Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TV Review: Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews

This article was first published at Blogcritics

On December 19 Bravo will premiere its original documentary on the life of controversial Canadian literary figure Mordecai Richler, The Last of the Wild Jews. Like most readers, I first came to Richler's work through his 1959 novel about Jewish life set in the Montreal neighborhood in which he grew up during the thirties and forties, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. While the novel was a considerable artistic success, even spawning an acclaimed film starring Richard Dreyfus in 1974, it was also responsible for some negative criticism from the Jewish community both in Canada and the United States. His portrayal of what many saw as the aggressive materialistic Duddy was seen as the work of what they saw as a "self hating Jew." Similar criticism had been leveled at novelists like Philip Roth for stories like "Defender of the Faith" and Portnoy's Complaint, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.

Nonetheless his work, like theirs, was a popular success. He was part of what seemed like a Jewish Renaissance in the arts. There were the writers of course, but there were also the comedians: Myron Cohen and Jackie Mason who brought the Yiddish sensibility into the cultural mainstream; Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce and Jackie Leonard, with their 'take no prisoners' attacking comedy. Like them Richler is seen as a provocateur—one of the wild Jews.

While it may be debatable whether he is the "last" of this wild bunch, there is no question but that he belongs. It is not only his willingness to look at the Jewish community critically, it is also his pugnacious attack on any and everything he finds unjust. Besides his satirical picture of aspects of Jewish life, the documentary focuses on two of his other crusades, his attacks on Canadian Nationalism and Quebec separatism. Richler is not shy about speaking his mind. From the beginning, the film makes that clear. "I don't trust television people," he tells one TV interviewer. Talking about the North American Continent, he says: "I wish it were one country." Why, he wants to know from an interviewer, is he always referred to as a Jewish writer, why not simply a writer. Even at a high school reunion, he finds it necessary to make a snide crack about the musical entertainment. This is not a man who tries to avoid controversy. It is not strange that he gets threatening phone calls. It is not strange that he has his share of detractors.

Although the film does include a good bit of biographical information, it is not essentially a biography. It talks about the school he attended, about the fact that he met the woman he loved as a soul mate a few days after he was married to another woman, about his move to England when he was nineteen. But what we are shown are really only highlights. We learn relatively little about his family. We hear nothing about the novels prior to Duddy Kravitz and little about anything he wrote after except forBarney's Version, a film version of which just happens to be due out in the near future. The focus of the documentary is on the man's penchant for controversy.

As with the typical documentary there are the talking heads, old friends talking about the man, literary figures talking about his work. Florence, his wife, talks about the difficulties of living with a man who put his work before everything else in his life. His friend Ted Kotcheff talks about being the first to read Duddy Kravitz and eventually getting funding to make the film. Margaret Atwood talks about the psychological crutches he depended on in social situations. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker gives some insight into his significance as a writer and what it means to be a "wild Jew." There is archival footage of the Yiddish community in Montreal at the time Richler was growing up. There scenes from both the film of Duddy Kravitz as well as Barney's Version. Director Francine Pelletier's approach to her unconvenional subject is fairly conventional.

If Richler never quite achieved the reputation of some of the other "wild Jews" in the States, it may be less because of the quality of his major work, than it is because of his focus on Canadian issues in his later work. Even though much of his writing was published in American periodicals, more than likely, it makes a difference to parochial readers if your book deals with Jews in New Jersey or Chicago as opposed to Jews in Montreal. Still, it is clearly arguable that Mordecai Richler at his best is as good as they come, and this is a message that comes through loud and clear from this estimable documentary.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Music Review: The Chocolate Soldier-Studio Cast Recording

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Masterworks Broadway's recent release of the 1958 studio cast recording of the classic 1908 operetta,The Chocolate Soldier, is a welcome opportunity for modern audiences to become reacquainted with one of the finer examples of an art form much neglected in this day and age. Sung through musicals like Les Miz and melodramatic extravaganzas like Phantom come close, and while one may argue that they are the contemporary heirs of the older genre, they are clearly the product of a different sensibility. The Chocolate Soldier belongs to another age: it smacks of evening dress, handle bar mustaches and horses and carriage. Still, if its form is of another time, its message at least is clearly of today.

Based on George Bernard Shaw's anti-war satire, Arms and the Man, The Chocolate Soldier ridicules the idea that war is a heroic endeavor, by creating as its hero a man who carries chocolates in his ammunition belt rather than bullets. He is escaping from the front lines when he sneaks into the bedroom of a beautiful young lady who is engaged to an enemy officer, with the obvious results. Shaw allowed his play to be used as the basis of the operetta, according to Stanley Green's program notes, on condition that the names of the characters are changed and none of his dialogue be used for fear that a popular musical would have a negative effect on productions of the original.

The operetta premiered in Vienna in 1908 with music by written by Oscar Straus and a libretto by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson. An English translation by Stanislaus Stange debuted on Broadway in 1909. The 1958 recording features Metropolitan Opera stars Rise Stevens as Nadina and Robert Merrill as Buneli, the eponymous chocolate soldier. Peter Palmer, who had starred as Li'l Abner on Broadway played Alexius, Nadina's fiancé and Jo Sullivan is Mascha, the maid he eventually marries.

