleasantness. There were strangers in the street, not a mob, separate, getting signatures and importuning for attention to a variety of political causes and remedies. They were sinister and suspect. But that was ok, because I and whoever I was with were bringing Pete Buttigieg — my personal exemplar of reason and wisdom and calm — into the house and shutting the door. All the while Pete — and swirling around in conversations outside and in — was suggesting and expounding on a variety of solutions and innovations to be put in place. I remember the idea of a national pool, run by Las Vegas odds makers, on when various things would start to open. That may not have been the most forward-thinking or helpful of ideas. There was also a group-compiled open-source sort of 3D interactive map made up of videos from theme parks and attractions around the world, so when you clicked on a locale, you went to a first-person perspective video to experience that place. And everyone nationwide could be involved in making that. But the most serious and hopeful was an innovation council Mayor Pete was spearheading to foster outside-the-box thinking about how to get the country running again: a council of experts to vet ideas from the general populace and get good ideas going.

Uncategorized

Terror versus Dread

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Peter Lorre’s haunted, haunting face in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) captures abject terror.

I had a bad day yesterday. Of course, the immediate rejoinder to that, worldwide, is “who didn’t?” But the rationale for recording this seeming tautology is twofold: (1) as a freelancer, very little of my daily routine (to the extent I have ever had one) has actually changed, other than Sarah coming to us as a very congenial telework refugee from New York, making the relative concept of “bad” the merest flutter on the scale; and (2) it was a bad day, not night.

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George Tooker, The Subway (1950). This is dread more than terror.

When this pandemic ordeal began, our household — probably like millions — manifested individual signs and symptoms of stress: gout, eczema, headaches, tensed backs and jaws, and (me) gallbladder attacks. These were accompanied by frequent and neurotic cross-checks of online Covid-19 symptom lists. I rationalized this as our unconscious minds using familiar pain pathways to register our discomfiture. Register, not resolve.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hell (c. 1490–1510). This part of the triptych fairly twitches with terror and dread-inducing images.

For me, the attacks typically came (come? what tense is appropriate to life in suspension?) at night. During the day, when the sun is shining — and it often has, disorientingly clear and brisk days — and there are projects or people or both to fill the time — it is sometimes difficult to remember that everything has changed. Or to summon up the unspoken questions underlying recognition of that change: For how long? and Until when? and Into what?

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Afred Kubin, Into the Unknown (1901). Save for the lack of social distancing, that about sums it up.

But the symptoms started to recede for all of us because humans adapt to anything, right?

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Edvard Munch, Anxiety (1894).

But yesterday, after a week and a half of relative calm filled with delicious and nutritious food, frequent check-ins with family and friends, escapist movies and TV, some client work accomplished in a most satisfying collaboration, a dusting-off of bottom-of-the-inbox categorization projects, and a new equanimity regarding our weekly grocery store runs predicated on my acceptance that this once-pleasurable activity could no longer be a contemplation of the possible but a grim and hurried reality check, I had a quite painful attack that started a couple of hours after breakfast. It came in waves every two hours till dusk. After a nap, some Tylenol, some nausea, and eight and a half miles of walking, it eventually subsided.

It is easy to recognize that discomfort is stress-induced. Duh. But a very insightful conversation with Julie led me deeper.

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Trent Parke, The Camera Is God (2019).

She urged taking the pain as a signal from inside my psyche, as a barometer that no, things are not all serene in the subconscious, and that that needs to be — if not addressed — then at least acknowledged.

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The unmasking from the 1925 Lon Chaney silent film Phantom of the Opera.

Psychologists say that the top five stressors are death of a loved one, divorce, moving, major illness, and job loss. All of these reflect a disruption of the status quo. All animals like the status quo. Our brain is wired to maintenance of the status quo: we are designed to go on autopilot, with only “executive” decisions penetrating to the conscious mind. And this new normal we are in is a huge disruption of the status quo. Uncertainty pervades, and the seamless collaboration between conscious and unconscious minds is wrecked.

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Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape (1913).

So last night, before I was quite asleep, I checked in with my gallbladder, trying to understand what was underneath the attack.

And I felt a wave of emotion in the pit of my stomach, unlike anything I’ve experienced in recent memory — maybe not since I was a child, when things really really scared you because nothing made any sense. What I felt was something wrenchingly horrible and completely without words. Terror? Dread?

Which question took me, with relief, to much more familiar terrain: defining and categorizing.

So I have spent the day, after a fairly restorative (relatively speaking) sleep, pondering the difference between terror and dread, and collecting images that evoke either for me. And I think it comes down to this: dread is when you sense a threat, but you don’t have any clear idea of what precise danger it poses or when it will arrive – only that it’s lurking, and that it is not at all good.

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F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu (1922). Dread.

Terror, it seems to me, is when you happen on something completely unnerving. It can be an upsetting image, filled with inexplicable and incomprehensible components that together scream: be afraid, be very afraid.

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Oskar Kokoschka, Pietà (Poster for Murderer, Hope of Women) (1909). Terror.

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Salvador Dali, The Enigma of Hitler (1939). Terror.

Or it can be contextualized, but the context defies reason. This clip from David Lynch’s Lost Highway epitomizes that, to me.

It also encapsulates how I felt the first time I read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Early in City of Glass, the first part of the trilogy, there is this:

Much later, when [Quinn] was able to reconstruct the events of that night, he would remember looking at the clock, seeing that it was past twelve, and wondering why someone should be calling him at that hour. More than likely, he thought, it was bad news. He climbed out of bed, walked naked to the telephone, and picked up the receiver on the second ring.

“Yes?”

There was a long pause on the other end, and for a moment Quinn thought the caller had hung up. Then, as if from a great distance, there came the sound of a voice unlike any he had ever heard…

“Hello?” said the voice.

“Who is this?” asked Quinn.

“Hello?” said the voice again.

“I’m listening,” said Quinn. “Who is this?”

“Is this Paul Auster?” asked the voice. “I would like to speak to Mr. Paul Auster.”

And I flung down the book and tried to sleep, but I had nightmares all night. That was terror: contextualized terror. A context that provides no context, no explanation. And every fiber of my being rebelled against that. And that’s terror.

Welcome to our world.

Movie review

Little Women

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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

short-live action 2019

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)

Sargent,_John_Singer_(RA)_-_Gassed_-_Google_Art_Project
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.

610_algonquin_about.jpg

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:

m.c.-escher-three-worlds

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.

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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.