At times the music tends toward what used to be called the schmaltzy; at other times there are touches of Gilbert and Sullivan. The best known piece in the operetta is "My Hero" from the first of the three acts. The "Come, come, I love you truly" section is custom made for the gorgeous soprano of Rise Stevens. It is reprised in a duet with Merrill as part of the finale to Act II. It is an iconic piece in the operetta canon, the kind of song that is the glory of the genre for those that like it and probably the object of derision for those that don't. The lyrics may be a bit clunky for modern taste, but the lush melody makes up for that in spades. "Never Was There Such a Lover" is a clever falling out of love duet between Stevens and Palmer. "The Chocolate Soldier" could have been a witty duet for Stevens and Merrill, but it loses a lot with some of the phrasing in the chorus.

Gilbert and Sullivan echoes begin with the first act Introduction both with the marching male ensemble and the young maiden trio. "Seek the Spy," a piece for the ensemble, could have come right out of any of the Gilbert and Sullivan opus. The same is true for "Alexius the Heroic," a set piece for Palmer along with the ensemble. The cutesy "Letter Song" in the third act, on the other hand seems less of an echo; it is also less compelling musically. I guess if you are going to be channeling anyone, you can't do better than Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Chocolate Soldier is not for everyone. It is a period piece for a period that has long gone, but for many it will bring back fond memories. For those of you, cancel that. For those of us who loved The Student Prince, this album is a treasure. For those of us who remember Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, this album is a must. For those of us who look forward to the New Year's Eve productions of Die Fledermaus, this is an album that belongs in our music libraries.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sherlock Holmes on Screen and Off

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes made it to HBO Saturday Night, and although I had managed to avoid it when it was in the theaters and certainly wasn't going to buy it when it came out on DVD, I gave in and watched. After all, everything I had heard or read about the film had inspired little incentive to run out to the local Cineplex. While I am not quite a fanatic about Holmes, not one of those Baker St. Irregulars or anything like that, I do fancy myself something of an aficionado, and the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a kind of 19th century action hero was more than I was willing to stomach. Holmes was a master detective who dealt with crime by using what another iconic sleuth would call his "little gray cells." My Holmes wore a deer stalker, played mournfully on his violin and had the lean and hungry look of Basil Rathbone. He had nothing in common with a bemused, 'bemuscled' Robert Downey, Jr. He didn't jump out of windows and engage in bare knuckle brawling. His sidekick wasn't a handsome youthful Jude Law, but Nigel Bruce, a harrumphing gray haired bumbler that never seemed to have a clue what was going on.

I watched¸ and sure enough what we've got here is Sherlock Holmes as a 19th century superhero minus mask and spandex. True, there are traces of Holmes. He is fond of disguises. He is subject to depression. He fiddles with a violin, but never as sweetly as Basil. He is a keen observer with remarkable deductive powers, both of which are emphasized by directorial film tricks. Nonetheless, this is not Sherlock Holmes; this is somebody else using his name. But the odd thing is that it didn't really matter. This was a fairly entertaining movie: farfetched plot certainly, but entertaining enough. If only they had called the hero something else.

On the other hand, people have been taking liberties with Sir Arthur's creation for quite some time. Ritchie's Holmes at least lives in the 19th century unlike the latest avatar that somehow managed to show up to some critical acclaim on that venerable purveyor of all things British, Masterpiece Mystery. Benedict Cumberbatch is no superhero, and while he may sport a Dickensian name he is very much a modern denizen of the 21st century. Watson turns up as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. One would think the one thing you couldn't do with Sherlock Holmes is pry him out of the 19th century. But then it occurs to me—and I have to check Wikipedia—that my beloved Basil Rathbone spent some time dealing with the Nazis back in the day. Indeed, it is more than likely that the first time I saw him on the big screen he was my contemporary. One forgets so easily. Holmes, it seems, can transcend time.

Come to think of it, back almost fifty years ago I remember getting half price tickets to a Broadway musical called Baker Street. I don't remember much about the production. Fritz Weaver played Holmes. Whether he sang and danced escapes me, I have to assume he did, and somehow the idea of Sherlock Holmes the song and dance man is as strange as that of the super hero Holmes. Yet the show ran long enough to start selling half price tickets (311 performances according to Wikipedia), so there must have been an audience that didn't find it offensive. Myself, I can't remember anything about it. Wikipedia says that the show was "loosely based" on Conan Doyle's story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," and that interestingly takes a liberty in creating a romance for Holmes with Irene Adler, a liberty which it turns out Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes also takes."

If there is a lesson in all this, the lesson is that when you create an iconic figure, it isn't always easy to control what future generations will do with it. Think of Count Chocula. Think of Frankenberry cereal and Young Frankenstein. Think of all the incarnations of Robin Hood from Errol Flynn to Russell Crowe, by way of Kevin Costner. Think of what's happing to our friend Spiderman on the Great White Way, as we speak. If they can do it with Sherlock Holmes, is anyone safe?
Back when I was thirteen years old the first book I ever bought with my own money was the Modern Library edition of two collections of Holmes stories, The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I still have it. I think I'll go get it and read a few of those stories once again. Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Fritz Weaver and even my beloved Basil Rathbone may be well enough as they go, but in the end, I guess there's no substitute for the real thing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Dante ClubThe Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although there is some historical research about the period and the authors, the character's motivations are absurd.

View all my reviews